Inter Press Service » Gender Identity Journalism and Communication for Global Change Mon, 28 Jul 2014 15:33:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 For Many Asian LGBT Youth, Homophobia Starts at Home Mon, 28 Jul 2014 00:30:57 +0000 Jassmyn Goh Two marchers in Taiwan`s 11th annual LGBT Pride March in Taipei City Oct. 26 affirm that "I am proud to be gay; I'm not a sex refugee!" Credit: Dennis Engbarth/IPS

Two marchers in Taiwan`s 11th annual LGBT Pride March in Taipei City Oct. 26 affirm that "I am proud to be gay; I'm not a sex refugee!" Credit: Dennis Engbarth/IPS

By Jassmyn Goh

To teenagers, running away can seem like the easiest answer to problems at home, but for Alex* it was his only option when his family refused to accept that he identified himself as a transgender male.

Although physically born a female, Alex always knew that he was a boy, but he grew up in an extremely homophobic and transphobic environment in Malaysia."I felt betrayed. It was the time when I needed my parents the most and they were not there for me. They chose to turn their backs on me." -- Alex

“One of my first memories was of my grandmother when she sort of chastised me for peeing standing up. She kept beating me and saying ‘Be like a girl, be like a girl’,” Alex told IPS.

Alex and people in Asia who identify as lesbian, gaym, bisexual, or transsexual (LGBT) often find themselves victims of violence from family members, who in fact are often the main perpetrators, according to a recent report by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC).

The report interviewed people from Malaysia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Philippines over three years.

The high level of violence from family members was one of seven key findings and had the greatest impact on the victims. This violence was not only physical, but also emotional and sexual.

At 17, when Alex’s parents found out he had a girlfriend, they restricted his movements and took to physical abuse.

“They started controlling my movements, and Internet and phone usage. I could not go anywhere without somebody knowing where I was going and it was very saddening,” the 27-year-old student said.

“When my dad found out about my new passport, he confronted me and slapped me. He said it was his house and his rules. If I could not follow them then I should leave, and I did because I could not take it anymore.”

Grace Poore, IGLHRC’s Asia programme coordinator and the main coordinator of the research project, said that because of the violence from family along with discrimination from outside perpetrators there was no relief for the individuals.

“What stood out was that in countries that had a dominant religion and where it was being enforced in a way where people’s dignity, people’s rights and ability to be different, there was definitely greater violence. Whatever was going on outside the family seemed to be mirrored or reflected back within the family,” Poore told IPS.

“At the time I felt betrayed, it was the time when I needed my parents the most and they were not there for me. They chose to turn their backs on me,” Alex said.

The report also found that there is limited to no counselling or sheltering services for LGBT people in each country. Shelters that are LGBT-friendly cannot openly advertise as such for fear of being shut down by the government and facing a possible backlash from the community.

In Malaysia, the government has an official religious department where monitors roam the streets to oversee and enforce Sharia and Islamic law for Malay people. Pakistan also has religious police, as do at least 15 other countries worldwide.

“The education ministry of each state [in Malaysia] asks teachers to identify effeminate boys. They are then rounded up and sent to camps for religious instruction,” Poore said.

More than 70 countries have laws that criminalise homosexuality, with punishment ranging from imprisonment to execution.

Malaysia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka all have laws that criminalise same-sex relations. Though Japan and the Philippines do not, the Philippines has vague provisions for homosexual relations.

The Philippines also has an equal protection clause in the Bill of Rights that technically protects all citizens. The other countries have no laws prohibiting violence and discrimination against a person due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a statement on May 15 calling for LGBT equality and highlighted the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights’s (OHCHR) “Free and Equal Campaign”.

“Human rights are for everyone, no matter who you are or whom you love,” Ban said.

Toiko Kleppe, a human rights officer for OHCHR on LGBT, told IPS that the campaign that was launched in July 2013 is the U.N.’s first against homophobia for LGBT equality.

“Its purpose is for public information and education. The message we are getting out is that LGBT people are like anybody else. The only difference is how they feel about specific things, who they choose to spend their life with or how they identify their gender,” Kleppe said.

U.N. human rights treaty bodies have also confirmed discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal under international human rights law.

Since the release of the report in May there has been a high level of shock from readers about the results, Poore said. IGLHRC plans to keep raising awareness and education about the issue through webinars, cross-country and multi-city tours.

After spending six years overseas, Alex returned to Malaysia in 2011 and found a supportive circle within the LGBT community. However, he is still estranged from his father.

“It has been nearly nine years and whenever I go back [home] my dad pretends I don’t exist. He rarely talks to me,” Alex said.

*Name has been changed to protect his identity.

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U.S. Groups Reject Anti-Gay Discrimination Bill over Religious Exemption Wed, 09 Jul 2014 23:43:51 +0000 Julia Hotz President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order on employment discrimination in coming weeks. Credit: Bigstock

President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order on employment discrimination in coming weeks. Credit: Bigstock

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 9 2014 (IPS)

Civil rights groups across the United States have withdrawn their support from a major legislative proposal that would outlaw workplace discrimination against sexual minorities, warning that recent legal developments could exempt companies on religious grounds.

Five major legal advocacy groups are arguing that the legislation, known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), does not allow for total workplace protection. Rather, it “provides religiously affiliated organizations – including hospitals, nursing homes and universities – with a blank check to engage in workplace discrimination against LGBT people,” the groups note in a joint statement released Tuesday.“[LGBT people] want to be judged in the same way any other employee is judged: Can we do the work? If we can, we should be free from discriminatory treatment that targets us because of who we are.” -- Kate Kendell

Previously, the groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and prominent gay rights organisations, had supported ENDA. But their turnaround comes a week after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a contentious decision, known as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which allows private companies to withhold contraceptive coverage from their employees based on religious preferences.

“What we’ve seen in last week’s Supreme Court decision is a really concerted effort on the part of LGBT opponents to broadly endorse rights to discriminate,” Ian Thompson, a Washington representative of the ACLU, told IPS.

It is “unacceptable”, he noted, to “allow taxpayer-funded discrimination under the clause of religious exemption.”

It is significant to note that this religious exemption clause has always been included within ENDA. However, while the clause has long been a controversial component of the legislation, it is the provocative nature of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling that has encouraged legal advocacy groups to reject ENDA entirely.

Lucas Rivers, a prominent LGBT activist working in the U.S government, told IPS that “strong withdrawal [from ENDA] in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision is the right move, as the Supreme Court’s decision has opened up doors to employment discrimination, whether it be women and their rights or gays and their rights.”

Yet other organisations have been voicing opposition to ENDA for much longer.

“We have been disturbed by the exemption in ENDA for years, and that concern has been very public,” Kate Kendell of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), an advocacy group, told IPS.

Kendell also notes that “[the NCLR] has received unanimous expressions of support from [the LGBT community]. Our community is bright – they get that the provision in ENDA would provide those who oppose our equality a license to discriminate.”

Kendell is careful to note that her organisation’s dispute is not with the legitimacy of religious belief.

“Our nation respects and accommodates a wide variety of religious faiths, a quality we fully embrace. But it is not acceptable for some to use religion as a bludgeon to do harm to others,” she says.

“[LGBT people] want to be judged in the same way any other employee is judged: Can we do the work? If we can, we should be free from discriminatory treatment that targets us because of who we are.”

Kendall says she’s uncertain about the future of ENDA, but expresses confidence that a stronger bill can eventually be drawn up.

“We don’t know what we can get unless we fight for it,” she says. “If we combine forces and lobby for better language, I have no doubt we can get a better bill.”

Urgent need

Still, some prominent groups do remain committed to ENDA.

The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBT rights group, stated on Wednesday that it will continue to support ENDA for a “very simple reason … it will guarantee millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in all 50 states explicit, reliable protections from discrimination in the workplace.”

In regards to the bill’s religious exemption clause, the group says it is urging its allies in Congress to recognise that LGBT people “do not have the luxury of waiting for these protections,” while an “urgent need” for equality persists.

Meanwhile, some U.S. legislators have been looking for ways to directly counter the recent Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. New legislation, announced Wednesday, would seek to expressly forbid private companies from using religious exemption to deny employee contraception “or any other vital health service required by federal law”.

Although the new bill would have no direct impact on workplace discrimination for LGBT individuals, the proposal’s sponsors see it as a significant step towards separating religious preferences from employees’ fundamental rights.

“Particularly in light of the recent Hobby Lobby decision, we must be more careful than ever to ensure that religious liberty, a cherished American value intended to shield individuals from government interference, is not wielded as a sword against employees who may not share their employers’ religious beliefs,” Jerrold Nadler, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the new bill’s co-sponsors, said Wednesday.

President Barack Obama is expected to issue an executive order on employment discrimination in coming weeks. As such, a similar fight is now brewing of that mandate’s details.

On Tuesday, a group of 100 progressive religious leaders urged the president to exclude any religious exemption from the order. Instead, the groups called on the president to remain committed to the principle of equality under the Constitution.

“If contractors were allowed to selectively follow employment or other laws according to their religious beliefs, we would quickly create an untenable morass of legal disputes,” the letter states.

“Furthermore, if selective exemptions to the executive order were permitted, the people who would suffer most would be the people who always suffer most when discrimination is allowed: the individuals and communities that are already marginalized.”

Some civil rights groups have applauded the letter. The ACLU’s Thompson told IPS that the move was “incredibly important” in the context of the broader equality debate.

“It shows is that religious leaders and faith organisations do not speak with simply one voice on these issues,” he says. “Rather, it shows that there are two sides to the faith community, and it is very helpful for the community’s pro-equality voices to come forward.”

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Conservatives and Nationalists At Centre Stage in Poland Tue, 08 Jul 2014 16:45:29 +0000 Claudia Ciobanu Polish conservatives protesting against a reading of Golgota Picnic in Warsaw. Credit: Maciej Konieczny/Courtesy of Krytyka Polityczna

Polish conservatives protesting against a reading of Golgota Picnic in Warsaw. Credit: Maciej Konieczny/Courtesy of Krytyka Polityczna

By Claudia Ciobanu
WAESAW, Jul 8 2014 (IPS)

A mix of conservative Catholicism and nationalism has become the predominant view in Polish public debate, with some worrying effects.

These were the values around which the opposition to communism led by trade union Solidarity built itself up in the 1980s but, after the fall of communism, opinion makers in the media and politicians continued to depict them as part and parcel of being Polish.

Observers note that the Polish Catholic Church has also grown increasingly conservative since 1989, in apparent contrast to an opening up of the Church worldwide.Conservative Catholicism and nationalism were the values around which the opposition to communism led by trade union Solidarity built itself up in the 1980s but, after the fall of communism, opinion makers in the media and politicians continued to depict them as part and parcel of being Polish.

Last month, the director of a theatre festival in the city of Poznan decided to cancel showings of a play fearing he could not ensure the safety of viewers in the face of threats by conservative and far-right groups. The play – “Golgota Picnic” by Argentinian director Rodrigo Garcia – describes the life of Jesus using striking depictions of contemporary society, including some with a sexual meaning.

Among those asking for play to be cancelled were representatives of Poland’s main opposition party, Law and Justice, the main trade union Solidarity, and the far-right Ruch Narodowy (National Movement), all of which stand for traditional Catholic values. The Church also voiced its opposition to the play.

In itself, protesting against the play was unremarkable (it has also been met with opposition from Catholics in other countries, for example in France), but the Polish response was interesting: even if the festival was largely financed from public sources, the show was cancelled and there was hardly any resistance from public authorities to the decision. The public, however, made itself heard and readings of the play were organised in major Polish cities, with hundreds attending.

Meanwhile, the dynamics surrounding “Golgota Picnic” are being replicated over other issues in Polish society, among which the most striking is women’s reproductive rights. Poland is one of only three countries in the European Union where abortion is prohibited, unless the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, there is a serious threat to the mother’s health or foetal malformation has been detected.

Abortion had been legal in communist Poland but was outlawed in 1993 after pressure from the Catholic Church. Ever since, attempts to make abortion legal have failed. In 2011, the Polish parliament came close to further tightening the law on abortion by prohibiting it no matter the circumstances.

At the time, it was not only the political forces explicitly standing for Catholic values that endorsed a total ban, but also many members of the governing centre-right Civic Platform, which depicts itself as Poland’s main liberal political force.

De facto, even the current restrictive law is not being implemented. In a series of high profile cases over the years, Catholic doctors in public hospitals have refused to perform abortions even if girls were pregnant as a result of rape, had serious health conditions or malformation had been detected in foetuses.

