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. 

PAKISTAN: ‘As a result of patriarchal norms, women experience discrimination at all levels’

Farrah NazCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Pakistani civil society’s role in eliminating inequality and malnutrition with Farrah Naz, country director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). 

GAIN is a Swiss-based foundation launched at the United Nations in 2002 to tackle the human suffering caused by malnutrition. It works with governments, businesses and civil society to transform food systems so that they deliver more nutritious foods for all people, especially the most vulnerable including children, adolescents and women.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected women and girls in Pakistan?

There is little evidence of how COVID-19 has affected women in Pakistan, but this is a country where the gender gap is huge – the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Pakistan 151 out of 153 countries – and there is a general understanding that in the presence of such gaps, disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic have a potential to have a disproportionate negative effect on women and girls.

A situation analysis by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems pointed out that women make up 70 per cent of frontline health workers, who are more susceptible to contracting the virus. Similarly, women are a large part of the informal labour force, including domestic and home-based workers (HBWs), 75 per cent of whom were estimated to have suffered economic impacts due to loss of work. Women in the garment and textile industry also lost work due to lockdowns. Due to lack of registration, less than one per cent of women who run micro, small and medium food-related enterprises in the informal sector had access to financial support as their businesses were affected by lockdowns.

A recent report shows that there are 12 million HBWs who earn around 3,000-4,000 rupees a month (approx. US$17-22), who will face multidimensional challenges including income insecurity, lack of social protection and increased vulnerability in times of crisis. It also indicates that as of 2017, 26 per cent of all microfinance loans had been taken out by women. The pandemic may affect their ability to pay them back, which could result in higher interest rates, penalties and reduced access to future loans.

In the context of school closures, girls have generally been given more household responsibilities than boys. Prolonged closures could exacerbate inequalities in educational attainment due to higher rates of female absenteeism and lower rates of school completion. As schools reopen, many girls will find it difficult to balance schoolwork and increased domestic responsibilities.

The Sustainable Social Development Organization, a CSO based in Islamabad, reported a 200 per cent increase in domestic violence cases in Pakistan in the early days of the pandemic. A 25 per cent increase in domestic violence was reported in eastern Punjab, while 500 domestic violence cases were reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after the lockdown. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 399 murder cases were reported in March 2020 alone. In the federal capital, Islamabad, there were thousands of allegations of torture of women, but the National Commission on the Status of Women has remained silent on this.

There is not enough safe and nutritious food and access to routine health services is limited. Pregnant women and children from vulnerable sectors have been severely affected and it is estimated that about 150,000 additional children across Punjab will be malnourished due to the pandemic.

As usual, although women actively participate in harvesting food and have the primary responsibility for cooking meals, they often eat last and least, after male family members have been served. This is because social norms don’t value them equally and their interests are not prioritised.

On top of this, the Ehsaas Ration Programme, which provides a subsidy that can be used to purchase staples such as flour and cooking oil, requires beneficiaries to have a national identity card, which women are much less likely to have than men. Across Pakistan, at least 12 million fewer women than men have such cards.

How has civil society responded to these challenges?

Civil society had tried to increase its humanitarian interventions to address not only pandemic-related health and safety issues but also the practical needs of vulnerable populations in terms of access to basic food and non-food items. Major networks of international and national organisations, governmental and civil society, have worked together to reach millions of people during the pandemic. Many CSOs focused on the needs of women, girls and transgender people.

Many CSOs also concentrated their efforts on addressing domestic violence. While there have always been domestic violence helplines, new ones quickly emerged. And many in the private sector focused specifically on providing counselling services to address the mental health issues that people faced during extended lockdowns. 

How has GAIN responded to the impacts of COVID-19 in local communities in Pakistan?

In line with its mission of ensuring access to nutritious food, especially to the most vulnerable people, GAIN focused on keeping food markets working. Our work had several components.

First, we worked with food-related small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that were struggling to survive, and especially with those that were owned or led by women, and provided small survival grants to selected SMEs.

Second, we provided grants to enable employers in the food industry to support workers’ health and nutrition through emergency food support. Twenty thousand food workers and their families benefitted through this programme in Pakistan – and many more in other low- and middle-income countries where we work.

Third, we cooperated with social protection programmes to ensure that food and ration distribution include fortified staple foods for the most vulnerable families and individuals dependent on food and ration distribution networks. Over 8 million meals were fortified in six districts across Pakistan. 

Fourth, we worked with urban food system stakeholders and traditional markets in urban areas to ensure that safe and nutritional foods remained available and accessible to people. We addressed issues of food safety in markets and for consumers through awareness campaigns and the distribution of masks and sanitisers, and helped design policy options to increase the resilience of the food system. We implemented this programme in two cities of Pakistan. 

What are the main women’s rights issues in Pakistan, and how is civil society working to bring them into the policy agenda?

A lot of progress on women’s rights has been made over the years, but the status of women continues to vary considerably across classes, regions and the rural/urban divide, due to uneven socioeconomic development and the impact of tribal and feudal social formations on women’s lives.

Overall, improvements are spreading through Pakistan: for instance, an increasing number of women are literate and educated. CSOs and religious groups are increasingly denouncing violence against women. The All-Pakistan Ulema Council, which is the largest group of religious clergies in Pakistan, has issued a fatwa – that is, a legal ruling – against so-called ‘honour killings’. Courts have answered the call by women’s rights advocates and are delivering harsher punishments for violent crimes against women.

Pakistan has adopted several key international commitments to gender equality and women’s human rights – including the Beijing Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Sustainable Development Goals. Some domestic laws have also been enacted to protect the rights of women.

However, gender inequality remains a prominent issue, as revealed by most development indicators. Child marriage is high: 21 per cent of girls under 18 are already married. Limited access to education heavily impacts on Pakistani children, especially girls.

Women from the lower classes are often only able to work informally from home: 12 out of the estimated 20 million HBWs in Pakistan are women. Women are estimated to account for 65 per cent of the contribution of HBWs to Pakistan’s economy, but most receive low wages and are denied legal protection and social security.

The CSO White Ribbon Pakistan reported that between 2004 and 2016, 47,034 women faced sexual violence and there were over 15,000 registered ‘honour crimes’. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index Report ranks Pakistan second to last regarding domestic violence rates. But at 2.5 per cent, conviction rates for these crimes are exceedingly low.

And although Pakistan was one of the first Muslim countries to have a female prime minister, it currently has only 20.6 per cent female representation in the lower house of parliament with an even lower rate, 18.3 per cent, in the upper house.

In sum, as a result of patriarchal norms that subordinate women to men, women experience multiple forms of discrimination at all levels, from their everyday home life to political participation on the national stage. 

Many CSOs are working to promote women’s and girls’ rights in Pakistan. Although the situation remains tough and there is much backlash in response to women being vocal about their rights, the strong women’s movement of Pakistan is getting stronger and making sure women’s rights issues remain alive and progress continues to happen.

The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How have you organised around it in the communities you work with?

On IWD, GAIN offices in Africa, Asia and Europe are continuing to do the work that needs to be done while also taking the time to recognise women’s achievements in improving food systems.

As we know only too well, women’s contributions are often undervalued, unpaid and overlooked. This is even more pernicious in connection to food systems, where women are key leaders at every step of the way – as farmers, processors, wageworkers, traders and consumers. And still women and girls are often the last members of a household that get to eat.

In 2021, for the second year in a row, the Global Health 50/50 report – an annual survey of public, private, civil society and international organisations operating in the global health space – ranked GAIN’s gender and equity-related policies very high. This is because GAIN is fully committed to ensuring diversity throughout its programmes. We are currently developing a new programmatic gender policy to ensure women involved in food systems are given the same opportunities as men and their rights are always fully respected. We have also purposefully diversified our board and senior leadership, including our country directors. Our board has recently committed to seeking gender balance, meaning that it will have to make sure that at least half its voting members are women. And we are one of the few organisations that has a young female Partnership Council member. All of this is what gives us the right perspective in addressing nutrition challenges that differentially affect women and girls.

Civic space in Pakistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with GAIN through its website or Facebook page. 

SYRIA: ‘The pandemic added another layer to women’s diminished access to healthcare’

CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Syrian civil society’s role in eliminating gender inequality with Maria Al Abdeh, executive director of Women Now for Development (WND), a Syrian civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at fostering a democratic, free and just society in which women can play meaningful roles and reach their full potential.

 Maria Al Abdeh

What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on women and girls in Syria?

The pandemic has definitely had a disproportionate impact on Syrian women and girls. Champa Patel and I analyse these impacts in a recent paper, ‘COVID-19 and Women in Syria‘. Under the pandemic, women’s health issues were taken less seriously, especially those related to sexual and reproductive health, such as pregnancy. Women lost access to hospitals – access that was already diminished by war and displacement. The pandemic added another layer to women’s diminished access to healthcare services and facilities.

We have also seen a huge psychosocial burden on the Syrian women we interviewed. Women spoke about the panic their children experienced when schools closed. In children’s minds, school closings are linked to bombings and displacement, so when schools closed yet again it triggered traumatic memories. Mothers had to calm their children and explain there were no bombs but there was now a new danger, the pandemic. Displaced women also reported on the traumatic impact of displacement on their mental health.

Additionally, most interviewees told us that they were giving more tasks to girls than boys. But we found something interesting: during the first months of the pandemic, when fear was at its highest, Syrian girls were quite creative in finding ways to support their community, such as by organising activities for children in camps.

Other women reported that it was challenging to keep their families healthy, which according to established gender roles is a woman’s job as a caregiver. The pandemic clearly took a toll on everyone, but as is also the case with violence and conflict, it had intersectional effects that made it worse for women.

The pandemic worsened an economic situation that was already fragile. Eighty per cent of Syrians are below the poverty line and 60 per cent of households are led by women. As a result of the pandemic, an additional economic burden was placed on women’s shoulders. For the sake of their husbands and children, women are the last ones to eat, which has huge health consequences. Even those who do not live in camps usually have no way of storing food, so they can only afford food when the breadwinner brings money in every day.

While the conflict in Syria may have already altered women’s roles in both family and society, the pandemic has reinforced an unjust gender divide.

How has civil society, and WND more specifically, worked to support Syrian women during the pandemic?

Civil society has supported women in many ways, from raising awareness to providing humanitarian aid and psychosocial support. Most of this support, however, was provided during the first year of the pandemic. As time passed, the pandemic itself stopped being a priority for Syrians, who instead focused on its economic impacts. Despite the growing death toll of the pandemic inside Syria, priorities changed.

As for WND, our main areas of work are protection, empowerment, participation, research and advocacy. The research we conducted during the first months of the pandemic informed our programmes, which we modified to match the needs of Syrian women in the new context. As a result, we supported more small businesses led by women.

We also reinforced our psychosocial support programme and we shifted our empowerment programmes online – which we had done before in response to bombings, but only for shorter periods. By shifting online, we were able to reach further. On the negative side, we lost personal contact with women, and could not reach the most vulnerable ones, who have no access to technology.

What are the main women’s rights issues in Syria? What would need to happen for them to be effectively tackled?

This is quite a difficult question. Rights, freedom and dignity are a very basic need for all Syrians, both women and men. But for women, there is a huge list of unfulfilled rights.

The war has deepened inequalities and reinforced patterns of violence. Gendered impacts need to be taken into account in any discussion around accountability, justice or peace. This is why, as women and feminists, we are calling for transformative gender justice, which means addressing the root causes of harm and crimes to prevent their recurrence.

Take for example enforced disappearances. This is huge issue in Syria, where more than 100,000 men and women – but mostly men - have forcibly disappeared. In addition to loss and psychological pain, many women have had to deal with an unjust law that deprives them of custody of their children or access to their husband’s property. Many women whose husbands had gone missing told us that education was their biggest need, as they had to take care of the whole family by themselves and were not well prepared.

Another example is the condition of female detainees. Some have been killed by their families after getting out of detention centres because they were viewed as ‘dishonoured’ for being raped. Instead of being considered victims, they were treated as sinners. 

But our basic rights won’t be realised as long as the Syrian regime remains in power. The pandemic was just another indicator that the Syrian regime doesn’t care about its people, who were left on their own, without even basic medical care.

For gender inequality to be tackled effectively, the war needs to end and criminals mustn’t be allowed to take over the country. We need the kind of peace that brings democracy and accountability. Unfortunately, crimes and human rights abuses are currently being committed not only by the Syrian regime, but by other parties in the conflict as well.

So-called ‘honour crimes’ against women are on the rise because the violence and impunity of war have started to take root in society. The Syrian authorities couldn’t care less about tackling these violations. The gender impact of war is not even considered and women’s perspectives are not taken seriously at any level. That’s why WND works so hard to highlight the impact of conflict and displacement on women as well as their perspectives through a feminist lens, and insists on the importance of including women at all levels of decision-making. 

The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?

