Archive for June 5th, 2008

As the sun set on a recent day, police arrested a teenage prostitute strutting down International Boulevard in a short black dress and gold heels – “Daddy” tattooed on her neck – before pulling over her pimp in a car.

Minutes later, they arrested another pimp with two more teenagers and, a few blocks away, yet another teenager whom they tried to coax into identifying her pimp.

In this city, which Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, D-Alameda, calls the epicenter of prostitution in Northern California, authorities are taking a new approach to combat the world’s oldest trade.

Traditionally, police have focused on getting prostitutes off the street by arresting them – only to rearrest them a short time later because of the light sentences they receive.

But when the Oakland Police Department noticed a dramatic increase in underage prostitutes a few years ago, it set out to put away pimps and treat underage prostitutes as victims.

Under a bill by Swanson, Oakland’s approach would become a pilot program in Alameda County that could become a model for the state.

Assembly Bill 499 would connect minors caught in the sex trade with social services in an effort to provide them a lifeline out of prostitution.

Judges would have the option of placing minors in a diversionary program instead of on probation. Police and prosecutors would work with minors who want to bring charges against their pimps.

“Some of these young people were in the foster care system, some are runaways and homeless, and many have been sexually abused,” said Swanson, whose bill cleared the Assembly on a 72-0 vote and will be heard next month in the Senate.

Swanson said AB 499 would lead to enhanced sentences for pimps if Oakland’s pilot program is replicated statewide.

“By working with the victims – and that’s what these young people are – and getting their cooperation, we can go after the pimps and prosecute them for sexual abuse so they don’t victimize any more people,” Swanson said.

Convictions for human trafficking and sexual assault now carry sentences that range from four to 14 years. But someone convicted of kidnapping a minor could be sentenced to life in prison.

In Oakland, police have been working with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office to build multiple-count cases that AB 499 supporters hope would be expanded.

Lt. Kevin Wiley, who established the Oakland Police Child Exploitation Unit a decade ago, said the goal is to link a pimp to every sexual assault an underage prostitute has suffered because of him.

“If he’s setting her up to be raped by a man, he’s now responsible for that individual act as well,” Wiley said. “Our District Attorney’s Office has researched these laws, they have gone for the throat, and the message has been sent.”

Wiley blames “the pimp-prostitute subculture” that’s been glamorized in urban culture for the growth of prostitution. Pimps prey on abused children, he said, showering them with attention that they never received at home.

“These guys sell them a load of goods about traveling to Vegas and Reno, wearing nice clothes and driving fancy cars – the fast life (and the) ongoing drama,” Wiley said.

Children’s advocates, including the Sexually Exploited Minors Network, a group of Alameda County social service and law enforcement agencies that asked Swanson to carry the bill, say such children should not be treated like criminals.

Currently, minors detained for prostitution go through the juvenile justice system with little treatment. Existing law also requires the release within 48 hours of a minor who is suspected of being abused or neglected, unless a petition has been filed to declare the child a dependent of the court.

“This legislation will allow the courts to get involved so they can help, after proper evaluation, identify the young people who are involved and provide them with alternatives,” Swanson said.

Under AB 499, a pilot program would be created until 2012 in Alameda County. It would establish a standardized training curriculum for law enforcement, judges and social service agencies to assess and treat sexually abused minors.

Recognizing the state’s budget crisis, the legislation calls for use of existing local resources to minimize the fiscal impact.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, hopes the legislation ultimately will be expanded statewide.

“It’s certainly something that could be used in Los Angeles,” Bass said.

According to some law enforcement officials, prostitution has increased on the streets of many cities as an alternative to drug dealing, which carries harsher prison sentences.

Young prostitutes bring in the most money, and the number of sexually exploited minors has tripled in Northern California since 2002, according to the groups sponsoring the measure.

Wiley asks his officers “to look beneath the surface” for the root causes of a particular case.

“You see a girl out there that’s being exploited, but you don’t know what put her in that pickle,” he said. “That’s why training is crucial, a coordinated effort, the advocacy portion, to build that trust, that foundation.”

Wiley said AB 499 “formalizes our law enforcement response” to the problem “making it victim-centered, victim-driven, as opposed to offender cases.”

“You can’t completely lose the enforcement tool,” Wiley said. “But you don’t want to set the law where you absolutely have to treat them all as offenders.”

But there are limits to what the cash-strapped Oakland Police Department can do. The Child Exploitation Unit has only four officers.

Meanwhile, Oakland has one of the highest crime rates in the state. Wiley’s unit has only enough resources to conduct once-a-week sweeps in areas frequented by prostitutes.

Last year, 443 females were arrested for prostitution in the city, including 29 minors, Wiley said. But on streets in some sections of International Boulevard and San Pablo Avenue, each day brings a bazaar of sex for sale.

Officer Jim Saleda, an Iraq war veteran who has worked in the Child Exploitation Unit since its inception, has seen girls as young as 11 put out on the street.

Most minors Saleda sees come from poor families. But he said no demographic group is immune; he once picked up a girl from the affluent East Bay community of Kensington.

Saleda calls pimps who prey on children “savages and parasites.”

“We’re never going to end this,” he said at the end of a 15-hour day. “But anything we do to reduce it, I’m for it.”

The number of sex workers in New Zealand does not appear to have increased since legislation decriminalising prostitution became law, according to a new report.

The Prostitution Law Review Committee was set up to report on the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 three to five years after the act came into force.

Its report, just published, was based on work carried out by the Christchurch School of Medicine and Victoria University’s Crime and Justice Research Centre.

The committee, chaired by former Police Assistant Commissioner Paul Fitzharris, said an accurate count of the number of sex workers was difficult.

However, a comparison between the number of sex workers in Christchurch in 1999, before decriminalisation, and 2006 – after the act was passed – showed the total had stayed about the same.

A 2007 estimate in five centres – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Hawkes Bay and Nelson – found a total of 2332 sex workers, the committee said.

Numbers of sex workers should continue to be monitored, it said.

Around 93 per cent of sex workers cited money as the reason for getting into and staying in the sex industry.

“The most significant barriers to exiting are loss of income, reluctance to lose the flexible working hours available in the sex industry and the camaraderie and sense of belonging that some sex workers describe.”

The committee said a Christchurch School of Medicine survey found that more than 90 per cent felt they had legal rights under the act.

More than 60 per cent felt they were more able to refuse to provide commercial sexual services to a particular client since the enactment of the law.

Before the act, the illicit status of the industry meant workers were open to coercion and exploitation by managers, pimps and clients. Research indicated there had been “some improvement” in employment conditions “but this is by no means universal”.

Generally, brothels that had treated their workers fairly before the act continued to do so, while those that did not, continued to have unfair management practices, it said.

