UN Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security: A Chart Detailing State Mandates to End Crimes of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, Ensure Accountability and Promote Gender Parity in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations

The following chart details the legally-binding mandates of the UN Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security 1325 (2000), 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1889 (2009), and 1960 (2010) – emphasizing the need for greater protection of women‟s rights and the inclusion of women in global governance and peace processes. The chart delineates the duties and obligations for action by 1) the UN Secretary-General, and 2) Myanmar/Burma [hereinafter Burma], as both a UN member state and a party to armed conflict.

Despite their application to Burma, the Resolutions have not brought any real and concrete change for girls and women on the ground. The inability of UN representatives to reach conflict areas in Burma severely obstructs the reporting mechanisms of SCR 1960. Additionally, since the Constitution of Burma gives complete amnesty for any and all crimes committed by the ruling military regime, the Burmese government precludes any meaningful accountability and justice mechanism for the women victims of sexual violence and enshrines further impunity for perpetrators.

The Global Justice Center is a New York based Human Rights Organization with consultative status to the United Nations working with judges, parliamentarians and civil society leaders on the strategic and timely enforcement of international equality guarantees. The Global Justice Center has been at the forefront of human rights advocacy in Burma by working closely with groups on the ground to implement international women‟s rights through the rule of law.

Download PDF

Global Day of Action: Help GJC fight for safe abortion access for girls & women raped in war

For over two decades, women’s rights organizations in Latin America have mobilized around September 28th, which is also the day slavery was abolished in Brazil. Today, the Global Justice Center joins the Women’s Global Network for Reproduction Rights, who have declared September 28th Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion. As part of our August 12thCampaign, GJC fights for full medical rights for girls and women raped in war, including access to safe abortions. We urge President Obama to lift the blanket abortion on US humanitarian aid that denies a girl or woman raped in war the option of an abortion, even in life/threatening situations.

War rape victims are forced to carry the child of their rapists in conflict areas such as Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Sudan, where systematic rape is often used as a weapon of war. It is even used to accomplish military goals such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. Apart from being inhumane, the American ban also violates the Geneva Conventions, which guarantee non-discriminatory medical care to the “wounded and sick”. The situation is presented in a recent article by GJC Senior Counsel Akila Radhakrishnan, published in The Atlantic.

Sign the petition on Global Action Day, or donate to the GJC and help us in the fight to lift the ban, on behalf of girls and women raped in war.

Todd Akin Redux! – Rep. Rick Berg Supports Prison for Rape Victims Choosing Abortion

Senatorial Candidate Rep. Rick Berg. Credit: David Samson, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

Hot on the heels of Rep. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” firestorm, yet another senatorial candidate has taken an extreme and inhumane stance on a rape victim’s right to choose. In 2007, Rep. Berg (R-ND) voted in favor of a bill that would criminalize abortion, even in cases of rape. The North Dakota penal code knows four categories of felony, ranging from AA to C with AA carrying the severest punishment of a life sentence. It is telling that the bill Berg voted for lists abortion as Class AA “crime”. Horrifically enough, sexual crime classifies as category B offense. In essence, the bill results is a penal system that punishes the victim and not the perpetrator.

The bill was never signed into law, and even if it were, the Supreme Court would have struck it down as unconstitutional. Yet, while Republicans and Democrats have both distanced themselves from these views calling them extreme in domestic policy, punishing war rape victims is mainstream in American foreign policy.

Last year the Global Justice Center launched our “August 12th” campaign, and we continue leading the charge to urge President Obama to issue an executive order lifting the abortion ban on US humanitarian aid, a policy that “twice tortures” war rape victims by denying them their full medical rights, including access to safe abortion services. Consistent with Rep. Berg’s views, USAID’s policy bars recipients of American aid from providing critical services and information about safe abortion options to girls and women in conflict zones impregnated through rape—even in life-threatening cases. These recipients include NGOs and other humanitarian agencies working on the ground in conflict areas such as Burma, Congo or the Sudan, where rape is systematically used as a weapon of war. Current US policy hinders these organizations in helping rape victims. The Atlantic recently published a GJC article about this critical issue. The 1973 Helms Amendment, which is cited as the legal background for USAID’s policy, only prohibits the funding of abortion as a means of family planning—it should not be interpreted as applying to cases of rape or where a woman’s life is in danger. In fact, the current interpretation undisputedly violates international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions. It is time to change this.

