Inter Press Service » Women in Politics Turning the World Downside Up Tue, 16 Sep 2014 19:11:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 OPINION: At Last, New Faces at the European Union Thu, 11 Sep 2014 15:47:34 +0000 Joaquin Roy

In this column Joaquín Roy, Joaquin Roy, Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration and Director of the European Union Centre at the University of Miami, analyses the new faces and the balance of power among the men and women who are leading Europe.

By Joaquín Roy
BARCELONA, Sep 11 2014 (IPS)

At last, after the obligatory summer break, the European Union (EU) has some new faces to fill the top vacancies on the team that began to emerge from the May 25 parliamentary elections.

Before the recess, conservative Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker had been appointed to the presidency of the European Commission, the executive body of the 28-nation bloc.

Joaquín Roy

Joaquín Roy

There was stiff opposition from some governments, particularly from British Prime Minister David Cameron, but in the spirit of the Treaty of Lisbon the post was offered to the candidate of the political group winning most seats in the new European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).

The second agreement was to leave German socialist Martin Schultz in his present post as president of the Parliament for another two and a half years. A balance was thereby struck between moderates of the right and of the left.

The thorniest issues remained to be faced. The traditional “Carolingian” (Franco-German) Europe was still in control of the bloc, and renewal was needed. Eastern Europe was demanding a larger role and there was a notable absence of women.

Juncker had already made it known that he would not accept a new Commission that did not have at least one-third women members. The established order, an unabashedly male-dominated club, gave no signs of correcting itself. The EU’s customary intricate balancing act was set in motion.“Renzi wanted to attack head-on Italy’s poor track record in European affairs in recent years, tarnished by the deplorable presence of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in power and in opposition, a handicap that affected his predecessor Enrico Letta before him”

The jigsaw pieces began to fall into place. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s candidacy fell out of favour. Then followed a dual move by the community. First, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a conservative from the entourage of former president Lech Walesa, was appointed president of the EU Council, made up of its heads of state and government.

Secondly, Federica Mogherini, the Italian foreign minister, was catapulted to the position of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (FASP).

Proposing her candidacy, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi doggedly fought resistance from representatives of the Baltic states who regarded her as too soft on Russia, citing the example of her invitation to President Vladimir Putin to a meeting in July.

The sweetener of Tusk’s designation mollified the resistance of Eastern European countries, but not the reluctance of other nations that regarded the inexperienced Mogherini, just 41 in June, as not strong enough to face external enemies in a convulsed world.

However, Renzi, himself only 39, was playing a risky juggling act with several balls in the air. Mogherini was his message to the power clique in Rome to try to end the illusion that political respect requires having reached an age of around 100.

Moreover, Renzi wanted to attack head-on Italy’s poor track record in European affairs in recent years, tarnished by the deplorable presence of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in power and in opposition, a handicap that affected his predecessor Enrico Letta before him.

Furthermore, Renzi wanted to create an opportunity to influence European Union foreign policy through Mogherini’s cooperation.

Renzi’s bold proposal may backfire on him, precisely because of the weakness of the Italian system, which is tolerating leadership by a moderate Socialist so long as he does not shake its foundations.

Within the European community, Renzi will have to rely on the support of his Socialist counterparts, who have been going through a bad patch recently. They have suffered from the crisis, which has forced them to apply neoliberal austerity policies, causing heads to roll from Scandinavia to Portugal and Greece.

For her part, Mogherini will have to face traditional problems and new challenges. The establishment already mistrusts her because of her age. She will find little support from a group of people, most of whom could be her parents.

On the Commission, where she is vice president, she will hardly be comforted by the handful of women Juncker manages to recruit. On the Council she will have the support of only four ladies, led by Angela Merkel, in a boardroom full of boring men in dark suits and dreadful ties, each of them obsessed with managing foreign policy on their own terms and at their own risk.

The worst of the bad omens for the appointment is the suspicion that the EU’s hard core does not believe the position of High Representative to be important, given that the main security and defence competences remain in the national domains.

Mogherini’s second challenge, like that of her predecessor Catherine Ashton of the United Kingdom, is to cope with the enduring imprint of the founder of the position, Javier Solana of Spain.

However, her ambition and track record already surpass those of the eminently forgettable Ashton, a Brussels official who had already booked her ticket on the Eurostar train under the Channel back to London when she was unexpectedly appointed to FASP.

Mogherini can document her solid preparation for such a high-profile job over two decades, with her degree in Political Science, her exchange experience on an Erasmus scholarship in the French city of Aix-en-Provence, and her thesis on political Islam.

A mother of two with a gentle smile and light-coloured eyes, she gives the impression of an assistant professor working up the academic ladder towards a full professorship. But she could surprise some of the detractors who are already prophesying her failure.

She is a professional in a field that needs new vocations and fresh vision. She will lead the most impressive diplomatic team on the planet, made up of the ministries of 28 countries and the European External Action Service. She deserves good luck, not just for herself and Renzi, but for all Europeans and people beyond. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)


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OPINION: A New European Foreign Policy in an Age of Anxiety Wed, 10 Sep 2014 17:47:37 +0000 Shada Islam By Shada Islam
BRUSSELS, Sep 10 2014 (IPS)

The appointment of Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini as the new European Union foreign policy chief offers the opportunity for an overhaul of EU foreign and security policy.

With many EU leaders, ministers and senior officials slow to respond to world events given Europe’s traditionally long summer break, the 2014 summer of death and violence has left the reputation of ‘Global Europe’ in tatters, highlighting the EU’s apparent disconnect from the bleak reality surrounding it.

When she takes charge in November along with other members of the new European Commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, Mogherini’s first priority must be to restore Europe’s credibility in an increasingly volatile and chaotic global landscape.

Shada Islam. Courtesy of Twitter

Shada Islam. Courtesy of Twitter

It cannot be business as usual. A strategic rethink of Europe’s global outreach is urgent.

Europe can no longer pretend that it is not – or only mildly – shaken by events on its doorstep. In a world where many countries are wracked by war, terrorism and extremism, EU foreign policy cannot afford to be ad hoc, reactive and haphazard.

Given their different national interests and histories, European governments are unlikely to ever speak with “one voice” on foreign policy. But they can and should strive to share a coherent, common, strategic reflection and vision of Europe’s future in an uncertain and anxious world.

Changing gears is going to be tough. Many of Europe’s key beliefs in the use of soft power, a reliance on effective multilateralism, the rule of law and a liberal world order are being shredded by governments and non-state actors alike.

With China and other emerging nations, especially in Asia, gaining increased economic and political clout, Europe has been losing global power and influence for almost a decade.“Europe can no longer pretend that it is not – or only mildly – shaken by events on its doorstep. In a world where many countries are wracked by war, terrorism and extremism, EU foreign policy cannot afford to be ad hoc, reactive and haphazard”

Despite pleas by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the crisis in Ukraine, most European governments remain reluctant to increase military and defence spending. At the same time, the Eurozone crisis and Europe’s plodding economic recovery with unacceptably high unemployment continue to erode public support for the EU both at home and abroad.

Populist far-right and extreme-left groups in Europe – including in the European Parliament – preach a protectionist and inward-looking agenda. Most significantly, EU national governments are becoming ever greedier in seeking to renationalise important chunks of what is still called Europe’s “common foreign and security policy”.

To prove her critics wrong – and demonstrate foreign policy expertise and flair despite only a six-month stint as Italy’s foreign minister – Mogherini will have to hit the ground running.

Her performance at the European Parliament on September 2, including an adamant rejection of charges of being “pro-Russian”, appears to have been impressive. Admirers point out that she is a hard-working team player, who reads her briefs carefully and speaks fluent English and French in addition to her native Italian.

These qualities should stand her in good stead as she manages the unwieldy European External Action Service (EEAS), plays the role of vice president of the European Commission, chairs EU foreign ministerial meetings, chats up foreign counterparts and travels around the world while also – hopefully – spearheading a strategic review of Europe’s global interests and priorities.

Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

The tasks ahead are certainly daunting. There is need for reflection and action on several fronts – all at the same time. Eleven years after the then EU High Representative Javier Solana drew up the much-lauded European Security Strategy (partially revised in 2008), Europe needs to reassess the regional and global security environment, reset its aims and ambitions and define a new agenda for action.

But this much-needed policy overhaul to tackle new and evolving challenges must go hand-in-hand with quick fire-fighting measures to deal with immediate regional and global flashpoints.

The world in 2014 is complex and complicated, multi-polar, disorderly and unpredictable. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have up-ended the post-World War security order in Europe. The so-called “Islamic State” is spreading its hateful ideology through murder and assassination in Syria and Iraq, not too far from Europe’s borders. A fragile Middle East truce is no guarantee of real peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Relations with China have to be reinforced and consolidated. These and other complex problems require multi-faceted responses.

The days of ‘one-size-fits-all’ foreign policy are well and truly over. In an inter-connected and interdependent world, foreign policy means working with friends but also with enemies, with like-minded nations and those which are non-like-minded, with competitors and allies.

It is imperative to pay special attention to China, India and other headline-grabbing big countries, but it could be self-defeating to ignore the significance and clout of Indonesia, Mexico and other middle or even small powers. Upgrading ties with the United States remains crucial. While relations with states and governments are important they must go hand-in-hand with contacts with business leaders, civil society actors and young people.

Finally, Europe needs to acquire a less simplistic and more sophisticated understanding of Islam and its Muslim neighbours, including Turkey, which has been left in uncertainty about EU membership for more than fifty years.

Europe’s response to the new world must include a smart mix of brain and brawn, soft and hard power, carrots and sticks. Isolation and sanctions cannot work on their own but neither can a foreign policy based only on feel-good incentives. The EU’s existing foreign policy tools need to be sharpened but European policymakers also need to sharpen and update their view of the world.

Mogherini’s youth – and hopefully fresh stance on some of these issues – could be assets in this exercise. Importantly, Mogherini must work in close cooperation and consultation with other EU institutions, including the European Parliament and especially the European Commission whose many departments, including enlargement issues, trade, humanitarian affairs, environment, energy and development are crucial components of ‘Global Europe’.

