Archive for July 3rd, 2009

President Sarkozy of France has reignited the debate about how Muslim women in Europe should dress by calling for a ban on clothing that, as he puts it, imprisons women and undermines their dignity. But in this burqa debate the voices of Muslim women are strangely absent.

For many men and women, the burqa, the niqab, or any clothing that covers the whole female body including the face, is a powerful symbol of the oppression and subjugation of Muslim women. It is an obvious reminder of how the Taliban, who required women to wear the burqa, systematically abused the fundamental rights and freedoms of Afghan women, leaving them with the lowest life expectancy in the region and highest rates of maternal death.

To its critics, the burqa has also become a symbol of Islamist radicalism and even terrorism and is increasingly being seen as a threat to efforts to integrate Muslim migrants into British and European society. Video footage apparently showing one of the failed July 21 2005 London bombers wearing a niqab as a disguise has reinforced the notion that the veiling of the face is inherently suspicious and implanted the fear that it may even be a threat to national security.

There’s no doubt that religion and tradition can and do have a negative impact on women’s rights across the board. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 68,000 women around the world die from unsafe abortions every year. Yet the Catholic church continues to oppose the legalization that would reduce the number such abortions.

Violence against women is tolerated in the name of tradition all over the world. Women’s oppression is universal. Those who want to help address this sorry state of affairs should start not by telling Muslim women how to dress, but by tackling the root causes of this oppression both at home and abroad: discrimination, lack of access to services, and unequal economic opportunities.

A legal ban in Europe on the wearing of the burqa in public life would be just as much a violation of the rights of those women who wish to wear it as is the forcing of the veil on those women who do not wish to wear it in, for example, Iran or Saudi Arabia. Muslim women should have the right to move around dressed as they choose, to make decisions about their lives and religion, whether we understand or support those choices or not.

The argument that “the burqa oppresses all women” and therefore should be banned by the state implies that it is up to the state to regulate and limit a woman’s choices about how she expresses her religious belief through her outward appearance. This is an outrageous interference that so far from protecting Muslim women, which is presumably the intention, actually further undermines their ability and their right to choose how to lead their lives and how to present themselves in public.

Human Rights Watch recently conducted research in Germany, where a number of states have banned the wearing of the headscarf, a far less severe form of covering the body, for women teachers.

Fathima, a young teacher, described her choice to wear a headscarf to school: “They should ask our colleagues, directors, school inspectors, the parents, the pupils what kind of person we are. All of them have experienced me and know me so well, that they can attest for sure that I am not oppressed and that I do not wear the headscarf because of oppression.”

She argues powerfully that the scarf cannot simply be written off as a symbol of oppression, and that for her wearing the headscarf represents her choice to practice her religion while still participating actively in Germany society.

There is no doubt that many Muslim women are forced to wear the burqa or other forms of veil and are unable to make decisions about the most fundamental aspects of their lives. But there is equally little doubt that many other Muslim women have made a free and informed decision to wear such coverings, and value the space to practice their religion in public. Banning the burqa fundamentally undermines their rights and perhaps most importantly does not provide any meaningful assistance to those women who are coerced and forced to cover their bodies and faces.

Politicians like Sarkozy who claim to stand up for women’s rights must look beyond what women wear. Banning the burqa will not make go it away; it will only force the women who wear it, whether by choice or under coercion, to drop out of sight.


The heads of women’s organizations across the political spectrum joined forces in a letter to Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, protesting her appointment of outgoing MK Haim Ramon as chairman of the party’s governing council.

Ramon submitted his resignation from the parliament, after 26 years of service, to Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin. His resignation takes effect 48 hours later, and he will make his farewell speech to the Knesset on Wednesday.

The women’s groups said it was improper of Livni to appoint Ramon to such a prestigious post after he was convicted of sexual harassment for a July 12, 2006, incident, in which he gave an unwanted kiss on the lips to a female soldier at the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Ramon is a convicted sex offender and Tzipi Livni should be ashamed of herself for appointing him,” said Hannah Kehat, head of the religious women’s organization Kolech. “Ramon is not a man who should have a public role. A party that claims to fight corruption is putting a convicted felon at the top.

“Any woman who respects herself wouldn’t vote for such a party. Tzipi became a feminist for her campaign, but now it’s been proven a lie.”

Livni’s spokesman responded that Ramon had “paid a personal and public price and was allowed by the courts to return to full political activity.”

More women judges in the subordinate judiciary and women magistrates will be recruited under Access to Justice Programme (AJP) as a step to control domestic violence in the country. According to sources, the government has also decided to recruit more women police officials and women prosecutors besides women judges and women magistrates aimed at achieving results in controlling domestic violence in the country.

The government is also introducing gender sensitive syllabus and curriculum revision in police training schools, colleges and the National Police Academy.

According to a data regarding incidents of domestic violence, during the year 2008, total number of Acid Burning cases stood at 21 with 10 cases of stove burning.

Nine cases of Wanni were registered and the total number of domestic violence 2182 cases were registered which includes three categories of murder, beating and others.

A number of steps have been taken to curb crime of domestic violence including enactment of Anti Harassment Law which will go along way to eliminate discriminate on workplace for women.

The government has also taken several other steps including mandatory judicial enquiries by District and Sessions Judges into cases of rape.

It may be mentioned here that a huge allocation has been made in the budget-2009-10 for women in development, education, health, social and welfare sectors, etc.

Hoping for the early passage of the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill, women’s groups have expressed concern over the delay in submitting recommendations by the Parliamentary Standing Committee.

