Archive for October, 2009

Controversy stalks dissident writer Nawal El-Saadawi, whose views on women and religion have put her at odds with Egyptian conservatives.

Recently she returned to Cairo after nearly three years in exile, and has already created a stir with the launch of a local chapter of her global campaign for the separation of religion and state.

“God has no place in politics,” El-Saadawi told IPS. “Religion is a powerful weapon to divide people. You are Christian and I am Muslim, and so we kill each other.”

Clerics have described her secularism campaign as blasphemous and opponents are now seeking to have her imprisoned. It’s nothing new for the outspoken 77-year-old civil activist, who has paid a price for outspokenness. Over the years she’s been removed from her post as a public health official, put in jail for criticising the regime, hounded by lawsuits, and marked for death by Islamists.

Yet she persists.

From her home in Cairo, El-Saadawi spoke to IPS about her efforts to counter the rising tide of religious fundamentalism and free women from all forms of oppression. Excerpts from the interview.

IPS: You spent much of the past 15 years in exile. Why did you decide to return to Egypt now?

NAWAL EL-SAADAWI: I came back to Cairo, in September, for the first time in three years. I decided to come back because, for one, I feel at home here with my daughter, my son, my husband and my friends. And two, I feel a responsibility towards my people, and I should do what I can as a writer. The threat of political religious fundamentalism in Egypt is growing. And people are timid; writers are afraid of the religious groups, because they are afraid of being taken to court and accused of apostasy. And the country is going backwards like that.

So I decided to come, and I will fight, even if they [gun me down] in the street. I prefer to be shot in the street and die fighting this conservative backlash against the mind, than stay in the U.S. and Europe and die, for instance, of breast cancer there. We’re all going to die, but if I’m shot in the street in Cairo at least it would have meaning.

IPS: While you were in the U.S. you founded a civil organisation to promote the separation of religion and state.

NS: I started Global Solidarity for Secular Society (GSSS), because we are all in the same boat. I haven’t seen a secular country. France is not a secular country, the United States is not a secular country. Norway – I was in Norway just last month. The king and the prime minister in Norway should be Lutheran Christian; 50 percent of the ministers should be affiliated to the state church; children are obliged to study in schools [where they are taught] that Lutheran Christianity is the absolute truth. And that’s Norway.

So there is no secular country. From this, the idea of a global solidarity movement came, that we should separate god from politics.

IPS: How do you believe countries could benefit from secularism?

NS: We need to separate religion from the constitution, state and legislation. Because whenever you have a religious law, it’s a racist law, and women are inferior.

In the family code here in Egypt, for instance, my husband can have four wives. My husband… can you imagine? He can go today and marry three other women. But if we separate religion from the legal system, if we have a civil law, he will be equal to me.

Women will benefit from secularism, because women are inferior in all religions. They suffer from religions. So when we separate religion from the legal system, the family code, culture, and the media – women will benefit, because you’re going more towards an egalitarian society.

IPS: You are not just critical of organised religion, but of spirituality as well, which you say is a deceptive term. Can you explain?

I am against feminists in the West who speak about spirituality. They don’t realise that we as women are oppressed by this division between the spirit and the body. Because in religion, god became the symbol of the spirit and mind, and man was created in the image of god, so man represented spirit and mind. As for women, they were degraded to be the symbol of the body, of the devil and of bad manners.

IPS: You object to the Islamic veil, but also to women who wear revealing clothes or apply makeup. What are your reasons for this?

NS: Nakedness and veiling are two faces of the same coin. If a woman is naked in public, she’s a sex object in the capital market; and if she is veiled, she’s a sex object in the religious sense, because men should not look at her. But if I’m neither naked nor veiled, then I’m a human being.

The mentality of patriarchy is that women are an object just to be covered, or decorated, or naked.

IPS: Your writing has always been controversial, and not without cost. So why do you continue to write?

NS: I cannot stop. There is no way back. And why should I stop? I feel that my country is going backwards. People are afraid. Intellectuals are afraid to face the challenge of religious fundamentalism because they are scared of losing their jobs, or they have interests. Because, you know, religion has become a business – there’s a lot of money to be made speaking about religion.

I’ll be 80 in two years. My mother died when she was 45, so I’ve lived nearly double my mother’s lifetime. I’ve also lived longer than the average Egyptian, and have written 47 books. What more do I need? Nothing, except to liberate the mind. And how to do that? By [freeing it from] religion.

Plans to open branches of a Malaysian “Polygamy Club” in Indonesia have upset women’s groups and religious leaders in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, who say the search for multiple wives should be handled privately — not by a matchmaking service.

Under Islamic law, Muslim men are permitted four wives. The club claims a noble aim of helping single mothers, reformed prostitutes and women who feel they are past marrying age meet spouses. It also offers counseling to people facing problems in polygamous households.

The Malaysian owners say they want to “change people’s perception about polygamy, so that they will see it as a beautiful rather than abhorrent practice,” club chairwoman Hatijah Binti Am said as members from around 30 families attended a gathering in Bandung, west Java, for the opening of the first Indonesian branch last week.

Others will soon be added, including in the capital, Jakarta, said spokeswoman Rohaya Mohamad.

“Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country, so polygamy can be a way of life there too,” Rohaya said.

Polygamous relationships are believed to be gaining in popularity in secular Indonesia, but it’s impossible to say how many there are because the marriages are performed secretly at mosques and are not recorded by the state.

Indonesia’s 1974 Marriage Law permits a man to have a second wife if his first is an invalid, infertile or terminally ill. However, there is no way to monitor adherence to the rules.

Polygamists point out that the Prophet Muhammad is thought to have married about a dozen women in his lifetime, including widows in need of protection. But a prominent member of the influential Indonesian Ullema Council, a board of Muslim priests, described the launching of a formal club as a “provocative campaign.”

“Such a club is needless,” said Ma’ruf Amin. “It will draw (negative) reactions rather than solve problems” because the practice is generally opposed by women in the country of 235 million people.

Several prominent political and religious figures in Indonesia openly married second wives in recent years, sparking widespread public debate and calls to ban civil servants from polygamy. Analysts believe the number of men with multiple wives is increasing as this emerging democracy searches to balance modern governance and Islamic identity.

Amin said that although Islam allows polygamy, popularizing the practice could encourage multiple marriages in which the husbands fail to adhere to strict guidelines, including fair treatment of all wives and children and equal financial support.

Opposition has also come from women’s rights activists.

Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, director of the Institute for Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice does not oppose men having several spouses, but said the club should not advertise openly.

“If they did it privately, that would be fine,” she said, citing the acceptance of polygamy under Islam and by the Indonesian state according to specific requirements.

