Tag Archives: politics

Young women fight the ‘Talibanisation’ of rural Pakistan

Much attention has been focused on the process of radicalisation of young men in the areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. Peshawar, the town near the border between the two countries, is infamous for being the centre of a vibrant industry and trade in homemade guns. For more than two decades, violence has become the dominant currency of almost every aspect of life in this area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, once known as the North West Frontier Province.

So it takes remarkable courage for a 16-year-old girl to decide to challenge how this culture of violence was reinforcing and strengthening the oppression of women. Eight years on, Gulalai Ismail, now a poised 24-year-old, is running two programmes of work – one on gender empowerment and the other on peacebuilding – from her home in Peshawar, where she grew up. Brought to London by Peace Direct, Ismail was talking to youngsters about her work.

“I set up Aware Girls when I was 16 because all around me I saw girls being treated differently to boys. My girl cousin was 15 when her marriage was arranged to someone twice her age; she couldn’t finish her education while my boy cousins were [doing so]. This was considered normal. Girls have internalised all this discrimination – a woman who suffers violence but doesn’t say anything is much admired in the village as a role model. A good woman submits to her husband or father.

“Aware Girls raised awareness of equal status. We did training that women have human rights, and taught leadership skills and how to negotiate within their families and with their parents to get education and to have control over their own lives.”

Ismail is well aware of how the position of women has deteriorated over the course of her life. “Peshawar used to be very progressive, but after “Talibanisation” it became much more conservative and life is more difficult for my younger sister than it was for me. Just going out to the market is difficult because of the sexual harassment.”

That kind of harassment makes organising training for young women particularly difficult. Ismail and her staff have to strive very hard with communities in the villages where they work to build trust that if daughters attend the training they will be safe. Parents worry that their daughters will be “westernised” and forget their “cultural values”. For a recent training course on political leadership to help boost the participation of women in politics, Aware Girls had to organise 20 local community meetings to identify the 30 girls who eventually went on the course. Working in remote rural areas requires considerable patience and time, but Ismail is not interested in the easier option of working only in urban areas.

It was the gender work that came first, but Ismail soon realised the close relationship between gender and peace. “In training, a woman told the story of how her 12-year-old son was taken away to Afghanistan by the militants, and 10 months later he was dead. That made me think that we must stop these young people joining the militants.”

The result was the Seeds of Peace network, which Ismail set up last year and which has trained 25 young people. They, in turn, will train another 20, to slowly expand a network across 10 districts of the province. She believes each person can reach 500 young people to promote tolerance and challenge extremism.

“They identify young people in the community who might be vulnerable to militants and they organise study circles to discuss the causes and consequences of conflict and the history of Talibanisation. We talk about tolerance for people of other faiths,” says Ismail.

Almost every aspect of children’s upbringing is affected by extremism. Even the school textbooks urge children to be ready for jihad, says Ismail, and all around are songs and films that glorify war, martyrdom and violence.

“Seeds of Peace aims to give another perspective by getting people to think about human rights. Peace is not just the absence of war, it is about respect and tolerance – and women have an important role in educating their children.”

Ismail is well aware that her work challenges the Taliban’s power, and that brings dangers. She is also aware that there are huge political issues involved in the radicalisation of the region where she lives, but believes that a grassroots community challenge to a culture of extremist intolerance is also a crucial part of the search for peace. Both high-level political negotiation and community participation are required in conflict resolution.

Peace Direct’s Ruairi Nolan backs up Ismail’s analysis of a peace process, using the analogy of political negotiation as the bricks and community engagement as the cement that hold the bricks together. Pointing to Northern Ireland’s experience, he suggests that several decades of community peacebuilding was a crucial precondition to the success of the political process that culminated in the Northern Ireland agreement.

At international conferences, Ismail has met counterparts from Uganda, Sri Lanka and many other parts of the world. Despite the very different forms of conflict, she can see plenty of similarities in the work they are doing – and she says that gives her hope.

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Women Talk: ‘We Want Greater Gender Equality’

