MEXICO CITY, Oct 20 2021 (IPS) – They call it the Tlaxcala-New York Route. Between one end and the other, there are 2547 miles. An infamous road that today is one of the most important channel for human trafficking gangs. And a route seemingly impossible to destroy because of its million-dollar profits.
The victims traveling along this route from Mexico to the United States experience in their bones what experts call “the globalization of organized crime”, one of the biggest obstacles to ending this crime.
The route is longer than itself. Sometimes it starts in South America, where victims are lured with dream jobs or a love story in Mexico. And it has a stopover in Mexico’s smallest state, Tlaxcala, where human traffickers kidnap their victims to prepare them for their journey north to the United States.
The worst part is in the next 2547 miles, which includes several horror stops throughout Mexico. The victims will be raped on table dances, brothels, bars, even trailer boxes and roadside tents.
If they survive and show endurance, at least 500 of them will be forced to cross illegally into the United States every year.
In New York, the exploitative clients will be of all nationalities: Mexicans, Americans, Europeans, Asians, Africans… sex tourists who will take back home a piece of humanity as a souvenir.
They are even likely to record those rapes and the videos will end up on porn sites with untraceable IP addresses that profit from a $97 billion a year industry. And when the authorities want to rescue one of those victims, two questions will overwhelm them. Where do we start? What is the origin of all this?
Since the beginning of the 21st century, organized crime has demonstrated that they know how to go global and evade the isolated efforts of individual countries. Their modus operandi imposes a new vision: if traffickers think internationally, justice must think globally. The “10 Days of Anti-Trafficking Activism” event was dedicated to that task.
Between July 26 and August 6, survivors, activists, and decision-makers debated online and face-to-face in Washigton, Miami and Mexico City for more than 240 hours on how to face the new challenges that impose this old crime and how to stay one step ahead.
Jeremy Vallerand, Rescue Freedom CEO, reminded us that human trafficking is a social problem that is not natural but created by human beings, so it is up to us to end it.
The Executive Director of Global Sustainability Network (GSN), Asmita Satyarthi, called for a global count of victims — there are about 25 million people in human trafficking networks and 30% of them are children.
Héma Sibi, CAP International’s Advocacy Coordinator, asked that we all demand a change of laws at an international level. New laws that punishes exploitative clients, not people who are forced into prostitution.
Chancellor Minister Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, youth leaders such as Alina Luz —Miss Universo Argentina 2020, influencers such as Valentina de la Cuesta, magistrates, mayors, legislators, and more joined events and conferences that can be consulted at www.hojaenblanco.org and the conclusions indicate the way to effectively fight human trafficking.
It is urgent to create international laws that punish trafficking as a crime against humanity. To train police officers with the capacity to investigate this crime beyond national borders. To establish international agreements for financial intelligence units to return to the victims’ money obtained by traffickers, whatever country they are in.
Pivotal actions must go beyond prosecution. More and better prevention campaigns must be created to build bridges between rich and developing countries because that is where the exploiting clients and the exploited person are. National campaigns are no longer enough. The challenge is to build messages thinking about the origin and destination of the victims.
We need more determined participation of society to train new activists with a global perspective and place this topic on the world agenda with the same urgency as other problems faced by humanity, such as climate change or the equitable distribution of food.
Above all, there is an urgency to pass the megaphone to those who have a story that must be heard, because each victim in silence means the loss of a missing ally in the fight against this crime.
The “10 Days of Anti-Trafficking Activism” is one of those crucial events that help us begin to solve those questions that overwhelm us: Where do we start? What is the origin of all this? And by questioning ourselves, we will be able to find how to end those 2547 miles of suffering between Tlaxcala and New York.
So that one day, the seemingly impossible path to defeat will be a memory and the evidence that millions of dollars are not more powerful than millions of people fighting for a world without slavery.
The author is a human rights activist who opened the first shelter for girls and teenagers rescued from sexual commercial exploitation in Mexico. She has published five books on preventing human trafficking; she is the elected Representative of GSN Global Sustainability Network in Latin America.
The writer is a Researcher with the Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
Female peacekeepers from South Africa on patrol in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. July 2021. Credit: MONUSCO/Michael Ali
STOCKHOLM / THE HAGUE, Aug 4 2021 (IPS) – The first year of the Covid-19 pandemic saw wide-ranging impacts on multilateral peace operations.
