Archive for May 6th, 2008

Stopping just short of accusing state interests of hypocrisy, members of the local anti-abortion movement including the Nurses’ Association of Jamaica (NAJ), say that energy and money ploughed into lobbying for legal termination would be better spent improving basic reproductive-health services.

“Family-planning services have been cut. People can’t get the methods,” lamented NAJ president Edith Allwood-Anderson, adding that the association would vigorously oppose any attempt to get Parliament to pass an abortion bill.

Dr Doreen Brady West, chairperson at an April 28 stakeholders meeting at the Courtleigh Hotel in New Kingston, told The Sunday Gleaner: “Jamaica has basic needs now which are unmet in the health field. To leave these and to go and create abortion clinics would be a clear departure from the philosophy of practising the healing art.”

The meeting, convened by the Coalition for the Defence of Life to discuss the ongoing policy review on abortion by the Jamaican Government, involved repre-sentatives from the health sector, political sphere, the Church, policy-formulation specialists and an abortion specialist from the United States.

Doctors in attendance at the forum complained of a shortage of gynaecologists at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital, even while the “beds are filling up”. However, Douglas McDonald, senior medical officer at Victoria Jubilee, speaking to The Sunday Gleaner subsequently, denied any staff shortages.

Allwood-Anderson, the fiery leader of the nurses’ union, argued at the meeting: “Government has stopped supporting its distribution (of contraceptives) at its previous levels and there is no guarantee of supply. Even education in (nursing) schools has been cut back. We are saying that what Government needs to do is to maximise the existing services in terms of improving them.” She said that more lucrative private interests were luring specialists away from the public sector.

Allwood-Anderson noted that nurses whole-heartedly supported the sustenance of life.

“An attempt by any government to make abortion widely available will be met by extensive agitation and opposition from us (members of the NAJ),” she declared. “Abortion leads to psychological, self-esteem and medical problems and a change in personality. It will cost you more to treat these women in the long run. There are also others who will never get pregnant again,” added Allwood-Anderson.

The call for increased investment into reproductive health comes on the heels of a recent United Nations Population Fund’s reminder to developing nations that there was a significant shortfall in spending on programmes to reduce maternal mortality.

The Queensland Council of Social Service (QCOSS) says the Federal Government’s tax cuts for working mothers will help ease the financial burdens many families are experiencing.

Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan says under the Budget measures, working mothers will be between $3,500 and $7,000 a year better off.

QCOSS president Karyn Walsh says the tax relief is an incentive for mothers considering entering or returning to the workforce.

“It’s acknowledging that transition is really important to consider and certainly women make their own choices about how they balance work and life,” she said.

“It is an incentive in the sense that anyone who wants to go to work, they’ve got extra money to weigh up in terms of the costs of working versus the costs of not working.”

But some women are concerned that while the Government is promising them tax breaks, it is also cutting funding to a service which assists vulnerable working women.

The head of the Working Women’s Centre in Adelaide, Sandra Dann, says working mums will loose access to Working Women’s Centres in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland.

Ms Dann says the centres are employment advocates for women who do not have unions and cannot afford lawyers.

“That’s the part that’s very confusing, that for the most vulnerable and most socially excluded workers in our community there’s a rhetoric on the one hand but in practice it appears that our funding will disappear,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Employment Minister Julia Gillard says the issue is a Budget matter and she has refused to comment.

Malaysian women travelling abroad on their own may need letters from their parents or employers in a bid to stop them becoming “mules” for international drug syndicates, reports said Sunday.

The proposal comes as 119 Malaysians, 90 per cent of whom are women, have been imprisoned worldwide on drug-related charges with the majority believed to have been duped into transporting drugs, the New Sunday Times reported.

“I have submitted this proposal to the Cabinet and both the Foreign and Home Ministries feel this is necessary,” foreign minister Rais Yatim told the paper.

“Many of these women (who travel alone) leave the country on the pretext of work or attending courses and seminars,” he added.

“With this declaration, we will know for sure where and for what she is travelling overseas.”

Malaysians have become prime targets for syndicates wanting to smuggle drugs into the European Union, the paper said, because they do not require visas for short stays of up to 90 days or to transit in those countries.

It said the offences were also committed in various other nations including China, Singapore, India, Spain and Portugal.

However, women’s groups have criticised the move.

“This is an infringement of our rights,” National Council for Women’s Organisations Malaysia (NCWO) deputy president Faridah Khalid told the paper. “We’re the victims and now you’re creating more problems. Why must you put more restrictions on women? We have worked hard over the years to get to this level,” she added.

Advocacy group Tenaganita said the move was not practical.

“Thousands of people travel daily. Who is going to scrutinise the declaration as anyone can forge their parents’ signature,” spokeswoman S. Florida was quoted as saying by the paper.

A new family law code waiting to be adopted by Parliament is facing opposition from some Islamic groups who claim it goes against Islamic principles, particularly when it comes to proposed changes to the country’s marriage laws.

The new code aims to bring more equality between men and women in relation to marital status, parental rights, ownership of land and inheritance, wages and pensions, employment laws and education.

“The code is a significant step towards gender equality while reflecting the reality of Malian culture today,” the minister of women, children and the family, Maiga Sina Damba told IRIN.

The current code has seen little change since it was first passed in 1962, three years after Mali gained independence, and according to Oumor Cissé, communications adviser at the ministry for women, children and the family, it is heavily influenced by “outmoded” French laws, and a strict reading of Koranic texts.

When the draft code went out to civil society groups for the latest round of consultations in early 2008, some Islamic groups started campaigning hard against the proposed changes to marriage laws, inheritance laws and property rights.

In early April the Islamic Salvation Association (AISLAM) called for the bill to be withdrawn from Parliament.

“All the proposals we made in the consultation phase of the new code were rejected,” said Mohamed Kimbiri, president of AISLAM.

The most controversial sticking points relate to shifts in marriage laws. Today in Mali traditional or ‘religious marriages’ as opposed to civil marriages, are legally accepted but the new code will cease to legally recognise religious marriages.

“Despite much opposition to this change, legalising religious marriages has been dropped from the bill altogether,” Kimbiri complained to IRIN.

But Parliamentarian Mountaga Tall elected in Segou a town north of Bamako, said religious or ‘traditional’ marriages deny some women their basic rights.

“Widows who have only had a traditional marriage are legally excluded from any inheritance rights and their children must go through expensive, lengthy and often humiliating procedures to inherit the basic family allowances due to them.”

In defiance of the soon-to-be-adopted law, Islamic groups are continuing to issue marriage certificates.

