Inter Press Service » LGBTQ Turning the World Downside Up Fri, 03 Jul 2015 21:48:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 U.N. Challenges Asia-Pacific to Be World’s First Region to End AIDS Epidemic Fri, 05 Jun 2015 14:01:03 +0000 Thalif Deen HIV-positive women gather in Kathmandu, Nepal for a skills training. Credit: Bhuwan Sharma/IPS

HIV-positive women gather in Kathmandu, Nepal for a skills training. Credit: Bhuwan Sharma/IPS

By Thalif Deen

The United Nations has expressed confidence that the Asia-Pacific region, with almost five million people living with HIV, is politically committed towards the elimination of the deadly disease AIDS.

Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, said the Asia-Pacific region is moving the world forward into new frontiers of development. "Our region has broken many barriers and saved countless lives, showing how developing countries can share responsibility, cooperate and take the lead in ending AIDS." -- Dr. Shamshad Akhtar

“You have all the right tools in your hands, beginning with political commitment. I challenge you to be the first region to end the AIDS epidemic,” he told a meeting in Bangkok.

According to the latest figures, new HIV infections have declined since 2001 and more than 1.6 million people were receiving anti-retroviral treatment by June 2014.

At the 71st session of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in the Thai capital Friday, political leaders and high level officials from 50 countries and territories in the region endorsed the Report of the Asia-Pacific Intergovernmental Meeting on HIV and AIDS.

The new framework identifies three areas of action. The first area is supported by ESCAP and focuses on continuing national reviews and consultations to address legal and policy barriers for ensuring universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

The second area calls for national reviews and consultations on ensuring access to affordable drugs and medicines.

The third area promotes the development of national HIV investment cases and plans to ensure sustainable financing of the AIDS response.

Addressing the meeting, Dr. Shamshad Akhtar, U.N. Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP, said “less than halfway through 2015, with renewed vigour, governments at the highest level have committed to meet [several] regional challenges, [including that] of HIV and AIDS.”

“Our region has broken many barriers and saved countless lives, showing how developing countries can share responsibility, cooperate and take the lead in ending AIDS,” he added.

Frank Bainimarama, the prime minister of Fiji and chair of the 71st session, said: “The framework is a road map for countries on how best to accelerate their efforts in the HIV response. It will help shape the future of the HIV response in the Asia-Pacific region beyond 2015.”

In the past 10 years, at least 56 countries have either stabilised or reduced new HIV infections by more than 25 percent, according to the United Nations.

Globally, new HIV infections have been reduced by nearly 20 percent and new HIV infections among babies have dropped by 25 percent—a significant step towards achieving virtual elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015.

In 2011, the world commemorated 30 years of AIDS and the AIDS response.

In June 1981, scientists in the United States reported the first clinical evidence of a disease that would later become known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS.

Its cause, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), was identified in 1983.

And according to the United Nations, 30 years later the AIDS epidemic has spread to every corner of the world and more than 60 million people have been infected with HIV.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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

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

By Ivet González
HAVANA, May 16 2015 (IPS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The situation in Latin America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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In Nicaragua Marriage Is Only for ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ Wed, 29 Apr 2015 21:49:55 +0000 Jose Adan Silva One of the many protests held in 2014 by sexual diversity activists and organisations demanding recognition of the right of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans persons to marry and adopt, which was not included in the new Family Code. Credit: Courtesy of the Sustainable Development Network of Nicaragua

One of the many protests held in 2014 by sexual diversity activists and organisations demanding recognition of the right of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans persons to marry and adopt, which was not included in the new Family Code. Credit: Courtesy of the Sustainable Development Network of Nicaragua

By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Apr 29 2015 (IPS)

A new Family Code that went into effect in Nicaragua this month represents an overall improvement in terms of the rights of Nicaraguans. However, it has one major gap: it fails to recognise same-sex marriage, and as a result it closes the doors to adoption by gay couples.

Organisations that defend the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans and intersex persons (LGBTI) fought to the end without success to get the new Code – Law 870 – to include the right of gay couples to marry and adopt children.

Marvin Mayorga, an activist with the Urgent Actions Against Discrimination for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Project in Nicaragua, told IPS that the law is discriminatory.

“The lack of recognition of gay marriage forces us to formally remain single, and single people are not legally allowed to adopt children in this country and establish a family,” he said.“The lack of recognition of gay marriage forces us to formally remain single, and single people are not legally allowed to adopt children in this country and establish a family.” -- Marvin Mayorga

“And outside the family there are more barriers to achieving minimal guarantees and benefits like decent work, social security coverage, education, healthcare and housing,” he complained.

The activist stressed that “families in Nicaragua are diverse, but they want to impose one single model of what a family is.”

The new Code, approved by the legislature in 2014, finally entered into force on Apr. 8.

Its aim is to protect the rights of each member of the family as well as enforce the collective rights and obligations of families.

The driving force behind the drafting of the new Code, lawmaker Carlos Emilio López of the governing left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), told IPS that the 674-article Code updates and brings together in one legal instrument what was previously dispersed in 47 different laws and regulations.

The new Code addresses questions such as marriage, property rights, adoption, retirement, the rights of mothers, fathers and children, divorce, alimony and paternal and maternal responsibility.

Up to now, family questions were mainly included in the 1904 Civil Code, which according to López regulated these issues with a strongly conservative and Catholic tint, which subordinated women and children to the father as the breadwinner of the family.

“A careful analysis was made so that each member of society, as individuals that form part of families, had clear rights, obligations and duties in keeping with the country’s constitution and laws, so that there would be no discrimination against anyone for any reason,” he said.

López argued that there is no discrimination against the LGBTI community because the Nicaraguan constitution, which is above the new Code, protects the right of all Nicaraguans, and provides guarantees against inequality.

But Luis Torres, head of the local NGO Nicaraguan Sexual Diversity Alternative, told IPS that the new Code does discriminate against LGBTI persons by excluding them from the right to marry and forcing the state to provide social benefits only to family units recognised as such by the new Code.

“It’s a step backwards,” he complained. “Through the Code, the state excludes cohabiting same-sex couples from social security coverage. Neither marriage nor civil union between people of the same sex are recognised.”

That means in practice that “LGBTI couples do not have access to related rights like the right to a family loan, to adopt children, or to obtain social security coverage in case of the death or injury of a spouse, among other rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples,” Torres said.

The advances made by the new Code include recognition for the first time in this Central American country that civil unions – but only between a man and a woman – have the same rights and obligations as traditional married couples.

Ramón Rodríguez, a professor of criminal law and human rights law at the Central American University and the American University, said that because the Code “establishes that marriage and stable civil unions are only between a man and a women, a significant segment of the population, which forms part of the sexual diversity spectrum, is the direct victim of the violation of the universal principals of equality and non-discrimination.”

But Samira Montiel, Nicaragua’s ombudswoman for sexual diversity, disagreed with the criticism by human rights activists and LGBTI rights organisations.

“I would also have liked the Code to allow me to marry and adopt, but the constitution does not permit that and the Code cannot be above the constitution,” she told IPS.

Montiel said that although “for now” same-sex marriage has not been recognised, “the individual rights of each member of the lesbian-gay community are protected because they have equal rights as siblings, children, parents, relatives and citizens.”

“No lesbian woman or gay man who has a child will lose their right to parenthood, and they won’t be denied any benefits. So far I haven’t received a single formal complaint about the Code, no one has appealed it, there isn’t a single request for adoption of a child by a gay couple, and healthcare has not been denied to any lesbian or bisexual,” she told IPS.

One of the positive aspects of the Code is the fact that it accelerates the legal process for suing for alimony in divorce cases. Instead of dragging on for up to five years, the process can now take no longer than 150 days.

It also sets child support for sons and daughters under 18 to up to half of the income of the parent who is being sued, and creates fines for incompliance.

In addition, it creates a process for elderly parents to sue their children for abandonment, and gives sons and daughters up to the age of 24 the right to receive from their families money to buy food, in the case of proven need.

Furthermore, it addresses matters related to divorce, the division of assets, child protection, parental leave and other areas.

It also prohibits physical punishment or other humiliating treatment of children in any setting, and sets the age of marriage at 18 – the age of majority for both sexes, in terms of legal obligations.

The Nicaraguan federation of non-governmental organisations that work on behalf of children and adolescents had demanded that the age of marriage be raised, in order to put an end to marriages between girls aged 14 or even younger to adult men.

These marriages are often the so-called “family remedy” in cases of sexual abuse or pregnancy of girls and adolescents by adult men.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Lesbians Receiving Unequal Treatment from Cuban Health Services Wed, 01 Apr 2015 07:41:50 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez Two women hugging at a Day Against Homophobia in Havana organised by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Two women hugging at a Day Against Homophobia in Havana organised by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) community. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
HAVANA, Apr 1 2015 (IPS)

In addition to other forms of discrimination, lesbian and bisexual women in Cuba face unequal treatment from public health services. Their specific sexual and reproductive health needs are ignored, and they are invisible in prevention and treatment campaigns for women.

Many lesbian and bisexual women are afraid of gynaecological instruments and procedures which they experience as particularly distasteful given their sexual orientation. Many are unaware of their risks of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STI) and postpone attending gynaecology appointments in order to avoid questions about their love life, activists and health experts told IPS.

Dayanis Tamayo, a 36-year-old education specialist who lives in Santiago de Cuba, 862 kilometres from Havana, feels that health professionals are judgmental when they discover that her partner is a woman. They make lesbophobic comments and give her disapproving looks.

“Sometimes I get by unnoticed because I don’t fit the stereotype of a butch lesbian, but otherwise I always feel judged,” said Tamayo, who is engaged in research at Universidad de Oriente.

Recent studies back up Tamayo’s statement, pointing to prejudice against lesbian and bisexual women among the country’s health personnel, and ignorance about their particular sexual health needs.

Cuban psychiatrist Ada Alfonso presented a report on “Salud, malestares y derechos sexuales de las lesbianas” (Lesbians’ sexual health, illnesses and rights) at the 2014 Cuban Day Against Homophobia. She said that when they go to see the doctor, these women are asked more about their sexual experiences than about their reason for seeking treatment.

“If we look at women’s health through the lenses of inequality, the gap between lesbians and heterosexuals in regard to health services has a lesbophobic subtext hidden behind the discourse on ‘social needs’,” said Alfonso, an expert with the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX).

In her view, social pressure on women who are not heterosexual, amounting to homophobia, causes various forms of psychological and sexual malaise.

Alfonso interviewed women in several of the island’s provinces. She found that ethical deficiencies in the system are leading women to postpone clinical tests until they can see a doctor who has been recommended, or a health professional sharing their own sexual orientation.