For this year, WND has decided to celebrate our success following years of war and the pandemic. This IWD, our organisation’s focus will be on shedding light on acts of solidarity by Syrian women’s CSOs, as a feminist approach to empower women, claim space and fight violence.

On 11 March we will hold an online seminar, ‘The Power to Change: Women and Feminist Organisations as Transformative Actors in Syria’, which will revolve around the findings of a report recently published by WND, Global Fund for Women and Impact.

Civic space in Syria is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Women Now for Development through its website and follow @WomenNowForDev on Twitter.

POLAND: ‘Abortion rights will inevitably be at the forefront of this year’s International Women’s Day’

Helsinki Foundation for human rightsCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Polish civil society’s role in advancing women’s rights with the team of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR).

Founded in 1989 by the members of the Helsinki Committee in Poland, the HFHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks to promote the development of a culture based on respect for freedom and human rights in Poland and abroad. Since 2007 it has had consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

 

What role has Polish civil society played in advocating for abortion rights, both before and during the pandemic?

Polish civil society has advocated for abortion rights for almost 30 years. Jointly with other CSOs, HFHR has continuously monitored the implementation of the legal provisions of the Abortion Act and represented women who were denied access to abortions they were entitled to.

One such case was P. and S. v. Poland, which led to a decision by the European Court of Human Rights that declared Poland responsible for improperly hindering access to abortion by a 14-year-old girl. Polish laws allow abortion if the pregnancy is the consequence of a crime, and in 2008 P. was given a public attestation that authorised her to get an abortion due to her age, as sexual intercourse with minors under 15 is codified as a crime. But doctors in two hospitals refused to provide the abortion, and they even forced her to speak to a priest and disclosed her case to the media, as a result of which she was harassed by anti-abortion activists. They got the police involved and removed her from her mother’s custody. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Poland had violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’.

That was a landmark case and should have been the gateway to a growing recognition of abortion rights. However, the situation only got increasingly worse. Despite civil society opposition, further restrictions were imposed on access to legal abortion. In October 2020, while we were in the middle of the pandemic, a Constitutional Tribunal judgement made access to abortion almost impossible in practice. 

Civil society played a crucial role in mobilising in protest against the judgement. And thanks to the engagement of CSOs such as the Federation for Women and Family Planning and Abortion Dream Team, women who required access to abortion received information, legal assistance and other forms of help.

But as a reaction to these protests and acts of resistance, the environment for women’s rights activism deteriorated. Shortly after the protests, at least seven women’s rights and human rights CSOs advocating for sexual and reproductive rights were harassed and threatened and their activists targeted with disinformation campaigns from the government and government-aligned media. Several activists who participated in protests were detained and some face politically motivated criminal charges, including for allegedly breaking pandemic rules.

How has the pandemic impacted on your work?

HFHR is the oldest and largest human rights CSO in Poland. We provide legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses, monitor legal changes affecting human rights and participate in public discussion about the protection of human rights. We focus on the situation in Poland, but also on some other countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted on our work. For obvious reasons, many of our in-person meetings were cancelled and we could not get people together. To substitute for this, we shifted online and enhanced our presence on social media. We used it to get in touch directly with our supporters. This allowed us to broaden our audience.

The pandemic also brought new and serious challenges to human rights, including but not only in the area of healthcare. HFHR has monitored pandemic-related legal developments, including restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly. We analysed the impact of the pandemic on human rights protections and made recommendations about this, and intervened in a number of cases in which pandemic-related restrictions on fundamental rights were imposed that were disproportionate and unconstitutional, such as in cases involving restrictions on the rights of defendants in criminal proceedings.

How is civil society advocating for gender equality and how are the authorities responding?

The Polish government has not adopted a comprehensive strategy for promoting gender equality. Further, the state’s institutional system to protect equal treatment has been severely weakened. Not only is the state doing nothing – it is also not very welcoming of civil society initiatives on the matter. 

CSOs continue working for gender equality through training activities, programmes and initiatives involving key stakeholders – for instance, by providing school training sessions on equal treatment. But instead of supporting these efforts, parliament recently adopted changes to the Education System Act that will significantly limit the access of CSOs to schools and educational facilities. The law has not come into force yet and has just been vetoed by the president.

The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?

We think the fact that it is now almost impossible to access abortion is one of the key issues hindering women’s rights in Poland. Sexual and reproductive rights will inevitably be at the forefront of IWD in Poland this year, and this will surely remain one of the priority topics for HFHR in upcoming years.

Civic space in Poland is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights through its website or Facebook page, and follow @hfhrpl on Twitter.

UK: ‘Education can equip the next generation to disrupt the culture of gender-based violence’

BoldVoicesCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and UK civil society’s role in eliminating gender inequality with the team of Bold Voices, a social enterprise that seeks to create spaces for young people to discuss and share experiences of gender inequality and gender-based violence.

Bold Voices advocates for young people’s right to receive education without being hindered by gender inequality and gender-based violence and works to equip the next generation with the knowledge and tools that will enable it to recognise inequalities in society and find new ways to tackle them. It does so through workshops, talks, digital sessions and online resources for young people and their teachers and parents.

Do you think COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls in the UK? What has civil society done to support them?

COVID-19 has not only impacted on women and girls worse than the rest of the population: it has also exacerbated pre-existing inequalities. Since the pandemic began in 2020, we have seen an unprecedented increase in violence against women and girls, from public street harassment to domestic violence and femicide, as well as the deepening of other pre-existing issues such as the gender gap in unpaid labour.

As lockdown orders came in, women took up the brunt of childcare, household chores and home-schooling. Civil society expressed concerns that the pandemic might turn back the clock on gender equality. Women of colour were specifically impacted on, as they are overrepresented among ‘essential’ and frontline workers. This meant they were disproportionately exposed to the virus and, due to factors linked to structural racism, at higher risk of serious illness if they contracted it.

Civil society’s response has been to strengthen support services, including financial, mental health and medical support, as well as to turn to the digital sphere to raise awareness of these issues. We have seen online campaigns gain unprecedented traction in the past two years, paving the way for civil society to put more pressure on the government to respond and enact change.

Two noteworthy campaigns were the one sparked by outrage over Sarah Everard’s murder and Everyone’s Invited, which provided a virtual space for survivors of sexual violence to share their stories to help expose and eradicate rape culture with empathy, compassion and understanding. This campaign had viral success at a time when public life was almost exclusively online.

How did you continue doing your work during the pandemic?

When the pandemic began and schools shut down, as in the rest of the world, Bold Voices’ work had to shift online. Our workshops involve highly trained facilitators who lead students in critical discussion about sensitive topics around gender inequality. Unable to ensure a safe online space to facilitate these difficult conversations, we were unfortunately forced to suspend our workshop programme.

Instead, we focused on delivering our talks over Zoom, reaching as many students as we could and adapting our work to make it as engaging and far-reaching as possible. Over the pandemic, we have hosted online talks, published blog posts and reached out to our community via social media to stay connected and to continue facilitating conversations around gender-based violence and inequality.

What are the main women’s rights issues in the UK?

At Bold Voices we view all women’s rights issues as interconnected. To illustrate this, we refer to Liz Kelly’s idea of a ‘continuum’ of gender-based violence. At the bedrock of gender inequality are the stereotypes that are still widely held in the UK: ideas about masculinity and femininity based on the gender binary that feed into our expectations of how women and men ‘should’ behave. Besides erasing the existence of people who don’t fit into that binary, these stereotypes set up cultural expectations that create a culture of gender-based violence rife with victim-blaming, silencing, objectification of women and slut-shaming.

These attitudes then feed and shape the structures and institutions that perpetuate these ideas. As a result, our legal system continues to fail survivors of sexual violence, the gender pay gap persists, women continue to be underrepresented in sectors such as business, politics and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines and the media we consume continue to fuel misogyny and glorify violence against women and girls.

These layers of stereotypes, attitudes and structural inequalities all create a culture in which sexual violence not only exists but thrives and goes unpunished. Looking at this continuum of violence through an intersectional lens, we see that women of colour and minorities are more vulnerable to these experiences because of the way gender inequality overlaps with other forms of oppression.

How is civil society advocating for change?

Civil society in the UK is campaigning for legal reform, to shift cultural attitudes and work on change through education. At Bold Voices we believe education is key to dismantling the culture that enables not only violence against women but all forms of inequality that affect women and those who don’t fit into the gender binary.

In the past few years, we have seen inspiring grassroots campaigns successfully criminalise some acts of sexual violence. Other areas of legal reform such as the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 show progress being made in terms of legal protections for women.

Public campaigns such as the recent Transport for London campaign to raise awareness of sexual harassment are trying to shift public attitudes. Grassroots social media campaigns exposing the problem of sexual violence in education, such as Everyone’s Invited, have come at the same time as the introduction of new relationships and sex education curriculum in UK schools, meaning all students must learn about consent, among other issues.

We know this is not enough. None of these actions will close the gender gap, but we believe education can spark the change we need, and the more we facilitate these conversations between young people, the better equipped the next generation will be to disrupt and reshape the culture of gender-based violence that exists all around us.

The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?

At Bold Voices we bring the message of IWD to our conversations with young people every day. Disrupting bias, stereotypes and discrimination against women, trans and non-binary people is at the heart of our work, and is the key to challenging gender-based violence. For IWD 2022 we are focusing on reaching out to the Bold Voices community to celebrate and thank our partners for working with us and for being part of the change.

Civic space in the UK is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Bold Voices through its website or Facebook page, and follow them on Instagram and Twitter.

AUSTRIA: ‘If anything changed for women under the pandemic, it was for the worse’

CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequality in Austria with Judith Goetz, a political analyst and scholar who studies gender and right-wing extremism.

Alongside her role as a university professor, Judith works with civil society organisations (CSOs) that advocate for equal rights of excluded groups and support feminist movements in Austria. She has recently co-edited two anthologies on gender perspectives and right-wing extremist movements.

Judith Goetz

Do you think COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women in Austria?

I believe so and I think the gender-specific effects of the pandemic and lockdown are especially visible in employment. Gender-specific occupational patterns that predated the pandemic resulted in an additional workload for women. Women are also employed disproportionately in the service industry and healthcare sector, so many women saw their workload increase during lockdown and throughout the pandemic.

Women have been further affected through low wages and short-term employment. In addition, gender imbalances in childcare roles, and caretaking roles more generally, intensified with the pandemic.

Crises always bring the chance to rethink the social contract, and the pandemic in particular opened up an opportunity to renegotiate gender-specific arrangements, but unfortunately it was not taken. Relationships of dependency have been intensified, so if anything changed, it was for the worse.

The increase of domestic and sexual violence under lockdown is proof of this. This has been a problem not just in Austria but in all of Europe. Many people lost their jobs and did not have enough money to make a living. It seems that many men, unable to cope with economic and pandemic-related stress, simply took it out on their partners and children.

It is worth noting that the pandemic had a negative impact not only on women but also on LGBTQI+ people. Conservative forces took advantage of the pandemic to promote a return to traditional values and families. They said that lockdown showed families the importance of spending time together, and made women see the advantages of undertaking their ‘natural’ role as caretakers. Fringe anti-feminists even blamed the pandemic on those promoting gender rights because according to them, the pandemic was God’s punishment for their sins.

Has the government done enough to tackle these negative impacts?

Through its government programme, the Austrian government promised measures to counter domestic and sexual violence. But it did too little.

The current Minister for Women, Family and Youth, Susanne Raab, upholds a very conservative image of women. She only takes an anti-patriarchal stance when it comes to migrant women, because she only sees patriarchal structures and conservative, traditional gender conceptions in migrant communities, rather than in society at large. This has set limits on the design of policies to curb gender injustices in Austrian society and to support women’s empowerment more generally.

What role has Austrian civil society played in advocating for gender equality, both before and during the pandemic?

In Austria there are lots of CSOs that work against discrimination against women and other gender identities, and for equal treatment of people regardless of how they choose to identify themselves. Many feminist achievements, notably in the form of social change, are the result of this commitment. But this progress has also engendered a reaction in defence of male privilege, and we have seen the rise of counter-movements.

The way I see it, civil society encompasses all the associations, social movements and initiatives in which citizens engage, independently from political parties even though they often work together. These are all part of civil society regardless of their political orientation, of whether they are progressive or regressive. During the pandemic, we saw movements against LGBTQI+ rights, sexual education for diversity and gender studies in general become popular within movements that mobilised against pandemic restrictions.

Overall, women’s organisations and other solidarity CSOs, from anti-racist to progressive feminist movements, are doing an enormously important job in Austria. But we must keep in mind that there is a whole other segment of CSOs that are not progressive at all, and progressive civil society must find strategies to deal with them.

What role do you think progressive civil society will have to continue to play after the pandemic?

Solidarity networks will be extremely important in the aftermath of the pandemic because many people – particularly women - have been pushed under the poverty line.