In May, in an escalation of the situation, over 3,000 Polish doctors, nurses and medical students signed a “Declaration of Faith” in which they rejected abortion, birth control, in vitro fertilisation and euthanasia as contrary to the Catholic faith. Signatories included employees of public clinics and hospitals. One of them was the director of a Warsaw maternity hospital who said he would not allow such procedures to take place in his institution.

The “Declaration of Faith”, which has been endorsed by the Polish Catholic Church, is contrary to Polish law and Prime Minister Donald Tusk has spoken out against it.

State authorities have been carrying out check-ups at those institutions in which signatories of the Declaration work to establish whether the law is being respected, and one fine has been imposed on the Warsaw maternity hospital whose director prohibits legal abortions. Yet more determined measures are still pending.

“Lack of massive resistance [to the Declaration] is not a sign of approval on the part of the general public,” comments Agnieszka Graff, writer and feminist activist. “It is rather a question of resignation: for 20 years we have seen politicians court the Church while ignoring public opinion on matters that have to do with reproductive rights. The pattern of submission has emboldened the radical anti-choice groups.”

Political power in Poland is firmly in the hands of conservatives. Law and Justice, the party with the best chance of winning next year’s parliamentary elections, is staunchly pro-Catholic and nationalist, and has in the past allied in government with far-right politicians. The governing Civic Platform, the choice of many liberals in this country, is bitterly divided between social conservatives and liberals, meaning it cannot enforce the constitutional secularity of the Polish state.

As Graff explains, in this political context, those who oppose the Catholicism-nationalism nexus find it difficult to coalesce into a strong movement. And ultra-conservatives continue to advance.

Far-right elements breeds in this environment and, in an ethnically and racially homogeneous country, their main targets are feminists, the LGBTQ community and leftists (the same groups that the Church condemns). Their strength is most visible in Poland during the annual Independence March on November 11, when tens of thousands of far-right youth take to the streets of Warsaw and other cities wreaking havoc.

According to June polls, the third strongest political force in Poland is the New Right Congress, which has a neo-liberal far-right agenda. The party, whose leader Janusz Korwin-Mikke has declared that women have lower IQs than men and that they enjoy being raped, gathered 7.5 percent of the vote in the May elections for the European Parliament.

“There is no clear demarcation between the Polish extreme right, the populist right and the mainstream right,” notes political scientist Rafal Pankovski of anti-racist group Nigdy Wiecej (Never Again). “The notion of a cordon sanitaire against the far-right does not seem to have been accepted in Polish politics and the media.”

Over recent years, civic mobilisation by progressive forces has nevertheless grown, and political parties with a strong liberal, secular and anti-nationalist message have been forming, but they still lack consolidation. Faced with the constant accusation of being “communists”, leftist forces that might counterbalance the conservative, nationalist and far-right trend are slow to grow in Poland.

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Rights Experts Urge Action on Gender Equality in Taiwan Wed, 02 Jul 2014 19:48:03 +0000 Dennis Engbarth Taiwanese women hold aloft a LGBT flag during Taiwan`s 11th annual
LGBT Pride March in Taipei City Oct. 26, 2013. Credit: Dennis Engbarth/IPS

Taiwanese women hold aloft a LGBT flag during Taiwan`s 11th annual LGBT Pride March in Taipei City Oct. 26, 2013. Credit: Dennis Engbarth/IPS

By Dennis Engbarth
TAIPEI, Jul 2 2014 (IPS)

Prominent international human rights experts are calling on the Taiwan government to quickly enact a comprehensive anti-discrimination act, revamp the law on citizenship and take a wide range of other actions to curb gender discrimination.

A five-member commission issued 35 recommendations after an intense review of Taiwan’s second national report on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The commission members from Kenya, Malaysia the Philippines, South Korea and the United States met at the Civil Service Training Center in Taipei City June 23-26.

"It is...commendable, that a country which is not a UN member state has voluntarily undertaken to adopt the standards of CEDAW..." -- Mary Shanthi Dairiam, United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Gender Equality Taskforce
More than 230 government officials and some 100 representatives of non-governmental organizations joined in the review. The event consisted of discussions with the 55 civil society organizations, as well as a day-long questioning session with Taiwan government officials on issues raised by NGOs in nearly 30 “parallel reports.”

Zoe Ye of the Intersex, Transgender and Transsexual People Care Association, reminded the committee of the case of Tsai Ya-ting, a trans-woman whose application for a national identity card was rejected in 2002. She committed suicide the following year.

“The government has not learned from this lesson and has ignored the urgent desire of transgender persons to adopt a legal gender status in accord with their self-identity,” according to Ye.

The Taiwan government currently requires applicants for gender change to undergo psychological examinations and the surgical removal of reproductive organs before changes in official registration are approved, a requirement which Ye stressed violates five UN human rights conventions, including CEDAW.

Other NGO representatives stressed infringements on women’s land rights, faulting the government for failure to conduct gender impact-assessments for many of its development plans that involve large-scale land expropriations.

These “threaten the right to adequate housing for rural women and all aspects of their lives,” said Lu Shih-wei of Taiwan Rural Front and Wild at Heart Legal Defence Association.

Non-member committed to CEDAW

Taiwan ratified CEDAW in 2007 under the previous centrist Democratic Progressive Party government of then president Chen Shui-bian, but the United Nations Secretariat rejected the ratified treaty for deposit since Taiwan is not a UN member state.

Instead, CEDAW was directly incorporated into Taiwan’s domestic law through an “enforcement act” effective January 1, 2012.

“It is almost unique, and commendable, that a country which is not a UN member state has voluntarily undertaken to adopt the standards of CEDAW and other human rights treaties,” Mary Shanthi Dairiam, a member of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Gender Equality Taskforce, told IPS.

Still, “the defensiveness of government officials here is the same as elsewhere,” according to Shanthi, who is a former member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms Discrimination against Women (CEFDW).

Speaking to IPS, Democratic Progressive Party legislator Yu Mei-nu said that  the realization of CEDAW objectives may be hampered by “martial law mentalities” of certain government officials. But the convention has “provided a platform for citizens and civil society organizations to link with international society and fight for human rights at home,” according to Yu.

Main recommendations 

Chief among the 35 recommendations were calls to set a deadline to enact “comprehensive legislation covering all fields of gender discrimination” as soon as possible; establish an independent national human rights institution; prompt revision of laws on nationality, domestic violence, human trafficking and marriage equality; and passage of long-denied bills to protect domestic workers, along with ratification of the International Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

The committee further stressed the need for “gender impact assessments” for government policies and development plans.

It called for abolishing the surgical requirement for trans women, as well as the mandatory HIV testing requirement for entry, stay and residence of women living with HIV/AIDS.

The panel was led by Shin Heisoo, representative of the Korea Center for UN Human Rights Policy and a member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Shin previously participated in the review of CEDAW state reports from 2001 to 2008.

“I hope the government of Taiwan is contemplating how to implement these recommendations…” Shin concluded, “Especially since we have heard that there has been a deterioration of civil and political and economic human rights.”

UNDP’s Shanti echoed the need for action. “The government officials said they have revised over 33,000 laws and regulations. But what the world community wants to know is not what the state says it is doing, but what is actually being achieved in terms of real improvement in gender equality.”


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Working Cambodian Women ‘Too Poor’ to Have Children Sat, 31 May 2014 08:10:50 +0000 Michelle Tolson Women in Cambodia’s garments sector work 10-12 hours a day. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

Women in Cambodia’s garments sector work 10-12 hours a day. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
PHNOM PENH, May 31 2014 (IPS)

The movement for reproductive justice sees women’s decision to have – or not have – children as a fundamental right. Should they choose to bear a child, women should have the right to care and provide for them; if they opt not to give birth, family planning services should be made available to enable women to space or prevent pregnancies.

In Cambodia, where women make up 60 percent of the population of 14 million people, this fundamental right is being trampled by insecure labour contracts, toxic working conditions and a near-total absence of maternity benefits for working mothers.

Take Cambodia’s garments industry, a massive sector that accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports. A full 90 percent of the workforce is female, but labour rights have not accompanied employment opportunities.

"[The] lack of labour rights for women [is] a worrying trend that is completely changing the culture of Cambodia.” -- Tola Moeun, head of the labour programme at the Community Legal Education Centre
Ever since the country entered into a liberalising agreement with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2005, long-term contracts have been edged out in favour of short term or fixed duration contracts (FDCs), the latter being far more popular among East Asian factory owners and western clothing brands like Gap, Walmart and H&M.

These informal arrangements “abuse garment workers’ reproductive rights,” Sophea Chrek, a former garment worker and technical assistant to the Workers Information Center (WIC) – which recently staged a fashion show to highlight the issue – told IPS.

“Women employed under FDCs for three to six months, or sometimes even one month, will not risk their job by having a baby. Usually, they choose to have an abortion…before the contract ends to ensure that the line leaders or supervisors are not aware of their pregnancy,” Chrek added.

According to Cambodian labour law, factories are supposed to provide maternity leave, but most get around this requirement with short contracts, which leave the estimated 600,000 workers vulnerable to employers’ whims.

Melissa Cockroft, a technical advisor on sexual and reproductive health, tells IPS that women without access to family planning services resort to unsafe and unregulated measures, such as using over-the-counter Chinese products to induce abortions.

These methods can be fatal, but women seem hesitant to avail themselves of NGO-provided free or discounted service at on-site infirmaries, which are less confidential.

Sometimes their grueling schedules, which include 10 to 12-hour workdays with only a short lunch break in between, keep them from making appointments. Many of these women, Cockroft says, are just too busy to even think of starting families.

Garment workers’ reticence to use reproductive services can be cultural too, as talking about sexual health is considered ‘shameful’ in traditional Cambodian society.

Cambodian law also stipulates that factories provide working mothers with childcare, but Cockroft says she has only seen one operational childcare facility during all her years as an advocate in the field.

For some women, the decision to leave their children at home emerges from a desire to spare them the grueling commute – many factory workers travel shoulder-to-shoulder in trucks or on compact wagons pulled by tuk tuks, ubiquitous motorcycle taxis, down Cambodia’s notoriously unsafe roads.

Very often, babies remain at home with their grandmothers in the countryside while their mothers go off to work in the city, where they earn roughly 100 dollars per month. Union leaders are trying to raise this minimum wage to 160 dollars.

In general, though, both Cockroft and Chrek say garment workers consider themselves “too poor” to have children.

Entertainers and street workers

Meanwhile, in Cambodia’s popular entertainment sector, women face a unique set of challenges, their access to reproductive health services hindered by the informal and unpredictable nature of their work.

Independent researcher Dr. Ian Lubek tells IPS that entertainment workers are likely to experience a much higher risk of foetal alcoholic syndrome due to the number of beverages they are forced to consume every night in order to get tips from their customers. Research from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggests that a female beer seller or hostess consumes up to 11 drinks a night.

Years of advocacy efforts have at least enabled entertainers working for international beer companies to secure better wages, with women employed by the Cambrew brewery now drawing a salary of close to 160 dollars a month.

Higher wages, according to Phal Sophea, former beer seller and representative for the Siem Reap division of the Cambodia Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF), amounts to less economic pressure to have transactional sex.

“I think better pay will reduce sex work because the [women] generally go out with customers when the pay is too low,” she told IPS.

Of all the groups of working women struggling to raise children, street-based sex workers are among the most marginalised and are often subject to police violence, arrests and forced detention in anti-trafficking ‘reeducation centres’.

While unions for entertainment workers can negotiate contracts, sex workers are left completely vulnerable to the laws of the streets.

Civil Society Steps Up

In 2006 the sex worker-led collective Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) set up informal schools in drop-in centres where sex workers lived, for children between the ages of five and 16 to learn Khmer, English, mathematics and the arts.

Operating in collaboration with the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, the initiative has successfully reinstated 184 children into the public school system.

WNU Board Member Socheata Sim says the collective does not limit its services to children of sex workers, but extends support to people living with HIV/AIDS, and residents of slum communities who are not only living in abject poverty but are constantly threatened with eviction from their humble dwellings.
Pen Sothary, a former sex worker and secretary of the sex-worker led collective Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), told IPS that many women are so poor they take whatever work they can get.

