women's rights

 

  • IRAQ: ‘We've submitted many bills, but parliament refuses to adopt a law against GBV’

    CIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequalities and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Iraqi women and girls with Alyaa Al Ansari, executive director of Bent Al-Rafedain Organisation (BROB).

    Founded in Iraq’s southern Babylon province in 2005, BROB is a feminist civil society organisation (CSO) that works to ensure the protection of women and children and promotes women’s integration in all spheres of society. Since its foundation, BROB has extended its activities to eight provinces across Iraq. 

    Alyaa Al Ansari

    How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on women and girls in Iraq?

    The pandemic has affected many different groups of Iraqi society, but women and girls have been the most affected of all. Since before the pandemic, Iraqi women were socially compelled to have the biggest share of care responsibilities within their families: they are the main caregivers for children and older people. When a full lockdown was imposed in Iraq for four months, these responsibilities grew even more.

    Additionally, many women were financially affected as the pandemic swept away countless businesses, including hotels, restaurants and shops, because they lost their jobs in the private sector. Without a stable income, their families suffered, particularly when they were the family’s main breadwinner.

    The situation was even worse for female healthcare professionals. Some of them made the tough decision to remain separate from their families for a prolonged period to avoid spreading the virus to their family members. Further, the government did not issue any additional regulations on the working conditions of pregnant medical staff during the pandemic. They too were forced to continue working and risk their lives and those of their unborn children; several of them miscarried.

    Another dramatic effect of the full lockdown was the spike in domestic violence. For four long months, abused women had no way out. They had to continue to live under the same roof with their abusers. There were more femicides and more attempted suicides were reported as some women could not bear the pressure and the violence they were subjected to.

    How has civil society, and BROB in particular, responded to the devastating impacts of the pandemic on women?

    During the pandemic, civil society efforts focused on providing humanitarian aid to affected women and their families. For instance, charity organisations covered essential needs of poor families and helped women who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

    As for feminist CSOs, some set up online programmes to provide psychological support. Other organisations shifted their face-to-face activities online and took to social media platforms such as Facebook to reach women who had to stay at home for unusually long periods. BROB’s phone number was posted across social media platforms, so women and families who needed urgent help were able to reach us.

    Fortunately, BROB staff were able to continue to work at full capacity during the pandemic. We had freedom of movement once the Iraqi authorities issued permits allowing us to circulate during curfew in the eight provinces where we work. They gave us permission because we were providing essential services to families under lockdown. For instance, our team was distributing food supplies twice a month. 

    We maintained our social and psychological support programme for women but we moved it fully online via mobile and communications apps such as WhatsApp. Remote work is one of the new tactics we adopted during the pandemic. Our staff was creative and developed several new tactics we had never thought of before the pandemic, which allowed us to meet the urgent needs of women and their families.

    Financially, BROB sustained its activities through donations from members as well as from the local community. Moreover, as public health institutions were struggling and the Ministry of Health was overwhelmed, we crowdfunded and sought donations to acquire additional medical equipment for the public health sector. This was a successful campaign that could have the positive side effect of strengthening the relationship between civil society and government institutions in the public health sector.

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Iraq and how is civil society working to make change happen?

    There are many relevant issues, but the one that if adequately tackled would make the most meaningful change in the lives of Iraqi women is that of gender-based violence (GBV). There is an urgent need for a law criminalising domestic violence in Iraq. CSOs have advocated for this for more than a decade. They have submitted several bills, but parliament has so far refused to discuss and adopt a law to protect women, girls and families from violence.

    Given the importance of such legislation in promoting and protecting women’s rights at the national level, we will continue to put pressure on decision-makers through advocacy and campaigns combined with media support.

    It is also key to change current laws that are unequal and unfair to provide women much-needed legal protection. Personal status laws in particular contain articles that discriminate against women in terms of the rights they recognise or don’t recognise, and the obligations and penalties they impose.

    At the very least, Iraq should have laws to guarantee equal access to education, healthcare and public services overall. Such laws will contribute to gender equality as they become an integral part of the Iraqi legislative system. A law criminalising incitement of violence against women in the media and by religious leaders is also very much needed.

    To make change happen, CSOs will continue raising awareness on gender equality, advocating with decision-makers, orchestrating public opinion campaigns, fighting legal battles and fostering leadership capabilities among women and girls. It is mostly up to us, because when it comes to official response, decision-makers do nothing besides issuing positive press releases to capitalise on CSO campaigns. 

    The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How did you organise around it?

    Most of our projects have always focused on breaking the bias to combat gender inequalities. Every year we plan events on IWD to shed light on an issue that is critical to local communities. In 2019, for instance, we celebrated disabled sportswomen in Babylon province and supported their training programmes.

    As usual, there are plenty of urgent issues this year, but we decided to focus on discrimination in the workplace, in both the private and the public sector. Women deserve safe and fair working conditions everywhere.

    Civic space in Iraq is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Bent Al-Rafedain Organisation through its website orFacebook page. 

     

  • LEBANON: ‘Abuses against women are the direct product of the gender imbalances of a patriarchal society’

    Ghida AnaniCIVICUS speaks about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Iraqi women and girls and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequalities in Lebanon with Ghida Anani, founder and director of ABAAD – Resource Centre for Gender Equality.

    ABAAD is a women-led civil society organisation (CSO) that strives for gender equality as a key condition for sustainable social and economic development in the Middle East and North Africa. Its work is organised around three pillars: providing direct services, building capacity and developing resources, and advocating for policy reform.

    How has COVID-19 impacted on women and girls in Lebanon?

    Even before the pandemic, women and girls in Lebanon suffered from a vicious cycle of gender-based violence (GBV) and discrimination that deprived them of the opportunity to participate meaningfully in social, economic and political life.

    Most of the abuses and discriminatory acts experienced by women and girls in Lebanon are the direct product of imbalances between women and men in the patriarchal Lebanese society, which are codified into law. Domestic violence is a longstanding problem due to deeply engrained gender social norms that permeate the entire societal system, policies and legislation. So far the government has failed to recognise and therefore address the problem and has not allocated dedicated resources to tackle GBV.

    COVID-19 lockdowns and the ensuing economic downturn did nothing but exacerbate already existing GBV risks both at home and in public spaces. Self-isolation, misuse of power, heightened tensions, financial uncertainties and the disruption of life-saving services were key factors that worsened the situation.

    During the pandemic, ABAAD noticed an increase in the severity of the violence women were subjected to at home. Some women reached out to tell us they were struggling with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. At least two women said they had received death threats from family members after showing flu-like symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection.

    How has civil society in general, and ABAAD in particular, responded to this situation?

    Since the initial stages of the outbreak, we put together a response to ensure the continuity of life-saving services. We prioritised the best interests of rights-holders by putting them at the centre of the response.

    We had to suspend some in-person activities, such as outreach, community events and awareness and training sessions. But on the positive side, our focus on maintaining life-saving services helped us develop new internal case management guidelines for crisis counselling and emergency support services by phone, along with face-to-face services for high-risk cases.

    We also provided community-based awareness sessions on COVID-19 and psychosocial support sessions via conference calls and WhatsApp groups. Our helpline continued to function 24/7, including for services provided by ABAAD’s Emergency Temporary Safe Shelters across the country and its Men Centre. Moreover, as the three safe shelters operated by ABAAD were at full capacity, we worked to create additional capacity by renting new spaces. 

    We led several campaigns, such as #LockdownNotLockup and #TheRealTest, to fight the stigma surrounding COVID-19, show solidarity with women and let them know that they were not alone. We also worked closely with relevant ministries, United Nations (UN) agencies and CSOs to advocate for enhanced-quality coordinated response at a national level. In partnership with the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, we recently launched a series of workshops about national mechanisms to report GBV and special units dedicated to supporting survivors.

    On International Women’s Day, we held digital activism activities and sessions for women and girls through ABAAD’s Women and Girls Safe Spaces. There are 23 such centres across Lebanon, providing a safe, non-stigmatising environment for women and girl survivors of GBV and their children to receive comprehensive and holistic care services.

    How is civil society working to bring women’s rights concerns into the policy agenda?

    Civil society is working hard to bring gender equality to the top of the policy agenda. As Lebanon approaches its first parliamentary election following the popular uprising of late 2019, Lebanon’s Feminist Civil Society Platform, a group of 52 feminist CSOs and activists first convened by UN Women in the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut explosion, has launched a series of demands for candidates running for parliament to commit to achieving gender equality goals.

    Our statement to future members of parliament details the laws that need to be reconsidered from a gendered perspective, including various laws to criminalise sexual violence in the Lebanese Penal Code. This is a demand that CSOs have long advocated for.

    Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS monitor.
    Get in touch with ABAAD through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@AbaadMENA on Twitter. 

     

  • LEBANON: ‘Change begins by handing over the mic to grassroots feminist organisations’

    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, 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 and the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) speak to Hayat Mirshad, a feminist journalist and activist and head of communications and campaigning withThe Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering (RDFL), a feminist and secular civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for women’s rights. Founded in 1976 and based on volunteerism, RDFL is one of the oldest feminist organisations in Lebanon. It advocates for the elimination of gender-based violence (GBV) and all forms of discrimination and seeks to achieve full citizenship for women. It has held many successful campaigns, including the #NotBefore18 campaign, launched in 2017, which led to the Lebanese parliament introducing a bill, currently under parliamentary consideration, to set the minimum age of marriage at 18.

    HayatMirshad

     

  • LEBANON: ‘This crisis should be handled with a feminist vision’

    CIVICUS speaks to Lina Abou Habib, a feminist activist based in Beirut, Lebanon, about the civil society response to the emergency caused by the explosion on 4 August 2020. Lina teaches Global Feminisms at the American University of Beirut, where she is affiliated with the Asfari Institute, and chairs the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action, a regional feminist organisation working in the Middle East and North Africa. She also serves on the board of Gender at Work and as a strategic Middle East and North Africa advisor for the Global Fund for Women.

    Lina Abou Habib

    Would you tell us about the moment of the explosion?

    The Beirut explosion happened on 4 August 2020, at around 18:10 Beirut time. I was at home and I had known for an hour that there was a huge fire at the Beirut port. When the fire started getting bigger the sky was blackened by fumes. I was looking out, and the first thing I felt was a very scary earthquake-like feeling, after which it took a split second for a huge explosion to happen. Glass shattered all around me. It took me a couple of minutes to understand what had just happened. The first thing everyone was call our family and close friends just to make sure that they were okay. Everybody was in a state of disbelief. The explosion was so powerful that each one of us felt like it had happened right next to us.

    What was civil society’s immediate response?

    It is important to note that alongside the civil society response there was also an individual response. Individuals took to the streets in an attempt to help others. Nobody trusted that the state would help in any way. The state was responsible for what had happened. People took the responsibility for helping each other, which meant addressing immediate problems such as clearing rubble from the streets and talking to people to find out what they needed, including shelter and food. About 300,000 people had become homeless and lost everything in a split second. There was an extraordinary reaction by ordinary people to help: people with brooms and shovels started clearing rubble and distributing food and water. Anger turned into solidarity.

    This was an amazingly empowering moment that still continues. As we speak, there are volunteers and civil society organisations (CSOs) who are basically holding the fort and not only engaging in immediate relief but also providing all sorts of support to distressed populations.

    However, these acts of solidarity and care have also been criticised. The main criticism has been that such acts are unhelpful because they relieve the state from fulfilling its obligations and performing its duties. I understand this critique, but I don’t agree with it. To me, the acts of solidarity performed by civil society and ordinary people were our main success stories: stories of power and resistance that we should talk about. We need to highlight the immediate response provided individually by people who themselves had been hurt or had lost a lot. Migrant worker communities, who live in dire conditions of exploitation, racism and abuse, went out there to clear the rubble and help others. I don’t think we should ignore the significance of these acts of solidarity.

    Lebanon was already undergoing deep economic crisis, which was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the explosion. Which groups were impacted upon the most?

    The worst effects were felt by those who were already in the most vulnerable situations. A clear example of multiple forms of discrimination overlapping and reinforcing one another is the situation of female migrant workers in Lebanon. This is not new; this situation is decades old. First, migrant women work in the private sphere, which makes them even more invisible and vulnerable. Second, there are absolutely no rules that need to be followed to hire them, so they are basically at the mercy of their employers. They are kept in quasi-slavery conditions based on so-called ‘sponsorship contracts’. The air that they breathe is dependent on the will of their employers and they are completely bound to them. In sum, this is a population of women from poor countries of the global south who work as domestic workers and caregivers, positions that make them incredibly vulnerable to abuse. There are no laws that protect them and that has always been the case. Therefore, they are the ones left behind when there is a security issue or a political crisis.

    Three consecutive events have affected their situation. The first is the revolution that started on 17 October 2019, an incredibly important moment that was the culmination of years of activism, including by women migrant workers, who were supported, nurtured and mentored by young Lebanese feminists. As a result, in the midst of the revolution there were migrant workers who revolted against the sponsorship system, which deprives them of their humanity and exposes them to working conditions that amount to slavery, and demanded dignified work and a dignified life.

    And then there were the economic breakdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, both of which hit as the protests were still ongoing. As a result of the economic crunch, some people choose to not pay their migrant and domestic workers’ salaries, or even worst, simply disposed of them on the streets during the pandemic.

    And then the Beirut port explosion happened, which again affected migrant workers in particular. It was a succession of crises that hit migrant workers first and foremost, and particularly women, because they were already in precarious conditions in which they were abused, their labour taken for granted and then thrown away on the streets, forgotten by their embassies and ignored by the Lebanese government. 

    As an activist and a feminist, how do you view the government response to the explosion?

    There hasn’t been any responsible government response. I would not even call what we have a government, but rather a regime. It is a corrupt dictatorship, an authoritarian regime that continues to pretend to be democratic and even progressive. The regime says it embodies reforms, but it never follows through. For instance, 10 days into the revolution, in October 2019, the president addressed the nation and promised an egalitarian civil family law, which feminist activists have been demanding for decades. This came as a surprise, but it turned out that it wasn’t serious, as nothing has been done about it. The authorities just say whatever they think people want to hear, and they seem to be convinced that the public is too ignorant to notice.