“For the moment, the issue is unresolved. But if [these marriages] go ahead it will be in violation of the law, and the marriage certificate will not be legal. No one can appropriate a power that is not legally bestowed,” said Cissé.

In another vein, under the current law when two people marry if they commit to monogamy they must stick to it in theory, but in reality a husband can re-marry without the consent of his wife.

“Men can circumvent the law by making a new marriage without any legal consequences,” said Daouda Cissé, a legal adviser to the women’s ministry.

The code also gives more inheritance rights to illegitimate children, and enables them to choose either their mother’s or their father’s name, but according to Kimbiri, “Islam can not accept that. [Illegtimate children] can only inherit their mother’s name, they do not have a right to their father’s.”

And finally, some clerics are concerned about changes the new code makes to giving couples joint rights to land and property – currently separate rights are maintained for property. But one Imam told IRIN, “under Islamic law spouses must accept separation of ownership of possessions.”

The code has already faced many delays and some fear it will stagnate altogether. Redrafting began in 1996 but it was slow to gain momentum in Parliament.

“Many Parliamentarians didn’t want to see change… or else they didn’t bother to read it,” Oumor Cissé told IRIN.

But in 2007 a group of women Parliamentarians – there are about a dozen, said Cissé – formed a group with lawyers and human rights activists to defend the code’s changes and to push it through Parliament.

“If Mali wants to be a fully-functioning democracy it is important to pass this code,” Omar Touri, head of a women’s rights network, Association of Women’s NGOs (CAFO), told IRIN. “People have to change their behaviour and they have to accept change.”

The code brings Mali in line with a number of international protocols it has signed up to, including the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Given this, she said, “We have no choice but to pass it.”

But Abdoulaye Dembélé, deputy of the National Assembly, thinks it much more likely that a compromise deal will have to be struck, ensuring yet more delays.

“In this atmosphere of misunderstanding it is difficult for deputies to vote for this code at the risk of provoking a mass-uprising. We have to take into account the concerns and aspirations of all groups before passing it through Parliament.”

Women’s activist Daud Sharifa Khanam, first recipient of the Durgabai Deshmukh Award instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board, began a Muslim Women’s Jamaat in 2003 to provide Muslim women a space to express themselves and contest traditional, repressive diktats

“I have courage, not authority. My work is a necklace of hot burning coals,” says Sharifa who heads the Muslim Women’s Jamaat of Tamil Nadu.

Daud Sharifa Khanam is a women’s activist and first recipient of the Durgabai Deshmukh Award, instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board in 1999. She began the monthly jamaat (congregation) for Muslim women in 2003, to provide Muslim women a space to express themselves and contest traditional, repressive diktats.

The Muslim Women’s Jamaat is an attempt to challenge the authority of the traditional jamaat system which, to a large extent, controls the social life of Muslims. Each mosque elects a group of influential men from within the community to form what is known in Tamil Nadu as the pallivaasal jamaat. Besides managing the affairs of the mosque, the all-male jamaat also arbitrates in community affairs, acting as caste panchayats in hearing and settling disputes and ruling on matrimonial matters including divorce, custody and maintenance. They are respected and feared and have the backing of the mullahs. They even get funds from the wakf boards.

The pallivaasal jamaat survives on chanda (donations) collected every year from community members. Families are also expected to pay up separately for religious rituals like births, deaths and marriages. Individuals, even entire families, may be declared outcastes if they fail to pay up. Sharifa says jamaat members often thrust their decisions on women, threatening to “deny them a space even in the burial ground” if they fail to obey their decree.

A woman cannot become a member of the jamaat committee. Worse, since women are not allowed into mosques where the jamaat committee meetings are held, a woman cannot represent her own case to the committee. She can at best send her husband or brother to represent her. A woman’s life can thus be decided by a group of men without her being given even a hearing!

Many factors contribute to discrimination against Muslim women in Tamil Nadu, including large-scale migration of men to the Gulf to make money. With the men earning in dollars, dowries have spiralled. Yet mehr (the bride price that has to be paid to the wife) has not kept pace. Dowries range from anything between Rs 30,000 and Rs 2 lakh, but mehr is rarely more than Rs 1,000. Migration and the resultant distance causes the break-up of many marriages; in some cases, the easiest way for a man to desert his wife is to disappear abroad. Oral triple talaq is still recognised as legitimate by the male jamaats. Some men use email to divorce their wives, others resort to SMS!

The Muslim Women’s Jamaat, set up in 2003, encourages a liberal interpretation of Shariat law, freeing women from patriarchal bias. It takes up disputes, intervening to try and get women a better deal in what are, basically, unequal marriages. The jamaat has spread to several districts in Tamil Nadu, with coordinators in each district, most of them voluntary workers. It meets every month, usually at its headquarters in Pudukottai. The coordinators travel to meetings unescorted, sometimes staying overnight or catching the night bus home.

“We are slandered as anti-religion, anti-Islam. But it’s not a religious struggle, it’s a power struggle,” says Sharifa. Sharifa has been reviled, abused from the mosques and threatened for organising Muslim women in rural Tamil Nadu to resist the oppression of the mullahs.

Many of the women who come to Sharifa seek redress from the unfair judgments of the traditional jamaats. This often puts her and her organisation in direct confrontation with the male jamaats and religious elders. This is the major reason for their hostility. However, the jamaats are beginning to recognise the positive role that Sharifa’s group can play and occasionally approach them for intervention.

Muslim Women’s Jamaat meetings are held in a specially constructed hall — a large open room built in traditional style with a high, red-tiled roof. It is built within the precincts of Sharifa’s residence which also houses the office of the NGO she founded, STEPS.

Sharifa Khanam herself has had a turbulent life. Her father died early and her brothers ran the household in traditional, patriarchal style. However, she was given a decent schooling and sent to Aligarh Muslim University for her graduate studies. Unfamiliar with north India, Sharifa was unhappy and dropped out to return to Tamil Nadu. Her elder brother was so angry that he cut off her allowance. Independent by nature, Sharifa decided to support herself by giving tuitions. Then, in1998, she was offered the chance to act as translator at a women’s conference in Patna as she had picked up Hindi in Aligarh and spoke it better than most Tamil women.

The event was an eye-opener for her. “It was the first time that I heard of women’s rights. I was surprised! I realised that these women were speaking of the same kind of oppression that went on in my own house too.”