“The committee recommends that the sex industry, with the help of the Department of Labour and others, moves towards written, best-practice employment contracts … becoming standard for sex workers working in brothels.”

Other findings included that the majority of sex workers felt the act could do little about violence that occurred, although a significant majority felt there had been an improvement since the passing of the act.

The legislation made it an offence to arrange for or to receive, or facilitate or receive payment for, commercial sexual services from a person under 18.

The committee said the threshold of 18 should remain.

It found 1.3 per cent of sex workers were under age but did not believe the act had resulted in more underage people working in the industry.

Other recommendations included that the Government provide additional funding to the Ministry of Health to enable medical officers of health to carry out regular inspections of brothels.

It also said the Government should provide funding so that non-government organisations could provide services, including assistance with exiting for those who wanted to quit sex work.

Associate Justice Minister Lianne Dalziel said the report showed the act had had a positive effect on the health and safety of sex workers and had not led to an increase in numbers of sex workers as predicted by critics of the law reform.

Thousands of sex-trade workers will be trafficked into Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics, and so British Columbia must take action now to halt an increase in sex tourism, a group of international transition-house workers warned.

The group, in Vancouver for a conference, is calling on governments to provide more support for women working the streets – which does not include a fledgling initiative to create a legal brothel in time for the Winter Games.

Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, said there is anecdotal evidence from social service agencies in Salt Lake City that many sex-trade workers were imported into Utah for the 2006 Winter Olympics, and that similar observations were made during the 2004 Games in Athens and the 2006 soccer World Cup in Germany.

“We really are all at the front end of an issue that we have the opportunity to make a difference in,” she said at a news conference organized by Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter.

Marai Larasi, chief executive of London’s Nia Project, which advocates for the safety of women and children, said British social service agencies are already discussing how to protect sex-trade workers during that city’s 2012 Summer Games.

But she said legalizing prostitution is not being discussed.

In Vancouver, a sex-trade workers’ co-operative led by advocate Susan Davis is developing plans for several arts and business initiatives, including the opening of a legal brothel by 2010.

Davis argued there is proof in a recent report from New Zealand that brothels are safer for women than the streets.

“We need to try something new. It’s been 100 years and it just isn’t working,” she said of Vancouver’s sex trade.

However, before a brothel can become a reality, the co-operative must first convince the federal government to grant it amnesty from Criminal Code provisions governing adult prostitution.

The federal Conservatives haven’t warmed to the idea, but Davis is working with NDP member of Parliament Libby Davies on some possible solutions.

“They are trying to develop something that they believe will create a much safer environment that they will control,” said Davies, who participated in a parliamentary committee studying prostitution laws.

“No one is talking about legalization. No one is talking about setting up some sort of state-sanctioned commercialized sex trade.”

Organisers of a campaign to educate Euro 2008 fans about the horrors of human trafficking have accused two of the tournament’s host cities of censoring their project.

The campaigners, who have received financial backing from the Swiss government, announced on Friday that their 60-second film would be shown after 11 p.m. only in Basel’s public viewing areas and not at all in Geneva.

The deliberately provocative campaign depicts battered women being forced into a dingy auction pit and sold into the sex trade.

“Showing the film after 11 o’clock is the same as censoring it and demonstrates that Basel is not ready to broach the issue of trafficking in women,” campaign co-president Ruth Gaby-Vermot said in a statement.

The last matches at Euro 2008 are due to begin at 2045, meaning that most supporters will have left the fan zones by the time the campaign is aired.

The campaigners said that Switzerland’s other host cities Berne and Zurich would show the film as promised.

“The chance to inform many spectators about this terrible violation of human rights seems to be more important to Berne and Zurich than possible concerns that the ad might not fit in with their image,” the statement added.

The campaigners said that European soccer’s governing body UEFA had also agreed to show the film to fans in the match stadiums. It will also be aired on Swiss television.

Geneva’s Euro 2008 organising committee spokesman Laurent Forestier confirmed that the film would not be shown in the city’s fan zones.

“We are not opposed to the campaign, and we have even supported it financially but we do not think it belongs in the fan zone, simply because we do not see any link to football,” Forestier said.

Basel’s Euro 2008 organisers said the graphic nature of the film had led them to impose the 11 p.m. watershed.

“We took the decision because it is a fairly hard-hitting film and we did not think it was something that should necessarily be seen by children,” Basel spokesman Jakob Gubler said.

“It has nothing to do with censorship. We cannot affect the times that the matches finish but we think there will still be a lot of supporters staying in the fan zones even when the games are over.”

The human trafficking campaigners told Reuters this week that they were not anticipating a rise in prostitution as a direct result of the soccer tournament.

Instead they want to use the event to target men from across Europe who might have contact with victims of forced prostitution once they return to their home countries.

The campaigners said it was hard to calculate how many women were forced into prostitution in Switzerland itself since many were reluctant to testify against their abusers while others were swiftly deported without having the chance to tell their story.

Gaby-Vermot said rough estimates had suggested there were up to 3,000 women in Switzerland who had been sold against their will into prostitution.

AFL football can be a violent game. But on Saturday night at the game’s most sacred sporting field in Melbourne, players from two of the league’s oldest clubs stood in silence to make a statement against violence towards women and children in Australia.

As Essendon and Richmond lined up before their annual Dreamtime at the ‘G match, which pays tribute to Indigenous players’ contribution to the game, players stood still and locked arms in a statement of unity against violence to women and children in Australia.

ABC Northern Territory Grandstand presenter and inaugural chairman of the Territory’s Families and Communities Council, Charlie King, is spearheading the “No More” campaign.

“Whenever we talk about issues of domestic violence, family violence, child abuse, the audience is always women and I’ve had great concerns about that over the years and I want men to be part of that discussion as well,” King said.

“So at very least what we want out of this is for men to stop for a moment to think, ‘I have a responsibility here.'”

AFL players have made news headlines in the past for bad behaviour towards women.

Wayne Carey is arguably one of the game’s greatest players.

But Carey has been in several high-profile incidents, including grabbing a woman’s breast on a Melbourne street after a 12-hour drinking binge and recently being arrested for allegedly smashing a glass across his girlfriend’s face.

Postmodern feminist and writer Professor Catherine Lumby was appointed by the National Rugby League as a specialist adviser in the area of gender politics.

“I think it is very important that we are sending this message to young men that violence towards women is wrong, so I think it is a terrific initiative, as long as it’s backed up, not just talking the talk but walking the walk,” Professor Lumby said.

Richmond’s football director, Greg Miller, first saw players lock arms on the dusty fields of Alice Springs over Easter, and says the symbol has substance.

