Inter Press Service » Women in Politics Turning the World Downside Up Sat, 20 Dec 2014 18:21:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 OPINION: Stand in Solidarity with Courageous Women’s Human Rights Defenders Tue, 02 Dec 2014 22:35:29 +0000 Zeid Raad Al Hussein

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and has extensive experience in international diplomacy and the protection of human rights.

By Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

Almost two decades ago, in Beijing, 189 countries made a commitment to achieve equality for women, in practice and in law, so that all women could at last fully enjoy their rights and freedoms as equal human beings.

They adopted a comprehensive and ambitious plan to guarantee women the same rights as men to be educated and develop their potential. The same rights as men to choose their profession. The same rights to lead communities and nations, and make choices about their own lives without fear of violence or reprisal.

Credit: OHCHR

Credit: OHCHR

No longer would hundreds of thousands of women die every year in childbirth because of health care policies and systems that neglected their care. No longer would women earn considerably less than men. No longer would discriminatory laws govern marriage, land, property and inheritance.

In the years that followed, the world has witnessed tremendous progress: the number of women in the work force has increased; there is almost gender parity in schooling at the primary level; the maternal mortality ratio declined by almost 50 percent; and more women are in leadership positions.

Importantly, governments talk about women’s rights as human rights and women’s rights and gender equality are acknowledged as legitimate and indispensable goals.

However, the world is still far from the vision articulated in Beijing. Approximately one in three women throughout the world will experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Less than a quarter of parliamentarians in the world are women.Attacks against women who stand up to demand their human rights and individuals who advocate for gender equality are often designed to keep women in their “place.” In some areas of the world, women who participate in public demonstrations are told to go home to take care of their children.

In over 50 countries there is no legal protection for women against domestic violence. Almost 300,000 women and girls died in 2013 from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Approximately one in three married women aged 20 to 24 were child brides.

In many parts of the world, women and girls cannot make decisions on their most private matters – sexuality, marriage, children. Girls and women who pursue their own life choices are still murdered by their own families in the dishonourable practice of so-called honour killings.

All of our societies remain affected by stereotypes based on the inferiority of women which often denigrate, humiliate and sexualise them.

Today we have the responsibility to protect the progress made in the past 20 years and address the remaining challenges. In doing so, we must recognise the vital role of women who defend human rights, often at great risk to themselves and their families precisely because they are viewed as stepping outside socially prescriptive gender stereotypes.

We must recognise the role of all people, women and men, who publicly call for gender equality and often, as a result, find themselves the victim of archaic and patriarchal, but powerful, threats to their reputations, their work and even their lives.

These extraordinary individuals – women’s human rights defenders – operate in hostile environments, where arguments of cultural relativism are common and often against the background of the rise of extremist, misogynistic groups, which threaten to dismantle the gains of the past.

Attacks against women who stand up to demand their human rights and individuals who advocate for gender equality are often designed to keep women in their “place.” In some areas of the world, women who participate in public demonstrations are told to go home to take care of their children.

Consider the recent example of a newspaper publishing naked photos of a woman, claiming she was a well-known activist – an attack designed to shame this defender into silence. In other places, when women claim their right to affordable modern methods of contraception, they are labelled as prostitutes in smear campaigns seeking to undermine their credibility.

Online attacks against those who speak for women’s human rights and gender equality by so-called “trolls” – who threaten heinous crimes – are increasingly reported.

These attacks have a common thread – they rely on gender stereotypes and deeply entrenched discriminatory social norms in an attempt to silence those who challenge the age old system of gender inequality. However, these defenders will not be silenced, and we must stand in solidarity with them against these cowardly attacks.

This is why my office has decided to launch a campaign to pay tribute to women and men who defy stereotypes and fight for women’s human rights. The campaign runs from Human Rights Day, Dec. 10 this year, to International Women’s Day, Mar. 8, 2015. We encourage everyone to join the ranks of these strong and inspiring advocates, on social media (#reflect2protect) and on the ground.

As we approach the 20-year anniversary of Beijing, discrimination and violence against women, and the stereotypes that confine them into narrowly fixed roles must end. Women have the right to make their own decisions about their lives and their bodies.

Guaranteeing and implementing these rights are non-negotiable obligations of all states. Women human rights defenders were instrumental in securing the ambitious programme laid out in Beijing. Their work, their activism and their courage deserve our recognition, our support and our respect.

Edited by Kitty Stapp


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U.N. Chief, Under Fire, Moves Closer to Gender Parity Tue, 02 Dec 2014 21:58:40 +0000 Thalif Deen Some of the 43 military and police officers from 27 countries who received peacekeeping medals from Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Some of the 43 military and police officers from 27 countries who received peacekeeping medals from Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Thalif Deen

When Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named an international panel to review peacekeeping operations last October, the announcement was greeted with bitter criticism because it lacked even a semblance of gender balance: only three out of 14 members were women.

And perhaps adding insult to injury, the announcement was made on Oct. 31, the 14th anniversary of the historic Security Council resolution 1325 which underlined the importance of women’s equal participation and full involvement in the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.

“The timing of your announcement is a slap in the face to women working for peace the world over,” complained Stephen Lewis, a former deputy executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, and Paula Donovan, both co-directors of AIDS-Free World.

In three strongly-worded letters to the Secretary-General, Lewis and Donovan said: “In one stroke, you have succeeded in making a mockery of Resolution 1325.”

“In one stroke,” the letter further added, “you have repudiated the importance of gender equity in the appointment of high-level panels.”

And in one stroke, “you have declared to the world your view that there are no women to be found anywhere – not in politics, academe, diplomacy, civil society, or among Nobel laureates – who are qualified enough to satisfy the requirements of a panel on peace operations.”

