Recent Resources for Feminists
Lynette Dumble & Jocelynne Scutt: Crass electronic gadgets fuel thirst for Congo’s Coltan deposits Print E-mail

   Saturday March 29 2014

Electronic gadgets cost more than money ....
By Lynette J. Dumble and Jocelynne A. Scutt

Self-confessed electronics fan Adam Turner, [The Age, March 22], deemed wearable gadgets as yet to meet his desires. Such technology fails to tick his boxes relating to simplicity, elegance, and value for money. Others would agree, though for some the reasons are distinctly unrelated to user-friendliness, cosmetic appearance, and price.

The central critique of newly emerging technical gadgets is unconnected to a mentality innately fearing and/or loathing technology per se.  Rather, the basis is humanitarian. It focuses on the source of the ingredient, Columbite-tantalite, essential for the manufacture of hi-tech appliances, including laptop computers, mobile phones and paging systems, digital and video cameras, game consoles and applications, and military missiles and drones.  

The Congo is home to 80 percent of the world's Columbite-tantalite. Known as Coltan, this black tar-like mineral produces a heat resistant powder uniquely capturing and retaining a high level of electric charge. These properties, together with a conductive ability in extreme temperatures, also make Coltan ideal for smart bomb guidance controls. Security analysts refer to it as a strategic mineral.

Yet in Central Africa, Coltan is known as a conflict mineral. According to a 2001 UN Report on the Illegal Exploitation of the Congo’s  Natural Resources, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and their proxy militias are the primary exploiters of the Congo’s Coltan.  

Mining is masterminded by rebels and foreign forces, then sold to foreign corporations. Although UN Reports on the Congo have not directly blamed multi-national corporations for the conflict in the country, they have stated that these companies serve as "the engine of the conflict in the DRC."

Mining facilities are described as 19th century. Miners are men and women refugees displaced during the Congo’s war which began back in 1998; prisoners as a result of the conflict; and children. They toil from dawn until dusk under the supervision of soldiers, without protective clothing, and in narrow tunnels with virtually no ventilation. Children are seen as a valuable resource since they can squeeze into the small Coltan-rich cavities within the makeshift mines located within the Eastern Congo’s riverbeds".

Adult miners are paid between $10 and $50 per week, considerably more than the country’s average monthly wage of $10 per month. Child miners, destined to remain illiterate in the absence of any schooling, receive just $1.50 per week.

Mining processes have turned the forests and fields into swamps, with lethal landslides a common occurrence. The toxic impact of Coltan, together with mining intrusions into animal habitat has reduced elephant numbers by 80 percent, and gorilla numbers by 90 percent. By and large, miners fail to fulfil the national life expectancy of 47 years due to malnutrition, Coltan toxicity, contagious diseases, and the extremely gruelling labour. Women miners face physical and emotional violence from both military overseers and co-workers. Estimates have two children paying with their lives for each kilogram of Coltan harvested.

Once the Coltan is processed, chiefly by corporations in the US, and others in Germany, China and Belgium, it is  sold  to companies such as Nokia, Motorola, Compaq, Alcatel, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lucent, Ericsson and Sony for the manufacture of electronic devices.

The market does not stop there. Coltan-dependent drone manufacturing companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, AeroVironment, and Textron in the US, Northrop Grumman in Australia, Prox Dynamics in Norway, Denel Dynamics in South Africa, and Israel’s Aerospace Industries report annual multi-billion dollar profits.   

While blood hi-tech has proceeded unabated, the world has lost its conscience when it comes to accepting responsibility for capitalising on a market largely financing a war witnessing the slaughter of an estimated six million of the Congo’s 70 million people, and the brutal rape and torture of in excess of 200,000 females - age being no protection against this atrocity.

Instead, as new technologies have emerged and new electronic devices are manufactured, the demand for the Congo’s Coltan has grown even larger. Right now there is no known substitute for Coltan, but the time is nigh for individuals to question whether we wish to remain complicit with the gross crimes against humanity in the Congo. For starters, who truthfully needs a new mobile phone each year, or a replacement iPad whenever a new colour range appears on the scene, or an expensive electronic gadget that will serve multiple futile functions while attached to the wrist?

Dr Lynette Dumble is the founder and director of The Global Sisterhood Network, and Dr Jocelynne Scutt a barrister and human rights lawyer.