The crisis simultaneously affected all operations, host nations, headquarters and contributing countries. It caused major disruption—from the political-strategic level where mandates are drawn up, down to the operational and tactical levels.
Operations were forced to adapt in order to preserve continuity as far as was possible. While some of the effects of the pandemic are clearly reflected in the data—most notably in mission mortality rates—others are not.
For example, SIPRI data on personnel deployments cannot always capture delays in troop rotations or whether mission personnel were evacuated or working remotely for part of the year.
However, there is some evidence that Covid considerations did affect deployments, as is noted below.
Operations close in Guinea-Bissau and Sudan
There were 62 multilateral peace operations active in 2020, the same number as in 2019. The largest share of these (21) were conducted by the UN. Regional organizations such as the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) and alliances (such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO) together conducted 36 operations. Ad hoc coalitions of states conducted 5 peace operations in 2020.
Two small operations in Guinea-Bissau closed in 2020. One was conducted by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS): the ECOWAS Mission in Guinea-Bissau (ECOMIB), the other by the UN: the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS).
One other operation that closed during the year was the AU–UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), which was launched in 2007. UNAMID had deployed between 20 000 and 25 000 international personnel at its height in 2009–14, and it still deployed around 6500 in 2020.
A small political mission based in Khartoum, the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in the Sudan (UNITAMS), opened on 1 January 2021.
UNAMID’s closure is a landmark in contemporary peacekeeping. It is the fourth major UN peacekeeping operation to close since 2017; the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) both closed in 2017 and the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in 2018.
Only seven operations comprising more than 5000 international personnel were still active at the start of 2021, and no operation deploying more than 1500 international personnel has been launched since 2014.
The AU Military Observers Mission to the CAR (MOUACA) was authorized in July 2020 to help monitor implementation of the agreement.
The EU Advisory Mission in the CAR (EUAM RCA), mandated to support security sector reform, had been established in December 2019 but was not launched until August 2020. Both operations have an authorized strength below 100 international personnel.
The AU Mission in Libya, the third new operation, was established by a decision of the AU Assembly in February 2020 to ‘upgrade’ the AU Liaison Office in Libya ‘to the level of mission’.
The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have complicated the deployment and build-up of these operations. In fact, while EUAM RCA was up and running at the end of 2020, albeit not at full capacity, there is little public information available on the status and activities of MOUACA or the AU Mission in Libya.
The latest edition of SIPRI’s Map of Multilateral Peace Operations shows all operations active as of 1 May 2021—including some that are outside the scope of SIPRI’s definition, such as the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) against Boko Haram, the Joint Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (JF-G5S) and the EU Naval Force in the Mediterranean Sea (Operation Irini).
Personnel deployments fall
The number of international personnel deployed in multilateral peace operations globally fell by 7.7 per cent, from 137 781 in 2019 to 127 124 in 2020.
This was the largest year-on-year decrease since the drawdown of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in 2012–14. Around 87 per cent were military personnel, roughly the same proportion as in 2019.
Almost two-thirds of the deployed personnel in 2020 were serving in UN peace operations (66 per cent on average over the year). Almost three-quarters (74 per cent at the end of the year) were deployed in sub-Saharan Africa (both UN and non-UN operations).
The number of personnel deployed in UN peace operations globally and in multilateral peace operations (UN and non-UN) in sub-Saharan Africa declined for the fifth year in a row.
Both had peaked in 2015–16 following a period of rapid growth driven by the establishment of major operations in CAR and Mali and the expansion of major operations in Somalia and South Sudan.
The number of personnel deployed in UN peace operations fell by 2.4 per cent between 2019 and 2020 (from 88 849 to 86 712), reaching its lowest level since 2007.
Meanwhile, the number of personnel deployed in multilateral peace operations in sub-Saharan Africa decreased by 3.4 per cent (from 97 519 on 31 December 2019 to 94 201 on 31 December 2020), reaching its lowest level since December 2012.
Women continued to be under-represented among multilateral peace operations personnel in 2020, as reported in a SIPRI publication prepared for the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security last year.
Afghanistan: The end of NATO deployments imminent
The development that contributed most to the net reduction of peace operations personnel deployments last year was the agreement reached on 29 February 2020 between the United States Government and the Taliban on the withdrawal of all US forces from Afghanistan within 14 months.
