Archive for the ‘War Conflict’ Category

When a woman volunteers for the military, she gives up the comfort, safety and freedom of civilian life. This she expects, as do men.

Serving her country shouldn’t mean doubling her likelihood of being sexually assaulted, or, if she is, lowering the chance that the offender will be punished. But that’s what the military means for women, according to the Service Women’s Action Network.

What the Pentagon gives out in the way of this sort of information shows only a slice of reality, says Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine and the executive director of the servicewomen’s group, which is based in New York.

Her group has gone to court with its claim that the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are stonewalling its request for more data.

A Defense Department press officer, Maj. Monica Bland, wouldn’t address the litigation specifically but acknowledged the problem.

“Much work remains to be done,” Bland said by e-mail, and “the Department is committed to the goals of preventing sexual assault, increasing reporting, and improving DoD response to the crime.”

The servicewomen’s group puts it this way in its lawsuit: “Sexual assault pervades the ranks of the American military.” The American Civil Liberties Union and its Connecticut chapter are also plaintiffs in the case, filed in federal court in Connecticut.

They want records, on mistreatment ranging from sexual harassment to rape, that will better reveal the frequency and circumstances, the prosecution of cases and the treatment given victims, who often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The various branches of the armed forces define, count, track and report incidents differently. Because of that, the annual reports Congress requires of the Defense Department can’t tell the full picture. Letters from the servicewomen’s organization to agencies within Defense and the VA produced few records, so the group filed suit last week.

The idea that members and veterans of the military would have to go to court to get this information is astounding. Where is Julian Assange when he’s really needed?

Even incomplete, the numbers that are available are disturbing enough.

Surveys in recent years show that roughly one in three servicewomen say they were sexually assaulted during their time in the military. Of those who say they were raped, 14 percent said they were gang-raped, according to a survey reported by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2003.

As hesitant as sexual-assault victims in civilian life are to report the crime, it’s worse in the military. Fear of reprisal, uncertainty over what will result, and the military structure and mindset all discourage victims from reporting.

Still, either reporting is getting better or sexual predation is getting worse in the services. A Defense Department report released December shows sexual assaults at the military service academies are up.

And, citing Defense Department figures, the lawsuit says the number of sexual assaults within the armed services rose 73 percent from 2004 to 2006 and 11 percent from 2008 to 2009.

While the government has made it easier for servicemen and servicewomen to get help for post-traumatic stress disorder, the improvements won’t do much to help victims of sexual mistreatment, according to Bhagwati. The veteran with combat- related PTSD no longer has to prove a precise link between his condition and a specific episode. But victims of sexual assault have to show they were assaulted, hard to do in a system where records are often not kept.

And yet, 71 percent of female veterans seeking VA disability benefits for PTSD have been sexually traumatized, says the lawsuit.

Already we know enough to recognize a very serious problem. And it seems to be getting worse, even after high-profile promises to protect service members against sexual predators, increased reporting and more educational programs, and recommendations to standardize reporting and create environments where victims feel safe to report and offenders fear the consequences.

So it’s no surprise that while about 40 percent of those accused of sexual assault in the civilian world get prosecuted, only 8 percent of military sex offenders do.

Consider the case of three enlisted sailors who were discharged from the Navy after the rape of a female midshipman enrolled at Annapolis.

During a cruise with classmates, she and nine other midshipmen left the ship for a party in a sailor’s apartment. The other midshipmen eventually left her behind with three enlisted sailors, at least one of whom raped her, according to the new report on sexual violence at military academies.

The sailors’ punishment was discharge, not civilian prosecution.

Surely the worldwide sex scandal involving some Catholic priests taught that you can’t handle these things internally and let the predator move someplace else to prey on the unaware.

Protecting servicemen and servicewomen from sexual mistreatment, whether harassment, assault or rape, is hard enough when you know precisely what’s going on.

But until there’s enough information to know that, it simply can’t get much better.

And no one signs up for that.

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously on 18th December 2010 to name and shame individuals and parties to armed conflict that are “credibly suspected” of committing rape or other forms of sexual violence.

The council said it intends to use the list, to be compiled by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “for more focused United Nations engagement with those parties,” including imposing targeted sanctions.

The resolution adopted by the council reiterates deep concern that despite its repeated condemnation, rapes and attacks on women and children caught in conflict continue to occur “and in some situations have become systematic and widespread, reaching appalling levels of brutality.”

The council action follows the rape of 303 civilians — 235 women, 13 men, 52 girls and 3 boys — in 13 villages in eastern Congo between July 30 and Aug. 2. Even in the conflict-wracked region, where rape has become a daily hazard and some women have been sexually assaulted repeatedly over the years, the numbers released by the U.N. were shocking.

Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. envoy trying to combat sexual violence in conflict, welcomed the adoption of the resolution, saying the new system of monitoring and accountability should “shatter the vicious cycle of impunity for wartime sexual violence.”

She stressed that the naming and shaming “must apply equally whether the victim is an eight-year-old girl or an 80-year-old grandmother.”

“Today’s resolution will help ensure that mass rape is never again met with mass impunity,” she said. “Instead of serving as a cheap, silent and effective tactic of war, sexual violence will be a liability for armed groups. It will expose their superiors to increased international scrutiny, seal off the corridors of power and close all exits to those who commit, command or condone such acts.”

The International Criminal Court has added rape and sexual violence to the list of war crimes. Congo’s former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba is currently on trial at the court in The Hague, Netherlands, for murder, rape and pillage committed by members of his private militia in Central African Republic in 2002-2003. Wallstrom said the number of alleged rapes exceeds the number of killings.

Last month, she said there should be more prosecutions for rape during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. Only 12 cases have been prosecuted out of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 victims in Bosnia, which shows “the magnitude of the problem,” she said.

