Media Blackout: Why Is the World Not Acknowledging Shahbagh?

When I was a little girl, I always wanted Bangladesh to be famous. I did not like that whenever people asked me where I was from I would have to explain, “Bangladesh, this tiny country on the East of India.” Why could people not just know where my Motherland was?

At the age of 18 years when I went abroad for college, I discovered that Bangladesh was famous, at least in Charlottesville, Virginia: Famous for floods, cyclones, crippling poverty and dying children.

Now as a long-time resident of the States, I have found that Bangladesh is upheld as an ideal when it comes to development indicators such as reducing maternal mortality ratios, and allowing women to enter the workforce en masse, particularly in our garment sector.

Speaking of the garments sector, there is apparently nothing the international media loves more, when it comes to Bangladesh, than factory fires that unfortunately almost regularly sweep through the country. Just look at the example of Tazreen Garments. Late last year when the story broke that major US chains, such as Walmart, manufacture their clothes in cheap labor factories tucked away in the outskirts of Dhaka, the Western press could not get enough.

This story about lack, or absolute absence, of fire safety measures in Bangladeshi garment factories, killing thousands of poor Bangladeshi workers almost annually, was gobbled up by the media. Not a day could go by when the Tazreen garment factory story was not mentioned in the news, and even major American outlets such as ABC and NBC were providing wall to wall coverage on the incident.

Is the West then only interested in press that perpetuates stereotypes of the ‘poor, brown, exploited worker’? Do they not want to hear when we rise up against religious extremism? Why then when the Shahbagh story is unfolding before the world’s eyes, the international media is looking away? Writer, Kachin Gupta ponders in, The Pioneer:

Something remarkable is happening in Bangladesh which has gone under-reported, if not unnoticed, by newspapers and news television channels. What is a pity and a shame is that the international media, which goes into overdrive if 10 people gather at Tahrir Square or a bunch of lazy layabouts decide to ‘occupy’ Wall Street, has missed a story that tells more than one unfolding tale in a country with a bitter past and an uncertain future, a nation whose blood-soaked birth is unparalleled in recent history.

Many experts even state that the gathering in the heart of the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka is a “social revolution akin to the French Revolution.” For over two weeks, thousands of Bangladeshi youths, organised largely by online activists and bloggers, have been leading a non-violent movement to deny religious fundamentalism a place in mainstream politics, demand death penalty for war criminals, and ban the student arm of the country’s largest fundamentalist party. Bangladeshi writer, Saad Z. Hossain explains what makes the protests in Bangladesh so genuine:

…The significance of Shahbagh is that ordinary people have taken to the streets after a long, long time. This is not about legal arguments, or capital punishment morality, or political manoeuvring towards future elections. I believe deep inside, this is a visceral rejection of fundamentalism, and the end game which Jamaat brings to the table. On some level I think people realize that there is no room for us in the kind of world they want to build. Our people are secular at heart. Our women work. We love music, and dancing. We care about literature, and language. Even with thousands in Shahbagh chanting for death, there is, inevitably, pockets of song and dance and plays, outbursts of the sentimentality which is our national character. We were never meant to be a fundamentalist state. This Jamaat thing is alien, even when perpetrated on us by some of our own. Shahbagh is the silent majority rising up against the use of religion to bully, the issuing of bewildering fatwas, the adoption of Arab dress and Arab ways, the blatant distortion of the past, the peculiar assault on our culture.

The biggest story of an organic movement to resoundingly choose secularism over Islamic extremism is happening in one of the world’s largest Muslim democracies, so why is the world not acknowledging Shahbagh? Why does the majority of international media continue to either ignore the swelling numbers of ordinary Bangladeshis joining the movement, or still wrongly label the gathering in Shahbagh, and across the country, as mass demands for capital punishment? Why as a blogger, and main leader of Shahbagh was hacked to death outside his home, and why as the Government looks to ban the country’s largest fundamentalist party, is the world not paying attention to Bangladesh?

While in America it is sadly quite normal to have the press cover stories of hurricanes and lost pets over major stories happening in the rest of the world, sometimes even in place of wars, it is shocking to see the major global networks overlook Bangladesh’s cultural revolution. Is it because the world is confused by a Muslim country rejecting outright the mullahs and war criminals who have eaten away at our society? Can the Western press only make sense of our movements when we are storming the streets demanding higher wages, or when we’re running around as paid political stooges? Why is the media intentional missing out?

Perhaps they cannot make sense of Shabagh because it smashes any stereotypes or prejudices the rest of the world may hold about poor, Muslim, ‘developing’ nations. Or perhaps they don’t want to hear our call for justice, real democracy, and secular government.

Whatever shape Shahbagh takes, it is clear that, in the words of famous poet, Gil Scot Heron, this revolution will not be televised, because the world is busy watching other channels.

For now, at least.

*This post of mine was also published in BDNews24 and in Anushay’s Point.

Photo taken by Rajiv Ashrafi and used through Flickr Creative Commons

The Female Factor: Bangladesh Protests Break Boundaries

It is over a week now that crowds refuse to die down in Shahbagh Square in the heart of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

While most of the “western media” has either ignored the swelling numbers of ordinary Bangladeshis joining the movement, others have wrongly labeled it as a mass demand for capital punishment.

This is perhaps the biggest misconception about what is happening in Bangladesh right now, that these historic protests are somehow a stamp of the public’s thirst just for capital punishment. Could anything be more incorrect or insulting?

Earlier this week, I wrote about how Bangladeshis joined in rare solidarity to demand the death penalty for the leader of the country’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, well-known war-criminal, Abdul Quader Mollah. His sentencing to life in prison triggered Bangladeshis to put aside their political differences, and unite against Mollah.

Why were so many people coming out in droves in Dhaka, gathering in this square in peaceful protests, holding signs of the hangman’s knot? The scary slogans made the people holding them look like savages, instead of the man pictured, who Bangladeshis believe escaped the real sentencing he deserved.

What we are seeing in Bangladesh right now is not about capital punishment. The world needs to understand that. It is wrongly labeling all Bangladeshis as bloodthirsty people. I do not support capital punishment and yes, we all know the War Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh is heavily flawed. It even has been accused of being nothing but a political tool for Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina.

But the Shahbagh movement goes beyond both these points. I resent people dismissing this as a movement for capital punishment when what is happening in Bangladesh right now is much more complex. Why is the fate of Shahbagh linked to the destiny of every single Bangladeshi? Bangladeshi writer, Tahmima Anam explains:

The call for Mollah’s death is about more than revenge. He committed his crimes during Bangladesh’s nine-month struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971. In addition to the perceived inadequacy of the sentence is an abiding anxiety about the way it will be carried out. It is ingrained in the public imagination that justice always takes second place to political expediency. Mollah knows that if his party or its allies were to come to power again, he would almost certainly be freed. That is why the protesters at Shahbag are calling for his death: it is the only way they can be sure the episode will come to an end.

In my life, I have never seen an on-going protest of this magnitude in Bangladesh ever that was not partisan. I have never witnessed people spill onto the streets for anything not somehow related to Awami League or Bangladesh National Party-led demonstrations or strikes.

