Malala’s Appeal and GJC Support of Education

A recent United Nations report asserted that as many as 70 nations allowed girls to be abused for seeking an education and that attacks upon educated girls are facing an alarming upsurge, with more than 3,600 separate events reported in a single year. In 2012, this particular strain of gender-based violence made its way into the mainstream news and the campaign for girls’ education was given a face and voice in the form of Malala Yousafzai.

Malala championed education rights for girls from a very young age and before she was even a teenager, she wrote a blog for the BBC, detailing her experience with the Taliban. From 2009 through 2012, she rose to prominence as an advocate for women and children, giving interviews and promoting education. In late 2012, she was shot by a gunman on her school bus. The assassination attempt was unsuccessful and sparked global outrage but the Taliban reiterated their threat to execute her and her father. Since the attack, Malala has continued her commitment to education for women and children, for which she won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

Three days ago, on the 300 day anniversary of the abduction of 300 Nigerian girls, who remain in the custody of Boko Haram, Malala issued a call to action, saying, “I call on people everywhere to join me in demanding urgent action to free these heroic girls…These young women risked everything to get an education that most of us take for granted. I will not forget my sisters. We cannot forget them. We must demand their freedom until they are reunited with the families and back in school, getting the education they so desperately desire.”

If the kidnapped school girls are rescued, the largest impediment to their continued education is pregnancy. If these school girls become pregnant during their captivity, they will be forced to bear the child of their rapist due to a little known US policy called the Helms Amendment that puts an abortion ban on all US foreign aid. Many NGOs in conflict zones, as a result of this legislation, choose to follow the American requirement so that they can continue receiving American money.

Founder of GJC, Janet Benshoof, argued on behalf of the kidnapped girls in her appeal to President Obama on Human Rights Day. Benshoof urged the president to sign an executive order allowing for abortions in conflict zones, where mass, genocidal rapes have taken place. Abortions might forestall the inevitable deterioration of the women’s health, whether it be from pregnancy at to young an age, ostracization, or depression and eventual suicide. GJC supports the mission of the UN and Malala Yousafzai in espousing universal education, but before education can be made available, women and children must be safe in their bodies, and afforded the necessary medical care they deserve.

“A Devastating Year for Children”

This year has been one of the worst years for children, according to the United Nations. “As many as 15 million children are caught up in violent conflicts in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, the State of Palestine, Syria and Ukraine,” said the Unicef’s report. “Globally, an estimated 230 million children currently live in countries and areas affected by armed conflicts.

“This has been a devastating year for millions of children,” said Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director. “Children have been killed while studying in the classroom and while sleeping in their beds; they have been orphaned, kidnapped, tortured, recruited, raped and even sold as slaves. Never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality.”

© UNICEF

In the Central African Republic, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, South Sudan, Nigeria millions of children are affected by ongoing conflicts. Young girls are being kidnapped, tortured, forcibly impregnated, forced marriages, withheld from education, raped and turned into sex slaves. Half the victims of rape in conflict zones are children.

The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict that took place in London this June recognized that rape and sexual violence in conflict often has a much bigger impact than the fighting itself, and that one should not underestimate the depth of damage done to individual rape victims. “Sexual violence in conflict zones includes extreme physical violence, the use of sticks, bats, bottles, the cutting of genitals, and the sexual torture of victims who are left with horrific injuries. Many die as a result of these attacks. But survivors can also face a catastrophic rejection by their families and may be cast out from their communities”.

Compounding the suffering is a US foreign policy that denies safe abortion services to girls raped in armed conflict. GJC’s August 12th Campaign challenges this routine denial of full medical rights to war rape victims as a violation of the right to non- discriminatory medical care under the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols.

Young girls who become victims of rape used as weapon of war are forced to bear the child of their rapist. This also is an “unspeakable brutality”.

