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Victories give CEDAW hope in improving women’s lives November 11, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in development assistance, NGOs, United Nations, women's issues.
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The UN is often derided as a slow and ineffective animal. However, women’s rights expert Shanthi Dairiam had a message to deliver her audience at the George Ignatieff Theatre on November 10th : all over the world, from the grassroots up, women have come forward and used the multilateral institution as a tool to pressure their governments. “Since 1945, the UN has become the unlikely grandmother of women’s rights,” she observed.

In 1993, the activist founded the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific, an NGO based in Malaysia which monitors the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). She was a CEDAW committee member from 2005-08.

Among the successes Dairiam cited was that of Nepal. In 2002, the passage of the 11th Amendment of the Civil Code there granted women the long-denied right to property, divorce rights, the right to abortion and greater punishments for polygamy and rape. Meanwhile, in 2008, Morocco officially lifted its reservations against the Convention, which it had ratified in 1993. Legislation in Morocco had been updated to become more progressive in 2003.

Individual suits against flawed legislation have also benefited from CEDAW committees’ Concluding Observations. In Japan, nine women working for Sumitomo applied for mediation, claiming a pay difference with male employees with the same educational backgrounds and years in employment. They had to resort to court action. The plaintiffs used CEDAW recommendations provided to them in 2003. CEDAW then examined the Japanese government report and eventually, the judge referred to CEDAW recommendations on prohibiting indirect discrimination. The plaintiffs won their case. In doing so, they and CEDAW created an international precedent.

Of course, not all victories are clear cut and as wide-ranging as the parties concerned would prefer. With 187 countries having ratified the Convention and having to be monitored on an ongoing basis, “it is well-nigh impossible to be rigorous about monitoring,” conceded Dairiam.  Ratifying countries must report every four years. Women’s groups come as delegations to present their findings and point out areas for improvement. “Non-governmental and civil society activism… is crucial to the domestic implementation of human rights,” the lecturer stated.

There are many barriers to implementation, one of which is the “cultural” defence, for practices ranging from female genital mutilation to polygamy: “Some governments argue it’s impossible to eliminate discrimination because of culture… (but) you can condemn it, if you can’t eliminate it. Condemnation is very important. It sets the tone for the rest of the work.”

Another barrier is access to equality. This is where Canada has failed in its own obligations and has done nothing since receiving CEDAW’s Concluding Observation, centring on access to social services as a way out of poverty, which disproportionately hits women. The same can be said about the issue of part-time work around the developed world: women occupy over 90 per cent of part-time positions, without benefits, sick leave or hope of promotion. Canada’s response to CEDAW critiques of its social services distribution was to point to its federal decentralization. This defense could not be used to explain the second area of concern CEDAW pointed out – the failure of the Canadian government to properly investigate the disappearance and murder of hundreds of aboriginal women.

Shanthi Dairiam spoke at the George Ignatieff Theatre to deliver the 14th Annual Dame Nita Barrow Lecture, presented by the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education with support from the International Development Research Centre.

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Canadian women covering war — twice the battle, half the sky March 23, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in Journalism and foreign affairs, media coverage of war, war, women's issues.
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Since CBS News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Lara Logan revealed her February 11 assault in Egypt in Tahrir Square, both discussion and backlash have emerged about what women face as reporters in war zones. Canadians are no exception. During a Ryerson Conference entitled Women in the Field: Changing the Face of Journalism, foreign correspondents from leading national media revealed their own stories, impressions and feelings. “Reporting in Risky Situations” was one of three panels on the situation of women in Canadian media.

Gillian Findlay, now host of CBC’s the fifth estate, has covered stories in conflict areas such as Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Iraq and the Near East. In 1998, she was in Bagdad. Iraq was the target of bombings pursuant to sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Unrest swept the capital and Findlay went to work. The security rule was for the crew to stay together: not an easy task in the middle of a mob. As the correspondent stopped to talk to the translator, the cameraman signaled that he would go ahead. “Before I knew it, I was alone… blonde and female in a sea of young Iraqi males”, recalls Findlay. She soon started feeling hands groping her, becoming more and more aggressive. Completely surrounded, the reporter saw no way out. “For the first time, I was truly afraid”, she says. Eventually, the Iraqi fixer for the crew came to the rescue with a big iron bar and dragged her out of harm’s way.

Shaken but unhurt, Findlay kept the incident to herself until the Logan story brought the memories back. “I decided very quickly I didn’t want people to know and certainly didn’t want my bosses to know.” Still young, with two young children at home, she didn’t want to give anyone reason to question whether she was up to the job, she admits today. With the Lara Logan story came the revelation that she wasn’t alone.