But the pandemic has also made clear that there are a lot of people who are willing to help and support other people. Many people are not even organised, but they used their own resources to help others in need. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw self-organised neighbourhood networks in which people took care of each other. The pandemic allowed people to realise they could easily organise networks in their contexts and practise solidarity.

What are the main women’s rights issues in Austria?

Like anywhere else in the world, challenges abound in Austria: there is the gender pay gap – the goal of ensuring equal pay for equal work, the elimination of discriminatory role models and making opportunities available for women in all areas of life.

The intersectional entanglement of discrimination plays an important role here: women face discrimination not only because of their gender but also because of their social origin, their location, their race, or because they are not able-bodied.

But the problem I want to highlight is that of sexual and domestic violence. Austria must face the fact that it has a very high number of femicides. This is one of the reasons why Austria gained international attention in recent years – not just because femicide cases in Austria are very high compared to other European countries, but also because Austria is one of the few countries where more women than men are being murdered, mostly by their intimate partners or family members.

How is civil society organising to tackle gender-based violence?

Women’s rights CSOs have worked on these issues since long before the pandemic, and alerted that they were worsening as soon as the pandemic broke out. Such was the case with the Association of Autonomous Austrian Women’s Shelters (Verein Autonome Österreichische Frauenhäuser).

Civil society has engaged in intense advocacy to challenge policies that do not benefit excluded people, bring the concerns of the underrepresented to the forefront of the policy agenda and hold the authorities accountable. For instance, in October 2021 the Minister for Women, Family and Youth promised €25 million (approx. US$28 million) for a package of new measures to counter gender-based violence and femicides. Feminist CSOs complained that it was far too little: they were demanding €228 million (approx. US$256 million).

They also criticised the programme for prioritising helping perpetrators over protecting victims. The new anti-violence programme focuses on making perpetrators attend a six-hour training session, which is a step into the right direction but not nearly enough to change their behaviour, while not providing enough funding to the care of the women affected by violence.

On top of this, there is an important new movement growing in Austria. It follows on from the Ni Una Menos (‘Not one woman less’) feminist movement that originated in Latin America and encompasses both individuals and organisations. Since its founding in July 2020, no femicide in Austria has been left unacknowledged.

The new grassroots movement claims public space: every single time a femicide is found to have taken place, the movement gathers in central parts of Vienna to rally against patriarchal violence and commemorate its victims. The movement seeks to politicise femicides in order to go beyond mere reaction and win agency. More than 30 such rallies have been held since 2020.

In my opinion it has already achieved a lot of success. For instance, media reporting has completely changed. They no longer refer to a femicide as a family drama or a murder, but rather as femicide – that is, the murder of a woman because of the fact that she is a woman.

The way we speak about the topic, and therefore the way we think of it, has changed completely thanks to the work of civil society. It is now clear that femicides are typically not perpetrated by strangers in the dark – most of them are committed by relatives, spouses, boyfriends. It is not about the perpetrator’s background, but rather about the social relations between preparator and victim.

The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?

I really like this theme because we should indeed undertake complex thinking instead of continuing to think in black and white. Austria’s organising committee has chosen solidarity as a theme, which is very broad but can potentially encompass various gender identities, workers and groups facing various forms of discrimination. I think this theme is a good match for the #BreakTheBias theme.

I am joining the 8 March rally and the activities that bring feminist groups together in Vienna. I like this space because it offers a platform for feminist organisations, activists and experts to speak up about their own issues. This is also part of breaking the bias, because it is about different feminist perspectives and experiences coming together and having a frank discussion in which we try to leave our own bias aside. It also allows the bridging of different feminist struggles. We should prioritise what connects us over what separates us. We will surely have enough time to talk about our differences and become stronger once we have connected.

Civic space in Austria is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. 

ZIMBABWE: ‘Young women should be at the centre of discussion of the issues affecting them’

Margaret MutsamviCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Zimbabwean civil society’s role in eliminating gender inequality with Margaret Mutsamvi, Director of the Economic Justice for Women Project (EJWP).

Established in 2017 with the purpose of helping narrow the gender inequality gap, EJWP is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works with young women to realise their right to sustainable economic independence. It promotes women’s socio-economic independence and full participation in economic governance and public resource management. It provides knowledge, skills and support to young women in local communities so they can self-organise and advocate for their socio-economic rights at all levels.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted disproportionately on women and girls in Zimbabwe?

The pandemic definitely had a disproportionate impact on women and girls, first of all, because of Zimbabwe’s capitalist-centred response to containing the virus. Lockdown regulations entirely shut down the informal sector, in which 65 per cent of the Zimbabwean population is employed, restricting all movement except for formally registered employees who could present letters on their company letterheads, and of course frontline workers.

It should be noted that more than 67 per cent of the people working in the informal sector are women, so shutting down their income source pushed most of them into abject poverty, with no alternative livelihoods provided for.

Second, the prolonged lockdowns that followed found most survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) and those at risk of it locked up with the perpetrators of violence. As a result, GBV levels rose to a record-breaking 2,000 cases in the first month of the first lockdown, as reported by Msasa Project. Rape cases also increased under lockdown.

Third, the prolonged shutdown of schools, which lasted longer than eight months, created a productive gap among young women and induced extreme poverty. Possibly to escape this, many were forced into early marriages and teen pregnancies.

Fourth, the shift to online tools for learning purposes, along with a lack of smart devices, data poverty, and the unavailability of internet connections, left a huge proportion of students out of education, particularly in rural areas. Research carried out by the Women's Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence indicates that only 35 per cent of students had access to online learning. When those left out of school were girls, too often they ended up in forced marriages or pregnant.

Additionally, lockdowns in Zimbabwe resulted in shrinking civic space. People were unable to exercise their right to protest in the face of deteriorating socio-economic rights, so women were not able to do much despite the fact that they were worst hit by this regression.

Notably, it was under lockdown that the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 2) Bill was passed. The bill would allow the president to appoint judges to the Constitutional, Supreme and High Courts without legislative approval. He would also be able to choose his two vice presidents without an election and be able to delay the retirement of the chief justice by five years. CSOs organised the #ResistDictatorshipConstitution rally. Two young women, Namatai Kwekweza and Vimbai Zimudzi, were arrested during a peaceful protest.

Civic space has continued to shrink. As recently as January 2022, an initiative – the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill – was submitted that will criminalise the work of CSOs. The bill ostensibly seeks to comply with international standards intended to ensure that CSOs are not misused by terrorist organisations, but this is being used as an excuse to clamp down on Zimbabwean civil society.

What has civil society done to support women and girls in this context?

CSOs were up and running providing services to people who reported cases of infection, putting out online campaigns, mobilising solidarity, providing information materials for COVID-19 awareness and prevention, providing sanitisers and masks at vegetable markets to ensure the informal sector could remain open and taking to the courts to challenge some unconstitutional government decisions. For instance, demolitions in the informal sector were challenged by the Chitungwiza Residence Trust and some activists held protests even though they knew they would get arrested.

As for ourselves, for a while, we were able to assist nearby communities in Chitungwiza, Epworth and Hopley, primarily by raising awareness about COVID-19 and handing out masks and sanitisers. We were also able to monitor key developments in communities throughout lockdowns through our community champions.

Movement was not easy, particularly, because the work done by CSOs is not considered an essential service. Since we had some projects running that were initially intended to be implemented through face-to-face activities, we had to shift online, with online engagement, online campaigning and online activities. We are now starting to do online advocacy campaigns through theatre. We have a series called ‘Zviriko’ that streams every Tuesday on our Facebook Page.

What are the main challenges for women's rights in Zimbabwe, and how is civil society addressing them?

The main women’s rights issues are socio-economic rights. It is appalling just how normalised the lack of adequate social services delivery for women is. This increases the burden of unpaid care work. As a privatisation agenda is implemented, limited access to basic health and basic and affordable education has decreased further. Decent work is a distant aspiration given the levels of abuse and rights violations that take place in the informal sector.

Additionally, there is an ongoing battle between the state and the Zimbabwean Constitution. The politics at play is unable to provide 50 per cent of female representation in political positions. There is no political will to facilitate the implementation of constitutional provisions as far as gender equality is concerned.

CSOs have consistently responded to this by providing services to survivors of varying forms of abuse, providing legal recourse, and creating awareness of these rights to build citizen agency.

There have also been lots of online campaigns, petitions and engagement around stopping the PVO bill that will deprive female citizens of much-needed socio-economic support once the work of CSOs is directly under state control.

The women’s movement continues to advocate for the full implementation of our new constitution and parity in political representation. Among other strategies, they are holding online campaigns and actively supporting aspiring female candidates to public office.

The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?

Due to our focus on social and economic rights, #BreakTheBias speaks directly to our mandate, which is building women's power to defeat the socio-economic inequalities that continue to sideline women, particularly young women. We do this in many different ways.

First, through research and documentation. We believe that information is power, so producing knowledge is our first step towards evidence-based programming and advocacy.

For instance, we are currently conducting research about the nexus between illicit financial flows and tax justice in the extractive sector and young women in Zimbabwe. We have produced an assessment report to position young women in the 2022 national budget and the recently pronounced monetary policy statement, and we have published a policy brief advocating for gender-responsive policies for pandemic recovery.

We have also produced documentaries about the experiences of young women in mining communities and the socio-economic barriers faced by young women due to climate change.

Second, we strengthen the capacities of young women through training. We are currently providing training on fiscal literacy in Harare’s informal peri-urban communities, aimed at strengthening these women’s voices and agency in economic governance in Zimbabwe. In partnership with Transparency International Zimbabwe, we are also working to build women’s knowledge on gender and corruption. EJWP is also working on capacity building for young women on socio-economic rights and transformative feminist leadership.

Third, we feed our research into advocacy initiatives. We have ongoing advocacy with a series of stakeholders, particularly the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, parliamentarians, the Gender Commission and other government agencies involved in gender issues.

Finally, we bring change to communities by encouraging people to address issues from the ground up. We have four Community Action Hubs so far and continue to build towards breaking gender bias by empowering young women. Our hope is that one day young women can be at the centre of key conversations regarding national resource collection, distribution and use. We also envision young women taking leadership positions at all levels, enabling them to add authoritative voices towards redressing the issues that are key to them.

Civic space in Zimbabwe is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Economic Justice for Women Project through its website or Facebook page and follow @EJWZim on Twitter. 

BULGARIA: ‘Women’s rights organisations are working together towards the goal of a feminist Europe’

Iliana BalabanovaCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Bulgarian civil society’s role in eliminating gender-based violence (GBV) with Iliana Balabanova, founder and president of the Bulgarian Platform of the European Women’s Lobby (BPEWL). 

BPEWL was founded in 2005 by a group of civil society organisations (CSOs) working for gender equality and social justice, and against violence towards women. Since its inception it has organised at the community level to raise gender issues and push them up the agenda, promoted petitions, organised workshops, implemented projects and collaborated with civil society in other European countries on joint advocacy initiatives against gender inequality.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated GBV in Bulgaria?

As reported by civil society, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a significant increase in violence against women and children. One of the main challenges in preventing violence has been the lack of a coordinating body bringing together both government and civil society. There is need for much better coordination among all institutions to review cases of violence and identify the best ways to deal with them.

According to the office of the World Health Organization in Bulgaria, at least seven women lost their lives at the hands of a partner or family member since pandemic-related confinement measures were put in place. The national helpline for children received 80 reports of a parent abusing another parent in March 2020 alone. This indicated that violence against women and children doubled compared to the months before the pandemic.

The pandemic impacted very negatively on the work of the centres that provide assistance to GBV victims. The impact was dramatic on victims of domestic violence and rape in need of emergency support. Assistance had to be provided exclusively through the phone, while phone calls for consultations increased by 30 per cent.

In addition, the interaction with public institutions – judicial, health and municipal bodies – was difficult. And the pandemic had a negative effect on the justice system, as it delayed court decisions. During lockdown periods, applications for protection orders in domestic violence cases were submitted by mail to the regional or district courts, and most other applications could not be sent due to the huge backlog.

What role has Bulgarian civil society historically played, and continues to play, to tackle GBV?

Bulgarian women’s organisations have worked against GBV and domestic violence for decades. At the very beginning, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we started to work on domestic violence by counselling victims and we opened the first shelters for victims of domestic violence in Bulgaria.

At that time there was no legislation to prevent domestic violence or protect victims, and Bulgarian women’s CSOs – joined later by other human rights CSOs – drafted the first such bill. The lobbying campaign and the advocacy work to get the bill passed lasted almost five years. 

Thanks to this work, in 2005 the Bulgarian parliament passed the Law for Protection against Domestic Violence, which defined domestic violence quite widely, encompassing all forms of violence – physical, sexual, psychological, emotional and economic – committed by family members or partners in a formal or de facto relationship or cohabitation. The process was hurried by the fact that Bulgaria had started harmonising its legislation with European Union (EU) regulations, and women’s CSOs took advantage of the momentum to exert pressure for a new legislative framework to protect women from domestic violence.

