Archive for May 13th, 2009
In contrast to mainstream reporting on war in which women are portrayed all too often as victims, feminist media have contributed a different reading of what happens to women in war and the holistic approaches that women have to it. In our media work at FIRE we have turned women’s activities and actions during war into news, showcasing the fact that the way in which women care for everyone, rather than embracing the conflict, is a way of waging peace, not only surviving conflict. When women are portrayed as victims of war, no one wants them and they are not missed at the negotiating table. Women as protagonists of solutions to conflict is something only women in alternative feminist media portray. Feminist media frame war differently by addressing the interconnection between war and poverty, war and power, war and reproductive and sexual rights – and how each intersects with patriarchy. By doing so, feminist media venues have allowed women not only to be the news, but to frame the issues.
Ten second byte media cannot do that. Mainstream media journalists have picked up news about women from those of us who interact with social movements to find the news that others do not seek to cover. This is because feminist media are very closely connected to these movements which usually generates proactive interpretation, re-conceptualization and autonomy of thought, analysis and action. However it is the mainstream media that has the audiences. This is why any vision of the media that promotes alternative media or mainstream media, choosing one at the expense of the other, is on the wrong track. Both are necessary and each plays a different role.
So female journalists wanting to influence and to place their issues in mainstream media, have created “media in the hands of women” venues to do so. That was the aim of Japanese journalist Yayori Matzui in Asia when she not only reported the testimonies of comfort women during the Second World War in Asahi Shimbun, but also created the Violence Against Women in War Network and in 1995 the Asia-Japan Women’s Resource Center in Tokyo. That has also been the aim of the Tanzania Women’s Media Collective created in 1987 by mainstream journalist Fatma Allo for female journalists to position women’s rights in mainstream media. Today it is the Tanzania Media Women’s Association. The Women’s Media Center in New York, created in 2005 and led by journalist Carol Jenkins, similarly works with mainstream media to ensure that women’s stories are told and women’s voices are heard. And in Latin America we have the case of CIMAC, a non-governmental organization created in 1998 in Mexico, becoming a press agency where mainstream journalists produce and distribute women’s news to mainstream media in the country. This basic work of collecting and framing the information, and working to position the issues, is something that cannot be done within mainstream media structures, dynamics and mandates. That is why placing the emphasis on mainstream media only is a big mistake.
This creation of our own media venues during the last eighteen years is the physical manifestation of communication as a human right, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In today’s globalized world, where the media is part of corporate globalization constituting a fourth power, this right to communicate is far from guaranteed and the right to create and own media venues must precede it. This means, from a holistic point of view, being able to bring forth news about women and a world view from the perspective of women, and opening international venues of communication where women can have a voice. FIRE is both a women’s media venue, and an international channel of communication for women to exercise their human right to communicate and we choose to work differently from mainstream media hubs. Why?
Because sharing in the framing of news is just as relevant as putting women’s experiences and perspectives on the news, and conventional media does not do this. Women are not only part of the picture, when they frame things they present a different picture.
Because too often conventional media approaches women’s issues as women’s rights, missing the holistic human rights framework. For us, violence against women is not a women’s right issue per se, but a re-conceptualization of peace: for how can a society be peaceful when half of its people are subject to violence just because they are women? Participation of women on an equal footing and with equal opportunity is not an issue of women’s rights: it is an issue of a re-conceptualizing democracy.
Conventional media create superstars out of our leadership. And people begin to believe, wrongly, that our success stories are the results of outstanding individual women who have risen above movements and the daily resistance of millions of women worldwide.
At peace tables, those who should sit are not those who are part of the conflict, but those who are part of the solution! What would that sound-bite look like in mainstream news? Imagine, the social movements, local enterprises, women in the informal markets, municipalities, etc. surrounding the actors in conflicts to let them know that we will not participate in it any longer. “No more bearing our children for the war” say the Colombian women. And they mean it. They go and bring them back by the ear!
Feminism has re-conceptualized war, contributing to its analysis as an extension and deepening of the patriarchal paradigm and political project of control, domination and the “othering” of anything and anyone that is not male, white, able-bodied, middle class, middle aged and living in the Global North. Conflict situations rarely change unless there is recognition and change in the way in which women’s lives are related to patriarchy and poverty. Colombian feminists of the Ruta Pacifica de Mujeres have made an amazing contribution to this framework and how it expresses itself in war and conflict situations.
It is therefore of prime importance for feminist media venues such as FIRE to emphasize that throughout human history, and particularly during the 20th century, women at all levels resist war and construct democratic alternatives for peace. Women living amidst war have organised and created spaces to provide for health, schooling, sanitation, security, provision of basic needs and even attended to others in dealing with their grief, loss and sorrow in spite of their own grief. Likewise they have created democratic meeting spaces to construct actions of solidarity and accompaniment, collective actions to identify or confront the accused, and actions of resistance and non-violent civil disobedience – all expressed through a symbolic political language about the effect of war and armed conflict on women’s bodies and lives. It is because of such work that we cannot honour enough groups such as Abuelas and Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina.
Such activity is what it means to redefine democracy for peace, justice and equality: because at the basis of war and conflict is the expropriation through violence of the right to political participation of all actors in society by economic powers, military powers and de facto irregular powers, as shown in the cases of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, thus furthering injustice and inequality. So feminist media become crucial for reporting resistance: by framing issues, telling stories and giving perspectives in terms of the interconnectedness of militarism, masculinization in patriarchy, and the over-commercialisation of life, terms relevant not only to women, but to all of humanity
“They said I was a man hater, and I never defended myself against that, because I do believe that men are to blame for the condition of women”
The Marilyn French I knew Marilyn French was a fierce advocate for feminism. Her books encouraged a generation of women to take charge of their lives Marilyn French died just over a …
Creating a feminist world was Marilyn French’s goal in life The Australian
Marilyn French, who died on May 2 aged 79, was a pioneer of the feminist movement, and took an even dimmer view of men than many of her militant sisters. continues …
American feminist and novelist Marilyn French dies at 79 hellomagazine.com
Marilyn French; wrote ‘The Women’s Room’ Philadelphia Inquirer
Links to more obituaries at http://news.google.co.uk/news?pz=1&ned=uk&hl=en&q=%22Marilyn+French%22
Iceland formally elected Johanna Sigurdardottir, who is both the first woman and openly gay Prime Minister in the nation’s history in general elections Saturday. She is currently the only openly gay national leader in the world.
