For women’s full participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding

An initiative from Kvinna till Kvinna

Political backlash for women after the Oslo Accords

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"The Oslo Accords looked better on paper. The international community has not supported the process and has not exerted the needed pressure to make it a reality" says journalist and author Lotta Schüllerqvist.

"The Oslo Accords looked better on paper. The international community has not supported the process and has not exerted the needed pressure to make it a reality" says journalist and author Lotta Schüllerqvist.

13 September marked the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine. In a book that aims to take a critical look at its impact, Lotta Schüllerqvist explores the consequences it has had on women.
“When the big political machine was established as part of the Oslo Accords, women who had been politically active were forced to retreat to the social sphere” she says.

The Oslo Accords 1993–2013 – A Critical AssessmentWhen Lotta Schüllerqvist first was asked to contribute a chapter to the book The Oslo Accords 1993–2013 – A Critical Assessment, that would gather different writers’ critical reflections on the impact of the Oslo Accords, her immediate answer was that she didn’t have the time.

“Then I looked at the list of authors and there were really very few women contributing, and even fewer pieces proposed to deal with the status of women. ‘Where are the women,’ I asked, which is something I try to do whenever I can,” she explains.

So a deal was quickly struck where she would get some extra time, in order to be sure that the impact of the Oslo Accords on women would be included.

Correspondent in Jerusalem

A Swedish journalist, Lotta Schüllerqvist was based in Jerusalem as the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter’s correspondent January 2003 – December 2006. But she first came to Israel and Palestine already in 1982, and although she has moved back to Stockholm she regularly visits Jerusalem.

On her last trip, just a week after the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, we meet to discuss her contribution to the book, for which she also interviewed Mona Shawa from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Amal Syam from Women’s Affairs Centre, both Gaza based organisations working for women’s rights and peace.

“The Oslo Accords looked better on paper. It really just created an illusion that things would get better, but that didn’t happen. I remember a young Palestinian woman who told me that before there was at least clarity: there was an occupation and there was a resistance, now everything has just been muddled,” she says.

Lofty plans fell flat

Lotta Schüllerqvist remembers the excitement in 1993, and particularly in Gaza where tourist pamphlets were drawn up and plans to construct beach front hotels were made. Economic development was seen as a real possibility. But then all those lofty plans just fell flat, and implementation, specifically the planned two-state solution, was not realized.

“Implementing the accords was never really a priority for Israel, and over the years, with the Israeli government getting more nationalistic, it has become even less of a priority. The violent reaction that came in early 2000 when Palestinians began to see that the principles set forth in the Accords were only talk, basically just gave Israel more power to respond with heavy handed action. Meanwhile the international community has not supported the process and has not exerted the needed pressure to make the Oslo Accords a reality.”

Lotta Schüllerqvist explains that since the Oslo Accords, the mechanisms of the occupation have just gotten stronger, which have subsequently further limited Palestinian’s right to movement, the possibility for economic development and the force of civil society and political organising.

Women pushed out

In this current stand still and lack of development following the peace agreement, she sees that there has been a notable impact on women, which she explores in her chapter.

According to Lotta Schüllerqvist, women in Palestine have a rich history of organising, and even though women’s rights have always been secondary to the national struggle, women did have a strong voice in the resistance. But after the Oslo Accords, women’s political involvement really changed. Politically active women where pushed out when the political machinery that was part of the accord was established.

In the book, Lotta Schüllerqvist quotes the activist Hanan Ashrawi, who explained to her that in 1993 the men felt that the struggle shifted into a period of more serious decision-making, and this was a domain exclusively for men to control.

Impossible to implement new justice system

The post-Oslo Accords era has also had a direct impact on women’s lives and their status in society. “There was a lot of work on the part of Palestine to build a state on the basis of the rule of law, on the basis of a constitution and to move away from the more traditional justice systems. It all sounded good, but hasn’t really been possible to implement because of the situation following the Accords” Lotta Schüllerqvist says.

Immediately following the Oslo Accords, a committee was established to change the personal status law, but they were not able to push a new law through. Then came the Fatah/Hamas split in 2006, and with that the Parliament closed. Since then there has been no way to work towards legal reform. The implications of this is something both Amal Syam and Mona Shawa speak about in Lotta Schüllerqvist’s chapter in the book. According to them, women are not protected by the law in Palestine and fall victim to various forms of gender-based violence, including early marriage.