The non-partisan nature of Shahbagh is not the only thing that makes it different, but the role technology is playing is revolutionary as well. It was Bangladeshi online activists and bloggers who first protested Mollah’s verdict, demanding the death sentence. They used social media to spread the word, and staged sit-ins. The “Shahbagh” Facebook page has over 6,000 Likes, and is being used as a weapon of  ”cyber war against war crimes.”

The participation of youth and women also make Shahbagh unique. The protests’ female factor- students, wives, working professionals, activists, and mothers with their children all gave their voice to the Shahbag protests.

I find this electrifying. Although Bangladeshi women play a huge role in our country’s government and civil society, they also played a huge role in the 1971 Liberation War, not only as fighters and supporters of the war, but as the people who perhaps paid the greatest price as Bangladesh seceded from then West Pakistan.

Many academics state that the first time rape was consciously applied as a weapon of war was during the Bangladesh War of Independence, and although the official numbers of the women raped are 200-250,000 many experts put that number closer to 400,000 women and girls who were raped, mass-raped, imprisoned for months in notorious rape-camps.

It is only fitting that today, almost forty-three years after Independence, that the mothers, daughters and sisters of our martyrs make sure the memory and spirit of those who freed Bangladesh is honored. They are organizing in the streets with their children, because at the end of the day, as Egyptian feminist author Mona Eltahawy states, what revolution worth anything did not have “gender nestled in its beating heart”?

Will Shahbagh succeed or will it fade? Will it bloom like the water lotus, or wither with time? One thing is for sure, the nation’s largest movement in twenty years has already changed the political landscape of Bangladesh forever.

*This post of mine was also published in Forbes Woman and in Anushay’s Point.

Photo taken by Rajiv Ashrafi and used through Flickr Creative Commons

The Silence of a Laureate: Ethnic & Religious Tensions Rise in Burma

When I was growing up in Bangladesh, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi never ceased to amaze me. Burma is right next door to us geographically, but as a little girl all I understood about the military junta in Burma was primarily through pictures.

I just could not wrap my head around what kind of threat a tiny woman, with her iconic bright and colorful flowers, carefully and  always tucked behind her ear, posed to these big men with guns. Clearly the military’s worries went beyond what Suu Kyi represented to them physically.

This woman personifies the heart and the spirit of the long winding road that Burma has had to democracy.

In my adult years, Suu Kyi’s imprisonment was constant, continuous, and lasted well over a decade. Forced to be a prisoner in her own home, Suu Kyi was world renown to be a fighter for the core principles of democracy. Nobody embodied the fight for a people to choose their government the way Burma’s Suu Kyi did. And it is clear that “The Lady” is not done fighting after her much awaited release in 2010.

The legendary former political prisoner, and perhaps one of the most famous hostages of our time, declared this morning her willingness to run for Burma’s Presidency stating, ”…As a political party leader, I also have to have the courage to be president. “

Suu Kyi went on to state that her political party will work to remove an existing clause in the Burmese constitution, barring her from the Presidency. Suu Kyi’s words signal a new era in a country which is still waking up from the tight grip of  five decades of military rule.

Could anything be more politically dramatic than witnessing the woman take the place of the very regime that placed her under arrest, separated her from her family, and barred her from taking office even after winning landslide elections? Aung San is arguably one of the most romanticized political figures of modern times.

However, is it what Suu Kyi is not saying that may be the most telling of the kind of leader she will be, beyond the borders of our imagination? In reality, how will “The Lady” rule? Burma’s ethnic minorities may hold some clues.

This summer, ongoing cultural tension between Burma’s Muslim population, the Rohingyas, who are denied citizenship and legal rights by the government, reached new heights as social media helped propel the issue to global attention. Human Rights Watch also issued a new report documenting the role Burmese Security forces play in the violence.

Religious and ethnic violence displaced almost 80,000 people from their homes beginning in June, and to make matters worse, neighboring Bangladesh has closed off entry of Rohingya refugees fleeing the violence in Burma.

Burma’s President suggested that the Muslim minority should be physically moved out of the country, while the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, stated that Bangladesh cannot help the Rohingyas. Bangladesh has even shut off foreign NGOs from being able to assist the thousands of people trapped between two countries, in desperate need of food and medical services.

But it is Aung San’s silence on this issue that is particularly deafening. How can a woman the world has watched fight for her people against the might of a military junta for decades not have a word to say when an entire part of her country’s population is being violently attacked? It is shocking to say the least. It also makes us ponder what kind of leader Aung San will be, and exactly how different will her government be from the military rule that preceded it?

Why is the world being silent about Suu Kyi’s silence?  This is where the politics gets personal and begins to implicate all of us. When I first mentioned that I wanted to write about how Aung San has failed the Rohingyas, many people were shocked that I would “attack” a woman the world holds so dear. No one wants to hear anything bad about Aung San. We clearly have idolized this woman to the point of no return. We want to believe that the fight she waged for a ‘free’ Burma includes the Rohingya people as well.

It got me thinking that when it comes to women leaders, women in positions of power, we still tend to gender them. We do not want anything to taint the perfect portrait of grace and political sacrifice we have built in our hearts and minds of Aung San Suu Kyi. We imagined and worshiped her as a maternal political warrior, and that is how we want her to remain. Even if this can be a considered a positive stereotype, it still is a stereotype.

But staying silent as the war on Rohingyas rages on, as both the Bangladeshi and Burmese governments dust their hands of any responsibility is wrong, and cannot continue with impunity any longer.

There is no single figure who could draw the attention and create a solution to the crisis the way Aung San can. We have waited decades to see Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi descend upon what we all believed was her rightful political throne. She even won the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison for her people.

And it just may be the Rohingyas who hold  the  key to the direction Suu Kyi’s political destiny will go in. And too many clues clearly lay in her silence on the situation so far.

Top photo via Flickr user by edenpictures and bottom photo via the World Economic Forum under Creative Commons license.

Women Only: Saudi Arabia Further Segregates Society

The fight for Saudi women’s rights has been well-documented in the press, especially the high-profile protests women’s rights activists launched on the heels of the Arab Spring in hopes to win the right to drive in the Kingdom, the only place in the world where women are legally not permitted to get behind the wheel.

This observation by Chairwoman of the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, Farzaneh Milani explains why gender apartheid in Saudi is unique:

…The driving ban stems from universal anxiety over women’s unrestrained mobility. In Saudi Arabia that anxiety is acute: the streets-and the right to enter and leave them at will-belong to men…Gender apartheid is not about piety. It is about dominating, excluding and subordinating women. It is about barring them from political activities, preventing their active participation in the public sector.

Although late last fall Saudi Arabia attempted to ease wide-spread international condemnation of its treatment of women by giving them a symbolic shot at the vote in 2014, things have pretty much remained unchanged.

But this week, the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (Modon) announced the creation of a “women only industrial city,” expected to create about 5,000 jobs in factories run and staffed completely by women.

The city will be equipped “for women workers… consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations,” Modon said in a statement. The municipality will be built in the Eastern city of Hofuf, and is the first of many women-only cities slated to be built around the notoriously conservative kingdom.

