Archive for October 17th, 2008
The controversial Women on Waves foundation is on its way to Spain in order to carry out abortions in the international waters off the coast of Spain.
The foundation’s ‘abortion boat’ is to dock at Valencia harbour on Thursday. Up till next Monday, the organisation intends to help Spanish women who wish to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The boat will sail out to extra territorial waters where the Spanish laws do not apply.
The Women on Waves boat is sailing under the Dutch flag. This means the Dutch law applies on board, which permits abortion under certain circumstances.
Past visits of Women on Waves to Ireland, Poland and Portugal caused quite a stir. In spite of Dutch pressure, Portugal several years ago barred the boat from docking in its harbours. Their visit is also controversial in Spain. “Catholic groups are now trying to make it impossible for us to dock there”, Women on Waves reported.
Women on Waves visits Spain at the invitation of 33 Spanish organisations concerned with a better abortion law. The ship will arrive the 16th of October at 17.00 in the yacht harbor of Valencia (former America’s Cup).
After much debate, mounting pressure from the Catholic Church and attempted legislative amendments, the Victorian Abortion Law Reform Bill was passed unamended by the Victorian Upper House on October 10.
A week earlier, on October 4, more than 200 people had rallied to support the bill, which would finally decriminalise abortion in Victoria. The rally was called to mobilise the strong pro-choice sentiment in Victoria in the lead-up to the bill being tabled in the Upper House on October 7.
Speakers at the rally included Colleen Hartland, Greens MLC, Resistance member Kimberly Yu and representatives from Socialist Alternative and Radical Women.
Hartland expressed the importance of never going back to women being forced into having backyard abortions, which can cause infections, maiming and death, as a result of lack of access due to abortion being a crime.
Hartland said polls suggested 80% of Australians support a woman’s right to choose, and called on representatives in parliament to reflect this.
Yu pointed out that although the current bill would be a step in the right direction in that it removes the act of abortion from the Crimes act, it still places restrictions on a woman’s rights to choose to have an abortion at any stage of the pregnancy. [See Yu’s speech on page 9.]
Other key points raised included the fact that it is often working-class women who may not have access to or be able to afford to have an abortion — but if a woman can’t afford an abortion how can she be expected to afford to raise a child? This highlights the importance of woman having control over their own bodies, including access to safe, free, legal abortion.
In the lead up to the Upper House debate, “pro-life” groups stepped up their public campaign to keep abortion as a crime. They held a 2000-strong rally on October 5, covering the city with posters depicting a foetus at different stages of pregnancy and sending abusive letters and messages to pro-choice MLCs.
The anti-abortion campaign, realising it could no longer stop the bill completely, then turned its attention towards amending the legislation.
Over 70 amendments were proposed in the Upper House, including mandatory counselling, parental consent, and removing the need for doctors with a “conscientious objection” to refer women onto another doctor without such an objection.
In recent weeks, the last amendment had been the focus of much media attention, with the Catholic Church threatening to shut down maternity wards in Catholic hospitals if they were forced to refer women to doctors who could provide them with an abortion.
The amendments were aimed at imposing further restrictions on women’s rights. The fact that the bill was passed unamended is a victory for the campaign for women to have control of their bodies.
A bill currently under review by the parliament in Lithuania–which has one of the lowest abortion rates among Baltic nations–would create one of the most restrictive bans in all of Europe.
The bill–formally called the Draft Act of the Republic of Lithuania on the Protection of Human Life in the Prenatal Stage–is currently pending review by the Health Committee, which is expected to wait until after the Oct. 12 parliamentary elections to present its conclusions and recommendations.
Proponents of the ban have kept it low on the political agenda and have successfully avoided making it a major issue during the election campaign.
Women’s rights activists have sought to raise awareness about the bill and its impact as they fear it will be adopted in a rush and without a real and open debate in society if socially conservative parties win the elections.
The draft–strongly backed by the Catholic Church–says “all issues on the protection of life in the prenatal stage should be considered as giving priority to the rights of a child.”
Exceptions to the ban would only apply when a pregnancy endangers the life or health of the woman, when a pregnancy is caused by a criminal act or when the fetus has been diagnosed with a severe disability.
Abortion is currently illegal in three of the 27 European Union countries. In Malta abortion is prohibited in all circumstances; specific provisions allowing an abortion to save the woman’s life were removed from the criminal code in 1981. Abortion has been illegal in Ireland since 1861 and is only permitted to save the life of the woman. Poland first restricted abortion in 1993 following the end of Communist Party rule and reaffirmed its opposition to abortion in 1997.
Soviet Era Abortion Law
Under existing law a Lithuanian woman can choose to legally terminate an unwanted pregnancy for any reason up to the 12th week, as in most Western countries. The current legislation has been inherited from its status as a republic in the former Soviet Union and has not been changed since the country’s independence in 1991.
Among its neighbors, Lithuania has a relatively low abortion rate, spurring the Lithuanian Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which does not support abortion as a pregnancy regulation method, to nonetheless question the purpose of the bill. There were 14 abortions per 1,000 Lithuanian women aged 15 to 45 in 2004, far below neighboring Estonia and Latvia, where the rates, respectively, were 33 and 27 abortions per 1,000 women.