No expiration date

Reflecting over the years, Lotta Schüllerqvist concludes that while perhaps not a reason for celebration, the 20th anniversary does give us a possibility to look over what it has meant and what it has led to.

“Well, there has never been an expiration date on the Oslo Accords, so I guess it can go on for as long as it wants” she says.

Linda Öhman
Field Representative in Israel/Palestine
The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation

Headwinds for law protecting women in Kurdistan region of Iraq

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Often, women who report their husbands for abuse are not able to support themselves financially and therefore have to return home. Because of this the police force and women's rights organisations try to work with the victims family and inform them of the law and the risks of being sentenced to prison if breaking it. Photo: Ester Sorri.

Often, women who report their husbands for abuse are not able to support themselves financially and therefore have to return home. Because of this the police force and women's rights organisations try to work with the victims family and inform them of the law and the risks of being sentenced to prison if breaking it. Photo: Ester Sorri.

The Kurdistan region of Iraq has one of Middle East’s most progressive laws on protection of women – but the implementation has been faltering. Now, women’s rights organisations are working to increase public awareness of the law.

“When I am to bake, there is no wood, my husband doesn’t bother to fetch any. When he comes home at night he blames me for all he can think of, and then he hits me. And he beats the children.”

The woman telling this has bruises on both hands and feet. The rest of her body is covered in a long dress. She lives in a village just an hour’s drive from Slemani in the eastern parts of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Here, houses and walls are simply constructed, built in stone and clay. From afar they melt into the brown hillside.

Only 18 families live here and for the battered woman there is no help available. To leave her family and the village community for a life alone somewhere else, is basically unthinkable. Women who get divorced often have to leave their children with their former husband or his mother.

Since this woman can’t read, she would have a hard time to support herself. Also, it’s very rare for someone to live alone and it’s not considered normal, regardless of it being a woman or a man. The security situation for women who live by themselves is often bad and they are more vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse.

“Many of us are afraid of our husbands, but what can we do? We have nothing to put against them” says another woman from the same village.

More freedom

Still, women in Iraqi Kurdistan enjoy more freedom than in the rest of Iraq – to dress as they like and to move about outside of the home. They also have more opportunities to study and to work.

Nevertheless, public places are almost totally dominated by men, who spend much of their social life outdoors. Women rarely go out if they don’t have a specific reason to do so, and women who move about by themselves are often subjected to harassment and slander.

Violence against women is a major problem in Iraqi Kurdistan. Sometimes it’s the women’s husbands who are behind the violence, but it can also be a father, a brother, an uncle or another relative. Mostly, violence is used as a way to control a woman so she doesn’t put the family’s honor in danger.

Having sex outside of marriage, can be equal to writing your own death sentence. Recently, there have also been reports of young people being killed, because they had sent text messages to someone of the opposite sex. Other reasons for severe beatings or murder can be wanting to choose your own partner or asking your family for permission to divorce.

Consequence of  history

Some women activists argue that the violence is a consequence of Kurdistan’s and Iraq’s violent history. That violence has become a natural part of everyday life and therefore is close at hand even at home. Before Iraqi Kurdistan created a de facto autonomy from central Iraq, in 1991, women were killed every day, but this was all treated with silence. In despair, women committed suicide by setting themselves on fire. Others were burned by family members.

Since then much has happened and there has been progress. In 2011, Iraqi Kurdistan adopted a progressive law to protect women. Among other things, it prohibits domestic violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation, forced marriages and attempts to hinder the education of girls.

But crimes committed for so-called reasons of honour are considered having mitigating circumstances. The penalty for murder can be as low as 6 months in prison, up to three years at the most, if honour can be invoked. Meanwhile, a woman was recently sentenced to death for killing her husband when she no longer could bare his daily violence against her.

Runak Faraj Raheem, Head of WMEC.

Runak Faraj Raheem, Head of WMEC.

Lobbying for 20 years

“The law is not perfect, but I’m glad we got it. We have carried out insistent lobbying for over 20 years to get this far, says Runak Faraj Raheem, Head of the organisation Women’s Media and Education Center, WMEC.

WMEC is working to spread knowledge of the law, both in society and within the judiciary. Their number one channel is their magazine Rewan, which deals with subjects concerning women’s rights, health and honour-related violence.

