Archive for September, 2009

In 2003, the African nation of Liberia was in turmoil; its president Charles Taylor was involved in a vicious civil war with war lords who wanted to take his place. Caught in the middle were innocent civilians who bore the brunt of the violence.

One woman, Leymah Gbowee, had had enough and she and her fellow church members, soon to be joined by their female Muslim counterparts, began their protests.

Their plan was simple; every day they would gather in the central market of the capital of Monrovia wearing T-shirts and carrying placards simply asking for peace.

As their numbers swelled, Taylor reluctantly bowed to the pressure and peace talks were set up in Ghana. From their actions came Taylor’s exile and the election in 2005 of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first woman head of state.

    Leymah Gbowee joined the Woman in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) and brought women of Christian Churches together into the Christian Women’s Initiative and then formed a coalition with the women in the Muslim organizations in Monrovia and eventually Liberian Mass Action for Peace came into being.

    Etweda “Sugars” Cooper founded the Liberia Women Initiative to advocate for disarmament and free and fair elections, and also to bring pressure to bear on stakeholders for the inclusion of women in negotiating a settlement of the Liberian conflict. Liberia Women Initiative

    Asatu Bah Kenneth, a police officer for 25 years and president of the Liberia Female Law Enforcement Association, Asatu created the Liberian Muslim Women’s Organization. Liberian Mass Action for Peace came into being when the two organizations joined.

    Vaiba Flomo, working with the Lutheran church’s trauma healing program brought the faith groups together with the message: “Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?”

    Etty Weah, was one of many women who wore white and sat on the field day in and day out. Rain or shine. Bullets or no bullets. She believed strength in numbers would make their voices heard.

    Janet Johnson Bryant, a journalist working for the Catholic radio station Radio Veritas, hosted a radio show about women’s issues and covered the Presidential Palace.


You can watch via 4oD (27 days left from 25/09/2009)

For more about the documentary – see

See also:
* Liberia breaks new ground for women, peace and security

Rioters attacked and stripped about 20 Ugandan women who were wearing trousers last week during deadly riots in Kampala. The humiliations were part of a major confrontation between a traditional kingdom and President Yoweri Museveni’s government.

Male rioters in a suburb here on September 11 attacked about 20 women wearing trousers.

The men, in Rubaga, a Kampala suburb, began detaining women during their protests, police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba said at a press conference that took place that same day.

Women wearing skirts were allowed to pass, Nabakooba said, but those wearing trousers were forcibly undressed and left to walk home in their underwear.

The abuse occurred amid violence in the Ugandan capital, which officials say has claimed 14 lives and injured about 70.

Women’s rights advocate Jackie Asiimwe denounced the rioters for using the clash to abuse women and commit criminal acts in New Vision, a Kampala-based newspaper. “It is an invasion of women’s privacy,” the newspaper quoted Asiimwe as saying.

“Traditionally, trousers are not acceptable and are a Western thing,” Rizzan Nassuna, a writer and human rights advocate in Kampala told Women’s eNews. “In (the kingdom of) Buganda, you are supposed to wear long skirts. This is coming out of a local belief that women are not supposed to wear trousers, but this has never been formalized or really come out in the open. They violated their dignity as women, making them walk naked, because they are wearing trousers.”

In neighboring Sudan, journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein was recently arrested for wearing trousers in Khartoum before being released on September 8.

Nassuna, however, said she doubted any direct connection between the two incidents. Instead, she viewed the attack on women wearing pants as a byproduct of a larger effort by protesters to assert the customs of their Buganda kingdom, a pre-colonial cultural and political structure that, with 5.5 million members in a country of 30.9 million, is the largest of Uganda’s traditional communities.

The riots were sparked on September 10 when the Ugandan government blocked an advance team for the Kabaka, the king of the Buganda kingdom, from entering Kayunga, a district in central Uganda.

The inspector general of police, Major General Kale Kayihura, said in a press conference on September 12 that the clashes spread from the city center to more than 11 suburbs of Kampala, a city of about 1.6 million people. He said that so far 14 people have died in the disturbances and more than 70 have been injured.

Kayihura said that the police had arrested 550 people since Thursday and charged 83. “Investigations are still on,” he said at the press conference.

Some Unnecessary Force Used
He said some police officers had used unnecessary force after they were instructed by their commanders and the Ugandan president to kill looters on sight. “I know that some police officers mistreated civilians during the riots,” said Kayihura. “This should stop immediately.”

Two minority ethnic groups in Kayunga, the Banyala and Baluuli, have been demanding this month to secede from the kingdom to establish cultural autonomy.

On September 9, President Yoweri Museveni, citing fears that the king’s visit might trigger violence in the district, said that the Kabaka could not visit Kayunga unless leaders from the minority groups, Buganda representatives and government officials met beforehand.

In the ensuing violent backlash to that decision, a mob burned two people to death in the suburb of Ndeeba on September 10. One woman was almost lynched by a mob in Namirembe, a neighborhood in Kampala, after youth declared her not to be a Muganda, or a member of the Baganda people. She was saved by police.

Justine Busulwa, an accountant who works in Kampala, gave Women’s eNews an account of barely surviving the riots.

She said in an interview that when news of the riots first broke last week her boss initially locked the office to protect the workers. She eventually left her office late and had a motorbike driver take her home to avoid using public transport. On her way home, she passed through Wandegaya, a Kampala neighborhood, and saw riots erupting.

A Ugandan soldier stopped her, but rather than protecting her, she said he asked her to lie down on the ground and began taunting her for not being a Muganda, or member of the kingdom, even though she belongs to that ethnic group.

Mob Begins Harassment
After begging for the release of her driver and herself, the soldier let her go. But then Busulwa said she was stopped by a mob that had formed in another section of the city, which began harassing her. She said she only got away by giving the rioters money.

“I was almost killed,” Busulwa said. “My son came home at midnight when the riots almost reached his university, too afraid to stay in his hostel.”

She waited until Sunday before entering town again.

The government called on the police, military and the Presidential Guard, raising hope that the violence would be curbed. But gunfire began in Kampala early on Friday, September 11. Public transport was paralyzed and rioters began humiliating women and attacking Indian merchants. Many Indian business owners closed their stores on that day to prevent attacks, and some Indian families took refuge at police stations.

Although the riots subsided somewhat on Saturday, gunshots were still audible throughout the city.

The crisis could be one of the biggest tests of Museveni’s career.

The president, an ethnic Ankole from southwestern Uganda, took power in 1986 and is up for re-election in 2011.

Although praised initially for his regime’s efforts to both empower women and reinstate the cultural kingdoms, his government has clashed with Buganda officials in recent years over land issues in Kampala, positioned at the heart of the traditional kingdom.

Museveni said he has tried to communicate with the Kabaka for the past two years, but the cultural leader refused to take his phone calls.

“Whenever any controversy came up, I would telephone His Highness, the Kabaka, but he would not answer my telephone as usual,” said Museveni, who took a hard line against rioters harassing and humiliating civilians, in a press statement. “The ring leaders are being hunted down and some have been arrested. Looters will be shot on sight, as will those who attack other civilians.”

Rebecca Harshbarger is a journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. You can visit her Web site at

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

Muslims who commit adultery in Indonesia’s semi-autonomous province of Aceh could be stoned to death after the provincial parliament last week passed laws expanding Islamic law.

