Archive for July, 2009

“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.

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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’

Also Causes Delays for Many Who Do Obtain the Procedure

Approximately one-fourth of women who would obtain a Medicaid-funded abortion if given the option are instead forced to carry their pregnancy to term when state laws restrict Medicaid funding for abortion, because they lack the money to pay for the procedure themselves. According to a new report, “Restrictions on Medicaid Funding for Abortions: A Literature Review,” by the Guttmacher Institute and Ibis Reproductive Health, Medicaid funding restrictions also delay some women’s abortion by 2–3 weeks, primarily because of difficulties women encounter in raising funds to pay for the procedure.

Currently, 32 states and the District of Columbia allow Medicaid funds to be used for an abortion only in cases of rape and incest, or if the woman’s life is endangered, in accordance with the federal Hyde Amendment; only 17 states have policies to use their own funds to pay for all or most medically necessary abortions. Lacking insurance coverage, some poor women need a considerable amount of time to come up with the money to pay for an abortion, and may have to pull resources from other family necessities, like food or rent, if they are able to find the funds at all. As the cost of the procedure increases with gestation, many poor women become trapped in a vicious cycle of scrambling to raise enough money before the cost—and risk—increase further, while others are left with no recourse but to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

“The research literature clearly shows that restricting Medicaid funding for abortion forces many poor women—already at greatest risk of unintended pregnancy—to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term,” says Stanley Henshaw, Guttmacher Institute senior fellow and the study’s lead author. “Antiabortion advocates are using these restrictions in a misguided attempt to reduce the nation’s abortion rate. Instead, we should be focusing on reducing the underlying cause of abortion—unintended pregnancy—by ensuring better access to and use of contraceptives.”

The Hyde Amendment allows federal funding for abortion only in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment. In addition, Congress has enacted legislation essentially banning coverage of abortion for women whose medical insurance is provided by the federal government, including federal employees, military personnel, women in federal prisons and low-income residents of the District of Columbia, which does not have a state funding option. The issue of federal funding goes to the heart of who has access to abortion in the United States and under what circumstances.

“In his recent budget proposal, President Obama had the option of calling on Congress to end the funding restrictions imposed by the federal Hyde Amendment. We are disappointed that he did not do so,” says Heather Boonstra, a Guttmacher senior public policy associate. “It is time for Congress to repeal the Hyde Amendment and restore Medicaid coverage for abortion so that every woman, regardless of her economic circumstances, has the right to decide when and whether to have a child.”

Click here for the full report “Restrictions on Medicaid Funding for Abortions: A Literature Review,” by Stanley K. Henshaw, Theodore J. Joyce, Amanda Dennis, Lawrence B. Finer and Kelly Blanchard.

The Guttmacher Institute – – advances sexual and reproductive health worldwide through research, policy analysis and public education.

A dramatic plunge in international donor funding for family planning is threatening to undermine other humanitarian goals such as fighting poverty and hunger, as well as efforts to counter global warming, according to the UN and other specialists.

An estimated 200 million women lack contraception; the potential surge in the world’s population could well reverse humanitarian gains, experts say.

The largest amount earmarked for family planning since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo was in 1995, with US$723 million committed, remaining above $600 million for all but one year to 1999. The latest estimate, for 2007, is about $338 million.

“That’s a hell of a decline,” UN Population Fund (UNFPA) senior demographer Stan Bernstein told IRIN. Nor does it take account of inflation, making the drop even sharper in 1994 dollars. The word disaster is “entirely appropriate”, he said, noting that the issue seemed to have been pushed to the backburner by donors and media alike.

Akinrinola Bankole, director of international research at the US-based Guttmacher Institute, an NGO focused on reproductive health research and policy analysis, said: “Unless there is a renewed attention on population and funding for family planning, high fertility, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, in spite of desires for smaller families and high unmet need for contraception will aggravate the negative consequences, some of which are already horrendous.”

UNFPA executive director Thoraya A Obaid is calling for an increase in funding regardless of the financial crisis. “We have to protect the gains made and ensure that these gains do not slip back as more and more people are slipping back to poverty.”

In an effort to push the issue up the development agenda ahead of World Population Day on 11 July, UNFPA convened 30 leading family planning experts in New York at the end of June, including representatives from Bangladesh, Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya, India, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, the UK and USA.

“In one sense the issue is a victim of its own success,” Carmen Barroso, western hemisphere director at the International Planned Parenthood Federation, told IRIN, adding that “enormous progress in certain countries, regions, and segments of the population” had blinded people to the problems in other regions where the poor continue to be neglected.

“This is like declaring the marathon is over when the fastest runners have crossed the finishing line; people don’t appreciate the level of unmet demand in poorer countries,” Bernstein said, citing Kenya and Pakistan as examples of countries where fertility rates that had been falling are now stalled.

“There are a growing number of countries where there has not been the progress that there was in the past and some of that was because the expectation was that things were on the right track and so you could start putting money elsewhere,” he said.

“The difficulty of course is that every year more young women are ageing into their reproductive years and they would not have heard information campaigns that were done 10 years ago… It used to be that when you arrived in a developing country you would see billboards or hear radio spots advocating family planning; now all you see are HIV/AIDS billboards. That’s where all the money went.”

Bankole also said a decline in fertility in regions other than sub-Saharan Africa had nurtured the belief that a decline in all regions was inevitable.

“The issue of family planning has been demonized by the extreme conservatives who have [made] it … a taboo issue,” Barroso said.

