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The French National Assembly Tuesday passed an abortion provision modifying a 1975 law which requires women to prove they are "in distress" to legally terminate a pregnancy. The accepted measure removes that language, and some lawmakers called it "archaic." It also punishes people who attempt to prevent women from entering facilities where information on abortion is accessible. The bill must be put to a vote before it passes into law.
In France, abortion is legal for up to 12 weeks, after which a woman's request must be signed off by two doctors and is only permissible if having the baby will risk her health or life, or that the baby will suffer from severe illness. Even so, France reports that as many as 220,000 women undergo the procedure each year and that 1 in 3 French women will receive an abortion in her lifetime. "Abortion is a right in itself," said France's women's rights minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, "and not something that is allowed to conditions." The state began to reimburse abortion costs last year.
The law is part of a larger gender equality bill, the most comprehensive in France's history, which also extends paternity leave to six months, increases fines on businesses and political parties for failure to reach parity, prevents media broadcasts of demeaning or sexist imagery toward women, and bans beauty pageants for girls under 13.
The New York Times called the decision "a refreshing step forward for reproductive rights," as well as "a welcome example of what governments can do to support equal rights and equal opportunities for women." The National Assembly's vote puts France in stark contrast with Spain, which is considering extremely conservative legislation that bans abortion except for cases of rape or a threat to a person's physical or psychological health.
"This might seem merely symbolic," said Vallaud-Belkacem, "but it's a strong message. Women must have the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy without having to justify themselves."
President Obama has nominated Dr. Deborah Birx to become the next leader of PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which funds HIV/AIDS programs and prevention efforts around the world. Once confirmed, Dr. Birx will be the first woman to serve as the Coordinator of United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS Globally.
"The Feminist Majority Foundation applauds the nomination of Deborah Birx to be the next Global AIDS Coordinator," said Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal. "Dr. Birx is the right woman at the right time. As a highly qualified medical doctor who has dedicated her career to HIV/AIDS research and treatment, Dr. Birx is well-positioned to lead the important work of saving lives through the PEPFAR program."
Since 2005, Dr. Birx has served as the Director of the Division of Global HIV/AIDS in the Center for Global Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where she was responsible for all of the agency's global HIV/AIDS activities. Prior to that role, Dr. Birx served as Director of the US Military HIV Research Program and as Director of Retrovirology at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. She has extensive experience in HIV/AIDS vaccine research and development and has earned various honors and awards for her work.
Dr. Birx will take the helm of PEPFAR at a critical time. Although PEPFAR has had success in fighting HIV/AIDS worldwide by supporting HIV testing and counseling and antiretroviral treatment for millions of people, the problem remains staggering. Over half of all people living with HIV are women, and it is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide.
1/17/2014 - Report: Burma Army Uses Rape as Weapon of War
The Women's League of Burma (WLB) released a report on Tuesday revealing the Burmese Army's continued, systematic rape of girls and women since the country's 2010 elections. The Thailand-based group documented over 100 rapes in its report, Same Impunity, Same Patterns, but believes these are only a small fraction of the rapes and that there have likely been hundreds more that have not been reported.
Overall, 47 of the reported cases were gang rapes, and 28 victims died from internal injuries after the rapes. Some of the victims were as young as eight years old. Most of the cases have been clearly linked to military offensives against ethnic minority Kachin and Shan insurgents in the northeast of Burma, also known as Myanmar. And many of the perpetrators have been high-ranking officials in the Burmese military.
"These crimes are more than random, isolated acts by rogue soldiers," WLB writes. "Their widespread and systematic nature indicates a structural pattern: rape is still used as an instrument of war and oppression . . . Sexual violence is used as a tool by the Burmese military to demoralize and destroy ethnic communities."
WLB argues that these actions go against international treaties Burma has signed as well as it's own penal code that punishes rapists. To create change, WLB suggests putting the military under civilian judicial control so it can be held accountable for its crimes. It is currently independently in charge of administering its affairs. The group also suggests involving more women in the nation's peace process, signing the international Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict [PDF], and adopting laws aimed at protecting women from violence.