“It is necessary to overcome all possible impediments that may arise to sabotage the Bill, a joint press statement issued by women’s organisations said here on Thursday while asking the United Progressive Alliance government to display the political will to ensure passage of this Bill — stipulating 33 per cent reservation for women in legislative bodies — without further delay.

Pointing out that the women had welcomed the assurance given by President Pratibha Patil during the joint session of Parliament regarding the passage of the Bill within 100 days of assuming office, these organisations said: “We note with disappointment that the business items listed for the Budget session carries no mention of the Bill.”

The assurance given by the President on the floor of the House had already been belied, they said.

The signatories to the statement are the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the All India Women’s Conference, the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, the Joint Women’s Programme, the Guild of Service, the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, the National Federation of Indian Women, the Muslim Women’s Forum and the Young Women’s Christian Association.

Meanwhile, the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) has also condemned the steep rise in prices of petrol and diesel announced by the government on the eve of the budget session.

“It is a mockery of democracy and an insult to the highest elected body of people’s representatives. This has come as a blow to the common people who are already reeling under the severity of sky-rocketing prices of food grains, dals, oil, milk and vegetables. This measure is bound to further trigger escalation in prices of essential commodities,” a statement by the Association said here.

The poor women would be the worst hit, it said.

About 1,000 Afghan Shi’ite Muslims rallied in Kabul last week to demand the ratification of a controversial law which contains harsh provisions on women some critics have called a step back towards Taliban-era rules.

The Shi’ite Personal Status Law applies to Shi’ites who make up about 15 percent of Afghanistan’s roughly 30 million people. It requires women to satisfy their husband’s sexual appetites, which critics have said could be used to justify marital rape.

U.S. President Barack Obama has called the law “abhorrent” and the United Nations and other rights groups have called for it be scrapped or changed. It has been under review by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Justice since May.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who approved the law earlier this year, was forced to review the decision after Western leaders and Afghan women’s rights groups expressed dismay.

“The law was approved by the president. But because of criticisms by some people, it’s been delayed … these people are here to show how much support there is for the law,” Shi’ite cleric Sayed Hossein Alemi Balkhi told Reuters on the sidelines of the rally, which was attended by about 300 women.

Other provisions of the law require wives to get permission when leaving the home unless for employment, education or medical reasons, and to allow a man to order his wife to wear make-up.

Balkhi dismissed concerns from rights groups and female Afghan politicians that the law could be used to justify marital rape, saying their claims were incorrect.

“We are prepared to sit down with Western lawmakers and discuss the law, theological issues aside … our point is that this law actually goes beyond Western laws in terms of protecting women’s rights,” Balkhi said.

“Western law says that women do not need to obey men and men do not have to determine women’s expenses … but here the principle is that the wife’s expenses should be met by the husband … he needs to buy his wife’s food, clothes, even her make-up, and when she is ill he must look after her,” he said.

The rally was staged at the turquoise-domed Khatam-ul-Nabiin mosque being built by the law’s main backer, Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni.

“Let them sort out the problems of their own women before they start telling us how to solve ours,” said Zeinab Nabavi, a 22-year old student and one of the rally organisers.

“These problems … these are a matter of theology and faith, the West has no right to interfere,” she said.

Like most women sitting in a female-only section under a makeshift canopy, Nabavi wore a long, black chador, the billowing Islamic covering popular in neighbouring majority-Shi’ite Iran.

Balkhi dismissed suggestions the law was an attempt to impose Iranian-style rules on Afghanistan’s Shi’ite minority, who were persecuted under the Taliban’s strict Sunni Muslim regime.

“Iran is one country, Afghanistan is another. This is not just a law for Iran or Afghanistan,” he said.

Nabavi said women would continue to obey the law even if it was not ratified again. ” … practically speaking, from a social point of view, it’s happening anyway,” she said.

Months after the Conservatives announced new money for the Women’s Community Fund, women’s groups across the country still can’t access this funding because of the Harper government’s ongoing inability to keep its promises, Liberal Status of Women Critic Anita Neville said today.

“Nearly a month ago, Status of Women Minister Helena Guergis told the Parliamentary Status of Women Committee that a call for proposals would be coming out shortly that would allow women’s groups to apply for funding,” said Ms. Neville. “We’re still waiting for action three months into the fiscal year, leaving groups without access to promised funding.”

The Women’s Community Fund was intended to provide grants and contributions to projects that aim to increase awareness among women in identifying and removing barriers to their participation in their communities. Ms. Neville indicated that first the Conservatives eliminated funding to equality-seeking organizations and now they appear to still be processing 2008 funding allocations with no call for proposals for 2009.

“The Harper government continues to fail the needs of Canadian women,” she said.

Ms. Neville said this is the same government that has been promising a so-called ‘Action Plan’ since Budget 2008 to advance equality for women by improving their economic and social conditions and their participation in democratic life.

“We have been advised by a number of groups that they have not been consulted by this Conservative government, and where there have been consultations, they have been minimal at best,” she said.

“The Minister and her department have no plan and no vision for women in this country. There are still too many Canadian women living in poverty, earning less than their male counterparts and unable to participate in their communities due to their circumstances. We need real action – and we need it now.”

Her mother and grandmother were prostitutes. From a young age, Dettrea had little doubt about the path her life would follow.

She started selling herself for sex at age 12. A year later she worked for a pimp. Before she would finally break free, Dettrea was arrested four times and became a heroin junkie.

Now 18 and drug-free, Dettrea, who declined to give her last name, works with law enforcement agencies and Hookers for Jesus, a faith-based organization that addresses human trafficking and exploitation. She wants to help other girls like her leave the abusive and illegal world of child prostitution.

“No 12-year-old girl wakes up and says ‘I want to be a prostitute today,’” she said. “There is a way out.”

