Archive for May, 2010

Haitian women’s rights activists are still living in tents and cars, and mourning the loss of three leaders in the January earthquake. They are also organizing. A loose-knit coalition hopes to rebuild a more women-centered Haiti.

A loose-knit coalition of 106 organizations called Femmes Citoyennes Haiti Solidaire, or Women Citizens Haiti United, has emerged from the devastation of the January earthquake to lobby for women’s advancement during the recovery efforts.

Part of their inspiration comes from wanting to carry on for three leaders lost in the disaster, according to phone interviews with Haitian women’s advocates on the ground and experts who closely follow Haiti in the United States.

The activists have no office but are managing to reach each other through e-mail and text messages, according to Martine Fourcand, a sociologist and activist who handles the group’s communication. The coalition formed on March 19, but continues to attract longstanding organizations to its membership.

Souerette Policar Montjoie is president of Lig Pouva Fanm, a women’s leadership organization in Port-au-Prince that joined the coalition.

“We have a lot of things to say and Haitian women are very strong,” she told Women’s eNews in a phone interview. “But in Haiti, the position of men is higher than women. We want men to know that we can put our hands together. They don’t have to fight us.”

Women Citizens Haiti United members range from a collective of female university students to a network of women working in rural community organizations. Members represent an array of special projects: curbing domestic and sexual violence, as well as improving women’s access to credit, job training and education.

In the past three months organizers have met with the prime minister of Haiti and helped members coordinate with U.N. aid officers in the country. They want women to participate in all major decision bodies–local governments, municipalities and ministries. They intend to build a Haiti where women no longer suffer high levels of sexual violence and marginalization at home and in the paid work force.

In Haiti women have not been as important as men, said Montjoie. “Now we are living without electricity and water and wondering if we’ll see the end of this.”

One of the group’s most urgent goals is pushing for women’s security in the camps and streets. Organizers are preparing a guide for urban development that envisions spaces with well-lit streets and safe places for women to meet.

In the longer term, the activists hope to form partnerships with women’s movements in other countries.

“There is an amazing initiative taking place by leading women in Haiti from all levels, from rural women to the regional and national level,” said Caroyln Rose-Avila, vice president of policy and engagement at Plan USA, a nonprofit in Warick, R.I., and the third largest charity working in Haiti. “Haiti lost three well-known women in the earthquake and there is a massive grassroots movement in honor of them.”

Magalie Marcelin opened Haiti’s first shelter for battered women; she was among the roughly 300,000 killed in the earthquake.

Myriam Merlet, chief of staff for Haiti’s Ministry for Gender and the Rights of Women, and Anne Marie Coriolan, who worked in the courts to criminalize rape, which was treated as a crime of passion before 2005, were also killed by the disaster.

“These women were trailblazers in many regards,” said Marie Clotilde Charlot, a longtime women’s rights activist who works as a lead portfolio monitoring specialist for the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C.

One in 16 Haitian women faces the chance of dying during childbirth during their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization, and almost a quarter of girls and teens are married before age 18.

The earthquake has worsened maternal mortality and early marriage, and the escape of prisoners from the national penitentiary has made women more vulnerable to sexual violence. More than a million people are now homeless in Haiti, according to the United Nations.

Women make up more than 75 percent of Haiti’s informal economy and provide most of the labor for subsistence agriculture. They also often take responsibility for meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in society, such as orphaned children, the elderly and the disabled.

After the earthquake, these responsibilities have intensified, said Sarah Degnan Kambou, chief operating officer of the International Center for Research on Women in Washington, D.C.

“Women have already mobilized themselves in a hundred different ways–putting extra food in the pot . . . working in informal associations to provide for each other and their families,” she said.

Kambou believes Haiti can draw lessons from Rwanda’s reconstruction after the genocide in 1994. Rwanda’s economy grew at a pace of over 11 percent in 2008, according to the World Bank, and has greatly expanded its health and education sectors since 1994. Fifty- six percent of parliamentarians in the country are women, according to the United Nations Fund for Women. Rwanda’s 2003 constitution requires that at least 30 percent of parliamentary and cabinet seats go to women.

After the genocide, women created institutions to reconstruct Rwanda and to prosecute perpetrators of the genocide. Rwanda was the first country to have a parliament where women outnumber men.

“There was still so much tension, but women were willing to sit down and struggle with how do we move forward,” Kambou said. “They put aside deep, personal pain and fear. This is one of the reasons why Rwanda is so successful now. There is inclusion of women from the bottom-up, and it is built into the constitution and political leadership.”

During a large donor conference in March, representatives from almost 140 countries came to the United Nations to raise over $5 billion for the country’s reconstruction.

But across the street, advocates from international agencies and community organizations worried aloud that women’s special needs were being left out.

“Women should not be an afterthought,” said Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American writer, at the meeting. “We hope the reconstruction will have opportunities for women and girls at all levels. If we stay silent, too many voices will be left out of this conversation.”

Women from the diaspora, such as 24-year-old Antoineta Beltifi, are also joining the effort to make Haiti better for women in the reconstruction process.

In New York City, Beltifi runs workshops for young and elderly Haitian women in the Beltifi Empowerment Committee, a local community organization. Since the earthquake, it has partnered with the nearby Haitian Cultural Exchange to aid traumatized children who have left Haiti after the earthquake by providing art therapy programs, such as theater and dance.

“The diaspora can start changing the lives of women abroad immediately,” said Beltifi. “Women are at the center of this. And women need to take a firmer stance to rebuild from within themselves.”

Charlot, from the Inter-Development American Bank, worries however about the odds facing resurgent women’s rights activism.

“The earthquake and chaos that it has caused have propelled women and their issues to the forefront of Haiti’s recovery and reconstruction debate,” she said, but added that the country’s woes may be too great for any movement, particularly one whose members are traumatized.

“I have friends–activists, professionals–who are still sleeping in their cars,” she said.

Decriminalisation of New Zealand’s sex industry has resulted in safer, healthier sex workers, a new book by University of Otago, Christchurch, researcher Gillian Abel shows.

Since decriminalisation seven years ago sex workers are more empowered to insist on safe sex, Abel’s book “Taking the crime out of sex work – New Zealand sex workers’ fight for decriminalisation’’ shows.

Abel is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago, Christchurch’s Public Health and General Practice department.

She edited the book with Lisa Fitzgerald (a former Otago University, Christchurch, health promotion lecturer) and Catherine Healy (with Aline Taylor).

They interviewed 772 sex workers for the book.

Abel says the book provides compelling evidence decriminalisation has achieved the aim of addressing sex workers’ human rights and has had a positive effect on their health and safety.

Decriminalisation has also provided sex workers with more tools to manage their work environment. With knowledge of their employment rights, brothel workers are better able to assert these rights with brothel operators and clients, Abel says.