The new laws, which also include multiple lashings in public for those caught having pre-marital sex, were opposed by women’s groups and the province’s governor, and were rammed through just weeks before a new, far more moderate parliament was to be convened.

The laws also include new punishments for consuming alcohol, rape, pedophilia and homosexuality, although none are as tough as the gruesome death penalty for adulterers.

Bustanul Arifin, a lawmaker from the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party who sits on the committee that oversaw the bill, said some local members of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party disagreed with measures such as the stoning to death, and wanted to reduce the number of lashes, which can be up to 100 for some offences.

”But it was not possible because we based the law on the Koran and the hadith. You cannot decrease it,” Mr Arifin said. The hadith are oral accounts of the prophet Muhammad’s life and times in Saudi Arabia in the 7th century.

Despite the passage of the laws, their future remains uncertain. Mr Arifin said they could be redrafted over the next three days before being handed to the Governor, Irwandi Yusuf.

Also, Indonesia’s home affairs minister and the national parliament could overturn them, if they judge they contravene national laws and Indonesia’s commitment to various international legal conventions.

Aceh, Indonesia’s most devoutly Islamic area, has had a form of sharia, or Islamic law, since 2002. It mandated women to wear headscarves, and public canings for those caught gambling. A sharia police force has been created but many of the provisions of the law have not been enforced due to widespread resentment among citizens.

Elections earlier this year saw Islamic hardliners perform poorly while the secular Partai Aceh, made up of former independence fighters, did well. But the Partai Aceh-dominated parliament will not convene until next month.

On 25 August the court of Al-Shamli, north of Hail, found Mrs Khamisa Sawadi guilty of the charge of “khilwa” (mingling with two young men to whom she was not immediately related), and the higher court in Riyadh ratified their verdict. One of the two young men who was tried alongside Sawadi may face additional charges for filing a law suit against the religious police. This is in spite of the fact that in May the Court of Cassation refused to ratify the verdict and returned the case to Al-Shamli court with several observations on the previous verdict, including the rejection of her breastfeeding claim and the fact that she is old.

Khamisa Sawadi had been sentenced to 4 months in prison and 40 lashes and will be deported and forbidden from entering the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia again. One male defendant has been sentenced to 6 months in prison and 60 lashes. The court rejected the defendant’s explanation that one of the male defendants was her son because she breastfed him when he was a baby. The court also accused the defendants of attacking the ‘Committee for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice’, and for insulting them.

In April 2008 Sawadi met two 24-year-old men after she asked them to bring her five loaves of bread. The two men, Al-Anzi, Sawadi’s late husband’s nephew, and bin Zein, al-Anzi’s business partner, were also arrested by religious police and found guilty and sentenced to prison terms and lashes. The court based its decision on ‘citizen information’ and testimony for al-Anzi’s father, who accused Sawadi of corruption. Furthermore, the verdict cited the fact that Sawadi is not a Saudi national – although she was married to a Saudi man – and that she was without a husband as evidence of her guilt. Following the implementation of her sentence, Sawadi will face deportation.


See also: Saudi Arabia: Imprisonment and Whipping of 75 year-old Woman[136]=i-136-34117db0605eb1cc770b1383f5d517fe

“I cried a lot, I couldn’t believe I was in prison. The day I was put in jail, I never thought I would be there for a long time,” an indigenous market vendor, Jacinta Francisco, said in Mexico after she was released from prison, where she spent three years for a crime she did not commit.

Francisco had been sentenced to 21 years in prison on charges of kidnapping six agents of the now-defunct Federal Investigation Agency. Her case sparked an outcry from local and international human rights groups, and she was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by the London-based Amnesty International.

The 46-year-old Otomí Indian was released from prison last week in the city of Querétaro, 200 km northwest of the Mexican capital, where she was held since August 2006. Her release was the result of an appeal that she won in April.

She was arrested more than four months after a March 2006 raid by the federal police agency on stalls selling pirate DVDs in a street market in the village of Santiago Mexquititlán in the central state of Querétaro, where agents claimed they had been held hostage by Francisco and other stall holders.

Luís Arriaga, director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Centre (PRODH), which defended and provided economic support for Francisco, said in a press conference in Mexico City that “with this act of justice, not only are the authorities admitting her innocence, but they are acknowledging that there were grave irregularities in the proceedings against her.”

The National Human Rights Commission, a government body, concluded in July that there were serious irregularities and fabricated evidence in the case.

In the March 2006 incident, angry street vendors surrounded six federal agents who were confiscating their counterfeit goods, briefly holding them hostage while demanding compensation for the loss of their merchandise. The protest apparently ended when the regional police chief brought money from a nearby town to compensate the stall holders for the damages.

But that evening, the federal agents filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, stating that they had been kidnapped for several hours by the protesters.

Because of the lack of formal sector jobs in Mexico, millions of people are forced to work in the informal economy, with many making a living selling counterfeit goods. Raids by the authorities frequently cause tension and even spark violence as merchandise is seized.

In Francisco’s case, the PRODH says the trial was riddled with irregularities. The human rights group says no evidence was presented to prove she was involved in the incident, and that the sentence was based exclusively on the testimony of the federal police agents, who were never even required to appear during the trial to confirm her identification, which was based on a photo in the local newspaper taken while she was walking behind the crowd of protesters.

Amnesty International reported that in their original statements, in late March 2006, the police agents did not refer to Francisco. They only accused her of involvement a month later, when shown the photo from the local paper.

In addition, the PRODH says she was denied the presumption of innocence, and that she had no access to an interpreter.

Francisco, who is illiterate and spoke little Spanish at the time – like many other speakers of native languages in Mexico – did not understand what was happening during the trial, as her state-appointed public defender did not speak to her to explain her rights.

“This has become a scandal, a symbol of how this country’s weak and ineffective justice system works,” Alberto Herrera, head of Amnesty International – Mexico, said in Thursday’s news briefing.

The Attorney General’s Office reported that a review of her case turned up “contradictions in the statements of federal agents…that created a reasonable doubt about her involvement.” It decided not to contest the appeal that Francisco won, although it did not acknowledge irregularities in the case.

Amnesty International is also demanding new trials for two other Otomí women – Teresa González and Alberta Alcántara – convicted in the case. But the Attorney General’s Office said there is strong evidence against the two.

Story continues at

See earlier posting: Indigenous Mexican woman accused of kidnapping six agents named Amnesty prisoner of conscience

A new White House Council on Women and Girls is assessing every government agency to see if its programs do enough to benefit women. The first senior adviser on domestic violence and the first ambassador for women’s issues around the globe are developing programs to prevent violence again women at home and abroad. First lady Michelle Obama is highlighting women’s achievements, helping families and pushing girls to succeed.

The prospect of a woman in the Oval Office ended more than a year ago when Hillary Rodham Clinton conceded the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama. But the women’s groups who backed Clinton for president now say the man who vanquished her is running an administration more focused on women’s issues and equality than any before it.

“This has been the most open White House to women’s issues and groups,” says Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal, a women’s rights activist for four decades. “In the first six months, we have been brought in more than ever before. & It’s very impressive.”

Says Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW): “We clearly have a friend in the White House.”

