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1/27/2016 - Taiwan Elects First Woman President

In a landslide victory, the leader of Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen won the country's presidential election, becoming the first woman in Taiwan's history to hold the position.

Emphasizing her party's commitment to maintaining Taiwan's independence from China, Tsai won over young voters eager to usher in a political changing of the guard following some 70 years of dominance by the pro-Chinese unification party, the Kuomintang (KMT), chaired by presidential opponent Eric Chu. In her victory speech, Tsai hailed a "new era" in Taiwan, vowing to cooperate with other political parties to resolve major issues and follow the will of the people regarding the sovereign nation's relationship with China. "I also want to emphasize that both sides of the Taiwanese Strait have a responsibility," said Tsai, "to find mutually acceptable means of interaction that are based on dignity and reciprocity."

A scholar with advanced degrees in law from Cornell University and the London School of Economics, Tsai served previously as chairwoman of the Mainland Affairs Office, a government office that mediates interactions between Taiwan and Beijing. In 2004, Tsai joined the DPP, stepping in as the party's chairwoman just four years later. Despite a failed presidential bid in 2012, Tsai persevered, guiding her party to victories in regional elections. Tsai also emerged as a vocal advocate of women's and LGBT rights, advocating publicly for equal employment opportunities for women and marriage equality, respectively.

For now, Tsai has pledged to not only work to establish Taiwan's unique identity independent of mainland China, but also to address Taiwan's flagging economy, low wages and deepening income inequality once she is inaugurated in May.

"The results today tell me the people want to see a government that is willing to listen to people, that is more transparent and accountable," Tsai told reporters following her declaration of victory, "and a government that is more capable of leading us past our current challenges and taking care of those in need."

1/14/2016 - China Arrests Prominent Human Rights Lawyer for State Subversion

A prominent human rights lawyer in China was formally arrested and charged with state subversion on Wednesday. Wang Yu's arrest comes as Chinese state officials continue to crackdown on activists and lawyers engaging in rights defense work.

Yu, along with dozens of other lawyers and activists, have been held in secret detention for months, after they were accused of inciting and provoking illegal activism. The group has been denied access to their lawyers since July, when the Chinese government began to detain and question hundreds of human rights activists and lawyers.

"Beijing's hostility towards those who try to use the legal system as a check on state power has been on full display," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. "But efforts to silence such lawyers and activists only amplifies their demands for justice." Human Rights Watch has been calling for the release of the detained advocates which it calls "arbitrary." According to Human Rights Watch, between July and September 2015, Chinese authorities have detained some 300 human rights lawyers and activists throughout the country.

Yu is best known for defending free speech advocates and activists, including a member of the Feminist Five-the group that garnered international attention after they were detained for planning a campaign to combat sexual harassment.

On Wednesday, the State Department responded to the unprecedented sweep of arrests. "The United States urges China to drop these charges and immediately release these lawyers, and others like them, detained for seeking to protect the rights of Chinese citizens," U.S. State Department Deputy spokesman Mark Toner said in a news briefing.

State subversion charges carry the possibility of a life sentence.

12/11/2015 - Sierra Leone Legalizes Abortion

According to the new act in Sierra Leone, women in this West African nation will no longer have only the choice of illegal and unsafe abortions.

The Safe Abortion Act that passed this week with an overwhelming majority support in the parliament will make the abortion procedure legal and will replace the 1861 law that criminalized abortion in this West African nation. According to the 1861 law, the abortion was only legal if it was necessary to save the mother's life. The Act is yet to be signed into law by the President of the country, Ernest Bai Koroma.

This act will allow women to have an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After the 12 weeks, it is only allowed in the cases of rape, incest or risk to the health of fetus or mother. Girls under 18 can have an abortion only with the permission of a parent or guardian.

According to a recent UN report on maternal mortality rate, Sierra Leone is estimated to have the highest maternal mortality rate at 1360 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015. In a study conducted by IPAS, a non-profit that works to increase women's access to sexual and reproductive rights and to reduce maternal mortality rate, found that the Sierra Leone government spent up to $230,000 each year on personnel and medical supplies to treat botched abortion cases.

12/4/2015 - Egypt's President Issues Decree Outlawing Child Marriage

In an attempt to outlaw child marriage in the country, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi issued a decree making it illegal for Egyptians to get married before the age of 18.

The recent decree brings Egypt into compliance with the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child on the matter of child marriage. The Charter was adopted in 1990 and outlines the rights that African countries are expected to ensure for their children.

Prior to the decree, girls could get married as young as 16 years old. Child marriage remains a common practice in Egypt, accounting for 15% of all marriages in the country.

According to a study conducted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) one in three girls in developing countries is married before reaching 18 years old. One in nine is married under the age of 15.

Many international agreements outlaw child marriage, including the Convention of the Child and the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Many international conferences and organizations have also called on countries to eliminate child marriage.

In Egypt, girls are often married off temporarily in exchange for money that is arranged by the parents and the temporary husband. Azza el-Ashmawy, director of the Child Anti-Trafficking Unit at the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, describes these kind of marriages as "prostitution in the guise of marriage." In speaking with the Al Arabia newspaper, he said that some girls have been married 60 times by the time they turn 18 years old.

12/1/2015 - Saudi Women Begin Historic Municipal Election Campaign

On Sunday, for the first time in Saudi Arabia's modern history, more than 900 women have registered to run for the municipal elections. The municipal elections on December 12th will also mark the first time women are allowed to vote.