Algimantas Ramonas, chair of the National Families and Parents Association of Lithuania, is one of the bill’s strong supporters.
“Every child has the right to be born and to live,” he told Women’s eNews. “Of course a woman has the right to decide on her sexual life and plan her family, but she also has responsibilities. A pregnant woman has a human being inside her, which is not just another part of her body, and she should be proud of it.”
On the other side of the bill, Esmeralda Kuliestyle, director of the Vilnius-based Family Planning and Sexual Health Association, decries it as a violation of women’s freedom to make their own decisions.
“This is a very dangerous step for Lithuanian women,” says Kuliestyle. “It could lead to serious health complications and even to an increase in the maternal mortality rate because of illegal and unsafe abortions.”
Authors Sit on Review Committees
While earlier versions of the draft legislation were judged unconstitutional by the parliament’s legal affairs committee, the latest draft has been approved by this committee and, last April, also by the human rights committee. Two of the five original authors of the bill sit on these committees.
The authors justify their proposal, saying the bill “reflects the teaching of the Catholic Church and John Paul II.”
Kuliestyle objects to the heavy involvement of the Catholic Church in the matter.
“Priests are everywhere: They appear on television, on the radio, in newspapers and even on the Internet,” she says. “They say that using contraceptive methods is immoral and that abortion is a crime. They have too much influence, particularly on politicians.”
The Catholic Church has traditionally played an important role in Lithuania. During Soviet occupation, the church’s underground activities in support of dissidents were a major asset in the struggle for the country’s independence. Since then, its influence on society has remained high.
The draft law has been criticized for its vagueness, as it does not clearly state which criminal sanctions women and doctors involved with illegal abortions would face. Because the bill seeks to amend the criminal code and would therefore establish a criminal link between abortion and murder, judges would have discretion to sentence violators of the law to several years’ imprisonment.
70 Percent Opposed to Criminalization
A survey conducted by the Family Planning and Sexual Health Association shows that, while most Lithuanians would personally prefer to avoid terminating pregnancies, more than 70 percent of the population regards abortion as matter of individual choice and opposes criminalization.
Authors of the bill take both a moral and practical stance, arguing that abortion indicates a “low moral level of society and a critical demographic situation” in Lithuania. The population in the country has continuously declined–by an average of half a percentage point annually–since the beginning of the 1990s, and the total fertility rate decreased from two children per woman in 1990 to 1.3 children in 2006. Supporters of the bill say an abortion ban would encourage population growth.
Kuliestyle rejects that, arguing that its main effect will be to discriminate against lower-income women. “No matter if abortion is legal or not, women who decide to abort will do it anyway. Those who can afford it will travel to nearby countries where the law isn’t so strict. Others who don’t have money will turn to unsafe underground operations and put their health at risk.”
Since neighboring Poland, a country looked upon by supporters of the legislation in Lithuania, passed its strict abortion ban in 1993, the total fertility rate fell to 1.23 births per woman in 2006 from a higher rate of 2.04 births per woman in 1990. This situation mirrors a general trend in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.
Earlier this year 110 members of the European Parliament–out of 785–sent a letter to Lithuanian deputies urging them to reject the bill, describing it as a “serious backlash on women’s reproductive health rights in Lithuania.”
Women’s rights advocates worry that the bill will be passed as anti-choice factions gain ground at the expense of progressive women’s rights.
In June the Lithuanian parliament redefined “family” exclusively as a married, heterosexual couple and their children. As a result, single mothers or fathers, unmarried partners and grandparents raising children no longer constitute a family or qualify for the same level of government assistance as a “traditional family.”
By Elisabeth Roy Trudel – a freelance journalist from Montreal, Canada, who frequently writes on human rights and social issues.
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In a bid to curb the growing pace of female feticide, India is mulling offering cash incentives to the families of baby girls in an effort to limit the number of sex-selective abortions in favor of boys.
The plan, presented to the cabinet in March but still under review, stipulates that a girl’s family will get financial benefits worth around $5,000, including health insurance, until she is 18, if she is sent to school and remains unmarried.
If approved it would authorize the government to spend around $2.5 million in the coming year, with grants focused on families in 10 districts of the states of Punjab, Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa.
Manjula Krishnan, economic advisor for the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare, said the plan targets families whose incomes put them below the poverty line and will encourage these families to look upon girls as an asset rather than a liability.
Traditionally, girls have lower family status; boys carry the family name and don’t require dowry payments.
But Dr. Sabu George, a leading critic of medical sex selection, says the government could help curb the practice by doing more to enforce the country’s 14-year-old anti-feticide law.
“As of now, doctors are convinced that they won’t be caught by law-enforcing agencies. And till the law is enforced, no scheme is going to have any impact,” says George, a researcher with the Center for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes, a voluntary organization based in Mumbai. This past August he filed a case in Supreme Court against three U.S.-based firms–Google India, Yahoo India and a division of Microsoft Corporation–for providing sex-determination information on the Web in violation of the law.
