ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘They want to stop us because we do make a difference’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Europe with Giada Negri, research and advocacy officer at the European Civic Forum (ECF). The ECF is a network of civil society organisations working on citizenship education, human rights advocacy and the promotion of democracy.
What kind of work does the European Civic Forum do?
The European Civic Forum (ECF) is a European network that includes over a hundred civil society organisations (CSOs) from all across the European Union and the Balkans. It began in 2005 as an informal network and became official in 2007. This happened at a crucial moment because the Constitutional Treaty – the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe – had just been thrown out as a result of popular votes. It was time to discuss serious issues related to democracy, issues that were transversal to civil society across countries, and the ECF thought it could provide a space for these debates to take place.
More recently we started working on civic space, as our members and partners began to notice an increased pressure on civil society. The tipping point was the approval of the Anti-Foreign NGO Law in Hungary in 2017. About one-and-a-half years ago the ECF created a platform for civic space, Civic Space Watch, to collect resources, analyses, updates and articles on the state of civic space and civic freedoms in Europe, and to fuel civil society reaction to restrictions. We want civil society to be able to request and receive solidarity across borders, so if there is an attack in one country there is a shared understanding of what is happening and a quick collective reaction against it.
What would you say are the main current threats against civic space in Europe?
To understand these threats we have to take step back and look at what CSOs and social movements have been doing over several years – denouncing a system that has proven socially, environmentally and politically unsustainable and filling in the gaps in many areas and in different ways, whether by providing services and proposing practical solutions or by keeping the powerful accountable and keeping on the agenda the values and principles stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Civic space, the space to call out the powerful and to express dissent, has been restricted in an attempt to maintain a system that is not working for all anymore. We see rising illiberalism and the tendency to securitise public discourse and public space at the same time as social policies shrink. The underlying factor is a neoliberal vision of the world that views society as just a collection of individuals put together, and that does not recognise the importance of the value of social justice and the responsibility of public policies to deliver for everybody and to include everybody in the discussion.
The specific challenges that civil society face are very diverse and differ among countries, as do the main actors that are targeted. But we are seeing some trends emerge across the European continent, so it is important to put them on the European agenda and raise them with European Union (EU) institutions. While some instances of restriction in countries such as Hungary and Poland are being very well covered by the media, other countries are experiencing attacks that are not being sufficiently discussed, such as violent policing and censorship in France or Spain.
In other countries challenges are more subtle and tend to be ignored. For instance, in February 2019 a German Court ruled that the German branch of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and for Citizens’ Action (ATTAC) should have its public benefit status withdrawn due to its activities being ‘political’. This raises the worry that organisations promoting causes like tax justice might become afraid to speak up against the powerful and denounce policies that don’t work or that work to the benefit of few people because their financial capacity and therefore their continued existence could be at stake.
Clearly civic space is not being restricted equally for everybody: specific groups are being targeted. Which groups are the most targeted in Europe?
On the Civic Space Watch we see that those most affected by the introduction or tightening of civic space restrictions have been environmental organisations, groups providing solidarity to migrants and those fighting for inclusion, social sustainability, the rule of law and sexual and reproductive rights. All of these have found themselves at the centre of controversies because they point out systemic failures and injustices. Which issues are the more controversial, and therefore which groups find themselves under the most pressure, varies between countries. But whatever those issues are, the groups working on them and denouncing failures of the system are the most under pressure.
Do all of these restrictions originate from the state, or are others imposing them as well?
The state authorities and agencies, at all levels, are still the main actors responsible for civic space restrictions. But we are definitely seeing non-state actors threatening civic space as well. In several countries we have reported non-state groups, including private companies, taking action against the freedom of expression or the freedom of peaceful assembly. More research is needed about these because this is an emerging threat in many contexts – we have had cases reported in France, Portugal, the United Kingdom and so on. Additionally, we are also seeing anti-rights groups that are gaining confidence to act against the rights of certain people.
European society is becoming increasingly polarised around many issues, which is making it easier for these groups to gain a support that would previously have been thought impossible. They promote a view of rights that creates competition between vulnerable groups or is exclusive of some groups on grounds of identity, culture or sexual orientation. They have become really good at exploiting the fears and anxieties of their audiences, which in turn are the result of policies that have brought competition of all against all into our societies. They are being able to use human rights language and human rights tools, which is also new.
In Romania, for instance, anti-rights groups gathered thousands of signatures to call a referendum to try to ban same-sex marriage. They used the tools of participatory democracy to try to change the Constitution, which did not specify the gender of the people in a marriage. Although a lot of resources were spent to promote it, this referendum failed. But in the process, anti-rights groups targeted LGBTQI people and activists and there was a rise in hate crime. In contexts like this, I fear for democracy. The fact that these groups are using democratic tools may be used as an excuse for governments to start withdrawing these democratic tools; however, I am convinced that less democracy can’t ever be the answer to these issues.
Certain extremist groups – specifically neo-fascist ones – are using very confrontational tactics, such as physical attacks against the police, activists, vulnerable groups and CSOs. Thanks to their confrontational strategies they are gaining space in the media, which gives them an audience. European countries have legislation against these kinds of groups, but the authorities are failing to call them out, prosecute them and outlaw them, which confers some legitimacy on them. Around certain issues, such as migration, these groups are increasingly present in the public sphere. As governments also pick up the topic and treat migration as a problem in much the same way, they legitimise anti-migrant groups to the same extent that they criminalise the civil society groups that work to provide support to migrants.
There is already a lot of knowledge about these extremist groups in individual countries, although less about conservative groups that are not necessarily extremist. But we need to learn more about how they are interconnected, because they clearly are. Connections happen at all levels, from top to bottom. At the highest political level, right-wing populist leaders restricting civic space and targeting marginalised groups are connecting, cooperating and learning from one another. In a highly symbolic gesture, in May 2019 Italy’s far-right Minister of Interior at the time, Matteo Salvini, met with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, where fences had been built to stop the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers coming north through the Balkans. The measures that Salvini proposes are very similar to Orbán’s, and they wanted to show to the world a unified front against migration.
Anti-rights groups are also connected at the grassroots level. A clear example of this was the World Congress of Families that gathered in March 2019 in Verona, Italy. It was a massive gathering of activists from around the world, united by their rejection of sexual and reproductive rights and their vocal hate for LGBTQI people. But in this case the opposition was also strong and brought activists from all across Europe.
How is progressive civil society responding to anti-rights groups? And what else should it do to respond more effectively?
Solidarity is key. Civil society mobilisation in support of threatened groups provides a lot of the psychological strength needed to keep going, and has also brought important, tangible successes. In May 2018 Ireland celebrated a historic referendum that legalised abortion, and civil society mobilised around the right of women to choose not only in Ireland itself but also in other countries, as a way of saying, ‘We stand with you in solidarity, we are united for the same cause, an attack against one of us is an attack against us all’. In Poland, when the government tried to push through even more restrictive legislation of abortion, even though the law that is in place is already among the strictest in the world, civil society repeatedly mobilised. Women protested massively in 2016, in 2017, and keep doing so, not only in Poland but everywhere in Europe. So far, they have been very successful in stopping restrictive legislation.
I think all rights are connected – economic, political, social, cultural and environmental rights – so if one of them is taken away, the whole universality of rights shrinks as well. Civil society has learned that we must react not just when those rights that we fight for are being threatened, or when it is political or civil rights that are under pressure, but every time any right is under threat. And we should not only point out when democratic mechanisms don’t work; democracy should not merely function, but it should function for everyone, so we should keep pointing out when that is not happening.
It is also really important that we start telling the stories of our victories, because we are really good at pointing out when there are problems and sometimes it’s just necessary to acknowledge to ourselves, ‘hey, we did that’. We need to celebrate our victories because they are victories for everybody, and also because it boosts our confidence and gives us the strength to keep fighting. That is why the campaign that we started in 2018 around the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that we are carrying out again this year and, we hope, in the years to come, takes the form of a celebration of all the work that civil society has done, trying to show the real, amazing impact of what we do, and the fact that everything would be quite different without us, because of all the human rights victories that would not have happened.
I think I sometimes made that mistake when I started studying civic space and looking into civic space restrictions: when focusing so much on the restrictions, I lost sight of the fact that those restrictions were being introduced in reaction to our successes. We were being restrained precisely because we were winning, and someone resented it. They want to stop us because we do make a difference.
MYANMAR: ‘The government needs to open the doors’
CIVICUS speaks with Nay Lin Tun, a doctor and civil society humanitarian worker in Myanmar, about conflict in Rakhine State, the difficulties faced by minorities in the region, and civil society’s work to provide help.
Can you tell us about your background and the work you’re doing in Rakhine State?
I’m a doctor working in public health, particularly focusing on primary healthcare, reproductive and women’s health, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. I was part of a group who founded a civil society organisation, the Center for Social Integrity, which supports communities in conflict-affected areas, including Rakhine State. We’re trying to support people based on their needs, including their needs to food, shelter and livelihoods. Right now in Rakhine State we are providing basic humanitarian support, education, healthcare, livelihoods and water and sanitation services for people in the conflict areas. Because of my experience I focus on providing healthcare and humanitarian support.
At the moment there is fighting in the north and east of Rakhine State between the Myanmar Army and the insurgent Arakan Army. According to the United Nations there are around 35,000 newly displaced people because of the fighting in 2019, living in camps in Rakhine State. We are supporting these communities and other conflict-affected communities in the area.
What are some of the challenges minority groups face in Rakhine State?
In my country there are 135 recognised ethnic groups. The majority ethnic group are the Bamar, who are the main group across most of Myanmar. At the other end of the spectrum are lots of small groups, often in the regions close to borders, who are becoming less and less recognised by the government. Different groups face different challenges. In Rakhine State there are religious, ethnic and social minorities, and they all face human rights challenges.
The Rohingya community, who are Muslims, have been subjected to a lot of abuses. They are denied citizenship and treated as stateless persons. They are not recognised as an ethnic group by the 1982 Citizenship Law. They are called Bengalis by many in the dominant population groups, because they see them as belonging to Bangladesh. They have their movement restricted and struggle to access education and healthcare.
Local hospitals are inadequate, so if there is a medical emergency people have to travel to a major city. Before 2017 they could go to the Bangladesh side of the border on a short-term pass and get hospital treatment, but now the border area is closed and they cannot do this. But because they don’t have citizenship and their movement is restricted, it is also hard to go to the big hospitals in Sitwe, the main city in Rakhine State. People can pay for this with their lives. If there is an emergency, the only way people can negotiate to get treatment is to pay a bribe. This happened to someone I was trying to treat for a tumour.
In another case, a pregnant woman had severe labour pains in the middle of the night. They tried to take her to hospital, but there is a curfew, introduced in 2017 and in force ever since. No one can go out between 11pm and 5am. There are many police checkpoints in the area, and while other villages were okay, in this case they would not allow this pregnant woman to pass. She had to go home. By the time she could go to hospital the next day, the child was already dead. Luckily, the mother survived.
Rohingya people are also denied education. The highest education most people can get is at high school. They cannot join a university as a full-time student. They can only do distance learning for a few subjects. They also struggle to find work. Most Rohingya people work in farming, fishing and cutting timber, but right now they are not allowed to fish or go into forests to chop wood. Most of the farming lands are occupied by the military. Most people are now involved in daily casual work. So everyday life is very challenging.
The Rohingya are not the only minority in the region who face difficulties. Local ethnic groups such as the Chakma, Dynat and Mu, who live on the mountains, face challenges, even though their religion is Buddhist. Because they live in remote locations, they cannot access healthcare and education. They have no life opportunities.
What was your experience of the violence that occurred in 2017?
What I saw was people living in fear. I saw communities that were afraid of each other: Rohingya people and Rakhine people, the majority group within the state, were afraid of each other. I worked on medical clinics in northern Rakhine State and hired a taxi to transport medicines. My driver, who was from the Rakhine group, did not want to take me to the area. You had people unable to go to the other communities because they did not think they would come back.
What role do you think hate speech and extremist views played in stoking conflict?
Most of the hate speech and extremist protest and provocations came from extreme groups in the big cities, and was spread by social media, whereas in rural communities it was more that you had villages of different ethnic groups that were afraid of each other. There was a lot of misinformation spread through social media, and this was viral. No one could know what was true or not. Positive stories and true information were far less viral than hate speech and misinformation.
In the major cities, hate speech and misinformation turned a social conflict into a religious conflict between Buddhism and Islam. Extremist Buddhist monks turned this into a bigger conflict. Extremist groups spread disinformation and encouraged extremism, with the unofficial support of the military and political parties, in their own interests. People played political games in the big cities, but they had no connection to the villages in the conflict area. Those people were the most affected and they were living in fear, and live in fear now. There is a big challenge in controlling hate speech and misinformation on social media.
It is much harder for civil society voices promoting social cohesion and religious harmony to be heard compared to hate speech, but civil society is trying to do this. These are messages my organisation is trying to promote very strongly in the conflict areas. But there is a need for more impact, and more efforts, not just from civil society but from the government. There is a need for much more activity that strengthens communities.
What support is needed, including from the international community, to improve the lives of minorities and people affected by conflict?
There is a lot of willingness from the international community to support people in Rakhine State, and not only Rohingya people but also other minorities. But the most challenging thing at the moment is that national government and local authorities are limiting them from doing so, and have been doing since 2017. So there is a lack of ability to really go into the villages and directly help people.
The international community needs to engage with the national government and local authorities so that they are willing to work with them and listen to the voices of local communities and support them in the areas affected by conflict. They need to build relationships with the government, and the government needs to work with the international community. The government needs to open the doors.
It is all about access – access to healthcare, access to education, access to livelihoods. Right now access is blocked. Even access to the internet was blocked by the government, between June and September. People don’t have access to the means to share their voices. People are also scared of speaking out because of restrictive media laws. They fear they will get into trouble. This is why I try to share their stories. So, access is the big challenge. We need more access by the community for the community. This is why the government needs to open the doors for international and local civil society.
Civic space in Myanmar is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
REFUGEE RIGHTS: ‘It’s about finding ways to make refugee voices stronger’
CIVICUS speaks to Evan Jones of theAsia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) about the challenges that refugees face in Asia and civil society’s work to help realise refugee rights.
Can you tell us about your network and what it does?
APRRN is a civil society network with around 400 members across Asia and the Pacific, stretching from Iran to South Korea and Taiwan and down to New Zealand. We’ve existed for 10 years and our main aim is to advance refugee rights in Asia and the Pacific. We push for legislative and policy change in the region to help refugees have sustainable lives and access to the same rights as everyone else. Our key purpose is advocacy, and underneath this there are three pillars of work: first, capacity strengthening for our members, through training and courses in areas such as refugee law, advocacy, working with the media and gender; second, information sharing across borders about best practices, contacts, resources, skills and communication ideas: if there’s a good development that’s happened in one country, we’ll try to connect civil society organisations (CSOs) in other countries to share lessons learned and possible ideas to adapt; and third, advocacy on the national, regional and international levels.
In recent years we’ve been working on building refugee self-representation and putting refugee voices front and centre of everything we do. A refugee, someone with lived experience, is the chair of our entire network and the chairs or deputy chairs of many of our working groups are either still in refugee situations or have been earlier in their lives. Throughout our advocacy, we make sure that refugees are present in everything we do.
What are the key current movements of people in the region, and what are the main reasons that drive people to become refugees?
We have movements of refugees both from outside the region into the region, and also within the region. Specific refugee populations vary from country to country and also in size. In Malaysia, for example, there are about 180,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, a number of whom have arrived after the 2017 exodus. Others have been there for decades, eking out an existence, often on the fringes of society. In Thailand, there are a significant number of Pakistani refugees from religious minorities, along with groups of Hazaras from Afghanistan, Uighurs from China and Montagnards from Vietnam. In South Korea, there are refugees from Yemen. There are many populations in almost every country across the region.
There are a number of reasons why people are forced to flee their homes, ending up as refugees in Asia. One is religious persecution. This has been clearly evident with the decades-long persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, alongside persecution of Christian minorities such as the Chin. The Ahmadi Christian minority of Pakistan are another example of a population that has been subject to ongoing religious persecution.
Aside from refugees fleeing religious persecution, many individuals are also fleeing persecution due to their race, nationality, or membership of a particular social group. Because often ethnic minorities are targeted, we see a sizable amount of people fleeing countries such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, China and Pakistan. Other groups include those fleeing generalised violence and civil war, for example in Syria and Yemen, LGBTQI community members fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual identity and individuals fleeing despotic regimes such as North Korea’s.
Refugees often find themselves in Asia for a number of reasons. For some, capital cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta were the only places they could afford to travel to at short notice and with relatively easy visa requirements. For example, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, people from most countries can get a visa on arrival. Palestinians, Somalis and Yemenis can still get a visa on arrival in Malaysia, one of only a handful of countries around the world where they can do so. Many people came to these hubs thinking they would only be transit points, intending to claim asylum in Australia, Canada, or elsewhere, and then got stuck in these countries because they weren’t able to travel further.
What are the key challenges refugees face?
There are generally no local protections. There are usually no safeguards from detention, no capacity to work and no access to education and healthcare. Refugees struggle to attain almost all their human rights. This situation is common in most countries in both South and South East Asia.
One of the biggest challenges, in Asia as well as globally, is the lack of durable solutions for refugees. Many have been and are expected to be here for years or even decades. With record numbers of refugees, no longer is it the norm nor can it be expected that refugees will be resettled in months or even years. Now, many have no real prospects of resettlement, with the number of resettlement spots globally having dropped so significantly. Under one per cent of all refugees in the world will ever get resettled, and the situation is even worse in Asia.
Particularly in South East Asia, detention is a key concern and a continued focus of our advocacy. Instead of detention being used as an option of last resort it is quite often the norm. In Thailand for example, UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) cardholders are subject to arrest and detention if they are unable to produce a valid passport or visa. The detention centre is, in essence, a jail, where refugees are often held indefinitely until they either return home – which is not really a possibility – or get resettled, which is also unlikely for many people.
Access to a legal right to stay is extremely difficult for people with a passport from refugee-producing countries. It’s hard to maintain or extend a visa in many countries around the region. If you’re from Afghanistan, Somalia, or Sudan, for example, often one of the restrictions to maintain a visa is that you’re expected to go home and then come back, which obviously isn’t an option for refugees. In some countries like India, we are seeing a worrying rise in racism and xenophobia, where refugees from some Muslim countries are being requested to ‘return immediately’ and told that they ‘are no longer welcome’.
A further worrying trend that we are seeing is the use of extradition. States both within and outside the region are using extradition as a tool to have refugees forcibly return to countries from which they’ve fled. Sadly, we are quite often seeing states where refugees have sought protection going ahead with these extraditions. In essence, we see them buckling to the weight or political interests of neighbouring governments.
One such example that made world headlines was the case of Hakeem al-Araibi. Hakeem is a Bahraini refugee who lives in Australia and was held in a Thai prison for three months, from November 2018 to February 2019, pending extradition back to Bahrain, after going to Thailand on his honeymoon. There was also the case of Sam Sokha, the Cambodian political activist, who was famous for throwing her shoe at a billboard of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, an act that was filmed and widely shared on the internet. She was arrested in Thailand in January 2018 and held in the immigration detention centre even though she had a UNHCR card recognising her as a refugee. The Thai government allowed an extradition request to be processed and sent her back to Cambodia, where she’s currently serving a prison sentence. Another case is Praphan Pipithnampron, an activist from Thailand who fled to Malaysia, claimed refugee status and was then extradited back to Thailand with the agreement of the Malaysian government. These examples show a clear and fundamental breach of the principles of refugee protection. Even with UNHCR status, the lack of legal protection leaves refugees in precarious situations across the region.
Access to work is another major challenge. There are generally no special provisions for refugees to access work unless they happen to have come on a business visa with work rights and have maintained their visa. The lack of labour rights for refugees impacts on all other rights, including their ability to obtain food and shelter, access education and pay for healthcare. Interestingly, there have been a few small positive steps towards addressing this. A few years ago, the Malaysian government instigated a pilot project on work rights for Rohingya refugees, for a very limited number of 300 people. Whilst the initiative was a failure, the fact that the government even initiated such a program indicated a notable shift towards recognition of work rights. It shows that work rights are now on the agenda.
Access to education differs country by country, but broadly speaking, it’s very problematic across the region. In Malaysia, there’s no capacity for refugees to access primary education. Malaysia has a reservation against the Convention on the Rights of the Child that means refugee children aren’t able to access state schooling. In Thailand, despite there being a progressive ‘education for all’ policy, practically it’s still quite difficult for refugee children to be able to attend school. This is because of the costs, the requirement to have basic Thai language skills and concerns about xenophobia and racism. Schools may not want to receive children who don’t have the relevant immigration papers or who look or sound too different.
Across the region more broadly, there is also a hidden but major concern regarding a lack of access to tertiary education. From the perspective of states, and even many CSOs and service providers, tertiary education is seen as something that far surpasses basic needs. However, without this access, there remains a large refugee population who are simply left to linger in a state of under-productivity. They are not only unable to work, but they also cannot improve the skills and expertise that would help them grow personally and professionally if they were resettled or even decided to return home. This is starting to change just a little, and there are some positives here. For example, Japan has opened up 20 scholarship spaces for Syrian refugees, and some universities in Malaysia have also begun to offer dedicated spaces and scholarships.
Healthcare is also problematic. Often refugees have to pay upfront for healthcare before they can be reimbursed by CSOs or the UNHCR. Refugees often fear that if they go to hospitals when they lack the correct documentation they may even be referred to immigration authorities.
What are the challenges refugees face from anti-rights groups and majority populations?
There were three pronounced examples over the past year of majority religious groups mobilising against minorities in the region. In South Korea in June 2018, 500 Yemenis arrived on Jeju Island. Almost immediately there was a huge outcry from the public, church groups – particularly conservative Christian groups – and the media. This fanned what was partly an anti-refugee sentiment but was more strongly an anti-Muslim sentiment that swept through the country and became conflated with refugee issues. It connected to the anti-migrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric that was coming out of Europe, and showed how these two have become intertwined. Within weeks of the story hitting the headlines a petition with more than a million signatures was sent to the president’s office requesting that South Korea pull out of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Thankfully the government didn’t go down this track but there have been high-level talks about how potentially South Korea could modify its domestic legislation for refugees and wind back some of its protection for refugees.
In Sri Lanka, the 2019 Easter Bombings in Colombo gave rise to an immediate anti-Muslim public sentiment, which affected the refugee population in Sri Lanka, which is significantly an Afghan and Ahmadi Pakistani population. Several hundred fled from Colombo to the city of Negombo and went into hiding. Some stayed in a police station for several weeks of their own volition for protection and others were supported by CSOs. UNHCR was so concerned it sent additional staff to try to expedite cases and look at emergency resettlement out of Sri Lanka because of the fear of retribution and abuses against Muslim refugees.