Last November, 56% of female voters chose Obama over Republican Sen. John McCain at the polls. The Obama administration’s outreach to women more than 60% of the nation’s voters and now nearly half the nation’s workers started right away.

Just nine days into office, the president made a show of signing his first piece of legislation: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.

The law negated a ruling by the Supreme Court against a woman who had sued after discovering that her employer had paid her male colleagues more for years.

Signing the bill before the cameras in the White House’s East Room, Obama said he did it to honor “women like my grandmother who worked in a bank all her life” and to lay the groundwork for “my daughters, and all those who will come after us, because I want them to grow up in a nation that values their contributions, where there are no limits to their dreams and they have opportunities their mothers and grandmothers never could have imagined.”

Weeks later, he announced the creation of the new White House council to “ensure that American women are treated fairly in all matters of public policy.” He put his longtime friend and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett in charge.

“Obama’s policies reflect the views of hard-core abortion and feminist groups,” says Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. “Considering the diversity of views among American women, it is insulting to assume that there is one ‘women’s view’ and it is represented by liberal feminist activists. & Obama’s choices reflect a stereotypical view of women who are abortion advocates who are dependent on government.”

His moves haven’t entirely pleased liberal groups either.

NOW and others had pushed for a Cabinet-level post dedicated to women’s issues, not a council, arguing that only the prestige of a Cabinet member would give women’s issues the attention and clout they deserved.

Despite that disappointment, these groups say they’ve been impressed with the work they’ve seen so far, on a host of fronts. Among them:

” Clinton, now secretary of State, is putting a spotlight on women’s rights internationally, including issues affecting women’s health, education and economic prospects.

“Investments in women are about creating a better world,” says Melanne Verveer, the new ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. She says societies such as Congo where women are degraded often “implode” and result in failed states. “These issues do not belong in some kind of box on the margins. There is a commitment in the administration. & It’s very gratifying.”

” Obama appointed the first White House senior adviser on violence against women, domestic violence expert Lynn Rosenthal. In her new job, Rosenthal will help develop policies and programs aimed at reducing domestic violence and sexual assault.

“She will be a leader in this White House in stopping the violence and sexual assault of women and will be an integral part of this administration,” Vice President Biden said in June when she was appointed to the post. As a senator, Biden wrote the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which imposed tougher penalties on abusers and expanded victims’ rights to sue. He called it his “proudest legislative achievement.”

” First lady Michelle Obama holds many events focused on women, including a Women’s History Month event in March in which she enlisted 21 of the nation’s most accomplished women from singer Sheryl Crow to four-star Gen. Ann Dunwoody to talk to kids in some of Washington, D.C.’s most beleaguered schools.

The first lady’s spokeswoman, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, says Michelle Obama’s ongoing work with military families also reflects her commitment to women’s issues.

” Tina Tchen, director of the new White House council, says there is “enthusiasm across the board for these issues” in the administration. She’s working on programs related to everything from child-labor laws to financial literacy for women.

Former NOW president Kim Gandy says women’s groups want the administration and Congress to approve paid family leave, pass anti-wage-discrimination laws and strengthen Title IX rules that prohibit discrimination in school athletics programs.

“There is a lot of policy work yet to be done,” she says. “But I believe they’re committed to doing it.”

Amnesty International has launched a new campaign to reduce maternal deaths in Sierra Leone.

The accompanying report Out of Reach: The Cost of Maternal Health in Sierra Leone uses graphic and personal testimonies to show how women and girls are often unable to access life-saving treatment because they are too poor to pay for it.

In Sierra Leone one in eight women risks dying during pregnancy or childbirth. This is one of the highest maternal death rates in the world.

Thousands of women bleed to death after giving birth. Most die in their homes. Some die on the way to hospital: in taxis, on motorbikes or on foot. In Sierra Leone, less than half of deliveries are attended by a skilled birth attendant and less than one in five are carried out in health facilities.

Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Irene Khan launched the report in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. She said:

‘These grim statistics reveal that maternal deaths are a human rights emergency in Sierra Leone.

‘Women and girls are dying in their thousands because they are routinely denied their right to life and health, in spite of promises from the government to provide free healthcare to all pregnant women.’

At the United Nations General Assembly meeting on 23 September, access to healthcare in the developing world will be high on the agenda.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to announce a series of new finance packages devoted to improving healthcare in the developing world with particular focus on infant and maternal health. Sierra Leone is expected to be among the recipients of the fund.

Irene Khan said:

‘Additional money is desperately needed in Sierra Leone but will not reach women and children in remote areas who are at greatest risk. The lives of women and girls will only be saved when the health system is properly managed and the government is held to account.

‘Money alone will not solve the problem. In Sierra Leone severe discrimination and the low social status of women underlies the terrible tragedy of maternal deaths. This is a country where girls are forced into early marriage, excluded from schools and face sexual violence. Women’s health needs are given a low priority by their own families, community leaders and their government.’

The Secretary-General’s visit to Sierra Leone marks the start of Amnesty International’s action against maternal mortality in the country. A campaign caravan will tour Sierra Leone over the coming weeks acting as a vehicle for information and debate on the issue of maternal health.

Earlier this year Amnesty International launched a global campaign to Demand Dignity – which calls for an end to the human rights violations that drive and deepen poverty. Maternal mortality is a key strand of this campaign.

The campaign mobilises people all over the world to demand that governments and corporations listen to the voices of those living in poverty and respect their rights.

Read the report Out of Reach: The Cost of Maternal Health in Sierra Leone

The poll of 800 voters, conducted exclusively for The Courier-Mail, found 64 per cent believed abortion should be legalised, while 31 per cent disagreed. Five per cent were uncommitted.

Despite the results, Premier Anna Bligh has consistently refused to decriminalise abortion, saying she does not have enough parliamentary support.

The poll, conducted last week, comes as public hospital abortions in Queensland remain suspended, except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk. Queensland Health obstetricians have been sending women requesting abortions at less than 18 weeks’ gestation to private clinics within the state.

Women seeking late terminations are being referred to centres in Darwin and Melbourne.

At least some of the terminations are being paid for by taxpayers, with Queensland Health agreeing to foot the bill.

Public hospital obstetricians may launch a test case in the Supreme Court as early as this week to force the establishment of a legal precedent regarding abortions which involve severe foetal abnormalities.

But legal advice suggests this could only be done if the doctors are unable to refer a woman elsewhere.

Obstetricians say this is a distinct possibility in the short-term, as private facilities become overloaded with public hospital patients who frequently request terminations late in a pregnancy.

About 300 of the estimated 14,000 abortions performed in Queensland each year are done in public hospitals.

Cairns obstetrician Caroline de Costa said the latest poll results were not surprising.

“Other surveys have shown a majority of Queenslanders believe that women should have access to safe, legal abortion,” Professor de Costa said.

Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ president Ted Weaver said the poll should prompt the Bligh Government to legislate to support the wishes of society.

“I think it’s really up to the government to work out a way forward,” Dr Weaver said. “The ball’s firmly in the government’s court.”

Queensland public hospital obstetricians say they are unlikely to resume performing terminations until they receive written assurances from the government that they are “supported and indemnified”.

Queensland Health did not comment.,27574,26072582-3102,00.html

Pro-choice supporters are outraged that a young couple in Cairns are facing trial under the state’s anti-abortion laws. The Pro-Choice Action Collective has declared that it will intensify its campaign to demand the Bligh government intervene in the case to have the charges dropped.