And now there is a new state law that levies the harshest punishments in the country against those who pander or prostitute children.

Last month in Las Vegas, Gov. Jim Gibbons re-signed Assembly Bill 380, which allows for fines of $500,000 for those convicted of trafficking prostitutes younger than 14 and $100,000 for trafficking prostitutes ages 14 to 17.

Both houses of the Legislature unanimously approved the bill, which Gibbons initially signed May 22.

The law, which becomes effective Oct. 1, also allows Nevada district attorneys to seize the property and assets of those convicted and use those funds for the care and treatment of rescued children.

“A word of caution to those who exploit children: We’re after you. This will make you pay,” Gibbons said during today’s ceremony at the Grant Sawyer Federal Building.

Last October, the FBI made 642 arrests and rescued 47 children in a nationwide crackdown on child prostitution. Of those, 49 were arrested in the Las Vegas Valley, according to FBI statistics. Records show Metro Police handled 150 child prostitution cases in 2008.

In Clark County, seized funds could be used to establish a residential safe house to get teens out of the life of sex for money, said William Voy, a family court judge. At the safe house, teens would receive counseling in an attempt to break the bond with their abusers and join in the prosecution of their pimps.

Although the children are considered victims and the pimps are the real targets, the young prostitutes are often arrested and jailed because that’s the only way to keep them away from the pimps long enough to begin to break the cycle, Voy said.

“The hardest thing to do is to get a victim to testify,” said Voy, who leads a special court formed in 2005 to address the issue. “They’ll say anything to get out of the detention center. Our biggest hurdle is to keep them in one place long enough just to get them to a preliminary hearing.”

Voy has worked on creating a safe house for child prostitutes for two years. He said the last hurdle is finding a steady stream of revenue to support eight probation officers.

This bill won’t be able to provide officers’ salaries because the seized assets would be inconsistent, Voy said. Instead, the county or state would need to dedicate fees from a reliable revenue source to pay for the officers.

The safe house is just the start of services the victims of child prostitution need, said Stephanie Parker, executive director of Nevada Child Seekers. The new law is a positive first step, she said.

“I don’t know that you can put a price on the life of a child but it’s a step in the right direction,” she said.

Freshman Assemblyman John Hambrick (R-Las Vegas) sponsored AB380. Child prostitution has been a topic that no one likes to talk about, he said.

But Hambrick said he found support for the bill across party lines at every level of government and from many community organizations.

“I think people realized it was going on, but that’s the underbelly of the city that no one really likes to talk about,” he said. “One way to address a problem is open the window, pull back the shades and let some light in. Hopefully the bill will help that.”

Hambrick, who is chairman of the Nevada Juvenile Justice Commission, said he will introduce legislation before the next session that targets the clients of child prostitution and trafficking networks.

“Nevada is starting down a road we’ll never back away from,” he said. “This issue is not going away. We have to address it squarely and definitively.”

The U.S. government should reform immigration enforcement policies that inflict needless suffering on immigrant women and their families, a former immigration detention center nurse, a former detainee, and a group of leading human rights advocacy and research groups said at a Capitol Hill briefing.

Immigration detention is the fastest growing form of incarceration in the United States. On any given day, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds 33,000 immigrants in detention, about 10 percent of them women. Detainees include asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, pregnant women, and mothers of children who are U.S. citizens.

“The vast majority of women I interviewed posed no security threat or flight risk,” said Nina Rabin, director of border research at the Southwest Institute for Research on Women and director of the Bacon Immigration Law and Policy Program at Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona. “One of the most effective ways to deal with immigration enforcement is simply not to detain so many people and instead use a wide range of alternatives.”

The hosts for today’s briefing are the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights; American Civil Liberties Union; Human Rights Watch; Legal Momentum; National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum; National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health; and the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The briefing will be held in cooperation with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus; and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Kathleen Baldoni, who worked as a nurse at Willacy Detention Center, the largest immigration detention center in the country, said that women there often are subjected to extreme temperatures, inadequate nutrition, medical staffing shortages and long delays for critically needed health care.

“I was prevented from providing the level of care ethically required of me as a health care provider,” said Baldoni. “Nursing and medical staff are genuinely caring people who want to do the best for their patients but we are often hampered by the system. Not only are the detainees in danger but the medical staff, who face liability issues are as well.”

A March 2009 report by Human Rights Watch found that while current standards allow for emergency medical care and treatment for detained immigrants, they are insufficient to cover women’s unique physical, social, emotional, and health care needs. These include gynecological exams, pre- and post-natal care, and treatment for those who have been victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

“It is appalling that ICE does not provide women in its custody with enough sanitary pads to keep from bleeding through their clothes, to say nothing of sufficient Pap smears, mammograms, and the other most basic elements of women’s health care,” said Meghan Rhoad, researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “It is bad enough that these women are locked up. The least the government can do is to give them decent care.”

Emily Butera, program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said that ICE’s focus on emergency care and keeping detainees medically ready for deportation is misplaced. “ICE needs to take into account the pressing humanitarian needs of individuals not held on criminal charges,” she said. “In addition to poor conditions in detention facilities, our immigration and enforcement policies are needlessly endangering the well-being of vulnerable people and tearing apart families.”

In fact, the advocates point out, women are being separated from their children, permanently in many cases, at great cost to society. In some cases, mothers are detained and taken to detention facilities hundreds of miles away without being given the opportunity to make the most basic arrangements for the care of their children. While in detention they are denied access to telephones and the legal materials necessary to locate their children and communicate with family courts to preserve their parental rights.

