Archive for May, 2009

Burma’s democracy leader and Nobel Peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been locked up on new trumped up charges, just days before her 13 years of detention was due to expire. She and thousands of fellow monks and students have been imprisoned for bravely challenging the brutal military regime with peaceful calls for democracy.

Risking danger to speak out for their jailed friends, Burmese activists are demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners and calling on the world to help. We have six days to get a flood of petition signatures to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon calling on him to make their release a top priority he can make it a condition of any renewed international engagement. Follow the link to sign the petition, and forward this email on to friends to ensure Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners are freed.

On May 14th, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested and sent to jail to charged in connection with an American man who allegedly sneaked uninvited into the compound where she is being held in Yangon. The charges are absurd it is the Burmese military, now charging her with breach of house arrest, that are responsible for the security of the compound. They area pretext to keep her detained until after elections which are set for 2010.

The Burmese regime is renown for its vicious repression of any threat to full military control thousands are in jail in inhumane conditions and denied any medical care, there are ongoing abuses of human rights, there is violent repression of ethnic groups, and over a million have been forced into refuge across the border.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s is the greatest threat to the junta’s hold on power. Her moral leadership of the democracy movement and the legacy of her landslide victory in 1990 elections means that she is the only figure who could face down the military in elections next year. She has been detained over and over again since 1988 under house arrest
and allowed no contact with the outside world. But this scandalous new detention in the notorious Insein Prison without medical care could be very dangerous because she is seriously ill.

Sources say that the military regime is fearful of this unified and massive online call to the UN over 160 Burma exile and solidarity groups in 24 countries are participating in the campaign. And the Secretary General and key regional players that are looking to re engage with the Burmese regime, can influence the fate of these prisoners. Last week Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said: ‘Aung San Suu Kyi and all those that have a contribution to make to the future
of their country must be free’. Let’s overwhelm him with a global call to urgently act on his words and stop the arrests and brutality:

As with the release of Nelson Mandela from years of prison in South Africa, the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi from years of unjust detention, will bring a new beginning to Burma and hope for democracy. This week could be that historical time for change let’s stand united behind Suu Kyi and these brave men and women and demand their release now!

With hope,
Alice, Brett, Ricken, Pascal, Graziela, Paula and the rest of the Avaaz team

For more about Aung San Suu Kyi visit:

For more about the Global Free Political Prisoners Campaign visit:

A Letter from former Presidents for the release of political prisoners:
from 112 Former Presidents and Prime Ministers to UN

For the West and Asian countries reactions to Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest:

For the full statement from the UN Sectretary General on Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest:

Amira Hass of Israel is Lifetime Achievement Award winner

A Belarusian journalist who is frequently detained and subjected to all-night interrogations by police, a Cameroonian radio journalist whose broadcasts on human rights and press freedom have put her life at risk and an Iranian journalist whose reports about sensitive social and political issues have led to multiple arrests are recipients of this year’s International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Awards.

“These remarkable journalists have chosen to report the news in three countries where pursuit of the truth puts them at risk for arrest, physical attacks and even death,” said Judy Woodruff, chair of the IWMF Courage in Journalism Awards. “Still, they have consistently, for many years, chosen to risk their lives and livelihoods in pursuing stories that illuminate the lives of people in their countries and enlighten us all.”

Winners of the 2009 Courage in Journalism Awards are:

Iryna Khalip, 41, reporter and editor in the Minsk bureau of Novaya Gazeta. For more than 15 years, Khalip has been a journalist in Belarus, one of the most oppressive countries toward journalists in the world. After working at a succession of newspapers, only to see them closed by the government, she now works for Novaya Gazeta, one of the most independent newspapers in the former Soviet Union, and the newspaper of 2002 Courage Award winner Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006. Khalip has been arrested, subjected to all-night interrogations and beaten by police, who keep her under constant surveillance.

Agnes Taile, 29, reporter for Canal 2 International, radio and television, Cameroon. Taile reports on human rights and press freedom, including unflinching stories on the ineffectiveness and corruption of government officials. In 2006, while she was a reporter for Sweet FM, Taile received threats demanding that she stop her pursuit of government corruption. She ignored the threats. Not long afterward, she was abducted from her home at knife point by three hooded men, then beaten and left for dead in a ravine. Her show was cancelled after the attack. After recovering, Taile was determined to keep working as a journalist and landed a new job with Canal 2 covering the northern provinces of Cameroon.

Jila Baniyaghoob, 38, freelance reporter and editor-in-chief of the website Kanoon Zanan Irani (Focus on Iranian Women), Iran. Baniyaghoob works in one of the most restrictive environments for both journalists and women in the world. Still, she has fearlessly reported on government and social oppression, particularly as they affect women. She has been fired from several jobs because she refuses to censor the subject matter of her reporting and several of her media outlets have been closed by the government. She has travelled throughout the Middle East, writing accounts of the lives of women and refugees during times of conflict. The topics of her reporting make her a target of the Iranian government. She has been beaten, arrested and imprisoned numerous times.

The IWMF also announced that it will present its Lifetime Achievement Award to Amira Hass, 52, a reporter and columnist for Ha’aretz Daily, a newspaper based in Tel Aviv. For almost 20 years Hass has written critically about both Israeli and Palestinian authorities. She has demonstrated her ability to defy boundaries of gender, ethnicity and religion in her pursuit of the truth in her reporting. In covering the Palestinian Occupied Territories, her goal has been to provide her readers with detailed information about Israeli policies and especially that of restrictions of the freedom of movement.” For many years, she made her home first in Gaza City and then in Ramallah. In 2002 the Los Angeles Times reported that Hass “is the only Israeli Jew known to be living under Palestinian rule and one of a handful of Jewish reporters who still cross enemy lines for the Israeli media.”

Created in 1990, the IWMF Courage in Journalism Awards honor women journalists who have shown extraordinary strength of character and integrity while reporting the news under dangerous or difficult circumstances. The Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes a woman journalist who has a pioneering spirit and whose determination has paved the way for women in the news media. Including this year’s award winners, 66 journalists have won Courage Awards and 18 journalists have been honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards. The 2009 awards will be presented at ceremonies in New York on October 20 and in Los Angeles on October 28.

Founded in 1990, the International Women’s Media Foundation is a vibrant global network dedicated to strengthening the role of women in the news media worldwide as a means to further freedom of the press. The IWMF network includes women and men in the media in more than 130 countries worldwide. For more information, visit

The condition of victims of forced labour worldwide may be unrecognised because many states and organisations see it only in the light of a fight against prostitution.

The relation between prostitution and trafficking was one of the most controversial subjects debated at an international conference on trafficking called by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Palermo, Italy May 21-22.

“When we talk about trafficking, we shouldn’t treat its different forms as separate issues,” Nerea Bilbatua, regional programme officer for Europe at the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women told participants. “The focus has been on trafficking for sexual exploitation, but we should also focus on trafficking outside the sex industry, because in many countries, national laws only deal with sexual exploitation.

“This means that, for instance, a victim of trafficking working in domestic service or a restaurant does not have access to the kind of assistance available to victims of sexual exploitation, and that is unjust,” Bilbatua told IPS.

Some justify the focus on prostitution on the basis of statistical evidence. “Official UN data has it that 75 percent of trafficking involves women and children being sexually exploited,” Marilyn La Tona, head of the delegation from the Vienna International Alliance of Women to the UN told IPS.

These statistics were energetically attacked by John Davis, research fellow at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research. “It’s corrupt data, these numbers are highly speculative and only help create moral panic,” he said in response to La Tona.

“There is research and evidence on vulnerability and migration, and none was taken into account for the convention. It has collapsed into anti- prostitution,” said Davis, who believes the anti-prostitution lobby has hijacked the issue of trafficking, and is profiting from it.

“Those doing the real work on forced labour are sitting in the back of the queue, and all the money is going to the sex issue,” Davis said.

“Many governments treat sexual exploitation differently from labour exploitation,” Bilbatua told IPS. “Statistics show mostly women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation, which reinforces the idea of trafficking as above all a problem of sexual exploitation and that this is the most important aspect of it, but this is because nobody goes to other places, like fields, to verify other forms of exploitation.”

Bilbatua agreed with Davis in that sexual trafficking statistics are not trustworthy. “You are never sure where these numbers come from, and from an academic point of view they are not very credible.”

Experts increasingly believe the number of people in non-sexual forced labour may be grossly underestimated, and that trafficking for sexual work is not as dominant in overall forced labour as previously believed.

