Archive for February 24th, 2009

Three-quarters of those exploited as modern-day slaves work in the sex industry.

In a new report, the United Nations says human trafficking for the sex trade or forced labor market appears to be getting worse, not better, because many countries aren’t paying attention to it.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) surveyed 155 countries for its report on modern-day slavery, but didn’t say how many people it believes are victims of human trafficking. Estimates range from 800,000 new victims each year, according to the U.S. State Department, to 2.5 million, according to the International Labor Organization.

UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa told a news conference at UN headquarters in New York that 40 percent of the countries where the problem exists have not convicted one person of trafficking charges.

A large percentage of the perpetrators of human trafficking are women, UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa says.Even when there are convictions, Costa said, they’re not as plentiful as convictions for crimes involving far fewer victims. In these countries, he said, authorities either ignore the problem or don’t have the resources to fight trafficking — or both.

“According to the statistics, about 80 percent of these crimes are concentrated on sexual exploitation,” Costa said. “But I warn you. This may be an optical illusion in the sense that it is the most commonly reported [crime], it is the most commonly visible [crime], and it is especially visible in rich countries — Europe, if you wish, [and] North America.”

Overall, the report said, 20 percent of those forced into the sex trade are under 18 years of age. But in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, it said, minors make up the majority of sex slaves.

But enslaved children aren’t limited to the sex trade, according to the report. Because their hands are small, it says, they’re exploited as cheap labor — to untangle fishing nets, pick delicate berries, or do intricate sewing.

Seventy-nine percent of slavery is for sex, according to the UNODC, while about 18 percent is for forced labor, forced marriages, or forced organ donation. And although the victims of sex trafficking are usually women and girls, those in charge of the trafficking are women, too.

“In this specific case, the specific case of human trafficking, we see a very large presence of women. In some Eastern European countries, some former [Soviet Union] countries, Central Asian countries, even 60, 70, 80 [percent] — 83 percent in one case — of the perpetrators are women,” Costa said. “In some of the African countries, the majority of the perpetrators in this business unfortunately are women.”

Fighting human trafficking might be easier if it were an enterprise that always involved crossing borders. After all, Costa said, well-designed border security might intercept a significant percentage of the victims.

But that isn’t the case.

“It is not only trafficking from Southeast Asia into other parts of Asia or into Western Europe, it’s not only from Latin America to North America — these are the kind of flows which you probably have in mind,” Costa said. “There is a lot of exploitation within countries, large countries like the United States, large countries like some of the African countries, but also in smaller countries.”

There is some good news in the UNODC report.

In 2004, the UN enacted a special protocol to fight human trafficking. Since then, it said, 63 percent of the 155 countries surveyed have enacted laws against the practice.

But there was little else in the report to inspire much optimism. In fact, Costa said, the worldwide economic crisis is driving even more illicit business to the traffickers, particularly for cheap labor.

“The budget situation, the bottom line of so many enterprises, including the multinationals, who have been known in the past to use forced labor, cheap labor, child labor, in their supply chain — their budget, their financial situation, their financial predicament being so much more difficult than it was in the past — may very well induce them to use more than in the past cheap sources of labor,” Costa said. “Namely, the ones stemming from modern slavery.”

According to estimates by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, over 100,000 children and young women are sex trafficked every day in the United States. Most Americans think that this type of human traffic occurs elsewhere in the world in places like Thailand, Cambodia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Throughout the U.S., children, especially girls are abducted or lured from their normal lives to become sex slaves. They often come from abusive homes or are just runaways looking for excitement. Predators are waiting for them, offering friendship and a place to stay.

In time, the children or teenagers become dependent upon them and then are threatened into prostitution. A type of bonding takes place so even when a youngster is rescued, they will return to their captors and continue a life of a sex slave.

Sex slavery of children is pervasive in America to meet the demand for commercial sex. However, when found on the streets, they are also misidentified as juvenile delinquents instead of victims and treated as criminals.

The FBI has a task force that deals exclusively with the sex trafficking of children and in one sting alone, 47 children were rescued who had been coerced or forced into prostitution. No one will ever know the exact number of them that exist in the United States.

On December 10, 2008, Congress passed a bill that was signed by President George W. Bush which provides continuing funds to combat sex trafficking in the United States.

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3.4 million say they were victims; legal changes urged

The largest snapshot of stalking ever done in the U.S. revealed an estimated 3.4 million victims – most of them women – who often lived with the terror of not knowing what would happen next.