    So we need to position the response to the explosion against the background of the recent uprising. The government’s response to the revolution has been to not acknowledge the problems that people were pointing at: that it had emptied the public coffers, that it continued to exercise nepotism and corruption and, worst of all, that it was dismantling public institutions. The only government response has been to close the space for civil society and attack the freedoms of association and expression and the right to protest. I’ve lived in this country for most of my life, including through the civil war, and I think there hasn’t been a crackdown on freedoms of the magnitude we are seeing right now under this regime. We have never witnessed people being summoned by the police or general security because of something they said or posted on social media. This is exactly what the regime is doing and continues to do. The president is acting as if there was a lèse-majesté law and is not accepting any criticism; people who criticise him are paying with their freedom. It is the first time we hear about activists being detained for this reason.

    In short, the regime hasn’t done anything significant in response to the explosion. Sending the army to distribute food aid packets is in no way significant. They are even refusing to give food aid items to non-Lebanese people who were affected. This exposes the various layers of corruption, bigotry and mismanagement that are at interplay here.

    Following the explosion, people took to the streets again to protest. Do you think protests have made an impact?

    On the Saturday following the explosion there were people protesting on the streets. I was there and I was scared because of the deployment of violence by the security forces.

    In the face of so many calamities, the only reason why people are not massively on the streets is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been a gift for the regime. It has imposed curfews, broke up the tents set up by the revolutionaries at Martyrs’ Square and arrested and detained people, all under the guise of wanting to protect people from the virus. But of course, nobody is duped. The levels of contagion are increasing rather than decreasing. It doesn’t help that the regime is so corrupt that we basically don’t have any functioning health services.

    The constraints created by the pandemic and the fears for one’s health are seriously limiting people’s actions against the regime, but I don’t think this is going to stop the revolution. People have had enough. People have lost everything. And when you push people’s backs to the wall, there is nowhere else to go but forward. The regime will continue to use brutal force, it will continue to lie and mismanage funds and resources, but this is becoming totally unacceptable to an increasingly larger proportion of the population.

    I believe that street mobilisation has been successful on several levels. One can disagree and point out that the regime is still in power, and this may be true; it will take a long time for it to fall. But one immediate success of the protests is that they shattered a taboo. There was a kind of halo or sanctity around certain leaders who were believed to be untouchable. Now it's obvious that they don’t enjoy that protection any longer. Although the regime is not ready to concede, they are just buying themselves some time.

    The way I see it, a major gain has been the leadership role played by feminist groups in shaping the country that we want, the rights and entitlements we are claiming and the form of government that we want. Alongside 40 feminist organisations we have released a charter of demands. We put our heads together and have stated what humanitarian reconstruction needs to look like from a feminist perspective and are using this as an advocacy tool for the international community. The way we are intervening indicates that this crisis should be handled with a feminist vision.

    Additionally, for the first time the LGBTQI+ community has been part and parcel in shaping the reform process, the transition process and again shaping the country we want, regarding both the form of state and human relations. And the voice of the migrant community has been amplified as well. To me, these gains are irreversible.

    What support does civil society in Beirut and Lebanon need from the international community?

    There are a number of things that need to be done. First, we need tangible forms of solidarity in terms of communications to amplify our voice. Second, we need to lobby the international community on behalf of the Lebanese feminist movement so that the Lebanese regime is held accountable for every cent it receives. To give an example, we received about 1,700 kilograms of tea from Sri Lanka, and the tea has disappeared; it appears that the president distributed it among the presidential guards. We need influence and pressure from the international community to hold this regime accountable. Third, we need to bring these voices to the attention of international mainstream media.

    I want to emphasise the point that international aid should not be without conditions, as the ruling regime lacks transparency and accountability. Of course it is not up to civil society to rebuild, or to reconstruct the infrastructure. But if any cent has to go to the regime, then it must be given with conditionalities of transparency, accountability and due diligence. Civil society must be empowered to play a watchdog role. This means that CSOs must have the voice and the tools for monitoring. Otherwise nothing is going to change. International aid will vanish; it will only help the regime prolong its rule while the city remains in ruins.

    Civic space in Lebanon is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action through itswebpage, and follow@LinaAH1 on Twitter.

     

  • LEBANON: ‘This election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights’

    Lina Abou HabibCIVICUS speaks about the recent general elections in Lebanon with Lina Abou Habib, director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.

    The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.

    What change resulted from the 15 May general election?

    Despite taking place in an extremely complicated, uncertain and turbulent political and economic context, the process resulted in the election of many new independent candidates coming from civil society and calling for change. These new voices have political agendas that are very different from those of traditional ruling parties: they call for a new, more accountable governance system and for women’s rights, among other issues. These agendas include road maps for overcoming the ongoing deep economic crisis. And most importantly, they focus on how to stop the political race to the bottom that’s been happening in Lebanon.

    Most of the independent candidates who were elected are linked to the 17 October protests, the uprisings that took place in 2019, when people clearly said that they had enough of the political elite that had become – and continues to be – outrageously corrupt. The 17 October Revolution was a unique moment because protesters had such diverse, inclusive and feminist voices – feminist demands became an integral part of the political demands of the revolution. For instance, sexual harassment became a political issue because the voices of the LGBTQI+ community and migrant women domestic workers were also represented. No demand was compromised or put aside.

    By that time, it became clear to us what system of governance we aspired to. It must be based on equality, inclusion, diversity and respect for human rights. The revolution also gained momentum because the same thing was happening in Chile and other countries where people were rising up. Hence, I do not exaggerate when I say that the feminist voices of the 17 October Revolution inspired political participation in the 2022 election.

    It is important to note, however, that some independent members of the new parliament do not share the agenda of the 17 October Revolution and have quite regressive rhetoric. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Cynthia Zarazir called for the death of Syrian refugees on social media. Having people like her in parliament represents a new challenge. Aside from that, I would say that this election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights and pointing the way forward out of the current crisis.

    How did the feminist movement work collectively in preparation for the election?

    There was rallying behind feminist candidates such as Zoya Jureidini Rouhana, who pushes for an compulsory egalitarian family law, a top priority for Lebanon’s feminist movement. Rouhana is the founder of KAFA (‘enough’) Violence and Exploitation, a feminist civil society organisation that was behind several legal reforms in Lebanon. Moreover, it champions political discourse on gender-based violence. Her electoral campaign was in line with that. It is a rare moment when you have a feminist candidate running on a feminist agenda in a general election – and this was partly possible thanks to the voices that became heard in October 2019. The political movement took shape and gained more feminist voices during those uprisings.

    Feminists mobilising around the elections forced candidates to state their position on gender equality, including the rights of the queer community. In return, independent candidates who sided with gender equality were attacked by the regime and conservative forces. One way for government officials and supporters to disparage and attack somebody is to say they are going to endanger the family. This is very unfortunate, but at the same time, it is fantastic that this important conversation is taking place in the public sphere and these issues are being discussed as part of the overall social and political dialogue.

    In sum, the inclusive and intersectional feminist movement of Lebanon has succeeded in elevating feminist discourse to the public and political arena. But there is still a long way to go: the new parliament includes only two additional female members compared to the previous one, as only eight women were elected, out of 115 candidates nominated by traditional parties, opposition groups, and civil society. These results are still lacking in terms of reaching a critical mass to exercise feminist influence in parliament.

    What’s next for the civil society movement following the election?

    The real battle is just about to begin. The election showed that change is possible, but it is still not enough. The next step for us is to figure out how we will hold independent members of parliament accountable. They must be accountable because they won as a result of our collective movement.

    We will still be facing a corrupt and oppressive regime and serious issues such as illegal arms and a heavily militarised society, economic downfall, destroyed livelihoods, broken public institutions and irresponsible and unaccountable policymaking. As such, civil society in its diversity, and especially the intersectional feminist movement, should remain vigilant.

    The conversation we started must continue, and we need our international allies to help keep it going, and certainly not be complicit with the regime. We have a collective responsibility to monitor human rights violations, talk to feminist activists and help amplify the voices of Lebanon’s intersectional young feminists.

    Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS monitor.
    Get in touch with the Asfari Institute through itswebsite and follow@AsfariInstitute on Twitter.

     

  • MALAWI: ‘Girls need protection against COVID-19, and against endemic violations of their rights’

    CIVICUS speaks with Ephraim Chimwaza, Executive Director of the Centre for Social Concern and Development (CESOCODE), a Malawian reproductive health and women’s rights civil society organisation (CSO). CESOCODE works to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence (GBV) against adolescent girls and young women and to promote their human rights and wellbeing through advocacy, research, education, training and the provision of basic reproductive health services. 

    Ephraim Chimwaza picture

    What is the situation of young women and girls in Malawi?

    In Malawi, half the population lives below the poverty line. Girls face more obstacles than boys in accessing education and job opportunities, and many girls don’t know their legal rights. Lack of access to opportunities also drives child marriage, which is another major factor that hinders the rights of girls.

    Malawi has committed to eliminating child, early and forced marriage by 2030 in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals, and has also ratified several international instruments to that end, but still, 42 per cent of girls in Malawi are married before the age of 18 and almost 10 per cent are married before they turn 15. Among some ethnic groups, arranged marriages are commonly used to create alliances between families. Throughout the country, poorer families often marry off their daughters to reduce their financial burden or in an attempt to offer them a chance at better life. In other cases, they marry them off if they get pregnant, to avoid bringing dishonour to their families. Some parents in desperate situations also force their daughters to have sex in exchange for money or food.

    Violence against young women and adolescent girls is commonplace. One in four girls has experienced recent violence by a partner, but few seek help. Social acceptance of sexual and other forms of violence against women and girls is pervasive, even among young people. Not surprisingly, adolescent girls continue to bear the brunt of the HIV epidemic. The number of girls aged 10 to 19 years who are living with HIV is on the rise, as adolescent girls account for nearly three in four of new infections. 

    How do you help address these challenges?

    We have been active since 2009, focusing on promoting girls’ rights and specifically on ending child marriage. To that end, we work with communities and their leaders to encourage girls to stay in school.  We offer girls a safe space to access sexual and reproductive healthcare, and we provide counselling to girls who are affected by GBV.

    We are also members of a global initiative called Girls Not Brides, which includes more than 1,300 CSOs from over 100 countries committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential by increasing access to health, education and opportunities. Through that partnership, we bring child marriage and related violations of girls’ rights to global attention, contribute to building an understanding of the issues and call for changes in laws, policies and programmes that will make a difference in the lives of millions of girls.

    How has the COVID-19 pandemic specifically impacted on girls in Malawi, and how have you managed to continue your work?

    The COVID-19 pandemic is having a negative impact on girls in Malawi. We are already seeing it in the communities that we serve. The social distancing measures imposed by the government have led to school closures. As health facilities and mobile clinics also suspended their operations, access to sexual and reproductive health services, which was already limited, decreased further. Under lockdown, cases of GBV and sexual abuse have increased, but reporting has decreased. Most girls are unable to go out and report GBV and have to keep living with their abusers and fearing for their lives.

    Our programmes and activities have been affected by the social distancing measures imposed by the government to diminish the risk of COVID-19 infection. We have been unable to conduct physical meetings with girls and provide them with vital services like condoms and contraceptives. Girls cannot move out from their homes to attend meetings, workshops or conferences, as all public gatherings have been banned to uphold social distancing.

    However, we have continued to reach out to girls through various means.

    First, we are reaching out through social media and mobile apps. We are using online platforms such as Facebook and mobile applications such as WhatsApp to disseminate messaging about public health and domestic violence prevention. We have developed a Bluetooth mobile-to-mobile messaging service, which allows us to check in with girls and for them to let us know if they are at risk. We have also produced a short podcast focusing on domestic violence against girls. This includes a version in sign language, so that we can ensure girls who are deaf or hard of hearing aren’t excluded.

    Second, we are using community radios and television to provide tailored messaging and talk show content to reach out to girls in their homes with GBV prevention messages. These also include sign language interpretation.

    Third, we continue our community engagement work, spreading messages via word of mouth or loudspeakers. We use our vehicle to drive around the communities and disseminate information about GBV prevention and the promotion of girls’ rights, including the prevention of child marriage.

    Fourth, we are distributing printed outreach material that lays out the dangers of violating the rights of girls and explains where to report violence against girls. We do this through flyers and brochures as well as by hanging posters in places where girls frequently pass by, such as shops, water kiosks and mini markets. These materials are always written in the local language and include pictures to make content easier to understand.

    As a result, we have been able to continue our work and we have not abandoned the girls who rely on us at a time when they may need us the most.

    What do you think is the key to the good results you obtained?

    I think there are three main factors that account for the good results that we have obtained.

    First, we have kept community leaders and other key stakeholders engaged with a policy of zero tolerance for GBV against girls. We conducted online meetings and shared podcast programming with relevant stakeholders who work with girls that teaches positive and healthy relationship skills to prevent violence against girls and promote reproductive health for girls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Second, we have identified low-cost tools to keep girls engaged and have continued to empower them during the pandemic. We have done this both by using new technologies where available and accessible, and by reaching out in other ways to girls in communities with no access to social media.

    Third, we have pushed for the integration of GBV prevention messaging into COVID-19 prevention materials for healthcare providers to reach out to girls and provide them with full support and protection – not just against the coronavirus but also against endemic violations of their rights.

    Civic space in Malawi is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Centre for Social Concern and Development through its Facebook page.

     

  • MEXICO: ‘Alliances, public debate & diversification of voices are indispensable in the struggle to expand rights’

    CIVICUS speaks with Verónica Esparza and Rebeca Lorea, respectively lawyer and researcher and Public Policy Advocacy Coordinator at Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE, Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida), about the significance of recent Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights, and sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico. GIRE is a feminist and human rights organisation that has been active for almost 30 years to ensure that women and others with the capacity to bear children can exercise their reproductive rights.

    Veronica Esparza y Rebeca Lorea From left to right: Verónica Esparza & Rebeca Lorea

    What is the situation of sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico?

