how foreign governments hurt not help LGBTQI rights

On Monday, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The law criminalises lesbianism for the first time, strengthens punishment for anyone caught having sex with someone of the same sex and outlaws the promotion of homosexuality. It criminalises those who assist individuals to engage in homosexual acts and requires citizens to denounce those they suspect of being gay. It introduces an offence of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ with those convicted receiving a sentence of life imprisonment.

This move by the Ugandan government followed fundamental retrenchment of rights in India and Nigeria in December and January.

The Indian Supreme Court ruled in December that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalising sexual acts ‘against the order of nature’ was, in fact, not a breach of rights as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. This overruled the previous 2009 decision of the Delhi High Court that made criminalising homosexuality unconstitutional and ‘completely changed everything’ according to Anand Grover of the Lawyer’s Collective who brought the legal challenge. Prior to 2009, the Indian Penal Code was used to harass, extort money from and blackmail India’s LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex) population. It had disproportionate impact on those from ‘lower’ socio-economic classes and castes who had little recourse to assistance. Rajnath Singh, president of the BJP, India’s main opposition party, welcomed the  Supreme Court decision saying ‘we believe that homosexuality is an unnatural act and cannot be supported.’

This was followed mere weeks later by President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria assenting to legislation that prohibits and criminalises marriage contracts or civil unions entered into by people of the same gender, public show of same sex amorous relationship and registration of gay clubs, societies and organisations. It also criminalises anyone who witnesses or aids a same gender marriage, civil union or operation of a gay rights organisation. Criminalising homosexuality is not new in Nigeria. Section 214 of the Criminal Code Act criminalised ‘any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature’, with a jail term of up to 14 years. In the northern states which have adopted sharia law, the maximum sentence since the turn of the millennium has been the death penalty for men and whipping and/ or imprisonment for women. Since January, the police in each state are said to have drawn up lists of suspected gay people who they now plan to target. Arrests and punishments have been intensely popular with police having to protect defendants from crowds throwing stones.

The United Nations, human rights organisations and international donors have been quick to condemn these moves. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement saying ‘Disapproval of homosexuality by some can never justify violating the fundamental human rights of others.’ Amnesty International called the law ‘a mockery of the rights enshrined in the Ugandan constitution.’ Bilateral donors have threatened to review or withdraw aid, with Foreign Ministers issuing strong condemnatory statements.

Foreign governments think they are taking positive action. These are countries that say they support the rights of queer people and are working to protect them. This is positive. We certainly do not want them to look the other way in deference to the position of Nigeria or Uganda as a strategic ally in the fight against extremism in Somalia or Northern Nigeria or in terms of the world economic markets.

However a bit of strategic thinking, acknowledgement of history and context and joining up rhetoric to reality would be welcome. What is often missing is any consultation with activists to find out the impact of particular courses of action, taking their cue from them in terms of how best to support their work in fighting for realisation of rights and bringing this concern for rights back ‘home’.

‘Over there’

When examining the impact of foreign governments on the lives of queer people, we need to consider change in the formal legislative field and more nebulous terrain of changing people’s attitudes and behaviour. After all, not being imprisoned, not being sentenced to death or even being tolerated, although achievements in and of themselves, fall far short of real success.

Foreign governments have reacted strongly to what has been happening in Eastern European, African, Asian and Latin American countries and in ways that may well not help. Even in terms of legislative change, this has not always worked to stop the passage of regressive laws. In Nigeria and Uganda, the UK, USA, Canada and others have been outspoken (publicly and privately) on this issue for months. Yet as of January, Nigeria had passed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act but President Museveni had refused to assent to anti-gay legislation in Uganda. At the time, many commentators attributed this to Uganda’s reliance on foreign aid as opposed to Nigeria’s relative independence due to oil receipts. International pressure did lead to the removal of the death penalty from the legislation but recent events in Uganda have shown the fallacy of this analysis and the limit of donor power in the face of endemic societal homophobia and huge electoral popularity.

Diplomacy evidently does not work (all the time).

There may be a space for private, behind closed doors advocacy but, given so much of the rhetoric around the legislation is of the ‘resisting Western imperialism and protecting our [insert country/ ethnicity/ religion/ region] values‘ kind, are public threats of sanctions, cancelled meetings and withdrawing aid at this point merely playing into the hands of the homophobes?