However, Yohanna, a member of the same women’s rights group, said the club effectively promotes abuse.

“While we are campaigning against domestic violence, which includes polygamy, there is a group campaigning that polygamy — which hurts other women — is a positive thing,” Yohanna told MetroTV.

Polygamy is also legal for Muslims in Malaysia but not widespread. The club was founded there in August and claims to have around 1,000 members — 700 of them women — many of them former members of a banned Islamic sect of Al-Arqam.

Malaysia’s Home Affairs Ministry was reportedly keeping a close eye on the club.

Hatijah, the club founder, is a wife of Ashaari Muhammad, the leader of the Al-Arqam sect that was outlawed in 1994 by the Malaysian government after the group’s teachings and beliefs were found to deviate from Islam. The group then claimed to have around 10,000 followers.

Ashaari was portrayed by the movement as messiah who had the authority to forgive the sins of Muslims. He has 38 children from four wives, eight of them with Hatijah. Twenty-three of the children are in polygamous marriages.

Indonesia’s more than 200 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith, but a small hardline fringe has successfully pushed for Islamic law of Shariah in more than a hundred municipalities across the nation, and the predominantly Muslim province of Aceh.

The presence of bawdy houses that often parade women in a line up so clients can have their pick conflicts with values of human dignity and equality, a lawyer defending Canada’s prostitution laws said on Tuesday.

Speaking for the Attorney General of Ontario, Christine Bartlett-Hughes said banning brothels is parliament’s way of curtailing the commodification of women and children through an activity it deems harmful. Laws against public solicitation of sex deal with nuisance but also guard against normalizing prostitution, Ms. Bartlett-Hughes told an Ontario Superior Court judge on Tuesday.

Three women – a dominatrix, a former sex trade worker and a working prostitute – say provisions of Canada’s prostitution laws infringe on their right to security by preventing them from taking steps they say can make work safer. The challenged laws make it illegal to run or work in a bawdy house, illegal to communicate for the purposes of prostitution and to live off the avails of prostitution.

Derek Bell, a lawyer for Christian groups opposing the application, said that the laws were designed to protect public morals, and that remains relevant today. Mr. Bell said several criminal laws deal with morals, including bestiality, voyeurism and public nudity. “No where does it say that moral views are irrelevant,” he said of earlier court decisions. Alan Young, lawyer for the applicants, said he argued morality has a limited role in a secular society, but there are core moral values that parliament is authorized to protect, which is why cannibalism and bestiality are outlawed.

See also:
* In a powerful submission to a Toronto judge responsible for deciding the constitutionality of prostitution laws, Crown counsel Shelley Hallett said that most hookers run a gantlet of violent customers, manipulative pimps and disease.
* Mr. Young ended his case by arguing again that Justice Susan Himel, of theSuperior Court of Justice of Ontario, should strike out on constitutional grounds a trio of laws that ban communicating for the purpose of prostitution, living off the avails and bawdy houses, as they relate toprostitution.

Several state lawmakers met with about 30 prostitutes over the weekend to explain likely changes in the state law that will close a loophole that has made Rhode Island the only state where prostitution is legal as long as it occurs indoors, The Providence Journal reports.

Most of the prostitutes were Koreans who work at a local spa, the paper says. They were there to tell lawmakers that they work as prostitutes voluntarily and also to explore chances for a compromise that would keep them from going to jail.

But Democratic state Sen. Rhoda Perry explained that prostitution will be criminalized “and there will be fines for this behavior … and potential prison time. This needs to be known.”

The meeting was hosted by the advocacy group Direct Action for Rights and Equality.

The new law would target the men who pay for sex, landlords who “knowingly” allow prostitution, and the prostitutes.

One woman, Sunyo Williams, 53, told lawmakers that she is a single mother who uses money from prostitution to pay her daughter’s college education, The Journal reports.

“I do not want anything to happen until she finishes school,” Williams said of her 20-year-old daughter, a junior at the University of Rhode Island, The Journal reports. “If I get arrested, my children get hurt.”

The paper notes that prostitution is also legal in some counties in Nevada.

Federal officials rescued 52 children and arrested nearly 700 people over the last three days in a nationwide crackdown on child prostitution.

Almost 1,600 agents and officers took part in the raids, which followed investigations in 36 cities, according to the FBI, local law enforcement agencies and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Included in the arrests were 60 suspected pimps, according to the FBI and local police officials.

Authorities say the youngest victim was 10.

In Southern California, two children were rescued in Riverside, and four adults were arrested, said Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman. Four suspected customers of child prostitutes were arrested in Orange County.

“It is repugnant that children in these times could be subjected to the great pain, suffering and indignity of being forced into sexual slavery for someone else’s profit,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Lanny A. Breuer said in a statement. He added that the latest raids show that “the scourge of child prostitution still exists on the streets of our cities.”

The sweep, dubbed Operation Cross Country, is part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative, started in 2003 to address child sex trafficking in the U.S.

The initiative has rescued nearly 900 children; led to the conviction of 510 pimps, madams and their associates; and seized $3.1 million in assets, according to the FBI.

“We’re having an enormous impact on this business,” said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Most of the recovered children have been girls, who usually become victims of traffickers around age 12, Allen said.

He estimated that 100,000 children are still involved in sex trafficking in the U.S., adding that the problem is growing partly because of the recession.,0,2692854.story

Over the past few years, health workers in Malawi have noticed an unforeseen consequence of the availability of free antiretrovirals: more rape victims are showing up in hospitals.

Since 2005, when the Global Fund began providing AIDS drugs to the country, word has been spreading that Post Exposure Prophylaxis, a 30-day preventative combination of the medication, is on hand at health centres for HIV-negative rape victims. Most effective within 36 hours after exposure, the 30-day dosage of antiretroviral medication can be initiated up to 72 hours after potential contact with the virus.

“The communities are becoming aware that PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxix) is available and more people are reporting rape to health centres because of it,” says Prisca Masepuka, a reproductive health officer at Malawi’s Ministry of Health. In one hospital in Malawi, Kamuzu Central, the number of patients reporting an assault increased from 78 for the year 2006-2007 to 134 patients for 2007-2008.

But in a country with a doctor-patient ratio of 1 to 100,000, Malawi’s health system is struggling to handle the upsurge. After all, rape victims need more than post exposure prophylaxis. They require counselling, emergency contraception, a medical examination to serve as evidence and in some cases, a safe place to stay.

In response to the growing challenge, Malawian health care workers, police, justice officials and civil society members gathered for a three-day workshop in late September to try and lay out a coordinated and standardized response protocol for sexual assault victims.

