Archive for January, 2009

Marrying off Mauritanian girls as young as six years old to men in Gulf states is turning into a profitable trafficking enterprise as a typically rural marriage practice migrates to the city, according to urban families.

“It used to be widespread in the rural milieu, but now child marriages are more developed in urban areas as a new business,” said Sidi Mohamed Ould Jyyide, a sociologist in the capital Nouakchott. “One’s family can get rich for selling a daughter to a wealthy man. Early marriage is almost a guarantee to make a profit in no time.”

The sociologist said what used to be a cultural practice where only symbolic gifts were exchanged has turned into a business in which mostly poor urban families try to sell their daughters to wealthy families in marriage. Based on a girl’s beauty and age – the younger, the more valuable – her family can demand from US$4,000 to tens of thousands of dollars, according to Jyyide.

“Smugglers are ready to pay for all expenses of travelling and accommodation for such girls,” he added. These “smugglers” can be paid intermediaries working for men seeking child-brides, or family members of the girls.

Oumelkhary Mint Sidi Mohamed, 14, said when she was eight her father took her from her village of Adel Beghrou near Mauritania’s border with Mali to an aunt in Nouakchott, who transported her to Saudi Arabia.

Mohamed told IRIN her family’s dreams of wealth turned into her nightmare when she was raped by a cousin while waiting to be introduced to wealthy men in Saudi Arabia. “[To avoid shame], my family arranged with him to take me back home [to Mauritania] as his wife,” Mohamed told IRIN. “I found myself in his house as a servant. He beat me as soon as my family left. I reported my endless suffering to my father to end the terrible relation.”

The girl told IRIN that even after other family members intervened to help her get a divorce after one year, her father again tried to sell her in marriage in Saudi Arabia. Family friend Rabie Ould Idomou told IRIN he then stepped in and adopted Mohamed so he could be her legal guardian and keep her in Mauritania. “She must be rehabilitated [from her childhood trauma] in fairness and tranquillity,” he said.

Idomou told IRIN that after getting the father’s approval he is now trying to enrol Mohamed in school.

While the legal age of marriage in Mauritania is 18 according to the national family code, many in the predominantly Muslim country observe a different religious code. “It is accepted by the Islamic religion to marry a girl of six years old, but any physical contact has to wait for her biological maturity,” Hamden Ould Tah, general secretary of Mauritania’s Islamic Scholars Association, told IRIN.

Cultural analyst, author and professor Hussein Ould Medo said child marriage is still common in Mauritania and may be interpreted as a tool to reject what some see as the evils of modernisation. “It is a way to fight against a sweeping change or negative modern transformation.”

A government source said it is difficult to determine the rate of child marriage in Mauritania. “The real rate of such marriages is not known because most cases are not recorded as official marriages and there are no official statistics in [the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and Families],” said ministerial director Aminetou Mint Takki. She added that any violation of the family code’s legal marrying age would be punished.

But the law holds little relief for some girls in the country, said Aminetou Mint Moctar, president of the non-profit organisation Women Supporting Families. “The [family code] law is not enforced to protect the poorest or the uneducated.”

In 2006 more than 14 million girls under 18 were forced into marriage in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN.

Mohamed told IRIN she hopes she will be the last child-bride victim: “I hope to play and go to school as every child does. I will never forgive my father and cousin for what they have done [to me]. I pray to be the last girl to go through that pain and humiliation.”

A new study has revealed that religious and traditional challenges are a hindrance to dealing with HIV/AIDS and violence against women (VAW).

It states that in Northern Ghana, women continue to suffer violence in spite of existing laws due to negligence and ignorance about women and people’s rights, and misinterpretation of religious and cultural practices.

Even supposed experts who claim to be inclined to gender issues were found to have little or no experience to deal with the issue.

The author of the report, Mrs. Yaa Peprah Agyemang Amekudzi stated, “Poverty and lack of formal education were also identified as being used to perpetuate violence against women. Sometimes they feel they have to keep quiet to receive such abuses.”

ActionAid Ghana under its thematic area of women’s rights, commissioned the research, “Violence and HIV/AIDS: The Interface, Voices of Women in Northern Ghana”, to highlight the vulnerability of women to HIV/AIDS due to the violence they face. The study was meant to facilitate policy formulation and implementation, as well as service delivery to mitigate such vulnerability.

It focused on six districts, two in each of the three northern regions, namely Jirapa and Lawra (Upper West), Talensi Nabdam (Upper East) and Tamale and Bole (Northern region).

Disseminating the findings of the research in Accra, Mrs. Amekudzi cited physical violence or assault as predominant, besides arbitrary dissolution of marriages without responsibilities and compensation and forced marriages.

On the linkage between VAW and HIV/AIDS, she said issues such as sexual violence against women increased their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.

“Fear of violence prevents women from negotiating safe sex, stigma and violence meted out to women who test positive and declare their status have caused them to turn to commercial sex work to survive.”

She said that consequently, it retards development in all facets of social, economic and political, since the consequences of HIV/AIDS goes beyond women’s health to their role as caregivers and mothers and their contribution to the economic support of their families.

According to World Health Organization (WHO) report of 2003, studies conducted in Sub-Saharan Africa indicate a close association between increased risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS and VAW.

These vindicate the position of gender activists that HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, the transmission of which is sometimes a consequence of sexual violence, are having a devastating effect on women’s health, particularly the health of adolescent girls and young women.

An estimated 32.2 million people globally were living with HIV & AIDS in 2007 of which 15.4 million were women.

Now, 17.5 million women are living with AIDS with 77% of them in Sub-Sahara Africa, 90% of these are children.

Former Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), Mr. Kofi Annan, once stated that if the world wants to save Africa from two catastrophes- famine and AIDS- then it must do well to focus on saving Africa’s women, adding, “In Africa, AIDS has a woman’s face.”

According to the new ActionAid study current HIV control efforts have failed to stem the high rate among women and girls in the three northern regions of Ghana.

It states that primarily, efforts have failed to recognize the lack of or low participation of women in decision-making, even when decisions are about them.

It mentioned that female condom has very minimum user rate in all the three northern regions because the decision to use them does not rest with women.

The study recommended that with policy implications district assemblies should enact bye-laws against harmful cultural practices and institutions such as NCCE, DOVVSU and police must be strengthened for effective.

“Government should open shelters and provide services for survivors of violence and HIV/AIDS, religious bodies should support victims of violence and HIV/AIDS and indicators should be developed to track effects of awareness creation about domestic violence and HIV, it added.

Ms. Adwoa Kwateng-Kluvitse, Country Director of ActionAid noted that change cannot be sustained without addressing the power dynamics.

“We are working on building and strengthening the voice of persons living with HIV/AIDS. We want to increase their access to information and skills, especially the vulnerable ones.”

She explained the objective of the project was to reduce violence against women which plays a critical role in exposing them to HIV infection in line with the UN Declaration on violence against women.

Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor who runs a hospital for abused women and children in eastern Congo, says the youngest rape victim he has treated was just three years old.

After being honored with a U.N. human rights prize in New York last month, Mukwege said the world should do more to end the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo that has killed and displaced millions of people over a decade.

“The crisis that is happening in Congo is treated with with unimaginable hypocrisy,” Mukwege told Reuters in an interview in French after the awards ceremony.

“Everyone knows. More than 5 million dead, and everybody knows. Reports say 50,000 to 60,000 women raped every year.”

Mukwege said the 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers were little more than observers and needed a much stronger mandate to act.

“I always wonder, where is the political will to change the situation? I think the political will does not exist.”

Mukwege runs the Panzi Hospital for rape victims in Bukavu, which treats 10 to 12 women and children a day. Before the new clashes, patients were coming in who had been raped a year or more ago, but now he is seeing a sharp rise in new cases.

“What happens to the children is even more brutal,” Mukwege said. “The youngest child I have treated is a child of three with the rectum and the vagina completely torn apart.”

Although Congo held successful elections in 2006 aimed at ending a decade of war and chaos, violence has simmered in much of the east, where chaotic rebel and army units roam, often looting and targeting civilians.

A U.N. report last month said government and rebel groups have committed serious human right abuses, including mass killings, rape and torture.

Mukwege said rape was used both as a weapon of war by individual soldiers and a “strategy of war” by groups determined to destroy communities and drive people from their land. “It is done with an element of spectacle, in public, in front of everyone — with humiliation,” Mukwege said.

Mukwege said the international community should address the root cause of the conflict, a struggle for natural resources.

“If the international community put pressure on the actors of the war in the Great Lakes region, it could stop immediately,” Mukwege said. “It’s not a civil war, it’s not an ideological war, it’s more an economic war.”

The United Nations has a 17,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Congo, known as MONUC, and has asked for an EU “bridging force” to reinforce it until 3,000 more U.N. troops and police arrive next year. EU ministers are split on how to respond.

Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch also honored at the U.N., said countries such as Britain, France and Germany were “running as fast as they can” to avoid sending troops.

“It’s time for them to stop finding excuses for doing nothing,” Roth told a news conference.