Sigurdardottir became interim prime minister when Former Icelandic Prime Minister Geir Haarde resigned in January as a result of Iceland’s economic collapse. She was appointed by Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson and had previously served as the welfare minister under Haarde.
According to The Advocate, Sigurdardottir led a left-wing coalition to their first majority in parliament, where Social Democrats and Left Greens were projected to win 35 of 63 seats. The loss of power by the conservative Independent Party is directly tied to the global economic collapse, according to the New York Times.
Iceland boasts some of the most progressive gay rights legislation in the world and legalized gay marriage in 1996.
See also: Poetic justice: a gay woman is the people’s choice
The choice of Carol Ann Duffy as Poet Laureate shows how far our society has come – Jeanette Winterson
A power struggle in Singapore’s top women’s advocacy group has awakened the conservative city-state’s civil society and created rare public debate about the taboo issues of sex and religion.
As two groups of women were tussling to control Singapore’s Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), the pro-government media became a battleground where supporters and opponents of the two sides exchanged brickbats about homosexuality, Christianity and free speech.
A group of Chinese Singaporean women from a local church launched a surprise takeover in March of AWARE, which had been run by the same group of women, although more diverse on ethnicity and religion, for more than 20 years.
Skepticism over the motives of the Christian insurgents led hundreds of women signing up as new members. The previous leadership then launched a no-confidence vote against the new board this month and in a chaotic meeting won a landslide victory.
The AWARE saga had all the political ingredients seen in many other Asian countries, but hardly ever witnessed in Singapore. The People’s Action Party has ruled since independence in 1965 and has never lost more than four seats in any election.
“This is an instance for civil society in Singapore that went through its decision-making process — politics without the intervention of the state,” said Terence Chong of the state-backed Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
“This is very important in Singapore because the state intervenes rather regularly.”
The now ousted board had said after taking power they felt AWARE was promoting homosexuality through sex education classes in a country where gay sex is banned.
But while they may have lost the battle for AWARE’s soul, the Christian vanguard appear to have won a moral victory.
The Ministry of Education said in a statement on Wednesday it had suspended sex education programs provided by AWARE and other external vendors to government schools because parts of the curriculum did not conform to guidelines.
“In particular, some suggested responses in the instructor guide are explicit and inappropriate, and convey messages which could promote homosexuality or suggest approval of pre-marital sex,” the statement said.
Analysts called the AWARE saga “unprecedented” in Singapore, where any outdoor gathering that is cause-related needs a police permit, where people are generally seen as apolitical, and where many major international advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace do not have an office.
The government seems to recognize the fault lines in Singapore society between a conservative older generation that built Singapore into a First World city-state and a more liberal younger one that is trying to turn it into a global metropolis.
“There are people in our society with different views and if … we push them too hard, there will be a push back from the other side,” The Strait Times quoted Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean as telling reporters on Sunday.
“You are not going to resolve some of these differences because they are strongly held, and you risk polarizing society if you push too hard.”
As the debate also revolved around what was seen as a bid to turn the advocacy group into an religious body, spiritual leaders of major religions in Singapore and cabinet ministers appeared in newspapers emphasizing the need for secularism, in a multi-racial society that saw deadly race riots in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Even within the evangelical Christian community, which is a very significant force in Singapore society, there is a sense that these people overstepped the mark,” said Paul Rae of the National University of Singapore.
The local media described the AWARE struggle as a “cat fight,” involving locks being changed at its headquarters, death threats and the deployment of police at the meeting.
But newly-elected AWARE President Dana Lam called it a victory for grassroots civil society.
“For the longest time we all thought Singaporeans, other than shopping and eating and getting on with their own careers, were not really very interested in what’s happening in civil society,” Lam said.
“The most exciting thing is that I learn there are Singaporeans out there who can be motivated to stand up and speak so long as they identify with what the issue is about,” she told Reuters.
That is how the Women’s Action Forum defined the meeting it held last Friday to mobilise public opinion against extremism.
Although WAF’s concern to protect the space women have created in the public mainstream has been on its agenda for some time, this goal has acquired urgency in the wake of the events in Swat. The Nizam-i-Adl Regulation in Malakand Division has brought people face to face with the ugly reality of the Talibanisation phenomenon in the rural backwaters as well as in modern urban centres.
The Karachi meeting was well-attended by WAF’s standards. It is not easy to mobilise women for any cause in this city of multiple identities. The metropolis has a diversity of populations, cultures, languages and economic interests posing a challenge to bring women together on a single platform. Learning from its experience of the lawyers’ movement that had succeeded in uniting the extreme right and centrist political parties and the professionals on a single-point agenda for two years, WAF also decided to make Talibanisation and women the focal issue.
That strategy paid off. Women had already been galvanised by the video showing the flogging of a teenaged girl in Swat that activist Samar Minallah courageously brought to the world media’s attention, invoking in the process the wrath of the Taliban whose fatwa declared her as wajibul qatl. The oppression of women is an issue that cuts across classes to touch every female raw nerve. Whether it is the smartly turned-out high-society woman or the working woman who slaves all day long to feed an army of children and a drug-addict husband or even the heavily veiled orthodox woman, each type, with few exceptions, has expressed her horror at the flogging incident.