India: In Haryana unwed women disallowed right to vote & women denied significant political roles Print E-mail

 Wednesday March 26 2014


Voters only after marriage

 Unmarried women in Haryana denied the right to vote

Girls in the hinterland are conditioned to put up with a lot, including the denial of the right to vote. In Haryana, which boasts of unprecedented economic growth, social backwardness has become more pronounced due to pervasive gender inequality. In Jind district alone, out of 6.41 lakh women only 3.83 lakh are enrolled as voters. The number can go up substantially if parents get their unmarried daughters enrolled as voters. Unmarried women are treated like goods left in the custody of parents till their rightful owner - the husband - arrives to claim them. Therefore, all forms of social rights are postponed or denied till they acquire marital status.

Women do not have the freedom to move around freely on bikes as their male counterparts do, dress up as they wish, or even talk to members of the opposite sex. Marrying a man of their liking may be a far-fetched dream. For many seeing a polling booth before marriage is also a distant reality. They are not enrolled as voters because they have to migrate to another place after marriage. The fact is eligible adults cannot be enrolled as voters at more than one place.

But in case of shifting to a new residence either in the same Assembly constituency or in a different one after marriage, a simple form needs to be filled, Form 8A or Form 6 respectively, with proof of new residence. This can be done online or can be sent by post or delivered by hand at the office of the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO). The Election Commission has simplified the procedures, even making these facilities available online, but it has failed to publicise them to the benefit of people. It should involve district and block-level officials and even schools to help people make use of these simple tools. Technology can enable girls to enrol online as voters, help them exercise their right to vote and make democracy a little more healthy.
 Wednesday March 26 2014

Women yet to overcome political bias

By Deepender Deswal/ribune News Service

Most women in male-dominated rural areas of Haryana are yet to take active part in politics. (Manoj Dhaka)

Hisar: Women in Haryana are coming out of their shell. Yet politics, where lies power and authority, still remains primarily a “male territory.”

Political parties have again disappointed state’s women as none has given adequate representation to them in ticket distribution for parliamentary elections.

The Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), Congress as well as Aam Admi Party (AAP) have fielded one woman each. The BJP and Haryana Janhit Congress (BJP-HJC) coalition, BSP as well as the Left (CPM and CPI) haven’t fielded a woman. The abysmal state of ticket allocation is in sharp contrast to the demand of 33% reservation to women in Parliament and state assemblies. This gloomy scenario reflects the patriarchal mentality of the Haryanavi society. For example, older women still prefer to follow their men when it comes to deciding whom to vote. The younger generation is only in a transition phase.

“So far, social groups such as khap panchayats have an overriding authority on women. They come up with bizarre ideas such as lowering the marriageable age of girls, banning them from carrying mobile phones and wearing jeans as a solution to the growing number of rape cases. But has any politicians ever dared to question the rationale of such ideas?” said a girl student of the Haryana Agriculture University. She said issues such as honour killings, sexual and domestic violence and freedom to choose life partners could not be resolved until there is a significant representation of women in politics.

Sunita Duggal, BJP leader who was a contender for ticket from Sirsa seat, said: “Though women have achieved heights in various fields, especially sports and academics, political empowerment is more important”. She said the number of women politicians was almost negligible. “Political parties as well as women are responsible for this scenario,” she said.

Krishna Punia, discus thrower from Hisar who joined the Congress and unsuccessfully contest assembly election from Sadalpur in Rajasthan recently, said Haryana women have proved their capabilities. “They can be equally successful in politics. But, politics is a different field. Women politicians cannot go beyond a point in their activism”.

Jagmati Sangwan, vice president of Janwadi Mahila Samiti, said Haryana’s women achievers have elevated their social status which is a big leap towards emancipation of women from age-old social taboos prevalent in the society. But it’s incomplete without political empowerment. “Political parties must take initiative. Women in responsible positions and active in social fields have a bigger role to play,” she said.
Voters in Haryana
Male: 84,42,220
Female: 71,52,207
India: Women’s security dependent on ending patriarchal view that they are children of a lesser god Print E-mail

 Tuesday March 25, 2014

The statistics of gender bias

By Satyabrata Pal
 The World Bank estimated that over the last two decades, around 2.5 lakh girls were killed in India each year, because of their gender. (S. R. Raghunathan)

The extent of violence against the girl as foetus and infant shows how deep the bias against women is and why they will be secure only if India introspects and changes

Over the next few weeks, there will be many tussles between our mostly male politicians over India’s security. But almost no one will ask if a country can be secure when half its citizens live in deepening insecurity, threatened not by terrorists or enemy soldiers but by the society into which they are born. We seem to forget that India’s security must encompass the security of 48 per cent of its citizens ­ women ­ and urgently address the endemic threats they face, ranging from entrenched discrimination to violence.

