LEBANON: ‘The political youth movement was a major pillar of the opposition to the ruling class’

MarwanIssaCIVICUS speaks about the recent general election in Lebanon with Marwan Issa, research assistant with the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.

The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.

What was the political and economic context of Lebanon’s 15 May general election?

The election was held while Lebanon faced one of its worst economic crises in recent history. People were experiencing severe hardship due to lack of essential items, including medicines. On election day, the currency exchange rate skyrocketed, with the US dollar going from 1,515 to around 30,000 Lebanese pounds. Not surprisingly, the majority held deep-seated anger against traditional ruling parties. This led many voters, and especially those in the diaspora, to elect new independent opposition parties and candidates.

However, the intensity of the crisis also led many people to despair and crippled their desire or motivation for action. As a result, the revolutionary feelings stirred by the protests of 17 October 2019 largely died down, and many people felt their vote would not make any difference, which explains the low turnout.

But this did not mean that people were not searching for alternatives: in fact, a solution-focused, rational debate has also emerged that is clearly different from the tribal methods of traditional political parties, which instrumentalise sectarianism, clientelism and fearmongering. New opposition groups have developed that criticise the traditional division between those who blame all the country’s problems on the presence of Hezbollah as an armed militia, and those who believe the presence of resistance against a potential threat from Israel is necessary. Both are viewed as serving the interests of the current political elite.

In the face of this, the new opposition offers an alternative discourse focused on both sovereignty and economic justice. This debate about alternative economic and social solutions is very promising for the years ahead.

How did youth-led groups engage with the election process?

There are plenty of youth-led political groups in Lebanon, but the main one is Mada, the Network of Secular Clubs. The first secular clubs were formed in universities as an alternative to the domination of ruling class parties on campus and started to take part in university student council elections. Over the past few years, these secular clubs won more than two-thirds of the seats in student council elections, breaking the hegemony of traditional political parties. As a result, they have paved the way for a new type of discourse on and outside campuses. Now the Network has 21 clubs throughout the country – not just in universities but also in unions and regions – and continues to have a clear youth-led political discourse.

In preparation for the election, Mada engaged in negotiations with other groups to form coalitions. In Beirut, Mada members were active in the creation of Beirut Tuqawem (Beirut Resists), a grassroots participatory campaign that included individuals and groups from various progressive circles. Those volunteering in these campaigns were mostly university students working alongside other Mada members who were a bit older – but still young, around 25 on average.

Mada members were also active in launching campaigns in other parts of Lebanon, including al Janoub Youwajeh (The South Confronts), Jil al Teghyir (The Generation of Change), and the 17 October Coalition.

So-called apolitical young people – young people not active in any political group – also mostly leaned towards voting for new independent opposition groups. They also encouraged those around them to do the same, which boosted the opposition movement. Had the voting age been 18 instead of 21, we could confidently say that the elections would have brought many more new faces to parliament.

How free and fair was the election?

The electoral process was plagued with violations that made the competition unfair. For instance, although there are strict caps on campaign spending, ruling class candidates violated the law and poured millions of dollars into their campaigns. This huge financial advantage allowed them to reach vast audiences, while opposition campaigns had much more limited resources.

Bribery and clientelism were also rampant. In addition, smear campaigns and direct threats on opposition candidates were widely noticed. One of them, Ali Khalife, received direct threats following a smear campaign by pro-Hezbollah electronic armies. A few days before the election there were attacks by Tashnag party supporters on opposition groups in Metn and the beating of volunteers.

On election day many violations were recorded, but they were highly dependent on the context. In the southern region, for example, violations included brawls, fights, and politically affiliated electoral assistants going inside voting booths alongside voters. In areas controlled by armed or powerful parties, such as Hezbollah and the Amal movement in the south, many people did not dare turn up to vote.

How do you assess the election results?

All the above combined, plus the fact that the ruling class also very carefully crafted the electoral law to suit its sectarian and partisan quota system, made for a tilted playing field. Under the circumstances, the results were promising and can be built upon.

The election resulted in around 12 or 13 new opposition faces in parliament, plus a couple more who could be counted as part of the opposition but were in parliament already. The presence of 15 opposition, mostly new, legislators is great news. They have clear views regarding both the presence of an armed militia and the responsibility of banks and bank owners in the economic crisis. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Ibrahim Mneimneh, of Beirut Tuqawem, who got the most preferential votes among all new opposition candidates, has a progressive economic and social discourse and took a clear stand on issues related to security and arms.

In contrast, candidates traditionally linked with the Syrian regime lost their seats, including Assaad Herdan in the south, Weeam Wahhab and Talal Erslan in Mount Lebanon, and Elie Ferzli in Bekaa. This was a huge victory against people who were puppets in the hands of the Syrian regime during the period in which Syria maintained a military presence in Lebanon, between the 1990s and 2005.

Following the election, pro-change political forces must continue pushing for change in and outside parliament, supporting the newly elected members of parliament and holding them accountable for the implementation of their programme.

What kind of international support does Lebanese civil society need?

Youth-led groups have been at a significant financial disadvantage, and I believe they are the ones that need the most support. It only makes sense that the new generation be supported since waves of emigration keep rising as students and young people more generally lose hope in Lebanon. Financial support, however, should be conditional on the credibility of the opposition group receiving it; it must be directed towards groups with a proven commitment to democracy, social justice, and non-sectarian values.

International organisations, embassies, and other entities could also express their support by including the perspectives of opposition groups in designing policies and humanitarian aid mechanisms because Lebanon’s ruling class has proven highly skilled at transforming aid into clientelism and perpetuating the cycle of violence and poverty for political gain.

Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS monitor.
Get in touch with the Asfari Institute through its website and follow @AsfariInstitute on Twitter. 

 

LEBANON: ‘This election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights’

Lina Abou HabibCIVICUS speaks about the recent general elections in Lebanon with Lina Abou Habib, director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.

The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.

What change resulted from the 15 May general election?

Despite taking place in an extremely complicated, uncertain and turbulent political and economic context, the process resulted in the election of many new independent candidates coming from civil society and calling for change. These new voices have political agendas that are very different from those of traditional ruling parties: they call for a new, more accountable governance system and for women’s rights, among other issues. These agendas include road maps for overcoming the ongoing deep economic crisis. And most importantly, they focus on how to stop the political race to the bottom that’s been happening in Lebanon.

Most of the independent candidates who were elected are linked to the 17 October protests, the uprisings that took place in 2019, when people clearly said that they had enough of the political elite that had become – and continues to be – outrageously corrupt. The 17 October Revolution was a unique moment because protesters had such diverse, inclusive and feminist voices – feminist demands became an integral part of the political demands of the revolution. For instance, sexual harassment became a political issue because the voices of the LGBTQI+ community and migrant women domestic workers were also represented. No demand was compromised or put aside.

By that time, it became clear to us what system of governance we aspired to. It must be based on equality, inclusion, diversity and respect for human rights. The revolution also gained momentum because the same thing was happening in Chile and other countries where people were rising up. Hence, I do not exaggerate when I say that the feminist voices of the 17 October Revolution inspired political participation in the 2022 election.

It is important to note, however, that some independent members of the new parliament do not share the agenda of the 17 October Revolution and have quite regressive rhetoric. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Cynthia Zarazir called for the death of Syrian refugees on social media. Having people like her in parliament represents a new challenge. Aside from that, I would say that this election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights and pointing the way forward out of the current crisis.

How did the feminist movement work collectively in preparation for the election?

There was rallying behind feminist candidates such as Zoya Jureidini Rouhana, who pushes for an compulsory egalitarian family law, a top priority for Lebanon’s feminist movement. Rouhana is the founder of KAFA (‘enough’) Violence and Exploitation, a feminist civil society organisation that was behind several legal reforms in Lebanon. Moreover, it champions political discourse on gender-based violence. Her electoral campaign was in line with that. It is a rare moment when you have a feminist candidate running on a feminist agenda in a general election – and this was partly possible thanks to the voices that became heard in October 2019. The political movement took shape and gained more feminist voices during those uprisings.

Feminists mobilising around the elections forced candidates to state their position on gender equality, including the rights of the queer community. In return, independent candidates who sided with gender equality were attacked by the regime and conservative forces. One way for government officials and supporters to disparage and attack somebody is to say they are going to endanger the family. This is very unfortunate, but at the same time, it is fantastic that this important conversation is taking place in the public sphere and these issues are being discussed as part of the overall social and political dialogue.

In sum, the inclusive and intersectional feminist movement of Lebanon has succeeded in elevating feminist discourse to the public and political arena. But there is still a long way to go: the new parliament includes only two additional female members compared to the previous one, as only eight women were elected, out of 115 candidates nominated by traditional parties, opposition groups, and civil society. These results are still lacking in terms of reaching a critical mass to exercise feminist influence in parliament.

What’s next for the civil society movement following the election?

The real battle is just about to begin. The election showed that change is possible, but it is still not enough. The next step for us is to figure out how we will hold independent members of parliament accountable. They must be accountable because they won as a result of our collective movement.

We will still be facing a corrupt and oppressive regime and serious issues such as illegal arms and a heavily militarised society, economic downfall, destroyed livelihoods, broken public institutions and irresponsible and unaccountable policymaking. As such, civil society in its diversity, and especially the intersectional feminist movement, should remain vigilant.

The conversation we started must continue, and we need our international allies to help keep it going, and certainly not be complicit with the regime. We have a collective responsibility to monitor human rights violations, talk to feminist activists and help amplify the voices of Lebanon’s intersectional young feminists.

Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS monitor.
Get in touch with the Asfari Institute through its website and follow @AsfariInstitute on Twitter.

 

PHILIPPINES: ‘We fear the democracy those before us fought so hard for will be erased’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in the Philippines with Marinel Ubaldo, a young climate activist, co-founder of the Youth Leaders for Environmental Action Federation and Advocacy Officer for Ecological Justice and Youth Engagement of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines (LLS).

Founded by Catholic lay people, LLS began in 2018 as an interfaith movement calling on Filipino financial institutions to divest from coal-related operations and other environmentally harmful activities. It aims to empower people to adopt lifestyles and attitudes that match the urgent need to care for the planet. It promotes sustainable development and seeks to tackle the climate crisis through collective action.

Marinel Ubaldo

From your perspective, what was at stake in the 9 May presidential election?

The 2022 election fell within the crucial window for climate justice. As stated in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we need to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius or we will suffer terrible consequences, such as a rise in sea levels that will submerge much of the currently populated land, including the Philippines. Upcoming leaders will serve for the next six years –and possibly beyond. They have the immense responsibility of putting a climate change mitigation system in place for our country and urging more countries to do the same.

As shown by Super Typhoon Rai that hit the Philippines in December 2021, climate change affects all of us. Whole communities lost their loved ones and their homes. Young people will reap the fruits, or pay the consequences, for whatever our incoming leaders do in response to this crisis. This is why climate anxiety is so prevalent among young people.

How did young people mobilise around this election?

Young people campaigned house to house. We also went to grassroots communities to educate voters on how to vote wisely. Alongside other organisations that form the Green Thumb Coalition, our organisation produced a Green Scorecard and we used our social media platforms to promote the ‘green’ candidate.

One of the biggest youth initiatives around the elections was ‘LOVE, 52’, a campaign aimed at empowering young people and helping them engage with candidates and make their voices heard in demand of a green, just, and loveable future through better governance. We wanted to shift the focus from candidates’ personality and patronage politics to a debate on fundamental issues, and to help young people move traditional powerholders towards a people-centred style of policymaking.

We called this initiative ‘LOVE, 52’ in reference to the fact that young people – people under 40 – comprise 52 per cent of the Philippines’ voting population. We sought to appeal to younger voters’ emotions, and our central theme was love because a frequent response to the question ‘why vote?’ is to protect what we love: our families, our country, and our environment. The main element of this campaign was a ‘love letter’ drafted by several youth organisations and addressed to the country. It contained young people’s calls to incoming leaders, including those of prioritising environmental and social issues, coming up with a coherent plan to address the climate crisis, and supporting a vibrant democracy that will enable climate and environmental justice. We gathered all the love letters people wrote, put them in one envelope, and delivered them physically to the presidential candidates’ headquarters.

What are the implications of the election results for civil society and civic freedoms?

The results of these elections will have a lot of implications for the Filipino people. They will have a direct impact on civil society and our freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly.

The winning candidate, senator Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of a former dictator, has said that he will include his family in his administration. Just today, I saw the new president’s spokesperson on the news saying Marcos will make his own appointments, bringing in the people he trusts. I think he will really try to control the government with people who follow him unconditionally. He will put such people in all the positions available, so everyone will tell him what he wants to hear and no one will disagree with him. I think this is the scariest part of it all.

I fear in a few months or years we will be living under a dictatorship. Marcos may even be able to stay in power for as long as he wants. After trying to reach power for so long, he has finally won, and he won’t let go of power easily.

It’s very scary because the human rights violations that happened during his father’s dictatorship are not even settled yet. More human rights violations are likely to happen. It’s a fact that the Filipino people won’t be allowed to raise their voices; if they do so, they may risk being killed. This is what happened under martial law during Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship.

This will definitely affect civil society. It will be very difficult for humanitarian workers to respond to any crisis since Marcos will likely aspire to micro-manage everything. We fear the democracy those before us fought so hard for will be erased.

Regarding the specifics of policymaking, we don’t really know what the plan is. Marcos campaigned on vague promises of national unity and implied that all problems would be solved if people unite behind his leadership. Needless to say, he never mentioned any policy to tackle climate change and the environmental crisis.

Against all signals, I keep hoping the new administration will be receptive to people’s demands. I really hope our new president listens to the cries of the people. Our leaders must reach out to communities and listen to our issues. I doubt Bongbong Marcos is capable of doing that, but one can only hope.

What support does Filipino civil society need from international civil society and the international community?

We need to ensure the international community sends out a consistent message and stands by our side when oppression starts. We also need them to be ready to rescue Filipinos if their safety is at risk. We activists fear for our lives. We have doubts about how receptive and accepting the new administration will be toward civil society. 

Today is a gloomy day in the Philippines. We did our best to campaign for truth, facts, and hope for the Philippines. Vice President Leni Robredo campaigned for public sector transparency and vowed to lead a government that cares for the people and bolsters the medical system. If she had won the elections, she would have been the third woman to lead the Philippines after Cory Aquino and Macapagal Arroyo.

Leni’s loss is the loss of the Philippines, not just hers. There are still too many people in the Philippines who believe Marcos’s lies. I don’t blame the masses for believing his lies; they are victims of decades of disinformation. Our system sadly enables disinformation. This is something that needs to be urgently tackled, but the next administration will likely benefit from it so it will hardly do what’s needed.

We now fear every day for our lives and for the future of our country.

Civic space in the Philippines is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Living Laudato Si’ Philippines through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @LaudatoSiPH on Twitter and @laudatosiph on Instagram

 

INDONESIA: ‘The Sexual Violence Bill is one step further in claiming the rights of women and children’

Nuril QomariyahCIVICUS speaks with Nuril Qomariyah, coordinator of Perempuan Bergerak, about the Sexual Violence Bill recently passed in Indonesia and the key roles played by civil society.

Founded in 2016, Perempuan Bergerak is an Indonesian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes women’s rights in local communities, striving for the values of equality, justice and human rights, and providing support for both women and men to build more equal gender relationships.

What is the relevance of the newly passed Sexual Violence Bill?

The Sexual Violence Bill that Indonesia’s House of Representatives passed on 9 May 2022, formally known as RUU TPKS, seeks to protect victims of sexual violence crimes and help them with the recovery process. 

The bill deals with nine types of criminal acts of sexual violence regulated in article 4, paragraph 1: non-physical sexual harassment, physical sexual harassment, forced contraception, forced sterilisation, forced marriage, sexual torture, sexual exploitation, sexual slavery and electronic-based sexual violence. Perpetrators proven guilty of these crimes will be subject to imprisonment.

It is interesting that the inclusion of electronic-based sexual violence received some criticism. In the early stages, when the bill was being drafted, it was not included. However, CSOs and activists advocated for its inclusion because sexual violence cases, especially among young children, are increasingly happening in or in connection with cyberspace.

How might the new law change things for the better?

The main outstanding thing about this bill is that it focuses on the victims and seeks to create an environment that will help them recover from acts of sexual violence. According to a study conducted by the Indonesia Judicial Research Society, the law should be appreciated because it clearly takes sides with sexual violence victims by mandating the establishment of mechanisms to support their recovery.

In its article 30, paragraph 1 the bill states that victims are entitled to services such as restitution and counselling. If the perpetrator is unable to pay restitution the state will compensate the victim in accordance with the court’s decision. Further, victims are recognised as having the right to receive the necessary treatment, the right to be protected and the right to recovery.

Community-based service providers such as the police are required to receive and follow up on reports of sexual violence and provide assistance to the victims. Under the new law they are no longer allowed to dismiss sexual violence cases, and instead must conduct the investigation needed to help the victims. The role of families, communities and central and local governments in preventing sexual violence is also emphasised. The new law seeks to make victims of sexual violence feel comfortable enough to report their perpetrators and open legal cases against them. We consider this bill fundamental in helping victims and survivors of sexual violence.

Do you see it as a civil society victory?

Indeed, we consider this a civil society victory because we have been involved in the whole process and have long advocated for the bill to be passed. CSOs working closely with victims and survivors of sexual violence understand how important this bill is, which is why we were at the forefront of the efforts that resulted in its approval. 

It took us 10 years to get here. This is quite a long time. During the past decade, we have organised and made sure we built a unified front pushing for this law. Sexual violence is an offence that affects those who constitute the majority in our society; it is women and children who experience it the most. So getting this law passed is one step further in claiming the rights of women and children, including their right to live in a safe and secure environment. 

The new law empowers victims because it provides tools to respond to cases of sexual violence. We are very happy to see this kind of progress. A victory like this provides confirmation of the great influence our work has on society. 

What tactics did you use to encourage the passage of the new legislation?

Perempuan Bergerak is based in Malang, the second-largest city in the province of East Java. We provide safe spaces for people, and especially women, to get together, exchange with one another, learn and organise. We also provide space for men to learn about equality in human relations so they are able to see women as fully autonomous human beings, rather than weak creatures of lesser value who are under their dominion.

The Sexual Violence Bill is crucial for this work because it has the potential to provide the same kind of safe space, with legal guarantees, for women and children all over Indonesia. This is why we collaborated with various community groups in Malang, including students, academics and activists, to raise wide awareness about the importance of the bill. Perempuan Bergerak has a large virtual community on social media platforms, so we created content to promote the bill and shared it on these platforms. The young generation is very active on social media, so we channelled much of our activism there. 

In addition to social media activism, we did a lot of work on the ground, including organising discussion forums, making as many appearances as we could on television and local radio stations, and demonstrating on the streets alongside other organisations and activists.

We are also part of Koalisi Masyarakat Sipil Anti Kekerasan Seksual (KOMPAKS), a coalition of Indonesian civil society groups fighting against sexual violence. As a coalition, we share the same vision and have worked together to push the government to pass this bill. We mobilised in unity throughout the whole process. 

What challenges do you see moving forward, and how does civil society plan to address them?

The main challenge we anticipate is implementation. We know we will have to be very vigilant, monitor each implementation stage and make sure local governments respect the law. We have known this would be a challenge all along, so throughout our advocacy and campaigning in the process to get the bill passed we acted together as civil society to create awareness at the community level about the importance of this bill’s implementation. Now that our strategy to get the bill has worked, we will need to keep moving together to ensure a successful process of implementation. We believe that through collaboration with as many stakeholders as possible, including with the government, educational institutions and civil society, we can make the implementation stage progress smoothly.

Civic space in Indonesia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Perempuan Bergerak through its Instagram page.

 

PANDEMIC TREATY: ‘States hold a shared responsibility to keep the world safe and must be held accountable’

Barbara StockingCIVICUS speaks with Dame Barbara M Stocking about the need to develop a new pandemic treaty anchored in solidarity, transparency, accountability and equity.

Barbara Stocking is chair of the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention, former president of Murray Edwards College at the University of Cambridge, former chief executive of Oxfam Great Britain and former chair of the Ebola Interim Assessment Panel.

 

 

What is the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention, and what prompted its launch in April 2021? 

The University of Miami decided to survey experts across the world about the topic of pandemics. This happened before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. We needed to know if we were prepared for a pandemic and what issues needed to be tackled. I was among the experts in 2015: I chaired the Committee on Ebola that assessed the performance of the World Health Organization (WHO). An article summarising the experts’ views was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet a few months later.

By then the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway, and University of Miami’s president, Julio Frank, proposed doing more than publishing a report. The Panel for a Global Public Health Convention was founded in 2020 to advocate for new ways of governing and undertaking outbreak control and response, and I was asked to chair it.

The Panel is an independent, high-level advocacy coalition. It includes former presidents such as Laura Chinchilla from Costa Rica and John Mahama from Ghana, and former Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Angel Gurría. These are all people who can have influence with the WHO, its member states and other bodies. We are not campaigning publicly because we do not have the resources or the people, but we operate at the highest political level.

In December 2021 the World Health Assembly agreed to launch the process to develop a global treaty on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. Our panel will keep watching as the idea unfolds to make sure it accomplishes the things we think are needed to stop outbreaks turning into pandemics.

What shortfalls in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic made the need for a treaty apparent?

The need for a convention became obvious to everybody as a result of COVID-19, but it is not just about COVID-19. For the last 20 years, every single report concluded that we were not ready to deal with a pandemic. COVID-19 just confirmed this in the most horrifying ways.

Preparedness is key. Governments have tried to be prepared, but they were clearly not. Why is that? For some countries it was a matter of resources, and in those cases we must ensure they get the resources to have health surveillance systems in place. However, many countries with abundant resources and excellent health systems were not ready either. One of the reasons for this is that very few countries practice preparedness. When I was in the UK health service, each hospital would practice a major incident every three years. We need the same approach in public health preparedness. Practice is key and must include not just health systems but the whole government, because if anything that big happens, ministries and heads of state must also get involved.

The public was not prepared either. We need to make sure we deliver the right messages and we engage communities, which we know are so important.

When it became clear that there was a virus circulating, and it was not yet clear what it was, and the WHO made the call for a public health emergency of international concern, not much was done. February 2020 was a key moment for action, yet very little happened.

It all boiled down to a fundamental lack of understanding about what being precautionary means in the case of a pandemic. With most things in life, you can ask yourself whether a situation is going to get worse and make a realistic assessment. But with a pandemic, especially at the beginning, you don’t know how the virus will replicate, and you must move fast. But with COVID-19, states did not. They also had objections to WHO guidelines because, they said, the WHO ‘had no authority’.

The next fundamental problem is that although we have international health regulations, people tend to not comply, and there are no enforcement and accountability mechanisms. Clearly, there is also work to be done to update international health regulations, but the biggest issue is countries agreeing to be accountable to each other. The expression we use is ‘mutual assurance’: for a state to make difficult decisions, it needs to know other states will do the same. This should sell the idea of accountability.

There is no point in having a pandemic treaty or convention unless people are willing to be accountable. But this is often ignored because it is difficult. States are sovereign over their territories and are responsible for the health of their people, but also hold a shared responsibility to keep the world safe. This is why we need a treaty or convention.

How could the treaty help solve these problems? 

The principles of equity, transparency and accountability must be built into this treaty. We need to think what needs sorting out or making right, because these are the things we will be held accountable for.

For example, on the preparedness side, there has begun to be progress, but only through peer reviews of countries to determine whether they are ready. This system would have to be scaled up. Independent reviews would be a positive thing for the treaty or convention. We need somebody other than the WHO to conduct the assessments for preparedness and response, which can be done within a treaty structure. The WHO should set the standards and provide support in the role of ‘friend of the country’. We could set up a small body. As the WHO has pretty much all the data, there is no need to start from scratch. But it must be a body with the required experience and expertise. It may have to report up, through treaty structures, to heads of state, whom we hope would form the conferences of parties overseeing this treaty or convention.

All these things can be built in. They will not take away WHO’s powers but rather add to them.

How has civil society participated so far in the treaty process?

Civil society is clearly asking for more say in health issues and in the development of the pandemic treaty, and I think this is truly necessary.

At the WHO level, the civil society participating comes mostly from international bodies and local partners, which often have a health background – and I mean ‘health’ in the broader sense, including mental health.

When hearings were held, civil society participated actively and the scope of participating civil society organisations (CSOs) broadened to include human rights CSOs, not only because of the freedoms affected by lockdowns but also because governments were using the pandemic as an excuse to violate human rights. As a result, more and more human rights CSOs wanted to have a say in the treaty.

In terms of participation in the treaty process itself, the WHO has a category for civil society, as ‘official observers’. But civil society should have much more influence in the discussion. At the top level, the WHO is setting up two-day events to provide evidence to stakeholders beyond member states. They held a two-day event in April, in which the Panel participated and gave its view on the topic. Another event is coming up in June.

One major problem I have seen is centralised pandemic management. We need to engage communities, and this includes civil society. When handling a pandemic, engagement of people and organisations at the local level must be built in. This can’t be done by central government alone; local authorities must play their role to engage with these groups. 

Expanding the treaty’s governance to include civil society would be quite challenging because member states will own the treaty they will be signing up for, either by consensus or by government ratification. There has got to be more debate on how, even if there is a conference of parties, we can include civil society more and engage with it. 

What are the main challenges you foresee for the near future, regarding the implementation of an eventual treaty?

The first challenge is to produce a Global Public Health Convention with strong accountability. States must accept that they are to be held accountable towards each other and the world. And although it may be tough for states to accept the idea of being assessed by independent people, we need assessments to be conducted by an independent body. We can have states overseeing its work, but it needs to be able to work independently.

The notion of ‘shared sovereignty’ is still hard for countries to accept fully. But we are a globe; we need people working together. We are all related to each other, so we need to have the willingness to cooperate and see how we can build together. People will worry about the loss of sovereignty, but we need to help them understand how critically important this is, in both a moral and a self-interested way. It is in each one’s own interest to have others behave well towards them. These are some of the blocks we need to get over to have a very good treaty.

In sum, states have already agreed to produce some sort of treaty or convention and are already working on it. But the question is, is it going to be the right one? If everything goes well, we will have an agreement by 2024, and then there needs to be some time for countries to ratify it – or not.

But we must not let the momentum pass because we really must be prepared. People keep asking if we might have another pandemic in the next 10 or 20 years. Well, frankly, we might have another one next year. There is a real urgency because habitats are changing; animals and humans are getting closer and closer together.

I see everyone relaxing a bit since COVID-19 seems to be somewhat under control. But we must not go to sleep on this. It is almost certain that this will happen again in the future. The one thing we don’t know is how soon.

Get in touch with the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention through its website. 

 

NIGERIA: ‘The federal government and ASUU at some point made it feel like our education doesn’t matter’

Benedicta ChisomCIVICUS speaks with Benedicta Chisom about the current student mobilisation that is calling on Nigeria’s government to respond to teachers’ demands and end the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). 

Benedicta is a student at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria and a creative writer. Being directly affected by the ASUU strike, she has worked on social media to create awareness about it and its underlying issues.

How did the #EndASUUStrike movement start, and what does it want to achieve?

The #EndASUUStrike started with students’ protests at the University of Benin and Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, and then snowballed into an online movement. Its message is simple: we want to go back to school.

Students just want to voice their grievances over the strike. Both the federal government and ASUU at some point made us feel like our education doesn’t matter. They keep going back and forth with the matter while our academic year is wasted. Every time teachers go on strike, we become passive spectators, just waiting on them to decide when to end it. We had to remind them that we matter too, and that it is our education and future that is at stake.

The protest was our way of demanding that the federal government and ASUU come to a final agreement so that teachers stop going on strike every single academic year. As a result of the strikes that have happened since 2020, we have lost more than 12 months of our academic career.

It would be a shame if the students that come after us continue to face the same challenges. Recurrent strikes need to end with us, this year. We want a five-year course to take five years of schooling, not more.

How has the government responded so far?

In February, President Mohammed Buhari mandated a trio composed of his chief of staff, the minister of education and the minister of labour and employment to address the disagreement with ASUU over the strike. The Minister of Labour met with the other unions – the National Association of Academic Technologists, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions – which went on strike in support of ASUU. He assured the public that the government is tackling disputes in the educational sector holistically and acknowledged that some issues causing the crisis are economic, including funding for the revitalisation of universities and workers’ welfare.

But ASUU and the students are angry at the government’s undivided focus on the upcoming 2023 general election, as though students and their education did not matter. The union also condemned the rush to purchase the ruling All Progress Congress party’s presidential nomination forms by politicians even though money is one of the reasons for the strike. It accused the ministers of labour and education of insensitivity.

According to Independent Electoral Commission, more than half of registered voters, 51.1 per cent, are between the ages of 18 and 35. Many of them are students, and how will students believe in the government if their voices aren’t heard by the people they vote for? At some point we had hopes for change but now that the strike has been extended by 12 weeks, I can’t say much. But we are positive the mobilisation will drive home our grievances to some extent.

What do you think striking teachers should do?

For students, the strike is frustrating and disheartening. We are told to stay home without any idea of when we will return to school. I have spent a whole semester at home, and what was supposed to be a five-year course increased to six years. Our lives are put on hold; this affects not only our academic progression but also our life plans. Education workers should be more flexible with their demands and have more empathy towards students.

What should the government do?

There are many things the federal government can do to ensure that both the needs of students and education workers are met. The government must offer a good agreement to ASUU and begin to implement it immediately. It must also start paying unpaid allowances and salaries. This will give students back their right to education and stabilise the economy. The strike has done a lot of damage already.

One of the first things the government could do is adopt the University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) as a preferred payment option instead of the system currently used. UTAS was created by Nigerian experts and must be run and maintained locally, so it will encourage local innovation and provide employment. It has passed the test and ASUU has agreed to improve it. It has become a bone of contention, so there is a big chance the strike will end once it is adopted.

Most significantly, the government must set out a strategy and timeline to come up with the billion-dollar funding required to revitalise universities. This will show ASUU and students that they are indeed working towards restoring public universities.

What kind of support do you need from the international community? 

Social media has made the world a global village, so I am sure people in other parts of the world are aware of the protests and strikes in Nigeria. We need more voices to put pressure on our government to take immediate action. It would be of great help if students in other countries and Nigerians in the diaspora could help share the #EndASUUStrike hashtag, repost our posts and share our tweets to add momentum to the movement.

Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

 

NIGERIA: ‘The government is more willing to negotiate with terrorists than with striking teachers’

Olorunfemi AdeyeyeCIVICUS speaks with Olorunfemi Adeyeye about the current student mobilisation that is calling on Nigeria’s government to respond to teachers’ demands and end the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). 

Olorunfemi is a student activist and member of the Fund Education Coalition, which works to raise awareness about the importance of Nigerian public universities and is currently supporting teachers by taking part in the #EndASUUStrike movement.

How did the #EndASUUStrike movement start, and what does it want to achieve?

The origins of the campaign are in the Fund Education Coalition movement, a coalition of Nigerian student groups advocating for education rights. #EndASUUStrike started when student organisations came together and called for students to be at the forefront of the struggle for their rights to quality public education. It uses the grievances of the ASUU strike to highlight what students need to have on their respective campuses.

The demands of the ASUU strike include several issues that concern Nigerian students directly. For instance, the union has raised the need to revitalise public universities. This is of great importance to students, who are the direct victims of underfunding. The campaign to properly fund education demands the revitalisation of laboratory equipment, which is in poor state, and fixes to the problems of overcrowded lecture halls and moribund campus health centres, among other key aspects. The union also frowns at the proliferation of universities and seeks an amendment to the 2004 National Universities Commission Act. The establishment of more universities, while existing ones are poorly funded, has become a constituency project for Nigerian rulers. Almost everyone in the ruling class wants to have one in their backyard. This is just unacceptable. We are fully in support of the strike, which also highlights issues surrounding the poor remuneration of lecturers.

What the Fund Education Coalition wants is for the Nigerian government to accede to workers’ demands in the educational sector. And not just to ASUU’s: the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities and the National Association of Academic Technologists are also on strike. With all education workers currently on strike, it was only rational for students to join them.

Have you established any connections with student movements facing similar challenges in other parts of the world?

Social media platforms have made it easy for us to share information about the #EndASUUStrike movement, reaching a vast audience across the world. Unfortunately, however, we have not yet had the chance to get in contact with any international student organisations facing similar issues.

As student activists, when things happen in other countries we lend voices to help each other – for instance, when the #FeesMustFall movement erupted in South Africa the Alliance of Nigerian Students against Neoliberal Attacks, an organisation I led in 2018, released a statement of support. We hope the same will also happen with the #EndASUUStrike. International solidarity among all the oppressed people in the world is key.

To counter the government’s propaganda that ASUU is on strike because it feels it can gain some concessions due to the approaching elections, it should be noted that this isn’t a new problem. Interestingly, there are no new problems in Nigeria. Our issues date back a long way. Strikes similar to the current one have been happening since the 1980s and the issues they point to continue to affect generation after generation of Nigerians.

We are still dealing with the same issues, as the government systematically fails to fulfil its promises and implement the agreements reached with unions. Our issues are perennial and endemic, but even though they may be different from those faced by young people in other countries, we are still open to collaboration with as many organisations from around the world as possible.

How has the ASUU strike affected you?

As students it is very unfortunate that we must go through this again. It is an endless cycle of spending very little of your time in class and most of it on the streets fighting for your right to education.

