Archive for July, 2010

President says ban is part of a strategy to fight people trafficking and sexual exploitation rife in Spain

The Spanish government has put itself on collision course with the national press with the announcement that it wants to ban adverts offering sexual services from their classified sections.

The explicit adverts, which fill at least a page in most of Spain’s dailies, are worth €40m (£34m) a year to the struggling newspaper industry.

President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero made the announcement during this week’s state of the nation speech, saying it was part of a strategy to fight the people trafficking and sexual exploitation that was rife in the country.

“As long as these advertisements exist, they contribute to the idea of this activity as normal,” he said.

The Association of Spanish Newspaper Editors responded by saying that the logical policy would be for the government to make prostitution illegal. “If it was illegal, then newspapers wouldn’t carry the ads,” a spokesman said.

If the ads are banned, newspapers will want to be compensated and, worryingly for Zapatero, El País, a staunch supporter of his socialist party, is the paper that earns the most from this form of advertising. With its left-liberal sensibilities and readership profile, El País is the Spanish paper that most resembles the Guardian, and yet it earns €5m a year from advertising prostitution.

Yolanda Besteiro of the Progressive Women’s Federation was scathing about what she regards as the newspaper’s hypocrisy. “No media outlet can proclaim itself a defender of human rights when it publishes this kind of advertising, which makes them directly complicit in this type of slavery,” she said.

The most openly religious daily, ABC, also runs the ads. El Publíco is the only national that does not run them as a matter of policy.

Spain is the only European country where the “quality” press carries adverts for sex. With the migration of most classified advertising to the internet, prostitution now accounts for 60% of the Spanish classified ad market.

Prostitution is big business in Spain, worth an estimated €18bn a year. There are about 200,000 sex workers in the country, nearly all of them immigrants, many of them illegal. Prostitutes are a common sight in cities, and it is impossible to go far along any main road before finding an oddly named “alternate club”, rural brothels that can house as many as 100 women.

Most of the newspaper ads are not placed by individual women but by the mafias – largely from Romania, Nigeria and various Latin American countries – who exploit them. Proof of this emerged this month when police broke up a prostitution network in Madrid after following up ads in various papers. The women were being forced to give half their earnings to pimps, and much of the rest went on paying for their lodgings, leaving them, the police said, “in a state of near slavery”.

See also: Newspaper and magazine editors have called for prostitution to be made illegal if they are to be banned from featuring advertisements for sexual services.

Women’s groups have applauded the recent appointment of two female judges to Islamic courts in Malaysia, but its significance is not yet clear: The new judges will have to wait a month before finding out whether they will be prevented from hearing certain cases.

A committee of 20 senior judges is scheduled to begin considering whether Shariah guidelines would bar women from handling certain legal matters, like divorce. The judges are expected to conclude their deliberations in a month, said Mohammad Yusop Che Teh, a Shariah Court of Appeal judge.

“The Shariah principles will be the guiding principles in determining the jurisdictional issues,” he said Wednesday at a news conference.

Women’s rights advocates have expressed hope that the appointment of Rafidah Abdul Razak and Surayah Ramlee may help address concerns that women are treated unfairly by the Shariah courts.

Under Malaysia’s two-tier judicial system, secular courts handle most criminal and many civil cases, while Shariah courts deal with family and morality cases involving Muslims.

Women’s organizations say they receive many complaints from women about discrimination in the Shariah courts. Among the most common objections, said Norhayati Kaprawi, a Muslim women’s activist, are that it is more difficult for women to initiate divorce proceedings and to secure alimony from their former husbands.

The appointments came five years after the religious authorities in this Muslim-majority country issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, declaring that women could be appointed Shariah judges.

Although the women were appointed in May, Prime Minister Najib Razak made the announcement only this month. Ms. Rafidah, 39, will work in the Kuala Lumpur Shariah court, while Ms. Surayah, 31, has been appointed to the federal territory of Putrajaya.

“It is our hope that these appointments will enhance justice in all cases brought before the court, including those involving families and women’s rights,” Mr. Najib said in a statement issued last week.

Ms. Surayah and Ms. Rafidah will serve in the Subordinate Court, the lowest level of the Shariah court system, which also includes the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

Ms. Surayah was previously an assistant to the senior director in the department of Shariah training division, while Ms. Rafidah was a Shariah court research officer.

Speaking at the news conference Wednesday, the two new judges pledged to apply the law according to Shariah principles. Ms. Rafidah said she did not see any distinction between herself and her male counterparts.

When asked how she felt about the possibility that they may be prevented from hearing certain cases, Ms. Rafidah said she would leave it to “the wisdom” of the committee deciding the matter.

Women have long served as judges in secular Malaysian courts, and women represent about half of the 400 lawyers who have registered with the Shariah Lawyers Association, a voluntary membership group.

But before the 2005 fatwa, religious scholars in the country had debated whether women could serve as Shariah judges under Islam.

Ms. Norhayati, the women’s rights advocate, said some scholars had expressed doubt as to whether women had the mental and emotional capacity to serve as judges, and some wondered whether they would side with female complainants.

She said it would be “an insult” to Muslim women if they were prevented from hearing certain cases, because Muslim women had already proved themselves to be capable judges in the secular courts.

Sa’adiah Din, a Shariah lawyer who specializes in family law, said that since the fatwa was issued, female lawyers had repeatedly asked the judicial authorities when a female judge would be appointed. “We’ve been waiting for this,” she said.

Zaleha Kamaruddin, deputy director general of the Institute of Islamic Understanding, a research institution in Kuala Lumpur, said that the women’s appointments had been widely welcomed and that other Malaysian states had shown interest in appointing women as Shariah judges. “These appointments are significant because it has paved the way for more women to be appointed at a higher level in future,” she said.

Ms. Zaleha, a professor of law who helped lobby for the appointment of female judges, said that the 2005 fatwa was made at the national level, that states had to issue their own fatwas, and that it took the support of the Shariah chief judge and a new government minister to help make the appointments a reality.

Meera Samanther, president of the Women’s Aid Organization, a nongovernmental organization, said it was disappointing that it had taken so long for women to be appointed Shariah judges.

“There’s always been this fallacy that women would not be able to articulate on religious issues,” she said. “Apart from them being appointed, we hope they will also apply feminist principles.”

Lax government enforcement of human anti-trafficking laws has led to an increase in the trafficking of young Nepalese women and girls, mainly for exploitation in Indian brothels, local activists say.

Nepal’s 2008 Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act stipulates punishment for traffickers of up to 20 years in prison and US$2,600 in fines, and provides for the compensation of victims. But it seems the new law has done nothing to reduce the phenomenon.

“The crucial problem is weak implementation of anti-trafficking laws allowing the traffickers to operate easily,” said Shyam Kumar Pokharel, managing director of Samrakshak Samuha Nepal (SASANE), an NGO supporting trafficked victims. “Although thousands of traffickers have been arrested, only a few hundred have been convicted.”

“These traffickers are all from local criminal gangs and have strong links with brothel owners in the Indian cities,” said Pokharel, who did research on imprisoned traffickers. He found that the traffickers sourced the girls and young women mostly from villages close to their own, before enticing them to Kathmandu with false promises of jobs and marriage.

In the early 1990s, the government estimated that at least 5,000-7,000 girls and women were trafficked annually to brothels in India, but NGOs say this number has gone up significantly. In the past year, Maiti Nepal, [] the first local NGO to attempt to combat human trafficking, has stopped over 17,000 young women crossing the border with traffickers. The NGO has a 36-member border surveillance team, all whom are victims of human trafficking and trained to identify vulnerable girls.

Local NGOs reckon that more than three quarters of the women and girls being trafficked end up in Indian brothels with most of the rest ending up in similar establishments in the Middle East.

“Unfortunately, there is a lack of official data because no studies have been done to get an accurate estimate, but the situation has worsened,” Januka Bhattarai, project coordinator of Shakti Samuha, [] an NGO that helps to rehabilitate trafficked victims rescued from Indian brothels, told IRIN.

