Inter Press Service » Gender Identity http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Sat, 25 Oct 2014 15:11:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 U.N. Urged to Reaffirm Reproductive Rights in Post-2015 Agendahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/u-n-urged-to-reaffirm-reproductive-rights-in-post-2015-agenda/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-urged-to-reaffirm-reproductive-rights-in-post-2015-agenda http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/u-n-urged-to-reaffirm-reproductive-rights-in-post-2015-agenda/#comments Fri, 19 Sep 2014 21:32:25 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136747 Millions of women in Pakistan do not have access to family planning services. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Millions of women in Pakistan do not have access to family planning services. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 19 2014 (IPS)

The U.N.’s post-2015 development agenda has been described as the most far-reaching and comprehensive development-related endeavour ever undertaken by the world body.

But where does population, family planning and sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) fit into the proposed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an integral part of that development agenda?"We must continue to fight until every individual, everywhere on this planet, is given the opportunity to live a healthy and sexual reproductive life." -- Purnima Mane, head of Pathfinder International

Of the 17, Goal 3 is aimed at “ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages,” while Goal 5 calls for gender equality and the “empowerment of all women and girls.”

But when the General Assembly adopts the final list of SDGs in September 2015, how many of the proposed goals will survive and how many will fall by the wayside?

Meanwhile, SRHR will also be a key item on the agenda of a special session of the General Assembly next week commemorating the 20-year-old Programme of Action (PoA) adopted at the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994.

In an interview with IPS, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) said, “Twenty years ago, we were able to secure commitments from governments on various aspects of poverty reduction, but more importantly the empowerment of women and girs and young people, including their reproductive rights.

“But the battle is not over,” he said.

“Today, we are on the cusp of a new development agenda, and we, as custodians of this agenda, need to locate it within the conversation of sustainable development – a people-centred agenda based on human rights is the only feasible way of achieving sustainable development,” he declared.

Purnima Mane, president and chief executive officer of Pathfinder International, told IPS, “We are delighted the final set of [proposed] SDGs contains four critical targets on SRHR: three under the health goal and one under the gender goal.”

The inclusion of a commitment to universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services, including family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes, is necessary and long overdue, she said.

“But we have not reached the finish line yet,” cautioned Mane, who oversees an annual budget of over 100 million dollars for sexual and reproductive health programmes in more than 20 developing countries.

The SDGs still need to be adopted by the General Assembly, “and we must all continue to raise our voices to ensure these SRHR targets are intact when the final version is approved,” she added.

Mane said civil society is disappointed these targets are not as ambitious or rights-based as they should be.

“And translating the written commitment into actionable steps remains a major challenge and is frequently met with resistance. We must retain our focus on these issues,” she said.

Sivananthi Thanenthiran, executive director of the Malaysia-based Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW) working across 17 countries in the region, told IPS it is ideal to have SRHR captured both under the gender goal as well as the health goal.

The advantages of being part of the gender goal is that the rights aspects can be more strategically addressed – because this is the area where universal commitment has been lagging – the issues of early marriage, gender-based violence, harmful practices – all of which have an impact on the sexual and reproductive health of women, she pointed out.

“The advantages of being part of the health goal is that interventions to reduce maternal mortality, increase access to contraception, reduce sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, are part and parcel of sound national health policies,” Thanenthiran said.

It would be useful for governments to learn from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) process and ensure that the new goals are not implemented in silos, she added. “Public health concerns should be addressed with a clear gender and rights framework.”

Maria Jose Alcala, director of the secretariat of the High-Level Task Force for ICPD, told IPS what so many governments and stakeholders around the world called for throughout the negotiations was simply to affirm all human rights for all individuals – and that includes SRHR.

The international community has an historic opportunity– and obligation — to move the global agenda forward, and go beyond just reaffirming agreements of 20 years ago as if the world hasn’t changed,and as if knowledge and society hasn’t evolved, she noted.

“We know, based on ample research and evidence, based on the experiences of countries around the world, as well as just plain common sense, that we will never achieve poverty eradication, equality, social justice, and sustainable development if these fundamental human rights and freedoms are sidelined or traded-off in U.N. negotiations,” Jose Alcala said.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights are a must and prerequisite for the post-2015 agenda “if we are to really leave nobody behind this time around,” she declared.

Mane told IPS, “As the head of Pathfinder, I will actively, passionately, and strongly advocate for SRHR and family planning to be recognised and aggressively pursued in the post-2015 development agenda.”

She said access to SRHR is a fundamental human right. “We must continue to fight until every individual, everywhere on this planet, is given the opportunity to live a healthy and sexual reproductive life. ”

Asked about the successes and failures of ICPD, Thanenthiran told IPS there is a need to recognise the progress so far: maternal mortality ratios and infant mortality rates have decreased, access to contraception has improved and life expectancy increased.

However, much remains to be accomplished, she added. “It is apparent from all recent reports and data that SRHR issues worldwide are issues of socio-economic inequality.”

In every country in the world, she noted, women who are poorer, less educated, or belong to marginalised groups (indigenous, disabled, ethnic minorities) suffer from undesirable sexual and reproductive health outcomes.

Compared to their better educated and wealthier sister citizens, these women and girls are more likely to have less access to contraception, have pregnancies at younger ages, have more frequent pregnancies, have more unintended pregnancies, be less able to protect themselves from HIV and other sexual transmitted diseases, suffer from poor maternal health, die in childbirth and suffer from fistula and uterine prolapse.

Hence the sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda is also the equality agenda of this century, she added.

“Governments must commit to reducing these inequalities and carry these learnings from ICPD at 20 into the post-2015 development agenda,” Thanenthiran said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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LGBT Visibility in Africa Also Brings Backlashhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/lgbt-visibility-in-africa-also-brings-backlash/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=lgbt-visibility-in-africa-also-brings-backlash http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/lgbt-visibility-in-africa-also-brings-backlash/#comments Tue, 09 Sep 2014 10:48:52 +0000 Joel Jaeger http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136540 Kenyan LGBT rights supporters protest Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law. Credit: Dai Kurokawa/EPA

Kenyan LGBT rights supporters protest Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law. Credit: Dai Kurokawa/EPA

By Joel Jaeger
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 9 2014 (IPS)

Eighteen-year-old Gift Makau enjoyed playing and refereeing football games in her neighbourhood in the North West Province of South Africa. She had come out to her parents as a lesbian and had never been heckled by her community, according to her cousin.

On Aug. 15 she was found by her mother in a back alley, where she had been raped, tortured and killed.“Homophobia becomes both a ruse and a distraction from other real substantive issues, whether those are economic or political.” -- HRW's Graeme Reid

Shehnilla Mohamed, Africa director for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGHLRC), said that Gift’s murder was part of a disturbing trend in which gender-nonconforming individuals are targeted for so-called corrective rape.

“Corrective rape is really the attempt of the society to try to punish the person for acting outside the norm,” Mohamed said.

In the past 10 years in South Africa, 31 lesbians have been reported killed as the result of corrective rape, she said.  A charity called Luleki Sizwe estimates that 10 lesbians are raped or gang raped a week in Cape Town alone.

Transgender, gay or effeminate men are also the subject of corrective rape, but they are less likely to be murdered and are less likely to report it.