Bernstein cited the link some people made between family planning and abortion. “And they are linked,” he added. “The link is family planning services reduce recourse to abortion, it’s as simple as that, but some people put family planning and abortion in the same category of wrong choices.”

He also noted that reproductive health in general and family planning in particular were not originally in the Millennium Development Goals because reproductive health and issues about women’s rights were felt to be too controversial. Universal access to family planning by 2015 is now included under the MDG of improved maternal health, but its absence at the start slowed things down, he added.

Finally there is the fatigue resulting from the very long-standing persistence of the issue. “There’s a little bit of ‘this is an old story, didn’t we talk about population growth and its impact in the 70s and the 80s,’ and it sort of doesn’t have the grab of the new,” Bernstein said. “It’s not that there have been that many new contraceptive technologies invented since; it’s always the new thing, the new invention that gets attention.”

A recent meeting in London on climate change and population noted that while the links were complex, population growth was clearly one of the drivers, particularly on a local scale, with regard to such issues as deforestation and water sustainability.

“It’s not a very simple relationship but it’s certainly one of the important factors in climate change,” Barroso said.

As with most such issues, it is the poor, especially in Africa, who bear the brunt of the funding shortfall.

“Many African countries are going to double or even triple in size between now and mid-century. And that I think poses huge problems for development. We need to debate population issues openly and honestly in a way that we haven’t been prepared to do in the last 10 to 15 years,” John Cleland, professor of demography at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told a news conference in June.

Obaid agreed: “I would like to stress that investments in women and reproductive health are not only decisive for overcoming poverty, managing the speed of population growth and achieving the MDGs; they are also cost-effective,” she told IRIN.

“An investment in contraceptive services can be recouped four times over – and sometimes dramatically more over the long term – by reducing the need for public spending on health, education, housing, sanitation and other social services.”

She called on decision-makers, now more than ever, to increase resources for family planning. “I do not think that any of the crises we are facing today – whether it is the food crisis, the water crisis, the financial crisis or the crisis of climate change – can be managed unless greater attention is paid to population issues,” she said.

A new maternal mortality study names HIV and AIDS as the cause of one in four maternal deaths in Zimbabwe.

The first comprehensive assessment of deaths resulting from pregnancy or childbirth revealed that 725 Zimbabwean women out of every 100,000 who deliver, die due to complications.

“The study findings have confirmed our worst fears: that indeed the maternal mortality ratio and the perinatal mortality rate are high, and present the biggest challenge for attainment of MDGs [Millennium Development Goals],” said Hilary Chiguvare of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), which partnered with the University of Zimbabwe and other UN agencies to produce the report.

She noted that the HIV/AIDS responses in maternal health programmes appeared to be “very weak”: of the 91 percent of pregnant women who visited antenatal clinics, only 4.7 percent knew their HIV status, and only 1.8 percent of HIV-positive pregnant women received antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission.

The second highest cause of death was postpartum haemorrhaging (excessive bleeding after delivery), followed by hypertension (high blood pressure) and sepsis (infection). Most maternal deaths occurred at home, where women had no expert care when they experienced complications.

Many women could not afford transport to distant health facilities, but even those who could often failed to get drugs or assistance from skilled health professionals. The fees charged by health facilities were another barrier.

Temporary shelters near health facilities, set up for expectant women unable to arrange emergency transport, had improved access to care. The Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, with funding from the Japanese government, recently started a programme to revitalize the “Mothers Waiting Homes”, Chiguvare said.

The report also revealed that the 29 percent of pregnant women who belonged to the Apostolic Faith Christian sect were at greater risk of maternal death due to their belief that health problems should be treated only through prayer.

“The major challenge will be to develop a sensitive approach to the sect, which respects their right to religious freedom but also asserts women’s right to health.”

The study concluded that nearly half the maternal deaths could be avoided by successful prevention and treatment of complications, and that “None of the interventions are complex or beyond the capacity of a functional health system in Zimbabwe.”

The well-being of millions of people could be put at risk as HIV prevention and treatment programmes fall victim to funding cutbacks as a result of the global economic crisis, warns a new report released today by the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Bank.

The report, “The Global Economic Crisis and HIV Prevention and Treatment Programmes: Vulnerabilities and Impact,” says that eight countries – which together are home to more than 60 per cent of all those receiving AIDS treatment – are already facing shortages of antiretroviral drugs or other disruptions to treatment.

In addition, 34 out of the 71 surveyed countries report that HIV prevention programmes focusing on high-risk groups such as sex workers, injection drug users and men who have sex with men are already feeling the impact of the crisis.

“This is a wake-up call which shows that many of our gains in HIV prevention and treatment could unravel because of the impact of the economic crisis,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé.

He added that any interruption or slowing down in funding would be a disaster for the 4 million people on treatment and the millions more currently being reached by HIV prevention programmes.

In 2006, the General Assembly pledged to achieve universal access to comprehensive HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010. A report by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on progress on HIV/AIDS commitments shows that achieving national universal access targets by 2010 will require an estimated annual outlay of $25 billion within two years.

According to a news release issued by the agencies, there are no reports of major cuts in donor assistance for 2009. However, it was reported that current funding commitments for treatment programmes in nearly 40 per cent of the countries examined will end in 2009 or 2010. It is feared that external aid will not increase or even be maintained at current levels.

“This evidence shows us that people on AIDS treatment could be in danger of losing their place in the lifeboat and bleak prospects for millions more people who are waiting to start treatment,” Joy Phumaphi, the World Bank’s Vice President for Human Development, stated.