Due to the subsequent drawdown of most US troops, the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission (RSM) shrank from 16 551 to 9592 personnel over the course of 2020.
The RSM was launched on 1 January 2015 and was mandated to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces following the departure of ISAF, which had been active from 2001 to 2014.
As a result of the withdrawal of most US troops from the RSM, the USA started 2020 as the second largest troop contributor to multilateral peace operations (after Ethiopia) and ended the year as the tenth largest.
Fewer blue helmets killed in action, more by illness than in previous years
In 2020, UN peace operations lost 78 uniformed personnel, 13 international civilian personnel and 32 local staff. The fatality rate for uniformed personnel was 0.9 per 1000.
This was noticeably higher than in 2018 and 2019, but around the average for the period 2011–20.
Despite this, the rate of hostile deaths (i.e. deaths caused by malicious acts) among uniformed personnel was at its lowest since 2011, at 0.15 per 1000.
This decline could conceivably be partly an effect of the pandemic, for example because peacekeepers were not able to patrol as much as usual or were otherwise less exposed to the risk of violence due to pandemic-related restrictions.
Meanwhile, the number of deaths due to illness among international and local personnel in UN peace operations in 2020 was almost double that in 2019 (83 compared to 42), with most of these deaths occurring between June and September 2020.
MEXICO CITY, Jul 19 2021 (IPS) – In June, the Department of Homeland Security made a critical announcement. For the first time in U.S. history, more than 15 national and local agencies and civilian organizations conducted a simultaneous major binational operation to find missing children inside and outside the United States.
They called it “Operation Lost Souls”. Its objective was to find girls and boys who were missing and possibly deceived or kidnapped by sexual exploitation gangs.
The secret operation lasted a week. And the result announced by Special Agent Erik Breitzke surprised even the organizers: 24 minors were recovered and, among them, three were located in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
The report of the operation does not explain the condition in which the minors were found. Still, it is not difficult to infer why they were in Ciudad Juarez: the United Nations, the International Police, and the Mexican Congress have warned that this border city is a well-known destination for sex tourism.
In 1993, that Mexican city became infamous worldwide due to a phenomenon known as “Las muertas de Juarez,” where hundreds of femicides were discovered under the suspicion that the victims had been recruited for sexual slavery.
More than 28 years later, Ciudad Juarez is still a city known for its tolerance of prostitution, its glittering brothels with hidden girls, and its streets run by pimps and mafias that are tied to the porn industry. It is a pedophile’s paradise.
There is an explanation for that: in Ciudad Juárez, as in many others cities worldwide, the fight against human trafficking has the wrong approach — the police often harass those who are prostituted, not the clients. But there is a growing global movement calling for doing the opposite.
That movement is also trending in Mexico and is inspired by the French law enacted on April 13, 2016, which prohibits any sexual act that has been agreed upon in exchange for money.
It’s a simple but substantial change: to protect human rights, the law should not go against people trapped in prostitution but against clients. In other words, the authorities must attack the most powerful link in the chain, not the most vulnerable.
To this end, it is necessary to stop the criminalization of those trapped in prostitution and, instead, create incentives for their exit from the sex trade.
For example, designing self-employment programs, granting tax benefits for those who wish to leave prostitution, including them in a protected witness program with benefits, issuing temporary residence permits for foreigners who could not get a job because of their immigration status, among other measures.
To reach the goal of lowering sexual trafficking and exploitation, the law needs to strongly target the demand that perpetuates these crimes. The penalties for “client exploiters” need to be strengthened.
To prosecute them more effectively, mexican activists are asking their government to imitate what the French police does by removing the burden of proof of the solicitation from the victim’s shoulders.
The French law has been a successful model, according to the Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution (CAP International): it has curbed the investment of traffickers, discouraged clients, provided dignified outlets for the most vulnerable, and swept away the dangers of the tolerated clandestinely.
This model has also proved that pimps are less likely to “invest” in a country with such hard measures against them. Because they see themselves as genuine businessmen, these progressive laws such as the Swedish and French laws that have strong penalties for sex buyers are simply not good for business.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), in the General recommendation No. 38 (2020) on human trafficking, encourages this new movement and calls on countries around the world to enforce it, especially in a pandemic context.
