Inter Press Service » Gender Violence Turning the World Downside Up Wed, 17 Sep 2014 10:25:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 LGBT Visibility in Africa Also Brings Backlash Tue, 09 Sep 2014 10:48:52 +0000 Joel Jaeger 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

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

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No Easy Choices for Syrians with Small Children Thu, 04 Sep 2014 12:24:01 +0000 Shelly Kittleson What remains of a street in Aleppo, August 2014. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

What remains of a street in Aleppo, August 2014. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Shelly Kittleson
GAZIANTEP, Turkey, Sep 4 2014 (IPS)

The woman who walked into the Islamic Front (IF) media office near the Turkish border was on the verge of fainting under the hot Syrian sun, but all she cared about was her infant son.

With over half of the country’s population displaced, she was just one of the parents among the more than three million UN-registered Syrian refugees grappling with how to keep their children safe and healthy while dealing with the innumerable dangers inherent in war zones, refugee camps and statelessness.

When IPS met the young woman in early August, she was living in the nearby Bab Al-Salama camp in northern Syria after having been displaced from an area of heavy fighting.Over 200,000 Syrians are living outside the camps in Gaziantep and rent prices have roughly tripled since the massive influx of refugees starting. Protests broke out in mid-August against their presence, and they are increasingly being targeted by violence.

The infant was only a few weeks old and needed to be breastfed, but there was nowhere out of the sight of men. And so, wearing a stifling niqab, she asked to use the room that now serves to ‘register’ foreign journalists crossing the border.

The room afforded some shade and privacy in which to breastfeed and, once the twenty-two-year-old former fighter in charge of the office had stepped out, she started feeding her child.

As she blew gently his sweaty forehead, the woman told IPS that she had kidney problems and could not sit – she could only lie down or stand up. She said that she was also having problems accessing medical care, for both herself and her feverish son. And even if the black abaya covering her body and the niqab over her face were hot, ‘’it’s better to use them,’’ she said, ‘’it’s war”.

The area around the Bab Al-Salama camp just across the border from the Turkish town of Kilis has been bombed several times, including a car bomb in May that killed dozens.

On the other side of the border, the camps that the Turkish government has set up for the over 800,000 Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations are said to be able to accommodate fewer than 300,000 of them.

In formal and informal refugee camps throughout the world, women are notoriously at risk of sexual crimes. Alongside economic issues, many parents on both sides of the border cite this as a reason to marry off their daughters earlier, in the attempt to ‘’protect their honour’’ and find someone to provide for them.

The children resulting from these unions are almost always unable to be registered and are thus stateless, joining the ranks of the many Syrian Kurds and others denied citizenship under Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.

Mohamed was an officer in the Syrian regime’s army. From a fairly large tribe in Idlib, his family was targeted by the regime once the conflict began and he has fought with different Free Syrian Army brigades over the past few years.

Soon after a number of women were reportedly raped by ’shabiha’ in his area, he moved his young wife, mother and sisters across the border. He now crosses illegally into Turkey to see them when not fighting.

Street scene in rebel-held Aleppo, August 2014. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Street scene in rebel-held Aleppo, August 2014. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Mohamed is seeking ways to reach Europe. When IPS first met him in autumn of 2013, he had no intention of leaving. However, since then, his first son has been born, stateless.  The Syrian regime did not issue passports to officers in order to prevent them from defecting even prior to the 2011 uprising, and none of his family possesses one.

As a professional soldier without a salary and with no moderate rebel groups providing adequate wages to support a family, as well as no desire to join extremist groups – many of which would pay better – he feels does not know how else he can provide for his family.

‘’There’ s no future here,’’ he said.

On the Turkish side of the border, Ahmad – originally from Aleppo, Syria’s industrial capital – says he does not want to leave the region.

“I once asked my wife what country in the world she would go to if she could, and she answered ‘Syria’,’’ he told IPS proudly.

However, he added that he had stopped going backwards and forwards as a fixer and media activist as the day approached for his wife to give birth and the situation in Aleppo worsened.

When children approached a table as IPS was having tea with him in a Turkish border town, he somewhat gruffly told a little girl begging that she should ‘’work, even if that means selling packets of tissues on the streets.’’

‘’They have to learn to work and not just ask for money. Turks are starting to get angry that we are here,’’ he said.

Over 200,000 Syrians are living outside the camps in Gaziantep and rent prices have roughly tripled since the massive influx of refugees starting. Protests broke out in mid-August against their presence, and they are increasingly being targeted by violence.

Meanwhile, some attempts are being made to raise money for schools inside Syria that would be virtual ‘bunkers’, as Assad’s regime continues to target both schools and medical facilities.

In rebel-held Aleppo, IPS stayed with a Syrian family for a number of days in August as the regime barrel bombing campaign continued and as the danger of an impending siege by government forces or a takeover by the extremist Islamic State (IS) became more likely.

The eldest of the family’s four girls – only eight-years-old – had recently been hit by a sniper’s bullet while crossing the road to one of the few schools still functioning. Although it was healing, the exit wound will leave a very ugly scar on her arm.

Whenever the bombs fell during the night, the occupants of the room would move about restlessly, while the eight-year-old was always already awake, staring into the dark, utterly motionless.

Her father was adamant, however, that – come what may – the family would not leave.

In the late afternoon, little boys could be seen playing outside in the street with scant protection from snipers, only the nylon tarp of a former UNHCR tent hung across the street in an attempt to shield them. Large gaping holes marked the buildings, or what was left of them, in the street around them.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Afghan “Torn” Women Get Another Chance Tue, 02 Sep 2014 14:14:35 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza Rukia (in the foreground) recovers after a successful fistula operation at Malalai Maternity Hospital in Kabul (August 2014). Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Rukia (in the foreground) recovers after a successful fistula operation at Malalai Maternity Hospital in Kabul (August 2014). Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By Karlos Zurutuza
KABUL, Sep 2 2014 (IPS)

“The smell of faeces and urine isolates them completely. Their husbands abandon them and they become stigmatised forever” – Dr Pashtoon Kohistani barely needs two lines to sum up the drama of those women affected by obstetric fistula.

Alongside the health centre in Badakhshan – 290 km northeast of Kabul – Malalai Maternity Hospital is the only health centre in Afghanistan with a section devoted to coping with a disease that is seemingly endemic to the most disadvantaged members of the population: women, young, poor and illiterate.

“Given that a caesarean birth is not an option for most Afghan women, the child dies inside them while they try to give birth. They end up tearing their vagina and urethra,” Dr Kohistani told IPS. “Urinary, and sometimes faecal incontinence too, is the most immediate effect,” added the surgeon as she strolled through the hospital corridors where only women wait to be seen by a doctor, or just come to visit a sick relative.“Pressure mounts on them from every side, even from their mothers-in-law. They have to hear things such as `I had five children without ever seeing a doctor´. Many of these poor girls end up committing suicide” – Dr Nazifah Hamra

They are of practically all ages. Some show obvious signs of pain while others look almost relaxed. In fact, they are in one of the very few places in Afghanistan where the total lack of male presence allows them to uncover their hair, take off their burka and even roll up their sleeves to beat the heat.

According to Nazifah Hamra, head of Malalai´s Fistula Department, “malnutrition is one of the key factors behind this problem. You have to bear in mind that women from remote rural areas in Afghanistan always eat after the men. Girls often don´t get enough milk and essential nutrients for their growth. And add to it that they only get to see a doctor when they marry, and usually at a very early age.”

Dr Hamra told IPS that she attends an average of 4-5 patients suffering from a fistula at any one time. Rukia is one of the two recovering in an eight-bed ward on the hospital´s second floor.

“I was 15 when I got married and 17 when I got pregnant,” recalls the 26-year-old woman from a small village in the province of Balkh, 320 km northwest of Kabul.

“When I was about to give birth, I had a terrible pain but the road to Kabul was cut so I was finally taken to Bamiyan, 150 km east of Kabul.”

Sitting on the bed carefully in order not to obstruct the catheter that still evacuates the remaining urine, Rukia tells IPS that her son died in her womb. An unskilled medical staff only made things worse.

“What the doctors did to her is difficult to believe. She was brutally mutilated,” said Dr Hamra, adding that medical negligence was “still painful common currency” in Afghanistan.

In a 2013 report on the risks of child marriage in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch claims that children born as a result of child marriages also suffer increased health risks, and that there is a higher death rate among children born to Afghan mothers under the age of 20 than those born to older mothers.

Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, called on Afghan officials to end the harm being caused by child marriage. “The damage to young mothers, their children and Afghan society as a whole is incalculable,” Adams stressed.

Rukia´s husband left to marry another woman so she had no other choice but to move back to her parents´ house, where she has lived for the last nine years. But even more painful than her ordeal and the defection of her husband, she says, is the fact that she will never be a mother.

Dr Hamra knows Rukia´s story in detail, as well as those of many others in her situation. “Pressure mounts on them from every side, even from their mothers-in-law,” she told IPS. “They have to hear things such as `I had five children without ever seeing a doctor´. Many of these poor girls end up committing suicide.” However, preferring to look towards the future, she said that Rukia will do well after the operation.

“From now on she´ll be able to enjoy a completely normal life again,” stressed the surgeon, who also wanted to express her gratitude to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) which “seeks to guarantee the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity.”

Annette Sachs Robertson, UNFPA representative in Afghanistan, briefed IPS on the organisation´s action in the country:

“We started working in 2007, in close collaboration with the Afghan Ministry of Public Health. We train surgeons and we provide Malalai with the necessary equipment and medical supplies. Thanks to this initiative, over 435 patients have been treated and rehabilitated at Malalai Maternity Hospital and we have plans to extend the programmes to Jalabad, Mazar and Herat provinces,” explained Robertson, a PhD graduate in biology and biomedical sciences from the University of Harvard.

“You hardly ever see these cases in developed countries,” she added.

According to a 2011 report on obstetric fistula in six provinces of Afghanistan conducted by the country’s Social and Health Development Programme (SHPD), “the prevalence of obstetric fistula is estimated to be 4 cases per 1000 (0.4 percent) women in the reproductive age group. 91.7 percent of women with confirmed cases of obstetric fistula cannot read and write while 72.7 percent of fistula patients reported that their husbands are illiterate.”

“Twenty-five percent of women with fistula reported that they were younger than 16 years old and 67 percent reported they were 16 to 20 years old when they had got married. Seventeen percent of women with fistula reported that they were younger than 16 years old when they had their first delivery. Twenty-five percent of women with fistula reported that they developed the fistula after their first delivery, while 64 percent reported prolonged labour.”

Meanwhile, thanks to yet another successful operation, Najiba, a 32-year-old from Baghlan – 220 km north of Kabul – will soon be back home after suffering from a fistula over the last 14 years.

Born in a remote rural village, she was married at 17 and lost her first son a year later, after three days of labour. Despite the fistula problem, she was not abandoned by her husband and, today, they have six children.

“I was only too lucky that my husband heard on the radio about this hospital,” explains Najiba, with a broad smile hardly ever seen among those affected.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Nepal Landslide Leaves Women and Children Vulnerable Wed, 27 Aug 2014 01:50:55 +0000 Naresh Newar Relief workers and aid agencies are worried about the security, protection and psychological health of women and children in post-disaster settings. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

Relief workers and aid agencies are worried about the security, protection and psychological health of women and children in post-disaster settings. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

By Naresh Newar
DABI, Nepal, Aug 27 2014 (IPS)

Living in a makeshift tarpaulin shelter, which barely protects her family from the torrential rainfall or scorching heat of this remote village in southern Nepal, 36-year-old Kamala Pari is under immense stress, worrying about her financial security and children’s safety.

The family’s only house and tiny plot of farmland were completely destroyed by the massive landslide on Jul. 2 that struck the village of Dabi, part of the Dhusun Village Development Committee (VDC) of Sindhupalchok district, nearly 100 km south of the capital Kathmandu.

