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Gender equality, justice in law and practice: Essential for sustainable development

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Young girls in Gumam primary school, Kassala state, Sudan. Photo: UNICEF/Sari Omer

Fundamentally linked to human development, gender justice requires ending inequality and redressing existing disparities between women and men, according to a high-level United Nations forum on the situation in Arab States.

Laws that promote gender equality “will help the Arab region move forward on the issue of justice and equality for women”, Jordan Ambassador to the UN Sima Bahous, told UN News after chairing the forum centered around the study with the same name: Gender and Law Justice, Evaluation of Laws Affecting Gender Equality in the Arab States.

Gender equality is achieved when both sexes enjoy the same rights and opportunities across society, including access to justice and to economic and social gains. The study stressed that sustainable development goals cannot be achieved without ensuring gender equality in law and practice.

On 14 March, on the margins of the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women’s Fund (UNIFEM) organized the conference, which discussed discrimination and criminal, personal status and labour laws across 18 Arab countries.  

“Human development means expanding opportunities for women and men to improve their lives and education, and create better opportunities”, Ms. Bahous explained.  

Room in Arab region for women’s equality

Gender justice relies on accountability and equality.  

Salma Al-Nemes, Secretary General of the Jordanian National Committee for Women, spoke about the forum’s importance, saying that it aims to “emphasize that there is still room in the Arab region to achieve women’s equality.”  

She stressed that problems can only be solved if they are recognized, and that countries can benefit “from the experiences of the Arab and Islamic countries that have achieved equality and build on this by adapting it to national reality.”  

Because national and local contexts differ, Ms. Al-Nemes acknowledged that “we must examine how to meet these challenges in an appropriate context so that we can achieve equality not only in legislation, but in practice as well”. 

For her part, Naziha el Obaidi, Minister of Women, Family, Childhood and the Elderly of Tunisia, told UN News about her Government’s decree that “when considering the appointment of a senior official in the country, four biographies of candidates, two for women and one for men, should be submitted.” 

Also in Tunisia, the law of ‘horizontal equinoxes and vertical equinoxes’ states that if an electoral list is headed by a woman, a man must hold the second position, and vice versa. Ms. el Obaidi credited this with women’s participation nearly 48 per cent of municipalities, noting that this law will also be implemented in the legislative elections. 

Honour crimes

Because gender-based violence is a major barrier to gender justice, Gender justice and the law closely examines its various forms, including sexual, physical and psychological and economic violence, assessing laws and policies that affect gender equality and protect against gender-based violence.

For example, the penalties for committing so-called honour crimes – which include murder, wounding and beating – vary, depending on the country.

In Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco, Qatar, Syria and Yemen a sentence can be reduced if a “spouse” is caught in an act of adultery.

Whereas in Djibouti and Sudan there are no specific provisions identified in the Penal Code to reduce penalties for these crimes.

Leniency for perpetrators of honour crimes against women in Saudi Arabia is not codified in the law, so men are sentenced at the court’s discretion.

Meanwhile, the Penal Code in Egypt spells out that if a husband kills his wife committing adultery, he and the man with whom she was with would receive reduced penalty not to exceed three years in prison.

Should “a person” kill a wife, daughter or sister, or her sexual partner, in the sudden heat of rage after finding her in a sexual act in Somalia, the penal code requires a reduced sentence.

If a man kills his wife or one of his female relatives while engaging in the act of adultery in Iraq, he would be incarcerated for no more than three years. In Libya the sentence would not exceed eight years.

At the same time, some countries repealed reduced sentences for honour crimes, such as Lebanon in 2011, Oman in 2001 and Tunisia in 1993.

While the penal code in Jordan was amended in 2017 to prevent reduced penalties for honour crimes, the original mitigated penalties for murdering a spouse caught in the act of adultery has yet to be removed. Similarly, mitigation of penalties for honour crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories were repealed in 2011 in the West Bank and 2018 in Gaza, however, the Government there has not applied the reforms. 