As an unmarried woman, Sharifa eventually began to feel unwelcome in her family house. “I found myself becoming a third person in my own house. I felt neglected by the family,” she says. In 1987, she set up the organisation STEPS Women’s Development Group. STEPS began functioning in Pudukottai as a community welfare centre for women, but soon it began handling cases on behalf of battered women. In 1991, with the backing of progressive bureaucrat Sheela Rani Chunkath, who was then collector of Pudukottai, Sharifa was able to get a piece of land in the heart of the town and build a room to live in and work out of. In 1995, Sharifa decided to focus on the women of her community since they seemed singularly helpless in the face of dual oppression, both as women and members of a minority community.

In a few short years, Sharifa was able to set up a strong women’s organisation, tackling numerous cases of violence against women and solving matrimonial disputes. Recognition came her way quickly; the STEPS office is decorated with awards and trophies from both local and national organisations including the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development. It is the award money from various organisations, in fact, that enabled the building of the STEPS office — a single room above Sharifa’s home. Accessed by a flight of steps, the room is built from red brick and tile in the Laurie Baker style, allowing in ample natural light, a glimpse of green trees in the neighbouring courtyard, and a breeze that wafts through the room keeping it cool. In this cocoon Sharifa and her staff battle with the grim realities that face them on a daily basis.

Sharifa says that in the last 15 years she has handled around 10,000 petitions from Muslim women alone. Members interact with the police and lawyers to ensure the speedy resolution of cases. “If the response is poor, we take to the streets,” says Sharifa.

In 2004, the intervention of women jamaat members led to the suspension of a few police officers in Annavasal town for “counselling” a rape victim rather than taking action in the case. A 12-year-old girl employed as a domestic help was raped by her employer. The investigation dragged on until the jamaat staged a dharna in front of the office of the superintendent of police and made sure the culprit was brought to book.

In the past 10 years, Sharifa has mobilised women in 10 districts across Tamil Nadu — Trichy, Pudukottai, Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Nagapattinam, Tuticorin and Perambalur. Women jamaat leaders in these districts travel to Muslim residential areas to spread word about the jamaat. They also mobilise women to oppose the three dominant social evils in the Muslim community — ex-parte divorce (talaq), polygamy, and dowry demands..

Taj Begum of Sivaganga district has emerged as a local leader, and the jamaat in her area values her advice. People take cases to her house. She counsels families and only takes the case to the STEPS headquarters if legal intervention is required.

Rashida Begum is typical of some of the younger women who belong to the Muslim Women’s Jamaat. She says: “After getting a talaq I have gained self-confidence. My mother had a difficult marriage and she tolerated so much to be able to bring up her children. But I am educated and can work and earn to bring my child up on my own.”

The Muslim Women’s Jamaat’s major demand is that half the members of the traditional jamaat committees should be female. They want all brides to be at least 21 years old, mehr to be substantial and marriages to be registered with the government. Also, that a woman teacher be appointed in each mosque as, they allege, male hazrats have been accused of misbehaving with girls who go to the mosques to study the Koran.

From the government they demand reservation in education and employment and concessions for the Muslim community on a par with backward classes and the poor. They want employment under NREGA to include home-based occupations that Muslim women do, such as processing of foodstuff and production of goods, craft items etc. Jamaat members recall that when some poor women went to work on a NREGA construction site they were told they could not do the work in a burqua! They also say that land should be distributed to them under the government’s land distribution schemes.

In a dramatic challenge to the patriarchy of the all-male jamaats, the women thought of building their own mosque. A local family agreed to donate the land for the mosque. However, the tremendous publicity that the announcement of the mosque generated led to an angry counter-campaign from the Ulemas. Under pressure, the donors withdrew the offer. Sharifa then decided to build the mosque on her own land. This led to the edict that Islam does not permit an unmarried woman to build a mosque. Sharifa promptly accepted a proposal of marriage from a progressive businessman.

Sharifa visualises the women’s mosque as a place for prayer as well as community service, with a meeting hall, a shelter for destitute women and a training and education centre for girls. It will have a woman priest and other female religious functionaries. Men will be permitted to enter and pray but they will not control the mosque.

Sadly, today the mosque at Thandeeswaram village near Pudukottai town stands built only up to basement level, as the organisation has run out of money to complete it. Despite an organisation to run and a baby girl to take care of, Sharifa, now a feisty 42, plans a fundraising tour in India and abroad. “My target is to raise a million dollars for the women’s mosque” she says, confident that she will achieve her dream.

In an effort to promote women’s empowerment, the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) Tuesday honoured three women, who at the grass root level faced all odds but made significant contribution in the fields of health, education and micro-enterprise. Saluting their spirit and exemplary achievement, the CII gave away the Women Exemplar/Adarsh Stree award, 2008, to Shahana K.T. for her work in the field of education, N. Nandadevi for health, and S. Dhanalakshmi for micro-enterprise.

“I studied up to class 12 but I always had an eagerness within me to do something more. I knew that information technology has the capability to create waves. Therefore, I decided to join a computer institute and learn computer skills,” Shahana, her head covered with a red dupatta and a radiant smile across her face, told IANS after receiving the award.

“After that, I decided to spread my knowledge among others, especially the girls. In Kerala, where I come from, women are literate but most only up to class 10, and then they are married off. With my initiative, I wanted to empower them so that they could get jobs with their newly acquired skills,” she said.

Shahana not only teaches computer skills to children and women, but has also initiated a Bhumi club which aims to circumvent the middlemen and offer the advantage of e-literacy to farmers.

N. Nandadevi, who was honoured for her immense work in the field of health, especially in context of HIV/AIDS in Manipur, her home state, said that the award was a great encouragement for her.

“It feels good when someone recognizes your efforts. I have been working in this field for over 20 years and once in a while, encouragements such as these are needed to boost your morale,” said Nandadevi.

S. Dhanalakshmi, a Dalit woman from Kerala who was awarded for her innovative efforts in mushroom cultivation, said that she now dreams of exporting mushroom.

“The people in my neighbourhood call me Kalan Dhan (wealth of the mushroom),” she said with a smile.

“With this award I hope to rope in more people, especially women, into the field of mushroom cultivation because it requires less capital investment and has large benefits. I also hope to get into export,” she said.

The award, which constitutes a citation, a medal and a cash prize of Rs.100,000 was given away by Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit.

The CII started giving away the Women Exemplar/Adarsh Stree award since 2005 to encourage women from the grass root level to take up initiatives which contribute towards the nation’s development.

A woman haemorrhages to death as she lies screaming in agony in a spartan hut in a remote region of Afghanistan. There is no doctor or midwife to help and the hospital is several days journey away.

Women die this way every day in Afghanistan, a country with one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates.

About 1,600 Afghan women die in childbirth out of every 100,000 live births. In some of the most remote areas, the death rate is as high as 6,500. In comparison, the average rate in developing countries is 450 and in developed countries it is 9.