Of course when I first heard the news, my initial response was, “Is further gender segregation  really the answer to Saudi Arabia’s fight for women’s rights? My instinct was that separating women will actually be a loss for Saudi women’s larger struggles, allowing men and society to avoid reconciling their larger issues with women’s mobility and empowerment. The Kingdom needs to do more to integrate women and girls, not increase their isolation.

However, the reality in Saudi Arabia is what it is and to be real, we all know things are not going to change overnight. Despite women waging a real and unrelenting fight, they face a difficult battle. And it is only going to get tougher.

Everyone knows that from driving to traveling to going to the doctor, practically every move a Saudi woman makes requires male permission. Many schools, colleges and offices are already segregated so why not just create an entire female utopia?

It might be the only tangible option in Saudi Arabia where despite the fact that almost 60 percent of the country’s university students are female, they only make up 15% of the workforce. Experts state that 78 percent of female university graduates in the country are unemployed.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, an educator and feminist from early 20th century Bengal.

The main goal of these women-only cities is to allow more of them to join the workforce, and gain financial independence without seriously disturbing the country’s stubborn gender segregation.

Samar Fatany, a Saudi radio host and one of the Kingdom’s prominent female voices, thinks that this is what empowerment looks like in Saudi eyes:

Their culture and environment won’t let them work any other way. It’s an opportunity to have an income, be financially independent. It’s an economic necessity.

This entire scenario reminds me of the work of Bangladeshi feminist pioneer and icon, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932). She fought for the rights of Muslim

women through education, and her groundbreaking work, Sultana’s Dream, creates a female Utopian where the cultural practice of secluding women through purdah (Bengali for curtain) and hijab  is reversed on men.

In the book,  men are confined indoors and women take control over the public sphere. Sultana’s Dream describes a “Kingdom of Women,” a technologically advanced state where men are docile “servants” trained to cook, clean, and look after the house and children.

Saudi Arabia is apparently turning Begum Rokeya’s dream into a reality to an extent. Whether or not escalating  sex segregation is the answer to the resolving the region’s long-standing gender struggle remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, and that is these women-only cities definitely appear to offer some kind of appeasement to both the sexes, for now.

Top photo via flickr user Retlaw Snellac, bottom photo via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons 2.0.
Cross-posted from Anushay’s Point.

International AIDS 2012 Conference Wrap-Up: The Good & The Bad

The historic XIX International AIDS Conference ended last Friday, but just how historic were the results it managed to achieve?

As far as funding goes, the US, whose funding was actually decreasing, made two funding announcements. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton announced over $150 million in new US initiatives to combat HIV/AIDS, adding an additional $80 million to help eliminate mother-to-child infections by 2015. PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief  revealed a $5 million grant designed to address sexual violence against children.

The majority of low-middle income countries are now taking care of their own funding to combat HIV/AIDS, signaling an end to the “era of charity,” with South Africa leading the way for countries to provide most of their own HIV/AIDS funding.

AIDS Quilt at 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington DC

But beyond the numbers and dollar signs, AIDS 2012 failed to deliver. Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health, Council on Foreign Relations, states that the theme of the conference, “The End of AIDS” implied we had a toolkit to apply to rid the world of this epidemic. In reality, Garrett says that the conference undermined the “real toolkit” to fight HIV/AIDS.

AIDS 2012 failed to highlight the importance of HIV treatment as prevention. Not enough emphasis was placed on male circumcision, proven to be hugely successful around the world.

The issue of implementation when it comes to eliminating mother to child transmission was not given enough attention. 300,000 new infections still occur every year simply because it is so difficult for women in rural areas to access programs, pregnant women still fail to get tested, and many countries face a shortage in health workers.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) also chides AIDS 2012 for not advertising the fact that earlier in July, the FDA approved Truvada for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) which in combination  with safer sex practices, actually reduces the risk of sexually acquired HIV-infection for high-risk adults.

AIDS 2012 may have come and gone, but the most important message it left us with is that despite huge strides, the fight to win the battle against HIV/AIDS goes on, and we have not yet found the “end of AIDS.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

$5 Million to Address Sexual Violence Against Children–A Drop in PEPFAR’s Bucket?

As the XIX International AIDS Conference draws to a close tomorrow, the United State’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has announced a $5 million grant for the Together for Girls(TFG) partnership–designed to address violence against girls and boys. U.S. Global AIDS coordinator Eric Goosby says funds will go to “support countries’ responses to survey data and help address social issues of sexual violence against children.”

Goosby was not alone in supporting this initiative. Last night at Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, a who’s who of U.S. global health players participated in “Turning the Tide for Women and Girls: A Dialogue on Gender and the HIV Response,” including Global Women’s Issues ambassador-at-large Melanne Verveer; Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius; executive director of the Global Health Initiative, Lois Quam; and USAID administrator Rajiv Shah. All spoke in favor of the initiative.

In addition to speeches by U.S officials, the event’s most moving testimony came from Mandisa Madikane, a 20-year-old South African woman who contracted HIV after being raped by a neighbor in Kliptown, South Africa, when she was just six years old. Mandisa is now a journalist, one of three HIV-positive young women who have been covering the conference.

As the panelists spoke on the importance of protecting the health and rights of women and girls in the fight against HIV and AIDS, tweets were simultaneously being sent out by their offices. Goosby tweeted that PEPFAR “is integral to protecting women’s health.” Verveer put out messages on how important the role of men, boys and big businesses were to the progress of women around the world.

The rhetoric and language were perfect. Women make up half the world’s HIV infections and AIDS is the leading cause of death for girls of reproductive age. It is precisely these women and girls who make up the “unfinished agenda in the AIDS response,” according to UNICEF deputy executive director, Geeta Rao Gupta. All this week we have heard about the importance of supporting women so that they can be in control of the decisions that affect their lives, and how the response to HIV/AIDS must reflect a “woman’s shape,” and how HIV/AIDS has become a “woman’s plague.”

But how is the U.S. doing when it comes to measuring real action on the ground?

Sitting underneath the shimmering crystal chandeliers of the woman’s museum, one couldn’t help but think how far the current rhetoric is from the reality on the ground. With all this talk about gender-based violence and the lack of control women and girls have over their bodies and their sexuality, all the U.S. can commit to an anti-violence effort is $5 million?

PEPFAR is a multi-billion dollar initiative. Put $5 million in that context.

Yes, of course, that is not all the U.S. and PEPFAR have put towards gender-based violence, but this is what we celebrated last night–the “big” announcement.

A decade ago, then-United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that HIV/AIDS had a “woman’s face.” Today, women ages 15-24 make up 72 percent of all new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa. If we really want to win the global war against HIV/AIDS, we must address the majority who make up the pandemic: women and girls. And one way the U.S. can start showing the world how to do this is by putting its money where its mouth is.

Photo of PEPFAR logo under Wikimedia Commons.

Cross-posted from the Ms. blog.

Beyond the Ban: The Importance of AIDS 2012 Being Held in the US

When I was a little girl growing up in Bangladesh, my sisters and I were obsessed with England’s Princess Diana. We used to spend hours studying any pictures of her we could get our hands on, try to get our hair cut like hers, and attempt to get our local tailor to make us dresses like hers. Yes, I know there could not be a greater cliché than little girls gushing over a princess, but Diana’s human rights activism intrigued me well into my adult years as well.