Behind the debate lies a deep disagreement over the nature of prostitution and its legality. “I and other organisations consider that even when we speak of voluntary sexual work, behind there is always some criminal adjustments; this is why even states like Holland are starting to review their laws on freedom of sexual laws,” La Tona told IPS.

The activist defended the Swedish model, which punishes the client as the perpetrator of the crime. “You need to stop the request from the market, if demand is high you have more sexual slaves being brought in,” she said.

Hundreds of thousands of sexual workers are said to be lured into migrating with promises of decent work, marriage or through threats of violence or blackmail. Still, some believe that many of these women know they will become prostitutes, even if unaware of the exact conditions of their work.

Davis brought in his own experience to argue against La Tona and like- minded activists. “My mother was a prostitute when we were very poor. The only ones who gave her problems were policemen, never clients or pimps,” he told the conference.

The academic, who has carried out research amid alleged Albanian victims of trafficking, attacked the view of prostitutes as always gullible victims of manipulative traffickers.

“Working women exchange sex for money for all sorts of reasons,” Davis said. “People ending up in prison as traffickers are the Moldovan prostitutes who paid the train ticket for the other six fellow prostitutes travelling with them, so if this is about sending sex working women to prison for 18 years, I don’t want to have nothing to do with it.”

The Spanish government approved a plan Friday to ease its abortion law and allow the procedure without restrictions up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, pressing ahead with a sweeping social reform agenda that has irked conservatives and the Catholic church.

The proposal needs approval from Parliament, where Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero lacks a majority and has fallen out with several erstwhile allies, either over Spain’s economic woes or for other reasons.

The bill seeks to reform the law that legalized abortion in Spain in 1985. That legislation allowed the procedure in cases of rape up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, fetal malformation up to 22 weeks and at any point when a pregnant woman’s mental or physical health were deemed by doctors to be at risk if the pregnancy went to term.

This latter loophole has generally accounted for the vast majority of abortions carried out in Spain.

Under the new proposal, besides abortion with no questions asked up to 14 weeks, the procedure would be permitted up to 22 weeks of pregnancy if two doctors certify there is a serious threat to the health of the mother, or fetal malformation.

Beyond 22 weeks, it would be allowed only if a panel of doctors certified fetal malformation deemed incompatible with life or the fetus were diagnosed with an extremely serious or incurable disease.

The plan is based on recommendations from a government-appointed panel of doctors and lawyers that issued its opinions in March. The government has adopted them without change.

Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said Thursday the new bill is “in line with today’s Spanish reality” and similar to abortion laws in most European countries.

Under the current Spanish law, getting an abortion outside the terms set by the legislation is a crime, at least on paper, although arrests are extremely rare. The new law would erase abortion from the penal code altogether.

“The most important thing about this law, what it seeks, is to protect women’s dignity. That is its spirit, from beginning to end,” Fernandez de la Vega said Thursday after a Cabinet meeting at which the plan was approved.

Although the new bill eliminates the clause that allowed abortions at any point in a pregnancy — even after 22 weeks — by woman citing physical or mental distress, Spanish clinics say the vast majority of abortions are carried out in the first trimester.

The government has said it hopes to have a law passed by the end of the year. Since taking power in 2004 Zapatero has legalized gay marriage and made it easier for Spaniards to divorce — big changes in a country where most people call themselves Catholic, even if church attendance is down sharply from the days of Gen. Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled in close alliance with the church from 1939 until his death in 1975.

This time Zapatero, who was re-elected in 2008, faces more of an uphill battle because of his lack of steady allies in Parliament. Basque and Catalan nationalists, for instance, who generally supported him in his first term, are angry over regional disputes and have warned their backing cannot be taken for granted.

The new reproductive health bill also includes a provision for the morning-after contraceptive pill to be made available in pharmacies without a prescription; currently some Spanish regions do require one. And women’s groups say the pill is hard to obtain in some conservative-run regions.

In a sign of the opposition Zapatero might face, the mayor of Madrid said Thursday the city will continue to require a prescription for the morning-after pill.

See: Spain to dispense morning-after pill in pharmacies

In the last 13 months, 12 of Mexico’s 32 states have approved amendments to their state constitutions defining a fertilised human egg as a person with a right to legal protection, and seven other state parliaments are taking steps in the same direction.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say it is a massive conservative reaction to a law decriminalising abortion up to 12 weeks’ gestation that went into force in the Mexican capital in April 2007.

The law was upheld in August 2008 by the Supreme Court, which ruled that it did not violate the Mexican constitution.

Behind the wave of reforms of state constitutions, according to critics, is a pact between the hierarchy of the Mexican Catholic Church and the leadership of the most traditional political parties to curb social movements advocating the legalisation of abortion.

“I have no direct evidence, but we have repeatedly heard allegations” that such a pact exists, María Mejía, head of Catholics for the Right to Decide (CDD), told IPS.

According to María Luisa Sánchez, director of the Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE), what is happening is a kind of “revenge” on the part of conservative groups. “These reforms are absurd and put women at risk,” she told IPS.

The states where constitutions have been reformed are governed by President Felipe Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) or by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seven decades.

The amendments of the state constitutions have not, so far, been accompanied by changes to the regional criminal codes, which for the most part allow abortion in the case of rape or danger to the mother’s life.

But the possibility remains that the criminal codes will be brought into line with the constitutional reforms, Mejía said.

Mexico is a federal nation in which each state has its own constitution and criminal code, although these cannot run counter to the national constitution and criminal code.

In this country of over 107 million people, an estimated 880,000 abortions are carried out annually, according to a study presented in 2008 by the Colegio de México, the Mexico office of the Population Council and the Guttmacher Institute in the United States.

The study found that an average of 33 abortions a year are performed for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44. This figure is higher than the average reported for developing countries, which is 29 abortions a year per 1,000 women of reproductive age.

Most abortions are performed clandestinely, even in cases where they are legal, because the authorities and public health centres put up such barriers that the right to therapeutic abortion under certain circumstances becomes non-existent.

A PAN lawmaker for the central state of Querétaro, Fernando Urbiola, told IPS that the recent reforms of the state constitutions “are simply due to the need to be consistent with the principle of defending human life, which begins at conception.”

In Querétaro, which is governed by the PAN, Urbiola chairs the Commission on the Family in the state parliament, and is promoting a modification of the state constitution so that it will protect the fertilised egg from the time of conception. The change could be approved before the end of the year.

Urbiola argues that “unborn children” urgently need legal protection, on a par with any other person, until death. In his view, the wave of reforms will also close the door to euthanasia and recognise men’s right to keep alive the eggs they fertilise.

GIRE’s Sánchez said that her group is coordinating a series of demonstrations with women’s movements in the various states, to urge the Supreme Court to rule on the wave of constitutional changes in the states.

“We hope that the Supreme Court will take up the issue again and give more weight to the right of women to decide about their lives and bodies. The Court must hold another debate and ratify its earlier ruling,” said Sánchez.

In the August 2008 ruling, in response to a lawsuit arguing that the decriminalisation of abortion in the capital, governed by the leftwing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled that the law did not violate the constitution.

The Supreme Court verdict was repudiated by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and other conservative sectors.

However, the Calderón administration accepted the decision, although it had previously demanded, through the Attorney-General’s Office, that the Mexico City law be repealed.

Now GIRE is asking the Attorney-General’s Office to take up the issue again, this time to bring a suit before the Supreme Court alleging the unconstitutionality of the reforms against abortion approved by the states.

According to Mexican law, the Supreme Court deals with cases at the request of the Attorney-General’s Office or the state National Human Rights Commission, or on its own initiative.

Mejía, of Catholics for the Right to Decide, also wants the Supreme Court to deal with the issue, but she recognised that this is very unlikely to happen in the short or medium term.

Since April 2007, when abortion in the first three months of pregnancy was decriminalised in Mexico City, just over 20,000 women have exercised this right in public health centres. Nearly 80 percent of them were from the capital.

According to official statistics, 47 percent of the women who requested an abortion in Mexico City were between the ages of 18 and 24, and 21 percent were aged 25 to 29. Nearly seven percent were under 18, and the remainder were over 30.

The great majority of the women who had abortions said they were Catholic, like 90 percent of Mexicans.

Mejía and Sánchez both said that it is illogical for only some women in Mexico to have the right to an abortion, and called for the same rights to be available for all women.

Furthermore, they both said that abortion should be removed from the criminal codes and should be dealt with instead as a public health issue.

No woman is happy to make the decision to have an abortion and no woman seeks an abortion for pleasure, which is “something conservatives just don’t understand,” and that is why they close the doors to women and their rights, and even worse, threaten them with imprisonment, Mejía said.

