Archive for July 17th, 2009

Tribute paid to ‘courageous and inspiring woman’

Amnesty International has strongly condemned today’s murder of Natalia Estemirova, a leading human rights activist working in the North Caucasus region.

Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan said:

‘Natalia Estemirova’s murder is a consequence of the impunity that has been allowed to persist by the Russian and Chechen authorities.

‘Human rights violations in Russia, and especially in the North Caucasus, can no longer be ignored. And those who stand up for human rights need protection.

‘The terrible tragedy of the killing of Natalia Estemirova is a crime that should be denounced by the authorities and every effort must be made to bring those responsible to justice. It is yet another attempt to try to gag civil society in Russia and highlights the instability in the region.

‘Natalia Estemirova was a most courageous and inspiring woman who never tired of defending the human rights of others. She was a truly exceptional person and a friend to many of us.

‘We are shocked and saddened by the news of her death and wish to express our deepest sympathy for the family of Natalia Estemirova, for her friends and for her colleagues.’

Natalia Estemirova, one of the leading members of the Russian human rights NGO Memorial in Grozny, Chechnya, was abducted this morning (15th July 2009) at around 8.30am local time. She was dragged into a white car (VAZ-2107) and driven off in an unknown direction. According to witnesses, Ms Estemirova managed to shout out that she was being abducted. Later in the day the Russian news agency Itar-TASS reported that her body had been found in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia with gunshot wounds.

Natalia Estemirova’s work was crucial in documenting human rights violations in the region, such as torture and other ill-treatment, unlawful killings and enforced disappearances, since the start of the second Chechnya war in 2000. She also devoted herself to providing assistance to displaced people and other socially disadvantaged groups. No one has claimed responsibility, but colleagues believe she was killed for her human rights activities.

Her work has been recognised both at home and internationally by numerous awards, including the Robert Schuman medal of the European Parliament (2005), the Right Livelihood Award of the Swedish Parliament (2004 – the so-called Alternative Nobel Peace Prize), and she was the first recipient of the Anna Politkovskaya Award (2007).

The murder of Natalia Estemirova sheds further light on the precarious circumstances in which human rights defenders work in Russia. It follows the killings earlier this year of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, and of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in 2006. Both Stanislav Markelov and Anna Politkovskaya were friends and colleagues of Natalia Estemirova

Amnesty International calls for an end to impunity for the murder of human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers in Russia.


In April this year the Russian authorities announced the end of the Anti-Terrorist Operation in Chechnya. However, in the North Caucasus in recent months there have been a number of high-profile killings amid signs that tensions in the region are on the rise.

In a report published earlier this month, Rule without law: Human rights violations in the North Caucasus, Amnesty called for full accountability for the human rights violations that have taken place as the only way to bring about real stability and a return to civil peace in Chechnya and the North Caucasus.

Please post your condolence messages on our Blog. We hope to collect them in a book and pass them on.

Write a few words to honour courageous Natalia, shot dead in the North Caucasus

See also:
* A farewell ceremony was held in the Chechen capital of Grozny on Thursday for murdered human rights activist Natalya Estemirova.
* The murder of Natalia Estemirova is a dire warning. In the space of less than three years, the three key people uncovering human rights abuses in Chechnya have been murdered, writes Kate Allen UK Director of Amnesty International.
* Remembering Natalia by Lucy Ash from BBC Radio 4, Crossing Continents


Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women who took part in a conference Monday organized by Kolech, an Orthodox feminist movement, were asked precisely that question.

The vote is a milestone. The very fact that women self-defined as committed to Orthodox Jewish law are deliberating the proper title for a female rabbi – the most powerful figure in the traditional Jewish hierarchy – is proof that the Orthodox feminist movement has come a long way since it first began women’s prayer groups and Torah and Megillah readings in Israel over three decades ago.

“I’d estimate that within five years, we will be seeing women making groundbreaking decisions on Halacha,” predicted Dr. Chana Kehat, a former chairwoman of Kolech and an Israeli trailblazer in a movement previously dominated by Americans but now spreading to a wider range of Orthodox Israeli women – both Ashkenazi and Sephardi.

“It will take a few more years for people to get used to the idea,” Kehat added, “but it will happen soon.”

The excitement was palpable as women with hair coverings of various sizes, shapes and styles, dressed in long sleeves and short sleeves, wearing slacks, skirts and dresses, packed into the sessions offered throughout the day and thronged the hallways and classrooms of Jerusalem’s Keshet school.

The afternoon Mincha prayer organized by the few men who came to the conference included a handful of women standing at the back of the classroom-turned-prayer-house. These women represented just a tiny fraction of the many hundreds who relaxed in the main hall during the lunch break. At the end of the prayer, three of the women joined a man in reciting the mourner’s Kaddish.

