Archive for August, 2009

She sat throughout with a straight back, calmly and intently following the interminable legal arguments. She spoke politely and gravely to the prosecutors and judges. The British Ambassador described her as “composed, upright, crackling with energy”; even the prison police rose to their feet in respect as she entered the courtroom. The Chargé d’Affaires of the Philippines said: “She exuded a type of aura which can be described as moving, quite awe-inspiring.”

If it has brought no other benefit, the trial which came to an end today has given foreign observers rare glimpses of the Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. But it has done little to explain the personal mystery surrounding her: how has a 64-year old woman – physically slight, and even frail – endured what for most people would be a life of unbearable loneliness, isolation and deprivation?

Since 1990, Ms Suu Kyi has spent close to 14 years under detention in the decaying lakeside villa in central Rangoon where the eccentric American, John Yettaw, paid his fateful visit to her. She receives a visit from her doctor once a month; a handful of times, she has been visited by Ibrahim Gambari, Ban Ki Moon’s envoy to Burma. But when the UN Secretary-General himself came to Rangoon last month, the junta denied him permission to see Ms Suu Kyi.

Her British husband, the Oxford scholar Michael Aris, died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 53. She was unable to see him as he was dying – the junta refused to give him an entry visa, and she feared that, if she left Burma, she would not be allowed back in. She has not seen either of her two sons, now men in their thirties, for a decade.

Other prisoners of conscience, such as Nelson Mandela, have endured long periods of detention, but Ms Suu Kyi’s is peculiarly complete. Despite living in the centre of Rangoon, with the noises of the city audible outside, she is denied the company of fellow inmates, or even warders. Under house arrest, her only constant companions have been her two friends, the mother and daughter, Khin Khin Win and Win Ma Ma, who were also sentenced to 18 months’ house arrest yesterday.

She is allowed no radio, let alone a telephone or television. She is said to play the piano sometimes, on an instrument whose harmonics have been warped by the tropical heat. The garden, of the once elegant villa in which she lives, is returning to jungle and her supporters worry about the poisonous snakes – reptilian, rather than human – which may be lurking in it.

Her conviction was no surprise, and the preparations she made in advance reveal the way that she spends her time in detention – reading, studying and meditating. In the days before the verdict, her lawyers and supporters assembled a library of lengthy books, including the novels of John le Carré, a biography of Winston Churchill, English and French fiction, dictionaries and Buddhist religious texts.

But none of these would have seen her through the past two decades without her indomitable character. It is evident that, at the deepest level, she long ago made the decision that any personal inconvenience was secondary to the democratic future of Burma; and, having made that resolve, that everything else has followed – including the incidental suffering of her family as well as herself.

In maintaining her incarceration, the junta has completed her transformation from a politician into something much more powerful: a symbol of defiance and resistance, whose power lies not in what she says but what she is. Like Mandela, or like Xanana Gusmão, the former guerrilla leader who is now Prime Minister of East Timor, she does not have to do anything; she only has to be. Having martyred her liberty, family and friends, the junta has endowed her with a fearsome power and authority, which they will struggle to wrest back.

See also:
* Aung San Suu Kyi found guilty of breaking house arrest
* Aung San Suu Kyi left to pay the price for John Yettaw’s indiscretion
* Women’s groups urge Security Council to act on Burma
* Aung San Suu Kyi honoured with 2009 Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience award

Amnesty International adopted 46-year-old Jacinta Marcial as a prisoner of conscience for being unfairly sentenced to 21 years in prison and demanded that the Mexican authorities release her immediately and unconditionally.

The human rights body said she has been denied a fair trial and that she is in prison solely due to her marginal status in society as a poor indigenous woman with limited access to justice.

Mother of six Jacinta Francisco Marcial – an Otomí Indigenous woman from Santiago Mexquititlán, Querétaro state – has been held in the Centro de Readaptación de San José El Alto prison since August 2006. She is charged with the kidnapping of six agents of the Mexican Federal Investigation Agency. The agents claim they were held hostage by Jacinta and other market stall holders during a raid on pirate DVD vendors on Santiago Mexquititlán square in March 2006.

Amnesty International’s Mexico Researcher Rupert Knox said:

“Jacinta’s case is a scandal. This is a travesty of justice, and a clear example of the second-class justice Indigenous people often receive in Mexico.”

On 26 March 2006, six plainclothes agents of the Federal Investigation Agency entered the main market in Santiago Mexquititlán. They claimed to be carrying out an operation to locate drugs and pirate DVDs. Tensions were raised as the agents tried to confiscate goods and vendors punctured some of the agents’ car tyres.

According to the community, the protest ended that same day after the Regional Police Chief went to a neighbouring town to collect money to compensate the vendors for the damage to their merchandise. That evening, the six agents filed a complaint with the Federal Public Prosecutor, alleging they had been kidnapped for several hours by the protestors.

More than four months after the event, on 3 August 2006, Jacinta was arrested and taken to the Federal Attorney General’s Office. At the time she was told she was going to be questioned about the felling of a tree but only when she was taken to prison did she find out that she was being accused of kidnapping the agents, along with two other women.

The only evidence against Jacinta was a photograph in the local newspaper taken when she was walking behind the crowd of protestors. In their original statements on 27 March 2006, the federal agents made no reference to Jacinta Marcial. Only a month later, when shown the picture from the local newspaper, did the agents accuse Jacinta of involvement in the alleged crime. No other evidence to prove her involvement was ever presented and the federal agents were never required to appear during the trial proceedings to substantiate their claim or confirm her identification.

At the time, Jacinta spoke very little Spanish and did not understand what was happening. She was not provided with an interpreter and the state-appointed public defender never spoke to her to explain her rights or defence. Jacinta said he just sat down in the corner of the room and said nothing while she was pressed to sign papers she did not understand.

Speaking with an Amnesty International researcher who visited her in jail, Jacinta said:

‘The first night in my cell it was raining and it was very cold with the bars open onto the main courtyard and at that moment I felt bad because I knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong and I was in prison. And yes, I started to cry, I cried and I asked myself ‘what now?’ And when I heard doors opening I thought perhaps they’ve come to let me out, and I would stand up and look through the bars to see if someone was coming to let me out, but they never did.’

On 17 July 2009 the National Human Rights Commission concluded that there were serious irregularities and fabricated evidence in Jacinta’s case. Jacinta remains in prison pending the outcome of a retrial.

Rupert Knox continued:

‘Jacinta’s story shows how the Mexican criminal justice system is being misused to unfairly prosecute the most vulnerable. She has been targeted because of her ethnicity, gender and social status.’