The women are particularly averse to gynaecological tests because of the instruments used and invasive procedures such as pelvic and vaginal examinations.

Gynaecology outpatient consultations total 925,549 a year, for a population of 4.7 million women aged over 15, according to the National Office of Statistics.

Personnel working in preventive screening services for cervical and uterine cancer told Alfonso that lesbian women tend to come forward for testing too late for any therapeutic action to be taken.

“We generally think that since we do not have sex with men, we are exempt from those risks, because the information campaigns in the media only portray heterosexual couples,” an accountant resident in the Diez de Octubre neighbourhood of Havana told IPS, requesting anonymity.

The 39-year-old accountant, who works in the state sector, has never had a Papanicolau (Pap) test, which involves collecting cells from the uterine cervix and checking them for abnormalities. The Pap test is recommended for women aged over 25 to prevent cervical and uterine cancer and in Cuba it is offered free to women every three years.

“Although I do know that it is important, I find it psychologically difficult to face this test because I feel so exposed, assaulted even, and I personally do not like penetration,” she said.

All Cubans enjoy health coverage by a local family clinic, which is responsible for reminding women when it is time for their next Pap test. However, many women put it off.

In 2013, a total of 765,822 Cuban women aged over 25 had a Pap test done, a take-up rate of 195.8 per 1,000 according to the most recent figures from the Cuban Annual Health Statistics.

All treatment in the Cuban health system is free of charge and is delivered without institutionalised discrimination. But prejudice against non heterosexual people continues to grow.

“Health personnel are part of society, and society rejects lesbians,” José Martínez, a medical doctor in the eastern province of Granma, told IPS.

According to Martínez, medical training in Cuba is too narrowly focused on a biological approach and makes hardly any reference to psychosocial determinants of health.

“When a lesbian woman goes to see a gynaecologist, the doctor will probably assume that she is at lower risk (of cervical or uterine cancer) because penetration is not involved in her relationship, because this is what they have been taught,” Martínez said.

Yenis Milanés, who has a degree in hygiene and epidemiology, told IPS that “medical students are not required to take a single course on sexuality” during their training.

Women who have intimate relations with women tend to have a low perception of their own risk, and seldom take protective measures during sex, Milanés and Martínez said.

They both collaborated in a 2013 study of 30 lesbian and bisexual women in the province of Granma, which found these women thought they were unlikely to acquire sexually transmitted infections.

Another study in 2014 by Martínez and Milanés confirmed that sexual and reproductive health programmes in Cuba generally do not include information about the risks of contracting STI and HIV/AIDS that specifically addresses lesbian women’s issues.

Lesbians receive less information about STI prevention than other population groups and they have fewer welcoming institutional spaces where they can socialise and discuss their problems, said the report, to which IPS had access.

The research study debunks the myth that engaging in lesbian sex avoids all infection risks, although these are indeed much lower than for other sexual behaviours.

Depending on the sexual practices of a same-sex lesbian couple, unprotected contact with exchange of vaginal secretions and menstrual blood can lead to infection with the HIV/AIDS and Herpes simplex viruses, bacterial vaginosis, gonorrhoea, syphilis, vaginal parasites and other diseases.

Women represented 18.5 percent of the 2,156 new HIV-positive cases diagnosed in Cuba in 2013, bringing the total number of people living with the virus to 16,400, according to the Ministry of Public Health.

Training health professionals to be sensitive to sexual diversity has been a long-established demand by groups of lesbian women supported by CENESEX in the provinces of Camagüey, Ciego de Ávila, Cienfuegos, Granma, La Habana, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad and Villa Clara.

Through community activism, these groups are struggling for their rights to responsible enjoyment of sexual health, including equality of treatment in the health services and access to assisted reproduction technology.

Editado por Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Valerie Dee

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

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

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Mar 28 2015 (IPS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harris    

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Joan Baez, Ai Weiwei Awarded Amnesty International’s Top Honour Wed, 25 Mar 2015 17:45:33 +0000 Josh Butler By Josh Butler

Folk singer Joan Baez and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei were announced Tuesday as the winners of Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award.

Baez was recognised for her lifetime of “non-violence, and civil and human rights activism,” according to Amnesty, which includes civil rights marches with Dr Martin Luther King Jr, advocacy against the death penalty, support of LGBTI campaigns, and peace campaigns in Vietnam, as well as contributing her musical talents to countless charity events.

“With her mesmerizing voice and unwavering commitment to peaceful protest and human rights for all, Joan Baez has been a formidable force for good over more than five decades,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Weiwei is a well-known and outspoken critic of the Chinese government, with his work exploring human rights and prison.

Weiwei was incarcerated and beaten by officials before he was due to testify during the trial of an environmental activist in 2008, then held without charge for over 80 days in 2011.

“Through his work Ai Weiwei reminds us that the right of every individual to express their self must be protected—not just for the sake of society, but also for art and humanity,” Shetty said.

The Ambassador of Conscience Award is Amnesty International’s top honour. It recognises “those who have shown exceptional leadership in the fight for human rights, through their life and work,” according to the organisation.

Both Weiwei and Baez expressed thanks at the announcement.

“I am very privileged to receive this special honour, and shall not fail the encouragement and profound expectation of me with this Award,” Weiwei said.

“Amnesty International attracted me because of its founding principle that all human rights abuses and the suffering they create are unacceptable,” Baez said.

“The process of eliminating those abuses, even one step at a time, has created a compassionate, non-partisan, powerfully effective movement. I’m lucky to be part of it and proud to be honored with this Award.”

The awards will be officially presented in Berlin on May 21.

Follow Josh Butler on Twitter @JoshButler

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CSW 59 Wraps up as Delegates Look Towards 2016 Mon, 23 Mar 2015 15:50:34 +0000 Josh Butler UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speaks at the Commission on the Status of Women, which ended its 59th session in New York last week. Credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka speaks at the Commission on the Status of Women, which ended its 59th session in New York last week. Credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown

By Josh Butler

The Commission on the Status of Women, one of the biggest events on the calendar for United Nations headquarters in New York City, is over for another year.

For two weeks, thousands of delegates, dignitaries, ambassadors, experts, and activists flooded the city, with more than 650 events, talks, briefings, meetings, presentations and panels all striving for the same goal – “50:50 by 2030,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the CSW’s goal for gender equality within 15 years, at the official opening of the commission.

Soon-Young Yoon, U.N. Representative of the International Alliance of Women and Chair of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, estimated more than 11,000 people took part in CSW 59.

“This was the largest feminist movement at the U.N. in New York, ever,” she told IPS.

“It was more than double the number we usually get.”

Yoon attributed the huge attendance to well-documented attempts to scale back women’s rights worldwide in the last year, including fundamentalist activities in the Middle East and Africa, the kidnapping of 270 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, and a growing culture of hostility and harassment of women online.

“Against all this, the women’s movement has stepped up. The CSW is a pilgrimage for the international women’s movement,” she said.

The 59th session of the CSW was about reaffirming the world’s commitment to, and marking the anniversaries of, the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the 2000 Security Council Resolution 1325.

Rather than lay out any new bold agenda or fighting for political reforms, it was important to take stock of progress and assess what further action was necessary, said Christine Brautigam, Director of the Intergovernmental Support Division of U.N. Women.

“We were tasked with a comprehensive review of the Beijing platform, of how implementation stands. We’ve come up with good indications of how to move forward,” Brautigam told IPS on the final day of the meeting.

She said the Commission had “benefited tremendously” from an “unprecedented” amount of reporting by member states, with 167 countries preparing reports on how gender equality reforms had been implemented. Brautigam said through the immense preparatory work, member states had agreed CSW 59 would produce a “short, succinct political declaration” reaffirming the commitment to fulfilling the vision of the Beijing platform and achieving gender equality by 2030."I’ve always seen CSW as one of the most, if not the most, dynamic meetings on the U.N. calendar." - Liesl Gerntholtz, Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch

There was not an expectation for lengthy negotiations, as we usually have, it was to pledge further action to accelerate gender equality, and ensure full implementation of the platform. The key outcome is that political outcome adopted on the first day,” she said.

The declaration features six points for action, calling for renewed focus on and faster progress toward the ideals set out in the Beijing platform. Member states called for strengthened laws and policies, greater support for institutional mechanisms striving for gender equality, transformation of discriminatory norms and gender stereotypes, greater investment to close resource gaps, strengthened accountability for the implementation of commitments; and enhanced capacity for data collection, monitoring and evaluation.

“This is a formidable basis for everyone, from governments to the U.N. system to civil society, to take action,” Brautigam said.

While reaffirming past commitments and analysing progress was the official aim of CSW, it was far from the only function of the fortnight of feminism. Liesl Gerntholtz, Executive Director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, said the annual CSW has become an important meeting place for the sharing of ideas, energy and inspiration for women around the globe.

“The value of the CSW has shifted from negotiations and outcome documents, to being a space for civil society to engage with member states and with each other. There are fewer and fewer spaces where civil society can come together, and in this one place hordes of women’s rights organisations can come together and talk,” she told IPS.

“Networking is critical, and it has become the most valuable part of the conference. It’s a chance for the movement to meet and strategise, to make stronger alliances, and have very rich and interesting discussions about what the issues are.”

Gerntholtz said the inclusive nature of the CSW – where activists can mingle with ambassadors, where politicians share panels with academics and celebrities – fostered cross-pollination of ideas, and the sharing of concerns between social strata.

“I’ve been fascinated to watch people talking about forms of harassment we haven’t talked about before, like cyber harassment, women threatened with sexual violence on social media,” she said.

Brautigam echoed the sentiments, saying one of CSW’s most formidable strengths was as a meeting place for sharing of ideas.

“I’ve always seen CSW as one of the most, if not the most, dynamic meetings on the U.N. calendar. It is a prime marketplace of ideas and lessons learnt, for solidarity, and drawing strength for the work for the coming year. People get together, brainstorm and energise each other,” she said.

However, for all the energy, enthusiasm and excitement during the mammoth program, there are also criticisms. Gerntholtz said recent years have seen some member states hoping to roll back progress already carved out, to undo achievements made, and to break pledges for future reform.

“There have been concerns for a while over the value of CSW. There have been some attempts in recent years to push back on language in the Beijing platform, particularly on violence against women and reproductive rights,” she said.

“That remains a huge concern for this forum – every year, it opens up the possibility member states might try to undermine and dilute and change some of these really important rights women have fought to establish.”

Gerntholtz said 2014 saw such a push by representatives from Iran, Egypt, Vatican City and several African nations – a group she called “the Unholy Alliance.”