Virtually everyone in Afghanistan can recount a story about a relative dying in childbirth, often from minor complications that can be easily treated with proper medical care.

Sharifa’s sister, a mother of six, bled to death after giving birth at home.

“There is no clinic, no cars, no proper roads. It is a remote village, we could not take her to hospital. She remained at home for one day and one night, then she died,” recalled Sharifa, who identified herself only by her first name.

Afghanistan’s government aims to reduce maternal mortality by 20 percent by 2020 but there are many obstacles to overcome such as a reluctance by women to be examined by male doctors and a lack of female doctors, nurses and midwives.

Then there are the vast distances in this war-torn country where hospitals are generally poorly equipped and medical help is inaccessible to those living in remote locations.

It is an age old practice for Afghan women in rural areas to deliver babies at home. Trained midwives are rarely in attendance. If there are complications, it might take hours, even days to reach the nearest clinic.

Even when women with labour complications get to hospital alive, there are often no doctors or medical equipment to perform caesarean sections and other life saving procedures.

“In some places, there aren’t even operating theatres and women just wait for their death,” said Rona Azamyan, who coordinates the Midwifery Education Programme in Faizabad.

Among the prime complications of childbirth in Afghanistan are bleeding, infection, hypertension and obstructed labour.

It is not uncommon for girls as young as 13 to marry in Afghanistan and there are often complications when they give birth.

“The mothers are very young, so their (pelvic) bone development is immature,” said Karima Mayar, a family planning team leader at the Ministry of Public Health.

Poor and malnourished, many pregnant women in Afghanistan are severely anaemic.

“If they get post-partum haemorrhage, they will die 100 percent of the time,” said Mayar.

Women’s access to healthcare has generally been poor in deeply conservative Afghanistan.

Afghan men prefer their women to consult only women doctors, but that is easier said than done in a society where there are few female doctors and nurses and little emphasis is placed on educating girls.

The problem got worse during the Taliban regime, when girls were banned from schools and there were severe restrictions placed on women leaving their homes.

During those years, from 1996 to 2001, there were only around 1,000 female healthcare workers in the whole country, staffing female-only hospitals.

But the situation is still far from ideal now, more than six years after the fall of the Taliban, even in places such as the northeastern province of Badakhshan where the town of Faizabad is located. The area is far from fighting with Taliban insurgents.

Only 66 percent of basic healthcare centres have at least one female health worker. Women make up only 23.5 percent of the country’s healthcare workforce and 27 percent of its nursing staff.

“One woman dies every 27 minutes in Afghanistan due to complications in childbirth … and the tragedy doesn’t stop with the mother’s death,” said Mayar.

“When the mother of a newborn dies, 75 percent of these babies die. Who will feed them, keep them warm? There’s an Afghan saying: ‘When the mother dies, the child is sure to die’.”

The government plans to distribute the drug misoprostol to pregnant women in 13 provinces this year.

“We will distribute this to women in their seventh month of pregnancy and they must take it right after delivery. It will remove the placenta and prevent haemorrhage,” Mayar said.

In the pipeline are plans to set up more midwifery schools and assign more female students to medical and nursing schools.

“To reduce maternal mortality, we need 8,000 midwives by 2010 to cover needs of all pregnant women,” said Mayar. There are 2,143 midwives in the country of 26 million people.

But years of neglecting girls’ education is taking its toll.

“In the provinces, the maximum level of education is the 10th grade, but the minimum requirement for entry into nursing school is 12th grade,” said Fatima Mohbat Ali of the Aga Khan Foundation, an aid group in Afghanistan.

Some progress has been made in recent years, owing to government and NGO efforts to improve rural healthcare.

In Badakhshan’s Eshkashem district, which borders Tajikistan, Afghan women have been frequenting the health clinic, the most modern looking facility in a town where most of the 13,000 residents live in mud houses.

From headaches to prenatal checkups, childbirth and advice on contraception, women have been bringing their complaints to the clinic’s female doctor for the last three years.

“Ever since we got an ambulance, a lady doctor, two midwives and an operating theatre three years ago, we have not had a single case of maternal mortality,” said Abdi Mohammad, head of the Eshkashem health clinic and an obstetric surgeon.

The Ntenjeru North MP Sarah Nansubuga Nyombi has asked the police and local leaders in Kayunga District to urgently sensitise residents on how to reduce cases of domestic violence which she said are claiming many lives of women.

Ms Nansubuga was on Tuesday speaking as chief guest during the launch of a women human rights project, Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women project in Kayunga town.

The project is being implemented by the National Association of Women Organisations in Uganda an umbrella organisation for women organisations in Uganda.

The project to be funded by KIOS, a women organisation in Finland and Norway, will be implemented on a pilot in Bbaale and Galilaaya sub-counties.

Ms Nansubuga said according to statistics from police, at least one woman is killed in domestic violence related cases in Kayunga District every two months.

“There is need for the police and local leaders to sensitise our people on how to reduce cases of domestic violence which are claiming many lives of women,” she said. She warned men against battering their wives when they have disputes.

Labor Day Campaign Challenges Employers to ‘Put Yourself in Her Shoes’

Lebanese employers, placement agencies, and the Lebanese authorities should improve the treatment of domestic workers by ensuring fair contracts, timely payment of wages, and a weekly day’s leave, Human Rights Watch said today, on the eve of Labor Day. Human Rights Watch is launching a campaign to highlight the often invisible abuses that many women who are domestic workers suffer in Lebanon.

An estimated 200,000 domestic workers, primarily from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Ethiopia, play an essential role in a large number of Lebanese households, yet remain unprotected by labor laws and are subject to exploitation and frequent abuse by employers and agencies.

“This Labor Day reminds us of the important contributions these women make to this country,” said Nadim Houry, researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They not only pick up the slack in many households in Lebanon, but also help support their own families left behind. While some employers treat domestic workers with respect, many fail to provide minimum standards of decent working conditions, such as adequate food, living accommodations, and regular payment.”

The most common complaints made by domestic workers to embassies and nongovernmental organizations include non-payment or delayed payment of their wages, forced confinement to the workplace, no time off, and verbal, as well as physical, abuse. According to a 2006 survey conducted by Dr. Ray Jureidini of 600 migrant domestic workers, 56 percent said they work more than 12 hours a day and 34 percent have no regular time off. In some cases, workers have died while attempting to escape these conditions, some by jumping from balconies.