As a seven year-old girl in Dhaka in 1987, I didn’t know much about HIV/AIDS, but hardly anyone knew anything about the virus at that time. The lack of knowledge compounded stigma and discrimination towards those infected with the virus. It was that year, the height of the global AIDS crisis that Princess Diana taught the world a valuable lesson: When it comes to fighting AIDS, we must first move beyond our own discrimination.

During a visit to British hospital that year, the Princess quietly removed her glove before shaking hands with a HIV-positive man, demonstrating in one swift gesture that the virus that terrified the world, and the people who had it, needed our understanding, not our ignorant fear. At that time, the average person still did not know that AIDS could not be passed through human touch alone.

Despite the fact that HIV/AIDS has become one of the most studied viruses in the world, international policies still exist that institutionalize discrimination against HIV positive people. And until just two years ago the United States was guilty of perpetuating fear and stigmatization of people with HIV/AIDS.

The International AIDS 2012 Conference being held in Washington this week is historic for many reasons, but just the fact that it is being held in the US is historic in itself. The last time this conference took place in the States was in 1990, but just three years prior to that the US Congress enacted legislation banning the entrance of all HIV-infected persons over the age of 14 years. While a waiver was issued for conference participants, the ban was not lifted. Every single IAS conference since has taken place outside of the US.

Two years ago, the Obama Administration finally overturned this outdated and straight up bigoted travel ban. It paved the way for AIDS 2012 to take place in Washington, DC, and was a significant step forward for the US, one of the largest donors to global health programs around the world, and the single largest donor to global AIDS programs.

As the conference wraps up this week, it is important to reflect not only on the end of this policy, and a new era of AIDS, but to remember that ignorance and discrimination will only get in the way of effectively tackling the global pandemic. Diana may have showed us this over two decades ago, but it has taken us awhile to catch up.

If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, you can attend the remaining Global Village sessions of the XIX International AIDS Conference, particularly those pertaining to women; check out the schedule here. The remaining plenaries will broadcast online [PDF].

For updates on the International AIDS Conference, check out the official twitter @AIDS2012.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Join the AIDS 2012 conference free in DC or online!

Join thousands of activists in Washington, DC or online this week for the 2012 International AIDS Conference! You can find information about in person registration here, but there is also a parallel and FREE “Global Village,” where advocates and activists from around the world will gather, have booths, hold workshops, and share ideas. Some workshops will be streamed live, so check out the schedule online. If you are in the DC area and are looking to volunteer, the NAMES quilt project still has spots available.

Leaders from around the world are descending on Washington. Almost 20,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries, including 2,000 journalists, are meeting over five days, July 22nd-27th, to continue work towards ways to eliminate an epidemic that has killed over 25 million people around the world.

Almost a decade ago, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan famously labeled AIDS a “woman’s disease” because of the gendered impact the virus had on women around the world then. Fast-forward to 2012 and we are facing an intensified impact as the epidemic becomes a “woman’s plague.”

The US is one of the largest and most important donors to global health programs around the world, and PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) is the single largest HIV/AIDS combating mechanism. It is especially significant that AIDS 2012 is being held this year in Washington since President Obama made the historic move to lift the regulatory travel ban preventing HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering the US in 2010.

Take advantage of the opportunity to be a part of this historic 2012 International AIDS Conference – either in person or online. World leaders need to see that without women and our voices, an AIDS-free generation is not possible.

Fortnight of Failure? Catholic Bishops Fail to Rally Support

Since the end of last month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have been busy rallying up their base to come out and defend their “religious liberty.” A series of events, spanning over two weeks and dubbed the ‘Fortnight of Freedom,” were planned and publicized to parishes and diocese across the US in an attempt to add fuel to their ongoing campaign to prohibit women from having any control over their reproduction. Suffice to say, things did not go as well as they hoped:

…This extravaganza was supposed to redefine the political conversation, but instead it went mostly unnoticed and unattended. It was supposed to show massive grassroots support for the bishops’ contention that allowing women to purchase comprehensive health insurance constitutes an intolerable threat to the religious liberty of employers who wish to prohibit that. But instead it showed, definitively, that there is no grassroots support for that strange argument. The bishops declared themselves the grand marshals of what was to be a glorious parade, but no one showed up to march behind them and only a meager handful turned out to line the route as spectators.

The low turnout speaks volumes for not only how out of touch the bishops are, but also exposes the little support they have from their own base when it comes to politicizing women’s health. It also shows that the Bishops’ fraud messaging is not working. Americans are not stupid and neither are women. By stating that Catholic institutions have the right to religious liberty and to thereby not include birth control in their employees or students’ health insurance plans, they are denying that very same religious freedom to their employees and students. The only thing the bishops managed to show was their lack of concern for women’s religious liberty, choices, and lives. At the end of the day, the Supreme Court upheld what the bishops claimed to be a “threat to religious liberty, AKA the Affordable Care Act.

In his article, “Let’s Celebrate Real Religious Freedom,” President of Catholics for Choice, Jon O’Brien lists real examples of religious persecution, from the European Jews to Catholics in Ireland to Bahais in Iran, calling out the bishops for trying to victimize themselves by trying to include themselves in this list:

Today’s American Catholic bishops would have us think they are the latest victims of religious persecution. Their claims denigrate the suffering of those who know the true meaning of that term. A few powerful conservative religious leaders, not joined by the majority of their faith or even of all their fellow bishops, have opened their coffers to sue the government to allow them to force others to live by their rules and to deny them what everyone else is guaranteed by our society. This isn’t about religious liberty. It’s a sham. And a dangerous one.

O’Brien goes on to state that the bishops have already failed. They did not succeed in making Catholics in 2012 believe that using birth control is a moral offense, so instead they decided to attack a law that gives all Americans health insurance.

Ironically, a rally to display the strength of the bishops ended up being a huge public relations disaster. If there is one thing we can take away from the “Fortnight of Freedom” is that bishops are out of touch with their own base, who by not coming out in huge numbers to support the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have shown everybody how badly their messaging is failing.

Photo via Flickr user Jim, the Photographer

Women’s Rights Key to Effective Global AIDS Response

A new report by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, an independent body of former world leaders and top legal, human rights and HIV experts, released on the eve of the London Summit, has labeled the global response to the AIDS epidemic as “stifled.”

The ground-breaking account, “HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health,” states that human rights abuses and “penalizing” laws are wasting funds and lives. The Commission, which based its study on research and testimonies from over 1,000 people in 140 countries, finds that every government in every region is guilty of not using legal frameworks in an effective way to fight the epidemic.

It urges governments to urgently strengthen and scale up laws, which in many countries already exist. UNDP Administrator, Helen Clark further explains:

Bad laws should not be allowed to stand in the way of effective HIV responses. In the 2011 Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS, Member States committed to reviewing laws and policies which impede effective HIV responses. One of the key contributions of the Commission’s work has been to stimulate review processes and change in a number of countries.

In many countries, sex work is still criminalized, preventing them from access HIV prevention services. Customs such as female genital mutilation make women powerless over negotiations such as safe sex, and 127 countries do not have any legislation on marital rape. Former President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who chairs the Commission states that the prejudice must end:

Too many countries waste vital resources by enforcing archaic laws that ignore science and perpetuate stigma. Now, more than ever, we have a chance to free future generations from the threat of HIV. We cannot allow injustice and intolerance to undercut this progress, especially in these tough economic times.