Hence on this occasion WAF managed to bring a diverse crowd together — the activists reaching out to the grassroots such as Amar Sindhu from Sindh University Hyderabad, Parveen Rahman from the Orangi Pilot Project and Sadiqa Salahuddin whose Indus Resource Centre runs schools in the interior of Sindh, as well as the elites sitting side by side with the three van-loads of women from Neelum Colony who clean the homes of the rich and will be starting their adult literacy classes from next week, courtesy Shabina’s Garage School.
The variety of speakers focusing on the theme of women’s oppression by the Taliban found a responsive audience. But the question that made many ponder was: what next? Can this interest be sustained? If they had not already started probing for answers, the thought-provoking speech by Arundhati Roy, the renowned Indian writer and activist, did the trick. Coming from New Delhi on a solidarity mission to WAF’s meeting. Roy raised four issues:
• What do we mean by the Taliban and what gave birth to them?
• Define your own space and do not surrender it.
• Don’t allow yourself to be forced into making choices of the ‘with us or against us’ type.
• Don’t be selective in your injustices.
These should provide food for thought for those struggling against oppression. Without being specific, Roy exhorted her audience to look into the structures and systems that lead to a situation of such extreme oppression, some of which is rooted in the class conflict. She believes one has to take a ‘total view’ of the matter, which she admitted she had come to Pakistan to understand.
The fact is that we live in a largely grey area where the lines are not sharply drawn. There is a lot of overlapping between issues touching gender, class, ethnicity, culture, political power and economic gains. It is this reality one has to recognise and see how the contradictions can be addressed. The demand to take sides unambiguously, expressed so vividly in the days following 9/11 by George Bush as ‘You are with us or against us,’ can create a dilemma for people when negotiating these grey areas.
Roy’s advice to avoid being ‘with us or against us’ has implications she didn’t elucidate. In times when action is needed and a position has to be taken — even if verbally — inaction or neutrality unwittingly props up the status quo. If the status quo has been created by inimical forces ostensibly now fighting their self-created Frankenstein, where does one go?
The practical approach would be to prioritise strategies that can be adapted to changing circumstances. And what should these be? Here Roy has a point when she says that one cannot be selective in the justices one espouses and the injustices one denounces. In this context Pakistanis find themselves trapped between the devil and the deep sea. Attempting to rectify a problem here and another there really doesn’t help because our entire state structure is colonial, as a booklet titled Making Pakistan a Tenable State points out.
Produced by 17 intellectuals, with Dr Mubashir Hasan as the driving force, the book describes the state structure as being ‘based on the concentration of political and administrative power in the steel frame of the civil services under the protection of the armed forces. The structure could be defined as feudal-military-bureaucratic.’
The problem is systemic. In a state ruled by ‘a government of the elites, by the elites, for the elites’ it is inevitable that it is authoritarian and exploitative. Change can come when there is mobilisation of the people for change. When WAF mobilises women to fight against injustices it prepares them to also fight for change. The need is to empower them and instill confidence in them.
Two women I have written about who are fighting for change come from the poorest of the poor and theirs is not a feminist agenda. They are fighting to have a roof above their heads. One is the wife of Walidad from Muhammad Essa Khaskheli who came all the way to Karachi in the heat of summer to save her goth from being snapped up by a feudal in the neighbourhood.
The other is Parveen whose one-room ‘mansion’ in a katchi abadi of Clifton is now under threat of demolition. She is resisting the exploitative system that cannot provide shelter to the poor. Initially she hesitated — was it ‘proper’ for a woman to protest she had asked me. When encouraged she decided it was. These are women on the way to empowerment and that is WAF’s agenda.
* Human Rights Watch demands revocation of Swat deal
* Video footage of the flogging of a 17-year-old girl by bearded Taliban extremists in volatile Swat Valley, North West Frontier Province (NWFP), has sent shockwaves across Pakistan and highlighted the issue of violence against women.
* U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday branded as “unacceptable” the flogging of a teenage girl by Taliban militants in Pakistan and said human rights must be upheld whatever local practices dictated.
* NGOs restricted and operating in fear in Pakistan
One poisoning took place at a girls’ school in Charikar on Monday and another on April 26.
Nearly 90 young girls were taken to hospital after a suspected gas attack at their school in Afghanistan on Tuesday, the third in a series of such incidents north of Kabul, Afghan police and officials said.
The early morning mass poisoning at Qazaaq primary school in Kapisa province has put 94 people in hospital, mostly students but also three teachers and two guards, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemaray Bashary.
The patients were vomiting and dizzy and some had been knocked unconscious, the same symptoms shown by victims of suspected gas attacks on two girls’ schools in nearby Charikar town, said Abdul Rahim Ayaar, spokesman for the Kapisa governor.
One poisoning took place at a girls’ school in Charikar on Monday and another on April 26.
The students were all out of danger, Kapisa police chief Matiullah Safi told Reuters, confirming the toll of 94 injured.
Unusually, the three incidents took place in a part of the country that was never under the firm control of the hardline Taleban and kept its girls’ schools open while the austere Islamists ruled most of the country.
The government was investigating the poisonings, the interior ministry’s Mr Bashary said, but it was too early to determine who was behind them.
There have been no clues as to what the gas was in either case or where it came from. Blood samples have been sent to the nearby US Bagram airbase but results have not yet come back.
Attacks on girls schools have increased in the past year, particularly in the Taleban’s eastern and southern heartlands, as a Taleban insurgency has gathered strength. When the Taleban were in power in Kabul they banned women from work and schools.
Last year a group of schoolgirls in Kandahar had acid thrown in their faces by men who objected to them attending school.
