Inter Press Service » Gender Violence Turning the World Downside Up Tue, 02 Jun 2015 18:29:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The U.N. at 70: Time to Prioritise Human Rights for All, for Current and Future Generations Wed, 20 May 2015 13:23:26 +0000 Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

By Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin

Seventy years ago, with the founding of the United Nations, all nations reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.

The commitment to fundamental human rights that was enshrined in the United Nations Charter and later in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lives on today in many other treaties and agreements, including the Programme of Action of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development.There is a wealth of indisputable evidence that when sexual and reproductive health is integrated into broader economic and social development initiatives, it can have a positive multiplier effect on sustainable development and the well-being of entire nations.

The Programme of Action (PoA) , endorsed by 179 governments, articulated a bold new vision about the relationships between population, development and individual well-being.

And it was remarkable in its recognition that reproductive health and rights, as well as women’s empowerment and gender equality, are the foundation for economic and social development.

The PoA is also rooted in principles of human rights and respect for national sovereignty and various religious and cultural backgrounds. It is also based on the human right of individuals and couples to freely determine the number of their children and to have the information and means to do so.

Since it began operations 46 years ago, and guided by the PoA since 1994, the United Nations Population Fund has promoted dignity and individual rights, including reproductive rights.

Reproductive rights encompass freedoms and entitlements involving civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

The right to decide the number and spacing of children is integral to reproductive rights and to other basic human rights, including the right to health, particularly sexual and reproductive health, the right to privacy, the right to equality and non-discrimination and the right to liberty and the security of person.

Reproductive rights rest not only on the recognition of the right of couples and individuals to plan their families, but also on the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health.

The impact of the PoA has been nothing short of revolutionary for the hundreds of millions of women who have over the past 21 years gained the power and the means to avoid or delay a pregnancy.

The results of the rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health, including voluntary family planning, have been extraordinary. Millions more women have become empowered to have fewer children and to start their families later in life, giving them the opportunity to complete their schooling, earn a better living and rise out of poverty.

And now there is a wealth of indisputable evidence that when sexual and reproductive health is integrated into broader economic and social development initiatives, it can have a positive multiplier effect on sustainable development and the well-being of entire nations.

Recent research shows that investments in the human capital of young people, partly by ensuring their right to health, including sexual and reproductive health, can help nations with large youth populations realize a demographic dividend.

The dividend can help lift millions of people out of poverty and bolster economic growth and national development. If sub-Saharan Africa realized a demographic dividend on a scale realized by East Asia in the 1980s and 1990s, the region could experience an economic miracle of its own.

The principles of equality, inalienable rights, and dignity embodied in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Programme of Action are relevant today, as the international community prepares to launch a 15-year global sustainable development initiative that builds on and advances the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals, which come to a close later this year.

The new Post-2015 Global Sustainable Development Agenda is founded on principles of equality, rights and dignity.

Upholding these principles and achieving each of the proposed 17 new Sustainable Development Goals require upholding reproductive rights and the right to health, including sexual and reproductive health.

Achieving the proposed goal to ensure healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages, for example, depends in part on whether individuals have the power and the means to prevent unintended pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection, including HIV.

Human rights have guided the United Nations along the path to sustainability since the Organisation’s inception in 1945. Rights, including reproductive rights, have guided UNFPA along that same path for decades.

As we observe the 70th anniversary of the United Nations and look forward to the post-2015 development agenda, we must prioritise the promotion and protection of human rights and dignity for every person, for current and future generations, to create the future we want.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: Bangladesh’s Persecuted Indigenous People Mon, 18 May 2015 21:25:20 +0000 Julia Bleckner

Julia Bleckner is a Senior Associate in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

By Julia Bleckner
NEW YORK, May 18 2015 (IPS)

The August 2014 killing of Timir Baran Chakma, an indigenous Jumma activist, allegedly in Bangladeshi military custody, was protested by his supporters. His death, and the failure of justice, like the plight of his people across the Chittagong Hills region, received little international notice.

Photo courtesy of Julia Bleckner

Photo courtesy of Julia Bleckner

Representatives of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission came to New York this month to shed light on the dire situation in the border region between India and Burma. Describing the ongoing crisis to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, they expressed one clear and simple ask: to finally implement the terms of a peace accord established almost two decades ago between the government and local armed groups.

One member of the community told the U.N. that the Bangladesh government has taken “repressive measures and deployed heavy military,” adding that instead of ensuring their protection, the military presence “has only aggravated human rights violations.”

In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, the indigenous groups—who mostly practice Theraveda Buddhism and speak local dialects of Tibeto-Burman languages—have a long endured displacement and suffering. In the late 1970s, then-president Ziaur Rehman instituted a government-run “population transfer programme” in which the government provided cash and in-kind incentives to members of the country’s majority Bengali community to move to the Chittagong Hills area, displacing the local population.

From 1977, the military moved into the region in response to the rise of local armed groups opposed to the “settlers” and the imposition of Bengali identity and language.The army’s failure to protect the Jumma from settlers, and in some cases aiding in attacks on indigenous families, has been well documented.

In the years following, there were credible reports of soldiers subjecting the indigenous civilians to abuses including forced evictions, destruction of property, arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings. According to one source, more than 2,000 indigenous women were raped during the conflict from 1971-1994. The security forces were implicated in many cases of sexual violence.

The 1997 peace accord aimed to bring an end to this violence and officially recognised the distinct ethnicity and relative autonomy of the tribes and indigenous people of the Chittagong Hills region.

However, 17 years later, the terms of the peace accord still have not been implemented. Instead, the Jumma face increasing levels of violence from Bengali setters, with no effective response from the state.

Members of the CHT Commission, a group of activists monitoring the implementation of the 1997 peace accord, told Human Rights Watch that the settlers have attacked indigenous homes, shops, and places of worship—in some cases with the complicity of security forces. There are reports of clashes between the two communities.

The situation is so tense that even some members of the CHT Commission were attacked by a group of settlers in July 2014. The perpetrators are yet to be identified and prosecuted.

The peace accord specifically called for the demilitarisation of the Chittagong Hills area. But nearly two decades later, the region remains under military occupation. The army’s failure to protect the Jumma from settlers, and in some cases aiding in attacks on indigenous families, has been well documented.

Successive Bangladeshi governments have failed to deliver the autonomy promised by the peace accord, representatives of the CHT Commission said. Instead the central government has directly appointed representatives to the hill district councils without holding elections as mandated by the peace accord.

With the tacit agreement of the military, Bengali settlers from the majority community have moved into the Chittagong Hills, in some cases displacing the Jumma from their land without compensation or redress.

The Kapaeeng Foundation, a foundation focused on rights of the indigenous people of Bangladesh, has reported that at least 51 women and girls suffered sexual violence inflicted by Bengali settlers and the military in 2014, while there have already been 10 cases as of May 2015.

Earlier this year a group of Bengali settlers gang raped a Bagdi woman and her daughter, according to the Foundation. The perpetrators are seldom prosecuted. In some instances, survivors—such as the Bagdi women—who file cases at the local police station have faced threats from the alleged perpetrators if they do not withdraw their case.

In an effort to block international attention to the plight of the Jumma, in January, the Bangladesh Home Ministry introduced a discriminatory directive which, among other things, increased military checkpoints and forbade both foreigners and nationals from meeting with indigenous people without the presence of government representatives.

In May, under national public pressure, the Home ministry withdrew the restrictions. But in practice, the government continues to restrict access by requiring foreigners to inform the Home Ministry prior to any visit.

The Jumma people have waited far too long to be heard. It’s time we listen. Implementing the Chittagong Hills peace accord would be an important first step.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Murders of Gays Raise the Question of Hate Crimes in Cuba Sat, 16 May 2015 16:16:45 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez “Homosexuality Isn’t a Danger; Homophobia Is” reads a sign held by an activist from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community during a demonstration in the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“Homosexuality Isn’t a Danger; Homophobia Is” reads a sign held by an activist from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community during a demonstration in the Cuban capital. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, May 16 2015 (IPS)

During the events surrounding the eighth annual celebration of the Day Against Homophobia in Cuba, it emerged that a young transsexual had recently been killed in the city of Pinar del Río near the western tip of this Caribbean island nation.

While efforts to combat discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals (LGBT) are stepped up in Cuba, this segment of the population remains vulnerable to harassment and violence – and even death.

The Apr. 26 murder of Yosvani Muñoz, 24, which is under investigation, as the legal advice office of the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX) confirmed to IPS, raised questions about a sensitive and little-known issue in Cuba: hate crimes.

IPS asked experts and members of the LBGT community about the causes of killings of “men who have sex with men” (MSM), of which no official statistics have been published, but which have been reported periodically since 2013 by word of mouth, or in blogs or alternative media outlets.

Hate crimes include verbal abuse, threats, physical assaults and homicides motivated by prejudice based on questions like sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnic group or religion.

“We are fighting hate crimes together with the Interior Ministry (which the police answers to),” CENESEX director Mariela Castro said in exclusive comments to IPS. Castro is the most visible face of the national campaign in favour of freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“A thorough expert analysis is needed to determine what kind of killing it was because not all crimes involving LGBT persons as victims are motivated by hatred,” Castro, a sexologist, explained during the May 5-16 events surrounding the Day Against Homophobia.

With a big Cuban flag and smaller rainbow flags representing gay pride, LGBT persons participate in one of the events in Havana surrounding the eighth annual celebration of the Day Against Homophobia in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

With a big Cuban flag and smaller rainbow flags representing gay pride, LGBT persons participate in one of the events in Havana surrounding the eighth annual celebration of the Day Against Homophobia in Cuba. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

In Havana and the eastern province of Las Tunas, this year’s activities, focused on the right to work, had the support for the first time of Cuba’s trade union federation Central de Trabajadores de Cuba and the blessing of protestant pastors for more than 30 gay and lesbian couples.

The activities involved a festive conga line and demonstration with signs and banners, video clips, and debates on the rights of LGBT persons to information, freedom of thought, access to justice, personal safety, and violence-free lives.

The situation in Latin America

In Latin America only Uruguay specifically mentions hate crimes in its legislation, while Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico have laws against discrimination that take into account aggravating circumstances in certain crimes, and some Brazilian states have anti-discrimination clauses in their local constitutions.

Because of the lack of official figures, non-governmental organisations compile information that is not systematised.

The Centre for AIDS Education and Prevention in Nicaragua documented some 300 hate crimes against the LGBT population, especially trans women, in Central America from 2009 to 2013. In Mexico and Brazil the number of crimes targeting this population group is high.

In Cuba, the Ibero-American and African Masculinity Network is the only organisation that has published the results of investigations, without explaining the methods used to compile the information. It reported that in 2013 it heard about “more than 40 murders of homosexuals” killed in the same circumstances as the cultural figures Velázquez and Díaz.

They preceded the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which is observed on May 17 because on that date in 1990, the World Health Organisation (WHO) general assembly removed homosexuality from the global body’s list of mental disorders.

Castro said “theft and common crime are more frequent aspects in murders of homosexuals, according to the data presented to us by the DGICO (criminal investigation bureau),” which receives advice from and collaborates with CENESEX.

“There might be a hate crime murder once in a while, but they are very few,” she said.

The sexologist added, however, that “the number of hate crimes is not completely clear because of the lack of a specialised institution dedicated to classifying them….and this classification is important because the old term ‘crime of passion’ hides gender violence, violence between men, and violence between couples.”

Violent crime is generally surrounded by silence in this island nation of 11.2 million people, and killings of LGBT individuals are no exception. The 1987 penal code does not specifically recognise hate crimes, or sexual orientation and gender identity as aggravating circumstances in murders.

The law provides for sentences of 15 to 30 years in cases of homicide, and the death penalty is still on the books, although it has not been applied since 2003.

“MSM are at greater risk of being killed than women,” Castro said, citing the results of DGICO investigations regarding a category of men that includes gays, bisexuals and transsexuals.

“Part of the gay population does not perceive the danger when they irresponsibly choose sexual partners, without information,” she said. “They seek out young men who work as prostitutes, some of whom are criminals and try to rob them, and even kill when they defend themselves.”

Along with its work raising awareness to prevent HIV/AIDS, CENESEX warns of other risks posed by irresponsible sexual practices in gay meeting and recreational places or community social networks.

Oneida Paz, a 59-year-old manager, has not heard of murders or rapes of lesbians, a population group she belongs to. “Violence among women can exist, but it’s not common,” she said. “I do have friends who have been injured, because they were married to men who beat them when they got into a relationship with another woman.”

CENESEX said the number of murders of MSM in 2013 and 2014 was high. At that time the issue came to the forefront because of the deaths of two high-profile openly gay cultural figures, who died in strange circumstances, according to activists.