The failure of synergies among Commission departments is believed to be at least partly responsible for the weaknesses of the EU’s “Neighbourhood Policy”.

Also, a coherent EU foreign policy demands close coordination with EU capitals. This is especially true in relations with China. Recent experience shows that, as in the case of negotiations with Iran, the EU is most effective when the foreign policy chief works in tandem with EU member states. Closer contacts with NATO will also be vital if Europe is to forge a credible strategy vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine.

Such cooperation is especially important if – as I suggest – Mogherini embarks on a revamp of EU foreign and security policy.

Mogherini will not be able to do it on her own. Much will depend on the EEAS team she works with and the knowledge, expertise and passion her aides bring to their work. Team work and leadership, not micro-management, will be required.

Putting pressing global issues on the backburner is no longer an option. The change of guard in Brussels is the right moment to review and reconsider Europe’s role in the world. Global Europe’s disconnect needs to be tackled before it is too late.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Bangladeshi Girls Seek Equal Opportunity Mon, 25 Aug 2014 04:08:07 +0000 Naimul Haq Adolescent girls in Bangladesh’s Mymensingh district meet once a week to discuss their rights. Here they talk about sanitation and personal hygiene. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Gender Equality Gains Traction with Pacific Island Leaders Wed, 13 Aug 2014 11:35:59 +0000 Catherine Wilson Progress on gender equality in the Pacific Islands is gaining momentum following a pledge by political leaders. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Progress on gender equality in the Pacific Islands is gaining momentum following a pledge by political leaders. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Aug 13 2014 (IPS)

A pledge by political leaders two years ago to accelerate efforts toward closing the gender gap in the Pacific Islands has been boosted with the announcement that three women will take the helm of the regional intergovernmental organisation, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, headquartered in Suva, Fiji.

At this year’s Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ summit in Palau, former Papua New Guinean diplomat and World Bank official, Dame Meg Taylor, was named the new secretary-general, taking over this year from the outgoing Tuiloma Neroni Slade. Taylor, who will hold the post for three years, joins two female deputy secretaries-generals, Cristelle Pratt and Andie Fong Toy.

The appointment is a significant breakthrough for women in the upper echelons of governance. According to Pratt, the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration made at the 2012 leaders’ summit in the Cook Islands has galvanised leadership action on the issue.

“A positive change has been the indirect creation of a peer review process on gender at the highest level,” Pratt told IPS, adding that gender equality is “slowly gaining traction at the central policy making level”, as high up as the prime minister’s office in some Forum countries.

Raising the status of women in the Pacific Islands is an immense challenge, given that the region has the lowest level of female political representation in the world at three percent, compared to the global average of 20 percent.

Furthermore, violence against women is endemic and they are poorly represented in formal employment. Papua New Guinea (PNG) has a gender inequality index of 0.617 and Tonga 0.462, in contrast to the most gender equal nation of Norway at 0.065.

The declaration is a sign of greater recognition by the male political elite of the critical role women have to play in achieving better human development outcomes across the region.

National leaders have committed to reforms, such as adopting enabling measures for women’s participation in governance and decision-making at all levels, improving their access to employment and better pay, and supporting female entrepreneurs with financial services and training. They have also promised to deliver improved legislative protection against gender-based violence and support services to women who have suffered abuse.

“What is significant about the declaration is that leaders have taken it on board as a priority and I believe our leader took it seriously and followed it through with a law change in Samoa,” Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, Samoa’s minister of justice and veteran female parliamentarian, told IPS.

Last year a law was passed in Samoa reserving 10 percent, or five of a total of 49 seats in parliament for women.

“It is a significant step in that it provides a ‘floor’ as opposed to a ‘ceiling’ and there will never be less than five women in any future parliament,” she continued. “It is important that women are in parliament to be seen and heard and to serve as evidence that it can be done.”

Women’s low political representation ranges from two percent in the Solomon Islands to 8.7 percent in Kiribati, with no female political representation at all in the Federated States of Micronesia and Vanuatu, with populations of 103,000 and 247,000 respectively.

Contributing factors include entrenched expectations of a woman’s place in the domestic sphere, low endorsement from political parties and the greater difficulties women have in accessing funding and resources for election campaigning.

There has been incremental progress in other countries with last year witnessing the first female elected into the parliament of Nauru -the smallest state in the South Pacific – in three decades, and three women winning seats in the Cook Islands national election this July.

Women’s participation in local level governance received a boost in Tuvalu after the government passed a law requiring female representation in local councils. Blandine Boulekone, president of the Vanuatu National Council of Women, noted that women gained five of a total of 17 seats in the Municipal Elections held in the capital, Port Vila, in January.

Gender parity in education, necessary for improving women’s status in all areas of life, has, according to national statistics, been achieved in most Pacific Island states, except PNG, Tonga and Solomon Islands, with girls outperforming boys at the secondary level in Samoa and Fiji.

Nevertheless, the Pacific Islands Forum reported last year that “higher education for young women does not necessarily lead to better employment outcomes due to gender barriers in labour markets”, with most countries reporting less than 50 percent of women in non-agricultural waged jobs.

Last year Samoa passed legislation against sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, while similar draft legislation is being developed in Kiribati, Vanuatu and Tonga.

Pratt also claims there has been good progress with “the enactment of domestic violence legislation in Palau, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati and Solomon Islands.” Last year domestic violence also became a criminal offence in PNG following the passing of the Family Protection Bill.

Sixty to 75 percent of women in the region experience family and intimate partner violence. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by early marriage, the practice of ‘bride price’, low levels of financial independence and women’s inadequate access to justice systems.

However, Shamima Ali, coordinator of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, commented, “As practitioners on the ground, we can say that while all these policies and legislations look great on paper, the implementation is another matter.”

“One also needs to invest financially to ensure new legislation and policies are effective.”

Fiji has had a domestic violence decree since 2009, but Ali said, “While most magistrates and judges deal well and follow the new decrees, there are many who still display traditional entrenched views regarding rape and domestic violence and often injustice is meted out to survivors, particularly for ‘sex crimes’.”

Law enforcement is a great challenge, too, especially in rural communities.

“Women, girls and children in rural and maritime areas have little recourse to justice for crimes of violence committed against them due to lack of police presence and resources in these areas,” she said.

Pratt agrees that the road to real change in the lives of ordinary Pacific women is a long one.

“The declaration is still new and there is a need for more awareness, advocacy and accountability toward meeting the goals,” she emphasised.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Burundian Women Want a Greater Say in Running of Country Sat, 05 Jul 2014 07:36:29 +0000 Bernard Bankukira The Burundi National Police is composed of 2.9 percent women. Despite a 30 percent quota for women’s representation in parliament, there is still a long way to go to fill the gap in government institutions where women represent only an average of 20.15 percent. Courtesy: Bernard Bankukira

The Burundi National Police is composed of 2.9 percent women. Despite a 30 percent quota for women’s representation in parliament, there is still a long way to go to fill the gap in government institutions where women represent only an average of 20.15 percent. Courtesy: Bernard Bankukira

By Bernard Bankukira
BUJUMBURA, Jul 5 2014 (IPS)

As Burundi heads towards the 2015 general elections, and despite a quota of 30 percent women’s representation in parliament, women in this southeast African nation feel that they are yet to have a significant say in the management of their country.

Bernardine Sindakira, the chairwoman of Synergy of Partners for the Promotion of Women’s Rights (SPPDF), a Burundian coalition of women’s rights organisations, tells IPS that the country’s very traditional culture still considers women as “homemakers” as women are educated to play this role from young. “A hen doesn’t crow when the rooster is there,” says a Burundian proverb."We’ve got so many woman engineers at building sites, doctors, heads of organisations, business women, security women, and so many others." -- Marceline Bararufise, Burundian Member of Parliament

“This has long kept her in the position of being unable to [ensure] her empowerment and have the place she deserves in the country’s management,” says Sindakira.

This country is still recovering from a 12-year ethnic-based civil war after the 1993 assassination of the country’s first democratically-elected president, Melchior Ndadaye. Almost 300,000 people died in the Hutu-Tutsi violence and the conflict “had a very negative impact on women and young girls who experienced rape and other forms of sexual violence,” according to a 2011 Global Network of Women Peacebuilders report.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, after the 2010 elections women in Burundi held 34 out of 106 seats in the lower house, about 32.1 percent, “as well as a significant rise in the upper house to 46.3 percent, due to a considerable degree to its quota system.“

But according to a 2011 report by the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders “the law does not specify the quota for women in other decision-making bodies. Thus in the top three offices i.e. President, First Vice President and Second Vice President, there are no women.”

SPPDF figures show that although the 30 percent quota is almost fully respected in elective agencies like parliament and local administration, there is still a long way to go to fill the gap in government institutions where women represent only an average of 20.15 percent.

In security services, women’s representation remains the lowest.

  • The 2012 official records of the Burundi National Defence Force show that women represent just 0.5 percent of the force — 148 woman soldiers of the total 25,000.
  • The Burundi National Police comprises 2.9 percent women.

Marceline Bararufise, a Member of Parliament (MP), head of the Parliamentary Education Sub-committee, and head of the Association of Parliamentarian Women in Burundi, told IPS that there is proof that women can perform better than men when it comes to public service delivery.

A 2012/2013 national survey conducted to assess the public service delivery at the district level, revealed that the district which came in first place for service delivery was a northern district headed by a woman. Many other districts headed by women were among the most successful, Bararufise said.

As SPPDF has launched a nationwide campaign for increasing women’s representation in the overall management of the country, Sindakira regrets that the law itself still discriminates against women.

“For example, we have been fighting for a parliamentary review of the matrimonial law so as to enable women to benefit from [inheritance], but the current situation is that we are even banned to raise the issue. This hampers all women’s efforts to stand for their rights,” Sindakira said. Here, women are not allowed to inherit and property passes from father to male heir.