Human Rights Watch called the council’s decision to publish an annual list of alleged perpetrators “a tremendous step toward ending this horrendous practice.”

“Today is a big day for women worldwide,” Marianne Mollmann, the organization’s women’s rights advocacy director, said in a statement.

The new resolution will provide the international community “with an additional tool to offer justice to thousands of victims of wartime rape,” she said.

The resolution reiterated the council’s demand “for the complete cessation with immediate effect by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence” and called on parties to armed conflict “to make and implement specific and time-bound commitments to combat sexual violence.”

Aid agencies and donors are failing to take into account the relief and security needs of women displaced by disasters and conflicts, according to Elisabeth Rasmusson, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

For example, in Pakistan’s northwest Khyber Pakhtunkwa province, cultural practices mean Pashtun women cannot be seen by men who are not family members. So when the worst floods in the country’s history devastated their homes in July, they faced serious problems.

Unless the aid agencies on the ground had female assessment teams and other staff in place, these women were “invisible” and could not even visit the toilets during the day, Rasmusson told AlertNet in an interview.

The assistance they received – including clean water, food, sanitation and access to maternity care – was limited, she said.

“Worse, during Ramadan, women were fasting from sunset to sunrise, but they were also looking after the kids so the kids didn’t have food or drinks for 12 hours. Many babies and small children were totally dehydrated,” recalled Rasmusson, who visited the region in August.

This is just one example where women’s humanitarian needs have been overlooked, said the head of the NRC, an organisation that promotes and protects the rights of people who have been forced to flee their homes.

Around the world, millions of women uprooted by war live in fear of abuse and discrimination, aid workers say.

There are more than 43 million people displaced by conflict, three quarters of them estimated to be women and children, according to NRC. Some have fled to another part of their own country and others have crossed borders.

“Women are exposed to assault and injustice in all kinds of environments, and by anyone from a military soldier to family members,” Rasmusson said. “And often perpetrators go free, so there is little risk in abusing, raping, kidnapping or killing women.”

A binding Security Council resolution, passed 10 years ago, calls for women and girls in conflicts to be protected from rape, but only around 20 countries have implemented it. A recent U.N. report said sexual violence is an increasingly common weapon of war.

Simple measures such as making sure camps for the displaced are well-lit, building toilets within compounds, and letting civilians – instead of armed troops – run the camps can help provide safety for women, Rasmusson said.

But displaced women’s voices are not being heard, often because of “a total lack of understanding of the situation on the ground”, she added.

Donor indifference also means funding for activities to protect women from violence and discrimination has been decreasing.

With Pakistan’s flood response, for example, only 13 percent of the money needed to protect women has been provided, and in Zimbabwe, only 10 percent of this work is funded.

“Few donors are willing to fund protection activities because they’re not visible. The food, the shelter, the water, the health – all visible, tangible, concrete,” Rasmusson said.

One factor hampering displaced women’s security is the increased militarisation of protection, which is seen as the job of armed personnel even though it encompasses physical and mental safety as well as human rights, Rasmusson said.

She cited Democratic Republic of Congo as an example, saying U.N. peacekeepers there have a “contradictory mandate”. Although protecting civilians is part of their mission, they were involved in military operations last year with the Congolese army “which is one of the main perpetrators” of sexual violence against women, the top refugee official said.

“What kind of signal is that sending when you have people who are supposed to protect you supporting those who are violating your rights?” she asked.

From March to December 2009, U.N. troops backed the DRC military in an operation against Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo’s east. Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, accused the army (link: of widespread rape and brutal killings during that time.

The rising trend of displacement in urban settings, like Kabul and Mogadishu, also leaves women and children more exposed, because of higher crime levels in cities and difficulty of access for aid agencies.

Protecting women more effectively requires a deeper understanding of the role of men in conflict, Rasmusson said, as they change from providers to warriors once they take up arms. And that aggressive role may well continue even after conflict has ended, leading to a rise in domestic violence.

Rasmusson urged peace negotiators to make more effort to seek and incorporate displaced women’s voices and needs into peace agreements and other post-conflict processes.

“We have seen time and time again (that) only women can communicate their own needs – not the men, not the foreigners, not all the international experts negotiating these peace agreements,” she said.

16 Days 2010 Theme Announcement

This year marks the 20th 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign, and with this important landmark, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) is considering new ways to utilize the campaign for transformative change. Year after year, new partners join the 16 Days Campaign to bring local, national, and global attention to the various forms of violence that women face. The attention that gender-based violence has received in international forums is a testimony to the powerful actions of women’s rights activists around the world. Yet, despite this increased awareness, women continue to experience violations in alarming numbers and new forms of violence are emerging. We, as defenders of women’s human rights, have a responsibility to look more closely at the structures in place that permit gender-based violence to exist and persist. After much consultation with activists, organizations, and experts from around the world, militarism has emerged as one of the key structures that perpetuates violence.

While there are many different ways to define militarism, our working definition outlines militarism as an ideology that creates a culture of fear and supports the use of violence, aggression, or military interventions for settling disputes and enforcing economic and political interests. It is a psychology that often has grave consequences for the true safety and security of women and of society as a whole. Militarism is a distinctive way of looking at the world; it influences how we see our neighbors, our families, our public life, and other people in the world. To embrace militarism is to presume that everyone has enemies and that violence is an effective way to solve problems. To leave militaristic ways of thinking unchallenged is to leave certain forms of masculinity privileged, to leave global hierarchies of power firmly in place, to grant impunity to wartime perpetrators of violence against women. To roll back militarism is to inspire more expansive ideas about genuine security, to bring more women into public life, to create a world built not on the competitive sale of weapons, but on authentic relations of trust and cooperation.