The local media, which is entirely state-owned, gave ample coverage to the violent deaths of choreographer Alfredo Velázquez, 44, in September 2013 in the eastern city of Guantánamo, and theatre director Tony Díaz, 69, found dead in his Havana home in January 2014. But they only mentioned their careers in the arts.

“I haven’t seen statistics and I’m no expert, but the murders I know about were ruthless. We’re killed for some reason, like theft or vengeance, but also because we’re gay,” said Leonel Bárzaga, a 33-year-old chemical engineer who told IPS about the murder of his friend Marcel Rodríguez.

Rodríguez, a 28-year-old gay professional, was stabbed 12 times on Jan. 6 in his central Havana home. “The police haven’t shared the results of their investigation yet,” said Bárzaga, who preferred not to discuss the specific motives for the murder.

Veterinarian Manuel Hernández, 41, said “I haven’t heard of murders of gays. But verbal attacks are definitely common in small towns, and in the workplace there’s a lot of discrimination,” above all in the rural town where he lives, Quivicán, 45 km south of Havana.

“It wouldn’t be crazy to talk about ‘hate crimes’ against LGBT persons in Cuba,” said Jorge Carrasco, a journalist who investigated gay gathering places in the capital in 2013. “That’s a term used by the Cuban police, in fact, and it’s not a product of paranoia. But I know as little about them as any other Cuban.”

Based on his interviews conducted in lonely outlying parts of the city, like the Playa del Chivo, a beach frequented by MSM to talk, arrange meetings and have sex with strangers, Carrasco explained by email that “many criminals go to those places to steal, and there have been murders. That’s why the police patrol them.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Campaign to End Sexual Violence Targets Civilian Peacekeepers First Wed, 13 May 2015 20:25:21 +0000 Lyndal Rowlands Different jurisdictions and immunities apply to civilian and military personnel, made more obscure by a lack of transparency and detail in the U.N.’s reporting of abuse cases. Photo: UN Photo/Pasqual Gorriz

Different jurisdictions and immunities apply to civilian and military personnel, made more obscure by a lack of transparency and detail in the U.N.’s reporting of abuse cases. Photo: UN Photo/Pasqual Gorriz

By Lyndal Rowlands

“We can really argue as much as we want but if we put ourselves in the skin of victims, we just have to do something to stop this.”

This was Graça Machel’s appeal at the launch of Code Blue, the campaign to end impunity for sexual violence by United Nations (U.N.) peacekeeping personnel Wednesday.“Each country will act according to what it thinks is appropriate and more often than not rather than a full-fledged investigation you simply see a plane arriving and a bunch of people being put on a plane and disappearing." -- Lt. General Roméo Dallaire

Machel, a renowned human rights advocate, spoke of her own dismay when researching the landmark U.N. study ‘The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children’.

“We came across, eye to eye, women and girls who had been abused by U.N. peacekeeping personnel – it was shocking to us,” Machel said.

Peacekeeping is about more than military peace but also about bringing peace in people themselves, Machel said.

Her sentiments were shared by a panel of international leaders, including Lt. General Roméo Dallaire, Force Commander for the U.N. mission during the Rwandan genocide; Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, former Under-Secretary General; Theo Sowa, CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund; and Paula Donovan Co-director of AIDS-Free World, the organisation spearheading Code Blue.

The panel implored the United Nations and world leaders to act, and called for a truly independent Commission of Inquiry, with unobstructed access to U.N. records and correspondence, and full subpoena power.

Mahel called for the response to cut through the complex technicalities that raised many questions from the media present at the launch.

The problem is truly complex, with different jurisdictions and immunities applying to civilian and military personnel, made more obscure by a lack of transparency and detail in the U.N.’s reporting of cases.

One issue discussed at the forum was Code Blue’s decision to first focus on civilian personnel. The founders of Code Blue argued that this is an important first step to addressing the overall problem.

IPS spoke with Dr Roisin Burke, author of the book ‘Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by U.N. Military Contingents,’ who said that while she agreed that the “jurisdictional vacuum” surrounding civilian personnel needed to be addressed, she also hoped that Code Blue would equally tackle sexual abuse and sexual exploitation by both military and civilian personnel.

“The vast majority of U.N. operations, 70-80 percent of the people who are deployed are military, so you’ve got hundreds of thousands of military personnel deployed across the world,” Burke said.

“Per person, it’s happening more with civilian personnel, the problem is that doesn’t mean that in terms of numbers that it’s happening more.”

The panel also discussed the problems among military personnel, which Code Blue plans to address after first tackling the problem of bureaucratic delays around immunities impairing investigations into civilian personnel.

Lt. General Dallaire also discussed the problems associated with investigating allegations against military personnel who continue to fall under the jurisdiction of their home country.

“Each country will act according to what it thinks is appropriate and more often than not rather than a full-fledged investigation you simply see a plane arriving and a bunch of people being put on a plane and disappearing,” said Dallaire.

“There is far too much centralisation and taking away the ability of those in the field to be able to do the investigation in a timely fashion,” he said.

The panel disagreed with the idea that troop contributing countries will be less likely to send troops if their troops risk prosecution for sexual abuse.

“I come from Bangladesh, the largest troop contributing country. Bangladesh will welcome very much setting the standards high,” Chowdhury said.

Dallaire also agreed that this argument did not hold up and that it was holding the U.N. to ransom.

The first problem Code Blue plans to address though is immunity for civilian personnel. Donovan said that it was often not possible to substantiate allegations against civilian peacekeepers because bureaucracy gets in the way.

“The first step that kicks off the bureaucracy is immunity,” she said.

Immunity is not meant to cover sexual exploitation and abuse because personnel are only covered by immunity during their normal functions as a U.N. staff member. However, Donovan said that there are significant delays because each individual case has to be reviewed by the secretary-general before immunity can be waived. During this time evidence is eroded and witnesses disappear, making a successful investigation almost impossible.

Chowdhury told IPS he believed the U.N. should no longer hide behind legal difficulties and should take the moral high ground in these situations. He added that addressing sexual exploitation and abuse was important if the U.N. was serious about involving more women in peacekeeping operations.

An internal expert report leaked by AIDS-Free World earlier this year said that there is considerable under-reporting of these cases.

Sowa spoke passionately, saying it was heartbreaking this issue had to be discussed, “when the U.N. becomes the protector of predators instead of the prosecutor of predators, that destroys me because I believe in the U.N.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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The Definition of ‘Rape’ Cannot Change with a Marriage Certificate Tue, 12 May 2015 17:40:24 +0000 Neeta Lal A couple performs a ritual at an Indian wedding. Experts say that every year, thousands of women experience marital rape, which is yet to be decriminalised in India. Credit: Naveen Kadam/CC-BY-2.0

A couple performs a ritual at an Indian wedding. Experts say that every year, thousands of women experience marital rape, which is yet to be decriminalised in India. Credit: Naveen Kadam/CC-BY-2.0

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, May 12 2015 (IPS)

“I was brutally raped thrice by my husband. He kept me under surveillance in his Dubai house while I suffered from severe malnutrition and depression. When I tried to flee from this hellhole, he confiscated my passport, deprived me of money and beat me up,” recalls Anna Marie Lopes, 28, a rape survivor who after six years of torture, finally managed to board a flight to New Delhi from the United Arab Emirates in 2012.

Today, Lopes works at a non-profit in India’s capital, New Delhi, and is slowly picking up the shards of her life. “Life’s tough when you have to start from scratch after such a traumatic experience with no support even from your parents. But I had no other choice,” Lopes tells IPS.

"Is the government saying that it is acceptable for men to rape their wives? Or does it believe that marriage is a licence for sexual violence on the pretext that this constitutes upholding Indian culture and values?” -- Amitabh Kumar, the Centre for Social Research
Her story is different from that of thousands of Indian women only in that it has a somewhat happy ending. For too many others who are victims of marital rape, escape is not an option, keeping them trapped in relationships that often leave them broken.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that over 40 percent of married women in India between 15 and 49 years of age have been beaten, raped or forced to engage in sexual intercourse with their spouses.

In 2011, a study released by the International Center for Research on Women, a Washington-based non-profit, said one in every five Indian men surveyed admitted to forcing their wives into sex.

Only one in four abused women has ever sought help, the survey stated, adding women are much less likely to seek help for sexual violence than for physical violence. When violated, women typically approach family members rather than the police.

Given this ominous and entrenched social reality, the present government’s reluctance to criminalise marital rape on the grounds that marriage is “sacred” in India has fuelled an intense debate.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary said in a statement to the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Indian parliament) last week that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, could not be “suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors, including level of education, illiteracy, poverty […] religious beliefs [and the] mindset of the society.”

Human rights campaigners are up in arms about this statement, claiming that in addition to it affirming the country’s patriarchal mindset, it besmirches India’s reputation as a liberal and equitable democracy.

“Is the government saying that it is acceptable for men to rape their wives? Or does it believe that marriage is a licence for sexual violence on the pretext that this constitutes upholding Indian culture and values?” asked Amitabh Kumar of the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based think tank.

“A rape is a rape, and […] infringes upon the victim’s fundamental rights,” Kumar told IPS.

Currently, marital rape, defined as forceful sexual intercourse by a husband without the consent of his wife – leading to the latter being physically and sexually battered – is governed by Section 375 of India’s Penal Code.

The law expressly states that forced sexual intercourse by a man with his wife, provided the latter is not under 15 years of age, does not constitute rape.

Though the Domestic Violence Act passed in 2005 recognises sexual abuse in a marital relationship, legal eagles say it offers only civil recourse, which cannot lead to a jail term for the abusive spouse.

Following the gang rape of a young medical student in New Delhi in December 2012, the groundswell of public angst in India led the then-ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to set up a commission tasked with reforming the country’s anti-rape laws.


Anna Marie Lopes, 28, is a survivor of marital rape who now works at a local non-profit in New Delhi. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Anna Marie Lopes, 28, is a survivor of marital rape who now works at a local non-profit in New Delhi. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

The three-member Justice Verma Committee recommended that sexual violence between spouses be considered rape and be punishable as a criminal offence.

However the government, which at the time was helmed by the Congress Party, dismissed the committee’s suggestion by arguing that such a move would wreck the Indian institution of marriage.

“If marital rape is brought under the law, the entire family system will be under great stress,” said a report by lawmakers submitted to parliament in 2013. The government eventually cleared a new sexual assault law, one that did not criminalise marital rape.

Experts say the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government is toeing a similarly conservative line to its predecessor.

BJP Spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi stated last week, “We will give prominence to our institutions,” suggesting that the government has little intention of acting on the recommendations of the Verma Committee, or demands from civil society.

In January this year, the Supreme Court rejected a woman victim’s petition to declare marital rape a criminal offence, arguing that nationwide legislation couldn’t be tweaked for one person.

Even now, the legal community is splintered over the merits and demerits of criminalising marital rape.

While senior criminal lawyer Ram Jethmalani and former Supreme Court Justice K T Thomas have publicly endorsed the government’s viewpoint that the law must not be changed, others beg to differ.

“The institution of marriage is an integral part of Indian culture. But this has not stopped us from bringing in the anti-dowry law or domestic violence legislation,” New Delhi-based human rights lawyer Soumya Bhaumik told IPS.

“If a husband can be tried for murdering his wife, why can’t he be tried for raping her? The entire concept of consent or definition of rape does not change with a marriage certificate.”

Bhaumik also referred to documented cases of husbands or even wives forcing themselves upon their spouses, leading to not just physical but mental and emotional trauma as well.

“The current Domestic Violence Act treats such episodes as civil cases. This means that erring spouses are issued restraining orders or the aggrieved party is given a protection order. However, there is no provision for putting the guilty party behind bars,” he stated.

The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has recommended that India make it criminal for a man to rape his wife.

Marital rape has already been criminalised in the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, most European nations, Malaysia, Turkey and Bolivia.

This places India in a tiny global minority – along with China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – which refuses to criminalise this form of assault.

Some experts feel that the Indian government’s reservations over the issue may stem from fears about a communal or religious backlash. The Hindu Marriage Act 1955 states that it is a wife’s foremost duty to have sex with her husband.

This entrenched attitude, as well as a lack of economic independence, acts as a barrier for women who might otherwise come forward to report the crime.

“Most women don’t come forward to complain about such rapes as they fear that jail for the breadwinner will spell doom for family and kids,” Winnie Singh, executive director of Maitri, a Delhi-based non-profit that works for the rehabilitation of underprivileged women, told IPS.

“According to our research, conviction has been less than one percent in such cases.”

Singh also blames a cumbersome legal process that puts the onus on the woman to prove that a rape has occurred, something that few women are willing to take on given low conviction rates.

According to a report by Aashish Gupta of the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), despite an increase in reporting among survivors following the passage of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, rape continues to remain under-reported.

