Recent Resources for Feminists
South Sudan: Afflicted with dual Weapons of War, Starvation & Rape, women bear face of genocide Print E-mail

 Volume 389, No. 10083, p1967–1970, 20 May 2017

Special Report

Famine in South Sudan

By Sharmila Devi

Famine affects over 100 000 individuals in a country struggling through a violent civil war, where aid workers risk their lives to provide support, hindered by denial of access.

Asunta wiped the tears from her face with a blanket as she cradled her 4-year-old son Riak, who lay listless from malnutrition and suspected acute anaemia. The Al Sabah Children's Hospital, the only facility of its kind in the South Sudanese capital Juba, had run out of blood and Asunta could not afford to buy any. Mercy Kolok of UNICEF who had accompanied The Lancet to the hospital immediately got on her mobile to arrange for a blood donation. The life-saving transfusion was on its way but Riak died barely an hour later. This is a familiar scenario for South Sudanese and foreign health workers trying to help millions of people in a country where civil war broke out in late 2013.

The first famine in 6 years was officially declared by the UN in parts of South Sudan in February, affecting more than 100 000 South Sudanese, with a further 1 million on the brink of starvation. Food aid is acting as life support for many, but a shortage of basic drugs condemns others to death. Aid officials accuse both government and multiple opposition forces of using hunger as a weapon of war, since aid is routinely denied access to the thousands displaced. Added to this are ethnic atrocities and massacres, rape, and oppressive security measures.

South Sudan, together with Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria pose what the UN calls the biggest humanitarian crisis since 1945 as millions flee conflict and drought within their own countries or across borders ( panel).

  • Panel
  • Famine in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and South Sudan
  • Almost 20 million people are at risk of starvation because of war and drought­10 million of whom are children­across Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and South Sudan. There is a short timeframe, estimated to last only until July, to prevent a catastrophe, aid officials say.
  • More than US$5·6 billion is needed for the four countries, Stephen O'Brien, a senior UN humanitarian affairs official, told the General Assembly last month. But less than a quarter had been raised, he said.
  • “The numbers are staggering”, he said. “Some 1·4 million children are severely malnourished. Over 21 million people lack sufficient access to health care, at a time when three out of the four countries are experiencing cholera outbreaks. And more than 20 million people lack clean water and sanitation.”
  • The first official famine in 6 years was declared by the UN in parts of South Sudan in February. In the last famine in 2011, 260 000 people died of famine in the Horn of Africa, half of them children.
  • “Peace is of course the key to ending these crises. But even in times of conflict, there is much we can do to fight hunger and avoid famine”, said José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
  • Aid workers say conflict is the common thread across these four countries and they face differing but extreme challenges in each while political settlements remain elusive.
  • In Yemen, a Saudi Arabian-led and US-backed military intervention has been battling Houthi rebels for the past 2 years. About 19 million people out of around 27 million are now in need of some form of aid but the World Food Programme (WFP) says it can only afford to feed 3 million.
  • “Men with guns and power inside Yemen as well as in regional and international capitals are undermining every effort to avert an entirely preventable famine”, said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, shortly after a visit to the country in early May.

  • Somalia has been caught in civil war since 1991 and faces an Islamist insurgency. A recent increase in piracy off the coast is partially caused by famine, said the top US military commander overseeing troops in Africa. Some 1·4 million children in Somalia are projected to be acutely malnourished this year, an increase of 50% over last year, Unicef said.
  • “The combination of drought, disease, and displacement are deadly for children, and we need to do far more, and faster, to save lives”, said Steven Lauwerier, UNICEF Somalia representative.
  • In Nigeria, an insurgency by the jihadist group Boko Haram in the northeast has killed more than 20 000 people. Some 4·7 million people are facing severe food shortages but the UN said it could run out of money by June or July.
  • “There are 47 000 people living there in famine-like conditions”, said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International. “Another 5 million could experience famine in the next few months.”
  • The overall threat is of historic proportions. “This is the first time that we are literally talking about famine in four different parts of the world at the same time”, Arif Husain, chief economist of the WFP, told Reuters earlier this year.

“The suffering in South Sudan is of almost Biblical proportions but it is man made”, a long-standing foreign observer in Juba, who did not want to be named, told The Lancet. “The UN and NGOs are doing what they can and they should. But there are also big questions that are impossible to answer about whether it's immoral to pay for salaries of health workers, teachers, and so on, when the government and militias are waging war and don't care about the people. It will likely get worse before it gets better.”

The surge of violence has fuelled Africa's biggest cross-border refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the UN says. In a few months, 5·5 million South Sudanese­nearly half the country­will be struggling to survive extreme hunger, it warns, in a country about the size of France. Opportunistic diseases such as cholera are on the rise.

Some 1·9 million people are internally displaced while 1·6 million have fled to neighbouring countries. A total of 830 000 South Sudanese refugees have fled to neighbouring Uganda and the UN expects this figure to reach more than a million by mid-year.

 People waiting for the national flag to be raised at the official independence day ceremony, July 9, 2011 (Petterik Wiggers / Panos)

A resurgence of conflict to blame
After decades of war, mostly Christian South Sudan gained independence from the Muslim Government of Sudan in 2011, partly with the backing of influential US supporters and Christian groups during the administrations of presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama. There were high hopes for the country as investors and members of the diaspora flooded in. But tensions that existed within the liberation movement, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, returned to the fore. Rivalry between President Salva Kiir Mayardit, who is from the Dinka tribe, and his then Vice President, Riek Machar, who is Nuer, descended into ethnic violence in late 2013.

Machar is now in South Africa, but a plethora of rebel groups, some of which have broken away from his faction, are now in conflict with Kiir's government forces across a country that is home to 64 tribes. Grievances range from disgruntlement against the Juba elite, held responsible for stealing millions of oil dollars, to local land and clan issues. Kiir himself said in 2012 that South Sudanese officials had “stolen” an estimated US$4 billion of public money. Critics meanwhile accused his government of doing little to clamp down on the widespread corruption.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, has warned of a rise in hate speech and incitement to violence by some leaders. Last November, during a visit to the country, Adama Dieng, the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, reported the potential for genocide if violence escalates along ethnic lines. The UK secretary for international development, Priti Patel, said after a visit to South Sudan in April: “There are massacres taking place, people's throats are being slit…villages are burnt out, there's a scorched-earth policy. It is tribal, it is absolutely tribal so on that basis it is genocide.”

