Archive for December, 2008

On 27 October 2008, the Kurdistan Parliament brought the new Personal Status Law (PSL) in affect which did not ban polygamous marriage laws as hoped for. The new law continues to perpetuate the history of polygamy which is tied directly to the subjugation of women.

Over the last 17 years of Kurdish self-rule some of most barbaric violations of women’s rights have continued and continue to effect the lives of over two million women in Kurdistan Iraq. Womens and girls continue to be subjected to forced marriage, child marriage, female gential mutilation, domestic violence as the norm and honour killing. All of these violations of women’s rights to be free of inhuman and degrading treatment not to mention the right to life have been met by almost complete silence by the Kurdish government.

Now rather than legislating in favour of women’s rights, the Kurdish Parliament has approved a new Islamic law which continues to endorse polygamy and continues to violate the basic principles of equality between men and women as understood in International Law.

The Kurdish Parliament has accepted the argument that polygamy is a realistic answer to improving the lives of widowed and divorced women.

Kurdistan Refugee Women’s Organisation (KRWO) demands that the Kurdish Parliament legislates against polygamy and recognises its responsibility to ensure that women are given the tools and the means to provide for themselves and are not forced into marriage for purely economic reasons. Providing women with job opportunities or welfare benefits would enable not only widowed and divorced women to live independently in dignity but would empower ALL women to make meaningful lives of their own choice.

KRWO and many other women’s rights organisations will continue to actively campaign against this discriminatory law and replace it with a truly progressive law that recognises the human rights principles of human dignity and freedom.

KRWO Press Release December 2008

Kurdistan Refugee Women’s Organisation

Last July, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) mandated that some candidate lists must be composed of half female and half male candidates in order to qualify for the November 23rd regional and local elections. What was the significance of this, and what was the role of gender and women’s issues in the elections? spoke with Professor Alba Carosio, life-long feminist and director of the Women’s Studies Center at the Central University of Venezuela.

Alba Carosio, please explain the CNE’s rule about gender equality in candidacies, and describe its significance for these elections.

This issue of gender equality in candidacies has been discussed in women’s movements across the world and very intensely in Venezuela over this past year. A well-developed draft of an Organic Law for Gender Equity and Equality, which also contains the issue of candidacy equality, has been approved in first discussion in the National Assembly.

It is one of the principal concepts of contemporary feminism and 21st Century Feminism. Women have been struggling throughout different generations of rights. First, we fought against being completely invisibilized, against a situation of brutal oppression. Perhaps in many societies, like in Venezuela or in Europe, the fight against this type of oppression is no longer the top issue for 21st Century Feminism. Now, we want something beyond there not being any oppression. We want to participate in half of all decisions. Given that half of the people in society are women, the concept of candidate gender equality means equal participation of men and women under equal conditions, circumstances, and opportunities in all social decision-making. So, this concept is very important.

Moreover, it means not just a vindication of justice for women, but a broadening and enhancing of the democracy that we have today. When we talk about democracy, we have to define what class of democracy we are talking about. Greek democracy was a very restricted democracy. All people who had rights and access to citizenship had equal conditions and the same rights, but this was a greatly reduced number of people. In fact, women, slaves, children, etc. were not part of that democracy. In the same way, in our own Latin America, which has been a profoundly unequal society, democracy was restricted.

All these processes of change that are coming about and the shift toward socialism mean precisely the broadening of democracy, that democracy be really effective. It means democracy gives opportunities and proportions equal conditions for participation to men and women.

Several mechanisms to make this concept into reality have been worked out, and a first step is to achieve gender equality in the lists for political offices.

Can you explain those lists, please?

It refers to the political offices that are elected by political party list, and not by individual. This is the case for the state and municipal legislative councils, but not the governors and the mayors.

In this system, we vote for all the legislative candidates that appear on the list of one party. The percentage of the vote that each party receives is the percentage of the legislative council that will be occupied by that party’s candidates. If the PSUV received 60% of the vote, then the first 60% of the candidates from the top of the PSUV list will become legislators, and other parties will occupy the other seats, according to the percentage that they won.

Gender equality in all this means that on the lists, the candidates alternate woman, man, woman, man, woman, man, like that, so that when legislators are taken from the top of the list to fill seats in the councils, it comes out more or less equal, although not exact.

Within the electoral campaigns in these elections, what was the role of women? Were women subordinated into roles defined by gender? What type of culture of women’s participation is being created in Venezuela?

I would say that in Venezuela, at least in what we might call the forces of change, women have overcome the defined role of, for example, coffee server. This does not mean that women no longer serve coffee. Right now, we are in a stage in which women are the first to be considered for serving coffee, although sometimes men serve it, but the women also participate in discussions. The conditions are not equal, but women participate quite a lot in the discussions.

It has become politically incorrect, as you say in the United States, for a man at a meeting to say to a woman, “shut up and bring me a coffee.” With the great strength and charismatic leadership of President Chávez, who has declared himself a feminist, hard work has been done to combat large issues like violence against women. This issue has not been, perhaps, at the top of the political agenda, but it is penetrating people’s mentalities.

Women participate a lot, overall, in what has to do with social and local matters. We still have not made women’s specific issues a central concern of political campaigns and women’s movements. Although women’s participation has arrived, very important and relevant women’s issues, such as women’s health services and co-responsibility for domestic work and child rearing, have not arrived to political campaign agendas.

Women are considered primary actors, I would say, at the local level. They are in charge of perhaps even a bit too much of local responsibilities. It is very clear, one can see a broad participation of women, and nobody takes their right to participate away from them. Perhaps there are people who try to manipulate certain posts, such as for example the president of the council, which sometimes even the women prefer to be a man. But nobody can say that women are actually just there to serve and help and not participate.

But, what is still lacking is that the issues of importance to women be at the top of the agenda, so that their be gender justice and social equality. Issues like co-responsibility in care work, unemployment benefits for unemployed women or women who work in the home or take care of relatives. There are, of course, initiatives like the Mothers of the Neighborhood Mission, which are important, but issues such as reproductive and sexual rights must be worked on much more. They do not have the relevance or priority that they should have. In this campaign, given the great polarization that there was, they were not at the top of the list.

Can you deepen your analysis of the role of women’s issues in electoral campaign agendas?

Yes. I’m saying, they were on the agendas, but they were on the side. And there was a little bit of using, women being used. Used in the sense that women, because of their own historical education and the role the have had to play in society, women are more worried about social matters, human well-being, making sure basic services function, like water. Women are always very concerned about water and water is an issue that is very related to women, too.

So, at times there is a utilization of all this feminine strength to put it at the service of solving the everyday problems of the people. This can at times be very difficult because everyday life has its own very relevant laws. It is not bad in itself, but we forget that in order to solve these problems of everyday life, there must also be support for the women as people. We cannot demand without giving sufficient support. At times, women are burdened with a bit too much.

We are in a stage of recognizing all these strengths that women have. Now, we must make a leap toward recognizing and instead of using, supporting and promoting co-responsibility in all of society.

I am going to make it more concrete for you. For example, in many community councils, a broad majority of those who participate are women. So then, women come and take charge of organizing the Mercal, supporting the Barrio Adentro clinic, and struggle to keep the public cafeteria open. These are all social programs that offer support in everyday life and have to do with the everyday well-being of the people. They require an enormous quantity of management, and a huge proportion of this is done by women.