Only about six of every 100 acts of sexual violence committed by men other than husbands actually get reported, reveals Gupta’s report.

Experts like Singh feel that in such a scenario, sensitisation and mass education are vital to bringing about awareness and ensuring justice for the victims.

“Stepping up rehabilitation efforts as well as large-scale visual campaigns by the government and human rights organisations involving all stakeholders are the only ways to safeguard women from this heinous crime,” she stressed.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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NGOs Urge Commission of Inquiry to Probe Sexual Abuse in U.N. Peacekeeping Tue, 12 May 2015 17:31:54 +0000 Thalif Deen Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, addresses a press conference on the investigation into alleged sexual abuse of children in the Central African Republic by foreign military troops during the French military intervention in that country on May 8, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/Violaine Martin

Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, addresses a press conference on the investigation into alleged sexual abuse of children in the Central African Republic by foreign military troops during the French military intervention in that country on May 8, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/Violaine Martin

By Thalif Deen

A rising tide of sexual abuse in U.N. peacekeeping operations has triggered the launch of a high-level campaign to end the continued attacks on women and children and an urgent call for the creation of an independent commission of inquiry.

The latest “horrible” sexual attacks have been attributed to French peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) although U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said they were “not under the command and control of the United Nations.”"The truth is startling and simple: No new mechanisms, no new methods of operation, no new policies can ever work in practice to prevent or punish sex abusers on staff who commit sexual offenses at present, because the U.N. bureaucracy responsible for implementing changes is completely dysfunctional." -- Paula Donovan

“We do hope that anyone who engaged in the atrocious activities involving children in the Central African Republic face justice and are prosecuted,” he told reporters last week.

Paula Donovan, co-director at AIDS-Free World, who helped break the story of a long-suppressed report on sexual abuse in CAR, told IPS: “From confusion and ineptitude on the ground, to cover-ups at the highest levels of the U.N. in New York, Member States must subject U.N. peacekeeping to a rigorous, entirely independent commission of inquiry with complete access to documents and staff.”

Until that happens, any new polices or procedures will fail, just as the current policies and procedures do, in their implementation, said Donovan, a former executive officer at the U.N. Children’s agency UNICEF and regional advisor, East and Southern Africa.

Last year, there were more than 50 cases of sexual abuse at the hands of U.N.-supported field personnel, although the actual number is said to be far higher.

But the existence of diplomatic immunity is said to allow perpetrators to go unpunished and avoid legal constraints.

A longstanding proposal, going to back to 2008, for an international convention to punish those accused of sex crimes in U.N. operations overseas never got off the ground.

But against the backdrop of the current campaign, called Code Blue, the proposal may be revived, even though it could be shot down by developing countries who provide most of the soldiers in the 16 peacekeeping operations currently under way, with an estimated total of 106,595 military personnel and 17,000 civilian staff.

The largest contributors of peacekeepers include Bangladesh (9,307 troops), Pakistan (8,163), India (8,112), Ethiopia (7,864) and Rwanda (5,575), according to the latest U.N. figures.

Asked whether an international convention will deal more effectively with sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. staff, police and experts on mission (who are currently covered by the 1946 Convention on Privileges and Immunities), a sceptical Donovan told IPS “jurisdictional issues are incredibly complex in peacekeeping operations.”

“But the truth is startling and simple: No new mechanisms, no new methods of operation, no new policies can ever work in practice to prevent or punish sex abusers on staff who commit sexual offenses at present, because the U.N. bureaucracy responsible for implementing changes is completely dysfunctional,” she declared.

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, international coordinator, Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, a programme partner of the International Civil society Action Network, told IPS the proposed convention is long overdue.

“If not now, when?” she asked. “It’s time to close the accountability gap. We have addressed this point in our recent international security sector workshop.”

She said: “I am hopeful about this convention and we will advocate for its adoption and ratification. We, in civil society, are always hopeful—as that is one of our sources of strength amidst growing conservatism among governments and as a result, repression of civil society.

“At the same time, we are also realistic as we have our ears close to the ground. We know what is happening. The information we receive is not filtered—unlike what U.N. headquarters and government missions receive.”

So, realistically speaking, she had doubts that troop contributing countries (TCCs) will actually support such a convention—except maybe the European countries and Canada.

However, these are not the biggest troop contributing countries. The biggest TCCs are in the developing world, she pointed out.

“We should do active lobbying with the big TCCs and show them that the convention will be useful to them—it can serve as a guide for Member States to monitor their troops; and in investigating and prosecuting troops who have committed crimes,” she added.

A 2008 report of the ‘Ad Hoc Committee on Criminal Accountability of U.N. Officials and Experts on Mission’ said “some delegations reiterated the view that it was premature to discuss the possibility of negotiating an international convention on the topic, as had been proposed by the Group of Legal Experts, and as had been subsequently supported by the Secretariat in its note.”

It was argued, the report said, that it was necessary to understand the actual impediments to prosecution, before embarking on the negotiation of a convention.

Some delegations expressed support, in principle, for a convention requiring member states to exercise jurisdiction over their nationals participating in U.N. operations.

The report further added: “It was noted that while bilateral agreements existed in the area, they provided incomplete coverage and did not usually address judicial cooperation between States and the United Nations.”

Cabrera-Balleza told IPS the TCCs should also put themselves in the shoes of the recipient countries. Don’t they want to see accountability if crimes are committed against their own people?

“I am also hoping that this convention would include mandatory training on U.N. Security Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, 1820 and supporting resolutions on women, peace and security (WPS). The TCCs should be mandated to train their troops prior to deployment and debrief using the WPS resolutions as guide after deployment.”

She said the United Nations also has a Conduct and Discipline Unit under the Department of Field Support that maintains global oversight of the state of discipline in peacekeeping operations and special political missions.

“However, I once had a discussion with a Conduct and Discipline Officer in a peacekeeping mission and we asked him if they are integrating UNSCR 1325 in their training and he had no clue what I was taking about,” she said.

The U.N. is committed to a zero- tolerance policy against sexual exploitation and abuse but its Member States are not. The convention will bring some coherence, she declared.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Close to a Thousand Nigerian Girls Freed, Many Malnourished or Pregnant Mon, 04 May 2015 23:50:33 +0000 Lisa Vives By Lisa Vives
NEW YORK, May 4 2015 (IPS)

Boko Haram, fleeing to a new hideout, has abandoned hundreds of women and girls in the Sambisa forest where the high school girls from Chibok were initially taken over one year ago. It is not certain, however, that the freed girls and women were part of the 200 plus kidnapped victims of Boko Haram, officials say.

Over the past few weeks, Nigerian troops claim to have rescued about 1,000 women and girls. “Many of them told us that they have been hungry for days,” said Sani Datti, spokesman for Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency.

However, kidnapping is still advancing and at least 2,000 new women and girls have been taken by the militants, according to Amnesty International.

Less mentioned are the boys seized and forced to become child soldiers. As many boys have been kidnapped as girls but the military hasn’t reported freeing boys in any significant number.

Boko Haram may have abandoned the girls but continues to occupy territory beyond Nigeria. A video released last month announced a new name (Iswap) for Islamic State’s West Africa Province and a pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State (IS).

“It would be naive on the part of Nigeria’s authorities to think it is on the brink of victory,” wrote Tomi Oladipo for BBC Lagos. Sambisa forest is mine-infested and it is likely the Iswap fighters know this terrain better than the military does, he wrote. “The Nigerian military is likely to face its toughest battle yet,” he affirmed.

The head of the United Nations Population Fund, Babatunde Osotimehin, discussed the rehabilitation of the rescued women and children. He said his organisation had put in place a formidable team to restore the dignity of the girls, who were facing severe psychosocial trauma.

Interviews with some of the rescued girls appeared on the BBC website. According to the former hostages, Boko Haram fighters began pelting the women with stones when they refused to flee with their captors. Some were killed in that incident, the women said. Others were killed inadvertently by the military during the rescue operation.

“Soldiers did not realize that we were not the enemies,” and some women were run over by their trucks,” survivor Asama Umoru told the news station.

“Every day, we witnessed the death of one of us and waited for our turn,” said Asabe Umaru, a 24-year-old mother of two.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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In India, a Broken System Leaves a ‘Broken’ People Powerless Mon, 04 May 2015 13:02:18 +0000 Neeta Lal In India, close to a million Dalit women work as manual scavengers: labourers who are forced to empty out dry latrines with their bare hands. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

In India, close to a million Dalit women work as manual scavengers: labourers who are forced to empty out dry latrines with their bare hands. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, May 4 2015 (IPS)

As India paid glowing tributes to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the architect of its constitution and a champion of the downtrodden, on his 124nd birth anniversary last month, public attention also swivelled to the glaring social and economic discrimination that plagues the lives of lower-caste or ‘casteless’ communities – who comprise over 16 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people.

The Right to Equality – enshrined in the Indian Constitution in 1950 – guarantees that no citizen be discriminated on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 further lays down a penalty of imprisonment from six months to a year for violators.

"Men would shuffle in and out of my room at night as if I had no right over my body, only they did. It broke me down completely." -- A 27-year-old Dalit woman, forced to serve as a 'temple slave' in South India
Yet, despite constitutional provision and formal protection by law, the world’s largest democracy is still in the grip of what erstwhile Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described as “caste apartheid”: a complex system of social stratification that is deeply entrenched in Indian culture.

For millions of Dalits, or ‘untouchables’, existing at the bottom of India’s caste pyramid, discriminatory treatment remains endemic and continues to be reinforced by the state and private entities.

A 2014 survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) revealed that one in four Indians across all religious groups admitted to practising untouchability.

This heinous practice manifests itself in multiple ways: in some villages, students belonging to higher castes refuse to eat food cooked by those who fall under the Dalit umbrella, which encompasses a host of marginalised groups.

In parts of the central state of Madhya Pradesh – which researchers say is one of the worst geographic offenders when it comes to untouchability – Dalit children are ostracised, or made to sit separately in school and served food from a distance.

A detailed study of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a government-sponsored programme aimed at achieving universal primary education, found three kinds of exclusion faced by students protected under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) Act — by teachers, by peer groups and by the entire academic system.

This includes “segregated seating arrangements, undue harshness in reprimanding SC children, excluding SC children from public functions in the school and making derogatory remarks about their academic abilities”, among others.

Legal protections, but no implementation

India’s infamous caste system, considered a dominant feature of the Hindu religion and widely perceived as a divinely-sanctioned division of labour, ascribes to Dalits the lowliest forms of menial labour including garbage collection, removal of human waste, sweeping, cobbling and the disposal of animal and human bodies.

Data from the 2011 census reveals that some 800,000 Dalits are engaged in ‘manual scavenging’ – though some estimates put the number at closer to 1.3 million.

Despite enactment of The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993, which provides for punishment, including fines, for those employing scavengers, hundreds of thousands of Dalits continue to clear human waste from dry latrines, clean sewers and scour septic tanks and open drains with their bare hands.

Dalits have historically been condemned to perform the lowliest forms of manual labour, from cobbling to garbage collection. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Dalits have historically been condemned to perform the lowliest forms of manual labour, from cobbling to garbage collection. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

In a blatant violation of this law, several Government of India offices continue to have such labourers on their payrolls. The majority of manual scavengers are women, who are forced to carry the waste on their heads for disposal in dumps, generally situated on the outskirts of towns or cities.

Over the years, scholars, researchers and academics have echoed what the members of the Dalit community already know to be true: that caste in India largely determines the limits of a person’s economic, social or political life.

Denied access to land, education and formal job markets, Dalit peoples face an additional hurdle: routine sexual, physical and verbal abuse by higher-caste communities and even law enforcement personnel, making it nearly impossible to seek justice or even basic recourse against discrimination.

Beena J Pallical, a member of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, an umbrella group comprising various Dalit organisations, told IPS that even in the 21st century Dalits still remain the most vulnerable, marginalised and brutalised community in India.

“There is systemic and systematic exclusion of this class mainly because the political will to empower them is missing despite a raft of policy guidelines,” she said.

From as far back as India’s fifth Five-Year Plan (1974-75), provision has been made for channelling government funds into services and benefits for scheduled castes.

Schemes like the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP) for Scheduled Tribes and the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan were introduced to allocate portions of the government’s yearly budget proportionate to the size of each demographic in need of state funds. Currently, scheduled castes comprise 16.2 percent of the population, while scheduled tribes now account for 8.2 percent of the population.

However, despite these policy guidelines, successive Indian governments have consistently ignored laws on allocation and lagged behind on implementation. According to Dalit activist Paul Divakar, analyses of federal and state budgets reveal that denial, non-utilisation and diversion of funds meant for the upliftment of scheduled tribes and castes are fairly routine practises.