The relationship between sex workers – particularly street workers – and police has improved, the book shows.

They are more likely to report violence against them to police, Abel says.

Despite vast improvements in the safety of sex workers since decriminalisation, there is still work to be done, she says.

There is still stigma associated with the job.

Government social policies need to be improved to protect those aged under 18 entering sex work, such as freeing up access to the independent youth benefit. Likewise, greater support is needed for transgender youth, who are particularly vulnerable to being drawn into the industry, Abel says.

The book can be bought from

For further information contact:

Gillian Abel.
University of Otago, Christchurch
Tel: 03 3643619 / 021 337 240

Or Kim Thomas, Senior Communications Advisor
University of Otago, Christchurch
027 222 6016.

28th May [2010] is the 49th anniversary of Peter Benenson’s launch of Amnesty International. But as the organization begins planning celebrations, Gita Sahgal asks whether Amnesty International’s leaders have lost their grip on reality. Do sections of the human rights movement lend their credibility to protecting Islamists rather than protecting their rights?

In an article in openDemocracy today, she says that the leadership’s reports to Amnesty International’s Executive Committee contain no mention of Moazzam Begg, Cageprisoners or her dispute with the leadership. She says, ‘Amnesty International cannot provide a coherent account of what has happened so they have chosen to provide no account at all. The Executive Committee appears to be asking no questions and the membership have been provided with no answers.’

Recalling Peter Benenson’s statement that Amnesty works against oblivion, she says ‘ If Amnesty International does not stop covering up and start cleaning up, others will have to do it for them.’ She calls on all those who want to restore integrity to human rights to campaign with her.

As a tribute to the campaigning of the global women’s movement and the many people who signed the Global Petition to Amnesty International to Restore the Integrity of Rights, Amnesty International has launched an internal review. The review cannot substitute for the urgent need for Amnesty International’s leadership to provide answers, particularly as the reviewers are not tasked to look at any of the allegations. Since the managers have ignored all questions posed to them, please write to the reviewers at with a copy to urging them to call on the leadership to provide answers to the questions posed to them. In particular they must make public:

1. What investigations did Amnesty International undertake when they developed a relationship with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners? What was their analysis of that relationship? Why was expert advice consistently ignored?

2. What investigation did they undertake after Gita Sahgal went public? On what basis did they decide that Begg and Cageprisoners were suitable partners?

3. Please explain why Amnesty International believes that the violent enforcement of systematic discrimination ( defensive jihad) does not constitute the destruction of fundamental human rights. What external experts were called on to provide this advice?

Call on Amnesty International’s sections to:

1. Announce to their staff that there will be no reprisals if they sign the Global Petition (

2. Organise debates on these important issues so that members can contribute to developing criteria for membership consistent with upholding the universality of rights

In March 2010, Women’s human rights defender and WLUML council member, Shadi Sadr, took the extraordinary step of dedicating her International Women of Courage Award to Shiva Nazar Ahari, a young human rights activist and a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters (CHRR), currently imprisoned in Iran for ‘acts against national security’. Sadr refrained from attending the award ceremony in the U.S. in the hope that her absence would draw the international community’s attention to Nazar Ahari’s dire situation, urging the audience in a speech recorded for the event that “any measures available to you [be taken] to help to free Shiva along with other human rights activists and journalists in Iranian prisons”. According to Nazar Ahari’s mother, she will be brought to trial at Revolutionary Court No. 26 on Sunday 23 May. The offences she is being accused of carry severe penalties.

Please follow this link to read more about the case being brought against WHRD Nazar Ahari and find out what action you can take:

Women Living Under Muslim Laws
International Solidarity Network

When she is sworn in as prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar says she will bring the same kind of care and attention to governing Trinidad and Tobago that she has devoted to her own family.

“I will lead a government of compassion. As a mother and grandmother, I will not let you down,” she told supporters, after voters here made history by electing the twin-island state’s first woman head of government.

The general election, called by outgoing Prime Minister Patrick Manning, came more than two years ahead of the constitutional deadline.

“We believe in democracy. The people have spoken and we accept the results and I take full responsibility for it,” Manning said, adding, “I wish the first female prime minister well.”

What a year it has been so far for the 58-year-old Persad-Bissessar, an attorney who guided an amalgam of five opposition political parties and trade unions to an overwhelming victory over the incumbent People’s National Movement (PNM) – taking 29 of the 41 seats in Parliament.

In February, she became the first woman to hold the post of opposition leader, one month after she ousted the leader of the main opposition United National Congress (UNC), Basdeo Panday, in a bruising campaign in which she was portrayed as everything from a drunk to a weak leader.

Now she joins the late Dame Eugenia Charles of Dominica, Janet Jagan of Guyana and Portia Simpson Miller of Jamaica who have headed governments in their respective Caribbean countries.

“As prime minister-elect of our great republic of Trinidad and Tobago, let me say how overwhelmed I am, humbled to deliver the government of Trinidad and Tobago to you,” she said after Manning conceded defeat.

Persad-Bissessar has promised an end to the nation’s divisive ethnic politics, saying, “We will all rise. Every creed and race will find an equal space and place.”

She said that the main task of the People’s Partnership would be to stabilise the economy, rebuild society and restore trust in the government.

“My immediate goal will be to introduce greater transparency and accountability in government and to ensure that our oil and gas wealth is truly used for the development of our nation and our people,” said Persad-Bissessar.

The Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women (The Network) called her victory “well deserved” and predicted it would forever change the political landscape of the oil-rich republic.

“We are looking forward to more inclusive government, one that takes the voices and needs of the people in decision-making. The election has demonstrated that it is not just enough to tell politicians that we have elected you, go and govern,” Dr. Kris Rampersad, the international relations director of The Network, told IPS.

She said that the inclusive campaign style of Persad-Bissessar was both a victory for women and “for the entire country”.

“As we welcome our first female prime minister we believe she will bring to the office those qualities that are stereotyped as female qualities but which have been definitely lacking in our politics and governance,” Rampersad said.

In the 2007 general election, The Network said it was encouraged by the number of women who not only participated in the electoral process, but were actually elected to Parliament and also served as ministers in the Manning government.

In the last election campaign, there were more than 25 women candidates.

Persad-Bissessar has said that she will choose a “capable and competent” cabinet “without fear or favour” and is also promising to lead a “consultative government of compassion”.

Political analyst Dr. Indira Rampersad described the victory as a “tidal wave”, noting that the voters have made a strong statement.

“But she will be under intense scrutiny. The focus now will be on her and her performance,” said Rampersad.

The former deputy speaker of the Trinidad and Tobago parliament, Penelope Beckles, agreed, saying that how Persad-Bissessar administers the affairs of the new government will be most important.

Finance Minister Karen Nunez Tesheira, who was among the casualties of the May 24 general election, said Persad-Bissessar would need to implement her agenda without getting bogged down in the historical position of being the first woman prime minister.