The state criminal codes lay down different penalties for women who have abortions, except for victims of rape or when the mother’s life is endangered. In some cases, foetal malformation is also accepted as a legal reason for abortion.

In the state of Veracruz, for example, abortion carries a prison sentence of six months to four years; in Jalisco it is four months to one year, in Guanajuato from six months to three years, and in Baja California Sur from two months to two years.

Studies indicate that clandestine abortions are the fourth or fifth cause of death among Mexican women, and that obtaining permission for an abortion is complicated and, in many cases, impossible.

After the August 2008 Supreme Court resolution, GIRE legal adviser Pedro Morales called on state legislators to move from “prohibitive and punitive regimes on abortion to permissive laws compatible with the fundamental rights of women.”

Instead, 12 states moved in the opposite direction and made it even more difficult to get a legal abortion, and another seven states may soon follow suit.

Also, fewer think abortion should be legal “under any circumstances”

A new Gallup Poll, conducted May 7-10, finds 51% of Americans calling themselves “pro-life” on the issue of abortion and 42% “pro-choice.” This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question in 1995.

The new results, obtained from Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs survey, represent a significant shift from a year ago, when 50% were pro-choice and 44% pro-life. Prior to now, the highest percentage identifying as pro-life was 46%, in both August 2001 and May 2002.

The May 2009 survey documents comparable changes in public views about the legality of abortion. In answer to a question providing three options for the extent to which abortion should be legal, about as many Americans now say the procedure should be illegal in all circumstances (23%) as say it should be legal under any circumstances (22%). This contrasts with the last four years, when Gallup found a strong tilt of public attitudes in favor of unrestricted abortion.

Gallup also found public preferences for the extreme views on abortion about even — as they are today — in 2005 and 2002, as well as during much of the first decade of polling on this question from 1975 to 1985. Still, the dominant position on this question remains the middle option, as it has continuously since 1975: 53% currently say abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances.

When the views of this middle group are probed further — asking these respondents whether they believe abortion should be legal in most or only a few circumstances — Gallup finds the following breakdown in opinion.

Americans’ recent shift toward the pro-life position is confirmed in two other surveys. The same three abortion questions asked on the Gallup Values and Beliefs survey were included in Gallup Poll Daily tracking from May 12-13, with nearly identical results, including a 50% to 43% pro-life versus pro-choice split on the self-identification question.

Additionally, a recent national survey by the Pew Research Center recorded an eight percentage-point decline since last August in those saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases, from 54% to 46%. The percentage saying abortion should be legal in only a few or no cases increased from 41% to 44% over the same period. As a result, support for the two broad positions is now about even, sharply different from most polling on this question since 1995, when the majority has typically favored legality.

The source of the shift in abortion views is clear in the Gallup Values and Beliefs survey. The percentage of Republicans (including independents who lean Republican) calling themselves “pro-life” rose by 10 points over the past year, from 60% to 70%, while there has been essentially no change in the views of Democrats and Democratic leaners.

Similarly, by ideology, all of the increase in pro-life sentiment is seen among self-identified conservatives and moderates; the abortion views of political liberals have not changed.

One of the more prominent news stories touching on the abortion issue in recent months involves President Barack Obama’s commencement speech and the bestowal of an honorary doctorate degree on him at the University of Notre Dame — a Roman Catholic institution — on Sunday. The invitation has drawn criticism from conservative Catholics and the church hierarchy because of Obama’s policies in favor of legalizing and funding abortion, and the controversy might have been expected to strengthen the pro-life leanings of rank-and-file Catholics.

Nevertheless, the swelling of the pro-life position since last year is seen across Christian religious affiliations, including an eight-point gain among Protestants and a seven-point gain among Catholics.

A year ago, Gallup found more women calling themselves pro-choice than pro-life, by 50% to 43%, while men were more closely divided: 49% pro-choice, 46% pro-life. Now, because of heightened pro-life sentiment among both groups, women as well as men are more likely to be pro-life.

Men and women have been evenly divided on the issue in previous years; however, this is the first time in nine years of Gallup Values surveys that significantly more men and women are pro-life than pro-choice.

With the first pro-choice president in eight years already making changes to the nation’s policies on funding abortion overseas, expressing his support for the Freedom of Choice Act, and moving toward rescinding federal job protections for medical workers who refuse to participate in abortion procedures, Americans — and, in particular, Republicans — seem to be taking a step back from the pro-choice position. However, the retreat is evident among political moderates as well as conservatives.

It is possible that, through his abortion policies, Obama has pushed the public’s understanding of what it means to be “pro-choice” slightly to the left, politically. While Democrats may support that, as they generally support everything Obama is doing as president, it may be driving others in the opposite direction.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,015 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 7-10, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Gallup Poll Daily results are based on telephone interviews with 971 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 12-13, 2009, as part of Gallup Poll Daily tracking. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

To see graphs illustrating these responses go to

The Los Angeles City Council voted Monday to approve funds to test the city’s enormous backlog of untested rape kits. Once the mayor approves the budget that authorizes these funds, up to 26 additional employees could be hired to process the kits and some testing could be outsourced to private labs, according to Human Rights Watch.

A Human Rights Watch report released in March found that there are at least 12,669 untested rape kits in Los Angeles County, the largest known backlog of its kind in the US. Of these, 499 kits are past the statute of limitations in California rape law and at least 1,218 are from unsolved cases where the attacker was a stranger. It is estimated that thousands more kits have been destroyed in LA County untested. A September 2008 LA city controller’s audit showed a backlog of approximately 7,000 kits.

Sarah Tofte, who authored the Human Rights Watch report responded to the vote: “The thousands of rape victims who went through the ordeal of providing the evidence, and then found out it was sitting in a freezer, will finally have a chance to see justice…. While the new money is a critical step toward eliminating the backlog of rape kits, it is certainly not the last step. We urge the City Council to use its oversight function to ensure that these funds translate into results, and monitor the speedy elimination of this problem.”

Calls for government to ban RapeLay, a computer game where players can earn points for raping schoolgirls Japan has come under renewed pressure to clamp down on its huge market in child pornography following the launch of a campaign to ban a video game in which players earn points by raping schoolgirls and forcing them to have abortions.

Equality Now, a New York-based human rights group, called on Japan’s government to immediately ban RapeLay, a virtual game that can be played on Windows PCs, and to honor its international commitments to end the sexual exploitation of children.

Amazon, the online retailer, removed RapeLay from its UK and US sites earlier this year after it was discussed at a UN conference on the sexual exploitation of children in Rio de Janeiro last November. Amazon Japan recently followed suit, but the game is widely available on other online shopping sites.

Jacqui Hunt, the director of Equality Now’s office in London, said the game was “extremely problematic at many levels”.

“The suggestion that the gamer has transformed the violent crime of rape into an act of sex indicates all too well the danger of objectifying and dehumanizing women and normalizing violence against them,” she said.

Equality Now has urged its 30,000 members to write to the prime minister, Taro Aso, demanding that Japan fulfill its obligations as a signatory to the UN convention against all forms of discrimination against women.

Though Japan is a lucrative market for games depicting sexual violence, RapeLay was spotlighted as a particularly depraved example of the genre.

The games, featuring high-resolution graphics and virtual interaction, are often set in schools or train carriages, with players awarded points for committing acts of sexual violence until the victims start to “enjoy” the experience. The victims are usually dressed in school uniforms, although their age is deliberately kept ambiguous.

The hentai [pervert] theme is common in Japanese comics, animated films and video games, many of which tap into the popular subculture of Lolicon, a Japanese rendering of Lolita complex.

Japanese law bans the production and sale of sexually explicit images of children under 18, but it exempts animated and computer-generated images.

Illusion, the software firm that produces RapeLay, has so far resisted calls to withdraw the game, saying it complies with Japanese child pornography laws. “The game is not intended for sale overseas, so we can’t comment further,” an Illusion spokesman told the Guardian.

But campaigners challenged the firm’s claim that it was targeting only the Japanese market, where such games are considered “acceptable”.

“The age of the internet means it’s impossible to confine anything to a specific market,” said Hiromasa Nakai, a spokesman for Unicef Japan.

“People in Japan have to realize that what might be acceptable in one culture or context might not be acceptable in another. In any case, many Japanese people have no idea what’s on sale on their own doorstep, and RapeLay is only the tip of the iceberg.”

The game is just one of tens of thousands of video games containing explicit sexual content that can be bought online or at stores in Tokyo’s geek district of Akihabara.

Pressure to tighten the law comes amid an alarming increase in demand for child pornography. In 2007, just over 300 children under 18 were identified as victims, according to Japanese police, up more than 20% from 2006 and the highest total since records began in 1999.

