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Every fall as the trees shed their colorful leaves I get a little nostalgic. When I see the children in my neighborhood setting pumpkins on their doorsteps and frolicking in leaves, I feel a pang of jealousy. With all the stresses of ‘adult life’ and grad school, I miss the carefree days of my childhood. Then I think about how lucky I was to have that experience, when so many children across the globe have their childhood cut short because of poverty, cultural expectations, and shockingly, as they are forced into marriage.

Think of a young girl in your life.  Think of your sibling, niece, cousin, neighbor, daughter or even a memory of yourself as a child. Now think of 60 million girls just like her married across the globe. Imagine them pressured by families and communities to enter into adulthood at the age of 16, 12 or even 7. Imagine them being forced to marry, often a much older man, and assume the role of a wife and mother.

The emotional, social, and health consequences of this are enormous. These girls are often forced to move far away from their families to be with their husbands. Once they are married they can no longer pursue their education. Since they are so young, they have no say within the family. They are expected to immediately fulfill their roles as wives by becoming sexually active. Most have no sexual and reproductive health education, and no idea of how to protect themselves from STIs or unwanted pregnancies. Furthermore, the girls face pressure to prove their fertility as soon as they are married.

Sexual activity and pregnancy at a young age both bear dangerous health consequences. A young, undeveloped body is often not ready for the physical strain of pregnancy and childbirth. In many of the countries in which child marriage is prevalent, Read the rest of this entry »

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Thursday morning I attended Stories of Courage and Success: Surviving and Ending Violence Against Women Internationally, an event that was organized to bolster efforts to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA, H.R. 4594/ S. 2982). There I was– my first day as an official AIDemocracy intern– sitting before an impressive panel of women’s rights advocates. The excitement I felt being in a room with these dedicated individuals, couldn’t prepare me for what I was about to hear.

After opening remarks from Maria Alexandra Arriaga (Senior Campaign Strategist for the Family Violence Prevention Fund) and Paula Kerger (president and CEO of PBS) a woman took the podium and began to sing to the crowd. Although I couldn’t understand the lyrics, the pain in her song didn’t need a translation.

This woman was Rose Mapendo, a Tutsi woman born in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. When the Rwandan army invaded the Congo in 1998 and president Kabila declared Tutsis were the enemy, pregnant Rose, her husband, and seven of her eight children were arrested and sent to a death camp. In the camp Rose witnessed the execution of her husband. According to the commanders at the camp, “women were not worth the bullet” so they were killed in other ways. Rose witnessed her family and friends slowly killed through systematic rape, beatings and starvation. After eight months in captivity Rose gave birth to twin boys on concrete prison floor. She had to beg guards for a piece of bamboo to cut the umbilical cord.

Rose never thought that there was a chance her family would survive the squalor, malnutrition, violence and rape at that camp. Yet through some miracle Rose made it to a refugee camp in Cameroon and eventually resettled to Pheonix, Arizona. She founded Mapendo International in 2003, and “works to fill the critical and unmet needs of people affected by war and conflict who have fallen through the net of humanitarian assistance”. In 2009 Rose was honored with the Humanitarian of the Year Award by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.

This year PBS will be airing Pushing the Elephant, a film that documents Rose’s reunification with her daughter Nangabire. The documentary follows them for a year as they make up for the decade they were separated. The film airs March 2011 as part of PBS’ Independent Lens Series. When Rose finished sharing her story there was not a dry eye in the house. I couldn’t help but wonder how in the 21st century violence against women can still be used as a weapon of war.

The presentation continued with Ambassador George Ward (Senior VP for International Programs, World Vision) and Samantha Mathis (Actor & Human Rights Activist) explaining the on-the-ground reality of gender based violence. Ritu Sharma (President and Co-Founder, Women Thrive Worldwide) bravely shared her own story as a survivor of rape, and highlighted the necessity to act now on International Violence Against Women’s Act (IVAWA).

When 1 in 3 women worldwide experience violence in their lifetime, measures like IVAWA are not only needed but necessary. I encourage all of you to contact your representatives today to request they support this common sense legislation. You can also visit www.PassIVAWA.org for more information on the legislation and how you can take action.