“I hope to see a society where women can comfortably work and raise a family … at the same time.” University student Eri Ochiai’s words may well echo the sentiment of many a Japanese woman, hopeful for a change that has eluded them for many years under the previous administration. When Ochiai, 20, trooped to the polls for the first time in late August, she was resolute to give her vote to her district’s female candidate, who had pledged “to improve the social environments for women.” Ochiai’s optimism resonates with many women in Japan. “The Japanese voters have greater expectations of women than before,” said Yoriko Madoka, a member of the House of Councilors (the upper house of Japan’s National Diet) since l992. The women in parliament will bring changes to Japanese politics, added the acknowledged gender advocate within the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). DPJ became the new ruling party in the East Asian economic powerhouse following its overwhelming victory in the last national elections. About a third of the women elected for the first time to the lower house — many of them from the DPJ — are in their 20s to 30s while another third are in their 40s. Several young female candidates of the DPJ beat the veteran conservatives from the once formidable party. Inexperienced in politics, their presence in the legislature has prompted some of the LDP stalwarts to voice their scepticism: “What can these young girls do in politics?” they asked. “What is wrong with women and young people making decisions in politics?” Madoka said. Newly elected parliament member Mari Kushibuchi, 41, expressed to ‘Asahi Shimbun’, Japanese daily, soon after the election her readiness to “transform the significance of the votes given to her into new power.” Exposed to the realities of Japanese society, the new and younger female members of parliament are more aware of gender issues and of the need to get rid of discrimination against women, said Madoka. “They are ready to provide different perspectives on agendas involving not only gender but other issues as well such as peace, economy and education,” she added. Such perspectives will be put to good use in a nation still struggling to make women’s voice sufficiently heard on a host of issues. In terms of female presence in politics, Japan ranks 99th in the world, up from its previous standing of 134th, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of Parliaments. This shows that women’s involvement in politics is increasing. The current female composition of the lower house, numbering 54 , or 11.3 percent of the total — up from 9.2 before the last election — is still far below the 30 percent government had set in 2005 as the target ratio of women in important positions by 2020. Yet the number of women parliamentarians who now sit in the House of Representatives is already unprecedented in the history of Japanese politics, thanks in part to women’s groups that campaigned hard to send more women to parliament. One of these is the ‘Women in New World, International Network’, founded in 1999 by Ryoko Akamatsu, former Education Minister and erstwhile chief of the Women and Minors Bureau at the Labor Ministry, along with her friends. WinWin, as the network is simply known, supports progressive female candidates running for public office. The group believes that Japan’s society will change for the better if it has more women in parliament. Madoka’s School of Politics for Women, launched with other parliamentarians in l993, has trained more than 600 women interested in political careers. Of these, five have been sent to the parliament and at least 70 others to the local assembly. Complementing these groups’ efforts are those of other women outside the public sphere who have been pushing for more gender equality in their country. The Working Women’s Network (WWN), a civic organisation of female workers in Osaka, made an urgent appeal to the new government in early September for the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Optional Protocol is an international treaty adopted in 1999 establishing complaint and inquiry mechanisms for the CEDAW. Japan ratified the CEDAW in l985, but not the Optional Protocol. Japanese gender specialists agree that there is an urgent need to ratify the other treaty, believing it will effectively eliminate discrimination against women in Japan. More than 80 women’s groups across the nation endorsed the WWN’s proposal urging the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, to publicly pledge the ratification of the Optional Protocol during his speech at the United Nations summit on Sept. 23. But he made no mention of it, focusing instead on diplomacy and Japan’s initiative about climate change. Hatoyama’s party, nonetheless, has already made known its intention to amend the antiquated provisions of the Civil Code, which, among others, will allow women to keep their maiden names even after marriage. Such efforts were unheard of under the conservative LDP. Notwithstanding all these efforts in and outside the government, Japan, it appears, still has a long way to go in bringing women’s equality in society into reality. In the Gender Empowerment Measure ranking compiled in the 2007-2008 Human Development Index Report by the United Nations Development Programme, Japan placed 54th among 177 nations, lagging far behind other industrialised nations. Having ratified the CEDAW in 1985, Japan is subject to monitoring by the U.N. Committee monitoring the Convention’s implementation. In August, the Committee evaluated the status of women in Japan, one of 11 countries up for review this year, and found that the country had not shown improvement based on the previous monitoring reports. In its April 2008 report to CEDAW, Japan claimed to have already implemented the equal-pay-for-equal-work rule based on Article 4 of the Labor Standard Law, which prohibits sexually discriminatory wages. Yet it admitted that there was still a wage gap between men and women workers in Japan. The challenge for the progressive women’s force in the parliament is to build a base for untying the gender bind in Japan, said Madoka. Such bind manifests in a number of ways. “More women belong to the ‘working poor’ class” compared to men, she said. “They have also less access to fulltime jobs, less pay and fewer benefits.” A 2008 report published by ‘Japan Times’, an English daily, quoted the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry as saying that fulltime female workers in 2007 earned on average 66.9 percent of what men earned. The gnawing disparities between genders should be narrowed, said Madoka. “If women’s life is improved, then men’s life should be better, and the whole society will be more human-friendly,” she reasoned. “At the moment working mothers are burdened with unchanging multiple tasks both at work and at home, said Akamatsu. “That is why over 60 percent of working women quit jobs at their first child birth,” she added, referring to the M-curve — or the workforce participation rate of women by age — that reflects a dip considered distinct to Japan. First-time voter Ochiai may not know how long she will have to wait to see her dream for women in her society come true. But she remains optimistic, especially now that there are more female parliamentarians in her country. Sixty two-year-old Yasuko Aoki cannot wait for that day to come. “We expect that the women in parliament would carve a better future for our 13-month-old granddaughter, Hiroko,” the wife of a retired engineer in Tokyo told IPS. She may have known only the traditional life of a homemaker, but she nevertheless shares the hopes and dreams of many other Japanese women. Already she is seeing a modicum of change within the confines of her own family. While Aoki’s daughter is busy tending to Hiroko after a hard day’s work as a bank employee, her son-in-law is dutifully taking the garbage out. An auspicious portent of things to come, she muses.

PKR’s plan for women

IN early June 2009, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) announced it would be amending its constitution to include, among others, a 30% quota for women leaders at all levels. PKR’s move likely made it the first party from either the Pakatan Rakyat or the Barisan Nasional to make a concrete commitment towards including more women in politics.

Women’s rights advocates agree that PKR’s new quota for women in leadership positions is a step in the right direction. The party has clearly absorbed many points women’s advocacy groups have been making for years about gender equality.

But how effective will PKR’s gender quota be, and how exactly will it be put into place?

Women of substance

Wanita PKR deputy chief Rodziah Ismail stresses one point repeatedly: the women who fill her party’s new quota must be able to make a substantial contribution, not just fill seats.