Honour crimes are just one of the topics addressed in the study. Violence manifest itself in many ways, including rape, sexual harassment, child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting and other harmful traditional practices – all of which the study covers.  

It is worth mentioning that the UN Commission on the Status of Women is responsible for developing global policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. The annual session, which drew to a close on 22 March, provides an opportunity to review progress and identify difficulties, challenges and policy formulation. 

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Assange arrest exposes him to risk of serious human rights violations

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Independent UN rights experts on Thursday said the arrest of Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange by police in the United Kingdom, after the Ecuadorian Government decided to stop granting him asylum in their London embassy, exposed him to “the risk of serious human rights violations”, if extradited to the United States.

Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, Agnes Callamard, tweeted that in “expelling Assange from the Embassy” and allowing his arrest, it had taken Mr. Assange “one step closer to extradition”. She added that the UK had now arbitrarily-detained the controversial anti-secrecy journalist and campaigner, “possibly endangering his life”.

Mr. Assange took refuge inside the embassy in 2012, to avoid extradition to Sweden by the UK authorities where he faced charges, since dropped, of sexual assault. But he also faces US federal conspiracy charges, relating to the leak of a vast number of Government documents to his Wikileaks website, by the former US intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning. The US argues that publication by the investigative site, endangered the lives of its citizens working overseas.

According to reports, the UK will now assess whether to extradite the Australian national to the US, where he faces up to five years in prison. The UK has reportedly given assurances in writing to the Ecuadorian Government that Mr. Assange will not be extradited to a country where he could face torture, or the death penalty.

After appearing in a central London courtroom on Thursday, Mr. Assange was found guilty of failing to surrender to the court in 2012, and now faces up to 12 months in prison.

The UN independent expert on the right to privacy, Joe Cannataci, issued a statement following the arrest, saying that “this will not stop my efforts to assess Mr. Assange’s claims that his privacy has been violated. All it means is that, instead of visiting Mr Assange and speaking to him at the Embassy…I intend to visit him and speak to him wherever he may be detained.”

In a statement last Friday, Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, said he was alarmed by reports that an arrest was imminent, and that if extradited, Mr. Assange could be exposed to “a real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial, and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

UK urged to ‘abide by international obligations’

Last December, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, urged the UK to “abide by its international obligations” and allow Mr. Assange safe passage out of the embassy.

“States that are based upon, and promote the rule of law, do not like to be confronted with their own violations of the law, that is understandable. But when they honestly admit these violations, they do honour the very spirit of the rule of law, earn enhanced respect for doing so, and set worldwide commendable examples,” said a statement released by the Working Group.

In December 2015, the Working Group concluded in its opinion No. 54/2015 that Mr. Assange – who at the time had a European arrest warrant issued against him for an allegation of crimes committed in Sweden ‑ was being arbitrarily deprived of his freedom and demanded that he be released.

“Under international law, pre-trial detention must be only imposed in limited instances. Detention during investigations must be even more limited, especially in the absence of any charge” said the experts. “The Swedish investigations have been closed for over 18 months now, and the only ground remaining for Mr. Assange’s continued deprivation of liberty is a bail violation in the UK, which is, objectively, a minor offense that cannot post facto justify the more than 6 years confinement that he has been subjected to since he sought asylum in the Embassy of Ecuador.”

“Mr. Assange should be able to exercise his right to freedom of movement in an unhindered manner, in accordance with the human rights conventions the UK has ratified,” the experts added.

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Research Team in Jordan Awarded for Innovation in Addressing Gender-Based Violence

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A research team from University of Jordan, Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has won funding to study ways to reduce gender-based violence in Jordan, the World Bank Group and the Sexual Violence Research Initiative announced today.

The 2019 Development Marketplace: Innovations to Address Gender-Based Violence award will  enable the researchers to understand how social interactions among youth influence attitudes related to gender and to sexual- and gender-based violence. The research will take place among 1,000 youths aged 18-24 living in East Amman. The researchers will use these insights to promote evidence-based recommendations for further research and interventions.

