Reflections on our countries - November 2016
Sun 12/04/2016, 12:00

Every month RESURJ members will collectively share and reflect on some news highlights affecting sexual and reproductive, environmental and economic justice from the different regions and countries we work in... Brazil - Egypt - Fiji - India - Pakistan Rwanda Senegal UK

Brazil: Awareness Raising Campaign on Syphilis Remains Limited

Brazil is experiencing a new epidemic of syphilis, an infectious disease caused by bacteria. Syphilis initially causes skin sores, and if left untreated can lead to bone, cardiovascular and neurological damage. Between 2014 and 2015, the number of people infected in Brazil grew more than 30%, following a trend that has also been observed in other countries. In the same period cases of vertical transmission also increased by 19%. Congenital syphilis can lead to spontaneous abortion, premature birth, fetal malformation and/or death at birth. Given this scenario, the Ministry of Health has launched an information campaign. “A couple that gets along so well cannot fail to protect their baby" is the slogan of the campaign, which recommends pregnant women and their partners test for syphilis and seek treatment, both offered by the Unified Health System (SUS). Early diagnosis and treatment are very important, but the campaign is heavily focused on the health of the baby and is silent about disease prevention: despite syphilis being a sexually transmitted infection (STI), no mention of condom use is made.

This is yet another episode of Brazil’s worrying stance on comprehensive sexuality information and education. There can be no effective prevention - whether of syphilis, Zika, HIV/AIDS or any other STI - if people cannot learn about safe sex practices and access evidence-based information needed to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights. But the country stumbles on the theme. Little is known about whether and how sexuality education (only vaguely defined as a national program) is approached in schools, and the issue is now also under threat by bills that seek to forbid gender debates in the classroom. In recent years, the Ministry of Health has also shamefully succumbed to conservative and religious groups who have pressured the government body into withdrawing condom use campaigns made for specific audiences, such as sex workers and men who have sex with men.

Egypt: The End of Civil Society?

For months now, Egypt’s civil society has been battling for its existence: an investigation that began as early as 2011 and is ongoing to date, and the constant threats of the adoption of a more strict law to oversee its activities, as well as a smear campaign that has turned public opinion largely against these groups. At the beginning of this year, it seemed that the dormant 2011 investigation into the funding of NGOs was now re-opened and a number of high profile human rights defenders were banned from travel and their assets subsequently ordered frozen by court. Throughout November however, the number of travel bans imposed on these defenders seemed to increase, with at least three more banned this month alone. It is important to note that one only finds out if there’s a travel ban imposed at the airport when attempting to travel. Azza Soliman from the Center for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance, and Al Nadeem Center also had their assets frozen this month as well – the Central Bank however later informed Al-Nadeem Center that this decision was reversed. This was also not the first attempt to curb the Center’s activities; in April a government delegation attempted to shut down the center under the pretext that it was operating illegally. Al Nadeem Center has been at the forefront of documenting and providing support for the increasing number of police brutality victims who suffered since the military reinstated its rule over the country in 2013.

Even more alarming is the adoption of a new law on November 29 that was negotiated secretly inside Parliament, despite a huge outcry including from UN mechanisms. An adoption that seems questionable given that some MPs say they have no idea who voted for or against. The law makes it impossible to carry out any civil society activity in the country without close scrutiny and imposition from the government – and actually eliminated human rights as an eligible criterion to establish a CSO - and imposes ludicrous penalties for violations of the law.

Restricting CSO activities in the country would be the last nail in the coffin, now reinstating the full-fledged return of authoritarian rule after the elimination of independent media, judiciary, political parties and opposition at large, but in a fashion that is much more brutal than even the worst days of former president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Fiji: Proposed Mine at Sigatoka River: A No No!

The Sigatoka River is in the island of Viti Levu in Fiji on the west side of Mount Victoria and flows for 120 kilometers to the coast between the central and western ranges. The river’s mouth is the major breeding basin for the marine life that ends up in all the streams and waterways along the Coral Coastal area in Fiji. Sigatoka has a unique river eco‐system which includes the sand dunes ‐ Fiji's first national park. The Sigatoka River is famous for its succulent freshwater mussels and big prawns: our big river, fertile valley, self-sufficient villages and Sand Dunes that we need to preserve.

Recent media stories about Dome Mining in Sigatoka, present the project as something positive for the community, when in fact, it will devastate the river and its ecosystem, including the marine life and also affect the sand dunes. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was clearly carried out in favor of the project, not all of which has been made public and has been strongly criticized by local marine biologists who say it is not only lacking but also misleading. Anyone who reads the EIA will notice there is no reference made to the potential damage to the environment; in fact there is hardly any reference to the environment at all instead, just the 'so called' economic benefits to the community.

Women’s movements, youths and some individuals have been trying to defend their life resources, in hope that they can pressure our government to act in the best interests of our community, to protect our river and its eco‐system from mining exploitation and irreversible devastation, but so far this has not been enough in the face of FALSE sustainable economic growth arguments.