Until the 1990s traffickers targeted a handful of districts, namely Sindupalchowk and Nuwakot (some 50km south of the capital). These districts, inhabited mostly by ethnic Tamang, were among the poorest in the country and yet readily accessible from Kathmandu.

These days, with a somewhat better road system, traffickers have been able to penetrate the whole country, according to Maiti Nepal.

Monitoring the traffickers is not easy given the 1,800km-long border with India and the fact that over 100,000 female migrant workers go to India every year. They do not need travel documents or work visas. The government has not been intervening in this migration process or attempting to identify traffickers or trafficked people.

“It is often the NGOs who are involved in checking the borders, investigating the crimes, protecting the witnesses and following up cases in court,” Biswo Khadga, director of Maiti Nepal, said.

Many cases go unreported: The legal system has registered only 123 cases so far in 2010 – a tiny fraction of the real number of trafficked women and girls, according to SASANE.

Government officials who preferred anonymity said they had been hobbled by political instability and weak governance.

The Trafficking Act requires the government to set up rehabilitation centres, but so far only three are operational – all run by NGOs.

“We’re getting tired of seeking financial aid from the government. It remains very negligent on this issue,” said Bhattarai from Shakti Samuha, which runs a rehabilitation centre in Sindupalchok District.

The government’s lack of progress on this issue has drawn criticism from the US State Department: Its annual trafficking report [] released in June called the “complicity” of the Nepalese government a “serious problem” and suggested strengthening the National Human-Trafficking Task Force, as well as establishing more effective ways to monitor trafficking cases.

Officials Should Investigate and Close Government Centers Where Abuses Occur

The Cambodian government should act quickly to end violence against sex workers and permanently close the government centers where these workers have been unlawfully detained and abused, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Human Rights Watch also urged the Cambodian government to suspend provisions in the 2008 Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation that facilitate police harassment and abuses.

Human Rights Watch’s 76-page report, “Off the Streets: Arbitrary Detention and Other Abuses against Sex Workers in Cambodia,” is based on more than 90 interviews and group discussions with female and transgender sex workers in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, and Siem Reap. It describes how sex workers face a wide range of abuses, including beatings, extortion, and rape at the hands of authorities, particularly in Phnom Penh.

“For far too long, police and other authorities have unlawfully locked up sex workers, beaten and sexually abused them, and looted their money and other possessions,” said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Cambodian government should order a prompt and thorough independent investigation into these systematic violations of sex workers’ human rights and shut down the centers where these people have been abused.”

Police arrest sex workers in regular sweeps on the streets and parks of Phnom Penh. Some of the violence is opportunistic, while other abuses commonly occur in periodic crackdowns and raids by police and district authorities, at times targeting sex workers specifically and other times picking up sex workers along with other groups of marginalized people on the streets.

Police abuse sex workers with impunity. Sex workers told Human Rights Watch that police officers beat them with their fists, sticks, wooden handles, and electric shock batons. In several instances, police officers raped sex workers while they were in police detention. Every sex worker that Human Rights Watch spoke to had to pay bribes or had money stolen from them by police officers.

A 2008 Cambodian law on trafficking and sexual exploitation criminalized all forms of trafficking, including forced labor. Human Rights Watch found that police officers at times can use those sections of the law that criminalize “solicitation” and “procurement” of commercial sex to justify harassment of sex workers. The provisions are also broad enough that they can be used to criminalize advocacy and outreach activities by sex worker groups and those who support them.

Human Rights Watch urged the Cambodian government to consult with sex worker groups, United Nations agencies, and organizations working on human rights, trafficking, and health to review and address the impact on the human rights of those engaged in sex work of provisions in the 2008 law on trafficking and sexual exploitation, before implementing those provisions.

“In an environment where police already act with impunity, the Cambodian government needs to recognize that criminalizing soliciting is a recipe for continuing human rights abuse,” said Pearson. “The government should go back to the drawing board – starting first by consulting extensively with sex workers and other groups – before continuing to implement the provisions which have been abused by police.”

In Phnom Penh, police refer sex workers to the municipal Office of Social Affairs and from there to NGOs or the government Social Affairs center, Prey Speu. Conditions in Prey Speu are abysmal. Sex workers, beggars, drug users, street children, and homeless people held at Prey Speu have reported how staff members at the center have beaten, raped, and mistreated detainees, including children. Local human rights workers, citing eyewitness accounts, allege that at least three people, and possibly more, were beaten to death by guards at Prey Speu between 2006 and 2008.

Following advocacy by Cambodian and international organizations, in 2009 and 2010 the municipal Social Affairs office began sending most sex workers picked up in sweeps to the custody of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) rather than Prey Speu. However, since May 2010, at least eight sex workers have been detained there. Sex workers detained in Prey Speu in June 2010 were locked in their rooms, only allowed to leave their rooms to bathe twice a day in dirty pond water, or, accompanied by a guard, to go to the toilet.

Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government to permanently close Social Affairs centers such as Prey Speu where people are being unlawfully detained. In a January 2010 report, “Skin on the Cable,” Human Rights Watch also documented horrific abuses at drug detention facilities in Cambodia against people who use drugs. The Cambodian government should also establish a special commission to investigate abuses thoroughly and independently, and hold the perpetrators accountable. So far, police and other authorities have evaded accountability for these abuses.

“The Cambodian government should immediately and permanently close down detention centers such as Prey Speu where people are being unlawfully detained, beaten up, and abused,” said Pearson. “Prosecuting those who commit these crimes will send a strong message that abuses against sex workers are not tolerated.”

Donors supporting anti-trafficking efforts and police training, especially the US, Australia, Japan, the European Union, and the UN, should review funding to the police and Ministry of Social Affairs until there is a full independent investigation into allegations of abuses and prosecutions of those found responsible and the Social Affairs centers such as Prey Speu are permanently closed. Despite years of training for police, police abuses continue, even by units that have been trained with international donor support, such as specialized anti-trafficking police units.

“Donors should not spend their money on training abusive officials, but instead take steps that will promote accountability from the Cambodian government,” said Pearson.

Part of a longer article at

Download Off the Streets – Arbitrary Detention and Other Abuses against Sex Workers in Cambodia from

* Two family protection centres open in Baghdad
* Location at police stations a problem

As the violence of sectarian warfare ebbs, Iraq’s government has taken tentative first steps to combat another kind of violence — domestic abuse, primarily against women.

The Interior Ministry has opened two “family protection” centres in Baghdad police stations, the first of their kind, to deal with cases of domestic violence.

The centres are staffed mainly by female social workers and investigators, an important step in Iraq’s male-oriented culture to make women feel more comfortable about reporting abuse.

So far, because the centres are at police stations and domestic violence remains a taboo subject, few women have dared to go them for help. Yet the state Ministry of Woman’s Affairs considers the centres to be a victory for Iraqi women who once had nowhere to turn.

“I always call this violence the untold crime because it did not end up always in the courts … it’s a serious issue if there are no civil centres or legal authority to resolve it,” Azhar al-Shaarbaf, the ministry’s legal expert.

Shaarbaf said Iraqi politicians once rejected the idea of women being abused and turned a blind eye to the issue.

“Now the political class comprehends the words ‘abused woman,’ which is progress, since the political class is the one that makes decisions,” she said.

Iraq has no official data on abused women but the government no longer denies it is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Kamil Ameen, a spokesman for the human rights ministry, said a lot of Iraqi women are abused, whether through disrespectful treatment, verbal insults or beatings.

It is not unusual to see signs of violence on a woman’s body or to hear shouting or crying coming from houses.

But women seldom complain or seek help. Tradition makes it difficult for a woman to complain to police about a husband because she could be seen, even by her own relatives, as having brought shame upon the family.

“The reason is the cultural nature of the society. When the women is abused she has no place to go,” Ameen said. “She still feels afraid and considers complaining socially unacceptable.”

At the new family protection centre in Baghdad’s Qahira district, a police lieutenant who asked to be identified only as Israa said while the centres were a positive sign, their location — in police stations — limited their usefulness.

