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Afghanistan: Girls at increasing risk of child marriage

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Engaged at age 7 and married at 14, a former Afghan child bride finally received treatment from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) for depression and other chronic illnesses. © UNFPA Afghanistan

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has received credible reports of families in Afghanistan offering daughters as young as 20 days old for future marriage in return for a dowry.

In a statement released on Friday, the agency’s Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, said that she was “deeply concerned” over reports that child marriage is on the rise.  

Even before the latest political instability, UNICEF’s partners registered 183 child marriages and 10 cases of selling of children in Herat and Baghdis provinces between the ages of six months and 17 years from 2018 to 2019.  

The agency estimates that 28 per cent of Afghan women between the ages 15 and 49 were married before they reached their 18th birthday. 

A growing crisis 

The COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing food crisis and the onset of winter have further exacerbated the situation for families. 

In 2020, almost half of Afghanistan’s population was so poor that they lacked basic necessities, such as nutrition or clean water. 

And the extremely dire economic situation is pushing more families deeper into poverty and forcing them to make desperate choices, such as putting children to work and marrying girls off at a young age. 

“As most teenage girls are still not allowed to go back to school, the risk of child marriage is now even higher”, Ms. Fore said. “Education is often the best protection against negative coping mechanisms such as child marriage and child labour”.-* 

Lifetime of suffering 

UNICEF is working with partners to raise the awareness of communities on the risks girls face when marrying early, such as a lifetime of suffering. 

Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence, discrimination, abuse and poor mental health. They are also more vulnerable to complications in pregnancy and childbirth. 

The agency has started a cash assistance programme to help offset the risk of hunger, child labour and child marriage among the most vulnerable families. The plan is to scale up this and other social services programmes in the months to come. 

UNICEF will also work with religious leaders to ensure that they are not involved in the “Nekah”, or marriage contract, for young girls. 

“But this is not enough”, said Ms. Fore, calling on central, provincial and local authorities to support and safeguard the most vulnerable families and girls. 

She also urged the de facto authorities to prioritize the reopening of all secondary schools for girls and allow all-female teachers to resume their jobs without any further delays. 

“The future of an entire generation is at stake”, she concluded.  

‘Dramatic situation’ 

In parallel coverage, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) closed its 18th session. 

In her concluding remarks, Gladys Acosta Vargas, the Committee Chairperson, said all Members were “deeply concerned about the dramatic situation” of women and girls in Afghanistan. 

She argued that it was “crucial” that the Committee decided to request an exceptional report on their situation, at an opportune time. 

The Committee also asked for the creation of an informal task force to consider the impact of the evolving political, economic and social situation on the rights of women and girls. 

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Human Rights

Workers with HIV-AIDS continue to face stigma, discrimination

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“Myths and misconceptions” about HIV and AIDS continue to fuel stigma and discrimination in the workplace, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said on Tuesday. 

Despite some improvement in people’s tolerance to the disease in the more than 40 years since the AIDS epidemic began, a survey of 55,000 people in 50 countries found that only one in two people knew that HIV cannot be transmitted by sharing a bathroom. 

“It is shocking that, 40 years into the HIV and AIDS epidemic, myths and misconceptions are still so widespread,” said Chidi King, head of ILO’s Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Branch.

Wake-up call 

A lack of basic facts about how HIV is transmitted is fuelling stigma and discrimination. This survey is a wake-up call to reinvigorate HIV prevention and education programmes; the world of work has a key role to play.” 

Stigma and discrimination in the workplace marginalize people, pushing those with HIV into poverty, Ms. King maintained. 

Working with opinion poll company Gallup, the ILO Global HIV Discrimination in the World of Work Survey reveals that discriminatory attitudes are fuelled by a lack of knowledge about HIV transmission. 

At the end of 2020, approximately 38 million people globally were living with HIV, with 1.5 million newly infected that year, and approximately 680,000 people dying from AIDS- related illnesses, according to the survey. Despite progress made on combating stigma, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation. 

Care burdens 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly pushed back some of the efforts, some of the progress that had been made towards eradicating HIV, and there is an even more urgent need now to double those efforts,” Ms. King said. 

“In terms of the impact on people affected by HIV, not only people living with HIV but people who may be looking after somebody with HIV…care burdens have increased during the pandemic due to the non-availability of certain services, therefore seeing a disproportionate impact in relation to women in particular, and in some instances, girls as well.” 

Asia and Pacific in spotlight 

The survey noted that the lowest tolerance for working directly with people with HIV was found in Asia and the Pacific, followed by the Middle East and North Africa. 

The regions with the most positive attitudes were Eastern and Southern Africa, where almost 90 per cent of respondents said they would be comfortable working directly with people with HIV. 

Higher educational levels were also associated with positive attitudes towards working with those living with HIV

The report also offered a number of recommendations, including implementation of HIV programmes to increase awareness of modes of transmission and to improving the legal and policy environment around HIV to protect rights of workers. 