“In any other circumstances, they wouldn’t be talking to each other, but they caucus to dilute important women’s rights,” she said.

The CSW was also criticised from civil society groups. Ahead of the CSW, the Women’s Rights Caucus labelled the proposed political declaration as “a bland reaffirmation of existing commitments,” saying it “threatens a major step backward” for rights and equality.

“Governments cannot pick and choose when to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of women and should not do so in this declaration,” it wrote in a statement.

On Friday, the CSW wrapped up after two weeks of meetings. UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka called CSW 59 “a forceful, dynamic and forward-looking session.”

“We are all aware that there are no shortcuts to realising gender equality, the empowerment of women and the human rights of women and girls. Based on the road we have travelled, we know that there are more challenges ahead of us,” she said in remarks at the closing of CSW 59, where Brazil was elected Chair of the 60th session.

Already plans for action are being set out for next year’s session. Brautigam said gender equality through the lens of sustainable development would be the theme, with three major global conferences – the Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Abada, negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda and Sustainable Development Goals, and the Climate Change Conference in Paris – to shape, and be shaped by, the women’s rights movement.

“The priority next year is women’s empowerment and the link to sustainable development. Between now and then, many important milestones will be met. We’re trying to ensure gender equality will be at the core of those discussions,” she said.

Yoon also stressed how the outcomes of the three major conferences would influence the next CSW.

“The priority of sustainable development is very important, because gender equality is missing to some extent in the discussions around climate change and sustainability,” she said.

Yoon said CSW 60 would likely have much more substantive, concrete outcomes and action plans than this year’s conference, and hoped 2016 would tackle issues of violence against women.

“The CSW will decide its whole multi-year program of work, for the next four years. We need to stay focused on violence against women in its broader definition,” she said.

“Not just domestic violence, but things like sexual harassment, campus safety and sexual violence on campuses, and online safety. It is inexcusable we have not been able to put all our resources to fix this.”

“We are rescuing victims, chasing perpetrators, but not preventing these things from happening. We simply must do this, otherwise all that we want to accomplish will fall apart, because women are terrified to speak out.”

With the thousands of delegates, dignitaries, ambassadors, experts, and activists now heading home after an exhausting fortnight, the focus will be on implementing the ideas and actions inspired by the conference.

“I hope people can go home with renewed energy, that people can refine their strategies for holding governments accountable, and that they learnt a lot,” Gerntholtz said.

Follow Josh Butler on Twitter: @JoshButler

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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Opinion: Measurement Matters – Civic Space and the Post-2015 Framework Mon, 23 Mar 2015 07:18:34 +0000 Mandeep S.Tiwana

In this column, Mandeep Tiwana, a lawyer specialising in human rights and civil society issues and Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, argues that with recent trends pointing to shrinkage of civil society space, goals and targets to protect this space in the post-2015 agenda will count for nothing if not backed by relevant indicators.

By Mandeep S.Tiwana

For those of us interested in a vibrant civil society, it seems to be best of times and the worst of times.

In recent months, there has been great progress in recognising the importance of civil society in shaping the so-called ‘post-2015’ agenda and an explicit recognition of the important role that civil society will play in delivering sustainable development. However, in many countries around the world, the actual conditions in which civil society operates are getting worse not better.

As we come closer to a new global agreement on sustainable development goals (SDGs), we need to push for an agreement – backed by robust indicators – that will make a tangible difference in protecting civic freedoms.

Mandeep S. Tiwana

Mandeep S. Tiwana

Indeed, a perceptible rise in bureaucratic harassment and raids on NGO offices, violent dispersal of citizen demonstrations, attacks on and illicit surveillance of activists, combined with the application of draconian laws to silence dissent and restrict funding, has many civil society observers worried about shrinking space for the sector.

Over the course of last year, CIVICUS, the global alliance for citizen participation, monitored severe threats to civic freedoms in roughly half of the globe’s 193 countries. Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 2014/2015 calls it “a devastating year” for those seeking to stand up for human rights. Front Line Defenders, which works to protect human rights defenders at risk, reports the killing or death in detention of over 130 human rights defenders in the first ten months of 2014 alone.

All of this is happening while the United Nations is making unprecedented efforts to ensure greater civil society participation in the post-2015 global development framework.

While the next generation of sustainable development goals, their associated targets and indicators will be decided by world leaders at their Sep. 25-27 summit in New York this year, civil society’s role in grounding the framework in people’s aspirations and holding duty bearers to account is crucial.“Assurances for a civil society enabling environment and respect for the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the post-2015 framework are integral to greater public involvement and accountability in development”

In light of recent trends which point to shrinkage of civil society space, in both democracies and non-democracies, there is naturally a high level of anxiety whether guarantees on civic freedoms and civil society participation will be included in the final framework. Indeed, a major criticism of the current Millennium Development Goal (MDG) framework is that it has failed to recognise and thereby institutionalise the role of active citizens and civil society organisations in development.

Assurances for a civil society enabling environment and respect for the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the post-2015 framework are integral to greater public involvement and accountability in development.

So far, some progress has been made but the gains remain shaky because many governments which will be involved in adopting the final framework in September are themselves complicit in serious violations of civic freedoms. These include some influential states such as China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and Turkey whose developmental models are predicated on top-down governance with scant role for independent civil society.

Positively, the U.N. Secretary General’s Synthesis Report on the Post-2015 Agenda, released in December last year, calls for the creation of an “enabling environment under the rule of law for the free, active and meaningful engagement of civil society and advocates reflecting the voices of women, minorities, LGBT groups, indigenous peoples, youth, adolescents and older persons.”

Notably, participatory democracy – without which civic freedoms cannot meaningfully exist – has been described as both an enabler and outcome of development.

From the perspective of civic freedoms and civil society participation, the U.N. Secretary General’s report has done well to elaborate on the proposal submitted to the U.N. General Assembly by the Open Working on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) in July 2014.

Comprising 30 representatives nominated by U.N. member states from all the regions of the world, the OWG recommended 17 goals and 169 corresponding targets which are the basis of intergovernmental negotiations on the SDGs this year.

Two goals are particularly relevant from the standpoint of civil society’s ability to freely operate and monitor progress on the framework.  These are proposed Goal 16 (“promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”) and proposed Goal 17 (“strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for development”). 

The proposed goals are further sub-divided into targets. For instance, targets under Goal 16 include “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision making at all levels” and “public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.” A key target under Goal 17 is to “encourage and promote effective public, public-private, and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.”

Progress on the proposed targets will be measured by indicators currently being developed by various U.N. bodies, including the U.N. Statistics Division. Ultimately, it will be the indicators that will anchor the post-2105 agenda because gains will be gauged through their prism. It is therefore crucial that the United Nations is able to identify suitable tools to measure civic space and civil society participation.

Although, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) has produced a report titled ‘Accountability through Civic Participation in the Post-2015 Development Agenda’, much more needs to be done to put in place relevant indicators that are linked to the targets identified by the OWG.

For instance, in relation to proposed Target 16.10 with its focus on “fundamental freedoms”, it would be valuable to evaluate whether both legislation and practice protect civic space, in particular the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.  Similarly, under proposed Target 17.17 with its focus on encouraging and promoting civil society partnerships, it will be vital to measure the existence of enabling conditions such as mandated requirements for civil society involvement in official policy making processes at the national level.

Currently, there are a number of initiatives that measure civic space and civil society participation. Some of these, such as the World Press Freedom Index, the Freedom in the World survey and the Enabling Environment Index, are led by civil society organisations, while others such as the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation are being developed by multi-stakeholder initiatives.

With post-2015 negotiations entering the final phase, it is vital that political negotiators and technical experts are convinced that adoption of the above and associated methodologies will lead to better service delivery, citizen monitoring and accountability.

With the attention on the post-2015 agenda now focused on measurement, civil society advocates have their work cut out to also engage and influence the statisticians. Ambitious goals and targets will count for nothing if not backed by relevant indicators. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

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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Mixed Prospects for LGBT Rights in Central and Eastern Europe Sun, 15 Mar 2015 11:29:55 +0000 Pavol Stracansky Billboard for the referendum called to strengthen a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption in Slovakia in February.  It says: WE ARE DECIDING ABOUT CHILDREN'S FUTURES. LET'S PROTECT THEIR RIGHT TO A MOTHER AND FATHER. Credit: Pavol Stracansky/IPS

Billboard for the referendum called to strengthen a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption in Slovakia in February. It says: WE ARE DECIDING ABOUT CHILDREN'S FUTURES. LET'S PROTECT THEIR RIGHT TO A MOTHER AND FATHER. Credit: Pavol Stracansky/IPS

By Pavol Stracansky
BRATISLAVA, Mar 15 2015 (IPS)

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups in Central and Eastern Europe, which still faced mixed prospects as they fight for rights and acceptance, are now taking some heart from the “failure” of a referendum in Slovakia, a member of the European Union.

Last month, a referendum called to strengthen a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption in Slovakia was declared invalid after only just over 20 percent of voters turned out.

The controversial plebiscite was heavily criticised by international rights groups, which said it pandered to homophobic discrimination and was allowing human rights issues affecting a minority group to be decided by a popular majority vote.

The campaigning ahead of the vote had often been bitter and vitriolic, including public homophobic statements by clergy, and a controversial negative commercial about gay adoption, which Slovak TV stations refused to broadcast and eventually only appeared on internet.The reasons behind the relative societal intolerance towards LGBT groups in Central and Eastern Europe vary from entrenched conservative attitudes rooted in countries’ isolation under communism, to local political aims and the influence of the Catholic Church.

The commercial showed a child in an orphanage being told that his new parents were coming to collect him and, after two men appear at the door, asking: “Where’s Mum?”

Activists here say that the referendum’s outcome was a sign that, despite this campaigning, Slovaks know that LGBT people pose “no threat” to society and has positively furthered discussion about allowing registered partnerships in the country.

Martin Macko, head of the Bratislava-based LGBT rights group Inakost, told IPS: “The referendum showed that people consider the family important, but that they do not see same-sex families as a threat to traditional families. The long-term perspective regarding discussions on registered partnerships in Slovakia is positive.”

Importantly, the result has also been welcomed in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe where many LGBT groups still face intolerance and discrimination.

Evelyne Paradis, Executive Director of international LGBT rights group ILGA-Europe told IPS: “LGBT activists across Europe have welcomed the outcome of the Slovak vote … hopefully the referendum will lead to a constructive discussion about equality in Slovakia. At the same time, we know that there is a broad diversity of views in the region which means that much work remains to be done before full equality is realised.”