“I think at the end of the day, it is how good you are,” said Nunez Tesheira, who herself was appointed the first female finance minister when the PNM won the 2007 general election.

Political scientist Prof. Selwyn Ryan said the People’s Partnership, the coalition which Persad-Bissessar led into the election, “best suits the political and economic circumstances in which we find ourselves at this juncture”.

“It is time for a change. We need to open up the political system and consider other governance options. We also need to lay to rest the ghost of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (that in 1986 inflicted the first defeat on the 54-year-old PNM, but later collapsed due to internal fighting), and the fear of coalitions which it has left us,” Ryan said.

Despite the crushing defeat, Manning – whose party went from holding 26 seats to 12 – insists that his view on coalition governments “still stands and only time will tell” whether it will collapse.

This is the second time in 15 years that Manning has gambled on a snap election and lost. In 1995, his government was removed from power, ushering in the first Indo-Trinidadian as a head of government.

He has hinted that this latest defeat could signal the end of his 40 years in public life, telling dispirited supporters on Monday night, “The best decision will be taken in the interest of PNM.”

Mrs Longhitano says Catholicism is crippled without women A married teacher has become the first woman priest to be ordained in Italy.

Maria Vittoria Longhitano, 35, who belongs to a breakaway faction of the Catholic Church, received the holy orders at an Anglican church in Rome.

She belongs to the Italian Old Catholic Church, a congregation that broke away from Roman Catholicism in the 19th Century.

While the Vatican is opposed to women priests, other Christian groups have long accepted female clergy.

Mrs Longhitano, who will now be known as Mother Longhitano, said she hoped to break down what she described as prejudice in the Roman Catholic church.

“We are talking about an extremely hierarchical system; a male caste with a strong instinct of self-preservation,” she said.

“And this is why there is this general attitude against ordaining women in the Church.”

The Roman Catholic Church says it obeys the directives of Jesus Christ, whose 12 Apostles were all men.

The BBC’s Duncan Kennedy in Rome says some commentators have argued that having more women in the Church may have helped prevent the priest child-abuse scandal of recent years.

Having women ordained in Italy from a fringe Catholic group will not be as divisive as women bishops has been in the Anglican communion, our correspondent says.

For now, its impact is likely to be more symbolic than anything more profound, he adds.

Armed with a search warrant from Chief Superintendent Peter Magwenzi, Detective Inspector Chibvuma, on Friday evening led a team of police officers to search for dangerous drugs and pornographic material at the GALZ offices in Harare’s Milton Park. The police arrested two GALZ employees Ellen Chademana and Ignatius Muhambi, who were detained at Harare Central Police Station on Friday and were still in police custody Saturday.

The police accused GALZ of contravening Section 157 (1) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act Chapter 9:23 and Section 32 (1) of the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act Chapter 10:04 by allegedly keeping pornographic material and dangerous drugs. Although two lawyers from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) representing the two GALZ workers, had by Saturday not yet ascertained how much material was taken by the police, various computers and some documents were seized by the police during the raid.

ZLHR lawyers Dzimbabwe Chimbga and David Hofisi attended at Harare Central Police Station on Friday evening, but police remained adamant that the two GALZ employees would be detained despite complaints from Chademana about her diabetic condition. On Saturday the police refused to allow the lawyers access to their clients. It remained unclear what charges would be preferred against the two GALZ employees but lawyers said they would continue to make attendances at Harare Central Police Station.

President Robert Mugabe’s government has a history of harassing lesbians and gays. In the past President Mugabe has attacked homosexuality, which he has described as foreign to African culture. He once described homosexuals as “worse than dogs and pigs” when they attempted to assert their rights. Last week a Malawian Judge sentenced a gay couple Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza to a maximum of 14 years in prison with hard labor under Malawi’s anti-gay legislation. The case has drawn international condemnation and sparked a debate on human rights in this conservative southern African country.

Meanwhile the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (SAMWU) condemned leaders of Malawi, Zimbabwe and Uganda for their anti-gay stance. “SAMWU has become increasingly concerned by the homophobic utterances of several national leaders on the continent over the last few years. Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Museveni in Uganda and a few others have made intolerable comments about the rights of consenting adults to engage in a same sex relationship. One has to ask what is it exactly that irks these ‘revolutionary’ leaders? What are they afraid of? However, recent events in Malawi have surpassed even these levels of ignorance and prejudice,” Tahir Sema, SAMWU national spokesperson told The Zimbabwean in Johannesburg.

“We call upon the SADC countries and the African Union to disassociate themselves from the judgement that has been made in Malawi, and further to urge the immediate release of the two individuals concerned, for all charges to be dropped, and for a complete review of colonial homophobic legislation. We also call for an end to police and media harassment of minorities that serves no purpose but to encourage division and misery. This is the very least that should be done at this time. Homosexuality exists in all of our societies. It is a reality, however difficult it is for some to accept this simple fact.”

A Malawi gay couple were sentenced to the maximum 14 years in prison with hard labour for holding the country’s first same-sex wedding, which landed them with a sodomy conviction.

Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza were arrested on December 28 after their symbolic wedding and accused of violating “the order of nature”. They have been in jail ever since.

Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi and most other African countries.

“I sentence you to 14 years imprisonment with hard labour each,” magistrate Nyakwawa Usiwa Usiwa told the two men in a courtroom in the commercial capital Blantyre.

“I will give you a scaring sentence so that the public be protected from people like you so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example,” the judge added.

“Malawi is not ready to see its sons getting married to its sons.”

The couple looked subdued when the sentence was handed down and were quickly rushed out of the packed courtroom.

As they were escorted away under heavy police guard, hundreds of curious onlookers outside the court shouted at them, with one woman yelling, “Malawi should never allow homosexuality at any cost.”

The sentence could be appealed, said the judge.

Former colonial power Britain and the United States expressed “deep disappointment” at the ruling.

“We view the criminalisation of sexual orientation and gender identity as a step backward in the protection of human rights in Malawi,” said a statement by State Department the United States.

“The sentence is entirely disproportionate and against international human rights principles,” said Ireland’s overseas development minister Peter Power.

“We are working with our partners for a strong EU response,” he added.

Homosexuality is illegal in most African countries. Nearby South Africa is the only country on the continent to recognise same-sex marriages.

Thirty-eight out of 53 countries criminalise consensual gay sex, which is punishable by death in some nations, according to Human Rights Watch.

In January, the Malawi couple appealed to the Constitutional Court to toss out the case, but the top court refused to consider that appeal.

Their lawyer Mauya Msuku, who has been hired by the country’s underground gay-rights group, the Centre for the Development of People, argued that laws banning homosexuality “violate the right to marry and find a family”.

Msuku said he would consult with his clients on filing an new appeal.