“The workplace has a key role in this education,” Ms. King told journalists in Geneva. “Workers and employers certainly have a role to play. Social dialogue is a key mechanism through which they can craft policies and materials and products in order to raise awareness, ensuring that recruitment policies do not discriminate against people with HIV/AIDS. Governments also have a role to play in terms of broader engagement.” 

Confronting inequalities and ending discrimination is critical to ending AIDS, the report said, particularly during the ongoing COVID pandemic.  

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Human Rights

Russian mining giant builds new settlement for indigenous peoples

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The FPIC procedure, first used in Russia by the Norilsk Nickel mining company, has entered a new stage. A second round of consultations with residents of the Arctic workers’ village of Tukhard (in the Taimyr Dolgano-Nenets District of the Krasnoyarsk Territory) took place. The company reported in a press release.

In October 2021, it was reported that FPIC procedure was started.

At the gathering of residents in the framework of the second round, the issues of consent of the residents of the village to the procedure for obtaining FPIC, as well as the formation of a body for making collective decisions of the residents of Tukhard (Council of Representatives) were brought up. The gathering was attended by 78 residents of the village and tundra reindeer herders.

Tukhard was established as a temporary residence for shift workers producing gas in the area in 1970th, and the development of the village did not provide for the creation of any infrastructure. Due to the lack of possible infrastructure development, taking care of the quality of life, safety and health, the company operating in this region – Norilsk Nickel, offered residents the opportunity to choose a better option for life.

Independent international experts invited by the organizer of the procedure, the Interregional Public Organization for the Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “KMNSOYUZ”, took part in the meetings with residents. Among them are Alexey Tsykarev, a member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Corporate Advisor to the World Bank on Indigenous Issues, author of the current World Bank policies on indigenous peoples’ rights Navin K. Rai, lawyers in the field of protecting the rights of indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation Mikhail Todyshev and Antonina Gorbunova. The procedure was advised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Professor James Anaya and other experts.

Dr. Navin Rai, who is visiting the Taimyr Peninsula as an Independent Expert for drafting the Indigenous Peoples Policy, noted that “the indigenous peoples of Tukhard, including those families who practice reindeer herding in the tundra, are currently negotiating with the Norilsk Nickel Company the specific parameters for the proposed physical relocation.” He underlined that “the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) requires that these indigenous peoples have the right to say “no.” However, the result of the negotiations may result in an outcome that is acceptable to both the indigenous peoples and the Company.”

During the gathering, a Council of representatives of the inhabitants of the village of Tukhard was formed, consisting of 7 people. It included both those who in the future wish to move to other settlements, and those who wish to continue their life in Tukhard. The Council also includes reindeer herders who live on a permanent basis in the tundra. Taking into account the interests of reindeer herders who are registered in Tukhard but do not have a permanent place of residence in the village is one of the main requirements of international experts.

The next round of FPIC negotiations is expected in the first quarter of 2022.

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Human Rights

Violence against refugee women surged in 2020

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One in five refugee or internally displaced women have faced sexual violence, and the situation continues to worsen globally, the UN refugee agency, (UNHCR), said on Thursday.

On the 30th anniversary of the campaign for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, the UN agency said that there’s been a global surge in domestic violence, child marriages, trafficking, sexual exploitation and abuse since March.

“A lethal mix of confinement, deepening poverty and economic duress is unleashing a renewed wave of violence against refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls”, UNHCR said in a statement.

Grassroots solutions

To tackle the crisis, the UN agency has called for funding to be scaled up for grassroots projects that focus on prevention and helping victims of gender-based violence.

These include the Myanmar Ethnic Women(’s) Refugee Organization where refugee women have joined forces to overcome abuse, reinforcing their role as strong protectors of their families and communities.

For victim Deborah, who lives in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, violence against women at home was considered a family problem.

“I felt ashamed to share my experience with other people,” she said. “I was afraid they would say it was my fault.”

Through her work with the community-based organization, Deborah met other women suffering in silence, and when she was invited to help devise and lead a project to support refugee women affected by gender-based violence (GBV), she accepted.

COVID-19 link

UNHCR highlighted that the need for such local, refugee-led projects has become even greater during the COVID-19 pandemic, as lockdowns have taken away refugees’ often precarious livelihoods, heightening tensions in households and making it more difficult for international agencies to deliver support services.

UNHCR issued the alert after recording increases in gender-based violence in at least 27 countries.

In the Central African Republic it warned that one gender-based violence incident is recorded every hour.

And in Colombia, similar incidents affecting Venezuelan refugees and migrants have increased by 40 per cent over the first three- quarters of the year, the agency noted.

The financial stress of COVID-19 and a lack of food in households during the pandemic has put women at greater risk from violence at the hands of their partners, UNHCR reported.

This is the case on the Thai-Myanmar border, where refugee women who were already running support services and safe houses for survivors of gender-based violence asked the UN agency for funding, to provide food to families who had lost work owing to the pandemic’s economic impact.  

Reaffirming its own commitment to addressing gender-based violence across its operations, UNHCR launched an institution-wide policy on GBV prevention, risk mitigation and response, in October.

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