Violence in Bangladesh over new equality law

April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

Photo EPA: Protests in Bangladesh

Riots have broken out today in Bangladesh over a new law  which would give women equal property rights as men. The country, although it has a secular legal system most the time, bows to Sharia law in issues relating to inheritance, and therefore a woman only inherits half as much as her brother.

Under the National Women Development Policy, she would inherit equally.

More than 100 protestors have been taken into custody today according to police, but there is worryingly a high level of support for challenging a law like this. The Islamic Law Implementation Committee for example (not surprisingly, I suppose) saying that the protests had the support of the “people” and that they go against the Koran. In a country where 90% of the population are Muslim, a claim like that carries great power.

Women in Bangladesh are an important part of the workforce, with many working as they do in export trades such as making garments. But, women are still part of an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, being judged by their family life, and their opportunities in the country tend to be markedly fewer. For example, there is a higher dropout rate from school for girls than boys, and younger children face a higher mortality rate if they are girls. Trafficking is a huge problem in Bangladesh, including kidnapping into Burma, as is domestic violence which can often pass under the averted eyes of the community.

The return of prime minister Sheik Hasina Wazed to the government in 2008 has been another positive role model for women in the country, and as a member of the Council of World Women leaders she has put rights for women high on the priority list. Nonetheless she has been locked in conflict with extremists in the country throughout her political career, and has withstood assassination attempts on her own life and the murder of many of her colleagues.

It goes without saying that this blog supports these new laws and wishes safety to those pushing them through. Until women can secure economic independence they will always be viewed as second class citizens in a country. This is another step towards independence for women in Bangladesh. I hope the government holds fast in its commitment to give women greater rights in education, employment and inheritance.

The missing daughters of India

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here in the UK we have just finished filling out our census forms. Nothing too shocking is likely to come out of it, except a more accurate representation of the ethnic diversity of Britain and perhaps some interesting figures on the number of couples living outside of marriage.

In India, the country’s recent census reveals a far more noteworthy statistic. It has just recorded the lowest gender ratio  since India’s Independence in 1947. The gender ration says that there are 914 girls to every 1000 boys.

These gender imbalances don’t just “happen” by a quirk of nature. What it means is for every 1000 boys, there are at least 86 girls under the age of six who were killed before or at birth. And what this means is that there is an endemic culture of destroying daughters and protecting sons.

According to campaigning groups, girls are often dying as part of a campaign of neglect. If a daughter is ill, she is not always bought medicine. If there isn’t enough food, she is often the one who goes hungry.  The site Gender Bytes calls this “negligent homicide”,  supported by the fact that girls under five in India have got a 40% higher mortality rate than boys the same age.

An increase in ultrasound technology and the ready availability of tests to determine a baby’s sex has also lead to millions of female foetuses being aborted, according to the medical journal The Lancet.

And those that are born that are unwanted can face hideous circumstances – read some of them here – where mothers won’t feed their babies, or poison them, or abandon them. One shocking part of this report reads: “For despite the risk of execution by hanging and about 16 months of a much-ballyhooed government scheme to assist families with daughters, in some hamlets of Tamil Nadu, murdering girls is still sometimes believed to be a wiser course than raising them”

Social bigotry towards girls has a long cultural history in India, and stats like this bring home the serious human cost of outdated misogyny. The gradual increase of standards of living for women in India, better financial independence and more social mobility across the country will help to challenge these old stereotypes that having a girl is a financial and cultural burden.

Because there is no alternative – the country can’t carry on in this trend, with fewer and fewer women each census. The women who are brought up as second class citizens then raise their daughters as second class citizens – this census should prove a wake up call that it’s time to change the system before any more precious female lives are wasted, and all their life’s potential lost with them.

After all as woman one put it, after killing her second daughter: “ “Instead of her suffering the way I do, I thought it was better to get rid of her.”

This census cost the Indian state 22bn rupees.  I hope the cost can prove to be an investment with desperately needed rewards for women.

