Archive for December, 2009

Over the past several years, feminist women and men throughout Europe came together to meet as part of the European Feminist Forum. In the European Feminist Forum, they exchanged ideas about issues that face women in Europe today, with the goal of creating a new European feminist agenda. The discussions are now collected in the book “A Herstory (2004-208)”. Download the book (PDF)

The new Europe

Women in Europe still often do not enjoy the same opportunities as men. And the newly expanded Europe brings with it entirely new challenges – a new dynamic in the area of economic migration, for example, and also an increase in the trafficking of women from Eastern Europe.

Time for a new feminist agenda

In 2004, a group of large European women’s organizations, including Aletta, decided that it was time for a new European feminist agenda. Aletta took a leading role in organizing the European Feminist Forum and also functioned as its Secretariat.


From 2006 to 2008, women from all over Europe met on the website European Feminist Forum to exchange ideas in discussion groups and forums. They shared reports, inspiring articles, videos, podcasts and photographs and, from time to time, took part in live online meetings.


Aletta now publishes “A Herstory (2004-2008)”, a book of information gathered through the European Feminist Forum. The book is a compilation of articles on the most important issues facing feminists in the new Europe, including: migration, employment, new organizing and fundraising strategies, the dialogue between different generations of women, and the politics surrounding sexuality and women’s bodily integrity.

Project partners

Aletta (Institute for women’s history)
ASTRA (The Central and Eastern European Women’s Network for Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights)
Babaylan (The Philippine Women’s Network in Europe)
Bayanihan (Philippine Women’s Center in the Netherlands)
Federa (The Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning)
JRWI (Joint Roma Women’s Initiatives)
Karat Coalition (a network of Women’s NGOs from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS))
NEWW (The Network of East-West Women)
WIDE (Women In Development Europe)
WPP (The Women Peacemakers Program of IFOR)

The three recent publications (links below) are also available in Spanish and French translations are just being produced. A further two publications are slated for release later this year.

1. Shared Insights: Women’s Rights Activists Define Religious Fundamentalisms

2. Religious Fundamentalisms on the Rise: A Case for Action

3. Exposed: Ten Myths about Religious Fundamentalisms

New Insights on Religious Fundamentalisms: Research Highlights

i. Miradas Compartidas: Las y los activistas pos los derechos de las mujeres definen los fundamentalismos religiosos
ii. El Auge de los Fundamentalismos Religiosos: Argumentos para la acción
iii. Al Desnudo: Diez mitos sobre los fundamentalismos religiosos!Al-Desnudo!-Diez-mitos-sobre-los-fundamentalismos-religiosos

Des activistes des droits des femmes définissent les fondamentalismes religieux: mise en commun des experiences

La montée des fondamentalismes religieux : un appel à l’action

À découvert : dix mythes des fondamentalismes religieux

Nouvelles données sur les fondamentalismes religieux: Points forts de l’enquête

About AWID

The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) is an international, multi-generational, feminist, creative, future-orientated membership organization committed to achieving gender equality, sustainable development and women’s human rights.

AWID’s work is structured through multi-year programs known as Strategic Initiatives. Each strategic initiative includes a range of activities from membership consultations and surveys, primary research and dialogues with policy makers (including targeted advocacy) to capacity building institutes, regional networking and information dissemination.

AWID’s Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms initiative is an advocacy-research project that seeks to strengthen the responses of women’s rights activists to the rise of religious fundamentalisms across regions and religions. It aims to contribute to greater strategic thinking, dialogue and advocacy on religious fundamentalisms, and to develop more knowledge and resources on the issue. It also hopes to foster a deeper and shared understanding of the way fundamentalisms work, grow and undermine women’s rights, and to share strategies that have been used by women’s rights activists to resist and challenge religious fundamentalisms.

Links updated 22nd December 2009

Lawmakers voted to ease Spain’s abortion law last week, approving a bill to allow the procedure without restrictions up to 14 weeks. The change would bring this traditionally Roman Catholic country in line with its more secular neighbors in northern Europe.

The measure now goes to the Senate, where passage is expected some time early next year.

Abortion reform was the last major pending issue in a bold reform agenda undertaken by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a Socialist who took power in 2004.

Under Zapatero, Spain has also legalized gay marriage and made it easier for Spaniards to divorce in a drive that has infuriated conservatives and the Roman Catholic Church.

The vote in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies was 184-158 with one abstention.

Under the current law, which dates back to 1985, Spanish women could in theory go to jail for getting an abortion outside certain strict limits — up to week 12 in case of rape and week 22 if the fetus is malformed.

But abortion is in effect widely available because women can assert mental distress as sole grounds for having an abortion, regardless of how late the pregnancy is. Most of the more than 100,000 abortions carried out each year in Spain were early-term ones that fell under this category.

The bill approved last week wipes away the threat of imprisonment and declares abortion to be a woman’s right.

“We are legislating women’s right to decide whether to be mothers,” said Carmen Monton, the Socialists’ spokeswoman on gender issues.

Conservative Popular Party spokesman Santiago Cervera insisted there was no clamor in Spanish society for changing the existing law and the government instigated it just to raise a stir and distract people’s attention away from the country’s economic recession.

Anti-abortion demonstrators wearing sandwich boards rallied outside the legislature during debate on the bill. One of the boards showed a picture of a child with Down syndrome asking Zapatero “why are you letting them kill me?”

The new bill would also also allow 16- and 17-year-olds to have abortions without parental consent, as is the case in other European countries such as Germany, Britain and France.

This clause proved to be among the bill’s most controversial ones.

In the end, the ruling Socialist party agreed to amend it so that such minors must inform their parents or legal guardian if they plan to undergo an abortion — although still with no need for their permission — except if they can show that doing so would expose them to violence within their family, threats or coercion.

The Spanish Bishops’ Conference warned last month that legislators who voted in favor of the bill would be sinning and no longer eligible to receive Communion. This was particularly touchy for parliamentary speaker Jose Bono, a Socialist who is a practicing Catholic. Bono responded saying “My conscience is clear.”

In October, a rally against the reform bill drew hundreds of thousands of people to Madrid. This showed that for all the changes Zapatero has introduced, abortion remains sensitive in a country where most people call themselves Catholic, even if few churches are full on Sundays.

The new bill, besides allowing unrestricted abortion up to 14 weeks, would permit it up to 22 weeks if two doctors certify there is a serious threat to the health of the mother, or fetal malformation.

Beyond 22 weeks, it would be allowed only doctors certify fetal malformation deemed incompatible with life or the fetus were diagnosed with an extremely serious or incurable disease.

When Milanese businesswomen Lorella Zanardo decided to make a short documentary critiquing the sexist and humiliating depictions of women on Italian television, her expectations were modest.

“I thought that we’d make this video, put it on DVD and take it around to high schools to get kids thinking about the issue,” says Zanardo. “The last thing I expected was this reaction.”

Zanardo is referring to the national word-of-mouth sensation that Il Corpo delle donne (Women’s Bodies) has become in Italy. The half-hour documentary is a provocative montage of images of the semi-naked, surgically altered women who regularly parade across primetime Italian television. Since Women’s Bodies hit the web this summer, it has had almost a million views — a remarkable number in a country with relatively low internet usage.