In an unusually graphic language, Usiwa Usiwa convicted Monjeza of “having carnal knowledge of Tiwonge through the anus, which is against the order of nature.”

Chimbalanga was found guilty of “permitting buggery”, which the judge said was similarly contrary to the natural order.

Human rights organisations said the sentence was a blow for minority groups and the fight against AIDS.

Undule Mwakasungura, director of Malawi’s Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, said the sentence would drive gays into hiding.

“We have many of them who need to publicly access information and HIV and AIDS medical care. It’s a big let-down,” he said.

Richard Bridgen of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre said the sentencing was a “real tragedy for Malawian society.”

“The deep point is that they have the right to be different… the right to live the life they choose,” said Bridgen.

But Protestant churches in Malawi have urged the government to uphold its ban on homosexuality, which religious leaders described as “un-Christian”.

See also:
* Gay Malawi couple separated in prison
* for information about how to support the campaign against this sentence and link to a petition

In Indonesia a woman’s lack of power over her own healthcare decisions is contributing to the high maternal mortality rate.

“Inequality in decision-making, limited access to health services in rural areas and lack of information on healthy pregnancy are among the factors that contribute to maternal deaths,” said Masruchah, secretary-general of the National Commission on Violence against Women.

“There’s a view that husbands should have final say over domestic matters, but men often don’t know what their wives feel,” said Masruchah, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

Despite government efforts to increase the number of skilled birth attendants and promote family planning, at least 10,000 women die of childbirth related causes every year in this largely Muslim nation of more than 240 million people, according to a World Bank report published in February.

The report, ‘… And then she died,’ Indonesia Maternal Health Assessment, puts the maternal mortality rate at 228 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with UN World Health Organization data from 2005, published in 2007, which refers to a rate of 450 in India, 62 in Malaysia and six in the Netherlands. []

A woman’s economic status, level of education and age of first marriage affect maternal health and the birth outcome, the report states. Three decades of increased use of midwives and almost universal access to antenatal care had not succeeded in significantly reducing the maternal mortality rate.

“Pregnant mothers are often too late in identifying danger signals during pregnancy and in making decisions, because women often have to wait for their husbands or parents to make decisions,” said Linda Gumelar, Minister for Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection.

Home deliveries and the use of traditional birth attendants have contributed to maternal deaths, with the study showing only 10 percent of poor women in two districts of the country’s populous West Java Province being attended by a health professional at the birth.

According to the World Bank report, a survey of three districts showed 63 out of 76 deaths occurred in home births assisted by traditional birth attendants.

“Interventions by the skilled birth attendants in many cases are not in line with existing standards and prove to be ineffective in trying to address the emergence of complications,” it said.

Traditional practices and myths associated with pregnancy often obstruct prompt medical intervention, said Sutan Finardhy, an obstetrician-gynaecologist who has worked in rural areas for more than 20 years.

Family members and even neighbours often advise against medical treatment for pregnant mothers.

“In some cases, husbands agreed to a doctor’s advice, but parents insisted on taking the mothers home or resorting to traditional means,” Finardhy said. “By the time the mothers had access to medical intervention, it was already too late.”

Indonesia’s 2007 Demographic and Health Survey [] indicates inequity between provinces – with 97 percent of births attended by skilled providers in Jakarta, against only 33 percent in the Maluku Islands.

The World Bank said only 40 percent of the country’s 68,816 villages had a midwife in 2005.

The report urged the government to improve the training institutions, increase the number of obstetricians, gynaecologists and anesthesiologists, and increase overall funding for maternal health across the country.

There has been some increase in the number of women accessing antenatal healthcare services in Yemen over the past four years, but most mothers still deliver at home and their health situation remains rather bleak, according to new reports from the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The proportion of women benefiting from antenatal healthcare services has increased from 40 to 55 percent over the past four years, according to an 18 May Health Ministry report covering 2006-2010.

At a conference in Sanaa on 18 May sponsored by the National Women’s Committee and the Health Ministry, some women’s rights activists criticized slow progress in antenatal healthcare coverage.

UN Population Fund (UNFPA) deputy representative Zeljka Mudrovcic said 22 women die in Yemen every day due to pregnancy and birth-related complications.

“As 80 percent of women deliver at home, much more needs to be done to improve antenatal health care for women and reduce high mother and infant mortality rates,” she said.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, supported by UNFPA, launched on 17 May the distribution of 30,000 clean and safe home delivery kits for the year 2010 in an effort to improve this situation.

According to WHO’s 10 May World Health Statistics 2010 report, [] Yemen’s maternal mortality rate was 430 cases per 100,000 live births, the highest in the Middle East.

Antenatal care coverage (“the percentage of women who used antenatal care provided by skilled health personnel for reasons related to pregnancy at least once during pregnancy, as a percentage of live births in a given time period”) was 47 percent – the lowest in the Middle East, according to the report.

Repeated miscarriages and post-natal bleeding – particularly among girls in rural areas – are among the major factors behind the high maternal mortality rate in the country, according to Nema Naser al-Suraimi, a specialist doctor in obstetrics and gynaecology at al-Thawra Hospital in Sanaa. “In rural areas, miscarriage is commonplace, particularly as 52 percent of girls marry before the age of 15,” she told IRIN.

Yemen’s adolescent fertility rate (births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 years) stands at 80, according to the WHO report.

“In many remote villages where health facilities don’t exist or are very far away, many women die inside cars on their way to [maternity] hospitals in provincial capitals,” al-Suraimi said. “Women in rural areas don’t receive basic health care from the beginning of pregnancy and therefore are prone to multiple birth-related complications.”

According to Mohamed Ghurab, another obstetrics and gynaecology specialist at the Sanaa-based Republican Hospital, 70-80 percent of maternal deaths can be avoided by raising public awareness of the risks of home delivery.

Measure Would Deter Pregnant Women From Seeking Medical Care

Brazil’s Congress should protect women’s dignity and human rights by rejecting a bill that confers extensive rights to fertilized ova, Human Rights Watch have said. The measure would give the rights of the fertilized ovum “absolute priority” under Brazilian law.

The proposed bill would require any act or omission that could in any way have a negative impact on a fertilized ovum to be considered illegal. The bill was voted favorably out of the Family and Social Security Commission of the Brazilian House of Representatives this month.

“To promote healthy pregnancies and births is a laudable goal and, indeed, one of Brazil’s human rights obligations,” said Marianne Mollmann, women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “But this bill is likely to cause more harm than good by deterring pregnant women from seeking the care they may need because they are afraid to be turned over to the police.”

Over the past year, a number of jurisdictions in Latin America have passed laws to confer some rights on fertilized ova. For example, in Mexico, a number of federal states have recently amended their constitutions to extend the protection of the right to life to “the conceived.” Many of these laws specifically protect earlier legal exceptions for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or where the life or health of the pregnant woman is threatened.