This starts with the mass murder of female foetuses. In its 2012 report on “Gender Equality and Development,” the World Bank estimated that over the last two decades, around 2.5 lakh girls were killed in India each year because of their sex.

When infant and child mortality are driven by biology, fewer girls die than boys, but the third National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) found that the postneonatal mortality rate for Indian girls is 21/1000, compared with 15 for boys. For the age group 1-4 years, “the child mortality rate for girls, at 23/1000, is 61 per cent higher than for boys, at 14.” The World Bank report estimated that, as a result, India lost another 2.5 lakh girls in 2008.

These figures put us to shame as a society. This systematic massacre could not happen unless society accepted it and governments turned a blind eye to it. Sections 312 to 317 of the Indian Penal Code list the punishments for causing miscarriage, injuring unborn children, preventing a child from being born or causing it to die after birth, and abandoning a child under 12 years. Over the last 20 years, how many prosecutions have there been under these provisions of the law? There should have been 10 million.

Entrenched bias
The extent of the violence against the girl as foetus and infant shows how deep the bias in India is against women and why women will be secure only if we as a nation introspect and change. Not only is this not happening, but the 2011 census shows that the sex ratio in the age-group 0-6 had fallen in 27 States and Union Territories from 2001.

Millions of girls who are allowed to live are fed and educated less than their brothers. The United Nation’s Human Development Report 2013 estimates that 42.5 per cent of our children suffer from malnutrition (as against 3.8 per cent in China). There is also great irony in this because NFHS-3 established that when mothers were undernourished, 54 per cent of their children were stunted and 25 per cent wasted. The more educated they were, the lower the chance of their children being either stunted or wasted. By starving millions of girls so that their brothers can eat marginally better, and by taking them out of school, we have condemned each new generation – boys and girls – to a fresh cycle of malnutrition.

The treatment of little girls moulds the psyche of their brothers, who internalise the view that their needs ­ as males ­ have preference over those of their sisters. What we have come to thereby is the socialisation of violence against women.

There are no estimates of the extent of physical violence against the girl child but it would be reasonable to assume that it is extensive.

In 2007, the Ministry of Women and Child Development published a “National Study on Child Abuse,” which reported that 53 per cent of the children interviewed had suffered one or more forms of sexual abuse. It would be dangerous to extrapolate from this limited study that over half our children suffer sexual abuse, but it is clearly far more widespread than we admit. What should be of the gravest concern was that in most cases the children reported that the attack was by someone they knew, often a close relative.

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) confirms that this pattern continues as the girl becomes a woman. Since the NCRB can only collate cases registered, its data represent just the tip of the crime iceberg. But it reports that in 2012 there were 24,923 cases of rape registered. In 98 per cent of the cases, the victims knew the offenders. This is a logical outcome of a nurturing process in which boys grow up believing, from what they see in their families, that women exist only to satisfy the needs of men.

Society still resists change. NFHS-3 found that the median age for marriage for girls is still just over 16, and commented that this “is an indicator of the low status of is related to lower empowerment and increased risk of adverse reproductive and health consequences.” There is enough data to show how adverse these are.

Women, particularly poor women, are most insecure in childbirth when they fulfil the role society has set for them. According to the Millennium Development Goals, maternal mortality in India which was 301 per lakh of live births in 2001 should be down to 75 by 2015. This will not happen. We are perhaps down to a maternal mortality rate of 200 now. At 27 million live births in India each year, at least 54,000 women die in the process.

We also perhaps do not realise how other problems have a compounding effect. We are, for instance, the world leaders in open defecation. That is being perpetuated in most States where, despite a requirement that all houses built under the Indira Awas Yojana must have a toilet, very few do. Open defecation is also an open invitation to rape. Complaints to the NHRC show how many women are abducted or raped when they go out into the fields at night. In many States, teenage village girls either refuse to go to school or are taken out by their parents because the building has no toilet and their right to education suffers.