Labour research indicates that Cambodians living in urban areas require, at the very least, 150 dollars a month in order to survive; most salaries are set below 100 a month, making it very difficult for the average working Cambodian to make ends meet, and feed their families. As it is, 40 percent of Cambodian children are chronically malnourished.

WNU Board Member Socheata Sim explained that sex work might be the only option for the many women without a formal education; according to a report on education levels among women in Cambodia, only one-third of school-aged girls are enrolled at the lower secondary school level, and one in ten at the upper secondary school level.

Many sex workers want a better life for their children, but few can afford the high fees, bribes and related costs of formal schooling.

Furthermore, sex workers living in slum dwellings face a constant threat of eviction. Tola Moeun, head of the labour programme at the Community Legal Education Centre, told IPS that high rates of evictions are now forcing many women to migrate abroad in search of employment.

“Yet once abroad, if undocumented, migrant workers find they do not have the rights citizens have,” he lamented.

In Thailand, for instance, where tens of thousands of Cambodian women now live and work, undocumented workers are fired from their jobs if they become pregnant, are denied maternity leave and earn half the 300-baht (nine-dollar) daily minimum wage.

Tola sees the “lack of labour rights for women as a worrying trend that is completely changing the culture of Cambodia.”


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Moving LGBT Rights Beyond Marriage Equality Fri, 16 May 2014 23:27:41 +0000 Farangis Abdurazokzoda Seventeen states currently grant gay couples the right to marry. Credit: Bigstock

Seventeen states currently grant gay couples the right to marry. Credit: Bigstock

By Farangis Abdurazokzoda
WASHINGTON, May 16 2014 (IPS)

Honouring the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Friday emphasised progress in advancing the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, but a new report on criminalisation of LBGT people suggests that there is still a long way to go.

“Today of all days, we are reminded that the cause of justice can and must triumph over hatred and prejudice,” said Kerry said in a statement.“The United States arrests and prosecutes more people on the basis of their HIV status than the rest of the world combined." -- Catherine Hanssens

Undeniably, a number of events over the past week indicate significant advances in LGBT rights.

Michael Sam, the first openly gay U.S. football player, kissed his boyfriend on national TV after being drafted by the National Football League; Arkansas, one U.S. Bible-Belt state lifted a ban on gay marriage; and Conchita Wurst, an Austrian cross-dresser, won Eurovision Song Contest, the televised singing competition watched by tens of millions of viewers across Europe.

Nonetheless, LGBT people and and People Living with HIV (PLWH) experience higher rates of homelessness and poverty, lower levels of education, and high rates of family and community rejection, according to the report.

“Seventy-three percent of LGBT people and PLWH have had run-ins with police in the past five years,” said Aisha Moodie-Mills, co-author of the report and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank considered close to the administration of President Barack Obama.

“Oftentimes these groups also experience police misconduct such as false arrests and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse while in police custody,” she told IPS.

Released late last week by CAP and several civil rights law groups, the report urges relevant U.S. agencies to adopt key reforms that can improve the plight of LGBT people and PLWH. Existing criminal-justice policies, according to the report, perpetuate poor life outcomes of LGBT people and PLWH.

Other recommendations include:

• Prohibiting profiling by federal law enforcement authorities based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and expression.

• Urging the Department of Education to facilitate increased school programming on LGBT issues and HIV-related issues.

• Encouraging the Department of Labour to provide more training to officials on sexual orientation and gender identity to reduce discrimination in agencies such as the Job Corps and One-Stop Career Centres.

“Police profile transgender women and use possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution-related offenses and grounds for arrest,” Moodie-Mills said. “And, in 36 states there are laws that criminalise HIV exposure. PLWH can be charged with felonies for having consensual sex, biting, and spitting despite the fact that spitting and biting have not been shown to pose significant risks for HIV transmission.”

Further, some states that do not have HIV-specific laws prosecute PLWH under more general criminal laws, including attempted murder, assault, and even bio-terrorism.

According to conservative estimates by the New York-based Center for HIV Law and Policy, nearly 200 PLWH have been prosecuted since 2008. In Texas, for example, a man with HIV is serving 35 years for spitting at a police officer. In New York, a man was sentenced to 10 years for aggravated assault for biting a police officer.

And in Michigan, prosecutors charged an HIV-positive man under the state’s anti-terrorism statute with possession of a “biological weapon,” and equated the HIV infection with possession of a “harmful device.”

“The United States arrests and prosecutes more people on the basis of their HIV status than the rest of the world combined,” noted Catherine Hanssens, the centre’s executive director and a co-author.

“The policies that drive these arrests spring from profoundly phobic misconceptions about the actual routes, risks, and consequences of HIV transmission and federal health officials’ refusal to promote frank, accurate information about sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”

The particular needs of LGBT people and PLWH are often overlooked when in jail. For example, discriminatory attitudes toward LGBT people prevent them from reporting sexual assaults. Despite the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA) – the first federal law passed that deals with sexual assault of prisoners.

“Justice continues to be elusive and conditional for these populations due to a range of unequal laws and policies that dehumanise, victimise, and criminalise them because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status,” says the report.

The report was generated in collaboration with over 50 activists, policy advocates, lawyers, and grassroots organisations working on LGBT criminalisation and racial justice issues and is the first comprehensive publication to offer policy recommendations to the all levels of government, from local police and state prisons to federal agencies and prosecutors.

They call for more aggressive efforts to curb discrimination in policing and law enforcement, to stop violence and discrimination inside prisons and detention centers, including the federally funded immigrant detention facilities.

The roadmap’s authors stress that existing legislation that oftentimes fail to protect LGBT people.

PREA can be amended to better address specific issues LGBT people face with in prisons, according to the report. This also includes allowing transgender people to specify the gender of the officer they would prefer to conduct searches on their persons and specifically to ban prohibit degrading and invasive genital searches.

Criminalisation and official harassment of LGBT people and PLWH are widespread across the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the governments of Nigeria and Uganda have recently approved laws that impose draconian punishment on homosexual conduct.

On May 19, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Global Health Policy Center will issue a new report on the criminalisation of homosexuality at the Third Atlanta Summit on Health in Africa.

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Latin America’s LGBTI Movement Celebrates Triumphs, Sets New Goals Sat, 10 May 2014 09:19:32 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez Members of the Tropicana dance company animate a session of the conference of the International Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People for Latin America and the Caribbean, in the Cuban resort town of Varadero. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Members of the Tropicana dance company animate a session of the conference of the International Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People for Latin America and the Caribbean, in the Cuban resort town of Varadero. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
VARADERO, Cuba , May 10 2014 (IPS)

Although it might not seem to be, Latin America is the most active region in the world when it comes to the defence of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

That is due to the maturity and intelligent strategies that the LGBTI movement has come up with in a number of the region’s 33 countries, where the level of respect for sexual orientation and gender identity still varies a great deal, however, activists from around the region told IPS at a conference in the Cuban resort town of Varadero.

“The most progressive and interesting proposals are emerging in the Americas,” said Mexican activist Gloria Careaga during the sixth Regional Conference of the International Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People for Latin America and the Caribbean (ILGALAC), which was held here this week.

Leading the changes are Argentina and Uruguay, said Careaga, the co-secretary of the global federation, which was founded in 1978 and has Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

These two Southern Cone countries have passed laws against discrimination and legalising same-sex marriage and adoptions.

Careaga added that other countries that have taken major steps are Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. She also stressed the progress made in Cuba, where “public displays of homosexuality” were illegal until the 1990s, and which is now hosting the May 6-10 regional conference.

In general terms, the Caribbean is the part of the region that is lagging the most in terms of LGBTI rights.

Today, homosexuality is only criminalised in two Latin American countries, Belize and Guyana. That is compared to nine Caribbean island nations that penalise same-sex acts, especially male on male.

Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago provide for prison sentences of between 10 and 50 years for people convicted of engaging in same-sex acts.

And since 1976, Trinidad and Tobago has barred homosexuals from entering the country.

For these and other reasons, the conference in the Plaza America Convention Centre in Varadero, 121 km east of Havana, is the first held in the Caribbean region. The gathering brought together representatives of more than 200 organisations belonging to ILGALAC, along with participants from Europe and the United States.

Rainbow flags, the global symbol of respect for free sexual orientation and gender identity, and signs with inclusive messages adorn the convention centre’s corridors and halls.

Despite the situation in the Caribbean, this region as a whole continues to gain ground in the fight against deep-rooted homophobia and sexism.

To explain the advances made, Careaga stressed that every country has outlined its own agenda, adapted to its specific context.

Argentine lawyer Pedro Paradiso, who has been involved in the cause for over 20 years, said the evolution of LGBTI activism has been a key factor.

“We have gradually changed. At first the struggle was much more about victimisation and protests. But our approach began to expand and to be renovated. Now we are subjects of rights,” the member of the Argentine Homosexual Community, an organisation that emerged over three decades ago, told IPS.

In his view, raising the self-esteem of the non-heterosexual population and taking an approach based on their rights as a collective were decisive, although he said there were many other factors involved.

According to Paradiso, the movement started out by empowering itself and gaining in visibility. Later it began to gain institutional status and to demand sexual and reproductive rights as human rights. It also started forging ties with other social movements, and alliances were forged with political parties and public and private institutions like universities.

In addition, the movement gained ground in international forums like the United Nations and the Organisation of American States, which can exercise pressure to some extent on governments and member states.

And to the extent that each legal system allowed, the LGBTI community has used the courts to forge paths, sometimes tortuous, towards equality.

That is the case of Colombia, where same-sex couples legalise their unions in the courts, while waiting for a law on same-sex marriage. “The process is like a long, painful birth,” said Anaís Morales of the Corporación Femm, which groups lesbian and bisexual women in that South American country.

The 25-year-old feminist activist said women are still outnumbered in the fight for sexual and reproductive rights. “Gay men are the most visible,” Morales told IPS.

In general terms, the women’s organisations present in Varadero agreed that women suffer from double discrimination because of their gender and sexual orientation, and said they needed greater access to assisted reproduction techniques, respectful treatment in health services, and better connections between the women’s and lesbian rights movements.

The first transgender city council member in Chile, Zuliana Araya, told IPS that the LGBTI movement needed to forge closer internal ties. “Among ourselves there can be no discrimination,” said the city councillor from Valparaíso, who is an activist in a local union of trans persons.

“Just because the majority of our [trans] community is involved in commercial sex work doesn’t mean we should be left out,” said Araya, 50, whose activism led her into a career in politics, in a country that passed legislation against discrimination in May 2012. “We are still in the stage of demanding our rights,” she said.

Bringing about a cultural and social shift towards respect for sexual and gender diversity is the big challenge, even in Argentina and Uruguay, whose legislation is among the most advanced in the world.

The hindering effects of religious fundamentalism and political conservatism are also felt, especially in the Caribbean. Although gay Dominican activist Davis Ventura told IPS that “there are many Caribbeans.”

The 40-year-old Ventura said the criminalisation of same-sex relations in the English-speaking Caribbean makes activism virtually impossible, or confines it to international forums, while a “mid” level of progress has been made in the Spanish-speaking countries – Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico – and the islands with French and Dutch influence are the most progressive.

Firm steps have been taken in Puerto Rico at the municipal level, while there are associations that have gained visibility in the Dominican Republic and Cuba passed the first anti-discrimination law in the Caribbean in 2013, when it approved a new labour code that explicitly protects the labour rights of non-heterosexuals.

However, there are voices arguing that there is no actual LGBTI movement as such in Cuba.

Manuel Vázquez, the head of legal advisory services in the National Sex Education Centre (CENESEX), a public institution, told IPS that “we are seeing groups that are actively asking for, demanding and discussing sexual rights.”

In the view of Maykel González, of the Proyecto Arcoíris (Rainbow Project), activism is still emerging.

Arcoíris, which describes itself as “independent and anti-capitalist”, the non-governmental Cuban Multidisciplinary Society for the Study of Sexuality, and initiatives supported by government institutions like CENESEX or the National Centre for the Prevention of STI/HIV/AIDS represented Cuba in the ILGALAC conference.

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The Long Journey Toward Recognition of a Third Gender Mon, 05 May 2014 12:42:34 +0000 Thalif Deen In New Zealand, where Sujinrat Prachathai enjoys resident status, she is a woman able to append ‘Mrs’ to her name to signify that she is married. In Thailand, however, she is still legally considered male even though she underwent a sex-change operation years ago. Here, Sarah holds up her New Zealand ID card, which recognises her a woman. Credit: Sutthida Malikaew/IPS

In New Zealand, where Sujinrat Prachathai enjoys resident status, she is a woman able to append ‘Mrs’ to her name to signify that she is married. In Thailand, however, she is still legally considered male even though she underwent a sex-change operation years ago. Here, Sarah holds up her New Zealand ID card, which recognises her a woman. Credit: Sutthida Malikaew/IPS

By Thalif Deen

The world is slowly, but painfully, moving towards the formal recognition of the existence of a third gender besides male and female.