If this is happening in South Africa, the only mainland African country to allow legal same-sex marriage, what is it like to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) elsewhere on the continent?

“The type of brutality that you see happening to lesbians and to homosexuals in parts of Africa is just beyond comprehension,” Mohamed told IPS. “It’s like your worst horror movie, and even worse than that.”

More than two-thirds of African countries have laws criminalising consensual same-sex acts, according to IGLHRC.

“Overall what we’ve seen is a fairly bleak picture that’s emerging,” said Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT Program at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Africa is seeing “an intensification of the political use of homophobia,” he said.

Nigeria and Uganda made headlines in early 2014 when they signed anti-homosexuality bills that handed out long prison sentences for being homosexual or for refusing to turn in a known homosexual.

On Aug. 1, Uganda’s law was declared unconstitutional on procedural grounds by its supreme court, but Shehnilla Mohamed expects that it will be back on the table again once international attention shifts away.

Long-time African leaders who wish to extend their stay in office often try to whip up anti-homosexuality sentiment.

“Homophobia becomes both a ruse and a distraction from other real substantive issues, whether those are economic or political,” Graeme Reid said.

Chalwe Mwansa, a Zambian activist and IGHLRC fellow, told IPS that in his country, politicians equate cases of pedophilia and incest with homosexuality, fabricating sensational stories to inflame the public. This strategy diverts attention away from problems with unemployment, poverty, health and education.

Some leaders also claim that homosexuality is an un-African, Western imposition. Mohamed believes it is the exact opposite.

Homosexuality “existed in a lot of the African cultures and a lot of the African traditions,” she told IPS. “It was quite an accepted pattern.”

Same-sex relationships did not begin to develop a negative connotation until after colonisation brought Western religion, she said.

In an environment of antipathy, LGBT individuals have few places to turn to for help. The police station is often not a sanctuary for those who have been raped.

Mohamed recently spoke to a transgender man in South Africa who was accosted in the lobby of his block of apartments by a group of men who thought he was a woman. When they found out he was a man they raped and “beat him so badly that he was totally unrecognisable,” she said.

The man ended up contracting HIV/AIDS.

In South Africa, after being raped, a person is supposed to report it to the police and receive a free post-exposure prophylaxis within 72 hours to minimise the risk of transmission. However, this man was too afraid to go into the station, knowing that the police would most likely feel that he had deserved it.

The problem is even worse in countries like Nigeria that have criminalised homosexuality. According to Michael Ighodaro, a fellow at IGLHRC from Nigeria, after its anti-homosexuality bill was passed in January, 90 percent of gay men who were on medications stopped going to clinics to receive them, out of fear that they would be arrested.

Even at home, LGBT individuals in Africa face an uphill struggle. Anti-homosexuality laws do have a current of support throughout society. LGBT people often fear ostracisation by their families, so hide their sexual or gender identity.

The increased prominence of LGBT issues in national debates in Africa in the past decade has inspired a bit of a backlash.

Njeri Gateru, a legal officer at the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission of Kenya, says that Kenya lies in a tricky balance. Society does not actively persecute LGBT individuals if they outwardly conform to sexual and gender norms, but “problems would arise if people marched in the streets or there was an article in the press.”

“We cannot continue to live in a balance where we are muzzled and we are comfortable being muzzled,” Gateru said at a HRW event in New York.

Religion plays a significant role in the lack of acceptance of gender non-conforming groups in Africa.

IGLHRC’s Mohamed said that even “people with master’s degrees, who are highly educated, who work in white collar jobs will say ‘God does not like this.’”

“I think pointing out that LGBTI people are human beings, are God’s creation just like everybody else is really something that we’ll keep on pushing,” she said.

According to Gateru, even when churches open their doors to LGBT groups, they sometimes do it for the wrong reasons.

A year or so ago, a group of Kenyan evangelical leaders announced that they were going to stop turning LGBT individuals away from churches because, in their words, ‘Jesus came for the sinners, not the righteous.’

The churches are “welcoming you to change you or to pray for you so you can change, which is really not what we want,” said Gateru. “But I think it’s a very tiny step.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has repeatedly and consistently criticised discrimination against LGBT groups and condemned new anti-homosexuality laws.

Activist groups welcome the support of prominent religious leaders such as Tutu, and are planning a conference in February to bring together pastors, imams and rabbis to discuss LGBT issues and religion in Africa.

In general, LGBT activist organisations have their work cut out for them.

LGBT advocacy groups “most of the time are working undercover, are working underground, or if they are registered and are working as an NGO, are constantly being harassed by the authorities or by society,” Mohamed said.

IGLHRC was founded in 1990, and helps local LGBT advocacy groups around the world fight for their rights through grant making and work on the ground.

“What we really need is to mainstream homosexual rights, LGBTI rights into the basic human rights discourse,” said Mohamed.

During August’s U.S.-Africa summit in Washington, IGLHRC urged the U.S. to hold African leaders to account.

Depending on the country, the U.S. does have an ability to advance human rights through external pressure. Mohamed speculated that the striking down of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill just days before the summit was a public relations stunt by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, since he wanted a warm reception by the White House.

Nigeria, the other country to introduce a new law in 2014, is more difficult to influence than Uganda, according to Michael Ighodaro. Because of its oil wealth, the Nigerian government would not care if the United States were to pull funding.

The U.S.-African summit, since it was focused on business, offered an opportunity for LGBT advocacy groups to point out the economic costs of sidelining an entire sector of the population.

Mohamed said that LGBT individuals are often “too scared to apply for certain jobs because of how they would be treated. If they did apply they probably would never get the jobs because of the stigmas attached.”

Despite the difficult journey to come, supporters of LGBT rights in Africa can look back to see that some progress has been made.

HRW’s Reid said that the LGBT movement was practically invisible in Africa just 20 years ago.

“In a sense this very vocal reaction against LGBT visibility can also be seen as a measure of the strength and growth of a movement over the last two decades,” he said.

Things may get a little tougher before they get better, Njeri Gateru told IPS, but “history is on our side.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at joelmjaeger@gmail.com

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New Anti-Discrimination Law Could Worsen Situation for Georgia’s LGBT Communityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/new-anti-discrimination-law-could-worsen-situation-for-georgias-lgbt-community/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=new-anti-discrimination-law-could-worsen-situation-for-georgias-lgbt-community http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/new-anti-discrimination-law-could-worsen-situation-for-georgias-lgbt-community/#comments Mon, 08 Sep 2014 08:15:37 +0000 Pavol Stracansky http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136524 LGBT flag map of Georgia. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

LGBT flag map of Georgia. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

By Pavol Stracansky
TBILISI, Sep 8 2014 (IPS)

Georgia’s LGBT community is sceptical that recently-introduced anti-discrimination legislation hailed by some rights groups as a bold step forward for the former Soviet state will improve their lives any time soon.

The law, which came into effect in May this year, is ostensibly designed to provide protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in a country where homophobia is deep-rooted at all levels of society and LGBT groups face daily discrimination.