Poor security, rampant fraud and not enough female election staff will keep many women away from the ballot box in next week’s presidential election in deeply conservative Afghanistan, diplomats and campaign workers fear.

While the female vote has emerged as a potentially powerful bloc in some areas, it is unlikely the majority of women will exercise their right to vote in the violent south and east, where weak governance has allowed the Taliban to extend its influence.

“The southern provinces are a more closed community and more conservative culturally and the illiteracy rate among women is very high,” said Massouda Jalal, a doctor who also ran as a presidential candidate in Afghanistan’s first election in 2004.

Female voter registration cards are also an easy target for fraud in devoutly Muslim Afghanistan, observers say, because many women will not have their photographs taken for their cards for cultural and religious reasons.

“There is a problem with many women not needing to have their picture taken and this means cards can be misused,” Jalal said.

In practical terms, there simply will not be enough female security officials to search women at voting stations in many areas, officials fear.

U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke and the United Nations have both recently expressed grave concerns over whether women would be able to participate freely in the democratic process.

In volatile areas such as southern Helmand province, parts of which have only recently been secured by foreign troops, voter registration only started within the last few weeks and there have bee few signs of women lining up to register their names.

“I emphasize that in such areas, if we do not have the right mechanism in place, there will be a chance for the head of the family or tribe to use the female card for their own choices,” said Jandad Spindar, head of Free and Fair Elections Afghanistan.

Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, has said there have been suspiciously high levels of female registration in Logar, south of Kabul, and other southern areas where conservative Islamic traditions discourage women from travelling and interacting in public.

Female participation in southern and eastern provinces will be crucial for President Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun who derives much of his support from Afghanistan’s largest ethnic grouping based primarily in the south.

But it won’t be women who will be voting, said one source with close knowledge of election preparations.

“It’s not in any candidate’s interest to make a big deal about women. It’s a man’s club and most of them haven’t considered the issue. It’s a non-issue,” the source said.

“People are aware that it’s much easier to stuff a woman’s ballot box than a man’s.”

In several provinces, such as Nuristan in the east and Paktia and Paktika in the southeast, the number of women registered to vote was higher than the actual number of women, the source said.

Female voting patterns are also likely to differ according to Afghanistan’s various ethnic groups.

In central and northern provinces where there are greater numbers of Shi’ite Hazaras, whose women traditionally have been been more liberated than conservative Sunni Islamist Pashtuns, the female vote is likely to be more fairly represented.

“I think Shi’ite women will vote more because … for instance I am Shi’ite and our men don’t place any limits on us to say for instance, you can’t go here or there because there are men, whereas Sunni men are a bit more strict,” said Fatemeh Hossaini, a district councillor from central Bamiyan province.

Pashtun women, it is feared, will be the least represented in the poll even though Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group.

Kabul, which has a heavy presence of security forces and the highest concentration of educated and employed women, should offer the most telling comparison with women from less liberated, more violent areas in the south and east.

“If you get more women in Nuristan voting than in Kabul you know there is definitely something wrong,” the source said.

August 2009 – In This Issue:

Colloquium on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and Peace Negotiations: Implementing SCR 1820
Financial and Economic Crisis Impacts Women and Men Differently
Say NO to Violence against Women
* Speakers of 16 Parliaments and Chair of Bosnian Council of Ministers Say NO
* Thailand: Youth Say NO to Violence against Women
UNIFEM around the World
* Call for Proposals: Fund for Gender Equality
* UN Trust Fund Alert: Drastic Shortfall in Resources Threatens Women’s Safety
* UNIFEM Joins “Seal the Deal” Campaign
* Global Programme on Safe Cities for Women and Girls
* EC and UNIFEM Partner to Support Gender Equality in the Context of HIV and AIDS
* 100/100 Campaign at Mid-Year
* Series of Training Workshops on Evaluation
* Central Africa: UNIFEM Executive Director on Official Visit
* Rwanda: Centre for Survivors of Violence to Open
* Zimbabwe: Gender Support Programme Launched
* Colombia: Campaigning against Violence at Music Festival
* Ecuador: Rural Women Trained in Information Technology
* Mexico: Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Women
* Pakistan: Consultation on Gender-Sensitive Responses to Humanitarian Crisis
* Timor-Leste: Delegation to Present Country’s First Report to CEDAW Committee
* The FYR of Macedonia: Parliamentary Hearing on Gender-Responsive Budgeting
Other News
Recent Speeches & Statements
Upcoming Events
Job Vacancies

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Go Away With Your Spray

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HEALTH-AFRICA: Family Planning: Expand Role For Private Sector

US:First Latina Appointed to the Supreme Court


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In an order that will provide relief to hundreds of domestic violence victims, the Bombay high court ruled that a court hearing such a case need not wait for a report filed by the protection officer before awarding interim compensation.

Justice R Y Ganoo said courts that dealt with domestic violence cases could take a decision on the basis of records submitted to it. “If the trial court, which is required to pass an order, keeps on waiting for the report of the protection officer, it would entail delay and the idea of considering the case of a needy person at the interim stage will be defeated,” said Justice Ganoo, while dismissing an application filed by a Amravati resident who claimed that the report was mandatory.

The court upheld an order of the trial court asking him to pay Rs 1,800 to his wife and child every month as interim maintenance.

Under the Domestic Violence Act enacted in 2005, a woman or a protection officer or a third party can lodge a complaint alleging abuse before the magistrate. The magistrate, after hearing the parties, can pass an interim order, asking the man to pay compensation or monthly maintenance for the demages caused to the woman.

The Act has a clause, which says before passing such an order, the magistrate shall take into consideration “any domestic incident report received from the protection officer”.

“Report from the protection officer has to be gathered and it will assist the court for the purposes of meting out complete justice in the matter. At the same time, it is expected that the trial court has to pass an interim order at the earliest,” said Justice Ganoo, adding that such a report is not mandatory in each an every case. “If on the basis of records, the court is in a position to arrive at a just and proper conclusion, it will be open for it to do so and decide the matter accordingly,” said the judge.

The matter before the court concerned a case of domestic violence filed by Seema from Amravati. The trial court asked her husband Vinit to pay monthly maintenance to her and their child. Vinit challenged the order claiming that a report from the protection officer was necessary. The HC did not agree.

Vinit’s lawyers also claimed that he was a contract labourer and barely earns Rs 1,000 per month. Seema’s lawyers, however, said he ran a cement business and owned an STD booth, earning over Rs 25,000 every month. The court said it was difficult to believe Vinit’s claims. “(If he actually earns Rs 1,000 per month), it would be difficult for the applicant himself to sustain on day-to-day basis and it has not been stated whether he seeks assistance of some other person to make both ends meet.”’