“We often hear employers say they cannot give a domestic worker a day off because she will come back pregnant or will want to get paid more after talking to other workers,” said Houry. “These employers may think they are protecting themselves or their workers, but what they are doing constitutes serious violations of basic human rights. The better approach is to build mutual trust.”

Testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch show that some Lebanese recruitment agencies illegally withhold the first few months of domestic workers’ salaries to recoup recruitment costs. The workers also complain that they are often physically and verbally abused by the agencies if they have disputes with their employers.

The Lebanese authorities have failed to curb abuses committed by employers and agencies. Lebanese labor laws specifically exclude domestic workers from rights guaranteed to other workers, such as a weekly day of rest, limits on work hours, paid holidays, and workers’ compensation. Immigration sponsorship laws restrict domestic workers’ ability to change employers, even in cases of abuse. An official steering committee created in early 2006 and led by the Ministry of Labor to improve the legal situation of migrant workers in Lebanon has yet to deliver any concrete reforms. This includes a long-discussed standard contract to outline minimum standards for domestic workers’ employment.

Human Rights Watch called upon the Ministry of Labor and other relevant authorities to amend the labor law to extend equal protection for domestic workers and to sign and ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

“In the absence of effective state regulations, migrants remain at the whims of their employers and employment agencies. The Lebanese government must take immediate action to change that,” said Houry. “But employers and agencies shouldn’t need to be compelled by law to treat migrant domestic workers with decency and respect.”

Human Rights Watch plans to raise awareness among Lebanese employers by distributing leaflets and posters that tackle commonly held “myths” about migrant domestic workers. During the month of May, Lebanese can pick up Human Rights Watch’s leaflets in supermarkets and malls all over Lebanon.

“Many Lebanese themselves have been forced by wars and hardships to emigrate looking for a better life,” said Houry. “We hope that they will see the parallels with the experience of these migrants that came from far away to care for Lebanese families. That’s why we decided to call the campaign, ‘Put yourself in her shoes.’”

With little or no income, Iraqis in Jordan are under increasing pressure, heightening tension in households

A study published in March by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on the mental state of Iraqis in Jordan and Lebanon has pointed to mounting social and economic problems as the cause of increased domestic violence.

“Most families prefer to sweep their problems under the carpet because [to them] reputation matters more than anything else,” said Shankul Kader from the Jordanian-Iraqi Brotherhood Society, a non-governmental organisation trying to help the Iraqi community in Jordan.

“The fact that most men are forced to stay at home due to the lack of jobs, and the lack of social interaction among the refugees, has heightened tension in households,” the study said. It revealed that 15 percent of women interviewed in female-only focus groups reported an increase in family violence.

“A well-raised Iraqi woman should tolerate everything in silence… My husband has no other way to get rid of his anger,” one woman told researchers.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, over half a million Iraqis have moved to Jordan, hoping to return home when things improve.

Most Iraqis in Jordan are middle class, but over the years their savings have run down, and there are few jobs. Only about 22 percent of Iraqi adults in Jordan work; the rest are jobless, according to a recent study by the Norway-based FAFO Institute for Applied International Studies.

A large number of Iraqis rely on financial aid from relatives outside the Middle East, mostly in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Sweden, while others rely on temporary jobs, as immigration rules prevent them from holding permanent jobs.

“Men resort to violence because of social and economic pressures. Iraqis in Jordan are living in constant worry about their future,” Shankul said.

Activists involved in helping Jordanian women survive domestic violence say their doors are open to Iraqi women. Asma Khader, a women’s rights activist and lawyer, said the Jordan Federation for Women is engaged in activities to help abused Iraqi women. “Social barriers remain the biggest challenge in tackling domestic problems,” she told IRIN.

In a declaration adopted on April 30 in Vienna at a conference on domestic violence against women held by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the Austrian Parliament, the participants underlined the urgent need for action in national parliaments in this field, in terms of passing legislation and monitoring its application.

The declaration also recommends that the networking of parliamentarians in the 47 member states should continue and that a Council of Europe framework convention should be drawn up to combat domestic violence.

“In implementing the parliamentary dimension of a Council of Europe campaign, the Assembly initiated a unique form of pan-European co-operation to counter domestic violence,” said PACE President Lluís Maria de Puig. “The Austrian Parliament led the way in Europe by passing exemplary legislation 11 years ago and our parliamentarians must now step up their commitment to give effect in national legislation to the clear political will that has been expressed since the start of the campaign at the end of 2006,” he added.

Nevertheless, “legislative advances are not enough on their own to prevent or curb domestic violence, as demonstrated by the terrifying tragedy which shook Austria recently,” said the Austrian Chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, in an address to the participants. “We all have a responsibility to break the silence surrounding domestic violence and denounce any offences against human dignity.”

For two years, PACE has been raising awareness among parliamentarians in many different countries and urging parliaments to adopt minimum legislative standards on violence against women at the earliest opportunity.

The embassy’s admission came six month after first reported the sharp increase in the incident of the transnational crime in the island-state.

In the report it submitted to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) dated April 28, the Philippine embassy in Singapore reiterated its warning about the dangers of human trafficking.

The warning came in the wake of meetings between the Philippine embassy, Ambassador Steven Steiner of the United States Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and officials from the Philippine Presidential Task Force on Human Trafficking, who went to Singapore to assess the situation there.

In November 2007, posted a special report on the growing number of young Filipino women being lured to Singapore on the false promise of a high-paying job only to end up in prostitution.

The increased incidence of trafficking of Asian women, including Filipinas, to Singapore prompted the United States State Department to downgrade the city-state’s rating from Tier 1 in 2006 to Tier 2 this year.

Philippine Ambassador to Singapore Belen Fule-Anota said Filipinas who want to work overseas must scrutinize their recruiters in the Philippines well and ensure they have valid contracts before leaving the country.

She also advised jobseekers to have their contracts duly verified by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) “before packing their bags for Singapore.”

“They should not allow themselves to be deceived by the sweet tongue and false promises made by sex and labor traffickers because once they reach Singapore, they become more vulnerable to intimidation, deception, and exploitation,” added the ambassador, who has served in the city-state for four years.

Steiner, who visited the Philippine embassy on the sidelines of a meeting in Singapore, acknowledged the ongoing bilateral cooperation between the two countries and the progress being made by the Philippines in fighting trafficking in persons.

He exchanged notes with embassy officials and discussed possible areas for strengthening bilateral cooperation.

In a separate meeting with the two-person team of the Presidential Task Force, the embassy proposed the improvement of inter-agency cooperation, particularly in the areas of rehabilitation, re-integration, and witness protection for the victims, and the prosecution of traffickers.

