Archive for June 7th, 2009

Domestic violence is common in Switzerland, its causes are complex and increased efforts are needed to prevent violent behaviour, experts say.

An extensive study into the reasons for such violence and possible measures against it calls for improved coordination among the authorities, further scientific research and political action.

Precise figures on violence in relationships are not available but surveys found that between ten to 20 per cent of adult women experience physical aggression.

“It is a widespread phenomenon,” said Patricia Schulz of the Federal Gender Equality Office at a news conference last month.

More reliable information is not expected before data from the cantonal police forces is published in a nationwide survey from next year onwards.

But specialists believe a considerable number of cases will never come to light.

Domestic violence is not limited to particular groups or levels of society, although the reported cases suggest that low income or poor living conditions can be among the factors involved.

“Violence is not due to a single cause. It is a multitude of factors,” said psychologist Marianne Schär Moser, who led the study. She warned against making hasty conclusions.

“Statistics show a greater prevalence of violence among foreign or bi-national couples, but it is wrong to assume that the nationality is a major factor.”

Schär added that the deeper causes of aggression are very difficult to identify.

“A difficult childhood or transitional periods in an relationship, such as a pregnancy, or a separation, or the social isolation of a couple seems to be linked to incidents of domestic violence. But they are not determining issues.”

She pointed out that alcohol or unemployment are risk factors and are sometimes used as an excuse to beat the partner.

The authors of the report highlight the progress made over the past ten years, notably by tightening legal standards and by training security forces.

Police forces have made great efforts to learn how to cope with cases of domestic violence, although among other professions the level of competence varies from region to region, the study found.

“Doctors could play a very important role in prevention and early diagnosis of cases of violence,” said Schulz.

She also called for increased awareness of domestic violence among judges in Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

For her part, Schär said she was surprised to see how many counselling services there are across the country, but how little they have so far been cooperating with each other.

“We hope that this report can help all parties involved in the different cantons to learn from each other,” she said.

Schär is convinced that further efforts are necessary, particularly in the field of prevention – for instance in schools.

She urged the authorities to maintain the level of assistance for both victims and perpetrators and called for more scientific research on the subject.

“We also need a study about violence of women against men and violent behaviour among homosexual couples,” Schär said.

Schulz added that domestic violence is no longer such a taboo as it was a decade ago, not least because since 2003 it has been classed as a criminal offence. This means the public prosecutor can institute proceedings, rather than depending on the victim’s willingness to take action.

“It is never easy for a victim of domestic violence to come forward, but it has been made a little bit easier,” she said.

Princess Adela bint Abdullah has lent her support and attention to the second national experts’ meeting on abuse against women and children held last month.

Princess Adela said that the meeting is a continuation of last year’s deliberations and that the determination to implement its recommendations and reduce the number of abuse victims is greater than ever.

The two-day meeting, entitled “Updates in Fighting Domestic Violence in Saudi Arabia,” consists of four sessions: A review of last year’s recommendations with an evaluation of how far these recommendations were accomplished and brought into action; a closed workshop identifying five main obstacles standing in the way of fighting domestic violence; a forum suggesting solutions to fighting domestic violence; and a session, which is open to the media, for offering new recommendations.

“I give acknowledgement to last year’s experts meeting which encouraged the Ministry of Social Affairs to carry out research for a new system to protect women and children against abuse and violence,” she said. “In order to fight violence, certain things should be taken into account like defining neglect and abuse. Reporting violence and abuse should be compulsory and there should be a witness protection program. All that of course has to be done with full regard and consideration for confidentiality,” she added.

Princess Adela said that to fight violence in the Kingdom, people have to cooperate and collaborate. “We need to get governorates, the Ministry of Social Affairs and social care houses involved in such meetings and missions to ensure we move toward implementing and systemizing rules and recommendations for victims,” she added.

Dr. Maha Al-Munief, representing the National Family Safety Program (NFSP), said yesterday’s meeting discussed what has been successfully accomplished from the long list of last year’s recommendations.

“Last year’s meeting was a great success. However, not all recommendations were implemented,” Dr. Al-Munief said. “In this year’s meeting, we will try to overcome this problem by finding ways to implement recommendations and clearly identifying the main five obstacles for fighting domestic violence,” she added.

“The Ministry of Justice will be a significant partner of this year’s mission. The role of the ministry to fight violence and abuse will be very crucial in coming days.”

Dr. Mohammed Al-Eissa, minister of justice, said rates of divorce and domestic abuse in the Kingdom are rising according to court figures. He, however, said he does not believe domestic violence has become a phenomenon.

“The nature of a conservative society makes violence and abuse victims less visible than other societies. I admit that it is a problem but it is not a dilemma,” he said. “With enough education, the raising of awareness and mediating between couples in conflict, the number of victims will definitely be reduced.”

He also pointed out that there are organizations mediating to help partners get over their disagreements.

During his speech, he stressed the role of women in mediating in offices and courts, something that filled the room with applause. “Women are not only part of society, they are an important part of the family. Therefore, their role in mediating is highly significant,” he said.

During the first session, which was open to the press and the media, participants raised questions about the definition of domestic abuse and violence.

While discussing last year’s meeting, the NFSP declared that only nine percent of recommendations were completely implemented, nine percent were partially implemented, 59 percent were limited in their implementation, and 23 percent were not implemented at all. One of the most important demands raised by experts was the calling of a fatwa that classifies domestic violence and abuse as a crime.

See also: Saudi judge expresses approval of domestic violence

Assistant Police Commissioner Clinton Conway said domestic violence remains a front burner issue at all divisions and the force is working to put more measures in place to deal with it.

Conway, who is also the Guyana Police Force’s (GPF) training officer at the Felix Austin Police College said several officers had been trained locally and overseas to deal with this type of crime. He told the Government Information Agency (GINA) that since the start of the year 498 ranks including 145 recruits have been trained to handle such cases and station officers who would be the first responders, are also being trained. GINA said private rooms are also being built at stations to encourage victims to report this type of crime.

At the same time, Conway said the GPF is facing a problem in convincing victims to follow through with reports. He said many of them refuse to provide the evidence needed to take the alleged to perpetrator to court. Conway said too if victims refuse to pursue the matter there is not much the police can do. “It might start with a small assault and later on will increase; it may end up in murder or other serious offences. We feel that if we deal with the minor matters there won’t be opportunity for the major ones [to occur]” he said.

The assistant commissioner said it was also important for communities to face the issue. He said churches and other stakeholders can have tremendous influence in helping to curb minor incidents by reporting them, thereby preventing an escalation of the crime. Conway urged all persons in communities to report any crime they might be aware of.

According to GINA Conway also acknowledged that reports against policemen and women might not always have been handled effectively and this issue is being addressed. He also urged that persons who might be dissatisfied with the response they receive to make a report to a higher authority including divisional commanders, the Office of Professional Responsibility or the Police Complaints Authority.

Police urged to show more empathy

As many as half of women who have moved from Thailand to Finland are believed to be living “underground”, beyond the reach of social safety nets, according to a fresh report on how Thai women have adapted to Finnish reality.

A large proportion of the 800-1200 Thai women living in Finland are apparently pleased with their lives as housewives in this country. However, hundreds of them are either living at the mercy of violent husbands, or are employed as sex workers in “massage parlours”.

According to the report, one in ten of the women do not have a fixed place of residence, and some do not even have a valid residence permit.

Minister of the Interior Anne Holmlund (Nat. Coalition Party) requested a report on what might be done to improve the lot of Thai women in Finland after a furore two years ago over revelations that Thai massage parlours used as fronts for prostitution.

“We still do not know how many are genuinely marginalised”, admits Tiina Pesonen, the writer of the report.

Foreigners who come to Finland through marriage do not have access to official integration services, and sometimes their husbands deliberately try to prevent their foreign wives from adapting to their new environment, the ministry’s report says.

Domestic violence in Thai-Finnish families is commonplace, the report finds. It is also one reason why many Thai women end in the sex trade.

The women are afraid to file for divorce because they fear that they will lose their residence permits. Consequently, they often prefer to go underground, especially if they have children. In a divorce, the children usually stay with the husbands.