There is a need to address militaristic beliefs in all of our societies. Militarism has material and institutional, as well as cultural and psychological consequences that are more difficult to measure. Wars, internal conflicts, and violent repressions of political and social justice movements – all of which are a result of a culture of militarism – have a particular and often disproportionate impact on women. Rape is used as a tactic of war to drive fear and to humiliate women and their communities. But sexual violence is just one form of violence that women and girls suffer throughout the continuum of violence before, during and after conflict has ostensibly ended. Militarism neither ends nor begins in warzones, nor does it confine itself to the public sphere. The families of militarized men and women may experience violence in their homes where ‘war crimes’ and armed domestic violence are hidden from public view, and women who serve in the military are just as easily victims of sexual assault by their fellow soldiers. Even places that are not experiencing conflict directly are not exempt from militarism: they send troops, produce and sell weapons, and invest in the militaries of foreign governments rather than supporting development efforts. These governments have skewed priorities, spending huge percentages of their budgets on the military and arms rather than on social services, such as education, health care, job security, and development that would yield real security for women.

For these reasons, the international theme for the 2010 16 Days Campaign will be:
Structures of Violence: Defining the Intersections of Militarism and Violence Against Women

Continues at

We (Lakhdar Brahimi and Mary Robinson) have just visited the Gaza Strip where we met many courageous people trying to live relatively normal lives despite the crippling effects of the illegal Israeli blockade. The blockade was imposed to punish the Hamas-led government, but it is women and children who are paying the highest price.

In our conversations with a range of women, we learned that despite the apparent “easing” of restrictions by Israel and Egypt, important socio-economic indicators such as poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and family violence are getting worse. Women in this conservative society find their domestic responsibilities made all the more difficult and time-consuming by the blockade — and they bear the brunt of society’s frustration and anger in such trying times.

Equally disturbing are the creeping restrictions on women’s freedom imposed by Hamas activists. These restrictions are not being imposed through the introduction of laws, but rather through party-led initiatives that are enforced without any system of accountability. For example, there is no legal decree stating that all schoolgirls must wear a headscarf, yet those who don’t wear it are harassed. Women are punished if they smoke in public, while their male compatriots are allowed to do so. And at the beach, Gaza’s main source of fun and entertainment, women and men are strictly segregated.

The erosion of women’s freedoms is compounded by their lack of participation in politics. In Gaza, women already struggle to be heard. The absence of women from politics in turn fuels perceptions of women as passive; they are seen as victims of the ongoing conflict, rather than active participants in shaping opinions and political processes. Despite the extremely challenging circumstances in which they live, it was therefore encouraging to meet a remarkable group of women in Gaza who are working hard to counter prevailing stereotypes. They are doing it in particular through a UN mechanism called 1325.

Ten years ago, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, which recognized that sustainable peace could not be achieved in any conflict without the full participation — and protection — of women. We were impressed to see that women’s groups in Gaza are working hard to mobilize support for the democratic principles of Resolution 1325. At the heart of this resolution is the conviction that women, like men, have a right to participate as decision-makers in all aspects of governance: Women have a right to a voice in institutions that are democratic and accountable, including those that govern peacemaking.

Women’s groups in Gaza told us that they are doing their best to raise awareness about Resolution 1325 among local leaders. They have provided training to women on the ground in how to exercise their political rights. They have documented human rights violations and violence against women, and they participated in the UN investigation, led by Judge Richard Goldstone, to establish whether war crimes were committed during the devastating Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008/January 2009. However, they don’t feel that there has been any positive improvement in the lives of Gazan women.

Women activists are clamoring for help from beyond Gaza: “What we do ourselves is not enough”, they told us. “We need help to make sure that our voices are heard in the outside world.” These women are very keen to join networks worldwide who are working on Resolution 1325 and women’s rights more generally; They want to stand in solidarity with women around the world and feel that they are not alone. They want to reach out to the wider international community, but they are penned in — the blockade prevents them from doing so.

This is one, largely unrecognized, price of the blockade of Gaza: It is hampering women’s efforts to cooperate and build a movement that can effectively advance gender equality. The effect extends beyond politics; the disempowerment of women hinders post-conflict reconstruction, reduces the likelihood that it will be sustainable, and prevents any meaningful progress on development.

As Elders, we call for the immediate and complete lifting of the blockade on Gaza. The ongoing siege is a denial of dignity; it is the denial of rights of a people, particularly its women, who yearn to be free.

Lakhdar Brahimi and Mary Robinson are both members of The Elders. Mary Robinson was the first woman President of Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002. Lakhdar Brahimi is a distinguished diplomat and mediator. He was Foreign Minister of Algeria from 1991 to 1993 and has led UN missions in South Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thousands of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo marched against mass rapes, which have become increasingly prevalent in the country as a weapon of war. According to CNN, many of the marchers were rape survivors. The march took place in Bukavu, located in eastern Congo and followed a peace and development forum, reports Agence France Presse.

World March of Women, together with local women’s groups, organized the march. Organizers aimed to use the event to fight the stigma often faced by rape victims and to draw global attention to the use of rape as a tactic of war. Congolese women’s activist Nita Vielle commented to CNN,”they have had enough…enough of the war, of the rape, of nobody paying attention to what’s happening to them.” World March of Women representative, Celia Alldridge, told CNN, “it’s just great to have so many women out on the streets. We believe that women should not be made prisoners in their own homes.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been named the “rape capital of the world” by the United Nations. According to CNN, there were 15,000 women raped by armed rebel groups in eastern Congo in 2009. Between July 30 and August 2 of this year alone, more than 300 people, mostly women, were raped in the country’s North Kivu province. The United Nations has condemned the lack of civilian protection provided by Congolese police, military, and UN stabilization forces in the area. Since the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo began in 1998, tens of thousands of civilians have been raped.