Brazil’s bill however goes further. For example, it extends the right to child support to ova that have been fertilized through rape, and seeks to give “absolute priority” to the rights of the fertilized ovum. This could lead to the criminalization of any act or omission thought to affect the fertilized ovum negatively, trumping the rights to life or health of any pregnant woman, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Brazilian government would do well to focus its attention on providing assistance to rape victims, adolescent mothers, and others who are vulnerable and potentially unable to provide for themselves,” Mollmann said. “This law does the absolute opposite by threatening to subject everything women do or do not do during a pregnancy to criminal investigation.”

“Violence against women is not only domestic, it also happens in the streets. Not having the right to feel safe in a city square or at a bus stop without someone bothering us, that’s also violence.”

Nervousness or even fear of street harassment, even among young girls, prevents women from freely moving around, hinders their personal development, in terms of studies, work or recreation, and has an isolating effect on them.

Women are taking part in a programme participating with local governments in actions to fight this phenomenon, ensure equal access to public spaces, and help design and build cities that are safer for everyone.

The programme is sponsored by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) with the support of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), and coordinated by the Women and Habitat Network of Latin America and the Caribbean (Redmujer), based in Argentina.

According to UNIFEM, one out of three women in Latin America is abused at some point in her life, and gender-based violence causes more deaths and injuries among women between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war.

The programme has several strategic lines of action. In first place, it seeks to generate knowledge on gender violence in cities, as an extension of violence against women in the domestic sphere.

Another focus is training and raising awareness on the issue among women, young people and police. In addition, specific strategies are developed to bring about concrete changes in the way cities are designed.

Debates among experts and women’s organisations in the various countries are helping spread the idea that “public spaces can either promote or stand as hurdles to peaceful coexistence between men and women”.

“Planning should not be the exclusive domain of experts,” and that women at a grassroots level should express their fears and needs, in order to drive changes and make public spaces their own.

In Rosario, the Red Lazos de Mujeres por Nuestros Derechos women’s rights network, said that the plazas or city squares had become the territory of groups of young drug users, and women avoided these areas.

But with the support of the city government, the plazas were once again made safe for women and children. They were redesigned, with playground equipment for children and nearby tables and benches, football goal posts and better public lighting.

In Suba, a district in Bogotá, Colombia where gender violence is a serious problem, the programme worked with local women who recommended fencing in vacant lots and putting in public lighting along the streets and especially at bus stops.

“Neither at home nor on the streets” is one of the slogans used in the neighbourhood campaign to fight violence against women.

One of the most effective aspects of the programme in Suba involved the transportation system. Many women complained that they had been harassed on the Transmilenio, Bogotá’s modern bus system, where men frequently take advantage of the crowding to press up against or grope women.

Posters put up at bus stops show a man pushing up against a woman, in a red circle with a bar through the middle. The caption “We don’t want this support” uses a play on words in which “apoyo” or “support” in Spanish also refers to the practice of men leaning up against women.

Actresses and actors also took part in the campaign, acting out scenes on buses to raise awareness on the gender harassment that women frequently suffer in the public transit system.

In Chile, the programme is being implemented in 200 neighbourhoods in different cities, and the local organisation that is coordinating it signed an agreement with the Housing Ministry to back the effort.

Thanks to that agreement, a gender perspective was incorporated in 2008 in the housing upgrade programme launched by then president Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) called “Quiero mi barrio” (I Love My Neighbourhood).

Besides the cities in the seven countries taking part in the programme, other urban areas “have been inspired by it” to carry out their own efforts.

One example is an initiative against “machista” violence in public transport in Mexico City, promoted by the government Women’s Institute. “It’s a very rich experience, and they not only adopted our proposal but we also learned from them,” she said.

Other cities in the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) trade bloc, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, are also working to bring about women-friendly cities through the Red de Mercociudades (MercoCities Network).

“The gender perspective used to be included in questions of health, education or domestic violence. But now it has been expanded to a focus on women’s right to safe access to cities and their services”.

Edited version of longer article at

The First International Women and Film Festival for Gender Equity drew enthusiastic audiences this month in the Argentine capital, where movies from nearly 40 countries were screened.

In comments to IPS, the organisers said they felt they had achieved their goals of increasing the visibility of women’s problems, raising awareness among viewers about the debate on the inequality of the sexes, and promoting inter-gender dialogue.

“The results were more than positive,” said the artistic director of the festival, Cynthia Judkowski. “We had a great deal of active participation from male and female members of the audiences, at the screenings and at the debates, which were so well-attended that some people were unable to get in.”

The festival, titled “Mujeres en foco” (Women in Focus), was held May 5-10 at six venues in Buenos Aires that served as movie theatres or debating halls. There was also a retrospective, and a seminar on screenwriting, directing and producing.

The idea was to call on filmmakers to submit films that address women’s issues related to health, migration, cultural practices, violence, inequality, political participation, sexual diversity and family life.

“Over 200 films were entered, and we selected 68, five of which competed in the feature-length category and six in the short film category,” Judkowski said.

“Cholita libre”, a documentary on Bolivian immigrants by German filmmaker Rike Holtz, won first prize for feature-length film. The jury stressed that the film not only focused on issues of central interest to the festival, but that it did so with perception, humour and beauty.

Second prize went to Venezuelan director Clarisa Duque’s “Tambores de agua”, which portrays the lives of black women from coastal communities in Venezuela.

Among the shorts, prizes were taken by “Ana y Mateo”, by Natural Arpajou from Argentina, and “Il Corpo delle donne (The Body of Women) by Italian filmmakers Lorella Zanardo and Marco Malfi.

The films selected came from Algeria, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Peru, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela, among other countries.

Films by women directors included “Claroscuro” by Ana Faerrón of Costa Rica, about a women’s music group, “Fim do silêncio” (The End of Silence) by Thereza Jessouroun of Brazil, about unsafe abortion, and “Mémoire à la dérive” (Memory Adrift) by Pauline Voisard of Canada.

Films by male directors who tackled subjects from a gender perspective were also screened, such as “Lilja 4-Ever” by Lukas Moodysson of Sweden, and “Antiguos sueños de mujeres kichwas” (Quechua Women’s Former Dreams) by Santiago Carcelén Cornejo of Ecuador.

Entrance to the film shows was free, and there were no charges for registering films for the competition, each section of which was judged by a panel comprising two women and a man.

A retrospective of the work of Spanish filmmaker Helena Taberna, the director of “Yoyes” and “La buena nueva” (The Good News), was also shown. Taberna herself gave a seminar on screenwriting, producing and directing.

Debates were held on subjects like the place of women in the media, and “machista” violence. A meeting was also held for filmmakers wanting to explore how to promote gender parity and human rights.