Colonel Jamila Bayaz, a 50-year-old mother of five, this week became the first women to be appointed police chief in Afghanistan. Bayaz will lead the 1st District of Kabul.
Although the job will not be without risk - a senior police woman was murdered in Helmand last September - Bayaz appeared excited to take on her new role, and hopes it will inspire more women to join the ranks of the police force in Afghanistan. "This is a chance not just for me," said Bayaz, "but for the women of Afghanistan. I will not waste it."
Increasing the number and rank of women in policing will play a critical role in decreasing violence against women in Afghanistan and has been an important goal for the United States and the international community. "I want to thank America and the international community for all of their help and support," said Bayaz. "I would not be here today if it weren't for all of their assistance."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has yet to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States that would help determine the post-2014 role of the US in Afghanistan. The BSA provides that the US will continue to offer assistance to strengthen security, provide humanitarian aid, and support economic and civic development.
In an open letter to President Obama, Afghan civil society leaders asked the President "to ensure that the United States will stand behind the true aspirations of the Afghan people for free, prosperous and democratic future." The letter continues, "Over the coming years, Afghanistan will be completing its political and security transitions as the foundation for the future that we seek. It is our sincere hope that the people of the United States, who were with us during difficult years, will remain with us as we complete the challenging transition period and become more self-reliant."
The first female law firm in Saudi Arabia launched last week, founded by the first Saudi female lawyer Bayan Mahmoud Al-Zahran. Saudi Arabia issued law licenses to Al-Zahran and three other female lawyers in October 2013, the first time the country issued such licenses to female law graduates.
Al-Zahran told Arab News that her law firm's objective will be to fight for Saudi women's rights and to get women's cases heard in court. "I believe women lawyers can contribute a lot to the legal system," she said. "This law firm will make a difference in the history of court cases and female disputes in the Kingdom."
The launch of Al-Zahran's law firm is a step forward for women in Saudi Arabia, where adult women are still required to have male guardians who make decisions on their behalf, such as the right to travel, study, work, or marry. Saudi women are required to cover themselves in public, and they are banned from driving, forced to rely on male relatives or guardians to travel anywhere.
Last October, over 60 women drove in October in an ongoing campaign to obtain the right to drive.
Protests have erupted in India after a 16-year-old girl was gang raped in two separate attacks and fatally set on fire.
The girl was first assaulted in late October by more than six men near her home in Madhyagram town, near Calcutta. She went to the police the next day to report it, and on her way home, was assaulted again. On Dec. 23, two close friends of the girl's accused rapists set her on fire in her home, possibly for reporting the assaults. She was able to identify her attackers before dying in a hospital on Dec. 31.
"The accused tried to kill my daughter by setting her on fire to hush up their crimes," the victim's father told Agence France-Press.
The girl's story has sparked protests in Calcutta, a little more than a year after the gang rape and torture of a medical student that resulted in her death. The violent attacks have led many to protest about the status of women and police indifference to violence against women in the country. So far, the protests have led the government to enact harsher punishments for rapists, but activists say more needs to be done.
Police made their first arrests on Wednesday -- two months after she initially reported the assaults -- and charged two men with murder.
The Israeli government may start funding abortions for women aged 20 to 33 if recommendations recently made by a Health Ministry committee are enacted.
Israeli women under the age of 17 and over the ago of 40 already receive subsidized abortion services for personal reasons. Women also get almost automatic approval for an abortion if they are pregnant as a result of rape or incest, if the fetus has a birth defect, or if the pregnancy may endanger the woman's physical or mental well-being.
Under Israeli law, a committee determines which procedures should be funded through the government and sends recommendations to the Health Ministry for approval. The committee proposed early this week to expand abortion funding for women ages 20 to 33.
"It was brought to our attention that there is a large group of women between 20 and 40 who for various reasons -- financial or reasons of secrecy -- do not terminate pregnancies," said panel head Professor Yonatan Halevy.
The committee wanted to fund the procedure for all women but was limited by budgetary constraints.