The federal report underscored what experts and advocates have long argued but had trouble pinning down with hard numbers.

The report prompted calls for reforms and increased public awareness.

Even though every state has adopted an anti-stalking law, the crime is rarely prosecuted, experts say. Victims’ advocates say many states, including Illinois, need to strengthen their laws, provide new protections and better train police and prosecutors on how to respond to the problem.

Among other shortcomings of the law, victims cannot get an order of protection against a stalker unless he or she is a former intimate partner or household member, experts said.

Experts say that stalking can be one of the more dangerous outgrowths of domestic violence because the abuser refuses to let go.

Roughly one-third of victims identified in the 2006 federal study had been romantically involved with the offender at some point. Other studies have found that many victims of intimate homicide had been stalked by their attacker. “Stalking is a huge component of how abusers continue to abuse their victims,” said Jacqueline Ferguson of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

While researchers don’t have cause to believe that stalking is increasing, the report shows that the crime has become more sophisticated because of advances in technology. One in four victims said the stalker used e-mail, GPS devices and other cyber-technology to contact or track them. “There’s now this whole new realm of stalking,” said Katrina Baum, one of the report’s authors.

An estimated 3.4 million people 18 or older were victims of stalking in a 12-month period in 2005 and 2006, according to the report.

The Justice Department’s survey of more than 65,000—a supplement to its annual National Crime Victimization Survey—defined stalking as occurring if someone had experienced one of more of seven harassing behaviors in the past year. These included receiving unwanted calls, letters or e-mails and being spied upon or followed.

People between ages 18 and 24 experienced the highest rates. Three out of four victims knew their offender in some way; only one in 10 was stalked by a stranger.

Some victims lost their job as a result of the stalking, according to the report. Others were forced to relocate.

A person commits stalking in Illinois when he or she follows another person or places the person under surveillance on at least two occasions, causing the victim to fear bodily harm. But proving a threat can be difficult, Smith said. “Our law is awkwardly written and probably antiquated,” she said.

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A coalition of Muslim organizations, journalists, community leaders, imams, and other concerned citizens called for immediate action by American Muslim leaders and religious figures to address domestic abuse and violence in America, including that found in the American Muslim community, last Friday, February 20, 2009.

In response to the collective concern of the American Muslim community, imams and religious leaders across America have been asked to speak out against domestic violence to their congregations. They are asked to remind congregants of the Prophet Muhammad’s abhorrence of harshness, abuse and violence, and emphasize solutions that strengthen families and ensure all members are treated with fairness and respect, free of fear of abuse or violence.

Members of the coalition are contacting imams and religious leaders in major Islamic centers and mosques. They are encouraging sermons addressing domestic violence and are offering resources available through the Peaceful Families Project, a Muslim-run domestic violence prevention organization founded in 2000, to help educate the American Muslim community. This education addresses the extent to which domestic violence exists and strategies to stop it.

Several prominent imams have heeded the call to action by concerned American Muslims including Shaykh Hamza Yusuf of the Zaytuna Institute in Berkeley, Ca. and Imam Tahir Anwar of the South Bay Islamic Association in San Jose, Ca. These imams have committed their Friday sermons to addressing domestic violence and preaching that in the Islamic tradition and by the example of the Prophet Muhammad, family harmony can never be achieved by force and that emotional and physical abuse is never acceptable.

This call is being broadcast through various channels, including blogs, Facebook groups, personal contacts, and news media. “The outcry among Muslim Americans against this type of violence is a heartfelt one,” said Shahed Amanullah, editor-in-chief of the online newsmagazine “It is essential that we address the problem and take steps to ensure that no one else faces the same tragic fate as Ms. Zubair.”

Specific calls to action for imams and religious leaders include:

    Unequivocally denounce domestic violence and any attitudes that enable or excuse it
    Remind Muslims that the Prophet Muhammad condemned with unequivocal language all forms of spousal abuse.
    Immediately create community social service committees made up of qualified social service providers to supply educational resources and staff institutional programs that support abused and battered women.
    Promote educational and awareness programs that outline abusive and violent behaviors.
    Allow community members ways of pointing out and preventing the emergence or escalation of possibly abusive relationships and environments

Individuals and organizations helping to organize this call (partial list, titles for identification purposes only):