The workshop, held in the lush, mountainous town of Zomba in southern Malawi, was hosted by Canadian organization Dignitas International, which works in collaboration with the health ministry to prevent the spread of HIV, as well as scale up and decentralize AIDS treatment.

In most developed countries, a team of crisis professionals is often called in to counsel, treat and protect a rape victim, especially when the victim is a child.

But in Malawi, victims and their families are expected to access psycho-social, legal and health services on their own. Many are unaware of the services and face the additional burden of transport costs — for the average Malawian, a trip from the village to an urban area can be a week’s salary.

“You actually see from their faces how traumatized these patients are, but I don’t have the training to provide counseling so I just provide medical care,” said Esau Munthalo, a clinical officer at one of Malawi’s four central hospitals, who treats, on average, one sexual assault victim a month, sometimes below the age of 10. (In Malawi, clinical officers have four years of training and perform many duties of physicians).

Hoping to encourage health workers at the workshop to step beyond their medical roles, pediatrician Dr. Neil Kennedy waved his cell phone in the air. “Use one of these, God’s greatest gift to Malawi,” he said. “Call the social workers. Make sure the child is safe to go home. We’ve kept children at our hospital for three days because we didn’t think they were going back to a safe situation.”

Such coordinated responses will help victims access the care they need, Kennedy says. Still, there’s an urgent need for senior level staff in Malawi’s 28 district hospitals to undergo rigorous training in the medical, legal and psycho-social aspects of gender-based violence, he added. If that were to happen, patients need travel no more than 20 kilometres by bicycle taxi to their district hospital to receive care, rather than face a prohibitively-expensive 80-kilometre trip to an urban hospital.

Health providers outside of Malawi’s four central hospitals frequently lack the experience to discern the signs of genital tract trauma in children, Kennedy says, adding that, as result, they could impede justice by unjustifiably claiming that a rape hasn’t occurred, and are more likely to recant under grilling from a defence lawyer.

Many health workers also haven’t been adequately educated about the laws surrounding rape. Several conference attendees were surprised to hear that rape of a child under 13 must be reported to the police, irrespective of family wishes.

Poverty can also be a factor. Women often have no option but to place themselves in perilous situations, such as relying on strangers for transport or walking long distances in remote areas. When children are raped, it often happens when a parent or guardian has gone to collect firewood or tend fields, leaving the child alone or with an untrustworthy neighbour, Kennedy said.

Munthalo says that in other instances, the accused “may be the source of income for the family. If he is put in jail for years, the whole family suffers.”

Health care workers have a huge role to play as advocates for the abused, Kennedy said, citing as an example, an instance in which a child who was brought to a clinic said that a man had lain on top of her and “urinated” on her. The child’s description of the urine matched that of ejaculate. Yet, when Kennedy went to the police, they informed him that nothing could be done because penetration hadn’t occurred. Kennedy said the police officer was finally persuaded to lay an aggravated assault charge and the perpetrator was eventually sentenced to two years in prison. “It’s not optimal but it’s something,” Kennedy said.

Grim as the situation appears, Kennedy says there’s been progress in the largely Christian and conservative nation since he arrived from Ireland. After all, Malawi was ruled for three decades by Hastings Banda, a dictator who decreed women were not permitted to wear skirts cut above the knee.

“When I came here in the late 1990s, I asked doctors what they do in cases of child sexual abuse. I was told, ‘We don’t have that here. That’s something that only happens in Azungu-land,’” said Kennedy, using the local term for ‘white person’. “It’s the same attitude we had in Ireland 30 or 40 years ago. It’s going to be an incremental process.”

Hadassah-University Medical Center in Ein Kerem officially opened Jerusalem’s first center for the treatment of sexual abuse and domestic violence on Tuesday, aimed at easing the trauma for victims of rape, sexual assault or related violence during the after-care process.

According to Dr. Sagit Arbel-Alon, director of the new Bat Ami Center, it will provide a discreet central location for victims to receive a wide range of treatments instead of having to visit several different places, including a hospital, police station and social services, immediately after being attacked.

“For [the victim], having to go from place to place was like an additional punishment after the crime,” she told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday. “This way he or she will get every kind of treatment in one place.”

Created with funding primarily from Hadassah-University Medical Center and the Ministry of Health, but with additional contributions from the Welfare and Social Services Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality, the Bat Ami Center follows two other such facilities in Israel – one at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon and the other at B’nai Zion Hospital in the North.

“Until now men and women who were raped or attacked sexually in the Jerusalem area were forced to go to the center in Wolfson,” continued Arbel-Alon, adding that now they would have all the services they needed nearby.

Aimed at victims of all ages, the center will offer emergency medical treatment, including a gynecologist, specially trained nurses and social workers, and provide access to the police and legal authorities.

“Everyone on our team is specially trained,” commented Dorit Greenspan, chief social worker and coordinator of the new center. “We have chosen staff that has gone through special training, and they know how to deal sensitively with these victims.”

Greenspan, who is also head social worker in charge of women’s treatment in the hospital, said the center was a separate suite close to the hospital’s emergency room.

“When a victim arrives in the emergency room, they will be immediately sent to the center,” she said, explaining that it had a meeting room, a medical room for checkups and an en suite bathroom.

“This is a sensitive subject,” Greenspan continued. “The victims are not only hurt physically sometimes, but they are also deeply ashamed of what has happened. They do not want to think about it or remember what they have gone through, and they certainly don’t want to be in the main emergency room answering doctors’ questions with just a curtain separating them from the next patient.”

Both Greenspan and Arbel-Alon said they believed the new center would not only provide rape and sexual assault victims with a more streamlined and sensitive service, but also increase awareness and give people the strength to report such crimes.

“The center has been running [unofficially] since May, and we have already seen a sharp increase in cases,” said Arbel-Alon.

The Libyan government should investigate allegations of sexual harassment in a state-run residence for women who had been orphaned instead of charging the journalist who reported the story with criminal defamation – Human Rights Watch

Mohamed al-Sareet, a Libyan journalist, wrote on Jeel Libya, an independent news website based in London, about a rare demonstration in Benghazi by women who live in a state-run care residence for women and girls who were orphaned as children, calling for an end to sexual harassment they said they had experienced in the center. The demonstrators were also demanding the return of the center’s former director. After the article appeared, the police and then the General Prosecutor’s office summoned al-Sareet for interrogation and charged him with criminal defamation.

“Libya should investigate alleged abuse and ensure the protection of these women instead of intimidating the man who wrote about it,” said Sarah Leah Whitson. “A journalist should not have criminal sanctions hanging over his head for doing his job.”