Zanardo has been flooded with invitations to present her documentary – not only from high schools, but also from university, political and women’s groups, as well as mainstream political talk shows.

“It clearly came at the right time,” says Zanardo. As someone who never participated in feminist activities in the past, she says she felt an obligation to younger women to speak out against the distorted reflection of women’s bodies and lives on Italian TV.

Indeed, what’s most surprising about the reaction to Women’s Bodies, isn’t the indignation it has triggered, but the fact that an outcry hasn’t come sooner. Italy has long been renowned for taking disturbing depictions of women to bizarre extremes on TV. Game and talk shows regularly feature fully clothed male hosts, politicians or journalists surrounded by so-called veline – prancing showgirls with oversized breasts and lips who, at best, are silent and, at worst, are prodded by the male hosts to play the role of ditzy ingénue, and then teased and derided for their apparent stupidity.

Zanardo’s documentary edits together examples from a range of shows. One recent popular evening quiz show has a young, scantily dressed woman climb into a plexi-glass cage each episode, where she remains throughout, responding to the jokey put-downs from the host with obsequious smiles. (When some viewers complained, producers replied that there were holes in the plexi-glass so the woman could breathe.) Another show features a woman hanging on a hook while a man stamps her bottom as if she were a prosciutto ham. Even the popular, long-running investigative news program Striscia la notizia features two showgirls shaking their buttocks and breasts at the start and end of each episode.

Critics point out that although Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media mogul, did not invent television shows with women as titillating decoration, these kinds of depictions have become more pervasive since he consolidated his control of Italian television, as owner of most private channels and head of state TV. In the past year alone, the leader has faced accusations of “cavorting with minors,” sleeping with prostitutes and appointing the young showgirls to political positions for which they have few qualifications. Critics say Berlusconi’s politics and personal life reflect his soft-porn version of reality that his channels promote.

“The cultural model Italy has at the moment is one of the sultan, the harem,” says Concita de Gregorio, editor of the left-wing L’Unità daily newspaper. There was an incident on national television when Mr. Berlusconi phoned into a talk show to tell opposition parliamentarian Rosy Bindi that she was ‘smarter than she was beautiful.’

“It’s a terrible insult, yes,” de Gregorio says, “but it’s also locker-room humour that conveys the message that only pretty women have the right to speak and that if you’re not pretty, you’re worth nothing.”

It’s an observation particularly germane to older women on television, and the pressure placed upon them to retain a youthful sexual appeal. Il corpo delle donne presents a stream of puffy, mask-like faces of post-40 women who have undergone various forms of plastic surgery to remain “presentable” to a TV public.

Reflecting the meaning of this, Zanardo poses a series of questions: “All of our 45 face muscles, excluding those needed to eat, breath and smell, are used to express emotion. The more complex your character, the more individual your face will be. So what are these faces hiding? Why can’t adult women appear with their real faces on television anymore? Why this humiliation? Why must we be ashamed of showing our real faces? What are we afraid of?”

The answer to the final question, says Zanardo, has become clearer to her in recent months.

“I think what we’re afraid of is that men won’t like and accept us anymore,” she says. “The acceptance of men is very important to women [in Italy]. The fact that one woman can take her own life in her hands and say I don’t want to follow this model anymore, makes her feel very alone. This is a terrible fear.” Change, she says, means Italian women have to start taking risks again – something they haven’t done in significant numbers since the feminist movement of the ’70s died out.

“What I am proposing is that women accept for a period of time not to be loved by society, because the path to real independence passes also through non-acceptance.”

Ironically, one of the most powerful images in Il corpo delle donne comes from a pre-feminist past: a clip of post-war Italian actress Anna Magnani. As we look at a middle-aged Magnani gazing into the camera – looking tired, defiant and magnificent – Zanardo’s voice recounts what she used to tell her makeup artist when he tried to cover her wrinkles with makeup. “Leave them alone. Don’t cover even one. It’s taken me a lifetime to get them.”

Click here to see the full version of Il Corpo delle donne (Women’s Bodies)

The sale of the abortion pill RU486 has been given final approval in Italy, despite protests from the Vatican and the government in the Catholic country.

Unlike in other European countries, the pill, also known as mifepristone, will be administered solely in hospitals.

The pill was originally approved by the country’s pharmaceuticals agency in late July, but the move prompted a parliamentary inquiry.

Italy was is one of the last European states to make it available.

According to the country’s pharmaceutical agency, the pill must only be administered in a hospital environment and must be taken within seven weeks of conception.

Women will be required to remain in hospital until the drug has taken full effect.

“The debate is not yet over,” Senator Donatella Poretti told Agence France Presse. “From tomorrow, we have to ask why Italian women [prescribed the drug] will be required to stay in hospital.”

The introduction of the pill had sparked outrage from the Vatican.

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice-president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, had threatened women who used it, doctors who prescribed it and those who encouraged its use with excommunication.

RU486 was first introduced in France two decades ago and is available in the US and several other European countries.

It allows the patient to have a chemically induced abortion instead of a surgical procedure within the first seven weeks.

The pill suppresses the body’s production of a hormone called progesterone, causing the uterine lining to thin and reject an implanted embryo. There have been some concerns over its side-effects, which include heavy bleeding and nausea.

Italian law permits surgical abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and then until the 24th week only if the foetus has a genetic deficiency or to preserve the mother’s health.

The court said legalising prostitution would help in the monitoring of the trade and rehabilitating sex workers.

Although illegal, prostitution is a thriving business in cities and towns across India.

It is estimated that there are more than two million female sex workers in the country.

The court’s remarks came while dealing with a public interest litigation filed by an NGO about child trafficking.

The court said child trafficking and prostitution were flourishing because of poverty.

“When you say it is the world’s oldest profession and you are not able to curb it by laws, why don’t you legalise it?” Judges Dalveer Bhandari and AK Patnaik asked a government solicitor.

“You can then monitor the trade, rehabilitate and provide medical aid to those involved.”

The solicitor said that he would look into the court’s suggestions.

“The [sex workers] have been operating in one way or the other and nowhere in the world have they been able to curb it by legislation,” the judges said.

“In some cases, [the trade] is carried out in a sophisticated manner. So, why don’t you legalise it?”

A government-commissioned study says that the number of sex workers has risen from two million in 1997 to three million in 2003-04.

Many prostitutes are said to be underage, entering the sex trade as young as 12.

Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal states together account for 26% of the total number of prostitutes in the country.

Legal experts say most rape victims do not report the attacks because of social stigma and the distress involved in describing it.

Women who are the victims of rape in the UAE do not always report the attacks because of social stigma and the fear they themselves could end up being prosecuted, according to lawyers involved in such cases.

In many cases the women are embarrassed, afraid of ending up on trial, or they fear authorities will uncover other infractions such as visa breaches or drinking alcohol without a licence, said Iman Ouaddani, a lawyer with the Abu Dhabi-based firm Al Otaiba.