    Salma Abugideri, Peaceful Families Project
    Wajahat Ali, Playwright, Attorney and Journalist,
    Shahed Amanullah, editor-in-chief of the online newsmagazine
    Zeba Iqbal, Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals
    Ruby Khan, Director, Hamdard Center for Health and Human Services
    Dr. Aminah McCloud, Professor of Islamic Studies, DePaul University
    Hussein Rashid, Visiting Professor, Hofstra University,

Mosques, imams, and organizations confirmed to have joined this effort (partial list):

    Arab American Association of New York (New York, NY)
    Arab Muslim American Federation (New York, New York)
    Council of the Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago – Imam Abdul Malik Muhajid
    Islamic Society of San Francisco – Imam Khalid Siddiqui
    Islamic House of Wisdom (Dearborn, MI) – Imam Mohammad Elahi
    Islamic Center of Greater Lansing (Detroit, MI) – Imam Dawud Walid
    South Bay Islamic Association (San Jose, CA) – Imam Tahir Anwar
    The Islamic Center at New York University – Haroon Moghul
    Zaytuna Institute (Berkeley, CA) – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

Resources for the media regarding Muslim efforts to confront domestic violence:

The religious order banning women from dressing like tomboys was bad enough. But the fatwa by Malaysia’s leading clerics against yoga was the last straw.

“They have never even done yoga!” said Zainah Anwar, head of a Malaysian women’s rights group called Sisters in Islam.

Anwar argues that the edict, issued late last year by Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council, was pure patriarchy. Islam, she said, was only a cover.

It was frustrations like these that drew several hundred Muslim women to a conference in this Muslim-majority country last week. Their mission was to come up with ways to demand equal rights for women. And their tools, however unlikely, were the tenets of Islam itself.

“Secular feminism has fulfilled its historical role, but it has nothing more to give us,” said Ziba Mir-Hosseini, an Iranian anthropologist who has been helping to formulate some of the arguments. “The challenge we face now is theological.”

The advocates came from 47 countries to participate in the project, called Musawah, the Arabic word for equality. They spent the weekend brainstorming and learning the best Islamic arguments to take back to their own societies as defense against clerics who insist that women’s lives are dictated by men’s strict interpretations of Islam.

“We are trying to develop a new language, offer it to the world and use it,” said Marwa Sharafeldin, an activist from Egypt.

Anwar, the main organizer, said her group was almost alone when she started it 20 years ago, but now it is one of many. “It’s a movement whose time has come.”

The repression comes not from the Koran, the women argue, but from the human interpretation of it, in the form of Islamic law, or Fiqh, which has ossified over the centuries while their globalized lives have galloped ahead. So they are going back to the original text, arguing that its emphasis on justice makes the case for equality.

“Feminist Islamic scholarship is trying to unearth the facts that were there,” Mir-Hosseini told a room of eager activists Sunday morning. “We can’t be afraid to look at legal tradition critically.”

She referred to the work of Muslim intellectuals, like Nasr Abu Zayd of Egypt and Abdolkarim Soroush of Iran, among others, reformers who argue that the Koran must be read in historical context, and that laws derived from it – stoning for adultery, for example – can change with the times. Both men are in exile in the West.

Mir-Hosseini argues that Muslim societies are trapped in a battle between two visions of Islam. One, legalistic and absolutist, emphasizes the past. The other is pluralistic and more inclined toward democracy. In Iran, reformers were gaining ground, she said, but President George W. Bush’s war on terror put them on the defensive.

“It’s really a struggle between two worldviews,” she said, adding that time was on the side of the women, who call themselves Islamic feminists.

It was the rise of political Islam that brought the women together. As Malaysia’s progressive family laws began to be rolled back in the late 1980s, Anwar and several other women formed a reading group for the Koran.

“There is an understanding that mullahs know best, that you cannot speak,” Anwar said. “Muslim women’s groups are coming out to challenge that authority.”

Some scholars argued that the effort sounded unrealistic and would have no impact, mainly because it appeared to ignore more than a thousand years of Islamic legal scholarship and practice. Religious authorities are the only ones with the power to interpret laws, and circumventing that well-entrenched system would require replacing it altogether.

“This kind of argument is being made at the margins of the Islamic world,” said Bernard Haykel, an expert on Islamic law at Princeton University. “It has shape and form, but no substantive content. There’s no real way of actually bringing about these changes.”

But others made the case that change, though incremental, was happening at the grass roots in a number of Muslim societies. Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who attended the conference, maintains that women’s movements are making progress, as girls’ education increases and the Western world is a click away on satellite TV. Women are even taking positions in religious institutions, she said: A woman has headed the Shariah College at Qatar University.