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Book: Today You Will Understand
Author: Femrite
Publisher: Femrite Volume: 66 pages

The greatest tragedy of the twenty-two year old war in northern Uganda is the human victims, especially girls and women who are especially vulnerable.

Femrite, the Uganda Women Writers’ Association, in conjunction with IRIN Radio, which provides news and analysis about sub-Saharan Africa for the humanitarian community, and with funding from the German Embassy, has produced a book of sixteen stories, called “Today You Will Understand”, which highlights the plight of women stranded in a war that makes no sense to them.

Five Femrite writers traveled north to record accounts first-hand from camp-dwellers and abductees, and these stories have a freshness, pathos and sincerity that no media report can equal.

The title echoes words shouted by a UPDF soldiers to camp inmates near Lira in 2004 minutes before a gunfight took place between government and rebel soldiers. Mildred, a mother of six, describes the scene after the battle, of charred corpses and children clobbered to death. Her deep silences, she explains, are due only to what she experienced, which was “more than anyone could bear.”

Lucy was married young to an old man who left her with two children. Since then she had four children with another man. Unable to leave her home within the government deadline her name was omitted from the food distribution list, so she had to feed her children anyhow. Her land is being disputed by in-laws. Yet despite all this, she manages to compose a song about her problems, which she sings to relieve the pain.

Joyce’s story from the 2004 Barlonyo Massacre is gruesome. The morning after, she returned to the scene, to find the mutilated body pieces of a child of one of her sisters; her husband, whose face had been chopped to pieces; a brother and a grand-daughter had also been cruelly murdered. Reading these stories one wonders how the narrators find words to tell them.

Cecilia became a rebel’s “wife”, and describes bush life, where one kills or is killed. Those not tough enough to endure the harsh regime -including the women- are put to death.

“Under the Odugu tree” is where Rose gave birth, using the sharp edge of spear grass to cut the umbilical cord. She had been raped when six months pregnant; her husband had died of AIDS, which she had contracted. She keeps alive only for her children.

Ten-year old Flora was defiled by her grandfather’s brother. Her simple account pinpoints the fragile situation of camp life. Marital infidelity and divided homes, the spread of AIDS, alcoholism, the squalor and promiscuity, breaking down age-old cultural and moral norms, are some of the consequences. In all these instances it is usually the woman who suffers most. For children, particularly, there is the added hazard of land-mines.

The book, a voice for the voiceless, is embellished with the evocative photographs of Esteban Sacco, which add an eloquent pictorial dimension to this worthwhile publication. Compulsory reading for anyone wanting to know how the LRA war has affected people’s lives.

You can download a pdf version of “Today You Will Understand” from

Kenya’s investigation of rapes committed during post-election violence is foundering. Rights groups question whether an all-women police task force set up to investigate the violence is little more than a ruse, and female lawyers have dropped out.

Hundreds of Kenyan women have reported being raped during ethnic clashes that left more than 1,300 people dead over the course of two months.

The actual number of rapes committed likely totals over 3,000 according to the Federation of Women Lawyers – Kenya, which is known as FIDA.

A year later, police have brought just four cases to court. Earlier this fall the odds of justice for victims seemed much better.

At that point, Kenya seemed set to break new ground in a region where sexual violence coupled with vast political violence has long met with official indifference. The combination of a combative civil society, international pressure and the threat of a referral to the International Criminal Court had encouraged hundreds of women to speak up.

Kenya’s first lady, Lucy Kibaki, in October demanded a swift investigation of the estimated 3,000 rapes committed during the violence.

The same month, the Kenya police and the Federation of Women Lawyers launched an all-women task force to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual violence. With a victim’s consent, the force would be able to access hundreds of DNA samples collected during the violence and analyzed with equipment donated from the United States.

“That evidence would be very conclusive if only the police are able to match it with suspects,” said Teresa Omondi, programs manager at the gender violence recovery center at Nairobi Women’s Hospital. “If they visited the hospital they would be given samples but no police officer has come as of yet.”

Last month, however, the Federation of Women Lawyers left the task force, saying the police had excluded them from the investigation and implying they had concerns over the safety of witnesses.

“It was a very uncomfortable position of telling women we cannot give you any guarantees because the police will not give them to us,” Patricia Nyaundi, the federations’s executive director, said. “Unfortunately you are dealing with a society where, for such cases, the gravity of the offense is lost on people.”

Just three of the 534 DNA samples from the Nairobi Women’s Hospital have been used by private investigators. Women interviewed by Women’s eNews said police had not begun investigating their cases, reported nearly a year ago.

Some civil society groups say the task force is just a ruse to keep the International Criminal Court at bay.

“It is a definite attempt to sabotage justice,” said Ann Njogu, executive director of the Nairobi-based Center for Rights Education and Awareness. “There was complicity on the part of the (police) commissioner. We see that he knew something and is trying to control the reporting of offenses . . . He should be taken to the Hague himself.”

The police say they take sexual violence seriously, though they are skeptical of testimony gathered by the Waki Commission, chaired by Justice Phillip Waki. The commission was set up to investigate Kenya’s post-elections violence, that implicated officers in 17 rape cases in addition to more than 400 killings. They say any officer caught raping a woman would have been shot on sight.

“Investigation is a tedious, painstaking exercise,” said Kenya police spokesperson Eric Kiraithe, who said international attention to the rape charges was overheated. “When you hear some of these stories, they are very, very annoying. It is only that the international community are so gullible.”

Three women in Kibera told Women’s eNews it was the police who had raped them.

When the Waki Commission took testimony at Kibera’s Mchanganyiko Women Self Help Group in Kibera this summer, only half a dozen women came forward.

Many women were afraid to be seen passing through the tidy tin gate, according to Josephine Munyambo, a community health worker there. They feared word would get out that they were cooperating with investigations implicating the opposition members who rioted when the ruling party declared victory. Such fear helps explain why the majority of the estimated 3,000 rape survivors have not testified.

“The opposition people do not want women to talk,” said Munyambo. “Even when Waki came to Kibera people feared to talk to him because you turn and people are listening. Even they can come to your house at night.”

A woman who identified herself as Jaqueline Imakokha told Women’s eNews that she and her mother were raped by a gang of 20 rioters. She said she could not risk speaking to the police. During the violence, her home was razed and she lost the job she’d had since she was 14.

Her mother’s injuries from the rape were so extensive, she said, that despite an operation to repair the internal damage, her body could not retain nutrients and she slowly starved to death. She died six months later in June.

“What makes Kenyans afraid is the government,” said Imakokha, a 23-year-old mother. “The police may take you where you cannot be seen again.”

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at

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Sweden is responding to its low rate of prosecuting and convicting rapists by helping victims and clinicians collect DNA evidence. It’s also adding street lighting, to the frowns of critics who point out that most rapes are committed indoors.

A simple cardboard box is one way Sweden, with its high rate of reported rape, is trying to address its low rate of convicting rapists.

Inside there are cotton swabs; tape to capture foreign fibers and hairs; and paper, rather than plastic, envelopes to prevent samples of saliva, blood and semen going moldy before the rape case goes to court.

With only 1 in 8 reported rapes going to trial in the last few years, Sweden in 2007 drew a reprimand from Yakin Erturk, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on violence against women, for its low prosecution rates.

In 2007, crime statistics revealed that 216 rapists were convicted out of about 4,800 reported rapes, said Olga Persson, coordinator of the team for raped women at Sweden’s biggest help line and shelter, All Women’s House. She also notes a study that showed police do not question the suspects in about one-third of reported cases.

Of the relatively few cases that make it to the court room, about 80 percent result in conviction, according to lawyer and academic researcher Eva Diesen at Stockholm University. She estimates that only 1 in 10 reported cases go to trial.

Sweden had a conviction rate of 8 percent from 1993 to 1997, according to data collected by the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University. That compares to Finland’s 17 percent conviction rate, Norway’s 15 percent, Germany’s 17 percent and Czech Republic’s 22 percent in the same years.

In response, the National Center for Knowledge on Men’s Violence Against Women, a governmental research and advisory institution created in 1994 at Uppsala University, launched the new rape kit box on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The contents of the box were developed with input from the State Criminal Laboratory.

The refined rape kit developed by the center also contains tests for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. “The judiciary needs to understand that there can be long-lasting illnesses and consequences of rape,” said center co-ordinator Asa Witkowski. She emphasized that medical staff must take tests even when the victim is undecided about reporting the crime.

Next year 2,000 boxes will be given to medical staff in five cities across Sweden along with a guide book explaining all tests needed to gather criminal evidence.

The National Center for Knowledge on Men’s Violence Against Women recommends that medical facilities store the box for two years, allowing police enough time to request it if the rape is formally reported to them.

In 2005, Stockholm’s largest hospital, Sodersjukhuset, established a special emergency room for raped women. Head doctor Lotti Hellstrom recently told reporters that police request only 63 percent of the tests and evidence collected at the center.

The Swedish National Police Board is set to improve its officers’ training on assisting rape victims when it releases a new guidebook on Dec. 15 about violence in relationships, where most rapes are committed.