In wake of the Akin scandal, President Obama emphasized a women’s right to make her own health choices. It is now time for the President to take action and issue an executive order lifting the ban. Restore full medical rights to these girls and women who have suffered the horrors of rape and war.

DNC: Rhetoric vs. Action

From the Wall Street Journal to CNN, everybody feels Democrats at the DNC have been relentless about women’s right to make their own choices. According to Michelle Obama, the president believes women “are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies”. In the words of Nancy Pelosi, a vote for President Obama is “a vote for women’s rights”. Deval Patrick would keep the government out of a woman’s decision whether to keep an unwanted pregnancy. Obama himself says Washingtion politicians “should not control women’s health care choices”.

Why then does America’s government, through the the policies of USAID, deny the right to an abortion for girls and women systematically raped in conflict areas like the Congo, Burma and the Sudan? Join the GJC’s August 12 campaign and urge president Obama to lift the abortion ban.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett Supports False Claim of Nearly Nonexistent Pregnancy Rates Resulting From Rape

Once again, we are left speechless by the extreme rhetoric used to describe rape victims. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) added vitriolic fuel to the controversy sparked by Rep. Todd Akin’s comments regarding pregnancy rates resulting from “legitimate rape.” In addition to the offensive attempt to distinguish acts of rape – rape is rape; their claim of nearly nonexistent pregnancy rates resulting from rape is scientifically entirely false.

One would imagine that since Akin’s comments gained international scorn, politicians would be more prudent and rational when discussing the topic of abortion. The lesson to be learned clearly went amiss for Rep. Bartlett who, in a similar comment to Akins’ said, “There are very few pregnancies as a result of rape, fortunately, and incest — compared to the usual abortion, what is the percentage of abortions for rape? It is tiny. It is a tiny, tiny percentage.” The remark, was made at a town hall meeting when pressed to reiterate his stance on abortion. And while he recently modified his stance to include exceptions of life threatening situations, rape, and incest, his comment reflects an ignorance about the horrors of rape and its devastating consequences.

Yet despite immediate condemnation, the fact is US foreign policy does not stray far from Bartlett and Akin’s beliefs. The US currently places a blanket ban on abortion aid, denying abortion options to girls and women raped in war. According to the 1973 Helms Amendment, “no foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning.” USAID wrongly interprets this statement to include circumstances of rape. This inhumane policy does not even allow for abortion in the case of life-threatening circumstances. For women and girls in nations such as Burma, Sudan, and Congo where systematic rape is used widely as a weapon of war, this ban on abortion “twice tortures” them. Furthermore, this policy is in direct conflict with international law and the Geneva Conventions, which guarantee indiscriminate medical care for victims of rape. As America continues its national discussion of abortion laws, it is critical that we do not forget those suffering abroad from the horrors of rape and war. President Obama must seize this moment to act. Join the Global Justice Center in urging him to issue an executive order lifting the ban. It is a necessary step to help victims of rape in conflict areas and to show solidarity with rape victims everywhere.

As Aung San Suu Kyi Visits US, International Law Violations in Burma Constitution are Highlighted

Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s is in Washington DC today to received the Congressional Gold Medal. She will also be meeting with President Barack Obama. This is a proud moment for the Burmese community and for the Global Justice Center, which has worked tirelessly on democracy issues in Burma.

However, we also recognize that Burma’s transition to democracy is far from complete. A major obstacle continues to be the country’s constitution, which entrenches military influence over Burma’s civilian government. Daw Suu Kyi said herself that amending the constitution must be a top priority, and we agree with her. The Global Justice Center calls for the international community to challenge the constitution as a violation of fundamental international law—including the UN Charter.

Burma has seen substantial change these past few years; a civilian government was formed, political prisoners were released (Suu Kyi herself being one example), and, this April, opposition parties were allowed to take part in the by-elections, carrying 43 out of 44 open parliamentary seats (but continuing to exert little influence overall). However, Burma has yet to fully commit to democracy. The Burmese civilian government still owes its parliamentary majority to the fraudulent elections of 2010, and the current constitution hinders further democratization and gives complete autonomy to the military. This makes it nearly impossible to prosecute Burma’s military rulers, who are guilty of egregious crimes—including the use of systematic rape of ethnic women as a weapon of war, torture, forced relocation and forced labor. All are rampant violations of fundamental international law, including the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter. The impunity accorded to the military under the current constitution leaves civilian victims, particularly those in the conflict areas of the Burmese border, virtually without legal protection. Activities of the Myanmar military are also in breach of a set of agreements that govern nuclear development.