In fact, right here in the United States, PEPFAR laws and policies favor funding of abstinence-only prevention programs, which we know do not work, and lead to the inadequate use of condoms. Throughout Africa, there are stock outs of condoms because of African and US Governments’ ineffective distribution of condoms. In addition, PEPFAR requires government grantees to abide by an anti-prostitution denying protection to sex-workers.

Although the Commission’s acknowledges the role violence against women plays in making the global HIV/AIDS response more effective, and calls on governments to use laws to end it, it falls short of highlighting just how critical this recommendation is.

In her article, “AIDS-Free Generation? Not Without Women,” President of the Center for Health & Gender Equity (CHANGE), Serra Sippel, says that five years ago, the gendered impact HIV/AIDS intensified when we were not paying attention:

…Women overtook men as the majority of people in the world living with HIV. They’ve held on to that majority and started to take over other areas as well: Young women ages 15-24 account for 75 percent of all new infections in sub-Saharan Africa. HIV is the number one killer of women in their childbearing years, and HIV was responsible for 60,000 maternal deaths in 2008. In the last two years, HIV infections have nearly doubled among African American women in Washington, D.C.

Sippel explains that HIV/AIDS is now a “women’s plague,” and unless our response take that into account we will fail in creating an “AIDS-free generation.”

We have a huge opportunity to get back on the right track next week when the XIX International AIDS Conference takes place in Washington, DC. Commissions and organization can continue to release their reports, but as Sippel warns, we cannot respond correctly to HIV/AIDS without addressing the majority who make up the pandemic: women.

Egypt’s Veiled First Lady: Clues To Where Women Fit Into New Egypt?

Everybody wants to know where women fit into the new Egypt. After an electrifying revolution, leading to the end of President Hosni Mubarak‘s three decade long

What’s in a Veil? For Egypt’s New First Lady, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, It Could Be the Future of Feminism. Image Credit: NYTimes

dictatorship, the “women question” awaited the country’s first democratically elected leadership. The world watched as Egyptian women, young and old, Christian and Muslim, fought alongside their brothers, slept next to them in tents in Tahrir, and challenged the military over forced virginity tests, among other issues.

Though political and social factors began pushing women almost immediately out of the public sphere, with less than 2% represented in the new Parliament, women are fighting back. But one particular woman may hold the real clues to the future for Egypt’s daughters.

Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, wife of Egypt’s leader, Mohamed Morsi, wears a traditional Islamic head covering and her wardrobe choice is forcing Egyptians, and the world, to confront the the country’s pending gender reality. Morsi’s wife, who prefers to go by Um Ahmed, is making a greater statement on what the Brotherhood thinks about where women belong than they could ever articulate.

…She is the antithesis of former first lady Suzanne Mubarak, who was half-Welsh, sported pantsuits and a halo of dark hair, and championed dozens of causes. But she [Mubarak] also came to be viewed as a backroom kingmaker, and she has faced accusations of corruption.

A Striking Contrast: Mubarak’s Wife, Suzanne, in the Center, Was Notorious For Making Deals Behind the Scenes of Her Husband’s Dictatorship. Here She Takes in a Fashion Show With her Daughter in Law. Image Credit: Getty Images

This might give the ordinary Egyptian on the street a sense of security, but many wonder if the new First Ladywill give women no choice but to follow what her veil

symbolizes, and make Egyptian women regress from the country’s male-dominated public sphere. After all, dictators in the Middle East are no strangers at strategically using their greatest PR tool, their wives. Usually dressed up in Western designer attire, First Ladies and Queens in this region, like Asma al-Assad of Syria & Rania of Jordan, use Louboutins shoes and Ferragamo suits to project a modern image of their country to the the world.

So do religious conservatives, who commonly apply the burqa as a statement of power, a tool to demonstrate their presence. When the Islamic extremists want to let you know they are in town, there is no better way than covering up and restricting the visibility of women. Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian human rights activist agrees:

The Muslim Brotherhood in fact has a shameful record of marginalizing women in the group, until it needs to abuse them to beautify the group’s image. All through its history, the Muslim Sisters have never been allowed access to the leadership office of the Muslim Brotherhood group. The Muslim Brothers have changed this only in the past year by establishing the Freedom and Justice political party. It hired some women in the supreme committee of the party, but they are the wives, daughters, or relatives of leading brothers. We do not know much about them and they rarely, if ever, appear in public to speak on behalf of their party. Although the Muslim Brotherhood allows women to run for parliamentary elections, they put them at the bottom of the ticket or support them with weak campaigns…This makes the group appear to be respecting women rights; in reality it is doing the opposite.

Egyptian Women, Young & Old, Muslim & Christian, Fought Hard Alongside Men in Egypt’s Electrifying Revolution. Is Their Struggle Lost? Image Credit: Flickr

It appears as though the supposed normalcy of Egypt’s new President and his wife appeal to the Egyptian public. And perhaps the fact that she does not reflect what the West wants as much as what the majority of Egyptian people actually are, is one of this new political power couple’s strongest assets. An Egyptian student states that the new First Lady “looks like my mother, she looks like my husband’s mother…They’re people like us. It is a strange relief to people. The people feel that there’s a change.”

The Way We Were: The Mubaraks Visit the Reagans in Washington. Should Eastern First Ladies Cater to Their Western Counterparts? Image Credit: Flickr
And for now, change is what Egyptians are seeking the most comfort in, however remote, however emblematic.

Cross-Posted from Anushay’s Point.

The Best Place To Be a Woman: A Conversation With Monique Villa

Canada is the best place to be a woman, and India is the worst according to a new poll by Thomson Reuters Foundation. The legal news service launched a global poll of

Monique Villa CEO, Thomson Reuters Foundation. Image Credit: TRF

experts this week ranking countries for women in the G20, putting the US, which “polarised opinion due to issues surrounding reproductive rights and affordable healthcare,” in sixth place.

Access to healthcare and policies that advocate gender equality are amongst the factors that places Canada at the top of the poll, while issues such as child marriage and female infanticide drag India down to the very bottom. Germany, Britain, Australia and France joined Canada in the top five. Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, South Africa and Mexico led by India rounded up nations at the bottom of the list. Released on the heals of the G20 Summit in Mexico on June 18, the survey analyzes how women are faring in G20 countries, the largest economies in the world.

TrustLaw surveyed 370 aid professionals, academics, health workers, policymakers, journalists and development specialists with expertise in gender issues. Respondents came from 63 countries on five continents and included experts from United Nations Women, the International Rescue Committee, Plan International, Amnesty USA and Oxfam International, as well as prominent academic institutions and campaigning organisations.

So what exactly determines where in the world is the best, or the worst, to be a woman? Monique Villa, CEO of the Thompson Reuters Foundation, spoke with me about how one goes finding that out, and why we should care.

Aside from this poll only looking at the worst and best countries for women in G20 countries, how else does it differ from the World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap Report?