When ASUU goes on strike, it not only affects academic activities, but also the economic and social life of everyone in the academic community. There are students who depend on universities being open because they sell academic textbooks, stationery or equipment to make a living. There are also people who run businesses within universities as a means of providing for their families. All these have been disrupted. The strike has affected everyone.

As student activists, some of our activities have been affected and we have not been organising as we normally would on campuses. We hope the federal government will agree to ASUU’s demands so things can go back to normal.

What do you think education workers should do?

First, I need to clarify that students have a good relationship with ASUU and the other educational workers’ unions. We are all partners in the education sector. As students, we have been able to present some of our ideas and thoughts to ASUU.

An issue we discussed recently was that they should come out with a clear message against the government’s propaganda. The government has tried to convince people that it cannot accede to ASUU’s demands because there is no money to fund education. This is misinformation and propaganda, so we have asked ASUU to counter it with their own narrative and make it public. Everyone should understand why ASUU is striking and support their struggle. This will not only benefit teachers, students and their families, but it will also help us save public universities and ensure they are well equipped for ordinary citizens to attend.

How has the government responded so far to both the ASUU strike and the #EndASUUStrike movement?

The federal government has not responded to ASUU’s and students’ demands. Faced with strikes by other unions, such as the Airline Operators of Nigeria, the government reacted fast to prevent the suspension of airline services. But ASUU has been on strike for almost three months and the government has not even called them to a meeting. This serves as an indication that education is not really a priority for them. The government is more willing to negotiate with terrorists and bandits than to sit down and negotiate with academic workers.

As a result, ASUU has decided to extend the strike by three more months, which means students will have spent close to six months without attending school.

We hope we can put more pressure on the government so it will react to what is happening. We want the government to agree to a meeting with ASUU representatives and commit, this time, to solving the issues brought up at the meetings.

What kinds of support do you need from the international community?

As someone who is at the frontline of the struggle to protect a public education, I would say that the international community should put pressure on the Nigerian government to prioritise education.

The government has been telling us it does not have money to fund education, but yet there is serious capital flight from Nigeria to other countries. The president has donated one million US dollars to Afghanistan and oil theft has grown. Who is stealing the oil? Not ordinary people. Who are contributing to oil theft, money laundering and massive capital flight, if not foreign nations? These monies are mostly not kept in our banks. We need our international allies to put pressure on the government to stop capital flight and instead invest in education. 

International organisations should also help us put pressure on foreign governments, corporations and parastate actors to stop aiding and abetting the thievery in Nigeria. Nigeria has plenty of resources that should be put to the correct use, such as funding education.

In addition, we need the international community to help us push our narrative through social media so that more attention is paid to the situation Nigerian students are dealing with.

Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @activistfemi on Twitter. 

 

INDIA: ‘We have achieved a historic labour rights win for female Dalit workers’

Jeeva MCIVICUS speaks about a recent labour rights victory in India’s garment industry with Jeeva M, General Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU).

TTCU is a women-led independent and majority Dalit trade union of textile workers that represents 11,000 female workers in Tamil Nadu, India. Jeeva, who hails from the Dalit community, has worked for more than five years in the Tamil Nadu textile industry, including at Eastman Exports. She is a founding member of TTCU and has led struggles for decent work and violence-free workplaces in the garment industry for more than a decade.

What is the Dindigul Agreement, and how significant is it?

The Dindigul Agreement was signed in April 2021 by TTCU and Eastman Exports, one of the largest textile producers in India, which supplies knitwear, apparel and accessories to major global clothing brands. Its aim is to end caste-based and gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) at Eastman factories and spinning mills in Dindigul, a city in India’s Tamil Nadu state.

This is a historic labour rights win for around 5,000 mostly female Dalit workers, who are placed at the bottom of India’s caste system.

The Dindigul Agreement includes an enforceable brand agreement (EBA), a type of legally binding agreement in which multinational companies commit to use their supply chain relationships to support a worker-led or union-led programme at particular factories or worksites. In this case, TTCU, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) and Global Labour Justice-International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) have signed an EBA with the multinational fashion company H&M, which requires H&M to support and enforce the Dindigul Agreement. If Eastman Exports violates its commitments, H&M must take steps to penalise the company, including by reducing business, until it comes into compliance.

This agreement is the first of its kind in India, the only EBA to cover spinning mills and the first to include explicit protections against caste-based discrimination, a problem that intensified during the pandemic.

The Dindigul Agreement is in line with the International Labour Organization’s Convention 190 concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the workplace. It creates structures that will empower female workers, supported by their union, to monitor and seek redress for GBVH. It also provides a new model for brands, suppliers and trade unions to cooperate to prevent and respond to GBVH in garment supply chains.

What tipped the balance in favour of the agreement after so many years of efforts?

Civil society has advocated for better working conditions for Dalit workers for many years, but it was not until the murder of Jeyasre Kathiravel, a Dalit woman garment worker and member of TTCU, that we succeeded in addressing the extreme problems of GBVH pervasive in this industry. The killing of Jeyasre by her supervisor in January 2021 prompted TTCU to shed light on the situation at the factory where she was killed.

In response, TTCU, AFWA and GLJ-ILRF formed a unique partnership and launched the #JusticeforJeyasre campaign in India and other Asian countries as well as in Europe and the USA. Over 90 international unions, labour groups and women’s rights organisations joined to urge international brands and Eastman Exports to sign a binding agreement to end GBVH.

A year-long campaign ensued, including an international vigil for Jeyasre held across 33 countries and an 11-city speaking tour across the USA to raise awareness about her case and the need to address GBVH in global supply chains. This enabled the civil society coalition to lead the negotiations that concluded with the historic agreement.

What other challenges do Dalit workers face in India, and what needs to be done to improve their situations?

Caste discrimination permeates every aspect of society. Due to its systemic nature, workplaces and supply chains are likely to be affected by it unless special measures to counter it are put in place.

For instance, Dalit workers experience poorer working conditions than non-Dalits, including longer working hours, sexual harassment, lower wages, dirtier or more hazardous tasks and abusive language and gestures. We also face discrimination at the hiring stage – for instance, qualified applicants from Dalit communities are not considered for skilled jobs – and encounter discrimination in accessing services and utilities offered by the employer, such as housing, healthcare and education and training.

With approximately 80 per cent of the bonded workforce coming from the Dalit community, strong measures need to be put in place to address bonded or forced labour and to ensure that employment in this sector is not forced.

Important measures to advance Dalit workers’ labour rights include ensuring the freedom of association and collective bargaining, improving working conditions, paying living wages and implementing binding agreements such as the Dindigul Agreement to address caste-based discrimination and GBVH in sectors where the workforce is mostly made up of Dalit women.

What’s next for the civil society groups involved in the Dindigul Agreement?

Through the campaign and negotiation process, TTCU built strong forward momentum and gained respect from the factory and brands. TTCU, AFWA and GLJ-ILRF have built a powerful coalition of unions, women’s rights groups and Dalit rights advocates, among others. Now the agreements have been signed, we need to keep that momentum. We will continue to keep our allies engaged in the implementation phase and as we work to drive industry-wide change.

We see the Dindigul Agreement as part of a regional movement against GBVH in garment supply chains. We plan to use it as a model for organising against GBVH across the industry and the region. We are already calling on more brands to join this agreement and working with them to expand it. There will surely be challenges, but we are confident we will overcome them.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with AFWA through its website or Facebook page, and follow @asia_floorwage, @tamil_labour and @GLJhub on Twitter. 

 

INDIA: ‘Muslim girls are being forced to choose between education and the hijab’

ZakiaSomanCIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Zakia Soman, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women's Movement, BMMA).

Founded in 2007, BMMA is an independent, secular, rights-based civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for the rights of women and the Muslim minority in India.

Why have girls wearing the hijab been banned from school in Karnataka state?

Girls in hijab were denied entry into classrooms in the name of the school uniform rules, with the authorities citing a circular that states that each student must comply with the uniform requirement in school. Both the Karnataka government and the high court played the uniform card to justify preventing Muslim women wearing the hijab from entering the college campus.

While educational institutions undeniably have the right to set their own rules, these cannot infringe the fundamental rights granted by the Indian Constitution. According to Article 25 of our constitution, all citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion.

And under no circumstance can a dress code for schoolgirls be more important than education itself. Muslim girls have the right to be in school with or without the hijab, which is why I oppose those who promote the court’s verdict as a decision that empowers women. Although I don’t believe in the hijab, I think it is wrong to discriminate against girls wearing it. Our nation will only progress when girls have access to education regardless of their religious affiliation.

Does the hijab row indicate the rise of anti-minorities voices in India?

Although it may sound like an internal disciplinary matter over girls wearing the hijab, the wider context of the hijab row is one of religious polarisation and politics of hate towards Muslims. The hijab row is an integral part of the politics of religious hate in India’s polarised milieu, where Muslims are the target of the growing anti-Islam propaganda aired on TV as well as on social media platforms.

There is a spiralling nationwide campaign against the Muslim community under the garb of religious festivities. Journalists and other monitors have found deliberate, concerted violence against life, property and businesses of India’s Muslim community carried out by hooligans claiming to celebrate religious festivals in the states of Delhi, Gujrat, Karnataka and many others. But ultimately, the Indian state must be held responsible for the terrible living conditions experienced by millions of Muslims.

How has civil society responded to the ban?

Civil society has extended solidarity to the affected girls and has supported them. However, civil society’s response has so far failed to impress the government and the high court, which sadly ruled to uphold the hijab ban inside classrooms in Karnataka state.

As for opposition parties, they have been unable to run a sustained campaign to challenge the climate created by hate speech and open calls for the genocide of Muslims. This is why it’s so important for the international community to stand up and support the voices of sanity in India.

What have pro-hijab protests achieved so far?

Peaceful protests have been held in support of Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab in educational institutions. However, I am afraid that conservative elements of the Muslim community got involved in the protests in a way that aggravated matters, making Muslim girls and their families even more vulnerable to political onslaught.

In my understanding, neither the hijab nor the burqa, a full body covering, is mandatory in Islam; however, patriarchal elements would like to put every Muslim girl and woman behind a burqa or hijab. The matter could have been easily resolved through dialogue between college authorities and parents. Instead, it got politicised, with different religious and political outfits jumping in the fray with their radical and antagonistic positions.

As a result, Muslim girls found themselves in a tough position, being forced to choose between education and the hijab, which is outright unfair to them. Since many Muslim parents will not allow girls to go to school without the hijab and schools will not give them entry into class with the hijab, many girls have dropped out of their studies and have not sat their exams.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with BMMA through its website and follow @BMMA_India on Twitter.

 

HONDURAS: ‘We must address the roots of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources’

Edy TaboraCIVICUS speaks about the criminalisation of environmental, land and territorial defenders in Honduras with Edy Tábora, director of the law firm Justicia para los Pueblos (Justice for the Peoples) and coordinator of the group of defence lawyers of eight defenders of the Guapinol river who were recently released from detention.

Why were the Guapinol defenders criminalised?

The case of the eight Guapinol comrades deprived of their freedom is one of the most revealing expressions of the conflicts around mining and energy and the dispossession of land and natural resources in Honduras. Along with that of Berta Cáceres, the Guapinol case is one of the most significant ones.

Berta’s case, which culminated in her assassination, was the first in a new wave of criminalisation surrounding dispossession projects following the 2009 military coup. Her case displayed all the typical elements: stigmatisation, surveillance, rupture of the social fabric, criminalisation. The same pattern can be seen in many parts of Honduras.

After the coup, there was a privately conducted exploration of mineral deposits and businesspeople realised there was a lot of money to be made here. In the case of Guapinol, the process kicked off with the granting of an iron oxide mining concession – one of the largest in the country – to Los Pinares, a holding company registered in Panama, owned by an extremely wealthy Honduran family. Its mining business was developed jointly with the US company Nucor.

Nucor claims to have withdrawn from the project in late 2019 due to the conflict triggered by the criminalisation of the Guapinol defenders, but there is no evidence of this and we do not believe it to be true. Los Pinares is simply the mining arm of a company whose power comes from airport concessions at home and abroad. It is a company with high-level political connections, and with so much power that in 2013 it succeeded in getting the National Congress to change the delimitation of the core zone of a national park.

On 22 April 2013, the day before a new mining law came into force, applications were submitted for the two mining concessions related to the Guapinol case, both located in the core zone of the Montaña de Botaderos National Park. This had been declared a national park in 2012, as part of a ‘friendly settlement’ with the relatives of Carlos Escaleras, a social leader and environmental defender active in the 1980s and 1990s, who was assassinated for defending this mountain. The statute of the national park, which bears the name of Carlos Escaleras, prohibited the granting of mining concessions in its core zone and even its buffer zone.

However, in 2014, engineers began to arrive on the mountain to collect information and check how deep down metal was deposited. People noticed this, began to demand an explanation and organised in the Municipal Committee of Public and Common Goods of Tocoa.

In June 2016 they began to file complaints; some were filed by the Guapinol defenders who ended up in prison. They requested information from the institutions in charge of granting mining permits but only obtained some information in November 2019, after three years of back and forth. Tired of not getting answers, in June 2018 people started protesting at the Municipality of Tocoa Colón. It was then that systematic surveillance by the national police and Los Pinares security began.

In August 2018, the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise held press conferences in which it complained to the government about an alleged loss of 20 billion dollars caused by ‘vandals’ protesting in various parts of Honduras.

Criminalisation was a nationwide strategy, but the criminalisation of the Guapinol comrades was the most serious case. On 8 September 2018, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented the first accusation against 18 comrades for the crimes of usurpation, damage and usurpation of public space. Los Pinares appeared in the hearings as the accuser. Fourteen comrades were put on trial and all their cases were closed, but the fact that they were accused enabled the illegal eviction, in October 2018, of the Camp for Water and Life, one of many set up around Honduras. This was one of four charges brought by the Public Prosecutor’s Office as part of the strategy to criminalise resistance movements against mining and energy projects.

In January 2019, in response to a complaint filed by Los Pinares, the Public Prosecutor’s Office filed another indictment against 32 people, including eight Guapinol comrades. The nature of the charges changed: it was no longer about usurpation of public space but about organised crime. Human rights defenders were now treated as taking part in organised crime, with charges including criminal association, theft, damage, unjust deprivation of liberty and aggravated arson. The case was assigned to the Specialised Court for Organised Crime, which meant it was transferred from local to national jurisdiction, in violation of the right to be tried by one’s natural judge. 

Of the 32, a first group voluntarily submitted to trial in February 2019 and was kept in prison for only 10 days before the accusations against them were dismissed. The Guapinol eight, however, despite having voluntarily submitted to trial, were subjected to arbitrary detention from 26 August 2019 until 24 February 2022, when they finally regained their freedom.

What did civil society do to secure their release?

During the pandemic, Guapinol was one of the most high-profile cases globally. Not even the pandemic could stop our comrades’ defence. We quickly moved our activities online, and by late April 2020 we were already filing habeas corpus writs for our comrades’ right to health, alongside international organisations. Even under these conditions, we managed to set up discussions with important organisations, and three months after the pandemic began, we restarted our advocacy work, which meant that by the time the trial started, the case had become very well known around the world.

Initially the case was promoted by the Coalition Against Impunity, which brings together more than 50 Honduran civil society organisations (CSOs). Later, many CSOs joined a kind of international support group for the case.

First, we publicly denounced the violence and criminalisation against the Municipal Committee. Second, before our comrades were imprisoned, we documented the irregular granting of concessions for natural resources. Third, alongside several Honduran CSOs, we organised our comrades’ legal defence. A working group was then organised including national and international CSOs to support the defence. A lot of advocacy work was done, both nationally and internationally, to convince the public that this was a very important case and to counter the company’s account of the violence allegedly committed by our comrades.

Documentary and testimonial work was crucial to expose our comrades’ real activism. We had many meetings with international CSOs. Canadian, US and European organisations and academics reported on the concession and the legal process. International CSOs filed amicus curiae – friend of the court – briefs with Honduran courts. We participated in multiple forums with national and international organisations.

Many actions converged to create a powerful wave of demands for our comrades’ release. CIVICUS’s and Amnesty International’s campaigns, for example, allowed us to reach wider audiences. When the trial came, the case was widely known, and less than 24 hours after the end of the trial, in which our comrades were convicted with two thirds of the court’s votes, the Supreme Court of Justice annulled the whole process and ordered them to be released.

This was an unprecedented decision, surely motivated by the strength of the demand for their freedom and by the evidence presented, both in and out of court, which demonstrated that our comrades were innocent and that they fight for a just cause that is of great interest to humanity.

Are there other cases like the Guapinol case in Honduras?

There are many defenders criminalised for defending land, including some from the Garífuna people, a marginalised minority, but they are not in prison. Many comrades were also imprisoned for defending democracy in the aftermath of 2017’s electoral fraud: around 30 people were imprisoned in maximum security prisons, but they are currently free. Most pending cases are being closed as a result of an amnesty issued by the National Congress in February 2022.

In that sense, the Guapinol case was an exception, because this amnesty did not apply to them. What’s important about this case is that we managed to close the process by defending ourselves even with the highly questionable tools offered by the Honduran judicial system.

However, there were other cases at the same time as Guapinol, such as that of the Indigenous comrades of the Lenca people in the department of La Paz, who were accused of forced displacement. They were imprisoned for more than a year for a crime that is the craziest thing I have ever heard: they were accused of displacing landowners. The Public Prosecutor’s narrative uses the made-up concept of ‘reverse racism’, according to which Indigenous peoples can also commit discrimination against minorities within their communities – the minority in this case being the landowners.

Do you view Guapinol as part of a pattern of criminalisation against environmental defenders?

We have detected patterns of criminalisation by sector in the cases we have monitored. For example, between 2011 and 2016 one of the most criminalised sectors was the student movement mobilised in defence of public education. Some 350 students, mostly university students, were criminalised.

In the case of environmental defenders, we were able to document several patterns of criminalisation. Again and again, prosecutions were initiated only a few days after pronouncements by companies or employers’ organisations. The behaviour of the police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office has also been similar in all cases, with an initial focus on eviction and accusations changing over time following the same pattern. The narrative peddled by companies is always the same as well, often because they share the same lawyers.

Criminalisation follows different patterns depending on the interests affected. The crimes people are accused of when challenging mining interests differ from those used to dispossess communities of land for the construction of tourism megaprojects or the plantation of African palm in the Atlantic zone, and from those used against peasants claiming access to land and crops.

However, all the groups criminalised over the past 15 years have something in common: their resistance to the project, promoted since the 2000s, of handing over natural resources to private companies. Land grabbing was politically supported the state following the coup: from that moment on, national regulations were made more flexible to facilitate dispossession and the national police and the security forces of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the judiciary were placed at the service of the private sector, which used them to criminalise land rights defenders.

Has there been any improvement in the situation of environmental defenders since the new government came to power in January 2022?

The new government brought several positive changes. First, while we had already achieved the closure of several emblematic cases, it decreed an amnesty that resulted in the closure of most legal proceedings against defenders, although there are still some cases pending.

Second, the new government has put an end to the state’s stigmatisation of land struggles, which used to make use of information obtained by state security forces. And third, for the time being the government has not tackled conflicts with violence. People who protest are not being repressed.

In recent years state violence was deployed to manage social protest, private violence was reflected in the assassination of defenders, and hybrid violence was seen in the area of surveillance. Over the four years of the current government we may no longer witness violent management of social protests, but there is a chance that state violence will be replaced by private corporate violence.

What are the challenges ahead?

The challenge right now is to address the causes of criminalisation. We have worked to defend and support our comrades criminalised by the state and private companies, but we have never been able to address what’s at the root of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources. Preventing the criminalisation of defenders is a big step, but we must address the issue of concessions, which in fact continue. Approved projects are waiting to be implemented. If we don’t seize the moment to address this problem, then when the government’s political colour changes, private companies will come back stronger and criminalisation will intensify.

Moreover, social movements are worn out after 12 years of resistance against the handing over of natural resources. There must be accountability, reparations for victims and guarantees of legal security for defenders to be able to do their work. The hostile legal framework for exercising rights and defending human rights that has been established in recent decades must be reversed.

Civic space in Honduras is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Learn more about the Guapinol case on its website and follow @Edy_Tabora on Twitter.

 

KENYA: ‘The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society’

Paul OkumuCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming elections in Kenya with Paul Okumu, head of the Secretariat of the Africa Platform (AP). AP is a pan-African civil society platform based in Nairobi, Kenya, that works to strengthen state-society relations to achieve more effective and inclusive development.

With elections still a few months away, is it clear who the contenders will be?

Many are unaware that Kenya has only one election day in which all political positions are filled. But although the focus is on the presidential race, the forthcoming elections will bring in 349 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, including 290 elected from the constituencies, 47 women elected from the counties and 12 nominated representatives, plus 69 members of the Senate, 47 of whom are elected directly while the rest are elected to represent women, young people and other excluded groups.

In addition, Kenyans will be electing 47 governors, the regional leaders directly responsible to county assemblies, that is, their respective regional parliaments. Kenyans will elect a further 1,450 county assembly members. So the election is a complex one.

For the presidential race, some likely frontrunners are already emerging. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is ineligible to stand for re-election after completing his second term; his deputy, William Ruto, is among the leading candidates alongside former prime minister Raila Odinga. It is worth noting that this is the fifth time Odinga is running for president, having lost his previous attempts and withdrawn once in 2017.

By law candidacies for the presidency will be made official in mid-May, and there are currently almost 45 people who have submitted their names as possible candidates. The election body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, will have the final word on which candidates fulfil the legal criteria to run.

The question many are likely to ask is why there are only two leading contenders. The answer is as complex as the country’s elections.

In a bid to exercise a divide-and-rule strategy, the British colonial government divided Kenya into regional ethnic units, with people from one unit not allowed to travel to other units without the authority of the colonial government under a system known as Kipande (Identity) system. In addition, people in regions closest to where white people lived were given access to education much earlier so they could work for whites. As a result, these regions (mainly central, Rift Valley and Western) progressed much faster and became dominant in the period leading to and after independence. It helped that these regions are also the most agriculturally productive, which is part of the reason the whites chose them as their residence.

There are about 43 ethnic groups in Kenya, but just five of them constitute over half of its population of about 50 million. Due to the combined effects of colonial boundaries, which the 2010 Constitution kept intact – a story for another day – and the numeric dominance of these few ethnic groups, the country’s politics, in a quite similar fashion to that in South Sudan, continue to revolve around five ethnic groups. Leading presidential candidates always emerge from these five. Currently, the two leading candidates represent a coalition of three and two of these largest ethnic groups.

What will be at stake in the upcoming elections?

The current president is seen to have spent his time investing in sections of the economy that benefited his vast family businesses. From infrastructure to hospitals to the dairy and transport sectors, most of the investments have been in areas that are perceived directly to add value or make it easy for the president’s family businesses to thrive. As a result, there is a perception that what is at stake is the protection of these investments, hence the current complex coalition supported by the president that has brought together people seen to be those who will preserve the status quo.

But at a deeper level, the country is in a serious crisis. The economy has been in recession for over eight months now. Half of its recurrent budget is used on civil service salaries. The latest economic report by the government shows that for the first time in the country’s history, debt costs will surpass the recurrent expenditure, projected at Sh1.34 trillion (US$1.3 billion) for the coming year. The debt binge is mainly from Eurobond offerings, a package of Chinese loans and syndicated commercial loans taken in recent years. Distress levels are so high that the Central Bank has begun to ration foreign reserves, especially US dollars. Fuel prices have risen by nearly 53 per cent in the past one year, largely due to the fact that fuel has always been an easy target for taxation.

And that is not all: European countries have always used Kenya as a trade gateway to the continent and have largely made it a multinational headquarters for European companies working across Africa. This has led to massive losses through tax evasion and avoidance and skewed double taxation agreements, and has killed countless small businesses that could not manage the massive resources and subsidies given by European development finance institutions or donor agencies (such as the CDC Group of the UK) to European corporations so they can win contracts and set up businesses in the country.

But there is a bigger underlying fear among citizens. In 2017 the Supreme Court was forced to overturn the results of the presidential elections after it emerged that the government, through Ot Morpho, a French company fronted by the French government, had manipulated the vote counting and tallying, handing victory to the incumbent president. The subsequent repeat elections were boycotted by the opposition at the last minute on the grounds that the government had refused to make the changes demanded by the Supreme Court to ensure transparent vote counting. This massive collusion and rejection of changes proposed by the judiciary severely eroded confidence in the electoral system. It is believed to be the part of reason for the current low voter registration.

What are the civic space conditions like in the run-up to the election?

The executive and the political class had made attempts to water down the constitution significantly through a process known as Building Bridges Initiative, but they were stopped in their tracks by the courts, including the Supreme Court. This has preserved citizens’ freedoms and has strengthened confidence in the judiciary. Because of this there is still considerable freedom of assembly and expression.

But the government has also tried to limit the work of civil society around the election. In July 2021, the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Ministry sent a confidential memo to all foreign missions and international civil society organisations (CSOs) that usually support civic education, instructing them not to put any resources, either directly or through local CSOs, into civic education and civic advocacy without the express authorisation of the government. To date, such authorisation has not been granted, and it’s not clear if partners have even requested it.

Interestingly, foreign missions kept quiet and refused to divulge this information to local CSOs. It is not clear why the government took this drastic measure, but it is even more baffling why foreign missions have been so quick to obey it when a few years ago they defied a similar directive by the Russian government and funded civic education in that country. A possible reason lies in Kenya’s centrality, alongside Rwanda, for the politics of Africa and the economies of Europe, which these foreign countries are keen to preserve. 

As a result of this decision, this year Kenya has had the lowest voter registration in its history and levels of civic awareness have plummeted. The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society, and with the elections under 90 days away, it is not yet clear what role civil society will play around them.

The window for registration as election observers, usually played by the African Union, the Carter Foundation, the European Union and a coalition of civil society groups, is still open, and it is still possible that with alternative sources of funding, CSOs may still engage in some way.

What is the potential for electoral violence?

Violence is highly unlikely. Despite ethnic politics rooted in the colonial regionalisation arrangement, Kenyans are largely peaceful. Most of the post-election violence that Kenya has experienced has been mostly confined to power struggles among the five dominant ethnic groups and has never been about the entire country. Over the past five months, these five ethnic groups have formed two large coalitions, making violence unlikely.

Of course, conflict between these two coalitions cannot be ruled out if one of them loses the elections, but if it occurs, this violence is unlikely to have an impact on the rest of the communities.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Africa Platform through its website.

 

INDIA: ‘An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights’

Quill FoundationCIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Aiman Khan and Agni Das of the Quill Foundation. 

Founded in 2015, the Quill Foundation is an Indian civil society organisation (CSO) engaged in research and advocacy. Its work focuses on the human rights issues faced by underprivileged people, especially Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, women, sexual minorities and differently abled persons.

Why was the use of the hijab banned in Karnataka schools? 

The hijab ban should be seen in the wider socio-political context of India. Since the beginning of 2022, Indian Muslim women have been subjected to violence and discrimination carried out by multiple offenders. It started with an app called ‘Bulli Bai’ that placed vocal Muslim women in an online auction. This violated their privacy, as it used their photos and information without their consent.

Shortly after that, girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a couple of colleges in Karnataka state in southwest India because the administration deemed the hijab a violation of the dress code for schoolgirls. This was followed by a Karnataka government order on 5 February. While this government order did not specifically ban the hijab, it did say that such ban would not violate Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion. As the girls who were restricted from wearing the hijab filed petitions in the high court, the verdict decided against them and chose to impose what they should wear. Both the state government and the high court used the excuse of maintaining ‘uniformity’ in educational institutions to impose restrictions on Muslim women wearing the hijab.

Following that order, several incidents of discrimination and violence against Muslim women were reported. They could not enter their educational institutions if they did not remove their hijab. Although the order did not include teachers, Muslim teachers were also asked to remove their hijab or burqa, a full body covering, at the gate of the campus. 

How does the hijab ban relate to the overall status of minorities in India? 

The hijab ban is arbitrary. it goes against India’s constitutional promise of secularism and fits into the trend of authorities using the law to criminalise minority communities. For instance, Karnataka’s anti-conversion law set barriers on converting to Islam or Christianity and made it more difficult for interfaith couples to marry. Following this law, the Christian community faced rising threats and violence as well as increased attacks on their places of worship.

Generally speaking, minority communities are subjected to vilification because they are framed as ‘the other’. The Muslim minority is a specific target of persecution. At mass assemblies of the Hindu community, calls are often made for the genocide of the Muslim community and the mass rape of Muslim women. Calls for social and economic boycott of Muslims have been repeated frequently over the past few years. This has included taking mass oaths to boycott Muslims.

Muslim business owners have suffered the full brunt of this incitement. In the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, some Muslim-owned shops have been set on fire by rioters or demolished by the very same authorities that should protect them. The perpetrators of such communal violence enjoy impunity and face no consequences. 

The restriction on the use of the hijab was introduced in the context of this rising culture of intolerance. Even though the court limited the restriction to within the classroom, it has been implemented far and wide, including to suspend Muslim women teachers and other working Muslim women. 

What are the implications of the hijab ban for women’s rights?

The high court’s verdict, which kept the ban on the basis that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam, erased Muslim women’s free will to choose for themselves and violated not only their right to education but also their freedom of practise their religion. 

Several studies suggest that due to systematic discrimination against the Muslim community, Muslim women in India encounter extreme hurdles in accessing education, especially higher education. In this context, the hijab ban is patriarchal and regressive in nature, because it makes decisions on behalf of Muslim women regarding what to wear and how to practise their faith.

The decision further pushes Muslim women out of educational spaces and places them under threat in any public space. More than 400 Muslim girls have already been not allowed to appear for their exams and are facing distress, and attacks on Muslim women wearing hijabs and burqas have also increased across India. But the authorities have still not acknowledged the violence that Muslim women are going through.

How has civil society responded to the ban?

There have been protests on two fronts. The girls who have been directly affected by this restriction are protesting outside their college gates and holding demonstrations in other public spaces. But they are facing intimidation and threats by Hindutva vigilante groups while also being warned that they will be criminally charged for protesting. 

In bigger cities, protests are also being organised by human rights CSOs and Muslim groups, and particularly by Muslim women. 

Following the Karnataka high court ruling, CSOs have played an important role in raising awareness about the implications of the verdict. Several CSOs rejected the court order while also producing analysis to help the public understand its intricate legal language.

Civil society has been able to respond in a tangible and timely manner, offering unconditional solidarity and support to the schoolgirls affected by the order and experiencing trauma resulting from violence, discrimination and harassment in the aftermath of the high court order. Some CSOs have offered mental health counselling and other services.

Other CSOs have offered litigation support, in two forms: first, by representing individual cases of religious discrimination and providing legal support to those who missed out on exams due to the ban; and second, by petitioning on larger issues before courts of law. There have been several petitions before the Supreme Court of India to challenge the Karnataka high court order.

In short, the civil society response has been key because of its capacity to play a full range of roles to drive change, from the micro to the macro level. An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights in India, and the international community can play a vital role in reinforcing the work of local CSOs to amplify marginalised voices.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @aimanjkhan and @AgniDas26 on Twitter.

 

INDIA: ‘The hijab ban is just another tool used by right-wing politicians to remain in power’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Syeda Hameed, co-founder and board member of the Muslim Women’s Forum (MWF).

Founded in 2000, MWF is a civil society organisation (CSO) working for the empowerment, inclusion and education of Muslim women in India. Its primary goal is to provide Muslim women with a platform for expressing their aspirations and opinions on matters directly affecting their lives.

Syeda Hameed

How did the hijab row start?

The controversy started in the town of Udupi, a small secular district of Karnataka state in southwest India, where girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a college campus because the administration deemed it a violation of uniform rules. Some students protested against the ban, and protests escalated into violence.

From this tiny part of Karnataka, the hijab row spread to other parts of the country. In response to Muslim women wearing the hijab on campuses, many Hindu students took to wearing saffron shawls, a colour seen as a Hindu symbol.

The matter reached a Karnataka high court as some Muslim students filed petitions claiming that they have the right to wear the hijab under the guarantees provided by the Indian Constitution. But the high court’s verdict kept the ban, arguing that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam. Surprisingly, the bench in Karnataka includes one Muslim woman judge.

What triggered the decision by Karnataka’s educational institutions?

The decision to ban Muslim students from wearing the hijab in colleges’ premises came as a surprise. Such a ban is strange to our society. Unlike in France, where it has long been under the spotlight, the hijab had until very recently never been prohibited in India.

Karnataka state is known for its diverse society and pluralistic culture, with the two major religious groups, Hindus and Muslims, historically coexisting, along with a wide spectrum of other religious groups.

However, the roots of the Karnataka hijab controversy are quite deep, and are linked to growing Islamophobia. Those in power have ignited a sectarian fuse all over India in every possible way. Right now, Karnataka state also has a right-wing government, which has created fertile ground for strain in Hindu-Muslim relationships.

To them, the hijab ban is just another tool to remain in power. It is tied to current political events, notably the upcoming December election. Right-wing politicians fabricate issues that target Muslims, who are depicted as the ‘disruptive other’, to divert people’s attention from dire economic conditions. The hijab ban did the job well, as it captured media attention. Sensational media coverage only added fuel to the fire.

How do you view the hijab ban from a gendered perspective?

The hijab ban is a complete violation of women’s rights to express their own identities. It should be my choice alone whether to wear the hijab or not. I am a believing and practising Muslim and I don’t wear the hijab. Muslim women of my generation usually did not wear the hijab, but younger generations of Muslim women across the globe do. I see it as a search for an identity in the face of the charged atmosphere created by Islamophobia. Indian Muslim women have worn the hijab for about a quarter of a century.

