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World remains a ‘violent, highly discriminatory place’ for girls

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Twenty-five years after the historic Beijing women’s conference in China – a milestone in advancing equal rights – violence against women and girls is not only common, but widely accepted, a new UN report revealed on Wednesday.

While there have been remarkable gains for girls in education, little headway has been made to help shape a more equal, less violent environment for them, warned the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), together with UN Women and the non-governmental organization Plan International in their report, A New Era for Girls: Taking stock on 25 years of progress.

“25 years ago, the world’s governments made a commitment to women and girls, but they have only made partial good on that promise”, flagged UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

The report highlighted that in 2016, women and girls accounted for 70 per cent of detected trafficking victims globally, mostly involving sexual exploitation.

Moreover, an astonishing one-in-20 girls between the ages of 15 and 19, has experienced rape in her lifetime.

“While the world has mustered the political will to send many girls to school, it has come up embarrassingly short on equipping them with the skills and support they need not only to shape their own destinies, but to live in safety and dignity”, the UNICEF chief spelled out.

Lagging on equal rights

The report has been launched in line with the Generation Equality campaign to open a global conversation for action and accountability on gender equality, and to mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

“Since 1995 in Beijing, when a specific focus on ‘girl child’ issues first emerged, we have increasingly heard girls assert their rights and call us to account”, said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. “But the world has not kept up with their expectations of responsible stewardship of the planet, a life without violence, and their hopes for economic independence”.

Girls today are at a startling risk of violence, whether it is in school, at home, or online as well as throughout their communities, which leads to physical, psychological and social consequences.

A New Era for Girls also covers harmful practices, such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), which continue to disrupt and damage the lives and potential of millions of girls around the world.

According the report, each year 12 million girls are married in childhood, and four million risk FGM.

And girls aged 15-19, are as likely to justify wife-beating, as boys of the same age.

“As long as women and girls have to use three times the time and energy of men on looking after the household, equal opportunities for girls to move from school into good jobs in safe workplaces are going to be out of reach”, said the UN Women chief.

“For everyone’s sake, that’s got to change, along with making sure that the skills girls learn are right for the new tech and digital jobs of the future, and that the violence against them ends”.

79 million fewer girls out of school

The report noted that in the past 20 years, the number of girls out-of-school has dropped by 79 million and over the last decade, more are actually likely to be in secondary school than boys.

However, it also pointed to negative trends for girls in nutrition and health.

For example, globalization has shifted traditional diets to more processed, unhealthy foods and aggressive marketing techniques targeting children have fuelled consumption, along with sugar-sweetened beverages.

“Access to education is not enough”, maintained the UNICEF chief, adding, “we must also change people’s behaviours and attitudes towards girls”.

Meanwhile, concerns are growing over poor mental health, exacerbated in part by the excessive use of digital technology.

A New Era for Girls revealed that suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among adolescent girls in that age bracket, surpassed only by maternal conditions.

Turning to their heightened risk of sexually-transmitted infection, the report found that some 970,000 adolescent girls between the ages of 10 and 19 are living today with HIV – accounting for around three-in-four new infections among adolescents worldwide – as compared to 740,000 girls in 1995.

“True equality will only come when all girls are safe from violence, free to exercise their rights, and are able to enjoy equal opportunities in life”, concluded the UNICEF Executive Director.

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Human Rights

Sri Lanka: ‘Forced’ cremation of COVID victims’ bodies must stop

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A thermometer gun is used to take a boy's temperature in Sri Lanka. © UNICEF/Chameera Laknath

The Sri Lankan Government should end its policy of compulsorily cremating victims of COVID-19, independent UN human rights experts said on Monday.

In a joint appeal, Special Rapporteurs Ahmed Shaheed, Fernand de Varennes, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule and Tlaleng Mofokeng, said that the practice ran contrary to the beliefs of Muslims and other minorities.

It ran the risk of increasing prejudice, intolerance and violence, they said in a statement, insisting that no medical or scientific evidence indicated that burying the deceased increased the risk of spreading communicable diseases such as COVID-19.

To date, more than 270 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in Sri Lanka; a significant number have come from the minority Muslim community.

All of the deceased were cremated in line with amended health guidelines for COVID-19 patients, which were issued on last March.

‘Aggressive nationalism’

“We deplore the implementation of such public health decisions based on discrimination, aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism amounting to persecution of Muslims and other minorities in the country” the experts said.

“Such hostility against the minorities exacerbates existing prejudices, intercommunal tensions, and religious intolerance, sowing fear and distrust while inciting further hatred and violence”, they added.

“We are equally concerned that such a policy deters the poor and the most vulnerable from accessing public healthcare over fears of discrimination”, they said, noting that it would further negatively impact the public health measures to contain the pandemic.

‘Immediate’ cremation

Information received by the experts indicates that cremation often takes place immediately after test results are provided, without granting family members reasonable time or the opportunity to cross check or receive the final test results.

There have been several cases of cremations based on erroneous information about COVID-19 test results, the experts said.

They noted that the President and Prime Minister had instructed the health authorities to explore options for burials in Sri Lanka.

Disregard

“However, we are concerned to learn that the recommendation to include both cremation and burial options for the disposal of bodies of COVID-19 victims by a panel of experts appointed by the State Minister for Primary Health Services, Pandemics and COVID Prevention, was reportedly disregarded by the Government”, they said.