“The rights of transgender people – to their own identity and to access to health, education, work, housing and other rights – are being increasingly widely recognised,” Charles Radcliffe, chief of the Global Issues Section in the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told IPS."What is also incredibly significant about this court's decision is that it legalises third gender recognition for transwomen and transmen, and does not require sex reassignment surgery for legal recognition as third gender." -- Grace Poore

In South Asia, he noted, there has long been a tradition of a third gender. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have all moved in the direction of granting recognition to trans or third gender people.

But other regions are now following suit, he added, pointing out that Argentina passed a law on gender identity in 2012 that is widely seen as a model for the rest of the world.

“European countries, many of which still required trans people to be sterilised before they can obtain identity papers that reflect their gender, are one by one reviewing their policies,” said Radcliffe.

Last month, India’s Supreme Court legally upheld the rights of transgender people across the country.

U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said India’s decision officially recognises a third gender in law and confirms that discrimination on grounds of gender identity is impermissible under the Indian Constitution.

“It should pave the way for reforms that make it easier for transgender persons in India to obtain legal recognition of their gender identity, as well as access to employment and public services,” he added.

According to unofficial figures, India is estimated to have about two million transgender people, out of a total population of over 1.3 billion.

Grace Poore, regional programme coordinator for Asia and Pacific Islands at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), told IPS last month’s ruling in India is “phenomenal.”

“Not only did the justices challenge the oppressiveness of forcing people to conform to the gender binary and the discrimination that accompanies that coerced conformity, but they state that not recognising gender identity violates the Indian Constitution,” she noted.

Poore said the violation denies transgender people basic human rights protected under the constitution: right to life, right to liberty and dignity, right to privacy, right to freedom of expression, right to education, right against violence and exploitation, and right to non-discrimination.

“All these rights, according to the justices, can be achieved if the beginning is made with recognition that TG is a third gender,” Poore added.

“What is also incredibly significant about this court’s decision is that it legalises third gender recognition for transwomen and transmen, and does not require sex reassignment surgery for legal recognition as third gender,” she noted.

The judges in the trans rights ruling go so far as to say that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation also amounts to discrimination.

“What’s left now is for the Supreme Court to decriminalise homosexuality and rule that Section 377 of India’s Penal Code is unconstitutional,” Poore said.

In 2012, according to IGLHRC, Argentina adopted one of the most progressive gender identity recognition laws to date by removing any prerequisites to changing one’s gender, most notably eliminating the need for any medical diagnosis or surgery.

The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden have also recently adopted or updated legislation to enable individuals to change their gender identity without the need for undergoing sex reassignment surgery.

In Chile, a progressive gender identity law is currently being considered by lawmakers, according to IGLHRC.

Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Programme at Human Rights Watch, described the Supreme Court ruling as “historic.”

Traditionally, third gender people played a significant social role in Indian society, he said.

“With this judgment, the Supreme Court restored their dignity, while doing away with the rule which was introduced by British colonial law,” Dittrich told IPS.

The court is very clear about it: the plight of transgender people is being recognised as a human rights topic.

Transgender people have been unfairly treated under section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, another British colonial legacy that should be revoked, he added.

Dittrich also singled out Argentina as having a positive legal track record on transgender issues.

“Their gender recognition law is an example to the rest of the world,” he added.

Jose Luis-Diaz, head of the Amnesty International U.N. Office, told IPS the court ruling could improve the lives of millions of transgender people in India – people who have suffered oppression for years.

The ruling reaffirms constitutional values of inclusion and equality.

“However, as long as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code stays on the books, discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity will remain a threat,” he added.

“As you know, Section 377, upheld by the same Supreme Court in a ruling last December, criminalises consensual same-sex conduct between adults. This law ought to be repealed.”

Last week, the United Nations launched in Mumbai, India, its first ever Bollywood music video, created especially for the U.N. Free & Equal anti-homophobia campaign.

Meanwhile, by a happy coincidence, a musical comedy about a transgender rocker, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” was nominated last week for eight Tony Awards, one of the most prestigious awards on the Broadway stage in New York City.

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Fatwa Comes Too Late for Kashmir’s Half-Widows Mon, 05 May 2014 07:01:19 +0000 Athar Parvaiz A Kashmiri woman with the picture of her son who went missing 17 years ago. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS.

A Kashmiri woman with the picture of her son who went missing 17 years ago. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS.

By Athar Parvaiz
SRINAGAR, India , May 5 2014 (IPS)

Forty-seven-year-old Shahmala’s husband has been missing since 1993. In India’s restive Jammu and Kashmir state, she is what is known as a half-widow, a woman who has no clue whether her husband is dead or alive.

In December last year, a group of clerics issued a fatwa (Islamic decree) at a meeting in state capital Srinagar that women in Kashmir whose husbands had been missing for more than four years could remarry. But for Shahmala, the decree is of no consequence.While the decision has been widely welcomed, many also say it has come too late as most disappearances in Kashmir took place during the 1990s and early 2000s.

She has lost her youth, her children have grown up, and she has weathered the blows of life as a single mother for 21 years. The prospect of marriage at this stage seems remote.

“It should have come much earlier in order to help hundreds of half-widows across Kashmir remarry,” law professor Showkat Sheikh, who teaches at the Central University of Kashmir, told IPS.

According to the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (CCS), there are 1,500 half-widows in the state, where an insurgency since 1989 has resulted in many custodial disappearances of men. Human rights activists say most of these men were taken away by the security forces that were battling insurgents, and never seen again.

The ‘half-widows’ they leave behind are stigmatised, lonely and often under severe financial strain.

Many of these women join sit-ins by the relatives of missing persons every month in Srinagar to seek the whereabouts of their loved ones.

All these years, the half-widows of Muslim-majority Kashmir had to abide by Islam’s Hannafi school of thought that says a woman has to wait up to 90 years to marry again following the disappearance of her husband. But civil society groups appealed to Islamic scholars to find a solution to Kashmir’s problem.

The result was the new fatwa in December, a decree on remarriage coming for the first time since insurgency broke out in the state 25 years ago.

While the decision has been widely welcomed, many also say it has come too late as most disappearances in Kashmir took place during the 1990s and early 2000s. According to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir, at least 8,000 people have gone missing.

Some of these cases, as Professor Sheikh observes, are 15 to 20 years old. “The half-widows who are still young might think of remarrying, but it might not be helpful for those now advanced in age,” he told IPS.

Shahmala has struggled all these years to make ends meet. Following her husband’s disappearance, her two brothers-in-law started taking care of her and her two children.

“But after four-five years, their wives wanted to live separately,” Shahmala told IPS in Lolab area, 110 km north of Srinagar. “Our family disintegrated, though my brothers-in-law continued to help with my children’s education.”

This arrangement too did not last long. Both children eventually dropped out of school. “Fatherless children can hardly study, especially when their mother is also uneducated and without any source of income,” she said.

“My son is now 21 and drives a cab to fend for the family,” Shahmala said. “Had his father been around, he would have been in a college or university. But this is what fate has chosen.”

Human rights activists say Kashmir’s half-widows do not fall under a compensation policy. The Kashmir government does give an equivalent of around 3,300 dollars to the families of those killed in militancy-related incidents.

Dr. Peerzada Mohammad Amin, who teaches sociology in Kashmir University, told IPS: “I think Islamic scholars across South Asia and particularly in our part of the world focus more on ritualistic Islam than on social problems even though it is clearly mentioned in basic Islamic literature that religion can’t be separated from politics, sociology and economy.

“In all these years, society, state and religion have failed to respond to this human problem in Kashmir. If they come forward in a committed manner, things can still be done for these women.”

In spite of societal pressures, there are many half-widows, especially the younger ones, who would like another shot at a happy married life.

Mehmooda (name changed) is only 29. When her husband went missing five years ago, they had been married for just one-and-a-half years, and was pregnant.

She has thought of remarrying but continues to live with her in-laws on their insistence. “They are very good people and they take good care of me,” she told IPS. But, she says, they didn’t agree when her parents brought a marriage proposal for her.

“While I respect my in-laws and appreciate whatever they are doing for me, I have my whole life ahead,” she said. “Things don’t always stay the same.”

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Women Voters Win Fri, 02 May 2014 21:16:54 +0000 Abdullah Omeed A widely circulated picture on Afghan social media networks shows women voters lining up under heavy rain outside a polling station in Kabul. The picture was circulated with the caption: ‘Afghan women: What else to prove?’

A widely circulated picture on Afghan social media networks shows women voters lining up under heavy rain outside a polling station in Kabul. The picture was circulated with the caption: ‘Afghan women: What else to prove?’

By Abdullah Omeed
KABUL, May 2 2014 (IPS)

About a third of the voters in the Afghanistan presidential election were women. That still gives Afghan women a say in running the country, as never before.

The voting Apr. 5 saw a high turnout with seven million people, 60 percent of the voters, casting their vote. Afghan civil society organisations and international bodies such as the United Nations hailed the success – even if there were widespread irregularities.Saima remembers the tears that dropped on her blue veil when she cast her vote.

Afghans are now waiting to witness the first-ever peaceful power transition in the history of their country, from incumbent President Hamid Karzai who has been at the helm since late 2001.

Women defied significant security threats, strict traditions and inclement weather by going to polling stations in droves across the country. Militant groups had threatened to target voters and the election process. Women would be particularly vulnerable, given the expectations of extremists that they should stay at home.

In a well-planned attack, four election observers were killed in the run-up to the elections after militants breached security measures at a five-star hotel in the heart of Kabul, only metres away from the presidential palace. The headquarters of the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (AIEC) in Kabul also came under attack.

Saima, 19, who like some Afghans goes with one name, cast the first vote of her life. She told IPS that she sneaked out of her home in the volatile eastern province Khost with her two cousins to vote.

The province borders the restive tribal areas of Pakistan, and has witnessed some of the most brazen militant attacks. “I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I have to vote on behalf of every Afghan woman who cannot vote for whatever reason,” Saima said.

Afghan women have been increasingly anxious about the possibility that the few rights and little recognition they have achieved over the past 13 years could be threatened by the government’s peace talks with the Taliban, who are known for their strict interpretation of Islam and their anti-women policies.

Saima said that she had voted in a country where the prevailing mentality condemns a woman “to be either at home or in the grave.”

That culture leads many women to commit suicide, she said. “Voting became a slogan among young women who wanted to challenge old customs that believe women are weak and should be protected by men.”

Saima remembers the tears that dropped on her blue veil when she cast her vote.

Laal Bibi, 57, from Mandozay village in Khost province, said many women voted in the hope of electing a president who would consider women “human beings”.

Laal Bibi is a mother of five daughters. Because she did not give birth to a son, her husband who is a taxi driver married for a second time. By religious tradition a man can marry up to four women to have a son.

Laal Bibi covered her hands with henna after going to vote secretly, to cover an ink spot – applied on the fingers of everyone who votes.

“I want a better life for my daughters and their children,” she said. “By casting my vote I stood against my husband and the society that considers women weak and incapable of doing anything. I am proud that I took part in the elections.”

No woman ran for president, but hundreds stood in the provincial council elections held simultaneously with the presidential elections.

Currently, 27.6 percent of Afghan members of parliament are women, compared to 11.4 percent women in both houses of parliament in India, and 18.5 percent in the Pakistan legislature.

The northern provinces of Afghanistan are relatively calm but rape and kidnappings are frequent.

Adila lives in the northern province of Baghlan. She has never been to school, and was married off at a very young age. Now she wants a divorce but her family thinks it would bring disgrace to them. “I voted to elect a wise president, a person who would put an end to forced marriages,” she says. Adila and several other women from her village voted despite security threats.

Rahima, 29, who teaches in a private high school in Kabul said, “I thought my one vote would make a difference. I accepted all the threats because I cannot tolerate the return of the Taliban.”

Not everyone could be so defiant. Parween, 32, said she had no option but to follow her husband’s orders. “Afghan women have no individual presence in this society, they are known as daughters of someone, sisters of someone and wives of someone, therefore they must do what the male members of their family expect them to do.”