“The need to address the demand that fosters sexual exploitation is significant in the context of digital technology, which exposes potential victims to an increased risk of being trafficked,” alerts the General recommendation.
This global movement walks hand in hand with others that have shaken the world, such as #MeToo or the worldwide protests against inequality.
It’s the voice of millions around the world, Mexicans included: never again a city where sex buyers are seen as mere clients and traffickers are treated as businessmen.
To raise awareness among Mexican lawmakers, we will implement from July 26 to August 6 the worldwide campaign #10Days and #VsTrafficking hand in hand with several international organizations that will encourage new activists to stand against exploitative clients and put an end to the suffering of every lost soul in the world.
We are millions convinced of a revolutionary idea: abolishing prostitution does not limit sexual freedom, instead it motivates the sexual freedom that is needed in the world. The one that does not depend on money.
The author is a human rights activist who opened the first shelter for girls and teenagers rescued from sexual commercial exploitation in Mexico. She has published five books on preventing human trafficking; she is the elected Representative of GSN Global Sustainability Network in Latin America.
In March 2021, the UN Human Rights Council was given a mandate to collect and preserve information and evidence of crimes related to Sri Lanka’s 27-year long civil war that ended in 2009. Meanwhile, Western nations taking a cue from the Human Rights Council’s highly critical resolution on Sri Lanka appear to be tightening the noose. Credit: UN Photo / Violaine Martin. 43rd session of the Human Rights Council.
LONDON, Jul 5 2021 (IPS) – For well over a century Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, has been known to the world as the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ for its multifaceted attractions. That is until blurb writers ruined it all with hyperbolic epithets that obscured the country’s magnetic charms, which attracted visitors from around the globe.
But one particular epithet has lived up to its name. Called ‘a country like no other’, Sri Lanka is increasingly beginning to prove this true – though not for the reasons that originally prompted it.
Over the years, groups of professional politicians and those drawn to the sphere, not to serve the public but by thoughts of self-aggrandisement and avarice, have dragged this once prosperous country, with its many natural resources and strong democratic institutions, towards its nadir.
From being Asia’s first democracy, with universal franchise granted in 1931– even before independence from Britain in 1948– political commentators and increasingly the public now fear that the country is teetering on the brink of militarism, with retired and serving senior officers in key positions in the civil administration, and others appointed to virtually oversee Sri Lanka’s 25 administrative districts.
While there is both international and local disquiet over the deterioration of democratic values, of more immediate concern is the country’s dire economic state. The situation is so critical that less than two weeks ago, the respected Sunday Times wrote that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government is ‘steps away from bankruptcy’.
At the same time, well-known economists were pressing alarm bells, warning about the possible breakdown of the banking system ‘causing a collapse of the economy’. The direct cause of the current crisis was the sudden hike in fuel prices in late June, which is bound to have a ripple effect on other commodities and services.
Bakers are already threatening to raise their prices, which could well have happened by the time this article appears.
A thermometer gun is used to take a boy’s temperature in Sri Lanka. Credit: UNICEF/Chameera Laknath
With the prices of staples such as rice and vegetables unbearably high, the average consumer, already burdened by the steepening cost of living, is being pushed to the wall by a government that came to power some 20 months or so ago promising to reduce poverty and improve living standards.
Rising living costs are compounded by a still uncontrollable Covid pandemic. This has compelled the government to impose lockdowns and curb travel – restrictions which are haphazardly lifted and re-imposed, despite the best medical advice – as daily wage earners run out of cash to buy food for their families and meet other domestic needs.
Political commentators and increasingly the public fear that the country is on the brink of militarism
Last month, the Sri Lanka Medical Association urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to continue lockdown restrictions without interruption–”considering that over 2,000 Covid 19 cases and over 50 deaths are being reported daily” and also the detection of the highly dangerous Indian variant’.
At the time of writing, health authorities reported another 52 fatalities and put the daily count of positive cases at 2,098. But such statistics seems to matter little to politicians and their military and medical cohorts, tasked with combating the spreading pandemic but ignoring the accumulating data and the advice of specialist medical professionals.
Meanwhile, the vaccination of the population, according to a pre-determined programme, has been disrupted by politicians who have drawn up their own priority lists and even threatened doctors and health workers who refused to accept their dictates, raising law enforcement issues and public criticism.
