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.
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
Badam Zari (right) campaigning ahead of the elections. Photo: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS
Badam Zari, a 40 year old Pakistani housewife, does what is but a dream for most of the Pakistani women: she is the first ever tribal woman in Pakistan to run for parliament.
Badam Zari is from the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), a part of Pakistan which is in the hands of Taliban, where most women are uneducated and rarely allowed to leave the house without their husbands.
“I am extremely worried about tribal women, most of who stay in their houses, which has prevented them from making any progress. I want to reach the assembly to become a voice for women, especially those living in the tribal areas,” Badam Zari told on a press conference at the beginning of April. “This was a difficult decision, but now I am determined and hopeful society will support me.” At least she has the support of her husband, a teacher, who accompanied her when she announced her candidacy. She claims that she is not afraid and has not yet received any threats of Islamist militants.
Although all adults of FATA have a legal right to vote, many women were prevented from voting in the 2008 elections, as Taliban threatened tribesmen with bombing and other “severe punishments”, if they would not keep women away from the polling stations. If women are allowed to vote, they are expected to vote in accordance to men’s orders.
Pakistan was the first Muslim country with a woman, Benazir Bhutto, as head of state. Because of a quota system, women hold 16,3 percent of the parliament’s seats.
Badam Zari has not much chances to win, according to analysts, but whether she’ll win or not – she succeeded in breaking the taboo of women’s appearance in public. And, as a local politician said, her courageous candidacy is of enormous symbolic value.
The winners of the Young Women Caucasus Peace Award 2013 Zaruhi Hovanessian (Armenia) and Malikat Djabirova (Dagestan, Russian Federation). Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation | Julia Lapitskii
The laureates of the Young Women Caucasus Peace Award 2013 were announced in Yerevan on March 25. The Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismailova, Zaruhi Hovanessian from Armenia and Malikat Djabirova from Dagestan were announced winners.
One of the award founders, Gulnara Shahinian, UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery and board member of the Armenian NGO ‘Democracy Today’, opened the ceremony stating that the award is granted for human rights work and peace promotion in the region. “These young women are activists in their societies, their potential to achieve change is enormous, “ she said.
“This award is a living body. It is not only celebration, there is much work behind it. We want to motivate and provide these women with the opportunity to participate in peace processes in the region.”
Neither award-winner Khadija Ismailova nor any representative from Azerbaijan were present at the ceremony.
“It is extremely painful that our colleagues from Azerbaijan could not come, though we arranged it in detail. However, we are fully aware that all these years we have been walking on thin ice, and we do our best to avoid slipping. It is our duty to protect each and everyone of the project participants,” said Shahinian. Since 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in the state of a “frozen conflict” with the territory of Nagorno-Karabach at stake.
The third award winner, Malikat Djabirova, leads a regional NGO “Mother and Child” in Dagestan, one of the Russian republics. Since 2005, she has been working to actively promote tolerance among youth, as well as working with young women and their rights.
According to her, the level of education in Dagestan is very low, that’s why “many women don’t have the slightest idea of their own legal rights”. The organization runs a clinic for women as well as provides women with legal and psychological consultations. “My work is in no way extraordinary, I only want the people of Dagestan to be happy and live in peace”, says Malikat. Since the 1990s, Dagestan has been a scene of low-level Islamic insurgency, occasional outbreaks of separatism, ethnic tensions and terrorism.
“I have never thought I deserve any kind of award, everything I do comes from inside of me. This award makes me move forward,” says Zaruhi Hovanessian from Armenia, who leads the civic initiative ‘The Army in Reality’. Together with other human rights organizations in Armenia, in particular the Vanadzor office of the Helsinki Citizens’ Initiative, they take part in the investigation of deaths in the army. “We are trying to get rid of violence and corruption in the Armenian army during peace times,” she said.
Last year’s award-winner Sophia Shakirova presented the award to the first winner from Azerbaijan, the investigative journalist Khadija Ismailova. Ismailova is actively working in the fields of human rights and democracy.
“A special topic of her investigations is corruption. She revealed corruption in the highest echelons of power, which does not go unpunished,” said Sophia Shakirova.