But activists in Georgia say that introduction of the legislation has actually hardened attitudes against the LGBT community and that there are serious concerns over how effectively it can be applied.“Since the law was passed, things are actually worse now for LGBT people. When they make a complaint about something, people just say, ‘what more do you want? You’ve got your rights now in law’. It’s really obnoxious” – Irakli Vacharadze, head of Identoba, the Tbilisi-based rights organisation

Irakli Vacharadze, head of Identoba, the Tbilisi-based rights organisation, told IPS: “Since the law was passed, things are actually worse now for LGBT people. When they make a complaint about something, people just say, ‘what more do you want? You’ve got your rights now in law’. It’s really obnoxious.

“There are also questions over how it is going to be applied and at the moment, at least, it is definitely not effective.”

With a deeply religious society – 84 percent of the population identifies itself as Orthodox Christian – attitudes in Georgia to anything other than traditional heterosexual relationships are deeply negative among much of the population.

LGBT people say that they are often refused service by businesses and hospitals, bullied in school, and harassed by the police. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church, which has a hugely influential role in society, has denounced LGBT equality and described support for LGBT rights as the “propaganda of sin”.

A 2013 survey by Identoba revealed how entrenched anti-LGBT sentiment is in society – 88 percent of respondents said homosexuality could “never be justified”.

A peaceful gay rights march marking International Day Against Homophobia last year ended in violence as protestors from a rival church-led counter-demonstration attacked and beat LGBT demonstrators.

But the country’s pursuit of closer ties with the European Union forced political parties, which had previously been at best apathetic towards the LGBT community, to address the issue.

As a condition of being granted coveted visa-free travel to EU countries, the government was told it had to implement anti-discrimination laws, including legislation specifically on gender expression and sexual orientation.

And although fiercely opposed by the Church, they were passed with the general support of all political parties.

However, LGBT people in Georgia remain far from convinced that, in its present form, it will help them. Although welcomed as a step forward, rights groups have criticised the fact that a devoted enforcement body was not approved and instead cases will go to the Ombudsman for Human Rights.

They say that the Ombudsman’s office lacks capacity and that effectively dealing with complaints will be compromised. They have called for the passage of additional measures to ensure enforcement of the law.

The Ombudsman’s office has yet to set up a department to deal with anti-discrimination complaints brought under the new legislation and one will not be functional before January.

Meanwhile, faith, or rather lack of it, in the country’s justice system is also likely to limit its effectiveness.

Viorel Ursu, Regional Manager of the Eurasia Programme at the Open Society Foundation, told IPS: “People do not trust the judiciary in general in Georgia. They feel that even when they bring legal action, there is no guarantee that justice will be served. And although there are laws designed to protect against discrimination of LGBT people, they will still face discrimination anyway.”

Activists are under no illusions about what the laws will bring the LGBT community. When asked whether he expected things to get better for LGBT people in Georgia in the near future, Vacharadze said: “Definitely not. There’s no chance.”

But the introduction of the legislation has already had at least one potentially positive effect. LGBT people say a profound ignorance of their gender expression and sexual orientation and their lifestyles contributes to the widespread antipathy towards them in Georgian society, but passage of the laws has at least promoted vitally-needed public discussion of the LGBT community.

Vacharadze told IPS: “The law alone will not change society’s attitudes towards LGBT people, it won’t get rid of homophobia. It won’t do anything to deal with the ignorance about LGBT issues and the community.

“The way to deal with it is to get information about LGBT out to the public and get them informed. One thing about the passage of this legislation was that it did actually create a debate about LGBT people in Georgia and got information about them out into the public and got people discussing it.”

The laws also have a wider significance in that they stand in stark contrast to the repression of LGBT communities in other former Soviet states, most notably Russia which is increasing its persecution of homosexuals through repressive legislation.

Just this week, the senior political figure in recently-annexed Crimea typified the Russian political stance to non-heterosexuals when he attacked LGBT people at a government meeting.

Sergei Aksyonov, leader of the new Russian region, said that if LGBT people held any meetings “police and self-defence forces will react immediately and in three minutes will explain to them what kind of sexual orientation they should stick to.”

He also said that “Crimean children should be brought up with a ‘positive attitude to family and traditional values’,” and that Crimea had “no need” for gays and lesbians.

Some observers say that the passing of the laws in Georgia, at a time when neighbours and other former Soviet states are attacking LGBT people, is proof that the country is set on moving closer to Europe and putting as much political distance between it and Russia, which has annexed some of its territory in recent years.

Indeed, as political parties debated the anti-discrimination laws, Davit Usupashvili, the parliamentary speaker, described the bill as a choice between Russia and the European Union.

Campaigners say that the government’s desire to cultivate closer and closer ties to the EU means that the legislation will, in time, become effective.

Ursu told IPS: “In the next year or so, the Georgian government should look to strengthen the law and try to prove that it is functioning simply because it remains under the scrutiny of the EU.

“The law not only had to be adopted but it also needed to be shown to be working effectively. It is in the government’s interest to ensure that it can be applied effectively.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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In Azerbaijan, ‘Family Is the First Fear’ of LGBT Communityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/in-azerbaijan-family-is-the-first-fear-of-lgbt-community/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=in-azerbaijan-family-is-the-first-fear-of-lgbt-community http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/09/in-azerbaijan-family-is-the-first-fear-of-lgbt-community/#comments Wed, 03 Sep 2014 18:09:15 +0000 EurasiaNet Correspondents http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136476 By EurasiaNet Correspondents
BAKU, Sep 3 2014 (EurasiaNet)

The 19-year-old Azerbaijani man claims he awoke one morning in mid-August to the sound and feel of gasoline splashing on his body and his mother angrily screaming. Through a sleepy haze, he saw her burning a piece of paper. Suddenly, he alleged, his mother’s intentions became clear; he was about to be burned to death for being homosexual.

The story, recounted to EurasiaNet.org by the man, who calls himself Malik to protect his identity, forms part of a disturbing pattern of abuse and mistreatment of LGBT individuals in this Caspian-Sea country. For now, the government doesn’t appear interested in trying to address the issue — even though the country currently chairs the Committee of Ministers of Europe’s foremost human-rights body, the Council of Europe.Fifty-five-year-old Babi Badalov, an openly gay artist, left Azerbaijan for the United Kingdom eight years ago after his brother threatened to kill him for being homosexual.

Unlike in many Muslim societies, Azerbaijani law does not prohibit homosexuality, bisexuality or transgenderism. However, the level of disapproval that exists in this tightly knit society is high, and that places a heavy burden on LGBT Azerbaijanis, some say.

In Malik’s case, he claims his sister prevented his mother from setting him aflame. He alleges, though, that his mother scratched him to the point of drawing blood. Still in shock and physical pain from the experience, Malik says he lives now at a friend’s place. He claims his mother knew of his homosexuality, though “never admitted that.”

“When she got news about me attending an LGBT seminar in Baku, which was a public event, she realised it is impossible to deny the fact that I am homosexual,” he said. “That was unbearable for her.”

In Azerbaijan’s family-centric culture, disapproval from relatives can often hit hardest. “Family is the first fear of LGBT people,” according to Javid Atilla Nebiyev, director of Nefes LGBT, one of a handful of non-governmental organisations in Baku focusing on LGBT issues. “That is the first, small community where LGBT people experience trouble.”