“It’s a slow shift,” said Coleman, whose book on the topic, “Paradise Beneath Her Feet,” will be published by Random House in 2010. “It’s just beginning to come together as a movement.”

There have been some successes. In Morocco, sweeping changes of family in favor of women went into effect in 2004. Critics argue that it was only possible because the country’s king approved it, but Moroccan activists said it never would have happened at all if they had not spent years lobbying and formulating legal arguments, some of them Islamic.

That has had ripple effects. Elaheh Koolaee, a professor from the University of Tehran who formerly served in Iran’s Parliament, said that Iranian women had been watching the Moroccan example, and that a Muslim success was an invaluable tool.

“It’s important for us to show positive experiences from within Muslim societies that are not from the U.S. or Europe,” she said.

For Mir-Hosseini, change is coming. It’s just a matter of when.

“There’s so much tension and energy there now,” she said. “It will be a flood.”

Anger at the regime’s extreme birth control regime is growing

Abuses of women’s reproductive rights, some of which break China’s own laws, are provoking outrage as Chinese public opinion wakes up to the persistence of forced abortion, compulsory sterilisation and even infanticide.

China has run birth control campaigns since the 1970s. In 1979 it passed laws restricting city dwellers to one child and rural people to two if the first was a girl or disabled.

Officials say the policy has prevented 300m births and helped reduce poverty, raising life expectancy to 73. But the Chinese population is still growing by 8m-10m a year, or about a million every five weeks, and will do so for several more years.

Open discussion of abuses of the policy has raised hopes among women activists that Hillary Clinton will speak up for them when she makes her first visit to China as US secretary of state this week.

Clinton annoyed the Chinese regime with a speech at a 1995 women’s conference in Beijing in which she said: “It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have an abortion or sterilised against their will.”

Now Clinton is predicted to tackle Beijing on a broader range of issues than the economics-focused approach taken by the Bush administration. She has signalled that she will take a firmer stand on human rights.

Even as Chinese media and internet commentators break taboos to report birth control abuses, some officials are stepping up humiliating interventions in the lives of women.

Those with one child are likely to face regular pregnancy tests and pressure to be sterilised through a range of financial penalties or the threat of being sacked from their jobs.

Physical coercion to terminate a pregnancy or undergo sterilisation was banned by law in 2002 but numerous reports in the Chinese media claim that it still goes on.

Chinese women are daring to speak out themselves. Zhang Linla, who has a four-year-old daughter, told a website in Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, that she was subjected to a late forced abortion because she became pregnant again before the period officially allowed between births.

“Six days before the due date, 10 strong strangers came to my house, forced me into a truck then took me to a family planning clinic, where the doctor gave me an injection,” she said.

“The child began struggling in my womb and one of these scum even kicked me in the abdomen. Then the baby came out and they threw it into a rubbish bin. I could even see it was still moving.”

An even more horrifying story, reported on hundreds of websites, concerned a case of infanticide in Wuhan, central China, last September. A farmer named Huang Qiusheng said his wife, who was nine months pregnant, gave birth to a live child despite being forced to submit to an injection to induce an abortion. The infant was thrown into a urinal.

The next day an elderly woman named Liu Zhuyu heard the child’s cries, rescued it, washed it and delivered it to a neonatal clinic. But the reports claim that five family planning officials confronted Liu, seized the child and killed it by throwing it to the ground.

The complexity of family planning laws and their arbitrary enforcement often contributes to cases of cruelty.

This month a newspaper in Yunnan province reported a case of compulsory sterilisation that has appalled commentators. It involved a woman named Zhang Kecui, who was ambushed in the street by family planning officials and dragged on to the operating table for a sterilisation.

Zhang has two children and according to regulations should have been sterilised after the second birth. Her husband has lodged a legal complaint but has little hope of redress.

Sociologists and doctors are beginning to question the long-term effects of the birth-control policy.

“As a woman, I believe that coercing a woman who is eight months pregnant to have an abortion is inhuman,” a family planning official, who asked not to be named, told The Sunday Times.

Spain is preparing to fully legalise abortion for the first time to allow women to have terminations on demand in the early stages of pregnancy.

The move has put the Socialist government on a collision course with the Catholic Church which has argued the need “to restrict and not expand abortion” in Spain.