The women are usually unaware that even after a separation, they can get a new residence permit if children are involved, or if there are other important humanitarian reasons.

Police also have differing views on the obligations that officials have in helping those in trouble.

Helsingin Sanomat has learned that even many high-ranking police officials believe that once the reason for applying for the permit disappears, the permit itself is nullified.

The report suggests that if police were to act more diligently to help victims of domestic violence to get assistance, and to grant new residence permits, then the women might not feel that they need to go into commercial sex.

Minority Ombudsman Johanna Suurpää proposed to the police already last autumn that there should be more uniform standards for granting residence permits, and that more consideration should be given to the humanitarian aspects of each situation, within the framework of the law.

The Police Department of the Ministry of the Interior has been urged to instruct local police dealing with permit issues on procedures, but nothing has happened.

Last week, acting permit administration chief Minna Gråsten said that local police will be given instructions by the end of May. Helsingin Sanomat has repeatedly asked the Interior Ministry’s Police Department what the police have done to help Thai women who are in a vulnerable position.

Gråsten admits that the police should have more sensitivity to recognise the situations of those who have become victims of domestic violence.

Social worker Miira Hartikainen, who works at a women’s shelter, and who has written a study on domestic violence suffered by Thai women, confirms that violence is commonplace in Thai-Finnish marriages.

Finnish spouses do not always understand that their wives are expected to send money to the families back at home in Thailand. Finnish men do not always understand that a marriage with a foreigner is seen as a joint project by the wife and her family.

Remittances from abroad are seen as one way to secure a parents’ old age in Thailand. Usually the money is used to build a house with enough space for the whole family.

Sometimes women who are married end up as sex workers, either secretly, or sometimes with their Finnish husbands’ knowledge.

Vanitsi Tirkkonen, a Thai project worker for the Monika organisation, which helps women of different nationalities in Finland, tries to help her compatriots. She says that none of the women whom she has met actually want to work in massage parlours. They find that sex work pushes them further away from mainstream society.

Minna Huovinen, who has worked with Thai women at the Pro-tukipiste, which promotes the civil and human rights of sex workers, says that women who come to the organisation for help often have their lives in a mess. Sometimes they have been pushed outside their own communities and really feel alone.

(google translation of an article in Le Monde)

The documentary by Lorella Zanardo and Mark Malfa Chindemi shocks the Italian public

How are the Italian women of today? What are their peculiarities? What are their needs? These are not easy questions to answer, especially if one refers to the questionable model conveyed by television and the Italian culture.

Talk shows, reality and advertising today provide an image of femininity that defined as “shocking” would be only a pale euphemism: the female body is presented as a mere object of desire of men and women reduced to a simple “frame”, decorative presence in a universe seems not to give any figures, only ridicule and humiliate her mercilessly.

This set the basis for the documentary “The body of women”, screened on Thursday 28 May at the House of Culture in Milan. Achieved only at the beginning of this year, the video has already received a huge visibility and widespread consensus, thanks to web publishing and the ‘simple’ mouth.

Through a series of sequences, taken from television broadcasts, the authors Lorella Zanardo and Mark Malfa Chindemi, have produced a sharp deterioration in the reflection on national television and on the exploitation and the showing of the female body that seems to spread, now without brakes on the networks locally. Perfect bodies at all costs, sinuses and lips modified by cosmetic surgery, the pursuit of an ideal of perpetual youth, which makes women’s grotesque faces out of time and devoid of any uniqueness.

Accompanied by the voice of the Lorella Zanardo, alternating between the personal dismay and indignation at the quotes from famous authors such as Pasolini and Galimberti, the documentary strikes the viewer as “a bucket of ice water” as required to state ‘s Head of Culture Daniela Benelli, who spoke at the screening.

The evening, organized by Arcaduemila, hosted more than the already mentioned Benelli Alderman, the author Lorella Zanardo, director Rai Egidio Bertazzoni, Gabriella Gilli, Professor of Psychology at the Catholic University of Milan and Anna Di Dato, psychoanalyst of VIOLA which have expanded during the debate that followed, the insights provided by the documentary, reflecting on his unexpected success, a clear symptom of the emergence of a common discomfort.

And it is perhaps precisely this purpose and the merit of “The body of women.” The documentary is due to the frenetic editing by Cesare Cantù, surely makes it clear that every day there instead flows imperceptibly before our eyes, launching an appeal due to a growing awareness by all Italians.

To watch the video:
* The Body of Women – “the dictatorship of the perfect body” – with English subtitles
* Original video – Italian –

Web site began hosting a feature on the website listing and mocking conservative women they’d like to “hate-****.” And at least one supposedly liberal blog picked up on it as a “lighter side of politics” entrant because ha ha, what could be funnier. Playboy has since taken the relevant posts down (you can read them here though the site is very slow to load probably due to high traffic), and Politico walked back its apparent endorsement.

More detailed accounts here (link is to a conservative site where the appended comments are best avoided ); and at Jezebel which recaps the disgusting things written about particular women . Another conservative blog offers this.

A lot of observers are expressing shock that Playboy would publish something like that – why they are surprised I have no idea.

In the past 30 years, porn industry has grown into a $100-billion business

Few people understood right away that the June 1978 issue of Hustler magazine was an historic moment in the fight for sexual equality in North America.

The cover – showing a woman’s buttocks and legs sticking up from a meat grinder, with ground meat on a plate beneath the machine – was Hustler publisher and self-anointed free-speech champion Larry Flynt’s answer to feminist criticism.

“We will no longer hang women up like pieces of meat,” he quoted himself on the cover. In case anyone missed the sarcasm, the issue was stamped “LAST ALL MEAT ISSUE.”

That cover mobilized the women’s movement to fight against pornography like nothing else, said Richard Poulin in an interview this week. Poulin, a professor of sociology at the University of Ottawa, will speak today in Montreal, part of a conference on Youth, Media, and Sexualization organized by the Women’s Y.

Unfortunately for society, it was a battle the women’s movement lost, Poulin said, in part because feminists themselves were divided, with some arguing that it was a question of free expression and sexual liberation.

“This was a great failure for the women’s movement, for their struggle for equality,” said Poulin. Pornography today permeates society. It is available on television screens and in magazines. It is available to anyone of any age on the Internet.

“What has happened in the last 30 years is nothing less than a transformation of our social environment, of our mores,” said Poulin. “We don’t know yet what the consequences will be.”

It’s already clear, however, that youngsters are becoming sexualized much earlier in life. Worryingly, sexual assaults are now committed by younger assailants against younger victims. A few years ago, said Poulin, the average age among young offenders was 16 or 17. Today, it’s down to 14 or 15.

Young Canadians are also consuming pornography earlier. In a survey Poulin led last year among University of Ottawa students, he found that the average age at which they first looked at pornography was 13. Among those whose parents kept pornography in the home, the age was lower, 101/2.

Research shows that pornography leads to the normalization of what should be abnormal attractions. Poulin cited a survey showing that one in five men aged 22 or 23 admitted being sexually attracted to 13-year-old girls. “This is not a trivial trend,” he said.

Today, pornography is a $100-billion-a-year global industry. Child-pornography, sex tourism and human trafficking are fast-growing companion segments.

If pornography was hard to combat 30 years ago, it’s much harder today. Poulin defines pornography as an industry based on promoting the sexual subordination of one group of people to another. He said the same techniques are used in pornography as in prisons like Abu Ghraib: It is, he explained, a process of “inferiorization,” whereby being stripped naked is part of being made to feel inferior.

Poulin is not optimistic that pornography or its effects can be stopped. He said, however, there have been recent efforts to restart a much-needed social debate.

Rachel Chagnon, professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, who spoke at the YWCA conference “Youth, Media and Sexualization”, will be part of that effort. For the past year, Chagnon has been looking at the question of how to put an end to sexual stereotyping in the mass media.

Although existing regulatory bodies are in theory able to order offensive stereotypes off the airwaves or out of printed media, Chagnon said she was surprised to find out that regulatory bodies generally define “offensive” as pornographic only.