Fifty-five-year-old Babi Badalov, an openly gay artist, left Azerbaijan for the United Kingdom eight years ago after his brother threatened to kill him for being homosexual. He blames such attitudes on the country’s 71-year Soviet history, when LGBT issues were never addressed.

“It was taboo,” said Badalov, who now lives in France. “People did not even know that there were non-traditional sexual orientations and genders.”

While now Azerbaijanis “have the freedom to know,” he continued, the Soviet past continues to influence present opinions. “Except for some tolerant circles in the capital, Baku, [a non-heterosexual identity] is seen as something extremely abnormal, extremely disgusting.”

Consequently, “for his own safety,” a gay man “constantly” has to think about “what to wear so that he does not look different,” or otherwise attract attention, he claimed. Many Azerbaijanis often presume that men who wear an earring or unusually colourful clothing are homosexual.

Defying such notions, Badalov said he opted for an earring.

One 22-year-old transsexual Azerbaijani can identify with those difficulties. Although born a woman, Leyla, who asked to be identified only by her first name, dresses in men’s clothes and considers herself male. She claims that her family sometimes hides her clothing, keeps her locked indoors and threatens her with death if she does not dress “like a woman.”

A recent university graduate with a degree in education, Leyla says that she nonetheless dresses as a man when she applies for teaching positions. She did not detail how she distinguishes between male and female clothing.

“At job interviews, they expect me to show up as a woman, but instead they see a woman dressed like a man,” she claimed. “I do not know what to answer when they ask why I dress like a man. I am turned down [for jobs] mostly because of that appearance.”

Azerbaijani legislation contains no protections against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, noted activist Nebiyev. He alleged that, as a result, some LGBT Azerbaijanis turn to jobs as “sex workers to earn their living.”

The topic generally is not one for any form of public discussion, including by imams. Allegations of homosexuality, however, have been used as part of smear campaigns against opposition leaders.

Media and human-rights activists have paid relatively little attention to these problems. The Azerbaijani Commissioner for Human Rights’ Office could not be reached for comment on LGBT abuse.

For many, the Jan. 22 suicide of 20-year-old Isa Shahmarli, the head of the LGBT group Azad, illustrated the dangers involved in looking the other way. In a Facebook message before his death, Shahmarli blamed society at large for his suicide.

“He ended his life because society wanted him to do so,” said his former flatmate, Kamila Javadzadeh. “He was all alone, struggling to prove that nothing is wrong about being LGBT. But he failed to convince his own family.”

Yet one 32-year-old lesbian, who declined to give her name, stopped short of calling life in Azerbaijan as a LGBT person “a tragedy.” At least no public calls for violence against LGBT Azerbaijanis have been made, she explained. “But it is not OK at all,” she emphasised. After years of confronting hostility, however, she simply no longer expects tolerance.

This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

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Jordan’s LGBT Community Fears Greater Intolerancehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/jordans-lgbt-community-fears-greater-intolerance/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=jordans-lgbt-community-fears-greater-intolerance http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/jordans-lgbt-community-fears-greater-intolerance/#comments Sun, 31 Aug 2014 10:47:44 +0000 Mona Alami http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136436 By Mona Alami
AMMAN, Aug 31 2014 (IPS)

As the region is rocked by violence against a backdrop of the rise of radical groups, Jordan’s lesbian gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community fears that new instability in the Hashemite kingdom could lead to increased intolerance towards the community. 

The Jabal Amman historical district, crisscrossed by quaint streets, cafés and art galleries has become a hub for the Jordanian capital’s LGBT community.

“Jordan does not have any laws against homosexuality; it does not, however, protect civil liberties for people facing discrimination on basis of their sexual preferences,” says Madian, a local activist. “Jordan does not have any laws against homosexuality; it does not, however, protect civil liberties for people facing discrimination on basis of their sexual preferences” - Madian, a Jordanian activist

Despite the absence of any article in Jordanian law that explicitly outlaws homosexual acts, there have been several crackdowns on members of the gay community. “The targeting of the LGBT community is not something that is systematic, but it still happens from time to time,” says George Azzi, head of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality.

In October 2008, security forces in Amman “launched a campaign that targets ‘homosexuals’,” after security forces verified that they were gathering and meeting up at a park near a private hospital in Amman, according to a study on Law and Homosexuality: Survey and Analysis of Legislation Across the Arab World by Walid Ferchichit.

In the last few years, a few arrests have been made on the margin of private parties. Most of the arrests were made under the vaguely worded indecency law and the need to “respect the values of the Arab and Islamic nation”, although the arrests were rarely followed by formal charges.

The Hashemite Kingdom is an Islamic country, where homosexuality is considered as a sin. “Some members of the LGBT community have even been arrested for satanic worshipping,” notes Madian.

The basic form of social organisation in Jordan is heavily influenced by tribalism, which weighs on social norms and relations between people. “Members of the LGBT community fall prey to discrimination or violence not necessarily at the hand of the state but of society or their families,” says Azzi.

He recalls two members of the gay community who had to be smuggled out of Jordan to escape the wrath of their families who discovered their sexual preferences, and possible death.

Credit: LGBT Jordan on Twitter

Credit: LGBT Jordan on Twitter

“I know of four people at least who were killed in last few years for this reason,” says Madian.

He also says that while some victims have been the target of honour killings, others have been killed by gangs because they had to seek impoverished and dangerous areas for sexual favours to avoid the scrutiny of friends and families.

Nevertheless, despite such individual cases, the topic of homosexuality seems to be increasingly tolerated in Jordan. In 2012, a book called “Arous Amman” (Amman’s fiancée) by Fadi Zaghmout was published, featuring a homosexual character who was driven to marry a woman despite being gay.

Increasingly, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts are advocating gay rights and the LGBT community in the country.

“The LGBT community has been able to carve a space for itself in society, while staying away from anything that could raise its profile,” says Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

But, with social and cultural mores considering homosexuality a sin and unnatural, advocating rights remains a taboo in the Hashemite Kingdom, and LGBT activism a somewhat difficult task. “We tried organising a few years back by creating an NGO but our application was rejected by the Ministry of Social Affairs on the basis of the indecency law,” says Madian.

Gay activism has also become more challenging today due to the security situation prevailing in the region, worrying both activists and human rights organizations.

With Jordan home to thousands of Salafi Jihadists, it is directly concerned by possible rising numbers of home-grown members of the Islamic State. Members of the gay community fear that renewed insecurity could jeopardise their space in society.

“Nonetheless, members of the LGBT community are not alone in being concerned about Jihadist threats which also target secular people as well as religious minorities,” adds Coogle.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Bangladeshi Girls Seek Equal Opportunityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/bangladeshi-girls-seek-equal-opportunity/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bangladeshi-girls-seek-equal-opportunity http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/bangladeshi-girls-seek-equal-opportunity/#comments Mon, 25 Aug 2014 04:08:07 +0000 Naimul Haq http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136315 Adolescent girls in Bangladesh’s Mymensingh district meet once a week to discuss their rights. Here they talk about sanitation and personal hygiene. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

Adolescent girls in Bangladesh’s Mymensingh district meet once a week to discuss their rights. Here they talk about sanitation and personal hygiene. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

By Naimul Haq
RANGPUR, Bangladesh, Aug 25 2014 (IPS)

Until five years ago, Shima Aktar, a student in Gajaghanta village in the Rangpur district of Bangladesh, about 370 km northwest of the capital Dhaka, was leading a normal life. But when her father decided that it was time for her to conform to purdah, a religious practice of female seclusion, things changed.