“The message has got to be driven by men to stop other men committing any sort of violence against women or any child abuse at all,” Miller said.

He says the AFL as well as the clubs are very supportive of player education even though it is not an official AFL initiative.

“The AFL Players’ Association, the AFL and our club, all of us run induction programs,” Miller said.

“We talk about drugs, we talk about violence against women, we talk about behaviour around women, we talk about all social issues and their responsibly as role models in the community to deliver the right message and behave in the right fashion.

“So the education process starts the minute the player arrives at the footy club.”

But King says he wants more than just an annual commitment by the AFL to support the stance.

“I would like to see a campaign where we call on 1 million or 2 million men to stand together on a particular day for their family,” he said.

“For too long men have been left out of the picture here. We as adults in Australia should be judged on our ability to care and protect our family.”

For the record, the Tigers defeated the Bombers by 38 points on the night, but the real success will hopefully be a united stance against violence on women and children.

Victorian MPs will decide whether abortion should no longer be considered a crime in Victoria by the end of the year, after a ground-breaking State Government commitment to bring on a conscience vote on the divisive issue.

The Brumby Government is considering three options for the decriminalisation of abortion – the most liberal of which provides almost complete freedom of choice – recommended by the Victorian Law Reform Commission.

Cabinet will decide the Government’s preferred model for removing abortion from the Crimes Act within months.

Labor, Liberal and National MPs have all been given a conscience vote on the emotive issue. The first option would put the onus of deciding whether the continuation of a woman’s pregnancy posed a risk of harm to the mother on the doctor.

In the second option, the onus shifts to the consent of a woman, but only up to 24 weeks’ gestation. After then, an abortion would be lawful only if a doctor deemed that continuing the pregnancy posed a risk of harm.

In the final option, a woman’s consent would provide for lawful abortion throughout pregnancy.

Yesterday’s release of the decriminalisation options immediately reignited the abortion debate with pro-choice groups, including the Greens, urging the Government to adopt the most liberal option, declaring it was no longer appropriate for doctors and politicians to tell women what to do with their bodies.

But anti-abortion groups branded all three options, and the move towards decriminalisation as “state-licensed killing of defenceless children”.

The Law Reform Commission was asked to provide options to decriminalise abortion that reflected current clinical practice and would not increase the number of abortions or restrict access to abortions.

Commission chairman Neil Rees said 80% of the submissions were from anti-abortionists but its report found that 10% of people were very strongly opposed to abortion.

Premier John Brumby, who supports decriminalisation, declined to give his opinion on the options. Coalition leader Ted Baillieu, who is pro-choice, backed the need for changes to abortion laws but would not endorse one of the models.

Spokeswoman for Pro-Choice Victoria, Leslie Cannold, backed the most liberal option for abortion law change. She said that regardless of whether the law is constructed to be restrictive or liberal, the bill will not affect the number of abortions.

Health Services Commissioner Beth Wilson said the liberal model gave a woman maximum choice. But she said a limit of 24 weeks on abortions was “completely arbitrary”.

There are about 19,000 abortions in Victoria each year, of which about 300 are performed after 20 weeks.

Long-time campaigner for abortion law reform, Jo Wainer, said the first two options will leave the issue unsettled and abortion law will come before Parliament again.

Democratic Labor Party MP Peter Kavanagh said all of the proposals involved the killing of people, because life started at conception. President of Right to Life Australia, Margaret Tighe, said the report’s release was a “black day for Victoria”.

Better education and easier access to contraceptives has significantly cut the number of abortions sought by Canadian women, particularly teenage girls.

Statistics Canada reported Wednesday that Canada’s abortion rate declined by 3.2 per cent overall in 2005, with abortions among teens dropping by almost six per cent.

The drop in teen abortions follows a quarter-century decline in teen pregnancy rates, which experts link to the efficacy of safe-sex campaigns.

But while easier access to contraceptives and widespread campaigns about the need to prevent sexually transmitted diseases likely played a role, the decline in teen pregnancies also reflects a “fundamental change” in the lives of women, said Alex McKay, of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada.

“Over the last quarter-century, many more young women have had access to higher education, better employment opportunities. For many years, they had increasing access to better and more comprehensive health care, including reproductive health care,” he said.

“Those things tend to correlate strongly with declining pregnancy rates.”

And it’s not just teens.

“Women are exercising greater control over their fertility, progressively so and that, with respect to the general health and well-being of women, is a positive signal,” McKay said.

Statistics Canada reported 96,815 abortions were performed on Canadian women in 2005, down 3.2 per cent from 100,039 in 2004.

As a result, the abortion rate slipped to 14.1 for every 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 in 2005 from 14.6 in 2004.

While that seems like a small drop, Dr. Andre Lalonde of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, said it’s a significant change.

“The decrease appears to be modest, but it’s more than modest because since 2000 the population has increased,” he said.

Abortions were most common among women in their early 20s, who accounted for 31 per cent of all abortions in 2005. On average, 28 women out of every 1,000 aged 20 to 24 obtained an induced abortion.

But the agency reported abortion rates fell in every age group except among women aged 35 to 39, where it remained unchanged.

Lalonde said his group’s studies suggest that while younger women tend to use contraception, older women may drop it if they aren’t in a relationship.

“Then, they may decide to have sex very suddenly and that makes it difficult.”

The steepest decline in rates occurred among teenagers, to 13 for every 1,000 in 2005 from 13.8 in 2004. The rate of teen abortion peaked at 18.9 in 1996 and has been on the decline ever since.

McKay said far fewer Canadian teens get pregnant than teenagers in either the United States or Britain.

“The teen pregnancy rates in Canada have been, and continue to be, consistently and significantly lower than both the U.K. and the United States,” he said. “Typically speaking, the teen pregnancy rate in Canada is roughly half of what it is in the United States.”

One reason for that may be that poor, inner city teens in the U.S. don’t have the access to health care and education that their Canadian counterparts do.

Statistics Canada said there were 18.6 live births for every 1,000 women under 20 in 1996. By 2005, this had dropped to 11.1. Meanwhile, the number of abortions for every 100 live births fell to 28.3 in 2005 from 29.7 in 2004.

Lalonde said the number of abortions is still too high.

“We still think that 96,000 abortions is a lot of abortions,” he said. “We’d like to see a figure go way below 50,000 because that means . . . men and women in this country would protect themselves and decrease or eliminate unwanted pregnancies.”

See also: Abortion Rate Declines In Canada; Experts Question Data Collection Method

Women’s groups reacted with disbelief Wednesday over a decision by Justice Minister Cecil Clarke to block a Liberal-sponsored bill designed to help reduce domestic violence.

Clarke, meantime, wasn’t backing down from his refusal a day earlier to call the bill for a vote in the legislature.