The Saudi monarchy has been widely criticized by international human rights organizations for a lack of equal rights for women. Saudi Arabia has also been heavily criticized by the absolute absence of freedom of speech and religion. It is the only country in the world where women are still not allowed to drive and must cover themselves in black from head-to-toe. Women must also ask a male member of the family to travel, leave the house, work, or marry.

Despite the many limitations caused by these patriarchal restrictions, the participation of Saudi women in politics is considered a step forward for women and for the defenders of women's rights. The municipal councils have limited responsibilities but also approve budgets, suggest planning regulations, and oversee urban and development projects.

Nouf al-Sadiq, a Saudi woman, believes that women's participation in politics "is an important step towards creating greater inclusion within society." Muna Abusulayman, another Saudi citizen believes that women's participation in politics "will bring a female point of view, demanding certain amendments to laws that are unfavorable towards women."

In 2011, the now deceased King Abdullah granted women some opportunities for political participation. In 2013, King Abdullah also issued a decree mandating the Consultative Council, a body that advises the King and the cabinet, be comprised of at least 20% women.

According to the Saudi electoral commission, about 7000 people are currently running for seats on 284 municipal councils. Only a small percentage of Saudi women so far have signed up to vote in elections. Of the total population of women, 131,000 women compared to 1.35 million or 10% are registered to vote in December this year.

11/25/2015 - Afghan Women Launch 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence

Afghanistan marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and begun participating in the worldwide 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which is being called in Afghanistan "Peace from Home to the World." During the launch day's event, which was attended by government officials, including First Lady Rula Ghani and women's rights activists, speakers expressed their commitment to ending violence against women.

First Lady, Rula Ghani gave a speech on ending violence against women and supporting women by stating that "war often leads society towards violence and this violence is in violation of human dignity. Women who have raised generations should be provided with a safe environment in which to live."

Ahmad Zia Massoud, the special envoy to President Ashraf Ghani, also pointed that violence against women in Afghanistan is a serious problem and obstacles in securing women's rights must be removed. "All of us should remove obstacles to secure women's right. Groups that want to use violence as a tool for their personal interest are horribly misguided."

President Ghani's message was read by presidential adviser, Malalai Shinwari, "the recent incident of a woman being stoned to death and the incident of a Ghor woman being lashed to death for running away from home shows graphically that we must fight violence against women."

The Minister of Women's Affairs Dilbar Nazari and other delegates said that although there had been some improvement in the country during the tenure of the past government and the current government, the problem of violence against women is very serious and instead of just issuing statements, government must take practical steps. "Currently there are cases of violence registered in Kabul and big violations in the provinces." She continued on the positive note saying "there are many women seeking justice for women victims." In other words, a large Afghan women's movement is seeking an end to violence against women and growing in numbers and influence.

One of the participants told TOLO News that, "what is important today is our officials showed their commitment to the fight against violence against women, which hopefully will decrease in the country." Other delegates argued that the National Unity Government needs to support women during this sixteen day period and put an end to the problem.

11/24/2015 - Rising Support for Women's Education in Afghanistan

A survey of the Afghan people by the Asia Foundation for 2015 found that 74% of Afghans support women's access to higher education. According to the report, women are also gaining more confidence in reporting domestic violence and are more aware of the justice system. The report revealed that "Afghan women are increasingly aware of their rights and aware of institutions to contact in a domestic conflict rural women are more likely than urban to turn to an organization that assists them if they have a family problem."

The report adds that "on the positive side, 2015 was a year of wins for women in Afghan politics: the cabinet now includes four female ministers and the government appointed two new female provincial governors."

In a traditional and conservative country like Afghanistan where men frequently decide for women and give women orders about what to do and who to cast their vote for, more women now know that they should vote for themselves. The Afghan people's survey of 2015 shows the courage of women to speak up for themselves and to express their views on voting for the person they deem better rather than being told by their male family member. According to the survey, 52% of women respondents and 48% of men said women should decide and vote for themselves. Although this figure has decreased from 58% for women and 54% for men in 2014 (an Afghan election year), there is an optimism that women are capable to make their ways and to not give up to the circumstances they are facing.

Women have also been making strides in the workforce. A higher percentage of Afghans reported the positive contribution of women to the household income. The number of Afghans has steadily increased from 13.6% in 2009 to 22.6% in 2015. The number of women contributing to the household income ranges from almost 65% in the Central parts of the country to 4.8% in other parts.

Although the survey shows progress in some areas, it has also highlighted some negative issues. For instance, the survey reports that the Afghan optimism about the overall direction of the country declined to the lowest point in a decade. 37% of respondents think the country is headed in the right direction, down from 55% in 2014. However, the analysis of the report also states that "it is a time of historic transition in Afghanistan, and the new government is inevitably grappling with simultaneous security, political, and economic challenges."

The report somehow justifies the low mood and adds, "Afghans are particularly concerned about security, and the proportion who fears for their personal safety is at the highest point in the past decade."

Unemployment is another problem highlighted throughout the report. Young Afghans have also been protesting in major cities demanding job opportunities. However, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is aware of the problem and has met with a group of young Afghans in his office last week. He spoke of the projects that will provide job opportunities to the young Afghans.

The Asia Foundation has been conducting the survey of the Afghan people for the past 11 years. This year's survey polled 9,586 Afghans, 49.4% of which were female respondents. The margin of error for the survey was +/-1.6%. The 939 expert Afghan male and female interviewers conducted face-to-face interviews in all of 34 provinces, representing 14 ethnic groups, including insecure and physically challenging environments. The total respondents of the survey consisted of 18% urban households and 82% rural households, which almost reflects the geographic composition of Afghanistan.