Compared with Western Europe, attitudes in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe to LGBT people and issues are often much more conservative and in some states actively hostile.

The Czech Republic, whose larger cities have relatively open and vibrant gay communities, is the only country in the region which allows for registered partnerships of same-sex couples.

In other countries, such as Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and Poland, marriage is defined constitutionally as only between a man and a woman. In January this year, Macedonia’s parliament voted to adopt a similar clause in its constitution.

Adoption by same sex couples is banned in all states in the region while other important legislation relating to LGBT issues is also absent. In Bulgaria, for instance, inadequate legislation means that homophobic crimes are investigated and prosecuted as ‘hooliganism’. This, activists claim, creates a climate of fear for LGBT people.

Poor records on minority rights in general in places like, for instance, Ukraine, mean that while the state may ostensibly be committed to LGBT rights, such communities are in reality extremely vulnerable.

In Russia, legislation actively represses same-sex relationships, with federal laws criminalising promotion of any non-heterosexual lifestyle, while Lithuania has legal provisions banning the promotion of homosexuality.

Deeply negative attitudes towards homosexuals are widespread in some societies. A 2013 survey in Ukraine showed that two-thirds of people thought homosexuality was a perversion, while a study in the same year in Lithuania showed that 61 percent of LGBT people said they had suffered discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Isolated verbal and physical attacks and passive intolerance among more conservative groups are common across the region. But in some countries, specifically Russia, anyone even suspected of being non-heterosexual faces open, organised and sometimes lethally violent persecution.

Natalia Tsymbalova, an LGBT rights activist from St Petersburg, was forced to flee Russia in September last year after receiving death threats. Now claiming asylum in Spain, she was one of at least 12 LGBT activists who left Russia last year.

Speaking from Madrid, she told IPS about the continuing repression of LGBT people in her home country.

She said that although state propaganda campaigns had “switched to ‘Ukrainian fascists’ and the West” being portrayed as the public’s greatest enemy instead of LGBT people since the annexation of Crimea and the start of the Ukraine conflict, “state homophobia has not disappeared”.

“It has just faded into the background,” she added, “no longer making top headlines in the news, but it is still there and it has never left. The number of hate crimes is not falling, and they are being investigated as badly as before.”

The reasons behind the relative societal intolerance towards LGBT groups in Central and Eastern Europe vary from entrenched conservative attitudes rooted in countries’ isolation under communism, to local political aims and the influence of the Catholic Church.

In Slovakia, a strongly Catholic country where the Church’s influence can be extremely strong in many communities, supporters of the referendum welcomed Pope Francis’ personal endorsement of their cause.

It has been speculated that the conservative Alliance for Family movement, which initiated the referendum, is funded by Slovakia’s Catholic Church and that the Church was the driving force behind moves to bring about the vote.

In Lithuania, another strongly Catholic country, Church officials have supported laws restricting LGBT rights and have openly called homosexuality a perversion.

However, some rights activists also say that politicians in countries struggling economically or looking to entrench their own power can often use minorities, including LGBT people, as easy political targets to gain voter support.

ILGA’s Paradis told IPS: “Unfortunately many political leaders use the LGBT community as scapegoats … from activists we often hear that they do this to hide ‘real problems’ in countries, such as youth unemployment, access to education and healthcare. They promote ‘traditional family values’ as the way to rescue society. Sadly, in doing this, political leaders build a climate of intolerance and hatred.”

Saying that Russian politicians are now using homophobia to push wider agendas, Tsymbalova told IPS: “Homophobia plays an important role in the anti-Western rhetoric of President [Vladimir] Putin and his fellows. It is one of the main points of the conservative values that they try to promote and the public still has negative attitudes toward LGBT communities.”

The outcome of the Slovak referendum has left activists there more optimistic about the future for LGBT people in their country.

They are now pushing for discussions with the government about introducing registered partnerships and they hope that LGBT communities in other countries in the region will be heartened by the result or that, at least, people hoping to organise similar referendums will reconsider what they are doing.

Macko of Inakost told IPS: “Religious groups in some Balkan and Baltic countries are considering organising similar referendums and we really hope this will discourage them.”

Paradis told IPS that while the Slovak referendum had already been welcomed by many of its member groups in Central and Eastern Europe, progress on LGBT issues in many countries, including registered partnerships, was unlikely to be swift. “There indeed is more discussion in the region on granting rights to same sex partnerships, but what we see is a very mixed picture.”

However, the outlook for LGBT people in some places remains grim. Tsymbalova told IPS that many LGBT people in her home country have given up hope of any positive changes in the foreseeable future.

“In our community, there is almost no one who believes that the situation for LGBT people in Russia will seriously change for the better any time soon. Under the existing regime, which promotes and exploits homophobia, these changes will not happen and there is almost no hope of a regime change, so expectations are gloomy.”

She added: “Many LGBT activists have either left Russia, like me, or are going to. [As] for same-sex registered partnerships, it would take several decades to be accepted in Russia and I don’t believe I will see this in my lifetime. It is completely out of the question for the next 20 or 30 years.”

Edited by Phil Harris    

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U.N. Member States Accused of Cherry-Picking Human Rights Mon, 02 Mar 2015 21:38:24 +0000 Thalif Deen Protestors gather outside the White House to demonstrate against torture on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Charles Davis/IPS

Protestors gather outside the White House to demonstrate against torture on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Charles Davis/IPS

By Thalif Deen

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has criticised member states for ‘cherry-picking’ human rights – advocating some and openly violating others – perhaps to suit their own national or political interests.

Despite ratifying the U.N. charter reaffirming their faith in fundamental human rights, there are some member states who, “with alarming regularity”, are disregarding and violating human rights, “sometimes to a shocking degree,” he said.

“One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views." -- United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
Addressing the opening session of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) Monday, Zeid faulted member states for claiming “exceptional circumstances” for their convoluted decisions.

“They pick and choose between rights,” he pointed out, without identifying any member state by name.

“One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status.

“Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views,” he noted.  “A third State will comprehensively violate the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.”

Asked for her response, Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IPS, “Prince Zeid has hit the nail on the head.”

If every government that professed a commitment to human rights followed through consistently, she added, “we’d have a much different – and better – world.”

In an ironic twist apparently proving Zeid’s contention, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out at the “appalling human rights record” of several nations, blasting Syria and North Korea while singling out human rights violations in Crimea and by separatists in Ukraine.

But he did not condemn the devastation caused by Israel’s 50-day aerial bombardments of Palestinians in Gaza last year nor the rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas.

The death toll in the Gaza bombings was 1,976 Palestinians, including 1,417 civilians and 459 children, according to figures released by the United Nations, compared with the killing of 66 Israelis, including two soldiers.

The Palestinians have accused Israel of war crimes and are pushing for action by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague: a move strongly opposed by the United States.

Kerry told the HRC the United States believes that it can continue to make progress and help the U.N. body fulfill its mandate to make the world a better and safer place.

“But for that to happen, we have to get serious about addressing roadblocks to our own progress. And the most obvious roadblock, I have to say to you, is self-inflicted,” he said.

“I’m talking, of course, about HRC’s deeply concerning record on Israel,” Kerry added.

“No one in this room can deny that there is an unbalanced focus on one democratic country,” he said, as he openly advocated the cause of Israel, one of the closest political and military allies of the United States.

And no other nation, he said, has an entire agenda item set aside to deal with it. Year after year, there are five or six separate resolutions on Israel, he told delegates.

This year, he said, there was a resolution sponsored by Syrian President Bashar al Assad concerning the Golan (which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war).

“How, I ask, is that a sensible priority at the very moment when refugees from Syria are flooding into the Golan to escape Assad’s murderous rule and receive treatment from Israeli physicians in Israeli hospitals?”

Kerry referred to the Council’s “obsession” with Israel, which, he argued, “actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organisation.”

Zeid told the HRC the only real measure of a Government’s worth is not its place in the “solemn ballet of grand diplomacy” but the “extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, or over whom it has physical control.”

Some policy-makers persuade themselves that their circumstances are exceptional, creating a wholly new reality unforeseen by the law, Zeid said, adding that such logic is abundant around the world today.

“I arrest arbitrarily and torture because a new type of war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because the fight against terrorism requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity is being threatened now as never before. I kill without any form of due process, because if I do not, others will kill me,” he noted.

“And so it goes, on and on, as we spiral into aggregating crises,” Zeid declared.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: Can the Violence in Honduras Be Stopped? Sun, 22 Feb 2015 17:57:50 +0000 LisaHaugaard, Sarah Kinosian, and William Hartung For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Credit: daviditzi/Flickr

For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Credit: daviditzi/Flickr

By Lisa Haugaard, Sarah Kinosian, and William Hartung
WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb 22 2015 (IPS)

Honduras is one of the most violent nations in the world. The situation in the country’s second largest city, San Pedro Sula, demonstrates the depth of the problem.

For the fourth year running, San Pedro Sula has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet outside of a war zone. Its murder rate in 2014 was an astonishing 171 per 100,000. The city, which is caught in the crossfire between vicious criminal gangs, has been the largest source of the 18,000 Honduran children who have fled to the United States in recent years.

The vast majority of killings in Honduras are carried out with impunity. For example, 97 percent of the murders in San Pedro Sula go unsolved.

Corruption within and abuses by the civilian police undermine its effectiveness. A controversial new internal security force, the Military Police of Public Order (Policia Militar del Orden Publico, or PMOP), does not carry out investigations needed to deter crime and is facing a series of allegations of abuses in the short time it has been deployed. There are currently 3,000 PMOP soldiers deployed throughout the country, but this number is expected to grow to 5,000 this year. The national police feel that the government is starving them for funds and trying to replace them with PMOP."The vast majority of killings in Honduras are carried out with impunity."

The rise of PMOP is part of a larger trend toward the militarization of government and civil society. The military is now in charge of most aspects of public security in Honduras. But the signs of militarization are everywhere. Each Saturday, for example, 25,000 kids receive military training as part of the “Guardians of the Homeland” program, which the government says is designed to keep youths age 5-23 from joining the street gangs that control entire sections of the country’s most violent cities.

But putting more guns on the street is unlikely to sustainably stem the tide of violence in Honduras. What would make a difference is an end to the climate of impunity that allows murderers to kill people with no fear of consequences.

“This country needs to strengthen its capacity and will to carry out criminal investigations. This is the key to everything,” said an expert on violence in Honduras who spent years working in justice agencies there, and who spoke on condition of anonymity for reasons of personal safety.

The Three-Fold Challenge

The Honduran government faces three key challenges: It must reform a corrupt and abusive police force, strengthen criminal investigations, and ensure an impartial and independent judiciary.