Those with power and influence find backdoor means to gain access to vaccinations, at the expense of an increasingly frustrated and angry public, who stand in long queues for hours awaiting their turn.
While the overall Covid containment programme is reportedly in a mess, along with an economy going steadily downhill, another pearl turned up in the Indian Ocean close to Colombo port. The X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-registered container ship, was carrying noxious cargo, including a leaking nitric acid container. With Qatar and India refusing to admit the vessel for repairs, it turned up in Colombo
That poisonous pearl spewed nitric acid into the ocean and then self-immolated, burning for days before part of it went down on June 2. As a result of the incident, more than 150 marine animals, including 100 turtles, 15 dolphins, three whales and scores of birds and fish beached in various parts of the country, not to mention the kilometres of beach covered with plastic pollutants, leading a UN representative in Colombo to describe the episode as a ‘significant damage to the planet’.
Meanwhile, the original pearl of the Indian Ocean is struggling to keep its head above water. The Sunday Times’ economics columnist Dr Nimal Sanderatne, an agricultural economist, former central banker and academic, painted a bleak picture in his weekly column in late June: ‘The external finances of the country are in a perilous state. External reserves have fallen, the trade deficit is widening, the balance of payments deficit is increasing and there are foreign debt repayments of about US$4 billion during the rest of the year.’
His views about the parlous state of the economy were echoed by several other economists, including the spokesman of Sri Lanka’s main opposition party SJB, Dr Harsha de Silva, and Dr Anila Dias Bandaranaike, a former assistant governor of the Central Bank.
In a desperate bid to boost reserves, Sri Lanka went for a currency swap of US$200 million with Bangladesh, once a struggling new nation in South Asia. Prudent economic policies and management, and national interest, brought Bangladesh to its current flourishing status.
When the currency swap was announced, one Sri Lankan wag remarked that it would have made more sense if Sri Lanka had swapped its advisors for those from Bangladesh, and the swap should be permanent to protect the country’s self-respect
Only a country that has lost its political sense and perceptiveness, or has abandoned all concern for its struggling people, could seek government sanction to import nearly 300 vehicles costing Rs 3.7 billion for its 225 parliamentarians and unnamed others, in the midst of a severe foreign currency crisis, when begging and borrowing seem the only options.
What is even worse, Sri Lanka’s premier state bank was ordered to open letters of credit one month or so before cabinet approval had been sought. Whoever ordered this remains unknown to the public at the time of writing.
Critics of the government say it is fast losing its one-time popularity as ill-considered and sudden policy decisions are heaped on existing economic and health problems, such as the snap decision to ban chemical fertiliser and pesticides, so essential right now for agriculture and export crops such as tea.
Scant wonder the government is being assailed by even close associates of the Rajapaksa family. One such is the head of the Catholic Church, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who, in a strongly critical statement recently said that ‘even nature seemed to be turning against the rulers’.
Meanwhile, western nations taking a cue from the UN Human Rights Council’s highly critical resolution on Sri Lanka last March appear to be tightening the noose.
At the end of June, the European Parliament moved a resolution, with almost 90 per cent voting for it, urging the EU authorities to consider suspending the Generalised System of Preference (GSP Plus) trade concessions to Sri Lanka, which would be a serious blow to exports.
Later the Core Group of Western nations that sponsored the UNHRC resolution issued a statement condemning Sri Lanka’s human rights situation and new changes to the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Bleak times lie ahead.
Source: Asian Affairs Magazine
Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London
Nordic Talk moderator Katja Iversen shown here with Natasha Wang Mwansa, Emi Mahmoud, Dr Natalia Kanem and Flemming Møller Mortensen during a recent Nordic Talks webinar. Credit: Shuprova Tasneem
DHAKA and NEW YORK, Jun 4 2021 (IPS) – Every two minutes, a girl or woman dies from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications, including unsafe abortions. Every year, around 12 million girls are married while in their childhoods. An additional 10 million are now at risk of child marriage due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In this context, the most recent Nordic Talk—a high-level debate on bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) as a cornerstone of gender equality, aptly titled “Let’s Talk About Sex” — could not have come at a better time.
Moderator Katja Iversen, Dane of the Year (2018) and former CEO of Women Deliver, kicked off the discussion by focusing on the close link between bodily autonomy, gender equality, economic growth, and a healthy planet.