    Currently, women and other people with the capacity to bear children do not find optimal conditions in Mexico to decide about their reproductive life: there are a high number of pregnant girls and adolescents, affected by a serious context of sexual violence that the state continues to fail to remedy; obstacles to access services such as emergency contraception and abortion in cases of rape; the criminalisation of women and other pregnant people who have abortions; daily obstetric violence during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum; and women who die in childbirth from preventable causes.

    The structural failures of the health system are compounded by the fact that the majority of people in Mexico are employed in the informal sector, which limits their access to social security and therefore to benefits such as maternity leave and childcare. Women, who continue to play the biggest role in household and care work, bear the brunt of this lack of access to services, which particularly affects those who experience multiple discriminations, such as girls and adolescents, Indigenous women and people with disabilities.

    What does GIRE understand reproductive justice to mean, and how do you work to advance it?

    GIRE understands reproductive justice as the set of social, political and economic factors that give women and others who can get pregnant power and self-determination over their reproductive life. To achieve this, it is essential for the state to guarantee these people’s human rights, taking into account the discrimination and structural inequalities that affect their health, rights and control over their lives, and for it to generate optimal conditions for autonomous decision-making.

    It is no longer sufficient to understand reproductive rights in terms of legally defined individual freedoms, while ignoring the barriers that limit the effective access of certain populations to these rights. Reproductive justice is a more inclusive analytical framework because it links reproductive rights to the social, political and economic inequalities that affect people’s ability to access reproductive health services and effectively exercise their reproductive rights.

    GIRE has worked for almost 30 years to defend and promote reproductive justice in Mexico, making visible the normative and structural obstacles that women and others with the capacity to bear children face in fully exercising their human rights, and promoting change through a comprehensive strategy that includes legal support, communications, the demand for comprehensive reparation for violations of reproductive rights, including non-repetition guarantees at both the federal and local levels, and the collection of data to feed into our work.

    Our priority issues are contraception, abortion, obstetric violence, maternal death, assisted reproduction and work-life balance. While we focus on sex and gender discrimination faced by women and girls in Mexico, our quest for reproductive justice recognises that these variables intersect with other forms of discrimination, such as class, age, disability and ethnicity. In addition, we recognise that the discrimination faced by women and others with reproductive capacity affects not only them, but also their communities, and particularly their families.

    What is the significance of the two recent Supreme Court rulings on reproductive rights?

    In the struggle for legal, safe and free abortion in Mexico, the National Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) has played a fundamental role. Since 2007 it has issued several rulings recognising access to abortion as a human rights matter.

    In April 2018, the SCJN granted amparos – constitutional protection lawsuits – to two young female rape victims in cases that GIRE had brought forward. The two women had been denied abortions by public health services in Morelos and Oaxaca despite the fact that this is a right for victims of sexual violence. The Court stated that this denial constituted a violation of the women’s human rights and that health authorities are obliged to respond immediately and efficiently to these requests, so as not to allow the consequences of the rape to continue over time. This implies that health authorities cannot implement internal mechanisms or policies that hinder or delay the realisation of this right. With these rulings, the SCJN reaffirmed the legal obligation of health service providers to guarantee access to abortion in cases of rape.

    On 15 May 2019, in another case promoted by GIRE, the SCJN granted an amparo to a woman who had been denied an abortion despite the fact that continuing her pregnancy could cause her serious health complications. With this ruling, the SCJN recognised that the right to health includes access to abortion and ruled on the particular reproductive health service needs of women, highlighting the serious consequences of denial of termination of pregnancy for health reasons.

    On 7 July 2021, the First Chamber of the SCJN ruled on another case joined by GIRE, of a young woman with cerebral palsy and severe limitations on her ability to carry out tasks essential to daily life, which were aggravated by a precarious economic environment. As a result of a seizure, her family had taken her to a hospital in Chiapas, where they were informed that she was 23 weeks pregnant. The pregnancy had been the result of rape when she was 17 years old. A request was made to terminate the pregnancy, but the hospital director rejected the request on the grounds that the 90-day gestation deadline established by the state penal code had passed. The SCJN pointed out that this time limit ignored the nature of sexual aggression and its consequences on women’s health, and reflected a total disregard for the human dignity and autonomy of a woman whose pregnancy, far from the result of a free and consensual decision, was the result of an arbitrary and violent act.

    Finally, in September 2021, the Plenary of the SCJN analysed two pieces of legislation that had a negative impact on the right to choose by women and others with the capacity to become pregnant. First, it analysed an action of unconstitutionality (148/2017) on the criminal legislation of the state of Coahuila, which the Attorney General’s Office had considered to be in violation of women’s human rights for classifying abortion as a crime.

    In a landmark ruling, on 7 September the SCJN unanimously decided that the absolute criminalisation of abortion is unconstitutional; it became the first constitutional court in the region to issue such ruling. The SCJN pointed out that, although the product of pregnancy deserves protection that increases as the pregnancy progresses, this protection cannot disregard the rights of women and other pregnant persons to reproductive freedom, enshrined in article 4 of the Constitution. In other words, it ruled the absolute criminalisation of abortion to be unconstitutional.

    This ruling had several implications. Firstly, the Congress of the state of Coahuila will have to reform its criminal legislation to decriminalise consensual abortion. Secondly, it establishes a precedent, meaning that the central arguments of the ruling must now be applied by all judges in Mexico, both federal and local. From now on, when deciding future cases, they will have to consider as unconstitutional the criminal laws of all the federal entities that criminalise abortion in an absolute manner. In addition, the congresses of the states where voluntary abortion is still restricted and punished now have a set of criteria endorsed by the SCJN to act to decriminalise it.

    In the same week, the Court also analysed actions of unconstitutionality (106 and 107/2018) on the recognition of the ‘right to life from conception’ established in the Constitution of Sinaloa. These actions had been promoted by a legislative minority and the National Human Rights Commission. Unanimously, the SCJN considered that the states do not have the competence to define the origin of human life and the concepts of personhood and right-holding status, which is the exclusive domain of the National Constitution. Furthermore, it considered that personhood cannot be granted to an embryo or foetus and then be used as the basis for the adoption of measures restricting the reproductive autonomy of women and other pregnant persons; this is unconstitutional.

    Based on precedents set by both the Supreme Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the SCJN established that the main efforts of the state to protect life in gestation as a constitutionally valuable good should be directed towards effectively protecting the rights of women and other pregnant persons, guaranteeing the rights of those continuing pregnancies they desire, providing the necessary conditions for dignified births, without obstetric violence, and eradicating the causes that provoke maternal deaths.

    What are the prospects for achieving legal, safe and free abortion in all of Mexico in the near future?

    In Mexico as in the region, there have been several successes over the past decade in the struggle for access to legal, safe and free abortion, although many barriers and challenges persist.

    In our country strong stigma still prevails around abortion, based on the idea of motherhood as women’s inevitable fate. This idea continues to permeate all state institutions and laws, and forms the basis for not only the social but also the legal criminalisation of abortion, which particularly affects women and other pregnant persons living in situations of violence, economic marginalisation and lack of access to reproductive information. It also sends the strong message that the state plays a role in reproductive decisions that should belong to the private sphere.

    In most of Mexico, as in Latin America, voluntary abortion is still considered a crime. For decades, feminist activists, collectives and organisations have pushed for the repeal of these laws, pointing out that consensual abortion is part of the reproductive life of women and others with the capacity to bear children, and that criminalisation does not inhibit its practice but rather means that in certain contexts it will be carried out in an unsafe manner.

    From the 1970s onwards, Mexican feminists have raised the issue of access to abortion as a matter of social justice and public health and as a democratic aspiration. Despite the forcefulness of their arguments, it took 35 years to achieve – and only in Mexico City – the decriminalisation of abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. That victory was replicated more than a decade later in three states: Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Veracruz.

    In the short term, achieving decriminalisation at the national level is complicated because each of the 32 federal entities has its own penal code, so it would still be necessary for each state to reform its penal and health legislation to stop considering abortion as a crime and then recognise it as a health service and provide public institutions with the human and financial resources to ensure access.

    In practice, in recent years both the narrative and the reality of abortion in Mexico have changed due to the increasing prevalence of abortion pills. A few decades ago, clandestine abortion – that is, abortion performed outside the law – was considered to be synonymous with unsafe abortion, but this is no longer the case. Now there are safe abortion support networks, and in contexts of legal restriction, during the first weeks of pregnancy women and others with the capacity to gestate are able to have an abortion with pills at home, without the need to resort to a health institution.

    The victory of the Argentinian women’s movement in December 2020 has shown that alliances, public debate and the diversification of voices are indispensable in the struggle to expand rights. The exponential increase in safe abortion initiatives is an expression of the achievements of the women’s movement’s struggle for human rights and reproductive justice. The Green Wave, the movement whose distinctive colour became synonymous with the struggle for abortion rights in Argentina, has spread in Mexico and although access to legal, safe and free abortion throughout the country is still a long way off, in recent years the issue has started to be discussed in various legislative bodies, even in states with highly restrictive legal frameworks.

    What kind of additional support would Mexican civil society need from its peers in the region and globally to achieve its goals?

    Social support for the causes we feminist human rights organisations defend is indispensable to obtain achievements such as the SCJN ruling of 7 September 2021. The dissemination of our work and the amplification of our voices is also extremely valuable. Local, national and regional networking to share experiences and good practices has also proven to be a tool from which we all benefit. Similarly, connections with other struggles through reflecting about their intersections can strengthen human rights movements.

    Civic space in Mexico is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with GIRE through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@gire_mx on Twitter. 

     

  • MEXICO: ‘Violence against women is a historical pandemic’

    CIVICUS speaks with Wendy Figueroa, director of the Red Nacional de Refugios (National Network of Shelters), a Mexican civil society organisation (CSO) that has been active for more than 20 years. The National Network brings together 69 centres dedicated to the prevention, care and protection of victims of family and gender-based violence throughout Mexico. It carries out comprehensive, multidisciplinary and intersectoral work from a gender, human rights and multicultural perspective. It focuses on public policy advocacy, enhancing the visibility of the problem of family and gender-based violence through campaigns and a media presence, and providing free and specialised comprehensive care for women and their children who experience family and gender-based violence.

    Wendy Figueroa

    How has gender-based violence in Mexico been influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic?

    In Mexico, violence against women is a historic pandemic. It did not just emerge with COVID-19; what the pandemic has done is make the situation more apparent and profound during lockdown. The ‘stay home’ measures to mitigate COVID-19 mean that hundreds of women are in a situation of greater risk and vulnerability. Gender-based violence is magnified under the pandemic precisely because within lockdown, women are overloaded with care tasks, domestic work and the responsibility to optimise the resources available in their home: all of this, of course, while under pressure from the aggressor who lives with them.

    How has the National Network responded?

    We have reinforced the activities and interventions that we have been conducting for many years. What characterises the work of the National Network is that, although our work has been constant, our experience in approaches to prevent, attend to and eliminate violence against women, boys and girls has adapted and been enriched with time. These approaches are updated according to the needs of women, boys and girls – and so our responses in this period of lockdown have also been enriched and strengthened in several ways.

    First, the Network has a telephone helpline operating 24 hours a day throughout the year, and we also provide assistance through social media. We have strengthened these, increasing the number of professionals who provide care through these two communication spaces. We also implemented a WhatsApp number as we have seen that when more time is spent in lockdown, women in situations of abuse have fewer possibilities to make external contact. So, text or social media messages have become an extremely important vehicle for women to send us a message whenever they get the chance.

    In several cases, these messages have resulted in rescue operations. During confinement, women have had to leave at the first opportunity when their aggressor is not at home, and as a result rescues have increased exponentially. In just two months we have carried out 19 rescues, compared with just around one per month during the equivalent months in 2019. To achieve this, we have had to be creative and have established alliances with some private companies such as Avon and Uber to arrange logistics and transportation.

    Second, our information, awareness and prevention campaigns have focused on three moments that women who experience abuse go through, in order to share strategies of what to do before, during and after a violent event. We also share strategies to reduce risk situations with children at home and to establish safety plans. We have carried out an inclusive and multicultural campaign, with messages in sign language for deaf women, and messages for Indigenous women in three languages: Mayan, Náhuatl and Zapotec.

    Given that COVID-19 makes pre-existing forms of discrimination and inequalities deeper and more visible, and that women are to a greater degree in this situation of vulnerability, we have also created material aimed at society at large. We promote among the public the establishment of solidarity support networks to make gender-based violence and violence against children more visible, so that people can denounce situations of violence and participate in the construction of a zero-tolerance culture.

    Third, we have carried out the ‘isolation without violence’ campaign, aimed at the government, underscoring the urgency and necessity of creating cross-sectional, resourced public policies that address the consequences and impact of COVID-19 for women from gender, human rights and multicultural perspectives. As the quarantine is lifted, these polices must guarantee access to justice, health services and financial compensation, among other rights.

    Fourth, we have carried out specific actions within the shelters, emergency centres, transition houses and external centres that make up the Network, implementing protocols to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection. We have used our creativity to provide assistance through various digital platforms to keep accompanying all the women who take part in our comprehensive programmes. Attention hours within these spaces have been staggered and quarantine rooms established so that we can continue to take in the women and children who require support without any obstacle or discrimination due to COVID-19, as for us it is extremely important to put human rights at the core of our actions.

    We are seeking international and private sector funding to strengthen our network of emergency and transition houses. Emergency houses are the step prior to entering a shelter and we are currently using them to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection in shelters: instead of the usual three days, stays have been extended to last the 14 days of quarantine. As for transition houses, they are extremely important because they are the spaces available for women leaving shelters who lack a home or solid support networks. In these transitional spaces they put into practice the plans that they developed during their stay in the shelters and start moving towards independence. But as a result of the economic impacts of COVID-19, the employment agreements that we had for these women have been cancelled. In this context, transitional houses allow women to continue with their process and avoid frustration and re-victimisation.

    Have you faced additional restrictions on the freedoms to organise, speak up and mobilise during the pandemic?