The minister said he acted on “a matter of principle” because a deal to support a Conservative bill about the sale of stolen scrap metals was broken by the Liberals and voted down in committee.

Joanne Bernard, executive director of Alice Housing, a women’s shelter in Dartmouth, said her initial reaction to Clarke’s decision was disbelief.

“I’ve often wondered what value the government puts on the lives of women and children in Nova Scotia and now I have my answer. It’s less than scrap metal,” she said.

Clarke was adamant Wednesday that his comments were more about the politics surrounding the bill.

He then announced the government would establish a committee to study the problem of domestic violence. The committee will examine prevention initiatives, public education and victim support services.

Clarke also said he didn’t feel the need to apologize for the disappointment felt by groups that backed the Liberal bill.

He maintained that if anyone needs to apologize, it’s the bill’s sponsor, Liberal Diana Whalen, who he accused of breaking the deal and questioning his integrity.

“I understand the frustration of any of the stakeholders that will want to see this move forward … but if a member wants to politicize a process, then they need to be held accountable as well,” said Clarke.

Whalen said an apology wasn’t necessary because she did nothing wrong.

“I was unaware and I am still unaware of any deal,” she said. “Nobody spoke to me about anything like that. No clear line was drawn.”

She said she remained perplexed by the government retaliation because fellow Liberal Michel Samson also voted against the scrap metal bill, but was able to get one of his own bills through the house.

As for the move to announce the committee on domestic violence, Whalen accused the government of “some really fast damage control.”

“I’m really glad something is moving forward because my fear … was that the door had been slammed on this initiative,” she said.

Premier Rodney MacDonald supported Clarke’s handling of the dispute.

He said government officials had been working on the committee for months and legislation to put it in place wasn’t necessary.

But Pamela Harrison of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia, which operates shelters for abused women, said the government’s committee on domestic violence was news to her.

Harrison said she hoped, though, that it signals a change of heart on the position the government expressed in the legislature.

“I was really sick with disappointment,” she said. “We all worked really hard on moving this bill forward.

“I would like to think that the minister of justice realizes that the decision he made last night for whatever reason was not the best to move towards crime prevention in Nova Scotia.”

The committee co-chairs will be announced during an initial meeting next month. One co-chair will come from the Justice Department while the other will be a community representative.

The government said the committee will begin consultations in the fall.

See also:

’I’ve always wondered what value government puts on women and children, and last night I got my answer — it’s less than scrap metal.’ Joanne Bernard Women’s shelter director

Earlier this year, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that the U.S. do more to “prevent and punish violence and abuse against women belonging to racial, ethnic, and national minorities.” Now, the New York Legislature can take action. A recently reintroduced bill, which the Legislature has let languish in various versions for the past two decades, would ensure that the state’s family courts’ doors are open to all who need civil protective orders against domestic violence.

Right now, the family court law keeps those doors open only to victims who are or have been married to or have a child in common with their abuser. This means that many domestic violence victims, including individuals in same-sex couples or dating relationships, have to accuse their partner of a crime before they can get protection.

Remarkably, New York is the only state in the nation with this narrow a law. Every other state, at a minimum, allows people who live with their abuser to seek a civil protective order. And many provide far more protection, enabling anyone being abused by a current or former intimate partner to seek civil law protection.

For many women of color and many immigrants, New York’s rule is particularly devastating. As reported in “Race Realities in New York City,” a volume submitted to the UN committee by New York City advocacy groups, the criminal protective order process poses risks that, for some, can be as serious as the abuse.

Before a criminal court can grant a protective order, the police must arrest the abuser and then turn the case over to a prosecutor. In family court, by contrast, the victim can begin a complaint on her (or his) own, and go before a judge trained to hear protective order petitions in domestic violence cases.

For many people of color who live in communities that fear police abuse, inviting the police to arrest a boyfriend or girlfriend may carry such serious consequences that they would rather suffer dangerous abuse in silence. For immigrants who live in fear of deportation, calling in the police is also often unimaginable, even when the abuse is horrific. Though victims want the abuse to stop, most do not want to put the abuser – or themselves – at risk of deportation.

Many lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender individuals sense themselves to be similarly vulnerable, with fears that the police will not understand their relationships, or, worse, will doubt that domestic violence can occur between same-sex partners.

New York’s current law not only causes harm through its different treatment of similarly situated domestic violence victims, but it also violates the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, ratified by the U.S. in 1994. The Convention requires the states, as well as the federal government, to ensure equal treatment in courts and eliminate laws that have the “purpose or effect” of causing race- or ethnicity-based harms.

Again, there is an easy solution. The Fair Access to Family Court bill would ensure family court access to anyone who is abused by an intimate partner, regardless of marital status. The bill has already passed the Assembly. Now it is the New York state Senate’s turn to act.

Passing this bill would eliminate the disparate racial impact of the current family court rules. It would bring New York closer to complying with international obligations not to discriminate based on race. And, for those who are desperately in need of protection, it would bring the state a step closer to providing critical help and saving lives.

By Suzanne B. Goldberg Sadie R. Holzman Jonathan A. Lieberman
Suzanne B. Goldberg is clinical professor and director of the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic at Columbia Law School; Sadie R. Holzman and Jonathan A. Lieberman are students in the clinic. All three were involved in producing part of the report sent to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Domestic disputes resulting in deaths, including two murder-suicides, have accounted for half of eight homicide cases investigated by Honolulu police during the first five months of 2008.

The latest case involves the shooting deaths of a man, 60, and his wife, 45, which the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s office on Tuesday classified as a murder-suicide. An autopsy determined the woman was the homicide victim who died from a gunshot wound to the head. The man, who also died from a head shot, committed suicide.

The medical examiner did not identify the couple pending confirmation of identities. But neighbors of the Halawa Heights Road apartment where the couple lived for about a month, said they were Eliseo and Marissa Dumlao.

Monday night’s deaths follow the April 25 murder-suicide in ‘Ewa in which Domingo “Bunny” Dikito, 39, shot his wife Della, 38, and then himself.

The other domestic violence homicides this year are the Jan. 9 stabbing of Jenny T. Hartsock, 39, by her husband, 40-year-old Roy William Hartsock, and the Jan. 16 beating death of 30-year-old Janel Tupuola on Maluniu Avenue in Kailua by Alapeti Siuanu Tunoa Jr., 30.

Salvatore S. Lanzilotti, special assistant to the University of Hawai’i-Manoa chancellor and interim dean of health programs at Kapi’olani Community College, has been a regular participant in silent marches held for domestic violence victims.

In a telephone interview from New York, Lanzilotti said he is not surprised by the homicide numbers, given the fact that people are tense with America at war and the economy in recession, but believes men are the key to stopping domestic violence.