“We strongly urge the Government of Sri Lanka to stop the forced cremation of COVID-19 bodies, to take all necessary measures to combat disinformation, hate speech and stigmatization” of Muslims and other minorities, “as a vector of the pandemic, and to provide remedy and ensure accountability for cremations that were carried out by error.”

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council and are neither UN staff nor paid for their work.

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Shining a light on sexually exploited women and girls forced into crime

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Trafficked and sexually exploited woman and girls can find themselves facing prosecution and conviction for those very same crimes, in some countries, a new UN report shows. The study aims to help prosecutors to better handle these complex cases, and protect the genuine victims.

No clear-cut cases

A 2017 criminal case in Canada, to take one example from the report, involved an 18-year-old woman defendant was charged with the forced prostitution of two female minors, aged 14 and 16. She had instructed one of them on how to dress, and what to do with clients, and taken away the cell phone of the other, to prevent her from escaping.

She was found guilty and sentenced to eight months in prison. However, it was revealed during the case that she too was a victim of sexual exploitation. The court heard that she was under the control of a male trafficker, and had been exploited from the age of 16, and physically abused by pimps.

The case, which is included in Female Victims Of Trafficking For Sexual Exploitation As Defendants, a new publication from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), shows the complexity of many human-trafficking-related cases, in which the defendant may also be a victim, who either had no alternative but to obey an order, and commit a crime, or hoped to limit their own exploitation or escape poverty by playing a role in the crime. The study also found that traffickers use the women and girls as a shield to protect themselves from being punished for their crimes.

Punished twice

 “Ever since UNODC started collecting statistics on human trafficking 15 years ago, women and girls have consistently represented the majority of reported victims”, says Zoi Sakelliadou, a UNODC Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer, who coordinated the development of the study. 

“We’ve also seen that the percentage of female perpetrators of trafficking who are at the same time victims of this crime, is steadily high too, especially if compared to female offenders in other crimes. The traffickers not only earned a profit by sexually exploiting the victims, but then made them commit crimes so they could escape liability and prosecution”.

The report shows that traffickers deliberately used the “victim-defendants” in low-level roles, that exposed them to law enforcement authorities – meaning they were more likely to get caught.

These roles included the recruitment of new victims, collecting proceeds, imposing punishments, or posting advertisements for victims’ sexual services.

In very few of the examined cases did the victims engage in acts of trafficking in an attempt to move up the hierarchy of the criminal organization or for financial gain.

It was not just the statistics that led UNODC to analyse this topic, explains Ms. Sakelliadou, but also calls from law enforcement and criminal justice officials, who stressed the complexity of investigating and adjudicating cases that involve female victims of trafficking as alleged perpetrators. 

The study also highlights the clear links between human trafficking and violence against women, domestic violence, and the role of intimate partner violence.  

“We found that in around a quarter of the cases examined, the women had been subjected to multiple forms of violence prior to and during the trafficking process, including from early childhood”, says Ms. Sakelliadou. “We hope this study will support the law enforcement and criminal justice officials and the NGOs who handle these complex cases and support the victims.”

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Syria: 18 children killed since the start of the year

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The brutal fighting in Syria continues to exact a terrible toll on children, with at least 18, including a one-year-old killed in incidents involving explosive weapons and unexploded ordnance, since 1 January, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Sunday. At least 15 others were wounded. 

“Children and families in Syria have suffered so much over the past decade, with still no end in sight,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director said in a statement

“With each week, the fast-spreading COVID-19 pandemic is making it harder for families to survive and provide even basic education and protection for their children,” she added. 

Families hit hard by fighting, poverty and severe weather are reeling under fuel shortages and mounting food prices. The situation is further complicated by lack of basic services and destroyed civilian infrastructure, such as water services. 

“Water disruptions force civilians to rely on unsafe water which exposes people, particularly children, to contracting potentially deadly waterborne diseases,” Ms. Fore said. 

Fighting ‘must end’ 

Across the war-ravaged country, about 4.8 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection, making up about 45 per cent of the 11 million overall in need of aid, according to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 

In spite of daunting challenges, UNICEF and humanitarian actors continue to work tirelessly to support millions of children and families, Ms. Fore said, adding “but we cannot do it alone, we need funding, we need better access.” 

“And most importantly we need everyone to protect children and keep them out of harm’s way. The violence in Syria must end,” she stressed. 

Millions out of school 

UNICEF also called on warring parties in Syria to protect education facilities and personnel.  

“While the war continues, education remains the beacon for millions of children. It is a right that should be protected and persevered,” Muhannad Hadi, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis; and Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement on Sunday. 

“We call upon those fighting to refrain from attacks on education facilities and personnel across Syria,” they urged. 

More than 2.4 million children – of whom 40 per cent are girls – are out of school, and one in three schools inside Syria can no longer be used because they were destroyed, damaged or are being used for military purposes, according to UNICEF. 

Mr. Hadi and Mr. Chaiban also appealed for funds for education programmes.  

“Sustainable and long-term funding to education will help to bridge the gap and incorporate children in education, and provide them with the skills they need to rebuild their country when peace returns to Syria.” 

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