In India, Nigeria, Uganda and many African, Asian and Latin American countries, much of the debates around homosexuality centre around the narrative of it being a ‘Western disease’ that is being imposed on ‘our’ countries in contravention of ‘our’ culture, history and tradition. Museveni has said, ‘There’s now an attempt at social imperialism, to impose social values… Outsiders cannot dictate to us. This is our country.’ Others like President Macky Sall of Senegal have stated, ‘”We don’t ask the Europeans to be polygamists. We like polygamy in our country, but we can’t impose it in yours. Because the people won’t understand it. They won’t accept it. It’s the same thing.” Politicians cast themselves as heroes for resisting this Western imperialism to (mostly) loud applause from their public, all too crucial in election or pre-election years.

Actions by foreign governments reinforce this world view. In Uganda, Denmark and Norway announced they would re-direct its aid away from the Ugandan government and towards human rights and private sector organisations. The Netherlands has suspended its aid. Austria and the US have announced an internal review of its relationship with the country and warned this may mean cutting aid.

This is in the face of numerous organisations and activists from across the continent who have spoken out against the use of aid conditionality. They say imposition of donor sanctions does not result in improved protection of rights and objectives of movements cannot be met if donors withhold aid as:

• donor sanctions reinforce the disproportionate power dynamics between donors and recipients
• they are based on assumptions about African sexualities and the needs of African LGBTI people
• they disregard the agency of African civil society movements and political leadership
• politicians can scapegoat LGBTI people for donor sanctions to retain and reinforce national state sovereignty
• they sustain the divide between the LGBTI and broader civil society movement – emphasising that LGBTI rights are special and more important and supporting the idea that homosexuality is ‘un-African’ and western-sponsored
• aid cuts affect LGBTI people who are part of the population that benefit from funding

Although I believe that we have to stop solely blaming colonialism for our homophobia, it is worth mentioning that many of these laws were imposed on countries during the time of imperial rule. That is not to say that we were all living in a utopia and colonialism introduced homophobia (and transphobia and patriarchy) to countries that were colonised. However, we need context and historical awareness – and to disrupt the tendency to see white as civilised, saviours and upholder of rights and black as savages, victims and backwards.

As the group of activists mentioned above conclude,

The history of colonialism and sexuality cannot be overlooked when seeking solutions to this issue. The colonial legacy of the British Empire in the form of laws that criminalize same-sex sex continues to serve as the legal foundation for the persecution of LGBTI people throughout the Commonwealth. In seeking solutions to the multi-faceted violations facing LGBTI people across Africa, old approaches and ways of engaging our continent have to be stopped. New ways of engaging that have the protection of human rights at their core have to recognize the importance of consulting the affected.

In addition to actually working to intensify backlash, others have written and spoken about ways in which action by foreign governments and donors often constructs queer identities in particular (Eurocentric) ways. Even the alphabet soup of the language used is that of Euro-America, disrupting the long histories of indigenous words, such as the mevengu of the Beti people of Cameroon, the yan daudu of northern Nigeria or the gor digen of Senegal, that describe those who lived queer lives. Furthermore, external NGOs and governments often distort and impose priorities on movements by funding particular arenas of work. It seems everyone must follow the linear path of decriminalisation to marriage and adoption, regardless of the priorities of queer activists of the countries concerned themselves. This also pits the ‘civilised’ developed world against the ‘backwards’ Third World and follows homonational agendas, the tying of gay rights with a nationalist ideologies such as the ‘war on terror’ or, in the case of Israel, the occupation.

When looking at donor influence, it is useful to distinguish legal change from social change. In some instances, donor pressure may be able to stop legislation from being passed or particular people from being punished. However, in almost all cases, in the way it is being currently practiced, it has an adverse impact on being able to achieve long-term, meaningful, radical and transformatory societal change. The ‘homosexuality is a Western disease that they are trying to impose on us‘ argument, unfortunately, is not only well ingrained but seems to be gaining ever more traction. Given this, any hint that a foreign power is trying to persuade the government to do or not do something is only going to play into this perception and therefore strengthen the arguments of the homophobes. Legal change (or failure to pass regressive change) may be achieved but at what cost to progress in changes in societal attitudes and behaviour?