More than 1.5 million women living with HIV in Asia were infected by their partners and 50 million more are at risk of infection, according to a report released on Tuesday.

The “HIV Transmission in Intimate Partner Relationships in Asia” report by UNAIDS said the women at risk are either married or in long-term relationships with men who engage in “high-risk sexual behaviours.”

“That is, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, the clients of sex workers,” UNAIDS regional director Prasada Rao said.

“(It’s) a problem of great magnitude that the countries have largely ignored (and) a challenge that we may no longer ignore,” Rao told reporters on the sidelines of the ninth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP), which is being held on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

Women accounted for 35 percent of all adult HIV infections in Asia in 2008, up from 17 percent in 1990, according to the report.

In Cambodia, India and Thailand, the largest number of new HIV infections occur among married women and in Indonesia the virus is now spreading to long-term partners and sex workers, it added.

“The facts speak for themselves. It is estimated that more than 90 percent of the 1.7 million women living with HIV in Asia became infected (by) husbands and partners while in long-term relationships,” Rao said.

“These women are often perceived as low risk… women who have not been adequately covered in our national responses.”

UNIFEM regional director for South Asia Jean D’Cunha said a “culture of silence” surrounding the issue of sexuality exists among Asian women and this diminishes their ability to protect themselves.

“There are unequal relations within marriage and the taboo around sex and sexuality makes it difficult for the women to talk openly to their partners. Their partners may not disclose their status or may not know their status,” she added.

“The women also fear violence if they talk about sexuality openly… or if they demand safe sex or pleasurable sex, they may be castigated as being too loose or too forward,” D’Cunha said.

The UNAIDS report calls for more HIV/AIDS prevention efforts among men who have sex with men, removal of punitive laws preventing intravenous drug users from access to clean injecting equipment and greater interventions with sex workers and their clients, Rao said.

“We must re-double our efforts to avert needless infections among these women,” he added.

The Bali congress, which runs until Thursday, covers topics ranging from HIV risks among transgenders and migrant workers to biomolecular advances in HIV treatment and the impact of the financial crisis on those with HIV/AIDS.

Up to a quarter of a million women and girls in Southeast Asia, mostly adolescents, are forced into prostitution each year and face violence and the prospect of contracting HIV/AIDS, researchers said on Wednesday.

The researchers, in a report documenting criminal activity in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, predicted circumstances would worsen as the financial crisis prompts women in the region to migrate in search of work.

Trafficking victims, many of them aged 12 to 16, are raped, locked up, denied food, water and medical care or forced to take narcotics and alcohol, they said.

“Victims of trafficking suffer horrendous, horrendous violations of human rights, deprivations of the most basic human dignity. It’s a form of enslavement,” said Jay Silverman, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Narcotics and alcohol were used in Indonesia and Cambodia “to keep these people in bondage,” he said. A premium was paid for young girls, prompting traffickers “to continually bring them in to maintain the supply”.

Caitlin Wiesen, an HIV expert at the U.N. Development Programme, said most victims were lured away by promises of jobs as domestic workers or in restaurants to end up in brothels where they faced “extreme situations of violence and exploitation.

“Asia is both the source and the destination,” she added.

The study, entitled “Sex trafficking and STI/HIV in Southeast Asia: Connections between sexual exploitation, violence and sexual risk”, was undertaken by the UNDP and the Harvard School of Public Health.

It found that in Thailand, trafficked girls were subjected to more frequent sexual encounters than sex industry workers. Incidence of anal sex, with a greater risk of HIV infection, was three times more common.

In Indonesia, HIV prevalence was nearly 20 percent among trafficked women who had been sexually exploited for a year or more. Seventy-five percent had experienced violence.

Malaysia, it said, was the destination for a third of the women and girls trafficked from Indonesia. In Cambodia, 73 percent of women and girls who were rescued tested positive for sexually transmitted infections.

The researchers said the financial crisis would prompt more women to look abroad for jobs, making them easy prey.

“They are getting more desperate and travelling under more unsafe circumstances that make them terribly vulnerable to unsafe migration, HIV and exploitation such as trafficking,” Wiesen said.

Rosilyne Borland of the International Organisation for Migration said criminals “take advantage of places where people are looking for work, places where people need to go find a better life”.

The researchers called for a dialogue between the United Nations, non-governmental organisations and law enforcement agencies. Police had to be “sensitised” to the problem and avoid raids and imprisonment which would only drive the activity further underground.

Campaigners say practice of detaining people for unpaid medical bills is widespread

Cash-strapped state and private hospitals in Kenya are routinely locking up patients to press family members and friends to pay up – and to send a message to poor people to stay away.

In May, the scandal received national prominence when a local television station used a hidden camera to show how 44 new mothers were being held in a locked room at the Kenyatta National hospital. A shocked viewer paid nearly £10,000 to clear their bills, but the exposé did little to change practices. While Pumwani publicly denies detaining patients, the Kenya Network of Grassroots Organisations (Kengo) found 34 mothers being held there against their will on Monday in “inhuman” conditions.

In government and council-run hospitals social workers are meant to waive the bills for the poorest patients, but the policy is rarely applied properly – even in the case of a child dying. A recently detained mother, Aisha Munyira, 25, said she was held in a guarded ward at Pumwani with about 60 other women and their babies for more than a month after her child died soon after birth in March. She said that she had no choice but to allow the hospital to bury the body anonymously.

“These detentions are a form of psychological torture,” said Evelyn Opondo, senior programme officer at the Federation of Women Lawyers, in Nairobi, who has documented a case of a mother being held with her baby at a private hospital in western Kenya for more than two years due to non-payment. The hospitals do not publicly declare it, but the practice is widespread.”

Despite pledges by the main political parties before the last election to introduce free maternity care, state hospitals have continued a 20-year policy, originally pushed by the World Bank, that requires “cost-sharing” for all public services.

In Nairobi’s slums, where the majority of people live below the poverty line, most mothers give birth at home in potentially dangerous conditions, or, if they can afford the transport, in cheap government clinics, where the delivery fee is less than 20p. But pregnant women with complications have little choice but to seek hospital admission.

According to mothers who have been locked up, the security is tight – guards control access to the wards, the patients’ civilian clothes are taken away and visitors are discouraged. The food is poor – mostly rice and cabbage and one portion of fruit a week. Sending babies home with relatives is forbidden. Even those who manage to clear their original bills are not released if they cannot also pay the additional charges of up to £3.60 a day.