Combatting Violence against Women in War is not just a Women’s Rights issue; it’s a Global Peace & Security issue

In the past several weeks, the world has witnessed the deliberate targeting of women and girls as a political and military tactic by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists. In Iraq and Syria, thousands women and girls, particularly from ethnic and religious minorities, have been kidnapped by ISIS terrorists. They are being brutally raped, used for sexual slavery, forced marriage and forced pregnancy. In other words, sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war.

In Iraq, Yazidi women and girls are a primary target for ISIS, falling prey to horrific acts of sexual violence and brutality as ISIS advanced through northern Iraq. Few managed to escape from their abductors. Adeba Shaker and Somaa are two such exceptions. Somaa was kidnapped, held hostage for almost a month, and together with her friend were sold to two old sheiks who ill-treated them. Abeda Shaker together with about seventy other women and children were abducted when militants took over their village. They were taken to an unknown destination where they joined around 1000 other Yazidi women hostages. Shaker was supposed to convert to Islam and to be forced into marriage. Fortunately, she and her companion were brave enough to try their luck and run away.

Nevertheless, these cases are rare exceptions. Many others kidnapped and held hostages are destined to suffer from ISIS brutality with no hope for rescue. What is worse, this is not a unique case. Kidnapping is a tactic of war conducted by militants, terrorists and soldiers in different conflict regions of the world.

As Nigeria’s Islamic extremist group – Boko Haram – has seized more towns along Nigeria’s northeastern border with Cameroon, more and more women and children are in danger. Last year, a group of women and girls was abducted and later rescued from Boko Haram. Some of them were pregnant. Others had been forcibly converted to Islam and married off to their kidnappers. The goal of Boko Haram is to impose their version of Sharia law across Nigeria, and they especially oppose the education of women. In April, Boko Haram kidnapped more than 300 girls from a boarding school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. Some of them seized the rare opportunity to escape when they were left alone in the camp and returned to their razed villages. However, more than 200 of them remain captive. This is yet another tragic example of young girls and women being violated to achieve military and political objectives. Yet the world continues to do extraordinarily little to recover those lost.

The Taliban also actively seeks to stop women and girls from attending school in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Malala Yousafzai, a women’s rights activist who campaigned against the efforts of the Taliban to violently stop girls attending school, was infamously attacked in 2012 while traveling home on a school bus. She was shot in the head, but luckily survived. Just last week, ten militants were taken into custody in connection with the attempted murder. This summer, Malala visited Nigeria and appealed to Boko Haram militants in Nigeria to lay down their weapons and free the kidnapped girls. Malala is a powerful example of women activists fighting back against violent extremism, and not just in their countries, but globally.

Combating sexual violence against women and promoting women’s rights is truly a global peace and security issue. The international community must treat it as such and act robustly to stop the rampant spread of violence against women in conflict zones around the world.

How the US is Blocking Access to Safe Abortion Services for Women and Girls Impregnated by Rape in Syria

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Syrian government forces and government-controlled militia (Shabiha) have reigned terror over the civilian population. Alma, a victim of this violence, describes being held in a cell where she would kick and scream alongside 20 other women while they were drugged, blindfolded, and gang-raped.

In the worst embodiment of this campaign, rape is used as a weapon of war against Syrian women and girls. Alma continues, “I’ve been through everything! I’ve been battered, flogged with steel cables, had cigarettes in the neck, razor blades all over my body, electricity to my vagina. I’ve been raped while blindfolded everyday by several men who stank of alcohol and obeyed their superior’s orders, who was always there. They shouted: ‘You wanted freedom? Well here it is!’” A different victim illustrates the scene at a Syrian detention center in which a doctor visited each woman’s cell to note the dates of her period and to hand out birth control pills: “[w]e lived in filth, in blood, in [feces], with no water and barely any food. But we had such an obsessive fear of becoming pregnant that we took these pills scrupulously.” Still other victims of these crimes against humanity described situations in which their “bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers.”