“ICE took me from my home while my children watched in fear,” said Marlene Jaggernauth, a single parent who was separated from her four children, all of them U.S. citizens, and who will speak at today’s event. “Had I not experienced a year in immigration detention, I would never have believed that such inhumanity existed.”

To read the January 2009 University of Arizona Southwest Institute for Research on Women report, “Unseen Prisoners: A Report on Women in Immigration Detention Facilities in Arizona,” please visit:

To read the March 2009 Human Rights Watch report, “Detained and Dismissed: Women’s Struggles to Obtain Health Care in United States Immigration Detention,” please visit:

Governments need to provide social protection and promote green jobs for women through alternative investments that provide decent employment, such as public-private and community-related partnerships, according to representatives from governments, the United Nations, civil society and academia, who met in New York today to discuss how to respond to the impacts of the economic crisis addressing gender issues.

The panel Economic Recovery and Sustainable Development with Gender Equality was organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and the Permanent Missions of Australia, Finland and Nicaragua to the UN. It addressed strategies to soften the impact of the economic crisis on women, who are at risk of being hit harder than men. In developing countries, when families can only send one child to school, girls are generally kept home; when families have only limited money and food, girls tend to be fed fewer meals, panelists said.

“There cannot be economic recovery or sustainable development without the full empowerment and integration of women in all levels of economic, social and cultural activities,” said Alberto José Guevara Obregón, Nicaragua’s Minister of Finance and Public Credit.

Panelists also raised concerns about an increased number of girls dropping out of school, higher levels of violence against women and girls, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and HIV and AIDS prevalence rates.

“Violence against women is a serious global problem, and severely limits women’s contribution to social and economic development,” said Gary Quinlan, Permanent Representative of Australia to the UN. “We fear the economic crisis will worsen the problem of violence against women — so tackling violence and investing in women need to be given priority in our response to the crisis.”

Participants also encouraged governments to provide job training and access to finance to women, in addition to promoting green jobs as a means of enabling women to enter male-dominated sectors that offer decent employment. Such jobs relate to women working on climate change adaptation: new and renewable energy sources, energy conservation, disaster prevention and reforestation.

“Women’s contribution and participation are needed in tackling the economic and financial crises. We need to ensure that actions related to economic recovery are inclusive and geared towards more equal societies,” said Jarmo Viinanen, Permanent Representative of Finland to the UN.

As more people lose their jobs, salaries and remittances slump, and as the cost of living increases, poor families are at risk of falling deeper into poverty.

“Women are watching. The challenge is to make sure they do not bear the brunt of this crisis, making up for lost income and public services by taking on a greater burden of unpaid care work,” said Ines Alberdi, UNIFEM Executive Director.

“It is always poor women and men who are paying the heaviest price of the bad governance and greed that has led to the ongoing economic and financial crisis,” said Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Director of UNDP’s Democratic Governance Group. “This crisis presents an opportunity that we cannot fail to seize in creating decent jobs, social safety nets, and a space where poor women and men can become victors and agents of change in the transformation of the current financial architecture.”

The time is now for all partners in human development to live up to their commitments to the poorest and most vulnerable in order to ensure that the global crisis of today does not hamper the development prospects of tomorrow.

On 18 June 2009, the Human Rights Council appointed Rashida Manjoo Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences. In her capacity as Special Rapporteur, Manjoo will investigate claims of violence against women, file reports on the status of women’s human rights in nations around the world, and call attention to nations that do not comply with international standards on women’s human rights.

Manjoo has long been an activist for women’s human rights. Before her appointment as Special Rapporteur of Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, Manjoo served as an Advocate of the High Court of South Africa and as a member of the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), a body created by South Africa’s Constitution to promote gender equality in that nation. She founded the Gender Unit at the Law Clinic at the University of Natal and the Domestic Violence Assistance Programme at the Durban Magistrates Court, and has also served as an Advisory Board member of the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice in the International Criminal Court.

Female internally displaced persons (IDPs) will again be able to learn job skills, take literacy classes and receive awareness programmes on reproductive health after the joint African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) helped reactivate women’s centres at an IDP camp in the Sudanese region.

UNAMID’s Gender Advisory Unit has worked with the North Darfur state Ministry of Social Affairs to relaunch the centres at the Abu Shouk IDP camp on the outskirts of the state capital, El Fasher. The centres, which will be run by a local non-governmental organization (NGO), had closed last year.

The Abu Shouk centres are expected to carry out several activities aimed at helping women gain livelihoods, including tailoring, candle-making and handcrafts. There will also be adult literacy classes, and awareness programmes on women’s reproductive health, and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

• Communities often reject those with Aids, says campaigner
• Consent allegedly gained just before giving birth

Women in Africa are being sterilised without their consent after being told the procedure is a routine treatment for Aids, a lawsuit will claim.

Forty HIV-positive women in Namibia have been made infertile against their will, according to the International Community of Women Living with HIV/Aids (ICW). The group is preparing to sue the Namibian government over at least 15 cases.

Campaigners also report coerced sterilisation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and South Africa, where according to one report a 14-year-old girl was told she could have an abortion only on condition that she agreed to sacrifice her reproductive rights.

The ICW has documented cases in Namibia where HIV-positive women minutes from giving birth were encouraged to sign consent forms to prevent them from having more children. Jennifer Gatsi-Mallet, its co-ordinator in the country, said: “They were in pain, they were told to sign, they didn’t know what it was. They thought that it was part of their HIV treatment. None of them knew what sterilisation was, including those from urban areas, because it was never explained to them.

“After six weeks they went to the family planning centre for birth control pills and were told that it’s not necessary: they’re sterile. Most of them were very upset. When they went back to the hospital and asked, ‘Why did you do this to us?’ the answer was: ‘You’ve got HIV’.”