Rewan has a circulation of 4500 copies and is distributed to offices, public agencies and politicians.

Much of its content tackles the ever present severe violence that women are subjected to.

The editorial staff is also dedicated to highlight women who are politically active and to present them as role models.

Additionally, every issue features a page with articles on women’s health, like pregnancy and childbirth, which many women lack knowledge about.

“It is our belief that women are autonomous. Therefore we want to strengthen them” says Rewan’s Editor in Chief, Hana Shwan.

Trainings for police officers

WMEC has also organised trainings in the law on violence against women for over 1000 police officers and prosecutors.

”Even though they are working at the front line, not all police officers are familiar with this new legislation. Others just don’t accept it. They find it hard to abandon the idea that violence within the enclosed walls of a home is ok” says Project Organiser Robin Qasim.

Police investigations of domestic violence have often been sloppy and marked by a distrust of the victims. In addition, the victims have to endure a long and painful process in which they have to submit their testimony over and over again to different people. Several women’s organisations say that women are subjected to sexual abuse by the police when reporting on violence, and that judges call them prostitutes when their cases are processed in court.

Hope for better investigations

Many hope for a higher quality in these types of investigations, when the regional directorate working with violence against women takes over the responsibility next spring.

Chalar J Mohammed, Deputy Director of the directorate.

Chalar J Mohammed, Deputy Director of the directorate.

“So far, these cases have been handled by the local police, while the directorate’s staff have had to make do with just following the process from a distance. We hope this change will make it easier for women to report violence. Here, they can be certain that their reports remain secret and the directorate’s staff, who are police officers, are all dressed in civilian clothing” says Major Chalar J Mohammed, Deputy Director of the directorate.

Support from social worker

When a woman has reported that she is a victim of violence, she’s put in contact with a social worker, who supports her through the following process. It’s important that the woman feels that there is hope, since it often is impossible for her to see any solution to her problems.

“If it’s a minor offense, we call the woman’s family and try to mediate. The family must sign a contract saying that this crime will not be repeated, and after that we continue to keep an eye on them.”

If the woman’s life is deemed to be in danger, a judge may decide that she, and sometimes her children, should move to a shelter. There are three public shelters and one non-state one. According to Runak Faraj Raheem, the shelters are more like prisons than homes. The women receive all possible care, but they can not go outside and they have no contact with their families. Sometimes the solution can be to help them to a new life abroad. But most of the times, the women move back in with their family after the mediation.

Mediation not reliable

However, mediation is not a reliable solution. To return to the family means a continued risk to be subjected to threats and abuse. There are several known cases where women have been killed by their families after the authorities have intervened.

According to Chalar J Mohammed there is a trend of more women daring to report violence, probably because knowledge of the law is spreading and women are hoping to recieve help. But women’s organisations experiences show that state protection for these women still is extremely weak.

Annette Ulvenholm Wallqvist

This text was originally produced for The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation‘s news letter Fred i sikte.

Deteriorating security situation for Palestinian women in the West Bank

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In the end of January, a UN report on the impact of Israeli settlements on the rights of Palestinians was released. Now, a follow-up report shows that in spite of there being a lot of international advocating for the Israel-Palestine peace talks that now have been renewed, the first six months of 2013 brought an increase in attacks by settlers on Palestinians and their property in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“The settlers threw rocks at our house and the soldiers kept firing tear gas. (…) I constantly feel unsafe in my own house with my young children. On that day I realised how the settlers can get away with anything with the army’s protection.”

The words are Fatima’s, a 41-year-old woman living in the village of Burin in the West Bank. She is one of 13 women, whose testimonies are included in the report Israeli settler violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, by Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling, WCLAC. With these interviews, WCLAC wants to highlight the impact settler violence and property distruction have on women. The report has also been submitted to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.

More settlements being built

The January UN report stated that the establishment of the settlements has fragmented the West Bank placing at risk the possibility of a Palestinian State, and by implication, a viable two state solution – which is the stated purpose of the resumed peace talks. Still, WCLAC’s report shows that during the first six months of 2013, work began on 865 new housing units in settlements in the West Bank, the highest figure in seven years, and an 176 percent increase compared to the same period last year. Settler-related incidents resulting in injury to Palestinians rose 5,5 percent and incidents involving property damage rose 41 percent.

