Archive for the ‘Global’ Category

Packaging vs. Motive: Greewald examines recent human rights “successes”

January 26, 2012

Glen Greewald has an insightful piece on Salon today. He examines the pruported human rights motives behind military action, against actual improvements in the lives of civilians impacted by the violence. Specifically, he cites human rights violations of officials in post-Gaddaffi Libya. Doctors without Borders recently stopped work there in protest of ongoing, and apparantly santioned abuse, lawless detentions, torture, and medical neglect.  A doctor with the french Medecins Sans Frontieres explains:

“Patients were brought to us for medical care between interrogation sessions, so that they would be fit for further interrogation. This is unacceptable. Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions.”

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations have expressed similar concerns. Greenwald compares this to our human rights “victory” following the fall of Saddam Hussein. He notes:

Obviously, the Gadaffi and Saddam regimes were horrible human rights abusers. But[…]one cannot celebrate a human rights success based merely on the invasion and overthrow of a bad regime; it is necessary to know what one has replaced them with.

Ironically, those who are the loudest advocates for these wars and then prematurely celebrate the outcome (and themselves) bear significant responsibility for these subsequent abuses: by telling the world that the invasion was a success, it causes the aftermath — the most important part — to be neglected. There is nothing noble about invading and bombing a country into regime change if what one ushers in is mass instability along with tyranny and abuse by a different regime. [Em. mine. Links, Greenwald]

He notes that although human rights abuses are often the loudly-tauted reasons for entering into military conflict, they are rarely the actual motive for doing so. He concludes:

The fact that it is not the goal means more than just another war sold deceitfully based on pretexts: it means that human rights concerns will not drive what happens after the invasion is completed. The material interests of the invaders are highly likely to be served, but not the human rights of the people of the invaded country.

[…] those who supported the war in Libya — which (like the war in Iraq) included numerous people who did so out of a genuine, well-intentioned desire to see a vile tyrant vanquished — have a particular responsibility to ensure that the same tyranny is not replicated by the forces supported by the invading armies. [Em. mine]

Well worth the read.


Chimes of Freedom: Dylan Tribute Benefits Amnesty International

January 25, 2012

Amnesty International is marking its 50th anniversary with a massive, four-disc tribute to Bob Dylan. In 1961, Dylan embarked on a career that would earn him the moniker “poet laureate of rock ‘n roll,” carrying Woody Guthrie’s torch as voice of the marginalized. In the same year, attorney Peter Benenson started what would become Amnesty International when he began lobbying on behalf of prisoners of conscience.

Amnesty explains:

It was a coincidence. Yet from the start, Dylan’s artistic work and Amnesty’s political work drew on a common sensibility that ultimately changed the world. 

For half a century, Amnesty has pressed to secure the fundamental human rights of the persecuted and imprisoned across the globe. Over that same half century, Dylan’s art has explored and expressed the anguish and hope of the modern human condition.

Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International is a sprawling and ecclectic collaboration of 80 artists covering 75 songs.  From Carly Simon, Johnny Cash, Bad Religion, Dave Matthews, Lucinda WIlliams, Cage the Elephant, Pete Townsend, Diana Krall,…well, here:

$24.99 for the CDs, $19.99 for the download, individual tracks for $1.29. All proceeds go to AI.

Looking for other cause-worthy tributes? In 2007, Amnesty released Instant Karma: Save Darfur, a 23-track tribute to John Lennon. Highlights include Regina Spektor’s “Real Love”, REM’s “#9 Dream” and Ben Harper’s “Beautiful Boy”.

And while you’re in the mood…

Why not visit AI and lend your voice to those who’ve been silenced. Urgent cases include:

The women of Atenco Mexico. In 2005 more than 45 women were arrested without explanation, and were subjected to physical, psycholigical and sexual violence by officers who arrested them.  No one has been held accountable and in all the years since, no progress has been made toward justice.

Chinese journalist Shi Tao has been in prison since 2005 for sending a Yahoo email to a pro-democracy website.

Student leader Majid Tavakkoli of Iran has been in jail since 2009 because he criticized the government in a speech he delivered to celebrate Students Day.

Marc Gold – Changing the world, one life at a time…

December 22, 2010

Marc with a child in CambodiaHe’s been called a “Shoestring Philanthropist”, a “Philanthropic Traveler”, and a “Grassroots Philanthropist”. Any way you say it, Gold gives. He gives slowly, simply, changing one life at a time…

Parade did a “season of giving” article on Marc Gold and his organization 100 Friends. It explains the start of Gold’s philanthropy:

In 1989, while touring India, Gold met Thinlay, a Tibetan refugee, who invited him to his home. Thinlay’s wife, Tsering, welcomed him but kept holding her ears—she was suffering from a painful, deadly infection. Gold found her a physician and bought the antibiotic she needed. It cost just $1—and saved Tsering’s life. Then Gold spent $35 on a hearing aid so she could return to work and her son could go to school. “When I pressed the switch to turn on the hearing aid, her burst of joy burned into my brain,” Gold recalls. “I was thunderstruck, realizing I could restore her hearing for a relative pittance. I thought you had to be wealthy to do such things.”

He came home and wrote to 100 people, asking for donations in any amount. Two years later he returned to India with $2,200 to give. In his own words he strives to:

“…put the money to work in the most compassionate, appropriate, culturally compatible, constructive and practical manner possible. You put the donation into my hands and I put the funds directly into the hands of the needy individual or family, or a small trusted grassroots organization helping them.”

To date, 100 Friends has dispensed more than $550,000 throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. His goal is to give away $1 million, which, a friend jokes, would make him a “reverse millionaire”.