There has been an upsurge in violence, particularly in the last couple of months, documented by the UN and others, as the government tries to take tactical advantage ahead of the summer rainy season when the movement of heavy weaponry becomes impossible. UN officials say many atrocities including mass rape committed by government and rebel forces appear to be locally rather than centrally led.

A formal UN declaration of genocide has to meet stringent legal definitions under international law and would bring responsibility to intervene on the part of the international community. “As far as I can tell, it is genocide but it does need more investigation and evidence”, one UN insider told The Lancet. “I have emailed numerous reports to UN officials but some don't want to get involved because the issue could be career suicide [because of a reluctance to make unauthorised political statements]. We continue to monitor and try to do what we can to help people in an extremely dangerous environment.” A debate is now under way.

Threats to aid workers and civilians on the ground
Arrival at Juba's international airport is an immediate, sensory introduction to the country. The terminal consists of a tent above wooden planks mired in mud. Most of the planes on the tarmac are operated by the UN Humanitarian Air Service, International Committee of the Red Cross, and other agencies. A new terminal is under construction nearby but is months behind schedule, like so many of the other big plans made for the country after independence.

The Lancet observed two soldiers with their AK-47s bubble-wrapped for an internal flight to Renk in the oil-producing north of the country where fighting has displaced thousands. They were escorting a large, blue metal chest, which a local passenger whispered probably contained cash to pay troops. Three-digit inflation means even simple transactions in South Sudanese pounds entail wads of notes held in elastic bands. Photography and filming are strictly forbidden at airports and military installations. Taking out a camera in urban and other areas could also invite the attention of soldiers. Conversations with South Sudanese and international aid workers are often off the record amid real dangers. Smaller aid agencies in particular are afraid to be seen criticising the government for fear of being expelled from the country.

The government allows most reporting of the humanitarian crisis but delving into the political causes of it is difficult and dangerous. “We are seeing very tough limitations on freedom of expression that have worsened in the last year”, Jonathan Pedneault of Human Rights Watch told The Lancet. “Local journalists are bearing the brunt of this, but restrictions, such as expulsion or denial of visas, are placed on international journalists as well.”

Delivering humanitarian aid has become increasingly dangerous, with 82 aid workers killed since December, 2013, the UN said. South Sudan is “the most dangerous country in the world today for aid workers”, Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, said in a statement on May 4.

During violence that erupted in Juba for 3 days last July, between 80 and 100 government soldiers killed approximately 300 people across the city. They attacked a hotel compound where aid workers were housed, where they raped at least five international aid workers after UN peacekeepers failed to respond to their telephone calls, according to a subsequent UN inquiry.

“You can't think about the dangers but just carry on with what you have to do”, said one female aid worker in Juba. “We take what precautions we can, like observe the 7 PM curfew, use only trusted drivers, and so on. And we remember that it's much, much worse for those South Sudanese women who are poor and have nothing.” In some parts of the country, NGOs estimate half of the South Sudanese women have been raped, but exact numbers are impossible to obtain given the taboo around the subject amid the political breakdown.

There are about 12 000 soldiers and 2000 police with the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), who will be joined by up to 4000 soldiers from east Africa later this year as part of a UN-authorised regional protection force with a stronger mandate to protect civilians.

UNMISS has come under much criticism for failing to protect people, but most observers say without them, the situation would be much worse. They have protected some 220 000 South Sudanese who have fled to UN bases across the country since 2013. These camps, known as Protection of Civilian sites, offer security but life is hard in the tents and shacks where the people live. There are two camps close to the UN headquarters in Juba where just under 40 000 people live and receive basic food and health services from agencies such as Concern Worldwide, the lead nutrition partner.

The Lancet sat with three members of the women's committee in one camp, each from a different tribe. They say they stay in the camp for fear of reprisal or revenge attacks by government forces. Since last July's violence, UNMISS has stepped up patrols to venture beyond the camp perimeter, particularly to protect women. 70% of women sheltering in UN camps in Juba had been raped since the conflict began, according to a UN humanitarian survey conducted in December.

Mary Syma Samuel, 28, of the Kakwa tribe, is from Lanya in the south and she arrived in the camp last year. She was almost raped when she was just outside the camp collecting firewood. “I was beaten up by the government soldiers but I managed to run away”, she said. “In the bush, soldiers search you and ask you where is your husband. If you say you don't know, they torture you.”

 Mary Syma Samuel, Deborah Chan, and Ngaguong Gai, in the UNMISS Protection of Civilians site, Juba (Sharmila Devi)

Debora Chan, 38, of the Shilluk tribe, fled the city of Malakal in the north 2 years ago and took a tortuous journey partly by boat to Juba with her children. She has not communicated with her husband since and has no family in the capital. “I really want to go home, I want to feel free. We have security in the camp but services are very basic.”

Ngaguong Gai, of the Nuer tribe, fled from Malakal in 2013. Her husband was a militant and she does not know what has happened to him. “It's a big challenge raising kids here and I'm missing a lot of things that I need like cooking utensils, sugar, and milk. We have some security and food but that's it.”

David Shearer, head of UNMISS, told The Lancet that peacekeepers had stepped up the “robustness of their response” across the country. “For example, when they're denied access at checkpoints which are usually controlled by local forces, not central command, they now maintain pressure to get through.”

He referred to a small arms attack on the UN's base in Leer town on May 3, when Ghanaian peacekeepers returned fire and protected the displaced people sheltering next to the base. “This was the first time the base came under a direct attack and I was pleased to see the stepped up response”, said Shearer.

A desperate lack of resources
Meanwhile, a $1·6 billion UN appeal was launched mid-April. The South Sudanese response plan remains only 14% funded, the UN said. Shearer appealed for more. “The big issue is logistics and it's expensive. To get a truck from Juba to Bentiu in the north, a distance of 1000 km, can take two and a half weeks”, he said. “There are more than 80 checkpoints put up by armed groups and each has to be negotiated.” As we went to press, the UN urged donors to give a further $1·4 billion.

As for the prospects of peace, Shearer said unity in the UN Security Council was vital to push all parties towards dialogue. The 15 member council failed last December to get the required nine votes to adopt a US-drafted resolution to impose an arms embargo and further sanctions on Juba.

Shearer supported efforts by church groups, highly respected by the South Sudanese, to promote dialogue. The situation should not be viewed as hopeless or the South Sudanese as passive victims, said Vernon Burger, whose US church organisation, His Voice Global, has sponsored grassroots dialogue. “It's easy to look at the atrocities and see the vulnerable women and children and give up but we need to equip the South Sudanese to step back and talk”, he told The Lancet.