See also: British women march in The Democratic Republic of Congo in solidarity with Congolese women, issue call for end to violence

A women’s peace delegation – led by Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams – wrapped up a seven-day tour of Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories. The delegation of 10 women – mostly American – traveled to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron, Haifa and Nazareth, and met with women peacebuilders, as well as the Israeli military, members of the Knesset, lawyers, Israeli settlers, staff from the United Nations and community leaders. Their goal was to learn first-hand the challenges to peace—and how some women are overcoming those barriers.

“We learned that there is a partner in peace,” said Williams. “Against the backdrop of violence and daily humiliations, there are women working on the ground in both Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories who use nonviolent protest and dialogue as a means to building a more just and equitable situation. For real peace to happen, these women must be part of the official peace process.”

The delegation visited the region as the US-brokered peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials—which began on September 2—continued without much substantive progress. Most of the women’s groups the delegation met with have called for civil society, including women’s organizations, to be an integral part of that process. They are also calling for the negotiations to be more ‘transparent’.

“Most of the people in power derive their power from the conflict,” noted one activist from Isha L’Isha, a grassroots organization based in Haifa that includes both Israeli and Palestinian women. “We need to ensure that people without power—but committed to ending the conflict—are also heard in the peace process.”

The group—along with other women’s groups in Israel—has called for no less than 30 percent of direct participation by women in all level of negotiations to ensure greater transparency and more attention to the needs of civilians, including women. As well, they are asking that a plan for reconciliation between the two communities be part of any final agreement.

The women activists in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and Gaza echoed the words of their Israeli counterparts during meetings with the delegation in Ramallah, and during visits to three well known sites of nonviolent resistance to occupation: Bi’lin, Ni’lin and Hebron.

“When I am alone I feel weak,” one woman in Ramallah told the delegation, which was hosted in the West Bank by Palestinian leader Dr. Mustafa Barghouti. “But here together with [all of you] I feel strong.” The delegation heard testimony from 300 women who joined the delegation at a conference on gender justice organized by the Palestinian NGO, Health Development Information Policy Institute (HDIP). The conference also connected with women in Gaza through a video-conference.

Earlier in the weak, staff at the UN told delegation members that the situation in Gaza is a “dignity crisis” and noted that most residents of Gaza are refugees. They estimate that 80% of the people in Gaza are reliant on UN food aid. Babies die at the checkpoints waiting to get into Israel for medical help, and thousands of children are not being educated because of the ban on bringing new building supplies into Gaza to build new schools. On top of all that, with an unemployment rate of close to 45%, Hamas leadership is making things worse by closing businesses that employ both men and women.

Yet, the delegation heard that despite all these obstacles—women are not deterred.

“A high point for me was hearing all these Palestinian women saying ‘Don’t be diverted. We can have peace, a strong democracy’”, said Janaan Hashim, a delegation member and lawyer from Chicago. “Women will be a major part in [making peace] happen.”

Towards the end of the week-long visit to the region, the delegation met with women settlers in Gush Etzion, located in the southern part of the West Bank. Their goal in visiting the settlement was to better understand the scope of the settlement issue.

“The settlements are a much larger machine than I had realized,” said Jody Williams. “They are a massive apparatus—and now I understand much more clearly what a serious impediment to the peace process these so-called ‘outposts’ really are.”

The day the delegation arrived to Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lifted the freeze on building settlements—one of the most contentious issues in the US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“A visit to Hebron painfully revealed the way in which the commercial center of this Palestinian city of 400,000 had been virtually closed down by the Israeli authorities in order to protect freedom of movement for 450 radical Jewish settlers, provocatively living in the middle of this Palestinian city,” said Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a delegation member from Minnesota, in an opinion editorial she wrote for the Star Tribune.

Settlement Watch, a project of the Israeli group Peace Now that monitors and protests the building of settlements, estimates that settlers have built 100 ‘outposts’ on occupied territories—at the cost of approximately 556 million dollars a year.

“The route of the wall/separation barrier is frequently determined by the needs of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank rather than by security needs alone,” noted Rabbi Eilberg. But Eilberg is not discouraged.

“As Palestinians and Israelis alike wait to see whether the latest round of talks will finally chart a course toward the end of the conflict, I leave the region with both deep pain and profound respect for the many unsung heroes on the ground who courageously work for a just peace,” said Eilberg.

Mairead Maguire, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her work in ending sectarian violence and bringing peace to Northern Ireland, had planned to be part of the women’s peace delegation. However when she arrived to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport last week, Israeli officials refused her entry into the country and tried to deport the 66-year-old activist. Maguire’s lawyers appealed the deportation. Seven days later—in which Maguire lived in a detention cell at the airport—the Israeli Supreme Court refused Maguire’s appeal and she was deported.

The delegation plans to release a full report on its visit to Israel and Palestine.

Nine American mothers whose children died fighting in Iraq were embraced last week by dozens of Iraqi women who lost their own children during decades of war and violence in a meeting participants said brought them a measure of peace. The gathering in Iraq’s mostly peaceful northern Kurdish region was far from the sites of the roadside bombings or battlefields that accounted for the vast majority of the more than 4,400 U.S. military deaths since the 2003 invasion, but it was still a powerful experience for some mothers to even step foot in Iraq.

Some kissed the ground during their arrival Saturday.

“I was overwhelmed at touch down. We were really on the ground in Iraq. I was almost in disbelief that it was real. This is where my son spent the last days of his life, and now, I was there,” said a blog entry by Amy Galvez of Salt Lake City, whose son, Cpl. Adam Galvez, was killed in 2006.

In another web post she said she would return home a “different person.”

“I will be in the country where my son spent the last days of his life,” she wrote. “I’ll have visited the land where a piece of my heart will remain forever.”