“If we pick you as a candidate, it’s not because you are beautiful, or you are nice to others. You must go on this line: you are capable, you are giving the best performance, people are seeing you as a leader. If not, sorry,” she tells The Nut Graph in an interview at her office in Shah Alam.

zuraida But both Rodziah and Wanita PKR chief Zuraida Kamaruddin have expressed concerns about a lack of qualified women to fill top positions. Indeed, if women are traditionally kept out of leadership positions, what will ensure that qualified women actually make it to top posts in a party or organisation?

PKR is addressing the lack of qualified female candidates by implementing training programmes, which would focus on skill and confidence building, Rodziah said. The most promising participants in these programmes could be fast-tracked into leadership positions. Most of the efforts to implement the quota are currently concentrated on developing and implementing such programmes, she said.

A strategy focused on fast-track training programmes is also in line with recommendations from women’s groups, says Dr Cecilia Ng, an academic and women’s rights activist, in a phone interview.

ngNg, who is visiting professor at the Women’s Development Research Centre at Universiti Sains Malaysia, notes that training programmes like these are essential to ensure that women are qualified to do substantial work. “You have to do a lot more groundwork, and identify potential leaders, identify the younger leaders, [and] together go through trainings [and] empowerment programmes,” she said.

What does it mean?

Skills training aside, PKR’s constitutional amendment could be defined in any number of ways. But Rodziah explained that the 30% quota would be incorporated at every level.

For example, in a branch with 15 seats, five should be held by women. If five of those 15 seats are decision-making positions, at least one should be held by a woman, Rodziah says. The same principle would apply at the federal level.

Still, 30% of women in leadership positions does not necessarily translate into 30% of women as elected representatives.

Rodziah said the party would meet in July 2009 to plot a two-year plan for increasing the number of female candidates in the next elections. However, she did not indicate what that plan would consist of, just as she was short on detailing the party’s training programmes or what the party’s deadline was to achieve its 30% quota.

“We have our strategy but I can’t expose it,” she says.

Racial barriers

Rodziah also expressed barriers to women’s participation in Malaysian politics in racial terms, revealing that gender discrimination is just one of many issues female politicians have to deal with.

When asked what the biggest barriers are to Malaysian women’s participation in politics, she divided them along racial lines. “Chinese women are good in giving ideas, projecting themselves. But some Malay women are a bit slow in that.”rodziah

In other words, despite the fact that PKR is multiracial, party members still face racial prejudice from their peers about how they will perform.

Political parties can’t achieve equality among their members by considering gender alone, Ng notes. They also have to tackle discrimination based on age and race.

“The 30% quota has to represent the different ethnic groups, different age groups, and geographical locations,” she argues.

Preventing ghettos

These issues aside, Simranjit Kaur Gill, who lobbies for more women in positions of power with the Women’s Candidacy Initiative, says applying the quota could address the problem of women being ghettoised in certain positions.

“Society considers women as only being relevant to consider women’s issues, like family and healthcare,” she said. “And if you look at the political system in Malaysia, with the exception of (Tan Sri) Rafidah Aziz, the usual cabinet positions given to women relate to social welfare, national unity, sports, youth, women, family and community.”simranjit

This limitation on the acceptable roles that women can play in public office is yet another barrier for Malaysian women in politics, Simranjit adds. “We are ready for the ministries of defence, finance and, yes — even to be prime minister.”

But it remains unclear if PKR’s women’s wing is on the same page as women’s rights advocates.

“[Women] can’t only be championing women’s issues,” Rodziah says, for example. “Women’s issues should be on par with other issues.”

In other words, women should not be emphasising women’s issues more than other issues. But that argument presupposes that women’s issues are already given the same level of importance as others, and that male politicians would address and promote women’s concerns in the absence of female counterparts.

The lack of clarity aside on the issues involved in gender equality, PKR should be commended. While other politicians and political parties have merely announced objectives for increasing female representation, PKR has enshrined a women’s quota in their constitution, setting a benchmark for others to follow.

Equally important, it means other political parties and civil society can hold them accountable if they fail to achieve what they promise they would do.

Source: http://thenutgraph.com/article-4447.html

Afghanistan Tones Down Contentious Marriage Law

KABUL – Afghanistan’s government has revised a law that stirred an international outcry because it essentially legalized marital rape, officials said Thursday. The new version no longer requires a woman submit to sex with her husband, only that she do certain housework.

The changes, which parliament is expected to approve, likely reflect a calculation by President Hamid Karzai that his reputation as a reformer is more important than support from conservative Shiites who favored the original bill.

Presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said the revisions show that Karzai has followed through on a pledge made in April to expunge the offensive parts of the marriage law, which applies only to minority Shiite Muslims.

Women’s rights activists welcomed the new draft, but many said the government had not done enough and that little will change in day-to-day life.

“We need a change in customs, and this is just on paper. What is being practiced every day, in Kabul even, is worse than the laws,” said Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker and vocal women’s rights advocate.

Karzai signed the original law in March but quickly suspended enforcement after governments around the world condemned the legislation. Critics saw it as a return to Taliban-style oppression of women by a government that was supposed to be promoting democracy and human rights. President Barack Obama labeled the original version “abhorrent.”

Even within this conservative Muslim society, a host of academics and politicians signed a petition condemning the law, and women took to the streets of Kabul in protest.