Over here’

Furthermore, if governments really cared about queer people being persecuted in Africa and Asia they need to put their money where their mouth is. Asylum policies should be put in line with this rhetoric. You cannot try to protect people from oppression in one place but, when they come to you expecting help, send them back for more.

Following passage of legislation in Nigeria, the UK government is now automatically granting asylum status to those they accept as LGBTQI from Nigeria. This sounds great but the operative words in that sentence are ‘those they accept as.’

In 2010, campaigners described institutional homophobia in the asylum system that has meant almost all LGBTQI asylum seekers are refused sanctuary. Not much has changed since then. British authorities are notoriously quick to make assumptions about who is and who is not being ‘genuine’ about their sexuality. There seems to be this idea that if a person has not had (multiple) same sex partners previously and does not head down to Soho to party it up the very second that they step off that plane that they are just making things up to be able to stay in the country. Asylum seekers in 2014 are often interrogated by hours and asked degrading and personal questions such as ‘When x was penetrating you, did you have an erection?’ and ‘What is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?’

A couple of years ago, I worked with others on the case of Betty Tibikawa, a young Ugandan woman who was about to be deported despite the fact that she had been publicly outed in a Ugandan magazine, was wanted for being a lesbian and had been branded on her thighs as punishment. The UK Border Agency just did not believe she was telling the truth about her sexuality. When I visited Betty in Yarlswood Detention Centre, she said to us she thought it was because she had long hair. She observed that those of her friends seeking asylum with short hair and who ‘looked lesbian’ were much more likely for it to be granted.

The Lesbian Immigration Support Group in January sent an urgent appeal to act in the case of Nadine Ida Ketchakwe to prevent her deportation to Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal and an imprisonable offence. In Nadine’s case too, her claim for asylum was also rejected because the judge did not believe she was lesbian. This is despite the death threats she had received from her husband and brother and the many letters of support she received from lesbians in Manchester. As LISG asks, ‘How do you prove you are a lesbian, if the accounts of other lesbians about you are not accepted?

All recent news coverage has been about the ‘awful’ things that are happening in places like Nigeria and India. What has been missing, both in the coverage and people’s analysis of what is happening, is the conditions that people fleeing persecution face when they try to find sanctuary.

As Sandhya Sharma writes:

A recent report by Women for Refugee Women highlights the specific trauma women asylum seekers face where their vulnerability exposes them to an underworld of victimisation. Of the women interviewed, 96% had relied on charities for food and 56% had been forced to sleep on the street and 16% having experienced sexual violence while destitute. Unsurprisingly, the figures for mental health distress amongst this group are extraordinarily high with 97% reporting depression and 63% at risk of suicide or reporting suicidal feelings.

In the UK, asylum seekers are not allowed to work while waiting for their case to be decided. They do not qualify for council housing or housing benefit and cannot claim mainstream benefits. A single adult asylum seeker receives £36.62 a week i.e. £5.23 a day. Somehow they are expected to house and feed themselves on this at a time where rising inflation is driving increasing numbers of people to food banks, poverty, homelessness and destitution.

The way forward

Turning away from any human rights abuse is not be the answer. However, action taken should not be the easy fixes of removing aid or issuing condemnatory statements that are likely to inspire further backlash rather than positive change. If foreign governments actually wanted to help, they must stop drawing a sharp dividing line between the ‘civilised’ West and the backward ‘third world.’

After all, the story that is always overlooked is that of activists organising against repressive laws and customs and of their family, friends and acquaintances who support them. It is encouraging that Norway and Denmark have pledged to fund the work of human rights organisations. Supporting the work of the many who are engaged in activist work would make a big difference. Funding for any movement is woefully low and the queer movement is no different. In 2010, organisations empowering LGBTQI people received less than 1/100th of 1 % of total aid donated by major government donors.

Donors need to listen to what activists want, not impose a blanket supposition of their own priorities of what they think should be funded. Activists need long term organisational rather than short term project based support. After all, these organisations may be the only safe spaces around. In Sri Lanka, Equal Ground offices act as a ‘safe zone’ for members of the queer community in an area dominated by militia groups that carry out the death penalty for those who deviate from normative forms of sexuality and gender identity.