Abortion is illegal in Israel, and women must appear before a government panel --consisting of two physicians and a social worker, one of whom must be a woman -- to gain approval for the procedure. However, there is a wide range of exceptions for women seeking abortions, and 98 percent of cases that come before the panel are approved.
The committee's recommendations now go to the Health Council for final approval. If approved, the recommendations could help the 6,300 women in the proposed age range who are expected to terminate their pregnancies in 2014.
The owners and 11 employees of a Bangladeshi garment factory are facing charges for culpable homicide after the death of 112 workers in a fire last year.
Those charged - including owners Delwar Hossain and Mahmuda Akter, and 11 factory managers, security guards, and engineers - created dangerous conditions for the workers that contributed to their deaths. The building had no emergency fire exits, and it's fire certificate had expired. The factory was nine stories high, even though it only had permission to be three stories, and it was located in a narrow alley where firefighters could not reach the flames.
On the day of the fire, managers and security guards locked the doors, trapping the workers inside." The managers and security guards misguided the workers by saying that it was nothing but a part of a regular fire drill when the blaze broke out," said Public Prosecutor Anwarul Kabir Babul. "So the workers went back to work after the fire alarm went off, but they got trapped as the managers locked the gates."
This is the first time Bangladeshi authorities have charged factory owners in a country where several factory disasters over the past two years have injured and killed hundreds of workers. A court will decide on December 31 whether to accept the charges and allow the trial to proceed. If those charged are convicted, they could face life in prison.
12/16/2013 - Michelle Bachelet Wins Chilean Presidency
Feminist Michelle Bachelet is once again the president of Chile, winning 62 percent of the vote - the largest victory for any presidential candidate since the country resumed democratic elections in 1989.
As president, Bachelet will address the profound gap between the rich and poor in Chile. The country has the highest level of income inequality among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Bachelet also intends to establish free university education, a priority for Chilean youth who have organized massive protests against the prohibitively high cost of education there.
"Feminists worldwide applaud Michelle Bachelet's victory and great leadership for women's rights," said Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal in reaction to the win.
Bachelet, a medical doctor by training, served as the president of Chile between 2006 and 2010. The first woman to lead the country, Bachelet reformed Chile's pension system, developed new social welfare programs for children, and was known as a strong champion for women and girls. Constitutionally barred from seeking a consecutive second term, Bachelet went on to become the first Executive Director and Under-Secretary-General of UN Women.
India's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday to reinstate a ban on gay sex. Their decision overturned a 2009 Delhi High Court decision finding that Section 377 of the penal code, the 153-year-old colonial-era law criminalizing gay relationships, was discriminatory and violated human rights.
Violating the law can be punished with up to 10 years in jail. Although the BBC reports that the law is rarely used for prosecution, it is often used by police to harass gay people.Â "This decision is a body-blow to people's rights to equality, privacy and dignity," said G. Ananthapadmanabhan of Amnesty International India in a statement.
Although various conservative groups had petitioned the two-judge Supreme Court to reinstate the ban, the decision prompted protests in cities across India and dismay from Indian leaders.
"To say in this day and age that LGBT rights should not be recognized is extremely regressive and extremely disappointing," said Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.
India's parliament can vote to change or remove Section 377, or the government can file a curative petition to have the case reviewed quickly by a five-judge panel.
12/11/2013 - Human Rights Day Celebrated Around The World
Yesterday marked International Human Rights Day, a day to celebrate human rights advances and to assess the challenges that lie ahead in protecting them.
"The fundamentals for protecting and promoting human rights are largely in place: these include a strong and growing body of international human rights law and standards, as well as institutions to interpret the laws, monitor compliance and apply them to new and emerging human rights issues," said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in a statement. "The key now is to implement those laws and standards to make enjoyment of human rights a reality on the ground."
One of the most pressing global human rights concerns that the United States can easily help improve is women's access to family planning services and protection from HIV/AIDS. Every minute, a young woman becomes infected with HIV/AIDS. Women need reproductive health programs to be integrated with HIV/AIDS services, and vice-versa, for improved efficiency and effectiveness in preventing AIDS infection and unplanned pregnancy and improving maternal and child health.
