Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Set on Fire – New Form of Sexist Violence in Argentina

By Marcela Valente
Fátima Catán and her mother, Elsa Jerez, in a photo from the family album. / Credit:Courtesy of Catán Jerez family
Fátima Catán and her mother, Elsa Jerez, in a photo from the family album. 
Credit:Courtesy of Catán Jerez family

 "I knew he beat her but I never imagined that she would end up like this," Elsa Jerez told IPS, talking about her 24-year-old daughter Fátima Catán, a victim of domestic violence in Argentina who died of severe burns to her body.

Catán's partner, Martin Santillán, was not arrested. Twice he has sent someone to threaten to set his mother-in-law's house on fire. The courts are investigating a double homicide, because Fátima was pregnant, but he has only testified as a witness.

The young woman's death five months ago was one of 260 "femicides" -- a term coined for misogynist or gender-related murders of women -- documented in 2010 by a special observatory of La Casa del Encuentro, an Argentine civil society association, which has produced an annual report on gender-related murders since 2008.

The 2010 total represents a 12.5 percent increase from 2009 in this South American country of 40 million people.

Victims of femicide in Argentina are stabbed, strangled, shot, drowned, beaten to death -- and more recently, set on fire.

In 65 percent of the cases of femicide, the murderer is the woman's partner or ex-partner. And many of the killings occur after the courts have ordered the partner to leave the home or have issued a restraining order to keep him away from the victim of domestic violence.

Last year "we saw a veritable epidemic of women who 'accidentally' caught on fire," Fabiana Tuñez, who heads La Casa del Encuentro, told IPS, pointing out that the number of cases rose from six in 2009 to 11 in 2010.

Tuñez said that after a famous musician allegedly doused his wife with alcohol and set her on fire in February 2010, "a copycat effect occurred."

Domestic abuse hot-lines have reported that they have lately received more and more calls from women saying their partners or ex-partners have threatened to burn them alive, douse them with gasoline, or set them on fire -- threats that are often accompanied by the tag-line "like Wanda."

According to Tuñez, the case set a terrible precedent. The former drummer of the Argentine rock group Callejeros, Eduardo Vázquez, was not arrested after his wife, 29-year-old Wanda Taddei, was admitted to the hospital with burns over 50 percent of her body.

After Taddei died 11 days later, Vázquez was arrested and an investigation was launched. He is now in prison awaiting trial.

But the impunity he initially enjoyed may have encouraged others to follow in his footsteps, Tuñez said.

Catán's mother said her daughter had repeatedly been beaten by her partner in the past, and that several reports were filed with the police. "You nasty old bag, they called the cops on me," he complained to his mother-in-law at the time.

After Catán and Santillán separated briefly, he managed to persuade her to get together again. "She told me she wanted to give him a chance," Jerez said. "But I told her: 'He's not going to stop until he kills you.' I think he killed her because she was pregnant."

She saw her daughter, beaten and badly burnt, in the intensive care unit after Santillán took the young woman to the hospital. "I think he beat her really badly, and thought he had killed her, which his why he set her on fire," she said, in her heartrending attempt to comprehend what happened.

Catán died five days later, without ever being able to explain what occurred.

In the meantime, the apartment where she and Santillán lived in Villa Fiorito, a shanty town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, had been cleared of all evidence, Jerez said.

Santillán said Catán had been using alcohol to clean CDs while smoking a cigarette, and accidentally set herself on fire. The story was similar to the account given by Vázquez when his wife Wanda Taddei was admitted to the hospital. According to the musician, his wife was cleaning a shelf with alcohol.

Tuñez said that funds are lacking to implement an ambitious law passed in March 2009 to prevent, punish and eradicate violence against women. She also said a clear political message from the government and the justice system is needed, to begin changing attitudes towards sexist violence.

The Supreme Court's office on domestic violence acknowledged the magnitude of the problem in 2010, when it reported that 40 percent of murders of women were the result of domestic abuse.

But in late 2010, the Public Defender's Office presented the study "Discriminación de Género en las Decisiones Judiciales" (Gender Discrimination in Court Verdicts), which concluded that discrimination "ensures impunity" for the perpetrators of gender-based crimes.