Karzai said that he had not read the law before signing it and that his Cabinet advisers had signed off on a version that did not include articles requiring a woman to ask her husband’s permission to leave the house. But those articles ended up in the draft he signed, as was a provision ordering wives to offer sex with their spouses at least every four days unless they were ill.

After the firestorm of criticism, Karzai ordered a Justice Ministry review, which took three months.

Two of the most controversial articles have been drastically changed, according to documents supplied by the ministry. An article that previously required a wife to submit to regular sex now requires her only to perform whatever household chores the couple agreed to when they married. The revised version makes no attempt to regulate sexual relations between husband and wife.

A section that required a wife to ask her husband’s permission to leave the house has also been deleted. In its place, an article states that a woman is the “owner of her property and can use her property without the permission of her husband.”

Shiites comprise 10 to 20 percent of Afghanistan‘s 30 million people; the majority are Sunni Muslim. Nonetheless, the measure caused an uproar because it harkened back to Taliban-era rules. The Taliban, Sunnis who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, required women to wear all-covering burqas and banned them from leaving home without a male relative.

Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, said the amendments would “ensure Afghanistan meets international obligations.”

“The United Nations has had concerns about parts of the law that do not conform with international law, particularly in regard to the rights of women,” Siddique said.

Although many Afghans criticized the law, their voices were often overwhelmed by conservative Shiites who said the legislation protected their right to live according to their interpretation of Islam’s holy book, the Quran. At a protest in April, supporters of the law shouted insults and threw rocks at women who opposed it.

Before Karzai came out strongly against the law, his critics said he might be using the legislation to court Shiites in the Aug. 20 presidential election. Approval of the changes before the vote would put Karzai on the side of the reformers.

Even so, Roshan Sirran, who heads a group that informs women of their rights under Islamic and international law, said the new version still relies too much on agreements entered into at the time of marriage. Such contracts aren’t a traditional part of an engagement or marriage in Afghanistan, she said.

“This is not implementable in our society. There will be no agreement on any conditions at the time of the marriage between husband and wife,” Sirran said. Others said men have too much freedom to marry second wives without consulting their first wives. Islam allows men up to four wives.

Parliament is in recess and will not convene again for nearly two weeks. Hamidzada, the presidential spokesman, said Afghanistan’s influential clerics council and civil society leaders will also have to sign off on the revised law.

Even with the changes, some activists said not much will change in women’s lives.

“Still there are forced marriages and child marriages and the lack of access to property, and the lack of access to divorce,” Barakzai said. “Still a girl, because she’s a girl, can’t go to school, in very rich families even.”

Source:

Mexico’s Women Make Gains in Politics

TORREÓN, Mexico — In addition to completely reordering Mexico’s political landscape, the mid-term legislative elections on July 5 marked a step forward for gender equality in the country. The opposition Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI), previously the third-largest party, scored a huge victory. The PRI took a near-majority in the lower house of Congress, which had been dominated by the National Action Party (PAN), won five of six gubernatorial races, and a number of state and local contests around the nation.

The two leading vote-getters — the ideologically amorphous PRI and the center-right PAN — are both expected to tab women as the leaders of their respective caucuses in the Chamber of Deputies. With the benefit of such a platform, both the PAN’s Josefina Vázquez and the PRI’s Beatriz Paredes will not only be able to put oft-ignored women’s issues closer to the forefront of the national agenda. They are now plausible presidential contenders for 2012.

More broadly, despite not winning the right to vote until 1953, Mexican women have made significant gains, and now vote in higher proportions than their male counterparts. In 2002, parties were required to field women for at least 30 percent of their congressional candidates, with the quota upped to 40 percent ahead of this election cycle. However, the law is widely flouted by parties willing to pay the requisite fines after the election, meaning that in many regions, barely a quarter of the candidates are women.

Beyond Congress, women have also played a gradually more significant role in the executive branch of the federal government. The trend culminated in the cabinet of President Felipe Calderón, who has placed women at the head of key secretariats like education (Vázquez), energy (Georgina Kessel), and foreign relations (Patricia Espinosa).

This is part of a broader trend toward gender equality that makes the old stereotype of macho Mexico seem increasingly dated. As Sara Sefchovich wrote in a recent profile of First Lady Margarita Zavala, “We have come a long way since the era in which a president shut his wife up in public when she wanted to express an opinion on some issue, telling her: ‘Don’t butt in, you know nothing about this.'”

Today, the acceptance of women as equal players has become so ingrained that even the conservative wife of a conservative president is considered a prominent feminist. As Sefchovich points out in the same article, “Margarita has fought for the rights of women, not only for the opening of political spaces but also for . . . ending the violence, for salary equality, against discrimination, [for] education, and [for] health.”

Nonetheless, gender-based discrepancies remain striking in other political realms. Most obviously, no woman has ever run as a major-party candidate for president. Beyond that, only six women have ever served as governor. In the six states that elected governors on July 5, only two of 18 major-party candidates were women, and neither came close to winning. Rounding out the unbalanced executive picture, female mayors run only 4 percent of Mexico’s municipalities.

Worse still, there has been little political cost in cases where male politicians demonstrate gross disrespect for women. While campaigning for mayor of Tijuana in 2004, for instance, Jorge Hank Rhon declared that women were his favorite animal. But the remark didn’t end his career. He ended up winning that race, and came within a whisker of the governorship of Baja California Norte in 2007.

