International Conference on Family Planning Starts Today

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.

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Bangladesh Garment Workers Met With Violence During Protest for Higher Wages

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.

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UN Reports: Women’s Access to and Control of Land Protects Human Rights

Two recently released United Nations reports emphasize the importance of women’s access to and control over land to their ability to protect human rights.

Released today, the report Realizing Women’s Rights to Land and Other Productive Resources shows how women’s right to land is directly linked to food security, sustainable development, economic empowerment, and protection against HIV/AIDS. According to UN Women, “Women who have secured land rights acquire more independence and power in their families and communities, as well as in their economic and political relationships” and face “lower levels of violence and reduced vulnerability to HIV.”

Complementing the findings of the report on land rights, last week the United Nations released a report detailing the importance of women in natural resource management in countries recovering from conflict. That report, entitled Women and Natural Resources: Unlocking the Peacebuilding Potential, finds that ensuring women’s access to and control of land and other natural resources can improve prospects for long-term peace in war-torn countries.

“Women bear the brunt of conflicts in many ways. They often have to become the sole caretakers of their families and communities and are agents of peace and recovery,” said Phumzile Mambo-Ngcuka Under Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director. “Sustainable natural resource use is the cornerstone of development. Women’s full participation, and access to natural resources, are urgent priorities for rebuilding peaceful societies.”

According to the report, women in conflict-affected countries must often meet the water, food, and energy needs of their communities, and they play a crucial role in the use and management of natural resources. However, these women rarely have the same economic control over these commodities as men, leading to the exclusion of women-and their specific needs-in peace negotiations over land and water. This exclusion often lead to increased vulnerability for women, who are insufficiently targeted by conflict recovery programs, and can undermine recovery efforts. The research conducted by the UN suggests including women in peace negotiations will lead to better outcomes and greater stability post-conflict.

“Women continue to be disenfranchised across the globe particularly in countries that have endured violent conflict,”said Judy Cheng-Hopkins, Assistant Secretary-General, UN Peacebuilding Support Office. “This research shows that when women have a seat at the table and their concerns are taken into account in the management of natural resources, the impacts on families, communities, and peace are positive and significant.”

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UN, World Bank Pledge $200 Million for Girls in Sahel Region of Africa

The United Nations and World Bank have pledged $200 million to improve women’s reproductive health and girls’ education in the Sahel region of Africa. The $200 million Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographics Project will be added to the World Bank’s existing $150 million contribution over the next two years.

The pledge comes a month after the UN held a forum to discuss what needs to be done to achieve the fifth Millenium Development Goal (MDG5) of improving maternal health. They acknowledged that although progress has been made, MDG5 efforts must be scaled up to prevent 120,000 girls and women from needlessly dying by 2015.

Family planning is key to improving maternal health and achieving MDG5. Representatives at the United Nations emphasized the importance of all-inclusive access to contraception–a goal that has often been hampered by condom shortages and the precedence of abstinence-only sexual health programs. “It is about making sure that we can reduce maternal deaths through the reduction of bleeding, infections and blood pressure,” said United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director Babatunde Dr. Osotimehin.

While the pledge will have a positive effect, the total cost of medicine and health supplies needed for the next two years to prevent more maternal deaths is around $650 million. More funding, more access to birth control, the training and deploying of more midwives, and many other changes will help save hundreds of women’s lives. “Raising the age of marriage, keeping girls in school, enabling women through family planning to decide the spacing and number of their children, and investing in the health and education of young people, particularly young girls, can unlock a powerful demographic dividend and set countries in the Sahel on the path to sustained, inclusive social and economic growth,” said Osotimehin.

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Kenya Faces Condom Shortage

Kenya faces a condom shortage next month if Kenyan and international leaders do not work fast to obtain more. The shortage threatens to put Kenyans at a greater risk of contracting HIV and other STIs.

According to Nelson Otwoma, Executive Director of The National Empowerment Network for People Living with HIV and AIDS in Kenya (NEPHAK), Kenya obtains 83 million male condoms per year. Many of them come from international partner programs like the United States’ President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)–which has faced controversy before for promoting abstinence-only programs and diverting funds away from family planning commodities. This amount is not enough for a country of over 44 million people, as evidenced by another previous shortage in 2011.

The stockout puts more people at risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections–especially people who cannot afford to pay for condoms. Around 1.6 million Kenyans already currently live with HIV, and there are nearly 100,000 new infections each year, according to the National Aids Control Council (NACC).