Gabriela Boada, executive director of Amnesty International in Argentina, told IPS that the law is complex, and that a great deal of coordination is necessary between different ministries and jurisdictions. She said the legislation has not yet been fully put into effect.

"The law is not reality yet, and it does not clearly show, with evidence, what difference it has made in addressing and preventing the violence suffered by at least one out of three women at some point in their lives" in Argentina, she said.

Boada described the law, which takes into account physical, psychological and economic violence, as "a major stride forward," but said that "we know that there are huge gaps between the law and its implementation."

Tuñez said that what is needed is "a sustained, comprehensive policy for assistance to victims and an autonomous, specific legal classification of femicide, as already exists in Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Spain.

"Another basic problem is that many women are not financially independent, which makes it even more difficult for them to leave," she said. "That's why we believe there should be subsidies for housing and food, and that education on these issues is necessary at all levels."

Tuñez underscored two positive aspects of the new law: its definition of violence against women is broad and not just limited to physical abuse, and it stipulates the creation of an observatory to compile specific official statistics on the phenomenon, although this has not yet begun to function.

"Awareness-raising campaigns are also necessary, not only on symbolic dates, but permanently, in the media, the schools, everywhere -- and funds are needed for that," Tuñez said.

Should U.N. Chief's Public Pronouncements Be Copyrighted?

By Thalif Deen
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) holds his first press conference of 2011, outlining his priorities for the year. / Credit:UN Photo/Mark Garten
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) holds his first press conference of 2011, outlining his priorities for the year. 
Credit:UN Photo/Mark Garten

When the secretary-general of the United Nations issues a key policy statement, holds a news conference or simply makes off- the-cuff remarks to the press corps, they traditionally remain in the public domain.

But a recent op-ed commentary in an Australian newspaper, authored by Ban Ki-moon, was not only copyrighted but also truncated, thereby omitting a crucial policy decision - the creation of a new U.N. women's agency - from his public pronouncement spelling out the world body's 2011 agenda.

At the bottom of the article, published in the Sydney Morning Herald in late December, was the warning: "Copyright, Project Syndicate, 2010".

The Prague-based outfit is an international not-for-profit newspaper syndicate soliciting articles, analyses and op-ed pieces from a variety of writers, including political thinkers, Nobel laureates, activists and academics - and placing them in newspapers worldwide.

Stephen Lewis, a former deputy executive director of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, is challenging the new-found exclusiveness of the secretary-general.

"I was sent an e-mail by a senior member of the secretary- general's (SG) staff indicating that something called Project Syndicate had crafted the op-ed taken from a previous speech the SG had given," he said.

Apparently, it wasn't vetted by the SG's office. That's entirely irresponsible, said Lewis.

"You don't allow a private company to fool around with the words of the SG without scrutiny by the SG's staff before publication," he said.

Lewis, a former U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and currently co-director of the group AIDS-Free World, wondered how a non-profit association of newspapers - really a private company, non-profit or otherwise – managed to hold a copyright on the words of the SG.

Asked to respond, a spokesperson for secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told IPS: "That's just because some op-eds are sent to a syndicated service, which places them in newspapers around the world."

Haq confirmed that the SG's statements "remain in the public domain".

Lewis remained sceptical. "If, however, we were to believe the response given to IPS," he said, "then an op-ed was drafted by the SG's office with no reference to U.N. Women."

That's even more reprehensible, he said. "No matter how you look at this, the U.N. has contracted out the words of the secretary-general of the United Nations as though he was a commonplace blogger."

Something is terribly wrong in the offices of the secretary- general, he added.

In his op-ed piece, Ban stressed the important role the United Nations will play in 2011 and beyond.

"People everywhere live in growing anxiety and fear. There is near-universal loss of trust in institutions and leaders," he wrote.

Amid such uncertainty, he said, "Our future depends on a United Nations that brings together the countries of the world not only to talk and debate, but also to agree and to act; that mobilises civil society, business, philanthropists and ordinary citizens to help the world's governments solve current problems; and that delivers peace, development, human rights, and global public goods - in a word, hope - to people around the world every day."