The Burmese government and the international community must ensure that Burma is meeting international law requirements. Yet, because the constitution gives the military a “legal vacuum” the government would be legally unable to fulfill these obligations. Thus Burma’s new constitution stands in breach of core international commitments.

The Global Justice Center urges the international community to stand with the people of Burma and challenge the legality of the constitution.

(For an in-depth analysis of the constitution and restraint it puts on the civilian government, read GJC president Janet Benshoof’s report, co-written with the Burma Lawyers Council or see the Global Justice Center Project Page on Burma.)

Think Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remarks on “legitimate rape” went too far?

So do we. In fact, so does the Obama administration and the Romney campaign, both of whom were quick to condemn Rep. Akin’s ill-advised remarks that women who are “legitimately” raped rarely get pregnant.

Akin’s statements are particularly shocking as they ignore the fact that rape is routinely used as a weapon of war in areas of armed conflict, particularly in areas of ethnic conflicts as a way to redefine ethnic composition, as in Darfur or Rwanda.

Yet, despite both Presidential candidates proclaiming Akin’s remarks as unacceptable, the fact is the United States currently hinders access to safe abortions for thousands of girls and women raped in armed conflict every day.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers US humanitarian aid, puts a “no abortion clause” on every contract with NGOs, international organizations or even governments, preventing rightful access to safe abortion services for women – even in cases of rape or when the women’s life is in danger.

USAID’s position on this is clear and provides that “while USAID supports treatment for abortion-related complications, USAID does not support abortion as a means of family planning nor does USAID provide abortions in any circumstances.”

For this reason the Global Justice Center (GJC) launched the “August 12th” campaign last year – in commemoration of the anniversary of the Geneva Conventions. Under the Geneva Conventions girls and women raped in armed conflict are “protected persons” and entitled, as the “wounded and sick,” to “receive to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay,the medical care and attention required by their condition.”

Therefore the US “no abortion” clause not only exacerbates the suffering of rape victims in war, it violates the rights of these victims under international humanitarian law.

On November 5, 2010 during the Universal Periodic Review of the United States by the UN Human Rights Council, Norway recommended that the US “remove its blanket abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid covering medical care given to women and girls raped and impregnated in situations of armed conflict.”

Since the launch of GJC’s “August 12th” campaign, more than 60 international organizations have written urgent letters to President Obama calling on him to lift the abortion restrictions. Among them are Amnesty International U.S.A., the New York City Bar Association, the Paris Bar Association, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, and the American Medical Women’s Association.

Most recently added to the call to lift the ban is a powerful letter from Women’s Synergie for Victims of Sexual Violence co-founder Justine Masika Bihamba, who works in the conflict area of Eastern Congo. To read Justine’s letter, click here. President Obama now has support from all over the world to lift these restrictions via an executive order.  

In wake of the response to Rep. Akin’s remarks from both Democrats and Republicans alike, the US must now support its words through actions. It is time for President Obama to issue an executive order lifting the abortion ban and ensure that girls and women raped in war are also allowed to make their own health care decisions. A girl or woman impregnated by rape should not be forced to bear the child of her rapist – whether it is in the United States or in armed conflict zones around the world.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) Marks its 10th Anniversary

July 1, 2012 marked the International Criminal Court’s 10th anniversary. The ICC was established by the Rome Statute which came into effect in 2002, creating the first permanent international court in history. Ten years later, critics and supporters alike are assessing the progress of the Court in achieving its goals of bringing to justice those responsible for the most atrocious human rights violations.

Over the past ten years, the ICC can claim a number of impressive achievements—many of which are especially remarkable for an institution lacking any law-enforcement apparatus of its own and which operates solely on the basis of cooperation with participating states. Currently, the ICC is working in seven situation countries and monitoring developments in seven others. In March this year, the ICC delivered its first judgment in a case concerning the use of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Six cases are in the trial stage and nine others in pre-trial phase. These proceedings indicate a growing acceptance by governments and state actors that impunity for war crimes will no longer be tolerated by the international community.