The initiative’s focus on low-income families is also called into question by a 2006 study in the Lancet, the British medical journal, finding abortion for the purpose of male selection most rampant in families who are better educated and affluent enough to afford both diagnostic procedures and dowries. Selective abortions may result in 500,000 abortions of female fetuses a year, according to the research, which was based on a national survey of over 1 million households in 1998.
India’s adult sex ratio is 933 females per 1,000 males, according to 2001 census figures. In more affluent states like Punjab, Delhi, Rajasthan and Haryana the ratio is even lower. All of these states have fewer than 875 females per 1,000 males.
India’s child sex ratio is even more imbalanced: 927 girls for every 1,000 boys under age 6, as opposed to the worldwide average of 1,050 girls for every 1,000 boys. (In most circumstances worldwide, more girls are born and more boys die in the first year of life.)
One area of Punjab, India’s wealthiest state, has just 300 girls to every 1,000 boys, according to a June 23 report issued by the London-based charity Action Aid and the International Development Research Center, based in Ottawa, Canada. The groups also say that the gender ratio in five states is becoming more skewed since the 2001 census.
Abortion became legal in India with the passage of a 1971 law allowing doctors to perform the procedure at any time before 20 weeks of gestation.
But female feticide–defined as misusing techniques to determine the sex of a fetus for the purpose of aborting those that are female–has been prohibited since 1994 under the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, which bans doctors from revealing the sex of a fetus to prospective parents.
Since 1994, only 350 cases have been filed under the law. Of those, 226 were for running a clinic without registration, 37 for revealing the sex of the fetus and 27 for advertising sex-selection services.
Penalties for doctors who abort a healthy female fetus after a sex-selection test are imprisonment for up to three years and a fine up to $250. This is increased to five years and $2,500 for subsequent offenses. Doctors may be suspended from practicing if convicted.
The law also focuses on pregnant women and her family members who undertake sex-selective abortions as well, providing for a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 rupees, about $250.
In March, prominent New Delhi gynecologist Dr. Mangala Telang was arrested and her medical license suspended after she was recorded by the BBC taking money in exchange for information about the sex of a fetus. She faces charges under the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act.
Previously, only one case resulted in prosecution, when a doctor was sentenced to two years in prison in 2006 and fined about $125, according to media reports.
In August, a New Delhi doctor, Mitu Khurana, brought a lawsuit against her husband, also a doctor, and his parents for illegally obtaining the sex-selection test and pressuring her to abort. Today she is a mother of twin girls. The case is still under investigation.
George and other activists accuse doctors of drumming up patient demand for sex-selection procedures and want it declared as medical malpractice.
But one doctor who declined to be named denied that. “We do it because there is demand for sex selection in the country,” the doctor told Women’s eNews. “Do you think we would be able to conduct sex-selection abortions if couples do not want it? If I don’t do it somebody else will.”
“Sex-selective abortions are an organized mass medical crime,” says George, who has been researching female feticide for more than two decades. “Doctors and medical practitioners are doing it for money and they are convinced that they are not going to get caught.”
Because it is so easy to find doctors to conduct the illegal sex-diagnostic tests–some advertise openly–George regards the government as lax in monitoring the practice.
Other officials have proposed a variety of crackdowns and incentives to curb the crime.
Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss has advocated in March for a life sentence for doctors who perform sex-selective abortions.
The Ministry for Women and Child Development plans to offer cash incentive to district magistrates who are able to control the skewed sex ratio in their area, but has not offered a specific timeline for implementing the program.
By Gagandeep – a freelance writer based in New Delhi writing mainly on development issues.
Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The East Timorese Ministry of Justice is preparing a penal code that would decriminalize many abortions, but with little visible public support and no public debate, civic groups are questioning the law’s origins.
The law, which is similar to abortion laws in Australia, Timor’s southern neighbor, and Portugal, East Timor’s former colonial power, would make abortions available to women if the pregnancy threatened the life, physical or mental health of the mother.
East Timor does not have its own penal code and instead relies on an old Indonesian penal code. That penal code outlaws abortion.
Fernanda Borges, the only female party leader in parliament, has accused foreign legal advisers and the UN of pushing the law against the will of Timor’s 1 million people, the majority of whom are devoutly Catholic.
“People like [the UN Population Fund] think it’s great because it’ll reduce population size, but that’s not the point,” Borges said. “The point is development.”
The UN Population Fund has been working in East Timor since the country’s break from Indonesia in 1999, but agency representative Hernando Agudelo said it does not promote abortion.
“We are respectful of cultural principles in this country,” he said. “In Timor the people are against abortion, so we must respect this culture’s beliefs.”
Agudelo said the agency had never been consulted about any abortion laws and he believed the law was written by Portuguese legal advisers within the ministry.
Borges said she, too, suspected Portuguese advisers had a hand in the abortion law as Portugal just passed a similar law last year.
Borges called the abortion law, “a Western thing. I’m against the idea of Western culture that says abortions are a way to reduce population size.”