“The aim was to create an opportunity for meeting, exchanging ideas and promoting movies by men and women directors that deal with gender issues and human rights,” Judkowski said.

In the medium term, the idea is to stimulate the making of films embodying commitment to a gender perspective and human rights.

Usually, festivals stressing women’s point of view include a broad variety of subjects, but show films made exclusively by women directors.

The Buenos Aires festival was organised on the reverse principle: the subjects of the films were limited to key issues about gender perspectives, while the sex of the directors was immaterial.

The organisers, a group of independent professional women filmmakers, were supported by a number of local and international institutions. They plan to hold the festival on an annual basis in Buenos Aires, as well as taking it abroad.

“We are convinced that the practice of art is transformational and revolutionary insofar as it modifies space and time, creating new situations… that challenge social relations of domination,” the festival announcement said. (END)

But Prof. Catharine MacKinnon agrees that she has been less successful in fighting pornography.

In at least one area – pornography – Catharine MacKinnon has failed spectacularly. Ever since she began writing about women in the pornography industry and to advocate for them, at the start of the 1980s, nothing in their situation has changed. Her criticism of the damage caused by pornography has achieved nothing.

“On the contrary,” she says. “During the past 20 years the situation has only deteriorated. Today pornography is accessible and available everywhere. It is possible to obtain it with a few keystrokes, it comes in through Internet to every home where there is a computer and the women who work in the industry, in the thousands, are weak and exploited and have no options.”

MacKinnon represented, pro bono, victims of rape in the Serbian-Croatian war. In 2000 she won in the famous Kadic vs. Karadzic case and obtained for the women – victims of the Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic – compensation totaling $745 million. More importantly, she advanced the awareness of rape during wartime as an act whose aim is genocide.

However, MacKinnon’s influence is evident primarily in other areas, which have to do with the mainstream of society. All of the basic terms accepted today in the United States, and also in the cultural and legal system in Israel, regarding sexual harassment in the work place as a prohibited form of discrimination against women, as well as rape and violence within the family, and the criticism of the idea of “consensuality” in rape (the fact that forced sex is considered rape even if the woman who was raped said “yes”), that is, the very fact that women today have the possibility of obtaining legal aid in cases in which they have been injured in a gender-related context – all of these are the fruit of MacKinnon’s theoretical and activist work.

From what she says and from the way she analyzes the power relations between men and women, great pessimism emerges. MacKinnon’s basic idea is that gender – that is, the concepts of “man” and “woman” – is not about difference, but rather about dominance. By virtue of their definition, she argues, the man is dominant and the woman is dominated, subordinated to his needs. And in any case, the male, as Simone de Beauvoir saw before her, is the standard, is “man” – the pattern on which everything is based and from which everything is derived – whereas the woman is the “other,” who is defined relative to him. Just as in anatomy the human body is studied and the model is usually the male body, whereas the female body is shunted into the study of gynecology, as a special case – the same holds true in culture: Woman is not part of the human standard.

MacKinnon stresses: “De Beauvoir showed the problem: that the woman is the `other,’ and the man is the standard. I am showing something else: that the things that have been depicted as a solution to the problem – that is, the feminist struggle for equality, for the equalization of the rights of women to the rights of men – are in fact part of the problem.”

MacKinnon makes it clear that the very fact of wanting to be equal to men perpetuates the assumption that men and masculinity are the model that determines what is worthy and what is desirable. “If we want to achieve equality in such conditions of inequality, our way will become endless,” she comments.

It sometimes seems as though MacKinnon’s radical feminism does not respect women. If a woman is by definition subordinate to a man’s authority, and is defined by him and in relation to him – it is difficult to imagine a totally free and independent woman. This is especially difficult with respect to sex and pornography. MacKinnon assumes that heterosexual sexual relations are defined and shaped by the male point of view. Sex is penetration and subordination, she says, only from the male perspective. She argues that unequal sexual relations – relations of conquest and forced submission – became eroticized in order to perpetuate the inequality between the sexes.

Why have you failed? Why have your proposals for legislation in the area of pornography failed and in all other areas – sexual harassment, rape, sexual assault and so forth – you have succeeded in bringing about real change?

“It’s very simple: Power and money win. There is not a sexual harassment industry. There aren’t people who are making millions out of sexual harassment the way people are making millions from pornography. The moment we succeed in advancing legislation against pornography in one of the states in the United States, or in the world, someone in the international lobby of pimps hears that this is getting under way and they organize and exercise tremendous power to prevent change. They hire huge public relations firms and they invest lots of money and make sure that this does not succeed.

“And not only that. The problem is that the printed and electronic media support pornography, on the mistaken assumption that a prohibition on pornography threatens them and their power. They confuse obscenity laws and the pornography laws that Andrea Dworkin and I have proposed, and they think that they are publishing pornography and their freedom of expression will be limited. But in fact we have made a clear distinction between pornography and all the rest. What there is in advertisements for Hollywood films is not pornography.”

But the non-pornographic eroticism in advertising and mainstream films is also likely to contribute to the demeaning and harming of women. And it is consumed by everyone.

“Ordinary advertisements and films do not lead to violence and rape. Pornography does do this. Studies show this clearly. And pornography is what influences the mainstream, and not the other way around. The struggle has to focus on pornography.”

From a longer article and interview published at

See also:

The Future of Pornography: Stop Porn Culture! Conference
June 12-13, 2010 – Wheelock College, Boston MA

In March 2007, over 500 people gathered at a conference in Boston to help re-ignite a progressive and feminist movement against pornography. Our second national conference will once again bring together activists, researchers, survivors, parents, and other concerned community members to continue developing our anti-pornography analysis and building our resistance movement. Come and join us for two days of keynotes, workshops, and discussion.

An increasingly sexualized consumer society and inadequate funding for social services are major reasons why more young girls are being pressed into sexual slavery, a human-trafficking expert told a Fort Worth audience last week.

Fishnet-clad dolls, “porn star” T-shirts, Juicy brand jeans and the mainstreaming of the word “pimp” all are signs of “demonic forces” at work in American culture, said Alesia Adams, the Salvation Army’s Atlanta-based human trafficking coordinator. Adams spoke at a forum on the subject at the Salvation Army’s Fort Worth offices.

“I don’t want my granddaughter playing with a doll with hooker heels,” she said.

Adams also criticized what she called a shortage of social services to help desperate young people who might be lured into a life of sex.

“There are more services for animals than for child victims of abuse,” she said.

Texas is a hub for human sex trafficking, said Kathleen Murray, the Fort Worth Police Department’s trafficking coordinator. She estimated that 20 percent of all human trafficking in the United States comes through Texas at some point.

“These cases are within our reach,” she said. “That’s a huge responsibility for Texas.”

The State Department estimates that 300,000 children, mostly runaways, are exploited in the United States each year, Murray said.

