Saturday, 27 February 2010

ActionAid Launches Two VAW Documents

On Wednesday evening, the London office attended the launch of two new ActionAid reports on violence against women. The reports are "Destined to fail? How violence against women is undoing development," written by Zohra Moosa, and "Her stories: working with women survivors of violence in emergency situations."

The launch included presentations by Christine Butegwa, Regional Coordinator for Africa Programmes at Akina Mama Wa Afrika; Zohra Moosa, Women's Rights Advisor at ActionAid UK; and Charlotte Watts, Director of the Gender, Violence & Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Watts gave a presentation on the links between HIV prevalence and violence against women. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, vastly more women than men aged 15-24 are HIV positive. There are huge numbers of women who have reported that their first sexual encounter was forced.

Butegwa then outlined her experience of campaigning on violence against women in Uganda as well as with the African Feminist Movement, which is trying to develop strategies to address violence against women. Some of the statistics she gave were shocking: for example, in South Africa, a woman is killed by her partner ever 6 hours. A woman is raped every 17 seconds. 2010-2020 has been declared by the African Union African Women's Decade, so hopefully these statistics will no longer be the case in 2020.

Moosa gave a presentation on violence against women and international priorities while introducing the two new ActionAid reports. A short video of women resisting violence in the DRC was then showed, followed by a panel discussion by the presenters, which was chaired by Habdeel Ibrahim, Executive Director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. The issue of involving men came up in the discussion, with Butegwa commenting that the patriarchal system makes the involvement of men complicated, but that men should be seen as partners. Patriarchy is a system, but individual men are very different from each other. Watts warned that we don't want to get into a men vs women debate; she said it is great if men are questioning patriarchy, but that this is a sensitive issue because there are scarce resources and therefore worries that men's organisations will attract funding away from women's. This is an issue that the WRC is aware of; the WRC doesn't receive mainstream funding and while we sometimes receive an abnormal amount of attention from journalists because we are uniquely aimed specifically at men, we make sure that we direct journalists towards relevant women's organisations as well. On a positive note, a woman working for Women for Women International spoke up, stating that they have a programme working with men and that 75% change their views by the end of the programme.

Each person in attendance received the two reports being launched. "Her storiesis a fascinating collection of first-person accounts from women living in war-torn areas of Africa. "Destined to fail?" examines an issue that effects one in three women globally - violence. The report examines violence in relation to education, maternal and child health, HIV and AIDS, conflict, and governance. The report gives recommendations for the UK government, the most interesting of which perhaps is to "appoint a Minister on violence against women and girls whose brief covers the Department for International Development (DFID), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD)." This would be analogous to the post held by Melanne Verveer, the first American Ambassador at Large for Global Women's Issues.

Friday, 26 February 2010

The White Ribbon Campaign UK Contributes to the New UK Feminista

This past Wednesday afternoon, the London office of the White Ribbon Campaign UK attended a consultation meeting at the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre for the newly formed UK Feminista. UK Feminista was formed by co-directors Kat Banyard and Anna van Heesvijk. In their own words:
UK Feminista is a unique and innovative organisation being launched in March 2010. UK Feminista aims to build a national movement of feminist activists and mobilise them to effect real and lasting change in gender relations. Activists will be mobilised primarily through campaigns coordinated by other women's rights organisations in the UK. The ultimate vision of the organisation is that women in the UK live free from sexism and enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Gender inequality remains endemic in the UK: 100,000 women are raped every year, less than 20% of MPs are women, and women are paid on average 22.6% less than men. While recent years have witnessed a resurgence in grassroots activism aimed at ending gender inequality in the UK, it remains under-resourced and largely invisible in mainstream public life and, as a result, is limited in its effectiveness.
Yet grassroots feminist activism (campaign action taken by ordinary citizens) is critical to building public support for legislative change, addressing local community-based issues, and engaging all sections of society in the process of change necessary to achieve gender equality. UK Feminista seeks to fill this important gap and in doing so bring vital "people power" to women's rights campaigning.
This will be like a Facebook for women's rights organisations in the UK, connecting individual activists across the UK who want to get involved in a campaign or host their own event. The White Ribbon Campaign fully supports UK Feminista and will have a profile page on the website (coming soon!).

