July 25, 2011 | Lauren Feeney

On Trial for War Crimes, Running for President

Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba is standing trial at the International Criminal Court, accused of leading a militia that raped, murdered and pillaged its way through the Central African Republic in 2002-2003. There’s even been talk of Bemba’s soldiers engaging in cannibalism.

And now the millionaire businessman and former V.P. is running for president. The DRC’s main opposition party named Bemba as its candidate in elections scheduled for November 28.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Congolese law prohibits individuals who have been convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide by an international tribunal from running for office. This does not include individuals accused of such crimes, or on trial at the time of the elections.”

Bemba is currently in ICC custody, and it’s unclear how he plans to run a campaign — let alone a country — from his cell in The Hague.

July 20, 2011 | Paula Neudorf

Famine Declared in Somalia

The United Nations officially declared today that two regions in southern Somalia are suffering from a famine, a word the U.N. does not use lightly. Tens of thousands may already be dead as a result of the famine, which has been brought on by the worst drought in the region in 60 years. Somalia’s ongoing civil war, extreme poverty and lack of infrastructure are also major contributing factors.

As of now, thousands of Somalis — mostly women and children — have already fled to refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya, with many more expected in the coming months. But Ethiopia and Kenya are experiencing the effects of the drought themselves. Ethiopia, long remembered as the site of a terrible famine in 1984 — incidentally the last time the U.N. applied the “famine” designation — appealed for $227 million in food aid at the beginning of 2011 and had some 31.6 million undernourished people according to a 2010 U.N. report.

One of the sad ironies of the crisis is that the U.S. recently cut aid to Somalia because its southern region, now hardest hit by the drought, is run by a terrorist organization, Al Shabab. In light of the crisis, the U.S. has announced it will reverse this policy.

July 18, 2011 | Paula Neudorf

Born in a War Zone

A midwife in Foladi, Afghanistan, measures a pregnant woman's stomach on June 9, 2010. (Photo: Kate Holt)

Recent news points to the dramatic effects that war can have on pregnant women and their newborn offspring — in a story published yesterday about Sierra Leone, The New York Times notes that, “Sierra Leone, still scarred by a brutal decade-long civil war…hovered at or near the bottom in maternal and infant mortality tables.” One reason for this is that “the nihilistic rebels of the Revolutionary United Front deliberately took aim at health care facilities, as symbols of government authority.”

As in Sierra Leone, armies in Syria and Libya have targeted medical facilities, as well as ambulances and medics. And for pregnant women, access to health facilities and aid can be crucial. As one medic for Doctors Without Borders in Libya said in an interview, “Obstetric care is both an ongoing need and an emergency need.” On top of this, “war can put a lot of stress on pregnant women, who are then more likely to face complications.”

The newly independent South Sudan, which has suffered years of conflict and also intense poverty, has the highest reported maternal mortality rate in the world — 2,054 per 100,000 live births according to a 2006 survey (compare that figure with the rest of the world here, in a chart compiled by The Guardian with data from The Lancet).

Before South Sudan became independent, Afghanistan, another war-torn country, had the world’s highest mortality rate, at 1,400 per 10,000 live births, according to 2008 data from the World Health Organization.


July 18, 2011 | Lauren Feeney

Beyoncé’s Run the World (Girls)

Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” — proof that Women, War & Peace has tapped into a zeitgeist.

July 14, 2011

The U.N.’s 193rd Member

As the community of nations welcomes South Sudan as its 193rd member, unwomen.org shares this interview with the country’s minister of gender, child and social welfare, who expresses hope that the South Sudan’s parliament will be 50 percent women by 2015.

July 7, 2011 | Paula Neudorf

Progress Made, But a Long Road Ahead

Yesterday U.N. Women, a newly formed division of the United Nations, released its first report, Progress of the World’s Women. The 168-page publication gives a thorough overview of where women stand in all aspects of society around the world, and comes packed with case studies, charts, timelines and direct recommendations.