Though uncommon in most modern Orthodox circles, women’s participation in prayer sessions – including the reciting of the Kaddish along with men – is within the boundaries of Orthodox Halacha.

Nor was there an atmosphere of feminist revolution – no burning of head coverings or skirts, à la the bra-burning rallies that supposedly marked 1960s American feminism. And women came with infants slung across their stomachs or strapped into strollers, which immediately raised the question: Where is dad? Answer: Infant-free at work. Not exactly radical feminism in action.

Nevertheless, in the weeks that led up to the conference, several religious Zionist rabbis launched an attack on what they called “neo-reformers” that included Kolech, comparing them to the German Jewish Reform Movement of the 19th century.

In fact, the conference, entitled “The Woman and Her Judaism,” was conducted under the shadow of these allegations that Kolech was a “neo-Reform” organization. In many of the sessions, speakers referred to themselves tongue-in-cheek as “proud neo-reformers,” convinced that any changes in practice or approach could be fully justified in Orthodox Jewish law.

Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, head of the Ramat Gan Hesder Yeshiva and one of several religious Zionist rabbis who lean toward a quasi-haredi approach to Orthodoxy, was perhaps the most prominent figure to attack changes in Jewish tradition. In a speech before members of the Bnei Akiva youth movement that took place several weeks ago and that received media coverage last week, Shapira was recorded as saying that this “neo-Reform” in Orthodoxy was motivated by two factors – romantic notions and undermining the limits of Halacha.

Shapira specifically mentioned as a type of “neo-Reform” Bnei Akiva’s coed educational policy. But he also attacked the activities of Kolech, which he claimed gave legitimacy to “birth without marriage.”

Shapira was referring to Kolech’s support for artificial insemination for women who have remained single until late in life and whose biological clocks are signaling the end of fertility.

One can only imagine what Shapira or other conservative-minded religious Zionist rabbis would have thought of the call during the conference by Malka Puterkovsky, a noted female Torah scholar and teacher at Midreshet Lindenbaum (Beruria), to allow married women to use birth control more freely, and her rejection of the trend in religious Zionist circles to marry early and bear many children.

Shapira warned in his speech that members of Kolech were misleading because they were often “more scrupulous about their adherence to mitzvot than their opponents.” But, he added, these reformers “undermine the Godliness of the Torah and its continuity today, both of which are based on contemporary rabbinic authority.”

Rachel Keren, Kolech’s chairwoman, said that Monday’s conference was probably the motivation for various comments by Shapira and other rabbis, such as Technion Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Rachamim Zini.

“The Kolech conference raises many issues that demonstrate so clearly the need for change in the Orthodox world,” said Keren. “One of these issues is leadership. Suggesting that women can also be spiritual and community leaders undermines the existing hierarchies and frameworks.

“But,” she added, “Kolech also breaks other taboos, such as our demand to confront domestic sexual abuse and fight denial of this phenomenon. And for many rabbis, this is not easy to accept.”

The confrontation between Orthodox feminists and the rabbinical establishment has escalated in recent years as the increasing integration of women into serious Torah scholarship programs, senior community leadership positions, and more involvement in the synagogue has sparked a reaction among more traditional-minded rabbis.

But the vying sides are not necessarily drawn along gender lines. Rabbis, who in the present context need to be defined as “male,” as opposed to female, spoke at the conference as well.

Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun of the Gush Etzion Yeshiva spoke in favor of transferring more authority to female spiritual leaders.

Rabbi Benny Lau, head of the Center for Judaism and Society and the Institute for Social Justice at Beit Morasha, talked about how gender segregation and messages in traditional Jewish texts that were not explained properly had a negative impact on young men’s perception of women.

“The female image is often portrayed as demonic, a source of sin, of prohibition – ideas which are in many ways Christian and foreign to Judaism,” said Lau.

But perhaps the most controversial talk was given by Rabbi Yehuda Gilad of the Religious Kibbutz Movement’s yeshiva in Ma’aleh Gilboa, who said that ordination of female rabbis was inevitable and that women had a special contribution to make to the development of Halacha.

“Obviously, in intimate areas such as laws dealing with family purity, women are much better suited to make halachic decisions,” said Gilad, who spoke with The Jerusalem Post a day after the conference by phone. “But women can also bring more empathy and understanding to fertility issues. As a man, I can never understand a woman’s need to bring into the world a child of her own.”

Gilad said that since women were unfettered by male prejudices, they were in a special position to issue novel halachic decisions.

“But there are also dangers,” he said. “For instance, if women become rabbis out of a desire to prove something or out of an angry desire to right past wrongs, they are liable to distort justice. There is also the phenomenon of being overly cautious. Women might end up being more conservative than men.”