11/20/2015 - Iran Appoints First Woman as Ambassador Since Islamic Revolution

The Iranian government has appointed its first woman ambassador since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Marzieh Afkham is appointed to serve her country in Malaysia. She was previously working as the Spokesperson to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she was the first woman to ever serve as the spokesperson for the Ministry. Ms. Afkham has been working in the diplomatic service for 30 years in various posts.

Ms. Afkham’s appointment has opened the arena for other women to aspire to such positions. The news about her appointment was well covered by many local as well as a few international mediums. Ms. Afkham has also been a strong supporter of human rights especially women’s rights. According to the state news agency IRNA, she has praised the current Foreign Minister, Jawad Zarif for his “trust in women and for the courage to take such a decision.”

IRNA reports that during a tribute to the 50 year old career diplomat, Mr. Zarif said, Ms. Afkham has “carried out her duties for two years with dignity, bravery and particular insight."

After the current president, considered a moderate, Hassan Rouhani came to Office, he called on ministers to appoint women to key posts and promised that he will fight against discrimination. His predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardliner, appointed Marzieh Vahd Dastjerdi as the first female minister to the cabinet in 2009. She was appointed to the health ministry. Ms. Afkham is only the second woman ambassador in the history of Iran. Mehrangiz Dolatshahi was the first ambassador who served in Denmark in 1976. She held the position until the revolution in 1979.

Although women in Iran hold key positions, including the parliament and the cabinet, they cannot run for president, cannot attend male sports events, and has unfriendly laws to women in cases of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Women in Iran are also not allowed to serve as judges.

11/19/2015 - World Economic Forum Report Places U.S. 28th

The World Economic Forum just released The Global Gender Gap report of 2015 that ranks the United States 28th out of 145 countries. The U.S. is ranked 28th in women vis-a-vis men in economic participation and opportunities; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment. Of the 145 countries, the U.S. ranks 6th in gender gap in economic participation and opportunities, 40th in educational attainment, 64th in health and survival, and a miserable 72nd in political empowerment. Due to the widening wage gap and leadership positions, the think-tank says, the U.S. fell 8 places in 2015 to 28th compared with last year.

According to the World Economic Forum at the current rate of women gaining parity with men to close pay, education, health and political participation gaps will take 118 years. The Forum reports that in the last ten years, "an addition quarter of a billion women" have entered the global workforce. The authors also wrote that women are only now "earning what men did a decade ago."

The Nordic countries of Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden still lead with the smallest gender gaps. Ireland is the only non-Nordic country that is ranked 5th. Above the U.S. is New Zealand, 10th, Germany 11th, France 15th, and the United Kingdom ranks 18th.

11/18/2015 - UN Reports Major Decrease In Maternal Mortality Worldwide

A new report by the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Bank Group and the United Nations Population Division reveals a 44 percent drop in maternal mortality worldwide since 1990, highlighting the successful efforts of the many international agencies to reduce the number of pregnancy-related deaths among women globally.

According to data compiled in Trends in Maternal Mortality: 1990 to 2015, maternal deaths around the world dipped from some 532,000 in 1990 to about 303,000 in 2015, cutting the number of women's pregnancy-related deaths nearly in half over a quarter century. The report's findings is good news for the all international organizations especially UN who, in 2000, pledged to reduce the global maternal mortality rate to below 70 per 100,000 live births by 2030, with no country averaging worse than 140. Of the regions analyzed, Eastern Asia made the most progress, boasting a rate decrease of 27 deaths per 100,000 live births, down from 95 in 1990. Iceland and Finland as well as Poland and Greece experienced the lowest maternal mortality at a rate of 3 per 100,000. Despite still suffering from very high numbers of pregnancy-related deaths, Sub-Saharan Africa maternal mortality rate is also down from 987 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 546 today.

Though many countries made considerable strides to improve accessibility and quality of women's reproductive healthcare around the world, some still lag behind. North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe were among 13 countries where maternal mortality increased. The United States, too, saw a rise in pregnancy-related deaths from 12 to 14 per 100,000 births over 25 years. On the other side, Afghanistan has been making tremendous progress in decreasing maternal mortality rate. The death rates decreased from 1340 in 1990 to 1100 in 2000 and to 394 in 2015. Sadly, currently Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. The maternal mortality rate in 2015 in this country accounts to 1360 per 100,000.

In a statement last week, Dr. Flavia Bustreo, WHO's assistant director-general for family, women's, and children's health celebrated the gains made in women's health regionally, but underscored the importance of continued efforts to expand care for women worldwide. "Over the past 25 years, a woman's risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes has nearly halved," said Bustreo. "That's real progress, although it is not enough. We know that we can virtually end these deaths by 2030 and this is what we are committing to work towards."

11/17/2015 - Tabassom's Revolution: One Step Closer to the 21st Century

By: Gaisu Yari, Former FMF Afghan Scholar

Walking on a rainy day on Kabul's streets is harder than climbing a mountain in the winter. I walked along Dashti Barchi, where the mass of protesters began marching, holding high above their shoulders the coffins of the seven innocent Afghan Hazara people beheaded by ISIS. I felt the frustration and anger reverberating through Kabul's streets. I felt the strength and unity of the people. I felt the horror of the loss of seven innocent lives. There are many ways to look upon this large protest, which people have come to call "Tabassom's Revolution," named after the nine year old girl, the only child who was among the beheaded.