Read another one of our blogs about IVAWA here.

Yesterday I turned a quarter of a century old (ekkk!). Like every other birthday, my mother did not fail to remind me of how much pain she endured to bring me into the world. “You know, I was in labor for almost two days with you? Do you know how much that hurt? You were a small baby but with such a big head – you almost killed me!” Although at first I began to sigh and give a sarcastic “Yes, mom I know…. Sorry I had such a big head back then,” it really made me think about my 25 years of life. My life could have been so different than it is now.

My life could have been drastically different from day one simply because I was born in a developing country. Because of barriers to access health facilities and with no skilled birth attendant by her side, my mother could have easily added to Nepal’s high maternal mortality rates (today’s ratio as high as 16.6 women dying per 2,000 live births) and I could have been another child with no mother.  Luckily, with a healthy mother and father who were able to provide me with the basic needs survive, I also surpassed Nepal’s high infant and child under-five mortality ratio (today’s ratio: 51 deaths per 1,000 live births), just in time to move to the US at the age of six.

I was able to receive a number of basic needs and opportunities in the US that I most likely would not have had in Nepal: regular visits with the doctor, clean water, immunizations, primary and secondary education, adequate nutrition, sex education or opportunity to attend college, among others. I wondered…if I did not have the opportunities I had living in a developed country, would I have been able to do as much as I have at this age? Would I be able to advocate for the women’s rights, let alone sexual and reproductive health and rights?

Read the rest of this entry »

Worldwide there are approximately 80 million unwanted pregnancies each year. Half of those pregnancies end in abortion, and half of those abortions, an estimated 20 million, are unsafe abortions. These unsafe abortions result in nearly 70,000 maternal deaths each year, and tens of thousands of additional complications and injuries.1

In many cases, even where abortion is legal, there are barriers to safe abortion care, such as a shortage of skilled health care providers, a shortage of equipment or medications, the cost of paying for abortion, lack of information, distance to health centers, or stigma around seeking abortion. In developing countries receiving US Foreign assistance, these barriers, particularly shortages in supplies and training, have been exacerbated in the past by the Global Gag Rule and continue to be exacerbated by the Helms Amendment. Read more about these two detrimental pieces of legislation in my previous blog posts about the Global Gag Rule, here, and about the Helms Amendment, here, to find out what you can do about it.

However, in countries where abortion is still illegal, the situation for women is even more dire. Read the rest of this entry »

Like Lisa and Ashley, I was also lucky enough to be in attendance at the CARE National Conference and Celebration last week. As they have already written, the conference focused on three different bills and three main targets: (H.R. 3077/S. 384) the Global Food Security Act and addressing the Millennium Development Goal #1 of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (H.R. 2103/S. 987), which condemns child marriage as a human rights violation; and the Global and Maternal Health Bill (H.R. 5268/ not yet introduced in the Senate), which seeks to reduce rates of maternal mortality with cost-effective and women-empowering solutions.

Global issues like hunger, poverty, or lack of access to education are enormous, and need to be addressed in comprehensive ways.  I’m always a big fan of programs that build the capacity to address the issue in the population most affected. People have the ability to solve their own problems. The Food Security Act places much more emphasis on funding for long-term agriculture rather than emergency aid, and, in doing so, the empowerment of communities to feed themselves. It was with this in mind that I chose the Food Security Act as my focus for the lobbying visit. This wasn’t my first time lobbying on Capitol Hill, but it was the first time that I actually had the job of conveying key elements of the group’s agenda to the Hill staffers.

And I’m certainly glad I did.

As of May 19th, my House representative officially co-sponsored the Global Food Security Act. (Curious about your own reps? Click here for the House, and here for the Senate!). As one of over 900 conference participants with 345 Capitol Hill visits, I definitely felt part of something larger than myself.

But that wasn’t the only type of change at this conference.

Read the rest of this entry »

Simone de Beauvoir, the renowned author, philosopher, and feminist, once wrote: “Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.”  On January 9th, 2009, one hundred and one years after de Beauvoir’s birth, a prize honoring her legacy was awarded to the One Million Signatures Campaign for women’s rights in Iran.  The Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom is awarded by an international jury of activists and scholars and was founded to encourage solidarity among women fighting for equality around the world.  This year they choose to honor the women and men of Iran who are fighting institutionalized legal discrimination in their country.