Arab women are also less likely to report sexual assaults to police owing to concerns that the allegations could damage their family’s reputation and because of the distress involved in describing the attack to investigators, said a Dubai lawyer, Mohammed Abdullah al Redha.

The lawyers varied in their estimates of how many attacks are not reported: Ms Ouaddani estimated 70 per cent while Mr al Redha put the figure at 30 per cent.

Women also worry that other people will find out, and that they may get into trouble with their employers and possibly lose their jobs, said experts.

Ms Ouaddani also said victims were often discouraged by language barriers, fearing they will not be able to make themselves understood if they do not speak Arabic.

“An attack like this could embarrass the family,” Mr al Redha said. “If [victims] speak to the police they will have to give a statement to the police, a statement to the laboratory and a statement to prosecutors. [The woman] will be put off coming forward because she will feel each time she tells people what happened, it will feel like a new rape.”

Mr al Redha was speaking after details emerged about the case of an Australian woman who was sentenced to 12 months in jail in Fujairah last year after going to police to report that she had been drugged and gang-raped.

Judges rejected her claim and instead convicted her of having sex outside marriage. Her three alleged attackers were also prosecuted and jailed for 12 months.

The woman was released from custody in February after serving eight months. She has since returned to Australia and launched a campaign to promote awareness of what she alleges was unfair treatment.

Afra al Basti, the head of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, which offers counselling to rape and abuse victims, said that there was a move afoot to boost the current support systems for victims of sex crimes.

“At the moment we are working with Dubai Police, the health authority and prosecutors to try and improve the protection offered to women and children of domestic violence and assaults.”

In October about 60 police officers who work with victims of sex crimes took part in a two-day training session on handling vulnerable witnesses.

“Most of the women are afraid to report cases of rape,” Ms al Basti claims. “And if they do report them to police, they do it two or three days after and they come with no evidence.”

She said she would support a review of current legislation designed to protect women and children, and also backed a call for the establishment of a federal body to manage policy in this area.

When asked about any under-reporting of rape, a police spokesman said: “Any reported crime is investigated thoroughly by the Abu Dhabi Police and rape is no exception. We have experienced male and female officers in all areas of the force and would treat any complaint very seriously.”

Shoaib Ahli, a prosecutor from Dubai Public Prosecution, added: “In a rape the technical evidence is thoroughly examined; DNA, forensics and a full investigation is made.

“If a person claims rape, we rely on the technical evidence and examine the testimony. If we do not find corroborating evidence we cannot enforce the rape charge.”

Angie Conroy, the policy officer at Rape Crisis England and Wales, a UK-based support group, said there was “no bigger deterrent” to coming forward to make a rape allegation than the fear of a potential prosecution.

“No victim of rape can turn up at a police station and prove without a shadow of a doubt that they have been raped,” she said. If women think there is a danger they could be sent to prison unless they can 100 per cent prove it, obviously it’s going to stop them from going and making a complaint. It is a difficult enough process to go through to report a rape, without having the threat of prison hanging over you.

A lawyer in Dubai, Hassan Matar, believes women should not be discouraged from reporting rapes and urged them to have faith in the UAE justice system.

“Rape is a serious crime and any woman who is raped or sexually abused must report it to the police straight away. Forensics can determine whether sex was consensual or not.”

Dr Rima al Sabban, an assistant professor of sociology at Zayed University and a specialist in women’s issues, said even in the West women often did not report rape to avoid medical tests that could make them feel even more exposed.

She also did not think rape was significantly less reported in the UAE than other countries, but added that without proper statistics and studies it was hard to tell.

There are, however, “additional pressures in the UAE”, she believes.

“If women hear stories of women being arrested when they report a rape, whether or not it’s true, then it will add to the fear. Also here, there is the fear that if you go to the police and open a case they might look into whether she has had other relationships. That might create issues that she doesn’t want to deal with. She might be worried about what questions might be asked. Because in the system here, consensual sexual intercourse [outside marriage] is illegal. That could become an underlying reason not to report a rape.”

Officer’s commander jailed after touching her against her will and making sexual comments, but she finds it difficult to recover. Committee to determine her disability level

A female officer who fell victim to sexual harassment by her commander, causing her to suffer from mental distress, will be recognized as handicapped by the army, a Defense Ministry expert has ruled.

The woman suffered from repeated sexual comments. In one incident, the commander even shoved her against the wall and caressed her waist.

The commander was convicted for his the actions, but the officer found it difficult to recover and even left the country for a while. The young woman, who served as a commander in one of the Israel Defense Forces’ training bases, has only been able to work around women since the incident.

The company commander, an officer holding the rank of lieutenant, was convicted of committing sexual offenses on his subordinates three years ago. He served a jail sentence and was demoted.

One of the reasons which made it difficult for the young woman to deal with the harsh experience was attempts made by commanders to cover up the affair.

In a deposition filed with the Defense Ministry by Attorney Eli Saban, the young woman described days of crying and depression, a sense of humiliation, weight loss, and a difficulty to realize her dream to develop a military career.

Over time, her emotional state worsened, causing her to leave the country in favor of the United States, where she found work in a women-only institution.

A specialist, who examined the young woman, confirmed that she had been drafted by the army without any mental problems, and that she now suffers from depressed mood and a tendency to seclude and isolate herself due to the harassment she was subject to.

The specialist’s opinion was approved by an expert on behalf of the Defense Ministry, and the officer will soon be summoned to a committee to determine her level of disability.

“This is an unfortunate incident, in which a promising officer was hurt by her officer in a way which changed her life,” said Attorney Saban. “The Defense Ministry accepted her claim, and this will guarantee treatment in her civil life.”,7340,L-3817296,00.html

Uganda’s parliament has unanimously voted to outlaw female genital mutilation, imposing a 10-year penalty on anyone who conducts the procedure and life in prison for those who physically force a woman to submit to the act, one of the bill’s main sponsors said on Friday.

“This practice has left so many women in misery. So we are saying no. We cannot allow women to be dehumanised,” Francis Epetait, Uganda’s shadow health minister said, explaining that the bill was passed last week.

While Epetait is a leader in Uganda’s main opposition party, the bill was entirely non-partisan and voted unopposed by a single lawmaker.

“This operation is so painful, so cruel, and these so-called surgeons are paid to do it,” he said. “I supported the bill with all my strength and heart.”

While female genital mutilation is not very widespread in Uganda, it has historically been practiced by some communities in the northeast of the country.

In October 2008, community leaders in Kapchorwa district, where the practice was most prevalent, unilaterally decided to ban it. At the time, the district chairman said that he hoped parliament would institute a nationwide ban.

In 2007, the United Nations passed a resolution that called female genital mutilation a violation of the rights of women and said it constituted “irreparable, irreversible abuse.”

The resolution also said the practice increases the risk of HIV transmission, as well as maternal and infant mortality. The United Nations estimates that 100 to 140 million women worldwide have undergone the cut.

Other African Governments Should Act to Hold Perpetrators Accountable

Members and supporters of President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party committed widespread, systematic rape in 2008 to terrorize the political opposition, said AIDS-Free World in “Electing to Rape: Sexual Terror in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe,” a report released today. These crimes against humanity have received little public attention and the government has made no effort to hold the perpetrators accountable. A concerted regional effort is needed urgently to bring both high- and low-level perpetrators to justice.