So then, what happens? Women have a triple workload: The workload in the home, the workload at work, and, let’s call it the social workload. This is very positive in the sense that it is the recognition of a great effort that women are making. But we should also give them support, right?

For example, there should be childcare as part of every community council. This would bring more co-responsibility. As it is, everyday tasks are handled by women, while the men take charge of the grand ideas, plans, and abstract revolution.

But revolution, day to day revolution, is the revolution that changes things. We reproduce in the social realm, in our local government organisms, what we have in the home. Nobody can be socialist in their community if they are not socialist in their homes.

An important issue in this election was crime and security. What role do women play in this problem and its solution, in the prevention of crime?

It is important to reflect on this issue, it is true. The vision of this administration and of this process toward greater social justice is focused on prevention. This does not mean that it has had all the success in the world because it hasn’t. But there is a focus on creating a life free of violence.

And we discover that insecurity attacks principally young males. When we look at the mortality rates between women and men, it is impressive. In 2006, 17% of deaths between 15-19 years of age were women, and 83% were males. For every woman dead, five males die. Six out of ten deaths of young males are violent, and 93% of the jail population is male.

Here, we certainly do have a problem that has to do with gender, not just with women. It has to do with masculine education. It is an education in Venezuela and many other parts of the world in which women are educated to care for others, to cultivate peace, and men are educated for violence and sexism. The way to demonstrate masculinity is violence, and a male cannot let himself be one-upped by another male because he loses his masculinity.

So, it is necessary that we attack this problem in the communities. It has to do with idleness and the attention we give to youth, and with equality in relationships and high school education.

The role that women can play is to mediate and transmit outward to our social surroundings these virtues of care and peace, so that these are not only associated with women but also with society.

But as long as women are the only ones who are doing this and there is no co-responsibility, we are always going to have more idleness in the male part of the population. As long as women remain overly busy and do not have free time, and men have more free time, violence will increase in the communities.

If more men are engaged in organizing Mercal, Barrio Adentro, and the public cafeterias, and they join the Misión Cultura and occupy themselves with cultural activities, there will be a decrease in violence.

Co-responsibility is a very important issue in all of these matters.

If in these elections there had been half female and half male candidates in all the races for governors, mayors, and legislative councils, what effect would this have had? Would women’s issues have been more on the political agendas, or are public offices too rigidly defined by masculine characteristics?

The fact that some women who participate in politics have certain masculine attitudes is logical. They have had the opportunity to arrive because they have certain strong characteristics, stronger than many men because they have had to struggle against and overcome a series of discriminations, at times declared and at times hidden.

But this is a symbolic matter. The fact that there are women participating in politics, in addition to being an issue of justice, in addition to being a demonstration of democracy, is also something symbolic.

A way to progress is to make what is most visible in society more equal, in the sense that you see, for example, and I have spoken to several women about this recently, in Chile and in Argentina, where there are female presidents, now little Chilean and Argentine girls can fantasize about being president. And this is a huge difference.

Before, if you were a girl in my generation, I come from the generation of the 1970s, we had an extremely limited experience with democracy, in books and in reality. What could we dream of being? Teachers, secretaries, but never president or legislator. So, it is very symbolic.

This does not mean that everybody who becomes a politician is the best; there are many who are bad. There are men who are bad politicians and men who are good politicians. There are women who are bad politicians and women who are good politicians.

But there is at times a perception that all women who enter politics should be very very good, that they should do everything well. This is where we see a lot of sexism, there is like an unequal standard of measurement.

There are women from the Right and from the Left. We have Cristina Kirchner, who is center-left, and we have Condoleezza Rice, who is on the right, and we have Sarah Palin, who is… UF! AY! She is scary, right? And there are also women and men who are on the Left.

It could be that women, because they have been historically more related to everyday life issues and children, and they give more importance to the affective aspects, are little by little allowing new issues to come into politics.

But first and foremost, this is a question of justice.

Tell me a little about the symbols of women that are used in Venezuela, positive or negative.

Without a doubt, a symbol of women in general and of the conduct of revolutionary women is Manuela Saenz, the lover of the Liberator [Simón Bolívar]. She gives us a symbol of how a revolutionary woman should be. She was a hardened, war-worn woman. She was never frightened. She was a free-thinking woman who did not feel tied to anything except her own convictions. Of course she also had a great affection and loyalty; not only did she fall in love with Bolívar, she was capable of dedicating everything. This symbol of Manuela Saenz has been a very recurring symbol for women.

In the office of the Ministry of Women’s Issues, they have posters of many prominent women in the history of Venezuela, and the majority of these women are warriors, women who fought in the Independence War and were captured and taken prisoner, etc.

They are called Las Avanzadoras [The Advancers] who not only accompanied the male soldiers but also fought. The most legendary is Manuela Saenz, but there are others, too. [Women’s Issues Minister] María León herself was a guerrilla.

In Venezuela there are other very prominent symbols of women, too. In the 1970s, the symbols of femininity were the Misses [of beauty pageants]. In fact, Venezuela was said to be the country with the most beautiful women in all of Latin America, that it was a country that produced Misses and this was our product for export.

It was said that Venezuelan women are so beautiful because they are a mixture of African, Indigenous, and white.

Moreover, Venezuelan women make themselves up a lot and they have been characterized as the women who consume the most beauty products, women of the beauty industry. In Venezuela there is a very powerful industry of plastic surgery and breast implants.

A constant search for perfect beauty has been cultivated in youth culture, and in the adults too. It has a lot to do with the publicity and the media and the dons of consumerism too. There is an obligation to be erotic and young and have perfect measurements, and not to sweat, or to only sweat erotically.

This has produced a very sexual, manufactured, perfected, and eroticized image of women’s beauty. This is a symbol of the Venezuelan woman.

Now, another type of space has been opened for another type of values. These values are not in line with the exclusive standards of bodily beauty set by the private establishment. In the face of this, we are constructing this other face. It is the face of the woman of the people, the working woman, the woman who has a lot to do, so she does not always have time to make herself up; the woman whose body does not answer to the dons of consumerism. The woman who occupies herself with her society, she appreciates herself as she is, as a Venezuelan. This symbol of women has been made very prominent by this government, and during these elections.

And Negra Matea, the black woman who nursed Simón Bolívar when he was a baby? The government has also promoted this as a symbol of women.

She is the symbol of the slave woman, the caretaker, the self-sacrificing woman, the woman who nurtures above all. She symbolizes the slave women who did so much for our Latin American nations, who cared for and fed so many children.

When people say that women did not work, well they must have been just a few, because the majority and especially the slaves worked a lot. The Negra Matea is a woman who feels vindicated in this child who, although he wasn’t her own, was like her own flesh. And she is another example of this other type of space and image of women that is being opened.

Can you describe the structure of the women’s movement in Venezuela, please?

The women’s movement is formed by various movements that are moving forward in parallel.

There is what we could call the popular branch, a popular movement of women that includes the women’s meeting points, those who participate in and benefit from INAMUJER, the women organizing in communities and community councils, the women who receive benefits from the Mothers of the Neighborhood Mission, and some women’s collectives. These are distinct groups of women that are obtaining different levels of organization and levels of consciousness. There are some with great consciousness, people who have been working with women for years and years, and there are others who are more incipient. But overall, they make up the popular sector of the women’s movement.

