Archive for September 24th, 2009

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.

Four United Nations agencies and offices will be amalgamated to create a new single entity within the Organization to promote the rights and well-being of women worldwide and to work towards gender equality.

The General Assembly adopted a resolution late yesterday on improving system-wide coherence within the UN, and the text spells out the support of Member States for a new consolidated body – to be headed by an under-secretary-general – to deal with issues concerning women.

The resolution means the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Division for the Advancement of Women, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW) will be merged.

In a statement issued today by his spokesperson, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “particularly gratified” that the Assembly had accepted his proposal for “a more robust promotion” of women’s rights under the new entity.

“An important step has been made in strengthening the United Nations’ work in the area of gender equality and empowerment of women, as well as in ensuring the effective delivery of its operational activities for development, which constitutes the other key components of the resolution,” the statement noted.

Mr. Ban said in the statement that he had appointed more women to senior posts than at any other time in the history of the UN, including nine women to the rank of under-secretary-general. The number of women in senior posts has increased by 40 per cent under his tenure.

The Assembly’s resolution tasks Mr. Ban with providing Member States with a comprehensive proposal outlining the mission statement, structure, funding and oversight of the new entity so that it can be created as soon as possible.

The resolution also calls for greater measures to harmonize business practices within the UN development system, ways to improve the funding system for such activities, and other steps to streamline practices within the world body.

After the resolution, UNIFEM – which currently operates in autonomous association with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) – issued a statement welcoming “the unanimous strong support” among Member States, which follow three years of extensive consultations on the structure and operational details of the new body.

“UNIFEM trusts that deliberations can resume soon to ensure an informed and swift establishment of the composite entity,” the statement said.

See also: South African lawyer becomes new UN rights expert on violence against women

And: UN to establish single new agency to deal with rights of women