women's rights

 

  • ‘In response to anti-right narratives, we need to support one another in all of our diversity’

    Sahar MoazamiAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Sahar Moazami, OutRight Action International’s United Nations Program Officer. Sahar is trained as a lawyer specialising in international human rights law. Primarily based in the USA, OutRight has staff in six countries and works alongside LGBTQI people across four continents to defend and advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world. Founded in 1990 as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, it changed its name in 2015 to reflect its commitment to advancing the human rights of all LGBTQI people. It is the only LGBTQI civil society organisation with a permanent advocacy presence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

    OutRight is unique in that it has a permanent presence at the United Nations (UN). Can you tell us what kind of work you do at the UN, and how this work helps advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world?

    OutRight is indeed uniquely placed. We are the only LGBTQI-focused and LGBTQI-led organisation with UN ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council accreditation) status focusing on the UN in New York. Prior to 2015, when we formalised the programme as it exists today, we would do UN work, but with a focus on human rights mechanisms in Geneva and a more ad-hoc participation in New York, such as making submissions on LGBTQI issues to human rights treaty bodies with civil society partners in specific countries or bringing speakers to sessions and interactive dialogues.

    In 2015 we reviewed our strategic plan and realised that we were uniquely placed: we are based in New York, we are the only LGBTQI organisation here with ECOSOC status, there are a number of UN bodies here in New York, and there is a bit of a gap in LGTBQI presence. So we decided to shift our focus, also taking into consideration that we work with a lot of great colleagues overseas, like ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), which is permanently based and has staff in Geneva, or COC Netherlands, which has easier access than us to Geneva mechanisms. So it made sense, given that we had great colleagues working in Geneva and we were the only ones based here, to try and make sure we were using our resources constructively and thus covering all spaces. As a result, we now focus specifically on the UN in New York, which is quite an interesting landscape.

    While there are 47 states at a time that are actively engaged with the Human Rights Council in Geneva, all states that are UN members have a permanent presence in New York, throughout the year. This creates an opportunity for continuous engagement. We are part of an informal working group, the UN LGBTI Core Group, which includes 28 UN member states, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch, alongside OutRight Action International. This group provides the space to do LGBTQI advocacy throughout the year and gives us direct access to the 28 member states involved. We work in the UN LGBTI Core Group to identity and take advantage of opportunities for promoting LGBTQI inclusivity and convene events to increase visibility. While we also engage with other states, the Core Group provides a specific space for the work that we do.

    In addition to year-round engagement with member states, there are a number of sessions that are of particular interest: the UN General Assembly, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March and the High-Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Developments Goals in July. In all of these forums we provide technical guidance to UN member states on using inclusive language in resolutions and outcome documents and we host events with Core Group and non-Core Group member states relevant to topics and themes discussed in these forums, with the aim of increasing LGBTQI visibility and inclusion. Throughout the year we also work on the Security Council, as members of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.

    Every December we hold our own flagship programme, in which we support between 30 and 40 activists from all around the world to come and undergo training on UN mechanisms in New York, and take part in numerous meetings with UN officials and bodies, and member states.

    The impact that our work has on people’s lives depends on our ability to leverage the status that we have to open doors. We use the access we have via our ECOSOC status to get our partners into spaces otherwise not available to them and to support them in their advocacy once they are there. So many things happen at the UN that have an impact on our lives, yet it is a system that is difficult to explain. It is easier to show activists the various UN mechanisms, how they work and how activists can use them to further their work.

    Being able to open spaces, bringing information and perspectives into the conversation and then getting the information that we are able to gather back to our partners on the ground so they can use it in their advocacy – that is what I am most proud of in terms of the real impact of our work on people’s lives.

    Over the past decade there have been sizeable advances in recognition of the human rights of LGBTQI people. Have you experienced backlash from anti-rights groups that oppose these gains?

    I think we are seeing significant progress. Over the past year, a number of countries passed or began to implement laws that recognise diverse gender identities and expand the rights of transgender people, remove bans against same-sex relations and recognise equal marriage rights to all people regardless of gender or sexual orientation. At the same time, and maybe in reaction to these gains, we are experiencing backlash. We are witnessing the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-gender movements targeting gender equality and advocating for the exclusion of LGBTQI people and extreme restrictions on sexual and reproductive health and rights. This has led to a rise in queerphobic, and especially transphobic, rhetoric coming from political actors and, in some cases, attempts to roll back progress made to recognise the diversity of gender identities.

    The CSW is a good example of a space that has undergone regression, particularly regarding the rights of LGBTQI people. What we saw during its latest session, in March 2019, was a very vocal and targeted attack against trans individuals. The anti-gender narrative was present in side events that were hosted by states and civil society groups both at the UN and outside the UN.

    Do you think these groups are part of a new, more aggressive generation of anti-rights groups? Are they different in any way from the conservative groups of the past?

    I wouldn’t say they are so new, and they certainly did not come out of nowhere. Such narratives have been around in national discourse for quite a while. What seems new is the degree to which the right-wing groups promoting them have become emboldened. What has emboldened them the most is that powerful states are using their arguments. This anti-gender narrative has penetrated deeply and is reflected in negotiations and official statements. During the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, for example, representatives of the USA attempted to remove the word ‘gender’ from numerous draft resolutions, requesting to replace it with the term ‘woman’. And at the 63rd Session of the CSW, a number of delegations negotiating the official outcome document, including from Bahrain, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the USA, attempted to remove or limit references to gender throughout the document, proposing instead narrow terms reinforcing a gender binary, excluding LGBTQI – and especially trans persons – from the CSW's guidance to states on their gender equality efforts.

    So clearly the anti-rights discourse is not coming from fringe right-wing CSOs or individuals anymore, but from heads of state, government officials and national media platforms, which give it not just airtime, but also credibility. As a result, anti-rights groups feel increasingly free to be more upfront and upright. I don’t know if they are really increasing in popularity or if people who have always held these views are also emboldened by leaders of nations who are using the same rhetoric. Maybe these right-wing populist leaders just opened the door to something that was always there.

    But I think there is one change underway in terms of the kind of groups that promote anti-rights narratives. In the past it was clear that these were all religion-based organisations, but now we are seeing secular and non-secular groups coming together around the narrative of biology. Some of them even identify as feminists and as human rights defenders but are particularly hostile toward trans individuals. Of course, there are some groups that are clearly hijacking feminist concepts and language, attaching them to new interpretations that are clearly forced, but there are also groups that actually consider themselves to be feminists and believe that trans individuals should be expelled from feminist spaces.

    Either hypocritically or out of some sort of conviction, these groups are using feminist language to further their goals. And they are using the same rhetoric against abortion rights and the rights of LGBTQI people. They are well-funded. They have plenty of resources and supporters. Of course, plenty of people stand vocally in support of abortion rights, sexual health and education, and the human rights of LGBTQI people, but what I am trying to emphasise is that the anti-rights forces are mobilising people differently and are able to amplify their message in a way that makes them very dangerous.

    From our perspective, they are mobilising against the rights of certain people – but that is not the way they frame it. They are not explicit in using the human rights framework against certain categories of people. Rather they claim to be upholding principles around, say, the freedom of religion, the rights of children, or women’s rights. They depict the situation as though the rights of some groups would necessarily be sacrificed when the rights of other groups are realised; but this is a false dichotomy. Human rights are universal as well as indivisible.

    How can progressive rights-oriented civil society respond to help resist these advances?

    I think there are different tactics that we could use, and we are already using. There is an argument to be made against responding to things that are said by anti-gender and anti-rights groups. Faced with this challenge, different people would have different responses, and I can only speak from my personal background and for my organisation. I think that these are false narratives and we shouldn’t engage with them. We need to be more proactive. Rather than engaging, we should focus on ensuring that all the work we do is truly collaborative and intersectional, and that we acknowledge each other and support one another in all of our diversity.

    People who really uphold feminist values agree that the root of gender inequality is the social construction of gender roles and norms, and that these constructions produce personal and systemic experiences of stigma, discrimination and violence. Those of us who believe this need to continue mobilising our narratives to fight against structural barriers to equality. The fact that some anti-rights groups are using a bogus feminist rhetoric is no reason to abandon feminism, but rather the opposite – we need to embody the version of feminism that is most inclusive, the one that is truer to its principles. We cannot accept their claim that they speak for all of us. We need to reclaim feminism as our own space and reject the terms of the debate as they are presented to us.

    Get in touch with OutRight Action International through its website and Facebook page, or follow @OutRightIntl on Twitter.

     

  • ‘People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away’

    Uma Mishra Newbery1As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks toUma Mishra-Newbery, Interim Executive Director of Women’s March Global, a network of chapters and members mobilising to advance women’s rights around the world. Women’s March Global was formed to give continuity to the momentum of theJanuary 2017 mobilisations, when millions of women and allies in the USA and around the world poured out on to the streets to make themselves seen and heard. Its vision is one of a global community in which all women — including black women, indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, women with disabilities, lesbian, queer and trans women, and women of every religious, non-religious and atheist background — are free and able to exercise their rights and realise their full potential.

    You recently witnessed anti-rights groups in action at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. Are we seeing a new generation of more aggressive anti-rights groups active at the global level?

    I don’t think this is new. These groups have always been around, always in the background. But there is a massive resurgence of anti-rights groups underway. Following changes in political leadership in some countries, including the USA, they have become more vocal and more deeply involved. And they have become much more strategic and better coordinated. If we look at the funding of these groups, it is coming from very well-established family foundations that are deliberately working to undermine women’s rights. But they are doing it under the disguise of gender equality.

    During the 63rd session of the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), held in March 2019, the Holy See organised a side event under the title ‘Gender Equality and Gender Ideology: Protecting Women and Girls’. On the surface, this could appear as super progressive – they are trying to give the impression that they are promoting women’s rights. But you walk into the event and it’s extremely transphobic, as they outrightly reject the concept of gender identity and insist on biological sex, therefore refusing to consider trans women as women. They claim to know better what it means to be a woman and what all women feel and need, and this brings them to condone violence against trans people and reject sexual and reproductive rights.

    The way these groups have morphed and shifted, I think they have become more deliberate in the ways they show themselves in public. They have also become more sophisticated and are using information and communication technologies, as resistance movements always have, in order to organise and disseminate their views.

    Why do you think they are trying to appear to be progressive and who are they trying to fool?

    One would hope that they were trying to fool the UN, which should filter out hate groups, but truth be told, the UN still lets the National Rifle Association (NRA) keep its ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Council) status, and the NRA actively lobbies against any trade treaty regulating weapons – weapons that are killing people in the USA at an astonishing rate. The UN should understand that these groups exist to undermine democracy and human rights – but more than ever, the UN has become biased on this issue. At the same time there are grassroots organisations that are being denied accreditation in unprecedented numbers – and these are all organisations working on issues that powerful states don’t want to see brought to the forefront.

    So I don’t think they are trying to fool anybody – at this point, they don’t really need to.

    You mentioned the foundations that support these anti-rights groups. Why are all these foundations providing funding?What is there in it for them?

    We have to look at the web of interests that keep these groups active within these spaces, because there are a lot of political and monetary interests keeping them at the UN and within the CSW space.

    If we look at, say, the Heritage Foundation in a space such as CSW, speaking out against what they call gender ideology, what is their point there? Digging deeper, we find that the Heritage Foundation was funded by the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. And Betsy DeVos is currently the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education. She and her family are very deeply embedded within the US government, and they have their own political interests back in Michigan, where they are from. What Betsy DeVos has done in Michigan, essentially destroying the public education framework, is deeply troubling. We need to go through all these layers to understand why these groups exist, how sophisticated they are and why they are so difficult to remove.

    How are these groups affecting progressive civil society, in general, and specifically at forums such as CSW? How do they create disruption?

    We are currently seeing the phenomenon of governments working together to deny women’s rights, as opposed to the situation a few decades back, when collaboration among various development players, including states and their aid agencies, civil society organisations (CSOs) and grassroots groups, led to a widening of these rights.

    These new regressive partnerships are very clear at the UN. While some states continue to challenge sexual violence in conflicts, for instance, you have other member states – including the US government – that have shifted and now threaten to reject anti-rape measures because the language in the documents includes terms and considerations related to sexual and reproductive health. These states are working together to strip women – and not only women – of their rights.

    In this context, progressive CSOs are singled out as the ones speaking up against regressive governments and depicted as if they were the ones trying to undermine democracy. These delegitimising attacks against CSOs open up the space for further attacks. They are a signal for anti-rights groups, which are increasingly emboldened as a result of what their governments are doing. When your government is literally saying ‘we don´t care about women´s sexual and reproductive rights, we don´t care about what women experience as a result of conflicts – conflicts that we finance’, anti-rights groups hearing this know they are being given free rein to exist and act openly in these spaces. It’s exactly the same with white supremacists, in the USA and in other countries around the world. These groups are emboldened by a public discourse that gives a green light for fascists, racists and white supremacists to step forward. And this is exactly what they are doing by entering civil society space.

    As well as being emboldened by governments that promote their ideas, do you think anti-rights groups are also emboldened because they are becoming more popular among the public? If so, why do you think their narratives are resonating with citizens?

    They are possibly becoming more popular too – what once seemed like fringe ideas, or too politically incorrect positions to state aloud, are now becoming mainstream.

    As for why this is happening, at the risk of sounding like a ridiculous cliché, I think it is because it is easier for people to hate than to love. When we talk about human rights what we are saying is that, at a very basic level, every single person on this planet should have the same human rights. This is a message that everyone should be able to step behind. But of course, many of those who have held power for hundreds of years and benefited from patriarchy and white supremacy are going to try to defend what they see as their right to continue exercising that power. This includes governments as well as anti-rights non-state groups.

    This was apparent at that panel organised by the Holy See at CSW. The Holy See is an active, very vocal state at the UN. We reported live on their event on Twitter, and you cannot imagine the way we were trolled online. Anti-rights groups accused us of promoting trans rights over women’s rights. But we are an intersectional organisation: we understand that forms of oppression are interconnected, and so by fighting for trans women’s rights we are fighting for all women’s rights, in the same way as by fighting for women’s rights we are fighting for the rights of all people. Because the fight for the most marginalised is a fight for us all. But how can you explain this to people who have had their rights so protected, who have lived in such privilege for so long?

    Is there something that progressive civil society could learn from the ways anti-right groups are pushing their narratives?

    We definitely need to be able to work together towards a common purpose the way they do, and use social media for progressive purposes as cleverly as they are using them to undermine human rights. In many countries, Facebook is undermining democracy. In Myanmar, the genocide of the Rohingya people was incited on Facebook, and how long did it take Facebook to ban Myanmar’s military? In New Zealand, the Christchurch shooter tried to spread footage of the shooting live on Facebook, and how long did it take for Facebook to take it down?

    As civil society, we know that if we don’t actively use the tools that are being used by other groups and governments to undermine human rights, then we are failing. We have to work in a coordinated way, in coalitions. In the past, CSOs have tended to compete for funding – we need to really get better at sharing resources, being collaborative and bringing our strengths to the table.

    We are trying to move in that direction. Recently, we worked in Cameroon with one of our strategic partners, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, on social media training for peace. In this case, we focused on enabling social media campaigns to promote voting for politicians who support women’s rights and human rights.

    For our Free Saudi Women Coalition we have partnerships with six other CSOs, CIVICUS included, and we work actively as a coalition. The wins that we have had have been the result of working together. For instance, in mid-2018 the government of Iceland obtained, for the first time ever, a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and went on to lead a joint initiative that publicly called on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights situation. The joint statement that Iceland delivered on behalf of 36 states was a direct result of behind-the-scenes advocacy by a civil society coalition.

    What do you think progressive civil society needs to keep up the fight?

    I think that people need to understand that CSOs have always been on the ground, that they have always worked at the very grassroots level to hold governments accountable and to push forward human rights agendas. People need to know that 90 per cent of the time there is a high level of coordination that goes on behind the scenes and that CSOs are furiously working to push forward. But many people don’t see all the behind-the-scenes work. And in a lot of places, we cannot be very explicit and provide too many details about our advocacy work, because for security reasons we cannot reveal the names of activists or journalists.

    People need to understand that, in the fight for human rights, grassroots activists and organisations, as well as bigger CSOs, are doing really important and necessary work and more than ever need real support from them. We need people to get invested at the grassroots level. People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away. If your government is taking away your rights, you need to get involved before it’s too late. If you live in a free and stable democracy you have a duty to use your voice and speak up on the human rights abuses happening around the world. This work needs all of us at the table.

    Get in touch with Women’s March Global through itswebsite and Facebook page, or follow@WM_Global and@umajmishra on Twitter.

     

  • ‘People have power, even if they don’t usually feel like they do’

    Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Linda Kavanagh, spokesperson of the Abortion Rights Campaign, in the aftermath of the historic vote that repealed the eighth amendment of Ireland’s Constitution. Passed in 1983, this constitutional amendment recognised equal rights to life to an ‘unborn’ and a pregnant woman, banning abortion under any circumstances.

    See also our interview with Ivana Bacik, Irish Senator and campaigner for abortion rights.

    1. The vote in favour of repealing the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution exceeded 66 per cent. Did you see it coming?

    We had lots of surprises – we certainly never saw 66 per cent coming. We thought it would be hard win, slightly over 50, 55 per cent at the most. We also thought that the people who were not really engaged would just stay home and not make what they surely considered a tough choice. But with close to 70 per cent, turnout was the third highest ever for a referendum.

    Just so it is clear, it wasn’t our choice to go to a referendum, and I would never recommend it if it can be avoided. It is really tough, and while we won, it was a hard win, as people had to expose themselves and their stories. It was also expensive. But it was the only way to do this, as the amendment was in the Constitution.

    2. What was the state of public opinion when the process started?

    It is not easy to put a date to the beginning of the process. For my organisation, the Abortion Rights Campaign, it began in 2012. We started work in reaction to two major incidents around abortion rights that took place in Ireland in 2012. In the summer of that year, Youth Defence, a very militant anti-choice organisation, put up billboards all around Dublin, saying that abortion hurt women, stigmatising women who had had abortions, and saying lots of things that weren’t true. The protests that took place in reaction to this campaign were the biggest pro-choice demonstrations in a long time. This time, we were also organising online, on Facebook and Twitter, and this made it easier to get information out, so the protests were quite large. The first March for Choice, held in September 2012, gathered a couple of thousand people, which was no small feat at the time. It was the biggest in about a decade.

