Women’s Rights Groups Demand that US Stop Negotiating TPP with Brunei Until the Sultan Revokes New Taliban-Like Laws

WASHINGTON – A coalition of women’s rights groups have joined the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) in calling for the Obama Administration to initiate the process of removing Brunei from negotiations on a prospective Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement with the United States – or to suspend TPP talks – until Brunei revokes its new Taliban-like penal code.

“Women’s rights and human rights cannot take a backseat to profit and trade,” said FMF President Eleanor Smeal. “As a global leader, the United States should not negotiate a free trade agreement with a country that has enacted laws hostile to basic human rights and dignity.”

Twelve women’s rights organizations – including FMF, American Association of University Women, the Clearinghouse on Women’s Issues, the Institute for Science and Human Values, Jewish Women International, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Council of Jewish Women, the National Organization for Women, the Women’s Global Program of the Communications Consortium Media Center, Women’s Online Media and Education Network, and the US National Committee for UN Women – delivered a letter to the White House expressing outrage over Brunei’s new penal code and asking the Administration stop negotiating the TPP with Brunei.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a proposed regional free trade agreement being negotiated between the US and Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. The TPP addresses a broad range of issues, including trade in goods and services; regulation of intellectual property and foreign investments; as well as labor and environmental rules, among other topics. TPP negotiations have been ongoing since 2010, with very little information about the negotiated documents released to Congress or to the public.

“The US must insist that Brunei address human rights concerns by revoking its penal code before the US continues negotiations with Brunei on the TPP,” continued Smeal. “There is simply no place in a civilized society for kill-a-gay and flog-a-woman penal codes. Our foreign policy should make that clear, especially in the execution of our trade agreements.”

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights has expressed deep concern about Brunei’s new penal code and stated that its draconian punishments would violate international law. The new penal code, which went into effect on May 1, is set to be implemented in three phases. The first phase includes fines and prison sentences for such “crimes” as becoming pregnant outside of marriage. The second phase includes corporal punishment, such as amputations and flogging of women who have abortions. The third phase includes the stoning to death of gay men and lesbians and those convicted of adultery.

FMF has launched a petition drive and social media campaign #StopTheSultan calling on the Sultan of Brunei to revoke the new penal code, and together with Mavis and Jay Leno, held a rally in Los Angeles, California on May 5 across from the Beverly Hills Hotel – part of the Dorchester Collection of properties, owned by the Sultan – to protest the law.



June 9, 2014

Contact: Megan Perry

(703) 522-2214


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Obama Sends US Military Personnel to Help Find Abducted Nigerian Girls

The White House announced this week that it has deployed 80 US military personnel to Chad to help find the over 200 Nigerian girls abducted in April by militant group Boko Haram.

“These personnel will support the operation of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area,” he wrote in a letter to the House and Senate leaders. “The force will remain in Chad until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required.”

They will join the US military and law enforcement officials and international forces already there.

It has been over a month since the girls were abducted, and the search for them has come up empty. Boko Haram released a video last week showing some of the girls praying and offering to exchange them for imprisoned members of the group, but there have not been many other leads. The group, which has a long history of terrorism in Nigeria, appears to be escalating its violent attacks. The United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions against the group this week, adding Boko Haram to a list of organizations associated with al-Qaeda.

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Boko Haram Proposes Swap of Kidnapped Girls for Prisoners

Boko Haram, the terrorist group that kidnapped over 200 teenage girls from their school in Northeast Nigeria one month ago, released a video yesterday on YouTube offering to free the girls in return for the release of imprisoned group members.

Around 100 girls are shown in the video praying and wearing full grey veils. “We will not release them while you detain our brothers,” Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau says. Nigeria has reportedly deployed two army divisions to find the girls. “The government of Nigeria is considering all options towards freeing the girls and reuniting them with their parents,” said senior Ministry of Information official Mike Omeri.

Several countries have offered assistance to the Nigerian government, including the United States. An anonymous source told the New York Times that US surveillance aircraft have already joined the search for the girls and satellite images have been provided to the Nigerian government.