The United States, through PEPFAR - the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) - has made an unprecedented commitment to helping create an AIDS Free Generation. Yet, PEPFAR funds cannot be used to purchase family planning commodities, nor are family planning services provided at PEPFAR sites, meaning that women cannot access a full range of contraceptives at the same site where they receive HIV/AIDS testing, counseling, or treatment. Moreover, continued U.S.-funding preferences for abstinence-based programs undermine comprehensive HIV-prevention services, including the provision of condoms.
TAKE ACTION: Urge decision makers to integrate comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare services with HIV/AIDS treatment for women globally.
LEARN MORE: Read our week-long blog series about human rights.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released their annual report on violence against women in Afghanistan yesterday, revealing mixed results of the country's Elimination of Violence against Women Law.
"A Way to Go: An Update on Implementation of the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women in Afghanistan [PDF]," found that there was a 28 percent increase in reports of violence against women from 2012 to 2013 , but only 17 percent of those were prosecuted under EVAW - a small 2 percent increase from last year.
The law, which was issued by the executive decree of President Hamid Karzai in 2009, criminalizes 22 acts of violence against women and specifies punishment for perpetrators. It has still not been passed by Parliament, after women's rights activist and head of the women's committee of the Lower House, Fawzia Kofi, introduced it for a vote in 2013. Kofi was concerned that, without approval for EVAW by Parliament, the decree might be reversed by a newly elected President in 2014.
While it has "provided protection to Afghan women facing violence," said Georgette Gagnon, the UNAMA Director of Human Rights and Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, it has not helped as many as it could due to "a lack of investigation" and "continued under reporting. "The report's authors wrote that an increase in the number of female police officers and leaders, establishing a system to track incidents of violence, and increasing funding and training for EVAW commissions would make the law stronger. "We have found that police, prosecutors and courts, in our view, need increased resources and technical and political support and direction from the highest levels of Government to deal adequately with the increase in reporting and registration of cases of violence against women documented in this report," Gagnon said.
Media Resources: Feminist Newswire 5/20/13, 9/11/13, 10/10/13; United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan 12/8/13; Al Jazeera 12/8/13
Research completed by the Guttmacher Institute and released this week exposes the considerable financial toll taken on Ugandan women and their families when they pursue unsafe abortions. "Documenting the Individual and Household-Level Cost of Unsafe Abortion in Uganda" [PDF], by Aparna Sundaram of the Guttmacher Institute et al, uses data collected between 2011 and 2012 from more than 1,300 women to gain insight into how the costs of both unsafe abortion and post-abortion care impact women's finances and the well-being of their families.
Uganda's abortion rate is one of the highest in the world. In 2003, 54 of every 1,000 women in Uganda had had an induced abortion between the ages of 15 and 49. Confusing and restrictive laws lead many women to pursue dangerous and unsafe abortions, and in 2003 85,000 women in Uganda were treated for complications from their abortions in local hospitals. On average, Ugandan women in the study paid 59,600 shillings for their abortions (equivalent to $23), but post-abortion care increased that average cost to 128,000 shillings on average (or $49). These costs are significant for women in Uganda, where per capita income in 2011 was $510 and 38% of the population lived on $1.25 per day in 2009. 73% of the women in the study reported that they had lost wages due to treatment, 60% reported that their children had less to eat and/or were unable to attend school after their treatment, and 34% reported that they experienced a decline in economic stability after their care was complete.
"These findings make clear that more must be done to reduce unintended pregnancy by ensuring Ugandan women have access to family planning services," said Moses Mulumba, executive director of the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development. "Accurate information on contraception and high-quality services must be made available as a matter of constitutionally guaranteed rights to allow women to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. Young and poor women in particular need access to these services."