“We need to be transmitting to our sons and other men that there are other ways to resolve conflicts than violence,” Lanzilotti said. “Violence is a choice and we need to make it clear violence is not an acceptable choice.

“Men have to stand up and say this is not appropriate behavior and it will not be tolerated,” Lanzilotti added.

On 23 May 2008, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences, Yakin Ertürk, delivered the following statement:

“From 15 to 23 May 2008, at the invitation of the Government, I conducted an official visit to Tajikistan. During the course of my visit, which included Dushanbe, Khujand, Kurgan-Tyube, Bobodjon Gafurovskiy and Vakhdat districts, I met with representatives of various ministries and Government institutions, members of the Parliament, the Council of Ulema and individual imams, human rights and women’s organizations, crisis centres, women farmers, victims of violence, women at the Nurek women’s prison, representatives of the donor community and United Nations agencies.

I will submit a full report with my findings and recommendations to the Government and the United Nations Human Rights Council. Today, I would like to share my preliminary observations with respect to some priority areas relating to my specific mandate, where much needs to be done by the Government, in cooperation with civil society and the donor community. In doing so, I would like to acknowledge at the outset the significant challenges that the Government of Tajikistan faces. Challenges posed by the transition to a market economy, the devastating consequences of the civil war and high levels of poverty constrain the country’s socio-economic development and its ability to protect and promote the rights and well-being of its population.

I congratulate the Government on having ratified numerous international instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, all of which form an integral part of the legal system of the Republic. Equality between men and women is guaranteed under the Constitution of Tajikistan and the existing legislative framework. There are also various programmes that promote the rights of women, such as the “Basic Directions of State Policy to ensure equal rights and opportunities for men and women in Tajikistan for the period 2001-2010”, the principles of which were codified into law in 2005.

While gender equality is ensured and promoted in law, there are concerns that, in practice, the situation of women has regressed in the past 15 years, and that many significant achievements in the areas of women’s employment, participation in public life and education, to name but a few, have taken a step back. Today, women in Tajikistan are caught within a web of poverty, patriarchy, and a weak protective infrastructure, resulting in increased vulnerability to violence and discrimination inside and outside their homes.

Poverty and unemployment, which remain the most serious problems confronting Tajikistan, affect women disproportionately. Over the past decade, as industries that traditionally employed a large proportion of women declined and other sectors became reconfigured, women lost their jobs and became dispossessed. Today, the vast majority of women are agricultural workers with insecure access to land and inputs, or they try to earn a meagre subsistence in the informal sector. Those working in the formal labour market are mainly concentrated in the low-paid sectors, such as education, health and culture. Various programmes undertaken by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection in recent years aiming to improve women’s access to vocational training, such as the newly created Adult Vocational Training Centre, are promising initiatives.

Seasonal labour migration, mainly to the Russian Federation, and the inflow of remittances have become a significant component of the national and household economy of Tajikistan. Though female migration is said to be on the increase, the vast majority of over one million migrants are men. While migration of men has enabled their households to improve their levels of subsistence, it has not been free of problems, particularly for the wives and children left in the family home with the in-laws. It is not uncommon for women living under such circumstances to encounter abuse and violence by their in-laws, or even eviction from the family house, particularly if the husband does not come back for long durations or does not send remittances.

As a result of strong patriarchal values prevailing in both the public and private spheres of life, women in general are expected to be obedient to their husbands and his family and often get blamed for having provoked disciplinary measures. Family preservation is a highly upheld value that often has primacy over the interests of individual women. Unless serious injuries occur, domestic violence is by and large accepted as a normal aspect of private life by men and women alike and not acknowledged as a problem warranting public intervention. As a result, women must endure systematic abuse and humiliation in silence. In some cases a woman may resort to killing her abuser and be condemned to many years of imprisonment, leaving her children destitute. Suicides of women are said to be increasing, as the only way out of an oppressive life.

Many of my interlocutors expressed concern about the increasing trend in unregistered marriages as being a major source of vulnerability for women to domestic abuse and abandonment. Not having an official marriage certificate makes it more difficult for these women to seek redress and take their claims related to housing or alimony to a court. Practices pertaining to civil and residency (“propiska”) registrations have also been raised as aggravating factors. In a context where most wives come to live at their husband’s family home, upon divorce or separation, they may have no entitlement to property, housing or financial compensation should they hold a propiska in another locality. Women in registered marriages are not immune to such problems.

Against this backdrop, access to information and the existing infrastructure for the provision of services such as crisis centres and shelters for victims of violence and those under threat are inadequate in terms of availability, quantity, and human and financial capacity. While the adoption of the draft Bill on Social and Legal Protection against Domestic Violence – which I was assured will be before the Parliament in July – will no doubt contribute towards improved prevention, protection and prosecution of domestic abuses, particularly violence against women, other measures are needed to urgently enhance women’s access to justice and the effectiveness and availability of services offered to victims, support the social and economic empowerment of women and change gender stereotypes as well as patriarchal mentalities that perpetuate the subordinate position of women in the family and in society.

The Government’s recent initiatives, as well as the notable efforts of non-governmental organizations for the promotion and protection of women’s rights, are indisputable contributions towards the creation of an enabling environment for combating violence against women. A life free of violence is possible and it is an entitlement for all persons. In this respect, I call on the Government and the donor community to prioritize women’s rights and increase support for initiatives aimed at empowering women and ending all forms of violence against them.”

Yakin Ertürk, Professor of Sociology at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women in 2003. Tajikistan is the sixteenth country she has visited. For more information on the mandate, please visit the webpage:


“Most of the rape victims are two years old and above while the latest who passed away is a two-month old baby who was allegedly raped by a 46 year-old man, an influential personality in Tankoro Chiefdom. The other rapist is also a renowned personality in Tombodu, Kamara Chiefdom, whose victim also died,” sources at the Rainbow Center revealed.

Out of the 912 rape cases reported in the district only 19 have been prosecuted while the remaining were settled out of court as staff members of the Center are threatened by the culprits to discontinue prosecution.

“Some cases may be reported at the Rainbow Centre but the moment staff members want to take drastic action against the culprits family members of the victim will not cooperate,” police sources intimate.

As the July 5 local council elections are drawing nearer, a low turn out of women to contest the elections has been observed. Although the factor responsible for this has not been identified -whether they are unwilling, poor, uneducated or marginalized, but it is expedient to ask if Salone women can make any difference at all in the local governments.

Can women in this part of Africa come up with unique agendas, interesting perspectives, styles and skills to local government? Women are not homogeneous.

Research for the study: “At the Coalface: Gender and Local Government in Southern Africa,” found overwhelming evidence that ensuring women are present in local government, or any other decision-making body, ensures that issues of concern to women are on the table.