Pro-Choice Action Collective activist, Kathy Newnam stated “this young couple should never have been charged because the anti-abortion laws should not exist. Abortion should not be a crime. Women have the right to control their own bodies.

“The QLD government has tried to distract attention from the case. Anna Bligh has claimed the charges were brought because of the way that the abortion allegedly took place. This is untrue, as has been demonstrated by the nature of the prosecution’s case against the couple.

“The fact is that under the anti-abortion laws, any woman who has had an abortion and anyone who assisted her could potentially face the same situation.

“The anti-abortion laws are rotten. They are designed to control women and dictate what they can do with their bodies.

“This young couple have been targeted by the police as a test case.

“The widespread support for abortion rights has meant that it’s been 24 years since there has been a prosecution under these laws.

“Over 80% of people support a woman’s right to choose abortion. We are determined to mobilise this support to force the government to intervene in this case.

“The charges must be dropped. Furthermore, no-one should ever again have to go through the trauma that the young couple in Cairns are facing right now. The anti-abortion laws must be repealed immediately”.

See also: Abortion couple not aware they broke law

A Polish court has ordered a Roman Catholic magazine to pay a fine and apologize to a woman for likening her to a killer for wanting an abortion and equating the practice with Nazi crimes.

Judge Ewa Solecka ruled Wednesday that Catholics are free to express their moral disapproval of abortion — and even call it murder — but in a general way that stops short of vilifying an individual.

Solecka ordered the magazine, Gosc Niedzielny, which is published by the Katowice archdiocese, to pay Alicja Tysiac 30,000 zlotys (nearly $11,000) and issue her a written apology.

Solecka said the magazine’s language was “particularly contemptuous” of Tysiac.

It is the latest episode in an ongoing public debate over abortion in Poland, a mainly Roman Catholic country where it is illegal in most cases.

Tysiac has become a symbol for the abortion rights movement because she challenged Poland’s ban on abortion with the European Court of Human Rights. In 2007, that court ordered Poland to pay her damages of euro25,000 (nearly $37,000) because doctors refused to let her terminate her pregnancy despite serious risk to her eyesight.

After giving birth, her eyesight deteriorated considerably due to a retinal hemorrhage and doctors declared her significantly disabled.

Following the ruling, the editor of Gosc Niedzielny (Sunday Visitor), Rev. Marek Gancarczyk, wrote: “We live in a world where a mother receives an award for very much wanting to kill her child, but not being allowed to do so.”

Gancarczyk compared abortion to the ghastly medical experiments performed at Auschwitz by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele and others. “They had become accustomed to the murders being carried out behind the fence of the camp. And what is the case today? Different, but just as terrible,” he wrote.

The magazine denounced Wednesday’s ruling as an infringement on freedom of speech and said it planned an appeal.

Abortions were easily available under communism but with the transformation to democracy the once-marginalized Catholic church regained significant influence. Today Poland allows the termination of a pregnancy until the 12th week but only if the mother’s life is in danger, the fetus is irreparably damaged or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Women are well represented in newsrooms but struggle to find a place in senior management or on boards, said Business Day in a report on a study by Gender Links.

Women also still earn less than their male counterparts in the media, according to the survey conducted in South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

South Africa was at the top end of the scale (50 percent) beaten only by Lesotho (73 percent) when it came to the percentage of women in media for the region.

South Africa led when it came to top management positions but the results were low with only 39 percent of South African women on boards, 25 percent in top management and 35 percent in senior management.

The research took place in the context of the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, which urges the media and all institutions in the public and private sectors to achieve gender parity in decision making positions by 2015.

One-hundred-and-twenty-six media bodies representing 23,678 employees were reviewed while the South African study looked at 11 media, representing 11,700 employees, the Business Day report said.

More women (61 percent) then men (31 percent) were employed part-time and women were more likely to be employed in support departments like human resources, marketing or advertising, finance and administration.

There was also a gender division of labour with men covering “hard” beats like science and technology, in-depth or investigative reporting, disaster and conflict and agriculture.

Women dominated in education, gender violence, health, HIV and Aids, human rights, lifestyle, media and youth.

There was a gender balance in crime, entertainment, arts and culture.

None of the media in the South African sample had reached parity in earnings.

The Sunday Times, with annual salaries ranging from R309 949 for women and R373 419 for men, had the biggest gap in earnings.

The Mail & Guardian, with R344 080 for women and R357 159 for men, had the lowest gender gap.

Researchers said in South Africa a glass ceiling had been created by old-boy networks and gender insensitive work environments.

While there was a high level of commitment to gender equality in the media, there were no comprehensive and systematic policies to address the gender gap.

The Seychelles came third with gender parity in the media, with 49 percent women, followed by Mozambique (27 percent), Malawi (23 percent), Democratic Republic of Congo (22 percent) and Zimbabwe (13 percent). – Sapa

After a summer of sleaze in which Berlusconi has been variously accused of “frequenting minors”, sleeping with an escort girl and holding debauched parties at his Sardinian villa, a feminist backlash is gaining momentum. The target is not only Berlusconi but the wider culture of a country in which a prime minister could survive such allegations.

According to Chiara Volpato, an academic at Milan’s Bicocca University, matters hit rock bottom when Berlusconi’s lawyer said his client would never pay for sex with an escort because the prime minister is merely an “end user” of women: “The choice of language really summed up how far we have sunk.”

This summer a group of academics, including Volpato, persuaded 15,000 people to sign a petition asking the wives of world leaders to boycott the G8 conference in Italy in protest at the plight of women in Berlusconi’s Italy.

Female judges, senators, nuns, historians and businesswomen circulated two more petitions calling for an end to sexism on television, while the European court of human rights will decide if Berlusconi can be sanctioned for sexism after two politicians, Donata Gottardi and Anna Paola Concia, complained to the court about his “continuous and repeated disrespectful statements about the lives and the dignity of women”.

Last week, when journalist Maria Laura Rodotà published an open letter to Italian women in Corriere della Sera calling for a “New Feminism”, she was overwhelmed with responses. “It was like uncorking a bottle,” she said. Protest is also emerging on the right. An article damning Berlusconi for promoting beautiful young women to political positions has been written by academic Sofia Ventura and published by a think-tank run by Berlusconi’s ally Gianfranco Fini.

Times were not always so bad. Italian women can draw inspiration from a proud record of winning rights in the 1970s, when 20,000 feminists would fill Rome’s streets on protest marches. Despite fierce resistance from the Vatican, divorce was legalised in 1974 after a referendum, and parliament legalised abortion in 1978.

“In an Italy with no divorce, secret abortions and huge inequality in the home, feminism achieved nothing short of an earthquake,” said Miriam Mafai, a former parliamentarian and veteran journalist who helped to launch the Italian daily La Repubblica in 1976.

But in recent years the Vatican has been making up lost ground. Abortion may be legal, but women have reported Catholic doctors refusing to supply even morning-after pills. And in the prime minister the unreconstructed Italian male has found a 21st-century hero.

Zanardo said that television was playing a crucial role in demeaning women and damaging their self-esteem: “Eighty per cent of Italians who watch TV use it as their sole source of information and 80% of the women featured on TV are either sex objects or mere decoration.” As young girls bred on Italian TV increasingly dream of life as a velina, or showgirl, their mothers are often too tired to protest, she added. “Between jobs and housework, Italian women now work two hours a day longer than the European average.”

