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The Time Is Now

On a hot spring day nineteen women activists from the Middle East and North Africa met in Geneva for the MENA Agenda 1325 organised by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). WILPF’s reporter met Manar Zeaiter from Lebanon over lunch to hear more about the situation in Lebanon. Allowing no time for warm up interview questions, Lebanese women’s rights activist Manar Zeaiter, dives straight to the heart of the discussion. “Women’s rights are my life,” she exclaims, with a twinkle in her eye. The petite Lebanese lawyer kept her cool in the chaos of the United Nations cafeteria as members darted from counter to counter in search of much needed sustenance to maintain them during the Human Rights Council. Having examined all the options available, Manar Zeaiter was drawn to the healthy living counter. Her initial grimace at the sight of tofu on offer made it clear that this exotic delicacy would not be on her menu. Instead, she chose the perhaps more appetising option of sardines and carrots, accompanied by a fresh green salad. Manar’s roots Born and brought up in the Baalbeck, home to Lebanon’s greatest Roman ruins, Manar Zeaiter was taught from a young age to give great importance to the values of sincerity, equality, freedom of expression and respecting order. Invaluable training as a lawyer A spritely grin spreads across Manar Zeaiter’s face as she confesses to me that she did not originally want to be a lawyer; her ambition was to become a journalist. However, as there was no journalism course offered at her local university, she opted for law instead. Her initial resolve to study law may have been weak, but her experience as a lawyer has enabled her to assist many women who are struggling for justice in court in Lebanon. Her legal knowledge and experience of the judiciary system are of great value to the women she helps who could not have taken a case to court alone. “I work with women without asking them for money. I am happy to help them and to give them advice for free,” says Manar Zeaiter, nodding enthusiastically to affirm her point. First taster of defending women’s rights Manar Zeaiter’s first taster of defending women’s rights came when she offered help to a woman who was having trouble with a divorce case in court. This experience opened her eyes to the great need that existed in the area of women’s rights in Lebanon. Since then, her thoughts have constantly been occupied by her desire to help women and to eliminate the current discrimination and violence against them. Since 2009, Manar Zeaiter has been working for Rassemblement Démocratique de la femme libanaise. The direct contact with women that characterised Manar Zeaiter’s first experience in this field is central to the organisation’s work as it allows them to identify the real problems women are facing. “Lots of people are against our work but at the moment there is a change.” “Universities are starting to

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Eliminating Discrimination

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) began this week and will last until the 31st of August. This is where independent experts meet to monitor the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and issue “concluding observations” to the State party by the session’s end. Much more specific than the Human Rights Council, the sole focus is on issues of discrimination and how to remedy them. At the informal meeting that took place this morning, we heard from Thai NGO representatives on the main issues of discrimination in their country. Thailand is home to 62.83 million people comprised of some 62 different ethnic groups. It is imperative to hear from the grassroots and to understand the NGO perspective, which was the purpose of the informal meeting that we attended today. Three different NGOs were represented from various parts of Thailand and the main issues that they brought to the forefront were statelessness, the rights of migrants and indigenous people, and the use of martial law in some areas of the country. This correlated closely with Thailand’s official country report, which classified four main groups to be focused closely upon: (a) Ethnic groups – consisting of The Highlands people, The “Chao Lay” or “Sea Gypsies”, the Malayu-descended Thais, and other ethnic groups; (b) Displaced Thais; (c) Persons overlooked by surveys (“Unsurveyed Persons”), Persons with Identification Status Problem, and Rootless Persons; (d) Alien Population – consisting of Displaced Persons of various ethnicities, Migrant Workers, and people who flee from fighting in neighbouring countries. NGO reports To complement the country’s report, the NGOs issue shadow reports which help to convey a deeper understanding of the issues that marginalized Thais, or those that reside there, face. The goal of the findings is to generate recommendations that will ideally lead to fuller implementation of the laws that protect from discrimination. The problem of statelessness must be implemented from the top levels and this is something that the Thai government has attempted to address. Yet the number of stateless people has remained steady over the past ten years. It stands at around 540,000 people. Without citizenship, these people do not have access to basic services such as healthcare. This issue affects countless numbers of immigrants and displaced persons. The large numbers of migrant workers who have come from nearby countries such as Burma, Cambodia, and Laos, for example, have limited rights and have been exploited in terms of labor. An NGO from Southern Thailand expressed concern that the Muslim population that resides there is being targeted through a system of martial law that seemingly applies only to them. Administrative detention, racial profiling, and arbitrary arrests were mentioned as issues plaguing this population. Furthermore, many of these people living in the south are actually refugees, but since Thailand is not a party to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR), Thailand continuously refers to them as “displaced persons”. Women in Thailand Regarding women, it was mentioned that there

