Real men are not afraid of women's empowerment!

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it “Violence against women and girls will not be eradicated until all of us – men and boys- refuse to tolerate it”. Globally, men are taking a stand. Kenya’s Men for Gender Equality Now (MENGEN), a member of the Say NO – UNiTE to End Violence Against Women global coalition, stands out as an inspiring organization.  Since 2001, MENGEN has worked to involve men in the struggle against gender-based violence and gender-inequality. To date, the organization has reached thousands of men and women in 21 constituencies across Kenya, championing equality and rejecting violence against women.

During the 2009 global 16 Days of activism against gender violence campaign, MENGEN spearheaded the Men’s Traveling Conference, recruiting male role models across Kenya to oppose violence and to start MENGEN branches in their communities. MENGEN mobilized men and women to sign commitment forms pledging their allegiance to fight gender-based violence; despite meeting heavy resistance in some towns, several police offices and provincial administrators pledged their support.

Activists march against gender violence in Kigali, Rwanda.

Activists march against gender violence in Kigali, Rwanda.

On November 25th, the first day of the 16 Days campaign, Malawi Minister for Gender, Children and Community Development, Hon. Patricia Kaliati, launched the official inauguration of MENGEN in Malawi with a powerful statement, “Real Men are not afraid of women’s empowerment.”

Amnesty International USA could not agree more!


Women's Rights on the Line

A vote in Congress tomorrow (6/10) will decide the fate of a new Office of Global Women’s Issues, a key provision of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA).

The creation of this office would mean major advancements in healthcare, poverty reduction and U.S. foreign policies aiming to empower and improve the lives of women worldwide. But opposition groups are trying to de-rail this piece of legislation by spreading misinformation about what this office would really do. They claim that this legislation would hurt women’s rights. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This new office is about:

  • helping the U.S. meet its foreign policy goals of economic stability and poverty reduction
  • advancing the global fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic and other health crises, and
  • pushing the United States to finally take a leadership role in the fight to end violence against women and girls globally

These last moments really count and your Representatives need to hear that you care about women’s rights.  Please take a moment today to tell Congress to support the Office for Global Women’s Issues.  Thank you!

Make It the Best Mother's Day!

Ground-breaking legislation that could help end violence against women around the world is currently in Senator Kerry’s hands – just in time for mother’s day.   What a great gift it would make to mothers and women everywhere if that legislation became reality.

The International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) is an unprecedented effort by the United States to address violence against women globally.  One out of every three women worldwide will be physically or sexually abused during her lifetime.  Violence against women and girls is a violation of human rights. Violence and abuse devastates the lives of millions of women, knows no national or cultural barriers, and most importantly, it must be stopped.

Amnesty International worked with a coalition of supporters and partners to draft IVAWA.  Last week, we sent Senators Kerry and Lugar, the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a final draft of the legislation.  Now, it’s up to them to say “yes” to ending violence against women – walk the bill over to the floor of the Senate and reintroduce it this week before Mother’s Day, May 10th.

If you want to make it the best mother’s day ever, let Senators Kerry and Lugar know you think ending violence against women should be a priority by taking action right now.  Then send a special Mother’s Day ecard to your family and friends encouraging them to take action with you.

Thanks for defending the rights of mothers and daughters everywhere!

The Latest from Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

Today I was out around different areas of the Reservation visiting various Aunties and other women elders who participated in the Maze of Injustice report research almost three years ago now. I’m disappointed because we are not able to visit everyone. There is so much flooding and flooding warnings as a result of 12 foot high snow drifts that some areas of the Reservation are inaccessible. The whole Tribal Nation of Standing Rock has been identified as a disaster zone. Many officers from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have been visiting throughout the week and going on tours of flood damage with various members of Tribal Council–it has been an unfortunate distraction to the Maze of Injustice work this week.

Here are some pictures of the high water levels and the remains of areas where flood waters have left behind terrible destruction and debris.

Flooding that has taken over an entire field of farmland on Standing Rock

Flooding that has taken over an entire field of farmland on Standing Rock

The impacts of the flooding have destroyed bridges, washed out roads, and left farmers with little to work with for Spring and Summer planting.

The impacts of the flooding have destroyed bridges, washed out roads, and left farmers with little to work with for Spring and Summer planting.

As you can tell from these pictures, Standing Rock is a very rural Reservation with little access to regular amenities you find in big cities–including fast food, department stores, and even health care! Some women have to travel eight hours in either direction to get to the nearest Indian Health Service (IHS) facility. Even then, the facility isn’t always able to perform an examination because there aren’t enough trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner’s (SANE’s). Often women are transported to other facilities off the Reservation, forcing them to find and pay for their own way back home.  The lack of adequate access to health care facilities continues to be a road block to justice for the women of Standing Rock. One can only imagine the number of women who will not be able to get to health facilities to be examined as a result of this flooding.