The young girl, now 16 years old, says her father pulled her out of school at the age of 11 and began to lay plans for her marriage to an older man “for her own protection” he said.

Born to a hardline Muslim family, pretty, shy Shima might have taken these changes in stride – were it not for the support of a local youth advocacy group.

Called ‘Kishori Abhijan’, meaning ‘Empowering Adolescents’, the project is a brainchild of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and educates young people on a range of issues, from gender roles, sex discrimination and early marriage, to reproductive health, personal hygiene and preventing child labour.

“The absence of political will, conceptual clarity, appropriate institutional arrangements and allocation of adequate resources are challenges to the achievement of substantive equality between women and men […].” -- Shireen Huq, founding member of Naripokkho, a leading women's rights NGO
Now that she knows her rights, Shima is fighting hard to assert them, joining a veritable army of young women around this country of 160 million who are determined to change traditional views about gender.

Besides the Empowering Adolescents initiative, other grassroots schemes to educate communities on the rights of women include groups that practice interactive popular theatre (IPT), designed to address social issues at a local level.

Using a mix of popular folk tales and traditional songs and dancing, the actors perform for their parents, local officials and other influential community members, determined to have their voices heard by breaking out of the box.

The Centre for Mass Education in Science (CMES), an NGO working in a remote part of the Rangpur district, recently put on a public performance to illustrate the need to abolish the dowry system, and boost female participation in the public workforce.

Thousands of women here live under the shadow of dowry-related violence. The Hong Kong-based Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) reported some years ago that the practice of dowry leads to torture, acid attacks and sometimes even murder and suicide.

The year 2011 saw 330 deaths of women in dowry-related violence. The previous year 137 women were killed for the same reason, according to the largest women’s rights NGO, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad. The NGO also reported 439 cases of dowry-related violence in 2013.

Very often, women are either killed or commit suicide when they are unable to pay the full price of the dowry.

Mohammed Rashed of CMES believes that educating people as to the impacts of traditional practices and ideas can stem such unnecessary tragedies.

“By involving parents, teachers, community and religious leaders and government officials in awareness campaigns we have been able to bring positive changes,” he told IPS.

Already, efforts to spread awareness are bearing fruit. According to UNICEF, some 600,000 adolescents around the country, 60 percent of them girls, are now educated on issues like the legal marriage age of boys and girls, as well as the importance of education and family planning, as a direct result of grassroots advocacy.

Between 64 and 84 percent of adolescents interviewed by the Dhaka-based NGO Unnayan Onneshan claimed that dowry practice had decreased in their communities since 2010.

Policies driven by demands to increase girls’ education have also enabled a much higher rate of female participation in schools.

In 1994 the government introduced the Female Secondary School Stipend Programme – funded by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Norwegian government – that offered adolescent girls a small amount of money every six months to stay in school.

Although urban and rural disparities still exist, the average primary school enrollment rate for girls is now as high as 97 percent, one of the highest in the developing world.

The field of reproductive health and rights has also witnessed improvements. The presence of skilled birth attendants in rural areas has increased from less than five percent in the early 90s to 23 percent today, while contraceptive use among women has dramatically increased from a mere eight percent in 1975 to about 62 percent in 2011.

Despite these achievements, girls still lag behind their male counterparts throughout much of the country.

Child mortality, for instance, remains much higher among females than males, with 16 deaths per 1,000 live births for boys and 20 deaths per 1,000 live births for girls, according to a 2010 study by Unnayan Onneshan.

World Bank data from 2010 shows that 57 percent of women participate in the labour force, while men show a much higher rate of employment, at 88 percent.

Shireen Huq, a leading women’s rights activist, told IPS, “Despite the impressive gains, women and girls continue to be discriminated [against]. The result manifests in the unacceptably high number of maternal deaths [and] the dropout rate for girls in secondary schools.”

A 2013 ministry of health report found the maternal mortality rate (MMR) to be 170 deaths per 100,000 live births, down from 574 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990.

Meanwhile, some 66 percent of girls in Bangladesh are married before their 18th birthday, giving the country one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.

Huq, a founding member of Naripokkho, a leading NGO on the rights of women, also said, “The absence of political will, conceptual clarity, appropriate institutional arrangements and allocation of adequate resources are challenges to the achievement of substantive equality between women and men […].”

Experts believe it is important to involve women at every level of decision-making, including in Union Councils (UC) – the smallest administrative units in Bangladesh – which could enhance women’s participation in public life.

Some 67 percent of respondents to a survey conducted by UNICEF in 2010 felt that female members of the UCs should be given more representation and power to make decisions for their communities.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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The Darker Side for Gays in Lebanonhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/the-darker-side-for-gays-in-lebanon/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-darker-side-for-gays-in-lebanon http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/the-darker-side-for-gays-in-lebanon/#comments Sun, 24 Aug 2014 17:21:57 +0000 Mona Alami http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136306 Gays partying in Beirut. Credit: Mona Alami/IPS

Gays partying in Beirut. Credit: Mona Alami/IPS

By Mona Alami
BEIRUT, Aug 24 2014 (IPS)

In a country where civil liberties remain the prerogative of the powerful and wealthy, the Lebanese gay scene is to be treaded carefully.

The recent arrest of 27 members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community shows that those not so lucky – those belonging to the more vulnerable tranches of society – are always at risk of experiencing the darker side of Lebanon.

On August 9, a raid targeted Hamam Agha, a popular public bath in the hipster Hamra area in the capital Beirut. Of the 27 men arrested, “there are still 14 non-Lebanese in detention, in spite of the fact that the judge has ruled they should be released,” says Ahmad Saleh, an activist from Helem, a Beirut-based NGO, advocating LGBT rights at parliamentary level.Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code states that any sexual intercourse “contrary to the order of nature is punished by imprisonment for up to one year.” The obscurely-worded article has been repeatedly used to crackdown on the LGBT community in Lebanon.

Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code states that any sexual intercourse “contrary to the order of nature is punished by imprisonment for up to one year.” The obscurely-worded article has been repeatedly used to crackdown on the LGBT community in Lebanon.

This month’s incident was not, unfortunately, isolated. In 2013, security forces raided Ghost, a gay nightclub in the Dekwaneh suburbs of Beirut. Four people were arrested during the raid and were subjected to physical and verbal harassment. In a similar case a year earlier in the Burj Hammoud popular area – another Beirut suburb – 36 men were arrested in a cinema and forced to undergo anal probes.

According to researcher Lama Fakih from Human Rights Watch (HRW), men often arrested on unrelated charged are subjected to anal testing if suspected of being gay. “However there are no real statistics,” she points out. The tests also violate international standards against torture, including the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Lebanon has ratified, according to HRW.

While anal probes have been banned by former minister of Justice Antoine Kortbawi, they are still used by the police, or as a threat to force detainees to admit their homosexuality, explains Saleh.  According to HRW, two people have been subjected to anal probes since the directive was enacted last year.

