Tag Archives: Equality Now
By Faiza Jama Mohamed, Equality Now Nairobi Office Director
Alile was only 14 when her ordeal began in Malawi one afternoon in 2011. She was taken to a house and repeatedly raped by two men before being held captive overnight.
Her family members were shocked that she had spent the night away from home and would not listen to her explanation. They were afraid of being shamed in the community and did not report the rapes to the police due to fear of bringing disgrace and humiliation on the family. Instead, her family forced Alile into marrying one of the rapists. Soon afterwards, she gave birth, but her baby died within a few short months.
Belatedly, and with assistance from the community, the Foundation for Children’s Rights (FCR) found out about Alile’s case and reported it to the police. FCR gave Alile counseling and encouraged her back to school, where she remains. Although FCR received promises from district officials that the two men would be brought to justice, several years later, we understand that no action has been taken.
In response to the experiences of countless girls like Alile and after many years of concerted national and international pressure, Malawi has just taken a huge leap forward for girls by introducing its Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill, which sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 – or 16 if parental consent is given. The Malawi Parliament voted unanimously to pass the bill earlier this month, and the president is expected to sign the bill into law any day now.
Eighteen is the agreed minimum age of marriage in international policy, reflected in Equality Now’s report on Protecting the Girl Child – Using the law to end child, early and forced marriage and related human rights violations. This report calls on all governments to take a comprehensive approach to ending child marriage — including by amending discriminatory laws, which allow for lower ages of marriage for females than for males.
Alile’s case reveals a number of shortfalls and gaps in Malawi’s child protection policy, its implementation and the community knowledge of both of these. FCR maintains that people have come to believe that keeping family ties and never suffering public shame are more important than protecting their own child. They would rather have their daughter stay in a bad marriage than be known to have had children out of wedlock.
When children are raped, cases are rarely reported in order to save the families’ “reputation.” Official resources are usually stretched and inadequate to deal with suspected cases of childhood sexual violence. The same is true of the police.
The prevalent belief that a girl should marry as early as possible to maximize her fertility means that child marriage is deeply entrenched in Malawi’s society. However, this state of affairs is not specific to Malawi alone. It is common to many if not all countries where child marriage is prevalent.
Updating harmful social and cultural norms can be an uphill battle, but it is vital to do this in conjunction with ensuring that good minimum age of marriage laws are enacted and implemented to at least give girls a level playing field.
It is vital to recognize too that child marriage has a direct link to other abuses such as female genital mutilation (FGM), sex trafficking and domestic violence. Since many forms of violence against women and girls are interlinked, it is essential that governments recognize these relationships and ensure that their country’s laws fully empower rather than impede a girl or woman on her journey through life.
Malawi’s vote in favor of girls’ rights comes at a time when momentum is growing toward legal equality for women and girls in many countries across the African continent. In late January, Tunisia signed the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, a home-grown, pan-African legislative tool, which only Egypt and Botswana have yet to sign. Tanzania just re-affirmed its commitment to intensify efforts to end both child marriage and FGM, while Mozambique rejected a discriminatory penal code, which almost became law.
African women are proud to have spearheaded this change. The Africa we want is getting closer by the day.
Faiza Jama Mohamed is Equality Now’s Nairobi Office Director. Equality Now’s Nairobi office is the secretariat for the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR), a coalition of 44 civil society organizations working across 24 countries. Established in 2004, SOAWR works to ensure that the rights of girls and women as articulated in the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa are prioritized by policy makers on the African continent.
It took a year and a half to get justice for Soheir al-Batea, the 13-year-old Egyptian girl who died after undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) in June 2013.
Both the doctor who performed the deadly procedure and Soheir’s father were acquitted in November 2014 of causing her death, but last week, an appeals court overturned that decision, handing Soheir’s father a three-month suspended sentence and sentencing the doctor to two years in jail for manslaughter plus three months for performing the outlawed operation. The doctor’s clinic was also closed for one year.
Perhaps one of the most shocking facts about Soheir’s case was the fact that a doctor—a licensed medical professional bound by the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm”—performed the procedure that led to Soheir’s death.