She also regretted that so many women still consider that a review of the matrimonial law would be a breach of culture.

“Having educated women implies that the culture has also changed and thus no reason for the dark cultural practices to keep the Burundian woman behind,” said Sindakira.

Bararufise, who served as a governor before becoming an MP, points out though that Burundian woman have made significant steps towards self-empowerment.

“Now, apart from these political positions enshrined within the constitution, we’ve got so many woman engineers at building sites, doctors, heads of organisations, business women, security women, and so many others. This is to show that a woman of 20 years back is totally different from women now,” she told IPS.

She said that while she understood that Burundian culture was among several factors impeding women’s emancipation, it was important to note that women’s empowerment did not mean standing completely against culture as there remain some positive aspects of Burundian culture that need to be preserved.

“The only thing is that both men and women must understand that the sustainability of their family is the duty of both of them [and comes] with equal responsibility,” she said.

Bararufise regretted that Burundian women in leadership positions were disrespected by their male counterparts. “In some situations, women in positions of leadership find it difficult to command respect from men.”

She also acknowledged that a lot still needed to be done to evolve and change these current attitudes. “We want men to understand that women are able and have rights to contend for higher positions, instead of staying home.”

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Lack of Toilets Keeps Women Out of Politics Fri, 04 Jul 2014 12:49:07 +0000 Stella Paul Women village councilors in Penakota, a village in southeast India, go out into a field to relieve themselves, as there are no toilets in their workplace. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Women village councilors in Penakota, a village in southeast India, go out into a field to relieve themselves, as there are no toilets in their workplace. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
MALLAMPETA, India, Jul 4 2014 (IPS)

Nine months after she was elected head of her village council, 36-year-old Krupa Shanti has overseen some significant changes in this rural outpost of Mallampeta, 570 km away from Hyderabad, capital of the southeastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

“Since I took over, 300 people have got their Below the Poverty Line (BPL) ration cards and are receiving subsidised food, and another 200 people have received their voter cards,” Shanti told IPS.

But the village’s first woman leader has not been able to change the one thing that is closest to her heart – the sanitation for the women in her community.

“I have not received the necessary funds to construct a single toilet,” Shanti said, adding that she was extremely frustrated that she and her female colleagues are still forced out into the bushes and fields to relieve themselves.

“I have political rivals now whom I defeated in the election. What if they follow me to the field or the bush and attack me there?" -- Swaroopa Chamtla, a council woman in the village of Chowtapalli
Six hundred km away, in the village of Chowtapalli, Council Head Sandhya Rani complains of losing precious work time due to poor sanitation.

Rani’s office, which she joined in August 2013, is in an old, dilapidated building that has no running water and no sanitation facilities.

“Every time I want to use a toilet, I have to rush home,” she told IPS, barely concealing her anger. “How can a person work in such conditions?”

Still, Rani is luckier than her colleagues; of the nine women on the 10-member village council, she is the only one to own a toilet at home and is spared the shame of having to defecate out in the open.

Many of the women in Chowtapalli had hoped becoming council members would lead to a life of dignity, a dream they now find crushed.

Lack of toilets is a common problem across India, a country of 1.2 billion people that has the dubious distinction of denying adequate sanitation to nearly 60 percent of its citizens.

According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), India also tops the list of countries with the highest number of people (58 percent of the population including women and girls) who defecate in the open.

The 2011 census found that nearly 70 percent of rural households, as well as over 18 percent of homes in towns and cities, don’t have toilets.

Census data from the same year showed that more people in India had cell phones (59 percent of households) than toilets (47 percent), a figure that also accounted for dry, open-pit latrines.

The situation is particularly worrying for rural women politicians, who say the cumbersome process of having to relieve themselves in public is prohibiting them from carrying out their duties.

Many are also alarmed by the spate of violent attacks on women across rural India, who are stalked by sexual predators and raped, molested or mutilated when they venture out into the fields at night.

One such incident on May 28 stunned the entire nation, when images of two teenage girls from the village of Katra Shadatganj (228 km southwest of New Delhi), who were raped and hung from trees, began to make the rounds on social and print media.

Since then, at least four other similar cases have been reported in the same region. It subsequently emerged that each of these women came from homes that did not have toilets, and were accosted while attempting to relieve themselves at night.

Now, local councilwomen are beginning to fear for their own lives as a result of inadequate sanitation facilities.

Thotakurra Kamalamma, a politician from the eastern coastal village of Kodi Thadi Parru, says her local council has never had a toilet. Though it didn’t deter her from participating in local politics before, the Katra Shadatganj incident has shaken her to the very core, leaving her fearful of suffering a similar fate, she told IPS.

“I have a daughter. If anything happens to me someday, who will look after her?” asks Kamalamma, who has decided to resign from her post.

Chowtapalli Councilmember Swaroopa Chamtla is also considering quitting – something her husband is also asking for.

“I have political rivals now whom I defeated in the election,” she told IPS. “What if they follow me to the field or the bush and attack me there? It’s happening everywhere, isn’t it?” she said.

The government of India currently provides building materials at subsidised costs, as well as cash grants, to rural families for constructing toilets.

But according to Krupa Shanti, one of the first women to attempt to make the down payment of 10,000 rupees (about 180 dollars) even the government rate is cost-prohibitive for many rural families, in a country where an estimated 30 percent of people live below the poverty line of 1.25 dollars a day.

She also alleged that officials in city government offices are indifferent to the plight of women in villages, and therefore delay approval of funds for toilets.

Independent studies partially support her views; according to a 2011 World Bank report, government funds for sanitation in India were woefully inadequate.

The Bank also found that the country lost an estimated 53.8 billion dollars in 2006 alone as a result of poor sanitation, a figure equivalent to about 6.4 percent of the country’s GDP.

While bodies like the United Nations have called repeatedly for increased participation of women in local-level politics, little attention has been given to the specific challenges posed by a widespread lack of sanitation.

Aparajita Ramsagar, an independent sanitation consultant and former project director for SEWA Bharat, a union of self-employed women, says that during 2010-2011 the government increased reservation of seats for women in village councils from 33 to 50 percent.

“The aim of the increased reservation was to have more women join the political process. But [the government] had not envisaged the increased sanitation needs of women in the councils,” Ramsagar told IPS.

Most officials, however, refute these allegations. According to Narsimha Rama Murthy, senior engineer at the sanitation department of Visakhapatnam, the largest city in Andhra Pradesh, delays in funding are due to lengthy processes governing state finances, rather than an indifference on the part of officials.

“We have to inspect and check the situation before approving petitions [for funding]…One has to follow a process,” he told IPS.

Furthermore, problems arising from a lack of toilets cannot be solved without simultaneously tackling the twin problem of the water supply in rural India.

Sukhantibai Partiti, who heads the Handitola Village Council in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, has been trying for six years to implement the government-sponsored Total Sanitation Campaign (also known as Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan), which aims to eradicate open defecation by 2017 – to no avail.

She says this is largely due to limited access to clean water.

“For nearly six months of the year, we depend on a single pond in the village for all our water needs,” the second-time village head, who still does not have a toilet in her own home, told IPS.

“But, while we can carry a few pots of water for cooking and drinking, it is not possible to carry buckets of water to flush a toilet,” she added.

Disappointed at the lack of opportunities available to local politicians, she has decided not to run for a 3rd term in office; she says the indignity of running around looking for a place to relieve herself has made the job untenable.


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Women’s Political Representation Lagging in India Sun, 29 Jun 2014 15:51:09 +0000 Neeta Lal Celebrations outside the house of Indian politician Mamata Banerjee. Credit: Avishek Mitra/IPS

Celebrations outside the house of Indian politician Mamata Banerjee. Credit: Avishek Mitra/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Jun 29 2014 (IPS)

National outrage over women’s security in India – or the lack of it – is nothing new. From the gang rape of a young girl on a Delhi bus two years ago, to the recent rapes and lynching of two teenage cousins in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, gender-based violence has claimed headlines.

But as the country emerges from the fanfare of national elections with a new prime minister – Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the debate that is currently roiling the country is whether such tragedies – and apathy within the political class – would continue were there more women representatives in parliament?

Articulating a list of government priorities earlier this month, President Pranab Mukherjee included a strong commitment to ensuring 33 percent representation of women in the parliament, as well as state assemblies.

Passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill – which proposes to reserve a third of the seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and in all legislative assemblies for women – could be instrumental in sending out a powerful message of women’s empowerment, say experts here.

“There needs to be a critical mass of women out there to put women’s issues on the political agenda." -- Pratibha Pande, former professor at the Delhi University
The proposed Bill – cleared by the upper house (Rajya Sabha) in 2010 and now awaiting only a nod from the Lok Sabha, as well as the newly elected Modi – symbolises a crucial first step towards necessary electoral and parliamentary reforms.

The principle of gender equality is enshrined in the Indian constitution, and the country has also ratified various international conventions and human rights instruments to secure the equal rights of women; key among them is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified in 1993.

Despite these promises on paper, actual representation in what is dubbed ‘the world’s largest democracy’ remains low: currently, there are only 61 women out of a total of 543 MPs that make up the lower house of parliament.

Even though women form close to half of the population of 1.2 billion, they are underrepresented in all political positions. This was reflected in the recent elections, during which only 632 women ran for office, compared to 7,527 men.

“This is hardly proportional representation in the world’s largest democracy,” says Delhi-based sociologist Dr. Pratibha Pande, former professor at the Delhi University.

“However, if a third of the parliamentarians in India are women, a system of checks and balances will organically be kicked in to ensure enhanced vigilance from authorities in cases of rape and a skewed sex ratio, which is rampant across the country,” she asserted.

Indeed, the last few decades have seen a continuously declining female ratio in the population. Male children are still preferred, and though prenatal sex determination was banned in 1996, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 50 million women are “missing” in India as a result of female foeticide and infanticide.

Those girl children who survive this mindset tend to be given poorer care than boys.