“We cannot afford a ‘lost generation’ of people as a result of this crisis,” she added. “It is essential that developing countries and aid donors act now to protect and expand their spending on health, education and other basic social services, invest effectively and efficiently, and target these efforts to make sure they reach the poorest and most vulnerable groups.”

The joint report outlines several steps to maintain and expand access to HIV treatment and prevention during the economic crisis, including using existing funding better, addressing urgent funding gaps and monitoring risks of programme interruption. It also recommends looking at sources of financing that can be sustained over the long term.

Addressing a meeting of the General Assembly convened last month to assess progress in the response to the global epidemic, Mr. Ban said the economic crisis should not be an excuse to abandon commitments. Rather, it should be an impetus to make the right investments that will yield benefits for generations to come.

“Now is not the time to falter,” he said, noting that a vigorous and effective response to the AIDS epidemic is integrally linked to meeting global commitments to reduce poverty, prevent hunger, lower childhood mortality, and protect the health and well-being of women.

A law will be passed banning female genital mutilation (FGM) in Uganda, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced Friday. In his announcement, Museveni referenced a resolution passed last year by the United Nations that declared FGM a violation of women’s rights.

President Museveni said in his announcement, “The way God made it, there is no part of a human body that is useless. Now you people interfere with God’s work. Some say it is culture. Yes, I support culture but you must support culture that is useful and based on scientific information,” reported the Mail and Guardian

FGM is the partial or total removal of external genitalia. The practice both increases the risk of HIV transmission and increases infant and maternal mortality rates. In many cases, FGM decreases women’s sexual satisfaction. Approximately 3 million young women annually are forced to undergo FGM as a form of birth control and as initiation into womanhood. FGM is practiced as a rite of passage in 28 African countries.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree last week that increased the penalty for honor killing to a minimum prison sentence of two years. The law previously limited the maximum sentence to one year. According to the BBC, activists believe about 200 women are the victims of honor killings every year, murdered by male family members who suspect them of committing adultery. In a statement to a Syrian news agency, Justice Minister Ahmad Hamoud Younes said, “The number of wife killing has increased recently on the pretext of adultery, and the canceled article number 548 of the penal law pardoned those crimes.”

The new law reads, “He who catches his wife, sister, daughter, or mother by surprise in the act of committing adultery or having unlawful sex with another and then unintentionally kills or hurts either of them can benefit from attenuating circumstances, provided that he serves a prison term of no less than two years in the case of killing.”

Women’s rights groups in Syria are acknowledging the new law as a small step in the right direction, while maintaining that it does little to discourage honor killing. The group Women of Syria released a statement saying, “This is only a small contribution to solving this problem, for in this new version too the paragraph (law) still invites murder,” according to the Deutsche Presse Agentur.

Afghanistan’s Justice Ministry released a revision of the controversial Shia law that legalized rape within marriage, among other provisions. The Associated Press reports that the new version omits original provisions that allowed men to demand sex from their wives and that required women to ask their husbands’ permission to leave their home.

The law sparked international outrage when it was first signed by President Hamid Karzai in March, prompting him to suspend its enforcement while the Justice Ministry conducted a three-month review of the legislation. The law applies only to Afghanistan’s 10-20 percent Shia minority, but many condemned its similarities to the Taliban’s restrictions on women. The revised law will be debated in parliament before it is implemented.

The response of activists to the revised law has been mixed. Brad Adams, Asia Director of the Human Rights Watch, stated “This review process has been shrouded in secrecy. The result is that, despite some modest improvements, many key amendments proposed by civil society groups and parliamentarians have been ignored, and some of the most repressive provisions remain,” according to the UK Telegraph. For example, the law still includes a provision that states a man does not have to provide financial support for his wife unless he has “access to her.”

Women’s rights advocate Shukria Barakzai believes the law will have little affect on the reality of women’s lives. “We need a change in customs, and this is just on paper. What is being practiced everyday, in Kabul even, is worse than the laws. Still there are forced marriages and child marriages and the lack of access to property, and the lack of access to divorce. Still a girl, because she’s a girl, can’t go to school, in very rich families even,” she told the Associated Press.

Rapists in Afghanistan too often get away with their crime, whilst rape victims lack access to justice and experience stigma and shame, according to a report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

“In some areas, alleged or convicted rapists are, or have links to, powerful commanders, members of illegal armed groups, or criminal gangs, as well as powerful individuals whose influence protects them from arrest and prosecution,” said the report entitled Silence is Violence, launched in Kabul on 8 July.

“Women and girls are at risk of rape in their homes, their communities and in detention facilities,” it said.

Norah Niland, the OHCHR representative in Afghanistan, said shame and stigma were attached to rape victims rather than to the perpetrators.

Rapists have often managed to evade prosecution and punishment because Afghan law, the penal code and other civil laws lack clarity on the crime.

“There is an urgent need to criminalize rape in Afghan laws,” said Niland who also heads the human rights unit of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Some traditional practices also serve to blur rape as a crime. Inter-clan or inter-family disputes are sometimes eased or resolved by a suspected rapist being married off to his victim as a form of social cover-up.

‘Baad’, the practice of handing over a girl from one’s own family to placate an aggrieved party, could provide cover for rapists: The suspected rapist or his family clears his alleged crime by giving a girl to one of the sons of the victim’s family.

More importantly, the justice system appears to be inadequate.