Even Timorese women’s leaders who have pushed publicly for decriminalization say there ought to have been more public debate on the draft.
“The public should have a say in this because it affects our culture,” said Merita Alves, the head of the East Timor’s Popular Women Organization the oldest women’s rights group in the country.
Last week the draft penal code went before the parliament.
Under the Constitution the parliament has the right to debate the draft code and can approve or reject it. But the parliament chose to give authority to the justice ministry instead.
Alves said her group would support a law like the one in the draft code, but no one from the ministry had spoken with her group.
“They haven’t asked our opinion and there’s not yet been any debate,” she said. “I think the government should at least open itself up to have a debate about this.”
Non-Jamaicans will be allowed to make submissions to a parliamentary committee when another round of intense debate on abortion begins later this month.
A joint select committee has been set up to consider the recommendations of the Abortion Policy Review Group. As part of this exercise, the committee is expected to receive comments on the proposals from 53 persons.
During a meeting of the committee it was disclosed that nationals and non-nationals have expressed a desire to appear before Parliament to make presentations.
On October 23, six pro-abortion activists will present their views on the subject, while the following week, a similar number of anti-abortion groups will submit their proposals.
The committee members were divided on the issue of whether overseas nationals should be allowed to make presentations to the committee.
Opposition Senator Sandrea Falconer said she had no problem with Jamaicans in the diaspora participating in the discussion on abortion, but objected to non-Jamaican nationals appearing before the committee.
Lisa Hanna, opposition member of parliament, disagreed with her colleague, saying other jurisdictions had examined recommendations for and against abortion and could share valuable information on their experiences.
“We are now in a critical time where I think it would be helpful to listen to some of the constraints and also the help they received,” she added.
Senator Dwight Nelson said the idea of foreign nationals influencing local legislation was not without precedence. He said Jamaica participated in talks at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), where conventions were agreed on by some 150 countries.
“They sit down in Geneva and decide on conventions which influence legislation in Jamaica,” he said.
However, Government MP and attorney-at-law Laurie Broderick warned against a liberal approach in fashioning legislation. He questioned whether the country would allow non-nationals to make submissions on the upcoming debate on whether to retain the death penalty in Jamaica.
“We would be subjected to a barrage of views out of the EU (European Union) countries, which may not relate or pertain to our social needs or problems,” he said.
Government MP St Aubyn Bartlett supported Falconer’s position, urging the committee not to invite other nationals to make presentations in Gordon House.
He, however, said the committee should review their written submissions.
Chairman of the committee, Rudyard Spencer, ruled that both Jamaicans and non-nationals would be given an opportunity to appear before the committee.
The committee agreed on a massive public education programme on abortion-related issues and consultations are to be held islandwide to give Jamaicans an opportunity to take part in the debate.
See also Safe and legal abortion is a woman’s human right
DAWN (Development Alternatives With Women for a New era) – Caribbean chapter
The Bush administration has taken action against an international charity in Africa over work it does in China, a step the group says is politically motivated and dangerous for poor African women and girls.
The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development denied the charges but said that they had told six African governments to stop giving U.S.-donated contraceptives to the British-based Marie Stopes International family planning organization for distribution to their needy populations.
The move affects Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe and follows a determination by USAID that the organization is a major player in a U.N. program in China that the administration says promotes coerced abortion and sterilization.
“Given these circumstances, USAID made the policy decision to inform governments in these countries that it does not want USAID-funded commodities to be provided to Marie Stopes International,” the State Department, which oversees USAID, said in a statement.
The United States does not give any direct assistance to the group but it is a leading family planning health provider and one of several distributors of U.S.-donated “contraceptive commodities” — including condoms and intrauterine devices — in some of Africa’s least developed countries.
Under U.S. law, the government must withhold assistance to agencies and groups found to support or participate in management of family planning programs abroad that involve abortion and coerced sterilization.
Marie Stopes International, one of the world’s largest family planning organizations, complained bitterly about the step, which it said was “purely political” and “dangerous” because it could result in more abortions, maternal deaths and health problems for poor African women and girls.
“Only the Bush administration could find logic in the idea that they can somehow reduce abortion and promote choice for women in China by causing more abortion and gutting choice for women in Africa,” it said. “This senseless decision is likely to have only one clear consequence: the death of African women and girls.”
The State Department and USAID denied the charge, noting that the same amount of U.S.-donated contraceptive supplies would be sent to the countries in question and that they “will do everything possible,” to make sure the contraceptives are distributed in the same countries by other groups.
“Any assertion that the USAID decision … will likely increase abortions and maternal deaths is false,” they said. “USAID is working with governments in the affected countries to ensure that our commodities reach the women and men who need them.”
Since 2002 the Bush administration has refused to release $34 million in annual funding to the U.N. Population Fund because of its activities in China despite protests that the programs do not promote abortion or forced sterilization.
Only Republican administrations have enforced the Reagan-era Kemp-Kasten amendment and it has been a political hot potato in Congress for years, pitting abortion rights advocates against abortion foes. But it has not thus far been an issue in this year’s presidential race.