“Yet if we take for granted that sexual equality and non-discrimination is a founding principle of our society, we should be looking at the media to see if they perpetuate discrimination and stereotypes and trying to put a stop to that.”

Chagnon has led a team that studied rulings between 1992 and 2008 by regulatory bodies, covering TV and radio shows and advertising.

Advertisers are much faster than broadcasters to react to complaints about sexist or discriminatory material, Chagnon said.

But in an important way, most people just don’t get the idea that stereotypes are harmful, said Chagnon. “They think if both men and women are shown in stereotypical ways in the same ad, it’s OK.

“But if we as a society want to get rid of discrimination,” said Chagnon, “we have to stop leaning on stereotypes.”

Careful to avoid being branded as a censor, the Department of Public Works and Highways is seeking allies, particularly women’s groups, to bolster its fight against suggestive commercial displays.

Earlier vowing to tear down billboards that showed models in skimpy attires, Undersecretary Rafael Yabut said the condemned structures had violated the national building code as well.

He said Task Force Baklas (dismantle) under him, would need perspective since determining something indecent or immoral was beyond the agency’s ken.

“Being in the field of infrastructure, we want to be guided by these women’s organizations because they know best issues that are detrimental to their interest, so we are going to sit down with them.”

Lined up for consultation are Asian Women’s Human Rights Council, Development Institute for Women in Asia Pacific, Institute of Women’s Studies, National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, Third World Movement Against Exploitation of Women, University Center for Women’s Studies, and Women’s Studies and Resource Center.

The motley group variously examines issues on sex discrimination and stereotyping, education of the public on women’s rights among other gender controversies.

“We would like to know what they say about women or men being projected as sex objects on billboards,” said Yabut.

Due to intermittent rain, the task force cancelled the scheduled dismantling of at least 17 commercial displays found not only with code violations but also containing “indecent” material.

“We welcome the bad weather, which delayed our dismantling operations because it gives us more time to seek the wisdom of women’s organizations,” said Yabut.

He said more support is expected out of consultations with the religious sector led by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and the Philippine Independent Catholic Church to bolster its campaign against illegal billboards.

Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. last year was upheld by the Court of Appeals in a case against Astro Advertising on regulating “indecent and immoral” materials.

Outdoor advertisers and suppliers have time and again threatened to sue the department on its power to “decide on advertising content.”

The sector had questioned Ebdane’s power to demolish billboards after Malacañang ordered a nationwide campaign in the aftermath of killer Typhoon Milenyo in 2006.

Many prominent women have condemned several media outlets for publishing intimate photos of a female politician without her consent.

Many people are said to be able to identify the politician even though the published photos conceal her eyes and those of her man.

Assoc Prof Sodsri Phao-inchan, the dean of Chiang Mai University’s Mass Communications Faculty, said yesterday: “I can’t accept such news reports. Whether the person in the photos is a celebrity or an ordinary woman, the media should have never published them.

“By publishing the photos and reporting such a story, the media shows they lack ethics,” the famous academic said.

Sodsri said the media should dedicate their attention to economic and social problems. “There are many better ways to investigate politicians,” she said.

Sodsri called on the Thai Journalists Association and other media professional groups to help stop such news reports, which she described as “a serious violation of media ethics”.

Former senator Tuenjai Deetes, who has long fought for women’s rights, said the story and photos published about the female politician hurt both her human dignity and rights.

“This is a form of violence against women. She’s hurt emotionally,” Tuenjai said.

The former senator suggested the female politician should defend her rights by suing the offending media and those involved.

“She can file defamation suits. She can also lodge a complaint under the Protection of Victims of Violence Act.”

Tuenjai said political and women’s rights groups should also discuss ways on how to protect female politicians.

“When women climb to the top, some people will want to hurt these women,” she said.

Its president Dr Rajni Chand believes that not enough information is being provided to women in our communities.

Dr Chand says that not many academic women were actively involved in non government organisations and there was a need for it to happen.

WINET-Fiji liaises with other organisations and women’s groups to fill in the vacuum by networking and providing information and skills.

“Information women in Fiji need to know more about their health, wealth, well-being, rights and the environment.

“WINET-Fiji conducts workshops such as the suicide prevention and awareness workshop in Suva in March for the Ministry of Health. We contacted women’s organisations to provide us with at least two members and invited resource persons,” said Dr Chand.

WINET-Fiji started in 2001 to network and disseminate information to women. Members are from all walks of life.

“I found that members of the public or small women’s groups want to be trained but do not know who to contact or how to obtain information,” said Dr Chand.

WINET-Fiji will continue with its mission to disseminate information to one and all especially women.

India’s list of top women politicians grew last week after the country’s Parliament elected Meira Kumar as the speaker of its powerful lower house.

Kumar, a former career diplomat, will now be in the august company of Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful politician and leader of the ruling Congress party; Pratibha Patil, India’s President; Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state; and Sheila Dixit, chief minister of the state of Delhi which houses the national capital.

“What we are seeing is better acceptability of women in top political situations,” said Ranjana Kumari, president of Women Power Connect, an influential grouping of some 700 women’s organisations and individuals.

Kumari told IPS that the election of Kumar as speaker of the Lok Sabha – the law-making lower house of Parliament – is crucial at a time when serious social issues concerning women such as female foeticide, domestic violence and dowry deaths dogged the country.

“Most importantly,” Kumari said, “the women’s bill [to reserve 33 percent of seats in Parliament and state assemblies for women] which has been hanging since 1997, thanks to opposition mounted by male legislators, now has a chance of being passed.”

The women’s bill was introduced into the Rajya Sabha – upper house – last year but only after women members threw a protective chain around the law minister to stop filibustering male legislators, mostly from regional parties, from interrupting him.

Kumari said that until the bill was passed women were likely to be elevated to top political jobs because of family connections or for their ornamental value. “Even the appointment of Meira Kumar as speaker has clear political value.”

In 1993, a Congress party government legislated to reserve 33 percent of seats in local bodies for women empowering at least a million women.

Apart from further improving the Congress party’s image as a party that supports women’s rights, the fact that Kumar happens to be dalit [people at the lowermost rung of the caste ladder] is seen by many as having value in terms of winning over a sizeable bank of votes. Dalits number 160 million of India’s billion plus population.

Caste and gender arithmetic worked in favour of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition in the general elections that ended May 16 – with the party dramatically improving its own strength in the Lok Sabha.

To be fair to Kumar – as five-time member of parliament, former career diplomat, former minister and someone with legal training – she was very well-qualified for the job.

Kumar is one of only 59 female legislators elected to the 543-seat lower house of parliament, the major parties having shied away from fielding too many women candidates. “This trend can be reversed only by implementing quotas for women,” said Kumari.

Sanjay Kumar, a well-known psephologist and fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said that women increasingly occupying top political positions while being considered to have low ‘winnability’ in elections is one of the many paradoxes of India’s political system. “Political parties need to change their mindsets more than bringing in a quota system.”

“For the first time a woman member has been elected speaker, and that too a woman from the dalit community,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in parliament soon after Kumar was formally installed as speaker. “In electing you… we members of parliament pay tribute to the women of our country and the great contribution that they have made,” Singh said.

Singh has included nine dalits and nine women in his council of ministers, with several of them holding important portfolios. Kumar was appointed water resources minister but resigned the job to occupy the speaker’s chair.

“It would be my endeavour that I am completely impartial in my conduct and I will give opportunity to all the members to express their views. There should be healthy, meaningful debate in the house,” Kumar said.

In Kumar’s own view her election to the prized post was an indication of a “genuine intention to make the position of women stronger in India.”

As for the women’s bill she said she hopes that “all parties would arrive at a consensus” to get the long-pending legislation through.

Kumar said the fact that the current Lok Sabha has the highest number of women legislators so far “highlights the fact that the Indian woman cannot wait any longer to set herself free from the bondages of the society and seek equal share on the path of development.”

Even as U.N. peacekeeping operations in the world’s battle zones continue to expand, women soldiers, police and civilian support staff remain a small minority – something that sorely needs to change, U.N. officials say.