Gender-based violence is harmful to women and constrains the economy,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, Regional Director for the Mashreq, World Bank Group. “It’s often caused by attitudes that support gaps between men and women. I am very pleased to congratulate the researchers on this award, which will explore how social interactions among youth can shape these attitudes and help the country further down the path towards eliminating gender-based violence The World Bank also commends the Government of Jordan’s commitment to increase  female labor force participation, in alignment with the Jordan Vision 2025, and to change attitudes towards women’s work and economic participation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Studies show that in addition to causing direct harm to women and men, gender-based violence can cost economies up to 3.7 percent of GDP due to lost productivity.

Although we know the costs and inter-generational effects of gender-based violence are significant, the evidence on how to prevent it remains relatively limited,” said Caren Grown, Senior Director, Gender, World Bank Group. “This award helps researchers to build the knowledge needed for effective approaches to reduce violence. We know the World Bank Group has an important role to play in sparking innovation through funding research, as well as in implementing important lessons it provides.” 

The Development Marketplace is an annual, global competition for researchers to find innovative solutions that can help individuals, communities, and nations prevent and respond to gender-based violence. 

Along with rigorous research to give policy-makers needed information on what works to prevent and respond to violence, we also need to ensure there are implementable, scalable and cost-effective solutions,” said Claudia Garcia-Moreno, SVRI Founder and Coordinating Group member.

Over three years, $4.5 million has been awarded by the Bank Group and SVRI to more than 40 research projects in 28 low- and middle-income economies. The Development Marketplace: Innovations to Address Gender-Based Violence is held in memory of Hannah Graham, daughter of a longtime World Bank Group employee. 

This year, Development Marketplace awards will support researchers in Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyz Republic, Mexico, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and Peru. For the first time a private sector award is being given, with support from the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

SVRI is one of the largest global research networks focused on violence against women. SVRI’s 6th global conference on violence against women, SVRI Forum 2019, is in Cape Town in October 2019.

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25 years on from genocide against the Tutsi

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A Rwandan peacekeeper holds a candle during to pay tribute to those killed during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. UN Photo/Beatrice Mategwa

In a message to commemorate the 25-year anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi, during which Hutu and others who opposed the genocide were also killed, UN chief António Guterres has warned of dangerous trends of rising xenophobia, racism and intolerance in many parts of the world.

April 7 marks the start of the 1994 genocide, which saw over 800,000 Tutsis, moderate Hutu and others who opposed the genocide, systematically killed in less than three months. Mr. Guterres said that the anniversary is an opportunity to honour those who were murdered, and reflect on the suffering and resilience of those who survived.

One of those survivors is Libérée Kayumba. Today, she works for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rwanda, helping refugees from other countries to meet their basic needs and survive the challenging conditions they face in the camps. But 25 years ago she was in their shoes, one of the many Rwandans forced to flee the genocide, after seeing her parents and brothers killed before her eyes.

Her understanding of what refugees go through has, she says, given her a deeper understanding of their plight, and the memories of the genocide have motivated her to work for the WFP and do what she can to help people in need. Nevertheless, she says that coming back from that has not been easy, either for her or her sisters.

Libérée is an example of the reconciliation that, in his message, Mr. Guterres says all societies are capable of, and urged peoples and countries to work together to build a harmonious future for all. The UN Secretary-General called on all political, religious and civil society leaders to reject hate speech and discrimination, which he described as an affront to our values, and threats to human rights, social stability and peace, and to “work vigorously to address and mitigate the root causes that undermine social cohesion, and create conditions for hatred and intolerance.”

The United Nations is commemorating the  International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda with events around the world, including a memorial ceremony at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, and an event at the General Assembly Hall at UN Headquarters in New York, organized in collaboration with the Permanent Mission of Rwanda to the United Nations, which can be watched live on UN Web TV.

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