Archive for December 9th, 2009
Extremist Threat to Women Increasing, Government Failing to Protect
The situation for Afghan women and girls is dire and could deteriorate. While the world focuses on the Obama administration’s new security strategy, it’s critical to make sure that women’s and girls’ rights don’t just get lip service while being pushed to the bottom of the list by the government and donors.
Eight years after the fall of the Taliban, women and girls suffer high levels of violence and discrimination and have poor access to justice and education, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The Afghan government has also failed to bring killers of prominent women in public life to justice, creating an environment of impunity for those who target women.
The 96-page report, “We Have the Promises of the World: Women’s Rights in Afghanistan,” details emblematic cases of ongoing rights violations in five areas: attacks on women in public life; violence against women; child and forced marriage; access to justice; and girls’ access to secondary education.
“The situation for Afghan women and girls is dire and could deteriorate,” said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While the world focuses on the Obama administration’s new security strategy, it’s critical to make sure that women’s and girls’ rights don’t just get lip service while being pushed to the bottom of the list by the government and donors.”
While the plight of women and girls under the Taliban was used to help justify the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, women’s rights have not been a consistent priority of the government or its international backers. With fundamentalist factions in government gathering strength, the insurgency gaining ground, and some form of reconciliation with Taliban factions firmly on the horizon, the gains made by Afghan women and girls since 2001 in areas such as education, work, and freedom of movement are under serious threat.
“Women are not a priority for our own government or the international community,” Shinkai Karokhail, a member of Parliament, told Human Rights Watch. “We’ve been forgotten.”
Women in public life are subject to routine threats and intimidation. Several high profile women have been assassinated, but their killers have not been brought to justice. When Sitara Achakzai, an outspoken and courageous human rights defender and politician, was murdered in April 2009, her death was another warning to all women who are active in public life.
High profile women interviewed for this report say that they feel they are not taken seriously when they report threats. One member of parliament who, like some others, spoke anonymously because of the danger they face, told Human Rights Watch:
“I’ve had so many threats. I report them sometimes, but the authorities tell me not to make enemies, to keep quiet. But how can I stop talking about women’s rights and human rights?”
A woman police officer who has received death threats said:
“They told me that they will kill my daughters. Every minute I’m afraid. I can never go home – the government cannot protect me there. My old life is over.”
One nationwide survey of levels of violence against Afghan women found that 52 percent of respondents experienced physical violence, and 17 percent reported sexual violence. Yet because of social and legal obstacles to accessing justice, few women and girls report violence to the authorities. These barriers are particularly formidable in rape cases. Although women activists and members of parliament pushed hard and succeeded in putting rape on the statute books this year for the first time, the government has shown little willingness to treat each case as a serious crime or to engage in a public education campaign to change attitudes.
The lack of justice compounds women’s vulnerability. One woman who was gang raped by a well connected local commander found that after a long fight to bring her rapists to justice, they were freed by a presidential decree. Soon after in 2009, her husband was assassinated. The woman told Human Rights Watch that he was killed because he had battled for her rights:
“I have lost my son, my honor, and now my husband,” she said. “But I am just a poor woman, so who will listen to me?”
Surveys suggest that in more than half of all marriages, the wives are under age 16, and 70 to 80 percent of marriages take place without the consent of the woman or girl. These practices underlie many of the problems faced by women and girls, as there is a strong correlation between domestic violence and early and forced marriage.
A 13-year-old girl who was forced into marriage explained to Human Rights Watch that after she dared to escape she was hunted by her husband’s family: “They came and asked for me to come back. I said no; they kept coming. I always say no… I can’t go back. They want to kill me.” Women activists who gave the girl shelter were denounced in parliament. Years later, the young woman is still fighting for a legal separation from her illegal marriage.
This case is just one in the report that illustrates the fundamental problem faced by women and girls of lack of access to justice. Studies suggest that more than half the women and girls in detention are being held for “moral crimes,” such as adultery or running away from home, despite the fact that running away from home is not a crime in Afghan law or Sharia. But whether it is a high-profile woman under threat, a young woman who wants to escape a child marriage, or a victim of rape who wants to see the perpetrator punished, the response from the police or courts is often hostile.
“Police and judges see violence against women as legitimate so they do not prosecute cases,” Dr. Soraya Sobhrang of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission told Human Rights Watch.