The 64-page report is based on extensive interviews with 72 survivors and witnesses, and documents 380 rapes committed by 241 perpetrators across Zimbabwe’s ten provinces. ZANU-PF supporters who carried out the attacks, including members of the “youth militia” and former soldiers in Zimbabwe’s war of liberation known as “war veterans,” identified themselves to their victims. All the women targeted were supporters of Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

“The evidence is incontrovertible: Mugabe believes he can sanction rape without fear of consequences. Zimbabwe is perhaps the greatest test for ending impunity,” said Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS-Free World.

The testimony demonstrates that the rape campaign waged by ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe was both widespread and systematic, with recurring patterns throughout that cannot be coincidental. For example, the striking similarity of rhetoric about MDC political activity made before and during the violence; the uniform physical and emotional brutality of the rapes; the specific types of beatings and weapons on common parts of the body; the modes of detention and locations of the rapes; the circumstances and concurrent crimes as part of the broader attacks; and the consistent refusal of police to investigate and refer these cases for prosecution, taken together, demonstrate a systematic, organized campaign. It is also exacerbating an HIV/AIDS crisis in a country where, according to statistics updated by the UN two weeks ago, eighteen percent of adults are infected with HIV. Rape helps to spread the virus farther and faster.

“ZANU-PF orchestrated its campaign of rape to terrorize, and destabilize entire communities,” said Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World. “Clearly, the tactic worked: Mugabe is still president.” Some women were forced to watch the rape of their daughters and murder of their husbands and other family members before or after they were raped. Several women were held as sexual slaves at ZANU-PF base camps for up to two weeks.

All the women who testified described either their fear of reporting their rapes, or the indifference they encountered from the police. They consistently ascribed the lack of police action to the close, well-known association between the local and national police and ZANU-PF.

The government of Zimbabwe was well aware of the widespread sexual violence against women during this period. The Joint Operations Command (JOC), the supreme organ of Zimbabwe state security including the heads of the military, police, intelligence services, prisons, and reserve bank was responsible for masterminding the election violence. As the head of the government and the leader of the political party in power, Robert Mugabe had the ability to control both the JOC and his ZANU-PF supporters and failed to do so. Similarly, as the head of the government, President Mugabe could have insisted on addressing the rape campaign through prosecutions and the rule of the law. He did not. This combination of knowledge, the refusal to prevent, and the failure to punish the widespread political rape requires that Robert Mugabe and members of the JOC should be investigated and prosecuted for their individual criminal liability for the rapes.

The report asserts that in Zimbabwe, both the police and the legal infrastructure are so seriously compromised as to make justice for systematic rape inside the country impossible. The majority of public prosecutors, magistrates, and judges are well known for their connections to ZANU-PF, making independent criminal prosecutions against ZANU-PF supporters unlikely. Zimbabwe’s domestic rape law requires that victims overcome insurmountable hurdles, and to risk the very real possibility of reprisals from authorities. And under Zimbabwe law, rape cannot be prosecuted as a concerted campaign, ordered from on high and executed on the ground.

“Electing to Rape” recognizes the severe limitations on legal accountability within Zimbabwe, and therefore looks at a number of compelling alternative routes to justice that exist in the region. High-level commanders could be tried in the courts of other African countries under the principle of universal jurisdiction. South Africa, in particular, has a universal jurisdiction statute implementing the Rome Statute, the international treaty governing the International Criminal Court. If it so decided, South Africa could try perpetrators of serious international crimes should they enter the country. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has its own tribunal as well as other tools – including sanctions and suspension – that it could use to censure Zimbabwe. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights could also hear complaints of human rights abuses, and the African Union could take action against Zimbabwe to express its disapproval.

AIDS-Free World contends that the international community has a crucial role to play. The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) should conduct a preliminary examination of sexual crimes against humanity in Zimbabwe in 2008 with the possibility of opening an investigation into the situation in Zimbabwe. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should conduct an independent investigation that would culminate in a public report presented at the Human Rights Council.

Zimbabwean human rights activist Elinor Sisulu, who spoke at the Johannesburg launch of the report today, underscored the report’s focus on shared responsibility, “The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights obligates countries in our region to protect the lives and security of women and girls,” she said. “If victims cannot be sure that it’s safe to come forward, they will not be able to testify about the crimes they have endured. Accountability is the key to preventing the next round of rapes in Zimbabwe, and there can be no accountability without the active participation of victims.”

To download the report or to read it online go to

See also: Zimbabwe still has a long way to go in achieving universal access to reproductive health with almost half of women in rural areas failing to access family planning methods.

Two recent conferences held on the African continent reaffirmed the determination of women to achieve genuine equality and political empowerment. The Eighth Africa Regional Conference on Women (Beijing+15) took place in Banjul, Gambia, in West Africa, Nov. 16-20. It featured reports on progress made towards achieving the goals adopted during the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, which was held in Beijing in 1995.

The Pan-African Women Conference 2009 was held in Sandton, South Africa, October 21-23. This yearly gathering is sponsored by Pan-African Women Projects and a network of women’s groups and organizations from around the continent.

Every year, women from the 54 African nations as well as the Diaspora participate in the PAWC. The theme of this year’s conference was “African Women Marching against Poverty.”

A statement by the event’s organizers declares, “African women have decided to fight poverty both in homes and in the continent as from the previous conferences, it was clearly understood and unanimously agreed that the primary cause of all the problems facing the African woman and Africa in general is this ugly cankerworm called POVERTY.” (

The statement points out: “Poverty has caused coups and wars in the nations of Africa. It has given birth to numerous ills including deaths, crime, prostitution and human trafficking, forced and early marriages, illiteracy, child labour and slavery, recruitment of child soldiers, etc.”

The conference was attended by more than 3,000 women from various regions. Hajia Turai Yar’Adua, first lady of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and chairperson of the Association of Wives of Heads of States/Presidents of Africa, delivered the opening address.

The keynote address was delivered by Graca Machel-Mandela, spouse of former South African President Nelson Mandela and a major figure in conflict mediation and child welfare on the continent. Eighteen presentations were delivered at the PAWC, including ministers representing women’s affairs and social development from various African states.

One of the PAWC’s highlights was the formal launching of the blueprint for a Pan-African Women’s Bank that would provide credit for development projects benefiting women and girls on the continent. In addition, the architectural design for the Pan-African Women Projects’ headquarters was unveiled by the president of the Republic of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

The Eighth Africa Regional Conference on Women (Beijing+15) met to assess progress in the ongoing struggle for gender equality and empowerment on the continent. Prior to the conference, experts met November 13-14 to discuss and prepare recommendations for the ministerial gathering that was held Nov. 16-19.

On Nov. 21, ministers of Women and Gender Affairs convened to consider numerous African Union documents related to women and gender issues, including the Women’s Trust Fund feasibility study, the African Union Commission Gender Action Plan and the Roadmap for the African Women’s Decade, slated for 2010-2020. The meeting also provided reports on the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa.