Download PDF

The Opinion Pages: "Rape as a Weapon in Syria"

Check out a letter to the Editor by Akila Radhakrishnan, Vice-President and Legal Director of GJC, in which she critiques the "3 Years Strife and Cruelty Put Syria in Free Fall" article that neglects to mention the use of rape as a weapon of war against women and girls.

Download here

Justice in Syria

All the talk this week will be whether the United States will launch air strikes on Syria, in the wake of the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in the country’s ongoing civil war. During yesterday’s Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry made the case that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has committed egregious human rights violations, including the violation of one of the most important norms of international law: the ban of using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against civilians. President Obama emphasized that potential US strikes is about protecting this fundamental international norm, which is threatened by the Syrian government’s alleged gassing of its own people. Yet, Syria has long been in a state of unrest – and the Global Justice Center takes a look a few other areas in which Syria is violating international law, particularly when it comes to equal protection and rights for women.

Impunity

As has been evident throughout the conflict in Syria, neither the government nor the rebel faction shave been held accountable for their crimes – even when these crimes do not respect international law. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted that government abuses were largest in scale. In its 2013 Annual Report on Syria, Amnesty International wrote that “the government took no steps to investigate the numerous allegations against their forces or to bring anyone to justice for alleged gross human rights violations, crimes against humanity or war crimes. The government maintained a reign of impunity, including legislation giving members of the security forces effective immunity for unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearances and other human rights violations.”

The Global Justice Center is all too familiar with the dangers of governmental impunity through its work with the Burma Law Project. The Burma Constitution perpetuates injustice as a policy by giving complete amnesty to the military for its crimes, including systematic rapes of ethnic women. It also excludes women, just as 2012 Syrian Constitution. With the human rights violations mounting in Syria, including an alarming number of reported rapes and sexual crimes, it is clear that no matter how the conflict in Syria ends, perpetrators must be held accountable on both sides. The international community cannot allow yet another example of war crimes, especially gender-based violence, to be carried out with impunity.

In addition, according to Women under Siege, a journalism project founded by Gloria Steinem, sexual violence is and has been rampant in Syria throughout the conflict. It is perpetrated by both sides, without justice for victims (or, in many cases, even necessary medical care). Women Under Siege has been collecting reports of sexual violence in Syria to document the way rape is being used to terrorize and intimidate the Syrian people. With this data they have created a live, crowd-sourced map. The crimes documented went largely unpunished and represent only a small part of the whole, because sexual violence in Syria is largely underreported.

“With no clear future for Syria in sight, refugees are understandably cautious about who they speak to and trust with sensitive and personal information… It may be hard to put their trust in a stranger when, time and again, there has been little justice for victims of wartime rape.” – Lauren Wolfe, Director, Women Under Siege.

Gender Equality

According to data from the WEF Gender Gap Report on countries’ gender equality progress since the Arab Spring, overall the region’s score increased by a dismal 1.2% from 2010 to 2012. Syria, on the other hand, decreased by 5.3%. That’s right: Syria is moving backwards on women’s rights issues, mainly because of decreases in estimated earned income. In addition, in a list of 135 countries, Syria was ranked an abysmal #111 in the Gender Gap Index for “political empowerment” in 2012 by the report.

“[Syria]’s civil war has coincided with reduced political participation for women and sharply curtailed access to the country’s shattered economy,” wrote Max Fisher, Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger, in an article.

But Syria is not only moving backwards; the basis on which it started never had equal opportunities for women in the first place.

“While the penal code no longer fully exonerates perpetrators of so-called honor crimes, it still gives judges options for reduced sentences if a crime was committed with “honorable” intent. The nationality law of 1969 prevents Syrian women married to foreign spouses the right to pass on their citizenship to their children or spouses,” Human Rights Watch stated in its 2012 World Report on Syria.