In a report submitted to the DFA early this year, the embassy in Singapore noted “an alarming increase” of 70 percent in human trafficking cases from 125 in 2006 to 212 in 2007. There were only 59 recorded cases in 2005.

Of the 212 human trafficking victims in 2007, a total of 57, or 27 percent, admitted to either having engaged in prostitution or being coerced by their Filipino and Singaporean handlers to prostitute themselves. Of the 57 victims, 39 were pub workers, 15 worked in escort service, while three were pick-up girls.

The embassy culled data from individual interviews, recorded statements, and affidavits of victims who reported to the embassy in 2007. The number is believed understated.

The Philippines considers trafficking in persons a serious transnational crime and human security issue requiring close international cooperation, particularly between the source and destination countries.

“Victims are considered as trafficked if they have been deceived, coerced or subjected to conditions of exploitation as defined by Republic Act 9208, a Philippine law otherwise known as the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003,” the embassy said in a statement.

It said the Philippine definition of trafficking in persons is consistent with the definition in the United Nations Convention Against Organized Transnational Crime and its two protocols, all of which had been signed and ratified by the Philippines.–embassy

The women of the Philippines must not let this day pass without a prayer of thanksgiving and jubilation. Seventy one years ago today, on April 30, 1937, the women of the Philippines were granted the right to vote and to be voted upon.

The significance of the occasion is highlighted with the fact that because of the granting of women’s rights of suffrage in 1937, the country has a woman, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, as its President today.

Today, the women of the Philippines should take a real serious assessment on how relevant the women’s right of suffrage is especially as the country is beset with the looming food shortage. Is the women’s votes significant enough in the country’s desire to cushion the impact of the impending crisis? Was the vote of the women acknowledged in the coming up of action plans and enhanced agricultural programs to ensure food sufficiency in the country?

For the young women and for those who do not know it, the 1935 Constitutional Convention denied women the right to vote and limited the right of suffrage to male citizens allegedly because “there was no popular demand for the right of suffrage by Filipino women themselves” and that the granting of the right of suffrage to women will only disrupt family unity as the women will plunge into the swamp of politics.

Inching ahead, is how many observers describe the women’s vote in the country. In the 2001 elections for example, the women sector lost its representation with the failure of any women party to reach the 2% threshold of the party-list elections.

The “women working for women” cannot be seen in the result of the elections. As the study conducted by the Ateneo School of Government and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung concluded, “there still exists no sectoral vote. Groups representing sectors cannot rely on their sectoral constituencies to win them seats.”

The absence of a women’s vote is really a wonder considering that there are more women registered voters than men and considering that there is always a higher female voters’ turnout than the male counterpart.

The consolation is that there an incremental increase of women in the various fields of public service. Moreover, women’s expressions of involvement in civil society could be through organizing along gender-specific issues and formation of all-women groups within broad coalitions as power-enhancing mechanisms. Women’s agenda are also integrated in party platforms and even in legislative hearing and consultation. In short, all these are efforts to uplift the status of the Filipina.

As the women of the Philippines remember the granting of the women’s right of suffrage 71 years ago, it is good to pay tribute to the more than 44,000 Filipinas who voted Yes to amend the Constitution and to give women the right to vote.

Recognition is more than ever due to the women leaders of the feminist and women’s groups circa 1900 who banded together under the National Federation of Women’s Clubs of the Philippines, and really worked hard so that the women of today will enjoy equally with men, the right of suffrage.

And what better way for the women of today, to show gratitude for the right of suffrage the women are enjoying now than renewing their advocacy and support for the women’s voice to be heard and for women power to be observed, in mitigating the impact of the impending world food crisis.

After all, the granting of women suffrage meant more that giving the women the power to vote but recognizing women as equal partners of men in deciding the destiny of the nation.

As one travels from urban to rural India, the voices change. They become wary, muted and afraid.

But that’s not without reason. In a town in Gujarat, a group whose identity is virtually a secret, reaches out to each other only through undercover meetings.

Parma is a group that works with the sexually marginalized in Gujarat.

Parma was formed in 2004 in an attempt to reach out to lesbian women in rural Gujarat in adivasi villages and Muslim communities.

The idea was to create a safe space where women could meet.

”The drawback where I come from in Europe is that people no longer believe in love. In India you have stories of two girls in villages running away with each other. Here it’s different. In India love is still simple and pure between same sex partners,” said David, Research Scholar.

Creating a safe space in a state, severely polarised after the 2002 riots is not just difficult but dangerous.

So, Parma works undercover as part of a larger NGO working on developmental issues. Their meetings are held in secret inside a building in a town in Gujarat.

Even their existence is known only to group members who are spread across villages and towns.

In official records Parma does not even exist.

”We work under great pressure. There is such stigma around this kind of love. And since the riots the divide between Hindus and Muslims has widened and we have to find ways to reach out to women within that situation,” said a member of Parma.

”There is no support for such relationships so we do face great pressure. But through the group we are able to support and help each other,” added the Parma member.

It’s the kind of support they do not get from a world, which sees them only through newspaper reports as ‘the other’.

But there is the same love, anger, tears and hope.

”This is the time for us to speak up about our rights. Otherwise we will always be suppressed,” said Mala, Auto Workshop Supervisor.

”It’s about the world being able to see that diverse people have always existed. It’s because they are not able to see that they turn around and say, ”You mean this happens? We thought it does not happen in villages”. Then they think about it and say it’s but natural,” said Maya Sharma, author.

Thus, a virtual world that does not exist for you and me lives on through groups like Parma.

See also Lesbians forced to live in anonymity in India

Girls attending state-run schools in India’s financial capital of Mumbai are ending the school year a little richer than they began it.

For each day a girl showed up in classes, city authorities are paying her 1 rupee — about 2 U.S. cents. Boys continue to take nothing home besides their homework.

The scheme has two aims. One is to improve unimpressive school-attendance rates. The other is part of a broader central government goal of empowering girls and women.

Indian wedding customs mean brides are usually handed over to their husband’s family along with a hefty dowry, so families typically invest more in sons than in daughters — although the gap is far more pronounced in rural India than in Mumbai.

For Mumbai’s schoolgirls the scheme sounds like easy money, but it seems not one of the 220,000 girls attending government schools in the city managed to hit the jackpot.

“We are yet to find a girl who got 100 percent attendance,” said S.S. Shinde, the city’s joint municipal commissioner for education.

A glance at the register at the Bazaar Road Urdu-medium school in the Bandra neighbourhood shows that girls typically missed between 20 and 70 days in the last year.