By then the Bulgarian women’s movement had gained enough experience, knowledge and expertise, and we started to work to change societal attitudes and create an understanding of domestic violence as an expression of unequal power relations at the personal, community and societal levels. We tried to shine a light on the link between social domination, economic control, power inequalities, stereotypes and GBV. The BPEWL and its member organisations have worked on disrupting the continuum of violence against women and girls ever since.

After 2011, one of our main goals was to get the Bulgarian state to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – the Istanbul Convention. Unfortunately, mostly because of the rise of populist, nationalist and transphobic politics, Bulgaria rejected the Istanbul Convention. Moreover, in 2018 the Bulgarian Constitutional Court ruled that the concepts of gender and gender identity were irrelevant for the Bulgarian constitutional and legal system. They said they have no clear and precise legal content and would have dangerous legal consequences.

As a result of this decision, Bulgaria does not keep official statistics on domestic violence and other forms of GBV. The number of complaints registered by the police and cases submitted to the courts are not counted in publicly available statistics. Murder, the most serious form of intrusion against a person, is also not captured through a gender-specific lens – that is, as femicide. So it fell on civil society to do this work, and so far information on GBV has been gathered by CSOs and some social agencies.

According to this data, one in three women in Bulgaria are subjected to GBV and approximately one million women experience domestic violence. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, every two weeks a woman is killed in Bulgaria, a third of whom have been subjected to systematic violence by their murderer, and a tenth of whom have sought police protection against their murderer. Civil society reported that between 2014 and 2017, over 5,500 women sought protection from women’s CSOs providing victim services and over 700 women and their children were placed in crisis centres.

As I mentioned, during the pandemic domestic violence increased. Worryingly, however, the number and capacity of shelters remained very limited, and no progress was achieved in systematically collecting and analysing statistical data on GBV, including registering femicides. So women’s CSOs continue to lobby for the government to increase the number and capacity of state-funded crisis centres and other services, provide adequate support for CSOs offering shelter and care to victims, collect administrative data on all forms of GBV and ratify the Istanbul Convention.

How is the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) working at the regional level?

The EWL is the largest European women’s rights network, involving more than 2,000 organisations throughout Europe. It brings together the European women’s movement to influence the public and European institutions to support women’s human rights and gender equality. The Bulgarian Platform became a member of the EWL in 2005 and ever since we have worked together with member organisations at both national and EU levels. Our vision is that of a society in which women’s contributions are recognised, rewarded and celebrated, and in which all women have self-confidence, freedom of choice and freedom from violence and exploitation.

The EWL works towards the goal of a feminist Europe. In a policy brief published in April 2020, ‘Women Must Not Pay the Price for COVID-19!’, we called on governments to put gender equality at the heart of their response. We call for a universal social care system with infrastructure to provide social and quality care services that are accessible and affordable for all women and girls.

The 2022-2026 EWL strategy was developed during the pandemic, as all aspects of our work and our mission were being impacted on significantly. Over the course of this period, the EWL adapted to the restrictions brought about by the pandemic, sharpened its actions in a radically changed world and enabled online spaces for the women’s movement to come together, analyse and strategise about the significant and long-term impacts of this crisis, which will surely be shouldered disproportionately by women and girls.

What are your plans for International Women’s Day? 

This year’s International Women’s Day in Bulgaria will be focused on peace. We are working on providing support to women and girl refugees coming from conflict areas in Ukraine.

Civic space in Bulgaria is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Bulgarian platform of the European Women’s Lobby through its website or its Facebook page.

MYANMAR: ‘If we fail to take appropriate action, the junta will commit more crimes’

KyawWinCIVICUS speaks with Kyaw Win, founder and Executive Director of the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN), about the situation in Myanmar one year after the coup. As the CIVICUS Monitor has documented, activists and journalists continue to be criminalised and killed. Political prisoners have been tortured and ill-treated and the junta continues to block aid and imposes restrictions on humanitarian workers. 

BHRN works for human rights, minority rights and religious freedom in Myanmar. It has played a crucial role advocating for human rights and religious freedom with the international community and earned a reputation for providing credible and reliable analysis. It recently published reports on crimes against humanity by the Myanmar military following the coup and on human rights violations and the situation in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. 

What led you to found BHRN?

I was born and brought up in a predominantly Muslim township in Yangon and lived there for 30 years. But in 2009 I had to leave the country and stayed at the Thailand-Myanmar border, temporarily leaving my family. Because I was not able to go back, I eventually moved to the UK and after one-and-a-half years I was reunited with my family.

In 2012, when violence against Muslims erupted in Myanmar, I felt I needed to take action and founded BHRN, which was registered in the UK in 2015. Despite progress in the transition to democracy, we decided to keep BHRN underground. This surprised many, but we felt the situation could reverse easily. Unfortunately, this came true with the February 2021 military coup.

BHRN tracks hate speech both online and offline. We believe hate speech is very dangerous and monitoring it helps us predict impending violence. As we are underground, we are able to collect data on the ground even if it’s very risky. We work in Myanmar and have staff there, including in Rakhine State, as well as in Bangladesh and Thailand. We see the need to expand because as a result of the coup there are restrictions on movement.

We have experts on various themes, including on freedom of religion and Rohingya issues, and we produce monthly reports. We also undertake international advocacy to share our research with decision-makers such as United Nations (UN) representatives, European Union officials and staff of the US State Department, as well as decision-makers in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

We also work with young people in Myanmar and build capacity around human rights, democracy and pluralism.

A year on from the coup, what is the situation for activists and civil society in Myanmar, and how are human rights groups outside the country responding?

The military has accused civil society activists of leading the resistance against the coup with backing and funding from the west. The military wants to destroy civil society, and many are being attacked and killed, so there is a lot of fear. Those in detention are in terrible conditions. Many have been tortured.

Other activists who became aware that the coup was imminent were able to flee the country or leave the cities. They now operate from the outside, in Thailand and at the Thailand-Myanmar border, supporting those still in the country.

We are calling for justice and the removal of the military from power. We have been calling for international sanctions since 2017, following the Rohingya genocide. However, at the time the international community was unwilling to take strong action, as they hoped that democratic reforms would be undertaken by the government of the National League for Democracy. There was only symbolic action but no targeting of the government at that time.

Following the coup, we made clear to the international community that if we fail to take appropriate action, the junta would be emboldened to commit more crimes. Now, finally, targeted economic sanctions have been imposed and some companies, such as Chevron and Total, have decided to leave Myanmar. Some argue that economic sanctions will push Myanmar closer to China, but those people forget that in 2007, following sanctions after the Saffron Revolution, there was an internal revolt that led to the transition to a civilian government. The junta can’t survive long-term economic sanctions. The people of Myanmar know they may suffer due to sanctions, but many have told me they welcome them as long as they hit the military.

We are also pushing for an arms embargo and to stop the sale of jet fuel to the junta, which they have used to bomb civilians. Another thing we request from the international community is humanitarian support.

We are concerned about the UN’s position, which appears to view the military as a stakeholder in a potential power-sharing agreement. The UN Special Envoy recently expressed this position and we were very disappointed.

We also have concerns with the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) formed in exile by those who had been democratically elected, because we have observed the exclusion of minorities. The NUG has no Muslim representation, so we don’t have a voice. This also affects the NUG’s credibility.

How do you assess the response to the military coup by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

In April 2021, a five-point consensus plan was agreed at an ASEAN summit. This included an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue, the provision of humanitarian assistance and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.

However, ASEAN is not united on this. It includes three groupings that cannot agree on anything. For instance, Vietnam is close to Russia and would block any arms embargo. Thailand seems to support the military junta. Indonesia and Malaysia have taken a strong stand; we have engaged with them since day one and they have supported us. Singapore has also spoken up.

It doesn’t help that the permanent members of the UN Security Council are toying with ASEAN, using this regional body as their proxy. They have passed the buck to ASEAN to resolve an issue that they have failed to tackle.

We can’t expect more from ASEAN than it can deliver. We want the military to be removed from power and replaced with a civilian government, and this is something many ASEAN governments don’t understand. ASEAN’s five-point consensus plan has not been implemented. ASEAN has no weight on Myanmar unless China or the USA move. 

We seem to have excessive expectations placed on ASEAN, while in fact there is not much it can do. The rest of the international community should step up and do more.

What can international civil society do to support activists in Myanmar and hold the junta accountable?

In the past we only focused on human rights investigations, but now we are also doing humanitarian work. We are renting and setting up safe houses to hide people and helping them leave the country. Costs have greatly increased but funding has remained the same.

Those working in the country need the support of international civil society, and new ways to deliver support need to be devised because it has become dangerous to receive funds as the junta is monitoring bank accounts. There are also issues of accountability and transparency, as we cannot disclose the names of the people we are helping.

However, I believe if we overcome this challenge, Myanmar’s civil society will emerge very strong. But we need more understanding and engagement with us.

I believe nothing lasts forever and this too will pass. The junta will have to leave at some point. While the situation is quite bad, a good sign is that many military personnel have changed sides and now support the NUG. But we need to continue our struggle with a clear vision of the future that is centred on human rights and democracy. And we need support from the international community so those struggling on the ground will one day see their dreams come true.

Civic space in Myanmar is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with BHRN through its website and follow @kyawwin78 on Twitter. 

EL SALVADOR: ‘Patriarchal justice persecutes, tortures and abuses women’

SaraGarciaGrossCIVICUS speaks with Sara García Gross about the recent judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) against the Salvadoran state, and the struggle of Salvadoran women for the right to abortion.

Sara García Gross is advocacy coordinator of the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in El Salvador. Founded in 2009, the organisation promotes public awareness to change abortion laws, provides legal support to women who have been convicted or charged with abortion or related crimes and disseminates information on the importance of women receiving adequate sexual and reproductive healthcare to prevent them resorting to unsafe, life-threatening abortions.

What is El Salvador’s feminist movement demanding when it comes to sexual and reproductive rights?

As feminists we are fighting to change the law that criminalises abortion under all circumstances. In El Salvador women are unjustly persecuted. Women’s reproductive rights are violated, especially for younger women and those who live in poverty and in the country’s rural areas. In this sense, we in the feminist movement are fighting to change a restrictive, absolutist and absurd regulatory framework.

We are also fighting for women’s freedom. There are currently 12 women in prison serving sentences that are extremely unjust. Our fight is for women’s freedom and women’s lives. We want abortion to be legal in El Salvador. We fight for women to have the right to build our own lives. We denounce forced pregnancies; this is a form of torture. There are girls as young as 10 years old who face forced motherhood. There are young women who have not received any sexual education and do not have access to contraceptive methods. We are fighting for the right to comprehensive sex education.

We also fight for the recognition of the rights of LGBTQI+ people, because hate crimes are another cruel form of torture that the state imposes or condones.

What tactics does the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion use?

In our struggle for women’s freedom, we have pursued multiple strategies, starting with strategic litigation to obtain everything from commutations of sentences to sentence reviews. Our focus is on achieving freedom, putting into practice the feminist slogan ‘I believe you sister’. We fight for the recognition of the innocence of women facing unjust and absurd sentences.

But the legal route has not been our only key strategy; social mobilisation at national and regional levels has also played a major role. The feminist movement has organised and spoken out in relation to the cases of criminalised women. Sit-ins have been organised in front of embassies in El Salvador and other countries, letters have been sent to the courts and campaigns for reproductive justice have been carried out, including the ‘We are missing 17’ campaign.

Another very important strategy has involved the Inter-American human rights system. We brought the case of a woman known as Manuela to the IACtHR, which recently condemned the Salvadoran state for cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Strategic litigation in the Inter-American system has allowed us to address the problems of persecution, torture and judicial and police abuse faced by women in El Salvador. Justice in El Salvador is patriarchal justice.

Another strategy has focused on collecting evidence. We have carried out an investigation called ‘From hospital to prison’, which allowed us to make this problem visible. Through a review and analysis of case files, sentences and investigations, we have been able to understand who anti-abortion legislation targets and who it persecutes: young and poor women living in rural areas. This constitutes intersectional discrimination.

The campaigns, dialogues and debates we promote in academia as well as grassroots communities have also been part of our strategy. Advocacy processes are key, so that when we are able to identify windows of opportunity in the Legislative Assembly or other state institutions, we can promote the submission of new initiatives.

In the past, several bills were submitted to reform article 133 of the Criminal Code to decriminalise abortion on four grounds. These bills were far from getting passed; in some cases they were quickly shelved and in others they languished for years in legislative committees. Women’s organisations were met with great hostility. However, our advocacy strategies allowed us to place the issue of abortion on the public agenda.

What does Salvadoran public opinion think about abortion and what work are you doing to present an alternative narrative to criminalisation?

Among public opinion, there is broad acceptance of abortion when it’s needed to save a pregnant woman’s life: more than half of the population has said so in various surveys.