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Being Lesbian in Uganda: and the Threat of Anti-Homosexuality Legislation

Today for International Tuesday we're highlighting the violence that lesbian women face simply because they are lesbian women. Currently, homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, but there is a bill before the Ugandan parliament that increases the severity of punishment to include the death penalty. This legislation obviously also affects gay men, but as we are an anti-violence against women organisation, we will be focusing on the affected women. The article below, an interview with Ugandan lesbian activist Kasha Jacqueline, expands on the content and potential repercussions of the bill as well as the situation facing lesbians in Uganda today, such as the use of rape to "cure" lesbian women.

Ugandan lesbian activist Kasha Jacqueline speaks about being lesbian in Uganda, and discusses the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill currently before the country’s parliament. Kasha is the Coordinator of Freedom and Roam Uganda.

By Kathambi Kinoti

AWID: Please tell us about Freedom and Roam Uganda and how it was started.

KASHA JACQUELINE: Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG) is the only exclusively lesbian, bisexual and transgender organization in Uganda. It was started by three lesbian-identified women on July 4, 2003 in a bar which at the time the media frequently called a lesbian bar. Many lesbian women who heard the news started coming to the bar to hang out and make new friends. Earlier, in April 2003 we had been approached by a group of men who claimed to have a lesbian organization by the name Makerere University Students Lesbians Association. When we asked them where the lesbians were and why it was led by men, they said that the women were “shy.” Later we did some research and learnt that these men were not university students nor did any such organization exist.

AWID: Why do you think they would do this?

KJ: Simply because they wanted to use women for their own agendas. Otherwise why would a group of men claim to be a lesbian organization?

After this incident we decided to take up the idea of forming our own lesbian organization. We then brainstormed about what to call ourselves and what the organization would look like. It wasn’t easy because when we introduced it to other lesbians they had mixed feelings. Some wanted it to just be a social club but some of us wanted it to have a political component. At this time, many people had come to know about us and the bar in which we met and would wait for us outside in order to harass us as we left. We argued that it didn’t make sense for us to meet everyday, drink, smoke, and talk about women and sex, and then leave the bar only to get harassed on our way home. This issue introduced some friction into the newly formed organization and some people left including one founder member who had wanted it to be strictly a social club.

The rest of us who still wanted to be part of the group decided that those who wanted to participate in it only to the extent of socializing would have space to do so, and those who wanted to use it as a forum for their political activism could go ahead so long as they wouldn’t expose the names or identities of those who didn’t want didn’t want these revealed to the outside world. And since then FARUG has never looked back.

AWID: What is the situation like for lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Uganda today, even without the obnoxious Bill that is currently before parliament?

KJ: Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda. For many people and institutions, it is a no- go area. Many of us have been expelled from schools just for writing love letters to our same-sex lovers, something our heterosexual colleagues are not expelled for. My principal at university even made me sign a memorandum of understanding that I would not go anywhere within a radius of 100 metres of the girls' hostels because I am a lesbian! So many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons have been expelled, sacked from jobs and sent away from families. Many do not receive appropriate and necessary healthcare services for fear of revealing their sexual orientation, identity or preferences. Transgender individuals and lesbians have been subjected to ‘curative’ rape and the perpetrators in most of the cases recorded come from the victims’ immediate families.

LGBTI persons if identified are harassed on the streets, in public recreation centres and churches. Many have been evicted from their houses by landlords. I was once thrown out of a public taxi[i]because a woman who identified me as a lesbian said she would rather pay for the empty space beside her than have me sit in the same vehicle as her. When I got out of the taxi she continued to shout and draw attention to me. Somebodaboda[ii] riders stationed nearby heard her and one of them whom I didn’t identify hit me on the head with a hard, sharp object. So it is really not a safe environment for LGBTI persons, especially those of us who are out and are actively doing advocacy work to end the criminalization.

AWID: Of grave concern is the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009 currently pending before Parliament. What the Bill is about, and what are its implications for LGBTI individuals? 