In an exclusive interview with IPS, Iversen said it was clear that “bodily autonomy for girls and women—in all their rich diversity—is political, social, economic and health-related.”
Women needed to have power and agency over their “bodies, fertility, and future, living a life free of violence and coercion in both the private and public sphere. It ties into norms, structure, systems – and if we want equity and health for all, we need to address all of it.”
Emi Mahmoud, two-time World Champion Poet and Goodwill Ambassador for the UNHCR, set the tone for the Nordic Talk with her emotive poetry reflecting women’s experiences in patriarchal societies, asking: “What survivor hasn’t had her struggle made spectacle?”
The three other panellists agreed that the right to control their bodies was a fundamental aspect of women’s rights and that gender equality was an essential part of the sustainable development agenda.
As Dr Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the UNFPA, explained that “(women’s) freedom over her own body means freedom of choice”, and that all the data points towards how investment in SRHR could be the first step to empowering women to “ultimately contribute to sustainable development.”
It was critical that SRHR was adequately resourced – but warned these would be in short supply because of the COVID pandemic recovery plans.
“Part of the financing challenge is what we abbreviate as political will. It actually does not cost a lot for the agenda for SRHR to be a reality by 2030. It would take $26 billion a year to end the unmet need for contraception and to stop mothers dying at birth, many of whom were too young to be pregnant, but resources are going to be a challenge now with Covid having affected the world economies.”
While Flemming Møller Mortensen, Danish Minister for International and Nordic Development and Nordic Cooperation, expressed optimism regarding resources for SRHR now that “the US is back on track” and the global gag rule had been revoked. He was worried about a growing conservatism and pushback against women’s rights, particularly in the pandemic’s wake.
Iversen told IPS the cuts in various countries could be devastating.
“UNFPA estimates that with the $180 million the UK wants to withdraw from the Supplies Partnership, UNFPA could have helped prevent around 250,000 maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies and 4.3 million unsafe abortions. We will need foundations and other donor countries to step up, and we will need national government step up and step in and ensure that their national budgets reflect and fill the SRHR needs.”
She expressed concern that women on COVID-19 decision-making bodies were unrepresented.
“Less than 25% of national COVID-19 decision-making bodies have women included. It is too easy to cut resources from people who are not at the decision-making tables,” she said. “We urgently need to get a lot more women into leadership, including of the COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. All evidence shows that when more women are included in decision-making, there is a more holistic approach and both societies and people fare better.”
This call for inclusivity, not just for women but for the youth, was strongly echoed by adolescent sexual and reproductive health rights expert Natasha Wang Mwansa.
“So many commitments have been made by so many countries, yet there is no meaningful progress or accountability, and young people are not involved when making these decisions,” Mwansa said. “Young people are here as partners, but we are also here to take charge. From making choices over our own bodies to choices on our national budgets, we are ready to be part of these decisions.”
To deal with challenges in providing access to SRHR, Kanem stressed the importance of gender-disaggregated data for planning. She added that despite the hurdles, she was hopeful about the future because “young people and women are not waiting to make the case and show solidarity and understanding when it comes to racism or issues of discrimination and equity that divide us.”
Iversen echoed this optimism in her IPS interview.
“It gives me hope that comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services are included in the roadmap for Universal Health Coverage, in the Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives and Well-being, and latest in the Generation Equality Forum blueprint,” she said.
“Civil society has played a key role in ensuring this with good arguments, data and a lot of tenacity. But words in the big global documents about Health For All is one thing; gender equality and women’s rights, if it has to matter, it has to manifest in concrete action.”
The conversation rounded off with recommendations and commitments from the panellists: Mwansa stressed more investments in youth-run organisations and more social accountability from decision-makers; Mortensen asked for governments to be held accountable and for youth voices to be heard; and Kanem reaffirmed the UNFPA’s goal to put family planning in the hands of women as a means of empowerment, to end preventable deaths in pregnant women and girls, and change fundamental attitudes to end gender-based violence.
In her final comments to IPS, Iversen also stressed the importance of SRHR as a means of empowerment.
“Study after study shows that it pays to invest in girls, women and SRHR – socially, economically and health-wise. But we cannot look at SRHR alone; we need a full gender lens to the COVID response and recovery and development in general,” she said.