The beginning of the Americans’ three-day trip — organized by a Virginia-based women’s aid group, Families United Toward Universal Respect — was attended by officials from State Department and Kurdish regional government.

Nawal Akhil, deputy chief of the group’s Baghdad office, said the goal was to “talk about their suffering to find a way to ease it.”

“We share the same ordeals and suffering — the American mothers who lost their children and the Iraqi mothers who lost their loved ones during the Saddam Hussein-era and in the violence since 2003,” said Akhil.

Elaine Johnson, of Cordova, South Carolina, said the trip allowed her to come to terms with the loss of her son, Spc. Darius Jennings, killed in November 2003 in Fallujah as the insurgency that went on to rip the country apart gained strength.

“Before making this trip, I was angry for my child’s death,” she said. “But after making this trip, I feel peace, peace, peace.”

The dozens of Iraqi mothers included Kurds whose family members were killed in Saddam’s 1980s scorched-earth campaign to wipe out a Kurdish rebellion in the north that claimed at least 100,000 lives, including thousands in poison gas attacks.

“When I hugged an American woman we couldn’t express ourselves in words, but what helped us to express our feelings and understand each other were our tears. We found them as a true expression to our grief and suffering,” said Peroz Nasser, a 55-year-old Kurdish woman who lost her parents and two brothers and two sisters during Saddam’s attacks.

Part of a longer report at

Afghanistan’s army got its first female officers in decades last week when 29 women graduated in a class of new recruits who hope to help take the lead role in national security from foreign forces by 2014.

President Hamid Karzai, NATO and the United States have been pushing to expand and train Afghanistan’s army, police and other security forces to allow them to take over during a planned drawdown of foreign troops.

The United States has said it will start its withdrawal in July 2011, although the process may take years.

“I am fully committed to serving my country, the same way as my Afghan brothers currently serving in the army. That is why I decided to join,” said female officer Mari Sharifi after the graduation ceremony at the Kabul Army Training Centre.

The women will not be sent to the frontline of the fight against the insurgency, which is raging at its strongest since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban government, and instead will largely be doing administrative work.

Women served in the army of Afghanistan’s communist-backed regime in the 1980s but retreated from military service during the civil war and hardline Taliban rule that followed the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989.

The British officer who oversaw their training said all the new recruits were good and enthusiastic soldiers.

“(They are) all keen as mustard to join the Afghan National Army, and I think you will have seen today a very professional display — and that is the bottom line,” said General David Peterson, Commander of the Army Training Centre.

Afghanistan’s armed forces and police number roughly 300,000, serving alongside about 150,000 foreign troops.

The war has had any number of hidden costs for Iraqis. One that few outside Iraq might notice or even consider a significant problem: More women are finding themselves over 30 and single after seven years of bloody turmoil that made marriage more difficult, killing many young men and blowing apart social networks.

In Iraq’s conservative society, women are expected to be married in their teens or early 20s. Women who cross the 30-year threshold and are single face powerful social stigmas and live under heavy limitations.

Generally, they must continue living with their parents or other family. If they are not wealthy, educated or employed, they are often reduced by relatives to servitude — cleaning, washing, cooking and watching over small children.

Work opportunities are limited. At jobs or in public, unmarried women are sometimes seen as vulnerable, without the protection of a husband. Some almost never leave their houses.

There are no figures available for the number of single females in their 30s in Iraq, but women’s rights activists say it is beyond question that a disproportionately large number of them exists.

Being female, single and over 30 was already common because of Iraq’s decades of conflict, including the bloody Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. But their number is believed to have significantly grown since 2003. Besides the young men killed in violence, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis — many of them fighting-age males — fled the country.

Also, suicide bombings, sectarian slayings, death squads and gunbattles disrupted social networks for marriage. People feared leaving their homes, so young people had little chance to meet potential spouses.

Family visits, traditionally an opportunity for the men to meet future spouses have become rare during the height of the violence.

The Shiite-Sunni violence also meant that cross-sect marriages have become much less frequent.

Economic woes have also left many young men unable to afford the heavy expenses they must traditionally pay for marriage — including buying or renting and furnishing a home.

Jinan Mubarak, the head of a leading non-governmental women’s organization in Baghdad, said the problems unmarried women face get little attention as the government focuses on helping the hundreds of thousands of widows left by wars.

“Single women are constantly harassed at work and at home because of their perceived vulnerability,” she said. “They are exploited by their families too.”

Women’s activists are publicly debating solutions to promote marriage, like having the government offer cash incentives to men prepared to marry older women or take second wives, allowed under Islamic law.

Mubarak cautiously backs one proposal for the government to pay a one-off sum of money to men who marry a woman over the age of 35. But she recognizes such a policy has its dangers for women.

“Women are not merchandise for sale, there must be guarantees of good intentions on the part of the men if we allow this to go ahead,” she said.

To encourage marriage amid economic hard times, authorities and charities often organize mass weddings free of charge for couples unable to afford private parties and offer them wedding presents of cash or domestic appliances.

But another women’s rights activist, Hanaa Adwar, says such gestures won’t solve the deeper problems for unmarried women. “The real solution is in security, the revival of the economy and tackling unemployment,” she said.

Unmarried women “must be given vocational skills to earn a living and get help to start small projects and be integrated in society,” she said.

Part of a longer article at

The number of assaults is twice that previously reported in the country’s east, Atul Khare told the UN Security Council.

Aid workers who reached a village captured by rebels in late July found that 242 women and children had been raped in the course of four days.

A unit of two dozen armed UN peacekeepers stationed less than 20 miles away did nothing to stop the assaults.

“While the primary responsibility for protection of civilians lies with the state, its national army and police force, clearly we have also failed,” Mr Khare, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, said after returning from a trip to eastern Congo.