Then, there is what we could call the state structure. The Women’s Issues Ministry, the Women’s Bank, led by women who come from feminist movements from the past, and other groups of women who occupy various public offices and functions of the state, in the ministries, National Assembly, and governor’s and mayor’s offices. These are the democratic women who have been achieving gender equality in politics and who are occupying more and more of these positions.

In addition, there is feminism organized into non-government organizations (NGOs), which are women from the middle and upper-class sectors.

And finally, we have what we can call academic feminism, the universities and the women’s studies centers, who are trying to contribute some knowledge.

Amidst all this, cross-cutting it, are the militant women in political parties. We might call this another branch of the movement. Women from the four other branches that we have discussed participate in political parties. I would say that today, given the great politicization of Venezuela, the vast majority participate in some party.

To conclude, do you have any other thoughts about gender in the elections that you would like to share?

I come from the militant feminism of the 1970s, and I think that now an enormous opportunity is being opened. It is a situation of change in Venezuela and in Latin America that is very propitious for fulfilling women’s demands.

Now, also, we have to find the ways to do it, find within ourselves the ways to explain, influence, and participate, and there are things that we need to revise. Perhaps like never before we have all these opportunities open.

Also, we have taken some very bad steps backward. The issue of abortion is terribly stalled. It is incredible what just happened in Uruguay, that in the 21st Century a president takes the luxury of vetoing a fundamental demand of women that is supported by 60% of the population in a country that has always been free-thinking.

The horizon is open, but we cannot let our guard down.

Thank you very much for your time, Alba Carosio, I appreciate it very much.

Women’s reproductive rights groups and their allies are fighting what they call a last-minute attempt by the Bush administration to roll back women’s health protections and restrict access to birth control.

At the center of the controversy is a proposed rule that would require health care institutions that receive federal funds to certify in writing that their employees are not required to perform services they find objectionable.

The administration says the rule is designed to increase compliance with laws that prohibit discrimination against health care workers who refuse to provide abortions and other services.

Women’s rights advocates, though, fear the rule would have a much more sweeping effect.

“It’s totally a ruse. It’s totally a new social war on birth control, which I find ludicrous,” said Mary Jane Gallagher, president and chief executive of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.

Now, health care workers can refuse to provide services they find morally or religiously objectionable, but their employers must find an employee who will provide the service, Gallagher said. The proposed rule, opponents fear, would allow entire institutions to refuse to serve patients, she said.

Observers say the rule would have to be approved some time this week in order to fully take effect before President George W. Bush leaves office on Jan. 20. If the regulation is approved, it’s unclear whether President-elect Barack Obama would be able to undo it through an executive order or whether it would take a more time-consuming, bureaucratic process to roll it back. Congress could also act to reverse it.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto dismissed charges that the administration was making an eleventh-hour rule that would expand current law. Officials have conducted an open and transparent rule-making process, he said.

“Those charges are ridiculous, and they don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s nothing ‘last minute’ about it. We’re not starting it now. It’s coming to an end now,” Fratto said. “The proposed rule will not in any way restrict access to birth control or any other health service.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt explained his intent concerning the rule on his blog: “The issue I asked to be addressed in this regulation is not abortion or contraceptives but the legal right medical practitioners have to practice according to their conscience, and patients should be able to choose a doctor who has beliefs like his or hers.”

In another posting, Leavitt asked: “Is the fear here that so many doctors will refuse that it will somehow make it difficult for a woman to get an abortion? That hasn’t happened, but what if it did? Wouldn’t that be an important and legitimate social statement?”

During the 30-day public comment period on the proposed rule that ended in September, about 200,000 statements were submitted in opposition from medical associations, women’s health organizations, members of Congress, governors, attorneys general, religious leaders and the public, according to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

“It’s unconscionable that the Bush administration, while promising a smooth transition, would take a final opportunity to politicize women’s health,” said the federation’s president, Cecile Richards. “People want government to find common-sense solutions to problems, not to create them by allowing health care providers to withhold critical information and services at a time when affordable health care is hard enough to come by.”

In an effort to block the proposed rule, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) met with Leavitt in September. After that meeting, they and 26 other senators, including Obama, signed on to a letter asking Leavitt to thwart the rule.

In November, Clinton and Murray took their opposition a step further and introduced legislation to prevent the Health and Human Services Department from implementing the rule.

“This HHS rule will threaten patients’ rights, stand in the way of health care professionals and restrict access to critical health care services for those who need them most,” Clinton said in a statement announcing the legislation.

Added Murray: “For eight years, this administration has worked to undermine women’s health, but they won’t get away with it on their way out the door.”

In the House, Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-N.Y.) introduced similar legislation.

But with Congress unlikely to return this year, there is little lawmakers can do until the next Congress convenes next year. If the proposed rule is approved, Murray is prepared.

“We’re certainly going to work with the Obama administration to rescind it through executive order, or we’ll work to pass legislation as early as possible,” said Murray’s spokesman, Matt McAlvanah.

Murray and other opponents of the rule would likely get a sympathetic ear with Obama, whose aides have said he would try to roll it back.

Obama objected to the proposed rule, saying it would make it more difficult for women to receive health services such as abortion and some birth control.

The largest women’s network in Kosovo has suspended cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), after the agency prevented the group’s leader from publicly criticizing a controversial UN plan to grant Serbia control of Serb enclaves in Kosovo.

The incident occurred last week as Igballe Rogova, Executive Director of the Kosova Women’s Network (KWN), was preparing to speak at a UN conference on women and governance in Istanbul. UNDP organizers told her that her speech was “too political” and that she could only speak if she removed all references to the plan from her remarks.

In an angry statement sent to UNDP headquarters, KWN accuses the agency of suppressing freedom of speech and undermining democracy. “Evidently the UNDP organizers believed that women are allowed to participate in politics only so long as they are not too political or they avoid serious political issues,” it reads.

The controversy has strained relations between women’s civil society in Kosovo and the UN, which has administered Kosovo since the withdrawal of Serbian forces in 1999. KWN has requested an official, public apology from UNDP.

The UN plan was proposed recently by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and caused anger in Kosovo because it appeared to undermine Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17. Thousands of Kosovars marched through the streets of Prishtina last month in protest, as reported by AdvocacyNet.

KWN, a network of more than 85 women’s organizations and partner of The Advocacy Project (AP), has been at the forefront of the protests, and Ms Rogova planned to use her speech in Istanbul to urge respect for the country’s national sovereignty. Ironically, Ms Rogova was due to speak at a discussion about women’s political participation in democracy-building.

The KWN statement has been sent to the UNDP in Prishtina and New York. It accuses the agency of violating the UN’s own resolutions on women’s rights and cites UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. The Resolution urged governments to “ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions.”

The KWN statement adds that women can also help to break the stalemate that so often occurs when men negotiate peace agreements. “Women bring new perspectives to war, peace and security,” it reads. “By silencing our voices, UNDP may even be contributing to the prolongation of conflict.”

* Learn more about KWN

The widespread raping of women and girls in eastern Congo is condoned by both the country’s army and its rebel groups and has been used as a weapon of war, a leading human rights group said last week.

Amnesty International said much of the sexual violence committed by all sides has been directed at ethnic groups from opposing communities.

Failure by the army and rebel groups to stop or punish rape “suggests that, at the very least, they systematically condone the crime and thereby implicitly encourage its persistence on a mass scale,” the group said.