‘My husband rapes me repeatedly. I asked the ulama (religious leader) for help, but he sided with him, saying that according to Islam, a woman has to obey her husband. I have nowhere else to go. I have no tears left to shed. I no longer scream.’
It was while recording stories like this that staff at Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), a branch of the country’s Human Rights Commission, decided in 2007 that they needed to focus on religious leaders if they wanted to protect women.
That insight led to intense brainstorming, studies and analysis, which with time has morphed into three books written by female scholars and religious leaders representing Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism.
Titled ‘Breaking the Silence: Religions Listen to the Voice of Female Victims of Violence in the Name of Justice’, the books in Bahasa Indonesia were launched in the capital Jakarta, late-April. They aim to break the monopoly held by men over interpretations of holy books and to challenge the hegemonic patriarchal culture upon which domestic violence is based.
Komnas Perempuan has recorded 54,425 cases of violence against women in 2008, a 113 percent increase from 2007.
Some 90 percent of the cases were classified as “domestic violence”, which includes “economic violence” – a category which included women being left economically vulnerable, financially neglected by their husbands or having their own economic opportunities stifled. It is believed that this number is only a tiny percentage of the real figure.
A staffer of the independent Komnas Perempuan, who did not want to be identified, said that while the books are to be distributed free, it would take time before they make an impact, but “this is potentially a breakthrough”.
Muslim-majority Indonesia is a deeply religious country that forbids atheism by law. Here Muslim ulamas, Christian pastors and Catholic priests are held in high esteem.
“They (women victims of violence) often prefer to confide in ulama or pastor instead of the police,” Neng Dara Affiah from the education department of Komnas Perampuan, told IPS. “But unfortunately, we have observed that religious leaders’ understanding of domestic violence is biased in favour of men.”
The manuscript for Muslims was written by a team affiliated to Muhammadiya, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organisation which has considerable political influence. With some 30 million members, it is mainly focused on social and educational activities.
The head of the Social Council in the female wing of Muhammadiya, Susilahati, one of the authors, explained that the book project was important in the campaign to stop domestic violence as “it allows a discussion about how to accommodate the victims’ needs and thoughts in a theological context.”
Susilahati is also a commissioner at the Komisi Perlindungan Anak Indonesia (Indonesian Child Protection Commission) and the president of the Ikatan Pekerja Sosial Indonesia (Indonesian Social Worker’s Union).
Take for instance the Hadith that has time and again been used by ulamas that says, “If a man calls his wife to bed and she refuses, and he goes to sleep angry with her, the angels will curse her until morning.”
For Susilahati, who like most Indonesians has only one name, this Hadith is a “classic case” of how people misinterpret religion to justify what is done to victims. The Muhammadiya writers have argued that the Hadith should not be taken literally.
They quote a series of other Hadith to underline the prophet’s fairness. One of these says, “A sublime man is the one who respects his wife and a contemptible man is the one who humiliates his wife.”
“This is why this project is so important,” Susilahati stressed. According to her, the problem of interpretation is not limited to Islam but “it also happens within other religions”.
The Hadith is from the oral tradition relating to the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad. It is part of traditional Islamic jurisprudence and used to determine a Muslim way of life.
Iswanti, who has started on a doctorate in theology and feminism, and is one of the writers who scrutinised the Bible, was very forthcoming. “There is no doubt that some interpretations of religious texts weaken the position of women. They could even be used to legitimise violence against women,” she said in a phone interview with IPS.
The new publications from Komnas Perempuan have published many real-life examples where interpretations of the Bible have been used to the detriment of women. Roughly 5 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Protestant, and a further 3 percent are Catholics.
Domestic violence, for example, has at times been hushed up, or excused by literal interpretations of passages that say “wives must be submissive to their husbands like they are submissive to Christ”.
“Besides offering a modern reading, we hope that this book will help change the paradigm of theology so that the Church can take a more proactive approach in helping women,” Iswanti said.
“When women go to church asking for help, statements like, ‘be patient’ or ‘pray to God’ are not enough,” she asserted. “We hope the church can change the way it counsels women, so that they are no longer viewed as guilty.” Iswanti is an activist with the Jakarta-based Mitra ImaDei, which organises domestic workers.
Komnas Perempuan knows that support from the male-dominated religious leadership is critical if their plea for gender equality is to be accepted by the ulama in small villages in central Java or by pastors in the remote highlands of Papua.
Encouraging initial endorsements have come so far from Din Syamsudin, head of Muhammadiya, Andreas Yewangoe, head of the Indonesian Church Council (PGI) and Yosep Dedy Pradipto, head of the Indonesian Bishops Conference (KWI) who were present at the launch on Apr. 22.
Newspapers reported that all the three agreed that it was time to reinterpret the Koran and the Bible to take women’s rights into account.
Din was quoted by The Jakarta Globe newspaper saying that he was really concerned about the condition of the status of women in Indonesia, and their subordination to men. “The interpretations (of religious texts) made by males lead to misunderstanding, and the strong patriarchal culture in the country puts the women as subordinates,” he is quoted by the newspaper.
Andreas, leader of the Protestant Church, stated that all attempts to reinterpret the holy books should be based on equality and justice. The KWI’s Yosep advised religious leaders and people to start seeing the situation from the victim’s point of view if they are to fight violence against women.
For abused women who turn to their religious leaders for help, this could mean justice at last.
Muslim women should be free to pursue a higher education no matter what their fathers say, according to a fatwa recently issued by the grand mufti of Egypt, a leading authority of Sunni Islam, according to The National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper.
The fatwa, which is similar to a nonbinding legal opinion, was issued last week by the mufti, Ali Gomaa. It states that Muslim women whose fathers forbid them to attend university or college may disobey their fathers as long as it is in their best interest.