A parliamentary committee presented recommendations to Congress this week that included legalising early stage abortions, while gradually imposing more restrictions as pregnancies progress.

The proposals will form the basis of a draft bill to be presented to Parliament later this year that will tackle one of the traditionally Roman Catholic nation’s final taboos and bring the abortion law in line with most other European countries.

The move is the latest in an ambitious programme of social change under Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero that has seen him clash repeatedly with the Roman Catholic Church.

Since coming to power in 2004 his socialist government has legalised gay marriage, eased divorce laws and dropped religious education from the curriculum in public schools, all measures which have deeply angered church leaders.

In Spain abortion was decriminalised in 1985 but it is offered only under restricted circumstances and rarely in a public hospital. Terminations are only allowed until the 12th week of pregnancy in cases of rape or until the 22nd week in cases of severe fetal malformation.

In early 2008, some 25 women and doctors were arrested in raids on abortion clinics in Madrid accused of falsifying doctors’ certificates. The raids sparked a nationwide strike by the clinics, and forced the government to fast-track the new legislation.

Proponents of the new proposals say it is about treating women with respect, allowing them to make their own reproductive decisions rather than forcing them to seek a doctor’s approval.

Carmen Monton, spokesman for the ruling Socialist party, said: “What we are talking about is for women not to face persecution when they decide about their own motherhood.”

Earlier this month on a visit to Madrid, the Vatican Secretary of State met with representatives of the socialist government to oppose the softening of abortion laws.

Vatican deputy Tarcisio Bertonem said: “I tried to make them understand that it is necessary to restrict and not expand abortion.”

Monsignor Martinez Camino, president of the Spanish Bishops Conference, has denounced the proposed law in strikingly political terms, saying it targeted the defenceless.

“The unborn don’t vote,” he said. “They don’t organise.” And he reiterated the Church’s stance on those who have abortions or perform them. “They face automatic excommunication,” he warned.

President Ernest Bai Koroma last month appended his signature to, thereby formally giving his assent and making into law, the Customary Marriage and Diviorce Act 2007, which commentators have described as a “women’s liberation” Act. Before appending his signature, President Koroma said he had found himself in a very unique situation because he participated in the debate to pass this law as an Opposition leader and now giving his asent to it as Head of State.

He said the APC gave its support to the bill from the very beginning because it covers the lives of a majority of the citizenry. “A good number of marriages, about 80%, are affected by this law. And because they were not registerd and not regulated, so many abuses have been going on, especially against the underdogs, who in this case are the women… But we know that women are the true heroines of our nation,” while detailing that the women often do the hard work to care for their families.

President Koroma expressed happiness that most of the concerned groups are present and publicly asserted government’s commitment to the “effective implementation” of the law. He said he had decided to make the signing public so that it would be given the widest publicity and for those responsible for its implementation to be held accountable. “Let me now take this opportuinity to give my assent to this bill,” he ended.

Chairperson of the occasion, Yasmine Jusu-Sheriff, earlier gave special importance to the ceremony by relating its significance to the inauguration of Barrack Obama as the first African-American to become President of the United States of America in the same week. She paid special tribute to President Koroma for being the first President in the history of Sierra Leone to “open the inner workings of our state for public involvement and scrutiny” even as the tradition had been for presidential assents to be given in bureaucratic secrecy.

The new law, among other things, places customary marriages on the same pedastal as all other legal marriages (Christian, Muslim, and Civil), invalidates all marriages in which the spouses are under 18 years of age, and validates any co-habitation that has spanned 5 years and above. People can register their customary marriages and divorces with the District Council and be issued with certificates, while at the same time the law debars people from entering into more than one type of marraige. Forced marriages, where girls’ consents are not sought, are from now on illegal.

Notwithstanding, there are other amendments to make, to which various stakeholders who made statements of commitment, pledged to work towards. Among the speakers were Attorney General Abdul Serry Kamal, who looked forward to giving more teeth to the law; Speaker of Parliament Abel Stronge who, on behalf of the Legislature, promised to expeditously attend to the necessary amendments; Justice Fofanah, representing the Chief Justice, said this law was strongly founded on international standards reflecting the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and that the Judiciary would put all necessary mechanisms in place by making an “audacious use of the courts throughout the country”; Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Ibrahim Kalokoh pledged his Ministry’s total commitment to the effective implementation of the Act and its sister Acts for the development of the nation; while a civil society representative lauded President Koroma’s political will, admonishing him to ensure that the Ministry of Gender Affairs “will stop being the most under resourced Ministry…”

Gracing the occasion were cabinet minsters, parliamentarians from across the political divide, development partners, and civil society groups.