First, this revolution is not solely about one ethnic group, the Hazaras. When the revolution broke out in the north of Kabul, it was expected to draw people from all sides of the city and from all ethnic groups. When the bodies entered from Ghazni province, a procession of one hundred cars was seen following the coffins. It was a night when even Kabul's sky was crying; a night when the anger started taking shape. One could feel proud to be part of this night, while another could feel angry and scream for change. Hamid Raustami, head of the Justice Seeker Human Rights Organization in Afghanistan, said, "I wanted to be part of this protest from the beginning. I started the night before. I am a Sunni Afghan, but I wanted to prove that we are all one."

Revolutions can be defined in many ways. Sami Darayi, a life-long activist and humanitarian in Afghanistan, blames the government for not keeping its promise to the people of Afghanistan. Darayi is one of the organizers of this protest who, alongside many other Afghans, "finished the 13km distance walk in order to get to the presidential palace." As he followed the movement to its final destination, he was inspired by the courage of the multitudes of women and youth who were so passionately involved. "Women were the crucial participants in this revolution," Darayi confirmed, they "screamed as loud as the rest of the crowd." Darayi hoped the upcoming protests and the revolution taking shape in Afghanistan, spreads across the provinces. He believes that the Afghan people are evolving, as the level of education and acceptance of change grows among youth.

Second, this revolution does not only belong to the men of Afghanistan. Women participated and became part of a historic movement. In fact, this movement would not be possible without the inclusion and involvement of women. As women broke the taboo of bearing coffins upon their shoulders and showed their strength, they repeated history: they bore Shukria Tabassom's coffin like they bore the coffin of Farkhunda before her. The distance between Dashti Barchi and the presidential palace was far and arduous, yet women were a crucial part of this long-distanced march, holding the coffins overhead. Nadira Bakhteyari, one of the women holding Tabassom's coffin, said, "it was a historic day in Afghanistan. Women were part of this movement where we were screaming slogans, men were repeating after us. The body of Shukria Tabassom and her mother were given to the women in the protest. I stood for four hours under their coffins."

This is not the first time men and women have been beheaded and killed in Afghanistan. This is not the first time that the people have been frustrated, and this is the not the first time men and women have worked together to build a better Afghanistan. I am certain it will not be the last time either. Those who are living outside the country, those who are merely reading the newspapers and watching the news on TV, may not be able to feel the positive changes that have occurred in Afghanistan over the past 14 years. Protests, movements, and revolutions are signs of progress, the practices of modernity, and the bearers of revolutionary ideologies that lead people to pour onto the streets and call for justice and change. Afghanistan will only change for the better if the educated people, particularly the youth and women, take part in the movements and decision-making processes that shape the country's future.

Women and youth in Afghanistan are not the same as they were many years ago. They think differently and yearn for change. This protest has shown that different ethnic groups, different ideologies, and different people can came together to make history, and that women can be part of it. The beauty of these movements is their very diversity: different people with different beliefs and backgrounds, all coming together and holding hands, so that they can prepare Afghanistan for a greater future.

11/13/2015 - Afghans Protest Nationwide Over Beheadings by ISIS

Thousands of Afghans took to the streets in Kabul on Wednesday after seven people from the Hazara ethnic group were beheaded by ISIS. Of the seven Afghans who were taken hostage while traveling and then beheaded, there were two women, four men, and a nine year old girl. Demonstrators, which included men and women from all ethnic groups in Afghanistan, carried coffins of the victims and marched six miles from west of Kabul to the gates of the Afghan presidential palace. They demanded justice and urged the government to take action against the increasing violence and insecurity in Afghanistan.

Afghan women made up a large group of the protesters. They stood at the front line, raised their voices and carried the coffin of Shukira, the nine year old girl who was beheaded. It is very unusual for Afghan women to carry a coffin of a deceased in public. The large participation of Afghan women in this protest shows the increasing determination of Afghan women to demonstrate and to participate in political events.

Protests continued yesterday in 10 cities across Afghanistan in many other provinces as well. People took to the streets in Herat, Nangarhar, Balkh, Ghor, Daykundi, Zabul, Bamian, Jawzjan and Ghazni against the Taliban and ISIS.

According to the Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, ISIS kept them for a month. He had announced a national day of mourning on Wednesday. In a meeting with representatives of the protestors and family members of the victims, Ghani said that "the government took every possible measure to release the hostages, but unfortunately, the terrorists had them on the move."

Ghani said that he shared the pain of the victims' families and called on Afghans to maintain national unity. "Our enemies, by creating incidents that have ethnic and regional color, are trying to take our unity from us. We must not let any force divide us." He said that he had been personally monitoring progress on operations to free the hostages before they were killed by the Islamic State fighters, but the hostages had been moved 56 times to evade military operations.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan condemned the killings. Killing and kidnapping civilians are "serious violations of international humanitarian law," said UNAMA chief Nicholas Haysom. He also called for the perpetrators to be held accountable.

11/11/2015 - Taliban Stones to Death 19 Year Old Afghan Woman

Recently, a 19 year old Afghan woman was stoned to death after she was accused of adultery. The video of her stoning that has been widely shared on the internet shows that she was forced to sit in a deep hole dug for her in her home village in Ghor, a remote province in western Afghanistan. The video shows dozens of men sitting and standing around the hole pelting rocks at her.