Human rights researchers who visited the country three times in recent weeks were told that some rape victims have been threatened with death if they ask for medical help.

Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said U.N. peacekeepers were rarely able to protect civilians, even in the refugee camps where many have fled to since new fighting flared in August.

On Friday, two young girls were shot at U.N.-run camps at Kibati, north of the provincial capital of Goma. One died, while the other suffered critical injuries, said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Another woman was raped by armed men in the vicinity of Kibati camp” Thursday evening, he said.

“We remain extremely concerned for the safety of the displaced Congolese population in Kibati” because fighters continually violate the two UNHCR-run camps there, he added.

Amnesty’s Khan also criticized the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council, which last week condemned the abuse of civilians in eastern Congo but stopped short of blaming the government for failing to control its soldiers.

“The council believes that by taking this approach of not naming and shaming (governments) they will get more cooperation,” said Khan. “Experience shows that you have to be honest and straightforward about those who are responsible for violations.”

See also comment in the Guardian newspaper: Fighting for the peace – In wars, coordinated mass rape of women is increasingly a weapon of choice to humiliate and terrorise the enemy

United Nations climate change talks should do more to incorporate women’s concerns into negotiations on a new global pact, environmental and women’s groups said last week.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said poor women in developing countries would be affected most by climate change because of its impact on agriculture, food security and water management — traditionally women’s tasks.

It also said they are more likely to be killed in disasters caused by extreme weather — girls in some cultures do not learn how to swim or climb trees. Despite this, most of the debate on climate change at U.N. talks has been “gender-blind”, it said.

“As women, we look for water and firewood — we understand the environment better. And as women, we believe gender issues must be incorporated in all decision making on climate change,” said Rejoice Mabudafhasi, South Africa’s deputy minister for environment and tourism.

GenderCC, an international network of non-governmental organisations, called on governments at the Dec. 1-12 talks in Poland to adopt a resolution on gender justice and set up a group that could make formal inputs into the negotiations.

It also proposed around a third of funds to help countries adapt to the effects of climate change should be earmarked for local work that builds women’s resilience.

“We need new funding instruments beyond market-based mechanisms, otherwise women and their endeavours to mitigate climate change will not benefit,” said Dorah Lebelo of the Greenhouse Project in South Africa.

Lorena Aguilar, IUCN gender advisor, said the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was the only international convention without a mandate to address gender issues and should develop a strategy to change this.

Women at the Dec. 1-12 talks said they were disappointed at the lack of interest in their proposals from the U.N. climate change secretariat and government negotiators.

Women should not be sidelined in climate change policies because they have environmental knowledge that could help protect people, the groups argued.

Mazoe Gondwe, a small farmer from Malawi, said her community was already adapting to unpredictable rains by planting mixed crops, using irrigation and digging crop rows closer together to boost production. But they needed better technology.

“Women are not just helpless victims — they are powerful agents of change, and their leadership is critical,” IUCN’s Aguilar said.

Participants at the International Congress on Islamic Feminism emphasized different obstacles to their work for women’s rights, including a rise in political Islam and fundamentalism, along with U.S. foreign policies.

At one point during the third gathering of the International Congress on Islamic Feminism, Arifa Mazhar grew tired of talking about religion.

“Instead of debating Islam, we should be debating culture and its impact,” she burst out at a microphone during a discussion after one of the sessions. “Culture is so conservative in some tribal areas. Women can’t move around; they can’t work. There are a lot of social taboos and tribal traditions that oppress women and they have little to do with Islam.”

And the principles of local courts and councils are so deeply entrenched that women accept them because they don’t know their rights, she added.

Mazhar is the manager of gender issues for the Sungi Development Foundation, a nongovernmental group that has been working in the northwestern province of Pakistan for 15 years.

But for all her focus on culture, she knows the importance of working within an Islamic framework.

Mazhar and colleagues develop rural women’s employment prospects through initiatives such as micro-credit and helping them organize collectives to talk over public health and social issues such as water supplies.

In the past few years, she says that when she and her colleagues spoke about women’s rights from the human rights perspective, they were increasingly accused of participating in a Western agenda.

With the rise in religious extremism and growing antagonism among ordinary Muslims against the West–largely a response to U.S. interventionist policies abroad–secular, Western-style feminists in countries such as Pakistan are increasingly seen as U.S. agents and regarded with suspicion and distrust.

“Don’t tell us how it’s done in the West, we have our own culture and religion” is the common response.

“After 15 years of work we have realized that we should incorporate the egalitarian messages of the Quran into our grassroots work,” Mazhar said.

The International Congress on Islamic Feminism was started by the Islamic Council of Catalonia (Spain) in 2005. Its founder and director is a man called Abdennur Prado, who is also the secretary of the Islamic Council of Spain. The congress is sponsored by British Council, the government of Spain, the European Institute of the Mediterranean region and the Catalonian Islamic Council.

At its third gathering in Barcelona in late October, participants confirmed what other meetings–along with other activists and scholars–have been saying about the primacy of an Islamic framework for their efforts.

The meeting also brought out appeals from some activists for a reversal of U.S. military interventions in the Middle East.

Musdah Mulia, a progressive Islamic scholar from Indonesia, received the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in 2007 at a ceremony presided over by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “When Mrs. Rice asked me what she can do to help my country, I answered, ‘Just stop violence as a way of dealing with Muslim countries,'” Mulia said in an interview.

Asma Barlas, a Pakistani-born scholar on Islamic feminism, was among the most vocal about the need for a more progressive and non-patriarchal interpretation of Islam’s holy book. “The Quran has been privatized by a handful of men, mostly Arabs, who decide how we should relate to God,” she said while addressing the congress. Sharia religious law and fatwas are decided and issued by grand muftis or ayatollas of the Middle East countries, and all of them are men.

Female Islamic scholars are a rare find these days, especially in Muslim societies, but it was not always so. In his independent research, scholar Mohammad Akram Nadwi has discovered 8,000 female scholars who transmitted and interpreted the hadith–the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad–and even made Islamic law as jurists throughout history.

“Muslim feminists face a dual mandate,” said Barlas, “to challenge the substandard status of women living under Islamic laws and to challenge the belief spread outside of the Muslim world that Islam and Muslims are not competent to compete fully in the global movement for democracy, social justice and equality.”

Souad Eddouada, a Moroccan gender scholar, echoed concerns about cultural conservatism as she discussed the difficulties of implementing Morocco’s progressive 2004 family law, which was hard-fought by several national women’s rights groups.

The law, influenced by progressive Quranic interpretations of gender equality and domestic harmony, instituted several significant changes. These included raising the marriage age of women to 18 and abolishing the notion of a marital obligation of obedience toward husbands, known as “ta’a” and imposed by a traditionalist view of the Sharia. Joint decision-making between spouses is encouraged in the reformed law.

“There is a lot of resistance, especially in rural areas,” said Souad. “The law and its language is not relevant to every woman in the country. It is more suited to educated, urban women.”

Eddouada also downplayed another sign of progress–the fact that 50 Moroccan women are taught each year to be mosque preachers–as mainly symbolic. She says the women express conservative ideas and are very much controlled by the male clergy.

Other scholars agreed that comparable progress in North African and Persian Gulf countries is hindered by social resistance, showing that grassroots work is needed to assist progressive laws and policies.