Today, there are more than 113,000 peacekeepers, including 90,000 military and police personnel, serving in 18 U.N. operations in four continents.

But women make up only eight percent of the U.N. police force and about two percent of the soldiers provided by member states. The ratio of women deployed as civilians in peacekeeping operations is higher, at 30 percent, but still not equally representative.

“Women bring a softer face to U.N. peacekeeping missions, one that is not about war fighting but about peacekeeping,” Lt. Col. Carmen Estrella, special assistant to the U.N. deputy military advisor, told IPS. “We help women of these nations to understand and see that they have a voice and can be part of the peacekeeping process themselves, and that is what the U.N. is trying to promote.”

“I’ve been in the army for 21 years, and I know women can do anything men can,” she added.

As the U.N. struggles to fill more police and military positions with women, one success story has been India’s 125-member contingent in Liberia, the first all-female U.N. force, which spent six months training Liberian police in 2007.

“When you really embed in the concept of peacekeeping and its additional challenges, rebuilding the basic building blocks of the development of a society, the role of women in that society becomes critical, particularly when you are talking about post conflict when many men have died,” Susana Malcorra, undersecretary-general of field support, told journalists last week on the occasion of the International Day of U.N. Peacekeepers.

“The leadership women play may make the difference between making or breaking it. So for us to mirror that challenge with our own staff is very important,” she added.

Last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged more member states to contribute female personnel to peacekeeping operations.

“By including female police among our ranks, we foster a safe environment for victims to get the help they need and deserve. And by enabling victims to feel secure enough to come forward and press charges against perpetrators, we fight the culture of impunity that has prevailed for too long,” Ban said.

A record high of 132 peacekeepers were killed in 2008, 10 of them women. On May 29, Ban awarded the Dag Hammarskjöld medal to 48 countries as a symbol for the “ultimate sacrifice one can make”.

The largest troop contributors to the U.N. peacekeeping force are concentrated in a small set of member states including Pakistan (10,626), Bangladesh (9,220), India (8,617), Nigeria (5,792) and Nepal (3,856).

The total debt by member states to the United Nations for peacekeeping operations has reached a record of 1.8 billion dollars, of which the United States maintains the largest outstanding balance with 790 million dollars.

The U.S. is followed by Japan (266 million dollars), Ukraine (138 million dollars), and Britain (104 million dollars), described as the five major defaulters.

Under-Secretary General for Management Angela Kane told journalists, “The Secretary-General and all of us recognise of course that the current global financial crisis may have affected this contributory pattern. And I think we all know that the financial health of the organization depends on member states, and that includes the main contributors, and that means they must meet their payments on full and on time.”

The proposed budget of 8.2 billion dollars for peacekeeping operations for the period Jul. 1, 2009 to 30 Jun. 30, 2010 represents an increase of 16.8 percent since the budget of 7.03 billion dollars which will expire on Jun. 30, 2009.

Czech Republic delegate Ivana Krahulcová, speaking on behalf of the European Union, suggested synthesising missions in neighbouring regions to be more cost effective and overcome the “continuous deficiencies in effective management.”

As of Apr. 30, the U.N. owed a total of 919 million dollars to 75 troop- and police-contributing countries. Its greatest debt is to Pakistan (120 million dollars), followed by India (104 million dollars), Bangladesh (102 million dollars), Egypt (40 million dollars), Jordan (33 million dollars), and 457 million dollars to 68 other member states.

Women in Afghanistan are routinely denied basic human rights, including education, healthcare, freedom from violence, and freedom of movement. Afghan women who fight to change this reality are attacked and even assassinated by ultra-conservatives.

Meanwhile, US airstrikes that kill civilians further endanger Afghan women and their families. They also increase the power of the Taliban and other reactionary forces as more Afghans turn to them for protection from the United States.

Each woman who is targeted and killed is meant to serve as a warning to any woman who would dare to stand up for her rights. Yet Afghan women continue to do just that. MADRE is supporting their courageous struggle through our Afghan Women’s Survival Fund.

Below, we profile a few of the women who have been killed or threatened for daring to demand their rights.

Sitara Achakzai spent the years of Taliban rule in Germany and returned to Afghanistan in 2004 to join women working to promote their human rights and struggling to secure peace. She became a member of Kandahar’s provincial council, using that position to advocate for women’s rights.

For International Women’s Day on March 8, 2009, she played a major role in organizing a national sit-in of more than 11,000 women in seven Afghan provinces. They were joined in this effort by women across the globe, who wore blue scarves in solidarity with the call for peace with justice.

On April 12, 2009, Sitara was gunned down in broad daylight in front of her home. As she stepped out of her car, four men on motorcycles drove by and opened fire. A Taliban spokesperson soon claimed responsibility. Just two weeks before, she had survived a suicide bomb attack on the provincial council building that left 13 people dead.

Safia Amajan fought for women’s rights in Afghanistan for decades and served as the head of the women’s department in Kandahar’s city government. She began her career as a teacher at girls’ schools. Her popularity as a teacher led people to refer to her as “Amajan” or “dear aunt,” a name that stuck to her.

She opened six schools in Kandahar, training over 1,000 women. Her fight to ensure the right of girls to attend school made her a target of the Taliban.

On September 25, 2006, Safia was gunned down while leaving her home by two men on motorcycles. A Taliban spokesperson later announced that she had been “executed.” Malalai Kakar, a woman who would later lose her life in much the same way, investigated her murder and said, “She was this wonderful person we heard about growing up in Kandahar. I made a point of meeting her and I took guidance from her.”

Malalai Kakar was Afghanistan’s most prominent policewoman, serving as the head of Kandahar’s department for crimes against women. She was the first woman to attend and graduate from the Kandahar Police Academy.

She had joined the police force in 1982, following her father and brothers. Malalai knew that her high profile made her a target. She survived multiple assassination attempts, once emerging from a shoot-out with three assassins. In reference to threatening letters regularly pinned to her front door at night, she said, “The notes say things like ‘Quit the force, or else.’ Of course, I won’t.”

On September 28, 2008, as Malalai left her home for work, she was shot in her car and died instantly. Her teenaged son was injured in the attack. After her death, a Taliban spokesperson announced, “We killed Malalai Kakar. She was our target, and we successfully eliminated our target.”

Shaima Rezayee became a pop culture icon for Afghan youth, as the host of “Hop,” a music show on a private television network. Her appearances on the show, often wearing make-up and without a burqa, drew the condemnation of conservatives.

When questioned by a journalist, Shaima warned, “Things are not getting better. We made some gains, but there are a lot of people who want to take it all back. They are not even the Taliban, they are here in Kabul. … The bad days are coming back, we’ll have to go into exile again.”

On May 18, 2005, Shaima was shot and killed in her home.

Zarghuna Kakar (no relation to Malalai Kakar), a member of the provincial council in Kandahar, has repeatedly requested additional security from the government, knowing that being a woman politician puts her life at risk. She turned to Afghan President Karzai’s brother for support, and she reports that he dismissed her saying that she “should have thought about what may happen before [she] stood for election.” Zarghuna was with her family in a market when they were attacked, and her husband was killed. She has now fled her home and is in hiding.

Suraya Pakzad founded the Voice of Women Organization in 1988, secretly teaching Afghan women to read and providing shelter from domestic violence. The organization emerged from the underground with the end of the Taliban regime, but today she warns of the resurgence of those forces.

Her own life has been threatened because of her work, and she worries for her safety everyday. In an interview, Suraya said, “I change routes to go to the office. I cannot share my schedule even with my friends, with my staff and even sometimes I’m not secure using the phone.”

Jamilla Mujahid Barzai, a member of the police force in Kandahar, was a colleague of Malalai Kakar. She decided to remain in Kandahar to continue her assassinated boss’s work. She remembers having witnessed a woman summarily executed by the Taliban in a soccer stadium, and these attacks on women have stiffened her resolve. She explains, “It is most important that now women try to get to positions of power to stop things like that happening again. It is dangerous. But we cannot go back to those days again.”