Gatsi-Mallet said that some women were now afraid to go to hospital in case they are sterilised, and infertile women were often rejected by their husbands and communities: “In African culture, if you are not able to have children, you are ostracised. It’s worse than having HIV.”

African women aged between 20 and 34 have a higher prevalence of HIV than any other social group; in South Africa one in three is infected.

On average an HIV-positive mother has a one in four risk of transmitting the virus to her child. With the latest antiretroviral drugs, the probability can be cut to less than one in 50. But such medical interventions are underfunded and inaccessible to millions of women across the continent.

The ICW accuses the Namibian government of encouraging state doctors to sterilise HIV-positive women as a means of preventing the spread of the virus. Its request to see the government’s official guidelines has been refused. It hopes to bring 15 or more cases to court later this year.

A media report from Namibia last week highlighted the plight of Hilma Nendongo. A few weeks after giving birth, she was asked by a nurse: “Oh, did they tell you that you had been sterilised?”

Nendongo, 30, who is HIV-positive, suddenly remembered that hospital staff had told her to sign some papers as she entered the operating room for a caesarean section.

“It was a very big shock,” she told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. “I was very emotional … I wanted a sister for my three boys, and now I can’t have one.”

In South Africa, cases are being referred to the Women’s Legal Centre with a view to a possible action. Promise Mthembu, a researcher at Witwatersrand University, said coerced sterilisations were happening in “very large areas” of the country.

Many patients were forced to undergo the operation as the only means of gaining access to medical services, Mthembu told the Mail & Guardian newspaper.

See also: ICW project addressing coerced sterilisation in the news

The African Union Commission’s Initiative against Trafficking (AU.COMMIT Campaign) was launched here in Addis Ababa on Tuesday 16 June 2009, at the headquarters of the AU.

At the ceremony, the AU.COMMIT Campaign Strategy Document was presented by Mehari Taddele, Program Coordinator for Migration at the AU.

Mehari began by observing that June 16 was The Day of the African Child, and as such there was no better day on which to launch the AU.COMMIT Campaign. He observed that trafficking is a form of slavery and a form of international organised crime.

“Slavery assumes that the master is a superior human being, while the slave is an inferior human being. With trafficking in human beings, it is even more savage and abhorrent as the trafficked person is not only a slave but a source of body organs. There are many cases where organs of trafficked persons are stolen and, in some cases, they are deliberately killed for this purpose,” he stressed.

The Ouagadougou Action Plan, he said, was the main instrument to be implemented and used apart from the Migration Policy Framework for Africa and other AU policies in the campaign.

The action plan has proposed a three-pronged strategy: prevention of trafficking, protection of victims of trafficking and prosecution of those involved in the crime of trafficking and related forms of abuse. Some five major activities were planned over the next four years and these will be aimed at curbing both the supply and demand for human trafficking. He proposed the adoption of soft measures to curb the supply side and hard measures to fight the demand side.

Mehari told Capital that human trafficking in Africa is getting worse. “The AU has already formulated policies and is now working on disseminating the policies. But the implementation process rests highly on the commitment of African governments,” he stressed.

“Let’s prevent trafficking, protect victims of trafficking and prosecute those involved in trafficking,” was the slogan used by the AUC to send a strong message to the international community and the African population within the continent and in the Diaspora at the launch.

Organised by the Department of Social Affairs of the AUC, the AU.COMMIT campaign strategy documents will be implemented as part of the AU policies on migration and development, particularly the Ouagadougou Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings, Especially Women and Children.
According to the organisers, the launch of the AU.COMMIT Campaign is aimed at making the fight against trafficking a priority for the continent.

Recently, the fight against trafficking in human beings has gained more prominence in the international and regional forums pertaining to global governance. This is particularly true with regards to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) programme.

In addition, the recent Sixth African Development Forum, jointly organised by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, African Development Bank, and the African Union calls for the popularisation and implementation of the Ouagadougou Action Plan.

Similarly, the Africa-EU Strategic Partnership (Lisbon Action Plan) particularly the Africa-EU Partnership on Migration, Mobility and Employment calls for more action to combat human trafficking.

Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré has launched a campaign to reduce female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) by 30 percent by 2013.

Burkina Faso has made more progress on reducing FGM/C than its neighbours, lowering the percentage of girls undergoing the procedure to 50 percent in 2005 from 77 percent in the 1990s.

But following a government outlaw of the practice in 1996, some women perfoming excisions are cutting babies, rather than young girls, to escape scrutiny.

Marie Rose Sawadogo, permanent secretary of the National Committee against Female Circumcision (CNLPE), told IRIN: “I am calling on the entire population to unite behind this plan to reach zero tolerance to FGM/C by 2015.”

Last month President Compaoré travelled to Kaya, 100km north of the capital Ouagadougou – where resistance to stopping FGM/C has been high – to garner the support of traditional and religious leaders.

Some 260 young girls underwent FGM/C in Burkina Faso in 2008, 40 percent of whom required medical treatment following the procedure, according to the CNLPE.

The recent Gender Festival in Kenya has underlined the important role that male activism can play in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment.

“Men have a role to play when it comes to ensuring gender equity. It is not just a women’s affair. Gender equality does not mean women are ruling over men. It only ensures a level playing field for both men and women, removing all forms of discrimination that prevail against women,” Kennedy Otina, the regional programme coordinator of Men for Gender Equality Now (MEGEN) said.

MEGEN is a regional organisation that recognises the need for men to participate in the fight for gender equality.