In the opening ceremony of the ministerial meeting, the director of Women, Gender and Development Directorate, Litha Musyimi-Ogana, reiterated the political commitment of the AU to gender equality and empowerment for women.

So far 27 AU member states have ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women and 30 have addressed the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa. Musyimi-Ogana, speaking on behalf of AU Commission chairperson, Jean Ping, reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to develop an African Women Trust Fund, stating that “this move will pave the way for the realization of the objectives presented in the Road Map for the African Women’s Decade and in the Decade Action Plan.” (AU press release, Nov. 21)

Julia Dolly Joiner, political affairs commissioner of the AU Commission, placed the conference within the context of the global economic crisis, saying, “We gather at a time when the financial, economic and environmental crises that the world faces together represent no other than a human rights crisis and increasingly pose a challenge to the 12-point women’s empowerment and gender equality agenda that we had set for ourselves in Beijing in 1995.” (Foroyaa Online, Nov. 24)

Joiner emphasized: “This reality is more apparent for Africa than any other part of the globe. The consequence for us is clear—we must respond to the voices of the marginalized who call on us to act in a situation where their human rights took a backseat to a globalization that swept the world into a frenzy of growth and environmental degradation. At this time of crisis, we are all called upon to be bold in thought and action, as we strive to move towards a system that is inclusive, sustainable and respectful of universal rights.”

In a major address, Monique Rakotomalala, director of the African Centre for Gender and Social Development of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, indicated that after the Beijing+15 conference several major objectives had been identified for action. One major area was maternal health and mortality, noting that women should not die anymore while giving birth.

Rakotomalala emphasized: “In the context of high food prices due to the impact of global warming, the meeting must act to ensure food security as a right for women. Action applies also to employment as it paves the way to empowerment.” She ended her address by pledging UNECA’s commitment to work with the AU in implementing the outcomes of the conference and to develop young women leaders. (AU press release, Nov. 21)

Dr. Aja Isatou Njie-Saidy, vice-president of the host nation, the Republic of Gambia, said in her conference address that participants must “review progress, analyze current challenges and plan the way forward for ensuring the advancement and empowerment of women and girls, the poor and the most marginalized members of our society.” (AU press release, Nov. 21)

Njie-Saidy stated that the African Women’s Decade 2010-2020 will provide “impetus for African women as it will provide them with the opportunity to consolidate gains made in the quest to attain gender equality and to close existing gaps that serve as barriers to the attainment of these laudable goals.” She said that the AU Fund for Women “will provide the much needed resources that women need to concretize their dreams and ambitions. Africa is on the move and the trend is irreversible.”

The resolutions from the Banjul conference will be presented to the upcoming U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, to be held in New York in March.

Two panels were convened at the Banjul conference by Women in Law and Development in Africa. One panel entitled “Women’s rights implementation in Africa: what has been achieved so far” was held on Nov. 17.

A Nov. 18 panel focused on “Women’s access to land: issues, challenges and expectations of West Africa rural women.” The panel examined issues involving women farmers and their access to land in West Africa and the need to advocate for national and local authorities to develop policies geared toward women’s sustainable access to land.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and green advocate Wangari Maathai became a United Nations Messenger of Peace with a special focus on the environment and climate change, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced last week.

Ms. Maathai of Kenya was inducted as a Messenger of Peace at a ceremony in Copenhagen, where the UN climate change conference is taking place.

“Professor Maathai’s lifetime record of environmental achievement, education and grassroot activism makes her an ideal choice,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “This award recognises her tireless work as one of the world’s most effective and persuasive advocates for a greener world, where everyday citizen actions combined with policy go hand in hand to catalyze a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient green economy so urgently needed,” he added.

Professor Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, founded the grassroots group known as the Green Belt Movement, which has planted more than 40 million trees on community lands across Africa and has worked to improve environmental conservation and reduce poverty.

The only African woman to win that award, Professor Maathai has also served as a Government minister, lawmaker, academic and women’s rights advocate over the past four decades.

Messengers of Peace are individuals widely recognized for their talents in the arts, academia, sports, entertainment and other fields who work to help raise worldwide awareness of UN ideals and activities.

“We are delighted by the Secretary General’s choice today as we know that when the Professor speaks, people listen and take note,” added Mr. Steiner. “Ms Maathai with her knowledge, experience and passion is one of the most effective and persuasive voices of the environment today.”

The other Messengers of Peace and their areas of focus include: conductor Daniel Barenboim (peace and tolerance); actor George Clooney (peacekeeping); author Paulo Coelho (poverty and intercultural dialogue); actor Michael Douglas (disarmament); primatologist Jane Goodall (conservation and environmental issues) and violinist Midori Goto (Millennium Development Goals and Youth).

Q&A: Gender Missing in Climate Agreements

AFGHANISTAN: Gov’t and Donors Fail to Protect Women’s Rights

Q&A: Three Decades of Progress for Women’s Treaty, But Many Challenges Ahead

Q&A: Africa – High On Political Empowerment, Low On Education

RIGHTS: Women’s Treaty a Powerful Force for Equality

GENDER: Zimbabwe Basket Fund Takes Off

INDIA: Mobiles For Gender Empowerment

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Women Facing Increased Risk

SOUTH AFRICA-RIGHTS: Push To Protect Sex Workers During World Cup

Q&A: India’s Anti-Women Laws Dropping from the Books



ENVIRONMENT: Tree Plantations Are Not Forests, Women Activists Say

INDIA: Towards an AIDS-Free Society, But at What Price?

PERU: Women Workers Forced into Informal Economy


In This Issue:

UNIFEM Launches Say NO – UNiTE Campaign

10th Anniversary of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women
* Secretary-General Announces Trust Fund Grants
* UNIFEM Honours HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol of Thailand
* Spanish Ministry of Equality Recognizes UNIFEM

16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence
* Latin America: First Regional Launch of UN Secretary-General’s UNiTE Campaign
* West Africa: UNiTE Campaign Launched
* Central Africa: Men and Boys Encouraged to Act against Gender-Based Violence
* Nigeria: Police Officers Trained on Violence against Women and Human Trafficking
* Publication on Trafficking and Forced Prostitution of Palestinian Women
* Timor-Leste: Gender Trainings in Remote Districts
* India: Safe Delhi for Women Initiative Announced
* Pakistan: Raising Awareness in Rural Communities
* Iceland: Marchers Throw Light on Violence against Women

UNIFEM around the World
* 30th Anniversary of CEDAW Celebrated
* 15-Year Review of the Beijing Platform for Action: Women’s Participation Necessary in Responses to Economic Crisis
* UNIFEM Formalizes Partnership with the Economic Community of the Great Lakes
* Colombia: Campaign to Prevent Harassment on Public Buses in Bogotá
* Egypt: Government Scales Up Gender Equity Certification for Private Sector
* India: UNIFEM Executive Director Signs Agreement on New Programme

Recent Speeches & Statements

Recent Publications

Current & Upcoming Events

Job Vacancies

To subscribe or see back issues go to

After suffering 10 years of horrific abuse at the hands of her husband, Rody Alvarado fled her native Guatemala in 1995 and applied for asylum in the U.S.