Wangui Mbatia, the executive director of the Kengo, said her organisation was going to ask western donors to stop funding health programmes in Kenya until the hospitals changed their practices. She is also exploring ways to help patients who have been detained to sue for compensation.

“This policy is illegal, unnecessary and nonsensical because there’s no way that most of these women can settle their bills. It’s a government working against its people,” she said.

When asked about the detentions, Dr Charles Wanyonyi, medical superintendent of Pumwani hospital, said: “I am not aware of any of these cases. We have a very nice waiver committee, so I don’t think it is possible that people have been detained.”

A spokesman for Kenyatta National hospital, which is currently holding about 400 patients – not only women – for non-payment of bills, defended the policy and said that all of the people detained had the ability to pay.

“We are unable to procure new equipment and drugs because of the problems of bad debt,” said Simon Githai, chief public relations officer for the hospital. “The culture of not planning for unforeseen circumstances in this country needs to change.”

Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, the medical services minister, has announced plans for a national heath insurance scheme, funded by a new tax on workers, to help the poor get access to hospital care. During a parliamentary debate he expressed sympathy for the detained patients – but also for the hospitals.

He said it was an “inhuman situation” for mothers to be locked up “but also absolutely out of order for a patient to be treated and expect not to pay his medical bill”.

Extracts from a longer article at

India’s capital, Delhi, recorded more female than male births during 2008, for the first time in many decades.

Latest government data shows for every 1,000 males, 1,004 girls were born in Delhi in 2008.

One of the main reasons for the earlier skewed male-female ratios was seen to be the greater number of abortions of female foetuses.

The news has been hailed as a gender revolution in a country that has been struggling to get the balance right.

Delhi is now second only to the southern state of Kerala, which has the highest number of female births.

Now activists hope that those days have been consigned to history.

They say that it is the news that they have been waiting for.

Although the government made scanning pregnant mothers to determine the sex of foetuses illegal, the practice continued.

Dr Dharm Prakash of the Indian Medical Association, which ran a campaign against aborting girl foetuses, welcomed the report.

“The community has responded to our request that girls should be born,” he said.

His organisation started a “Say No To Sex Selective Abortions” campaign and urged doctors to refrain from doing so.

“Our own colleagues have stopped especially after the implementation of the law against it,” Dr Prakash said.

Officials also put the turnaround down to a number of schemes started by the Delhi government, including financial incentives for parents to register the births of female children.

Women’s groups say more time is needed to analyse the data to know if it really indicates a favourable trend towards girls.

At the last count in 2001 the figure for females stood at 933 per 1,000 males.

Experts say achieving a normal sex ratio remains an uphill task but the latest figures show that it is not impossible.

The real challenge, they say, is changing the attitude towards daughters given the preference for boys in Indian society.

When the first and only midwifery school was opened in 2004 in Bamyan city, central Afghanistan, not a single application was received for the 18-month course. Today, the school has to turn down dozens of applications from women all over the province because it cannot accommodate more than 25 students at a time.

“We have earned the peoples’ trust in our work,” Saleha Hamnavazada, coordinator of Bamyan Midwifery School, told IRIN. “We have created a reliable learning environment for women and have assured their men that women are totally safe and protected here.”

Conservative traditions in Afghanistan have restricted women’s and girls’ access to education, work, healthcare and other social activities across the country, albeit in varying degrees.

Women and girls are often stopped from going to health centres or schools because of a lack of female health workers and teachers.

The consequences are severe: annually, 24,000 women die before, during or just after childbirth because of a lack of healthcare; and the female illiteracy rate is one of the highest in the world at more than 85 percent, according to UN agencies.

“I want to break superstitious taboos in our society which impede women’s education and work,” Masooma, a midwifery student from Daikundi Province, told IRIN. “I saw the deaths of my two sisters-in-law during childbirth because there was no midwife or doctor to save them.”

However, the midwifery profession is starting to be considered both decent and lucrative for women, particularly in rural areas.

“A midwife works only for women so it is acceptable,” said one man in Bamyan city, who requested anonymity.

The number of midwifery schools in the country has increased from six in 2002 to 31 in 2009, according to Pashtoon Azfar, director of the National Association of Midwives (NAM). Since 2002, more than 2,000 midwives have been trained and employed by the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) and NGOs in health centres across the country, Azfar told IRIN.

Midwives are believed to have improved women’s access to essential health services and have reduced maternal mortality in some parts of the country.

“Maternal death during child delivery has decreased by about 50 percent,” Zainab Rezayee, an obstetrician in Bamyan City Hospital, told IRIN, referring to her hospital.

In 2004, two to four babies were born every month at health centres in rural Bamyan. Today, more than 35 are born in medical centres every month thanks to 41 graduated midwives in the province. Deliveries at Bamyan City Hospital have increased from 30 a month in 2004 to more than 130 in 2009, Rezayee said.

Across the country, the percentage of women receiving antenatal care increased from 4.6 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2006, while the rate of child deliveries attended by a skilled health worker increased from 8 percent to over 19 percent in the same period, according to NAM.

In addition to facilitating childbirth, midwives increase women’s awareness about family planning, HIV/AIDS and transmittable sexual diseases.

Officials in the health ministry say it is time to re-assess Afghanistan’s poor maternal mortality record – rated the second-worst in the world after Sierra Leone, with 1,600 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, in a 2006 nationwide assessment.

“We need a new assessment to gauge how much the ratio has dropped,” said Azfar, who also heads the main midwifery school in Kabul.

Afghanistan has one of the highest fertility rates in Asia and the average Afghan woman gives birth to six to seven children in her life, according to the UN Population Fund.

There are about 2,400 midwives in the country but about 8,000 are required to provide basic obstetric services for all Afghan women, NAM said.

“We train 300-400 midwives every year at 31 midwifery schools in the country,” said Azfar, adding that one school would be opened by the end of 2009 in the Paktika Province where women have very little access to basic healthcare.

At this rate, it will take at least 14 years to train the needed 5,600 extra midwives. Until then, thousands of women will continue to die from preventable deaths.

Tired of calling for the decriminalisation of abortion – the leading cause of maternal death in Argentina – a network of women’s rights activists launched a telephone hotline to inform women on a safe abortion method that requires no medical intervention: the use of a pill to terminate pregnancy.

“We make information approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Latin American Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics Societies available to women,” Verónica Marsano, a member of Lesbians and Feminists for the Decriminalisation of Abortion, the organisation spearheading the initiative, explained to IPS.

According to this information, a drug called misoprostol – also known as RU486 or medication abortion – can be used by women to safely interrupt an unwanted pregnancy up to the ninth week of gestation. The medicine, which works by causing contractions of the womb that result in the body expelling the pregnancy, has an effectiveness rate of more than 80 percent. “The associated risk is one percent and is never mortal,” said Marsano, who received special training for the initiative.