According to Iranian law a woman’s life has half the value of a man’s life.   This means that if a man and a woman are both injured in an accident then the woman is automatically awarded half of the compensation given to the man.  A woman’s testimony in court is worth less than the testimony than a man.  Women are entitled to less inheritance than their male peers and mothers are barred from making important financial and medical decisions for their children.  While women across the globe face discrimination in a variety of forms, the laws of Iran codify and legitimize this discrimination in a particularly shocking fashion.

The One Million Signatures Campaign was launched in August 2006 in order to gather signatures for a petition asking the Iranian Parliament to change these discriminatory laws.  Hundreds of trained volunteers in cities throughout Iran are going door to door and canvasing to educate Iranians, particularly Iranian women, about the laws and asking for their support.  The campaigners of the One Million Signatures Campaign are ordinary people reaching out to their friends, family, colleagues, and fellow citizens.  Mohammad Shourab is one such volunteer who has written on the Campaign’s website, describing his experience gathering signatures.  “I got the chance to listen to stories and woes of men and women from all walks of life who had for years kept their stories and the pain they felt from these laws to themselves,” he writes.  Shrourab and his fellow campaigners face a variety of obstacles, including government harassment.  The Campaign’s website has been hacked numerous times, meetings held in private homes have been broken up by security forces, and some activists have been arrested.  But thanks to the tireless determination of activists and volunteers the Campaign continues to gather signatures.

This is why the the Simone de Beauvoir Prize is particulary significant: it has been awared to the Campaign as a whole and not just to one outstanding individual.  I am very glad that this excellent example of grassroots activism is been recognized and celebrated.  It serves as a profound reminder of the collective power of individuals, a power that de Beauvoir herself recognized.  The volunteers, activists, and signatories of the One Million Signatures Campaign are certainly taking de Beauvoir’s advice.  They aren’t gambling that the future will bring the equality they know they deserve.  They are instead working for change today.

Last Sunday, the 21st of December, police in the Islamic Republic of Iran raided and closed the office of a human rights organization, the Center of Human Rights Defenders in the Iranian capital of Tehran. The raid occurred just as the Center was having a celebration for the United Nation’s Declaration on human rights and to honor activist Taqi Rahmani.  Nargues Mohammadi, the Deputy Director of the Center described the raid: “Intelligence Ministry ‎agents, the police and plain-clothes forces surrounded our offices that day… Eventually about 10 ‎to 15 of these agents entered the building without warning. We tried to stop them and asked for a warrant. ‎They not only ignored our demands but even verbally attacked and abused me and others. ”

The authorities claim that the Center was operating as a political part without the necessary legal permit and that they had illegal contacts with local and foreign organizations.  The Center counters that it submitted the necessary paper work six years ago and that the raid was conducted illegally since the officers did not have a warrant.  Mohammadi added, “A policeman said he was not obliged to show a warrant because he was wearing a police uniform”.

The Center for Human Rights Defenders is an organization founded by five well-known lawyers.  They report regularly on the human rights situation in Iran, provide free legal defense to ideological and political dissidents, and defense for family members of ideological and political prisoners.  The Centre is particularly well know because one of its founders, Dr Shirin Ebadi, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work for women’s and human rights in Iran.  The group has filed a formal complaint against the closure of the office.  More on Iran’s numerous human rights abuses and international responses after the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

Cheers for Spain! Yesterday, the Spanish Parliament passed a women’s equality law aimed at helping women overcome pervasive sexual prejudice in the workforce and in politics.

From the Houston Chronicle:

March 15, 2007,  9:56PM

Spanish parliament passes women’s equality law

Prime minister says passing bill will transform society for better 
   

By DANIEL WOOLLS  Associated Press
 
 
 

MADRID, SPAIN — Parliament passed a gender-equality bill Thursday
aimed at getting more Spanish women into elected office and corporate
boardrooms — and more men heating baby bottles and changing diapers.