Last year, Khadija was at the center of international attention because of slander and blackmail she was subjected to. “Despite all that, she continues her journalistic work at ‘Radio Free Europe’, teaches young journalists investigative techniques and shares her experience with them, thus preparing change,” said Shakirov.
The Young Women Caucasus Peace Award was founded in 2011 by Democracy Today (Armenia), Society for Women’s Rights in Azerbaijan (Azerbaijan) and Women’s Information Center. This award is the first of its kind and has been established to acknowledge the exceptional role and leadership potential of young women in peace building, empowerment of their communities and working to prevent conflicts and to restore and protect human rights. It has been inspired by the work of the famous peace and human rights activist Anahit Bayandur (1931-2011), a winner of the Olof Palme Award.
Armine Martirosyan, Caucasian Knot
Mervat El-Tallawy, Ambassador and Chairwoman of the National Council of Women in Egypt, who made the CSW57 agreement possible. Photo: Violaine Martin, CC
The 57th session of the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW57) is over. After two weeks of difficult and tough negotiations in New York, the participants of the world’s largest conference on ending violence against women and girls consented on the adoption of a global plan to eliminate and prevent
all forms of violence against women and girls.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that he ”hopes that all the partners who came together at this historic session and others around the world will now translate this agreement into concrete action to prevent and end violence against women and girls.”
One third of all women experience violence
One out of three women experience violence in her lifetime. According to the World Bank, women between the ages of 15 and 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria. To put an end to this seems like an excellent idea – but apparently not to all countries.
Even in the year 2013, there are countries that try to impede an agreement that is not even legally binding, that apparently don’t go in for a world which is violence-free for women. At CSW57, the Vatican, Russia, Sudan, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Iran had formed what some diplomats called “an unholy alliance” and objected to language in the draft communiqué, asserting that governments can’t use religion, custom and tradition as an excuse to their obligation to eliminate violence. They also objected to references to abortion rights and contraception, as well as to language suggesting that rape also includes forced intercourse by a woman’s husband or partner.
Last year’s conference ended without an agreement – and this was close to happening again. What made the alliance countries cave in is not known, but in the end it was only Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood who classified the draft as un-Islamic and warned it would lead to a “complete degradation of society.”
Agreement made possible by the courage of one women
It seems to be thanks to the courage of one woman that the final agreement was signed, besides Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to block it. The head of Egypt’s delegation, politician and diplomat Mervat Tallawy, ignored the members of her own delegation and announced that Egypt would join consensus. “Women are the slaves of this age. This is unacceptable, and particularly in our region,” Mervat Tallawy said afterwards. “It’s a global wave of conservatism, of repression against women, and this paper is a message that if we can get together, hold power together, we can be a strong wave against this conservatism.”
Religion, culture and tradition are no excuses anymore
The 16-page document agreed upon strongly condemns violence against women and girls, affirms that violence against women and girls is rooted in historical and structural inequality in power relations between women and men, and that this persists in every country in the world as a pervasive violation of the enjoyment of human rights, calls for gender equality and women’s empowerment and ensure women’s reproductive rights and access to sexual and reproductive health services.
The document reinforces furthermore the validity of all agreements and resolutions hitherto adopted, urges all states to condemn violence against women and girls and to implement effective national legislation and policies against it. It also recognizes violence against women as an impediment to the social and economic development of states, as well as the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Equal access to power and decision-making is also a demand.
“By adopting this document, governments have made clear that discrimination and violence against women and girls has no place in the 21st century, there is no turning back.” said UN Women.
Yesterday was election day in Macedonia. The picture shows Macedonian activists in the global manifestation One Billion Rising 2013. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna |Johanna Arkåsen
In the run-up to yesterday’s local elections in Macedonia, violence and political tension have increased. And women who involves politically meet tough resistance. “It’s a male dominated political culture” says Emilija Dimoska, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s program officer.
Macedonia is characterized by political tensions between the two largest groups in the country, ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. The two groups are largely segregated – they live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools and have different curricula. Since 2011 tensions have increased, with several outbreaks of violence, to an extent that the country has not seen since 2001 when armed ethnic conflict rose between the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) and security forces in Macedonia.