Law reforms that protect women’s rights are important, but leadership is also required to help shift attitudes and prevent abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
“The government needs to take its responsibility to protect women and girls seriously,” Reid said. “President Hamid Karzai has a lot of work to do to restore his reputation as a moderate on women’s rights.”
After the destruction of many girls’ schools by the Taliban, education for girls became the most symbolic element of the international donor effort in Afghanistan. Despite significant gains, stark gender disparities remain. The majority of girls still do not attend primary school. A dismal 11 percent of secondary-school-age girls are enrolled in grades seven through nine. Only 4 percent of girls make it to grades 10 through 12. While the number of both boys and girls attending school drops dramatically at the secondary school level, the decline is much more pronounced for girls.
The diminishing status of women’s rights in Afghanistan was forced back onto the agenda in March when the discriminatory Shia Personal Status law was passed by parliament and signed by Karzai. Faced with national and international protests, Karzai allowed the law to be amended, but many egregious articles remain that impose drastic restrictions upon Shia women, including the requirement that wives seek their husbands’ permission before leaving home except for unspecified “reasonable legal reasons,” and granting child custody rights solely to fathers and grandfathers.
“We welcomed the international community’s words on the Shia law – really – they said many beautiful things, as they did in 2001″ said Wazhma Frogh, women’s rights activist. “We have the promises of the world. But still we wait to see what more they will do.”
Karzai should revise the law to protect women’s rights fully and appoint women who have been active defenders of women’s rights to positions of power, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Shia law provided a timely reminder of how vulnerable Afghan women are to political deals and broken promises,” Reid said. “Karzai should begin his new presidency with a clear signal to women that his will be a government that wants to advance equality.”
Key Recommendations of “We Have the Promises of the World: Women’s rights in Afghanistan“
* The government and donors should make the promotion and protection of women’s rights a main priority of the country’s reconstruction and a central pillar of their political, economic, and security strategies.
* The government, with the support of donors, should embark on a large-scale awareness campaign to ensure that rape is understood to be a crime by law enforcement agencies, judges, parliament, civil servants, and the Afghan public. The campaign should also aim to reduce the stigmatization of victims of rape.
* The government should make marriage registration more widely available and compulsory.
* The president should order the release of, and offer an apology and compensation to, all women and girls wrongfully detained on the charge of “running away from home.”
* The government, with the support of donors, should increase the number and geographic coverage of girls’ secondary classes by building more girls’ secondary schools, and ensure the recruitment and training of female teachers is accelerated.
* The government, with the support of the UN and other donors, should prioritize security for women candidates and voters in planning for the 2010 parliamentary elections.
* International donors and the United Nations, in conjunction with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, should conduct a full gender audit of all spending in Afghanistan.
Related Materials: “We Have the Promises of the World” http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2009/12/03/we-have-promises-world-0
The All-Women’s Action Society (Awam), the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and Seksualiti Merdeka wish to register our grave concerns at statements made by Immigration Department Director-General Abdul Rahman Othman as well as the manner in which the story was reported.
We question why Abdul Rahman Othman singled out Ms Fatine as having ‘brought great shame upon us’, allegedly for immigration offences, when just over a year ago the Malaysian government took a far more lenient approach to Malaysian over-stayers in the United Kingdom.
We recall that the then-home minister Syed Hamid Albar indicated that in addition to cooperating with the British government’s voluntary repatriation scheme, the Malaysian government would not impose further penalties on returnees.
We note that Fatine has done her best to comply by British law. That she was singled out as an alleged ‘shame’ amongst the approximately 20,000 Malaysian overstayers in the United Kingdom suggests that the threat of severe penalties is based on the fact that she is a transsexual person.
We caution that such threats constitute a violation of her rights to non-discrimination and security of person.
What is truly shameful about Fatine’s situation is what it reveals about our prejudices. Discrimination against transsexuals in this country runs the gamut from violence to official restriction on changing their gender identity or photos in their documents.
This discrimination is further perpetrated by how they are portrayed in the media. We are deeply disappointed in some members of the press and in the authorities for referring to Fatine as a ‘he’. Fatine clearly identifies as a woman.
Whether she is pre-op or post-op is entirely irrelevant to her gender identity. It is disrespectful and hurtful to refer to her by anything other than her chosen gender.
Fatine has a right to be treated with dignity and to equal protection under the law. Unfortunately, these rights are rarely respected by the Malaysian authorities and by society at large in their treatment of transsexual persons.