Furthermore, if they really care about the lives of queer people, asylum and immigration systems should be humanised to provide real support and succour to those fleeing persecution.

Genuinely working for queer people at risk of persecution requires foreign governments to exert real empathy and care – and to do so by listening to the activists involved and reforming asylum and immigration systems.

This piece was originally published on New Left Project.

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aid, violence against women and girls and the UK

On 12th March 2013, I appeared as a witness before the International Development Select Committee to give evidence for their inquiry into  the work of the Department for International Development on violence against women and girls.  I had written the submission of the Associate Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security on which I based my comments in the evidence session.

You can watch a video recording of the session here.

For a full report of the Select Committee’s findings and recommendations, published in June 2013, please see here.

putting women’s rights into the Arms Trade Treaty

I wrote this report together with Caroline Green of Oxfam GB in June 2012. The year saw the culmination of over a decade of global activism for an Arms Trade Treaty that regulated the transfer of arms.

We recommended that:

A criterion in the Arms Trade Treaty should require States not to allow an international transfer of conventional arms where there is a substantial risk that the arms under consideration will be used to perpetrate or facilitate acts of gender-based violence, including rape and other forms of sexual violence.

After years of negotiation, the Arms Trade Treaty was passed on 2nd April 2013 by the General Assembly by a 154 – 3 vote with 23 abstentions. The countries abstaining were Iran, North Korea and Syria. The text requires that, prior to authorisation of transfers of arms, States assess whether they could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian or human rights law. In addition, States shall consider taking feasible measures to avoid the arms being used to commit or facilitate gender based violence or violence against children.

‘At last the attention it deserves: has the time come for action on violence against women?’

On 25th February 2013, I spoke on a panel at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on violence against women and girls. On the panel with me were Dr. Gina Heathcote of SOAS,  Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters and Farida Deif of UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women.

 

 

I apologise for not being able to transcribe the whole event but this is the text of what I said:

I am going to talk about violence against women and the links with peace and security. Over the last twenty years, countries have been paying increasing attention to prevention of and response to violence against women and girls – especially when it comes to conflict related sexual violence. There is growing attention of it as a development and human rights issue and that it is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality.

There has been more resistance to accepting the links between violence against women and peace and security. Violence against women and girls not only is a key driver of conflict but it also constitutes a form of conflict in and of itself. New research by Valerie Hudson found an empirical link between levels of violence and other forms of insecurity and instability. Violence against women and girls is a cause and consequence of not only gender inequality but also of conflict. Further, ‘conflict’ should not only refer to guns and bullets but also people’s experiences of violence. Violence against women and girls is endemic during conflict, and in many cases, increases after the guns stop firing as combatants return to their communities, non gender sensitive disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and rehabilitation processes and contestation over changed gender power relations as women face backlash against the positions of decision making they were forced to assume.

My work is to do advocacy and campaigning focusing on UK development, diplomatic and defence policy and practice. The UK has increased its work on gender-based violence in the last 18 months. DFID are building the skills of country offices and expanding funding and programming and the Foreign Secretary has committed himself to mobilising the international community to end sexual violence in conflict. However, this is far from enough.

1)     Focus has been on building institutional capacity rather than addressing women’s empowerment. Now, of course, improving the police, judiciary and other state institutions is vital – but so too is tackling the root causes of violence – the unequal power relations between women and men. Increasing the quality and quantity of participation and leadership in political, economic and cultural decision-making at all levels is key. At the moment we have emphasis on violence against women and lip service paid to participation and empowerment – these are two halves and cannot be separated. We need to problematise the focus on VAW and not challenging the broader gender power relations of which violence is a part.

2)     Focus has been on building institutions rather than supporting those who create change. Recent research looked at activism and policy development on violence against women and girls in over seventy countries and across four decades. It found mobilisation of feminist activists had increased and longer lasting impact than political parties, number of women politicians, or national wealth. Despite their catalytic roles, women activists and organisations continue to be overlooked. Only 1.3 percent of the funds for gender equality screened by the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which groups the world’s main donors, went to women’s rights organisations and women’s ministries in 2010.