The authorities are clearly not paying enough, reckoned Baig Noorjahan, the school principal. Nearby, girls in blue uniforms and pigtails squeezed against each other in a tight queue for their money. Boys jumped on top of desks, bhangra dancing.

“One rupee isn’t very much,” Noorjahan said. “The minimum should be five rupees.”

She also could not understand why boys were not included in the scheme. Their attendance is even worse, she said.

“In Indian society, priority is to be given to the girl child,” explained Shinde, echoing a central government mantra. He added in a low whisper that the money was partly intended to be spent on “napkins”, referring to tampons and sanitary towels.

Overhauling the education system — and ensuring it includes girls — is a priority for India. The country’s recent economic success has been powered in large part by the services industry, which is dependent on highly educated employees.

But pupil attendance is not the only problem in the education system. Teachers often fail to show up too, and many are poorly trained. Facilities are rarely more high-tech than a blackboard.

Millions of children have never even enrolled at a school in the first place. And even the most diligent of students are not always taught to aim high.

Ayesha Hanif, 13, is one of the Bazaar Road school’s star pupils. She missed 12 days last year, mostly when she or relatives fell ill. Her mother says she can use her money to buy a dress, but Ayesha wants to put it towards next year’s school fees.

She wants to be an air hostess when she grows up. Her teacher thinks this is much too ambitious.

“How can she dream about being an air hostess?” the teacher said, before pointing out that Ayesha’s father is a mechanic and that her family is poor.

Thailand’s HIV/AIDS prevention and support programs have overlooked the needs of children living with or affected by the virus, Scott Barber, chief of UNICEF’s HIV Section in the country’s capital of Bangkok, said recently, IRIN News reports.

According to a recent UNICEF report, it is estimated that about 50,000 children under age 15 in East Asia and the Pacific are affected by HIV/AIDS. About 10,000 HIV-positive children in the region were receiving antiretroviral drugs in 2006, a 40% increase from 2005. “Just providing (antiretroviral drugs) is not enough,” Barber said, adding that antiretrovirals are “only effective if children take them, and this depends on social support, and the reduction of stigma and discrimination.”

Thailand in 2007 endorsed a call made by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2006 to put children at the center of HIV/AIDS strategies in the region, IRIN News reports. Several countries in the region have since implemented national strategies aimed at reducing mother-to-child HIV transmission and addressing the virus among children.

MTCT in Thailand has decreased in recent years, with 80% of HIV-positive pregnant women in the country receiving antiretrovirals. Fiji and Malaysia also have had success in reducing MTCT, according to UNICEF. However, in some developing countries in the region, only 30% of pregnant HIV-positive women receive treatment, IRIN News reports.

Chutima Salsaengjan — a social worker with the Thai nongovernmental organization We Understand Group, which organizes art and drama programs for children living with HIV/AIDS — said it is “important to treat [HIV] but also important to help children cope” with the virus. “For children, small things can make a big difference,” she said.

The continuous demand for sex services is the main reason why cases of sex trafficking are rising in almost any part of the world.

This is why Shared Hope International is focusing on an anti-demand campaign, according to its director of programs, Samantha Vardaman.

Shared Hope International was founded by then-Congresswoman Linda Smith, R-Wash., in 1998, that aims to rescue and restore women and children in crisis.

“Demand is the number one public enemy of the rising figures in sex trafficking because if people are not demanding sexual services, there won’t be a supply of commercial sex traffickers or pimps, and no business going on,” Vardaman said during the Rotary Club’s regular meeting at the Hyatt Regency Saipan in CNMI.

“The demand for sex services comes from the consumers, buyers or whatever you may call the individuals who are paying for commercial sex activities, and as long as they are there, the problem of sex trafficking will always be there,” Vardaman said.

She added that sex trafficking is not limited to the physical aspect but it includes meeting the demand for commercial sexual entertainment at the strip clubs, gentlemen’s clubs, pornography and other forms.

Vardaman noted that in the CNMI, only very few cases of human trafficking in minors occur due to the close community ties the people share.

“The CNMI has been included in the 10 locations that we are conducting an assessment for human and sex trafficking cases, but this does not mean the commonwealth made it to the top ranks,” she said.

“The close ties serve as a safety net for minors in the CNMI and the islands are spared from the tragic things that are happening in bigger cities,” Vardaman said.

However, she said this is not an assurance that the community can relax as she urged everybody to keep their eyes open and watch for anything that’s out of the ordinary.

“If you see a minor girl walking out in Garapan at midnight dressed in questionable clothes, this is something odd and you should call the Department of Public Safety, the Crime Stoppers or other agencies to prevent anything before it gets complicated,” she said.

She added that the U.S. Department of Justice funded 10 new areas for human trafficking task force in addition to the existing 32 locations operating throughout America.

“Anyone under 18 who has been exploited sexually are a victims of human trafficking. There’s no need to prove any kind of coercion even if the girl has actively participated, she is a child and she is a victim,” she said.

The other nine areas are Clearwater Florida, Baton Rouge Los Angeles, Independence Missouri. Las Vegas, Nevada, Buffalo, N.Y, Salt Lake City, Utah, Fort Worth San Antonio and Dallas Metropolitan Police Department in Texas.

Of the 10 locations, Vardaman said the numbers of juveniles arrested for prostitution in Las Vegas reached a hundred a month, the highest so far.

She said they are working with agencies in the CNMI that touch on issues involving minors like juvenile detention, police, the Public Defender’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, social workers, and others to identify problems and come up with recommendations.

Do customers care where the prostitutes come from and how they got there?

Trafficking and forced prostitution are on the rise, and the EU countries’ complicated prostitution laws make prosecution difficult. An aid organization has opened its 12th office in Germany to advise women in need.

Some 700,000 women are trafficked to western Europe every year, said lawyer Birgit Thoma, who works for Solwodi, or Solidarity with Women in Distress.

Affordable transport and instant communication have led to an increase in trafficking over past 10 years, with the trade now worth an estimated $30 billion (18.8 billion euros) globally, according to a United Nations report.

For many years the focus was on human trafficking from eastern Europe, but when the EU expanded — mainly to the east and south — in 2004, the legal status of women in the new member states changed. That’s led Solwodi to shift its focuses to African women who are forced into prostitution in Europe.

Thoma said foreigners make up some 70 percent of people in Germany’s sex trade. While exact figures aren’t available, she estimated that about 100,000 women from Nigeria alone have been trafficked to western Europe.

Women victimize women

Unlike tactics used in eastern Europe, African women are often lured with marriage deals. The traffickers don’t belong to large mafia gangs, but are organized in smaller, inconspicuous networks.