 Abuk Deng, her son Parid, and daughter Amel, in the Al Sabah Hospital, Juba (Sharmila Devi)

Meanwhile, there remains a struggle to deliver aid. In relatively peaceful areas such as Aweil in the northwest, acute malnutrition is not hard to find. Dozens of women with children were seen waiting at the Maduanyi health clinic under the shade of a tree for health and nutrition services. Many had walked for hours through the countryside to get there. Only 40% of people are within reach of health facilities. WHO is starting a project called the Boma Health Initiative to train community health workers.

Anok Ding has four children. Five others have died. Her twin babies aged 8 months should weigh 7–8 kg but only weigh 3·8–4 kg. “My husband has no job and we don't even have a chicken or a goat”, she told The Lancet. She had spent 2 weeks at the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Aweil town so her twins could receive regular nutrition. But pressure on space meant she had to be discharged to allow other even more acute admissions.

“With the onset of rains, we are expecting increased numbers of patients suffering from malnutrition and malaria”, Robert Pitia, emergency room supervisor at the MSF hospital, told The Lancet. The hospital takes referrals from the regional state hospital next door where Deng Gol, acting director, was in despair. “We can only do diagnosis and patients have to go outside to buy drugs. If they can't afford them, they die”, he told The Lancet. “For example, we have most instruments needed for general surgery but no oxygen.”

Teresina Athou Lueth, regional state health minister in Aweil, told The Lancet that her immediate priorities were combating malaria and pneumonia before the onset of rain. “I need everything. Women are dying. Kids are dying”, she told The Lancet. “With the rains, people will be cut off because the mud will make transport impossible.”

South Sudanese Government does not prioritise health
Government spending on health accounted for only 1% of the 2016–17 national budget, down from 4% the year before, Abdulmumini Usman, WHO representative to South Sudan, told The Lancet. Meanwhile, the security sector was allocated 60% of the budget, according to local press reports.

“After independence, the country had managed to achieve a lot, for example, in maternal and child mortality but conflict has meant a big rolling back. We are hoping the government will restore health spending to 4% in the next budget and then gradually increase it to 15%. Budget talks start next month [June] so we will see”, said Usman.

“We are also working to coordinate the emergency response in view of the famine. There are 57 partners in the health cluster [that includes UN and other agencies] and we need to decide who goes where and does what and monitor it all. The people need us.”

Back at the Al Sabah Hospital in Juba, Lilliane Kej cradled her 10-month-old baby girl. Aged 22 years, she has nine children. Her baby was dehydrated and a nurse had to scold her for not properly feeding her baby.

On another bed, Abuk Deng sat with her son Paride, aged 2 years, and her daughter Amel, aged 5 years. Both of the children are malnourished. Her son was also suffering from convulsions and her daughter from stomach and leg pains and diarrhoea.

Meanwhile, 2-year-old Daniel sat on a bed under a net covered with angry wounds that looked like burns. He was suffering from kwashiorkor, a condition caused by malnutrition and signalled by too much fluid in the body's tissues causing the skin to swell and split. He died less than a week later.

 Two of Anok Ding's children, waiting at the Maduany health clinic, Aweil (Sharmila Devi)

India: Supreme Court directs Centre & 3 State Govts to ban female genital mutilation Print E-mail

 ~  Tuesday May  9 2017

Notice to Centre, states on female circumcision

Tribune News Service

New Delhi: The Supreme Court today issued notices to the Centre and the governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan on a PIL seeking a ban on age-old practice of female genital mutilation followed by Dawoodi Bohra Muslims.

A Bench headed by Chief Justice of India JS Khehar asked the Centre and the three states to spell out their stand on the controversial practice that many activists term as violation of fundamental rights of women.

Petitioner Sunita Tiwari – an advocate – demanded a law against female circumcision on the ground that it violated child rights of Bohra Muslim girls. Tiwari said it caused pain during menstruation and sexual intercourse, loss of libido and even pain during urination. “It can be categorised as violence against women,” she added.

Popularly known as “khatna”, female genital mutilation involves cutting off the clitoral head, which many Bohras believe makes women lead a life of infidelity. It’s generally done at a young age by midwives in unhygienic conditions.

The UN General Assembly had in 2012 adopted a unanimous resolution on elimination of this practice. The National Commission for Women also supported a ban on the practice.

USA: Disbelief, inaction, blame, retaliation lead women to avoid reporting sexual harassment Print E-mail
 Monday April 10, 2017
Also at  Friday April 14, 2017

THE UPSHOT Women at Work

It's Not Just Fox: Why Women  Don't Report Sexual Harassment


A male colleague grabbing her leg. Another one suggestively rubbing her back. Others at work dinners discussing who they’d want to sleep with.

Jane Park talked about experiencing all of this behavior in her career in business consulting and strategy. Never has she reported any of it to human resources or management.

“It’s made into such a big deal that you have to make a decision: Do you want to ruin your career? Do you want this to be everything that you end up being about?” said Ms. Park, who is now chief executive of Julep, a beauty company she founded. “What you really want to happen is that it doesn’t happen again.”

Her choice is more common than not, social science research shows.

Employers, judges and juries often use women’s failure to report harassment as evidence that it was not a problem or that plaintiffs had other motives. But only a quarter to a third of people who have been harassed at work report it to a supervisor or union representative, and 2 percent to 13 percent file a formal complaint, according to a meta-analysis of studies by Lilia Cortina of the University of Michigan and Jennifer Berdahl of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business.

Mostly they fear retaliation, and with good reason, research shows.

In response to a New York Times report this month of payouts to women who had accused the Fox news host Bill O’Reilly of sexual harassment, 21st Century Fox, Fox News’s parent company, said: “No current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously.”

In interviews, women who worked at Fox said they didn’t complain to human resources because they feared they would be fired.

Some women who experience harassment confront the perpetrator or confide in friends or family, the meta-analysis found. But the most common response is to avoid the person, play down what happened or ignore the behavior.

Some don’t report a problem because they don’t think their experience qualifies as illegal harassment. An analysis of 55 representative surveys found that about 25 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment, but when they are asked about specific behaviors, like inappropriate touching or pressure for sexual favors, the share roughly doubles. Those numbers are broadly consistent with other survey findings.

Many victims, who are most often women, fear they will face disbelief, inaction, blame or societal and professional retaliation. That could be hostility from supervisors, a bad reference to future employers or the loss of job opportunities. Their fears are grounded in reality, researchers have concluded. In one study of public-sector employees, two-thirds of workers who had complained about mistreatment described some form of retaliation in a follow-up survey.