Canadian women who work as foreign correspondents not only bear the burden of gender difference, but face the same hostility against foreigners as their male counterparts. Globe and Mail reporter Sonia Verma had her own mob encounter while seeking out pro-Mubarak demonstrators in the wake of the Logan assault. The crowd starting moving toward them. As Verma videotaped the demonstration with her iPhone, men started to hit her with sticks and punch her. Her colleague Patrick Martin headed toward her immediately and security guards from a nearby building came out, shooting in the air. The janitor let the two reporters in, putting his wife and children at risk. “The crowd was outside, chanting for our deaths”, Verma recounts. The crew thought of escaping but was advised to stay in and wait until the crowd dispersed. “These people were right in my face and I could see how much they hated me”, recollects the journalist. Back at the hotel, unable to sleep, she took a bath and, as she stepped out, saw the many large bruises covering her back. Adrenaline had kept her from feeling the blows.

Meanwhile, popular and even media reaction to women assaulted in war zones has ranged from sympathetic to antediluvian. Here in Canada, one of the worst came from Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington, who opined that mothers had no business leaving their children behind to go get themselves raped and beaten abroad. He made no mention of fathers taking risks. When Verma first heard of the column, “I thought it couldn’t be true”, she says. “I read it and my face was getting red. It was hitting all my buttons.” In the end, her husband wrote a letter in response which garnered widespread attention.

Nevertheless, Sonia Verma’s life as mother and war correspondent seems to epitomize the challenges women face in such situations. Reporting on foreign affairs was her lifelong dream and she pursued it tenaciously. While pregnant with her first child, she revealed nothing of her condition and went to Gaza, covering gun fights there. Three months into the pregnancy, she fell asleep in the car as the bullets flew all around. Verma remembers heading for the riots in the old city, where people were using tear gas. Her fixer chased her out, she says, saying tear gas was bad for the baby. Once her child was born, the journalist stopped breastfeeding at three months in order not to jeopardize travel chances. When her children were three and 18 months old, she was taking assignments in Afghanistan. “These are my choices,” she points out. “I don’t need to justify my choices to anyone.” The guilt lingers for all mothers, however. Difficult as it is, “I love my family, I love my work and I’m not willing to give up either one of them”, she declares.

Despite the risk and sacrifice, being a woman abroad can open doors closed to male reporters. Michelle Shephard, national security reporter for the Toronto Star, asserts “I’ve never had a story where men wouldn’t speak to me”, not even Islamic fundamentalists with connections to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, she has always had access to women and their stories. One example she gave was from a Northern refugee camp in Kenya, where a young woman had been stoned to death. All her friends spoke to Shephard, but were uncomfortable around the male photographer. Moreover, being underestimated because of gender can work out to a reporter’s advantage. Once, in Waziristan, “generals were not taking me seriously,” she recalls. They let their guard down and gave her more information.

Overall, the women on the panel were very clear: women prove themselves as reporters every day under the same conditions as their male colleagues. Not to send them out to war means losing half the story.

Why we need gender-specific refugee policies in Canada July 12, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in refugees, United Nations, women's issues.
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I was reminded of how women are so much more in need of asylum than their male counterparts (who already need it far too much in our world) by the story of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, recently granted a temporary stay of execution by stoning for adultery in Iran.

The stay is temporary. She could still be executed, probably by other means. Apparently, women are more often liable to be stoned, and buried to the chest, deeper than a man would. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that women die more often than their male co-accused from accusations of immorality.

This story highlights the sad fact of the abuse of women on a worldwide scale, in ways even more atrocious than we allow in our own culture. Just today, another story surfaced about a women’s protest against such unfairness in Bangladesh, where a young woman was whipped 101 times after being raped and becoming pregnant. Her rapist was pardoned. The country’s judiciary there has declared such community sentencing, issued from fatwas, as illegal. It doesn’t stop them from being carried out.

Likewise, multitudes of women face domestic violence around the world without any enforcement of already-existing laws. It may be bad here. It’s worse in other countries. The women who suffer from such policies, or from lack of enforcement of any laws meant to protect them, deserve refugee status. This should include women refused any hope of justice for rape, or subject to rape without any hope of state protection. Such a definition could enable women from Haiti, for example, to come to Canada to escape the horrors they face right now.

The issue of state neglect as a violation of human rights is not new. We’ve come a long way since the definition of refugees was first crafted by the U.N. in 1950. Today, for instance, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) recognizes clearly that domestic violence is a form of persecution.