The fallout was almost instantaneous – and mostly positive.

Firstly, the appointment last month of a new 10-member high-level panel on a technology bank for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) reflected a 50-50 gender parity: five men and five women.

Secondly, on Monday, the secretary-general, apparently responding to criticism, also doubled the number of women in the U.N. panel on peacekeeping: from three to six.

The three additional women to the Panel are: Dr. Marie-Louise Baricako from Burundi, Dr. Rima Salah from Jordan and Radhika Coomaraswamy from Sri Lanka.

In addition, Ameerah Haq of Bangladesh, the current under-secretary-general for the Department of Field Support and an original member of the panel, will serve as vice-chair following her retirement from the United Nations on Feb. 1, 2015.

A statement released Monday said “the Secretary-General is confident the addition of three eminent women and the role Ms. Haq will play as Vice-Chair will not only bring gender balance to the panel, but also enrich its work, particularly on issues relating to women, peace and security.”

Asked for his comments, Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, long considered the prime initiator and “father of the 1325 Security Council resolution”, told IPS: “It is welcome news – at least as a step forward towards our goal of 50-50 equality.”

He said listening to the voice of civil society is considered meaningful in making U.N. decision-making more broad-based and people-oriented.

When the initial criticism surfaced, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said, “I guess this is one case where we have to just make a very sincere apology.

“We try as hard as we can to get the right gender balance and the right regional balance for these very large panels, and sometimes it’s a question of availability,” he added. “But when we make a mistake on that, you’re absolutely right, that’s a low number, and well have to do better.”

Chowdhury said: “Personally, I believe a woman should have been made the co-chair and not vice-chair of the Peace Panel.”

A key objective of Security Council’s history-making resolution 1325 is to achieve women’s equality of participation at all decision making levels, he added.

Also, it makes sense to have the two top persons of the panel representing two different geographic regions of the world, said, Chowdhury,, a former U.N. Under-Secretary-General and High Representative.

Donovan of AIDS-Free World told IPS the secretary-general’s actions came a bit closer to matching his rhetoric.

“But his claim that an 11-to-6 ratio of men to women was enough to ‘bring gender balance’ were the words of a leader who is either obdurate or uncomprehending,” she added.

Gender parity could have been achieved with a stroke of his pen; instead, he chose to keep women in the minority at 35 per cent,
she added.

“His actions raise some hope, a great deal of concern, and a clear warning about the need for constant vigilance and unrelenting pressure by proponents of women’s equal rights,” said Donovan.

Barbara Crossette, a former New York Times U.N. bureau chief, told IPS the persistence of AIDS-Free World in focusing wider outrage over the startling imbalance of the original panel on peacekeeping has paid off in a remarkably short time – by U.N. standards.

And the elevation to vice-chair of Ameerah Haq, one of the U.N.’s most qualified and effective officials over a nearly four-decade career, will go a long way in remedying the situation, said Crossette, currently the U.N.correspondent for The Nation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

She singled out Haq’s services in conflict and post-conflict countries which gives her a broad global vision.

To take one example from the new panel members – Radhika Coomaraswamy has been not only the U.N.’s point person on violence against women and the perils facing children in armed conflict, but also director of the International Center for Ethnic studies in Sri Lanka.

She held that position during an intense period of terrorism that cost the life of her predecessor in that position, Neelan Tiruchelvam, the country’s leading human rights lawyer, said Crossette.

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, international coordinator for the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, a programme partner of the International Civil society Action Network, told IPS, “Our sincere hope is these appointments will not become two isolated efforts to please the complainers.

“We want a 50-50 representation not just this one time but all throughout the decision-making structures of the United Nations, ” she said.

She said those appointed should consult and connect with civil society, and there should be a mechanism for regular consultation with civil society, as part of the terms of reference of all key panels and committees and key positions in the United Nations.

She also called for a vetting mechanism for the selection of members of key panels and committees and key positions in the U.N. with a civil society representation.

“The problem with many high-level appointments in the U.N. is that they are based on political influence of some member states. They are pet nominees of influential member states who get the appointments – and that is why we have unqualified people in some of these positions,” she declared.

“We in civil society have delivered the message like a broken record. We’ve been telling the U.N. for years to walk the talk, and lead by example on matters of gender equality. I sincerely hope this will be the real tipping point,” she noted.

Meanwhile, in a statement released Tuesday, AIDS-Free World had the last word: “An 11-man, 6-woman panel, with a man as chair and a woman as vice-chair, does not bring gender balance by anyone’s reckoning.”

The High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations will be monitored closely by civil society, the group said, and transparency will be expected in every aspect of its work.

“The Secretary-General must do better,” it declared. “The world’s women will hold him to account.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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As Wars Multiply, U.N. Takes a Hard Look at Peace Operations Mon, 01 Dec 2014 22:46:27 +0000 Lyndal Rowlands U.N. Peacekeepers patrol the South Sudanese village of Yuai. Credit: Jared Ferrie/IPS

U.N. Peacekeepers patrol the South Sudanese village of Yuai. Credit: Jared Ferrie/IPS

By Lyndal Rowlands

Finding ways to better integrate the two arms of U.N. Peace Operations – Special Political Missions and Peacekeeping Operations – will be one of the priorities for a new review panel headed by Nobel Peace Laureate and former president of Timor-Leste José Ramos-Horta.

The review panel will look at how combined U.N. Peace Operations can respond to demands from the international community for increased responsiveness and effectiveness.“The international community is demanding that the U.N. intervene faster and more effectively to end conflicts.” -- Jose Ramos-Horta

In light of recent reports of incomplete or untruthful reporting from U.N. Peace Operations, such as the investigation into an alleged mass rape in Tabit, Sudan, another pressing issue for the panel will be transparency and accountability.