According to several news reports in the Afghan media, at the age of 13, Rokhshana was forced to marry an old man who had lost both his arms and legs. She refused to accept the decision and eloped with her boyfriend around her age to another village. She was arrested by the security forces and was handed over to her parents. For the second time again, her father decided to force her marry another old man. Rokhshana refused to accept the second marriage as well and was on the run with her boyfriend; this time to another village. To her bad luck, she was arrested halfway to her new destination.

In the meantime, a local Taliban leader had demanded Rokhshana's father to force her marry his brother, but her father had decided to marry her to a man he had chosen. While Rokhshana was on her way to another village, she was arrested by local Taliban members; who within hours demanded for her release around $80,000 (5 million in Afghan currency) from her farmer father. Rokhshana's father could not pay the money. Within hours, the local Taliban determined her fate and decreed she would be stoned to death for adultery. The Taliban had asked her father to attend his daughters stoning, which he did.

The Office of the President of Afghanistan has strongly condemned the brutal killing of Rokhshana and called it "extrajudicial, criminal & un-Islamic." President Ashraf Ghani has assigned a delegation to investigate the stoning of Rokhshana and bring those to justice who have committed the crime.

Some of the other local religious leaders have also condemned the stoning and called on the government to bring the perpetrators to justice. Lawmakers in Kabul as well as civil society members and other politicians condemned the brutal and inhumane killing of Rokhshana, too.

The stoning and lashing of women was a common method of punishing women during the Taliban's time. However, wherever the Taliban has control, they still use this barbaric method of punishment to terrorize women. Rokhshana was not the first victim of the Taliban stoning, but a number of women have been stoned to death since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

11/10/2015 - #FeesMustFall: South African Students Protest Rising Cost of Education

Yesterday, in their continuing fight to push Parliament and University staff to lower fees for education access, students from the University of Witwatersrand and University of Cape Town marched on Parliament to meet with the Minister of High Education Blade Nizamande and President Jacob Zuma, while Parliament support staff walked off the job to protest Parliament's treatment of workers.

The protests, which began in October, have focused on putting pressure on school administrators to lower fees for students at the University of Witerwatersrand after school administration told them to expect a 10.6% increase in tuition fees in the coming year. More than 10,000 people joined the October March, making it the largest student protest since the 1976 Soweto uprising against apartheid.

Students united to protests for weeks, prompting President Zuma to announce a 0% increase in university fees for students. The protests have spread from University of Witwatersrand and UCT to other campuses in South Africa, such as the University of the Western Cape.

Students in the United States have also united against rising tuition costs, including protests in the University of California system.

11/9/2015 - Taliban Takeover of Kunduz Hurt Women and the Media

By: Payk Investigative Journalism Center

At the end of September, the Taliban took control of the city of Kunduz. The Afghan government, with some help from the international community, kicked them out in a few days. But during this brief time of the Taliban takeover of the city, women were the first targets and once again paid the price for fighting for their rights.

The Taliban had a "hit" list of the women who were working for various governmental and non-governmental organizations. This especially included women who led some civil society and media organizations in Kunduz. Women who were involved in the civil society and media arenas fled the city to neighboring provinces or to the capital, Kabul. These women had received threats before the Taliban took over the city, but they continued their work. In an interview with the PAYK Investigative Journalism Center, Ms. Beheshta, who was reporting for a local radio station in Kunduz said, "the Taliban threatened me multiple times over the phone. They threatened my father as well, telling him to stop your daughter from working with the media and if not they will kill his daughters."

Ms. Beheshta is not alone. Many other women journalists have moved to Kabul as well. Najia Khudayar, the Director of "Zohra," another local radio station, is currently staying in Kabul and doesn't know when she would move back to her city in the north. Khudayar's radio station focused only on women's issues and had employed around 20 people, mostly women. After the Taliban took over the city, all of the employees moved to Kabul. Frustrated and disappointed about the loss of her 12 years of work, she said, "the Taliban destroyed everything at Zohra radio station. They destroyed all the equipment." Ms. Khudayar doesn't know when she will be able to return to her city and to restart her work as a journalist. "I am dreaming of going back to my work," she says.

Another radio and television station, Roshani, also suffered tremendous damage. Roshani is believed to be the radio and television station that suffered the most damage during this brief takeover of the city. A member of Roshani radio who did not want to be identified for security reasons said, "Roshani has suffered $20,000 in losses. All of the equipment is damaged. The entire building was set on fire." Roshani was one of the first radio and television stations in Kunduz to focus on women's issues and employ mostly women. The member of Roshani believes that because their radio and television channel supported the Afghan National Security Forces, they received multiple threats from the Taliban. The member also said that the Taliban had even placed a bomb in front of their house, adding "luckily it didn't cause any fatalities."

It was not only women who were involved in the public sphere that suffered. Young girls, who make up 40% of the student body in Kunduz, were not able to attend schools. The students missed three weeks of their education and it has only been a week since they have been back to school. The spokesperson of the Department of Education in Kunduz province says that "70% of the students and teachers are now back to their schools."

Those who were staying at the protection houses (shelters) for women also had to leave the city. According to a member of the house, 70% of the women in shelters were also sent to Kabul. The Taliban referred to the women staying in the shelters as "sluts, whores, immoral, who are not wanted." Women staying in the shelters had received threats before, too.