It is sad but to be expected that women have also been indoctrinated to believe that their security depends on good behaviour, as mandated by men. NHFS-3 found that 40 per cent of married women have been subjected to spousal violence. But it also found that 54 per cent of the women it surveyed agreed that wife-beating was acceptable if the wife went out without telling her husband, argued with him, refused sex, neglected the children, did not cook properly, was suspected of being unfaithful or showed disrespect toward her in-laws. On this, NFHS-3 said: “Violence is more likely to be justified if the described behaviour violates what is perceived as acceptable behaviour for women in their gendered roles as wives, mothers and daughters-in-law.”

Obvious acts of violence

And then there are the more obvious acts of criminal violence against women. There is the enormous problem of trafficking; the special insecurities of women in conflict zones. Adivasi and Dalit women are branded as witches. There are the continuing tragedies of forced marriages, of girls being killed for marrying boys of their choice or for not bringing in enough dowry, the needless hysterectomies under the Rashtriya Swasth Bima Yojana.

Within society as between states, security depends on power. The weakest are the most insecure. Women in India are insecure and remain at risk because in this patriarchal society they are children of a lesser god. For women to be secure, the country must change ­ there should be more women in Parliament and in positions of political and executive authority. Every election brings with it hope of renewal, but India will not be transformed, it cannot be secure, developed or respected if the democracy in which it takes pride does not bring about urgent and fundamental change in the lives of its women.

(Satyabrata Pal was a Member of the National Human Rights Commission.)

Malaysia: Tenaganita director Irene Fernandez & guests pay tribute to Myanmar women refugees Print E-mail

 Kuala Lumpur ~ Friday March 14, 2014

Support for Myanmar women refugees

 Three Myanmar women showing their handicraft.

INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day is celebrated in more than 175 countries worldwide on March 8. The day is heralded as an opportunity to honour women from the past, present and future.

In conjunction with this day, virtual shopping mall Lazada Malaysia and Tanma Federation paid tribute to Myanmar refugee women with an evening of celebration, empowerment and fundraising at Palate Palette Bar and Restaurant.

The event’s tagline was “Together We are Stronger Women”.
  About 100 invited guests, refugees and VIPs attended the event, including human rights activist and Tenaganita director Irene Fernandez and UNHCR representatives.

The evening also featured cultural performances by the refugee women and a video presentation of several community projects.

“We are pleased to honour the Myanmar refugee women with a donation to benefit the centres and school,” said Lazada Malaysia chief executive officer Igor Pezzilli.

“In doing so, we hope to inspire the community to tackle the evolving challenges and support the needs of these women.

“As an equal-opportunity employer, Lazada Malaysia encourages an entrepreneurial spirit among women and respects the dreams, hopes and will of these women,” he added.

Lazada regional business development manager Ann Khoo said, “I have battled with Tourette’s syndrome and can relate to the Myanmar women’s struggle for equal opportunity and financial independence.

“We are incredibly thankful for this contribution as it is a recognition of our efforts. The challenge for us now is to see how we can best raise awareness within our own influence to ensure that Tanma Federation grows from strength to strength,” Fernandez said.

The donation will allow Tanma Federation to move forward with plans for existing and new projects that will raise public awareness on the situation of Myanmar refugee women in Malaysia.

More than 40,000 ethnic Myanmar women are currently seeking refuge in Malaysia

Afghanistan: Women deny Karzai the credit for limited progress made on women’s rights since 2001 Print E-mail
 13 March 2014 (ARR Issue 479, P142)

Women's Day Speech by Afghan President Falls Flat

“Since Karzai has done nothing for women, he had nothing to say,” argues one critic.

By Mina Habib - Afghanistan

Women’s rights activists in Afghanistan have expressed anger at President Hamed Karzai’s apparently flippant remarks at a March 8 event. They say his administration has little right to claim the credit for the limited progress made on Afghan women’s rights since 2001.

In a speech made to mark International Women’s Day, President Hamed Karzai acknowledged the continuing problem of gender violence, and said more needed to be done to help women in the areas of education, the law, and economics.

In somewhat elliptical remarks, he said, “The men in Afghanistan should not test their power on women. If they have power, they should go and test it against America. Trying their power on women indicates men’s weakness.”

The main focus of Karzai’s speech was the forthcoming presidential election – in which he is not a candidate – and the importance of female voters.

“If women hadn’t been present in the 2009 elections, the Americans would have finished me,” he said, explaining that it was the female vote that helped him win.