Fortunately, the winding road to Pretty Bird Woman House is still open, so I’ll be traveling there next to check in with shelter staff! Stay tuned….

Spare Me Your Weight

On the outset, it seemed like March was going to be a great time for women.  This month, we celebrated International Women’s Day recognizing women’s social achievements and ongoing struggles in pursuit of economic, social, and political justice.  Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton came together to recognize women’s human rights activists.  And President Obama signed an executive order establishing a White House Council for Women and Girls.  Yes, ma’am!  This is our month!  And just days later, the nation has come to focus on … Meghan McCain’s dress size.  Oh.

By now, most people know about the fight that conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham and wannabe-political-pundit Meghan (daughter of none other) McCain are having in the public sphere.  For those of you who had the pleasure of missing it, I’ll spare you the discomfort of reliving it through Google.  The synopsis:  Laura, in the process of addressing Meghan’s lack of credentials, infers that Meghan is overweight.  A rightly offended Meghan addresses the attack with the 2-prong-Jennifer-Love-Hewitt approach:  You shouldn’t attack me, and all women, by focusing on my weight.  Besides, I’m a size 8.  That’s not fat.

Oh Meghan.  You had me until the dress size.  So what if you weren’t a size 8?  What if you were a size 12, 16 or 22?  Is there a number at which it is acceptable to publicly attack someone for her weight?  There is no threshold where it is fair game to diminish a person because of her size.  I don’t want to know what size you are, wish you were, or are pretending to be.  It doesn’t matter and your protest is weakened by divulging what should be personal, and more importantly, inconsequential, information.

For years, women have been judged, at least in part, sometimes in whole, by how we look to the eye, instead of how we sound to the ear.  When females defend ourselves against these kinds of disparaging remarks by revealing the numbers on our scales, a disservice is done to every person judged by her weight. Women across the career spectrum from Oprah Winfrey to Jessica Simpson should never have to answer for their sizes.  Let’s do ourselves a favor and stop engaging in this self-destructive dialogue.

Save the dress size for your tailor.

One in Three

Native American and Alaska Native women face a 1 in 3 chance of being raped in their lifetime. The numbers are shocking. In our report, Maze of Injustice, Amnesty uncovered the staggering statistic that Native American and Alaska Native women are more than two and a half times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the USA in general. This has to change!

Non-Native men who rape Native American and Alaska Native women can often do so with impunity, because of a lack of tribal authority to prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes of sexual violence on tribal lands. Most perpetrators are never punished because of a complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions that is so confusing that officials are often not clear on who is responsible for responding.

Thankfully, the Senate is considering re-introducing the Tribal Law and Order Act, a bill that would help fix this broken system of justice.

In honor of International Women’s Day, which was this past Sunday, AIUSA is holding a call-in week for people to let their senators know that they want them to support initiatives that will help stop violence against women and to urge them to cosponsor the Tribal Law and Order Act after it has been re-introduced. Please try to call today (Thursday) or tomorrow (Friday), but if you can’t, then please call early next week.

The Difference Between Justice and Impunity is Action

Amnesty International and other activists rally outside the Mexican Consulate in Chicago on March 6, 2006.

Amnesty International and other activists rally outside the Mexican Consulate in Chicago on March 6, 2006.

I just got back from an amazing week in Chicago, and I was trying to decide whether I should use the above as the title for this post, or if I should call it “Solidarity Means Hope,” because those were really the two main themes of the past week.

I was there to take part in a series of events in support of the Women of Atenco, including a forum at DePaul University, a rally outside the Mexican consulate, and a meeting with the Consul General. The events, planned by Amnesty International in conjunction with a wonderful coalition of Chicago-area organizations, were a great success. The forum was well-attended by both general public and the media, the rally had over 200 people filling up the whole street outside the consulate and attracting the attention of everyone inside and outside the building, and the meeting with the Consul was a great opportunity to communicate powerfully and directly the intense need for real justice in this case.

With me and my colleagues throughout all of these events was Claudia Hernandez, one of the survivors of the sexual and physical assaults that occurred during the police crackdown on protests in San Salvador Atenco, Mexico, in May 2006. Claudia is an amazing woman, and everyone who met her this past week was blown away by her insight, energy, hope and strength. It was an intense week for her, being asked so many times to relive the trauma she suffered in Atenco, but she told me over and over again that what got her through it, and the message she is taking back to her sisters in the struggle for justice, is the knowledge that they are not alone. She saw with her own eyes that people here not only know about the women of Atenco, but are also 100% committed to ensuring that justice is done.