The Taliban does not want women to be seen publicly or be involved in social and political life. Women working in the media are a big threat to the Taliban because they speak against the oppression of the Taliban and their reactionary ideology. Women leaving their houses due to abuse are considered "whores and immoral" because they refuse to submit to the oppression from their husbands and other male members of the family.

In addition to women and women's institutions, the media and journalists in this northern city were also the first targets of the Taliban. The Taliban did not only attack the different media outlets offices and equipment, but also threatened the journalists. In a statement by the head of the Information and Culture Department in Kunduz, Obaidullah Niazi mentioned that "prior to the Taliban takeover of the city; there were more 100 journalists working for the local, national and some international outlets." Now most journalists have moved to other provinces and have not yet moved back to Kunduz city. During the Taliban time, there was only one radio operating in Kabul and only broadcasting the Taliban propaganda messages.

11/4/2015 - First Woman Elected President of Nepal

Last week, Nepal's parliament elected Bidhya Devi Bhandari the country's first woman president.

Elected by a 327 to 214 majority vote, Bhandari succeeds Ram Baran Yadav, the country's first elected president following the dissolution of the Nepalese monarchy in 2008. Bhandari's appointment comes on the heels of the adoption of Nepal's new constitution, which was written with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in mind. The new constitution requires that women comprise one-third of the nation's lawmakers, as well as contribute in all government committees. It also calls for either the President or Vice President to be a woman.

A longtime political activist and women's rights advocate, Bhandari entered parliament in 1993. In 2009, Bhandari accepted the position of the country's first defense minister, serving until 2011. Bhandari's presidential election undoubtedly marks a milestone in Nepal.

Bhandari, who actively pushed to secure women's rights under Nepal's new constitution for the last seven years, has vowed to continue fighting for minority and women's rights in the country.

10/28/2015 - Deadly Earthquake in Afghanistan Kills Hundreds, Including 12 School Girls

Monday's destructive earthquake in Afghanistan has left over 340 people dead in the northeastern provinces of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Among the dead were 12 school girls who perished in a stampede, as they tried to flee their school in Taloqan, located in Takhar province of Afghanistan. Even as the girls attempted to evacuate the building, the rooftop of the school collapsed.

Officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan expect the death toll to rise. As of Tuesday, the office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reported that as many as 115 people were dead and more than 500 injured in nine Afghan provinces, as well as in the capital city of Kabul. Hundreds more have been reported dead in Pakistan where the affected regions are more populous than in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan that were hit.

The quake, which struck Afghanistan in the Hindu Kush Mountains, registered at a magnitude of 7.5 and sent shockwaves as far as New Delhi, India. Communications were down in many of the rural areas affected, and Unicef is reporting that some of the areas hit are either inaccessible or difficult to reach. The Afghan government is conducting an assessment of the damage caused by the quake and has announced that it will assist victims and conduct rescue operations.

There is severe infrastructural damage in several Afghan provinces, including in Kabul where many people have lost their homes. Afghans are also in need of food, water, and other emergency relief services. White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the US will provide support to Afghanistan and Pakistan as needed.

The 12 school girls who were lost to the quake were laid to rest today in an emotional gathering in Takhar.

10/14/2015 - World Commemorates International Day of the Girl Child

On Sunday, the world celebrated the fourth annual International Day of the Girl Child. Created by a United Nations Resolution in 2011, The Day of the Girl is meant to recognize the power of girls, while also addressing the problems that force millions of girl to drop out of school and not realize their potential.

The International Day of the Girl attracted support from numerous notable figures from around the globe. Chelsea Clinton spoke at The United Nations Children's and Fund (UNICEF), encouraging girls to seek out strong female role models. Malala Yousfzai, a long-time advocate for girls' education, urged leaders to follow through with their plans for providing education for girls throughout the world in order to achieve gender equality by 2030. First Lady Michelle Obama also joined in, releasing a Spotify playlist with girl power anthems.

The theme for this year's celebration was The Power of the Adolescent: Vision for 2030, examining the progress for girls made in the last fifteen years and the prospect for achievement in the next fifteen years. In an effort to achieve gender equality, the organization further encouraged all member states, UN agencies, private sector stakeholders and the civil society to put adolescent girls at the center of all sustainable development efforts in the next 15 years.

The UN is stressing the importance of providing adolescent girls with a safe, educated and healthy life during their formative years. As girls grow into mature women, the UN's goal is to empower them to change the communities around them and the world at large. With the largest generation of girls in history now becoming adolescents, the United Nations (UN) is urging key players in the development field to invest in and empower them in order to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

In a statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that the world must "mak[e] good on our promises to give girls all the opportunities they deserve as they mature to adulthood by 2030. That means enabling them to avoid child marriage and unwanted pregnancy, protect against HIV transmission, stay safe from female genital mutilation, and acquire the education and skills they need to realize their potential. It also requires ensuring their sexual health and reproductive rights. Girls everywhere should be able to lead lives free from fear and violence. If we achieve this progress for girls, we will see advances across society."

7/31/2015 - Mexican Court Sentences Five Men to 697 Years on Prison for Femicide

Last week, a Mexican court made a unanimous decision to convict five men of eleven femicides, or gender-driven killing. The men were sentenced to a total of 697 years in prison, the longest-ever given sentence for femicide, and are also�to pay 9 million pesos, roughly $550,000, and is being called "megajuicio," or mega-judgement, by the Mexican press.

The abductions and killings took place in Ju�rez, a border city in Mexico, beginning in 2008. The women were forced into prostitution and drug dealing until they were no longer considered useful. Then they were murdered.