“They become troublemakers ­ nobody wants to hire them or work with them anymore,” Ms. Berdahl said.

Paradoxically, official harassment policies and grievance procedures often end up creating obstacles to women’s ability to assert their rights, according to research by Anna-Maria Marshall, a sociologist at the University of Illinois.

“That is in part because companies put them into place as mini litigation defense centers,” Ms. Marshall said. “The way employers deal with it is to prepare to show a court or jury that they did everything they could, rather than to protect women in the workplace.”

  Posing for a photo in front of a Bill O’Reilly poster on outside Fox News studio in New York on Friday. Mr. O’Reilly hosts Fox News’s top-rated show and has privately settled sexual harassment charges. Researchers say superstars at a company are often seen as invincible, which makes women less likely to formally report harassment. (Hilary Swift for The New York Times)

There are many ways that company cultures discourage people who are harassed from reporting it.

Sometimes the harasser is a superstar ­ someone who makes the company so much money that he feels powerful and uninhibited in his behavior because the company has considerable incentive to look the other way.

The more someone has a reputation for harassing, the less likely a woman is to complain, Ms. Berdahl said: “It’s natural to conclude that if he’s been getting away with this for a long time, then the organization tolerates it, so why become the problem yourself by going to H.R.?”

Other times the human resources department has no interest in helping the employee ­ or there is no such department at all. This is common in Silicon Valley, where companies grow so fast ­ and where disdain for slow-moving bureaucracy runs so deep ­ that human resources officials often serve only to recruit employees.

In February, a former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler, wrote that when she reported to the Uber human resources department that her manager had tried persuading her to have sex with him on her first official day on her new team, the department declined to take action. It said she could change teams or accept what would probably be a poor performance review from the manager. Uber has a new human resources executive and is doing an internal investigation.

Ellen Pao, a venture capitalist, at a San Francisco courthouse in 2015 for a trial that she lost over sex discrimination charges against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins. The firm had no human resources department to handle such complaints. (Jim Wilson / The New York Times)

Ellen Pao, a former partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, described an atmosphere of sexism and harassment at the venture capital firm ­ with little recourse. In fact, it had no human resources department. She sued and lost a high-profile trial.

Organizations that are very hierarchical or masculine can breed more harassment, and less reporting of it, according to studies, because gendered power dynamics are a big driver. That’s one reason that harassment has been rampant ­ and underreported ­ in the military.

Most sizable companies have policies banning sexual harassment and require some sort of training in what it is and how to report it. But much of the training has been shown to be ineffective, and at worst can backfire.

The best way to avoid sexual harassment and ensure that it’s reported when it happens is to bake it into company culture, from the top leaders on down, executives and researchers say.

“When you have an effective H.R. department that is supported by leadership, people feel safe about reporting harassment,” said Bettina Deynes, vice president for H.R. at the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional association. “It has a lot to do with the type of H.R. department: The motive is not the legal liability, but the culture you want.”

Culture is a squishy concept, but companies can do concrete things. One counterintuitive idea is to reward managers when complaints of harassment increase in their department, because it means they’re creating an environment where people are comfortable reporting it, according to a frank report published in June by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Here are some other ideas from the commission and researchers in the field:
* Authorize dozens of employees throughout the organization to receive complaints, so that people can report to someone they’re comfortable with.
* Hire an ombudsman.
* Promote more women to positions of power.
* Train people not in what not to do, but in how to be civil to colleagues, and how to speak up as a bystander ­ and have senior leaders attend the training sessions.
* Put in proportional consequences, so that low-grade instances can be handled with conversations instead of firings or legal action.

Ms. Pao, now the chief diversity and inclusion partner at the Kapor Center, a research, advisory and investment group that tries to make the tech industry more diverse, says she is pessimistic that company cultures will change unless it starts at the very top. “If you could fix the problem, then everybody could move on and thrive,” she said. “But often it’s not just the one bad player, so you may want to get out of the culture.”
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Guatemala 2017: After teenage girls burnt to death on IWD, demands grow to end their violent abuse Print E-mail
 ~ March 17 2017

More than a tragic accident: Guatemalan organizations denounce the fire that killed 40 teenage girls at a state-run home

On International Women's Day, March 8, a fire was set at a state home for children and youth in Guatemala, immediately killing 19 girls. Since then, at least another 21 have died as a result of their injuries and many more continue to be hospitalized.

Survivors have recounted that on March 7, several youth broke out of the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Assunsión (Safe Home) in an attempt to escape the abusive conditions inside. Reports of extreme sexual violence, physical abuse, neglect, torture, and human trafficking have been documented for several years by children.s rights organizations and denounced with the Guatemala.s Human Rights Ombudsman.s office and at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

After the breakout, police were immediately called to round up the youth who escaped. Fifty-two girls were then locked inside a room; according to one of the survivors, the group of teenage girls started rioting the morning of March 8 after having been locked in the room all night, subject to continued verbal assaults by police outside the door, and prevented from leaving to use the bathroom. Protesting the sexual violence that they face on a daily basis, a mattress was set on fire in the room, setting the room ablaze with the girls inside. Despite pleas as the fire spread, riot police did not open the locked door nor move to allow the girls out. The death toll has now risen to at least 40 teenage girls, between the ages of 12 and 17.

Several state officials have been arrested on charges of culpable homicide, negligence, and child abuse; however, many Guatemalan organizations are pointing to crimes so severe to warrant investigations for crimes against humanity.

Anything but a safe home

The system for child welfare in Guatemala is chronically under-resourced and reports of systemic abuse are rampant. The Hogar Seguro is no exception. Under its roof are children from the ages of 12-17 who have been removed from their homes due to violence and abuse. Several are children with disabilities. Some are youth who had nowhere else to go. Opened in 2010, the center was built for a capacity of 500 children. At the time of the fire, there were over 800 children being housed there.

For more background to the fire, SCROLL DOWN to read Francisco Goldman.s account for the New Yorker

An outcry from civil society
Immediately, organizations and individuals participating in the Women's Day march began denouncing the fire as a massacre, attributing responsibility to the State for its failure to protect the lives of women and girls in Guatemala and for the many ways that it actively participates in targeting women and carrying out acts of femicide.