In the vote for the title of female rabbis, participants were given seven options which included also hachama (sage), talmidat hachamim (a student of sages) and maharat (an abbreviated form of Halacha teacher and Torah rabbi).The voting results will be revealed Wednesday.

Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, considered more haredi in his approach and known to be opposed to feminism, said in response to the vote that “if women’s motivation is truly pure, then they should be encouraged to learn Halacha and be able to answer questions that come up. But if this is an attempt to attack the rabbinic establishment, then the initiative should be strongly opposed.”

Asked if he would support women as chief rabbis of cities, Eliyahu – the son of former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu – answered that the public should be allowed to decide.

“But how many female prime ministers have we had?” he asked. “How many female chiefs of General Staff have we had? Why has there not been a feminist initiative to appoint a woman to the post of chief of General Staff?”

A senior Sudanese politician called on Tuesday for an enquiry into reports young women from Sudan’s Christian south had been flogged for defying Islamic law by wearing trousers in Khartoum.

Police arrested 13 young women earlier this month, accusing them of wearing indecent clothes in a Khartoum cafe, and later flogged 10 of them, one of the arrested women told journalists.

Lubna Hussein, who works as an information officer for the U.N. mission in Khartoum, said some of the women detained with her were from southern Sudan, where most of the population is Christian.

Khartoum, along with all of Sudan’s Muslim north, operates under Islamic sharia law, but the punishment of residents of the capital originating from the south remains a sensitive issue.

Sudan is supposed to be working to soften the impact of sharia for southerners living in Khartoum under a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war. Sharia law was lifted in the south by the deal.

Yasir Arman, a senior member of the south’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), told Reuters he was calling for an investigation into the case to see why the southern women were not given greater protection.

“We condemn this in the strongest terms. It is an infringement of the rights of women and youths. I believe Commission for the Rights of Non-Muslims in the National Capital should look into it,” he said, referring to a body set up under the 2005 accord.

Arman said hundreds of southern women were also regularly punished for brewing alcohol in Khartoum.

“They are being punished for something that is acceptable in the south. This is one of the paradoxes that is undermining the chances of unity of Sudan.”

Southerners have been promised a referendum on whether to split off from northern Sudan in January 2011. The SPLM has repeatedly complained that problems in the roll out of the peace deal have made it difficult for them to make the case for unity.

Lubna Hussein, who is from north Sudan, told Reuters on Tuesday she was still waiting for her case to be heard after the arrest. “The police called me in for questioning again yesterday to ask about the shirt I was wearing at the time. They said it was too short and the material too thin,” she said.

Many more women than men are in vulnerable employment, working without pay for a member of their household or self-employed.

A public presentation of the “Progress of the World’s Women” report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in Pretoria, South Africa this week suggests that one of the most powerful constraints on realising women’s rights and achieving the Millennium Development Goals is a lack of accountability to women’s needs.

The report sets out a gender-responsive definition for accountability: the capacity of women to get information and explanations of government actions, initiate investigations or be compensated where necessary, and to see officials sanctioned where women’s needs are ignored or women’s rights not protected.

Poor women in particular are affected by weak accountability, and if they are to gain a voice in corporate and civic governance in spite of unequal gender relations, the report recommends that the number of women in decision-making posts be increased and, equally importantly, institutions be transformed to be more responsive to women’s needs.

The Pretoria presentation focused on women’s rights in the context of powerful global market forces.

“We see the economic and financial crisis as an opportunity to reconsider our economic models in terms of gender equality and achieving the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals),” said UNIFEM’s deputy executive director, Joanne Sandler, at the launch Monday.

Drawing on figures produced by the International Labour Organisation, UNIFEM’s Progress report shows how more women than men are in vulnerable employment, working without pay for a member of their household or self-employed. Over 60 percent of unpaid family workers are women.

In formal employment, hundreds of thousands of the jobs created in Africa during the economic growth period following the turn of the millennium – many of which were filled by women – are proving to be extremely vulnerable in the downturn.

UNIFEM Executive Director Ines Alberdi, who was addressing the Fifth Annual Meeting of Women Speakers of Parliament in Vienna on Monday, said that in Africa, where a booming export apparel industry has provided thousands of new jobs for poor women since 2002, including over 100,000 in Kenya, Lesotho and Swaziland, falling holiday sales are destroying the industry’s viability.

Morocco’s textile industry, including carpets, knitwear and garment manufacturing, where women constitute up to 79 percent of workers, has already lost 10,000 jobs due to the crisis.

According to Alberdi, statistics from the 1997 Asian financial crisis show that increased violence and abuse against women and a rise in infant and child deaths are some of the possible detrimental effects of the present crisis.