In addition to its international legal role, the Court is also raising global awareness of human rights violations and the importance of providing an avenue of justice for victims. The ICC’s proceedings have emphasized, on a global scale, that children cannot be used as soldiers during hostilities, that sexual violence as a weapon of war is an unacceptable international crime, and that those in positions of power must safeguard the fundamental human rights of people caught in conflict.

Despite these achievements and successes, the ICC still faces many hurtles. Among these is the failure of the most powerful and influential countries in the world to ratify the Rome Statute, the unwillingness of signatory states to arrest wanted criminals, and accusations that the Court serves as a political tool of the West. To date, 121 countries have ratified the treaty and another 32 have signed the Statute, indicating an interest to join in the future. However, states like Russia, China, and the United States have refused to ratify the treaty due to a fear that it will result in their own political and military personnel being charged with war crimes or crimes against humanity. Many also view ratification of the treaty as an interference with their state sovereignty and an overreach of the international community into domestic affairs and legal proceedings.

The Court still faces many challenges to its authority and legitimacy within the global community. There are myriad complicated legal issues surrounding the prosecution of war criminals whose offenses have spread across borders and affected groups of people under the jurisdiction of multiple legal systems. However, the increased awareness that the Court has brought to the complicated legal issues involved in prosecuting war crimes has revealed the desperate need for an international body such as the ICC in which victims are given a means of achieving justice against perpetrators of war crimes and the valuable role that the Court plays in international justice. Though many obstacles remain to achieving the goals outlined by the Rome Statute, the Court’s accomplishments during its first ten years indicate a strong push in the direction of international justice and a promising future for the ICC and its influence on the international stage.

To read more about events commemorating the Court’s 10th anniversary, visit the official website.

Update: On July 10, 2012, the ICC issued its first sentence since its establishment ten years ago. To read more about the case, click here.

Post by: Adrian Lewis

“The Invisible War” Between Women and the US Government

“The Invisible War”, a film delving into the injustices faced by women in the military specifically related to sexual assault, has taken the country by storm both politically and socially. The film, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, thoughtfully connects U.S. government compiled statistics and the real stories of women and men who were the victims of sexual assault while serving in the military. The film aims to address many issues which include: corruption within the military justice system, impunity for high-ranking military officials, outdated legislation for prosecuting rape in the military “court martial” system, failure of “rape prevention” campaigns implemented in the military, and many others. The film is well put together and evokes quite a few negative emotions towards our government for allowing such an obvious problem to go unsolved, but likely more disturbing, practically unaddressed.

During the film you meet many women and a man who have been affected by this “invisible war,” but there is one specifically who stands out who was assaulted by her superior and later found out she was pregnant and had contracted an STD from her attacker. This brief interview clip is the only time the audience hears from this woman, but the impact is still strong. Her story evokes the questions, what happens to the women who survive their attacks but are burdened with the result of becoming pregnant? What does the US government do for these women, if anything at all?

Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are just as grim as one would expect, if not worse. The Department of Defense began its strict abortion policies in 1979 into the 1980s with the adoption of a “life-of –the-mother-only” limit for using government budget to fund abortions. This barred any government funding to be used for abortions unless there was immediate danger to the mother’s life.  This legislation backed by government was adopted as a provision after Roe v. Wade, in order to prevent taxpayers’ money from being used to fund abortions. This provision was enacted in the form of the Hyde Amendment, which circumvents the use of certain federal funds to pay for abortions therefore forbidding military health insurance to cover the costs of abortions unless threatening to the life of the mother. This amendment often allows women who are raped and impregnated in the military to be forced to make a difficult decision between carrying the child to term, which can cause negative effects on their present and future military career, or pay for the abortion themselves. As unethical of a decision this seems to be, that is not the only problem since the complexity of access to abortion when looking at military health centers and accessing abortion in a time of a war, while overseas, or when forbidden by domestic law only further magnifies the issue.