The patriarchal attitude is so deeply entrenched across the country that, according to the 2011 census, India now has 37 million fewer women than men (586.5 million women to 623.7 million men).

The country’s literacy rate is also skewed in favour of men. Compared to a 76 percent literacy rate among men, only 54 percent of women can read or write, which further limits their opportunities to enter the political fray.

During the recent election campaign, many political parties – including the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP, which succeeded in ending the Congress Party’s decade-long reign – expressed a desire to strengthen women-friendly laws and address the stubborn gender imbalance that pervades the country’s political arena.

However, neither party fielded more than a handful of women candidates, who were perceived by many as being mere ‘tokens’ in the process.

According to a recent paper by Carole Spary, a professor at the UK-based University of York, political parties in India tend to see women as less likely to win elections than men, and therefore prefer not to take risks with seats they could conceivably win.

This perceived ‘winnability’ factor based on gender is very strong across the country, experts say.

Amitabh Kumar of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, who has for years been spearheading a campaign for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, told IPS that despite six decades of independence, a deeply misogynistic attitude scuppers women’s ability to enter politics and impact policy making.

“Even capable women who have demonstrated excellent administrative and leadership qualities find it tough to mobilise funds for contesting elections,” Kumar added.

In order to contest an MP’s seat today, a candidate requires at least five million dollars. “How many Indian women can muster such funds?” he asked.

Overall, women comprise just 11 percent of India’s lower house, a dismal figure when compared to many countries, including India’s South Asian neighbours.

According to data available for 2014 from the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), Pakistan has 67 women in a house of 323 (20.7 percent), Bangladesh has 67 members out of a total of 347 (19.3percent), while Nepal has a total of 172 women in a house of 575 (29.9 percent).

The Rajya Sabha does not fare much better, with 27 women members comprising 11.5 percent of the total membership in 2013, far below the world average of 19.6 percent.

Analysts say women’s representation in parliament is imperative not only on the grounds of social justice and legitimacy of the political system, but also because a higher number of women in public office, articulating interests and seen to be wielding power, will strike at the roots of gender hierarchy in public life.

“Without being sufficiently visible, a group’s ability to influence either policy-making, or indeed the political culture framing the representative system, is limited,” according to Pande.

“There needs to be a critical mass of women out there to put women’s issues on the political agenda,” he added.

A recent report by Oxfam International found that female-led panchayats (rural administrative units) perform better in the long-run than male-led panchayats on an index of eight services – drinking water, toilets, gutters, schools, ration shops, self-help groups, implementation of welfare schemes and reducing male alcoholism.

In the medium-term, states the study, the introduction of the Women’s Reservation Bill at the local level also leads to a significant increase in the reporting of crimes.

A 2012 working paper released by India’s premier research institution, the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), found that higher political representation among women could also empower women to spend fewer hours on household chores, assert their reproductive choices and control their own resources.

Other experts, like Lakshmi Iyer, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, say that electing more women to political office leads to improvements in women’s education and reductions in infant mortality, among other issues.

The fact that women make up nearly 25 percent of the newly sworn-in cabinet augurs well for the women’s movement.

This is the first time India has had seven women ministers, with six of them landing plum cabinet posts. The development is sparking hopes that the country will take bigger steps towards correcting its gender imbalance in politics.


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Survivors of Sexual Violence Deserve More Than Just Talk Fri, 13 Jun 2014 22:12:05 +0000 Roger Hamilton-Martin By Roger Hamilton-Martin
LONDON, Jun 13 2014 (IPS)

“States must make concrete commitments to enable and protect women human rights defenders, so that they can safely and securely carry out their work in support of victims of sexual and gender-based violence,” Amnesty International told the Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict that wound up Friday in London.  “The commitments made during the summit need to be implemented quickly and with adequate resources. The survivors deserve more than empty talk,” said Stephanie Barbour, head of Amnesty International’s Centre for International Justice.

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, hosts of the three-day summit, were joined by several hundred experts, NGOs and government ministers in London, while events were held in several locations around the world to raise awareness.

The summit featured a wide range of artistic creations, film screenings, musical acts and theatrical performances surrounding the experiences of women and men, girls and boys who suffer sexual violence in war.

One of the initiatives launched in London was a network for connecting survivors’ voices to global leaders, bridging the gap between activists on the ground and policymakers at a high level.“UN Women stands ready to support the international community in delivering on the promise of reparations as a means for substantive change in the lives of women and men, boys and girls affected by conflict and to reflect the needs of victims for both courtroom justice as well as comprehensive redress” – UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Malmbo-Ngcuka

The network, known as Survivors United for Action, is the first-ever global network of sexual violence survivors focused on rape and gender violence in conflict. It is supported and funded by The International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict.

The question of how to support survivors was an important focus of the Summit, especially how to alter the culture of stigma that often surrounds them. UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres spoke of “a culture gap, an impunity gap, and a support for survivors gap.”

Among others, he expressed the need for a less male-dominated culture in international organisations, governments, judicial systems and armed forces.

For its part, the United Nations released guidelines on Reparations for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, advocating a gender-sensitive focus for reparations after conflict.

“Reparations are routinely left out of peace negotiations or sidelined in funding priorities, even though they are of the utmost importance to survivors,” said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Malmbo-Ngcuka.

“Stronger action is the need of the hour, and sexual violence in conflict is a front line concern for us,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka. “UN Women stands ready to support the international community in delivering on the promise of reparations as a means for substantive change in the lives of women and men, boys and girls affected by conflict and to reflect the needs of victims for both courtroom justice as well as comprehensive redress.”

“We need to move this agenda forward in order to ensure real change in the lives of survivors who have seen the horrors of sexual violence in conflict up close.”

Addressing the summit, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: “Sexual violence in conflict is one of the most persistent injustices imaginable.”

“There is no place for it in the civilised world,” remarked Kerry, as he reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to end the practice with a pledge of funds for new programmes aimed at tackling impunity, and called for a rejection of peace agreements which provide amnesty for rape.

The U.K. government used the summit to launch its International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict. The document provides a best practice for those involved in recording evidence of sexual violence occurring in conflict, to better enable prosecutions to be brought and survivors to be helped.

“We hope this protocol will be part of a new global effort to shatter this culture of impunity, helping survivors and deterring people from committing these crimes in the first place,” William Hague wrote in the foreword to the document.

IPS spoke to Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, former Under-Secretary General for the United Nations, who in the year 2000 was involved with instigating Security Council Resolution 1325, a key international legal document requiring member states in conflict to respect women’s rights and support their participation in peace negotiations and reconstruction after war.

Chowdhury emphasised the importance of including women in peace negotiations and in political discourse to achieve peace and development. “Women play a very key role in promoting the peace process,” he said.

“I have seen everywhere how women contribute not only to the lessening of conflict and reduction of tension in their own communities, but also to the economic and social development of their countries. To them, peace and development is a life and death struggle.”

Chowdhury described the difficulty of generating political will on issues such as the promotion of women’s engagement in politics. “Still only 46 of the 193 member states have completed a national plan to implement Resolution 1325,” he said.

Resolution 1325 requires equal participation of women at all decision-making levels.

William Hague closed the summit by putting pressure on governments to bring more women to negotiating tables and onto parliamentary benches.

“It is clear from this summit that we can bring together a whole army of people from around the globe, united in the common vision of putting an end to sexual violence in conflict. Now that this army has been put together, it will not be disbanded, it will go on to success,” he said.

“When we succeed in the future in returning to peace negotiations in Syria, there is no excuse for them not including the full participation of women.”

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Op-Ed: First Decolonisation, Now ‘Depatriarchilisation’ Mon, 09 Jun 2014 22:42:21 +0000 Lakshmi Puri Young Bangladeshi women raise their fists at a protest in Shahbagh. Credit: Kajal Hazra/IPS

Young Bangladeshi women raise their fists at a protest in Shahbagh. Credit: Kajal Hazra/IPS

By Lakshmi Puri

At the end of this week leaders of the Group of 77 and China will meet in Bolivia to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the group.

From the original 77, this group now brings together 133 countries, making it the largest coalition of governments on the international stage. Promoting an agenda of equity among nations and among people, sustainable and inclusive development and global solidarity have been at the heart of the G77’s priorities since its inception. But none of it will be achieved without fully embracing the agenda of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Two weeks ago, I travelled to Bolivia to attend a historic international meeting in preparation for the G77 Summit, exclusively dedicated to women and gender equality. More than 1,500 women, many of them indigenous, packed the room, full of energy. Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, was also present – a testimony to his commitment and leadership to this critical agenda.

At this meeting, a message emerged, loud and clear. If we want the 21st century to see the end of discrimination, inequality and injustice, we must focus on women and girls – half the world’s population, which continues to experience discrimination every day and everywhere. The 20th century saw the end of colonisation. Now the 21st century must see the end of discrimination against women.  From decolonisation, we must move to depatriarchilisation.

Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of UN Women, speaks at a press conference on the International Day to End Violence Against Women. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of UN Women, speaks at a press conference on the International Day to End Violence Against Women. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

This meeting took place at a critical time and in a significant place. Latin America has lived through its own struggles against discrimination and oppression. In a continent that used to be marked by striking inequalities and violent dictatorships, a vibrant movement has emerged to put the region on the path of social justice, democracy, and equality. In Bolivia there is a constitutional law against violence against women and a law against political violence, making it a pioneer in the region and beyond.

This hope for a brighter and more just future must now spread to the world as a whole, and the G77 can play a defining role. The elaboration of the Post-2015 development agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is coming to a critical point. The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals is about to complete its work and member states will finalise the new development agenda in the course of next year.

This coincides with the 20-year review and appraisal of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the landmark international framework to achieve gender equality and women’s rights. Beijing+20 provides us with an opportunity to drive accelerated and effective implementation of the gender equality and women’s rights agenda and to ensure that it is central to the new development framework.

We need to take full advantage of these processes and their interconnections to ensure that gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment feature prominently in the new development agenda and to accelerate implementation.