DNA has been analyzed and used in Swedish investigations and trials since the late 1980s. In the majority of cases in which a rapist was found guilty, DNA evidence helped secure the verdict, said forensic officer Ricky Ansell at the State Criminal Laboratory, which analyzes biological evidence.

After Iceland, Sweden has the highest rate of reported rape among European Union countries, according to the 2003 European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics. Last year, the number of reported rapes almost doubled in Sweden to 52 per 100,000 people in 2007 from 29 per 100,000 in 2004.

The Swedish National Council of Crime Prevention says the spike may be linked to the 2005 expansion of the legal definition of rape to include victims incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. Previously such situations had been classified as “sexual exploitation.”

Differences in how countries record rape make international comparisons difficult.

Some answers may be provided in April 2009, when a large comparative study on rape in Europe is published.

Diesen, who is working on a Stockholm University study of Stockholm County for that report, says comparative analysis will be hampered by difficulties accessing case files. In one participating country, for instance, police have produced only cases where the rapist was convicted, making it impossible to determine how high the conviction rate actually is.

In southern Europe, she says, rapes in intimate relationships are rarely reported. “Awareness that sexual offenses in a relationship constitute crime may be higher in Sweden,” says Diesen.

In another anti-rape initiative by Sweden–this one aimed at prevention rather than prosecution–Equality and Integration Minister Nyamko Sabuni last month announced $5.7 million to improve public safety in towns and suburbs through such means as redesigning the layout of public areas and improving lighting in underpasses and parks.

Stockholm City Council has already joined forces with energy company Fortum to invite residents to vote via the Internet and text messaging on locations that need better lighting. Five areas have already had more lamps installed.

Carina Listerborn, who focuses on urban questions of gender, planning and theory at the University of Lund, joins other critics in saying better public lighting misses the point that the most dangerous place for women is in the home.

In 2007, 48 percent of reported rapes took place in the victim’s or aggressor’s home, usually with previous acquaintance or intimacy between them, according to Swedish police statistics. “Attack rapes” between strangers accounted for 17 percent. Statistics indicate, however, that men may be more likely to be attacked outdoors than women.

Despite the relative safety for women outside their homes, research by academics, insurance companies, government institutions and landlords indicate women are more likely to stay at home because of fear.

“It has long been known that women’s and men’s experiences of fear in public spaces are different,” Sabuni wrote in response to questions in an e-mail. “It limits freedom of movement and quality of life.”

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The police are refusing to implement a new government initiative designed to combat domestic violence. From the New Year, officers will be expected to impose a house ban on men guilty of or threatening their partners with physical abuse. The men will be barred from contact with their partners and children for ten days and will face two years in prison if they ignore the order.

During the ten days, the men are supposed to work with social workers on the problems that have led to their violent behaviour. However, the police complain there is no system in place for the therapy as yet, and they refuse to co-operate with the project for the time being.

The RU486 abortion pill is to be made available in Italy next month despite objections from the Vatican and the ruling centre Right, which described it as “legal back door abortion”.

The pill, which blocks the action of hormones needed to keep a fertilized egg implanted in the uterus, was censured by the Vatican in a basic document last week on bio-ethics which also condemned artificial fertilization, human cloning, “designer babies” and embryonic stem-cell research.

Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the Holy See’s health minister, said “The Catholic Church understands the personal drama of a young woman who is pregnant against her will, but condemns abortion, in whatever form it is practised, because an innocent being is killed. An embryo is a human being, with all the rights of a human being”.

However Corriere della Sera reported that a decision to approve the RU486 pill by the then centre Left government of Romano Prodi in February, cannot be reversed by the present centre Right government of Silvio Berlusconi, which took office in May.

Francesca Martini, deputy minister of Welfare, said “Experience abroad has shown there are wide margins of risks, ineffectiveness and complications related to chemical abortion attempts.” However Guido Rasi, head of the Italian medicines agency AIFA, said it expected to give the final go ahead by the end of this week. RU486 would be available only in hospitals, and doctors who disapproved had the option of conscientious objection.

Giorgia Meloni, the Minister for Youth, said “This is not a contraceptive. This is something else. It’s a drug with serious risks that interrupts a pregnancy already under way. Every new tool to stop life is not a victory for someone. On the contrary, it is a defeat for society”.

However Silvio Viale, a gynaecologist at a Turin hospital, insisted that “Worries about the dangers are baseless: studies have proved it is safe. Patients have to return to the clinic two days after taking the first pill for a second one based on prostaglandin, which aids expulsion of the foetus”. Silvana Mura of the centre Left Italy of Values party said the Prodi government had taken its decision “in the interests of women. They will now have an alternative to surgery”.

Malta and Ireland have the highest percentage of newborn deaths due to congenital anomalies, a pan-European report has found, pointing out that this could be due to abortion being illegal in both countries.

Figures released last month as part of the comprehensive European Perinatal Health Report (EPHR), which compares data on maternal and infant health across Europe, shows that 41.7 per cent of babies born with congenital anomalies in 2004 died.

Figures for Ireland – where terminations are also illegal – are close to Malta’s, with 40.1 per cent.

The report itself points out that abortion is illegal in the two countries, implying that in other countries foetuses with congenital anomalies would be candidates for abortion. Such anomalies are a leading cause of foetal and neonatal deaths and there are wide international variations in prenatal screening policies, regulations on termination of pregnancies and the timing and attitude of the medical profession to children born with severe malformation, the report says.

Statistics collected by the Malta Congenital Anomalies Registry show that 3.4 per cent of babies born between 2001 and 2003 suffered from a congenital anomaly.

The EPHR report also shows that in 2004 Malta had the highest rate of labour inductions, with 37.9 per cent of all births born following an induction. The island also has the third highest rate of elective caesarean deliveries carried out before labour starts.

The statistic suggests a light attitude on the part of the medical profession to this sort of surgery, an argument which midwives have made for years.

But Malta is not alone. In fact, between 70 and 90 per cent of multiple births in Malta, Germany, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg and Austria were by caesarean section during this period, compared to 36 per cent of those in The Netherlands, between 40 and 50 per cent in Slovenia, Lithuania, Finland and Norway and just over half in Flanders, Brussels, Estonia, France and Sweden.

The report also ranks Malta as the highest scorer of triplets or higher multiple births but with the seventh-lowest number of twin births among 25 European countries in 2004.

However, figures collected by the National Obstetric Information System show that 2004 had an abnormally high rate of triplet and quadruplet births.

In fact, while 2004 saw four sets of triplets and two sets of quadruplets born, this was more than double the number in other years from 2000 to last year. The next highest number of triplets – three sets – were born in 2003, 2005 and 2006, while only one other set of quadruplets was born in 2007.

Donald Felice, president of the Malta College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said that given the small size of Malta, and its small number of births, it is extremely difficult to compare the rate of multiple births with other countries.

It is possibly one of the toughest, life-changing decisions a woman may ever be asked to make, yet the subject of abortion in conservative and predominantly-Catholic Portugal still remains very much a taboo. Most people will know – or know of – someone who has had a termination, though will rarely find themselves openly discussing the matter. Women who have had abortions will seldom talk about it, despite living in a society that claims to be more tolerant and less judgemental of their decision. And so the question remains to be answered: is the choice of motherhood a basic human right or a moral obligation?

The matter of abortion still remains heavily shrouded by a veil of secrecy and shame even as we approach the second decade on this new millennium. It is historically one of modern humanity’s most controversial debates; whether, irrespective of the circumstances under which a pregnancy occurs, it is a basic human right for a woman to be able to decide whether she is prepared for motherhood or not.

Views and laws on this issue vary from country to country, reflecting the religious or liberal beliefs of each Government and the population.

In Ireland, for example, abortions are carried out under strict conditions, allowed only if woman’s life is at risk, including the risk of suicide. A loophole both the Government and the Church want closed.

In Malta abortion is prohibited in all circumstances and without exception.

Holland, on the other hand, known for being one of Europe’s more ‘forward-thinking’ countries (depending on individual views), will carry out voluntary terminations on request up to the 24th week of gestation. Abortions are free of charge under the government-sponsored national health insurance system. The Exceptional Medical Expenses Fund covers the cost of the operation. Despite this, and maybe surprisingly, the Netherlands has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world. Contraception is widely available and, with the exception of condoms, is free of charge.

Until last year abortion remained illegal in Portugal, a situation that drove thousands of women to seek abortions in life-endangering, clandestine set-ups or foreign countries. Many fled to neighbouring Spain, where abortions were, and are, legal in private clinics.

On July 15th 2007, Portuguese law was liberalised to allow abortions on request within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, after a referendum which saw almost 60 percent of voters back the move.

Prime Minister José Sócrates said at the time “the people spoke with a clear voice”.

At present, in Portugal, a woman may terminate a pregnancy by choice during the first ten weeks of gestation. Pregnancies can also be terminated up to 12 weeks if posing risk of death or long-lasting, serious harm to the woman; 16 weeks in the case of rape, and 24 weeks if there is certainty of serious disease or malformation of the foetus.