We live in a conservative country, with some fundamentalist groups calling themselves ‘pro-life’. The reality is that they are in favour of clandestine abortion, criminalisation and women dying. These groups maintain a double standard that we, as organised feminist civil society, work to expose. While women living in poverty are criminalised, those with economic resources are able to travel and access safe abortions. This double standard is unacceptable.

For us, it is important to visualise other narratives and make women’s realities known. Reducing stigma requires showing, humanising and talking about life stories. These are women who had hopes and plans for their lives that state violence prevented them from realising.

Talking about the issue in different places, humanising this reality and questioning this system that imposes the mandate of motherhood – a gender stereotype – allows us to address the issue without stigma or prejudice and, above all, from a human rights perspective.

What are the implications of the IACtHR ruling in Manuela’s case?

This ruling came after years of work and struggle. We started working on the case in 2011, providing psychosocial, political and legal support to Manuela’s family.

Advocacy in the Inter-American system was key. The ruling in Manuela’s case is historic: the IACtHR has recognised that Manuela was innocent, that she really faced an obstetric emergency and that gender stereotypes, starting with the mandate of motherhood, permeated the entire process. The IACtHR has understood that the absolute ban on abortion results in criminalisation and obstacles to access to reproductive rights.

The judgment will have both national and regional effects. The main regional effect is the establishment of jurisprudence that obliges both El Salvador and the rest of the countries in the region to take a series of measures. First, to guarantee professional secrecy of health personnel so that no woman seeking reproductive health services is denounced for alleged abortion-related crimes. Second, to ensure that gender stereotypes are not applied in the judicial sphere, including those claiming that women must act according to a reproductive role and, therefore, with maternal instinct. Third, to implement adequate protocols to attend to obstetric emergencies with accessible and quality health services.

The Salvadoran state will have to carry out some additional actions in compliance with the IACtHR ruling. First, while it is in the process of regulating the obligation to maintain medical professional secrecy and the confidentiality of medical records, it must eliminate the practice of medical professionals denouncing women who seek reproductive health services. Second, it must provide full reparations to Manuela’s family. Third, it must make legislative and policy changes to ensure non-repetition, so that no one else goes through a similar experience, for instance by guaranteeing comprehensive care in cases of obstetric emergencies and adapting pre-trial detention so that it is only used in exceptional cases.

We continue to fight so that women are never again criminalised. There are still 12 women who remain in prison, but we believe that Manuela’s case shines a light on these injustices and gives us the strength to continue fighting. For us, Manuela means justice and hope.

What kind of support do abortion rights groups in El Salvador need from their peers around the world? 

We believe feminist solidarity is key. We want to make this issue visible in the region and the world. We want people to talk about what is happening here. We want people to talk about the consequences of the absolute prohibition of abortion. We want people to talk about how this punitive system does not solve anything.

It is not acceptable for the exercise of a reproductive right – a right to health – to be treated as a crime entailing prison sentences. We need to shine the spotlight on El Salvador and make the Salvadoran state feel it is being watched. Every chance we get, we must demand freedom for women, freedom for the 12 who are still in prison and reparations for all the women who have faced this kind of criminalisation. We must demand that abortion be legally recognised as a right.

Civic space in El Salvador is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in El Salvador through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @AbortoPORlaVIDA on Twitter. 

PHILIPPINES: ‘We will make sure that human rights are on the electoral agenda’

CIVICUS speaks about civil society responses to the growing restrictions on civic space in the Philippines with Nymia Pimentel Simbulan, Chairperson of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) and Executive Director of the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights).

PhilRights is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works on human rights education, training, research and information, and that monitors and documents human rights violations. Established in 1991 by PAHRA, PhilRights serves as the alliance’s research and information centre. It played an important part in advocacy that led to the abolition of the death penalty in the Philippines in 2006 and continue to play a leading role in the submission of alternative reports on economic, social and cultural rights to United Nations human rights mechanisms. It has published several human rights training materials that are extensively used by CSOs and social movements.

Nymia Pimentel Simbulan

Photo Credit: Schwanke/Brot fuer die Welt

What is the state of civic space in the Philippines, and what risks do civil society activists and organisations face?

Civic space in the Philippines is currently restricted, particularly for human rights organisations and defenders. It has slowly become narrower over time, and it is increasingly challenging for human rights organisations and defenders to exercise rights such as those to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. 

This has been going on for years. In 2018 the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a memorandum with new requirements CSOs must comply with. This made CSOs suspicious and apprehensive because they were being asked to provide the SEC with sensitive information like sources of funding, areas of operation and details of board members as a requirement in the renewal of their registration. The new regulations were used by the government to monitor their operations and activities, including for human rights CSOs.

A big problem we have right now is ‘red tagging’: the practice of state agents labelling activists, human rights defenders and CSOs that are vocal and critical of government policies, programmes, pronouncements and actions as being linked to communist insurgent groups and accusing them of being destabilisers and enemies of the state. This is a common strategy used by the Philippine government through the security sector as a way of intimidating and silencing individuals, groups and members of the opposition who openly criticise the state. 

The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict has been notorious in red-tagging since the second quarter of 2021. This body was created following the passage of the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, in the midst of the pandemic. Its mandate was to put an end to the local insurgency problem but in the implementation of its mandate it has targeted legitimate opposition, human rights defenders, media practitioners and progressive church leaders through red-tagging and vilification campaigns, the filing of trumped-up charges and dissemination of lies and fake news through the social media.

Also rampant is harassment of human rights lawyers, defenders and media personalities who are vocally critical of the government and its policies. One case worth mentioning is that of Maria Ressa, a Filipino-American journalist who became known for exposing corruption and human rights violation through Rappler, a Manila-based digital media company for investigative journalism. She was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize but continued to be harassed and criminally charged on multiple fabricated accusations, including fraud, tax evasion and receiving money from the CIA.

What was the process leading to the approval of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act, and what role did civil society play in it?

The Human Rights Defenders Protection Act was passed by the House of Representatives on 17 January 2022, but it is not yet law. For it to become law, the Senate must still pass a counterpart of the bill, which it has not yet done.

Still, the passage of the bill by the House, without a single legislator voting against or abstaining, is quite unprecedented. This is a piece of legislation that human rights activists have long been advocating for.

Civil society has lobbied for the passage of the bill into a law for years, not only under the current Congress but also under the previous one. Civil society representatives repeatedly met with the House’s human rights champions. Encouragingly, there are also human rights champions in the Senate who have consistently supported the civil society campaign for the passage of the bill.

Much work remains to be done with human rights champions in the Senate. Given time constraints, I don’t know if the bill will be passed. If it is, civil society will use it in our human rights advocacy work. If it is not, unfortunately we will be back to square one in the next Congress.

Do you think the human rights situation will feature in the campaign for the May presidential election?

I think it will, because PAHRA has come up with a human rights electoral agenda that its member organisations have approved, so while we continue to do our human rights education work and launch campaigns, we will make sure that the human rights electoral agenda reaches communities and the general public.

When connecting with political parties, we have noticed that they are open to the human rights agenda promoted by PAHRA, so we provide them with a copy so that they can bring up these issues in their campaigns.

How does PhilRights support civil society organisations and activists in the Philippines?

We conduct research on various human rights issues. For instance, in the past we did research on children’s involvement in armed conflict and the phenomenon of child soldiers. Right now, we are actively involved in monitoring and documenting human rights violations in the context of the so-called ‘war on drugs’. We have set up a very good documentation mechanism that we use when we go to communities, particularly urban poor communities. We conduct interviews and gather first-hand information from the families and relatives of the victims of extrajudicial killings connected to the ‘war on drugs’.

With the data that we gather we produce reports, human rights briefs, infographics and posters that we disseminate locally and internationally among the human rights community, the public and international allies and networks.

In addition, we do human rights education and training. We have produced training modules on human rights education and the rights-based approach to development, and we conduct human rights education in the same communities where we have documented human rights violations. 

How can international civil society best support Filipino civil society’s human rights work?

International civil society can support Filipino civil society by disseminating information about what is happening in the country. This will also encourage collaboration because local CSOs are best placed to provide the information materials that international CSOs need.

International CSOs can also help by organising webinars and inviting Filipino human rights defenders to share their narratives and experiences. We are very open and willing to collaborate with organisations such as CIVICUS and Amnesty International, among others. Institutions willing to support human rights defenders in the Philippines can also do so through funding or linking Filipino CSOs with potential funders.

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

UK: ‘For women to be respected, police reform is necessary but not sufficient’

CIVICUS speaks with Anna Birley, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets, policy lead at the Co-operative Party and councillor in the London borough of Lambeth. 

Reclaim These Streets was formed in March 2021 to speak up against street harassment of women and girls, educate boys and men to take responsibility for the problem of violence against women and girls, and challenge the misogyny embedded in the ways laws are written and enforced.

Anna Birley

What prompted you to organise and how did Reclaim These Streets get started?

I live in south London, close to the place where Sarah Everard was last seen before going missing on 3 March 2021. Over the following week, posters appeared on every bus stop, lamppost, tree – her face was everywhere. We were in lockdown, activities were very limited, so when you went for a lunchtime walk with the one friend you were allowed to meet under lockdown regulations, you would see her face everywhere.

My friends and I realised we all felt scared. New details about Sarah’s disappearance were coming out every day and we put ourselves in her shoes, tried to imagine where she could have been, what she could have done, what could have happened to her. In our lunchtime walks, we found ourselves trying to retrace her steps. As we spoke with other local women, we realised we were all thinking twice about everything we did, changing our lives simply because we didn’t feel safe in public spaces.

For a couple of days, the police were door-knocking all over the area, not just trying to get information about Sarah but also giving women advice to stay safe. They were not telling men not to be predators – they were telling women not to go out after dark, not go out alone, to take extra precautions. That’s when our worry and our fear turned into anger.

On 10 March I texted my friends – we needed to do something together in solidarity, but also in defiance. We wanted to challenge the idea that we had to lock ourselves down, impose curfews on ourselves because male violence made it unsafe for us to be out there, because if we didn’t take enough precautions, we – not our aggressors – would be the ones to blame.

I set up a Zoom call in which we organised a Facebook event and looked up the regulations on COVID-19 and assemblies. We initially wanted to do a walk along the route Sarah had taken, but you need to get permission to march, but not for a stationary protest. We didn’t have time to request a permit, and we also didn’t like the idea of having to ask for permission for us as women to express our anger together, so we went for the stationary vigil. We chose Clapham Common because it is a huge open space allowing for social distancing, and also because it was one of the last places where Sarah had been seen alive. We did it at sunset so women could take back the park after dark.

We let both the police and the council know – I and another organiser are local councillors – because we wanted the event to be safe. We wanted to be sure that it wouldn’t be hijacked by anti-vaxxers or counter protests, and that women would be able to feel safe walking back home after the vigil.

The name, Reclaim These Streets, echoed that of the Reclaim the Night movement, which formed in Leeds in the late 1970s when the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ was at large and the police told women the same things they were telling us now – to stay home for our own good and take extra precautions. We felt angry that we still had to fight the same battles over and over. Several decades had passed but the culture and the victim-blaming approach had not changed.

What obstacles did you face in organising and mobilising?

In March 2021, when we planned the vigil for Sarah, the UK was subjected to COVID-19-related public health regulations, and the police used these to try to prevent us mobilising. They said that we needed their permission, which wasn’t true. They threatened us, as organisers, with a £10,000 (approx. US$13,600) fine each, and with arrest under the Serious Crimes Act, on the basis that we would be inciting others to break the law. The Serious Crime Act is used against terrorists. Being charged under it would, among other things, prevent me holding public office again, effectively ending my career.

The police did nothing to facilitate our human right to protest. We tried to engage with them, because we wanted to know if they had intelligence that would help us keep women safe. We wanted to make sure that the policing would be sensitive to the need to build trust after a serving police officer was arrested for Sarah’s rape and murder, and to know that it would be proportional – for example, ensuring women wouldn’t be kettled or pushed into a close crowd when there were social distancing measures in place.

We started organising on a Wednesday, and by Thursday night, after receiving threatening emails and having a series of pointless meetings with police, we instructed lawyers and crowdfunded for a judicial review. The police insisted that there was a blanket ban on all gatherings; they couldn’t seem to differentiate between a birthday picnic and a protest. From what we could tell, they declared our vigil unlawful without conducting any risk assessment in which they considered our human rights under articles 10 and 11 of the UK’s Human Rights Act concerning freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.

The judge agreed with us that a risk assessment be done and that it should take human rights into account, but the police said they had done it and the judge took them at face value. We met with police straight out of the judgment and proposed to do a staggered event over a longer period of time, and asked if we could make any changes to make the event more acceptable. But they wouldn’t budge, and while we were still at the meeting they issued a press release warning people it was unlawful to attend.