Dhusun was one of the four VDCs including Mankha, Tekanpur and Ramche severely affected by the disaster, which killed 156 and displaced 478 persons, according to the ministry of home affairs.

This was Nepal’s worst landslide in terms of human fatalities, according to the Nepal Red Cross Society, the country’s largest disaster relief NGO.

“My students are too scared to return to their classrooms. They really need a lot of counseling." -- Krishna Bhakta Nepal, principal of Jalpa High School
Though the government is still assessing long-term damages from that fateful day, officials here tell IPS the worst victims are likely to be women and children from these impoverished rural areas, whose houses and farms are erected on land that is highly vulnerable to natural catastrophes.

Left homeless and further impoverished, Pari is worried about the toll this will take on her children, who are now living with the reality of having lost their home and many of their friends.

“We’re not just living in fear of another disaster but have to worry about our future as there is nothing left for us to survive on,” Pari told IPS, adding that their monthly income fell from 100 dollars to 50 dollars after the landslide.

Her 50 neighbours, living in tarpaulin tents in a makeshift camp on top of a hill in this remote village, are also preparing for hard times ahead.

“We lost everything and now we run this shop to survive,” 15-year-old Elina Shrestha, a displaced teenager, told IPS, gesturing at the small grocery shop that she and her friends have cobbled together.

Their customers include tourists from Kathmandu and nearby towns who are flocking to destroyed villages to see with their own eyes the landslide-scarred hills and the lake created by the overflow of water from the nearby Sunkoshi river.

Protecting the vulnerable

Relief workers and protection specialists from government and aid agencies told IPS they are worried about the security, protection and psychological health of women and children.

An estimated 50 children were killed in the landslide, according to the ministry of women, children and social welfare.

“In any disaster, children and women seem to be more impacted than others,” Sunita Kayastha, chief of the emergency unit of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) told IPS, adding that they are most vulnerable to abuse and violence.

Women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster, according to a report by Plan International, which found adolescent girls to be particularly vulnerable to sexual violence in the aftermath of a natural hazard.

Senior psychosocial experts recently visited the affected areas and specifically reported that children and women were under immense psychological stress.

“The children need a lot of counseling [and] healing them is our top priority right now,” Women Development Officer Anju Dhungana, point-person for affected women and children in the Sindhupalchok district, told IPS.

Dhungana is concerned about the gap in professional psychosocial counseling at the local level and has requested help from government and international aid agencies based in Kathmandu.

Schools are gradually being resumed, with the help of aid agencies who are identifying safe locations for the children whose classrooms have been destroyed.

One school was totally destroyed, killing 33 children, and the remaining 142 children are now studying in temporary learning centres built by Save the Children and the District Education Office, officials told IPS.

A further 1,952 children who attend schools built close to the river are also at risk, experts say.

Trauma is quite widespread, the sight of the hollowed-out mountainside and large dam created close to the river still causing panic among children and their parents, as well as their teachers.

“I lost 28 of my students and now I have [the] job of healing hundreds of their school friends,” Balaram Timilsina, principal of Bansagu School in Mankha VDC, told IPS.

“My students are too scared to return to their classrooms. They really need a lot of counseling,” added Krishna Bhakta Nepal, principal of Jalpa High School of Khadichaur, a small town near Mankha.

International agencies Save the Children, UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) are helping the government’s efforts to restore normal life in the villages, but it has been challenging.

“We need to help children get back to school by ensuring a safe environment for them,” Sudarshan Shrestha, communications director of Save the Children, told IPS.

The international NGO has been setting up temporary learning centres for hundreds of students who lost their schools.

High risk for adolescent girls

Shrestha’s concern is not just for the children but also the young women who are often vulnerable in post-disaster situations to sexual violence and trafficking.

“The risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking is always high among the families impoverished by disaster, and during such situations, girls are often hoaxed and tricked by traffickers,” explained Shrestha.

Sindhupalchok, one of Nepal’s most impoverished districts, is notorious for being a source of young girls who are trafficked to Kathmandu and Indian cities, according to NGOs; a recent report by Child Reach International identified the district as a major trafficking centre.

“Whenever disaster strikes, the protection of adolescent girls should be highly prioritised and our role is to make sure this crucial issue is included in the disaster response,” UNFPA’s country representative Guilia Vallese told IPS, explaining that protection agencies need to be highly vigilant.

Government officials said that although there have been no cases of sexual or domestic violence and trafficking, they remain concerned.

“There are also a lot of young girls displaced [and living] with their relatives and after our assessment, we found that they need more protection,” explained officer Dhungana.

She said that many of them live in the camps or in school buildings in villages that are remote, with little or no government presence.

The government has formed a committee on protection measures and will be assessing the situation of vulnerability soon to ensure that children and women are living in a secure environment.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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India: Home to One in Three Child Brides Wed, 20 Aug 2014 06:52:50 +0000 Neeta Lal In India, 27 percent of women aged 20-49 were married before they were 15 years old. Credit: Jaideep Hardikar/IPS

In India, 27 percent of women aged 20-49 were married before they were 15 years old. Credit: Jaideep Hardikar/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Aug 20 2014 (IPS)

Basanti Rani*, a 33-year-old farmers’ wife from the northern Indian state of Haryana, recently withdrew her 15-year-old daughter Paru from school in order to marry her off to a 40-year-old man.

“In an increasingly insecure social milieu, where rape and sexual abuse have become so common, marrying off my daughter was a wise move,” she told IPS.

“Who would’ve married her had she been abused or raped? Now, at least, her husband can look after her.”

Such a mindset, widespread across this country of 1.2 billion people, is just one of the reasons why India hosts one out of every three child brides in the world.

A recent United Nations report entitled ‘Ending Child Marriage – Progress and Prospects’ found that, despite the existence of a stringent anti-child marriage law, India ranks sixth among countries with the highest prevalence of child marriages across the globe.

The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) defines child marriage as unions occurring before a person is 18 years of age, and calls the practice a “violation of human rights.”

In India, 27 percent of women aged 20-49 claim to have tied the knot before turning 15, the survey states.

“The problem persists largely because of the patriarchal vision that perceives marriage and childbearing as the ultimate goals of a girl’s life,” explains Sonvi A. Khanna, advisory research associate for Dasra, a philanthropic organisation that works with UNICEF.

The increasing rates of violence against girls in both rural and urban India, adds Khanna, are instilling fear in the minds of families, leading them to marry their girls off as soon as they reach puberty.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)’s July 2014 records, there were 309,546 crimes against women reported to the police last year against 244,270 in 2012.

Crimes included rape, kidnapping, sexual harassment, trafficking, molestation, and cruelty by husbands and relatives. They also included incidents in which women were driven to suicide as a result of demands for dowries from their husbands or in-laws.

The NCRB said the number of rapes in the country rose by 35.2 percent to 33,707 in 2013 – with Delhi reporting 1,441 rapes in 2013 alone, making it the city with the highest number of rapes and confirming its reputation as India’s “rape capital”.

Mumbai, known for being more women-friendly, recorded 391 rapes last year, while IT hub Bangalore registered 80 rapes.

Obstacles to ending child marriages

The law, experts say, can do little to change mindsets or provide alternatives to child marriage.

A report by Dasra entitled ‘Marry Me Later: Preventing Child Marriage and Early Pregnancy in India’ states that the practice “continues to be immersed in a vicious cycle of poverty, low educational attainment, high incidences of disease, poor sex ratios, the subordination of women, and most significantly the inter-generational cycles of all of these.”

According to the report, despite the fact that child marriage as a practice “directly hinders the achievement of six of eight Millennium Development Goals, as an issue, it remains grossly under-funded.”

If the present trends continue, of the girls born between 2005 and 2010, 28 million could become child brides over the next 15 years, it states.

The increasing rates of violence against girls in both rural and urban India are instilling fear in the minds of families, leading them to marry their girls off as soon as they reach puberty. Credit: Credit: Sujoy Dhar/IPS

The increasing rates of violence against girls in both rural and urban India are instilling fear in the minds of families, leading them to marry their girls off as soon as they reach puberty. Credit: Credit: Sujoy Dhar/IPS

The 2006 Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA) seeks to prevent and prohibit the marriage of girls under 18, and boys under 21 years of age.

It states that if an adult male aged 18 and above is wed to a minor he shall be “punishable with rigorous imprisonment for two years or with [a] fine, which may extend to […] one lakh” (about 2,000 dollars).

Furthermore, if “a person performs, conducts, directs or abets any child marriage”, that person too shall face a similar punishment and fine.

Experts term PCMA a fairly progressive law compared to its predecessors, one with the rights of the child at its core.

It even allows for annulment of a child marriage if either party applies for it within two years of becoming adults. Even after annulment of the marriage, the law provides for residence and maintenance of the girl by her husband or in-laws until she re-marries.

“Any children born of the marriage are deemed legal and their custody is provided for, keeping the child’s best interests in mind, states this law,” a Delhi-based High Court advocate told IPS.

Yet, the legislation has not been adequately enforced due to its heavy reliance on community reporting, which rarely happens.

“Since reporting a child marriage could mean imprisonment and stigma for the family, immense financial loss and unknown repercussions for the girl, few come forward to report the event,” Khanna said.

“Adding to the problem is corruption among the implementers, or the police, who are insensitive to the need [to] stop child marriages.”

Small wonder, then, that convictions under PCMA have been few and far between.

According to the NCRB, only 222 cases were registered under the Act during the year 2013, compared to 169 in 2012 and 113 in 2011. Out of these, only 40 persons were convicted in 2012, while in 2011, action was taken against 76 people.

Young brides make unhealthy mothers

Apart from social ramifications, child marriages also lead to a host of medical complications for young mothers and their newborn babies.

According to gynecologist-obstetrician Suneeta Mehwal of Max Health Hospital in New Delhi, low birth weight, inadequate nutrition and anaemia commonly plague underage mothers.

“Postpartum hemorrhage (bleeding after delivery) is an added risk. Girls under 15 are also five times more likely to succumb to maternal mortality than those aged above 20.”

According to data released by the Registrar General of India in 2013, the maternal mortality rate (MMR) dropped from 212 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2007-09 to 178 in 2010-12.

Still, India is far behind the target of 103 deaths per live births to be achieved by 2015 under the United Nations-mandated Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Infant mortality declined marginally to 42 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2012 from 44 deaths in 2011. Among metropolitan cities, Delhi, the national capital, was the worst performer, with 30 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2012.

One in every 24 infants at the national level, one in every 22 infants in rural areas, and one in every 36 infants in urban areas still die within one year of life, according to the Registrar’s data.

This dire health situation is made worse by the prevalence of child marriage, experts say.

Activists point out that the main bottlenecks they encounter in their fieldwork are economic impoverishment, social customs, lack of awareness about consequences of child marriage and the belief that marriage offers social and financial security to the girl.

This is unsurprising since, according to the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2013, India is one of the hungriest countries in the world, ranking 63rd in a list of 78 countries, behind Pakistan at 57, Nepal at 49 and Sri Lanka at 43.

Many parents also believe that co-habitation with a husband will protect a young girl from rape and sexual activity.

“Nothing could be further from [the] truth,” explains Meena Sahi, a volunteer with Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), a non-profit organisation working in the field of child welfare.

“On the contrary, the young girl is coerced into early sexual activity by a mostly overage husband, leading to poor reproductive health. Adolescent pregnancies do the worst damage – emotional and physical – to the mother as well as the newborn,” Sahi told IPS.

Social activists admit that to accelerate change, girls should be provided with robust alternatives to marriage. Education and vocational training should be used as bridges to employment for girls, especially in rural areas.

The 2011 census reported a nationwide literacy rate of 74.04 percent in 2011. Male literacy rate stands at 82.14 percent and female literacy hovers at 65.46 percent.

Engaging closely with those who make decisions for families and communities, explaining to them the ill effects of child marriage on their daughters, as well as providing information, as well as birth and marriage registrations, are some ways to address child marriages and track child brides.