We remind the authorities that Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender. In addition the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw), which Malaysia ratified in 1995, obliges the government to refrain from engaging in any act or practice of discrimination against women.
The Malaysian government has a responsibility to ensure that all public authorities and institutions act in conformity with this obligation, including the Immigration Department.
We strongly urge the government and public institutions to lead the way in changing societal attitudes, laws and public policy by honouring their human rights obligations.
The writer is president, All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) for and on behalf of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and Seksualiti Merdeka.
Thailand’s government has passed stricter rules for patients seeking gender reassignment surgery.
Patients will now be required to live and dress as the opposite gender for a year before surgery and must be over 18. Men aged between 18 and 20 must also gain parental consent.
They must also undergo a mental evaluation before the procedure and attend appointments with a psychiatrist afterwards.
The law change was prompted after doctors reported seeing a rise in the number of young trans women seeking genital surgery.
Dr Sampandh Komrit of the Medical Council of Thailand told Associated Press that the regulations gave patients more time to consider the surgery.
He said: “This is a very important decision in their life. After the operation, there is no way to fix it.”
Gender reassignment surgery in Thailand can cost as little as $2,000 (£1,218), making it a popular surgery destination for western trans people.
It is one of the more tolerant countries towards trans men and women.
They have regular presence on TV, in movies and the entertainment business, but many still face family pressure, social prejudice and domestic violence.
The centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi has blocked availability in Italy of the RU486 abortion pill, which is vehemently opposed by the Vatican and the Catholic Church.
RU486, or mifepristone, has been approved by AIFA, the Italian pharmaceutical authority, for use in hospitals under medical supervision as an alternative to surgical abortion up to the 49th day of pregnancy. It was first introduced in France in 1988 and is now used widely in Europe, though not in predominantly Catholic countries such as Portugal, Ireland and Poland.
However the Senate health commission suspended its use and asked the Health Ministry for “a second opinion” on the grounds that the pill could endanger women’s health or violate Italy’s anti-abortion laws.
The pill, which suppresses a hormone called progesterone, causing the uterine lining to reject an implanted embryo, allows a woman to have a chemically induced abortion instead of surgical procedure. It is regarded by the Church as “back door abortion” and was condemned by the Vatican in a document last year on bio-ethics, together with artificial fertilisation, human cloning, “designer babies” and embryonic stem-cell research.
Abortion in the first 90 days of pregnancy was legalised in Italy in 1978. However Maurizio Sacconi, the Welfare and Health Minister, said that ”Italy’s abortion laws were not conceived with a pharmaceutical solution in mind”.
Anna Finocchiaro, leader in the Senate of the opposition centre Left Democratic Party, said the Berlusconi government’s real aim was to ban the pill altogether. “Instead of admitting what they really want, they’re hiding behind a lot of chatter”, she said.
Felice Belisario, head of the centre-left Italy of Values party in the Senate, said that the move was an “absolutely indecent blow to women’s rights”. It was “a step backward compared to more evolved countries. For the centre right, science stopped a hundred years ago”.
The Italian consumer group Aduc said that the pill had been in use for over twenty years in France and eight years in the United States ”without any problem”. Mr Berlusconi has come under fire from the Catholic Church over his “immoral” private life, but has assured the Vatican that his Government wll pass laws that take into account Catholic views on bio-ethical issues from abortion to euthanasia.
According to the Italian Health Ministry, 70 per cent of Italian doctors are “conscientious objectors” who exercise their right under the law to refuse to carry out abortions.
Reporters Without Borders is calling for a thorough investigation into the death of Olga Kotovskaya, a prominent journalist who apparently fell from the 14th floor of a building in the centre of Kaliningrad (the capital of a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania) six days after a court ruled that she had been unfairly stripped of the TV station she had created.
“Kotovskaya’s tragic and highly suspicious death needs a thorough and meticulous investigation,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It should possibly be assigned to a police department that does not come under the local authorities, whose role in her death is one of the elements that needs to be examined.”
The press freedom organisation added: “Impunity in the cases of murders of journalists is one of the most disturbing aspects of the media situation in Russia. The federal authorities should get involved in combating this problem as a matter of the utmost urgency.”
Kotovskaya died on 16 November, six days after a Kaliningrad arbitrage court ruled that in 2004 she had been unfairly stripped of her control of Kaskad, a TV station she created in the 1990s in which she owned 49 per cent of the shares. The court ruled that the document used to transfer control to new owners had been forged. Kaliningrad’s current governor, Vladimir Pirogov is alleged to have been involved in the takeover.