In an interview with IPS, Ramos-Horta explained that the review was not a fact-finding mission but that serious events that happen on the ground “illustrate the need for serious thinking and changes, in the whole of the peacekeeping and political missions.

“The U.N. cannot be seen to shy away from reporting to the powers that be what happens on the ground. Because in not doing so we add to impunity,” he said.

The 14-member Panel on Peace Operations was announced on Oct. 31 by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and quickly drew criticism for only having three female panel members. In response, an additional three female panel members were announced Monday.

The low representation of women on the panel, particularly initially, was considered incongruous with the U.N.’s public talk about greater participation from women in its peacebuilding activities.

Ramos-Horta told IPS last week “it is acknowledged that there is significant discrepancy, and as I understand there are well-placed, well-argued criticisms in regard to this imbalance.”

Ramos-Horta said that utmost in the thinking of the panel will be the protection of women and children and the role of women in dialogue and peace agreements.

One of the new panel members is Radhika Coomaraswamy, a former Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, who is expected to help ensure the panel works together with plans for implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325.

This may represent some recognition of the need to move towards action after several years of talk on women’s role in the peace building agenda.

Ramos-Horta told IPS that the panel will work closely with U.N. Women and will listen to civil society and representative women’s groups more so in regions where they suffer the brunt of conflicts.

José Ramos-Horta (right), Chair of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, briefs journalists. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

José Ramos-Horta (right), Chair of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, briefs journalists. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Balancing act with finite timeline

That the panel is also missing members from countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Sudan, where seemingly intractable conflicts have caused significant challenges for U.N. Peacekeeping in recent years, is another area for concern.

Ramos-Horta’s own experience with U.N. Peace Operations includes in his home country of Timor-Leste and in his recent role as U.N. Special Envoy to the Special Political Mission in Guinea-Bissau.

Consultation with representatives from countries at the receiving end of peace operations could help to identify new ways to control these conflicts that in some cases seem out of control.

Ramos-Horta said that one of the reasons that difficult conflicts have continued is in part due to a lack of local leadership and cooperation from local governments. For this reason, more consultation with representatives from these countries may be strategically wise.

But it is likely the the panel will feel that it is more pressed to focus on consulting with the governments of major troop and fund contributing countries, as well as the African Union and the NATO as the two other sources of multilateral peacekeepers.

Considering the spiraling scale and cost of U.N. Peace Operations, this will certainly be a priority for the review.

During the interview, Ramos-Horta also discussed the absence of a standing army or training camp for U.N. peacekeepers that would be ready to respond when crises erupt.

Ramos-Horta said that his own country of Timor-Leste had to turn to bilateral support in 2006, because the U.N. was unable to provide immediate assistance when violence re-ignited.

However, although a standing army may be able to bring conflicts under control faster through a faster response time, it would undoubtedly also provide new challenges in terms of financing.

Although one role of the panel will be to review peace operations in light of the changing nature of conflict, Ramos-Horta had a measured view of modern conflict.

He said it was important not to forget the horrors of past wars, such as the killing fields of Cambodia or the Iran-Iraq War.

Indeed, notwithstanding the complexity and severity of contemporary conflicts such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria, the average number of people killed by war each year has decreased since the end of the Cold War.

Over this same period, the scale of U.N. Peace Operations has increased.

Ramos-Horta said that there are now greater expectations on the international community to act quickly in response to conflict.

“Civil society has more access to information and demand action from governments, that’s why you see today much greater demand and pressure on the international community to act,” he said.

“I wish that in my own country [Timor-Leste] from 1975 onwards there had been digital media and there had been international outrage from the very beginning as it is now happening in regard to Central African Republic, for instance, or in regard to Iraq, Libya, Syria conflicts”, he said.

“The international community is demanding that the U.N. intervene faster and more effectively to end conflicts.”

One way of making Peace Operations more efficient is to also look at conflict prevention measures.

To this end, Ramos-Horta said that one of the aims of the review will be to look at how to better finance the Special Political Missions, the arm of U.N. Peace Operations that aims to reduce the need for peacekeepers by stemming conflicts at their source.

Currently the funding available to Special Political Missions, of which there are currently 11 worldwide, is limited.

While peacekeeping has it’s own separate, ballooning, budget that currently stands at seven billion dollars for the 2014-15 financial year, the secretary general has to find funds for the Special Political Missions from the already cash-strapped U.N. General Budget.

At the end of the day, the limited financial capacity of the U.N. to do the work the international community expects of it may be the greatest priority for the panel, despite the other practical considerations it will have to make.

Follow Lyndal Rowlands on Twitter @lyndal.rowlands

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Pushing the Voice of Syrian Women For a New Future Sat, 15 Nov 2014 09:55:31 +0000 Shelly Kittleson Two young girls look on as a veiled woman passes by in Aleppo, August 2014. Syrian magazine Saiedet Souria wants to provide women with the information they need to have a wider view on the world and a voice in a revolution that has largely left their views unheard. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Two young girls look on as a veiled woman passes by in Aleppo, August 2014. Syrian magazine Saiedet Souria wants to provide women with the information they need to have a wider view on the world and a voice in a revolution that has largely left their views unheard. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Shelly Kittleson
GAZIANTEP, Turkey, Nov 15 2014 (IPS)

For most Syrian women, the war has been a disaster. For some, it has also been liberating.

For Yasmine Merei, managing editor of the Syrian women’s magazine Saiedet Souria, the upset of traditional family roles and the shaking off of a culture of fear have wrought positive effects.

