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Political Parties, Church and Grand Mufti in Bulgaria: No Rights for Women

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Photo: BNR

On 12 March, the European Parliament called upon EU countries including Bulgaria to ratify the Istanbul Convention. However, only one Bulgarian MEP was present at the debates. And he was against the treaty.

Just on the eve of International Women’s Day on the March 8, the Bulgarian government, attacked by political parties, the Holy Synod and Grand Mufti, said it would abandon its plans to send the Istanbul Convention to parliament for ratification. This situation clearly shows that Bulgarian society is not ready yet for the European future that envisages rights equality.

The Council of Europe Convention, known as the Istanbul Convention, was signed in 2011 in Istanbul to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. So far, it has been supported by 45 member states of the Council of Europe amid having been ratified in 28 countries with only 17 of them being EU members.

Unfortunately, the Convention still faces fierce opposition in many European Union countries. Thus, when in late February Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov said the motion to ratify the document had been rejected, Slovakia announced it would also withdraw its request for the ratification of the Convention under the pressure of similar conservative politicians.

Having signed the Convention in April 2016, the Bulgarian government announced it was going to ratify the treaty only at the end of 2017. A statement came from Deputy Minister of Justice Desislava Ahladova during the round table discussion Prevention of Violence through Education organized by the Bulgarian Fund for Women.

The announcement of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s ruling coalition GERB sparked off a wave of criticism. First, the United Patriots, a group of three parties known for their radical views lashed out at the government’s decision. “A woman cannot refuse her husband sex. That is why she gets married,” said Volen Siderov, chairman of the parliamentary bloc. In another statement, the United Patriots claimed that the Convention would legitimize the “third gender” and open the door to “transvestites from Iran.”

Soon, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church joined the criticizing group, though it backed the Convention in January 2015. Urging the National Assembly not to ratify the document, the Synod published a declaration blaming the government for introducing “a new understanding of man – man as an absolute master, the man without God who follows his desires and passions to such an extent that he can even determine his gender.” According to the Church, the term gender is the one that raises much concern. “The consequences of denying biblical truths are tragic and we are witnessing them in many societies where “gender” ideology has long been a state policy,” the Synod stressed. The Orthodox Church even called for prayers against the ratification.

Just a day after the Orthodox Church came up with comments, the Bulgarian Grand Mufti followed the suite. In a quite lengthy statement, the supreme body of Muslims in the country provided a number of theistic and secular arguments against the ratification. First of all, some legal uncertainties are a reason for the Grand Mufti’s disapproval. Although the government officials have stated several times that no changes would be made in the Constitution if the Istanbul Convention is adopted, the Mufti worries that important documents such as The Family Act, the Anti-Discrimination Act, the Young People’s Act, the Internal Policies Act would have to undergo substantial change in order to fulfill the Convention’s requirements. Both Christianity and Islam stand for traditional values, so it’s not really surprising that their positions in this matter coincide.

On the 25th of January Bulgarian Socialist Party introduced an initiative to submit a referendum proposal in the National Assembly. “[The convention] has generated enormous tension in the Bulgarian society and diverging opinions. That’s division,” BSP leader Kornelia Ninova said, as quoted by public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television. “We think that the one who has to have their say on this issue is the Bulgarian people. This is why tomorrow we will be tabling the necessary signatures of Bulgarian Socialist Party MPs to ask for a decision to hold a referendum on the Istanbul Convention.”

However, her initiative failed as on the same day the government changed its mind and withdrew the proposal for ratification.
Obviously, the reaction of confessions and politicians depends on the current mood in Bulgarian society. Recent surveys show that the majority of Bulgarians are against the proposed Convention. Thus, according to the Barometer Bulgaria pollster, 63% of respondents said they disapprove of ratifying such a document. However, it is not shocking as four in five people in Bulgaria think that the most important role of a woman is to take care of her home and family, per a November 2017 Eurobarometer survey.

The story of the Istanbul Convention in Bulgaria is a vivid example of how conservative politicians and clergymen can influence the political agenda in a country and impede new motions in the human rights sector.

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Herat, the fire’s bride

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The olive eyes of Shaista peep between the bandages covering her burnt body, for she, like so many other Afghan women from the city of Herat, decided to escape her life by way of fire.

Shaista arrived at the hospital burning between wisps of hair and fabric, and her 19-year-old body is now a landscape of lava.

Tears seep between the gauze and the passageways of her blistered skin. Compassion is the closest thing to love that she will experience, and the hands of the man who changed her bandages are amongst the few that didn’t strike her.

She set herself on fire for a crime she didn’t commit, one that doesn’t exist, or one that everyone else appears to see except her. Her crime was being born a woman.

According to Oxfam, 8 out of every 10 Afghan women suffer either physical, sexual or psychological violence.

In 2015, the Independent Afghan Commission for Human Rights registered 5,132 gender crimes and between April and June 2016 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported 600, but many go unreported.