Change is happening but at a glacial pace. In an attempt to eliminate child marriages in the Vidarbha district of the southern state of Maharashtra, 88 panchayats (local administrative bodies) passed a resolution this year to ban the practice.

Following the move, 18 families cancelled the weddings of their minor daughters.

Although annulment of child marriage is also a complex issue, India’s first child marriage was annulled in 2013 by Laxmi Sargara who was married at the age of one without the knowledge of her parents. Laxmi remarried – this time of her own choice – in 2014.

*Name changed upon request.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Abuse of Older Women Overlooked and Underreported Thu, 14 Aug 2014 17:11:17 +0000 Chau Ngo Abusers are often family members, making victims reluctant to report the violence. Credit: Boris Bartels/cc by 2.0

Abusers are often family members, making victims reluctant to report the violence. Credit: Boris Bartels/cc by 2.0

By Chau Ngo

A veteran women’s rights activist, Patricia Brownell was still taken aback by the prevalence of abuse against older women she discovered during dozens of conversations she and her colleagues had with victims.

They found that for every one official report of abuse made by agencies in New York State, there are 23 self-reports, with the abusers ranging from husbands, sons, daughters and other relatives to complete strangers.“In many cases, the victims did not want to talk about it. They felt guilty. They felt it was their fault.” -- Patricia Brownell

“It’s underreported,” Brownell, vice president of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, told IPS. “In many cases, the victims did not want to talk about it. They felt guilty. They felt it was their fault.”

Most research on the abuse of older women has focused on North America and Europe. A study conducted in five European countries in 2011 found that around 28 percent of older women had experienced abuse.

The situation in developing countries, where the socio-economic conditions are worse and the welfare system weaker, mostly remains unknown.

“It could be worse,” said Brownell, citing harmful traditional practices against widows or those accused of witchcraft in some developing countries. “It really introduces another dimension of abuse against older women. It’s community abuse.”

Violence directed against younger women has long overshadowed that against the elderly, who in some cases are more vulnerable. There has been so little research into the issue that activists said they do not know its full scope yet, hampering efforts to prevent and fight the violence.

Abuse of older women can take various forms, from physical, psychological and emotional (verbal aggression or threats), to sexual, financial (swindling, theft), and intentional or unintentional neglect, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Addressing the Fifth Working Group on Aging at the United Nations in New York, Silvia Perel-Levin, chair of the NGO Committee on Ageing in Geneva, showed how fragmented the picture is: the prevalence of abuse ranges from six percent to 44 percent of those surveyed, depending on the geographic location and socio-economic conditions. 

While there has been an increase in reports of abuse and violence against older women in the past few years, it does not necessarily mean the problem is worsening, Perel-Levin told IPS.

“I believe [violence and abuse] have always been there, but they were never investigated, never reported,” she said. “That was always a taboo. We don’t have enough data about violence against older women.”

A long-neglected issue

The issue has been neglected partly because of the misconception that older women are less likely to suffer from domestic violence, activists said. Studies on domestic violence and reproductive health tend to examine the situation of women under 49 years old. The age range has only been broadened recently.

“People may think that older women are not subject to rape, and that their husbands stop beating them because they are 50,” said Perel-Levin. “This is not true.”

For many women, the abuse begins later in life. The abusers are sometimes beloved family members, which complicates the situation, as the victims are reluctant to report the violence.

Living with an extended family does not guarantee protection, because in many cases, the sons and other family members are the abusers. In several Asian countries, the daughters-in-law, who are expected to take care of their husbands’ aged parents, sometimes turn out to be abusers, activists said.

In developing countries, the situation is difficult for the victims even when they report the abuses, said Kazi Reazul Hoque of the Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission.

The older women in that South Asian country most likely to face abuse and violence are from ethnic minorities and religious communities, Hoque, a former judge, told IPS. These are already weaker and poorer communities, which encouraged the offenders to commit violence.

“Even when they bring the case to the court, it’s still difficult for them to pursue ‘the war’,” he said. “How long can these poor people fight?”

Activists have been calling for more research into violence against older women, such as by U.N. Women, the United Nations agency for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

James Collins, representative to the United Nations of the International Council on Social Welfare, told IPS, “We will continue to raise this issue during the events of the Sustainable Development Goals. We’re here push for the rights of older people.”

Edited by: Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Kenya’s Own ‘Erin Brokovich’ Changes Lives of Girl Survivors of Sexual Abuse Mon, 11 Aug 2014 08:20:24 +0000 Adam Bemma The Equality Effect brought together legal experts to pursue a class action lawsuit, which came to be known as the 160 Girls case, of girls who faced discriminatory police treatment, including police rape. The court ruled police must enforce the laws under the constitution, and properly investigate cases of defilement and rape. Courtesy: Fiona Sampson/Equality Effect

The Equality Effect brought together legal experts to pursue a class action lawsuit, which came to be known as the 160 Girls case, of girls who faced discriminatory police treatment, including police rape. The court ruled police must enforce the laws under the constitution, and properly investigate cases of defilement and rape. Courtesy: Fiona Sampson/Equality Effect

By Adam Bemma
MERU, Kenya, Aug 11 2014 (IPS)

Surrounded by endless rows of green tea plants, Mary carefully picked a leaf and placed it into a basket next to her. It seemed like an ordinary day at work for the 13-year-old girl from Meru, in central Kenya. After work she escaped to the adjacent farm for privacy, but was instead attacked and raped by a middle aged man. 

“My grandmother took me to the police to make a report, but they didn’t arrest him. I was told he bribed the police,” Mary* tells IPS as her 11-month-old baby girl sits on her lap.

Mary, now 14 years of age, and her daughter live at Ripples International’s Tumaini Girls’ Rescue Centre in Meru, Kenya. It houses 15 other girls like Mary, three of whom have babies of their own, all born out of the sexual violence perpetrated against them.

“Sexual abuse is known as defilement under Kenyan law. All of our girls here have been defiled by either family members, neighbours or employers. One girl was even defiled by a police officer,” Mercy Chidi, founder and director of Ripples International, the organisation which established Tumaini Girls Rescue Centre, tells IPS.

Chidi is a social worker, not a lawyer, but her human rights advocacy makes her a respected figure in Kenya and beyond. She has provided shelter to survivors of sexual abuse, female genital mutilation and child marriage at Ripples International. The organisation’s faith-based approach makes creating fundamental change in the livelihoods of Kenyan girls its mission.

“It started over 10 years ago with abandoned babies and orphans. We gave them a home,” Chidi says. “We also provide HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.”

A 14-year-old girl named Grace*, looking much younger than her stated age, takes a seat on the couch in front of the television at Tumaini Girls’ Rescue Centre. She is HIV-positive.

“I was raped by my father,” she tells IPS as her voice quivers. Grace has been living at the shelter for the past year, trying to keep up court appearances and her anti-retroviral medications. She’s also trying to get back into school.

Fiona Sampson is a Canadian lawyer and the executive director of Equality Effect, a human rights organisation working to advance the rights of women and girls in Kenya.

Sampson met Chidi in 2010 during a human rights course in Toronto, Canada. She calls Chidi the “Erin Brokovich of Kenya” due to her relentless pursuit of justice for Kenyan girls.

“Mercy asked if the Equality Effect would help her develop a legal advocacy solution to the defilement problem, and the failure of police to enforce existing laws, and we said ‘yes.’  The Equality Effect was already working in Kenya on other projects,” Sampson tells IPS.

Sampson brought together legal experts from Canada, Kenya, Ghana and Malawi to pursue a class action lawsuit, which came to be known as the 160 Girls case. The 160 refers to the number of girls selected, even though only 11 petitioners were named in the claim. These girls faced discriminatory police treatment, including police rape.

“We argued that the police treatment of the girls’ defilement claims was discriminatory and violated their human rights in contradiction of the equality guarantees in the Kenyan constitution and regional and international human rights law,” she says.

In 2013, the 160 Girls went from victims to victors. The judge read the verdict in a Meru, Kenya courtroom: “By failing to enforce existing defilement laws, the police have contributed to the development of a culture of tolerance for pervasive sexual violence against girl children and impunity.”

Muthomi Thiankolu is a constitutional lawyer and lead counsel on the 160 Girls case at the High Court of Kenya.

“In Kenyan law, defilement is sex with a minor. Someone under the age of 18,” Thiankolu tells IPS. “The court ruled police must enforce the laws under the constitution, and properly investigate cases of defilement and rape.”

Mary bounces the baby on her lap. She now feels the law will protect the both of them. The child starts to giggle and a smile comes over Mary’s face.

“At the time it happened, I was working to make money to pay school fees,” she says. “Now, living here at the centre, I’m arranging to go back to school.”

*Name changed to protect their identity

Edited by: Nalisha Adams

The writer can be contacted on twitter @adambemma


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Former War Zone Drinking its Troubles Away Sun, 03 Aug 2014 18:01:58 +0000 Amantha Perera Women and children are badly affected by the rise in alcohol consumption in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Women and children are badly affected by the rise in alcohol consumption in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera

Back in the day when the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ran a de-facto state in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, alcohol consumption was closely monitored, and sternly frowned upon.

But after government forces destroyed the militant group in 2009, ushering a new era into a region that had lived through three decades of civil conflict, strict rules governing the brewing and sale of spirits have lost their muscle.

Plagued by poverty, trauma and a lack of employment opportunities, civilians in the former war zone are increasingly turning to the bottle to drink their troubles away.

“There is worryingly high casual and habitual use of alcohol in the region. Drinking hard liquor by the end of the day is becoming a [norm],” Vedanayagam Thabendran, district officer for social services for the Kilinochchi district in the Northern Province, about 240 km from the capital Colombo, told IPS.

Available data on alcohol consumption trends back his assessment.

“There is a visible shift in consumption patterns in the war-affected areas from the days of the LTTE. They did not allow the northern citizens to drink moonshine [freely]." -- G D Dayaratna, manger of the health and economic policy unit at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS)
According to a December 2013 survey by the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC), a national non-governmental organisation, the northern district of Mullaitivu had the second highest alcohol consumption rate in the island, with 34.4 percent of the population identifying as ‘habitual users of alcohol’.

The survey covered 10 of the 25 districts in the country, including two in the Northern Province.

“Frequency of alcohol consumption was highest in Mullaitivu district, among the ten districts surveyed. In both the Jaffna and Mullaitivu districts, beer consumption was higher than arrack (hard liquor) consumption,” said Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, who heads the Jaffna-based Point Pedro Institute of Development.

The researcher told IPS that “anecdotal evidence and alcohol sales figures” indicate a link between the end of the civil war and the rise in alcohol consumption.

District official Thabendran said that alcohol abuse was more pronounced in interior villages that had once fallen under the purview of the LTTE. He identified one such village as Dharmapuram, located about 17 km northeast of Kilinochchi Town.

“We keep getting regular reports of domestic disputes because of alcohol consumption and we know that there are a lot of places (in that village) where illegal alcohol is available,” he stated.

Humanitarian workers in the region said that Dharmapuram has acquired the nickname ‘booze centre’ because of the free availability of illicit liquor.

“One of the disturbing trends is the prevalence of female headed households that have begun to sell illicit liquor as an easy income-generation method,” said a humanitarian worker who wished to remain anonymous because he was working with the families in question.

Homemade brews – typically derived from coconut, palmyra flowers or sugarcane – are cheap to make and easy to procure. Women in the north say they earn about 100 rupees (0.7 dollars) per litre of local moonshine.

A man sits in his makeshift kitchen in the village of Dharmapuram after returning home drunk. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man sits in his makeshift kitchen in the village of Dharmapuram after returning home drunk. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Drinkers say that illegal alcohol can be obtained for less than one-fifth the price of the lowest-grade legal liquor.

“I haven’t seen this much alcohol here for almost 50 years,” Arumygam Sadagopan, a 60-year-old resident of Dharmapuram, admitted.

A retired education officer, Sadagopan told IPS that habitual drinking, especially among men, is exacerbating poverty and fueling domestic violence. He added that his neighbour’s family was now at “breaking” point due to the husband’s daily bouts of drinking.