In the October 21 demonstration, at least 10 women and girls between the ages of 18 and 27 who live in the care center walked through the streets of Benghazi to the Center’s governing body, the Social Solidarity Center, holding up placards calling for the reinstatement of the Care Center’s former director, who marchers said had treated them well and protected them.

Several of the women told Libyan journalists that officials who run the center had sexually harassed them and allowed security officers into their rooms at night. One woman said that an official had propositioned her and threatened to beat her if she did not comply. Besides Jeel Libya another Libyan website, Libya al Youm, published photos of the demonstration and interviews with some of the residents.

On October 22, local police summoned al-Sareet to the Hadaek police station for questioning. On October 26, the General Prosecutor’s Office summoned him for further questioning and charged him with criminal defamation, which carries a prison sentence. Jeel Libya’s director told Human Rights Watch that al-Sareet had received threats to burn down his house to intimidate him into retracting his article.

On October 23, some of the women who had been quoted called another Libyan news website, Al Manara, and denied that administrators had sexually harassed them. Libya al Youm reported that officials had threatened to expel those who demonstrated from the center, and pressured them to retract their statements and to sue al-Sareet for slander. On October 26, Quryna, one of two private newspapers affiliated with Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, the son of Libyan leader Mu’ammar Gaddafi, published an article in which several of the women denied that any sexual harassment had taken place. “We are now without honor in the eyes of society after what this journalist did,” the paper quoted them as saying.

During a visit to Libya in 2005, Human Rights Watch found widespread official denial that violence against women exists in Libya, and a lack of adequate laws and services, leaving victims of violence without effective remedies and deterring reporting. A group of students conducting a study on sexual harassment in Tripoli in April 2009 had great difficulty in persuading women to talk about their experiences, since some felt it would bring shame on them to discuss it.

Human Rights Watch said that countries have a duty to investigate and prevent sexual harassment, a form of violence against women. Libya was among the first countries to ratify the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, Article 8 of which requires state parties to adopt all necessary measures to prevent, punish, and eradicate all forms of violence against women. Gender-based violence is a form of discrimination prohibited by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Libya is party. Furthermore, both the African Charter and the ICCPR require Libya to protect freedom of expression. Journalists should be able to report freely without fear of imprisonment for their writings.

“Official denial and reprisals against journalists is not the way to protect women in Libyan society,” said Whitson, “Women should be encouraged to bring forward complaints of sexual harassment and other forms of violence so the government can act to prevent abuses.”

Some governments’ broad counter-terrorism laws are punishing women and gays and suppressing groups pushing gender equality, a U.N. envoy of human rights and counter-terrorism said on Monday.

Many of these people are caught between being victims of extremist groups and victims of counter-terrorism measures, said Martin Scheinin, a U.N. special rapporteur on promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.

“There’s been a lot of progress in acknowledging terrorism can most effectively be fought with compliance with human rights, nevertheless there’s still a lot to do,” Scheinin, who is appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, told reporters.

Scheinin drew examples of gender-based rights violations stemming from counter-terrorism laws from previous reports.

He said in Algeria women had been arrested and accused of being extremists after they reported sexual violence by armed Islamists, while in Nepal transgender people attacked by insurgents were also targeted by police under the guise of counter-terrorism.

Palestinian women suffered because Israeli checkpoints delayed them reaching hospitals, said Scheinin.

Tightened immigration in many countries raised the possibility of asylum seekers, often women, being accused of providing “material support” to extremists when instead they were victims, he said.

“The breadth of Governments’ counter-terrorism measures have resulted in significant gender-based human rights violations,” he wrote in latest report to the United Nations.

“In many instances, governments have used vague and broad definitions of ‘terrorism’ to punish those who do not conform to traditional gender roles and to suppress social movements that seek gender equality in the protection of human rights.”

Scheinin also raised concerns about the use of rape and other forms of gender-based violence during the interrogation of suspects and the use of profiling.

“Women fall double victims of such profiling practices, first because terrorist organizations, in order to avoid the profile of authorities, may force women or recruit women to become a new wave of suicide bombers,” Scheinin said.

“Second when states detect this they may target women or specific groups of women such as pregnant women as perceived suicide women because of how they dress and look,” he said.

Scheinin made 17 recommendations to U.N. member states.

Among those he said countries should give more attention to gender sensitive reparation schemes for victims of terrorism and should not detain and ill-treat women and children in order to push them to reveal information on male family members.

    • Nordic countries continue to have the smallest equality gaps between men and women
    • Report demonstrates that engaging women equally with men in all aspects of life is imperative for economically competitive and prosperous societies
    • In particular, for rapid, sustainable economic recovery from financial crisis, integrating women and girls imperative
    • Download: report, rankings (PDF, excel) country profiles, highlights and all information from:

Iceland (1) has claimed the top spot of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2009 from Norway (3) which slipped to third position behind Finland (2). Sweden (4) completed the Nordic countries’ continued dominance of the top four. The report’s Index assesses countries on how well they are dividing their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations, regardless of the overall levels of these resources and opportunities.

South Africa and Lesotho made great strides in closing their gender gaps to enter the top 10, at sixth and 10th position respectively. The latest data reveals that South Africa in particular made significant improvements in female labour force participation. Gains for women in parliament and women ministers in the new government also helped close the gender gap in the country. The Philippines (9) lost ground for the first time in four years but remains the leading Asian country in the rankings.

Paraguay (66) climbed a record 36 spots, leading a charge by several Latin American countries including Ecuador (23), Nicaragua (49), Costa Rica (27), Peru (44), El Salvador (55), Chile (64) and the Dominican Republic (67).

Botswana (39) made the second biggest improvement of 26 places thanks to a major increase in labour force participation according to the latest data from the UNDP, plus greater wage equality for women. Japan’s (75) ranking improved by 25 places relative to last year largely due to increases in the proportion of women in professional and technical positions as well as legislators, senior officials and managers.

The United States (31) fell by three places, owing to minor drops in the participation of women in the economy and improvements in the scores of previously lower-ranking countries.

Germany (12) and the United Kingdom (15) again slipped down the Index this year. Switzerland (13) advanced for a second consecutive year as a result of greater female participation in the economy. Italy (72) continues to hold one of the lowest positions among European countries and dropped three spots relative to 2008 due to persistently poor scores in economic participation.

At the bottom part of the rankings, India (114), Bahrain (116), Ethiopia (122), Morocco (124), Egypt (126) and Saudi Arabia (130) all made improvements relative to their rankings last year. This was driven mainly by small improvements in the economic participation of women. Iran (128), Turkey (129), Pakistan (132) and Yemen (134), already at the bottom of the rankings, displayed an absolute decline relative to their performance in 2008.