Nigerian officials updated the number of girls still in the hands of Boko Haram to 223 after 53 escaped. After the kidnapping, Nigerians demanded that the government needed to do more to secure the girls’ safe return home. Rallies were held around the world in support, and a social media campaign spread using the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Shekau threatened in an earlier video to sell the girls into slavery, and many feared that the girls had already been trafficked into other countries or forced into marriage to Boko Haram members.

Boko Haram has a long history of terrorism in northern Nigeria. Human Rights Watch reported in 2012 on the group’s atrocious activities, which have included murder, abduction, rape, mutilation, and the use of child soldiers. The group kidnapped 8 more girls from Warabe and killed as many as 300 people in an attack on a city in the northeastern region of Nigeria last week.

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Los Angeles City Council Condemns Brunei’s Taliban-Like Penal Code

The City Council of Los Angeles, California approved a resolution this week condemning Brunei’s brutal new “kill-a-gay, flog-a-woman” penal code and urging the nation and its Sultan to divest its ownership of the Beverly Hills Hotel, not long after a similar resolution was unanimously approved by the Beverly Hills City Council.

“Now, therefore, be it resolved, with the concurrence of the Mayor, that by the adoption of this Resolution, the City of Los Angeles hereby includes in its 2013-2014 Federal Legislative Program support for legislation and/or administrative action which condemns the government of Brunei for adopting laws that impose extreme and inhumane penalties including execution by stoning, flogging and severing of limbs and urges the government of Brunei to divest itself of the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Bel Air Hotel,” the resolution says [PDF].

The Brunei Investment Agency owns the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Bel-Air Hotel, and other Dorchester Collection Properties. The Agency is managed by the Brunei Ministry of Finance, which is controlled by Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei.

Brunei’s new penal code is set to be implemented in three phases over three years. The first phase, which began on May 1, will include fines and prison sentences. The second phase includes corporal punishment such as amputations and flogging women who have abortions. The stoning to death of gay men and lesbians is slated for the third phase.

According to news reports, the US State Department indicated on Tuesday that the ambassador to Brunei had discussed concerns about the law with the Brunei government. The Feminist Majority Foundation is calling on the United Nations to condemn the government of Brunei and to explore additional options if the Sultan fails to rescind these inhumane laws. In protest of the new laws, the Feminist Majority Foundation launched a massive petition drive and social media campaign, using the hashtag #StopTheSultan, calling on the government of Brunei to rescind the new code and asking the United Nations to take action if these laws go into effect as planned. FMF also pulled its annual Global Women’s Rights Awards from the Beverly Hills Hotel and held a rally on Monday in the park across from the venue. Several celebrities, including actor and activist Frances Fisher and comedian Jay Leno, who co-chairs the Global Women’s Rights Awards with Mavis Leno, joined a coalition of women’s rights and LGBT groups at the rally, calling on the Sultan of Brunei to immediately rescind the penal code.

Take Action: Sign the FMF’s petition to rescind Brunei’s brutal code and share it online using the hashtag #StopTheSultan!

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Fast Food Workers Will Hold The Largest-Ever Worldwide Day of Action Next Week

Fast food workers are planning the largest one-day action so far on May 15. Workers will strike in 150 cities around the United States, and protests will be held in thirty other countries, including England, India, and South Africa.

The campaigners demand $15 per hour in wages and the ability to form a union. McDonald’s – which is facing several class-action lawsuits for wage theft – will be targeted in particular. Just this March, a $500,000 settlement was reached with the owner of seven McDonald’s franchises in New York for failure to pay 1,600 mostly minimum wage workers certain wages and legally-required stipends.

Fast food workers across the US have been striking and protesting for higher wages and more labor protections for over a year now – changes that would particularly help women and people of color. Seventy-three percent of all front-line fast food workers are women, and 43 percent are black or Latino. Fifty-two percent of fast food workers have to rely on public assistance because their wages are too low to survive on. “Meanwhile, the CEO of McDonald’s raked in about $13.8 million in fiscal 2012, an estimated 737 times what the average fast-food worker earned,” Michelle Chen reports in the Fall 2013 issue of Ms.

Several city and state legislators, most recently in Seattle and Maryland, have taken it upon themselves to raise their communities’ minimum wages, and President Obama issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10. Just last week, however, Senate Republicans blocked a vote on legislation that would have increased the federal minimum wage.