In Sierra Leone, an exemplary woman that was part of the local government was the late paramount chief and member of the Moyamba district council Madam Ella Koblo Gulama. She set a precedent which women vying for seats in the local council elections ought to emulate. She was able to bring the much needed changes in her chiefdom especially with regards the education of the girl child.

Firm and decisive women are always set for the skies.

Politics is about money and the population. But unlike business, the number matters most in politics. So it is clear that the few women contesting this election should be as popular as the likes of Gulama who was not only popular but stood firm for the development of her people.

The gender research which included interviews with 946 councilors, experts, officials, and civil society representatives in Namibia, Lesotho, South Africa and Mauritius, shows that increasing the representation of women in the local government minimizes conflict; increases participation and leads to a more equitable and responsive local government, wherein executives in the local authorities including paramount chiefs, district chairmen and councilors are accountable to the people they represent. Women, who as mothers are the first teacher of children, seek the interest of their communities as they would do to their families.

Many of the issues dealt with at the local government level are those that affect women most such as access to water and power supply, community development, maternal and infant mortality, HIV/AIDS et al.

Minister of Gender in Lesotho Mathabiso Lepono said women “know what the needs are with regard to the issues such as families, electricity, water etc. If women are elected into decision-making, they will make decisions to help reduce the burden of women in rural areas.” Indeed, to agree with Lepono, Gulama as with the case with many women in the local government was very instrumental towards the education of the girl child.

She also worked assiduously with the help of NGOs to bring agricultural and infrastructural development to her Chiefdom and district. Due to her excellent performance, Gulama was in 1992 re-elected as paramount chief by a unanimous vote. After the war, she returned to Kaiyamba chiefdom and put efforts into the rehabilitation of her Chiefdom and District.

In Freetown, the work of Florence Dillsworth as Mayor of Freetown should not be ignored. The former principal of Saint Joseph Secondary School in Freetown worked assiduously to change the status of women, children and other deprived majority. In an interview with Cooperation South Journal in 1996 she said “We have a number of planned projects in health, sanitation, income generation, meeting the needs of battered women and education and eventually making bigger loans when women begin running bigger businesses.

“Two other projects are in their infancy. One is for abandoned children who live on the streets… We try to create a safe haven for the children that includes medical care, counseling, and perhaps most importantly, a meal, so that they can count on having at least one meal per day We are working with grassroots women through the Freetown Chapter for Women. This programme is a group designed for women and children in difficult circumstances.” Under her mayor-ship, the late Madam Dillsworth was able to find a place in other schools, for school pupils that could not get a place in schools due to overcrowding.

Former Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, Shirley Gbujama said when women are given the opportunity in governance, they can move mountains. “They can make the unbelievable become believable,” she said citing the President of Liberia, Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as example.

Madam Dillsworth sought the need of the people of Freetown and there was a massive difference in the municipality under her tenure. However, if women have done it before in Sierra Leone, it is a manifestation that indeed women can do it in the 21st century.

As it is stated in the Bible, “a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and the two shall become one flesh,” it is observed from this verse that God knew that Adam, the first man, could not make it alone and thus called for the need to have a woman by his side. This also indicates that women and men should work for the betterment of their communities.

Going back to our homes, a home wherein responsibilities are solely on the shoulders of either the father or the mother is not a happy home as it raises the problems of dictatorship, misappropriation et al since there is no one to question the use of funds meant for the family. It is also evident that the success of any administration needs partnership from both sexes and the local government should not be an exception.

In their declaration of independence, Americans said “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men (including women) were born equal.” Why let honest Sierra Leonean women perish in their lonely corner while men misuse funds meant for the transforming of the ugly plights of suffering women in the country?

Apparently, women have proved beyond all reasonable doubts that they can make the urgently-needed changes in the local government. The works of Madam Gulama and Madam Dillsworth were just a tip of the iceberg as the number of women that has done exemplary works in Sierra Leone’s local government sector is numerous.

Meanwhile, questions are still rife as to what is happening in the devolution process and the role rural and community women are playing in making changes in the local government.

The national women leader of the Peoples Democratic party (PDP), Hajiya Inna Maryam Ciroma, led a delegation of zonal and state women leaders, opinion leaders and BOT NEC members on a courtesy visit to the First Lady, Hajiya Turai Yar’Adua in Abuja, yesterday.

The visit was to seek the support of the First Lady for the entrenchment of 30 per ent affirmative action in the constitution as it is being reviewed.

In her remarks, Hajiya Inna Maryam Ciroma pointed out that women should be recognised for the important role they play in nation building and that their high level of support is proof of their commitment.

“We believe in the greatness of this country and if we should have good governance, then women must be carried along. There is no way we can progress as a country if there is not gender balance.”

She noted that the international requirement that women should have equal representation in governance was yet to be met. Countries such as Rwanda and Mozambique which are less populated than Nigeria have since complied with the 30 per cent target, while South Africa has surpassed with 50 per cent allocated to women.

The Women Leader urged the first Lady to ensure that Nigeria is not left behind and that the 30 per cent target be entrenched in the constitution.

She pledged her support for Hajiya Turai’s fight against HIV/AIDS, infant maternal mortality and educating the girl chid and promised to work together with the first lady to actualise some of her programmes.

In her response, Hajiya Turai Yar’Adua adress, she pleaded with female public officers to be shining examples in their service to the natiopn.

She also urged the PDP women leaders to be peace ambassadors for their various states.

She enjoined women leaders to partner with their wives of the governors of their states during campaigns and awareness programmes in order to empower other women.

A young woman passes in a sleeveless shirt and a knee-length skirt, her hair flowing down her back. Another woman of the same age follows in a loose tunic and pants, the Islamic headscarf covering every strand of her hair.

An older woman wears the traditional djellaba, a long outer robe with full sleeves, her hair in a bun. Some women wear the strictest Islamic dress, covering themselves in black from head to toe, with only the eyes visible.

The remarkable variety of female dress on Moroccan streets reflects the passionate debate raging in the north African kingdom about what it means to be a woman, what kinds of rights women should have, and how Muslim women should relate to Western feminism.

Morocco’s 2004 family law reform gave women rights that led to King Mohammed VI being described as one of the women’s rights pioneers in the Muslim world.

Nearly five years after the family law, known as the Moudawana, was reformed despite initial opposition from the country’s Islamists, the special courts applying it have clearly improved the situation of women, sociologist Khadija Amiti says.

Amiti heads Chaml, one of Morocco’s hundreds of associations trying to help women claim their rights in what observers describe as a traditional and conservative society.