Although Gold usually gives in relatively small, one-time amounts, the impact can be enormous.

  • A school for 30 children in Indonesia whose parents have leprosy. Previously the children spent their days begging in the streets for their families’ survival.
  • Prostheses and physical therapy for a 33 year old women from Hanoi who lost her legs when hit by a truck. She will now operate her own small business selling coffee from a hand cart.
  • A wheelchair for the mother of a little girl who otherwise struggled to push her in a wooden cart.

Although most of the giving is individual, 100 Friends has several initiatives, including:

  • Sister school projects that link students in the U.S. with schools and orphanages in developing countries.
  • 100 Schools Program, which aims to build 100 schools in poor areas. Five have been built so far, including a school in Afghanistan for children who had been learning in tents. About a recent trip to Tibet, Gold writes of

“…one of many students is receiving a $150 scholarship – that’s for one year’s tuition and fees. Without these funds, these students will have to herd sheep (literally!) for the rest of their lives.” [Em mine.]

  • Children’s Medical Program, which has paid for the treatment of burns, accidents, heart conditions and birth defects.
  • Nepali Girls Program – $33 buys a cow or pig for a family in Nepal, whose extreme poverty would otherwise force them to sell one or more daughters – as young as six – into bonded servitude, which is another word for domestic slavery, and through which many girls are forced into prostitution.
  • Sponsored Education – As little as $10 per month can keep a child in school.

Gold pays his travel expenses himself and has little overhead. At least 85% of the donations to 100 Friends goes directly to those in need. As he puts it:

“You give to me and I give to them.”

Marc with a man in KabulFurther reading:

Marc Gold: Grassroots Philanthropist – Article by Mike Lippitt at

100 Friends Newsletters – Lots of info, pictures, stories of changed lives, and ways to give.

Donate – Help Gold change a few lives on his next trip.

“The Forgotton War” – NYT Covers Lisa Shannon in the Congo

February 24, 2010

NYTimes did a video piece on Lisa Shannon and her volunteer work in the DRC.

Five years ago Lisa founded Run for Congo Women, a “grassroots movement benefiting Women for Women International’s Congo program,” which began with a lone 30-mile trail run, that would help change the lives of 80 Congolese women and their hundreds of children. Today she has quit her job and volunteers full time in DRC and Washington . Her book “1000 Sisters: My Journey to the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman” will be published this July by Seal Press.

Although this war has claimed over 5.4 million lives, and its brutality breaches every code of war (mass rape and mutilation – to even the elderly and small children – is a daily reality), it gets virtually no news coverage. Ironically, the involvement of this young American generates most of the stories you’ll find, especially recently.

Nicholas Kristof, who interviews her on the video, writes about meeting one of the women Lisa has helped:

I found myself stepping with Lisa into a shack here […] Lisa had come to visit a woman she calls her sister, Generose Namburho, a 40-year-old nurse.

Generose’s story is numbingly familiar: extremist Hutu militiamen invaded her home one night, killed her husband and prepared to rape her. Then, because she shouted in an attempt to warn her neighbors, they hacked off her leg above the knee with a machete.

As Generose lay bleeding near her husband’s corpse, the soldiers cut up the amputated leg, cooked the pieces on the kitchen fire, and ordered her children to eat their mother’s flesh. One son, a 12-year-old, refused. “If you kill me, kill me,” he told the soldiers, as his mother remembers it. “But I will not eat a part of my mother.”

So they shot him dead. The murder is one of Generose’s last memories before she blacked out, waking up days later in the hospital where she had worked. [Em. mine]

Yes, this is a lifelong crusade for Lisa Shannon, but if you’ve been moved even partially by anything you heard in that video, or read here: First person stories of Congolese women, or saw here: The Greatest Silence – trailer for Palme D’Or Winner, or here: Lumo – trailer for documentary about one woman’s story… you can help without so much as leaving your chair or inconveniencing your life.

Sponsor a woman through Women for Women International for only $27/month. Money goes to:

Rights Awareness and Leadership Training

designed to help women understand their unique rights: politically, as survivors of war, ethnic and religious conflict and as voices in bringing about stability; economically, in understanding their rights to earn a fair income; legally, in acquiring skills to fight discrimination, domestic violence and other civil wrongs; and personally, with respect to understanding human reproduction, pregnancy and childbirth, nutrition, stress and stress management, and the spread, treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Vocational and Technical Skills Training

Local instructors provide vocational skills training in carpentry, leatherwork, bee-keeping, jewelry-making, traditional folk art, shoe repair and other areas so women can find a job or start their own home-based businesses. Technical training in savings, basic bookkeeping and marketing may also be provided.

and Income Generation Support

To help women transform their new skills into financial independence and sustainability, Women for Women International provides microcredit loans and other income generation support. This support helps ensure that women are provided with an option to continue supporting themselves and their families after their participation in the Sponsorship […] programs ends.

I don’t know about you, but I spend more than $27/month at Starbucks. Think what it can do in a war-ravaged country for a woman who has endured atrocities we can barely imagine…

Other info and ways to give:

Raise Hope for Congo

Stop Rape in DRC

TEN REASONS WHY Eastern Congo is the Most Dangerous Place on Earth for Women

Congo’s Rape Epidemic Worsens

Earlier Blackbird Posts:

“Like Rwanda But Worse” Rape As a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 1: History of the Conflict

Rape As a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 2: The Savagery]

Rape As a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 3: The Healing and What You Can Do To Help]

“The Greatest Silence” – DRC Documentary Wins at Sundance

Helping Haiti – Facts & Links…

January 14, 2010

We’re all aware of the devastating earthquake to hit Haiti this week. Here are some quick facts and links to how you can help.