The third example was what we saw in Myanmar with the Rohingya. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment have permeated through Myanmar society. The Rohingya are denied citizenship and viewed as associated with terrorism. This resulted in what many are calling a genocide.
Given these challenges, how is civil society in the region trying to respond, and what have the successes and challenges been?
Negative stories dominate the discourse, and we try to counter this by placing refugees’ voices front and centre. This is something that is being supported quite strongly within the region, from Australia and New Zealand, but also now from within South East Asia. Civil society groups are realising that it is refugee voices that are the most impactful, and civil society is trying to amplify these voices to show the agency and contribution of refugees. In Malaysia, for example, there is now a completely self-organised group, the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, where Afghani, Eritrean, Rohingya, Somali and Sri Lankan refugees are all coming together by themselves, putting forward their messages. They are offering training and they have learning centres. This is a really positive development. CSOs are trying to facilitate and support these developments.
There’s also awareness-raising with the public, and with local host communities, the media and government. The media are stakeholders with potential for huge good but also huge harm, depending on their messaging. Many CSOs are trying to engage better with the media, including through media training. Misinformation is a major issue in some countries, such as in Myanmar, where both before and after the upsurge in violence there was a lot of anti-Rohingya messaging. However, in other countries, such as Thailand, refugee stories are rarely covered by local media.
Over the past few years, there has also been a definite shift towards building connections with parliamentarians across the region. There has been a lot of work in trying to find champions within governments and trying to get them to work for refugees within governments and across borders. One organisation we work with quite closely that has done excellent work on several issues, including refugees, is ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights. They have a network of members of parliament in each country where they share information and strategies and use their status as elected officeholders to try to support rights.
As well as positive shifts on labour rights and education in Malaysia, the government there is also looking at possible ratification of the Refugee Convention. Another positive move in Malaysia which shouldn’t be underestimated is that the government is speaking more openly about the issue, and in many cases speaking the right language. Five years ago you would not have seen the Malaysian government speaking out bilaterally or within ASEAN about the atrocities in Myanmar. Now the government is quite strong in calling attention to the situation in Myanmar and has also spoken out about other vulnerable populations, such as the Uighurs in China. They seem to be heading in the right direction.
Another positive development has come in Thailand. Despite the fact that there is still immigration detention, in January 2019 the Thai government signed a memorandum of understanding to release mothers and children from the immigration detention centre to live in the community. This might seem a small win, but it was a practice that went on for so long. It was a change largely driven by civil society advocacy.
Elsewhere there are regressions, as with the anti-refugee sentiment in South Korea. There are still a million-plus Rohingya sitting in camps in Bangladesh and there’s the growing prominence of the Uighur detention camps in China. There have been other headline stories this year, such as that of Rahaf Mohammed, a Saudi Arabian woman who was fleeing from Kuwait to Australia and was stuck in a hotel within Bangkok airport. So even when we see governments in the region appearing to move in the right direction, all of a sudden they do something that takes them back again, such as threatening to return refugees for the sake of maintaining diplomatic relations. But we can have some cautious optimism that things are progressing in the right direction.
What more could be done to support refugees and the civil society that supports them in the region?
While the Refugee Convention is still incredibly important, this is no longer the pinnacle and the sole focus of our advocacy. We have states that have signed it that completely ignore it. So now we’re looking for tangible legal and policy changes on the ground.
International civil society can help by keeping things on the agenda. Asia as a region is quite often forgotten and underrepresented globally. The huge refugee movements and protracted situations in Asia are often completely overlooked. A million Afghanis have been in Iran for 40 years with several million more in Pakistan. There are 100,000 Myanmar refugees on the Thai border along with the million-plus Rohingyas in Bangladesh. Compare this to headlines about migration in Europe and the USA and you’ll soon realise that our perception of refugee crises is skewed. There are these massive populations that don’t make the same global media impact and don’t get the attention they deserve. Keeping things on the agenda is really important.
Cohesive messaging and cohesive action are also important. We all need to be able to work together to share resources and best practices, understand what is happening in other regions and learn the lessons that can be applied. I think in civil society we tend to look at the same things again and again: we look at national governments, the United Nations, we talk to ourselves a lot, but I think there are under-utilised mechanisms, such as ASEAN, the European Parliament and the private sector. I think in sensitive situations, such as with the Uighurs, the European Parliament could be lobbied to put pressure on ASEAN, which could then put pressure on the government of China. We need to look outside the box at how we can utilise regional platforms and also have other countries exert their influence in the region.
People such as Abdul Aziz Muhammat, who spent years in the Australian government’s detention centre in Papua New Guinea and campaigns for refugees’ rights, should inspire us, and he should be a person we all aspire to be. He’s had such a traumatic life and so many things have gone against him, but he remains so positive and so ardent about supporting other populations. He continues to speak up for those left behind after him. To see refugees who have gone through everything and still fight for other refugees is inspiring. It’s about finding ways to make refugee voices stronger.
‘Civil society needs a compelling counter-narrative’
Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Lynnette Micheni from PAWA254, an organisation that fosters social accountability and active citizenship among young people, mainly through arts and media.
1.Your organisation, PAWA254, defines itself as a movement of young, socially conscious artists and activists. How do you connect art and activism in your work?
We use art, pop culture and media as an empowerment tool. We believe in artistic expression as a means for social change and the deepening of democracy, and we harness it to advocate for the rights and responsibilities of Kenyans, and against social and political vices, including corruption and abuse of power. As a result of our work, we have seen ‘artivists’ multiply, and a movement of active, freethinking youth emerge in our country.
We work with a variety of arts and media, including photography, film, spoken word, poetry graffiti, cartoons, blogging and writivism, which has opened such great spaces for accountability in Kenya.
Our programs are two pronged: some focus on the economic development of emerging creatives and activists and others on social accountability, all the while leveraging the arts, pop culture and media.
The former entails developing the capacity of emerging artists and facilitating the integration of artistic expression for livelihoods development through the provision of a state-of-the-art co- working space consisting of creative suites, professional equipment, skills transfer and networking opportunities. PAWA convenes key annual events such as the PAWA Festival, an annual street festival that showcases East Africa’s visual and performing arts and disseminates the Kenya Photography Awards.
Our social accountability programs entail using art and pop culture as a form of civic engagement through dance, poetry, graffiti, theatre, music, film and photography to spark civic participation by focusing attention on emerging social concerns in the country and to prompt action in the process. Key current interventions include Off-The-Record, a weekly space where participants can express their thoughts on issues affecting society strictly off the record, with no fear of censorship or repercussions; #JengaHustle, an initiative aimed at advancing policies regarding employment and decent jobs for youth; #EmergingVoices, an intergenerational leadership development project aimed at empowering emerging social justice organisers and #ARealManIs, a transformative masculinity project aimed at leveraging media in mobilising young men’s fight against gender-based violence.
2. Does artivism, and activism in general, face any challenges in Kenya?
Indeed. Civil society is currently fighting a battle for its legitimacy, and it’s not winning. From every podium, including national television, the government is pushing a narrative discrediting civil society. Last year, two prominent human rights civil society organisations (CSOs) were shut down over their alleged non-compliance with regulations, including tax and employment laws, and for operating without a licence. There have been attempts to de-register other organisations as well.
The prevailing narrative is that activists and CSOs are donor-funded disrupters. The idea is also being disseminated that people do it for the money. If you mobilise, you are asked: ‘how much have you been paid?’ – like there is no other driver than money. Ideas or visions of change don’t count. They will say that critical civil society activists and organisations are ‘Soros people’ - implying they are being funded by the Open Society Foundations and are therefore puppets of foreign interests. It is very difficult to counter this narrative when it is constantly being propagated on national television.
It is also a challenge that there is a growing apathy amongst young people who are very well aware of their constitutional rights, resulting in an overreliance on individual activists.
3. What is being done in response to this?
What needs to be done is put together and disseminate a compelling counter-narrative. We know this is difficult because the problem has deep roots. So, the first thing we need to do is understand why it is so easy for governments to target civil society, in Kenya and elsewhere.
We first heard about ‘fake news’ a couple of years ago, and it was all happening far away, in the USA. But the trend has progressed very fast, and in the context of presidential elections last year we suffered an epidemic of fake news. It was all over social media, which is a major source of information for Kenyan citizens, and it distorted the political conversation, and maybe the outcomes of the elections as well. Young people, the group that most uses social media, were particularly misled by fake news stories aimed at stirring conflict and dividing civil society.
The abundance of fake news can be very disconcerting for young people that have little experience with interpreting data and are ill-equipped to tell the difference between legitimate and fake information. How do you sustain online movements while avoiding the infiltration of narratives based on fake news? How do you manage to bring online movements offline and keep them going in a context in which the political discussion is distorted to such extent?
Young people are also particularly vulnerable to empty electoral promises of jobs and other benefits. Lots of promises are made at election times but no policies are ever enacted to fulfil them afterward. And people keep believing every time. The problem is that we have a whole generation of people who form their opinions based on headlines, and also build their activism on the basis of headlines – and under the headlines, there is usually no real content.
The government is aware that evidence-based activism is lacking, and they do have smart and better prepared people, so they sometimes invite civil society to the table and pair them with a government technician, even on live television. Civil society activists are not always in a position to prepare adequately to respond. So it is difficult to connect and sustain civil society struggles, and instead it is so easy for the government to co-opt civil society actors.
This is why we work to empower people, and young people in particular, to seek facts, to interpret them and understand their implications, to make decisions based on them, and to use them to monitor the government, hold it accountable and ensure it responds to citizens’ needs. We believe that arts, pop culture and media remain a viable tool to engage with the youth and are keen to continue investing in them.
Civic space in Kenya is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
‘Dutch citizens feel a major disconnect from politics’
The special theme of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report will be ‘reimagining democracy’. The report will explore how citizens and civil society organisations are working to build more participatory forms of democracy, and how civil society is responding to the citizen anger and sense of disconnection that is driving more extremist and polarised politics in many countries. Ahead of publication, we’ll be interviewing civil society activists and leaders in countries experiencing these trends. Here, CIVICUS speaks to René Rouwette, Director of Kompass, a civil rights organisationin the Netherlands. Kompass seeks to make human rights accessible to all and strives for ordinary people to exercise as much influence on laws and policies as large companies. It brings people together around projects on racism, refugees and ethnic profiling, among other issues.
- How would you describe the state of democracy in the Netherlands?
The Netherlands scores very high on the international Democracy Index. Still, I am concerned about specific developments affecting democracy in the Netherlands. Many Dutch people do not feel represented in Dutch politics. Citizens feel a major disconnect from politics, especially towards the European Union as well as at the national level. Political parties are losing members and are increasingly unable to recruit new ones, and many people who are still involved are actively seeking a political job rather than trying to challenge their parties, and change their country or the world. As local newspapers are disappearing, there is hardly any awareness about local politics either.
Many unhappy voters have turned to the right and the extreme right. And at least one such extreme right-wing party, the Freedom Party, is highly undemocratic. Its leader, Geert Wilders, is actually the party’s only formal member, which means he is the only one who can make decisions regarding the topics the political organisation will tackle and the positions it will take. This is a true anomaly among Dutch political parties.
The political landscape is polarising. After years of consensus politics, the left and right in the Netherlands are increasingly apart. People are locked up in echo chambers, so they resist any information that does not conform to their beliefs and show very little interest in finding common ground. Parties at the centre of the political spectrum are struggling, and are increasingly accommodating language from the extremes, and especially from the extreme right. The landscape is highly fragmented. A record number of 81 contenders, many of them single-issue parties, registered to compete in the national elections that took place in March 2017. Thirteen of those parties made it to Parliament, making it very hard to reach consensus.
A major issue of current democratic tension in the Netherlands is focused on referendums. Over the past few years, referendums were introduced at the local and national levels. Almost all votes so far have resulted in wins for anti-establishment forces. In the first national referendum that took place the Netherlands, in April 2016, two-thirds of voters rejected the European Union accession treaty with Ukraine. As a result, the ruling coalition decided to put an end to referendum opportunities at the national level. People are now angry about the government’s unwillingness to follow up on the referendum results as well as about the decision to suspend referendums.
- Has the practice of democracy in the country changed (for better or worse) over the past few years?
More than with democracy, I think that the problem in the Netherlands is with human rights.
When talking about human rights in our country, you always have to start by saying that the Netherlands is not China, and that we are doing better than Rwanda and Uganda. There is a general feeling that human rights are something for other countries to be concerned with and it all comes down to issues of such as the death penalty and torture. But that is not what Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues meant when they drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are about many other things as well, including housing, schooling, education - a minimum standard for basic rights, in every country.
The Dutch mind-set towards human rights is actually very contradictory, as Dutch people also tend to be pioneers and innovators. I think it is very un-Dutch to consider the human rights status quo as good enough, and to settle for an increasing mediocrity. While holding firm to the feeling that human rights are an issue for other countries, it is worth noting that Rwanda is now scoring better in terms of women’s equality and Uganda now scores better in terms of human rights education than the Netherlands. While the Netherlands is actively involved in bringing human rights to other countries, Dutch school kids score very low in terms of their knowledge of human rights.
At the same time, human rights have increasingly become an issue of political contestation. Political parties right and centre have openly criticised human rights and human rights treaties. They have even fought the Dutch constitution on this. The new government, established after the latest elections, is now investigating how to get rid of refugee treaties. A coalition of Dutch civil society organisations (CSOs) has recently concluded that in the past five years the human rights situation in the Netherlands has deteriorated. The victims of this deterioration have been not only refugees and Muslims living in the Netherlands, but also ordinary Dutch citizens. Human rights are about rights for all; the power of human rights is that they are all important. There are no left-wing human rights and right-wing human rights. Let us stick to that.
- In which ways have the recent elections altered the political and ideological landscape? Has the political conversation deteriorated as a result of the challenge posed by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party?
There is a major international misconception that the extreme right lost the Dutch elections. This is wishful thinking. In reality, Geert Wilders’ party increased its presence in the Dutch Parliament, from 12 to 20 seats. Moreover, a new extreme right-wing party, the Eurosceptic and nationalistic Forum for Democracy, also won two seats in the Dutch Parliament. Leftist parties have become very small in comparison to their past selves.
At the same time, parties at the centre have increasingly accommodated language from the extreme right, so the public conversation has definitely changed for the worse. Even in the left, among social democrats, there are voices calling for ignoring refugees’ basic rights. The Christian-Democratic Party is obsessed with winning back political power, and references to exclusion have therefore become vital to their political strategy. It is going to be hard – not to say impossible – for these parties to return to their traditional positions and, in fact, to their core ideologies. But of course that there are still some good people with a heart for human rights within those parties, and we should work with them to make things better.
- What is progressive civil society doing, and what should it do, to resist the rise of authoritarian, isolationist populism?
The major current challenge for Dutch civil society is to bridge differences and to start working together. In the past, many CSOs have focused on competition rather than cooperation, and on their own cause rather than the general cause. I have a feeling that this is changing, and that is for the best. CSOs can all contribute to a cause from their own experience and skills, as long as we share an agenda. An interesting trend in Dutch civil society, as well as at the international level, is that new CSOs tend not to focus exclusively on themes anymore, but rather on specific skills and assets. As a civil rights organisation, for instance, Kompass focuses on using lobbying experience and techniques to advance human rights. There is another new organisation in our country that focuses on litigation. We need to cut internal discussions short, and start working on outreach.
It is important to note that CSOs are setting the agenda again: that civil society is being able to frame issues rather than just respond to issues put forward by other actors. We have some things to learn from the (extreme) right, who have managed to communicate a clear message through their own media, as well as through the mainstream media. It is important for us to take a position, and not appear as indifferent.
At the same time, it is important to avoid taking a high moral ground. Actively seeking polarisation will bring us nowhere. The election result was clear, and the fact that so many people abandoned progressive and left-wing parties needs serious consideration. Parties that criticise human rights treaties like the Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights now have a majority in Parliament; it is important to take stock of this. Polarisation might be useful to bring together very leftist or progressive groups, but it will alienate many others, even those in the centre. It is important to find a common ground: to persuade rather than accommodate or win discussions.
What we can learn from commercial lobbying is how to build political support among parties that do not necessarily agree. In the past, some CSOs were of the opinion that they had a role in raising problems, but that it was politicians’ job to come up with a solution. That approach just does not work in the current political setting and climate. We do not need to create moral upheavals, but to propose concrete solutions and actions. The reason why companies are spending such enormous amounts of money on lobbying is that it works. We need to learn from what they are doing.
- Civic space in the Netherlands was recently downgraded from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that rates the conditions for civil society in every country in the world. This downgrade was influenced by increasing infringements of protest and expression rights and a rise in hate-inducing and harmful speech during the election.
- Get in touch with Kompass through theirwebsite orFacebook page, or follow @KompassNL on Twitter
‘In response to anti-right narratives, we need to support one another in all of our diversity’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Sahar Moazami, OutRight Action International’s United Nations Program Officer. Sahar is trained as a lawyer specialising in international human rights law. Primarily based in the USA, OutRight has staff in six countries and works alongside LGBTQI people across four continents to defend and advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world. Founded in 1990 as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, it changed its name in 2015 to reflect its commitment to advancing the human rights of all LGBTQI people. It is the only LGBTQI civil society organisation with a permanent advocacy presence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
OutRight is unique in that it has a permanent presence at the United Nations (UN). Can you tell us what kind of work you do at the UN, and how this work helps advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world?
OutRight is indeed uniquely placed. We are the only LGBTQI-focused and LGBTQI-led organisation with UN ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council accreditation) status focusing on the UN in New York. Prior to 2015, when we formalised the programme as it exists today, we would do UN work, but with a focus on human rights mechanisms in Geneva and a more ad-hoc participation in New York, such as making submissions on LGBTQI issues to human rights treaty bodies with civil society partners in specific countries or bringing speakers to sessions and interactive dialogues.
In 2015 we reviewed our strategic plan and realised that we were uniquely placed: we are based in New York, we are the only LGBTQI organisation here with ECOSOC status, there are a number of UN bodies here in New York, and there is a bit of a gap in LGTBQI presence. So we decided to shift our focus, also taking into consideration that we work with a lot of great colleagues overseas, like ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), which is permanently based and has staff in Geneva, or COC Netherlands, which has easier access than us to Geneva mechanisms. So it made sense, given that we had great colleagues working in Geneva and we were the only ones based here, to try and make sure we were using our resources constructively and thus covering all spaces. As a result, we now focus specifically on the UN in New York, which is quite an interesting landscape.
While there are 47 states at a time that are actively engaged with the Human Rights Council in Geneva, all states that are UN members have a permanent presence in New York, throughout the year. This creates an opportunity for continuous engagement. We are part of an informal working group, the UN LGBTI Core Group, which includes 28 UN member states, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch, alongside OutRight Action International. This group provides the space to do LGBTQI advocacy throughout the year and gives us direct access to the 28 member states involved. We work in the UN LGBTI Core Group to identity and take advantage of opportunities for promoting LGBTQI inclusivity and convene events to increase visibility. While we also engage with other states, the Core Group provides a specific space for the work that we do.
In addition to year-round engagement with member states, there are a number of sessions that are of particular interest: the UN General Assembly, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March and the High-Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Developments Goals in July. In all of these forums we provide technical guidance to UN member states on using inclusive language in resolutions and outcome documents and we host events with Core Group and non-Core Group member states relevant to topics and themes discussed in these forums, with the aim of increasing LGBTQI visibility and inclusion. Throughout the year we also work on the Security Council, as members of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.
Every December we hold our own flagship programme, in which we support between 30 and 40 activists from all around the world to come and undergo training on UN mechanisms in New York, and take part in numerous meetings with UN officials and bodies, and member states.
The impact that our work has on people’s lives depends on our ability to leverage the status that we have to open doors. We use the access we have via our ECOSOC status to get our partners into spaces otherwise not available to them and to support them in their advocacy once they are there. So many things happen at the UN that have an impact on our lives, yet it is a system that is difficult to explain. It is easier to show activists the various UN mechanisms, how they work and how activists can use them to further their work.
Being able to open spaces, bringing information and perspectives into the conversation and then getting the information that we are able to gather back to our partners on the ground so they can use it in their advocacy – that is what I am most proud of in terms of the real impact of our work on people’s lives.
Over the past decade there have been sizeable advances in recognition of the human rights of LGBTQI people. Have you experienced backlash from anti-rights groups that oppose these gains?
I think we are seeing significant progress. Over the past year, a number of countries passed or began to implement laws that recognise diverse gender identities and expand the rights of transgender people, remove bans against same-sex relations and recognise equal marriage rights to all people regardless of gender or sexual orientation. At the same time, and maybe in reaction to these gains, we are experiencing backlash. We are witnessing the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-gender movements targeting gender equality and advocating for the exclusion of LGBTQI people and extreme restrictions on sexual and reproductive health and rights. This has led to a rise in queerphobic, and especially transphobic, rhetoric coming from political actors and, in some cases, attempts to roll back progress made to recognise the diversity of gender identities.
The CSW is a good example of a space that has undergone regression, particularly regarding the rights of LGBTQI people. What we saw during its latest session, in March 2019, was a very vocal and targeted attack against trans individuals. The anti-gender narrative was present in side events that were hosted by states and civil society groups both at the UN and outside the UN.
Do you think these groups are part of a new, more aggressive generation of anti-rights groups? Are they different in any way from the conservative groups of the past?
I wouldn’t say they are so new, and they certainly did not come out of nowhere. Such narratives have been around in national discourse for quite a while. What seems new is the degree to which the right-wing groups promoting them have become emboldened. What has emboldened them the most is that powerful states are using their arguments. This anti-gender narrative has penetrated deeply and is reflected in negotiations and official statements. During the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, for example, representatives of the USA attempted to remove the word ‘gender’ from numerous draft resolutions, requesting to replace it with the term ‘woman’. And at the 63rd Session of the CSW, a number of delegations negotiating the official outcome document, including from Bahrain, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the USA, attempted to remove or limit references to gender throughout the document, proposing instead narrow terms reinforcing a gender binary, excluding LGBTQI – and especially trans persons – from the CSW's guidance to states on their gender equality efforts.
So clearly the anti-rights discourse is not coming from fringe right-wing CSOs or individuals anymore, but from heads of state, government officials and national media platforms, which give it not just airtime, but also credibility. As a result, anti-rights groups feel increasingly free to be more upfront and upright. I don’t know if they are really increasing in popularity or if people who have always held these views are also emboldened by leaders of nations who are using the same rhetoric. Maybe these right-wing populist leaders just opened the door to something that was always there.