The Gender Gap  Index looks at national statistics for gender gaps in the areas of economic, political, education, and health-based criteria. However, many important dimensions are difficult or impossible to get data for, such as discrimination, harassment, gender-based violence and the extra burdens of care giving. This is why we consulted 370 gender experts from all over the world to help us assess the general welfare of women in the G20 based on 7 key criteria – Workplace opportunities, Access to resources, Participation in politics, Quality of health, Freedom from violence, Freedom from trafficking and slavery, and an Overall category. Countries were ranked based on their scores in each category.

 A lot of groups want to get G20 leaders’ attention to their causes especially ahead of the G20 Summit. What is your principal aim by releasing this poll now?

The G20 represents over 80% of the world’s economic growth and 2/3 of the world’s population, wielding incredible power over the global economy. Still, the fact that half of the world’s population, in rich industrialized countries as well as in poor countries, is still held back by gender-based violence, discriminatory laws, harmful cultural practices, unequal pay and access to resources, has routinely been left off the table. The poll focuses attention on the importance of seeing women’s wellbeing as a key economic driver and an issue worthy of the G20’s attention. Don’t you think that India and Saudi Arabia, the countries ranked worst for women by the poll, would achieve a lot more if the potential of women were equal to men?

What would you say has been one of the most shocking findings of this survey?

Perhaps the fact that India was ranked worse than Saudi Arabia. Virtually, every aspect of a women’s life in Saudi Arabia is controlled by men. They cannot drive or enter the Olympics. They’re generally forbidden from leaving home, travelling outside the country, working, studying, marrying, filing a court case or seeking medical care without being accompanied by or receiving the written consent of a male guardian. In India, women, to a great extent, have many of these freedoms and some people may be surprised by the fact it polled worse than Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi Arabia’s wealth means schooling and healthcare for women are of a good quality, while practices like infanticide, child marriage, wife-beating and trafficking are commonplace in India and maternal mortality rates are extremely high.

Canada ranks at the very top while India is ranked at the bottom. What do countries, not only in the G20, but around the world have to learn about what Canada is doing right in terms of women’s empowerment?

To be clear, this poll does not say that everything is perfect in Canada and the specialists we spoke to pointed out a number of problems that exist there. However, it’s a combination of factors that put Canada in a good light in the eyes of the experts. The country places a premium on women’s education, which is evident from university statistics and it has universal health coverage (as in Europe), something its southern neighbour lacks. Like many countries, Canada has adopted national laws and international treaties to protect women’s rights, but it seems they are enforced more effectively than in some of its G20 counterparts while women are free to access reproductive services like contraception and abortion. Canada, though, still has a high gender pay gap and the ratio of women in parliament is lower than South Africa or Germany.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and India rank so low on the list but still remain key players in the international community. What does that reflect about the rights of half the world’s population, women?

We think it’s a pity that the appalling treatment of women in some of the G20 countries won’t be discussed at the G20 summit in Mexico next week.  Countries like Saudi Arabia, China, Russia and India, whose leaders will meet at Los Cabos, have international clout because of their economic potential but women are being left behind. These countries need to realise they can’t develop effectively if they continue to marginalise their female populations. We hear a lot of rhetoric about women’s rights, and many countries have adopted laws and conventions, but the reality on the ground is, unfortunately, very different in many of these countries. It’s time the rhetoric was turned into good law enforcement, education and shifts in chauvinistic attitudes.

In 2010, you founded TrustLaw to “connect lawyers willing to work at no cost with NGOs and social entrepreneurs in need of legal assistance.” A lot of people often think that the answer to remove many barriers between and their rights is to get them legal assistance. How would this work in a country such as Bangladesh where relatively strong laws exist for women, but remain largely inaccessible, unimplemented and meaningless?

In a way, what we do is precisely that. First, we put NGOs and social enterprises in touch with lawyers so that they can utilise the existing law to the greatest extent possible. We also work with them and our law firms to look at laws that are inaccessible, meaningless or even non-existent, and think about ways that such laws or policies can be changed. This often involves looking at best practices around the world to learn from experiences in other countries.

Many young people in the United States today think that the feminist movement is meaningless, and the fight for women’s rights has largely been won. The poll ranks the US at #6, stating that in the US “women have good access to education but suffer disproportionately from a lack of universal healthcare. Reproductive services are being rolled back.” What do you have to say about the “war on women’s health” that is playing out in American politics?

American women born after 1980 or so have grown up enjoying a number of rights, particularly in the workplace and in terms of reproductive health, won through the struggles of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  As a result, the feminist movement is less meaningful in the daily lives of young Americans. However, the US is the only G20 country not to have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.  On the so-called “war on women’s health,” playing out across the US in the form of laws and provisions designed to reduce access to reproductive health services, contraception and abortion, it would appear to be far more political than popular, and is full part of the Republican campaign in the run-up to the November presidential election. Poll after poll indicate most Americans favour preserving women’s reproductive rights and access to health services.

Lastly, why should people pay attention to this poll? Why is it important?

The poll is important because women are important. Any conversation on economic growth and development has to address the welfare of women, not just as a secondary concern, but as a key to economic stability and growth. The poll puts women in the spotlight, propelling debate and encouraging G20 leaders to take gender questions seriously.

Cross posted from Anushay’s Point

1971 Rapes: Bangladesh Cannot Hide History

Worth a Thousand Words: Bina D'Costa Tracked Down the Australian Doctor Who Performed Late-Term Abortions on 1971 Rape Survivors. Image Credit: BDNews

The post- Liberation War generation of Bangladesh know stories from 1971 all too well. Our families are framed and bound by the history of this war. What Bangladeshi family has not been touched by the passion, famine, murders and blood that gave birth to a new nation as it seceded from Pakistan? Bangladesh was one of the only successful nationalist movements post-Partition. Growing up, stories of the Mukti Bahini, (Bengali for “Freedom Fighter”), were the stories that raised us.

My mother told me in 1971, you would send out the men in your family to look in large public parks for the bodies of loved ones who had “disappeared,” picked up by Pakistani soldiers.  Despite the endless killings and torture, she still says, “There was a feeling in the air that you could do anything. Everyone knew Independence was only a matter of time.”

But the one thing we did not hear about as much as we heard about the passionate fighting that defeated the Pakistani Army were the rapes that took place in 1971. Many academics state that the first time rape was consciously applied as a weapon of war was during the Bangladesh War of Independence.

Yet growing up, those are the stories that were missing from the narrative the post-war generation were told. While the role of women as fighters and supporters of the war are highlighted, the stories of rape camps and war babies are largely ignored.

But we all know that as hard as  you try, history cannot be rewritten. The truth exists, and ultimately comes out. In recent years, the shame is slowly lifting from this part of Bangladesh’s Liberation War as more scholars ask questions, and more feminists demand the truth.

Each time I go home to Bangladesh, a relative, usually male, takes me aside and whispers stories to me about the “piles, and piles of bodies of rape victims” you would find under bridges in mass graves. “How many women were raped and killed in the hands of Pakistani soldiers,” my uncle tells me as his voice whimpers. “You cannot imagine, Ma.”

But a Bangladeshi scholar wants us to do just that. In fact, as a country we all owe a great deal to Bina D’Costa who went and tracked down the Australian doctor, Geoffrey Davis, brought to Dhaka by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the United Nations. Davis was tasked with performing late-term abortions, and facilitating large scale international adoption of the war babies born to Bangladeshi women.