The Sigatoka River is also one of Fiji's historical sights and we want to share this with our future generations but extractive industries are determined to destroy our country and environment for minimal short-term gain, putting our health and livelihood at risk. We must fight and together resist this greedy act disguised as development.

Demonetization in India: Reflections on Dissecting the Means from the End

On November 9, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced ‘a surgical strike’ against corruption by demonetizing two key notes of their value - INR (Rupees) 500 and INR (Rupees) 1000, effectively rendering 86% of the country’s monetary base useless. This surgical strike has faced heavy criticism from some of the country’s leading economists, academicians and political leaders for its lack of foresight in planning, execution and economic soundness.

In 2016 India won the placement of the second most unequal country in terms of wealth distribution in the world with the top 1% of the country’s population owning 58.4% of the country’s wealth, leading to a questioning of why the economic measure excludes this group from its ambit as they largely do not keep black money in cash. The hypothesis is that in the long term, the recovery benefits will outweigh the cost of this exercise, an analysis rooted in conjecture, with an envisioned reduction in taxation and inflation, and an eventual increase in overall GDP.  Whilst the economic merits of demonetization can be debated, the state is limited in its capacity to undertake such a mammoth task.

The sharp withdrawal of currency notes has left the country’s informal sector in a cashless crisis, bringing daily life to a grinding halt for many small farmers, merchants, sellers, daily wage laborers, traders, People Living with HIV and AIDS, and in particular impacting Dalit and Adivasi communities. People who have lived at social fringes of the financial inclusion system, including sex workers and trans-people, are experiencing increased stigma and discrimination. More than 50 deaths have been reported in the country since November 9 - preventable instances where caregivers and families have lost loved ones unable to access money in time for treatment. The impact of demonetization and its potential to escalate violence against women and impact their health and wellbeing is also cause for concern.

As more of these stories of suffering are coming to light, the Prime Minister is shifting his public narrative from one of implementing demonetization to eliminate black money to a truer purpose of shifting the economy to a cashless model. This raises questions of what percentage of loss are people, especially those who are the most poor, expected to bear and until when.

Pakistan: I Am UNbeatable!

In mid-November, UN Women launched a powerful video featuring Pakistani women speaking out against violence. The Try to Beat Me, I am UNbeatable video highlighting accomplished women in entertainment, sports and journalism aims to challenge perceptions of women being weak and dominated. In the video, women confidently ask men to “beat me” but in the areas that they have excelled at through their hard work and talent such as mountain climbing, track and field, and singing.

The campaign was launched as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence – a global initiative led by UN Women - but also clearly speaks to the notorious comments released by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) earlier in the year suggesting that it is permissible for husbands to beat their wives “lightly” for infractions such as not dressing properly or denying sexual advances. The 163-point bill released by the Council was in response to a proposed Protection of Women Against Violence law in Punjab which sought to expand the definition of violence to “any offence committed against women”.

The Council, which was set up by a military government in 1961, is a 20 member constitutional body meant to “advise the government on religious aspects of the law and society” and ensure that legislation is compatible with Shariah law. While its recommendations are not legally binding, they can be very influential, particularly in the sphere of family, and laws impacting women and girls. In early 2016, a parliamentary committee dropped proposed legislation to change the minimum age of marriage from 16 to 18 years for girls based on assertions from the CII that the change was un-Islamic. And as recently as 2013, the Council also advised that DNA evidence should not be permissible as evidence in rape cases.

The statement from the Council was met with a wave of backlash from women who took to social media and posted videos and messages with the hashtag #TryBeatingMeLightly. The UN video is now another powerful message from women in Pakistan that violence against women will no longer be accepted as a social norm. 

16 Days of Activism: Persisting Challenges in Addressing Gender Based Violence in Rwanda*

In Rwanda, this year’s 16 Days of Activism campaign is being conducted as part of the National Anti Gender Based Violence and Child Abuse campaign launched by the Prime Minister in October 2016.

The Government of Rwanda has demonstrated will and commitment to eradicate any form of gender based violence and child abuse. Strong legal and policy frameworks were enacted and effective measures were adopted to ensure their implementation. Countrywide centers that provide comprehensive free-of-charge services to survivors of GBV are operational, including medical care, legal and psycho–social support. Strong collaboration among different institutions is evident in the country which includes security and justice organs. Anti GBV directorates were established within the Rwanda National Police, Rwanda Defense Forces and National Public Prosecution Authority to support the implementation of the National Policy against Gender Based Violence.

Despite the strong legal and policy framework, GBV remains widespread. Since 2010, data collected from the centers show that more than 2000 GBV cases (rape and defilement) are reported annually highlighting persisting underlying causes of GBV that still need to be addressed.