We don’t oppose school uniforms because there is good reason for them, especially in a country such as India and all other South Asian countries, where both religious diversity and social inequality lead to differences in dress. But the use of the hijab in educational institutions had never been put to debate before the current Karnataka right-wing government suddenly considered it a violation of the school uniform rules.

As I said, in my generation very few girls wore the hijab, and therefore my uniform was skirt and blouse, which was acceptable at the time. Later, when girls started wearing the hijab, the situation escalated from establishing that their hijab should match the school uniform colours to starting to throw them out of schools.

What is the overall status of Indian Muslims as a minority?

As a former member of government, I observed the status of minorities change over time. From 2004 to 2014 I was a member of a now-extinct Planning Commission that was entrusted, among other responsibilities, with bringing minorities up to mark with society in every way possible. For ten years, we devised all kinds of schemes in the areas of education, employment and health, and tried to ensure minorities made the most of them. Our main tasks were to make these plans and ensure their implementation across the country by persuading the governments of India’s states to embrace them.

Change was slow because we did not have the power to force implementation. A key moment was when the government commissioned a report on the status of Muslims that provided a very candid conclusion by a retired Supreme Court judge. It stated that India’s 200 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world, had the lowest status on all social and economic parameters when compared to other religious groups. It should have been a wake-up call for the Indian government.

But since then, it has only got worse. Recent so-called ‘Hindu religious gatherings’ include a call for the genocide of Muslims. Some have suggested that the saffron flag should replace India’s national flag. Many decisions have been made in violation of the constitution. This is an extremely difficult moment for Muslims in India. 

And the hijab ban is very much part of Muslim marginalisation. Muslims are being driven to a corner and targeted by a right-wing government that demonises them to boost their support and remain in power.

How has civil society responded to the ban controversy?

Many CSOs have raised the issue and protested against the ban. Voices have also raised internationally, both from civil society and from influential individuals, as was the case of US congressional representative Ilhan Omar. Maybe if they became louder, these voices could drive positive change in the lives of India’s Muslims, which are becoming exceedingly difficult.

Frankly, at times I feel it is a losing game. 

All international attention that was paid to the ban has damaged the image of India without really making a dent on those in power, who only care about the upcoming general elections.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Muslim Women’s Forum through its website and follow @syedaIndia on Twitter.

 

AFGHANISTAN: ‘Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban’

CIVICUS speaks with Horia Mosadiq, an Afghan women human rights defender (HRD) and founder of Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization (SRMO). SRMO aims to empower, support and protect Afghan civil society activists and organisations, including those working in remote and insecure areas, and to advocate for greater state protection and accountability for any abuses they suffer as result of their work.

Horia has extensive experience in assisting HRDs at risk and providing human rights and safety training. She previously worked as the Afghanistan researcher for Amnesty International.

Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, Afghanistan has experienced a human rights and humanitarian crisis. Protests, especially by women, have been dispersed with excessive force, gunfire and beatings, leading to deaths and injuries of peaceful protesters. Journalists and HRDs have been threatened, intimidated and attacked and had their homes raided.

Horia Mosadiq

Why did you establish your organisation?

Along with two other dedicated activists, I established SRMO in 2013 with a mandate to protect HRDs and civil society in Afghanistan. We founded it because there was no mechanism inside the country to respond to growing threats against activists. I was an HRD at risk for many years and was totally reliant on international civil society organisations (CSOs) such as Freedom House, Front Line Defenders and Urgent Action Fund.

But we wanted to set up something led and run by Afghans, by people who understood the situation on the ground and could respond to the needs of Afghan HRDs who don’t speak English and don’t have access to international platforms and organisations. The whole idea behind SRMO is to reach out and protect grassroots activists, especially those in volatile areas and without international access or funding.

What does your research reveal about the current situation of Afghan HRDs?

We recently published a report that contains two distinct sections. The first covers the situation in 2021 until 15 August, a time when the previous government was in control and there was an elected president in charge. A clear law enforcement system, a judiciary and other accountability mechanisms were in place. They were not anywhere near perfect or even responsive, but at least they existed.

The second section covers the events following the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021. The whole security situation in the country changed significantly and the republic of Afghanistan was gone. The Taliban operate on the basis of Islamic ideology and renamed the country ‘Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan’. There is no law-and-order system anymore. The whole system is run by a group of mullahs with no clear accountability. Nobody knows which laws they are implementing. There is a lack of clarity and a definite legal gap. In many instances they refer to Sharia law, although we don’t have a codification of Sharia, so it is all open to interpretation. This is the situation on the ground today.

Following the Taliban takeover, attacks against HRDs have continued and nobody has been held accountable. Many HRDs have been killed, abducted, tortured and disappeared. Between January and March 2022 alone, SRMO documented 120 violations against activists, journalists and critics, including killings and kidnappings. Even medical doctors have been abducted by the Taliban.

Many CSOs have had to shut down and media workers and journalists have faced numerous restrictions. We documented the case of a TV journalist who interviewed a critic of the Taliban, and right afterward he and his crew were arrested and tortured, and were only released after signing statements pledging not to reveal their treatment to the international community. Many activists who protested had their passports and IDs taken away so they couldn’t leave the country and expose the truth. Activism is still happening, but civic space is increasingly shutting down.

Contrary to the general belief among the diplomatic community, the security situation has not improved under the Taliban. Although you may not hear about many bombings or active fighting in various parts of the country, the general security situation has deteriorated. Dozens of HRDs, journalists and others have been abducted, tortured, disappeared and detained unlawfully and without any explanation. The de facto authorities are part of an abusive system. The limited accountability mechanisms that existed under the previous regime are all gone. Now no one is accountable to anyone. Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban.

How have you conducted your work following the Taliban takeover?

Since August 2021, our focus shifted to reactive work to provide safety and protection to HRDs at risk and evacuate them from the country. The evacuations have since slowed down, but we also support the internal relocation of those at risk. We also provide humanitarian assistance to women HRDs, as many have lost their jobs and livelihoods. So as well as facing security threats, many have lost their means of surviving, paying for food and essentials required for their family. We have tried to support some minimal living costs where possible.

What has happened to the activists who were evacuated?

Those who were part of an organised effort undertaken by some countries and CSOs are being looked after while they resettle. But those who fled the country to Central Asia, Pakistan or Turkey experience an extremely bad situation as they run out of funds, their visas expire and there are no programmes for their resettlement. Many are pushed back by embassies or told they need to register with the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency and that it can take years before they are resettled.

Some with expired visas are even being deported back to Afghanistan. I just heard that Greece has deported 500 Afghans to Turkey, which sent them back to Afghanistan. In Central Asian countries people cannot get their expired visas renewed while in the country; they must leave to get a new one, which many HRDs are unable to do. This is making it difficult for them to survive. Many activists and journalists are facing ever-growing economic difficulties. They can’t pay for rent or food. Things are particularly difficult for those with small children. Many funders don’t provide resources for HRDs outside their country.

What can the international community do to support HRDs in Afghanistan?

I am disappointed with the international community. The way they have responded to the Ukraine crisis is very different from how they have responded to the situation in Afghanistan. They were open to receive millions of Ukrainian refugees, whose cases were processed within weeks. In contrast, only a few countries – including Canada, Germany and the USA – have been willing to issue visas to Afghans. This is not nearly enough, as thousands are currently stranded in neighbouring countries and in need of immediate help. If they can do it for Ukraine, why not for Afghanistan? Is it because of our skin colour or because they don’t view the Taliban as the enemy? There may be politics involved but I think there is also systematic racial discrimination. 

More positively, the appointment of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan is an excellent step. At the moment there is a vacuum of human rights monitoring mechanisms. CSOs can only do so much and having someone working with a UN mandate and the support of the international community is key. The international community should provide the UN Special Rapporteur all the necessary financial and diplomatic support and his recommendations must be taken seriously and implemented.

Our recent report includes a series of recommendations for the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to ensure accountability for crimes committed against HRDs and to provide financial, diplomatic and political support to Afghan HRDs at risk, including by issuing humanitarian visas and funding resettlement programmes. The international community should use its leverage to pressure the Taliban to create a safer space for HRDs and journalists in Afghanistan. This issue is currently not being addressed adequately at the international and diplomatic level.

Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow SRMO Afghanistan via its website and follow @AfgSrmo on Twitter 

 

UZBEKISTAN: ‘Advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint’

Allison GillCIVICUS speaks about the recent civil society victory in eliminating state-imposed forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry with Allison Gill, a human rights lawyer and Forced Labour Director at the Global Labour Justice - International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF).

GLJ-ILRF is a civil society organisation (CSO) that provides strategic capacity to cross-sectoral work on global value chains and labour migration corridors. It coordinates the Cotton Campaign, which since 2007 has fought against state-imposed forced and child labour in the cotton industries of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

What prompted the Cotton Campaign to lift the boycott on Uzbek cotton?

We have advocated for an end to child and forced labour in the Uzbek cotton sector for almost 15 years, and the 2021 harvest was the first in which we did not observe state-imposed forced labour since our frontline partner, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, started conducting annual independent monitoring 11 years ago. This crucial development followed several years of progress in the implementation of legal and policy changes that our campaign advocated for, including reforming the forced labour system, imposing liability for the use of forced labour and raising payments to cotton pickers to attract voluntary labour, and raising awareness among the population of the forced labour ban.

Despite this landmark achievement, significant labour risks continue to exist. We continue to warn against the use of coercion and threat of penalty in labour recruitment as well as about the interference of local officials in recruitment and cotton production. We are also worried about restrictions on the freedoms of association and expression, and specifically about the ability of independent groups to register and operate. In addition, farmers in the cotton sector continue to be subjected to exploitative conditions.

The situation is quite different in Turkmenistan, the other country covered by our campaign, where the government has systematically used forced labour during the most recent harvest season, in autumn 2021. It maintains total control over the cotton sector, and forcibly mobilises civil servants, including teachers, medical workers and others, to pick cotton or make them pay for a replacement picker. It forces farmers to meet official production quotas under threat of penalties, including loss of their land. Worse yet, it exerts control over all aspects of civil society work and has taken harsh action against those who report abuses in the sector.

What advocacy tactics has your campaign used, and what lessons have you learned?

Over the past 15 years, we have used a wide range of advocacy tools, including direct actions, policy engagement, accountability tools and support for civil society and labour rights monitors.

A centrepiece of our work and strategy is independent monitoring through our partner, the Uzbek Forum, which is based in Berlin but operates a network of independent monitors on the ground in Uzbekistan. Our advocacy has therefore been shaped by direct information collected from the ground through in-depth interviews with cotton pickers, people in forced labour, local officials and other stakeholders.

Another key advocacy tool is the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, a commitment by more than 330 brands and retailers not to use Uzbek cotton in their supply chains until forced labour has been eliminated. We formalised the Pledge after companies began to adopt sourcing policies to exclude Uzbek cotton and Uzbek activists called for an international boycott in 2009.

We launched complaints against the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation’s investments in the Uzbek cotton sector. We advocated with the US government, the European Union and its member states, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations, using specific policy mechanisms to bring pressure on the government of Uzbekistan to end forced labour. We also have advocated with the government directly, including by issuing a Roadmap of Reforms at the government’s request.

We have remained convinced of the importance of centring our campaigning around the demands of affected workers and civil society and the need to be guided by independent monitoring and reporting. And we have learned that advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint. There is power in collective action and commitment by broad coalitions united with a purpose, which is what makes it possible to make progress even on seemingly intractable problems.

What are the conditions for independent civil society monitoring in Uzbekistan?

There are activists inside Uzbekistan who have tried to form their own organisations, but they have faced many obstacles. The ILO, which has included civil society monitors for several years, has concluded its monitoring of the cotton harvest with the intention of transitioning monitoring to local civil society organisations (CSOs).

Unfortunately, local CSOs are unable to register to operate. One of the monitors that had previously partnered with the ILO and intended to carry on monitoring work was denied registration nine times and was ultimately forced to register as an enterprise instead of a CSO.

Civic space in Uzbekistan remains tightly restricted. The authorities continue to impose excessive and burdensome registration requirements on independent CSOs, in violation of their freedom of association. They have repeatedly and arbitrarily denied registration to nearly all independent human rights CSOs, including those that monitor forced labour.

Although Uzbekistan ratified the 1948 ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise in 2016, it has made little progress on meaningful implementation. Farmers, farmworkers and cotton pickers are vulnerable to abuse by cotton companies (known as ‘clusters’) as well as local officials. They are not represented by independent labour unions or other representative organisations.

In March 2021, cotton workers held the first democratic union election in Uzbekistan, organising hundreds of cotton workers at Indorama, an international company growing and spinning cotton. The union faced harassment and intimidation around the time of its formation and, experiencing significant barriers against registration, ultimately took the decision to affiliate with the government-aligned trade union federation, which is far from independent.

All these impediments leave Uzbekistan with one million hectares of land under cotton production and no independent local CSOs with the skills, capacity and legal status to conduct credible independent monitoring, which is ultimately necessary to provide assurances to international buyers in line with their obligations.

How can the international community best support labour activism in Uzbekistan?

Companies interested in sourcing cotton products from Uzbekistan must do so responsibly, in a way that meets their obligations and ensures that labour rights are respected at every tier of the supply chain. The Cotton Campaign has developed a Framework for Responsible Sourcing that provides for co-governance, independent monitoring and reporting, access to grievance and remedy, and a space for workers to ensure their interests are represented.

Uzbekistan must undertake reforms to allow workers and farmers to exercise their right to the freedom of association, particularly to organise and form representative organisations. It must also lift restrictions, both in law and in practice, which prevent civil society groups from operating. International stakeholders, especially governments, international organisations and multilateral development banks, must urge Uzbekistan to follow through with these reforms.

Civic space in Uzbekistan is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with GLJ-ILRF through its website or Facebook page, and follow @GLJhub and @cottoncampaign on Twitter.

 

UGANDA: ‘Our government cares only about profit, not people’

Nyombi MorrisCIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Nyombi Morris, founder of Earth Volunteers.

Established in 2020, Earth Volunteers is a Ugandan civil society organisation (CSO) that brings together young people who are passionate about planting trees, protecting forests and standing up for climate justice. Earth Volunteers advocates for climate justice and promotes climate education in local schools.

What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

EACOP is a pipeline project that will transport oil from Uganda to Tanzania, for export through the Tanga port on the Tanzanian coast. It will travel through hundreds of miles, flowing oil through sensitive environments, including the richly biodiverse Murchison Falls National Park in western Uganda.

The project is led by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and TotalEnergies, a French company, and funded by Standard Bank, among others. Ever since it kicked off in 2015, it has caused numerous activists to lose their lives and has put many natural resources on the verge of disappearing.

Local communities are already being affected by the pipeline. While pipeline construction itself hasn’t yet started, a process has begun to acquire the land required for the pipeline and related facilities. Those who own land on the projected pipeline’s path or in its vicinity are already unhappy because of the mistreatment they are experiencing and the lack of transparency in the process. They say they were not consulted about the project before it was approved and they are now being pressured to sell off their farms, homes and land at cheap prices and forced to leave to make way for the pipeline.

How is civil society in general, and your organisation in particular, mobilising against the pipeline project?

I have not seen any established CSO come out to oppose or even challenge the pipeline project. It is only us, individual activists loosely connected through informal networks, who are trying to sensitise people and mobilise them against the danger of allowing money-makers to exploit our land to take away the oil and get rich off it. We can’t drink or eat oil, and this will only make us poorer and less healthy.

As one of those activists, I have organised strikes to challenge the project, but since my last protest this March, I have received threats from unknown people who say they are police officers and tell me they are going to come and arrest me.

How has the government reacted so far?

Our government cares only about profit, not people. We have put pressure on them and urged them to be mindful about the approval they give to investors, as they only benefit the wealthy and do nothing to improve people’s lives. But the response we always get in return is threats.

Personally, I do not expect my government to listen to my concerns. The problem is, if they do not, this is a death sentence for many people in both Uganda and Tanzania. We already face the challenge of inflation and we may be heading towards famine and insecurity because people are being forced to sell off their properties in western Uganda and the capital, Kampala, is their next destination. This is one of the biggest and fastest-growing cities in Africa, with a population that has already hit four million.

What kind of support does the anti-pipeline movement need from international civil society and the wider international community?

We need three different support structures. Firstly, we need funds to continue door-to-door mobilisation. We need to speak up with a strong voice, so it is our role to wake up the public and get people to start demanding justice.

Secondly, we need the media to cover our movement and amplify our voice. We need the world to join us in challenging these perpetrators of environmental destruction. Except for Standard Bank, which is from South Africa, pipeline funders are from the global north, and we need people in their countries to know what is happening so they can join us in exposing these capitalist fundamentalists who only care about money – not about people, and not about nature.

Finally, we need protection. I am constantly receiving threats, and since last week I haven’t even been allowed to tweet for fear of my life and the lives of my family. We are in danger and nobody is helping us with security and support. I am hiding at my sisters’ place but very soon we are going to run out of resources such as food.

Every organisation I reach out to, they redirect me to CSOs that are not really independent but actually serve the government that is targeting me. I feel like there is no one I can trust in my country. This is terrible and traumatising, and many others are going through the same. We cannot imagine help coming from anywhere but international civil society.

Civic space in Uganda is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Earth Volunteers through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @earthvolunteers on Twitter.

 

TANZANIA: ‘The government is trying to silence those who are against the pipeline’

Baraka LengaCIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Tanzanian climate justice activist Baraka Lenga.

Baraka is a young climate scientist and sustainability consultant, currently volunteering with Fridays for Future to raise awareness of climate change and pressuring businesses and government leaders to act urgently to address the climate crisis.

What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

EACOP is a massive crude oil pipeline that will involve the transportation of crude oil from Hoima in Uganda to a Tanzanian port located in Chongoleani village, in Tanga region. It will cover 1,445 kilometres in Uganda and Tanzania, but 80 per cent of the land it will go through is in Tanzania.

Local communities depend on land as the crucial resource to support their livelihoods, which consist mostly of farming and livestock keeping, so if their land is taken or ruined by the pipeline, they will be seriously affected. The project is therefore going to affect the development of many communities and impact negatively on any effort to create a sustainable and liveable local environment.

But EACOP will not only affect people; it will also pose a threat to the animals that depend on the land that will be taken up by this project.

Further, it has been estimated that once operational the project will emit 34 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. This means it will amplify climate change and local communities will become poorer, more vulnerable and less resilient.

How has civil society organised to resist this project?

Very unfortunately, in my country, Tanzania, most civil society organisations (CSOs) are not organising against EACOP. One contributing factor may be the limited understanding of the pipeline project in Tanzania. Little information has been shared about the project and the consequences it will have on communities, contributing to Tanzanian civil society’s limited response.

I have been working in my capacity as a freelance activist to raise awareness about the pipeline’s consequences and explaining why it needs to be stopped. I find it crucial for local communities to know and understand the extent to which EACOP could damage their environment and impact on their lives. Fortunately, I have been receiving support from colleagues from various parts of Africa who are using their resources to amplify our voices against EACOP.

How has the government reacted so far?

As most activists and CSOs have noticed, the government is trying to silence those who are against the pipeline. Some of us have raised our concerns since the very beginning of the project but our questions have not been addressed and the project has continued regardless.

But we have continued campaigning because we cannot overlook the damage this project will have on local communities; it comes with a lot of investment that is allegedly meant to develop East African nations but in reality is going to bring more harm to innocent lives.

What kind of support does the anti-pipeline movement need from international civil society and the wider international community?

We would like environmental activists and CSOs from across the globe to join us in raising awareness about EACOP and pressuring the governments involved to put an end to this project. We want people to understand that the companies leading the project, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and TotalEnergies – along with the governments of Tanzania and Uganda, which have brought in both countries’ national oil companies into the project – are endangering wildlife, tipping the world closer to a climate crisis and affecting the livelihoods of our people.

We have seen various multinational cooperation funds pull out of the project in compliance with their obligation to protect the environment and we hope more will do the same. Hopefully, a lack of funding will ultimately force the governments of Tanzania and Uganda to stop EACOP. 

Civic space in Tanzania is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @lenga2020 on Twitter.

 

EAST AFRICA: ‘The pipeline project would open up critical ecosystems to commercial oil exploitation’

OmarElmawiCIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Omar Elmawi, coordinator of the Stop the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (#StopEACOP).

#StopEACOP is a global online campaign that seeks to raise awareness of the effects of the project and calls for its cancellation.

What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

EACOP is a project to extract and transport crude oil from Uganda to Tanzania, led by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and French energy conglomerate TotalEnergies alongside the Uganda National Oil Company and Tanzania Petroleum Development Cooperation.

If it goes on, EACOP would have disastrous consequences for local communities, for wildlife and for the entire planet. In other words, it will affect humans, nature and climate. It threatens to displace thousands of families and farmers from their land. It poses significant risks to water resources and wetlands in both Uganda and Tanzania – including the Lake Victoria basin, which over 40 million people rely on for drinking water and food production.

Additionally, EACOP would increase the severity of the global climate emergency by transporting oil that, when burned, will generate over 34 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year. The pipeline would also open up critical ecosystems in the landlocked regions of Central and Eastern Africa to commercial oil exploitation.

It would also rip through numerous sensitive biodiversity hotspots and risk significantly degrading several nature reserves crucial to the preservation of threatened species, including elephants, lions and chimpanzees.

How are you mobilising against EACOP?

Civil society came together under a global campaign that we have called #StopEACOP, aimed at sharing news related to the pipeline project and distributing resources to help people organise and take action against it.

#StopEACOP is led by an alliance of local groups and communities and African and global civil society organisations (CSOs). Over 260 CSOs have endorsed it and are working towards realising the campaign’s objectives through public mobilisation, legal action, research, shareholder activism and media advocacy.

Since environmental licences have been awarded for the pipeline and associated oil fields in Kingfisher and Tilenga, several cases have been filed against the EACOP pipeline, including at the East African Court of Justice and in French courts against TotalEnergies, under the duty of vigilance law.

We hope that our campaign will put enough pressure on the companies and governments involved so that they will put an end to the pipeline project and prioritise the wellbeing of people and the environment.

How have the governments involved responded to the #StopEACOP campaign?

The governments of both Tanzania and Uganda are committed to seeing this project through despite the fact that each will receive only 15 per cent of the proceeds from the crude oil going through the pipeline. TotalEnergies and CNOOC hold 70 per cent of the pipeline’s shares, so they will be the ones pocketing 70 per cent of the proceeds from crude oil.

Additionally, TotalEnergies and CNOOC both get tax benefits, including a waiver on payment of corporate tax for 10 years once the pipeline becomes operational and on the value-added tax on imported products and materials needed for the pipeline. They are required to pay only five per cent in withholding tax instead of the required 15 per cent.

We haven’t stopped trying to engage the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments, although some of our members, and especially community partners, have been arrested and detained, had their offices raided or been threatened with the deregistration of their organisations. The government has had a part to play in most if not all these challenges, but we have continued to engage and use all legal mechanisms and processes available to make sure our community partners are protected.

What kind of support do you need from international civil society and the wider international community?

Allied organisations, activists and regular people are welcome to visit our website and click on our action page, which suggests a variety of actions addressed at the companies involved and governments and their funders and insurers. Please take as many of the actions listed as you can, prioritising those targeting insurance companies and banks. This is key because the EACOP project will need multi-billion-dollar loans to proceed, as well as numerous insurance policies covering every component of the project.

People can also donate to the cause. All the resources we receive are shared with our community partners and support any security and legal needs that may arise, including legal representation fees.

You can follow us on our social media pages to get updates on the campaign and subscribe to receive email updates on the progress of the campaign and upcoming actions that you can endorse or take part in.

Civic space in both Tanzania and Uganda is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with #StopEACOP through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @stopEACOP on Twitter. 

 

SRI LANKA: ‘The ongoing protests have put the government on the defensive’

RukiFernandoCIVICUS speaks about protests in response to deepening economic crisis in Sri Lanka with Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist, writer and consultant to the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo.

How significant are the current protests in Sri Lanka?

This protest movement is the biggest and most diverse one I have ever experienced in Sri Lanka. The protests are largely driven by angry, frustrated, disappointed citizens. Mainly the protests have been triggered by the ramification of the economic crisis that reached its peak with shortages of fuel, electricity, gas and medicines among many essential items that either disappeared from the market or had their prices hiked.

Most protests have taken place around Colombo, the capital, and its suburbs. Still, there have been protests all over the county. A large continuous day and night protest has been happening at the Galle Face Green in Colombo adjoining the Presidential Secretariat and similar initiatives have appeared in other districts. In addition to the streets, social media has been an important battleground. 

Protesters are also now demanding the truth about people who disappeared during Sri Lanka’s civil war and even before. Their demands have expanded beyond the severe financial crisis to call for those in power to be held accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, disappearances and killings, disappearances and assaults on journalists.

The protesters are demanding long-term legal and institutional changes to the current governance system that must start with the resignation of the Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa family, the ruling family. Others call for the abolition of the 20th amendment to the constitution, which expanded the president’s executive powers.

Protest slogans calling on the president to ‘Go Home’ are now evolving into ‘Go to Jail’ and ‘Return Stolen Money’.

Do you think the protests will make a difference?

These protests have put the government on the defensive. As a result, the cabinet resigned and the government lost its majority in parliament when more than 40 lawmakers abandoned the ruling coalition to become independent members of parliament. These mass resignations are quite significant, as it proves that small groups can influence the political system. However, I believe we are still long way from any real change and meeting all people’s aspirations, especially for poor people and marginalised groups, including ethnic and religious minorities.

Repressive measures did not last in the face of the ongoing protests. The authorities had to release arrested protesters and revoke the declaration of emergency, the curfew was not extended, and the social media shutdown was withdrawn.

I believe that when President Rajapaksa revoked the declaration of a state of emergency on 5 April, it was because he realised, he was not able to sustain the necessary parliamentary majority that was needed for its continuation.

Most importantly, these protests, which are largely being led by young and students, represent a political awakening of various groups of our nation. Many women, older people, LGBTQI+ people, lawyers, religious clergy, artists and well-known people such as former cricketers have been part of the protests. They have enriched the spirit of defiance, resistance, courage and creativity unleashed by youth, on an unprecedented scale.

How has civil society responded to the arrest of protesters?

More than 50 people, including journalists and bystanders were arrested after the protest had marched on the evening of 31 March to the president’s residence. Other arrests since have led not only to fear, but also outrage. As a result, the protesters have received much public sympathy and support from lawyers, journalists and the public. Some civil society groups support and stand with the protesters, but most significant roles in the protest movement is by ordinary people, especially young people.

Do you think repression will dissuade people from protesting in bigger numbers?

We cannot deny that the proclamation of a state of emergency, curfew and the shutdown imposed on some social media platforms led to fears. At the same time, the curfew was challenged by tens of thousands of protesters who came to the streets to protest despite the curfew. Overall, these repressive measures galvanised more people to join, organise and support protests.

Aside from that, there is fear and uncertainty about what the future may hold for our country. There are many concerns about a potential military–police crackdown, especially after the shooting at protesters in Rambukkana that had led to at least one death and several others injured. There have been other incidents of concern, such as the presence of police trucks at the key protest site, special training for the military at army camp in Ganemulla and police reporting about the main protest site to courts. There are also worries about sustaining the protests and a lack of clear political alternatives. But it has been an inspiring, heartening moment to see so many people, especially young people, standing up, creatively and courageously. As I said earlier, this is a moment of political awakening for many.

How can the international community best support Sri Lankan civil society?

They must show solidarity for our struggles for justice, including economic justice, ethnic justice, gender justice and environmental justice. In that sense, the international community must defend and protect protesters and those criticising, questioning and challenging the government.

On the economic level, international financial institutions, foreign governments and multinational corporations must not engage in exploitative and opportunistic practices in Sri Lanka. They should refrain from going ahead with investments that will negatively affect economic justice, economic democratisation and labour rights.

Civic space in Sir Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Ruki Fernando through his website and follow @rukitweets on Twitter. 

 

SRI LANKA: ‘By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democracy’

Bhavani FonsekaCIVICUS speaks about protests in Sri Lanka in response to the country’s deepening economic crisis and civil society’s role in supporting protesters with human rights lawyer Bhavani Fonseka of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

CPA is a Sri Lankan civil society organisation (CSO) and leading public policy research think tank. It advocates for policy alternatives of non-violent conflict resolution and democratic governance to facilitate post-war recovery in Sri Lanka. 

How significant are the current economic protests in Sri Lanka? What are the main demands?

The protests are spontaneous and come as a direct result of the current economic crisis, which is imposing a heavy burden on the people. They have been suffering from severe hardships due to a lack of essential items, including medicines, long power cuts and skyrocketing prices. Such a catastrophic situation manifested in several citizens dying while waiting in fuel queues. In response, people have taken to the streets in peaceful protests across the country for more than a month.

It is important to state that the widespread protests are not linked to any political party. The opposition held their own protests weeks ago and continue to protest currently. But the ongoing protests that are catching global media attention are largely driven by angry citizens who oppose the involvement of politicians and members of parliament in their peaceful protests. The reason behind this is that there is frustration with existing political parties, including the opposition; people denounce them for not doing enough as representatives of the people.

In line with that, the thousands of people who have continued to protest in recent weeks demand a radical change. They call for the President and government to step down, a peaceful transition of power, and for structural reforms including the abolishing of the executive presidency. There is also a loud call to address immediate needs such as shortages of essential items, livelihoods and rising cost of living, among the many other calls from the protesters.

The impact of the peaceful protests was evident when there were mass-scale resignations from the cabinet on 3 April. But the call for the resignation of the President and Prime Minister has yet to materialise. As the protests expanded and became extremely vocal, people sent a clear message to the regime that a real change is needed. Protesters insist on the resignation of the president and the prime minister. They chant on the streets ‘Go Home Rajapaksas’ and ‘Go Home Gota’ – referring to the president – and post on social media under the hashtag #GoHomeGota2022.

Sri Lanka has not seen this scale of protests in recent years – none that I can remember. Even the older generations are saying that they have not seen a similar movement. As most of these protests are peaceful, they are making a difference by raising the profile of our domestic issues across the region and internationally. As a result, there is a recognition that the situation is quite bad in Sir Lanka.

What do you think the resignation of the cabinet means for the prospect of political change? What role is the army playing?

The country is also seeing a political crisis with the mass resignation of the cabinet, which is extremely significant. It shows there is an unstable government ruling the country under mounting pressure from both protesters and the economic crisis.

A few weeks ago, the country was ruled by a powerful family, the Rajapaksas, but now there are only two members of this family who remain in power, the president and the prime minister. We are going through a very unprecedented time that raises many questions about the future of Sri Lanka, including the question of whether this government can continue in the way of ruling it has been doing it so far.

Regarding the possible drift towards militarisation, the military institution is a powerful force, and its influence has increased sharply in recent post-war years with former military officials holding various positions in government with an active role in governance. In that sense, the drift toward militarisation is a great concern for the Sri Lankan people as the political vacuum may be an opportunity for military rule.

What is the scale of arrests among protesters? How have CSOs, including your organisation respond?

The authorities responded to the protests with arrests even though most of these protests were peaceful. For instance, security forces arrested around 50 people near the president’s residence when a protest became violent. But according to reports most of those arrested weren’t involved in that incident; we found out later that the violence was orchestrated by certain groups. There were random arrests of people who are now before the court.

Also, when the state of emergency was declared, there were several arrests of people for breaking the curfew.

From our side, CPA and other CSOs have issued several public statements commenting on the situation and reminding of the rights guaranteed in our constitution. Personally, I have been protesting for a month now and my colleagues have joined the peaceful protests. We are protesting because it is a democratic right. In this regard, civil society and citizens have taken a stand on the need to uphold constitutional democracy because we are now confronted by an unprecedented political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka. By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democratic rights and our democracy.

Overall, the mobilisation of lawyers and of civil society to offer solidarity and support are quite high. Over 500 lawyers turned up to support those who were arrested on 31 March, and many other instances have seen lawyers appearing to protect the rights of citizens. 

How have protests mobilised despite the arrests and social media shut down?

I do not think that arrests of the protesters prevented others from joining protests. Not at all. In fact, I think the violence unleashed on peaceful protests coupled with the economic crisis prompted more to join the protests. Despite the curfew on the first weekend of April, there were thousands who came to the streets that Sunday to protest peacefully. This was a large-scale civil disobedience from the citizens, unprecedented in Sri Lanka because it is the first time, we have seen such large numbers of people coming to peacefully protest during a curfew. 

Regarding the social media shutdown, it is now being challenged in court, and we will see how it goes. Sri Lanka’s people are highly creative and resilient, and many used virtual private networks (VPNs) to continue to use social media to communicate and protest against the government. Every attempt used by this government to stop people from protesting, from speaking out, has failed.

Generally, I believe that it is amazing how people are stepping out, creating ways of protesting despite the challenges and hardships.

Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) through its website or Facebook page and follow @CPASL on Twitter. 

 

ITALY: ‘The constitution now contemplates the interests of future generations’

CIVICUS speaks with Edoardo Zanchini, National Vice President of Legambiente Onlus, about the recent legislative vote that introduced environmental protections in the Italian Constitution, and civil society’s role in making it happen.

Established in 1980, Legambiente Onlus is an Italian civil society organisation (CSO) that works towards a clean and liveable environment by monitoring environmental issues, diagnosing problems and offering solutions, denouncing environmental crimes and seeking to hold those responsible to account, running sensitisation campaigns and educational projects, and advocating with policy makers.