Since it was launched in late July, the phone line, which operates seven days a week, has received an average of 15 calls a day from women around the country.

The experience, backed by the Dutch-based international organisation Women on Waves, was first introduced in Ecuador in June 2008, where a hotline is run by the Youth Organisation for Gender Equity. Despite the fact that abortion is illegal in Ecuador, an estimated 95,000 abortions are performed every year in that country.

In view of the good results obtained through the dissemination of information on misotropol in Ecuador, the Women’s Health Network of Chile decided to implement a similar initiative in May 2009. Chile is one of the few nations in the world where abortion is illegal under all circumstances, but estimates place the number of interrupted pregnancies in that country at 120,000 to 160,000 a year.

In Uruguay, guidance in the use of misoprostol is in place since 2001 in the pre and post abortion counselling clinic in Montevideo’s Pereira Rossell Hospital, the state maternity health facility. In Argentina, medical counselling on this medicine-based option is also available, in this case through the adolescents clinic at the state Argerich Hospital, in Buenos Aires.

But the idea of the network of women’s activists for starting a telephone assistance service was aimed at making information available to women around the country, enabling them to make an informed decision without having to go to a hospital. “We don’t give advice, we provide information,” Marsano explained.

Nevertheless, they work with a protocol designed by specialists and are advised by a committee of doctors.

In an interview with IPS, Dr. Mabel Bianco, president of the Women’s Studies and Research Foundation, said that “medication abortion is a significant advance. It’s a less bloody and invasive method, which requires no surgical intervention or anaesthesia.”

According to Bianco, “it has proved very useful in countries around the world in reducing the risk of death and complications for women.” She also underlined that it has the advantage of giving women the possibility of using it “privately and without having to ask for professional assistance.”

The network’s activists were trained by doctors with Women on Waves, whose members travel around the world performing abortions in international waters, near countries that ban the practice.

The women trained to answer the phone service tell callers how to obtain the drug – which was originally developed to treat gastric ulcers – without a medical prescription, the dose that must be administered to obtain the desired result, the effects of misoprostol on their bodies, and possible complications.

The risks and experience are similar to those of a miscarriage, they say: cramps, bleeding and possible nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. The network advises women to have a sonogram before they take the drug, to determine how far into the pregnancy they are and to rule out an extra-uterine (or ectopic) pregnancy.

“Our ultimate goal is to influence the debate on the need to decriminalise abortion, but meanwhile we offer information on this widespread method, because part of the goal of reducing maternal mortality is to give women access to information,” Marsano explained.

In Argentina, abortion is a crime punishable by imprisonment, except in cases where the pregnancy is the result of rape, when the mother’s life is in danger or when she is mentally ill or disabled.

But every year some 460,000 to 600,000 women resort to abortion, according to the report “Estimate of the Extent of the Practice of Induced Abortion in Argentina,” prepared by experts from the University of Buenos Aires and the Centre for Population Studies.

In the book “Abortion under Debate,” Mariana Carbajal, a journalist who specialises in women’s issues, writes that every hour seven women are discharged from a public hospital in Argentina after being treated for abortion-related complications.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, Carbajal says.

Complications resulting from abortions have been the leading cause of maternal death in this country for the past 25 years. According to the latest Ministry of Health figure, from 2007, the maternal mortality rate stands at 44 deaths for every 100,000 live births.

This falls far short of meeting the target set in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed by 189 heads of state at the United Nations’ Development Summit in 2000 to address major development issues.

Under Goal 5 – the MDG that relates specifically to maternal health – signatory nations undertook to reduce the maternal mortality rate by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015.

“The State has to meet this target because deaths from abortion are avoidable. We are merely fulfilling the role that the State should be playing if it really intends to fulfill the target,” Marsano said.

According to the 2009 Millennium Development Goals Report, issued on Jul 6. by the United Nations as part of its assessment of the progress made, obstetric complications and complications from unsafe abortion account for the majority of maternal deaths.

But in spite of the lack of public policies, doctors note that the number of hospitalisations for abortion-related complications has gone down in recent years due to the use of misoprostol, which women learn about by word-of-mouth from other women, Dr. Estela Acosta of the Ana Goitía de Avellaneda Maternity Clinic, on the south side of Buenos Aires, told Carbajal.

“For us, it’s truly a relief. They used to come in with infections, facing the risk of death or loss of their uterus or ovaries. Access to these drugs that interrupt pregnancies has pushed hospitalisations and risks down,” said Acosta.

A similar assessment was made by Dr. Ricardo Cuevas, of the Gynaecology Service of Soria Hospital, in the north-west province of Jujuy. The number of hospitalisations as a result of abortions dropped 50 percent since 2002 due to misoprostol and also to the dissemination of and better access to birth control, Cuevas is quoted as saying in the book.

Still this is only a shortcut for achieving safe abortion. Both Bianco and Marsano said that the women’s movement needs to continue fighting for the decriminalisation of abortion.

Or at the very least, women must organise to demand real access to abortion in hospitals in those circumstances under which it is deemed legal, because in practice rape victims and others have had to bring legal action to exercise their right to terminate a pregnancy.

Australia’s drug regulator has accepted that it is safer for women to terminate pregnancy than to give birth, clearing the way for dramatically wider use of the abortion pill, RU486.

Abortion provider Marie Stopes International last month began offering women the choice of medical and standard surgical abortions at its nine clinics in NSW, Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and the ACT.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration authorised the service to use RU486 under special licensing to give desperately ill people access to drugs not available in this country. The only provisos were that women had to be less than nine weeks pregnant and meet eligibility criteria covering standard surgical abortions, the group said.

The TGA denied it had watered down controls on RU486 — effectively banned in Australia until three years ago — but Marie Stopes said the federal regulator had agreed to broaden its definition of the “life-threatening or otherwise serious” illnesses that could be treated with foreign drugs under the Authorised Prescriber Scheme.

“We argued that pregnancy is a condition that may be both serious and life-threatening in particular circumstances,” said Jill Michelson, the organisation’s national clinical adviser.

“What is undeniable is the fact that the risk to a pregnant woman of induced abortion is much less than the risk of continuing a pregnancy through to delivery at term.

“And we argued that continuance of pregnancy would … also involve greater risk of injury to the physical and mental health of the pregnant woman, and a substantial risk that if pregnancy were not terminated and a child were born, the child would suffer from such physical and mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.”