Many Syrian women have unfortunately been forced to become the breadwinners of their families, with their husbands missing, in jail, injured or killed, she told IPS, but while fending for themselves can be a terrifying experience, it can also free women from the traditional bonds placed on them.

Although it [Syrian women’s magazine Saiedet Souria] does not shy away from stories of women who have suffered greatly … [it] wants mainly to provide women with the information they need to have a wider view on the world and a voice in a revolution that has largely left their views unheard
‘’If he [the husband] isn’t the one who pays for everything and has that specific role in society, he no longer has the right to tell you what to do’’, added Mohammad Mallak, the founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine, which translates as ‘Syrian Women’, and was founded early this year.

Mallak also runs a partner magazine, Dawda (‘Noise’), from the same office in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.

Few of the women in the magazine’s photos have their heads covered, and Merei took off her headscarf earlier this year, after wearing it ‘’for about twenty years’’ as part of her upbringing in a poor, conservative Sunni family.

Merei said that she started taking part in the 2011 protests due to the unjustness of Syrian law, especially as concerns women. As examples, she noted a longstanding law against Syrian women giving citizenship to their children and widespread, unpunished honour killings.

A former Master’s student in linguistics, Merei – like many Syrian women – has become responsible for providing for her immediate family, sending money to her mother and her brothers, both of whom were jailed for protesting and released only after large bribes were paid.

Her elderly father died shortly after he, too, had been imprisoned and the family forced to flee their home.

Telling women’s stories does not simply mean female victims recounting the horrors and hardships of their lives, however.

Although it does not shy away from stories of women who have suffered greatly, Merei wants mainly to provide women with the information they need to have a wider view on the world and a voice in a revolution that has largely left their views unheard.

A first-hand account from a woman who was tortured in Syrian regime prisons sits alongside a review of Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’ and an interview with a female police officer in opposition-held areas in the pages of the magazine and on its Facebook page.

Articles on how forced economic dependence negatively affects both women and national economies overall, others discussing potential health problems found in refugee camps such as tuberculosis, a regular column by a female lawyer still in regime areas who previously spent 13 years in prison for political reasons and two translated articles from international media give breadth to the magazine’s roughly 50 pages per issue.

Saiedet Souria publishes sections of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – the ‘’international bill of rights for women’’ adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979 – in every issue, and will publish it in its entirety in the next, she said.

The magazine itself only has a print run of between 4,500 and 5,000 copies per issue (with roughly 3,500 distributed inside Syria through one of its four offices), bit its Facebook page where the articles are regularly posted is followed by over 40,000.

For a country where Facebook and Youtube were banned from 2007 until early February 2011, and where internet and electricity are scarce, this is a significant number. Syria has been on Reporters Without Borders’ Internet enemies list since the list was established in 2006.

In addition to offices in Daraa, Damascus, Suweida and Qamishli, another will soon be opened in Aleppo, Merei said.

‘’All of the ten women who work for us inside get a regular salary of 200 dollars,’’ she explained, ‘’and are responsible for distributing the copies as well as bringing women together for meetings and similar initiatives.’’

The copies are given out at markets and local councils, and in at least one location, noted Merei, the women have a system to recirculate the limited copies once they have finished with them.

Reporters Without Borders has held two workshops for the magazine, in April and September of this year, and offered to donate equipment to the magazine, but ‘’ we had basic equipment – regular printers, computers’’ from an initial investment made by Mallak,  she said.

‘’But what we really needed was paper and ink, to get the magazine to as many women as possible. And so RSF made an exception and offered us that, instead.’’

The goal, she said, is to ‘’help Syrian women regain confidence in themselves.’’

A confidence undermined by the war and by the use of ‘religion’ to control women in Islamist areas which, when she last went to them earlier this year, ‘’seemed like the country had gone back to the Stone Ages.”

‘’I am a Sunni Muslim but the Islam there is not like any I know.’’

‘’One of the major problems is that Syria’s intelligentsia are all either in jail, abroad or dead,’’ one Syrian, who has lived most of his life abroad but came back recently to help try to set up university classes in opposition-held Aleppo, told IPS. ‘’There is almost no one to structure anything, no one to put forward ideas.’’

This is what the magazine and it correlated activities are trying to address, as well, Merei said. ‘’We are trying to give Syrians the knowledge they are going to need in the future,’’ she said.

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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Q&A: Emerging Powers Have a Key Role in Peace and Security Mon, 10 Nov 2014 00:45:46 +0000 Roger Hamilton-Martin Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Roger Hamilton-Martin

Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser currently heads the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. Between 2011-2012 he was president of the General Assembly, setting the agenda for debate in the assembly during the Arab Spring.

His new book, “A year at the helm of the General Assembly” has just been published by NYU Press.You don’t want to enlarge the Security Council for the sake of representation only. No, (you must enlarge) for the commitment, the contribution.

IPS correspondent Roger Hamilton-Martin interviewed the ambassador on issues central to the book– mediation and U.N. reform. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: How can we reform the General Assembly to ensure that practical steps are taken to improve implementation of resolutions by member states?

A: I look at the problem from (the perspective of) the mandate of the president of the General Assembly. One year. How can you achieve good results in one year? I was lucky because I was elected in February 2011 and I was still the ambassador of Qatar to the U.N., so it gave me enough time to prepare and organise.

I was ready from June, you know. June 2011. I took over in September. For someone who doesn’t know the system very well, he doesn’t know many people in the U.N… by the time he takes over, half of the year is gone. By the time he wants to discuss and reach agreement or create consensus, the other half is gone.

We need at least two years for the president. At least, if not more. One of the former PGAs tried to, with many countries, to try to come up with an agreement and a draft resolution to amend the charter. They faced great difficulties.