“He has two school-going children who now mostly see their father drunk, reeking of alcohol and arguing or fighting with their mother,” he stated.

The end of the war in May 2009 not only removed restrictions on easy access to liquor outlets, it also removed social barriers that had kept consumption in check.

“There is a visible shift in consumption patterns in the war-affected areas from the days of the LTTE. They did not allow the northern citizens to drink moonshine (freely),” said G D Dayaratna, manger of the health and economic policy unit at the think-tank Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

He also said that the LTTE kept a close tab on alcohol production in areas they controlled. All such safeguards crumbled along with the demise of the armed group.

Still, the situation is not specific to the former war zone. Islandwide alcohol production and consumption have seen sharp increases since the end of the conflict.

In  2013 the Excise Department earned over 66 million rupees (over 500,000 dollars) in duties from the sale of alcohol, an increase of 10 percent from 2012.

In 2009 Sri Lanka produced 41 million liters of hard liquor and 55 million liters of beer, but by 2013 hard liquor production had touched 44 million liters, while beer production was an astonishing 120 million liters.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the total alcohol per capita consumption rate among people aged 15 years and older between 2008 and 2010 was 20.1 litres.

There are no official figures available for the quantity of illegal, homemade alcohol but a 2002 study found that 77 percent of all liquor consumed in Sri Lanka was illicitly brewed. In 2013, fines for illegal liquor touched 127 million rupees (975,000 dollars).

Social workers like Thabendran said that the worst cases of alcohol abuse were visible in poor households in the northern province, where men were either unemployed or engaged in backbreaking daily paid manual labour.

Men who engage in hard, manual labour are the primary consumers of alcohol in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Men who engage in hard, manual labour are the primary consumers of alcohol in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

There are no official figures for full unemployment rates in the north. However, in the two districts where figures are available – 9.3 percent in Kilinochchi and 8.1 percent in Mannar – they were over twice the national rate of four percent.

Sarvananthan estimates that unemployment could be above 20 percent here in Dharmapuram, while employment in the informal sector, which includes agriculture, forestry, fisheries and day labour, hovers at just about 30 percent.

Poverty levels are also high in the province, with four of its five districts recording rates higher than the national average of 6.7 percent.

The three districts where the war was most intense, Kilinochchi, Mannar and Mullaittivu, record poverty rates of 12.7 percent, 20.1 percent and 28.8 percent respectively, according to the latest government poverty headcount released in April.

“When you look at alcohol consumption patterns, you see they have a direct correlation with the type of employment. Manual labourers and daily wage earners are more likely to consume alcohol at the end of the day,” Dayaratna pointed out.

Sadagopan has a simple solution to the alcohol menace, at least in the short term. “The laws against illicit brewing and selling should be strictly enforced,” he said. “The problem is, since our villages are in the interior, enforcement is lax.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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China’s ‘Left-Behind Girls’ Learn Self-Protection Wed, 30 Jul 2014 22:15:58 +0000 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

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

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.


*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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Outlawing Polygamy to Combat Gender Inequalities, Domestic Violence in Papua New Guinea Mon, 28 Jul 2014 14:07:55 +0000 Catherine Wilson The PNG Government has recently introduced legislation to outlaw polygamy and increase the country's rate of official marriage and birth registrations. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

The PNG Government has recently introduced legislation to outlaw polygamy and increase the country's rate of official marriage and birth registrations. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Jul 28 2014 (IPS)

New legislation recently passed in the southwest Pacific Island state of Papua New Guinea (PNG) outlawing polygamy has been welcomed by experts in the country as an initial step forward in the battle against high rates of domestic violence, gender inequality and the spread of AIDS.

“If polygamy remained acceptable, wives would never speak for their rights and they and their children would continue to be silent victims of violence,” Dora Kegemo and Dixie Hoffman of the Women and Children’s Access to Community Justice Programme in Goroka, Eastern Highlands, told IPS. “So banning polygamy under this new law will help to empower women.”

The Civil Registration Amendment Bill makes it compulsory to register all marriages, including customary ones. Marriages involving more than one spouse, however, will not be recognised. The government believes this move will also help to increase the registration of births in a country where an estimated 90 percent of the population do not have birth certificates.

Formal identification of children is urgently needed to begin improving a range of human rights and child protection issues in PNG, such as child labour and trafficking. It is estimated that children make up about 19 percent of the labour force here. Two years ago, a study in the capital, Port Moresby, by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), revealed that 43 percent of children surveyed were engaged in commercial sexual exploitation.

Until the law was passed, customary marriages, including polygamous ones, which are common in rural areas, were not officially recorded. Polygamy is particularly prevalent in the mountainous highlands region where men have traditionally taken up to five or six wives in order to increase agricultural productivity and better manage the domestic responsibilities of large extended families. Studies over the past decade suggest that an estimated 25 percent of unions in the highlands are polygamous.

But Jack Urame, director of the Melanesian Institute in the Eastern Highlands, who personally supports the government’s move to ban polygamy, says that its practice today has changed under the influence of the cash economy and western notions of commodity wealth.

In the past, “only the big men or the leaders and those who had the economic strength to take care of the women would have many wives,” he explained. But now the practice is prone to greater abuse when men use cash to acquire multiple wives as a means of displaying monetary wealth.

These marriages do not last, Urame said, and when they break down children are affected. “Many children who come from such broken marriages are disadvantaged and this contributes to the many social problems [we face].”

Domestic and gender violence affects up to 75 percent of women and children in this island state and is associated with adultery, financial problems, alcohol abuse and polygamy. Many cases involve the abuse and neglect of wives, as well as children, when a husband enters into further relationships.

Following a visit to the country in 2012, Rashida Manjoo, United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, reported that “the practice of polygamy also creates tension between women within the same family and has led to cases of violence, sometimes resulting in murder of the husband or additional wife or girlfriend.”

Urame believes that banning polygamy will help to combat family violence and gender inequality, while Kegemo says wider laws preventing violence against women are needed as well.

Concerns have also been raised about the impact of polygamy on the spread of HIV/AIDS. While no specific study has been conducted on connections between polygamy and the disease, Peter Bire, director of the National AIDS Council, highlighted that high-risk behaviours could not be ignored.

“What we know is that multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships, in a context of low and inconsistent condom use, are important contributing factors,” he told IPS.

Another factor is that “sex outside of polygamous marriages is common and, because of the gender inequality problem in PNG, it is usually the husbands who can be blamed for being unfaithful,” he stated, adding that promiscuity puts wives at a high risk of contracting the virus.

The national HIV prevalence in people aged 15-49 years is estimated at 0.8 percent of the population, rising to 0.91 percent in the highlands region. HIV-positive cases in the country increased from 3,446 to 31,609 in the decade to 2010 with men comprising 37 percent and women 61 percent.

Bire said that, while the country’s HIV/AIDS Management and Prevention Act criminalises the intentional transmission of HIV, more comprehensive human rights laws, especially ones to better protect women, are needed to help fight the disease.

But “as with many laws and policies in PNG, implementation remains a challenge,” he continued.

In rural areas, where more than 80 percent of the population live, geographical barriers, such as dense rainforest and rugged mountains, as well as wider corruption, are factors in the limited development of the country’s infrastructure and outreach of government services, including law enforcement.

Despite these hurdles, many are hopeful that small steps like the recent polygamy law will eventually bring a better deal for women.


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OPINION: Empowering DR Congo’s Sexual Violence Survivors by Enforcing Reparations Thu, 24 Jul 2014 08:26:58 +0000 Sucharita S.K. Varanasi Rape survivor Angeline Mwarusena. Reparations, both monetary and non-monetary, can provide emotional, psychological, physical, and economic relief for the pain, humiliation, trauma, and violence that sexual violence survivors have endured, according to Physicians for Human Rights. Credit: Einberger/argum/EED/IPS

Rape survivor Angeline Mwarusena. Reparations, both monetary and non-monetary, can provide emotional, psychological, physical, and economic relief for the pain, humiliation, trauma, and violence that sexual violence survivors have endured, according to Physicians for Human Rights. Credit: Einberger/argum/EED/IPS

By Sucharita S.K. Varanasi
BOSTON, Jul 24 2014 (IPS)

Before a sexual violence survivor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has her day in court, she must surmount many obstacles. Poor or nonexistent roads and costly transportation may prevent her from going to a police station to report the crime, or to a hospital to receive treatment for the injuries sustained during the violence.

Inadequate training of law enforcement, limited resources for thorough investigations, and lack of witness protection may also compromise her case.

In the DRC, another impediment is a heavy reliance on traditional forms of justice. Sexual violence survivors are compelled by their families and communities to seek redress through traditional mechanisms because the process often leads to the survivor’s family receiving some type of compensation, such as a goat.

However attractive traditional justice may be for the family of those victimised, the survivor is rarely at the centre of the process. Understanding the various hurdles that a survivor must overcome in accessing the formal legal system is the first step in a survivor’s pursuit of justice.

Until recently, the international community has largely ignored the fact that even if survivors overcome many of these challenges and win their legal cases, they rarely receive reparations.

During a roundtable discussion hosted by Physicians for Human Rights, Georgetown University Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and Columbia School of International and Public Affairs earlier this year, experts identified reasons why survivors are unable to retrieve these hard-won reparations, and issued a set of recommendations that aim to help reverse this trend.

Sucharita S.K. Varanasi, a senior programme officer with Physicians for Human Rights says that in order to receive court-ordered monetary compensation, survivors of sexual violence in DRC must  navigate the onerous post-trial process alone. Courtesy: Physicians for Human Rights

Sucharita S.K. Varanasi, a senior programme officer with Physicians for Human Rights.

In order to receive court-ordered monetary compensation, survivors of sexual violence must  navigate the onerous post-trial process alone – without counsel or support – and either pay upfront prohibitively expensive administrative fees and duties or collect and present difficult-to-obtain paperwork necessary to waive these fees.

Overcoming these obstacles can prove daunting – even insurmountable – for individuals who are well-resourced and connected, let alone for the majority of survivors who are financially indigent and disenfranchised.

The international community is finally paying apt attention to the fact that even if a survivor surmounts the many obstacles she faces in pursuing justice, it may never lead to compensation or to her perpetrator being brought to justice.

The roundtable participants, including key international stakeholders in the DRC, provided short-term recommendations to help survivors receive their judgments in hand. These include the training of judges on relevant Congolese laws to help survivors; direct international funds to help survivors navigate the post-trial process; engagement and education of community chiefs within traditional justice mechanisms about survivors’ rights and the need to direct survivors to the formal court system; and the strengthening and enforcement of penitentiary systems so that sentences are upheld and punishment can be a deterrent to committing such crimes in the future.

Long-term recommendations from roundtable participants included the need to marshal political will, creating both a sovereign mineral fund and a victims’ fund, and reforming the legal sector by creating mixed chambers and revising key pieces of legislation. Significantly, long-term strategies to support reparations for survivors must also take into consideration collective community responses for the many survivors who never report their violation or never engage in the justice process.

These recommendations are by no means exhaustive, but showcase a desire and commitment from international actors to help survivors receive monetary judgments.

Reparations, both monetary and non-monetary, can provide emotional, psychological, physical, and economic relief for the pain, humiliation, trauma, and violence that sexual violence survivors have endured.

Enforcing monetary reparations justifies the hardship and difficulty of pursing justice in the first place for the survivors. The international community can help a sexual violence survivor move from a position of pain to power. The main question is whether we are willing to urge local governments and community leaders to make it happen.

Sexual violence survivors waiting to testify in a Congolese mobile court. Courtesy: Physicians for Human Rights

Sexual violence survivors waiting to testify in a Congolese mobile court. Courtesy: Physicians for Human Rights

Sucharita S.K. Varanasi is a senior programme officer, at the Programme on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones with Physicians for Human Rights. She travels and works in DRC and Kenya.