In fact, more than 75 percent of the FGM performed in Egypt is carried out by doctors, despite a 2007 ban, and Egypt isn’t the only country where medical professionals violate the rights of women and girls in this manner. The so-called medicalization of FGM has occurred in Guinea, Kenya, Nigeria, Northern Sudan, Mali and Yemen, among others, despite the fact that there is no medical benefit to the procedure.
Today, as we mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, health workers all over the world are being asked not only to halt the practice in their own clinics but to actively lobby against it and provide care and support to survivors. It’s estimated that more than 140 million women and girls have undergone some sort of FGM, and, according to the United Nations, more than 18 percent of them have been subjected to the procedure at the hands of a health-care provider.
To combat those statistics, leading health organizations have joined with key human rights groups to push for an end to the practice within a generation. Among them: the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM), the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM).
“It is imperative that all involved in women’s health protect the women and girls in their care and do what they can to spread awareness amongst their colleagues,” said Dr. David Richmond of the, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. “As an international medical body, we have members based in countries where FGM is still practiced, and I would urge them to uphold the Hippocratic Oath.”
Every year, 3 million girls are at risk of FGM, which can cause severe bleeding and other dangerous health consequences, including cysts, infertility, complications with childbirth and increased chance of newborn deaths. According to the UN, FGM is primarily concentrated in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, but is also prevalent in Asia and Latin America. In addition, the practice persists among some immigrant populations in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
“Stopping this terrible and violent assault on girls and young women is as relevant here in the UK as it is throughout other parts of the world,” said Cathy Warwick, chief executive of The Royal College of Midwives. “It is through working together with colleagues in other countries and applying pressure that we will end this practice.”
You don’t have to be a medical professional to join the fight against FGM. To participate in Zero Tolerance Day and ensure that no other girls have to suffer like Soheir:
- Visit the new website for The Girl Generation, a global campaign that supports the Africa-led movement to end FGM, where you’ll find compelling stories and stunning photos illustrating this push for change. You can also check out their Facebook page and Twitter account.
- Raise your voice on social media using the hashtags #EndFGM, #TogetherToEndFGM and #TheGirlGeneration.
- Join Tostan, Girls’ Globe and Johnson & Johnson on Twitter for a live chat today at 8 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time (3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time) by following @JNJGlobalHealth and #FGCchat
- If you’re in Kenya, keep an eye out for the “Together to End FGM” event happening today in Samburu. The Girl Generation will live tweet the event on its account, @TheGirlGen
- Support women and girls who have been impacted by FGM by visiting forma.
- Visit Forward, a group committed to safeguarding the rights of African girls and women and ending child marriage, FGM and obstetric fistula; the Inter-African Committee (IAC) on traditional practices, which is establishing policies to stop FGM in Africa; and the Africa Coordinating Centre for the Abandonment of FGM/C (ACCAF)
With the first ever prosecutions underway in the United Kingdom and Guinea-Bissau, an increased focus on strengthening the law in Kenya, and a rare conviction in Uganda, positive moves are being made in various locations to implement laws that ban female genital mutilation (FGM).
Under this increasingly optimistic backdrop, the Nov. 20, 2014 verdict in the case of Soheir al-Batea, a 13-year-old Egyptian girl who died after undergoing FGM in the Daqahliya Governorate, northeast of Cairo, was particularly disappointing. Both Soheir’s father and the doctor who carried out the mutilation were acquitted, despite the fact that a medical examiner’s report, endorsed by Egypt’s general attorney, confirmed that FGM had taken place. The judge, who was appointed to the case only recently, seemed to discount this unbiased expert evidence and instead acquitted both men through writing in a court ledger.
Egypt has had a tumultuous past in terms of its battle to eliminate FGM. In 2006, its two most senior Islamic clerics stated that FGM has no basis in religion. Following this, in 2007, the country’s medical professionals were banned from performing FGM, after a 12-year-old girl died. It was this ban, backed by legislation introduced in 2008, that was used to prosecute Soheir’s father and doctor in a very similar scenario, six years later. Even with good laws in place, justice can continue to be evasive. If laws are not implemented properly and the judicial system is not transparent, girls like Soheir will continue to fall through the cracks.