“This clearly demonstrates that economic development of this [demographic] is not the government’s priority,” Divakar told IPS. “The Dalits continue to lag behind because of non-implementation of policies and lack of targeted development, which should be made punishable under Section 4 of The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

“A majority of these people continue to languish in extreme poverty and unemployment because of their social identity and lack of resources. A holistic state intervention is vital for their all-round development,” he added.

Extreme violence

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a crime is committed against a Dalit by a non-Dalit every 16 minutes; every day, more than four untouchable women are raped, while every week 13 Dalits are murdered and six kidnapped.

In 2012, 1,574 Dalit women were raped and 651 Dalits were murdered.

Dalit women and girls, far removed from legal protections, also continue to be exploited as ‘temple slaves’ – referred to locally as ‘joginis’ or ‘devadasis’. In a practice that dates back centuries in India, Dalit girls – some as young as five years old – believed to be born as ‘servants of god’, are dedicated in an elaborate ritual to serve a specific deity.

Bound to the temple, they are forced to spend their childhood as labourers and their adult life as prostitutes, although the custom was outlawed in 1989.

Twenty-seven-year-old Annamma* a jogini at a temple in Tamil Nadu, recalls how men (including priests) raped her for five years before she managed to escaped to a women’s home in New Delhi last month.

“It was as if I wasn’t even a human being,” she told IPS. “Men would shuffle in and out of my room at night as if I had no right over my body, only they did. It broke me down completely.”

In Sanskrit, the word Dalit means suppressed, smashed, or broken to pieces. Sixty-seven years after India’s independence, millions of people are still being broken, physically, emotionally and economically, by a system and a society that refuses to treat them as equals.

*Name changed upon request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Unsafe Abortions Continue to Plague Kenya Sat, 02 May 2015 11:43:33 +0000 Robert Kibet By Robert Kibet
NAIROBI, May 2 2015 (IPS)

She is just 14, but Janida avoids eye contact with others, preferring to look down at the ground and nodding her head if someone tries to engage her in conversation.

Janida (not her real name) was once a sociable and playful child, but that was before she was sexually abused by her stepfather and giving birth to a baby who is now four months old.

Her days marked by trauma and depression, Janida is just one of many girl children in Kenya who have been abused and robbed of their childhood, leaving them emotionally scarred.

“The little girl [Janida] underwent both physical and mental torture,” Teresa Omondi, Deputy Executive Director and Head of Programmes at the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Kenya, told IPS. ”Her best option was to terminate the pregnancy rather than suffer the mental and physical torture, but she could not afford the cost of a safe abortion.”Many of the induced abortions taking place continue to be unsafe and complications are common” – Teresa Omondi, Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Kenya

Under Article 26 (4) of the Kenyan constitution, “abortion is not permitted unless, in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law.”

In September 2010, Kenya’s Ministry of Health released national guidelines on the medical management of rape or sexual violence – guidelines that allow for termination of pregnancy as an option in the case of conception, but require psychiatric evaluation and recommendation.

Then, in September 2012, the health ministry released standards and guidelines on the prevention and management of unsafe abortions to the extent allowed by Kenyan law, only to withdraw them three months later under unclear circumstances.

According to Omondi, “the law has not yet been fully put into operation and many providers have not been trained to provide safe abortion, meaning many of the induced abortions taking place continue to be unsafe and complications are common.”

The health ministry is responsible for doctors and nurses not being permitted to be trained on providing safe abortion, said Omondi, so “it is ridiculous that while Kenya’s Ministry of Health accepts that post-abortion care is a public health issue regarding numbers, practitioners have their hands tied.”

The issue of unsafe abortions in Kenya hit the headlines in September last year, when Jackson Namunya Tali, a 41-year-old nurse, was sentenced to death by the high court in Nairobi for murder, after the death of both Christine Atieno and her unborn baby in a botched illegal abortion.

Various inter-African meetings attended by Kenya have been held on reducing maternal mortality rates by providing safe abortions, with health ministers agreeing that statistics show that countries that do provide safe abortions have reduced their maternal mortality rates.

In a recent analysis, Saoyo Tabitha Griffith, Reproductive Health Rights Officer at FIDA and an advocate at the High Court of Kenya, said that despite Kenya having adopted a Constitution that affirms among others, women’s rights to reproductive health and access to safe abortion, Kenyan women continue to die from unsafe abortion – a preventable cause of maternal mortality.

For Dr Ong’ech John, a health specialist in Nairobi, perforated uteruses and intestines, heart and kidney failures, anaemia requiring blood transfusion as well as renal problems are just a few of the health complications arising from an abortion that goes wrong.

“Unsafe abortion complications are not just about removal of the products of conception that were not completely removed. One can evacuate but the perforated uterus has to be repaired, or you remove the uterus and it is rotten,” Dr Ong’ech told IPS.

“When the health ministry issued a directive in February this year instructing all health workers, whether from public, private or faith-based organisations, not to participate in any training on safe abortion practices and the use of the medication abortion, many questions were left unanswered,” said Omondi.

A highly respected Kenyan doctor, Dr John Nyamu, spent one year in prison in 2004 after his clinic was raided following the discovery of 15 foetuses on major roads together with planted documents from a hospital he had worked for but had since closed.

Speaking of his ordeal with Mary Fjerstand, a senior clinical advisor at Ipas, a global non-governmental organisation dedicated to ending preventable deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortion, Nyamu said that the publicity surrounding his imprisonment helped people to “realise the magnitude and consequences of unsafe abortion in Kenya; women were dying in great numbers. Before that, abortion was never spoken of in public.”

He went on to say that Kenya wants to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of a 75 percent reduction in maternal mortality, but that “it can’t be achieved if safe abortion is not available.”

A May 2014 World Health Organisation (WHO) updated fact sheet indicates that every day, approximately 800 women die worldwide from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, with 99 percent of all maternal deaths occurring in developing countries.

Edited by Phil Harris   

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No Woman, No World Mon, 27 Apr 2015 22:00:12 +0000 Sean Buchanan By Sean Buchanan
LONDON, Apr 27 2015 (IPS)

Almost exactly two years ago, on the morning of Apr. 24, over 3,600 workers – 80 percent of them young women between the ages of 18 and 20 – refused to enter the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, because there were large ominous cracks in the walls. They were beaten with sticks and forced to enter.

Forty-five minutes later, the building collapsed, leaving 1,137 dead and over 2,500 injured – most of them women.

The Rana Plaza collapse is just one of a long series of workplace incidents around the world in which women have paid a high toll.

It is also one of the stories featured in the UN Women report Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016: Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights, launched on Apr. 27.

All too often women fail to enjoy their rights because they are forced to fit into a ‘man’s world’, a world in which these rights are not at the heart of economies.
Coming 20 years after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, which drew up an agenda to advance gender equality, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016 notes that while progress has since been made, “in an era of unprecedented global wealth, millions of women are trapped in low paid, poor quality jobs, denied even basic levels of health care, and water and sanitation.”

At the same time, notes the report, financial globalisation, trade liberalisation, the ongoing privatisation of public services and the ever-expanding role of corporate interests in the development process have shifted power relations in ways that undermine the enjoyment of human rights and the building of sustainable livelihoods.

Against this backdrop, all too often women fail to enjoy their rights because they are forced to fit into a ‘man’s world’, a world in which these rights are not at the heart of economies.

What this means in real terms is that, for example, at global level women are paid on average 24 percent less than men, and for women with children the gaps are even wider. Women are clustered into a limited set of under-valued occupations – such as domestic work – and almost half of them are not entitled to the minimum wage.

Even when women succeed in the workplace, they encounter obstacles not generally faced by their male counterparts. For example, in the European Union, 75 percent of women in management and higher professional positions and 61 percent of women in service sector occupations have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace in their lifetimes.

The report makes the link between economic policy-making and human rights, calling for a far-reaching new policy agenda that can transform economies and make women’s rights a reality by moving forward towards “an economy that truly works for women, for the benefit of all.”

The ultimate aim is to create a virtuous cycle through the generation of decent work and gender-responsive social protection and social services, alongside enabling macroeconomic policies that prioritise investment in human beings and the fulfilment of social objectives.

Today, “our public resources are not flowing in the directions where they are most needed: for example, to provide safe water and sanitation, quality health care, and decent child and elderly care services,” says UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. “Where there are no public services, the deficit is borne by women and girls.”

According to Mlambo-Ngcuka, “this is a care penalty that unfairly punishes women for stepping in when the State does not provide resources and it affects billions of women the world over. We need policies that make it possible for both women and men to care for their loved ones without having to forego their own economic security and independence,” she added.

The report agrees that paid work can be a foundation for substantive equality for women, but only when it is compatible with women’s and men’s shared responsibility for unpaid care work; when it gives women enough time for leisure and learning; when it provides earnings that are sufficient to maintain an adequate standard of living; and when women are treated with respect and dignity at work.

Yet, this type of employment remains scarce, and economic policies in all regions are struggling to generate enough decent jobs for those who need them. On top of that, the range of opportunities available to women is limited by pervasive gender stereotypes and discriminatory practices within both households and labour markets. As a result, the vast majority of women still work in insecure, informal employment.

The reality is that women also still carry the burden of unpaid work in the home, which has been aggravated in recent years by austerity policies and cut-backs. To build more equitable and sustainable economies which work for both women and men, warns the report, “more of the same will not do.”

At a time when the global community is defining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the post-2015 era, the message from UN Women is that economic and social policies can contribute to the creation of stronger economies, and to more sustainable and more gender-equal societies, provided that they are designed and implemented with women’s rights at their centre.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Peace Is Not a Boy’s Club Mon, 27 Apr 2015 12:50:44 +0000 Valentina Ieri When armed conflict in the Casamance region of Senegal flared up afresh in December 2010, women organised a demonstration calling for peace. Credit: Abdullah Vawda/IPS TerraViva

When armed conflict in the Casamance region of Senegal flared up afresh in December 2010, women organised a demonstration calling for peace. Credit: Abdullah Vawda/IPS TerraViva

By Valentina Ieri

Governments have long pledged to bring more women to the peace table, but for many (if not most), it has been little more than lip service.

In a bid to accelerate this process, the Global Network of Women Peace-builders (GNWP) in partnership with the Permanent Missions of Chile and the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United Nations organised an international workshop on Apr. 23 to better integrate the Women, Peace, Security (WPS) U.N. Security Council Resolutions within the security sector.

The seminar focused on recommendations for the implementation of Resolutions 1325 and 1820 at the international, regional and national level, in order to bring more women to the peace tables in conflict areas, and bring their perspectives into post-conflict reconstruction processes.

According to the 2014 Secretary-General’s report on WPS, a reform of the security sector is needed in order to accomplish these goals.

Speaking from U.N. Headquarters in New York, the International Coordinator of GNWP, Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, stressed “the need for a systematic implementation of Resolution 1325 at the international level.”

In the past three years, GNWP has conducted over 50 localisation workshops in 10 countries, in various communities and municipalities, inviting police officers and the military forces to learn about Resolution 1325.

“It is no surprise to us when they come to our localisation workshops that these officers hear about Resolution 1325 for the very first time. However, working only at the local level is hard, because final approvals come from the higher ups, in order to actually get a full reform and training of officers of the security sector,” highlighted Cabrera-Balleza.

The GNWP is not only calling for a global reform of the security sectors and armed forces for the inclusion of women in peace-building, but also for demilitarisation of countries and the elimination of conflicts to achieve peace worldwide.

Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, former under-secretary general and member of the High-Level Advisory Group for Global Study on Resolution 1325, who was present at the seminar, underlined the inadequacy of governments and peacekeepers in protecting civilians, and especially women, in recent years.

“(We need) the integration of the culture of peace and non-violence in national and global policies, and education for global citizenship. We need a human security policy, and a more inclusive human way of thinking about our future, where women and men can share equally the construction of a safer and just world,” he said.

One positive example of the inclusion of women during peace negotiations comes from the Philippines.

Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, chair of the Philippine Government Peace Panel with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), explained that after 17 years of peace negotiations between the Philippine authorities and the MILF, in the last two decades, the government and armed forces have moved toward the “civilianisation” of peace processes.

“More and more women were allowed in, either as members of the bureaucracy or government, or civil society leaders, or academia members, and they have all been sitting at the peace table.”

As Coronel-Ferrel said, women brought a more gender-based response into the signing of the final peace agreement between the government and the MILF.

“Not only because there were more women inside the negotiating tracks, but also women around the panels, who would be lobbying the government but also the counter party, making sure that diverse frameworks would be included in the text.”

In addition, the reform of the security sector in the Philippines created local monitoring teams, where either police officers or lower ranking members of the armed forces worked closely with MILF members, leading to trust building and cooperation for better security on the ground, concluded Coronel-Farrel.