Last week, in a one-page decision, an immigration judge finally granted her request. It was the culmination of a long personal odyssey for Alvarado and of a thorny legal case that inflamed passions on both sides of the immigration debate.

The Obama administration now says it is crafting regulations to allow entry by other victims of domestic violence who feel they have no choice but to flee their homelands to protect themselves.

If adopted, the regulations would mark the first time the federal government formally recognized domestic abuse victims as qualifying for political asylum.

“The issue is highly complex, and we are moving ahead to develop regulations that will address these cases,” said U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler.

No details were disclosed regarding the types of cases that would warrant asylum.

In her first interview since the court decision, Alvarado told The Associated Press she is proud of paving the way for women in similar situations.

“I never lost hope,” said Alvarado, a deeply religious woman who left behind two young children when she fled Guatemala. “God never abandoned me.”

Domestic violence claims are controversial in the fight for asylum. Currently, nearly all asylum applications allege persecution by a government rather than an individual. In addition, successful asylum applicants have to show they were persecuted because of religion, political beliefs, race, nationality or membership in a particular social group.

Advocacy groups and politicians calling for tighter borders complain that expanding asylum protection to domestic violence victims would distort the intent of refugee policy and open the borders to increased immigration.

“How are asylum authorities going to substantiate these claims when we know that domestic violence in this country can be a complicated thing,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the advocacy group Federation for American Immigration Reform. “This is getting us into personal relationships, and that’s not where asylum law ought to go.”

Mehlman said his organization opposed expanding the asylum law, which was created in 1980 largely as a means for Communist Bloc citizens to defect while visiting the U.S. in a diplomatic role. Backers of the law at the time estimated that claims would average around 5,000 a year and drop off significantly after the Cold War ended.

In fiscal year 2008, the government received 47,459 asylum claims and granted 10,743 — a decrease over the previous year’s 54,957 applications and 12,807 approvals.

Immigration attorneys insist that asylum applications won’t spike if the administration expands protection to battered women.

Alvarado’s lawyer Karen Musalo, who runs the University of California, Hastings Law School’s Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, predicted few domestic violence victims would apply for asylum.

She said it is difficult for such women to flee their countries, and once in the U.S. they still have a high legal burden to win asylum.

Musalo said immigration numbers remained the same after women fleeing countries that practice genital mutilation won formal asylum protection in 1996.

In Alvarado’s case, Musalo presented testimony from several experts and other evidence showing women in Guatemala faced persecution on several levels and that law enforcement officials and the judiciary offer no protection to domestic violence victims.

“The overwhelming evidence is that it is widely, generally and almost unanimously accepted that abuse against women in Guatemala is considered normal and is absolutely tolerated,” Musalo said.

Alvarado said in court papers her physical, mental and sexual abuse began soon after she married a former military man when she was 16. Her husband pistol-whipped her, routinely beat her, and kicked her in the spine to abort her second pregnancy, she said.

He also tracked her down and beat her after she fled several times to other areas of Guatemala, threatening to kill her each time. He once beat her into unconsciousness in front of her two children.

She was so desperate and fearful that she fled to Brownsville, Texas, without her children. She said she was stopped by a Border Patrol official but allowed to proceed after promising to report to an immigration office. She boarded a flight to San Francisco because it was the destination of other Guatemalans traveling with her.

She randomly met a native Guatemalan awaiting the arrival of her daughter-in-law. The woman invited Alvarado to spend the night, and she ended up staying with the family for two years.

“I believe in guardian angels,” Alvarado said in the interview, as Musalo interpreted.

Still, Alvarado said her legal victory is bittersweet. She has not seen her children since she left her native country. Her son is now 22 and her daughter 17. They speak on the telephone occasionally, but the relationship is estranged.

The children were raised by their father’s parents and do not understand why she left.

See aso: Asylum in US for survivors of domestic violence

The continued failure of the Senate to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 18, 1979, deprives women in the US of the full protection of their rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“For 30 years, this treaty has helped women around the world secure basic rights and equal status,” said Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s way past time for the US to come on board. President Obama promised he’d push for ratification, and it’s time for the administration and the Senate to deliver on that commitment.”

The treaty has been ratified by 186 countries. Only the United States, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Palau, Nauru, and Tonga have not ratified it. President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty in 1980, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has twice voted favorably on the treaty, but the full US Senate has never voted on it, due in part to scheduling difficulties. To advance the process, President Obama should publicly press the Senate to begin considering the treaty and the Senate should schedule hearings and move toward a vote, Human Rights Watch said.

Ratification would provide a powerful new tool to address areas in which women in the US face discrimination. The treaty outlines government responsibilities to eliminate discrimination in all spheres, including the workplace, where US women currently earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men and have no legal guarantee of paid parental leave. Joining CEDAW would also mean that the US government would periodically review progress made on issues like violence against women and participate in a dialogue with a UN committee of experts on ways to improve policies and programs.

Human Rights Watch said that ratifying the treaty would also boost US efforts to improve the status of women internationally by adding to US credibility as a global leader on women’s rights and by lending US support to the treaty’s standards of non-discrimination.

“Too many women in the US struggle with discrimination in the workplace, bias in health insurance, and official indifference to domestic violence,” Rhoad said. “Ratifying this treaty can help ensure that important progress on women’s rights over the past decades will continue. There is no excuse for inaction on this issue.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the backlog of untested DNA evidence in rape cases across the nation should move the United States closer to addressing the issue, Human Rights Watch said. Thousands of sets of evidence, called “rape kits,” sit untested in police and crime lab storage facilities, Human Rights Watch said.

The hearing, chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy, follows recent news reports highlighting the national scope of the rape kit backlog, including approximately 12,500 untested kits in Los Angeles; 10,000 in Detroit; 6,000 in San Diego; and 4,000 in Houston.

“This hearing should serve as a wake-up call that rape victims need federal action to help them find justice,” said Sarah Tofte, researcher with the US program at Human Rights Watch. “Victims across the country wait in vain for justice while the evidence in their cases sits untested.”

Every year, nearly 200,000 individuals report to the police that they have been raped. Almost all are asked to submit to the collection of DNA evidence from their bodies, which is then stored in a small package called a rape kit. The process is invasive, sometimes traumatic, and takes four to six hours to complete. But the potential benefits are enormous: testing the DNA evidence in a rape kit can identify an unknown perpetrator; confirm the presence of a known assailant; corroborate the victim’s account of the rape; and exonerate innocent suspects.

In 2004, Congress passed legislation to address the rape kit backlog. The Debbie Smith Act, named after a rape victim whose case was adversely affected by the backlog, was intended to provide grant money to states for rape kit testing, but its intentions have not been realized. As written, the law permits using money from the program for any DNA testing, not just for testing rape kits. The result is that some grantees have not used their funding to test rape kits, or at all, even though they have large backlogs.