Press Release from Marie Stopes International:
USAID bans contraceptive supplies to leading family planning organisation
Decision likely to result in MORE abortions and maternal deaths in Africa, says MSI
The Conservative government is eroding women’s reproductive health and right to abortion “by stealth,” a group of advocates representing labour and women’s rights charged this morning.
“There is a clear anti-abortion hidden agenda at work that puts women’s health at risk,” said Carolyn Egan, of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.
At a news conference, the groups representing the Canadian Labour Congress, the Quebec Federation for Family Planning, and the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, called on all individual candidates and party leaders to clearly state their views, and their political intentions, challenging them to oppose any moves to extend “personhood” or legal rights to fetuses.
They did not limit their criticism to the Conservatives, but reserved especially harsh comments for the government after its announcement, in August, that it would bring forward a bill this fall to allow harsher penalties for offenders who cause injury or death to a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman.
They also pointed to the Conservative government’s failure to force New Brunswick to publicly pay for abortion procedures in a Fredericton clinic. The previous Liberal government also refused to sanction the N.B. government under the Canada Health Act.
In addition, the women cited two other private member’s bills to ban abortion after 20 weeks, and to absolve “pro-life” health practitioners who refuse to refer women to legal abortion procedures, which Egan said is a “serious violation of medical ethics” that puts women’s health at risk.
“We represent the pro-choice majority in this country that fought and won women’s right to abortion and we will not stand idly by while these rights are eroded,” said Egan.
Barbara Byers, of the Canadian Labour Congress, said she believed Prime Minister Stephen Harper, known for his tight control of his caucus, realized the implications of the private member’s bill that claimed its objective was to express society’s abhorrence of crimes against pregnant women, not to re-criminalize abortion.
“Don’t tell me and don’t try and convince me that he didn’t realize this was going to be chipping away at women’s reproductive rights and it was a backdoor way to get what he wants anyhow,” said Byers.
Byers said she believed a Conservative majority would chip away at the status quo which – since 1988 when Parliament failed to re-legislate against abortion after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down an old law – allows publicly funded abortions.
“My sense is it’s going to be done by stealth,” she said, pointing to the U.S. where various measures such as those that curb late-term abortions are restricting the right to abortion.
In August, the Conservative government said it would rewrite a private member’s bill that had passed second reading with the support of several Liberal MPs, in order to address the question of whether it would recriminalize abortion in any way.
At the time, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the government’s re-written version – not tabled – would replace C-484, the Unborn Victims of Crime Act, and would make the injury or death of a fetus an aggravating circumstance for judges to consider during sentencing. He said the government’s bill “leaves no room for the introduction of fetal rights.”
Egan said it would re-open the debate over abortion “under the guise of stopping violence against women.”
The groups have sent a 9-page questionnaire to all parties demanding to know where they stand on different questions of abortion rights and violence against women.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion described himself today as in favour of a “the right of women to choose” abortion. “As prime minister, I will protect this right,” he told reporters, and called on Harper to clarify his position.
“Where is Mr. Harper? He needs to make his view clear because Canadians have the right to know.”
Dion stumbled when he identified himself as “pro-life.” An aide later clarified that he meant to say “pro-choice.”
March for abortion rights part of pan-Canadian day of action
Harper leads Conservative party to Canada election win (15th October 2008)
Ending years of debate and delay, Gov. David A. Paterson last month signed into law a bill shielding sexually exploited girls and boys from being charged with prostitution.
The law, known as the Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act, will divert children under the age of 18 who have been arrested for prostitution into counseling and treatment programs, provided they agree to aid in the prosecution of their pimps.
It has been the subject of intense debate in the State Legislature and beyond, and was opposed by some law enforcement officials and by the Bloomberg administration, which argued that the bill would make it harder to crack down on prostitution.
But the bill’s backers said it was wrong to treat under-age prostitutes — many forced into the sex trade and kept there with physical threats and abuse — as criminals rather than victims.
“For too long, these young people have been sexually exploited by pimps and predators, and then exploited again by state law, which treated them as criminals instead of victims,” said Assemblyman William Scarborough, a Queens Democrat who sponsored the bill.
The legislation passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly several times in recent years but died in the Republican-controlled State Senate, most recently because of disagreement over language addressing whether judges would have any discretion over diverting criminal charges.
But supporters agreed to add provisions this year that allow charges to be reinstated if the arrested child refuses counseling or declines to cooperate with court mandates, like testifying against sex traffickers. The new law will also prevent anyone who has already been through the program from avoiding prosecution for later prostitution offenses.
Abandoned as a child in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s murderous reign, Somaly Mam has no memory of her family and doesn’t know her true age or name. But she recalls when she was sold to a brothel.
She traces a dramatic and haunting journey from sex slave to crusader against forced prostitution in her newly released memoir, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” which reads like a Dickensian tale of triumph over adversity.
Remarkably, she does not see her path from a remote mountain region of Cambodia to an international campaigner as awe-inspiring.
“I never feel that way, I’m still Somaly. I used to work in the fields and now I help victims,” she told Reuters in an interview.