While the struggle to change the law continues in Lebanon, the country has scored points in terms of the advocacy of legal rights. In January 2014, Judge Naji El Dahdah of the Jdeideh Court in Beirut dismissed a claim against a transgender woman accused of having a same-sex relationship with a man.

The judge stressed that a person’s gender should not be based on their personal status registry document, but on their outward physical appearance and self-perception.

In 2012, the Lebanon Medical Association issued a directive to put an end to the practice of anal examinations supposed to detect homosexuality.

The Lebanese Psychiatric Society issued a statement in early 2013 saying that: “the assumption that homosexuality is a result of disturbances in the family dynamic or unbalanced psychological development is based on wrong information.”

And in 2009, Judge Mounir Suleiman of the Batroun Court decided that consensual relations could not be deemed unnatural.

In addition to advances made on the legal front, the Lebanese public has become more aware of gay rights thanks to changes in mentalities and the promotion of creative works focusing on gay issues.

The media and the art scene have been challenging social norms. Wajdi and Majdi, two gay figures from a comedy TV show called La Youmal, have popularised the image of the LGBT community in Lebanon. Popular TV host Paula Yacoubian has also defended gay rights in Lebanon in a tweet. Mashrou’ Leila, a famous Lebanese rock band, has discussed homosexuality in Lebanon in its songs and last year a Lebanese movie called Out Loud featured five young Lebanese engaged in a group marriage. The movie was nonetheless banned in Lebanon by the censors.

“Youth are becoming increasingly aware of gay issues,” says activist Ghassan Makarem.  Compared with other countries in the region, Lebanese have far more liberal views than their counterparts as shown in a 2013 Pew Research Centre study. Some 18 percent of the Lebanese population believe that homosexuality should be accepted in society, compared with Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia where over 94 percent of the population view homosexuality as deviant.

However, Makarem adds, “despite recent positives, being gay can still mean being the subject of discrimination, from a legal standpoint, especially for those without the right connections or wealth.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Stigma Still a Major Roadblock for AIDS Fight in Africahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/stigma-still-a-major-roadblock-for-aids-fight-in-africa/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=stigma-still-a-major-roadblock-for-aids-fight-in-africa http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/stigma-still-a-major-roadblock-for-aids-fight-in-africa/#comments Sat, 09 Aug 2014 00:12:39 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=136019 Rwandan children orphaned by AIDS in Muhanga village. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/IPS

Rwandan children orphaned by AIDS in Muhanga village. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/IPS

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Aug 9 2014 (IPS)

Though West Africa’s massive Ebola outbreak may be dominating the spotlight within the global health community, HIV/AIDS remains an enormous issue for Africa as a whole – a sentiment that Washington officials made clear this week in their discussions of legislative and technological setbacks plaguing progress in fighting the epidemic.

Despite the World Health Organisation’s announcement Friday that Ebola is now an “international public health emergency,” doctors, academics and policymakers met Thursday at the Washington office of Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a health-policy non-profit, to discuss the similarly urgent threat posed by HIV/AIDS, the subject of last month’s 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.Uganda’s anti-LGBT environment may explain the nation’s distinct increase in the number of new HIV infections, a trend that - with the exception of Angola - has been reversed in surrounding African nations.

Ambassador Deborah Birx, the global AIDS coordinator for the U.S President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), echoed the threat’s urgency, explaining that “the AIDS pandemic in southern Africa is the primary cause of death for adolescents, and the primary killer of young women.”

President Barack Obama announced Wednesday at the end of his three-day leaders’ summit with Africa that PEPFAR and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) will pledge 200 million dollars to work with 10 African countries to help them double the number of children on lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs.

But Ambassador Birx, along with other prominent HIV/AIDS activists in Washington, seemed to suggest that distributing anti-retroviral drugs to children would only address a fraction of the issue.

Fear of HIV/AIDS stigma

While making note of PEPFAR’s unprecedented  progress in moving towards an “AIDS-free generation,” a commitment that President Obama deemed possible in a 2013 national address, Birx suggested that countries with anti-LGBT laws may have disproportionately high rates of new HIV infections.

“People are afraid to be stigmatised,” Birx told IPS, explaining that gay people may refuse to seek diagnosis and treatment for HIV/AIDS if they are legally and culturally persecuted by their homeland.

Identifying nearly 80 countries with such discriminatory environments, Birx’s PEPFAR report highlights Uganda, where the recent passage of anti-LGBT legislation and discriminatory comments of Ugandan President Museveni has attracted substantial condemnation from the international community.

“This is a human rights question,” Birx told IPS, calling specifically on the community of faith- one she describes as “there to wrap its embracing arms in need”- to respond to such LGBT persecution.

Yet beyond humanitarian concerns, PEPFAR’s report notes how Uganda’s anti-LGBT environment may explain the nation’s distinct increase in the number of new HIV infections, a trend that – with the exception of Angola – has been reversed in surrounding African nations.

Birx stressed that the majority of HIV infections are transmitted through heterosexual sex, despite the common misperception that homosexual activity is the cause of HIV/AIDS.

It is perhaps this association, Birx reasoned, that incites fear of seeking diagnosis, and explains why approximately half of all people with HIV are still unaware that they are infected, despite the tremendous increase in HIV testing capacity.

“Incredibly powerful” potential of tech innovation

Panelists at Thursday’s conference spoke about the tremendous expansion of testing capacity, an noted how technological innovation is a leading force not only in HIV/AIDS diagnosis, but also in treatment, prevention and education.

“I think there’s actually a lot going on in innovations in technology,” Chris Beyrer, president of the International AIDS Society, told IPS. “And it’s not only internet technology and mobile technology, but it’s also in other domains, like self-testing and home-testing.”

Beyrer added how “getting testing out of the clinics and getting them directly to people” reduces the strain on medical personnel and funding, two areas in which panellists agree there are great shortages.

“Technology is moving to a place where there are much more local kinds of facilities that can actually do staging,” Beyrer explained to IPS.

“You don’t have these kinds of problems with people waiting forever to get a CD4, and then being told to go somewhere else with their CD4 result.”

“One size does not fit all”

Birx, who also participated in Thursday’s panel, added that technology can potentially be used to disseminate information about HIV/AIDS, and can potentially even correct some of the misconceptions about what causes HIV/AIDS.

She referenced the “incredible work” coming out of Cambodia, which utilises different internet strategies to cater not only to people of different ages, but also to people of different sexual practices, in an attempt to distribute key medical information.

The technique, she says, allows everybody to “click on the site and find the voice that resonates with them and gives them different knowledge [about HIV/AIDS] that they need.”

“I found that so incredibly powerful, and if we can figure out how to do that and get broadband throughout sub-Saharan Africa, it would be terrific.”

Beyrer reiterated the need for technology to offer individualised options for the transmission of knowledge about HIV/AIDS, telling IPS that “one size doesn’t fit all in these innovations.”

“It turns out, for example, from looking at interactive supports for treatment, there are very age-dependent differences even among population,” he said.

“Men under 25,” Beyrer explained, “really like SMS interactive messages, and want to be notified at all times, while older men [tend to say] no thank you, leave me alone…it’s very specific so we’re going to have to get that right.”