While police prosecuted 25 child pornography cases in 1999, the figure had risen to 585 cases by 2006.

Women’s organizations and the Rabbinical Courts Administration squared off in the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women yesterday over a bill to expand the rabbinical courts’ authority.

The proposal has not yet been formally submitted to the Knesset as a bill, since Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman is still studying it. However, the committee discussed the draft bill the courts administration submitted to Ne’eman for consideration. Advertisement

“The proposal raised by the rabbinical courts is not a minor matter; it’s an earthquake,” said Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari of Bar-Ilan University. “For years, we have witnessed an ongoing, deliberate offensive by the rabbinical courts in an effort to obtain blatantly civil powers for themselves. If this proposal is accepted, it will deal a mortal blow to women’s rights in Israel. The rabbinical courts have no authority to discuss property issues, which are clearly civil issues, unless they are part of a divorce suit.”

Attorney Hosea Gottlieb, an aide to Ne’eman, said that “the justice minister inherited this issue from the previous government. Before he formulates his opinion, the minister will hold meetings with all the parties concerned, including women’s organizations.”

Attorney Shimon Yaacobi, the rabbinical courts’ legal advisor, noted that the proposal was drafted in response to a High Court of Justice ruling depriving these courts of the right to rule on disputes arising from a divorce once the divorce had been granted.

“If a dispute arises after the divorce, the court ruled that this is [something] new, unrelated to the divorce, and therefore the rabbinical court has no ongoing authority,” he said. “This can give rise to claims of a get [bill of divorce] issued in error,” and hence raise questions about the validity of the divorce, the parties’ right to remarry and the legal status of any future children.

This concern arises because under Jewish law, both parties must consent freely to a divorce. Hence if a civil court subsequently interpreted a financial or custody agreement differently than the rabbinical court had, either spouse could claim that he or she would never have agreed to the divorce had they realized the outcome, and hence the get was not freely given.

“Thus the rabbinical courts’ view is that if the couple reaches an agreement before the divorce, and disputes arise about it afterward, the case should continue to be heard in the rabbinical court,” Yaacobi continued.

Similarly, the threat of women filing damage suits against men who refuse to divorce them could lead to claims that the men did not consent freely, invalidating the get, he said. As a result, the Rabbinical Court of Appeals has ordered all rabbinical courts not to grant divorces if such a threat exists.

But Attorney Suzanne Weiss of the Center for Women’s Justice retorted that “damage suits are suits of desperation. [Some] women obtain a get after filing damage suits, but in practice, this is not a forced get, because some men prefer to pay rather than grant the divorce.”

A report prepared by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in an attempt to tackle the increasing rate of ’honor crimes’ across Europe says the problem has worsened in Europe and cooperation among countries is needed to deny safe harbor to guilty individuals

As rates of “honor crimes” are on the rise throughout Europe, a new initiative has been submitted to the Council of Europe in an aim to bring the disturbing reality of such offenses to the forefront of the human rights agenda.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, recently published a report prepared by John Austin from the United Kingdom Socialist group condemning what the report calls “honor crimes” and highlighting the urgent need to combat them.

“I do not want to single out any one country as such crimes are committed throughout Europe; however, as we are in Turkey I would like to draw attention to the fact that these numbers are also on the rise in this country,’’ Austin said in Istanbul yesterday.

The report confirms that the problem, far from diminishing, has worsened, including in Europe. In the report, PACE denounces the crimes and dismisses any form of excuse for them. The report states, “No tradition or culture can invoke any kind of honor to violate women’s fundamental rights.”

Speaking at a press conference organized by PACE at the Istanbul Sofa Hotel last month, Austin highlighted that 231 “honor crimes” took place in Turkey in 2007; in the past five years, 167 honor crimes in Istanbul and 144 in Ankara were recorded.

Austin criticized that in many countries honor crimes are considered a mitigating factor whereas they should be an aggravating factor. Austin said countries need to draw up and put into effect national action plans to combat violence against women, including violence in the so-called name of honor. Many “honor crimes” are covered up and attributed to suicide.

Through his report, Austin has urged governments to carry out extensive investigations into these cases and crack down on murders that have been carried out as honor crimes. Moreover, Austin proposes that governments introduce either a complete database or statistics that take account of the different types of honor crimes so that the problem can be more thoroughly understood.

According to Austin, raising awareness in societies toward such crimes will play a big part in decreasing their numbers. The report calls for awareness-raising campaigns to change outlooks and behavior. When asked if documentaries broadcast on television were an effective method of raising awareness, Austin answered, “I believe they are, as they explicitly depict the reality that so many are unaware of.”

In reference to a documentary broadcast on Britain’s Channel Four, “Dispatches “Killing for Honor,” Austin was asked whether people in Britain were aware that honor crimes take place in their own country as such documentaries that are broadcast on British television often account only for honor crimes in countries such as Bangladesh and Turkey.

In response, Austin told the Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review that awareness schemes are being implemented in the United Kingdom, and when a case does occur in the UK, it takes full media coverage.

“This is a phenomenon in the whole of Europe, and therefore it is crucial that all the countries involved cooperate to combat this issue all together,” Austin said, adding that every guilty individual needs to be charged, and should any of them travel abroad, they should be subject to extradition requests.

Domestic violence was grossly denied and under-reported five years ago, Austin said, adding that this is the current situation with so-called honor crimes and countries have to work together to bring them to the fore and combat them accordingly.

PACE will have a meeting of the Network of Contact Parliamentarians involved in combating violence against women. Turkish State Minister for Women and Family Affairs Selma Aliye Kavaf and Yakin Ertürk, United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, will attend. The discussions will cover the preparation of a future Council of Europe convention and European parliaments’ contribution to the campaign by the United Nations Secretary General.

* Justice For Banaz Campaign: Public meeting with the IPCC – 13th March 2009
* Support ‘Justice for Banaz’ after the collapse of IPCC hearings
* Honour Crimes, Cultural Killings or just plain Murder? 25 Nov 2008 – Leicester
* Witness plan for ‘honour’ cases
* An Investigation into Honour-based Violence (HBV) and Honour Killings in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the Kurdish Diaspora in the UK
* A memorial to Surjit Athwal (1971-1998) – 22nd July Slough
* Compulsory lessons urged on forced marriage and ‘honour’ violence

Fiji, a multi-racial, multi-cultural country of 300 islands in the South Pacific, has undergone another coup – the fourth in 22 years. The women of Fiji want their voices to be heard as they work on ways to bring peace back to their country, and they are asking for the United Nations to support their efforts.

Fiji is the preferred destination for myriads of sun-loving tourists worldwide. It is in many respects a tropical paradise with almost all of its land protected in perpetuity for its indigenous peoples. Hotels lease the land from the relevant ‘mataqali’ (tribe) and provide jobs for the mataqali lease-owners.

From 1962 to 1972, the Fiji YWCA helped to establish programmes for women and young people in job training, early childhood education, and rural and community development.

During this time, the YWCA became involved in Fiji’s independence struggle and the fight against nuclear testing in Mururoa, French Polynesia, joining forces with other community groups, and with students from the newly established University of the South Pacific.

With a broad-based constituency that represented all races and cultures, all religions and generations, the women and young people of Fiji were encouraged to speak for themselves and to make themselves heard. A space was provided for emerging leaders, and for many years there seemed to be no limit to what Fiji could achieve as a multi-cultural, multi-racial example to other emerging democracies across the Pacific region.

This optimism was shattered in 1987 when the soldiers of the Fiji Military Force (FMF), under Corporal Sitiveni Rabuka, stormed Parliament House and took over the government of Timoci Bavadra, Fiji’s democratically elected Prime Minister who headed Fiji’s first truly multi-racial government.

Fiji YWCA’s former General Secretary, Amelia Rokotuivuna, was Campaign Director for Bavadra’s political party. She had played a major role in the Bavadra government’s rise to power one month earlier, and was overjoyed to see a multiracial democracy taking place in Fiji. The military coup destroyed this optimism and hope.

Fiji experienced 3 more “coups,” in 2000, in 2006, and most recently on 10 April 2009 – when the country’s Supreme Court deemed the current administration of Col. Frank Bainimarama illegal, prompting Fiji’s President Ratu Josefa Iloilo to dismiss the members of the judiciary, to abrogate the 1997 Constitution, and to reinstate the 2006 coup instigator and military chief, Bainimarama as Prime Minister for the next 5 years.