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Challenging Masculinity: The Necessary Step in Gender Equality?

It goes without saying that one of WILPF’s top priorities is ensuring women’s perspectives disrupt the gender stereotypes that entrench us in patriarchy. But what cost does the affirmation of gender norms have on men and why is this consideration just as relevant in the struggle to ensuring women’s rights? WILPF is organising a series of “Food for Thought” meetings for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and yesterday it was the issue of, ‘Challenging Masculinity: Men, Boys and Gender Equality’ – with our WILPF Secretary General Madeleine Rees acting as moderator. The first panel speaker was Dean Peacock, the Director of the Sonke Gender Justice Network. He opened the discussion by asking what impact gendered roles are having on men today. Certainly, the idea of a fixed feminine norm is limiting and confining to women. So it makes sense that men too would struggle with an entrenched notion of what it means to be a ‘man’. Research collated by Peacock in South Africa, as well as the International Men and Gender Equality Survey across a range of nine countries, have found that men who buy into socially constructed norms of masculinity are more prone to committing domestic or sexual violence, suffering from alcoholism and an inability to form closer relationships. On the other hand, the Survey concludes that the younger male generation, those who have received one or two years of higher education, or those who have witnessed father-figures in domestic settings are more likely to embrace gender equality. Importantly, this embrace leads to a reduced rate of violence and alcoholism and allows these men to function more fully in both social and intimate relationships. So there are concrete benefits for men who question the established gender norms! Another of the panel speakers, Abhijt Das, paralleled the Survey’s findings with the work of Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW) in India. He argued compellingly that those men who remain silent about incidences of violence and discrimination indirectly endorse the ideas of those who are violent. He urged men to stop reaffirming existing norms by remaining silent. MASVAW’s research found that those who challenged social gender conventions gained self-respect, self-esteem and established stronger relationships with their wives. The struggle for gender equality comes down to power. The problem for men is not simply a reluctance to level the playing field and grant more rights to women; it is rather the threat that women’s rights pose on their own sense of power – a power that has been afforded to them by the mere fact of them being male. So it is all the more refreshing and exciting to hear about research being conducted by men, that presents gender equality as a way of benefitting men just as much as it does women! (Madeleine’s jokes about keeping the key male speakers locked in the room and mining them for their insightful evaluations were made perhaps rather wistfully…) Christopher Lomax, UK diplomat at the mission in Geneva and representative

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Redefining the Rights of Women in Conflict