But I think there is one change underway in terms of the kind of groups that promote anti-rights narratives. In the past it was clear that these were all religion-based organisations, but now we are seeing secular and non-secular groups coming together around the narrative of biology. Some of them even identify as feminists and as human rights defenders but are particularly hostile toward trans individuals. Of course, there are some groups that are clearly hijacking feminist concepts and language, attaching them to new interpretations that are clearly forced, but there are also groups that actually consider themselves to be feminists and believe that trans individuals should be expelled from feminist spaces.
Either hypocritically or out of some sort of conviction, these groups are using feminist language to further their goals. And they are using the same rhetoric against abortion rights and the rights of LGBTQI people. They are well-funded. They have plenty of resources and supporters. Of course, plenty of people stand vocally in support of abortion rights, sexual health and education, and the human rights of LGBTQI people, but what I am trying to emphasise is that the anti-rights forces are mobilising people differently and are able to amplify their message in a way that makes them very dangerous.
From our perspective, they are mobilising against the rights of certain people – but that is not the way they frame it. They are not explicit in using the human rights framework against certain categories of people. Rather they claim to be upholding principles around, say, the freedom of religion, the rights of children, or women’s rights. They depict the situation as though the rights of some groups would necessarily be sacrificed when the rights of other groups are realised; but this is a false dichotomy. Human rights are universal as well as indivisible.
How can progressive rights-oriented civil society respond to help resist these advances?
I think there are different tactics that we could use, and we are already using. There is an argument to be made against responding to things that are said by anti-gender and anti-rights groups. Faced with this challenge, different people would have different responses, and I can only speak from my personal background and for my organisation. I think that these are false narratives and we shouldn’t engage with them. We need to be more proactive. Rather than engaging, we should focus on ensuring that all the work we do is truly collaborative and intersectional, and that we acknowledge each other and support one another in all of our diversity.
People who really uphold feminist values agree that the root of gender inequality is the social construction of gender roles and norms, and that these constructions produce personal and systemic experiences of stigma, discrimination and violence. Those of us who believe this need to continue mobilising our narratives to fight against structural barriers to equality. The fact that some anti-rights groups are using a bogus feminist rhetoric is no reason to abandon feminism, but rather the opposite – we need to embody the version of feminism that is most inclusive, the one that is truer to its principles. We cannot accept their claim that they speak for all of us. We need to reclaim feminism as our own space and reject the terms of the debate as they are presented to us.
‘La sociedad civil progresista debe reclamar para sí la defensa de la vida’
En el marco de nuestroinforme temático 2019, estamos entrevistando a activistas, líderes y expertos de la sociedad civil acerca de sus experiencias y acciones ante el avance de los grupos anti-derechos y sus estrategias para fortalecer las narrativas progresistas y la capacidad de respuesta de la sociedad civil. En esta oportunidad, CIVICUS conversa con María Angélica Peñas Defago, especialista en temas de género, profesora e investigadora del Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones (CONICET) de Argentina, basada en la Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, y coautora del recienteinforme del Global Philanthropy Project, ‘Conservadurismos religiosos en el escenario global: Amenazas y desafíos para los derechos LGBTI’.
¿Piensas que los grupos anti-derechos han aumentado su actividad en los últimos tiempos?
En primer lugar, habría que definir qué son los últimos tiempos, cuánto para atrás nos remontamos, y en qué contexto nos situamos, porque en América Latina la situación varía de país en país. En el caso de Argentina hemos visto a lo largo del tiempo - y no solamente en el último año, durante el cual se discutió en el Congreso un proyecto de ley de interrupción voluntaria del embarazo –reacciones contra los progresos de la agenda de los derechos de las mujeres y las personas LGBTQI. Si bien es cierto que en los últimos años los grupos anti-derechos se han visibilizado y unido más entre ellos, en gran parte en respuesta a los avances en temas de derechos sexuales y reproductivos conseguidos, hace décadas que están presentes, coaccionando nuestras agendas. En Argentina hace más de 20 años promueven activamente acciones de litigio contra todo intento de política pública de salud sexual y reproductiva o vinculada con esos derechos. En la provincia de Córdoba, donde vivo, estos esfuerzos han sido muy exitosos en las primeras instancias judiciales, pero los fallos favorables a estos grupos acabaron siendo revertidos en instancias superiores de la administración de justicia.
En lo que se refiere a acciones callejeras, ya ha habido en el pasado reacciones fuertes de estos grupos, incluyendo marchas en todo el país, por ejemplo contra el matrimonio igualitario, que se aprobó en 2010 en Argentina. Los mismos grupos volvieron a manifestarse en contra de la legalización del aborto en 2018. Al mismo tiempo ha habido una nueva embestida contra la educación sexual en las escuelas, una batalla de larga data. La educación sexual fue implementada mediante una ley de 2006 que aún sigue siendo resistida. Durante el debate sobre el aborto los grupos anti-derechos fingieron promover la educación sexual como alternativa al aborto, pero luego de que el proyecto de ley de interrupción voluntaria del embarazo fue rechazado en el Senado volvieron a la carga contra la educación sexual.
Lo que hay en curso es una rearticulación conservadora y desde esa rearticulación creo que se han vuelto más visibles en el último tiempo. Si bien también han emergido nuevos actores dentro de la sociedad civil, el fenómeno central en el actual contexto sociopolítico es la rearticulación que se está produciendo en los campos político y económico. Esto se observa, por ejemplo, en las alianzas articuladas en Colombia en torno del referéndum de 2016 por el proceso de paz, así como en Brasil, con la elección de Jair Bolsonaro como presidente en 2018.
En Colombia, durante la campaña conducente al plebiscito, las fuerzas contrarias a los acuerdos aseguraban que si ganaba el ‘sí’ se impondría la llamada ‘ideología de género’; en Brasil se multiplicaron durante la campaña electoral las noticias falsas que decían que el PT promovía la pedofilia e intentaba ‘convertir’ a los niños en homosexuales o transexuales.
De diferentes maneras, el fenómeno se observa también en Argentina, donde se ha producido una convergencia entre los principales actores de oposición a la agenda progresista, y en particular a la agenda de los derechos sexuales y reproductivos.
¿Crees que se trata de grupos puramente reactivos, cuya razón de ser es frenar los avances de la agenda progresista?
En mi experiencia, efectivamente así es. En mi trabajo he monitoreado algunos congresos de grupos autodenominados ‘pro-vida’ y analizado sus acciones en los espacios regionales y globales, y sobre todo en la Organización de Estados Americanos y las Naciones Unidas, y es evidente que están perdiendo la hegemonía en lo que se refiere a formatos familiares y roles sexuales, y ellos lo saben. Estos grupos están reaccionando frente a lo que perciben como un retroceso. Su reacción está siendo coordinada no solo a través de la agenda temática de los derechos sexuales y reproductivos, sino también a través de una agenda política y económica nacionalista, neoliberal y en algunos casos fascista.
El fenómeno Bolsonaro es un buen ejemplo de reacción ante una agenda pluralista en materia de moral sexual y derechos sexuales y reproductivos. El avance de esta agenda pluralista funcionó de agente aglutinante para una agenda política conservadora más amplia. En el marco de la reacción contra los progresos en materia de derechos sexuales y reproductivos, otros actores están aprovechando para imponer sus propias agendas conservadoras, por ejemplo en torno del tema migratorio. Hay algunos actores nuevos, sobre todo los que se suman desde otros campos - político, económico, religioso -, pero muchos de los que están adquiriendo mayor visibilidad son los mismos de siempre, que ahora están unificando agendas que solían discurrir en paralelo y de maneras menos coordinadas.
¿Cuáles son las tácticas que estos grupos han utilizado para hacer avanzar su agenda?
El litigio contra los derechos sexuales y reproductivos ha sido una herramienta importante a lo largo de más de tres décadas. En Argentina, estos grupos han litigado, entre otras cosas, contra la administración de contracepción de emergencia y para frenar la aplicación de los protocolos para abortos no punibles. En Argentina el aborto es legal desde 1921 en los casos de violación, inviabilidad del feto, o peligro para la vida o la salud de la mujer; sin embargo, estos sectores han intentado impedir el acceso oportuno y seguro a este derecho.
Para la parte de la sociedad civil que trabaja en el área de los derechos de las mujeres, estos grupos siempre han estado allí. Pero el litigio, en ocasiones, es bastante silencioso, y posiblemente escapara al conocimiento de la sociedad civil más amplia. Muchas veces todo quedaba en el terreno de la justicia y los servicios de salud. Lo cual no obstaba para que tuviera efectos muy fuertes, porque las decisiones judiciales en materia de salud sexual y reproductiva producen miedos, dudas y parálisis en los prestadores de salud, que son sujetos clave para el acceso a esos derechos.
La presencia actual de grupos anti-derechos no es novedosa para los grupos feministas y LGBTQI, pero puede que sí lo sea para otros sectores de la sociedad civil, incluidas las organizaciones de derechos humanos, que en el último tiempo los ven actuando más intensamente a través de la ocupación del espacio callejero y la creación de alianzas políticas partidarias, arenas claves de disputa en las democracias contemporáneas. Estos grupos están tratando de resignificar lo público, intentando mostrarse como mayoría, y de este modo están ganando visibilidad pública. En este terreno, una de sus estrategias más exitosas pasa por el uso de mensajes y simbologías coordinados. La campaña ‘Con mis hijos no te metas’, por ejemplo, usa las mismas frases y eslóganes, e incluso los mismos símbolos y colores, no solamente en toda América Latina, sino incluso más allá. Lo hemos visto en Europa del Este, en Italia, en España. Hacen un intenso uso de redes sociales para que estas estrategias y simbologías viajen, sean compartidas y nos lleguen repetidamente desde distintas latitudes.
Si las posiciones anti-derechos tienen mayor visibilidad es porque los actores que las impulsan, en su mayoría actores religiosos, han un adquirido un protagonismo en el espacio público que hace 20 años no tenían. Las iglesias evangélicas, al igual que las católicas, son plurales y heterogéneas en su conformación. Pero en gran parte de América Latina, diversas iglesias evangélicas de las ramas más conservadoras están liderando los procesos políticos de resistencia a los derechos sexuales y reproductivos, en algunos casos en alianza con las jerarquías católicas y en otros con discrepancias e incluso con rupturas.
A diferencia del litigio, la estrategia de ocupar la calle requiere de apoyo en grandes números. ¿Piensas que estos grupos están ganando popularidad?
El fenómeno sociopolítico que han generado estos grupos no es menor. No se trata simplemente de campañas y eslóganes, sino que tienen una inserción profunda en el territorio. Para entender lo que está pasando en el terreno religioso y de la resistencia contra los avances en materia de derechos sexuales y reproductivos es necesario tomar en cuenta el contexto socioeconómico y el modo en que operan estas iglesias a nivel territorial, en conexión con las poblaciones a las que movilizan.
En Argentina, una sociedad muy movilizada políticamente, la movilización callejera ha sido largamente utilizada por estos grupos, no es una novedad. Lo novedoso es la masividad de la convocatoria. Hace 30 años, o más, estos grupos ya se movilizaban, pero no existían las redes sociales. Los modos de comunicación y convocatoria han cambiado al mismo tiempo que lo ha hecho el campo religioso frente a los avances de los derechos sexuales y reproductivos. Las iglesias evangélicas han crecido en toda la región, y dentro de ellas los que más han crecido han sido los sectores conservadores.
Por otro lado, creo que entender cómo opera el contexto neoliberal de precarización general de la vida es clave para entender este fenómeno. En el contexto sociopolítico del Estado neoliberal, con la retirada del Estado de sus funciones básicas, muchos actores religiosos han pasado a realizar tareas y a proveer servicios que corresponden al Estado. En algunos sitios, como en los Estados Unidos, la Iglesia Católica lleva décadas prestando servicios a ciertos grupos, por ejemplo a los migrantes, que el Estado no ofrece. En América Latina, es impresionante el rol de las iglesias evangélicas en el terreno de la asistencia y la contención relacionada, por ejemplo, con las adicciones. Los sectores evangélicos están creciendo exponencialmente porque están asistiendo a comunidades que están siendo relegadas por el Estado. Los pastores evangélicos desempeñan roles centrales en las comunidades, están activos en las políticas de asistencia, de adicciones, de salud, de educación, y son centrales a la hora de convocar a la movilización - en parte, además, porque muchos de ellos son miembros de esas comunidades. Viven en los mismos barrios y mantienen vínculos estrechos con las personas que integran sus iglesias.
De modo que no estamos ante una mera batalla de narrativas. Los discursos que debemos enfrentar están enraizados en las prácticas de las comunidades de base, y muchas de las convocatorias se realizan desde las iglesias. El llamado desde el púlpito es importante, porque para muchas personas que están excluidas la iglesia es indispensable. En países con altísimas tasas de pobreza, para mucha gente la iglesia es el único lugar de pertenencia y amparo que queda cuando tanto el Estado como el mercado la han excluido, y no tienen acceso a trabajo, educación o salud. Más allá del hecho de que la religiosidad sigue siendo un aspecto central de la identidad de muchas personas, la pertenencia y la idea de comunidad no son una cuestión menor en el contexto de la precarización y la individualización extremas que suponen los modelos económicos, políticos, sociales y culturales del neoliberalismo.
¿Qué puede ofrecer frente a esto la sociedad civil progresista?
La sociedad civil progresista tiene mucho para ofrecer, porque se centra en la disputa y la generación de modos de vida vivibles, ricos, plurales, basados en la solidaridad y el apoyo mutuo. No creo que haya una receta única, porque se trata de movimientos muy diversos. Hay movimientos feministas y LGBTQI que trabajan desde el pluralismo religioso, disputando la idea del monopolio de la fe, y son espacios muy ricos de lucha y de pertenencia. Las religiones, todas ellas, tienen espacios plurales, democráticos y horizontales, que muchas organizaciones aprovechan para dar una batalla por los sentidos. Otras organizaciones tienen experticia en la creación de mensajes, y desde allí contribuyen. Pero esta batalla no tiene lugar solamente, ni principalmente, en las redes sociales, ya que no todo el mundo tiene siquiera acceso a internet. La disputa por el sentido es fundamental tanto en las redes sociales como fuera de ellas, como se observa en torno del rótulo ‘pro-vida’ que se auto-imputan muchos grupos anti-derechos. Los grupos de mujeres y LGBTQI que trabajan a nivel de base lo referencian continuamente, con el interrogante: ¿cuánto vale mi vida si no tengo acceso a un trabajo, al reconocimiento de mi identidad, a la protección de mi salud, si la vida que se me ofrece no es una vida digna? La sociedad civil progresista debe reclamar para sí la defensa de la vida, entendida como vida digna, plenamente humana.
Para ofrecer esta respuesta, la sociedad civil progresista necesita aliarse con otros actores que comparten los valores del pluralismo, la libertad y la igualdad. La agenda feminista plural, inclusiva, no esencialista y decolonial es una buena base sobre la cual articular alianzas con múltiples actores que antes no eran convocados por el feminismo, para poder disputar sentidos no solo en el terreno retórico, sino también en la realidad concreta. El feminismo popular representa un regreso a lo real, a lo que los principios implican para el día a día de la gente. Si hablamos del aborto, por ejemplo, debemos centrarnos en las consecuencias de la legalidad o la ilegalidad de esta práctica sobre la realidad cotidiana de las personas gestantes, de las familias y las comunidades. La religiosidad y la fe son una parte importante de la vida de las personas, y el movimiento feminista, o al menos una buena parte de él, está trabajando desde esa realidad.
‘People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away’
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks toUma Mishra-Newbery, Interim Executive Director of Women’s March Global, a network of chapters and members mobilising to advance women’s rights around the world. Women’s March Global was formed to give continuity to the momentum of theJanuary 2017 mobilisations, when millions of women and allies in the USA and around the world poured out on to the streets to make themselves seen and heard. Its vision is one of a global community in which all women — including black women, indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, women with disabilities, lesbian, queer and trans women, and women of every religious, non-religious and atheist background — are free and able to exercise their rights and realise their full potential.
You recently witnessed anti-rights groups in action at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. Are we seeing a new generation of more aggressive anti-rights groups active at the global level?
I don’t think this is new. These groups have always been around, always in the background. But there is a massive resurgence of anti-rights groups underway. Following changes in political leadership in some countries, including the USA, they have become more vocal and more deeply involved. And they have become much more strategic and better coordinated. If we look at the funding of these groups, it is coming from very well-established family foundations that are deliberately working to undermine women’s rights. But they are doing it under the disguise of gender equality.
During the 63rd session of the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), held in March 2019, the Holy See organised a side event under the title ‘Gender Equality and Gender Ideology: Protecting Women and Girls’. On the surface, this could appear as super progressive – they are trying to give the impression that they are promoting women’s rights. But you walk into the event and it’s extremely transphobic, as they outrightly reject the concept of gender identity and insist on biological sex, therefore refusing to consider trans women as women. They claim to know better what it means to be a woman and what all women feel and need, and this brings them to condone violence against trans people and reject sexual and reproductive rights.
The way these groups have morphed and shifted, I think they have become more deliberate in the ways they show themselves in public. They have also become more sophisticated and are using information and communication technologies, as resistance movements always have, in order to organise and disseminate their views.
Why do you think they are trying to appear to be progressive and who are they trying to fool?
One would hope that they were trying to fool the UN, which should filter out hate groups, but truth be told, the UN still lets the National Rifle Association (NRA) keep its ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Council) status, and the NRA actively lobbies against any trade treaty regulating weapons – weapons that are killing people in the USA at an astonishing rate. The UN should understand that these groups exist to undermine democracy and human rights – but more than ever, the UN has become biased on this issue. At the same time there are grassroots organisations that are being denied accreditation in unprecedented numbers – and these are all organisations working on issues that powerful states don’t want to see brought to the forefront.
So I don’t think they are trying to fool anybody – at this point, they don’t really need to.
You mentioned the foundations that support these anti-rights groups. Why are all these foundations providing funding?What is there in it for them?
We have to look at the web of interests that keep these groups active within these spaces, because there are a lot of political and monetary interests keeping them at the UN and within the CSW space.
If we look at, say, the Heritage Foundation in a space such as CSW, speaking out against what they call gender ideology, what is their point there? Digging deeper, we find that the Heritage Foundation was funded by the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. And Betsy DeVos is currently the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education. She and her family are very deeply embedded within the US government, and they have their own political interests back in Michigan, where they are from. What Betsy DeVos has done in Michigan, essentially destroying the public education framework, is deeply troubling. We need to go through all these layers to understand why these groups exist, how sophisticated they are and why they are so difficult to remove.
How are these groups affecting progressive civil society, in general, and specifically at forums such as CSW? How do they create disruption?
We are currently seeing the phenomenon of governments working together to deny women’s rights, as opposed to the situation a few decades back, when collaboration among various development players, including states and their aid agencies, civil society organisations (CSOs) and grassroots groups, led to a widening of these rights.
These new regressive partnerships are very clear at the UN. While some states continue to challenge sexual violence in conflicts, for instance, you have other member states – including the US government – that have shifted and now threaten to reject anti-rape measures because the language in the documents includes terms and considerations related to sexual and reproductive health. These states are working together to strip women – and not only women – of their rights.
In this context, progressive CSOs are singled out as the ones speaking up against regressive governments and depicted as if they were the ones trying to undermine democracy. These delegitimising attacks against CSOs open up the space for further attacks. They are a signal for anti-rights groups, which are increasingly emboldened as a result of what their governments are doing. When your government is literally saying ‘we don´t care about women´s sexual and reproductive rights, we don´t care about what women experience as a result of conflicts – conflicts that we finance’, anti-rights groups hearing this know they are being given free rein to exist and act openly in these spaces. It’s exactly the same with white supremacists, in the USA and in other countries around the world. These groups are emboldened by a public discourse that gives a green light for fascists, racists and white supremacists to step forward. And this is exactly what they are doing by entering civil society space.
As well as being emboldened by governments that promote their ideas, do you think anti-rights groups are also emboldened because they are becoming more popular among the public? If so, why do you think their narratives are resonating with citizens?
They are possibly becoming more popular too – what once seemed like fringe ideas, or too politically incorrect positions to state aloud, are now becoming mainstream.
As for why this is happening, at the risk of sounding like a ridiculous cliché, I think it is because it is easier for people to hate than to love. When we talk about human rights what we are saying is that, at a very basic level, every single person on this planet should have the same human rights. This is a message that everyone should be able to step behind. But of course, many of those who have held power for hundreds of years and benefited from patriarchy and white supremacy are going to try to defend what they see as their right to continue exercising that power. This includes governments as well as anti-rights non-state groups.
This was apparent at that panel organised by the Holy See at CSW. The Holy See is an active, very vocal state at the UN. We reported live on their event on Twitter, and you cannot imagine the way we were trolled online. Anti-rights groups accused us of promoting trans rights over women’s rights. But we are an intersectional organisation: we understand that forms of oppression are interconnected, and so by fighting for trans women’s rights we are fighting for all women’s rights, in the same way as by fighting for women’s rights we are fighting for the rights of all people. Because the fight for the most marginalised is a fight for us all. But how can you explain this to people who have had their rights so protected, who have lived in such privilege for so long?
Is there something that progressive civil society could learn from the ways anti-right groups are pushing their narratives?
We definitely need to be able to work together towards a common purpose the way they do, and use social media for progressive purposes as cleverly as they are using them to undermine human rights. In many countries, Facebook is undermining democracy. In Myanmar, the genocide of the Rohingya people was incited on Facebook, and how long did it take Facebook to ban Myanmar’s military? In New Zealand, the Christchurch shooter tried to spread footage of the shooting live on Facebook, and how long did it take for Facebook to take it down?
As civil society, we know that if we don’t actively use the tools that are being used by other groups and governments to undermine human rights, then we are failing. We have to work in a coordinated way, in coalitions. In the past, CSOs have tended to compete for funding – we need to really get better at sharing resources, being collaborative and bringing our strengths to the table.
We are trying to move in that direction. Recently, we worked in Cameroon with one of our strategic partners, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, on social media training for peace. In this case, we focused on enabling social media campaigns to promote voting for politicians who support women’s rights and human rights.
For our Free Saudi Women Coalition we have partnerships with six other CSOs, CIVICUS included, and we work actively as a coalition. The wins that we have had have been the result of working together. For instance, in mid-2018 the government of Iceland obtained, for the first time ever, a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and went on to lead a joint initiative that publicly called on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights situation. The joint statement that Iceland delivered on behalf of 36 states was a direct result of behind-the-scenes advocacy by a civil society coalition.
What do you think progressive civil society needs to keep up the fight?
I think that people need to understand that CSOs have always been on the ground, that they have always worked at the very grassroots level to hold governments accountable and to push forward human rights agendas. People need to know that 90 per cent of the time there is a high level of coordination that goes on behind the scenes and that CSOs are furiously working to push forward. But many people don’t see all the behind-the-scenes work. And in a lot of places, we cannot be very explicit and provide too many details about our advocacy work, because for security reasons we cannot reveal the names of activists or journalists.