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US Will Help Nigeria Find Kidnapped Girls

President Barack Obama announced yesterday that the US will assist Nigeria in finding the over 200 teenage girls who were abducted by terrorist group Boko Haram three weeks ago.

“We’ve already sent in a team to Nigeria – they’ve accepted our help through a combination of military, law enforcement, and other agencies who are going in, trying to identify where in fact these girls might be and provide them help,” Obama said Tuesday. The support will include technical assistance from US military and law enforcement officials skilled in intelligence, investigations, victim assistance, hostage negotiating, and other areas. Armed forces will not be involved.

“In the short term our goal is obviously to help the international community, and the Nigerian government, as a team to do everything we can to recover these young ladies,” Obama told NBC. “But we’re also going to have to deal with the broader problem of organizations like this that . . . can cause such havoc in people’s day-to-day lives.”

The kidnapped girls, 53 of whom have escaped, were at their school when Boko Haram abducted them. The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, announced his intention to sell the girls “in the market” in a video. Many fear that some of the girls may have already been forced into sex slavery or trafficked across the border, and protests have grown around the world and on twitter where people have called on Nigeria to #BringBackOurGirls.

President Obama called the kidnapping “heartbreaking,” and called on the international community to take action against Boko Haram. “You’ve got one of the worst regional or local terrorist organizations in Boko Haram in Nigeria, they’ve been killing people ruthlessly for many years now and we’ve already been seeking greater cooperation with the Nigerians – this may be the event that helps to mobilize the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organization that’s perpetrated such a terrible crime.”

Boko Haram kidnapped 8 more girls from Warabe on Sunday night, and killed as many as 300 people in an attack on Gamboru Ngala. Both towns are in the northeastern region of Nigeria, near the border with Cameroon, not far from Chibok were the schoolgirls were abducted. A government official told a local newspaper that the attack on Gamboru Ngala lasted about 12 hours. Members of Boko Haram were reported to have sprayed gunfire into crowds and set shops and resident homes on fire.

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Feminist Majority Rally Brings Together Women’s and LGBTQ Groups to Protest Brunei Penal Code

The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), which pulled its annual Global Women’s Rights Awards from the Beverly Hills Hotel — owned by the Sultan of Brunei — held a rally yesterday across from the hotel to urge the Sultan to rescind a new, Taliban-like penal code that includes the stoning to death of gay men and lesbians and the public flogging of women who have abortions.

Several groups participated at the rally, including the California Women’s Law Center, Equality California, Human Rights Campaign, Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Services Center, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Mavis and Jay Leno, hosts of the FMF Global Women’s Rights Awards event, FMF Board Member and national organizer Delores Huerta, actor and activist Frances Fisher, FMF Executive Vice President and Executive Editor of Ms. magazine Katherine Spillar, and FMF President Eleanor Smeal, among others, also spoke at the rally, calling for the repeal of the horrific new penal code, which began part of its implementation last week.

“Every day the movement grows to demand that this Taliban-like penal code is rescinded,” said Smeal. “Advocates for LGBT and women’s rights are mobilized against this new Brunei penal code, and we are gratified that the Beverly Hills City Council has taken up a resolution condemning the law. People are outraged.”

“This new penal code is a clear violation of international law and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. We call on the United Nations to investigate whether Brunei should be allowed to keep its membership at the UN if the Sultan fails to rescind these inhumane laws,” continued Smeal.

The Brunei code is set to be implemented in three phases over three years. The first phase, which began on May 1, will include fines and prison sentences. The second phase includes corporal punishment such as amputations and flogging women who have abortions. The stoning to death of gay men and lesbians is slated for the third phase.

TAKE ACTION: Sign FMF’s petition calling on the government of Brunei to immediately rescind the new code and asking the United Nations to take action if these laws go into effect as planned!

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Vatican Questioned by UN Panel on Child Sex Abuse Scandal

The Vatican came under fire yesterday during questioning by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which demanded answers from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi – the Vatican’s representative in Geneva – on the Holy See’s response to widespread sexual violence and abuse by priests.