  • The most violent quake of the past two centuries struck the densely-populated epicenter of a country the size of Maryland.
  • Nearly 1/3 of the population (approximaately 3 million) have been severely impacted and are in need of emergency aid.
  • 50,000 are estimated dead.

According to Haiti’s President Préval:

“Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them.”

(For a more intimate picture check out the New York Times’ interactive map with audio. Or this slide show.)


Needs include medical supplies, food, shelter, and water tablets to prevent an outbreak of cholera. The high level of destruction has slowed the flow of aid into the country – due to wrecked landing strips and obstructions to traveling over land. The lack of an exisitng emergency management system has further impeded aid.

According to CNN:

Most organizations are asking for monetary donations. They are not seeking material items, like clothes or food, or volunteers at this time.

These agencies have set up phone lines, online donation pages and even texting for individuals to contribute to their relief efforts.

They’ve compiled a great list of agencies working in the relief effort.

More info:

List of organizations from The Nation.

American Red Cross details needs for Haiti. You can even donate a quick $10 by texting “Haiti” to 90999.

Tips for choosing  an organization from GuideStar database of non-profits and info-hub on giving.

Or just Google “Haiti Relief Organizations” and you’ll have more information that you will reasonably need.

Hope, Concern – World AIDS Day 2009

December 1, 2009

December 1st 2009 is the 21st annual World AIDS Day, nearly 28 years following the first diagnosis of the disease in June 1981. Great strides have been made against the disease over the decades. Rates of infection have continued to decline, due in part to medical advances that have reduced the likelihood of transmission through pregnancy, the cumulative effect of global education and prevention programs, and a slow reduction in the stigma of AIDS that encourages earlier and more frequent testing.

Despite this, there is still much to be done. The World Health Organization reports that nearly half of the 9.5 million people who need anti-retroviral treatments (ART) don’t receive it – that’s roughly 5.5 million untreated people. And while rates of infection have slowed, there are still 7400 new infections every day, 1200 of which are children.

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé calls for an end to the stigma, discrimination, and criminallization that prevents education, testing, and treatment in many parts of the world. In his 2009 World AIDS Day address:

On this World AIDS Day we are filled with both hope and concern.

Hope because significant progress has been made towards universal access. New HIV infections have dropped. Fewer children are born with HIV. And more than 4 million people are on treatment.

Concern because 28 years into the epidemic the virus continues to make inroads into new populations; stigma and discrimination continue to undermine efforts to turn back the epidemic. The violation of human rights of people living with HIV, women and girls, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and sex workers must end.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on “all countries to live up to their commitments to enact or enforce legislation outlawing discrimination against people living with HIV and members of vulnerable groups”. On this World AIDS Day, let us work urgently to remove punitive laws and practices and put an end to discrimination against and criminalization of people affected by HIV.

(It’s hard not to think of the proposed Ugandan legislation criminalizing repeated homosexuality with life imprisonment or death by hanging.)

On the home front, when establishing the Office of National AIDS Policy last June, President Obama noted the heavy impact AIDS continues to have even in the US:

“‘When one of our fellow citizen becomes effected every nine and a half minutes, the epidemic effects all Americans.”

It’s heartening that as a country we’ve made such progress as repealing the global gag rule, dropping the HIV travel ban, and Washington D.C.’s hosting the 2012 International AIDS conference for the first time in a decade. Yet, the Obama administration has come under fire from AIDS avocacy groups who criticize the lack of funds allocated to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Health GAP, Africa Action, Treatment Action Group and the Global AIDS Alliance released a report on PREFAR’s 2010 funding:

“Despite repeated public commitments to expand funding for successful global AIDS programs, the first budget request to Congress prepared by President Obama, for FY2010, would for the first time essentially flat-fund U.S. global AIDS investments—it will not even keep pace with global medical inflation, estimated at 4-10% this year.

U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Ambassador Eric P. Goosby, MD, stated that PREFAR is working to transition from emergency response to long-term sustainability.

“PEPFAR’s five-year strategy will focus on sustainability, and sustainable responses, programs that are country owned and country driven.”

Further Info:

HIV:Reality The UK’s world AIDS Days site. Focuses on stories, videos, photos of people living with HIV/AIDS.

World AIDS Campaign – Lots of up to the minute news.

AIDS Portal – Hub  of 1232 AIDS organizations.

UNAIDS – Founder of World AIDS Day.

Global Commission on Women and AIDS

AIDS 2009 Epidemic Update – Comprehensive Report from UNAIDS (pdf)

Peruvian Women Denied Legal Abortions

July 23, 2008

Therapeutic (to preserve the life and health of the mother) and eugenic (in the even of a non-viable fetus) abortions are legal in Peru, but you wouldn’t know it by living there. Men, women, and doctors alike share ignorance or confusion about the legality of certain types of abortion, and as a result women are suffering and dying needlessly.

Human Rights Watch recently published My Rights, My Right to Know: Lack of Access to Therapeutic Abortion in Peru. The 52-page report examines a system with vague laws and regulations, legislation passed yet ignored by federal government, fear of criminalization and malpractice, lack of public funds for the procedure, lack of protocols on any level, and exceptionally low awareness levels about the criteria for a legal abortion.

It also tells the sad tales of three women who were denied a procedure they desperately needed.

“M.L.” was 31 years old and pregnant with her second child. An ultra-sound at 30 weeks revealed a malformation. Eventually she was told that the fetus had no brain and no bladder and would likely die in utero. Devastated, she asked for a therapeutic abortion, but was told by the hospital that it was illegal. In fact, legislation legalizing abortion “in cases of sexual violence, non-consented artificial insemination, and fetal abnormalities incompatible with life” was passed by Peruvian Congress in 1989, but was never made widely known by the Executive government. Neither the doctors nor M.L. knew it was an option.