“Often the criminals are women,” said Thoma. “These are the so-called ‘mesdames,’ most of whom used to be victims themselves.”

Voodoo rituals are often used to scare and psychologically intimidate the women, she added.

“Priests force them not to say where they’re going and what happens to them,” Thoma said. “Otherwise something will happen not only to their families, but sickness, death or curses will come over them too.”

In 1985, the Catholic nun Lea Ackermann founded Solwodi in Kenya to assist women whose financial desperation had led to a life of prostitution. Three years later, the first Solwodi branch was founded in Germany as a refuge for foreign women who had become victims of forced prostitution or trafficking.

Europe revises legal framework

Prostitution is legal in Germany, which creates obstacles to uncovering and prosecuting cases of trafficking. Since around 30 percent of trafficked women were aware beforehand that they would end up working in the sex trade, it is difficult to collect evidence proving they were forced into prostitution, Thoma said.

However, forced prostitution was redefined in 2005 when EU standards were applied to German law. As a result, human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is no longer a sex crime but a “crime against physical integrity and against freedom,” Thoma explained.

She added that the law’s inclusion of robbing people of their freedom was a better description of forced prostitution than labeling it a sex crime.

Germany is not alone in rethinking its laws surrounding prostitution. Sweden was the first in Europe to outlaw paying for sex in 1999. Last week, Norway’s government proposed to fine or jail clients of prostitutes for up to six months in an effort to counteract trafficking and lower demand.

In Britain, where paid sex is legal but prostitutes aren’t allowed to solicit in public, a group of Labour MPs have advocated for replacing criminal penalties for street prostitutes with mandatory counseling programs to get them out of the business.

“We don’t criminalize people who sell kidneys, we criminalize the buyer,” Labour MP Fiona MacTaggart told Reuters news agency.

Address the problem at its roots

The justice system also makes it difficult prosecute traffickers who force women into marriage. Victims of this crime have to prove that they suffered threats or abuse — not only that they forced to marry against their will. These women also risk penalties if they are shown to have married only to acquire a residence permit.

For those without residence permits, a new law in Germany aims to encourage them to testify against their traffickers. After the initial three-month tourist visa, trafficking victims are granted an additional six months to consider whether to press charges.

“If they don’t testify, they’re deported,” said Thoma. “But if they testify, they get a residence permit for the duration of the criminal proceedings.”

But ultimately, trafficking needs to be addressed from the bottom up, said the lawyer. That means pulling the women out of poverty and offering them a chance to improve their lives.

“We have to create more possibilities for education there and improve the overall living situation for the women,” she said.,2144,3283530,00.html

Almost seven out of 10 Italian gynaecologists refuse to carry out abortions, citing reasons of conscience.

The latest figures represent a big jump from earlier levels and come amid mounting hostility to Italy’s 1978 abortion law.

According to a report to parliament by the health ministry, 69% of gynaecologists working for Italy’s health service in 2006 were registered as “conscientious objectors”.

The figure three years earlier was 59%. In some areas, particularly the south, the number refusing to cooperate with the law constituted a serious obstacle for women seeking an abortion.

Britain marked the 40th anniversary of the day the Abortion Act which came into force on April 28, 1968.

Studies by the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organisation, published last October, show the number of abortions worldwide fell to less than 42 million in 2003 from 46 million in 1995.

Here is an overview of the abortion law in some countries:

UNITED KINGDOM – Abortion has been legal in Britain since 1968 for pregnancies up to 24 weeks. The British law does not apply to Northern Ireland, which retains many restrictions on abortion.

CHINA – The world’s most populous country with 1.2 billion people, China limits most families to one child and encourages abortion as a way of controlling population growth.

INDIA – With a population of more than 1 billion, India allows abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy if a qualified doctor says it is necessary to save the mother’s life. If the pregnancy is more than 12 weeks but less than 20, two registered medical practitioners must agree an abortion is necessary. The written consent of the woman, or of the guardian if the woman is under 18 or mentally challenged, is required for an abortion.

AUSTRALIA – Abortion is not legal in six states and two territories, but is officially allowed if a woman’s life is at risk. Many women circumvent the law using 1960s and 1970s common law rulings which permit abortion on social and economic grounds. Restrictions on abortion vary by jurisdiction and women are allowed abortion on demand in the state of Western Australia.

EUROPE – The legal abortion period is 10 weeks in France, Greece, Denmark, Norway and Portugal, 12 weeks in Germany, Belgium and Austria and 22 to 24 weeks in Britain, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Malta, Ireland and Poland still have highly restrictive abortion laws.

ITALY – Abortion was legalized in Italy in 1978 and upheld in a referendum in 1981. The law allows abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and until the 24th week if the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus is seriously malformed.

RUSSIA – Russia was the first country to legalize abortion in 1920, although the law was repealed in 1936 and abortion remained illegal until 1955. Abortion requires the consent of the pregnant woman and should be performed by a licensed physician in a hospital. It is allowed on request during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and between 12 and 28 weeks from conception on judicial, genetic, vital, broad medical and social grounds, and for personal reasons with the special authorization of a commission of local physicians.

POLAND – The 1993 law allows abortion only if pregnancy threatens a woman’s life or health, results from rape or incest, or if the fetus is irreparably damaged. In 1996 it was liberalized to allow women to end a pregnancy before the 12th week because of poverty or other social problems.

MUSLIM COUNTRIES – Islam bans the abortion of a living fetus, but some countries like Syria allow abortion in cases where there is a pressing medical need, such as a danger to the mother’s health.

ISRAEL – A woman may terminate a pregnancy if she is not married, or if the pregnancy is the outcome of rape or poses health risks. Abortions are also allowed for women younger than 17 or older than 40.

SOUTH KOREA – The law allows abortion only if the mother’s health is at risk, the baby has severe defects or if the pregnancy is caused by a sexual crime. Doctors can face up to two years in prison or lose their license for illegal abortions, though very few cases have come to court.

PHILIPPINES – Women who terminate a pregnancy risk prosecution and up to six years in jail. Abortion is legal if it is necessary to save a woman’s life. Every year nearly half a million women have abortions in the Philippines despite legal restrictions.

UNITED STATES – The Supreme Court in its landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 ruled by a 7-2 vote that women have a constitutional right to an abortion, making abortions legal throughout the nation. In 1992, the court allowed some new restrictions as long as they do not impose an “undue burden” on pregnant women.

CANADA – Abortion has been legal, for any reason at any time up to delivery, since the Supreme Court struck down an anti-abortion law in 1988.

Sources: Reuters; United Nations –; World Health Organisation