On March 9, people gathered outside of the Presidential Palace to denounce the massacre. (Rode Díaz)

The fountain in Guatemala City.s central square is painted red. (CPR Urbana)

On March 21, people in Guatemala joined the international day of action to denounce the massacre. (Credit: Prensa Comunitaria)

Messages of solidarity from across the world also came pouring in, with demonstrations taking place in front of the Guatemalan embassy in several different countries. See photos and videos from CMI-Guatemala HERE

 A violence rooted in history
The images of young women locked in a room and left to burn are stark in Guatemala. HIJOS - Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Forgetting and Silence - released a statement in the days after the fire, honoring the legacy of people who have resisted state oppression and abuse and pointing to the many moments in history during which the response to rebellion has been fire.

"For as long as we can remember, the sons and daughters of Guatemalan peoples - the indigenous, workers, campesinos, the exploited, the impoverished - who have dared to denounce the oppression of the State have been subjected to scorn... In Quiché as in the Verapaces, in Chimaltenango and Panacal, Huehuetenango, in Emaús, and against the campesinos who protested at the Spanish Embassy, everywhere; the response of the State to its people, exiled into misery, has been to set them on fire.

Thousands of our mothers rose up against the abuses of big bosses and large landowners, just as their grandmothers had. Using their example, waves of terror were kept at bay for years as guerrilla fighters, but this was not the future they wanted us to inherit...Today, like yesterday, the punishment for dissidence and resistance to a system that imposes the logic of capital is fear, terror, and fire. Today, children are burned alive; yesterday, a massacre at the Spanish Embassy, razed communities, and crimes committed by the Army. Today, violence and sexual slavery of girls; yesterday, Sepur Zarco. Today, children are kidnapped from their families; yesterday, children of massacre victims are enslaved by officials and soldiers of a genocidal army." Read the full statement in Spanish.

Likewise, dozens of feminist Guatemalan organizations and individuals signed on to a statement condemning the atrocities and putting it into a historical context.

"We have spent too many years denouncing atrocities, in which defenseless people have been savagely murdered by a state that sets aside the needs of the majority, putting itself at the service of a patriarchal, racist, and exclusionary elite that has maintained power through a collapsed political system.

The fatal fire that killed more than 40 girls and young people in the "Hogar Seguro" Virgen de la Asunción, is the pinnacle of an accumulation of violence that the girls themselves characterized on multiple occasions as hell. Officials had been singled out for committing abuses, rape, torture, and a series of assaults that led to such a disastrous outcome. The allegations and the rebellion of the girls were punished by the death penalty, as they punish anyone who opposes this regime of inequality and corruption.

We condemn this despicable crime that we consider Institutionalized Femicide, given that State agents are involved in acts of extreme violence against the same girls they were obligated to protect and guarantee decent living conditions. This crime generates terror and affects society as a whole. It cannot remain in impunity."

Updates to the case
  • * Former Secretary of Social Welfare Carlos Rodas, former Deputy Minister Anahí Keller Zabala, and the director of the Hogar Seguro Santos Torres Ramírez have been arrested and charged with culpable homicide, negligence, and child abuse.
  • * On March 14, members of Congress Sandra Morán and Leocadio Juracán filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor.s Office, denouncing President Jimmy Morales for having committed torture, extrajudicial execution, abuse of authority, and breach of duties. The committee is asking for the removal of the President.s immunity so that he can be fully investigated for the aforementioned crimes, and further investigations into the responsibility of the members of the National Civil Police and the workers at the Hogar Seguro at the time.

Calls to action
In the aftermath, several of NISGUA.s partner organizations are calling for a full investigation into the crimes committed and immediate protection for the girl survivors and other children and youth who were being housed at the Hogar Seguro. In the statement released by HIJOS, they demand that the justice system regard the survivors as protected witnesses and carry out a full investigation into reports of human trafficking, abuse at the home, and possible crimes against humanity. In addition, they are calling for:
  • The rights of survivors to be guaranteed and that they receive the necessary care     and protection corresponding to the traumatic events that they have suffered
  • The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to intervene in the investigation and immediately take the appropriate legal action to preserve forensic evidence at the crime scene and detain those responsible under the charges of femicide
  • Clarity on the following: Why the National Civil Police were illegally in control of the center at the time of the fire and why they did not let firefighters access to the site, nor let the girls out; why the National Body for the Prevention of Torture did not present the complaints they had received to the Public Prosecutor's office; why the National Council of Adoptions did not carry out monitoring of the Hogar Seguro, despite complaints; why the Public Prosecutor.s office did not act in an official capacity in light of the accusations that the Human Rights Ombudsman's office had previously documented.

Other organizations are calling for a thorough investigation into all of the public institutions that make up the Comprehensive Protection System for Children, to verify the level of responsibility each entity holds for the conditions at the Hogar Seguro prior to the fire, the death of the girls, and afterwards. Organizations are calling for a UN commission to be formed to investigate the incident and the ongoing abuse of children and youth in state-run facilities, that includes the presence of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Children.

In the statement signed by feminist organizations in Guatemala, they call on society to eradicate all forms of violence. "In every space and moment, [we ask that you] contribute to the eradication of all forms of violence, from derogatory gestures, insults, mistreatment, torture, disappearances, and murders. Each individual in their capacity at their home, work and school environment, religious institution, and social organization, has the responsibility to actively participate so that all forms of violence leave our daily life. Each person has a responsibility to work towards a culture of demilitarization and demand an in-depth disarmament of our society. Do not stop demanding an end to impunity and corruption."

NISGUA stands with the families of those lost, with those fighting for accountability and repair, and with all who struggle to root out the structures of patriarchal violence and end abuse against women and girls. Follow the hashtags #NiUnaMenos, #LasNinasDeGuatemala, and #FueElEstado to follow the conversation on Twitter and stay tuned for calls from our partners for action.
March 19, 2017

The Story Behind the Fire That Killed Forty Teen-Age Girls in a Guatemalan Children's Home

By Francisco Goldman

 The coffin of Kimberly Mishel Palencia Ortiz, a seventeen-year-old who was among forty teen-age girls killed by a fire at a state-run children.s home in Guatemala.(JOHAN ORDONEZ / AFP / GETTY)

The number of teen-age girls who died when a fire broke out on the morning of March 8th in a state-run home for minors on the outskirts of Guatemala City now stands at forty. Those who perished were among fifty-two girls who.d been confined to a schoolroom at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción after a night in which they'd rioted and run away, before being captured by police and brought back to the home. Nineteen died at the scene of the schoolroom blaze, and the others in the two Guatemala City hospitals that received the injured. Almost immediately, Guatemalan and international news reports began to speculate that the girls might have been locked in the schoolroom, perhaps as punishment.