“It is not going to work … because she (an abused woman) will consider herself coming to the police station, not to a social centre, and that is socially unacceptable,” she said.

The centres are not shelters for abused women and their main mission is to resolve conflict. In the case of a woman beaten by her husband, for example, the offender might be required to sign a document promising not to do it again.

Israa, a university graduate in psychology, said in her four months at both family centres she had seen only one case where a woman came in to complain her husband had beaten her.

The human rights ministry said it had tried to have the centres located somewhere else, but had no success so far.

“We asked to make them far away and independent from the police station so women could go to them with freedom,” Ameen said. “This is not easy for our society but we have to start somewhere, like any other country.”

For G.M., an Iraqi woman who asked to be identified only by her initials, reporting her husband to police is not an option, even though she said she considers him abusive, both verbally and by his disrespectful manner toward her.

“The Iraqi woman is abused and she must keep silent,” she said. “He does not beat me. But even if he does, I won’t go to a police station. This is not ethical.”

A total of 126 women died as a result of domestic violence in Argentina during the first half of this year, 40 percent more than during the same period in 2009, according to statistics published by the organisation La Casa del Encuentro.

The report is based on the cases reported in Argentine news media.

‘With the lack of official statistics, newspaper articles are the best way of understanding this tragic phenomenon,’ said Fabiana Tunez, the general coordinator of La Casa del Encuentro.

Just 18 of the 126 victims who lost their lives in the first half of the year had filed complaints against their attackers, who in the majority of cases were the women’s current or former husbands or boyfriends.

Most of the crimes occurred in the province of Buenos Aires, the most populated in Argentina, according to the study.

Tunez demanded that the government implement public policies that ‘prevent and eradicate’ sexual violence, as well as develop ‘awareness campaigns’ in schools.

She also asked that the government draft the regulations needed to implement the comprehensive protection law to prevent, punish and eradicate violence against women that Congress approved in March 2009.

In addition, she asked that men who kill their partners lose parental rights over their children.

Tunez also urged the Argentine judiciary to impose ‘exemplary sanctions’ against those found guilty of domestic violence, referring to a recent judicial ruling that found that a man had ‘not intended’ to kill his wife.

With a recent survey showing that at least 12 per cent of women between 15-49 years were the victims of forced sexual abuse at one point during their lifetime, the National Family Planning Board (NFPB) hosted a workshop to look at gender-based violence (GBV) and its implications for the fight against HIV/AIDS.

In addition to addressing the underlying issues and disseminating current data on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and GBV, the workshop also brought persons from the National HIV/STI programme at the Ministry of Health and the Bureau of Women’s Affairs together to discuss the way forward as they tackle the ‘two epidemics’.

Apart from showing the incidence of forced sexual abuse among women of reproductive age, the 2008 Reproductive Health Survey also showed that at least one in three women experienced at least one type of abuse, and one in five reported having experienced physical or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime.

During her dissemination of the survey data, executive director of the NFPB Dr Olivia McDonald described some of the findings as being “very frightening”, and sought to show the direct and indirect link to HIV/AIDS and GBV.

“Sexual violence poses a direct biological risk for HIV because where there is forced intercourse, there is usually some vaginal trauma or laceration, and wherever there is trauma, this will facilitate transmission of any sexually transmitted infection, including HIV,” she said.

She also pointed to the fact that women were unable to negotiate condom use during forced sexual intercourse, and that the fear of violence sometimes prevented women from getting tested or disclosing their status.

In addition to this, the doctor also asserted that the “experience of violence may be linked to increased risk taking”.

“Risk-taking behaviours would include multi-partners (and) non-primary partners. These are women who may have a main partner, but they also have what the army would call a second in command,” she explained.

In her address to those in attendance at the workshop, Co-ordinator for HIV Treatment and Care at the Ministry of Health Dr Debbie Carrington pointed to the importance of addressing GBV, as her group forges ahead to achieve the millennium development goal “to halt and reverse the HIV epidemic by 2015”.

“As a country and a region, we still have a far way to go to ensure protection of our most vulnerable populations,” she said.

But Executive Director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs Faith Webster assured that her organisation in fulfilling its mandate, and has been undertaking a number of projects and workshops to enlighten women about their rights and to empower them. She said that her group will be “increasing efforts to eliminate violence against women”, even as it remains mindful of the fact that men are also being abused and need to be helped as well.

As it relates to their role in the elimination of HIV/AIDS, Director of Policy and Research at the Bureau Jennifer Williams said the organisation currently partners with the United Nations Population Fund to distribute condoms to encourage safe sex. She said they have also been trying to change the mindset of teenage boys about the treatment of women through a series of workshops that they host throughout the year.

“We have been conducting public education on HIV and AIDS and we have also been conducting public education on gender-based violence,” she added.

But even with increasing interventions and campaigns to stem the transmission of HIV, Director of Policy Formulation, Monitoring and Evaluation at the NFPB Kevin Bell said people seemed “to hear it, but they tune out”.

His statement comes amidst his analysis of the 2008 survey, which showed that a significant percentage of the population still harboured myths about the disease and were not going for testing. This was primarily the case among those living in the North East region of the country.

“We need to reduce the predisposing circumstances — those circumstances that put people at risk to gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS,” he said.

Thirteen of every 100 married Kenyan women have co-wives. This means they are married to men who have at least one or more other wives, according to the latest official statistics on population trends.

Although the figure represents a drop from the 16 of every 100 married women who had co-wives in 2003, the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS), 2008/2009 says Kenyan men should restrain themselves from taking more than one wife.

Polygamy means multiple spouses; polygyny means multiple wives; and polyandry means multiple husbands. Experts believe that in Kenya polygyny is one of the social practices fuelling the spread of HIV/Aids.

It also perpetuates large families, frustrating campaigns to control population growth estimated at 2.3 per cent per year. Results of last year’s national population census — now scheduled to be released next month— are expected to show that Kenya has a population of 40 million people, a number so high that it will dominate today’s World Population Day official celebrations being held in Mombasa.

“We get worried by polygamous marriages because they increase the
likelihood that co-wives will compete among themselves at having more children and end up contributing to the average number of births per women,” said Samuel Ogola, a programme officer at the National Coordinating Agency for Population and Development.

The situation, he said, was worse among less educated women, an observation confirmed in the KDHS report. It shows that educated women were less likely to practice polygamy, a practice that was common in past centuries when having more women and children was considered to be a status symbol and a source of pride for men.

Having more daughters in the past was seen as a source of wealth from the dowry paid to their families when they were married.

Women have been urged to be more assertive and insist that their partners respect their decisions about sex.

Mr Patrick Amoateng-Mensah, Executive Director of the Centre for Development of People (CEDEP), a non-governmental organization, who made call, said that could help check their vulnerability to the HIV-AIDS infection.

He was speaking in Kumasi at the launch of the Ashanti Region “Fair play for Africa campaign”, an alliance of more than 200 civil society organizations’, using sports as a platform to draw attention to health issues affecting the people in Africa.

“Reduction of HIV/AIDS stigma among women”, was the theme.

Politicians, educationists, public officers, students, health professionals, religious leaders and other stakeholders were present to support the campaign.

Mr Amoateng-Mensah urged the people to overcome stigmatization attached to the disease and go for voluntary counseling and testing.

It is estimated that only about 10 per cent of Ghanaians know their HIV/AIDS status.

Mr Mensah also spoke of the need for those living with the disease to be supported to lead normal lives.

Dr Yeboah Awudzi, Kumasi Metropolitan Director of Health Services, said 73 per cent of people aged between 15 and 17 years, who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS disease in 2008 in the Metropolis, were girls.

Tens of thousands of Kenyan women and girls suffer from obstetric fistula, a childbirth injury causing leakage of urine and feces, a direct result of inadequate health services and failed government policies, Human Rights Watch said in a report released earlier this month.