    A month later, Savita Halappanavar died. Savita was pregnant and died because she was refused an abortion. She had been told she was going to have a miscarriage and there was a risk of infection but, according to the law, doctors were not allowed to intervene until her life was at imminent risk. This was a real wake-up call and put us under the global spotlight. Soon afterwards, in January 2013, the Abortion Rights Campaign began its work.

    But none of this happened out of the blue; it was the result of decades of activism. And of course, the Abortion Rights Campaign was just one among many groups rallying for repeal. But Savita’s death was a turning point: many young people started their journey when it happened. From then on, the Marches for Choice got bigger and bigger every year and at some point, we figured out that we had to call a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment and push for political change. We had been agitating for a while, marching in the streets and getting bigger and stronger, and in the meantime, other terrible things that happened strengthened the view that change was necessary, including a horrific court case involving a young brain-dead woman kept on life support against her family’s wishes because she was 16 weeks pregnant.

    3. How did you manage to shift public opinion towards repeal?

    In early 2016 Amnesty International commissioned a poll that showed overwhelming support for change, with a breakdown of where people stood regarding different causes for legal abortion, including incest, rape, risk to the woman’s health and foetal abnormality. A little under 40 per cent were in favour of allowing women to access abortion as they choose, while about 40 per cent were in favour of allowing it only under very restrictive circumstances. Going in, we estimated we were looking at a maximum of 45 per cent of support.

    So we started with a strong, solid base of 40-plus per cent, and we knew the other side had a solid 10 to 20 per cent. There were lots of people, another 40 per cent, who were in doubt, unsure of where they stood. These were the people who could tip the scale, so we had to go talk to them. The common thinking is that people who are unsure will stick to the status quo because that’s what they know. But we knew that when people get the facts, when they get to listen to the evidence, they tend to come to a more pro-choice position. We knew this because that is exactly what happened to each of us, personally: we heard about the issue, thought about it, said ‘well, actually that’s really unfair, let’s work on it’. That’s also what we saw happen at the Citizen’s Assembly and again at the Joint Parliamentary Committee. We saw this time and again and knew it was just a matter of letting people have these conversations. We knew there was a big swathe of people that needed to be persuaded one way or the other, so this was a big part of our strategy: to encourage conversation and bring the tools so they could take place.

    As activism grew and marches got bigger, we figured out a couple of things. One was that there was an increasing sentiment for change: no matter how you felt about abortion, there was a growing sense that the status quo was not helping women. Our abortion policies had drawn criticism from international human rights bodies. This just couldn’t go on – so at some point we needed to start talking to politicians to make sure they understood that they couldn’t brush the issue under the carpet anymore.

    So we decided to make abortion a red-line issue in the 2016 general elections – that is, a key issue that politicians would be asked about daily as they knocked on our doors to ask for our votes. And we gave people the language to talk to their politicians about the issue. We knew that if they encountered the issue once and again when they were canvassing, they would pay attention. We did this in a number of ways: we had civic engagement training sessions where we would give people information about how referendums work, how the law works, what it says about the issue, what we can do and what our position regarding free, safe and legal abortion is. And it worked! We succeeded in forcing the issue into the agenda.

    The other thing we realised is that, if and when this came to a referendum, it couldn’t just be a Dublin-based campaign – we had to go national. So we worked very hard to set up regional groups in every county around Ireland. By the time the referendum came, there was a pro-choice group in every county. And those groups went on to form canvassing groups that would hold their own events and talk to their politicians.

    4. What role did the media play in the process? How did you work with both traditional and social media?

    From my perspective, a key takeaway from the process is that it is vital to use social media to create a space so people can have a nuanced discussion about these issues.

    With traditional media, our hands were tied, because when it comes to controversial issues, they are required to provide ‘balanced coverage’. According to a 1995 Supreme Court ruling, it is unconstitutional for the government to spend taxpayers’ money to provide arguments for only one side in a referendum. As a result, any broadcaster that receives state funding must allocate equal airtime to both sides. So, if you talk on TV about how you had an abortion, or you say you are pro-choice, the opposite view has to be given space as well. Even if someone was telling their actual story of needing an abortion and having to travel to the UK, saying exactly what had happened to them, rather than preaching about right or wrong, there would be someone who would be called in to ‘balance’ that. And the rule was interpreted very broadly, so it applied not just during the referendum campaign but also for years before that. It was very stifling.

    In other words, traditional media were a massive block to people’s education. You normally look to the media to educate yourself on an issue, but it is not educational to constantly pitch ideas against each other, especially on an issue as complex and nuanced as abortion can be. So we had to bypass the mainstream media to get to the people. Fortunately, we exist in the time of social media, and we put a lot of effort into it and gave people the language and the nuance to talk about these things. We were used to hearing discussions about the morality of abortion where it was either right or wrong: there was no middle ground for people who were not that comfortable with it but thought the status quo was bad, and there was no room to talk about it.

    We advocate for free, safe and legal abortion for anyone who wants or needs one, no questions asked, because we know it’s the gold standard and believe that women having choice and control over their own lives is a good thing. But we didn’t want to impose this on people. Rather we wanted to give people the language to talk about it, allowing them to ask more questions, to find out what they were ready to accept and how far they were ready to go. This really worked. There has been so much discussion about the dark web, bots, trolls and possible interference with the campaign – but there were hundreds of pro-choice Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles set by hundreds of pro-choice individuals, and we had tools to protect the space we had created where these discussions were taking place. For instance, a group of volunteers created Repeal Shield, which was basically a public list of bots and troll accounts. When a user flagged an account by messaging @repeal_shield, a volunteer would investigate, and if the account met the criteria of being a bot or troll, it would be added to the list. As a result, people could keep having a conversation without interference.

    One big takeaway from this is that people have power. They usually don’t feel like they do, but what they do matters. Someone clicking ‘like’ on your page because they really like it means so much more than paid advertising. People don’t realise that, but when it comes to something that needs to be shared by many people or otherwise won’t be visible at all, this gives everyone a bit of power. Of course, there’s a lot more to activism than clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook post, but every little thing adds up.

    We are always told that there we are an echo chamber, that we only talk with people who already think alike, but it turned out that we weren’t doing this at all. We got 66 per cent of the vote. That was not an echo chamber. That was reality.

    Traditional media and politicians were slower to catch up to this, so we carved our own way. I am not saying this is the way to go for every activist group around the world. For one, Ireland has very good internet coverage, most people have access to it, and we have high user rates of Twitter and Instagram. This is not the case everywhere. But we used the tools we had, and it worked for us.

    5. What other tactics did you use?

    We gave people the language and an understanding of the political process, and that didn’t happen on social media; it happened on the ground. We would talk to people and they would bring the issue to their doorsteps. The Abortion Rights Campaign is a grassroots organisation, and what we did best was give people those tools so that they could then use them themselves. For years we had stalls every second week so people would come, have a chat, get information, take a leaflet. We had monthly meetings so people would learn about the organisation and how they could join, and sometimes we had somebody bring in a different perspective, such as a migrant or somebody from Direct Provision, a terrible institution for asylum seekers. We also developed training activities for marginalised groups about abortion in a wider reproductive context.

    Other groups would lobby politicians. We are now probably going to do so, but at the time the grassroots campaign was our main concern. We also did advocacy at both the national and international levels, including submissions to various United Nations bodies. And we maintained links with Irish groups in other countries, because the Irish diaspora is very focused on this issue. We also had connections with other organisations that didn’t have a direct pro-choice mandate but might support a repeal stance, such as migrants’ rights groups, disability groups and others.

    Beyond women’s rights organisations, we got the support of international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, which meant a lot because everyone knows who they are, as well as some migrants’ rights organisations. An awful lot of the charity organisations in Ireland would have a nun or a priest on their board, so they would not take a stand on this issue. But a lot did, and we got a lot of support. More than a hundred organisations eventually signed up.

    And of course, we sold t-shirts, repeal jumpers, so we gave people visibility. People became visibly pro-choice. You knew somebody was on your side when you saw them. You felt supported on a decision that maybe once you took and never told anybody about. Now you knew there was a visible crowd of people who supported you.

    6. What was the tone of the debate?

    A lot of it was about the moralities of abortion. Many people would say ‘I believe that life begins at conception; I believe you are taking a human life’ – and that’s okay, it’s people’s beliefs. But there were also lots of arguments that were brought in that were disprovable, greatly exaggerated, or not responding to the reality of what people were going through. Abortion is a contentious issue and there are indeed conversations to be had around disabilities and the like. But people were saying things like: ‘99 per cent of the people who get a diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome will abort’. And may be true in certain contexts, but not necessarily here. And in any case, that says more about our attitudes towards people with disabilities than it does about abortion.

    While some of it was about people’s deeply held beliefs, there were also lies, exaggerations and a deliberate misuse of stats. Some really nasty stuff happened: a huge amount of graphic images were used and are still out there. I absolutely do not think that every ‘no’ voter is a terrible person - people have their beliefs and their struggles - but I do think the anti-choice campaign made it quite nasty. It never got as bad as we had expected, but it was still hard.

    7. For things to happen, changing the Constitution seems to be just a first - big - step. What work remains to be done, and what will be the role of the Abortion Rights Campaign?

    When the eighth amendment was repealed, legislation about abortion had already been put on the table. It wasn’t fully spelled out, but it provided broad strokes of legislation coming from the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and the Joint Parliamentary Committee. As a result, people knew going in what they were voting for: 12-week access with no restrictions as to reason, and longer if a woman’s life or health is in danger or in case of severe foetal abnormalities. There are discussions about mandatory wait periods and this kind of thing, and we are not that happy about those, but part of our work is to have discussions about that.

    The legislation will be debated in the autumn and we expect it to be brought forward at the beginning of 2019. In the meantime, our job is to keep the pressure on to make sure that the legislation includes the right language and that people who continue to travel or take pills are taken care of. The Abortion Rights Campaign has a broader mandate. We have a mandate to seek the establishment of free, safe and legal abortion, but we also have a longer-term mandate aimed at de-stigmatising abortion. We’ve taken huge steps towards that because we’ve had this national conversation and it’s not possible to avoid the issue any more, but we still have a long way to go.

    It’s been more than a month since the referendum, and we are already strategising about what we want and how we see our role moving forward, in forcing legislation through and making sure people don’t fall through the cracks. Are people still having to travel to the UK? What improvements can be made? We need to make sure our legislation is good enough, that it allows people to get access. All along, part of the ban on abortion was also a ban on information about abortion, and most of all about how to get one. You were basically left to your own devices to go sort yourself out in the UK, and there were rogue pregnancy agencies giving terrible advice and purposefully delaying women seeking abortions. So a big part of what will come in the future will be making sure that doctors can actually take care of their patients. We take it that conscientious objection is going to come into play and need to make sure that it does not undo any of the good that we have achieved.

    Civic space in Ireland is rated as ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the Abortion Rights Campaign through itswebsite orFacebook page, or follow@freesafelegal on Twitter.

     

  • ‘Threats to women’s and LGBTI rights are threats to democracy; any retrogression is unacceptable’

    Recent years have seen an apparently growing tendency for anti-rights groups to seek to claim the space for civil society, including at the intergovernmental level. CIVICUS speaks about it with Gillian Kane,asenior policy advisor for Ipas, a global women’s reproductive health and rights organisation.Founded in 1973, Ipas is dedicated to ending preventable deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortion. Through local, national and international partnerships, Ipas works to ensure that women can obtain safe, respectful and comprehensive abortion care, including counselling and contraception to prevent future unintended pregnancies.

    1. Do you observe any progress on sexual and reproductive rights in the Americas? What are the main challenges looking ahead?

    Ipas has robust programmes in Latin America, and we have definitely seen progress on legislation that increases women’s and girls’ access to safe and legal abortions, including in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico City. Still, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organisation, more than 97 per cent of women of childbearing age in the region live in countries where abortion is restricted or completely banned. A woman who lives in restrictive settings and wants an abortion will have to do so under illegal conditions and at great risk to not just her health, but also her security. Women who have abortions are vulnerable to harassment, intimidation, arrest, prosecution and even jail time.

    We also see that restrictive abortion laws are damaging the provider-patient confidentiality relationship. A study by Ipas and the Georgetown Law School’s O’Neill Institute found that an alarming number of medical staff across Latin America are reporting women and girls to the police for having abortions. Many countries now require, protect or encourage medical providers to breach their confidentiality duties when they treat women seeking post-abortion care.

    1. Are we facing a democratic regression at the global level? Do you think women are being targeted?

    We are indeed facing a democratic regression, and I do think women are being targeted, both which are incredibly alarming. With the United States leading, we’re seeing the rapid degradation of the political and legal infrastructure that is designed to promote and protect the interests of citizens. For example, you see this in attacks against the Istanbul Convention, which is intended combat violence against women. You would think this would be uncontroversial. Yet, there are right-wing groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) objecting to the Convention, claiming that it takes away parental rights and that it promotes gender as social construct, and not as a binary biological truth, as they see it. This is also happening in international spaces. This year at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, the US State Departmentappointed two extremists to represent it. One was an executive leader of a known LGBTI-hate group, and the other was from an organisation that has advocated for the repeal of legislation that prevents violence against women. And at the country level, for example in Brazil, conservative leaders are downgrading the power of ministries that promote equal rights for women and black communities.

    But it’s not all doom and gloom. Women are responding forcefully. Poland provides an amazing example of women organising and effecting change. In late 2016 thousands of women and men crowded the major cities of Warsaw and Gdansk to join the ‘Black Monday’ march, to protest against a proposed law banning abortions. The full ban wasn’t enacted, which was a huge victory. And of course, the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement are incredible, and global.

    1. Not many people in Latin America have ever heard of the Alliance Defending Freedom. How is this organisation surreptitiously changing the political conversation in the region?

    ADF is a legal organisation. It was founded in 1994 by a group of white, male, hard-right conservative evangelical Christians. It was designed to be the conservative counterpoint to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which they saw as out to squash their religious liberties. They are huge, and have a global reach, which they say is dedicated to transforming the legal system through Christian witness. To that end they litigate and legislate on issues linked to the freedoms of expression and religion.

    I wouldn’t say that their actions are surreptitious; they’re not deliberately trying to fly under the radar. They are intervening in spaces that don’t necessarily get a lot of news coverage, such as the Organization of American States (OAS). But in recent years they have definitely increased their activism both at the regional and country level in Latin America. In terms of the conversation, what they are doing is reframing rights issues to use religion as a sword, rather than a shield. Right now they are litigating, in the United States Supreme Court, the case of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. As my colleague Cole Parke has explained, they are corrupting religious freedom. They are claiming it is legal to discriminate against a gay couple because of religious beliefs: that religion trumps all other rights. They are doing the same with conscientious objection: they have supported a midwife in Sweden who has refused to provide abortion as required by law. The list goes on.

    1. What strategies have anti-rights groups used, and what accounts for their success in international forums?

    As I have explained in a recent op-ed, in international forums these groups express concern for the wellbeing of children, who they claim are being indoctrinated by permissive governments in the immoral principles of ‘gender ideology’. Of course there is no such thing as a gender ideology, and much less governments forcing children to learn inappropriate material. The wellbeing of children is being used as a cover to disable efforts to enforce rights and protections for girls, women and LGBTI people.

    The 2013 General Assembly of the OAS, held in Guatemala, witnessed the first coordinated movement agitating against reproductive and LGBTI rights. This was, not coincidentally, also the year when the OAS approved the Inter-American Convention against all forms of discrimination and intolerance, which included protections for LGBTI people.

    At the 2014 OAS General Assembly in Paraguay, these groups advanced further and instead of only being reactive, began proposing human rights resolutions in an attempt to create new policies that they claimed were rights-based, but were in fact an attempt to take rights away from specific groups. For instance, they proposed a ‘family policy’ that would protect life from conception, in order to prevent access to abortion.

    From then on, their profile increased with each subsequent assembly, in the same measure that their civility declined. At the 2016 General Assembly in the Dominican Republic, they even harassed and intimidated trans women attending the event as they entered women’s restrooms. As a result, the annual assembly of the OAS, the regional body responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and democracy in the western hemisphere, turned into a vulgar display of transphobic hate.

    1. Should progressive civil society be concerned with the advances made by these groups in global and regional forums? What should we be doing about it?

    Progressive civil society should definitely be concerned. Constant vigilance is needed. There are many ways to respond, but being informed, sharing information and building coalitions is key. I would also recommend that progressive movements think broadly about their issues. Consider how groups like ADF have managed to attack several rights, including abortion, LGBTI and youth rights, using one frame, religion. We need to be equally broad, but anchored, I would argue, in secularism, science and human rights. We started the conversation talking about democracy, and this is where we should end. We need to show how threats to specific rights for women and LGBTI people are threats to democracy. Any retrogression is unacceptable.

    Get in touch with Ipas through theirwebsite or theirFacebook page, or follow @IpasLatina and @IpasOrg on Twitter.

     

  • #BEIJING25: ‘All efforts towards gender equality must be built upon intersectionality and power-shifting’

    For the 25th anniversary of theBeijing Platform for Action, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN)Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.

     

  • #BEIJING25: ‘More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy’

    For the 25th anniversary of theBeijing Platform for Action, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN)Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.

    CIVICUS speaks to Pakou Hang, Chief Program Officer at Vote Run Lead, an organisation dedicated to training women to run for political office and win, increasing women’s representation at every level of government. Founded in 2014, it has already reached over 36,000 women across the USA, nearly 60 per cent of whom are women of colour, and 20 per cent of whom are from rural areas. Numerous Vote Run Lead alumnae are now serving on city councils, county boards, statehouses, supreme courts and the US Congress.

    Pakou Hang

    A quarter century later, how much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has translated into actual change?

    A lot of progress has transpired since 1995, but there is still a lot to be done, and we are still far from equitable. In terms of political representation, there has been some progress, but it has also been slow: globally, 24.3 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women in early 2019, compared to just 11.3 per cent in 1995. Only three countries around the world have achieved or surpassed parity in their single or lower houses, but many more have reached or exceeded the 30 per cent threshold. As of last year, there were also 11 women serving as heads of state and 12 serving as heads of government, and women accounted for almost 21 per cent of government ministers – often in areas most associated with women’s issues, such as social affairs and portfolios dealing with family, children, young people, older people and people with disabilities. So the bottom line is mixed: a lot of progress has been made, but it has been slow and it is far from sufficient.