    Generally speaking, of course there have been limitations on mobility as a result of the ‘stay home’ campaign. In response, we have channelled much of our assistance through social media and over the phone. But we have not neglected face-to-face care: there are some cities where we operate in which there is no alternative available to the external attention centre of the local CSO that belongs to the National Network, and in those cases we have continued to provide face-to-face assistance, while taking all necessary precautions to reduce the risk of contagion. We also continue operating and providing in-person care, where necessary, in all our protection spaces: emergency houses, shelters and transition houses. And we continue to mobilise when necessary.

    The freedom of assembly is limited, but it is not forbidden for us to take action in the face of femicides and other rights violations. We continue operating according to our model and on the basis of our guiding principles, namely human rights and women’s lives. We have reorganised to follow social distancing when possible but, above all, focusing on the needs of the families we assist.

    How has the feminist movement adapted when transitioning from mass protests to social isolation?

    We have transformed our ways of protesting, our ways of raising our voices, of joining together in sisterhood to seek justice, substantive equality and respect of all the rights of women and children. We have used digital platforms and technology to keep communicating, networking and proposing actions. Feminist movements did not go silent as COVID-19 arrived: through all these digital media and platforms we have held talks, webinars, solidarity meetings, encounters to express our feelings and exercise solidarity. We have held feminist exchanges to support our sisters’ economy and offer our professional services as psychologists, doctors and lawyers over social media.

    We have also continued making statements. We recently produced, along with 42 other feminist groups, a video that accompanies a letter that gathered over 6,000 signatures to demand that the Mexican federal government and the 32 state governments implement urgent and priority actions to guarantee the life and safety of all women, girls and boys in our country. In the face of the minimisation of violence against women, we launched the We Have Other Data campaign, which has had quite an impact. And we have also echoed the voices of the women who are victims of violence and have sought our help. So we are definitely and fully present and we will continue to be.

    What needs to change after the pandemic, and how can we work together to bring about that change?

    The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted all of our country’s underlying problems: those of an extremely unequal access to health, education, information, justice and rights restitution. From my perspective, the post-pandemic era can be a great opportunity to reengineer our systems of care, protection and security to ensure that everyone has both legal guarantees and actual opportunities to lead a life free of violence – and particularly those groups in a situation of greater vulnerability, including women, girls and boys, older people, migrants and people with disabilities.

    We need state policies that guarantee equal access to all rights for all people. These state policies need to have a designated budget. And they must be state-level policies rather than government policies because this is not a problem of the current administration – it is a historical problem. Government policies are typically dismantled every time the government changes, even in the case of affirmative action policies that are producing good results. This is why it is essential to move towards intersectoral state policy with a guaranteed budget. These must include gender, human rights and multicultural perspectives so that no one is left out. These policies must be the responsibility not just of the federal government, but also of our 32 states and of society itself, and of course of CSOs as well, so we can advance towards a society where sexist violence is not justified and normalised, as is unfortunately currently the case.

    All people in all sectors have to work to achieve cultural change, starting with ourselves to identify our own discriminatory acts and violent actions, as well as how we reproduce social mandates and naturalise violence. This is why I believe that change needs to take place at all levels before it is really possible to speak of a true transformation.

    What support does the National Network need from the international community?

    We need the international community to know the human rights regression that our country is going through. It is important for information to reach international organisations because the state of Mexico has signed and ratified the Convention of Belém do Pará (the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action, and it is in breach of all these conventions. Mexico has already received many international recommendations in this regard but is not addressing them with real actions.

    On the contrary, the government is often complicit in the violence. When they ignore and even deny that women experience violence in their homes and that this problem has increased during lockdown, the authorities do nothing but re-victimise the victims. Likewise, austerity policies are affecting programmes and communities. Since 2019 shelters have been in a regrettable, constant struggle to defend their budget, showing the benefits and impact they have on Mexican families. So we also need support in the form of donations to strengthen our national network and establish more emergency houses and transition houses, which play an extremely important role in closing the cycle of violence and delivering true citizenship and protection of human rights.

    Civic space in Mexico is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the National Network of Shelters through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@RNRoficial on Twitter.

     

  • More must be done to ensure women in civil society are protected

    Arabic

    Twenty-five years since the ratification of the Beijing Platform for Action, and a year since women across the world participated in the Women's Global Strike - gender justice is still not a reality for most women. Despite mass mobilisations globally with women at the forefront, and despite numerous campaigns and policy interventions orchestrated by women civil society leaders, activists and lawyers, women across the world struggle to achieve full equality.

     

  • More must be done to ensure women in civil society are protected

    CIVICUS' Chief Programmes Officer, Mandeep Tiwana, participated in the 65th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 65) intersessional dialogue on building alliances for women's full and effective participation in public life. Watch the discussion below:



    During CSW 65, 290 organisations call for protection of women's civic freedoms to enhance their role in public life

    Arabic

    Twenty-five years since the ratification of the Beijing Platform for Action, and a year since women across the world participated in the Women's Global Strike - gender justice is still not a reality for most women. Despite mass mobilisations globally with women at the forefront, and despite numerous campaigns and policy interventions orchestrated by women civil society leaders, activists and lawyers, women across the world struggle to achieve full equality.

     

  • NAMIBIA: ‘Protests against gender-based violence were triggered by collective hope’

    CIVICUS speaks to Bertha Tobias about the recent protests against femicide and gender-based violence (GBV) in Namibia. Bertha is a youth leader and an international award-winning debater. A graduate of the United World College Changshu China, she is currently pursuing her post-secondary education at Claremont Mckenna College in California. She was the recipient of a Go Make A Difference award, which supports the implementation of community development projects, and has been an active participant in women´s rights protests in Namibia.

    Bertha Tobias

    Can you tell us of how the #ShutItAllDown protests against GBV started and how you got involved?

    I got involved in the fight against GBV after news emerged that human remains had been discovered in a coastal town in Namibia. The remains were suspected to be those of Shannon Wasserfall, a young woman in her 20s who had gone missing in April 2020. This particular incident set off mass reactions. The release of the headline on the Twitter account of one of the major national news outlets spurred a lot of young people to action, to mobilise and organise ourselves to take to the streets. It injected urgency into the conversation around GBV and femicide in Namibia.

    This was not isolated case, as young Namibian women continuously go missing. But when this case emerged, it revived the national conversation. Somebody on Twitter rightfully stated that something needed to happen, something needed to change, and I responded to this and got involved from the beginning because this is something I care about deeply, as I strongly believe that women matter equally and fully.

    Together with other young people, we sent out emails, garnered the support we needed, and organised ourselves within less than 24 hours, mostly and primarily through social media. We made a flyer which was circulated widely, and people showed up to the protest. Young people took ownership and that was how it started. This was an example of both the power of the internet and the power of young people.

    If I remember correctly, on the first day of the protests, a newspaper reported that slightly over 800 people attended the protest, and all subsequent protests had hundreds of people. Both young women and men were involved: the protests were led predominantly by women, but young men were present in considerable numbers. What is important to note regarding the demographics of the protests is that it was mostly young people. It was young people attending meetings with officials, drafting petitions and speaking to the media. And it was young women who were at the forefront, with young men providing support.

    We believe that if young women in Namibia cannot walk to the shops to buy a carton of milk without fearing for their lives, then something is terribly wrong with us as a nation. The philosophy of #ShutItAllDown is quite radical: it means that everything needs to be brought to a standstill until we can re-evaluate what it is about Namibian systems of safety that is not working for Namibian women. Until we have answers to those questions, we do not believe it is right, healthy or in the best interest of anyone to continue doing business as usual. We don’t want economic activity of any sort to continue as usual if young women do not feel safe.

    From your perspective, what made #ShutItAllDown different from previous women’s rights protests in Namibia?

    There have been other protests for women’s rights in the past. In fact, earlier in 2020 we had a pro-choice protest that focused specifically on women’s sexual and reproductive health rights and advocated for the legalisation of abortion and the recognition of women’s bodily agency and autonomy. Under Namibia’s Abortion and Sterilisation Act of 1975, abortions are illegal except in cases involving incest, rape, or where the mother’s or child’s life is in danger.

    There are feminist movements in Namibia that are active and work consistently; however, something practical we had to acknowledge is that a lot of feminist movements are led by young people who also have other obligations, such as full-time jobs. Civil society organisations also face challenges, particularly in terms of resources and institutional support.

    The previous protest that took place in early 2020 was significant in paving the way and establishing an important foundation for #ShutItAllDown to have the collective confidence to go forth. Feminist organisers were at hand and were active in amplifying the voice of #ShutItAllDown. They were very present in terms of disseminating information, and they were crucial in mobilising their people to show up to the protests and keep the momentum going. Feminist organisers in Namibia do a lot of work behind the scenes but their work can only get so far because of insufficient resources. Hence, a lot of our petition demands were aimed at government and other institutions that do have the resources that we need to institute the changes that we seek.

    The difference between #ShutItAllDown and previous protests is the fact that now the young people of Namibia are becoming increasingly involved in political affairs and are becoming vocal about holding government and other institutions accountable to their mandate and fulfilling their work and obligations towards the citizenry.

    Additionally, the movement was able to grow more organically because social media are increasingly being used as a tool to have exchanges and push for accountability. Namibia has a fairly young population with tremendous digital abilities. The flexibility and capacity for self-organisation of young people eventually pushed us all to do something.

    What were the demands of the #ShutItAllDown movement? What response did they obtain?

    The biggest demand we had for the government of Namibia was the declaration of a state of emergency in respect to femicide and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), simply because we believed the problem we are facing warranted this kind of action. We wanted this to be a message that femicide is a national crisis and that beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, women always, every single day, are fearful for their lives. We also demanded an immediate consultation with SGBV experts and for the Ministry of Justice to begin implementing a sexual offenders’ registry and sexual offences courts.

    Several demands focused on accelerating existing methods to curb SGBV. New demands were also addressed to various ministries and other stakeholders, such as for 24/7 patrols around neighbourhoods, remote mobile GBV services and the implementation of school and university curricula to sensitise young people on SGBV.

    Our petition recognised that there is violence both inside and outside the home. But it is our understanding that curbing violence inside the home is more difficult due to the years and generations of grassroots work that is necessary to undo normalised gendered abuse. We may not be alive to witness the fruits of this effort, simply due to how long it may take to transform a society and its culture, to overturn and collectively interrogate the traditional principles in which abusive norms are rooted.

    Unfortunately, we did not obtain the declaration of the state of emergency for which we were hoping. But other demands, such as strengthening security through patrolling, implementing school curricula and establishing task forces or committees to revive efforts to curb SGBV were positively responded to. Another petition demand that was important and received a positive response was training for police officers to be more sympathetic and empathetic when dealing with cases and reports of GBV. We know that the reception that survivors get at police stations and the lack of attention and urgency with which their cases are handled is one of the major reasons why women do not report sexual violence.

    Were other relevant issues brought to the forefront as a result of the #ShutItAllDown movement?

    Yes, LGBTQI+ advocates and community members were consequential in mobilising people for the protest and amplifying the voices of the #ShutItAllDown movement. For me, it was important to see queer women and other LGBTQI+ individuals navigating a violently homophobic and transphobic society, protesting and highlighting the significance of intersectionality and collective advocacy. Out-Right Namibia, a leading LGBTQI+ human rights organisation in Namibia, used its momentum to propel #ShutItAllDown and create a strong, well-connected network for advocating for our collective rights as Black and/or queer women.

    The #ShutItAllDown protests also brought to the forefront the illegality of abortion in Namibia and our reproductive health rights. We intensified our conversations about the issue of reproductive health rights of women in general. These were some of the vital issues that were highlighted by #ShutItAllDown, which made it apparent how much work still needs to be done so that the rights of all women are recognised and respected.

    Is there room for intergenerational activism within the #ShutItAllDown movement?

    Intergenerational activism has proved to be interesting territory, mostly because of the fiery and passionate nature of young people. A lot of the impact of the activism exhibited in the #ShutItAllDown protests relies on disruption and general inconvenience to spur the most indifferent of people to action. I believe that disruption creates important conversations. Our hope is for our actions to cause somebody who is unfamiliar with what we are doing to start asking themselves why we care so much about the safety of women, so much so that we are sitting in the middle of the road or shutting down a mall, and try to understand what is happening and what it is that we are doing. These questions would start a conversation and fuel important discussions on an urgent national ill in which women are dying. 

    But many older people tend to question the disruptive tactics used by younger people. And another limitation that we have experienced recognises that disruptive tactics imply personal liability. As young people, we put a lot less at risk in terms of employability and general respectability. Many older people do agree with the causes we are mobilising for, but they generally don’t take the risk of standing side by side with us, or at least not explicitly. There are political and practical factors that limit even the degree to which they can publicly voice their support.

    How do you see the future of the #ShutItAllDown movement?

    The beauty of organic and spontaneous movements, as well as with movements that do not have a leader, is that anyone can wake up and decide to start #ShutItAllDown in their respective town, because the movement is leaderless and faceless. Right now, there haven’t been any protests since October 2020, but that does not mean that there won’t be any more protests in the future. GBV is an ongoing issue and unfortunately, a case that reignites the protest can surface anywhere, anytime.

    Civic space in Namibia is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS MonitorFollow@BerthaJTobias on Twitter andbertha_tobias on Instagram.

     

     

  • NGO letter to EU Ministers on rule of law and human rights situation in Poland

    As the EU General Affairs Council prepares to hold a hearing on 22 February on the rule of law in Poland under the Article 7.1 TEU procedure, the undersigned civil society organisations would like to draw your attention to some alarming developments. Since the Council last discussed the situation in June 2021, a severe and steady decline in the respect for EU values in Poland has continued unabated. Despite the numerous actions undertaken by EU institutions since the procedure was launched in 2017, the Polish government has continued to systematically infringe upon those standards and ignore EU recommendations and the EU Court’s rulings.

     

  • Nobody has made any attempt to shield Yemeni civil society organisations from impact of armed conflict

    CIVICUS speaks to Radhya Almutawakel, chairperson of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni human rights organisation. Mwatanais engaged with a number of issues, including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, women’s rights and the criminalisation of human rights defenders. It uses a variety of tools, including data collection through field visits and monitoring compliance with domestic legislation and international standards; advocacy and lobbying with domestic institutions and in international forums; legal support for victims; training of human rights activists; research and dissemination; and campaigning for public awareness.