For now, the modern feminist revolt remains largely confined to universities and national newspapers. Despite the flurry of activity, Ventura said she was pessimistic about rank-and-file women joining the petition-signing intellectuals who are mobilising: “The alarm is sounding in universities but not elsewhere, this is not yet a political problem. Feminism achieved a lot first time round, but evidently it did not reach deep enough.”

Zanardo disagrees, claiming protest is growing outside university corridors, but people do not know where to look. “It’s happening on the internet. The proof was when the University of Bologna withdrew erotic images it used in advertising after a huge online protest.”

There are other signs. A risqué TV comedy show on a Berlusconi channel was moved to a later time slot after protests from a parents’ group. And when a blonde model on Berlusconi’s flagship football programme exposed a breast during a dance routine she was promptly sacked. “I don’t think that would have happened in the past,” said Zanardo.

Zanardo’s website is registering complaints about lewd images on TV and is planning courses in schools “to help children defend themselves from this television”. The response to Il Corpo delle Donne, she says, has been overwhelming: “People who watch Italian TV all the time have told me ‘Thanks, it’s the first time I really see what is going on’.”

Edited version of longer article at

See also:
* Women Are Not Wallpaper
* Videocracy
and earlier postings:
* The Body Of Women: Female Image In Italian Television
* In Italy, Feminism Out, Women As Sex Symbols In

Italy: Women Are Not Wallpaper

Japan: ‘Princess Corps’ Cracks the Glass Ceiling

Africa: Cross-Border Links to Boost Women’s Economic Empowerment

SRI LANKA: Women Want Better Pay, Out of Free Trade Zones

SOUTH AFRICA: Redouble Efforts to Reduce Maternal Mortality

CENTRAL AMERICA: Crisis Chews Women Up, Spits Them Out

MINING-INDIA: Woman Leads Tribals Against World’s Steel Maker

SOUTH SUDAN: Complicating the Vote for Women

VENEZUELA: Women Recycle for Income and Environment

HEALTH-KENYA: A Glove To Save a Mother’s Life

RIGHTS-AFRICA: The Fight Against Rape a Brutal Wait

LATIN AMERICA: Women in History – More than Just Heroines

SOUTHERN AFRICA: “Women Can Be More Than Small-Scale Farmers”


Themba Mvubu, 24, from Kwathema, was found guilty of murdering, robbing and being an accessory to the rape of 31-year-old Eudy Simelane.

Activists at the magistrates court in Delmas, Mpumalanga province, hailed the judgment as “extremely important” in drawing attention to cases of murder and so-called “corrective rape” against lesbians in South Africa.

Simelane was one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in Kwa Thema township, near Johannesburg. A keen footballer since childhood, she played for the South African women’s team and worked as a coach and referee. She hoped to serve as a line official in the 2010 men’s World Cup in South Africa.

But in April last year she was accosted while leaving a pub and robbed of a mobile phone, trainers and cash. She died from wounds to the abdomen after being gang-raped and stabbed 12 times. Her naked body was dragged towards a stream and dumped.

“Eudy Simelane suffered a brutal, undignified death,” Judge Ratha Mokgoathleng told the court, where the victim’s parents sat with heads bowed. “She was stripped naked, stabbed, assaulted, raped. What more indignity can a person endure?”

He continued: “The accused has shown no remorse whatsoever. He steadfastly maintains he was not to blame for the death of the deceased. That is his right. It’s painful to send a young person to jail, but if the young person behaves like an adult with criminal conduct, he cannot expect to hide behind his youthfulness.”

Mvubu, wearing a hooped brown and cream sweater, sat looking at the floor with hands behind his back for much of the hearing. Questioned by reporters, he muttered “I’m not sorry” as he was led from the dock to jeers from the public gallery.

He was the second man convicted of the crime. Earlier this year Thato Mphithi pleaded guilty to murder, robbery and being an accomplice to the attempt to commit rape. He was imprisoned for a total of 32 years.

Two more men, Khumbulani Magagula, 22, and 18-year-old Johannes Mahlangu were acquitted today of their alleged part in the attack. “God will be their judge,” said Judge Mokgoathleng.

The most likely motive for the attack was that Simelane and her killers were known to each other, the judge added. “I’m told she was a famous athlete,” he said. “It was an attempt to obliterate the evidence.”

At an early stage the court ruled out Simelane’s sexual orientation as a motive in her killing. But lesbian political activists have regularly attended the hearings and welcomed the way it has raised awareness of their cause.

Phumi Mtetwa, executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, said today: “This judgment is extremely important. It doesn’t state that she was killed as a lesbian but because she was known.

“How did people know her in the township? She was a soccer player who was ‘butch’ and was known. People are killed because of who they are.”

Simelane’s mother, Mally, 65, said: “I’m happy. I’m released. My life will come right again.”

See earlier postings about corrective rape

From Monrovia’s highest hill, the long sliver of Atlantic Ocean shoreline at the mouth of the Mesurado River, with its aqua blue waves, golden sand and wooden fishing boats, looks like paradise. But this is West Point; one of Monrovia’s most impoverished and polluted slums, and it is not paradise.

It is a world where justice is slow to react to the rapes and abuse of women and children. And it is here that women have been left with no choice but to come together and fight for their most basic of human rights – their safety.

“We decided to organise the women, because the men were beating on the women too much, they were raping the children plenty.”

These are the words of Diana Mah, an organiser with the West Point Women’s Action Group. “So we were going to march out there and minimise what was going on.”

Here in Liberia the human cost of the war, which ended in 2003, is grim. The International Crises Group estimates 250,000 Liberians lost their lives and in a disturbing survey of six counties by the World Health Organisation, almost 75 percent of the female respondents claimed to have been raped.

West Point is a microcosm of this.

Ghettoized into a warren of narrow dirt roads and dilapidated tin shacks, the misery of the estimated 65,000 residents is compounded by torrential rains, extreme lack of clean water and sanitation, outbreaks of cholera, malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis, and the ever-present threat of violence, especially rape.

West Point Women’s Action Group was founded in 2005 after the cases of child and adult rape become too much to ignore.

“People said women had no rights, and men had rights because they were the head of the household, so they could do anything.” But after a girl was raped one day, Mah says, “the parents decided to talk about it. The women started saying, our children are being used and abused and we have to do something!”

So the women marched to the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia and the Gender Ministry seeking justice for them and their children. “That’s how it started. Now, when something happens to women, we take up the case. When they (criminals) hurt someone, rape someone, we take (the survivors) to hospital and then we go to court,” Mah says.

Nelly Cooper, director of the West Point Women’s Action Group, describes a few challenges when they are tipped off about rape victims. “Some people don’t report (rape) because of the shame, and take the child to the side to keep silent. So when we go in, and they say: ‘Oh no, nothing happened here’.”

“We get little kids like that. If the parent is not willing to take a kid, you cannot take a kid. Sometimes they will even take the child away to a new destination. So that makes our life difficult.”

Even more difficult is when a rapist pays the family of the victim not to report him. “Some of the (rapists), when they rape the children, they give the parents money for their child. So the family will take the money, and cover the perpetrator. Most of the time, we have to chase the perpetrator, find them and jail them.”