The 82-page report, “‘I Am Not Dead, But I Am Not Living’: Barriers to Fistula Prevention and Treatment in Kenya,” describes the devastating condition facing women with fistula in Kenya and the wide gap between government’s policies to address reproductive health and the reality of women’s daily lives. It documents health system failures in five areas: education and information on reproductive and maternal health; school-based sex education; access to emergency obstetric care, including referral and transport systems; affordable maternity care and fistula repair; and health system accountability. It also documents stigma and violence many fistula sufferers face.

“Many women and girls with fistula endure lives of shame, misery, violence, and poverty,” said Agnes Odhiambo, Africa women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Preventing fistula and restoring women’s health and dignity requires more than good policies on paper. Kenya needs to keep its promise of decent health care for all.”

The risk of obstetric fistula often begins when young girls get pregnant or marry early, before their bodies are safely able to sustain a pregnancy. This can result in obstructed labor, and if emergency care – often a Caesarean section – is not accessible, the long labor results in destruction of vaginal tissue and causes a hole – a fistula – and incontinence. One of the factors leading to early pregnancy and childbearing is the lack of accurate information about sexuality. Human Rights Watch interviewed many girls with virtually no knowledge about reproductive processes or health.

Kwamboka W., who got pregnant at 13 while in primary school, told Human Rights Watch: “I didn’t know anything about family planning or condoms. I just went once and got pregnant. I still have no idea about contraceptives.”

Others told Human Rights Watch they had unprotected sex but thought they would not get pregnant because it was their first time or because they had irregular menstrual periods.

The report is based on field research conducted by Human Rights Watch in November and December 2009 in hospitals in Kisumu, Nairobi, Kisii, and Machakos, as well as in Dadaab in March 2010. Researchers interviewed 55 women and girls ranging in age from 14 to 73, 53 of whom had fistula. Twelve of those with fistula were between the ages of 14 and 18. Human Rights Watch also interviewed obstetric fistula surgeons, nurses working in hospital fistula wards, hospital administrators, representatives of nongovernmental organizations working on health and women’s rights, government officials, representatives of professional associations for doctors and nurses, international donors, United Nations representatives, and primary and secondary school teachers.

Kwamboka W. described her life after she developed a fistula: “I thought I should kill myself. You can’t walk with people. They laugh at you. You can’t travel; you are constantly in pain. It is so uncomfortable when you sleep. You go near people and they say urine smells, and they are looking directly at you and talking in low tones. It hurt so much I thought I should die. You can’t work because you are in pain; you are always wet and washing clothes. Your work is just washing pieces of rugs.”

Human Rights Watch found that even though the government has introduced sex education in schools, teachers often don’t take the time to teach it because it is not part of the syllabus.

The report also said that health care user fees are a significant barrier to maternity care and fistula surgery. Many of the women who suffer from fistula are poor. Women told Human Rights Watch how difficult it was to raise money for surgery. The Kenya government made a great stride when it began offering free maternity care in dispensaries and health centers, Human Rights Watch said. But this does not help the women who develop complications requiring care in hospitals, where fees are still charged. These fees deter poor women from seeking skilled maternity care.

Government hospitals are supposed to offer fee waivers for indigent patients, but the report identified critical shortcomings in the waiver process. These include lack of awareness of the policy among patients and some health providers; the reluctance of some facilities to publicize the waivers and deliberate withholding of information requested by patients; vague implementation guidelines, including the criteria for determining a patient’s financial needs; and lack of oversight and monitoring to ensure that hospitals grant waivers to qualifying patients. None of the women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch had received a waiver.

“Poor, rural, and illiterate women and girls are often the ones who develop obstetric fistula or die during pregnancy and childbirth,” Odhiambo said. “Important information and services are not reaching them, and this shows that government policies that promise health care equality are not being carried out.”

Strengthening health system accountability – giving people accessible and effective ways to provide feedback and lodge complaints, and ensuring that the feedback leads to improvements – can greatly enhance the health system, Human Rights Watch said. The current system of suggestion boxes is ineffective, especially for illiterate women, the report found. Several women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch had experienced abuse in health facilities, yet did not lodge complaints because they did not know how or feared retaliation.

“Camps” funded by international donors a few weeks a year in a number of towns offer surgical repairs to a small percentage of fistula sufferers, but even those who have successful surgery may still face stigma in their families and communities.

After years, sometimes decades, of isolation, many women and girls need help reintegrating into their communities. They need social and psychological support to regain self-esteem and confidence, to encourage participation in social and religious life, to regain fertility and an opportunity for a normal sexual life, and to ensure future safe childbirth. These women also need help to become financially self-sufficient.

The Kenyan government should develop and implement a national strategy to prevent fistula and provide needed services to those who have the injury, Human Rights Watch said. The effort should include a public awareness campaign about the causes of fistula, the need for childbirth to take place in properly equipped facilities, and the availability of treatment. The government should make comprehensive sex education part of the school syllabus to ensure that teachers allocate time to teach it.

The government also urgently needs to improve access to fistula surgery by subsidizing routine repairs in hospitals and providing free surgery for indigent patients, Human Rights Watch said. It should expand the exemptions from user fees to include all maternal health care, not just childbirth in dispensaries and health centers, and the government should urgently improve the quality of and access to emergency obstetric care.

Download the report from “I Am Not Dead, But I Am Not Living” – Barriers to Fistula Prevention and Treatment in Kenya from

Women’s health and rights advocacy groups responded immediately to the announcement that President Obama would exclude abortion coverage from the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (the temporary high-risk insurance pools created by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to transition us into the new health care plan). Obama has decided that women in these pools simply don’t need insurance coverage of abortion care even though there is nothing in the new law that dictates this.

From the ACLU press release on this:

Even using their own private funds, individuals would not be able to buy policies that cover abortion in these pools. The only exemptions would reportedly be for women who have been raped, who are the victims of incest or who will likely die if they carry the pregnancy to term.

What is perhaps most perplexing about this is that this plan was created to offer temporary insurance coverage to those who cannot afford coverage due to particulary serious health conditions. Women with serious health conditions may be some of the most affected by a pregnancy – the pregnancy may not cause her death but is a woman’s life of so little consequence that it matters not to President Obama if a pregnancy bears an immense burden on her already ill body? As NARAL Pro-Choice America’s Nancy Keenan puts it, “This policy means that women who are part of these pools because they have significant health problems, such as diabetes or cancer, will not be able to access abortion care, even if their health is at further risk.”

Planned Parenthood’s press release calls the rule “harmful to women”:

“The very women who need to purchase private health insurance in the new high-risk pools are likely to be more vulnerable to medically complicated pregnancies. It is truly harmful to these women that the administration may impose limits on how they use their own private dollars, limiting their health care options at a time when they need them most. This decision has no basis in the law and flies in the face of the intent of the high-risk pools that were meant to meet the medical needs of some of the most vulnerable women in this country.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights notes:

“Contrary to assertions by the White House, there’s no current legal basis for the policy. The executive order issued by the President on abortion only addressed rules for segregating funds for abortion coverage in the healthcare exchanges and limits on community health centers. The Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan policy similarly furnishes no legal basis for exclusions in the new high risk pools.

“The proposal would not even permit policyholders to use their own private dollars to purchase coverage, as the Nelson compromise allows, and instead applies a Stupak-type ban like the one rejected by Congress. Healthcare reform was a tightly bargained piece of legislation – and with this, the White House is threatening to renege on a fundamental part of its bargain with American women and families who truly need coverage. Excluding abortion coverage from the high-risk insurance pools was not part of the negotiations during healthcare reform, and nothing in the bill compels this result.”

Kelli Conlin of the National Institute for Reproductive Health says:

Considering that the women in high-risk pools are already more vulnerable to medical complications it is outrageous that their coverage will not include – at the bare minimum – abortion care for health emergencies.

This latest ban goes even further than the objectionable Nelson provision (which became law during health care reform) in that it does not give states the option of deciding to cover abortion nor does it allow a woman to buy abortion coverage . This is not acceptable.

We all know that many things can happen in pregnancy that are beyond even the healthiest woman’s control; coverage of abortion is an important part of ensuring that all women can access and afford the health care procedures they may need.

NARAL Pro-Choice America has started a letter writing campaign to urge President Obama not to exclude abortion coverage from the high-risk pools.