“Our actions were not adequate, resulting in unacceptable brutalisation of the population of the villages in the area. We must do better.”

The UN’s mission in Congo, MONUSCO, is its largest and most expensive in the world, but has regularly been criticised for being ineffective, weak and badly managed.

Peacekeepers have in the past been sent home after they were accused of sexual abuse of children in areas they are supposed to be protecting.

The UN had earlier said that it was not aware of the most recent attacks until after Congolese and Rwandan rebels had left Luvungi town, despite running at least one patrol there while the attacks were ongoing.

But emails reportedly sent between the UN’s humanitarian office, other UN agencies and aid organisations allegedly alerted officials to the rebel takeover, and of at least one rape.

Ban Ki-moon expressed his “outrage” at the attacks and dispatched Mr Khare to investigate last week.

During his visit, the chief peacekeeper found reports of the mass rape or sexual violence against at least another 267 people, including men and children.

Rape has been used as a weapon of war throughout eastern Congo’s two decade civil war, which was supposed to have ended with a peace deal in 2003.

But violence continues as armed groups battle for control of lucrative mines producing metals vital for consumer electronics, including mobile phones, laptops and games consoles.

Congolese community leaders say they begged local U.N. officials and army commanders to protect villagers days before rebels gang-raped scores of people, from a month-old baby boy to a 110-year-old great-great-grandmother.

The rapes occurred in and around Luvungi, a village of about 2,200 people that is a half-hour drive from a U.N. peacekeepers’ camp and a 90-minute ride from Walikale, a major mining center and base for hundreds of Congolese troops.

The number of people treated for rape in the July 30 to Aug. 4 attacks now stands at 242 — a high number even for eastern Congo, where rape has become a daily hazard. The rebels occupied the area for more than four days until they withdrew voluntarily.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has declared his outrage — survivors say they were attacked by between two and six fighters and raped in front of their husbands and children. Ban has sent his assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, Atul Khare, to investigate the alleged lack of action from the U.N. mission in Congo.

Many question why the peacekeepers are not fulfilling their primary mandate, the strongest yet given to any U.N. force, which allows them to use force to protect civilians, and especially women and children. The U.N. says it passed through Luvungi but villagers did not say anything about the rebels.

Charles Masudi Kisa said his Walikale Civil Association first sounded the alarm on July 25, meeting with Congolese army and local authorities to say that the withdrawal of soldiers from several outposts was putting people in danger of attacks from rebels. The military had abandoned every post from Luvungi to just outside Walikale, for unclear reasons, he said.

Masudi said that on July 29, acting on information from motorcycle taxis, he warned the U.N. Civil Affairs bureau in Walikale, the army and the local administration that rebels were moving in on Luvungi. “Again we begged them to secure the population of Luvungi and told them that these people were in danger,” he said. Freddy Zanga, secretary of the association Masudi leads, confirmed his account.

When Luvungi was occupied on July 30, Masudi heard from truck drivers forced to turn back and passed information on to officials in the same offices. That same day, the United Nations sent text and e-mail messages to aid workers warning them to be aware that armed perpetrators were in the area, much of it dense forest that provides convenient cover for fighters.

On Aug. 1, Masudi said, his group heard from some raped women who had escaped and reported that scores of rebels had overrun the area.

Roger Meece, the U.N. mission chief in Congo, says a Congolese army patrol moved through the area on Aug. 2, apparently removed a rebel roadblock, exchanged fire with some fighters, and got information suggesting “a dramatic decrease” in rebel and militia activity. In fact, some 200 to 400 rebels were occupying villages alongside the road and into the interior, according to reports from survivors. The U.N. says there are 80 peacekeepers at its Kibua camp near Luvungi.

Also on Aug. 2, Indian peacekeepers accompanied some commercial vehicles to protect them from the rebel roadblock and stopped in Luvungi.

“How could they protect commercial goods but they could not protect the people?” Masudi asked.

The peacekeepers stayed long enough to arrest a Mai-Mai militiaman accused of trying to steal a motorcycle. But the village people did not make any reports of what had happened in the preceding days, Meece said.

The patrol also stopped in another village, Bunya Mumpire, from which aid workers reported many rapes. Meece said people there wanted to fight the militiaman with the peacekeepers but again did not report that they were under attack. It’s unclear what means of communication were available to the peacekeepers, who often travel without interpreters and generally do not speak the Kiswahili, French or Kinyarwanda spoken in the region.

On Aug. 4, the local chief came to Walikale and reported that the rebels had left and that large numbers of people had been raped. He spoke to Masudi’s organization, the International Medical Corps, the U.N. office in Walikale and to civilian authorities, Masudi said.

On Aug. 5, a convoy including medical corps workers and Masudi’s organization drove to Luvungi and the extent of the horrors began to unfold, as raped women began coming out of the forest.

Miel Hendrickson, regional director of the Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps, says her group briefed officials at the Walikale office of the U.N. Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs when they returned from their first trip to Luvungi the night of Aug. 6. “We told them the area had been attacked, that there had been no fighting and no deaths, but raping and looting,” she says.

Roger Meece, the top U.N. envoy in Congo, said U.N. peacekeepers in the area did not learn about the rape and looting spree until Aug. 12 from the International Medical Corps. Two U.N. officials in Kinshasa told The Associated Press that they got first word from media reports, even though the U.N.’s small Civil Affairs office in Walikale is charged with protecting civilians.

The United Nations did not send a team until Aug. 13, according to Reece.

The number of people treated went up from a couple of dozen on Aug. 5, to 154 by Aug. 16, 172 the following week and 242 by Wednesday, Hendrickson said.