Lack of accountability

According to the report, there is a general lack of accountability for settler attacks, which is a major factor in their continuance. “Despite Israel’s obligations under international law to protect the civilian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, settler violence persists largely due to the lack of adequate law enforcement by the Israeli authorities. Many soldiers appear to see their protective role as only applying to settlers, and not Palestinians” the report states. In connection, the UN report showed that complaints made by Palestinians against settlers had a 91 percent chance of being dismissed, whereas in cases involving settlers complatins against Palestinians, up to 95 percent proceed to court.

No compensation for stolen herd

Montaha, a Bedouin woman from near Jericho tells a similar story:

“My brother-in-law (…) told us that he had to hide out of fear for his life when he saw four settlers carrying guns coming from the outpost. They took [our] livestock back to the outpost and later to the settlement. We couldn’t believe we had lost our only source of income. We reported the incident to the Palestinian authorities, who in turn reorted it to the Israeli authorities. We also reported it at an Israeli police station nearby (…). Nothing was done (..) One day we saw the settlers moving the herd. We called the police who managed to retrieve six of our livestock. Two weeks later the police returned three of our goats after another three had died. (…) I dream that one day the rest of our goats will be returned as we need the income. We were given no support or compensation.”

In a bleak concluding remark, the report states that due to an absence of international and domestic accountability, there is no likelihood that the situation will improve.

Malin Ekerstedt

Using the church to increase women’s rights

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We received a blog post from Ylwa Renström, coordinator for the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Swedish women’s rights and peace organisation The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, who recently met with women’s rights activists in DR Congo and Burundi.

“Sitting outside the airport in Kigali, I think back on the last few days that I’ve spent in Burundi and in Uvira in DR Congo. In Burundi, I met women from the organisation MIFA (Ministère de la Femme en Action – “Ministry for women’s rights activists”).

One of them was Dina. Like some other members of our partner organisations in DR Congo, she was exposed to serious threats from unknown groups and had to leave her hometown of Uvira. I met her, her children and some other members of MIFA at the place where she now is living. Despite the threats, Dina is determined not to give up her struggle to improve women’s situation in DR Congo.

Dina told me about MIFA’s plans for next year’s support from Kvinna till Kvinna. They have received approval from seven churches in South Kivu in eastern DR Congo to push for more women on decision-making positions and in the church’s body for conflict resolution. MIFA has also received inquiries from church leaders in Burundi and Rwanda to start working with them. With few exceptions (Dina is one of them), women are almost totally excluded from the leadership of the church.

In the Great Lakes region, churches’ opinions carry great weight in society. Dina says that by working with church leaders and pastors to make them convey the message of women’s rights, many of the churches’ members would take this to heart. The pastors will also highlight passages in the Bible that defend women’s rights.

Dina also shared one of many success stories told by MIFA employees. This was from the High Plateau, which is mostly inhabited by the ethnic group Banyamulenge. An girl of 13 was married off to a 17-year-old in a traditional ceremony, including the payment of dowry. This type of marriage is common on the High Plateau.

The girl moved in with her husband and his inlaws, but almost immediately the groom went away. After months of waiting for his return, the bride didn’t want to remain in his house, but return to her parents. Her inlaws refused and the pastor who had wed the couple forbade her to move.

Some of MIFA’s employees got involved and were planning to report this to the police, since the marriage was not legally binding because of the couple being underaged. MIFA’s support to the girl got the pastor to annul the marriage, the dowry was paid back and the girl could return home.”

Armenian government removes “gender” from law

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Banner from the Armenian organisation Society Without Violence at a Gender Equality Fair in Yerevan. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Julia Lapitskii.

Banner from the Armenian organisation Society Without Violence at a Gender Equality Fair in Yerevan. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Julia Lapitskii.

The Armenian government has approved a bill on amendments to the country’s gender equality law. This after the use of the word “gender” in the law generated massive protests from traditionalist groups as well as the Armenian Apostolic Church. The wording will now be changed to ”equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women”.

20 May the Armenian parliament adopted law number 57 on gender equality, with 108 votes for and one against. But in the end of the summer, campaigns against the use of the word gender in the law started appearing in social networks. Videos connecting gender to pedophelia and bestiality were circulated and gender equality activists were threatened. The groups also claimed that using “gender” as a base for the law, would meen giving “unwaranted benefits to sexual minorities” (i e could be used to promote LGBT rights).