Norani Othman is a board member of Sisters in Islam, a leading Muslim women’s rights group in Malaysia, where a rise in political Islam and religious fundamentalism swayed the government in 1988 to elevate Sharia religious courts and give them equal status with civil courts to handle family matters. Most Malaysian states now have Sharia-infused marital laws.

Sisters in Islam has been trying hard to reform one particular issue–polygamy–which is allowed with restrictions to Muslims in Malaysia.

“But we have come to the wall with this issue,” said Othman.

She says Islamist political forces that focus on increasing religion’s role in shaping the nation-state use a campaign for full legal polygamy to expand their constituencies by attracting men who want to have more than one wife.

In response, Sisters in Islam decided it needed empirical evidence showing the negative effects of polygamy to reverse public opinion. The group is now conducting a survey and says some respondents are willing to speak publicly.

“We have eager respondents, especially among children of the first wives, who say the second marriage of their father has affected them on several levels, especially emotionally,” says Othman.

Fatou Sow, a women’s rights advocate from Senegal, says any important debate on outlawing polygamy is stymied by the political influence of extreme religious groups and strong local traditions.

“Local culture still gives a much higher status to married women, so women continue to agree to become second wives,” she says.

Margot Badran, a U.S. scholar of Islamic history and feminism, says Muslim activists are under attack from a range of conservatives, be they religious leaders, self-appointed community spokesmen, followers of political Islam or conservative Islamist women who promote patriarchal interpretations of Islam through Quran study groups.

Othman agrees. “Most of us are small, under-funded groups trying to fight against the tide, against the traditional Islamic interpretations.”

Nadira Artyk is a Brooklyn-based women’s rights advocate, journalist and media consultant. She was born and raised in Uzbekistan, Central Asia. Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at

Americans and northern Europeans visiting Italy often comment on the sheer quantity of exposed female flesh in advertising and on TV shows.

That exposure is inversely proportional to the presence of women in the labor force, in management and in politics.

Feminists place a lot of the blame for the commercial use of the female body at the door of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

A recent popular TV show was a contest for two showgirl slots on a top satirical program. More than 5,000 women applied, and the prime requisites were perfect bodies and the ability to dance on tabletops.

Both on public television and on networks owned by Berlusconi, who also is a media tycoon, scantily dressed women can been seen — but rarely heard — on all types of programs, from quizzes to political talk shows.

Showgirl As Role Model

Opinion polls indicate that the showgirl is the No. 1 role model for young Italian women, including 21-year-old student Livia Colarietti.

“If I were a little thinner, I would have joined the contest to become a showgirl,” Colarietti says. “I enjoy those shows. I really like to watch them.”

One very successful showgirl is Mara Carfagna, who left an uncertain singing career for politics. Berlusconi chose her for the slot of minister of equal opportunity — and both denied media reports that they were having an affair.

Satirist Sabina Guzzanti has publicly scorned the former topless calendar girl.

“I took strong position because it is absolutely a scandal,” Guzzanti says. “Here we have more a pinup exactly than a showgirl, someone showing her body, and she became minister of equal opportunities.”

Veteran feminist Grazia Francescato concedes that Carfagna is winning with her ways.

“We have gone from equal opportunities to equal opportunism,” Francescato says. “You try to be very appealing to the other sex, especially to very powerful men. “I am very, very disappointed by women.”

Feminists were powerful in the 1970s, winning universal health care and legalization of divorce and abortion, but then there was a backlash.

Sexism In Italy

Today, Italy has the lowest percentage of working women in Europe. Only 2 percent of top management positions are held by women — that’s even behind Kuwait — and only 17 percent of the members of parliament are women — less than in Rwanda and Burundi.

Television has become women’s prime showcase.

“To sell your body for a calendar, for a career, is not considered now so bad for many young women,” says social scientist Elisa Manna, who has studied this issue’s impact on Italian society. “This kind of attitude is connected to television, because they have this kind of model in every hour of the day.”

With remote in hand, a viewer can zap from game shows with giggling girls in bikinis to prime-time anchorwomen with plunging necklines. All of this sexiness on television began with the birth of Berlusconi’s networks in the 1980s.

The 72-year-old prime minister speaks openly about sex. He recently bragged, “I sleep for three hours, and still have enough energy to make love for another three.”

Female Solidarity Out Of Fashion

The Berlusconi TV model is widely seen as having shaped Italy’s contemporary society, and journalist Lilli Gruber says feminism and solidarity among women are out of fashion.

A former TV anchorwoman who resigned from public television in protest over Berlusconi’s control of the media, Gruber says most women appear unwilling or unable to assert themselves and too weak to fight.

“To fight back against growing sexism, growing violence against women and domestic violence especially, fight back all these politicians who don’t move an inch in order to allow women to be in charge and take on responsibilities,” Gruber says.

She points out, however, that the majority of Italians now studying in universities are women — a generation that she believes won’t be passive and might even succeed in breaking down Italy’s old-boy network.

by Sylvia Poggioli NPR

Egypt’s long time president vowed last month to increase the number of women serving in parliament, saying women must have a more active voice in the country’s male-dominated government.

Women currently hold only nine seats in parliament’s 454-member lower house — the lawmaking chamber — including five that are appointed by the president. The other four are elected.

Speaking during the opening sessions of both houses of parliament, President Hosni Mubarak urged members to approve laws guaranteeing an increase in the number of women lawmakers.

He did not provide details, but members of his ruling party have said Mubarak wants the number of female lawmakers to reach at least 56 in the lower chamber, with representation from all of the Egypt’s governates.

Though parliament must first approve any new election laws, there was little doubt lawmakers — who overwhelmingly belong to the ruling party — would pass Mubarak’s proposal.

“I will present to the parliament’s two houses important legislative amendments that affirm the society’s recognition of the women’s role,” Mubarak said.

A leading Egyptian women’s rights activist said the move to increase the number of women in parliament is an important step — but not a “complete step.”

“The current electoral system feeds corruption and not a healthy public life that will guarantee good women’s political participation,” said Nehad Aboul-Qomsan, the head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights.

She said she expected only women from Mubarak’s party would be allowed to run and win the women-designated seats. While many would be good candidates, she said not all would have experience in areas of public reform and activism.

“If we had a system where proportional representation and real competition existed, we could benefit from the new seats for women,” said Aboul-Qomsan.

Rights groups have long complained that Egypt’s elections are flawed and accuse the government of vote rigging to sway the polls in the ruling party’s favor.

In the most recent elections in 2007 for parliament’s upper chamber — which serves as an advisory body — rights groups reported extensive ballot box stuffing and police blockades of polling sites to prevent opposition supporters from casting ballots.

The Egyptian government insisted the vote was clean, and official results showed a near-sweep by candidates from Mubarak’s party.

ANC gender backwardness is a fallout of post-Polokwane power struggles, says Anele Mda*

The dawn of democracy in 1994 saw South African women emerge from centuries of gender bondage to reclaim their rights as free citizens of this land.

The 1996 constitution guaranteed them equal rights, including protection from violence and abuse.

To give organisational form to this constitutional intent, the Gender and Human Rights commissions were created to ensure that women’s rights would receive the necessary attention.

Over the past few years, several civil society organisations in partnership with government have highlighted, through the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women campaign, the challenges that women still face in our country.

Despite the advances of the past 15 years, women of all races remain victims of sexual and violent crime, including gender backwardness, particularly in instances when political power is contested.