Rights activists received Karzai’s words with little warmth, arguing that despite some improvements in women’s lives – better access to education, improved maternal mortality rates and increased employment – Kabul had failed to address many serious issues. (See for example Afghan Women Face Growing Threats.)

Fatana Gailani, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Women Association, said the expectation had been that Karzai would use the March 8 speech to lay out his government's plans and proposed bills for his final period in office.

“Since Karzai has done nothing for women, he had nothing to say,” she said. “He came out with a few slogans and funny remarks, some of his supporters applauded him, and he left. But women’s problems cannot be solved with such remarks.”

Gailani said Karzai’s comments ill-befitted the president of a country struggling with security, economic and political troubles.

“I see no achievements for women in the past 12 years,” she said. “If a few women are ministers, deputy ministers and [government department] directors, if women work in government institutions, and if girls go to school – these are things we’ve had for the last 50 years, with the exception of the Taleban era. Where are the achievements?”

Gailani said the international community needed to bear some of the responsibility for continuing to support the Kabul administration.

“Why does the international community provide huge amounts of money to a government mired in corruption, as well as to NGOs that do business in the name of women? Why hasn’t the international community monitored the expenditure of this money? In fact, they too have paved the way for corruption, and they have deceived women with slogans that they chant from far away.”

One of those who attended the Women’s Day event agreed that it was a massive disappointment.

“Women were hoping that since the end of Mr Karzai's term was near, he would speak about ensuring and protecting women’s rights in the future, as well as endorsing laws and practical plans,” said the participant, who asked not to be named. “But he continued to make jokes as he’s done in the past, and then left the gathering.”

Afghanistan remains a harsh place for women, with gender-based violence on the increase. Figures from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) indicate that 5,700 cases of violence against women were recorded last year, 17 per cent more than in 2012. The real figures are much higher, since most incidents go unreported.

Last year, Afghanistan’s parliament failed to ratify key legislation on the elimination of violence against women. Although the law was passed by presidential decree in 2009, activists hoped it would gain greater legitimacy if it were ratified by parliament.

The bill was rejected in May 2013 after a short 15-minute debate, and has been shelved indefinitely.

Among the dignitaries addressing the Women’s Day event was the current minister for women's affairs, Husn Banu Ghazanfar, who called on the country’s next president to support the achievements made in gender equality since the fall of the Taleban in 2001.

But Shahla Farid, a law lecturer at Kabul University and a member of the Afghanistan Women's Network, argued that the Karzai government has made insignificant progress in this sphere, while the women’s affair ministry had achieved nothing.

“We visited Karzai several times to demand basic rights for Afghan women until we convinced him [to address them],” she said, adding, “If Karzai had a strong will to ensure women’s rights, he would have appointed the kind of person to the ministry of women’s affairs who would have been committed to do it.”

In reality, she said, “We have seen no achievements from the ministry to date.”

Farid said that whatever gains had been made were the result of pressure from the international community and from Afghan women themselves.

“The achievement of this [presidential] term was Karzai’s endorsement of the law on violence against women, which was rejected by the parliament but is still enforceable legislation,” she said. “The presence of women in parliament is an achievement owing to international pressure. There have been no other achievements one could count in this current term.”

Latifa Sultani, head of women's rights section at the AIHRC, agreed that legislative changes had been positive. The government had signed international conventions on women's rights, and gender sections had been created in government bodies.

But in practice, Sultani said, little had been done to stem the rising tide of violence against women.

“The perpetrators haven’t been not prosecuted. Dozens of cases of murder and abuse have taken place, but the perpetrators have escaped, or else no one arrested them,” she said. “Furthermore, we have witnessed a decrease in the representation of women in [public] institutions recently. There are no women in district-level government institutions.”

In Sultani’s view, “What achievements do exist are so flimsy that they could be wiped out entirely by one small negative shift.”

As for the 11 male candidates now standing for president, Sultani said the AIHRC had told them about its programmes for women. “We asked them to review their own commitments on human rights and the involvement of women in power, and to ensure the promises they made to women were not just about securing their votes,” she said.

Farida of the Afghanistan Women's Network said the candidates appeared ill-prepared to advance women’s rights.

“When we talked to them about their plans to work on women’s issues, they had no practical plans. We provided them with some strategies to consider in the future,” she said.

The withdrawal of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan, expected to be complete by the end of this year, is a source of concern for many women.