“When a victim of rape goes to the police for justice, the police rape her again and say ‘she is a whore’ but they never say ‘whore’ to a rapist,” said Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

Women in Afghanistan are subject to numerous other forms of physical and psychological violence apart from rape or sexual violence, and are frequently deprived of their basic human rights, according to the OHCHR report, which also said attitudes to rape need to change.

“There is a dramatic and urgent need for the government of Afghanistan and society to question attitudes to rape, the larger problem of violence against women, and their complicity in a crime that destroys the life of numerous victims,” said the report.

Shabana Azmi, an Indian actress and social activist who attended the report’s launch in Kabul, said Afghanistan’s high maternal mortality rate, female illiteracy and endemic violence against women were unacceptable and inexcusable.

See also:
* “Silence is Violence” (download PDF, was written by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and the UN’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
* A ‘baad’ practice in Afghanistan

The Wellington Sexual Abuse Network (WSAN), a.k.a. the joined forces of Wellington Rape Crisis, Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP and WellStop vote ‘Yes’ have a plan to prevent sexual violence among young people.

WSAN, with support from the Ministry of Justice, will pilot a revolutionary six-week Sex & Ethics programme at Victoria University over the next 18 months. Project co-ordinator Sandra Dickson talked to Salient about sex, pleasure and why the traditional approach to rape prevention doesn’t work.

Before we get into the rest of the interview, how does the Wellington Sexual Abuse Network define rape?

In terms of the law, rape means penis, vagina, unwanted. But most people don’t use the word rape like that. Most of the time when we talk about rape in our lives, we talk about sex that one person doesn’t want to be happening. That could be anal rape, it could be unwanted sex between two men, it could be feeling forced to do things you don’t want to do. In our usual lives, that’s the way we define rape.

And what’s the background to the programme?

We wanted to find prevention approaches that worked. We know that sexual violence has not decreased in our twenty or thirty years of looking at the problem. So the first thing the WSAN did was take a look at what was happening around the world. Basically, there’s a bit of a revolution going on. We’ve got sexual violence prevention starting to change, starting to look at what sexual pleasure is. The idea is, if you’re having great sex with your partner or partners, you won’t get sexual violence in that relationship.

Just to move back to the more traditional approach to rape prevention, why do you think that doesn’t work? Specifically, why does ‘just ask women to say no’ not work?

There’s a whole range of reasons. We’re assuming that rape is something women should be stopping men doing, rather than all of us stopping anyone doing. Also, the thing about the new approach is that it can be applied to any relationship—straight or queer.

How did the original programme in Australia get developed?

In Australia, Moira [Carmody, Associate Professor at the University of Western Sydney] and Karen [Willis, head of NSW Rape Crisis] interviewed loads of young people and asked them what they’d been taught about sex. Basically, young people said ‘we know loads about plumbing, how to put on a condom’, some young people said ‘we know we’re supposed to wait until we get married’… different messages, but nothing like ‘how do you hook up with someone you meet at the club and work out what you’ve both agreed to?’ Most of that is done without talking, non-verbal, so if we’re doing non-verbal [communication] to let each other know we’re attracted, how do we know that what we’ve both agreed to is the same thing? What if one of you wants to go home and cuddle, and the other wants to go home and have intercourse? What if one of you wants to go home and take off all your clothes and kiss, and the other has decided on a bondage scene? How do we check that out?

So, basically the programme was founded in Australia and gradually it gained popularity?

We’re actually in the really early stages. The programme has been developed and piloted in Australia over the last three years. We’re the first other country to offer it, and Wellington is the only place in NZ where the programme is available to young people.

And once Moira has trained the educators, they’ll run the programme from Evolve [youth service on Eva Street], Vibe [youth service in Lower Hutt], Massey and Victoria?

Two courses will be offered at Victoria and both run over six weeks for two hours a week. We run it over six weeks to give people a chance to think about it… Apply it… Yeah, no doubt apply it! And it gives people enough time to think about what they’re actually learning. Part of the course involves looking at how we’ve behaved in the past, what we wish we’d done differently—and I think most people have sex stories like that, eh!—and how we might want to do it next time.

And what’s the response from the trials that have been done in Australia?

It’s really interesting. We saw three really big shifts. People have talked about having a much better idea of what they want to do sexually. You start the programme, you might have a pretty good idea some of the time. Six months later, you’ve got a really good idea about what you are and aren’t prepared to do, what you think is good sex and bad sex. You’ve developed that whole way of checking with yourself.

The second big finding was that people reported feeling much more confident that they knew what their partner wanted. We’re not just talking about long-term relationships here, we’re also talking about one-night stands… so basically, young people were having better sex, which is pretty cool.

The third piece of research showed that six months down the line, most people felt much more confident about jumping in to prevent sexual abuse from happening. Maybe ringing a cab and getting that young woman home, ‘cos she’s too pissed to do anything that night, or popping over and saying ‘mate, what’s going on here, what’re you doing?’ Even something as simple as, you know, ‘do you want to be an asshole, what’re you doing?’ The students in Australia talked about that really enthusiastically, they said ‘I know how to do that now, I know how to do that with my friends, this is how we did it last week’… What that does is stop sexual violence happening, and stop people knowing about it but not knowing how to stop it. That’s a huge change.

So that’s a prevention of both types of rape then—unwanted sex when you know the person, and unwanted sex when you don’t know them well, or you don’t know them at all.


Something else I wanted to ask, you said right at the start of the interview, you said the legal definition of rape is a penis in a vagina when it’s not meant to be there. Are you pushing for legislative change? Are you hoping programmes like this will help shift stereotypes?