There are only four private, legal abortion clinics in Portugal, and whilst voluntary terminations can be conducted in public hospitals, many women are sent via the National Health System to private establishments as public waiting lists are too long or departments are understaffed. Another obstacle is the fact medical professionals have the legal right to object to carrying out a voluntary termination if it contradicts their moral beliefs.

Tucked away on a backstreet in the middle of the city of Lisbon, Spanish-owned Clínica dos Arcos was the first private clinic in Portugal to carry out legal abortions. It belongs to a group originally established in Spain, which has been specialising in fertility issues since 1983. The Portugal News visited the clinic to interview its Director Yolanda Hernandez and have a look around the establishment.

On any given day, the number of abortions carried out at Clínica dos Arcos can vary from 20 to 40. Sixty per cent of their patients are sent via the National Health System.

There is no general majority concerning age or circumstance by which women seek intervention at Clínica Dos Arcos, Yolanda Hernandez told The Portugal News, but there is the common denominator that all patients are “exercising their right of choice”.

“For some it is a career-related decision, for others it is due to social or economical circumstances, but it is ultimately a personal choice”.

Women of all ages and walks of life turn to the clinic for ‘help’, as unwanted or unplanned pregnancies are not something that only affects the underprivileged.

There is a private entrance at the back of the establishment as well as a VIP waiting room for patients who due to their social statuses or celebrity do not want to be seen at or arriving and leaving the clinic.

Asked whether the clinic had treated anyone famous, Yolanda replied, “We see lots of people”.

Operating theatres are equipped with state-of-the-art technology, on par with what is used in Spain and more advanced than what is required by Portuguese law. A number of single and communal recovery rooms are available for patients, who can be in and out in less than two hours.

Brought into the debate is the question of whether a 10-week period (including an obligatory three-day ‘reflection period’ and taking into account most pregnancies are confirmed at four to five weeks) is long enough for a woman to make a well-informed, conscious decision. It has been reported many women still seek voluntary terminations after the 10-week legal period, possibly as they do not fully understand the law. Many still do not even know they can ask for an abortion via the National Health System.

Regarding this matter Yolanda said, “Health-wise, the earlier the intervention is done, the better”.

From being liberalised last July the number of abortions taking place during the first six months of the new regime were calculated as being “significantly lower” that what was the initially projected number, a senior health official said earlier this year. Around 60 per cent of the number expected had voluntary terminations.

According to official figures, 6,099 women underwent legal abortions between July 15, 2007 and the end of the year, roughly 60% of the number that had been first estimated on the basis of statistics from other EU member states that foresaw 20,000 abortions annually in Portugal.

This is contradicted by the director of Clínica dos Arcos, who believes the real figure is somewhat higher, over 30,000 per year.

In a recent study named ‘Abortion in Portugal: The Reality Present and Future’, the Portuguese Federation For Life revealed that the majority of abortions take place amongst women in the 25-34 age group, and shows that the number of voluntary terminations being carried out in Europe is growing at a constant rate.

The Pro-Life Association predicts that by the year 2030 one in every four conceptions will be terminated.

So far, no abortions have been documented on the island of Madeira.

Meanwhile, the topic of whether abortion is morally right or wrong continues to cause conflict.

Roberta S. was born into an affluent family in Angola, during a time when inter-racial relationships were frowned upon. After falling pregnant from an illegitimate affair with a native African, Roberta made the decision to keep her baby despite the social out-casting she knew she would face from family and friends.

She told The Portugal News “I lost everything and went against everyone to be able to keep my baby. I had to face the world and there was no hiding what I had done. In the end I moved to another country. But I loved my baby and I would never have had an abortion.

Years later acquaintances told me that the more people talked about me and criticised me, the more they had admired me for standing by what I believed in. I would never have done things differently, even though others might have”.

Upon trying to talk to two or three known cases of unplanned pregnancies – mostly teenage pregnancies – that had ended in abortion (illegal abortions or carried out in foreign countries) and without parent’s knowledge, all attempts were met with closed doors.

None of the young women were willing to recount what they had been through.

The Palestinian medical rescue teams found on Sunday bodies of 100 Palestinians killed during the last three weeks of the Israeli military air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip, said Gaza emergency chief Mo’aweya Hassanein.

Hassanein told reporters that the bodies were found under the rubbles of destroyed houses, mainly in southern, eastern and northern Gaza City and in northern Gaza Strip towns of Jabalia and Beit Lahia.

The death toll since the beginning of the Israeli aggression on Gaza in Dec. 27, has mounted to more than 1300 people killed and over than 5500 wounded, almost half of them were civilians, he said.

According to him, among the dead people, there are 418 children, 110 women, 120 men above 50 years old, 16 paramedics, four journalists, and five foreigners.

Hours after Israeli declared a unilateral cessation of fire, several Palestinian families returned back to their homes they fled during the Israeli military strikes and shelling, said witnesses in Gaza.

They added that hundreds went out to check the destruction caused by Israeli airstrikes and tanks shelling that targeted thousands of houses all over the Gaza Strip, while other people went to visit their wounded relatives in hospitals.

Official estimations of destruction in the Gaza Strip caused by the Israeli army forces said that 4000 houses were completely destroyed, while 20 thousand other houses were either badly or partially damaged.

See also:
* Gazans grapple with scale of death and destruction
* Last week, on extremely short notice, 1,000 of you sent a white rose to encourage Obama to speak out about the atrocities in Gaza
* Palestinian, Jewish, and Other Local Activists Shut Down Israeli Consulate in San Francisco and Israeli Consulate for 3 Hours in Los Angeles
* Jewish Women Occupy Israeli Consulate in Toronto
* CARE cancels distributions in Gaza due to bombing 15 Jan – Critical deliveries of food and medical supplies for mothers and infants jeopardized
* Gaza Crisis: Stop the ship – Action needed now for an International Arms Embargo – Amnesty
* War and Natural Gas: The Israeli Invasion and Gaza’s Offshore Gas Fields
* Gaza as Woman

More Accurate Methodology Shows Urgent Need for Preventive Action

A new government report showing huge increases in the incidences of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault over a two-year period in the United States deserves immediate attention from lawmakers and the incoming administration, Human Rights Watch has said. The statistics show a 42-percent increase in reported domestic violence and a 25-percent increase in the reported incidence of rape and sexual assault.

The National Crime Victimization Survey, based on projections from a national sample survey, says that at least 248,300 individuals were raped or sexually assaulted in 2007, up from 190,600 in 2005, the last year the survey was conducted. The study surveyed 73,600 individuals in 41,500 households. Among all violent crimes, domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault showed the largest increases. Except for simple assault, which increased by 3 percent, the incidence of every other crime surveyed decreased.

“The numbers in this survey show an alarmingly high rate of sexual violence in this country,” said Sarah Tofte, researcher for the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “This should serve as a wake-up call that more must be done to address the problem in the US.”

The projected number of violent crimes committed by intimate partners against women increased from 389,100 in 2005 to 554,260 in the 2007 report. By comparison, the number of violent crimes against men by intimate partners went down.

“Domestic violence is often a hidden crime, and these numbers are a stark reminder of how serious and widespread this problem is,” said Tofte. “The Obama-Biden administration should make prevention and protection against all forms of domestic and sexual violence a top priority.”

The National Crime Victimization Survey is conducted every two years, with data gathered in phone calls made to a sample of households across the United States. Due to criticism from experts in the subject, the survey’s methodology was adjusted in 2007 to capture more accurately the incidence of gender-based violence. The authors say in the report that the higher numbers may reflect the new, more accurate methodology rather than an actual increase. Two major shifts were to describe types of sexual assault to those being interviewed, and to replace “computer-assisted telephone interviews conducted from two telephone centers” nationwide with interviews “by field representatives either by telephone or in person.”

“The new numbers indicate that previously, the government significantly underestimated the number of individuals affected by domestic and sexual violence in this country,” said Tofte. “Authorities should urgently adjust public policies, law enforcement, and provision of support services accordingly.”

Human Rights Watch is currently investigating and monitoring the criminal justice response to sexual violence. The organization’s recent work includes investigating the backlog in untested DNA evidence collected in rape cases in the US. In Los Angeles City and County alone, there is a combined total of at least 13,000 untested sets of evidence, known as rape kits, sitting in storage.

Human Rights Watch’s national recommendations include:
* The Obama administration should appoint a special adviser on violence against women in the US;
* Congress should restore full funding to the Office on Violence Against Women;
* The Department of Justice, through the National Institute of Justice, should authorize comprehensive studies that more accurately track sexual and domestic violence in the US, especially among individuals who are least likely to be surveyed by the National Crime Victimization Survey;
* Congress should increase funding for sexual and domestic violence prevention, intervention, and treatment programs;
* Congress should amend the federal Debbie Smith Act, a grant program designed to eliminate the rape kit backlog, but that states can and have used for other kinds of DNA backlogs;
* The US should ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which obligates states to prevent, protect against, and punish violence against women.