Anti-abortion groups slammed the move, with Right to Life Australia attacking both the TGA and Marie Stopes for making RU486 more widely available. Queensland GP David van Gend, who campaigned against RU486 for a group known as the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human Life, disputed the scientific basis of the argument advanced by Marie Stopes.

“For an abortion clinic to argue that having a baby is so dangerous that you need to save women from that … is medically highly suspect,” Dr van Gend said yesterday from his surgery in Toowoomba. “Instead, you are at a far higher risk of suiciding after aborting a baby … I suspect only selective data has been looked at to make such a puzzling conclusion on abortion.”

Cairns obstetrician Caroline de Costa, who was at the forefront of the campaign to bring RU486 into the country, culminating in historic conscience votes of federal parliament in 2005 and 2006, questioned whether Marie Stopes’ expanded use of the drug was legal under Queensland law.

Professor de Costa suspended her own RU486 program, the country’s first, after a Cairns couple was charged with criminal offences in March for allegedly procuring contraband abortion drugs in Ukraine, which police say were used by 19-year-old Tegan Simone Leach to terminate her own pregnancy. No pleas have been entered in court proceedings.

Professor de Costa said the terms of her authorised prescriber licence from the TGA restricted her to treating women with existing medical conditions or a history of serious complications during the first trimester of pregnancy. She was yesterday seeking clarification from the agency and Marie Stopes on how RU486 could be provided more generally.

“It’s all very annoying, to put it mildly,” Professor de Costa said. “If they … are able to offer it to women using another variation of law, why can’t they share it with us? We all want the same thing in terms of helping women.”

Ms Michelson agreed her organisation’s legal advice differed from that of Professor de Costa, but said the TGA had done no more than respond to the case Marie Stopes had made that pregnancy could be “both a serious and life-threatening condition, and the risk of doing an abortion is much less than providing a full-term pregnancy”.,25197,25911736-5006786,00.html

Around 229,000 Nepali women have received abortion services till 2009 since the operation is legalized, said Nepali official.

Nepali government have said that legalization of abortion helped Nepal reduce the Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) immensely and that a six-month pilot project, which ran this year to implement Medical Abortion (MA) has shown signs that it will help decrease the rate further.

Abortion was legalized in Nepal in March, 2002. The immediate effect was reduction of MMR from 539 per 100,000 live births in 1996 to 289 in 2006. Nepal aims to bring down MMR to 134 by 2015, local newspaper The Kathmandu Post reported on Saturday.

The safe abortion procedural order 2060 (2003/2004) of the Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) approved medical abortion (pharmacological) as one of the alternative technologies for safe abortion.

Presenting the key findings of the pilot project and recommendations to scale up safe MA services, Chairperson of the government MA task force Meera Ojha said, “The service has already been expanded to all the districts of the country with 245 listed certified abortion care centers, 610 doctors and 94 trained nurses.”

According to Ojha, 229,000 women have received abortion services till 2009.

In 2008, MoHP developed a strategic guideline to expand safe abortion services through MA and a six-month-long pilot study was implemented in six districts covering all five development regions of the country.

The pilot project was conducted in 32 listed service sites in the districts. “A total of 26,620 women received safe abortion services while 1,718 women received the same through MA,” said Ojha.

The root causes of women’s oppression
– Helen Zille, the DA leader on the real obstacles to female advancement in SA

Failing our women: A tragic loss of human potential

On Women’s Day it is important to look beyond the symbolism of this public holiday, and address the root causes of women’s oppression.

The risk of trinkets, cards and gifts on such occasions is that they disguise (rather than address) the substantive issues.

The vision of an “open, opportunity society for all” faces major obstacles, none greater than the situation facing most women (not only in South Africa, but in many other countries).

The reason is that most women forfeit their opportunities before they begin to use them. Their careers end before they begin.

On Women’s Day, we should look hard at the catastrophic loss of human potential among South African women. For far too many, life’s opportunities have been shut down well before their 20th birthday. Multitudes have dropped out of school. Large numbers have become pregnant by fathers who will never support them or their children, so that both they and their babies are doomed to stunted, impoverished lives.

The South African Institute of Race Relations has recently published statistics on the state of the South African family. They are frightening. By 2007, only 34% of children in South Africa were living with both biological parents. 23% were living with neither. There were 148,000 households headed by a child of 17 years or younger. In 2006, more than 72,000 girls between the age of 13 and 19 did not attend school because they were pregnant. A pupil at a school in Mpumalanga claimed that 34 babies born to school girls were fathered by teachers.

Apartheid bears much of the blame for the disintegration of African family life. But the problem has actually been getting worse in recent years. From 2002 to 2007, there was an increase in the number of children living without a father, and in child-headed families. AIDS explains a large loss of life among young women but does not explain why fewer living men are staying with, and taking responsibility for, the children they fathered.

Helen Zille’s article continues at
A Message From the African National Congress Women’s League
Working together to empower women for development and gender equality

This year we commemorate the 53rd anniversary of the heroic march of 20 000 women to the Union Buildings on the 9th of August 1956. This year’s commemoration will take place under the theme “Working together to empower women for development and gender equality”.

Every year on this day, as South African women we remember the sacrifice, the commitment, the dedication and the unity in action of the women of the 1950s. They demonstrated that as women, we are strong, powerful, special and valuable.

This day marks the culmination and continuation of the great and heroic struggle of South African women. This is a history that not only demonstrated to the apartheid regime (and our men) that tempering with women could be dangerous, but also demonstrated to women themselves that they could be as hard as rock. As the women called out on the steps of the Union Buildings that day, “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo. Strijdom uzakufa” (You touch the women, you touch the rock. Strijdom you will die.)

The 9th of August always gives us an opportunity to critically re- examine the history of the march and the foundations of the women’s movement in South Africa, but this day also offers the appropriate occasion to reflect on the current situation of women in the country in relation to progress made since the installation of the first democratic government in 1994. How do we assess our successes and achievements since 1994 and what do we need to do to ensure that we speed up the advancement of women’s empowerment and gender equality in South Africa?

The history of the South African women’s movement to a very large extent is the history of the ANCWL. It is befitting that as we celebrate 53 years of the Women’s march that we do so against the backdrop of the 91 and 61 years of the founding of both the Bantu Women’s League and the African National Congress Women’s League respectively. As members of the League this day reminds us of the glorious past of this great organization we are privileged to be members of.

Lillian Ngoyi who led the representatives of the 20 000 women together with Rahima Moosa, Sophie Williams and Helen Joseph to the office of Prime Minister Strijdom later recalled how she saw her own daughter cry as she led the delegation away, and how she thought that it would probably be the last time they saw each other. When Lillian knocked and a voice from behind the door shouted that she was not allowed to be there she responded as follows, “The women of Africa are outside. They built this place and their husbands died for this.”