And very large numbers of women did not vote. “None of the women in the family were allowed to vote because my father considers elections un-Islamic,” said Fatima from Kabul, who had just turned voting age.

But candidates have been promising more attention to women’s rights. “Unfortunately, the issue of violence against women did not get much attention in this government and we will make sure that serious steps should be taken to tackle the increasing violence against women,” candidate Abdullah Abdullah said in a debate on the local Tolo television channel.

Candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai said in the course of the debate: “My government will make sure that we fully implement what is enshrined in our constitution when it comes to the freedom of speech and women’s rights. We cannot have a democratic society if we do not have full and equal participation of women in all sectors. The laws that are made to protect women against all sorts of violence and discrimination will be fully implemented.”

A lot of women are waiting for action in line with such promises.

The final results are scheduled to be announced May 14. Preliminary results indicate that none of the candidates got more than 50 percent of the vote. A runoff is expected between the two frontrunners, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Abdullah was foreign minister and Ghani finance minster in President Hamid Karzai’s government earlier. The anticipated runoff will be held May 28.

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No Choice But To Work Without Pay Thu, 01 May 2014 09:04:10 +0000 Stella Paul Village women in Nalgonda district near Hyderabad leave for the city to work at construction sites. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS.

Village women in Nalgonda district near Hyderabad leave for the city to work at construction sites. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS.

By Stella Paul
HYDERABAD, India, May 1 2014 (IPS)

The southern Indian city Hyderabad is witnessing a construction boom as it prepares to become the joint capital of two states – Andhra Pradesh and the soon to be formed Telangana. Buildings are coming up in almost every neighbourhood.

Under one such building coming up, three-year-old Amlu is scrubbing a plate. Her parents Sai Mohan, 33, and Sri Lakshmi, 29, work at the construction site. Mohan is paid the equivalent of 50 dollars a month, Lakshmi works without payment.“There is no better way to help a rural woman than providing her a village-based job. Once she migrates, it is very difficult to restore her life.”

With both parents labouring all day, Amlu is learning to take care of herself.

Mohan and Lakshmi come from Nelapatla village in Nalgonda district, 39 km east of Hyderabad. Mohan gave up cotton farming in 2011 after several crop failures, and migrated to Hyderabad to work for a real estate developer from whom he had taken an equivalent of 500 dollars as a farm loan.

Mohan was employed as a guard, but a few weeks later he was asked to do other work such as laying bricks, making concrete, and plastering walls. Unable to handle so much work alone, Mohan brought wife Lakshmi to help him.

“Our employer says if I don’t work, he won’t pay my husband any salary,” Lakshmi told IPS.

Asia has nearly 12 million forced, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The Global Slavery Index 2013 report suggests there are nearly 14 million forced labourers in India alone. They are mostly employed at construction sites, farms, brick kilns, mining quarries, private homes, and in the sex trade.

“Today some people are still being born into hereditary slavery, a staggering but harsh reality, particularly in parts of West Africa and South Asia,” the report says.

Lakshmi comes from a Dalit community of shoemakers. The ministry of labour and employment in India estimates that 86.6 percent of bonded or forced labourers belong to Dalit and tribal communities.

Mary Madiga, a Dalit rights defender in Hyderabad, says the caste system makes Dalit workers, especially women, vulnerable to exploitation. Now 39, she spent six years in Nalgonda as a forced farm labourer. When her family tried to send her to school at age 14, they were beaten and thrown out of the village by her employer, she said.

“I was lucky to escape, but many others stay in the job due to fear of physical violence,” Madiga, who is contesting to be a member of the state legislative assembly told IPS.

Fear of physical violence forces thousands of migrant women into the sex trade, says Jayamma Bandari, member of the planning committee for the National AIDS Control Programme. “Hyderabad has over 25,000 sex workers.  Sixty percent of them are rural women who migrated to the city and were forced into sex work,” Bandari told IPS.

In 1998, Bandari came to Hyderabad with her husband who then confined her to a room and forced her into sexual slavery for three years before she was rescued by a city-based NGO.

“A forced sex worker is often underfed and tortured by her employer. Almost every such sex worker has marks of torture on her body,” says Bandari, who runs the Chaitanya Happy Home in Hyderabad, a shelter for minor girls of sex workers rescued from the clutches of pimps.

Social norms also lead women into forced labour, says Tathagata Sengupta from the group Solidarity for Brick Kiln Workers. On Jan. 27 this year, Sengupta led a team that rescued 60 forced labourers from a brick kiln near Hyderabad. Over half of them were women, including one in an advanced stage of pregnancy, says Sengupta.

“At brick kilns, most migrant women workers are married to men who took loans from a local moneylender to meet the expenses of their marriage. After marriage, the moneylender forces both husband and wife to work to recover the loan. Since social norms require a good wife to share her husband’s burden, the woman doesn’t refuse,” Sengupta told IPS.

Under India’s Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, forced labour is punishable by three years imprisonment. But conviction for forced labour is almost unheard of, says Satyavati Kondaveeti, a city-based lawyer associated with the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Commission.

Employers of forced labourers make only verbal agreements, and it is threfore not possible to prove that the labourer was forced, says Kondaveeti. “They are smart, know the loopholes of the law well, and use these to their advantage.”

Most activists believe that organising workers is an effective way to end forced labour. “In an organised sector, it is easy to track or monitor the growth or decline of the industry. We can count the number of workers and, through workers unions, find out how well the law is being followed. None of this is possible in the unorganised sector,” says Bandari.

Officials say that India must address the reasons for worker migration if it has to end forced labour.

Nalgonda’s district collector T. Cheeranjivalu, the highest-ranked official in the district administration, says government programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) are helping.

“These programmes are designed to provide livelihood security and create durable assets in villages for poor people who are vulnerable to migration,” he told IPS.

Despite accusations of widespread corruption in these schemes, Cheeranjivalu says they are the most effective tools to end forced labour, especially for women. “There is no better way to help a rural woman than providing her a village-based job. Once she migrates, it is very difficult to restore her life.”

Meanwhile, Lakshmi hopes that Amlu will be able to go to school some day. “I and my husband can’t read or write. But if our daughter is educated, she can have a free life.”

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Morocco Divided Over Equality Tue, 29 Apr 2014 06:51:12 +0000 Abderrahim El Ouali Women protest on the streets of Rabat to demand equal rights. Credit: Abderrahim El Ouali/IPS.

Women protest on the streets of Rabat to demand equal rights. Credit: Abderrahim El Ouali/IPS.

By Abderrahim El Ouali
CASABLANCA, Apr 29 2014 (IPS)

Morocco stands divided over a proposal for equal inheritance rights for men and women: modernists see this as application of equality arising from the new constitution, and Islamists see in this a violation of Sharia law.

There have been calls from extremists to kill those who seek equality rights.The trial is over, but the debate on equal sharing of inheritance between women and men is only beginning.

The penal court of Casablanca sentenced Islamist Sheikh Abou Naim to a month of deferred imprisonment and a 500-dirham fine (50 euros) in February for issuing a fatwa to kill Driss Lachgar, general secretary of the Socialist Union of the Popular Forces (USFP), and other leftist activists.

Lachgar had chaired a meeting of party women on Dec. 20 where he called for a revision of inheritance laws so as to establish equality between men and women.

Sheikh Abou Naim accused Lachgar in a video posted on YouTube of “godlessness” and “apostasy”, and made a public call to kill him. The Sheikh called women from the USFP “whores”.

Activists say the sentence passed by the court was overly lenient. Salah El Wadie, leader of the movement Damir (Consciousness), said Abou Naim was sentenced for defamation and not for incitement to murder.

Modernist writer Ahmed Assid, described as a “pig” in Abou Naim’s video, told media the trial had been “a farce”.

The trial is over, but the debate on equal sharing of inheritance between women and men is only beginning.

Fatima Ait Ouassi, member of the ‘February 20th’ movement to campaign for equal rights, tells IPS that “equal sharing of inheritance between men and women is now a necessity.”

The February 20th movement arose in 2011 within the Arab Spring. It campaigned successfully to bring in a new constitution approved by referendum in July of the same year. This new constitution stipulates equal sharing between men and women.

However, the Islamist cabinet that was formed after the general election in November 2011 included only two women. A reshuffle in October 2013 included six women among 39 ministers.

Morocco is still far from gender equality in the political world, but nothing stops the government implementing the constitution in inheritance rights, says Ait Ouassi.

“We do not live any more in the old Arabic society where Islam appeared and where women lived under the supervision of men,” she tells IPS. “Now, women work and contribute fully to family assets just like men, and it is inconceivable to apply inequitable laws when it comes to sharing family inheritance.”

Lachgar says 19.3 percent of Moroccan women in cities and 12.3 percent in villages have prime responsibility in taking care of their families.

Strict application of Muslim law grants to a woman only half of what a man inherits in case of the death of one of the parents. In a case of death of the husband, the wife has only one-eighth of the inheritance “while women work even more than the men,” Samir El Harrouf, a member of the United Socialist Party (PSU), tells IPS.

The religious conservatives see this as a literal application of “divine law”.

“Nobody can modify the sacred texts in relation to inheritance and polygamy,” well-known advocate of Muslim jurisprudence Redouane Benchekroune told journalists.

But there are other interpretations of the religious text. “According to the studies that I have made in Muslim jurisprudence, this is simply a false interpretation of texts,” El Harrouf tells IPS.

He says that what the Quran grants to women in inheritance is only the minimum that must be respected – nothing forbids that women be granted more. New studies in jurisprudence show that it is necessary “to distinguish in religious texts between what is constant and what is varying,” El Harrouf says.

“What is constant is matters of faith and worship. On the other hand, other requirements vary according to the social and historical context, and depend on the specific conditions of every society and on a particular phase of its historical development.”

Ait Ouassi agrees. “As we were able to amend the family code, we have to revise the laws on inheritance which are contradictory to international agreements on human rights. We must stop immediately all forms of discrimination against women.”

Morocco ratified the agreement on elimination of discrimination against women on Jun. 21, 1993. A new family code providing for equality came into law in 2005.

According to the new family code, polygamy is forbidden except on authorisation by a court of competence.

Under this family code, polygamy requires the consent of the first wife and authorisation by a judge. But people manage to bypass the law by getting married without official papers. Once the new woman is pregnant, the court is forced to ratify the marriage because the civil rights of the child come into play.

Modernists are therefore asking for outright outlawing of polygamy.

The Islamists who now lead the government, and who were then in the opposition, had opposed the new law and called it “an incitement to prostitution.”

In the current debate, Islamists too are divided. The Justice and Development Party (PJD) which leads the government, calls the push to equality foreign pressure to alter “the identity of the nation”. On the other hand, Mostafa El Moutassim, leader of the Islamist party Civilisational Alternative, published an article on his Facebook page saying he is willing to open up the question of revision of laws governing the distribution of inheritance.

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Egyptian Quacks Mutilate Millions Sun, 27 Apr 2014 07:12:24 +0000 Hisham Allam Poor families in Egypt consider circumcision a way to preserve the chastity of girls. Credit: Amr Diab/IPS.

Poor families in Egypt consider circumcision a way to preserve the chastity of girls. Credit: Amr Diab/IPS.

By Hisham Allam
CAIRO, Apr 27 2014 (IPS)

Saber Abd El-Mawgoud began his career castrating sheep and goats before moving on to humans. His first human experiment was a young boy he attempted to circumcise back in 1999 at the insistence of the boy’s father.

The boy died a few days later of infection from the operation, Mawgoud, 67, from the Al-Monofiya governorate 60 km north of Cairo, tells IPS.The practice continues even after female genital mutilation was outlawed in 2007 after an 11-year-old girl died in a private clinic while undergoing the operation.

Mawgoud says he continued to practise with a nurse as assistant for some years, before starting out on his own again.

“I used to do an average of ten operations per week, going around villages, and within a short period I became very famous,” he says. “Sometimes sheikhs would announce in mosques that I had arrived, so villagers would come and pick me up from the mosque.”

Soon he began operating mostly on girls. “After my bad experience with boys’ circumcision, I specialised in FGM [female genital mutilation] and performed thousands of operations. A few died, especially at times of epidemics.”

Mawgoud adds: “I faced legal prosecution more than once after parents filed complaints against me, but the security used to release me after I paid a fine for practising without a licence, especially because parents admitted they had agreed that I should perform the operation.”