Participating in the event were also officers from police and military forces from Argentina, Australia, Burundi, Canada, Colombia, Ghana, Nepal, countries which are implementing reforms within their security sectors at the local, regional and national level.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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U.N. Helpless as Crises Rage in 10 Critical Hot Spots Tue, 21 Apr 2015 10:22:47 +0000 Thalif Deen A U.N. peacekeeper from Niger is ready to begin a patrol at the Niger Battalion Base in Menaka, in eastern Mali, Feb. 25, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

A U.N. peacekeeper from Niger is ready to begin a patrol at the Niger Battalion Base in Menaka, in eastern Mali, Feb. 25, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

By Thalif Deen

The United Nations is fighting a losing battle against a rash of political and humanitarian crises in 10 of the world’s critical “hot spots.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says even the U.N.’s 193 member states cannot, by themselves, help resolve these widespread conflicts.“We need more support and more financial help. But, most importantly, we need political solutions.” -- U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric

“Not a single country, however powerful or resourceful as it may be, including the United States, can do it,” he warned last week.

The world’s current political hotspots include Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic – not forgetting West Africa which is battling the spread of the deadly disease Ebola.

Historically, the United Nations has grappled with one or two crises at any given time. But handling 10 such crises at one and the same time, said Ban, was rare and unprecedented in the 70-year history of the United Nations.

Although the international community looks to the world body to resolve these problems, “the United Nations cannot handle it alone. We need collective power and solidarity, otherwise, our world will get more and more troubles,” Ban said.

But that collective power is conspicuous by its absence.

Shannon Scribner, Oxfam America’s humanitarian policy manager, told IPS the situation is serious and Oxfam is very concerned. At the end of 2013, she said, violent conflict and human rights violations had displaced 51 million people, the highest number ever recorded.

In 2014, the U.N. appealed for assistance for 81 million people, including displaced persons and others affected by protracted situations of conflict and natural disaster.

Right now, the humanitarian system is responding to four emergencies – those the U.N. considers the most severe and large-scale – which are Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, and Syria.

These crises alone have left 20 million people vulnerable to malnutrition, illness, violence, and death, and in need of aid and protection, she added.

Then you have the crises in Yemen, where two out of three people need humanitarian assistance; West Africa, with Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea asking for eight billion dollars to recover from Ebola; in Somalia, remittance flows that amount to 1.3 billion dollars annually, and are a lifeline to millions who are in need of humanitarian assistance, have been cut or driven underground due to banking restrictions; and then there is the migration and refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, where almost 1,000 people have died trying to escape horrible situations in their home countries, Scribner said.

The United Nations says it needs about 16 billion dollars to meet humanitarian needs, including food, shelter and medicine, for over 55 million refugees worldwide.

But U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters Monday virtually all of the U.N.’s emergency operations are “underfunded”.

Last month, a U.N. pledging conference on humanitarian aid to Syria, hosted by the government of Kuwait, raised over 3.8 billion dollars.

But the United Nations is appealing for more funds to reach its eventual target of 8.4 billion dollars for aid to Syria by the end of 2015.

“We need more support and more financial help,” said Dujarric. “But, most importantly, we need political solutions.”

But most conflicts have remained unresolved or stalemated primarily due to sharp divisions in the Security Council, the U.N.’s only political body armed with powers to resolve military conflicts.

Asked if the international community is doing enough, Scribner told IPS there is no silver bullet for dealing with these crises around the world because there are so many problems causing them: poverty, bad governance, proxy wars, geopolitical interests playing out; war economies being strengthened through the shipment of arms and weapons; ethnic tensions, etc.

The humanitarian system is not built for responding to the crises in the 21st century.

She said Oxfam is calling for three things: 1) More effective humanitarian response by providing funding early on and investing more in local leadership; 2) More emphasis on working towards political solutions and diplomatic action; and 3) Oxfam encourages the international community to use the sustainable development goals to lift more people out of poverty and address inequality that exists around the globe today.

Scribner said the combined wealth of the world’s richest 1 percent will overtake that of everyone else by next year given the current trend of rising inequality.

The conflicts in the world’s hot spots have also resulted in two adverse consequences: people caught in the crossfire are fleeing war-torn countries to safe havens in Europe while, at the same time, there is an increase in the number of killings of aid workers and U.N. staffers engaged in humanitarian work.

Over the weekend, hundreds of refugees and migrant workers from war-devastated Libya died in the high seas as a result of a ship wreck in the Mediterranean Sea. The estimated death toll is over 900.

On Monday, four staff members of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF were reportedly killed in an attack on a vehicle in which they were riding in Somalia, while four others were injured and remain in serious condition.

Ian Richards, president of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), told IPS: “We’re appalled at the loss of our colleagues in Garowe, Somalia and are very concerned for those injured. They truly were heroes doing great work in one of the world’s most dangerous locations.”

He said the United Nations has been clear that it will continue to operate in Somalia and “our work is needed there.”

“We support the work of our colleagues in these difficult circumstances,” he said.

At the same time, Richards told IPS, “We should not lose sight of a context in which U.N. staff and, in the case of local staff, their families, are increasingly targeted for their work.”

It is therefore important, he said, that the secretary-eneral and the General Assembly fully review the protection the U.N. provides to staff in locations where their lives are at risk, so that they may continue to provide much-needed assistance in such locations.

Oxfam’s Scribner told IPS attacks on aid workers have steadily risen over the years – from 90 violent attacks in 2001 to 308 incidents in 2011 – with the majority of attacks aimed at local aid workers. They often face more danger because they can get closer to the crisis to help others.

Because local aid workers are familiar with the landscape, speak the local language, and understand the local culture, and this also puts them more at risk, she said.

“That is why it is not a surprise that local aid workers make up nearly 80 percent of fatalities, on average, since 2001,” Scribner added.

Last year on World Humanitarian Day, the New York Times reported that the number of attacks on aid workers in 2013 set an annual record at 460, the most since the group began compiling its database, which goes back to 1997.

“These courageous men and women aren’t pulling out because they live in the very countries where they are trying to make a difference. And as such, they should be supported much more by the international community,” Scribner declared.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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From Slavery to Self Reliance: A Story of Dalit Women in South India Tue, 21 Apr 2015 07:19:07 +0000 Stella Paul BhagyaAmma, a Madiga Dalit woman and former ‘devadasi’ (temple slave), has found economic self-reliance by rearing goats in the Nagenhalli village in the Southwest Indian state of Karnataka. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

BhagyaAmma, a Madiga Dalit woman and former ‘devadasi’ (temple slave), has found economic self-reliance by rearing goats in the Nagenhalli village in the Southwest Indian state of Karnataka. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
BELLARY, India, Apr 21 2015 (IPS)

HuligeAmma, a Dalit woman in her mid-forties, bends over a sewing machine, carefully running the needle over the hem of a shirt. Sitting nearby is Roopa, her 22-year-old daughter, who reads an amusing message on her cell phone and laughs heartily.

The pair leads a simple yet contented life – they subsist on half a dollar a day, stitch their own clothes and participate in schemes to educate their community in the Bellary district of the Southwest Indian state of Karnataka.

But not so very long ago, both women were slaves. They have fought an exhausting battle to get to where they are today, pushing against two evils that lurk in this mineral-rich state: the practice of sexual slavery in Hindu temples, and forced labour in the illegal mines that dot Bellary District, home to 25 percent of India’s iron ore reserves.

Finally free of the yoke of dual-slavery, they are determined to preserve their hard-won existence, humble though it may be.

Still, they will never forget the wretchedness that once defined their daily lives, nor the entrenched religious and economic systems in India that paved the way for their destitution and bondage.

From the temple to the open-pit mine

“Walk into any Dalit home in this region and you will not meet a single woman or child who has never worked in a mine as a ‘coolie’ (labourer)." -- Manjula, a former mine-worker turned anti-slavery activist from the Mariyammanahalli village in the Indian state of Karnatake
“I was 12 years old when my parents offered me to the Goddess Yellamma [worshipped in the Hindu pantheon as the ‘goddess of the fallen’], and told me I was now a ‘devadasi’,” HuligeAmma tells IPS.

“I had no idea what it meant. All I knew was that I would not marry a man because I now belonged to the Goddess.”

While her initial impressions were not far from the truth, HuligeAmma could not have known then, as an innocent adolescent, what horrors her years of servitude would hold.

The devadasi tradition – the practice of dedicating predominantly lower-caste girls to serve a particular deity or temple – has a centuries-long history in South India.

While these women once occupied a high status in society, the fall of Indian kingdoms to British rule rendered temples penniless and left many devadasis without the structures that had once supported them.

Pushed into poverty but unable to find other work, bound as they were to the gods, devadasis in many states across India’s southern belt essentially became prostitutes, resulting in the government issuing a ban on the entire system of temple slavery in 1988.

Still, the practice continues and as women like HuligeAmma will testify, it remains as degrading and brutal as it was in the 1980s.

She tells IPS that as she grew older a stream of men would visit her in the night, demanding sexual favours. Powerless to refuse, she gave birth to five children by five different men – none of whom assumed any responsibility for her or the child.

After the last child was born, driven nearly mad with hunger and despair, HuligeAmma broke away from the temple and fled to Hospet, a town close to the World Heritage site of Hampi in northern Karnataka.

It did not take her long to find work in an open-cast mine, one of dozens of similar, illicit units that operated throughout the district from 2004 to 2011.

For six years, from dawn until dusk, HuligeAmma extracted iron ore by using a hammer to create holes in the open pit through which the iron could be ‘blasted’ out.

She was unaware at the time that this back-breaking labour constituted the nucleus of a massive illegal mining operation in Karnataka state, that saw the extraction and export of 29.2 million tonnes of iron ore between 2006 and 2011.

All she knew was that she and Roopa, who worked alongside her as a child labourer, earned no more than 50 rupees apiece (about 0.7 dollars) each day.

One of hundreds of illegal open-pit iron ore mines in the Bellary District in India that operated with impunity until a 2011 ban put a stop to the practice. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

One of hundreds of illegal open-pit iron ore mines in the Bellary District in India that operated with impunity until a 2011 ban put a stop to the practice. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

In a bid to crack down on the criminal trade, police often raided the mines and arrested the workers, who had to pay bribes of 200-300 rupees (roughly four to six dollars) to secure their release.

In a strange echo of the devadasi system, this cycle kept them indebted to the mine operators.

In 2009, when she could no longer tolerate the crushing workload or the constant sexual advances from fellow workers, contractors and truckers, who saw the former temple slave as ‘fair game’, HuligeAmma threw herself on the mercy of a local non-governmental organisation, Sakhi Trust, which has proved instrumental in lifting both her and her daughter out of the abyss.

Today all her children are back in school and Roopa works as a youth coordinator with Sakhi Trust. They live in Nagenhalli, a Dalit village where HuligeAmma works as a seamstress, teaching dressmaking skills to young girls in the community.

Caste: India’s most unsustainable system

The story may have ended happily for HuligeAmma and Roopa, but for many of India’s roughly 200 million Dalits, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Once considered ‘untouchables’ in the Indian caste system, Dalits – literally, ‘the broken’ – are a diverse and divided group, encompassing everyone from so-called ‘casteless’ communities to other marginalised peoples.

Under this vast umbrella exists a further hierarchy, with some communities, like the Madiga Dalits (sometimes called ‘scavengers’), often discriminated against by their kin.

Historically, Madigas have made shoes, cleaned drains and skinned animals – tasks considered beneath the dignity of all other groups in Hindu society.

Most of the devadasis in South India hail from this community, according to Bhagya Lakshmi, social activist and director of the Sakhi Trust. In Karnataka alone, there are an estimated 23,000 temple slaves, of which over 90 percent are Dalit women.

Lakshmi, who has worked alongside the Madiga people for nearly two decades, tells IPS that Madiga women grow up knowing little else besides oppression and discrimination.

The devadasi system, she adds, is nothing more than institutionalised, caste-based violence, which sets Dalit women on a course that almost guarantees further exploitation, including unpaid labour or unequal wages.

For instance, even in an illegal mine, a non-Dalit worker gets between 350 and 400 rupees (between five and six dollars) a day, while a Dalit is paid no more than 100 rupees, reveals MinjAmma, a Madiga woman who worked in a mine for seven years.

Yet it is Dalit women who made up the bulk of the labourers entrapped in the massive iron trade.

“Walk into any Dalit home in this region and you will not meet a single woman or child who has never worked in a mine as a ‘coolie’ (labourer),” Manjula, a former mine-worker turned anti-slavery activist from the Mariyammanahalli village in Bellary District, tells IPS.

Herself the daughter and granddaughter of devadasis, who spent her childhood years working in a mine, Manjula believes the systems of forced labour and temple slavery are connected in a matrix of exploitation across India’s southern states, a linkage that is deepened further by the caste system.