D’Costa’s conversation with Dr. Davis was recently published in a Bangladeshi publication, and is worth reading in its entirety. The stories of women being tied to trees and gang raped, breasts hacked off, dumped in mass graves, being held in Pakistani rape camps are all detailed.

When asked if the usual figures of the number of women raped by the Pakistani Army, 200-400,000, are accurate, Dr. Davis states that they are underestimated:

…Probably the numbers are very conservative compared with what they did. The descriptions of how they captured towns were very interesting. They’d keep the infantry back and put artillery ahead and they would shell the hospitals and schools. And that caused absolute chaos in the town. And then the infantry would go in and begin to segregate the women. Apart from little children, all those were sexually matured would be segregated..And then the women would be put in the compound under guard and made available to the troopsSome of the stories they told were appalling. Being raped again and again and again. A lot of them died in those [rape] camps. There was an air of disbelief about the whole thing. Nobody could credit that it really happened! But the evidence clearly showed that it did happen.

Dr. Davis talks about how Sheikh Mujibur Rahman labeled the rape survivors as “war heroines” to help them reintegrate into their communities, but the gesture largely did not work. After being assaulted and impregnated by Pakistani soldiers, the Bangladeshi women were completely ostracized by society. Many were killed by their husbands, committed suicide, or murdered their half-Pakistani babies themselves. Some women were so scared to go back home after being held captive in Pakistani rape camps, they begged their Pakistani captors to take them back to Pakistan with them.

As I was reading through the article, I found myself simultaneously looking up sources online. This video of a NBC reporter who found a shelter where many women impregnated by Pakistani soldiers stayed until they delivered, makes you remember that when we talk about the large-scale violence against women that took place in 1971, often we are talking about young girls, sometimes just 13 years old.

As I struggled through my emotions to keep reading,  I stopped and sat back in my chair. “What am I doing this for?” I asked myself. “What is the point of digging up all this horror?”

That is when I realized that the pain is exactly the point. The shame that the women of Bangladeshi who survived the war carry should be shared with all of us. Why should they suffer in silence? They probably bore the greatest burden of the war, and out of respect we must recognize them. We must find honor in their experience.

Yes, we are a “conservative” country. Yes, we are a Muslim country. Yes, we can use a lot of excuses as to why we want to close our eyes to this painful and horrifying part of 1971. But by doing that we are denying a huge part of our history to exist. As D’Costa says we are intentionally suffering from “historical amnesia.”

After Bosnia, the Rome Statute officially recognized rape as a weapon of war. While these survivors are still alive, Bangladesh must honor their testimonies and have these crimes prosecuted in the War Crimes Tribunal, finally set up in Bangladesh forty years after Independence.

The question that keeps haunting me though is where can the vibrant women’s movement in Bangladesh go if we have a such a massive historical wound to heal from? We must look to the past and bring justice to these women, to all the survivors of the sexual violence of the 1971 war, if we really want to move forward.

Cross-posted from Anushay’s Point.

What Does Seven Billion Mean for Women?

The UN has projected that the world’s population will reach 7 billion today, a scary milestone amidst increasing global political and economic instability. More people will only place increased pressure on our environment, on the world’s habitats, forests, and resources such as water. But how does investing in women’s rights tie into slowing the world’s population growth?

Organizations such as the Guttmacher Institute and Population Action International (PAI) state that the number seven billion reflects the urgent need for people to be able to exercise their right to determine the size and spacing of their families. However, the majority of women and couples, especially in the developing world, are still unable to control their fertility. In fact, experts estimate that there are currently 215 million women around the world who wish to either delay or prevent pregnancy but lack access to contraceptives. Guttmacher states that these women account for more than 80% of all unintended pregnancies in the developing world every year.

What I find fascinating about this relationship is the focus it brings to individual rights, especially women’s rights. What was groundbreaking at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo was the focus it put on women’s rights. This was when population policies stopped being about controlling population and slowing population and started being about empowering women. The idea was that if women had access to education and higher salaried jobs, they would choose to have smaller families, thus lowering the fertility rates. In her post, PAI’s Suzaane Ehlers identifies that we have repeatedly been shown that “if you give women the tools to have control over their lives, the numbers will follow.”

So, if we already know the way forward, why does it seems as though we keep moving backwards when it comes to allowing women control over their reproductive health and rights? Why is it that even though we established a roadmap in Cairo over fifteen years ago, today in Washington attacks on women’s reproductive health, both globally and domestically, persist as cuts to foreign aid keep happening?

Investments in women’s health must be made if we are to sustain our planet. We can still reduce the numbers and slow population growth by addressing the world’s unmet need for contraception, as Guttmacher Institute’s Susan Cohen explains:

…Responding directly to individual people’s needs and desires to determine for themselves whether and when to have a child will contribute significantly toward their ability to lead healthier, more productive lives. In turn, these benefits for individuals and families accrue to their communities and to society at large. Ultimately, the impact would be felt at the global level. Meeting the stated desires of all women around the world to space or limit births would result in the world’s population peaking within the next few decades—and then actually starting to decline.

Reaching seven billion may be a milestone today, but unless we address women being able to access modern contraception, this number will only increase and bring with it dire consequences. At the core of the solution is investing in women- our rights and our health. If women are to truly be empowered, they must be in control of their reproduction. And the whole world will reap the rewards.

A Beating for a Phone: Women Struggle to Access Mobile Technology

A Matter of Life & Death: Access to a Cell Phone Puts Women in Rural Areas in Touch With Lifesaving Prenatal Care, Amongst Many Other Kinds of Services. Image Credit: Flickr

People are always shocked to learn how widespread and easily available mobile technology is in “developing nations” like Bangladesh, Kenya, and Afghanistan. When my husband visited my city of birth, Dhaka, last year he could not believe how many people had cell phones in a country where more than half of the population cannot access clean drinking water.

 

Non-profit organizations are using mobile technology to spread development, allowing rural populations more access to their programs and basic health services. The advantages of having a mobile phone are endless, but how easily are these advantages available to women?

Not without serious difficulties, as a news story by Bloomberg News reports. The title of the story, “Afghan Women Tolerate Beating for Wireless Phones in a $4 Billion New Market,” pretty much says it all, reflecting the barriers women in some countries in South & Central Asia and Africa have in accessing technology that can increase their mobility and give them an income.

“My husband’s family is very traditional,” Maryam, a 24-year-old Afghan woman told Bloomberg News. “They are very much against mobile phones and freedom for women.” So much so that when Maryam’s husband discovered her cell phone, he beat her with a whip.

Men like Maryam’s husband’s should be worried. Information is power. Cell phones can be life changing for women in emerging markets because it allows them access to banking services, to text messages alerting them when the communal water tap is working, and even to instructions on prenatal care. That’s a lot of women’s empowerment – and some men would prefer control stays, well, in their control.

But the world’s biggest telecommunications companies have noticed this huge untapped new market, and have begun to target female customers in the developing world.

Bloomberg states that American and Australian agencies for international development are backing the effort by phone companies such as Vodafone Group Plc (VOD), France Telecom SA (FTE) “with $1 million to fund research into how to find and keep women like Maryam, and to persuade men that handsets aren’t a threat.”