The vigil was supposed to be happening the next day, and nobody was able to confirm whether we would still be liable for a £10,000 fine if someone turned up even if we cancelled it. On top of this, at least 34 additional vigils had been organised all over the country. We felt responsible because we had told those wishing to replicate the event that the law allowed for ‘reasonable excuse’, and that this included our human right to protest. Now they could be subjected to significant fines and life-changing judicial processes for organising these events.

Despite the event being cancelled, women kept coming in throughout the day, bringing flowers, paying their respects. Even the Duchess of Cambridge came. Crowds grew in the evening, and right after sunset police moved in, pushing women together, manhandling some and pinning them to the ground.

We went back to court and now expect the judgment. We demanded to see the risk assessment that was supposedly conducted and insisted on the priority of human rights and the principle of proportionality. We hope our case sets a precedent and helps other people challenge arbitrary police decisions. For instance, there is a nurse in Manchester who was given a £10,000 fine for holding a solo protest – we hope this can help people like her too.

What do you think are the root causes of misogynistic policing?

Misogyny is not just a policing problem; it is a societal problem. Misogynists are the product of a society that sees women and girls as less. This manifests in countless structural inequalities: unequal pay, women doing more menial jobs, women being seen as home keepers and not being able to go back to the workplace, women being seen as objects and sexualised from a young age. 

The institutions that are doing better at shaking these views are those that are more diverse, transparent and accountable, that welcome whistleblowing and reward those who call out bad behaviour. But the police force is simply not set up that way. It is not diverse enough so it has a distinct white male culture and so it is perhaps less open to and tolerant of difference. It is the kind of profession in which comradeship is important for staying safe – but this can also result in police officers protecting each other at the expense of women, victims or the public. It can promote a defensive attitude and an unwillingness to confront problems.

Take the case of Dr Konstancja Duff, who was strip searched and humiliated in a police station in 2013 – this was basically state-sanctioned sexual assault. The officers involved were assessed by a tribunal of their peers that found them to have behaved in an exemplary manner; some were even promoted. Dr Duff didn’t give up despite being gaslit by the police for eight years: she went to court and was able to access the CCTV and demonstrate the appalling treatment she had experienced. That’s the only reason she got an apology or any recognition at all.

What changes are needed in police culture and policing practices?

Because it turned out that it was a police officer who was responsible for Sarah’s death, and because so many revelations of police misconduct and impunity followed, the police ended up occupying a more central place in our work than we had anticipated. But our focus is on women’s safety rather than on police reform. We know that for women to be respected and treated as equals, police reform is necessary, but it is not sufficient. What we need is to change the culture that sends girls to take self-defence classes instead of teaching boys to respect women.

This partly requires changing the law, because it currently does not give enough importance to crimes that specifically affect women. For instance, if you drop litter or a cigarette butt, or you leave your car idling, you will be fined. But if you follow a girl in her school uniform walking home from school, pull your car up next to her, drive at the same speed as she’s walking and make sexually explicit comments at her, as long as you don’t solicit sex from her you are not breaking any laws – unless you idle your car for too long, that is. The law should take more seriously some supposedly ‘minor’ crimes, such as flashing, which is a predatory power move that can also be a stepping stone towards more serious behaviour.

Part of the work is about changing culture, which is very hard to do. We are doing some work in schools for boys and girls to have conversations about consent and respect, reach an understanding of what misogyny is and think about ways in which they can champion gender equality. We campaign for women’s safety, mostly on social media, on a regular basis, not just when the ‘perfect victim’ captures the headlines.

As part of that, we have reflected a lot about the fact that we mobilised about a white woman – because she has kidnapped and murdered in our neighbourhood, but still, we were not aware at the time of other women whose cases had been treated differently because they were Black. We made a conscious decision to use our platform and privilege to raise the voices of women who would otherwise not get the same support and attention from the media and public institutions.

What concerns do you have about the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill currently in the UK parliament?

Our experience is a cautionary tale about police powers. Police are being allowed to make judgement calls that they are ill-equipped to make. They shouldn’t be given as much power to interpret the law – it isn’t their role. They should have less power than they currently have, not more. 

The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill goes in the wrong direction. It’s a draconian piece of legislation that will grant the police even more powers and will restrict the right to protest. It appears to be aimed at placating people who were annoyed at climate protests for slowing down traffic or at Black Lives Matter protesters for defacing statues. It prioritises the circulation of traffic and the integrity of statues over the human right to express dissent, which is very dangerous.

What’s your reaction to the resignation of Cressida Dick as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police?

Our first reaction was of surprise – I don’t think even the Home Secretary knew she was resigning. But we were pleased she stepped down, because she had failed to tackle the culture problem of the Metropolitan Police. At the end of the day, leaders need to be held accountable for the organisations they run, and the buck stops there. When you are unwilling to even admit there’s a problem, let alone put together a plan to fix it, you become part of the problem.

Of course, this is a problem for many police forces across the UK, and other police leaders should also reflect on whether they are part of the solution or part of the problem.

But Cressida’s resignation shouldn’t allow the rest of the police force off the hook. Fixing an institutional problem requires more than one person to leave. I hope her successor is not only a feminist but also someone who comes in ready to admit that there is a problem, is willing to ask for help and develops a robust approach to tackle the various forms of bullying and discrimination – misogyny and sexism, racism and homophobia – that are pervasive and create a nasty working environment that prevents others from calling it out.

We also hope that this will pave the way for the Angiolini Inquiry – a review into the investigation and prosecution of rape in London – to widen its scope and look into institutional misogyny instead of writing the problem off as a ‘bad apples’ issue. The inquiry needs to be made statutory too – so that it is led by a judge rather than a politically appointed chair, so that the police are required to comply and cannot close ranks, so that victims are at the heart of the inquiry and get legal support to contribute, and so that the recommendations have to be taken on board.

It's been almost a year since Sarah went missing, and at the time everyone – politicians, police, the media – said ‘never again’. It was supposed to be watershed moment. And then nothing. I can barely point to a single tangible improvement that has happened since. Safety hasn’t improved; nor has police culture. We are disappointed in the last 12 months, but we expect institutions to do better over the next 12 months.

Civic space in the UK is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Reclaim These Streets through its website and follow @ReclaimTS on Twitter. 

NICARAGUA: ‘María Esperanza’s case is part of a growing process of criminalisation of social protest’

CIVICUS speaks with Ana Lucía Álvarez, Nicaragua officer of the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras), about the case of María Esperanza Sánchez, unjustly imprisoned in Nicaragua since March 2020, and the ongoing campaign for her release.

IM-Defensoras is a network of activists and organisations from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua that seeks to provide a comprehensive, regional response to the increasing violence against women human rights defenders in Mesoamerica. Founded in 2010, it seeks to empower and connect women defenders involved in various organisations and social movements to strengthen networks of protection and solidarity among them and to increase the visibility, recognition and impact of their human rights work.

Ana Lucia AlvarezEntrevista

How long has María Esperanza been in prison, and why?

María Esperanza was captured on 26 January 2020. She is an activist who for a long time accompanied relatives of political prisoners. I believe she began her activism and her organisation after the citizens’ uprising of April 2018. She was already being persecuted, so she was staying in a safe house. The police illegally and arbitrarily raided the house, without a search warrant, and arrested her. She was accused of trafficking narcotics, psychotropics and other controlled substances to the detriment of public health. Her trial is being handled by lawyer Julio Montenegro, who specialises in cases of criminalisation of protest and judicial prosecution of activists and human rights defenders. 

Do you consider María Esperanza’s case to be part of a broader attack on civic space in Nicaragua?

There is definitely a growing process of criminalisation of social protest in Nicaragua. The first upsurge in criminalisation came after Operation Clean-up, which ended around August 2018. This was a pseudo-military operation carried out by police and para-police forces to dismantle any organisation of territorial protection that the population had built through barricades in neighbourhoods and roadblocks around the country.

Once Operation Clean-up was over, the criminalisation of those who had taken part in the civic struggle began. More than 800 people became political prisoners, before being released in 2019 by unilateral decision of the government through the Amnesty Law.

María Esperanza had already been persecuted, harassed, put under surveillance and threatened before she was imprisoned for her human rights work. Her arrest and trial, like those of so many others, were plagued by irregularities. Violations of due process are systematic. In Nicaragua, the justice system is totally co-opted. It has collapsed and is under the control of the presidential couple: President Daniel Ortega and his vice-president and wife, Rosario Murillo.

How has the situation of civil society changed since the 2018 wave of protests?

More than 350 people were killed in a span of six months during the 2018 protests. The symbolic and emotional weight of that death toll in a country that has experienced civil wars, dictatorships and armed uprisings has been tremendous. In Nicaragua there has never been accountability, there have always been policies of wiping the slate clean, which has deepened the wounds.

In addition to the suffering of the 350 dead, there were over 800 people imprisoned for political reasons, and while many have since been released from prison, we purposefully say that they have been released rather than that they are free, because after their release, political persecution has not ended for them. Systematic harassment by police and para-police forces continues, and it becomes an obstacle to the enjoyment of many rights, including the right to work.

For these people, the effects of the economic crisis that the country is currently experiencing are compounded by the difficulties brought about by political persecution. They often cannot leave their home because there is a patrol outside, or they go out and they are followed, and then those who follow them learn the names of their employers and start to harass them as well.

Persecution happens at the local, neighbourhood level. The ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, has established various structures that are used to maintain territorial control through surveillance and repression: Councils of Citizen Power, Family Cabinets and Sandinista Leadership Committees. If you are an opponent or a human rights defender, there will always be a neighbour of yours who is involved in one of these structures and informs the regime and the police of what you are doing, and then you start to be persecuted and harassed, and maybe at some point you get arbitrarily arrested.

Harassment and hypervigilance cause psychological damage not only to the persecuted individual but also to their family. This has had an impact on the increase in emigration, which is a dual phenomenon, caused by both political persecution and social need. Since 2018, 120,000 people have left Nicaragua, a huge number for a country of just six million.

The 2021 presidential election openly exposed the regime’s lack of legitimacy. On what basis does the government stand?

In the run-up to the 2021 election, persecution was only exacerbated. In order to carry out the electoral farce of November, the government imprisoned 10 presidential pre-candidates and many people with a key role in the electoral process and in the formation of alternatives. This sent a very clear message, as a result of which there is still a lot of self-censorship.

Daniel Ortega has continued to concentrate and consolidate his power. We are currently living under a regime that has become totalitarian, where all freedoms are totally restricted. This is the only way the government can sustain itself, because it has no legitimacy. That is why repression and social control continue to increase rather than decrease. In the absence of such levels of repression and social control, the very high level of popular rejection of the regime would make it impossible for it to maintain political control.

As a result, repression, territorial control, neighbourhood repression, the criminalisation of protest and social dissent, and the closing of spaces for the exercise of the freedom of expression and media freedoms can be expected to continue.

Now a combination of laws has been passed that includes a Cybercrime Law. And we have already seen the first political prisoner convicted under this law, which does nothing other than criminalise the freedom of opinion.

What the government is looking for with political prisoners is to use them as hostages. Among the people arrested recently are presidential candidates, businesspeople, bankers, lawyers, activists and human rights defenders. The government is trying to negotiate their release to gain legitimacy and international approval.

The truth is that the government has no international support. The only foreign leaders who attended the presidential inauguration were Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and outgoing Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández.

How can the international community support Nicaraguan civil society in its struggle for the recovery of democracy and human rights?

We need to amplify denunciations of violations and sharpen accountability mechanisms. Civil society in Nicaragua has made a tremendous effort not only to document human rights violations but also to identify their perpetrators. Given that the justice system in Nicaragua has collapsed, and that civil society is doing everything within its power, the onus is on the international community to push for accountability and punishment of those responsible.

Daniel Ortega’s regime is no longer a political project but an economic enterprise. Its control of the state allows Ortega to use corruption networks to his advantage. In the light of this, the international community should fine-tune its mechanisms, review economic sanctions and identify the companies that continue to do business, not always entirely legally, with the Ortega regime. Since many association agreements have democratic and anti-corruption clauses, they need to be made operational. Personal sanctions must also be imposed on the architects of corruption and repression.

What kind of pressure should be exerted to get María Esperanza Sanchez released?

María Esperanza was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Everything that has happened to her and to the rest of the political prisoners is completely arbitrary; that is precisely why we consider them to be political prisoners. What we demand is the unconditional and guaranteed release of them all.

What happens to them will depend to a large extent on the strength with which the opposition and the international community manage to exert pressure, and on the correlation of forces that is established between the Nicaraguan government and the human rights movement.

We must campaign and keep up the pressure. We must continue to put our finger on all the arbitrariness, illegalities and human rights violations. There are still people in Europe and other parts of the world who think Ortega is the idealistic revolutionary of the past, and not the despot he has become. The best way to expose dictators and human rights abusers is to keep communicating the truth on the basis of well-documented evidence.

Civic space in Nicaragua is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Nicaragua 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 IM-Defensoras through its website or Facebook page, and follow @IM_Defensoras on Twitter.