When Uruguay returned to democracy in 1985, “a political corset was put on women,” said a member of the opposition Colorado Party.

In the first parliament to emerge from the 1984 elections that put an end to the 1973-1985 dictatorship, “there was not a single woman lawmaker,” said Glenda Rondán, a city councilor for Montevideo and former member of the lower house of parliament, at a breakfast held this week for women politicians by the Foreign Press Association in Uruguay (APEU).

The democratic state “was born crippled in that respect,” because women “did a great deal to bring about the return to democracy,” she said.

Twenty-four years later, Uruguay is in 91st place on a list of 134 countries drawn up by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, ranked according to women’s participation in the legislative branch.

With four women in the Senate and 11 women members of the lower house among a combined total of 130 parliamentary seats, 11.5 percent of Uruguayan lawmakers are women, considerably lower than the 21.5 percent average for the Americas and the world average of 18.4 percent.

Few as they are, these women lawmakers have just foiled another attempt to limit women’s participation, this time by the Electoral Court, in charge of defining the regulations for the “quota law” that will govern the internal party elections to be held on Jun. 28.

The quota law aimed at equitable gender participation in elected national and provincial bodies and in the leadership of political parties, approved in late March and promulgated Apr. 3, stipulates that one out of every three candidates nominated for these posts must be of a different sex than the other two.

Candidate lists must include persons of both genders all the way down the list, the law states.

Uruguay’s parliamentary electoral system is party-list proportional representation: political parties present a list of nominees in order of preference, who are elected to parliament in proportion to the votes obtained by the parties. Each permanent candidate has one or more alternates.

According to the rules approved by a majority of the Electoral Court, the groups of three candidates could include both permanent and alternate nominees, without differentiating between them, which meant in effect that the women candidates could all have been substitutes.

The bicameral women’s caucus, a multi-party bloc which lobbied for the quota law, reacted immediately to what it called a “misogynistic and perverse” act, and in the space of a few days presented a draft interpretative law to block the Electoral Court’s regulations.

The interpretative law was pushed through parliament at top speed and came into force on May 5. The deadline for presenting the lists of candidates for the political party internal elections is May 29.

Getting the quota law approved “was an uphill battle for us, so we were very harsh in our criticism of the majority opinion of the Electoral Court, and we had no hesitation in immediately presenting an interpretative law,” socialist Senator Mónica Xavier, of the governing leftwing Broad Front, told APEU.

The law will apply to the primary elections in June, when the political parties will hold their conventions and decide their presidential and vice-presidential candidates for the October national elections. However, it will not apply to national and local parliamentary elections until 2014.

The new law makes it clear that the Electoral Court must reject any list that “does not conform to the quota requirements,” Xavier said. “We did not seek legal penalties or economic sanctions; instead we made sure that the supervisory body has to check the lists for the inclusion of both men and women.”

“After so many failed attempts to open doors to participation by more women, this law has finally cut through what we call the ‘Gordian knot’ that was frustrating women’s participation, which is the political parties themselves,” she said.

The quota law is one of the fruits of the bicameral women’s caucus, which has operated since 2000 on the basis of voluntary attendance. It meets once a month and has a secretariat and a three-woman committee. Its agenda and links with civil society and academia are growing apace.

The women’s caucus “has taken formal shape because of the political will” of its members, Xavier said. Because of its “persistence and achievements, and because no woman lawmaker is excluded,” it is regarded as a pioneering model in Latin America.

In terms of women’s representation, “we are very badly off compared to other countries and compared to other periods in our history,” added Xavier, a medical doctor who was the first Latin American to chair the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Coordinating Committee of Women Parliamentarians from 2006 to 2008.

Quoting an expression coined by local historian José Pedro Barrán, Rondán said that women “in Uruguay have gone through corseted and uncorseted periods.”

Women were at the forefront of the early struggles against Spanish colonialism, said Rondán, a former literature teacher, mentioning several outstanding women.

“In the first period of our national history, which Barrán describes as ‘barbaric,’ women had complete freedom,” she said. “Foreign visitors to Uruguay were astonished to discover the freedom women enjoyed, and their position in society.”

Then came a time of “discipline,” and women were the most heavily disciplined, by the family and by the Catholic Church. “It must have been one of the few times that Catholics and Masons joined forces to discipline women,” said Rondán.

In 1932, Uruguayan women won the right to vote. But although “civil rights in this country were won very early on, the 1900s put women into a corset, which we are still wearing,” Rondán said.

Uruguay’s image as a liberal democracy, with a divorce law since 1913 and a high level of participation by girls and women in education and the labour market, was at odds with the closed doors of its political system.

And during the transition to democracy “they really trussed women up tightly into corsets,” she stressed.

However, in 1984 the Concertación Nacional Programática, a multi-party forum designed to forge a common legislative agenda, gave rise to the Network of Women Politicians, which took on formal status in 1985 and is still in existence.

Since then, the conservative Colorado Party “has undergone a huge setback” in terms of gender equality, which could be attributed to its “meagre voting results” in the 2004 elections, when it fell from power, said Rondán.

In the previous term, from 2000 to 2005, during the administration of former President Jorge Batlle of the Colorado Party, there were “four women members of the lower house, and not one woman senator, minister or deputy minister,” she said.

None of the Colorado Party woman lawmakers was reelected in 2004. Today Rondán is the only woman on her party’s 15-member National Executive Committee.

By contrast, incumbent President Tabaré Vázquez of the Broad Front brought about change from the outset of his term by appointing an unprecedented number of women to his cabinet, Xavier said.

He named female ministers in areas previously identified as the exclusive domain of men, like the ministries of defence and the interior, as well as to the ministries of health and social development. “There’s no going back now,” she said.

The socialist senator pointed to a string of 17 laws touching on gender issues that have been approved since 2007.

One of these is the law on sexual and reproductive health, which Vázquez modified, however, by vetoing the decriminalisation of abortion, going against his own party on the issue.

There are still a lot of corsets to be discarded.

In this country of 3.3 million people, women make up 60 percent of the university student body, yet they still earn, on average, 30 percent less than men.

Currently, one woman is killed by her partner every 13 days. In 2008, one woman died every nine days.

Women may be involved in development or other matters, but not necessarily aware of the impact of guns and small arms on their lives. They may be aware of the cost of gun violence on their communities and their personal lives, but may think it is not in their place to interfere. Lastly they may know all about gun violence, but may lack the confidence to become interlocutors with national or international organizations – that is where International Action Network on Small Arms, IANSA, women’s network comes in.

“Our goal is bring women from the women’s movement into the small arms movement and to get the small arms movement to think about women,” said Sarah Masters the coordinator of IANSA women’s network, a network that is present wherever women take the issue of gun violence to heart, creating platforms for women to connect to governments and international organizations, connecting grass roots initiatives and holding out the possibility of women-only forums where technical information can more easily flow and women’s voices be heard.

“In Burundi local women are participating in a disarmament movement, it can happen there, it can happen in the UK” said Masters, adding: “there is no inevitability in gun violence, by taking away the tools that facilitate violence against women, you do not end it, but it becomes less lethal.” More in this exclusive interview given to Comunidad Segura.

How do you get women involved in reducing gun violence?

A lot of women’s organizations do not focus on guns, it is just one aspect of their work, they might be working in human rights or democracy or women’s health but find that they are being affected negatively by guns and gun violence. At IANSA we provide them with opportunities for involvement in campaigns against small arms such as for example the global week of action against gun violence we hold every June

And locally?

Joining IANSA women’s network is also a way to acknowledge that there is a problem even, because in some places even when it is understood there is a problem it is difficult for women to take a stand. It may pose a threat to some of the men, and the men are often the ones to have the guns.

Can you give me an example?

Well I am thinking of Burundi, where local women’s disarmament initiatives Dagropass Amagaranikindi, led a community disarmament initiative in Bubanza province to encourage weapons collection and destruction. Weapons were collected and officially given to provincial authorities on 31 August 2007. The initiative raised awareness that 2 people are killed by guns every day in the province. It also highlighted the fact that weapons from Bubanza can circulate throughout Burundi. The women however are also being threatened by local men who are not their friends or relations. The question they ask is ‘why do you want to take our guns away from us’?