ZanchiniEdoardo

What is the significance of the recent constitutional amendment that mandates the state to safeguard ecosystems and biodiversity?

It’s very important because it elevates the protection of the environment, biodiversity and ecosystems to the constitutional level. Before this amendment, the Italian Constitution did not explicitly recognise environmental protection as a fundamental value. The new text of Article 9 establishes the principle of environmental protection ‘in the interest of future generations’, a reference to the concept of sustainable development, according to which natural resources cannot be exploited in an unlimited way – that is, without taking into account that they are finite and how this will affect those who will come after us.

A change to Article 41 also establishes that economic initiatives cannot be carried out in a way that could create damage to health or the environment. Before, the only constitutionally recognised restrictions were those related to security, freedom and human dignity.

Wording was also introduced regarding the ‘protection of animals’, and this was the only point around which there were strong disagreements: pressure from hunters’ associations was strong and led to a compromise.

Do you view the amendments as a civil society victory?

Yes, it was a victory for the CSOs that have long been committed to the defence of ecosystems, the landscape and biodiversity. These amendments would not have been introduced if it hadn’t been for the growing awareness of the importance of these values and the increasing interest in their defence. And that awareness is the result of sustained civil society work.

It has been a long road to reach today’s great consensus on environmental issues. And consultations with environmental CSOs in the amendment process were a key factor in that they helped put pressure on political parties to make the right decision.

The fact that nobody openly campaigned against the amendment proposal is very telling: it shows there is a broad consensus, stronger than any political divide, around values that are recognised as being in the general interest, even as part of the identity of local communities and Italy as a whole. Aside from the strong conflict around the protection of animals, it got to the point that those who have an interest in pollution continuing to be allowed or overlooked were very careful not to take part in any controversy.

Do you see the constitutional change in Italy as part of a European trend?

In recent years several European countries have amended their constitutions to explicitly include and strengthen environmental protection. In all countries there is a strong consensus around this perspective, with an increasing public demand for information on environmental issues and increasingly active citizens who take it upon themselves to get informed, visit protected areas and valuable landscapes, and organise to demand their preservation for future generations. Environmental associations from all over Europe have been working together for many years on issues such as natural resource protection, the push towards a circular economy and the battle against climate change. 

We also frame our initiatives and campaigns in the context of our membership of regional and global networks such as the Climate Action Network, which includes over 1,500 CSOs in more than 130 countries in every global region, the European Environmental Bureau, which is the largest network of environmental CSOs in Europe, with over 170 members in more than 35 countries, and Transport & Environment, Europe’s leading clean transport campaign group.

What needs to happen next, both in terms of implementation and further policy development?

Now it will be necessary to update the regulatory framework to include protection measures that had so far not been considered. The new constitutional reference to environmental protection will also allow environmentalists to appeal against laws that are in contradiction with it. Of course, Italy will have to review all its regulations related to environmental impact assessments, which were established without taking into account the protection objectives that are now part of our constitution.

Civic space in Italy is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Legambiente Onlus through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @Legambiente on Twitter. 

 

CSW66: ‘Advocacy for policy change takes time and a long-term commitment’

Helen McEachernCIVICUS speaks about women’s rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Helen McEachern, CEO of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

Established in 2008, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women works with women entrepreneurs in low- and middle-income countries. It has already supported more than 200,000 women to start, grow and sustain successful micro, small and medium-sized businesses in over 100 countries.

What does the Cherie Blair Foundation do, and what challenges have you faced?

The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women works with women entrepreneurs in low and middle-income countries. We are committed to eliminating the global gender gap in entrepreneurship and creating a future where women entrepreneurs thrive.

As a UK-based charity working in international development and women’s economic empowerment, we are very concerned about the decision the UK government made in November 2020 to cut the UK overseas aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of GDP. The impact of this decision on women and girls has been devastating. We welcome the commitment late last year to restore the women and girls’ development budget to what it was before the aid cut. The government should swiftly act on this commitment and restore the overseas aid budget, which will save lives and protect the rights of women and girls. We are also very much looking forward to the new gender development strategy due out from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office later in 2022.

What issues did you try to bring into the CSW agenda?

It is estimated that it will take 268 years until women have equality in economic participation and much remains to be done to address economic gender injustices in women’s entrepreneurship, and more holistically when it comes to women’s economic empowerment. In real terms, this statistic means millions of women and girls are exposed to exploitation and are not able to increase the education and health outcomes of their children or enjoy their rights and the choices that come with financial independence.

The review theme of this year’s CSW was ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work’. Our current advocacy efforts are focused on tackling gender stereotypes that affect women’s entrepreneurship. Gender stereotypes undermine women’s economic rights in multiple ways: they affect their aspirations, sources of support, opportunities, perceptions and access to resources such as finance and markets, and impact on the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem.

We wanted to use the 66th session of the CSW to recognise how gender stereotypes undermine women’s rights and embed strong calls for action in the session’s Agreed Conclusions.

Based on detailed survey responses from 221 women entrepreneurs across 42 low and middle-income countries, our recent report, ‘Gender Stereotypes and their Impact on Women Entrepreneurs’, reveals that gender stereotypes are part of the social background for women entrepreneurs, with 96 per cent of respondents saying they had directly experienced them. Overall, 70 per cent of respondents said that gender stereotypes have negatively affected their work as entrepreneurs. Nearly a quarter – 23 per cent – also experienced gender stereotypes or discriminatory remarks while trying to access finance for their business, and more than 60 per cent said they believe that gender stereotypes impact on their business growth and affect how seriously they are taken as business owners.

We also raised concerns about the challenges women face around entrepreneurship in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. For women entrepreneurs, the pandemic has meant further reduced incomes, temporary and permanent business closures, dismissal of employees, missed business opportunities and reduced access to often already limited finance and capital. 

Women-owned firms face additional barriers to accessing government support, and are more likely to close, with many citing difficulties with managing additional unpaid care work. Women-owned enterprises are overrepresented in sectors most vulnerable to the detrimental impacts of COVID-19 – such as retail, hospitality, tourism, services and the textile industry. That’s why we wanted to advocate to ensure that a strong focus on women’s economic empowerment and gender-transformational post-pandemic recovery was embedded in the CSW session’s final conclusions.

We also highlighted the unpaid care work that disproportionately affects women. Before the pandemic, women already spent about three times as many hours on unpaid domestic work and care work as men. The pandemic has increased the unpaid workloads – both for women and men – but it is women who are still doing the lion’s share. This impacts on the everyday lives of women in multiple ways, including by undermining women’s economic rights and opportunities, for instance, to access and pursue education, formal employment, entrepreneurship and leadership positions.

These themes are critical when we consider the enormous gender economic gap.

To what degree were your expectations regarding CSW met?

This was the first time the Foundation undertook advocacy at CSW, so it was definitely a learning experience for us – but a very positive one.

Our objective was to ensure that women’s entrepreneurship and gender stereotypes that affect women’s entrepreneurship and economic participation were raised, and that in addition to addressing gender justice, CSW’s final elaborations included commitments on these issues.

We decided to do this by organising a side event and by sharing our advocacy calls with permanent missions by email and through social media. I am very grateful for the collaboration and support from the excellent colleagues at the Permanent Mission of Rwanda to the UN, who hosted a side event with us. The side event was co-sponsored by the permanent missions of the Philippines and Sweden. We found many missions and colleagues receptive to this topic and willing to get involved.

As our advocacy focused largely on tackling gender stereotypes as a critical barrier for women’s rights and economic empowerment, we were delighted to see multiple references to gender stereotypes in the final agreed conclusions of CSW’s 66th session. Also, it was great to see commitments to adopt measures to reduce, redistribute and value unpaid care work.

Did you have the opportunity to participate fully, or did you experience any access issues?

We did not travel to New York but decided to undertake advocacy virtually given the pandemic. I think that being present in New York would have enhanced our advocacy. Yet I know the virtual format has also enabled more people to join, as advocating in person in New York is beyond reach for most civil society organisations (CSOs).

It is important to support partners from low and middle-income countries to attend and join these platforms – and provide sustained financial support to multi-year advocacy work in general. Changes in policies and practices rarely happen in a 12-month cycle or if you attend a global platform like CSW only once – advocacy takes time and a long-term commitment. It is only possible with funding to support a longer-term agenda.

As participation was fully virtual this year, we lacked direct engagement with UN member states as well as opportunity to connect, share and network with advocacy targets and other CSOs. Time zones can pose a challenge too, but many side events provided an option to receive the recording afterwards, which was a really great way to learn about different key themes if people weren’t able to make an event.

There is no way that online engagement can match in-person engagement, but if everyone is online then access is equal, and it does open more cost-effective avenues for many more grassroots organisations to join.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

I think the rhetoric of commitment to women’s political leadership and integrating women in decision making is there. Yet the right of women to participate politically and lead refers to participation in all levels and there are definitely gender gaps. I learnt at the CSW that only four women have been elected as president of the UN General Assembly in its 76-year history. Also, the UN has never had a woman Secretary-General. So there is more work to do to ensure women’s equal share and representation in decision-making processes at all levels. We also must make sure that the voice and agency of the most vulnerable women and girls is shaping the decisions of these international platforms. We have seen a rollback in advances in women’s rights in many areas, and thus feminist leadership and women’s political participation in UN processes are so critical. We know women’s political leadership can have an impact across many other areas where women lack opportunities and equal access.

One way to do better is to tackle gender stereotypes more effectively as they undermine women’s rights, opportunities and confidence. It is important to increase the understanding of how gender stereotypes shape women’s lives, including their access to decision making and leadership, and take concrete measures to prevent and eliminate gender stereotypes and their negative impacts, both in private and public spheres. Further efforts are also needed to promote women’s leadership and agency to address the underrepresentation of women and girls in policy-making platforms and processes.

Get in touch with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @HelenMcEachern and @CherieBlairFndn on Twitter.  

 

CSW66: ‘Violence against women continues at pandemic levels in the UK as elsewhere’

Zarin HainsworthCIVICUS speaks about women’s participation and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Zarin Hainsworth, director of the National Alliance of Women's Organisations (NAWO), a UK civil society network that works for women’s empowerment by advocating for women’s rights at the national and international levels.

What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in the UK, and how does NAWO work to address them?

In the UK there is a lack of an institutional mechanism for the advancement of women’s rights. The Women’s National Commission, which used to be an independent advisory body that represented women and made sure their views were heard by the UK government, was closed by the Conservative government in December 2010. 

The Government Equalities Office (GEO), established in 2007, is identified by the government as the institutional mechanism although the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee continues to question this. The GEO is a department of government, with employees who are civil servants and all communications must abide by the usual government codes with all reports agreed by ministers. It cannot therefore claim to be independent. Some civil society members have complained that there is a lack of consultation with them and this affects how women are included in the policy-making process. Furthermore, GEO does not have remit in devolved nations, meaning it does not cover Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. The CEDAW Committee has raised concerns about the UK not being compliant with the treaty, but the government responded that they are adequately provisioned by the GEO.

The UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance has a good relationship with the GEO, especially in regard to CSW, which we believe to be an example of best practice. However, many would argue that in light of the recommendations of CEDAW and the definition within the Beijing Platform for Action, there is still need for an independent body representing the voice of women and girls to government. NAWO would suggest that it is well placed to be such an organisation. 

Violence against women continues at pandemic levels in the UK as elsewhere in the world. Sexism is institutionalised in the police force, but this is still a postcode lottery – how women are treated depends largely on where they live. Rape is still underreported and too few cases get to trial, and adolescent girls are not taught about gender-based violence. NAWO is part of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, which seeks to create awareness of these issues and urge the government to address them. Recently a number of members of Parliament have raised awareness on this issue and the government is keen to state it is in the process of effecting positive change in this regard.

We are aware that the UK has not ratified the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The government says that the new Domestic Violence Bill covers the same ground as the Istanbul Conversion, but civil society groups working on women’s rights and gender-based violence claim that the Bill does not robustly cover all the areas of the Istanbul Convention. NAWO is part of IC Change, a campaign pushing the UK government to ratify the Istanbul Convention; in the past, we also participated in advocacy work towards legislation to implement the Istanbul Convention across the UK.

Regarding employment, occupational segregation continues to hinder women from progressing and becoming leaders in their workplaces. Despite efforts to increase the presence of girls in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), women still do not occupy equitable work positions because of pre-existing structures put in place to accommodate men rather than women.

Finally, there is evidence that women’s voices are not heard in the health sector and that women are suffering the most when services and budgets are cut. Health education is biased towards the male experience and female indicators of stroke or heart attack are only slowly starting to be taught in medical school. Most drug trials are based on male responses.

NAWO raises awareness of these issues through coalition-building and advocacy work. We also engage government stakeholders to ensure they are aware of these issues and put mechanisms in place to promote women’s equity and rights.

To address these issues at CSW, NAWO has helped establish and worked within the UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance, seeking ways of working with the government to promote equality and ensure that women’s rights are advocated for at CSW. As an organisation, we have understood the need to develop a good relationship with the GEO and we are developing relationships across the government to advance our advocacy work.

What issues did you try to bring to the CSW agenda this year?

We are aware that CSOs are not adequately involved in the decision-making process, and we highlighted a need to involve grassroots organisations in policy formulation stages because they are the ones that truly know what people’s needs are. We wanted to bring to attention the fact that many CSOs are restricted by their national governments and cannot carry out their work effectively. Governments and international bodies must support CSOs and integrate them into policy-making processes.

We have seen COVID-19 affect marginalised women and girls disproportionately, so this is an issue we emphasised at CSW this year. The pandemic revealed pre-existing gender gaps regardless of mechanisms put in place to promote women’s empowerment. Women from marginalised groups did not have access to proper healthcare and their employment chances have severely decreased. Pandemic recovery structures are not working for them because they are being put in place with little to no consultation with them.

We also raised the concern of women’s access to decent work. There is a need to promote the participation of women in the labour force, but this should be done in an inclusive manner and with respect for human dignity. Many women still struggle with sexual harassment at work and there are not enough measures in place to counter this. Women have much lower prospects of advancing at work than their male colleagues. We hope CSW will see the need to help women in the workforce and find sustainable and realistic ways to protect them.

As we have done every year since 2005, we enabled a youth delegation and we are keen to ensure the informed voice of young women is present at CSW.

What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

We wished to work and collaborate with other CSOs with the aim of bringing women’s issues to the forefront and promoting women’s empowerment. In our opinion, we were successful in that regard. We also wanted to reach out to UN member states, and to some extent we were successful in that regard as well.

We hosted side events that offered young people a space to talk about the issues they experience and how they affect them. In these side events we were able to discuss how women experience climate change and their views and demands concerning gender equality, sustainable development and women’s empowerment.

We participated virtually and faced some issues concerning broadband and connectivity issues. We believe there were challenges with the online platform and most CSOs had problems accessing it.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

We believe women are still not adequately integrated in decision-making processes both at the national and global levels. Many plans have been put in place to ensure women are in decision-making positions. These are always good in theory, but their implementation does not necessarily go accordingly. This could be due to lack of commitment and accountability from international bodies. Hopefully as time progresses, we will see real change. But for the time being we believe the UN system needs reforming.

Civic space in the UK is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with NAWO through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @NAWOorg on Twitter. 

 

CSW66: ‘Women need more access to real political decision-making power’

CIVICUS speaks about women’s rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Terry Ince, founder, and convenor of the CEDAW Committee of Trinidad and Tobago (CCoTT), a civil society organisation (CSO) focused on advocacy, education, and public awareness on and for the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The CCoTT seeks to ensure the mandates of the CEDAW are upheld and the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women are implemented. To do so, it partners with a wide range of stakeholders in the government, private sector, and civil society.

Terry Ince

What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in Trinidad and Tobago?

On the surface, you see women in high-profile positions in every area of society in Trinidad and Tobago. However, when you scratch beneath the surface, you realise these women are not the real decision makers.

In 2010 we elected our first woman prime minister. Women make up 38 per cent of the current cabinet. We currently have a woman president for the first time in the history of the country. There are women in the positions of speaker of the House, president of the Senate and Ombudsperson. There are women assisting the Superintendent of Commission of Police. Women lead ministries including trade and industry, planning and development, housing and urban development, public administration, education, gender and child affairs, social development and family services and sports and cultural affairs, and Legal Affairs in the Office of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs. And this is just in the public sector. In politics, you find women on the ballot; political parties actively recruit women to run for political office.

However, women are still not getting enough support. They certainly do not get the required support to run for political office. They may be selected as candidates, but the road to success is often steep and filled with deterrents. Women candidates are often asked to run in districts their parties find particularly difficult to win, so they are almost guaranteed to lose. Women are running but not necessarily winning. To win, they would need financial and coordination support.

On top of this, many of these women are often mothers, wives, care givers, so they have additional duties that nobody is helping them with either. They are playing all these roles simultaneously and expected to be successful at all of them. 

Women need more access to political decision-making power. It is not just about being in the room, but at the table, contributing, being listened to, and having their ideas examined, pushed forward and implemented.

It is not enough to have a woman on the ballot. It is also not enough to elect a woman without providing an enabling environment which values her unique perspective on issues. 

There continue to be barriers, but I think women can leverage their positions to make headway. I also think that women can and should support other women more within their capacity.

How does the CCoTT work to address these issues?

The CEDAW Committee of Trinidad and Tobago advocates for sustained implementation of CEDAW, a convention that Trinidad and Tobago signed in 1985 and ratified in 1990. More generally, we advocate for women’s development and empowerment. CCoTT’s work is grounded in human rights and CEDAW. We focus on advocacy, public awareness, sensitisation, and education on the Convention, with the overarching mission of achieving the implementation of its mandates and all the recommendations made to the state by CEDAW’s monitoring body.

CEDAW addresses all aspects of women and development, including political engagement, so we work on the understanding that our government’s obligation is to ensure that the appropriate policies and laws are in place for women to have an equal opportunity to access political office. Our citizens, and particularly women, need to know and understand this. And governments must honour its responsibility for having signed this Convention and held accountable. Achieving substantive equality is the goal and CCoTT collaborates with stakeholders to achieve that goal.

So, among other things, we campaign to improve female participation and representation at all levels of governance. We focus on preparing women to claim those spaces and offer training for female candidates. We collaborate – locally, regionally, and globally – with other organisations to bring good global practices to women in Trinidad and Tobago. For example, we have collaborated with the Women’s Human Rights Institute to bring CEDAW training to Trinidad and Tobago.

What issues did you try to bring into the CSW agenda this year? 

Not only did we bring the issues I just mentioned, but also climate-related issues – the climate crisis, disasters, and risk mitigation. This was the first time that CSW focused on the nexus between women’s empowerment and climate change, climate justice and disaster management. As a Caribbean country, we are acutely aware of the impacts of climate change and disaster, as we have recently witnessed a volcanic eruption in St Vincent and the Grenadines and floods in Dominica and other countries, which wiped-out whole communities.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we have seen unprecedented levels of flooding. How are women prepared for this? How are women empowered to navigate these kinds of crises when they occur? How are we ensuring that girls’ and women’s needs are addressed appropriately? For example, when disaster hits, how do you ensure their safety in shelters? Do your emergency kits include menstrual products? Who is thinking about these things? These are the kinds of questions we are bringing to the table. Therefore, it is so important that women have a voice when decisions around these issues are made.

We also need to assess how emergencies are managed after the initial cause has been assessed – because the fact that a volcanic eruption has ended, for example, does not mean everything goes back to normal. What happened to the communities most impacted by the eruption? How are they coping? We must rethink the mechanisms we use to ensure people get back on their feet.

What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

Fortunately, we were able to have meaningful discussions of all these issues at this year’s CSW. CCoTT hosted a parallel event examining women’s empowerment in times of crises – climate crisis and Covid-19.

Our expectations included gaining access to a wide variety of discussions, hosted by other Caribbean and Latin American countries as well as cross-sectional discussions with countries from other parts of the world – because climate change and climate justice impacts all of us, and we all need to understand this. If something is happening in Latvia, for example, it does not mean it may not happen in Trinidad. We can learn from how the issue is/was addressed in Latvia. Whatever the climate action is, we can use it as a mitigating factor to prevent or better manage adverse effects. 

Were you able to participate fully, or did you experience any access issues?

The virtual nature of this year’s CSW made it possible for more people and CSOs to attend. It was different from past editions because there were none of the usual barriers involved in getting visas, traveling to the USA, and gaining access to the UN’s headquarters – which you cannot do if you are not an organisation accredited to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Those barriers were eliminated this year. From this perspective, virtuality made it much more accessible. CSW66 opened many doors and raised several questions that now must be answered. The UN should assess its own barriers to women’s access, such as the need to have ECOSOC accreditation to get inside UN headquarters during CSW.

Because CSW66 was virtual, participants had the opportunity to hear about different solutions, network with global peers, learn from their stories and share globally what is occurring in Trinidad and Tobago and how we have successfully addressed issues at a local level. In this regard, CSW66 met my expectations.

However, having access to high-level discussions was not easy. Even though they were virtual. Often this required registration which closed at certain number of attendees. Time zones were also a challenge. Events hosted by countries that are 12 hours ahead required some creativity. These were specific challenges of a virtual event, which would normally not be an issue during in-person gathering.

Overall, it was remarkably successful. If it continues to be virtual, we will learn how to navigate the challenges based on this years’ experience.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women into their decision-making processes?

In 2020 the UN acknowledged it was behind in terms of women’s integration in leadership and aggressively implemented changes. However, in 2021, when it had the opportunity, a woman was not elected as its Secretary-General, despite qualified candidates. 

With recognition comes responsibility. Global eyes are on the UN, so it needs to set an example throughout its bodies, divisions, and units. However, as I already said, just selecting women is not the answer. We also hear ‘get youth more involved,’ but young people should be prepared, mentored, encouraged, and supported. Similarly, we need to help women along the way and ensure that when they occupy a space where they can contribute, their contributions are valued. The gap is shrinking.

This is a work in progress, and the UN is trying. One way to ensure this happens properly is to involve civil society more – and not just lawyers or PhD holders. Learning does not only occur in the classroom. Application takes place on the ground in communities often led by community organisers or members of organisations. We need the academics collaborating with the community and others to strengthen capacities. Making room for grassroots, women and youth led initiatives. In this regard, there is more work to be done.

Civic space in Trinidad and Tobago is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. 
Get in touch with the CEDAW Committee of Trinidad and Tobago through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @CCoT_T on Twitter. 

 

CSW66: ‘Global-level policy-making is disconnected from women’s realities’

CIVICUS speaks about women’s human rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Wanun Permpibul of Climate Watch Thailand (CWT) and Misun Woo of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD).

APWLD is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) committed to building feminist movements to advance women’s human rights and development justice in Asia and the Pacific as well as globally. CWT, a member organisation of APWLD, is a CSO that works with local communities and women to call for urgent climate action and climate justice.

Thailand CSW66 interview

What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in Thailand and the Asia Pacific region, and how does APWLD work to address them?

Women in Thailand still do not have access to political spaces. Women work on farms and take care of their families, but when policies are made regarding farm work and domestic work they are not engaged in policy discussions, either in the planning process or the implementation stages.

We tend to look at the symptoms of issues, in this case of the violations of women’s human rights, but we need to look at both the structural causes and the consequence of these violations and injustices. The exclusion of women in policy formulation and decision-making processes perpetuates gender injustices and rights violations. We need to shift power relations so that every person can exercise their inherent power with dignity. Most women do not have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights and access political leadership because they are systematically undermined.

APWLD’s work consists of identifying the systems of oppression – patriarchy, fundamentalisms, militarism, colonialism and capitalism – and fighting to dismantle them while finding alternative solutions to advance women’s human rights and development justice. Through our work we have been able to build capacity and solidarity among feminist movements.

We focus on several thematic areas, including climate justice. Part of our work is about identifying and promoting the adoption of mitigation and adaptation strategies to advance women’s human rights as well as address the loss and damage and historical responsibilities. We see women experience the impacts of climate change disproportionately and they must be a source of solutions to help deal with the climate crisis. However, the reality is that they are not sufficiently engaged and the policies implemented in most instances do not cater to their needs and concerns.

What issues have you tried to bring into the CSW agenda this year?

This year’s focus for CSW’s 66th session (CSW66) was on the impact of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on women’s human rights. We have highlighted the ways women have been experiencing the impacts of climate change and the solutions they have devised. What we really wanted to see highlighted at CSW66 was the acknowledgment of the root causes and consequences of climate change on women and their effects leading to widening inequalities and increasing violations of women’s human rights.

A very critical point we wanted to see addressed was loss and damage associated with impacts of climate change and delays in mitigation efforts. It would have been good if CSW66 had supported a financial mechanism to address loss and damage due to the climate crisis as well as an accountability mechanism to hold accountable those responsible for causing the climate crisis, particularly large fossil fuel industries. We need to address the root causes of climate change for our societies to achieve sustainability.

Another issue we wanted to highlight at CSW66 was the ongoing attacks against women human rights and environmental defenders in Asia and the Pacific in the context of the climate crisis. They are at the frontline of climate crisis, working day in and day out to raise awareness about and resist the catastrophic impacts of extractive industries and fossil fuel burning, and they must be protected.

What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

We had high expectations, even though so many restrictions were imposed due to the pandemic. We viewed CSW as a space or momentum to elaborate on the causes and the consequences of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on women’s human rights. We expected it to meet the dual missions of advancing global commitments to address climate change and advancing women’s human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Unfortunately, CSW66 failed us on both counts. It did not look into the deeper causes of the climate crisis and the extent of its impacts on women’s human rights and gender equality. Mostly what it did was just add wording on climate change, environmental degradation and disasters at the end of the existing text of CSW66 conclusions. It failed to address the structural causes of the crisis, so the conclusions and recommendations are not designed to address and rectify those structural issues.

We need to pay attention to, for instance, how CSW66 Agreed Conclusions effectively let governments off the hook from their human rights obligation to regulate the private sector. Instead, they seek to strengthen the roles and responsibilities of the private sector and just encourage them to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence, where appropriate.

Another practical example is the net-zero goal included in the text. Most states are welcoming this goal that seeks to balance the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. In doing so, they are placing the responsibility of determining the future in the hands of those that are causing climate change.

If CSW66 were serious about addressing climate impacts and really thought this is a climate emergency, it would not go for a net-zero goal, which is buying time for those exploiting fossil fuels and polluting the planet to continue their business as usual, and would instead focus on the just and equitable transition to decentralised and renewable energy systems.

Did you have the opportunity to participate fully, or did you experience access issues?

We made a political decision to attend CSW66 in person, even though we were concerned about COVID-19 restrictions and there were lots of uncertainties regarding CSO participation in CSW66. The decision came from the fact that we, women from the global south, have lost significant opportunities and access to influence multilateral processes during the COVID-19 crisis.

Our experience is that CSW66 was not well organised, especially from the perspective of CSOs from the global south. It was all very uncertain and CSOs were not provided with enough information, while UN Women continuously advised us against traveling to New York. We were given access to the UN building only two or three days before CSW66 started. Only through an informal announcement we got to know that special event tickets would be distributed to two representatives per organisation with ECOSOC accreditation to access the conference room to observe. If the announcement had been made officially by the UN in time, it could have reached a larger audience of CSOs that had the right to be there.

We were also disappointed to see that CSOs continued to be excluded from the negotiation room. Civil society in the global south faces many structural restrictions on participation, including time constraints and language barriers. We really wanted to see CSW66 facilitate women’s meaningful and democratic participation, particularly because this year saw the negotiation of a Methods of Work resolution. However, this was yet another failure. To us, it was a further indication of how disconnected from women’s realities global-level policy making is.

If we compare CSW66 to other UN spaces, such as climate conferences, the lack of engagement between CSOs and national governments in CSW66 becomes readily apparent. It was challenging to have a dialogue with government representatives and negotiators because of the travel restrictions and the inability of some countries to participate in person.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

If we look at UN climate conferences, for instance, we will find that the proportion of women delegates is always low. Even though it has been increasing, it is still significantly small. We have seen attempts in successive climate conferences of the parties (COPs) to try and have a gender and climate focal point for every country, but the UN has not supported the initiative to introduce a protocol for national governments to implement it. The CSW66 Agreed Conclusions reiterate the need to have a gender and climate focal point in national governments. Thailand still does not have one.

Arrangements may be better for women in the global north, but from our global south perspective they are pretty bad. The CSW66 Agreed Conclusions note the importance of women’s and girls’ meaningful participation in decision making. However, the reality of women’s participation at CSW is far from encouraging.

It’s easier to say that UN Women or the CSW methods of work resolution encourage member states to include CSO representatives on their delegation. Many countries in Asia and the Pacific have seen a rise in autocratic and misogynistic leadership, and having CSO representatives on such government delegation is not something that will happen at all or in a meaningful way. It is not enough to hear the voices of women; women must be given actual power to make policy decisions grounded in women’s realities. This is the only way structural changes will happen.

Civic space in Thailand is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor
Get in touch with APWLD through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @apwld on Twitter. Get in touch with Climate Watch Thailand through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @ClimateWatchTH on Twitter. 

 

CSW66: ‘Grassroots environmental defenders are highly underrepresented in decision-making’

interview MALAWI CSW66CIVICUS speaks about women’s rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Joy Hayley Munthali and Dorothy Kazombo Mwale of the Green Girls Platform.

Founded in 2018, the Green Girl Platform is a female-led civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for climate justice for women and girls in Malawi by building capacity, providing leadership skills and promoting sexual and reproductive health rights.

What are the main women’s rights issues in Malawi, and how does Green Girl Platform work to address them?

In Malawi, women and girls are highly affected by the effects of climate change and environmental degradation due to their role in society. Girls are expected to help fetch firewood and get clean water for their households. Due to the effects of climate change, including erratic rains and depletion of natural resources, women and girls often have to walk long distances to find clean water and firewood. Because of these challenges, most girls are forced into early marriages and some drop out of school.

The vulnerability of women and girls to environmental degradation, as well as to sexual violence and exploitation and gender-related violence, is on the rise. This is happening due to a lack of understanding of the implications of climate change for their lives, lack of information, lack of leadership skills, low participation in governance structures, limited women-led climate-related platforms and a lack of understanding and application of their rights.

Women and girls are left out of decision-making processes although they are the ones who are most affected. The Green Girls Platform was founded to address the violence against women and girls that emanates from climate change and increase the number of women and girls engaged with climate change issues.

The Green Girls Platform is working to ensure that gender and women’s rights are placed on the local, national and global environmental and climate change agendas by advocating for gender-responsive governance and policies. We conduct capacity-building workshops and training on climate change to equip girls with skills and knowledge on climate justice and all it encompasses. Through our initiatives, we have been able to reach around 5,000 young women and girls in Malawi, increasing their active participation in addressing climate change.

What issues did you try to bring into the CSW agenda this year?

As an organisation we noticed that there is underrepresentation of young women and girls in decision-making processes. Their participation and active engagement in climate change governance structures is minimal. Structural changes are needed so that more women are included in decision-making bodies.

Climate change is affecting young women’s access to education, and we need to come up with adaptation strategies that work for girls and young women in their specific contexts. Strategies have to be sustainable and demand-driven to build the adaptive capacity of women and girls and enhance their access to education.

We are aware of the violence that girls and young women environmental defenders face either within their homes or in their communities. We would like to see the adoption of measures to protect the rights of adolescent girls and young women from climate-related violence. Civil society donors could help us navigate these challenges.

What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

Our expectations were that our concerns would be listened to and we would collectively come up with solutions to some of the overarching challenges. Although our needs were met to a good degree, we were not highly impressed by the output. But we are positive that things will improve.

In terms of access, we faced some challenges. Only one of our staff was able to attend the CSW sessions in person, and she did so for only three days due to insufficient funding. We also attended some online events, mainly side events, but we had issues accessing main events due to time differences and late notices, and because some of them were not open to civil society.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

UN Women has taken steps in the right direction in terms of integrating women into decision-making spaces. However, we still have challenges getting all voices represented at the table. Women and girl environmental defenders working at the grassroots level are highly underrepresented in decision-making spaces, even though they are the ones working at the local level and facing the adverse impacts of climate change. Access to climate financing for girls and young women working on climate issues is still minimal and inaccessible, leading to more issues falling through the cracks and not reaching decision makers.

Civic space in Malawi is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Green Girl Platform through its Facebook page and follow @GirlsPlatform on Twitter.

 

AFGHANISTAN: ‘Education is our basic right, it’s an Islamic right, it’s a human right’

Matiullah WesaCIVICUS speaks about girls’ right to education in Afghanistan with Matiullah Wesa, founder and president of PenPath.

PenPath is an Afghan civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to reopening closed schools, establishing new schools with communities and local authorities’ support, supporting ‘secret schools’, collecting books and setting up libraries, distributing humanitarian aid and educational materials and conducting awareness-raising campaigns in Afghanistan. 

What is PenPath, and what kind of work does it do?

My brother Ataullah and I founded PenPath in 2009. We work on a wide variety of topics, including human rights, girls’ education and public libraries. We seek to realise fundamental human rights. We support children’s human rights and women’s human rights.

In the area of education, we work towards the goal of reopening closed schools. In 2009, we reopened a school in a war zone area that had been closed for almost 15 years. After we started reaching out to volunteers, we were able to campaign house to house in village after village. Over time, we were able to reopen 100 schools in the 16 provinces of Afghanistan. 

For instance, once we went to an area which had 2,100 families and not a single school. We started encouraging people by giving them information about the importance of education. They saw how important it was to have a school in their area. PenPath eventually established 46 schools in this previously school-less area, and we also opened 40 public libraries in remote areas.