Born in the early 1970s, she fleetingly recalls the Khmer Rouge’s rule, when an estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died of torture, starvation or disease during a disastrous four-year agrarian revolution in the late 1970s.
Set adrift, she was taken in by an elderly man whom she called “grandfather,” an honorific title that belied his cruel character. When she was about 16 years old, he sold her to a brothel to pay off his debts.
Held captive for years, she watched in horror as the brothel owner one day shot a girl in the head for insolence — one of many acts of violence in Cambodia’s notorious sex trade where poor families sometimes sell a daughter to pay debts.
Laws to prevent abuse against women are poorly enforced.
With the help of a Swiss patron employed by a nongovernmental organization, Mam paid the brothel owner $100 to let her go, one of the few ways women can leave safely.
At his hotel, she experienced her first hot shower. “He … turned on a shiny thing, like a snake, and it flashed to life, spitting at me … That was the first time I ever used proper soap, and I remember how good it smelled, like a flower,” she writes.
Mam eventually married and lived in France for a time before returning to Cambodia determined to help “the girls” in whatever way she could. She started by distributing condoms and soap — both of which were rarely available in Cambodia’s brothels.
Shunned in their home villages, Mam and others formed a shelter for women and girls, the Agir pour les Femmes En Situation Precaire — Acting for Women in Distressing Situations (AFESIP).
The largely Spanish-funded grass-roots group expanded to neighboring Thailand and Laos, providing counseling, shelter and education on AIDS prevention. Its members also speak to men on the perils facing girls in the sex trade.
Future Group, a nongovernmental organization that combats human trafficking, estimates the number of prostitutes and sex slaves in Cambodia at up to 50,000, with at least 1 in 40 girls born in Cambodia expected to be sold into sex slavery.
Today, Mam travels the world raising money for the Somaly Mam Foundation to draw attention to forced prostitution, estimating that 2 million to 4 million women and children will be sold into the global sex trade in the next 12 months.
Legalization of prostitution is not the answer, she said, at least not in Cambodia.
“Women are not toys,” she said. “All of us, we need equality. If you want to live with dignity, it is without prostitution, without this violence.”
Fighting to close notorious brothels made her enemies in Cambodia. Shelters run by her group have come under armed attack and women have been abducted.
In 2006, Mam’s teen-age daughter was kidnapped. She was eventually rescued, but Mam still faces threats in her battle against underworld figures who control the trade. Undaunted, she says the work is too important to walk away from.
“You know, these victims and me — we have the same heart, the same body, the same pain,” she said. “It’s not just Cambodia. If I can help around the world, I’ll do it.”
Raped, tortured and intimidated, women in Zimbabwe have been recognised by the world as tragic victims of political violence. But, their visibility and political needs could quickly disappear once peace is established.
According to gender advocates, youth militia, government-aligned thugs and other pro-Mugabe elements have targeted women, particularly in rural areas. There are consistent reports of doctors and medics refusing these women treatment for fear of reprisals.
These echo years of reports accusing the youth militia of consistent, politically motivated mass rape against women – including those at the youth camps. In addition, women have been victims of the general political violence: murders, beatings, burnings, torture and their bodies mutilated.
The end of Zanu (PF) political rule will not mean the automatic undoing of its organs of violence and repression. Beyond the very narrow interests represented at government level (those of political parties, not a national dialogue), there are questions about what a political change will mean and look like.
All the efforts to find a political solution in Zimbabwe focus on important, but short-term, goals – most notably establishing a new government under a power-sharing deal. However, political questions and challenges resonate much further, with the need for truth, accountability, and justice – for both men and women – to stay firmly on the agenda.
Zimbabwean women have had a distinct, identifiable, political presence for a long time – and not just as victims. Vice-President Joyce Mujuru – like other Zimbabwean women – has a long, prominent history in the country, from the days of chimurenga to post-independence political power and her current position. On the other side, the political violence and repression has also had a visibly female response and resistance through groups like WOZA (Women of Zimbabwe Arise) and other women’s groups, as well as the ‘dignity campaign’ for women.
However, the danger is that women are only deemed relevant now because they are politically useful as victims of violence, and are useful and visible metaphors of the repression. If peace deals across the continent (and elsewhere) are anything to go by, women’s visibility, political needs and political strength will quickly disappear from the national agenda.
There is a need for concerted work on the female dimension of Zimbabwe’s human rights abuses, otherwise female victims of political violence will find that they have outlived their political usefulness when the country draws up plans for redress, reparations and remembering this particular chapter of history.
Recognising this. the human rights organisation Aids-Free World (headed by former United Nations AIDS envoy Stephen Lewis) intends collecting testimonies of female survivors of political mass rape, which could then be used in any future transitional mechanism (an official inquiry, a truth commission or human rights trials).
Acknowledgement of wrong, redress and the restoration of dignity are important ways to afford a sense of justice. Unless there is documentation about women’s experiences, they are likely to be left out of these justice processes, as well as the history books.