What do you do as network coordinator?

Part of my remit is to try to bring local initiatives such as these closer to people at the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs, the department of Peacekeeping Operations, for example, the people who work with ddr (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration). What I do is to ask them not just listen to these women, but to provide support. I have recently been informed, for example, that a group of local women took matters into their own hands and collected 17 guns. Now, it is significant, these are 17 guns taken away from people who might use them.

Your network is global, and gun violence covers a wide range of situations. What role does gun control play for women in Africa especially?

The Democratic Republic of Congo has unparalleled levels of sexual violence and a lot of that sexual violence is being facilitated by guns. I met an amazing doctor from Panzi hospital, he fixes women whose vaginas have been destroyed. Dr Mukwege from the DR Congo, told me that some armed groups actually shoot women after raping them, so as to mark them and send a message. Dr Mukwege believes it is a specific tactic designed to break down the community structure, one that we had not been aware of. This is to say that there are ways in which guns contribute to violence against women that need to be brought to light, and of course, eliminated.

How do you connect people in grass roots organizations to Iansa women’s network?

It is about making the particular connection between violence and guns. Dr Mukwege has been involved with violence against women for some time, but he was not really thinking about the guns. This often happens to Iansa members, suddenly the light bulb goes on and you realize the role that guns play, in events and in the communities.

Of course this is just as true for the DR Congo as it is for the UK. You imagine the inevitability of guns, but of course that does not need to happen, it can be changed. You can remove the instruments of violence, and while it does not do away with violence altogether, it reduces the threat of lethal violence. We also we know that knives and machetes do facilitate violence, but not quite the same way as a gun.

Isn’t the gun control challenge facing women in Africa too great?

The good news is that it is not impossible, because we have many many members doing things on different levels. There are women working in community engagements, others are taking it to the next level, sitting in commissions, in national commissions on small arms, in the judiciary, in the military. There is an effort underway to have women included at various levels.

Do you train women, raise awareness? Instruct and educate?

We tend to have really active members in the countries, and they will contact new groups and show materials that we created. The secretariat may have materials in English and Spanish, now in Portuguese. We like to provide support to people who are already involved. In Kenya there is KANSA the Kenya action network for small arms, there is the Swedish one, SANSA, IANSA members have created their own national networks. They are autonomous, they can do so.

Those with experience in gun collection drives worry that guns once collected become a burden, they need to be stored in a safe place, deactivated, registered..

Yes that is true, I hear, get an email from groups that they say we’ve connected 17 guns and a few grenades and etc. I worry, because they say, we’ve given them to the police, and there is always the concern that these weapons may make their way back into circulation. This is a concern I have raised with the UN department of disarmament affairs, although we do not have funding to support all of these initiatives.

Has IANSA developed procedures addressing this?

We have multiple roles in our network, it is not our purpose to create things that some of our members are creating. We have members who may be focusing on disarmament processes and procedures, it is their job. It is our job to find out about what our members are involved in and promote it rather than doing it ourselves.

So IANSA Women’s network is more of a forum?

That too, a forum but also an opportunity to get women involved, mobilizing women in the women’s movement There is the need for women only spaces in the small arms movement, I feel. It is seen as very technical, it is male dominated, a lot of it is linked to military security. We need to take it back, think about human security, the community, the home, not because of some stereotypical vision of women, but because that is where they are most in danger. We will launch in June a Disarming Domestic Violence Campaign to raise awareness, we are going to start in 10 countries to begin with. We want to raise awareness of policies and laws that can be implemented, and the training that is needed to be able to implement it, to separate perpetrators from guns in a domestic setting.

You agree that women are more indirectly affected by gun violence than men?

Where statistics are available men are 80 to 90% of men are the ones more directly affected by gun violence, in terms of deaths. The women are affected in a more indirect manner that ranges from gun possession in the home used for intimidation, to armed conflict facilitating violence and sexual aggression. Women are often needed as caregivers for those disabled by gun violence, they can be forced into becoming the main economic provider. Some women are involved in armed gangs and conflict but in the main it is the men. Women have a huge burden when you consider how relatively few of them are using or carrying of weapons.

What of the role of women engaging in a culture of gun violence?

There is some research coming out on that in Brazil, we are not right now involved in that. Iansa does have a youth network, with a potential to address gender perspectives with younger people.

How does the network provide support for women’s organizations in concrete terms?
The facilitation of information flow, finding out that something is happening, sharing that with someone else, using this as a model for other members in the network. The issue of solidarity is a huge one, particularly because women are facing huge pressures and problems, to feel they are part of something bigger gives them strength to carry on, the opportunity to participate in formal meetings, national, regional, international meetings. This is an important role in the women’s network, to bring women from the women’s movement into the small arms movement and to get the small arms movement to think about women.

You mentioned the need for women-only meetings, could you explain that a little further?

We tend to have different experiences to men, and our ways of sharing experiences and strategies are different. Women-only events provide an important safe space for women who may find that the small arms movement is a quite inaccessible. There needs to be some kind of entry point, at the women’s network they get to go to these fora, to know what is happening.

At the UN meeting last year we had our own women’s only meetings, as well as side events with a mixed public and all women speakers. One interesting result was that our discussions resulted in for the Disarming Domestic Violence Campaign, something that perhaps would not have emerged otherwise.

Have you taken this idea to local chapters too?

A lot of the women tend to do that anyway, although the network does also include men, it engages and acknowledges men, it is a fundamental space that we can provide so that we can hear each others voices.

The next step?

Women-only training in small arms that includes gun technology, policy, laws, the UN process, disarmament to name a few aspects. Training also allows women who have the knowledge but not the confidence, to reassert themselves as experts, so they are able to talk to the government, or to go to the UN and speak to a member state as a delegate. It is about empowerment, it is about creating opportunities, and allowing them to think that it may be their place to do so. We have to do a lot more capacity building.

Read Further: IANSA the International Action Network on Small Arms

See also:
* The Peace Studies Group and the Observatory on Gender and Armed Violence (OGVA) are joining with others around the world to celebrate International Women’s Day for Peace and Disarmament, which took place on Sunday 24 May, 2009, and acknowledge some of our achievements and activism from the past 12 months.
* IFOR’s Women Peacemakers Programme has developed an Action Pack to mark 24 May which highlights challenges that women activists face in both the Balkans and the Caucasus and elaborates on the strategies these women apply to deal with the challenges. It contains reflections on the peace processes and women activism in Kovoso/a, and humanitarian interventions in Georgia and Kosovo/a. The Global Fund for Women contributed with an article reflecting on gatherings they organized in both the Balkans and the Caucasus. The role that music can play in reconciling people is discussed by Musicians without Borders. The Action Pack is complemented by interviews with Women in Black, Kvinna till Kvinna and the Women’s Resource Center in Armenia. (pdf file)

The United States (US) led war in Afghanistan is one of the most controversial current events in today’s world. After the September 11th attacks on US soil, the government of George W. Bush declared war against the Taliban, the acting government of Afghanistan. It was their belief that the al-Qa’eda terrorist network and its leader Osama din Laden were responsible for these attacks, and that the Afghan government was in support of and harbouring bin Laden. In an effort to justify the mass bombings of Afghanistan in the weeks (and subsequently years) to follow, the Bush administration created a publicity campaign in which they would claim to be declaring a ‘War of Terror’ on the Taliban in an effort to liberate the women of Afghanistan. They claimed that years of physical and structural abuse against women in this country finally needed to come to an end. This campaign centred around the burqa, a restrictive, all-encompassing religious dress that the Taliban forced women to wear every time they left their homes. The US media began bombarding the American public with visions of women trapped underneath these burqas, in an effort to gain support for the continuing war in Afghanistan. This US government campaign would polarize the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan into an object: the burqa, and would leave the public unaware of the true history of women’s oppression under both the Taliban and US-backed regimes. It would also effectively hurt the progress that could have been made by women after the fall of the Taliban, as little attention was paid to solving the real issues in Afghanistan: gender inequalities and structural and physical violence against women that continue to oppress Afghani women to this day.