Q: On the Security Council, some say that certain countries are less relevant to global security currently than they were – Britain and France, for example. Should these countries stay as permanent members?

A: It is not up to me to say, “This country is better than that country.” This is a negotiation that must be had amongst the P5. We are looking at this to increase the permanent members not to decrease the current (P5) – they will be there.

We need more, you see many emerging powers around the world and they can also contribute to peace and security. You don’t need them for prestige; you need them for their involvement, for their support, for their role in the regions.

That’s where I am talking about how to reform, not to change the structure. We need a very effective council. How to achieve that? You have to look at what was the problem in the last 60, 70 years and how you can change based on that. I served there, I represented Qatar. If you don’t have consensus, and solidarity on issues, it’s a big problem.

The agreement among the 15 is very important. First among the P5, and then among the 15. So you don’t want to enlarge the council for the sake of representation only. No, (you must enlarge) for the commitment, the contribution.

Q: Is there a reluctance to amend the charter?

A: The P5 will not allow it. The United Nations always been accused by many people, NGOs, governments, but they don’t know, it’s not the fault of the U.N.

The U.N. is a state-driven – if there is consensus, there is agreement, and there is achievement. If there is no achievement, there is nothing. I want here to add a commend to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – he in his two terms did a lot, but still needs the support of member states.

If there is support you will see a different U.N.  I’m sure in the constitutions of many countries from time to time there is an amendment to deal with issues that weren’t there 100 or 200 years ago. It’s very essential and very important.

Q: In the history of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), there have only been three female presidents. What could be done to heighten participation?

A: We would love to see UNGA female presidents. Women who have assumed senior positions at the U.N. in general as under secretary-generals or assistant secretary generals have done remarkable jobs. I am sure they will do great as presidents of the General Assembly as well.

We need to encourage member states who nominate their candidates for this top position to support women candidates.  I am all for women leadership and gender balance.

Q: With the current situation in Iraq and Syria, what role does mediation have to play when it comes to ISIS? Is there a place for sitting down at the table with a militant organisation?

A: Today we always accuse governments that they are not doing enough. But politics and political decisions are not enough.  There is a responsibility on the religious leaders, there is responsibility on civil society, there is a responsibility on academia and university, there is responsibility even on the private sector.

So I think we should work together – religious leaders today can get involved in what’s going on with ISIS. You know young people – lack of education, negative environment, they an easy target for those people (ISIS).

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Women Challenged by Rising Extremism and Militarism Thu, 06 Nov 2014 18:37:02 +0000 Thalif Deen A woman and child at Za’atri refugee camp, host to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by conflict, near Mafraq, Jordan. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

A woman and child at Za’atri refugee camp, host to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by conflict, near Mafraq, Jordan. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

By Thalif Deen

Ongoing military conflicts in the strife-torn Middle East – specifically in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Palestine – have resulted in widespread civilian casualties, impacting heavily on the most vulnerable in besieged communities: women and children.

The biggest death toll has stemmed from the civil war in Syria, currently in its fourth year, followed by casualties from the devastating 50-day Israeli air attacks on Gaza last August.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which monitors the battlefields of Syria, has estimated the number of women killed at over 6,000 and the number of children at more than 9,400, by the end of August (with total deaths of over 190,000 since 2011).

The United Nations has described the killings in Gaza as “appalling”, with over 2,200 Palestinians dead, of whom 459 were children and 239 women (compared with 64 Israeli soldiers, two civilians and one foreign national).

Against this backdrop, the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) is holding a five-day conference in Turkey, scheduled to conclude Nov. 11, which will focus on two of the biggest challenges facing women, particularly in the Middle East: extremism and militarism.

“This past year, our counterparts have faced incomprehensible challenges, including politically and religiously motivated violence, extreme economic hardships and closure of public spaces,” says ICAN.

The participants in the meeting include over 50 women activists from 14 countries across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, including Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Tajikistan, Libya and Yemen.

Stressing the importance of the meeting, ICAN co-founder Sanam Anderlini told IPS it’s the first time women from the region are gathering to talk about their experiences since three major developments in the Middle East: the rise of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Israeli bombings in Gaza and the Tunisian elections.

And most importantly, the meeting will focus on women’s perspectives, vision and strategies on the present crisis – and also propose solutions for dealing with the spread of both extremism and state militarism, she added.

In a statement released this week, ICAN also pointed out that women continue to be excluded from international decision-making arenas and the media – despite provisions in the landmark U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.

Meanwhile, the low representation of women (three out of 14) in a new U.N. blue ribbon panel on peacekeeping operations has generated strong criticism.

Stephen Lewis, a former deputy executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, complained about the marginalisation of women in an important panel, to be chaired by former president of Timor-Leste Jose Ramos Horta.

In a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, both Lewis and Paula Donovan, who are co-directors of AIDS-Free World, said:
“This pattern must be reversed. The gender equity you profess to espouse can only be achieved by the appointment of eight additional women to the panel.

“If a panel of that size seems too unwieldy, some of your appointees must be asked to relinquish their seats to qualified women in order to achieve balance.

“If you leave things as they are, this panel will become a testament to the yawning, unbridgeable hypocrisy between U.N. performance and U.N. rhetoric,” the letter said.

Asked for his comments, an apologetic U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said, “I guess this is one case where we have to just make a very sincere apology.

“We try as hard as we can to get the right gender balance and the right regional balance for these very large panels, and sometimes it’s a question of availability,” he said. “But when we make a mistake on that, you’re absolutely right, that’s a low number, and we’ll have to do better.”

Last week was the 14th anniversary of Resolution 1325, which was adopted on Oct. 31, 2000, stressing the importance of women’s equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security and urging, first and foremost, increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict.