She added that girls in poor countries with low education attainment rates are more likely to be pulled out of school as households cope with declining resources; by 2007, girls already accounted for 54 percent of the world’s out-of-school population, a percentage likely to rise higher.

“…it is now a truism that in every crisis there is an opportunity. Global crises such as this one, which can define a generation, can upset the business-as-usual way the world operates, which makes it so hard to bring about change,” said Alberdi.

Business-as-usual, according to the report, has seen governments try to attract investment by, for example, weakening labour and environmental standards in special Export Processing Zones (EPZs).

UNIFEM is sharply critical of this approach in terms of accountability, pointing out that what attracts investment to these zones is the low cost of labour – mostly female. The often-secret deals reached between governments and companies in these zones place huge obstacles in the way of millions of women demanding fair wages and working conditions.

The report evaluates several voluntary or consumer-driven corporate social responsibility initiatives, before making recommendations which may not be welcome reading for transnational business owners: gender equality must become an explicit part of national legislation and international trade policy (and gender disaggregated data will be needed to guide this); women should be involved in national economic planning and the negotiation of trade agreements; and special – though temporary – measures to increase the number of women in decision-making are needed, including quotas for women on the boards of publicly-listed companies.

In a nutshell, governments must hold market institutions accountable.

This will require powerful mobilisation of women. Pointing to the role played by women’s movements around the world in challenging authoritarian governments, pressing for peace, and promoting legislative changes to laws governing marriage, inheritance and harmful traditional customs, the UNIFEM report’s authors are optimistic that governments can be made to answer to women.

World Bank: plus ça change

Contrast UNIFEM’s recommendations with those found in a recent policy document written by the World Bank’s senior spokesperson on gender and development issues, Mayra Buvinic.

Buvinic believes that women and girls in the developing world will be disproportionally affected by the global economic crisis. She suggests that responses that build on women’s roles as economic agents can go a long way towards mitigating negative effects.

“In Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya and South Africa, among other countries, rigorous studies unequivocally show that children’s welfare (nutritional status, schooling attendance) in poor households improves more when income is in women’s hands rather than in men’s,” she writes.

So economic opportunities for poor women should be at the heart of designing safety nets, employment creation projects and financial sector operations.

“In particular, micro-finance institutions should be capitalised so that they continue to offer credit and other financial services to poor borrowers, the majority of whom are women. The development payoffs of these investments should be large – both in terms of mitigating current hardships and preventing future ones, and are a smart use of development assistance.”

Public works programmes targeting women are praised; limited fiscal ability to provide social safety nets by governments deplored.

But no mention of a role for improved regulation of the market forces which have delivered food and financial crises or the vulnerable employment that is evaporating so rapidly.

(Reminder: We now have the rss feed from Genderwire – IPS News – displayed in the column to the right.)

“My mother was surprised that my breasts were getting bigger, and told me to go to the clinic to take a pregnancy test. The nurses told me I was pregnant and so I cried. I cried because I thought I was too young to have a baby and I thought I wouldn’t manage.”

Asanda*, from a rural village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, was in grade 11 when she became pregnant.

Although she did not want to have sex, her boyfriend put a lot of pressure on her, and eventually she yielded. Aged 17, all she had heard about contraceptives was that people who used them were girls “who slept around and had lots of boyfriends.”

Four out of ten South African girls become pregnant at least once before the age of 20, according to South African academics Agnes Chigona and Rajendra Chetty – and Asanda seemed destined to join the ranks of pregnant pupils who drop out of school even before their babies are born – mostly due to the stigma attached to being a mother

But Asanda made it to grade 12, the final year of school in South Africa, before giving birth to a baby girl.

Chigona and Chetty say that in a country where women make up 61 percent of the uneducated adult population, teenage pregnancy is one of the main obstacles to young women’s educational success.

Giving birth to a child marks the end of formal education for many young mothers, and those who return to school after giving birth often drop out if their children fall ill and need their mothers to take care of them at home.

Many teachers are just not willing to help one or two students catch up on the work they have missed.

Asanda went back to school soon after giving birth. “I continued with my education but I had too much pressure on me, I had to look after the baby and I wasn’t getting enough sleep at night because I was breastfeeding and the baby was crying all night. I couldn’t cope, so I failed grade 12,” she said.

Apart from dealing with the needs of the new born baby, Asanda had to deal with bad attitudes from some of her teachers. When she fell asleep in class some teachers would embarrass her by shouting at her and telling her that she chose to have a baby and so she must not expect to be treated differently.

“I had a low self-esteem. I did not feel enthusiastic about school, in fact I felt discouraged,” says Asanda.