At the group’s small centre, local female residents strategise ways to raise awareness of gender-based violence in the whitewashed room downstairs, other women painstakingly hand weave brightly coloured ‘Lapa’ cloth to sell. This money, along with weekly member donations, just covers their shoestring budget for basic costs like transport.

When Liberia’s civil war broke out in 1989, Mah and Cooper, like many of West Point’s women, were caught in the crossfire of shelling between rebel-held Bushrod Island, and government forces in the city. The civilians trapped in the beachside slum were starving, and women risked their lives running across the bridge under fire to bring food home.

Liberia’s communities have been traumatised by war and the remaining violent mindset fosters an environment where gender-based violence continues at alarming rates. Particularly disturbing is the prevalence of sex crimes against children.

“Most of the cases we receive are children,” says Oretha Brooks, a counsellor at Duport Road’s Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) clinic across town in Paynesville. The majority of victims visit just after being raped, for pregnancy and STI advice, including HIV, and treatment, trauma counselling, and the paperwork necessary to make a police complaint.

In the clinic’s cosy waiting room, young teenage girls sit silently on patterned couches strewn with stuffed animals and books, uncomfortably avoiding eye contact as they wait their turn for counselling. “Most of these girls are very, very traumatised,” Brooks says.

The Duport Road SGVB clinic’s rape statistics are shocking. Results from the first six months of the year show nearly 700 women and children were admitted as victims of sexual assault. The majority (about 40 percent) were girls between 13 and 18 years old, followed closely by girls aged between 5 and 12. A staggering seventy-seven were under the age of five.

“I can’t tell you the exact number of babies we received last month – about three or four babies. Sometimes the parents set their babies down and come back and they are bleeding,” says Brooks, referring to the baby rape cases.

The clinic recorded over 100 gang rapes during the six-month period, but single perpetrators committed the vast majority of rapes, and most of them knew their victims.

“If the victim is raped by a family member, neighbour, or someone they know, and if they always see that person, they are always traumatised,” she says.

“We had a patient who was raped by her auntie’s husband. And they lived in the same house… The child was eight years old and I think he (the rapist) was about 45 to 50 years old… He was arrested and we took the child to a safe house, because when she was at home, the alleged perpetrator’s relatives always came by and threatened her.”

But while the scale of sexual crime in Liberia is tremendous, navigating the country’s slow moving and under resourced judicial system, buckling under a heavy caseload and enormous pre-trial prison population, is a major obstacle to bringing sexual predators to trial.

Kulah Borabor, a gender-based violence counsellor in West Point, sighs. “The lawyers will say a case is scheduled for that day, but when you go it’s not. So you keep going, keep going, or the judge will postpone it and you will find the case going into the next year.” Borabor adds, “When we carry the rape victim to court, they go through a lot and see the perpetrator. Sometimes they get tired by the delay of justice.”

Although a revised, broadened rape law was signed on the heels of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s inauguration in January 2006, prosecution of sex crimes commonly takes a back seat to murder trials, and lawyers and judges are found to be unfamiliar with the new legislation.

Sirleaf has listened closely to advocates of fast-track courts that deal exclusively with crimes of sexual violence. Earlier this year, the government established a special prosecutor’s SGVB Unit, as well as an exclusive judicial court to hear the backlog of sex crime cases in the capitol’s Montserrado County. The goal is to replicate the pilot project after an 18-month trial period, in Liberia’s other counties.

Based on the South African model, the court and SGBV Unit are fully acquainted with the new rape legislation and have the infrastructure, equipment and trained staff to handle sensitive cases. The trials are held on-camera, so the victim does not have to see the perpetrator.

The court’s second session opened last week with two cases on the docket; the gang rape of a five-year-old, and rape of a teenager. The court’s prosecution during the first session succeeded in sentencing the rapist to the heaviest penalty possible for a sex crime, life imprisonment.

Syed Sadiq, the UN Population Fund’s gender-based violence Advisor, admits the court has gotten off to a slow start. “The court was recently established, and all the courts in the jurisdiction had to transfer the files to the court… Now the process has been streamlined and the system is in place so hopefully things can move on. It also takes time to get public defenders on board.”

There are currently 140 prisoners accused of rape awaiting trial at the Monrovia Central Prison.

“There needs to be a solution,” says Chief Prosecutor Felicia Coleman. “There is a good number of cases on the docket, and a good number of people languishing in jail on a daily basis, and we are just looking at Montserrado County.”

The West Point Women’s Action Group have yet to have a case heard at the new court, but complain about the old system. “The court has been very slow, sighs Diana Mah. “The lawyers will say a case is scheduled for that day, but when you go its not. So you keep going, or the judge will postpone it and you will find the case going into the next year… That’s why we have been advocating for a fast track court.”

With the numbers of victims the women of West Point and Duport Clinic road face on a daily basis, the SGBV court’s biggest challenge is to catch up and earn up to its potential as a ‘fast track’ court.

But Brooks is optimistic: “Before the war people were not really reporting rape, because of the stigma and they didn’t really know the side effects,” she says. “Now they are becoming educated, and they know why they have to come to the hospital, to see a counsellor to reassure them and to help them. And they know that rape is a crime.”

As lawmakers struggle to form a government three months after Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, women’s rights activists await the opening of parliament to debate a new bill on domestic violence.

Ghida Anani, programme coordinator of KAFA, a Lebanese organization campaigning against violence and the exploitation of women, estimates that as many as three-quarters of all Lebanese women have suffered physical abuse at the hands of husbands or male relatives at some point in their lives.

In Lebanon’s multi-confessional democratic system, cases of domestic violence are ruled on in one the country’s 15 religious courts, or family courts, whose laws date back to the Ottoman era and which campaigners say almost always favour men over women.

The new bill proposes to take domestic violence out of the religious courts and into the civil system and will cut across confessional lines, giving both Muslim and Christian women equal rights under the law, and, say campaigners, will be a key step towards equality between men and women.

“The family courts don’t treat men and women equally,” said Nadya Khalife, a researcher on women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa at NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW). “The law is a step in the right direction, but we still have far to go before we have equality in Lebanon.”

To say violence and rape is underreported is not correct. It’s not reported at all

Warda, a mother of six, said she suffered 20 years of domestic violence.

She said her husband was a drug addict who beat and sexually abused her throughout their marriage. Having had no success seeking help at a hospital and with the police, she went to see the representative of her Shia Muslim religious court.

Warda, not her real name, said the representative did little to help except to explain the difficulties of getting a divorce due to her husband’s refusal to grant her one. In the end she sought help at KAFA and today, though still married, she lives with her parents with no rights to visit her children.

Every year more than 500 women seek help at women’s centres in Lebanon. However, there are only four safe houses – able to accommodate just 40 women in total.

Yet the actual number of domestic violence cases, according to KAFA’s Ghida Anani, is far higher: “To say violence and rape is underreported is not correct,” she said: “It’s not reported at all.”

Anani said both hospitals and the police were failing to report domestic violence cases. “Often doctors don’t ask about bruises and if a woman makes a complaint about domestic violence, the hospital reports it as a `home accident’ and there is no further investigation,” she said.

The police record incidents of violence against women as “beatings” but do not specify in the report who was the perpetrator: “It’s almost as if as long as there are no incidences, there’s no problem,” Anani said.