Many blamed the school.s teachers and "monitors." A woman who lived near the children.s home told the online publication Nómada that she.d witnessed some of the riot on March 7th, and had seen girls "throwing rocks at their teachers and at the police and tauntingly shouting, ‘Rape us here, in front of everybody! Come on and rape us again here, if that's what you want!. " The witness continued, "That was a girls' rebellion. Anyone who lives around here knows that place is a hell." In 2013, several staff members at the school were found guilty of sexual abuse. Last year, a family-court judge found that the home's practices ­which included punishments that amounted to torture ­were in violation of children's human rights, and ordered that improvements be made.

In the wake of the fire, the revelation that the Secretariat for Social Welfare had failed to respond to these orders led to widespread criticism of the department, and of Guatemala's President, Jimmy Morales. Even before the deaths, Morales, a former television comedian, was regarded by many as the hapless head of a uniquely corrupt government. (In 2015, his predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina, went to prison on corruption charges.) Morales was particularly criticized for having named two close friends, including a former producer of his comedy show, to leadership posts in the Secretariat for Social Welfare while also slashing its funding. In a press conference the evening of the fire, the Secretary of Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas, refused to resign or to accept any blame. In his speech, he claimed that the girls had sharp weapons hidden in their hair. He said that President Morales had ordered the police to return the girls to the home after their escape attempt, and that all attempts at dialogue with the girls had been exhausted. Morales hadn't come to the press conference, Rodas said, because "he was attending to urgent matters of state."

I arrived in Guatemala City on Friday, March 10th, on business unrelated to the fire. My close friend, the Guatemalan journalist Claudia Méndez Arriaza, met me at the airport, and, with a few hours to spare, compelled by journalistic curiosity, we drove an hour to Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción.

The home is one of several institutions in Guatemala for youths who have been orphaned, abandoned, or turned over by parents who lack the means to support them. As recent newspaper reports revealed, some of the residents. parents had felt that their daughters were in need of discipline; others wanted to protect them from the notorious mara street gangs that terrorize poor urban neighborhoods. The court had taken some of the girls into custody because they'd been abused by family members, or because they were living on the streets. The youths at Virgen de la Asunción were not deemed to be criminals - ­adolescents in Guatemala judged to be "in conflict with the law" are sent to juvenile-detention centers ­although minors who've served their sentences are sometimes put into a safe children's home like Virgen de la Asunción if they have nowhere else to go.

Virgen de la Asunción, meant to accommodate five hundred residents, was in fact responsible for approximately eight hundred youths, who were housed in separate areas for older girls, older boys, younger children, and those with disabilities and illnesses. The smallest area, called Princesas, was for pregnant youths awaiting transfer to another home in Quetztaltenango, the second-largest city in Guatemala. Some of the smaller children, Nómada later reported, had been born in the home to adolescent girls who may have been impregnated by the boys who were also interned there, or by staff. As we have also learned, parents who decided that they wanted to recover their daughters from the home were sometimes faced with a wall of bureaucracy, or were extorted in return for their children's release.

When Claudia and I arrived at the home, two young policewomen, one tall and animated, one shorter and quieter, were standing outside the building. They shared what they'd seen and heard on March 8th in the manner of girls excitedly discussing a horror movie. At one point, the taller policewoman, describing the teen-aged girls as "walking like zombies," aflame, put her own arms out and lurched from side to side. Her colleague, she said, was still traumatized by the smell of burning flesh. The fire had broken out at about nine in the morning, they explained, just as one group of policewomen was relieving those who'd been guarding the girls overnight. The taller policewoman described rushing to the windows of the schoolroom to pass plastic bags filled with water inside. The shorter policewoman then showed us photographs on her cell phone, the kind also circulating on social media ­of burned and blackened bodies, many in bluejeans, amid charred wreckage. When asked why the girls hadn't been let out, or if they knew who had held the key to the door, the policewomen fell silent.

An indigenous couple from Chimaltenango, their faces deeply lined, were also waiting out front. They'd had four children in the home and had recovered only three, but they seemed sure that their missing child wasn't among those who.d been shut in the schoolroom. As we spoke, the home's metal doors would occasionally open to let out small groups of teen-age boys, who were being transferred to other homes and institutions. One boy carried a large stuffed animal, a dog, under his arm. It was unclear how many children were still inside, how many had successfully escaped on the night of March 7th, or who might be missing; the home doesn't have a computerized database.

On Sunday night, Claudia and I spoke to a judge who asked that we not name her; she said that a recent law in Guatemala forbids judges from speaking to the press. She was part of the family-court system that has jurisdiction over Guatemala's juvenile-detention centers and children.s homes and shelters. She told us that she'd heard that sixty-two children from Virgen de la Asunción were unaccounted for. She believed that some had died, or even been murdered, before the fire. The judge also told us that the girls from the home were being prostituted, although it wasn't clear by whom.

The mother of Siona Hernandez, who died alongside dozens of other teen-age girls in the fire at Virgen de la Asunción, is pictured at her daughter.s wake.  (JOHAN ORDONEZ / AFP / GETTY)

I was supposed to fly back to New York on Monday, March 13th, but because of a snowstorm my flight was delayed by two days. On Monday, both the Secretary and Sub-Secretary for Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas and Anahy Keller, were arrested, along with Santos Torres, the director of Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción. All three were charged with involuntary manslaughter, abuse of minors, and breach of duty. Torres insisted that it was the police who.d been in possession of the key to the schoolroom door.

It had emerged that the office of the government's Procurator for Human Rights had received forty-five reports of abuses at the home from 2012 to 2016, and passed them on to the Public Ministry, which had not responded. In October last year, two rapporteurs of the Guatemalan Congress.s Office of Torture Prevention wrote to Attorney General Thelma Aldana; they claimed that the director of the home at that time, Brenda Chamán, had confessed to knowing that girls had been raped there. The rapporteurs asked Aldana­who, working in tandem with the U.N. Commission Against Organized Crime and Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, has carried out numerous high-profile prosecutions, including that of former President Pérez Molina­to open an investigation. She passed their request to the Public Ministry prosecutors responsible for investigating such complaints. On Monday, Aldana ordered an investigation into the prosecutors who may have received those denunciations of abuse and not responded to them, saying that if they are found guilty of negligence they will be subject to administrative and even criminal penalties.