Sultani said the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement needed to be signed as soon as possible. Karzai has delayed signing off on the deal, which will allow limited numbers of American troops to stay on after 2014.

“We are asking the international community to train, equip and support the Afghan armed forces – whether the government wants this or not – so that the tenuous Afghans have made in the last 13 years, particularly in the field of women’s rights, will not be lost.”

These concerns are shared by many in the international community. Afghan activists noted a recent petition signed by stars including Hollywood actors Keira Knightley and Salma Hayek, calling on British prime minister David Cameron to continue protecting women’s rights after the troop withdrawal

Many ordinary women feel abandoned by both the world and their own government.

Narges, who works for a foreign organisation, said that the plight of women in Afghanistan had served as a convenient tool to elicit international funding.

“Everything achieved for women in the past 13 years was just on paper,” she said. “Afghan women are exhibited in the marketplace as a commodity for fundraising. That is the only value of women.”

Despite a number of requests, the Afghan ministry of women’s affairs declined to speak to IWPR for this article.

Mina Habib is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

 London ~ Saturday 8 March 2014

Hamid Karzai under fire on Afghan women's rights

Hamid Karzai's government is under fire this International Women's Day, accused of selling out on Afghan women's rights as it tries to woo the Taliban into peace talks.

Politicians, rights organisations and analysts say that the Afghan leader, by endorsing an edict calling women second-class citizens, has endangered hard-won progress in women's rights since the Taliban fell from power in 2001.

The Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation denounced authorities for trying to strike a balance between receiving foreign aid and "keeping the conservative forces of Afghan society happy".

"In practice, the demands of extremist elements residing in the presidential palace, particularly those in the judicial bodies as well as the Afghan Ulema Council, always outweigh those of the international community," it said.

Last Friday, the Council, Afghanistan's highest Islamic authority, issued a non-binding edict saying that women were worth less than men – a statement released by Mr Karzai's office and then endorsed by the president on Tuesday.

"Men are fundamental and women are secondary," it said, adding women should avoid "mingling with strange men in various social activities such as education, in bazaars, in offices and other aspects of life".

Such advice effectively implies that women should not go to university or to work at all, no matter that in the lower house of parliament, for example, 27 per cent of seats are reserved for women.

The edict went on to say that women would wear "full Islamic hijab", should respect polygamy – Islam allows a man to take up to four wives – and comply with Sharia law on divorce, which severely restricts women's rights.

It further stated that "teasing, harassing and beating women" was prohibited "without a sharia-compliant reason" – leaving open the suggestion that in some circumstances, domestic abuse is appropriate.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Mr Karzai, who has formally outlawed violence and discrimination against women, caused consternation on Tuesday by publicly endorsing the statement, saying that it "reiterated Islamic principles and values" in supporting women.

In response, Afghanistan's first deputy speaker, Fawzia Koofi, who was this week listed as one of the world's "150 Fearless Women" by US website The Daily Beast, accused the Council of returning women to the dark days of Taliban rule.

Fawzia Koofi

"This move by the Ulema council drives Afghan women rights towards Talibanization," she told AFP. "Nobody has the right to interfere in women's rights, not even President Hamid Karzai."

Many women are increasingly concerned that Mr Karzai's desire to end the Taliban insurgency through peace talks means that their hard-won rights will be compromised in order to bring the hardline Islamists into mainstream politics.

"It could be a message to the Taliban that he could make compromises amending the constitution," Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir told AFP.

In Kabul and major cities in Afghanistan, enormous progress has been made in women's rights since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime, which banned girls from going to school and women from working.

Women were whipped in the street by the religious police if they wore anything other than the all-enveloping blue or white burka, and those accused of adultery were executed at a sports stadium after Friday prayers.

Since the Taliban fell, however, the number of girls in education has soared from 5,000 to 2.5 million, according to the government and aid groups.

But in remote areas where the traditional patriarchal system is very much the norm, life for most women has barely improved at all.

The case of a woman named Gulnaz, who does not know her real age but says she is 20 or 21, attracted worldwide attention when she was jailed for adultery after being raped by her cousin's husband.

Mr Karzai pardoned her, and she was released in December after spending two years behind bars, but faces great social pressure to marry the man who attacked her, to provide security for her baby and restore her family's honour.

In January, the president described violence against women as "cowardly" and pledged to take action against the perpetrators in the wake of a horrific case of the torture of a child bride, locked in a lavatory for six months.