Taliban militants have banned female education in northwest Pakistan valley of Swat, depriving more than 40,000 girls of schooling while holding security forces at bay, officials said on Saturday.

“My daughters are sitting at home. Their future looks bleak because they will stay uneducated and I don’t see any improvement in situation,” said Mohammad Ayub, father of two girls whose school was blown up by militants in October.

There has been fighting in the valley for more than a year, but residents say the military is losing control, and government has already lost its writ to militants who aim to impose a severe form of Islamic law.

“The security forces are everywhere but security is deteriorating day by day. We don’t know when will it normalise,” Ibrahim Khan, a worried councillor said by telephone from Swat.

Swat is just one front the militants have opened up as violence has spread across North West Frontier Province from the adjoining semi-autonomous tribal areas that border Afghanistan.

The rapid destabilisation of almost the entire northwest has hardened Pakistani reservations over the cost of supporting the United States and other Western powers who have sent troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda.

In one week last month, according to a senior military official, militants beheaded 13 people, including police, opposed to their way of life.

Many families have fled for the nearby cities of Peshawar and Mardan, while many police officers have either deserted or simply refused to serve.

“There is no government here,” the senior military official said.

Blessed with gorgeous alpine scenery, Swat had been a popular tourist destination, despite deep-seated Islamic conservatism, among communities nestling among the mountains and lakes.

That changed dramatically in late 2007, when militant leader Mullah Fazlullah led a revolt just months after the army put down an uprising at Islamabad’s Red Mosque, where clerics had also used militancy in a campaign to enforce Islamic law in the Pakistani capital.

The killing of scores of people, including women and children, during the army’s siege of Red Mosque had ignited Islamist anger with the government and contributed to the wave of violence that has gripped Pakistan since then.

While the military has received reinforcements in Swat, so have the militants, as fighters fleeing military operations in tribal regions like Bajaur and Mohmand have joined Fazlullah’s ranks.

Last month, the Taliban issued an ultimatum warning parents against sending their daughters to school, saying female education was “unIslamic”.

The warning was reiterated by a close aide to Fazlullah in a message broadcast through an illegal FM radio station on Friday night.

Government schools have been shut down, and some 300 private schools due to reopen next month after the winter break will probably remain closed, a senior official said.

He said the militants have destroyed or damaged around 175 girls schools in recent months.

The only schools that have been unaffected by the Taliban ban are the small, poorly funded religious madrasas in mosques where young girls go to learn Koran.

Many parents have kept their daughters away from these schools too, out of fear that some Taliban may not approve.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has offered strong words, saying the closure of the schools was contrary to Islam, and warned the militants would pay for their anti-state actions.

“Nobody will be allowed to challenge the writ of the government,” a statement issued from the prime minister’s office quoted him as saying on Friday.

Women’s organisations from across the country have strongly condemned the attack on a woman activist, who was stripped and beaten for spearheading an anti –liquor movement in Balasore district in Orissa. Jayanti Padhi, the victim has also accused police of inaction and says that the police has been shielding the culprits, as the crime took place in front of a police officer.

“It is not only shocking but also shameful to see that such incidents are still taking place in our country. Women who show the courage and stand up to oppose the wrongs are often stripped and assaulted in public. The state authorities are being unscrupulous by not reacting to this incident that requires immediate attention,” says Dr Ranjana Kumari, Director, Centre for Social Research & President, WomenPowerConnect.

Reacting to this incident, WomenPowerConnect (WPC) a conglomerate of over 700 women’s groups and organisations is writing a letter to Mr. Naveen Patnaik, Orissa’s Chief Minister, to set up an enquiry committee for probing into the issue. Meanwhile, hundreds of women and members of several self – help groups also blocked a road and gheraoed the police station demanding immediate arrest of the culprits.

This unfortunate incident isn’t the only one that has tarnished India’s image as a safe destination for women. Jaipur,the capital of Rajasthan also witnessed a similar incident. Dr Mitu Khurana, 32, indicted her in-laws, her husband and the hospital concerned, under the Preconception and Pre Natal Diagnostic and Testing (PC&PNDT) Act, 1994.Dr.Mitu who got married in 2004 was forced to undergo banned ultrasound tests and was forcibly fed forbidden food.Her repeated complaints to the District and State Appropriate Authority (a body where complaints in violation to the PC&PNDT Act can be filed) continue to remain unheeded. And now that she has not received a reply to her complaint from the State Appropriate Authority, she has approached the Central Appropriate Authority.

Similarly, in the year 2007, the city of Rajkot witnessed a ghastly scene of a half naked woman roaming its streets. Pooja Chauhan married four years ago was allegedly harassed by her in-laws for dowry, which worsened ever since she gave birth to a girl. She had separated from her husband five months ago, and was living with her daughter which still did not stop the harassment.Pooja had asked the police to intervene on several occasions before, but to no avail. Recently, she tried to set herself on fire in front of the police station in a desperate attempt to get them to take action. This too failed. When her pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears, and no help from any quarter coming her way, she did the unthinkable. She stripped, in the hope that at least this will shame the police into action.

Over 2,600 cases have been reported since 1999, according to the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) of Bangladesh [see:]. Almost all the attacks have been on women or girls. Many of the victims are under 18, says ASF, which has been working to eliminate acid violence for almost a decade.

The main reason for the violence is dowries, refusal of love proposals, or land disputes, ASF said. Bent on revenge, perpetrators throw acid into their victims’ faces in an effort to severely disfigure them, often with horrifying results.

Nitric or sulphuric acid has a catastrophic effect on human flesh, ASF said, resulting in skin tissue melting, often exposing the bones below the flesh, and even dissolving bone.

Scarred for life and badly burned, many survivors also lose their sight in one or both eyes. Others are so psychologically traumatised they never recover.

Despite the viciousness of these attacks, many go unreported: “Many incidents are never reported. [The] media covers only those cases that go to court,” Rokhsana Akhter, an activist told IRIN in Dhaka, adding: “The poor and powerless do not go to court. Their cases remain unreported.”

Despite the public outcry, purchasing acid is still not difficult.

In Dhaka, sulphuric acid can be readily purchased for just 44 US cents a pound (roughly half a litre), with nitric acid slightly higher at 59 cents a pound.

“You just ask the traders for acid. They will provide you with the required quantity,” Gopal Das, a goldsmith in the city’s Tantibazar area, said.

Gopal uses nitric acid to melt gold. Since he only needs a very small amount he has never bothered to obtain the now mandatory license.

Like Gopal, many jewellers, especially the small ones, collect and use acid, making effective monitoring of this deadly material all but impossible.

“The last time a mobile court raided this area was March 2008,” said Kazi Abdul Hamid, a shop owner selling chemicals in Goal Nagar, an acid wholesale market in Dhaka.

“We should have a distinct monitoring team to control acid use and sale; the fact is that we do not have one. Normally a mobile court visits specific shops and issues or renews their licenses. I can’t tell you when the last visit took place,” said Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka Mohammad Zillar Rahman whose office is responsible for controlling and monitoring the acid trade in the city.

“Enforcement remains weak. Perpetrators are still able to procure acid on the open market,” said ASF executive director Monira Rahman.

Efforts to combat the crime have had limited success.

In 2002, parliament enacted two laws against acid violence: Under the Acid Control Act of 2002, the unlicensed production, import, transport, storage, sale, and use of acid can result in a prison term of 3-10 years. Those who possess chemicals and equipment for the unlicensed production of acid can get the same prison term.

One doctor sounded an optimistic note: “Since then, acid violence has been showing a rapid decline,” said Shamanta Lal Sen of the burns and plastic surgery unit at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH).

According to ASF, 221 and 192 people were subjected to acid violence in 2006 and 2007 respectively. In 2000 and 2001 their number was 234 and 349 respectively.

A number of organisations are working to combat the crime, or mitigate its effects.

ASF and the DMCH burns unit are working to support victims of acid attacks. BRAC (Building Resources Across Communities), [see:], Bangladesh’s largest NGO, offers survivors logistical assistance with access to health facilities. Legal aid organisations, such as Ain o Salish Kendra [see:], and the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association [see:] provide legal aid to acid victims. Prothom Alo, a popular daily, raises funds for the treatment and rehabilitation of victims, as well as campaigning against the crime.

According to rights groups, apart from Bangladesh, acid attacks are common in a number of Asian countries, including Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Cambodia.

Maiba is in her late 40s. More than 20 children live under her care – her own children and those of her deceased siblings. In June, she was captured, gang-raped and severely beaten by youth militia, members of Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, as punishment for saying she had no food to give them. Afterward, they literally dragged her home and ransacked her house. She said what hurt her most was knowing that her attackers were young enough to be her sons. She said they threatened to kill her if she talked to the police, but she talked anyway. She felt she was already dead.

