Dedicated to the gods, abused by men

February 1, 2011 § 2 Comments

 A post here dedicated to the misogynistic and dangerous practice of Devadasi. If you haven’t heard of it, it is an ancient Indian custom that has been used in more recent times as an excuse for the abuse and rape of vulnerable young girls.

The ancient tradition saw a girl ceremoniously dedicated or married to a deity or temple, in order to serve the goddess Yellamma – it was once a high-status role, if a dubious honour.

The practice has now been made illegal in law, but it still goes on, with the added exploitation that sees young girls, once they reach puberty, forced to have sexual relations with the men in their community in order to better serve the goddess.

No, I don’t understand the logic either.

I only learn of this practice recently, and the more I learn the more I am horrified. The women targeted are typically from lower castes – and in India that still tends to mean they are less educated, poorer and more vulnerable (the attitude persists in the country that rape is more acceptable in lower caste women, because it protects those higher up the social ladder)

And I cannot emphasise enough – this is not a small problem. There are 50,000 Devadasi in southern India.

Particularly sad is the overwhelming poverty that can leave families with seemingly little option but to give a child to the corrupt Devadasi system – and children of Devadasi are often dedicated into the system themselves.

An excellent BBC programme  aired in January highlights the Devadasi system. Also, visit EveryChild’s website   – they are a inspirational international charity working on the ground to urgently protect girls from being sexually exploited.  Measures include trying desperately to keep girls with their family, helping to increase opportunity for girls in low-caste groups, running workshops, setting up credit societies for women-only to help raise the status of women in society, and helping with the work of Child Rights Protection Committees being run at village level to intervene on behalf of children at risk. The last one in particular is a great idea, working with the only people who really have the ability to challenge the system: the people of India.


Berlusconi shames Italy’s women

January 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Just a quick post here on women in Italy demanding Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation – since I’m in Italy this week it seemed a good time to take stock of the situation here. For the last two days, women from the government’s Democratic Party, the main opposition party in Italy, have been protesting outside the Presidential Palace, calling for the 74-year-old to stand down.

More than 2,000 women have also signed a campaign petition entitled “Basta!” (Enough!), co-ordinated by the L’Unia newspaper. The wave of sex scandals that have followed Berlusconi have not done the Italian nation any favours, and have all but discredited his capacity to represent the women who live in the modern European state he governs.

A quick recap of the latest scandal is that Berlusconi is under investigation following allegations that he had sex with Karima El Mahroug when she was under-age, and then abused his power to get her out of prison over theft allegations. But this is not an isolated case – do a little research into Berlusconi and you can quickly see the same pattern of degrading and misleading actions towards women – again, and again, and again , and again.

It’s quite simply time he resigns, and takes these outdated misogynistic attitudes with him. This is not a man fit to represent a country where 60% of graduates are women. I don’t believe that he understands women are more than sex objects and the fact he has clung on to power this long is shameful. Time to go.

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

“She has little chance of a fresh start” – child prostitution in South Africa

December 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Jounreymanpictures: Child prostitutes in Johannesburg

A gritty video  here focusing on the overstretched Child Protection unit in Johannesburg in South Africa. This documentary is two years old but still relevant and poignant and terrifying and shocking. It shows young sex workers addicted to drugs, driving off with customers, shouted at by pimps, lying about their age – and yet still trying to escape from rehabilitation homes and help centres to get back on the street.

The girls in this video talk about being raped, taking drugs, being abused and harming themselves as if they were discussing the weather. They don’t get much help, and they don’t expect anyone to care. Those who do mobilise to help are fighting an overriding tide of poverty, corruption and misogyny.

Ongoing rumours and concerns that the centre will be closed down have been denied and then have re-emerged  in a constant concern over what is really government’s intentions for the centre and its policies for women and children. It is, after all, a country where 78% of men admit to some kind of violence towards women, and where many believe using prositutes is a “call of nature”.

Incidentally, the producer of this video, journeymanpictures on YouTube, is home to some brilliant videos from all corners of the world, including the one in my previous post on child marriages in Yemen, and is well worth a look on YouTube.

This book changed my life

December 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Half the Sky: How to Change the World

I’ve never written a book review before – and I don’t intend to do one now. All I will say is simply that if you are interested in politics, international development and any issues relating to women’s rights should read the book Half The Sky: How to Change the World by two American journalists, Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn. I’ve just finished it, and I genuinely think it’s fair to say it changed the way I think about issues relating to women forever.