A generation of young people has grown up in Fiji never knowing anything but a “coup culture” and the power of the gun in taking over the government. Fiji’s women, who played such an important early role in the development of Fiji’s democracy, have been sidelined and ignored.

In fact, this “coup culture” has weakened and demoralised much of Fiji’s once-vibrant and optimistic peace and justice community. However, the defiant and powerful work of groups such as femLINK Pacific, a community media group led by Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, has kept the dream of a peaceful, equitable and visionary Fiji alive.

FemLINK Pacific focuses its work on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 and constantly calls on the government to make women part of the peace mediation process.

Initially, the world’s media blamed racial struggles for the many coups in Fiji, inferring that the Fiji-Indian population, brought in as indentured labourers by the British in the 19th and 20th century to work the sugar cane plantations, and who represented more than 50 percent of the population at the time of the first coup, had caused the indigenous Fijian population to rise up against them.

Events that have unfolded since have shown this to be only a minor cause of Fiji’s unrest. Power struggles have involved an ever-growing and mighty military having disagreements with the government, business men wrangling over government permits, chiefs not wanting commoners to have power, and a host of other causes.

Regardless, each coup has served to stifle voices calling for a Nuclear Free Pacific.

Fiji has suffered dramatically as skilled and experienced professionals have left the country to make their lives elsewhere. Many of these have been Fiji- Indians whose families had lived and worked in Fiji for generations.

The women of Fiji have shown enormous courage and resilience through all these years of coups and unrest. Groups such as the Fiji YWCA, femLINK Pacific, Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre and more have stayed active and outspoken. Yet, they have little say in negotiations and are largely ignored by people in power – currently the military. In fact their activities have been severely curtailed and they are under constant intimidation.

International Women’s Tribune Centre (IWTC), headquartered in New York, took an active role in each of the four U.N. World Conferences on Women from 1975 to 1995 and in all subsequent Special Sessions and meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) of ECOSOC, including the lobbying to get Security Council Resolution 1325 endorsed in October 2000.

IWTC believes that, as recommended in resolution 1325, the U.N. should demand that women in Fiji be given a role as peace mediators, peace builders and peace keepers as Fiji works its way out of a military dictatorship and back to being a respected and stable democracy.

Resolutions such as 1325 are of no use whatsoever if the U.N. member states take no actions to implement them. 1325 is the most important resolution for women ever passed by the Security Council, according to IWTC.

Women caught in violent and exploitative conflict situations in every corner of the world deserve to know their rights so that their voices can be heard in decision making on their behalf. Unfortunately, at this time, Fiji is one of those countries.

The women of Fiji need the support of the U.N. and the world in recovering their once-peaceful and democratic country. According to IWTC, the U.N. could help by ceasing to build up the Fiji Military Forces as contracted “peacekeepers.” These same soldiers are simultaneously being used to overturn the rule of law in their own country, they say.

U.N. peacekeeping funds have been paid to Fiji for more than 30 years and have made it possible for Fiji’s soldiers to be amongst the best equipped and trained in the world. Fiji meanwhile is not at war with any of its neighbours.

Do you think that women and men should be equally represented in all European Union institutions?

Join the 50/50 Campaign!


In 2009, Europeans will elect a new European Parliament. We will see a new European Commission led by its President, and a new president for the European Parliament. How many of the new Members of the European Parliament will be women, and will both of the top EU leaders wear a suit and tie?

These elections presents an excellent opportunity for the European Union to become more democratic. A modern democracy requires gender equality; the equal representation of women and men in the making of decisions that affect their lives.

Women represent more than half of the population of the EU. The current under-representation of women in decision-making at all levels in the EU institutions is a serious obstacle to the democratic legitimacy of the European Union. This inequality also undermines all attempts to promote a more inclusive and participatory democracy.

It is time for concrete action!

Establishing a just democracy in Europe must necessarily include the representation of all Europeans, both women and men.

Gender equality is a condition for modernising our political systems, so that women and men in their diversity equally share rights, responsibilities, and power. Gender equality should be at the heart of European initiatives to engage citizens in decision-making, to increase the legitimacy of the European Union, and to progress towards policies that reflect the needs and aspirations of all Europeans.

We call for all decision-makers, individuals and organisations interested in the promotion of democracy and justice to support this Campaign at all levels and across the boundaries of countries and political parties.

We call for immediate and long-term measures to ensure gender equality at both European and national levels to improve the functioning and quality of our political systems.

We therefore call upon:
• All European and national political parties to act immediately to ensure the realisation of gender equality in their nomination procedure ahead of the election of the European Parliament in June 2009 – for example through their electoral lists and in the drafting of their programmes.
• Women and men in Europe to seize the current opportunity to speak up and cast their vote in 2009 with a view to advancing democracy, gender equality and justice.
• The EU Member States to fulfil their commitments to democracy and gender equality by ensuring the equal representation of women among the top jobs at EU level to be appointed in 2009.
• Civil society organisations and trade unions in Europe to actively support this call within their networks by including a reference to gender equality in their manifestos for the European elections and in their contact with decision-makers.

Dalia Grybauskaite was elected to be Lithuania’s first woman president yesterday in an overwhelming victory. According to Agence France Presse, with 99.46 percent of votes counted, Grybauskaite held an overwhelming 69.05 percent of the vote.

Grybauskaite ran as an independent and is a former finance minister in Lithuania who currently serves as European Union budget commissioner.

Public anger about Lithuania’s current economic crisis drove Grybauskaite’s election. According to Voice of America, unemployment has reached 15 percent and the economy is expected to shrink by nearly 16 percent this year.

Grybauskaite told Voice of America “I think that the political elite devaluated themselves and people do not trust local politics any more….And my own experience and my own results in my career show people that I can be trusted.”

When Margaret Mensah-Williams walked down the steps after presiding over the Namibian parliament for the first time, male parliamentarians rushed to ask her how she became so good at chairing the house.

“I told them women are born leaders,” says Mensah, Vice Chairperson of the National Council.

A teacher by profession, Mensah was the first woman in the legislature to assume a decision-making role in the Southern African country’s Parliament when she was appointed deputy speaker.

Just a day after she was sworn in, Mensah presided over the male-dominated parliament without a glitch. The preparation was not easy though, and she didn’t get much guidance from her male colleagues.

“I didn’t even know I had to preside the following day because nobody told me,” she told IPS. “But luckily because of my emotional intelligence as a woman, I went to all the staff, greeted them, introduced myself and asked them the rules. That night I internalised the rules.”

Although she had previously only observed a speaker at work, the outspoken parliamentarian surpassed expectations on her first day as a chairperson.

“As I first moved up and went to take my chairwomanship seat, I could see the astonished faces of male parliamentarians,” says the member of the ruling party, SWAPO. “That day, every parliamentarian was asking me where I learned how to preside over parliament like that.”

Namibia’s legislature was almost completely male when Mensah was appointed Deputy Speaker in 1998. There were only two women in the legislature at the time.

The situation has greatly changed as the likes of Mensah have inspired more women to join politics. Today, this African country that only achieved independence in 1990 after a bush war of almost 25 years leads most of the developing and even the developed world in terms of numbers of women in parliament.

At the recent Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) assembly, held during the first week of April in Addis Ababa, Namibia was hailed as one of the seven African countries that has achieved more than 30 percent women representation in parliament.

Analysis carried out by the IPU shows that a record number of women now hold seats in parliaments across the world following elections that took place in 54 countries in 2008. On average, women hold 18.3 percent of the seats across all chambers of parliament.

This represents a significant increase in the number of women parliamentarians since 1995, when women held 11.3 percent of the seats.

In 1998, just six parliaments had reached the target set by the U.N. of a minimum of 30 percent women members; all of which were European. Today, the figure has grown four-fold and the distinction is no longer limited to European parliaments: the line up is diverse and includes post-conflict and developing states from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Africa continued to make strides in 2008. Rwanda reinforced its position at the top of the scoreboard by electing more than 56 percent female members to its lower house, improving on its previous record set in 2003 of nearly 49 percent women members. Angola elected more than 37 percent women in its first election since 1992.

According to the IPU, impressive Gains were also registered across Latin America: women took a 26.5 percent share of the seats in the 12 chambers that were renewed in 2008. Women hold 21.5 percent of all seats in the region, second only to the Nordic countries.

The consistent pace of progress in Europe was largely sustained in the 19 chambers that were re-elected in 2008 with women taking more than 21 percent of the seats on offer. Belarus, Spain and Macedonia elected more than 30 percent women members.

Up on the top of the IPU list next to Rwanda are Sweden (47 percent, Cuba (43.2 percent), Finland (41.5 percent) and the Netherlands (41.3 percent).