With 18 different religious confessions officially recognized by the state, Lebanon has 15 religious courts to rule on matters of marriage, divorce, custody and other personal matters, including domestic violence. A separate judicial system rules on common-law criminal cases.

“Family affairs are seen as a very private issue,” said Anani. “The woman is seen as the man’s property.”

Efforts to reform the religious courts over the past decade have met resistance from an establishment reluctant to upset the confessional balance in a country still recovering from a devastating 15-year civil war which ended in 1990. Religious courts, say supporters, respect each sect’s traditions as well as protecting them from others. Many fear that one civil law for all would disrupt the communal balance.

The differences between religious and civil law and between the laws for Christian and Muslim women are clear. The minimum age at which a girl can marry is far lower in all religious courts for girls than boys, and lower for Muslims than Christians; in some cases Islamic law permits girls as young as nine to marry.

Islamic religious laws do not prosecute marital rape nor so-called honour killings while the custody of children in divorce cases is usually awarded to the father. According to Anani, this means many women choose to stay in abusive relationships for the sake of their children.

“We don’t want a legal system treating women differently from men and one that treats Druze, Shia and Christian women differently from each other,” said HRW’s Khalife.

In 2007, KAFA set up a steering committee comprised of lawyers, judges and specialists who drafted a new bill on domestic violence, known as the Family Violence Bill.

The proposed law, now awaiting discussion in parliament, stipulates specialized family courts operating under a common-to-all civil law, with cases of domestic violence ruled on in private hearings that include judges, social workers, forensic doctors and psychotherapists.

The new law obliges anyone witnessing domestic violence to report it, opens the way to legally binding restraining orders, and ensures the perpetrator provides the plaintiff with alternative accommodation, as well as paying subsistence allowance and medical expenses.

It also calls for specialized police units within the Internal Security Forces (ISF) in each of Lebanon’s six governorates, which would include female police officers trained in dealing with domestic violence.

“I wish that law had seen the light of day before I got married 20 years ago,” said Warda. “It would have changed many things for me. I wouldn’t have been imprisoned to a man who disrespects me. I wouldn’t have been imprisoned to a confessional system. I would have lived with dignity.”

Human rights groups are calling on the Afghan government to adopt a new law which would more clearly differentiate rape, a criminal offence, from consensual adultery, considered a serious crime in the country.

“Rape and adultery are two different issues and should be separate in law. Rape is an act of violence and coercion and the inflicting of suffering on a victim, and is not consensual, whereas adultery is consensual, freely chosen,” Sonya Merkova, a researcher at London-based Amnesty International, told IRIN.

Parwin Rahimi, an official of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), and Ajmal Samadi from the Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) echoed this standpoint.

“Rape needs to be legally recognized as a heinous crime and must be dealt with separately from Islamic adultery penal codes,” Samadi told IRIN.

Many Afghan judges confuse rape with adultery which, rights activists say, adds insult to injury for the victims.

Mawlawi Mohammad Qasim, a member of the Penal Bureau in the Supreme Court, for instance, describes rape as “an illicit sexual relationship between a man and a woman who are not married to each other”.

Judicial officials and the police are unaware – or not convinced – that rape is a serious crime, according to a report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

“The reality for most female victims is that state institutions fail them,” says the report entitled Silence is Violence.

Courts prosecute cases of adultery and rape according to Articles 422-433 of the 1976 Penal Code which, according to rights groups, do not explicitly criminalize rape.

The Code prescribes 7-15 years jail for adulterers and rapists depending on their marital status, age and other circumstances.

“Women in Afghanistan, victims of rape, are often at risk of being convicted of ‘zina’ [fornication outside marriage] under Article 427 of the Afghan Penal Code, and are denied justice. Indeed, the crime of rape committed against them, through no fault of their own, is compounded by further victimization in being prosecuted by the state for ‘zina’,” said Amnesty’s Merkova.

“In instances of forced sexual intercourse, law enforcement and judicial authorities overwhelmingly resort to the concept of ‘zina’, which does not adequately address the issue of consent, one of the core elements of the crime of rape,” UNAMA said in its report.

The issue of the criminalization of rape is further complicated by the fact that judges rely extensively on their own interpretation of Islamic law and its jurisprudence when adjudicating ‘zina’ cases, according to UNAMA.

Another problem with the existing Penal Code is its lack of support for the victims of rape. “There should be legal and psychological support as well as protection services for the victims of rape,” Fawzia Amini, a top official in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, told IRIN.

Supreme Court judges Bahauddin Baha and Mohammad Qasim affirmed the husband’s prerogative in sexual affairs with his wife/wives. An Afghan man is allowed to have up to four wives at a time but an Afghan woman cannot have more than one husband, according to the country’s Islamic laws and strong patriarchal traditions.

Even if a husband forces his wife to have sex with him, this is not considered rape, according to many judges.

“The issue of marital rape is never considered or reported, since women have no choice in terms of consenting to sexual intercourse with their spouse,” says UNAMA’s report.

However, women’s rights activists say marital rape is a reality and should be dealt with through appropriate legal mechanisms. “It is nothing but rape when a husband forcefully copulates with his wife despite her objections,” Rahimi of AIHRC said.

“Amnesty International considers acts of marital rape violence against women and a criminal offence,” said Merkova.

The issue of marital rape is relevant as both child and forced marriages are prevalent in Afghanistan, particularly in rural areas, say analysts. “A forced marriage is in fact a kind of rape, and so is child marriage,” said Rahimi.

On 27 July the government published in the Official Gazette a controversial law for the country’s Shia minority which, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), deprives women of many basic rights.

“It also effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying ‘blood money’ to a girl who is injured when raped,” said the US-based HRW in a statement on 13 August.

The government has repudiated such criticism, saying the Shia Personal Affairs Law was promulgated in accordance with Shia religious jurisprudence and is strongly supported by most Shia people.

Proposed changes to the constitution of the Dominican Republic could lead to a ban on abortions, putting the lives of women and girls at risk and potentially increasing maternal deaths in the country, Amnesty International has warned.

Article 30 of the constitution would introduce the inviolability of life from “conception to death” under the proposal. It is widely acknowledged that this will lead to changes in the country’s Penal Code that could lead to a total abortion ban.

“As it stands, the proposed change to the Constitution would have a devastating impact on women’s and girls’ access to effective reproductive health care in the Dominican Republic,” said Susan Lee, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

If the article is approved as proposed, it would severely limit the availability of safe abortions, even in cases when a woman is suffering from life-threatening complications or is in need of life-saving treatment incompatible with pregnancy – such as that for malaria, cancer or HIV/AIDS.

Furthermore, access to safe abortion for women or girls who have unwanted pregnancies as a result of rape or incest would become even more restricted.

The Dominican Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists has pointed out the “catastrophic” impact that Article 30 could have on maternal mortality. If adopted in its current formulation, Article 30 would compromise doctors’ ability to provide timely and effective treatment for women and girls suffering complications during pregnancy.

“When abortion is totally banned, the rates of maternal mortality grow because doctors are unable or fearful of providing life-saving treatment that is contraindicated with pregnancy, even when it’s the only way to save the patient,” said Susan Lee.

Amnesty International recently published a report looking at the impact of the total ban on all forms of abortion in Nicaragua.