Helen Joseph told the story from here: “When it was over women walked back to the bus terminus in two’s and three’s, singing now, never forming a procession, babies on backs, and baskets on heads. They reached the buses as African men queued after work for their transport home, but when they saw the women coming, in their green blouses and skirts, they stood back. “Let the women go first. It was a great tribute from weary men,” they said.

It is also important to contextualize the Women’s March of 1956 within the historical development of the women’s movement in South Africa. It is worthwhile to note that the women’s anti-pass march of 1913 in Bloemfontein stands out as the beginnings of the women’s movement in South Africa with the formation of formation of the Bantu Women’s League in 1918, led by Charlotte Maxeke.

It is also worth noting that in those days women were only granted auxiliary status by the ANC and had no voting rights in the organization. It was only in 1943 that women were eventually allowed to become full members of the ANC and the Bantu Women’s League became the ANCWL.

ANC article continues at
Token day for South Africa women

We celebrate Women’s Day to recognise the contribution women made to the fight against apartheid. On 9 August 1956 over 20 000 women marched on Parliament to protest against the ‘pass books’ law.

The words: “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo uzokufa!” (when you strike the women, you strike a rock, you will be crushed), have come to symbolise the courage of South African women.

However, the fact that we celebrate Women’s Day is a sign of both how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. For while it recognises that women ought to be celebrated for their contribution to society; it simultaneously demonstrates how far we have to go before we can truly be regarded as an egalitarian society.

Women’s Day might be a step in the right direction, but it is also simply a token of recognition in a country where the incidence of rape increased by 17.8 percent between 1994 and 2004. It is one day on which the rights and achievements of women are recognised. To whom, one is forced to ask, do the remaining 364 belong?

The answer, unfortunately, is not humankind.

Laws lacking conviction

South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, in which all citizens are protected and entitled to basic necessities as well as the freedom of movement, expression and religious or sexual orientation.

Enshrined in this Constitution are laws which provide pregnant women with free health care and the right to terminate a pregnancy (Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act); laws which make marital rape and violence in both marital and non-marital relationships illegal (Domestic Violence Act); and laws which amend patriarchal customary traditions to ensure that women do not become property in marriage (Customary Marriages Act).

There are even bodies in place to ensure that these laws are observed. The Commission on Gender Equality is a statutory body which was established with the Constitution to ensure that gender-related laws are upheld. It is an independent body which is subject only to the Constitution and law.

The Office on the State of Women is meant to ensure that the gender equality envisaged by the Constitution becomes manifest in government programmes. This year, President Jacob Zuma introduced a new ministry for Women, Youth, Children and People with Disability. While this may have been done with the intention of furthering the cause of women, its very existence (particularly the grouping with children and people with disabilities) indicates the marginalised position which women hold in South African society.

And yet, our fledgling democracy is failing its women dismally.

Rebekah Kendal’s article continues at

Lawmakers and rights groups in Senegal are calling for tougher legislation to tackle what they say is a massive rise in the number of rapes — many involving children.

Adama Sow, president of the Research and Action Group on Violence against Children, said that between September 2006 and December 2007, his organisation had reported nearly 400 cases of rape.

But last year the figure had climbed to almost 600 cases, “98 percent of which involved minors,” he said. “There is a code of silence surrounding rape in Senegal, with many cases going unreported,” said Omar Ndoye, a lawmaker who is president of a parliamentary committee for the protection of children.

Ndoye said more and more children were becoming victims of rape, with boys as well as girls affected.

“The Kolda region had 211 cases in 2008, of which half were rapes of pupils by teachers and resulting in pregnancies,” said Sow, citing figures from the police, courts and non-governmental organisations.

Ndoye blamed the rise on greater promiscuity and a shortage of housing, adding that foreign television programmes and the Internet may also have a role to play.

But Sow said “the root cause” is poverty.

Kolda, one of the poorest regions, would have had more than a third of the cases in 2008, he said.

Moustapha Ka, deputy director for criminal cases at the Justice Ministry, said incest was also a key factor.

“Rape by family members plays a big part but the families prefer secrecy and don’t bring it before the courts,” he said

Interviewed by the private weekly Nouvel Horizon, clinical psychologist Mamadou Mbodj said the problem has always been around but not discussed.

“Depravity has no race, colour, age or religion… It has always existed. We just weren’t talking about it,” he said. “As we have become more immoral, society is just less and less inclined to stay silent.”

In Senegal rape carries a penalty of 10 years in prison. This can, however, be doubled in extreme cases such as incest or if it involves a repeat offender.

Sow called for rapists to be chemically castrated but Fatoumata Sy, president of a group that tackles violence against women, said prevention was the key.

“We must pay particular attention to prevention, detecting people who are disturbed and providing better training for investigators,” Sy said.

At the Justice Ministry, Ka said the government is planning to improve the court system because many rape cases end up being dropped and the perpetrators discharged as a result of badly prepared cases.

He said the reforms would allow victims’ medical certificates to be produced in court and strengthen the ability of forensic police to carry out DNA tests.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted the problem of sexual violence against women and children during her tour of Africa this past week.

While in the Democratic Republic of Congo she called for punishing soldiers who use rape as a weapon of conflict.

Clinton said she pressed Congolese President Joseph Kabila to arrest officers behind an epidemic of sexual assault in the restive east of the country.

“We believe there should be no impunity for the sexual and gender based violence committed by so many and that there must be arrests, prosecutions and punishments,” she said.

She said Kabila agreed to allow a US team of legal and technical experts to make “specific” recommendations on how to combat the sexual attacks. mrb/lbx/nw/boc

Lawmakers are debating a bill that would make marital rape a crime in the Bahamas, overturning the current system in which consent to sexual intercourse is presumed in a legal marriage.

Legislator Loretta Butler-Turner, who drafted the bill, said the attitude that wives are subordinate to husbands has put some women at risk of violence in the socially conservative archipelago.

“There is a constituency of our community that is not protected against rape,” she said. “That is the bottom line.”

Under current Bahamian law, a man can be charged with raping his wife only if the two are in divorce proceedings or living apart.

The bill already has caused debate on radio talk shows, with some islanders saying women could file false rape charges as leverage for alimony, child support or custody. Others have said the bill contradicts traditional Christian values.

Sandra Dean-Patterson, director of a nonprofit group that provides services to victims of abuse, defended the proposal, saying such a law would be an important step forward.

“It says that our nation will no longer condone violence in the family. If you have to force your husband or your wife to be sexual, something is wrong with the relationship,” she said.