Judges in the case believe that the women were vulnerable because of their lower socio-economic status. Their poverty made them easy targets, allowing them to be taken advantage of by a local drug cartel that had ties to the sex-trafficking market.

Women's rights groups believe that this case is a milestone, as advocacy groups were able to work alongside Mexican police over the course of the investigation, limiting potential corruption. In past investigations of violence against women in Juarez, authorities have been accused of corruption, planting evidence, and torturing suspects.

"Violence against women in Mexico typically resembles only the tip of an iceberg with more systemic and complex problems lurking below the surface," said Rashida Manjoo, UN special rapporteur on violence against women, reflecting on deep-seated gender-based violence in the country. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of women murdered in Mexico skyrocketed. According to government data, the country averaged 4.4 murders per 100,000 women, which is double the global average. In some parts of the country, the rate is even higher, at 10.1 to 12.8 murders per 100,000 women.

In Mexico, less than ten percent of homicides end in convictions, making this case stand out even further. The National Citizen Femicide Observatory estimates that almost 4,000 women were murdered in Mexico between 2012 and 2013. Only 16 percent of these cases were investigated as femicides.

Approximately 20 other murders are suspected to be linked to the same crime ring. Five other people will be tried in connection to the crime ring.

7/8/2015 - President Assures There Will Be Justice for Farkhunda in Afghanistan Following Outcry by Women's Rights Leaders

Leaders were outraged last week when the Appeals Court of Afghanistan reversed the death penalties issued in the murder case of Farkhunda, who was killed by an angry mob in March.

The Kabul Primary Court sentenced four men to death and eight to 16 years in prison who were charged with the murder of Farkhunda in May. The Appeals Court instead sentenced three of the men to 20 years of imprisonment and another to 10. After the decision, Samira Hamidi and Hasina Safi from Afghan Women's Network, members of Afghanistan's Civil Society Forum, and Parliamentarians Farkhunda Naderi and Gulalai Safi met with President Ashraf Ghani to express their anger over the decision.

Although the Afghan Constitution prohibits the President from interfering in the Court's ruling, Ghani promised the group the case is yet to be finalized and ensured civil society members that any shortcoming of the prosecutor's work will be thoroughly reviewed. The President has also met with Farkhunda's family and promised them justice. According to reports by Afghan media, the deputy spokesman of the President has confirmed that due to some gaps in the investigation, the case will be reviewed once again. The President also called on the people of Afghanistan to exercise patience during this case so that the urge for quick prosecution of the case does not reduce it to Taliban style justice.

27-year-old Farkhunda was brutally killed by an angry mob in front of a famous shrine in the center of Kabul. She challenged the guardian (some news reports referred to him as mullah) of the shrine for giving charms and amulets in return for money to the visitors, most of whom were women. For being challenged by a woman, mullah and guardian shouted and falsely accused her of burning the Quran. The false accusation of the mullah and guardian ignited vicious and fatal attack on Farkhunda by an angry mob of men in front of the shrine.

The shrine attendant, along with 47 other people - including 19 police officers - were arrested in connection to the murder.

7/1/2015 - Women's Rights Activists are Suing the Kenyan Government for Reproductive Rights

A woman in Kenya is suing the Kenyan government for failure to provide safe and legal abortions, which caused her daughter - a 15-year-old rape victim - to suffer a kidney failure after undergoing the procedure illegally.

Currently, there are four petitioners on the case: the mother of the survivor, the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya, and two other women's rights advocates. The petitioners are calling on the government to provide expanded guidelines on when an abortion can be performed as well as safe abortion training for medical professionals.

Abortion is currently illegal in Kenya, with a narrow exception for women who prove her life or mental well-being are in danger. Due to Kenya's restrictive laws, many women and girls have to seek illegal abortions which are often botched and dangerous.

"The Kenyan government is allowing thousands of women in Kenya to needlessly die or suffer severe complications every year due to unsafe abortion," said Regional director of Africa for the Center of Reproductive Rights, Evelyne Opondo, "and it must be held accountable."

Illegal abortion procedures in Kenya cause 35 percent of maternal deaths. In 2012, one-quarter of women and girls who had an illegal abortion had to hospitalized with serious health complications, including cervical damage, septic shock, and uterine perforation.

Last year, the Kenyan government received international attention on abortion access as well. The government chose to execute a nurse who drove a woman seeking an abortion to another hospital for advanced assessment before performing the abortion. The woman and fetus died in the car, and the nurse was charged with murder on two counts, illustrating that strict anti-abortion laws such as the ones in Kenya threaten the lives and well-being of both women and medical professionals.

6/19/2015 - TPP "Fast Track" Headed Back to the Senate Again

In what has become a procedural roller-coaster, the House voted 218 to 208 yesterday to pass Trade Promotion Authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Trade Promotion Authority, also known as "fast-track," will now go back to the Senate for a vote on Tuesday to determine whether or not to move forward with the bill.

The Senate approved fast-tracking the TPP in May as a package deal, that included Trade Adjustment Assistance, a bill that provides assistance to workers who will lose their jobs because of the TPP. Senate Democrats would not agree to approve fast-track without the TAA.