By the year 2010, the number of operations he performed decreased after the ministry of health started a campaign warning people not to deal with quacks, and to visit doctors instead.

It was only at this stage that he discovered he had been doing these operations on girls in a wrong way. This was after a girl patient suffered heavy bleeding and was taken by her father to a hospital.

Mawgoud has no qualms, though. “Parents mutilate their children by custom, it is considered inappropriate that one leaves his son or daughter with no mutilation, otherwise they will bring disgrace to their parents when older.”

But Mawgoud did not operate on his own granddaughters, he says. He asked their mothers to take them to a hospital, fearing he might harm them.

The practice is damaging in many ways, says Dr. Naglaa El-Shabrawy, head of the obstetrics and gynaecology department at the Al-Azhar Faculty of Medicine.

“Female genital mutilation is a traditional habit of our ignorant society; it goes back to the pharaohs’ era and has no health benefits whatsoever or any religious basis in Islam,” she tells IPS. “It also has negative effects on women’s health; they suffer deadly bleeding, severe urinary retention and infections.”

The other problems are the psychological consequences, she says. “It can affect sexual relations and cause troubles that can last for life. Mutilation causes emotional apathy in women due to cutting a part of a human organ created by God.”

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), more than 125 million girls and women worldwide have undergone some form of FGM in 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East. Another 30 million girls are at risk of being cut in the next decade.

“In Egypt, overall support to female genital mutilation is declining, and the practice is slowly decreasing,” says Shabrawy. But the reported decline has been marginal. “The prevalence decreased from 76 percent in 2005 to 74 percent in 2008 for girls aged 15-17. Collective efforts are needed to accelerate and sustain progress towards the elimination of this harmful practice.”

But the practice of FGM continues even after it was outlawed in 2007 after an 11-year-old girl died in a private clinic while undergoing the operation.

The law provides for up to three years imprisonment for disfiguring the body and harming it.

An Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey conducted in 2005 indicated that poor families in rural areas in Upper Egypt are more prone to the practice.

The survey suggested that in the 15-19 age group, 80.7 percent girls had been circumcised, with the figure rising to 87.4 percent for women up to age 24.

For Abeer Masoud, 30, from Al-Monofiyah, the mutilation she had undergone ended her marriage.

“I decided not to marry again because of the physical and psychic pressure I went through, especially after my story spread through the village,” she tells IPS. “No one has proposed to me since my divorce.”

Women who have gone through the mutilation live with the consequences for life. “Female genital mutilation consists of cutting four parts in the female genital organ; one of them, the clitoris, is mainly responsible for sensation during intercourse, and this is what causes marital problems,” Shabrawy says.

“Female genital mutilation prevents sexual pleasure, and intercourse often ends with pelvic congestion, pain and vaginal discharges, besides the nervous and psychological tension.”

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Reproductive Rights Have a Rocky Ride Fri, 25 Apr 2014 15:37:16 +0000 A. D. McKenzie By A. D. McKenzie
STOCKHOLM, Apr 25 2014 (IPS)

For policy makers and activists working for sexual and reproductive health and rights, it’s been a long road since the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo in 1994.

Back then, the abortion issue pitted groups against one another, even as frustrated activists tried to keep the spotlight on human rights and development. Still, the conference prepared the groundwork for international development goals, and 179 governments adopted an ambitious “programme of action”."It’s the other way around. Countries become wealthier when people have smaller families."

Twenty years later, policy makers can point to major achievements, but divisive issues remain, and the status of women is nowhere near where it should be, according to Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

“We did change the paradigm around population and made it people-centred,” Osotimehin told IPS in an interview. “We have empowered women and girls to be able to make choices in their lives, we’ve reduced maternal mortality by more than 50 percent, we have lifted one billion people out of poverty, and we have more laws today protecting women than ever before.”

Osotimehin stressed, however, that there are still some 222 million women in mainly developing countries who would like greater access to contraception and other family planning tools, but are not able to get these for a variety of reasons.

In addition, almost 800 women still die every day from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth; and teenage pregnancy, child marriage and violence against women remain troubling issues around the world. Meanwhile, women’s involvement in the political sphere lags behind that of men in most regions.

Participating in the sixth International Parliamentarians’ Conference on the Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action (IPCI/ICPD) Apr. 23-25 in Stockholm, Osotimehin told IPS that the UNFPA doesn’t “get into abortion” because the organisation respects the rights of sovereign states to make their own laws.

“But we insist that in countries where it is legal, it should be performed safely, and in those countries where it is not legal, they should have empathy and compassion so that post-abortion care is available,” he said.

The Stockholm conference took place amid controversial moves in Spain to pass some of the strictest abortion legislation in Europe. But the conference itself had a much broader agenda, focusing on gender equality, gender-based violence, and reproductive and sexual health and rights – including contraception, safe abortion and sexuality education.

“This is about human rights as well as economic development,” said Baroness Jenny Tonge, a member of the UK’s House of Lords and president of the Brussels-based European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, which organised the conference together with the UNFPA, the Swedish Parliament and other groups.

“The most important message is that we have to start with the individual. We have to make sure that women in particular are healthy, are being looked after, are not going to die in childbirth and, above all, do not have more children than they actually want,” she told IPS.

“We’ve seen the evidence and the statistics. People don’t have small families because their country has become wealthier. It’s the other way around. Countries become wealthier when people have smaller families. That’s why the message of contraception, family planning, good reproductive health and rights is so important to development,” she added.

A few parliamentarians seemed to have been sent to the conference by their governments without a clear view of the issues or objectives, but others said they were in Stockholm to take inspiration from the meeting and to effect change in their countries.

“This conference is important because a woman’s right to have access to sexual and reproductive health information is fundamentally important to development and even more so in middle-income countries,” said Kamina Johnson Smith, an opposition senator from Jamaica.

The island has a female prime minister, elected twice, but women still suffer from gender inequity, with female unemployment almost is twice the level of men’s, Johnson Smith said.

Like others in the Caribbean and Latin America, the country also struggles with a high rate of teenage pregnancy. So attending the conference and conferring with other delegates provides support in tabling certain measures in parliament, Johnson Smith told IPS.

The first day of the forum in fact saw sobering statistics about teenage pregnancy around the world: some 18 million girls up to the age of 19 become mothers every year, according to UN figures.

For Osotimehin and the UNFPA, part of the solution is to have “comprehensive sexuality education” for children and young people. “They should also have universal access to information and reproductive health services, including contraception,” he told IPS.

Surveys indicate that when these tools are available, the “need for abortion goes down,” Osotimehin added. He pointed to Sweden and the Netherlands as examples where youth-friendly centres and clinics provide counselling and other services, resulting in many young people being able to make informed choices.

“What I find is that some governments don’t have the courage to actually go and do what they need to do,” he said. “They don’t want to talk about sexuality education and they don’t want to talk about contraception. There is a need to elevate the conversation so that the reality of what we’re talking about effects action among governments, political leaders and community leaders.”

For Sweden, transparency and discussion of sexual and reproductive health is of paramount importance, said Ulrika Karlsson, MP and chairperson of the Swedish All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.

“When I talk about such issues, sometimes people say ‘Oh, you’re from Sweden, it’s easy for you to talk’,” she told IPS. “But Sweden hasn’t always been as developed as it is now. In 100 years, we’ve gone from a poor country with high infant and maternal mortality to a country with almost zero maternity deaths, and we hope people can be inspired by our own journey.”

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Persecution of Uganda’s Gays Intensifies as Rights Groups Go Underground Wed, 23 Apr 2014 16:23:20 +0000 Amy Fallon Sandra Ntebi, who runs a hotline and helps Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community find alternative, safe accommodation, pictured here at the 2013 Gay Pride parade. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

Sandra Ntebi, who runs a hotline and helps Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community find alternative, safe accommodation, pictured here at the 2013 Gay Pride parade. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

By Amy Fallon
KAMPALA, Apr 23 2014 (IPS)

As she sits in a Kampala hotel holding a mobile phone that rings frequently, Sandra Ntebi tells IPS: “I’m really exhausted. I don’t know where to start. We have many cases pending.” Ntebi manages a hotline and is helping Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community find alternative, safe accommodation after they have faced harassment.

“Right now, some people have been thrown out of their homes, some are in jail. Every day there are cases.”

It’s nearly 4.30pm on Tuesday, Apr. 22, just over two months since Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed a draconian anti-gay bill that further criminalises homosexuality in this East African nation.Many activists had fled Uganda to seek asylum in different countries, while most LGBTI organisations were closed “due to fear”.

So far today Ntebi has received calls relating to four new cases concerning LGBTI people or those perceived to be LGBTI that include incidents of evictions by landlords, police arrests and mob attacks.

In total she and a colleague have received reports of about 130 different cases across the country since Museveni inked his signature on the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 in late February.

The law prescribes life imprisonment for some homosexual acts and also criminalises the “promotion of homosexuality”, among other measures.

“The situation is tense. Right now this act is promoting violence,” says Ntebi.

“I get the reports since I have the hotline. We sit down later with the details then categorise them into evictions, arrests and assaults.”

Today her co-worker has received a call about a new incident in Hoima, western Uganda. Among the cases Ntebi is dealing with is a fresh attack on Brenda, an HIV positive, transgender sex worker in her late 30s who lives just outside the capital, Kampala.

In March Brenda was “paraded” before local media, outed as a transsexual, beaten, undressed and arrested.

“We bailed her out, she went back to her house in the village and she couldn’t even leave because people were out every day waiting for her,” says Ntebi. “They were throwing stones.”

Brenda went to stay with a friend based on advice from the LGBTI hotline. Then on Thursday, Apr. 17, she was beaten again, taken to hospital and is now holed up in a hotel.

“We’re trying to secure a house for her to rent,” says Ntebi, who on Wednesday went to help Brenda.

Around Mar. 19, the same time that Brenda was first attacked, three Ugandan men who were perceived to be gay were assaulted and admitted to the Mulago Hospital in Kampala. A few weeks later, Ntebi says, the team were alerted to a possible suicide of an LGBTI person by an embassy.

On Apr. 3 crime intelligence officers raided the Makerere University Walter Reed Project clinic, a non-profit collaboration between Makerere University in Kampala and the U.S. Military HIV Research Programme. Police claimed the project, one of the few in Kampala willing to offer services to LGBTI people with AIDS, was “carrying out recruitment and training of young males in unnatural sex acts.”

Many activists and other members of the gay community are now in hiding, says Ntebi, who is wearing a black vest from a 2006 campaign run by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SM-UG), an NGO and the umbrella for all homosexual organisations in Uganda. The words “Leave me in peace” are embroidered on the back.

Ntebi says many activists had fled Uganda to seek asylum in different countries, while most LGBTI organisations were closed “due to fear”.

Ntebi now only goes to work at her office when it’s absolutely essential.

Beyondy is the nickname for a 23-year-old fashion designer who is in hiding.

He used to spend his days sewing a dress for a client or mastering routines for upcoming events, like the second Gay Pride parade in 2013.

Since the bill was signed he has moved to a tiny one-bedroom shack, tucked away at the back of a slum in a lively Kampala suburb. Beyondy now spends his days mostly indoors watching music videos by Beyoncé, Pink and Rita Ora, only going outside when he has to.

“I like Rita’s style – the blonde hair, her red lipstick,” cooes Beyondy, wearing a T-shirt and board shorts showing off his muscular build, when IPS met him recently.

“I wanted to be a performer, for people to see my talent and discover me. But right now I think it’s impossible. Right now it’s all about survival, saving your life and being quiet, being underground all the time.”

In the past Beyondy was attacked “a lot”, and fears he’ll be targeted again now that the anti-gay act is in force.

“You know someone was saying recently, ‘if we had a choice between forgiving a rapist and a gay person, we’d rather choose a rapist,’” he says.

Activists are hoping a petition filed in March challenging the act will come up in the country’s constitutional court early next month.

According to the Ugandan newspaper The Observer, the government has filed a defence, claiming the act does not contravene the right to equality and freedom from cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment guaranteed under the country’s constitution. The government wants the petition dismissed.

But even if the law is overturned Beyondy says it will take much more than a court ruling to change social attitudes towards homosexuality in Uganda.

In the current climate of homophobia, which activists stress has been “imported” to Uganda via western evangelists, virtually everyone is aware they can use another person’s sexuality to exact revenge.

“It’s in people’s minds and even if it’s overturned they’ll still think about it.”

But he’s adamant he will remain in Uganda to “rebuild both personally and professionally”.