Yesterday’s CEDAW session on Women Living in Conflict/Post-conflict in Francophone Africa revolved around a discussion on the rights women should have. While we heard more and more about the issues plaguing women in conflict/post-conflict situations, we heard very little about any durable solutions to these issues. There was an emphasis on making women agents of peace, rather than victims, but limited discussion on how this can occur. While a few representatives brought up that there are indeed issues around coordinating efforts and long-term solutions, most were merely pointing out the problem rather than suggesting solutions. There were, however, a few notable exceptions. Possible Solutions? The representative from Australia outlined partnerships her country has built with nearby island nations in training women in mediation, and explained how they have seen some success in these efforts. One individual on the panel also brought up the benefits of training women in mediation. He also pointed to the need to consider transitional justice, which focuses on the needs of the victim, as an alternative to traditional systems focusing on the punishing of perpetrators. Participants pointed to countries like Burundi, and Rwanda as examples of societies using these approaches in integrating women into the peace process. However, the question must be asked: does this approach actually address the root causes of sexual violence and how to end it? Comments from the civil society representatives did start to move in that direction: pointing out that while we can continue to discuss the tragedy of sexual and gender violence, without resources and a practical plan of action little can be done. The representative from Haiti outlined the many treaties and agreements the country has signed onto in support of women’s rights, but noted the limited progress because of lack of access to resources. The panelist from Mali provided an unsettling overview of the horrors perpetrated against women, but most importantly drew attention to the fact that women experience lack of agency when they do not have active roles in the government and do not have access to education. A Change of Focus   It seems that while the root causes were alluded to in this discussion, the actual focus is still off track. If progress is to be made, a new direction must be taken. First, we must stop placing countries in neat boxes of “peaceful”, “conflict” and “post-conflict”. More than anything there is a cycle and continuum to violence. Violence perpetuates itself. While women may be particularly vulnerable in times of “conflict”, if fundamental rights are not addressed vulnerability and rights abuses are maintained even during times of post-conflict and relative peace. The encouragement to get women’s voices heard and become involved in mediation, is promising, but is unlikely to happen without a shift of focus to securing education, economic, and physical security. Which will only occur as we move to real gender equality. As we learned in the meeting on masculinities, men that go to even two years of secondary school are significantly less likely

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It's Time to Stand up for Pakistani Women's Rights

Malala Yousafzai has become a symbol for women’s human rights in Pakistan. Shot in the head and neck by the Taliban whilst on her way to school, her story has touched and revolted Pakistani society. But why was she targeted? Malala initially received public attention at the age of 11 for exerting her right to freedom of speech. The diary she wrote, under the pen name Gul Makai, laid bare the suffering of those living under Taliban rule and resonated throughout Pakistan, Importantly, however, the recent shocking attack on the 14-year-old is as much an attack on women as it is on Pakistani freedom of expression. Indeed, the Taliban has become notorious for its oppressive attitude towards women and its enforcement of what has often been described as gender apartheid. Malala was prompted to start her diary after the Taliban ordered the closure of all girls’ schools in the Swat Valley, where she was living. The young girl used her writing to champion the rights of women to education, and highlight on a wider scale the brutality of the Taliban towards women. In areas under Taliban control, women are not allowed to be educated past the age of eight. They are forbidden from leaving the house without a male member of the family. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have decreed that women must not speak loudly in public to prevent strangers from hearing a woman’s voice. These are just a few of the Taliban’s policies against women that strip them of any sense of personal freedom or autonomy. The shooting of Malala has united Pakistanis not only in a common disgust at the Taliban’s actions but also in a tacit acknowledgement that the unequal conditions of women living there must be addressed. Her attack has given great strength to women throughout Pakistan and has prompted them to engage in rallies and marches – some of which our own WILPF Pakistan members have taken part – to fight against the oppression that women have endured for too long Next week the Human Rights Council of the United Nations will review the compliance of Pakistan with human rights, in its Universal Periodic Review. It is crucial that the UN consider the basic rights of women who are violated on a daily basis. Want to get more involved? WILPF International will hold a side event entitled, ‘Women’s Rights in Pakistan: Status, Challenges and Possible Solutions’. We are happy to include on our panel Fauzia Viqar from Shirkat Gah, and Taslim Akhtar from WILPF Pakistan. The public event will be held at the UN Palais in room XXII on 31 October from 13:00 to 15:00, with refreshments being served beforehand. You can find WILPF’s recommendations for the UPR Pakistan here . If you are in Geneva and are interested in coming to the event please contact us at rights (a) wilpf.ch

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Support the Kosovo Women's Network