Since 1999, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation has an office in Macedonia, in the capital Skopje. Program officer Emilija Dimoska gives an explanation to the current turmoil.
“The situation erupted over the controversial appointment of former ethnic Albanian rebel commander Talat Xhaferi as Macedonia’s new defense minister. The demonstrations, which begun on March 1, were started by ethnic Macedonians furious at the appointment of the new defense minister,” Emilija Dimoska says.
Several women’s organisations in Macedonia are informing women about the importance of voting and getting involved politically. They have also built a partnership with politically active women, to support them. Furthermore, they assist policy makers with information about how the situation for women in the country.
Before the election, the organisation Women’s Center Kumanovo – run by twelve women’s organisations of various ethnic affiliations – has worked with lobbying to get more women interested in politics. Representatives of Women’s Center Kumanovo say that parts of the Macedonian population will abstain from taking part in the elections due to the bad economic situation, the high unemployment rate, low pensions and increased living expenses. They describes the social situation in Macedonia as disastrous.
“There is a democratic political crisis in the country, which is of course negative, and the issue is that voters can decide only between two political parties. Moreover, political issues need to be addressed within the Parliament, and not out of it.”
What are the main obstacles for women who want to engage politically?
“Women are slowly winning the requested percentage on the candidates’ lists; however it is necessary to work on improvement of their representation in the executive bodies of the party where there are fewer women, both at local and national level.”
To get more women to vote and engage in politics, Women’s Center Kumanovo try to strengthen women and increase their presence in public. They also try to increase their debating and argumentation skills.
What do you think about the election? What are your hopes and fears?
“In our view, the 2013 Elections are essential for the public and the international community’s perspective about Macedonia’s EU accession. We hope the campaign will be fair and democratic and that the will of the people will win. Our fear is related to the different irregularities that might occur in certain areas of Macedonia,” representatives of Women’s Center Kumanovo say.
Emilija Dimoska explains that there are several obstacles for women’s participation in the elections, such as the existing gender stereotypes both in the society and among political parties’ structures.
“It’s a male dominated political culture including the lack of support of the political parties for women candidates, which is also evident during the pre-election campaign in which a very little space is given to the female candidates; and the lack of support to women by the public in general,” she says.
How engaged are women in general in the election?
“From the most recent list presented, the number of candidates running for mayors throughout Macedonia is 286 candidates total, out of which 28, or 10 percent, are women. At the moment, there are no female mayors in Macedonia. In addition, with very few exceptions, women in general have not been much visible during the pre-election campaign in Macedonia,” Emilija Dimoska says.
How are the women’s organisations working to make women more active in politics and vote?
“Women’s NGOs around the country implement activities promoting gender equality, including the importance of participation of women in politics that is crucial for building a democratic society.”
About 200 activists attended recently the second One Voice – New Horizons Women’s Conference in Tripoli, Libya, to discuss how to uphold and promote women’s rights in the new Libyan Constitution. The advancements, challenges and the security situation for women after Gaddafi were other discussed issues. The conference was co-organized by five women’s organizations, the attendants came from all over Libya and some international guests were also present.
Libya is deciding on the process how to draft its first democratic constitution after more than 40 years of Gaddafi’s dictatorship.
Women activists are afraid that Libya’s government might follow neighboring Egypt’s example, where women’s rights were ignored in the new constitution. Women’s advocacy groups are lobbying for equal-protection clauses, the right for women to pass citizenship to their children and equal inheritance possibilities, rights women were long denied in Libya.
Dr. Huda Gashut, Head of Department at the Pediatric and Maternal Child Development Center in Tripoli, who attended the conference, said: “The goal of the conference is to create a body that sets guidelines on women’s rights in the country to be included in the Constitution. We will not lower our guard until our demands are written in our Constitution. We will not allow any paragraph that in the least way revises the system of rights we defined.”
Female parliamentarians have formed a cross-party bloc with the aim to ensure fair female representation on the constitutional drafting committee. In the parliamentary election in 2012, 33 out of 200 seats went to women, 16, 5 percent of all seats. Even though this isn’t very much, by comparison to the USA for example, the number is not so bad: women there hold 17, 8 percent of the seats in parliament. Nevertheless, these number show that still most of the powerful positions are held by men. Not only in Libya.