She considered an illegal procedure, but she and her husband decided that it was too dangerous. Besides, they had no way of raising the $700 fee. At 38 weeks she returned to the hospital with contractions and was given medication to delay labor. By the time her full term was up, the fetus had died inside her and had to be removed by Cesarean.

After the trauma M.L. suffered severe anxiety and depression. She said

“I wouldn’t want this to happen to any other woman; it’s something horrible that happened to me…. I dropped down to 40 kilos (about 88 pounds). People don’t know how much one suffers [in this situation]; they don’t want to know the truth about that kind of suffering.”

“K.L.” was a 17 year old girl who, at 14 weeks, discovered the fetus she carried was anencephalic. Anencephaly is a birth defect where the brain and spinal cord fail to develop and the child either dies in utero or a few days after birth. It also jeopardizes both the mental and physical health of the mother. Her physician recommended ending the pregnancy. K.L. and her family prepared for this and returned to the hospital, where they were told they needed the consent of the hospital’s director, who then flatly refused the procedure. She carried the child to term and when she gave birth (three weeks late) she was forced her to breast feed for four days before the child died.

K.L. required psychiatric treatment following her ordeal.

The final case is the saddest. “L.C.” was raped repeatedly for several months at age fourteen. She told no one, not even when she discovered she was pregnant. Instead, according to her mother, she threw herself from the roof of her family’s home. The suicide attempt failed, however it did injure her spinal cord and render her a quadriplegic. In the hospital, her mother first learned of the rape.

L.C. and her family requested a legal abortion so that she may undergo an operation on her spinal cord that might restore some mobility. The request was denied on the grounds that it was illegal. When her mother protested and said that a medical committee could review and approve the abortion, they met with resistance and unexplained delays. When the window of opportunity for the spinal surgery had passed, a review came through denying the abortion on the grounds that the fetus didn’t negatively effect L.C.’s health. She later miscarried in the hospital, when there was no longer anything that could be done to restore her mobility.

International human rights groups have criticized Peru for their lack of reproductive rights, but it is unclear how this criticism is being received by Peruvian officials. Ii can understand confusion and fear on the part of medical personnel, but I cannot understand the feet-dragging on the part of the government that allows this to continue.

Abortions are not more rare in Peru. They are simply more deadly. As in all countries, that number of abortions remains constant whether it is legal or not. What rises are simply mortality rates and mental anguish.

“The Voices of Innocents Caught in War” CNN addresses suffering of women in Iraq

March 19, 2008

CNN posted an article today by correspondent Awar Damon on the strength of Iraqi women in the face of nearly paralyzing hardship. She begins the piece with the sentence:

The pain here is choking — it’s a dark, suffocating sorrow.

Bombs, kidnapping, torture. The stories are so numerous they masquerade as normalcy in a country whose past five years have seen little but successive and overlapping turns of oppression, anarchy, occupation, and war. The CNN piece pays close attention to four women. One woman lost her husband when he was abducted, tortured and killed. When she retrieved his body the following day, she discovered his eyes had been gouged out.

In another case, Nahla’s husband was a doctor. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, determined to help rebuild his country, he returned to Iraq with Nahla and their six year old autistic son. Soon after, he was killed by a roadside bomb. She describes her husband’s flesh as melted and his charred body melded with those who died around him.

Although her 8-year old son lives outside the city for his own safety, a pediatrician named Dr. Eaman remains in Baghdad by choice. She wants to do her part to re-establish the city she recalls from before the war. She misses her son but will not be swayed from her mission.

Yanar left a tranquil life in Canada to move to Iraq with her 9-year old child. In 2003 she founded The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). It’s the only organization of its kind and has since developed Iraq’s first women’s shelter and an activist newspaper called Al Mousawat (Equality). She changes her address often because of constant death threats. She explains her decision to uproot her life and return to her country of origin:

What brings me here, it is that everybody that I love, all the people that I love have been crushed…This cannot happen, should not happen, cannot be allowed to happen.

This weekend CNN aired Damon’s searing documentary, On Deadly Ground: The Women of Iraq. Click for the full transcript.

For more information, see my earlier post “It Wasn’t Supposed to be this Way” The Plight of Women & Children in Occupied Iraq

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” The Plight of Women & Children in Occupied Iraq

March 19, 2008

It’s been five years today since the United States invaded Iraq. There is much speculation about the success and failure of the war, the contractors, the casualties, the stability of the Iraqi government, consequent foreign views of the U.S., inadequate troop supplies, shameful lack of support for the mentally and physically wounded troops returning home, whether we should have ever gone to war to begin with, and how the hell we’re going to get out.

Having acknowledged those issues, I’m going to talk about something else. What were the lives of non-combative Iraqis like before U.S. occupation and what are their lives like now? Not soldiers, not religious extremists, not government officials, but the ordinary Iraqis struggling within the daily mine-field living of a conflict zone with multiple warring sides using base guerrilla tactics.

Before I continue I just want to say this:

I recognize that the period following the fall of one form of government and its replacement by another is, quite literally, revolutionary. Throughout history, all cases of this are paired with periods of social and political unrest, instability, and hardship.

However, the Iraqi people didn’t instigate this revolution. Indeed, they couldn’t have. But they never asked for our involvement and it wasn’t for their suffering that we went in. The U.S. invaded Iraq for its own reasons, none of which were later substantiated. After five years of mismanaged occupation, we’ve taken a country weighted with severe oppression and injustice and replaced it with a battlefield of warring religious, political and tribal factions, starvation and disease, and near anarchic instability in which every day is a lottery to see who will walk into the streets and make it home alive.