KJ: Currently, section 140 of the Ugandan Penal Code criminalizes ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Section 141 punishes ‘attempts’ at carnal knowledge with a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment. Section 143 punishes acts of ‘gross indecency’ with up to five years in prison. While the Penal Code does not specifically refer to same-sex practices between women, lesbians face the same hostility from both state and non-state actors.

The 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill expands the range of same-sex relations that would be criminalized regardless of whether or not the parties are consenting adults. It introduces an offence known as “aggravated homosexuality” for which the penalty is death. People living with HIV and AIDS who engage in same-sex relations are one of the categories of people who would be affected by this offence. Anyone who 'aids' or 'abets' homosexuality will also face criminal penalties.

Generally this Bill is just an additional proposed piece legislation to further criminalize and abuse the rights of LGBTI persons. There is currently a lot of public incitement from high profile persons like religious leaders, Ministers, Members of Parliament and so on. This has further victimized LGBTI persons: The people in power and the State that is supposed to protect us are instead calling for harsher laws against us. It is very scary not to know what the future holds for you especially when it includes facing death. Many of us are now underground for fear of abuse by State and non-state actors since lots of allegations and lies are being fuelled in the public. Many people who didn’t even have a problem with us before are now being influenced and by the anti-gay crusaders who are saying all sorts of things about us. There are allegations that members of the LGBTI community recruit children, break up families and spread HIV/AIDS through sodomy. Some cannot even go to church because every sermon is about how sick we are and what sinners we are. There is a lot of talk about how we have dirty sex from eating our faeces to urinating in our mouths. This has made the public so angry that they are ready to strike at homosexuals. Many of us are now back in the closet. I am forced to work from home now for fear of being beaten on the streets since I make frequent television appearances.

The tension and mistrust within the LGBTI community is high and there are some reports of LGBTI individuals blackmailing others. During social events one is never sure that there aren’t spies present and many LGBTI persons are now confined to their own homes. Some of our own activists are making claims that we are indeed recruiters.

AWID: Media reports imply that the Bill's proposer, [Member of Parliament] David Bahati has the financial backing of powerful right-wing evangelicals in the United States, but President Yoweri Museveni seems to have given an indication that the Bill might not succeed in its present form. How likely is it that the Bill will succeed?

KJ: We have to remember that the Bill is a Private Member’s Bill and so the President can only wait for what comes out of Parliament before deciding whether he signs it into law or not. For now, Parliament is an independent organ which cannot be directly influenced by the President, although, just like any other Ugandan, he can comment on it. My concern is that when the Bill first came into Parliament, Museveni was very clear that homosexuality is “immoral and abnormal.” Now that perhaps he has been “enlightened” that he would be violating his citizens’ human rights, he has softened his position because he knows that the donor countries that fund the Government respect human rights and that they wouldn’t spend their citizens’ taxes giving aid to a country that doesn’t respect its citizens’ human rights.

The Bill should either be withdrawn or debated as it is without any amendments to “soften” it. The public has not been sufficiently educated on its provisions and I believe if they were, they would see that it doesn’t just affect LGBTI individuals but has serious implications for everyone in Uganda.

AWID: You say that the Bill has implications for everyone in the country. What would criminalizing homosexual relations mean for anti HIV/AIDS campaigns in particular?

KJ: The Bill is going to throw away all the years of work that Uganda has put into fighting HIV/AIDS. I wonder whether the MP who introduced this Bill or some of the other leaders who support it really want Uganda to win the fight against HIV/AIDS. So many HIV positive LGBTI individuals were in the closet even before the Bill. How many more will remain in the closet, and how many who were already out will be forced to go back? Government campaigns against the disease have not been comprehensive enough to reach LGBTI individuals. Many men who have sex with men (MSM) and women who have sex with women (WSW), live double lives and this fuels the spread of HIV. Many interventions against HIV/AIDS ignore WSW assuming that they are at a low risk of contracting the virus. Yet many of them also have sex with men and do not always have the power to negotiate for safe sex. They do not have adequate information about how some practices such as sharing sex toys or needles can expose them to the risk of contracting HIV.