Her family and colleagues and the Kaliningrad Union of Journalists all insist that it is impossible that this combative journalist, brilliant businesswoman and mother of two could have committed suicide just after winning a major legal battle. “No one in Kaliningrad believes that she killed herself,” said Novyie Kolessa editor Igor Rudnikov. She also had no reason to go to the building at the foot of which her body was found, he added.
Kotovskaya’s death recalls that of Ivan Safronov, a talented journalist employed by the newspaper Kommersant, who died in March 2007 after falling from the fifth floor of his Moscow apartment building. The police said it was suicide.
Claiming they have found no evidence that Kotovskaya was murdered, the Kaliningrad judicial authorities have nonetheless opened an investigation into the possibility of “incitement to suicide.”
Russia was ranked 153rd out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. At least 22 journalists have been killed in connection with their work since March 2000.
After fleeing abuse at Fort Campbell, a lesbian now living in Canada is hoping for asylum on the unusual grounds of anti-homosexual persecution within the U.S. military. Her case could affect other claims by asylum seekers from democracies.
For months, Pvt. Bethany Smith silently endured taunts and physical abuse from her fellow soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky., for being a lesbian. But when she received an anonymous note one day with a threat against her life, Smith decided she had to get out of the Army.
More than 12,000 service members have lost their jobs because of the U.S. military’s so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. A disproportionate number of those discharges are women, according to 2008 statistics gathered by the Washington-based Servicemembers Legal Defense Network from the government under the Freedom of Information Act.
With the help of an acquaintance, Smith abandoned Fort Campbell and drove for two straight days to Canada, where she hoped to seek asylum. She crossed the border on Sept. 11, 2007.
More than two years later, Smith, now 21, is fighting to stay in Ottawa, where she works for a call center.
Her efforts to obtain refugee status were boosted in November when a Canadian federal court judge decided her case should be reconsidered by the country’s refugee board, which had earlier rejected her claim.
Smith assumes she would face a court martial for desertion in the United States and possibly further charges for having same-sex relations. She also believes that a court martial would consist of her peers, who would likely share the same views about her sexual orientation as her tormentors.
Smith’s case, believed to be a first, is based on anti-homosexual persecution within the U.S. military, says Liew, rather than on a reluctance to serve overseas, as has been the case for a multitude of other U.S. soldiers who have fled to Canada to avoid serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even so, the court’s decision in Smith’s favor could have far-reaching implications for other refugee claimants, Liew said.
“One of the most important things that came out of this case is that every case should be looked at individually and on its own merits and facts,” she said.
Canada has been reluctant to offer asylum to U.S. soldiers avoiding war in Iraq and Afghanistan, though it had welcomed defectors during the Vietnam War. In 2008, Jeremy Hinzman, the first U.S. Army deserter to seek asylum in the country, was ordered to be deported after the Federal Court of Appeal decided he would not face serious punishment upon his return.
Under the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which has been officially followed since 1993, gay and lesbian individuals are allowed to serve in the military as long as they do not engage in homosexual conduct.
Federal Court Justice Yves de Montigny, however, noted this policy had mixed results in quelling anti-homosexual discrimination. He pointed out that a soldier, Pvt. Barry Winchell, who was believed to be gay, had been beaten to death in 1999 at the same base where Smith was posted.
He also noted that the military code still makes it an offense to have sexual relations with a person of the same sex.
In his decision, de Montigny wrote that Smith “provided evidence that she was afraid that her superiors may have been involved in the harassment and threats targeted at her.”
The judge also said her case aligned with evidence indicating that U.S. military commanders are too often complacent and sometimes even actively abusive toward gays and lesbians.
He said Smith offered evidence that the military is not discharging as many gay and lesbian personnel as it did before 2001 due to the need for more soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
De Montigny disputed the refugee board’s earlier findings that Smith had not presented “clear and convincing” proof of the inability of the United States to protect her and had not proved she faced “a risk to her life or risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment upon return to the United States.”
In its earlier ruling, the board had also concluded that the acts of harassment and intimidation and written threats did not constitute persecution in this particular case, according to court documents.
Liew said she and her client will now go back to the refugee board for another hearing, but did not know when.