More mundane examples of gender inequality persist in daily life as well. For starters, women are routinely paid less for the same work as men. Dr. María del Carmen Contreras, a physician in the northern city of Torreón, recently told World Politics Review about being offered a job for half the salary of the doctor she was to replace a few years ago, despite having a comparable resume. For “dignity’s sake,” she turned the job down.

Months later, in an odd twist of fate, Contreras learned that the doctor who was eventually hired to fill the job she’d been offered — a man — was paid the same, higher salary of the outgoing doctor. “I asked to speak with the man who made me the offer,” Contreras told WPR, “and he told me . . . that because I am a woman, I didn’t have the economic responsibility of a household.” The different salaries supposedly reflected the different financial needs of a man and a woman.

Contreras’ example is not isolated, nor is discrimination in the workplace limited to salary inequality. Because Mexico mandates a paid maternity leave of several months, many businesses have unwritten rules prohibiting the hiring of young, married women. Women are also regularly screened for “good presentation” in job interviews, a euphemism meaning that candidates’ attractiveness will likely be a factor in any hiring decision.

Despite the obvious injustices, as well as the obvious benefits of addressing them, women’s issues other than abortion rarely receive much attention at the national level. Contreras said that she remembers hearing about gender inequality in the workplace a great deal during the Vicente Fox administration, but very little under Calderón, and not at all during the present campaign.

A Chamber of Deputies with Paredes and Vázquez at its head should help reverse that state of affairs. But Mexico remains behind its South American neighbors with regard to political equality between the sexes. The regular election of female executives would be another big step in the right direction.

Source: http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=4030

Online Women Bulletin, July 5, 2009

WOMEN IN POLITICS

India: Dalit , Muslim Women Bodies For Sub-Quota For Women in Bill

Contending that the Women’s Reservation Bill in its present form will benefit only those from affluent sections. Dalit and Muslim bodies demanded a sub-quota for women from weaker sections to ensure fair representation. At a convention in New Delhi, representatives of the All India Milli Council, the Muslim Welfare Organization, Dr B R Ambedkar Sewa Dal and Samajik Nyan Morcha among others said a quota without a sub-quota will augment inequalities in the country and fail to serve its purpose. “While we welcome the proposal of reserving seats form women, we strongly believe there should be a provision ensuring that Muslim and Dalit women, who are the most backward in the country and need representation, get their due share in proportion to their population,” said Manzoor Alam, General Secretary, All India Milli Concil. Alam said in its present form, the bill will further strengthen and empower, “the already educated and economically empowered ladies” and those who belong to families with political background

Lebanon: Where’s the Woman’s Place?

If you think Lebanon is a complicated place, the state of Lebanese women’s political participation should be no surprise. Lebanese women won the right to vote and to participate in national elections in 1952, 19 years b efore women in Switzerland. Yet, today, political participation by Lebanese women remains dismal at the national level. In the June parliamentary elections, only 12 women ran for office and only 4 were elected out of 128 seats. Since suffrage, in fact, only 77 women have served in Lebanon’s parliament. The reasons are complicated but male domination if the country’s politics is one major reason. Another is that political parties are f ocused in sectarian interests, marginalizing women’s voices.

Fiji: Interim Government Approves New Women’s  Groups

Fiji’s leading women’s advocacy group says a new interim government endoresed women’s group will not take the place of existing institutions. In a statement, Fiji’s interim government says the new “Fiji Women’s Federation”, will be the advocate for, and representative of, women’s rights in the country. The coordinator of one of the longest serving women rights groups, the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, Shamima Ali, say previous governments have tried and failed to create something similar, ” Often these things have fallen by the wayside because of lack of funding, lack of the political will of the government”, she said. The interim government says the membership of the federation will be nade up of women’s non government organizations, which meet a set criteria. But no detail of what that criteria is has been made public. Ms. Ali says the federation’s creation won’t mean groups like the Crisis Centre, vocal critics of the interim government, will be sidelined.

Iran: Women Leading the Charge for Change

Iranian women’s visible presence in protests over their country’s political turmoil is likely to strengthen the cause of opposition leader Mr. Hussein Mousavi. That became clear this weekend after 26-yeald Neda Agha-Soltan was shot in the chest while attending a protest rally. The video of her  bloody death on Saturday has circulated in Iran and around the world and prompted an outpouring of sympathy. President Obama in a White House press conference said, “We have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the street. While this lost is raw and extraordinary painful, we also know this: Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.” Ms. Agha-Soltan apparently wasn’t a political activist but has become a stirring symbol of anti-government movement. And her gender seems to be heightening worldwide sympathy for the protesters.

Indonesia: Head Scarf Emerges As Political Symbol

The three (3) parties competing in Indonesia’s presidential election next week have plastered the city with campaign billboards and posters depicting, predictably, their presidential and vice presidential choices looking self-confident. But one party, Golkar, has also put up posters of the candidates’ wives next to their husbands, posing demurely and wearing a Muslim head scarves known here as jilbabs. The wives recently went on a jilbab shopping spree in one of Jakarta’s largest  markets and published a book together titled, “Devout Wives of Future Leaders”. Most polls suggest that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of the Democratic Party will be reelected  next Wednesday’s vote, after running a smooth campaign based on his economic policies and a popular anticorruption drive. Despite television debates, the personality-driven campaigns have focused little on differences over policies or ideas, except regarding the wearing of the jilbab.