The Committee called on the Archbishop to demonstrate the systems the Holy See has in place to prevent torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment, including rape and sexual abuse. The vice-chair of the UN Committee, American expert Felice Gaer, also demanded a response to allegations that Italian bishops had issued guidelines this year, approved by the Vatican, explicitly stating that they are not required to report suspected child sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities. The Committee also pressed the Archbishop on the denial of abortion care to and stigmatization of rape victims.

“Not only is the UN calling the Vatican to account, they are acknowledging the gravity of the harms at stake – which amount to torture of the most vulnerable individuals and cause deep, long-lasting harm,” said Barbara Blaine, President of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which has filed a lawsuit against Vatican officials at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity as a result of rampant sexual abuse. “Pope Francis must humbly acknowledge the breadth of the problem in the church and take concrete steps to end the sexual violence and finally hold accountable not only perpetrators but those who cover up the violence, knowingly shift priests, and endanger more children.”

Pope Francis announced in December a commission to advise on sexual abuse. The commission is charged with creating “best practices” and “clear and effective protocols” to prevent child sexual abuse. The commission, however, has only met once – last week – and there is no timeline for the commission to make proposals to the Pope. “Pope Francis and the bishops are not taking action that would protect children,” Blaine told reporters on Friday. SNAP has called for, at a minimum, removal of priests involved in sexual abuse.

This is the first time that the UN Committee Against Torture has reviewed the Holy See’s implementation of the international Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic Church, ratified the treaty in June 2002. Archbishop Tomasi reiterated to the Committee the Holy See’s position that it is only required to implement the treaty in Vatican City – and cannot be held accountable for the failure of its agents and institutions to fulfill the treaty obligations. The Holy See’s position, however, appeared untenable to the Committee. According to Felice Gaer, the Holy See’s position is the first time a party to the treaty has attempted to limit its obligations to “a subdivision” of itself. Although the Holy See governs Vatican City, the Holy See is a “non-territorial” entity and its exerts control beyond the territorial limits of Vatican City.

This is the second time that the Holy See has been called before a UN Committee to answer questions concerning its handling of sexual abuse. In February, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child blasted the Holy See, noting that “the Committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.”

The hearing in front of the Committee Against Torture continues today.

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Boko Haram Kidnaps Eight More Girls in Nigeria

Less than one month after kidnapping over 200 girls from Chibok, terrorist group Boko Haram reportedly kidnapped eight more girls, ages 12 to 15, from Warabe, another village in northeast Nigeria.

The girls were taken from their homes on Sunday night, loaded onto trucks by gunpoint. Warabe is close to the border of Cameroon and the Sambisa forest where many fear the Chibok girls were taken. In a video obtained earlier this week by Agence France-Presse (AFP), Boko Haram announced its intention to sell the kidnapped girls “on the market.”

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson Rupert Colville sharply condemned the possible trafficking of the abducted girls. “We warn the perpetrators that there is an absolute prohibition against slavery and sexual slavery in international law. These can under certain circumstances constitute crimes against humanity,” said Colville at a news briefing in Geneva.

Commenting on the kidnapping, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US “will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and hold the perpetrators to justice.” Assistance could include help with security, communications and intelligence. The Nigerian government has indicated, according to the BBC, that it welcomes international assistance in order to find the girls.

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Boko Haram Leader Admits to Mass Kidnapping in Nigeria, Declares Intent to Sell Girls

The alleged leader of militant insurgency group Boko Haram admitted in a new video obtained by Agence France-Presse to kidnapping over 200 Nigerian girls on April 14 – and also declared his intentions to sell them “on the market.”

“I abducted your girls,” Abubakar Shekau is quoted by CNN’s translators as declaring in the 57-minute video. “I will sell them in the market, by Allah. There is a market for selling humans.” Shekau is seen laughing and smiling throughout the almost hour-long video, in which he relays Boko Haram’s mission to end girls’ education in Nigeria. “Girls, you should go and get married,” he says in a later clip. Boko Haram’s name means “Western education is a sin,” and this action is part of their call to end Western education in the West African country.

Nigerian officials updated the number of girls kidnapped to 276 Friday, with 223 still in the hands of Boko Haram after 53 escaped. “Wherever these girls are,” Nigeria President Goodluck Johnson said Sunday, “we’ll get them out.”