Unsafe abortions account for more than one in 10 women who die in pregnancy in Ghana, according to new research by the US-based Guttmacher Institute, with ignorance of the law and inadequate facilities partly to blame, say health authorities. See

Abortion was declared legal in 1985 for women who have been raped, in cases of incest, or where the pregnancy will cause the mother physical or mental harm, but decades on, only 4 percent of women are aware of the law, according to 2009 government health statistics (based on 2007 data).

Over half of healthcare providers at a teaching hospital in Kumasi, south-central Ghana, were unaware that forms of abortion are legal in Ghana, and in localized assessments “many groups working in women’s reproductive health did not know either,” said senior Guttmacher Institute researcher Gilda Sedgh.

Some 15 percent of women and girls in Ghana have had an abortion, with rates highest for those living in urban areas. Most say they do so because they cannot afford to raise a child, according to studies.

While the majority sought a doctor, 43 percent turned to a pharmacist, friend, or traditional midwives to induce an abortion, with the result that 13 percent experienced a health problem following the procedure, and of them 41 percent received no medical care.

One in 45 women or girls in Ghana risks dying from pregnancy-related causes in their reproductive lifetime, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

While the government has to some degree been clear about its stance on abortion, “making people aware of the law is a slow process,” Sedgh told IRIN. “The stigma takes a long time to wane.”

But Gloria Quansah Asare, family health director in the Ghana Health Service, told IRIN the government must be cautious in promoting abortion services because there are not enough of them: “We don’t go to the public and announce ‘come for services’. If you do that and the people come and you can’t get the services, you will be in trouble.”

The health service does not have enough doctors or clinics that can offer comprehensive abortion care, says Asare. By this she means care that includes post-abortion training in family planning, provision of contraception and counselling, on top of the procedure. “But we have doctors who should be able to further train to perform abortions,” she told IRIN.

Some NGOs like Marie Stopes International, which is registered to provide abortions in Ghana, help fill the capacity gap.

Instead of promoting abortion services, the health authorities stress the dangers of unsafe abortion and no family planning. “We want to tell our public about the dangers of unsafe abortion… We say don’t go to someone who is untrained, but go to a recognized one [doctor]… We want people to practice family planning, so we talk about it.”

The health service and Ministry of Health have imposed minimum standards in government hospitals, so that all health workers involved are well-trained, will provide counselling and preserve women’s dignity in the care they provide.

This kind of comprehensive care is not yet available in all hospitals or in many private clinics, said Asare. Many doctors still perform abortions with no discussion of family planning or follow-up care: “The next time they [the patient] gets pregnant, she comes again. It is wrong.” But take-up is increasing, she and the Guttmacher Institute agree.

The government is running a “life choice” campaign to try to encourage more responsible family planning – billboards across towns, and radio spots, transmit the message. “Everybody talks about family planning… Even the Catholic Church, which doesn’t like contraceptives, promotes natural family planning,” Asare said.

More contraceptive advice and materials are needed in clinics and hospitals, says the Guttmacher Institute. Some 35 percent of married women in Ghana have an unmet need for contraceptives, according to the 2008 demographic health survey.

Getting the family planning message across should be easier than pushing the availability of safe abortions, as “nobody likes abortion [in Ghana] – society, health professionals, even patients, but people are dying from unsafe abortion,” Asare told IRIN. “We did a study and found even health workers are unwilling to perform abortions… so we have to roll it out in such a way that people will accept it,” she said.

Many law-enforcers do not agree with the law, and crack down on clinics despite the fact they are providing legal services, Sedgh told IRIN.

Some providers still impose stiff fees because they know the women coming to them are in a bind, says Sedgh. Women in Accra pay anything from $9 to $90 for an abortion in a hospital or private clinic, according to a 2002 study by US doctors.

Asare takes a practical approach. “If a doctor does not want to perform the abortion, he should be able to refer a patient to a place where they can get such a service.”

There are signs that views are changing. In one study in the capital Accra, most adolescent females interviewed said though they disapproved of abortion, they could describe situations – such as being in an unstable relationship, or not having enough money to raise a child – where they considered it acceptable.

And 80 percent of doctors at an Accra teaching hospital favoured establishing safe abortion units within hospitals.

“My body is mine and I will decide what I do with it!” shouted the young feminist activist outside the Argentine Congress building in central Buenos Aires.

“We demand a debate on abortion in society and a vote in Congress,” she said.

After the recent vote by the Argentine Congress to legalise same-sex marriage, the legalisation of abortion does indeed seem set to be the next big debate in the country.

Calls in favour of legalisation have been fuelled in part by international criticism of the country’s high maternal mortality rates.

A recent study by the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, found that over the past 15 years complications from abortion were the main cause of maternal deaths in Argentina.

For every 100,000 live births there are 44 deaths – more than twice as high as in neighbouring Chile and Uruguay.

Abortion is permitted only in cases of rape, if the mother’s life is at risk or if the woman is deemed “of feeble mind”.

There are an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 illegal abortions each year.

But the lack of clarity about this was highlighted earlier this year when a teenaged girl asked for legal permission to terminate her pregnancy after being raped.

“It was shameful,” said Elizabeth Yapur, a lawyer in the oil industry town of Comodoro Rivadavia in the southern province of Chubut.

“The judge took 40 days to decide they could go ahead, then passed the decision on to the hospital which took a further 10 days,” said Ms Yapur.

Tests showed that the girl had been impregnated by her stepfather, a policeman, but she was 20 weeks into her pregnancy by the time she received the authorisation to end it.

Cecilia Merchan says the issue is one of social justice A high number of doctors in the health service refuse to carry out abortions, says Dr Jorge Vinacur, President of SOGIBA, the Gynaecological and Obstetrics Society of Buenos Aires.

But a lack of political will also contributes to the high maternal death rates and number of abortions, he says.

“Unsafe abortions are the main medical emergency after Caesereans. They represent a huge cost for the health system, particularly for the public sector,” he said.

“We need decent sexual education and family planning policies.”

Dr Vinacur says that the numbers of maternal deaths are also being hugely underestimated.

Research done by SOGIBA shows that for each maternal death registered in the city, two go unregistered.

“This is the tip of the iceberg – more research is needed to discover the real magnitude of this,” he said.

There are also serious deficiencies across the country in the way women are treated by the health system.

Under-Secretary of Community Health Guillermo Gonzalez acknowledged to the media that there were problems, including:
* a shortage of blood banks to cover cases of severe blood loss
* the difficulties in early detection of patients with high blood pressure
* the lack of fast treatment for infections
* and insufficient efforts to reduce abortion-related complications.

Paula Ferro, co-ordinator of the health ministry’s National Sexual Health and Responsible Procreation programme told the BBC that the government was very worried by the high number of maternal deaths.

“Argentina is determined to bring down the numbers, we don’t want another woman to die,” she said.

A national phoneline has started offering contraception and family planning advice, said Ms Ferro. The focus this year is on the poorer provinces in the north of Argentina where maternal deaths are highest.

“We think it is fundamental to clean up this situation,” says Cecilia Merchan, a member of the lower house of the Argentine Congress and a leading voice in the pro-choice debate.

“We are talking about a problem of social justice. Many of the women who have illegal abortions are resorting to unsafe abortions in unsanitary conditions because they don’t have the money to pay for a private clinic,” she said.

“All women should have the same access to a pregnancy termination in safe circumstances, not just the rich.”

Campaigners are hoping that an abortion bill launched two years ago calling for the legalisation of abortion will be debated in Congress this year before the start of presidential election campaigning in 2011.

The depth of feeling over the issue of abortion came to the fore on 20 July when reports emerged that the health ministry was about to issue new guidelines on when abortion would be permitted.

Doctors would be allowed to perform an abortion if a woman could produce a sworn statement, rather than proof, that she had been raped.

Anti-abortion campaigners argued that this amounted to legalising abortion without a debate in Congress.

“This is de facto legalisation using an administrative procedure,” Christian Hooft, vice-president of the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches, told La Nacion newspaper.