I think we’ve got real problems with our laws in NZ. At the moment when people report rape, they’re really, really, really unlikely to get a conviction. We have all these stereotypes about that being because people who report rape aren’t telling the truth, but actually research suggests that police only get to hear about 12% of the rapes in NZ.


Most people who are raped are women, so we’re talking about most women not reporting when they’re raped. The second thing is that our justice system at the moment has appalling successful prosecution rates. International research shows us that’s not usually because the complaint is false, it’s usually because there are problems with how rape is prosecuted, with the collection of evidence.

One of the things that we have in NZ, in order to prove that someone has raped you, you have to prove that you didn’t consent to what happened. In a lot of other countries, it’s the other way around. In order to prove that you haven’t raped someone, you have to prove that you actually cared what they wanted. You have to prove that you made sure you knew they had consented.

And that’s happening overseas?

It’s true in the UK now, relatively recently, and it’s true in some parts of Australia. So actually, we’re behind Australia when it comes to rape law.

So rape prevention seems to involve both education and legislation… where does the Sex & Ethics programme fit in?

If the course works well, then hopefully we’ll see these ideas being used in schools. Instead of ‘girls, you just say no, and boys, you just listen to the girls’, we’ll actually get some ideas about how you negotiate good sex, because at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to have good sex?

Calls to the rape crisis line have more than doubled as courageous victims taking on their attackers and winning have helped remove the stigma attached to sex assault.

But disturbingly, new figures show that up to four women a week are being gang raped.

Brave young women like Tegan Wagner – who gave up her right to anonymity in order to tell her story and help other victims of rape come forward – have been instrumental in forcing a “cultural shift”.

“I think it’s fantastic that more women are speaking out,” Ms Wagner said yesterday. “They now know how empowering it can be. I have definitely seen a change in society’s attitude towards sexual assault.”

In the past three years, calls to the NSW Rape Crisis Centre have risen by 130 per cent – from 2927 calls in 2004/05 to 6730 in 2008/09. But the increase does not necessarily point to a rise in actual sexual assaults, Rape Crisis Centre manager Karen Willis said.

“There has been a cultural shift – society views sexual assault differently,” Ms Willis said. “There are reasons for this but I think we now have a generation who say ‘enough is enough’ and have taken a strong stance against rape. Certainly the bravery of those women like Tegan Wagner and the woman in the Coffs Harbour Bulldogs scandal did empower other victims to come forward. I don’t think you can underestimate what those victims did for the way sexual assault is now viewed in society.”

There were 9377 sexual assaults recorded last year. But that is only 15 per cent of the actual number of assaults occurring, Ms Willis said. Gang rape is also a common occurrence, with four women a week calling the crisis centre.

Police said a woman recently was sexually assaulted by a group of men at a party but did not want to press charges.

“It’s not how some people might view it. These men usually prey on a vulnerable woman who is at a party and she might go outside to be sick or even agree to have sex with one man and then others become involved,” Ms Willis said. “It might be two men but (nevertheless) that’s gang rape.”

Due to the growing demand on the service centre, Health Minister John Della Bosca has given $660,000 to employ specific counsellors to deal with adult victims of child sexual assault.

While victims are coming forward, many still feel too vulnerable to report the crime to police. Sex crimes squad commander Detective Superintendent John Kerlatec said police had not noted an increase in sexual assaults.

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing – we are making sure victims take the first step and start the road to recovery by contacting someone like the Rape Crisis Centre,” he said.,22049,25771211-5001021,00.html

Annual report of Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel sheds light on phenomenon of sexual assault in workplace. Number of complaints on harassment at work rises by 12% in 2008

The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel will submit its annual report to the Knesset on Monday morning, this time focusing on a particularly touchy subject – sexual assaults in the workplace.

Last year the number of complaints regarding sexual harassment in the workplace rose by 12%. Reports on workplace harassment reveal that 81% of employees have complained of sexual harassment, 11.4% of them referring to rape and attempted rape, and 7.6% to indecent assaults.

In 2008 support centers received 37,526 complaints (7,793 of them new), compared to 40,518 complaints in 2007. Eleven percent of the complainants reported of sexual harassment in their place of work.

In 70.4% of the cases the attacker was the employer or supervisor, whereas in 14.3% cases it was a friend or an acquaintance. Sixty-three percent of the victims who have approached the centers are under the age of 18. In the passing year the number of complainants who have turned to the police has risen 11%.

Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the Shiluv Millward Brown institute for the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel was released ahead of a week marking sexual harassment awareness in the workplace.

The survey reveals that one-third of the Israeli public has been exposed to sexual harassment in their place of work, but many are not aware of the existence of a complaints supervisor.

More than half the public (54%) are not aware that sexual relations between employee and employer are forbidden, while 38% believe that sexual relations are permissible as long as both sides are consenting.

Michal Rosin, CEO of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, says that “the issue of sexual assaults in workplaces has played a major role in the activity of the Association in the past few years.

“From an extensive activity of education departments in workplaces – including the training of executives, employees and sexual assault prevention supervisors – we have learned of a gap between the frequency of the phenomenon and the number of reports and complaints submitted regarding sexual assault in the workplace.

“There is no doubt that the enactment of laws has helped, but there is still a long way ahead before the law is implemented,” she added.