As in most wars and regions of conflict, it is mostly women and children who fall to the bottom of a deep pool of suffering.

Life Under Saddam

There is no disputing that life during Hussein’s quarter-century police state was a nightmare of cruelty and corruption. Your ethnicity and/or behavior could easily earn you a middle-ages style punishment (with the exception of the modern chemical warfare unleashed in repeated ethnic cleansing efforts against the Kurds.)

If you spoke out against Hussein’s regime you, and possibly your family members, were imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Political gathering of any sort was forbidden to the public, except for occasion to exult the government.

Police stations included basement torture chambers, and the crime of theft could lead to amputation, branding or death. Any woman suspected of prostitution, proof being unnecessary, was beheaded and her head placed on a pike and displayed with a sign reading “For the Honor of Iraq.”

There are tales of further insanity, of course. But for the bulk of Iraqi’s, what I’ve just described were the prominent sources of danger.

And yet, although women’s rights began to deteriorate during the final years of Hussein’s reign, until the early-1990’s urban Iraqi women were widely considered among the most liberated in the middle east. Women had careers, drove automobiles, and as of 1987 75% of Iraqi women were literate.

Following World War I, Britain colonized several regions into the country of Iraq, which they ruled for fifteen years. Many British laws remained in place through the 1990’s including equal inheritance rights, equal rights in seeking divorce, restrictions against polygamy, and a legal marrying age of 18.

In 1970 Saddam Hussein drafted a constitution that granted women the right to attend school, own property, vote, and run for office.

None of this diminishes the atrocities of Hussein’s reign, but it does set a contrast for what was to come.

“It Wasn’t Supposed to be Like This.”

Although many returned joyously to Iraq following the fall of Hussein, most were quickly disillusioned. Today, the rules have changed and for women, they have not improved. An ineffective government, appointed by the U.S., allows religious extremists to create and enforce informal laws throughout their varying regions of dominance. Sunni and Shias alike dictate new and severe requirements for women.

Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi who grew up during the final two decades of Saddam’s regime, and at age 23 founded Women for Women International, describes the differences in her country since 2003. As quoted in a recent article in Ms. Magazine:

“The violence during Saddam’s time was … committed by the government, Saddam’s family, people in power. Now the violence is … being committed by everyone around you.”

Many areas of Iraq are ruled with Sharia-inspired laws reminiscent of the Taliban. Women must remain cloaked in full burqua, genders must remain segregated in public, singing and dancing are prohibited. Women’s hair salons, one of the few (although marginally) accepted professions for a woman, are often bombed and many are abandoned, or taken underground.

Additionally, in the generally lawless state of warring factions, carjacking, kidnapping, and rape are common. As they are exceptional targets, women avoid the streets and few if any still risk driving.

Since 2003, more than 2,000 honor killings have been reported.

According to Yanar Mohammed, founder of the The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI),

We used to have a government that was almost secular. It had one dictator. “Now we have almost 60 dictators—Islamists who think of women as forces of evil. This is what is called the democratization of Iraq.

Although she gets repeated death threats, and many of her colleagues have fled the country, Yanar Mohammed stays in order to run the few women’s shelters available to protect abused women and those targeted for honor killings.

The international human rights organization MADRE, who once warned that religious fundamentalists would benefit most from a U.S. invasion in Iraq, explains in its 2007 report Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the U.S. War on Iraq,

Often, the first salvo in a war for theocracy is a systematic attack on women and minorities who represent or demand an alternative or competing vision for society.

The MADRE report also documents how pleas for help from women’s groups were ignored by the U.S.

During the first year of US occupation, Iraqi women’s organizations appealed directly to [US Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance Paul] Bremer, demanding that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that he headed train and dispatch security guards to help prevent violence against women and that the CPA prosecute crimes against women. These demands were ignored.

Under Bremer, the US refused to honor a series of demands by women’s organizations, including calls to create a women’s ministry; appoint women to the drafting committee of Iraq’s interim constitution; guarantee that 40 percent of US appointees to Iraq’s new government were women; pass laws codifying women’s rights and criminalizing domestic violence; and uphold UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which mandates that women be included at all levels of decision–making in situations of peacemaking and post–war reconstruction.

In 2003, Iraqi men and women risked their lives to come forward and vote on a new constitution. Overwhelmingly they voted to replace the government established by the U.S. in favor of the United Iraqi Alliance, which in addition to offering Iraqis the resources to rebuild homes and the promise to utilize the nation’s oil wealth for economic development projects, called for an immediate “withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq.”

The new government however, has been unable to deliver on its promises and has additionally shown itself to condone and even encourage women’s oppression.

Although Iraqi law now states that women must hold 25% of the seats in Parliament, according to a recent NPR piece, activist Amira Al Khabi (ph) says

These women members of Parliament are ghosts. They say nothing. The party has fooled the people. They say “Look, we’ve given women a role,” when they have no role at all. It’s pure propaganda.

According to Ms. Al Khabi, members of Parliament recently expressed approval that nearly 100 women were tortured and killed in Basra (mostly by strangulation or beheading) because they had been wearing makeup or dressed in a manner considered too “western.”

29 year-old journalist Khalzar Abdul Amir received a note at her office. It read, “Quit or die.” She took the note as a declaration that it was legal to kill her. She fled to Kurdistan for a while, before returning to Iraq to help support her family. Echoing the sentiment of American and Iraqi citizens alike, she tells herself over and over

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Add to this the other sufferings of combat zones – a dearth of electricity, water, food, and jobs – where any attempt to leave your home to procure any of these scarcities risks your life – and you have an idea of a civilian’s life in modern day Iraq. Many Iraqi women have submitted themselves to prostitution in order to feed their families.