    Also, there has been a lot of variation among regions and countries, from about 16 per cent female legislators in the Pacific to more than 40 per cent in Nordic European countries. The Americas averages about 30 per cent, but the USA is below average. Congress is still disproportionately male: although women make up more than half the population, we hold barely 24 per cent of seats. Congress is also less racially diverse than the overall population, with 78 per cent of members identifying as white, a much higher percentage than the population’s 60 per cent of white Americans.

    According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the situation is not very different in states across the country: 29.2 per cent of state legislative seats and 18 per cent of state governorships are occupied by women. There is fewer data about local executives, and the information mostly concerns major cities, 60 per cent of whose mayors are white men, although they make up just 20 per cent of the population of those cities. And even as more women ascended into local office in 2018, it was still not uncommon for city councils and county commissions to include just one woman or no women at all.

    On the other hand, despite the relatively small number of women legislators, and especially women of colour, the current US Congress is the most diverse in history. And the group of candidates who ran for Congress in 2020 were also the most diverse we have ever seen. Of course, these candidates received a lot of backlash from the media and their political opponents. But I think we need to shift our perspective to understand the amount of change that has taken place. I surely was disappointed that we ended up with two older, white men leading the two major presidential tickets – but now we also have a Black, Indian American woman as our Vice President-elect, so there is progress.

    I remember when the 2020 presidential election was called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, I contacted my nine-year-old niece with the news. She was ecstatic. I was reminded that she belongs to a new generation of Americans who were born under President Barack Hussein Obama. And growing up, she will know that Donald Trump was the President, but she will also know that Trump was beaten by a Black, Indian American woman. As we were talking, my niece said to me, “We are almost there, Auntie.” And it dawned on me: yes, we are almost there.

    Why is it important to achieve gender parity in political representation? Is it only a matter of women’s rights and equal opportunity, or would it also have positive effects on democratic institutions and policymaking?

    A big reason why we need more women in public office is because they govern differently than men. Women in government are more collaborative, more civil, more communicative. They are more likely to work across the aisle to solve problems. They bring home more money for their constituents, pass more bills, and their bills focus more on vulnerable populations like children, older people and sick people. Women broaden the political agenda, well beyond traditional women’s issues. And the result is better policies for all of us, not just for women and girls but also for men and boys. Because they bring an entirely new set of perspectives and life experiences into the policymaking process, the presence of women also ensures that women’s perspectives are not sidelined, and issues such as gender-based violence or childcare are not ignored. All in all, women in public office tend to be more effective than their male counterparts. And given the current gridlock and hyper-partisanship in politics, we need to do things differently. More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy.

    Moreover, the need for women in power and politics has become even more critical in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This past electoral cycle, donors wanted to contribute to female candidates’ campaigns more than before, because the pandemic brought awareness not just about the many inequities that plague our society and the healthcare system, but also of the outstanding work women, and in particular women of colour, are doing in their communities to respond to urgent needs, fill in the gaps left by inadequate government policies, and address the needs of excluded populations who have been disproportionately impacted on by COVID-19 and the economic downturn. During this crisis, women have played major roles in keeping communities connected, collecting and distributing food and other staples to needy families, finding ways to support local businesses and providing pop-up community services, among other things.

    Research that looks at the ways in which various countries have responded to the pandemic seems to show that countries with female leaders tended to have fewer cases and fewer deaths from COVID-19. It seems that women in power have embraced a transformative style of leadership, which may be better at handling crises. This type of leadership focuses on deep human relationships, investment in teams and sharing knowledge, and being a role model and motivating others. These qualities are very useful in our current context.

    Why do you think the political representation of women in the USA is still so low?

    There are many reasons why we do not have gender parity in our political representation. First, there are still too many structural reasons why women do not run nor get elected. Women still do a disproportionate amount of housework and child-rearing and there is still sexist media coverage that focuses on women’s appearances and personalities rather than their policies. Further, those in party structures and the people with political knowledge, networks and money still continue to be men, and often they determine who is politically viable; for example, a young man who studied community development at Harvard is deemed more viable than a middle-aged Black woman who has been a community organiser for the past 20 years.

    Paradoxically, female candidates win at roughly the same rates as their male counterparts, and according to polls, voters are excited about getting women elected. But the second reason why women don’t get elected is simply that women don’t run at the same rate as men – and of course, you can’t win if you don’t run.

    Why don’t women run for public office? Perhaps the most pervasive reason is that women are self-doubters. They do not believe they are qualified. They do not see other women who look like them or think like them in those positions of power, and thus it’s a self-fulfilling cycle. But it’s not just women who self-doubt. Outsiders do plenty of that too. In fact, if a woman has never filled a position of power, then a question that keeps coming up in the media, said in a doubtful tone, is: is a woman electable? We heard a lot of that during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race.

    There’s also the fact that certain qualities that are deemed positive in men are given a negative connotation when applied to women, like assertiveness or ambition. While angry and vindictive men have surely been elected president, women who are perceived as ‘angry’, or ‘vindictive’ are deemed unlikeable, and thus disqualified. Women candidates are held to much higher standards of competency, sometimes by themselves, but more often by others, and as a result we do not have gender parity in our political representation.

    When was it that you realised that, unlike men, women needed training to run for office?

    Even though I had studied political science in college, I felt that American politics was dirty and corrupting and I never got involved in electoral politics. That was until 2001, when my older cousin, Mee Moua, decided to run for a State Senate seat on the East Side of Saint Paul in a special election. The East Side of Saint Paul was fast becoming a district where people from minorities were in the majority, and yet all its elected officials from the state level to the county and the city were all white, conservative-leaning men. My cousin was Ivy League-educated, had been a lawyer and the president of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce, and she decided to run for public office after having volunteered on numerous political campaigns over many years. However, as often happens with female candidates, she was told she needed to wait her turn. Well she didn’t, and since no one in the mainstream political community would help her, she looked to our 71 first cousins to become her volunteer army and recruited me to be her campaign manager because I was the only one of us who had studied political science. Against all odds, without any political experience, and in the middle of a Minnesota winter, we knocked on doors, made phone calls, mobilised voters using ethnic radio stations, drove people to the polls and won, making history by electing the very first Hmong state legislator in US and Hmong history.

    Looking back, I realised that I managed that campaign purely based on instincts, honed from my childhood experience helping my non-English speaking parents navigate the mainstream world. And while we won, we could have just as easily been out-organised and lost. It was only years later, after having gone through a Camp Wellstone political training course, that I realised women candidates needed something for ourselves, something that uniquely spoke to us, and prepared us for the real issues we would face as female candidates.

    What kind of training does Vote Run Lead provide, and how does it help break down the barriers that keep women away from power?

    Vote Run Lead is the largest and most diverse women’s leadership programme in the USA. We have trained over 38,000 women to run for public office, including rural women, transgender women, young women, moms and Black and Indigenous women and women of colour. Over 55 per cent of our alumnae who were on the general election ballot in 2020 won their races, and 71 per cent of our alumnae who are women of colour won their races too.

    The women we train often decide to run for public office because they see something wrong in their community and they want to fix it. But they do not see a lot of people who look like them in positions of power. Vote Run Lead offers a number of training modules that teach women the basics about campaigns, from delivering a stump speech to building a campaign team or crafting a message, to fundraising and getting out the vote. But what makes our training programme different is that we train women to run as they are. Women often need support to view themselves as qualified, capable and deserving candidates. We show them that they don’t need to obtain another promotion or degree and that in fact, their personal story is their biggest asset. Our Run As You Are training curriculum reminds women that they are enough and that they are the fierce leaders we need to elect to build the just democracy that we all deserve.

    What’s the ‘typical’ profile of the women you help run for office? Do you support any women willing to run, regardless of their politics?

    There isn’t a typical Vote Run Lead alumna. We are a nonpartisan organisation, so we train women from all walks of life, all professions, all political parties, and in all stages of their political development. Our values are deeply embedded in promoting intersectional, anti-racist women who are committed to building a just and fair democracy.

    Given the widespread phenomenon of voter suppression in the USA, does your programming also focus on getting out the vote?

    Traditionally, Vote Run Lead does not employ our own get out the vote (GOTV) programme because most of our alumnae are either running or working on a campaign. But in 2020, with the high levels of voter suppression fuelled by misinformation campaigns and health safety concerns, Vote Run Lead did launch a robust GOTV programme with our alumnae. This GOTV programme included eight GOTV-specific training modules, from how to respond to apathy and cynicism around voting, to which digital field and communication tools to use to get out the vote. We also activated over 200 volunteers, had 3,000 conversations, made 30,000 phone calls and sent out over 33,000 text messages to get our alumnae and their networks to go vote.

    Prior to the summer, we also launched a series we called ‘Your Kitchen Cabinet’, where we trained women on how to raise money, do direct voter contact and even launch a digital plan while social distancing. Those guides and webinars can be found on our website and YouTube channel and offer real-time advice and fact-based information.

    Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Vote Run Lead through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@VoteRunLead on Twitter.

     

  • #BEIJING25: ‘We are outraged at discrimination and are turning our claims into action’

    In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of theBeijing Platform for Action, due in September 2020, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women (VAW), ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN)Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality. 

    CIVICUS speaks to Viviana Krsticevic, Executive Director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and a member of the Secretariat of the Gqual Campaign, a global initiative seeking to promote gender parity in the composition of international organisations.

    viviana Krsticevic

    How much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has been translated into actual improvements?

    We still have a long way to go to ensure that women can live autonomously without the burden of discrimination. Clearly, there are disparities and different effects among women due to age, economic situation, skin colour, ethnicity, migrant status, rural condition and several other situations that partly define our experience. Global figures for disparities in education, access to health, property and positions of power show the enormous disadvantage that women are at in most societies and the differential weight of inequality.

    For instance, according to data from UN Women updated to the first semester of 2020, only 6.6 per cent of heads of government worldwide are women, as well as 20.7 per cent of those in ministerial positions; likewise, women hold 24.9 per cent of all parliamentary seats. The under-representation of women is also reflected in other areas, such as access to education: globally, 48.1 per cent of girls are not attending school. It is also visible in the labour market, since women receive 23 per cent less income than men. The same can be said about the prevalence of gender-based violence: the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 87,000 women were victims of femicides worldwide in 2017, and that more than half – 50,000, or 58 per cent – were murdered by their partner or a member of their family.

    In other words, there is a long way to go, but we have made significant progress in the 25 years since the Beijing Conference. Some important examples are the progress, made both through legal channels and on the streets, in rejecting sexist violence and femicide, the recognition of the differential effects of violence affecting Afro-descendant women, the policy changes aimed at tackling maternal mortality, advances in gaining access to government or legislative positions, the greater valuing of care tasks and the development of legal frameworks to deal with workplace harassment, among others.

    In part, these advances were possible thanks to synergies between national-level change processes and international goal-setting and rights-recognition processes. In this sense, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG5) on women's equality, agreed globally at the UN level, is one of the key tools to achieve respect for individual autonomy and the collective development of communities. To advance this goal agreed upon by governments, there are a series of institutional spaces that promote it at the international and regional levels.

    In addition, there is the fact that many women from various sectors, in Latin America and the world, are outraged at discrimination and structural violence and are turning our claims into action. Initiatives such as #NiUnaMenos, #SayHerName and #LasTesis, among many others, have been examples of this. Engaging in analysis, protesting and making proposals are key to ensuring that discriminatory structures are overcome.

    Why is equal gender representation important, and what is the situation in international institutions?

    One of the most significant arguments of women and other movements in search of representation is that of equality, since often the absence of women in decision-making sites is not the result of their own choice but the effect of glass ceilings, implicit discrimination and the segmentation of labour markets, among other factors. On top of this, there is the argument of the impact of equal participation in terms of enriching debate, innovation and due diligence in decision-making and improving the legitimacy and sustainability of certain processes, among other possible beneficial effects of the inclusion of women in decision-making spaces. In the same spirit, several innovative international conventions have included clauses to promote gender equality and representation. UN General Assembly Resolution 1325 on peace and security also includes language on the need for women’s participation in peace processes.

    This recognition stands in contrast with the limited participation of women in decision-making sites, both nationally and internationally. The norms and mechanisms established in most of these spaces do not ensure the participation of women in conditions of equality or equal representation.

    At the international level, in the spaces where decisions are reached on war and peace, the evolution of international criminal law, the scope of human rights, economic law and environmental law, and various other key issues, women are underrepresented at extreme levels. For instance, the International Court of Justice currently includes only three female judges (19 per cent) and historically it has only included four women out of a total of 108 magistrates (3.7 per cent). Only one of the seven current members of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is a woman (14.3 per cent), and in the International Criminal Court there are only six women out of a total of 18 members (33 per cent). Finally, 10 of the 56 special mechanisms of the UN to date have never been led by a woman.

    In other words, women are on the fringes of the decisions that are made on most of the issues that are most significant for the future of humanity in the areas of politics, justice and peace. This reality contrasts with the recognition of the right to participation in the international arena under conditions of equality enshrined in Article 8 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, widely ratified worldwide, and with the aspirations of balanced or equal participation proposed in various spaces of the UN system and other institutions.

    How did the Gqual Campaign originate, what are its goals and what has it achieved so far?

    Taking into account the reality of glass ceilings and the drastic regressions that have occurred recently in the composition of some bodies, a group of women and men convinced of the value of gender-balanced and diverse spaces joined in an initiative to promote gender parity in justice and monitoring institutions at the international level. With this objective in mind, we launched the Gqual campaign in September 2015. From this platform we promote individual and institutional commitments to gender parity in international representation, the development of research, standards and mechanisms to promote gender equality in international monitoring and justice institutions, vibrant and timely debate on the issue to advance the equality agenda, and the creation of a community of discussion and action around the issue.

    Among the campaign’s actions are the monitoring and distribution of information on available positions in the sphere of international justice. We send letters and post information on networks calling attention to opportunities and disparities, we promote academic research, and we make proposals to modify the procedures for the nomination and selection of those who occupy positions in justice and monitoring institutions at the national and international level. Among our most interesting initiatives is a ranking that includes the number of men and women in these positions, by country. We also hold meetings of experts to contribute to the development of specialised documents. Additionally, we create synergies with selection processes in judicial spaces at the national level and participate in debates on representation at the national and international levels, in order to advance the broader agenda of political and social change towards equality.

    I would like to invite you to join the online campaign and to follow and interact with it on social media. Since the launch of the campaign, we have made progress in debating the issue and have had several significant achievements, including resolutions by the UN and the Organization of American States on gender balance in the composition of international bodies, the systematisation of information on the composition of positions at the UN level disaggregated by gender, and excellent research that supports the international obligations of states and international organisations, among several others. By working for women's access to international spaces in conditions of parity, the Gqual Campaign promotes several of the commitments expressed in the SDGs: equality, access to justice, the fight against poverty and commitment to peace.

    What support from international civil society is needed to continue promoting the campaign?

    The greatest support that international civil society could give to the campaign would be to join the debate on the importance of ensuring women’s equal participation in international monitoring and judicial institutions. Depending on their possibilities, each person, organisation or institution might help advance more specific agendas at the local or international level in synergy with the campaign’s objectives. They can do so, for example, by encouraging their country’s government to monitor its nationals who occupy elected positions, doing field research on selection processes, writing about constitutional obligations or those derived from international law to guarantee equal access to international representation, running public awareness campaigns, or contributing to the campaign’s blog or writing about it in local newspapers. Given the structural inequality and the inertia that makes some governments reluctant to act, civil society and citizens must demand that the authorities ensure that women are nominated and considered for decision-making positions at the international and national levels. Civil society can also help drive the debate by collecting data and publishing analyses and studies.

    I want to emphasise that due to the nature of the campaign – which arose from the initiative of women who advocate for equality and who mostly donate their time to move it forward – we are grateful for any contribution of time or donation aimed at supporting the campaign’s work and initiatives. We want a more just, equal and peaceful world, and for that we need women to intervene on an equal footing in making the decisions that concern us all.

    Get in touch with Gqual Campaign through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@GqualCampaign,@cejil and@mundopenelope on Twitter.

     

  • 16 Days of Activism - Women in Solidarity during COVID-19

    16 Days of Activism, running annually from 25 November to 10 December, comes at the end of a year that saw a global pandemic affect families, economies, and every aspect of society worldwide. All around the globe, women stepped up when governments and businesses failed to act. After a tough year, this 16 Days global civil society alliance CIVICUS is celebrating the inspiring stories of women: activists involved in protest, women human rights defenders behind bars, and women’s organisations across the globe working to mitigate rising levels of gender based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

     

  • Activists Fuel Global Movement to Fight Violence Against Women

    By Aarti Narsee, civic space researcher at CIVICUS

    This year marks 30 years of fighting to live free of gender-based violence through the 16 Days of Activism campaign, which commences every November 25 on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Since 1991, organizations and countries around the globe have come together to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. However, the numbers paint a disturbing picture on the situation for women and girls around the world, with UN Women estimating that one in three women aged 15 years and older have faced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, nonpartner, or both at least once in their lifetime. This does not account for the other forms of violence that women and girls face, such as being denied reproductive choice, being subjected to violence on online platforms, or being denied the right to education or work.

    Read on:  Women's Media Center 

     

  • Advocating for women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Peru, a risky fight against powerful enemies

    Spanish

    CIVICUS speaks to María Ysabel Cedano, Director of DEMUS –Study for the Defense of Women’s Rights, a Peruvian feminist organisation that since 1987 defends human rights, and particularly women’s sexual and reproductive rights, by promoting their free exercise and questioning the hegemonic cultural paradigm on women and their sexuality. DEMUS carries out public opinion campaigns and advocacy work with the three branches of government; it conducts strategic litigation and promotes mobilisation on issues related to the promotion of equality and non-discrimination, a life free from gender-based violence, access to justice, and sexual and reproductive rights.

    1. How would you describe the context for the exercise of feminist activism in Peru?
    Generally speaking, conditions for activism greatly depend on the ideology, programme and nature of the organisation and movement in question - on its stance regarding the state and the incumbent government, and on its relationship with political forces and the powers that be.

    Due to our agenda, we feminists are antagonists of Fujimorism, the political movement founded by Alberto Fujimori, who ruled Peru between 1990 and 2000. Our organisation has criticised and opposed them since the 1990s, as we have fought for justice and reparations for the thousands of victims of the Fujimori administration’s policy of systematic forced sterilisation. Its victims were mostly peasant, indigenous and poor women who underwent irreversible surgical contraception without being able to give their free and informed consent, in a context of widespread violence.