“I have been bringing more and more women’s issues up for debate since I joined parliament,” says Chantal D.M. Gill’ard, a lawmaker from the Dutch Labour Party.

“For instance, before I entered parliament, the issue of safe motherhood was not discussed in the Netherlands. It was the least known goal,” Gill’ard told IPS in Addis Ababa. “Today more organisations are focusing on that. And the issue is being discussed even in the Royal house.”

Mensah says women should be stronger in withstanding challenges. “I didn’t get full support of men at first but now they have changed,” observes Mensah. “When I became a deputy speaker, my predecessor was supposed to give me the keys of the office and vehicles. But he simply just kept it for a month.”

“These are challenges posed against women, but they have to be strong enough to move forward,” notes Mensah. “Women should struggle to break down old patterns and create new ones.”

Thuraya Judi Alwazir is one of few women judges sitting on the Palestinian Authority’s Judicial Authority. Alwazir speaks here to IPS about her experiences in a largely male-dominated environment, on the rights of women in regard to honour killings and domestic violence, and on the death penalty as applied in the West Bank.

Alwazir was born in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother and Palestinian father. She studied law in Jordan and then completed a master’s degree in law at Yale University in the U.S.

She worked as a lawyer in Jordan but moved to Gaza 12 years ago after marrying Jihad Alwazir, governor of the Palestinian Monetary Fund and son of the late Khilal Alwazir, or Abu Jihad. Abu Jihad was a founding member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He was assassinated by the Israelis in Tunisia in 1988.

She worked at first in Gaza on World Bank projects aimed at unifying the legal systems between Gaza and the West Bank. She also worked as a legal consultant and lawyer. In 2002 she was appointed a judge on the Palestinian Authority (PA) conciliation court.

IPS: What does your current position involve?

Thuraya Alwazir: I am part of a three-judge panel in the Ramallah (central West Bank) district who adjudicate various civil cases. We do not oversee criminal cases as these are separated and fall under a different jurisdiction.

I am also the head of the planning and project management unit of the Palestinian Judicial Authority, and in this capacity I handle all sorts of cases including conciliation, criminal, commercial and law enforcement.

IPS: Can you explain the breakdown within the PA and the current composition of the judiciary?

TA: The PA comprises three authorities; the executive, legislative and judicial. The Judicial Authority consists of 180 judges, 21 of whom are female. There are two female high court judges, one in Gaza and one in the West Bank. The remaining female judges are divided between the conciliation and district courts.

IPS: The PA Judicial Authority has actively been seeking to increase the number of female judges in the last few years, why is this?

TA: The decision to recruit more female judges comes in the wake of a backlog of unresolved cases due to the political turmoil that has taken place here. This includes the Israeli occupation, the second Intifadah (Palestinian uprising) and the Palestinian infighting between Hamas and Fatah when the judicial system was seriously compromised.

Now that the courts are operating again at full capacity, the backlog has also been exacerbated by a significant increase in the number of new cases being brought to us by a public more confident in the credibility of our judicial system.

However, many of the PA’s international donors have also pushed for stronger female participation in all walks of Palestinian administrative and governmental life, including the judiciary. To this end they have sponsored numerous programmes through various civil institutions aimed at empowering women and girls.

IPS: As a woman have you experienced prejudice from a predominantly patriarchal society, and do you think you’ve had to prove yourself more than a male judge?

TA: Yes, in some ways I do think it’s harder. Some sections of society are prone to judge female judges by how they look, (and doubt) whether they are up to the job, and if they have the necessary qualifications.

However, Palestine was the first Arabic society to appoint female judges during the seventies. Furthermore, as a consequence of the protracted political struggle of our people against the various occupations, Palestinian women have long stood alongside men in the struggle for freedom and independence.

Women have been forced though circumstance to take on all the traditional roles and responsibilities of men, with so many men being killed and imprisoned by the Israelis, so the concept of woman as equal is not something new.

Additionally, the Judicial Authority has a policy of gender equality, and many families are now focusing on educating their daughters as well as their sons. Of course where poverty is endemic, the males take precedence due to their perceived role as the traditional breadwinners.

IPS: The West Bank operates according to the Jordanian Penal Code, and Gaza according to the Egyptian Penal Code. This has meant that the punishment meted out to a fraction of the perpetrators arrested for honour killings and domestic violence is very light. Rape is not recognised as a crime in marriage, and there are no specific domestic violence laws. Are there any plans to change this system?

TA: A draft for a new penal code was put before the Legislative Council, which is responsible for implementing changes to the law, several years ago. However, the council, which comprised a mixture of Hamas and Fatah members, has ceased to function due to the infighting between the two groups.

The draft law alone is not sufficient, and more shelters need to be established and more legal aid for women provided. But this again is outside the Judicial Authority’s jurisdiction and needs to be pushed by civil society, women’s groups in particular, and then approved and implemented by the Legislative Council when it is once again functioning.

IPS: With the apparent inability of Hamas and Fatah to reconcile, what hope is there for meaningful changes to the judicial system in the short term?

TA: Until there is reconciliation, the Legislative Council will remain crippled. When Hamas took over Gaza in June 2006, although the PA’s judiciary there continued to operate, there was no integration of the penal and civil codes between the West Bank and Gaza.

There was also no cooperation between Hamas’s security forces and the PA judiciary, so the enforcement of civil judgments was impossible. Eventually Hamas appointed its own legal system in violation of the independent judiciary and its laws. The two judicial systems in the divided Palestinian territories now operate independently of each other.

IPS: International human rights organisations have expressed concern about the number of Palestinians receiving the death penalty. What is your stand on this?

TA: Actually the death penalty was abolished under an Israeli military order during the seventies when Israel controlled the West Bank’s legal system. The current civil and criminal courts of the PA still can’t implement the death penalty. The death sentences that were handed out here were by PA military courts.

We have a problem with this and want to limit the jurisdiction of the military courts and return the trial of civilians guilty of treason, and other offences warranting capital punishment, to the civilian courts. A draft bill to this effect is currently before PA President Mahmoud Abbas who controls the West Bank.

And actually we are discussing the return of the death penalty to the civil courts. This is consistent with our Islamic beliefs and this is also supported by a number of religious leaders. It is not the place of the international community to impose its value system on us.

IPS: Do you see yourself as a role model for the next generation of Palestinian women, and what do you think should be done to promote women in law in Palestine?

TA: I would hope that I could be a role model for the younger women of my generation. I think girls should be encouraged through special programmes initiated by the Judicial Council, which should also support and guide female lawyers.

Women’s rights groups have urged the establishment of a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission in Zimbabwe as part of bringing to justice people who committed human rights violations – including sexual abuse against women – during the run-up to a second-round presidential vote in June 2008.

Zimbabwe witnessed some of its worst-ever political violence after then-opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai failed to achieve the margin required to take power in a first round of balloting. Tsvangirai eventually pulled out of the June ballot, citing state–sponsored attacks against his supporters, leaving incumbent president Robert Mugabe as sole candidate.

The election was widely condemned, and a political stalemate was eventually resolved when rival parties signed a Global Political Agreement (GPA) establishing a government of national unity.

“Any transitional process will not be effective unless it addresses the issues raised by those affected. Attempts of national healing and reconciliation without (justice) provide a short-lived remedy to conflict,” said Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCoZ) chair Emilia Muchawa.

WCoZ also called on Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders to pressure the unity government of Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to uphold a regional protocol on gender.

SADC heads of state and government signed the protocol on gender and development in Johannesburg in 2008. The protocol represents a significant commitment to the empowerment of women, the elimination of discrimination and the achievement of gender equality and equity.

Muchawa was speaking at the launch in Johannesburg of a documentary on violence against women in Zimbabwe on May 13. The documentary, titled “Hear Us – Zimbabwean Women Affected by Political Violence Speak Out” was launched with an accompanying report titled, “Putting it Right: Addressing Human Rights Violations Against Zimbabwean Women“.

The film gives detailed accounts and footage of how women were beaten, tortured and raped during the violence that engulfed Zimbabwe before the June vote.

Women’s groups estimate that more than 2000 women may have been raped between May and June last year.

In one of the most painful moments captured in the documentary a woman identified only as Memory recounts how she was gang-raped by militia from Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party at torture camp in rural Zimbabwe.

“When I arrived at the base, they removed all my clothes and I was raped by three men, one after the other,” Memory says in the documentary. She added that after the rape she attempted to file a report with the police who however declined to accept her statement.

“We are not dealing with political violence cases. The time will come when we will deal with them,” Memory recollects one police officer telling her.