She, like most official sources, is unclear on the exact number of Dalits forced into the iron ore extraction racket, but is confident that it ran into “several thousands”.

Destroying lives, and livelihoods

Annually, India accounts for seven percent of global iron ore production, and ranks fourth in terms of the quantity produced after Brazil, China and Australia. Every year, India produces about 281 million tonnes of iron ore, according to a 2011 Supreme Court report.

Karnataka is home to over 9,000 million tonnes of India’s total estimated reserves of 25.2 billion tonnes of iron ore, making it a crucial player in the country’s export industry.

Bellary District alone houses an estimated 1,000 million tonnes of iron ore reserves. Between April 2006 and July 2010, 228 unlicensed miners exported 29.2 million tonnes of iron ore, causing the state losses worth 16 million dollars.

With a population of 2.5 million people relying primarily on agriculture, fisheries and livestock farming for their livelihoods, Bellary District has suffered significant environmental impacts from illicit mining operations.

Groundwater supplies have been poisoned, with sources in and around mining areas showing high iron and manganese content, as well as an excessive concentration of fluoride – all of which are the enemies of farming families who live off the land.

Research suggests that 9.93 percent of the region’s 68,234 hectares of forests have been lost in the mining boom, while the dust generated through the processes of excavating, blasting and grading iron has coated vegetation in surrounding areas in a thick film of particulate matter, stifling photosynthesis.

Although the Supreme Court ordered the cessation of all unregistered mining activity in 2011, following an extensive report on the environmental, economic and social impacts, rich industrialists continue to flout the law.

Still, an official ban has made it easier to crack down on the practice. Today, from the ashes of two crumbling systems – unlawful mining operations and religiously sanctioned sexual abuse – some of India’s poorest women are pointing the way towards a sustainable future.

From servitude to self-reliance

Their first order of business is to educate themselves and their children, secure alternative livelihoods and deal with the basic issue of sanitation – currently, there is just one toilet for every 90 people in the Bellary District.

Dalit women and their children, including young boys, are working together to end the system of ‘temple slavery’ in the Southwest Indian state of Karnataka. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Dalit women and their children, including young boys, are working together to end the system of ‘temple slavery’ in the Southwest Indian state of Karnataka. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

The literacy rate among Dalit communities in South India has been found to be as low as 10 percent in some areas, but Madiga women are making a massive push to turn the tide. With the help of the Sakhi Trust, 600 Dalit girls who might have missed out on schooling altogether have been enrolled since 2011.

Today, Lakshmi Devi Harijana, hailing from the village of Danapura, has become the first Madiga woman in the region to teach in a college, while a further 25 women from her village have earned their university degrees.

To them, these changes are nothing short of revolutionary.

While some have chosen to travel the road of intellectual advancement, others are turning back to simple skills like sewing and animal husbandry.

BhagyaAmma, once an exploited temple slave who also worked in an illegal mine for several years, is today rearing two goats that she bought for the sum of 100 dollars.

She tells IPS she will sell them at the market during the holy festival of Eid al-Adha – a sacrificial feast for which a lamb is slaughtered and shared among family, neighbours and the poor – for 190 dollars.

It is a small profit, but she says it is enough for her basic needs.

Although the government promised the women of Bellary District close to 30 billion rupees (about 475 million dollars) for a rehabilitation programme to undo the damages of illegal mining, the official coffers remain empty.

“We have received applications from local women seeking funds to build individual toilets, but we have not received any money or any instructions regarding the mining rehabilitation fund,” Mohammed Muneer, commissioner of the Hospet Municipality in Bellary District, tells IPS.

Not content to wait around, the women are mobilising their own community-based, which allocates 15,000 rupees (about 230 dollars) on a rolling basis for families to build small toilets, so that women and children will not be at the mercy of sexual predators.

Also in the pipeline are biogas and rainwater harvesting facilities.

As Manjula says, “We want to build small models of economic sustainability. We don’t want to depend on anyone – not a single person, not even the government.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida


This reporting series was conceived in collaboration with Ecosocialist Horizons
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Sexual Violence in Conflict “The Contemporary Moral Issue” Says United Nations Fri, 17 Apr 2015 08:54:23 +0000 Valentina Ieri By Valentina Ieri

Impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence in war must end, said Zainab Hawa Bangura, the Special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict, who presented to the U.N. Security Council the Secretary-General’s 2015 report on the issue on April 15.

Speaking to the Council, Bangura said, “The history of war zone rape has been a history of denial. It is time to bring these crimes, and those who commit them, into the spotlight of international scrutiny.”

Calling on Council member states, Bangura remarked that sexual abuse is used in war as a tool to terrorise, displace victims and establish power, by state and non-state actors, as well as militia rebel groups.

Hamsatu Allamin, from the “Working Group on Women, Peace and Security”, a Nigerian NGO, urged the Council to find concrete solutions.

“Women’s meaningful participation in peace and security processes must be a core component of any effort to effectively reduce and address incidents of conflict-related sexual violence,” she said.

The U.N. report acknowledges for the first time the impacts of the “use of sexual rape as a war tactic upon women, girls, but also men and boys, by extremist armed groups – providing a list of 45 suspected parties – in countries such as Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and Syria.”

The study, which analysed the situation in 19 war torn countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and Middle East, described sexual violence as a “truly global crime”, coming in the form of abuse, sexual slavery, forced marriage, and nudity.

Sexual violence is also used as an instrument of discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, the report noted. It highlighted the risks for LGBT individuals, which are targeted by armed groups which seek to impose social control and “morality”.

In a previous talk at the U.N. earlier in the week, Bangura told the press that including women into the peacebuilding and peacemaking framework would be a strong step forward in offering them the possibility to increase their power and role in conflict societies.

Progress is being made, Bangura explained, as in the past two years the international community has cooperated with the African Union, the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region, and will soon with the League of Arab States. Also a number of regional organizations have appointed envoys on women, peace and security.

Follow Valentina Ieri on Twitter @Valeieri


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Acid Attacks Still a Burning Issue in India Wed, 15 Apr 2015 04:32:46 +0000 Neeta Lal Thousands of young women around the world who have survived acid attacks are forced to live with physical, psychological and social scars. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Thousands of young women around the world who have survived acid attacks are forced to live with physical, psychological and social scars. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Apr 15 2015 (IPS)

Vinita Panikker, 26, considers herself “the world’s most unfortunate woman”.

Three years ago, a jealous husband, who suspected her of having an affair with her boss at a software company, poured a whole bottle of hydrochloric acid on her face while she was asleep. The fiery liquid seared her flesh, blighting her face almost entirely while blinding her in one eye.

"It is far less tangible but the discrimination – from friends, relatives and neighbours – hurts the most." -- Shirin Juwaley, an acid attack survivor and founder of the Palash Foundation
What remains today of a once pretty visage is a disfigured and taut stretch of burnt skin with nose, lips, and eyelids flattened out almost completely. Despite spending 10,000 dollars on 12 reconstructive surgeries and two eye operations, the acid attack survivor is still partially blind.

From earning a five-figure salary as a software professional, Panikker today ekes out a living as a cook at a local non-profit. “My life has taken a 180-degree turn,” she tells IPS. “From a successful career woman, I’m now a social reject with neither resources nor family to call my own.”

Acid attacks in India have ravaged the lives of thousands of young women whose only fault was that they repudiated marriage proposals, rejected sexual advances from men they didn’t fancy, or were caught in the crossfire of domestic disputes.

In India’s patriarchal society, men who take umbrage at being spurned turn to acid as a retributive weapon.

“Acid attacks severely damage and burn skin tissue, often exposing and even dissolving the bones,” explains Rohit Bhargava, senior consultant dermatologist with Max Hospital in Noida, a suburban district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where 185 out of 309 acid attacks reported in 2014 took place.

“Long-term consequences include blindness, permanent scarring of the face and body, disability and lifelong physical disfigurement,” the doctor tells IPS.

But some survivors, whose appearance changes overnight, say the psychological scars are the ones that take longest to heal. There are social ramifications too, as the attacks usually leave victims disabled in some way, thereby increasing their dependence on family members for even the most basic daily activities.

Shirin Juwaley, an acid attack survivor who launched the Palash Foundation to address social reintegration and livelihood alternatives for people with disfigurement, says social exclusion is far more painful than any physical injury inflicted on an acid attack victim. “It is far less tangible but the discrimination – from friends, relatives and neighbours – hurts the most,” she tells IPS.

In 1998, Juwaley’s husband doused her with acid after she sought a divorce. Despite several police complaints, he still roams free, while Juwaley has had to painfully piece her life back together again.

Today she has a busy schedule, and travels the world addressing conferences and symposia on the social, financial and psychological impact of acid burns. Her organisation also studies the social exclusion of people who live with altered bodies.

Slow progress on legal deterrents

The Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), a London-based charity, tentatively estimates that some 1,000 acid attacks occur every year in India. However, in the absence of official statistics, campaigners put the true figure even higher: at roughly 400 every month.

“The fear of reprisals inhibits many women from coming forward to report their ordeal,” explains Ashish Shukla, a coordinator at Stop Acid Attacks, a Delhi-based non-profit that has rehabilitated and empowered over 100 acid attack victims since its inception in 2013.

“In India, acid attacks are even worse than rape as the victims, who are usually female, are subjected to humiliation on a daily basis. Most of the women are shunned and ostracised […],” explains Shukla.

The activist adds that public and government apathy results in a double victimisation of the survivors. “They are forced to repeatedly appear in court, recount their trauma, and [visit] doctors even as they grapple with their personal tragedy of physical disfigurement, loss of employment and social discrimination,” elaborates the activist.

As per the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, a person convicted of carrying out an acid attack in India can be sentenced to anything from 10 years to life imprisonment.

The Supreme Court ruled on Jul. 16, 2013, that all states regulate the sale of easily available substances like hydrochloric, sulfuric, or nitric acids – common choices among perpetrators – adding that buyers must provide a photo identity card to any retailer, who in turn should record each customer’s name and address.

However, most retailers IPS spoke to demonstrated complete ignorance of the law. “This is the first time I’m hearing about this ruling,” Suresh Gupta, owner of Gupta Stores, a small, family-owned outfit in Noida, tells IPS.

Campaigners say that this horrific form of gender-based violence will not end until the government makes it much harder for offenders to procure their weapon of choice; currently, one-litre bottles of acid can be purchased over the counter without a prescription for as little as 33 cents.

The Supreme Court has condemned the Centre for failing to formulate a strong enough policy to curb acid sales. In early April, the Court directed private hospitals to treat acid attack survivors free of cost, and additionally ruled that states must take action against medical facilities that fail to comply with this directive.

Experts say India should take a leaf out of the books of neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh by firming up implementation of existing laws. In Bangladesh, acid assaults have plummeted from 492 cases in 2002 to 75 last year, according to ASTI, since the government introduced the death penalty for acid attacks.

Stiffer legislation in Pakistan has resulted in a 300-percent rise in the number of women coming forward to report the crime.

Progress in India has been slower, although the state governments of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have set a good precedent by funding the entire cost of medical treatment for some acid attack survivors.

Ritu Saa is one such example. The 20-year-old who had to give up her studies following an acid attack in 2012 by her cousin is today a financially independent woman. She works at the Cafe Sheroes’ Hangout, an initiative launched by the Stop Acid Attacks campaign in the city of Agra in Uttar Pradesh, which employs several survivors.

“The campaign and the government have really helped me a lot,” Saa tells IPS. “Today, I have a job, a decent salary, good food, accommodation and am standing on my own feet.”

While acid attacks have traditionally been perceived as a problem involving male perpetrators and female victims, advocates say that attacks on men are also surging, with a third of all cases reported each year involving males embroiled in property or financial disputes.

Rights activists and campaigners contend that until the government formulates and enforces a multi-pronged approach to ending this grisly practice, scores of people in this country of 1.2 billion remain at risk of suffering a fate that some say is worse than death.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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In Bangladesh, Gender Equality Comes on the Airwaves Wed, 08 Apr 2015 23:14:03 +0000 Naimul Haq Community radio stations in Bangladesh provide newscasters the opportunity to discuss topics of relevance to rural women. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

Community radio stations in Bangladesh provide newscasters the opportunity to discuss topics of relevance to rural women. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

By Naimul Haq
DHAKA, Apr 8 2015 (IPS)

Judging by how often they make headlines, one might be tempted to believe that women in Bangladesh don’t play a major role in this country’s affairs.

A recent media monitoring survey by the non-governmental organisation Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha (BNPS) revealed that out of 3,361 news items studied over a two-month period, “Only 16 percent of newspaper stories, 14 percent of television news [items], and 20 percent of radio news [items] considered women as subjects or interviewed them.”