She dropped out for a year, but returned to school when her daughter turned two and passed matric. Two years later, she enrolled for a BA degree in Fort Hare university, where she is about to complete her first year.

Asanda, now 22, will give birth to her second baby next month. Although this will surely interrupt her education once again, her determination and the support of her mother, a general worker at the university, might be enough to see her through her degree.

Although the election of president Jacob Zuma in April this year saw for the creation of a new ministry for “women, children and people with disabilities,” the South African government has yet to articulate any plan for the country’s high school mothers.

While on the election campaign trail earlier this year, Zuma said that teenaged mothers should be sent away to boarding schools after giving birth – without their children – and not allowed back until they have a degree.

Experts say his off the cuff remark shows that young women are still being blamed for falling pregnant – and the humiliation they attach to this blame is a further obstacle to getting through high school.

Neliswa* describes herself as a 17 year old virgin who got pregnant the first time she had sex. Then a grade 11 student in the city of Cape Town, she said she felt ashamed of being pregnant because she “was the only hope in the family”.

“I was the only young woman in my family who had managed not to get pregnant until the age of 17,” she told IPS.

After giving birth, Neliswa married the father of her child and went back to school, but failed grade 12. “I couldn’t concentrate, I kept thinking about my baby. I didn’t think that other people could look after my child the way I wanted.”

Teachers asked her why she had “put herself in this situation in the first place”, and she dropped out. She has a supportive husband, who wants her to return to school, but says she is taking time out to “find herself”.

She is involved in the “Girl Child Movement”, a project of the Children’s Resource Centre, and is now employed managing the centre’s health programme, which teaches young girls and boys basic personal hygiene.

“The centre helps me a lot. It keeps me involved in my community. They sent us to a lot of empowering trainings, and I like working with people from diverse communities,” Neliswa says.

Children’s Resource Centre director, and founder member of the Girl Child Movement, Marcus Solomons, says the solution to the growing number of teenage pregnancies is sex education, sports facilities and other extra-curricular activities to keep people occupied.

“If people don’t have anything like participating in sports, they are going occupy themselves with sex. Sex is the best occupation, day and night, and on weekends,” Solomons says.

This must go along with building a “culture of anti-sexism”. Building girls’ self esteem and bringing young fathers into the loop is critical in dispelling the stigma that continues to be attached to teenage mothers – the same stigma that makes Neliswa feel “allergic to school”, Solomons says.

The Girl Child Movement has trained 350 children as food gardeners “to ensure that children learn to feed themselves in the context of grinding poverty”, and over 1,000 girls and boys in anti-racism, anti-bullying and anti-sexism – which help girls avoid unwanted pregnancies that disrupt their education.

“We teach a girl that if she wants to become a pilot instead of a mother, she can do that.”

*Not her real name

Government Should Enforce Its ‘Zero-Tolerance’ Policy on Sexual Violence

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo should urgently investigate and prosecute senior army officials allegedly involved or complicit in rampant sexual crimes against women and girls, as part of its efforts to combat sexual violence, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch also called for a series of other actions to prevent sexual violence during conflict in Congo.

The 56-page report, “Soldiers Who Rape, Commanders Who Condone: Sexual Violence and Military Reform in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” documents persistent sexual violence by the army, and the limited impact of government and donor efforts to address the problem. The report looks closely at the conduct of the army’s 14th brigade as an example of the wider problem of sexual violence by soldiers. The brigade has been implicated in many acts of sexual violence in North and South Kivu provinces, often in the context of massive looting and other attacks on civilians. Despite ample information about the situation, military, political, and judicial authorities have failed to take decisive action to prevent rape.

“We have seen progress in the prosecution of ordinary soldiers for sexual violence,” said Juliane Kippenberg, Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights Division. “But senior army officers continue to be untouched. Their own crimes and their command responsibility for the crimes of their soldiers must be investigated and held to account.”

During 2008, the United Nations registered 7,703 cases of sexual violence by the army, rebels, and other actors in the Kivus, in eastern Congo where the army has been fighting various rebel groups. The majority of the victims were girls. Military courts in Kivu convicted 27 soldiers of crimes of sexual violence during 2008. In March 2009, 11 soldiers were convicted on charges of rape as a crime against humanity in Walikale, North Kivu.

But the most senior officer convicted of crimes of sexual violence in the region was a captain – no colonel or general has been prosecuted for rape, and no officer has been prosecuted for committing or condoning sexual violence under his command. On May 7, 2009, Congolese military justice officials arrested Colonel Ndayanbaje Kipanga, accused of raping four girls in Rutshuru, North Kivu. While this could have been a landmark case in holding high-level commanders to account for rape, Colonel Kipanga escaped two days after his arrest due to lax detention procedures.