We’ve just received the following important declaration from the Kosovo Women’s Network, with whom we are working. It is a call for the application of what the UN has said should happen after conflict and an invitation to a citizen’s protest on 3 November 2012, in Prishtina. If the principles which underpin transitional justice are ignored – as they have been in the Balkans since the ostensible ending of the conflict – then there can be no justice and you cannot call this peace. WILPF supports the legitimate calls of the Network for an apology, justice, reparation and truth about the fate of those missing and absolute guarantees of non-repetition. Visit the Kosovo Women’s Network online here, or find them on Facebook here. Statement for Justice and Dignity before negotations We, the citizens of Kosova, united for “Justice and Dignity before Negotiations,” invite you to a citizens’ protest on Saturday 3, 2012 from 11-13 at Mother Theresa Square (in front of RINGS restaurant) in Prishtina. Without meeting our demands, any negotiation with Serbia is unacceptable! These are the legitimate demands of a population that has experienced genocide. Human and state dignity are necessary conditions for entering into negotiations with Serbia! Please see our declaration and demands below: We are a people whose history has been forgotten or suppressed by international actors, and, more painfully, by our own political leaders; We are the women and men, girls and boys who for more than ten years participated in peaceful, civil resistance with the dream that one day we would live in a democracy where our voice would be heard and our rights protected; We are the people who have seen our life savings and property taken from us by a state that refuses to take responsibility for the crimes it committed against us; We are a generation of youth who were denied the right to education for nearly a decade, causing irreparable damage to our employability; We are a population who was denied the right to work, to healthcare, to peaceful protest, to speaking our native language, to singing our traditional songs, to our cultural heritage; We are the families of the 1,765 persons still missing since the 1998-1999 war, who cry out for our loved ones to be found; We are the families of innocent civilians murdered during the war; we are the victims of genocide perpetrated by the state of Serbia; We are the brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers of the thousands of women and girls who were raped, as a weapon of war, perpetrated by the Serbian military, and who have yet to receive an apology, let alone justice; We are human. And we stand together against any human rights violation perpetrated against us and our loved ones by police, military, and/or political leaders. We have the right for our voices to be heard, and we have the right to organize peacefully in public spaces. We wear red to represent the blood that was spilled in direct violations of our

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Universal Periodic Review: A Window into Human Rights Implementation

The last two weeks have been all about the Universal Periodic Review, held here in Geneva. For this session, WILPF monitored the reviews of those States in which we have sections. We also hosted a side-event in response to the Pakistani review, for which we wrote a separate blog. Argentina The Argentinian review focused on a few major issues. These included: The conditions of prisons, including accusations of torture Maternal mortality rates Discrimination against indigenous communities And especially Human Trafficking. Argentina is a major source, transit and destination location for Human Trafficking. The UPR brought attention to the recent Argentinian study that observed that forms of trafficking for sexual exploitation are mutating, so as to avoid prosecution. They urged Argentina’s government to react accordingly in its legislature, law enforcement and judiciary. They further pushed for better protection and care for victims of trafficking. While they acknowledged that Argentina has recently introduced a centre for victims of trafficking and this is a step in the right direction, these centres need to be made more widely available to every victim of trafficking, including those of labour exploitation. The final report of the UPR including all recommendations made to Argentina can be found here. Switzerland The review of Switzerland was very different in tone to that of Argentina, as many States recognised the exemplary manner in which Switzerland protects and promotes human rights in general. Besides the issue of xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia brought up by several Muslim States, equal pay for women and men, the rights of migrants and domestic violence were major issues. While it was discouraging to see the increased militarisation in Switzerland not being linked at all with the increase of domestic violence, women’s migrant rights were put together with domestic violence. In particular, the difficulties faced by migrant women who are victims of domestic violence were discussed. As these women often do not report the abuse due to fear of deportation and are equally unable to file for divorce without being deported, the UPR rightly put pressure on the Swiss government to address their appalling situation. The final report of the UPR including all recommendations made to Switzerland can be found here. Japan At the start of this UPR, WILPF issued a statement on the use of comfort women by Japan during the Second World War. It advocated for Japan to take responsibility and for a victim-lead recognition and reparations. Both the Dutch and South Korean delegates made very strong statements and recommendations on the issue. They called for comfort women to be reintroduced to Japanese history books, provide redress to all victims, and recognise their legal responsibility towards these victims. The final report of the UPR including all recommendations made to Japan can be found here. Peru Finally, the UPR session of Peru exposed a wide range of issues Peru was called on to deal with. These issues included prison conditions for women, sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and children, the special vulnerabilities of indigenous and