The government is organizing a series of forums to get comments from the public.

The proposed law would allow a judge to decide the penalty for marital rape. People currently convicted of rape face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Rehashed legislation allows husbands to deny wives food if they fail to obey sexual demands

Afghanistan has quietly passed a law permitting Shia men to deny their wives food and sustenance if they refuse to obey their husbands’ sexual demands, despite international outrage over an earlier version of the legislation which President Hamid Karzai had promised to review.

The new final draft of the legislation also grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers, and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work.

“It also effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying ‘blood money’ to a girl who was injured when he raped her,” the US charity Human Rights Watch said.

In early April, Barack Obama and Gordon Brown joined an international chorus of condemnation when the Guardian revealed that the earlier version of the law legalised rape within marriage, according to the UN.

Although Karzai appeared to back down, activists say the revised version of the law still contains repressive measures and contradicts the Afghan constitution and international treaties signed by the country.

Islamic law experts and human rights activists say that although the language of the original law has been changed, many of the provisions that alarmed women’s rights groups remain, including this one: “Tamkeen is the readiness of the wife to submit to her husband’s reasonable sexual enjoyment, and her prohibition from going out of the house, except in extreme circumstances, without her husband’s permission. If any of the above provisions are not followed by the wife she is considered disobedient.”

The law has been backed by the hardline Shia cleric Ayatollah Mohseni, who is thought to have influence over the voting intentions of some of the country’s Shias, which make up around 20% of the population. Karzai has assiduously courted such minority leaders in the run up to next Thursday’s election, which is likely to be a close run thing, according to a poll released yesterday.

Human Rights Watch, which has obtained a copy of the final law, called on all candidates to pledge to repeal the law, which it says contradicts Afghanistan’s own constitution.

The group said that Karzai had “made an unthinkable deal to sell Afghan women out in the support of fundamentalists in the August 20 election”.

Brad Adams, the organisation’s Asia director, said: “The rights of Afghan women are being ripped up by powerful men who are using women as pawns in manoeuvres to gain power.

“These kinds of barbaric laws were supposed to have been relegated to the past with the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, yet Karzai has revived them and given them his official stamp of approval.”

The latest opinion poll by US democracy group the International Republican Institute showed that although Karzai was up 13 points to 44% since the last survey in May, his closest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, had soared from 7% to 26%.

If those numbers prove accurate, it would mean the contest would have to go to a second round run-off vote in early October. In that scenario, 50% of voters said they would vote for Karzai and 29% for Abdullah.

The survey was conducted in mid to late July, so it is not known whether Abdullah has made further gains on Karzai.

He could further increase his chance of victory by joining forces with Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister who is also running on a platform fiercely critical of Karzai.

Fifty-eight per cent of the 2,400 people polled by IRI said they would like to see an alliance between Abdullah and Ghani, who is polling in fourth place.

US secretary of state visits Goma to draw attention to ‘one of mankind’s greatest atrocities’

The US secretary of state, who is in Goma to draw world attention to what she has described as “one of mankind’s greatest atrocities”, toured the Magunga camp.

The camp houses 18,000 men, women and children who have been uprooted by a conflict that has raged, on and off, for the past decade. More than five million people have died.

After meeting refugees, who told her women, girls and young boys faced the threat of rape when they went into the forest to gather wood for cooking, Clinton told a press conference: “We believe there should be no impunity for the sexual and gender-based violence committed by so many … that there must be arrests and prosecutions and punishment.”

She delivered the same message to the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, when they met in a tent at Goma, on the shore of Lake Kivu.

After the talks, Clinton said impunity for the perpetrators of sexual violence ran “counter to peace and stability for the Congolese people”.

She insisted on visiting Goma – described as the most dangerous place on earth for women and children – despite concerns over security, becoming the first US secretary of state to tour the city.

The UN has recorded at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence against women and girls in the region since the conflict began in 1996.

Clinton urged university students in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, to mount a campaign against such abuses.

“The entire society needs to be speaking out against this,” she said. “It should be a mark of shame anywhere, in any country.

“I hope that that will become a real cause here in Kinshasa that will sweep across the country.”

Although fighting has eased since a peace deal was reached in 2003, the army and rebel groups are still attacking villages, killing civilians and committing atrocities as they scrap over eastern Congo’s vast mineral wealth.

Clinton has been urged by human rights groups to press the government to arrest and prosecute offenders.

Members of Kabila’s armed forces are accused of taking part in the brutality, including the gang rapes of tens of thousands of girls that have led to unwanted pregnancies and serious injuries or death.

In a report published last month, Human Rights Watch called on Kabila’s government to crack down on persistent sexual violence by its own soldiers.

It said the government should vet and 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 groups say sexual violence in Congo has been widespread and systematic over the last 15 years, with more than a dozen armed groups using rape to terrorise, punish, and control civilians.

Because of its sheer size and geographical spread, the Congolese army is the single largest perpetrator of sexual violence.

The problem has worsened since January, when the army began a campaign against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – Hutu militias who escaped to Congo after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Rape cases have doubled or tripled in the north and South Kivu provinces of eastern Congo, with the perpetrators of sexual violence including the army, the FDLR, and Congolese rebel groups.

A UN special envoy has called countries in the Great Lakes Region (GRL) to make rape a punishable offense, ensuring that appropriate laws are enforced in national courts to prevent the vice, the Times of Zambia reported on Monday.

UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on HIV and AIDS in Africa Elizabeth Mataka said in a statement in Lusaka that rape is still being perpetuated in a number of countries in the region despite the region being in a post-conflict situation, adding that “the governments should take ownership of efforts to prevent rape and conflict situations”.

The UN special envoy said this in a statement ahead of the third International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) heads of state and government summit which is scheduled to take place in Lusaka on Monday.

She said with the exception of Zambia and Tanzania, the rest of the countries in the region were scarred with conflicts, adding that the Human Rights Watch has identified a number of cases where razor blades are used to slice the genitalia of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo).

According to the envoy, other instances involved women being raped and then shot or being harmed with a knife, thereby mutilating and causing irreversible damage.

She said that these horrific acts have no space in the world and no efforts should be spared to end such atrocities.

The UN envoy further called on authorities in the region to compensate rape victims and pay for their medical and psychological treatment, saying that the fund could also foster support for women to play key role in the prevention and resolution of conflicts in their respective countries.

The ICGLR comprises African countries that share Lakes Kivu, Albert, Edward, Victoria, Mweru and Tanganyika which are commonly known as the Great Lakes. The countries include Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Sudan, and Uganda.