The health minister subsequently denied there would be new guidelines.

Women’s groups demand that woman be added to commission investigating Gaza flotilla, claim this is stipulated by law

The five members and two observers on the Turkel Commission are men, but women’s groups are demanding that this be changed. The women’s group, Itach Women Lawyers for Social Justice and the group WePower filed a petition on Tuesday with the High Court against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Turkel Commission with a demand that they appoint a woman to the commission charged with investigating the Gaza-bound flotilla raid.

The organizations also asked that an interim injunction be issued ordering the suspension of the commission’s activities until the petition is fully deliberated and decided upon.

The petition claims that despite the clear and decision importance of the commission’s conclusions and its effect on Israel’s international standing, the cabinet authorized the makeup of the Turkel Commission in complete opposition to the law of equality and women’s rights. Even after the decision was made to expand the commission, the petition claims, the government made no effort to appoint at least one woman to the panel.

“In the absence of women and the absence of representation of women from the spectrum of other groups in society, despite the existence of women who fulfill the requirements of membership on the panel, the petitioners view this as a blatant, clear, and unreasonable violation of the law, which explicitly states that every public committee or team charged with shaping national policy will give suitable expression to women from a range of societal groups,” the petition reads.

According to the women’s groups, the government’s attempts to appoint women to the commission are insufficient: “It is inconceivable that the commission could not find a legalist or professional from a field parallel to the commission’s work that fulfills the requirements of sitting on the panel.”

The petitioners are asking that the court rule unequivocally that “the commission deviates from the law, and therefore must rectify this wrongdoing and appoint women to the panel.”

The women’s groups emphasized in the petition that “at least one woman will bring to the commission’s table the necessary gender perspective.”,7340,L-3925891,00.html

See also: Women prepared to break the siege of Gaza
The Maryam, an all-female Lebanese aid ship, currently docked in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli, is getting ready to set sail for Gaza in the next few days. The ship, which aims to break Israel’s siege on the Palestinian territory, will carry about fifty aid workers, including some U.S. nuns keen to deliver aid to the long-suffering women and children of Gaza.

Feminist women’s groups and other leftist “social” organizations have accused the Knesset of sexism over the decision to strip Israeli Arab MK Hanin Zoabi (Balad) of privileges. The groups sent a letter of complaint to Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, part of which was printed in the Hebrew-language daily Maariv.

MKs who voted against Zoabi “are harassing her due to the fact that she’s a Palestinian Arab woman,”, the women’s group activists claimed. As proof, they said, “these same privileges were not revoked from men, either Jewish or Arab.” Israel does not call Israeli Arabs by the term ‘Palestinians’, but Zoabi calls herself by that term.

Activists also accused MKs hostile to Zoabi of making comments about the fact that she is single, “clearly demonstrating the sexism she faces and the significant discrimination against her due to the fact that she is a woman.”

The reference is to MK Yochanan Plesner (Kadima), who suggested that if Zoabi was so unhappy with Israel she should go to Gaza, saying, “We will see if you manage to live in Gaza as a thirty-eight year old single woman.”

MK Zoabi took part in a flotilla that attempted to dock in Gaza in defiance of an Israeli naval blockade on Hamas. She was aboard the Mavi Marmara, a ship that also carried members of the Turkish pro-terror group IHH. Members of the IHH attacked IDF soldiers as they came aboard, leading to a clash in which nine people were killed.

Zoabi later said she did not regret taking part in the flotilla, and would do the same thing again.

The activists who wrote to Rivlin on Zoabi’s behalf are hoping for a second vote on rescinding her privileges. Zoabi lost her diplomatic passport and her right to state coverage of any legal fees.

While the Knesset has not yet revoked privileges from male Arab MKs accused of anti-Israel activity, MK Michael Ben-Ari has led a campaign to do exactly that, with regard to Knesset Members Ahmed Tibi and Taleb al-Sana of Raam-Taal, Muhammad Barakeh and Afu Agbariya (Hadash), and Jamal Zahalka (Balad).

See also: Arab man who posed as Jew to seduce woman convicted of rape

Women’s rights campaigners say the Czech Republic’s new government has effectively told women they have no relevance to the country’s future after the new cabinet was formed – without a single female minister.

Despite a record number of women elected to parliament in elections in May and pre-election pledges by party leaders that they wanted more women in politics, women’s rights activists said they had been given a “slap in the face” after the make-up of the new cabinet was finally agreed last week.

Michaela Appeltova from the PadesatProcent (Fifty PerCent) women’s rights organisation told IPS: “The composition of the government is a symbolic signal that women are not relevant to the future of the country because the current government is going to carry out a whole series of massive reforms in all kinds of sectors, public sector, health etc., and women will have no say in this. Their perspective will be completely lost.”

Despite advances in equal rights over the last two decades, politics, as well as many other professions in the former Eastern bloc state have remained male- dominated, equal rights campaigners say.

As recently as 2002 there had been a cabinet with no women, and the number of women in parliament has been below the European average in previous parliaments. The average number of women in parliaments in countries within the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is just under 22 percent. In the outgoing Czech parliament, women made up 17 percent of the total number of MPs.

Campaigners had welcomed the results of the recent elections after a record 44 women were elected to the lower house of parliament.

The number – 22 percent of all MPs – was, say women’s rights groups, especially important in that 14 of those elected had come via a system of preferential votes where voters indicate their support on ballot papers not just for their chosen party but for the candidate of their choice.

They say that this had shown that voters wanted more women in politics, and they had been confident that the three parties forming the new coalition government would translate this support for women into the appointment of female ministers. The right-wing ODS party, which won the most votes of the three coalition parties, had said it had a female candidate for a ministerial post.

But at the end of lengthy negotiations on forming the cabinet, leaders suggested women had been put off the posts by the tough negotiations.

Jana Ciglerova, a prominent writer on equal rights, told Czech media: “It’s an absolute slap in the face. To have a government that has absolutely no women in it is shocking. It’s the third millennium, and yet half of the population is still not represented in the government.”

Others accused government leaders of hypocrisy and cynically promoting female candidates and backing more women in politics simply to get votes. 
Appeltova said: “The voters showed that they wanted more women representing them in power. But now the parties have decided on their government with no women, which completely ignores the will of the voters.”

Alexandra Jachanova-Dolezelova of the Gender Studies NGO in Prague told IPS: “The situation (with women’s rights) will get worse with this cabinet. It is good to have more women in parliament, but the executive power is with the government, which will now be a men’s club.”

The situation is in stark contrast, at least at the top, to neighbouring Slovakia which is about to have its first ever female prime minister.

Iveta Radicova, a 53-year-old former sociologist turned politician, will officially become prime minister when the new coalition government sits for the first time this week. She had last year won the support of equal rights groups when she ran, ultimately unsuccessfully, for the presidency last year.

Although she was careful not to present herself as a women’s candidate in the presidential bid — and has again tried to downplay the significance of her gender as the prime minister-elect — women’s rights groups saw her as a de facto standard-bearer for their movement, and described her as “our candidate”.

But attitudes to women’s rights in the strongly Catholic country remain conservative. Local rights groups complain of a lack of equality in the workplace, and point to the overwhelming male domination of politics. The new Slovak parliament will have 23 female MPs – one less than the previous parliament, and just 15 percent of the total number of MPs in parliament.

Slovak sociologists have said that the election of a woman to the highest ranks of politics in the country will help society by promoting discussion about gender and minorities, while others say that Radicova’s presence as prime minister could help change the political culture simply by breaking the until now almost complete male dominance of the country’s political executive.

Czech women’s rights activists say their own country should look to Slovakia as an example.

“The appointment of a female prime minister in Slovakia is a great example for us and one the Czech Republic should look to follow,” said Appeltova.

But they are meanwhile planning a public campaign including sending an open letter to the coalition parties to try and force the new government to reverse its decision.

“We will not give up on this,” said Appeltova.