“Kenya’s low investment in the national response to HIV is set to hurt its ambitious goal of achieving zero new HIV infections,” NephaK reported in a weekly bulletin last week [see PDF].

NEPHAK is pushing for President Uhuru Kenyatta to direct the National Treasury to create a supplementary budget for obtaining more condoms and to take more responsibility for obtaining condoms for people nationwide, rather than relying on county governments to procure them.

However, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health James Macharia denies that a shortage is coming and claims that there are 52 million more condoms set to arrive in December.

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Over 7 Million Births to Girls in the Developing World Each Year

Twenty thousand girls under age 18 give birth every day in the developing world, adding up to 7.3 million births each year. Of that number, 2 million births occur to girls under age 15, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) which released its 2013 report on the State of World Population yesterday.

Entitled “Motherhood in Childhood: Facing the Challenges of Adolescent Pregnancy,” the report calls for a shift away from interventions targeted at the girl, towards interventions that address the underlying causes of adolescent pregnancy, including gender inequality, poverty, sexual violence and coercion, child marriage, lack of access to education, and lack of economic opportunities, among other multidimensional factors.

The report also highlights the need to reframe adolescent pregnancy, and challenges policy makers to see the problem as a result of girls’ lack of choices and autonomy. The report notes that most adolescent pregnancy occurs among girls who are marginalized, have limited access to services, and have little decision-making power. This reality is made stark when the picture of these young mothers becomes clear. According to the report, 90 percent of pregnancies to girls under age 18 occur within child marriage. One in nine girls in the developing world are married before age 15. Lack of education opportunities is often tied to child marriage. The report indicates that girls who are allowed to attend school are less likely to become pregnant or be married.

Adolescent pregnancy can have long-term consequences for girls, their families, and communities. Young girls are more at risk for maternal death and obstetric fistula. About 70,000 girls in developing countries die each year from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

The report makes several recommendations for improving the outlook for girls globally. These include the elimination of child marriage, enforcement of laws against sexual violence and abuse, engaging men and boys to support girls’ human rights, expansion of comprehensive sexuality education, increasing access to reproductive health services and contraception, and ensuring access to education through targeted interventions.

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Outrage Over Kenya Rape Grows

People around the world are calling for justice for a 16-year-old Kenyan girl who was brutally beaten, gang-raped, and thrown into a 20-foot latrine by six men in June.

The girl, whom media outlets are calling “Liz,” was walking home from her grandfather’s funeral in Kenya’s northwestern county of Busia when the men attacked her. The attack caused severe spinal cord injuries and fistula, leaving her reliant on a wheelchair to get around and unable to control her bowels.

Liz was found crawling out of the latrine and crying for help by villagers nearby. She knew some of the attackers, so she gave the people helping her their names. They then chased three of the men down and took them to the local police station. There, police ordered the men to to cut grass as their only punishment; the men were then let go–even though under Kenya’s Sexual Offences Act they should receive no less than 15 years in prison. In addition, Liz’s mother was told to clean her off, destroying potential forensic evidence.

In a statement, the Kenya Coalition on Violence Against Women called the situation “yet another example of blatant impunity and repeated noncompliance by the police and other government authorities. Rape and other gender crimes have consistently been treated as lesser crimes–this is unacceptable.”

The attack came to the world’s attention thanks to Jared Momanyi, the director of a Kenyan clinic that specializes in treating victims of sexual violence. He was so outraged when Liz’s case was referred to him that he called a reporter at the Daily Nation in Nairobi. He said of this case, “This was an attempted murder and it’s not an isolated case; it’s one among many.”

Since then, 4,000 pounds has been raised to pay for an operation to repair Liz’s internal injuries, and the global campaigning network Avaaz launched an online petition calling for immediate arrest and prosecution of the rapists and disciplinary action for the police officers. It currently has over 1,270,000 signatures, and that number grows every second. The director of public prosecutions in Kenya has ordered the national police to investigate why the local force did not investigate the rape, but so far there have been no updates.

“My wish is to see justice done,” Liz said.

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Afghan Journalist Honored with Courage in Journalism Award

Afghan journalist Najiba Ayubi will be honored with a 2013 Courage in Journalism award at a second awards ceremony hosted today by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) in Los Angeles.

Najiba Ayubi is the managing director of The Killid Group in Afghanistan, a public media group made of eight local radio stations and two weekly, national magazines. She also co-founded the Afghan Independent Media Consortium and the Freedom of Expression Initiative to promote free expression in journalism.

During Najiba Ayubi’s 25 years as a journalist, she has faced threats from every direction, including from members of Afghanistan’s parliament, the country’s secret service, warlords, and anonymous aggressors, but she courageously continues reporting on politics, women’s rights, and other sensitive issues. “Every time I confront a threat in journalism, I feel some sort of satisfaction in my heart, and I recognize I am doing something very important that I am being threatened for,” Ayubi said.

Despite the challenges facing journalists in Afghanistan, Ayubi has said that media has grown in the country. “When the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, all journalists, raised their voices and created a new Afghanistan media,” she said, “and with the support of the international community Afghanistan media has become as extensive as it is today.”

IWMF will also honor Nour Kelze, a photojournalist for Reuters in Syria, and Bopha Phorn, an investigative reporter for The Cambodia Daily, with Courage in Journalism awards. Edna Machirori, the first black female editor of a newspaper in Zimbabwe – considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists – will also be honored with the IWMF annual lifetime achievement award.

You can watch the livestream of the award ceremony here.

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US Ranked 23rd in Women’s Equality in Global Gender Gap Index

The World Economic Forum recently released its 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, which ranks the US 23rd in women’s equality. The Global Gender Gap Index is a framework for depicting gender-based disparities around the world and tracking progress on gender parity by using economic, political, education- and health-based criteria. Each country’s ranking is determined by measuring internal gender-based gaps in the ability to access resources and services.

Eighty-six out of 133 countries improved their global gender gap between 2012 and 2013, with women’s political participation experiencing the most progress. But according to the report [PDF], although the US is doing well in women’s education, the country is still struggling to make major progress in closing the gender gap in politics and economics. The US ranks 60th–below India, China, and Uganda–in terms of political empowerment, which takes into account indicators like the ratio of women to men in congress and ministerial positions. Currently, women only make up 18 percent of Congress, having risen only 1 percent since last year. US women also still struggle with a significant wage gap, making an average of 77 cents to every dollar that men make. African-American women make an average of 64 cents to a man’s dollar, and Latina women make 55 cents.

One factor negatively affecting women’s economic equality in the US is the lack of mandatory paid maternity leave and other supportive family services. The US is one of only three countries that has no mandated paid maternity leave. In contrast, Pakistan has 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and Canada has 50 weeks. In the US, federal law requires businesses to give 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but many women can’t afford to take time off unpaid.

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Saudi Women Campaign Against Driving Ban

Over 60 women claimed to have driven in Saudi Arabia this weekend in an ongoing campaign to obtain the right to drive. Some 35 women filmed and uploaded videos of themselves driving on Youtube. Although there is no official traffic law that bans women from driving, women are not allowed to get licenses, and the government issued a decree just last week making it illegal for women to drive.

Because of the ban, women must rely on male relatives or drivers to get around. This unjustifiably limits women’s mobility and constrains them economically, especially because there is no mass transit system in Saudi Arabia. Women need to drive to get to schools and jobs, making this an economic issue as well as a human rights one.

The freedom to drive is an important part of the right to mobility, recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not permitted to drive. This prohibition directly conflicts with the commitments the Kingdom has made to protect the human rights of Saudi women, including those in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which Saudi Arabia has ratified.

This is the 3rd of this kind of campaign since 1989, and it has been the most successful effort so far. Mai Al-Swayan, an economic researcher, told CNN she drove on Saturday. “I’m very proud,” she said. I feel like we accomplished the purpose of our campaign.”

The campaign went ahead despite some obstacles. Several prominent women leaders received phone calls last week from the Interior Ministry warning them not to drive Saturday. One woman, Saudi professor and campaigner Aziza Yousser, also had two “suspicious cars” following her for the whole day. Roadblocks were set up in Riyadh and police checked cars to make sure that women were not driving.

Some news outlets report that there were no arrests, but a few women have come forward to say they were stopped and held briefly. In Jeddah, Samia el-Moslimany said she had been taken into detention and was later forced to sign a pledge that she would not drive again. Saudi news website reports that six women had been stopped for driving in Riyadh.

In Washington, DC, several feminist leaders, including Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal, gathered at the Saudi Embassy to show their support for the women driving.

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Head of US Global AIDS Program to Step Down

United States Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Eric Goosby is expected to step down from his position by the end of the year. As the head of the US Global AIDS program, Ambassador Goosby leads the implementation of PEPFAR – the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief – which funds HIV/AIDS programs around the world.

PEPFAR has supported HIV testing and counseling and antiretroviral treatment for millions of people. Under Goosby’s leadership, 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.

While 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.

Prevention efforts, however, have been marred by politics and the misguided influence of conservative religious ideologies on science. As reported by Jeanne Clark in the Summer 2013 issue of Ms., despite official guidance supporting comprehensive sex education, PEPFAR continues to be held hostage to abstinence programs, which are not proven to be effective in preventing HIV transmission. Research also shows that integrating HIV counseling and testing into family planning and maternal health services can improve service delivery. Yet, PEPFAR funds cannot be used to purchase family planning commodities, and providers receiving PEPFAR money can refuse to offer family planning services. Persistent condom shortages in the global south have also made women more vulnerable to HIV infection.

Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal and National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill have urged that the next leader of PEPFAR must ensure that women’s rights are at the center of the U.S. response to HIV/AIDS. They also call on President Obama to appoint a woman in the post. “The majority of people living with AIDS in countries receiving U.S. assistance are women,” they write. “Women are critical in the fight against HIV, and must have a place at the decision-making table.”

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Etsy and Facebook Remove Content Glorifying Violence Against Women

Online marketplace Etsy is currently under fire from activists for allowing a shop, called “FyourT,” to sell T-shirts that make light of and encourage rape. One shirt read, “Autumn is perfect for date rape,” and another read, “I’m a sensitive guy. I only rape pregnant women.”

The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) created a petition on to remove the shirts yesterday afternoon. It has over 5,000 signatures today and continues to gather more.

“What we’re really trying to do is striving to change the way Americans think about sexual violence,” said Katherine Hull, a spokesperson for RAINN. “We’ve been using social media to encourage our supporters to take a stand against these t-shirts and against sexual violence.”

Etsy has removed the shirts, but the shop remains open with other offensive and sexist items.

Facebook is similarly facing criticism for allowing users to post graphic images and videos of violence against women. A video of a woman being beheaded by a man in a mask has recently made the rounds on the social media site. While some people shared it to criticize the violence, others did so to glorify it.

Facebook decided to pull the video only after receiving complaints that they need to do more to protect children and teenage users. It wrote in a press release about some changes it will make to protect users from this kind of content: “When we review content that is reported to us, we will take a more holistic look at the context surrounding a violent image or video, and will remove content that celebrates violence.”

However, BBC reports that at the time of their investigation into the matter, there were still other beheading videos on the site without any warnings to viewers. In addition, some people still question why Facebook’s policies allow for graphic violence to be shown, but ban images of a woman’s “fully exposed breast.”

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UN Human Rights Expert Urges US to End Prolonged Solitary Confinement

An independent United Nations human rights expert called on the U.S. this month to stop the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement.

Juan E. Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, referenced the Angola Three in his remarks condemning the practice. The Angola Three refers to three inmates sent to solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola Prison after the killing of a prison guard. Robert King spent 29 years in solitary before he was exonerated and released. Herman Wallace spent more than four decades in solitary before he was granted a new trial and released at age 71. Wallace died shortly thereafter from liver cancer. Albert Woodfox, who maintains his innocence, is still incarcerated.

“The circumstances of the incarceration of the so-called Angola Three clearly show that the use of solitary confinement in the US penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law,” said Mendez.

Mendez has asked to visit U.S. prisons in California, Colorado, New York, and Pennsylvania, but has not been able to schedule the visits, which must be cleared by the U.S. State Department as well as the state governors. Solitary Watch estimates that across the US there are around 80,000 prisoners being held in some form of solitary confinement on any given day. California in particular currently holds around 11,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades (Watch a video here). Prisoners are held for around 22 hours per day in tiny cells with no sunlight. If their stay is prolonged, they may experience many adverse psychological effects, including high rates of self-mutilation and suicide [PDF].

Mendez this week briefed the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee–it’s main social, humanitarian, and cultural body–that solitary confinement should never be indefinite or prolonged for any person. He also emphasized that under no circumstances should minors, people with mental disability, or pregnant or breastfeeding women be kept in solitary confinement.

In addition to the U.S., Mendez plans to visit several countries to investigate their prison systems, including Mexico, Thailand, and Georgia, among others.

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First Gay Pride March Held in Montenegro’s Capital

About 150 people participated in the first gay pride march held in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, on Sunday.

Violence threatened to mar activities as 1500 anti-gay protesters rioted, throwing rocks and firebombs at police officers who were attempting to keep the peace. Two thousand police officers were on duty for the march. Officers responded to the protesters with teargas and other means. About 60 officers and rioters were injured. No marchers were reported to have suffered any injuries.

Despite the show of opposition, march organizer Danijel Kalezic, head of Queer Montenegro, saw the gay pride march as a positive step. “We were up against enormous challenges but we did it,” Kalezic told Al Jazeera. “From this day we are no longer invisible. This was the first Pride and every year there will be more and more of us.”

The march was the second gay pride event to be held in the country. A previous march, held in the coastal town of Budva in July, was interrupted by violence and protesters yelling “kill the gays.” Anti-gay extremists also threatened a march organizer, posting fake death notices with the organizer’s name and photograph on public buildings. Violence forced organizers to shorten the route, but several marchers were injured.

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Nearly 30 Million in Slavery Worldwide

The Walk Free Foundation, an Australian-based organization, released its first Global Slavery Index Report Wednesday estimating 29.8 million people live in various forms of modern slavery worldwide.

Ten countries account for 76 percent of the total number of slaves. India has the most slaves in total – some 14 million people – nearly half of the world’s slavery population. China and Pakistan have the second and third largest enslaved populations. Mauritania has the highest number of slaves per capita. Slaves in Mauritania are treated as property inherited by previous generations, “masters who exercise total ownership over them and their descendants,” according to the report [PDF].

Although the greatest numbers of slaves are found in Asia and Africa, modern slavery – defined as forced labor, human trafficking, and treatment of individuals as property to be bought, sold, or destroyed – exists on every continent. The United States, for example, has an estimated 57,000-63,000 enslaved people.

“It would be comforting to think that slavery is a relic of history, but it remains a scar on humanity on every continent,” said Nick Grono, CEO of the Walk Free Foundation. “This is the first slavery index but it can already shape national and global efforts to root out modern slavery across the world.”

The Walk Free Foundation intends to update the Index every year. The report also looks at government response to slavery. The analysis includes an examination of the criminal justice response, victim services and support, government accountability, budget allocation, and the strength of targeted responses in vulnerable populations, like migrant workers or workers in the informal economy.

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Indigenous Mexican Woman Denied Care Gives Birth on Clinic Lawn

A woman was forced to give birth on the lawn of a medical clinic in Oaxaca, Mexico, after the clinic refused to administer her care.

Irma Lopez, of indigenous Mazatec ethnicity, walked an hour from her home to deliver her third child at the Rural Health Center in the village of San Felipe Jalapa de Diaz. Even though Lopez was reportedly fully dilated, a nurse refused to provide care, saying she was “still not ready” to deliver and that she should go outside. The health center’s director, Dr. Adrian Cruz, continued to refuse care while Lopez and her husband tried for two hours to get help. Irma eventually was forced to give birth to her third son, alone and without the aid of pain medication, on the lawn of the clinic.

A witness took a photo of Lopez squatting on the lawn in pain, her baby still attached at the umbilical cord. “The photo is giving visibility to a wider structural problem that occurs within indigenous communities: Women are not receiving proper care,” said Mayra Morales, Oaxaca’s representative for the national Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. “They are not being offered quality health services, not even humane treatment.”

Although health officials say Irma and her son are in good health, Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest, most rural states where many women die of hemorrhaging or preeclampsia. According to the World Health Organization, hemorrhage and other complications of delivery are leading causes of death in Mexico, and women in rural areas and indigenous women are at greater risk. Mexican states with the highest indigenous population have the largest rate of maternal death by a wide margin.

The Oaxacan government suspended the health center’s director, Dr. Adrian Cruz, and officials are conducting state and federal investigations.

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International Day of the Girl Celebrated at the United Nations

Today marks the International Day of the Girl – a day to highlight, discuss, celebrate and advance girls’ lives and opportunities across the globe. For the first time ever, girls will convene at the United Nations for a Speak Out, organized in partnership with the Working Group on Girls, that will give participants the opportunity to share with governments and UN agencies how girls are creating change in their communities and discuss how the international community can support girls’ efforts.

The Speak Out comes at the end of 11 Days of Action organized to draw attention to girls’ particular need and concerns. As part of this campaign, Girls Learn International, a project of the Feminist Majority Foundation, initiated a photo challenge to celebrate and highlight the importance of the International Day of the Girl (IDG).

The United Nations declared October 11 the International Day of the Girl Child in 2011 to help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to improve girls lives. The goals of IDG, explained in The Girl Declaration, include improving the education, health, safety, economic security, and citizenship of child and adolescent girls. The theme for this year is “Innovating for Girls’ Education.”

You can watch the day’s events live here. You can also participate in Girls Learn International’s photo challenge on Instagram.

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Registration to Run in Afghanistan Elections Closed This Week

Registration wrapped up on October 6 for both the Afghanistan presidential and provincial council elections. Twenty-seven candidates have registered for the presidential race, and 2,327 candidates registered to run for the provincial council, including 240 women. Every one of the country’s 34 provinces has one or more women candidates running in that election.

Of the presidential candidates, one is a woman, Khadija Ghaznawi. Each presidential candidate is running with two vice presidents, at least seven of whom are women. Most of the presidential candidates discussed peace talks and good governance as the focus of their platforms, but policy priorities will become clearer when campaigning officially begins on February 2.

Included in the slate of contenders is Abdullah Abdullah, former Afghanistan Foreign Minister from 2001 until 2005, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former Finance Minister from 2002 until 2004. Qayum Karzai, the brother of current president Hamid Karzai, is also running. President Karzai, who has run the country since the 2001 invasion that ousted the Taliban, is not entitled to run for a third term.

Also registered to run for president is Gul Agha Sherzai, a former warlord and provincial governor, who, NPR reports, is accused of drug trafficking and pedophilia. Adbul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, credited with bringing Al-Qaeda to Afghanistan, has also registered. Sayyaf has long been suspected of human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch reported in 2003 that Sayyaf was known for his sometimes violent political intimidation tactics. The report noted that many Afghan women in the southeast, where Sayyaf is based, believe that Sayyaf opposes women’s rights and supports further restrictions on Afghan women.

The Afghanistan Independent Electoral Commission will vet the candidates before final approval in November.

The April 5 election is the first independent election organized by Afghanistan. Jan Kubis, the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, announced last week that the UN has pledged financial and technical support, including security and international observers.

Afghan Human Rights Leader Sima Samar Named in Top 10 Most Influential Women List

Dr. Sima Samar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), has been named one of the Top 10 Most Influential Women in South and Central Asia for 2013 by Central and South Asia Business.

As chairperson of the AIHRC, Dr. Samar oversees the progress of human rights education programs across Afghanistan, the implementation of a nationwide women’s rights education program, and the monitoring and investigation of human rights abuses. She is also the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on human rights for Sudan.

Previously, Dr. Samar was the first Deputy Chair and Minister of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan. She has long been a strong supporter of Afghan women’s rights, working shoulder to shoulder with Afghan women leaders to bring positive change to the lives of Afghan women and girls. In 1989, Dr. Samar founded The Shuhada Organization, providing healthcare services and education to Afghan women and girls. The Shuhada Organization continues to operate in Afghanistan and has expanded its reach.

Dr. Samar is well-respected in the international community and has been nominated and awarded numerous honors throughout her influential career, including being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and winning Feminist Majority’s Award for Global Women’s Rights in 2007.

Other Top 10 awardees include philanthropists, government leaders, and activists like Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old educational activist who survived an attack by the Taliban.

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Advocates Around the World Mobilize for Abortion Access

On September 28, advocates mobilized in over 50 countries for the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. A flash mob in Indonesia, a pro-choice picnic in New Zealand, and a silent march in Kenya are examples of the variety of events organized by sexual and reproductive rights organizations and women’s advocacy groups around the world. They demanded an end to discrimination of women and girls, an end to stigma around abortion, and they called on governments to “uphold, protect, and fulfill women’s right to safe and legal abortion.”

According to the September 28 Campaign, statistics show that 47,000 women die each year from unsafe abortion, accounting for 13% of maternal deaths worldwide.The majority of deaths, 98% according to the Guttmacher Institute, occur in developing countries where modern family planning methods are the least accessible.

“What is needed is the political will on the part of the governments to ensure the right of women to decide on all aspects of their reproductive health, including the right to choose whether to continue or end pregnancy,” said Kathy Mulville, Executive Director of Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR), according to the campaign’s press release.

The September 28 mobilization also demanded the inclusion of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in the United Nation’s post-2015 goals. However, activists believe SRHR should go beyond maternal healthcare and reproductive health to cover a wider range of issues, such as access to contraceptives, sexual orientation and gender identity, and abortion rights, among others.

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