The Guttmacher report recommends increased family planning services and contraceptive access in Uganda. 34% of married women and 35% of sexual active unmarried women in Uganda experience an unmet need for contraception. A recent Ms. magazine report on PEPFAR funding in the region found that abstinence-only policies in the country lead to frequent condom stockouts. The Uganda Ministry of Health has stated that condom availability over the past five years doesn't meet the needs or demands of the population. A lack of available family planning resources is directly responsible for both the high rate of unsafe abortions in Uganda as well as rising HIV/AIDS infections.
12/3/2013 - President Obama Announces HIV Cure Initiative
US President Barack Obama announced the launch of The HIV Cure Initiative yesterday, a $100 million investment in National Institutes of Health (NIH) research into a cure to HIV/AIDS.
"The United States should be at the forefront of the discoveries into how to put HIV in long-term remission without requiring lifelong therapies," President Obama said at a White House event commemorating World AIDS Day. "Or, better yet, eliminate it completely."
The funds for the initiative will be drawn from existing resources and will be redirected from expiring AIDS research grants. The funds will focus on further developing research into a treatment that has appeared to cure several people of HIV, but has been too "toxic or premature to apply beyond the research setting."
Other high-priority AIDS research will continue to be supported alongside research for a cure, including treatment during pregnancy, and the effect of the interaction of factors like sex, race, and stigma on treatment. The US will also give five billion dollars to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria over the next two years.
The US has been a world leader in funding prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, accounting for 64 percent of total international assistance to low- and middle- income countries. The President's Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) currently provides life-saving treatment for 6.7 million people. However, PEPFAR and other prevention programs have been held back by the influence of abstinence-based programs, frequent condom shortages in countries with high rates of those living with HIV/AIDS, and the lack of integration of family planning and HIV/AIDS services.
TAKE ACTION: Tell US leaders that HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs must be integrated with comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services including family planning services for women and girls.
A pregnant Italian woman who was visiting England for a work training course had her baby forcibly removed and taken into the custody of social services.
While in a psychiatric facility in Essex, a court declared her incompetent, so doctors sedated her and performed a caesarean section on her against her will. When she woke up, doctors told her they had removed her child and taken it into custody. Prior to the operation, the woman reportedly suffered a panic attack when she could not find her daughters' passports, and she called the police. They took her to the psychiatric facility, where she was held under Britain's Mental Health Act for five weeks.
Essex social services refuses to return the now 15-month-old girl to her mother and plans to put her up for adoption. The mother is currently fighting to have the court's ruling overturned before the adoption process is completed. A judge formed a favorable opinion of her, but he ruled to put the child up for adoption anyway because of the risk that the woman may suffer a relapse.
This case has been called "unprecedented" by the woman's attorneys. "I worry about the way these decisions about a person's mental capacity are being taken without any apparent concern as to the effect on the individual being affected," said Member of Parliament John Hemming, according to The Telegraph.
Yesterday marked the 25th annual World AIDS Day, an opportunity for people around the world to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
"We remember the friends and loved ones we have lost, stand with the estimated 35 million people living with HIV/AIDS, and renew our commitment to preventing the spread of this virus at home and abroad," said US President Barack Obama in a statement. "If we channel our energy and compassion into science-based results, an AIDS-free generation is within our reach."
As a direct result of increased availability of HIV testing, counseling, and treatment, new HIV infections around the world dropped 33 percent between 2001 and 2012, and AIDS-related deaths have dropped 30 percent since 2005. Current treatment can reduce infectiousness by 96 percent, and great progress has been made to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, with "more than 850,000 new childhood infections averted between 2005 and 2012 in low- and middle-income countries," according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
Despite significant progress in fighting HIV worldwide, there are still 35 million people living with HIV, and over half of those are women. It is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide. In sub-Saharan Africa, where 69 percent of all people with HIV live, women are over half of the epidemic with women ages 15-24 as much as 8 times more likely than men to be HIV positive.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged an end to discrimination and violence against women, which can increase risk of HIV infection and death from AIDS, and a focus on increasing access to treatment for pregnant women and children. "To create conditions for an AIDS-free generation, we must also step up efforts to stop new HIV infections among children and ensure access to treatment for all mothers living with HIV," he said.