We have a historic opportunity and a collective responsibility to make the rights and well-being of women and girls a political priority; both globally and within every country. To this end, the new framework must adopt a comprehensive, rights-based and transformative approach that addresses structural inequality and gender-based discrimination.

This comprehensive approach must include targets to eliminate discrimination against women in laws and policies; end violence against women; ensure the realisation of sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and adolescent girls throughout their life cycles; and the recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work.

Now is the time to put the full political weight behind passage of long-pending legislation to eliminate discrimination against women and promote gender equality.

Now is the time to allocate the resources to fund services for victims and survivors of violence against women.

Now is the time to strengthen national data collection and undertake a time use survey to better understand unpaid care work or a survey on violence against women.

Now is the time to make public spaces safe for women and girls.

Now is the time to improve rural infrastructure to strengthen women’s access to markets and help tackle rural feminised poverty.

Now is the time to showcase champions of gender equality, to recognise role models that have overcome stereotypes and helped level the playing field for girls and women in all areas, in politics and business, in academia and in public service, in the home and the community.

Mahatma Gandhi rightly said that true freedom from colonialism will not be achieved unless each and every citizen is free, equal and is able to realise his or her potential. The 21st century must see the end of the centuries’ old practice of patriarchy and gender discrimination, and unshackle women and girls so they can fully enjoy their human rights.

When the G77 meets later this week at its 50th anniversary commemorative Summit, I have high hopes that they will make this defining agenda of gender equality and women’s empowerment a centerpiece of their global development and freedom project for the next 50 years.


*Lakshmi Puri is the deputy executive director of U.N. Women, based in New York.

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Malawi’s President Joyce Banda Gains Support for ‘Fraudulent Election’ Recount Thu, 29 May 2014 11:48:02 +0000 Mabvuto Banda A woman casts her vote on May 20, 2014 in Lilongwe Mpenu North, about 70km from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. Credit: Mabvuto Banda/IPS

A woman casts her vote on May 20, 2014 in Lilongwe Mpenu North, about 70km from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. Credit: Mabvuto Banda/IPS

By Mabvuto Banda
LILONGWE, May 29 2014 (IPS)

When Malawi’s President Joyce Banda said that last week’s elections were fraudulent and riddled with rampant irregularities, social media went viral calling her a loser. 

“She is a cry baby,” said one Malawian on Facebook who identified himself as Wellington Phiri. “She should just concede defeat,” said another."I am ready to leave whichever way this goes. But I am happy that the people of Malawi know that I wasn't lying when I called this election fraudulent." -- President Joyce Banda

Banda had nullified the elections and ordered that voting be repeated within 90 days, triggering public anger and resentment. But a legal challenge from the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) prevented the nullification of the results as she had no lawful basis to annul the election.

But now it appears that Banda has rallied support for a recount even from her worst critics, which include the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and various other opposition.

“MCP cannot accept these results because they are fraudulent,” MCP vice president Richard Msowoya told IPS. Malawi went to the polls on May 20 in its first tripartite elections. Banda contested the presidential seat against 11 other candidates. The MCP’s head, retired evangelical pastor Lazarus Chakwera, was one of Banda’s main challengers for the presidential seat.

“We cannot allow people to steal our vote just like that and we have evidence and agree with President Banda that the election has been rigged,” Msowoya added.

The High Court in Blantyre is expected to make a ruling on Friday, May 30, to either order the MEC to declare the winner based on the current votes or initiate a recount as demanded by Banda and some opposition parties.

Malawi’s President Joyce Banda said that she is ready to leave the stage if the country’s High Court rules that the electoral commission should announce the winner of the tripartite elections and not initiate a recount. Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

Malawi’s President Joyce Banda said that she is ready to leave the stage if the country’s High Court rules that the electoral commission should announce the winner of the tripartite elections and not initiate a recount. Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

In a quick interview with IPS, Banda said that she was ready to leave office if the court ruled that the MEC should rather announce the winner of the election and not initiate a recount.

“I am ready to leave, whichever way this goes. But I am happy that the people of Malawi know that I wasn’t lying when I called this election fraudulent,” she told IPS.

On Sunday, May 25, the MEC admitted it had received overwhelming complaints about the election and could not proceed with announcing the winner.

Last week’s poll had been plagued by problems from the outset, with voting materials turning up hours late and ballot papers being sent to the wrong parts of the country. Organisers had to extend voting in some urban areas for a second day and initial counting was delayed by power outages and a lack of generators at polling stations.

Voters went on the rampage in the capital Lilongwe and in the commercial city of Blantyre burning tyres and shops before the military moved in and intervened.

To date the MEC has only released 30 percent of the official vote count, which showed that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), lead by Peter Mutharika, brother of the late President Bingu wa Mutharika, was in the lead with 42 percent of the vote. Banda followed with 23 percent.

But Msowoya pointed out that across the country there were cases of having more votes than voters. He said that in the constituency of Machinga, in southern Malawi, 184,223 people voted — this was 33,778 more than the total number of people on the voters’ roll for the area.

“In another constituency jn Dowa West were 70,845 people registered the final tally sheet shows only 1,164 voted which is very strange,” Msowoya said.

Banda’s ruling People’s Party (PP) also stated that several polling centres across the country recorded more people voting than the number of registered voters for those areas.

United Democratic Front presidential candidate Atupele Muluzi told IPS that his party had also received complaints from several centres. “In one instance, a presiding officer for a polling centre ended up signing for the results of two other centres, which is illegal,” Muluzi said.

The push for a recount of the vote has also now gained traction with several leading civil society groups.

The Malawi Council of Churches, an influential grouping of protestant churches, joined the chorus to push the elections body for a recount. The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, a leading rights NGO here, and the Association of Media Owners have also called for a recount.

“President Banda has been vindicated because she took a bold and brave move to challenge the MEC and ask for investigations into the electoral process. No one wanted to listen but now its clear that she was right,” Shyley Kondowe, one of Banda’s most trusted aides, told IPS.

However, if the MEC institutes a recount of the vote, it faces a legal challenge from the DPP.

“There is an invisible hand controlling everything because we are surprised that three political parties have formed a post-electoral alliance to fight our presidential candidate because he is in the lead,” the DPP’s lawyer Kalekeni Kaphale told IPS.

He said that the MEC and the courts had no power to extend the eight-day period outlined in the constitution for the electoral body to announce the results. The constitution, he said, can only be amended by parliament.

Whatever the outcome, Onandi Banda, a political commentator and human rights activist, believes that this is a major test for Malawi’s democracy.

“The president was after all right that the election was rigged. But how we move forward from here is what will make or break Malawi,” he told IPS.

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Women Journalists Seize Initiative in Gaza Thu, 29 May 2014 10:24:31 +0000 Marjut Helminen Gaza City, with a population of more than half a million people, spreads along the sandy shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  Credit: Marjut Helminen/IPS

Gaza City, with a population of more than half a million people, spreads along the sandy shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Credit: Marjut Helminen/IPS

By Marjut Helminen
GAZA CITY, May 29 2014 (IPS)

“We let the men participate in the workshop discussions, but the training sessions are only for women journalists,” says Mona Khadir, who coordinates the activities of the Filastiniyat Women Journalists’ Club in Gaza. The meeting hall at a hotel in Gaza is full of journalists, both women and men. What catches the eye is the row of TV cameras and microphones behind the audience.

They are there for the workshop organised by Filastiniyat, a non-governmental advocacy organisation committed to ensuring and supporting the equitable participation of Palestinian women and youth at all levels of the public sphere.

Filastiniyat workshops offer a platform for vivid discussion and varied viewpoints, and such events never fail to draw media attention.

“We make the voice of women heard in the society” – Wafa' Abdel Rahaman, founder of Filastiniyat
Raising a chorus of many voices – where everybody is welcome, irrespective of religion, political views or differing ways of thinking – is a rare opportunity in today’s Gaza.

The political division that has lasted since 2007 in Palestine between the two largest Palestinian political parties and long-standing rivals, the Fatah government in the West Bank and the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, has had a significant effect on the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression – and on women’s lives, whether journalists or citizens.

Filastiniyat’s activities offer an alternative view and much food for thought, considering that those in power in Gaza favour steps to segregate women and men in all spheres of life.

“We make the voice of women heard in the society,” says Wafa’ Abdel Rahaman, founder of Filastiniyat in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Several Palestinian men admitted to IPS that they respect the Filastiniyat as something unique and fresh. The club does something nobody else dares to do, they said. It offers an alternative to the conversation culture and a way of searching for common ground for action.

Although the activists of the volunteer organisation do not put it this way, it seems that the women journalists’ club aims at freeing journalism from narrow-minded party politics and taking it back to its roots, to informing the public in a spirit of free speech and right to information.

In the journalism field in Gaza, telling the truth can be life-threatening and the attack against free speech comes both from the Israeli occupation forces and from the domestic political leadership. Media outlets in the Gaza Strip have been prohibited from criticising the practices of the Hamas government, particularly regarding human rights violations.

But the voices of women journalists are being heard not only inside meeting rooms. Earlier this month, Filastiniyat invited journalists to discuss Palestinian reconciliation and ways to put an end to the split between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza. Al Jazeera TV broadcast this lengthy discussion live to the Arab world, and others, like Palestinian TV and several other media gave it extensive coverage.

“Our club is first of all about empowering women journalists and we do it in many ways, giving them an opportunity to raise their voice, increase professional skills, as well as offering relaxation and networking through social activities,” explains Khadir.

Some of the club’s activities might seem trivial at first glance, but a closer look reveals that they can mean a world to the women journalists struggling for professional survival in the male dominated and segregated society.

Psycho-social support, yoga and excursions offer relaxation and the possibility to forget for a moment the stress of everyday life – like the regular cuts in electricity or tap water, which is salty and poisoned with minerals, and the siege over Gaza, which imprisons the population in ghetto conditions.

Women journalists in Gaza are not only struggling with basic necessities for existence for themselves and their families, but also for employment.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate in 2012 among Palestinian journalism graduates aged 20-29 was 52 percent: 38 percent among male graduates and a striking 82 percent among female graduates.