In 2008 the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel held 610 workshops and lectures to executives and employees and approximately 100 sessions as part of courses for sexual assault prevention supervisors at workplaces.,7340,L-3741867,00.html

Inspired by Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi’s brave promise last week to represent in court the family of Neda Agha-Soltan, murdered by Iranian militia during last weekend’s demonstrations in a rally in Tehran, the peace group CODEPINK has created a letter addressed to Ebadi for women worldwide to sign, a pledge of solidarity to the courageous women of Iran who have led the revolutionary demonstrations there for the past two weeks despite increasing threat of government retaliation.

Agha-Soltan, Ebadi, a 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner and contributor to CODEPINK’s 2005 book, “Stop The Next War Now,” and Effat Hashemi, the wife of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who was among the first to call for public protests, represent the incredible strength of Iranian women and their hunger for justice. Demanding reform, regime change, more social freedoms and a fair election, women have sometimes outnumbered men at the demonstrations, and they’ve also fought back police and militia.

“Shirin and all Iranian women taking to the streets inspire us all with their courage and strength in the face of a kind of suppression that many of us will never know,” said Jodie Evans, co-founder of CODEPINK. “This letter to Shirin proves that we stand in solidarity with them and support their work for human rights and a more democratic Iran.”

CODEPINK, founded in 2003, has dedicated much of its work to stop U.S. sanctions on Iran and improve relations between the two countries. Since 2005, it has led a “Peace with Iran” campaign, which included a delegation of women to Iran to establish face-to-face ties between Americans and Iranians as well as a “Mayors for Peace” initiative, an effort to have mayors nationwide sign a resolution to oppose military intervention in Iran. This past September in New York City, CODEPINK women joined other American peace activists in a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to promote open dialogue, and in November, Evans and retired Col. Ann Wright led a citizen’s diplomacy trip to Iran and met with Iranian parliamentarians and women’s groups.

Iranian women have been longtime leaders in political efforts and have struggled to regain their legal rights for years, explained former first minister of women’s affairs Mahnaz Afkhami in the Nation on June 24. Iran’s mass protests around its recent election have given Iranian women a new platform.

“This battle between women and the government just keeps going on,” Afkhami said. “Right now it shows itself vividly.”

A Message to Our Sisters in Iran

Over the past several weeks, hundreds of thousands of Iranians – led by large numbers of women – have filled the streets in protest of the recent presidential election there. The Iranian government forbid the protests and responded with force. Despite the violence, protesters have continued to take to the streets. On June 20th, a young woman known as Neda – which means “voice” or “calling” in Persian – was shot in the head and died in the street. As video of her horrific death spread across the internet, Neda became the voice of the movement as people cried, “We are All Neda.”

As appalled by the use of force and violence toward people protestors, we are also in awe of the strength and courage of those Iranian women who continue to stand up for freedom, equality, and justice. For decades, Iranian women have been at the forefront of the movement for greater rights.

Today we stand in solidarity with our sisters in Iran who have been speaking out by signing this message to human rights advocate and lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who has agreed to represent Neda’s family. You can also leave a personal message of solidarity that we will pass onto our sisters organizations in Iran.

We are ever inspired by Shirin Ebadi’s words, featured in our 2005 book Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence & Terrorism:

“If one country sincerely wants to support democracy in another country that is under dictatorial rule, the only thing to do is to support the freedom fighters who stand for the democratic institutions of that country. Done this way, the sapling of democracy will bear the flower of freedom.”

Don’t forget to leave a personal message via the link below for CODEPINK to pass onto our sister organizations in Iran.

See also: Iranian Nobel Laureate Urges European Union to Condemn Post-Election Violence

In keeping with increasing instances of sexual misconduct by men in uniform and in positions of authority, the National Commission for Women (NCW) is pushing for a radical overhaul of laws on crimes against women, including the anti-rape law, to make punishment more stringent.

The NCW is seeking higher punishment for policemen, public servants and employers, for not just rape but sexual offences that stop short of forced penile penetration. The maximum punishment for non-rape offences, it proposes, should be increased from five years to 10 years in jail.

It has suggested a broader definition of sexual assault to include “introduction” instead of “penetration” as the defining crime and to include anal and oral sex on an unwilling woman or minor. Towards this end, the Commission has proposed a slew of changes in the Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Indian Evidence Act.

Said NCW chairperson Girija Vjas: “The need for a new law on sexual assault was felt as the present law does not define and reflect various kinds of sexual assault that women are subjected to in our country.” She said the Supreme Court had, in the Sakshi vs Union of India case, recognized the inadequacies in the law relating to rape and suggested that the legislature bring about the necessary changes.

NCW has also suggested changes in the process of reporting, medical examination and the role of police officials. While several of the amendments are already in practice following Supreme Court rulings, the Commission strongly pitched for bringing about changes in the law to dispel any ambiguity.

In its 172nd report, the Law Commission had examined the laws relating to rape and sexual assault and suggested their complete overhaul. In keeping with that, the NCW has sought amendments to sections 375, 376, 354 and 509 of IPC. While NCW has accepted almost all amendments suggested by the Law Commission, it has differed on one: the NCW has asked for deletion of section 376A that invites a two-year prison term and fine if a husband has sexual intercourse with his wife without her consent while the two are living apart.

The NCW has also come down heavily on sexual offences committed under judicial custody. It has proposed that if a police official commits sexual assault within the limits or on the premises of the police station where he is appointed or commits assault on a woman or child under 16 years of age, he should be liable for a minimum punishment of 10 years in jail and a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

The staff or management of a hospital, remand home or a women’s or children’s institution committing such an act should be liable to punishment from five years to 10 years in jail and a fine, NCW has said.