We want to change people’s minds and show them that children’s rights, women’s rights and the right to education are all fundamental rights. We organised a book donation campaign and with the help of Afghan people we have so far collected 340,000 books. We have also distributed 1.5 million stationery material kits (pens, notebooks, schoolbags, pencils) among Afghan people. We provided education facilities for 110,000 children; and 66,000 of them were girls.

We think of PenPath as a bridge: we are a bridge between people and education.

What inspired you and your brother to found PenPath?

Our father was a tribal leader, and after 25 years of work and campaigning house to house to promote education, he established a public school for 900 students. This first school was built out of tents my father got, and we all studied under the trees. In 2003, I was a child attending school in Kandahar Province, Maruf District. I was in the fourth grade and I still remember the day when armed militants came and burned it down. It was very early in the morning, and they destroyed everything, including the Afghan national flag, pictures of the president, and of course the tents, chairs, books, and all school materials we owned. They yelled out awful things to teachers and students. My father was not present when this happened, so I told him once I saw him at home that evening. Even though he was devastated, this did not stop him. The next day, he encouraged all of us to fight for our rights and rebuild the school.

Six days after my school was burned down, militants came into my house to warn my father that as he was a supporter of girls’ education we were not welcome any longer. They gave us one week to go. We left our home and our district or else we would have been killed.

We left for Kabul, where we saw that both girls and boys had access to education. I reflected on this and decided to start some kind of campaign. I explained my idea to my father and he agreed to give me financial support for my project, which was also dear to him because he had a history with girls’ education initiatives. This is how my brother and I founded PenPath in 2009.

 What obstacles have you faced?

When we campaign with PenPath, we travel around the country and visit all districts and villages on our way. We talk to the local people in each area and we promote the unity of Afghan society for the cause of education. It is always difficult to start this conversation. When you first approach locals, their reaction can be very aggressive; they give us death threats and say they will kill us if we keep doing what we do. We also receive threatening phone calls from unknown numbers.

However, I don’t personally see these threats as obstacles. We manage to have thousands of contacts with locals and tribal leaders from all religious backgrounds who support our work. Fundamentalist militants can’t control our work and they can’t make us stop.

How did the context change as the Taliban returned to power?

The Taliban took over Afghanistan on 15 August 2021. Two days after this, PenPath started campaigning. We travelled to 20 provinces and met with thousands of women, men, tribal leaders and people from all religious backgrounds. We encouraged them to join us and contribute to the cause of girls’ education. We told them education is our basic right, it’s an Islamic right, it’s a human right.

When the Taliban closed girls’ schools, PenPath was the first CSO to start protests against this. We started protesting in March 2022 and held press conferences against the Taliban’s decision. 

Right now, girls’ schools are closed from grade six to grade 12 – that is, approximately from ages 12 to 18 –, which means that secondary education is out of reach for girls. People are starting to feel hopeless because it has been seven months now and girls still can’t go back to school.

We are campaigning to reverse this every day, protesting and holding press conferences. The Taliban told the media they would open these schools soon, so now we are waiting for this to happen. We are just waiting for the Taliban’s final decision regarding girls’ education. If the Taliban don’t keep their promise and open the schools, we won’t stay silent – we will take to the streets.

We will protest outside the Ministry of Education until schools are reopened. The reason I stayed in Afghanistan was to open all schools and to defend this fundamental right. This is now PenPath’s responsibility.

To what extent are people able to mobilise for girls’ education in Afghanistan?

Mobilising in Afghanistan is not an easy task. Every day we work to change the narrative around protests. We tell the media that we love our people and our country, and that is why we are fighting. But we must accept the hardships of mobilising in Afghanistan.

We receive threats and face any challenges that come our way. I could write books about all the challenges I’ve encountered because of my work. But I prefer not to focus on the challenges: I try to share with the media just the positive things. We want to reopen schools, and we will do whatever is necessary to achieve this. We won’t be silenced.

How does a ‘secret school’ work?

Secret schools function inside people’s homes. Many houses in Afghan villages are sufficiently big, with very big entrance halls. Some secret schools have grades one to six (ages 7 to 12), and others have grades six to nine (ages 12 to 16). Girls usually attend the latter since the biggest problem is that now they can’t attend high school. We also have five online programmes that are specially designed for girls who can’t attend school right now due to the political situation. The vast majority of our secret schools are located in the most remote areas or in war zones. We provide them with teachers, grade divisions and the necessary infrastructure.

In 2016 we started with 12 secret schools. These were located in a war zone area where there were no teachers available. We moved education to the houses and family teachers helped us with this. At this time, we didn’t want to promote this initiative on the media or among the government because we were afraid for the well-being of the teachers and students who took part. If they saw we had secret girls’ schools in that area, the military would try to kill our teachers.

Right now, we have 33 secret schools in the poorest provinces of Afghanistan. These areas had no schools 20 years ago, and we were the ones who brought education to them. There are two kinds of schools in these areas: one has only one class, and the other one has up to nine classes. Girls from poor areas used to have no access to schooling, and now they do. This is what matters to us. We give girls hope. Right now, 5,000 girls are studying every day in our secret schools.

How could international civil society support your work?

Funding is a big challenge for us. During the last government, I had contacts with the president and the minister of education, but I’ve never had contacts with the local Taliban. This means that no one in the current administration will help us. We used to have a team of 2,400 volunteers and worked together with the government. They had a big salary budget and helped us with donations. But the majority of those officials don’t have a job anymore, and this is a problem because we are running very low on donations.

On the ground I can manage, because all of our activities used to be in war-zone areas, which were 50 per cent Taliban-controlled anyway. I know how to talk to religious leaders and how to navigate these difficulties. But funding is a whole different thing.

I am very active on social media. PenPath has a website, Facebook page and Twitter account. I also use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If international civil society or foreign CSOs want to contribute to our projects, they can always get in touch with us on social media, by email and through WhatsApp. We currently don’t receive any kind of international funding, and all our work is volunteer work. But we do need your support to continue running secret schools, public libraries, online classes and other activities. Donations would be a big help for PenPath.

Another key way the international community could help is by putting pressure on the Taliban government to reopen schools and by supporting education in Afghanistan. Before the Taliban took over in August last year, there were still many areas with no schools, so we need help building schools, providing scholarships, distributing books and stationery and bringing all these to remote places. We need all the help we can get if we are to provide education opportunities to every woman, girl and boy in Afghanistan.

Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with PenPath through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @PenPath1 and @matiullahwesa on Twitter and @penpathvolunteers and @matiullah_wesa on Instagram.

PenPath Afghanistan 1

 

CSW66: ‘UN member states should make efforts to honour their commitments at home’

Eucharia AbuaCIVICUS speaks about women’s rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Eucharia Abua, Senior Programme Officer on Gender and Reproductive Justice at African Girls Empowerment Network (AGE Network).

Founded in 2015, AGE Network is a young feminist civil society organisation (CSO) committed to advancing gender equality in girls’ education and promoting young women’s bodily and economic rights and leadership in Nigeria. It works to end child marriage and keep girls in school, and provides support to rape survivors, teenage mothers, victims of domestic violence and female genital mutilation, LGBTQI+ women, sex workers, women and girl refugees from Cameroon, internally displaced women and girls, and other economically disadvantaged and vulnerable women and girls.

What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in Nigeria, and how does AGE Network work to address them?

One of the main issues is women’s right to pregnancy by choice. In Nigeria, there’s an imbalance in the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and adolescent girls. This is evident in the country’s discriminatory abortion law, which only allows medical abortion under certain circumstances. This strict law, alongside shame, social stigma and a lack of access to timely and non-judgemental information about safe, self-managed medical abortion and legal support, steers young women towards unsafe abortions.

Many young women with unintended pregnancies, particularly those in vulnerable settings and displaced communities who are pregnant as a result of sexual violence, rape or incest, and those with critical medical conditions who cannot carry a pregnancy to term, seek unsafe abortions from quack doctors in hideouts and become vulnerable to irreparable harm or death. This has contributed to the current maternal mortality ratio of 512 per 100,000 live births, according to a 2020 report by the Federal Ministry of Health.

To address this situation, AGE launched the #BellebyChoice campaign, an initiative to advance women’s and girls’ bodily rights and autonomy by securing their rights to pregnancy by choice, not by chance. The campaign seeks to curb unintended pregnancies by improving access to and uptake of family planning and modern contraception and end unsafe abortions through the provision of timely and non-judgemental information and legal support so that women can access safe and self-managed medical abortions. We have a dedicated hotline and use local and pidgin languages to address communication barriers in accessing sexual and reproductive health services among women and adolescent girls.

Additionally, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, AGE has stood in solidarity with vulnerable young women, including female sex workers, and has helped them access timely sexual and reproductive health services. We partnered with Women First Digital and incorporated their AllyChatBot for safe abortion via WhatsApp into our campaign. So far they have supported our efforts to end abortion stigma and help young women access non-judgemental sexual and reproductive health information and care through their mobile phones.

In the face of COVID-19, we have also advocated with the Nigerian government to relax the discriminatory abortion law. We have campaigned and engaged with key stakeholders to call on the government to set aside laws and policies that restrict access to safe abortion and allow the use of telemedicine and self-managed abortions in line with the guidelines put forward by the World Health Organization.

Why do you think the Nigerian government is not sufficiently responsive to women’s rights demands? 

Here is where another major women’s rights issue comes in: there’s a great imbalance in female representation and too many obstacles prevent women from having effective political participation. Inclusive governance is still a pending issue in Nigeria, and it continues to face strong resistance. For instance, just this March, Nigeria’s Senate and House of Representatives rejected proposed bills to grant additional legislative seats to women and other forms of affirmative action.

This is also apparent in the area of climate justice and environmental protection: rural women form the majority among farmers, but they have not been fully integrated or carried along in the process to develop the national climate change mitigation and adaptation action plan.

What issues have you tried to bring into the CSW agenda this year?

This year AGE has called for climate justice, in the form of a more inclusive climate change mitigation and adaptation action plan. This was the official theme for International Women’s Day 2022 (IWD 2022), to which the priority theme for the CSW’s 66th edition (CSW66) was closely aligned.

We carried out an online campaign, joined our civil society partners’ side events at CSW66 and hosted a virtual summit to commemorate IWD2022, in which we reflected on climate change and its disproportionate impact on women and girls, reviewed the progress made so far in mitigating climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa, celebrated women’s achievements, raised awareness of gender bias, engaged leading feminists working on climate justice and environmental protection in both government and the private sector in discussion and called for investment in Nigeria’s renewable energy sector.

Against all odds, women in Nigeria have played a key role in addressing the impacts of climate change and advancing climate justice. However, in spite of their contributions, women and girls – and particularly those in vulnerable settings and displaced communities – are still being disproportionately affected by the lack of climate action.

What were your expectations of CSW and to what degree have they been met?

Our expectations were to be able to connect, collaborate with and learn from women’s rights organisations and activists from around the world, joining together in a unified call for climate justice.

We re-echoed the achievements and contributions of our women, reviewed the reality and impacts of climate change on women, and called for a more level playing field and gender-responsive climate change mitigation and adaptation for a sustainable future for all.

But we were unable to participate fully due to internet connection problems and time zone differences during most of the events.

Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women into their decision-making processes?

As the leading international body, the UN has created an enabling environment for women’s participation in leadership and decision making and inclusive governance, including through Sustainable Development Goal number 5 on gender equality. However, UN member states should match this with efforts to honour their commitments at home, reducing gender inequalities, tackling human rights violations, and upholding the rule of law.

Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the African Girls Empowerment Network through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @TheAGENetwork on Twitter.

 

TUNISIA: ‘We are just students fighting for the future in times in which our opinions are disregarded’

Aziza FakherCIVICUS speaks about the impacts of the climate crisis in Tunisia and civil society responses with Aziza Fakher, a biology-geology engineering student and member of Youth for Climate Tunisia (YFC Tunisia).

Founded by two students in July 2019, YFC Tunisia strives for social and climate justice in Tunisia. It acknowledges the impact of the climate crisis on vulnerable and marginalised communities and demands climate action through digital campaigns and on-the-ground mobilisation.

What prompted the foundation of YFC Tunisia, and what issues do you currently work on?

The movement was started during the 2019 heatwave, which hit the whole of Tunisia and was so bad that you couldn’t leave your home without first getting properly hydrated.

Due to its diversity of ecosystems and landscapes, Tunisia faces multiple climate issues. Access to water is a human right, but here it is a very challenging issue. Receding coastlines put the lives of many Tunisians living on islands in peril. The coastline as a whole is endangered.

We are also working with other civil society organisations (CSOs) to stop industrial pollution in the city of Gabès, which faces an environmental catastrophe. Industries there have destroyed natural ecosystems and Indigenous communities. This fits the definition of ecocide, and the rest of the country should acknowledge it.

All of this has impacted on women in very specific ways. There are rural areas where women still have to carry barrels of water for as far as 10 kilometres. In places such Gabès, they live amid pollution, and for those of reproductive age this can have long-lasting impacts both on themselves and on future generations. 

We advocate for the introduction of climate education in all school curriculums and for exposing women to it as well, so they can transmit it to their children. Although the government has signed an agreement indicating support, it has so far been passive. CSOs lack funds to get this work done and the state hasn’t intervened or reached out to help.

Why is climate so important for young people in Tunisia?

This is important to us because it’s our future that is at stake. Young people have been very serious and dedicated to tackling this crisis from day one: we have skipped school to fight for the climate, we have helped other CSOs, we have reached out to political figures who have shut us down and refused to meet with us and listen to us. We have played a role in influencing other young people and raising wider awareness, which has been an important goal of the movement since it was founded. Indeed, we are still recruiting more young activists every day and we are able to provide them with a platform and a space to express themselves and their thoughts about the ongoing crisis.

People tend to forget that we are just students fighting for the future in times in which our opinions are disregarded. Many of us are endangering our daily lives, but we think it is worth it.

How has the current political crisis influenced your work?

The political and economic situation has influenced our movement. If one of your main tactics is to reach out to decision-makers to advocate for the adoption and implementation of laws and policies, a constantly changing situation is a big problem. It does not let us get ahead in our work and regularly makes us lose ground on the progress previously made.

When we first held a strike in Tunis, the Tunisian capital, we were exposed to religious conspiracy theories, which people tried to use against us because they refused to believe that climate change was real. Politicians and government officials should have conveyed the correct message to educate the public so that this crisis isn’t something alien and mysterious to them. But they didn’t.

We received backlash and were targeted with criticism and hate speech concerning our methods. Others, however, have said that our discourse is too soft, that we do not take risks and that we are not active in real life. Our response to them is that we are young Tunisians living in a context of political unrest, so our real-life activities are always uncertain.

The economic context for activism is also complicated, especially following the recent news about the president’s intention to ban all foreign funding for Tunisian CSOs.

We have often found ourselves lagging in the funding department. The situation is very difficult for many CSOs that have no independent funding. If we are unable to get funding, we will be unable to work on new projects. We are very uncertain regarding our future plans. And being young activists, we also struggle to exercise our right to access data and information, which is a huge issue in Tunisia.

Additionally, we have faced bureaucratic restrictions. For example, we have recently had to submit our registration paperwork because we are working on climate education and we are not allowed to work with children or in a school or university environment unless we are recognised and certified as a formal CSO. But we have faced challenges because the process is very slow and requires a huge amount of paperwork.

What are your demands for national and international decision-makers ahead of the COP27 climate change summit?

We are aware that activity in the global north has a huge environmental impact on the global south, including Tunisia. Since COP27 will be held in Egypt this year, we have formed a coalition with other environmental rights groups to work at a regional level.

We want to see more engagement from local and global politicians in terms of laws and policies to tackle climate change, and also for them to condemn greedy capitalist profiteers. We would like the Tunisian government to acknowledge the Sustainable Development Goals in the Tunisian context and to implement nationally determined contributions and start a transition to renewable energy.

New laws must also be introduced to protect future generations’ right to water and food security. The Ministry of Environment must adopt climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Effective waste recovery and management systems must be adopted, because the lack of these is a huge problem for local communities. People have died as a result of living near toxic waste dumps. We also need state-run awareness campaigns targeted at marginalised and vulnerable communities. And we want climate education in all schools, because of its crucial role in preparing kids for the future to come.

We are willing to work together with other CSOs that share our goals. Because these are human rights issues, we would like to bring them into the United Nations Human Rights Council and its Universal Periodic Review sessions, where civil society voices are heard, taken into consideration and empowered.

Civic space in Tunisia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Youth for Climate Tunisia through its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @yfctunisia on Twitter.

 

UKRAINE: ‘International organisations are clearly not up to their historic responsibilities’

Oleksandra MatviichukCIVICUS speaks with Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the board of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), about human rights violations in Ukraine amid the Russian invasion and civil society’s response.

Established in 2007, CCL is a Ukrainian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights and democratic values in Ukraine and Europe.

How has Ukrainian civil society organised in the wake of the Russian invasion?

Ukrainian civil society came together and issued the Kyiv Declaration, an appeal made by 100 civil society leaders that includes six points: to establish safe zones that protect civilians from air and ground attacks; to provide immediate defensive military aid, including lethal and non-lethal weapons; to implement crippling economic and financial sanctions to undermine Russia’s war machine; to provide immediate aid to local humanitarian organisations; to freeze the assets and revoke the visas of Putin’s cronies; and to provide the technology and support required to record war crimes.

There are a lot of CSOs in Ukraine, and therefore lots of initiatives happening. CCL has an initiative called Euromaidan SOS, which we launched a while back, in 2013, to provide legal help to activists detained during the Revolution of Dignity. This initiative involves hundreds of volunteers and focuses on legal and logistics support, humanitarian assistance and the documentation of war crimes to help bring perpetrators to justice.

We work alongside international organisations, foreign governments and the Ukrainian diaspora. We have a campaign dedicated to the establishment of humanitarian corridors and we work with partners in several countries to provide aid in occupied cities. Russians have deliberately isolated occupied cities, attacking people who try to evacuate and obstructing humanitarian assistance. We are working to help those people.

We also engage with partner human rights organisations in European countries, such as France and Germany, so that they put pressure on their national governments. Some countries have continued doing business as usual with Russia, even though they have repudiated the war. We need their governments to make the kind of political decisions that will save Ukrainian lives.

As well as producing information to disseminate abroad so that the world knows what is happening in Ukraine, we use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread information among people within Ukraine. One of the ways Russian invaders try to isolate the local population is by cutting off communications. We work to bypass these obstacles and provide life-saving information regarding evacuation procedures, medical care and official decisions, among other things.

We have all adapted our work to the needs of the moment. I for instance am a human rights lawyer, so my field is the law, but I have somewhat shifted my priorities. I do not have military experience or expertise, but I have had to learn a number of things to be able to help. My work now not only involves research on war crimes for the quest for international justice, but also advocating and finding ways to pressure for the war to be stopped. So while I still conduct work in the field of law and gather evidence for future use, I also do other things, such as connecting with international organisations to try to get them to maintain their presence in Ukraine.

What are you asking the international community to do?

We work to force the international community to act in ways that are consistent with their words. Western politicians have expressed their support for Ukraine and its people, but their actions say otherwise. They have established economic sanctions against Russia, but there are still too many loopholes. A clear example is that of the SWIFT network, which has banned only a few Russian banks. Sberbank, one of the biggest banks, has not been excluded. We want all Russian and Belarusian banks expelled from the system, which would hopefully obstruct funding for the war and put enough pressure so that they will push for stopping it. Another urgent measure would be to put an embargo on Russian oil and gas, which are enabling the Russian government to fund its invasion of Ukraine.

We don’t want the international community to get comfortable with what is happening in Ukraine. They must stand in solidarity with us and help us fight this. Our number one priority is to be able to defend ourselves, but we are fighting not only for ourselves but also for the values of a free world. Russia started this war because it is afraid of NATO. Putin is afraid of freedom. We hope our example will also impact on other post-soviet states and we will get to decide what our region will be like.

We want the international community to provide tangible solutions. Now that the bulk of refugees have been got to safety, it is time to reach for a more ambitious goal. We need strategic measures that will stop war crimes and force the invasion itself to stop. In occupied territories, we have already seen people being beaten up, arrested and tortured. Detentions, kidnappings and torture are being used against the brave Ukrainians who go out with the Ukrainian flag and face Russian soldiers. It is only a matter of time before human rights defenders, journalists, religious leaders and civil society activists and organisations start to be deliberately targeted. We need to find ways to protect people. 

What is your assessment of the international response to the Russian invasion so far?

We feel and appreciate the huge wave of solidarity across the globe, but it is not enough to address our situation. What we need is a serious response to the Kyiv Declaration.

Unfortunately, our advocacy asks have not been met. International organisations and our allies are focusing on providing humanitarian assistance to refugees outside Ukraine. This is very important because there are more than three million Ukrainian refugees now. But it is also the easiest thing to do in this horrible situation, when tens of millions remain in Ukraine, where war is still happening. The people who have stayed also need protection and humanitarian assistance, and they need it even more urgently.

This is why we urged the establishment of a no-fly zone and the supply of long-range distance weapons, defence systems and fighter planes. We have been asking for weeks but have not received anything yet. What we got instead from the international community has been drones, that’s all. But drones will not protect civilians from Russian attacks.

Our own allies sometimes offer us aid that is not useful. Instead of listening to our requests, people who have no idea what it is to be under this kind of attack insist on providing the help they think we need. For instance, I have received calls from international CSOs who wanted to send us vests and helmets, which hopefully would arrive in Kyiv within a few weeks. That sounded funny because right now we don’t know what will happen within the next few hours. I had to explain to them that if Russians came to occupy Kyiv and found us wearing their nice helmets, they would kill us all. Their helmets won’t protect us from the dangers we face.

I think the architecture of the international governance system is not working properly because it has a fundamental design defect. Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The mandate for this body is to maintain international peace and security, but we have seen the total opposite of that take place in Ukraine. And there is also a lack of understanding of their responsibilities by those who are in positions where they could help. When the war started, international organisations evacuated their staff from Kyiv and other places under attack. International organisations are clearly not up to their historic responsibilities. 

I remain in Kyiv and have spent yet another horrible night in which residential buildings have been targeted by Russian missiles. I really don’t understand what the international community is waiting for. We need their urgent help. The people who died last night in Kyiv couldn’t wait.

Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Center for Civil Liberties through its website or Facebook page, and follow @ccl_ua on Twitter.

 

UKRAINE: ‘The presence of international organisations is key to ensure safe humanitarian corridors’

Sasha RomantsovaCIVICUS speaks with Sasha Romantsova, executive director of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), about Ukrainian civil society’s response to the Russian invasion.

Established in 2007, CCL is a Ukrainian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights and democratic values in Ukraine and Europe.

What are the main ways in which your organisation is responding to the Russian invasion?

In the face of the unprecedented situation in Ukraine, on the first day of the Russian invasion CCL renewed its Euromaidan SOS initiative. This was launched in 2013 to provide legal help to activists detained during the peaceful protests held in the context of the Maidan Revolution, or Revolution of Dignity, which erupted in response to the then-president’s sudden decision not to sign a political and free trade agreement with the European Union.

This initiative, which brings together hundreds of volunteers, is now working on various aspects of Russia’s human rights violations in Ukraine. More specifically, our volunteers are documenting war crimes and gathering information about prisoners and missing persons.

Other volunteers help spread the word about what is going on in Ukraine through our social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. They share useful information 24 hours a day. They publish content in various languages on YouTube. There is a whole group of volunteers who provide translations and specialists who tirelessly work on video editing.

At the international level, we maintain communication channels through our diaspora, international human rights networks, partners and friends. We discuss with diplomats the urgent need for the protection of human rights in Ukraine. One significant issue we have discussed is the need for the presence of the missions of international organisations to ensure safe humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from war zones.

Additionally, to respond to requests from people in need, we have created a special chatbot for the Telegram app.

We are also constantly conducting advocacy actions and campaigns, such as #CloseTheSky, supporting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s international demand for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. We are now starting a new campaign regarding the need for safe humanitarian corridors – safe evacuation routes for those fleeing the war.

Alongside us, many other human rights organisations are involved in various areas of documenting Russia’s war crimes. Additionally, there are numerous public initiatives on all fronts, among them efforts to provide humanitarian cargo and logistics, evacuate civilians and organise art events and media campaigns, including some aimed to a Russian audience. These are very important because otherwise the truth about what is happening in Ukraine would never get reach the Russian population. We maintain a database of initiatives across the country. 

How is the conflict affecting Ukrainian civil society’s work?

Most CSOs have been forced to suspend their activities on the ground, and some have had to leave Ukraine for the time being. Many CSO staff members and activists who have stayed have at the very least sent their families away. There are some cities – such as Kharkov in the northeast and Mariupol in the southeast – where it is impossible for any CSO to continue to work. In other cities, such as Berdyansk, Kherson and Melitopol, activists are being kidnapped for their work.

CCL continues to operate from Ukraine and our team members have not left the country. We are truly blessed to have a group of fantastic people who have run the Euromaidan initiative since Russia started this war.

What should the international community do to help?

Our demands to global leaders are to close the skies over Ukraine, provide weapons for our effective protection and fully enforce all the sanctions imposed on Russia, including the disconnection of all Russian banks from the SWIFT network and the cessation of oil and gas purchases from Russia.

Given that most international organisations, including the United Nations (UN), have evacuated their international staff from Ukraine due to serious threats to their lives, we urge them to send in international missions qualified to work in military conditions.

These missions’ duty should be to monitor the actions of both parties. The UN should establish an international tribunal to establish the facts of the Russian Federation’s military aggression, while the International Criminal Court should consider and promptly rule on war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. The International Committee of the Red Cross should be in charge of organising the exchange and removal of the dead from both sides.

We stress the urgent need for international presence and international monitoring of violations during the evacuation of the civilian population from destroyed cities, villages and settlements. We therefore urge international civil society to support the advancement of our demands to the governments of democratic countries and the leadership of international organisations.

Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Center for Civil Liberties through its website or Facebook page, and follow @ccl_ua on Twitter.

 

UKRAINE: ‘If we share information, leaders won’t be able to turn blind eye to human rights violations’

Yaropolk BrynykhCIVICUS speaks with Yaropolk Brynykh of Truth Hounds about Ukrainian civil society’s response to the Russian invasion.

Truth Hounds is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at fighting against the impunity of perpetrators of international crimes and grave human rights violations through investigation, documentation, monitoring, advocacy and problem-solving assistance for vulnerable groups. Jointly with Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights, The Truth Hounds team has carried out over 50 fact-finding missions to document war crimes in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

What are the main ways in which your organisation is responding to the Russian invasion?

I’m a board member of the Ukrainian human rights organisation Truth Hounds, which has focused on documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity in war contexts since 2014. We wouldn’t be able to tackle this mission without a highly qualified team of human rights professionals with experience in conflict areas – not only in the east of Ukraine and occupied Crimea but also in neighbouring countries, including in Nagorno Karabakh, a territory disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Having prepared three extensive submissions to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, we have developed thorough knowledge of international standards and best practices of evidence collection and systematisation of war crimes.

Thus, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, I immediately joined a field team of investigators working day and night to document Russian war crimes in our country. Since then, our team members have collected evidence of indiscriminate shelling, targeted attacks against civilians, ecological crimes and other violations of customs of war. On the basis of that, our team has already prepared and published 13 reports revealing grave human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian military.

Most of our current efforts in response to the Russian invasion focus on monitoring human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian army, international advocacy, support for professional groups and humanitarian and legal aid to people in need.

Our team also supports the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office in chasing perpetrators of war crimes through documentation and monitoring of human rights violations. We also share reports and evidence as much as possible to provide international judicial bodies, including the ICC, with evidence that can one day be used to bring perpetrators to justice.

In the context of the war, we also understand the importance of information, so our team works to produce accurate and reliable information as quickly as possible and shares it with international media groups. We believe that if we share information about Ukraine, global leaders won’t be able to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations that Russia is perpetrating here. Our nation needs support from the whole world; hence, our current mission is to deliver facts from the field to the international community.

How is the conflict affecting Ukrainian civil society’s work?

Ukrainian civil society is in the same boat as the whole nation, and as everyone else, we are trying to keep working despite the difficult circumstances. Some civil society representatives, including well-known human rights defenders, have joined the army to fight and protect the country. Others have had to leave Ukraine, but they are doing their best to operate in exile within their limited possibilities.

While many CSOs moved to western Ukraine to try and resume their activities despite limited technical and financial opportunities, others decided to stay in the eastern and southern parts of the country, to cover humanitarian needs and help with the logistics of relocation of the civilian population. But their capacities are down to a minimum because they are not able to receive much support from international CSOs.

Only a tiny segment of civil society took on board information about a possible Russian invasion and was prepared enough. They have managed to continue working for the past weeks. But even this small group cannot be as effective as it used to be because of the need to hide in shelters during chaotic air and rocket attacks.

Overall, civil society is under tremendous mental pressure, which will have long-lasting effects. This will become yet another challenge for the country once the war is over. Civil society will suffer from post-traumatic syndrome.

What should the international community do to help?

Ukrainian civil society needs advocacy and communications support. Our partners must help us deliver our messages to our allies and governments worldwide. Needless to say, Ukraine cannot win this fight alone. But we share the same democratic values and we need your support.

All of us in contemporary Ukrainian civil society grew up believing in democratic values and we heard time and again that these were the most important principles for the western world. Now we are fighting for these values, we ask the international community to amplify our voices. If it doesn’t, it will be clear that western countries choose their business interests over democratic values. We don’t want to be let down.

Ukraine also needs the humanitarian assistance of international organisations. We understand how hard it is for organisations such as the World Health Organization and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to organise proper fieldwork. But there is one thing even harder: explaining to people from war-affected regions why these organisations disappear when they need them the most.

Since 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and invaded Ukraine for the first time this century, Ukrainians have seen thousands of international organisations’ representatives spending their time here, mostly in expensive hotels and restaurants. We were told that were here to try and save Ukrainian lives. But now that Ukrainian lives are in fact under immediate threat, international organisations are not here anymore. For us, they are now invisible and silent.

Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Truth Hounds through its website or Facebook page.

 

RUSSIA: ‘The shutdown of media sources threatens to create information vacuum for Russians’

Natalia MalyshevaCIVICUS speaks about anti-war protests in Russia and the government’s violations of digital rights with Natalia Malysheva, co-founder and press secretary of Roskomsvoboda.

Roskomsvoboda is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works to defend people’s digital rights. Established in 2012, it promotes the freedom of information and advocates against censorship. It is currently working to ensure people receive accurate information about the war and offering assistance to those who have been detained.

How significant are the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia?

The protests are small. In the first days of the so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, many people came out to take part in spontaneous rallies for peace in all major cities of Russia. Human rights CSOs have reported that more than 15,000 people have been detained so far for speaking out against the war. But now protests typically consist of small groups of people in multiple locations across the country.

The new law that prohibits and criminalises the dissemination of ‘fake news’ about the Russian military action and the expression of support for ‘anti-Russian sanctions’ has had a strong impact on how people organise, and on whether they go out to protest, because it has installed fear throughout society.

People have been arrested merely for using the words ‘war’ and ‘peace’ in the context of protests, and even for using asterisks instead of letters on their signs – because the government knows that if you protest with a blank sign or a sign full of asterisks, what you are trying to say is ‘no to war’. People who advocate against the war on social media are also often at risk of being arrested.

There are fewer and fewer people who are willing to take part in an uncoordinated rally and get arrested for several days, because most of them have families and jobs they wish to protect. Many people who fear for their lives are leaving the country for their safety. Others simply do not see any prospects in a continuing struggle. Moving forward, we shouldn’t expect mass protests to arise in Russia.

Do you think protests can make any difference?

Right now it is clear that the Russian government does not intend to have a dialogue with the part of society that does not support its so-called ‘military operation’ in Ukraine. This is unfortunately a relatively small segment of society and its demands are overlooked.

Although people continue to go out to protests and some get arrested in the process, in my opinion this will not change the course of the events that are currently taking place. The authorities won’t listen to protesters. Protesting will perhaps start making more sense when – or if – most Russians begin to understand what is really happening.

What is Roskomsvoboda focusing on?

Roskomsvoboda is a CSO that supports open self-regulatory networks and the protection of digital rights of internet users. It seeks to counter online censorship and expand the opportunities brought by digital technologies.

For 10 years, Roskomsvoboda has constantly monitored the activities of government agencies. We publish a register of blocked sites and raise awareness of online abuse, leakages of personal data and the persecution of citizens for their social media statements. We conduct extensive public campaigns and events aimed at informing citizens about the violation of their digital rights, initiating public discussion and bringing people together so they can fight for their rights. Our lawyers defend those who are prosecuted for their online statements or activities, represent the interests of users and site owners in court and participate in the development of proposals for changing legislation.

In the past few days, against the backdrop of an information war and a growing social crisis, we have focused more on helping people get reliable information about what is happening. We have published pieces about new laws that have been adopted to introduce censorship and analysed how they will affect people and their right to speak up. Our lawyers continue to provide targeted legal assistance to those who are being prosecuted for speaking out online, defending people in courts.

The closure of some news outlets and social media platforms is affecting the kind of information people receive. State media outlets provide information that only reflects events from the government’s perspective and disseminate a lot of propaganda. The shutdown of leading media sources threatens to create an information vacuum for Russians, which won’t contribute to the goal of achieving peace.

Restrictions on access to information and censorship have already significantly reduced people’s ability to protest. Even publishing an online call for a peace rally can result in criminal punishment.