Police reform appears to be stalled. There was some hope after the surge of civilian pressure for reform that followed the 2011 killing of the son of the rector for the Autonomous National University of Honduras and a friend. The Commission for the Reform of Public Security produced a series of proposals to improve the safety of the Honduran citizenry, including recommendations for improving police training, disciplinary procedures, and the structure of pubic security institutions.

Unfortunately, the Honduran Congress dissolved the commission in January 2014, during the lame duck period before President Juan Orlando Hernandez took office. Few of its recommendations have been carried out.

“They could have purged and trained the police during this time. But instead they put 5,000 military police on the street who don’t know what a chain of custody is,” lamented the expert on violence.

The Honduran government claims that over 2,000 police officers have been purged since May 2012, but there is little public information that would allow for an independent assessment of the reasons for the dismissals. And even when police are removed, they are not prosecuted; some are even allowed to return to the force. This is no way to instill accountability.

Meanwhile, the independence of the Honduran justice system is under attack. Since November 2013, the Judiciary Council has dismissed 29 judges and suspended 28 without an appropriate process, according to a member of the Association of Judges for Democracy. “This means that judges feel intimidated. They feel if they rule against well-connected people, against politicians, they can be dismissed.”

In an attempt to improve investigations and prosecutions, special units have been created to investigate specific types of crimes. For example, the Special Victims Task Force was created in 2011 to tackle crimes against vulnerable groups such as journalists, human rights advocates, and the LGBT community. This approach has been funded by the United States. It has promise, but the results are unclear so far. So is the question of whether the success of these specialized efforts can lead to broader improvements in the judicial system.

Protecting the Protectors

Providing security for justice operators is a particularly daunting problem. From 2010 to December 2014, 86 legal professionals were killed, according to information received by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Although the state provides some protection, the funding allocated for this purpose is inadequate. “In a country with the highest levels of violence and impunity in the region,” noted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “the State necessarily has a special obligation to protect, so that its justice sector operators can carry out their work to fight impunity without becoming victims in the very cases they are investigating.”

To try and target the problems driving the endemic violence in Honduras, the government, joined by the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador, has released its Alliance for Prosperity plan, which is designed to increase investment in infrastructure and encourage foreign investment. The Obama administration has announced that it will ask Congress for $1 billion to help fund the initiative, but details about the security strategy are scarce.

It remains to be seen exactly how this money will be spent. Looking at San Pedro Sula, it is clear that a dramatic change in political will would be needed for any initiative of this kind to be successful. International donors should not support a militarized security strategy, which would intensify abuses and fail to provide sustainable citizen security.

Funding for well-designed, community-based violence prevention programs could be helpful, but only if there is a government willing to reform the police, push for justice, and invest in the education, jobs, violence prevention, health, child protection, and community development programs needed to protect its poorest citizens.

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. This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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LGBTI Community in Central America Fights Stigma and Abuse Wed, 18 Feb 2015 20:10:41 +0000 Edgardo Ayala Daniela Alfaro standing in front of the University of El Salvador med school, where the complaints she has filed about the harassment and aggression she has suffered as a transgender student of health education have gone nowhere. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Daniela Alfaro standing in front of the University of El Salvador med school, where the complaints she has filed about the harassment and aggression she has suffered as a transgender student of health education have gone nowhere. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

By Edgardo Ayala
SAN SALVADOR, Feb 18 2015 (IPS)

Despite the aggression and abuse she has suffered at the University of El Salvador because she is a trans woman, Daniela Alfaro is determined to graduate with a degree in health education.

“There is very little tolerance of us at the university. I thought it would be different from high school, but it isn’t,” Alfaro, a third year student of health education at the University of El Salvador med school, in the capital, told IPS.

Rejected by the rest of her family, Alfaro only has the emotional and financial support of her mother, “the only one who didn’t turn her back on me,” she said.

Like her, many members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community suffer harassment, mistreatment and even attacks on a daily basis in Central America because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, said activists from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua interviewed by IPS.

The discrimination, aggression and harassment that Alfaro has experienced at the university have come from her own classmates, as well as professors and university staff and authorities.“We don’t exist for the state in the areas of health, education, work or social matters, there is no protocol for how public employees should treat us.” -- Carlos Valdés

Since 2010 she has been filing reports and complaints with the university authorities for the aggression she has suffered in the men’s bathroom, which she is forced to use. “But they don’t take my complaints seriously because I’m trans,” said the 27-year-old student.

Alfaro has also experienced the invisibility of LGBTI persons when they receive no response from institutions or officials because their complaints or reports are dismissed or ignored simply because of prejudice against non-heterosexuals, said Carlos Valdés, with the Lambda Organisation in Guatemala.

“We don’t exist for the state in the areas of health, education, work or social matters, there is no protocol for how public employees should treat us,” Valdés told IPS by phone from Guatemala City.

Lambda and three other organisations in Central America are carrying out the regional programme “Centroamérica Diferente” (Different Central America), aimed at securing respect for the human rights of people with different sexual orientations or gender identities.

“Basically we want to improve the quality of life of the LGBTI community, so we are no longer discriminated against by sectors and institutions of the government,” said Eduardo Vásquez, with the Salvadoran Asociación Entreamigos, which is involved in the initiative.

The programme began in May 2014 and will run through June 2016 in the four participating countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

With funds from the European Union, it aims to get 40 organisations and more than 200 human rights activists involved, and to reach 3,550 members of the LGBTI community, 160 communicators, 600 public employees, 8,000 adolescents and 10 percent of the population of the four countries.

The programme provides legal support in cases of abuse and violence, and training for sexual diversity rights activists, and it carries out national and regional campaigns against homophobia.

The activists coordinate the activities with government institutions that provide public services to the LGBTI community, and exercise oversight to prevent abuses and discrimination, for example in health centres, schools and the workplace, or in police procedures.

“We are sad to see that some police continue to use poor procedures during searches, or refer in a disrespectful manner to gay or transgender persons,” Norman Gutiérrez, with the Centre for AIDS Education and Prevention in Nicaragua, another group taking part in the initiative, told IPS by telephone.

The programme will also set up a regional LGBTI human rights observatory to monitor cases of abuse, attacks and violence, and will conduct a study to gauge the magnitude of human rights violations based on sexual orientation or identity.

Hate crimes

The observatory and the study will play a key role in detecting, for example, how severe is the phenomenon of homophobic murders, especially against transgender persons, since official statistics do not recognise hate crimes and merely classify them as homicides, the activists explained.

“In Guatemala the right to life is one of the rights that is most violated, and these murders often target trans persons,” Valdés said.

Given the lack of clear official figures, the organisations compile information as best they can, without the necessary systematisation. Based on this information, the groups participating in the programme estimate that in the last five years, at least 300 members of the LGBTI community, mainly transgender women, were murdered in hate crimes.

These murders occur in a context of generalised violence in the region. The so-called Northern Triangle, made up of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is one of the most violent regions in the world.

The murder rate in Honduras in the last few years has stood at around 70 per 100,000 population, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) – far above the Latin American average of 29 and the global average of 6.2.

In Honduras, LGBTI activists have reported at least 190 homophobic murders in the last five years, some of which were included in a report published Dec. 17 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

The document reports human rights violations against the LGBTI community committed between January 2013 and March 2014 in 25 Organisation of American States member countries. In that period, at least 594 people perceived to be LGBTI were killed, while another 176 were victims of serious physical assaults.

The IACHR “urges States to adopt urgent and effective measures to prevent and respond to these human rights violations and to ensure that LGBTI persons can effectively enjoy their right to a life free from violence and discrimination.”

Among the cases compiled by the IACHR is the murder of a trans woman in Honduras who was stoned to death on Mar. 4, 2013 in the northern city of San Pedro Sula. She was identified as José Natanael Ramos, age 35.

Unlike other programmes that are implemented only in the capital cities, Centroamérica Diferente plans to reach small cities and towns as well, where the violence, discrimination and vulnerability are generally worse.

“In small towns there is much more ‘machismo’, more violence and more homophobia. Some hate crimes and murders aren’t even reported,” added Gutiérrez, the Nicaraguan activist.

There is also a high level of discrimination in the workplace against the LGBTI community in Central America, said Valdés, with the Lambda Organisation from Guatemala.

“For example, gays have to hide their identity in order to get a job, and if their sexual orientation is discovered, they are harassed until they quit,” he said.

Alfaro, meanwhile, said in front of the med school where she studies that she will not stop denouncing the discrimination and harassment she suffers, until she finally sees justice done.

“I just hope that someday they will respect my identity as a woman,” she said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Inequality Fuels HIV Epidemic in the Caribbean Tue, 10 Feb 2015 18:57:24 +0000 Desmond Brown Outspoken artist Edison Liburd, in St. John's, Antigua. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Outspoken artist Edison Liburd, in St. John's, Antigua. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
ST. JOHN'S, Antigua, Feb 10 2015 (IPS)

At 49 years old, Edison Liburd has established himself as one of Antigua and Barbuda’s most recognisable artists. But Liburd was not always in the spotlight. In fact, you could say he was a man in hiding.

“I have been infected with the HIV virus for about 24 years. I got my first HIV test done in February of 1993 at the Allen Pavilion Hospital in Manhattan New York,” Liburd told IPS."Equity and social justice are very important as we respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. HIV is as much a social and developmental disease as a medical one." -- Eleanor Frederick

“I can remember that day vividly. I felt like the earth had been removed from beneath me when I was handed the results of the test.”

HIV/AIDS first emerged in the 1980s, and now, more than three decades later, stigma associated with the disease has persisted. Liburd pointed to that sigma as the main reason why he concealed his HIV status for as long as he did.

“I hid my status for years from family. I told a few friends, but most people who I knew did not know anything about my health condition. It was fear of being ostracised that kept me from disclosing my status,” he said.

“In Antigua, HIV infected individuals still have to face job insecurity – first to be fired and last to be hired. Stigma and discrimination is still high because many still think themselves superior to individuals who are infected.

“Somehow they think themselves better than, but I believe that it is when infected individuals become empowered by taking hold of their health and indispensable to nation building that this will take a huge bite out of discrimination. People will begin to see you differently,” Liburd said.

The Caribbean is one of the most heavily affected regions in the world, with adult HIV prevalence about one percent higher than in any other region outside sub-Saharan Africa.

The HIV pandemic in the Caribbean is fuelled by a range of social and economic inequalities and is sustained by high levels of stigma, discrimination against the most at-risk and marginalised populations and persistent gender inequality, violence and homophobia.