The commission has suggested the introduction of a new section — 376D — that would make any man who touches, directly or indirectly, any part of a woman’s body with sexual purpose, liable to three years’ imprisonment. In order to discourage incest, NCW has said that if the offender is related to the woman, the prison term should be increased to seven years. Unlawful sexual contact in the case of a minor would invite a five-year term and if the minor is in a relationship of dependency to the offender, the punishment could be increased to seven years.

The number of rape cases reported has been increasing steadily. NCW received 57 complaints in January 2009 which increased to 61 in June this year. “These are cases that have come to us. There are many other women who do not have the courage to complain,” Vyas said.

Accordingly, the commission has redrafted a scheme to rehabilitate victims and give them compensation. The NCW has also suggested repeal of the Section 377 of IPC (dealing with homosexuality) and addition of a new section that is in line with the Delhi High Court’s ruling. The commission on Saturday reiterated its stand that it would hold wide-ranging consultations on the issue of homosexuality.

See also: The National Commission for Women (NCW) on Saturday rooted for a rehabilitation scheme for rape victims which would help them get back their life on track.

A court ruled Thursday to decriminalize homosexuality in the Indian capital, a groundbreaking decision that could bring more freedom to gays in this deeply conservative country.

The Delhi High Court ruled that treating consensual gay sex as a crime is a violation of fundamental rights protected by India’s constitution. The ruling, the first of its kind in India, applies only in New Delhi.

“I’m so excited, and I haven’t been able to process the news yet,” Anjali Gopalan, the executive director of the Naz Foundation (India) Trust, a sexual health organization that had filed the petition, told reporters. “We’ve finally entered the 21st century.”

But some religious leaders quickly criticized the ruling. “This Western culture cannot be permitted in our country,” said Maulana Khalid Rashid Farangi Mahali, a leading Muslim cleric in the northern city of Lucknow.

The court’s verdict came more than eight years after the New Delhi-based foundation filed its petition — not unusually long in India’s notoriously clogged court system. The verdict can be challenged in India’s Supreme Court.

Sex between people of the same gender has been illegal in India since a British colonial era law that classified it as “against the order of nature.” According to the law, gay sex is punishable by 10 years in prison. While actual criminal prosecutions are few, the law frequently has been used to harass people.

The law itself can only be amended by India’s Parliament and gay rights activists have long campaigned for it to be changed. The government has remained vague about its position on the law, and Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily said he would examine the high court’s order before commenting.

The court’s verdict, however, should protect New Delhi’s gay community from criminal charges and police harassment.

“This legal remnant of British colonialism has been used to deprive people of their basic rights for too long,” Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “This long-awaited decision testifies to the reach of democracy and rights in India.”

While the ruling is not binding on courts in India’s other states, Tripti Tandon, a lawyer for the Naz Foundation, said she hoped the ruling would have a “persuasive” affect.

“This is just the first step in a longer battle,” Gopalan said.

Rights activists say the law, also popularly known as 377, or section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, sanctions discrimination and marginalizes the gay community. Health experts say the law discourages safe sex and has been a hurdle in fighting HIV and AIDS. Roughly 2.5 million Indians have HIV.

Homosexuality is slowly gaining acceptance in some parts of India, especially in its big cities. Many bars have gay nights, and some high-profile Bollywood films have dealt with gay issues.

Still, being gay remains deeply taboo, and a large number of homosexuals hide their sexual orientation from their friends and families.

Religious leaders in the capital and in other parts of India argued that gay sex should remain illegal and that open homosexuality is out of step with India’s deeply held traditions.

“We are totally against such a practice as it is not our tradition or culture,” said Puroshattam Narain Singh, an official of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council.

In New Delhi, Rev. Babu Joseph, a spokesman of the Roman Catholic Church, told New Delhi Television that while homosexuals should not be treated as criminals, “at the same time we cannot afford to endorse homosexual behavior as normal and socially acceptable.”

You can download the text of the judgement High Court of Delhi on 2 July 2009 which finds the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code ” insofar as it criminalises consensual sexual acts of adults in private, is violative of Articles 21, 14 and 15 of the Constitution” as a pdf file.

Homosexuality: Chronology of eight year-long legal proceedings

Following is the chronology of the eight year-long legal proceedings which ended on Thursday with the Delhi High Court legalising gay sex among consenting adults.

* 2001: An NGO fighting for gay rights, Naz Foundation files PIL seeking legalisation of gay sex among consenting adults.

* Sept 2, 2004 : Delhi High Court dismisses the PIL seeking decriminalisation of gay sex.

* Sept, 2004: The gay right activists file review petition.

* Nov 3, 2004: The HC dismisses the review plea. * Dec, 2004: Gay rights activists approach the apex court against the order of the High Court.

* Apr 3, 2006: The apex court directs the HC to reconsider the matter on merit and remands the case back to High Court.

* Oct 4, 2006: The HC allows senior BJP leader B P Singhal’s plea, opposing decriminalising gay sex, to be impleaded in the case.

* Sept 18, 2008: Centre seeks more time to take stand on the issue after the contradictory stand between the Home and Health ministries over decriminalisation of homosexuality. The Court refuses the plea and final argument in the case begins.

* Sep 25, 2008: The gay rights activists contend that the government cannot infringe upon their fundamental right to equality by decriminalising homosexual acts on the ground of morality.

* Sep 26, 2008: The Court pulls up the Centre for speaking in two voices on the homosexuality law in view of contradictory affidavits filed by Health and Home ministries.

* Sep 26, 2008: Centre says that gay sex is immmoral and a reflection of a perverse mind and its decriminalisation would lead to moral degradation of society.