We recently issued a statement calling on the world’s leading internet and IT companies and initiatives not to indiscriminately impose mass sanctions and not to punish ordinary people in Russia, many of whom are already in a vulnerable position. We have translated our appeal into several languages and are asking everyone to help disseminate it.

What are the dangers of disinformation in the context of the current crisis?

The biggest risk of disinformation is that of disconnecting Russia from the global information space.

Russian authorities have blocked the world’s largest media outlets and social media. Many western companies have stopped operating in Russia, making it even more closed for international viewers. This prevents people from getting the truth about what is happening; it also destroys the businesses and careers of many people who have worked in partnership with Western countries for many years.

The current closure of businesses has left many people without vital resources. People are not only affected by oppression from the Russian government but must also deal with the potential loss of their jobs and sources of income. With such actions, western countries only risk Russia shutting down completely from the outside world, paving the way for the rise of a ‘sovereign internet’ – an internet thoroughly controlled by the government.

How can the international community best support Russian civil society?

The international community can help by bringing our message to the widest possible audience. On behalf of Russian internet users, Roskomsvoboda urges technology companies located in the jurisdictions of the USA, the European Union and other countries not to massively disable the accounts of Russian users. They should not restrict their access to information and means of communication.

Digital discrimination based on nationality would reduce the ability of Russians to gain access to reliable information, as well as to conduct honest work, study and research activities. So we ask you to please distribute our statement far and wide.

We also started a petition asking the world’s virtual private network (VPN) services to help ensure that Russian users have free access to their services during these difficult times. This is necessary to protect users’ basic rights to privacy, the secrecy of communication and their ability to receive and disseminate information freely. Access to information is a basic human right enshrined in various international agreements. In critical situations, it is more important than ever.

Civic space in Russia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Get in touch with Roskomsvoboda through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @RuBlackListNET on Twitter.

 

GREECE: ‘Together we can do more’

CIVICUS speaks about the state of civil society and civic space in Greece with Sotiris Petropoulos, director of Higher Incubator Giving Growth and Sustainability (HIGGS), an initiative that seeks to strengthen Greek civil society organisations (CSOs) through education and support programmes and activities. HIGGS’ purpose is to mobilise the ‘invisible’ forces of the CSO ecosystem, stimulating people and organisations to undertake new, innovative initiatives, and providing the right conditions for their incubation and acceleration.

Sotiris Petropoulos

What are the current conditions for civil society in Greece?

Greece is a democracy with a relatively open civic space. The 2010 socioeconomic crisis enhanced a trend towards increasingly active CSOs playing an important role in covering societal needs. Nevertheless, we are witnessing a regression in the freedoms enjoyed by organised civil society in the form of barriers, mostly of a legal nature, that make CSO work more difficult.

A first indication of this trend was seen when the government elected in July 2019 started gradually creating a more strict and formal oversight system of Greek CSOs, mainly through the introduction of new official registries under relevant ministries, such as a register of CSOs working with migrants and refugees, and so on.

Then in October 2021 draft legislation on CSOs proposed by the Ministry of Interior was put out for public consultation. The initiative was aimed at establishing a single registry of CSOs to replace the existing nine separate databases, so as to enhance transparency about their activities and fundraising activities.

At first, many CSOs welcomed this initiative as an opportunity to strengthen civil society, abolish complicated and bureaucratic procedures, unify all existing registries and ensure a safe and independent environment for CSOs to operate.

However, it soon became clear that the proposed legislation was aimed in a different direction: it would establish mechanisms to monitor rather than support CSOs, enhancing bureaucratic procedures, adding new limitations – such as a requirement for all CSO board members to have a clean criminal record – and increasing their overall operational costs. Moreover, it included some points that were quite problematic, especially for new or small organisations. For instance, to access the registry CSOs would need to have their accounts assessed by certified auditors, a rather costly service, especially for many small-to-medium CSOs with fluctuating budgets. But even those that could afford it probably wouldn’t prioritise this expense and would rather use the funds on their substantive work – say, for buying 1,000 meals to distribute among homeless people.

Another problematic point was the so-called ‘three-year limitation’, a provision that CSOs must have been legally established for at least three years to be eligible to enter the new registry, creating another barrier for some organisations. These points, among others, would widen the gap between big and small organisations and, overall, would create new obstacles for civil society work. In retrospect, the proposed legal framework mirrored the government’s view that only big organisations are and can be transparent and efficient, which in fact runs counter to existing evidence.

In addition, the government’s proposal seemed to be part of an overall ‘policing approach’ towards the segment of civil society it cannot understand or control – a continuation of a measure that had been introduced a year earlier, establishing an even more problematic registry exclusively for CSOs operating in the field of migration and refugees.

How did society respond to the proposed initiative?

The draft law was published in October 2021, just five weeks before the parliamentary vote on the proposal. The timeline for public consultation was short, but the civil society response was fast and massive.

Major CSO networks established a task force to coordinate a joint strategy to respond collectively with specific proposals to improve the draft law.

The first step was to inform all CSOs about the draft law. HIGGS sent emails, posted the proposal on social media and held online public events. In the meantime, we started to draft and share a joint public statement and called on all CSOs to support it by co-signing it and sharing it. This public statement collected 303 signatures, an impressive number by Greek standards. It was one of the biggest collective actions of Greek civil society ever recorded.

Taking advantage of this momentum, we made targeted calls for action to motivate all CSOs to work, both together and individually, to put pressure on members of parliament by calling them on the phone, sending them emails and sharing briefing papers with them.

During the public consultation process, HIGGS put together a policy proposal that contained improvements to the draft law, which was supported by over 45 organisations.

We encouraged all networks to be loud about the draft bill. We all communicated every single development through our media channels, published joint press releases and created social media campaigns.

What did the campaign achieve?

In response to all these actions, the Minister of Interior, Makis Voridis, invited some organisations to working meetings and eventually included some of our policy proposals in the final version of the law.

Law 4873/2021 was passed in December and introduced a new registration procedure for CSOs that seek to access government funding and receive various tax and economic privileges. The process is clear and has clear timeframe. In addition, in the area of volunteerism, specific provisions for emergency situations that were missing were added.

We value the sense of unity, solidarity and power of joint forces as the greatest legacy of this process. This approach is something that most CSOs agreed was missing in Greek civil society, and there is much space to work towards this direction in the future.

What about the restrictions targeting CSOs that work with migrants and refugees?

Over the past few years, several measures were implemented that were meant to discourage or restrict the work of CSOs working in the field of human rights and migration.

In September 2020, the government introduced a ministerial decision that established that Greek and foreign CSOs working in the field of migration, asylum, and social inclusion in Greece must fulfil an exhaustive list of formal and substantive requirements to register with the Ministry of Migration and Asylum. The required documentation targets both the organisation and its staff, members and volunteers, and non-registration would automatically lead to operations being ceased. Moreover, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum was granted complete discretion to accept or reject a CSO’s application.

Among a huge amount of bureaucratic documentation, these CSOs were required to submit audit reports for the previous two years, entailing costs that may be too much of a burden for small grassroots CSOs. For staff, members and volunteers, CSOs must provide criminal records and proof of permanent residence in Greece. If an individual does not meet the requirements, not just the individual concerned but also the CSO may be withdrawn from the registration process.

Concerns over the transparency of the registration process soon increased, as a former political group affiliated with the ruling party turned into a CSO working in the field of asylum: it was approved to receive over €5 million (approx. US$5.5 million) in funding within a week.

Another initiative – the Deportations and Returns Bill – that was submitted to parliament in August 2021 contained provisions to restrict the operation of CSOs through criminal and financial sanctions for individuals and institutions.

On top of the ongoing criminalisation of solidarity towards migrant and refugees, we observed the first effects of these laws and regulations, such as the rejection of Refugee Support Aegean’s application for registration with the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum.

What’s next for Greek civil society?

The task force of civil society networks that was formed in response to the draft bill on the CSO registry did not dissolve after the bill was passed. It remains active and continues monitoring the implementation of the new legislation, pushing for changes to those articles that are found to create obstacles to the exercise of the right to freedom to association, and keeping all CSOs informed of any new developments.

In HIGGS we believe in joint actions, teamwork, and cooperation within civil society. We encourage various forms of networking – one of our mottos is ‘together we can do more’. This is our philosophy and to live up to it. Our programmes offer a variety of perspectives and promote unity and solidarity within the diversity of Greek civil society. The ecosystem of Greek CSOs is gradually entering its mature age. We expect advocacy to become a more core activity of CSOs, and we are working on it.

We view our experience of collaboration in the face of potentially damaging legislation as the beginning of a new area for Greek civil society – one in which the culture of cooperation makes all of us stronger.

Civic space in Greece is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with HIGGS through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @HIGGS3HIGGS on Twitter.

 

UAE: ‘Many leaders remain silent in the face of systematic human rights abuses’

Kristina StockwoodCIVICUS speaks with Kristina Stockwood of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) about the current state of civic space in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the government’s efforts to improve its international reputation by holding the Expo 2020 event in Dubai.

GCHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) that provides support and protection to human rights defenders in order to promote human rights, including the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

What is the current state of civic freedoms in the UAE?

A dominant thread throughout GCHR’s coverage of the UAE is the stark difference between the progressive and forward-thinking image the UAE projects on the international stage and its despicable treatment of human rights defenders (HRDs) and others in civil society. Every single HRD active in the UAE has been imprisoned or driven into exile in violation of their right to the freedom of expression. The UAE cracks downs systematically on critical and independent voices who advocate for human rights in the country, both online and offline.

As GCHR shows in a recent report, the UAE authorities rely on torture to consolidate this oppressive climate. Key emerging patterns are the use of enforced disappearances following arbitrary arrest, detention to perpetrate torture with impunity, the punishment and further torture of those who dare to speak out about their conditions of detention, and the complicity of companies and the international community in the systematic perpetration of torture in the UAE. 

The UAE also continues to persecute HRDs in exile. In 2021, the UAE cabinet issued ministerial resolution 83, which added 38 people – including several HRDs and a researcher – and 13 entities to the government’s terror list. Also in 2021, it was revealed that one of the targets of surveillance under the Pegasus Project was Alaa Al-Siddiq, an Emirati activist and the executive director of ALQST for Human Rights, who was killed in a traffic accident in the UK in June 2021, where she had relocated to flee persecution.

Al-Siddiq’s father is one of the UAE94 – a group of prominent HRDs, judges, academics and students convicted and imprisoned following a trial that lacked the most basic international standards of fair trial and due process. They are due for release after 10 years in prison in 2022, but human rights groups fear that high-profile prisoners won’t recover their freedom, as the UAE uses so-called ‘Munasaha (rehabilitation) centres’ to keep prisoners locked up past the end of their sentences.

How is GCHR working to expose these human rights violations?

Exposing these human rights violations has been at the heart of GCHR’s work. We monitor the situation on the ground, produce reports, advocate internationally and campaign for the release of HRDs.

In January 2022, together with Human Rights Watch, we issued an urgent appeal to help Ahmed Mansoor, who is on GCHR’s Advisory Board. Mansoor was detained in March 2017 and for years has been held incommunicado, isolated from other prisoners, denied even a bed and mattress. After he wrote a prison letter that was published by regional media in July 2021, in which he detailed his flagrantly unfair trial and mistreatment in detention, the authorities retaliated against him by moving him to a smaller and more isolated cell, denying him access to critical medical care and confiscating his reading glasses.

In January 2022, along with several other CSOs led by MENA Rights Group we issued a joint appeal protesting against the UAE’s new Law on Combating Rumours and Cybercrime, which restricts civic space and free speech and criminalises acts that are protected under international law. We called on the UAE to immediately repeal or amend the law.

How is the UAE using Expo 2020 to divert attention and improve its international reputation?

Throughout the Expo, which started in October 2021 and ends on 31 March 2022, the UAE has made an effort to whitewash its image, projecting a country of tolerance that even promotes women’s rights. To that effect, a women’s pavilion was included at the Expo and Forbes held a big event for women.

The Women’s Pavilion at the Expo is designed to ‘reaffirm Expo’s commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment’. But women in the UAE have no rights and no power, and have been imprisoned for their online activities. The head of the Expo himself is a prominent perpetrator of violence against women. In 2020, a British woman who was organising the Hay Festival in the UAE, Caitlin May McNamara, was assaulted by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, commissioner-general of the Expo and Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence, after being lured to this residence on the false pretences that they would talk about the situation of Ahmed Mansoor.

Needless to say, not a single UAE HRD was invited to the Expo, an event whose organisers claim has the purpose of creating ‘a better tomorrow’ because that is what happens ‘when the world comes together’, as its slogan goes.

To what extent has the exposure of violations of the rights Expo 2020’s migrant workers challenged the UAE’s public relations machine?

The work of human rights groups to expose violations of the human rights of migrant workers building venues has been key regarding large events in the Gulf countries, such as the Dubai Expo and the World Cup 2022, which will be held in Qatar.

Migrant workers in the Gulf are subjected to massive human rights violations through the notorious kafala (sponsorship) system that strips them of their basic rights. Under this system, they have no right to move, travel or change work. They have little access to healthcare and no right to union representation or to form organisations. They are also denied the right to citizenship, even if they spend their whole lives working in these countries.

However, the plight of migrant workers has received more attention in Qatar than in the UAE, as the UAE uses its large PR machine to gloss over human rights violations.

The COVID-19 pandemic complicated things, as many low-wage migrant workers remained acutely vulnerable to infection. To make things worse, in late March 2020, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation issued an arbitrary and discriminatory decree allowing private companies to amend the contracts of migrant workers, put them on unpaid leave or force them to accept permanent or temporary salary reductions due to the spread of COVID-19. In April 2020, a letter sent by a coalition of 16 CSOs and trade unions called on the authorities to provide migrant workers with adequate protection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How is civil society taking advantage of global media attention around Expo 2020 to advocate for human rights?

In October 2021, GCHR and over two dozen partners, including two Emirati CSOs which operate in exile – the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE) and the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre – organised the online Alternative Human Rights Expo to counter the narrative of tolerance promoted by Emirati authorities. The three themes of the Dubai Expo are mobility, sustainability and opportunity – none of which is freely available to HRDs in the region. We argued that ‘coming together to hear diverse voices’ and ‘create a better world’ is not something attainable in a place where people are locked up for speaking their minds.

At the Alternative Human Rights Expo’s main event, held online on 14 October 2021, over 25 human rights groups paid tribute to human rights defenders from the UAE and called for their release during the Dubai Expo. The event, hosted by GCHR’s Women HRDs Programme Manager, Weaam Yousef, and prominent activist Iyad El-Baghdadi, featured HRDs, poets, artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers from a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond. The aim of the event was to highlight the work of creative talents from the region, as well as that of imprisoned activists, whose work was read during the event. These included Ahmed Mansoor in the UAE as well as Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in Bahrain, Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Sanaa Seif in Egypt and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee in Iran. Of those, Sanaa Seif was freed in December. Over 900 people participated or watched the event.

As part of that campaign, GCHR and 80 international CSOs delivered a letter to the UAE embassies in Geneva and London calling for activists imprisoned in the UAE to be freed, and for justice for women who have been abused in prison or at the hands of Emirati authorities. The letter, which highlights the case of Ahmed Mansoor, was delivered on Ahmed’s 52nd birthday. Those present at the embassy also filmed a birthday video for him.

Additionally, on 8 March 2022, International Women’s Day, GCHR co-sponsored an event with the European Centre for Democracy & Human Rights, ICFUAE and ALQST titled ‘Women’s Solidarity in Human Rights Activism: Storytelling from the Arab Peninsula’, where Emirati HRD Jenan Al-Marzooqi spoke of the persecution of herself and her family that forced her to flee the country. Other prominent WHRDs from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen also told their stories.

On 8 March, GCHR also published a press release in the context of our campaign calling on governments in the region, including the UAE, to ‘take serious measures to end the use of sexual and gender-based violence, curb online harassment of women, stop the use of surveillance to persecute women HRDs, stop reprisals against them and their families, and remove travel bans among other restrictions’.

ICFUAE and GCHR also created a petition calling on the UAE government to release Emirati HRDs who are arbitrarily detained and serving lengthy sentences simply for their human rights activities. We will deliver the signatures to the UAE authorities at the end of the Expo, and this will be a powerful message that Emirati defenders matter to people around the world.

What should international civil society do to help bring these issues into the global agenda?

Many CSOs have reported on the human rights violations happening in the UAE, yet many global leaders remain silent, at least in public, sometimes suggesting that they raise human rights violations behind the scenes. This includes government allies of the UAE and companies that hold events in the UAE. 

Following successful civil society advocacy, in September 2021 the European Parliament adopted a wide-ranging resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Ahmed Mansoor and others in the same situation, including Mohammed Al-Roken and Nasser bin Ghaith, and all other HRDs, political activists and peaceful dissidents, and urging all European Union member states to suspend the sale and export of surveillance technology to the UAE.

On 15 March, 27 CSOs led by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy wrote a joint letter to Formula 1 (F1) CEO Stefano Domenicali to raise human rights concerns ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, held on 20 March. They praised F1’s cancellation of its race in Russia but condemned the company for creating a ‘clear double standard’ over the participation of three race venues – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – in the war in Yemen. They called on F1 to use its platform to secure redress for victims whose abuse was connected to their races and review their policy on racing in Gulf states considering their participation in the war in Yemen, among other recommendations.

It is important for international civil society to continue to raise concerns about the UAE’s human rights record, both inside the country and in relation to the war in Yemen.

Civic space in the UAE is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The UAE is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Get in touch with the Gulf Centre for Human Rights through its website or Facebook page, and follow @GulfCentre4HR on Twitter.

 

RUSSIA: ‘These protests are key to the preservation of Russian civil society’

Maria KuznetsovaCIVICUS speaks about the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia and the repressive government response with OVD-Info’s spokesperson Maria Kuznetsova.

OVD-Info is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) that aims to promote and protect human rights – and specifically the freedom of peaceful assembly – in Russia. It monitors protests and their repression and assists detained protesters through legal aid, online consultations, and bringing them food and water while in detention.

How big are the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia?

The protests were massive in the first two weeks of the war – we recorded protest-related arrests in at least 159 cities. Of course, the biggest protests were those taking place in major developed cities, basically Moscow and St. Petersburg.

People came out against the war for moral reasons, because they could not look at the horror of what was happening in Ukraine and not react: mass bombings, killings of civilians, violence.

Protesters are mostly people under 40 years old – because they are the ones who, thanks to the internet, get an accurate picture of what is happening, in contrast to the narrative that is pushed by censored state TV. Their demands to end the war are simultaneously, of course, demands to overthrow Putin. Because one is impossible without the other.

My opinion is that due to the deteriorating economic situation, another – quite different – wave of protests may be expected soon. This may start among the poorer sections of the population who have lost income and jobs, and among doctors and patients, who are already experiencing the consequences of shortages of life-saving medicines due to sanctions.

Do you think repression has dissuaded people from protesting in bigger numbers?

At the height of the protests, on 5 March, more than 5,500 people were detained in one day. Since the beginning of the war, nearly 15,000 people have been detained at anti-war protests. The police are very harshly suppressing the protests – for example, on Sunday 20 March in Moscow, virtually all protesters were detained, and many of them were arrested for five to 30 days.

In addition, 39 criminal cases have already been opened due to statements and protests against the war; some of the defendants are already in jail. All of this scares away potential protesters. They understand that they can get a prison sentence even for participating in a peaceful rally, and it is obvious that fewer people are coming out now. However, protest continues under different forms: people sign open letters, write on social media, quit their jobs. We have even seen several high-profile dismissals of journalists and editors from federal media channels.

Those who still venture out to protest are being assisted by several human rights organisations, including OVD-Info. We send our lawyers to police stations where protesters are held. When there are not enough lawyers or we do not have a lawyer in a given city, we provide online consultations. We accompany the defendants to court. In addition, there is an extensive network of volunteers who also come to police stations to bring detainees water and food so that they do not go hungry all night after they are detained.

Do you think the protests will lead to meaningful change?

I don’t think there is a chance that these protests will influence the politics of the current regime, and as a human rights project, rather than a political one, OVD-Info is not in a position to assess the prospects for regime change. What we know for sure is that the only possible path to peace in Europe is having a free Russia that protects human rights. We do not know when our country will turn that way.

Still, these protests are key to the preservation and future development of Russian civil society. By taking part in them, those who oppose the war will gain invaluable self-organisation skills and acquire the moral right to play a prominent role when the time comes to build a new Russia.

How have media restrictions imposed by the government affected the protests, and civil society work more generally?

In my opinion, what we are witnessing in Russia is the establishment of military censorship. Even calling the events in Ukraine a war is prohibited – this is punishable by an administrative fine, and in case of repeated violations it becomes a criminal case, which can result in up to five years in prison. A new crime has been included in the Criminal Code: that of public disseminating knowingly false information about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. You can get up to 15 years in prison if you’re accused of doing that.

The websites of almost all independent organisations have been blocked in Russia since the beginning of the war. Due to anti-war remarks, its founders were forced to shut down Echo of Moscow, a radio station. The online media Znak.com also closed due to pressures. Independent TV channel Dozhd left Russia and temporarily interrupted its broadcasts, which were viewed by millions. Almost all independent media outlets were forced to leave Russia. In addition, the government blocked Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, because they realised they were unable to effectively impose censorship on social media.

At the moment, military censorship makes it tough to continue any anti-war and independent civilian activity, because any statement or protest can result in a prison term. But people continue to protest regardless, and many celebrities are speaking out publicly. We have seen employees of propaganda channels getting fired, which suggests that people are so enraged by what is happening that they are willing to fight back despite the risks.

How have the sanctions affected your work?

I don’t have a clear answer just yet. It seems to me that so far sanctions have not affected our work so much, but the situation can always quickly deteriorate. In fact, OVD-Info has closed down all Russian donations, while international donations continue to be safe. 

For the time being, it is the shutdown of many social media platforms that has made our work much more complex: it is increasingly difficult for us to convey information to people, educate them on legal issues and provide them with legal assistance. It will be especially difficult for us if Telegram is blocked in Russia, because it is now our primary platform for communicating with detainees.

How can the international community help independent CSOs and human rights activists in Russia?

I think the international community should be more careful with sanctions, which should be targeted. I think that the idea of collective responsibility is wrong – in Russia, it is a concept reminiscent of Stalin’s mass deportations of whole peoples, such as the Crimean Tatars, to pay for some individuals’ cooperation with the Third Reich.

From a pragmatic rather than an ethical point of view, it must be noted that many sanctions that have been imposed are having negative side effects – they are harming the most progressive part of society that opposes the war, preventing it from receiving information and obstructing the work of the last independent media. For example, Mailchimp – a USA-based platform and email marketing service that is used to create and distribute email marketing campaigns – has blocked all its clients from Russia.

It is also essential to understand that the Russians and Belarusians that are now leaving their countries and arriving in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and other parts of Europe are mostly opposition activists and independent journalists who face jail time in their homeland. But because they are Russians and Belarusians, they are facing massive discrimination. However, these activists and journalists are not responsible for their government’s actions – they are in fact the only hope that their countries will change, so it is essential to help them instead of discriminating against them as if they were the aggressors’. It is necessary to understand that not all Russians and Belarusians support the war in Ukraine.

Civic space in Russia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Get in touch with OVD-Info through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @ovdinfo on Twitter.

 

 

GUATEMALA: ‘Anti-rights groups seek to maintain the privileges of some at the expense of the rights of others’

visiblesCIVICUS speaks with the team of Visibles about recent anti-rights developments in Guatemala.

Founded in 2017, Visibles is a Guatemalan organisation that works to achieve the full inclusion of diverse people and build a society where all people can exercise their rights and enjoy respect, freedom and wellbeing.

The draft Law for the Protection of Life and the Family had been shelved for several years. Why was it finally approved now?

Bill 5272, passed by the Guatemalan Congress as Decree 18-2022, increased penalties for abortion to a minimum of five years in prison and banned same-sex marriage and the teaching of sexual diversity in schools.

It had been submitted on 26 April 2017 by a representative of the conservative party Visión con Valores (‘Vision with Values’). After obtaining a favourable opinion from the Committee on Legislation and Constitutional Affairs, the full Congress discussed and approved it on its first two readings in 2018.

But to pass a law in Guatemala, it is necessary to gather the support of a certain number of lawmakers before submitting it to a vote on the floor. This did not happen until 2022, when the ruling alliance and the political and economic groups that support them made it one of their priorities to promote this conservative agenda.

The current president of Congress, Shirley Rivera, came to this position after a very limited career, focused solely on proposing laws that stigmatise the transgender population and seek to grant greater freedoms to churches, particularly in the way they report on their finances.

In March, in a sort of counterbalance to the traditional celebration of International Women’s Day, a day of feminist mobilisation, Congress declared a National Day of Commemoration of Life and Family and approved this regressive initiative. From its various branches, the state promoted a number of communication actions and events involving national and international groups linked to the anti-gender movement, aimed at promoting the defence of life from the moment of conception and a traditional, narrow and exclusionary definition of the family – that is, a broad cause that seeks to restrict the autonomy and freedoms of women and LGBTQI+ people.

On the same date, Congress passed Decree 18-2022, and by an overwhelming majority: only eight out of 160 legislators voted against it, while 52 abstained. 

Do you see this move as part of a broader regional anti-rights trend?

It definitely is. Anti-rights groups in Guatemala are part of a highly organised and well-funded transnational movement that aims to undermine the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people, as well as the broader participation of civil society in public debate and decision-making.

The passing of Decree 18-2022 was not a reaction against the very limited progress made in recent years in the recognition of sexual and gender diversity and women’s rights. It served to reinforce social hierarchies that benefit the powerful and maintain or even increase their power.

Women and LGBTQI+ people are easy targets. The attacks against us reflect a resistance to the social transformations we seek: to unleash the talents and potential of more than half the population.

The feminist, women’s, and diversity movements represent some of the obstacles facing this project of power and control, but they are not the only ones. Another obstacle arises from the fact that thanks to increased access to technology, social discontent has grown and voices have risen demanding accountability. There are growing demands for urgent action to transform the economy to ensure that it serves to create better opportunities for all individuals and families, as well as growing attention on issues such as climate change and the preservation of the environment and of the lives of those resisting transnational extractivism.

How did civil society organise in the face of this anti-rights attack?

In Guatemala, there are numerous organisations – women’s, Indigenous peoples’, youth, sexual and gender diversity, student and religious organisations – that have organised to resist the advances of this regressive agenda. After spaces for the fight against corruption shut down, following the dissolution of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala in September 2019, one of the main developments that took place was the criminalisation of those who had promoted it, from human rights defenders to prosecutors and judges who had worked within state institutions.

This closure of spaces prompted the search for new ideas and routes to advance the construction of justice. Now, resistance to the entry into force of Decree 18-2022 has shown us the way.

The state of Guatemala has actively and systematically collaborated to create a narrative hostile to the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. And it has done so in a very hypocritical way, as it has promoted public policies that invoke the protection of life and family while at the same time demonstrating a complete lack of commitment to improving the conditions in which Guatemalan individuals and families live. This incoherence becomes an insult when a law is passed that, by criminalising women and LGBTQI+ people, endangers more than half of the population.

On the same day that Decree 18-2022 was passed, protests began. Street pressure was novel and important: it showed that organisations can work in a coalition and that people are willing to join in and look out for the welfare of all.

Mobilisation raised the cost the government would pay if it validated the congressional decision. The administration led by President Alejandro Giammattei was already unpopular and facing a growing number of demands for accountability – from journalistic investigations revealing the misuse of power and allegations of corruption to international sanctions against key officials. In this context, President Giammattei threatened to veto the law on the grounds that it violated Guatemala’s constitution and international agreements Guatemala has made, and Congress reacted by reversing and shelving the law.

How is Visibles working to improve the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Guatemala?

Visibles works to change people’s ideas, attitudes and behaviours towards LGBTQI+ people and their rights through research, training, proactive communication, and advocacy efforts. We believe that our long-term vision – that of a society that is fully inclusive of diverse people, ensuring that we all enjoy respect, freedom, and wellbeing and can exercise all of our rights – is only achievable if we start by having one-to-one conversations with families, friends, and people within our spheres of action so that we can move together from a position of prejudice to one of acceptance.

The experience of collective resistance in the face of anti-rights advances united inspired and engaged us further. Resistance against a tangible policy that seeks control over our bodies and our lives as women and LGBTQI+ people challenged us much more directly than a distant and abstract notion of access to justice. Today we are driven by the collective construction of a gender justice project that enshrines the right of all people to live with dignity. We hope that these new practices and transformative goals will revitalise the human rights movement.

What international support does civil society defending the human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Guatemala need?

The approval of – and subsequent U-turn over – Decree 18-2022 gave us a taste of the real power the state has over women and LGBTQI+ people in Guatemala. The risk does not disappear because the law has been shelved, but this may hopefully have the effect of sending a wake-up call to the international community.

It is important that they turn their attention, support and resources to Guatemala, whose anti-rights forces are part of a regional advance guard. We cannot lower our guard and allow anti-gender movements to advance their goal of sustaining and consolidating unjust structures of unequal power in which some maintain their privileges at the expense of the basic rights of others.

Civic space in Guatemala is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Visibles through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @visiblesgt on Twitter. 

 

RUSSIA: 'Any tactic that protesters use will likely be banned and declared a crime'

Nelya RakhimovaCIVICUS speaks about anti-war protests and the growing restrictions on civic space in Russia with Nelya Rakhimova, coordinator of the Coalition for Sustainable Development of Russia (CSDR).

CSDR is a coalition that advocates for and monitors the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Russia. Established in 2020, it includes Russian civil society organisations (CSOs), research institutions, experts and activists. CSDR participates in international and domestic processes, creates awareness of SDGs among the public and mobilises for action on SDGs.

How big are the anti-war protests in Russia, and how has the government reacted to them?

Anti-war protests are currently happening in major cities throughout Russia. Protesters are just demanding peace, but the government’s reaction has been repressive. Of course, bigger changes are needed, but for now the focus of protesters is on ending the war. They typically go out to the streets with placards that read ‘no to war’ and are immediately arrested. Almost all cities are flooded with police monitoring the situation. Innocent people have been tortured simply because they have voiced concerns regarding the ‘military operation’, as the government calls it. 

Those out there protesting are ordinary citizens, activists and members of CSOs. Although there are no statistics showing the number of people participating in protests and their composition, it seems that many protesters are young people.

This makes sense, because what makes it somewhat easier for young people to stand against the war and participate in protests is that most of them do not have family responsibilities and are therefore free to act independently. Other people may wish to participate in the protests but because they have families, they feel restricted.

Various platforms have been used to instil fear. People risk not only being arrested but also losing their jobs. But of course the same could be said about students, as there are already cases of students being expelled from universities because of their participation in the protests. Pressure comes not only from the government but also from universities and employers. These issues have been abundantly covered in a comprehensive report recently published by the Russian independent human rights media project OVD-Info.

Do you think repression is deterring people from protesting in larger numbers?

Indeed, although there have been protests all over the place, the number of people protesting is not that big. Many people who are against the so-called ‘military operation’ are scared to take part in protests because they have seen how police treat protesters. In addition, many people choose not to protest because they believe it won’t make a difference.

A look back at previous protests and in Russia and the government’s reaction to them makes it clear why many people are reluctant to participate in the anti-war movement. People are aware of the gruesome acts perpetrated in prisons and police stations. Civic freedoms are so restricted that people are not able to freely express themselves. Having your own views can get you into trouble. We have seen too many human rights violations over the past weeks and we are afraid the situation will only get worse due to the reduced international visibility of Russia’s internal situation.

CSOs are already starting to feel the pressure, as most people prefer to disassociate themselves from them and they are also trying to protect people who associate with them. At the beginning people were signing petitions against the war but now CSOs are removing people’s names because they don’t want to put them in danger’s way.

It is currently very difficult to leave Russia, so people are adopting safety measures to protect themselves while staying. But there are still brave people and organisations that are determined to keep advocating for peace and are not deterred by the ongoing human rights violations.

What is CSDR and what does it do?

CSDR is a civil society coalition working together so that the SDGs are achieved in Russia by 2030. We work with civil society experts on each SDG to push forward this agenda.

The coalition was established in 2020 because at the time the government of Russia was delivering its report on SDG implementation, and we decided we needed to have an alternative report that included the perspective of civil society. We produced a shadow report that was supported by 160 CSOs and 200 individual activists. It was quite successful and was recognised by the German Organisation for International Cooperation and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

We then continued to work on advocacy for SDG implementation. Last year we hosted a conference in Moscow to which we invited representatives of the ministries of foreign affairs and economic development and the special representative of the president on the SDGs. We tried to stay in touch to deliver our messages on SGD-related issues. We had plans to continue this work but right now we have no idea how we will be able to do so.

What are the main challenges you currently face in your work?

The most challenging thing about organising in Russia is that the law is constantly being changed and restrictions are increasingly being tightened. Right now for instance we are talking to our donors, who are mainly German foundations, because it is not even clear how we are going to be able to receive funds to produce our publications and convene events.

Several new censorship laws have been put in place over the past couple of weeks, and most people have decided to comply with them. But it is not easy to organise in such an environment. Any tactic that protesters and independent CSOs use today will likely be banned by law over the following days and declared a crime.

As a coalition we face a similar situation. We’ve tried to release a statement regarding the current events and have had to review it over and over due to the changing laws. We are being very careful with our wording and social media posts because we do not want to put our members in danger.