UNESCO and Birzeit University’s Media Development Centre are about to release an in-depth Media Development Indicators Report, which analyses different factors of freedom of speech and media freedom in Palestine. According to this study, discrimination of women journalists is deeply rooted in media houses and union life, and the rights of all journalists are constantly violated both by the Israeli occupational authorities and the Palestinian authorities.

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OP-ED: Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It! Mon, 19 May 2014 11:21:34 +0000 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Photo Courtesy of UN Women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Photo Courtesy of UN Women

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Nearly 20 years ago, the world came together in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women. There, 189 governments adopted a visionary roadmap for gender equality: the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

More than 17,000 delegates and 30,000 activists pictured a world where women and girls had equal rights, freedom and opportunity in every sphere of life.We must seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to position gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment firmly at the centre of the global agenda.

While much progress has been made in the past two decades, no country can claim to have achieved equality between men and women. It is time for the world to come together again for women and girls and complete this journey.

UN Women is launching a year-long campaign to re-energise the vision laid out at the Beijing Women’s Conference. Our goal is straightforward: renewed commitment, strengthened action and increased resources to realise gender equality, women’s empowerment and human rights. We call it: Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It!

The Beijing Declaration laid out actions to address 12 critical areas of concern for women and girls across the globe.

Governments, the private sector and other partners were urged to reduce women and girls’ poverty, ensure their right to access education and training, safeguard their health – including their sexual and reproductive health, protect women and girls from violence and discrimination, to ensure that technological advances benefit all, and to promote their full and equal participation in society, politics, and the economy.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action remains the most comprehensive global agreement on women’s empowerment and gender equality. If only it had been implemented!

Notwithstanding, today we can celebrate progress. More girls are going to school. More women are working, getting elected, and assuming leadership positions. But in all regions of the world, and in all countries, women continue to face discrimination because they are female.

We see it every day. In pay inequity and unequal opportunities at work… in stubbornly low representation of women leaders in the public and private sectors… in the continuing scourge of child marriage, and in the pandemic of violence experienced by one in three women globally – a number greater than the population of Europe.

Perhaps even more startling is the fact that if the Beijing negotiations occurred today, they would likely result in a weaker agreement. We all have a responsibility to keep pushing ahead for full implementation, because every time a woman or girl is held back by discrimination or violence, humanity loses.

Since the Beijing Conference, irrefutable evidence has accumulated showing that empowering women empowers humanity.

Picture it!

Countries with higher levels of gender equality have higher economic growth. Companies with more women on their boards have higher returns to shareholders. Parliaments with more women consider a broader range of issues and adopt more legislation on health, education, anti-discrimination, and child support. Peace agreements forged by female and male negotiators last longer and are more stable.

Studies show that for every one additional year of education for women, child mortality decreases by 9.5 percent. Equalising access to resources and services for women farmers would boost output and eliminate hunger for 150 million people. A billion women will enter the world economy in the next decade. With equal opportunities, their impact on our future prosperity will be a global game-changer.

We can and must turn this picture to reality. Right now, every country is working to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, and to define a new global development plan.

We must seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to position gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment firmly at the centre of the global agenda. It is the right thing to do, and the best thing for humanity.

Men and boys, who have been silent too long, are beginning to stand up and speak out for the human rights of women and girls through initiatives like UN Women’s #HeForShe campaign. We call on all men and boys to join us!

Nearly 20 years after Beijing, I believe the world is ready to implement its vision of equality for men and women.

Today we launch a Beijing+20 campaign that will focus on progress, highlighting champions and effective work being done for gender equality. Every country will produce a report on the state of their women and girls, 20 years on. The campaign calls upon leaders and ordinary people alike to recommit and act to turn the vision of the Beijing platform into reality.

From Sweden, where in June people will gather to protect the human rights of women and girls, to September’s Climate Summit in New York, where women heads of State and activists will assert women’s role in protecting our environment, to India, where men and boys will make a show of force for gender equality in November.

And on International Women’s Day on Mar. 8, 2015, people in every country will make their voices heard for a better world.

Together we must achieve equality between women and men. There is no time to waste!

Empowering women, Empowering humanity. Picture it!

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is UN Women’s Executive Director.

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

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

By Abdullah Omeed
KABUL, May 2 2014 (IPS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modernists are therefore asking for outright outlawing of polygamy.

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

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

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Imprisoning Themselves to Stay Safe Tue, 22 Apr 2014 07:51:09 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza A policeman on guard at the entrance of the Turkmen district in Tuz Khormato. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

A policeman on guard at the entrance of the Turkmen district in Tuz Khormato. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

By Karlos Zurutuza
TUZ KHORMATO, Iraq, Apr 22 2014 (IPS)

“I don’t dare tell you who the murderers are but their target is just us, Turkmens,” says Ahmed Abdulla Muhtaroglu, sitting by the portrait of his brother who was killed last year.

IPS met Muhtaroglu in Tuz Khormato, a predominantly Turkmen district 170 km north of Baghdad. Iraqi Turkmens are descendants of waves of Turkic migration to the ancient Mesopotamia region where Iraq now lies."We have been forced to build our own prison for ourselves as a mean to survive." -- Hanna Muhamed, a candidate for the election

The population of Turkmens in Iraq, who include both Shia and Sunni Muslims, is estimated at 500,000 to 600,000 by international sources, and 2.5 to three million by local Turkmens.

“There is no worse place in the world for Turkmens than Tuz,” says Muhtaroglu, local leader of the Turkmen Front, their main political party. “We have turned into victims of a plot to wipe us out. Some 500 Turkmen families left the district only last year.”

Population displacements are common in this country torn by sectarian violence. But displacement has taken on a new dimension in this town of 60,000.

According to the Iraq Body Count database, Tuz witnessed the latest attack Apr. 8, when four residents were killed by a car bomb. There have been more brutal attacks; in January last year, 42 members of the community were killed in a suicide attack during a funeral.

Former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein took Tuz Khormato away from Kirkuk, 230 km north of Baghdad, in 1976, and attached it to Salahadin province as part of a process to change the demographics of oil-rich Kirkuk in favour of Arabs. Today, both Kirkuk and Tuz are among “disputed territories” whose status is to be defined in a referendum – which is being postponed since 2007.

The “disputed territories” are one of the main lines of fracture in Iraq. Both Arabs and Kurds, the government in Baghdad and the Kurdish government in Erbil, are vying to take control of these territories. Turkmens have been caught in the quagmire.

Hanna Muhamed, 40, a candidate for the election to the 328-seat parliament in Iraq due Apr. 30, tells IPS that an independent region for Turkmens would be the best solution. She says she is contesting from Tuz because “it may be easier for a woman to get elected.” She is counting on the fact that it is still rare for a woman to contest in Iraq.

“We have been forced to build our own prison for ourselves as a mean to survive,” she says while campaigning on the outskirts of the city.

Tuz is easy to get to – just look for the concrete walls erected opposite the central bazaar area.

The makeshift fortress is accessible only through checkpoints. Local policeman Samir – he didn’t want his full name disclosed – posted at one such checkpoint tells IPS that the community started building it two years ago to avoid attacks. But it’s still not protection enough.

A few metres away, Mohamed Hamid points to the spot where he lost his daughter in September last year. Ten-year-old Hanna Hamid was buried under the wall that surrounds the Hamids’ house.

The bomb was meant to destroy the opposite building belonging to a Turkmen family. Two of the members of this family were wounded in the bomb attack.

And, there are more everyday problems. The streets here are not paved, so it’s not difficult for Ahmed, a local resident, to dig a trench. Once he’s done he will lay a tube to channel the putrid waters outside the wall, as drainage problems add to the more severe security ones. He wants to prevent his two nephews from getting sick from the stench when they play outside. They are the sons of his brother killed in an explosion six months ago.

“We offered Ahmed to his widow to take of her and the kids but she didn’t accept,” says Ahmed’s mother Zohaila, still in mourning clothes. “I can hardly support them with the 150,000 dinars a month [about 90 euros] I get for searching women at the entrance to the mosque.”

Deep in the heart of the walled area, Shia icons are ubiquitous around the Imam Ahmed mosque – from the portraits of Imam Ali, a descendant of prophet Muhammad according to the Shias, to those of Moqtada al-Sadr, a political and religious Shia leader and a key player in post-Saddam Iraq. By the side of these portraits stands a billboard with names and pictures of those killed in the several attacks in Tuz.

“Terrorists have no religion or race,” says local policeman Massoud. That’s something local residents seem to make a point of saying.

In its May 2013 report, the Institute for International Law and Human Rights says Iraqi Turkmen have been “intimidated by Kurdish and central government authorities for their presence in the disputed territories.”

The organisation based in Baghdad, Washington and Brussels says Turkmen have been targeted on religious grounds “by both Shia and Sunni extrajudicial militant groups,” and that community women are “particularly vulnerable to violence.”

“We are sandwiched between Arabs and Kurds: reaching an agreement with one implies confronting the other,” Arsad Salihi, one of seven Turkmen MPs, tells IPS from his home in Kirkuk.

The Turkmen senior leader says he would not rule out eventual integration with the Kurdish Autonomous Region. But, he says, Kurds must cease their “continuous and arbitrary harassment” of his community.

Khalid Schwani, Kurdish MP in Baghdad for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a leading party headed by President Jalal Talabani, strongly refutes such allegations. He says the government in Baghdad has been deliberately delaying a settlement on the areas in dispute, and that his party will come to “direct agreements” with both Arabs and Turkmens. Both Tuz and Kirkuk are among the disputed territories.

“Tuz would come back to Kirkuk (from Salahadin province) and in return Salahadin could keep control over Hawija –a predominantly Arab majority city southwest of Kirkuk.”