“If a father wanted to prevent his daughter from seeking an education and she wanted otherwise, then she is not obliged to obey his wishes in this matter … because obeying the father is an obligation but only under the condition that no harm comes of it to the child,” according to Mr. Gomaa’s reasoning, which is derived from Islamic jurisprudence.
“The harm that befalls a girl for not receiving an education is clear and known. If she abandons her college education, then she will miss a great deal of enlightenment about her religion and about everyday knowledge,” the reasoning continued. “She will have a limited awareness of the world around her as compared to … her educated counterparts in society.”
It is not clear how far-reaching the fatwa’s influence will be, as there are no clear statistics on how many Muslim women are prevented from enrolling at a university or college by their families. However, one sign that significant barriers to higher education continue to exist for Muslim women is the fact that 42 percent of women in the Middle East and North Africa are illiterate, compared with 22 percent of men.
Even in wealthy Muslim countries like the United Arab Emirates — where more women than men attend university — there remain pockets of extremely conservative families that forbid female members to pursue a higher degree.
Mr. Gomaa issued the fatwa in response to a question from the Emirati authorities about a father’s right to prevent his daughter from attending a university or college.
Akina Mama wa Afrika has launched a programme targeting sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations.
Increased cases of rape and sexual abuse of women and girls is closely associated with armed conflict and its aftermath in Africa.
“Rape has been used as a weapon of war by militia, and this hurts women forever, because even in peacetime you find little response in terms of repairing the effects and providing justice,” Marie Jalloh told IPS.
Jalloh, a member of Parliament from Sierra Leone was among the gender activists brought together in Kampala between April 28-29 by Akina Mama wa Afrika – the name means “solidarity among African women” in Swahili, and the organisation has worked to support African women in identifying issues and organising around them since 1985 – to discuss ways of strengthening the women’s movement against gender-based violence in conflict and post-conflict Africa.
“To be honest with you, people – even women – don’t take rape seriously [in Sierra Leone],” she said. “To them, it is a way of life but they don’t know how it is affecting them. Even when the victims try to speak out they don’t get justice. If they go to the police station, the rapist will go and pay money to police and the victims will remain suffering. So some resort to silence but suffer from trauma forever.”
Françoise Mukuku, the coordinator of a young feminist group in Democratic Republic of Congo, told IPS that rape remains rampant in the eastern part of the country.
“The people who are fighting in DRC, they come from Rwanda, Burundi, some are coming from Uganda like the LRA who are active in Congo. We have the same culture where the woman belongs to men. So if you want to humiliate the husband, you rape his wife or daughter,” Mukuku said.
“I have come across women who have been gang-raped and contracted HIV/AIDS as a result. Eastern DRC has [so many] cases of fistula not just resulting from childbirth but mainly as a result of gang rape.”
Mukuku said rape and other forms of sexual violence not only humiliate women but break their confidence, and prevent them from participating in development activities.
“We are raising awareness of women on taking the floor, speaking out on rape. We are telling women that our culture is not helping us, religion is not helping us to end rape. We should find a third way of speaking out because it is we who understand what it feels like when we are raped.” she said.
Akina Mama Wa Africa (AMwA) executive director Solome Nakaweesi Kimbugwe said the failure of legal protections, as well as poverty and illiteracy have left women vulnerable to gender-based violence.
She said women generally lack economic independence, and denied the opportunity to decide how to use even the limited resources available to them, face an uphill task to defend their legal rights. “Even if a woman sold a chicken, the money is not even enough to hire a lawyer. The laws are there but they are not implemented. The judicial systems and procedures are to the disadvantage of a woman,” said Kimbugwe.
Activists at the regional meeting in Kampala noted that cases of rape and sexual abuse have not been properly documented, with limited exceptions in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. AMwA has launched a three-year gender-based violence programme in the Great Lakes Region and West Africa that will, among other activities, involve the documentation of abuse to strengthen advocacy for better policies.
Annie Chikwanha, Senior Fellow at the African Human Security Initiative Institute For Security Studies, said documentation of such experiences is necessary to overcome the silence imposed on survivors of sexual violence.
“There is an aspect of shame that constrains many women’s actions. What will communities say if the whole world knows that I have been raped? We stigmatise ourselves even more because of the whole aspect of shame,” she asserted.
“And women who are violated are the poorest, so they don’t have any recourse because they don’t have a voice. But it is women who suffer these atrocities so they should talk about them instead of a third party who can distort the information.”
Chikwanha pointed out the difficulty in gathering information about gender-based violence.
“There are so many cultural inhibitions against women. It is very difficult for women to speak out freely; sometimes women require permission just to speak to a stranger,” she said.
“I have experience in conducting surveys in rural areas in Africa. Most times you have to seek permission of men to access the woman’s voice. Men insist on listening to the conversation. So the women feel constrained to speak out. We are now saying let us empower women with skills to have these experiences documented.”
She said that the lack of statistics has affected planning for pro-women services in areas affected by conflict. Taking up a similar theme, Awino Okech told IPS there is a need to include responses to gender-based violence in political interventions in conflict and post- conflict situations.
“In situations where there is no psycho-social support for traumatised women, girls and even men whose relatives have been raped – how do you expect recovery of that family? Women are dying silently from rape-related effects like fistula. Many have HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections… But where can they go for treatment?”
Okech works with the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, which highlights conflict resolution, dialogue and institutional development for the solution of the challenges presented by conflicts across Africa. She said that responding to gender violence has rarely been a priority, but such a response is important for recovery.
Hyacinthe Budomo, gender advisor at International Conference on the Great Lakes Region secretariat told IPS that impunity for perpetrators of sexual crimes could be eliminated if countries took advantage of existing regional institutions and legal frameworks.