In 2005 alone, the country endured over 1,000 roadside bomb attacks – that’s more than three per day. More than 1 million Iraqi’s have died since the invasion began. 2 million have fled Iraq and another 2 million have abandoned their homes to hide in less volatile areas of the country.

Earlier this month Women for Women International released Stronger Women, Stronger Nations, a comprehensive report on the state of women’s lives in post-invasion Iraq. The report addresses the atrocities and suffering endured under Saddam Hussein, and compares it with the lives of non-combatants under U.S. occupation.

During a ten-day fact-finding mission the organization found:

  • [E]xtremists from both communities increasingly mounted attacks on one another in the form of car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and torture, hit-and-run raids, and [although malice between Sunnis and Shias during Hussein’s reign was minimal] increasingly larger instances of deliberate ethnic cleansing against towns and neighborhoods occupied by civilians from the other sect.
  • Even in those parts of Iraq where there is little sectarian violence, a pervasive state of lawlessness remains. Even in ethnically or religiously homogeneous cities and towns, the government typically provides little security or policing presence. This allows the militias, in conjunction with a wide variety of organized crime rings, to assume authority in these areas, and while they may keep outright violence low, they indulge in all manner of criminal behavior against the local population. Theft, extortion, kidnapping, and the threat of random violence are ubiquitous problems for most Iraqis.
  • 88.8% of respondents expressed a great deal of concern that they or someone living in their households would become a victim of violence.
  • 67.9% of respondents stated that their ability to walk down the street as they please has gotten worse since the U.S. invasion.
  • 63.9% of respondents stated that violence against women is increasing. When asked why, respondents most commonly said that there is less respect for women’s rights than before, that women are thought of as possessions, and that the economy has gotten worse.

Then & Now

Further Reading:

Hidden victims of a brutal conflict: Iraq’s women – A month-long investigation by The Observer reveals the terrible reality of life after Saddam.

Letter from Baghdad – A Democracy of Killings and Bombings – Yanar Mohammed

Iraqi Women Hit Hard by Occupation

Listen to a panel with Yanar Mohammed and other global rights leaders – courtesy of Ms. Magazine.

Stolen Away The abduction and forced prostitution of Iraqi women and girls. Time Magazine feature.

Slightly off-topic but very relevant – Five Years and Counting: The Unmitigated Disaster is Working Dahr Jamail for IPS News.

How You Can Help:

Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq Join the letter-writing campaign to amend the Iraqi constitution, or donate money. Donations go toward human and women’s rights training, democracy training for Iraqi women, and sewing machines distributed to help women gain economic self-sufficiency while working safely from their homes.

MADRE gives you lots of ways get involved. You can donate, purchase stuff through their web store, buy books or movies through giveline, volunteer, host a speaker, and more…

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days – Palme d’Or Winner Tackles Totalitarianism, Reproductive Rights

February 1, 2008

4monthstwogirlsatwindow In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, filmmaker Cristian Mungiu offers an unsparing view of life under Communist Totalitarianism in 1980’s Romania. Beneath the oppressive rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, household appliances are often shared, cigarettes and gum require black market finagling, and contraception is virtually unavailable.

In an effort to populate the country and increase its labor force, Ceausescu criminalized the use of the IUD and contraceptive pill, while Romania’s socialist economy ensured that other forms of birth control were exceedingly scarce. In 1966, except under relatively rare conditions, abortion became punishable by imprisonment for both the patient and the doctor, who additionally risked losing his or her medical license. Employers mandated gynecological exams and were required to report employee pregnancies to the state, whereupon women were monitored by the state until delivery.

It is a reality that some Americans would consider appealing. These Americans should see 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

The reality of the situation in Romania, in what has been termed the Golden Age of the Breeding Machine, was an intended increase in birth rates…initially. However, after the first several years birth rates slowly returned to pre-1966 levels and in concordance, maternal death rates steadily rose.

But don’t expect to find politics in 4 Months, or even any historical context. The film is presented without music and much of the action is captured in long, stationary shots where characters move in and out of frame. In fact, it provides little exposition of any kind. The film opens simply, as two friends, in mid-conversation, prepare themselves for a frightening and dangerous night where, we eventually discover, one will help the other procure an illegal abortion.

Mungui based the screenplay on real events that occurred in 1987, when he was close in age to the girls in the film.

It’s somehow a personal story to me. Someone told me fifteen years ago about something that happened to them a few years before that. Eventually, last year, when I was looking for a story that happened during my twenties, I ran into this person again and the story came into conversation. I was surprised with how much emotion this story was still bringing to me, and decided to make this the subject of my next film.

Although the story elicits such emotion for Mungui, his film makes no judgments about abortion. It’s not pro-life and it’s not pro-choice. Instead, the film steps back and lets a human story tell itself, as though we were given a peep through a keyhole into another reality where two girls, although desperate, determined, and terrified, seem not so different from American girls today.

Mungiu insists it’s not a film about abortion, but rather totalitarianism. It illuminates a world were personal choices are controlled by the state and reveals the oppression and tragedy that can result. Would the outcome be so different in the United States if unmarried youth were restricted knowledge of and access to birth control, and abortion illegal?

We are not so far from this as we might think. Consider the billions of dollars spent on abstinence-only programs, President Bush’s appointees in the Office of Family Planning, the restrictions placed on global aid for HIV/AIDS by mandatory abstinence programs, and the fact that Roe v Wade is an issue in the Presidential campaigning of 2008…

But aside from social or political implications, I recommend this film for its very mastery of film making. Its approach to the art form borders on revolutionary and Mungui’s lack of sentimentality is (in my view) heroic.