Libyan reforms need to accelerate women’s rights to succeed

February 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Protests in Libya

As political unrest and media focus shifts to Libya, I hope the current protests and calls for political reform also form a basis to improve women’s freedoms in the country. Following the detention of an outspoken government critic, violent protests have left many dead and injured – a very rare show of aggression in a normally quiet country. A newspaper connected to one of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi’s sons showed the police station in al-Bayda on fire. The newspaper’s website has since been closed down. In a media environment like that, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. There are reports of killings, there are reports of government forces opening fire on protestors.

As the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, Colonel Gadaffi has his influence in every aspect of Libyan life and government. And, since he came to power, some of the changes in the country have been positive – he even appointed female bodyguards as a sign of the changing world. The women’s lib movement came fairly late to Libya, with the movement really taking off a few years ago – this is a great story about the first female pilot in the country, for example.  And female teachers are not allowed to teach with their faces entirely covered.

But still, only 22% of the workforce are women, and the male relatives of women still have a massive influence over women’s choices in life.  Sexual harrasment can be a problem frequently experienced by women in the country – see this post on one woman’s experience.

Libya has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but has ominously filed formal reservations to exempt itself from having to comply with several provisions – which rather defeats the point of signing up at all.

Women’s organisations need to be involved in the decisons made about governing the country in the future, whether that involves a new leader or not. There are some good laws in place – the country’s leaders need to see them through into practice to give Libyan women the equality they have been edging towards.

India starts to take much-needed action on brothels

January 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

The arrest of two pimps in a raid in Chennai is a very welcome sign from the Anti-Vice Squad. Prositution is a massive problem in India for a plethora of reasons: poverty, women being trafficked, caste prejudice, drugs, the tourism sex trade, conservative attitudes. But a mountain is to be climbed stil as the police often remain reluctant to act on the mammoth problem. Pimps and the human sex trade provides healthy bribes to the authorities, and a policy of “don’t see, don’t act” has been the effective policy of the police.

18 women were rescued from the prostution ring in this raid, and the two pimps, both in their 50s were arrested.

The women were allegedly lured into the brothel after being promised work – then forced into sex work. The story is old. At any one time, estimates are that there are 15 million prostitutes in India, with a staggering 27 million children and women being forced to work as slaves in the sex trade each year.

Chennai police also cracked down on ten prostitution centres operating under the guise of spas – in 2009 there was not a single “spa” closed down by police. Assuming that these brothel spas have not all sprung up in a year, it is a very significant change in measures taken by Chennai police.

For the 18 women in their twenties, time for a new start and a new life. For countless others, the story is less positive and the problems are complex.

Brothel girls in India: taken for the Theatre of the absurd blog

A year on: Four year old girls raped in Haiti

January 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s hard to believe. As if there wasn’t enough heartache already in the country following the earthquake a year ago which is believed to have left more than 300,000 people dead, there are still a million people displaced, homeless, and relying on  NGOs to support them as they live under tents and tarpaulins. According to those in the country, reconstruction has barely begun.

 And then the cholera outbreak began. Followed by a disputed presidential election. And scenes of political unrest.

 But the reports of rape in the country break the heart. This morning there were stories on the radio of raped women, and girls as young as four and five being raped in the chaos, and the stories brought me to tears amid descriptions of normal structures breaking down in communities.

 There are reports of women fleeing into the countryside. Raped in the earthquake ruins. Taken away as “servants” for “work” (inverted commas due to the lack of payment involved – “slaves” might be a better word) Children as young as four and five being raped.

The situation was not great for women before the disaster. Rape was only officially recognised as a crime in 2005, and domestic violence was a long-standing problem. The earthquake fallout is running the risk of reversing progress that had been made.

 As the New York Times reports: “Marie Cluade Pierre was sad even before the earthquake. She is sadder now.”