CHILE: ‘There is social consensus that the arbitrary exclusion of diverse families is unacceptable’

Marco BecerraCIVICUS speaks with Marco Becerra, director of ACCIONGAY, about the process leading to the recent passage of Chile’s Equal Marriage Law. ACCIONGAY is a civil society organisation founded in 1987 in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was then ignored or minimised as a problem that only affected ‘risk groups’. Over time it expanded its scope of action to advocate for the rights of LGBTQI+ people, based on the principle that all people have the right to self-determination in relation to their lives, bodies, health, relationships and sexuality.

What was the process leading to the legalisation of equal marriage in Chile, and what role did ACCIONGAY play in it?

It was a long process, lasting about 30 years. The movement for sexual and gender diversity in Chile began to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This process had different stages. At first, work focused on the consolidation and visibility of the movement in a context of post-dictatorship political transition that was very unfavourable to the demands for equality of LGBTQI+ people. In the second stage, work focused on political advocacy to achieve effective commitment by political groups to tackle the challenges related to the inclusion of LGBTQI+ people.

By the late 1990s, some important changes began to take place, such as the repeal of a law that criminalised sexual relations between adult men. However, other demands – such as that for equal marriage – only came into the public conversation around 2005, when equal marriage was legalised in Spain. Around that time ACCIONGAY received a visit from Spanish activist Pedro Zerolo, who helped us understand the importance of broadening the debate on civil unions and the recognition of LGBTQI+ people’s rights.

In a broader sense, I would venture to say that demands for equality before the law were the result of a social and cultural change that Latin America had been experiencing for several years. The legalisation of equal marriage in Argentina and Uruguay, as well as its progress throughout Europe, prompted Chilean LGBTQI+ movements and sexual diversity organisations to mobilise around equality issues.

It is important to highlight the contributions of numerous organisations and activists who worked consistently over the years to build alliances with progressive political groups, which became committed to these struggles. The idea of civil unions became a reality during the first government of President Michelle Bachelet, in 2015, and later on, as favourable public opinion grew and the perception of these inequalities as an injustice increased, the demand for equal rights for same-sex families gained momentum.

The Equal Marriage Bill was sent to Congress by Bachelet’s second government in 2017 and finally passed in December 2021. It will come into force in March and will represent a very significant change for the lives of hundreds of families with same-sex parents who did not have any legal recognition and therefore experienced complete defencelessness before the state.

The keys to achieving this breakthrough were movement coordination, advocacy with political decision-makers and campaigning to raise awareness and sensitise public opinion.

How did this process interact with the 2019 wave of protests and the process to develop a new constitution that followed?

Chile is going through a complex, epoch-changing process that came about as a result of the 2019 social outburst. But the demands for equality and recognition of the rights of LGBTQI+ people largely predate this. This movement was already very strong before the social outburst, including a network of organisations that was very active and mobilised since the 1990s. However, the context of social mobilisation helped create an environment conducive to the consolidation of LGBTQI+ movement as a presence recognisable on the streets in citizen protests demanding more equality.

The profound social change that began to take place in Chile picked up on the historical struggles of LGBTQI+ organisations and movements that rose up in the context of the 2019 social outburst. To a large extent this was reflected in the number of LGBTQI+ people who recently got elected, especially for the Convention in charge of drafting the new constitution, as well as in the ministerial appointments of LGBTQI+ people made by the next president, Gabriel Boric.

Why did approval take so long, when polls showed very high levels of public support?

Although Chile has a very active civil society, its political system, even following recent changes, still includes extremely conservative enclaves. This was reflected in the difficulty that Congress had in moving this law forward, not least because there was no strong commitment from successive presidents. Nevertheless, Bachelet’s second government did act on the idea of legalising equal marriage. It was during her government that the Civil Union Law was passed and the Gender Identity Bill was sent to Congress, which was then passed during President Rafael Piñera’s term.

From the point of view of people’s perceptions, changes occurred because a social consensus was reached that the arbitrary exclusion of diverse families is unacceptable. Support for equal marriage is striking: almost 70 per cent of Chileans agree, and a similar number support adoption by same-sex couples.

Campaigns for equal marriage were mainly developed by LGBTQI+ organisations with the support of other social movements, human rights organisations and feminists, to name a few. At the same time, alliances, solidarity and trust were built not only with other social organisations but also with progressive sectors within political parties. Support for the Equal Marriage Law was quite cross-cutting, including a segment of the liberal centre-right that contributed their votes to make it possible. Only ultra-conservative sectors excluded themselves.

Some leaders of Evangelical Pentecostal churches, which have achieved some social influence in Chile, mobilised against the Equal Marriage Law, but were defeated in the parliamentary debate. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, remained silent, probably because in recent years it has lost social and political relevance as a consequence of the scandals of paedophilia and sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy against children and adolescents.

What will be the immediate effects of the new law, and what remains to be done?

This law will have immediate consequences as it will guarantee the enjoyment of all rights and the positive effects of marriage regardless of people’s sex or sexual orientation. As the law includes issues of adoption and parentage, it will solve a number of problems experienced by families of same-sex partners with children. For instance, non-biological parents had no legal rights to the children they were raising as theirs; now they will get legal recognition.

Chile has experienced a series of legal advances: the Anti-Discrimination Law in 2012, the Civil Union Law in 2015, the Gender Identity Law in 2018 and the Equal Marriage Law starting in 2022. However, high levels of discrimination persist in work and education. Violence against LGBTQI+ communities is rampant.

From March onwards, we will face the enormous challenge of reviewing our work agenda, especially since after 11 March we will have a progressive government that has incorporated equality and recognition of LGBTQI+ communities in its policy programme. 

We are sure that this will be a very different government from its predecessors, and we are very hopeful that it will be possible to start closing the gap of real inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in all areas of social life, from public administration institutions to the educational sphere.

Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with ACCIONGAY through its website or Facebook page, and follow @acciongay on Twitter.

INDIA: ‘The government is dealing with dissent in very concerning ways’

Sudha BharadwajCIVICUS speaks Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer and long-time human rights defender working for the rights of workers and Indigenous peoples in India.

Sudha was arrested and detained in August 2018 under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and accused of having links with Maoist terrorist organisations. Alongside 15 other human rights defenders, she was further accused of conspiring to incite violence among the Dalit community. Despite proof that incriminating evidence against them was planted, concerns expressed by United Nations (UN) experts about the arbitrary charges and UN calls to release political prisoners from crowded jails during the pandemic, requests for Sudha’s release, including on health grounds, were repeatedly rejected. She was finally released on bail in December 2021 after three years in detention.

How did you get involved in human rights work?

For the last 35 years I have been working in Chhattisgarh, an area in eastern India that is very rich in mineral resources. I began around 1986 as a trade unionist and worked with a legendary union leader, Shankar Guha Niyog, who was organising iron ore miners. Conditions were appalling. Workers were not unionised, working hours were long, wages were very paltry and even the very basic labour laws of our country were not being applied.

I became a lawyer basically because my trade union needed one. I graduated in 2000, at the age of 40. I initially took up matters of our own union and later I shifted to work at the high court, where I realised contractual workers, farmers resisting land acquisition and Adivasi Indigenous groups resisting mining projects were forced to face very expensive corporate lawyers without any real legal assistance. They needed lawyers who understood them and who could devise legal strategies compatible with the tactics of their movements.

I started a group of lawyers to provide legal aid to unions, farmers’ and village organisations, Adivasi communities, and civil society organisations (CSOs). Around this time, I became involved in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), one of the oldest human rights organisations in India. We dealt with various human rights issues, including attacks and harassment of minorities and the criminalisation of Dalits and Adivasis under false accusations of having links with armed Maoist groups, also called Naxals. We took up several cases in which security forces fired on villagers accused of being Naxalites. We were eventually able to prove that these were false accusations.

I dealt with cases against big corporations, so I made powerful enemies. By taking up cases of Adivasis I also annoyed the government. In 2018 I was teaching a course at the national lawyer’s university in Delhi and that’s when I was arrested.

Can you tell us about your experience in detention?

Because the case was in Pune, I was initially sent to the women’s wing of the Yervada central jail, which is a prison for convicts. I was taken there with another activist, Shoma Sen. As soon as we were brought there, we experienced attacks on our dignity. We were asked to strip and squat. We were isolated: kept in separate cells, unable to communicate with other prisoners, led out into a yard for only half an hour a day. We were under constant surveillance.

In the winter it was very cold. We spend most of the time reading, although we struggled to get books. Because the library was in the men’s side of the jail, only 25 books were brought at a time. We were allowed to keep only two or three with us in our cell. We also had issues with access to water and sometimes had to carry in buckets. Shoma struggled with severe arthritis. 

Later on, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over our case, so we were moved to Byculla jail in Mumbai. This jail was extremely overcrowded, and we lacked any privacy. We would sleep right next to one another on coffin-sized strips of the floor which were allotted to us by the kamwali (staff) in charge of the barracks. There were also limited bathrooms to share.

Social distancing was impossible, and during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, many detainees got infected and were stuffed in a quarantine barrack. I did not become seriously sick but both Shoma and I requested medical bail due to underlying conditions. This was systematically denied.

Due to the pandemic, we were totally cut off from the outside world and were not taken to the courts for about five or six months. Then PUCL and other groups requested the Bombay High Courts to authorise telephone calls and we were allowed to speak to our families for 10 minutes once a week. Our lawyers could talk to us by sending an email to the jail, and the jail would allow us to phone them back - for 10 minutes, twice a week. That’s how we were able to tell them about prison conditions. I also tried to help people around us who were old or sick to write petitions.

How did you feel when you were finally granted bail, and what’s next?

The bail order was issued on 1 December 2021. I felt extremely disappointed that other activists linked to the case were not released with me. My request for bail was accepted on technical grounds. I heard the NIA appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn my bail, but it was immediately dismissed.

On 8 December I was taken to the court, given cash bail, and asked to produce sureties. When I came back to the jail, many detainees celebrated for me and gave me their requests. I was released the next day.

The bail conditions have restricted me to Mumbai, which is not my city. Friends have been very helpful, but I don’t have a home or work here so I’m still trying to adjust to the situation. I would like to continue my practice on behalf of prisoners and trade unions. For now, I have to attend court hearings and check-in at the police station every two weeks.

How have the conditions for activism in India changed while you were in jail?

Even before I went to jail things were already challenging, but since I was released, I have seen increasing attacks against minorities, notably Muslims. There has been a rise in hate speech, which seems to be manufactured and copiously funded, especially on social media.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed in December 2019, is discriminatory against minorities. There was a strong movement against the CAA law, in many places led by Muslim women, but this was shut down due to the pandemic.

We are also seeing that many institutions that are supposed to be independent – such as the Election Commission and investigating agencies – are being manipulated by the government. There are even concerns about the independence of the National Human Rights Commission, which has failed to take a proactive role on many important issues. The undermining of these institutions will affect their roles in their future, even if the government changes.

The government is dealing with dissent in very concerning ways. One clear example is the increasing surveillance of journalists, activists, and advocates. A lot of us involved in the case had our phones infected by Pegasus spyware. We have approached the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Committee looking into the use of Pegasus against Indian citizens and it has decided to request our phones from the NIA and undertake an inquiry.

There are also concerns about the impacts of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) on civil society. If you advocate for workers, Indigenous peoples or poor communities, your work is considered a political activity and you are barred from doing it. Larger CSOs with FCRA registration should be able to support smaller CSOs on the ground, but the government is depriving them of the ability of distributing funds to local grassroots groups and reaching out to real beneficiaries.

Where do you see positive change coming from in India?

One beacon of hope is the farmers’ movement. The opposition was against the farm bills proposed by the government, but it was unable to stop them. It was farmers themselves who stopped them, by standing their ground for almost one year in the heat, cold and rain. Thousands of criminal cases were brought against farmers, and they were smeared as terrorists. But they managed to hold their ground, build unity and push back. The key lesson here is that people must get organised.

I think that if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, the anti-CAA law movement would have had similar results. Students are also an important force, but we are seeing them facing attacks to prevent them organising and speaking up. But they will find a way to continue their struggle.

At a time when many internal mechanisms are failing us, international scrutiny and pressure are also key to improving the situation. There are international standards India cannot ignore. But of late, the Indian government has taken a problematic attitude towards UN bodies, including UN missions to Kashmir, and has gone as far as preventing people from speaking at or participating in international conferences. When UN Special Rapporteurs have made comments on human rights in India, the response has been dismissive and disparaging.

The government often uses terrorism and national security as an excuse for all kinds of human rights abuses. It is important to put the spotlight on this and not let the government get away with it.

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


Sudha was one of our #StandAsMyWitness faces. The campaign advocates for the release of Human Rights Defenders behind bars. In 2021, we welcomed the news of the release of three Human Rights Defenders -including Sudha-, and we continue to use our voices to call for the release of all other detained activists. Head to the official campaign page to read more about the current faces featured and join us in standing as their witnesses!