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Do You Remember Azza Hilal Suleiman?

Azza Hilal Suleiman’s story of experiencing violent brutality shocked us when we met her in Geneva, in June 2012. And since then, it seems the situation in Egypt has not improved much. Jacqui True and Vanessa Farr interviewed her in Cairo, on life after the revolution and its impact on women’s rights. By Vanessa Farr and Jacqui True While we were in Cairo in the second phase of WILPF’s MENA Agenda 1325 project, we took the opportunity to catch up with Azza Suleiman. You might remember reading her compelling personal testimony about being beaten into a coma by army officers when she protected another unarmed female protestor during an attempted peaceful protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in December 2011. Azza looks a lot better than she did when we saw her in July in Geneva. Then, you could still see bruising on her head and neck and she was exhausted and more-or-less constantly in pain. “The bruising has finally healed”, she said, “but some of my very deep injuries are still surfacing. Hard tissue and blood clots still cause me discomfort and pain and my head injuries still make me very tired and dizzy.” Her doctors think it will take about two years to fully recover, but, she said, “I do feel better, and I’m happy to tell you I feel less pain than before.” We were saddened to hear, however, that her court case has shown no signs of movement. “My lawyers continue to work on my case pro bono, but the courts have now started the legal process from the beginning claiming there is evidence they need and do not have. Amnesty has placed Azza’s case on their urgent action list. “They are doing this with a lot of cases from the time of the uprisings; it’s clearly a delaying tactic. I feel very sad but I still cling to my belief in justice. I continue to receive lots of sympathy from outside,” Azza said, “but I feel much less support from within Egypt. I feel that there’s very little hope left.” Azza and other Egyptian women’s human rights activists believe there is an implicit agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, exactly like the one that existed in Mubarak’s time. “The Brotherhood and salafists have their own deal with the armed forces now, and for all of those awaiting a court case, hope is minimal” she said. “Officers who were supposedly kicked out for using violence against unarmed protesters have not only been reinstated but received rewards. It seems human rights are even more fragile now than they were before: with military impunity, the torture is also continuing.” Azza also talked about the continued economic exclusion of poor people, which was one of the major reasons for the uprising against Mubarak’s regime. “People are still poor, taxes are still high,” she said. “Indeed, the ruling party wants more money from us. And where is that to come from? The Brotherhood don’t have any fiscal policies or plans,

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Human Trafficking: When Peacekeepers Become the Problem