11/27/2013 - Karzai Signals Delay On Bilateral Security Agreement
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has declared that he will not sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) until after Afghanistan's Presidential elections are held in April 2014.
The Obama Administration has urged Karzai to sign the agreement by the end of the year. The BSA provides that the US will continue to offer assistance to strengthen the security in Afghanistan, provide humanitarian aid, and support economic and civic development. The agreement provides no combat role for US troops.
The Afghan Loya Jirga, or grand council, approved the BSA earlier this week and advised President Karzai to sign the agreement without delay. The Afghan Parliament is expected to consider the agreement soon and present it to President Karzai for finalization. Certain members of Parliament have already voiced strong support for the agreement.
If President Karzai does not sign the BSA before the end of the year, the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan could potentially disrupt and Afghan women and girls could be placed at grave risk. The Obama Administration has indicated that failure to finalize the agreement could lead to a complete pullout of US forces and the loss billions of dollar in international aid.
With the help and support of the U.S. and the international community, Afghan women and girls have made steady progress in every sector of society. Previously stripped of all human rights and forced into a state of virtual house arrest, women are now 27 percent of Afghan Parliament, over 10 percent of candidates for the upcoming provincial council elections, about 35 percent of all primary and secondary school students, and nearly 19 percent of students attending university.
TAKE ACTION: Ask President Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement and ensure that Afghan women's rights do not move backwards.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is launching a plan to help over 3.2 million women and girls of reproductive age in the Philippines who have been affected by Typhoon Haiyan and are still in need of urgent care. The $110 million plan is aimed at ensuring that no woman dies giving birth and that women are protected from violence.
Typhoon Haiyan, which hit two weeks ago, has wreaked havoc in the Philippines. The death toll currently stands at 5,200 people and growing. Millions more have been displaced, and the typhoon destroyed health and security infrastructures, leaving women - particularly the estimated 230,000 pregnant women in affected areas - especially vulnerable.
"In the rush to provide assistance, women and girls were invisible," said Ugochi Daniels, Chief of the United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA) Humanitarian Response. "We now must ensure that their needs are met so that every woman and every girl affected by Typhoon Haiyan is protected and lives with dignity."
Program funds, which will be implemented in coordination with humanitarian partners and national authorities, will go to providing life-saving maternal health services, such as temporary maternity wards and ambulances, kits for women of reproductive age that include sanitary pads and other basic hygiene items, and kits with supplies for pregnant and lactating women.
UNFPA will also support the deployment of female police officer teams, the reconstruction of safe havens, and the designation of spaces for women in evacuation centers to help protect women from violence.
"Targeted support to women is one of the best ways to ensure the health, security and well-being of families and entire communities," said Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA's Executive Director.
Today marks the fourteenth annual United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, a part of the United Nations Secretary General's Campaign to End Violence Against Women (UNiTE). Through these campaigns, the UN seeks to raise awareness of the epidemic levels of violence against women and to increase political will and resources for preventing and ending all forms of violence against women and girls around the world.
Globally, 70 percent of women experience violence in their lifetime. In the United States alone, more than one million women are raped every year, though that number may be higher due to low reporting levels. The World Bank estimates that women between the ages of 15 and 44 are more at risk of injury or death from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war, and malaria.
"This International Day to End Violence against Women is an opportunity for all people to recommit to preventing and halting all forms of violence against women and girls," said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. "I welcome the chorus of voices calling for an end to the violence that affects an estimated one in three women in her lifetime."
The United States and Afghanistan have agreed on the final language of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that will help determine the role of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014. The agreement is now being considered by the Loya Jirga, a council composed of 2500 members including Afghan political, community, business, youth and non-profit organization leaders.