The festival, an open forum bringing together gender rights advocates, featured plays, lectures, poetry, and theatre skits. Participants created songs and dance in support of gender equity, as well as t-shirts, placards and flyers with the basic message: yes to gender equality, no to gender discrimination.

Previous efforts to reduce gender inequality have largely targeted women, something analysts say has left gaps in the fight for gender equality. “We are talking about changing societal attitudes that have brought about discrimination against women. This change cannot be brought by one group alone, especially when it involves a change in all people and societies,” Otina noted.

One of the questions tackled by the festival was how to transform deeply-ingrained societal attitudes. For example, from early childhood, boys are socialised into gender roles fashioned to keep them in power and control, and as a result grow up believing that dominant behaviour towards girls and women is acceptable.

“We can reverse this by promoting new values that encourage communication, cooperation and equality between boys and girls before they become men and women,” Jonah Gokova, chair of the Padare/Enkundleni Men’s Forum on Gender, based in Zimbabwe, told IPS at the festival.

His colleague Otina noted that culture was dynamic and changes from time to time. “We tell people that long ago there were no clothes, people wore skin. Times have changed; today people wear clothes. One of the things that have also changed is the exposure of women. They go to school, and are leaders. This was not possible before,” he observed.

MEGEN’S work to promote gender equality from a young age also includes an outreach programme which targets young boys and girls in schools across Kenya, informing them of the need to respect each other, and that men and women are equal. The programme also targets teachers and parents to help them instil such virtues among their pupils and children respectively.

The Men’s Travelling Conference is another initiative of the group, taking these messages to men and women across the country. With the use of skits, the conference reaches communities wherever they are including churches and markets.

The response has been positive, with reports of changed attitudes even in some of the most patriarchal settings, according to Otina.

While targeting attitude change may be critical, working with legislators to urge them to pass legislation supporting gender equality is equally important. “We have been working with members of parliament because we realise they have the power to reject or pass laws. In particular, we are targeting male politicians because they are the most in parliament,” Nelson Banda, coordinator of the Men’s Network in Zambia said.

Already, his organisation is in the process of initiating a Male Parliamentary Network to provide support to women legislators when discussing gender equality issues in the House. So far four MPs have shown willingness to join the forum to back the women MPs who comprise just 14.7 percent of parliament.

“This figure is so low and makes it hard for the women legislators to form the necessary quorum to pass gender-friendly legislation alone. We expect that with the Male Parliamentary Network, things will be much easier,” Banda told IPS from Mongu town, about 600 kilometres from Lusaka, the capital.

However, political will is necessary for gender equality laws to be implemented lest they become just writings on paper.

“Uganda has done it and Rwanda too, through quota systems which have seen an increase of women in parliament. This shows that political will can enhance gender equality,” Norah Matovu-Winyi, executive director of the African Women’s Development and Communication Network, said.

Rwanda’s constitution provides for a quota system that reserves special seats for women in the Upper and Lower Houses, something that has seen the country record 56.3 percent of women in parliament, the highest in the world. With a similar system, neighbouring Uganda has increased the number of women legislators to 25 percent. The same system spells out 30 percent of women representation in the public service.

No such progress is yet visible in Zimbabwe, despite the country having signed to a Southern African Gender Protocol requiring 50 percent representation of women in government, Gokova said.

“The coalition government [formed earlier this year] has not made emphasis in getting women involved. It calls itself all-inclusive, but it has excluded a key group – women,” he stated. Out of the 69 ministers and deputy ministers, only 10 are women, translating to 14 percent, which is even below the 30 percent Southern African Development Community quota on gender equality.

Gokova’s organisation and others present at the Jun. 3-5 festival pledged to continue campaigning against this kind of disparity.

The Mozambican parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, passed the first reading of a bill on domestic violence against women, severely increasing the penalties for such violence.

Up until now, there has been no such crime as domestic violence on the Mozambican statute book. When a husband beat up his wife, this was treated as a simple case of assault.

The bill states that in any case of domestic violence, the minimum and maximum prison terms established for crimes such as assault and causing grievous bodily harm will be increased by a third. But, after assessing the family situation, the court may replace a prison sentence by a period of community work.

The bill defines domestic violence as a “public crime” – which means that prosecuting the offender does not depend on a complaint from the victim. The police can act without waiting for a complaint, and anybody else who becomes aware of the violence can denounce it to the police or prosecution service.

Women who are victims of domestic violence must receive urgent and sympathetic treatment from the police and the health authorities. The latter must provide a detailed report on the injuries to the woman, and their possible consequences.

Should the husband or other male relative who committed the act of violence abscond, he will be tried in absentia.

But even before there is any trial, the Court may, at the request of the woman or of the prosecution, issue an injunction, banning the offender from the house, and suspending his parental rights over the couple’s children. The court may also seize any weapons found in the possession of the man, and ban him from removing or selling any family property.

Meque Vicente, the chairperson of the Assembly’s Social Affairs Commission, which proposed the bill, denied that its purpose was to “break up the family”. On the contrary, it was defending families against violence.

“We have already legislated to protect children”, he said, referring to child protection legislation passed last year. “Now we should legislate to protect women’.

Although the bill eventually passed unanimously, there was hostile muttering from some members of the former rebel movement Renamo. Thus Antonio Muchanga criticized the bill for not being “inclusive”. He thought the law should also deal with violence against men.

Anselmo Vitor protested that the bill was “discriminatory”. He claimed there had been an earlier consensus that the bill must include all forms of violence, “but now everything’s changed, and it only mentions violence against women”.