    On this issue, in 2003 we reached a Friendly Settlement Agreement (FSA) in the Mamérita Mestanza case. As a result, the Peruvian state acknowledged its responsibility for human rights violations in the context of the forced sterilisation policy and committed to providing justice and reparation to victims. We also obtained favourable statements by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that have boosted our work to defend the right to access justice and to promote a policy of integral reparations. That made us a target of Fujimorist attacks, in the form of defamation in the national media as well as in social media. We have in fact sued former congressman Alejandro Aguinaga, under investigation in the preliminary examination of forced sterilisations as a crime against humanity and other serious violations of human rights, which the Public Ministry opened in 2004 in compliance with the already mentioned FSA. The case still remains in its preliminary stages due to political interference, which we have publically denounced. For more than fourteen years, the Public Ministry has failed to accuse former President Fujimori and his former Health Ministers, including Aguinaga, and no prosecution has taken place. In the meantime, Fujimorism has not undergone any renovation whatsoever: it still does not believe in human rights and cannot fathom the right of women to decide on their own. In fact they all remain very convinced that it is the state that has to decide for them.

    The other antagonists we have as a result of our feminist agenda are the Catholic and Evangelical ecclesial hierarchies, as well as other conservative and fundamentalist religious groups such as Opus Dei, Sodalitium and Bethel. These are the leaders of an anti- sexual and reproductive rights agenda and seek to legislate and implement public policies to strengthen the institutions that guarantee their political, economic, social and cultural dominance, thereby ignoring the secular character of the state that the authorities in turn fail to enforce. For decades they have run a strong campaign against what they call “gender ideology”, not just in Peru but throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and beyond. These are multimillion-dollar campaigns that maintain that “gender ideology” attacks life, marriage and family. The funding they poured into the fear campaign against the peace accords in Colombia is a good example of this. They have also promoted a campaign called "Don't mess with my children" in several countries in the region.

    While these actors have questioned the scientific and legal validity of the gender perspective, the concept of gender has been adopted in the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and in standards such as CEDAW, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Convention of Belém do Pará. In Peru it was included into several laws, public policies and institutions, as a result of which conservative sectors are currently trying, for instance, to eliminate the gender perspective from the school curriculum, including all allusions to sexual orientation and gender identity. They have done so by means of both street actions and lawsuits. These however have not yielded the desired results: the overwhelming response from the Ministry of Justice’s Attorney General even covered them in ridicule. As a result, they had no alternative left other than using their power in Congress, where there are currently two bills that have been submitted by Fujimorism towards that aim.

    Lastly, in addition to harassing us through their press, as they have always done, these sectors now also attack us for our funding sources. They say we are the instruments of great powers seeking to impose Western models of family and sexuality in our country.

    Thanks to a journalistic investigation that then became a criminal investigation, we currently know of child sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Sodalitium, one of the most conservative and powerful groups within the Catholic Church. The scandal contributed to weakening the attacks coming from the ecclesial hierarchy. We are also beginning to know about the unholy business the Church does with education, health and even cemeteries within the framework of the Concordat between the Peruvian state and the Vatican. The very same priests who have spent years fighting us on the decriminalisation of abortion for rape cases, and who have said the worst things about us because they consider themselves to be the “defenders of life”, have allegedly covered for rapists of children and adolescents in their congregations and communities. This has helped people overcome their fear of denouncing the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy and double standards, and has limited the church’s ability to demand the government implement specific policies. For instance, the government has recently obeyed a court order to resume the distribution of emergency oral contraception despite pressures from Cardinal Cipriani.

    Given that our struggles for transitional justice have led us to seek justice and integral reparations for the victims of sexual violence during the internal armed conflict (1980-2000), we face not only Fujimorism but also APRA, a traditional party that ruled during a part of this period. They both seek to divide Peruvians between terrorists and non-terrorists and associate the left and human rights with terrorism. They never get tired of asserting that those who attack the military are terrorists - or ungrateful to say the least, for persecuting those who freed us from terrorism. If we strive for the legalisation of abortion we are abortionists, and if we defend human rights we are terrorists.

    2. How does DEMUS work to overcome these obstacles?
    We combine organisational and mobilisation strategies to strengthen the feminist and women’s diversity movement, public and political advocacy for legislation, public policies and access to justice measures, and strategic litigation. Among the latter were for instance the Manta y Vilca trial on rape during the internal armed conflict, which established that this was a crime against humanity; the case of forced sterilisations during the Fujimori administration; and other cases that have allowed us to move forward in terms of the recognition and guarantee of the human right to therapeutic abortion, among other sexual and reproductive rights.

    Ours is not just a lawyers’ struggle: we work in multidisciplinary teams and in alliances and within networks including other feminist, women’s, LGBTIQ and human rights NGOs, groups and platforms. Experience has taught us that it is not enough to obtain jurisprudence, standards, laws and public policies if there are no social movements and citizens defending them, that is, if there is no social base accompanying and empathising with the victims. Strategic litigation, legal defence and psycho-legal and therapeutic help are therefore always to be accompanied with mobilisation and campaigning.

    3. Is the Peruvian women’s movement integrated into regional or global networks, so as to face an adversary that is?
    There are indeed very important global and regional networks. In Latin America, the level of articulation reached by indigenous, peasant and environmental women human rights defenders is astonishing in contrast with the weakening of some feminist networks. New technologies have revolutionised communications, and we now have various alternative means to organise ourselves in networks.

    We must think about how to strengthen our thematic networks, for instance in the field of sexual and reproductive rights, in order to resist together. This is facilitated by a number of conceptual convergences, but complicated by the scarcity of resources reaching Latin America, competition around which affects alliances and articulations. Neoliberalism has also had an impact on inter-subjective relations: conflicts and rivalries arise due to scarce funding. It is impossible to understand the degree of difficulties we face without analysing the changes in and the new rules of international cooperation and funding mechanisms.
    On the other hand, we must not forget that Peru’s is a post-conflict society, with open wounds and an abundance of distrust, which has not yet learned to resolve differences without violence. We need to be aware of these limitations, so as not to reproduce what we criticise. But we are certainly still very strong: with much greater organisation and resources than we have, Catholics and evangelicals have not yet managed to create enough pressure in the streets and on public opinion to remove sex education from the school curriculum. Their only hope is now placed on authoritarian conservative forces in Congress.

    4. What progress or setbacks do you perceive in the struggle for women’s rights in Peru?
    Taking stock of the forty years of contemporary feminism in Peru, there has been net progress in terms of the legal-institutional framework. Advances have been the result of constant struggle and permanent dispute, and are neither ideal nor stable: they need to be continuously defended and perfected.

    For instance, in late 2015 a substantial amendment to Law No. 26260 (1993) on domestic violence was finally passed. The new legislation, Law No. 30394, is a law against gender-based violence. Shortly after, in July 2016, the Third National Plan against Gender Violence (2016-2021) was passed. In both cases there was a dispute over the diversity of the women to be protected. There was much resistance against the possibility that legislation would also protect lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. In fact, recognition of the variety of forms that gender violence can take was not as resisted as the extension and recognition of the objects of protection. The women’s movement succeeded in getting some previously unacknowledged forms of gender violence recognised as such, including gender-based violence in the context of social conflicts. We wanted the new law to protect women human rights defenders of land, the environment, and natural resources, that is, indigenous and peasant women who are currently criminalised and on whom conflicts have a differential impact on the basis of gender. This we achieved. We had also proposed that the violation of sexual and reproductive rights be recognised as gender violence. And while we achieved recognition of forced sterilisation, rape in the context of internal armed conflict, violence due to sexual orientation, and obstetric violence as forms of gender-based violence, such recognition was not expressed in the language of sexual and reproductive rights. In additional, sexual orientation-based violence was recognised but gender identity-based violence was not.

    Fifteen years after the First National Plan was launched, and more than twenty after the first law against then-called “domestic” or “intra-family” violence was passed, tension between women’s rights and family protection persists. Although Law No. 30364 has in many respects aligned legislation with the Belém do Pará Convention, violence based on gender identity discrimination has not yet been recognised. Public debate continues to focus on nature as a determinant of sexuality, reproduction and family.

    Why is it that feminists and LGBT people perceive “family protection” as contrary to our rights? First, because not all families are protected. Family rights of the LGBT population are not recognised. Secondly, because why protect the existing family – a traditional, hierarchical, violent family based on sexual division of labour and the exclusive recognition of heterosexual sexuality? A family organisation free of discrimination and gender-based violence should be promoted instead. In other words, measures should be taken to dismantle the patriarchal family, which functions as the very first place of normalisation and control, particularly for women and LGBT persons. The family has become a space in which physical, psychological and sexual violence remain unpunished: in fact, Peru has the second highest rate of denunciation of sexual offences against girls and adolescents in the region, and these are in many cases perpetrated by family members. Finally, a person’s (and in this case a woman’s) rights can never be subordinated, conditioned or reduced to a by-product of family welfare, in the same way as the rights of an actual person cannot be subordinated to the rights of being yet to be born.

    In sum, in historical perspective there has been progress in the recognition and guarantee of rights, but these have been the product of constant struggle. We face strong resistance, and if we had not permanently defended our conquests, we would certainly have seen them retreat long ago.

    5. In this context, how has DEMUS’ agenda changed since its beginnings in 1987?
    DEMUS is an organisation well known for its work for the right to a life free of gender-based violence. We specialise in prevention, care, denunciation, therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment, litigation, advocacy with legislative, policymaking and justice administration bodies, and campaigning and mobilisation on gender-based violence. For instance, we developed the “Not one more death” campaign, which placed femicide on the public agenda, and the “A man doesn't rape” campaign, which contributed to call attention on the problem of sexual violence, impunity and the culture of rape.

    In the beginning we had to dispute about the very concept of what was then called “intra-family violence”, which we designated as “violence against women” and today we call “gender-based violence”. We saw violence against women as a problem of power inequality, sexual discrimination and impunity, so we advocated for equality and access to justice. However, as years passed and the first laws and policies on the issue were passed, we realised that we were not obtaining the results we expected.

    The fight against violence against women had gained consensus as part of the state agenda and had occupied a space in the institutional structure of the state (commissions, ministries, etc.), and even ultraconservatives had begun to accept equal opportunities between men and women (which was enshrined in Law No. 28983 of 2007) all the while resisting the recognition of other sexual orientations and gender identities. So we began a conceptual revision and concluded that if we wanted to combat gender-based violence, our central strategic battle had to revolve around women’s autonomy and self-determination in the field of sexuality and reproduction, the recognition of and the provision of guarantees for sexual and reproductive rights understood as fundamental human rights, and access to justice in cases where these were violated. The perspective of sexual and reproductive rights came to enrich the equality and non-discrimination approach in addressing the problems of gender-based violence and impunity.

    Thus, although the defence of LGBT rights and the legalisation of abortion were already in DEMUS’ agenda, they have since become more central to it. And our strategies became richer in the process, because besides strategic litigation and therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment we started to focus as well on organisation and mobilisation, public advocacy and communication. We have used the whole toolbox in our search for justice and reparations for the victims of forced sterilisations, and also in our campaigns for emergency oral contraception and the legalisation of abortion (first of all for reasons of rape, foetal malformations incompatible with extra-uterine life, and unconsented artificial insemination and egg transfers, and eventually on the basis of women’s dignity and right to decide).

    Most recently, in our work to defend victims of sexual violence and impunity, we have learned from the indigenous and peasant women defenders of land and water that women human rights defenders are being differently affected by the extractivist economy due to their gender, and are being specifically criminalised by corporations such as the Yanacocha mining company and by the state itself. In their struggle to defend lakes and resist mining projects such as Conga, women are having a hard time, since gender-based violence is being used against them. In the actions of the police and the Armed Forces we are currently seeing a criminalisation of social protest, threats and violations of women’s rights echoing those that took place during armed conflict. In order to avoid the repetition of serious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity, we are using the new legislation, which now enables it, to denounce Yanacocha and make it clear that there is gender-based violence behind situations of harassment like that suffered by women human rights defenders such as Máxima Acuña.

    The other agenda that we increasingly adopted as central is the defence against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in order to achieve recognition of and guarantees for the right to gender identity and lesbians’ right to maternity. We choose the issues we fight for on the basis of several criteria. One of them is that of revolutionising whatever the system resists the most, so that if we win, we will not only have obtained a law, public policy or jurisprudence, but we will also have conquered people’s common sense. And what the system most resists today is transgender identity and the right of LGBT persons to love and family. The system condemns us to civil death, poverty, marginalisation, murder, harassment and rape.

    6. In Peru, there have recently been major mobilisations with the motto #NiUnaMenos. How was the issue placed on the public agenda in such a way that mobilisation turned out to be so massive? What roles did regional networks play in the process?

    The marches in Argentina, Mexico and other countries inspired many of us: we wanted to do something similarly massive in our own country. But mobilisation did not occur in Peru as a response to a regional call, or as a result of prior coordination within a regional network.

    A year prior to this mobilisation there was a high profile case in Peru, in which a woman was savagely attacked in a hotel in Ayacucho, dragged by the hair and almost raped and murdered. The episode had been recorded on video, and everyone followed the case in the media and expected the attacker to be convicted. The ruling came out a few months before the demonstration, and it acquitted the accused. It denied that an attempted rape and femicide had taken place, and it even ruled that the injuries on the victim had been minor. This generated a social phenomenon of indignation that spread throughout the national territory and in social media. Women who were in the ideological and social antipodes from one another agreed that something had to be done, and feminists started talking about a mobilisation meant to make it clear that “if they touch one of us, they are touching us all”. The #NiUnaMenos (#NotOneLess) slogan was adopted out of the belief that the time had finally come and that this would be a mobilisation of a magnitude similar to those that had taken place in other countries.

    In Peru, the idea persists that if you do not obtain justice it is because you cannot prove what has happened to you. You only have your word and that is not enough for justice administrators. Now, if even in a case where there is a video like that, the aggressor is eventually absolved, what kind of security and justice is left for the rest of us? This created an unprecedented feeling of helplessness. Fear quickly turned into indignation, and this in turn into mobilisation. I was invited to join a Facebook chat a few hours after the video was made public. There were ten of us to start with, and a little while later we were over sixty, and the next day we were meeting at a comrade’s place. Within a few hours, the closed group formed in Facebook went from a few women testifying to the various forms of violence in their daily lives to 20 thousand, 40 thousand women reporting on their own stories of violence: at home, in the streets, at work, in school. Terrible stories, and everybody was telling them and keeping each other company.

    Thus, in Peru citizens went out into the streets to reject impunity and defend the right to justice. People began to wonder why violence against women persists despite all the laws and policies to combat it. The media started talking about patriarchy and machismo as its causes. There was some recognition of the importance of the feminist struggle, at least in that particular context. Much of the leadership and organisational work towards mobilisation was done by various organised and unorganised female citizens, leaders of feminist groups in neighbourhoods, universities, trade unions, NGOs. Women of a wide diversity of movements, colours, desires, education, professions and talents, in alliance and dialogue with the survivors whose emblematic cases united diverse sectors of society. Conservative sectors have still not managed to obtain similar success in defence of their agenda.

    7. Did the mobilisation have any positive effect in terms of public policy?
    The mobilisation resulted in some concrete measures, although these were too narrowly focused and involved little public investment. A Circle of Protection program was created, thereby extending attention to 24/7 in five out of over 200 Emergency Women’s Centres (EWC). Coverage of the emergency line Línea 600 was extended to all days of the week. This contributed to an increase in addressed complaints. Also, cases of femicide and rape were subsequently included into the rewards programme to stop offenders.

    Additionally, there were announcements regarding the expansion of temporary shelters, the provision of gender training to justice operators, and in particular to the National Police, and the creation of at least 50 new EWCs in various police stations across the country. The Public Ministry adapted its guidelines to Law No. 30364 and announced the creation of prosecution offices specialised in femicide. The Judiciary established a National Gender Commission.

    Nonetheless, femicidal violence persists as a savage daily occurrence; there is in fact a patriarchal and male chauvinist counteroffensive underway. They continue to kill us and rape us, and the femicide and rape culture keeps blaming us for it. And the measures adopted by the state in defence of the gender approach and gender equality fall short: they are basically reactions and responses to public pressure. We women do the reporting and monitoring job that the state should be doing. The state and the government always give in when it comes to the sexual and reproductive rights of women and LGBTIQ people. Which makes it clear that unless it becomes feminist, public policy will yield no results. If public policy priorities do not change, women will continue to die.

    The most important changes have occurred in the realms of common sense. #NiUnaMenos has shown that there is widespread rejection of violence against women, and that women have become empowered to talk about sexual violence in the same way that we first learned to talk about partner and domestic violence. There is no longer shame in having been a victim: it is clear that the other party is the one at fault. Women now know that there are things that are not right, and that if they happen to them it is not their fault, or God’s will, or the work of nature: it is a violation of rights and a matter of justice, and those responsible have to be punished.

    Civic space in Peru is rated as ‘obstructed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with DEMUS through their website, visit their Facebook page, or follow ‪@DEMUS_f‬ and ‪@MYCfeminista‬ on Twitter.‬‬‬‬

    Image ©Peru21

     

  • AFGHANISTAN: ‘The international response has been extremely weak and shameful’

    CIVICUS speaks with activist Arzak Khan, about the situation in Afghanistan following the takeover by the Taliban. Arzak is a digital rights expert with extensive experience in the use of innovation to influence social change and he has been working to assist Afghan human rights defenders. While some activists, journalists and others who were at risk of reprisals from the Taliban because of their work were able to leave the country, many others have not been able to and have gone into hiding. There have been reports of activists facing systematic intimidation. Afghanistan is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civic freedoms

    Arzak Khan

    What is the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover?

    On 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital of Kabul, completing a rapid takeover with a speed that surprised many Afghans and the country’s neighbours. Following the fall of Kabul, the situation in the country has been uncertain. Prices for basic food items are increasing, people are becoming jobless, single mothers have been made redundant from jobs and a lot of uncertainty exists over girls’ education.

    Already a number of cases of human rights violations have been reported, and brutal crackdowns on protests and the women’s movement are taking place. The excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by Taliban security forces as they crack down on protests have been highlighted by both traditional and social media since the fall of Kabul. It is important to remember that when the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s, women had to cover themselves fully, from head to toe, and were not allowed to walk outside without being escorted by a male family member.