In the weeks before the sexual torture of Maiba (not her real name), there was still no clear winner from Zimbabwe’s March 29 election, and President Robert Mugabe’s future was in jeopardy. We have since seen a presidential runoff that ostensibly ended in a tie, months of power-sharing talks obstructed by Mr. Mugabe’s lust for absolute authority, the terrible spectacle of a country disintegrating, assorted toothless bleating from world leaders. Meanwhile, the people of Zimbabwe, particularly the women, have been bloodied and broken under a nationwide campaign of sexual violence, meticulously orchestrated during the election period to maintain Mr. Mugabe’s control. They endure intimidation, rape, torture, murder, the spectre of HIV – and the fear of more to come.

At the request of a Zimbabwean women’s and children’s rights group, the international advocacy organization AIDS-Free World has been collecting testimonies. But as we scramble to document the crimes and preserve evidence for future legal proceedings, we are deluged with warning signs that the violence is about to boil over again.

Zimbabwe is a very loudly ticking time bomb. Health care and education are distant memories. Patients on HIV drugs can no longer get them. Cholera rages. Human-rights activists disappear for weeks on end while the government claims ignorance of their whereabouts. Prominent activist Jestina Mukoko was recently abducted, discovered alive in government custody 21 days later, “disappeared” again when police defied a High Court order to release her to hospital, then held again, charged with plotting against the government.

In November, we learned from rights groups that the women raped between May and June, systematically and on orders of the government, number in the many hundreds and perhaps thousands. Interviews with survivors show clear patterns in the timing of the attacks, in the verbal threats against supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, in the organized ways that groups of men methodically confiscated MDC materials, in the method of rampaging through homes, abducting the women and brutalizing them at “torture bases” for hours or days.

Testimony has been handed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. An urgent letter was faxed to members of the Security Council, which met but took no action. It’s time for the UN to do its job – because, we can assure you, the siege against women is about to resume.

Rape is a simple, covert, inexpensive way to terrorize and silence not just women, but through them their men and communities. The infrastructure is in place: a clear command structure for deploying ZANU-PF militia and extensive lists of female MDC supporters. All the “youth militia” loyalists need is an order to act.

It need not happen. Although the people of Zimbabwe have been rendered powerless, the leaders of the world have unanimously agreed that UN member states have a responsibility to protect when a government is unable or unwilling to protect its own citizens from precisely these sort of threats.

Member states have legions of experts on peace and justice at their disposal. They could decide to send peacekeepers to Zimbabwe. They could further ostracize Mr. Mugabe. They could appoint a new negotiator to work out a viable power-sharing arrangement. They could let women into those negotiations, since women are bearing the most extreme brunt of the crisis.

It’s not for us to decide. But it is for us – for all of us – to remind our elected leaders of their responsibility to protect. For the raped women of Zimbabwe, for the people of Zimbabwe and for us, so we can stand without shame. Angélique Kidjo of Benin is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and co-founder of the Batonga Foundation. Dr. Julio Montaner is president of the International AIDS Society and director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. Both serve on the advisory board of AIDS-Free World.

Violence against women in South Sumatra rose dramatically in 2008, from 396 cases in 2007 to 568 cases, a year-end report from the Palembang chapter of the Women’s Crisis Center (WCC) has revealed.

WCC Executive Director Yeni Roslaini Izi said on Wednesday that cases of domestic violence topped the list, with 210 incidence (39 percent), compared to 201 in 2007; followed by sexual harassment with 100 cases (18 percent, up from 24 cases in 2007); child molestation with 69 cases (12 percent); rape with 61 cases (11 percent) and 47 sundry cases.

Reports of human trafficking, however, dropped to 81 cases (14 percent) from 89 in 2007.

Of the 210 domestic violence cases, abuse against housewives topped the list with 169 cases, followed by 20 cases involving housemaids, 14 cases involving children and seven incest cases.

The data was derived from reports filed at the WCC as well as from references from other institutions, such as hospitals, legal aid institutes and police stations.

However, only 60 percent of the cases were brought to justice and resolved psychologically; of these, domestic violence and trafficking cases were the least prosecuted.

“We have received an increasing number of complaints from the public,” Yeni told The Jakarta Post.

She added that only a small number of the cases were brought to court thanks to her group’s role as mediator and facilitator. Generally, victims are less eager to bring the cases to court, especially those which took place years ago.

“They consider it taboo and shameful if the cases are brought to court because they would be exposed to the public. In trafficking cases, usually pimps and middlemen are sent for trial,” she said.

She added that the drop in human trafficking reports did not indicate that cases of trafficking had dropped but more likely that victims were reluctant to report the cases or had fallen under the radar of her organization.

Trafficking cases in South Sumatra did not only take place transnationally but also domestically, between regencies and provinces, she said.

Among the underlying factors are poverty and desire for consumer items among teenage girls, which makes them easy targets for pimps and middlemen.

“Parents should not be easily lured into allowing their daughters to work in cities. They must be sure about the agency or company recruiting their daughters,” she said.

Yeni also cited lax supervision of recruitment procedures for migrant workers among relevant agencies in South Sumatra and the malfunction of state-run training centers as problems that lead to the exploitation of migrant workers.

“The training centers tend to only carry out their obligations without ensuring quality. Many training programs do not comply with the types of work they would engage in at their countries of destination,” Yeni said.

Yeni urged the provincial administration and legislature to take strong measures and ensure the immediate passage of an ordinance on violence against women next year, so various approaches on resolving the cases could be achieved due to the allocation of funds for the purpose from the government.

“Such matters are included in the law, but can be facilitated by the provincial administration by setting aside funds through a local ordinance,” she said.

South Sumatra legislator Fatimah Djaiz affirmed the ordinance would be approved by August 2009 at the latest.

The legislature is currently deliberating on the draft bylaw and by involving related parties, such as non-governmental women’s groups, to discuss the draft ordinance.

“We will fully support the passage of the bylaw,” said Fatimah.

Women’s groups and the Iraqi government agree on the need to help the huge number of widows in Iraq — but they disagree on how to proceed.

A women’s rights activist and a Baghdad government official agree that the government needs to take action to help the huge number of widows in Iraq — but they disagree on how to proceed.

“Iraqi widows, especially internally displaced widows in camps, are having a tough time. Most have more than one child and are finding it very hard to feed them,” said Mazin al-Shihan, head of Baghdad’s Displacement Committee.

“We have reports that some … are being harassed and blackmailed by government officials … More attention must be focused on this segment of the Iraqi people before it is too late,” al-Shihan told IRIN.

Citing figures and estimates from government bodies and NGOs, al-Shihan said Iraq had about one million widows, including those whose husbands had died of natural causes, but a further breakdown was not available.

“Such vast numbers of widows could tax any society,” he said, expressing the fear that unless something is done, some of these widows or their children could drift into crime or join the insurgency.

Al-Shihan said his committee was drawing up a plan to encourage Iraqi men who lacked the necessary funds for marriage — to apply for government funding if they wanted to marry a widow.

“In this project, we propose offering 10 million Iraqi dinars [about US$8,500] to men in their late 30s or 40s who can’t get married due to soaring prices, if they marry a widow,” he said.

Women’s activist Hanaa Adwar, who heads al-Amal, a Baghdad-based NGO, rejected the project out of hand, saying it smacked of “cruelty as the widow must get married to another man to get the government help”.

“What we need is to rehabilitate this segment [of the population] to be independent and productive elements of society — getting them to be more self-reliant in terms of feeding their children. The government should ensure there are adequate social and health programs [for the widows],” she said.

“Their dignity is violated when they have to stand in long queues to get small sums of government aid which will last for a few days, or when they have to depend solely on their extended families,” she said.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, an Iraqi social welfare programe was created. It provides widows, divorced women, orphans, disabled people and the unemployed with a monthly allowance of 50,000-75,000 Iraqi dinars (US$50-70). However, many aid experts say the money is insufficient.

Umm Amina, a 34-year-old mother of two in northern Baghdad, lost her husband in a mortar attack in one of Baghdad’s markets in August 2007.

She lives with her two young daughters in a room in the house she and her husband used to share with her brother-in-law and his family. She has applied unsuccessfully for several jobs in government offices, and thought about working as a cleaner even though she has good educational qualifications. She said the government welfare assistance only lasted “a few days.”

Every day we read in the newspapers about new proposals hatched up by Sweden’s neo-liberal government. One day brings cut downs in social funds. Another day it is tax deductions for domestic services, making it cheaper for the well-off to employ a maid or a nanny (this is known as pigavdrag – “maid deductions”), or a new child care allowance for people who stay home and take care of their children (vårdnadsbidrag – care support). We know that these schemes, that seem to bring us back to the 1950s, are bad and that we need to stop them, but often we fail to discern how each proposal paves the way for further proposals to be implemented.

Feminism is part of the class struggle by Kvinnopolitiskt forum The bulletin of the The libertarian alternative to the ESF, Malmo, Sweden

In this article we seek to summarize the situation of women in Sweden. We offer an analysis of why we haven’t progressed farther and why we need to keep up the struggle. Many examples used are specific to Sweden, yet typical of the ongoing love affair between capitalism and patriarchy, in Europe as well as globally.