The BSA provides that the U.S. will continue to provide assistance to strengthen the security and stability of Afghanistan and will work with Afghanistan to continue coordinating counter-terrorism efforts. The agreement provides no combat role for U.S. troops, a point that has been emphasized by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The agreement also does not specify the number of U.S. troops that would remain in Afghanistan in training, advisory and assistance capacity after 2014, nor does it specify how long U.S. troops would stay in the country. In June 2013, U.S. and NATO transferred security and combat responsibilities to the Afghan armed forces, began the drawdown of their troops, and remain for training and advisory missions.
Presidents Obama and Karzai had signed, in May 2013, a ten-year Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between the two countries which included "U.S. commitments to support Afghanistan's social and economic development, security, institutions, and regional cooperation." Afghanistan committed "to strengthen accountability, transparency, oversights, and to protect human rights of all Afghans - men and women." The SPA required a BSA be negotiated.
President Obama has urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the BSA by the end of the year. President Karzai in his address to the Loya Jirga on Thursday had indicated that the BSA should be signed after the April 2014 Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections. Karzai urged the Loya Jirga to approve the BSA. Next the BSA goes to the Afghan Parliament for final approval.
Congress passed the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Stewardship and Oversight Act of 2013 on Tuesday, reaffirming and strengthening its commitment to reducing global HIV/AIDS. The 2013 act updates the program to require, among other changes, more collaboration between US departments to combat HIV/AIDS, to require a study of treatment providers, and to extend funding for orphans and other children left vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.
The program, which began in 2003, has supported HIV testing and counseling and antiretroviral treatment for millions of people. PEPFAR has created partnerships to support countries' efforts to implement HIV prevention programs and care services and has focused efforts on reaching particularly vulnerable populations.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-IL), an original co-author of PEPFAR in 2003, praised the passage of the Act and its continued bi-partisan support. She also expressed confidence in the program. "I believed then, as I do now, that we can achieve an AIDS-free generation with the right investments, like protecting funding for programs for orphans and vulnerable children, supporting the Global Fund, and guiding the transition toward greater country ownership, while also expanding effective combination prevention programs and HIV/AIDS research," said Lee.
Although PEPFAR has had unprecedented success in fighting HIV/AIDS globally, the problem remains staggering - particularly for women. Over half of all people living with HIV are women, and it is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide.
Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal and National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill have urged that the next leader of PEPFAR must therefore ensure that women's rights are at the center of the U.S. response to HIV/AIDS. US Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby - who led the implementation of PEPFAR - stepped down from his position earlier this month. Smeal and O'Neill have called on President Obama to appoint a woman in the past.
Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former First Lady Laura Bush called for increased support for Afghan women during the "Advancing Afghan Women: Promoting Peace and Progress in Afghanistan" symposium held in Washington, DC last week.
The US leaders asserted that women must be a strong part of Afghanistan's upcoming political, security, and economic transitions as Afghanistan holds new elections and the US withdraws its troops in 2014.
"Societies where women are safe, where women are empowered to exercise their rights and to move their communities forward - these societies are more prosperous and more stable - not occasionally, but always," said Kerry. "And nowhere is the pursuit of this vision more important, and in many ways more compelling and immediate and possible than in Afghanistan."
Kerry reminded the audience of just how far Afghanistan has come in terms of women's rights since 2001, when the Taliban was in control. Only 900,000 children were in school then, all of whom were boys; today, there are eight million school children, one-third of whom are girls. Women's health has also improved dramatically with a 60 percent increase in access to basic care for the entire population and an 80 percent decrease in the maternal mortality rate.
Both Clinton and Bush encouraged an increase in support of NGOs and other organizations working in the region and called for increased public attention on women's rights in Afghanistan. "Investing in Afghan women is the surest way to guarantee that Afghanistan will sustain the gains of the last decade and never again become a safe haven for international terrorists," Kerry said.
A report released Wednesday by Family Planning 2020 (FP2020), "a global partnership that supports the rights of women and girls to decide, freely, and for themselves, whether, when, and how many children they want to have," details successes and progress made in international commitments to improving family planning since the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning.