The Republic of Korea and Mongolia were among the top countries to narrow wage gaps, while in Austria and Belgium income disparities widened the most. Women entering senior official, managerial and legislator roles shot up most in Japan and Uganda, while Croatia and Costa Rica saw these gaps widen markedly.

The Global Gender Gap Report measures the size of the gender inequality gap in four critical areas:

    1) Economic participation and opportunity – outcomes on salaries, participation levels and access to high-skilled employment
    2) Educational attainment – outcomes on access to basic and higher level education
    3) Political empowerment – outcomes on representation in decision-making structures
    4) Health and survival – outcomes on life expectancy and sex ratio

The Index’s scores can be interpreted as the percentage of the gap that has been closed between women and men.

“Girls and women make up one half of the world’s population and without their engagement, empowerment and contribution, we cannot hope to achieve a rapid economic recovery nor effectively tackle global challenges such as climate change, food security and conflict,” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum. “The Forum works year-round with leaders on ways to close gender gaps through its Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme, and this report underpins their work.” The Global Gender Parity Group, a community of highly influential leaders from business, politics, academia, media and civil society – 50% women and 50% men – seeks to share best practices and identify strategies to optimize the use of talent.

“Out of the 115 countries covered in the report since 2006, more than two-thirds have posted gains in overall index scores, indicating that the world in general has made progress towards equality between men and women, although there are countries that continue to lose ground. We have included a section on the dynamics of the gender gap and found that progress is achieved when countries find ways to make marriage and motherhood compatible with the economic participation of women,” said co-author Ricardo Hausmann, Director of the Centre for International Development at Harvard University, USA.

“The Global Gender Gap Report demonstrates that closing the gender gap in all aspects of life provides a foundation for a prosperous and competitive society. Leaders should act in accordance with this finding as they rebuild their battered economies and set them on course for sustainable long-run growth,” said co-author Laura Tyson, Professor of Business Administration and Economics, University of California, Berkeley, USA.

“Countries that do not fully capitalize on one-half of their human resources run the risk of undermining their competitive potential. We hope to highlight the economic incentive behind empowering women, in addition to promoting equality as a basic human right,” said co-author Saadia Zahidi, Head of the Forum’s Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme. Watch the interview.

The Forum continues to expand geographic coverage in the report. Featuring a total of 134 countries, this year’s report provides insight into the gaps between women and men in over 93% of the world’s population. Thirteen out of the 14 variables used to create the Index are from publicly available hard data indicators from international organizations, such as the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Health Organization.

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Incorporated as a foundation in 1971, and based in Geneva, Switzerland, the World Economic Forum is impartial and not-for-profit; it is tied to no political, partisan or national interests. (

Something is stirring in the home of western European chauvinism. Italian womanhood is rising up. An online petition decrying the way female politicians are treated by Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister and billionaire businessman, has gathered 100,000 signatures.

A slogan – “I am not a woman at your disposal” – is catching on. It is aimed at the famously flirtatious 73-year-old after months of revelations about his dalliances with prostitutes and models procured for parties. It draws attention to his attempts to put forward women better known as showgirls as his party’s MEPs in Brussels and for cabinet posts. In some cases, their scant qualifications have been matched only by their record of scant outfits.

The petition was started by two academics and a writer, all women, and hosted on La Repubblica, one of Italy’s leading newspapers and a frequent foe of Mr Berlusconi. It says: “Qualities considered useful in advertising are now considered essential political qualities… obedience and attractiveness are now indispensable elements of the education needed to serve in positions of the upmost responsibility.”

Unusually for the supremely confident Mr Berlusconi, he has been forced into a half-hearted apology to Rosy Bindi, a well-known Left-leaning politician in her late 50s, after he told her on TV this week that she was more pretty than intelligent – a slur intended to mean that she was neither. The prime minister said his “joke” had been made in a “moment of disappointment”, a rare concession considering he usually lashes out at those offended by his frequent boorish remarks.

Mr Berlusconi is also under fire at home. He is not accused of criminal wrongdoing in the claims that associates hired women to come to gatherings he was hosting. But Veronica Lario, his wife of almost 20 years, has said she will seek a divorce and his lawyers have, embarrassingly, had to clarify who it is that breaks the law when a man has sex with a woman who has been hired for the occasion.

Meanwhile, something more fundamental in Italian society is being questioned. High-profile television programmes – not on the channels controlled by Mr Berlusconi – have attacked the incessant portrayal of women on Italian TV and in advertising. There is so much eroticism on display in Italy that, usually, this is spotted only by foreigners amazed at the perpetual use of female flesh to sell products. In other countries such crude marketing has been rare for 30 years.

“Why do we put up with this continual humiliation?” asks a female voice-over added to a clip of a relatively recent prime-time show. A smiling and uncomfortable woman is standing on a rocking surfboard, elevated above a table of men, trying to keep her balance and therefore doubled over so that her very short cocktail dress rides up ever higher. Another clip shows a woman with her breasts thrust upward by her clothing, walking into a transparent shower cubicle in the middle of a stage and then being soaked. This is not on a pornography channel. “What,” asks the voice, “are we afraid of?”

What indeed? For it is not the ubiquity of naked women, nor the chauvinism of men such as Mr Berlusconi that are so remarkable – though they are pretty extraordinary. The most striking question is why Italians, particularly women – emancipated, Western, affluent and educated – put up with it. The new spasm of feminism is a very rare outpouring in a country where gains were made by women in the 1960s and 1970s but whose voices inexplicably fell silent while Mr Berlusconi built his media empire on a cocktail of flesh and glitz in the 1980s.

Italian society has also been behind in making the changes that, in other countries, have increased the participation of women in the workforce. Italy ranks low on part-time work, and parents are critical of the lack of nursery places or the restrictive opening times of businesses such as banks and shops. Italy is ranked 67th in the world for gender equality according to the World Economic Forum in 2007, a ranking based on the percentage of women among legislators, ministerial positions, senior officials and managers.

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Over two thirds of people in the world who are blind are women announce the development charity Sightsavers International, who was speaking out about this staggering gender bias this World Sight Day (8 October).

Today there are more than 20 million women in the world who are needlessly blind, 90% of whom live in developing countries. This is largely because women are still often last in line for medical care warns the charity. Cultural, social and economic factors often act as a barrier for women when accessing medication, surgery, eye tests and glasses, leaving women more exposed to blindness.

Two of the main causes of blindness amongst women are cataract and trachoma. Surveys of African and Asian countries, where cataract is the biggest cause of blindness, reveal that women account for almost 75% of cataract cases simply because they do not receive surgery at the same rate as men. The statistics for trachoma, a disease that as well as being caused by poverty exacerbates poverty, are similar with women accounting for 85% of the advanced and blinding cases in the developing world.