“We need to reform penal codes in member states of the Great Lakes region. We need judicial cooperation among member states in the region. We need to train the police in order to end gender-based violence,” said Budomo.
“I strongly believe if the women come together as a network and push for reforms where there are no laws, and implementation where the laws exist, I believe we shall find a way out of this. We have good laws at international level but most of these laws have not been domesticated. So the implementation of these laws is still far-fetched. So there is a lot of work to first of all ratify and domesticate them other wise they have remained on shelves as women continue to be raped and sexually abused.”
Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS
See also: Women’s Bodies Have Been Battlefields
Wambi Michael interviews CHRISTINE BUTEGWA, Akina Mama wa Afrika’s regional programme coordinator
A poster at a Najaf rally reads “Stop violence against women.” After prison guards assaulted an Iraqi woman, she turned to her brother for help. But he — and society — failed her.
Sometimes, it’s the forbidden stories, the ones people are afraid to tell in full, the ones that emerge only in fragments, that reveal the truth about a place. This is such a story.
It’s being told now not because the complete truth is known, but because the story nags at those familiar with its outlines, and because it says as much about Iraq’s progress as it does about Iraq’s resistance to change.
This much is known:
A young woman imprisoned in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, sent a letter to her brother last summer, appealing for help. The woman, named Dalal, wrote that she was pregnant after being raped by prison guards.
The brother asked to visit her. Guards obliged. The brother walked into her cell, drew a gun and shot his visibly pregnant sister dead.
His goal: to spare his family the taint of a pregnancy out of wedlock, a disgrace in Iraq often averted through so-called honor killings of women by their relatives.
For prison guards, the killing was also a relief.
“They believed that her death would end the case,” said a lab worker at Baghdad’s central morgue, where the victim’s body — still carrying the 5-month-old fetus — was sent.
The case might have ended there were it not for the morgue employee, who was determined to see those responsible held to account.
At the employee’s insistence, lab workers using freshly acquired DNA-testing equipment drew a sample from the fetus. The prison guards were ordered to submit DNA samples and did so, apparently unaware of the sophistication of the morgue equipment and the people trained to use it.
“They thought we were incapable of figuring it out,” said the morgue employee.
The DNA results showed that the father of the unborn baby was a police lieutenant colonel who reportedly supervised guards at the prison.
In another society, the scientific evidence would have led to arrests and prosecution. But this being Iraq, the power wielded by men in uniform and the belief that a raped woman is better off dead combined to cloud the truth.
Months passed after word leaked of the killing on a sweltering summer day. Just as it nagged at the morgue worker, it nagged at us. But how to tell a story that nobody wants told? Everyone had different, usually conflicting, versions of what had happened.
Only the morgue worker’s story remained the same, repeated in phone calls and e-mails as summer turned to fall and then winter.
Then, it was time for one of us to leave Iraq. A colleague asked what the reporter’s final story would be. There must be one after so long in the country, he insisted.
“Isn’t there a story that got away?” he asked.
It became clear that this was it, even if we still didn’t know the truth.
About the only thing anyone agrees on is that a young woman was murdered, and that her last days were spent pregnant and worrying about what would happen if she were released into a society that would condemn her for it.
According to a judge in the Tikrit court, the lieutenant colonel implicated by DNA and a police captain also accused in the case were arrested on rape charges but then released for lack of evidence. The judge said a third defendant, a police lieutenant, remained in custody. (It is not uncommon in Iraq for police officers to serve as prison guards and supervisors.)
Another Tikrit court official said the lieutenant colonel and captain remained in custody but were transferred from Tikrit to Baghdad. Col. Hatem Thabit, spokesman for the police in Salahuddin province, where the crime was committed, concurred with this account.
Yet other accounts say the matter was settled through tribal justice. The clan of the accused lieutenant colonel paid the woman’s family to drop charges, said some people in the area who are familiar with the case but fearful of discussing it openly.
The morgue worker said those involved in the lab testing understood that all three of the police officers were freed.
“I heard the dispute was solved by a tribal ransom,” the employee said. “The issue bothers me a lot. I’m doing my job, and the bad guys are getting back on the street.”
There are conflicting reports on the brother’s status. Some say he was jailed for killing his sister. Others say he was freed as part of the tribal deal.
As for the slain woman, several accounts say she was in prison not because she was a convicted or accused criminal, but because police wanted to question her brother about something. They thought he would turn himself in to free Dalal. Nobody has been able to explain why police wanted to talk to the brother.
The prison where she was held houses mainly men. There is a small section for female inmates, usually no more than a few at a time. A female guard is supposed to watch over them. No one could explain how the lieutenant colonel was able to do what he did.
Nor could anyone say how Dalal’s brother got into her cell with a loaded gun.
“He was supposed to be searched,” said Thabit, the police spokesman. “Where he got the weapon, we don’t know.”
In Iraq, violence against women is a festering but rarely addressed problem. There are no readily available statistics on “honor” killings. The number of rapes reported to police averages five to 10 per month for the entire country, said an official at Baghdad’s central morgue, who released the first details of the Tikrit case last summer.
“The actual number of rapes is actually more than we know. There are so many rapes in the prisons, for example,” he added before going on to cite the Tikrit case to an Iraqi working for The Times. Realizing he was discussing a case not intended for public consumption, the official urged the reporter not to translate the facts for his English-speaking colleague.
But minutes later, another morgue official and then the lab worker confirmed the case. All asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs.
Other workers interviewed during a daylong visit to the morgue, where rape victims are examined, said they had detected an increase in violent crimes against women since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ushered in a religious conservatism and brought social and economic upheaval.
Most are honor killings, said one morgue employee, who a day earlier had received the body of a pregnant woman with her throat slit.
Human rights advocates say many of these homicides are made to look like honor killings to gain leniency for the perpetrators.