    Afghan women have now realised that those dark days are not behind and are taking to the streets to advocate for women’s rights and demand equality, justice and democracy. The Taliban have fired teargas and used batons to break up their protests. Journalists who have covered protests have been jailed and tortured. Such actions highlight the rapidly deteriorating state of civic freedoms and the need to ensure that civic space is defended at all costs.

    What kinds of risks do civil society activists and organisations currently face?

    In their first news conference after taking charge of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban promised women’s rights, media freedom and amnesty for former government officials. However, there is a high degree of hostility towards activists and civil society organisations (CSOs), and Taliban security forces on the ground have often accused them of spying for foreign governments.

    The more radical parts of the Taliban feel that because CSOs and activists cooperated with parties to the conflict, they are legitimate targets and should be punished for their role. CSO offices have been raided; all records, equipment and fixtures have been taken away. Many activists fear for their lives as the regime targets people from CSOs that have been vocal on important issues, such as women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights and human rights in general.

    Due to increased threats against human rights defenders and activists, many have gone into hiding or are trying to flee the county. Even if the Taliban regime chooses not to target CSOs, activists and human rights defenders, it remains to be seen if they can provide a secure environment and prevent attacks from other actors, such as Islamic State-Khorasan – the local branch of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan – and other rogue elements.

    Are journalists currently able to report on the situation on the ground?

    To be honest, press freedom does not exist in Afghanistan any more. Absolute disregard for press and media freedoms is visible in the violent retaliation against journalists and media workers covering the recent protests. Images of the arrest and brutal flogging of two reporters who were detained while covering a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul is just once such incident that has been publicised globally. The senior Taliban leadership claims that journalists are not being attacked or tortured, but there’s a big difference between the Taliban on the media, who are more moderate and articulate, and the Taliban in the streets, who are uneducated, trigger happy and outright violent. Journalists and media outlets are unable to report the situation on the ground due to mounting pressure from local Taliban militias. Many journalists have been threatened with images of beheading to stop them reporting atrocities on ground.

    How have you been supporting civil society and activists?

    The stunningly swift collapse of the Afghan state created a situation of panic even for someone who has been closely monitoring the political developments in the country. Given the rapid response that was needed, I was able to quickly assess the situation on the ground and mobilise our partners to support Afghan activists, journalists and advocates for women’s rights to identify escape routes and lobby for securing visas, flights, or any kind of way out of Afghanistan to safe locations.

    Everything had to be done swiftly as there was high risk that these individuals and their families might be targeted by the Taliban because of their affiliation with international organisations. Assistance for healthcare, including mental health support to overcome trauma and terror, especially for women and children, had to be arranged for people escaping the regime.

    What do you think of the response by the international community so far?

    Despite urgent warnings from activists and civil society groups about the risks that human rights defenders, activists, marginalised communities and women would face under the Taliban, the international response to support our work has been extremely weak and shameful. It seems that states that over the past two decades played a critical role that led to civil society gains are now ready to sacrifice the blood and sweat of the people who worked to bring change to Afghanistan.

    On 7 October 2021, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to create a Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan. The resolution fell short of civil society demands for the establishment of an international monitoring and accountability mechanism. It is crucial that UN member states support the adoption of a resolution to create an independent investigative mechanism on Afghanistan as a matter of priority, that they support civic space freedoms and ensure that CSOs and activists are allowed to operate without fear of torture or death, and that the Taliban regime is held accountable for its actions.

    What else can international civil society and the international community do to support Afghan civil society?

    Civic space has been under attack in the South Asia region, and in Afghanistan it has become violent. To counter this trend, transnational actors that support civil society need to respond in a multi-dimensional manner. Unfortunately, the international response since the fall of Kabul seems stuck: some useful efforts have been undertaken, but they appear too limited, loosely focused and reactive rather than strategic and long-term.

    The international community and donor agencies should exert diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime so it commits to protecting civic space in line with international human rights norms. They should establish emergency funds for persecuted rights activists and organisations and offer operational support to CSOs. Funders should also continue to expand flexible funding strategies to overcome legal barriers and help CSOs operate in hostile environments, working with intermediaries that can reach a wider range of partners and reducing grantees’ administrative burdens.

    For now, the future looks very uncertain. How the Taliban regime will react in the coming months is the million-dollar question. Between hope and hopelessness, I wish that peace can prevail, and that the international community does not turn its back on the people of Afghanistan, who have been victims of global powers’ regional dominance.

    Civic space inAfghanistan is rated repressed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Arzak Khan through hisblog orFacebook page, and follow@arzakkhan on Twitter.

     

     

     

  • Afghanistan: Assault on peaceful protests highlight deteriorating space for civic freedoms

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS condemns the excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by Taliban security forces as they crack down on protests in Afghanistan. Such actions highlight the deteriorating space for civic freedoms in the country and the need to ensure independent mechanisms to hold Taliban authorities accountable.

     

  • ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘Protesting once is not enough; we need to fight back every single day’

    Asia LeofreddiFollowing our 2019special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about civil society protests against the World Congress of Families held in Verona, Italy, with Asia Leofreddi, a PhD Candidate at the Antonio Papisca Human Rights Centre of the University of Padua and a journalist with Confronti, a think tank and magazine dedicated to the study of the relationships between religion, politics and society.Based on the values of memory, hospitality, solidarity and pluralism, Confronti promotes dialogue among Christians of different denominations, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and lay people interested in the world of faiths, with the aim of breaking down misunderstandings and fundamentalism and helping to build an intercultural democratic society.

    How would you characterise the World Congress of Families?

    The World Congress of Families (WCF) is the biggest ‘pro-family’ gathering in the world. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQI+ advocacy group and political lobbying organisation in the USA, has defined it as “the largest and most influential organization involved in anti-LGBT policies worldwide.” It was established by an American and a Russian in Moscow in 1997, and today it gathers together many associations, religious groups, scholars and political activists based in various countries, primarily belonging to Christian denominations. Among them, the Russian branch is particularly strong and acts with the open support of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin.

    The WCF’s pro-family agenda translates into support for the traditional family model and reflects a highly conservative view of gender roles. Accordingly, the WCF opposes abortion, surrogate motherhood, same-sex marriage and any progress towards equality in sexual and reproductive rights. Their gathering is organised by the International Organization for the Family (IOF) which is active at many other levels. At the international level, beyond organising international conferences, it tries to influence international institutions, such as the UN, in order to promote a conservative and restrictive interpretation of human rights, in particular of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration. In domestic politics, its member organisations link with or operate as interest groups infiltrating parties and academic institutions, lobbying officials and using democratic means such as referendums and mobilisations to advance their claims in national public spheres.

    Not coincidentally, over the past decade Brazil, Russia, the USA and several European countries have witnessed the rise of anti-gender and pro-family discourse, promoted by far-right parties, as well as the introduction, and sometimes also the approval and implementation, of morally conservative policies put forward by representatives of their national governments. In 2013, for instance, the Russian Duma unanimously approved a Law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values (popularly known as the ‘anti-gay law’). In Croatia a referendum was held that same year, promoted by an organisation called U ime obitelji (‘In the name of the family’) and aiming to establish a constitutional prohibition against same sex-marriage. It won with 67 per cent of the vote. In 2018 the right-wing governments of Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia decided not to ratify the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which they viewed as a threat to the traditional family structure. And in 2019 the Council of Verona approved Motion 434, described as ‘an initiative to prevent abortion and promote motherhood’, put forward by a representative of the far-right League Party, and declared Verona a ‘pro-life city’. All the organisations and political representatives involved in all these processes are somehow connected to the WCF, which shows that over the past decades the ‘family’ label has started to play a key role in the creation of new geopolitical alliances that were not even thought to be possible a short while ago.

    Who were the main groups involved in protesting against the WCF in Verona?

    The main protests held in Verona during the meeting of the WCF in March 2019 were led by the local branch of the transnational feminist movement Non Una di Meno (‘Not one woman less’). They organised a three-day mobilisation called Verona Città Transfemminista (Transfeminist City Verona) that encompassed a variety of events spread throughout the city. These events looked like a real counter-congress, complete with panels, shows and speakers coming from every part of the world.

    Additionally, another forum took place at the Academy of Agriculture, Letters and Sciences, a historic building in the city centre, on 30 March. This encounter was organised by the International Planned Parenthood Federation – European Network and the Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalisti) in collaboration with Rebel Network and other national and international organisations. This event gathered more than 30 speakers representing the transnational struggle of civil society for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.

    Some Italian politicians also decided to show their opposition to the WCF, and several female representatives of the opposition Democratic Party organised a public meeting in the K2 Theatre of Verona on the same day.

    As all these events show, during those days Verona became a political laboratory in which two opposed views of society were on display. The small city became the battlefield of a global struggle. On the one hand, there was the reactionary and illiberal activism of the WCF, and on the other, the open and inclusive activism of national and international progressive movements and people who autonomously decided to participate in the protests.

    However, what was most surprising was the great participation of Italian civil society. The demonstration held on 30 March was the biggest Verona had ever seen: more than 100,000 people took to the streets of the city to side with women’s right to choose.

    What motivated all these groups and citizens to protest?

    For civil society groups, the main binding factor was the WCF. Mobilised groups focused their activism on defending sexual and reproductive rights, strongly jeopardised by the narratives promoted and political strategies used by Congress participants.

    Meanwhile Italian citizens took to the streets mostly in reaction against the strong support that the WCF received from an important sector of the Italian government at the time. Indeed, three then-ministers took part in the Congress – Matteo Salvini, then-Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Lorenzo Fontana, Minister of the Family and Marco Bussetti, Minister of Education – and both the governor of the Veneto region and the mayor of Verona gave official sponsorship to the gathering. A majority of Italians viewed the institutional promotion of a gathering detrimental to civil rights as a political action against our Constitution.

    What was the impact of the protests?

    This was the first time the WCF had to face such a huge protest. As soon it was announced that the 13th edition of the WCF would take place in Italy – a founding member of the European Union with a strong civil society and a deep attachment to a set of rights gained through many years of struggle – analysts started watching the events with great interest. However, I don’t think anyone expected such a big reaction – not even our politicians attending the Congress.

    At the national level, the protests achieved good results. For instance, they forced Matteo Salvini to publicly proclaim that Law 194 – the Italian law recognising abortion rights – would not be not touched and forced League Senator Simone Pillon to postpone a draft bill that had been widely criticised as not defending women from domestic violence. They also provided the opportunity for representative Laura Boldrini to pass a law against revenge porn, which until then had been strongly opposed by the parliamentary majority. Additionally, the days of the Congress were a great opportunity to unmask the strong connections that a section of our government, and particularly the League Party, which was in coalition government at that time, has with the global far right, despite their rhetoric on national sovereignty, and with some domestic far-right forces such as Forza Nuova, an extreme-right nationalist party, members of which were accredited to the Congress.

    At the international level, the WCF in Verona offered an opportunity for participating opposition movements to forge new transnational alliances and reflect on the construction of common narratives and strategies. It was then that groups that until then had focused on their own national, and sometimes provincial, contexts realised how important it was to act globally. The presence of foreign experts and activists helped Italian movements to understand better the strategies of ultra-conservative groups and their ability to function simultaneously at different levels.

    While we in Italy have always been confronted with the conservative positions of the Vatican and its influence on politics and civil society regarding sexual and reproductive rights, the WCF in Verona made it clear that we are facing a process of modernisation and professionalisation of ultra-conservative activism. As Kristina Stoeckl, an Austrian scholar, has widely demonstrated in her project on postsecular conflicts, these actors now enter public debate with their religious claims and turn them mainstream. They present them in a non-religious language, translating them into the language of human rights or natural law. They disseminate them with by using tactics and strategies typical of progressive mobilisations and campaigns. During the WCF held in Verona, Italian progressive movements became aware of the dimension of the phenomenon that they face as well as the fact that far from being limited to a national context, the politicisation of religion and pro-family rhetoric are actually part of a much broader political project.

    These successes, however, by no means turned the Verona edition of the WCF into a failure. They clearly showed they were not be ready to deal with countries with a strong civil society capable of mobilising discourses and resources at their same level. Still, about 10,000 people took part in their ‘family march’ on 31 March. They were far fewer than those who took to the streets to participate in the feminist and progressive mobilisation off the previous day, but they were still many. Moreover, I think the success of the WCF is measured more by what happens inside the Congress than what happens outside. In the WCF in Verona there were many representatives of governments from all over the world – far more than in previous years – which offered them a great opportunity to strengthen their networks.

    I don’t mean to diminish the results achieved by progressive movements in Verona, but to emphasise that protesting once is not enough. We need to remember to fight back every single day. We need to be aware that our opponents remain active even when they disappear from the scene. Ours is a battle of public opinion, which must be informed on a daily basis.

    What more could civil society be doing to push back against anti-rights groups such as the WCF, and what support does it need to be able to respond?

    First, the days in Verona demonstrated the importance of a vigilant and united civil society. On the way forward, it is important for progressive actors to develop better knowledge of these transnational networks and gain the ability not only to react but also to move proactively against ultra-conservative political projects on a daily basis. It is worth noting that the WCF has existed since 1997, and around the mid-2000s it started to become a political actor, capable of influencing national discourse and policies in several countries, from Russia to Central and Eastern Europe up to the USA. Moreover, for quite a long time some of its members have been involved in UN negotiations, playing a wider role in the international human rights debate. However, most Italian groups working on women’s and LGBTQI+ rights only became aware of its existence when it was announced that the Congress would take place in Verona.

    Second, it is important to move beyond a reductionist interpretation of these movements as simply anti-gender and of this phenomenon as a mere ‘conservative backlash’ against progressive and emancipatory movements. Defining ultra-conservative claims in culturally binary terms (past vs future, intolerance vs tolerance, religion vs secularism, traditional family vs sexual freedom) does not help grasp the complexity of their project and their strong contextual adaptability, nor prevent them from taking further actions.

    Indeed, their anti-gender claims often intersect with other issues including the right to homeschooling, concerns such as human ecology, demography, Christianophobia, political stances such as nationalism, the defence of national sovereignty and a more general critique of the Western liberal political and economic order and its supranational institutions. All these concepts help them build a more comprehensive and systematic ideology, mobilising forces in various countries and strengthening their political alliances.

    But binary oppositions overlook these groups’ capacity to function in a variety of contexts. For instance, although they support a conservative view of gender roles, several ultra-conservative political parties have female leaders – just think of Alice Weidel (Alternative für Deutschland, Germany), Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement national, France), Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d'Italia) and Pauline Hanson (One Nation, Australia). Others have women among their leadership, as seen with Barbara Pas (Vlaams Belang, Belgium) and Magdalena Martullo-Blocher (Swiss People's Party). On top of that, once in power, many of them promote social policies that advance women’s interests, such as a monthly income for every child born or more general welfare measures. Of course, these policies only favour heterosexual families, but still, they allow many families – and many women – to get the support they need.

    Even regarding LGBTQI+ rights, they are able to contextualise their stances. While Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro says that he would prefer a dead son than a gay one, Alice Weidel is an out lesbian who lives with her partner and her two children. Similarly, prioritising the fight against radical Islam and foreign powers, during her latest electoral campaign the ultra-conservative Marine Le Pen recognised the acceptance of homosexuality as part of French values.

    Third, the media have a key role in opposing these movements. It is very important to do research and disseminate information, explaining for example that many of the populist forces we see emerging in our countries are part of larger networks. It is no coincidence that Italy’s Salvini publicly kisses the crucifix, Brazil’s Bolsonaro made the legalisation of homeschooling one of his key priorities for his first 100 days in office, and Donald Trump is the first US president to attend his country’s most important national anti-abortion march. They are all part of a specific structure of power and the media have the responsibility to unmask their political and economic links.

    Finally, I believe that the rise of these ultra-fundamentalist movements is the consequence of a broader crisis, which has also led to the success of several illiberal leaders in various parts of the world. Progressive movements need to be aware of this so as to rethink some key concepts of their strategy, assess whether they are still connected with the broader society and, if they are not, start addressing this issue. As masterfully expressed by Eszter Kováts, “We need to recognise the problematic nature of emancipatory discourse as it stands today: just because a particular criticism is coming from the Right of the political spectrum does not necessarily render our positions beyond critique. And then we need to ask the painful question: ‘how did we get here’, and what does the current popularity of the Right have to do with the unfulfilled promises and problematic developments of emancipatory movements. Of the very same movements that seem to have failed to address the real nature of inequalities and everyday material struggles of people.”

    Get in touch with Confronti through its website and Facebook page, or follow @Confronti_CNT on Twitter.

     

  • ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘Their true objective is to eliminate all government policies related to gender’

    Diana CariboniAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Diana Cariboni, an Argentine journalist and writer based in Uruguay, winner of the 2018 National Written Press Award and author of several pieces of investigative journalism on anti-rights groups in Latin America. 

     

    Would you tell us about your experience at the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family?

    In 2018 I covered the conference of this regional group – actually an Ibero-American one, since it has members throughout Latin America and also in Spain. It is a large group that seeks to become a movement. It is one of many, because there are several others, which also overlap, since members of the Ibero-American Congress are also part of other movements, interact with each other within these movements and serve on the boards of various organisations.

    I started investigating this group because it was going to meet here in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in late 2018, and its arrival was preceded by some incidents that caught my attention. The most important actors that I managed to identify within this movement were, in the first place, a huge number of representatives of evangelical churches and, within evangelism, of neo-Pentecostalism, although there were Baptist churches and non-Pentecostal evangelical churches as well.

    In addition to these churches, the Don’t Mess with My Kids platform was also represented. This network emerged in Peru in 2016 and includes a series of evangelical Christian personalities. Some of them are church preachers and some are also political actors; for example, there are a large number of representatives with seats in the Peruvian Congress. In fact, legislators make up an important segment of the Ibero-American Congress. In many countries, there are congresspeople who are church pastors or members of religious congregations: that is the case in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. These people are trying to coordinate a regional legislative movement. The Ibero-American Congress has been active in the legislative arena and has coordinated and issued statements on certain issues for some time now.