3)     There has been little take-up of a gender analysis into conflict, peace and security practice. Despite calling for and working towards peace, human rights and justice, women continue to be excluded and marginalised. Those who have the power to decide often simply do not view involving or thinking of women as a priority. In the past 25 years, only one in forty signatories to peace agreements have been women.  Only sixteen percent of peace agreements concluded between 1990 and 2010 even mention the word ‘women’ and even of these 16%, many mention ‘women’ to restrict their rights and say what women can and cannot do. Support given to build security and justice systems often do not take the security needs of women into account. Specialised and integrated services for survivors of gender based violence are often sidelined and deprioritised in emergency response e.g. of the $31m allocated to DRC between January and October 2012, protection received less than 1 percent of funds.

I am going to talk a little bit about Afghanistan now. GAPS runs the No women, no peace. campaign which works with women’s rights activists in Afghanistan to amplify their voices to UK and international decision makers. So much has been achieved – women in parliament, girls in schools, equal rights enshrined in the constitution and a law to eliminate violence against women. However, 87% of women face violence, the biggest fear of women under 30 is sexual assault and the Eliminate Violence against Women law is only enforced in 10 out of 34 provinces.

Before going further, I want to dispel a myth. I always address this when I’m speaking about women’s rights to pre-empt the Q & A – I would hope that wouldn’t be the case at SOAS but I’ll do it nonetheless. Often I hear ‘It’s not their culture. They’re not like us. We cannot go in and try to turn Afghanistan into Sweden – or Denmark – or Norway.’ It is interesting, isn’t it? We do not hear this about the human rights of men – when we talk about freedom of speech for example – but whenever we talk about women, there is always someone talking about the need to be ‘culturally sensitive.’ As if it hurts less when a woman is abused because it is in Kabul rather than London. In reality, women in Afghanistan had equal voting rights before women in the UK. Women in Afghanistan drafted the 1964 constitution, which provided for equality between women and men. Until the early 1990s, women were teachers, ministers, doctors, professors, lawyers, judges, journalists, writers and parliamentarians. There have been folk songs against child marriage for generations – proving that in Afghanistan, as in all parts of the world, there has always been an active movement for women’s rights.

In Afghanistan, as in all parts of the world too, women experience violence. They face violence at home and then again for running away. In 2010, Bibi Aysha had her nose and ears cut off by her husband because she ran away from abusive in-laws. Alternatively, women who escape violence end in prison. Half of the women in Afghanistan’s prisons are there for zina or sex outside marriage. This includes women fleeing from forced marriage or domestic violence. In many instances, women who are raped or forced into prostitution are put in prison instead of being given medical care and psychological counselling.

There are many women and men who fight for women’s rights – who push to have women’s rights in the constitution and laws, run refuges and shelters, educate women and girls and work to change attitudes and behaviour – but they are in constant danger of violence. They are followed in the street, are verbally and physically attacked and their offices and homes targeted. In July last year, Hanifa Safi, head of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Laghman was shot and killed. Her successor Najia Siddiqui was killed less than four months later. In addition to all of this, there are simply not enough refuges in the country to which women can go to. Those that exist struggle month by month for survival – and this is a country that has seen so much aid. Why has more of that not been for women?

In order to address violence against women in Afghanistan properly, the international community needs to spend at least $90m over 5 years. When we ask UK officials whether women’s rights will be a priority in the new UK development plan for Afghanistan, we are told this is not likely. So much international money has gone into Afghanistan, why has it not done more to help women?

Even if the government has a peace deal, I fear that women will be prisoners once again. I don’t want this and I don’t want the international community to forget us.’ Tahmina Kohistani, athlete and only woman from Afghanistan to compete in the Olympics

Afghanistan, women’s rights and violence against women and girls

I spoke at Amnesty’s Student Conference on 17th November 2012 on a panel with Tabassum Wolayat and Noorjahan Akbar of Young Women for Change. What follows has been reconstructed from the notes for the panel.