Renamo women deputies did not agree. Helena Zitha pointed out that widows in the Mozambican countryside are victims of pitiless violence from their late husbands’ relatives. “Everything that a widow managed to obtain when she was living with her later husband is torn away from her”, she said.

Nobody pushed their objections to a vote, and so the bill passed unanimously and by acclamation. It will now be amended in committee before coming back to the plenary for a final vote in mid-July.

Domestic violence is a major developmental challenge across the world. It cuts across race, gender, age, class and ethnic differences.

The Domestic relations Bill, that was tabled in Parliament by the state minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Fred Ruhindi recently, casts a ray of hope for many people.

If passed, it will put to rest the unrestlessness by mainly women activists and organisations who were planning to meet the President over the delayed passing of family laws.

The bill will largely address issues of domestic violence.

The proposed legislation provides for the protection and relief to victims of domestic violence. This is important because it will make the current laws stronger.

The bill provides for; the punishment of perpetrators of domestic violence; procedure and guidelines to be followed by the court in relation to protection and compensation of victims of domestic violence; and the jurisdiction of courts including protection and enforcement of orders.

The bill also provides for empowering the family and children’s court to handle cases of domestic violence. More so, cases of domestic violence will be handled by the local council courts, the family and children’s court and the magistrate’s court in the proposed law.

Parliament as an institution will play its role but the onus is on the implementation and law enforcement unit to make the laws useful.

It is also important for women in Uganda to utilise international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination.

This, however, requires a lot of awareness and education by both the Government and the non-governmental organisations, (NGOs) in addition to counselling and provision of shelter for the victims. Domestic violence is condemned in all its manifestations. Be it husband to wife or wife to husband. All efforts in combating this ugly inhumane or animalistic behaviour should be supported. There is no room for abuse of love, but respect is expected from both sides.

More so, NGOs which play a big role in this matter of domestic violence need to coordinate in order to create effective programmes to equip the battered with skills.

Women who have experienced violence, particularly those in rural areas, should be supported in order to have socio-development of the country.
Much as good laws may be in place, the negative traditional beliefs and attitudes towards women must change.

Campaigners argue that changing attitudes is a priority — and not only among the general public. The community’s role is paramount in the abolition of domestic violence. At an early age, children should learn to respect women and realise that their mothers and fathers are partners in the family. By working with men in the broader economic sector, everyone — both men and women — will be able to access opportunities availed to them and there should not be a hindrance .

“There is no cultural practice that says it is acceptable to beat up your partner but within these practices it is more evident that they are to be protected.”

Uganda should borrow a leaf from South Africa which enacted the law 10 years ago to combat the high levels of domestic violence in the Rainbow nation.

Janey (not her real name) was 19 when she fell “head over heels” for a guy six years her senior. He moved in just weeks after their first date, which was before she learned about the cheating. When she confronted him, repeatedly, he raped her, repeatedly. When she told him to move out, he threatened her with more violence. Meanwhile, condoms: not happening. Hormonal birth control like the Pill, she says, made her sick.

“The first time I got pregnant against my will, I had the baby,” she says. Along with several STDs. (He’d been her only partner.) After a stint in jail for violating an ex’s order of protection, he was back, promising never to hurt her, gushing about family happiness.

The — yes — second pregnancy occurred when she’d run out of money for emergency contraception, having purchased it more than 10 times before from her college nurse. He refused to help her pay for an abortion. “He thought another baby would keep me in his life forever,” Janey says.

Thankfully, he was wrong. She finally secured an order of protection; he wound up back in jail for separate reasons. Janey graduated from college, has a good job and now lives in Arizona with two healthy children.

Media attention to the Chris Brown-Rihanna saga, which technically ended Monday when Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault, certainly got people talking — for better or for worse — about teen dating abuse and intimate partner violence.

But many violence and public-health experts agree that at least one major issue was, and has for too long remained, missing from that conversation. For girls like Janey, as you can see, partner violence doesn’t show up in police photos as swollen bruises. Instead, the evidence might be their swollen, pregnant bellies.

Sexual coercion and “reproductive control,” including contraceptive sabotage, are a common, and devastating, facet of dating and domestic abuse. A growing number of studies, experts and young women themselves are testifying to boyfriends demanding unprotected sex, lying about “pulling out,” hiding or destroying birth control — flushing pills down the toilet, say — and preventing (or, in some cases, forcing) abortion.

The implications for young women’s and public health are profound, among them unintended pregnancy, miscarriage and STDs, including HIV. (Some STDs are cured easily — if tested for and treated — while others can lead to chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, even infertility.) While this problem is not brand-new, only now are we starting to understand its scope — and, ideally, starting to learn from its consequences.

“Partner violence is not just about hitting,” says Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, noting how long it took to raise awareness that “partner violence” occurs at all. Now another alarm must be sounded, she says: “Sexual coercion is the most secretive part.”

Secretive, and pervasive. In what is said to be the first study in adolescent health literature “to document the role of abusive partners in promoting teen pregnancy,” Elizabeth Miller, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in pediatrics at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine, found that among 61 racially and ethnically diverse girls in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, 53 were in were in abusive and sexually active relationships at the time they were interviewed — and 26 percent of them said their partners were “actively trying to get them pregnant by manipulating condom use, sabotaging birth control,” or simply sweet-talking them about “making beautiful babies” together. Several reported hiding their birth control from their boyfriends; one girl told researchers her boyfriend “tried to get me pregnant on purpose, and then made me have an abortion.”

Jill A. Murray, Ph.D., a leading author and expert on teen dating violence, does counseling in high school teen-mother programs. Of one recent group, she says, “every single one of the girls was in an abusive relationship, of which the pregnancy or the child was a product.”