This “choice” given to female soldiers who are suffering from unwanted pregnancies between paying for the abortion themselves and carrying the child to term is not only a question of funding. Funding is only one issue among many. Women are given the right in the military to pay for their own abortions to be done in military health centers if the abortion is sought after the woman was raped or a victim of incest. Assuming the woman has the funds to pay for her own abortion (if not, this creates an entirely different issue) the above clause may not seem unreasonable. That assumption is wrong. The problem is rape within the military, as demonstrated by “Invisible War,” has very low rates of conviction and even of being reported. For the women who are either ignored, charged with crimes themselves when reporting rape, or are scared to report their rape, where do they go if they need an abortion? There is no proof; therefore there are no safe facilities for access. What if these women are deployed in a country, such as Afghanistan, where access to abortion is illegal in domestic law? What if they are overseas in a country where medical care and facilities are not easily accessible or are simply not able to safely and sanitarily perform such a procedure? Essentially the United States military says, “Too bad.”

However, Congress is no longer ignoring the issue and is bringing it to the public’s attention through media attention and other means. Democratic New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen is not allowing this issue to be pushed under the rug like so many others which go unanswered in the US military, but is taking actions through an amendment which would give military women the right to be covered under their military insurance for abortions. The amendment brings military standards for abortions to the same level as the federal government officials’ standards.  It would allow military women to finally enjoy the same rights as the people and government they are fighting to protect. The amendment has already gained support from Democrats and Republicans alike in the Senate, becoming approved and attached to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act written and submitted by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Although there is known support for the amendment among Senators, an official Senate vote needs to be considered for the amendment to be included in the final cut of the Act. It is believed that Senate approval will be relatively manageable; however passing the Act with the amendment through the Republican controlled House of Representatives presents a different set of problems. The House has not included the amendment in their version of the Act, and it seems unlikely that they will unless there are some serious compromises being made. The Department of Defense has already expressed their support through the sending of a letter detailing as such, but Congress will need a lot more than letters to pass this Act.

This dilemma within our military only further proves there is something in our American way of thinking, our politics, and our governmental policies, which needs a serious paradigm shift in the way we view abortion. GJC’s “August 12th Campaign” reinforces just that. The US government, which prohibits US humanitarian aid funds to be used for abortions, rather allow women and children to suffer through pregnancies often induced through rape, torture, and incest which can result in death, injury, depression, etc. than to reevaluate this traditional American “war on abortion” we seem to be engaged in. This point of view is only holding America back from progressing towards becoming a true leader in human rights, both domestically and internationally. We have arrived at the time in America when religion needs to become disengaged from our policies and instead the equality of our servicewomen, our dedication to international human rights treaties and law, and the well being of Americans in general needs to take precedence over doing things just for the sake of saying, “This was how it was done in the past.”

Post by: Jocelyn Garibay

The ICC Delivers its First Sentence: Sexual Violence Noticeably Missing from Congolese Warlord’s Conviction and Sentencing

On July 10, just 10 days after its 10th anniversary, the ICC delivered its first sentence.  The ICC sentenced Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese militia leader, to 14 years in prison for the recruitment and use of child soldiers as a part of his rebel army, the Union of Congolese Patriots, from 2002-2003.  Throughout that time, Lubanga and his army abducted, trained and used children to terrorize and kill villagers in the Ituri region of the DRC.  While the justices clearly agreed that Lubanga deserved to be sentenced, one of the three judges, Elizabeth Odio Benito of Costa Rica, wrote a dissenting opinion saying that the sentence had been too lenient.  Judge Benito suggested that the sentence should have been longer so as to properly reflect the extent of damage done to the child soldiers and their families.

One example of the type of damage that Judge Benito may have been referring to is sexual violence.  Among the crimes included in Lubanga’s trial, sexual violence was noticeably missing from the list. This was seemingly a product of the prosecutor’s shortcomings.  Presiding judge Adrian Fulford criticized the prosecution saying that “Not only did the former prosecutor fail to apply to include sexual violence or sexual slavery at any stage during these proceedings, including in the original charges, but he actively opposed taking this step during the trial when he submitted that it would cause unfairness to the accused if he was convicted on this basis.”  The ICC’s rules of procedure allow for additional crimes to be introduced and considered during the sentencing stage.  However, despite this capability, the judges determined that there was insufficient evidence presented to link sexual violence to the proven child soldier recruitment, and sexual violence therefore played no part in Lubanga’s sentence.