Attorney General Aldana is a respected figure in Guatemala and internationally. Unlike, say, in Mexico, the Attorney General and Public Ministry in Guatemala are autonomous not only on paper but in practice. Last year, the United States D.E.A. discovered that organized crime, and perhaps political figures, were plotting to assassinate Aldana; she now moves around Guatemala City accompanied by a security team numbering dozens. As campaigns on social media reveal, the same political and criminal powers that have wanted to see Aldana eliminated are already using the tragedy against her, exploiting the popular outrage over the deaths to try to weaken her authority or force her resignation.

The same day the arrests were made, Claudia contacted a legal counsellor who was part of an official group that had conducted inspections of the government's children's homes and detention centers before the fire, and that had been carrying out independent investigations after it. That afternoon, Claudia and I found ourselves sitting in a café, leaning forward over a cell phone, hands cupped to our ears, listening to audio recordings that the legal counsellor had shared with us. The recordings were of interviews with three of the surviving girls, two aged seventeen and one eighteen, conducted in Roosevelt Hospital, in Guatemala City, on March 10th. One of the girls was in stable condition; the other two, with burns over seventy-five and eighty per cent of their bodies, were in critical condition. Within a few days, all three were moved to the United States for treatment.

The girl in the first interview, which opens with a barrage of questions, maintains the same even cadence throughout her testimony. "I'm going to tell only what I remember," she says, describing how, following the riot, she, along with other girls and boys from the home, had run for "kilometres and kilometres," with police in pursuit, into the hilly woods that surround Virgen de la Asunción, before the police found them. "As soon as they captured us, they beat us up," she says. "The policeman who caught me told me to get down on my knees and to put my hands on my head. He put a pistol to my head, he said he didn't care that I was female and a minor. They brought us back to the home, and they handcuffed us real tight."

Instead of being returned to their dorms, the runaway girls and boys were made to wait outside. In a handwritten statement signed by more than a dozen members of the school staff on the night of the riots, the monitors, explaining why they had not returned the girls to the building, as per President Morales.s directive, wrote, "We don't agree that they should be let back inside, given that during the short time they were outside they robbed and beat up innocent people, took drugs, and had sexual relations with each other. Their return puts the rest of the population, who decided not to take part in those events, at risk."

The youths had tried to sleep on the grass, and then, at one in the morning, they were finally allowed back into the building. The boys returned to their dorms; the girls were taken to a schoolroom, where they were given mattresses but no blankets. The room was locked and guarded through the night by policewomen from the National Civil Police. In the morning, the injured girl explains in her interview, "they woke us and brought us breakfast, everything was calm." But when some of the girls asked to go to the bathroom, the police refused to open the door. The girls got angry and put mattresses over the windows so that the police couldn't see inside. She says that three girls caused the fire, and that she's been told that one of those girls is dead. As the blaze grew, the girls asked for help from the police. "One of the police said, ‘Let these wretches suffer. They were good at escaping, now they can be good at enduring pain.. " She adds, "They were watching how we caught on fire, but they were not going to open the door." The school staff tried to intervene. "We'd been mistreated by some of them before, but when they saw that the situation was serious, they began to spill their tears right there," she says. "Tears, but why were they spilling them! Because they were scared."

The girl in the second recording similarly describes how she had escaped, gotten lost in the woods, and been found by the police, who beat her, held a pistol to her head, and sprayed her and her companions with what might have been pepper spray. "Our eyes really stung," she says. In the morning, "we asked the police to please take us to the bathroom, and the police didn't want to let us out. They told us to rot." She describes the girls having built "a little house" with mattresses "so that they could do their necessities inside." When one of the girls set fire to one of the mattresses, which were twenty years old and made of thin cotton, the flames quickly spread. "All of us, we all began to shout to the police to let us out, that we were burning. The police told us they didn't care, that just like we'd been good for running away, that we should be good for putting up with the fire." She recalls seeing one girl "in flames, and she asked me for help. That's when I fainted." When she woke up, she recalls, "I did everything I could to get up and walk, but the police, seeing that I was burning and choking, started to hit me. They told me that I couldn't leave, and beat me. Then some monitors threw water on me because my face was burning."

Unlike the girl in the first two recordings, the girl in the third hadn't rioted or run away; she had found herself in the schoolroom after trying to retrieve her little sister. Speaking in a tired, hoarse voice, she says that the riot had begun after the girls were shut in a dormitory for three days. "They wouldn't let us out for anything," she says. "They kept us like caged dogs." During the riot, she recalls, girls climbed up onto the buildings. roofs and smashed windows; boys from the San Gabriel sector of the home joined them. She also mentions that the girls locked in the schoolroom had "gasoline" - ­the counsellor suggested that it might have been paint thinner, used for getting high. When asked if she's had any news of her sister, she says, "No."

All three girls agree that it was the police who shut them in the room; the monitors only returned from attending to children in the other dorms after the fire started. But it is not yet known who decided to lock them inside, who was in possession of the key that could have saved their lives, and why, when the girls were screaming for help, nobody opened the schoolroom door. Was it malice, or homicidal intent, or some kind of accident? Why were only the girls locked up, while the boys were allowed to return to their quarters? And what, exactly, had been going on at the school that made the girls so desperate to escape?

The source who gave us the recordings told us that Virgen de la Asunción was sometimes guarded by just one person at night, and that the girls. customary dorm area had a side door that he suspected the maras might have used to take girls out for the night. (He said that he had seen the initials "M.S.," for Mara Salvatrucha, tattooed on the feet of two of the hospitalized girls, although the tattoos might have pre-dated the girls' arrival at the home.)

María Eugenia Villareal, of ECPAT, an international N.G.O. that tracks and fights the sexual abuse and trafficking of minors, has been helping with the efforts to relocate hundreds of minors from Virgen de la Asunción to other homes and shelters. When I spoke to her, Villareal expressed concern that none of the surviving youths were receiving trauma counselling. She had spent the last two days testifying before various Guatemalan congressional committees about the conditions of state children.s homes, including Virgen de la Asunción. She didn't mince her words. The monitors at the home "were abusing the girls, they sold them drugs, and they took some of them out at night to prostitute them," she said. She mentioned an article in El Periódico that had been accompanied by a photograph of monitors who had worked at Virgen de la Asunción: men with pistols in their belts and rifles over their shoulders, some holding beers and grinning at the camera. "It doesn't matter what the children endure, because they're indigenous or extremely poor," Villareal said, summing up Morale'.s attitude to the deaths. "This is why so many try to migrate to the United States. It's because they're fleeing the violence of the state, of their communities, of their families. Every type of violence is present here."