Yet despite Beyrer’s enthusiasm for more individually-tailored solutions to those seeking knowledge about HIV/AIDS, he also urges that there be more awareness-building for those not expressly seeking knowledge about HIV/AIDS.

“One sector that hasn’t engaged very much in HIV is social media,” he said, calling specifically on Facebook, Google, and others in Silicon Valley to engage more thoroughly.

“We need that, and we would love them to be way more engaged than they are.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at hotzj@union.edu

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Human Rights Low on U.S-Africa Policy Summithttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/human-rights-low-on-u-s-africa-policy-summit/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=human-rights-low-on-u-s-africa-policy-summit http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/human-rights-low-on-u-s-africa-policy-summit/#comments Thu, 31 Jul 2014 15:38:37 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135855 LGBT activists, human rights observers and police officers wait outside a courtroom in Uganda's constitutional court on Jun 25, 2012. Four activists had brought a case against Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo. Credit: Will Boase/IPS

LGBT activists, human rights observers and police officers wait outside a courtroom in Uganda's constitutional court on Jun 25, 2012. Four activists had brought a case against Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo. Credit: Will Boase/IPS

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 31 2014 (IPS)

As the White House prepares to host more than 40 African heads of state for the upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, civil society actors from the U.S., Africa and the international community are urging the Barack Obama administration to use the summit as an opportunity to more thoroughly address some of Africa’s most pressing human rights violations.

“While President Obama has unveiled specific initiatives to strengthen U.S. development work on the continent and connect it to core national security objectives, he has not done the same for human rights and the rule of law,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch,  said in the group’s 2014 Human Rights in Africa report.“Evangelical extremists from the U.S. have contributed to making society more dangerous than it ever was before." -- Richard Lusimbo

Although the policy agenda for next week’s summit has received praise for its proactive stance on energy, security and economic development, human rights advocates from both Africa and the U.S. are specifically condemning the agenda’s lack of concern over two critical humanitarian issues: freedom of expression and rights for the LGBT community.

“On the two issues we’re discussing today, the administration should be more straightforward, open and critical about these issues occurring in many countries in Africa,” Santiago A. Canton, director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, an advocacy group here, told IPS.

Canton spoke Wednesday about these issues alongside fellow human rights advocates, as well as African journalists and LGBT activists, who collectively agreed that the current state of both press freedom and LGBT equality across Africa is “unacceptable.”

“Right that leads to other rights”

Citing terrorism laws, access to funding, and discrimination against independent media  as some of Africa’s  main obstacles to free expression, Wednesday’s panel spoke first and foremost about the need for press freedom to be recognised as not only a human right, but also as a key factor in development.

“This is a right that leads to other rights,” Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, said Wednesday.

Within his plea for governments to take a more active stance on freedom of expression and provide for more internet access, La Rue stated that 90 percent of young men in rural Africa already know how to use the internet, while 90 percent of rural women, who tend to be forbidden from the cyber cafes where such knowledge circulates, do not.

“If not everyone is convinced that freedom of expression and access to technologies are important development goals, then we cannot talk about things like education and access to health, especially women’s health…we need to first allow access to information,” he said.

In addition to urging that such freedoms be integrated into the next set of Sustainable Development Goals, La Rue has requested that the U.N. hire more legal and communications personnel to defend freedom of expression, adding that the understaffed office receives up to 25 cases per day.

Yet for Wael Abbas, a prominent Egyptian journalist, blogger and human rights activist, the blame rests primarily on the U.S. government alone.

“Egypt is the biggest country that receives U.S. aid – some in military, some in development – but if Egypt is  a dictatorship, and there is no regulation of how this money is being spent, than the U.S. is just bribing a corrupt regime and dumping huge amounts of money into the ocean,” Abbas told IPS.

Explaining how the Egyptian state is “waging a war against [independent journalists] and trying to destroy [their] credibility and presence,” Abbas argues that independent journalists like himself, who show “what is really going on in Egypt,” need assistance and attention paid to the fact that most media outlets are owned by corrupt businessmen.

Arthur Gwagwa, a Zimbabwean human rights defender and freedom of expression advocate, agrees that the U.S. should take more initiative in protecting freedom of expression and ensuring governmental compliance in Africa, informing IPS of a set of policy recommendations to address at next week’s summit.

A fundamental, not special, human right

Related to this call for a greater focus on freedom of expression in the press is the need for a more active U.S. role in protecting Africans’ freedom of sexual expression and identity.

“This is a time that we have to think about how we’re addressing sexual minorities’ rights overseas,” Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said in Wednesday’s discussion.

Citing Africa’s passage of an anti-gay law and the recent comment by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni that “gays are disgusting,” Kennedy expressed disappointment that there has been “no real pushback” from the U.S. on LGBT rights in Africa. She said a concerted U.S. effort “could have helped a lot,” and that there are now many LGBT individuals in Africa who are afraid to attend HIV clinics for treatment.

Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, considers such discrimination to be ironic on a continent that is diverse as Africa.

He spoke of the challenges posed by authoritarian leaders, both in Africa and around the world, who have called LGBT equality part of a “Western sexual agenda,” and believes it is extremely important for not only governments, but also artists, celebrities and business leaders, to challenge such a characterisation.

“This is a fundamental human right, not a special human right…everyone has the right to not be persecuted for who we are as human beings,” Malinowski said.

Lip service?

In addition to Kennedy’s suggestion that the U.S. pass legislation to create a special envoy for LGBT rights, Malinowski is calling on his government to provide “direct assistance” to people, such as doctors and lawyers, who serve on “the front line of the struggle,” and to continue to put LGBT equality “front and centre” in its diplomatic engagements.

Yet HRW’s Sarah Margon warns that the U.S. has sent “mixed signals” on this issue, and suggests that that the U.S. government is “simply paying lip service to human rights.”

Indeed, Richard Lusimbo, representative of Sexual Minorities Uganda, has similarly urged the U.S. to speak out more strongly, calling on Washington to “hold homophobic people responsible” for the subsequent discrimination in Africa.

“Evangelical extremists from the U.S. have contributed to making society more dangerous than it ever was before…and because we have no opportunities to go to radio and TV to show our side of the story, it makes things very difficult,” he noted.

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at hotzj@union.edu

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China’s ‘Left-Behind Girls’ Learn Self-Protectionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/chinas-left-behind-girls-learn-self-protection/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=chinas-left-behind-girls-learn-self-protection http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/chinas-left-behind-girls-learn-self-protection/#comments Wed, 30 Jul 2014 22:15:58 +0000 UN Women http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135833 As part of student sexual safety training at Yindian Central Primary School, in Suizhou, central China, a six-year-old girl learns how to identify private parts on human bodies. Credit: Xinyu Zhang courtesy/UN Women

As part of student sexual safety training at Yindian Central Primary School, in Suizhou, central China, a six-year-old girl learns how to identify private parts on human bodies. Credit: Xinyu Zhang courtesy/UN Women

By UN Women
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 30 2014 (IPS)

A normally quiet second-grade student, Yuan Yuan* suffers from a mild mental disorder that impacts her ability to learn and communicate. Her father, also mentally disabled, left her several years ago to find work in the city and his family hasn’t heard from him since. Unable to support the family, her mother also left and never returned.