The women who go to the police are at risk of being raped before being returned to their families. Those who escape for more than 48 hours face accusations of adultery, the punishment for which is either facial mutilation or death. Passed between relatives, offered to others to pay debts or settle disputes, raped and subjected to acid attacks in the streets; these women lose their mental stability and take their own lives in the most brutal way.

They usually come from lower social groups and as they don’t have access to guns or money to buy barbiturates, they drink rat poison, hang themselves, jump into rivers or set themselves on fire.

Although the families declare a ‘domestic accident’, it is easy to identify a suicide, as the majority are aged between 14-21 years old and are soaked in kerosene, when in fact most people use firewood or gas to do the cooking at home.

85% of Afghan women are unable to read or write and thus out of ignorance believe that they will die quickly. But instead they suffer for days before dying. Many pour boiling oil over themselves or drizzle it over their abdomen in order to raise attention to their plight, but sometimes the flames envelop them.

One of the most influential thinkers and leading Afghan practitioners in the field, Dr. Djawed Sangdel says: “Education is a key. This country needs a thorough horizontalisation of education for all.”

80% of those who arrive in hospital perish because of a lack of means to treat them, and if they do survive, they suffer lifelong consequences, for it is difficult to follow a course of treatment whilst carrying water and looking after numerous children.

Almost 40 years of war brought with it misery, poor health and lack of governance, under which the patriarchal system flourished; a system which made Afghanistan an open-air prison for women, causing them irreparable psychological damage.

The country’s laws tolerate tribal codes and 60% of girls under the age of 15 are forced to marry men double their age, according to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan.

Studies from the UN Fund for the Development of Women reveal that the majority of widows sell their bodies or turn to begging in order to survive, and 65% of them see suicide as the only solution to their misery.

Herat, once known as the Pearl of Khorasan, is today a ghost town, with a horizon dotted with adobe houses, obsolete war munitions and faces hidden from the world behind the grille of a burka.

After a week in hospital, Shaista’s mother-in-law escaped with her to hide her at home, as her son simply didn’t deserve the shame of a suicidal wife.

Almost a month after the fire, she returned with wounds all over her body and without any feeling in her arms due to large necrotic areas. She did, however, survive – one of life’s cruel jokes.

Now with the same fears as before, scars from the fire on her skin and with only one arm to carry her daughter, Shaista is back in the place that she so wanted to flee.

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The Modern Tragedy of Child Marriage

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Authors: Pooja Shah & Russell Whitehouse

“And just like that, my mother was married to the village chaiwala when she was 14!” I distinctly recall my grandmother saying as we sat together on the front porch, warmed by the mid-summer breeze.“14? She’s a child!” I gasped out of horror. “How can she be married? Her parents allowed it?” I ignorantly continued.

It was July 2011. I was visiting my now-late grandmother in Ahmedabad, Gujarat after a two-month writing excursion through Mussoorie. The first few days of my stay were filled with pleasantries and questions about school and life in “Amreeka”, quickly followed by the incessant questioning of when I would get married and if I found a suitable companion yet… Of course, to a 19-year old college sophomore student barely at the cusp of adulthood, marriage felt like an intangible figment of my imagination, as it did for most of my peers back home who were too occupied by finalizing our majors and what party to attend next weekend. However, as my grandmother spoke, summoning stories of her own mother, it became dauntingly obvious that not only marriage was the traditional norm, but marrying early was the expectation in the era she grew up in.

12% of girls in the developing world will be married off before the age of 15; in many of the world’s poorest countries, like Bangladesh, over half of girls will be married off before the age of 18.  According to the IWWC, over 400M women aged under 50 years old are survivors of child marriage. .Western countries aren’t exempt from this scourge: over 200k girls have been married in this current century in the US.

Although theoretically child marriage is outlawed in India, in many rural areas, impoverished families will often “give away” their children in exchange for fleeting economic security. Rooted deeply in religious, traditional and cultural norms, and often motivated by economic factors, many families view child marriages as a means to end their economic suffering.

My grandmother confided in me that her mother, a child herself, gave birth at the age of 16 with a husband who was nine years her senior. Dadi dismissed my shocking reaction and confirmed, once again, that this was not atypical. I began to realize over the course of our conversation the very limited rights and personal choices these children, particularly young girls, have. Their lives are a mere transaction: exchanging their livelihood and existence for a few rupees on their families behalf, all while being forced to forego their educations, childhood, hobbies, and sense of independence.

This commodification of the lives of girls reinforces a culture of deep misogyny. Being married off while school-age tends to end a girl’s education; less than half of child brides have completed primary (let alone higher) education.  This can create economic shackles for a girl in a marriage; without even a basic education, a girl or young woman is unlikely to find a job that can create any level of financial freedom.  Being saddled with a child from a young age also impedes a girl’s ability to leave the house to find work.  With this reality in mind, it’s no shock that child brides are 9% more likely to experience physical or sexual abuse (generally by a husband or parent in-law) than women.  A young lady with little education is less likely to be aware of legal options to end this suffering, like filing a domestic abuse complaint with the police or filing for divorce. 