This glaring oversight, regardless of whether it be largely at the hands of the prosecution or the judges, is yet another example of the failure to recognize the plight of the female child soldier.  Female child soldiers are subjected to the same horrific conditions and treatment as all other child soldiers but suffer even further through sexual violence and diminished ability to escape.  Grace Akallo, a former child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda described how she and other girls as young as 7 were given as wives, where they would then be regularly subjected to sexual abuse.  They were sent to fight at the front lines while pregnant, with children on their backs, and some were even left with no choice other than to give birth on the front lines.  There is undoubtedly a shared stigma among all child soldiers, but the female experience is significantly different from that of the male and failure to take additional measures to recognize this distinction is a failure to protect women’s rights.

Brigid Inder, executive director of the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice pointed out the contradictory nature of the scenario because “the Rome Statute contains the most advanced articulation in international criminal law of acts of sexual violence committed, particularly in armed conflict situations, and yet the first case for the ICC didn’t include any charges for gender-based crimes.”  Judge Sang-Hyun Song, President of the ICC said that “the ICC promotes a model of gender-sensitive justice… the needs of women and children receive special attention in the ICC,” and that “international justice promises to serve as a warning to those who intend to exploit and abuse the most vulnerable members of our society that they will be tried, prosecuted and punished.”  While these remarks are hopeful and comforting, the recent performance by the prosecution and the sentence that followed demonstrated a weak showing that would hardly serve as an effective warning to other exploiters of vulnerable groups.  Lubanga’s sentence and the absence of sexual violence from the charges against him highlight the unfortunate ease with which women’s rights can be overlooked and this is unacceptable.  A lesson must be learned from the failure to distinguish and defend the specific rights of the female child soldier.  It is critical that in future ICC trials and sentencing, all parties involved take it upon themselves to ensure that women’s rights in any and all circumstances are protected and promoted, as a necessary prerequisite pursuant to the “gender-sensitive justice” that Judge Sang-Hyung Song spoke of.

The critical connection between maternal mortality and unsafe abortions

With the 2015 target of the Millennium Development Goals approaching, the United Nations recently issued a report detailing the progress made on each goal.  While some goals have made major gains and will reach their targets by 2015, “Goal 5: Improve maternal health”, is not seeing the gains other goals have made.  The stated target of Goal 5 was to “reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio”.  Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia account for most of the maternal mortality cases.

The report notes that maternal mortality rates could decrease by ensuring that women receive ante-natal care, give birth in the presence of skilled health professionals, and have unobstructed access to family planning and contraceptives.  Though the report mentions access to family planning and contraceptives, it makes no explicit mention of access to safe abortions.  The connection between maternal mortality rates and lack of access to safe abortions is critical, and cannot be ignored.  The CEDAW Committee has repeatedly made the connection between maternal mortality and unsafe abortions, noting the “high rates of maternal mortality due to high numbers of abortions among adolescents, and unsafe, clandestine, and illegal abortions”.

July’s summit on family planning in London raised $2.6 billion dollars to improve access to family planning and contraceptives for an additional 120 million women by 2020.  One article suggests that “[w]hat vaccinations are to infant mortality, contraception is to maternal mortality.”  The organizers of the family planning summit claim that the money raised will result in 200,000 fewer women dying in pregnancy.  While it is important for women to be able to obtain contraceptives wherever they are in the world, it is equally as important that women have access to safe abortions if contraceptives fail, or if a rape victim seeks an abortion to help end the psychological trauma still lingering from her assault.   If women are forced to resort to unsafe abortions because they are illegal, unaffordable, or unobtainable, the maternal mortality rate will stay steady.

When Times Get Tough, Women’s Rights Shouldn’t Suffer

Hard times happen. They can happen anytime and anywhere. They can happen on a scale as small as a community or family or as large as an entire region or country. The causes range from economic crises to armed conflicts and everything in between. In fact, the one thing that seems to be universal about hard times is that they lead to less respect for women’s rights.