To end sexual violence by the army, the government should create a vetting mechanism to remove abusive officers from the army, establish a strict chain of command, improve living conditions and salaries for soldiers, and strengthen the military justice system, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also called on the government to consider establishing a “mixed chamber,” staffed by Congolese and international judges and prosecutors, to help overcome the weaknesses of the country’s justice system. The special chamber would operate within existing national courts and prosecute military and civilian leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual crimes, beyond the few cases that will be tried by the International Criminal Court. President Joseph Kabila, in a meeting with Human Rights Watch on July 2, proposed the idea of a mixed court with a similar mandate.

Sexual violence by the army is widespread despite efforts by the Congolese government and international community to end it. President Kabila’s wife, Olive Lemba Kabila, in 2007 opened a nationwide campaign against sexual violence. In early July 2009, the government publicly recognized that a policy of “zero tolerance” to human rights violations by the army has become necessary following intense criticism by international groups, including Human Rights Watch. The Congolese army sent out instructions to all troops that protecting the population is their duty, and warning that rape and other crimes against civilians will be punished.

“Zero tolerance for rape is a noble aim, but it’s meaningless if the government doesn’t prosecute commanders most responsible for rape,” Kippenberg said. “The Congolese government, the UN, and others have done a lot to support the victims of sexual violence, but less to end the permissive atmosphere that causes it.”

In March 2009, the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC) developed a comprehensive strategy to combat sexual violence, which the government endorsed. As part of the UN efforts, Security Council members, during their visit to Congo on May 18 and 19, handed President Kabila a list of five senior army officers accused of rape and asked the president to take action. To date, none have been arrested.

The United Nations, the European Union, and other donors have provided assistance to Congo for military reform, including army training on international humanitarian law and help with improving the command structure. They also provide crucial support to the country’s justice institutions, including the military justice system.

“Reforming the security sector, in particular the army, is a top priority for international donors, but reforms so far have achieved shockingly little in reducing sexual violence against women and girls,” said Kippenberg. “Both the Congolese government and its international partners need to turn their good intentions on ending rape into concrete actions that bring results.”

The Security Council plans to hold an open debate in August 2009 on how to carry out Resolution 1820 on sexual violence in conflict, adopted in June 2008. The resolution spells out concrete obligations of individual countries and UN entities to prevent and punish sexual violence when it is used as a weapon of war.

Human Rights Watch called upon the Security Council to use Resolution 1820 to initiate tough measures against governments and armed groups that commit sexual violence in Congo and elsewhere. These should include funding benchmarks, measures such as travel bans against responsible individuals, sanctions, and refusing UN cooperation with abusive parties. Human Rights Watch also called for the creation of a special envoy or representative on women, peace, and security to serve as a high-level advocate and coordinator for these efforts.


UN agencies estimate that 65 percent of the victims of sexual violence in 2008 were children, the majority adolescent girls. Girls who are raped may suffer especially serious injuries, have difficulty finding a partner, drop out of school, be rejected by their families, or have to raise a child born from rape.

Sexual violence has been widespread and systematic in Congo over the last 15 years, with over a dozen armed groups using rape to terrorize, punish, and control civilians. The Congolese army, because of its sheer size and geographical spread across the country, is the single largest perpetrator of sexual violence. Since January 2009, when the army began a campaign against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – a Rwandan Hutu armed group – rape cases have doubled or tripled in North and South Kivu provinces of eastern Congo, according to information collected by Human Rights Watch. Perpetrators of sexual violence include the Congolese army, the FDLR, and Congolese rebel groups.

Witness Accounts

“I was just coming back from the river to fetch water…. Two soldiers came up to me and told me that if I refuse to sleep with them, they will kill me. They beat me and ripped my clothes. One of the soldiers raped me… My parents spoke to a commander and he said that his soldiers do not rape, and that I am lying. I recognized the two soldiers, and I know that one of them is called Edouard.”

– 15-year-old girl, Minova, South Kivu, March 2009

“I had gone to the fields to find potatoes. I was returning to the house. Then I saw soldiers coming toward me. They asked what I was doing in the fields. They said I could choose: give them food or become their wife. I said to take the food. They refused and took [raped] me, then they took the food anyway. They were two soldiers of the 14th brigade, with purple epaulettes and a solid color uniform. When the rape happened, there had been fighting and insecurity. The 14th brigade had fought CNDP [National Congress for the Defense of the People ] that same day.”

– 18-year-old woman, Sake, North Kivu, March 2009 (17 years old at the time of the rape)

“We were three young women and we were on our way to Cirunga…. They [the soldiers] raped us and dragged us to their camp, which was not far away. I stayed there for one month, under constant supervision…. There was no conversation between us, he had sex with me at any moment, when he felt like it, and with a lot of violence. I spent my days crying. I begged God to free me from this hell.”