    1. What have been the main recent impacts of the conflict on Yemen and Yemeni civil society?

    Since the Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis) and their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the capital, Sana'a, on 21 September 2014, Yemen has entered a new phase of armed conflicts that escalated rapidly. On 26 March 2015, a Saudi Arabia-led Arab Coalition of nine countries launched a military campaign against Houthis and Saleh forces, to support the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, with the United States providing intelligence and logistical support.

    Mwatana Organization has documented grave rights violations by the Saudi and Emirates-led coalition resulting in the killing of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children. This coalition has struck residential compounds, public markets, cultural and heritage sites, hospitals, schools, bridges and factories.

    We have also documented extensive violations by the Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis) and their ally Saleh, especially in Taiz, including the use of landmines in different areas of the country. Furthermore, we have documented violations including extrajudicial executions by the forces of president Hadi and allied parties and armed groups.

    Both parties share responsibility in the indiscriminate shelling of civilians and civilian facilities, child recruitment and denial of humanitarian access, in addition to arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, tortures, violations against the freedom of speech and the disappearance of a free press, harassment of minorities and other grave violations. Civil society had only recently started to develop in Yemen, and all the progress that had been achieved was set back in the current inhospitable environment, characterised by high political instability and a lot of violence.

    Before 2011, civil society in Yemen had become fairly strong in the face of a number of violations committed by the Saleh regime. At that point the Saleh regime was the main violator of human rights, and organisations of different affiliations were able to unify against the abuses. But after the 2011 revolution and the ascent of the opposition, which became a partner in government, and because of the multiplicity of violators as well as the increasing political polarisation, the voice of these organisations was significantly diminished and they were not able to form any more alliances or even initiate any kind of joint work. It was clear that human rights organisations lacked minimal independence.

    In September 2014, when they forcefully seized the capital, Sana’a, and expanded into the neighbouring provinces, Houthi armed groups and their ally, former president Saleh, tightened their grip on President Hadi and his government. President Hadi then escaped to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and in March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition including other neighbouring countries launched a military operation in Yemen, and established armed groups to support President Hadi in the fight against the Houthis. All these political developments weakened Yemeni civil society to unprecedented levels. Rights violations against organisations and their staff increased exponentially and the scope of the work they were allowed to do dramatically decreased. Many human rights, humanitarian and development organisations were forced to reduce their activities and staff or close down altogether.

    1. How have the various forces involved in the conflict impacted on civil society?

    The first weapon wielded by conflicting parties against independent civil society organisations, and especially against human rights organisations, has been the orchestration of extensive incitement and smear campaigns through social media as well as their own private networks. By defaming independent human rights organisations, all conflicting parties have prejudiced the public against the work of such organisations and their employees. Mwatana Organization and its staff have been the victims of many of these campaigns launched by either Houthi- Saleh armed groups or by Saudi Arabia and the Hadi Government and their allies in Yemen.

    Many activists, including members of the Mwatana team, have been threatened and detained by all conflicting parties, because of their work. Countless restrictions have been placed on human rights, humanitarian and development-related activities in the field, to the extent that long procedures and several official permits are now required to carry out a single training activity – with a good chance that even after going through all the hassle the activity might end up not being authorised at all. The same is the case with a wide variety of studies and research. Many restrictions have also been imposed by all parties on traveling to and from Yemen.

    In addition, there are a number of dangers that stem from the armed conflict itself. Yemen is now ruled by a number of armed groups – the Houthi-Saleh armed groups, on one hand, and the Hadi government and the armed groups loyal to it, on the other. Armed conflict is taking place on many fronts, with an intensive airstrike campaign by the US-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Nobody has made any attempt whatsoever to shield civil society organisations or their staff from the impact of the armed conflict; in fact, many of them have been endangered while carrying out their duties.

    Violations of the freedom of expression are commonplace, and media diversity is lacking. In fact, civil society organisations lost an independent media outlet that had previously helped make their voice heard. As a result, social media have become the key outlet for many human rights and humanitarian organisations. However, conflicting parties are now trying to disable this platform as well, by using an army of trolls to defame any independent civil society work.

    As for human rights work more specifically, all parties are seeking to corrupt civil society by establishing their own biased organisations and deploying funds to deform civil society work and justify various human rights violations. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has made considerable efforts to prevent the United Nations’ Human Rights Council from passing a resolution to establish an international mechanism to investigate violations by all warring parties in Yemen. After three years of sustained efforts by international and local human rights organisations and allied governments, however, the process came to a successful conclusion in September 2017, when a resolution was passed and an independent international group of experts was mandated to investigate abuses.

    1. What role is being played by outside forces, and what motivates these forces to be involved in the conflict?

    Unfortunately, outside forces have played a destructive role in Yemen, either through direct military intervention, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and its allies, or by supporting one of the warring forces, as has been the case of the United States, the United Kingdom and France, which have supported Saudi Arabia, and of Iran, which has backed the Houthis. The declared goal of the military operation launched by Saudi Arabia was “to reinstate President Hadi” but it has destroyed the country in the process. They have indiscriminately bombarded people, homes, schools, hospitals and monuments. Although it managed to expel Houthis from the southern governorates, the state is not yet functionally back in charge of these governorates. No state institutions, including a judiciary, have been activated, and no national army has been established. In comparison, the promotion of armed groups has not ceased, and worryingly, some of these are extremist and fundamentalist religious groups.

    Instead of promoting peace in Yemen, powerful nations like the United States, the United Kingdom and France have aligned to support Saudi Arabia either through considerable arms deals or through multi-faceted political support. One of the worst results of this was their lobbying against the establishment of an international mechanism for investigating violations committed by warring parties in Yemen.

    As for Iranian support of the Houthis, their intervention resembles a situation in which there is a mouse running around a residential building, and the building gets destroyed when searching for the mouse, and in the end neither is the building saved nor is the mouse ever found.

    After two years of war in Yemen, I can confidentially say that none of the internal or external warring parties have a clear vision of what to do next. The only undisputable fact of this war is that Yemen has become a humanitarian man-made catastrophe.

    1. What activities is Yemeni civil society still able to carry out? Does this vary by region?

    Despite all the obstacles facing civil society in Yemen, there are a number of human rights and humanitarian organisations that still struggle on the ground to play a variety of roles. A number of humanitarian organisations are working to deliver humanitarian aid and services to affected populations; human rights organisations keep working to document human rights violations; and development organisations are carrying on their educational and training programmes in territories ruled both by Saleh and Houthi armed groups and by Hadi and the armed groups that are loyal to him.

    1. What would it take to build peace in Yemen, and what roles could civil society play in this?

    To achieve peace in Yemen, all the warring parties would need to take steps to reduce pressure on civilians and build confidence. This includes ceasing human rights violations, releasing detainees, giving more space to humanitarian, human rights and media organisations to do their work, agreeing on a mechanism to pay salaries, re-activating the Hodeidah seaport, re-opening Sana’a airport, and fulfilling a variety of urgent humanitarian requirements.

    At the international level, arms deals with the warring parties must be stopped, and the priority of human rights issues must be established. Yemen also needs a new peace process with the international community playing an independent and stable role. Dialogue must bring in all parties on the ground, with no exclusions.

    1. What support does Yemeni civil society need, including from international civil society and the intergovernmental system, now that a UN resolution establishing a commission of inquiry has been passed?

    Civil society needs to build capacities in every aspect of their competence; it needs to ‘professionalise’ and reinforce its resource base with long-term projects. There is need of support for the construction of Yemen’s institutions, and capacity needs to be built so that institutions are able to respond to the deteriorating situation.

    • As a result of increasing restrictions on civil society, Yemen’s civic space rating was recently downgraded to the lowest category, closed, by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    • Get in touch with Mwatana Organization for Human Rights through theirwebsite or Facebook page, or follow @mwatanaen and@RAlmutawakel on Twitter.

     

  • PAKISTAN: ‘As a result of patriarchal norms, women experience discrimination at all levels’

    Farrah NazCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Pakistani civil society’s role in eliminating inequality and malnutrition with Farrah Naz, country director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). 

    GAIN is a Swiss-based foundation launched at the United Nations in 2002 to tackle the human suffering caused by malnutrition. It works with governments, businesses and civil society to transform food systems so that they deliver more nutritious foods for all people, especially the most vulnerable including children, adolescents and women.

    How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected women and girls in Pakistan?

    There is little evidence of how COVID-19 has affected women in Pakistan, but this is a country where the gender gap is huge – the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Pakistan 151 out of 153 countries – and there is a general understanding that in the presence of such gaps, disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic have a potential to have a disproportionate negative effect on women and girls.

    A situation analysis by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems pointed out that women make up 70 per cent of frontline health workers, who are more susceptible to contracting the virus. Similarly, women are a large part of the informal labour force, including domestic and home-based workers (HBWs), 75 per cent of whom were estimated to have suffered economic impacts due to loss of work. Women in the garment and textile industry also lost work due to lockdowns. Due to lack of registration, less than one per cent of women who run micro, small and medium food-related enterprises in the informal sector had access to financial support as their businesses were affected by lockdowns.

    A recent report shows that there are 12 million HBWs who earn around 3,000-4,000 rupees a month (approx. US$17-22), who will face multidimensional challenges including income insecurity, lack of social protection and increased vulnerability in times of crisis. It also indicates that as of 2017, 26 per cent of all microfinance loans had been taken out by women. The pandemic may affect their ability to pay them back, which could result in higher interest rates, penalties and reduced access to future loans.

    In the context of school closures, girls have generally been given more household responsibilities than boys. Prolonged closures could exacerbate inequalities in educational attainment due to higher rates of female absenteeism and lower rates of school completion. As schools reopen, many girls will find it difficult to balance schoolwork and increased domestic responsibilities.

    The Sustainable Social Development Organization, a CSO based in Islamabad, reported a 200 per cent increase in domestic violence cases in Pakistan in the early days of the pandemic. A 25 per cent increase in domestic violence was reported in eastern Punjab, while 500 domestic violence cases were reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after the lockdown. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 399 murder cases were reported in March 2020 alone. In the federal capital, Islamabad, there were thousands of allegations of torture of women, but the National Commission on the Status of Women has remained silent on this.

    There is not enough safe and nutritious food and access to routine health services is limited. Pregnant women and children from vulnerable sectors have been severely affected and it is estimated that about 150,000 additional children across Punjab will be malnourished due to the pandemic.

    As usual, although women actively participate in harvesting food and have the primary responsibility for cooking meals, they often eat last and least, after male family members have been served. This is because social norms don’t value them equally and their interests are not prioritised.

    On top of this, the Ehsaas Ration Programme, which provides a subsidy that can be used to purchase staples such as flour and cooking oil, requires beneficiaries to have a national identity card, which women are much less likely to have than men. Across Pakistan, at least 12 million fewer women than men have such cards.

    How has civil society responded to these challenges?

    Civil society had tried to increase its humanitarian interventions to address not only pandemic-related health and safety issues but also the practical needs of vulnerable populations in terms of access to basic food and non-food items. Major networks of international and national organisations, governmental and civil society, have worked together to reach millions of people during the pandemic. Many CSOs focused on the needs of women, girls and transgender people.

    Many CSOs also concentrated their efforts on addressing domestic violence. While there have always been domestic violence helplines, new ones quickly emerged. And many in the private sector focused specifically on providing counselling services to address the mental health issues that people faced during extended lockdowns. 

    How has GAIN responded to the impacts of COVID-19 in local communities in Pakistan?

    In line with its mission of ensuring access to nutritious food, especially to the most vulnerable people, GAIN focused on keeping food markets working. Our work had several components.

    First, we worked with food-related small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that were struggling to survive, and especially with those that were owned or led by women, and provided small survival grants to selected SMEs.

    Second, we provided grants to enable employers in the food industry to support workers’ health and nutrition through emergency food support. Twenty thousand food workers and their families benefitted through this programme in Pakistan – and many more in other low- and middle-income countries where we work.

    Third, we cooperated with social protection programmes to ensure that food and ration distribution include fortified staple foods for the most vulnerable families and individuals dependent on food and ration distribution networks. Over 8 million meals were fortified in six districts across Pakistan. 

    Fourth, we worked with urban food system stakeholders and traditional markets in urban areas to ensure that safe and nutritional foods remained available and accessible to people. We addressed issues of food safety in markets and for consumers through awareness campaigns and the distribution of masks and sanitisers, and helped design policy options to increase the resilience of the food system. We implemented this programme in two cities of Pakistan. 

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Pakistan, and how is civil society working to bring them into the policy agenda?

    A lot of progress on women’s rights has been made over the years, but the status of women continues to vary considerably across classes, regions and the rural/urban divide, due to uneven socioeconomic development and the impact of tribal and feudal social formations on women’s lives.

    Overall, improvements are spreading through Pakistan: for instance, an increasing number of women are literate and educated. CSOs and religious groups are increasingly denouncing violence against women. The All-Pakistan Ulema Council, which is the largest group of religious clergies in Pakistan, has issued a fatwa – that is, a legal ruling – against so-called ‘honour killings’. Courts have answered the call by women’s rights advocates and are delivering harsher punishments for violent crimes against women.

    Pakistan has adopted several key international commitments to gender equality and women’s human rights – including the Beijing Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Sustainable Development Goals. Some domestic laws have also been enacted to protect the rights of women.

    However, gender inequality remains a prominent issue, as revealed by most development indicators. Child marriage is high: 21 per cent of girls under 18 are already married. Limited access to education heavily impacts on Pakistani children, especially girls.

    Women from the lower classes are often only able to work informally from home: 12 out of the estimated 20 million HBWs in Pakistan are women. Women are estimated to account for 65 per cent of the contribution of HBWs to Pakistan’s economy, but most receive low wages and are denied legal protection and social security.

    The CSO White Ribbon Pakistan reported that between 2004 and 2016, 47,034 women faced sexual violence and there were over 15,000 registered ‘honour crimes’. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index Report ranks Pakistan second to last regarding domestic violence rates. But at 2.5 per cent, conviction rates for these crimes are exceedingly low.