In Nepal, girls are essentially sold into slavery when their families are struggling with debt. The ethnic Tharu practice a form of indentured servitude known as “kamlari”. Tharu families struggling with extreme poverty ease their debt burdens by leasing their daughters to higher caste landlords to use as servants for as little as $30 a year. Girls as young as six enter the system and are forced to do menial labor. These girls suffer a wide range of abuses, including beatings and rape, and are not allowed to go to school. Activists have been struggling to free girls from the kamlari system but the system has persisted in isolated parts of Nepal.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, girls are traded as a form of dispute settlement. Daughters are given to rival parties to settle disputes in a practice known as “swara” or “vani”. Swara is used to settle crimes such as murder, adultery, and kidnapping. A daughter from the family of the perpetrator (usually the girl’s father or brother) is forced to marry into the family of the victim. The girls are often quite young and the men they are forced to marry are often significantly older. Swara brides are treated terribly by their in-laws and husbands. They are treated like servants, constantly taunted, frequently beaten, and sometimes even killed.

In Niger, there is a tradition of marrying girls off at a very young age. Niger has the world’s highest rate of child marriage with approximately 50% of girls marrying before the age of fifteen, with some as young as seven. Girls are married off in exchange for dowries, including livestock and cash, which can be very helpful for families struggling with poverty. The country is currently in the middle of a hunger crisis resulting from a severe drought. Therefore, families that were already poor are now finding it even more difficult to put food on the table and there is a legitimate fear that families will begin marrying off their daughters with greater frequency and at younger ages if the crisis continues. Child brides in Niger lead difficult lives. They are often married to men who are much older, they are unable to attend school, forced to have sexual intercourse, denied freedom, beaten, and often abandoned when their polygamous husbands take younger brides. Additionally, child brides tend to be impregnated long before their bodies are ready to bear children, which often leads to serious health problems and even death.

In Madagascar, girls are frequently forced into prostitution when their families don’t have enough money to survive. In the southern region of the island, they have what is called “tsenan’ampela” (literally girls market). Families send their girls to market towns without money, forcing them to prostitute themselves at the tsenan’ampela until they have enough money to buy food and supplies for the family.

In times of conflict, rape and sexual assault are frequently used against women as weapons of war. This is currently happening in Syria in the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government forces. Women Under Siege has documented 81 instances of sexual assault since anti-government demonstrations began in March 2011. There is evidence that forces are targeting victims related to the Free Syrian Army as a way to punish the rebels with reports of soldiers going into houses looking for male members of the rebel forces and then raping the women. Many of the women have been killed after being assaulted, which is a tactic used in conflict zones to show complete control over the enemy.

The situations described above are just a handful of examples of how women and girls suffer disproportionately in times of hardship, and the list could go on and on. The list of excuses for these types of discrimination is equally long and includes explanations blaming culture, tradition, inevitability, and ignorance. However, the truth is that there is no excuse for sacrificing women’s rights in hard times. According to Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), “discrimination against women” shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” This broad definition of discrimination against women means that for at least the 187 countries that are a party to CEDAW, there is an obligation to ensure that women’s rights are respected and that women do not suffer disproportionately in any circumstance, including times of hardship. As such, women and girls should never be turned into a commodity and sold off when their families need food and money, and they should never brutalized for crimes they have not committed or battles they have not fought. When times get tough, women should be given an equal say in finding a solution.

CEDAW Review Showcases State Parties’ Reluctance to Fully Disclose Shortcomings in Abortion Policies and the Subsequent Repercussions

July 9, 2012 began the 52nd Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.  This session, which continues for three weeks, includes reviews of the reports submitted by several countries that are up for review.  Each country that is a party to the Convention must submit periodic reports as an accountability measure detailing how they are complying with the requirements of the Convention, along with progress and updates relevant to the Convention.  Upon reviewing each country’s submission, the Committee is then able to question the country regarding its report, and make general recommendations.  While the reports are intended to detail all areas of the country that pertain to the Convention, there are often gaps in information or areas that are not given the same degree of focus as others.  Proposing questions to the country’s delegation allows the Committee to dig deeper to find out that missing information, or reasons as to why it was not included in the first place, as well as to challenge any areas where the country does not appear to be meeting the standards required by the Convention.

On July 17, Mexico was up for review.  The head of the Mexican delegation began by presenting a synopsis of the country report to the Committee.  After about an hour, the question and answer period began where many issues were discussed including women’s access to education, female representation in government, violence against women, and more.  While there seemed to be a heavy focus on addressing the state of violence against women and female missing persons, there was a noticeable lack of attention to the issue of women’s access to abortions and the inconsistent policies throughout the country relating to abortions.  The subject of abortion was not raised during Mexico’s introductory presentation and even in the question period it took a significant amount of time for anyone to even mention it.