– 23-year-old woman, Kabare, South Kivu, April 2009

“One evening some soldiers came to attack us. This was in February or March 2008. They said they would kill our father. The soldiers were angry with my dad because he had stopped them from cutting down an avocado tree [as firewood]…. We stayed in the living room. Two soldiers raped my bigger sister. When he had finished, he injured her with a knife at the eye, and he did the same with my brother…. Then they left. My mother brews beer and they took the money she had earned from that.”

– 13-year-old girl, Kabare, South Kivu, April 2009

“I was on my way back from Bagira. I met a group of girls and we walked together. We encountered a group of soldiers. It was around 6:30 p.m. and dark. Those who had the strength ran away. The soldiers caught two girls and raped them. They were about 14 or 15 years old. I fled and heard the screams of the girls. People made loud noise so the soldiers ran away. The girls cried all the way home. There have been no judicial investigations.”

– Teacher, Kabare, South Kivu, April 2009

Police in Angola, one of Africa’s biggest oil producers, are struggling to contain a surge in gang-related crime and rape cases in a nation where the majority of the population is young and poor, a senior police official was quoted as saying.

“What has worried us is that lately crimes have become repulsive, violent. We are investigating how these criminals act,” the commander of the National Police, Paulo de Almeida, was cited by the state-owned Jornal de Angola as saying.

“These (gangs) are growing like mushrooms. Something is going on and it is not because of lack of police control.”

He said most of the gang members were young males between 14 and 30 years old and were active in some of the thousands of shanty towns surrounding cities like the capital Luanda where there is little police control.

In the first six months of the year, Angolan police registered 442 crimes committed by juveniles — most of them males.

“There are crimes committed by children that are only 11 years old. Robberies, offences against the person but also rape are the most common crimes committed by these youngsters,” de Almeida said.

Some experts say crime increases with poverty and that teenagers and young adults commit more crimes than those from other age groups. The median age in Angola’s 16.5 million population is 18.

Thanks to surging oil production, Angola’s economy has been booming ever since it emerged from a devastating civil war in 2002 but most Angolans remain as poor as ever.

An estimated two-thirds live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank. Angola rivals Nigeria as Africa’s biggest oil producer.

Asked what Angolan police were more concerned about, de Almeida replied: “crimes of rape are taking place daily.

“It’s a phenomenon that nobody can explain. In Luanda we register three to four rape cases per day. On a national level, there are 10 cases per day. It’s a lot. The situation is worrying and tends to get worse.”

Rwandan refugee women in Uganda face particular hardships under a repatriation push that started in April, with a July 31 target date for completion, a local advocacy group finds. Second of three stories on women and the repatriation turmoil.

Rwanda’s post-conflict recovery has a number of impressive signposts.

One is the economy, which grew at an annual rate of about 11 percent last year, according to the country’s national bank.

Another is the political empowerment of its women. In 2008, Rwanda elected the world’s first majority-female parliament and today a woman leads the country’s Supreme Court. One third of the cabinet of President Paul Kagame is female.

Most recently is the April agreement–among Rwanda, Uganda and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees–to target July 31 as a date to repatriate over 30,000 Rwandan refugees in Uganda. It’s a sign that the three authorities consider Rwanda sufficiently stable and prosperous enough to begin closing the country’s post-genocidal chapter.

But Moses Crispus Okello, head of research and advocacy at the Refugee Law Project, a nongovernmental organization in Kampala, finds little consolation is these milestones, particularly not the new repatriation target date.

Okello says repatriation is alarming for refugees and that women have special economic, health and safety concerns.

Most Rwandan refugees live in four large settlement camps in southwestern Uganda. However, others have made lives for themselves in Uganda’s urban centers, such as Kampala.

The repatriation process began in 2003, but was not taken seriously, according to Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister. Now the Office of the Prime Minister has said that transportation to Rwanda will not be guaranteed for refugees who leave after the July 31 target deadline. The U.N. will also begin withdrawing support for Rwandan refugees in the camps in August, according to the Tripartite Agreement, which means a disruption in routines that many refugees have been following for years.

Okello says domestic violence could rise and women will lose financial security as they leave the land they have been farming at the camps, which gave their families a source of income.

During the transition back to Rwanda, they could be particularly vulnerable to high rates of poverty, since many women returning to Rwanda have described difficulty in accessing the land their families left behind, he says.

Another major concern is that Rwandan women–disproportionately vulnerable to HIV in the camps due to sexual violence–might lose access to the free antiretroviral drugs the Ugandan government provides through public hospitals and clinics.