 After a year of horrors, there is little to celebrate. The country is on a knife-edge – the only real question really is whether the balance has already tipped over. After all, many people will be wondering just how it can get worse.

Fabienne Jean in Haiti : Damon Winter/The New York Times

 But there are stories out there to inspire. One example to celebrate is the story of Fabienne Jean, a young dancer who lost her leg in the earthquake. Now walking on a prosthetic leg, she is starting to dance – only a little, and she is realistic about the fact that she will never be a professional performer again. But plans must be re-dreamed, and she is hoping to open a dance school, or a fashion boutique.

Equally, the work of “Eternal Optimist” Cameron Sinclair and his Architecture for Humanity,  planning the rebuilding of the country – to name but one of hundreds of devoted individuals working to help stabilise the situation and provide a safer future. After all, solid bricks and mortar are the first practical protection for women at risk.

 And read the story of Rea, one incredible woman who rebuilt her school literally from the ruins, and even started a micro-credit facility for women  

It’s a sobering fact, but natural disasters are almost always worst for women. As the Haitian example proves, women are not safe in refugee camps, or living without protection. Their children are not safe. Medical care for pregnant women is very limited. There are scores of women who are forced into the Dominican Republic and trafficked into the sex trade.

Everyone can help and make some difference. Everyone, whoever or wherever you are. Let’s do our best to make this year the year of reconstruction that should have begun in 2010.

The Pakistani rape victim who fought back

December 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

An interesting feature in the newspapers this week. Kainat Soomra, the Pakistani girl who was gang-raped and horrifically assualted at the age of 13, is still paying the price four years later.

Her family have had to move. Her brother has been killed. The stigma about rape is such that two of her sisters have lost their husbands or boyfriends through being associated with Kainat. This story is a stark reminder of how, in many communities, the rape victim is punished again, and again, and again. For something for which she was entirely blamless.

This case should make every woman feel humble. It’s easy to deplore this scenario and the circumstances which surround it. To shudder at any community that treats a woman’s life with such disregard, and seeks to punish her for being brave enough to stand up to her attackers – and let us remember she was only 13.

But to hear the recriminations this girl is going through for being so brave should make us feel humble, and full of admiration. Her story deserves to be read – it’s the least we can do.

Beware of filmed “confessions” from a scared, intimidated woman

December 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

Sakineh Ashtiani

Celebrities are getting involved with the case of Sakineh Ashtiani (see my post on November 3rd) who is still languishing in prison in Iran facing death by stoning for the alleged crime of adultery.

To say this case is confusing is an understatement. Sakineh’s alleged crimes include adultery (after her husband’s death) and then the renewed charge became the murder of her husband. Her children have led the campaign worldwide after the case was conducted in a language she didn’t speak with allegations that the 43-year-old was tortured in prison. She was first accused in 2006 and sentenced to 99 lashes, which were carried out in front of her 17-year-old son. Various reports that she will now be sentenced to hang rather than face stoning have been confused with reports of more torture and the Iranian judicial services “losing” the notes on her case – and despite a man having already been convicted for the murder of her husband.

Basically, it’s a shambles, and it’s hard to know even where to start with the human rights abuses in this case.

Videos of her “confessing” being shown on state TV have done little to change international opinion (watch the video here) that the Iranian system is barbaric and unfair towards women and that Sakineh should be released – or at least in the immediacy, that the death penalty towards her should be revoked. The confession of a woman under duress, facing death and torture, should not be allowed to stand up in court. Even a corrupt court.

What this case urgently needs is more high-profile media attention to shame Iran into revoking this inhumane sentence. And so the likes of Colin Firth, Sting, Robert Redford, Damian Hirst and Robert de Niro have joined more than 80 actors, politicians, writers and artists to raise awareness of her case and call for her immediate release. This is a brilliant example of how celebrities can use their status to bring about change. After all, she has been in prison for more than three years. It’s time the world stood up to Iran and keep the focus on her case until she is free and safe.

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