The documentary was produced by the WCoZ working in collaboration with the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU), a non-governmental organisation based in Harare working on providing specialist assistance in research and advocacy in the field of human rights, democracy and governance.

Women have been calling on parties to the inclusive government to institute a truth and reconciliation commission, TRC, similar to that set up in South Africa to expose apartheid-era crimes, to examine the violence before and after the president run-off.

“We urge the Zimbabwean government to incorporate all signed human rights instruments relating to women into domestic law; particularly the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. Also we urge the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to ensure the Zimbabwe government implements the GPA and the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development’,” said Kudakwashe Chitsike, a women rights activist with RAU.

Reached by phone in Harare for his response to the call for a truth and reconciliation commission, Zimbabwe Justice Minister and Zanu-PF chief negotiator Patrick Chinamasa told IPS, “In that regards we (unity government) have set-up an Organ of National Healing headed by three ministers from all parties, Minister John Nkomo (ZANU-PF), Minister Sekai Holland (MDC-T) and Minister Gibson Sibanda (MDC-M).

“These ministers are working on all issues related to Justice, Reconciliation and national healing. And it will be up them to see if such a commission is necessary or not. We will hear from them.”

Holland, the Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s office responsible for National Healing and Reconciliation told IPS, “We are going to do what the people of Zimbabwe want. They will tell us what they want us to do and we will do it. If they are demanding reconciliation commission that brings to trial individuals who committed human rights offenses we are going to set it up.”

WCoZ called on SADC, which brokered the GPA, to pressure the Harare government to implement the power-sharing agreement in full including clauses underpinning women’s rights.

“We urge the Zimbabwean government to adhere to the GPA particularly by; returning to the rule of law, bringing all the perpetrators of violence to book, ensure that there is no discrimination based on gender.”, Muchawa said.

The women’s coalition emphasises that regional governments should also lean on Harare to incorporate the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development into Zimbabwean law.

… but to talk about it might upset our new president warns Lindiwe Mazibuko*

The article by Jackie May (The Times, May 18 2009) shows why women remain so oppressed in our society. May implies that we should respect the taboos that prevent women from criticising the sexual examples set by male leaders — despite the fact that this behaviour establishes the social norms that underlie female subjugation.

If polite rules of debate prevent us from making this point, what points are worth making in the debate on how we liberate South African women? This debate should be driven by truth, not taboos.

Let us be clear about what some of the root causes of female oppression in our society are.

The belief still held by many men that unprotected sexual encounters with multiple partners is their right;

The failure of many men to take responsibility for the children who result from their behaviour in this regard;

The extent to which these sexual encounters drive the spread of HIV-Aids — and why it is women who carry the burden of this disease; and

The violence against women which results from failed relationships.

People with HIV-Aids are often told to speak openly about it. We break the stigma by breaking the silence. But clearly it is still taboo to talk about how it is spread. The only issue we debate is the right to free treatment — not the responsibility of every individual to stop the spread of HIV-Aids.

Commentators were critical of Thabo Mbeki’ s denial around the HIV-Aids crisis. But it seems that denial is resurfacing, this time because breaking the silence could imply criticism of President Jacob Zuma who, since his inauguration, seems to be walking on water.

How else do we explain the bizarre ironies of the past few days?

The first irony: a party whose leader has questionable credentials when it comes to gender issues, and which has never been led by a woman in all the 90 years of its existence (the ANC), has attacked the gender composition of a cabinet established by the only two major political parties in South Africa led by women (the DA and the ID).

The second irony: that a state entity, the Gender Commission, has launched a high-level campaign against the Western Cape provincial cabinet but has remained silent on the overtly threatening and sexist remarks of the ANC Youth League and the MK Veterans’ Association against the Western Cape premier.

The third irony: that the most vociferous attacks on the gender composition of the DA and ID provincial cabinet have been from Cosatu, which is almost entirely led by men . Indeed, many of its affiliates, such as the SA Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union, have almost all-women memberships but are nevertheless led by men.

As was the case in Cape Town when the DA took office in 2006, this assault by the ANC and its alliance partners will probably be the first of many more attempts to discredit, de-legitimise and undermine the new administration.

Be that as it may, we will not shy away from the question raised by the media as to why Zille’s new cabinet is made up of 10 men and led by one woman:

Of the five women elected on the DA ticket in Western Cape, (from a 22-member caucus), one became premier, another became chief whip (Alta Rossouw) and the other three became portfolio committee chairwomen (Jenny Hartnick, Cathleen Labuschagne and Anroux Marais).

During the DA’s candidate-selection process, most of the senior women leaders in the party’s Western Cape region decided to stand for the national instead of the provincial parliament.

Given the fact that the DA holds democratic election processes, and does not practise “cadre deployment”, it was not for any of the other leaders of the party to force our women candidates to stand for provincial parliament.

For those people and organisations that are genuinely interested in the challenges facing women in South Africa , the proof of the DA Cabinet should be in its performance.

This Cabinet should be judged both during and at the end of its term of office, not at the beginning. Judging people before giving them a chance to prove themselves is the exact definition of the word “prejudice”.

In Western Cape, the DA will address the real gender issues by improving access to opportunities for girls and women through better education and improved health care, and through policing and infrastructure investment.

We will not lose sight of the real gender issues in South Africa by getting bogged down in discussions about gender tokenism. In government, we can only deal with discrimination against women by getting the basics right, not through window-dressing.

This week’s furore is just the start of the ANC’s efforts to make this province “ungovernable” .

We will not allow this to distract us from the task at hand. In just over a week the premier will set out her plans for the year ahead in her state-of-the-province address, and we will move forward from there, no matter how much mud is flung in our direction.

* Lindiwe Mazibuko is the DA’s spokeswoman

See also:

Julius Malema’s comments on President Jacob Zuma’s rape accuser have contributed to the “culture of silence and shame” attached to being a victim of sexual violence – and are very likely to result in the under-reporting of rape cases. This is according to gender activist Lisa Vetten, a key witness in the upcoming Johannesburg Equality Court hearing on Malema’s controversial suggestions that Zuma’s rape accuser “enjoyed herself”.

Interview with Susana Chiarotti, coordinator of CEVI

Counting cases of machista or sexist violence separately shows that “what is happening is practically a genocide, and a hidden one at that,” says Susana Chiarotti, coordinator of the Committee of Experts on Violence (CEVI) which is following up on implementation of the Convention of Belém do Pará.

The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, adopted in the Brazilian city of Belém do Pará in 1994 by the 34 members of the Organisation of American States (OAS), defines all forms of gender-based violence as human rights abuses, and stipulates binding measures to eradicate it.

Chiarotti, an Argentine lawyer and long-time activist in the regional women’s rights movement, is also the coordinator of the non-governmental Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of Women’s Rights (CLADEM), which is active in 17 countries.

During a visit to Asunción, the coordinator of CEVI, which is part of the OAS but works independently, spoke with IPS about the progress achieved in recent years and of how much remains to be done to eliminate violence against women at all levels of society in Latin America.

IPS: How much progress has been made in Latin America toward the eradication of violence against women since the Convention was adopted?

SUSANA CHIAROTTI: If we compare the situation with how things were 30 years ago, enormous strides have been made. To have a Convention and a follow-up mechanism, to begin to have integrated laws on gender violence and laws on domestic violence, is something.

From this perspective, the achievements are extremely significant, because cultural change is very slow and in 30 years we have achieved a great deal.

But now we have to make the leap to the second generation of laws on violence, covering every area. We also have to introduce new study modules in law schools that are more in line with reality today. These would provide effective tools and better-trained, more aware people who would not behave like cave-dwellers, as they still do in many arenas.

IPS: The Convention is seen above all as an instrument to combat physical, psychological or sexual violence against women in the family or in couple relationships. But what is its real scope?

SC: The Convention says that states are obliged to prevent, punish and eradicate violence against women in the domestic, community and state spheres. So by signing Belém do Pará, the states committed themselves to take action in these other two areas as well.

When the Committee of Experts started its work, we had to analyse violence against women with all of the governments and identify common problems within a very broad range.

We found there were four: the legal framework, access to justice, budgeting and statistics.

We also found that most countries had enacted laws that only applied to the domestic sphere, and did not have integrated laws including the community and the state, as the Convention requires.

So there is a legal vacuum in the field of protecting women. One of the few countries that has passed an integrated law is Brazil. Most countries have neutral laws that refer only to domestic violence, with no protection provided in other areas.

IPS: What does violence against women in the community and state spheres consist of?

SC: Violence in the community is very important because that is where we find media violence, perpetrated by the media when they reproduce discriminatory stereotypes, for instance, in advertising.