Every day we read in the newspapers about new proposals hatched up by Sweden’s neo-liberal government. One day brings cut downs in social funds. Another day it is tax deductions for domestic services, making it cheaper for the well-off to employ a maid or a nanny (this is known as pigavdrag – “maid deductions”), or a new child care allowance for people who stay home and take care of their children (vårdnadsbidrag – care support). We know that these schemes, that seem to bring us back to the 1950s, are bad and that we need to stop them, but often we fail to discern how each proposal paves the way for further proposals to be implemented.

Lacking such an analysis, we risk once again ending up viewing issues as separated from each other. A feminist and/or leftist movement with no insight into the way issues are interrelated is doomed to fail.

Groups pitted against each other

Conservatives and liberals know this, and they are clever enough to divide us, playing one group against the other. As a result, we witness how senior citizens are led to believe that their well-being depends on closing the country’s borders, or how federations within the trade unions compete to get the biggest piece of the little cake. Government officials talk with a straight face about “normal people” profiting from reduced social funds. “Normal people” are apparently understood to be young, healthy, employed people who don’t need any help from the social system.

The trade unions refuse to help undocumented immigrants, out of fear of wage-dumping. An historical precedent for this is the male trade unionists who, based on the same fear, opposed the employment of women. The idea of struggling for an equal pay for men and women never entered the heads of these men. After all, it was quite convenient if the wife had all day to clean, wash, and cook. Unpaid household work was, and still remains, the historical plight of women.

A new market is created in the households

Socio-geographical mobility is severely restrained by a privatized, deregulated real estate market, and certain living areas come to be consolidated as low-income areas. On the opposite side of town we find the gated ghettos of the rich, where poor people come every day to work as maids. This is made possible on a bigger scale than before by the recent tax deductions (pigavdrag), a way to use tax money to feed capitalism’s need to create new markets, this time in the domestic sphere. Thus, class and ethnicity conflicts enter the households of the wealthy, and sweep gender conflicts under the rug. One woman replaces another, the man is exonerated from responsibility, and the conflict of the sexes remains unresolved. Meanwhile, the maid still has to clean her own house when she gets home since she can’t afford to hire someone else, but the government is obviously not concerned about her predicament.

How to produce new and cheaper workers

After the pigavdrag was introduced in July 2007, a meeting was held between government representatives and staffing company managers. The staffing companies complained about the troubles they had in finding people for the maid jobs. One of the solutions presented was to shorten the free language courses for immigrants, since “anyway, the best place to learn Swedish is at work”.

This suggestion hasn’t been implemented yet, but is frequently discussed. This is a very clear example of how the neo-liberals in government fuse together several types of oppression to maintain control. Capitalism, to stay vital, must depend on a reserve of unemployed labour and a divided working class. A desperate worker is always preferable, which means women and immigrants are consistently targeted.

Women become more dependent

Vårdnadsbidraget delivers the final blow meant to send women back into the household. After the long struggle to free women from their homes, women are now offered 3000 Swedish crowns (ca 320 ) per month to stay at home with their children. This is obviously not an offer aimed at single mothers: it is impossible to survive on this sum in Sweden. Those lucky women who have a real man who brings home a big salary, however, can contentedly stay at home and accept the pocket money. And so women are again made financially dependent on men.

The pigavdrag and the vårdnadsbidrag are both solutions only for the upper classes, who don’t want to pay the real price for a maid or send their children to a kindergarten. They represent the government’s mobilization of several types of oppression, which they have the guts to call a new “gender equality politics”.

Stopped from two directions

All the collective systems that we have today, like public kindergartens and well-functioning women’s shelters and support groups, have one thing in common: they are the result of political struggles. As the present right-wing government smashes all this to pieces in the name of “gender equality,” it simultaneously pushes the everyday problems faced by women back to the personal level. Women’s struggles for collective solutions are not merely a fight against the Right, but have often involved fighting the men of the labour movement. Just as the capitalists have tried to stop any reform that would diminish their power, working-class men have done exactly the same thing when it comes to women’s auto- nomy.

Even so, women have always supported the struggles of working men, because they rightly regarded these struggles as their own.

Solidarity – but only in one direction

A telling example is the 1899 bookbinder conflict in Stockholm, where women played a leading role. The workers, half of them women, went on strike demanding higher wages. The employer agreed to raise the wages for the women but not for the men. The women wouldn’t accept the bid, but instead continued the strike until the employer caved in and raised the men’s wages as well.

Unfortunately, men didn’t show the same level of perceptiveness when the situation was reversed. In the early 20th century, the Swedish government wanted to prohibit women from working at night. This affected women who worked as bookbinders, seamstresses, and typographers. Women in the Social Democratic party and in the trade unions demanded that the worker’s movement should fight for women’s right to work under the same conditions as men. The men responded by accusing the women of running the conservatives’ errands.

As a result, these jobs, with pay slightly above average, were no longer available to women. The prohibition of female night work did not, of course, include badly paid jobs, which women were still allowed to perform. The law was not repealed until 1962.

Capital is gender neutral

To understand why working-class men have colluded with capitalism, we must understand the logic of patriarchy. Men gain from the subordination of women, in the first place through the division of labour between men and women, but also in terms of the big share of unsalaried household work carried out by women, and in terms of the sexual subordination that women are subjected to. Despite all this, we claim that men also lose something when they choose to participate in patriarchal society.

The working class can never really move forward if those who find themselves on its lowest rungs are forgotten. Capitalism wants the greatest possible amount of work carried out at the lowest possible cost. This is facilitated by a white, male and Eurocentric labour movement which fails to practice solidarity with, for example, women and undocumented immigrants. Capitalism, in and of itself, is gender-neutral. It doesn’t matter if a man, woman, or undocumented immigrant does the work as long as someone is exploited. However, capitalism makes use of existing structures to legitimize the exploitation, divide the working class, and render certain forms of struggle illegitimate.

The personal is political

One of the main slogans of the women’s movement of the 70s was that “the personal is political.” This parole put many “new” questions on the agenda. The personal experiences of women were lifted to a collective level, which made it possible for these experiences to be articulated into demands. The main point was to make clear that women’s personal subordination had nothing to do with personal failings, but was instead the product of structural inequality. The relationship between men and women wasn’t given by natural laws, but rather created and organized by society. To realize that this relation was not a biological fact was to realize that it was possible to change it.

We mustn’t forget how it is all connected

The autonomous Left in Sweden has, in its eagerness to throw out identity politics and sectarian tendencies, also thrown out a deeper understanding of how things are connected. We have thereby lost the capacity to understand that solidarity is more than an empty word. Solidarity implies supporting groups that you aren’t a part of and fighting for questions that at first glance seem not to concern you, because you understand that doing so accords with your long-term interests. We are never stronger than the weakest link, and if we struggle to advance the positions of the most oppressed, we will all move forward. We can only win if we see how things are connected and work together. Attack is the best defence!

In the Soviet Union feminism was elevated to the status of official state policy and ultimately was destroyed as an ideology and a social movement. The dominant concept was one of a general, global equality; as a result, a separate movement for the rights of women simply could not exist. The feminist reference points of Soviet social policy took the form of a set of rights for women: employment in the workforce on an equal basis with men; political rights; equality before the law, and so forth. The gaining of formal rights, however, resulted in the restricting of particular, specific rights of women, which in practice proved very difficult to realise.

The reproductive rights of women were recognised in actual social policy only in the 1970s, when extended maternity leave was introduced, and later when women were granted child-raising leave of up to one and a half years with pay and three years without. It was only quite recently, however, that the equal obligations and rights of parents in child-care matters were spelt out in detail in legislation. While these rights had been recognised long since in the formal sense, exercising them in practice had been almost impossible. Fathers were unable to take paid leave in the same way as mothers to look after sick or newborn children. Rights of both women and men were denied in the case of divorce. The divorce laws did not allow spouses to resolve in adequate fashion questions such as access to children and the fair division of property. Nor were there adequate provisions for securing justice in this regard. In other words, even bourgeois family law did not operate fully, and neither was there any guarantee that the justice possible within its bounds could be obtained. Despite the official ideology, discrimination against women in the areas of work and politics remained in the USSR.

In post-Soviet Russia, this discrimination has strengthened as a result of the universal violation of labour laws and social entitlements. The dictatorship of the employer that operates in present-day Russia allows him or her to stipulate that newly hired workers will not give birth during a certain period, or will not take paid time off to look after a sick child. In the new labour code all the provisions intended to help women combine careers and motherhood are subject to the discretion of the employer, and are no longer obligatory. Workplace discrimination is evident in the fact that women are invariably forced into the lowest-paid job categories.

Formal rights

The changes enacted under socialism, in other words, gave women a whole set of formal political and social rights, but at the same time the actual policies that were implemented failed to ensure women their specific rights, especially those associated with their particular role in the reproductive process. Discussion of women’s problems was forced onto the margins, becoming the province of specific women’s movements that were totally subject to the official ideology. There was no broad consideration of such questions as the division of gender roles within the family, the equal responsibility of fathers for looking after children, the consequences of sexual freedom for women, the need to create a new culture of sexual relations, and so forth.