Having a child out of wedlock, for instance, is regarded as a source of shame, said Soumaya Belhabib, vice-president of the association which is based in Kenitra near the capital Rabat.

Girls who have been made pregnant by now absent boyfriends, by abusive employers or by rapists often end up in poverty or even prostitution, with their children becoming social outcasts.

The new Moudawana, however, allows a judge to authorize a woman to seek a DNA test to make her child’s father recognize it and help to support it, Belhabib explained.

Women are now also allowed to initiate divorce – but the overall divorce rate appears to be going down, because men may no longer leave their wives by just repudiating them, Amiti said.

“Everyone now talks about women’s rights, even if jokingly,” the sociologist smiles.

Shortly after the female academics running Chaml had discussed women’s rights at their Kenitra office, a women’s group of al-Adl w’al Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality) was meeting in Sale, the twin town of Rabat.

Their faces framed by headscarves, the members of Morocco’s largest Islamist movement sat on mattresses in a mosque-like basement room, discussing how to develop their spirituality.

“The new Moudawana only defends the elite among Moroccan women,” fumes al-Adl w’al-Ihsane spokeswoman Nadia Yassine, who claims to be more feminist than “Westernized” Moroccan feminists, and stresses Prophet Mohammed’s early role as a champion of women’s rights.

“The Moudawana makes it easier for women to apply for passports,” Yassine snorts. “What meaning does that have for most women in a country with a 67 per cent female illiteracy rate?” she asks.

Amiti and Yassine agree on the need to base Moroccan women’s rights on Islamic values and a feminist reinterpretation of the Koran, but their discourses are nevertheless markedly different.

Amiti would, for instance, like to see the already rare practice of polygamy completely abolished, while Yassine feels that would “go against the identity of a people.”

“Tenderness and sentimentalism” are part of a woman’s nature, and make it natural for her to take care of the home, Yassine said.

Morocco has women in most professions, ranging from policewomen to several cabinet ministers, and a minimum of 10 per cent of female legislators, elected under a quota in the 325-member parliament.

Yet urban women’s magazines continue to focus on the institution of marriage, which remains central in women’s lives despite the social changes affecting it.

“I have not found a husband because I wear the headscarf, and men prefer modern women these days,” said Karima, a 30-year-old teacher. Other women, however, wear the headscarf to attract potential husbands.

Women are not, in any case, expected to be so modern as to lose their virginity before marriage, for which reason some young women have their broken hymens repaired by specialized doctors.

Sexual relations outside marriage remain a crime, and an average of 400 secret abortions are performed daily in Morocco, according to a figure quoted by the weekly Tel Quel.

Many of the ongoing debates are not that different from those heard in the West some decades ago, such as discussions on whether women should work outside the home or whether they make men harass them on the street by dressing in provocative clothes.

Yet such debates hardly touch remote rural areas, where women are more concerned with gaining access to electricity and running water.

“Women’s rights cannot be separated from overall development,” Yassine said.,moroccan-women-seek-their-way-between-islam-and-feminism–feature.html

A male defender of the feminist cause in Iran has been sentenced to a year in prison, the moderate Kargozaran newspaper reported on Monday without providing further details.

Amir Yaqoubali is a supporter of the “One Million Signatures” petition campaign launched in June 2006. According to a feminist website he was arrested as he collected signatures.

The campaign seeks to change the Islamic republic’s laws on marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody by collecting signatures both online and in person.

In recent months four feminists — Rezvan Moghadam, Nahid Jafari, Nasrin Afzali and Marzieh Mortazi Langueroudi — were handed down suspended sentences of six months in prison and 10 lashes by Tehran Revolutionary Court for disorderly conduct in public.

They took part in March 2007 in a rally outside the same court to protest against the arrest of five feminists the previous June.

The authorities have also arrested several feminism activists, some of whom are still in jail.

Theologians and secularists in Egypt are up in arms over a request from women to have their own mosques.

The clergy was quick to dismiss the demand as a fad but secularists warned against turning down the proposal, saying it would strengthen the hand of religious leaders in matters of the state.

An official at the Egyptian Ministry of Waqf (Religious Endowments) said women’s groups have sought a licence for female-only mosques. “We are studying the legality from the Islamic perspective,” said Abdul Gafar Helal, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs.

But theologians are firm in their opposition. “There is no evidence in Islamic history that shows mosques were designated for women,” said Mustafa Al Shaka, a member of the Islamic Research Centre, an arm of Al Azhar.

“It is part of this rash clamour for absolute equality between men and women. It is a misleading call, which causes confusion and discord in the nation,” he told Gulf News.

Suad Saleh, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al Azhar University, did not share Al Shaka’s views.

“There is nothing in Islam that prohibits women’s only mosques,” Suad told Gulf News. “Nor are there restrictions on women to lead female worshippers in prayers and address them.”

A famed TV preacher, she sees no harm in allowing women to have their own mosques. “There is no clear text banning this in the Quran or the Sunna,” argued Suad.

Secularists in the predominantly Muslim country are appalled at the stance of theologians.

“This shows that Egypt is rushing headlong into becoming a religious state where clergymen will have the final say in all affairs,” Abbas Khater, a writer, told Gulf News. “After the tremendous gains made by Egyptian women, the society is moving towards reviving segregation between the two sexes.”

Egypt has appointed its first female official to certify marriages and divorces. The move has been met by public debate and opposition from some Muslim clerics who say women shouldn’t serve in the role.

Amal Soliman did not realize how large a controversy would erupt here when she sought to become Egypt’s first female “maazun,” or Islamic public notary who performs wedding ceremonies and authorizes marriage and divorce certificates.

“I knew it was going to be a little bit in the press, but I didn’t really think it would be such a big deal,” Soliman says about her February selection by local government officials. “It is what it is and I don’t want to have politics as a part of the discussion of me being a maazun because I am a simple housewife who wants to work close to home and raise my kids.”

Religious leaders have both condemned and endorsed her selection. Her status was significant enough to require the government to approve it. But she’s not brandishing it in a quest for equal rights and recoils from having her appointment politicized.

“I don’t want people, especially the West, to take me as a victory for women in Egypt and the Middle East,” she says. “I am Egyptian and a Muslim so what I am doing is for here and not for the West.”

Already, people know about the “female maazun” in her town of Qaniyat, an hour east of Cairo. “They point you in the direction of ‘Madame Soliman’s house’ if you ask,” she says.

People knock on her door every day to be married, even though she still waits for official permission to work from the national justice ministry. She has heard about others, though, who will stay away.

“Some people have said that I am not appropriate to be a maazun because I am a woman,” she says, “but I am confident this will fade with time.”

Sought Employment, Not Controversy
Soliman, a 32-year-old mother of three, applied for the position when it became vacant after her father-in-law passed away. The job is not inherited, and there are hundreds of maazuns in Egypt, one for each local district.