The GSMA’s MWomen program estimates that approximately 38 percent of women have cell phones in their 149 target countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  MWomen has found that women in these countries are 21 percent less likely than their male counterparts to have a handset.

The gap is even larger in South & Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan, India and Nepal, where a woman is 37 percent less likely to be a wireless customer, as Aleeda Fazal, a mobile money specialist, describes:

In the Afghan woman’s mind, mobile phone technology helps her to keep in touch with friends and can help her be entrepreneurial. In the Afghan man’s mind, the technology means he loses control of the woman.

Fazal states that in front of Afghan men, Afghan women would say they weren’t interested in accessing mobile technology. But in their absence they would plead to her, “Please, find a way to help us be a part of this.”

If the world’s largest cell phone companies have their way, soon women all over the world will have access to mobile technology.

US Assistance to Global Health Programs: The Battle Continues

UNFPA, the only UN Agency Dealing With Family Planning, Was Targeted to Lose All Funding. Image Credit: Photo of woman receiving UNFPA family hygiene kit from Flickr user Sardovaya Sri Lanka.

The recent hostile budget process targeted women’s health programs globally as much as it did domestically. International family planning was targeted for a 40% cut and UNFPA funding eliminated in the House majority proposals alongside a total elimination of Title X and Planned Parenthood funding.

The final amount approved for FY 2011 by Congress for IRH/FP was cut to $615 million, just a 5% cut from FY 2010 and included $40 million for UNFPA reduced from $55 in 2010.

But the battle continues. Despite the cuts, this can still be considered a victory considering the strong opposition forces advocating draconian cuts and elimination of all UNFPA funding.

Continue reading “US Assistance to Global Health Programs: The Battle Continues”

Virginity Tests: Time to Let Gender Out of Revolution’s Closet

A Thin Line Between Sex & Politics: Mona Eltahawy Asks What Revolution is Not About Gender? Image Credit: Flickr

There is no doubt that the recent revolution in Egypt got the wheels of the Arab Spring rolling. But just as quickly as women flooded the corners of Tahrir Square and the streets of Cairo in the hopes of a democratic Egypt, their voices were sidelined.

This is not uncommon. Even in conservative countries, we frequently see women come out in full force during political protests with little to no objection from men. And this was not a first for Egyptian women, who were heavily involved in Egypt’s 1919 revolution.

It is after the euphoria fades, after the dictator is placed under house-arrest, when the political blueprint of a country is being determined that women are nowhere to be heard. We repeatedly see this. From Bangladesh’s ’71 War of Independence, to Iran in ’79, to Libya, Syria, and parts of the Middle East today. Where are the women at the decision-making table? Where are the women when it comes to forming new governments?

Women may be a consistent feature of the ongoing electrifying protests in the Middle East, but the one thing that has not changed is how women are forced back into the domestic sphere when the big boys (aka military) with their guns come to town. We are still fighting to play a role in the aftermath of revolution..

This brings us to post-Mubarak Egypt. Rumors of virginity tests being conducted on female protesters while in custody were rampant and were even reported by Amnesty International. These rumors have just been confirmed by a high-ranking Egyptian General who also added:

The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and drugs.

Now, before you gasp in shock and disgust over this statement, consider who it comes from. Noted Egyptian feminist writer Mona Eltahawy points out that we should not be surprised at all that this general, speaking on condition of anonymity, would say something like this.

Eltahawy states that aside from Egypt’s staggering sexual harassment statistics, (80% of women report street sexual harassment; 60% of men admit to doing so), in 2006 Mubarak actually directed his security forces to target female activists and journalists for sexual assaults at demonstrations as a means to “shame them back home.” During a religious festival in 2007, mass sexual assaults against women and girls took place in Cairo while the police watched.

Nobody believed that change would come overnight with the departure of Mubarak’s regime, but men and especially women of all ages still have high hopes for Egypt. They should – like the rest of the region, the time for dictators and their dynasties is over.

Virginity tests are nothing new to Egypt. They are described as something that straddles across class and urban/rural divides. Virginity is associated with honor. These tests become something entirely different when the state is conducting them. State-conducted virginity “tests” are a testament to how Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), who have replaced Mubarak, are using the sexual behavior of women to once again shame women away from political protest and participation.

It may have worked in the past, but in this age of information and more importantly, social media and blogging, virginity tests are becoming a useless tactic. Women in Egypt and beyond will not stand for them anymore. Eltahawy says that it is the virginity tests which will spark Egypt’s next revolution:

There’s a thin line between sex and politics, and it is nonsense to keep repeating the mantra that Egypt’s revolution “wasn’t about gender”. What revolution worth its salt can be fueled by demands of freedom and dignity and not have gender nestled in its beating heart?

Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and so on. No revolution in any nation can be transformational or sustainable until we identify the gender factor, and uproot patriarchy. Fighting for democracy and fighting against patriarchy go hand in hand.

It is time to admit that, and finally let gender out of revolution’s closet.

Starting the Engine: Saudi Women Drive for Their Rights

A Saudi Woman Holds Up a Sign Saying, "Cars Want to be Driven by Saudi Women." Image Credit: Flickr

The spirit of the Arab Spring broke the steel gates of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today as one by one Saudi women started their engines, defying the country’s notorious ban on women driving, the only place  in the world where women are not permitted to drive.

Today’s protest is the culmination of an online campaign that started last month when IT security consultant Manal al-Sharif posted a YouTube video of herself behind the wheel. She was arrested and jailed for ten days. Her detention sparked an international outcry from rights groups, demanding Saudi’s rulers remove the driving ban on women.

Religious edicts by the Kingdom’s senior clerics claim the ban “protects against the spread of vice and temptation.” In reality the restriction forces families to spend a significant amount of their income hiring foreign drivers.

Chairwoman of the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, Farzaneh Milani explains the real fear behind the ban:

The driving ban stems from universal anxiety over women’s unrestrained mobility. In Saudi Arabia that anxiety is acute: the streets-and the right to enter and leave them at will-belong to men…Gender apartheid is not about piety. It is about dominating, excluding and subordinating women. It is about barring them from political activities, preventing their active participation in the public sector… That is why the women defying the ban on motorized mobility are in fact demanding an eventual overhaul of the entire Saudi political system…These women know the value of a car key.

Indeed Saudi women understand that getting behind the wheel of their cars today has to do with gaining their right to vote, travel and work without the written permission of  a male guardian, and move around their country without a male chaperone related to them by blood or marriage. Saudi authorities should rightfully be fearful because women in the Kingdom are just getting started.

“We want women from today to begin exercising their rights,” Wajeha al-Huwaidar, a Saudi women’s rights activist told the Associated Press. “Today on the roads is just the opening in a long campaign. We will not go back. We’ll keep it up until we get a royal decree removing the ban.”

Milani states that although women driving to defy the ban may seem less dramatic than the demonstrators demanding regime change across the Middle East who are “are facing bullets and batons,” the same principles of self-determination motivate both groups. She points out the story of Aisha, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives who commanded an army of men while riding on a camel 14 centuries ago. Milani asks if Muslim women could ride camels then, why shouldn’t they be allowed to drive cars today?

Women across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are wondering the same thing.

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