“It’s a lot worse now,” said Ibtisam Hamody Azzawi, a former engineer who runs a small aid organization for abused women from her home in Baghdad. “Our society witnessed so much war, and this is reflected in the domestic abuse situation. Everything is violence. Even the kids love war,” said Azzawi, whose husband, a university dean, was killed by extremists in 2007.
Much of her time is spent answering knocks on her door or phone calls from women looking for an escape from abusive homes. People find her by word of mouth. She does not tell her neighbors what she does, lest extremists attack her or one of her daughters.
Iraq has no shelters for battered or threatened women, and the war has splintered and displaced families who might have taken in female relatives. Amid the turmoil, homicide has become an easy out for husbands wanting to end their marriages, Azzawi said. It’s cheaper than divorce.
“Women get killed, but often it is reported that they are missing,” she said. “It’s all part of the chaos. Some husbands kill their wives and say maybe she was kidnapped, maybe she died in a bombing. A husband and wife will have domestic problems. All of a sudden, the wife will disappear.”
At the women’s prison in Tikrit, Saturday is visiting day. On a summer Saturday, a brother came to see his sister, her stomach swelling with her unborn child. She trusted him.
Women in Mauritania who press charges for sexual assault face the risk of jail time because of poorly defined laws and stigma that criminalise victims rather than offenders, according to a local UN-funded non-profit.
The subject of rape is still so taboo in Mauritania that there is no mention of it in the law and the word is absent from government documents, according to the NGO Mauritanian Association for Maternal and Child Health, based in the capital Nouakchott. “The problem of decriminalising the victim is [that] the law does not define rape. How do you punish offenders if you have not clarified the crime?” the association’s legal adviser Bilal Ould Dick said.
Sexual violence is referred to as “injuries” in Health Ministry documents, while the Ministry of Social Welfare, Children and Family refers to it as “domestic violence” in official documents, said the non-profit’s president Zeinebou Mint Taleb.
Aminetou (not her real name), 22, told IRIN the police accused her of not having honour when she reported to them that she had been raped at night in her home by someone she did not know. “The police said that if I had not [been willing] to give [my virginity], it could not have been taken.” She said at 22 years old, she has lost her honour, dropped out of a computer training programme and can no longer marry as a result of her attempt to press charges.
“No one will accept me anymore. For my community, they think I just liked sex and in return for this ‘sin’, I deserve to lose everything,” she said.
Legal adviser Dick said the only parts of the law that criminalise any sexual act are two articles prohibiting sex between unmarried persons. As a result, he said, many alleged rape victims are accused of violating the law. “The [woman] will be charged and punished instead of being legally protected.”
He said the situation is even worse for pregnant women since the pregnancy is seen as “proof” of their crime. Seven women have been imprisoned in 2009 on charges of violating the no-sex between unmarried persons legal code after they had tried to denounce alleged offenders, according to the Mauritanian Association for Maternal and Child Health.
NGO president Taleb said if men are interrogated or detained, they are soon released because of “lack of evidence”.
Matty Mint Doide with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Children and Family told IRIN the government is revising the penal code to define and criminalise rape and to “apply related international conventions [against sexual violence]“. Conventions against sexual and gender-based violence include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Human Rights Commissioner Mohamed Lemine Ould Dadde told IRIN the government is committed to defending women’s rights. He denied that women in Mauritania are unfairly criminalised for reporting sexual violence crimes and said Mauritania grapples with encouraging victims to speak out as all countries do.
Since 2003 there have been 430 declared cases of sexual violence in Mauritania and 28,000 reports of domestic violence, according to the government. Women have pressed charges in only 20 percent of the cases, according to the Social Welfare Ministry.
But the Association for Maternal and Child Health’s Eyer Chaim, who is posted in the Nouakchott police commissioner’s office in a division that handles crimes against children, told IRIN the real number of victims far surpasses public records. “I knew so many victims who refused to report to the police or go for treatment. They prefer suffering in silence to hide their disgrace from a gossiping community.”
Local journalist Nourra Mint Semane told IRIN it is difficult to talk about rape at all levels in Mauritania. “My radio programmes are censored when I cover rape stories. For Mauritanian society, rape is a shame that must be buried and the biggest ‘criminal’ is [seen as] the victim herself.”
Sweden’s image as an international forerunner in the fight for gender equality has been damaged by recent reports comparing rape statistics across various countries.
A recent study commissioned by the European Union (EU) found that Sweden has the highest incidence of reported rapes in Europe.
And an Amnesty International report on rape in the Nordic Countries took Sweden to task last autumn for what the human rights organization saw as an abysmally low conviction rate for rape cases.
Released in September 2008, the Amnesty report – Case Closed – examines issues surrounding rape and human rights in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.
Despite Sweden’s considerable emphasis on women’s rights, currently ranking an impressive 3rd place in the UN global gender-related development index, instances of reported violence against women are showing no signs of abating.
In fact, statistics published by the National Council of Crime Prevention (BRÅ) show that the number of sexual offences reported from January to August 2008 saw a 9 percent increase compared to the same period in 2007.
Amnesty’s most damning criticism of Sweden relates to the considerable disparity between the number of rapes reported and the conviction rate.
Case Closed highlights the damning evidence that, despite the number of rapes reported to the police quadrupling over the past 20 years, the percentage of reported rapes ending in conviction is markedly lower today than it was in 1965.
Sweden’s profile in terms of violence against women has also attracted concern from the United Nations.
As UN rapporteur Yakin Ertürk comments in a special report released in February 2007, there is a notable discrepancy “between the apparent progress in achieving gender equality and the reports of continued violence against women in the country.”
The statistics are certainly alarming. Results from the annual, government commissioned National Safety Survey (NTU), which is conducted by BRÅ, indicate that the actual number of rapes in Sweden in 2006 was estimated to be close to 30,000.