"Today is the first day of a different society," Socialist Prime
Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a self-proclaimed feminist, said
during a debate before the vote.

The final tally in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies was 192-0, with
119 abstentions. The latter were from the conservative Popular Party,
which has derided the bill as too interventionist. A total of 39
lawmakers did not attend the session.

The highlight of the so-called Law of Equality grants 15 days of
paternity leave to new fathers. In 2013, the 15 days’ leave will expand
to a month.

The bill had already been passed in the Senate, so Thursday’s vote was final.

Another provision of the bill says women must make up at least 40
percent of the lists of candidates that parties field in elections. It
will be applied for the first time in May when Spain holds regional and
municipal balloting.

In the business world, where Spanish women are grossly
underrepresented, companies that achieve more of a male-female balance
among their executives and at lower levels will receive favorable
treatment when they bid for government contracts.

Zapatero, who has made women’s rights and gender equality a hallmark
of a liberal-minded government that took power in 2004, said the law
"will transform Spanish society forever and for the better."

I love how Zapatero is a proudly self-proclaimed feminist. It’s awesome. Contrary to conventional wisdom, both women and
men can be feminists. In the United States, however, I know only a few
guys who would call themselves feminists, and they’re all college-age liberals. Can you imagine male lawmakers (forget about the president) calling themselves feminists? Yeah, right. Can you even imagine female lawmakers
calling themselves feminists? I can’t. Jokes about bra-burning and man-bashing
would roll of the tongues of Washington pundits. Feminist is the "other F-word" in this country. Even my male friends chuckle when I call myself a feminist. "Well, at least you’re not the crazy kind of feminist," one told me recently. Supressing the urge to throw my glass of water in his face, I responded by saying that he needed to clarify what a "crazy feminist" was, because I’d never met one and was curious about this exotic species.  His answer was basically a listing of stupid feminist stereotypes: the angry cat-lady, the bra-less college woman, the scary lesbian, the sexually dissatisifed man-hater, the denigrater of stay-at-home mothers. I am none of these things, and I told my friend that he might want to go out and actually talk to feminists before he makes another display of his astonishing ignorance.

It is my friend’s kind of ignorance, coupled with persevering cultural undercurrent of misogyny among political elites, that is responsible for the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the United States’ rejection of the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW.) We still  have a lot of lawmakers who firmly believe that a woman’s ONLY place is in her home, raising children and tending to her career-man husband’s every need. When my generation (with its huge numbers of women going into law and politics) is running things, that will change.

A six-year-old girl. SIX YEARS OLD! As a human being, and especially as a woman, this makes me so mad I want to smash something.

Girl, 6, Embodies Cambodia’s Sex Industry

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (CNN) — At an age when most children
might be preparing for their first day of school, Srey, 6, already has
undergone trauma that is almost unspeakable.

She was sold to a
brothel by her parents when she was 5. It is not known how much her
family got for Srey, but other girls talk of being sold for $100; one
was sold for $10.

Before she was rescued, Srey endured months of abuse at the hands of pimps and sex tourists. (Watch where freed girl is found upon reunion with reporter Video)

Passed
from man to man, often drugged to make her compliant, Srey was a
commodity at the heart of a massive, multimillion-dollar sex industry
in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Sex slavery and human trafficking are among the worst and most pervasive human rights abuses in the world today, and exist (mainly) in cities in both the developing and developed world –from Mumbai to New York. In the United States, thousands of women, men, and children are trafficked each year, and unknown numbers of them are forced into sexual slavery. And even when not connected to trafficking, sex slavery is a huge problem unto itself.  As you will see from the CNN report I’ve linked to below, children as young as 12 are forced into prostitution in Atlanta, Georgia, while children as young as 6 are found in brothels in Cambodia, many of them having contracted HIV and developed severe psychological problems.

If you go to this CNN story, you will read about a girl rescued from a life of sex slavery in Phnom Penh, and, if you scroll down and click on the video links on the left side of the page, you will see what child sex slavery looks like right here, in the United States.

The videos are not graphic, but they are disturbing. You’ve been warned.

AID has an upcoming conference on human trafficking.

Bringing the World Home: Stopping Human Trafficking:
April 27-29, 2007
London, England

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