LGBTI organizations in Uganda have been doing great work to inform and educate the LGBTI community about the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. If the Bill passes, we will have to stop this work. Driving this community further underground is going to negate all the gains that we have achieved.

AWID: What have you, and other LGBTI activists been doing to oppose the passage of the Bill?

KJ: We have partnered with human rights, women’s rights, feminist, donor and health organizations to spread awareness about the adverse effects and implications of the Bill. We have also lobbied our allies and partners nationally, regionally and internationally to strongly throw their weight behind the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law which was formed to oppose the Bill. This partnership has opened up valuable spaces for public hearings and debates including in the media. Without these partnerships it would have been difficult to access any spaces at all. We are documenting every abuse and violation to help us in future work should the Bill pass into Law.

AWID: How can human rights advocates around the world assist you in opposing the proposed law and promoting the upholding of LGBTI rights in Uganda?

KJ: Our allies need to keep up the pressure on the Ugandan Government by signing petitions, speaking out openly and urging their governments not to waste their taxes on funding our Government since it regards LGBTI persons as secondary citizens.

The anti-gay crusaders are trying to force LGBTI persons out of our country and they know that many are scared. Uganda is where I was born and neither any person - including the President - nor any piece of paper has the power to force me out.


[i] Communal taxis are commonly used as public transport in Uganda and other parts of Africa.

[ii] A bodaboda is a motorcycle taxi.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Vagina Monologues with Save the Congo

This past Friday, February 19, we attended the Vagina Monologues at Amnesty International's Human Rights Action Centre, organised by Save the Congo in partnership with V-Day. An excerpt from the press release/invitation we received states:
"Eve Ensler’s powerful work was created through interviews with women from around the world and the monologues themselves reflect the range of issues faced by women the world over. We’re very proud that this performance marks the first time an all-black cast has been used for the play in the UK."
The performance was amazing - all five performers were funny and moving throughout. At the end,  founder of Save the Congo, Vava Tempa, gave an emotional speech about the situation of women and girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Currently, in the DRC, it is more dangerous to be female than to be in the militia. The occurrences of sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls are brutal; the number of assaults, staggering and unmeasurable. The death toll from the conflict in the DRC is currently 5-6 million, the most deadly conflict since WWII. Shouldn't we be doing something about it?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Rwanda: Empowering Genocide Widows

It's International Tuesday and today we have an article from Rwanda about the NGO Avega Agahozo, which helps women who were sexually assaulted during the genocide. I was in Rwanda in July 2009, conducting research on the human rights situation of children conceived through rape during the genocide. This research included a meeting with Jeanne Mukamusoni of Avega Agahozo, who is also writing about these children and the difficulties that they and their mothers face. Although it is not mentioned in this article, Jeanne told me that there is group counselling for women who have children as a result of rape.
RWANDA: Empowering genocide widows

KIGALI, 11 February 2010 (IRIN) - Sixteen years after the Rwandan genocide, many women are struggling to come to terms with the violence they endured.

According to the association of genocide widows NGO, Avega Agahozo, sexual violence was used to humiliate, degrade and abuse women during the 6 April to 16 July 1994 killings. In many cases, the violence was meted out before, during or after the women had witnessed the killing of a relative.

“Some of the women are only coming out now because they are sick,” said Sabine Uwase, the head of advocacy, justice and information for Avega. "We also receive special cases suffering from cancer or with damaged sexual organs.”

Avega has turned into a refuge for some of these women. Founded in 1995 by 58 widows, it now has three branches and 25,000 members. More than 47,400 women are receiving medical treatment through its programmes.

Each day, 20 to 30 women come knocking on its doors. Asked why it took some of the women so long to seek help, Uwase said: “Many of the women were ashamed to come out. We had to counsel them first. Many of them were victims of rape and are traumatized.”

One study carried out by the organization in Rwanda’s 12 provinces found that in a sample of 1,125 widows, about 80 percent showed signs of trauma and 67 percent had HIV. The study was limited by inadequate resources.