The group’s flagship report arrives during a month of troubling news from around the world relating to women’s rights, from the breaking story that U.N.-backed rape trials in the Democratic Republic of Congo were called off because of reprisals against victims, to the investigation into rape as a weapon of war in Libya, to the persistently fragile state of women in Afghanistan, designated the world’s “most dangerous country for women” just days before President Obama announced an aggressive military exit strategy from the region.

Some salient points:

Women are still paid 10 to 30 percent less than men for equal work — when they are paid at all. 53 percent of working women are in what the report refers to as “vulnerable or informal employment” — often as unpaid workers on family farms.

Currently, there are only 19 women serving as heads of state. Rwanda is leading the pack in terms of women’s representation in government with 51 percent female parliamentarians (an impressive accomplishment born from a terrible legacy — the population as a whole was 70 percent female after the genocide). Around the world, 19 percent of parliamentarians are women.

Up to 60 percent of women have been victims of physical or sexual assault, according to surveys from 70 countries. In the developing world, a third of girls are married off by their 18th birthday.

For good summaries of the report, check out stories on New York Times and Forbes.

June 30, 2011 | Paula Neudorf

Independence Day Jitters

It’s not always easy making sense of the latest news reports flooding from Sudan, Africa’s largest country, where a complex mix of rival tribes, religious factions and regional opponents have been waging war since the 1980s.

The battle to control the country’s vast oil reserves has fueled much of the conflict. In May, as Sudan’s southern region prepared to break away and declare independence, northern forces, led by Arab President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, invaded Abyei, an oil-rich region that both the North and South would like to claim.

In another disputed region, Bashir’s army has been conducting what many fear is a genocide against the Nuba people. The Nuba live in South Kordofan, a region adjacent to Abyei that belongs to Sudan’s North, but many fought alongside the southern secessionists. Thousands of Nuba have disappeared while an estimated half a million have been displaced.

These conflicts may be moving toward a resolution. On June 27, the U.N. announced it would send a 4,200-strong Ethiopian peacekeeping force to Abyei after both sides agreed to withdraw from the region. And a day later, the Sudanese government brokered a ceasefire with the Nuba rebels in South Kordofan and its neighboring state, Blue Nile.

South Sudan is expected to formally declare independence on July 9th, less than 10 days from now. But the new nation will be born in the shadow of these ongoing conflicts.

June 30, 2011 | Paula Neudorf

Driving While Female

Lulu Almana was 5 years old in 1990 when her aunt, Aisha Almana, led a protest against the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia and was swiftly arrested along with 46 other women.

“My dad had to go to the prince for him to release my aunt,” Lulu said. The women were eventually banned from foreign travel for a year and many lost their jobs.

Now, over two decades later, Saudi Arabian women are trying again. In late May, activist Manal al-Sharif posted a video of herself driving on YouTube and was arrested a day later. Though she was imprisoned for 10 days, her earlier call for women to drive on June 17 was heeded. More than 50 women were reported to have taken to the wheel on the appointed day, many of them documenting the occasion on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. No arrests were made that day, but five women were arrested on June 28, nearly a week and a half later, in Jeddah.

According to Lulu and other Saudi Arabians, the women who drove on June 17 clearly learned from their 1990 predecessors.

Because protest is officially banned in the country, the women who drove were careful not to have meeting places or to drive in groups, and did nothing but run routine errands. “There was no protest,” said Saleh Alamer, a recent U.S. law school graduate who grew up in the kingdom.

“You kind of have to work with the system,” Lulu said.

Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are barred from driving. They are also barred from voting and lack other basic rights.

“Female Saudis require male guardian approval to do anything,” Abdullah Kadhi, 31, a Saudi-American who grew up in Saudi Arabia, explained. “[You can] have a female surgeon that can operate, but she needs to get a piece of paper to go see a movie.”

To Lulu, being able to drive is just a first step in improving women’s lives in the kingdom. She recently spoke with her aunt, Aisha, about this latest effort. “She’s happy that women aren’t afraid anymore,” Lulu said. “And she’s looking forward to more.”

But will the June 28 arrests stop Saudi women in their tracks?

June 16, 2011 | Karla Zabludovsky

Most Dangerous Place To Be A Woman?

50 million girls in India have gone missing in the past century due to female infanticide and foeticide.