Sightsavers is warning that trachoma levels could rise in Eastern Africa due to the drought, thwarting efforts by the charity and its partners to bring the disease under control. In Kenya, where regular drug distribution camps have been held throughout 2009, there may be a need for further camps as the disease escalates putting people at greater risk of blindness. Water shortages mean the recommended WHO intervention of keeping hands and faces clean to prevent trachoma spreading becomes near impossible. With tribes becoming more nomadic in the search for grazing pastures, reaching people to provide sight restorative surgery becomes an increasing challenge.

When left untreated trachoma causes immense pain as the eyelids turn inwards, making the eyelashes scratch the eyeball. This can prevent women from working, and can affect their ability to complete household tasks, having a huge impact on their family. Women will often resort to pulling out their eyelashes with tweezers, putting powder on their eyelids, or using tight headscarves to pull up the skin to restrict blinking to eradicate the pain. However none of these solutions provide a long-term cure, yet a simple operation costing �5 could save their sight.

40-year-old Lasoi from Kenya repeatedly suffered from trachoma and it eventually led to complete blindness. Lasoi was finding it a challenge to care for her seven children, so they had to drop out of school to help her. She was also struggling to do her beadwork, an essential income since her family lost their cattle due to drought. It wasn’t until Lasoi was screened by a Sightsavers-supported team visiting her village that she learned her sight could be restored by a 20-minute operation, changing her future.

In response to such a dramatic gender imbalance, Sightsavers, who works in over 30 developing countries to prevent and cure blindness, is supporting its partners in the development of programmes that work with the local cultures. By reaching more women its mission is to reduce global blindness which currently stands at 45 million people.

“It’s unimaginable to many in the developed world that a person could be last in line for medical care simply because they are a woman. But for the developing world this is the stark reality,” observes Dr Caroline Harper, Chief Executive of Sightsavers. “Blindness affects 45 million people worldwide, and unless more is done to address this, the figure is set to double over the next 25 years. That’s why it’s imperative that Sightsavers and other organisations join together to raise awareness of women and blindness during World Sight Day.”

More about why women carry the burden of blindness and what Sightsavers is doing about it can be found at

Sightsavers International:
1. This year’s World Sight Day, now in its 11th year, takes place on 8 October 2009. World Sight Day is an annual event focusing on the problem of global blindness.
2. Sightsavers International is a registered UK charity (Registered charity numbers 207544 and SC038110) that works in more than 30 developing countries to prevent blindness, restore sight and advocate for social inclusion and equal rights for people who are blind and visually impaired.
3. There are 45 million blind people in the world; 75% of all blindness can be prevented or cured.
4. Since 1950, Sightsavers has restored sight to more than 5.65 million people and treated over 100 million more.

Women are being excluded from the debate over climate change, despite being most at risk, and governments should do more to ensure their situations and views are represented, campaigners and experts say.

So far, climate change negotiations have responded poorly to the effects on women, activists say. And while global policies advocate a gender perspective, and including women in environment and development efforts, few governments have incorporated such policies into their national plans.

“Extreme events and environmental degradation become a women’s issue because we are responsible for providing for the whole community,” said Anna Pinto, programme director with the Centre for Organisation, Research and Education (CORE), based in northeastern India. “If the rice yield is bad, men have to migrate, find a job and send money back, while women have to ensure the day-to-day survival of the helpless. When the environment degrades it becomes more of a women’s problem. These issues need to be genderised on behalf of everyone,” she said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last month called for women to have a greater role in climate change debates. “The special perspective of women is often overlooked in global discussions on climate change,” Ban told an event on women’s leadership held in New York.

Climate change-related weather events claim between two and three times as many female as male victims, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

“Women are prone to more danger,” Robert Dobias, the ADB’s senior adviser on climate change, told IRIN. “It’s the clothes they wear. Maybe they will run back and get the kids. They are often not in public places where information surfaces about disasters,” he said at the sidelines of recent climate-change negotiations in Bangkok. [] []

“Well-designed, top-down approaches to adaptation can play a role in reducing vulnerability to climate change; yet they may fail to address the particular needs and concerns of women,” said Christina Chan, senior policy analyst for CARE International. []

In Africa, women farmers produce up to 80 percent of the continent’s food, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

However, because most women work in the subsistence sector, they cannot take part in market-based adaptation schemes, according to Rose Enie, from Women for Climate Justice (GenderCC). []

“It doesn’t work for women because they are mostly in the informal sector,” she said.

Campaigners say such omissions mean women will continue to be bypassed by resilience-building initiatives – including access to land, credit, support services, new technologies and decision-making.

In addition, women are particularly overlooked when it comes to the development of environmentally friendly technology that can be used in their daily activities, said GenderCC’s Ulrike Roehr.

“Men tend to look at big-scale technology, while needs for smaller-scale technology, such as energy-efficient cooking stoves, are not taken into consideration,” Roehr told IRIN. These are the technologies which help in reducing women’s double and triple burdens, having benefits not only for emissions reduction, but also for poverty reduction and health,” she said.

Women and the communities they look after could be big losers in schemes being considered by governments to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases, activists say.

These include plans to preserve forests, so trees can absorb and store carbon in the air. The UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) scheme, for example, will see large areas of land closed to women who had hitherto depended on the fuel, medicine, food and fodder they could find there, said Jeannette Gunung, director of Women Organising for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (WOCAN). []

“Women’s exclusion from forests is not new, but as long as forest land had little economic value they could get away with these practices,” Gunung told IRIN. “When the resource becomes of central importance, women have little voice in decision-making and are denied access,” she said.

Yet environmentally friendly solutions, such as the use of biogas – flammable gas produced by the fermentation of organic material – as an alternative and cleaner source of energy than firewood, are available, Gunung said.

“Once planners put rural women’s needs as a priority, they will come up with solutions that involve sustainable forest management and alternative energy resources,” she said.

Countries where women’s literacy rates and access to education are significantly worse than men’s tend to have higher levels of hunger, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

“Wherever women are not empowered you see high levels of hunger,” Suresh Babu, a senior research fellow with IFPRI, told IRIN.

The institute’s 2009 Global Hunger Index (GHI) calls for policy action on gender empowerment, social protection and governance to improve food security.

The index lists 121 countries using a scale of one (no hunger) to 100, describing values under 4.9 as “low hunger”, between 10 and 19.9 as “a serious problem” and values of 30 or greater as “extremely alarming.”