Moreover, traditional and even patriarchal approaches to these questions gradually became established. Along with economic difficulties, the contradictory nature of social policy in the USSR presented an obstacle to the exercising by women of their rights in all areas of social life. The official ideology also evolved gradually in the direction of the traditional understanding of “femininity” and “masculinity”. In one way and another, these stereotypes were supported and developed by the system of child rearing and education. In the schools, training for work remained segregated, with girls learning housekeeping while boys were taught trades. It was also mainly girls who were involved in tidying up at school and performing domestic tasks at home.

Nevertheless, the social and economic changes that had led to the emancipation of women and to their participation in the social sphere of production proved irreversible. Women had been educated, had obtained qualifications, had acquired career ambitions and were exercising their sexual freedom. But while society was ready to make use of women’s professional knowledge and skills, it was not fully prepared to recognise their equal rights with men in all areas. Society did not accept women in leadership roles, and a woman’s standing was linked not only to her professional and intellectual attributes, but also to her family status.

Gender discrimination existed on the level of stereotypes in the areas of the workplace and professional life. In the areas of family and intimate personal relationships, extremely free and modern forms and rules of behaviour became combined with traditional stereotypes of the division of roles and responsibilities, in a manner extremely disadvantageous to women. In other words, men were ready to accept materially independent and sexually liberated women, but were not prepared to change their own behaviour in the family and in intimate relationships.

The reasons for this cultural renaissance of patriarchal gender ideas were the following. In the first place was the rejection of state-enforced stereotypes, which, moreover, were in continual contradiction with women’s real dilemmas — the material problems of the family, arduous work and the unbearable “double shift” of hired work and domestic labour. The problems of the consumer market in the USSR drained the strength of women above all. In addition, there were two more reasons for the rebirth of patriarchal ideas: the disproportion in the numerical relationship of the sexes that resulted from the Second World War, and the extremely harsh socioeconomic conditions in which the emancipation occurred. Russian women simply had no choice; they found themselves not even consciously desiring freedom, when that freedom was imposed on them and turned into hard labour, in many cases accompanied by loneliness.

Post-Soviet Russia exacerbates discrimination

The shift to market mechanisms did not relieve the problems of Russian women, but exacerbated them. Occupational and economic discrimination grew stronger with the problems with the economy, with the fall in the number of jobs that were well paid (or which even paid more than the subsistence minimum), and with increased competition between workers in the labour market. The sharp reduction in the financing of social welfare brought increases in the cost of health care and education at all levels, affecting women most of all. It also turned out that the years of occupational emancipation of women had not made men completely equal partners in marriage; instead, men had been freed of moral responsibility for the material and social wellbeing of their families.

In post-Soviet Russia, the poverty and disempowerment of state-sector workers has been mainly a problem of women. In the USSR education, health care, social services and culture had already been extensively feminised. The marked decline of earnings and job prestige in these sectors thus affected women above all. It is perfectly justified to talk of economic discrimination against women in Russia. Statistical and sociological data show that in Russia, poverty is mainly a problem of women. Meanwhile, in 40 per cent of Russian families women are the main or sole breadwinners.

Many researchers in Russia have identified a crisis of the family. This crisis has appeared statistically in the growing divorce rate, declining number of marriages, huge numbers of abortions and falling birth rate. Sociologists testify that women are disillusioned with the patriarchal family. As early as the mid-1990s sociological studies were finding that for most women family and career were values of equal significance. The family has not lost its importance, but work and the chance of professional development have become vitally important to women. When combined with the super-exploitation of labour in modern-day Russia, where simply ensuring survival and satisfying the most elementary physical, mental and social needs demands a huge work effort, the persistence in society of near-traditional attitudes toward the rights and obligations of women and men in the areas of family and work has driven women into a dead end.

Women are forced to dash continually between work and family, while in order to achieve and maintain their professional status, they are compelled to work twice or three times as hard as their male colleagues. Meanwhile, sociological research shows that working women who are married with children constantly feel guilty toward their families. In the prevailing social consciousness, for a woman to neglect her family and parental responsibilities, even for the sake of work and a career, is almost criminal. For a man it is almost a mark of honour, or at least is considered natural. This is the case even though women are now the main or sole breadwinners in 40 per cent of Russian families.

Ideological pressure

During the period of market reforms, the ideological pressure imposed by society on Russian women has increased rather than diminishing. Surveys thus show that women experience professional and career discrimination, along with growing anxiety at the burden of combined family and occupational responsibilities. The fact that the status of women as “second-rank” workers is vanishing into the past has brought few changes to the gender structure of employment, especially at points higher up the scale. The areas of the economy that are most “feminised” are those in which the need for high qualifications is combined with relatively low wages — education, culture, health care and social welfare. Even in these spheres, however, the top posts are usually held by men.

Sociologists also note the so-called “guilt before society” felt by single and childless women. The mass media and mass culture put about the image of women as sex objects and commodities. There is also the counterposed tendency to extol the “natural” destiny of women to be mothers. At the same time, no real initiatives are being taken in social policy, and the efforts to stimulate the birth rate are having, and will have, contradictory social consequences. Quietly being circulated in the press are discussions of the moral significance of abortion, and of the possibility of banning it or of equating it with murder — that is, of once again outlawing it.

Meanwhile, it is essential to note that we are now losing even those gains in the area of support for mothers and children that were made earlier. In light of the standards of contraceptive and sexual behaviour that have become established among us (and of the prices of contraceptives) such trends in social policy, or even simply in public opinion, can result in the harsh exploitation of women’s reproductive function.

Social change needed

In Russia, the economic pressure of the market is thus combined in dramatic fashion with patriarchal (and at times simply barbaric) cultural stereotypes. Nevertheless, the need which our women have for feminist theory is an objective reality. Women in Russia are energetic, educated and capable of independence. If women in this country show a certain reluctance to accept feminism, this is in the first place a reaction to the distortion that feminism suffered during the socialist period. Second, it stems from the weight of the social and economic problems that women often find unbearable, and that force them to rely on support from their families and from men. Also of importance are feelings of emotional powerlessness in the face of social traditions and stereotypes.

It should be noted that because of their greater social vulnerability — which is objectively determined — and because of their status and role in the economy (including in the sphere of unpaid reproductive labour), women also have an even greater objective need than men for radical social change. As a result of their role in the reproductive process; of the historically established gender disproportions in the assigning of social roles, power and resources; and of the existing gender structure of employment, women may be subject to dual or even triple exploitation compared to men. This, however, does not in any way turn men and women into enemies. What it does is to make the majority of women objectively the enemies of capitalism and of capitalist exploitation. In politics, and on the left, it is still less true that men and women are enemies. Here too, one must look to the gender distribution of roles and status in all areas of social life, and to the existing stereotypes of social behaviour.

Feminist theory requires renewing, so that it can become adequate to the needs of women and of all of Russian society. The theory must take into account both the social changes that have occurred and the objective necessities which have manifested themselves. The feminist movement must develop not as a separate movement of women campaigning for specific rights, not as a movement aimed against men in the name of an abstract concept of freedom, but as an organic part of a social movement striving for full-blooded social welfare policies and for transformations of a socialist nature.

Specific women’s movements are inevitably limited in their social effectiveness. As local social movements, they cannot make a political impact, since they are unable to advance a clear and rounded political program. Women already possess a full range of formal rights. Social projects aimed at ensuring real rights for women can only be implemented within a context of broad social change. Partial and limited initiatives in this case turn into a caricature of the very concept of sexual equality, discrediting feminism as an idea and as a project.

Problems of the Russian left

The problem of the left in Russia lies in an organic failure to accept feminism in any form. There is an almost complete failure to conceive of gender problems within the context of the left movement and of the tasks of social change. For the most part, the left limits itself to declarations on equal rights, the rights of women, and so on. This cultural peculiarity of the Russian left has the result that questions of gender, and acute social problems linked with gender disproportions and contradictions, are not discussed at all at the source of left politics. Consequently, the official interpretation of these questions often remains the only one, while the initiatives of the authorities in the field of so-called demographic policy rate as the sole constructive proposals, despite their one-sidedness and the complete lack of any sign that they are socially effective.

An authentic equality of the sexes is possible only through realising the specific needs of men and women as natural and inviolable human requirements. Engels understood the movement for the rights of women not as a “special women’s movement”, but as “the women’s side of the workers’ movement…” Hence the task of the left in the first instance is to discuss the problems of women as questions of universal significance. Abortion, violence within the family and questions of child-rearing are not specific problems of women, and require a thorough reorienting of social policy if they are to be adequately dealt with.

It is essential that women be drawn into political activity as partners with equal rights. Their problems must be addressed as general ones, and their occupational, social and sexual rights must be defended within the context of realising the universal rights of human beings.

By Anna Ochkina, translated from Russian for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by Renfrey Clarke. Anna Ochkina is a Russian feminist and academic. She is a research associate of the Institute of Globalisation Studies and Social Movements, and deputy editor of the journal Levaya Politika (Left Politics).