Last week, Madeleine Rees, Barbro Svedberg and I packed our suitcases and headed for London. WILPF had organized a two-day conference there where we moderated and led some complex discussions. The conference was a follow-up of a previous seminar held in May this year, both focusing on human trafficking and sexual violence in the post-conflict context. The Whistleblower: An Agent of Change The conference was held against the backdrop of the popular film, ‘The Whistleblower’ starring Rachel Weisz, which created quite the furore amongst all those who watched it. For WILPF, this film carries special significance, as it is based on events that happened to our very own Secretary-General, Madeleine Rees (played in the film by Vanessa Redgrave). The movie shows how UN peacekeepers were involved in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the widespread trafficking of women for sexual exploitation. The fact that no peacekeepers or States, organisations and companies they worked for were ever effectively prosecuted or punished in any way was especially devastating, and demanded action. Addressing the Problem Attempts made by the UN and others since then to address this situation have fallen short. Though a step in the right direction, measures such as the adoption of a UN zero tolerance policy and the creation of conduct and disciplinary units do not bring about the fundamental change needed in the culture of peacekeeping. A major hurdle in addressing this issue is the complicated legal environment these questions lie in. There is simply no straightforward legal regime that directly covers human trafficking and sexual violence in post-conflict areas by peacekeepers. The fact these peacekeepers are sometimes UN staff, sometimes troops sent by States, and sometimes private military actors hired by the UN, States or even third parties complicates things even further. WILPF therefore organised this conference to join forces with several leading experts in various legal fields, with the aim to develop an improved UN policy based on international law and obligation, as opposed to an administrative process based on morality. Intellectual Tour de Force So, what happened when we put ten litres of coffee, one really good cake, twenty women, one man, and a whole lot of brainpower in one room? Well, this is when things really started to heat up! We came up with a comprehensive new approach to create accountability in the system. Patricia Sellers, an international criminal prosecutor, for example, gave us insights on how human trafficking could be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court, under its slavery provisions. Lisa Davis, who is currently part of the national lawyers’ Guild Group on Haiti, also told us about the growing trend of peacekeepers being used in disaster areas like Haiti, so we can keep account of these situations in our proposal as well. Other guests included our experts on international law of armed conflict, Vera Gowlland-Debbas, who explained everything! Louise Arimatsu and Ben Clarke, who explained to the group the way in which military tribunals works, and of course, we could not have done it without

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Day 4: Australia – the Uncritical Us Ally?

Australia is usually seen as a progressive society, with an excellent reputation for upholding United Nations’ Treaties. However, over the last decade there have been a number of changes taking place that have tended to ’politicise’ situations and turn issues such as asylum seekers into security threats and a greater willingness to participate in wars in countries not necessarily seen as a threat by the general population (e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan). These changes inordinately affect women as money goes into executing wars, thus reducing funding for meeting human needs. Some women’s personal autonomy has also been reduced through new punitive domestic legislation. Following Australia’s involvement in both World Wars and the disastrous Vietnam War, the Australian people have become increasingly ‘anti-war’, opposing war as the way to resolve international conflict. There were large public demonstrations against Australia’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War, which proceeded without parliamentary vote, requiring only the decision of the current Prime Minister, John Howard, to involve Australia in it. Australian citizens see this as a violation of the rights of Australians to have such important decisions made without the participation of our democratically elected representatives in parliament. Several calls to address this situation have failed. Both major political parties prefer the right for the party in power to make the important decision, without parliamentary support. We want to reduce the likelihood of all wars, as we know the terrible impact they have on the populations of all sides involved and particularly on civilians. More and more Australians are questioning our role in Afghanistan, especially as large numbers of civilian deaths are revealed. We are asking the question particularly, ‘Are drone strikes actually legal?’ We are currently seeking legal advice from both the Australian Red Cross and the Australian government to clarify this. Drones highlight the change in methods of warfare taking place. Who is responsible for a drone killing families?  This also needs to be clarified. These scenarios need urgent international legislative review. Again, the impact on women and families, the creation of widows and orphans, is unjustifiable. Australia is currently coupled with the US in these wars through a long standing ANZUS Treaty, aligning us closer and closer with US foreign policy.  Equipment is now designed to be “interoperable” and recently, for the first time, our Prime Minister announced that 2,500 US troops would be permanently stationed at our northern Darwin base. Many Australians are increasingly concerned that we are becoming uncritical US allies. We see this as a violation of our right as citizens to develop our own independent foreign policy. We would like to see Australia build friendships, trust and partnerships with our regional neighbours, rather than be seen by them as an extension of US foreign policy. We want to support the right of women in all countries to live a life free from war and all forms of violence. The most recent example of state violence has been metered out to asylum-seekers, fleeing from war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan

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