    And although Pakistan was one of the first Muslim countries to have a female prime minister, it currently has only 20.6 per cent female representation in the lower house of parliament with an even lower rate, 18.3 per cent, in the upper house.

    In sum, as a result of patriarchal norms that subordinate women to men, women experience multiple forms of discrimination at all levels, from their everyday home life to political participation on the national stage. 

    Many CSOs are working to promote women’s and girls’ rights in Pakistan. Although the situation remains tough and there is much backlash in response to women being vocal about their rights, the strong women’s movement of Pakistan is getting stronger and making sure women’s rights issues remain alive and progress continues to happen.

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

    On IWD, GAIN offices in Africa, Asia and Europe are continuing to do the work that needs to be done while also taking the time to recognise women’s achievements in improving food systems.

    As we know only too well, women’s contributions are often undervalued, unpaid and overlooked. This is even more pernicious in connection to food systems, where women are key leaders at every step of the way – as farmers, processors, wageworkers, traders and consumers. And still women and girls are often the last members of a household that get to eat.

    In 2021, for the second year in a row, the Global Health 50/50 report – an annual survey of public, private, civil society and international organisations operating in the global health space – ranked GAIN’s gender and equity-related policies very high. This is because GAIN is fully committed to ensuring diversity throughout its programmes. We are currently developing a new programmatic gender policy to ensure women involved in food systems are given the same opportunities as men and their rights are always fully respected. We have also purposefully diversified our board and senior leadership, including our country directors. Our board has recently committed to seeking gender balance, meaning that it will have to make sure that at least half its voting members are women. And we are one of the few organisations that has a young female Partnership Council member. All of this is what gives us the right perspective in addressing nutrition challenges that differentially affect women and girls.

    Civic space in Pakistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with GAIN through itswebsite orFacebook page. 

     

  • PERU: ‘The ultra-conservative tide is affecting democratic life and fundamental rights’

    Eliana CanoAs 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 toEliana Cano, founder of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Peru (Catholics for the Right to Decide – CDD-Peru), a Catholic and feminist movement committed to the pursuit of social justice and the change of cultural patterns that limit women's autonomy and their sexual and reproductive rights. CCD-Peru has recently been sued by the Tomás Moro Legal Centre, which wants to strip it of its legal status on the basis that, within the framework of an agreement between the Vatican State and Peru, it should not be using the term ‘Catholics’.

    CDD-Peru is being sued to have its legal personality withdrawn and prevented from calling itself 'Catholic'. Who is suing you, what do they have against you, and what are they trying to achieve?

    About a month and a half ago we were notified that the Santo Tomás Moro Legal Centre, which is a self-appointed representative of the Catholic Church, had brought a lawsuit against us. According to the lawyers who are advising us, this group began to look into the work done by our organisation about a year ago. They decided to sue us in the civil courts because they want to make this a long, tedious, tiring process, one of permanent appeal. The whole thing can take up to three or four years. Basically, their strategy is to drain us of energy in the process.

    They want us to cease to exist as a registered organisation, recognised by the National Superintendency of Public Registries. In other words, they want us to lose our legal status and not be able to continue operating in Peru. They argue that, by calling ourselves what we do, we are disrespecting the Catholic Church and its parishioners. They say that, in light of the existing agreement between the Vatican State and Peru – which recognises the role of the Catholic Church – we are using the term 'Catholic', which represents an institution and a historical identity, in bad faith. They do not accept the interpretation we make of biblical texts on the basis of feminist theology in order to question dogma, imposed conscience and control of people in the name of God. It is important to note that our organisation is not registered with the Catholic Church as a faith group, and therefore is not subject to the internal mandate of the Church.

    You have been around for a few years. Is this the first time you have faced such reaction?

    Indeed, the project of Catholics for the Right to Decide is quite old in Latin America. It began in Uruguay and then spread to the USA, and from there it passed on to Mexico and other countries of Latin America. In Peru the organisation has had a legal existence since 2009. We organised ourselves because we identify as feminists with a Catholic identity. We see ourselves as Catholic women of faith, but we have a critical view of dogma, of static and closed thought, especially where issues related to sexual and reproductive rights are concerned, as body and sexuality are a terrain where political battles are fought. In Peru there has always been a very homogenous public voice around the Gospels and the right to command over the bodies and lives of women, and we, by questioning this from the position of our Catholic identity, have received a rather aggressive response by the hierarchy of the local Catholic Church and groups linked to it.

    The first public attack happened on the occasion of the debate around the definition of a protocol for therapeutic abortion: abortion that is justified for medical reasons, when there are serious risks to the woman’s health or life. It was an attack tinged with the same resources these groups always use, based on defamation, vilification and lies. But in this case attacks basically took the form of verbal and written attacks on social media.

    Conservative groups know how to manage social media and constantly attack us publicly for everything we do that deviates from dogma or homogeneous discourse. However, this is the first time we have faced a lawsuit, and we were not expecting an attack so direct and of such magnitude. Maybe we should have foreseen it, since in Latin America, and in Peru specifically, ultra-conservative groups have penetrated deeply into the political structure of the country and are affecting democratic life.

    It would seem that these ultra-conservative groups are now larger and more emboldened than they used to be. Why is that?

    When looking back you realise that for several decades a global and regional response has developed to discourage and weaken the liberation theology discourse, which put the emphasis mostly on poverty. With a questioning discourse within the Church that extended to other areas of life, liberation theology made the most hardcore conservative elements of the Church very uncomfortable. The reaction against it has been sustained. It has made a lot of progress, to the point that today a highly organic network has become visible, which has bases in various Latin American countries and its own publications, conferences and considerable economic resources. Its presence began to make itself felt strongly in 2005, when the Center for Family Promotion and Regulation of Birth (Ceprofarena) organised the Second International Pro-Life Congress in the capital, Lima. This congress produced a document known as the Lima Declaration, an expression of the agreement reached by conservative groups.

    Ceprofarena has existed since the early eighties. It maintains close links to Human Life International, a powerful international conservative organisation, and among its members are renowned physicians and senior state officials, including former health ministers. The organisation acts within numerous medical and health organisations, both public and private. These actors put conservative ‘scientific’ discourse at the service of abuses such as the denial of emergency oral contraception, an issue on which they successfully took on the Ministry of Health. They sued the Ministry, bringing to court the right to information and choice of thousands of women, and succeeded in achieving the prohibition of the distribution of emergency contraception by all health services nationwide. Now they are campaigning to dismantle the therapeutic abortion protocol established during the 2011 to2016 period.

    The network of conservative organisations in Peru also includes the Office for Latin America of the Population Research Institute, based in Lima; the Peruvian headquarters of the Latin American Alliance for the Family, which promotes classic family formats and produces and disseminates school books; of course older organisations such as Opus Dei, which does local development and support work and is deeply embedded in educational spaces, as well as within the bureaucracy of the Church; and the Sodalicio de la Vida Cristiana, an organisation of lay people.

    These groups have a lot of money that comes from the conservative business sector and have appropriated effective strategies and discourses. This lawsuit is a practical strategy that denotes a change in their way of organising. They no longer speak the language of the divine and the clerical because they know that it attracts fewer and fewer people; instead they have appropriated the discourse of democracy and human rights.

    Are you thinking of new strategies to face this growing challenge?

    In the present scenario we view ourselves as in need of strengthening our communication strategies. We also need to strengthen our resourcing, since we do not have funds to face a lawsuit of this magnitude. International funders do not necessarily provide support that can be used to develop institutional defence plans. But at present, this is a profound need of human rights organisations. In our case, fortunately the Legal Defence Institute, which had already taken on similar cases affecting journalists, became interested and decided to sponsor the case as part of its institutional priorities. They consider that this is an "ideological fight" and that questioning our name is a "pretext" to make us disappear as influential actors. Theirs has been a gesture that we are infinitely thankful for.

    As far as discourse is concerned, however, we should not move from our positions, but rather show that the appropriation of the discourse of human rights and democracy by ultra-conservative groups is as superficial as disrespectful of democratic principles. As happened recently with the ‘Do not mess with my children’ campaign – against education about gender equality and respect for sexual identities – their discourse tends to become very aggressive every time they feel cornered. They seem to be desperate, because deep down they do nothing but react in the face of newly acquired rights.

    And the situation has indeed progressed, because this is not just us – new generations are mobilised and lots of people who are respectful of freedom and diversity and who uphold guarantees for rights are gaining ground. It is not just three or four old-time feminist organisations that are active in Lima; there are also the voices and faces of young people organised in universities, people in communities in various regions of Peru who think critically, do not accept dogmas, even react in a sarcastic tone to that type of discourse and perspective.

    Of course there is always a Catholic youth following that responds to the Pope and has decided to stay within the ultra-conservative field, but there is also youth social mobilisation around many issues, and with their help many aspects of the sexual and reproductive rights agenda are permeating the public debate. I think this is causing ultra-conservative groups to despair, and that is why they are reacting with such anger, frustration and, I would even dare say, hate. That is, they react with attitudes that are nowhere close to mercy, kindness, humility, understanding and non-judgement.

    Why does the fact that you define yourselves as both Catholics and feminists cause this type of reaction?

    We are women of faith and religion is part of our identity. We have been raised Catholic, and in that context the message that was instilled in us was one of obedience, prohibition and oppression. As we grew up, we rebelled against this and other aspects related to the control of our lives and their sexual dimension. We identify ourselves as Catholic on the basis of a renewed interpretation, but we do not renounce our faith. We are aware that Catholicism is not only a matter of faith, but it also operates within or materialises in an institution, and as such it includes both positive and negative practices that have an impact on the lives of many people, and specifically on its members.

    At the same time, we all come from organisations with a feminist identity. We are feminists and we question patriarchy as a system of asymmetric power relations, but we do not renounce our faith. We always ask ourselves these questions: why should our religion have to have one single voice, uniform and unquestionable? Why obey in silence and validate sacrifice and suffering in our own lives and bodies? We find a foothold in feminist theology, which offers a deconstruction and reconstruction of the Gospel. These conceptual and political tools strengthen our conviction and our public struggle for sexual and reproductive rights.

    High Church officials tell us: ‘you are not Catholic, who are you to speak in the name of Catholicism?’ We respond: ‘what makes you a Catholic, what allows you to trample rights in the name of God?’ We have claimed ownership of the language of the Gospel that focuses on the right of people to deliberate in conscience, to discern and to decide, and this bothers them. I am a Catholic, I was baptised and I am guided by feminist theology. You cannot question my faith, just as I cannot question yours. This is a very hard fight, because it is easy to fall in the face of a mass telling you that you are not one of them. From the beginning we knew that we would face disqualification, defamation and lies; we did not, however, think that the attacks would become as violent as those we are currently experiencing on social media, as well as in the form of a lawsuit.

    Given that the experience of faith cannot be taken away from us, what they are trying to do is take away our legal status, make us disappear. We represent a danger because we are not just a few. In fact, more and more people are increasingly getting to know us and identify with us. We represent the position of many people who do not necessarily have the opportunity to articulate this strand of thought publicly, but who feel it and live by it. There is a wide and diverse congregation that does not think the same way as the Church hierarchy and considers that the ultra-conservative response to public policy is more suitable to Inquisition times than today. According to polls, most Catholics disagree with the Church hierarchy on many important issues, such as homosexuality, which they do not consider to be an illness or a divine punishment, or same-sex marriage. Choosing an abortion in specific life circumstances is a highly ethical and responsible decision, and it does not make you a bad woman, a lesser Catholic, or a bad mother. Using contraceptives to regulate motherhood and fatherhood or enjoying a sexual relationship without procreating is not prohibited by the Gospels. The state of virginity is losing its divine quality and this is freeing women from feelings of guilt, even in societies such as Latin America’s, where governments and the Catholic Church have always worked in concert to regulate people’s lives. Still today they support one another every time one of them loses credibility.

    How else are you trying to encourage a distinction between private faith and public policy?

    Ours is also a struggle for a secular state, a state that is separated from all churches. This is very difficult to achieve in practice, since the Catholic Church and the Peruvian state maintain strong institutional ties. However, short of achieving constitutional and legal separation between Church and state, there is another fight to be had in the sphere of collective attitudes. Many people – politicians, public officials, civil servants – reach the public sphere without giving a thought to the importance of separating religious beliefs from public function. As a result, many lawmakers and public officials make decisions based on their religious beliefs. It is very common to find crucifixes, chapels and religious images in ministry buildings. In our everyday lives religion surrounds us and limits us; there are no clear boundaries between religious practice and public functions.

    Ultra-conservative groups set themselves on this ground and seek to further expand the dictates of a religion that presents itself as homogeneous, with the intention of forcing all citizens to live according to their own beliefs and mandates. The problem is not religion in itself; the difficulty lies with the political use of religion within the political-public sphere, where there is a duty to guarantee human rights.

     

    Civic space in Peru is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir-Perú through their webpage and Facebook

     

  • Poland debates prison terms for abortion in new blow to women’s rights

    Joint press release by IPPF EN and CIVICUS 

    The Polish Parliament is set to discuss an anti-abortion bill from a religious ultra conservative group to jail women who access abortion and criminalize anyone who helps them do so, including family members, friends and doctors.  

     

  • POLAND: ‘Abortion rights will inevitably be at the forefront of this year’s International Women’s Day’

    Helsinki Foundation for human rightsCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Polish civil society’s role in advancing women’s rights with the team of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR).

    Founded in 1989 by the members of the Helsinki Committee in Poland, the HFHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks to promote the development of a culture based on respect for freedom and human rights in Poland and abroad. Since 2007 it has had consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

     

    What role has Polish civil society played in advocating for abortion rights, both before and during the pandemic?

    Polish civil society has advocated for abortion rights for almost 30 years. Jointly with other CSOs, HFHR has continuously monitored the implementation of the legal provisions of the Abortion Act and represented women who were denied access to abortions they were entitled to.