The campaign this year needs to move beyond the threat of violence against women and look at how women’s concerns can be brought back to the centre stage of our political discourse as we move towards the 2009 elections.

The post-Polokwane period has seen a significant retreat in this regard and it is mainly due to the ongoing contestation for power among the political elite.

It is a fact that women have made advances since 1994. They occupy some leading positions in politics, government and business.

However, this important benchmark does not necessarily translate into major gains for ordinary women.

Many famous female leaders, such as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, did not make gender equality their primary focus, let alone promote women’s issues.

Deputy president Baleka Mbete and the ANC Women’s League are fast falling into this category of women who fail to rise to the challenge of leadership on this historic question of women’s emancipation.

The league is on record as saying they would sing in support of the president of the ANC, Jacob Zuma — a man who has shown utter disdain for the rights of women. His behaviour and utterances speak eloquently about his attitude towards the female sex.

Zuma’s contempt for women is demonstrated by the following:

“Women wearing short skirts are asking for it.” This he said in his defence during his 2006 rape trial. Is it a wonder that taxi drivers at Noord Street taxi rank in Johannesburg acted in the way they did against young female patrons in miniskirts?

Zuma engaged in unprotected sex with a woman who is HIV-positive — despite having led the South African National Aids Council, a body entrusted with guiding the country’s HIV/Aids intervention strategies.

Lately, Zuma believes teenage mothers are social miscreants who should be separated from their children, taken to isolated camps and educated by force.

He does not explain how this forced isolation would deal with the social conditions that lead to teenage pregnancy and the associated vulnerability to HIV and Aids.

Worse, this curious morality apparently applies only to girls. Boys need take no responsibility whatsoever for their part in these pregnancies, according to the president of the ruling party.

Looking at these facts, it must be concluded that the ANC president holds backward views on women.

These views are in direct conflict with what is guaranteed to women by the constitution.

To date, no single female or male leader of the ANC has spoken out against this backwardness.

Are people afraid or shall we assume that they agree with their president’s dated views on women?

What the women of South Africa should demand in this year’s campaign is an immediate realisation of their constitutional right to live in peace and security.

They should also demand that their concerns occupy political centre stage and that they be served by a leadership that has integrity and will act in their interests.

They should be wary of the quick-fix populist-sounding solutions that Zuma seems to be advocating.

Poverty, unemployment and access to rights all have a gender dimension, and African women in particular bear the brunt of these social conditions, including lack of access to development because of the perpetual myth that they are inferior.

Children and female-headed households are the most vulnerable and should be prioritised.

What is required is a progressive and modern leadership that is forward-looking and ready to break new ground when it comes to women’s development.

A leadership that respects women’s basic human rights, their honour and pride and their right to co-exist in society as equals who are free from the threat of violence, poverty and disease.

A leadership that inspires both women and men to become agents of their own change and embrace modernity, equality for all and a future state where women are celebrated instead of being pushed down or patronised.

This must be, at the very least, the basis on which women evaluate political platforms as the 2009 election campaign kicks off.

* Mda is a youth convenor for the Congress of the People

From the south of Auckland to the southern Highlands of PNG, women of the Pacific claimed a historic moment at the opening of the 11th AWID International Forum at the Cape Town International Convention Centre in South Africa last month.

It was the first time they have gathered in numbers at any global forum since close to 100 delegates from all corners of the Pacific went to Beijing, China, in 1995 for the 4th United Nations World Conference on Women. 15 years later, less than half that number are attending this meeting; but given it’s on a much smaller scale – some 2,000 delegates compared to the 20,000 who went to China; the representation and talking spaces by the Pacific at this event is already encouraging for the younger Pacific women who are here.

Fiji’s Tara Chetty and Michelle Reddy, Tonga’s Ofa-ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki and Papua New Guinea’s Maya Popul are amongst those keen to close the gap between the new generation of Pacific feminists and older women from the region who formed the early awareness of women’s rights as a social movement for change.

“I would hope that the movement for us back home anyway would be about mentoring young women because I think that’s the future for women,” says Popul, who is a board member for the YWCA in PNG. She says there’s a need for older women to give of their knowledge very generously to younger women. “Yes, there are a few barriers in there unfortunately but once we start embracing the mentoring of young women we’ll know what it means to grow a movement, and make it move on.”

Fiji Women’s Rights Director Virisila Buadromo sees the energy from the younger delegates as a positive part of the undercurrent of change running through gender equality work in the Pacific.

“We’re rejuvenating Pacific feminism. Currently, it needs some rejuvenation and nourishing and it’s important that young women get involved in this process,” says Buadromo.

“If we’re going to have any kind of movement in the Pacific; to be part of any change that’s social; the women’s movement and the feminist movement need to have solidarity.”

Tara Chetty, who is now with the FWRM, has been working closely with Noeleen Nabulivou from the Fiji-based Women’s Action for Change network. Like FemLINKpacific’s Sharon Rolls, who is part of a global women’s media training initiative targeting young women during AWID 08, Chetty has actively shaped input into the AWID program aimed at helping young women share their stories using a range of media.

Based on her experience at the last AWID in Bangkok two years ago, where Chetty says delegates from the Pacific met up during the meeting, and only while in the conference, she has used the internet to prepare delegates, share information and support AWID international committee member Noelene Nabulivou.

Together with DAWN activist Michelle Reddy, also of FWRM, they have managed a strong online discussion group of the Pacific delegates coming to South Africa sharing information, program and arrival details and ideas well in advance of arrival.

That networking and organising commitment to keep those in gender activism in the Pacific aware of others in the same field is welcomed by Buadromo who says it has helped broaden the Pacific presence at this event – where Pacific delegates can talk about rights for women without the usual backlash.

“Unfortunately in the pacific feminism is still considered the f word — people still identify themselves as women’s rights activists or defenders. They have all these different sorts of identities – and have to make the journey towards realising we are all working in one direction in their own time.”

Part of that journey involves claiming Pacific spaces on conferences such as AWID, and putting the rest of the world on notice that the Pacific advocates have arrived. United Nations ESCAP adviser Vanessa Griffin of Fiji, who is part of the AWID board of Directors along with New Zealand’s Marilyn Waring, says the higher profile and numbers for Pacific women at the global event bodes well for a Pacific impact on the program of events and speaker panels.

She says the AWID forum provides a chance for the Pacific delegates to “think and reflect; and connect with what’s important in the Pacific from your priorities.”

The overall ‘power of movements’ theme to AWID will allow women from the Pacific to talk about what movements mean for them, what movement building is, and how it can be done; in the same ways that women from other regions of the world are coming together to discuss the same issues.

“Having a large number of Pacific women allows you to think about that together because that is quite rare to have so many in one place such as this,” says Griffin.

The writer is part of the Pacific Delegation to the Association Of Women’s Rights In Development (AWID).

See also:

Levelling Through Links – Empowering Grassroots Voices in Africa

Emphasising the centrality of consolidating links within the women’s movement in Africa, Carlyn Hambuba underlines the importance of involving grassroots women to ensure their voices be heard. With grassroots women increasingly sensitive to their own needs for representation, the author urges NGOs to refrain from simply speaking on behalf of others and to work towards the effective incorporation of local women into development debates.

Read the full comment at

Women’s rights activists are to intensify their efforts to ensure women in Bahrain get a better deal in society.