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India’s Women Lose the Election Mon, 21 Apr 2014 07:54:54 +0000 Manipadma Jena A protest against a proposed nuclear plant in the Indian state Gujarat. Women are asking for stronger representation in Parliament to voice their views. Credit: Krishnakant/IPS.

A protest against a proposed nuclear plant in the Indian state Gujarat. Women are asking for stronger representation in Parliament to voice their views. Credit: Krishnakant/IPS.

By Manipadma Jena
NEW DELHI, Apr 21 2014 (IPS)

“Men just do not want to give up their seats, it’s as simple as that,” says 67-year-old candidate in the Indian election Subhhasini Ali, voicing a gloomy view across women’s groups in India.

Ali, a two-time member of Parliament and key functionary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), an arm of the Communist Party of India-Marxists (CPI-M), is contesting from Barrackpore, a constituency in the eastern Indian state West Bengal.“This election, we get the feeling that we have lost. Women are getting more and more sidelined." -- Jyotsna Chatterji, the Joint Women’s Programme

She is among a few women contesting. Political parties, even those vociferously supporting reservation for women in Parliament, have failed to put up on average even one woman for every 10 males contesting India’s 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

Women candidates are only seven percent among 3,355 candidates in the first five phases of the nine-stage election, says the Delhi-based public interest organisation, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), that is campaigning for greater transparency and more inclusive representation in Indian elections.

Women activists looking at state-wise trends expect no improvement by way of inclusion of women in the final phases of the election.

Women constitute 388 million, or 47.6 percent of the 814.5 million voters eligible to vote in the election running from Apr. 7 to May 12.

“When our presence is not considered important in the Parliament, when decisions about our future are taken without consulting us, why should we cast our votes to elect another group of politicians who do not believe in the cause of women empowerment in this country,” says Ranjana Kumari from the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research.

“This election, we get the feeling that we have lost. Women are getting more and more sidelined,” Jyotsna Chatterji from the non-profit Joint Women’s Programme (JWP) tells IPS.

In the 15th general election in 2009, 556 women out of 8,070 contestants from 363 political parties  were given tickets to contest, according to data from the Election Commission. That was just 6.9 percent of the candidates, making representation in this election hardly better. Fifty-nine women – 10.9 percent – won. This was the highest number of women contestants and winners since 1957.

A 1996 Women Reservation Bill (WRB) proposing reservation of a third of the seats to women in the lower house of Parliament and in state legislatures has been stymied by various political parties for more than 18 years now. Women groups pushing for greater representation, for whom the failure to pass the WRB has remained a political raw nerve since, blame this on the entrenched patriarchal mindset of male politicians.

If enacted, 180 berths in the Lok Sabha would be reserved for women. Political parties opposing the WRB say a quota within the quota should be given to women from backward communities. Dalits and tribal communities already have 120 seats reserved in the Lok Sabha. In 2009, 17 women got elected under this quota.

“Many political parties had agreed to the WRB’s stipulation about voluntarily giving 33 percent tickets to women members, legal quota aside,” says Chatterji, who spearheaded the reservation movement in the late1990s with a group of other activists. Political parties have fallen far short of this.

Given women’s visibly increased participation in professional spheres, public debates, and also increased voting in elections, women groups say they had hoped political parties would walk the gender talk and give at least 15 to 20 percent tickets to women, recognising the major socio-political changes under way.

“Nothing is going to change in women’s representation unless the [Women’s Reservation] Bill is passed,” says Ali.

The three main political parties – the ruling Congress party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) widely expected to form the new government, and the few months old Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party) have all promised in their manifestos to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill if voted to power.

“Unless certain attitudes are overcome it is useless to expect individual parties to put up more women candidates, and moreover where no party is obliged to do it,” Malini Bhattacharya, 70, twice member of Parliament and former member of the National Commission for Women, tells IPS.

Ruth Manorama, 62, Dalit women’s rights activist, who heads the National Alliance of Women, and is contesting from the Bangalore South constituency on a Janata Dal (Secular) party ticket, is more optimistic. “To give a bigger role to women in political decision making, we need to go step by step,” Manorama tells IPS.

Others argue for bolder change. “Political party structures and the election process itself need drastic change if women are to participate in large numbers,” says Tapashi Praharaj of AIDWA. “Women’s winning ability is consistently under question, without however attempting to build them up.”

“The huge funds required to fight an election today is another obstacle for women to contest elections,” says Chatterji. The government raised spending limits for a candidate in this election to seven million rupees (116,000 dollars).

Chatterji says while male leaders argue they cannot find suitable women candidates, there are many eligible women who have not caught the eye of political parties.

More than two million women have served in decision-making bodies in India’s local governments, or panchayat raj, under the 33 percent seat reservation since 1993. In some states that quota has been raised to 50 percent. Urban local bodies too have reserved seats for women. These quotas have created a significant mass of grassroots women leaders.

India, the world’s largest democracy, has a mere 11.4 percent women in both houses of Parliament, compared to the world average of 21.8 percent. Afghanistan has 27.6 percent women in Parliament and Pakistan 18.5 percent, according to 2014 data from the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).

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When Not To Go To School Sat, 19 Apr 2014 06:24:01 +0000 Ranjita Biswas A new toilet for girl students at a school in Murshidabad district in the eastern Indian state West Bengal. Credit: Sulabh International/IPS.

A new toilet for girl students at a school in Murshidabad district in the eastern Indian state West Bengal. Credit: Sulabh International/IPS.

By Ranjita Biswas
KOLKATA, Apr 19 2014 (IPS)

In large parts of rural India, the absence of separate toilets for growing girls is taking a toll on their education. Many are unable to attend school during their menstrual cycle.

According to the country’s Annual Status of Education Report in 2011, lack of access to toilets causes girls between 12 and 18 years of age to miss around five days of school every month, or around 50 school days every year.“There is a sharp increase in the dropout rate, mainly among girls, as they move from primary to upper primary, because we cannot till date provide them proper toilets."

The country’s Supreme Court had ruled in 2011 that every public school has to have toilets. But a pan-India study, ‘The Learning Blocks’, conducted by the NGO CRY in 2013, shows that 11 percent of schools do not have toilets and only 18 percent have separate ones for girls. In 34 percent of schools, toilets are in bad condition or simply unusable.

Atindra Nath Das, regional director of CRY East, told IPS, “Children do not have safe drinking water, schools still do not have their own building and toilets are missing. No wonder 8.1 million children in India are still out of school.

“There is a sharp increase in the dropout rate, mainly among girls, as they move from primary to upper primary, because we cannot till date provide them proper toilets,” he said.

A 2010 report by the U.N. University Institute for Water, Environment and Health noted, “Once girls reach puberty, lack of access to sanitation becomes a central cultural and human health issue, contributing to female illiteracy and low levels of education, in turn contributing to a cycle of poor health for pregnant women and their children.”

According to India’s 2011 census data, national sanitation coverage is 49 percent but the rural figure is worse, at 31 percent.  It is even lower for Dalits or socially marginalised communities (23 percent) and tribal people (16 percent).

Lack of sanitation facilities is still a stumbling block for the effective spread of health and education programmes in many parts of rural India.

Mahila Jagriti Samiti (MJS), an NGO working in Jharkhand, an economically backward state in eastern India with a large tribal population, has been conducting awareness programmes on the use of sanitation, but is not very happy with the results.

Mahi Ram Mahto, director of MJS, told IPS: “We have done 300 sanitation programmes, even helping to build toilets in homes with funding from government agencies, but only 15 to 20 percent of the beneficiaries use them.”

Without a cistern for flushing, the toilets pose a problem, he says. “People have to carry water in buckets from a common water source like a hand pump or a pond; most households do not have taps. They say they might as well go to the open field.”

In 1999, India launched the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan or Total Sanitation Campaign, a community-based programme, under which it gives an equivalent of about 80 dollars to a household to set up a toilet. But many poor people say that is not enough and still defecate in the fields or by railway lines.

The campaign has “provisions for toilet facility and hygiene education in all types of government rural schools (up to higher secondary or class 12) with emphasis on toilets for girls.”

But provisions alone do not help, activists say.

Access to water for toilets is a major problem in many rural schools in the eastern state of West Bengal, says Vijay K. Jha, honorary controller at the state branch of Sulabh International. The NGO leads one of the world’s biggest and most successful sanitation programmes.

“We have worked in 50 schools in Murshidabad district of India’s eastern state West Bengal, providing infrastructure and running awareness programmes on hygiene. Plans are afoot to extend the work to 100 more in the near future,” Jha told IPS.

Despite separate toilets for girls, the results are not satisfactory. As in the case of Jharkhand, non-availability of water hinders toilet use. Most schools do not have water pipes running up to the compounds.

Diara Hazi Nasrat Mallick High School in Murshidabad district, where Sulabh has constructed a separate toilet, is a typical example.

Alaul Haque, the school headmaster, told IPS, “We are happy that this facility has been built. But girls still have to bring water from the tubewell because there’s no water pipe connection in the school yet.” Half of about 300 students at the school are girls.

Another institution in the same district, Gayeshpur High School, has the same complaint. “With around 300 girl students in our co-ed school, we need at least two toilets. We were happy that the toilet has been built, but it still lacks flowing water,” headmaster Prasanta Chatterjee told IPS.

The government scheme under which NGOs take up the work of building toilets does not include providing water pipes – a task that depends on local agencies.

Girl students during the menstrual cycle are advised not to carry heavy objects like buckets filled with water; so they avoid school altogether during those days if there is no easy access to water in the toilets.

Under India’s Right to Education Act of 2009, which recognises the right of children to free and compulsory education till the completion of elementary school, provision of proper toilets as part of school infrastructure is mandatory, says S.N. Dave, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) specialist at Unicef Kolkata.

Dave told IPS: “West Bengal being in a riverine area, water is not much of a problem. But there is scope for improvement in terms of better coordination between agencies.”

Some states like Kerala in the south and Sikkim in the northeast fare better.

According to a Planning Commission study in 2013, Sikkim had the best performing gram panchayats (village councils) and maintenance of sanitation facilities, having achieved 100 percent sanitation.

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Taliban Provokes New Hunger for Education Mon, 07 Apr 2014 06:41:26 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai Girls at a makeshift school in Khyber Agency in the troubled northern region of Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

Girls at a makeshift school in Khyber Agency in the troubled northern region of Pakistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Apr 7 2014 (IPS)

Following scattered defiance of the Taliban earlier, a new wave of students is now heading for education in schools and colleges across the troubled north of Pakistan.

“There is a steady increase in enrolment of students because parents have realised the significance of education, and now they want to thwart the Taliban’s efforts to deprive students of education,” Pervez Khan, education officer in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), tells IPS.

In 2012, he says, the literacy rate for girls was three percent in FATA. That rose to 10.5 percent in 2013."Anything opposed by the Taliban benefits the people.” -- Muhammad Darwaish, a shopkeeper in Khyber Agency

The boys literacy rate shot up correspondingly to 36.6 percent compared to 29.5 percent.

The Taliban are opposed to modern education. They have destroyed about 500 schools, including 300 schools for girls.

Khan says the Taliban’s campaign against education is only propelling more of the tribal population towards schools.

“The majority of people know that the Taliban are pursuing anti-people activities, such as damaging schools, and therefore they are now coming in droves,” he says.

Muhammad Darwaish, a shopkeeper in Khyber Agency, agrees with Khan. “I enrolled my two daughters and one son in school because I am now convinced that education will benefit them. Anything opposed by the Taliban benefits the people.”

Saeeda Bibi, one of his daughters, says she enjoys school. “I go to school everyday and am very happy there. Before, I used to pass the whole day in the streets.”

Darwaish says he will make every effort to keep his children in school. “I am poor but I will make all efforts to see my children educated.”

Khyber Agency, one of the seven tribal agencies within FATA, has faced some of the worst of Taliban violence. Since 2005, 85 schools have been blown up, depriving about 50,000 children of a school to go to on the militancy-stricken Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

But Khyber Agency saw a 16.1 percent rise in enrolment last year compared to 2012.

Like Darwaish, scores of parents in FATA are now taking the education of their sons and daughters more seriously.

Abdul Jameel of Kurram Agency sends both his sons to school. “Militants have blown up three schools in our area, due to which my children sat at home. They are back because now the Taliban-damaged schools have been reconstructed.”