“Instead of moaning all the time, why don’t you create your own (political) party?” some men asked Brigitte Rabemanantsoa Rasamoelina, a female politician from Madagascar. She accepted the challenge and in February formed Ampela Mano Politika, a political party which started with only 22 female members and now has over 5,000 female members … and 10 men.

With female political representation standing at only 3.75 percent in Madagascar, a women’s lot is very precarious, says Rasamoelina.

And so too is the situation for many women in most of the Indian Ocean Islands. Female political representation is a mere three percent in Comoros, 18 percent in Mauritius and 23.5 percent in the Seychelles.

It is one of the reasons why Rasamoelina and 30 other women from the Indian Ocean Islands, gathered recently in Mauritius to identify ways to attain parity among men and women in politics in an event organised by the Indian Ocean Commission and Women in Politics (WIP).

“There are only 67 female mayors for the 1,557 regional councils and not a single female among the 22 heads of the regions,” Rasamoelina says of the female representation in Madagascar.

While the situation in the Seychelles may be slightly different, with claims that women do not face the same discrimination as on other islands, representation is still low at 23.5 percent in light of the country’s commitment to the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development – which commits countries to work towards the goal of having 50 percent women in political and decision-making positions by 2015.

And in Comoros, a relatively conservative Muslim country, only one woman sits among 33 men in Parliament. While the challenges facing women in politics are different on each island, they are also similar in many respects.

Rasamoelina observes that in Madagascar a major obstacle to women’s participation in politics is motivated by the local customs and traditions which say that men only should rule.

“Women are put in front when there is need to support and to applause. We are not just machines to give the breast to a child and to procreate. This is not our weakness but an added value to the society,” says Rasamoelina.

More women in decision-making processes, she says, would allow women’s voices to be heard. Women’s rights organisations are asking for Madagascar’s new constitution to include the requirement for gender equality in all aspects, including politics.

But in the Seychelles things are different. Men make room for women in politics and the percentage of female representation is the highest (23.5 percent) in this Indian Ocean island.

Linda William, the Principal Secretary at the Social Development Department, says there is no discrimination against women in her country and political parties elect people who are capable – be they men or women.

“Evidently it is through education that women play a role in politics in the Seychelles. There is no religious or cultural barrier for women to be involved in politics. I would say it is a matter of choice.”

William says the Seychelles is well placed to reach the 50 percent of female representation at the 2012 elections. But in contrast, in Comoros women are barely involved in politics and are literally absent from any decision-making process. Here the situation is blamed largely on a lack of self-belief.

“The Comorian woman lacks confidence. She is satisfied with her job in the public sector,” says Echati Chadhouli, a member of the National Network of Gender Lawyers (RENAG).

She does not blame men for lack of female representation in Parliament, claiming that educated men would not prevent women from entering the political field.

“We had some difficulty earlier with the religious leaders but no longer. Women are now free to enter politics and to seek higher positions. But since they are not fully sensitised, the Comorian women keep people waiting for them,” Chadhouli says.

In the French colony, La Réunion, men do not want to share power so easily, says Nassimah Dindar, president of the General Council, who also acts as head of the government of the colony.

“In spite of the legislation on parity on the regional and municipal election list, there are still many hurdles from political parties that women have to climb before succeeding,” she emphasises.

She finds it easy for men to tarnish the reputation of women and to destabilise them in politics. “This is why many women are not interested in politics fearing to get hurt in this battle of the cocks,” Dindar told IPS.

In Mauritius, it is still difficult for a woman to get an election ticket. Here a candidate must be nominated by the leader of their political party before they can stand for elected office. The alternative is to run as an independent candidate.

Aline Wong, obtained an election ticket from the ruling party “Alliance of the Future” but was not elected to office in the country’s May elections. Wong says men have always dominated the political field while women are just starting and need some time to find their place on this route full of hurdles.

“The party needs winning candidates. Since the leaders think women have got less chance to win, they nominate only a few of them,” Wong observes, putting the blame on the lack of a strong lobby for women.

But Bruno Woomed, a member of WIP, who monitors the move to improve female representation in politics in Mauritius, thinks change will only take place through legislation and the introduction of a system of proportional representation and a temporary quota for women.

“If we leave it to the goodwill of political parties, nothing will change,” he says.

The women have committed themselves to mobilise society in favour of female representation by 2015 by creating platforms to develop a network among the countries where experiences and the best practices will be shared. This network of female leaders is already in operation.

Any Deals With Insurgents Should Guarantee Women’s Rights

Ongoing Taliban attacks on women in Afghanistan show why women’s rights should be a priority in any political agreement with insurgent forces, Human Rights Watch said in a report released last week. The Afghan government and its international supporters have ignored the need to protect women in programs to reintegrate insurgent fighters and have not guaranteed that women’s rights will be included in potential talks with the Taliban, Human Rights Watch said.

The 65-page report, “The ‘Ten-Dollar Talib’ and Women’s Rights: Afghan Women and the Risks of Reintegration and Reconciliation“, addresses the potential challenges to women’s rights posed by future government agreements with insurgent forces. The report describes how in areas under Taliban control, women are often subjected to threats, intimidation and violence, girls’ education is targeted, and women political leaders and activists are attacked and killed with impunity.

“Afghan women shouldn’t have to give up their rights so the government can cut a deal with the Taliban,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “It would be a tragic betrayal to snatch away the progress made by and for women and girls over the past nine years.”

In areas they control or influence, the Taliban have threatened and attacked women in public life and ordinary women who work outside their homes. A common form of threat is the “night letter,” a note often left at a house or school.

A female government employee quit her job after receiving this letter in February 2010: “We Taliban warn you to stop working for the government otherwise we will take your life away. We will kill you in such a harsh way that no woman has so far been killed in that manner. This will be a good lesson for those women like you who are working.”

Hossai, a 22-year-old working for an American development company, received similar threats by phone but continued to work. In April, unidentified gunmen shot her dead as she left her office. Soon after, another woman received a night letter telling her that she would be next: “In the same way that yesterday we have killed Hossai, whose name was on our list, your name and other women’s names are also on our list.”

Taliban and other insurgents regularly target girls’ education, including threatening and attacking female teachers and students. In February, a girls’ school in a northern province received the following night letter:

“You were already informed by us to close the school and not mislead the pure and innocent girls under this non-Muslim government; however you did not pay attention…. This is the last warning to close the school immediately… If you remain in the province, remember that you and your family will be eliminated.”

There is little sign so far that the government of President Hamid Karzai is adequately addressing concerns about these attacks in its programs to reintegrate insurgents or in proposals to shift from fighting the Taliban to reconciling with senior Taliban leaders, Human Rights Watch said.

The Afghan government has offered only weak assurances for women that it intends to safeguard the freedoms they have regained since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001. In recent years, Karzai has sold women short when it was politically expedient. In March 2009, for example, he signed the discriminatory Shia Personal Status Law (which denies Shia women the rights to child custody and freedom of movement, among other rights), and in 2008 he pardoned two convicted gang rapists for political reasons.

Some international advocates of reintegration are recasting the insurgency as primarily non-ideological, highlighting “ten-dollar Talibs,” who fight only for money. United States and NATO forces and several major donors are strongly backing reintegration programs, which they will largely finance. Their support for reconciliation with the Taliban is more limited.

Despite promises from Afghanistan’s international supporters to promote women’s rights, Human Rights Watch remains concerned that they, too, may sacrifice women’s rights as part of an exit strategy from Afghanistan. For instance, although the Afghan government has said that insurgents who reintegrate or reconcile with the government will have to agree to the Afghan constitution, which upholds equal rights for women, there is no vetting or mechanism to ensure compliance.

Human Rights Watch interviews suggest that there is division among Afghan and international actors about whether it will be possible to offer explicit safeguards for women’s rights to education, work, and political engagement.

“Donor governments rightfully stress Afghan leadership of these processes,” Malinowski said. “But that doesn’t mean they have to bankroll Afghan deals that will endanger women.”

The Afghan government has sought to co-opt opposition factions by offering them impunity for war crimes and other serious violations of international law. But justice and accountability for serious crimes should be at the core of any reconciliation process with the Taliban and other insurgents, Human Rights Watch said. That requires bringing current government officials to justice for serious crimes, as well as stronger vetting of candidates for elected office and political appointments.