Apparently these tactics worked, because the government has now approved amendments to the law. In a statement,  Artem Asatryan, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, said that in order to avoid dual interpretations, the words  “gender relations” were changed to “equal rights and opportunities for men and women”. Artem Asatryan said that Armenia has adopted the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Dicrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and pledged to pursue a policy of non-discrimination against women , but that the term gender does not apply in that context.

The amendments has been sent to the parliament, which will consider the bill during the fall.

In an earlier comment, one of the activists targeted in the anti-gender campaigns, Lara Aharonian from Women’s Resource Center, said that this whole affair has been used by certain decision-makers to score political points, since it is easy in Armenia to mobilize the masses against LGBT persons.

Julia Lapitskii/Malin Ekerstedt

“Palestinians see no hope in these peace talks”

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“The negotiations are destined to fail as long as they do not adopt a rights based approach to the conflict" says Naila Ayesh from Women's Affairs Center in Gaza. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna.

“The negotiations are destined to fail as long as they do not adopt a rights based approach to the conflict" says Naila Ayesh from Women's Affairs Center in Gaza. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna.

September 13, it will be 20 years since the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel were signed. Evaluating the on-going US-led peace talks, representatives from Palestinian women’s organisations are critical to a process that seems to repeat many mistakes of previous negotiations, without taking into consideration the changes that have taken place on the ground.

“In principle I do believe that we have to settle the conflict, but after 20 years of negotiations, the process has become more important than the outcome”, says Amal Khreishe, Director of the women’s rights organisation Palestinian Working Women Society for Development (PWWSD).

Peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed in Washington, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, in July. Since then, several rounds of talks have been held in Jerusalem and Jericho.

As was the case in earlier negotiations, representatives of the Palestinian women’s movement are excluded and feel that the talks do not actually deal with what is happening on the ground (for more information see link to the left), nor with their priorities. Furthermore, they feel that the Palestinian Authority – that is negotiating on behalf of the Palestinian people instead of the PLO who took part in the Oslo process – does not represent them.

Negative impact

Several of Kvinna till Kvinna’s Palestinian partner organisations say that the consequences of earlier agreements, especially the Oslo Accords, have had a negative impact on the situation for Palestinians. Naila Ayesh from Women’s Affair’s Center in Gaza says:

“Palestinians see no hope in these peace talks. The negotiations are destined to fail as long as they do not adopt a rights based approach to the conflict. The last 20 years of occupation only brought about more settlements and land thefts, and continued violations of Palestinians’ fundamental rights. Now, at a time when Israel is facing the threat of political isolation, it uses the negotiations as a cover for its on-going colonization and land confiscation. The result will be a further fragmented Palestinian society, making the objectives of women’s rights organisations increasingly difficult to achieve.”

“Change has to be seen”

Naila Ayesh says that she and other Palestinians are not against negotiations as such. But she emphasizes that a peace process has to aim at ending the occupation and achieve a complete Israeli withdrawal from all Palestinian land occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.

“Change has to be seen on the ground in order for people to trust that the negotiations has lead somewhere”, she says.

Amal Khreishe from PWWSD thinks that the process lacks transparency.

“The talks exclude all political parties and civil society. Only a narrow circle is involved and they are all the same who have tried and failed before”, she says.

Women without influence

No women’s organisations have been involved in the talks, and according to Muna Hasan, Program Officer for the women’s rights and peace organisation The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation in Jerusalem, women’s influence over the peace talk agenda has largely been absent. And when women activists publicly have tried to express thoughts and concerns about the negotiations, media has not taken them seriously, but has focused on how they were dressed and whether their hair was covered or not.

Amal Khreishe fears that the Palestinians will be forced to agree on a deal that doesn’t solve the problem with the Israeli settlements on occupied land or the issue of Jerusalem. That would surely create frustration and more violence, she says.

“As a woman human rights defender, I would want to change the way security is dealt with and to discuss human security rather than military security. That could pave the way to democracy and real security.”

Not equal powers

Both Naila Ayesh and Amal Khreishe point out that the negotiations are not being held between two equal powers.

“Direct negotiations with the supervision of the US just creates a power imbalance. How can we trust that there really is a will to achieve Palestinian self-determination with all the settlement expansions and the violence against Jerusalemites?” Amal Khreishe says.