“And if we want to see positive change, we have to put girls and women front and centre of coronavirus response and recovery efforts, just as we, in general, need to see many more women in political and economic leadership.”
The Nordic Council of Ministers supports the Nordic Talks, and “Let’s Talk about Sex” was organised in partnership with UNFPA, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Generation Equality, the Danish Family Planning Association, and Mind your Business, as a lead up to the Paris Generation Equality Forum.
The following opinion piece is part of series to mark the upcoming International Women’s Day, March 8.
Protest for women’s rights in Kathmandu, Nepal. Credit: Sanjog Manandhar
PARIS, Mar 5 2021 (IPS) – Today, despite centuries of activism and mobilisations, women and non-binary people continue to remain disadvantaged in almost every sphere – from “public life” to the “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence.
In light of COVID-19, some struggles have been considered in theory, but most continue to be ignored in practice. How can we dismantle the “gender lies” perpetuating in the 21st century? How do we start taking into account the diverse experiences of women, without excluding black and indigenous voices on the basis of power and privilege?
Afghanistan, Nepal, Bolivia, Mexico and Uganda: five activists tell us how they transform the ways their communities think and act around gender.
Afghanistan: rap music to save child brides
Sonita Alizadeh, is a survivor of two attempts at forced marriage, and now a rapper and activist fighting for the liberation of women against forced marriage. Born in Herat, Afghanistan, under the Taliban regime, she grew up in Iran, as a refugee with her family. At 10 years old, she narrowly escaped a forced marriage. Her family again tried to sell her when she was sixteen, she escaped. Afghanistan has the 20th highest number of women married before the age of 18 in the world, with 28% of Afghan girls married off as minors, according to Girls Not Brides.
“My mother was a child bride, and she did not meet her husband until their wedding day. By marrying me off at a young age, she was simply repeating the cycle. This tradition makes me want to raise awareness of this harmful issue with the help of millions of others around the world through my music,” says Sonita in an interview with Forus.
Witnessing her friends swiftly disappearing as they were forced to marry, Sonita wrote the song “Daughters for Sale”, which kick-started her work as a human rights activists and rapper.
“Music touches people in a way words cannot – it is deeper and more emotional. People listen to music and young people pay attention to the lyrics. Music can be a powerful way to hear important messages. That is why I always rap about things that need to change in the world, or ideas that young people need to hear, to dream big.”
Today, Sonita uses her tracks and success to give young girls self-confidence. She sings to tell: “Hold this hope in your heads and your hearts. Hold this hope for the future. Never give up.”
Nepal: Fighting “period poverty”.
As 2020 drew to a close, protesters across South Asia took to the streets and to social media, calling on their governments to end the perpetuating cycle of widespread sexual violence against women and children.
In Nepal, hundreds of activists returned to the streets after a 17-year-old girl was raped and strangled to death. Some protesters wore black over their eyes to symbolize public authorities closing their eyes to sexual violence. Activists say that although the country’s constitution guarantees equal rights to women, there is a clear disjunction between theory and practice.
“How do we make sure that there is no gap between law and social progress?” asks Jesselina Rana, a human rights lawyer, co-founder with engineer Shubhangi Rana of Pad2Go, a social enterprise focusing on menstrual health and the taboos surrounding it.
“From a very young age, menstruating individuals are made to believe that their menstrual cycle makes them impure, and it can only be talked about behind closed doors,” Jesselina explains.
With Pad2Go, Jesselina distributed over 80 sanitary napkin vending machines across Nepal. She collaborates with pad manufacturers, to provide pads at less than market rate in order to ensure affordability. She also organises discussions with both men and women to normalise conversations around menstruations.
“Nepal being a patriarchal society, men engagement is crucial to overcome social issues faced by women. Socially we need to get men into those spaces of conversation, at a young age, to make sure that everyone is part of the discussion to end the toxic cycle of gender discrimination.”
Protest in Mexico. Credit: Melanie Isahmar Torres Melo
During the Covid-19 crisis, the economic consequences of the pandemic disproportionately affected Bolivian women. Government restrictions reduced access to food, aid programs did not adequately address the needs of communities, increasing their vulnerability and insecurity.