In March 2009, Human Rights Watch reporting revealed a backlog of more than 12,500 untested rape kits in Los Angeles Police and Sheriff Department facilities, although those agencies had received nearly $8 million in Debbie Smith Act funds from 2005 to 2008. In October, the Detroit Police Department reported that it had as many as 10,000 untested rape kits in its storage facilities; it has never applied for Debbie Smith Act funds. Because no federal or state laws require law enforcement agencies to account for the number of untested rape kits in their storage facilities, there are no current comprehensive data on the number of untested rape kits in the United States.

“We hear from rape victims, treatment providers, and law enforcement agencies across the country who believe that Congress needs to increase its efforts to help eliminate the rape kit backlog,” said Tofte. “It’s up to Congress to provide the necessary incentives and support so that every booked rape kit is tested, and DNA evidence is used whenever appropriate to bring offenders to justice.”

The Senate hearing should include a discussion of the Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009. The bipartisan legislation, introduced by Senators Al Franken (D-MN), Charles Grassley (R-IA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), would require the federal government to collect data on untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities and prioritize testing this evidence in federal DNA funding programs. There is companion legislation in the House, introduced by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Representative Dean Heller (R-NV).

The bill would:

    * Require states receiving Debbie Smith Act funds to develop and implement a plan to eliminate their rape kit backlogs;
    * Require applicants for Debbie Smith Act funds to specify the portion of the funds they will use to test rape kits;
    * Establish a system of financial incentives to encourage state and local governments to take aggressive steps to eliminate their rape kit backlogs;
    * Create incentives to ensure timely processing of rape kits;
    * Require every jurisdiction to report annually the number of untested rape kits in its possession to the National Institute of Justice, which will deliver annual reports on the rape kit backlog to Congress and the states.

Three decades ago, the relatives of an eleven-year-old Native girl in Minnesota forced her to have sex with a man in exchange for alcohol. The story was not front-page news. It was not the subject of a feature-length film with a happy ending. No one intervened. But when she turned eighteen, the police started paying attention. She was arrested and convicted over twenty times for prostitution. Her parents’ addiction became her own, and she entered treatment dozens of times.

At an early age, the girl became one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Native American children and women forced into prostitution in Minnesota, falling under the radar of social services, the community, and the media.

“If it was a bunch of white, blonde hair, blue-eyed girls, believe me, there would be an end to this,” said Vednita Carter, executive director of Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based nonprofit serving women involved in prostitution.

In September, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center became the first organization in the state to release a report about the widespread trafficking of Native women. The agency hopes its effort will draw attention and funding to Native victims of sexual exploitation.

Advocates say the report’s findings cast little doubt that the situation has already become a crisis. In a sample of 95 Native women seeking services from the resource center, 40 percent reported being the victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

Sixty percent of the women surveyed entered prostitution or pornography before the age of 18. And about one-fifth had been sexually exploited before their thirteenth birthday. When the girls become adults, the exploitation often continues. They remain in prostitution, but the law often no longer views them as victims, but as criminals.

The 126-page report, called Shattered Hearts, written by research scientist Alexandra Pierce, focuses on women who live outside of reservations. The report compiles statistics, identifies flaws in the legal system, draws parallels to the historic exploitation of Native people, and makes dozens of suggestions about how to address the problem. Pierce incorporated the Resource Center’s own studies, interviews with social service workers, and available government data.

“To me, it’s an emotional issue; it’s a financial issue; it’s a justice issue; it’s a human rights issue,” said Suzanne Koepplinger, the Resource Center’s executive director.

Although the legal system treats prostitution and trafficking differently, the report often uses the terms interchangeably, as many advocates believe that prostitution can never be considered fully consensual. The prostituted woman is the true victim of the crime, they argue.

“There’s a general acceptance that prostitution is a lifestyle choice, when it’s actually a federal crime against women,” Koepplinger said.

The report found that Native women have been disproportionally impacted by sexual exploitation. For example, Native American women make up about 25 percent of all women on probation in Hennepin County for prostitution-related offenses, according to data from 2007. But Native women represent only 2.2 percent of the county’s population.

Some of the reasons for the staggering numbers are clear. Native Americans have the state’s highest rates of homelessness, poverty, and alcoholism – what many call the legacy of hundreds of years of colonialism. But the report also argues that generational trauma plays a role. White settlers repeatedly raped, tortured, and murdered Native women over hundreds of years, treating their bodies as disposable and worthless.

In one account from the 1860s, a white rancher describes a government attack on the Cheyenne: “I heard one man say that he had cut out a woman’s private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick…I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over the saddle-bows and wore them over their hats while riding in the ranks.”

Other more recent practices, including the involuntary sterilization of Native women and the Indian Adoption Project (which removed Native children from their homes), added to the collective trauma, the report says.

“There’s been so much violence and destruction of families because of colonization,” said Nicole Matthews, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition.

In Minnesota, advocates say that Native women have been prostituted onto ships in the Duluth harbor for generations, although local law enforcement say that they have not noticed any trafficking since harbor security was ramped up after 9/11.

“Girls have conversations with their mothers about their time, when the mothers were working on the boats,” one advocate said during a round-table discussion conducted as part of the report. “Many of the girls were conceived out of working on the boats.”

These historical experiences leave Native women psychologically vulnerable to exploitation, the report says. Once women enter into prostitution, they are less likely to ask for help, as violence against women may seem normal.

Advocates say that many Native communities have also normalized sexual exploitation. Although data is limited, the fact that Native women are often exploited in childhood suggests that Native men play a significant role in their abuse. In many close-knit Native communities, women may have difficulty speaking out.

“It’s a very difficult issue because it’s a very painful issue,” Koepplinger said. “But not talking about it hasn’t helped us.”

An advocate who was interviewed anonymously as part of the report said that when she has tried to talk about sexual violence with members of her Native community, “Some of the elders don’t appreciate that.”

Another participants agreed, saying, “Oh, I know, I know. I was ‘that nasty girl who talks nasty.’”

If the girls don’t find help before they turn eighteen, the legal system takes over, often criminalizes their abuse, and fails to effectively stop sex trafficking, advocates say. But disagreement exists among both advocates and law enforcement about the best intervention methods.

“Police get a hold of them first,” said Linda Miller, executive director of Civil Society, a non-profit that provides legal and other assistance to trafficking victims. “They’ve declared that they’re not going to look beneath the surface.”

But St. Paul Police spokesperson Paul Schnell points to the federally funded Gerald D. Vick Human Trafficking Task Force, a police-led effort to coordinate services for victims of trafficking. The police department trains officers to recognize signs of human trafficking when they approach criminal situations.

However, many women are distrustful of law enforcement, and Schnell acknowledges that police officers frequently arrest women engaged in prostitution.

“In the moment, a case may become a case, “ he said. “But over the course of time and doing that investigation via prosecution or defense counsel, there are different places where there can be interventions to address the trafficking issues.”

Carter, of Breaking Free, said that St. Paul police officers have been increasingly receptive to treating prostitutes as victims. More police officers are bringing women directly to Breaking Free instead of jail, she said.

Nonetheless, arrests continue, and advocates say that a prostitution conviction – or even an arrest – can prevent a woman from ever having a decent job or housing.

“Not many women want to spend the rest of their lives saying that they engaged in prostitution,” Miller said.