We’ve had enough heart-warming fantasy-comedies about unexpected pregnancy. If abortion were to become illegal and comprehensive sex-ed neglected, we wouldn’t have a country full of Juno‘s. We’d have a country with an increased rate of unintended pregnancies, and the tragic (anti)heroines of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

“The Greatest Silence” – DRC Documentary Wins at Sundance

January 30, 2008

LisafilmingThe Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,” a feature-length documentary by Lisa F. Jackson, was awarded a Special Jury prize at Sundance last week. The film is unflinching in the face of the mass rape, mutilation, kidnapping and torture inflicted upon as many as hundreds of thousands of women and children in the Congo. Jackson, herself a survivor of gang rape in the US, interviews Congolese victims and rapists alike to uncover the world where such cruelty thrives.

Since 1998 an estimated 5.4 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a result of ongoing insurgent violence, which has displaced more than 500,000 people from their homes in the last year alone. Most deaths occur from malnutrition, untreated injury, and disease.

The ongoing violence and instability has rent the nation into enclaves of virtual lawlessness, where atrocities are committed with impunity by nearly every side, including rebel factions, Congolese soldiers, and UN aid workers stationed in DRC.

At the very end of a long line of suffering are the Congo’s women and children. After visiting the Eastern Congo, Eve Ensler described it as “hell.” Lisa Jackson describes it as “a literal heart of darkness.”

Yet, even with 5.4 million dead in less than a decade and the ongoing rape and mutilation of hundreds of thousands of women and children, there remains little global awareness about the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Hopefully this film, and the less-publicized documentary Lumo, will raise awareness and much needed funds and aid to this devastated area.

Note: On January 23, 2008 a peace signing took place between Congolese President Kabila and representatives of General Laurent Nkunda, leader of the dominant Mai-Mai faction. The lasting implications of this agreement are as yet unclear.

Further Reading:

The UN Mission in the DRC

The Panzi Hospital in Bukavu

V-Day and UNICEF report: V-DAY and UNICEF Call for an End to Rape and Sexual Torture against Women and Girls in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Friends of the Congo

The Greatest Silence Link Page

See also Blackbird Posts:

“Like Rwanda But Worse” Rape As a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 1: History of the Conflict

Rape As a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 2: The Savagery]

Rape As a Weapon of War in the Congo [Part 3: The Healing and What You Can Do To Help]

Self-Immolation a Growing Trend in Afghan Girls & Women

January 7, 2008

Rawaimage In Afghanistan, a growing number of women, primarily aged 10-40, attempt to flee lives of hopelessness and despair by setting themselves on fire.

It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of Afghan women and girls who attempt to kill themselves by self-immolation. Anywhere from one hundred to several hundred cases have been documented each year since 2002. A New York Times article reports that in 2004 the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission recorded 40 cases in six months in the city of Herat alone. These reported numbers are exceptionally low, however, because families often hide the incident or try to lie about the method of death.

Reported cases are almost entirely of those who survive, even briefly, and find themselves being treated in a local burn unit. Yet even these women often attempt to lie about their wounds, insisting the incident was accidental. The staff at the burn unit in Herat’s Regional Medical Center have learned to discern the truth. Fuel-soaked clothing and little evidence of an attempt to stifle flames strongly point to self-infliction. Dr. Ghafar Bawar, a plastic surgeon who consults at the unit, explains

“When an accident happens, they try to stop it. In self-inflicted burns, a high percentage of the body surface area is affected. When it is more than 40 per cent of body surface area burnt . . . it’s usually self-inflicted.”

For many western readers, it’s hard to understand what would drive these women, many of them teens, to commit such a desperate and agonizing act. It’s important to recognize Afghanistan’s deep-seated culture of female oppression and the utter lack of options perceived by most women.

Many Afghan women, especially in rural villages, live in a state of near slavery. They are kept uneducated and have little or no control over the most basic aspects of their lives.

Forced into marriage as a young teen, (the youngest reported case of self-immolation was a nine year old child), to a man possibly decades older, an Afghan girl must obey not only her new husband but any of his male or female relatives. She endures daily beatings and other, often sexual, abuses. She cannot read or write and has been prohibited from learning a valuable skill or trade. All she knows of the world is what she has been told, and what she is told cultivates hopelessness, humiliation, and the constant threat of violence. Even her own voice is useless to her. If she speaks out she earns only ridicule or further punishment.

Where can she turn? A few girls are lucky enough to learn of a shelter for abused women and child brides, though even fewer are able to escape. Illiterate and isolated, most women have no idea that any escape is possible. In their minds, they have nothing.

No courts, no police, no divorce, no justice, no escape.

When the Taliban were toppled and Hamid Karzai took power at the end of 2001, it seemed Afghan women would enjoy a life of more freedom and stability. Unfortunately, many women live under nearly the same oppression, humiliation, and violence that they suffered under the Taliban.

Let’s take a closer look at the reality of life for most Afghan women, shaped drastically by recent Taliban rule and related gender beliefs which, for too many, still linger.

Life Under the Taliban

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan, through continued insurgency and civil war, from 1996 until nearly 2002.

Under Taliban rule, Afghan women were oppressed in literally every aspect of their lives. In what has been referred to as gender apartheid, women were placed under house arrest, denied the ability to work or gain an education, and required to shield themselves from all males except very close relatives. The windows of her home were painted black, lest an innocently passing male catch a forbidden glimpse, and she could not leave her home at all unless escorted by a close male relative and sheathed in full burqa. When outside the home, she was careful to both speak and step softly, lest her presence be seductively audible to strange males.

Any woman who had lost all male relatives in the years of ongoing conflict was literally trapped in her home.