When this tragic and deadly conflict finally comes to an end, any future government in Syria must look towards building long-term stability. A major key to that is to have a government and a constitution that is representative. Women’s rights are not something that can be pushed to the side and fixed only after the country is considered “stable.”In reality, ensuring women’s rights is anecessary step to achieving long-term stability. There must be increased participation in the political process by women if the country is to fulfill the pledge in the 2012 Syrian Constitution of a multi-party system, replacing ade facto one-party system that has hindered democratic reform for the past several decades.

As the world waits to see if the US will strike and what the global fallout from such action will be, it is critical to examine the roots of injustice if Syria can ever hope to move forward.

Donate now to help the Global Justice Center establish global human rights through the rule of law.

Room for Improvement: Looking back at the 2011 Egyptian Protests

Recently women have been heavily involved in protests in Egypt. This was true as well in 2011, but when the 2012 Constitution came out it had as little gender equality as the laws it was replacing.

At what point in the process did it become okay to silence the voices of women?

“[President] Morsi had promised an increasing role for women and Copts. The Constitution came after that with nothing! …  Women’s rights have been linked to religion and not to the needs of Egyptian women,” -  Azza Suleiman,  an Egyptian lawyer working to stop violence against women, said in an Amnesty International Report when interviewed.

She also condemned the opposition’s reaction: “They say it’s because there are more important issues to deal with at the moment. As if women’s problems are not as important!”

In 2012, the new government failed to deliver on its promises of democracy. Women were not equally represented (only two female members in the 36-member Cabinet). No tangible action was taken on gender issues. Authorities announced a stricter sexual harassment law in October 2012 and again in February 2013, but failedto pass it both times. Without women equally represented in the government, there was little motivation to act on gender equality issues – though women protested the unfairness from the outside. An Alliance of Women’s Groups called for gender equality in the new constitution in July, but thus far there has been little sign of movement on this issue.

The Global Justice Center knows that, where there is a constitution that excludes women and ignores the processes of justice, unrest is bound to follow. Our Burma Law Project seeks to challenge the same constitutional suppression of women’s voices in Burma. Gender parity in power is key to long-term stabilization in both of these transitioning democracies.

Amina Agami, an Egyptian woman who works with NGOs protecting human rights, said in the same Amnesty International Report that the 2012 Constitution “…does not care about women, as if they do not exist.” She also said that the Constitution could potentially provide for child marriage, and “The Constitution does not give women any chance to be at the parliament, ministry of justice or any other positions like that.”

GJC knows that to have a functioning democratic state the laws holding it together must be just. It is not possible to have such laws while women’s rights are ignored.

In the recent 2013 protests, women have been repeatedly silenced with sexual harassment while trying to exercise their right to peaceful protest. On the single day of June 30th46 sexual assaults were reported from Tahrir Square. The attacks on protesters have reached such levels that Amnesty International recently began a petition calling on Egypt to end sexual violence against women protesters. Consider also that  99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetimes.

This wide-scale suppression of Egyptian women’s voices is unacceptable. Egypt cannot move in any positive direction if Egyptian women are unable to exercise their political voice freely and unmolested.

In the next few weeks, Egypt needs to keep in mind gender equality and equal participation in government because without it a just and democratic system will never be reached. GJC aims to increase women’s roles in governments internationally. As our logo demonstrates, women make up 51% of the world’s population, but the global average for women in government is only 19.7%. We are working to close this gap, because only then will we have true representative democracy.  Women must be allowed to have an equal and respected role in government changes in Egypt. While we wait to see when and if Egypt will hold democratic elections again, one thing is clear:  The party thatultimately gains power in Egypt must make women’s rights a priority.

Syria to reconsider its abortion law

Recently a Saudi cleric Sheikh Ali al-Maliki expressed an opinion that Syrian women raped by gang-like militia or forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to undergo abortion.  He described rape as one of the most heinous crimes against women that is worse than murder.