Minnesota law does provide some additional legal protection to victims of sex trafficking. While the federal definition of trafficking requires that traffickers use “force, fraud, or coercion,” state laws say that a person can never consent to being sexually exploited. Under state law, anyone who had been prostituted by others is considered a trafficking victim.

Part of a longer article that you can read in full at

It’s a subject seldom addressed publicly in the Palestinian territories, but for the first time, a report is lifting the veil on the taboo topic of female trafficking and forced prostitution – and calling for action to stop it.

Trafficking and forced prostitution in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza operate on a small-scale basis, rather than being part of a sophisticated and organized activity, the report found. But the two practices are also frequent and widespread — and the women and girls involved have few means of escape.

The 26-page report, released last week and titled “Trafficking and Forced Prostitution of Palestinian Women and Girls: Forms of Modern Day Slavery”, was researched and written by SAWA, a nonprofit Palestinian group that combats violence against women. SAWA received support for the report from UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, which is making the report available online.

Getting information for the report — which was completed in June 2008 but published only now — was difficult because of the stigma suffered by the victims and the sensitivity of the subject within Palestinian society, SAWA said.

Explaining the delay between completing the research and publishing the report, UNIFEM spokesman Julien Vaissier said it took a long time to analyze the data from the field, and staff in Gaza were also forced in January of this year to turn their attention to victims of the fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.

“Dating [the report] 2009 would have been misleading, because the data was collected in 2008,” he said.

“It was hard for us to publish it, and it took us a long time to decide how, whom and why, because of the situation and the sensitivity of the subject,” SAWA representative Jalal Khader added.

The report found that unemployment and poverty play a major role in pushing girls and women into prostitution and making them vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers.

Most of the women have also been “violently abused by their families, especially their fathers,” the report found. The trafficked women who spoke to researchers said they had been “battered continuously” at home, then forced into marriage, often facing further violence at the hands of their husbands.

The situation is no better if the trafficked women and girls are accompanied by pimps or madams, who threaten the girls with violence if they refuse sex with clients. In one case, a trafficker called “W” threatened to inform a girl’s family if she tried to escape and to disseminate embarrassing pictures of her engaged in sexual activity.

Researchers found no studies or reports on the issue, just local newspaper reports on specific cases, SAWA said. They did manage to conduct 11 face-to-face interviews with “informants,” or Palestinians willing to speak out about the problem. Those included police officers, victims’ lawyers, taxi drivers and hotel owners.

Field researchers also managed to conduct in-person interviews with three trafficked women and included their case studies in the report.

SAWA said its groundbreaking report is not meant as a comprehensive study, but rather an initial step in identifying the problem.

“For the first time, people have chosen to break the silence and speak out, and this briefing paper can be seen as a first step to start answering the need for protecting women and girl victims of trafficking and forced prostitution in the [occupied Palestinian territories],” the report says.

If the victimized women somehow escape their situations, they face further problems on several fronts. The report found there are few social networks or shelter houses to which they can turn, that they may be ostracized by their communities and families, and that the law may treat them as criminals.

The first case study in the report is of a 23-year-old married mother of three from Jerusalem. A Palestinian, she says her father used to abuse her violently on a daily basis, tightening a belt around her neck until she fainted, then forcing her to live in the basement for days without food.

After the woman’s father forced her into marriage at 16, her husband raped her on their wedding night, then continued to beat her, she said.

She ran away from home and met two men who promised her shelter and employment in Israel — but instead, when she got there, she was kept in a house and forced to be a prostitute, she said.

When she once refused to sleep with a client, the woman said her pimp called her father, who took her home and hit her violently until she fainted. She now lives at a safe house, the report said.

In another case, a field researcher overheard two women talking in the front seat of a public taxi on the way from Jerusalem to the West Bank city of Ramallah. The woman told her friend she was unable to obtain a birth certificate for a baby fathered by one of her former clients at a brothel.

The woman said she was forced to leave the brothel after becoming pregnant and now didn’t know what to do: “I went to the social services in Jerusalem, but they could not help me either,” she was overheard as saying.

A lack of willingness by law enforcement to investigate these cases and prosecute the traffickers — along with criminalizing the victims’ behavior — only compounds the problem, the report said.

The Palestinian territories use a hodgepodge of laws applicable to different areas, which also makes it difficult to take action, the report said.

The report calls on Palestinian governmental organizations to draft new legislation guaranteeing that girls and women are treated as victims of crime and not as offenders, and referring to forced prostitution as sexual violence.

It also urges civil groups to document cases of forced prostitution and trafficking for sexual purposes and to push the government to change the law.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, harboring or receipt of people by force, coercion, fraud or abuse of power. Traffickers seek to exploit their victims for sexual purposes, forced labor or removal of organs, SAWA said.

To download the report in either English or Arabic go to

SAWA website at

Women’s economic marginalization and vulnerability to violence is hindering development in the Arab world, UN and civil society officials said last week.

Launching the Arabic version of the “World Survey on the Role of Women in Development” at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), representatives said increasing women’s access to resources would have positive implications for social and economic development. The report, published every five years by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, was originally published in English in October.

“The Arab woman is still incapable of being equal to men,” said Afaf Omer, head of the ESCWA Center for Women. “Women in the Arab world cannot help society improve unless they enjoy their full rights.”

However, women in the Middle East “still lack any understanding” of the rights to which they are entitled under international law, she said.

Omer noted that while the economic participation of Arab women has risen steadily in recent years, it still lags behind the rest of the world. In Lebanon, women count for 26 percent of the total labor force, an improvement of only one percent since 2000, the UN has said.

According to ESCWA’s report “Women’s Control over Economic Resources and Access to Financial Resources”, released in August 2009, “this [lack of participation] is primarily attributable to the existence of discriminatory laws, failure to implement the non-discriminatory legislation that does exist and a lack of awareness by women of their rights in such matters.”

Lebanon, which signed and ratified the UN Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, maintains reservations on Articles 9, 16, and 29, which pertain to citizenship, family law and the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to settle disputes concerning the convention’s application.

No Arab states, however, have reservations on Articles 10-14 of CEDAW, pertaining to eliminating discrimination in education, employment, health care and economic and social rights. Still, the UN has found a 27 percent wage difference exists between male and female employees aged over 30 in Lebanon, and discrimination against unmarried women workers in terms of sick leave.

Lebanese women-led small enterprises received only 17 percent of the loans of formal institutions in 2006, compared to 47 percent in Tunisia or 32 percent in the United Arab Emirates, the United Nations World Survey said.

Domestic violence is also impeding progress on women’s rights in Lebanon, said Zoya Rouhana of the civil society group KAFA: Enough Violence and Exploitation.

According to 2002 estimates from the United Nations Population Fund, around 35 percent of Lebanese women have experienced physical violence, although KAFA says the figure is closer to 75 percent.

“This year is the 30th anniversary of CEDAW … but most Arab countries have not synchronized their laws” with the convention, often touted as an international bill of rights for women, she said.

The Lebanese penal code has no specific laws relating to domestic violence and does not criminalize marital rape.

“Our laws must reflect the changes that have taken place in our households and amongst [Arab] women,” Rouhana said.