HIV in the Caribbean is mostly concentrated in and around networks of men who have sex with men. Social stigma, however, has kept the epidemic among men who have sex with men hidden and unacknowledged. There is also a notable burden of infection among injecting drug users, sex workers and the clients of sex workers.

The main mode of transmission in the Caribbean is unprotected heterosexual intercourse – paid or otherwise. Sex between men is also thought to be a significant factor in several countries, although due to social stigma, this is mainly denied.

The level of stigma and discrimination suffered by those infected and affected by the virus in the Caribbean helps drive the epidemic underground. This makes it difficult to reach many groups.

After facing the worst of his fears, being hospitalised and getting close to death’s door, Liburd has “resolved to fight back against the discrimination by increasing my capacity to help others in every way through my gift of art and my voice on and in the media, in church and otherwise.

“This has really been a powerhouse for me. I have become more confident and bold when faced with opposition. It has and is still more than ever being a source of inspiration and encouragement for many who hear my story, both infected and non-infected alike.”

Executive director of the Antigua and Barbuda HIV/AIDS Network (ABHAN), Eleanor Frederick, said individuals living with HIV face many challenges such as unemployment, homelessness, and in some cases, they are abandoned by their families.

She said there are also other issues that are faced by some individuals “such as stigma, discrimination, resource shortage and social marginalisation” depending on the community with which they identify such as sexuality, gender, commercial sex workers, men who have sex with men, drug users and prisoners.

“Many individuals are reluctant to start treatment because of the myths and stories about HIV and AIDS,” Frederick told IPS. “Healthcare providers, peers and treatment navigators can help individuals to understand, the barriers and how to overcome them.”

ABHAN has a Peer/Buddy HIV Treatment Adherence Programmme which recruits, monitors and retains patients into treatment and care and ensures that they adhere to their treatment regimen. It also delivers a comprehensive package of services, including case management, leading to decreased risky sexual behaviour, improved immune system functioning, and general health improvement.

“The programme provides direct support services by specially trained ABHAN and American University of Antigua Medical School (AUA) student volunteers, in the form of social interaction, emotional support, monitoring of medication adherence, and facilitation of health care concerns to persons living with HIV and AIDS, and to members of their families,” Frederick told IPS.

At the country level, she said while there is legislation which specifically addresses the treatment of employees living with HIV/AIDS, it is not always followed.

“A pilot programme was undertaken in 2012. The intention was to encourage the implementation and observance of the standards set out in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) code of practice on HIV/AIDS and the world of work, the ILO Recommendation No. 200 as well as the National Tripartite Workplace Policy on HIV and AIDS in Antigua and Barbuda; based on the universal human rights standards applicable to HIV and the world of work,” Frederick explained.

“Individuals have lost their jobs because of their HIV status and others have been asked to take an HIV test when it was suspected that they were possibly infected.”

The ABHAN executive director said HIV should be everyone’s concern, because “HIV does not discriminate, and knows no borders.”

She added that “equity and social justice are very important as we respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. HIV is as much a social and developmental disease as a medical one.

“Therefore, I would like to encourage everyone to help improve the quality of life for people with HIV and AIDS and increase compassion for them and their loved ones by providing vital human services for those in need of it based on a philosophy of non-judgmental support as practiced by ABHAN.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Anti-Gay Legislation Could Defeat Goal to End AIDS in Zimbabwe by 2015 Thu, 18 Dec 2014 00:04:34 +0000 Jeffrey Moyo Zimbabwe has criminalised gay relationships, striking fear into the hearts of many gays like these two walking side by side in the country’s capital, because they are being left out in strategies to combat HIV/AIDS. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo

Zimbabwe has criminalised gay relationships, striking fear into the hearts of many gays like these two walking side by side in the country’s capital, because they are being left out in strategies to combat HIV/AIDS. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Dec 18 2014 (IPS)

Despite a mandate to eradicate HIV/AIDS under the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Zimbabwe has done little or nothing to reduce the rate of infection among vulnerable gays and lesbians, say activists here.

The MDGs are eight goals agreed to by all U.N. member states and all leading international development institutions to be achieved by the target date of 2015. These goals range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education.

Gays and lesbians activists here say more needs to be done because population groups such as men who have sex with men and transgender people remain at the periphery of the country’s intervention strategies.

“In as far as combatting HIV/AIDS is concerned, there are no national programmes targeted for minority groups or interventions that can easily be accessible by the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community on prevention and care within the public healthcare system,”Samuel Matsikure, Programme Manager of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), told IPS.“Whether the Zimbabwean government likes it or not, it has to face the reality that gays and lesbians exist and should therefore cater for their HIV/AIDS needs in emerging with strategies to combat HIV/AIDS just like it does for all other citizens, for how do we end the scourge if we ignore another group of people who will certainly spread the disease” – civil society activist Trust Mhindo

“There are knowledge gaps of healthcare workers on the needs and best methods on prevention, treatment and care for the HIV-positive LGBTI individuals,” adds Matsikure.

GALZ is a voluntary association founded in 1990 to serve the needs and interests of LGBTI persons in Zimbabwe, pushing for social tolerance of sexual minorities.

But 24 years after GALZ was founded, Zimbabwe’s Sexual Offences Act still criminalises homosexuality. According to Section 4.78 of Zimbabwe’s new constitution, persons of the same sex are prohibited from consensual sex or marrying each other.

Civil society activists say the Zimbabwean government has to accept the reality that gays and lesbians exist.

“Whether the Zimbabwean government likes it or not, it has to face the reality that gays and lesbians exist and should therefore cater for their HIV/AIDS needs in emerging with strategies to combat HIV/AIDS just like it does for all other citizens, for how do we end the scourge if we ignore another group of people who will certainly spread the disease,” Trust Mhindo, a civil society activist, told IPS.

HIV/AIDS activists here rather want the legislation on gays and lesbians changed. “We need to fight for a change of laws so that gays and lesbians are given recognition, without which fighting HIV/AIDS among LGBTI will remain futile,” Benjamin Mazhindu, Chairperson of the Zimbabwe National Network for People Living with HIV (ZNPP+), told IPS.

Globally halting the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015 is part of the U.N. MDGs, but with members of the LGBTI sidelined in fighting the disease in Zimbabwe, the battle may be far from over.

“Most healthcare facilities in Zimbabwe are not friendly to LGBTI persons, hindering disclosures of ailments like anal STIs [sexually transmitted infections]while sexual and reproductive health information for the LGBTI community is non-existent, creating a vacuum with healthcare facilities for minorities,” GALZ director Chester Samba told IPS.

“If you today walk into any government healthcare centre, be sure not to find any information or literature on gays and lesbians in as far as HIV/AIDS is concerned,” he added.

And for many Zimbabwean gays like 23-year-old Hillary Tembo, living with HIV/AIDS amounts to a death sentence because he fears accessing medical help from government healthcare centres.

“I’m HIV-positive and ridden with STI-related sores in my anus and truly I’m afraid to show this to health workers, fearing victimisation owing to my sexuality,” Tembo told IPS.

But Zimbabwean Health Minister David Parirenyatwa told IPS: “When a person visits a healthcare centre, nothing is asked about one’s sexual orientation.”

According to Samba, although there are no reported cases of HIV-positive LGBTI people being denied antiretroviral treatment on account of their sexual orientation, “there is need for a national HIV/AIDS response to address the barriers preventing members of the LGBTI community from accessing services that address their HIV/AIDS health care needs, including access to information that is relevant to them.”

However, faced with a constitution forbidding gay relations, government here finds it an uphill task to consider a group of people that it constitutionally does not recognise in combatting HIV/AIDS.

“We can’t arm-twist our supreme law which does not condone homosexuality to fit in to the needs of a small group of people who are disobeying the law,” a top government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told IPS.

And for gays and lesbians in this Southern African nation, whether the U.N. MDGs matter or not, to them suffering may continue as long as they remain a forgotten lot in fighting HIV/AIDS.

“As homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe, it is difficult for prevention programmes to reach men who have sex with men (MSM) and all MSMs living with HIV/AIDS are often unable to access HIV treatment, care and support,” Samba told IPS.

Asked how many HIV-positive LGBTI persons there were in Zimbabwe, the GALZ director said that he could not give figures because “there are no mechanisms at national level to capture data based on one’s sexual orientation.”

However, in its yet-to-be published 2014 research on the impact of HIV/AIDS on LGBTI persons, GALZ says that of the 393 MSMs tested for HIV/AIDS this year, 23.5 percent were found positive while of the 179 women having sex with women (WSWs) tested for HIV/AIDS, 32.6 percent were found positive in Zimbabwe.

According to the National Aids Council in Zimbabwe (NAC),1.24 million people in the country are living with HIV/AIDS, which is approximately 15 percent of the country’s over 13 million people. LGBTI persons are part of this percentage.

Statistics from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency this year show that LGBTI persons in Zimbabwe contribute about four percent of the people living with HIV/AIDS.

With a membership of 6,000 gays and lesbians, GALZ says 15 percent of these are living with HIV/AIDS, with five of its members having succumbed to HIV/AIDS since January. The organisation claims that it normally loses 5 to 10 people each year. “Statistics we have so far are of GALZ-affiliated members, not representative of the national statistics,” said the GALZ director.

For many HIV-positive Zimbabwean gays like Tembo, as the world rushes towards the deadline for attainment of the U.N. MDGs, without clearly defined strategies to fight HIV/AIDS within the LGBTI community, the war against the scourge may be far from over.

“How can we triumph over HIV/AIDS when among the LGBTI community we are without strategies from government to combat the disease?” Tembo asked rhetorically.

(Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harris)

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Civil Society Freedoms Merit Role in Post-2015 Development Agenda Tue, 25 Nov 2014 17:45:58 +0000 Mandeep S.Tiwana

In this column, Mandeep Tiwana, a lawyer specialising in human rights and civil society issues and Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, reports that civil society groups are facing increasing challenges as they seek to assume their rightful role as partners in development. He calls on civil society around the world to remain vigilant and act collectively to ensure that the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly are protected.

By Mandeep S.Tiwana

Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, an advocacy NGO, is facing criminal charges for sending a tweet that said: “many Bahrain men who joined terrorism and ISIS have come from the security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator”.

Yara Sallam, a young Egyptian woman activist, is in prison for protesting against a public assembly law declared by United Nations experts to be in breach of international law.

In Nigeria, it is illegal to support the formation of `gay clubs and institutions’.

Mandeep S. Tiwana

Mandeep S. Tiwana

In Bangladesh, civil society groups are subjected to rigorous scrutiny of their project objectives with a view to discourage documentation of serious human rights abuses.