Current Syrian law only allows abortion to save woman’s life making abortion in all other circumstances including illegal.  Penalty for performing an abortion with woman’s consent is one to three years imprisonment, and penalty for a woman who consented to abortion is six months to three years imprisonment but can be reduced if abortion is done to save woman’s honor. Syria is officially a secular state with the vast majority of its population practicing Islam but its abortion restrictions are harsh even for the Islamic world.  Schools of Muslim law universally accept that abortion is permitted if continuing the pregnancy would put the mother’s life in danger even if the pregnancy is over 120 days old but variation of thought exists when it comes to other exceptions to the abortion ban. Tunisia and Turkey have significantly liberalized their abortion law and allow it under virtually all circumstances within the first trimester, although a recent bill pending in Turkey could effectively outlaw abortion. Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia allow abortion in cases of serious health risk. Iran, Kuwait, and Qatar created an exception in cases of fetal defects assuming the pregnancy is less than 120 days old. Sudan, Egypt, Bosnia, Algeria, and Bangladesh make abortion permissible in circumstances of rape or incest. Examples of the above mentioned interpretations show that Islamic law can be flexible when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. Pending decision of the Council of Senior Muslim Scholars, Syrian women might soon also be able to legally abort fetuses conceived as a result of war rape.

The US Leads in ICRC Aid Donations, but Restricts Equal Rights for Aid Recipients

The United States strives to be a leader among the nations in terms of equality and fairness.  However, one area that starkly contrasts that desire is the US policy regarding how to use the funds it donates to humanitarian aid.  The United States is the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the ICRC.  Along with its donation of over 240 million Swiss Francs, the US has instructed that its aid may not be used to fund abortions under any circumstances.

As the largest donor of aid to the ICRC, the US retains a great deal of control over how that money is spent.  In addition to holding the power to restrict how its own contributions are spent, the US’s power extends further in some instances to determine how donations from other sources may be restricted as well.  If the ICRC is funding an initiative with money that comes from the US as well as other governments whose funds may contain no restrictions, the entire initiative will be subjected to the restrictions that the US has placed on its donations.

Women who have been raped in armed conflict have been recognized as under the category of “wounded, sick, and shipwrecked” under the Geneva Conventions Additional Protocols, and that affords them the right to receive medical care to the greatest extent practicable, including abortions.  Without the ability to receive safe, legal abortions, pregnant war rape victims will be forced to endure great psychological and physical pain and in many cases resort to clandestine abortions or even suicide.

The repercussions that result from failure to provide abortions to war rape victims are enormously detrimental and the practice is blatantly discriminatory against women.  Many organizations and countries, notably the Paris Bar and the German Women Lawyers’ Association, have supported the efforts to try to get the US to change its policies and lift the ban on abortions for its international aid.  Most recently, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) has written to President Obama asking him to lift the restrictions through executive order.  ECWR, being the first Middle Eastern organization to support these efforts, is setting the tone for the rest of the international community as well as the United States itself, and that tone is one of equality and intolerance of discrimination.

In its letter to President Obama, ECWR points out the hypocrisy of the United States.  The US consistently demands that Middle Eastern countries end discrimination against women and advocate for women’s equality, yet they fail to follow through with the same position that they advocate by maintaining these discriminatory restrictions.  It is time for the US to put an end to its double standard and to institute the same policies domestically that it promotes for states.  The US is the example that other countries strive to emulate.  With restrictions that so blatantly discriminate against women, the US as an example leaves much to be desired and must rectify this injustice immediately, and truly demonstrate to the international community what is right.

Unequal Access to Justice in the Middle East

The GJC publishes a fact sheet on unequal access to justice in the Middle East.

This fact sheet lists 3 of the obstacles women face in gaining equal access to justice in the Middle East: Penal Codes/Laws, Customary and Social Practices and Limited Judicial Participation. It also provides a table with a list of Middle Eastern countries that have ratified CEDAW, and their policies on women's participation in the judiciary (i.e. whether it is permitted, and what limitations are involved).

Download PDF

  • 1
  • 2