Congo’s government has grabbed at past failures by U.N. peacekeepers to call for the withdrawal of the force, the biggest in the world at about 18,000. U.N. officials say soldiers are hampered by mountainous and rugged terrain and are sparsely deployed across a country the size of Western Europe. But aid workers say there is a well-graded dirt road from the U.N. camp at Kibua to Luvungi, and from Walikale to Luvungi.

Congo’s army and U.N. peacekeepers have been unable to defeat the few thousand rebels responsible for the long drawn-out conflict in eastern Congo, which is fueled by the area’s massive mineral reserves. Maj. Sylvain Ikenge, a spokesman for army operations in eastern Congo, would not say why soldiers had withdrawn from the area, allowing rebels to move in, only that they “are now concentrated around Walikale to concentrate our efforts to track down the rebels.”

“The FARDC (Congolese armed forces) cannot occupy each and every area to secure everyone and also track the rebels,” he said, adding that Walikale territory is greater than the combined size of neighboring Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.

See also:

    Wartime rape no more inevitable or acceptable than mass murder says UN

    Wartime rape is “the least condemned and most silenced war crime,” U.N. official says
    U.N. initiative aims to put sexual violence in conflicts on international policy map
    U.N. is monitoring five countries because of sexual violence in conflicts
    In Congo, more than 200,000 women have been raped in 12 years of fighting, U.N. says

    The United Nations is trying to put sexual violence on the international policy map, telling political and military leaders that wartime mass rape “is no more inevitable than, or acceptable than, mass murder.”

    Rape is being used by armed groups to reignite flames of conflict and to terrorize and humiliate communities in Africa, according to Letitia Anderson, women’s rights specialist with the U.N.’s Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative.

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As the U.N. investigates new allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, most troop contributing countries continue to evade accounting for how they handle disciplinary actions.

A senior U.N. official who asked for anonymity told IPS, “Although there have been statistical reductions in the number of allegations, sexual abuse involving peacekeepers is still rampant, despite pronouncements that they have been curbed.”

In DR Congo, two peacekeepers – reportedly an Indian and a Tunisian – have been accused of sexual abuse, although their identities and the specifics of the cases are protected under the U.N.’s confidentiality policy.

According to the United Nations Conduct and Disciplinary Unit, of the 45 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against U.N. peacekeepers brought in the first six months of this year, 18 involved minors.

The charges were reported to the 39 troop contributing countries. However, only 13 governments have responded to the U.N. regarding their progress in investigating the charges and taking action, according to the New York Times.

The year so far…
• Out of the 45 allegations reported for the first half of 2010, 39 are pending and 4 have been substantiated.
• Out of those 45 allegations, 19 involve adults, 18 involve minors, and 8 are unidentified.
• From 2007 to June 2010, there have been a total of 346 allegations against civilian, military and police personnel.
• From 2007 to June 2010, there have been a total of 257 follow-ups with member states, but there have only been 58 total responses.

In 2009, the U.N. sent 82 requests for information on actions taken by national authorities concerning misconduct related to sexual exploitation and abuse, and received 14 responses.

In 2008, the U.N. sent 69 such requests and received eight responses on action taken, while in 2007, 67 requests were made and 23 responses received.

“The U.N. cannot tackle this issue alone,” Anayansi Lopez of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), told IPS. “It needs the full support of all member states to ensure that zero tolerance is a reality.”

Currently, there are about 124,000 peacekeepers deployed around the globe, Lopez said.

However, according to the senior U.N. official, not only are the allegations “a blemish on peacekeeping operations… there could be hundreds more that have been undocumented primarily due to the remote locations of the operations.”

Allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeeping and humanitarian personnel first came to light in the 1990s in the Balkans, Cambodia and Timor Leste, and in West Africa in 2002 and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004.

Official reports publicly surfaced in 2004, with the U.N. mission in DR Congo the first to be singled out followed by Haiti, Liberia and other peacekeeping missions around the world.

In DR Congo, approximately 150 allegations were filed against U.N. troops. The offences – some of which were captured on videotape – included pedophilia, rape, and prostitution, according to a classified U.N. report that was obtained by the Washington Post.

Yet comprehensive record-keeping and data tracking of such allegations and subsequent actions did not begin until 2006, Lopez told IPS. This left an approximately decade-long delay in formally tracking the allegations.

One year later, in 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported that in Haiti, “girls as young as 13 were having sex with U.N. peacekeepers for as little as one dollar”.

Some 114 Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti were removed from their posts after those allegations surfaced.

In July 2008, the Department of Field Support launched the Misconduct Tracking System, a global database and confidential tracking system for all allegations of misconduct.

In December 2007, the General Assembly adopted a Resolution on Criminal Accountability of United Nations Officials and Experts on Missions to address the extension of national jurisdiction by member states to cover criminal misconduct of U.N. officials or experts on mission.

However, a high-level source told IPS, “Sierra Leonean and Sri Lankan efforts are the only serious responses to these allegations that are publically known. Most member states lack sincere commitment to eradicate sexual exploitation and abuse as evident by their actions.”

The U.N. has a three-pronged strategy to eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse: prevention of misconduct, enforcement of U.N. standards of conduct and remedial action.

Last month, Under-Secretary-General Susanna Malcorra from the Global Field Support office of DPKO discussed the revision of support strategy in terms of procedure and financing. Her discussion did not include procedures to address the allegations.

Women in Afghanistan suffer “extremely high rates of domestic violence” which include forced marriages and physical attacks, Afghan and United Nations officials announced one week after a report by a top Afghan health advisor revealed that suicide among Afghan women had increased about 20 times since the 1970s.

Nearly 2,000 cases of violence against women were reported between October 2006 and mid-2009, according to an updated Violence against Women Primary Database Report launched on Thursday by the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), with support from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Afghanistan Information Management System (AIMS).