Unable to seek medical treatment from doctors who, under Taliban rule, were necessarily all male, women frequently died of treatable ailments.

Anyone caught defying the new laws risked public beating and execution. Speaking too loudly or or inadvertently flashing an ankle or wrist earned a woman a public lashing. Women caught unattended outside their homes, assumed to be attempting to flee, were often stoned to death. Women in the presence of a non-related male were charged with adultery and hanged.


In 2002, when the Taliban lost control of Afghanistan’s central government, the lives of many Afghan women brightened. For the most part, educated, urban women returned to work or school and as their country worked to rebuild itself, they strove to reclaim their lives.

Unfortunately, Afghan women in poor, rural areas, continue to live under the same oppression and abuse as before. While Taliban law is no longer in effect, many rural areas are governed by tribal law, which remains uninfluenced by the Afghan government. In many territories, warlords rule with impunity and throughout the nation societal norms give males full dominance over women, who are treated with violence and contempt on a daily basis.

Three women initially held positions in President Kazai’s cabinet, however all have since been replaced by males, including the Minister of Women’s Affairs. A 2006 article in the Christian Science Monitor explains

Women’s inclusion in Afghanistan’s government, which the international community has been using as an indicator of democratic progress, is actually regressing. The interim Supreme Court has consistently sided with conservatives […] It has issued bans on women singing on television… and upheld the marriage of a 9-year-old girl, even though Afghan law sets marriageable age at 16.

Afghan women are repeatedly denied equal access to legal representation and due process. Nearly 80 percent of the women in prison have been convicted of zina, engaging in sexual activity outside marriage. But the majority of those convicted were simply trying to escape domestic abuse and seek refuge outside their oppressive households.

The reality of life for many rural Afghan women is one of utter helplessness. Once forced into marriage, an Afghan female loses the ability to determine what she does, or where she goes, in some cases ever. Daily beatings are common, as are psychological humiliation and degradation. Rape perpetrated by a husband is not considered abnormal, let alone a crime.

Afghanistan’s groundbreaking 2004 presidential election was a passing irrelevance for most Afghan women. According to a 2007 UNIFEM fact sheet,

  • 87% of Afghans believed that a woman needed a male relatives authorization to vote.
  • 35% of women believed they would not have permission to vote.
  • 18% of men admitted they would not allow they wives to vote.


  • 70-80% of Afghan women face forced marriages
  • 57% of Afghan girls are married before the legal marriage age of sixteen.

Why Fire?See Stephanie Sinclair's Amazing Photo Essay at 50Crows

Although self-immolation seems to be one of the most abhorrent choices for suicide, it is, for many, the only choice. Although some find access to poisons, most have no way of going outside the home for any needed materials. Other available options, such as wrist cutting or hanging, are not fool-proof enough for their intentions. Fire, they believe, is absolute.

Medica Modiale, an organization dedicated to aiding women in war zones and areas of crisis, conducted the first report on self-immolation in Afghan women. They found:

Self-immolation as a method of committing suicide is so frequent because women feel they have no alternative. They can never leave the house and have no access to medicaments. However, there is flammable material in contrast in every kitchen.

Medica Modiale’s Nabila Wafiq told the Washington Post

“When we asked most people why they committed self-immolation, they said that when they take pills, they don’t die, but when they commit self-immolation they believe they will die, 100 percent.”

Additionally, women are drawn to fire by the opportunity for retribution it presents. An overwhelming atmosphere of shame and dishonor surround the families of those who choose to who self-immolate. This actually contributes to the death-rate of these suicide attempts, as most women die because they are not immediately taken to the hospital, or not taken at all.

The fact that it is difficult to lie about the method of death, often leaves abusive families with an intended stigma. Unfortunately, this motive backfires on a woman who survives. The shame of her act often means total isolation and neglect.

Wafiq also asserts that the trend is growing, in part, because of news reports of suicide by self-immolation, which fail to mention the tortured survivors of the act, or those who take agonizing days to finally die.

Journalist Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, speaking to RAWA (The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) about “Lifting the Veil”, her documentary on the experiences of Afghan women, explains

There are many ways to die – you can take poison or jump in a river. But I think that if those women had died in that way, it would have been easy for the men of the family to cover it up, saying she had a heart attack, or she fell down or something.

But if you pour kerosene on yourself and you light a match, you’re making a statement. You’re saying look at me, I am in pain, I am in misery, I am not going to die quietly, I am making a point.

In Their Words…

17-year old Fazela:

“My name is Fazela. On that particular day when I burned myself, my husband — who is also my cousin — had a fight with me,” she recalls. “He beat me. And after I was beaten, I poured kerosene over myself. Then I lit myself on fire. Before this, I really wanted to leave this house. But he took my burqa and did not let me go outside of the house. Now I really regret that I burned myself.”

Radio Free Europe RadioLiberty

16-year old survivor describes the moments leading up to her self-immolation

“When he did not have access to heroin and narcotics, he tortured me. After midnight he would hit me. That night he hit me and hit my head. Blood was coming from my nose. I asked him why he was doing it and he hit me even more.”

— BBC News 11/15/06

How You Can Help

Donate to the Afghan Women’s Mission and you can specify how you want your dollars spent – general fund, education, awareness, etc… They also have pledge program, volunteer info, and more…

The Feminist Majority Foundation runs a campaign entitled Help Afghan Women. They make it quick and easy to petition the US government, spread the word to friends and colleagues, join an action team, and of course, donate.

RAWA has a range of specific donation needs – used digital cameras, school supplies, medical supplies. They also have all sorts of other ideas of how you can help – from translating articles to arranging photo exhibits. Of course you can always write awareness letters or just send some cash! Check it out.