The ballots of the Kenyan general elections on March 4 are still being counted, but the election’s outcome for women is less unsure, as Kenya is a deeply patriarchal society. Until now, women had almost no say in politics.
The elections were the first ones held under the new constitution, which was passed in 2010. The constitution contains a provision that states that “not more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender.” This should change political representation for women radically – as women must now form at least one-third of any elective public body. But in December 2012, the Kenyan High Court decided that this provision should first be effective after the elections.
Only one of eight presidential runners was female. And, according to opinion polls before the election, only about one percent of Kenyans would have voted for her. Politics is still regarded as the preserve of men – women in authority are still mainly regarded as a curse to the community and as violating the tradition. “Society sees our place being the kitchen and the bedroom. Nothing beyond there,” parliamentary candidate Sophia Abdi Noor told Reuters.
Threat and smear campaigns
Female candidates were threatened with rape and violence and found themselves subjected to smear campaigns aimed to destroy their reputation. The parliamentary candidate Alice Wahome, for example, found her hometown littered with condoms with her name on them in an attempt, blamed on her main male rival, to portray her as promiscuous and thus not trustworthy.
Many women look with envy to Rwanda, where more than half of legislators are women, more than anywhere in the world.
But there is also a ray of hope: Before the March 4 elections, the two-thirds gender equilibrium had already been implemented in some offices: one-third of the members of the Supreme Court, the commission on revenue allocation, the commission for the implementation of the constitution and the salaries and remuneration commission were female.
Women were absent when the peace agreement in DR Congo was signed. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation | Ida Udovic
Eleven countries signed a peace agreement mediated by the UN to end war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But civil society is not elated.
The new framework agreement for peace and stability in eastern DRC was signed in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on February 24, in the presence of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Eleven African countries signed the agreement, which among other things regulates the deployment of a special UN intervention brigade to the eastern DR Congo with troops from Southern and Eastern Africa. The brigade is supposed to reinforce the UN peacekeeping troop MONUSCO, which already is in the country. The undersigning countries furthermore committed not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs.
“Rwanda and Uganda have been criticized for their support to the rebel group M23. With this agreement, this kind of support has to stop. But it remains to be seen what will happen,” says Ylwa Renström, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s coordinator for the DR Congo.
The violence escalates
Ylwa Renström sees it positively that there seems to be a will in the region’s countries to bring about a peaceful solution in DR Congo. At the same time, she continuously receives reports on escalating violence in eastern DR Congo. In early February, 30 women were for example raped in the Fizi territory in the South Kivu Province, brutal assaults which are believed to have been carried out by the FDLR rebel group. “This happens all the time! Sure, countries in the region can sign peace agreements, but it will be an enormous challenge to demobilize the rebel groups,” states Ylwa Renström.
The organization Solidarité des Femmes Activistes Pour la Défense des Droits Huimains (SOFAD), who works for peace and to increase women’s participation in political decision-making, is not impressed by the agreement. “They consider it a desktop product, signed by high-level politicians without consultation of civil society. Because of this the have doubts of how effective the contract will be to lay the foundations for lasting peace,” says Katarina Carlberg, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s field representative in DR Congo, who has spoken with representatives of SOFAD.
Signees of the agreementThe peace agreement has been signed by Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Signees are also the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), the African Union, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the United Nations.
Katarina Carlberg also points out that the agreement neither mentions women’s rights nor women’s participation. Neither reflected in the agreement are the principles of the UN resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, nor mentions it women’s inclusion in the different mechanisms of stabilization and peace building the agreement suggests. “The only thing the agreement contains is a brief reference to sexual violence,” says Katarina Carlberg.
The content of the agreement has been criticized from different sides for being too vague. 46 Congolese and international organizations from civil society wrote for example in a joint statement that if the agreement should contribute to a genuine peace, it must be supplemented by concrete measures, such as the appointment of a special UN envoy with a mandate to mediate in both Congo and the region and the inclusion of civil society in the peace process.