“Most of our audience are poor and they either don’t have access to television or cannot read newspapers. So FM radio, available even on the cheapest mobile phone, has been very popular." -- Sharmin Sultana, a news anchor for Radio Pollikontho in northeastern Bangladesh
Fewer than eight percent of all the stories had women as the central focus. Of the few women who actually made an appearance on the TV screen, 97 percent were reading out the news, while just three percent fell into the category of ‘reporters’.

Only 0.03 percent of all bylined stories studied during that period carried a woman’s name.

The monitoring report found that even though more women appeared in photographs than men, they were quoted far fewer times, proving the old proverb that, in this country of 157 million people, women are still “seen and not heard.”

While these statistics might seem daunting, women across the country who are not content to sit by and wait for the situation to change have taken matters into their own hands. They are doing so by getting on the airwaves and using the radio as a tool to raise the voices of women and bring rural issues into the limelight.

Women comprise 49 percent of Bangladesh’s population. Like the vast majority of people here they are concentrated in rural areas, where 111.2 million people – or 72 percent of the population – live.

Their distance from policy-making urban centres casts a double cloak of invisibility over women: according to data gleaned from the BNPS study, a mere 12 percent of newspaper articles, seven percent of TV news items and just five percent of radio stories focused on rural or remote areas – even though urban areas cover just eight percent of this vast country’s landmass, and host just 28 percent of the population.

The absence of women and women’s issues in the media is a dangerous trend in a country that ranked 142nd out of 187 states in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s most recent Gender Inequality Index (GII), making Bangladesh one of the worst performers in the Asia-Pacific region.

Yet, even this is not mentioned in the news: the BNPS study showed that less than one percent of over 3,000 news items surveyed made any mention of gender inequality, while only 11 news stories challenged prevailing gender stereotypes.

Given that Bangladesh has an extremely low literacy rate of 59 percent compared to the global average of 84.3 percent, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the importance of radio cannot be underestimated.

Even in a nation where 24 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, radio is a widespread, relatively affordable means of plugging into the world, and is extremely popular among the millions of rural families that comprise the bulk of this country.

Lifting the voices of rural women

Momena Ferdousi, a 24-year-old student hailing from Bangladesh’s northwestern Chapai Nawabganj District, is one of the country’s up-and-coming radio professionals.

More and more women in Bangladesh are turning to community radio as a means of spreading awareness on women’s issues. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

More and more women in Bangladesh are turning to community radio as a means of spreading awareness on women’s issues. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

She is the senior programme producer for Radio Mahananda, a community radio station launched in 2011 that caters primarily to the thousands of farming families in this agricultural region that comprises part of the 7,780-square-km Barind Tract.

She tells IPS she would not be where she is today without the support and training she, and scores of other aspiring female radio workers, received from the Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication (BNNRC).

Fellowships and capacity-building initiatives sponsored by BNNRC have resulted in a flood of women filling the posts of producers, anchors, newscasters, reporters and station managers in 14 regional community radio stations around the country.

“The road to my employment was challenging,” Ferdousi explains, “but BNNRC saw the potential in me and [other] female journalists and I believe we have made substantial changes by addressing gaps in women’s right to information.”

Miles away, the confident voice of Sharmin Sultana on Radio Pollikontho, broadcast in the northeastern district of Moulvibazar, reaches roughly 400,000 people spread over a 17-km radius.

With five hours of daily programming that focus largely on issues relevant to rural women, Radio Pollikontho has filled a huge gap in this community.

“It is an amazing feeling to conduct a programme, interact live with guests and respond to our audience’s requests to discuss health, women’s rights, social injustice, education and agriculture,” Sultana tells IPS. “When we began we had only one programme on women’s issues, now we run five programmes weekly, exclusively dedicated to women.”

“Most of our audience are poor,” she explains, “and they either don’t have access to television or cannot read newspapers. So FM radio, available even on the cheapest mobile phone, has been very popular and the demand for interactive live programmes is increasing by the day.”

The difficulties facing women here in Bangladesh are legion.

Only 16.8 million women are employed in the formal sector, with the vast majority of them performing unpaid domestic labour on top of their duties in the farm or field.

A lack of financial independence makes them extremely vulnerable to domestic violence: a recent study by the deputy director of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) found that 87 percent of currently married women have experienced physical violence at the hands of their husbands, while 98 percent say they have been sexually ‘violated’ by their spouses at some point during marriage.

The survey also revealed that one-third of all married women faced ‘economic abuse’ – the forcible withholding of a partner’s financial assets for the purpose of maintaining financial dependence on the perpetrator of violence.

In 2011, 330 women were killed in dowry-related violence.

Other issues, like child marriage, also make pressing news bulletins for community radio stations directed at women: according to United Nations data, some 66 percent of Bangladeshi girls are married before their 18th birthday.

The situation is bleak, but experts say that as women become educated and aware of their rights, the tide will inevitable turn for the better.

BNNRC Chief Executive Officer A H M Bazlur Rahman, who pioneered rural radio broadcasting efforts around the country, tells IPS, “Issues like budget allocation, lack of appropriate sanitation, violence against women, fighting corruption, [and] education for girls are [often] neglected by policy makers. But if we can give women a voice, these problems [will] gradually disappear.”

It remains to be seen whether or not more women’s voices on the air will uplift the half of Bangladesh’s population in need of empowerment. But every time a woman’s voice crackles to life on a radio show, it means one more woman out there is hearing her story, learning her rights and moving closer to equality.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Women Still Struggling to Gain Equal Foothold in Nepal Tue, 07 Apr 2015 17:31:28 +0000 Renu Kshetry A woman remains pensive during a support group meeting for families of missing persons in the south-eastern Nepali town of Biratnagar. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A woman remains pensive during a support group meeting for families of missing persons in the south-eastern Nepali town of Biratnagar. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Renu Kshetry
KATHMANDU, Apr 7 2015 (IPS)

Kali Sunar, 25, a resident of the Dumpada village in the remote Humla District in Far-West Nepal, lives a life that mirrors millions of her contemporaries.

From the minute she rises early in the morning until she finally rests her head at night, this rural woman’s chief concern is how to meet her family’s basic, daily needs.

"Women leaders have to rise above party lines if they really want to make a difference." -- Usha Kala Rai, a leader of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist)
Her small plot of arable land scarcely produces enough food to feed her family of six for three months out of the year. With few other options open to them, her husband and her brother travel to neighbouring India to work as labourers, like scores of others in this landlocked country of 27.5 million people.

“The money they send is not enough because more than half of it is spent on their travel back and forth,” Sunar tells IPS. “If only I could get some kind of work, it would be a huge relief.”

Roughly 23 million people, accounting for 85 percent of Nepal’s population, live in rural areas. Some 7.4 million of them are women of reproductive age. Many are uneducated – the female literacy rate is 57.4 percent, compared to 75 percent for men – and while this represents progress, experts say that until women in Nepal gain equal footing with their male counterparts, the lives of women like Sunar will remain stuck in a rut.

Nepal has signed a string of international treaties that promise gender parity – but many of these pledges have remained confined to the paper on which they were written.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which Nepal ratified in 1991, specifies for instance that states parties must take all necessary steps to prevent the exclusion of, or violence towards, women; sadly, this has not been a reality.

According to the Kathmandu-based Violence Against Women (VAW) Hackathon, an initiative to provide support to victims of abuse, gender-based violence is the leading cause of death among Nepali women aged 19 to 44 years – more than war, cancer or car accidents.

The organisation further estimates: “22 percent of women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence at least once since age 15; 43 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace; [and] between 5,000 and 12,000 girls and women are trafficked every year.”

Some 75 percent of these girls are under 18; the majority of them are sold into forced prostitution.

Rights activists say that the country also routinely flouts its commitment to eliminate gender discrimination in the workplace, in legal matters, and in numerous other civic, economic and social spheres.

Twenty-five-year-old Kali Sunar barely grows enough on her small plot of arable land to feed her family of six for three months out of the year. Credit: Renu Kshetry/IPS

Twenty-five-year-old Kali Sunar barely grows enough on her small plot of arable land to feed her family of six for three months out of the year. Credit: Renu Kshetry/IPS

Not only international treaties but domestic mechanisms, too, have failed to pull the brakes on sex discrimination and gender-based inequities.

A 2007 Interim Constitution, designed to ease Nepal’s transition from a constitutional monarchy to a federal republic, made provisions for women – as well as for other marginalised groups like Dalits (lower caste communities) Adivasis (indigenous and tribal groups), Madhesis (residents of the southern plains) and poor farmers and labourers – to be active political participants based on the principle of proportional inclusive representation.

These were all steps in the right direction, bolstered by the 2008 election of the Constituent Assembly (CA), which saw women occupying 33 percent of all seats in the 601-member parliament.

However, that number fell to 30 percent in the second election, held in 2013, the first after the CA failed to draft a new constitution. With only 11.53 percent of women in the cabinet, experts say there is an urgent need to increase the number of women at the decision-making level.

According to a monitoring report by the non-governmental organisation Saathi, which tracked progress on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) relating to women, peace and security, women’s participation in Nepal’s judiciary stands at an average of 2.3 percent, with 5.6 percent of women in the Supreme Court, 3.7 percent in the appellate courts, none in the special courts and 0.89 in the district courts.

Women’s representation in security agencies is even more worrisome, according to a 2012 study entitled ‘Changes in Nepalese Civil Services after the Adoption of Inclusive Policy and Reform Measures’: there are only 1.6 percent women in Nepal’s army, 3.7 percent in the armed police force and 5.7 percent in the regular police force.

Dismal numbers of female civil servants across a broad spectrum of service groups also spell trouble: women account for just 9.3 percent of civil servants in the education sector, 4.4 percent in the economic planning and statistics division, 4.9 percent in agricultural affairs, 2.2 percent in engineering and two percent in forestry.

Only in the health sector do women come anywhere close to their male counterparts, with 4,887 out of 13,936 positions, roughly 36 percent, occupied by women.

Still, even this number is low, considering the health indicators for women that could be improved by boosting women’s representation at higher levels of politics and government: according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Nepal has a maternal mortality ratio (MMR) of 190 deaths per 100,000 live births. Only 15 percent of Nepali women have access to healthcare facilities.

Data from Nepal’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) indicate that only 19.71 percent of all families exercise female ownership of land or housing, another reason why women continue to languish on the lowest rung of the social ladder with little ability to exercise their own independence.

Although Nepal’s female labour force participation rate is higher than many of its South Asian neighbours – 80 percent, compared to 36 percent in Bangladesh, 27 percent in India, 32 percent in Sri Lanka and 24 percent in Pakistan, according to the International Labour Oragnisation (ILO) – working women are burdened by social attitudes, which dictate that women undertake domestic labour as well as their other jobs.

“This makes it difficult for women to perform [in their chosen field] and have an impact,” explains Mahalaxmi Aryal, a member of the CA from the Nepali Congress.

Usha Kala Rai, a prominent women’s rights activist and politician, admits that the country has many legal grounds on which to address women’s issues, but says they are seldom utilised to their best effect.

“We completely lack the political will and the commitment to implement these legal provisions,” says Rai, a former member of the Constituent Assembly and leader of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist).

She calls for increased numbers of women in decision-making roles, but acknowledges that those who make it to the top generally come from the elite class, with the added privilege of having received a good education – thus they are not necessarily representative of women across the socio-economic spectrum.

She tells IPS she favours a system of proportional representation for all state bodies on the basis of the female share of Nepal’s population – 52 percent.

“Women leaders have to rise above party lines if they really want to make a difference,” she explains, citing the creation of the 2008 Women’s Caucus, comprised of all 197 women in the Constituent Assembly representing every major political party, to stand together for women’s rights irrespective of ideology.

However, pressure from male leaders meant that the second Constituent Assembly was unable to revive the Caucus, with the result that women no longer have a unified platform on which to voice their collective demands.

“Women politicians have been handpicked by their parties under the proportional representation (PR) [system], which makes them vulnerable to partisan politics,” political science professor Mukta Singh Lama tells IPS.

Until such a system is replaced with one that prioritises genuine inclusion of women at every level of the state, experts fear that Nepal’s women will not have an equal hand in the shaping of this country.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Threats to Afghan Women Rights Defenders Being Met with Blind Eye Tue, 07 Apr 2015 05:02:48 +0000 Sean Buchanan By Sean Buchanan
KABUL, Apr 7 2015 (IPS)

Women human rights defenders in Afghanistan face mounting violence but are being abandoned by their own government – and the international community is doing far too little to ease their plight – despite the significant gains they have fought to achieve, says Amnesty International in a new report released Apr. 7.

The report titled ‘Their Lives On The Line’ documents how champions for the rights of women and girls, including doctors, teachers, lawyers, police and journalists as well as activists, have been targeted not just by the Taliban but by warlords and government officials as well.