    One such case was P. and S. v. Poland, which led to a decision by the European Court of Human Rights that declared Poland responsible for improperly hindering access to abortion by a 14-year-old girl. Polish laws allow abortion if the pregnancy is the consequence of a crime, and in 2008 P. was given a public attestation that authorised her to get an abortion due to her age, as sexual intercourse with minors under 15 is codified as a crime. But doctors in two hospitals refused to provide the abortion, and they even forced her to speak to a priest and disclosed her case to the media, as a result of which she was harassed by anti-abortion activists. They got the police involved and removed her from her mother’s custody. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Poland had violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’.

    That was a landmark case and should have been the gateway to a growing recognition of abortion rights. However, the situation only got increasingly worse. Despite civil society opposition, further restrictions were imposed on access to legal abortion. In October 2020, while we were in the middle of the pandemic, a Constitutional Tribunal judgement made access to abortion almost impossible in practice. 

    Civil society played a crucial role in mobilising in protest against the judgement. And thanks to the engagement of CSOs such as the Federation for Women and Family Planning and Abortion Dream Team, women who required access to abortion received information, legal assistance and other forms of help.

    But as a reaction to these protests and acts of resistance, the environment for women’s rights activism deteriorated. Shortly after the protests, at least seven women’s rights and human rights CSOs advocating for sexual and reproductive rights were harassed and threatened and their activists targeted with disinformation campaigns from the government and government-aligned media. Several activists who participated in protests were detained and some face politically motivated criminal charges, including for allegedly breaking pandemic rules.

    How has the pandemic impacted on your work?

    HFHR is the oldest and largest human rights CSO in Poland. We provide legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses, monitor legal changes affecting human rights and participate in public discussion about the protection of human rights. We focus on the situation in Poland, but also on some other countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

    The COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted on our work. For obvious reasons, many of our in-person meetings were cancelled and we could not get people together. To substitute for this, we shifted online and enhanced our presence on social media. We used it to get in touch directly with our supporters. This allowed us to broaden our audience.

    The pandemic also brought new and serious challenges to human rights, including but not only in the area of healthcare. HFHR has monitored pandemic-related legal developments, including restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly. We analysed the impact of the pandemic on human rights protections and made recommendations about this, and intervened in a number of cases in which pandemic-related restrictions on fundamental rights were imposed that were disproportionate and unconstitutional, such as in cases involving restrictions on the rights of defendants in criminal proceedings.

    How is civil society advocating for gender equality and how are the authorities responding?

    The Polish government has not adopted a comprehensive strategy for promoting gender equality. Further, the state’s institutional system to protect equal treatment has been severely weakened. Not only is the state doing nothing – it is also not very welcoming of civil society initiatives on the matter. 

    CSOs continue working for gender equality through training activities, programmes and initiatives involving key stakeholders – for instance, by providing school training sessions on equal treatment. But instead of supporting these efforts, parliament recently adopted changes to the Education System Act that will significantly limit the access of CSOs to schools and educational facilities. The law has not come into force yet and has just been vetoed by the president.

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

    We think the fact that it is now almost impossible to access abortion is one of the key issues hindering women’s rights in Poland. Sexual and reproductive rights will inevitably be at the forefront of IWD in Poland this year, and this will surely remain one of the priority topics for HFHR in upcoming years.

    Civic space in Poland is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@hfhrpl on Twitter.

     

  • POLAND: ‘If lots of tiny actions are performed by many people, we can achieve big things’

    Magdalena DemczakCIVICUS speaks with Magdalena Demczak, co-founder and director of Akcja Menstruacja (Menstrual Action), about the work her organisation is currently doing to help Ukrainian refugees.

    Menstrual Action is the first Polish civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting people experiencing menstrual poverty. It is estimated that limited access to menstrual products, most often for economic reasons but also due to lack of adequate hygiene conditions or education affects around 500,000 people in Poland.

    What made you decide to start helping refugees?

    What made us decide to start helping refugees was the fact that we felt so helpless when watching the news, that we felt the need to help in any way we could.

    At the beginning it was very hard for us to plan our actions because we had no idea what would happen. We were all a bit in shock at such an extraordinary situation. But we took immediate action: we supported checkpoints, raised funds and collected products that were sent to Ukraine directly, and also to the Polish-Ukrainian border. We also supported local Polish families who are hosting Ukrainian families and sites across Poland where Ukrainian refugees can seek information and legal assistance. In these locations there are people who speak Ukrainian and provide translation services.

    What are the key needs you are seeing among refugees?

    People escaping war in Ukraine are arriving in Poland with their hands empty. Right now, refugees are mostly women and their children carrying small bags, since men aged 18 to 60 are banned from leaving: they must stay to defend their country. They are not bringing much – they are just trying to escape, so all they typically have is some clothes, documents and essential medicine.

    They obviously need all kinds of things. First of all, they need shelter and transportation to get there. They also need food, clothing and baby products, among other things. As women make up a large proportion of refugees, there is also a lot of need for all kinds of feminine-care products. Women’s biological cycles – from periods to pregnancies – don’t stop because of a war. There is a massive need for period products, especially menstrual pads, because it’s very easy to forget all about pads when a war erupts and you must flee your country.

    How is Polish civil society, and Menstrual Action more specifically, working to help refugees?

    Polish civil society, and individual Polish citizens, are doing amazing things. There are lines after lines of cars at the border to pick anyone in need of transportation, willing to take them to any Polish city, free of charge of course. Hundreds of thousands are giving out rooms in their homes to Ukrainian refugees, for free and for as long as needed. There are so many amazing people and organisations out there helping refugees.

    Unfortunately, we are aware that the war in Ukraine may last a long time and even after it ends, it will take time to rebuild cities so that people can come back. This means refugees may have to stay in Poland for quite a bit. So a more systemic approach is needed.

    Since the early days, Menstrual Action has been shipping sanitary products to refugees; a few days ago, for instance, our volunteers brought 180 kilograms of sanitary pads to the Polish-Ukrainian border. Quite a few of our volunteers are now working directly at the border, not because we sent them but because they chose to go.

    But we are now ready to undertake more long-term actions. We have talked to local manufacturers of period products to buy directly from them, and we will distribute these products in various locations and communities, as well as to CSOs working with refugees. While normally we would focus on period poverty, in such an extraordinary situation we are also supporting wider groups of refugees by providing adult diapers and other sanitary products such as toilet paper.

    As an organisation, we have the capacity to provide sanitary and menstrual products. Our contribution saves other charities money that they can better spend on other humanitarian needs. Sending goods to the border can be a logistics nightmare, so if by shipping them ourselves we can save others a significant amount of money they can invest elsewhere, we feel that our work is done.

    The actions of any specific organisation will always be too small to fulfil the needs of millions of people fleeing a war. But if lots of tiny actions are performed by many people, I believe we can achieve big things.

    Have your existing capacities and resources from your ongoing work proved useful?

    Our network has proved vital. We have intensively used our connections with menstrual product manufacturers, suppliers and other charities. We regularly support hundreds of Polish schools with menstrual products, but this year we were able to send out those packages earlier than usual to make room in our warehouses and gather menstrual products to be distributed among Ukrainian refuge centres around Poland.

    Before the crisis, we started a project called Pad Sharing, which connects donors with people who need menstrual products. If you are poor and having your period, and you had to choose between food and pads, you would get food, right? So we partnered with Rossmann drugstore, put up a form for people in need to enter their name, an address to locate the closest Rossmann store, an email address and the required product and amount. We receive the form and forward it to a donor who gets the list of products needed and does the shopping. When they are done, the person in need gets a call that their order is ready for pick-up at the Rossmann drugstore of their choice. We are just intermediaries and the person who needs help remains anonymous during the whole process. We have so far supported 2,200 people this way.

    This project became vital in the current situation. We translated the Pad Sharing form into Ukrainian and shared it online. We emphasised that, due to the extraordinary situation, people can request anything from the pharmacy, not just menstrual products. We don’t provide medicine but can refer them to other organisations that do. We are aware of refugees’ needs, and so are our donors.

    Have you seen any evidence of non-white refugees being treated differently?

    I’ve seen many clips of Black people waiting at the border and read several allegations that some were refused entry into Poland. But I’m a white woman who currently isn’t even living in Poland but in the UK, so I’m extra-privileged. I didn’t cross the border, I wasn’t there and I don’t pretend to speak for non-white people or to know about their personal experiences.

    Some people have pointed out that the current attitude towards Ukrainian refugees differs from how other refugees have been treated, including Afghan refugees trying to cross to Poland from the Belarusian border. We are aware that the reaction may have been different, but Menstrual Action did help Afghan refugees at the time – we contacted and connected various organisations to help Afghan refugees.

    There is a Polish organisation called Black Is Polish, established by Black Polish women from various backgrounds, which is helping Black people and other people of colour escape Ukraine. There’s been a lot of disinformation on social media. For instance, it has been said that only people with Ukrainian passports could cross the border. This is not correct: anyone can seek refuge in Poland. This disinformation was very harmful to people of colour trying to escape Ukraine.

    I won’t deny we Eastern Europeans have many racism issues, but I wouldn’t want this to detract from the biggest issue we currently face: war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. There is a disinformation war going on. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Relations has even said that Russia didn’t invade Ukraine. Russian-funded trolls are trying to instrumentalise racist incidents that have indeed happened on the border to put Ukraine on the ‘bad side’ and to justify the Putin regime and its war of aggression.

    What could people internationally be doing to help?

    The first thing they should do is follow the news through reputable sources. They must be aware of circulating disinformation and fake news. Before clicking ‘retweet’, ‘like’ or ‘subscribe’, you must think why you are getting this piece of news, where it is coming from, what the intentions are behind it and who would benefit if you spread it. Would it be beneficial for struggling people, or would it benefit the Putin regime? The international community must stay aware and cautious because it’s very easy to get lost in the news if you live far away from Ukraine.

    If you have money to donate, you should support legitimate organisations helping people inside Ukraine who cannot escape and those who chose to remain there to fight for their country. We still have an international donations systems to receive donations from anywhere around the world.

    People in other global regions are not taught a lot about the history of the Soviet Union, its beginnings and its end, and the establishment of countries such as Ukraine and Belarus. So if you can, try to learn this part of history and to understand why this part of the world looks the way it does. It’s very important to understand how the past influences the present and to make sure the worst of history does not repeat itself.

    Civic space in Poland is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Akcja Menstruacja through itswebsite andFacebook andInstagram pages. 

     

  • POLAND: ‘We invented new forms of protest because we had to’

    CIVICUS speaks to Klementyna Suchanow, an activist, author and researcher based in Warsaw, Poland, about the recentannouncement by the Polish governmentthat it will begin the process to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on Violence against Women. Klementyna is one of the founders of thePolish Women’s Strikeand the International Women’s Strike. The Polish Women’s Strike is a grassroots feminist movement founded in 2016 to defend women’s rights against the government's plan to ban and criminalise abortion. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, the movement has remained united and active via a Facebook group and continues to mobilise for women’s rights in Poland.

    Klementyna Suchanow

    What has the situation of gender rights in Poland been over the past few years?

    We are under a conservative government and while I would never say it was paradise five years ago, the situation for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights has recently worsened. Every day you witness more verbal and physical attacks against marginalised groups. Divisions have been created along political lines and the main targets of aggression have been immigrants and LGBTQI+ people. During the campaign for 2019’s European Parliament election and this year’s presidential election the main focus has been on hate against LGBTQI+ people. The wave of hatred is very intense and dealing with it is a challenge. 

    The situation of women and women’s rights movements is slightly different. Our new strand of popular feminism is very inclusive and pragmatic. This is why so many young people have joined us in recent months. We see younger generations become more politicised and aware. So the women’s movement is in a very strong position. It is the only movement that has succeeded in forcing the government to take a step back from its idea to ban abortion in 2016, and then later around other issues. It looks like our anger scares them, but they still keep doing things to worsen our situation.

    In sum, women are experiencing setbacks in our legal situation but our power keeps growing. I am not sure if this is the case with the LGBTQI+ community, because they are a minority group and are more exposed. The situation of LGBTQI+ people is definitely getting worse on all fronts.

    Have there been further regressions on gender rights during the COVID-19 pandemic?

    Taking advantage of the pandemic, the government and other groups have made several attempts to roll back women’s sexual and reproductive rights. In May 2020, the Polish parliament proposed a bill that would remove the legal obligation for medical facilities to refer patients to other facilities if they refuse to provide abortion care based on their staff’s personal beliefs. Under current Polish law, a legal abortion can only be performed if the mother’s life is at risk, the pregnancy is a result of rape, or the foetus has a serious deformity. About 98 per cent of abortions fall under the latter category, but a bill was proposed in May to eliminate this clause. In June, new provisions in the Criminal Code imposed harsh prison sentences on those who support women by providing them with abortion care.

    The amendments to abortion laws during the pandemic came about through a civic project submitted by a fundamentalist organisation. We organised protests, which was a slightly crazy thing to do, because how do you protest during a pandemic when you are not allowed to gather? That is why we got creative: we invented new forms of protest because we had to. We staged ‘queueing protests’, standing two metres apart in a queue outside a shop close to the parliament building, to comply with lockdown regulations, while holding signs and umbrellas. This happened in several cities, not just in the capital, Warsaw. As we were not allowed to walk freely, we also organised ‘car protests’. We interrupted traffic and blocked Warsaw’s main square for about an hour.

    These protests were quite effective. The amendments did not proceed and are now ‘frozen’. They were sent to a parliamentary commission, but the commission is not working on them. They have been neither rejected nor approved. But this also means that they might come back suddenly at any point in the future, and we will have to deal with them again.

    From the very beginning this government has been clear that it does not support women’s rights and does not care about violence against women. Since the government came into power, funding to centres that help women has been cut and these centres have had to resort to crowdfunding or are surviving on private donations, because they have no access to state funding anymore. However, some progress has also taken place, as with a recently passed law, which was proposed by a leftist party, that empowers police officers to issue an order to forbid perpetrators of violence from entering the household of the victim for 14 days. This has helped immediately separate victims from perpetrators.