The problem is so widespread, in fact, that public-health advocates are working to cast teen pregnancy in a whole new light: not as a measure of “promiscuity,” or a failure of cluefulness, but rather as a canary in the coal mine of partner violence.

“We have to treat pregnancy itself as a warning sign,” says Murray. “I always tell other counselors that I’m training, ‘When you see a pregnant teen girl, always, always assess for an abusive relationship, because 99 percent of the time, that will be the case.’ ”

Of course, not all teenage girls are 100 percent averse to getting pregnant. But that doesn’t mean they’re in healthy relationships.

“Teen pregnancy is likely emerging out of unhealthy relationships,” says Miller. “That’s not the only mechanism for teen pregnancy, but it is an important one that we’ve managed to miss for a very long time.”

Miller, for her part, has vowed not to miss it again. Nine years ago, she was working as a volunteer physician in a teen health clinic in Boston when a 15-year-old girl asked her for a pregnancy test. It was negative. But two weeks later, the girl wound up in the ER with a severe head injury. The girl’s boyfriend had pushed her down a flight of stairs.

“I assumed all she needed was to be educated about her contraceptive options,” Miller recalled. “Later, I wondered what I had missed. Could I have asked a question that would have identified that she was in an abusive relationship?”

Last week, a new study revealed that while teen sex rates remain the same, teen contraceptive use is down. Fingers were pointed — deservedly so, one imagines — at, among other things, abstinence-only education that downright demonizes condoms.

But even as a growing body of research underscores the role male partners play in condom use and negotiation, no suggestion was made that those stats might include some girls who are forgoing condoms against their will, even those bolstered by condom-friendlier sex ed.

“The person you’re ‘negotiating’ condom use with may not be interested in negotiation,” says Miller.

“The picture out there is ‘just get women birth control,’ ” adds Esta Soler, president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, which has launched a public awareness campaign about reproductive abuse in relationships. “But, because of coercion or sabotage, they may not have control over whether they use it.”

And it’s not just about pregnancy. Dr. Anne Teitelman, Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, is an expert on partner abuse and HIV risk. In her published review on this link among adolescent girls, she found six studies identified an association between intimate partner violence and increased risk for HIV (as in condom non-use). Among adolescent girls, survivors of partner abuse are significantly more likely than others to be diagnosed with an STD.

Dr. Teitelman’s research findings also indicate that verbal abuse, as well as physical abuse, is linked with increased HIV risk among adolescent girls.

Teitelman, who is also a Family Nurse Practitioner, observed this association firsthand, before studies began to confirm the link.

“We’re giving teens all this information about prevention in the clinic, and yet I see them back all the time for STI testing,” she says. So, she began to ask, ” ‘What’s not working on our end? What are the obstacles in their lives that are making this difficult for them?’ I was not a partner-abuse researcher before, but I became one because that was one of the major answers.”

What drives young men to abuse in this way?

“It’s clearly out-and-out control of a woman’s body. Control for control’s sake,” says Miller. It’s an urge that stems, experts say, from an inability to manage their own fears and insecurities.

In one 2007 study, some boys acknowledged outright that they insisted on condomless sex as a way to establish power over female partners. (There is evidence of analogous male-on-male sexual violence, but it hasn’t been studied in depth.)

Other research found that some men took a woman’s request for a condom as an accusation of cheating, or an admission that she had slept around or strayed. And for some, yes, the goal is fatherhood — but not so much of the “involved” variety; rather, it’s a desire — as with Janey’s ex — to mark one woman as “mine” forever. Or, according to Patti Giggans, young men in gangs say, “I’m not gonna be around forever. I’ve gotta leave my legacy.”

(Still, Jill Murray is quick to note, she sees this problem in all classes, schools and neighborhoods she visits. “I don’t want parents to think, ‘Oh, my kids’ aren’t in a gang, so they’re safe.’ “)

And the girls: Why do they stay? Classic domestic-violence pathology, say experts. In an unfortunate mix of psychological circumstances, some girls take such intense control to mean, “I’m really special to this person,” says Giggans. Plus, remember: Often, they have this guy’s kid.

Perhaps most important is: what can be done? Some of the most essential work is already under way: experts like Miller and Teitelman have not only recognized pregnancies, STDs — or repeat requests for testing — as warning signs and are working to train other teen health care providers to do the same. (Janey’s 10 requests for Plan B should have sent up some sort of red flag.)

“Providers need to be asking questions like, ‘Is this a pregnancy that you wanted? Did your partner ever mess with your birth control?’ ” says Miller.

Peace Before Violence is one of many organizations working specifically to educate boys about healthy relationships in programs that focus on the positive aspects of strength and masculinity.

Others train boys’ coaches to talk to their athletes about calling out their peers on violence against women and misogyny. Researchers, including Teitelman, are also studying exactly how parents can best educate their kids, not just about the birds and the bees, but also about standing up to sexual coercion. (In one study, Teitelman found teen girls whose mothers had talked to them about resisting sexual pressure were twice as likely to delay sex, or use condoms during sex; when fathers did the same, they were five times more likely to have safe sex.)

And yes, we need to get even more dating-violence education into the schools. Though of course in this economy — which some blame for a further rise in dating violence itself — “most schools are barely doing sex ed and basic health,” says Elizabeth Miller. Her vision: stop “siloing” the issues that affect teen sexual health and relationships.

“It doesn’t make sense to talk about substance abuse use this week and pregnancy next week and STDs the following week and then healthy relationships the week after that,” she says. “We need to be talking about how they’re all linked together.”

This article was first published by Alternet.

See also:
* Rihanna case ‘sends out message’
* Advocates Urge White House, Congress To Broaden Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative