WHO Names Woman Physician as Director-General

The World Health Organization (WHO) appointed Margaret Chan, a doctor from China, to the Director-general position on Wednesday. In Dr. Chan’s acceptance speech, she noted, “I want us to be judged by the impact we have on the health of people of Africa, and the health of women… Improvement in the health of people in Africa and the health of women are key indicators of the performance of WHO,” according to a release by WHO. Dr. Chan has pledged to work hard to improve the health of people all around the world. “The work we do together saves lives and relieves suffering. I will work with you tirelessly to make this world a healthier place.”

Dr. Chan has been a key leader in fighting the avian flu and SARS outbreaks. She received her medical degree from the University of Western Ontario and also has a degree in public health from the National University of Singapore. Dr. Chan’s appointment follows the sudden death of her predecessor, Dr. Lee Jong-Wook.

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Saudi Gang Rape Victim Punished

A Saudi victim of gang rape was sentenced to 90 lashes for being alone in a car with a male friend who was not her husband prior to her rape. Seven men reportedly followed the victim and her friend to their car, kidnapped them, and took them to a farm where they raped the woman, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports. Four men, all married, were convicted of the crime and received sentences ranging from one year in prison and 80 lashes to five years in prison and 1,000 lashes. A fifth man who videotaped the rape on his cell phone still faces investigation, and two other men alleged to have participated in the kidnapping and rape escaped arrest, according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

The victim and her male friend both received 90 lashes for being alone together. The victim’s husband and family are not disputing these sentences, but announced that they will appeal for harsher penalties for the assailants, FOX reports.

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NGOs Address HIV-Positive Street Children in Senegal, Zambia

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are revealing and attempting to address the growing problem of HIV-positive street children in Senegal and Zambia. Street children in both of these countries are often orphans whose parents died from AIDS or who ran away from an abusive family situation; frequently, they turn to prostitution to earn money, the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reports.

According to IRIN, a survey of 30 street children in Dakar, Senegal‘s capital city, found that 70 percent had engaged in sex with multiple partners. When asked about AIDS, the report found that half of the respondents did not know how HIV is transmitted and 40 percent did not know how to prevent transmitting the virus, IRIN reports. Le Samu Social Senegal is the only NGO that provides Senegalese street children with medical care, but they often encounter problems. Isabelle de Guillebon, who runs Samu, told IRIN that the street children are often under the influence of drugs, which inhibits their ability to connect with Samu’s staff, and that Senegalese legislation does not allow children to be tested for HIV without parental consent, making it impossible for street children to determine their status.

NGOs in Zambia, which has a 16.5 percent rate of HIV infection (compared with Senegal’s relatively low rate of 0.9 percent), are making progress in addressing the problem of sexually active street children. To provide an alternative for street children, who often are exposed to HIV/AIDS as a result of prostitution, Zambian Monica Eisenberg founded the Back to School Project, an NGO that provides education, food, counseling, and health services, including HIV tests. The organization encourages them to find productive ways to spend their time, such as taking photographs to create an exhibit explaining the ways HIV cannot be transmitted or broadening their vocabulary to create rap songs.

Catherine Sozi, the head of UNAIDS in Zambia, spoke to IRIN about the importance of community involvement in addressing the problem of street children and HIV/AIDS, saying, “Winning the fight against HIV/AIDS will ultimately come down to what individuals can do, what religious leaders can do to help remove the stigma, and about what the private sector can do to help its workersÉ Most important is the task of changing people’s behavior, and that is not a job any one group or the government can do alone, it’s up to everybody to help, the whole society.”

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Women’s Rights Activists Targeted in Iraq, Saudi Arabia

Women’s rights advocates in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have been the target of misogynistic violence and political oppression, respectively, in the past week. In Iraq, Halima Ahmed Hussein Al Juburi, the head of the human rights organization Maternity and Childhood, was killed in her home. According to Kirkuk Police Captain Imad Khudhir, 10 unidentified attackers broke into Juburi’s home in the northern town of Hawijah and shot her in front of her children, AFP reports. The motive for and perpetrators of Juburi’s murder are still not known, but conservative Islamist groups that believe that women should not participate in public life often target women’s rights advocates, AFP reports.

Also in the Middle East, a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia has been forced to sign an oath, pledging not to protest or participate in any human rights activities, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports. HRW reported that Wajeha al-Huwaider was harassed by mabahith, Saudi Arabia’s secret police force, for organizing a women’s rights protest. In late September, she was detained and interrogated for six hours and then forced to sign a statement surrendering her freedom to participate in human rights protests. HRW is calling on the Saudi government to stop harassing al-Huwaider, void her forced pledge, and allow independent activists and organizations to monitor and promote human rights in Saudi Arabia.

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Poland: Parliament and President Disagree on Abortion Ban

Poland’s parliament introduced a constitutional amendment last week that would ban all abortions in the country, but both the President and Prime Minister have expressed their disapproval of the ban. Right-wing, Catholic members of parliament, known as the League of Polish Families (LPF), introduced the law, which is similar to Nicaragua’s recent abortion ban, that would further limit Poland’s strict abortion laws, which only allow abortion in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to a woman’s health. Supporters of the ban want to include the right to life “from the moment of conception” in the constitution, according to AFP. Marek Kotlinowski, deputy director of LPF said about cases of rape, “A child should not be punished for the crimes of his father… It’s a tragedy for the women, but the fate of the child interests me more,” Reuters reports.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his brother Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski have both announced their intent to reject the proposed amendment. “I am for keeping the status quo,” President Kaczynski said, according to Reuters. “The compromise reached on abortion 13 years ago is good.” The bill is currently in committee and a vote in the lower house is expected in the next few months, but without the support of the president and the prime minister, the bill is likely to fail, Reuters reports.

Many feminist organizations in Poland argue that a complete ban will only lead to more back-alley abortions, a practice which is not uncommon in Poland. “Nobody will force a woman to have children if she does not want [them]. It is total hypocrisy to put a complete ban on abortions when everyone knows the black market exists,” said Wanda Nowicka, president of the country’s family planning federation, reports AFP.

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New Law Attempts to Fight Domestic Violence in India

A new law to address domestic violence in India took effect late last week. This is the first law in India specifically addressing the problem of domestic violence, targeting husbands, live-in partners, and family members who abuse or threaten women verbally, physically, sexually, emotionally, and/or economically. The punishment for offenders ranges from a prison sentence of up to a year to a fine of up to 20,000 rupees ($435), or a combination of the two.

This is certainly a giant step for women in India, where every three minutes crimes against them are committed, according to India’s National Crime Records, BBC reports. In addition, the Associated Press reports that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found that an astonishing 70 percent of women who are married are beaten and sexually abused. Furthermore, BBC News paraphrases Indian officials as saying, “every six hours, a young married woman is burned, beaten to death, or driven to commit suicide.”

Women’s rights advocates in India are praising the new law, but are calling on the government to provide the funds needed to fully implement the law. Women’s rights groups also plan to launch an educational campaign to inform women of their new rights and options, according to BBC.

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Nicaragua Outlaws All Abortion

The Nicaraguan legislature voted yesterday to outlaw all abortions, making it the third country in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw abortion without exception. The legislation was approved 52-0, with nine abstentions and 29 legislators not voting. The legislation must still be signed by Nicaraguan president Enrique Bolanos, who is strongly against abortion rights and favors increasing penalties for illegal abortions; without his veto, the ban will take effect in 30 days. Nicaragua currently allows abortion if a woman’s life is in danger or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Legislators may have feared opposing the bill so close to the upcoming election on November 5 because of the strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which pushed heavily for the passage of the legislation, according to Reuters. While church leaders were able to sit in on the vote, women’s rights activists were physically barred from entering. Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the National Assembly the day of the vote, and legislators were asked by the international community to consider the ramifications for women’s human rights.

“We are outraged that leaders who claim to stand for the poor and marginalized would vote in favor a law that condemns women to die like this. Women’s live[s] are worth more,” said Marta Mar’a Bland—n, director of Ipas Central America, an organization working to end unsafe abortion practices around the world. It is estimated 32,000 women undergo illegal abortion every year in Nicaragua, most unsafe, according to the New York Times. According to Ipas, the Nicaraguan Women’s Autonomous Movement plan to file a suit challenging the constitutionality of the extreme ban.

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Rectifying Sexual Violence Still a Major Concern in Liberia

Despite a major anti-rape law implemented in Liberia early this year, a United Nations report found that progress has been slow in abolishing sexual and gender-based violence due to flaws in the judicial system. The Rape Amendment Act, implemented when Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf came into office January 2006, strengthened consent laws, redefined rape as a felony, and imposed a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for first-degree rape. A human rights report issued by the United Nations Missions in Liberia (UNMIL), however, found that only a fraction of cases are actually heard, some suspects are being released without facing trial, and many cases are inefficiently investigated.

According to the report, “rape suspects are regularly released on bail even when there is significant evidence indicating guilt” and as of July 2006, “only one accused had been convicted of an offense under the Act since it came into force six months ago.”

President Johnson-Sirleaf is now working with UNMIL and the Government of Liberia Rule of Law Task Force to ensure that the laws mandating fundamental rights for women and children are being upheld.

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Woman at Risk of FGM in Sierra Leone is Granted Asylum in UK

The United Kingdom has granted asylum to Zainab Fornah, 19, who fears she would be subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) if she returns to Sierra Leone, her home country. Under refugee law, an individual can be granted asylum if she belongs to a “particular social group” that is in danger of persecution. In Fornah’s case, her status as a woman puts her at risk of FGM, also known as female genital cutting. The procedure, which is practiced on about 90 percent of all women in Sierra Leone, involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoris, resulting in reduced or no sexual feeling, pain, long-term illness, mental disorders, and sometimes death BBC writes.

This decision makes persecution based on gender a valid basis for qualifying for asylum, in addition to race, religion, nationality, and political opinion, The Guardian reports. Lord Bingham of Cornhill, one of the Law Lords who granted Fornah asylum, told Times Online, “I think it clear that women in Sierra Leone are a group of persons sharing a common characteristic which, without a fundamental change in social mores, is unchangeable; namely a position of social inferiority as compared with men.”

Sierra Leone officials have condemned the British ruling, BBC reports. Septimus Kaikai explained to BBC that, while people should have the freedom to decide where to live, “What we are opposed to is the deliberate and conscious and premeditated attempt by individuals to malign and besmear the reputation, integrity, and character of a government and its people.”

Lord Bingham said that Sierra Leone authorities have done little to curb the widespread practice, Times Online reports.

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Portuguese Parliament to Vote on Abortion Referendum

The Portuguese Parliament is set to vote on whether to hold a referendum that would let voters decide whether to legalize abortion. [UPDATE: On Thursday, October 19, the Portugese Parliament approved holding the referendum. The vote is expected to happen early next year.] Portugal is the only country in the European Union that actively prosecutes women and their doctors for illegal abortion, incarcerating women for up to three years if found guilty of having an illegal abortion and doctors for up to eight years for performing the abortions.

Portugal last had a referendum to legalize abortion in 1998, which lost 51 to 49 percent. Recent polls show 47 percent of Portugal is in favor of decriminalizing abortion, with 40 percent against, EuroNews reports. This shift in attitude has been attributed to recent high-profile prosecutions of women and doctors for obtaining or performing abortions, according to EuroNews. Currently, a Portuguese woman can only receive an abortion up to her 12th week of pregnancy in cases of rape, a malformed fetus, or if the woman’s health is in serious danger.

To raise awareness about Portugal’s restrictive abortion laws, Women on Waves, a non-profit organization based in the Netherlands whose mission is to prevent unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortions throughout the world, traveled to Portugal in 2004, only to be block by the Portuguese Navy. The Feminist Majority Foundation has been working with Women on Waves since its first trip to Ireland five years ago, providing security support through its National Clinic Access Project.

According to Women on Waves, between 20,000 and 40,000 illegal and unsafe abortions take place in Portugal each year. Said Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates about the referendum, “We have to end this blight of backstreet abortionsÉ It makes Portugal a backward country,” according to the Associated Press. If the legislators vote to allow the referendum, Portugal will vote on the measure in January.

DONATE to the Feminist Majority Foundation to support its National Clinic Access Project

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Woman Becomes First Parliament Member in Bahrain

Lateefa al-Geeod has become the first woman elected to parliament in the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain this week, a country in which women only won the right to vote in 2001. Al-Geeod registered to run for the seat and officially won after registration closed on Tuesday and she remained without opposition, according to the Khaleej Times. In the 2002 municipal and parliamentary elections, 31 women ran for positions but failed to be elected. In upper parliament, six women hold appointed positions.

“I am very proud as a Bahraini woman to reach this point, and I hope more than one female candidate reaches the parliament,” said al-Geeod, according the the Associated Press. Al-Geeod currently works at the Bahrain’s Ministry of Finance and holds a Master’s degree in financial management. She says that she is focused on the “economy, unemployment and discrimination against women in the management field,” reports the Associated Press.

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UK Proposes Changes in Rape Laws

The United Kingdom is considering new legislation that would make it easier to convict rapists, even if the victim was intoxicated at the time of the rape. The proposed law is an effort to address “non-stranger” rapes, also known as date rapes, where establishing consent and an intoxicated person’s ability to grant consent is crucial, Times Online reports. According to Solicitor General Mike O’Brien, the law is also necessary to target rapists who deliberately get their victims drunk in order to force sex upon them, according to This Is London.

Currently, UK law holds that an intoxicated woman is able to give consent as long as she is still conscious. Alcohol consumption is a major impediment to the successful prosecution of a rapist; according to The Observer, the Crown Prosecution Service often advises women who were drunk at the time of their rape not to bring their cases to court because they have little chance of being believed by a jury. Only 12 percent of reported rape cases actually go to court, and about 5 percent of alleged rapists are convicted in the UK, Times Online reports.

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Zimbabwe Parliamentarian Claims Women’s Inferiority

Timothy Mubhawu, a member of parliament (MP) in Zimbabwe, is insisting that the national assembly reject a bill that would criminalize domestic violence. He stated, “I stand here representing God the Almighty. Women are not equal to men. This is a dangerous bill, and let it be known in Zimbabwe that the rights, privileges, and status of men are gone,” IRIN reports.

The bill in question has drawn widespread support from the international and women’s communities. It strives to address the serious problem of domestic violence in Zimbabwe, where over 60 percent of murder cases are connected to domestic violence, and more than 8,000 rapes are reported annually.

Mubhawu’s sexist remarks have sparked the protests of 35 women’s organizations in Zimbabwe. Betty Makoni, founder of the Girl Child Network, a nongovernmental organization in Zimbabwe, told IRIN, “The MP made some very outrageous and gender-insensitive statements, and we have to express our anger by marching against him – he has made a lot of people angry. It is unfortunate that such statements should come from an official who should be representing both women and men in parliament.”

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Nicaragua Considers Banning All Abortion

A proposed law in Nicaragua banning all abortions, even when a woman or girl’s life is at risk, is currently under review by the country’s judicial commission and may be voted on soon. Current law in Nicaragua permits “therapeutic abortions” for situations in which a woman or girl’s life is endangered by a pregnancy, but remains vague, Spero News reports. Despite the restrictive law, a 1996 study found that about 36,000 abortions are performed every year, and that unsafe, illegal abortions were a leading cause of death for women in the 1980s, according to CBS.

The predominately conservative country engaged in an explosive debate about abortion rights in March 2003 when a 9-year-old rape victim became pregnant and underwent an abortion. Despite medical opinions that the pregnancy was a risk to her health, government officials, Catholic church representatives, and anti-abortion activists opposed the abortion.

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CODEPINK’s ‘Give Peace a Vote’ Campaign Gains Momentum

The women’s peace group CODEPINK has received a huge response to its online campaign to create an anti-war voting bloc. Almost 20,000 have signed the group’s pledge to vote only for candidates “who publicly call for a speedy withdrawal from Iraq and will keep us from engaging in future unjustified wars.”

Among the signatories are Ms. cofounder Gloria Steinem, writers Alice Walker and Maxine Hong Kingston, “peace mom” Cindy Sheehan, and a slew of other celebrities, including Cornell West, Yoko Ono, Cher, Kate Hudson, Susan Sarandon, Willie Nelson, Marisa Tomei, Vanessa Williams, and Samuel L. Jackson.

The goal of the campaign is to bring Congress in line with the public’s views on the Iraq war, according to CODEPINK. The group contrasts Congress’s consistent pro-war voting record with September 2006 CNN polls showing that 58 percent of Americans oppose the war.

Both incumbent and non-incumbent candidates are changing their stance on the war in response to voter dissent, says CODEPINK. The group points to Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT), a former supporter of the war in Iraq who has recently begun calling for a definite timeline of withdrawal. Pressure on candidates may increase as November approaches: A USA Today poll this week found that 86 percent of voters consider Iraq an “extremely” or “very” important issue in the upcoming elections, rivaled only by “corruption in government.”

LEARN MORE about the “Give Peace a Vote” campaign.

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Afghan Women Demand Greater Protection from Government

Four Afghan women’s groups came together to demand greater protection from violence against women in a demonstration on Thursday. The demonstration is a response to the recent murder of Safia Amajan, the provincial director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs for Kandahar and women’s rights crusader. The four groups participating in the demonstration presented a 13-point outline of changes they would like to see within the Afghan government, including: bodyguards and drivers for officials, quick and effective prosecution for terrorists, better pay for police, remuneration for families of terror victims, and international aid for “the root causes of social insecurity and terrorism,” according to Dzeno Association, a Czech Republic newswire.

“This murder of Safia Amajan shows that those fighting against freedom and democracy in Afghanistan are committed to removing women from public life as they are seen as an obstacle to achieving their goalsÉ. The Government and International community must support, protect and encourage women’s full participation and just efforts in all aspects of public life,” said the open letter to President Hamid Karzai released by the Afghan Women’s Network, Agency Coordination Body for Afghan Relief, Afghan Civil Society Forum, and the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society.

Violence against women in Afghanistan, especially under the Taliban, is widespread. The Feminist Majority is working to pass the Afghan Women’s Empowerment Act, which provides funding for women-led non-profits, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. It is anticipated that Congress will take up the Act when it returns after the November 7 election.

TAKE ACTION Urge your Senators and Representative to pass the Afghan Women’s Empowerment Act

LEARN MORE about FMF’s Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls

DONATE to the Campaign to Help Afghan Women and Girls

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Botswana Government Promotes Female Condom

In an effort to promote safe sex and reduce the infection rate of HIV, the Botswana government has launched an initiative to promote the female condom. The Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS, has estimated that 140,000 of Botswana’s 1.8 million citizens are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. While the government has provided free antiretroviral drugs to HIV positive individuals, the unpopularity of the female condom and power imbalances between the sexes have hampered the success of prevention efforts.

A marketing team has brightly packaged the condoms and renamed them “Bliss” in the hopes that it will persuade more women to use the condom. An art director of the condom’s redesign, Derick Muchena noted, “The earlier product’s packaging was dull and did not stand out much, so we decided to use brighter colors and a sexy name,” IRIN reports. The Ministry of Health and the marketing agency have distributed leaflets promoting Bliss and will also launch a television ad.

David Ngele, the national coordinator of Botswana Network of People Living with AIDS, expressed hopes that, by popularizing female condoms, women would be able to initiate safe sex with a male partner. Ngele told IRIN that female condoms would hopefully “help change the current mindset of men and help empower women.”

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Violence Against Women Officially Declared a Human Rights Violation

The United Nations released a report late last week officially classifying violence against women as a human rights violation, increasing pressure on states in the UN to intensify and improve systems in place for handling violence against women. Calling violence against women “unacceptable,” the report goals included: to survey the pervasiveness of violence against women around the world; to remind UN states of the importance of this issue; to find better, more effective ways to combat violence against women; and to increase accountability of UN states for violations of women’s human rights.

“Violence against women persists in every country in the world as a pervasive violation of human rights and a major impediment to achieving gender equality…. [As] long as violence against women continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace,” declares the introduction to the report.

The release of the UN report coincides with the publication of the most comprehensive and systematic study of international domestic violence by the World Health Organization (WHO). At 13 out of the 15 sites studied, more than 25 percent of women said they had experienced moderate to severe domestic violence in the last year. At six of the 15 sites, over 50 percent of women had experienced a moderate to severe level of domestic violence. The study found that rural Ethiopia had the highest rate of domestic violence, with 71 percent of women experiencing violence in the home. Yokohama, Japan had the lowest rate at 15 percent.

Close to 25,000 women were interviewed in ten countries for the WHO study. Previous domestic violence studies have focused mostly on the US and other developed nations. Studies conducted in the US and European Union have found domestic violence rates of 20 to 25 percent, though the number is likely to be underreported, according to the New York Times.

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Indonesia Bans Doctors from Practicing Female Genital Mutilation

The Indonesian government announced this week that it is prohibiting doctors and nurses from performing female genital cutting. According to Reuters, some Indonesian groups encourage families to perform female genital mutiliation, allegedly to maintain chastity and virginity before marriage and to ensure faithfulness in the women’s marriage.

Sri Hermiyanti, head of the Indonesian health ministry’s family health directorate, said, “Hurting, damaging, incising and cutting of the clitoris are not permitted under the ban, because these acts violate the reproductive rights of these girls and harm their organs,” reports Kaiser Daily Women’s Health Policy Report. However, there are no punishments in place for those who violate the ban, and it is expected that it will take time for traditional communities to stop performing female genital mutilation.

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Iran Selects Women’s Rights Film as Oscar Nominee

Iran announced its decision to submit a film that defends women’s rights to compete in the foreign film category of the Oscars. The film, written by women’s rights advocate Kambosia Partovi, is about a widowed woman working to keep up her late husband’s restaurant while deflecting her brother-in-law’s requests to marry her, following the tradition of taking her as his second wife, according to the Globe and Mail.

Partovi is well known for his argument against the subordination of women, according to the Guardian Mail. He also wrote the 2000 Golden Lion winner, Circle, as well as I, Taraneh, 15 Years Old, both of which also represent the problems women face in Iran.

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