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‘Zero Tolerance’ the Call for Child Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation Wed, 23 Jul 2014 18:43:04 +0000 A. D. McKenzie Fatema,15, sits on the bed at her home in Khulna, Bangladesh, in April 2014. Fatema was saved from being married a few weeks earlier. Local child protection committee members stopped the marriage with the help of law enforcement agencies. Credit: UNICEF

Fatema,15, sits on the bed at her home in Khulna, Bangladesh, in April 2014. Fatema was saved from being married a few weeks earlier. Local child protection committee members stopped the marriage with the help of law enforcement agencies. Credit: UNICEF

By A. D. McKenzie
LONDON, Jul 23 2014 (IPS)

Heightening their campaign to eradicate violence against women and girls, United Nations agencies and civil groups have called for increased action to end child marriage and female genital mutilation.

At the first Girl Summit in London Wednesday, hosted by the U.K. government and UNICEF, delegates said they wanted to send a strong message that there should be “zero tolerance” for these practices.

“Millions of young girls around the world are in danger of female genital mutilation and child marriage – and of losing their childhoods forever to these harmful practices,” Susan Bissell, UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection, told IPS.“Millions of young girls around the world are in danger of female genital mutilation and child marriage – and of losing their childhoods forever to these harmful practices” – Susan Bissell, UNICEF's Chief of Child Protection

“FGM is an excruciatingly painful and terrifying ordeal for young girls. The physical effects can last a lifetime, resulting in horrific infections, difficulty passing urine, infertility and even death.”

Bissell said that when a young girl is married “it tends to mark the end of her education and she’s more likely to have children when she’s still a child herself – with a much higher risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth”.

“Without firm and accelerated action now, hundreds of millions more girls will suffer permanent damage,” she added in an e-mail interview.

At the summit, the United Kingdom announced an FGM prevention programme, launched by the government’s Department of Health and the National Health Service (NHS) England. Backed by 1.4 million pounds, the programme is designed to improve the way in which the NHS tackles female genital mutilation and “clarify the role of health professionals which is to ‘care, protect, prevent’,” the government said.

According to British Prime Minister David Cameron, some 130,000 people are affected by FGM in the United Kingdom, with “60,000 girls under the age of 15 potentially at risk”, even though the practice is outlawed in the country.

The prevention programme will now make it mandatory for all “acute hospitals” to report the number of patients with FGM to the Department of Health on a monthly basis, as of September of this year.

U.N. officials said that the Girl Summit was a significant development because it marked the importance of the issues addressed.

“International leaders came together in one place and said enough is enough,” Bissell said.

While it is difficult to measure the impact of intensified campaigns on the reductions in child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting over the past few years, the United Nations and other organisations have noted that the numbers of girls affected are in fact decreasing.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the percentage of women married before age 18 has dropped by about half, from 34 percent to 18 percent over the last three decades, UNICEF says.

In South Asia, the decline has been especially marked for marriages involving girls under age 15, dropping from 32 percent to 17 percent.

“The marriage of girls under age 18, however, is still commonplace,” Bissell told IPS.

“In Indonesia and Morocco, the risk of marrying before age 18 is less than half of what it was three decades ago. In Ethiopia, women aged 20 to 24 are marrying about three years later than their counterparts three decades ago,” she added.

Regarding female genital mutilation/cutting, Kenya and Tanzania have seen rates drop to one-third of their levels three decades ago through a combination of community activism and legislation, while in the Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia and Nigeria, prevalence of FGM has dropped by as much as half, Bissell said.

However, officials stressed that with population growth, it is possible that progress in reducing child marriage will remain flat unless the commitments made at the Girl Summit are acted upon. Flat progress “isn’t good enough”, Bissell told IPS.

Recently released U.N. figures show that, despite the declines, child marriage is widespread, with more than 700 million women alive today who were married as children. UNICEF says that some 250 million women were married before the age of 15.

The highest percentage of these women can be found in South Asia, followed by East Asia and the Pacific which is home to 25 percent of girls and women married before the age of 18, UNICEF says.

Statistics also indicate that girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence. In addition, teenage mothers are more at risk from complications in pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s; some 70,000 adolescent girls die every year because of such complications, according to the United Nations.

The statistics on female genital mutilation are also cause for international concern, with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) saying that about 125 million girls and women have been subjected to the practice, which can lead to haemorrhage, infection, physical dysfunction, obstructed labour and death.

According to UNFPA, female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage are human rights violations that both help to perpetuate girls’ low status by impairing their health and long-term development.

UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin told IPS that a number of states have adopted legislation against female genital mutilation/cutting but that some perpetrators are still operating with “impunity”.

Participating in the London summit, Osotimehin said that certain governments were facing challenges within their own countries because of long-held cultural beliefs, but like Bissell, he said that the picture is not completely bleak, because civil society and grassroots organisations are amplifying their campaigns.

“Our message for girls who are affected by these practices is that they have support – moral, psychological, physical and emotional support,” he told IPS. “We also want to send a message that those who are affected should advocate to try and stop these practices.”

Meanwhile, U.N. officials said it was significant that the summit saw commitment from the African Union and the deputy prime Minister of Ethiopia, as well as from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.K. Department for International Development (DfID). The Government of Canada and several other financial supporters also made commitments.

For the executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the pledges show support for the message of “zero tolerance” of child marriage and FGM that her organisation wishes to send. They are also a strong signal that the practices can be ended in a generation, she told IPS.

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Focus on Child Marriage, Genital Mutilation at All-Time High Wed, 23 Jul 2014 14:41:50 +0000 Julia Hotz Female genital mutilation (FGM) traditional surgeon in Kapchorwa, Uganda speaking to a reporter. The women in this area are being trained  by civil society organisation REACH in how to educate people to stop the practice. Credit: Joshua Kyalimpa/IPS

Female genital mutilation (FGM) traditional surgeon in Kapchorwa, Uganda speaking to a reporter. The women in this area are being trained by civil society organisation REACH in how to educate people to stop the practice. Credit: Joshua Kyalimpa/IPS

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 23 2014 (IPS)

As Tuesday’s major summits here and in London focused global attention on adolescent girls, the United Nations offered new data warning that more than 130 million girls and women have experienced some form of female genital mutilation, while more than 700 million women alive today were forced into marriage as children.

Noting how such issues disproportionately affect women in Africa and the Middle East, the new report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) surveyed 29 countries and discussed the long-term consequences of both female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage.“What we’re really missing is a coordinated global effort that is commensurate with the scale and the size of the issue.” -- Ann Warner

While the report links the former practice with “prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and death,” it mentions how the latter can predispose women to domestic violence and dropping out of school.

“The numbers tell us we must accelerate our efforts. And let’s not forget that these numbers represent real lives,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement. “While these are problems of a global scale, the solutions must be local, driven by communities, families and girls themselves to change mindsets and break the cycles that perpetuate [FGM] and child marriage.”

Despite these ongoing problems, Tuesday’s internationally recognised Girl Summit comes as the profile of adolescent girls – and, particularly, FGM – has risen to the top of certain agendas. On Tuesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a legislative change that will now make it a legally enforceable parental responsibility to prevent FGM.

“We’ve reached an all-time high for both political awareness and political will to change the lives of women around the world,” Ann Warner, a senior gender and youth specialist at the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), a research institute here, told IPS.

Warner recently co-authored a policy brief recommending that girls be given access to high-quality education, support networks, and practical preventative skills, and that communities provide economic incentives, launch informational campaigns, and establish a legal minimum age for marriage.

Speaking Tuesday at the Washington summit, Warner added that there has been “a good amount of promising initiatives – initiated by NGOs, government ministers and grassroots from around the world – that have been successful in turning the tide on the issue and changing attitudes, knowledge and practices.”

Advocates around the world can learn from these efforts, Warner said, paying particular attention to the progress India has made in preventing child marriage. Still, she believes that a comprehensive global response is necessary.

“What we’re really missing is a coordinated global effort that is commensurate with the scale and the size of the issue” of FGM and child marriage, she said. “With 14 million girls married each year, a handful of individual projects around the world are simply not enough to make a dent in that problem.”

U.S. action

The need for better coordination and accountability was echoed by Lyric Thompson, co-chair of the Girls Not Brides-USA coalition, a foundation that co-sponsored Tuesday’s Girl Summit here in Washington.

“If we are going to end child marriage in a generation, as the Girl Summit charter challenges us to do, that is going to mean a much more robust effort than what is currently happening,” Thompson told IPS. “A few small programmes, no matter how effective, will not end the practice.”

In particular, Thompson is calling on the United States to take a more active stand against harmful practices that affect women globally, which she adds is consistent with the U.S Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013

“If America is serious about ending this practice in a generation, this means not just speeches and a handful of [foreign aid] programmes, but also the hard work of ensuring that American diplomats are negotiating with their counterparts in countries where the practice is widespread,” she says.

“It also means being directly involved in difficult U.N. negotiations, including the ones now determining the post-2015 development agenda, to ensure a target on ending child, early and forced marriage is included under a gender equality goal.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. government announced nearly five million dollars to counter child and forced marriage in seven developing countries for this year, while pledging to work on new U.S. legislation on the issue next year. (The U.S. has also released new information on its response to FGM and child marriage.)

“​We know the fight against child marriage is the fight against extreme poverty,” Rajiv Shah, the head of the United States’ main foreign aid agency, stated Tuesday.

“That’s why USAID has put women and girls at the centre of our efforts to answer President Obama’s call to end extreme poverty in two generations. It’s a commitment that reflects a legacy of investment in girls – in their education, in their safety, in their health, and in their potential.”

Global ‘tipping point’

Of course, civil society actors around the world likely hold the key to changing long-held social views around these contentious issues.

“Federal agencies, in a position to respond to forced marriage cases, must work together and with community and NGO partners to ensure thoughtful and coordinated policy development,” Archi Pyati, director of public oolicy at Tahirih Justice Center, a Washington-based legal advocacy organisation, told IPS.

“Teachers, counsellors, doctors, nurses and others who are in a position to help a girl or woman to avoid a forced marriage or leave one must be informed and ready to respond.”

Pyati points to an awareness-raising campaign around forced marriage that will tour the United States starting in September. In this, social media is also becoming an increasingly important tool for advocacy efforts.

“Technology has brought us a new way to tell our governments and our corporations what matters to us,” Emma Wade, counsellor of the Foreign and Security Policy Group at the British Embassy here, told IPS. “Governments do take notice of what’s trending on Twitter and the like, and corporations are ever-mindful of ways to differentiate themselves … in the search for market share and committed customers.”

Wade noted within her presentation at Tuesday’s summit that individuals can pledge their support for “a future free from FGM and child and forced marriage” via the digital Girl Summit Pledge.

Shelby Quast, policy director of Equality Now, an international human rights organisation based in Nairobi, reiterated the importance of tackling FGM and child marriage across a variety of domains.

“The approach that works best is multi-sectoral… including the law, education, child protection and other elements such as support for FGM survivors and media advocacy strategies,” Quast explained. “We are at a tipping point globally, so let’s keep the momentum up to ensure all girls at risk are protected.”

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What Selfies Have in Common with the SDGs Wed, 16 Jul 2014 17:03:20 +0000 Julia Hotz A teenage girl surfs the internet at a resource centre in Nairobi. Credit: David Njagi/IPS

A teenage girl surfs the internet at a resource centre in Nairobi. Credit: David Njagi/IPS

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 16 2014 (IPS)

“My cousin was a very successful and distinguished student. She said that she finished high school with excellent grades and enrolled in college, but a month later, her parents forced her to leave school and burned all her books and studying material. So, the girl set fire to herself.”

As gruesome as this particular story’s outcome may be, such a narrative – in which a female student pursues education and subsequently faces generational resistance – is common in the anonymous storyteller’s home of Iraq.The Middle East and North Africa lead the world in both their population of active Twitter users and number of registered YouTube accounts.