    Mexico is an important focus because the founder of the Ibero-American Congress, Aaron Lara Sánchez, is Mexican. The movement has established communications media such as Evangélico Digital, which is part of a group of digital media that originated in Spain. It has also created or seeks to create some sort of think tank, because they want to coat all of it with a scientific varnish, so doctors, lawyers and biology and genetics experts take part in their conferences. They all promote the religious perspective that a family can only be made up of a man and a woman, that only two sexes, male and female, exist, and that the human person emerges at the time of conception; hence their opposition to abortion. They are putting together a pseudo-scientific discourse to substantiate these arguments despite the fact that scientific research indicates otherwise. Their objective is to put forward a discourse that is not viewed as belonging to the Middle Ages; that is why they seek some convergence with the common sense of the 21st century and speak of science and the secular state, even if only as a very superficial varnish. On the other hand, the Don’t Mess with My Kids discourse fits well with prevailing common sense, because it contains a very strong appeal to families and tells parents that they have the right to decide what education their children receive in school.

    Would you characterise these groups as anti-rights?

    Indeed, because their true objective is to eliminate all government policies related to gender. In fact, I interviewed the founder of the Don’t Mess with My Kids platform, Cristian Rosas, who told me: “We started with sex education because it was what mobilised people the most, because it refers to their children, but what we really want is to eliminate gender, the word ‘gender’, altogether, in Peru and all over the world.” The thing is, behind that word, gender, is the crucial issue of the recognition of identities and the search for equality: women’s struggles to end discrimination and subordination, and the struggles of LGBTQI communities to enjoy the same rights and guarantees accorded to the rest of the population. They say that these struggles are unnecessary because our constitutions already state that we are all equal before the law, so why establish special laws or statutes for LGBTQI people? What they are overlooking is that LGBTQI people, and particularly people such as trans individuals, cannot effectively access those rights or even the conditions for a dignified existence. They insist on ignoring this, and instead argue that what LGBTQI people are striving for is for the state to fund their lifestyles.

    Uruguay offers a recent example of an anti-rights policy promoted by these sectors. Three Uruguayan members of the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family – an alternate Catholic legislator of the National Party, an evangelical neo-Pentecostal representative, also of the National Party, and the leader of the biggest evangelical church in Uruguay, which is also neo-Pentecostal – carried forward a campaign to repeal the Integral Law for Trans People. The signature collection campaign was announced during the congress in Punta del Este that I attended.

    Who were the participants in that conference? From your description, it sounds more a reunion of movement leaders than a mass meeting.

    It was not the parishioners at large who gathered on this occasion, but rather pastors, preachers, politicians, opinion leaders and influencers seeking to take advantage of the language and codes used by a large section of the population, and especially by young people, to communicate. But still, it was a meeting of about 400 people.

    This event was closed; the press was not allowed in. So I signed up as a participant, paid the US$150 registration fee and went in without letting the organisers know that I was covering the event as a journalist. In addition to paying the fee, I had to remain in Punta del Este for three days, stay in a hotel and be in the company of these people all day long. At times it became a bit suffocating because the way they carry out their activities is not the same as in a regular congress or conference, where you listen to panel presentations, take notes and sit in an auditorium next to other people who are doing more or less the same things. In this case, every session, including panels, integrated religious prayers – evangelical-style. This is nothing like Catholic mass, which is highly choreographed, and where the priest takes the lead, everyone knows more or less what he is going to say and parishioners respond with certain phrases at pre-established times, sit, stand and little else. The evangelical experience is very different: people talk, scream, raise their arms, move, touch. The pastor gives them instructions, but still, it is all way more participatory. I found it difficult to remain unnoticed, but I made it through.

    I also managed to get a good record of what was happening, which was not really allowed. There was a lot of surveillance and I would have been thrown out had I been noticed. They realised close to the end: at the last minute they decided to organise a press conference and there was practically no media other than their own. I didn't know whether I should attend, but in the end I decided to, because I had already attended all the sessions after all. There was also a journalist from the weekly Búsqueda who attended the press conference. I was allowed to conduct interviews and was told that I could only publish anything related to the press conference, but not anything I had heard during the congress. Of course, there was nothing they could do to stop me from publishing anything, and my article ‘Gender is the new demon’ (‘El género es el nuevo demonio’) was published in Noticias shortly thereafter.

    Being there helped me understand a few things. There are certainly very powerful religious and political interests behind anti-rights campaigns. But there are also genuine religious expressions, different approaches to life: some ultraconservative sectors genuinely reject 21st century life. What I observed during this congress is the extreme estrangement that some people experience regarding our contemporary world, a reality that can hardly be reversed, but that they experience as completely alien to them: the reality of equal marriage, diverse interpersonal and sexual relationships, sexual education, pleasure and drugs, free choice and abortion. We need to recognise this: there are segments of our societies that do not feel part of this 21st century world and thus react to these advances, which they interpret as degradation and corruption.

    These groups have a nationalist discourse identifying nation-states and peoples as subject to foreign dictates that are considered to be evil – and are even seen as messages from the devil. Evil is embodied in a series of institutions that they describe as imperialistic: the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the inter-American human rights system, international financial organisations, the World Health Organization.

    Isn't it strange for these groups to appeal to nationalism when they organise themselves in transnational networks and are active in the international arena?

    Within the framework of this cultural battle that is being fought at the international level, what these groups do not see is that they themselves are actors in the international arena, even if only to weaken the scope of international law. They aim at the bodies that oversee treaties and conventions, such as the American Convention on Human Rights or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. They say that these are just expert committees whose recommendations do not need to be taken into account by states when they contravene domestic laws.

    A recent discussion about this arose around the opinion issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in response to a consultation from Costa Rica regarding gender identity and equal marriage. Costa Rica asked the Court if it was obliged under the American Convention on Human Rights to recognise the gender identity of individuals and the economic rights of same-sex couples. In response, the Inter-American Court told Costa Rica, and therefore the entire continent, that these rights are protected by the Convention. A very strong discussion ensued, because for anti-rights groups this was a case of an international body acting above states, constitutions and national laws.

    You mentioned that many politicians from different countries participated in the Ibero-American Congress. Do you think that these groups want to rule and are they getting ready to get to power? If so, what is their strategy to achieve it?

    Above all, I do believe that they have the will to rule, which has a lot to do with the way the neo-Pentecostal movement that emerged in the USA and then expanded throughout the continent eventually evolved. The argument is simple: if they are the light of the world and the salt of the earth, they are being called to have an impact, so they have to seek power because they are the ones chosen to exercise it.

    As for strategies, they vary. Pragmatism prevails, so the strategy depends a lot on context. In some cases, they create their own parties – religious, evangelical or ultraconservative – by which they feel represented. In other cases, they prefer to insert their candidates into various party tickets. Currently in Argentina, for example, there are candidates of this sort in practically all parties, except for the most radical left. They are present in both the ruling party and the main opposition coalition. In addition, there is a recently formed small party, the NOS Front, founded on the explicit rejection of ‘gender ideology’ in the context of the legislative debate over legal abortion – but it didn’t get many votes in the recent primaries, and I don’t think it will achieve too much in the upcoming elections. On the other hand, many candidates that are running on various lists will be successful, both at the federal and provincial levels.

    Another complementary strategy is to enter governments at lower levels, especially in countries with federal structures, where they can access management positions in the areas of health, education or justice; hence their strategy of training experts – lawyers, jurists, bioethics experts – who can take positions in various areas of public administration. I am seeing that a lot in Argentina.

    In the case of Uruguay, these sectors are quite concentrated within a segment of the National Party, which already has some evangelical and neo-Pentecostal legislators; it is highly likely that there will be more after the next elections. I think an evangelical caucus will very likely emerge out of the October 2019 elections in Uruguay. There are some similar candidates in the other parties, although they are much less visible.

    Additionally, a new phenomenon has emerged in Uruguay, in the form of the Cabildo Abierto party, led by a former army chief, which is the first to declare itself an anti-gender ideology party. This is a new phenomenon because the leaders and main figures of the National Party, the one that has so far given space to most of these candidates, do not support these positions. Although it is a new and small party, polls are forecasting that Cabildo Abierto will get between seven and 10 per cent of vote, which means it will possibly get some legislators elected, who will go on to vote as a block.

    Do you find these developments worrying in a country such as Uruguay, often described as the most secular in Latin America?

    What happens is that confessional vote is not automatic. In Argentina, evangelical parishioners are an important percentage of the population, which is also growing, but for the time being there is hardly any evangelical legislator in the National Congress. Something similar could be said about most countries: people who declare they belong to a certain religious group do not necessarily vote for candidates of the same religion. In other words, the faith-based vote, which is what these sectors intend to promote, is not necessarily succeeding in every country. It has made substantial progress in Brazil, but this progress has taken decades, in addition to being related to peculiarities in the Brazilian open-list electoral system, which allows for such candidacies to spread among various parties, including the Workers’ Party when it was in power. This growth was reflected in the substantial support provided by evangelical sectors to President Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy, whose victory also nurtured the evangelical caucus.

    A number of factors affect how people vote at any given time; when voting, people are not necessarily guided by candidates’ religious creed. But this could change in the upcoming elections. Both Argentina and Uruguay hold elections in October, on the same day; in Bolivia elections will be held a week earlier; and also in October there will be regional elections in Colombia, with many such candidates in various parties. We will soon get a better idea of how the faith-based vote evolves in each country. We need to watch it closely in order to find out if it is a linear phenomenon on the rise, a process including progress and reversals, or a phenomenon that is finding its limits.

    Get in touch with Diana Cariboni through herFacebook page and follow@diana_cariboni on Twitter.  

     

  • ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘They don’t think human rights are universal, or they don’t view all people as equally human’

    gordan bosanac

    As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the rise of far-right extremism and religious fundamentalism in Eastern Europe with Gordan Bosanac, co-author of a case study on Eastern Europe for the Global Philanthropy Project’sreport ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI rights.’

      

    You have worked on a variety of issues, from racism and xenophobia to religious conservatism and LGBTQI rights. Do you think the rise of nationalism and attacks against migrants’ rights and sexual and reproductive rights are all part of the same trend?

    These are all definitely part of the same phenomenon. The vast majority of the organisations that mobilise against women’s rights also reject LGBTQI people and migrants and refugees. They are all part of the same global movement that rejects liberal-democratic ideas, and they all mobilise against minorities or vulnerable groups.

    They are a very heterogeneous set of groups and organisations. Their common denominator is what they fight against: liberal democracy. Neo-Nazi, anti-women, anti-LGBTQI and anti-migrant rights groups have different targets, but they share an agenda and collaborate towards that agenda. Many of these groups come together at the World Congress of Families, where you will find lots of hate speech against the LGBTQI community, against women and against migrants. They share the same philosophy.

    To me, these groups are the exact reverse of the human rights movement, where some organisations focus on women’s rights, others on LGBTQI rights, still others on migrants or indigenous peoples, or social, cultural, or environmental rights, but we all have a philosophy founded on a positive view of human rights. We are all part of the human rights movement. It is the exact opposite for them: they all share a negative view of human rights, they don’t think they are universal, or they don’t view all people as equally human. Either way, they mobilise against human rights.

    When and why did Christian fundamentalist groups emerge in Eastern Europe?

    A colleague of mine says that these groups have been around for a long time. She’s currently investigating the third generation of such groups and says they originated in the 1970s, when they first mobilised around neo-Nazi ideas and against women’s rights. The most recent turning point in Eastern Europe happened in the early 2010s. In many cases it has been a reaction against national policy debates on LGBTQI and reproductive rights. Croatia, where I come from, was one of the exceptions in the sense that these groups did not mobilise in reaction to policy gains by women’s and LGBTQI rights groups, but rather in anticipation and as a preventive measure against processes that were advancing internationally, specifically against same-sex marriage.

    The Croatian experience has played out in three phases. Beginning in the 1990s, an anti-abortion movement developed, led by charismatic Catholic priests. Following the fall of Communism, abortion was presented as being against religious faith, family values and national identity. The Catholic Church set up so-called ‘family centres’ that provided support services to families. Since the early 2000s, independent civil society organisations (CSOs) formed by ‘concerned’ religious citizens emerged. What triggered them was the introduction of sexuality education in the public-school curriculum. A third phase started around 2010, with the rise in nationally and internationally-connected fundamentalist CSOs, independent from the Church structure. For instance, the new groups had links with ultraconservative Polish movements – Tradition, Family, Property and Ordo Iuris. The Catholic Church remained in the background and the role of anti-rights spokespersons was relegated to ‘concerned’ religious citizens.

    Fundamentalists in Croatia made good use of citizen-initiated national referenda. In 2013, they voted down marriage equality, in large part thanks to voting laws that do not require a minimum voter turnout in national referendums, as a result of which a low turnout of roughly 38 per cent sufficed to enable constitutional change. In contrast, similar referendums in Romania and Slovakia failed thanks to the requirement of a minimum 50 per cent turnout.

    Anti-rights groups seem to have made a lot of progress in Eastern Europe since the early 2010s. Why is that?

    We started closely monitoring these groups in Croatia around the time of the referendum, and what we saw is that their rise was linked to the redefinition of their strategies. They used to be old fashioned, not very attractive to their potential audiences and not very savvy in the use of the instruments of direct democracy. From 2010 onwards they changed their strategies. The anti-rights movement underwent a rapid renewal, and its new leaders were very young, eloquent and aware of the potential of democratic instruments. In their public appearances, they started downplaying religion, moving from religious symbolism to contemporary, colourful and joyous visuals. They started organising mass mobilisations such as the anti-abortion Walk for Life marches, as well as small-scale street actions, such as praying against abortion outside hospitals or staging performances. Ironically, they learned by watching closely what progressive human rights CSOs had been doing: whatever they were doing successfully, they would just copy. They also revived and upgraded traditional petition methods, going online with platforms such as CitizenGo.

    Internationally, anti-rights groups started taking shape in the mid-1990s in reaction to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 in Beijing. It was then that a consensus formed around women’s rights as human rights, and when gender first came on the agenda. Religious groups felt defeated in Beijing. Many academics who studied this process concluded that it was then that the Catholic Church got angry because they lost a big battle. They underwent several defeats in the years that followed, which enraged them further. In 2004, the candidacy of Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian nominee for the European Commission, was withdrawn under pressure from the European Parliament because of his anti-gender and homophobic positions. Christian fundamentalists were also enraged when heated discussions took place regarding the possibility of Europe’s ‘Christian roots’ being mentioned in the European Constitution. All of this made the Vatican very angry. There were quite a few symbolic moments that made them angry and pushed them to fight more strongly against liberal ideas.

    In reaction against this, they modernised, and it helped them to have increasingly tight connections to US-based fundamentalist evangelical groups, which had a long experience in shaping policies both within and outside the USA.

    Do you think this is mostly a top-down process, or have these groups reached deeply at the grassroots level?

    In Eastern Europe it is mostly a top-down process, possibly related to the fact that for the most part these groups are Christian Catholic, not evangelical. These ideas come from very high up. They have been produced and disseminated by the Vatican for decades. They are not spontaneous and are very well organised. Their strategies have not spread by imitation but rather because they are all dictated from the top.

    This does not mean that they have not been able to appeal to citizens; on the contrary, they have done so very successfully, even more so than human rights groups. That is because they use very simple language and play on people’s fears and insecurities. They build their popularity upon prejudice and fears of others who are different. Fear seems to be an easy way to mobilise people, but people on the left don’t want to use it because they feel that it is not fair to manipulate people. Anti-rights groups, on the other hand, don’t have any problem with scaring people. When they first appeared in Croatia, these groups gained huge support because they stirred fear and then presented themselves as the protectors and saviours of people against the fictional monster that they had created.

    What are the main strategies that these groups have used in order to grow?

    First, they share a unified discourse that is built around the rejection of what they call ‘gender ideology’, which is nothing but an empty signifier to designate whatever threat they perceive in any particular context. They declare themselves the protectors of the family and the natural order and use defamation strategies and a pseudo-scientific discourse against women’s and LGBTQI people’s rights. A nationalistic rhetoric is also omnipresent in Eastern European countries.

    Second, they have co-opted human rights discourse and adopted the practices of civic organising of the human rights movement. They not only profit from direct access to church-going citizens, but they also mobilise the grassroots through lectures, training, youth camps and social networks. They also benefit from sufficient funding to bus people to central rallies such as the Walk for Life marches, pay the expenses of numerous volunteers and cover the cost of expensive advertising.

    Third, they have successfully used citizen-initiated referendum mechanisms. In Croatia and Slovenia, they collected the required number of signatures to initiate national referenda against same-sex marriage, which they won. In Romania and Slovakia, in turn, they succeeded in collecting the signatures but failed to meet the minimum participation requirement. Voter turnout in all these referenda ranged from 20 per cent in Romania to 38 per cent in Croatia, which shows that fundamentalists do not enjoy majority support anywhere, but they are still cleverly using democratic mechanisms to advance their agenda.

    Fourth, they use litigation both to influence and change legislation and to stop human rights activists and journalists who are critical of their work. In order to silence them, they sue them for libel and ‘hate speech against Christians’. Although these cases are generally dismissed, they help them position themselves as victims due to their religious beliefs.

    Fifth, they not only get good coverage of their events on mainstream media but they also have their own media, mostly online news portals, in which they publish fake news that defames their opponents, which they then disseminate on social media. They also host and cover conservative events that feature ‘international experts’ who are presented as the highest authorities on issues such as sexuality and children’s rights.

    Sixth, they rely on transnational collaboration across Europe and with US-based groups.

    Seventh, they target the school system, for instance with after-school programmes intended to influence children between the ages of four and 14, when they are most susceptible and easily converted.

    Last but not least, they work not only through CSOs but also political parties. In this way, they are also present in elections, and in some cases, they gain significant power. Such is the case of the far-right Polish Law and Justice Party, which fully integrated these groups into its activities. In other cases, they establish their own political parties. This happened in Croatia, where the main fundamentalist CSO, In the Name of the Family, established a political party called Project Homeland. The case of Romania is most concerning in this regard, as it shows how Christian fundamentalist positions on LGBTQI rights can be mainstreamed across the political and religious spectrum.

    In other words, these groups are present in various spaces, not just within civil society. And they are targeting mainstream conservative parties, and notably those that are members of the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s centre-right grouping. They are trying to move centre-right and conservative parties towards the far right. This is their crucial fight because it can take them to power. It’s the responsibility of conservative parties around the world to resist these attacks, and it is in the interest of progressive groups to protect them as well because if they lose, we all lose.

    Do you think there is anything that progressive civil society can do to stop anti-rights groups?