Director of Education in FATA, Ikram Ahmed, says they have seen a 21.3 percent rise in boys and girls enrolment in Kurram Agency, 7.5 percent in South Waziristan, 4.3 percent in North Waziristan and 5.1 percent in Orakzai Agency.

In all 124,424 girls are enrolled in 1,551 primary schools, 19,614 girls in 158 middle schools, 13,837 girls in 42 high schools and 1,134 girls in five higher secondary schools in FATA, Ahmed tells IPS.

“In the past few years, militant activities and the poor law and order situation in tribal areas badly hampered girls’ education but the government’s measures have paid off,” he says.

“The massive allocation of 3.67 billion rupees [37 million dollars] offset the impact of damage caused to educational institutions during the war against terrorism.”

Annually, education was given top priority in the development programme of 2013 – at 24.64 percent of the FATA budget of 18.5 billion rupees (188 million dollars).

The current year will bring 38 new middle schools, 125 primary schools and three hostels for female teachers.

Akram says that in some areas the army damaged schools because militants had been using them. “About 10 schools were destroyed by the army in South Waziristan where Taliban militants lived,” he says. All those schools are being rebuilt.

“In some areas, the government has established tent schools to provide education to children and at other places dozens of well-off people have offered private buildings and structures to be used as schools,” he says.

Bismillah Khan, one of the 20 lawmakers from FATA, tells IPS that the government will provide more scholarships and free textbooks to support poor students.

“We have suffered a great deal due to prolonged militancy,” says Iqbal Afridi, a leader of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek Insaf. “Our students have suffered, businessmen and farmers have lost their work, and the only way to make progress is education. The good news is that people now want to educate their children at any cost.”

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Misgivings Rise Over Afghan Poll Fri, 04 Apr 2014 06:40:40 +0000 Giuliano Battiston Local party workers on the campaign trail in Mazar-e-Sharif. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS.

Local party workers on the campaign trail in Mazar-e-Sharif. Credit: Giuliano Battiston/IPS.

By Giuliano Battiston
FAIZABAD, Afghanistan, Apr 4 2014 (IPS)

“If Abdullah will become president, the will of [the] Afghan people will be respected. Otherwise – especially if Zalmai Rassoul will be indicated as the winner – a new conflict will start and our country will become more insecure.” The remark by Abdullah Abdullah supporter Qazi Sadullah Abu Aman is typical of the uncertainties and accusations rising as election day draws close on Saturday.

Sitting in his two-storey house in Faizabad, the largest city in the northeastern Badakhshan province, Abu Aman says only a massive fraud in favour of Rassoul, the presidential candidate backed by outgoing President Hamid Karzai, can stop former foreign minister and prominent Tajik leader Abdullah winning."The Independent Election Commission is independent only in name. It knows the ways here, but does not act.” -- Dr Anisgul Akhgar, director of the Relation & Cooperation Women Organisation

Abu Aman is one of the most authoritative figures in the province, as former head of the Provincial Peace Council, the government institution that runs the peace process with armed opposition groups, and a former member of the Afghan Upper House (Meshrano Jirga).

Abu Aman is a member of Jamiat-e-Islami, the predominately Tajik Islamist political party founded in the 1970s by Burhanuddin Rabbani. This was one of the major Afghan mujahedeen parties that fought the Soviet occupation in the eighties. He is also a candidate for election to the council of Badakhshan, one of the 34 Afghan provinces whose representatives will be elected Apr. 5, simultaneously with a new president to succeed Karzai.

“People will vote for him [Abdullah Abdullah] because he was a mujahed [religious fighter] who bravely fought the Soviets, and because he understands the problems of ordinary people. He is the right man to replace Karzai, whose government is corrupt and was unable to provide a better life for Afghans,” Abu Aman tells IPS.

Karzai, he says, has “activated the governmental machine to help Rassoul.”

Just a few hundred metres from Abu Aman’s house is the provincial office for Rassoul’s campaign. The office is headed by Basiri Khaled, a former mujahed with huge appeal.

He admits that Abdullah is a strong competitor: “He is known by everybody, kids and old men – and when you go to the bazaar you buy the product you already know. This is true. But Zalmai Rassoul has more chances to win, due to his programmes: he has promised to build schools, hospitals, roads, and to create new jobs through the mineral sector.”

In 2009, Khaled had coordinated Abdullah’s campaign; now he is running Rasoul’s. He sees no incoherence here, and says he still is a member of the Jamiat-e-Islami: “I’m a Jamiati since I was a kid,” he tells IPS. “I was a strong commander, the first to push away the Soviets from Badakhshan. I have fought together with commandant Masoud [the iconic leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, killed in September 2011, whose portraits overlook the main buildings here]. Nobody can expel me from the party.”

As evidence of the strength of his preferred candidate, Khaled says “thousands of people took part in his rally here in Faizabad.”

That may not mean much. “All candidates spend a lot of money to bring a huge number of people to their gatherings,” says Samiullah Saihwn, who works for the local radio Bayan-e-Shamal. “They gave money to the local commanders, and to community and village leaders to ensure broader participation. So it’s hard to understand who really will get the votes.”

On Mar. 31, Saihwn chaired a debate with some of the provincial council candidates. Promoted by the Badakhshan Civil Society Forum (BCSF), the debate was vibrant and frank. Many of the 250 or so people gathered at the Setara-e-Shar wedding hall in the city fired some very blunt questions.

“We had organised something similar in the earlier elections,” BCSF director Saifuddin Sais tells IPS. “But this was the first debate in town for the 2014 elections. We also have promoted debates and seminars in five rural districts, reaching more than 1,000 people and explaining to them the electoral process and their rights.”

Despite the awareness programmes by the BCSF, the gap between Faizabad and the rural areas remains huge.

“In Faizabad people somehow know their political rights, they know they can choose whoever they want, but in districts they have no information, no idea of what is going on,” says Saihwn. “They just follow what a local mullah, a commander or a power broker tells them. Ability is not a criterion.”

Dr Anisgul Akhgar, director of the Relation & Cooperation Women Organisation (RCWO), agrees. “Here in the city I perceive a great will to vote. Here anyone is free to select any of the candidates. But in rural districts local power brokers collect voter cards or indicate the people who have to be voted for.”

She fears that the election may therefore be unfair. “No effective measures have been taken to prevent fraud and rigging. The Independent Election Commission [the institution that should manage all the electoral process] is independent only in name. It knows the ways here, but does not act.”

Despite such apprehensions, Akhgar, a women’s rights activist since the days of the Taliban regime, will vote. “I will use my constitutional rights and I am encouraging all the women I know to do the same,” she tells IPS.

Zofanoon Hassam, head of the provincial Women Affairs Department, is also trying to encourage women’s participation.

“Through our awareness programmes we have spoken with more than 2,000 women. We have a registration centre here at our main office, and many women got their electoral cards here. According to our estimate, around 78,000 women in Faizabad – 44 percent of the total number – got it. We are particularly proud of this.”

The road to equal inclusion of women in politics is still long and difficult. “In many areas women are told who to vote for by their husbands. It’s a bad habits like this we are trying to dismiss. But more time is needed,” Hassam tells IPS.

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Anger Rises Over Racism in India Tue, 25 Mar 2014 09:14:24 +0000 Bijoyeta Das A photograph of Nido Taniam who was killed in a racist attack is displayed at the Arunachal Bhawan in New Delhi. Credit: Bijoyeta Das/IPS.

A photograph of Nido Taniam who was killed in a racist attack is displayed at the Arunachal Bhawan in New Delhi. Credit: Bijoyeta Das/IPS.

By Bijoyeta Das
NEW DELHI, Mar 25 2014 (IPS)

L. Khino, 27, vividly remembers Christmas Eve at the Indian capital’s famed Connaught Place shopping hub four years ago: the blinking lights, the buzzing crowd, the winter chill – and the salty taste of her tears.

Khino had just arrived in New Delhi from her home in India’s northeastern state of Manipur. “I was so excited. But suddenly a group of men surrounded me. ‘How much do you charge for a night?’ they asked. I yelled, ‘Get away,’ but they pinched my cheek and touched my back,” she tells IPS."We want a comprehensive anti-racism law because most Indians, including the government, deny that racism exists.”

Others giggled, some laughed aloud. A few snapped photos with their cell phones. “Chinki, chinki,” they kept teasing as she fled into a metro station. ‘Chinki’ is an offensive reference to the East Asian features of many people from India’s northeast.

Khino is one of thousands of youngsters who migrate each year from the eight northeastern states to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune and other cities in their quest for “higher education and better opportunities.” She works at a business process outsourcing centre in the capital’s satellite city Gurgaon.

“Enough is enough. They call us ‘chinki’ everyday, assault and harass us. What is this? Just discrimination or racism?” she asks.

According to activists and student groups, people from the northeast have harrowing experiences across India. They are regularly subjected to verbal taunts, slurs, jokes, physical and sexual assaults as well as cheating by landlords and employers.

For years, complaints have been piling up and the fury has been simmering. Matters came to a head this January when Nido Taniam, the 19-year-old son of a legislator from the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, was killed.

A student in Punjab state, Taniam was visiting Delhi. He had stopped at a store to ask for directions when shopkeepers made fun of his dyed blonde hair. This led to a brawl, and he was seriously assaulted. The next day he succumbed to his injuries.

Taniam’s death led to widespread protests across India. Many from the northeastern community are now campaigning for an anti-racism law to deal with apparent hate crimes. The North East India Forum against Racism (NEIFAR) was formed in February.

Phurpa Tsering, spokesperson for NEIFAR, tells IPS that their short-term demand for fast-tracking all pending cases of hate crime has been accepted.

“In the long run we want a comprehensive anti-racism law because most Indians, including the government, deny that racism exists,” says Tsering, who is from Arunachal Pradesh and is a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

A spate of recent attacks on people from India’s northeast has stirred disconcerting questions.

Protesters point out that the identity of mainland India often excludes the northeast, a region often described as far-flung, remote and conflict-ridden. They say northeasterners are frequently stereotyped as morally loose women in skimpy skirts who are sexually available, or good-for-nothing men who are drug addicts or insurgents.

About 86 percent of people from northeast living in Delhi have faced discrimination, according to research by the North East Helpline and Support Centre based in New Delhi. Alana Golmei, the founder, says they receive 20-30 calls a month, and most complain about non-payment of salaries and assaults.

“We have become immune to people calling us chinki, momo, Bahadur, Nepali, chow-chow, king-kong [terms alluding to their physical appearance],” she says. When she calls to negotiate with employers and landlords, she is told she is an outsider. “A strict anti-racism law will give us more negotiating power.”

But can a piece of legislation battle racism?

In 2012, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a directive to punish anyone who calls a northeasterner ‘chinki’ with up to five years in prison under the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The SCs and STs comprise some of India’s most socially marginalised people.

Golmei calls this an “emotional, stray reaction” with little effect – there have been no convictions so far. Many in the northeast are not categorised as SC or ST.

Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, wants an amendment and expansion of this Act. “New laws are difficult to make and difficult to push through,” he tells IPS.

Support for anti-racism law depends on a crucial question: if a man from northern or eastern India is beaten up in western India, it is called regionalism; so is it racism when someone from the northeast is attacked?

Hazarika, who is from Assam in the northeast, tells IPS, “We want it to include everybody in the country and all cases of discrimination on the basis of appearance, language, gender, food and attire. Only face is not enough.”

But opinion is divided.

Senti Longchar, assistant professor of psychology at Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, points out that people from states like Bihar or Assam look the same as anyone from northern India. “Discrimination against them is regionalism but name-calling and attacks on those with a Mongoloid face is racism.”

India signed the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1967. But Longchar cites a Washington Post infographic that uses World Values Survey data to show India and Jordan are the most racially intolerant countries.

Racist hate crimes are only one end of the spectrum of discrimination that people from the northeast encounter, says Kadambari Gladding, spokesperson for Amnesty International, India. She says they are also denied goods and services. “Non-discrimination is not a concession, but a right,” she adds.

Instead of a pan-India law, NEIFAR is advocating legislation specific to the northeast that will deter racist attacks on those with East Asian features, and include positive aspects such as preferential treatment, awareness campaigns, sensitisation of police and inclusion of the northeast’s history in textbooks.

NEIFAR is researching anti-racism laws in other countries, particularly Bolivia, to push for a model that suits India, says Id Gil, a Manipur native who studies in Delhi and works for the forum.

He tells IPS, “Every racial remark has the potential to kill somebody, as we have seen in Nido’s case.”

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