Although Jonathan has repeatedly promised to rescue the girls, activists remain unimpressed. Nearly a month after the kidnapping, the government has not attempted a rescue and no other solution has been declared.

The call to find the missing schoolgirls has spread around the world. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced a resolution last week urging US assistance, and State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf explained on Thursday that US officials “have been engaged with the Nigerian government.” Protests are being mounted from London to Los Angeles to encourage international participation in the rescue efforts, and over the weekend the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls trended globally on Twitter.

Take Action: A rally will take place outside of the Nigerian Embassy tomorrow in Washington, DC.

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Nigerians Demand More Rescue Efforts for 200 Kidnapped Girls

Nigerians are demanding that their government do more to bring home the roughly 200 girls who were kidnapped more than two weeks ago on April 14 by the militant insurgency group Boko Haram.

Protesters took to the streets of Abuja and Lagos this week to criticize the Nigerian government’s handling of the mass kidnapping. Rallies are being held in the coming days in the US, Canada, and England in support of the Nigerian families who have lost their daughters, calling on the government to do more and for the terrorist group to release the girls, and a massive social media campaign using the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls and #BringBackOurDaughters has spurred greater international attention.

Armed members of Boko Haram kidnapped about 234 teenage school girls from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, located in the northeast of Nigeria. Although some girls were able to escape, the fate of roughly 200 girls still remains unclear. Some parents in Chibok believe that the girls might have been trafficked into neighboring Cameroon. A group of civilians launched a search party into the forested area near the border to look for the girls. They reported fears that the girls were forced into sex slavery.

“I thought it was the end of my life,” Deborah Sanya told reporter Alexis Okeowo from the New Yorker. Sanya is one of the lucky few who was able to escape. She reportedly fled with two friends after being taken only a few villages away from the school. “Nobody rescued them,” a government official in Chibok told Okeowo. “I want you to stress this point. Nobody rescued them. They escaped on their accord. This is painful.”

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called on the international community to provide military assistance to the Nigerian government to help them locate the girls. “We cannot stop terrorism overnight,” said Brown. “But we can make sure that its perpetrators are aware that murdering and abducting school children is a heinous crime that the international authorities are determined to punish.” In the United States, several Senators released a bipartisan resolution today condeming the abduction and urging the US to assist in rescue efforts.

Boko Haram has a long history of terrorism in northern Nigeria. Human Rights Watch reported last year on the groups atrocious activities, which have included murder, abduction, rape, mutilation, and the use of child soldiers. The Washington Post reports that the Nigerian government may have appointed a negotiator to interface with the group concerning the Chibok girls. According to news reports, the identified negotiator says that Boko Harm is “willing to consider” a deal to release the girls.

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Brutal Brunei Penal Code Goes into Effect Today

The Southeast Asian nation of Brunei today adopted the first phase of a brutal penal code that includes the stoning to death of gay men and lesbians, the public flogging of women who have abortions, and the jailing of women who become pregnant outside of marriage.

The laws will be introduced in three phases over the course of three years. Phase one, starting today, will punish certain offenses with hefty fines or prison time. Phase two will add such punishments as amputations and floggings for other crimes, and the third phase will include crimes punishable by stoning to death.

According to Al Jazeera, some Brunei citizens expressed criticism of the new code on social media earlier this year, but mostly quieted down under pressure from the Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said it has deep concern about the proposed new laws and the ramifications it would hold for human rights in Brunei. The United Nations Human Rights Council is set to conduct a Universal Periodic Review of Brunei on Friday.

Yesterday Feminist Majority Foundation announced that it pulled an event from the Beverly Hills Hotel after discovering it is owned by the Sultan and launched a petition to stop the code from going into effect. “We cannot hold a human rights and women’s rights event at a hotel whose owner would institute a penal code that fundamentally violates women’s rights and human rights,” said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal in a statement.

Brunei is an industrialized, petroleum and natural gas country on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. The Brunei Investment Agency owns the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Bel-Air Hotel, and other Dorchester Collection Properties. The Agency is managed by the Brunei Ministry of Finance which is controlled by the Sultan.