According to the report, titled Partnership in Action, 24 countries have committed to doing more to improve family planning since the 2012 summit. One-fourth of them have already launched detailed strategies, including Kenya, Niger, and Burkina Faso, among several others. One-third have increased their budgets for family planning, including Ethiopia and Indonesia. Half have also held family planning conferences. FP2020, supported by the United Nations Foundation, has developed tools to monitor the progress of these countries.
Partnerships between governments, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector in countries like Senegal and Nigeria, as well as the development of innovative ways to deliver services, such as reducing the cost of contraceptive implants by 50 percent to make them more accessible for poorer women, are also helping to expand access to family planning services and commodities.
For family planning strategies to succeed, organizations and governments must listen to what women want and need, and integrate those responses into their strategies. "For FP2020 to succeed in spirit as well as fact, we must deliver for women on their terms," said Grethe Petersen, the Regional Director for East and Southern Africa at Marie Stopes International and a member of FP2020's Country Engagement Working Group. "Reflecting their choices: whether to use contraception or not; whichever method of contraception they like; whenever, wherever and from whichever provider they choose."
Barriers that often prevent women from getting the family planning services they need include the cost of services and products, inadequate medical professionals and supplies, and difficulty accessing services. Other underlying issues include gender inequality, poverty, sexual violence and coercion, child marriage, lack of access to education, and lack of economic opportunities for girls and women.
"Across the board, it's clear we need strong global leadership and enhanced understanding of these challenges in order to continue to make progress," said Anne C. Richard, US Department of State Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration in her closing remarks at the third annual International Family Planning Conference in Addis Ababa that wraps up today. "Together, so much has already been achieved, and the incredibly positive spirit expressed during this conference convinces me that we can do so much more."
Political leaders and health advocates from around the world will meet in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Abba, this week for the third annual International Conference on Family Planning. The conference, held by the Gates Institute, will take place from November 12 to 15. Those in attendance, including Malawian President Joyce Banda and Melinda Gates, will discuss their continuing commitment to ensuring every woman has access to comprehensive family planning services.
The theme of the conference, "Full Access, Full Choice," encourages governments and charities who committed to expanding family planning access at the 2012 London conference to honor their commitments. The conference hopes to provide a platform for successful strategies in expanding access to 120 million women by 2020 as well as many of the hurdles that countries and organizations have faced in trying to reach the goal thus far. Attendees will also discuss the role of political leadership in expanding access to family planning services, the involvement of female advocates to champion such efforts, and effective teenage pregnancy prevention programs.
"Access to family planning information and contraceptives empower women to plan their families, get a better education, and provide a healthier future for their children," said Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation.
While there has been a global drop in the rate of unintended pregnancies, the proportion of unintended pregnancies remains high, especially in developing regions. High rates of unintended pregnancies reflect the barriers to contraceptive methods that women and men face: in many developing countries, the high cost of quality contraceptives, unpredictable donor funding, and cultural and knowledge barriers all prevent women from accessing family planning services. Additionally, women living in rural communities are often geographically removed from reproductive health care facilities, only compounding the difficulties in being able to regularly access contraception.
Garment workers protesting for a higher minimum wage in Bangladesh yesterday were attacked with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas.
The workers, who closed over 100 factories to protest, were demanding a raise in the minimum wage from the current $38 per month to $100 per month. Bangladesh's wage board has proposed to raise the minimum wage by 77 percent to $66 per month - far less than the requested $100. According to the International Labor Organization, Bangladesh garment workers are the worst paid in the world; they make only 14 percent of a living wage.
"Owners are indifferent to our demand," said a protester, according to Reuters. "They are not even ready to pay what the wage board proposed."
Bangladesh's Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association believes that raising the minimum wage will increase costs too much and require Western customers to pay more for exported products. However, raising wages would have a miniscule effect on prices that Western consumers pay. "Raising wages by 80% would add only about 25 cents per T-shirt," Rubana Huq, managing director of large garment exporter Mohammadi Group, told The Wall Street Journal. "As manufacturers, we can only hope for the retailers to accommodate this increase."
Garment workers have held several strikes and protests demanding better pay and working conditions since the deadly Rana Plaza collapse that killed 1,127 people in April.