Whatever the future may bring, bricklayer Ihmat Altun says he will not be there to see it. “I’m moving to Istanbul with my family. I won’t wait until we get killed in this slaughterhouse,” he says as the guard at the checkpoint lifts the barrier for him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OP-ED: Beyond the Street Protests: Youth, Women and Democracy in Latin America Wed, 16 Apr 2014 14:08:16 +0000 Jessica Faieta The huge student protests in Chile have spread the idea that adolescents have the right to vote. Credit: Pamela Sepúlveda/IPS

The huge student protests in Chile have spread the idea that adolescents have the right to vote. Credit: Pamela Sepúlveda/IPS

By Jessica Faieta

Women’s empowerment and political participation are not only crucial for women: they are essential for effective democratic governance, one which promotes human rights and equity.  The same can be said about the importance of boosting youth political participation.

The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) invited three young women parliamentarians from Latin America and the Caribbean to join a recent discussion in Salamanca, Spain, on young women’s political participation in the region.In the digital age of flourishing social media activism, these protests also provide opportunities to rethink democratic governance in the 21st century.

That’s what Paola Pabón from Ecuador, Silvia Alejandrina Castro from El Salvador and Gabriela Montaño from Bolivia have in common. They are among the very few women in parliaments and they are young: They broke a double glass ceiling.

Of the 600 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 26 percent are young, aged 15-29. This is a unique opportunity for the region’s development and for its present and future governance. Even though the average regional rate of women taking up positions in parliament is 25 percent, higher than the global average, a closer look shows that women still lag behind.

Our recent survey of 25 parliaments in Latin America and the Caribbean shows a very low representation of youth in the region’s parliaments – especially those of African or indigenous descent. Only 2.7 percent of male parliamentarians in the region and 1.3 percent of women MPs were under 30 years old—even though more than one fourth of the region’s population is young.

When we look at the age of MPs below under 40, 15 percent are men and not even 6.5 percent are women.

UNDP’s regional Human Development Reports have shown that young people have enormous potential as agents of change. But despite Latin America’s remarkable progress in reducing poverty and inequality – and its strides toward strong democracies with free and transparent elections – gender, income, ethnic origin, or dwelling conditions are all decisive barriers to young citizens’ rights and civic engagement.

One in every four young people aged 15-29 in the region are poor or extremely poor. And only 35 percent of them have access to education. More worrying still: Some 20 million young Latin Americans aged 15-18 neither work nor study. That’s nearly one in every five, 54 percent of them female and 46 percent male.

And the region’s youth have been taking to the streets, playing a central role in recent protests in countries like Brazil, Chile, Peru and Mexico. Such demonstrations urge us to understand the demands of young people, and to address lingering structural problems in our societies, especially inequality.

The increasing frequency of such mobilisations tells us that young people want to actively participate in their society’s development. The first Ibero-American Youth Survey - which we launched last year with the Ibero-American Youth Organization (OIJ) and other partners — shows that young people in Latin America, Portugal and Spain expect their participation to increase over the next five years.

Institutions should provide formal spaces for this, or protests will become the only effective way for young people to make their voices heard. And the region will waste an opportunity to enhance the quality of its democratic governance.

We are working towards this goal. UNDP and partners brought together 22 young MPs from 13 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2013 to put together the region’s first young legislators’ network to boost young people’s political participation and inclusion.  We have been partnering with OIJ and other U.N. sister agencies and governmental youth secretaries to push this agenda.

Moreover, our youth online platform JuventudconVoz (youth voices), with the OIJ and the Spanish Cooperation agency, is also helping boost young Latin Americans political participation and leadership skills.

Protests sparked by young Latin Americans will likely continue in several countries. Beyond the street level, in the digital age of flourishing social media activism, these protests also provide opportunities to rethink democratic governance in the 21st century.

Jessica Faieta is UNDP’s Director a.i. and Deputy Director for Latin America and the Caribbean @JessicaFaieta / @UNDPLAC

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Q&A: Malawi’s President Banda Confident ‘I Will Win this Election’ Mon, 14 Apr 2014 13:37:27 +0000 Mabvuto Banda Malawi’s President Joyce Banda has vowed to get to the bottom of a corruption scandal where more than 100 million dollars were suspected to have been looted from the government since 2006. She is currently campaigning ahead of the country’s May tripartite elections. Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

Malawi’s President Joyce Banda has vowed to get to the bottom of a corruption scandal where more than 100 million dollars were suspected to have been looted from the government since 2006. She is currently campaigning ahead of the country’s May tripartite elections. Credit: Claire Ngozo/IPS

By Mabvuto Banda
Apr 14 2014 (IPS)

Malawi’s President Joyce Banda is campaigning ahead of next month’s elections to extend her term of office. But many believe that the massive public service corruption scandal here has weakened her chances of winning.

This southern African nation goes to the polls on May 20. However, after a February auditor’s report into the scandal revealed that 30 million dollars were stolen over just six months in 2013, Africa’s second female president has faced calls to resign. She become president in April 2012 after her predecessor President Bingu wa Mutharika died in office."We have repealed repressive laws, we have changed the status of women, the media is free, and we allowed everyone to demonstrate freely when just two years ago people were being killed for doing just that." -- Malawi's President Joyce Banda

But Banda is confident that she has done more than enough to address the corruption  — where a total of more than 100 million dollars were suspected to have been looted from the government since 2006 — and ensure her chances of retaining office.

She has taken on the powerful players involved in the corruption scandal and arrested 68 people, including a former cabinet minister, businessmen and senior public officers. “Cashgate” was first exposed last September after a failed assassination attempt on a government budget director who was believed to be on the verge of revealing the theft.

Banda has frozen over 30 bank accounts and 18 cases are currently in court. In this interview, Africa’s most influential woman discusses with IPS correspondent Mabvuto Banda her two years in power, the challenges, and what her hopes are for the future. Excerpts follow:

Q: President Banda, it’s been a tough two years of fighting to right a sputtering economy left by your predecessor, the late President Mutharika. How have you fared?

A: We inherited an economy that was in a crisis. Today, we have turned around the economy because we took decisive action to heal the country, recover the economy, and build a strong foundation for growth. It’s been two years since our people spent hours in fuel queues, it’s been two years since businesses struggled to access foreign exchange.

Q: How did you manage to do that?

A: We agreed to swallow the bitter pill and made unpopular decisions like the devaluation of the Kwacha, we have been implementing a tight monetary policy…our fiscal policy has been tight. These are some of the pills that have set the economy on a path of healing and represent the foundation of a transformational agenda that we will implement in the next five years.

Q: You rightly said that your first job was to bring back donor confidence and unlock aid which was withdrawn. You did that but now because of the “Cashgate” scandal, donors have suspended 150 million dollars in budget support. Do you take responsibility for this?

A: Yes, I do because “Cashgate” happened on my watch and my job entails that I take responsibility and deal with it. This is why we have taken far-reaching measures in dealing with fraud and corruption and engaged foreign forensic auditors to get to the bottom of this corruption in the public service.

Q: Your critics think your administration is not doing much to get to the bottom of all this. Any comment?

A: Sixty-eight people, including a former member of my cabinet, have been arrested, more than 18 cases are already in court, 33 bank accounts have been frozen. This is the risk I have taken which very few African leaders do when they are facing an election.

I have vowed not to shield anyone, even if it means one of my relations is involved. Now tell me, is this not proof enough that we are taking this corruption very seriously?

Q: But many believe that you personally benefited from this “Cashgate” scandal. What do you say?

A: When you are fighting the powerful, an influential syndicate like this one, this is not surprising. Secondly, this is an election year and you will hear a lot of things but the truth shall come out.

The other thing you should know is that I am a woman in a role dominated by men and I am therefore not surprised that I am getting such amount of pushback…we shall overcome this, and those responsible for stealing state funds will be jailed and their properties confiscated.

Q: You face an election next month and the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit has projected that you will win the election despite the scandal. Do you believe that?

A: Yes I do believe that I will win this election. I also know though that it’s a close one but the advantage is that people have seen what we have done in two years.

We have repealed repressive laws, we have changed the status of women, the media is free, and we allowed everyone to demonstrate freely when just two years ago people were being killed for doing just that.

Q: Forbes Magazine named you as the continent’s most powerful woman. Do you feel that powerful?

A:  No, I don’t. I will feel that powerful when every woman in Malawi and Africa is free from hate and is empowered.

I will feel powerful when woman no longer have to lose their lives because they are abused, when they stop dying from avoidable pregnancy-related deaths. I will feel powerful when women in Africa take their rightful place as equals.

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On 20th Anniversary of Genocide, Rwanda’s Women Lead Mon, 07 Apr 2014 16:25:49 +0000 Fabiola Ortiz Rwanda’s Member of Parliament Veneranda Nyirahirwa says women in Rwanda have fought for political representation. In the Lower House of Parliament women occupy 64 percent or 51 out of 80 seats. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

Rwanda’s Member of Parliament Veneranda Nyirahirwa says women in Rwanda have fought for political representation. In the Lower House of Parliament women occupy 64 percent or 51 out of 80 seats. Credit: Fabíola Ortiz/IPS

By Fabiola Ortiz
KIGALI, Apr 7 2014 (IPS)

When Rwandan Member of Parliament Veneranda Nyirahirwa was just a girl, she wasn’t allowed to attend secondary school because of her ethnicity. 

It was only in the wake of the country’s state-driven genocide in 1994 — where almost one million minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus lost their lives in 100 days — and after a new government took power that she was able to attend high school.

By then she was already in her twenties. "[Women have] become part of the reconciliation process, we reconcile and help to reconcile others. We are taking things forward.” -- Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources Agnes Kalibata

But she seized the opportunity to receive an education.

Nyirahirwa, 43, is now starting her second term as a deputy in the country’s lower house of Parliament. She belongs to the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the second-biggest of the country’s 11 political parties.

She hails from Ngoma district, Rukumberi Sector in Eastern Province, and remembers that growing up there were many barriers imposed on minority Tutsis attending school.

“We were segregated because of the regime, it was a part of the country … where people who lived there couldn’t go to school due to ethnic problems. It was very difficult to get a place in secondary school,” she explained.