Although he singled out the U.N.'s past achievements and projected its future role, Ban's commentary left out one of the most positive achievements of the world body: the creation of U.N. Women launched in the new year.

"The conventional wisdom will tell you that the MDG targets - reducing poverty and hunger, improving the health of mothers and children, combating HIV/AIDS, increasing access to education, protecting the environment, and forging a global partnership for development - are simply unattainable," he says.

But those "targets" spelled out in his article do not include gender empowerment and the future role of women in society.

Lewis said: "I see from the Project Syndicate website that they solicit or accept unsolicited op-ed commentaries of 800 to 1000 words in length, but do they have the right to extract sections from other materials [such as speeches] and then present them as though they were an original commentary? That's what they did with the SG."

"We'd love to see the contract between the SG and Project Syndicate. It's one thing to toy with the copy of Jeffrey Sachs or Joe Stiglitz or Jimmy Carter or Naomi Wolfe, but the SG is the chief administrative officer of the United Nations, not of an academic institution or a think-tank," Lewis said.

"And look how embarrassing it can be," added Lewis, currently a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

Lewis said the editors of Project Syndicate clearly couldn't have cared less about women, so they simply excised that part of the SG's address. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

No Easy Path for Disabled Women with Political Dreams

Joyce Labosa and Millie Odhiambo, MP's at the forefront fighting for disabled women's rights / Credit:Miriam Gathigah/IPS
Joyce Labosa and Millie Odhiambo, MP's at the forefront fighting for disabled women's rights 
Credit:Miriam Gathigah/IPS

"People living with disability face all sorts of discrimination. We are discriminated against at job interviews in schools. Everyday is a battle to remain positive in the face of a world that is too bent on dismissing those among us that do not meet the standard of what is normal", explains Mishi Juma, a disabled community leader from the Coast region.

 In the past, Juma never had a safe space to raise these issues. But all this has now changed. Juma and many other disabled women can now raise their concerns with the newly established Ministry of gender and social development. 

The establishment of this Ministry two years ago has been a milestone in Kenya and has had to prove that it is more than just another women’s organisation.

Critical processes which were meant to improve the plight of the minority and disadvantaged in the country have been initiated.

This is reflected by the formulation of various interventions to reach those who may not be in a position to access socio-economic opportunities, which are key to their development.

Some of these interventions have included the setting up of a Women and Youth Fund, as well as a persistent push for gender equality policies in all sectors of the economy.

Even so, it is the call for a census to establish the number of persons with disabilities, and the nature of disabilities, that has further proved that the Ministry does not only address women’s and children’s issues, as had been previously perceived.

This call was initiated by the former Minister, Esther Murugi, in an effort to mainstream the issue of disability in the country.

But some feel not enough has been done. It is even worse for those with political ambitions, "I have been dismissed even before being given an opportunity to speak my mind - firstly for just being a woman and then for being a woman who is not physically fit," explains Kanini Mugambi, an aspiring politician from Eastern Kenya.

The country is yet to see a disabled woman in Parliament. "Going by the kind of violence meted out to female politicians in the last general elections of 2007, many women with disabilities nurturing political ambitions might feel threatened because their mobility is limited and they may not be able to run in case there is a scuffle - as is usually the case," explains Mishi Juma.

This is despite the fact that, according to Murugi, Kenya is one of the few countries in Africa with a Disability Act already in place, which clearly enumerates the rights of the disabled, including the right to rehabilitation in order for them to achieve equalisation of opportunities".

She further explained that Kenya is being considered for an ambassadorial position by the African Decade for Persons with Disabilities Secretariat, based in South Africa, due to its efforts to promote issues affecting people living with disability.

Within this financial year, the government had committed itself to set up a multi million-dollar fund to address problems faced by people living with disability.

While Murugi said the establishment of the fund was a good beginning, she was also optimistic that the fund could be doubled in the next financial year to enable persons living with disabilities to access funding for entrepreneurship, as was the case with the Women and Youth Fund.