The questioning segment of the review is conducted by taking several questions at a time, and then intermittently allowing the delegation up for review to organize a response to all of the questions presented so as to allow for efficient answers and avoid overlap and repetition.  While this method does allow for consolidation of responses, it also presents the opportunity to gloss over certain questions or parts of questions, which is precisely what happened with most of the instances where abortion was included as a part of a question.   CEDAW experts asked about ensuring that federalism would not be used to perpetuate the limiting of women’s human rights and about the impact of failure to universally provide abortions on maternal mortality rates.  In both instances, the delegation attempted to skirt the issue, but when they were finally pressed upon it, they were forced to concede their shortcomings.

Mexico universally allows for abortion in the case of rape.  However in other circumstances, the individual states within Mexico determine their own legislation on the issue, and there are several states that protect life at conception.  This inconsistency and great potential for discrimination precipitated the question on federalism.  The delegation finally admitted that due to the current state of Mexican laws, it is possible that one’s degree of protection against discrimination varies simply depending upon where she is born.  They recognized that they must make headway in terms of equality in this area, especially regarding their CEDAW obligations, and they have not yet achieved this.  The delegation furthermore stated that failure to provide access to safe abortions continues to be one of the leading causes, the 5thleading cause to be exact, of maternal mortality.  While they claim that Mexico is committed to reducing the maternal mortality rate, they simultaneously have disclosed that the 7% of maternal deaths result from abortion related issues, and that figure is not decreasing fast enough despite the programs and measures put in place.

The main point of concern is surprisingly, not only the fact that Mexico has such a long way to go in the realm of guaranteeing universally equal abortion rights and working towards decreasing maternal mortality rates.  The most disconcerting facet of this situation is how easily overlooked the entire topic of abortion almost was.  Not only was Mexico ready to push abortion aside and hope no one would bring it up, but when it was brought up, the delegation was almost completely able to leave those questions unanswered.  Only when the CEDAW experts consistently and adamantly pressed for answers to their questions was the delegation finally sufficiently cornered such that they couldn’t avoid the question any longer.  The purpose of reviewing the parties to the Convention is to ensure that the parties are adhering to the Convention.  The only way to truly ensure this is if all parties cooperate and participate in an honest manner.  It is hardly expected that upon signing a treaty every party will instantly conform to the requirements of that treaty.  Instead, progress and effort must be demonstrated that the parties are moving in the direction of full fulfillment of the requirements.  However, either for fear of sanctions, unwillingness to make the necessary changes, or some other motivator that prevents parties from addressing the areas they need to improve in, parties seem to consistently fail to fully convey an accurate portrayal of what is happening in the country.  Fortunately, NGOs often pick up the slack by filing shadow reports, making sure that Committees has a more complete picture of the state of affairs.  However, the CEDAW review of Mexico highlights the need for countries to be more amenable to complete, true reports, and shows the need for Committee members and any other reviewing body to take a skeptical eye to reports submitted by countries.

GJC Burma Researcher Phyu Phyu Sann quoted in Southeast Asia Globe article on Burma's War on Women

Global Justice Center's Phyu Phyu Sann states:

"The judiciary has been firmly entrenched as a key tool of the military in Burma since 1988 when the military junta suspended the 1974 constitution and declared martial law, taking for itself all legislative, administrative and judicial powers," said Phyu Phyu Sann, a Myanmar researcher at the Global Justice Centre. "Like Stalin, sergeant-general Than Shwe perfected using judges as a weapon of choice for purging the population and those deemed a threat to his regime. The judiciary remains the same under the current civilian government."

She continues further:

"Changing the military's policy of discrimination and sexual violence against women is one of the most important reforms that need to be taken if we ever want to see real progress in Burma." However, Phyu Phyu Sann said the chances of the ruling elite championing women's issues as part of the current wave of legislative and administrative reform are slim to none, as it would involve far deeper, fundamental changes to the system. "Since the constitution was purposefully crafted to be difficult to amend, moving towards true democratic reform is unlikely," she said.

Click here to read the full article.