Rights defenders have suffered car bombings, grenade attacks on homes, killing of family members and targeted assassinations. Many continue their work despite suffering multiple attacks, in the full knowledge that no action will be taken against the perpetrators.

“Women human rights defenders from all walks of life have fought bravely for some significant gains over the past 14 years – many have even paid with their lives. It’s outrageous that Afghan authorities are leaving them to fend for themselves, with their situation more dangerous than ever,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, in Kabul to launch the report.

“With the troop withdrawal nearly complete, too many in the international community seem happy to sweep Afghanistan under the carpet. We cannot simply abandon this country and those who put their lives on the line for human rights, including women’s rights.”

There has been significant international investment to support Afghan women, including efforts to strengthen women’s rights, but too much of it has been piecemeal and ad hoc and much of the aid money is drying up, says Amnesty International.

While Taliban are responsible for the majority of attacks against women defenders, government officials or powerful local commanders with the authorities’ backing are increasingly implicated in violence and threats against women.

As one woman defender explained: “The threats now come from all sides: it’s difficult to identify the enemies. They could be family, security agencies, Taliban, politicians.”

Based on interviews with more than 50 women defenders and their family members across the country, Amnesty International found a consistent pattern of authorities ignoring or refusing to take threats against women seriously.

No woman in public life is safe – those facing threats and violence range from rights activists, politicians, lawyers, journalists, teachers. Even women in the police force are under threat, where sexual harassment and bullying is rife and almost always goes unpunished.

Despite the existence of a legal framework to protect women in Afghanistan – much of it thanks to tireless campaigning by women’s rights activists themselves – laws are often badly enforced and remain mere paper promises. The landmark Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) Law, passed in 2009, remains unevenly enforced and has only led to a limited number of convictions.

“The Afghan government is turning a blind eye to the very real threat women human rights defenders are facing. These brave people – many of them simply doing their jobs – are the bulwark against the oppression and violence that is part of daily life for millions of women across the country. The government must ensure they are protected, not ignored,” said Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan Researcher.

“Afghanistan is facing an uncertain future, and is at arguably the most critical moment in its recent history. Now is not the time for international governments to walk away,” said Salil Shetty. “The international community must step up with continued engagement and the Afghan government cannot continue to ignore its human rights obligations.”

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Opinion: Challenging the Power of the One Percent Thu, 02 Apr 2015 22:06:32 +0000 Lydia Alpizar Duran

Lydia Alpízar Durán is executive director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)

By Lydia Alpízar Durán
SAO PAULO, Apr 2 2015 (IPS)

When you are faced with the task of moving an object but find it is too heavy to lift, what is your immediate and most natural response? You ask someone to help you lift it. And it makes all the difference.

And so in the face of unprecedented economic, ecological and human rights crises, we should not hunker down in our silos, but rather join together and use our collective power to overcome the challenges.

The recent World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunis, showed that ‘Another World Is Possible’ if we work collectively to address the structural causes of inequality.

It is for this reason that the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) has pledged to work together with ActionAid, Civicus, Greenpeace and Oxfam.

The gathering of approximately 70,000 activists in Tunis, the various workshops held on alternate economic models – including an AWID-led session on ‘Feminist Imaginations for a Just Economy’ – the protests against shrinking spaces for dissent and the calls for social justice are critical in a world where the economic, ecological and human rights crises are interconnected and getting worse.

This is the power of the World Social Forum (WSF). This 13th edition, held for the second time in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, is a reminder, and a call to action that it is people power that will change the world.

Changing the world, especially where women’s rights and gender justice is concerned, means recognising and bringing visibility to the interrelatedness of issues.

While in the past 20 years there have been notable achievements for women’s rights and gender justice, there is still so much more to be done.

At the centre of the current global crisis is massive economic inequality that has become the global status quo. Some 1.2 billion impoverished people account for only one percent of world consumption while the million richest consume 72 percent.

The levels of consumption in the global North cannot be sustained on this planet by its peoples or the Earth itself. They are disappearing whole ecosystems and displacing people and communities.

The challenges are not only increasing, but also deepening. Many women and girls, trans and intersex people continue to experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and vulnerability throughout their lives.

These include the disproportionate impact of poverty, religious fundamentalisms and violence on women, growing criminal networks and the increasing power of transnational corporations over lands and territories, deepening conflicts and militarisation, widespread gender-based violence, and environmental destruction.

Women have been caretakers of the environment and food producers for centuries, and are now at the forefront of its defense against habitat destruction and resource extraction by corporations.

Violence against women who defend the earth occurs with impunity, at precisely the moment when ‘women and girls’ are also receiving the attention of various corporate philanthropic actors as drivers for development.

Government and institutional commitments to address inequalities for the most part have been weak. And while people’s mobilisation and active citizenship are crucial, in all regions of the world the more people mobilise to defend their rights, the more the civic and political space is being closed off by decision-making elites.

This year’s Political Declaration from the United Nations’ 59th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59) is just the latest example.

Twenty years after the Beijing Declaration – the most progressive ‘blueprint’ for women’s rights of its time and the result of 30,000 activists from around the globe putting pressure on 189 participating government representatives – women’s rights and feminist groups were shut out of the CSW ‘negotiations’ with the result that the Declaration is weak and does not go far enough towards the kind of transformative change necessary to truly achieve the promises made in Beijing.

The forces of justice, freedom and equity are being relentlessly pushed back. There is an urgent need to strengthen our collective voices and power, to further expand our shared analyses and build interconnected agendas for action.

The WSF contributes to doing just that. At this year’s WSF, there was a diversity of feminist activists in attendance and the systemic causes of global inequalities were addressed in intersectional ways linking new relationships to land, and land use to patriarchy, food sovereignty, decolonisation and corporate power.

These connections make the struggle seem huge but also make possible solidarity between movements.

As a global network of feminist and women’s rights activists, organisations and movements, AWID has been working for over 30 years to transform dominant structures of power and decision-making and advance human rights, gender justice and environmental sustainability. In all that we do, collaboration is at the core.

I strongly believe that we cannot achieve meaningful transformation unless we join together in all of our diversity. So for AWID, joining with the struggles for environmental sustainability, just economies and human rights, is another step in a long trajectory of working with and for other movements.

Together we can take bolder steps, push each other further, and draw upon our combined knowledge and collective power to amplify our voices. Working together is the only way to reverse inequality, and to achieve a just and sustainable world.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Activists Protest Denial of Condoms to Africa’s High-Risk Groups Sat, 28 Mar 2015 08:46:40 +0000 Jeffrey Moyo Distributing condoms in prisons and schools has set off a heated debate, rendering the fight against HIV/AIDS a challenge ahead of this year's U.N. deadline for nations to halt its spread. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/ IPS

Distributing condoms in prisons and schools has set off a heated debate, rendering the fight against HIV/AIDS a challenge ahead of this year's U.N. deadline for nations to halt its spread. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/ IPS

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Mar 28 2015 (IPS)

Tatenda Chivata, a 16-year old from Zimbabwe’s Mutoko rural district, was suspended from school for an entire three-month academic term after he was found with a used condom stashed in his schoolbag.

Regerai Chigodora, a 34-year-old prisoner at a jail in Harare, had his 36-year sentence stretched to 45 years after he was caught with used condoms in prison early this year.

With restrictions blocking the distribution of condoms in schools and prisons in Africa, health experts say the continent’s opportunity to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in line with the U.N. Millennium Development Goals may be squandered,

“It will be hard for Africa to win the war against HIV/AIDS if certain groups of people like students and prisoners are being skipped from preventive measures,” Tamasha Nyerere, an independent HIV/AIDS counsellor based in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, told IPS.

Human rights activists in Zimbabwe say more cases of youths like Chivata and prisoners like Chigodora may be going unreported in countries where condom use in jails and schools is anathema.With restrictions blocking the distribution of condoms in schools and prisons in Africa, health experts say the continent’s opportunity to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in line with the U.N. Millennium Development Goals may be squandered.

“It’s indeed disturbing how hard we have worked as Africa to fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS yet we have not been so pragmatic in our bid to institute preventive measures in schools and jails, where most of our African governments have vehemently refused to allow condoms to be distributed with the common excuse that they promote homosexuality in jails and sexual immorality in schools,” Elvis Chuma, a gay activist in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, told IPS.

Zimbabwean prisoner Chigodora agreed, telling IPS that “whether or not authorities here like it, homosexuality is rife in jails and even if we may smuggle in condoms to use secretly, if you get caught like in my case, you will be in for serious trouble.”

Schoolchildren in Africa like Zimbabwe’s Chivata have to contend with secret use of condoms in school. Their only crime is that they are underage, said Chivata.

“I’m serving a suspension from school because I was caught with a condom I used during sex with my girlfriend, but the same teachers teach us about use of protection if we get tempted to engage in sex. Now I’m wondering if I was wrong using a condom. Perhaps I could have gone undetected if I had opted to have unprotected sex,” he told IPS.

Under Zimbabwe’s Legal Age of Majority Act, any Zimbabwean under the age of 18 years is a minor, while a person between the age of 16 years and 18 years is defined as a young person under the Children’s Protection and Adoption Act.

Sodomy is also a punishable offence in Zimbabwe, which rights activists say, makes it difficult for this Southern African nation and other African nations to distribute condoms in prisons.

“African countries like Zimbabwe are being cornered by their own laws which bar them from dishing out condoms to prisoners and school children,” Tonderai Zivhu, chairperson of the Open Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS, a lobby group in Masvingo, Zimbabwe’s oldest town, told IPS.

South Africa and Namibia may be the only two out of Africa’s 54 countries that have adopted HIV/AIDS preventive measures in schools and jails.

In 2007, South Africa’s new Children’s Act came into effect, giving children 12 years and older the right to obtain contraceptives. The country’s Department of Correctional Services also provides condoms to inmates.

In Namibia, the country’s policy on HIV/AIDS states that all convicted prisoners awaiting trial and inmates are entitled to have access to the same HIV-related prevention information, education, voluntary counselling and testing, means of prevention, treatment, care and support as is available to the general population.

Other African countries, however, seem unclear about their position on condoms use in jails and schools.

Last year, the government of Rwanda confirmed the prevalence of homosexuality in prisons, but was non-committal on whether or not it would start distributing condoms in its correctional facilities.

This year, Zimbabwe’s Primary and Secondary Education Minister Lazarus Dokora told parliament that parents were free to pack condoms for their children in their schoolbags, but that the government would not allow them to be openly distributed at schools.

“We must say children are in school to learn and be initiated for certain life skills, and when it comes to condoms, you are the guardian of your child and you must have an intimate connection with your child so that when you pack their school luggage and prepare their books you can also pack condoms,” Dokora had said.

This laissez-faire approach has incensed certain African indigenous pro-culture activists who have been vocal in their calls against condom distribution in prisons and schools.

“Distributing condoms in prisons and in schools will render African governments accomplices to the commission of the crime of sodomy and sexual immorality among school-going children, which is against our cultural values and norms as Africans,” Bupe Mwansa, head of the Culture and Traditions Conservation Association in Zambia, an indigenous pro-culture lobby group, told IPS.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 3.2 million children lived with HIV at the end of 2013, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, with approximately 145,000 HIV-positive children from Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat) states that Zimbabwe has a total of 18,000 prisoners, with 28 percent of these living with HIV and AIDS.

In South Africa, an estimated 41.4 percent of that country’s 166,267 prisoners are also living with HIV/AIDS, based on statistics from the Ministry of Health there, despite the country being the only African nation that does not outlaw homosexuality.

Although other African governments admit there are sexual activities going on in schools and prisons, they remain hesitant to allow condom distribution in them.

“School children engage in premarital and often unprotected sex, yes we know, and prisoners also have unprotected anal sex, but presently there is nothing we can do as government to address these challenges because our laws do not allow underage children to engage in sex while homosexual, now rife in our jails, is also unlawful,” a top Zimbabwean government official speaking on the condition of anonymity told PS.

But for human rights doctors like Nomalanga Zwane in Johannesburg, fighting HIV/AIDS in schools and jails requires drastic measures.

“If school kids are left on their own with the belief that they are not engaging in sex because they are barred by being underage, we are fighting a losing battle against HIV/AIDS because the same school pupils will spread the disease even outside school while prison inmates with no access to condoms will also one day come out of jail and further spread the disease,” Zwane told IPS.

Zimbabwe’s ex-convicts like 37-year-old Jimson Gwatidzo, now an ardent campaigner for the distribution of condoms in jails after he contracted HIV in jail, sees no credible reason why some African governments forbid condoms in prisons “in the face of rampant rape-induced HIV/AIDS infections behind prison walls.”

“It is time for governments across Africa to scrap anti-sodomy laws to allow for the distribution of condoms in prisons and be able to fight HIV/AIDS spread in jails without legal barriers,” Gwatidzo told IPS.

Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harris    

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