Justice for women is not untested or uncharted territory. The United Nations court prosecuting those responsible for Rwanda’s genocide established rape as both a crime against humanity and an act of genocide. The prevalence of rape of Tutsi women in Rwanda – as well as in the former Yugoslavia – meant that justice mechanisms could not ignore or subsume rape as a sub-section under other crimes.
However, there are few guarantees that any transition will deal fairly – or even consider important – female-specific political crimes.
In South Africa, during the closed truth commission hearings, women did talk of their experience of political sexual violence during the anti-apartheid struggle. However, South Africa’s TRC refused to recognise rape as an act of political violence and repression – and so they have remained part of ‘women’s stories’ rather than a historically more accurate part of the political record.
Other truth commissions have had special hearings on women’s experiences of war – like in Sierra Leone – and this will most likely happen in Liberia’s current truth commission. In issues of reparations and re-integration of former combatants, women (like in Sierra Leone) have always drawn the shortest lot, and have ended up marginalised, silenced, vilified and ostracised by their communities.
In Kenya, the establishment of the new national unity government has all but silenced previous talk of investigation into the political violence. In the peace process for northern Uganda, women are demanding a real role in the talks – including raising questions on what reverting to traditional justice means for women’s rights and how reparations and re-integration affects female victims.
Overall, transitional processes still treat women as if they are a foreign entity to what is human in a country. Not only is this the result of women being marginalised throughout the world, but African women face further marginalisation by the international workers, organisations and political bodies who help in transitional processes.
Just ask any successful black woman about her experiences of the white left (including feminism) and with international organisations, and it becomes apparent that it is common practice for black women to be treated as non-humans and to be denigrated. How do these practices translate into policy when these same organisations are responsible for reconstruction efforts and efforts to restore dignity to African female victims?
The lack of acknowledgement of women in transitional processes not only further marginalises women and creates economic disadvantages when they cannot access demobilisation and reparation benefits, but it also erases them from any historical record.
Unless political sexual violence is dealt with – and male perpetrators are identified and removed from positions of power – women constantly live to see their abusers rewarded, and still holding positions in the police, army and political parties. Women’s experiences become a ‘dirty secret’ and a constant reminder of just how valueless they are to their country.
Women’s needs in political transitions are not a call to do women a favour and to condescend to them. They are equal citizens in a country – and national processes should treat them as such.
Beyond the immediate demands of a transition in Zimbabwe, the country must deal with the real questions of justice and accountability. Not in the too-hasty and glib way of saying “never again” that is the mantra of justice activists, but in the real political work of building strong institutions and a public culture that will not allow for abuses.
Any political changeover in Zimbabwe must be more than a change in government make-up; it needs to be a fundamental change in governance.
The new Zimbabwean state inherits not only the repression and abuses of the past few years, but a state that comes with the accumulated history stretching back to the Matabeleland massacres, Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) white supremacist rule and colonialism.
Unless the particular political violence visited on women is publicly given equal weight as other acts of repression, at any future political crisis in Zimbabwe the cycle of mass political rape of women will resurge, with the aching familiarity of ‘yet again’.
By Karen Williams, a journalist who works in Africa and Asia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.
Seventeen year-old Maureen* is a sex worker in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa. She moved to Mombasa six months ago from her native home of Kisii, in western Kenya. Still deeply affected by her parents’ divorce, she told IRIN PlusNews how she ended up making a living selling sex.
“Growing up, my parents used to fight so much. My dad used to get drunk and throw my mother out to spend the night outside the house. They split up and got back together many times, but it always ended badly because of his drinking.
“Eventually, when I was in Class Three [eight years old], my mom couldn’t take it anymore and left for good. My dad left us with her mother, my grandmother; he said he couldn’t look after us.
“I dropped out of school after Class Three and helped my grandma look after the younger ones.
“Last year, I started to go into Kisii town to look for money. In the bars, men would give me money and I would sleep with them. After a while, one of my friends said I was wasting my time in Kisii; she said there was much more money to be made in Mombasa.
“I came in February and started working straight away; I work on a busy street with many bars. I make more money than I did before – about 300 shillings [US $4.50] per customer, but my rent is 350 shillings [$5.30] a day, so I have to make enough for rent and food. It’s hard work but I don’t have any education or skills, so this is my only option.
“I have had to toughen up – when I first came I was green and could be easily conned. One day a man came to me in the street and paid me 1,000 shillings [$15] up front; he said he was taking me to his place, but when we got there, five other guys were there and they raped me.
“In the morning I went to the hospital and was given some medicines to take for one week. I also took an HIV test, which was negative. Since then I cannot agree to have sex without a condom, but sometimes they break or they don’t work properly. I live in fear of being infected with HIV.
“When I reported [the rape] to the police, they arrested me for being a prostitute…I was locked up for one month. After I got out I came back to my street to carry on with my work.
“I think about my brothers and sisters back home so much…I really miss them. I have been home once, but there are too many painful memories and too much hardship; I can never go back to live there.”
* A 15-year-old girl arrested on petty theft charges was left for weeks in a jail cell with 21 men, who raped her, tortured her and only allowed her food in exchange for sex.
* Her screams could be heard from the street. Yet police refused to act, and it took a tip to the local media to finally free her.