People need to understand that, in the fight for human rights, grassroots activists and organisations, as well as bigger CSOs, are doing really important and necessary work and more than ever need real support from them. We need people to get invested at the grassroots level. People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away. If your government is taking away your rights, you need to get involved before it’s too late. If you live in a free and stable democracy you have a duty to use your voice and speak up on the human rights abuses happening around the world. This work needs all of us at the table.
‘The government is in fact listening to civil society, just not to the progressive side of it’
CIVICUS speaks to Horace Levy, the director of Jamaicans for Justice, a non-profit, non-partisan, non-violent citizens’ rights action organisation that advocates for good governance and improvements in state accountability and transparency.
1. What led to the formation of Jamaicans for Justice, and what does the organisation do?
In April 1999, the government announced new taxes, including a special fuel tax and a 30% hike in the cost of licensing vehicles. This prompted widespread protests, both peaceful and violent, including roadblocks and barricades, which lasted for several days. There was one group, in the St. Andrew’s section of Kingston, that included some lower class people, but was mostly middle class, and had gathered to block a road in protest. The poorer people were on one side of the road and the middle class people were on the other, but after a couple of days they came together. Some people from that middle-class group met afterwards to discuss the causes of the protests – the general state of injustice, the oppression of poor people. Out of a series of meetings, held along with a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Richard Albert, who offered his church as a venue, was born Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ). By July the group had formed, in August it registered as a limited liability company, and on 15 October 1999, six months after the riots, it officially became a registered NGO.
The very first case JFJ took on involved the ill treatment of inner city poor youth by the police. The police had detained 52 poor youths, put them behind bars — then they released some but they kept others. From the beginning, then, ill treatment by police became a major issue for JFJ. As a result of several presentations we made before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the government eventually set up a Special Coroners’ Court, because the Coroner’s Court was totally inadequate to deal with this. The Special Coroners’ Court deals specifically with police abuse, and killings in particular.
Another broad area of our work involves children in the care of the state. JFJ monitors the situation of wards of the state in children’s homes, places of safety, police lock-ups, remand and correctional facilities. We gather data, provide reports and lobby for the protection of this particularly vulnerable group.
We are also involved in a wide range of other things: we deliver human rights education in schools, we provide human rights training to police recruits, we bring legal advice to inner-city communities through legal advice sessions and workshops, we give testimony in front of parliamentary committees, we promote citizen awareness of the right to access public information, and we develop media campaigns, among other things. Right now some of us are working very hard on an identification process the government is putting in place, which involves elements of respect for privacy and other rights. But we keep focusing on one of our core issues: the conditions of detention.
One achievement we contributed to was the establishment by the government of an independent Commission of Enquiry to clarify the events that took place during the State of Emergency declared in May 2010, which left almost 70 civilians dead. A lot of progress was done in prosecuting the police for extra-judicial killings, which helped reduce the number of killings. In order to prevent this from happening again, we keep pushing for radical change in the way the security forces operate.
2. Organisations defending basic civil rights against actions by the security forces are often accused of “protecting criminals”. How do you get public opinion to take your side on divisive issues such as police brutality?
I don’t think we have entirely escaped that accusation. But we try in various ways: for instance, when a police officer is killed in the line of duty we issue a press release offering our sympathy to his family and condemning the act. Most of the times the papers don’t print that, but we issue it anyway. Secondly, we work on other issues as well, such as the welfare of children, which shows we are not fixated on police abuses. There was a period when we also did a lot of work on socio-economic rights: education, housing, employment and the development of rural communities. And of course, we also try to explain that the reason why we are concerned with police brutality is that the police are supposed to be protecting human rights. So a criminal killing somebody and a police officer killing somebody are two completely different things. But people seem to overlook that. Criminals are what they are, and they are not going to be moved by our condemning them. But by addressing actions by the state that should not happen, we have a chance to change them.
3. How would you describe the environment for civil society in Jamaica? Are civic freedoms enjoyed by all Jamaicans equally, or are there restrictions that affect specific groups disproportionately?
Civic space is quite good in Jamaica. The freedom of the press is perhaps the most unrestricted in the hemisphere. The freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are respected and protected. The state does not attack these freedoms; to the contrary, for instance, the state has facilitated the freedom of expression by passing laws governing the establishment of fresh media outlets.
About four years ago, we were stigmatised in public comments by the previous government’s Minister of Youth, who accused us of grooming children in state-run homes to be homosexuals, while we were in fact delivering a sexual education programme in about seven children’s homes. But this was an exception rather than a rule, and it was just an individual reaction from a public official that we had criticised. We had only had another situation like that in the past, when we had just started as an organisation and were perceived as hostile to the party that was in power at the time. But as time passed, and both parties spent some time in power, it became apparent that we criticised them both, that we were not partisan in any way, and that we were constructive rather than over-critical, so our position became accepted.
Along with a quite healthy civic space, we have had free elections since 1945, and elections have been overall free and fair ever since. We never had a party in power that was not legally and legitimately elected. At the same time, slightly more than half the population is currently not voting, which means that each party has the support of about 23% or 24% of the electorate. Although democracy is firmly rooted not just in the political sphere but also among business, civil society and religious groups, recent polls have witnessed an increase in the number of citizens that would favour a military takeover (which is highly unlikely to happen) in reaction to the perceived corruption of politics.
There are also lot of structural but subtle ways in which democracy is hurt. As a legacy of slavery and colonialism, our country has a hierarchical social structure that has stayed in place even after independence. It is a pyramid on top of which are white people, followed by brown people in the middle, and black people (who account for 85% of the population) at the bottom. Of course it’s not clear-cut: we have black politicians and top public officials, for example. But there is a sharp distinction between the brown and the black. The middle class is largely brown, although there are blacks among them as well. This distinction reflects in education: we have a two-tier education system, with the brown and upper class in private, proprietary and secondary schools, and the large mass of the mostly black population receiving and inferior education. Fortunately, this is changing, and formerly weak schools are now beginning to compete with privileged schools thanks to state funding. As for police abuses, they are directed against the black majority in poor communities: you don’t see upper class and white people being beaten by the police.
In other words, democracy is in many ways corrupted by overlapping race and class injustices. The system is not corrupt in the sense that officials massively take bribes, but it is indeed damaged by this racial and class hierarchy that, according to public opinion polls, is unfortunately accepted by the vast majority of the people. Interestingly, this is not reflected in the way Jamaicans individually behave: we don’t see ourselves as less than anybody else, and when overseas we are often regarded as aggressive. We have a strong sense of our rights, but at the same time there is a broad segment of black people bleaching their skin in an attempt to climb up the social ladder.
4. Do you think representative democracy in Jamaica is participatory enough? Do regular citizens and organised civil society have a say in how public affairs are run?
Our democracy is not participatory enough, which is part of our struggle. Recent events have enhanced the prospects for civil society participation, however. In the latest election, in early 2016, the government won by a very tight majority, which made it more open to civil society. So as to gather as much support as they could, they gave continuity to an institution called Partnership for a Prosperous Jamaica (PPJ, formerly known as Partnership for Jamaica).
The PPJ includes representatives of the state (both from the government and the opposition), the private sector, trade unions and civil society organisations. It was in fact as a result of civil society efforts that we got representation for five distinct civil society groups: a faith-based group, a rights advocacy group, a youth group, a women’s group and an environmental CSO. The Prime Minister, who chairs the Partnership, agreed to our proposal to have three sub-committees: on women and children; on violence and the rule of law; and on the environment. The chairpersons of all three sub-committees are civil society people.
The chairwoman of the environment sub-committee, in particular, is a civil society representative who is highly respected by both major political parties and who had resigned to her position in the previous Partnership because she was disgusted by the fact that there was all talk and no real action. She just led a petition to the Prime Minister to protect Jamaica’s Cockpit Country against bauxite mining. According to a recently established mechanism, if you gather 15 000 signatures in 40 days, the government will review the petition, and if it complies with certain standards the Office of the Prime Minister will issue an official response. This petition surpassed the target by far, so we are now waiting to see whether we won this battle or not.
So, there is an element of participation, but making it count is a permanent struggle. Additionally, there is a section of civil society that is mobilised around conservative or even reactionary causes, which means that not all forms of participation are helping advance a progressive agenda. For instance, an area in which we are struggling very strongly is LGBTQ rights. We have long been pushing for the revocation of buggery or sodomy laws, old pieces of legislation that criminalise male same-sex sexual activity. Under these statutes, loosely defined “unnatural offences” and “outrages on decency” can be punished with up to ten years of imprisonment and hard labour. But there is a wide section of society, led by conservative churches such as evangelists and Seventh-Day Adventists, which strongly oppose the repeal of these laws. The majority of the population belong to these churches, while more liberal churches are a small minority.
Politicians are afraid of conservative religious people, so the government has proposed to submit the issue to a referendum. So the government is in fact listening to civil society, just not to the progressive side of it. Now, why would the majority go against itself, its own social norms and its own privilege? We just had an international conference with leading Anglicans and human rights activists, including Anthony Gifford, explaining why this is not the kind of issue to be decided by a popular vote. It doesn't make any sense to ask the majority whether they would like to respect the rights of a minority they are oppressing. Sodomy laws were repealed in Britain 50 years ago, but in Jamaica we are not likely to have them revoked anytime soon. On this issue, a section of civil society is fighting another section of civil society.
5. What support, including from international actors, does progressive Jamaican civil society need to play a full role in building a fairer society and a more participatory democracy?
We get international support, for example in the form of the conference I just mentioned, with highly-respected figures putting forward a cogent argument that will hopefully help shape public debate. UNDP has also collaborated in a similar way.
Financial support, on the other hand, is not that good. That’s where organisations like JFJ are struggling. We get some funding locally, but it is very little. For instance, we have one donor who gives us nearly 2.5 million Jamaicans, but that’s just a few hundred US dollars. We have an annual fundraising art auction, which is quite unusual for an organisation like ours, but that’s because we have some middle- to upper-class donors, and this brings in a couple million Jamaican dollars a year. And it takes months of efforts.
So most of our funding comes from international sources. We had funding from the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF), but it expired last December. We just got UNICEF funding for our work with children, which is set to last for at least two years. We also have some funding from the European Union, but it ends in about five months, and we are finding it hard to replace it. We have been trying to get funding from the Open Society Foundations but have not yet succeeded. We are approaching the Inter-American Development Bank, and we might get something from them.
In short, we are struggling with funding. Until 2013 we had a Legal Department but we had to close it. We still employ one of the lawyers from our former Legal Department, but we need more lawyers because a lot of our work with pre-trial detainees is of a legal nature. For instance, we have a case now going to the Privy Council and we are struggling to get the money to send people there. Even though we have some pro bono lawyers in England, it still costs us money: we need to send them 3 000 pounds that we can ill afford.
When we get our Legal Department going, we will be able to use it to earn some money. In the past, we stupidly thought that, as a charity, we shouldn’t. But in fact, even as a charity we can earn some money by imposing retainer fees to those who can pay them, while working for free for those who cannot afford them. We are set to do that, but we have made that decision quite recently, so we won’t be earning any money from it for a few months yet.
- Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) was founded in 1999 and primarily works with victims whose rights have been breached by members of the security forces. In the upcoming period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) in Montevideo, Uruguay, JFJ will take part in a hearing on extrajudicial executions and the excessive use of preventive detention against Afro-descendants in Jamaica.
- Civic space in Jamaica is rated as “narrowed” by theCIVICUS Monitor.
- Get in touch with Jamaicans for Justice through theirwebsite or Facebook page, or follow@JAForJustice on Twitter.
‘Threats to women’s and LGBTI rights are threats to democracy; any retrogression is unacceptable’
Recent years have seen an apparently growing tendency for anti-rights groups to seek to claim the space for civil society, including at the intergovernmental level. CIVICUS speaks about it with Gillian Kane,asenior policy advisor for Ipas, a global women’s reproductive health and rights organisation.Founded in 1973, Ipas is dedicated to ending preventable deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortion. Through local, national and international partnerships, Ipas works to ensure that women can obtain safe, respectful and comprehensive abortion care, including counselling and contraception to prevent future unintended pregnancies.
- Do you observe any progress on sexual and reproductive rights in the Americas? What are the main challenges looking ahead?
Ipas has robust programmes in Latin America, and we have definitely seen progress on legislation that increases women’s and girls’ access to safe and legal abortions, including in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico City. Still, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organisation, more than 97 per cent of women of childbearing age in the region live in countries where abortion is restricted or completely banned. A woman who lives in restrictive settings and wants an abortion will have to do so under illegal conditions and at great risk to not just her health, but also her security. Women who have abortions are vulnerable to harassment, intimidation, arrest, prosecution and even jail time.
We also see that restrictive abortion laws are damaging the provider-patient confidentiality relationship. A study by Ipas and the Georgetown Law School’s O’Neill Institute found that an alarming number of medical staff across Latin America are reporting women and girls to the police for having abortions. Many countries now require, protect or encourage medical providers to breach their confidentiality duties when they treat women seeking post-abortion care.
- Are we facing a democratic regression at the global level? Do you think women are being targeted?
We are indeed facing a democratic regression, and I do think women are being targeted, both which are incredibly alarming. With the United States leading, we’re seeing the rapid degradation of the political and legal infrastructure that is designed to promote and protect the interests of citizens. For example, you see this in attacks against the Istanbul Convention, which is intended combat violence against women. You would think this would be uncontroversial. Yet, there are right-wing groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) objecting to the Convention, claiming that it takes away parental rights and that it promotes gender as social construct, and not as a binary biological truth, as they see it. This is also happening in international spaces. This year at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, the US State Departmentappointed two extremists to represent it. One was an executive leader of a known LGBTI-hate group, and the other was from an organisation that has advocated for the repeal of legislation that prevents violence against women. And at the country level, for example in Brazil, conservative leaders are downgrading the power of ministries that promote equal rights for women and black communities.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Women are responding forcefully. Poland provides an amazing example of women organising and effecting change. In late 2016 thousands of women and men crowded the major cities of Warsaw and Gdansk to join the ‘Black Monday’ march, to protest against a proposed law banning abortions. The full ban wasn’t enacted, which was a huge victory. And of course, the women’s marches and the #MeToo movement are incredible, and global.
- Not many people in Latin America have ever heard of the Alliance Defending Freedom. How is this organisation surreptitiously changing the political conversation in the region?
ADF is a legal organisation. It was founded in 1994 by a group of white, male, hard-right conservative evangelical Christians. It was designed to be the conservative counterpoint to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which they saw as out to squash their religious liberties. They are huge, and have a global reach, which they say is dedicated to transforming the legal system through Christian witness. To that end they litigate and legislate on issues linked to the freedoms of expression and religion.
I wouldn’t say that their actions are surreptitious; they’re not deliberately trying to fly under the radar. They are intervening in spaces that don’t necessarily get a lot of news coverage, such as the Organization of American States (OAS). But in recent years they have definitely increased their activism both at the regional and country level in Latin America. In terms of the conversation, what they are doing is reframing rights issues to use religion as a sword, rather than a shield. Right now they are litigating, in the United States Supreme Court, the case of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. As my colleague Cole Parke has explained, they are corrupting religious freedom. They are claiming it is legal to discriminate against a gay couple because of religious beliefs: that religion trumps all other rights. They are doing the same with conscientious objection: they have supported a midwife in Sweden who has refused to provide abortion as required by law. The list goes on.
- What strategies have anti-rights groups used, and what accounts for their success in international forums?
As I have explained in a recent op-ed, in international forums these groups express concern for the wellbeing of children, who they claim are being indoctrinated by permissive governments in the immoral principles of ‘gender ideology’. Of course there is no such thing as a gender ideology, and much less governments forcing children to learn inappropriate material. The wellbeing of children is being used as a cover to disable efforts to enforce rights and protections for girls, women and LGBTI people.
The 2013 General Assembly of the OAS, held in Guatemala, witnessed the first coordinated movement agitating against reproductive and LGBTI rights. This was, not coincidentally, also the year when the OAS approved the Inter-American Convention against all forms of discrimination and intolerance, which included protections for LGBTI people.
At the 2014 OAS General Assembly in Paraguay, these groups advanced further and instead of only being reactive, began proposing human rights resolutions in an attempt to create new policies that they claimed were rights-based, but were in fact an attempt to take rights away from specific groups. For instance, they proposed a ‘family policy’ that would protect life from conception, in order to prevent access to abortion.
From then on, their profile increased with each subsequent assembly, in the same measure that their civility declined. At the 2016 General Assembly in the Dominican Republic, they even harassed and intimidated trans women attending the event as they entered women’s restrooms. As a result, the annual assembly of the OAS, the regional body responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and democracy in the western hemisphere, turned into a vulgar display of transphobic hate.
- Should progressive civil society be concerned with the advances made by these groups in global and regional forums? What should we be doing about it?
Progressive civil society should definitely be concerned. Constant vigilance is needed. There are many ways to respond, but being informed, sharing information and building coalitions is key. I would also recommend that progressive movements think broadly about their issues. Consider how groups like ADF have managed to attack several rights, including abortion, LGBTI and youth rights, using one frame, religion. We need to be equally broad, but anchored, I would argue, in secularism, science and human rights. We started the conversation talking about democracy, and this is where we should end. We need to show how threats to specific rights for women and LGBTI people are threats to democracy. Any retrogression is unacceptable.
‘We are increasingly seeing the dark side of civil society’
Ahead of the publication of the 2018 report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Martyna Bogaczyk, president of the board of the Education for Democracy Foundation, a Polish civil society organisation that has promoted democracy since 1989, with a focus on three areas: democracy education in schools, civic duty and activism, and global solidarity.
1. What would you say are the most pressing challenges that democracy faces in Poland?
As you know, in Poland as in much of Central Europe space for civil society is shrinking. In Hungary, in particular, the government is introducing legal changes that are making things harder and harder for civil society. So indeed, some actions by other actors, notably governments, are having a negative effect on civil society. But right now, I would rather focus on the challenge that stems from developments that are taking place within society, and civil society, itself.
I would place the origins of the current division that affects Polish society mainly in two historical points: the introduction of economic reform in the early nineties, which had dramatically unequal effects on society, and the Smolensk catastrophe: the 2010 plane crash that killed the President of Poland along with many government officials, members of parliament, senior military officers, figures of culture and civic activists. In my opinion, it was this catastrophe, and the different ways it was processed by either side of society, that showed us how different from one another we are, and how different our perceptions of reality and visions of Poland are. I believe this was the beginning of a process that resulted in more radical political movements reaching parliament, and politics becoming a lot more polarised. The division within Polish society was exacerbated.
I would say we are currently divided into two ‘clans’, each with its own history, historical memory, values, assessments and political positions. This is the biggest democratic challenge for us, because we have reached a situation in which we find it difficult to talk to each other. As a result, a civilised and meaningful political conversation cannot take place. Families cannot talk normally around the Christmas table anymore. People who are on either side of this cultural and political divide are not talking to each other.
2. How has this division affected organised civil society?
Polish civil society is wide and diverse: it includes not just formal non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on democratic governance issues, but a whole range of organisations, from trade unions to student organisations, and from religious associations to grassroots movements to service providers. There is a sector of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on the rule of law, education for democracy, anti-discrimination and human rights, which has a very critical view of what is going on and is working to bridge the gaps. But let’s not forget that civil society also includes countless organisations that provide social services, such as education and healthcare. I believe that some of them may have other opinions about these developments. Some of them don’t care or don’t think that these developments affect them, and still others are not speaking about them for fear of losing public funding, which can be one of main sources of income for them.
3. Are you witnessing rise of so-called ‘un-civil society’, as it is happening elsewhere?
Indeed. ‘Un-civil society’: I think that’s a good way to put it. Because civil society also includes a number of organisations that are waging a cultural war and deepening the divide. They are occupying spaces meant for civil society and they are even grabbing the human rights language for their own purposes, using it against the advancement of rights.
In fact, I would say in this respect we have three distinct problems. First of all, there’s the phenomenon of GONGOs (government-organised NGOs). We call them ‘mirror NGOs’, because they mimic the structure of existing, legitimate ones. And when the government is pushing for a specific reform, these organisations support the government’s initiative, and the government can say that it consulted with civil society and that civil society is in its favour.
Second, there is the fact that both fake CSOs and other groups that may be ‘legitimate’ civil society - in the sense that they are not government-organised - but that do not promote rights and democracy, are also borrowing the language of democracy and human rights. This is a completely new experience for us, because after the fall of communism and the transition to democracy in 1989, we believed we were past all of this: that we had a functioning democracy, we were part of the European Union, so these were our shared values. And now we are realising that these values are in fact the object of a dispute, that they don’t mean the same thing for everybody, and that for some, they are just a means to a different end.
Third, we are increasingly seeing the dark side of civil society, in the form of an anti-rights discourse that is anti-Semitic, anti-migrants, anti-refugees. This discourse is becoming normalised to the point that to a growing sector of the population, it is perfectly acceptable. Rights have become something that can be traded. Rather than being recognised as universal, they can be denied to ‘them’ if that means more benefits can be distributed among ‘us’. So many Polish citizens are voting for right-wing parties that promise them social benefits that won’t be ‘snatched’ by foreigners, because they are going to keep them out.
4. How is progressive civil society reacting to this situation?
Many organisations are working to bring dialogue back into local communities. The change that we need will not happen as a result of a more liberal and human-rights oriented political party winning the elections, but through a change in the political conversation. We need to sit people on opposing sides at the same table and teach them how to hold a dialogue and discuss issues that are close to them. We are not trying to have them agree on everything; in fact, what we want is for people to understand that it would be impossible for all of us to agree on everything, and what we need to do instead is accept plurality and diversity. But we do want to hold a conversation aimed at achieving consensus on core values: those that make it possible to have a conversation in the first place.
Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Advocating for women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Peru, a risky fight against powerful enemies
CIVICUS speaks to María Ysabel Cedano, Director of DEMUS –Study for the Defense of Women’s Rights, a Peruvian feminist organisation that since 1987 defends human rights, and particularly women’s sexual and reproductive rights, by promoting their free exercise and questioning the hegemonic cultural paradigm on women and their sexuality. DEMUS carries out public opinion campaigns and advocacy work with the three branches of government; it conducts strategic litigation and promotes mobilisation on issues related to the promotion of equality and non-discrimination, a life free from gender-based violence, access to justice, and sexual and reproductive rights.
1. How would you describe the context for the exercise of feminist activism in Peru?
Generally speaking, conditions for activism greatly depend on the ideology, programme and nature of the organisation and movement in question - on its stance regarding the state and the incumbent government, and on its relationship with political forces and the powers that be.