Heather Barr, researcher in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, said at best Karzai was giving out mixed messages on women's rights.

"This thing from the Ulema council is really, really frightening ... because it is about all women, rather than individual cases," Barr told AFP.

Despite Mr Karzai signing legislation to eliminate violence and discrimination against women, implementation is poor to non-existent.

According to aid group Oxfam, 87 per cent of Afghan women say they have suffered from physical, sexual or psychological abuse or been forced into an arranged marriage.

Source: AFP

 London ~ Saturday 8 March 2014

Afghanistan still one of the worst places to be a woman, says EU ambassador

Franz-Michael Mellbin criticises prosecution of 'moral crimes' and says Hamid Karzai's government has failed Afghan women

Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul

Franz-Michael Mellbin said the Afghan government had failed to prioritise women's rights. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

President Hamid Karzai's government has let down Afghan women, according to the new EU ambassador to Kabul, who singled out the failure to end prosecution of rape victims and other abused women for "moral crimes" as a particular "disgrace".

Franz-Michael Mellbin said that despite huge practical improvements in areas from maternal mortality to the number of girls in schools, Afghanistan was still one of the worst places to be a woman and a frontline in the global battle for women's rights.

Mellbin, who previously served in Afghanistan as the Danish envoy, declined to criticise Karzai directly but said the government overall had failed in its responsibilities to be a voice for women's rights, as conservatives opposed to women having any role outside the home gathered strength.

"We cannot be satisfied with what has been done. Right now what I feel is unfortunately very much lacking is that the government is not showing a sense of priority and urgency that we'd like to see," he told the Guardian in an interview to mark International Women's Day.

"What we are lacking is a strong official voice to counter those reactionary voices … this makes it very difficult to fight for progress. We look in vain for strong government policy."

Karzai has always described himself as a supporter of women's rights, but recently there has been heavy pressure on the fragile gains made after the Taliban's fall from power.

Last year a landmark law to prevent violence against women was pushed out of parliament, the quota of seats for women on provincial councils was cut, and a proposal to reintroduce stoning as a punishment for adultery – used more against women than men – put forward by the justice ministry.

Earlier this year, parliament passed a law that gagged victims of domestic violence by preventing relatives testifying against each other, although it was later modified on Karzai's orders.

Many women believe this is happening because political interest in Afghanistan is fading in the west as troops head home. They fear that with the complete departure of foreign forces this year, conservatives will chip away faster at their rights or simply use them as a bargaining chip in peace talks with the Taliban.

"I understand why Afghan women are very worried about the future, and they are, they constantly raise this issue with me," Mellbin said, adding that he was inspired by Afghan women's determination to seize every opportunity made available to them.

"All over Afghanistan women today are 'first movers'. Some will be the first woman in their family to go to school, others to open a business or take public office. There is a tremendous awareness among Afghan women that they are trail-blazing for the next generation, for their daughters."

He plans to make women's rights a priority during his time in Kabul, as part of the EU's "value-driven foreign policy", at least until he sees a government more focused on protecting and expanding gains so far.

"I do not subscribe to the view that silence is an option," Mellbin said. "We need to be more ambitious. Our agenda has to be continued progress, continued advancement."

The ambassador said the campaign for the presidential election on 5 April was encouraging, with all the leading candidates to replace Karzai, who cannot stand again, pitching themselves as modernising nationalists.

"We're trying to prepare a list of issues that we would like to raise with the new government with regard to women's rights as soon as it comes into power," he said.

He plans to push for an end to the trial of women for "moral crimes", which are mostly violations of social norms, such as running away from a forced or abusive marriage. Rape victims have also been jailed for having sex outside marriage.

"[The prosecution of] moral crimes is something that is a scourge for women in Afghanistan, it means that girls and women who are victims … are further victimised by the state," he said. "Its a disgrace for any country to have such an institution."

Activists are likely to welcome Mellbin's stance, after strong criticism of western nations that fund the Afghan government but have often seemed unwilling to speak out on women's rights.

"Over the past year, through an escalating series of serious attacks on women's rights, the response from donors has largely been a deafening silence," said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"No government as dependent on foreign aid as this one has the luxury of not caring what donors think. Donors need to speak out quickly and forcefully every time there is an attack on women's rights. When they fail to do so it just makes it look like they don't care."

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