* Oct 15, 2008: The High Court pulls up the Centre for relying on religious texts to justify ban on gay sex and asks it to come up with scientific reports to justify it.

* Nov, 2008: Government in its written submission before the High Court says judiciary should refrain from interfering in the issue as it is basically for Parliament to decide.

* Nov 7, 2008: High Court reserves its verdict on petitions filed by gay rights activists seeking decriminalisation of homosexual acts.

* July 2, 2009: High Court allows plea of gay rights activists and legalises gay sex among consenting adults.

See also: Queer Parade Defies Anachronistic Indian Law

Bhakti Shah is challenging her dismissal from the Nepal Army for “immoral activities”

Two years ago, 23-year-old Bhakti Shah, a cadet in the Nepal Army, was dismissed because she was seen to spend most of her free time with a fellow female cadet.

“They sacked me and my friend just because they thought we were having an affair but there was nothing like that. More than me, the girl’s life is ruined as she was not a lesbian,” says Shah.

On Jul. 16, 2007, a court of enquiry instituted by the army ordered that she be dismissed from the training academy for “immoral activities”.

According to Nepal Army regulations, action can be taken against those found involved in moral turpitude.

From the remote Achham district, in the far west of Nepal, Shah was a national volleyball player, who grew up quite content to dress in unisex clothes and “hang out” with male friends. “I always felt I was more male than female, and I loved to hang out with male friends,” she told IPS in an interview.

Track Record

U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Nepal has voiced concern over the government’s failure to implement the December 2007 Supreme Court order on equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) people.

“However, save for a few exceptional cases, the decision has not been implemented. Thus, OHCHR encourages the government to take the steps necessary … so that all third gender people can live with dignity,” spokesman of OHCHR-Nepal Martin Logan told IPS.

An advocacy group, Blue Diamond Society (BDS), estimates there are some two million homosexuals and third genders in Nepal. Roughly 35,000 are registered as third gender in its offices in 35 districts across the country.

“The proper documentation of third genders in the census will determine how many there are, and to make plans to ensure their rights,” says BDS founder president, Sunil Babu Pant. “This way those belonging to the third gender will feel part of society.”

Ruling party CPN-UML advocate-turned-lawmaker Sapana Pradhan Malla feels that since the third gender is more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, it is essential that the government know just how many they are. “This way government programmes to prevent HIV/AIDS will be effective,” she says.
She joined the Nepal Army as a cadet on Jun. 15, 2003. Physically fit, she soon proved her mettle, and was promoted as a trainer for new female recruits. That brought her close to other female cadets. “But I did not have any kind of physical relationship with them,” she hastens to clarify.

Before too long, however, prejudiced male peers began spreading wild rumours about her sexual orientation. “My male colleagues used demeaning language against me,” she says. “I always challenged them to prove it (their unfounded allegations).” Still very hurt, she admits the abusive comments “did affect me psychologically.”

On May 18, 2007, Shah was taken into custody, and kept in an army prison for 60 days. Two months later she was dismissed for “immoral activities” from the training academy.

But Shah has not admitted defeat. She has challenged the army’s decision in the Supreme Court, Nepal’s apex court, and asked to be reinstated in her job. Her case, which has the backing of the Blue Diamond Society, a non-governmental organisation of rights activists and lawmakers, is due to come up for hearing on Sep. 13, 2009.

“The army later (after the inquiry) claimed that I was dismissed because of being close to female fellow cadets. If that is the case, then why should I be the only victim, and they should prove that I was involved in such ‘immoral’ activities,” says Shah.

She also intends to claim her right to change her citizenship status to ‘third gender’.

In December 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the government to annul all discriminatory laws against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) and recognise them as third gender. The court also said that they be allowed to claim all state facilities like male and female citizens.

Nepal is the only country in South Asia to recognise the rights of LGBTI. In practice, however, discrimination is widely prevalent. Only one person, Bishnu Adhikary, has been awarded a citizenship certificate that recognises her third gender status.

Sep. 17, 2008 is a date that 19-year-old Adhikary, will never forget. The youth received a new citizenship certificate signed by a section officer from Kaski District Administration Office.

Armed with a Supreme Court order recognising her right to be conferred third gender status, she persuaded her brother, and also the village development committee officer and the section officer at Kaski to reissue her citizenship certificate.

Born as a girl, Adhikary knew about her sexual orientation from a local non-governmental organisation (NGO). “I felt that since I want to have my own identity I should claim my citizenship under the new legal provisions,” Adhikary told IPS. “By denying our right to identity we are deprived of basic rights and should be duly respected and provided our rights.”

Nepal’s national Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) is contemplating including ‘third gender’ in the 2011 census. This Himalayan nation has a population of 23 million.

“We have been receiving demands to include ‘third gender’ in the next census and the discussions are underway at both national and regional levels,” says Dr Rudra Suwal, director of the population section in CBS.

But it is easier said than done. Census-taking is a huge operation and very expensive. According to Suwal, one added question alone costs 500,000 rupees (6,500 dollars).

In addition, can the enumerators who are high school graduates, “understand the concept of third gender and ask the question in a sensitive manner,” Suwal wonders.

CBS is also pondering the option of a survey to count the number of LGBTI in Nepal. Either way, this far is a mammoth achievement for tiny Nepal, which has taken a most progressive step in recognising the sexual rights of citizens. (END/2009)

See also:
* Nepal gives formal recognition to third gender (September 2008)
* Third gender may find a place in Nepal’s next census (June 2009)