Due to our agenda, we feminists are antagonists of Fujimorism, the political movement founded by Alberto Fujimori, who ruled Peru between 1990 and 2000. Our organisation has criticised and opposed them since the 1990s, as we have fought for justice and reparations for the thousands of victims of the Fujimori administration’s policy of systematic forced sterilisation. Its victims were mostly peasant, indigenous and poor women who underwent irreversible surgical contraception without being able to give their free and informed consent, in a context of widespread violence.
On this issue, in 2003 we reached a Friendly Settlement Agreement (FSA) in the Mamérita Mestanza case. As a result, the Peruvian state acknowledged its responsibility for human rights violations in the context of the forced sterilisation policy and committed to providing justice and reparation to victims. We also obtained favourable statements by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that have boosted our work to defend the right to access justice and to promote a policy of integral reparations. That made us a target of Fujimorist attacks, in the form of defamation in the national media as well as in social media. We have in fact sued former congressman Alejandro Aguinaga, under investigation in the preliminary examination of forced sterilisations as a crime against humanity and other serious violations of human rights, which the Public Ministry opened in 2004 in compliance with the already mentioned FSA. The case still remains in its preliminary stages due to political interference, which we have publically denounced. For more than fourteen years, the Public Ministry has failed to accuse former President Fujimori and his former Health Ministers, including Aguinaga, and no prosecution has taken place. In the meantime, Fujimorism has not undergone any renovation whatsoever: it still does not believe in human rights and cannot fathom the right of women to decide on their own. In fact they all remain very convinced that it is the state that has to decide for them.
The other antagonists we have as a result of our feminist agenda are the Catholic and Evangelical ecclesial hierarchies, as well as other conservative and fundamentalist religious groups such as Opus Dei, Sodalitium and Bethel. These are the leaders of an anti- sexual and reproductive rights agenda and seek to legislate and implement public policies to strengthen the institutions that guarantee their political, economic, social and cultural dominance, thereby ignoring the secular character of the state that the authorities in turn fail to enforce. For decades they have run a strong campaign against what they call “gender ideology”, not just in Peru but throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and beyond. These are multimillion-dollar campaigns that maintain that “gender ideology” attacks life, marriage and family. The funding they poured into the fear campaign against the peace accords in Colombia is a good example of this. They have also promoted a campaign called "Don't mess with my children" in several countries in the region.
While these actors have questioned the scientific and legal validity of the gender perspective, the concept of gender has been adopted in the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and in standards such as CEDAW, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Convention of Belém do Pará. In Peru it was included into several laws, public policies and institutions, as a result of which conservative sectors are currently trying, for instance, to eliminate the gender perspective from the school curriculum, including all allusions to sexual orientation and gender identity. They have done so by means of both street actions and lawsuits. These however have not yielded the desired results: the overwhelming response from the Ministry of Justice’s Attorney General even covered them in ridicule. As a result, they had no alternative left other than using their power in Congress, where there are currently two bills that have been submitted by Fujimorism towards that aim.
Lastly, in addition to harassing us through their press, as they have always done, these sectors now also attack us for our funding sources. They say we are the instruments of great powers seeking to impose Western models of family and sexuality in our country.
Thanks to a journalistic investigation that then became a criminal investigation, we currently know of child sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Sodalitium, one of the most conservative and powerful groups within the Catholic Church. The scandal contributed to weakening the attacks coming from the ecclesial hierarchy. We are also beginning to know about the unholy business the Church does with education, health and even cemeteries within the framework of the Concordat between the Peruvian state and the Vatican. The very same priests who have spent years fighting us on the decriminalisation of abortion for rape cases, and who have said the worst things about us because they consider themselves to be the “defenders of life”, have allegedly covered for rapists of children and adolescents in their congregations and communities. This has helped people overcome their fear of denouncing the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy and double standards, and has limited the church’s ability to demand the government implement specific policies. For instance, the government has recently obeyed a court order to resume the distribution of emergency oral contraception despite pressures from Cardinal Cipriani.
Given that our struggles for transitional justice have led us to seek justice and integral reparations for the victims of sexual violence during the internal armed conflict (1980-2000), we face not only Fujimorism but also APRA, a traditional party that ruled during a part of this period. They both seek to divide Peruvians between terrorists and non-terrorists and associate the left and human rights with terrorism. They never get tired of asserting that those who attack the military are terrorists - or ungrateful to say the least, for persecuting those who freed us from terrorism. If we strive for the legalisation of abortion we are abortionists, and if we defend human rights we are terrorists.
2. How does DEMUS work to overcome these obstacles?
We combine organisational and mobilisation strategies to strengthen the feminist and women’s diversity movement, public and political advocacy for legislation, public policies and access to justice measures, and strategic litigation. Among the latter were for instance the Manta y Vilca trial on rape during the internal armed conflict, which established that this was a crime against humanity; the case of forced sterilisations during the Fujimori administration; and other cases that have allowed us to move forward in terms of the recognition and guarantee of the human right to therapeutic abortion, among other sexual and reproductive rights.
Ours is not just a lawyers’ struggle: we work in multidisciplinary teams and in alliances and within networks including other feminist, women’s, LGBTIQ and human rights NGOs, groups and platforms. Experience has taught us that it is not enough to obtain jurisprudence, standards, laws and public policies if there are no social movements and citizens defending them, that is, if there is no social base accompanying and empathising with the victims. Strategic litigation, legal defence and psycho-legal and therapeutic help are therefore always to be accompanied with mobilisation and campaigning.
3. Is the Peruvian women’s movement integrated into regional or global networks, so as to face an adversary that is?
There are indeed very important global and regional networks. In Latin America, the level of articulation reached by indigenous, peasant and environmental women human rights defenders is astonishing in contrast with the weakening of some feminist networks. New technologies have revolutionised communications, and we now have various alternative means to organise ourselves in networks.
We must think about how to strengthen our thematic networks, for instance in the field of sexual and reproductive rights, in order to resist together. This is facilitated by a number of conceptual convergences, but complicated by the scarcity of resources reaching Latin America, competition around which affects alliances and articulations. Neoliberalism has also had an impact on inter-subjective relations: conflicts and rivalries arise due to scarce funding. It is impossible to understand the degree of difficulties we face without analysing the changes in and the new rules of international cooperation and funding mechanisms.
On the other hand, we must not forget that Peru’s is a post-conflict society, with open wounds and an abundance of distrust, which has not yet learned to resolve differences without violence. We need to be aware of these limitations, so as not to reproduce what we criticise. But we are certainly still very strong: with much greater organisation and resources than we have, Catholics and evangelicals have not yet managed to create enough pressure in the streets and on public opinion to remove sex education from the school curriculum. Their only hope is now placed on authoritarian conservative forces in Congress.
4. What progress or setbacks do you perceive in the struggle for women’s rights in Peru?
Taking stock of the forty years of contemporary feminism in Peru, there has been net progress in terms of the legal-institutional framework. Advances have been the result of constant struggle and permanent dispute, and are neither ideal nor stable: they need to be continuously defended and perfected.
For instance, in late 2015 a substantial amendment to Law No. 26260 (1993) on domestic violence was finally passed. The new legislation, Law No. 30394, is a law against gender-based violence. Shortly after, in July 2016, the Third National Plan against Gender Violence (2016-2021) was passed. In both cases there was a dispute over the diversity of the women to be protected. There was much resistance against the possibility that legislation would also protect lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. In fact, recognition of the variety of forms that gender violence can take was not as resisted as the extension and recognition of the objects of protection. The women’s movement succeeded in getting some previously unacknowledged forms of gender violence recognised as such, including gender-based violence in the context of social conflicts. We wanted the new law to protect women human rights defenders of land, the environment, and natural resources, that is, indigenous and peasant women who are currently criminalised and on whom conflicts have a differential impact on the basis of gender. This we achieved. We had also proposed that the violation of sexual and reproductive rights be recognised as gender violence. And while we achieved recognition of forced sterilisation, rape in the context of internal armed conflict, violence due to sexual orientation, and obstetric violence as forms of gender-based violence, such recognition was not expressed in the language of sexual and reproductive rights. In additional, sexual orientation-based violence was recognised but gender identity-based violence was not.
Fifteen years after the First National Plan was launched, and more than twenty after the first law against then-called “domestic” or “intra-family” violence was passed, tension between women’s rights and family protection persists. Although Law No. 30364 has in many respects aligned legislation with the Belém do Pará Convention, violence based on gender identity discrimination has not yet been recognised. Public debate continues to focus on nature as a determinant of sexuality, reproduction and family.
Why is it that feminists and LGBT people perceive “family protection” as contrary to our rights? First, because not all families are protected. Family rights of the LGBT population are not recognised. Secondly, because why protect the existing family – a traditional, hierarchical, violent family based on sexual division of labour and the exclusive recognition of heterosexual sexuality? A family organisation free of discrimination and gender-based violence should be promoted instead. In other words, measures should be taken to dismantle the patriarchal family, which functions as the very first place of normalisation and control, particularly for women and LGBT persons. The family has become a space in which physical, psychological and sexual violence remain unpunished: in fact, Peru has the second highest rate of denunciation of sexual offences against girls and adolescents in the region, and these are in many cases perpetrated by family members. Finally, a person’s (and in this case a woman’s) rights can never be subordinated, conditioned or reduced to a by-product of family welfare, in the same way as the rights of an actual person cannot be subordinated to the rights of being yet to be born.
In sum, in historical perspective there has been progress in the recognition and guarantee of rights, but these have been the product of constant struggle. We face strong resistance, and if we had not permanently defended our conquests, we would certainly have seen them retreat long ago.
5. In this context, how has DEMUS’ agenda changed since its beginnings in 1987?
DEMUS is an organisation well known for its work for the right to a life free of gender-based violence. We specialise in prevention, care, denunciation, therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment, litigation, advocacy with legislative, policymaking and justice administration bodies, and campaigning and mobilisation on gender-based violence. For instance, we developed the “Not one more death” campaign, which placed femicide on the public agenda, and the “A man doesn't rape” campaign, which contributed to call attention on the problem of sexual violence, impunity and the culture of rape.
In the beginning we had to dispute about the very concept of what was then called “intra-family violence”, which we designated as “violence against women” and today we call “gender-based violence”. We saw violence against women as a problem of power inequality, sexual discrimination and impunity, so we advocated for equality and access to justice. However, as years passed and the first laws and policies on the issue were passed, we realised that we were not obtaining the results we expected.
The fight against violence against women had gained consensus as part of the state agenda and had occupied a space in the institutional structure of the state (commissions, ministries, etc.), and even ultraconservatives had begun to accept equal opportunities between men and women (which was enshrined in Law No. 28983 of 2007) all the while resisting the recognition of other sexual orientations and gender identities. So we began a conceptual revision and concluded that if we wanted to combat gender-based violence, our central strategic battle had to revolve around women’s autonomy and self-determination in the field of sexuality and reproduction, the recognition of and the provision of guarantees for sexual and reproductive rights understood as fundamental human rights, and access to justice in cases where these were violated. The perspective of sexual and reproductive rights came to enrich the equality and non-discrimination approach in addressing the problems of gender-based violence and impunity.
Thus, although the defence of LGBT rights and the legalisation of abortion were already in DEMUS’ agenda, they have since become more central to it. And our strategies became richer in the process, because besides strategic litigation and therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment we started to focus as well on organisation and mobilisation, public advocacy and communication. We have used the whole toolbox in our search for justice and reparations for the victims of forced sterilisations, and also in our campaigns for emergency oral contraception and the legalisation of abortion (first of all for reasons of rape, foetal malformations incompatible with extra-uterine life, and unconsented artificial insemination and egg transfers, and eventually on the basis of women’s dignity and right to decide).
Most recently, in our work to defend victims of sexual violence and impunity, we have learned from the indigenous and peasant women defenders of land and water that women human rights defenders are being differently affected by the extractivist economy due to their gender, and are being specifically criminalised by corporations such as the Yanacocha mining company and by the state itself. In their struggle to defend lakes and resist mining projects such as Conga, women are having a hard time, since gender-based violence is being used against them. In the actions of the police and the Armed Forces we are currently seeing a criminalisation of social protest, threats and violations of women’s rights echoing those that took place during armed conflict. In order to avoid the repetition of serious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity, we are using the new legislation, which now enables it, to denounce Yanacocha and make it clear that there is gender-based violence behind situations of harassment like that suffered by women human rights defenders such as Máxima Acuña.
The other agenda that we increasingly adopted as central is the defence against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in order to achieve recognition of and guarantees for the right to gender identity and lesbians’ right to maternity. We choose the issues we fight for on the basis of several criteria. One of them is that of revolutionising whatever the system resists the most, so that if we win, we will not only have obtained a law, public policy or jurisprudence, but we will also have conquered people’s common sense. And what the system most resists today is transgender identity and the right of LGBT persons to love and family. The system condemns us to civil death, poverty, marginalisation, murder, harassment and rape.
6. In Peru, there have recently been major mobilisations with the motto #NiUnaMenos. How was the issue placed on the public agenda in such a way that mobilisation turned out to be so massive? What roles did regional networks play in the process?
The marches in Argentina, Mexico and other countries inspired many of us: we wanted to do something similarly massive in our own country. But mobilisation did not occur in Peru as a response to a regional call, or as a result of prior coordination within a regional network.
A year prior to this mobilisation there was a high profile case in Peru, in which a woman was savagely attacked in a hotel in Ayacucho, dragged by the hair and almost raped and murdered. The episode had been recorded on video, and everyone followed the case in the media and expected the attacker to be convicted. The ruling came out a few months before the demonstration, and it acquitted the accused. It denied that an attempted rape and femicide had taken place, and it even ruled that the injuries on the victim had been minor. This generated a social phenomenon of indignation that spread throughout the national territory and in social media. Women who were in the ideological and social antipodes from one another agreed that something had to be done, and feminists started talking about a mobilisation meant to make it clear that “if they touch one of us, they are touching us all”. The #NiUnaMenos (#NotOneLess) slogan was adopted out of the belief that the time had finally come and that this would be a mobilisation of a magnitude similar to those that had taken place in other countries.
In Peru, the idea persists that if you do not obtain justice it is because you cannot prove what has happened to you. You only have your word and that is not enough for justice administrators. Now, if even in a case where there is a video like that, the aggressor is eventually absolved, what kind of security and justice is left for the rest of us? This created an unprecedented feeling of helplessness. Fear quickly turned into indignation, and this in turn into mobilisation. I was invited to join a Facebook chat a few hours after the video was made public. There were ten of us to start with, and a little while later we were over sixty, and the next day we were meeting at a comrade’s place. Within a few hours, the closed group formed in Facebook went from a few women testifying to the various forms of violence in their daily lives to 20 thousand, 40 thousand women reporting on their own stories of violence: at home, in the streets, at work, in school. Terrible stories, and everybody was telling them and keeping each other company.
Thus, in Peru citizens went out into the streets to reject impunity and defend the right to justice. People began to wonder why violence against women persists despite all the laws and policies to combat it. The media started talking about patriarchy and machismo as its causes. There was some recognition of the importance of the feminist struggle, at least in that particular context. Much of the leadership and organisational work towards mobilisation was done by various organised and unorganised female citizens, leaders of feminist groups in neighbourhoods, universities, trade unions, NGOs. Women of a wide diversity of movements, colours, desires, education, professions and talents, in alliance and dialogue with the survivors whose emblematic cases united diverse sectors of society. Conservative sectors have still not managed to obtain similar success in defence of their agenda.
7. Did the mobilisation have any positive effect in terms of public policy?
The mobilisation resulted in some concrete measures, although these were too narrowly focused and involved little public investment. A Circle of Protection program was created, thereby extending attention to 24/7 in five out of over 200 Emergency Women’s Centres (EWC). Coverage of the emergency line Línea 600 was extended to all days of the week. This contributed to an increase in addressed complaints. Also, cases of femicide and rape were subsequently included into the rewards programme to stop offenders.
Additionally, there were announcements regarding the expansion of temporary shelters, the provision of gender training to justice operators, and in particular to the National Police, and the creation of at least 50 new EWCs in various police stations across the country. The Public Ministry adapted its guidelines to Law No. 30364 and announced the creation of prosecution offices specialised in femicide. The Judiciary established a National Gender Commission.
Nonetheless, femicidal violence persists as a savage daily occurrence; there is in fact a patriarchal and male chauvinist counteroffensive underway. They continue to kill us and rape us, and the femicide and rape culture keeps blaming us for it. And the measures adopted by the state in defence of the gender approach and gender equality fall short: they are basically reactions and responses to public pressure. We women do the reporting and monitoring job that the state should be doing. The state and the government always give in when it comes to the sexual and reproductive rights of women and LGBTIQ people. Which makes it clear that unless it becomes feminist, public policy will yield no results. If public policy priorities do not change, women will continue to die.
The most important changes have occurred in the realms of common sense. #NiUnaMenos has shown that there is widespread rejection of violence against women, and that women have become empowered to talk about sexual violence in the same way that we first learned to talk about partner and domestic violence. There is no longer shame in having been a victim: it is clear that the other party is the one at fault. Women now know that there are things that are not right, and that if they happen to them it is not their fault, or God’s will, or the work of nature: it is a violation of rights and a matter of justice, and those responsible have to be punished.
ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘Protesting once is not enough; we need to fight back every single day’
Following our 2019special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about civil society protests against the World Congress of Families held in Verona, Italy, with Asia Leofreddi, a PhD Candidate at the Antonio Papisca Human Rights Centre of the University of Padua and a journalist with Confronti, a think tank and magazine dedicated to the study of the relationships between religion, politics and society.Based on the values of memory, hospitality, solidarity and pluralism, Confronti promotes dialogue among Christians of different denominations, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and lay people interested in the world of faiths, with the aim of breaking down misunderstandings and fundamentalism and helping to build an intercultural democratic society.
How would you characterise the World Congress of Families?
The World Congress of Families (WCF) is the biggest ‘pro-family’ gathering in the world. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQI+ advocacy group and political lobbying organisation in the USA, has defined it as “the largest and most influential organization involved in anti-LGBT policies worldwide.” It was established by an American and a Russian in Moscow in 1997, and today it gathers together many associations, religious groups, scholars and political activists based in various countries, primarily belonging to Christian denominations. Among them, the Russian branch is particularly strong and acts with the open support of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin.
The WCF’s pro-family agenda translates into support for the traditional family model and reflects a highly conservative view of gender roles. Accordingly, the WCF opposes abortion, surrogate motherhood, same-sex marriage and any progress towards equality in sexual and reproductive rights. Their gathering is organised by the International Organization for the Family (IOF) which is active at many other levels. At the international level, beyond organising international conferences, it tries to influence international institutions, such as the UN, in order to promote a conservative and restrictive interpretation of human rights, in particular of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration. In domestic politics, its member organisations link with or operate as interest groups infiltrating parties and academic institutions, lobbying officials and using democratic means such as referendums and mobilisations to advance their claims in national public spheres.
Not coincidentally, over the past decade Brazil, Russia, the USA and several European countries have witnessed the rise of anti-gender and pro-family discourse, promoted by far-right parties, as well as the introduction, and sometimes also the approval and implementation, of morally conservative policies put forward by representatives of their national governments. In 2013, for instance, the Russian Duma unanimously approved a Law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values (popularly known as the ‘anti-gay law’). In Croatia a referendum was held that same year, promoted by an organisation called U ime obitelji (‘In the name of the family’) and aiming to establish a constitutional prohibition against same sex-marriage. It won with 67 per cent of the vote. In 2018 the right-wing governments of Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia decided not to ratify the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which they viewed as a threat to the traditional family structure. And in 2019 the Council of Verona approved Motion 434, described as ‘an initiative to prevent abortion and promote motherhood’, put forward by a representative of the far-right League Party, and declared Verona a ‘pro-life city’. All the organisations and political representatives involved in all these processes are somehow connected to the WCF, which shows that over the past decades the ‘family’ label has started to play a key role in the creation of new geopolitical alliances that were not even thought to be possible a short while ago.
Who were the main groups involved in protesting against the WCF in Verona?
The main protests held in Verona during the meeting of the WCF in March 2019 were led by the local branch of the transnational feminist movement Non Una di Meno (‘Not one woman less’). They organised a three-day mobilisation called Verona Città Transfemminista (Transfeminist City Verona) that encompassed a variety of events spread throughout the city. These events looked like a real counter-congress, complete with panels, shows and speakers coming from every part of the world.
Additionally, another forum took place at the Academy of Agriculture, Letters and Sciences, a historic building in the city centre, on 30 March. This encounter was organised by the International Planned Parenthood Federation – European Network and the Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalisti) in collaboration with Rebel Network and other national and international organisations. This event gathered more than 30 speakers representing the transnational struggle of civil society for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.
Some Italian politicians also decided to show their opposition to the WCF, and several female representatives of the opposition Democratic Party organised a public meeting in the K2 Theatre of Verona on the same day.
As all these events show, during those days Verona became a political laboratory in which two opposed views of society were on display. The small city became the battlefield of a global struggle. On the one hand, there was the reactionary and illiberal activism of the WCF, and on the other, the open and inclusive activism of national and international progressive movements and people who autonomously decided to participate in the protests.
However, what was most surprising was the great participation of Italian civil society. The demonstration held on 30 March was the biggest Verona had ever seen: more than 100,000 people took to the streets of the city to side with women’s right to choose.
What motivated all these groups and citizens to protest?
For civil society groups, the main binding factor was the WCF. Mobilised groups focused their activism on defending sexual and reproductive rights, strongly jeopardised by the narratives promoted and political strategies used by Congress participants.
Meanwhile Italian citizens took to the streets mostly in reaction against the strong support that the WCF received from an important sector of the Italian government at the time. Indeed, three then-ministers took part in the Congress – Matteo Salvini, then-Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Lorenzo Fontana, Minister of the Family and Marco Bussetti, Minister of Education – and both the governor of the Veneto region and the mayor of Verona gave official sponsorship to the gathering. A majority of Italians viewed the institutional promotion of a gathering detrimental to civil rights as a political action against our Constitution.
What was the impact of the protests?
This was the first time the WCF had to face such a huge protest. As soon it was announced that the 13th edition of the WCF would take place in Italy – a founding member of the European Union with a strong civil society and a deep attachment to a set of rights gained through many years of struggle – analysts started watching the events with great interest. However, I don’t think anyone expected such a big reaction – not even our politicians attending the Congress.
At the national level, the protests achieved good results. For instance, they forced Matteo Salvini to publicly proclaim that Law 194 – the Italian law recognising abortion rights – would not be not touched and forced League Senator Simone Pillon to postpone a draft bill that had been widely criticised as not defending women from domestic violence. They also provided the opportunity for representative Laura Boldrini to pass a law against revenge porn, which until then had been strongly opposed by the parliamentary majority. Additionally, the days of the Congress were a great opportunity to unmask the strong connections that a section of our government, and particularly the League Party, which was in coalition government at that time, has with the global far right, despite their rhetoric on national sovereignty, and with some domestic far-right forces such as Forza Nuova, an extreme-right nationalist party, members of which were accredited to the Congress.