Although Rwanda runs public programs that distribute the drugs free of charge, many women fear that their access to the medication will be interrupted as they move through the transit camps and back to their former homes.

Clarifications Sought on Repatriation Process
The Refugee Law Project recommends that the Ugandan government and U.N. clarify the voluntary nature of the repatriation and inform refugees about alternative options if they are unwilling to return to Rwanda.

Despite the general prevalence of peace in Rwanda–and diplomatic assurances of protection for those returning–individual refugees have legitimate concerns about their safety, the project said in a recent press statement.

It also pressed the U.N. to continue assistance for refugees who decide to stay, particularly since all Rwandan refugees in the camps have been advised to stop farming.

Over 2,800 Rwandan refugees were repatriated as of July 10, according to the country’s Office of the Prime Minister.

But the Refugee Law Project and news reports say that many of those have reversed course and come back to Uganda, citing poverty, loss of their families’ land and fear of being wrongly accused of genocide.

Most of the refugees in the Ugandan camps are Hutu, the ethnic group whose leadership helped plan and execute a genocide that killed between 800,000 and 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

“In the past, the Rwandan government has accused the refugees in Uganda of being genocidaires,” said Okello. “Some unscrupulous people also used the courts that were trying genocide suspects to amass property of those who had left Rwanda, linking them to the genocide. When they returned, they would accuse them of genocide in order to possess their land.”

Return should be voluntary, according to Uganda’s 2006 Refugee Act.

Individuals who fear ethnic or political persecution back in Rwanda may appeal their cases to the U.N. and the Refugee Eligibility Committee, based in Kampala, which has representatives from the two countries.

H.E. Kamali Karegasa, Rwanda’s ambassador to Uganda, acknowledges that refugees are fleeing the camps and doing what they can to avoid repatriation.

Press reports describe people posing as refugees from the ongoing conflict in eastern Congo, while others try to bribe local Ugandan officials to pass as Ugandan citizens. According to some reports, up to 20 people a day have been fleeing the Nakivale refugee camp, anticipating the July 31 deadline.

“We are aware of these people, but we are encouraging them to go home,” Karegasa said. “For many who have gone back, they have been welcomed by their communities.”

This is the second of three stories on women and the repatriation turmoil.

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

Rwanda’s draft law that would make compulsory HIV testing and require the sterilisation of all people with intellectual disabilities, has been contested by the Human Rights Watch.

The organisation, one of the world’s leading independent ones in defending and protecting human rights, says provisions of the draft are deeply flawed and should be expunged.

The draft’s provisions passed through the House of Deputies and were sent to the Senate.

“The Rwandan parliament should remove the provisions in the Reproductive Health Bill, since they violate the government’s obligations to uphold and protect human rights,” the group says.

“Compulsory HIV testing and forced sterilisation are counterproductive to the Rwandan government’s goal of improved reproductive health,” said Joe Amon, health and human rights director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement last week.

Human Rights Watch says the Reproductive Health Bill — drafted by the parliamentary committee whose duties include promoting social welfare — contains three particularly troublesome provisions related to HIV/Aids testing.

First, the Bill provides that all people who plan to marry must undergo HIV testing and provide a certificate beforehand.

Second, married people should be tested for HIV/Aids upon the request of their spouses.

Third, if a physician finds it “necessary” for a child or an incapacitated person to be tested for HIV/Aids, he or she may conduct the test without seeking the minor’s consent and may show the results to the parent, guardian, or care provider.

Mandatory HIV testing and disclosure have been condemned by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids, the World Health Organisation and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as violations of the right to privacy and counterproductive to effective HIV/Aids control.

These organisations have also stated that mandatory testing and compulsory disclosure can put women at increased risk of abuse and undermine public trust in the health care system.

Research by Human Rights Watch on HIV testing has documented significant abuses associated with coercive testing programmes.

The proposed Bill also obligates the Rwandan Government “to suspend fertility for mentally handicapped people.”

Systematic, forced sterilisation has been recognised as a crime against humanity by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

In May 2008, Rwanda ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The convention upholds the rights of persons with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, to equal rights.

“While Rwanda has made notable progress in fighting stigma and responding to the Aids epidemic, and has pledged to advance the rights of persons with disability, forced sterilisation and mandatory HIV testing do not contribute to those goals,” Mr Amon said.

The Bill has been in the offing for a while. It passed through the House of Deputies and was sent to the Senate.

The Senate, however, declined to pass it and referred it back to the House of Deputies. That’s where it lies at the moment.

Human Rights Watch also quotes studies in Zambia and Kenya which show that people with HIV are mistreated when their status is disclosed.

See also: African women with HIV ‘coerced into sterilisation’