Legal aid

Apart from healthcare, Avega provided legal services for widows who wished to testify against those accused of genocide in the traditional gacaca courts.

The 12,103 courts, which were started in 2001 and modelled on Rwanda’s traditional justice mechanisms, are being wound up after handling more than a million cases. At least 800,000 perpetrators have been convicted nationwide.

However, human rights organizations have criticized the gacaca courts, saying they did not provide adequate legal services to suspects, were plagued by unfairness and have been used to settle scores.

Government officials strongly deny the criticism, saying 94 percent of Rwandans believe in the courts. The process, they argue, has promoted reconciliation and reunited communities.

“Previously, the widows were unwilling to testify,” Uwase told IRIN on 8 February. “We have trained 419 trainers of trainers who go back to the villages to teach others how to testify. In Kigali, we have helped testimony in 150 cases. Now, we are also teaching the widows and orphans about land law.”

Avega also built 919 houses for widows and orphans between 2007 and 2008, and tackles gender-based violence. Over the years, it has encouraged the women to engage in income-generating activities, such as basket-weaving. The baskets are sold internationally and help to supplement the US$60 monthly government grant provided by the Assistance Fund for Genocide Survivors.

Genocide widows form a significant percentage of survivors because the genocidaires targeted mainly men and boys. Data compiled by the genocide survivors fund shows that between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped during the 100 days of violence in which 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus died.


While some women were gang-raped, others were violated with sharpened objects, resulting in extensive damage to their reproductive systems.

Up to 20,000 children were born from rape. Across the country, there are 10 times more widows than widowers among the 300,000-400,000 survivors.

Some 100,000 survivors are categorized as vulnerable, including 40,000 who lack shelter. There are also 75,000 orphans.

According to Avega, the widows and orphans who survived the genocide bear the burden of the atrocities committed. Having witnessed or suffered extreme violence, many of them have a very negative attitude towards life.

“Many of the women still find it difficult to talk about their experiences,” a Kigali-based journalist said. “They are haunted by [the genocide].”

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

International Women's Day is Fast Approaching!

International Women's Day is less than a month away. We thought we'd begin our celebrations of this day early by highlighting Action Aid's campaign "Put Your Foot Down!" where you can sign a petition to get the UK government to take action regarding violence against women and AIDS. 

Make sure to also check out the shoe gallery, which contains information about violence against women and AIDS. And even though it's not International Tuesday, read this amazing tale of one Ethiopian woman standing up for her rights.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Kenya: Documenting Sexual Violence

Today for International Tuesday we have an article from Kenya on the sexual violence that occurred during the post-2007 election conflict.

Documenting Sexual Violence
Susan Anyangu-Amu

NAIROBI, Jan 28 (IPS) - The testimonies of women who survived sexual violence during post-election conflict in 2008 should be heard, say advocates. The magnitude of the crimes committed against women because of their gender must be recorded and prosecuted to prevent such violence from occurring again.

"We have realised there is no political intention to ensure the perpetrators of gender-based and sexual violence are brought to book, says Patricia Nyaundi, executive director of the Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya (FIDA). 

In presenting its findings, the Waki Commission of Inquiry into the Post-Election Violence described rapes committed against women, children and some men; carried out by gangs of thugs, by neighbours and by the security forces. The Commission states that the evidence it collected represented a tiny fraction of the full extent of gender-based violence - just 31 women came forward with testimony of this nature. 

Tip of the iceberg 

Suffering in silence

Her large dark eyes hold your gaze stare every time you look into her face. 

Jasmine Muyobe* (not her real name) recounts the tale of one night after the announcement of the disputed presidential poll results in Kenya in 2007. The single mother of four children spend the day terrified, behind closed doors in her house flinching at the gunshots that filled the air. 

"It was two days after the announcement of the presidential results and the violence was raging. I live near a slum and soon the chaos moved from the informal settlement into the suburbs. That evening someone knocked hard at my gate calling out my neighbour's name. I went to talk to the person and when he said he wanted to see my neighbour who was not around, I decided to open the gate," Muyobe says. 

But the stranger pushed the young mother back into her house and proceeded to rape her repeatedly all night long. 