“I didn’t really think about the gender issue when I applied for the job,” she says. “It was close to my house and I needed something so close by so I could still be at home for my kids.”

Ten others, all men, applied to fill the vacancy. Soliman had a master’s degree in law from Zagazig University as well as law and criminal justice diplomas and had the highest qualifications.

Justice Minister Mamdouh Marei has sought to relieve tensions among Egypt’s powerful Islamic scholars, saying that Soliman’s nomination was based “on her abilities rather than on her gender.” A year ago, 30 women were appointed as judges in response to activists’ complaints that Egypt lagged in female participation in the judiciary.

“Everyone is beginning to recognize women’s rights and women’s potential,” Hanan Abdel-Aziz, one of the appointed judges, told the state press at the time.

Egypt has stood out among Arab nations in women’s participation in many aspects of life and politics. Suffrage was granted in 1956, ahead of most others in the region. Women are about 30 percent of the private professional and technical work force, but few are high officials in the government.

Detecting Forced Marriages
One of Soliman’s responsibilities will be to ensure there is no coercion behind a wedding, particularly when younger brides are involved. As many as one in three weddings are forced upon the woman, who is often under 18, according to the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights in Cairo.

“As a woman I will be better able to find out if the girl wants to get married and if she is being forced into the agreement by an outside party,” Soliman says. “I wanted to take this position because it gives women and girls who are getting married a real opportunity to take action.”

Ibrahim Abdel Salam, 26, an employee at a Cairo cafe, nonetheless objects. “It is wrong to have a woman in this position. My sheikh tells me that if we are to get married that we must avoid her because she can’t do the job.”

“I know that women are not as strong as men,” says Heba Mahmoud, a female student at Cairo University who, like many young people here, embraces conservative Islam, which is growing in influence in Egypt. “That is why some jobs are supposed to remain in the hands of men. She can’t do the job. I mean, there are so many reasons that she can’t, but when it comes down to it, women are not made to be in positions of power.”

Islamic scholars are divided about a woman having legal responsibility for marriage and divorce. A devout Muslim, Soliman embraces the view that Islam does not bar women from having a career in anything.

“Islam is pro-women’s rights and it is social customs that put women’s rights backward,” she says.

No religious texts ban a female maazun, says Sheikh Fawzi Zefzaf, deputy director of Al-Azhar University, an influential center of Sunni Muslim theology. “But when a woman is menstruating she must not enter a mosque or read Quranic verses and that will affect her job, so for this reason we say it is not advisable to have a woman maazun,” the sheikh said in a statement from his office.

Soliman says she will conduct home visits with couples who need her authority to avoid breaking Islamic law and an assistant will be able to work in the mosque when she is forbidden to enter.

“This is an opportunity for women to show that they have a right to be in such positions and the Arab and Islamic world need to accept this and move forward,” says Mohamed Serag, a professor of Islamic studies at the American University in Cairo.

The profession used to be “a man’s business” and the controversy will pass, Serag says. “She is a public notary, not an official representative of Islam and this needs to be understood.”

The manner in which some scholars are downgrading the maazun’s importance is disconcerting to Aida Seif Al Dawla, a leading activist. She wonders “why was it all over the press” if Soliman’s job is inconsequential.

“This is a precedent for women in Egypt no matter what anyone says,” Seif Al Dawla says. “Since when has getting married not been important? I say good for her for taking this step.”

Soliman says a female maazun is more likely to be readily accepted in Cairo, where people are “more open” than in her own town. But the time has arrived for women to enter the profession.

“I think Egypt is ready for this.”

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The number of marriages taking place in Qatar has fallen, according to new statistics, because more parents are allowing their children to make career and love choices.

Experts speaking at the Doha Family colloquium said a relaxation of traditional values had led to the change.

Qatar University Professor Kaltham al-Ghanim told the forum: “There is a loosening of traditional ties in families because in the past it was taboo for children to contradict their parents.”

Al-Ghanim added that this had led to fewer teenagers being compelled into marriages – instead being allowed to choose partners of their choice with the parents’ guidance and supervision.

According to figures recently released there were 1,773 marriages in Qatar in 2003. The following year there were 1,730. As well as fewer weddings taking place there were also fewer divorces. In 2003 there were 581 compared with 564 in 2004.

In contrast, other Gulf countries had seen a steady rise in divorces.

Bahrain University Professor Yahya el-Haddad revealed: “The UAE had 3,243 divorce cases out of 12,277 marriages in 2003 and 3,577 in 12,794 marriages in 2004, while Kuwait recorded 3,041 and 3,654 divorce cases out of 9,355 and 9291 marriages in 2003 and 2004 respectively.”

The colloquium was organised by the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development in order to look at the challenges facing Arab families in modern times.

In five different presentations under the title ‘Are Families Under Threat: Issues and Challenges’, experts analysed cases from Qatar, Lebanon, Tunisia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as well as the UK.

Prof el-Haddad concluded that urbanisation had had a negative impact on some traditional Arab societies.

“The economic boom and rapid modernisation of the GCC has encouraged the spread of many practices such as keeping domestic workers, which is being justified by women’s need to leave home in search of pay jobs,” he stated.

El-Haddad noted that this also had an affect on moral values, traditional identity, language and religious affiliations.

He voiced further concern over the high numbers of spinsterhood, saying: “The issue could be borne out of women’s unwillingness to get married at an early age due to a desire to fulfil certain obligations like higher education and other personal careers.”

However, the positive effect of modern life on the family was also discussed.

Professor al-Ghanim said: “We are seeing less cases of suicide, domestic violence, rape and incest in families in Qatar because youths are becoming more aware and are now recognising when they are being abused.”

Al-Ghanim added that conditions such as poverty, unemployment and male dominance were all factors that bred violence within families.

In relation to divorces in Qatar, Dr Mona al-Khelifi of the Family Consulting Institute, cited a low level of education, income, religious commitment, consultations and dialogue as being major causes.

“We found that divorce in the first year of marriage was very high, which prompted the institute to organise many family forums where we train people to cope with their differences because cultural background and differences are also contributing factors,” she stressed.

Al-Khelifi said divorce could be prevented if partners were more aware of each others’ rights and obligations, adding that families should continue to be a renewable source of harmony.

Other members of the panel included UK-based Family Breakdown Working Group, Social Justice Policy Commission’s chairman Samantha Callan who spoke about why the UK government’s family policy needs to focus on the couple and Social Research Centre, America University, Cairo, research Professor Hassan Zaky on decline in family size in Lebanon and Tunisia. The session was moderated by the colloquium organiser’s Policy Division director Amina Mesdoua.