Nepal:UK’s Permanent Secretary For International Development Interacts With Constituent Assembly (CA) Members

The Permanent Secretary at the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), Minouche Shafik, who concluded a two-day visit to Nepal on July 1, met women constituent assembly (CA) members at the Center for Constitutional Dialogue (CCD). During the meeting, Shafik heard about women’s role in the constitution-writing process and the challenges they faced in a traditionally-male dominated society. The CA members hoped to make the most of their numbers in the CA (33% of the total seats) by ensuring greater equality for women, including in access to state resources such as education and health care, teh DFID in Kathmandu said. Shafik reiterated DFID’s willingness to continue to contribute to making the voice of women and other marginalized groups heard, such as by sharing international experience of women’s role in parliament.

Mongolia: Draf Law on Gender Equality Presented

Government Cabinet Secretary Chief B. Dolgor submitted Friday a bill to ensure gender equality to Parliamentary Speaker D. Demberel. Mongolia has joined a number of international treaties and pacts, including international pacts on civic and political rights, on economic societal and cultural rights, a convention to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, a convention on women in politics, as well as the 1993 Vienna Convention. These make Mongolia responsible for creating a favorable legal environment to refute any acts and customs allowing gender discrimination, satisfying and guaranteeing equal gender rights equality and equal attitudes, taking required measures and approving relevant legislation. Mongolia’s government action plan for 2009-2012 includes drawing up a bill to ensure gender equality.

GENDER IN CLIMATE CHANGE AND DISASTER RISK REDUCTION

UN Habitat’s Executive Director Wins Prestigious Environmental Award

UN Habitat’s Executive Director Mrs. Anna Tibaijuka has been named one of the three (3) winners of the 2009 Goteborg Award, the prestigious “Nobel Prize in Environment”. The Goteborg Award now celebrating its tenth year conferred its jubilee prize of one million Swedish Kroner (USD 126,775) to be shared equally between Mrs. Tibaijuka, Mr. Enrique Penalosa, the former  mayor of Bogota, Colombia, and Mr. Soren Hermansen of Samso, Denmark, who was named by Time Magazine as 2008 Hero of the Environment. Last year’s winner included Mr. Al Gore the former US Vice President and global environment champion.

West African Sub-Region Vulnerable To Climate Change

Dr. Edward Omane Boamah, Deputy Minister of Environment, Science and Technology said that the Western African Sub-Region would be the most affected region by climate change, as long as it remained one of the poorest in the world. He said over the last three or four decades, impact of climate change has revealed the region’s vulnerability and stressed the need for consensus actions to reduce the looming danger. Droughts, floods and storms are likely to increase, not only in frequency but also in intensity. Rainfall patterns are still changing and in coastal areas, sea level rise and rising temparatures will threaten coastal areas and ecosystems”, he said. He emphasized the prospective impacts on society and economies across the sub-region were likely to be huge, thereby negatively affecting all sectors and groups of people with women, the poor and marginalized being the most affected.

Ordinary Men and Women Will Pay Price of Addressing Climate Change

The leader of Caritas Internationalis, the international consortium of Catholic relief agencies, warned in a recent address that attempts to address climate change will reduce the standard of living of the “ordinary men and women of the developed world”. Secretary-General Lesley Anne Knight said that “even if it is too early to say for certain that man-made climate change is causing an increase in humanitarian emergencies, one thing is certain: If it continues, it most certainly will”. She grants that there is disagreement over whether the increasing scale and frequency of climate-related humanitarian emergencies can be scientifically attributed to man-made cliamte change. But a number of points are clear: We are witnessing an increase in climate-related emergencies. Increasing climate vulnerability is making some parts of the world more susceptible to climate-related disasters. Factors such as poverty and conflict are making populations more vulnerable to the effects of climate-related disasters.

Irish Women Act on Climate Change in Africa

The Women of the ICA are helping to raise funds for the stoves and are also off-setting the carbon footprint–all through this green, women-focused initiative. With the help of a part-EU funded Irish NGO, “Vita”, these stoves are now being installed in homes in rural Eritrea. And as part of its drive to encourage innovation and green programmes, the European Commission Representation in Ireland hosted a meeting in Dublin this week, between the designer of this innovative stove, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, and “Vita”. The ICA was presented with a letter of thanks from the Eritrean Women’s Union for agreeing to help women in Eritrea achieve today what the ICA did in Ireland in the 1950’s. The letter was presented by Dr. Debesai Ghebrehiwet, who is the designer of the award-winning stove.

OTHER NEWS

Afghanistan: Women Battle Heavy Odds in Struggle for Freedom and Dignity

Rona Tareen sits among the many couches lining her Persian carpeted office and, with the press of ink-stained thumbs, allows what some Afghans consider sacrilege: letting a young woman move away from her husband with her family in Kabul. Tareen, a mother of six and women’s affairs director for the province of Kandahar, where Canadian forces are based, oversees many family judgments in a country steeped in patriarchy. Afghan women—particularly in the volatile south, where the Taliban was born—rarely appear in public without burkas and often show deference to the opposite sex, lowering gazes to the floor, almost shrinking when a man approaches. Given that some hard-line Islamists believe the Koran decrees women to be subservient to men, improving conditions for women in a war-torn country with one of the world’s lowest literacy levels requires more than education. It requires social engineering.