They will start by co-ordinating their efforts with concerned non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and building a strategy to tackle women’s rights issues, said Awal Women’s Society member and former president Dr Sabika Al Najjar.

“We should monitor the situation closely and only then we will know exactly how we can improve things for women,” she told the GDN.

She said there were several core issues of concern the society would be focusing on. They included violence and abuse against women, as well as pushing for the introduction of a citizenship rights for the children of Bahraini women married to foreigners.

The society will push for the introduction of a family law, which would stipulate how family issues such as divorces and child custody cases should be resolved.

The exploitation of female domestic helpers is another area that will be looked into.

The society is also planning to raise awareness about women’s rights and the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

The move follows a meeting between the Supreme Council for Women, women’s groups and other NGOs and the CEDAW committee in Geneva last month.

During the visit to Geneva, the council presented a report on Bahrain’s implementation of the CEDAW.

“I think any submission of a report to an international organisation will help push the government and NGOs to expand their work and give more rights to women,” said Dr Al Najjar.

“The UN committee members asked so many questions on what they (council) were doing and when the government replied how they were working on different issues, always the next question was – what is your time frame to work on this?

Bahrain joined the committee in 2002, but submitted several reservations due to conflict with Sharia law, traditions and Islamic principles.

Since then, women’s activists and human rights groups have been campaigning for Bahrain to lift these reservations.

Bahrain has five reservations on the optional protocol of the CEDAW, which refer to articles two, nine, 15, 16 and 29.

l Article two, paragraph two, states that a country should condemn all types of discrimination against women.

l Article nine, paragraph two, states that women should enjoy the same rights as men in terms of giving citizenship to their children.

l Article 15, paragraph four, states that women should be given the same rights as men in choosing their homes.

l Article 16 states the need to provide equal marital rights for females and males, particularly in marriage contracts, raising children and custody.

l Article 29, paragraph one, relates to disputes between two state parties.

Dr Al Najjar said during meetings in Geneva, women’s rights activists asked the official Bahraini delegation to consider lifting reservations on the CEDAW.

She said the delegation said it was thinking about lifting reservations such as article two, which states there is supposed to be no discrimination against women.

The delegation would also consider lifting a reservation on article 15, paragraph four, which states that women should be given the same rights as men in choosing their homes.

The issue of granting nationality to children of Bahraini women married to foreigners was raised by rights groups during the Geneva visit.

“They (official delegation) said there was a law and the mothers would get their rights to give their nationality to their children,” said the Awal Women’s Society member.

Dr Al Najjar said at the meeting the UN committee asked women’s groups and NGOs to keep in contact with them and inform them about the status of women’s rights in Bahrain.

“They want information about cases of divorce and treatment of women in court and violence against women,” she said.

Speech by Vice-President Wallström to National Women’s Council Ireland last month.

Yes, there are indeed some gentlemen here: and I’m glad, because I believe in equal opportunities! So thank you for coming.

It’s certainly a pleasure for me to be here at this meeting of the National Women’s Council. I’m very impressed by how much this organization does: representing over 300 000 women in Ireland and helping them network, organize, lobby and campaign on the issues that matter to us all.

One of those issues, of course, is gender equality – and for the next 15 minutes or so I want to focus on the question of gender equality in European politics. Women make up half the EU electorate: logically we should account for half the elected politicians and half the top-level policy-makers too. But we don’t. Most governments in Europe are largely made up of men.

Ireland is remarkable in having had women presidents for nearly 18 years now, and there are influential women in government here – as well as many in the background. You know what they say: “Behind every successful man stands a surprised woman…”

But gender parity in politics, in Ireland as in most EU countries, is still a good way off. The same is true within the EU institutions.

Less than one in three MEPs is a woman, and only twice in fifty-six years has the European Parliament had a woman President.

I am one of just ten women in the present European Commission. This is the best proportion ever but it is still only just over a third. And the Commission has never had a woman President!

Are we content with the present situation? I am not – and I believe it’s high time for a change! I want to see “50-50” democracy in Europe and I am actively campaigning for it.

Why campaign on this now? Because in just a few months’ time, in June 2009 there will be the European Parliament elections. Also in 2009, top posts in the European Union institutions will be filled, including the Presidency of the European Parliament and the European Commission. Those posts are currently held by men, and top EU posts in general have been occupied by men for a many years. Isn’t it time for a change? Isn’t it time to give women their turn?

I want more women in European politics for three reasons.

First, for the sake of democracy. Second, for the sake of Europe. Third, for the sake of the whole world.

Let me explain.

1. For the sake of democracy

Representative democracy without gender equality is a contradiction in terms. How can democracy be credible and representative unless the people (equal numbers of men and women) are represented and governed by equal numbers of men and women? Women, as much as men, have a fundamental right to steer the political decision-making process. Women must have equal say with men in shaping policies which affect us all.

The legitimacy of government also depends on having a high turnout at elections – whether national or European – and turnout increases if there are more women candidates, largely because this encourages more women to vote. Fewer women candidates means fewer votes from women and a less legitimate government. In short, there can be no modern democracy without gender equality!

2. For the sake of Europe

EU policies need to reflect the priorities and perspectives, the needs and aspirations, of all stakeholders – women as well as men. If women are not at the policy-making table, the agenda will be set by men – and we cannot depend on them to give priority to issues that women consider important. For example, the provision of child care facilities and the balance between working life and family life for both partners.

In Germany, where childcare facilities are available for only one in six children, women often cannot afford high-priced daycare alternatives and are forced to give up their jobs. In the UK, women make up 90% of all single-parent households, putting them at a higher risk of enduring poverty. I don’t have the figure for Ireland, but I wouldn’t mind betting it’s similar.

And what about tackling domestic violence? It is a world-wide phenomenon, and women are the victims in more than 90% of the cases. One in every five women in Europe has been the victim of some form of violence – often at home.

Given an equal say in policy-making and legislation, women would find it easier to tackle issues like these and to put an end to the gender discrimination that is still common in many EU countries. For example, women in the EU earn, on average, 15% less than men for the same job. In some countries that figure is much higher!

3. For the sake of the whole world

One of today’s global challenges today is security: and women see security differently from men. To women, being secure means earning enough money to feed your children. It means having access to education and healthcare. It means freedom not only from violence but also from the poverty and social injustice that are often the root causes of violence.

Yet political leaders world wide – the vast majority of them men – are failing to tackle these issues. The cost of food is soaring, threatening the lives of the world’s poorest people. Access to clean fresh water is still denied to millions of people world wide. Seventy percent of the people who live on less than one dollar a day are women. 340 million women world wide are not expected to live past 40, largely because of violence and poverty-related illness. 100 million children world wide receive no education at all – and sixty to seventy percent of them are girls.

How much money would it take to tackle these problems? How much money is spent, instead, on military hardware and military operations that in practice make life permanently insecure for very many women and children?

Around the world, women are the front line victims of armed conflict, being systematically raped and sexually tortured – not only by soldiers but also, shockingly, by peacekeepers. Partly because of this front-line experience, women often play an important role in securing peace and rebuilding shattered communities in war-torn countries. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, for example, helped broker the Good Friday agreement. In Chile, women’s peace organizations were crucial in building a stable society following almost 20 years of dictatorship.