Indeed, when governments fail in their duty to protect citizens, through systemic prejudice such as sexism, anyone who seeks protection in another country is a legitimate refugee. This recognition is especially important not only to the rights of women, but also to sexual minorities. We must be vigilant in ensuring that our governments apply this standard to all incoming refugees who fit the description. And more than that, I would say: we must advertise our countries as havens for those who so desperately need one.

Pre-G20 in Toronto: the real deal on maternal health June 20, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in Canadian development policy, Canadian maternal health policy, development assistance, G20, health policy in developing coutries, women's issues.
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What does it take to really help mothers stay healthy? An Amnesty International presentation on maternal mortality in Peru in the context of Millennial Development Goals, part of the People’s Summit held in Toronto June 18-20 to counterbalance the upcoming G20 forum for the world’s richest economies, provided some answers.

In Peru, the to-do list is likely longer than Canadian International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda’s. There’s a need for social change to empower women’s decision-making, roads for people to get to health centres, bilingual people fluent in Quechua and English and… perhaps to start, a budget for the Maternal Mortality National Plan. That’s right: with one of the highest maternal death rates in the Americas at 185 per 100,000, Peru has allocated no money at all to improve the situation. Meanwhile, U.N. estimates of maternal mortality are closer to 240 deaths per 100,000. Why the discrepancy? Ruth Mier y Terán Moscoso, responsible for campaigns and training in the Peruvian section of Amnesty International, points out the government has a vested interest in keeping maternal mortality rate reports as low as possible. Bigger issues, of course, need bigger solutions, which cost more money.

Presumably, this is the kind of problem the Harper government in Canada intended to solve, and should solve, with its maternal health initiative for developing countries, $1 billion over five years, which initially excluded any sort of birth control funding and still excludes abortion services. There’s just one thing: women need to control more of their lives, and their governments, for any real progress to happen.

Each year, some 500,000 women worldwide die during pregnancy or while giving birth and nine million children die before they reach the age of 5, according to Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) statistics. About 2.5 million teenagers have unsafe abortions each year and tend to be more seriously affected by complications. That’s just the start of issues recorded during the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, as noted by Amnesty International Women’s Human Rights Campaigner Lindsay Mossman. At the heart of maternal health is the need for the mother to have the capacity to make independent decisions about her reproductive choices, from age of marriage to contraception use. Once this is secured, mothers need access to care.

Marrying young puts mothers at risk. Women from 15 to 19 are twice as likely to suffer complications from pregnancy. Women under 15? Five times as likely. Choice is crucial. In Peru’s rural communities, the hardest-hit by poverty and lack of health care, choice is something women don’t have, explains Mier y Terán Moscoso. The power of women is an issue, as only men (with the exception of widows) have the right to vote in local assemblies. Women have no choice about having children, she says. It depends on the husband.

At the systemic level, abortion is currently illegal in Peru except to protect the health of the pregnant woman. Whoever seeks an abortion without being at risk faces two years in prison and the doctors performing it, four years. Ambiguity over what constitutes a health risk makes doctors hesitant to perform any abortions at all, says Mier y Terán Moscoso.

Meanwhile, rural areas are the hardest hit by a lack of access to health care, with subsequently higher maternal death rates. Eight out of ten communities in Peru rated as extremely poor are in rural areas. Many have indigenous populations and 40 per cent of indigenous people have no identity papers, which must be obtained in Spanish. Therefore, they have no access to universal health care. Physical access is also a problem: 51 per cent of all communities have no health centre at all. Half of those who do have only a first-aid post. And while the government has paved roads for exploration of mining and oil rights, many rural communities with human beings as their only resource have no roads at all.

Meanwhile, when doctors do appear, they may face extremely difficult conditions, working very long hours. They do not speak indigenous languages, so that in the absence of interpreter services, they won’t be able to communicate with patients. Women in rural indigenous communities are less likely to speak Spanish than men. For this reason, they may also face difficulties in taking medicine as prescribed. As a result of all these factors, only 36 per cent of women in rural areas go to a health care centre or see a health care professional.

Therefore, the picture of health goes beyond the wish or intention to provide services. Empowering women helps take away much of the risk of pregnancy and birth. Helping communities gain access to health care can involve more than training or hiring doctors, and may involve substantial investments in infrastructure, as well as cultural training to better harmonize accredited practice with traditional care and customs. And, of course, once the children are born, they matter, at the very least, every bit as much as when they were in the womb. Healthy mothers are the main part of the development solution.

Toward these ends, Amnesty International has produced a report entitled Fatal Flaws – barriers to maternal health in Peru. The Canadian Chapter also has a wealth of information about the issue worldwide on its “End Maternal Mortality” blog.