Yuan Yuan’s paternal grandparents have been caring for her since. But they are not always there.

“I am scared of that man… he laughed at me and touched me. I don’t like him,” eight-year-old Yuan Yuan admitted during a visit from Zhang Xinyu, a programme officer with the Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women (BCDC), after a local Women’s Federation referred her complaint that a 70-year-old neighbour had sexually assaulted her.

In Yuan Yuan’s case, BCDC paid for her medical treatment and worked together with the local Women’s Federation to ensure they could respond and prevent any further attempts of the neighbour to access the child.

Yuan Yuan is among more than 2,500 girls being helped by a programme funded by the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, which is managed by UN Women on behalf of the U.N. system

The programme has brought together teachers, guardians, local police officers and health-care providers to protect China’s “left-behind girls”.

China’s rapid economic growth, driven by manufacturing industries on the eastern side of the country, combined with high unemployment and low wages in the central and western regions have driven China’s incredible internal migration of an estimated two million people moving from the rural countryside to its industrial cities.

“To protect ourselves and learn how to say NO to strangers is very important,” says Xiao Mei, a student in the 7th grade.
In many cases, parents are compelled to migrate to the cities without their children because of the hukou (household registration) system, which stipulates that children access public schooling only in their home town or village.

According to a 2012 report by the All-China Women’s Federation, the number of left-behind children totals over 61 million, with the number of girls totaling over 28 million.

Close to 33 per cent of all left-behind children are raised by their grandparents, while 10.7 per cent are raised by other villagers or relatives, and at least 3.4 per cent are forced to fend for themselves.

In addition to funds, the UN Trust Fund, UN Women provides technical assistance to BCDC on reducing the risk of sexual violence against rural children, with a particular focus on girls whose parents have migrated to the cities. The programme seeks to increase girls’ sexual knowledge and self-protection; ensure that both guardians and the community are willing and able to provide the guidance needed to reduce their vulnerability to sexual abuse; and to alter the social environment that promotes sexual violence and empower women and girls.

“To protect ourselves and learn how to say NO to strangers is very important,” says Xiao Mei, a student in the 7th grade. She says she was very proud that she could share a training manual and her learned self-protection skills with her siblings. “My older sister said to me that she was very shy and never had this information in the past.”

By the end of 2013, 500 local teachers, 5,000 students and 2,200 guardians had participated in training programmes on awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse and 210 ‘backbones’ – women and men leaders active in the community – had participated in trainings on the dangers of child sexual abuse.

The programme implemented by BCDC has set up six resource centres (three community-based and three in schools) to protect children and prevent sexual violence.

In villages, they establish managerial groups and in schools, teachers organise activities around the themes of left-behind girls’ safety, such as reading activities, lectures and performances to raise awareness of prevention of child sexual abuse.

Furthermore, with the funding from the UN Trust Fund, technical support from UN Women and national experts, a series of handbooks on girls’ safety education, covering everything from knowledge about sex and sexual abuse to gender-based violence, were produced and disseminated.

Shen Xiaoyan, a primary school teacher in Suizhou, a city in central China, recalls a remark by a colleague when she was preparing a presentation for a student sexual safety training in 2013: “These things [sexual education materials] appear so normal to me [now]. Why did I feel embarrassed about them only a few years ago?”

The programme has changed attitudes and removed barriers of silence, with several stakeholders reporting cases of sexual abuse.

“After training and project activities, local residents and government officials have become willing to seek out all possible resources to help victims of child sexual abuse,” said the BCDC’s Xinyu.

“In the past, this kind of information was considered secret, deterring victims and family from revealing it to other people.”

In a testament to the growing attention to the plight of left-behind children and the sexual abuse against left-behind girls, proposals influenced by the programme were submitted in 2012 by the Women’s Federation to the People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Conference in Suizhou.

In 2013, the Educational Department in Suizhou issued a policy document requiring the strengthening of safety education for students in all primary and middle schools.

(END)

*Name changed to protect her identity.

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This article is published under an agreement with UN Women. For more information, check out the In Focus editorial package on The Girl Child on the new Beijing+20 campaign website.

 

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For Many Asian LGBT Youth, Homophobia Starts at Homehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/for-many-asian-lgbt-youth-homophobia-starts-at-home/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=for-many-asian-lgbt-youth-homophobia-starts-at-home http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/for-many-asian-lgbt-youth-homophobia-starts-at-home/#comments Mon, 28 Jul 2014 00:30:57 +0000 Jassmyn Goh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135778 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
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 28 2014 (IPS)

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 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 [was not respected], 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 Exemptionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-groups-reject-anti-gay-discrimination-bill-over-religious-exemption/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-groups-reject-anti-gay-discrimination-bill-over-religious-exemption http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-s-groups-reject-anti-gay-discrimination-bill-over-religious-exemption/#comments Wed, 09 Jul 2014 23:43:51 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135463 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 Polandhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/conservatives-and-nationalists-at-centre-stage-in-poland/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=conservatives-and-nationalists-at-centre-stage-in-poland http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/conservatives-and-nationalists-at-centre-stage-in-poland/#comments Tue, 08 Jul 2014 16:45:29 +0000 Claudia Ciobanu http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135424 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 Taiwanhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/rights-experts-urge-action-on-gender-equality-in-taiwan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rights-experts-urge-action-on-gender-equality-in-taiwan http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/rights-experts-urge-action-on-gender-equality-in-taiwan/#comments Wed, 02 Jul 2014 19:48:03 +0000 Dennis Engbarth http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135335 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 Childrenhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/working-cambodian-women-too-poor-to-have-children/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=working-cambodian-women-too-poor-to-have-children http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/working-cambodian-women-too-poor-to-have-children/#comments Sat, 31 May 2014 08:10:50 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=134679 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.”

(END)

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Moving LGBT Rights Beyond Marriage Equalityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/moving-lgbt-rights-beyond-marriage-equality/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=moving-lgbt-rights-beyond-marriage-equality http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/moving-lgbt-rights-beyond-marriage-equality/#comments Fri, 16 May 2014 23:27:41 +0000 Farangis Abdurazokzoda http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=134348 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 Goalshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/latin-americas-lgbti-movement-celebrates-triumphs-sets-new-goals/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=latin-americas-lgbti-movement-celebrates-triumphs-sets-new-goals http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/latin-americas-lgbti-movement-celebrates-triumphs-sets-new-goals/#comments Sat, 10 May 2014 09:19:32 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=134207 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 Genderhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/long-journey-toward-recognition-third-gender/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=long-journey-toward-recognition-third-gender http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/long-journey-toward-recognition-third-gender/#comments Mon, 05 May 2014 12:42:34 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=134102 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
UNITED NATIONS, May 5 2014 (IPS)

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-Widowshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/fatwa-comes-late-kashmirs-half-widows/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fatwa-comes-late-kashmirs-half-widows http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/fatwa-comes-late-kashmirs-half-widows/#comments Mon, 05 May 2014 07:01:19 +0000 Athar Parvaiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=134076 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 Winhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/voters-won/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=voters-won http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/voters-won/#comments Fri, 02 May 2014 21:16:54 +0000 Abdullah Omeed http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133970 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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