The database includes information on incidences of physical attacks and emotional abuse, rape and kidnapping, forced sexual intercourse by a husband, polygamy, forced engagement and forced marriage, and restricted mobility and curtailment of women’s participation in public life.

Of the reported cases, nearly a quarter showed that women had temporary physical injuries; in more than 20 per cent of the cases, the woman ran away and 2.5 per cent of the cases resulted in death or attempted suicide.

Approximately 40 per cent of the reported cases in the database showed that no follow up was done and the outcome of the violence was “unknown.”

Among the recommendations, the authors of the report based on the database findings called for “zero tolerance” of men in positions of power who mistreat or abuse women, particularly those in police and military who are approached for assistance by women already victimized.

Speaking at the report launch, MoWA Acting Minister Dr Husn Banu Ghazanfar and UNIFEM Country Director Christine Ouellette praised the revised database and the resulting report.

“The availability of this database…in addition to the special emphasis given to gender equality and empowerment of women during the recently held Kabul Conference, are testimony to the concerted efforts of the Government and other stakeholders to address violence against women,” Ouellette said, noting the 20 July conference where the Government of Afghanistan launched a series of national priorities and programmes in the areas of security, governance, social and economic development and better service delivery to citizens.

The launch of the revised violence against women database comes one week after a report authored by a health affairs advisor for President Hamid Karzai revealed that suicide among Afghan women had increased by some 20 times over the past 40 years, counter to the international suicide rates which have remained stable.

“Evidence suggests an increasing trend of suicide in Afghanistan, especially among women, and using the method of self-immolation,” Faizullah Kakar wrote in The Elevated Prevalence of Depression and Risk of Suicide among Afghan Women.

Nearly one-third of Afghan women between 15 and 35 years of age suffer from depression and psychological problems, Kakar said.

He blamed “war-related stress, displacement stress, repatriation stress, insecurity and addictions to hashish and opium,” as well as a culture of traditional marriage.

“For these women, social stresses such as forced marriages turn into the proverbial ‘straw that broke the camel’s back,'” Kakar concluded.

Among his recommendations to the Government of Afghanistan to counter this trend is an “effective and coherent national strategy” which provides social support to high-risk individuals.

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.

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

The protest movement is now a year old – but the feminists at its helm can look back on decades of courageous activism – Shirin Ebadi

This weekend one year will have gone by since the Iranian people took to the streets in droves to protest at the fraudulent elections that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency. These peaceful demonstrations were met with extreme violence carried out by the Iranian regime. Since that day, the people have not backed down and continue to fight peacefully for basic human rights. Meanwhile, the government continues its crackdown on any opposition or dissent with ever increasing brutality.

Just a few weeks ago, on 9 May, the lengths to which the regime will go to crush its opponents came to light. Five political prisoners were executed in secret. Not even their families or their lawyers were notified.

Shirin Alam Holi, a 28-year-old Kurdish woman, was executed along with four men. In letters from Evin prison, Shirin wrote of being tortured to confess to charges of terrorism. She refused to confess, sealing her fate. At least 25 other men and women await the same fate on death row.

However, as we see time and time again, the harsher the repression, the stronger the movement grows. And as the story of Shirin Alam Holi demonstrates, women are at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in Iran.

But it is interesting to observe that this powerful feminist movement was not born out of the elections. It has been gaining strength and momentum since the Islamic revolution of 1979 – when the regime began imposing laws that were discriminatory against women – and even predates the revolution. Women in Iran have enjoyed the right to vote for nearly 50 years, since 1963. Today, under an even more repressive regime, they are flooding the ranks of doctors, professors and chief executives. Women now constitute more than 63% of university students. Is it any wonder that they refuse to stand idly by and accept that their lives are not worth as much as that of a man?

With no leader or central office, for 31 years the women’s movement has resided in every Iranian household that cares about human rights. In the past year, the now famous Green movement has emerged and modelled itself on this seemingly unstoppable force. With women’s rights activists at the helm, the Green network of groups and people is consistent in its demands for democracy and human rights.

Take the Mourning Mothers. Every week since June 2009, mothers whose children are in prison, are missing, or have lost their lives in state-sanctioned violence, gather in Laleh Park in Tehran. Dressed all in black, they carry photos of their loved ones and are surrounded by other women who wish to support and protect them.

Every Saturday they gather peacefully and every Saturday the police attack, beat, and arrest them. This excessive violence and repression by the government has sadly become routine in Iran – but has not deterred the Mourning Mothers. Courageously, they are defending their human rights and, ultimately, those of women everywhere.

In December, a wave of arrests and violence followed peaceful protests taking place on the Shia Muslim holy day of Ashura. Dozens of women journalists and human rights activists were targeted, and I was no exception. In an attempt to stop me from doing my work from abroad, the government arrested my sister, Dr Noushin Ebadi. She has never been politically active or participated in any rallies or demonstrations, but was arrested and detained for three weeks solely because of my work fighting for human rights.

This brave group of women will not stop. They prove that there is no end to the creative ways that Iranian women will fight back. The One Million Signatures campaign has been working since before last year’s election to collect signatures from Iranian men and women who oppose discriminatory laws and practices. On 11 March the Change for Equality website, which promotes the campaign, was awarded the first ever Netizen prize by Reporters Without Borders. The next day – ironically the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship – Iranian authorities shut down the website for the 23rd time since it was launched in 2006. It was up and running again just hours later.

The struggle for human rights and gender equality continues in Iran as we mark the anniversary of the disputed elections. This global day of action has united activists, students, NGOs and concerned citizens worldwide to spotlight the horrific human rights abuses that have become all too common.

Women will be at the forefront of this weekend’s peaceful activities, as they were today and will be tomorrow. Mark my words, it will be women who will bring democracy to Iran.

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.

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.