Gender Affairs Minister Musu Kandeh introduced the new Act before the presidential assent, while her deputy Jenneh Kandeh gave the vote of thanks.


A husband or a wife can no longer go unpunished for coercing his or her spouse into sexual relations. In fact, Korean society has so far tolerated forced sex in married life. But a local court made a landmark ruling Friday, recognizing marital rape as a crime for the first time here. The ruling is unquestionably designed to better protect spousal right to have sex or not.

The Busan District Court convicted a 42-year-old man of raping his 25-year-old Filipino wife, sentencing him to a suspended 30-month prison term. The husband, identified as Lee, said he will appeal to a higher court, claiming that his wife had tenaciously refused to have sex with him. It remains to be seen whether his appeal will be accepted or not. In 1970, The Supreme Court overruled a guilty verdict in a similar rape case.

The ruling on spousal rape also draws special attention from foreign wives mostly from China and Southeast Asian countries, many of whom have to endure domestic violence and other rights abuses from their husbands. The decision reflects this dire situation and growing calls for the better protection of rights of foreign spouses at multicultural households. It seems that the court has also given much consideration to the changing times in this globalized society.

In many Western countries such as the United States, Britain, Germany and France, marital rape constitutes a crime. The United Nations said in 2006 that marital rape is a prosecutable offense in over 104 countries. But the ruling is expected to touch off a heated debate as Korean society is still divided over this issue. Thus, it is necessary for the nation to build a consensus on spousal rape.

The focal point is a right to sexual self-determination. The court decision indicated that this right should be respected among married couples so that a husband or a wife can have sex with his or her spouse at his or her own will. In other words, married couples cannot coerce their partners into sexual intercourse against their will.

We have to bear in mind the district court’s position that marital rape is against a constitutional right to lead decent life and pursue happiness as it damages a spouse’s personality and human dignity. In this regard, we hope that the decision will put an end to spousal sexual violence and bring a significant change to the male-dominant patriarchal family system. We also expect that the court action will serve as an opportunity to better protect human rights of foreign wives who have come here to realize their Korean dream.

Each year, more than half a million women die from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and nearly 4 million newborns die within twenty-eight days of birth. Millions more suffer from disability, disease, infections and injury. Cost-effective solutions are available that could bring rapid improvements, but urgency and commitment are required to implement them and to meet the Millennium Development Goals related to maternal and child health. The first chapter of the state of the world’s children 2009 examines trends and levels of maternal and neonatal health in each of the major regions using mortality ratios as benchmark indicators.

UNICEF this year has narrowed the reasons behind children’s deaths, and has gone deep to the core of the problem in order to help reduce the number of newborns who die soon after birth.

Women in the world’s least developed countries are 300 times more likely to die during childbirth, or from pregnancy-related complications than women in developed countries, according to UNICEF’s latest State of the World’s Children report, released today.

At the same time, a child born in a developing country is almost 14 times more likely to die during the first month of life than a child born in a developed one. The health and survival of mothers and their newborns are linked, and many of the interventions that save new mothers’ lives also benefit their infants. The 2009 edition of UNICEF’s flagship publication, The State of the World’s Children, highlights the link between maternal and neonatal survival, and suggests opportunities to close the gap between rich and poor countries.

“Every year, more than half a million women die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications, including about 70,000 girls and young women aged 15 to 19,” said Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director, at the Johannesburg launch. “Since 1990, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth have killed an estimated 10 million women.”

Both mothers and infants are vulnerable in the days and weeks after birth – a critical time for life-saving interventions, such as post-natal visits, proper hygiene, and counseling about the danger signs of maternal and newborn health.

While many developing countries have made excellent progress improving their child survival rate in recent years, there has been less headway in reducing maternal mortality.

Niger and Malawi, for example, nearly cut their under-five death rates in half between 1990 and 2007, and in Angola the child mortality rate fell from 258 to 158 per 100,000 live births in the same time period. In Indonesia, under-five death rates fell to nearly a third of what they were in 1990, and in Bangladesh they fell by more than a half.

The same progress has not been made in addressing health risks for mothers, who are most vulnerable during delivery and in the first days after birth. And while the rate of survival for children less than five years of age is improving globally, the risks faced by infants in the first 28 days remain at unacceptably high levels in many countries.