A very telling case involved Volkswagen in Brazil. A Volkswagen dealership in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, which also repaired cars damaged in crashes, ran a publicity campaign showing the face of a battered woman with the slogan: “Come and we will fix you up.”

When the Human Rights Association in that state and CLADEM protested to the dealership, a local journalist said: “These embittered feminists, who probably wear severe clothes and have moustaches and who have not known the glory of God, do not appreciate creativity and have no sense of humour.”

Volgswagen Brazil ignored the protest and the organisations took their complaint to the parent company in Germany, which immediately revoked its contract with the dealership and funded seminars with advertisers in order to dissuade them from making sexist ads or promoting violence against women.

This is what I mean by media violence. We have no tools to deal with it.

As for state violence, we must remember that in our countries democracy is in the process of being built, because we have come from dictatorships which left the seal of authoritarianism on many institutions, like the family, schools, hospitals, psychiatric facilities and prisons, where order or discipline are confused with authoritarianism.

We have to work to eradicate this sort of thing. For example, we have to work on obstetric violence, which is meted out to women who go to hospitals to give birth or for advice on sexual or reproductive health.

IPS: There are better and stiffer laws now in the region, but the figures on gender-based crimes are still alarming. What is needed for this situation to be overcome?

SC: Femicide (a term for misogynist or gender-motivated murders of women) has to be fought from several different angles, involving the security forces, the media and sociological studies. It doesn’t necessarily need a specific category of its own in the criminal code.

Some countries like Costa Rica and Guatemala have already got specific laws on femicide in place. Other countries can make progress on femicide prevention by not encouraging violence against women, by not excusing it by making exceptions for violent emotions or honour killings or so many other reasons. So measures can be taken for preventing femicides.

IPS: How important is it for gender-based crime to be tallied separately?

SC: This is a new and very important development. The observatories we are setting up throughout the region, to count how many women are killed by gender violence, are holding up a mirror to society.

Previously, they weren’t being counted, they were classified as crimes of passion and they were forgotten in time. Now they are being counted and we will be able to prove that what is happening is practically a genocide, and a hidden one at that.

If the same number of people were killed for belonging to a certain ethnic group or special group, for being black, Jewish or indigenous, people would react differently. But they are women, and unfortunately people are desensitised.

IPS: Are those in power, politicians and especially governments, doing their part?

SC: Governments maintain an appearance of political correctness, and most try to show that they are well aware of the problem. I don’t know how much of what they say they really feel in their hearts.

No doubt we’ll have to wait a while until we have officials who are more committed, aware and sincerely concerned. Then we will have serious policies that are well-supported and funded.

IPS: How do women, the victims of the sexist culture that is so embedded in the region, cope with the problem?

SC: Women are increasingly tougher and less tolerant of sexism and machismo. We are less inclined to collude with it and have greater solidarity with each other, although of course there are exceptions.

We can also model new roles for our daughters and granddaughters, provide models of women who are strong leaders. Thirty years ago there were hardly any women in the media, or female presidents or lawmakers.

Now we are portraying different models and creating our own genealogy. When men speak, they refer to a masculine genealogy. Now we women are validating ourselves and citing our own history.

See also: Pilot Project Helps Men Abandon Violence in Brazil

Afghan men are illegally collecting voter cards in the names of women, raising worries about fraud in the upcoming presidential election, the head of Afghanistan’s human rights commission said on Sunday.

In Logar province which borders Kabul, nearly three-quarters of those who registered as voters were women, a suspiciously high ratio, said Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“The men are just bringing the names of a woman and getting registration cards on their behalf and that is why I can say there is a possibility of fraud,” Samar told a news conference in the Afghan capital.

The Aug. 20 presidential election, in which incumbent Hamid Karzai looks set to be the strongest candidate, is seen as a litmus test of the success of nearly a decade of international intervention in Afghanistan.

A Taliban-linked insurgency is gaining strength across the south and east of the country. Thousands of additional U.S. troops are arriving this year to try and regain the upper hand as part of President Barack Obama’s new strategy for the region.

Suspiciously high levels of female registration, in areas where women are often reluctant to travel, has also been noted in Paktika, Paktia and Khost provinces, as well as across parts of the south, Samar said.

“The person registering should be there in person to take their card, and photos should be taken and fingerprints taken, and if that is not applied, it means that the officials who are in the registration site are corrupt,” she said.

Samar added she feared voters holding multiple cards might be able to cast a string of ballots before getting a finger marked with the indelible ink which is supposed to prevent fraud.

The U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide said the apparent corruption in handing out voter registration cards to men was a concern, but he hoped strong election standards would prevent anyone with a fake card from abusing it in the poll.

“Of course we are worried about the irregularities, but … there is still a possibility to correct much of this on polling day,” he told Reuters.

“Much more than last time our focus will be on what happens there at the polling station. We know that during the last election there was rather serious fraud at that level on polling day and immediately afterwards, and that is what the system we are trying to put in place now is intended to minimise.” (Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Sophie Hares)

See also:

After several years of progress, girls’ education in Afghanistan has been set back by recent attacks on schools that have frightened parents into keeping their daughters at home.

“To cover or not to cover?” – that is the question now gripping Islamist politicians in Kuwait.

It is a debate that has become increasingly heated in this Arab Gulf state since the parliamentary elections on May 16, which saw the country’s first ever female deputies elected. However, it is not a question that the women themselves want to get sidetracked by.

Two of the four women elected choose not to wear the traditional Islamic female headscarf.

In response, some Islamist parliamentarians have announced a boycott of the swearing-in ceremony in protest at such liberalism.

“So what, let them walk out. Even better if they don’t come back – they won’t be missed,” replies one Kuwaiti feminist.

Hessa Majed al-Shaheen, from the Union of Kuwaiti Womens’ Associations, is annoyed there is even a debate about the headscarf.

“Why are they wasting their time with such trivia?” she demands. Al-Shaheen herself is uncovered, citing the spring heat, and wears a white blouse over three-quarters-length trousers.

In the meeting room of the Women’s Union, her fellow feminists gather to discuss the results of the parliamentary elections, some of the dressed in head scarves and full-length black robes, others in more Western attire.

“We Kuwaitis believe in tolerance, so here there is no dress code,” says al-Shaheen. She does not directly criticize Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive and must wear full-length robes – but she does not need to, everyone knows what she means.

“I had hoped that this election might see a breakthrough, but to see four women elected really surprised me,” Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, reportedly said when he met the new intake of parliamentarians after their win.

The emir would have liked to have given women the vote earlier in Kuwait, but the entirely male parliament was for a long-time opposed to such a move.

That is why it took until 2005 to give women full suffrage, the right to both stand and vote in elections.

However, not all women used their votes in the subsequent 2006 and 2008 elections. Moreover, whilst the women who stood for election tended to be liberal, women tended to vote for more conservative candidates.

Thus the four elected females, all academics, have probably been elected thanks to the help of male votes.

“The four women are all outstanding,” says one Kuwaiti businessman. “Their success is a message from the street, that they want some calm in the parliament.”

He blames the past three years, which has seen a rapid succession of short-lived governments, as the main reason his country has started to lag behind other oil-rich Arab states in terms of industry and services.

Afaf Kabasard, another of the women sipping bitter coffee in the air-conditioned Women’s Union offices, is determined not to miss any of the new opportunities. She points to the Iraqi invasion of 1990, and the sufferings of the Kuwaiti people, for the strengthening of the role of women in both society and politics.

“Many women then joined the resistance,” she recounts, proudly telling of how her and her husband smuggled guns, grenades and money in their car at that time. “I was still quite skinny – because I could easily smuggle all the money under my burka,” she jokes, to knowing laughter from her female friends.

However, the Islamic headscarf does not come up for discussion. That topic is still too taboo. And many of the women who turn up for their education classes to learn the Koran are both elderly and veiled.

Instead, they hope that the new parliament in Kuwait City will discuss the issues most close to their hearts – the question of the nationality of children from binational marriages, for example, or the fate of several large industrial projects which have now been put on ice.

Meanwhile, one of the four female parliamentarians, Masuma al- Mubarak, has already declared her next goal – to become deputy president.


Kuwait has elected its first ever women MPs in a milestone for the politically and socially conservative societies of the Gulf.

Four of 16 female candidates standing for the 50-seat parliament won seats in Saturday’s vote, including leading activists for women’s rights and the woman who became the kingdom’s first minister four years ago.

Their gains and those of other liberal and independent candidates came at the expense of Sunni Islamist parties, who were expected to lose ground but suffered even greater losses than predicted.

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