StandAsMyWitness released HRDs

 

SERBIA: ‘We are not just fighting locally; we are sending a message to the world’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests against the exploration and licensing of lithium mining – for use in batteries, including electric vehicle batteries – in Serbia with Miroslav Mijatović, activist and president of the Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team (PAKT). Founded in 2014, PAKT is a civil society organisation (CSO) working on anti-corruption and the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms.

Miroslav Mijatovic

What is the ongoing civil society campaign against lithium mining in Serbia?

There are currently 172 mining exploration permits in Serbia, and lithium is being explored at 10 locations. The project that has progressed the most so far is the one in the Jadar river valley. The company in charge, Rio Tinto, certified the balance reserves of lithium and boron in late 2020, accounting for 158,647,256 tonnes – 1.7 per cent lithium and almost 14 per cent boron.

Initial investigations are also taking place in other places across Serbia, so people all over have joined our fight in fear of what awaits them.

The Law on Mining and Geological Explorations (2011-2015) declared lithium and boron to be strategic minerals, and therefore in the public interest, allowing land expropriation to be carried out for those mining projects. As a result, people are afraid that the state will confiscate their property at a very low price.

Rio Tinto has spread the rumour that it pays a much better price and this has played very well on the field, but it is simply not true. The company has so far managed to buy about 150 of the 350 hectares required to obtain a building permit and approval for exploitation, but I think it won’t be able to get much more. Now everyone expects a move by the state. It is not easy for the government to move on with expropriations before an election, but after these take place in April, the situation will get worse.

For now, the fight against Rio Tinto is taking place in the justice system. We have not yet entered the field of environmental protection because it is not yet clear which technological process will be used to separate lithium and boron. We have been told Jadar Valley is going to be experimental project, but we don’t want to be treated as lab rats. According to reputable experts and academics we have consulted with, it is almost impossible to extract lithium and boron without a severe environmental impact. Available data shows that over the estimated 60 years of the mine’s lifetime about 90 million tonnes of tailings – mining waste – will be deposited in the Jadar Valley.

Our efforts are currently focused on the multiple proven violations of Serbian legislation and regulations involved in the state’s dealings with Rio Tinto. As well as violations of national legislation, including of the Environmental Protection Law, the Law on Planning and Construction, the Law on Agricultural Land, the Forest Law and the Law on Environmental Impact Assessment, among several others, there have been repeated violations of the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees the right of people to access timely and accurate environmental information held by the authorities.

All Rio Tinto contracts are labelled as ‘trade secrets’. The local community knew almost nothing about the project until a special-purpose area spatial plan for Jadar came to light. There are no real controls on what the company is doing because, believe it or not, Serbia only has three mining inspectors.

What has PAKT done to try to stop the project?

We helped the local community register their association, ‘We won’t give up Jadar’, and soon decided to start an online petition. We were aware of the fact that a petition does not have any legal power but seized the opportunity to create wider awareness of the issue.

We requested the help of experts and academics and activated as many public figures, including athletes and actors, as possible.

We also cooperated with an opposition member of parliament who was able to secure a meeting with the prime minister. We showed her the 300,000 electronic signatures we had collected and explained to her why we were against the mine, but her response was that we were against progress and that was the end of the dialogue.

However, the media began had started to pay attention, and when foreign television channels began to arrive in the Jadar Valley, we knew that we were no longer alone.

As for legal action, there are already three complaints filed against the company. The main one is related to large-scale environmental pollution.

For months we toured the Rio Tinto wells in the Jadar Valley and found out that nothing grew around them, not even weeds. Inspection bodies did not react to our evidence, and then someone approached us with a compensation agreement drawn on behalf of Rio Tinto, in which the company recognised pollution from exploratory wells and offered to pay damages to the plot’s owner. We investigated and found five more such contracts, all classified as secret. There may be many more, because there are over 580 exploration wells in the Jadar Valley.

We filed a complaint against the company with the Prosecutor’s Office in Loznica, attached the contracts, and requested an independent expert investigation to find out how many wells are leaking and what kind of pollution they produce.

What did the campaign achieve?

The campaign connected with the public, and in the second week of protests against the scandalous Expropriation Bill, which the government tried to push through the National Assembly by urgent procedure, there were over 120,000 people on the streets.

In the face of many displeased people mobilised in an election year, the government reacted. It first withdrew the Expropriation Bill. Then it revoked the decree greenlighting Rio Tinto’s project and backtracked on the spatial plan for the special-purpose area designed for the project’s implementation, which had been illegally introduced.

Since the beginning of the protests, PAKT has emphasised that these were citizen protests that did not involve the political opposition. This civil revolt achieved something that the weak opposition never achieved under nine years of rule – first as prime minister and now as president – by Aleksandar Vučić: the protests attracted a part of his electorate and gave him a signal to give in.

It really was the fact that people mobilised in an election year that did the trick. In our last meeting, we asked the prime minister if she had withdrawn the decree on the spatial plan because of growing awareness of the environmental danger, and she replied that she did not yet have all the information on lithium exploitation. It became clear to us that they are afraid of people taking massively to the streets in an election year.

This raises concerns that the government made what they view as a small temporary compromise to make demonstrators protesters happy but everything will return to normal after the April election.

How has Rio Tinto reacted?

We have not been in contact with Rio Tinto for over two years. We believe dialogue only benefits them because afterwards they claim they have engaged with civil society and have listened to our concerns. When we managed to convince other CSOs that this was the right approach, the company went on to found its own fake CSOs to go through the motions of civil society consultation.

So far, we haven’t received any threats from the company. Threats typically come from domestic extremists who mostly support the Vučić government. We are annoying for many right-wing movements and associations, so they threaten and attack us. While so far we haven’t received serious threats, we have noticed an increased interest of security agencies in our work. But as we have been dealing with corruption for more than 10 years, we are used to this.

What do you think will happen after the elections?

It seems that President Vučić has emerged quite strongly from the protests. He seems to have galvanised his electorate, because the public appears to have been sold on his concessions, and now they wonder, what more do environmentalists want?

In addition, some members of the opposition joined the protests in an attempt to score some political points, which only served to drive many people off the streets. As the opposition is divided, the majority will likely stick with Vučić for another term, and I am genuinely afraid that after the election we will see the real repressive face of this regime.

Our main goal will be to achieve the adoption of a law banning lithium and boron research, the only thing that could reduce tensions to some extent. We have submitted a bill to that effect and even proposed to set up a working group with experts from government and civil society. We urged for this to happen before the election campaign is underway, because we do not believe the government’s intentions are sincere. It is highly unlikely it will agree to pass this law by urgent procedure before the elections, so protests will likely continue.

What support could international civil society and the international community provide?

Any help and support from international civil society will be welcome, particularly in terms of amplifying and internationalising environmental issues. We are not just fighting here locally to protect our environment; we are sending a message to the world about the dangers of extracting lithium from solid sediments, which are simply not acceptable anywhere in the world. We all need to be vigilant.

As an organisation whose mission is to trace the flow of public resources and money, we have also made the connection between environmental and anti-corruption issues. This government is turning Serbia into a European landfill, and there are obvious reasons why it gives tacit approval for corporations to violate environmental standards to reduce production costs.

European Union (EU) companies and civil society should deal with this issue, because the situation in Serbia will eventually affect the business of EU companies and distort competition, ultimately affecting the quality of life in the EU.

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

PERU: ‘Environmental regulations were relaxed, when they should have been strengthened’

Juan Carlos SueiroCIVICUS discusses the recent oil spill off the coast of Lima, Peru, with Juan Carlos Sueiro, Director of Fisheries at Oceana, the world’s largest international organisation dedicated to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans. Founded in 2001, Oceana focuses its work on restoring fisheries, promoting clean energy and establishing protected marine areas.

Has anyone been held responsible for the oil spill off the coast of Lima?

The oil spill, caused by the Spanish oil company Repsol, happened on 15 January 2022. Due to its magnitude and visibility, it was the worst ecological disaster in Peru’s recent history. It occurred in an artisanal fishing zone, with protected areas and important seasonal economic activity. It is the largest spill we have ever had.

The spill happened because of the high tides caused by the eruption of the Tonga submarine volcano, which affected the process of unloading oil from a Repsol oil tanker to the La Pampilla refinery. The question is: how is it possible that the company only became aware of the magnitude of the spill the next day? The company’s negligence magnified the consequences of this spill.

Unfortunately, we have seen little progress in terms of Repsol taking responsibility for recovering the ecosystem. Even the exact volume of oil spilled is not known with any certainty. The company’s reaction was very slow, which is worrying because the first 24 hours following this kind of accident are key, as the oil film becomes very thin and expands a lot. It was only almost 20 days later that more sophisticated equipment was brought in to address the problem.

Overall there is not enough transparency. In this case, the contingency plan was not implemented. The activities currently underway are supposed to be the product of a plan, but neither the company’s commitments nor the contents of that plan have been made public. The area between Ancón and Chancay was heavily impacted on by the spill, and there is no bay there, only cliffs and water. It is visible how little has been done in the way of recovery.

There is also little transparency in the investigation. It is still not clear whether Repsol has handed over the equipment that was underwater in order to investigate and determine what happened on the day of the spill.

This lack of transparency is symptomatic of the way the Peruvian state operates. This is similar to what happened when the pandemic broke out and we ‘discovered’ that we had an absolutely precarious health system, which was clearly not up to the task. In this case, we have environmental structures, legislation and procedures on paper, but not in reality. The opacity of information is intended to hide this discrepancy.

For us it is very clear: Repsol must publicly assume clearly defined responsibilities.

What have been the environmental and economic impacts of the spill?

There has been great environmental damage. The area affected by the spill includes several protected natural areas: the Ancón Reserved Zone, the Guaneras Islands and the Punta Salinas Reserved Zone. The spill has impacted on marine fauna, affecting animals such as sea lions, otters, penguins and birds. Many have been stained with oil and their lives are at risk. Oceana is currently surveying this damage, as well as the additional damage caused by the company’s delayed reaction.

For communities in the area, the greatest concern is economic. These are mostly low-income people engaged in artisanal fishing. Beyond individual and immediate impacts – for example, for those who had invested in a seasonal business just before the spill – the consequences are collective and long-term. It is now impossible to fish in Ancón or Chancay, and it is difficult to know when it will be possible to do so, because oil has a much longer degradation time when it settles on the seabed. The fishermen and all the workers involved in processing and distribution logistics are also concerned about the variation in fish prices and the drop in demand.

We have run a calculation of the economic worth of coastal fisheries in these places to give us an idea of the economic loss. We also believe that there is an important impact on tourist activity: for the nine million inhabitants of the capital, Lima, and the three million living a little further north, these beaches are the closest place to spend the summer, and the spill has cut short the summer season, which runs from January to April. We have already warned the local municipalities that they must estimate the damage caused to tourism.

How has civil society responded?

We have all reacted with concern and a great interest in helping others. We have seen many volunteers helping to clean up the beaches, as well as experts and academics contributing within their areas of expertise.

However, volunteer work has limitations because in order to rescue marine wildlife from the damage caused by oil, certain procedures and products must be used to properly remove oil from an animal’s plumage or skin. Because of this, interest in helping usually does not translate into 100 per cent successful results.

Moreover, as this is the first time we have faced a disaster of this magnitude, Peru does not have all the expertise it needs. There is post-disaster expertise and experience elsewhere; it is necessary to bring it in. It would also be important to deepen the discussion about the energy mix we have and how to change it by turning towards the renewable resources that are available to us.

How can private companies be called to account and contribute to preventing future disasters?

Lack of accountability is a longstanding concern for the communities in these areas, and the fact that their demands have been systematically ignored is a symptom of Peru’s strong centralism. Artisanal fishermen in the north have been warning about this situation for several years and there has been no meaningful response. Oil extraction in Peru dates back to the 19th century; Peru had the first oilwell in South America. In the 1950s and 1960s, offshore platforms were installed, which are at the root of the spills and leaks that fishers complain about. There are also complaints about what happens in the transportation process, which has much greater implications.

This situation has encouraged civil society to prioritise the search for solutions. For almost a decade, environmental requirements have been reduced in Peru; it is necessary to walk back that path. Peru is engaged in fishing, mining and other activities for which regulations have been relaxed, when they should have been strengthened. The very low environmental capacity of the state and the poor response of companies to disasters clearly shows their inadequacy. Peru suffers from a major crisis of governance and respect for the rule of law. 

The possibility of another spill is always present. It is necessary to minimise the likelihood of it happening, and to ensure that when it does, it has the least possible impact in terms of magnitude, frequency and consequences. To do this we have to start by not losing sight of who is responsible for this disaster and the consequences of their irresponsible action.

Civic space in Peru is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Oceana through its website or its Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok accounts, and follow @Oceana_Peru and @SueiroJC on Twitter.

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