According to UNICEF, more than 27.2 million Egyptian women and girls have been affected by FGM. This represents 91 percent of the female population and is the biggest number for any one nationality. Out of an estimated 100 million to 140 million affected by FGM globally, at least one in five is from Egypt. While figures for younger women and adolescent girls seem to be decreasing slowly, this abuse continues to have broad national support from various quarters – including from professionals who are supposed to have a duty of care.
Unfortunately, as well as prevalence, Egypt also leads the world in terms of one of the biggest risks to the global anti-FGM movement – that of the increasing trend toward its medicalization, which fundamentally contradicts WHO guidelines. Incredibly, a 2012 academic document by Egyptian doctor Mohamed Kandil in F1000 Research, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, suggests there is “insufficient evidence to support the claims” that FGM Type 1 is harmful, when performed by medical practitioners.
UNICEF suggests that 77 percent of the FGM that happens in Egypt is carried out by doctors or other medical professionals – an increase of over 100 percent since 1995. Despite leading the way globally in terms of falls in prevalence, Kenya is also experiencing an increase in the medicalization of FGM. Indonesia has yet to fully ban it, although that country recently revoked its shocking 2010 regulation, which allowed medical professionals to legally perform FGM. In 2010 too, Equality Now succeeded in reversing a decision by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to endorse Type IV FGM, when it suggested changes in the law to allow for a “ritual nick” or pricking of the clitoral skin.
All efforts to permit or make FGM supposedly “safer” conceal the severe violence it represents and hide its lifelong and life-threatening physical, emotional and psychological consequences. Soheir’s death tragically highlights FGM as an extreme violation of the human rights of girls and women with serious health risks, regardless of whether it is performed on her inside or outside a medical establishment.
Without strong messages from the Egyptian government, such as proper implementation of the law and swift punishment for the perpetrators, FGM may become more acceptable, with women’s rights increasingly taking a back seat at all levels. Part of the solution too is ensuring that health care providers are given comprehensive education and training on the health and human rights implications of FGM.
Equality Now is working with local lawyers at the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) to ensure that Soheir gets justice at last – justice for one girl, but hopefully setting a precedent to help ensure that countless others are protected. The general prosecutor’s request for an appeal in the case was granted, and proceedings are scheduled to begin on Dec. 15, 2014.
Equality Now is working on the Soheir al-Batea case as part of its Adolescent Girls’ Legal Defense Fund (AGLDF), created to help rectify the unique and devastating human rights abuses suffered by girls during adolescence. The AGLDF supports and publicizes strategically selected legal cases, diversified to represent the most common and significant human rights abuses of adolescent girls.
Yemen is likely to vote on a comprehensive ‘Child Rights Act’ over the coming months, which would ban both child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).
Roughly 27 child brides are forced into marriage in communities around the world every minute of every day.
But it takes only 30 seconds (seriously, we timed it) to sign Equality Now’s petition calling on the government of Yemen to enact a law establishing a minimum age of marriage. It’s a key first step to protecting the rights of girls in a country where fully one-third will be married as children.
Some of you may remember the moving story of Nujood Ali, who was 10 in 2008 when she bravely fled from her much older abusive husband to the courthouse in Sanaa—where she asked for, and was ultimately granted, a divorce. The following year, Yemen’s parliament considered establishing a minimum age of marriage of 17, but efforts faltered when conservative lawmakers characterized the effort as anti-Islam. Yemen’s human rights minister has called for that legislation to be reconsidered, and Equality Now’s petition is designed to support those efforts.
Nujood’s story grabbed international headlines, but literally thousands of girls just like her face the prospect each year of being married off in Yemen—14.2 million girls around the world. Equality Now and its partners Yemeni Women Union (YWU) and Arab Human Rights Foundation (AHRF) are working hard to not only stop those marriages, but to help married girls obtain divorces and protection.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Equality Now’s Middle East/North Africa consultant, was kind enough to explain the situation in Yemen to us in a Q-and-A below. We urge you to read her responses, sign the Equality Now petition by Jan. 1, 2014, and urge your loved ones to do the same.