 

So much has been achieved in Afghanistan for women’s rights. We have women in parliament, girls in schools, the constitution enshrining equal rights and a law to eliminate violence against women that criminalises killing in the name of ‘honour,’ child marriages and giving away girls to settle disputes. However, progress made is far from sufficient. It has been estimated that 87% of women in Afghanistan face violence. The biggest fear of women under 30 in Afghanistan is sexual assault. The Eliminate Violence against Women law is only enforced in 10 out of 34 provinces.

Women face violence at home and then again for running away. In 2010, Bibi Aysha had her nose and ears cut off by her husband because she ran away from abusive in-laws. Alternatively, women who escape violence end in prison. Half of the women in Afghanistan’s prisons are there for zina or sex outside marriage. This includes women fleeing from forced marriage or domestic violence. In many instances, women who are raped or forced into prostitution are put in prison instead of being given medical care and psychological counselling and their perpetrator being punished.

Last year, Gulnaz was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being raped. Due to the mobilisation of human rights activists in Afghanistan and their allies outside, she was freed – although there was some concern that this might be conditional on her marrying her rapist. At the time, she said, ‘What kind of government is this? What kind of Afghanistan is this? My attacker committed a crime, and they arrested me!

There are many women and men who fight for women’s rights – who push to have women’s rights in the constitution and laws, run refuges and shelters, educate women and girls and work to change attitudes and behaviour – but they are in constant danger of violence. They are followed in the street, are verbally and physically attacked and their offices and homes targeted. Safiye Amajan, director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kandahar was shot and killed in 2006. In July this year, Hanifa Safi, head of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Laghman was shot and killed. Sitara Achakzai, Malalai Kakar, Majabina, Nazaneen…all women who have been killed because of working for women’s rights. According to Shinkai Karokhail, a member of parliament, ‘You can’t be an active woman in Afghanistan and not feel threatened. It is part of my daily life.’ The government takes very little action. Not only does this climate of impunity threaten women’s lives, but it means they are less able to defend and promote the human rights of women and girls. I was at a conference in Istanbul in September this year bringing together women’s rights activists from across the region. When we were discussing what inhibits their work, fear was one of the major factors mentioned.

In addition to all of this, there are simply not enough refuges in the country to which women can go to. Those that exist struggle month by month for survival – and this is a country that has seen so much aid. Why has more of that not been for women?

Before going further, I want to dispel a myth. Often I hear about ‘culture’ and ‘religion.’ ‘It’s not their culture. They’re not like us. We cannot go in and try to turn Afghanistan into Sweden – or Denmark – or Norway.’ It is interesting, isn’t it? We do not hear this about the human rights of men – when we talk about freedom of speech for example – but whenever we talk about women, there is always someone talking about the need to be ‘culturally sensitive.’

In reality, women in Afghanistan had equal voting rights before women in the UK. Women in Afghanistan drafted the 1964 constitution, which provided for equality between women and men. Until the early 1990s, women were teachers, ministers, doctors, professors, lawyers, judges, journalists, writers and parliamentarians. And, as we have seen from the news this week, Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland because she was denied a life-saving abortion as ‘this is a Catholic country.’ ‘Religion’ and ‘tradition’ cut both ways. We cannot let narrow patriarchal interpretations of religion, tradition and culture destroy women’s lives and limit what half the population can and cannot do.

Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister, promised that ‘We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before’. Women activists with whom I work fear that this is exactly what is happening, meaning the gains women’s rights activists and their allies have fought to secure will be lost. Nine out of ten women are worried about the Taliban returning to government, believing it would risk what has been achieved for women. Shakila Nadiri who teaches women to drive in Kabul says ‘Just the thought of losing what we have gained is very scary.’

And what is the UK doing? Not nearly enough. The top three things the UK should do on women’s rights in Afghanistan:

1)     Use its influence to support women to be part of peace and transition processes

Women are being shut out of negotiations and discussions about peace and transition. There are 9 women out of the 70 members of the High Peace Council – that’s 1/8 of the members and I hear the women are not part of the discussions that really matter. The international conferences have civil society conferences beforehand but these do not really inform the discussions and the women on the Afghan delegation are not the ones setting the agenda. At the local level, it is no better. The UK can and should do much more to use its influence to ensure women are part of the processes. As a women’s rights activist from Zambia says, ‘when women are not at the table, they are on the menu.’ Women in Afghanistan are not at the table and women’s rights are definitely on the menu.