It quantifies hunger according to the availability of food per capita in terms of calories required per day, weight of children under five, and the proportion of children dying before age five.

“Gender equality is a key factor in solving the problem of hunger. The more women are educated, the more likely they are to take children to hospital,” noted Babu.

For example, Chad, where 13 percent of women are literate against 41 percent for men, has a GHI of 31.3.

Botswana, by contrast, which provides universal access to 10 years of basic schooling and has greatly reduced gender disparity at all education levels, has an index of 12.1.

“We hope that the GHI will not only generate discussion but also stimulate action… to overcome extreme vulnerability and gender inequality, which are extremely [closely] connected,” said Constanze von Oppeln, food security policy officer with the German NGO, Welthungerhilfe.

According to IFPRI, “equalizing men’s and women’s status would reduce the number of malnourished children by 13.4 million in South Asia and by 1.7 million in sub-Saharan Africa”.

Twenty-nine countries in Africa and South Asia have alarming or extremely alarming levels of hunger; nine out of 10 of the worst are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa also has the highest proportion of undernourished people (76 and 68 percent of the population in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Eritrea, respectively) and the world’s highest child mortality rate.

Burundi had the highest prevalence of underweight children at 35 percent, followed by Ethiopia and Eritrea, at 34.6 and 34.5 percent. The worst overall performer was the DRC, with a hunger index of 39.1, a considerable decline from the 25.5 in 1990.

“The DRC is doing so badly that it is pulling the rest of the continent down,” said Babu. “Because of instability, the DRC is not able to invest in and reach rural areas where food can be grown.”

Comparing Africa and South Asia, he noted that while South Asia had made remarkable progress in increasing food production, it performed worse than Africa in under-five health. South Asia’s GHI is 23.0 compared with sub-Saharan Africa’s 22.1.

“The causes of food insecurity in the two regions are different. In South Asia, the low nutritional, educational, and social status of women contributes to a high prevalence of underweight… children under five.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, low government effectiveness, conflict, political instability, and high rates of HIV and AIDS lead to high child mortality and a high proportion of people who cannot meet their calorie requirements.”

IFPRI recommended investment in social safety net programmes such as school feeding, improved nutrition for pregnant and lactating mothers and direct cash transfers.

In the long term, Babu said, good governance was key. “Governance is not just about corruption but worrying about those who will be affected by hunger,” he added.

“The challenges [of hunger] are not new. What is surprising is the lack of action from governments.”

The convergence of the different aspects of the crisis of global capitalism today confirms that we are faced with systemic economic, ecological and social crises, which combine to produce a crisis of civilisation.

In this paper* we indicate some of the ways in which this crisis particularly affects women.

Women were already at the bottom of the pile before the crises started, so it is no surprise that we feel the effects of these disasters most acutely. Women’s subordinate place within the labour market, notwithstanding the limited gains made as a result of women’s self organisation, remain a reflection of the sexual division of labour and inferior status of women within the patriarchal capitalist family. The family, together with the education system, continues to reproduce notions that women are inherently inferior to men —or at best have different destinies as primary care givers to children and the elderly— a particularly important notion for the state to fall back on as it slashes public services. The family continues to be the main site of violence (and repression) against women.

And make no mistake: what is tested out on women today in terms of the capitalists’ attempts to make sure they do not pay for the crisis will be imposed on the whole of the working class tomorrow, as we have already seen in many other instances, for example with part-time work.

In response to all these issues, we need to make sure that the demands we raise as parties and campaigns take into account the specific oppression of women. Sometimes this will mean raising specific demands that affect women (e.g., abortion or equal pension rights), but it always means looking at what we say from women’s point of view.

So, for example, the demand for a shorter working day/week is in the interests of the whole working class, but has particular importance for women while we also carry out the double burden of domestic labour. Another example: nationalisation of the banks has come to the forefront of our propaganda as a result of the credit crunch, though of course we understand that the economic crisis did not start and will not end with the banking crisis. But women, as one of the poorest sections of the working class, are particularly affected by rises in interest rates and limitations in the availability of credit.

Of course, the context in which these demands are formulated will be different in each national situation and need to be adapted to meet the concrete realities in which we are working. The programme developed by the Belgian comrades for the 2009 European elections, “An ecosocialist Europe will be feminist or it will not exist,” is a good example of how this can be done.

Women are also an integral part of the resistance to the onslaught and the fight we see taking place to create the other ecosocialist and feminist world that is daily ever more necessary. Women’s self-organisation is essential to achieving this. The steps forward that women have made in terms of the constituent assembly and the campaign against public debt in Ecuador, for example, are not because Correa decided to grant women favours but because women’s self-organisation helped create the balance of forces that won these gains.

Women and Climate Change

Poverty and inequality is the lot of the majority of women in the south, and they are the first to be hit by the climate crisis, caused by emissions produced mainly in the countries of the north. Eighty percent of the 1.3 billion people in the world living under the poverty line are women.

Women and the Economic Crisis

Neoliberal globalisation has resulted in a vast expansion of insecure jobs with short-term contracts and the massive extension of part-time work. At the same time, the informal economy has spread from the countries of the south to parts of the north and to sectors that were previously part of the formal economy.

Women and Public Services

The defence of basis services —most fundamentally water, but also electricity, housing and transport— as publicly controlled and affordable —preferably free— is essential. Women have very often played a leading role in the campaigns to defend and extend these basic services, from the successful battle against the privatisation of water wars in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000, to the struggle against privatisation of railways and cotton and rice cultivation in Mali.


Over the past four decades, total numbers of international migrants have more than doubled, but the percentage of the world population migrating has remained fairly constant. There are now 175 million international migrants worldwide or approximately 3.5 per cent of the global population. About half this number is women, despite the common misconception that migrants are men. Most migration takes place to adjacent countries, and some takes place within countries as well as across continental borders.


The crisis of civilisation is also the motor for the growth of reactionary ideas. Berlusconi’s policy of blaming immigrants for all the effects of the crisis and using this as an excuse to introduce strong “security” —that is, anti-immigrant— laws is just an extreme example.

Religion has an increasing hold on greater sections of the population, and fundamentalism within all major religions continues to be a threat. Women’s bodies are seen as a key terrain of struggle for all fundamentalists.


The crisis of civilisation is marked by an increase in violence at all levels of society as alienation deepens.

Whether in the private or public spheres, women are victims of violence: in France one woman dies every three days from conjugal violence. At work masculine domination leads to widespread physical/psychological/sexual violence and the increasing tension in workplaces as the crisis deepens can only deepen this phenomenon.