"Although this might be the case, most physical amenities in the country lack suitable infrastructure to assist people with disabilities," explains Juma.

This is in spite of the fact that the Disability Act, as well as the Constitution, demands that all persons living with disabilities are entitled to ‘reasonable access to all places, public transport and information.’

The call for a census to be undertaken among persons living with disabilities was therefore an expression of the government’s commitment to improving the plight of the physically challenged.

In fact, according to the Constitution that was only recently promulgated, the "State shall ensure the progressive implementation of the principle that at least five percent of the members of the public in elective and appointive bodies are persons with disabilities."

It is imperative to also note that the government, in conjunction with state corporations, is working on identifying targets to establish a disability committee that would be mandated with the task of developing a disability mainstreaming strategy.

The strategy will not only ensure that people with disabilities do not face discrimination in public places, but that they are also able to access services which are available to other Kenyans.

Although there are legal frameworks in place to protect and promote the rights of the disabled, including policy guidelines awaiting Cabinet’s approval, there is a need for the legal system to work in collaboration with society.

"This is because it is the same society that hides children born with disability from the world, denying them an opportunity to grow together with other children. And by the time they are exposed to society, the culture shock is too overwhelming for them," explains Hamisa Zaja, chairperson of disabled groups in the Coast region.

In light of the devolved system of government, Hamisa Zaja further urged disabled women not to shy away from politics and to present themselves to the electorate when the opportunity presented itself.

In the meantime, she called for leaders to sensitise the public on the need to create an enabling environment for people with disabilities to pursue the same opportunities as other Kenyans, particularly in the political arena. 

Women Wonder if They'll Ever Feel Safe Again

Up a rubble-strewn street, turn right past a crumbled house, and 60 men and women are in the yard and parlor of the offices of the Commission of Women Victim-to-Victim (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim, KOFAVIV) association.

The women are members of KOFAVIV, and they live in the squalid refugee camps and some of the capital's toughest and poorest neighbourhoods. Today, they each brought along a male friend for a workshop on how to prevent violence.

Dressed in their Sunday best, the participants joked and jostled as they broke into groups.

"Happy New Year!" said one young woman with huge hoop earrings, but then she corrected herself - "No, I won't say 'happy,' but I'll say, 'good health to you.'"

As the discussions started up, smiles melted away.

MINUSTAH – Too Little, Too Late?While a few pockets of international and local activists are stretching themselves thin, powerful bodies like the U.N. have been accused of doing too little, too late.

"There is definitely a lot more that MINUSTAH can be doing," Amnesty International's Kerrie Howard told IPS, referring to the U.N. Stabilisation Mission in Haiti.

"Their policing function needs to have a much stronger gender focus," she said. "They also need to help the Haitian government to train their security forces and build the capacity of the forces to address gender violence if they are to ever deliver a solution for the women."

Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, is highly critical of the way MINUSTAH has handled the situation.

"The U.N. announced last summer that it would bring in a special all-women's police unit from Bangladesh to provide protection for the women," he told IPS.

"The unit arrived, but is patrolling U.N. facilities, not camps. It's been reported that this is because of a lack of translators, but it seems that a force spending 2.5 million dollars per day could afford to pay for translators to make one of its priority projects work."

"As we mentioned in our petition to the IACHR, U.N. officials in charge of gender violence have been downplaying the reports of rape coming from poor women's groups, and marginalising the grassroots groups – which are much more effective – in favour of the traditional women's organisations," Concannon added.

"The woman in charge of the Gender Violence Subcluster wrote a blog post a month after she arrived in Haiti, saying that she had not yet met a rape victim. She took this as evidence that the rapes were not happening as reported. In fact, it was evidence that the U.N. subcluster did not have access to the information about rapes that was readily available from poor women."
"Okay, let's make a list. What do we have at the Runway Camp?" asked an older woman who lives in a tent on the runway of Haiti's former military airport. "Okay, robbery, youth prostitution, rape, domestic violence and verbal abuse."

"Well, that's what we have in our camp too," said a young girl in blue jeans and a spaghetti strap top.

A man wearing a perfectly ironed white shirt interjected, "Okay, but what are we going to do about it?"