Republican leaders in the House decided to separate the two provisions, requiring members first vote on the TAA and then on fast-track, but both bills had to pass for fast-track to reach President Obama. House Democrats blocked TAA on Friday-- a bill they would usually support-- in order to stop fast-tracking of the TPP. It is unclear as to how the Senate will vote on fast-track without the TAA.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who was one of the authors of the original trade package, explained to CNN that the minority of Democrats who supported the TPP have been called out for their support of fast-tracking. Fearing backlash from labor groups if they vote again for the TPA without the worker's rights and assistance that they TAA offers, Senate Democrats may be more hesitant to vote for "fast track" this time around.

In addition, House Republicans have amended the the customs bill, part of the larger trade package, to weaken anti-human trafficking measures in the fast track bill. Under an amendment offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the US may also be prevented from considering climate change during trade negotiations.

"We're really nervous about a provision that binds the hands of negotiators and prevents them from doing anything on climate change," said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesperson for the environmental organization

Over 2,000 organizations, including the Feminist Majority, released a joint letter opposing fast tracking the TPP, representing labor, environmental, farming, civil rights, digital rights, human rights, public health, faith, student, consumer, and other concerns.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been negotiated in near-secrecy, has been heavily criticized by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). Fast-tracking TPP would prevent lawmakers from addressing concerns in the agreement by offering amendments. It would also prevent Congress from having significant input into US trading partners. That is a big concern, especially since among the countries included in the TPP is oil-rich Brunei, a country that adopted a vicious new penal code last year that threatens the rights and lives of women, lesbians, and gay men.

The Feminist Majority released a petition asking people to urge their Senators and Representative to vote against Fast Track and oppose the TPP.

6/16/2015 - China's Maternal Mortality Rate Has Decreased Dramatically

The National Health and Family Planning Commission released a report this month showing that China's maternal death rate has dropped by over seventy-five percent in the past twenty-five years.

China's maternal mortality rate dropped from 23.2 per 100,000 births in 2014 to 21.7 per 100,000 births. The maternal mortality rate in 1990 was 88.8 per 100,000 births, which means there has been a 75.6%-percent drop in the last twenty-five years.

The National Health and Family Planning Commission attributed China's progress to more social programs that gave allowances to rural Chinese women to give birth in hospitals and equitized medical care. Chinese health professionals also give free pre-pregnancy check-ups and care to reduce the spread.

"[The lowered mortality rate is] the result of strong political will and willingness to invest in healthcare for children, which is a tremendous achievement given the size of the country and population," said Pia MacRae, country director for Save the Children in China. MacRae recognizes, however, that China still needs to take further steps in addressing inequalities in children's health due to uneven development across the country. She says there is still much to be done on lasting improvements in children's health, in particular supporting the training and supervision of frontline health workers in remote areas of rural China.

According to the China National Program for Women's Development (2011-2020), China wants to continue the decrease the number of maternal deaths to 20 deaths per 100,000. With this new report, China officially meets their Millennium Development Goals, as designated by the United Nations. Members of the UN were to cut their maternal mortality by seventy-five percent by 2015.

6/12/2015 - New Nigerian Law Forbids Bans Genital Mutilation

Last month outgoing Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a law formally banning female genital mutilation (FGM). Despite the progressive action, many say that it will take years for FGM practices to cease due its cultural pervasiveness.

The United Nations defines FGM as any "harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization." The practice of FGM is often done without anaesthesia, medical professionals or proper equipment. An incomplete list of potential effects of the procedure includes infection, infertility, heavy bleeding, cysts, complicated childbirth, and chronic pain.

"With such a huge population, Nigeria's vote in favour of women and girls is hugely important," FGM programme manager of Equality Now Mary Wandia told the Guardian. "We hope, too, that the other African countries which have yet to ban FGM - including Liberia, Sudan and Mali, among others - do so immediately to give all girls a basic level of protection."

According to a 2013 UNICEF report, about 125 million girls and women in the world undergo FGM procedures. FGM is most common in Africa, where it is known to be practiced in 29 countries. A handful of Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American countries regularly practice FGM, and it can be found in some western countries including Canada, Australia, and the United States among diaspora populations.

"It is crucial that we scale up efforts to change traditional cultural views that underpin violence against women," Stella Mukasa, Director of Gender, Violence and Rights at the International Center for Research on Women wrote on the topic of FGM. "Doing so involves laws and policies, as well as community level engagement and programs that work to empower girls directly."

6/9/2015 - Rana Plaza Victims Will Receive Compensation

After a two-year campaign for compensation for the victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, the International Labour Organization has succeeded in securing $30 million in compensation.

In April 2013 a multi-story building in Bangladesh that housed five garment factories and a shopping center collapsed, killing at least 1,127 workers and injuring another 2,500. Women made up the majority of the workers in the building, providing low-cost labor to factories producing clothing for Western brands, including those sold in the US, Canada, and Europe. Bangladeshi officials have since charged 41 people with murder for failing to listen to inspectors orders to close the building due to the discovery of cracks in the facade. Among those charged was Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, who was arrested after the collapse attempting to flee the country.

In 2014 the Rana Plaza Coordination Committee calculated that they would need $30 million to pay the 5,000 claimants in the tragedy. The International Labour Organization set up the Rana Plaza Fund, which met the goal of $30 million yesterday after an anonymous donor filled the remaining $2.4 million gap.

Since Bangladesh does not have a national workplace injury compensation program, workers' rights activists both locally and internationally are calling on apparel brands and retailers like Gap, H&M, The Children's Place, and Walmart, who sold clothes produced at Rana Plaza, to pay compensation to the injured survivors and the families of the deceased. Over the two-year campaign, workers' rights groups and labor unions held more than a hundred store actions and demonstrations at corporate headquarters.