Censorship has forced people to go back to traditional methods of expression, organising and protesting. Instead of using social media as a tool to mobilise, more people are now using printed material such as flyers and placards to voice their opinions. Those who continue to be active on social media often resort to the method of using a different name on each platform and deleting all conversations that could lead to them getting arrested. However, no method of mobilising makes people immune to arrest, as the growing numbers of people arrested attest to.

How much change do you think could come out of the protests?

I want to believe that the situation can and will change. And I think if there are massive protests the situation might really change. But it will take time for that to happen.

Unfortunately, there are large numbers of people who continue to support the Russian government. This is the result of the intensive internal propaganda the government has disseminated for years. People have been brainwashed and are convinced that what Russia is doing is for the good of both Russia and Ukraine. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to have massive protests.

Russian society is deeply divided; families are split and even Ukrainian families in Russia are being torn apart. A part of the population understands what is currently happening, but many people don’t. And I don’t think this is something protests could change. Propaganda has deep roots in Russian society, and fear is doing the rest: among those who don’t believe the propaganda, many are too scared to voice their opinions.

How can the international community best help Russian CSOs and activists?

The international community can support Russian civil society by sharing accurate information about what is happening in the country. A majority of CSOs and activists from neighbouring countries as well as international CSOs are focused on trying to help Ukrainian people, both refugees and those left in Ukraine. This is completely understandable, but I think they shouldn’t forget the people in Russia who continue to advocate for peace and human rights. The least they can do is shine the spotlight on the situation in their national and international media outlets so people abroad are aware of what is going on and are able to offer their help.

Additionally, they should put pressure on the Russian government through various international instruments, including the SDGs. Civil society from around the world could collectively release statements that highlight the situation and note the changes they would like to see. Maintaining solidarity in these times is also very important because it helps people working on the ground.

Last but not least, CSOs and activists need financial assistance. Those wishing to help protesters by providing funding should get in touch with the organisations leading the anti-war movement and offer their help. And of course, if Russian activists decide to leave the country due to political pressure, they also need support from international colleagues, as no one should be left behind.

Civic space in Russia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Get in touch with CSDR through its website. 

 

POLAND: ‘If lots of tiny actions are performed by many people, we can achieve big things’

Magdalena DemczakCIVICUS speaks with Magdalena Demczak, co-founder and director of Akcja Menstruacja (Menstrual Action), about the work her organisation is currently doing to help Ukrainian refugees.

Menstrual Action is the first Polish civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting people experiencing menstrual poverty. It is estimated that limited access to menstrual products, most often for economic reasons but also due to lack of adequate hygiene conditions or education affects around 500,000 people in Poland.

What made you decide to start helping refugees?

What made us decide to start helping refugees was the fact that we felt so helpless when watching the news, that we felt the need to help in any way we could.

At the beginning it was very hard for us to plan our actions because we had no idea what would happen. We were all a bit in shock at such an extraordinary situation. But we took immediate action: we supported checkpoints, raised funds and collected products that were sent to Ukraine directly, and also to the Polish-Ukrainian border. We also supported local Polish families who are hosting Ukrainian families and sites across Poland where Ukrainian refugees can seek information and legal assistance. In these locations there are people who speak Ukrainian and provide translation services.

What are the key needs you are seeing among refugees?

People escaping war in Ukraine are arriving in Poland with their hands empty. Right now, refugees are mostly women and their children carrying small bags, since men aged 18 to 60 are banned from leaving: they must stay to defend their country. They are not bringing much – they are just trying to escape, so all they typically have is some clothes, documents and essential medicine.

They obviously need all kinds of things. First of all, they need shelter and transportation to get there. They also need food, clothing and baby products, among other things. As women make up a large proportion of refugees, there is also a lot of need for all kinds of feminine-care products. Women’s biological cycles – from periods to pregnancies – don’t stop because of a war. There is a massive need for period products, especially menstrual pads, because it’s very easy to forget all about pads when a war erupts and you must flee your country.

How is Polish civil society, and Menstrual Action more specifically, working to help refugees?

Polish civil society, and individual Polish citizens, are doing amazing things. There are lines after lines of cars at the border to pick anyone in need of transportation, willing to take them to any Polish city, free of charge of course. Hundreds of thousands are giving out rooms in their homes to Ukrainian refugees, for free and for as long as needed. There are so many amazing people and organisations out there helping refugees.

Unfortunately, we are aware that the war in Ukraine may last a long time and even after it ends, it will take time to rebuild cities so that people can come back. This means refugees may have to stay in Poland for quite a bit. So a more systemic approach is needed.

Since the early days, Menstrual Action has been shipping sanitary products to refugees; a few days ago, for instance, our volunteers brought 180 kilograms of sanitary pads to the Polish-Ukrainian border. Quite a few of our volunteers are now working directly at the border, not because we sent them but because they chose to go.

But we are now ready to undertake more long-term actions. We have talked to local manufacturers of period products to buy directly from them, and we will distribute these products in various locations and communities, as well as to CSOs working with refugees. While normally we would focus on period poverty, in such an extraordinary situation we are also supporting wider groups of refugees by providing adult diapers and other sanitary products such as toilet paper.

As an organisation, we have the capacity to provide sanitary and menstrual products. Our contribution saves other charities money that they can better spend on other humanitarian needs. Sending goods to the border can be a logistics nightmare, so if by shipping them ourselves we can save others a significant amount of money they can invest elsewhere, we feel that our work is done.

The actions of any specific organisation will always be too small to fulfil the needs of millions of people fleeing a war. But if lots of tiny actions are performed by many people, I believe we can achieve big things.

Have your existing capacities and resources from your ongoing work proved useful?

Our network has proved vital. We have intensively used our connections with menstrual product manufacturers, suppliers and other charities. We regularly support hundreds of Polish schools with menstrual products, but this year we were able to send out those packages earlier than usual to make room in our warehouses and gather menstrual products to be distributed among Ukrainian refuge centres around Poland.

Before the crisis, we started a project called Pad Sharing, which connects donors with people who need menstrual products. If you are poor and having your period, and you had to choose between food and pads, you would get food, right? So we partnered with Rossmann drugstore, put up a form for people in need to enter their name, an address to locate the closest Rossmann store, an email address and the required product and amount. We receive the form and forward it to a donor who gets the list of products needed and does the shopping. When they are done, the person in need gets a call that their order is ready for pick-up at the Rossmann drugstore of their choice. We are just intermediaries and the person who needs help remains anonymous during the whole process. We have so far supported 2,200 people this way.

This project became vital in the current situation. We translated the Pad Sharing form into Ukrainian and shared it online. We emphasised that, due to the extraordinary situation, people can request anything from the pharmacy, not just menstrual products. We don’t provide medicine but can refer them to other organisations that do. We are aware of refugees’ needs, and so are our donors.

Have you seen any evidence of non-white refugees being treated differently?

I’ve seen many clips of Black people waiting at the border and read several allegations that some were refused entry into Poland. But I’m a white woman who currently isn’t even living in Poland but in the UK, so I’m extra-privileged. I didn’t cross the border, I wasn’t there and I don’t pretend to speak for non-white people or to know about their personal experiences.

Some people have pointed out that the current attitude towards Ukrainian refugees differs from how other refugees have been treated, including Afghan refugees trying to cross to Poland from the Belarusian border. We are aware that the reaction may have been different, but Menstrual Action did help Afghan refugees at the time – we contacted and connected various organisations to help Afghan refugees.

There is a Polish organisation called Black Is Polish, established by Black Polish women from various backgrounds, which is helping Black people and other people of colour escape Ukraine. There’s been a lot of disinformation on social media. For instance, it has been said that only people with Ukrainian passports could cross the border. This is not correct: anyone can seek refuge in Poland. This disinformation was very harmful to people of colour trying to escape Ukraine.

I won’t deny we Eastern Europeans have many racism issues, but I wouldn’t want this to detract from the biggest issue we currently face: war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. There is a disinformation war going on. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Relations has even said that Russia didn’t invade Ukraine. Russian-funded trolls are trying to instrumentalise racist incidents that have indeed happened on the border to put Ukraine on the ‘bad side’ and to justify the Putin regime and its war of aggression.

What could people internationally be doing to help?

The first thing they should do is follow the news through reputable sources. They must be aware of circulating disinformation and fake news. Before clicking ‘retweet’, ‘like’ or ‘subscribe’, you must think why you are getting this piece of news, where it is coming from, what the intentions are behind it and who would benefit if you spread it. Would it be beneficial for struggling people, or would it benefit the Putin regime? The international community must stay aware and cautious because it’s very easy to get lost in the news if you live far away from Ukraine.

If you have money to donate, you should support legitimate organisations helping people inside Ukraine who cannot escape and those who chose to remain there to fight for their country. We still have an international donations systems to receive donations from anywhere around the world.

People in other global regions are not taught a lot about the history of the Soviet Union, its beginnings and its end, and the establishment of countries such as Ukraine and Belarus. So if you can, try to learn this part of history and to understand why this part of the world looks the way it does. It’s very important to understand how the past influences the present and to make sure the worst of history does not repeat itself.

Civic space in Poland is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Akcja Menstruacja through its website and Facebook and Instagram pages. 

 

ALGERIA: ‘The authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society’

Rachid AouineCIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and civic freedoms in Algeria with Rachid Aouine, Director for SHOAA for Human Rights.

SHOAA for Human Rights is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and protecting human rights in Algeria. Founded in 2020 and based in London, UK, it raises human rights awareness and monitors, documents and denounces abuses committed against citizens by those in power.

What is the current situation of human rights and civic space in Algeria?

As a result of the escalation of repressive practices by the Algerian authorities, human rights are in a critical state. Arbitrary arrests have increased, targeting journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists and political activists associated with political parties linked to the Hirak protest movement for their exercise of the rights to the freedoms of association, expression, belief and peaceful assembly. In recent months they have been criminalised in an unprecedented way.

The authorities are unjustly prosecuting people for their alleged association with the political opposition movements Rachad and the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie, which in May 2021 were designated as ‘terrorist organisations’ by the High Security Council. This is a consultative body chaired by the president. It has also blamed these organisations for the devastating forest fires that overtook north-eastern Algeria in August 2021 and the murder of activist and artist Djamel Bensmaïl while he was in police custody. It announced it would intensify efforts to arrest their members until their ‘total eradication’.

Since early 2021, prosecutions on bogus terrorism charges have proliferated alarmingly. For those convicted of these charges, the Penal Code dictates sentences ranging from one year in jail to lifelong imprisonment and the death penalty.

Of course, those arrested and prosecuted have seen their due process and fair trial guarantees systematically violated.

A new wave of arrests started in February 2022. Why are the authorities targeting human rights defenders in such large numbers?

The Algerian authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society. Human rights defenders are the only limit to their power, because they are the only ones defending and advocating for human rights in Algeria. Their elimination would effectively end the flow of information about the human rights violations they commit to the outside world.

Rather than addressing the problems that civil society denounces, the authorities are attacking those advocating for change, because they view change as a threat and a limitation to their power. To cover up the ongoing human rights violations, they are using systematic repression, specifically targeting human rights defenders and the exercise of the freedom of expression.

Three years after the Hirak protests, the authorities continue to restrict protests. What tactics of suppression do they use?

Indeed, three years after Hirak (which stands for ‘movement’ in Arabic) peacefully pushed for political change and forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, at least 300 activists, many of them associated with Hirak, are being held by the authorities.

Through presidential decrees, the Algerian authorities have recently enacted new legislation hostile to the freedoms of expression and assembly. In June 2021, the Penal Code was amended by presidential decree, leading to the expansion of an already too broad definition of terrorism. People are now being accused of crimes such as ‘offending public bodies’, ‘spreading false information’, ‘membership of a terrorist group’, ‘apology for terrorism’, and ‘conspiracy against state security’. A Facebook post may lead to charges such as ‘using information technologies to spread terrorist ideas’ and ‘disseminating information that could harm the national interest’. Even a simple remittance is listed as an act of treason.

All human rights defenders and advocates who fall under the thumb of these new laws, in particular articles 87 bis and 95 bis of the Penal Code, are automatically slapped with vague charges such as ´undermining national unity’ as well as bogus terrorism-related charges. Despite the presentation of evidence of their innocence by their defence, judicial authorities impose the verdicts sought by the authorities.

The authorities are also accusing pro-Hirak CSOs of allegedly holding activities contrary to the objectives listed in the Law on Associations and in their own by-laws. On this basis, some of them have been dissolved, including Rassemblement Action Jeunesse and the cultural association SOS Beb El Oued, whose president was sentenced to a year in prison for ‘undermining national unity and national interest’ in connection with the association’s activities.

Political activists and leaders of parties linked to Hirak are also punished for ‘crimes’ such as ‘calling for a gathering’, and parties are accused of not complying with the Law on Political Parties by organising ‘activities outside the objectives stipulated in its by-laws’. This happened, for example, after several activists gathered to discuss the establishment of a united front against repression.

What needs to change in Algeria?

Civil society must be preserved while there is still something left. Civil society plays a major role in any movement for change. When CSOs are absent or disabled, people are left without protection and guidance. This is especially true in efforts to avoid violence and prevent human rights violations; when a society is devoid of CSOs, people lack guidance in knowing what steps to take and human rights violations go unaccounted for. Civil society associations, centres and bodies are key for framing the protest movement – to provide it with structure, strategy and a goal.

If nothing is done about it, the authorities will continue repressing independent civil society and the human rights situation will worsen. If nothing is done, the goal of democracy and respect for human rights will float further and further away, until it’s completely out of reach.

How can international civil society support Algerian civil society in its struggle for human rights and democratic freedoms?

Algerian civil society cannot achieve its goals on its own; it needs cooperation and support from the international community. To address human rights violations and promote democratic freedoms in Algeria, domestic civil society must establish relationships of cooperation and work jointly with international organisations.

Algerian civil society can develop an effective strategy by opening international lines of communication and becoming a major source of information on the real conditions of human rights on the ground. On the basis of this information, international organisations can help activate international monitoring mechanisms and put pressure for change on Algerian authorities.

Civic space in Algeria is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with SHOAA for Human Rights through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @shoaa_org on Twitter.

 

CHILE: ‘The drafting of the new constitution is a historic opportunity for women’

CIVICUS speaks with Mariela Infante Erazo, director of Corporación Humanas, about the impacts of the pandemic on women and girls in Chile, and about her hopes for advances coming from the inauguration of a new government and the process to develop a new constitution.

Founded in 2004, Humanas is a civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to advocating for the deepening of democracy and the inclusion of women.

Mariela Infante

What has been the impact of the pandemic on women and girls in Chile?

The pandemic has had a very serious impact on the human rights of girls and women. Women regressed more than a decade in terms of their labour market participation. When schools closed, they had to take on most of the domestic and care work, both for their children and for sick or older relatives, so many had to stop working. Those who continued to work – including by working from home – were overburdened, which had an impact on both their physical and mental health.

Gender-based violence also increased shockingly, as confinement and restrictions of movement were quite strict in Chile. According to official statistics, domestic violence calls from adult women tripled. But the situation also affected girls facing family abuse.

The most feminised fields of work, such as education and health, were the most in demand during the pandemic. Women are in the majority in the professions that fought the pandemic – nurses, health workers, service workers, educators – but were not given much recognition. Female educators had to undertake virtual teaching and this undermined learning, at least among economically and culturally disadvantaged people. In Chile, there is no universal access to a basic internet service, and this has been detrimental for access to education.

A full recovery is a long way off: unemployment remains high and women’s employment rates are not recovering at the same speed as men’s. A gendered approach is needed to ensure that women can return to the labour market and regain economic autonomy, which is key to exercising our rights.

How has civil society in general, and Humanas in particular, responded?

In the first months of the pandemic, and especially during lockdown, there were high levels of activity among feminist organisations: many seminars, meetings and discussions took place. There was a lot of reflection and an eagerness to share. But virtual interactions are very challenging and these spaces eventually ran out of steam: the first year’s participation was reasonably high, but then it began to decline. The format is now a bit worn out; I think we need to think of new forms of participation.

During these two years, we at Humanas have all been working from home, with the difficulties this sometimes entails for communication among co-workers. Opportunities for informal communication were lost and work slowed down. Regarding our outward work, we had to rethink workshops, seminars and training events, because it is very difficult to do interactive and motivating training sessions via computer. Of course we had to cancel all trips, which was limiting for our regional networking strategy.

But we learned a lot about how virtual interactions can replace face-to-face ones, and we adapted.

What are the main women’s rights issues in Chile?

As in the rest of Latin America, there are multiple challenges. In the field of employment, a major problem is precarious work: women have more precarious, informal and lower-paid jobs, as well as higher unemployment rates.

Women also bear the bulk of the burden of family care. This limits our free time, harms our health, limits our job prospects and hinders our political participation. That is why the feminist movement, of which we are part, prioritises the establishment of a national care system in Chile.

In terms of sexual and reproductive rights, abortion – which used to be prohibited in all circumstances – has been legal since 2017 under three grounds: when the life of the pregnant person is in danger, when the foetus suffers from malformations incompatible with life and when the pregnancy is the result of rape.

But during the pandemic, limitations on the exercise of sexual and reproductive rights increased: contraceptive distribution decreased, defective contraceptives were distributed through the public system and the number of preventative gynaecological examinations decreased. Many people stopped making medical consultations because health centres were overwhelmed by the number of COVID-19 cases, which left many pathologies undiagnosed and untreated.

Chile does not have a comprehensive law to prevent violence against women in various spheres and manifestations. There is a draft law on the subject that has not made any progress for many years. The number of femicides – and attempted femicides – is very high. Violence levels are very worrying, and they increased even further under lockdown during the pandemic.

In addition, Chile has become one of the main host countries for Venezuelan migrants and has adopted a restrictive policy towards migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, particularly women. As applying for a visa has become virtually impossible, people are entering Chile irregularly. This has led to an increase in human trafficking and smuggling, the main victims of which are women and girls.

Irregular migration has also had an impact on labour exploitation. Without documentation, many migrant women do not even dare to go to health centres for fear of being expelled from the country. According to the principles of the Cartagena Declaration, which establishes a broad definition of asylum, Venezuelan women should be considered subjects of international protection, as they are fleeing a law-and-order crisis. But they are not recognised as such and are denied labour and health rights, among many other rights.

Moreover, racism has increased along with xenophobia. Migrants of African descent, mainly from Colombia and Haiti, have experienced racism and xenophobia. The same is true for the Indigenous population. In the context of the territorial conflict with the Mapuche people in southern Chile, institutional and police violence have differentially affected Indigenous women, for instance during violent raids in their communities.

How is civil society working to bring these issues into the public agenda?

At the moment, the Constitutional Convention is the space through which we are channelling the feminist agenda. We have high expectations and are working so that the Convention will produce a general normative framework for the recognition of women’s rights, which will then have to be implemented through laws and public policies.

I believe the current Constitutional Convention is the first of its kind in the world, with gender parity and reserved seats. The Convention does not reflect the composition of the Chilean elite – white heterosexual men – but the real Chile: it includes Indigenous people, women and people of all educational levels and professions, rather than purely lawyers as is the case with parliament. This diversity of perspectives makes it incredibly rich.

The process of drafting a new constitution for Chile is a historic opportunity that we are trying to take advantage of to channel women’s rights issues. This process was the product of a massive social mobilisation demanding rights, justice and dignity. It embodies an institutional solution to the discontent and fragmentation of Chile’s social fabric.

After 40 years, today we have the possibility of reshaping a constitution made during the dictatorship, which does not guarantee social rights. We are only a few months away from having a draft that will be put up to a plebiscite, which is why this current process is for us a great political moment that entails the prospect of progress on women’s rights. 

How could gender gaps and inequalities be reduced in Chile?

The pandemic exposed a care crisis that is structural. The private and domestic realm continues to be women’s responsibility, on top of which comes paid work. We want a paradigm shift establishing that this is a shared social responsibility, which should not fall exclusively on women. The creation of a national care system in which the state, the private sector and families – but whole families, not just women – take on family care could bring about a real transformation of the sexual division of labour.

Attention to the issue of care is a first step in advancing a structural issue such as the sexual division of labour: taking women out of a single role, valuing their roles and even generating new sources of work for women. We need a cross-cutting care paradigm that fosters bonds of respect and solidarity. This is of enormous importance: none of us would be here now if someone had not taken care of us.

The issue of care is also very relevant in relation to nature, water and the commons, if they are to serve to improve the quality of life for all people, rather than generate wealth for a few. What is important is that the focus be on the common good and not on extraction and accumulation. The current extractivist development model reproduces inequalities and is at the root of violence against women defenders of land and territory.

Feminism is currently taking a much more holistic perspective and is making alliances with other social movements. We are feminists, but we are connected with other worlds – those of environmentalism, Indigenous women, women defenders of land and territory – which makes us understand that inequalities and exclusions come from the intersection of various systems of domination: those of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. In order to generate a profound transformation, we must take a holistic view.

What are the expectations of Chilean feminists as a new government is inaugurated?

Our expectations are high but realistic, not excessive. We know that four years is a short time for so many challenges and we will not be able to transform everything in such a short time, but we believe that there is political will to move forward with laws on care, equality and non-discrimination, social rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and gender violence.

President Gabriel Boric, who took office on 11 March, self-identifies as a feminist. He has already given a positive signal by placing the Ministry of Women’s Affairs within his political cabinet, indicating that he does not understand gender as a sectoral issue; we hope that this will translate into real mainstreaming of the gender approach to permeate all policies.

The new government’s cabinet is more than gender-balanced: it includes more female than male ministers. Several of the ministers – those of women, justice and national assets – are feminists. This is more important than the fact that there are more women, because it will allow us to make important progress on our agenda. 

We know that, as in the rest of Latin America, there are very difficult times ahead, with a looming economic crisis and very high inflation. We will have to face a process of life becoming more precarious, in a pandemic context that continues to be somewhat uncertain. We do not know how much of a ‘normal life’ we will be able to recover, nor what it will be like.

The new government will have to protect the work of the Convention, which is being heavily attacked and criticised by mainstream media, which rejects any redistribution of power. The new government will have to give the Convention budgetary and institutional support to continue its work. It will then receive the draft of the new constitution – which will apparently be quite transformative and will hopefully be ratified through a plebiscite – and will have to undertake the enormous task of gradually implementing parity norms in various spheres.

Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Corporación Humanas through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @corphumanas on Twitter. 

 

LEBANON: ‘Abuses against women are the direct product of the gender imbalances of a patriarchal society’

Ghida AnaniCIVICUS speaks about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Iraqi women and girls and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequalities in Lebanon with Ghida Anani, founder and director of ABAAD – Resource Centre for Gender Equality.

ABAAD is a women-led civil society organisation (CSO) that strives for gender equality as a key condition for sustainable social and economic development in the Middle East and North Africa. Its work is organised around three pillars: providing direct services, building capacity and developing resources, and advocating for policy reform.

How has COVID-19 impacted on women and girls in Lebanon?

Even before the pandemic, women and girls in Lebanon suffered from a vicious cycle of gender-based violence (GBV) and discrimination that deprived them of the opportunity to participate meaningfully in social, economic and political life.

Most of the abuses and discriminatory acts experienced by women and girls in Lebanon are the direct product of imbalances between women and men in the patriarchal Lebanese society, which are codified into law. Domestic violence is a longstanding problem due to deeply engrained gender social norms that permeate the entire societal system, policies and legislation. So far the government has failed to recognise and therefore address the problem and has not allocated dedicated resources to tackle GBV.

COVID-19 lockdowns and the ensuing economic downturn did nothing but exacerbate already existing GBV risks both at home and in public spaces. Self-isolation, misuse of power, heightened tensions, financial uncertainties and the disruption of life-saving services were key factors that worsened the situation.

During the pandemic, ABAAD noticed an increase in the severity of the violence women were subjected to at home. Some women reached out to tell us they were struggling with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. At least two women said they had received death threats from family members after showing flu-like symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection.

How has civil society in general, and ABAAD in particular, responded to this situation?

Since the initial stages of the outbreak, we put together a response to ensure the continuity of life-saving services. We prioritised the best interests of rights-holders by putting them at the centre of the response.

We had to suspend some in-person activities, such as outreach, community events and awareness and training sessions. But on the positive side, our focus on maintaining life-saving services helped us develop new internal case management guidelines for crisis counselling and emergency support services by phone, along with face-to-face services for high-risk cases.

We also provided community-based awareness sessions on COVID-19 and psychosocial support sessions via conference calls and WhatsApp groups. Our helpline continued to function 24/7, including for services provided by ABAAD’s Emergency Temporary Safe Shelters across the country and its Men Centre. Moreover, as the three safe shelters operated by ABAAD were at full capacity, we worked to create additional capacity by renting new spaces. 

We led several campaigns, such as #LockdownNotLockup and #TheRealTest, to fight the stigma surrounding COVID-19, show solidarity with women and let them know that they were not alone. We also worked closely with relevant ministries, United Nations (UN) agencies and CSOs to advocate for enhanced-quality coordinated response at a national level. In partnership with the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, we recently launched a series of workshops about national mechanisms to report GBV and special units dedicated to supporting survivors.

On International Women’s Day, we held digital activism activities and sessions for women and girls through ABAAD’s Women and Girls Safe Spaces. There are 23 such centres across Lebanon, providing a safe, non-stigmatising environment for women and girl survivors of GBV and their children to receive comprehensive and holistic care services.

How is civil society working to bring women’s rights concerns into the policy agenda?

Civil society is working hard to bring gender equality to the top of the policy agenda. As Lebanon approaches its first parliamentary election following the popular uprising of late 2019, Lebanon’s Feminist Civil Society Platform, a group of 52 feminist CSOs and activists first convened by UN Women in the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut explosion, has launched a series of demands for candidates running for parliament to commit to achieving gender equality goals.

Our statement to future members of parliament details the laws that need to be reconsidered from a gendered perspective, including various laws to criminalise sexual violence in the Lebanese Penal Code. This is a demand that CSOs have long advocated for.

Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS monitor.
Get in touch with ABAAD through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AbaadMENA on Twitter. 

 

TURKMENISTAN: ‘There is nothing resembling real civil society – and no conditions for it to emerge’

Farid TukhbatullinCIVICUS speaks with Farid Tukhbatullin, founder and director of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), about the upcoming election and the environment for civil society in Turkmenistan.

TIHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in Austria, where Farid lives in exile, that collects information from sources inside Turkmenistan to report internationally on human rights and civic space violations and advocate for democratic change.

What is the state of the space for civil society in Turkmenistan?

In the early 1990s, several independent CSOs appeared in Turkmenistan. The fingers of one hand were enough to count them. These included our organisation, Dashoguz Ecological Club.

But by the late 1990s, the first president of the country, Turkmenbashi, viewed them as a danger to the system he was building. Independent CSOs were liquidated and only a few quasi-CSOs remained - the Union of Women, the Union of Veterans and the Union of Youth, all of which were remnants of the Soviet era.

Turkmenistan not only lacks anything resembling real civil society – it also does not meet the minimal preconditions for its emergence.

There are no independent media outlets in Turkmenistan. Not surprising, in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, the country constantly ranks second-to-last or last, next to North Korea.

People who dare express opinions critical of the government publicly, through YouTube or on social media, end up in prison. Recent examples include Murat Dushemov and Nurgeldy Khalykov, both sentenced to four years in prison, and Pygamberdy Allaberdiyev, who received a six-year sentence.

Special services also harass relatives of activists who are working or studying abroad and run opposition blogs from outside the country. They try to silence them by threatening their families back home.

What have been the implications of Turkmenistan’s policy of insisting it has no COVID-19 cases?

Unfortunately, there is no reliable information regarding the real impact of the pandemic in Turkmenistan, and of course no assistance for those who have been badly hit. According to our sources, the number of people hospitalised is now decreasing. But before this there was a large number of deaths. Small towns were holding several funerals a day. According to local traditions, a large part of the local population takes part in funeral rites, so the whole town knows who died and when.

Why has President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov called an early election, and what is its likely outcome?

President Berdimuhamedov started promoting his son Serdar as his heir quite a long time ago. We became aware of the planning of an extraordinary meeting of the People’s Council, the upper house of parliament, in November 2021. The idea of holding early presidential elections was voiced at this meeting; that’s when preparations for the next step for a formal change of power began.

But there is no reason to believe this process will trigger real political change in Turkmenistan. No one doubts that on 12 March the younger Berdimuhamedov will become the country’s next president. But his father is not going to give up the reins. In violation of the constitution, he is now both president and leader of the People’s Council. After the election, he will retain his second position.

Moreover, it has already been announced that changes will be made to the constitution. We have no details yet, but changes will surely create further opportunities for father and son to lead the country in tandem.

Even leaving the presidency to his son frightens President Berdimuhamedov. The younger Berdimuhamedov will certainly want to make changes in the cabinet of ministers, replacing some with proxies of a younger age, and this may create some turbulence in the highest spheres of power. So Gurbanguly will most likely remain the real ruler at the beginning, with Serdar’s leadership a formality.

How is civil society, and TIHR specifically, working to defend human rights and monitor violations in Turkmenistan?

A CSO, the Helsinki Group of Turkmenistan (HGT), was founded in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in July 2002 to monitor the human rights situation on the ground. HGT was the predecessor organisation to TIHR. It operated underground and its members were systematically persecuted and repressed. I was detained on 23 December 2002 and sentenced to three years in prison for my peaceful activism. Fortunately, the campaign ran by international CSOs and pressure from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) paid off and I was pardoned and released on 2 April 2003. I left the country in June and received refugee status in Austria in November 2003. I led the establishment and registration of TIRH in Austria in November 2004.

TIHR has the vision of a democratic Turkmenistan based on the rule of law, respect for human rights and cooperation with civil society. We work to create the conditions that would allow for the emergence and evolution of a so far non-existent civil society and to raise citizens’ legal awareness, particularly regarding human rights. 

We collect, analyse and publish information on various human rights issues, including prison conditions, the treatment of ethnic minorities, child labour, the education system and restrictions on the freedom of association. Our reporting is based on information from sources inside Turkmenistan whose identities we must keep confidential to protect them and their families.

In 2006 we established a website, Chronicle of Turkmenistan, which provides first-hand information in English, Russian and Turkmen and has become one of the most widely cited sources on Turkmenistan. And in 2007 we started making YouTube videos. We have so far published 244, which have overall reached almost 50 million views.

This format has allowed us to use humour effectively as a political tool. For instance, in August 2017 we published one of our many satirical videos about President Berdimuhamedov, based on official state TV footage of his meetings with military personnel Rambo-style. The video instantly became a meme on social media and was republished by leading global media outlets. The president with the ‘hard-to-pronounce last name’ became a YouTube star and we gained millions of viewers.

The popularity snowball effect reached the USA with Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, which in February 2018 awarded President Berdimuhamedov the prize for ‘best performance by a dictator in a propaganda video’. And in August 2019, it further snowballed when John Oliver reused our content in a Last Week Tonight episode about the Turkmen president, amassing 10 million clicks. Finally, in December 2019 Netflix released the action movie ‘6 Underground’, about the overthrow of the dictator of the fictional state of Turgistan, which very much resembled Turkmenistan.

We do all this to shed light on the human rights violations that continue to happen in this very isolated country. We have submitted several shadow reports – 16 since 2008 – to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and to nearly all UN treaty bodies, often together with other human rights organisations. We have also submitted dozens of analytical reports and briefing papers to intergovernmental organisations, and have published countless statements and open letters, often in cooperation with other CSOs. In 2020 alone, we published 10 analytical reports, four briefing papers, two press statements and six open letters.

Our analytical reports include a series focusing on civic space, which since 2017 we have published quarterly together with CIVICUS and the International Partnership for Human Rights. We cooperate with all major international human rights CSOs, all of which rely – at least partly – on our work when it comes to Turkmenistan.

What can the international community, including international civil society, do to support civic space and human rights in Turkmenistan?

What helps the most is targeted advocacy at the international level and reporting to inform, shape and guide the policies of outside actors – international institutions such as the European Union, OSCE and UN, but also individual governments and others that have political or economic interests in the country – with respect to human rights issues in Turkmenistan.

Civic space in Turkmenistan is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with TIHR through the Chronicles of Turkmenistan website or Facebook page. 

 

YEMEN: ‘Women are completely absent from decision-making bodies; politically we don’t exist’

CIVICUS speaks about gender inequalities in Yemen and the role of Yemeni civil society in tackling them with Bilkis Abouosba, founder and chairperson of the Awam Foundation for Development and Culture, a civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2008 to support women’s political participation. Bilkis Abouosba is former vice-chair of the Supreme National Authority for Combatting Corruption in Yemen.

Bilkis Abouosba

What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on women and girls in Yemen?

Yemeni society had been going through a terrible humanitarian crisis since 2015, when war broke out, resulting in unprecedented numbers of casualties and refugees and millions of displaced people. The pandemic only added fuel to the fire. The war had already had a catastrophic effect on the education and healthcare sectors, among others, and the pandemic made the situation worse. It impacted on society at large, but specifically on women.

Due to the war, women’s political participation in decision-making bodies decreased; for the first time, relevant political bodies had no female representatives at all. Politically, Yemeni women do not exist, as they are completely absent from the decision-making process. This preannounced a bleak future for Yemeni women.

Many female political leaders had to flee the country. On the positive side, it has been noted that women’s participation in online events has risen despite Yemen’s poor internet infrastructure and frequent power cuts. The internet has offered Yemeni women, especially those living in rural areas, a venue to participate and express their views around peacebuilding. First, it helped break down societal barriers on women’s participation in political events, and then it helped bypass pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings. The internet brings the world closer to Yemeni women and Yemeni women closer to the world.