That commitment was clear in the numbers of people who turned out for the events, the numbers of letters and petitions they signed, and the thoughtful and passionate questions they asked about the best ways to continue to support the women in their fight for justice. Take it from me: the people of Chicago don’t just talk about human rights, they put words into action!

International Women's Day Rally and Forum for the Women of Atenco

© Private

© Private

The women of Atenco, Mexico, have been waiting more than two years for justice. On May 3-4, 2006, nearly 3,000 federal, state, and municipal police responded to protests by a local peasant organization. They arrested over 200 people – more than 45 of them women – without explanation. En route to the Santiaguito prison, many of the women were beaten and raped by the officers who arrested them. At least 26 women filed complaints, yet they still wait for an adequate response from the Mexican authorities.

On Thursday, March 5, from 4-6pm, Claudia Hernández, a survivor of the events at Atenco, will speak at an open forum at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. The following day, on Friday, March 6, Amnesty International activists will join coalition partners from Chicago area organizations from noon to 1pm, for a rally in front of the Mexican Consulate at 204 S Ashland St, Chicago, Illinois, to demand justice for the women of Atenco. Everyone will wear red in support of International Women’s Day on March 8 and to show our passion for justice.

Even if you can’t join the Chicago rally, you can still learn more about the case and other ways to take action.

Iranian Women Fight for their Rights

Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8th, it’s time to recognize the struggles and achievements of women’s rights activists around the world.  One of the most vibrant women’s rights movements is in Iran, where every day courageous women risk their freedom and safety to fight for their rights.  While most use peaceful means to end discriminatory treatment of women in Iranian family law, they face increasing persecution from the Iranian government: Women are routinely arrested, imprisoned, threatened and banned from traveling abroad.

Even the most prominent women’s rights activist in Iran, lawyer and 2003 Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, is not immune to this mistreatment.  She has been repeatedly threatened in government-controlled media in recent months and the Defenders of Human Rights Center, that she operates to provide legal assistance to victims of human rights violations, was forcibly shut down by the government last December and her papers and computers seized.

Why is the Iranian government so afraid of its own women citizens calling for equal rights? The government trots out preposterous charges against them such as “acting against national security through propaganda against the state.” How can women walking around a mountainous area north of Tehran to collect petition signatures possibly undermine the state?  How could Alieh Eghdamdoust, recently taken into custody and forced to start serving a three-year prison sentence for participating in a peaceful demonstration in June 2006, possibly be a threat to the security of Iran?

As the Iran country specialist for Amnesty International USA I am constantly challenged on how to craft actions and mobilize activist to combat this disproportionate and seemingly irrational repression of non-violent human rights defenders. And like many human rights activists, I am often frustrated and confounded.  But I am also always inspired by the unrelenting courage and pluckiness of women activists in Iran.  When asked by the judge at her trial why she participated in the demonstration, Alieh Eghdamdoust replied to the judge, “You should participate as well.  Why didn’t you defend your daughters and wife’s rights by attending the legal peaceful gathering?”

I think of Ms. Eghdamdoust’s spirited response as International Women’s Day approaches and I ask you to take action to support our sister activists in Iran.  Please write to the Iranian government and call for an end to the harassment of peaceful women’s rights activists in Iran.  Thank you all and please let us know what actions you have taken and any suggestions you have.

DRC: 40,000 Signatures for Obama

When I came to work one day this week, I found two thick packages at my desk: They were filled with signed petitions on ending sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was really impressed by how much activists continue to speak out about human rights violations in the Eastern DRC, even when the issue has once again disappeared from the headlines of major media outlets.

The petition was initiated by Raise Hope for Congo and AIUSA signed on to it last fall. Among other things, it asks President Obama to urge Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) when it is reintroduced later this year. In total, 40,000 people signed the petition, including 9,000 AIUSA members! The Raise Hope for Congo campaign delivered the signatures to President Obama this week, asking him to make an announcement on International Women’s Day on March 8. We’ll definitely look out for that!

Here are some of the things I-VAWA would do in cases such as the crisis in eastern Congo:

  • Increase legal and judicial protection to address violence against women and girls;
  • Increase health sector capacity to address violence against women and girls;
  • Change social norms to end violence against women and girls;
  • Increase U.S. training of overseas foreign security forces on violence against women and girls.

If the International Violence Against Women Act is adopted, the current situation in eastern Congo could be drastically changed by directing U.S. foreign aid towards programs that prevent and respond to violence.

The situation in eastern DRC remains extremely volatile. The recent arrest of CNDP leader Lauren Nkunda is a step in the right direction, but it’s too early to lean back and relax. I have no doubt activists around the country will agree with me and keep up the great work.