In 1964, Mohammed Zahir Shah, the King of Afghanistan created a new constitution for his people that would modernize his country’s political and economic spheres, as well as usher in new democratic legislature that would thrust Afghani women’s rights into the 20th century . The Basic Rights and Duties of the People as listed in articles 25-40 of the 1964 Constitution gave all citizens of Afghanistan equal rights to education, healthcare, and employment. Women were even allowed to enrol with the Armed Forces if they so desired . It was a time for great change and acceptance in the country, and more specifically a time of freedom for women who had been horribly oppressed for hundreds of years. This freedom would not last. In 1973, while Zahir Shah was out of the country for medical treatment, his cousin Daoud executed a well planned out coup d’etat, which would lead to the end of the monarchy that had been established in Afghanistan in 1747 . The end of Zahir Shah’s rein would have terrible consequences for the people of Afghanistan, as only six years after he was ousted from his throne, the Soviet Union would invade the country and the effect of this on the rights and freedoms of the citizens of Afghanistan (especially women) would be disastrous.

It would be during this Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that the United States would become heavily involved with Afghani extremists who were anti-Communist and core fundamentalists . The United States provided these groups with “$30 million in 1980 and increased to over $1 billion per year in 1986-89.” By contrast, opposition groups such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), whose aim was “to unite and fight for the independence of our beloved country” were not provided with any funding. While their aim was to bring about a union of the people to create a lasting democracy, the US was more focused on making the Soviet Union pay a price. To accomplish this, they continued to support exceedingly violent parties who were not above imprisoning, torturing, and murdering innocent civilians in the name of their cause . Even after the Soviets retreated in 1989, the US continued to fund the Mujahideen, which was a group of seven Pakistan-based parties who were equated with Afghani resistance . Interestingly enough, these seven parties denounced the return of King Zahir Shah even though many citizens of Afghanistan felt he was the only hope for their country . After the US-backed Mujahideen government took power, the women of Afghanistan were the first to feel the changes after the ‘Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ was created. Although often attributed to the Taliban’s reign, this Ministry was in fact created under the Mujahideen and called for women in Afghanistan to immediately begin covering practices . In August of 1993, they took it a step further by imposing the following legislation:

Women do not need to leave their homes at all, unless absolutely necessary, in which case they are to cover themselves completely; are not to wear attractive clothing and decorative accessories; do not wear perfume; their jewelry must not make any noise; they are not walk gracefully or with pride and in the middle of the sidewalk; are not to talk to strangers; are not to speak loudly or laugh in public; and they must always ask their husbands’ permission to leave home.

These decrees were almost identical to those that would be practiced by the Taliban after they came into power, however they are solely attributed to their regime by the US government. In fact, between the years of 1992-1996 before the Taliban took power, Afghanistan was embroiled in a bitter internal civil war in which brutal atrocities were carried out against innocent civilians. Thousands were murdered senselessly, and women were often used as rewards to soldiers who had done a good job for the government .

When the Taliban did take power in 1996, Washington was pleased to finally have a chance to end the anarchy in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, where the Majuhideen had basically reduced the city to rubble . The Afghan citizens were also relieved to have a new government in power, and they prayed that the Taliban regime would finally lend the way for change in Afghanistan. All parties were quickly proven wrong as the Taliban immediately began imposing laws that some considered even more strict than those of the previous regime. Women were immediately dismissed from work, and forced to remain virtual prisoners in their homes. Girls were no longer able to attend school . While the Majuhideen had placed severe restrictions on women, they had still been allowed to work, attend school and leave home occasionally as long as they were covered in a traditional Islamic covering. The Taliban would not tolerate such offences, and the punishment for women offenders was often public stoning and/or death. Even these egregious human rights violations did not bring reprimands from the United States . It was not until the Taliban began actively attacking US soil that they finally acknowledged the terrorist tendencies of the regime and their support of the al-Qa’eda network of terrorists who had claimed responsibility for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Tower complex in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 1999 attack on the USS Cole. These attacks finally culminated in the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York City and on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Not since Pearl Harbour had the US felt the pain of an attack on their own soil, let alone in two of the hearts of their great nation. It was time for revenge, and the administration of George W. Bush decided that war was the only way to make the Taliban pay for their attack.

For years prior to the attacks of 9/11 the US had been unsuccessfully attempting to strong arm the Taliban into turning over Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qa’eda network . Their tactics were no different after September 11th, and the Taliban’s response was unfaltering: they would not hand over bin Laden. A war on Afghanistan was almost immediately declared, with the first bombs being dropped October 7, 2001 . Just over a month later, on November 17, 2001, Laura Bush gave the president’s ‘Weekly Radio Address’, and for the first time, the address was given in its entirety by a First Lady . On this night, Mrs. Bush essentially became the US government’s voice against the oppression of women in Afghanistan, and vowed to end the suffering and subjugation of women under the Taliban government . This fight for the liberation of Afghani women was centred around the burqa, an enveloping outer garment that is worn by women of some Islamic faiths when they are outside their own homes . A brief look at the history of the burqa will help to contextualize the arguments put forth in the remainder of this paper.

The Qur’an is the religious text of the Muslim faith, just as the New Testament is the religious text of Christianity. The Qur’an requires that both Muslim men and women dress modestly while in public, however men are only required to cover from their naval to the floor whereas women are required to cover all but their hands and face . This inequality was mutated even further with the Taliban’s requirement of all women to be burqa-clad while in public . The burqa is the most intense form of covering in the Muslim faith. While some women simply wear a hajib, which is also known as a head scarf, others wear the all-encompassing burqa. A full-length dress fabricated with metres of fabric, the burqa completely covers the wearer leaving only a small hole in front of the eyes covered with mesh to see through. It is a very constrictive garment, and the vast amount of fabric makes it very difficult to walk in, let alone communicate through .

The idea of these personal prisons is a completely shocking thought and vision for the population of the Western world, especially for women who feel they have had the privilege to grow up with equality and independence. The Bush administration used its knowledge of this shock to capitalize on the oppression of women in Afghanistan, and created a publicity campaign that centred on the liberation of Afghani women and girls . They hammered the idea of the Taliban’s mistreatment of women into the psyches of the American public, without a mention of the atrocities women had suffered at the hands of US-backed Afghani regimes in the past . In 2002, the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council (UAWC) was formed in what would be the culmination of the publicity campaign. Although this group looks good on paper, it has still done nothing of any major consequence to help liberate the women of Afghanistan. Instead it has focused so narrowly on the burqa and the ‘unveiling’ of Afghani women that the real and still existing problems of social inequality and gender repression are ignored . The US government and the UAWC have chosen a route of educating the general public by selectively placing all of the emphasis on an object: the burqa, rather than examining the deeper, underlying problems that continue to exist in Aghanistan.

While for some women the practice of covering in a burqa may be a demeaning historical practice, for many others the burqa is a religious symbol or a symbol of how hard women in Afghanistan have fought for the freedom that still eludes them . In the religious sense, Muslim people are thoroughly faithful to the Qur’an and that does not end with Muslim men. Muslim women have been raised with the scripture of the Qur’an and just as Westerners have a strong belief in the teachings of the religion they choose to follow, so to do Muslim women. The idea of modesty in clothing and behaviour is what these women believe, and their choice to wear a hajib or a burqa, is just that: a choice. While many Westerners argue that they only make this choice because they ‘don’t know any better’, it is dangerous ground to tread on to assume that one’s culture or religion is superior to another one. There are American Muslim women who choose to cover themselves even after being exposed to a multitude of different cultures, so one should not assume that the women of Afghanistan would choose to change their religious beliefs simply because of a change in government. Alternatively, there were also women who chose to use their confinement in the burqa to further the efforts of organizations attempting to achieve democracy in Afghanistan. Women took to hiding important documents under their burqas, which could easily conceal books, newspapers, and other items due to their masses of fabric . This contraband could then be delivered to others who were part of the resistance to the Taliban. For these women, the burqa became a form of strength, power and resistance, rather than a government imposed personal prison. Many female Afghani activists still believe the burqa is a powerful symbol and are therefore less concerned with the garments they are forced to wear, and more concerned with the democratization of their country, and the hope of equal rights for all . These women do not need to be saved from their oppressors, they need to be given the tools to create a better future for themselves and their families.