The peace talks had hardly begun before Israel announced that it plans to build more than 2 000 new houses for Jewish settlers on occupied Palestinian territory. This has created an even bigger distrust among the Palestinians, further exacerbated by Israeli security forces killing three Palestinians in Qalandia refugee camp on August 26.

Karin Råghall/Linda Öhman

Increased violence in DR Congo threatens civil society

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A UN tank makes it way through the streets of Bukavu in South Kivu. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Mufariji Assy.

A UN tank makes it way through the streets of Bukavu in South Kivu. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Mufariji Assy.

Recent months have seen an increase in fighting between different militia groups and the national army in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces. The situation is now so bad that it seriously affects civil society organisations ability to carry out their work.  

”We are deeply worried, both for the safety of our partner organisations and for all civilians who are subjected to this violence” says Ylwa Renström, Coordinator for DR Congo at the Swedish women’s rights and peace organisation The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation

In February this year, 11 African countries signed an agreement called the Framework of Hope for peace and security in DR Congo and the region.

The following month the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2098, in which it for the first time gave a brigade within a UN peace keeping mission (MONUSCO, DR Congo) the task of carrying out offensive operations – on its own or together with the Congolese army. The resolution also gave the newly appointed Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, Mary Robinson, the task of helping the parties in the framework to deliver on their commitments. Within her mission is a special mandate to focus on women’s empowerment and regional economic integration.

Framework without women

Mary Robinson has highlighted the crucial importance of women and women’s rights organisations being a big part of the peace work. However, the framework itself hardly mentions women – apart from stating that it’s important that ”women’s groups” know the details of the agreement. And so far, neither the framework nor the resolution have lead to any big improvements in the situation for people living in the conflict-ridden North and South Kivu.

Besides from fights constantly flaring up, UNHCR in the end of July reported an alarming rise in sexual violence in North Kivu, with a registered 705 cases January-July, compared to 108 cases during the same period last year. At the same time tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to leave their homes, fleeing the armed violence. There are several militia groups that are active in the provinces and they are fighting amongst each other as well as with the Congolese army.

Severe threats against activists

Civil society organisations operating in the Kivu regions, are used to working under difficult conditions security-wise. However, it has gone from difficult, to worse, to really dangerous.

”Earlier our partner organisations talked about, for example, getting stopped in road blocks but being able to talk their way through. Now there are times when they don’t even dare to go out. There have been several severe threats against human rights activists and many are very afraid” says Katarina Carlberg, Kvinna till Kvinna’s Field Representative in DR Congo.

”It’s crucial that the Congolese government, as well as the international community, focus on the protection of civilians and to achieve a stable security situation. This is also in MONUSCO’s mandate.”

Malin Ekerstedt

Witch hunt on women’s rights activists in Armenia

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Women's Resource Center participating in a demonstration for increased equality. Yerevan, Armenia. Photo: Svetlana Antonyan.

Women's Resource Center participating in a demonstration for increased equality. Yerevan, Armenia. Photo: Svetlana Antonyan.

20 May, Armenia adopted a gender equality law for equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women. This sparked a heated debate regarding the concept of gender, which in recent weeks has developed into campaigns that include outright threats agains women’s organisations and named activists.

The anti-gender campaigns have mainly used social media to spread their message. Videos have been circulating with distorted explanations of the concept of gender, among other things linking it to pedophelia and bestiality.

The campaigns also mock and ridicule the work of LGBT and women’s rights activists. One of the Facebook pages that have been put up, incourages its followers to set fire to or in other ways attack supporters of the term gender, who are called “traitors of the nation” and are said to “engage in sexual abuse of children”.

Photos of activists

“These groups publish photos on social networks of activists, politicians, and generally anyone who even dares to talk about gender equality. It has the marks of a witch hunt and it hinders our work. Girls and young women that we work with, call us in panic, and we’re trying our best to calm them down. Some of our sponsors have asked us not to advertise that they support us” says Lara Aharonian, co-leader of the women’s rights organisation Women’s Resource Center (WRC), and one of the targeted activists.

“It’s ironic that we are accused of promoting sexual abuse against children, when we have been fighting that for many years. In 2010, in the wake of a high profile case of sexual abuse against minors committed by a school teacher, we intiated and led the work of a legal team that looked at making changes in some articles of Armenia’s Criminal Code, to ensure a fair trial for the victims and to make the punishment fit the gravity of these crimes” says Gohar Shahnazaryan, the other leader of WRC.