Ten police and prison officials and two inmates face up to 20 years in jail if convicted, and a verdict in the trial is expected this month. But nearly a year after the crime, the most shocking element is how normal the girl’s plight seems to many in the sweltering river port city of 78,000 at the mouth of the Amazon where she was imprisoned.
“It was her third time in jail, the only difference was this time someone noticed,” said Selma Pinheiro Serrano, a 23-year-old prostitute who knew the girl.
After the uproar of the case, the Para state governor, congressmen, and even the Brazilian president vowed to tackle the problems that caused the assault: callous, corrupt police and a jail system with few separate cells for women. The jailhouse was demolished.
Yet Para, a jungle state twice the size of France stretching inland from Brazil’s northeastern Atlantic coast, still only has six separate cells for women at its 132 jails.
Judge Clarice Maria de Andrade, who approved the girl’s imprisonment, was merely transferred to another jurisdiction without even a censure. It’s also far from clear whether the current judicial inquiry, held behind closed doors because the victim was a minor, will yield any convictions.
The Amazon is littered with such hard-luck stories and towns, where a dearth of opportunity and an abundance of lawlessness are an explosive mixture giving rise to wanton environmental destruction, land grabbing, contract killing, debt slavery and an egregious lack of concern for human rights.
“It just happened to be this girl, but it could have been any one of hundreds here in this city,” said Roman Catholic Bishop Flavio Giovenale, who has received death threats for speaking out against police involved in corruption and organized crime.
Giovenale says such abuses are so routine in Abaetetuba that when the child welfare group Guardian Council told the police chief there was an underage girl locked up in the jailhouse, he didn’t want to release her. The chief is under judicial investigation and not speaking publicly about the jailing. Guardian Council then went to the local press with the story.
Serrano says her story is much like that of the victim, who is not being identified because she was sexually assaulted. Both come from broken homes where their stepfathers abused them, forcing them out onto the streets to live among prostitutes, crooks and crack dealers preying on the river traffic.
Unemployment in Abaetetuba stands at around 70 percent, and few schools go beyond fifth grade. Drug dealing and prostitution often lure local teens, also leaving them vulnerable to police abuse.
After the scandal came to light, Gov. Ana Julia Carepa acknowledged that girls are being arrested in the state expressly to provide sexual gratification for prisoners, “an unfortunate practice that regrettably has been occurring for some time.”
She pledged then to try to stop it. But while the state is working on new jailhouses, it has mostly transferred women to other prisons, a move Amnesty International says improves conditions but leaves them even farther from their loved ones.
Abaetetuba is a major transshipment point for cocaine arriving from Colombia and heading off to Suriname and Guyana to the north. The maze of houses on stilts branching out from the town square is littered with drug spots, where a hit of cocaine paste sells for 5 reals (US$3).
“A 10-year-old running drugs can earn enough to feed his family,” said social worker Gorette Correia Sarges. “If that’s the case, the parents aren’t likely to interfere.”
Many use the upper stories of the tumbling clapboard houses along the docks as brothels. Young girls in flip-flop sandals, skimpy shorts and spandex tops sell their bodies to passing boatmen) for as little as 10 reals (US$6) a trick.
Others travel by canoe to anchored ships loading up with aluminum, where they can fetch as much as 20 reals (US$12).
It was in these environs that the 15-year-old victim was arrested for breaking into a house on Oct. 21, 2007.
Days after the scandal broke, reports of other women jailed with men began popping up across Brazil — most notably a 23-year-old woman forced to share a cell with 70 men in Paraopebas in southern Para.
None of the girls along Abaetetuba’s docks claimed to have been locked up in a cell full of men, though several could describe the jail where the girl was kept and a corridor without a toilet used to hold women. Nor did many of the girls express sympathy for the victim because she was a thief — a line they claim they would never cross.
Andre Franzini, coordinator of the Catholic Church’s Youth Pastoral, says that’s not true. “Lots of these kids rob. The girl’s problem was she kept getting caught,” he said.
When she was jailed, no one noticed she was missing because her parents were separated and living out of town, Franzini said.
Besides repeated rapes, the girl said she was tortured with lit cigarettes on her fingers and bare feet, according to the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. Jailers shaved her head to disguise her as a boy in a cell with men.
The girl said her only reprieve from rape came on Thursdays — when intimate visits were allowed — and things “calmed down,” Estado reported.
Franzini went with the girl after her release to talk with prosecutors and later to the airport where she was flown to Brasilia, the nation’s capital. There she was put in a witness protection program.
“She had to tell and retell her story to various prosecutors and every time her story was consistent. She said who shaved her head to make her look like a boy, who had sex with her and who didn’t and who burned her feet and fingers with cigarettes,” Franzini said.
He hears the victim has successfully completed a detox program, is off drugs and back in school at a secret location. But other young women, like Serrano, will likely never escape.
“Sometimes, I go away to the country to try and clean myself up, but after a few days I can’t stand it anymore,” Serrano said. “I’m an addict, and selling my body is the only way to pay for it.”