India: The Cases of Human Trafficking

As per the women and child development estimates, 3 million women in India fall prey to trafficking annually in the country and 40% of these are minors. The country needs to face its moment of truth. India has been placed on the US human trafficking tier 2 watch list for not doing enough to curb human smuggling. “Whatever makes a man a slave takes half his worht away”, Pope said. Indeed,  a human trafficking is a modern day slavery where human beings are exploited by treating them like commodities for profit. It is contrary to the fundamental belief of all societies that people everywhere deserve to live in safety and dignity. Victims of human trafficking who comprise of young children, teenagers, men and women are subjected to involuntary servitude and sexual slavery by force, fraud or coercion. Human smuggling, especially of women and children has become a matter of serious national and international concern.

Pakistan: Women in Fata Find A Voice

In a small recording studio in Peshawar, Asma rushes around with a minidisc recorder. She has to finish editing a news bulletin and make it back to her home in Nowshera before it gets dark. “If I do not get the bulletin done in time for this evening show, the station will not let me continue as a radio journalist”, she says. “But if i do not get home on time, then my parents will not let me continue working either”. Asma is one of the 15 reporters for Radio Khyber, a Jamrud-based FM radio station, and one of the few legal media outlets in Pakistan tribal belt. The station, which is supported by the Fata Secretariat, aims to counter the extremist, pro-jihad and anti-West programming that is typical of dozens of illegal radio stations run by hard-line clerics throughout the tribal agencies.

Bangladesh: Prime Minister Seeks UN Help for Improving Health and Women Empowerment

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has sought enhanced assistance from the United Nations for improving child and maternal health and empowering the women folk in the country, as she listed some setbacks in the population sector in recent times. She made the call when Representatives of UNFPA in Bangladesh Arthur Erken on the eve of the World Population Day , paid a courtesy call on her. The Prime Minister reiterated her government commitment to establish social-safety net through creating huge employment opportunities and empowering women, providing quality health services to people of all walks of life, particularly to mothers and children. She said in line with the dream of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of building a healthy nation, the last Awami League government had taken a project of setting up 18,000 community health clinic across the country and some 4,000 of the clinics were made functional in full swing.

What Is the Role of Women in Indian Politics?

India should work towards empowering women economically — through microfinance programs — and also encourage greater participation of women leaders in panchayats, or village councils, writes author Shoba Narayan in this opinion piece.

The ink-stained polls of the world’s largest democracy have delivered their verdict and India waits with bated breath to learn whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second administration will be different than the first. While India exults after yet another peacefully concluded election, one question remains: What is the role of women in Indian politics? The answer is both big and small. Typical of India, it contains contradictions.

On the one hand, India falls in the lowest quartile with respect to the number of women in parliament (9.1%). Even the UAE, with 22.5%, has more women representatives, according to the UN’s 2008 survey of women in politics. That said, the recently concluded 15th Lok Sabha elections have delivered a record 59 women as members of Parliament, the highest since independence, raising their parliamentary participation to 10.9%. Seventeen of these women are under 40. And representation of women leaders at the grassroots level in India is nearly 50%, especially since the passing of the 73rd amendment in 1992, which allotted one-third of all seats to women. The panchayati raj, that bedrock of rural government, has fostered more and more women participants and leaders. (A panchayat is a five-person elected village council.) Some states, like Karnataka, had inducted women into rural politics even before it was mandated by the constitution. Several states, including Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar and most recently, Uttarkhand, have allotted not just the required 33% of panchayat seats for women but increased it to 50%.

Beating the Odds

The rise of Indian women as panchayat leaders is a spectacular achievement given that India has one of the worst records with respect to the way it treats the female sex. Malnourished, suppressed, uneducated, violated and discriminated against, Indian women have the odds stacked against them. Even birth is a hurdle, thanks to widespread female infanticide in rural areas. But for every Saroja who will be married at 13 because her mother, a devadasi (prostitute) in Chikanahalli Village, Karnataka, cannot afford to pay a dowry, there is a Lakshmi, who is serving her second-term as the panchayat leader of Kadinamala village in Kotagiri district. There is a Kenchamma of Nereleke gram panchayat in rural Karnataka, who survived life threats during her two terms as council leader. An illiterate Dalit, Kenchamma could not read or write. Perhaps as a result of her personal travails, she made sure that she brought education to all the children in her village, including a disabled child.

Talking to these women is a lesson in humility. Instead of the outrage and anger that urban feminists project, these women panchayat leaders speak with clear-minded realism about opportunities and costs. For many women, attending a panchayat meeting means sacrificing a day’s wage. It means assuming leadership for the first time in their lives and then subsuming it at home to serve in-laws and husband. For Kenchamma, it meant leaving her one-year-old son to other caregivers while she learned the ropes of politics.

Ask these women about political reform, and their answers reflect concerns that every women and mother can relate to. They focus on three things: healthcare, education, and the funds to make these two things happen. Kenchamma, a trained midwife, established health camps to improve awareness among the villagers. She also knew from personal experience that, often, it is the mothers who neglect their health the most. Simplistic as it seems, solving health and education is a common thread among panchayat leaders, whether they are men or women. The third concern is figuring out how to save or raise enough money to accomplish their goals.

Most villagers — in India and across the world — either don’t go to banks or don’t have access to them. Instead, they borrow from each other, buy jewelry and save in what Melinda Gates calls, “risky and inefficient ways” in a recent piece she wrote in Newsweek. For most of these villagers, a child’s illness, even something as treatable as malaria, can wipe out several months of savings, sending a family spiraling deeper into debt. The answer, according to the Gates Foundation — no slouch when it comes to solving global problems in an accountable manner — is “bringing safe financial service to the doorsteps of the poor.” As a means to that end, the Foundation has pledged $350 million for microfinance, whose beneficiary is primarily women.