TAKE ACTION: Sign our petition calling on the government of Brunei to immediately rescind the new code and asking the United Nations to take action if these laws go into effect, and join the conversation on Twitter by tweeting with the hashtag #StopTheSultan. If you are in the Los Angeles area, join FMF, gay and lesbian and women’s rights groups to protest this gross violation of human rights at a noon rally on May 5, across the street from the hotel in a park on Sunset Boulevard.

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On 1st Anniversary of Rana Plaza Collapse, Need for More Change

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that caused the deaths and injuries of thousands of people.

The poorly built nine-story building that collapsed last April near the capital of Dhaka housed five garment factories and a shopping center. Although a crack in the building had been detected the morning of the collapse and the factory owners were warned, they kept the building open for business anyway. In total, around 1,130 people died and several thousand more were severely injured, many of whom were young women. Women make up 80 percent of the garment workforce in Bangladesh.

One year later, there has been some progress. The factory owners face murder charges for negligence and the 2,400 survivors and victim’s families began receiving around $700 for compensation this week. Fire and structural safety regulations have been standardized, and several Western retailers who have their garments manufactured in Bangladesh have pledged to promote and adhere to stricter safety standards.

However, more must be done to improve conditions for the workers. Workers protesting for higher wages, safer conditions, and better treatment, are often met with violence, and the government has had difficulty adhering to new safety regulations. More Western retailers must also step up and commit to better working conditions and regulations.

“In our view, the collective industry response to the Rana Plaza collapse has taken too long and various necessary steps have yet to be taken,” said Bob Chant, senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications for Loblaw, the owner of a popular Canadian retail line that has donated to a fund for victims.

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Cuba Faces Condom Shortage

A current condom shortage in Cuba is stirring fears of higher STD rates and unplanned pregnancies.

Pharmacies in Cuba’s central province of Villa Clara began running out of condoms in March, and the suburbs of Havana are now affected as well. The city of Santa Clara, which has one of the highest HIV rates in Cuba, has been hit the hardest.

“In the great majority of pharmacies in the municipality of Playa, there’s a shortage,” wrote Polina Martinez Shvietsova in the initial report on the shortage in the Havana area. “In the municipality of Plaza, in the pharmacy at 23rd and 24th Streets, the salespeople said, ‘We have none, and we don’t know when they will arrive.'”

The state-run wholesaler Ensume, which obtains and supplies government-subsidized condoms in Cuba, says it has a million condoms in its warehouses. But under a state regulatory ruling regarding an imported shipment of condoms with incorrect expiration dates, Ensume must relabel all of them. As a result of the slow repackaging process, Ensume can only provide around 1,500 condoms per day – far below the need for all the country. (In only the province of Villa Clara, there is a need for 5,000 condoms daily.)

The repackaging raises questions about the safety of the condoms once they go on sale. With the new expiration dates, it will be unclear how old the condoms actually are, and latex degrades over time – potentially putting users at risk of using expired condoms which could tear or break. In addition, the price of one condom has now risen from just a few cents to $1.30 – a typical Cuban worker’s daily wages.

The government-run sex education center, Cenesex, has ordered that any available supplies be given to people who are known to be HIV-positive and allocated to the areas with high HIV rates. Cuba currently has a strong HIV-prevention program, with only around 0.1 percent of the population testing HIV-positive. Cuba’s HIV/AIDS prevention program relies heavily on educational programs, of which safe sex is a central topic – potentially putting its success at risk with a lowering supply of condoms.

Kenya also faced a severe condom stockout last November. Condom shortages may be the result of inadequate funding or health programs that are fully or partially restricted by an abstinence-only focus – such as the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). When countries find themselves short-stocked on contraceptives, women suffer. An estimated 222 million women around the world wish to either delay or prevent pregnancy but lack access to contraceptives, putting them at risk for injury, illness or death due to pregnancy, childbirth, or unsafe abortions. Further, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age.

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US Ranks 16th in 2014 Social Progress Index

The Social Progress Imperative recently released its 2014 Social Progress Index, ranking the United States in 16th place among 132 countries.

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter, a Republican who led the report team, told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that he was surprised by the ranking. “I think this was not the picture of America that I think many of us Americans have,” said Porter.

The United States ranked particularly low in health and wellness, coming in at 70th place, and ecosystem sustainability, 69th place. In the category of access to basic knowledge, the US ranked 39th, although it ranked 1st in access to advanced education, perhaps showing a relative lack of access to primary and secondary education among vulnerable populations.