Such a culture is likely to continue other degrading practices, like female genital mutilation and widow ostracizing, as well as create whole generations of traumatized girls and young women.  The systemic rape of young girls inevitably moves the social Overton window, making the rape of women, men and boys seem less important or even noteworthy.  Growing up in a household featuring such disparate power dynamics is liable to create a twisted sense of self-esteem and justice among children of child brides.  Mothers are one of the primary sources of the pedagogy of a child.  Thus, girls who were taken from their schools to get married would be less well equipped to contribute to their children’s education.  This would be especially apparent in terms of sexual education; a culture of child brides is intrinsically less able to teach its children about health topics like STDs and birth control, to say nothing of ethical issues like consent.

My dadi also revealed how her own mother suffered multiple miscarriages throughout her youth, as her body was not fully equipped to bear pregnancy. This is unsurprising; young girls aren’t biologically ready to go through the physical traumas of pregnancy and giving birth.  Pregnant girls under 15 have quintuple the maternal mortality rate of women; 88% of them suffer obstetric fistulae, which often lead to permanent disability.  Girls are also disproportionately likely to receive cervical lacerations during intercourse, which can lead to cervical cancer down the line.  The children resulting from these underage marriages suffer similar hazards.  Babies born to child brides are 28% more likely to die within their first 5 years of life than babies born to women.

When confronted by my bachelorette status (as I often was when I visited India), I remember I would always counter with “I have to finish school first”, acknowledging the privilege I had to control my education and career aspirations. When it comes to these child brides, often times marrying at a young age will likely mean an end to their education, and in turn, will hinder their ability to obtain the skills and knowledge that is vital for income-generating employment.

That day I was enraged by the fact that child marriage continues to exist in the 21st century, as well as my personal lack of awareness on the issue. It has been over eight years since that enlightening conversation, and thankfully due to the tireless efforts of activists, legislators, and advocates there has been movement towards ending child marriage. In fact, UNICEF and Indian Wedding Buzz joined forces earlier this year on Valentines’ Day to #EndChildMarriage, demonstrating that one of the most crucial steps in eradicating this humans right issue is to stand against it. By utilizing their global social media platform and influential magazine, the #EndChildMarriage initiative was aimed at raising awareness of the implications of child marriage and more importantly, how we, collectively, can help put a stop to it. The campaign further empowered young girls in many South Asian and African countries (i.e. Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, among nine others) with the information and resources to understand the implications of what they are being forced into. Furthermore, the program continued to develop national strategies with the efforts of government investments, religious leaders, and of course our community. This social media sensation, backed by Indian Wedding Buzz, demonstrated their respective commitment to being part of the change, so that we as South Asians, as Americans and as humans can follow suit to be part of this revolutionary movement. After all, there is strength in numbers.

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Marcia Andrade Braga: A ‘stellar example’ of why more women are needed in UN peacekeeping

MD Staff

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Brazilian peacekeeper Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga serves in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Photo: MINUSCA

Training gender advisors and focal points in the Central African Republic (CAR) has earned a Brazilian United Nations peacekeeper a special gender advocate award, it was announced on Tuesday.

Secretary-General António Guterres will bestow naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga, with the UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award during the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial conference due to be held at UN Headquarters in New York this Friday.

“UN Missions need more women peacekeepers so local women can talk more freely about the issues that affect their lives”, said Lt. Cdr. Braga.

“I am so proud to be selected”, she said, upon receiving news of her award, also expressing gratitude to her colleagues in the UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Serving as the Military Gender Advisor at MINUSCA Headquarters since April 2018, Lt. Cdr. Braga has helped to build a network of trained gender advisors and focal points among the Mission’s military units and promoted mixed teams of men and women to conduct community-based patrols around the country.

These “Engagement Teams” were able to gather critical information to help the Mission understand the unique protection needs of men, women, boys and girls, which in turn helped develop community projects to support vulnerable communities.

Projects include the installation of water pumps close to villages, solar-powered lighting and the development of community gardens to cut down the distances women have to travel, to tend their crops.

Lt. Cdr. Braga is also a driving force behind MINUSCA leadership’s engagement with local women leaders, making sure that the voice of Central African women is heard throughout the ongoing peace process.

Moreover, as a former teacher she has also helped train and raise awareness among her peers on gender dynamics within the Mission.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, who heads the UN Department of Peace Operations, spelled out: “Marcia Andrade Braga is a stellar example of why we need more women in peacekeeping: Peacekeeping works effectively when women play meaningful roles and when women in the host communities are directly engaged”.

Created in 2016, the UN award recognizes the dedication and effort of an individual peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security, which underscores the “3 Ps”, to prevent conflict; protect women and their rights during and after conflict; and to increase the numbers of women participating in all mechanisms, to prevent and resolve conflict.

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