* Submitted following the Fourth International international women’s seminar

Edited extract of longer paper which you can read in full at

Based in Kuala Lumpur, Zainah Anwar, a leading Malaysian social activist and intellectual, is one of the founding members of ‘Sisters in Islam’, an activist group struggling for the rights of Muslim women. She is also one of the pioneers of Musawah, a recently launched initiative to build a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, she talks about her vision for an understanding of gender justice in Islam and the place of Islam within a democratic nation-state.

You can read the full interview at

See also:
* Miss Mogahed, appointed to the President’s Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, said the Western view of Sharia was “oversimplified” and the majority of women around the world associate it with “gender justice”.
* A Muslim member of President Obama’s faith council says she was misled about the nature of a British TV talk show on which she was recently interviewed. It was hosted by a representative of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which the State Department has condemned for an anti-Semitic, anti-Western ideology that officials said might indirectly generate support for terrorism.

Somalia’s hardline Islamist group al Shabaab has publicly whipped women for wearing bras they say violate Islam by constituting a deception, north Mogadishu residents said last week.

The insurgent group, which seeks to impose a strict form of sharia Islamic law throughout Somalia, amputated a foot and a hand each from two young men accused of robbery earlier this month. They have also banned movies, musical ringtones, dancing at wedding ceremonies and playing or watching soccer.

Residents said gunmen had been rounding up any woman seen with a firm bust and then had them publicly whipped by masked men. The women were then told to remove their bras and shake their breasts.

“Al shabaab forced us to wear their type of veil and now they order us to shake our breasts,” a resident, Halima, told Reuters, adding that her daughters had been whipped. “They first banned the former veil and introduced a hard fabric which stands stiffly on women’s chests. They are now saying that breasts should be firm naturally, or just flat.”

Officials of Al Shabaab, which Washington says is al Qaeda’s proxy in the failed Horn of Africa state, declined to comment. The group’s hardline interpretation of Islamic law has shocked many Somalis, who are traditionally moderate Muslims. Some residents, however, give the insurgents credit for restoring order to the regions under their control. Al Shabaab, which means “youth” in Arabic, control large swathes of south and central Somalia.

Abdullahi Hussein, a student in north Mogadishu, said his elder brother was thrown behind bars when he fought back a man who humiliated their sister by asking her to remove her bra. “My brother was jailed after he wrestled with a man that had beaten my sister and forced her to remove her bra. He could not stand it,” Hussein said.

Men were not spared the’ moral cleansing’. Any man caught without a beard was been publicly whipped. “I was beaten and my hair was cut off with a pair of scissors in the street,” Hussein said. “My trouser was also cut up to the knee. They accused me of shaving my beard but I am only 18. They have arrested dozens of men and women. You just find yourself being whipped by a masked man as soon as leave your house.”

* Humanitarian workers call for accountability for crimes
* 110,000 return to homes in volatile Rwanda border zone
* Concerns about cross-border expulsions in Angola, Congo

Some 5,400 women have reported being raped this year in one province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Nations said last week.

Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the South Kivu province, near Rwanda, was an increasingly dangerous place for non-combatants, especially for women.

“Night-time attacks against civilians by unidentified armed elements, and rape against women, remain widespread,” Byrs said, describing in particular an Oct. 5 rape of five women “by armed men believed to be members of the national army”.

“One of the victims was killed, while the four survivors are being treated in a health centre,” she told a news briefing in Geneva, where most U.N. aid agencies are based.

At least 5,387 cases of rape against women have been reported in South Kivu in the first six months of 2009, Byrs said, calling for the violations to stop and the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the biggest U.N. aid operations. Hundreds of thousands of people in the east of the country have been driven from their homes due to government fighting, many of whom need protection from violent attacks.

Byrs said in North Kivu province, about 110,000 people, including many who had been staying in U.N. camps, had returned to their areas of origin in the past two months.

“However, an estimated 980,000 people in the volatile North Kivu remain displaced and in need of continued humanitarian assistance,” she said.

On the western side of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Byrs cited concerns about the thousands of Congolese who had been expelled from Angola since mid-July, many illegal diamond miners. That prompted Kinshasa to expel more than 20,000 Angolans it had hosted, including civil war refugees.

“While the situation of DRC nationals returning from Angola does not present huge humanitarian concerns at this time, there is greater concern for Angolans being expelled from the DRC,” the OCHA spokeswoman said.

Between 20,000 and 40,000 Angolans are being held in the Bas-Congo province in dangerous conditions, Byrs said, warning: “The concentration of people in a relatively small area poses potential concerns in terms of health and sanitation.”

Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said a lack of clean water meant that many of those rounded up for deportation had been drinking river water, leading to acute cases of diarrhoea and vomiting.

There were “significant numbers” of Angolan refugees among those being forcibly returned to Congo, Mahecic said.

“Some of them say they had been rounded up and taken to the border despite the fact they carried documents certifying their refugee status,” he told the Geneva briefing. “Others said they were forced back without having had a chance to take their identification documents or any of their belongings.”

The two countries have pledged to stop the expulsions, but the UNHCR is concerned that further large-scale returns could resume, Mahecic said.

Canadian Member of Parliament John Rafferty (Thunder Bay – Rainy River) delivered a statement in the House last week calling for cooperation to end violence against Aboriginal women. “Aboriginal women continue to experience higher than average rates of sexualized violence in Canada,” said Rafferty. “It’s an injustice, pure and simple.”

Outside the House, Rafferty praised the work of initiatives like Sisters in Spirit by the Native Women’s Association of Canada and reiterated his call for MPs to work with Aboriginal women to end this violence. “Aboriginal women’s groups are already working hard to raise awareness about sexualized and racialized violence and are putting forward solutions. Parliament must work in cooperation with these groups and support their work with action, not just rhetoric.”

Here is a transcript of Rafferty’s Member’s Statement:

Mr. Speaker,

Since 1992, October has been marked as Women’s History Month in Canada. It is a time to celebrate women’s achievements and the advancement of women’s equality. But it is also a time to reflect on how much more work there is to be done.

For many women in Canada, Aboriginal women in particular, equality is still far off.

This month, many of my colleagues have spoken passionately about justice for murdered and missing Aboriginal women and in support of the invaluable work of the Sisters in Spirit initiative.

Today, I would like to draw attention to the sad and ongoing history of sexual exploitation and sexualized violence perpetrated against Aboriginal women in Canada. This violence is a grave injustice and it must stop.

With our Fairness for Women action plan, New Democrats are working to end violence against Aboriginal women. I urge all members of this House to join with us in this goal.

We must work together with Aboriginal women and their communities and take meaningful action to end this violence, and to move forward for Aboriginal women’s equality.

See also:
* Action plan urged for murdered women