In terms of access to information and communication, the US ranked surprisingly low at 23rd place, coming in 83rd on mobile telephone subscriptions, 21st on freedom of the press, and 17th on internet use. “At some level in America, we have incredible access to information and communication,” said Porter, “but if you look at objective measures of whether that’s penetrated very broadly throughout our population and to, really, all of our citizens, that’s where we start to come up short.”

The index evaluated 132 countries on 54 social and environmental indicators, taking into account basic human needs, foundations of well-being, and opportunity. It defines social progress as “the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential” [PDF].

Using this framework, the three top-performing countries on social progress are New Zealand, Switzerland, and Iceland. The rest of the top ten include several Northern European nations, Canada and Australia. The United States falls into the second tier of countries, in company with Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and France. Yemen and Chad fell in the fifth and lowest-performing tier.

The index demonstrates that economic development alone is not sufficient to explain social progress outcomes. While the index shows a positive correlation with economic performance, there are other factors in play.

“A society which fails to address basic human needs, equip citizens to improve their quality of life, erodes the environment, and limits opportunity for its citizens is not succeeding. Economic growth without social progress results in lack of inclusion, discontent, and social unrest,” the report states.

Its authors aims to create a more holistic framework for measuring national performance that can be used by leaders, and they envision a “world in which social progress sits alongside economic prosperity as the twin scorecards of success.”

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Supreme Court of India Recognizes Transgender Rights

India’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that official documents must allow transgender people to identify as a third gender and directed the federal and state governments to include transgender people, known as hijras, in welfare programs such as education, health care, and job programs.

“All documents will now have a third category marked ‘transgender,'” said Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender activist who petitioned the court. “This verdict has come as a great relief for all of us. Today I am proud to be an Indian.”

The court also ordered the government to construct separate public bathrooms and special hospital wards to focus on transgender people’s medical needs, implement public awareness campaigns to reduce the social stigma faced by the estimated 3 million transgender Indians, and give transgender people the right to adopt children, among other changes.

The “recognition of transgender people as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” said Supreme Court Justice K. S. Radhakrishnan. “Transgenders are citizens of this country and are entitled to education and all other rights.”

While this is a victory for transgender rights, the Supreme Court of India took a step backward last December by reinstating a colonial-era law banning gay sex.

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Female Afghan Parliamentarian Injured in Shooting Attack

Maryam Koofi, a member of Afghanistan’s Parliament, was wounded in a shooting yesterday. The assailant shot her twice in her leg as she was leaving her office last night.

Maryam’s sister, Fawzia Koofi, claims it was an act of political intimidation by those who oppose the rights women have gained over the past few years, but the government claims the assailant was a police officer in a dispute with Maryam. “I don’t know who was behind this attack–but I know that it was political,” said Fawzia, who is also a member of Parliament and a women’s rights activist. She survived a similar shooting attack in 2010.

The departure of most foreign troops in coming months has women’s rights and human rights activists concerned about the possible resurgence of the Taliban and its potential impact on women. Over the last decade, 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 under the Taliban, women are now 27 percent of Afghan Parliament, about 35 percent of all primary and secondary school students, and nearly 19 percent of students attending university. Over 200 women candidates ran for provincial council seats and two women ran for vice president in the recent elections, which were completed successfully with high turnout and low levels of violence.

Maryam Koofi is currently recovering in a Kabul hospital.

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Philippines Supreme Court Upholds Law Promoting Reproductive Health Access

The Philippines Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the country’s Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, also known as the RH Law, is constitutional. The law directs government health centers to provide free access to nearly all contraceptives, including to the poor, and requires reproductive health education at government-run school for children and young adults age 10-19. The law also provides for post-abortion care.

The Court’s ruling, however, was not a complete victory for women’s health. The Court struck down a number of the RH Law’s provisions, meaning that now health care providers may deny reproductive health services to patients in non-emergency situations based on the providers’ personal or religious beliefs, spousal consent is required for married women seeking reproductive health care in non life-threatening situations, and minors will require parental consent.

President Benigno S. Aquino III signed the RH Law in December 2012, but Catholic groups immediately challenged it in court prompting the Supreme Court to halt its implementation while it decided the case.