Yet thanks to the digital STOP-GBV (gender-based violence) campaign launched by AMAR U.S., an international peace-building non-profit, women who witness or experience human rights violations such as this one are now able to share their stories via social media platforms.

Christopher Kyriacou, the chief executive officer of AMAR U.S, says that social media has allowed his group’s women’s rights initiative to “blossom”, such as through the remarkable youth participation in AMAR’s Facebook pages.

“Many students undertake the responsibility of searching and investigating cases of gender-based violence and discrimination, and select the topics to be discussed during the lectures,” Kyriacou said, citing the testimony of a STOP-GBV project manager.

He adds that the Facebook pages allow students to “publish articles and pictures related to the issue [of Gender-Based Violence]…and participate in the dissemination of these subjects.”

AMAR’s digital dialogue represents just one instance of how technology’s presence has expanded in the world’s historically voiceless regions.

According to a 2013 Infographic collected by Squared Online, a UK-based digital marketing initiative, the number of social media users in the Middle East and North Africa is projected to increase 191 percent from 2011 to 2017. The study also notes how the Middle East and North Africa lead the world in both their population of active Twitter users and number of registered YouTube accounts.

It is this trend that has prompted many international development organisations to harness the rise of technology and social media in their respective education, public health and human rights initiatives.

Given that the theme of this year’s recently-celebrated World Population Day is to “’invest in the youth,” the international community has increasingly recognised the importance of using innovative digital techniques to engage the world’s enormous cohort of 15-to-35 year-olds – the largest ever- in their democracy-oriented agenda.

Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the U.N.’s Population Fund (UNFPA), said in a statement that if young citizens are “skilled and informed”, then they can “contribute more fully to their communities and nations.”

With this goal in mind, he is enthusiastic about the potential of technology to help provide young people with a voice, calling it “unethical” for such a large youth population to be neglected in the democratic process.

“We believe the possibilities with technology are enormous, and thus we see an urgent need to work with those in technology,” UNFPA’s Osotimehin told IPS. “We see people in international communities who have not yet been to school, but are carrying around smart phones … In 1999, Nigeria had only 400,000 landlines, whereas today there are more than 100 million cell phones.”

In order to unite this global tech explosion with its focus on youth, the UNFPA has launched a “selfie campaign”, in which young people from around the world can submit self-taken photographs of themselves to social media platforms using the tag #WPD2014.

The symbolic meaning behind this digital petition, which is scheduled to run through September, is to give young people a central role in crafting the United Nations’ post-2015 global development agenda.

“When you are isolated from global meetings like the U.N. General Assemblies to which your governments go to as member states … your selfies are saying you want to be in the picture of future development frameworks,” Laurent Zessler, a UNFPA representative, said as she premiered the campaign to youths in Fiji.

In addition to providing a medium for youths to share their stories and advocate for a role in future U.N. decision-making, technology has also facilitated the faster and more widespread transmission of practical information to youths.

A prime example of this strategy is the Text to Change (TTC) campaign, which is described as a social enterprise that “sends and receives information via mobile telephony in emerging countries.”

Josette de Vroeg, communications manager of the Netherlands-based campaign, said TTC was conceived on the premise that “every citizen in this world should have access to information, no matter if you’re rich or poor.

“We send participants the right personalised message at the right time, providing them with crucial information at the moment when they need it most,” de Vroeg told IPS. “The main objective is reducing infant and maternal mortality.”

Noting how TTC has been particularly effective in providing important health information to young pregnant women in Tanzania, de Vroeg concluded that, with the help of partners such as the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Tanzania Ministry of Health, more than 30 million free text messages have been sent out and 500,000 women have participated.

With the initiative’s presence now in 16 countries, de Vroeg added that TTC is currently running “the biggest interactive SMS campaign ever.”

“Over 80 percent of the African people now have access to a mobile phone. That’s why this is the most important medium for making a connection,” de Vroeg told IPS. “TTC connects organisations with their hard-to-reach target group, via mobile.”

Asked about how the campaign’s target populations have reacted to such an innovative technique, de Vroeg said that the feedback has been nothing but positive, with TTC’s beneficiaries saying that the text messages have helped them run businesses, learn about HIV, and improve their self-esteem.

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Time to “Drop the Knife” for FMG in The Gambia Sun, 13 Jul 2014 11:23:18 +0000 Saikou Jammeh Circumcisers in the Gambia publicly declaring that they have abandoned the practice of FGM. Credit: Saikou Jammeh/IPS

Circumcisers in the Gambia publicly declaring that they have abandoned the practice of FGM. Credit: Saikou Jammeh/IPS

By Saikou Jammeh
BANJUL, Jul 13 2014 (IPS)

Women’s rights activists in the Gambia are insisting that more than 30 years of campaigning to raise awareness should be sufficient to move the government to outlaw female genital mutilation (FMG).

The practice remains widespread in this tiny West African country of 1.8 million people, but rights activists believe that their campaign has now reached the tipping point.

Two years ago, GAMCOTRAP, an apolitical non-governmental organisation (NGO) committed to the promotion and protection of women and girl children’s political, social, sexual, reproductive health and educational rights in The Gambia, and one of the groups behind the anti-FGM campaign, sponsored a draft bill which has been subjected to wide stakeholder consultations.

Several previous attempts to legislate against FGM have failed, with no fewer than three pro-women laws having had clauses on FGM removed from draft bills. But activists now appear determined to make the final push and hope that when introduced this time round, the bill will go through.“We’ve caused lots of suffering to our women ... if my grandparents had known what I know today, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem” – former circumciser Babung Sidibeh

The time has now come for final action, says Amie Bensouda, legal consultant for the draft bill. “There can be no half measures. The law has to be clear. It’s proposed by the law that FGM in all its forms is prohibited. This discussion cannot go on forever. The government should do what is right.”

“The campaign has reached its climax,” Dr Isatou Touray, executive director of GAMCOTRAP, told IPS. “A lot of work has been done. I am hopeful of having a law because women are calling for it, men are calling for it. I know there are pockets of resistance but that’s always the case when it comes to women’s issues.”

“In 2010, we organised a workshop for the National Assembly,” she continued. “They made a declaration, pledging to support any bill that criminalises FGM. I am happy to report that, since 2007, more than 128 circumcisers and 900 communities have abandoned the practice. This trend will continue to grow.”

Seventy-eight percent of Gambian women undergo FGM as a ‘rite of passage’. However, after more than three decades of the anti-FGM campaign in Gambia, a wind of change is blowing, sweeping even conservative rural communities.

Sustained awareness-raising programmes have resulted in public declarations of abandonment of FGM by hundreds of circumcisers. Babung Sidibeh, custodian of the tradition in her native Janjanbureh, the provincial capital of Central River Region, 196 kilometres from Banjul, was one of them. The old woman assumed the role after the death of her parents, but she has since “dropped the knife”, as no longer practising FGM is known here.

Sidibeh did so after receiving training in reproductive health and women’s rights. “Soon after we circumcised our children in 2011,” she told IPS, “Gamcotrap invited me for training. I was exposed to the harm we’ve been doing to our fellow women. If I had known that before what I know today, I would never have circumcised anyone.”

With a tinge of remorse, she added: “We’ve caused lots of suffering to our women. That’s why I told you that if my grandparents had known what I know today, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem.”

Mrs Camara-Touray, a senior public health worker at the country’s heath ministry confirmed to IPS that her ministry has since taken a more proactive role on FGM.

She explained: “The ministry has created an FGM complication register. We’ve also trained nurses on FGM. Until recently, when you asked most health workers about the complications that can arise with FMG, they would say it has no complications. That’s because they were not trained. Since 2011, we’ve changed our curriculum to include these complications. After we put the register in place, within three months, we’d go to a region and see that hundreds of complications due to FGM had been recorded.”

In March, Gamcotrap organised a regional religious dialogue that sought to de-link FGM from Islam. Touray said that the workshop was a prelude to the introduction of the proposed law in parliament.

“Islamic scholars were brought together from Mali, Guinea, Mauritania and Gambia,” she told IPS. “We had a constructive debate and it was overwhelmingly accepted that FGM is not an Islamic injunction, it’s a cultural practice. It was recommended that a specific law should be passed and a declaration was made to that effect.”

However, there is resistance in some quarters. An influential group of Islamic scholars, backed by the leadership of the Supreme Islamic Council, continue to maintain that FGM is a religious injunction.

With a large following and having the ears of the politicians, these clerics have in recent times also intensified their pro-FGM campaign.

“It will be a big mistake if they legislate against FGM,” Ebrima Jarjue, an executive member of the Supreme Islamic Council, told IPS.

“Our religion says we cut just small. We should be allowed to practise our religion. If some people are doing it and doing it bad, let them stop it. Let them go and learn how to do it. If circumcising the girl child when she’s young is causing problems, then let’s wait until she grows up. That’s what used to happen.”

Meanwhile, the Women’s Bureau, the implementing arm of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, is hesitant about legislating against FGM.

“As far FGM is concerned, the position of the Women’s Bureau is that there’s need for more sensitisation and dialogue to push the course forward,” Neneh Touray, information and communication officer of the Women’s Bureau, told IPS. She declined to comment on whether the bureau thought that the bill was premature.

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OPINION: Obama’s Quick Fix Won’t Solve the Regional Refugee Crisis Wed, 09 Jul 2014 19:36:38 +0000 Michelle Brane A migrant child is escorted by a U.S. immigration enforcement agent. Credit: cc by 2.0

A migrant child is escorted by a U.S. immigration enforcement agent. Credit: cc by 2.0

By Michelle Brané

In recent months, an unprecedented surge of refugee women and children has been traveling alone to the United States to seek protection at our southern border.

The vast majority are fleeing their homes in the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and risking their lives as they make long and incredibly dangerous journeys to seek refuge on our soil.

The Women’s Refugee Commission has been closely monitoring this population since 2011. Through our research, we concluded over two years ago that without major changes in U.S. aid or foreign policy to the Central America region, the United States would continue to receive more vulnerable migrants due to the humanitarian crisis developing in the region.

Michelle Brané

Courtesy of Michelle Brané

Organised crime, forced gang recruitment, violence against women, and weak economic and social systems are all contributing to the pervasive insecurity in these countries.

The flow of refugees fleeing from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala has not only continued, but has increased dramatically and rapidly as violence in the region has escalated.

And refugees are not only coming to the United States. The United Nations has found that asylum requests in the the neighbouring countries of Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have skyrocketed by 712 percent since 2009.

While some children may be seeking to reunite with their parents or family in the United States, the motivating factor forcing them from their homes is violence and persecution. The children we spoke with told us they feared they would die if they stayed in their home country, and although they might die during the journey, at least they would have a chance.

Particularly concerning about the recent surge is that the children making the perilous migration journey are now younger than in years past. It has become common for children as young as four to 10 years old to be picked up and arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Additionally, a higher percentage of the children are girls, many of whom arrive pregnant as a result of sexual violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently conducted research with this population and found that 58 percent of the children interviewed raised international protection concerns.

Children also come to the United States with their parents. Since 2012, the number of families arriving at the southern border of the United States has increased significantly. The vast majority of these families are made up of women with very young children and are fleeing the same violence and insecurity driving the refugee children.

Our country has a long and dedicated commitment to human rights, due process and the assurance that individuals who arrive at our borders seeking safety are not turned away without addressing their claims.

Under international and domestic law, we have an obligation to properly screen and provide protection for unaccompanied minors, trafficking victims and asylum seekers who arrive at our borders.

In recent months, however, the government has been unprepared and overwhelmed by the numbers of children and families in need. Rather than addressing the issue in a manner that is in line with our American ideals and recognising it as a regional refugee situation, the Obama administration is looking for a quick fix and compromising our values and the lives of women and children in the process by responding as though it were an immigration issue.

We are deeply concerned by the government’s recent announcement that it will drastically expand detention of families and will expedite the processing of asylum cases.

Harsh detention and deportation policies endanger the well-being of children and families, present a risk that individuals with legitimate claims to asylum and other forms of protection will be summarily returned to countries where their lives are seriously threatened, and do not work as a deterrent against future migration.