In Honduras, activists exposing the nexus between big business owners and local officials to circumvent rules operate under serious threat to their lives.

In South Sudan, a draft law is in the making that requires civil society groups to align their work with the government-dictated national development plan.

With barely a year to go before finalisation of the next generation of global development goals, civil society groups are facing increasing challenges as they seek to assume their rightful role as partners in development.

Back in 2010, when the United Nations organised a major summit to take stock of progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a number of civil society groups lamented that“too little partnership and too little space” was marring the achievement of MDG targets.“With barely a year to go before finalisation of the next generation of global development goals, civil society groups are facing increasing challenges as they seek to assume their rightful role as partners in development”

They pointed out that, in a large number of countries, legal and practical limitations were preventing civil society groups from being set up, engaging in legitimate undertakings and accessing resources, impeding both the service delivery and watchdog functions of the sector, thereby negatively affecting development activities.

Since then, there has been greater recognition at multilateral levels about the challenges faced by civil society. In 2011, at a high-level forum on aid and development effectiveness, 159 national governments and the European Union resolved to create an “enabling environment” for civil society organisations to maximise their contributions to development.

In 2013, the U.N. Secretary General’s expert High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda recommended that a separate goal on good governance and effective institutions should be created. The experts suggested that this goal should include targets to measure freedoms of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information, which are integral to a flourishing civil society.

The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has also emphasised the importance of ‘partnership with civil society’ in the post-2015 agenda. Even as restrictions on civil society activities have multiplied around the world, the U.N. Human Rights Council has passed resolutions calling for the protection of civic space.

Senior U.N. officials and experts, including the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, have spoken out against state-sanctioned reprisals against activists highlighting human rights abuses at home and abroad.

Yet, despite the progress, civic space appears to be shrinking. The State of Civil Society Report 2014 issued by CIVICUS points out that following the upheavals of the Arab Spring, many governments have felt threatened and targeted activists advocating for civil and political freedoms.

In Ethiopia, bloggers and journalists speaking out against restrictions on speech and assembly have been targeted under counter-terrorism legislation for “inciting” disaffection.

Additionally, the near total dominance of free market economic policies has created a tight overlap between the economic and political elite, putting at risk environmental and land rights activists challenging the rise of politically well-connected mining, construction and agricultural firms.

Global Witness has pointed out that there has been a surge in the killing of environmental activists over the last decade.

Notably, abundant political conflicts and cultural clashes are spurring religious fundamentalism and intolerant attitudes towards women’s equality and the rights of sexual minorities, putting progressive civil society groups at serious risk from both physical attacks as well as politically motivated prosecutions.

In Uganda, concerns have been expressed about the promotion of homophobia by right-wing religious groups.

In Pakistan, indiscriminate attacks on women’s rights activists are seriously impairing their work.

Countering these regressive developments will require greater efforts from the international community to entrench notions of civic space in both developmental as well as human rights forums.

A critical mass of leading civil society organisations has written to U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon urging him to ensure that the post-2015 agenda focuses on the full spectrum of human rights, with clear targets on civil and political rights that sit alongside economic, social and cultural rights.

It is being argued that explicit inclusion of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly which underpin a vibrant and able civil society should be goals in themselves in the new global development agenda.

It is equally vital to make parallel progress on the human rights front. Many governments that restrict civic freedoms are taking cover under the overbroad provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

They argue that the provisions of the ICCPR on freedom of association and assembly, which are short on detail, are open to multiple interpretations on issues such as the right to operate an organisation without formal registration or to spontaneously organise a public demonstration.

The global discourse on civil society rights would be greatly strengthened if the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the expert body of jurists responsible for interpreting the ICCPR, could comprehensively articulate the scope of these freedoms.

This would complement progress made at the U.N. Human Rights Council and support implementation of comprehensive best practice guidelines issued by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

For now, the odds seem to be heavily stacked against civil society groups fighting for economic, social and political justice. Many powerful governments do not subscribe to democratic values and are fundamentally opposed to the notion of an independent sector. And many democracies have themselves encroached on civic space in the face of perceived security and strategic interests.

Civil society around the world must remain vigilant and act collectively to ensure that the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly are protected. We have come too far to let those with vested interests encroach on the space for citizens and civil society to thrive. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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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Learning, Dating and Hooking Up: Sex Education Goes Online in Cambodia Wed, 05 Nov 2014 18:15:41 +0000 Michelle Tolson Srun Srorn, trainer for the E-learning project, shows teachers at Koh Kong High School how the sexual education curriculum works. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

Srun Srorn, trainer for the E-learning project, shows teachers at Koh Kong High School how the sexual education curriculum works. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
KOH KONG PROVINCE, Cambodia, Nov 5 2014 (IPS)

The transition to puberty can be an awkward experience for youth to navigate. In Cambodia, sex education is moving increasingly into the virtual realm, with the Internet and mobile phones providing welcome spaces for young people to learn, seek help and stay safe.

Cambodia is classified as one of the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs), with 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line, while another 20 percent are just 0.30 dollars a day above the poverty line, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

Illiteracy has been linked with poverty and only 74 percent of rural communities are literate. Cambodia has been heavily influenced by the NGO culture, which has helped bring about some improvements, yet when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), these organisations have tended to focus on addressing poor maternal health or at-risk groups, such as entertainment workers.

"This is the difficulty that we experience [in Cambodia: making people aware that counseling is a way of providing emotional support and empowerment as well as exploring options without judgment or assumption.” -- Sean Sok Phay, executive director of Child Helpline Cambodia
Youth, on the other hand, particularly those from poorer families and in rural areas, have not received much attention, particularly those who engage in romantic relationships outside of marriage.

Now, a wave of online learning is filling crucial gaps in the knowledge system.

One such initiative is a major E-learning platform being rolled out with support from the ministry of education, youth and sport (MoEYS), aimed at improving young people’s access to vital information.

“NGOs focus on the population in general, birth spacing, maternal health, but not sweetheart relationships that youth have,” Kuth Sovanno, administrative officer in the school health department of the MoEYS said recently to a roomful of teachers at Koh Kong High School during the launch of the E-learning initiative.

It is being piloted in 24 secondary schools in the provinces of Bantey Meanchey, Battambong, Pursat, Kampong Chhnang, Takeo, Kampot, Koh Kong and Sihanoukville (Kampong Som province) and Phnom Penh. At present, the plan is to expand the programme to reach 100 schools.

Sovanno tells IPS that tapping into social media is a way to get the information out to youth who flock to Facebook to socialise. Youth are beginning to see online access as an important source of information, so the MoEYS maintains an up-to-date website, which is not always the case with the other ministries.

Cambodia’s mobile phone sales have mushroomed, resulting in an estimated 134-percent mobile phone penetration, with cell phones being cheaper than land lines, while social media – accessed through Internet cafes and mobile devices – was believed to have played a major role in the 2013 elections.

In this same way, youth are breaking away from traditional restrictions on sexual and reproductive health education, says Srun Srorn, advisor to One World UK, partnering with the MoEYS to launch the E-learning programme.

Srorn is an activist who uses social media to reach marginalised youth, including the LGBT community, drug users, sex workers and migrant workers. His volunteer-led organisation, CamASEAN, reaches 2,000 members through social media.

Chheon Rachana, a 28-year-old female activist for LGBT issues who teaches about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression for Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK) and CamASEAN, tells IPS that many girls do not talk to their parents or female teachers for advice on seemingly basic topics like menstruation; instead, most reach out to friends.

While some schools make use of NGO support to supply poor rural students with feminine products at school, many girls continue to face challenges in acquiring the most essential products and services.

“Poor girls ask for money from their parents or from someone close to them in their family,” explains Rachana. She herself did not tell her parents when she started menstruating, but had a sympathetic relative help buy her monthly feminine products.

Things become even more challenging for teens learning about safer sex, abortions and sexual orientation.

“The traditional Cambodian style of reproductive and sexual health education means that most youth have to find out by themselves by book, [and] share [this information] with their friends because they don’t learn this at school,” Rachana says.

She thinkx the Internet is changing this, though she maintains the importance of accurate information – something that is not always possible given the very nature of the Web.

NGOs such as the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), which also supports the E-learning initiative, trains peer educators to provide accurate information and emotional support in several provinces but adolescents without access to this especially benefit from mobile, SMS and online counseling.

Sean Sok Phay, executive director of Child Helpline Cambodia, which, along with Inthanou, provides counselors for the new website, tells IPS, “Online and phone counseling is a new concept in Cambodia. Many people often refer [to] counseling as giving advice or instructing people to do certain thing. This is the difficulty that we experience: making people aware that counseling is a way of providing emotional support and empowerment as well as exploring options without judgment or assumption.”

He describes the service as “pro-poor” and especially helpful for youth in rural areas, as one-on-one counseling can be expensive, while this service is free. The use of mobile phones allows for privacy to talk about these topics either online, by calling or through SMS.

The MoEYS recently published a life skills book for youth that tackles changes in adolescents’ bodies, but also social issues such as drug use and learning about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which is paired with the E-learning project that has its own curriculum as well.

“Each student has time at the computer already so it will be easier because they are shy to learn [about sexual reproductive health],” Theary, a high school teacher who has taught grades 7-9 at Koh Kong High for the past seven years, tells IPS.

Computer labs, such as the one in Koh Kong High School, will introduce the website’s lessons to students offline first because of the school’s slow Internet connection but they can also access the lessons online at Internet cafes or through mobile phones.

The new website was launched in March of this year.

“Many youth have sex before marriage now, compared to traditional times,” adds Srorn of One World UK, who trains teachers on how to use the E-learning platform.

“Girls already learn by themselves and use porn videos for this. Internet cafes are not expensive, just 1000 riels [0.24 dollars] an hour so poor girls can learn this way. Males use karaoke bars, beer gardens, massage parlors.”

Koh Kong town, situated close to the Thai border, has many massage parlors and some casinos.

“Middle-class and [upper]-class girls can walk or take a moto bike along the riverside in cities [to meet potential sex partners], while high-class girls go to hip-hop clubs where they can meet a guy. But youth also use the Internet for this. They can use Skype, Facebook messenger and phone sex to hook up.”

Chheon agrees that meeting girlfriends and boyfriends online is common these days. But she says it is important that they meet in public places first and not away from other people for safety reasons.

According to a 2013 U.N. report, 20 percent of men in Cambodia said they had forced a woman to have sex, half of whom claimed to have done so as a teenager.

For those surviving an assault, phone and online counseling can be a lifesaver.