Microfinance and Economic Empowerment

Geeta, 32, would be a typical candidate. An orphan at age three, Geeta was raised by her elder sister. She didn’t go to school and was married to an alcoholic uncle when she was a teenager. Today, she works as a housemaid in Bangalore to feed her family of four: Her husband, her two sons and herself. Geeta’s life goal is to educate her two sons. But she lives in a cycle of debt — borrowing to repay past loans, to make annual school payments for her sons, to cover family events like weddings and every time someone in the family falls sick. Geeta, it so happens, works in my house.

Two years ago, Geeta heard about Janalakshmi, a microfinance company, from some women in her neighborhood. She joined a group of women and borrowed Rs. 30,000 (about $600) with the understanding that they would help each other not default on interest payments and take turns reaping the benefits of the loan. Each group has a leader who guarantees the interest payment to the microfinance institution and in turn, the leader invites women she trusts into the group so that they can borrow larger amounts. For now, Geeta’s microfinance loan is only allowing her to pay back her previous debts, but she dreams of the day when she can borrow enough money for a down payment on a home.

More and more entities are recognizing the power of micro-loans and how they can elevate an entire segment of society. And the route to the underserved is frequently through women, thanks to models based on Grameen Bank and others. Chennai-based Equitas, for instance, only works with women. In March, The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) launched Stree Shakti, a platform for training women entrepreneurs at all levels of Indian society. Goldman Sachs’s ambitious “10,000 Women” program aims to train and develop women entrepreneurs across the globe by pairing them with resources in the West. In all these cases, women serve as the lynchpin for programs, whether they are rural Self Help Groups (SHG) or global programs that aspire to foster entrepreneurship.

Microfinance is not the only answer to solving the poor’s problems but it is one good way to help women help themselves. Women self-help groups are burgeoning all across India, and study after study shows that they successfully impact women and bring them out of poverty. In an article that appeared in the December 2007 issue of UNDP’s Poverty in Focus, researchers Ranjula Bali Swain and Fan Yang Wallentin of Uppsala University in Sweden examine the link between microfinance and women’s empowerment using household sample data collected from five states in India in 2000 and 2003. Their results “strongly demonstrate” that there is a clear link between women’s participation in a Self Help Group (SHG) and their empowerment.

The good news, at least in India, is that these microfinance initiatives are reaching bigger swathes of the underserved. The Indian School of Microfinance for Women (ISMW), for instance, goes one step deeper into the problem. Based in Ahmedabad and chaired by social activist and SEWA founder Ela Bhatt, the school recognizes that borrowing money is only one part of the triangle. Among other things, the school teaches women how to deal with the money they borrow through capacity building workshops, networking and providing knowledge resources. Simply put, it takes Goldman Sachs’s global vision for women entrepreneurs and translates it into a deeper regional focus. The school’s website lists ‘hand-holding’ as one of its goals. Participants of micro-credit schemes are taught financial planning and investing techniques that they can use on the ground and in their business.

While microfinance works to eradicate poverty, the next generation of Indian leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, has made social sectors its calling card. The rural development portfolio, which traditionally was one of the less-prized posts, has now vaulted to the top of the pecking order, thanks in large part to the Gandhi family which has aligned itself with the aam admi (poor people) in both its campaigning and future promises. When Manmohan Singh was asked in a recent television interview if he had any regrets about areas that he couldn’t concentrate on in his first term that he would focus on in his second term, he said, “I’d like to work on agriculture, education and rural health.”

Reforming Education

Panchayat women leaders have been especially active in bringing education to their villages even though they are frequently held hostage by caste politics and quotas. Rural education is a quagmire of poor policies that nobody in government seems to have the will to change. The recent Administrative Reforms Commission repeats a long-standing recommendation that the selection of school teachers in rural schools be delegated to each panchayat instead of making it state-wide and therefore subject to caste-based selection. Deploying state-selected teachers to rural schools in areas where they have no caste-based affiliation makes it a losing proposition from the get-go, according to some experts. Detractors contend that delegating teacher-selection to each panchayat will make it subject to bribes and corruption. But as one official in the Administrative Reforms Commission put it, small-scale rural corruption (with some accountability) is better than the large-scale corruption (with no local accountability.)

Panchayat leaders who don’t have a say in the kind of teachers their village-schools attract end up focusing on infrastructure and other issues within their purview. Women panchayat leaders talk about building separate bathrooms for girls, which studies have shown will reduce the number of female drop-outs after puberty. They bring safe drinking water to their students. All these are not just palliatives, but are necessary developments in rural education.

It is easy to be cynical about yet another federal election that promises improvements to local government and to the lot of women. This time may be different, not just because of the number of women in parliament and the panchayats, but also because Rahul Gandhi, a rising star in Congress politics, is tapped to oversee the rural government portfolio. One can only hope that the Gandhi scion will free the portfolio of its state-level stranglehold and pass along more power to the people. Non-partisan economists have long called for decentralized local governance as the only way to speed up the impact of reforms. To that, I would add two other objectives: wider access to micro-loans as an enabler, and genuinely empowering women in local governments to succeed.

—Published: May 21, 2009 in India Knowledge@Wharton

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124643926385978759.html