On the economic front, after war began many women became their families’ primary breadwinners, but when the pandemic broke out many lost their jobs or could not go to their workplaces. Moreover, enforcement of COVID-19 regulations was selective and discriminated against women. For instance, hair salons for women had to close but their counterparts for men remained open, which negatively affected female owners of small businesses.

How has civil society, and Awam Foundation more specifically, supported Yemeni women during the pandemic?

In the absence of government policies to help people cope with the pandemic – especially in the north of Yemen, where public officials didn’t even acknowledge the reality of COVID-19 – many lost their lives. But CSOs immediately stepped in and played a significant role. Many women-led CSOs, including Awam Foundation, launched COVID-19 awareness campaigns and distributed facemasks among locals and people living in rural areas.

In the early months of the pandemic, CSOs shifted their focus into combatting COVID-19. They relied heavily on online communication to reach affected communities. I was part of an international group fighting COVID-19 that registered available Yemeni doctors for consultation inside the country as well as abroad.

What are the main women’s rights issues in Yemen? What would need to happen for them to be tackled effectively?

In my opinion, our biggest loss is in the area of political rights and participation in political decision-making processes and opinion formation. For the first time in 20 years, the current Yemeni government was formed with a total absence of women. Women’s exclusion has spread further across sectors, including in peacebuilding efforts.

Political negotiations between rival groups have been held without female representation. Only one woman took part in the last round of negotiations in Stockholm, which resulted in an agreement brokered by the United Nations (UN) between the Yemeni government and the Houthi group Ansar Allah.

But public opinion polls on the peace process have in fact included a small sample of Yemeni women, and since 2015 both UN Women and the office of the UN special envoy have created mechanisms for Yemeni women’s inclusion, such as the Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security (known as ‘Tawafuq’), a consultative mechanism consisting of a group of 50 women consultants, and a group established in 2018 comprising eight women, among them me, also aimed at channelling female voices to international society. However, neither the current nor former UN special envoys have made use of these groups to bridge gender gaps, as planned. Women are still not part of UN-supported peace negotiations.

Despite this, several feminist coalitions have been formed during the transition period, including the Women Solidarity Network, which I played a key role in establishing. These coalitions succeeded at transmitting women’s voices to international organisations, including the UN Security Council. We advocate for the implementation of UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in the Yemeni context. This means that women must be included as equal partners in any upcoming round of peace negotiations.

The government just made a step forward concerning the implementation of UN Resolution 1325. On 8 March the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour announced the institutional structure and terms of reference of a national plan to implement the Resolution. 

But overall, we are still concerned about setbacks on women’s rights in Yemen. Women cannot move freely anymore; they’re required to have a male companion to move from one place to another or to apply for a passport.

What would need to happen for gender inequality to reduce in Yemen?

International organisations can significantly help narrow the gender gap in Yemen by bringing Yemeni women to the negotiation table. As a result, women’s participation in the political process will grow in the post-conflict period.

As CSOs we are doing our part by holding workshops on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security. In 2021, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women discussed Yemen’s report – a report Awam Foundation contributed to, and which revealed huge gender inequalities. We are now developing mechanisms aimed at narrowing these gaps.

Although political rivals continue to refuse to integrate women until after the war ends, we continue working in this regard. On International Women’s Day, we highlighted the need to include women in the peace process and shed light on the toll of gender-based violence on Yemeni women. I am sure our efforts will finally start to pay off.

Civic space in Yemen is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Awam Foundation for Development and Culture through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @FoundationAwam on Twitter.

 

MEXICO: ‘Human rights defenders constantly put their freedom and their lives at risk’

AntonioLaraCIVICUS speaks with Antonio Lara Duque, a human rights lawyer with the Zeferino Ladrillero Human Rights Centre (CDHZL), about the situation of Indigenous rights defenders in Mexico, and specifically about the situation of Kenia Hernández, a criminalised and unjustly imprisoned woman Indigenous leader.

CDHZL is a civil society organisation in the state of Mexico that accompanies the struggles of Indigenous communities, native peoples and collectives who are seeking a dignified life by claiming and exercising their human rights.

Who is Kenia Hernández, and why is she detained?

Kenia is an Indigenous Amuzga young woman. She is 32 years old. She is the coordinator of the Zapata Vive Libertarian Collective, which promotes peaceful resistance against the neoliberal development model. She is a lawyer by training, a self-identified feminist and is dedicated to defending human rights, and specifically to defending people imprisoned for political reasons, looking for missing people with the goal of finding them alive and giving legal support to female victims of violence.

Kenia was arrested on 18 October 2020 under accusations of attacks on a public thoroughfare and robbery with violence. She was charged with serious crimes to ensure she could be kept in the most terrible maximum-security prison for women in all of Mexico.

On 15 March 2022 the trial court in Ecatepec, in the state of Mexico, will determine whether she is guilty or innocent in one of the five criminal cases against her. All these cases were fabricated with the sole purpose of isolating her and preventing her from continuing mobilising, as well as to send a signal of exemplary punishment to all those people she managed to bring together into a nationwide movement that questioned the private management of highways.

Is Kenia’s case part of a broader trend of criminalisation of Indigenous defenders in Mexico?

Indeed, Kenia’s case reveals that the Mexican state has a clear policy of a ‘pedagogy of punishment’, for two reasons.

First, it sends a signal to the people who protest, and particularly to those who protest against the privatisation of highways, that they should no longer resort to public demonstrations as a form of social mobilisation, because if they do, they will bring upon themselves an unjust and cruel imprisonment such as the one experienced by Kenia.

Second, Mexican state officials are trying to subdue and bend the will of Kenia, to punish her for protesting, but also to weaken her convictions, to subdue the energy and strength she puts into protest, to let her know who is in charge and who must obey. As she has not submitted to them, they continue to keep her in prison. They know that if she is released she will go back to her activism.

Both situations are seriously worrying, because they seek to reverse decades of social struggles and opening of democratic spaces.

What is civil society, and specifically CDHZL, doing to secure her release?

CDHZL is dedicated to disseminating, promoting and defending the human rights of peoples, organisations and human rights defenders. We defend the environment, land and territory, the human right to water and Indigenous culture. And we focus particularly on the protection of human rights defenders, since in Mexico these are people who constantly put their freedom and their lives at risk.

Part of our work consists in providing legal defence to human rights defenders who are unjustly criminalised and imprisoned for the peaceful defence of their rights. In its 10 years of existence, CDHZL has helped around 250 people regain their freedom.

We hope that soon Kenia will be another of them. Mexican civil society has given a lot of visibility to her case, putting her criminalisation on the public agenda and involving key people, in particular Mexican senators, to convince relevant decision-makers to stop criminalising Kenia. We have also tried to bring her case to the international arena, pointing out the punitive policy of the Mexican federal government.

Through its large team of lawyers, CDHZL has sustained a legal defence in the five legal processes against Kenia, with all that they entail: dozens of hearings, challenges and trials of guarantees, some of which we won. But clearly this is much more than a legal struggle, as high-ranking officials are determined to keep Kenia in prison at all costs.

Has there been any improvement in the situation of Indigenous defenders under the current leftist government?

We expected improvements in the situation of Indigenous peoples and human rights defenders and collective rights more generally, but unfortunately there continues to be a generalised disdain among the federal government, regardless of its leftist leanings.

The government has been unable or unwilling to tune in to the most heartfelt demands of Indigenous peoples. Aggressions against human rights defenders have continued, including disappearances, murders and imprisonments. When it comes to imprisonment, Kenia’s case is one of the most shocking examples of the misuse of the criminal justice system against a human rights defender under a government that claims to be the architect of a ‘fourth transformation’ – a process of profound change supposedly comparable to those of independence (1810-1821), reform (1858-1861) and revolution (1910-1917).

What kind of regional and international support does Mexican civil society need in its struggle for human rights and civic space?

Undoubtedly, international observation, very poorly accepted by the current government, would help recover democratic spaces for social protest and the free expression of ideas.

Appeals to the Mexican government can help sensitise the authorities to the importance of respecting human rights and those who defend them beyond political party affiliations.

International mediation and good offices will undoubtedly be a key tool to strengthen civil society in the defence of human rights, particularly in processes where the life and freedom of human rights defenders and Indigenous peoples’ rights are at stake.

Civic space in Mexico is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with CDHZL through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @cdhzloficial on Twitter.

 

 

CHILE: ‘Domestic and care work still falls overwhelmingly on women’

CeciliaAnaniasCIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequalities in Chile with Cecilia Ananías Soto, founder of Amaranta, an independent civil society organisation (CSO) based in the Chilean city of Concepción, in the Biobío region.

Amaranta is a feminist space made up of women from the social sciences, humanities and social activism aimed at promoting gender equality and human rights in the spheres of education, health, culture, technology and media. It was founded in early 2018 to give visibility and response to the everyday problems of women, and specifically lesbian, bisexual, transgender, working, migrant, displaced, poor and Indigenous women. Taking a critical, local and decolonial perspective, it carries out training, dialogue, research and advocacy work.

What impacts has the COVID-19 pandemic had on Chilean women and girls, and how has civil society responded to it?

The pandemic affected women and girls differentially and disproportionately. In the case of Chile, in the first year of the pandemic there was an explosive increase in requests for help for gender-based violence (GBV). This happened because, in the midst of mandatory quarantines, women and girls were locked in their homes together with their aggressors.

In addition, because there was no school for a long time and even kindergartens were closed, women were on their own to care for children and sick family members, often having to abandon their work and studies to support their households. Just before the pandemic, female participation in the labour market had reached an all-time high of 53.3 per cent, while after the pandemic it fell back to 41 per cent. It will take a long time to recover women’s participation in the labour force. 

Faced with this scenario, women and women’s groups built support networks. At the neighbourhood level, women’s groups organised community kitchens and sales or exchange fairs, among other initiatives. Many women’s groups set up helplines because the official ones were not sufficient or did not always respond. Amaranta received hundreds of requests for help with GBV in digital spaces and, despite having a small team, contributed by providing initial support and communicating basic self-care strategies.

The pandemic forced us to move much of our work into the digital sphere. On the one hand, this allowed us to continue working, to do so safely and to reach much further. But on the other hand, not all people have access to the internet or digital literacy, so we had to find other strategies as well. Now we work by mixing face-to-face and distance gender education with educational and activist materials that we hand out in the streets, such as fanzines and stickers.

What are the main unresolved women’s rights issues in Chile?

A big problem is that domestic and care work still falls overwhelmingly on women. This has profound effects on women’s quality of life, because it results in them either abandoning their studies or leaving their jobs to do this unpaid work at home, or trying to become ‘superwomen’ who must be able to do everything, even if they can no longer take it because they so tired.

This was made clear in a report published in the magazine Revista Ya in late 2020, ‘An x-ray of the zero man‘, so titled because according to the study on which the article was based, 38 per cent of men spend zero hours a week doing housework. Similarly, 71 per cent spend zero hours helping their children with schoolwork and 57 per cent spend zero hours taking care of children. In contrast, the women surveyed spend 14 hours a week more than men caring for children under the age of 14.

Another major pending issue is that of sexual and reproductive rights. Our right to decide over our own bodies is still not recognised. Abortion is only permitted on three grounds: danger to the life of the pregnant woman, foetal malformations incompatible with life and when the pregnancy is the result of rape. At the same time, there are no comprehensive sex education programmes to prevent unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual violence. During the pandemic, many instances of failure of oral hormonal contraceptives were documented. Many of these had been provided free of charge in public health facilities; as a result, many vulnerable women ended up pregnant, without being able to choose to have an abortion and without receiving any kind of monetary compensation.

What should be done to reduce gender inequality in Chile?

At Amaranta, we believe that we must start with non-sexist education, including comprehensive sex education. This is the only way to stop repeating stereotypes that perpetuate inequality from an early age. This is an important element in preventing GBV.

Laws and public policies that pave the way for a more equitable and inclusive society are also important. Since 2019, Chile has gone through multiple social protests, which have included the feminist movement in a very prominent role. As a result of these protests, we now find ourselves drafting a new constitution which, if approved, we already know will include gender-sensitive justice systems. This is a tremendous step forward for our country, and even a first at the continental level.

The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How have you organised around it?

Our ongoing campaign as an organisation is about breaking down biases and overcoming prejudices and stereotypes. We do this through education, which can take many forms: from a relatively formal talk or workshop, to recommending a book or handing out a feminist fanzine, to disseminating content through a TikTok video.

In terms of mobilisation, we remain attentive to all calls from feminist organisations in the area and we will participate in women’s meetings, marches, bike rallies and ‘pañuelazos’ – that is, large gatherings of women wearing green scarves – that are being organised.

Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Amaranta through its website and follow @AmarantaOng on Twitter.

 

 

TURKEY: ‘We continue to organise and demonstrate so that no voice is left unheard’

CIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and Turkish civil society’s role in eliminating gender inequality with the team of the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, a Turkish civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at ending femicide and ensuring women are protected from violence.

We Will Stop Femicide was founded in response to rising levels of femicide in Turkey. It provides assistance to women exposed to GBV and promotes legal action against perpetrators. It contributes to raising awareness about GBV by collecting data on femicides and sharing it with the public, organising meetings and holding protests, and assists families of femicide victims in their quest for justice.

 WeWillStopFemicide

How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated GBV in Turkey?

The COVID-19 pandemic made many pre-existing inequalities more visible. It had a negative impact in terms of social inequalities, GBV and ultimately femicide. Especially during lockdown, many women had to stay at home with their perpetrators for a long time.

While in many countries extra measures were taken when this happened, we never saw them in Turkey. Even the announcement of the official hotline, KADES, was made too late. All of this has had an impact on femicide rates. In addition, there’s been an increase in suspicious deaths of women – cases in which murder is suspected but it cannot be determined conclusively whether there’s been a natural death, a suicide or a murder. These are another face of femicide.

In sum, since we coexist with so many inequalities, we cannot be completely sure when we attribute these changes exclusively to the pandemic, but everything points to the pandemic having made things worse. We will definitely continue to follow the data to understand this better.

What role has Turkish civil society played in advocating against femicide, both before and during the pandemic?

There has been a growing movement against femicides in Turkey. As a result of this pandemic - that we do not know when it will end – our struggle will grow even larger and the voice against femicide will spread louder and further.

Precisely under the pandemic, when GBV was denounced by many as a pandemic of its own, our government withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. This is a regional human rights instrument aimed at protecting women against GBV and holding perpetrators accountable, and with this withdrawal we have lost an important tool to hold our own government accountable for what it is doing – or not doing – to protect women.

The process of withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention was shameful. It happened overnight and was the result of the arbitrary decision of one person, President Erdoğan. He announced his decision in March 2021, and the withdrawal took effect in July. A legal instrument that recognised women as free and equal and sought to ensure us a life free of violence was dismissed at a single stroke. This marked an incredible regression for Turkish women.

But it also provoked a welcome progressive reaction. On top of the pandemic conditions that disproportionately affected women and the government’s increasingly misogynistic policies, the termination of the Istanbul Convention galvanised society against femicide and GBV. People demonstrated in streets, public squares, schools and workplaces to stand up for the Istanbul Convention and women’s right to be treated as free and equals. Nothing will ever be the same after that.

We continue to organise for our right to be recognised as free and equal and to live a life free of violence. We keep telling more and more women about their rights and freedoms. We continue to organise meetings and mass protests so that no voice is left unheard.

What else is the We Will Stop Femicide Platform doing?

As members of the We Will Stop Femicide Platform, we organise mass demonstrations in various places such as streets or squares, schools and factories and other workplaces, depending on the topic on the agenda. This is one of the most important ways in which we can make our voices heard.

In addition, we use social media for our campaigns. In this way, we not only follow the agenda, we also inform the public about our work and invite people to take part in our struggle. Our YouTube channel, Yaşasın Kadınlar, which we have just started, has made an important contribution in that regard and we think it will become even more effective in the future. We use it to share the current women’s rights agenda, answer questions and make our own assessment of political developments.

In addition, we have Women Assemblies in many of Turkey’s provinces, so our struggle continues there through meetings, mass demonstrations and social media work. We have also launched a publication, Eşitlikçi Feminizm, to advance our struggle.

Of course, the pandemic has had an impact on our work, and our face-to-face work has decreased. However, technological progress has enabled us to carry out much of our work from home. Our YouTube channel and new publication have been important steps forward during the pandemic.

What should the Turkish government do to curb femicide?

The Turkish government knows what it should do, because the Istanbul Convention explains, one by one, each of the steps that need to be followed to prevent femicides.

First, it needs to create an environment that is not conducive to GBV. All the anti-women and anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric needs to end – but unfortunately it continues.

Second, it needs to protect women in environments where various forms of violence occur. However, we see that protection measures are not actively and fully implemented.

Third, incidents of violence need to be prosecuted and punished effectively. And of course, it is necessary to have a policy based on the principle of gender equality to guide all these. 

All state institutions should be doing all this. While the Istanbul Convention was in force, we took to the courts and protested in the streets to demand the enforcement of each and every article of the Convention. Many women’s lives were saved thanks to the Istanbul Convention. Now that the Istanbul Convention is not in force in Turkey any more, what we have left is Law No. 6284 of 2012, the Law to Protect Family and Prevent Violence against Women. We will continue to fight for the implementation of the contents of the Istanbul Convention, whether the Convention itself is in force or not.

The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?

On 8 March we are holding mass demonstrations all over Turkey with the slogan ‘We will not live in the grip of poverty and in the shadow of violence, you will never walk alone’. Recently, we have been going through a serious economic crisis with increasing inflation. Rising violence against women and growing poverty are interconnected. We will be in streets and squares all over the country looking at the issue as a whole and demanding integrated solutions.

Civic space in Turkey is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the We Will Stop Femicide Platform through its website or Facebook page and follow @kadincinayeti on Twitter.

 

ZAMBIA: ‘Our aim is to break societal biases against girls’

CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Zambian civil society’s role in advancing women’s and girls’ rights with Pamela Mateyo and Mwape Kapepula, co-founders of WingEd Girls.

Founded in 2021, WingEd Girls is a civil society organisation (CSO) focused on distributing sanitary materials and teaching girls in underprivileged communities how to make reusable pads, while educating them on personal and menstrual hygiene and mentoring them through post school career paths and choices.

WingEd Girls

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on Zambian women and girls?

The restrictions that the pandemic brought, confining people in their homes, greatly contributed to a rise in domestic and gender-based violence (GBV). Compared to 2019, the cases reported in 2020 increased by over 1,000 cases, affecting mostly women and children. 

The pandemic also led to many businesses closing. Many of those were informal businesses dedicated to planning events or catering, thrift clothes shops, restaurants and marketplace stalls. Many were owned and run by women. As a result, households led by women were left in a very vulnerable position, often unable to access basic needs.

At the start of the pandemic schools closed, leading to an increase in rape cases of girls staying at home. By the time schools reopened, many girls couldn’t go back because they were either pregnant or getting married, while others simply dropped out. In addition, focus on COVID-19 reduced access by women and girls to basic healthcare, including maternal care, HIV treatment and sexual and reproductive health care.

How have civil society in general, and WingEd Girls in particular, responded to this situation?

CSOs like World Vision worked in partnership with the government to ensure that while schools were closed children were still engaged in schoolwork, for instance by sponsoring radio and television programmes that taught children basic subjects.

We founded WingEd Girls in the middle of the pandemic to respond to very urgent needs. But this also brought many challenges. The work we do depends on interaction with girls. However, as the number of people that could gather was restricted, it was very hard to reach out to schools and communities. To be able to do our work, we secured bigger spaces and engaged more peer educators to work with smaller groups of girls in breakout group sessions.

The pandemic also made it difficult for us to get the funding we needed to conduct outreach and purchase sanitary materials for distribution. This was partly because prices increased, and also because we had to spend money on additional items, such as sanitisers, masks and handwash soap. Most of our donors also faced financial challenges and couldn’t donate as much as they would like, and this is a challenge we continue to face.

For schools to reopen, a lot of CSOs, church-affiliated organisations such as the Salvation Army and local businesses donated hand sanitisers, masks, handwashing basins and soap. We helped ensure girls had access to basic needs to remain in school.

Civil society also called on the government to lessen restrictions on public interactions so that small businesses could reopen as well.

What are the main women’s rights issues in Zambia and how is civil society tackling them?

Some major women’s and girls’ rights issues in Zambia are GBV, economic inequality and unequal access to quality education.

According to African Impact, only about 31 per cent of girls in Zambia finish primary school, and only eight per cent complete secondary school. This is partly attributed to early marriages and pregnancies, but also to challenges such as lack of access to menstrual hygiene management products and facilities, especially in rural schools.

Low levels of literacy make girls more vulnerable as they grow into women. Most of them don’t understand the rights they have as women, especially those concerning sexual and reproductive health.

This also contributes to a lack of financial independence, which in turn makes women more susceptible to GBV. Limited education means limited access to business opportunities and funding. Many women are not able to draft a business plan, which is required to get a loan. Most lending institutions also require collateral, which most women don’t have, as they typically don’t own property. All this puts them at an economic disadvantage and increases their vulnerability.

There is a cultural trend for women to get just the bare minimum level of education and then become homemakers. Systems are not built to accommodate even the few who may want to take a different path.

Civil society works with government and communities to tackle these issues and bridge these gaps. Many CSOs, including WingEd Girls, support girls in different ways so they stay in school. We have a project to train girls to make reusable pads. The Salvation Army drills boreholes and builds toilets in rural schools. Copper Rose Zambia teaches girls about menstrual hygiene management and sensitises women on GBV and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Other CSOs, such as Africa Leadership Legacy, help women acquire business, financial and leadership skills. These efforts have inspired the government to take further action to support women and girls, and there are now government programmes to empower women, encourage women to establish businesses and provide greater access to education, especially in rural areas.

How can gender equality be achieved in Zambia and what is being done to that effect?

At WingEd Girls we believe that for real change to happen there needs to be an intentional change in direction, especially by the government. There is a need to mainstream gender policies and create awareness among girls and women of their rights.

Some policies to that effect already exist, but institutions seem to lack the motivation to implement them. Other policies are non-existent, and the government must put them in place. Policies around land ownership, access to education, gender-specific healthcare and access to business opportunities and financial assistance should be mainstreamed. Specific budget lines should be established to ensure an equal access to resources. More awareness programmes are needed to help women and girls learn about their rights and ways to access resources or assistance.

As GBV rose, church bodies and CSOs such as Zambia National Women’s Lobby have called on the government to take quick action. The government responded by promising it would establish fast-track courts for GBV cases, put in place policies and legislation to combat GBV and build shelters for GBV victims within communities. They in turn called on civil society to join in efforts to ensure anti-GBV services were made easily available for victims or potential victims.

To keep girls in schools, the government has recently included funding in the national budget to distribute sanitary towels in all schools across the country. But this has not made civil society stop its own work in that regard. WingEd Girls and other CSOs see a potential for partnering with the government and will continue to distribute menstrual hygiene management resources to girls.

To support female-led households, the government has partnered with the World Bank. Through a World Bank-funded project, Girls’ Education and Women’s Empowerment and Livelihood, it will help women access seed money to start businesses and access farm inputs. Lending institutions are also being encouraged to re-evaluate their loan access requirements to accommodate more women.

The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How have you organised around it in the communities you work with?

For IWD we organised a school outreach in a rural district of Zambia’s Southern Province. We moved it to 11 March because 8 March is a holiday and children will be off school that day. As usual, the event will include menstrual health hygiene talks and career mentorship sessions. We will distribute WingEd kits’, a package containing reusable and disposable pads, underwear, washing soap, and painkillers.

We have partnered with several organisations, including Africa Leadership Legacy, which will conduct talks about leadership and financial skills, and Toy-lab, an organisation led by a group of medical doctors who will talk about menstrual hygiene management. To inspire the girls with business ideas, a local business leader will also come to talk to the girls. Peer educators from Mike’s New Generation Version will also be part of the team.

Our aim is essentially to break the bias that society and communities have against girls, starting with access to education and career choices. In line with Sustainable Development Goal 4, we want to ensure girls have access to quality education despite the various challenges they face, including menstruation. We hope the mentorship we provide will enable them to choose career paths based on their passions and interests.

They shouldn’t have to choose a career because it is deemed suitable or ‘easy’ enough for a girl. What they really need is help to overcome challenges and exposure to information about the variety of career options available to them.

Civic space in Zambia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with WingEd Girls through its Facebook and Instagram pages. 

 

IRAQ: ‘We've submitted many bills, but parliament refuses to adopt a law against GBV’

CIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequalities and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Iraqi women and girls with Alyaa Al Ansari, executive director of Bent Al-Rafedain Organisation (BROB).

Founded in Iraq’s southern Babylon province in 2005, BROB is a feminist civil society organisation (CSO) that works to ensure the protection of women and children and promotes women’s integration in all spheres of society. Since its foundation, BROB has extended its activities to eight provinces across Iraq. 

Alyaa Al Ansari

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on women and girls in Iraq?

The pandemic has affected many different groups of Iraqi society, but women and girls have been the most affected of all. Since before the pandemic, Iraqi women were socially compelled to have the biggest share of care responsibilities within their families: they are the main caregivers for children and older people. When a full lockdown was imposed in Iraq for four months, these responsibilities grew even more.

Additionally, many women were financially affected as the pandemic swept away countless businesses, including hotels, restaurants and shops, because they lost their jobs in the private sector. Without a stable income, their families suffered, particularly when they were the family’s main breadwinner.

The situation was even worse for female healthcare professionals. Some of them made the tough decision to remain separate from their families for a prolonged period to avoid spreading the virus to their family members. Further, the government did not issue any additional regulations on the working conditions of pregnant medical staff during the pandemic. They too were forced to continue working and risk their lives and those of their unborn children; several of them miscarried.

Another dramatic effect of the full lockdown was the spike in domestic violence. For four long months, abused women had no way out. They had to continue to live under the same roof with their abusers. There were more femicides and more attempted suicides were reported as some women could not bear the pressure and the violence they were subjected to.

How has civil society, and BROB in particular, responded to the devastating impacts of the pandemic on women?

During the pandemic, civil society efforts focused on providing humanitarian aid to affected women and their families. For instance, charity organisations covered essential needs of poor families and helped women who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

As for feminist CSOs, some set up online programmes to provide psychological support. Other organisations shifted their face-to-face activities online and took to social media platforms such as Facebook to reach women who had to stay at home for unusually long periods. BROB’s phone number was posted across social media platforms, so women and families who needed urgent help were able to reach us.

Fortunately, BROB staff were able to continue to work at full capacity during the pandemic. We had freedom of movement once the Iraqi authorities issued permits allowing us to circulate during curfew in the eight provinces where we work. They gave us permission because we were providing essential services to families under lockdown. For instance, our team was distributing food supplies twice a month. 

We maintained our social and psychological support programme for women but we moved it fully online via mobile and communications apps such as WhatsApp. Remote work is one of the new tactics we adopted during the pandemic. Our staff was creative and developed several new tactics we had never thought of before the pandemic, which allowed us to meet the urgent needs of women and their families.

Financially, BROB sustained its activities through donations from members as well as from the local community. Moreover, as public health institutions were struggling and the Ministry of Health was overwhelmed, we crowdfunded and sought donations to acquire additional medical equipment for the public health sector. This was a successful campaign that could have the positive side effect of strengthening the relationship between civil society and government institutions in the public health sector.

What are the main women’s rights issues in Iraq and how is civil society working to make change happen?

There are many relevant issues, but the one that if adequately tackled would make the most meaningful change in the lives of Iraqi women is that of gender-based violence (GBV). There is an urgent need for a law criminalising domestic violence in Iraq. CSOs have advocated for this for more than a decade. They have submitted several bills, but parliament has so far refused to discuss and adopt a law to protect women, girls and families from violence.

Given the importance of such legislation in promoting and protecting women’s rights at the national level, we will continue to put pressure on decision-makers through advocacy and campaigns combined with media support.

It is also key to change current laws that are unequal and unfair to provide women much-needed legal protection. Personal status laws in particular contain articles that discriminate against women in terms of the rights they recognise or don’t recognise, and the obligations and penalties they impose.

At the very least, Iraq should have laws to guarantee equal access to education, healthcare and public services overall. Such laws will contribute to gender equality as they become an integral part of the Iraqi legislative system. A law criminalising incitement of violence against women in the media and by religious leaders is also very much needed.

To make change happen, CSOs will continue raising awareness on gender equality, advocating with decision-makers, orchestrating public opinion campaigns, fighting legal battles and fostering leadership capabilities among women and girls. It is mostly up to us, because when it comes to official response, decision-makers do nothing besides issuing positive press releases to capitalise on CSO campaigns. 

The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How did you organise around it?

Most of our projects have always focused on breaking the bias to combat gender inequalities. Every year we plan events on IWD to shed light on an issue that is critical to local communities. In 2019, for instance, we celebrated disabled sportswomen in Babylon province and supported their training programmes.

As usual, there are plenty of urgent issues this year, but we decided to focus on discrimination in the workplace, in both the private and the public sector. Women deserve safe and fair working conditions everywhere.

Civic space in Iraq is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Bent Al-Rafedain Organisation through its website or Facebook page. 

 

AUSTRIA: ‘Unfortunately, times of crisis have rarely proven to be a catalyst for gender equality’

CIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender-based violence (GBV) in Austria with Hannah Steiner and Sophie Hansal of the Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls.

The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at improving women’s and girls’ lives through the development of training programmes, the provision of free counselling and campaigning and advocating for women’s concerns to be addressed by public policies.

Hannah Steiner and Sophie Hansal

How did the work of the Network change under the pandemic?

The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls is an umbrella organisation encompassing 59 counselling centres all over Austria. We build our internal network by organising training activities, exchange and communication among counselling centres. We represent the concerns of our member organisations externally and are therefore in constant contact with funding bodies, politicians, the media and the public. We advocate for a society in which all human beings, and particularly women and girls, can lead a free and safe life.

The Network and all its counselling centres have no affiliation with any political party or religion. Our member organisations provide various forms of support, from career guidance, training and reintegration to work after parental leave, guidance regarding employment laws and residence status, to partnership and support on child-rearing issues, divorce and custody, physical and mental health issues, all the way to violence in all of its forms.

The pandemic had a major effect on our work, particularly at the beginning, when uncertainty was highest and the availability and accessibility of counselling was very limited. Many women and girls were unsure where to seek advice. Counselling centres tried to react to this as quickly as possible, for example by offering counselling online, but also by actively contacting women and girls who had registered with them earlier to ask how they were doing and whether they needed anything.

As in many other areas, counselling embraced new technologies during the pandemic. However, some women and girls didn’t have – and still don’t have – the equipment or skills to access these opportunities. At the same time, some organisations have told us that there are women and girls who find it easier to ask for advice or help in an online setting. And women who live in rural areas, far from the next counselling centre, found access to counselling easier via phone or email. The ways the pandemic impacted on our work cannot be summarised so easily, because its effects were multifaceted.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated GBV in Austria, and how has civil society reacted to this?

Studies have shown that all types of violence against women and girls intensified during the pandemic. Political measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 affected women and girls in specific ways: financial worries, movement restrictions, often cramped living conditions and – in cases of domestic violence – isolation in close quarters with abusers all made the situation especially dire for many women and girls.

It is important to note that the pandemic has also affected many people’s psychological health. Only the future will show the pandemic’s long-term effects on a social level. Unfortunately, times of crisis have rarely proven to be a catalyst for gender equality.

What is key for achieving equality and social justice is an active civil society. Civil society gives a public voice to those who are often not heard. During the pandemic, CSOs have pointed out how the crisis affected the most vulnerable groups in society. They have continued to offer advice and support to those who need it and have developed new offers to address pandemic-induced economic and psychological stress.

Counselling centres for women and girls play a special role in protection from GBV. We can recognise violence early on and in cases where it is hidden behind other problems. Even – and especially – in times of crisis such as this, counselling centres are crucial contact points for women and girls.

CSOs have always been key figures in advocating for gender and social equality in Austria, and will certainly continue to do it in the aftermath of the pandemic.

What should the Austrian government do to curb GBV?

Austria ratified the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence – in 2013. Since then, its implementation has been evaluated by the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO). In its evaluation report, GREVIO has included many CSO demands. Full implementation of the Istanbul Convention would be a milestone in the elimination of GBV.

One of the most important political steps would be an increase in funding for CSOs working in the field. Due to the ongoing crisis and the increased need for advice, women’s and girls’ counselling centres need more support. There is often no long-term funding that can ensure CSO sustainability, only project-based funding. This does not allow for long-term actions and makes planning difficult.

Furthermore, the knowhow and wide experience of women’s CSOs should be considered and included to a higher degree when it comes to policy-making at the national and regional levels. The government should make use of and rely on the expertise of women’s organisations and the long-existing services they built when planning new measures or setting up new institutions.

Further research on the specific situation of young women and girls should be conducted so that their needs are taken into consideration when new measures are designed.

The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How have you organised around it in the communities you work with?

The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls works 365 days a year to create a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination, by offering counselling for women and girls in difficult situations; by making sexism, gender stereotypes and GBV a political issue; by advocating for women’s and girls’ rights on a daily basis; by developing training programmes, quality standards and working documents; by connecting feminist CSOs and by positioning ourselves as experts for the issue of gender equality. Our aim is to improve the living conditions of all women and girls living in Austria.

Due to the pandemic, we have not organised an event on 8 March, but some of our member organisations have planned events and we are joining the International Women’s Day protest in Vienna.

Civic space in Austria is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls through its website of Facebook page, and follow it on Instagram. 

 

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