In the developing world, a woman has a 1 in 76 lifetime risk of maternal death, compared with a probability of 1 in 8,000 for women in developed countries. Approximately 99 percent of global deaths arising from pregnancy and complications occur in the developing world, where having a child remains among the most serious health risks for women. The vast majority occur in Africa and Asia, where high fertility rates, a shortage of trained personnel and weak health systems spell tragedy for many young women.

The ten countries with the highest lifetime risk of maternal death are Niger, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Chad, Angola, Liberia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, and Mali. A woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death in these countries ranges from 1 in 7 in Niger to 1 in 15 in Mali. And for every woman who dies, another 20 suffer illnesses or injury, often with severe and lasting consequences.

To lower maternal and infant mortality, the report recommends essential services be provided through health systems that integrate a continuum of home, community, outreach and facility-based care.

This continuum of care concept transcends the traditional emphasis on single, disease-specific interventions, calling instead for a model of primary health care that embraces every stage of maternal, newborn and child health.

“Saving the lives of mothers and their newborns requires more than just medical intervention,” said Veneman. “Educating girls is pivotal to improving maternal and neonatal health and also benefits families and societies.”

The report finds that health services are most effective in an environment supportive of women’s empowerment, protection, and education.

The Over all State of the World’s Children’s messages are to save children’s lives, we need to address the health of their mothers; there is an inextricable link between maternal and infant survival; women in developing countries are 300 times more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth complications than women living in the industrialized world. Progress in maternal and neonatal health has fallen far behind advances in child survival; maternal mortality ratios mirror the overall effectiveness of health systems; to thrive, women and their children must have access to essential timely services at home, in the community, and at health facilities. Saving the lives of mothers and their newborns requires more than just medical intervention; it requires an environment that empowers women and respects their rights.

According to the report, what is needed to prevent maternal and neonatal deaths is rapid progress through sound strategies, political commitment, adequate resources and collaborative efforts, applied in support of the health of both mothers and newborns.

This is in addition to the continuum of care, which embraces every stage of maternal, newborn and child health, and which differs from the traditional disease-specific approach. These essential services for mothers, newborns and children are most effective when they are delivered in a timely fashion at critical points in the life cycle of mothers and children: adolescence, pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, birth, post-partum, neonatal, infancy and childhood. Post-natal care urgently needs to be expanded during the first 24-48 hours after birth, when the risks of maternal and newborn death are greatest.

The interrelated health needs of women, newborns and children require integrated solutions. Essential services must be provided at key points in the life cycle through dynamic health systems that integrate a continuum of home, community, outreach and facility-based care. An integrated approach reaps more dividends than myriad separate initiatives. Linking interventions in packages not only increases their efficiency and cost-effectiveness, but it provides greater incentive for people to use them and greater opportunity to extend and enhance coverage.

The essential services required to support a Continuum of Maternal and Neonatal Care include: enhanced nutrition, safe water, sanitation and hygiene practices, disease prevention and treatment; quality reproductive health services; adequate antenatal care; skilled attendance at delivery, emergency obstetric and newborn care; post-natal care; neonatal care; and Integrated Management of Neonatal and Childhood Illness.

The report states the main causes of maternal and neonatal mortality, dividing them into direct medical causes, reproductive health and family planning, indirect factors influencing maternal and neonatal health, weak health systems and lack of access to facility-based care.

Three quarters of all maternal deaths occur from complications either during delivery or in the immediate post-partum period. These complications include: hemorrhaging, (25 percent of maternal deaths); infections (15%); unsafe abortion (13 %); eclampsia or hypertensive disorders (12 %); and obstructed labour (8%). Mortality risks for mothers and newborns are particularly elevated within the first two days after birth.

Studies show that involuntary pregnancies carry a greater risk than those that are wanted; women with unwanted pregnancies are less likely to receive early antenatal care or give birth under medical supervision. Such pregnancies may also risk unsafe abortions – a significant cause of maternal death.

There is growing consensus that improving access to reproductive health – especially among young people – can have a positive impact on maternal and newborn health. In 2005, the United Nations added universal access to reproductive health as a specific target of the Millennium Development Goal on maternal health.

Linking Maternal and Newborn Health:
The health and survival of mothers and their newborns are intrinsically linked, and many of the same interventions that save maternal lives also benefit their infants.