In the organizations opinion it is furthermore important that war criminals do not go unpunished, as it has been the case in previous agreements.
Text: Karin Råghall
Translation: Katharina Andersen
This is not the first time Shatha Naji receives recognition for her work. She has already received the Mimosa Italian Award (2009) and the Shield of the Baghdadi Woman from Baghdad's governance council (2010). Photo: UNAMI
Shatha Naji Hussein from the Iraqi organization ‘Women for Peace’ was recently honored together with four other human rights activist by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq, Mr. Martin Kobler, during a ceremony to celebrate International Human Rights Day in Baghdad.
Every voice counts and can make a difference in society. Shatha Naji Hussein has raised hers to improve the situation of women and girls in Iraq. “The tireless efforts of those who campaign for justice, protect and support victims of violence, and work to ensure the political participation of people from all backgrounds, often go unrecognized,” Mr. Kobler stated in his laudatory speech. “I wish to draw particular attention to those ordinary Iraqis who have made their voices count by working to improve the lives of their fellow citizens,” he added. Shatha extended the honor to her colleagues at Women for Peace: “I feel each one of them deserve this honor more than me” .
In the seventies, Iraq declared full literacy for women, today the country is down to 40 percent. Before the 1980′s, Iraqi women were more visible and active in public life compared to other women in the region’s countries. A period of economic growth led to more education and employment possibilities. But the patriarchal structures and conservative moral concepts remained unchanged. Since then, women have been forced back into traditional roles and the overall situation in Iraq deteriorated after the invasion. In the war-torn and impoverished country, women now see themselves faced with stigmatization and marginalization from wider society. Sharia law has been introduced and honor killings, sexual slavery and domestic violence are serious problems. Until today, the law and custom allows male family members to “discipline” women with violence. The war has left many women widowed and with post-war trauma symptoms.
Against this background, Women for Peace was founded in 2003 to change Iraqi women’s conditions. Women for Peace works to empower women to bring change about in their own communities. According to Shatha Naji Hussein it requires a two-way process between civil movement and decision-makers to empower women and to secure women’s rights to build a safe future for women. “A nation’s development is measured by women’s development. If we want to build a nation that’s well-developed and prosperous, we must secure women’s rights to live a safe life”, says Shatha.
To reach that goal, women should also be included in the peace building process in the country, but are facing many enormous obstacles and challenges, Shatha points out. “It’s important to do continuous and diligent work in raising awareness about women’s legal rights in order for women to be more aware of their rights and to fight violence in all its forms. Moreover, the government has to work very hard to implement the UN resolution 1325 terms and make sure that women have an effective and real participation in all walks of life.”
Katharina Andersen | Afrah Nasser
Women in Damascus, Photo: Trilli Bagus
February 18th to 20th, Syrian activists and members of the country’s opposition met in Stockholm for a three days conference to discuss ”Women’s Influence and Participation in a Post-Authoritarian Syria.”
Issues like gender quota, human rights, the constitution, peace and reconciliation, psychosocial support and women’s empowerment were among the discussed topics. The conference resulted in the foundation of The Syrian Women’s Network, as the participants decided to work closely together in the future.
Organized work for women’s rights might be essential to break the pattern women experienced in the Arab spring countries: To be an equal part of the revolution, but when it comes to decisions and peace making, they find themselves excluded.
One of the conferences’ participants, a female activist from Syria who wanted to remain anonymous for safety reasons, shared her experiences of equality in decision processes at the beginning of the revolution and that this changed as the protests shifted to armed conflicts. Now women are the ones suffering the most under the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe and she was worried whether women will be able to overcome the devastating effects of war and violence and find the power to get actively involved in politics.
Now might be a good moment to start to shape the role women can have in a future Syria, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for negotiation talks on February 20th, after a meeting between Russia and the Arab League. Sitting down at a negotiating table is the only way to end the conflict without irreparable damage to Syria, he said. “Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it is a road to nowhere.”
Hopefully, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which urges the inclusion of women in conflict resolution and peace negotiations, will be attended and women will sit at this negotiation table as well. This would increase the chance of lasting peace and might also be a possibility to address the question of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Until now, in only three ceasefires in the world sexual violence was ever mentioned.