2)     Work with and protect women human rights defenders

The UK has no system in place to protect women human rights defenders or women in public life. The EU has guidelines on human rights defenders – on what countries can do to prevent and respond to attacks on human rights defenders. This is not being implemented in Afghanistan. Given the attacks of which I spoke about earlier, the fact that the UK has no mechanism in place to protect these women is indefensible.

3)     Fund women activists to deliver services and conduct advocacy and campaign for women’s rights

Women’s rights and well being need to be front and centre of all aid to Afghanistan but the current UK development plan for Afghanistan does not prioritise women’s rights. I have two quick examples for you. As of 2011, the UK did not spend a single penny of its £178m annual Afghanistan reconstruction budget on maternal health. Afghanistan has the highest rate of women dying in childbirth in the world. This is 10 times the number of civilians killed in war. The UK does not spend a penny on maternal health. In order to address violence against women properly, the international community needs to spend at least $90m over 5 years – that is three times the amount currently being discussed. When Bethan and I ask UK officials whether women’s rights will be a priority in the new UK development plan for Afghanistan, we are told this is not likely. Again, so much international money has gone into Afghanistan, why has it not done more to help women?

I want to highlight the vital need to take action. Tahmina Kohistani, athlete and only woman from Afghanistan to compete in the Olympics said that ‘Even if the government has a peace deal, I fear that women will be prisoners once again. I don’t want this and I don’t want the international community to forget us.’ Amnesty, GAPS and other NGOs are launching a campaign action next week to ask the British Ambassador in Kabul to take action to support women human rights defenders. I really hope that you will join us.

 

celebrating the women’s rights, peace and security agenda

I was asked to speak at the second anniversary of the African Women’s Decade by Make Every Woman Count, held on 31st October 2012 which marked the 12th anniversary of the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. What follows is reconstructed from my notes for the evening.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was a resolution passed by the Security Council in 2000. It came out of conversations that women from different conflicts in different parts of the world had which found similarity of experience – that women had been instrumental in bringing about peace processes, keeping communities going during and after conflict, their experiences were fundamentally different than those of men but that they were sidelined from official peace negotiations.

They started a global campaign to get issues of women, peace and security seen as important in places of global power – including the Security Council. Bangladesh and Namibia were the first countries to support the idea of the Resolution. It was passed in 2000 and was the first time the Security Council required parties to a conflict to respect women’s rights, recognised the role that women play in peacebuilding and supported women’s participation in peace negotiations and post conflict reconstruction. The Resolution continues to be used by women’s rights organisations all over the world to hold their governments and national, regional and international institutions to account.

It is important to know the history of it.  The Resolution is not something that those who are the most powerful in the world came up with, but women working for peace all over the world and from countries that had experienced conflict and understood what it meant.

So, has the fact that the Security Council passed this in 2000 meant women are now included in all peace negotiations, peacekeeping and other decision making, there is no more rape and sexual abuse in armed conflict and all peace agreements consider the needs and protect the rights of women and girls? Not surprisingly, the answer is no.

Unfortunately, despite calling for and working towards peace, human rights and justice, women continue to be excluded and marginalised. Those who have the power to decide often simply do not view involving or thinking of women as a priority.

In the past 25 years, only one in forty signatories to peace agreements have been women.  Only sixteen percent of peace agreements concluded between 1990 and 2010 even mention the word ‘women’ and even of these 16%, many mention ‘women’ to restrict their rights and say what women can and cannot do.

Let us see what has been happening across North Africa over the past two years. Women were active in, and in many cases, led the revolutions but have faced marginalisation and violence. In Tunisia, considered to be the regional leader in promoting women’s rights, the first march for women’s rights ended in attacks with shouts that women should ‘go back to the kitchen.’  Women’s rights activists in Egypt talk of an epidemic of sexual harassment in every-day life – and of course we know about the so-called ‘virginity testing’ that was carried out on female protestors by the military to intimidate and discredit them. There have been proposals to cancel women’s rights to initiate divorce, reduce the age of marriage and decriminalise female genital mutilation. As a Libyan activist said following the overthrow of Gadafi, ‘We have got rid of the big patriarch; we now need to break free of the little patriarchs everywhere.’