"My children were asleep. They had no idea what was going on. Early the next morning, he left without a word as if nothing had happened. 

"From that day my life changed… I chose not to talk to anyone about the rape. A month later, in February 2007, I discovered I was pregnant and infected with HIV," Muyobe says.

Almost two years after that fateful evening, Muyobe told her story to a group of journalists and representatives of human rights organisations documenting testimonies of women who survived sexual violence during the post-election violence. It is hoped this documentation will be part of healing for survivors, as well as creating a vivid and accurate record of gender-based crimes committed both for prosecution and for the historical memory of the country.

A single facility, the Gender Violence Recovery Center at the Nairobi Women's Hospital, reported attending to over 650 cases of sexual violence during the chaos. Anecdotal evidence suggests thousands of other women across the country survived similar violence. 

FIDA is one of a group of organisations working to document gender-based and sexual violence in the aftermath of 2007 general elections as well as during other conflicts that have rocked Kenya, such as the Mount Elgon conflict where armed militia for months terrorised residents over land disputes.  

"By documenting these testimonies, we are taking this opportunity to give women who underwent horrific ordeals a chance to tell their stories, to create historical evidence that this actually happened. 

"This kind of evidence will force this country to move from denial and accept what happened during that period," says Nyaundi. 

Amplifies distrubing trend 

"Violence against women has been systematic and entrenched in our society, but the post-election period saw an unprecedented number of women subjected to widespread sexual violence," says Rosemary Okello. 

"Many women were sexually assaulted, gang raped or sodomised. Many of these acts of sexual violence occurred in the presence of the women's spouses, children or parents causing trauma, humiliation and stress suffered by the survivors and their families." 

Okello is executive director of another partner in the documentary project, the African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWCFS), which promotes diversity, gender equity, social justice and development in Africa through media, training and research. Also participating are the NGOs Centre for Rights Education and Awareness and Women Fighting Against AIDS in Kenya. 

The documentation project is supported by the Urgent Action Fund (UAF-Africa), which has wide experience working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Northern and North Eastern Uganda, Liberia and Zimbabwe, providing rapid response grants to women and human rights organisations. 

"Women survivors become guiltier than the perpetrators of the violence," says UAF executive director Jessica Nkuuhe. 

"The women fear to share what they have been through because they are afraid of stigma and being deserted by their families, especially their spouses. They thus shut down and unfortunately this ordeal eats at their very existence, giving rise to depression and eventually some lose the will to live and die miserable." 

Testimony part of healing 

Nkuuhe says the documentary project is an off-shoot of similar endeavours in northern and northeastern Uganda, Liberia and Zimbabwe through which survivors of sexual and gender-based violence have been able to share their experiences with each other. 

"We brought together survivors of sexual violence to a conference. Before that most of these women had kept their experiences silent. When they met other women who had been through similar horrific ordeals, they were able to open up and share. Sharing their stories provides an avenue for the survivors to seek help to heal after such a traumatising ordeal," Nkuuhe says. 

Kenyan member of parliament Millie Odhiambo says unless women speak out, sexual offences committed in times of conflict will go unpunished. 

As Kenya takes account of what happened in 2008 and prosecutes perpetrators, the gender-based violence dimension must be brought into focus. 

"As a country, we were not prepared for the level of gender-based and sexual violence that was witnessed. By documenting this, it shall provide a basis for our government to develop policies on preparedness to handle such scenarios. The evidence will also act as shock therapy for Kenya and we shall never forget what happened to these survivors," Odhiambo says. 


Judy Waguma of AWCFS says despite the existence of legislation such as the Sexual Offences Act, there has been minimal prosecution of sexual offences during the post-election chaos. 

"During situations of crisis - as evidenced by the post-election violence - the government response to sexual violence is very limited, and it is usually the civil society organisations that have to step in to design and implement responses. Therefore there is a marked lack of access to justice for survivors of sexual violence." 

Odhiambo says the project to document testimonies comes at an opportune time, ahead of the entry of International Criminal Court investigators who will carry out a fact-finding mission Kenya's post-election violence, after the government failed to act on findings and recommendations of the Waki Commission. 

ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo will be gathering evidence for prosecutions of those "most responsible" for the violence. The documentation project should be an important part of making sure responsibility for gender-based crimes is not neglected. 

An Update on the London Office's Work

We've been less busy here at the London Office than we were in November for White Ribbon Day, but things are still going well. Our intern has begun work on a new White Ribbon Towns strategy and we're also producing White Ribbon documents that provide information and state our policies on various forms of violence against women. Look for more information on this "What the WRC says about..." series soon!

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

International Tuesday: FGM in Mauritania

Today we bring you another article regarding FGM, this one from Mauritania. It was written on January 21, 2010.
Mauritanian Muslim imams initiate rare ban on female circumcision
Written by: George Fominyen
DAKAR (AlertNet) - Human rights campaigners who have been struggling for years to eliminate female genital mutilation (FGM) in West Africa got a boost this week as news emerged that a group of Muslim clerics and scholars in Mauritania had declared a fatwa, or religious decree, against the practice.

The centuries-old practice involves removing part or all of a girl's clitoris and labia, and sometimes narrowing the vaginal opening. About 72 percent of the women in Mauritania have undergone FGM which health workers say often causes severe bleeding, problems urinating and potential complications during childbirth.

"Are there texts in the Koran that clearly require that thing? They do not exist," the secretary general of the Forum of Islamic Thought in Mauritania, Cheikh Ould Zein, told Reuters.

"On the contrary, Islam is clearly against any action that has negative effects on health. Now that doctors in Mauritania unanimously say that this practice threatens health, it is therefore clear that Islam is against it," he added.

In many parts of West Africa, FGM has been presented as a religious obligation for practising Muslim women, leading most to believe that if they are not circumcised they are unclean and their prayers will not be heard.

Which makes the decision by 34 imams and scholars -- supported by the government of Mauritania and UNICEF, the United Nations' children's agency -- all the more unusual.

"The fact that the religious leaders in Mauritania are standing up and doing this is quite amazing. It shows how concerned Islam and the religion of Islam is about the health of women," said Molly Melching, executive director of Tostan, a Senegal-based organisation that has been working with 30 communities in Mauritania on FGM and rights issues.


UNICEF estimates that 3 million girls and women are cut each year across communities in 28 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle-East.

So, what is the likelihood of seeing similar bans on female circumcision in other countries?

Well, it's hard to say.

A fatwa in itself is generally binding only to those who follow a particular imam, so communities could be subject to contradictory decrees.

Moreover, not all the communities in the other countries of sub-Saharan Africa where the practice continues are Muslim -- reflecting the fact that, as a longstanding cultural practice, FGM may be hard to end especially when campaigners use judgmental approaches.

"In the past, people have gone into communities and simply told them to stop this practice because it is bad and they display pictures of naked women and their reproductive organs in communities where this is shocking," Melching said.

Many organisations including Tostan and Save the Children believe this approach failed to stop the practice because it ignored the cultural context in which the targeted communities were living.

"I once asked a community: 'do you have the right to cut somebody's hand?' They said no. 'Do you have the right to cut somebody's head or foot?' They said no. So why do you cut somebody's sexual organ?" said Ame Atsu David, a former regional programme coordinator for HIV and harmful traditional practices of Save the Children (Sweden) in West Africa.

"This got them thinking," she told AlertNet.

Many campaigners back an approach which involves human rights, education, community development, health care and leaves the decision to the communities themselves.

A Save the Children-backed campaign run by the Mali Centre Djoliba based on this approach has seen 40 villages abandon female circumcision and set up community groups to oversee the implementation of the decision in a country where over 80 percent of the women have experienced FGM.

In Senegal, 4,121 villages have abandoned FGM since 1997 with the support of Tostan whose work has been praised by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and has also contributed to a law against FGM which was passed in the country in 1999.

"But a law is not what will change a social norm. For it to be sustainable it has to come from the people, a decision made by the people, because they really believe in it," Melching said.

"The key is empowering people to make their own decisions but with good information," she told AlertNet.