Asked if 1325 has had any impact in terms of women’s security in war zones, Anderlini told IPS that it varies from country to country. In South Sudan, for example, the NGO Non Violent Peace Force has trained all-female teams to be deployed around the country.

In the Philippines, she said women demanded and established an all-women civilian ceasefire monitoring team.

“It makes a difference because they pay attention to the security of civilians making sure people have safe humanitarian passage,” Anderlini said.

She said by and large the United Nations and member states really haven’t done as much as they could. For example, she said, India has deployed an all women unit of peacekeepers to Liberia. Other countries could do the same.

The United Nations could also give priority deployment to countries with a higher percentage of women peacekeepers and police officers.

“It would certainly help reduce the risk or actual incidence of sexual abuse of local women by peacekeepers,” Anderlini added.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Another Women’s Treaty? Implement Existing One, Say NGOs Fri, 31 Oct 2014 16:40:05 +0000 Thalif Deen Women protest insecurity and living conditions at a tent camp in central Port-au-Prince, January 2011. Credit: Ansel Herz/IPS

Women protest insecurity and living conditions at a tent camp in central Port-au-Prince, January 2011. Credit: Ansel Herz/IPS

By Thalif Deen

Can violence against women be prevented or eliminated with a new international treaty signed and ratified by the 193 member states of the United Nations?

Rashida Manjoo of South Africa, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, told the General Assembly last week the absence of a legally binding agreement represents one of the obstacles to the promotion and protection of women’s rights and gender equality."I'm all for the practical measures...but no more legal conundrum, please. Women around the world already have law and policy-fatigue. What they want to see is implementation." -- Mavic Cabrera-Balleza

“A different set of laws and practical measures are urgently needed to respond to and prevent the systemic, widespread and pervasive human rights violation experienced largely by women,” she told delegates.

But women’s groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) took a more cautious approach to a new treaty.

Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), told IPS, “In principle, the idea of stronger and more specific legislation is a good one.”

Clearly, laws, norms and policies are critical to shifting practices and changing attitudes.

“However, we know they are not enough. There are many countries — from the United States to members of the European Union and beyond, such as Pakistan — where laws exist, but violence against women continues in many spheres of life in diverse forms and at horrendous rates,” she said. “So legislation has to come with other pillars and elements to ensure effective implementation.”

Dr. Palitha Kohona, a former chief of the U.N. Treaty Section, told IPS there needs to be substantial international support, not only for a treaty text to be eventually adopted, but even for negotiations to commence – perhaps following a U.N. resolution.

“The promoters of a treaty will have to convince the international community there is a real need for such a legal instrument,” he said.

He pointed out this will involve ensuring the existing international legal instruments are inadequate to address the issues that the promoters of a new treaty seek to address.

“While gender-based violence, or any other form of violence, is to be unreservedly condemned, this would pose a challenge for the promoters of a treaty on gender-based violence,” said Ambassador Kohona, who is Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

“It is also well known that while laws can be useful for modifying social and community attitudes, it would take more than an international instrument to bring this abhorrent behaviour to an end.”

He said humanity must stand up and condemn violence, in particular gender-based violence, “and we are experiencing too much of it in our world today.

“As one philosopher observed, we inhabit this planet only for a short period. Why hurt another during this brief existence?” he added.

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, international coordinator at the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, told IPS the elimination of violence against women is already well-covered in the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its General Recommendations, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly back in 1979.

“Why do we need another law?” she asked. “I do not see any added value in having another treaty on the same issues. If anything, we run the risk of undermining CEDAW that women around the world fought for. It already has almost universal ratification.”

Cabrera-Balleza said there is no point lobbying governments again. “And with many conservative governments in power, there is very little chance to get another law ratified,” she added.

Furthermore, the current international instruments we have that promote and protect women’s rights, women’s empowerment and gender equality were mostly achieved through the global conferences of the 1990s.

“We don’t have that global momentum anymore. There will never be a World Conference on Women again in the same magnitude and impact as the 1995 Beijing Conference,” she said. “I’m all for the practical measures…but no more legal conundrum, please. Women around the world already have law and policy-fatigue. What they want to see is implementation.”

ICAN’s Naraghi-Anderlini told IPS: “We cannot deny the cultural or ‘religious’ backlash against the so-called progressive agenda on women’s rights.”

In societies where patriarchal norms are dominant – and that’s pretty much everywhere – and women are considered to be men’s property, the social conservatives can easily tap into traditions and cultural norms to generate a backlash against increasing women’s rights.

“We are seeing external forces (e.g. Saudi-based religious ideology, the Catholic Church, etc) being proponents of more conservative rulings and practices,” she pointed out.

At a minimum therefore, new laws have to come with tailored messaging – via respected outlets – be that media, law enforcement, recognised and respected national figures or community or religious leaders, to challenge those norms.

She said there has to be effective training and equipping of the local law enforcement/services to be able to implement the new legislation (e.g. provide care for victims, protection for those who come forward etc) – and police officers have to be held accountable for their actions or inactions or transgressions.

It would also be interesting and innovative to see a grounds-up accountability mechanism introduced, she said.

For example, she said, would the United Nations be willing to support a Women’s Security Campaign where local women’s organisations/groups are given the technical/financial and political support needed to reach out to police/law enforcement/local community leaders and together devise a charter that binds the authorities to ensuring they protect women from violence?

And will the national police force and its local chapters be willing to sign up to a charter in which they promise to protect women who are reporting cases of violence, promise not to violate/rape/harass etc. witnesses/victims, prevent further violence, etc.?