At the international level, the WCF in Verona offered an opportunity for participating opposition movements to forge new transnational alliances and reflect on the construction of common narratives and strategies. It was then that groups that until then had focused on their own national, and sometimes provincial, contexts realised how important it was to act globally. The presence of foreign experts and activists helped Italian movements to understand better the strategies of ultra-conservative groups and their ability to function simultaneously at different levels.
While we in Italy have always been confronted with the conservative positions of the Vatican and its influence on politics and civil society regarding sexual and reproductive rights, the WCF in Verona made it clear that we are facing a process of modernisation and professionalisation of ultra-conservative activism. As Kristina Stoeckl, an Austrian scholar, has widely demonstrated in her project on postsecular conflicts, these actors now enter public debate with their religious claims and turn them mainstream. They present them in a non-religious language, translating them into the language of human rights or natural law. They disseminate them with by using tactics and strategies typical of progressive mobilisations and campaigns. During the WCF held in Verona, Italian progressive movements became aware of the dimension of the phenomenon that they face as well as the fact that far from being limited to a national context, the politicisation of religion and pro-family rhetoric are actually part of a much broader political project.
These successes, however, by no means turned the Verona edition of the WCF into a failure. They clearly showed they were not be ready to deal with countries with a strong civil society capable of mobilising discourses and resources at their same level. Still, about 10,000 people took part in their ‘family march’ on 31 March. They were far fewer than those who took to the streets to participate in the feminist and progressive mobilisation off the previous day, but they were still many. Moreover, I think the success of the WCF is measured more by what happens inside the Congress than what happens outside. In the WCF in Verona there were many representatives of governments from all over the world – far more than in previous years – which offered them a great opportunity to strengthen their networks.
I don’t mean to diminish the results achieved by progressive movements in Verona, but to emphasise that protesting once is not enough. We need to remember to fight back every single day. We need to be aware that our opponents remain active even when they disappear from the scene. Ours is a battle of public opinion, which must be informed on a daily basis.
What more could civil society be doing to push back against anti-rights groups such as the WCF, and what support does it need to be able to respond?
First, the days in Verona demonstrated the importance of a vigilant and united civil society. On the way forward, it is important for progressive actors to develop better knowledge of these transnational networks and gain the ability not only to react but also to move proactively against ultra-conservative political projects on a daily basis. It is worth noting that the WCF has existed since 1997, and around the mid-2000s it started to become a political actor, capable of influencing national discourse and policies in several countries, from Russia to Central and Eastern Europe up to the USA. Moreover, for quite a long time some of its members have been involved in UN negotiations, playing a wider role in the international human rights debate. However, most Italian groups working on women’s and LGBTQI+ rights only became aware of its existence when it was announced that the Congress would take place in Verona.
Second, it is important to move beyond a reductionist interpretation of these movements as simply anti-gender and of this phenomenon as a mere ‘conservative backlash’ against progressive and emancipatory movements. Defining ultra-conservative claims in culturally binary terms (past vs future, intolerance vs tolerance, religion vs secularism, traditional family vs sexual freedom) does not help grasp the complexity of their project and their strong contextual adaptability, nor prevent them from taking further actions.
Indeed, their anti-gender claims often intersect with other issues including the right to homeschooling, concerns such as human ecology, demography, Christianophobia, political stances such as nationalism, the defence of national sovereignty and a more general critique of the Western liberal political and economic order and its supranational institutions. All these concepts help them build a more comprehensive and systematic ideology, mobilising forces in various countries and strengthening their political alliances.
But binary oppositions overlook these groups’ capacity to function in a variety of contexts. For instance, although they support a conservative view of gender roles, several ultra-conservative political parties have female leaders – just think of Alice Weidel (Alternative für Deutschland, Germany), Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement national, France), Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d'Italia) and Pauline Hanson (One Nation, Australia). Others have women among their leadership, as seen with Barbara Pas (Vlaams Belang, Belgium) and Magdalena Martullo-Blocher (Swiss People's Party). On top of that, once in power, many of them promote social policies that advance women’s interests, such as a monthly income for every child born or more general welfare measures. Of course, these policies only favour heterosexual families, but still, they allow many families – and many women – to get the support they need.
Even regarding LGBTQI+ rights, they are able to contextualise their stances. While Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro says that he would prefer a dead son than a gay one, Alice Weidel is an out lesbian who lives with her partner and her two children. Similarly, prioritising the fight against radical Islam and foreign powers, during her latest electoral campaign the ultra-conservative Marine Le Pen recognised the acceptance of homosexuality as part of French values.
Third, the media have a key role in opposing these movements. It is very important to do research and disseminate information, explaining for example that many of the populist forces we see emerging in our countries are part of larger networks. It is no coincidence that Italy’s Salvini publicly kisses the crucifix, Brazil’s Bolsonaro made the legalisation of homeschooling one of his key priorities for his first 100 days in office, and Donald Trump is the first US president to attend his country’s most important national anti-abortion march. They are all part of a specific structure of power and the media have the responsibility to unmask their political and economic links.
Finally, I believe that the rise of these ultra-fundamentalist movements is the consequence of a broader crisis, which has also led to the success of several illiberal leaders in various parts of the world. Progressive movements need to be aware of this so as to rethink some key concepts of their strategy, assess whether they are still connected with the broader society and, if they are not, start addressing this issue. As masterfully expressed by Eszter Kováts, “We need to recognise the problematic nature of emancipatory discourse as it stands today: just because a particular criticism is coming from the Right of the political spectrum does not necessarily render our positions beyond critique. And then we need to ask the painful question: ‘how did we get here’, and what does the current popularity of the Right have to do with the unfulfilled promises and problematic developments of emancipatory movements. Of the very same movements that seem to have failed to address the real nature of inequalities and everyday material struggles of people.”
ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘Their true objective is to eliminate all government policies related to gender’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Diana Cariboni, an Argentine journalist and writer based in Uruguay, winner of the 2018 National Written Press Award and author of several pieces of investigative journalism on anti-rights groups in Latin America.
Would you tell us about your experience at the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family?
In 2018 I covered the conference of this regional group – actually an Ibero-American one, since it has members throughout Latin America and also in Spain. It is a large group that seeks to become a movement. It is one of many, because there are several others, which also overlap, since members of the Ibero-American Congress are also part of other movements, interact with each other within these movements and serve on the boards of various organisations.
I started investigating this group because it was going to meet here in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in late 2018, and its arrival was preceded by some incidents that caught my attention. The most important actors that I managed to identify within this movement were, in the first place, a huge number of representatives of evangelical churches and, within evangelism, of neo-Pentecostalism, although there were Baptist churches and non-Pentecostal evangelical churches as well.
In addition to these churches, the Don’t Mess with My Kids platform was also represented. This network emerged in Peru in 2016 and includes a series of evangelical Christian personalities. Some of them are church preachers and some are also political actors; for example, there are a large number of representatives with seats in the Peruvian Congress. In fact, legislators make up an important segment of the Ibero-American Congress. In many countries, there are congresspeople who are church pastors or members of religious congregations: that is the case in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. These people are trying to coordinate a regional legislative movement. The Ibero-American Congress has been active in the legislative arena and has coordinated and issued statements on certain issues for some time now.
Mexico is an important focus because the founder of the Ibero-American Congress, Aaron Lara Sánchez, is Mexican. The movement has established communications media such as Evangélico Digital, which is part of a group of digital media that originated in Spain. It has also created or seeks to create some sort of think tank, because they want to coat all of it with a scientific varnish, so doctors, lawyers and biology and genetics experts take part in their conferences. They all promote the religious perspective that a family can only be made up of a man and a woman, that only two sexes, male and female, exist, and that the human person emerges at the time of conception; hence their opposition to abortion. They are putting together a pseudo-scientific discourse to substantiate these arguments despite the fact that scientific research indicates otherwise. Their objective is to put forward a discourse that is not viewed as belonging to the Middle Ages; that is why they seek some convergence with the common sense of the 21st century and speak of science and the secular state, even if only as a very superficial varnish. On the other hand, the Don’t Mess with My Kids discourse fits well with prevailing common sense, because it contains a very strong appeal to families and tells parents that they have the right to decide what education their children receive in school.
Would you characterise these groups as anti-rights?
Indeed, because their true objective is to eliminate all government policies related to gender. In fact, I interviewed the founder of the Don’t Mess with My Kids platform, Cristian Rosas, who told me: “We started with sex education because it was what mobilised people the most, because it refers to their children, but what we really want is to eliminate gender, the word ‘gender’, altogether, in Peru and all over the world.” The thing is, behind that word, gender, is the crucial issue of the recognition of identities and the search for equality: women’s struggles to end discrimination and subordination, and the struggles of LGBTQI communities to enjoy the same rights and guarantees accorded to the rest of the population. They say that these struggles are unnecessary because our constitutions already state that we are all equal before the law, so why establish special laws or statutes for LGBTQI people? What they are overlooking is that LGBTQI people, and particularly people such as trans individuals, cannot effectively access those rights or even the conditions for a dignified existence. They insist on ignoring this, and instead argue that what LGBTQI people are striving for is for the state to fund their lifestyles.
Uruguay offers a recent example of an anti-rights policy promoted by these sectors. Three Uruguayan members of the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family – an alternate Catholic legislator of the National Party, an evangelical neo-Pentecostal representative, also of the National Party, and the leader of the biggest evangelical church in Uruguay, which is also neo-Pentecostal – carried forward a campaign to repeal the Integral Law for Trans People. The signature collection campaign was announced during the congress in Punta del Este that I attended.
Who were the participants in that conference? From your description, it sounds more a reunion of movement leaders than a mass meeting.
It was not the parishioners at large who gathered on this occasion, but rather pastors, preachers, politicians, opinion leaders and influencers seeking to take advantage of the language and codes used by a large section of the population, and especially by young people, to communicate. But still, it was a meeting of about 400 people.
This event was closed; the press was not allowed in. So I signed up as a participant, paid the US$150 registration fee and went in without letting the organisers know that I was covering the event as a journalist. In addition to paying the fee, I had to remain in Punta del Este for three days, stay in a hotel and be in the company of these people all day long. At times it became a bit suffocating because the way they carry out their activities is not the same as in a regular congress or conference, where you listen to panel presentations, take notes and sit in an auditorium next to other people who are doing more or less the same things. In this case, every session, including panels, integrated religious prayers – evangelical-style. This is nothing like Catholic mass, which is highly choreographed, and where the priest takes the lead, everyone knows more or less what he is going to say and parishioners respond with certain phrases at pre-established times, sit, stand and little else. The evangelical experience is very different: people talk, scream, raise their arms, move, touch. The pastor gives them instructions, but still, it is all way more participatory. I found it difficult to remain unnoticed, but I made it through.
I also managed to get a good record of what was happening, which was not really allowed. There was a lot of surveillance and I would have been thrown out had I been noticed. They realised close to the end: at the last minute they decided to organise a press conference and there was practically no media other than their own. I didn't know whether I should attend, but in the end I decided to, because I had already attended all the sessions after all. There was also a journalist from the weekly Búsqueda who attended the press conference. I was allowed to conduct interviews and was told that I could only publish anything related to the press conference, but not anything I had heard during the congress. Of course, there was nothing they could do to stop me from publishing anything, and my article ‘Gender is the new demon’ (‘El género es el nuevo demonio’) was published in Noticias shortly thereafter.
Being there helped me understand a few things. There are certainly very powerful religious and political interests behind anti-rights campaigns. But there are also genuine religious expressions, different approaches to life: some ultraconservative sectors genuinely reject 21st century life. What I observed during this congress is the extreme estrangement that some people experience regarding our contemporary world, a reality that can hardly be reversed, but that they experience as completely alien to them: the reality of equal marriage, diverse interpersonal and sexual relationships, sexual education, pleasure and drugs, free choice and abortion. We need to recognise this: there are segments of our societies that do not feel part of this 21st century world and thus react to these advances, which they interpret as degradation and corruption.
These groups have a nationalist discourse identifying nation-states and peoples as subject to foreign dictates that are considered to be evil – and are even seen as messages from the devil. Evil is embodied in a series of institutions that they describe as imperialistic: the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the inter-American human rights system, international financial organisations, the World Health Organization.
Isn't it strange for these groups to appeal to nationalism when they organise themselves in transnational networks and are active in the international arena?
Within the framework of this cultural battle that is being fought at the international level, what these groups do not see is that they themselves are actors in the international arena, even if only to weaken the scope of international law. They aim at the bodies that oversee treaties and conventions, such as the American Convention on Human Rights or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. They say that these are just expert committees whose recommendations do not need to be taken into account by states when they contravene domestic laws.
A recent discussion about this arose around the opinion issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in response to a consultation from Costa Rica regarding gender identity and equal marriage. Costa Rica asked the Court if it was obliged under the American Convention on Human Rights to recognise the gender identity of individuals and the economic rights of same-sex couples. In response, the Inter-American Court told Costa Rica, and therefore the entire continent, that these rights are protected by the Convention. A very strong discussion ensued, because for anti-rights groups this was a case of an international body acting above states, constitutions and national laws.
You mentioned that many politicians from different countries participated in the Ibero-American Congress. Do you think that these groups want to rule and are they getting ready to get to power? If so, what is their strategy to achieve it?
Above all, I do believe that they have the will to rule, which has a lot to do with the way the neo-Pentecostal movement that emerged in the USA and then expanded throughout the continent eventually evolved. The argument is simple: if they are the light of the world and the salt of the earth, they are being called to have an impact, so they have to seek power because they are the ones chosen to exercise it.
As for strategies, they vary. Pragmatism prevails, so the strategy depends a lot on context. In some cases, they create their own parties – religious, evangelical or ultraconservative – by which they feel represented. In other cases, they prefer to insert their candidates into various party tickets. Currently in Argentina, for example, there are candidates of this sort in practically all parties, except for the most radical left. They are present in both the ruling party and the main opposition coalition. In addition, there is a recently formed small party, the NOS Front, founded on the explicit rejection of ‘gender ideology’ in the context of the legislative debate over legal abortion – but it didn’t get many votes in the recent primaries, and I don’t think it will achieve too much in the upcoming elections. On the other hand, many candidates that are running on various lists will be successful, both at the federal and provincial levels.
Another complementary strategy is to enter governments at lower levels, especially in countries with federal structures, where they can access management positions in the areas of health, education or justice; hence their strategy of training experts – lawyers, jurists, bioethics experts – who can take positions in various areas of public administration. I am seeing that a lot in Argentina.
In the case of Uruguay, these sectors are quite concentrated within a segment of the National Party, which already has some evangelical and neo-Pentecostal legislators; it is highly likely that there will be more after the next elections. I think an evangelical caucus will very likely emerge out of the October 2019 elections in Uruguay. There are some similar candidates in the other parties, although they are much less visible.
Additionally, a new phenomenon has emerged in Uruguay, in the form of the Cabildo Abierto party, led by a former army chief, which is the first to declare itself an anti-gender ideology party. This is a new phenomenon because the leaders and main figures of the National Party, the one that has so far given space to most of these candidates, do not support these positions. Although it is a new and small party, polls are forecasting that Cabildo Abierto will get between seven and 10 per cent of vote, which means it will possibly get some legislators elected, who will go on to vote as a block.
Do you find these developments worrying in a country such as Uruguay, often described as the most secular in Latin America?
What happens is that confessional vote is not automatic. In Argentina, evangelical parishioners are an important percentage of the population, which is also growing, but for the time being there is hardly any evangelical legislator in the National Congress. Something similar could be said about most countries: people who declare they belong to a certain religious group do not necessarily vote for candidates of the same religion. In other words, the faith-based vote, which is what these sectors intend to promote, is not necessarily succeeding in every country. It has made substantial progress in Brazil, but this progress has taken decades, in addition to being related to peculiarities in the Brazilian open-list electoral system, which allows for such candidacies to spread among various parties, including the Workers’ Party when it was in power. This growth was reflected in the substantial support provided by evangelical sectors to President Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy, whose victory also nurtured the evangelical caucus.
A number of factors affect how people vote at any given time; when voting, people are not necessarily guided by candidates’ religious creed. But this could change in the upcoming elections. Both Argentina and Uruguay hold elections in October, on the same day; in Bolivia elections will be held a week earlier; and also in October there will be regional elections in Colombia, with many such candidates in various parties. We will soon get a better idea of how the faith-based vote evolves in each country. We need to watch it closely in order to find out if it is a linear phenomenon on the rise, a process including progress and reversals, or a phenomenon that is finding its limits.
ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘They don’t think human rights are universal, or they don’t view all people as equally human’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the rise of far-right extremism and religious fundamentalism in Eastern Europe with Gordan Bosanac, co-author of a case study on Eastern Europe for the Global Philanthropy Project’sreport ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI rights.’
You have worked on a variety of issues, from racism and xenophobia to religious conservatism and LGBTQI rights. Do you think the rise of nationalism and attacks against migrants’ rights and sexual and reproductive rights are all part of the same trend?
These are all definitely part of the same phenomenon. The vast majority of the organisations that mobilise against women’s rights also reject LGBTQI people and migrants and refugees. They are all part of the same global movement that rejects liberal-democratic ideas, and they all mobilise against minorities or vulnerable groups.
They are a very heterogeneous set of groups and organisations. Their common denominator is what they fight against: liberal democracy. Neo-Nazi, anti-women, anti-LGBTQI and anti-migrant rights groups have different targets, but they share an agenda and collaborate towards that agenda. Many of these groups come together at the World Congress of Families, where you will find lots of hate speech against the LGBTQI community, against women and against migrants. They share the same philosophy.
To me, these groups are the exact reverse of the human rights movement, where some organisations focus on women’s rights, others on LGBTQI rights, still others on migrants or indigenous peoples, or social, cultural, or environmental rights, but we all have a philosophy founded on a positive view of human rights. We are all part of the human rights movement. It is the exact opposite for them: they all share a negative view of human rights, they don’t think they are universal, or they don’t view all people as equally human. Either way, they mobilise against human rights.
When and why did Christian fundamentalist groups emerge in Eastern Europe?
A colleague of mine says that these groups have been around for a long time. She’s currently investigating the third generation of such groups and says they originated in the 1970s, when they first mobilised around neo-Nazi ideas and against women’s rights. The most recent turning point in Eastern Europe happened in the early 2010s. In many cases it has been a reaction against national policy debates on LGBTQI and reproductive rights. Croatia, where I come from, was one of the exceptions in the sense that these groups did not mobilise in reaction to policy gains by women’s and LGBTQI rights groups, but rather in anticipation and as a preventive measure against processes that were advancing internationally, specifically against same-sex marriage.
The Croatian experience has played out in three phases. Beginning in the 1990s, an anti-abortion movement developed, led by charismatic Catholic priests. Following the fall of Communism, abortion was presented as being against religious faith, family values and national identity. The Catholic Church set up so-called ‘family centres’ that provided support services to families. Since the early 2000s, independent civil society organisations (CSOs) formed by ‘concerned’ religious citizens emerged. What triggered them was the introduction of sexuality education in the public-school curriculum. A third phase started around 2010, with the rise in nationally and internationally-connected fundamentalist CSOs, independent from the Church structure. For instance, the new groups had links with ultraconservative Polish movements – Tradition, Family, Property and Ordo Iuris. The Catholic Church remained in the background and the role of anti-rights spokespersons was relegated to ‘concerned’ religious citizens.
Fundamentalists in Croatia made good use of citizen-initiated national referenda. In 2013, they voted down marriage equality, in large part thanks to voting laws that do not require a minimum voter turnout in national referendums, as a result of which a low turnout of roughly 38 per cent sufficed to enable constitutional change. In contrast, similar referendums in Romania and Slovakia failed thanks to the requirement of a minimum 50 per cent turnout.
Anti-rights groups seem to have made a lot of progress in Eastern Europe since the early 2010s. Why is that?
We started closely monitoring these groups in Croatia around the time of the referendum, and what we saw is that their rise was linked to the redefinition of their strategies. They used to be old fashioned, not very attractive to their potential audiences and not very savvy in the use of the instruments of direct democracy. From 2010 onwards they changed their strategies. The anti-rights movement underwent a rapid renewal, and its new leaders were very young, eloquent and aware of the potential of democratic instruments. In their public appearances, they started downplaying religion, moving from religious symbolism to contemporary, colourful and joyous visuals. They started organising mass mobilisations such as the anti-abortion Walk for Life marches, as well as small-scale street actions, such as praying against abortion outside hospitals or staging performances. Ironically, they learned by watching closely what progressive human rights CSOs had been doing: whatever they were doing successfully, they would just copy. They also revived and upgraded traditional petition methods, going online with platforms such as CitizenGo.
Internationally, anti-rights groups started taking shape in the mid-1990s in reaction to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 in Beijing. It was then that a consensus formed around women’s rights as human rights, and when gender first came on the agenda. Religious groups felt defeated in Beijing. Many academics who studied this process concluded that it was then that the Catholic Church got angry because they lost a big battle. They underwent several defeats in the years that followed, which enraged them further. In 2004, the candidacy of Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian nominee for the European Commission, was withdrawn under pressure from the European Parliament because of his anti-gender and homophobic positions. Christian fundamentalists were also enraged when heated discussions took place regarding the possibility of Europe’s ‘Christian roots’ being mentioned in the European Constitution. All of this made the Vatican very angry. There were quite a few symbolic moments that made them angry and pushed them to fight more strongly against liberal ideas.
In reaction against this, they modernised, and it helped them to have increasingly tight connections to US-based fundamentalist evangelical groups, which had a long experience in shaping policies both within and outside the USA.
Do you think this is mostly a top-down process, or have these groups reached deeply at the grassroots level?
In Eastern Europe it is mostly a top-down process, possibly related to the fact that for the most part these groups are Christian Catholic, not evangelical. These ideas come from very high up. They have been produced and disseminated by the Vatican for decades. They are not spontaneous and are very well organised. Their strategies have not spread by imitation but rather because they are all dictated from the top.
This does not mean that they have not been able to appeal to citizens; on the contrary, they have done so very successfully, even more so than human rights groups. That is because they use very simple language and play on people’s fears and insecurities. They build their popularity upon prejudice and fears of others who are different. Fear seems to be an easy way to mobilise people, but people on the left don’t want to use it because they feel that it is not fair to manipulate people. Anti-rights groups, on the other hand, don’t have any problem with scaring people. When they first appeared in Croatia, these groups gained huge support because they stirred fear and then presented themselves as the protectors and saviours of people against the fictional monster that they had created.
What are the main strategies that these groups have used in order to grow?