The report outlines conditions that should be included in any reintegration and negotiation or reconciliation process to ensure women’s rights. The rights of women to work, obtain an education, and engage in political life should be explicitly safeguarded, Human Rights Watch said. Individuals with a history of serious abuses against women and girls should be excluded from power. And women leaders need to be fully involved in the decision-making processes for both reintegration and reconciliation, since they are themselves the best guarantors of their rights.

“Afghan women are paying a heavy price in this conflict, and no one wants peace more than they do,” Malinowski said. “But their rights don’t have to be traded away in hasty deals. There can be peace with justice.”

Download the report The “Ten-Dollar Talib” and Women’s Rights – Afghan Women and the Risks of Reintegration and Reconciliation from

Women’s groups have welcomed a recent measure by the Ministry of Justice to amend penal laws that would improve the safety and well-being of women and children in Jordan.

During a meeting with ministry officials at the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW), they commended the amendments, saying it would reduce cases of domestic violence.

In May this year, the Justice Ministry introduced four temporary laws passed by the Cabinet to improve the criminal justice system, particularly regarding crimes committed against women and children.

The four pieces of legislation include the amended Penal Code, the amended Grand Felonies Court Law (known as the Criminal Court), the Attorney General Department Law and the Treasury Cases Law.

Minister of Justice Ayman Odeh told women activists that the amendments were important and timely because of the increase in crime figures, noting that this entailed “introducing tougher measures to reduce the number of murders”.

“The amendments respond to changes in society and modern standards of justice especially since the Penal Code was first drafted in 1951 as a temporary law and became a permanent law in 1960,” Odeh told the gathering.

One of the most important changes, the minister said, was prohibiting courts from applying the “fit of fury” clause stipulated in Article 98 if the murder victim is a minor or a female regardless of age.

Many perpetrators of so-called honour killings used to benefit from reduced penalties under Article 98 after claiming that they murdered their female relatives to cleanse their family’s honour.

In July 2009, however, a specialised tribunal was designated to try cases where perpetrators claim family honour as a motive and started issuing prison terms ranging between seven and 15 years, after establishing that the majority of the murders were committed without any proof that the defendant caught the victim committing adultery.

“The Criminal Court will only apply Article 340 in cases in which persons are caught committing adultery,” the minister said, noting that in 40 years, Article 340 was applied in only one case.

This, the minister added, will impose restrictions on the use of the “fit of fury clause that is stipulated in Article 98”.

Also, the prison term for manslaughter was raised from 15 to 20 years, Odeh told the gathering, while life imprisonment was increased by 10 years to 30 years.

The minister referred to another law related to the minimum punishment for physical assault resulting in death, which has been increased to seven instead of five years. If the crime is committed against a minor or a female, regardless of her age, the minimum prison term is 12 years.

Praising the amendments, JNCW Secretary General Asma Khader noted that the ministry adopted many of the commission’s recommendations.

“We are hopeful that the increase in punishments for crimes committed against women and children will be a deterring factor and help reduce these offences and murders,” Khader said.

She added that the women’s movement is hopeful that the Parliament will endorse these laws after the November elections.

Odeh said a Royal Decree was issued in July approving these laws, which will govern any crime or murder committed after July 1.

The new UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women will pump the bulk of its projected US$500 million annual budget into programming to directly benefit the world’s most vulnerable women, but this unprecedented boost may still leave the agency lacking influence and impact, civil society advocates say.

The base funding for this entity, known as UN Women, more than doubles all the resources now available to the four UN gender agencies – UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, the Division for the Advancement of Women, and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW). UN Women will formally come into being in January 2011.

UNIFEM Deputy Executive Director Moez Doraid says $500 million is still “miniscule, compared to our needs, and those are enormous needs.”

“The purpose [of UN Women] is to expand and strengthen UNIFEM’s activities, to broaden them so that they may benefit more women in more countries,” Doraid told IRIN. “It gives us so much hope that it will help overcome these weaknesses that have plagued our work for so long, including problems of under-sourcing, a lack of authority and positioning within the UN system, and a need to achieve key coordination as a whole.”

UN Women’s creation marks a watershed in gender mainstreaming at an internal UN level, but it is unclear how this achievement will ultimately translate into a safer, better life for vulnerable women: globally more than six out of 10 women experience physical violence, including sexual violence, during their lifetime.

“Of course, actions are louder than words and UN Women remains very much a promise of action,” said Elisabeth Roesch, gender-based violence advocacy director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “The coming months and years will be a crucial period to see if this agency lives up to that promise and is able to make a difference. Two things that will certainly be essential are strong leadership and resources.”

UN Women’s proposed $500 million annual budget is intended to increase within five years to $1 billion – an amount the Gender Equality Architectural Reform (GEAR) campaign, an international civil society movement that has been advocating UN Women’s creation since 2006, says is required to sufficiently scale up programming and resources for women.

“In 2008 we found that the existing gender equality bodies at the UN had $221 million, and compare that to $27 billion, the expenditure of the entire UN that year, and it’s less than even one percent,” said Daniela Rosech, the leading gender justice policy adviser for Oxfam International. “This $500 million is still too little, and with the UN’s own working group proposing that by 2015, 15 percent of overall development assistance will be allocated toward gender, why is that not happening?”

Doraid says UN Women’s budget increase will be dependent on member-nation contributions. Several UN countries, including the UK and Norway, have expressed commitments to “double or considerably increase their contributions” to UNIFEM, soon to be morphed into UN Women, in the past few years. Spain donated about $42 million to UN Women on 2 July, the day the General Assembly approved its creation, marking the “largest single” contribution any UN gender entity has received.

As it stands, however, UN Women will still absorb UNIFEM’s country programme offices, which will be better resourced, staffed and widespread than UNIFEM’s were, said Charlotte Bunch, one the GEAR campaign’s co-founders.

“Long term programming comes with a kind of funding that allows you to not have one gender equality programme office with someone in the back of the building, as we see now, but expert staff that can travel the country,” said Oxfam’s Rosech.

UNIFEM’s largest programme in Afghanistan is “generally well funded”, Doraid says, but its capacity has remained limited in other conflict and post-conflict zones, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where “a crucial missing link in the chain has been the [functioning] instruments that allow persecution of perpetrators of rape.”

“This has not materialized and it would be a high priority to ensure such tools and instruments are there when they are needed,” he said.

Working to enact gender-based violence laws is another major goal for UN Women, Doraid says, noting that more than 100 countries lack specific legislation prohibiting and protecting women from domestic violence.

UN Women’s leadership by an under-secretary general to be appointed this autumn, will “certainly contribute to the status and positioning of this organization” in and out of the Secretariat, Doraid said. Its chief’s “very senior level” will elevate UN Women’s status, granting gender equality programmes and issues an unparalleled level of visibility.

UN Women offices’ many facets “are still being worked out,” said Bunch, who noted that their influence will also expand to UNICEF offices and to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

As UN Women solidifies within the next five months, it will ideally bridge the gap between abstract dialogue at the UN Secretariat about fostering a “global voice” for women, and action on the ground, says Rosech.

“We do need a global voice but it’s not just a question of that, because a global voice can be limited to the Secretariat and that isn’t where our main challenges are,” she said. “We also need a strong country-by-country presence and it’s a question of how do we get that done.”

There’s also the risk of a “fragile and difficult political dynamic” that contributed to the four-year lag in UN Women’s creation, weakening its charter’s wording on sexual violence and on reproductive and sexual health, Rosech said. That could make some leading donor countries less willing to support an agency they see as compromised.

“We aren’t naïve enough to think that a women’s structure is going to be free of the pressures that all the UN agencies work with vis-à-vis donors,” Bunch echoed. “The first obstacle will be getting the money and the second will be facing governments with a limited commitment for this entity.”

“Things don’t just happen because it’s a good idea. They happen because people keep putting pressure and monitoring so structures like these can have legs.”