Experts at the forum said that no reliable estimates for the amount of local sex trafficking exist.

But they said that The National Human Trafficking Hotline receives more calls from Texas than from any other state, and 15 percent of those are from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

FBI Special Agent Don Freese said forced labor trafficking is harder to detect because it typically involves immigrants bringing in others from their home country to work in private homes.

“Sex trafficking is easier to find,” he said, because it requires interaction with customers, which can open the door for detection by law enforcement.

Deena Graves, executive director of Traffic911, a local nonprofit group that rescues child slavery victims, said human trafficking is a $32 billion industry, second only to drugs in global crime exploits.

Sex trafficking may eventually eclipse drugs, she said.

“You can sell a drug only one time,” she said. “You can sell a person over and over and over. Demand drives the machine.”

A child is sold in the world every two minutes, Graves said, and a third of children who run away from home are forced into prostitution within 48 hours.

“These perpetrators know how to spot a distressed child at malls, bus stations,” she said. “Once they are forced into it, their average life expectancy is seven years” because of disease and violence.

Pornography is the No. 1 driver of child sex exploitation, she said. Often, children are forced to act out scenes in hard-core movies for paying customers, Graves said.

She agreed with Adams that pop culture desensitizes kids and adults to exploitation. She highlighted the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” which won the best original song Oscar from the movie Hustle & Flow and the online game as examples of glamorizing prostitution and sex slavery.

“You will become a master at the art of pimping your hoes, commanding your thugs and battling your enemies to protect what you have and to help your empire grow,” PimpWar’s online intro boasts.

Graves showed the audience a cropped image of the face of young girl from a pornographic movie.

“This could be your daughter,” she said.

The United Nations has launched a major campaign for universal adoption of treaty protocols that outlaw the sale of children, child prostitution and pornography, and protect youngsters in armed conflict, with UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon calling for full ratification by 2012.

“The sad truth is that too many children in today’s world suffer appalling abuse,” Ban told a ceremony at the headquarters of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in New York marking the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the two optional protocols strengthening the Convention on the Rights of the Child by providing a moral and legal shield for youngsters vulnerable to prostitution and pornography or caught up in armed conflict.

“Two-thirds of all Member States have endorsed these instruments. On this tenth anniversary of their adoption, I urge all countries to ratify them within the next two years,” he said.

Ban cited recent advances: the release three months ago by the Maoist army in Nepal, under UN supervision, of more than 2,000 soldiers who had been recruited as children; the UN-assisted freeing of children from the ranks of armed groups In Cote d’ Ivoire; the prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of former Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga for war crimes against children.

He noted, too, that fewer and fewer States now permit children to join the armed forces, and reiterated his previous calls to the Security Council to consider tough measures on those States and insurgent groups that still recruit children.

More countries are also reforming legislation and criminalizing the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography and the sexual exploitation of children, with international cooperation helping to dismantle pedophile networks, remove child pornography from the Internet, and protect children from sexual exploitation by tourists.

“Nonetheless, much remains to be done,” he said. “In too many places, children are seen as commodities, in too many instances they are treated as criminals instead of being protected as victims, and there are too many conflicts where children are used as soldiers, spies or human shields.”

UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said the Optional Protocols “represent a promise made to the world’s most vulnerable children — children born into extreme poverty and despair, children in countries torn apart by conflict and children forced into unimaginable servitude by adults who regard them as commodities.”

The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict has been ratified by 132 States; 25 States have signed but not ratified it and 36 States have neither signed nor ratified it. “We know from the situation on the ground that much remains to be done. Violence against children in all its forms remains a challenge for societies in the world,” Ban’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy said.

“There are a multitude of conflicts where children are used as soldiers, spies, human shields or for sexual purposes. Every additional ratification of the Optional Protocol would therefore bring us closer to a world in which no child is participating in hostilities and forced to serve the national military or irregular armies,” she said.

The Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography has been ratified by 137 States; 27 have signed but not ratified and 29 have neither signed nor ratified it.

“The Optional Protocol is an important tool for tearing through the mantle of invisibility surrounding the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography and other forms of sexual exploitation, to mobilize societies and to translate political commitment into effective protection of children from all forms of violence,” Ban’s Special Representative on Violence against Children Marta Santos Pais said, citing significant law reforms to criminalize such crimes.

More than half of the 72 million primary school-aged children out of school are girls. These children mostly come from the world’s poorest communities and, in many cases, from nations with long histories of conflict.

For the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), UNICEF Radio podcast moderator Amy Costello spoke with Bob Prouty, Head of the Secretariat of the Education for All – Fast Track Initiative, a global partnership between donor and developing countries to speed progress towards the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015; and Suaad Allami, Iraqi lawyer and human rights activist.

The podcast discussion covered the ways poverty affects girls’ and boys’ access to education across the globe.

Mr. Prouty said the exclusion of girls from schooling is a result of many factors. Poverty, he added, is “highest in line.”

Girls are often put to work around the home or sent out to earn money. “The more the financial challenges are felt by families, the more likely they are to see the opportunities for girls to bring in some additional income,” Mr. Prouty said. The family income lost if girls are not working – coupled in many places with the high direct cost of schooling – is likely to be a major obstacle to educating girls, he added.

Culture and tradition can also play a “big role” in preventing girls from receiving a quality education, said Ms. Allami. In her native Iraq, she noted, “culture is one of the [biggest] challenges to face these girls when they want to continue their studies.”

Ms. Allami said she has witnessed significant changes in education levels overtime in her country. In the past, she noted, Iraqi women were highly educated compared with other girls in the region.

In contemporary Iraq, she said, “many families prevent their girls from going to schools, to universities. They are concerned about their safety, kidnappings, killings.” Today, literacy rates are low throughout Iraq, especially among women and girls. Violence and years of economic sanctions associated with past wars have made it particularly difficult for girls to receive an education, said Ms. Allami.

“Conflict disproportionately keeps kids out of school,” Mr. Prouty agreed, adding that it is “the single biggest remaining obstacle towards education for all.”

And armed conflict exacerbates the problems of poverty. “Conflict invariably has a larger impact on the poorest families,” said Mr. Prouty.

Despite these challenges, the Fast Track Initiative is leading to some improvements. “We’re seeing very positive movement in terms of parents trying to get their children started in school,” said Mr. Prouty.

But in developing countries, girls still drop out of school at higher rates than boys. As more children – including more girls – are enrolled in school, an increasingly central challenge will be to keep them there.

“The challenges we see, more and more, are in trying to get girls through schooling and up into higher levels of school,” said Mr. Prouty.

AUDIO: Listen now

A five-year campaign to boost the number of UN female peacekeepers is progressing steadily in police units, but “seems to be stuck” at a miniscule percentage in military contingents, Lt-Col Alejandro Alvarez of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), told IRIN.