“A girl in a village [who has] been raped … will not only face discrimination, she will have a very difficult time in terms of trauma, stress, and feelings of suicide. Phone counseling, online and text message counseling is playing a role to create the means or opportunity for such a community,” points out Sok Phay from the Child Helpline.

But perhaps what is most urgently needed is information about practicing safer sex.

Monyl Loun, executive director of Inthanou, the other counseling service supporting the project, tells IPS that while love and relationships are “natural” at the age of puberty, the important thing is to learn about the “responsibilities of love, and information to prevent … unintended pregnancy, HIVs and STIs.”

Karaoke videos that play on televisions in buses and even the simplest cafes show romantic partners ending their lives over relationship problems.

“KTV songs and dances are about love, broken hearts and marriage,” explains Srun, adding that most music videos depict couples killing or hurting themselves as a solution to their problems.

But counselors working round the clock in Cambodia hope the new technology-savvy mode of sex education will remind youth that love does not have to end in tragedy.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Cash-Strapped Human Rights Office at Breaking Point, Says New Chief Thu, 16 Oct 2014 21:47:50 +0000 Thalif Deen Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at the opening of the 27th session of the Human Rights Council on Sep. 8, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at the opening of the 27th session of the Human Rights Council on Sep. 8, 2014 in Geneva, Switzerland. Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

By Thalif Deen

After six weeks in office, the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan launched a blistering attack on member states for insufficient funding, thereby forcing operations in his office to the breaking point “in a world that seems to be lurching from crisis to ever-more dangerous crisis.”

“I am already having to look at making cuts because of our current financial situation,” he told reporters Thursday, pointing out while some U.N. agencies have budgets of over a billion dollars, the office of the UNHCHR has a relatively measly budget of 87 million dollars per year for 2014 and 2015."I have been asked to use a boat and a bucket to cope with a flood." -- U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein

“I have been asked to use a boat and a bucket to cope with a flood,” he said, even as the Human Rights Council and the Security Council saddles the cash-strapped office with new fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry – with six currently underway and a seventh “possibly round the corner.”

Jens Martens, director of the Global Policy Forum (GPF) in Bonn, told IPS that governments treat the United Nations like firefighters.

“They call them to a fire but don’t give them the water to extinguish the fire and then blame the firefighters for their failure,” he said.

Martens welcomed the “the powerful statement” by the UNHCHR, describing it as a wake-up call for governments to take responsibility and finally provide the necessary funding for the United Nations.

Martens said for many years, Western governments, led by the United States, have insisted on a zero-growth doctrine for U.N. core budget.

“They bear major responsibility for the chronic weakness of the U.N. to respond to global challenges and crises,” he added.

The Office of the UNHCHR depends on voluntary contributions from member states to cover almost all of its field activities worldwide, as well as essential support work at its headquarters in Geneva.

“Despite strong backing from many donors, the level of contributions is not keeping pace with the constantly expanding demands of my Office,” Zeid said.

Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, told IPS the dramatic gap between the demands on the U.N. human rights office and the resources it has available is unsustainable.

“It’s time for states to match their commitment to human rights by providing the resources needed for the High Commissioner and his team to do their jobs,” she said.

Renzo Pomi, Amnesty International’s representative at the United Nations, told IPS it is wrong that the office of the UNHCHR’s core and mandated activities are not fully funded from the U.N.’s regular budget.

This, despite the fact, – as the High Commissioner himself points out – human rights are regularly described as one of the three pillars of the United Nations (along with development and peace and security).

Pomi said the office receives just over three percent of the U.N.’s regular budget.

“That makes for a short pillar and a badly aligned roof. U.N. member states should make sure that its core and mandated activities are properly funded,” he added.

Singling out the cash-crisis in the World Health Organisation (WHO), Martens told IPS a recent example is the weakness of WHO in responding to the Ebola pandemic.

Due to budget constraints WHO had to cut the funding for its outbreak and crisis response programme by more than 50 percent in the last two years.

It’s a scandal that the fraction of the regular budget allocation for human rights is less than 100 million dollars per year, and that the Office of the High Commissioner is mainly dependent on voluntary contributions.

Human Rights cannot be promoted and protected on a mere voluntary basis.

He said voluntary, and particularly earmarked, contributions are often not the solution but part of the problem.

Earmarking tends to turn U.N. agencies, funds and programmes into contractors for bilateral or public-private projects, eroding the multilateral character of the system and undermining democratic governance, said Martens.

“In order to provide global public goods, we need sufficient global public funds,” he said.

Therefore, member states must overcome their austerity policy towards the United Nations.

For many years Global Policy Forum has been calling for sufficient and predictable U.N. funding from governments, said Martens. In light of current global challenges and crises this call is more urgent than ever before, he added.

Zeid told reporters human rights are currently under greater pressure than they have been in a long while. “Our front pages and TV and computer screens are filled with a constant stream of presidents and ministers talking of conflict and human rights violations, and the global unease about the proliferating crises is palpable.”

He said the U.N. human rights system is asked to intervene in those crises, to investigate allegations of abuses, to press for accountability and to teach and encourage, so as to prevent further violations.

But time and time again “we have been instructed to do these and other major extra activities within existing resources,” said Zeid, a former Permanent Representative of Jordan to the United Nations.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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OPINION: On Reproductive Rights, Progress with Concerns Wed, 01 Oct 2014 16:29:45 +0000 Joseph Chamie Contraceptives on sale at a store in Sanaa, Yemen. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS

Contraceptives on sale at a store in Sanaa, Yemen. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS

By Joseph Chamie
NEW YORK, Oct 1 2014 (IPS)

For most of human history, reproductive rights essentially meant men and women accepting the number, timing and spacing of their children, as well as possible childlessness. All this changed radically in the second half of the 20th century with the introduction of new medical technologies aimed at both preventing and assisting human reproduction.

Those technologies ushered in historic changes in reproductive rights and behaviour that continue to reverberate around the world, giving rise to increasingly complex theological, ethical and legal concerns that need to be addressed.New reproductive technologies have given rise to serious theological, ethical and legal concerns that have not been satisfactorily addressed.

Up until around the middle of the past century, reproductive rights were limited. The available birth control methods were rhythm, coitus interruptus (withdrawal), condoms and for some, the diaphragm.

Those methods in too many instances were unreliable and not considered user friendly. Also, while induced abortion has been practiced for ages, it was a drastic, dangerous and largely unlawful medical procedure.

In 1960, the oral contraceptive pill was introduced, dramatically transforming women’s reproductive rights and behaviour. In addition to the pill, modern methods of family planning, including the intra uterine device (IUD), injectables, implants, emergency contraceptive pills and sterilisation, have given women and men effective control over procreation.

Modern contraceptives have contributed to major changes in sexual behaviour and marriage. Women empowered with modern contraception can choose without the fear of pregnancy whether to have sexual relationships, enabling them to postpone childbearing or avoid it altogether.

And instead of marriage, cohabitation has become increasingly prevalent among many young couples, especially in industrialised countries.

The use of modern contraceptives also facilitated a rapid decline in family size worldwide. Between 1950 and the close of the 20th century, the world’s total fertility rate fell from five children per woman to nearly half that level.

Every major region of the world experienced fertility declines during that half century, with the greatest occurring in Asia and Latin America and the smallest in Africa.

With improved medical techniques, changing social norms and grassroots movements, induced abortion also became increasingly legalised globally. Although some remain strongly opposed to induced abortion, nearly all industrialised countries have passed laws ensuring a woman’s right to abortion.

Also at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), 179 governments indicated their commitment to prevent unsafe abortion and in circumstances where abortion is not against the law, such abortion should be made safe.

Reproductive rights to terminate a pregnancy, however, have also led to excess female fetus abortions. Particularly widespread in China and India, their sex ratios at birth of 117 and 111 boys per 100 girls are blatantly higher than the typical sex ratio at birth of around 106.

Consequently, the numbers of young “surplus males” unable to find brides are more than 35 million in China and 25 million in India.

The introduction in 1970 of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) – fertilisation in a laboratory by mixing sperm with eggs surgically removed from an ovary followed by uterine implantation – radically altered the basic evolutionary process of human reproduction.

IVF provides childless couples the right and means to have biological children. It is estimated that more than five million IVF babies have followed since the birth of the first “test-tube baby” in 1978.

However, IVF has also raised ethical concerns. In addition to creating a pregnancy through “artificial” means, IVF has become a massive commercial industry prone to serious abuses and exploitation of vulnerable couples in the desire to make profits from childbearing.

IVF also permits gestational surrogacy, which extends reproductive rights to same-sex couples. In contrast to traditional surrogacy, where the surrogate is the actual mother, gestational surrogacy allows the surrogate to be unrelated to the baby with the egg coming from the intended mother or donor.

While those who are childless have a right to have biological children, gestational surrogacy raises challenging ethical questions, such as the exploitation of poor women, as well as complex legal issues, especially when transactions cross international borders.

In 1997, the cloning – or propagation by self-replication rather than through sexual reproduction – of the first mammal, Dolly the sheep, was achieved. The birth of Dolly was a major reproductive development.

Following the cloning of Dolly, scores of other animals, including fish, mice, cows, horses, dogs and monkeys, have been successfully cloned. These developments suggest that in the near future some humans may wish to assert their reproductive rights to be cloned, again raising serious theological, ethical and legal questions.

Among the transhumanist reproductive technologies imagined in the more distant future, one that stands out is ectogenesis, or the development of a fetus outside the human womb in an artificial uterus.

While ectogenesis may expand the extent of fetal viability, free women from childbearing and expand reproductive rights, it poses serious, unexplored medical, ethical and legal issues.

During the past half-century remarkable technological progress has been made in human reproduction. As a result of this medical progress, women and men have acquired wide-ranging reproductive rights and technologies to determine the number, timing and spacing of their children and to overcome childlessness with biological offspring.

The new reproductive technologies, however, have also given rise to serious theological, ethical and legal concerns that have not been satisfactorily addressed. Anticipated future medical breakthroughs in human reproduction make it even more imperative for the international community of nations to address the growing challenges and concerns regarding reproductive technologies and rights.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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U.N. Urged to Reaffirm Reproductive Rights in Post-2015 Agenda Fri, 19 Sep 2014 21:32:25 +0000 Thalif Deen Millions of women in Pakistan do not have access to family planning services. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

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

By Thalif Deen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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LGBT Visibility in Africa Also Brings Backlash Tue, 09 Sep 2014 10:48:52 +0000 Joel Jaeger Kenyan LGBT rights supporters protest Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law. Credit: Dai Kurokawa/EPA

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

By Joel Jaeger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man ended up contracting HIV/AIDS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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