Employees at Women’s Resource Center have reported the threats to the police, and an investigation is ongoing.

Politicians want law amendments

The campaigns of the anti-gender groups have also reached political leaders. Even though the gender equality law was passed in the National Assembly with 108 votes against one, there has now been statements from both the Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Filaret Berikyan, and Naira Zohrabyan, member of parliament from the Prosperous Armenia party, calling for amendments because of the protests.

Some parliamentarians have also taken action not only against the law, but also against the women’s organisations that lobbied for it to be adopted. Ike Babukhanyan (Republican Party) have called for an investigation to check the activities of Women’s Resource Center, accusing them of promoting sexual deviation and homosexuality among under-aged girls.

Homophobia widespread

Since homophobia is widespread in Armenian society – according to the 2011 Caucasus Barometer 97 percent are against homosexuality –  it’s easy to score political points on the issue.

“To mobilize the masses against LGBT persons is very easy in Armenia. And it’s a way to divert attention from the endemic corruption and other economic problems” says Lara Aharonian.

To strengthen cooperation with the European Union, Armenia is currently adopting a series of laws on human rights. EU is Armenia’s biggest trade partner and the two parties are in the process of negotiating an Association Agreement.

Julia Lapitskii/Malin Ekerstedt

Local elections in Jordan a chance for women

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It's not common for women candidates to put their picture on their campaign posters. Fatima Bani Yaseen is an exception. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Alexandra Karlsdotter Stenström.

It's not common for women candidates to put their picture on their campaign posters. Fatima Bani Yaseen is an exception. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Alexandra Karlsdotter Stenström.

Today Jordan holds local elections. With a recently raised women quota, the outcome could be more women than ever in local councils. We have met three women activists who stand as candidates.

In Jordan, local elections are being met with varying interest. In the capital Amman most people don’t seem to bother. It is just a day off for everyone and the common joke is that the shores of the Dead Sea will be full of people, since no one will go and vote.

But traditionally, local elections are more important for people living outside of the major cities. They are primarily a way to secure the family or clan interests, through making sure that a strong candidate is produced, that can be elected to the City Council.

Won over male candidates

Maysoon Meqdadi. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Alexandra Karlsdotter Stenström

Maysoon Meqdadi. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Alexandra Karlsdotter Stenström

In the village of Kura in the north of Jordan, we meet Fatima Bani Yaseen and Maysoon Meqdadi, active in the local women’s rights organisation with the same name as the village. They both run for election. Fatima has held a seat at the City Council for several periods now, and is a well-known figure in her constituency. When her clan was to decide on candidates for this year’s election, she was one of their final choices, beating several male candidates in the process. But getting to that point has not been easy.

Brothers decide

Her first time as a candidate was preceded by a long and painful struggle with her brother. Since Fatima is not married, her brothers have the final say on everything she is to do outside the walls of her home. But this time she refused to accept their no.

“I locked myself in my room and just cried. I refused to talk to my brother.”

Weeks passed, and when only two weeks remained before the election, Fatima’s brother finally gave in. She was allowed to run as a candidate.

“Our society is ruled by men and clans” she says cooly.

But she adds that many women want to support her and have called her to ask if they can help with her campaign.

Raised quota

For Maysoon it’s her first time as a candidate. Besides from her and Fatima, there are only two other women standing for election in the municipality, so they are both hoping to be elected.

And chances are good. In the latest revision of the Jordanian electoral law, the women quota at the municipal level was raised from 20 to 25 percent. It is a relatively high figure – in the Parliament only 10 percent of the seats are reserved for women – and a success for the women’s movement. But a success that demands commitment. To change the view of women being mere political alibis, women have to get engaged in politics and stand for election.

Out of 2 808 candidates in the local elections, 473 are women. The total number of seats in the city councils are 1100, which means that 275 of them are reserved for women. Thus, there are less than two female candidates for each seat. And some districts don’t even have one female candidate. This is solved by hand-picking women to the remaining seats – women who often are skilled and experienced, but who haven’t put themselves up as candidates.

Only female candidate

In the village of Rakeen in southern Jordan, lives Sara Rahayfeh. She is also active in a local women’s rights organisation, this too with the same name as the village. She also stands for election, and since she is the only female candidate in her constituency, chances are good for her to win a seat.