Extracts from a longer article at http://www.womensenews.org/story/lesbian-and-transgender/091204/lesbian-who-fled-army-opens-legal-ground-in-canada
Has feminism been replaced by the pink-ribbon breast cancer cult? When the House of Representatives passed the Stupak amendment, which would take abortion rights away even from women who have private insurance, the female response ranged from muted to inaudible.
A few weeks later, when the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended that regular screening mammography not start until age 50, all hell broke loose. Sheryl Crow, Whoopi Goldberg, and Olivia Newton-John raised their voices in protest; a few dozen non-boldface women picketed the Department of Health and Human Services. If you didn’t look too closely, it almost seemed as if the women’s health movement of the 1970s and 1980s had returned in full force.
On CNN last week, we had the unsettling spectacle of NWHN director and noted women’s health advocate Cindy Pearson speaking out for the new guidelines, while ordinary women lined up to attribute their survival from the disease to mammography. Once upon a time, grassroots women challenged the establishment by figuratively burning their bras. Now, in some masochistic perversion of feminism, they are raising their voices to yell, “Squeeze our tits!”
When the Stupak anti-choice amendment passed, and so entered the health reform bill, no congressional representative stood up on the floor of the House to recount how access to abortion had saved her life or her family’s well-being. And where were the tea-baggers when we needed them? If anything represents the true danger of “government involvement” in health care, it’s a health reform bill that – if the Senate enacts something similar — will snatch away all but the wealthiest women’s right to choose.
It’s not just that abortion is deemed a morally trickier issue than mammography. To some extent, pink-ribbon culture has replaced feminism as a focus of female identity and solidarity. When a corporation wants to signal that it’s “woman friendly,” what does it do? It stamps a pink ribbon on its widget and proclaims that some miniscule portion of the profits will go to breast cancer research. I’ve even seen a bottle of Shiraz called “Hope” with a pink ribbon on its label, but no information, alas, on how much you have to drink to achieve the promised effect. When Laura Bush travelled to Saudi Arabia in 2007, what grave issue did she take up with the locals? Not women’s rights (to drive, to go outside without a man, etc.), but “breast cancer awareness.” In the post-feminist United States, issues like rape, domestic violence, and unwanted pregnancy seem to be too edgy for much public discussion, but breast cancer is all apple pie.
So welcome to the Women’s Movement 2.0: Instead of the proud female symbol — a circle on top of a cross — we have a droopy ribbon. Instead of embracing the full spectrum of human colors — black, brown, red, yellow, and white — we stick to princess pink. While we used to march in protest against sexist laws and practices, now we race or walk “for the cure.” And while we once sought full “consciousness” of all that oppresses us, now we’re content to achieve “awareness,” which has come to mean one thing — dutifully baring our breasts for the annual mammogram.
Look, the issue here isn’t health-care costs. If the current levels of screening mammography demonstrably saved lives, I would say go for it, and damn the expense. But the numbers are increasingly insistent: Routine mammographic screening of women under 50 does not reduce breast cancer mortality in that group, nor do older women necessarily need an annual mammogram. In fact, the whole dogma about “early detection” is shaky, as Susan Love reminds us: the idea has been to catch cancers early, when they’re still small, but some tiny cancers are viciously aggressive, and some large ones aren’t going anywhere.
You don’t have to be suffering from “chemobrain” (chemotherapy-induced cognitive decline) to discern evil, iatrogenic, profit-driven forces at work here. In a recent column on the new guidelines, patient-advocate Naomi Freundlich raises the possibility that “entrenched interests — in screening, surgery, chemotherapy and other treatments associated with diagnosing more and more cancers — are impeding scientific evidence.” I am particularly suspicious of the oncologists, who saw their incomes soar starting in the late 80s when they began administering and selling chemotherapy drugs themselves in their ghastly, pink-themed, “chemotherapy suites.” Mammograms recruit women into chemotherapy, and of course, the pink-ribbon cult recruits women into mammography.
What we really need is a new women’s health movement, one that’s sharp and skeptical enough to ask all the hard questions: What are the environmental (or possibly life-style) causes of the breast cancer epidemic? Why are existing treatments like chemotherapy so toxic and heavy-handed? And, if the old narrative of cancer’s progression from “early” to “late” stages no longer holds, what is the course of this disease (or diseases)? What we don’t need, no matter how pretty and pink, is a ladies’ auxiliary to the cancer-industrial complex.
Extracts from a longer article at http://ehrenreich.blogs.com/barbaras_blog/2009/12/not-so-pretty-in-pink.html