The situation for women across Africa continues to be that of the strength of women’s organising not being reflected adequately in national, foreign and international policies and practices. It is not just African governments but international institutions too. I recently met someone who was involved in the Darfur peace process who told me that UN officials involved didn’t know that the Security Council had said that women must participate in peace negotiations.

So, the story so far is of uneven progress – it is a bit frustrating that we have not progressed further in the past 12 years but there is increasing attention and awareness being paid to women’s rights in conflict.

Every year in October, women from conflict affected countries come and speak to the Security Council. There are now 5 Security Council Resolutions that make up the Security Council agenda on women, peace and security and commitments. There has been lots of discussion about sexual violence committed by peacekeepers. It has opened up a whole world that existed in the past but was never discussed in ‘hard’ security spaces. There is a women, peace and security movement with networks all over the world that use Security Council Resolutions and other international and regional human rights law and other standards to hold governments and institutions to account. National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security have been developed in 36 countries, (incl Cote d’Ivoire, DRC, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda) setting out how governments intend to take action on women, peace and security commitments. The real gap is between the rhetoric that takes place in New York at the UN and the reality of what happens in conflict affected countries.

As one of the Liberian women’s rights activists who was part of the movement to end their civil war once told me ‘We need to go back, pick up 1325 and carry it forward to the place we are now.’

slutwalk, London, 2011

I spoke at the Slutwalk held in London on 11th June 2011 in my role as Director of Gender Action for Peace and Security on behalf of our No women, no peace. campaign.

Good afternoon everyone. It’s absolutely wonderful to see so many of you here today – thousands of women and men standing together against rape culture, victim blaming and for women’s rights.   We’re marching in London today – while we do so, I think it’s important that we think about our sisters resisting in other countries. Women’s rights activism is global; it is alive and flourishing everywhere. Why? Because no matter where you are and who you are, life is not the same for women as it is for men. There is a link between women’s participation, power and voice in politics, the economy and culture and the violence and fear that we face in our homes, our communities and our streets. As a women’s rights activist from Zimbabwe said: ‘If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.’

The reality of what this means in practice sharpens and comes into focus when looking at women’s lives in countries affected by violent conflict. All over the world women experience sexual violence, displacement, torture, feminicide and kidnap but the needs, realities, experiences and perspectives of women are often excluded from consideration. Only 1 in 40 signatories to peace agreements are women and only 16% of peace agreements even mention women – and often, even when they do, when women are mentioned, it is to restrict their rights. This is not a coincidence.

When women’s voices are not heard, women’s needs are ignored. When women are marginalised and excluded from power, men think it’s okay to say things like ‘women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.’ Not only does this kind of thinking blame women for rape, but it is used to put women in their place.

In Egypt, women took part in the revolution but have been marginalised in decision making afterwards about the future of their country. Virginity testing of women activists in Tahrir was used to oppress and intimidate because ‘the girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine.’ Forces had to have proof they were not virgins in case they were accused of rape afterwards – the message of course being that a woman who has been sexually (and politically) active cannot be raped and you should not be concerned about their sexual assault.

In Libya, there is evidence that rape of women was used as a weapon against opposition forces and to punish women in order to instill fear and curb dissent.

October sees the tenth anniversary of military intervention in Afghanistan. In 2001, the need to promote and protect the rights of Afghan women was prominent in UK and US government rhetoric. Ten years later, will women be at the peace table to negotiate the transition? Will women’s rights remain firmly on the agenda, or will they be traded away for so called ‘peace?’

At Gender Action for Peace and Security, we believe that for peace to be meaningful, the end of conflict must mean the end of violence for women. We believe that women must be involved in decisions that shape their societies and their future. We run a No women, no peace. campaign calling for the meaningful participation of women in peace processes and for women’s rights to be taken seriously. In the next few months, we will be asking the UK government to ensure women and women’s rights are central to discussion around transition in Afghanistan. Please join us. You can find out more by visiting our website – nowomennopeace.org. We believe that you can’t build peace by leaving half of the people out.

No women, no peace.