More than 1,000 Pakistani women face the threat of honor killings every year.

In Somalia, 95% of girls face genital mutilation while only 9% give birth in a health facility.

But it’s Afghanistan that tops the list of most dangerous places to be a woman, according to a new poll of gender experts by the Thomson-Reuters Foundation.

Ongoing conflict and NATO airstrikes place Afghan women at the frontline of danger. Other threats include high levels of rape and murder, genital mutilation, brutal poverty, poor healthcare and lack of education.

Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia ranked second, third, fourth and fifth, respectively.

“The most dangerous thing a woman in Somalia can do is to become pregnant. When a woman becomes pregnant her life is 50-50 because there is no antenatal care at all. There are no hospitals, no healthcare, no nothing,” said Somalia’s women’s minister, Maryan Qasim, as reported by The Guardian.

May 6, 2011 | Lauren Feeney

Could Qaddafi be Charged with Using Rape as a Weapon?

When rebels retook the tallest building in the besieged Libyan city of Misrata late last month, they found a message, spelled out in green Arabic graffiti, from the government troops who had been occupying the building: “If we survive, we are warning you gays and dogs. We will not forgive anybody from Misrata. We will f*ck your daughters and your wives.”

The writing had been on the wall since Iman al Obeidy burst into a Tripoli hotel a month earlier to tell the international journalists gathered there that she had been sexually assaulted by 15 men loyal to Muammar Qaddafi. A few days after that, a doctor in Ajdabiya told Al Jazeera that he found Viagra and condoms in the pockets of dead Qaddafi troops. The doctor also said he had treated two women who had been raped by Qaddafi forces in the past week.

Now, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court is seeking arrest warrants for three unnamed members of the Libyan government, likely including Qaddafi himself, for crimes against humanity, including — perhaps — the use of rape as a weapon.

Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo says that he has strong evidence of the crimes of persecution and the killing of civilians, and is investigating rape allegations, including the claim that Qaddafi troops are being issued Viagra — a sign that rape is premeditated and encouraged.

It’s still unclear whether there’s evidence to prove that rape is being used in a systematic way, but the fact that it’s even being considered alongside those other war crimes is no small thing. Rape has been used to terrorize, demoralize, dishonor and drive away the enemy in conflicts all over the world — in Bosnia, Burma, Sudan, Tibet, Congo, even during the Holocaust.

“Rape was assumed to be inevitable,” said feminist author Gloria Steinem. “The idea that it was a war crime is new; it’s barely a decade old.”

It wasn’t until survivors of sexual violence in Rwanda gave their testimony in The Hague that the use of rape as a weapon was formally addressed by international law. More than 100,000 Rwandan women were raped during three months of conflict in 1994; a year later, the court ruled those rapes a component act of genocide. The first actual indictment calling rape a crime against humanity came during the Bosnia war crimes trials, in 2001. Finally, in 2008, U.N. resolution 1820 elevated mass rape from a humanitarian issue to a foreign policy priority, noting that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”

Will these tools be useful in the case of Qaddafi and his cohorts? Are the alleged instances of rape and sexual violence in the conflict in Libya “just” a few bad actors taking out their aggression on women, or is this tactical and widespread?

“There’s not enough information on Libya, and not enough access to know what’s going on,” said Janet Walsh, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division. “The conditions may not be ripe yet for using these tools.”

But Margot Wallström, the U.N. Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict, said she’s looking into it. “We hear reports from from NGOs active on the ground, we see media reports that hint at this being employed in Libya, so we’re trying to gather as much evidence as possible in order to verify that this has happened,” she said. “We are always dealing with the fact that this is surrounded by stigma and shame, so women will not easily come forward to tell their stories, so you have to take this into account.”

In the cases of Rwanda and Bosnia, rape was used as part of a genocidal strategy to drive people from their homes and villages, or even, in Bosnia, as an attempt to breed Serb babies. If the allegations in Libya are true, what would be the motivation there?

“Unfortunately it is used in the usual way — uniformed men using their power where women are vulnerable — and I think that might be the case here,” Wallström said. Rape is used “for a very simple but wicked reason — because it is cheap, silent and effective.”

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