The UN Secretariat has repeatedly emphasized the proven benefits of having more female peacekeepers, especially in regions where sexual violence has been or still is a serious problem, but there are hiccups.

“The Secretary-General can set any number [of female peacekeepers], but … It depends on the will of the countries that are contributing the troops. They say, ‘We don’t have enough female troops, so we cannot send them’; there is also always the case of countries having the women, and just not sending them, but that is an internal problem,” Alvarez, a personnel officer, said.

The advantages of a strong presence of female peacekeeper in conflict and post-conflict zones include creating a safer space for girls and women who have suffered sexual violence, said Marianne Mollman, advocacy director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, a global watchdog organization.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched a campaign in August 2009 to lift the percentage of women peacekeepers to 20 percent in police units by 2014, and to 10 percent in military contingents.

Yet only 2.3 percent of the 88,661 military peacekeepers serving in 17 different missions are women, whereas in 2008 they made up 2.18 percent of military contingents, Alvarez said. Approximately 8.2 percent of the 13,221 UN police are women, a figure that jumped from 6.5 percent in April.

In 2000, Resolution 1325 of the UN Security Council called on the Secretary-General to “progress on gender mainstreaming throughout peacekeeping missions and all other aspects related to women and girls.”

Subsequent Security Council resolutions outlined more comprehensive methods for using peacekeeping missions to protect women and girls from sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict zones, including increasing the number of women peacekeepers.

The first all-female Formed Police Unit (FPU), deployed in Liberia in 2007, made a substantial difference to the women victimized in rampant sexual violence during the country’s civil war, said Lea Angela Biason, a DPKO gender affairs associate.

The UN Mission in Liberia noted that after the deployment of Indian female peacekeepers, the percentage of women in the national police force rose from 13 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2009.

Women police were often placed in the front lines in riots, as they can reportedly help calm raucous crowds, Biason said, and the presence of women in uniform also appeared to encourage Liberian women to report instances of sexual violence.

The UN Secretariat plans to send an all-female FPU from Bangladesh to Haiti, where reports of sexual violence in the camps for internally displaced persons abound.

Nigeria deploys the second-greatest number of female peacekeepers – 349 women out of 4,951 troops – and has announced plans to send an all-female FPU to Liberia.

In Darfur, western Sudan, 136 female police officers from Ghana, Gambia, Tanzania, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have joined the UN Mission there since February, Biason said. Nearly 200 female police officers in Rwanda recently passed a test qualifying them for deployment.

Comfort Lamptey, a gender adviser to DPKO, told IRIN that gender scenarios in troop-contributing countries were reflected in the peacekeepers they sent. “If we look globally, you see more women in national police units than you do in the military – the countries then have more women to send for their [peacekeeping] police units.”

Alvarez said countries that could send women sometimes refrained out of concern about the conditions they would be working under, and it was not always certain that they would be working alongside their male counterparts. Bangladesh, one of the largest troop-contributing countries, considered women as “low-ranked personnel, and puts them in the kitchen”, Alvarez said.

Women might constitute 20 percent of peacekeeping units by 2014, but Lamptey acknowledged that some officials thought it “completely unrealistic” to try replicating this on the military front.

“It’s a work in progress,” she said. “A lot of member states are beginning to understand that when it comes to peacekeeping missions, you really do need to have both women and men in the military and police equally represented; they are beginning to understand the merits of that.”

Humanitarian workers in Liberia worry that as the UN and NGOs scale down aid operations, the fight against sexual violence will suffer, given a limited capacity in national institutions to take it on.

The fight against sexual violence, led by the Ministry of Gender and Development, is part of a wider four-year national plan to implement Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security; the resolution was passed in 2000 but Liberia – where a 14-year war ended in 2003 – began implementing it just last year.

The action plan relies heavily on aid agencies and on international donors for funds, said the Norwegian Refugee Council’s coordinator for sexual and gender-based violence, Anna Stone. “But after the [presidential and legislative] elections next year many international NGOs, including the NRC, will scale down operations in Liberia.”

Many aid agencies, including NRC and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – also active in the fight against sexual violence – are gradually cutting their programmes in Liberia. And the post-election role of the UN mission (UNMIL), which has supported much of the government’s anti-sexual-violence programmes, is uncertain. []

“Agencies do move out and there is high turnover,” agreed Madhumita Sarkar, programme adviser at the joint UN-government SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence) programme in the capital Monrovia. “That is a very big concern. This is the wrong time to withdraw – even though Liberia is not in a conflict state. Until now we’ve tried to work on building local capacities and we now need to continue that, and hand over projects to the government.”

“We will go back to zero if people just withdraw now,” she said.

Meanwhile the gender ministry is turning to donors to fund its programmes over the long term, aware that international support my wane; the ministry recently received funding from Italy and the United States, according to Deputy Gender and Development Minister Annette Kiawu.

Sexual violence consistently comes first or second (after armed robbery) in monthly crime statistics in Monrovia, with most victims being children, according to MSF.

Legal recourse is rarely an option for survivors, due to a lack of means as well as weak law enforcement, health NGOs in Liberia say. But most rapes are committed by family members and are not reported, according to the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) in a 2009 study, “Nobody Gets Justice Here”

Attorneys often do not take it as seriously as armed robbery, as nothing is “stolen” in the attack, an aid worker told the NIIA.

NRC is trying to encourage women to report sexual crimes through a nationwide collective of women’s groups, called WISE Women; the organization promotes women’s rights and develops practical responses to sexual crimes, such as how to raise money for a medical exam.

Rita Kollie, 17, was the youngest member at a WISE Women meeting in Bong County in central Liberia, earlier this month.

“I was curious to find out what women’s rights are about. We are not taught about that at school,” she said. “Of course I am happy that we have a woman president, but we still don’t have women role models in Bong County.”

Whatever institutions lead the sexual violence fight, NIIA says, the approach must focus more on the political, cultural and economic roots of such crimes. NIIA says the current UN approach is too fragmented and shortsighted. Groups working to reduce sexual violence must harmonize statutory and traditional law, saying international actors do not have an adequate grasp of the latter, it points out.

The government has made some steps at the policy level: It now has a policy to promote women’s rights; it has strengthened rape and inheritance laws; and it has created a secretariat to implement Resolution 1325. But implementation still lags behind, UNMIL-government representative Sarkar told IRIN.

For instance, according to the NRC’s Stone, while Liberia is one of only two countries in the world that has specially assigned police units for protection of women and children, the units helped convict just five perpetrators in 2009.

NRC trains the units on how to address sexual crimes, but efforts are hampered by a lack of means and equipment, says NIIA.

Further, few trained officers want to leave Monrovia to work in rural areas – one of several problems impeding the fight in rural zones: poor roads, inadequate facilities, difficult access to some communities and lack of funds for counties, says the NRC.