Additionally, the administration has proposed to roll back laws that are in place to protect children, in order to quickly and with no due process, deport kids back to the dangers they escaped.

This humanitarian refugee crisis is a complex human tragedy and needs both short-term and long-term attention. It requires a holistic approach that prioritises additional resources for addressing the root causes of this crisis, strengthening protection in the region, and reinforcing our protection and adjudication of claims, not blocking access to protection and sending women and children back to the dangerous situations they are fleeing without adequate due process.

The United States must not compromise its long-standing commitment to humanitarian principles in the hope of finding a quick solution.

Michelle Brané is director of the Migrant Rights & Justice Programme at the Women’s Refugee Commission. This article was originally published by New America Media – a network of ethnic news organisations in the U.S., and is reproduced here by arrangement with them.

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A Third Term for DR Congo President Expected to Wreak Social Havoc Wed, 02 Jul 2014 08:12:38 +0000 Badylon Kawanda Bakiman Rose Fungulana, a 53-year-old farmer, fears that if DRC President Joseph Kabila is allowed to serve a third term of office, there will be a rebellion that will increase the risk of sexual assault against women. Courtesy: Badylon Kawanda Bakiman

Rose Fungulana, a 53-year-old farmer, fears that if DRC President Joseph Kabila is allowed to serve a third term of office, there will be a rebellion that will increase the risk of sexual assault against women. Courtesy: Badylon Kawanda Bakiman

By Badylon Kawanda Bakiman
KIKWIT, DR Congo, Jul 2 2014 (IPS)

Proposals to review the Democratic Republic of Congo’s constitution to permit President Joseph Kabila to seek a third term of office, if accepted, will only plunge the Congolese further into poverty and insecurity, experts warn.

“More than 60 percent of Congolese live on less than one dollar a day. Our compatriots are struggling to access our natural resources. DRC risks [looting] of stores as it was in 1991 in Mobutu [Sese Seko’s reign],” Raymond Kitako, a civil society leader in DRC, told IPS. Mobutu ruled the country for 31 years in a reign that was synonymous with corruption. In 1991 people looted stores and shops as the economy plunged.

Mobutu was overthrown in 1997 by current President Joseph Kabila’s father, Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated in 2001. Joseph Kabila replaced his father as head of state and was later elected president in 2006 and 2011.

“If this decision is applied, it places the country at risk for a serious political crisis,” Kitako added.

Article 70 of the constitution specifies that the presidential mandate of five years is only renewable once. And article 220 of the constitution specifically states there should be no review of the constitution when it comes to the presidential mandate. However, the ruling coalition Presidential Majority was said to be discussing the possibility of reviewing the limits placed on the term of office.

“If the presidential [term] is reviewed, the DRC will register a step backwards of 60 years. We don’t like it,” said Vital Kamerhe, Joseph Kabila’s main political opponent and chairman of the opposition Union for Congolese Nation, during a meeting with journalists.

Raymond Kitako, a civil society leader in DRC, said if DRC President Joseph Kabila is allowed to serve a third term of office, it would result in a serious political crisis. Courtesy: Badylon Kawanda Bakiman

Raymond Kitako, a civil society leader in DRC, said if DRC President Joseph Kabila is allowed to serve a third term of office, it would result in a serious political crisis. Courtesy: Badylon Kawanda Bakiman

For Kamerhe, “Burundi’s example where members of parliament refused to review the constitution [after being asked to do so] by President Pierre Nkurunziza must be a lesson to the presidential majority in DRC.”

Ernest Malonda, a member of the opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress, told IPS that if the president was allowed to seek a third term of office, “DRC will lose its national unity. Congolese will not circulate freely. Bandits called ‘Kuluna’ will become very numerous and the people will suffer.”

“Where have you seen a country at war receive economic investors?” asked Germaine Tangolo, an economist.

Many here remember the rebellion of 1997 where more than six million Congolese died when Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu. And they don’t want to relive it.

“The war will start and as a consequence so will sexual violence and gender-based violence as people look for natural resources,” feared Rose Fungulana, a 53-year-old farmer.

She said that in the 1997 war, her 23-year-old sister was raped by Mobutu’s soldiers in eastern DRC.

A 2013 report published by Ministry of Gender, however, shows sexual violence remains very high in the country, as “29,354 cases of sexual violence and gender-based violence were registered in seven provinces of DRC from 2011 to 2013.”

Fungulana worries that women will be even more at risk should there be a rebellion against the president serving a third term of office.

Jean Claude Katenda, president of the African Association for Human Rights in DRC, told IPS that the “people will contest the results and people will die [protesting against it]. It’s dangerous for the democracy. Corruption will circulate.”

However, Luzanga  Shamandevu, spokesman of presidential majority, denied this would happen and said that they would accept the outcome if the constitution was reviewed.

However, some are willing to take their chances with a changed constitution.

“I don’t understand why political opposition and Presidential Majority are divided! Let us see what the country will become if the Congolese constitution is reviewed,” Simon Kapalay, a teacher at Kikwit, in the southwest of DRC, told IPS.

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OP-ED: Surging Violence Against Women in Iraq Fri, 27 Jun 2014 11:12:09 +0000 Zahra Radwan and Zoe Blumenfeld Iraq’s latest surge in sectarian violence threatens to unleash a wave of new violence against women. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photograph by Sgt. Jason W. Fudge

Iraq’s latest surge in sectarian violence threatens to unleash a wave of new violence against women. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photograph by Sgt. Jason W. Fudge

By Zahra Radwan and Zoe Blumenfeld
SAN FRANCISCO, Jun 27 2014 (IPS)

Shortly after their conquest of Mosul, young men armed with assault rifles went door to door in Iraq’s second-largest city, taking “women who are not owned” for jihad al-nikah, or sex jihad.

From Jun. 9-12, women’s rights activists documented 13 cases of women who were kidnapped and raped by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or DAIISH, the Arabic shorthand for the group’s name. Of the 13 women, four of them committed suicide because they couldn’t stand the shame. One woman’s brother committed suicide because he could not bear the fact that he was unable to protect his sister.“The political process that the U.S. government put in place is a total failure and they [the United States] just left. The damage is not on them, it’s on us now.” -- Yanar Mohammad

The dispatches from Mosul are just one account of the extreme violence that has plagued Iraq since Sunni ISIS militants seized control over large portions of the country. Being awoman in Iraq was difficult before the current conflict. But the current wave of militarisation threatens to make life even worse.

“Women are being taken in broad daylight,” said Yanar Mohammad, co-founder and president of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, a Global Fund for Women grantee partner. “Men have the weapons to do whatever they want and [ISIS'] way of dealing with things is to kill.”

Now military leaders are handing guns to young, untrained, undereducated, and unemployed Shia men. These men are promised big salaries if they leave their homes to fight, according to an anonymous Global Fund ally in Baghdad.

“When we [women] commute to our office, walk in the street, or take the bus, we experience harassment,” added the Global Fund ally, who remains anonymous due to security concerns. “But now, all of the men have weapons. I think maybe he will kidnap or shoot me if I don’t do what he wants. They will shoot and do anything, and because of the fatwa [urging able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against Sunni extremists] no one asks questions.’”

Sectarian violence slows women’s progress

With a death toll of 1,000 and rising since the beginning of June, the sectarian conflict has forced most women’s rights organisations to scale back their programmes.

The Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq was in the middle of a campaign against Article 79 of the Jaafari Personal Status Law— a law which, among other women’s rights violations, would grant custody over any child two years or older to the father in divorce cases, lower the marriage age to nine for girls and 15 for boys, and even open the door for girls younger than nine to be married with a parent’s approval. Now it takes everything the organisation has just to keep their shelters open and women safe.

“We cannot speak of women’s rights now unless we are speaking of the livelihood of those who are totally jeopardised, such as women who lost families and young girls who are vulnerable to corrupt officials or clerics,” said Yanar Mohammad. “We went from legal work and improving rights of women to working in a state of emergency and trying to find the lowest chain in society and get them to safety.”

The tangled web the U.S. wove

Such extreme sectarian violence is a relatively new phenomenon in Iraq, reflects Yanar Mohammad, who is “sick and tired” of Western pundits on TV saying there is no hope for Iraq.

“The mainstream media trashing Iraqi people is unbearable and is a total manipulation of the facts of America’s role in dividing Iraqi people,” said Yanar Mohammad. “The political process that the U.S. government put in place is a total failure and they [the United States] just left. The damage is not on them, it’s on us now.”

The damage comes in the form of, among other things, a generation that didn’t have access to education.

“This generation listens to whatever the clerics and politicians say,” said Yanar Mohammad. “They are ready to throw themselves in the fire and they do it in the name of their Imam. … Both politicians and religious heads are pushing the country into a very sectarian divide and it’s frightening.”

Refugees flee to Kurdish region

As the fighting intensifies in northern and western Iraq, over 300,000 people have already fled to the Kurdish region for safety, where the United Nations and relief organisations have set up a refugee camp in the arid region of Khazer.

“It is very hot and there is no water; we were not prepared for this influx of refugees,” says a Global Fund ally in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. “The situation is by no means sustainable. The majority has nowhere to go and is staying in parks. Entire families are left without the most basic of shelter, food, and clothes.”

While these waves of displacement to Kurdistan include Shia, Sunni, and Christian families, the pressure on Iraqi Christians has been strongest due to the infamous brutality of ISIS.

“Christian women in the areas controlled by ISIS are forced to wear hijab or face death,” said a Global Fund ally who lives in Baghdad. “They must pay a protection tax, or jizyah to ISIS to stay safe.”

If the violence is not seriously addressed, our ally in Erbil says Iraqi women know exactly what is going to happen next because they have endured it over and over again since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and during the first and second Gulf War.

“We know what has happened to women in Iraq — a lot of murders and violations — and we have already suffered to an unbearable extent,” said the Global Fund ally in Erbil. “There is nothing they haven’t done to us, which is why panic spreads among women as soon as we hear of another crisis. Women are used as a weapon for retaliation.”

Zahra Radwan is the programme officer for Middle East & North Africa at Global Fund for Women and Zoe Blumenfeld is the communications manager at Global Fund for Women. They are both guest columnists at Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.

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Mexico Rape Victims Face Prison Time for Self-Defence Fri, 27 Jun 2014 01:51:52 +0000 Daniela Pastrana Yakiri Rubí Rubio, a young Mexican woman, was jailed for three months and is at risk of being sent back to prison for killing her rapist in self-defence. Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

Yakiri Rubí Rubio, a young Mexican woman, was jailed for three months and is at risk of being sent back to prison for killing her rapist in self-defence. Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

By Daniela Pastrana
MEXICO CITY, Jun 27 2014 (IPS)

“I just want all this to be over,” Yakiri Rubí Rubio, a young Mexican woman facing trial for killing the man who raped her in December 2013, laments to IPS.

The 21-year-old Rubio lives in the bustling neighbourhood of Tepito, one of the most dangerous areas of Mexico City.

On the evening of Dec. 9 she set out to meet her girlfriend when she was approached by two men in the street. They abducted her at knifepoint and took her on their motorcycle to a hotel, according to Rubio’s statements throughout the investigation.

She testified that both men beat her, then one of them, a 90-kilogram 37-year-old called Miguel Ángel Anaya, raped her while his brother, Luis Omar Anaya, went out for a smoke. Rubio fought her attacker and wounded him in the abdomen and neck with his own knife. Miguel Ángel fled the hotel on his motorbike, bleeding.

“Thousands of women have been raped and then killed, and their killers walk free. But a rape victim who defends her own life ends up in prison, while one of her attackers is at liberty." -- journalist and activist Lydia Cacho
Rubio also ran out of the hotel and asked some police officers for help. Bleeding and half naked, she got to a branch of the Public Prosecutor’s Office three blocks away.