    I’m not very optimistic because we have been fighting them for several years and it’s really difficult, especially because the global tide is also changing: there is a general rightwards trend that seems very difficult to counter.

    However, there are several things that can still be done. The first thing would be to expose these groups, to tell people who they really are. We need to expose them for what they are – religious fundamentalists, neo-Nazis and so on – because they are hiding their true faces. Depending on the local context, sometimes they are not even proud to admit that they are connected to the Church. Once these connections are exposed, many people become suspicious towards them. We would also have to hope for some common sense and disclose all the dirty tracks of the money and hope that people will react, which sometimes happens, sometimes doesn’t.

    The main role should be played by believers who refuse to accept the misuse of religion for extremist purposes. Believers are the most authentic spokespeople against fundamentalism and their voices can be much stronger than the voices of mobilised secular people or political opposition. However, the lack of such groups at the local level, due to pressure from local religious authorities, can be a problem. Pope Francis has seriously weakened fundamentalist groups and he is a great example of how religious leaders can combat religious extremism and fundamentalism.

    It is also productive to use humour against them. They don’t really know how to joke; sarcastic, humorous situations make them feel at a loss. This has the potential to raise suspicions among many people. But we need to be careful not to make victims out of them because they are experts in self-victimisation and would know how to use this against us.

    Finally, let me say this again because it’s key. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s very important to empower conservative parties across the globe so they stand their ground and resist far-right hijacking attempts. Progressives need to protect conservative parties from extremist attacks, or they will become vehicles for the far-right to get to power, and then it will be too late.

    Civic space in Croatia is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Follow @GordanBosanac on Twitter.inter

     

  • ARGENTINA: ‘Change is inevitable. It is just a matter of time’

     

    Twitter: Edurne Cárdenas

    In 2018, after years of civil society efforts, Argentina’s congress discussed an initiative to legalise abortion for the first time. While the ban on abortion in most cases remains, those campaigning for reform believe the debate has progressed. CIVICUS speaks about the campaign to Edurne Cárdenas, a lawyer with the international team of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS),an Argentine human rights organisation. CELS was founded in 1979, during Argentina’s military dictatorship, to promote human rights, justice and social inclusion. In its early years, CELS fought for truth and justice for the crimes committed under state terrorism, before expanding its agenda to include human rights violations committed under democracy, their structural causes and their relationship to social inequality. CELS advances its agenda through research, campaigning, alliances with others in civil society, public policy advocacy and strategic litigation in both national and international forums.

    When did CELS, a classic human rights organisation, start working on sexual and reproductive rights, and why?

    CELS has had great capacity to work in tune with the times and therefore to enrich its agenda progressively, always in alliance with social movements and other organisations. The idea of women’s rights as human rights was explicitly articulated at the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights. In the mid-1990s, and more precisely in 1996 I believe, the CELS annual report included contributions by women’s rights activists on reproductive rights. Over the following years, often in partnership with other organisations, CELS took part in submissions to human rights bodies: for instance, in 2004 we contributed to a shadow report submitted to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion was formed in 2005 and CELS joined in 2012. Shortly after those first articles were published in our annual report, our concerns about human rights violations gradually widened to encompass access to non-punishable abortions, as they are referred to in the Criminal Code - abortions that can be performed legally when the woman’s life or health are in danger or if the pregnancy in question is the product of rape. The issue was also incorporated as a result of the sustained work of feminist activists within our organisation.

    In sum, CELS works on this issue because we understand that the criminalisation of abortion has a negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights by women. CELS’ key contribution was to place the abortion debate within the human rights sphere and to put into circulation human rights arguments to feed debate around the issue. CELS does not specialise in health issues, but we work in partnership with other organisations that examine the problem from that angle. From our point of view, this is an issue in which freedom and equality are at stake, and that is cross-cut by another theme - institutional violence - that was historically central to our work.

    In 2018 the debate over legal abortion progressed in Argentina more than ever before, but not far enough for legal change to happen. What lessons do you draw from this experience?

    In 2018, for the first time ever, an initiative to legalise abortion was debated in Congress. It was the seventh time that an initiative of this nature was introduced, and it was drafted and promoted by the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion. This is a network bringing together more than 500 organisations that form the women’s movement; it is well coordinated, horizontal and has 13 years of experience in this struggle. Before 2018, initiatives had not progressed, even within the congressional committees that had to issue an opinion to allow for debate to proceed to the full house. Argentina has a tradition of highly mobilised feminism and, since 2015, the campaign has had a lot of street presence and has made a clear demand for legal abortion. 2018 began with a novelty: in his opening speech of that year’s legislative session, the president raised the issue, which alongside feminist pressure enabled parliamentary debate. This was absolutely unprecedented. Regrettably, after being passed by the House of Representatives - the lower house - in June 2018, the initiative to legalise abortion was rejected by the Senate in August.

    The whole process was led by the women's movement. All other movements and organisations aligned behind their leadership. In the House, the initiative succeeded because the strategy was multi-partisan and diverse, there was strong social movement participation and street pressure made itself heard. In the Senate, a more conservative chamber, additional work was required. Our alliances failed us, as we couldn’t make them as cross-cutting as they were in the House. A question that remains on the table, then, is how to reach out to the most conservative chamber of Congress with a demand that must necessarily be processed through it.

    In addition, the defeat in the Senate made it clear that we need to work more to understand and counter the ‘post-truth’ discourse of our opponents. We are seeing conservative advances that put institutional quality, and ultimately democratic institutions, at risk. What was interesting in the process was that all citizens were able to find out and take note of what their representatives think and how they vote.

    The results of this particular struggle could be called bittersweet. How much of a defeat, and how much of a victory were they, and why?

    The pictures of disappointment on 9 August 2018, when the Senate rejected the initiative, do not tell the whole story. When we take stock, the list of what we won is much longer than the list of what we lost. Losses of course include a missed opportunity - but we only missed one opportunity, that of 2018, because I really believe that change is inevitable, and it is just a matter of time. I do not know if it will happen in 2019, but it will eventually. But one thing does need to happen in 2019: with elections due, all the issues that were put on the table during this process have to be part of the presidential campaign agenda.

    We undoubtedly gained in terms of mass participation and public presence - both in the streets and in public opinion. In 2018 abortion was discussed like never before, so silences and taboos broke. But the process also had a negative side effect: because the issue that was placed on the agenda was so divisive, and mobilisation became so massive and acquired such centrality on the political scene, a strong reaction from the most conservative sectors ensued. These sectors gained a level of organisation and visibility that they did not have in the past.

    As these conservative voices emerged, the debate on abortion rights also brought back into the discussion some things that we thought were long settled and part of a basic, untouchable consensus. These sectors began to say out loud certain things that they wouldn’t have dared say only a few years ago. Such was the case with the campaign ‘Do not mess with my children’ (Con mis hijos no te metas), against the implementation of the law mandating comprehensive sex education, which called into question the role of the state in education.

    What role did CELS play in the legalisation campaign?

    Throughout the process, the women’s movement’s leadership, and that of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, was undisputable. As a member of the Campaign, and alongside other human rights organisations, CELS made an important contribution in terms of organisation, coordination and argumentation.

    Our history and experience give CELS much legitimacy. The fact that CELS speaks about abortion can make a difference when it comes to reaching broader audiences. Starting in 2014, when it seemed likely that the legalisation initiative would eventually be discussed in congressional committees, CELS began putting together input for the legislative debate, by revising jurisprudence and current standards and providing a justification as to why the debate on abortion had to be carried out from a human rights perspective.

    At the same time, CELS participated as amicus curiae - friend of the court - in various court cases. Although we think that our ultimate goal, and the only one compatible with the recognition of women’s autonomy as full subjects of rights, is the legalisation of abortion, we have deemed it necessary to ensure in the meantime that the abortions that are already legal can be performed effectively, along the lines established for non-punishable abortions. In 2012, in its ruling in the F.A.L. case, the Supreme Court made very clear the conditions under which legal abortions can be performed and the obligations that this confers on the state. This ruling reflected the great work done by women’s rights and human rights movements on the streets, in hospitals, in academia and in the courts. But nonetheless, access remains very uneven, and even in more ‘advanced’ provinces barriers to legal abortions still exist. To a large extent, this reflects the structural limitations of a system that establishes a restrictive set of grounds allowing abortions, which inevitably fails because it depends on someone certifying the presence of those grounds. In addition, the current system ignores the most important among all possible grounds for abortion: the pregnant person’s will. This is precisely what the bill that was passed by the House put in the spotlight.

    During the 2018 debate, CELS made several presentations in support of the initiative at public hearings in both houses of Congress. Our executive director and I presented at the House of Representatives - significantly, both at the opening and the closing of the debate - and our litigation director spoke at the Senate. At the beginning of the debate, we issued a publication that was endorsed by a large part of the women’s movement, feminists and organisations alike, with arguments, legislation and jurisprudence, to bring clear information to legislators.

    We were also present on the streets, not only sharing the vigils that were held during the voting sessions, but also in organising, providing support and coordinating with the women's movement, with the other organisations within the Campaign for Legal Abortion and with high school students, health professionals and other mobilised groups. This coordination and the sustained presence of the movement on the streets were what made the difference during 2018. Finally, we defended the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, since throughout this process the groups mobilised against legal abortion perpetrated various acts of violence against legalisation activists.

    You have repeatedly mentioned the existence of anti-rights groups. Do you think these groups are on the rise? If so, what can progressive civil society do to protect the rights already conquered and keep moving forward?

    Anti-rights groups have indeed grown and are organised under a common umbrella, against what they call ‘gender ideology’. They saw this debate as an opportunity to organise like never before. Now they are more numerous: there used to be groups linked to the Catholic Church, but now there are also numerous groups with links to evangelical churches, well-organised and well-funded, alongside other groups that are not necessarily faith-based. Their presence demands our attention because their goals run against the rights of a large part of the population, as they seek to limit access to rights by children, women, lesbians, gays, transvestites and trans people. They are appearing throughout Latin America and their existence also raises questions about their alliances and goals: how and when did they arrive in Argentina? What are their demands? How far are they willing to go? We have seen that behind their ‘no to abortion’ they bring along a broader agenda that is linked to their rejection of so-called ‘gender ideology’, sexual education in schools, even vaccination, and who knows what else.

    The progressive movement needs to think of a strategy to face them. The strength of the human rights movement is our use of creativity and the strategy of reason. On the other hand, what anti-rights movements do is mirror the strategies of the human rights movement. Now, although creativity and innovation give us an advantage, the anti-rights movement is making us waste our time discussing things we thought were long settled. To top it all, what we get into is not even an honest discussion, since the statements they make and even the data they use do not withstand the slightest fact check. The result is not actual debate - that is, a genuine exchange of arguments and reasons. Still, we have no alternative but to respond. So, when we engage in such ‘debate’, we do not really discuss with them or try to convince them, but we share our reasoning before an audience, in order to try and convince that audience. We take advantage of that simulation of a debate to make our point before public opinion. For this task, social media are key, although they have clearly been a double-edged sword. In fact, it was during this debate that we were able to see first-hand the way so-called ‘fake news’ operates, particularly when they find an echo in influential voices outside social media, who disseminate them elsewhere. It so happened, for instance, that totally fake data found on social media were quoted by legislators during the congressional debate. In that area, there is a lot of work for us to do.

    Leading the debate agenda is one of the challenges that our movements face. To do this, we need to always be a step ahead in the discussion. We should not ‘debate’ with the anti-rights groups but speak to larger audiences and engage in discussion with elected representatives, whose obligation it is to pass laws for our common good and to ensure the state’s compliance with its obligation to enforce human rights. The debate over the legalisation of abortion was a spearhead to think about other issues. The system of limited grounds for legal abortion, similar to the one that has just been adopted in Chile, has been in place in Argentina since 1921. The transition from a system of grounds to a system of deadlines requires a simple legislative decision to amend the Criminal Code. Why such big fuss then? Because this debate puts other discussions on the table, including what we think the role of women is, what the role of the state should be, to what extent and regarding what issues the state should get involved - and this is where conservative sectors exhibit their contradictions: they want the state to get inside your bed to criminalise your behaviour, but when it comes to education or vaccination, they want it not to interfere.

    We cannot stay on the defensive. We need to go on the offensive and place secularism and the role of the state on the agenda. And we are forced to do so in a very regressive sub-regional context. Brazil, our biggest neighbour and partner, has just elected a president who is committed to advancing the agenda of its powerful evangelical caucus and who has just appointed to lead the Ministry of Human Rights an evangelic minister who says that women are born to be mothers.

    Civic space in Argentina is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with CELS through theirwebsite andFacebook page, or follow@CELS_Argentina and@EdurneC on Twitter.

     

  • ARMS CONTROLS: ‘Greater women’s participation in male-dominated mechanisms would increase prospects for peace’

    CIVICUS speaks with Aaron Lainé, Policy and Government Liaison Officer, and Raluca Muresan, Programme Manager at Control Arms, a civil society coalition that advocates for greater controls in the international arms trade to end the human suffering caused by the irresponsible arms trade, and to stop arms transfers that fuel conflict, systemic armed violence, poverty and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

    Aaron Laine

    It was quite surprising to hear that the 2019 Conference of States Parties to theArms Trade Treaty (ATT) would focus on gender. What is the connection between gender and weapons, and between women’s rights and gun control?

    The thematic focus of the Sixth Conference of States Parties to the ATT (CSP6) on gender and gender-based violence (GBV) was the result of long-term efforts by progressive governments and civil society who called for more integration in the areas of sustainable development, women, peace and security and arms control. Building on the fact that the ATT is the first legally binding instrument to recognise the link between GBV and the international arms trade, efforts were concentrated on ensuring that governments recognise the importance of stopping arms transfers that perpetuate GBV and creating gender-sensitive arms control policies and programmes.

    A gender perspective in arms control requires governments to examine how socially constructed gender roles affect policy decisions, particularly related to arms exports and controls. It also requires a better understanding of the gendered impact of armed violence and conflict, including of how women and men are impacted on, due to their sex or prevailing expectations about gender. It must be noted here that gender is not limited to women and girls but also includes men and boys and LGBTQI+ people.

    While the body of evidence that connects women and peace and security with arms control policies is continually growing, several studies outline the disproportionate effect of irresponsible arms transfers and arms proliferation on women and children and the gendered impact of modern armed conflicts. While men and boys are both perpetrators and the primary victims of armed violence and conflict, women and girls bear a substantial and differentiated burden, including because of GBV, displacement and lack of access to medical care during pregnancy and childbirth due to the destruction of medical facilities. Research on the gendered impact of conflict also indicates that bombs, missiles, mortars and rockets, when used in populated areas, result in disproportionate casualties among women and children.

    Therefore, Control Arms – along with other civil society organisations following the ATT process – has been urging governments to go beyond examining the risks that transferred arms may be used to commit violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, and look at the gendered impact of the use of weapons as part of a thorough examination of the potential for GBV facilitated by transferred arms. This is an essential component in reducing human suffering, the key purpose of the ATT.

    While gender and GBV are beginning to be receive proper recognition by various United Nations mechanisms, including in disarmament forums, what is more important is to see meaningful action on the ground. In the case of the ATT, Control Arms hopes that states parties will base arms export control decisions on the recognition of the risk of commission or facilitation of GBV. The Control Arms practical guide on how the ATT can address GBV was specifically designed to help states parties implement GBV criteria effectively when conducting a risk assessment before authorising an arms export, and help push for meaningful change by using the ATT to address GBV.

    Can you tell us more about the ATT and the role played by Control Arms in its negotiation and implementation?

    The ATT, which was adopted in 2013 and entered into force on 24 December 2014, is part of the international response to the tremendous human suffering caused by the widespread proliferation of conventional weapons and poorly regulated trade in them. The ATT sets common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms and ammunition, with the express purpose of reducing human suffering. The ATT represents a significant paradigm shift in the world of arms control through its prohibitions on certain arms transfers (Article 6) and the establishment of a detailed export risk assessment mechanism (Article 7). Under these articles of the Treaty, states parties must determine if an arms transfer would violate specific international obligations or arms embargos or if the arms would be used to commit or facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, serious human rights or humanitarian law violations, to enable terrorism or organised crime, or to commit or facilitate GBV, and stop it in case it risks having any of these consequences. With the inclusion of Articles 6 and 7, for the first time in history, states are required to place international human rights and humanitarian law at the core of their arms export decisions.

    The Treaty also sets out guidelines for importing, transit and transhipment states, requiring them to cooperate and share the information necessary to conduct the mentioned assessment.

    Today, the ATT’s membership comprises 105 states parties and 33 signatories.

    The Control Arms Coalition formed and launched a campaign in 2003 that tirelessly pushed for states to accept the idea of and negotiate the first global treaty to regulate the conventional arms trade. Since the adoption of the ATT in 2013, Control Arms has continued to push, first, for the 50 ratifications required for its entry into force, and then to hit a target of 100 states parties and for effective implementation. Through each stage of the ATT process, the role of civil society has evolved from primarily one of advocacy and awareness-raising to where we are today – where civil society plays an instrumental role in shaping the discussions and agenda of the Conferences of States Parties, advancing the Treaty’s universalisation and implementation, and ensuring transparency and accountability in the ATT through mechanisms such as the Control Arms’ ATT Monitor Report.

    What does the Arms Trade Treaty say about GBV, and how could its provisions be used to protect women and children?

    According to ATT’s Article 7.4, ‘[t]he exporting State Party, in making this [risk] assessment, shall take into account the risk of the conventional arms covered under Article 2.1 or of the items covered under Article 3 or Article 4 being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of GBV or serious acts of violence against women and children’.

    The aim of Article 7.4 is to ensure that an exporting state party takes into account the risk that the arms transferred will be used to commit or facilitate acts of GBV, when conducting its export assessment outlined in Article 7.1. It is an explicit requirement aimed at reducing the historical tendency to overlook GBV.

    In practical terms, if applied correctly, the ATT will help deprive human rights abusers of the arms that help facilitate violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including acts of GBV and violence against women and children.

    What kind of advocacy work has Control Arms been doing in the area of GBV?

    The Control Arms Coalition played a key role in advocating for the inclusion of Article 7.4 in the Treaty. Since then, Control Arms has sought to raise awareness about the importance of this provision, through bilateral and regional meetings, social media campaigns such as 10 Reasons to #StopGBV, and interventions and statements in ATT-related meetings.