“If they agree to sign such a charter, than it is a social compact made with local actors who can hold them accountable. If they don’t or they try to water-down the conditions, it is indicative of a deep lack of political will or commitment to women’s security,” she declared.

U.N. Special Rapporteur Manjoo told the General Assembly last week that despite progress, there is continuing and new sets of challenges hampering efforts to promote and protect the human rights of women.

This she pointed out, is largely due to the lack of a all-inclusive approach that addresses individual, institutional and structural factors that are a cause and a consequence of violence against women.

Making a case for a new treaty, she said that with a specific legally binding instrument there would be a protective, preventive and educative framework reaffirming the international community’s assertion that women’s rights are human rights and that violence against women is a pervasive and widespread human rights violation, in and of itself.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Q&A: “The Battle Continues” Sat, 04 Oct 2014 05:17:35 +0000 Joan Erakit Shahida Amin, a young Pakistani woman, brings her 10-month-old son to school every day. Credit: Farooq Ahmed/IPS

Shahida Amin, a young Pakistani woman, brings her 10-month-old son to school every day. Credit: Farooq Ahmed/IPS

By Joan Erakit

The Programme of Action adopted at the landmark 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) included chapters that defined concrete actions covering some 44 dimensions of population and development, including the need to provide for women and girls during times of conflict, the urgency of investments in young people’s capabilities, and the importance of women’s political participation and representation.

The diversity of issues addressed by the Programme of Action (PoA) provided the opportunity for states to develop and implement a “comprehensive and integrated agenda”.

In reality, governments and development agencies have been selective in their actions, and many have taken a sectoral approach to implementation, which has resulted in fragmented successes rather than holistic gains.

Few are better placed to reflect on progress made over the last two decades than the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: In 1994 you were advocating for reproductive health and rights at the first ICPD in Cairo. Twenty years later, you are leading UNFPA as its executive director. What has that journey looked like for you?

A: The last four years have opened me up to the challenges that the organisation and the mandate itself have faced. Twenty years ago, we were able to secure commitments from governments on various aspects of poverty reduction, but more importantly the empowerment of women and girls and young people, including their reproductive rights – but the battle is not over.

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

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges that the ICPD Programme of Action faced in its early years?

Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. Credit: UNFPA

Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. Credit: UNFPA

A: I think that Cairo was very cognizant of the status of women in society. It was also cognizant of the status of girls – particularly of young adults, and of the issues of sexuality and the power struggle between men and women over who decides on the sexuality of women.

The battle is not strictly about a woman’s ability to control her fertility, but it goes beyond the issue of fertility and decision-making. Women still earn less than men for doing the same job. There is no proportional representation in politics of women, and in the most severe cases, little girls don’t go to school as much as boys.

That is a continuous struggle, and our job is to ensure that gender equality in the very strict sense is accomplished, so we achieve what I always refer to as a “gender neutral” society.

Q: The Demographic Dividend is going to be an important focus in the post-2015 development agenda. How will UNFPA work to assess and meet the needs of young people?

A: We are already doing it!

Of course, we are going to strengthen and scale up our work. We don’t pretend that UNFPA can provide all the inputs needed to reap the dividend. But raising the bar and promoting youth visibility and participation at the political level is something that we will be doing with member states and partners.

For example, how do we ensure that we can partner with UNESCO, to continue to do the good work they are doing in terms of education – particularly with girls’ education? And how can we partner with ILO [the International Labour Organisation] to ensure that we have job creation, skills and all of the things that enable young people to come into the job market to get the opportunities they are looking for?

How do we ensure that within member states themselves, we’re creating spaces that enable young people to feel that they are part of the system?

It is impossible to get the kind of rapid development we’re looking at if member states do not accept the principles of comprehensive sexuality education, and do not accept that young people should also be exposed to information and services about contraception.

Q: How will you respond to women and girls in conflict areas, especially pregnant women or those who have faced violence and abuse?

A: That’s something we do superbly. We are also conscious of the fact that the world may see more crises. Today, we are looking at Gaza, we are looking at Syria, we are looking at Iraq, we are looking at the Central African Republic, we are looking at South Sudan, we are looking at old conflict areas in the world, which are still there. We cannot forget the IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] who have existed for so long in northern Kenya, in the Zaatari Camp in Jordan, these are areas where we work actively.

We offer three types of response: services for girls and women to prevent GBV [gender-based violence]; services for the survivors of GBV, so that they can receive care for the physical assault; and services for their emotional and psychological support so that they are reintegrated back into the society.

We provide education, antenatal care, delivery services and postnatal care for women in camps and mothers around the world.

Our flagship programme, before we expanded to all of this, was recognising that women in conflict areas have dignity needs. Very few people think of women and their regular needs in war and conflict, so we provide them dignity kits, to enable them to preserve their health and dignity.

Something UNFPA has been trying to do more is increase attention to and prevent GBV and talk about it in such a way that we can show that it’s actually more prevalent than it is assumed, not only in conflict, but in domestic circumstances as well.

This story originally appeared in a special edition TerraViva, ‘ICPD@20: Tracking Progress, Exploring Potential for Post-2015’, published with the support of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. The contents are the independent work of reporters and authors.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Where Women Don’t Work Thu, 25 Sep 2014 13:07:42 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai Employment opportunities for women in Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are limited, due to a prevailing cultural attitude of male dominance. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Employment opportunities for women in Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are limited, due to a prevailing cultural attitude of male dominance. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Sep 25 2014 (IPS)

Saleema Bibi graduated from medical school 15 years ago – but to this day, the 40-year-old resident of Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, has never been able to practice as a professional.

“I wanted to get a government job, but my family wanted me to get married instead,” Bibi tells IPS. Now she is a housewife, with “strict in-laws” who are opposed to the idea of women working.