First, they share a unified discourse that is built around the rejection of what they call ‘gender ideology’, which is nothing but an empty signifier to designate whatever threat they perceive in any particular context. They declare themselves the protectors of the family and the natural order and use defamation strategies and a pseudo-scientific discourse against women’s and LGBTQI people’s rights. A nationalistic rhetoric is also omnipresent in Eastern European countries.
Second, they have co-opted human rights discourse and adopted the practices of civic organising of the human rights movement. They not only profit from direct access to church-going citizens, but they also mobilise the grassroots through lectures, training, youth camps and social networks. They also benefit from sufficient funding to bus people to central rallies such as the Walk for Life marches, pay the expenses of numerous volunteers and cover the cost of expensive advertising.
Third, they have successfully used citizen-initiated referendum mechanisms. In Croatia and Slovenia, they collected the required number of signatures to initiate national referenda against same-sex marriage, which they won. In Romania and Slovakia, in turn, they succeeded in collecting the signatures but failed to meet the minimum participation requirement. Voter turnout in all these referenda ranged from 20 per cent in Romania to 38 per cent in Croatia, which shows that fundamentalists do not enjoy majority support anywhere, but they are still cleverly using democratic mechanisms to advance their agenda.
Fourth, they use litigation both to influence and change legislation and to stop human rights activists and journalists who are critical of their work. In order to silence them, they sue them for libel and ‘hate speech against Christians’. Although these cases are generally dismissed, they help them position themselves as victims due to their religious beliefs.
Fifth, they not only get good coverage of their events on mainstream media but they also have their own media, mostly online news portals, in which they publish fake news that defames their opponents, which they then disseminate on social media. They also host and cover conservative events that feature ‘international experts’ who are presented as the highest authorities on issues such as sexuality and children’s rights.
Sixth, they rely on transnational collaboration across Europe and with US-based groups.
Seventh, they target the school system, for instance with after-school programmes intended to influence children between the ages of four and 14, when they are most susceptible and easily converted.
Last but not least, they work not only through CSOs but also political parties. In this way, they are also present in elections, and in some cases, they gain significant power. Such is the case of the far-right Polish Law and Justice Party, which fully integrated these groups into its activities. In other cases, they establish their own political parties. This happened in Croatia, where the main fundamentalist CSO, In the Name of the Family, established a political party called Project Homeland. The case of Romania is most concerning in this regard, as it shows how Christian fundamentalist positions on LGBTQI rights can be mainstreamed across the political and religious spectrum.
In other words, these groups are present in various spaces, not just within civil society. And they are targeting mainstream conservative parties, and notably those that are members of the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s centre-right grouping. They are trying to move centre-right and conservative parties towards the far right. This is their crucial fight because it can take them to power. It’s the responsibility of conservative parties around the world to resist these attacks, and it is in the interest of progressive groups to protect them as well because if they lose, we all lose.
Do you think there is anything that progressive civil society can do to stop anti-rights groups?
I’m not very optimistic because we have been fighting them for several years and it’s really difficult, especially because the global tide is also changing: there is a general rightwards trend that seems very difficult to counter.
However, there are several things that can still be done. The first thing would be to expose these groups, to tell people who they really are. We need to expose them for what they are – religious fundamentalists, neo-Nazis and so on – because they are hiding their true faces. Depending on the local context, sometimes they are not even proud to admit that they are connected to the Church. Once these connections are exposed, many people become suspicious towards them. We would also have to hope for some common sense and disclose all the dirty tracks of the money and hope that people will react, which sometimes happens, sometimes doesn’t.
The main role should be played by believers who refuse to accept the misuse of religion for extremist purposes. Believers are the most authentic spokespeople against fundamentalism and their voices can be much stronger than the voices of mobilised secular people or political opposition. However, the lack of such groups at the local level, due to pressure from local religious authorities, can be a problem. Pope Francis has seriously weakened fundamentalist groups and he is a great example of how religious leaders can combat religious extremism and fundamentalism.
It is also productive to use humour against them. They don’t really know how to joke; sarcastic, humorous situations make them feel at a loss. This has the potential to raise suspicions among many people. But we need to be careful not to make victims out of them because they are experts in self-victimisation and would know how to use this against us.
Finally, let me say this again because it’s key. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s very important to empower conservative parties across the globe so they stand their ground and resist far-right hijacking attempts. Progressives need to protect conservative parties from extremist attacks, or they will become vehicles for the far-right to get to power, and then it will be too late.
Civic space in Croatia is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
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ARGENTINA: ‘Change is inevitable. It is just a matter of time’
In 2018, after years of civil society efforts, Argentina’s congress discussed an initiative to legalise abortion for the first time. While the ban on abortion in most cases remains, those campaigning for reform believe the debate has progressed. CIVICUS speaks about the campaign to Edurne Cárdenas, a lawyer with the international team of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS),an Argentine human rights organisation. CELS was founded in 1979, during Argentina’s military dictatorship, to promote human rights, justice and social inclusion. In its early years, CELS fought for truth and justice for the crimes committed under state terrorism, before expanding its agenda to include human rights violations committed under democracy, their structural causes and their relationship to social inequality. CELS advances its agenda through research, campaigning, alliances with others in civil society, public policy advocacy and strategic litigation in both national and international forums.
When did CELS, a classic human rights organisation, start working on sexual and reproductive rights, and why?
CELS has had great capacity to work in tune with the times and therefore to enrich its agenda progressively, always in alliance with social movements and other organisations. The idea of women’s rights as human rights was explicitly articulated at the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights. In the mid-1990s, and more precisely in 1996 I believe, the CELS annual report included contributions by women’s rights activists on reproductive rights. Over the following years, often in partnership with other organisations, CELS took part in submissions to human rights bodies: for instance, in 2004 we contributed to a shadow report submitted to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion was formed in 2005 and CELS joined in 2012. Shortly after those first articles were published in our annual report, our concerns about human rights violations gradually widened to encompass access to non-punishable abortions, as they are referred to in the Criminal Code - abortions that can be performed legally when the woman’s life or health are in danger or if the pregnancy in question is the product of rape. The issue was also incorporated as a result of the sustained work of feminist activists within our organisation.
In sum, CELS works on this issue because we understand that the criminalisation of abortion has a negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights by women. CELS’ key contribution was to place the abortion debate within the human rights sphere and to put into circulation human rights arguments to feed debate around the issue. CELS does not specialise in health issues, but we work in partnership with other organisations that examine the problem from that angle. From our point of view, this is an issue in which freedom and equality are at stake, and that is cross-cut by another theme - institutional violence - that was historically central to our work.
In 2018 the debate over legal abortion progressed in Argentina more than ever before, but not far enough for legal change to happen. What lessons do you draw from this experience?
In 2018, for the first time ever, an initiative to legalise abortion was debated in Congress. It was the seventh time that an initiative of this nature was introduced, and it was drafted and promoted by the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion. This is a network bringing together more than 500 organisations that form the women’s movement; it is well coordinated, horizontal and has 13 years of experience in this struggle. Before 2018, initiatives had not progressed, even within the congressional committees that had to issue an opinion to allow for debate to proceed to the full house. Argentina has a tradition of highly mobilised feminism and, since 2015, the campaign has had a lot of street presence and has made a clear demand for legal abortion. 2018 began with a novelty: in his opening speech of that year’s legislative session, the president raised the issue, which alongside feminist pressure enabled parliamentary debate. This was absolutely unprecedented. Regrettably, after being passed by the House of Representatives - the lower house - in June 2018, the initiative to legalise abortion was rejected by the Senate in August.
The whole process was led by the women's movement. All other movements and organisations aligned behind their leadership. In the House, the initiative succeeded because the strategy was multi-partisan and diverse, there was strong social movement participation and street pressure made itself heard. In the Senate, a more conservative chamber, additional work was required. Our alliances failed us, as we couldn’t make them as cross-cutting as they were in the House. A question that remains on the table, then, is how to reach out to the most conservative chamber of Congress with a demand that must necessarily be processed through it.
In addition, the defeat in the Senate made it clear that we need to work more to understand and counter the ‘post-truth’ discourse of our opponents. We are seeing conservative advances that put institutional quality, and ultimately democratic institutions, at risk. What was interesting in the process was that all citizens were able to find out and take note of what their representatives think and how they vote.
The results of this particular struggle could be called bittersweet. How much of a defeat, and how much of a victory were they, and why?
The pictures of disappointment on 9 August 2018, when the Senate rejected the initiative, do not tell the whole story. When we take stock, the list of what we won is much longer than the list of what we lost. Losses of course include a missed opportunity - but we only missed one opportunity, that of 2018, because I really believe that change is inevitable, and it is just a matter of time. I do not know if it will happen in 2019, but it will eventually. But one thing does need to happen in 2019: with elections due, all the issues that were put on the table during this process have to be part of the presidential campaign agenda.
We undoubtedly gained in terms of mass participation and public presence - both in the streets and in public opinion. In 2018 abortion was discussed like never before, so silences and taboos broke. But the process also had a negative side effect: because the issue that was placed on the agenda was so divisive, and mobilisation became so massive and acquired such centrality on the political scene, a strong reaction from the most conservative sectors ensued. These sectors gained a level of organisation and visibility that they did not have in the past.
As these conservative voices emerged, the debate on abortion rights also brought back into the discussion some things that we thought were long settled and part of a basic, untouchable consensus. These sectors began to say out loud certain things that they wouldn’t have dared say only a few years ago. Such was the case with the campaign ‘Do not mess with my children’ (Con mis hijos no te metas), against the implementation of the law mandating comprehensive sex education, which called into question the role of the state in education.
What role did CELS play in the legalisation campaign?
Throughout the process, the women’s movement’s leadership, and that of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, was undisputable. As a member of the Campaign, and alongside other human rights organisations, CELS made an important contribution in terms of organisation, coordination and argumentation.
Our history and experience give CELS much legitimacy. The fact that CELS speaks about abortion can make a difference when it comes to reaching broader audiences. Starting in 2014, when it seemed likely that the legalisation initiative would eventually be discussed in congressional committees, CELS began putting together input for the legislative debate, by revising jurisprudence and current standards and providing a justification as to why the debate on abortion had to be carried out from a human rights perspective.
At the same time, CELS participated as amicus curiae - friend of the court - in various court cases. Although we think that our ultimate goal, and the only one compatible with the recognition of women’s autonomy as full subjects of rights, is the legalisation of abortion, we have deemed it necessary to ensure in the meantime that the abortions that are already legal can be performed effectively, along the lines established for non-punishable abortions. In 2012, in its ruling in the F.A.L. case, the Supreme Court made very clear the conditions under which legal abortions can be performed and the obligations that this confers on the state. This ruling reflected the great work done by women’s rights and human rights movements on the streets, in hospitals, in academia and in the courts. But nonetheless, access remains very uneven, and even in more ‘advanced’ provinces barriers to legal abortions still exist. To a large extent, this reflects the structural limitations of a system that establishes a restrictive set of grounds allowing abortions, which inevitably fails because it depends on someone certifying the presence of those grounds. In addition, the current system ignores the most important among all possible grounds for abortion: the pregnant person’s will. This is precisely what the bill that was passed by the House put in the spotlight.
During the 2018 debate, CELS made several presentations in support of the initiative at public hearings in both houses of Congress. Our executive director and I presented at the House of Representatives - significantly, both at the opening and the closing of the debate - and our litigation director spoke at the Senate. At the beginning of the debate, we issued a publication that was endorsed by a large part of the women’s movement, feminists and organisations alike, with arguments, legislation and jurisprudence, to bring clear information to legislators.
We were also present on the streets, not only sharing the vigils that were held during the voting sessions, but also in organising, providing support and coordinating with the women's movement, with the other organisations within the Campaign for Legal Abortion and with high school students, health professionals and other mobilised groups. This coordination and the sustained presence of the movement on the streets were what made the difference during 2018. Finally, we defended the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, since throughout this process the groups mobilised against legal abortion perpetrated various acts of violence against legalisation activists.
You have repeatedly mentioned the existence of anti-rights groups. Do you think these groups are on the rise? If so, what can progressive civil society do to protect the rights already conquered and keep moving forward?
Anti-rights groups have indeed grown and are organised under a common umbrella, against what they call ‘gender ideology’. They saw this debate as an opportunity to organise like never before. Now they are more numerous: there used to be groups linked to the Catholic Church, but now there are also numerous groups with links to evangelical churches, well-organised and well-funded, alongside other groups that are not necessarily faith-based. Their presence demands our attention because their goals run against the rights of a large part of the population, as they seek to limit access to rights by children, women, lesbians, gays, transvestites and trans people. They are appearing throughout Latin America and their existence also raises questions about their alliances and goals: how and when did they arrive in Argentina? What are their demands? How far are they willing to go? We have seen that behind their ‘no to abortion’ they bring along a broader agenda that is linked to their rejection of so-called ‘gender ideology’, sexual education in schools, even vaccination, and who knows what else.
The progressive movement needs to think of a strategy to face them. The strength of the human rights movement is our use of creativity and the strategy of reason. On the other hand, what anti-rights movements do is mirror the strategies of the human rights movement. Now, although creativity and innovation give us an advantage, the anti-rights movement is making us waste our time discussing things we thought were long settled. To top it all, what we get into is not even an honest discussion, since the statements they make and even the data they use do not withstand the slightest fact check. The result is not actual debate - that is, a genuine exchange of arguments and reasons. Still, we have no alternative but to respond. So, when we engage in such ‘debate’, we do not really discuss with them or try to convince them, but we share our reasoning before an audience, in order to try and convince that audience. We take advantage of that simulation of a debate to make our point before public opinion. For this task, social media are key, although they have clearly been a double-edged sword. In fact, it was during this debate that we were able to see first-hand the way so-called ‘fake news’ operates, particularly when they find an echo in influential voices outside social media, who disseminate them elsewhere. It so happened, for instance, that totally fake data found on social media were quoted by legislators during the congressional debate. In that area, there is a lot of work for us to do.
Leading the debate agenda is one of the challenges that our movements face. To do this, we need to always be a step ahead in the discussion. We should not ‘debate’ with the anti-rights groups but speak to larger audiences and engage in discussion with elected representatives, whose obligation it is to pass laws for our common good and to ensure the state’s compliance with its obligation to enforce human rights. The debate over the legalisation of abortion was a spearhead to think about other issues. The system of limited grounds for legal abortion, similar to the one that has just been adopted in Chile, has been in place in Argentina since 1921. The transition from a system of grounds to a system of deadlines requires a simple legislative decision to amend the Criminal Code. Why such big fuss then? Because this debate puts other discussions on the table, including what we think the role of women is, what the role of the state should be, to what extent and regarding what issues the state should get involved - and this is where conservative sectors exhibit their contradictions: they want the state to get inside your bed to criminalise your behaviour, but when it comes to education or vaccination, they want it not to interfere.
We cannot stay on the defensive. We need to go on the offensive and place secularism and the role of the state on the agenda. And we are forced to do so in a very regressive sub-regional context. Brazil, our biggest neighbour and partner, has just elected a president who is committed to advancing the agenda of its powerful evangelical caucus and who has just appointed to lead the Ministry of Human Rights an evangelic minister who says that women are born to be mothers.
Civic space in Argentina is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
AUSTRIA: ‘If anything changed for women under the pandemic, it was for the worse’
CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequality in Austria with Judith Goetz, a political analyst and scholar who studies gender and right-wing extremism.
Alongside her role as a university professor, Judith works with civil society organisations (CSOs) that advocate for equal rights of excluded groups and support feminist movements in Austria. She has recently co-edited two anthologies on gender perspectives and right-wing extremist movements.
Do you think COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women in Austria?
I believe so and I think the gender-specific effects of the pandemic and lockdown are especially visible in employment. Gender-specific occupational patterns that predated the pandemic resulted in an additional workload for women. Women are also employed disproportionately in the service industry and healthcare sector, so many women saw their workload increase during lockdown and throughout the pandemic.
Women have been further affected through low wages and short-term employment. In addition, gender imbalances in childcare roles, and caretaking roles more generally, intensified with the pandemic.
Crises always bring the chance to rethink the social contract, and the pandemic in particular opened up an opportunity to renegotiate gender-specific arrangements, but unfortunately it was not taken. Relationships of dependency have been intensified, so if anything changed, it was for the worse.
The increase of domestic and sexual violence under lockdown is proof of this. This has been a problem not just in Austria but in all of Europe. Many people lost their jobs and did not have enough money to make a living. It seems that many men, unable to cope with economic and pandemic-related stress, simply took it out on their partners and children.
It is worth noting that the pandemic had a negative impact not only on women but also on LGBTQI+ people. Conservative forces took advantage of the pandemic to promote a return to traditional values and families. They said that lockdown showed families the importance of spending time together, and made women see the advantages of undertaking their ‘natural’ role as caretakers. Fringe anti-feminists even blamed the pandemic on those promoting gender rights because according to them, the pandemic was God’s punishment for their sins.
Has the government done enough to tackle these negative impacts?
Through its government programme, the Austrian government promised measures to counter domestic and sexual violence. But it did too little.
The current Minister for Women, Family and Youth, Susanne Raab, upholds a very conservative image of women. She only takes an anti-patriarchal stance when it comes to migrant women, because she only sees patriarchal structures and conservative, traditional gender conceptions in migrant communities, rather than in society at large. This has set limits on the design of policies to curb gender injustices in Austrian society and to support women’s empowerment more generally.
What role has Austrian civil society played in advocating for gender equality, both before and during the pandemic?
In Austria there are lots of CSOs that work against discrimination against women and other gender identities, and for equal treatment of people regardless of how they choose to identify themselves. Many feminist achievements, notably in the form of social change, are the result of this commitment. But this progress has also engendered a reaction in defence of male privilege, and we have seen the rise of counter-movements.
The way I see it, civil society encompasses all the associations, social movements and initiatives in which citizens engage, independently from political parties even though they often work together. These are all part of civil society regardless of their political orientation, of whether they are progressive or regressive. During the pandemic, we saw movements against LGBTQI+ rights, sexual education for diversity and gender studies in general become popular within movements that mobilised against pandemic restrictions.
Overall, women’s organisations and other solidarity CSOs, from anti-racist to progressive feminist movements, are doing an enormously important job in Austria. But we must keep in mind that there is a whole other segment of CSOs that are not progressive at all, and progressive civil society must find strategies to deal with them.
What role do you think progressive civil society will have to continue to play after the pandemic?
Solidarity networks will be extremely important in the aftermath of the pandemic because many people – particularly women - have been pushed under the poverty line.
But the pandemic has also made clear that there are a lot of people who are willing to help and support other people. Many people are not even organised, but they used their own resources to help others in need. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw self-organised neighbourhood networks in which people took care of each other. The pandemic allowed people to realise they could easily organise networks in their contexts and practise solidarity.
What are the main women’s rights issues in Austria?
Like anywhere else in the world, challenges abound in Austria: there is the gender pay gap – the goal of ensuring equal pay for equal work, the elimination of discriminatory role models and making opportunities available for women in all areas of life.
The intersectional entanglement of discrimination plays an important role here: women face discrimination not only because of their gender but also because of their social origin, their location, their race, or because they are not able-bodied.
But the problem I want to highlight is that of sexual and domestic violence. Austria must face the fact that it has a very high number of femicides. This is one of the reasons why Austria gained international attention in recent years – not just because femicide cases in Austria are very high compared to other European countries, but also because Austria is one of the few countries where more women than men are being murdered, mostly by their intimate partners or family members.
How is civil society organising to tackle gender-based violence?
Women’s rights CSOs have worked on these issues since long before the pandemic, and alerted that they were worsening as soon as the pandemic broke out. Such was the case with the Association of Autonomous Austrian Women’s Shelters (Verein Autonome Österreichische Frauenhäuser).
Civil society has engaged in intense advocacy to challenge policies that do not benefit excluded people, bring the concerns of the underrepresented to the forefront of the policy agenda and hold the authorities accountable. For instance, in October 2021 the Minister for Women, Family and Youth promised €25 million (approx. US$28 million) for a package of new measures to counter gender-based violence and femicides. Feminist CSOs complained that it was far too little: they were demanding €228 million (approx. US$256 million).
They also criticised the programme for prioritising helping perpetrators over protecting victims. The new anti-violence programme focuses on making perpetrators attend a six-hour training session, which is a step into the right direction but not nearly enough to change their behaviour, while not providing enough funding to the care of the women affected by violence.
On top of this, there is an important new movement growing in Austria. It follows on from the Ni Una Menos (‘Not one woman less’) feminist movement that originated in Latin America and encompasses both individuals and organisations. Since its founding in July 2020, no femicide in Austria has been left unacknowledged.
The new grassroots movement claims public space: every single time a femicide is found to have taken place, the movement gathers in central parts of Vienna to rally against patriarchal violence and commemorate its victims. The movement seeks to politicise femicides in order to go beyond mere reaction and win agency. More than 30 such rallies have been held since 2020.
In my opinion it has already achieved a lot of success. For instance, media reporting has completely changed. They no longer refer to a femicide as a family drama or a murder, but rather as femicide – that is, the murder of a woman because of the fact that she is a woman.
The way we speak about the topic, and therefore the way we think of it, has changed completely thanks to the work of civil society. It is now clear that femicides are typically not perpetrated by strangers in the dark – most of them are committed by relatives, spouses, boyfriends. It is not about the perpetrator’s background, but rather about the social relations between preparator and victim.
The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?
I really like this theme because we should indeed undertake complex thinking instead of continuing to think in black and white. Austria’s organising committee has chosen solidarity as a theme, which is very broad but can potentially encompass various gender identities, workers and groups facing various forms of discrimination. I think this theme is a good match for the #BreakTheBias theme.
I am joining the 8 March rally and the activities that bring feminist groups together in Vienna. I like this space because it offers a platform for feminist organisations, activists and experts to speak up about their own issues. This is also part of breaking the bias, because it is about different feminist perspectives and experiences coming together and having a frank discussion in which we try to leave our own bias aside. It also allows the bridging of different feminist struggles. We should prioritise what connects us over what separates us. We will surely have enough time to talk about our differences and become stronger once we have connected.
Civic space in Austria is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
BANGLADESH: ‘Out of fear, people are being silent’
CIVICUS speaks with Aklima Ferdows, who works with the Centre for Social Activism in Bangladesh, about civil society’s challenges and support needs in the face of a sustained government crackdown.
Can you tell us about your background and work?
I have a civil society background, working with civil society organisations (CSOs) for almost 10 years, mostly on advocacy and capacity development. I also have law background and voluntarily work with the Centre for Social Activism (CSA), whose work focuses mostly on the freedom of expression and protection of human rights defenders. CSA documents human rights violations and advocates for the rights of marginalised communities on the ground.