    Control Arms also produced a range of resources such as the Practical Guide on how to use the ATT to address GBV, a paper that provides interpretations on key terms from Article 7 and a factsheet on gender in the ATT. These resources were used in the first-ever training programme for export control officials on the implementation of the GBV criteria. Organised by Control Arms and the government of Latvia, the training session brought together representatives from 12 Central and Eastern European governments to learn in greater detail about the links between GBV and arms transfer decisions and the application of the ATT risk-assessment criteria that take these risks fully into account.

    Do you think women’s participation in disarmament and arms control negotiations and processes could increase the prospects for peace?

    Greater women’s participation in male-dominated disarmament and arms control mechanisms would without a doubt contribute to greater prospects for peace. Several studies, for example by the Council on Foreign Relations and a 2018 study by Jana Krause, Werner Krause and Piia Bränfors, highlight the positive impact of women in conflict resolution, concluding that “women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution can improve outcomes before, during, and after conflict.” Similarly, gender equality among participants in international multilateral mechanisms can lead to more inclusive, effective and sustainable policy outcomes. This is relevant particularly for disarmament and arms control forums that have remained largely male-dominated and are stuck in an ideological window characterised by aggression, dominance, egotism and other characteristics of toxic masculinity.

    A recent study by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Still Behind the Curve, outlines the state of gender balance in arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament diplomacy. Its main conclusion is that “the proportion of women participating in arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament diplomacy… has grown steadily over the last four decades, but women remain underrepresented.” This applies to the ATT as elsewhere: only 27 per cent of representatives at the 2018 Conference of States Parties were female.

    Get in touch with Control Arms through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@controlarms and@AaronLaineRicoy on Twitter.

     

  • AUSTRIA: ‘If anything changed for women under the pandemic, it was for the worse’

    CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequality in Austria with Judith Goetz, a political analyst and scholar who studies gender and right-wing extremism.

    Alongside her role as a university professor, Judith works with civil society organisations (CSOs) that advocate for equal rights of excluded groups and support feminist movements in Austria. She has recently co-edited two anthologies on gender perspectives and right-wing extremist movements.

    Judith Goetz

    Do you think COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women in Austria?

    I believe so and I think the gender-specific effects of the pandemic and lockdown are especially visible in employment. Gender-specific occupational patterns that predated the pandemic resulted in an additional workload for women. Women are also employed disproportionately in the service industry and healthcare sector, so many women saw their workload increase during lockdown and throughout the pandemic.

    Women have been further affected through low wages and short-term employment. In addition, gender imbalances in childcare roles, and caretaking roles more generally, intensified with the pandemic.

    Crises always bring the chance to rethink the social contract, and the pandemic in particular opened up an opportunity to renegotiate gender-specific arrangements, but unfortunately it was not taken. Relationships of dependency have been intensified, so if anything changed, it was for the worse.

    The increase of domestic and sexual violence under lockdown is proof of this. This has been a problem not just in Austria but in all of Europe. Many people lost their jobs and did not have enough money to make a living. It seems that many men, unable to cope with economic and pandemic-related stress, simply took it out on their partners and children.

    It is worth noting that the pandemic had a negative impact not only on women but also on LGBTQI+ people. Conservative forces took advantage of the pandemic to promote a return to traditional values and families. They said that lockdown showed families the importance of spending time together, and made women see the advantages of undertaking their ‘natural’ role as caretakers. Fringe anti-feminists even blamed the pandemic on those promoting gender rights because according to them, the pandemic was God’s punishment for their sins.

    Has the government done enough to tackle these negative impacts?

    Through its government programme, the Austrian government promised measures to counter domestic and sexual violence. But it did too little.

    The current Minister for Women, Family and Youth, Susanne Raab, upholds a very conservative image of women. She only takes an anti-patriarchal stance when it comes to migrant women, because she only sees patriarchal structures and conservative, traditional gender conceptions in migrant communities, rather than in society at large. This has set limits on the design of policies to curb gender injustices in Austrian society and to support women’s empowerment more generally.

    What role has Austrian civil society played in advocating for gender equality, both before and during the pandemic?

    In Austria there are lots of CSOs that work against discrimination against women and other gender identities, and for equal treatment of people regardless of how they choose to identify themselves. Many feminist achievements, notably in the form of social change, are the result of this commitment. But this progress has also engendered a reaction in defence of male privilege, and we have seen the rise of counter-movements.

    The way I see it, civil society encompasses all the associations, social movements and initiatives in which citizens engage, independently from political parties even though they often work together. These are all part of civil society regardless of their political orientation, of whether they are progressive or regressive. During the pandemic, we saw movements against LGBTQI+ rights, sexual education for diversity and gender studies in general become popular within movements that mobilised against pandemic restrictions.

    Overall, women’s organisations and other solidarity CSOs, from anti-racist to progressive feminist movements, are doing an enormously important job in Austria. But we must keep in mind that there is a whole other segment of CSOs that are not progressive at all, and progressive civil society must find strategies to deal with them.

    What role do you think progressive civil society will have to continue to play after the pandemic?

    Solidarity networks will be extremely important in the aftermath of the pandemic because many people – particularly women - have been pushed under the poverty line.

    But the pandemic has also made clear that there are a lot of people who are willing to help and support other people. Many people are not even organised, but they used their own resources to help others in need. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw self-organised neighbourhood networks in which people took care of each other. The pandemic allowed people to realise they could easily organise networks in their contexts and practise solidarity.

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Austria?

    Like anywhere else in the world, challenges abound in Austria: there is the gender pay gap – the goal of ensuring equal pay for equal work, the elimination of discriminatory role models and making opportunities available for women in all areas of life.

    The intersectional entanglement of discrimination plays an important role here: women face discrimination not only because of their gender but also because of their social origin, their location, their race, or because they are not able-bodied.

    But the problem I want to highlight is that of sexual and domestic violence. Austria must face the fact that it has a very high number of femicides. This is one of the reasons why Austria gained international attention in recent years – not just because femicide cases in Austria are very high compared to other European countries, but also because Austria is one of the few countries where more women than men are being murdered, mostly by their intimate partners or family members.

    How is civil society organising to tackle gender-based violence?

    Women’s rights CSOs have worked on these issues since long before the pandemic, and alerted that they were worsening as soon as the pandemic broke out. Such was the case with the Association of Autonomous Austrian Women’s Shelters (Verein Autonome Österreichische Frauenhäuser).

    Civil society has engaged in intense advocacy to challenge policies that do not benefit excluded people, bring the concerns of the underrepresented to the forefront of the policy agenda and hold the authorities accountable. For instance, in October 2021 the Minister for Women, Family and Youth promised €25 million (approx. US$28 million) for a package of new measures to counter gender-based violence and femicides. Feminist CSOs complained that it was far too little: they were demanding €228 million (approx. US$256 million).

    They also criticised the programme for prioritising helping perpetrators over protecting victims. The new anti-violence programme focuses on making perpetrators attend a six-hour training session, which is a step into the right direction but not nearly enough to change their behaviour, while not providing enough funding to the care of the women affected by violence.

    On top of this, there is an important new movement growing in Austria. It follows on from the Ni Una Menos (‘Not one woman less’) feminist movement that originated in Latin America and encompasses both individuals and organisations. Since its founding in July 2020, no femicide in Austria has been left unacknowledged.

    The new grassroots movement claims public space: every single time a femicide is found to have taken place, the movement gathers in central parts of Vienna to rally against patriarchal violence and commemorate its victims. The movement seeks to politicise femicides in order to go beyond mere reaction and win agency. More than 30 such rallies have been held since 2020.

    In my opinion it has already achieved a lot of success. For instance, media reporting has completely changed. They no longer refer to a femicide as a family drama or a murder, but rather as femicide – that is, the murder of a woman because of the fact that she is a woman.

    The way we speak about the topic, and therefore the way we think of it, has changed completely thanks to the work of civil society. It is now clear that femicides are typically not perpetrated by strangers in the dark – most of them are committed by relatives, spouses, boyfriends. It is not about the perpetrator’s background, but rather about the social relations between preparator and victim.

    The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?

    I really like this theme because we should indeed undertake complex thinking instead of continuing to think in black and white. Austria’s organising committee has chosen solidarity as a theme, which is very broad but can potentially encompass various gender identities, workers and groups facing various forms of discrimination. I think this theme is a good match for the #BreakTheBias theme.

    I am joining the 8 March rally and the activities that bring feminist groups together in Vienna. I like this space because it offers a platform for feminist organisations, activists and experts to speak up about their own issues. This is also part of breaking the bias, because it is about different feminist perspectives and experiences coming together and having a frank discussion in which we try to leave our own bias aside. It also allows the bridging of different feminist struggles. We should prioritise what connects us over what separates us. We will surely have enough time to talk about our differences and become stronger once we have connected.

    Civic space in Austria is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. 

     

  • AUSTRIA: ‘Unfortunately, times of crisis have rarely proven to be a catalyst for gender equality’

    CIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender-based violence (GBV) in Austria with Hannah Steiner and Sophie Hansal of the Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls.

    The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at improving women’s and girls’ lives through the development of training programmes, the provision of free counselling and campaigning and advocating for women’s concerns to be addressed by public policies.

    Hannah Steiner and Sophie Hansal

    How did the work of the Network change under the pandemic?

    The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls is an umbrella organisation encompassing 59 counselling centres all over Austria. We build our internal network by organising training activities, exchange and communication among counselling centres. We represent the concerns of our member organisations externally and are therefore in constant contact with funding bodies, politicians, the media and the public. We advocate for a society in which all human beings, and particularly women and girls, can lead a free and safe life.

    The Network and all its counselling centres have no affiliation with any political party or religion. Our member organisations provide various forms of support, from career guidance, training and reintegration to work after parental leave, guidance regarding employment laws and residence status, to partnership and support on child-rearing issues, divorce and custody, physical and mental health issues, all the way to violence in all of its forms.

    The pandemic had a major effect on our work, particularly at the beginning, when uncertainty was highest and the availability and accessibility of counselling was very limited. Many women and girls were unsure where to seek advice. Counselling centres tried to react to this as quickly as possible, for example by offering counselling online, but also by actively contacting women and girls who had registered with them earlier to ask how they were doing and whether they needed anything.

    As in many other areas, counselling embraced new technologies during the pandemic. However, some women and girls didn’t have – and still don’t have – the equipment or skills to access these opportunities. At the same time, some organisations have told us that there are women and girls who find it easier to ask for advice or help in an online setting. And women who live in rural areas, far from the next counselling centre, found access to counselling easier via phone or email. The ways the pandemic impacted on our work cannot be summarised so easily, because its effects were multifaceted.

    How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated GBV in Austria, and how has civil society reacted to this?

    Studies have shown that all types of violence against women and girls intensified during the pandemic. Political measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 affected women and girls in specific ways: financial worries, movement restrictions, often cramped living conditions and – in cases of domestic violence – isolation in close quarters with abusers all made the situation especially dire for many women and girls.

    It is important to note that the pandemic has also affected many people’s psychological health. Only the future will show the pandemic’s long-term effects on a social level. Unfortunately, times of crisis have rarely proven to be a catalyst for gender equality.

    What is key for achieving equality and social justice is an active civil society. Civil society gives a public voice to those who are often not heard. During the pandemic, CSOs have pointed out how the crisis affected the most vulnerable groups in society. They have continued to offer advice and support to those who need it and have developed new offers to address pandemic-induced economic and psychological stress.

    Counselling centres for women and girls play a special role in protection from GBV. We can recognise violence early on and in cases where it is hidden behind other problems. Even – and especially – in times of crisis such as this, counselling centres are crucial contact points for women and girls.

    CSOs have always been key figures in advocating for gender and social equality in Austria, and will certainly continue to do it in the aftermath of the pandemic.

    What should the Austrian government do to curb GBV?

    Austria ratified the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence – in 2013. Since then, its implementation has been evaluated by the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO). In its evaluation report, GREVIO has included many CSO demands. Full implementation of the Istanbul Convention would be a milestone in the elimination of GBV.

    One of the most important political steps would be an increase in funding for CSOs working in the field. Due to the ongoing crisis and the increased need for advice, women’s and girls’ counselling centres need more support. There is often no long-term funding that can ensure CSO sustainability, only project-based funding. This does not allow for long-term actions and makes planning difficult.

    Furthermore, the knowhow and wide experience of women’s CSOs should be considered and included to a higher degree when it comes to policy-making at the national and regional levels. The government should make use of and rely on the expertise of women’s organisations and the long-existing services they built when planning new measures or setting up new institutions.

    Further research on the specific situation of young women and girls should be conducted so that their needs are taken into consideration when new measures are designed.

    The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How have you organised around it in the communities you work with?

    The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls works 365 days a year to create a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination, by offering counselling for women and girls in difficult situations; by making sexism, gender stereotypes and GBV a political issue; by advocating for women’s and girls’ rights on a daily basis; by developing training programmes, quality standards and working documents; by connecting feminist CSOs and by positioning ourselves as experts for the issue of gender equality. Our aim is to improve the living conditions of all women and girls living in Austria.

    Due to the pandemic, we have not organised an event on 8 March, but some of our member organisations have planned events and we are joining the International Women’s Day protest in Vienna.

    Civic space in Austria is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls through itswebsite ofFacebook page, and follow it onInstagram. 

     

  • BANGLADESH: “To address rape we need a thorough reform of the legal system”

    CIVICUS speaks to Aparajita Sangita, a Bangladeshi human rights activist and an international award-winning independent filmmaker. Aparajita has worked on several films on discrimination against women and women’s rights and has been involved in various social activities including street children’s education and food banking. In response to her activism, she has been harassed by the police. She was also sued for harassment under the draconian Digital Security Act for her online activism. The case was withdrawn in the wake of widespread protests on the streets and online.

    Aparajita Sangita

    What triggered the recent anti-rape protests in Bangladesh?

    On the evening of 5 January 2020, a student at Dhaka University (DU) was raped after getting off a university bus in the Kurmitola area of the capital, Dhaka. DU students were disturbed by this incident, which led to protests and the organisation of several other events.

    Despite widespread protests against the rape, sexual violence against women persisted and even increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    On 25 September, a woman who was visiting MC College in Sylhet with her husband was raped in a hostel on campus by political activists linked to the ruling party. As protests erupted over this, a video of a woman being abused in Begumganj, Noakhali on 4 October went viral on social media. The video clip showed a group of men entering the woman’s house, stripping her naked and physically assaulting her, while capturing it all on video.

    These incidents are just a few of the numerous cases of rape and sexual violence against women that have been circulating on social media in Bangladesh. The perpetrators of this violence include fathers, close relatives, law enforcement officials, public representatives, political leaders and religious actors.

    All of this led to the mass anti-rape protests of October 2020, when people from all over the country came together to protest against violence against women. The anti-rape protest movement started in Shahbag, known as the ‘Movement Square of Bangladesh’, but soon spread to every city, even villages, across Bangladesh. This includes Bogra, Brahminbaria, Champainababganj, Chandpur, Dhamirhat (Nowgaon), Faridpur, Gafargaon (Mymensingh), Gopalganj, Jaipurhat, Kurigram, Manikganj, Noakhali, Panchgarh, Rajshahi, Satkhira and Syedpur (Nilphamari).

    People from different walks of life, including members of political parties, writers, cultural activists, online activists, national cricket team players, women’s rights activists and journalists, converged in the anti-rape protest movement. For the first time in Bangladesh, women marched against rape in the middle of the night. In Dhaka, they marched from Shahbag to Parliament House, carrying torches and shouting slogans.

    What were protesters’ main demands?

    The anti-rape protest movement raised nine demands to stop rape and sexual violence. They included the introduction of exemplary punishment for those involved in rape and violence against women across Bangladesh and the immediate removal of the home minister who had failed to deliver justice.

    Protesters also demanded an end to all sexual and social abuse of tribal women; the establishment of a committee to prevent sexual harassment of women in all government and private organisations as well as in educational institutions, following High Court orders; and the full implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). They also urged the abolition of laws and practices that create inequality towards women.

    Other calls included putting a stop to the mental harassment of victims during investigations and ensuring their legal and social security, the inclusion of crime and gender experts in Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunals, and the establishment of more tribunals to ensure the quick processing of cases.

    Finally, they urged the amendment of Section 155(4) and other relevant sections of the Evidence Act to end the admissibility of character evidence of complainants in rape trials and the elimination from textbooks of all materials deemed defamatory of women or depicting them as inferior.

    How did the authorities respond to the protests?

    On 6 October, protesters marched from Shahbag to the Prime Minister’s Office with black flags but were stopped by the police at the Hotel Intercontinental Junction. Several leaders and activists of a left-wing student body were injured by the police.

    In addition, a section of a statement issued by the police headquarters on 10 October attempted to vilify the protesters. It stated that “vested quarters” were trying to use the protest “to serve their interests” by undermining law and order and “creating social chaos.” The police warned protesters to avoid any “anti-state activities” and announced that the police were committed to ensuring internal peace and order at all costs. This statement caused panic among protesters, who feared a crackdown.

    Besides facing police repression, several women activists, including the leader of the Left Students’ Association, who participated in the anti-rape movement, were threatened with rape over the phone and on Facebook Messenger. Some of the activists were also threatened with criminal cases.

    What has happened to the movement since? Has the campaign stopped?

    After the protests against rape and sexual assault spread across the country, the Women and Children Repression Prevention Law was amended. The death sentence was imposed as the most severe punishment for rape. Previously, the maximum punishment for rape in Bangladesh was life imprisonment. The death penalty was only applied in cases of gang rape, or rape that resulted in the victim’s death.

    Following this the protests halted, as many thought that the death penalty would see a reduction in rape crimes. However, many women’s rights campaigners insist the death penalty is not the answer and demand a thorough reform of the legal system and more education to address what they say is an epidemic of violence against women in Bangladesh.

    What can the international community support the movement?

    In the wake of the various cases of sexual violence and rape committed against women, we have seen an important protest movement emerge within the country. However, some protesters and activists have faced threats when they have raised their voices. The solidarity of the international community is essential for those protesting against human rights violations and making fair claims.

    Bangladesh is an extremely patriarchal society, and there have been numerous attempts to restrict women’s lives and voices for years. Rape is an expression of this environment. It is a fundamental right for a woman to live in safety and it is the responsibility of all citizens, as well as the international community, to ensure this right.

    Civic space inBangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

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