A full year after a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti obliterated 230,000 lives, injured 300,000 and rendered a quarter of the population homeless, Haitian women are now weathering a second catastrophe.

In the 2,000 makeshift displaced persons camps clustered across the country, women and girls are caught in the midst of an onslaught of sexual abuse, savage beatings and heinous crimes against humanity.

Two million people are still crammed into enclosures, which have become microcosms of pre-earthquake patterns of the gross income inequality, social exclusion and abject poverty that has plagued Haiti for centuries.

A report released Thursday by Amnesty International lays bare the appalling conditions in which Haitian women are forced to live - the paltry shelters in the open-air camps seldom comprise anything more than flimsy tents, or tarps stretched over a patch of earth.

According to the report, "Aftershocks: Women Speak Out Against Sexual Violence in Haiti's Camps", over 250 rapes, in various camps, were reported a mere 100 days after the earthquake first struck. Many women and girls have been raped multiple times, often by several different men at once. Virtually every victim has also been beaten and tortured.

Medical and sanitary conditions in the camps are appalling; women and girls are forced to bathe in public and walk long distances to communal toilets at night. A total absence of privacy, lighting or solid barriers against perpetrators leaves even girls as young as 12 and 13 years old entirely vulnerable to the wave of sexual violence, most of which occurs after dark, the report says.

"Women's organisations on the ground helped us access the victims," Kerrie Howard, a Haiti expert at Amnesty International, told IPS. "Because the camps are a very closed community, it's extremely difficult for women and girls to speak out."

One of Amnesty's key local partners, and arguably the most active organisation working through the crisis, is KOFAVIV.

"At KOFAVIV we believe in education and we believe in preventing violence before it happens," Jocie Philistin, KOFAVIV's project coordinator, told IPS. "All of our members are survivors who are rehabilitated, and we are now trying to help others. And the solution doesn't lie with women only. We need men and women to work together."

But neighbourhood watch patrols and training sessions aren't the only answer, Philistin admits.

"Violence has two aspects – one is poverty, meaning it's economic. The other is politics," she said.

Whenever there is political turmoil or the economy worsens, violence against women increases. Rape has been used as a political weapon. Young people, especially girls, trade sex for a meal or a roof over their heads.

Now, one year after the quake, KOFAVIV admits a sense of hopelessness.

"In the camps, in the communities, things have gotten worse," Philistin said. "We have a completely absent state, we have NGOs who are in the camps mostly for public relations and they aren't even allowed to work in the 'red zone' areas, which are the most dangerous neighbourhoods."

A ray of hope

In early October, a coalition of prominent legal and social justice groups, including MADRE, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the Bureaux des Advocats Internationaux filed a formal request with the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of 13 Haitian women and girls.

On Tuesday, the IACHR accepted the request and issued unprecedented recommendations to the Haitian government, which are binding under Haitian national law.

The measures include providing medical and psychological care such as emergency contraception and culturally sensitive female medical staff members; implementing effective security measures like street lighting and increased patrolling by security forces; and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring the full participation and leadership of grassroots women's groups in planning and implementing policies to combat the sexual violence.

Lisa Davis, the human rights advocacy director of MADRE, was the primary author of the request.

"We have been working with women's groups in Haiti since the rape crisis in the 1990s," Davis told IPS. "And we consult with our local partners every step of the way."

While Haitian women are of course concerned with long-term political changes that address the root causes of sexual violence and the blows of patriarchy, the need for immediate safety now trumps all, she said.

In a report entitled "Our Bodies Are Still Trembling: Haitians Women's Fight Against Rape", the parties of the IACHR request record in chilling detail testimony from women and girls in the camp. Women as old as 60 and as young as eight or nine have all been subjected to unspeakable cruelty which has increased sharply since the 2010 elections.

"We have reports of men going into camps and randomly shooting women who were wearing politically-charged t- shirts," Davis said.

"Every single woman I talked to said what she wants more than anything is housing," she stressed. "And if they can't get that - because it's not being offered to them right now - then they want to feel safe."

*Jane Regan reported from Haiti.


Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.