What are the current challenges around the freedom of expression in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh had a long struggle for freedom and finally got independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-months’-long war. But unfortunately, although we achieved our independence, our freedom is not assured even after so many years of independence. For civil society workers, human rights defenders, journalists and citizens in general, there is an environment of fear and self-censorship in the country now. Out of fear, people are being silent or are speaking on relatively ‘softer issues’ such as the rights of poor people, women and children. Because of fear of reprisal, people are refraining from doing things they used to do or not protesting or speaking openly. People need to think several times before they speak and act.
Social media and online content monitoring are becoming strict, and you can see the changes in social media use. People used to share various types of news, updates and their thoughts. Now they mostly use social media for sharing their personal stuff or family related activity. People also complain about their calls being recorded. There were efforts to make people register to use social media with their national identity document. Some websites and online portals have been banned, contents are blocked and there are occasional internet shutdowns and slowdowns, including during elections. We have had several killings of online activists in recent years. Other online activists have left the country or gone silent. People’s ability to express themselves freely and creatively is limited and people are more fearful about sharing their views with other people.
As an example of how the freedom of expression is restricted, in August 2019 a local councillor filed a case in Khagrachari district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts area against one of the reporters of the Daily Star, a major daily newspaper, simply because the reporter had used the word ‘Indigenous’ in a report. The plaintiff alleged that the journalist had intentionally made a provocation to destroy peace in the hills in the report, titled, ‘Three Indigenous villages face land grabbing’. The police were ordered to investigate. Although the court dismissed the case, it showed how sensitive the authorities can be. The people living in the country's plains and hills have long been demanding constitutional recognition as Adibashi (‘Indigenous’ in English). The Press Information Department issued a release (reference no. 2,704) in March 2015 urging the media, experts, university teachers and civil society members to avoid that word in discussions and talk shows on the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. There is no legal barrier to using the word ‘Adibashi’ anywhere in the country, but it seems that we are trying to push a group of people in their own country into a status of denial.
Eighty-three lawsuits were filed against the Daily Star’s editor, Mahfuz Anam, by plaintiffs across the country, in 56 districts, who were not personally aggrieved. The matter began on 3 February 2016 when the editor of a TV talk show made an introspective comment about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing reports, based on information given by the Taskforce Interrogation Cell during the rule of the 2007-2008 caretaker government, without being able to verify those independently. He was accused of defamation and sedition. The number of cases show how many people can be mobilised against one. Allegations and legal actions can be brought against anyone on the grounds that they are trying to instigate communal violence, hurt religious sentiment or cause law and order violations.
What are the other key restrictions against civil society freedoms, and what are the impacts on civil society?
People need to get permission from the local authorities to hold an assembly or gathering. This has become very strict now. In some cases, people don’t get permission and, in some instances, permission have been withdrawn at the last moment.
Another source of fear is the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. It is being used against opposition parties and their related organisations, but also against civil society, garment workers, student groups and cultural activists. The police force is often aggressive and there is impunity. So, people are reluctant about organising collectively as they did before. There are clear, direct threats as well as intimidation and there are also smears. For example, anti-corruption campaigners have been accused of avoiding paying taxes. And then there are repressive laws, which affect the freedom of expression and other freedoms of the people.
Cases are being brought to harass people under the Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018. The law brought in jail sentences to a maximum of three years or fines of 300,000 taka (approx. US$3,750), or both, for publishing or assisting in the publication of information that is offensive or is known to be false with the intention of tarnishing the image of the state, or spreading confusion, or sending or publishing information intended to annoy or humiliate someone. The punishments can be almost doubled for a second offence. Now anyone can claim that someone is spreading rumours or is humiliating someone else, even if they are just sharing news online without any intention of spreading confusion or humiliating someone.
The law also brought in a sentence of seven years in jail for hurting religious sentiment and values, and there are sentences of up to 14 years in jail or 2,500,000 taka (approx. US$29,450) in fines, or both, for charges of computer spying or digital spying for collecting, preserving, or sending any secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any electronic form. Journalists fear that the provisions of this Act will work against conducting investigative journalistic work and compromise the quality and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh. Under an earlier law, the ICT Act of 2016, several cases were brought against activists, journalists and activists. Now the police don’t even need a warrant to take someone in for questioning; it can be done based on mere suspicion.
Another key obstacle for civil society is the restriction of funding. This has been going on for some time. The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act controls foreign funding for CSOs. There is also a funding shortage from foreign donors and development partners for rights advocacy programmes following the passing of the NGO Law and development partners have shifted their priorities to other regions. One of the provisions of the NGO law allows the NGO Affairs Bureau to suspend the registration of a CSO or to close it down if it makes any ‘derogatory’ remarks about the constitution or constitutional bodies.
Any CSO or person receiving funding from a foreign entity must have permission. To get permission you need to give a copy of the proposal to the NGO Affairs Bureau, which sits in the prime minister’s office. Permission is sometimes withheld. Critics of civil society have occasionally raised concerns about some CSOs, alleging they could have links to terror financing, or that they are doing different work in the name of development. There is a fear that anything that doesn’t go well with the authorities could be blocked and the CSO denied funding.
Then there is the new draft Volunteer Social Welfare Organizations (Registration and Control) Act of 2019. According to media reports, the draft says that all CSOs will have to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare, and any receiving foreign funding will also have to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau. CSOs cannot set up and operate unless they do so. Section 10 states that all CSOs will be able to work in only one district when they first register. After registration, CSOs can expand their scope of work, but only to five districts at a time. We have 64 districts, so this is the most restrictive.
Section 14 requires CSOs to have an account with a state-owned bank and conduct all financial transactions via state-owned banks. It requires CSOs to submit their annual workplans, audit reports and activity reports. It also requires CSOS to submit tri-monthly bank statements to the local social welfare office and registration authorities. Section 11, in sub-sections 1 and 2, states that registrations must be renewed every five years, and failure to reregister or the refusal of registration will result in an organisation being dissolved.
Incredibly, section 16 says that the government can expel the heads of CSOs and replace them with a government-appointed five-person committee and section 17 says that CSOs can be dissolved if they are believed to not be working in the best interests of the public or to have broken the law.
According to the NGO Affairs Bureau, between March and June 2019, the government cancelled the registration of 197 CSOs.
Civil society members are in a very tight situation now. They have become very cautious and are playing safe out of fear. If they don’t compromise, they might lose the funding they have and face threats. We are not seeing CSOs making many statements on human rights issues. Many CSOs are struggling for funding. There are some social movements starting up, working on issues such as the protection of natural resources and against gender-based violence, but they are being cautious about talking about gross human rights violations.
What impacts did the December 2018 general election have on civil society?
In advance, people felt a participatory election might not be held. I went out one day just to see how many posters in the vicinity were from the opposition. In my neighbourhood, I would say 99 per cent of the posters were of the ruling party candidate. Opposition party candidates and activists were not fully free to campaign, and the election was allegedly manipulated.
Fears increased during the election, in which the ruling party won a landslide victory, because it confirmed the ruling party’s power. The ruling party has everything and after the election, we hardly hear the strong voice of opposition.
What role is being played by student groups affiliated with ruling party?
One of the main sources of attack are by the non-state actors linked to the ruling party, particularly its student and youth wing. Academic institutions such as universities are controlled by ruling party student activists. At protests, ruling party student groups work alongside law enforcement officers to attack people and harass them. This sometimes includes sexual harassment of women protesters.
Given these challenges, what are the main support needs of Bangladeshi civil society?
Bangladeshi civil society voices should be raised with unity and there is a need to raise concern about Bangladesh at the international level more and more. At the international level, the rights of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have received huge attention, which is necessary, but this should not be used to overshadow other human rights violations in the country.
We also need security and protection initiatives for CSO members. Bangladeshi CSOs should be developing these but they do not have funding for this, and requests for security and protection in funding proposals do not get much attention. There is also a need to explore flexible funding for CSOs.
There is a need for more solidarity actions with local civil society. Those few organisations that are still trying to defend human rights, and local and grassroots groups, urgently need solidarity.
Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
BOTSWANA: ‘Anti-rights groups are emerging in reaction to progressive gains’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Dumiso Gatsha, a young LGBT rights activist and founder of Success Capital Organisation, a youth-led civil society organisation (CSO) that supports civic action and promotes the rights of LGBTQI people.
How significant was the June 2019court decision that decriminalised homosexuality in Botswana?
The High Court ruled that colonial-era laws criminalising same-sex relations are unconstitutional. The judges said penalising people for who they are is disrespectful, and the law should not regulate private acts between consenting adults. One of the contested sections of the penal code, Section 164, is about ‘unnatural offences’, defined as “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” which essentially applied to gay sex, although it was up to the courts to define what unnatural acts meant, and it could theoretically also apply to heterosexual activities seen as ‘unnatural’.
This ruling is very significant on two fronts. The first is that this decision eliminates the risk of persecution altogether. Although the prohibition was not necessarily implemented by law enforcement agencies, it could have been, as it added elements of uncertainty and arbitrary treatment. The second is that it essentially provides an avenue for building protections and safeguards in health, employment, business, governance, service delivery and, more importantly, eliminating systemic stigma and discrimination.
Was civil society in Botswana instrumental in bringing about this decision?
Yes. Civil society, and LGBT civil society more specifically, has been very active since the 1990s. But when I started out there were still few activists that were well known. I came to Botswana in 2012 and there were only one or two notable activists, while now, only seven years later, there are five new LGBT-led organisations. A lot of them work on HIV/AIDS response, because a lot of funding goes to this kind of work.
Litigation for decriminalisation was led by civil society, on behalf of a young gay man. Procedurally, only an individual can bring such a challenge to the courts, not an organisation. The most progressive of recent court cases, in terms of gender marker changes, were led by people. Civil society partnerships helped ensure financial and technical assistance.
However, it is very difficult to bring the rest of the community along with these advances: yes, you achieve decriminalisation, but decriminalisation does not mean protection or mean it will be any easier for people to navigate difficult conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity with family members or educators, or in the workplace.
Has the court decision prompted any backlash against LGBT rights?
I think society is divided, and attitudes may take longer than laws to change. In this context, a new opposition populist party has used this issue as a populist tool. The ruling political party initially said that it would abide by the court decision and it backed non-discrimination. The current president had previously released a statement commemorating 16 days against gender-based violence and spoke about discrimination experienced by people in same-sex relationships. This was the first time a sitting head of state publicly recognised and acknowledged the gay community affirmatively in an African country that criminalised same-sex intercourse. Previous administrations had maintained a position of not persecuting people. In that sense, the state was always perceived as being a bit more progressive than the social majority or the rest of Africa. I think the state has long resorted to silent diplomacy on issues considered ‘progressive’.
What changed after the High Court ruling, and lead to the state deciding to appeal, was that the new opposition party saw an opportunity to use the ruling to seek votes. They blamed the current president for singlehandedly decriminalising same-sex intercourse. Given the intolerance in public opinion, it was an opportunity to appeal to the majority. This turned into a political issue rather than one of rights, particularly because this new political party is backed by a former president. This was the first time ever in Botswana’s living history that LGBT issues were used within an intentionally populist narrative.
This did not happen in isolation. Since the court ruling, religious institutions, mostly evangelical groups, became more vocal in their intolerance of LGBT people. It was surprising to us. We didn’t quite expect this. Public statements were released, including some stating that they would be appealing against the court ruling. They perceived this court ruling as an avenue for same-sex marriage and adoption of children by LGBT people.
Why did this take you by surprise? Weren’t anti-rights groups present in the public sphere before?
Regarding the court case, which took almost two years, evangelical groups and other religious actors remained silent for the most part. They wouldn’t really talk about it. It didn’t seem to be an issue for them at all. They didn’t bother building a whole narrative around or against it. That is why it was surprising that when the court decision was made public, all this opposition materialised. Some churches that had never released public statements on anything are now doing so. It isn’t just evangelical churches, although they have been probably the ones taking the lead. Catholic and Methodist churches have become quite intolerant, and vocally intolerant, as well.
While some civil society actors, including human rights groups, that we thought would be supportive, remained quite passive, anti-human rights groups have been increasingly active, using LGBT rights as a populist tool, by taking advantage of the dynamics regarding ‘immorality’ that prevail among the public – in other words, of the fact that many people are simply anti-LGBT by default, with no critical thinking.
I think that populist anti-rights groups are emerging in reaction to progressive gains. This is the Trump era, with its atmosphere of nationalism and regressive thinking. Regarding women’s sexual and reproductive rights and LGBT rights, US right-wing organisations are exporting their ideas to other parts of the world, including Africa. Fortunately, however, Botswana has historically been a peaceful society where it has not been easy for populist discourse to grow, and we are not seeing the growth of the same political populist narrative that has gained ground in other African countries or, for instance, in Eastern Europe. Botswana’s political landscape does not include extremist parties, either on the left or right. Major parties are all in support of LGBT rights and their leaders are quite progressive. There was an assumption that the negative political use of LGBT issues would work, but it is not clear that it has. However, society itself isn’t very accepting, and religious institutions are indeed perpetuating homophobia and intolerance.
What’s next for LGBT civil society in Botswana, after achieving decriminalisation?
Even if the High Court ruling survives the appeals and any other further legal challenges, a gap will remain. There have been some fragments of civic action aimed at educating people on LGBT issues. There is an urgent need to work on changing the hearts and minds of people. More importantly, there is a lot of work needed in moving LGBT people from surviving to thriving, especially in issues of efficacy, agency and having an influence within their communities. We focus on the individual and their access to rights, because rights are not really effective if they cannot be exercised at key touch points of service delivery, such as in a police station or a clinic. The community needs healing, at individual and collective levels. There has been a lot of pain and harm, even within activism.
What challenges do LGBT civil society face in doing this work, and what kind of support does it need?
A lot of advocacy strategies and narratives are pre-determined and attached to funding. There is a lot of gatekeeping in terms of the narratives that are considered relevant and valid, and therefore granted access to funding and to policy-makers. The main narrative currently appears to be around public health, and it is very difficult for new organisations to establish new narratives and still gain access to funding. If you are not operating under the umbrella of a much larger body, it is difficult to scale up advocacy work. This structure of opportunities has a strong impact on how creative and collaborative civil society can be while remaining sustainable.
I think this has to stop. We need to move towards a community-led narrative. This is how we will get the best results in terms of transforming people’s hearts and minds. In that regard, there is a need to strengthen the intellectual body of knowledge of LGBT communities and decolonise our institutions, because a lot of our conversations are in fact based on Western narratives. We also need to rethink the narratives used for campaigning. The narratives that have been used so far are based on the assumption that the human rights-based approach works, without any reflection on the need to adapt the language in a way that resonates with people and makes issues easier for people to digest.
In sum, I would say it is very important to diversify both the forms of advocacy that are undertaken and the ways that they are being supported.
Civic space in Botswana is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
BRAZIL: ‘Discrimination and hate speech are becoming normalised’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about migrant workers’ rights with Dariele Santos, the young founder of Instituto Alinha, a social enterprise focused on improving the work and life conditions of migrant workers employed in the fashion industry.
When and why did you decide to create the Alinha Institute?
When I was in college I had several jobs with which I supplemented my scholarship, and one of those jobs involved research on immigration issues, and more specifically about Latin American immigrants employed in the clothing industry in São Paulo. That’s when I began to speak with migrants and I learned about their precarious life and work conditions, that is, about the reality of the production chain in Brazil’s fashion industry.
Brazil encompasses all steps in the production chain of this industry, from cotton production to garment manufacturing. The fashion industry is spread throughout the country, but its final link, the manufacturing of clothing, is highly concentrated in São Paulo, employing mostly migrant workers. Production is highly outsourced; clothing brands subcontract with sewing workshops that are involved in the various phases of the manufacturing process. The more workshops that are involved in the process, the more difficult it is to exercise some control and the more labour protections are lost. Many of these workshops are small and family-run, and function in the family's home, with all members of the family working, and getting paid by the piece. People work up to 90 hours per week because they get paid very little for each piece that they produce.
When I learned the stories of these migrant workers, I began to realise the huge dimensions of the problem, and I also realised how little I had known about it, and how little we know in general about the fashion industry chain: we don't care the least about how the clothes that we wear are made. The problem of the huge inequality and injustice in the fashion industry chain is completely invisible. It is a super-luxury industry that generates a lot of money, but to the same extent, it is a chain of enormous exploitation.
Along with a friend, I started thinking about starting a social enterprise that would apply technology to solve this problem, and we launched Alinha in 2014.
What does Alinha do to improve the working conditions of migrant workers?
The idea is simple: Alinha provides advice to sewing workshop entrepreneurs so that they regularise their businesses and guarantee adequate security and reasonable deadlines and pay, and connects them with clothing manufacturers and designers interested in hiring a workshop, thus ensuring fair conditions for all parties involved.
More specifically, we begin by visiting the sewing workshops that sign up to receive advice, and we assess their deficits in order to recommend what they should do to get out of informality. We look at areas such as their forms of contracting, their health and safety conditions and their equipment. In our second visit we bring a work safety specialist. These workshops have a lot of fire hazards, because they store large quantities of cloth and tend to have precarious electrical installations; to make things worse, usually many children live in the houses in which the workshops operate. Once the safety assessment has been done, we prepare an action plan aimed at regularising the workshops or aligning them with labour and safety standards - hence our name of Alinha. We do it in plain language and translate the laws for workers. We provide the basics of accounting and help workshop owners calculate the required investment and how it would impact on product prices. Once the improvements have been made and we consider that a workshop has reached a minimum security and formalisation threshold, we upload its details to the Alinha platform so that it can get it in touch with brands and designers. Brands and designers come on our platform because they seek to change the way they produce and are willing to guarantee fair payment terms and deadlines. So we connect them.
The prices of these products are surely higher than those of products made under conditions of extreme exploitation. Have you managed to convince consumers that it is worth paying more for them?
We're on it. We know that it is important to connect consumers because they have enormous power in their hands: when choosing the brand they are going to buy, they can make the decision to support one that guarantees fair working conditions. But consumers can't really choose if they don't know which brands have contracts with our aligned workshops. That is why we have a platform where the aligned brands place data that users can check - for example, that they are making a certain number of pieces with such and such workshop, so that after the information has been added to the Alinha platform, the workshop can confirm on the phone that they are indeed making these pieces, earning a certain amount per hour, and working with such and such deadlines. When all the links in the production chain confirm the information, an identification code for the piece is generated to be placed on the garment’s label, so that the final user can track the garment’s history. All information and confirmations are stored in Blockchain, so that there is more security and trust in the information.
We are also in the process of making a short film that tells the story behind the clothes, based on the story of a Bolivian migrant seamstress. The presentation of an individual’s story seeks to generate connection and empathy: we want the consumer to see a woman who has dreams and hopes similar to their own. We seek to ask the consumer a question: which story would you rather choose, one about exploitation or one about decent work?
Do you think that the situation of migrants in Brazil has recently worsened?
The problem of migrants is not recent; it comes from long ago. There are many migrants who have lived here, and worked in terrible conditions, for decades. Migrants who work in sewing workshops in São Paulo are mostly Bolivian, although there are many from countries such as Paraguay and Peru as well. Many of them first emigrated from their countries to Argentina, but when the 2008 financial crisis hit they moved to Brazil. The political and economic conditions back then - the Lula government and a period of strong economic growth - made Brazil a better destination.
But it is difficult to be a migrant in Brazil. It is the only non-Spanish speaking country in the region, so difficulties in communication and access to information abound. Migrants without legal documentation or formal employment are afraid all the time. The psychological pressure is very strong: people refuse to leave the sewing workshops because they are afraid of being caught and forced to leave. Migrants fear the consequences of demanding their rights.
While the migrant workers’ exploitation is not a new problem, and migrants’ fear isn’t new either, the situation has recently worsened. The new president, Jair Bolsonaro, represents the far right, and his discourse is extremely xenophobic. He places himself above the laws and above all democratic guarantees. His message to migrant workers is: ‘be thankful for all the good things you have here, and if there is something you don't like, you’d better leave’. The fact that hate speech is coming from so high up is emboldening people who always thought these things, but in the past would not say them and now feel it is legitimate to do so. In this sense, discrimination and hate speech are becoming normalised.
This situation is replicated in various spheres. It is a dangerous time for activists working on human rights, environmental rights, women's rights, LGBTQI rights, black and indigenous peoples’ rights and migrants’ rights. There is a lot of fear because going against the government poses high risks. This has been clearly seen in the cases of Marielle Franco, the LGBTQI activist and councilwoman from Rio de Janeiro who was murdered in March 2018, and the LGBTQI congressperson and activist Jean Wyllys, who recently left Brazil because of threats against his life.
Fortunately, not all Brazilians are receptive to Bolsonaro's discourse. We live a situation of high polarisation. While many have indeed moved towards the far right and have adopted nationalist positions, many people are also increasingly convinced that what needs to be done is to guarantee more rights to more people.
In this context, what can rights-oriented civil society do?
Civil society moves within narrow margins. Our strategy is to generate a discourse that creates empathy among public opinion rather than a confrontational discourse permanently criticising the president because this would create trouble with a broad sector of society that would immediately reject it as leftist. We are going through tough times: it is not advisable to announce that you fight for human rights because human rights are associated with the left rather than viewed as things that belong to everyone. That is why we find it more productive to focus on real people and their stories, to show the photo of a flesh-and-blood person and ask our audience, 'don’t you think this woman is a hardworking person, who is struggling just like you, and who deserves better working conditions, who deserves to get ahead?'
It is really quite tragic to have to hide the struggle for human rights because it is not seen as a legitimate cause. Since President Bolsonaro was elected, a lot of activists have had to leave Brazil. Those who have stayed are being forced to choose: if they want to continue doing a direct, head-first kind of activism, they need to be willing to take risks. Nowadays, mine is a sort of diplomatic activism: I sit down to speak with businesspeople and I need to be open to chat with people who don't necessarily think like me or do things the way I think they should be done, but with whom I can achieve some progress.
What international support does Brazilian civil society need to continue working?
Although it may not seem obvious at times, because Brazil is considered a medium-high-income country, Brazilian civil society needs all kinds of support to continue working in this hostile environment. In my particular case, I was very fortunate to receive support from the Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator programme, which seeks to accelerate progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This programme supports a group of young activists who are using data in innovative ways to address SDGs 1 to 6, that is, to seek solutions to local development challenges related to poverty, hunger, health and well-being, education, gender equality and water and sanitation.
This support has been super strategic, since it included funding, technical support and connections, and allowed me to acquire new tools. Many more initiatives like this are needed, because Brazilian civil society is shrinking, and not only because of the political climate but also because of the economic crisis that has been going on for several years. According to a recent study, more than 38,000 civil society organisations closed their doors in Brazil between 2013 and 2016, and many of them used to provide basic services to vulnerable populations. The segment of civil society that has suffered the most is the one working on development and human rights advocacy: more than 10,000 organisations that closed down used to work in favour of minorities, such as black people, women, indigenous people and LGBTQI people, and the rights of communities.
Civic space in Brazil is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.