To quote from the opening chapter: “We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way – not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.”

The phrase “half the sky” is from a quote from Mao Zedong, who for all his (massive) faults did mange to bring in some measures which benefitted women enormously. In fact the organisation Half the Sky  targets Chinese orphans in reference to this famous quote. This book looks at issues relating to the sex trade, war, maternal mortality, women’s involvement in politics, education – in short, all the things this blog writes about. It details real examples and individual cases, but counters it with how they fit into the worldwide scheme of poverty and development. The main thrust of the book is that if only half of the population of any country are being educated, working and contributing to the economy, then the country can only ever reach half of it’s potential. Some parts of this book are easier to swallow than others, inevitably, and some parts will make you cry and stay with you indefinitely. But what is so brilliant about it is the way that it takes a real hands-on, grass roots approach. The final chapter is entitled Four Steps you can take in the next ten minutes and the back is a full index of charities, NGOs and women’s groups worldwide that you can get involved with, and how to contact them. It is the bible of women’s rights and I know I will be referring to it again and again. Let me know what you think.

“Sensationally interesting – I think this is one of the most important books I have ever reviewed” – Washington Post

Brothel debate continues as French drama stokes controversy

October 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

A new television drama starting this week in France made me reflect on my post earlier in the week about Ontario legalising brothels.

Although in that case I was in favour of such a measure, the new TV series set in the famous French maisons closes is in danger of crossing the line between debating and trivialising the issue.

The drama has fuelled the debate over whether France would do well to legalise brothels once more – President Sarkozy has been condemned for making laws which punish the prostitutes and not those who paid for sex. In his time as interior minister he made it legal for police to charge any woman who looked remotely like she was selling herself for sex. One can only imagine the potential for offence that law could cause, before you even get on to considering the effect it had on the prostitution industry. Sex workers say they have been forced to work in back alleys and more secluded places and, inevitably, this is less safe.

The series Maison Close makes it clear that the life of a prostitute is not one that many choose. The key characters are forced into it pay off debts and the protagonist ends up being raped by her first client. But if seeking to make a relevant political point, the programme’s related website lets it down.

An interactive tour of the brothel includes a “game” in which you can take a client into the bedroom to pay off your dues, sneak a look at the centre’s work through keyholes, and receive a thorough examination from Hortense the brothel owner. You gain extra points for telling others about the website on Facebook.

I’m not surprised that French prostitutes support groups are outraged. A historically-based drama is one thing, and any measure which makes prostitution safer for the women involved is only to be welcomed. A game in which you can play at being or using a prostitute does not ring true of mature and sympathetic debate.

Canadian brothels legalised

September 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Ontario in Canada has become the latest part of the world to make brothels legal after a long and very complicated legal process.

A judge has overturned a ban on prostitution introduced by the national government in the province, after concluding that the ban on brothels made life more dangerous by forcing prostitution onto the streets.

The female judge Susan Himel concluded that the laws “forced prostitutes to choose between their liberty, interest and their right to security of the person” and urged the national government to regulate the sex trade rather than the ban the practice and force it underground. The court heard from one of the three prostitutes who brought the case forward, who said that she had been beaten and raped many times due to working on the streets.

The controversial ruling has been criticized amid concerns that the state will now become a haven for human traffickers.

In many ways a brave and mature decision to recognize the benefits from a safe, regulated sex industry, Ontario is not alone. According to research of 100 countries worldwide last year from the CIA, 50% of countries allow prostitution. Among this diverse list: Germany, Bangladesh, Switzerland, Uruguay, Belgium, Singapore, Venezula. Germany in particular is an interesting case, with an estimated 400,000 prostitutes working in the country and 1.2m using their services every day – revenues are at least €6bn a year. The state take a percentage of their earnings to cover health and pensions, and sex workers can even unionise.

International Prostitutes Collective logo

This is the logo of the pro-active site the International Prostitutes Collective, a US and UK organisation campaigning for safer conditions for sex workers, in another example of how prostitute groups can form to improve conditions.

On a difficult point for most people to debate pragmatically, a properly organized sex industry can be the only sensible answer. Accept that you will never eradicate the buying and selling of sex, and the next logical step is to make sure the practice does not harm any of the women involved, does not support human trafficking, and does not exploit underage girls. If a state can achieve that, it should congratulate itself for winning a major social and political battle.

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