In 2009, efforts to establish a legal minimum age of marriage in Yemen were defeated by conservatives in Parliament who insisted that such a law would go against Islam. What has changed since then? How can supporters of such legislation assure its passage this time around? What new arguments are being employed to convince lawmakers that setting a minimum marriage age is the right thing to do?
Yemen is currently undergoing a ‘national dialogue’ process, which seeks to debate the future of the state and draft a new constitution. We are hopeful that previous grievances can be put aside and a productive collaboration between parties to ensure that all girls at risk of child marriage are properly protected will develop. This is a fundamental and non-negotiable human rights issue, as opposed to a political concern.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement of 2011 states that parliamentarians should agree on suggested laws, so cross-party support is important. Arguments in favour of ensuring a minimum age of marriage have not changed, but the political situation has changed since the National Dialogue Conference.
Yemeni Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour has asked that the legislation considered in 2009 be reintroduced for consideration. What legal steps need to be taken to have that legislation reintroduced? Who within the government do supporters need to contact to make that happen?
According to the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement of 2011, the parliament should vote collectively on suggested drafts laws. This could be a challenge, but consensus is possible. Alternatively, a request could be made from the fantastic Human Rights Minister, Hooria Mashhour, or the speaker of the house, Yahia Al-Ra’i, to introduce and vote on the suggested draft law. If the parliament doesn’t agree, the president can intervene and issue a decree. We are hopeful that in such a scenario, the president would recommend that a minimum age of marriage is introduced.
Your petition has more than 1,800 signatures on it now. How many ideally would you like to send to Yemen? How many signatures would it take to get parliament to address this issue? Is there an official process by which it can be presented so it becomes part of the public, official record?
We are very grateful to everyone who has signed so far. There is no ideal number as such – every signature matters and helps to put pressure on the relevant authorities to re-introduce the minimum age of marriage bill. We are working both publically and behind the scenes to advocate for change.
When is the petition slated to be sent to Yemen? Is there a deadline by which supporters should sign it?
We are constantly working on this issue with our local partners in Yemen – we urge supporters to sign as soon as they possibly can as there may be a limited opportunity to get the proposed legislation introduced as part of the National Dialogue process, which is due to end in the near future. We do not know what the exact date might be, but the process is likely to end early 2014.
Other than setting a minimum age for marriage, what else would the law need to address for it to be effective in Yemen?
Without a minimum age of marriage, there is no legal protection for girls at risk of child marriage, so this is the most important element. However, we also urge the Yemen government to ensure that child brides who have ended their marriages are supported and safeguarded.
In the meantime, absent a marriage law, how have Equality Now and Yemen Women’s Union been able to assist young girls who have been married against their will or are in danger of being married? Besides signing the petition, what can regular members of the public do to assist EN and YWU in their efforts?
Without a minimum age of marriage, any efforts made to protect girls at risk are just piecemeal and unsystematic. There is a significant amount of support for safeguarding girls at risk, but ensuring legal protection and justice for these girls is the cornerstone of their empowerment. Without a law, girls continue to be put in harm’s way. As well as signing the petition, we encourage members of the public to spread the word about this campaign by sharing the Action and increasing awareness of this issue as much as they can through their own networks.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about this issue?
The Yemeni government is legally bound to introduce and approve this bill. The failure of the Yemeni government to ban child marriage is a violation of their international obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and also the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), both of which contain provisions against child marriage or practices prejudicial to the health of children. In 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee in its examination of Yemen’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), called on Yemen to “set a minimum age for marriage that complies with international standards.”
Along with our partners, Yemeni Women Union (YWU) and Arab Human Rights Foundation (AHRF), we enthusiastically support Minister Mashhour in her efforts to ensure that the government of Yemen lives up to its obligations under international law. We also urge the general public to help put pressure on the government of Yemen to make the rights of women and girls a priority, to pass and enforce a law prohibiting child marriage, and to ensure the safety and human rights of child brides who have ended their marriages.
— Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East/North Africa Consultant, Equality Now