    On the other hand, over the past several months we have seen announcements from the authorities that they are thinking about pulling Poland out of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. In the beginning we didn’t take it too seriously. But it is always like this: first they test the waters to see how far they can go, and if they don’t find too much resistance they start pushing forward. During the presidential campaign and election, the topic was not raised, but only a week afterwards it became an issue. Many serious developments, such as arrests of activists, took place right after the election.

    Now the situation is becoming serious. Announcements have been made by several ministers and the president has approved the idea to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. There is also a lot of propaganda on state media to convince people that this Convention is about so-called ‘gender ideology’. However, surveys show that over 60 per cent of the population is against leaving the Convention compared to only 15 per cent who support the idea. Half of those who oppose leaving the Convention voted for the ruling party. It is weird that they are pushing this so far because it’s against the views of their own voters.

    As someone who was at the forefront of the2016 women’s strike in Poland, how do you feel about the current situation?

    We are so used to hearing bad news that we weren’t surprised with this latest announcement. The situation in Poland is such and so many bad things happen every day that you become immune to bad news.

    During the pandemic everything has been highly political. Instead of focusing on taking care of people’s health, everything became politicised. The presidential election was supposed to be held in May, and there was a lot of discussion about whether it should be held; it was finally postponed to late June. The ruling party knew that it was losing popularity because the health system is not efficient enough and the minister of health himself made huge money by supplying masks and medical equipment. This is why the ruling party pushed to have the election as soon as possible, before it lost too many votes. And instead of taking care of our safety and lives, the ruling party focused on its own political agendas. The attempts to ban abortion were very upsetting and disappointing because you expect more responsibility from your government at such a critical time.

    I knew people were tired of mobilising, so I was surprised to see so many come out to defend the Istanbul Convention, which became a national topic of discussion in the media and everywhere. A lot of positive energy has been created around this and is giving us the strength to try and stop it.

    We have been protesting for five years now. Protest has its own dynamics: you have to feel the moment and decide how to react; sometimes you give it a try and it doesn’t work out. It’s always an experiment. But right now, we feel that there is real energy and a momentum we need to ride on. There is a lot of interest from foreign media, and this topic has become the focus of attention. This is slightly strange because every time we tried to do something on violence against women in the past, it was very hard to get people to mobilise on the streets. There is something about violence that makes it difficult to translate feelings into street action. While many people experience it or know somebody who has been a victim, they don’t like to react to it. Many times in the past we failed when organising things on the topic of violence, but this time people took it up. We might now have a chance to defend the right to a life free from violence and make this a problem for the government.

    Do gender rights activists in Poland currently experience any restrictions on their right to organise, speak up and mobilise?

    I am a writer and artist, and as a result of my activism I am cut off from state grants. There are no state institutions that want to work with me right now because if my name shows up on their list, it becomes a problem for them. You could also be arrested or be taken to court by a right-wing legal foundation such as Ordo Iuris. Of course, there is also hate speech: the government uses your name and your image for propaganda on state media, and you can also be attacked by trolls on social media. Police can hurt you, as happened to me at one protest in 2018. This situation came about gradually, but at this point there is a wide range of forms of repression that you can experience. For the time being, however, I haven’t heard of feminist activists facing physical attacks from civilians.

    I am one of the activists who started taking direct action against the government, so there are a lot of things that I am being accused of. Ordo Iuris does not like me because I wrote a book exposing the international fundamentalist network that it is part of. I am on the list of their enemies, but so far, I have not been sued by them. They say they are working on their list of accusations against me, because there are so many. During our latest protest, members of Ordo Iuris approached a police officer and tried to convince him that I should be requested to show my identification. But the police in Warsaw know us, they know our faces, they knew that I had not done anything illegal during the protest and refused their request.

    In which ways can civil society hold accountable an increasingly authoritarian government such as Poland’s, and what support from international civil society does it need to do so?

    Regarding the Istanbul Convention, we are trying to convince the international community that European funds should be allocated bearing in mind the actual human rights compliance records of each member of the European Union (EU). A new instrument introduced in the EU established that funding should be linked to adherence to democratic principles and practices. We are trying to convince the Council of Europe, the source of the Istanbul Convention, to introduce similar measures towards the governments that are relinquishing their people’s rights. It’s all about linking funding to human rights compliance. Money is the only language governments will understand. Six Polish cities are currently not receiving European funds following their declaration of so-called ‘LGBTI-free zones’, which is considered an act against human rights. We would like to raise this question, together with Turkish women, who are facing a similar battle against their government’s initiative to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. You cannot be destroying human rights, like Hungary and Russia are doing, and still be treated by the Council of Europe like anyone else, as a partner in the conversation. So, this is a new approach that we are trying to make people understand.

    We want international civil society organisations to lobby local politicians so they become aware that the issues of human rights and funding need to be considered together. The Council of Europe also needs to understand this so we can set a precedent and in the future women here and in other countries will be protected. If we have an authoritarian government that does whatever it wants, even if citizens don’t agree, we need to have some protections from abroad. All we find in Poland is repression, so we need somebody from outside to be on our side and not leave us alone.

    Civic space in Poland israted as ‘narrowed’ bytheCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Polish Women’s Strike through itsFacebook page and follow@strajkkobiet and@KSuchanow on Twitter.

     

  • Poland: A Year On, Abortion Ruling Harms Women

    Anniversary Marks Ongoing Assault on Women’s Rights, Rule of Law

    Women, girls, and all pregnant people have faced extreme barriers to accessing legal abortions in the year since a Constitutional Tribunal ruling virtually banned legal abortion in Poland, 14 human rights organizations said today. Since the ruling, women human rights defenders have also faced an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment.

    Poland’s authorities should end efforts to undermine reproductive rights and weaken protections from gender-based violence. They should commit to protecting women human rights defenders who have faced ongoing threats and attacks since the October 2020 decision. Escalating death threats since October 9 against Marta Lempart, co-founder of Ognopolski Strajk Kobiet (All-Poland Women’s Strike) and a target of repeated threats for leading demonstrations supporting legal abortion and women’s rights, led to her police protection during public appearances.

    “The Constitutional Tribunal ruling is causing incalculable harm to women and girls – especially those who are poor, live in rural areas, or are marginalized,” said Urszula Grycuk, international advocacy coordinator at the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) in Poland. “The dignity, freedom and health of pregnant people are compromised because their own government is denying them access to essential reproductive health care.”

    The organizations are Abortion Support Network, Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights, CIVICUS, Federa, FOKUS, Human Rights Watch, International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), International Planned Parenthood Federation-European Network, MSI Reproductive Choices, Le Planning Familial, Riksförbundet för sexuell upplysning/The Swedish Association for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, and Strajk Kobiet/Women’s Strike.

    Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, whose independence and legitimacy is profoundly eroded, is widely acknowledged as politically compromised. On October 22, 2020, it ruled that abortion on grounds of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” was unconstitutional. The government brought the case to the tribunal after parliament failed to adopt legislation with the same effect. The ruling came into force on January 27, 2021.

    This eliminated one of the few legal grounds for abortion under Poland’s highly restrictive law. Previously, over 90 percent of the approximately 1,000 legal abortions annually in Poland were on these grounds. The ruling came as Covid-19 pandemic restrictions made travel for health care prohibitively difficult and costly. The ruling spurred the country’s largest public protests in decades, led by women human rights defenders.

    Activists and women’s rights groups reported that the ruling had a significant chilling effect as people seeking abortions and medical professionals feared repercussions. Abortion Without Borders, which aids women in European countries where abortion is illegal or access is highly restricted, reported that 17,000 women in Poland contacted them in the six months after the ruling for help accessing abortion, and that they continue to receive about 800 calls a month.

    Federa, a Polish reproductive health and rights organization, reported conducting approximately 8,100 consultations in the 11 months after the ruling, 3 times as many as during the same period in previous years. This included calls to its helpline and over 5,000 emails concerning access to abortion and other sexual and reproductive health services.

    Since the Law and Justice party came to power in 2015, Poland’s government has repeatedly moved to further curb sexual and reproductive health and rights, including by supporting a 2016 draft bill for a total abortion ban that parliament rejected following mass public protest. The government also supported a draft bill, introduced by an ultra-conservative group, to essentially criminalize comprehensive sexuality education. The bill has been in committee since April 2020. These bills are “civic initiatives,” which require public signatures to be considered.

    In September 2021, the same group introduced a new civic initiative “Stop Abortion” bill to parliament. It would consider abortion at any stage a homicide and would bring criminal penalties against women who have abortions, and anyone who assists them, with punishment of up to 25 years in prison. The bill is backed by Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, an ultra-conservative, anti-choice, and anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) group.

    Women’s rights organizations and parliament members of the opposition Lewica party are collecting signatures for a civic initiative bill, “Legal Abortion Without Compromise,” which would permit abortion without restriction as to reason up to the twelfth week of pregnancy. It would permit abortion after 12 weeks in cases of risk to the person’s mental or physical health, a non-viable pregnancy, or pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.

    Evidence consistently demonstrates that laws restricting or criminalizing abortion do not eliminate it, but rather drive people to seek abortion through means that may put their mental and physical health at risk and diminish their autonomy and dignity. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has said that as part of the obligation to protect the right to life of pregnant people, states should not apply criminal sanctions against anyone undergoing abortion or medical service providers assisting them.

    In July, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) announced that it will address complaints from Polish women who may be victims of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms due to the Constitutional Tribunal’s abortion ruling. Poland’s government has failed to effectively implement previous ECtHR judgments concerning access to lawful abortion despite repeated calls and a March judgmentby the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

    The Law and Justice government has also targeted women’s rights organizations and activists. Activists said that government rhetoric and media campaigns smearing them and their work foster misinformation and hate that can put their safety at risk. Several women’s rights defenders were detained or face what they describe as politically motivated criminal charges for actions during protests following the Constitutional Tribunal’s abortion ruling. Activists received multiple bomb and death threats in February and March for their support of reproductive rights but said that, in many cases, police minimized the security risks and either did not open investigations or failed to pursue them effectively. No one has been held accountable for these threats. Police launched investigations and arrested one man in connection with online death threats to Lempart ahead of her planned appearance at a protest on October 11, and are now providing her protection at public events.

    The government has undermined efforts to combat gender-based violence, including by initiating Poland’s withdrawal from a landmark European convention on violence against women, the Istanbul Convention. The government referred the convention to the politically compromised Constitutional Tribunal for review due to its definition of “gender.” Campaigns against gender equality have been used to target women’s and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex rights and those who support them.

    “Extreme restrictions on abortion are part of a broader assault by Poland’s government on human rights, including women’s rights and LGBTI rights, and the rule of law,” said Marta Lempart, co-founder of Strajk Kobiet. “It should alarm all Europeans that this is happening in their own backyard, even as European governments claim to be leaders on women’s rights and democratic values.”

    The anti-abortion ruling’s anniversary comes amid increasing tensions between Poland’s government and the European Union after an October 7 Constitutional Tribunal ruling rejecting the binding nature of EU law. It followed a series of EU Court of Justice rulings that the Polish government’s weakening of judicial independence breaches EU law. The European Commission said it “will not hesitate to make use of its powers” under EU treaties to ensure application of EU law and protect people’s rights.

    Poland’s government should reverse restrictions on reproductive rights and ensure that these rights are upheld in accordance with international law, including the right to access safe abortion. It should cease attacks on women’s rights and women human rights defenders and end moves to undermine the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.

    The European Commission and EU member states should urgently address rule of law breaches and their impact on women’s human rights, including reproductive rights, in Poland. The European Commission should trigger legal infringement proceedings for Polish authorities’ use of a politically compromised Constitutional Tribunal to erode the rights of people in Poland and undermine democratic checks and balances, in blatant violation of the EU Treaties.

    The Commission and EU member states should act to protect and support women’s rights defenders and organizations in Poland. Member states should actively support people in Poland seeking access to abortion.

    The Commission should urgently implement the mechanism tying access to EU funds to respect for EU values and continue its commitment to tie EU Recovery Funds to rule of law guarantees. EU member states should advance and expand scrutiny under Article 7.1 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) by adopting specific recommendations or voting to determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values in Poland, as has been called foralso by European Parliament.

    “Despite fear and repercussions, people in Poland are fighting every day to protect rights that everyone in the EU should be able to exercise freely, including access to safe abortion,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Women’s rights are on a precipice in Poland, and unless the European Commission and Council act to defend democratic values, more and more women and girls will suffer the consequences.”

    For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Poland, please visit:
    https://www.hrw.org/europe/central-asia/poland

    For more information, please contact:
    For Human Rights Watch, in London, Hillary Margolis (English): +1-917-385-4107 (US mobile) or +44 (0)7733-486-524 (UK mobile); or . Twitter: @hillarymargo
    For Human Rights Watch, in Brussels, Philippe Dam: (French, English): +32-495-45-22-71 (mobile); or . Twitter: @philippe_dam
    For Human Rights Watch, in Budapest, Lydia Gall (English, Swedish, Hungarian): +36-702-748-328 (mobile); or . Twitter: @LydsG
    For Abortion Support Network (part of Abortion Without Borders), in London, Mara Clarke (English): +44 (0) 7913-353-530; or
    For Amnesty International, Alison Abrahams: +32-483-680-812 or +44-20-7413-5566; or ; or . Twitter: @amnestypress     
    For the Center for Reproductive Rights, in New York, Geraldine Henrich-Koenis (English): +1-703-314-1137; or . Twitter: @ReproRights
    For CIVICUS,in Johannesburg, Aarti Narsee: ; or . Twitter @ajnarsee
    For FIDH, in Brussels, Elena Crespi (English, French, Italian, Spanish): +32-484-875-964. Twitter: @ecrespi_fidh
    For FIDH, in Paris: Marc de Boni (French, English): +33-6-722-842-94. Twitter: @MarcdeBoni
    For Federa, in Warsaw, Urszula Grycuk (Polish, English): .
    For International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network,in Brussels, Irene Donadio (English, Italian): +32-491-071-93-90; or . Twitter: @ippfen
    For the Polish Women’s Strike, in Warsaw, Anna Styrańczak: +48-881-718-904; or .

    Civic space in Poland is rated as narrowed by the CIVICUS Monitor