Regarding service delivery to GBV survivors, only 1 “Isange-one-stop-center” is available per district and survivors sometimes have to travel long distances to reach these centers. In addition, the free-of-charge services are only offered to survivors that are from the poorest of the poor, meaning that some may not be able to afford them. In addition, there’s no DNA laboratory in Rwanda, thus, conviction and sentencing of GBV perpetrators is challenging. Another challenge is that of limited reporting due to cultural beliefs and a mindset that normalizes some forms of GBV. Finally, emotional or physiological violence remains an undressed aspect of GBV.

Eradicating GBV will require continued commitment to evidence based policy implementation. This includes: budget allocation to enable wider coverage in terms of free-of-charge services to a wider group that aren’t able to afford services; more centers decentralized at the lowest level possible to enable easier access; integration of rehabilitation services for GBV survivors and perpetrators; integration of mental health into the wider public health system; collection and analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data to ensure capturing of other forms of violence; and lastly, continued community based programs to transform mindsets that tolerate GBV against women and girls and eradication of the rape culture.

 *This excerpt is from an article published on the Feminist Voices blog. To read the full article, click here.

Senegal: Reinstatement of the Death Penalty is not the Solution for GBV

For weeks now, Senegal has been the center of a raging debate around the reinstatement of the death penalty for violent crimes. This came as a result of several widely publicized murders, including the brutal assassination of Mrs. Fatimata Moctar Ndiaye, 5th Vice President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council of Senegal by her driver in a failed robbery attempt. Mrs. Ndiaye, a member of the ruling party, very active in one of the poorest suburb of Dakar, received funds which she was to distribute to women’s groups. As many Senegalese women, she kept the amount (estimated in thousands of dollars) in her closet in her bedroom at home. What apparently shocked most of the commentators was the fact that Mrs. Ndiaye was attacked by someone she knew, in her very bedroom and that her attacker used a knife to stab her several times and cut her throat.

The fact that this widely publicized attack happened a mere week before the celebration of the International Day against Violence against Women could have triggered a very timely societal reflection on the pervasiveness of all forms of violence against women (VAW) in Senegalese society. Unfortunately, the outcry was not asking for the end of VAW and related impunity but instead strong calls are made for death penalty to be reinstated for cold blooded murdered whomever their victims. Senegalese feminists and women’s rights activists should urgently engage in the debate to push back on this. According to an inquiry by the Committee of Struggle against Violence on Women and Children in Senegal 65% of the violent acts take place within the private sphere.  

As we engage in a parliamentarian electoral year, it is hoped that VAW and other women’s rights and gender equality critical issues, will figure more prominently in party’s manifestoes and candidates’ agenda. Education and prevention policies and programs have to be privileged as criminalization and the adoption of laws have not been able to protect Senegalese women and girls from violence, afford them access to justice and curtail patriarchy and discrimination. Certainly, the reinstatement of the death penalty is not the solution.

UK: Austerity and Violence against Women go Hand in Hand

A rise in violent crime in the UK has been reported to be due to a surge in domestic violence and violence against women. In London alone reports of rape increased by almost 11% since 2015, sexual offences by 9% and domestic abuse offences by 8.5%, not including the probable rise in unreported incidents. In the capital, recorded domestic offences have increased by 57% compared to 2012. This increase has also been met with reduced policing budgets, unable to deal with such a significant rise, and a drop in charges or cautions against perpetrators, which in 2012 was 41% and in September 2016 dropped to 28%.  

The financial crisis, growing income equality, the introduction of experimental and large-scale austerity measures, £18 billion of cuts to date, and £9 billion more planned, has led to the biggest cuts in state spending in the UK since World War II, resulting in the UK being declared one of the most unequal countries in the developed world in 2016.

Since the start of the UK government’s fiscal policy of austerity, women’s and anti-austerity groups have been reporting massive impacts on women and their families, with households headed by women such as lone women parents, being hit the hardest. Welfare reform including rise in conditionality and sanctions, benefits freezes and caps, and the abolishment of a number of crisis loans and grants, which have led to an increase in poverty, inequality, and vulnerability to violence.

Cuts to domestic violence services have been deep and devastating.  17% of domestic violence shelters have closed since 2010 and 67% face closure due to the benefits cap, with specialist services for BME (Black Minority Ethnic) women, LGBT women and migrant women being closed or significantly restricted. Cuts to support services have left an estimated 10,000 survivors of sexual abuse waiting over a year for access to counseling services. The UK housing crisis and austerity, manifesting in housing through cuts and changes to housing benefit, reduction in social housing, rise in evictions and the bedroom tax (under occupancy penalty) has seen a significant rise in homelessness amongst women, in particular the most marginalized, increasing their vulnerability to all forms of violence and coercion.


This News appears in Reflections on Our Countries and is tagged with Brazil, India, Pakistan, Rwanda, Senegal, Fiji, United Kingdom, Egypt.