During the lockdown the slogan “Stay at Home” was widely promoted across Bolivia, yet for many women and girls victims of violence, that actually meant a very dangerous “Cállate en casa” (shut up at home), explains Iris Baptista from Red Unitas, a platform funded in 1976 that reunites 22 NGOs in Bolivia.
“Red Unitas created the campaign “SIN VIOLENCIA ES MEJOR” (Better Without Violence), to raise awareness of the fact that women are doing most of the work during the pandemic, to fulfil their role as mothers, wives and workers, yet they continue to face violence at home,” Iris explains.
But, violence against women and femicides are not just common in Bolivia—they are prevalent throughout the region. Global data is difficult to gather due to differences in reporting standards, however, the 2016 report, “A Gendered Analysis of Violent Deaths” founds that fourteen of the twenty-five countries with the highest femicide rates are Latin American.
Defined as “a pandemic within the pandemic”, gender-based violence has spiked since COVID-19 broke out. Writer Lynn Marie Stephen believes that laws and initiatives to protect women, “fail to indict the broader systems that perpetuate these problems, like social, racial, and economic inequalities, family relationships and social mores”.
“It’s not that there was less violence against women in the past, it’s just that it wasn’t made as visible as it is today,” says Melanie Isahmar Torres Melo, a photojournalist covering women issues in Puebla, Mexico.
Every day, 10 women are killed in Mexico. The number of femicides has increased by 137% in the past five years and reached its highest monthly rates in 2020. Despite this number, only 5% of all crimes committed in Mexico are punished. This dichotomy between numbers is often the result of a “single crime” vision, rather than a sociological phenomenon, linked to the idea of patriarchy and sexism.
“Most perpetuators are never caught; this has triggered ‘social anger’ around the issue of feminicides in Mexico. There is no respect for victims, they are blamed for being killed. New movements are rising led by different collectives and civil society organisations. People are taking to the streets and shouting “Ni Una Menos” no woman should be killed,” says Mela.
Uganda – creating an enabling environment for civil society
“I was arrested and shamed for leaked nudes”, model and activist Judith Heard explains. When nude pictures of her were published without her consent in 2018, she was widely criticized and was arrested under the Anti-Pornography Act. Her situation is far from unique, a survey conducted in 2016 found that 50% of Ugandan women aged between 15 and 49 has experienced violence by an intimate partner. As a result, in February 2019, Heard launched Day One Global, an advocacy organisation that seeks to curb sexual harassment and rape.
From Marion Kirabo who led a women’s protest against rising tuition fees, to Rosebell Kagumire, editor of the African Feminism digital platform opening “discussion and dialogue on feminist issues throughout the continent”, activists and “gender advocates” in Uganda, are creating innovative forms of “transnational feminism” both online and offline.
Yet, a recent report by Forus International, shows that only 1% of gender equality funding is going to women’s organizations worldwide, and that promoters of gender equality need increased protection. Even more worryingly, attacks on women organisations and civil society more generally, have been reinforced by the current COVID-19 crisis.
Overall, organizations that engage in monitoring the state’s conduct and advocate for human rights, anti-corruption, accountability, and democratic governance are experiencing growing obstacles. One of the most recent examples is the Uganda Communications Commission Guidelines for everyone posting content online, including bloggers and online news platforms, which aims to control people’s freedom of speech.
“While the Ugandan government welcomes the social services many civil society organizations provide, at the same time it feels threatened by the possibility of political mobilization and empowerment of the population that come with self-organized practices; needless to say, such threats to the government’s grip on power yield conflicts between the state and civil society actors,” according to the Uganda National NGO Forum, an umbrella organization with more than 650 member NGOs across the country.
Despite the considerable progress, more than half of the world’s girls and women—as many as 2.1 billion people—live in countries that are not on track to reach key gender equality-related targets by 2030.
However, a new survey from Focus 2030 and Women Deliver, covering 17 countries on six continents—reveals that citizens are eager for sustained and strengthened political and financial investments to accelerate progress towards gender equality. In particular, the global public supports the need for women to play a role in all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic response, with 82% of survey respondents on average saying they believe women should be involved in the response at all levels.
To build a recovery plan and a roadmap for the future, a gender lens must be applied. With the digital campaign #MarchWithUs, Forus is taking a full month to reflect on the voices of women and non-binary activists who are on the frontline of social change. It is time to act to turn “gender lies” into gender promises.
The authors are members of Forus Communication team.