Besides from being the leader of the organisation Rakeen, Sara is an experienced and well-known midwife. Still, it is crucial for her to have the family or the clan behind her when standing for election.

“I have the support of my whole family in this. And I feel strong. I have learned so much through my job with the organisation” she says.

Posters and knocking on doors

Back in Kura, Maysoon and Fatima are talking with horror about a woman in their district running as a candidate, not in her own name but as the wife of Mr X – because his name is the important one.

Fatima has her picture on her election posters. This is rare for a woman, since it’s not considered appropriate. Maysoon has not printed any posters, but has been out knocking on doors in her constituency, talking to voters about the things she wants to change.

“I want to make sure that the resources of the municipality are distributed fairly between everyone who lives here. Waste collection is important, it has to run smoothly everywhere. And I want to ensure that there are street lights on all streets.”

Fatima is also adamant on the importance of resources being distributed fairly. And she is particularly interested in how the budget is being put together.

“There has to be women in the Budget Committee, and we must ensure that the money also will benefit women. Health care is an important example, women need special medical equipment” she says.

Johanna Wassholm

Women honoured at Liberian peace jubilee

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The women in WIPNET played a crucial part in the efforts to bring peace to Liberia. This Monday they celebrated the ten-year-anniversary of the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement in a ceremony in Centenial Memorial Pavilion, Monrovia. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation/Susanne Mannberg.

The women in WIPNET played a crucial part in the efforts to bring peace to Liberia. This Monday they celebrated the ten-year-anniversary of the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement in a ceremony in Centenial Memorial Pavilion, Monrovia. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation/Susanne Mannberg.

Thousands of Liberians gathered on Monday to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the signing of the peace agreement that ended the bloody, 14 year long, civil war. ”Today, we are celebrating that we can feel safe” said Roseline Toweh from the women’s rights organisation WONGOSOL.

The Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement, was signed on 18 August 2003, in Accra, Ghana, by the then Liberian government, the armed groups LURD and MODEL, and all the political parties. The Liberian women’s movement has been world renowned for its vital part in bringing peace to the country, including a sit demonstration outside the negotiating halls in Accra, when the women refused to let the different parties out until they had agreed on terms for peace.

In the aftermath, though, it has proven harder for women activists to gain ground for women’s rights, a situation described as “back to business as usual” by one activist in the report Equal Power – Lasting Peace (2012) on obstacles for women’s participation in peace processes.

“Celebrating feeling safe”

However, this Monday was dedicated to celebrating the years gone by, when Liberians haven’t been forced to live in the midst of war.

”We can always discuss whether we have a just and stable peace or not. But what we are celebrating today is that we can feel safe. My children can leave our home in the morning and I know that they will come back in the evening. I don’t have to look over my shoulder, always being afraid of someone following me. We can sleep soundly at night. That constitutes true wealth and is what we rejoice in today”  said Roseline Toweh, newly elected chairwoman of WONGOSOL.

Rural women awarded

The celebration of the anniversary in the capital Monrovia, started with a march through the city, organised by, among others, Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organisation WIPNET. This was followed by a ceremony in the Centenial Memorial Pavilion. Among the guests of honour were President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, as well as the signatories of the peace agreement, and representatives from the transitional government, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the political parties.

All received awards for their contributions to the peace agreement. And the women was not forgotten.

”We must give a special thanks to all those women – Mothers of Africa – that, no matter rain or burning sunlight, continued their relentless efforts to achieve peace” said Liberia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan.

Women from rural Liberia also recieved recognition in the form of an honorary award. Then, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared a moment of silence to remember all of those who died during the war, those who paid the price for the peace and were missing in this celebration.

Talks on factors behind peace

WONGOSOL was one of the organisers behind the ceremony in Monrovia. Similar ceremonies were conducted in all of Liberia’s 15 counties. During the week preceding the celebration, WIPNET arranged public prayers and lit candles for peace. WONGOSOL have organised talks  all over Liberia, trying to identify the factors behind the peace being sustainable. Ministries and the international community have organised open meetings to discuss how to maintain the peace and how to further include young people in the development process.

Since young people were the primary target group of last week’s campaign, football games and similar activities have also been arranged.

Susanne Mannberg