Regions with high maternal death rates show correspondingly high rates of neonatal mortality. Lowering a mother’s risk of mortality directly improves a child’s prospects for survival. Babies whose mothers die during the first six weeks of their lives are far more likely to die before their second birthday than babies whose mothers survive. Like maternal deaths, the vast majority of neonatal deaths occur in the developing world, and have received far too little attention. A child born in a poor country is almost 14 times more likely to die during the first 28 days of life than one born in an industrialized country. Almost 40 percent of all under 5 deaths occur in the first 28 days of life, three-quarters of which take place in the first seven days. During this early neonatal period, babies and mothers are most vulnerable.

II) Maternal Mortality: The General Picture
While many developing countries and several regions have managed to make significant advances in child survival, several of these same countries have failed to make any serious progress in reducing maternal mortality rates. At the same time, the proportion of under-five deaths occurring in the early neonatal period have risen dramatically. Between 1980 and 2000, deaths in the first week of life have risen from 23 to 28 per cent of overall under-five mortality rates.

Millions of women who survive childbirth suffer from pregnancy-related injuries, infections, diseases and disabilities. For every maternal death, some 20 women – or 10 million a year – suffer complications with severe consequences.

If women had access to essential maternity and basic health-care services, up to eighty percent of all maternal deaths and injuries could be avoided.

Progress on diminishing maternal mortality ratios has been virtually non-existent in sub-Saharan Africa, where half of all maternal deaths take place.

Maternal mortality ratios are particularly staggering in sub-Saharan Africa. Within this region, Sierra Leone – with 2100 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births – has the highest maternal mortality ratio in the world, followed closely by Niger, with an MMR of 1800 deaths per 100,000 live births. In comparison, Tunisia and Egypt have maternal mortality ratios of 100 and 130, respectively.

India accounts for 22 per cent of the global total of maternal deaths; an estimated 117,000 women died from maternal causes in 2005.

Elevated fertility rates, combined with weak access to basic health care and maternity services can have life-long implications for women’s survival. In the developing world as a whole, a woman has a 1 in 76 lifetime risk of maternal death, compared with a probability of just 1 in 8000 for women in industrialized countries. In Niger, the country with the highest lifetime risk, her chance of dying skyrockets to 1 in 7, in contrast to 1 in 47,600 in Ireland.

With the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, all regions have made progress improving access to life-saving maternity services, particularly in regard to skilled attendance at delivery. Yet the global community is not on target to reach the Millennium Development Goal on maternal mortality, which will require a 70 percent reduction in maternal deaths between 2005 and 2015.

The first meeting of the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) will take place on 24-27 February 2009 at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. At this first meeting GRETA will prepare and adopt its internal rules of procedure and elect its President and Vice-President. GRETA will also hold an exchange of views on the evaluation procedure for monitoring the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings by the parties in preparation for the first monitoring cycle of the Convention.

Thirteen independent experts were elected by the Committee of the Parties for the first composition of GRETA for a term of office of four years :

    Vessela Banova (Bulgarian)
    Louise Calleja (Maltese)
    Josie Christodoulou (Cypriot)
    Davor Derencinovic (Croatian)
    Vladimir Gilca (Moldovan)
    Hanne Sophie Greve (Norwegian)
    Nicolas Le Coz (French)
    Alexandra Malangone (Slovak)
    Nell Rasmussen (Danish)
    Leonor Maria Da Conceição Cruz Rodrigues (Portuguese)
    Gulnara Shahinian (Armenian)
    Robert Stratoberdha (Albanian)
    Diana-Florentina Tudorache (Romanian)

1st meeting of the Committee of the Parties of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings

At its first meeting on 5 and 8 December, the Committee of the Parties adopted its rules of procedure and elected Ambassador Pēteris Kārlis Elferts, Permanent Representative of Latvia to the Council of Europe, as Chair, and Ambassador Bruno Gain, Permanent Representative of France to the Council of Europe, as Vice-Chair, for a first term of office of one year. The Committee also elected a total of 13 members for the first composition of GRETA, the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (more on the Committee of the Parties….).

United Kingdom 20th state to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings

The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings entered into force on 1 February 2008. On 17 December 2008 the United Kingdom became the 20th state to ratify the Convention. For the United Kingdom the Convention will enter into force on 1 April 2009.

Albania, Armenia, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Georgia, Latvia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom are the first 20 states to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Action against trafficking in Human Beings.

The Convention has been signed by 20 other Council of Europe member states: Andorra, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and Ukraine.