It found that the ban is contributing to an increase in maternal deaths across the country — 33 girls and women have died in pregnancy so far in 2009 compared to 20 in the same period last year. Because of inadequacies in the country’s collection of maternal health data, these official figures are believed to be only a minimum.

“In the very few countries that have total bans on abortions, many doctors, due to fear of being prosecuted, delay the delivery of effective medical treatment or feel justified in refusing it, even when it might result in the death of the pregnant woman or long-term damage to her health,” said Susan Lee.

“Four UN treaty bodies have strongly criticized Nicaragua’s full ban on abortions because of the risks it places on women’s and girls’ lives and health. The Dominican Republic should not follow the same steps,” said Susan Lee.

Amnesty International has called on the Congress of the Dominican Republic to reject the “conception to death” part of Article 30.

The organization has also urged the Congress to take all necessary measures to ensure that safe and legal abortion services are available, accessible, and of good quality for all women who require them in all cases where the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest and when the pregnancy poses a risk to the life or health of the woman.

India probably became the first country to reserve 50% seats for women at local self-government (LSG) level after the Union cabinet approved a proposal for a constitutional amendment bill for increasing quota for women in panchayats at all tiers. This means that about 14 lakh women will occupy 2,52,000 panchayat seats in future.

At present, out of the total elected representatives of panchayat numbering around 28.18 lakh, 36.87% are women.

The government believes that this move will facilitate the entry of more women into public sphere and thereby, lead to their empowerment. The step will also make panchayats more inclusive institutions working towering better governance.

Incidentally, states such as Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh already have 50% seats reserved for women at the panchayat level. But women’s representation is roughly 10% in parliament and state assemblies. In comparison, some South Asian countries such as Pakistan (20%), Nepal (20%), Bangladesh (20%) and Sri Lanka (22%) have a larger representation of women in their national assemblies.

In the US, it is 15%, while in the UK, women occupy 13% seats in parliament. “While this reservation is only at the grassroot level, this is the first step towards providing 33% quota for women in parliament. This move will mobilise women at the grassroots and weed out violence from local politics,” Ranjana Kumari, director of Centre for Social Research, said.

“This will also facilitate women’s participation in decision-making. However, to further strengthen the democratic process and increase women’s involvement in the highest decision-making bodies, this measure has to be followed up with passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which is pending before parliament,” Sudha Sundaraman, general secretary of All India Democratic Women’s Association, said.

A recent study conducted by the panchayati raj ministry shows that reservation played a significant role in bringing women into mainstream. About four-fifth of all women representatives in panchayat elections got elected from reserved seats and about 83% of them entered politics through quota.

For 67% women, becoming a pradhan or ward member meant more respect from family members. About 66-71% elected women representatives said their family members allowed them to take part in matters related to money and property. About 64% women pradhans said they got increased attention from the local government, while 60% reported quick response on the part of block panchayats.

The most high performing women pradhans were from Kerala, followed by Karnataka, Tripura, Maharashtra, Sikkim and West Bengal. About 72% of elected women representatives reported having been actively involved in providing civic amenities, while 62% said they made efforts in increasing enrolment and mitigating domestic violence.

The positive impact of entering politics and working as a panchayati raj functionary was evident from the fact that a sizeable number of women representatives reported better self-esteem (79%), confidence (81%) and decision-making abilities (74%).

A United Nations panel has recommended “immediate action” to correct a wide range of problems, from legal inequality and wage gaps to pornographic publications.

Calling government efforts to address problems “insufficient,” the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) set a two-year time limit for Japan to act in such fields as Civil Code revisions.

The committee made the recommendations in its Aug. 18 report following a review of Japan’s implementation of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Japan has indeed made little progress since the panel’s previous review six years earlier.

Even as regular workers, women only earn 60 to 70 percent of men’s wages. Under the Civil Code, only women face a waiting period before they can remarry. And pornographic video games and cartoons are still rampant.

In a July review of the Japanese government report at the U.N. headquarters in New York, panel members were scathing about the enduring problems.

One asked if the Japanese government might in fact regard the convention simply as a declaration that is not legally binding.

While busy answering questions, the Japanese government representative, Upper House member Chieko Nohno, had to admit Japan had been late in tackling the issue.

In the 2003 report, the committee recommended that Japan amend its Civil Code to allow married couples to choose separate surnames so that women–or men–could keep their original family names if they wanted to.

It also called for changes to provisions that keep women from remarrying for six months after divorce, and that discriminate against children born out of wedlock.

But moves to revise these and other provisions have been stalled.

The wage gap between men and women is narrowing, but it is still among the biggest for advanced nations.

As a result of the Aug. 30 election, the percentage of female Lower House lawmakers climbed into double digits for the first time, reaching 11.25 percent. Even so, that represented a rise of just 3 percentage points from the first postwar election in 1946, when women accounted for 8.4 percent.

The government in 2005 said it would aim to raise the percentage of women in significant social positions to 30 percent by 2020. At present, that remains a very ambitious target.

In its latest report, the committee recommended a wide range of steps that Japan should take, and pressed the government to raise awareness of the convention’s aims in the judiciary, parliament and government, not just among officials in charge of gender equality.

It also called on Japan to take urgent steps to incorporate the definition of discrimination against women, as contained in Article 1 of the convention, into domestic legislation.

Article 1 states that “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex” that impairs gender equality or women’s rights constitutes discrimination. Incorporating this definition would thwart moves to maintain discriminatory systems by calling them “distinctions.”

As a follow-up step, the panel requested that Japan provide detailed written information on the progress it makes on amendments to the Civil Code within two years.

It imposed the same deadline for a report on progress in temporary special measures to increase the representation of women in decision-making positions at all levels, with numerical goals and timetables.

The panel also expressed concern about the lack of data on Ainu, buraku and other minority women, and urged Japan to appoint women from these groups to decision-making bodies.

Encouraged by the panel’s report, and heartened by the recent change of government, women’s groups in Japan are increasing their calls for progress.

“Setting a deadline for the follow-up will help get things done,” said Yasuko Yamashita, who represents the Japan NGO Network for the CEDAW (JNNC).

“I’d like to see an expert panel on elimination of discrimination against women set up within the Council for Gender Equality to oversee how government measures are being implemented.”

Women’s groups have also responded to the committee’s call for the government to ratify the convention’s Optional Protocol. This allows requests for an investigation to be filed with the committee when all domestic remedies, including court trials, are exhausted.

Two hundred and sixteen groups, including the Working Women’s Network, have handed to the Democratic Party of Japan administration a request that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announce his intention to ratify the protocol at a U.N. general assembly session that opens on Wednesday.

Yoko Hayashi, a Japanese lawyer and member of CEDAW, said the panel’s latest report is a clear indication that the international community wants Japan, an economic power, to demonstrate its commitment to gender equality as an important human rights issue.

She noted that in August, Guinea-Bissau became the 98th nation to ratify the Optional Protocol, leaving Japan increasingly isolated from the international community.

As the report pointed out, Japan is considered to be tolerant of pornographic expressions and publications featuring sexual violence, she said, so much so that in other countries those who like pornography are even sometimes called hentai, a Japanese word meaning pervert.

“To change this image of Japan, efforts are needed to review discrimination in our daily life,” Hayashi said.