It is hard to believe that after six years of US occupation in Afghanistan there have still been very few changes in the social conditions for women and girls in the country . The new puppet government the US imposed upon Afghanistan is still practicing Sharia law, which has an extremely detrimental effect women. Afghan prisons are now full of women who have been convicted of crimes that range from refusing to marry the man their family has chosen, to simply running away from home . There have also been cases of sexual abuse and torture in these prisons. In 2005, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) collected statistics on Afghanistan for the first time, and the results were less than favourable. The country was ranked 173rd of 178 countries in the UNDP human development index, and statistics provided on health, literacy, employment, and lifespan showed that little has changed in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban . The maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world with 1,700 deaths in every 100,000, and if a woman is lucky enough to survive childbirth she will likely not live past the age of forty-five. An average Afghan woman cannot read or write, and even after the fall of the Taliban only 1% of children in school are girls . The question we must ask ourselves however, is not why have there been no changes, but how can we ensure that there will be changes in the future.

The best possible chance for change in the future, is to first open a dialogue about the real history of Afghanistan. This will certainly not be favourable to the United States, but at some point people need to be told the truth about their government’s actions and how those actions have affected other nations negatively. Also, relying on women in the US to run an effective campaign to save Afghani women is not a realistic expectation. There are many capable, experienced Afghani women who have spent their lives dedicated to improving the lives of their fellow female citizens . This is an extremely risky venture to undertake, and many women have been murdered for their involvement in the Afghani women’s liberation movement. Meena, the founder of RAWA, has been touted as a martyr for her work in starting the movement, and she was the first of many assassinated by both the Taliban and US-backed governments . These women have worked on the front lines for decades, and have lived through the constant fear of retribution for speaking out against the government, so who better to ask than them? The difficulty in asking them rests in their total knowledge of the United States’ history in their country. They know of the atrocities carried out by US-supported groups dating back four decades, just as well as they know about the current warlord government of today. The chance of this information getting out is too much for the US to risk, but this truth could truly set the women of Afghanistan free.

Individual activists are also becoming more prevalent in Afghanistan. One of the most famed Afghani women to speak out in recent years is Malalai Joya, who has chosen to tell the true story of the US ‘libertation’ of Afghanistan. She points out that the only success the US has had in their occupation of her country has been to replace one brutal, misogynist regime with another. Joya raised the unspoken topic of the post-9/11 warlord regime and their ruthless abuses of the Afghani people, but was silenced immediately. To date there have been four attempts on her life, as the US-imposed Afghani puppet government continues to try and silence those who speak out for democracy .

A complete attitude shift is required here on the part of the American public. People need to believe that these horrible crimes against humanity are occurring every day. They need to understand that not everyone wants to be an American or live the life of a Westerner, and that we need respect the cultures of others in order to evoke change. It is time for the American public to realize that their government keeps them under a dark cloud of lies and deception, and to start asking the questions that will finally bring truth and democracy to Afghanistan.

In recent years, Egypt has witnessed increasing participation by women in grassroots political activism. Local civil rights advocates attribute the phenomenon to novel means of communication and organisation, especially the social networking website Facebook.

“Technological advances have provided a greater scope for political participation by a new generation of young women, traditionally inclined to staying in the home,” Hossam Bahgat, director of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told IPS.

The phenomenon has become particularly notable since the advent of the ‘April 6 Youth’, a grassroots movement seeking peaceful political change. The movement takes its name from a general strike held on Apr. 6, 2008, when a planned labour action at a public-sector textiles company turned into a nationwide protest against skyrocketing food prices and political stasis.

The young were mobilised through mobile-phone text messages and Facebook – where one of its online groups currently boasts more than 75,000 members.

On Apr. 6 this year, the ‘April 6 Youth’, which is not affiliated to any particular political party or ideology, again urged Egyptians to voice dissatisfaction with the ruling regime by staging peaceful demonstrations countrywide.

Last year’s strike saw the arrest of hundreds of activists and strike leaders, including 29-year-old Israa Abdel-Fattah Ahmed, a founding member of a Facebook group. Although she was released some two weeks later, Israa – who became the face of the nascent April 6 Youth movement – was the only woman to be detained over the course of the strike.

This year’s action, dubbed a national ‘Day of Anger’, saw a total of seven young women briefly detained on charges of inciting unrest.

On Apr. 1, security forces arrested Sarah Rizk and Omniya Taha, both 19 years old, on charges of disrupting traffic and “incitement against the ruling establishment.” The two university students had been distributing flyers on the campus of Kafr al-Sheikh University calling on citizens to participate in planned demonstrations.

Three days later, a group of 17 young people were arrested, including five women, while protesting Rizk’s and Taha’s detention outside a Kafr al-Sheikh courthouse in Egypt’s Nile Delta.

On Apr. 5, all seven women were released, Rizk and Taha having posted bail payments of 1,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly 180 U.S. dollars) each.

While Rizk calls her and her compatriots’ release a “victory”, it remains unclear whether or not they will eventually face trial. “We don’t know whether the case will go to court or not,” Rizk told IPS. “Even my lawyers are confused as to what the next step is.”

Esmaa Mahfouz, a 24-year-old administrator on an April 6 Facebook group, attributes the speedy release to government fears of making popular heroes of the detained women.

Female interest and participation in political activism are clearly on the rise. “Young women constitute one of the country’s biggest demographic groupings, and I suspect they will become increasingly influential in the future,” observes Bahgat.

Egypt, a conservative, majority-Muslim country, has traditionally seen limited female political participation. Of the 454 representatives in Egypt’s national assembly, less than 10 are women, although draft legislation establishing a minimum quota for female MPs is now under discussion.

According to Bahgat, the recent spike in female political activism has been driven primarily by innovations in communications technology.

“All over the world, novel means of communication have opened up new channels for political involvement,” he said. “And Facebook in particular has provided a new forum through which Egyptian women are both broadening their political horizons and making their voices heard.”

Bahgat’s assertion was substantiated in conversations with a number of politically active young women.

“It’s not common in Egypt for women our age to be active politically, but through Facebook we have found a means to meet likeminded women our age and exchange views about ways to improve the country,” said Rizk, an April 6 member since last July. “Political activism shouldn’t be dependent on age or gender. Women, too, should participate – even at the street level.”

Mahfouz, who also works for a private telecommunication firm, agreed that the social-networking website had opened her up to a new world of political activism.

“As a woman, I didn’t have much political experience and only saw popular demonstrations from a safe distance,” said Mahfouz. “But since I discovered Facebook and began sharing my political opinions, I have even begun joining in street protests.”

“I used to be mainly concerned about marriage and my everyday needs, like most women my age,” Mahfouz added. “Now, though, I have a new interest in political activism – after all, I eventually want to raise my family in a secure and economically-viable environment.”

Spokesmen for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood say they have no objection to the recent surge of female participation in political activism, despite the group’s reputation for conservatism. The brotherhood, which officially supported this year’s April 6 action, represents the country’s largest opposition movement.

“The Muslim Brotherhood appreciates the role women are playing in the April 6 Youth movement, and the price they are paying for that participation,” Hamdi Hassan, prominent Muslim Brotherhood MP, told IPS. “The government claims it supports women’s rights, yet when women participate in peaceful political activism, they’re arrested.”

Although Rizk complains she was subject to some mistreatment during her recent detention, she has no plans to give up her newfound activism.

“Despite the intimidation, I know the Egyptian people are on our side,” she said. “My recent brush with the law has only made me more resolute.”

(Reminder: We have now included a feed from IPS News Genderwire – see first column on the right so are less likely to post them to this blog. So if you see a story you are interested in you need to follow the link from the feed to get it in full.