While her various wounds were being treated, including a 14-centimetre gash on her arm, Luis Omar Anaya arrived and accused her of murdering his brother in a lovers’ quarrel, a specious argument according to her defence lawyers, since Rubio is a lesbian.

Rubio was charged with homicide, an offence punishable by 20 to 60 years in prison, and sent to a facility for women who have already been convicted and sentenced.

Three months later a judge reclassified her offence as “legitimate self-defence with excessive violence”, and set bail at 10,000 dollars. Her family paid this sum, with great difficulty; she was freed pending trial and had to appear weekly in court.

Now she lives shut up in her home, because of the constant threats she and her family receive. She only goes out in the company of her parents.

“She went from one kind of prison to another,” said Marina Beltrán, who raised Rubio since she was six months old, and was present at the interview with IPS.

Luis Omar Anaya denied taking part in the abduction and said he was at his home, a short distance from the hotel, when his brother arrived, at death’s door.

On Monday Jun. 23 Anaya petitioned a federal judge to revoke Rubio’s conditional release. The appeal must be decided within 90 days. IPS tried to interview Anaya’s lawyer, without success.

The entire legal process has thrown a protective cloak around the Anaya brothers, including subsequent fabrication of evidence against Rubio.

In the view of organisations working for the defence of women’s rights in Mexico, Rubio has become a symbol in the fight against machismo in the justice system, where the norm is to disparage the complaints of women who have been raped.

“Thousands of women have been raped and then killed, and their killers walk free. But a rape victim who defends her own life ends up in prison, while one of her attackers is at liberty,” wrote journalist and activist Lydia Cacho.

This case, at least, has shown all the defects of the justice system where rape is concerned.

The Land of Femicide

In Mexico, a country of 118 million people, an average of 6.4 women are murdered every day. Half of these are femicides, that is, gender-related murders motivated by sexism or misogyny.

The term femicide emerged from the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez, in the northern state of Chihuahua, in 1993.

In Chihuahua the murder rate for women is 15 times higher than the world average.

But the problem has grown. Between 2006 and 2012 alone, femicides in Mexico increased by 40 percent, according to the report “From Survivors to Defenders: Women Confronting Violence in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.”
Every year 15,000 rapes are reported in Mexico, but only 2,000 come to trial and less than 500 result in a conviction, according to the 1985-2010 report on Violence and Femicide in Mexico by parliament and government agencies and U.N. Women.

The real situation is much worse because only 12 to 15 percent of women and girls who are raped report it, according to information presented by Amnesty International in July 2012 to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Amnesty International is not aware of the existence of any proof that the number of rapes is falling or that trials and convictions with sentencing are rising, the organisation said.

In Rubio’s case, officials at the Public Prosecutor’s Office took nine days to open an investigation into the rape and refer the case to the special prosecution service for crimes of violence against women.

She was not examined by a gynaecologist, nor was she given psychological care or contraceptive pills, as the law in the federal district of Mexico City requires.

Mexican Official Standard 046, in force since 2005, states that in the case of rape, institutions providing medical care “must offer emergency contraception immediately and up to 120 hours after the event” and are obliged to “provide medical abortion services.”

Failure to do so is another form of machismo, defence lawyer Ana Katiria Suárez, who is acting pro bono for Rubio, told IPS. She said the category of “excessive force” in legitimate self-defence is mostly used against women rape victims.

The main precedent for this case occurred in February 1996 in the state of Mexico, largely occupied by Greater Mexico City. On leaving a party, a young woman shot and killed her friend’s boyfriend who attempted to rape her.

A judge ruled then that, since his blood alcohol level was extremely high and hers was not, the aggressor was not responsible for his actions while she was in control of hers.

“Excess violence in legitimate self-defence is absurd!” Rubio’s mother complained. “How can you defend yourself a little bit?”

The nuance is decisive. Had the judge not ruled excessive violence when the offence was reclassified, Rubio would have been exonerated; but if she is found guilty of excessive violence, she will have to pay her rapist’s family more than 28,000 dollars for “damages.”

In contrast, Rubio’s rape complaint is at a standstill because the federal district prosecution service considers that the aggressor has paid in full. The prosecutors have not considered reparations for the harm done, or regarded the participation of the second attacker.

Six months after the rape, Rubio and her family are battling on two fronts: in the legal sphere, for her to be acquitted of murder and for reparations to be made, and on the personal level, to live without fear and get their lives back.

During this time her parents have given up their jobs and her brothers and sisters have left school. The family is receiving psychological support, and Rubio has had to learn how to deal with the press.

“At first it was dreadful, I would start crying because every time I had to talk about what happened I would relive it over again. Now I don’t cry any more. I just want it all to be over,” she said.

She also wants to go back to studying. “I used to prefer working. But now I would like to study law to help other women who are going through the same thing I did, but don’t have a lawyer like mine,” she said, finally summoning up a faint smile.


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India’s ‘Temple Slaves’ Struggle to Break Free Sun, 22 Jun 2014 14:42:31 +0000 Stella Paul Joginis dance outside a temple during a religious festival. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Joginis dance outside a temple during a religious festival. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
NIZAMABAD, India, Jun 22 2014 (IPS)

At 32, Nalluri Poshani looks like an old woman. Squatting on the floor amidst piles of tobacco and tree leaves that she expertly transforms into ‘beedis’, a local cigarette, she tells IPS, “I feel dizzy. The tobacco gives me headaches and nausea.”

At the rate of two dollars for 1,000 cigarettes, she earns about 36 dollars a month. “I wish I could do some other job,” the young woman says longingly.

But no other jobs are open to her in the village of Vellpoor, located in the Nizamabad region of the southern Indian state of Telangana, because Poshani is no ordinary woman.

She is a former jogini, which translates loosely as a ‘temple slave’, one of thousands of young Dalit girls who are dedicated at a very young age to the village deity named Yellamma, based on the belief that their presence in the local temple will ward off evil spirits and usher in prosperity for all.

Poshani says she was just five years old when she went through the dedication ritual.

First she was bathed, dressed like a bride, and taken to the temple where a priest tied a ‘thali’ (a sacred thread symbolising marriage) around her neck. She was then brought outside where crowds of villagers were gathered, held up to their scrutiny and proclaimed the new jogini.

“Women here now see the jogini system as a violation of Dalit people’s human rights." -- Kolamaddi Parijatam, a rights activist in Vellpoor.
For several years she simply lived and worked in the temple, but when she reached puberty men from the village – usually from higher castes who otherwise consider her ‘untouchable’ – would visit her in the night and have sex with her.

Poshani says she was never a sex worker in the typical sense of the word, because she was never properly paid for her ‘services’. Rather, she was bound, by the dedication ritual and the villagers’ firm belief in her supernatural powers, to the temple.

The only time of year she was considered anything more than a common prostitute was during religious festivals, when she performed ‘trance’ dances as a divine medium through which the goddess Yellamma spoke.

But the majority of her nearly three decades of servitude was marked by violence, and disrespect.

Although a strong anti-jogini campaign in Vellpoor is making strides towards outlawing the centuries old practice, women like Poshani have little to celebrate. Though she relishes being free from sexual bondage, she struggles to survive on her own with no home, no land and a debt-burden of 200,000 rupees (about 3,300 dollars), which she borrowed from a local moneylender.

Visibly undernourished, Poshani represents the condition that most mid-life joginis find themselves in: sexually exploited, trapped in poverty, sick and lonely.

A cultural tradition or a caste-based system of exploitation?

According to official records, there are an estimated 30,000 joginis – also known as devdasis or matammas – in Telangana today. An additional 20,000 live in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh.

In both states, over 90 percent of the joginis are from Dalit communities.

Temple prostitution has been legally banned in the state of Andhra Pradesh since 1988. Under the law, known as the Jogini Abolition Act, initiating a woman into the system is punishable with two to three years, and with a fine of up to 3,000 rupees (33 dollars).

But this is too soft a law for so heinous a crime, says Grace Nirmala, a woman’s rights activist based in the state capital Hyderabad. Nirmala, who heads an organisation called Ashray (meaning ‘shelter’), has been working for over two decades to rescue and rehabilitate jogini women.

“[Joginis] live away from their families and have no rights […],” Nirmala tells IPS. “Her life is completely ruined. For that, the punishment is a couple of years of jail time or a few thousand rupees in fines. How can this be justified?”

She added that most policemen in the state are not even aware of the law, which makes it hard to abolish the practice completely.

Superstition also plays a major role in keeping the tradition alive, with many villagers believing that joginis possess divine powers.

“Sleeping with a jogini […] is a way to invoke that supernatural power and please the goddess,” Nirmala explained. “In many families, if there is a nagging problem, the wife will ask her husband to go and sleep with the village jogini so that it will go away.”

Others, however, believe that India’s deeply entrenched caste-system is responsible for perpetuating this systematic abuse of so many thousands of women.

According to Jyoti Neelaiah, a Hyderabad-based Dalit rights leader, “The jogini system is not just a violation of women’s rights but a also of human rights, because it’s always a Dalit woman who is made a jogini and those whom she serves are always from a dominant caste.”

She tells IPS the whole system is, in fact, a “power play” by which dominant social groups oppress the weaker, more marginalised members of society.

In Telangana, for instance, some of the biggest supporters of the jogini system are members of the wealthy, land-owning Reddy caste, as well as Brahmin priests.

Kolamaddi Parijatam, a social activist who has been mobilising rural women against the jogini system for the past six years, including those in the village of Vellpoor, which is home to 30 joginis, shares Neelaiah’s analysis.

She refutes the theory put forward by various organisations and even scholars that the practice of dedicating women to the local temple has deep cultural roots and should therefore be preserved.

Given that Dalits comprise nearly 17 percent of the population of the newly created state of Telangana, activists say that villages like Vellpoor are well placed to lead the movement for legal reform.

“Women here now see the jogini system as a violation of Dalit people’s human rights,” Parijatam tells IPS. “So whenever anyone says that the jogini system is a cultural tradition, they ask: ‘Then why not make a non-Dalit woman a jogini?’”

Local efforts gain steam

Enraged at the government’s inability to clamp down on the practice, local women have doubled up as vigilantes in a bid to rescue women from the dedication ceremony.

“Dedications of joginis typically occur between the months of February and May when people in our region celebrate the festival of the goddess Yellamma,” Subbiriyala Sharada, head of an all-jogini women’s group in Vellpoor, tells IPS.

“Our group strictly monitors the celebrations and if we get to know a girl has been dedicated to the goddess, we immediately call the police.”

Having been apathetic to the plight of joginis for decades, police are gradually beginning to act in accordance with the law, largely due to pressure from local activist groups. However, their progress is very slow, and activists carry the lion’s share of the burden of reporting violations of the law and ensuring the arrest of perpetrators.

But this, too, only solves part of the problem, because as soon as the dedication ritual is performed, the girl will continue to live with the stigma – remaining vulnerable to sexual slavery – until she is either properly rehabilitated, or until the end of her life.

Activists are currently lobbying the Indian government to divert resources from its ‘Special Component Plan’ – which provides social and economic support to marginalised communities in the form of vocational training, financial loans and alternative livelihood opportunities – to the rehabilitation of joginis, who have long been excluded from government assistance schemes.

Their inclusion as legitimate recipients of aid would significantly reduce the burden on most jogini women, who struggle – among other things – to raise their children in a safe environment.

According to Neelaiah, children of joginis risk verbal abuse and alienation in the community if their mother’s identity is revealed. Girl children are particularly vulnerable, as they face the double risk of being trafficked or forcible dedicated to the deity in their mother’s place.

These girl children are in special need of protection, she says.

Both Neelaiah and Nirmala are helping to send children of joginis to school, which they feel is the best way to protect them.

Fifteen-year-old Prashant, son of a former jogini named Ganga Mani, is one of the lucky ones who managed to complete the 10th grade and is now planning to enroll in a high school.

Mani, who is barely literate, is pinning all her hopes on her son for a better future. “One day he will become a big police officer. Our life will then change,” she tells IPS with a smile.


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