If this figure is correct, then it indicates that as few as 5-10 percent of all rapes are reported to the police.
Equally disturbing is the statistic from BRÅ stating that in 2007, less than 13 percent of the 3,535 rape crimes reported resulted in a decision to start legal proceedings.
Over the past ten years there has been a 58 percent increase in reported sex crimes and according to BRÅ, it is now statistically more likely for a person in Sweden to be sexually assaulted than robbed.
The phenomenon of alleged offences not formally being reported to the police or dropped before reaching court is termed ‘attrition’.
Amnesty slams the Swedish judicial system and the prevalence of attrition within it, concluding that, “in practice, many perpetrators enjoy impunity.”
In analyzing attrition and the failings of the police and judicial system, Case Closed draws attention to “discriminatory attitudes about female and male sexuality,” which may cause police investigators to “assume that women who report rape are lying or mistaken.”
This in turn brings up the notion of ‘real rape’ and the ‘ideal victim’. Researchers for Amnesty found that frequently:
“Young (drunk) women, in particular, have problems fulfilling the stereotypical role of the ‘ideal victim’, with the consequence that neither rapes within intimate relationships nor ‘date rapes’ involving teenage girls result in legal action.”
Helena Sutourius, an expert in legal proceedings in sexual offence cases concludes that, in Sweden, “the focus appears to be on the woman’s behaviour, rather than on the act that is the object of the investigation.”
In addition to challenging victim and crime stereotypes, perceptions surrounding ‘typical’ perpetrators must also be considered. The UN Special Report discusses how there is a widespread belief that the type of men who commit intimate-partner violence are not typical, ‘normal’ Swedes.
They are usually imagined as somewhat ‘deviant’ – unemployed, uneducated, alcoholic or from non-Western backgrounds, and so on. However, as Ertürk challenges: “In absolute numbers, the vast majority of the perpetrators of intimate-partner violence are ‘ordinary’ Swedish men.”
In a country where women’s rights feature high on the public agenda, there is a pervasive “fear of public shame – being regarded as a tragic failure in a country of supposed gender equality” especially among well-educated and successful Swedish women, which creates yet another obstacle for the victims of violence and rape, the UN report concludes.
Lina Plong from the National Centre for Knowledge on Men’s Violence against Women (NCK), based at Uppsala University, tells The Local:
“There is a real concern as to why the instances of rape and violence are not decreasing, despite the law becoming more strict and there being more public information available than ever. We need to concentrate on educating those professionals working in the area.”
Amnesty has also condemned the limited amount of scrutiny of and research into the quality of rape crime investigations in Sweden as, “a serious shortcoming that needs to be addressed immediately.”
The Case Closed report states that, “while an impressive level of gender equality has been achieved in the so-called public spheres [in Sweden]…this achievement seems to have halted at the doorsteps of private homes.”
In its conclusion, Amnesty blames “deeply rooted patriarchal gender norms” of Swedish family life and sexual relationships as a “major societal flaw” and a reason for the continued prevalence of violence against women in Sweden.
See: Sweden tops European rape league (27 Apr 09)
“A disturbing trend we continue to see reflected in our statistics for Auckland are rapes that involve more than one perpetrator” says Kate Brady Kean, Crisis Services Manager for Auckland Sexual Abuse HELP Foundation, which today released statistics for 2008.
And over 62% of Auckland rapes are happening in places where the survivors feel safe.
In the leadup to Rape Awareness Week (May 4-11), each year the Auckland Sexual Abuse HELP Foundation looks carefully at extensive stats collected from the prior year to establish what is actually happening with rape in Auckland.
Auckland Sexual Abuse HELP Foundation is a community organisation that provides essential crisis services to the Greater Auckland area. It has a 24/7 crisis counselling phoneline and provides specially trained counsellors to sit alongside victim/survivors during police statements and meetings and forensic and therapeutic medicals. All staff are qualified counsellors, psychotherapists and psychologists who are specifically trained to work appropriately with trauma and sexual violence.
The organisation’s 2008 stats show that:
1. 50% of survivors are 15 – 24 years old – the distribution of offenders’ ages are consistently spread from 17 – 44. Young women are not necessarily at risk from those in their own age group.
2. More than 50% of offenders are strangers or not well know to the survivor.
3. At least 50% of survivors had no alcohol or drugs in their systems at the time of the assault.
4. Over 62% of assaults happened in places were the survivors felt were ‘safe places’ for them to be.
5. A continuing disturbing trend of more than one offender being present during an assault is highlighted in the stats.
6. 25% of callouts are missed due to a lack of staff and funding.
“Many of these findings directly challenge the rape myths so prevalent in our society” says Brady Kean.
In 2008, Auckland Sexual Abuse HELP Foundation sat with 400 victim/survivors during callouts and answered more than 8500 phone calls.
According to the most recent treasury report, the direct cost of sexual violence per offence is $72130 and the reported number of offences in this report was 3179.
This is a cost of almost $230 million per year. Assuming Auckland had a quarter of the population, that’s a direct cost to Auckland of $57 million.
“It’s important to ensuring that these social costs are minimised by education, working with offenders and most importantly providing effective intervention for survivors,” says Brady Kean.
“Research shows that specialised intervention from support services can reduce these costs. If we intervened and reduced just 20% of costs by getting survivors into a system that understood their needs and reduced the effects of sexual violence, we could, in effect, save $11 million a year. “
This does not take into consideration the ‘savings’ in relation to the survivor’s quality of life. Specialised intervention from support services can prevent survivors being misdiagnosed and sitting for years in a health system without correct diagnosis and treatment. (Auckland Sexual Abuse HELP Foundation has a wealth of research and case studies to support this.)