It was the disappointment of her childhood that spurred her on to fight for a seat in Parliament. “I was frustrated watching the ones who were leading our country and I wanted to change things.”

Like many Rwandans, Nyirahirwa lost relatives and friends in the genocide and says, “Every Rwandan must be aware of the causes of genocide and do his or her best to fight against it. I am a Rwandan and I don’t want to leave my country.”

Remains of some of the over one million victims of Rwanda’s 100-day genocide. Credit: Edwin Musoni/IPS

Remains of some of the over one million victims of Rwanda’s 100-day genocide. Credit: Edwin Musoni/IPS

Things are certainly different now. Nyirahirwa says women here have fought for political representation.

“We are happy for this achievement and for being the majority. There was a time when women in Rwanda were not considered important for the development of the country and they did not have jobs,” she said.

In the September 2013 elections, the PSD won 30 percent of the vote, with Nyirahirwa being one of four women from the party to win seats in Parliament.

But Nyirahirwa’s success is not an anomaly here.

As Rwanda commemorates the 20th anniversary of the genocide this week with memorials across the country, this Central African nation has become a regional leader in promoting gender equity and women’s empowerment.

Women are leading the way in national reconstruction and are considered to be at the forefront of promoting peace and reconciliation. Women, in fact, are leading the nation.

  • In the last parliamentary elections, Rwanda once again broke its own world record of being the country with the highest level of women’s participation in Parliament.
  • According to the Rwandan government, average women’s representation worldwide in a lower house stands at 21 percent and 18 percent in a Senate or upper house.
  • This sub-Saharan country has three times the world’s average of female representation in the lower house, with women occupying 64 percent, or 51 out of 80 seats. During the previous parliamentary term, from 2008 to 2013, women held 56 percent of seats in the lower house.
  • Rwanda also has twice the world’s average of women’s representation in the Senate: some 40 percent, or 10 out of the 25 seats, are held by women.
  • There are also 10 female ministers who head up key ministries including foreign affairs, natural resources and mining, agriculture, and health.

Gender empowerment became a reality after the war and genocide when the new government, currently led by incumbent President Paul Kagame of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, took power. It was then, according to Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources Agnes Kalibata, that the government began addressing national unity and women’s political participation as part of the reconstruction process.

Rwanda’s constitution, adopted in 2003, states that both men and women should occupy at least 30 percent of all decision-making bodies.

Kalibata said that now women are able to compete with men on equal grounds.

“We created a policy environment to give them a fair chance. Rwanda is leading this since we’ve had the decision that we needed to secure a place for women in employment and in the public space. We also want to try to influence the private sector to appreciate that,” she told IPS.

In her opinion, women are at the centre of national reconciliation.

“Empowering the women is part of nation building. Women are the majority and the major part of the agriculture sector. We know how to teach our children, how to handle our communities and how to build society.”

Nowadays, women are able to influence what happens in Rwanda, she argued.

“By influencing how our husbands think, we influence how our children think. And now in politics we also influence how the general population thinks. We’ve become part of the reconciliation process, we reconcile and help to reconcile others. We are taking things forward.”

Kalibata, who has been in charge of the ministry of agriculture for six years, admitted that reconstruction is still a challenge, especially in the field of agriculture.

It is estimated that 70 percent of Rwanda’s 12 million people live in the countryside, with women comprising the majority — 65 percent.

“This nation has had the worse nightmare that any country can have. It is fulfilling to have an opportunity to put it back together through agriculture; there are still many people whose lives can improve because they use agriculture to reduce their poverty,” she said.

When asked about the possibility of a female president, Kalibata said she was confident it would happen after seeing other women on the continent hold the post.

Africa already has three women presidents: Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Malawi’s Joyce Banda and the new interim president of Central African Republic, Catherine Samba-Panza.

“Yes, a woman president would be great if she is competent enough. This is beginning to happen on this continent. If a woman becomes president it will be because she is extremely competent to manage this country and I would be very happy,” she concluded.

Meanwhile, Nyirahirwa will keep working to change the lives of the people living in Eastern Province. And she intends to stay in Parliament for over 10 years at least.

“There is a significant change: every Rwandan now has the right to education. Before it was difficult to get the right to go to school. Now, we have a chance to go to university and also complete an MBA,” she stressed.

“I want to ensure that every Rwandan is able to get any job anywhere.”

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Political Web Spun for ‘Youngistan’ Sun, 06 Apr 2014 08:24:31 +0000 Manipadma Jena A Bharatiya Janata Party rally in Bhubaneswar. Much campaigning, particularly among the youth, is increasingly over the internet. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS.

A Bharatiya Janata Party rally in Bhubaneswar. Much campaigning, particularly among the youth, is increasingly over the internet. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS.

By Manipadma Jena
BHUBANESWAR, India, Apr 6 2014 (IPS)

As India votes in its 16th general election Apr. 7-May 12, the youth, comprising nearly half the country’s 814 million voters, could prove decisive. And the internet is being used increasingly to target youth in the world’s largest democratic exercise.

India has 383 million voters in the 18-35 age group. Underscoring their importance, pollsters have named this huge segment ‘Youngistan’, or the nation of the youth.

Not only have election promises been tailored to woo this segment, but for the first time campaign engagement with voters is taking the internet route, especially over social media platforms."Politicians are listening as well as responding to young voters through social media."

“There’s more participation and what’s more, politicians are listening as well as responding to young voters through social media,” Sunil Abraham of the Bangalore-based non-profit Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) told IPS.

Mobile phone texting, which was used to reach out to voters in the last election in 2009, has made way for a tech-basket of mobile phones, e-mail campaigns, know-your-leader and political party websites, messages via smart phones, interactive Facebook and Twitter accounts, Google hangouts and YouTube videos.

Social media practitioners say at least 10 percent of the 664 million dollars projected to be spent on advertisements and publicity by political parties is likely to go to social media companies.

India’s internet user base has been estimated at 205 million, Facebook users number 65 million, Google+ 36 million, and Twitter 16 million.

In a document titled ‘Social Media and Law Enforcement’, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) projects user strength galloping to 243 million by June 2014, of which 192 million would be active users, 56 million of them rural. Active users are categorised as those who use the internet at least once a month.

Fifty to sixty percent of current internet users are in the 18-35 age group, according to Abraham. Politicians are tapping into this huge and growing youth voter base not only to boost their reach but also to monitor engagement and run more effective campaigns.

“Politicians contract us to find out what ‘influencers’ on Twitter are saying about them, and we segregate the positive and negative tweets for a sentiment analysis,” Jwalant Patel, 30-year-old co-founder of social media analytics startup Meruki Analytics and Reporting Services told IPS. ‘Influencers’ are those with at least 10,000 Twitter followers, Patel said.

Of the 70,000 ‘influencers’ that the tech company has identified for its 11 clients within weeks of starting operations, 90 percent are in the 18-40 age group.

Patel claims that 160 of the 543 constituencies that go to the polls will be ‘social media constituencies’ where results will be impacted by politicians’ internet engagement.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, 63, has a Twitter following of 3.66 million, while Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal, 45, whose anti-corruption plank is widely believed to have got Indian youth interested in politics, has 1.58 million. The Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi, 43, does not have an official Twitter account.

Sustained youth participation in protests in the Delhi rape case of December 2012 and in favour of the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill are other major catalysts in the politically proactive approach of youth in these elections, say analysts.

The dynamics of electioneering has changed in India, with its 1.2 billion people.

Abraham agrees that the internet in general and social media in particular have had a democratising effect on the voter-voted relationship, but he warns that once the competition gets tougher, political leaders may resort to ‘astro-turf’ battles where they manipulate e-campaigns, as opposed to the more transparent, physical ‘grass turf’ campaigns.

“How can you bet that all the Facebook ‘likes’ are from genuine supporters?” said Abraham.

Many of the youth seem clear on issues of concern to them.

“Most leading parties are promising jobs for graduates, but when a party that has been in power for several years says ‘we will give jobs’, we ask what were you doing all these years? If a new party makes the same promise, give them a chance, we say,” 20-year-old student Siddhant Sadangi told IPS in Bhubaneswar, capital of Odisha state in eastern India.

According to India’s National Sample Survey, one in four graduates is unemployed. The figures are worse for women.

More and more village men are preferring higher education to agricultural work, and this means there will be more demand for higher quality jobs in the near future.

In conflict-hit states, cynicism is apparent among the youth.

Manipur Talks, a vibrant internet forum that connects the widespread diaspora of northeast India’s Manipur state, lampoons pre-election promises. The site calls the election ‘Magic Wand Expo 2014 – the biggest expo for wiz-crafts in the world’ – a spoof on Harry Potter.

Northeastern communities have been protesting discrimination against them in the rest of India. “Politicians have lost credibility here and what’s more, nothing is done to help the Manipur youth diaspora vote,” Manipur-based social activist Chitra Ahanthem told IPS.

Campaigns by India’s Election Commission to enlist young voters through online registration have succeeded in a nationally high 70 percent turnout expectation, according to Election Commissioner Harishankar Brahma. But many of the 30 percent who will not exercise their franchise will be the young from troubled states.

“The youth of Jammu and Kashmir are isolated, alienated, angry,” Bashir Ahmad Dabla, heading the University of Kashmir’s sociology and social work department told IPS from Srinagar.

“Here, unlike elsewhere, the need for political stability takes precedence over economic issues,” said Dabla. “Jobs, education, water, electricity, roads are important but not the priority in Kashmir.”

The last elections in Kashmir saw only 31 percent voting. Around 50 percent of voters in Kashmir are in the 18-35 age group.

Saba Firdous, a 25-year-old graduate in the state, is not voting this time, and it’s not because of a poll boycott campaign by Kashmiri separatists.

“The major issues for youth here are repealing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Kashmir valley, stopping civilian harassment and killings, resolving the unending conflict,” Firdous told IPS. “Mainstream political parties who go to Parliament will do nothing about these issues, we know.”

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