On Tuesday night, at the San Juan de Dios hospital, I met Dr. Edwin Bravo, who had just returned from Galveston, Texas, where he'd travelled with three of the survivors to the Shriners Hospital for Children there. He was wearing a black fleece bearing the initials "U.T.M.B.," for the University of Texas Medical Branch, which he.d bought there to keep warm; he.d left Guatemala in just his medical scrubs. Bravo was proud of how his hospital had treated the seventeen patients it had received, explaining how his team had started to set up an emergency burn and trauma unit as soon as he.d received news of the fire at the children.s home. Most of the girls were so badly burned, not only on their skin but also in their breathing passages and lungs, that they'd had to be put into induced comas. He had reached out to colleagues at Shriners Hospital.s renowned burn unit, which had immediately offered help. At Shriners, he'd seen how teams of surgeons immediately began cleaning the girls' wounds, preparing them to receive synthetic skins. Now he was back in Guatemala, briskly walking us through the halls of a hospital where resources were clearly far more limited. Bravo exuded competence and compassion. His last patient from Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción was leaving that night, for a hospital in Cincinnati; she would be accompanied by another Guatemalan doctor. She was unconscious, and almost entirely wrapped in gauze bandages and blue robes, but I could see patches of her brown face, her toes. Bravo knew her name but little else. Nobody had come to claim her, to visit or to ask after her. She was alone, a poor Central American girl headed to the United States to receive a new skin, and perhaps the chance of a new life.

Francisco Goldman is a contributing writer for, and the author of "The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle."

Saudi Arabia: Al Janadriyah festival on IWD lends focus to women's role and value in nation building Print E-mail

  Monday March 20, 2017

Saudi women become changemakers

A country that is immensely proud of its culture, tradition and faith, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia values the significant role that women play in society. The robust inclusion of women in active worklife is a core component of the Saudi government's Vision 2030.

By Saud M. Al-Sati
ON THE ROLL: A Saudi woman films using her mobile in the first-ever Comic-Con event in Jeddah, last month. AFP

RECENTLY, under the leadership of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, and earlier under the late Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdallah bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia has rolled out a series of women-friendly initiatives. These have established an enabling environment for women and helped to expand their participation in public life.Women in Saudi Arabia are drivers of the change we see today: participating in our workforce; leading multi-national corporations and becoming the champion of education, health, financial and other sectors.

According to recent reports, there is a sound economic argument around the collaboration between women and men that can benefit our GDP by over $50 billion by 2025. The Kingdom's aim is to have women account for 30 per cent of the workforce in the coming years, an increase from the current 22 per cent. In fact, according to the latest figures from Saudi Arabia's Central Department of Statistics and Information, since 2010 the number of women employed in Saudi Arabia has increased by 48 per cent.

The financial sector, in particular, is experiencing noteworthy developments. Sarah Al-Suhaimi was appointed the first-ever woman to chair the Saudi stock exchange in February. She has established herself as a force to reckon with, Al-Suhaimi held various key positions in investment firms, finally taking charge of the stock exchange. Rania Nashar, was named the Chief Executive of the Samba Financial Group, becoming the first CEO of a listed commercial bank in Saudi Arabia.

Education has been at the core of Saudi Arabia's national policy agenda. The Kingdom has always offered an encouraging environment for women to explore careers in the academic fields. Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University at Riyadh is the largest women's university in the world. It bears testimony to Saudi Arabia's committement towards women's education and excellence.

We take pride in women achievers from our nation who have made great strides towards realising their professional ambitions by creating a niche for themselves globally. Dalal Moheealdin Namnaqani, an educator in medicine, has become the first Saudi woman to be appointed the dean of a university in which she supervises both male and female faculties. Mona Al Munajjed, another significant name in academics, is Saudi Arabia's foremost sociologist. She has been instrumental in formulating several social development field projects. For these, she received the UN-21 Award for Excellence, outstanding coordination and individual productivity in 2005. There are many other women who have earned international accolades for their pivotal contribution to education, research, healthcare and science.

We are proud of Hayat bint Sulaiman bin Hassan Sindi, a Saudi Arabian scientist. She was appointed Emerging Explorer by National Geographic in 2011. In 2012, she became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for science education. She has served at the UN Secretary-General's Scientific Advisory Board. Among the innovations Sindi has developed are a diagnostic tool used for the early detection of breast cancer and the Magnetic Acoustic Resonance Sensor (MARS).

Khawla S. Al-Khuraya, another distinguished name in the field of medical research, is a Saudi Onco specialist and professor of pathology. Al-Khuraya is well known for identifying the FOSM1 gene, which prompts the human body to form cancer cells. She was the first Saudi woman to receive the Order of Abdulaziz al Saud in 2010 for her cancer research. It is a matter of pride for us to see our country making incredible progress to further education and expand opportunities for women. According to data from “The Global Gender Gap Report 2014,” released by the World Economic Forum, Saudi Arabia now has an astonishing female literacy rate of 91per cent ­ an unheard of feat in many nations across the world. Essentially, almost 52 per cent of the graduates in Saudi Arabia are women. The government's focus on women's education has had various positive effects. It has led to a noteworthy reduction in fertility and mortality rates, improved health and nutrition tables. As metioned earlier, it has led to an increase and involved participation in public life. Tens of thousands of scholarships to study abroad are provided to the women of Saudi Arabia every year. A recent achievement that gave me great pleasure was that of Somayya Jabarti, who took over the role of the first woman Editor-in-Chief of the English daily Saudi Gazette.

For Saudi Arabia, it was an important, defining moment in 2013, when ­ for first time in the kingdom's history ­ 30 women became a part of the Shura Council, a 150-member advisory body. In a landmark municipal election in 2015, four women were elected from Makkah, Jawf and Tabuk.

Recently, Women's Day was celebrated in Saudi Arabia with a gathering held at the King Fahd Cultural Centre. During the same time, the kingdom also celebrated the national cultural festival, Al Janadriyah ­ showcasing tradition, culture and the blend with modernity through creativity and ingenuity of the people. This year's Al Janadriyah festival devoted some programmes to focus on women's role and value in nation building.

The government is leading a host of successful initiatives in gender empowerment and cultural development. Participation of women in the socio-economic structure remains the focus of the government today. A number of initiatives above are being undertaken for the promotion of participation and involvement of women in all walks of life in our country.

The writer is Ambassador, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to India

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