Recognizing the importance of women’s role in security matters, the United Nations Security Council, in 2000, adopted Resolution 1325. This Resolution stresses – among other things – the need for women to take part in peace negotiations and conflict resolution. The European Union wants to see this Resolution implemented – but progress so far has been slow. I’m sorry to say that very few European Union countries have drawn up a National Action Plan.

In March this year, the European Commissioner for External Relations, Ms Benita Ferrero-Waldner, organized a conference for women political leaders to discuss how to press for full implementation of Resolution 1325. More than 40 of those women leaders – including myself – have signed a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, calling for a ministerial level meeting to take stock of the situation.

Women are needed in politics and in positions of leadership, to focus the attention of governments and parliaments on “security” in its broadest sense. To push for better policies on health and education, on development and world trade, on combating climate change.

Women can – and must – make a difference.

UN Resolution 1325 rightly calls on governments to “ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions”. That must include 50-50 gender parity in European politics.

With the 2009 European elections coming up fast, now is the time for action!

But what, in practice, can we do?

Let me just outline three things.

First, we need to break the stereotypes and build women’s self-confidence. Women must be encouraged to believe in themselves! We need to de-bunk the myth that women are inherently less able to take on political and leadership roles.

Second, we need to show women that the EU is relevant to their needs and aspirations. European Union policies affect areas of life that women tend to care about: education, social policy, the environment, human rights, international development. To give these areas the priority attention they need, women must come forward for election and get actively involved in shaping policy.

Third, we need to persuade our political parties to nominate more women candidates for election to the European Parliament, and that they need to focus more on the issues that concern women.

So let me leave you with this question: what will you do personally?

What will you do to influence the decision-makers here in Ireland?

What will you do to persuade your political party that it needs to nominate equal numbers of women and men candidates?

What will you do to force politicians to pay attention to women’s issues?

Last but not least, ladies and gentlemen, but especially the ladies: make sure you VOTE in the June 2009 elections! In past elections, women have been less inclined to vote than men. Perhaps many have just been too busy coping with the demands of working life and family responsibilities, and have not found the time or inclination to turn out and vote.

This time around, DO IT! Find out what the parties are proposing. Are they focusing on issues relevant to women?

What action are they proposing to improve life for women?

Are they putting forward a significant number of women candidates?

Compare the parties – and vote accordingly. Have your say!

Don’t leave the decision-making and the agenda-setting to the men: let the voices of the women be heard!

Your vote can and will make a difference.

• Nordic countries close over 80% of equality gaps between men and women
• World makes progress on economic, political and education gaps; loses ground on health gaps
• The financial crisis underscores need for gender equality
• The Report contains detailed profiles of 130 global economies

Norway (1) leads the world in closing the gender gap between men and women, according to the overall ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2008 released last month. Three other Nordic countries – Finland (2), Sweden (3) and Iceland (4) – also top the Report’s Gender Gap Index. Previously higher ranking countries such as Germany (11), United Kingdom (13) and Spain (17) slipped down the Index but stayed in the top 20, while Netherlands (9), Latvia (10), Sri Lanka (12) and France (15) made significant gains.

The United States (27) made progress this year and closed gender gaps in estimated earned income and perceived income gaps for similar work. The United States also made strides in political empowerment, driven by increased participation of women in political decision-making positions. Switzerland’s (14) advancement up the rankings was based on large increases in the percentage of women in parliament and those in ministerial-level positions. France (15) improved significantly for the third consecutive year, thanks to gains in both economic participation and political empowerment. China (57) gains 17 places relative to last year driven by narrowing gender gaps in educational attainment, economic participation and political participation. Brazil (73) improves on education and economic participation but falls to 110th place in political empowerment. In the bottom half of the rankings, countries such as Tunisia (103), Jordan (104) and United Arab Emirates (105) made overall gains, driven by narrower gaps in literacy, and in the case of Jordan and the UAE, in the percentage of women in political decision-making positions. Syria (107), Ethiopia (122) and Saudi Arabia (128) not only fell farther in the relative ranking, but also showed a drop in scores relative to their own performance last year.

The Global Gender Gap Index scores can be interpreted as the percentage of the gap between women and men that has been closed. The three highest ranking countries have closed a little over 80% of their gender gaps, while the lowest ranking country has closed only a little over 45% of its gender gap. Out of the 128 countries covered in both 2007 and 2008, more than two-thirds have posted gains in overall index scores, indicating that the world in general has made progress towards equality between men and women. Additionally, taking averages across the subindexes for these 128 countries reveals that, globally, progress has been made on narrowing the gaps in educational attainment, political empowerment and economic participation, while the gap in health has widened.

“Greater representation of women in senior leadership positions within governments and financial institutions is vital not only to find solutions to the current economic turmoil, but to stave off such crises in future. At the World Economic Forum, we put strong emphasis on addressing this challenge with a multistakeholder approach through our global and regional Gender Parity Groups,” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. These communities of highly influential leaders from business, politics, academia, media and civil society – 50% women and 50% men – seek to share best practices and identify the most effective strategies to optimize the use of talent.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2008 is based on the innovative new methodology introduced in 2006 and includes detailed profiles that provide insight into the economic, legal and social aspects of the gender gap in each country. The Report measures the size of the gender gap in four critical areas of inequality between men and women:

1) Economic participation and opportunity – outcomes on salaries, participation levels and access to high-skilled employment
2) Educational attainment – outcomes on access to basic and higher-level education
3) Political empowerment – outcomes on representation in decision-making structures
4) Health and survival – outcomes on life expectancy and sex ratio

The Report is the result of collaboration between Ricardo Hausmann, Director of the Centre for International Development at Harvard University, USA; Laura Tyson, Professor of Business Administration and Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, USA; and Saadia Zahidi, Head of Constituents at the World Economic Forum.

“The Index assesses countries on how well they are dividing their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations, regardless of the overall levels of these resources and opportunities. Thus, the Index does not penalize those countries that have low levels of education overall, for example, but rather those where the distribution of education is uneven between women and men,” said Hausmann.

The Report also provides some evidence on the link between the gender gap and the economic performance of countries. “Our work shows a strong correlation between competitiveness and the gender gap scores. While this does not imply causality, the possible theoretical underpinnings of this link are clear: countries that do not fully capitalize effectively on one-half of their human resources run the risk of undermining their competitive potential. We hope to highlight the economic incentive behind empowering women, in addition to promoting equality as a basic human right,” added Tyson.

“The Report reveals that progress is not only possible, but possible in a relatively short space of time: calculating the Index as far back as data would allow, we found that countries such as Chile, Spain, Turkey and Finland have closed between 5 and 10 percentage points of their respective gender gaps over just the past eight years.

When we interpret these percentage changes at the societal level, we see that hundreds of thousands of lives are impacted, and at the economic level, we see enormous potential competitiveness gains,” said Zahidi.

The World Economic Forum continues to expand geographic coverage in the Report. Featuring a total of 130 countries, this year’s Report provides an insight into the gaps between women and men in over 92% of the world’s population. Coverage has been expanded this year to include Barbados and Brunei Daressalam. The Report covers all current and candidate European Union countries, 23 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 23 from sub-Saharan Africa, over 20 from Asia and 15 from the Middle East and North Africa. Thirteen out of the 14 variables used to create the Index are from publicly available “hard data” indicators from international organizations, such as the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Health Organization.

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Global Gender Gap rankings for 2007 and 2008 as a table