“I know the province is short of female doctors,” she adds. “And the salaries and other benefits for people in the medical profession are lucrative, but social taboos have hampered women’s desire to find jobs.”

"Social taboos have hampered women’s desire to find jobs.” -- Saleema Bibi, a medical school graduate.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), gender disparities in labour force participation rates are severe in Pakistan, with male employment approaching 80 percent compared to a female employment rate of less than 20 percent between 2009 and 2012.

In the country’s northern, tribal belt, the situation is even worse, with religious mores keeping women confined to the home, and unable to stray beyond the traditional roles of wife, mother, and housekeeper.

What Saleema Bibi discovered in her late-20s was something most women who dream of a career will eventually encounter: endless hurdles to equal participation in the economy.

For instance, the health sector in KP, which has a population of 22 million people, employs just 40,000 women, while maintaining a male labour force of some 700,000, according to Abdul Basit, a public health specialist based in Peshawar.

He says the “shortage of women employees in the health sector is [detrimental] to the female population” and is the “result of male dominance and an environment shaped by the belief that women should stay at home instead of venturing out in public.”

Even though one-fifth of the country’s doctors are female, few of them are engaged in paid work. Hundreds of female students are enrolled in the public sector’s medical colleges, but KP only has 600 female doctors, compared to 6,000 male doctors, Noorul Iman, a professor of medicine at the Khyber Medical College in Peshawar, tells IPS.

Experts also say the proportion of women workers occupying white-collar jobs is very limited, since even educated women are discouraged from entering the public service.

According to the Pakistan Economic Survey for 2012-2013, women have traditionally populated the informal sector, taking up jobs as domestic workers and other low-paid, daily-wage professions as cooks or cleaners, where affluent families typically pay them paltry sums of money.

In contrast, their share of professional clerical and administrative posts has been less than two percent.

Research indicates that only 19 percent of working women had jobs in the government sector, while the economic survey reports that some 200,000 women in KP were actively seeking jobs in the 2010-2011 period.

The most popular jobs were found to be in medicine, banking, law, engineering and especially education.

“Because women can work in all-girls’ schools, without interacting with male students or colleagues, their families allow them to take up these posts,” Pervez Khan, KP’s deputy director of education, tells IPS, adding that the female-only environment provided by gender-segregated schools explains why women are attracted to the profession of teaching.

The provision of three months’ paid leave, as well as 40 days of maternity leave is yet another incentive to enter the education sector, he states.

Still, the disparity between men and women is high. Although KP has a total of 119,274 teachers, only 41,102 are female.

The manufacturing sector does not fair any better. Muhammad Mushtaq, a leading industrialist in the province, says only three percent of the workforce in 200 industrial units around KP is comprised of women.

“Many people do not want women to mix with men in offices, and prefer for them to stay away from public places,” he tells IPS. This is a particularly disheartening reality in light of the fact that the number of girls in Pakistani universities, including in the northern regions, is almost equal to that of boys; despite their competitive qualifications, however, women are marginalised.

Mushtaq also believes that sexual harassment of women in their workplaces conspires with other forces to keep women from the payroll. About 11 percent of working women reported incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a 2006 study by the Peshawar-based Women’s Development Organisation.

“The research, conducted on women working in multinational companies, banks, government-owned departments, schools and private agencies, found a prevailing sense of insecurity,” says Shakira Ali, a social worker with the organisation.

Faced with mounting poverty in a country where 55 percent of the population of about 182 million earn below two dollars a day, while a full 43 percent earn between two and six dollars daily, many women are growing desperate for work, taking up positions in garment and food processing units, or entering the manufacturing sector where their embroidery skills are in high demand.

But this too, experts say, is predominantly temporary, contractual employment.

There is a kind of vicious cycle in which a lack of experience results in inadequate skills, which in turn fuels unemployment among women.

The situation is made worse by a nationwide female literacy rate of just 33 percent. While the female primary school enrollment rate is 70 percent, that number falls to just 33 percent for secondary-level education.

Muhammad Darwaish at the KP Employment Exchange Department says that only those women who head their households – either due to the death or debilitation of their husbands – are free to actively seek employment.

They too, however, fall victim to low wages and informal working conditions.

KP Information Minister Shah Farman tells IPS the government is committed to creating a safe working environment for women, which is free of harassment, abuse and intimidation with a view toward fulfillment of their right to work with dignity.

“We are bringing in a law on the principles of equal opportunity for men and women and their right to earn a livelihood without fear of discrimination,” he asserts.

Farman claims the KP government has launched a 10-million-dollar interest-free microcredit programme for women to enable them to start their own businesses.

“The programme, started in December 2013, seeks to reduce poverty through creation of self-employment and job opportunities for women,” he says.

Under the scheme, small loans worth anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 dollars are being given to women who want to start embroidery, sewing and other home-based businesses.

It will continue for the next five years to bring women into the economic mainstream.

Pakistan is also bound to work towards gender equality by the targets set out in the internationally agreed-upon Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are due to expire next year.

The government has taken steps towards the goal of empowering women through a series of national-level initiatives including the establishment of crisis centres for women, the National Plan of Action, gender reform programmes and the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP).

Still, women on average continue to earn less than men, while women only hold 60 seats compared to 241 seats occupied by men in the National Assembly.

Until women are allowed to fully contribute to the national economy, experts fear that Pakistan will not reach the goal of achieving gender equality.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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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)

* Shada Islam, Head of the Asia Programme at Friends of Europe, a leading independent think tank in Brussels, is an experienced journalist, columnist, policy analyst and communication specialist with a strong background in geopolitical, foreign, economic and trade policy issues involving Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and the United States.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

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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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