“Today, conscience rights have prevailed, despite aggressive lobbying over the last decade and a half by the Catholic bishops and their powerful antichoice allies, said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. “Although not perfect, the RH Law begins to address some of the country’s largest health problems – including the high maternal mortality rate – that disproportionately affect low-income women.”

Opponents have 15 days to appeal the ruling.

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Millions of Afghans Vote in Historic Elections

High turnout, low levels of violence, and strong participation by women, all combined Saturday to make the closely watched Afghan presidential and provincial council elections a success.

Over 7 million Afghan men and women voted in these historic elections – representing a staggering 60% voter participation rate, close to the 62% participation rate in the US presidential election in 2008 and more than the 58% participation rate in the US in 2012. The Afghan Independent Commission (IEC) estimates that at least one-third of Afghan voters on Saturday were women.

Voters braved rain, snow, and long lines – as well as potential and real incidents of violence – in order to cast their ballots. Although the level of violence during this election was much lower than in 2009, news reports indicated several attacks on polling stations, police, and voters, and some voting centers had to close because of security concerns. In addition, the days leading up to the election saw other attacks, including the shooting of Associated Press journalists Anja Niedringhaus and Kathy Gannon. Niedringhaus was killed in the attack.

Despite the threat, however, the Taliban could not disrupt the election. In fact, turnout was so high – only about 4.5 million voted in the last election – that the IEC had to extend hours at voting centers to accommodate the crowds. “Of course the massive turnout of women voters is a big slap to all those who want to block us to contribute,” said Samira Huria, a member of the Afghan Women’s Network and one of the many women who voted in the election.

“The women of Afghanistan risked their lives to vote. They are real heroes,” said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. “The road, however, is still long, and we must continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghan women in their struggle for full equality and democracy.”

Women have played a central role in the elections. Over 200 women candidates ran for provincial council seats, the largest number of women ever to run, and two women are running for vice president – one on a major candidate’s ticket. In addition, each of the presidential candidates have had to address women’s rights in their campaigns, a testament to the importance of women to the election and to the redevelopment of Afghanistan.

Election results are not expected until late-April. If no presidential candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the country will conduct a run-off election in May.

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Afghanistan Heads to the Polls Tomorrow

Afghanistan will hold presidential and provincial council elections tomorrow. The elections represent a pivotal moment in the history of Afghanistan, which will conduct its first democratic transition of presidential power once the vote is complete.

There has been growing excitement in Afghanistan leading up to the elections. The Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) reported a surge in voter registration – some 3.8 million new voters were registered since May 2013 – and for the first time, presidential candidates engaged in televised debates, making public their positions on economic redevelopment, security, and women’s rights. Candidates have also held public rallies, attracting thousands of people, including many young people, throughout Afghanistan.

Women are central participants in this election. IEC Commissioner Laila Ehrari commented that the Commission’s “expectation for Afghan women, who constitute a hardworking segment of Afghan society, is that they will have broad participation in the elections and cast their votes.”Women have appeared at several campaign events, and are also running as candidates. Hundreds of women are running for seats in the provincial council, and one woman, Habiba Sarobi, the former governor of Bamian province, is running for vice president. Sarobi appears on Zalmay Rassoul’s ticket and has been actively campaigning with Rassoul in Afghanistan. At a campaign rally in Mazar-e-Sharif last week, thousands of Afghans – both men and women – cheered enthusiastically for Sarobi, and according to a campaign aide, “She pretty much rocked the show.” The other top candidates, identified as Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have both addressed the role of women in Afghanistan and women’s rights, and Ashraf Ghani’s wife, Rula, a Lebanese-American Christian, has campaigned for her husband.

Taliban insurgents have launched recent assaults on journalists, election officials, and candidates in an effort to disrupt the elections – the IEC itself was the target of a Taliban attack last month-but the elections will continue on. The IEC announced yesterday that all voting centers in the country had been supplied with ballots and the necessary equipment to conduct the polls, and domestic and international observers are on hand to provide support. Voting is scheduled to take place in Afghanistan on Saturday from 7:00am to 4:00pm, but the IEC has announced that polls will remain open to accommodate overcrowding if necessary.


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