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Afghan women attacked at protest

Late last month, the Afghan government passed what is, by all accounts, an atrocious law, legalizing marital rape and explicitly confining women's mobility.  Even if the law is a bit of a "red herring" for what is in reality a deeper problematic in Afghan society, it's hard not to see it as a step backward for women's rights in the country.  This situation also presents the tricky question of how exactly the West can or should exert pressure to oppose the law, particularly when, as Dispatch blog salon participant -- and regular Global Health blogger -- Alanna Shaikh noted, it was likely enacted with the interest of pursuing the necessary negotiations with the Taliban (even if they don't appear to be living up to their end of the deal).

Alanna suggested that one possible policy option would be to support Afghan women's groups, as they would have a better sense of how exactly to oppose this hateful law, even in the context of working with the Taliban.  Which brings me to this heinous occurrence:

A crowd of about 1,000 Afghans swarmed toward a demonstration by 300 women against a conservative new marriage law Wednesday, pelting them with rocks as police struggled to keep the groups apart.

If the law itself is deserving of condemnation, then attacks against those who peacefully protest it are perhaps even more abhorrent.  I don't think this means that Afghan groups won't be able to oppose the law effectively, but it certainly underscores their need for support, from their own government and from the international community.

(image of Afghan women praying on International Women's Day, from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan on flickr)

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Fertility Rates in the Middle East on the Decline

Earlier this week Neil MacFarquhar posted an entry on Dot Earth drawing attention to a new UN report showing that 8 of the 15 countries in the world with the fastest declining fertility rates are in the Middle East.  Iran leads the pack, showing that family planning techniques can work even in societies with socially conservatives mores.

The countries with the biggest change are those that have pushed to provide information to both wives and husbands, even in rural areas, about the various methods of contraception that are available, she said. Once women are given some right to chose, it is almost inevitable that they have fewer children.

From 1975 to 1980, women in Iran were giving birth to nearly 7 children per family, according to the latest U.N. population report; from 2005 to 2010 that number is expected to be less than 2. Other Middle Eastern states in the top 15, in order of the steepest drop, include Tunisia, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Kuwait, Qatar and Morocco.

Why does this matter?  For one, there is a youth bulge in the developing world that threatens the stability of states and stretches the limit of what the environment and ecosystems can sustain.   This is particularly true in the Middle East, so news like this is truly refreshing.  More broadly, there are an estimated 70 to 80 million unintended pregnancies in the developing world each year. One proven way to reduce these numbers is through education programs and policies that specifically target adolescent girls.  When young women attain higher levels of education, whole communinties become transformed.    This is called the Girl Effect.  

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As If Refugees Didn’t Have Enough to Worry About…

...add accusations of witchcraft to the mix.  IntLawGrrls points to a research paper released by the office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights that details the violence perpetrated against accused "witches," incisively situating the phenomenon in the particular conditions of refugee camps.  IntLawGrrls' summary:

These charges, levied primarily against women (particularly the elderly) as well as children, can result in horrifying abuse, including torture, starvation, abandonment, and even death.  Contemporary claims of witchcraft circle the globe, from Bolivia to Cambodia to the Democratic Republic of Congo; from Ghana to Haiti to India.

The paper examines witchcraft allegations in refugee camps and situations of refugee repatriation and integration, drawing an interesting link between situations of crisis and witchhunts. In Salem, the witch trials were situated in military and political crises similar to those faced by refugees today, as the town sat near the front lines of an armed conflict between colonials and Native Americans. So it is that we see similar allegations in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo that have suffered through decades of war. Contemporary witchcraft accusations often offer those in situations of severe crisis -- be it civil war, extreme poverty or environmental disaster -- an opportunity to express feelings of envy, fear, hatred, and jealousy in particularly violent ways.
Good to see that UNHCR is addressing an contemporary problem that most people probably assumed was relegated to an Arthur Miller play.

(image from flickr user drurydrama under a Creative Commons license)
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How About A Billion For International Family Planning Assistance?

As folks who have been following our After the Gag Rule salon know, President Obama has restored American funding for international family planning assistance.  It is now up to Congress to decide precisely how much money should go to this worthwhile cause.  Engender Health says $1 billion for international family planning assistance is about right.  In budgetary terms this is not an insignificant sum, but neither is it a bank-breaker.  A modest investment like this will pay enormous dividends down the road.  Watch the video and sign the petition.


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NATO Drills (and Cameras)

Kudos to British Foreign Secretary David Miliband for calling Germany out on its sexist gifts to delegations at the NATO summit in France:

The German government are taking every opportunity to fight the downturn.  The large box in my (French) hotel room at the NATO summit was a Bosch drill (with extra drill bits).  But traditions die hard: women Foreign Ministers were given a Leica camera.

Better than DVDs that don't work, I suppose.

(image from flickr user Glenn Zucman under a Creative Commons license)

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Karzai Orders Review of Controversial Afghan Marriage Law

An update to a story we've covered on Dispatch:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he has ordered a review of a new law that critics say could legalize marital rape and restrict women's rights.

President Karzai said the Justice Ministry will study the law "very carefully." He vowed that if there is anything of concern, it will be sent back to parliament. The Afghan leader said concerns may have arisen because of mistranslation or misinterpretation.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday was among several world leaders who sharply criticized the law, which is intended to regulate family life within Afghanistan's Shi'ite community.

At a news conference in France, Mr. Obama called the law "abhorrent" and said his administration's views had been communicated to the Karzai government.

The United Nations Human Rights chief, Navi Pillay, said the legislation bars women from refusing sex with their husbands unless they are sick, and it forbids them from leaving their homes without their husband's permission. 

The law is an abomination and hopefully the international outcry is having an effect.

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New Afghan Law: Women Cannot Refuse Sex from Husbands

From an article titled Worse than the Taliban:

Hamid Karzai has been accused of trying to win votes in Afghanistan's presidential election by backing a law the UN says legalises rape within marriage and bans wives from stepping outside their homes without their husbands' permission.

The Afghan president signed the law earlier this month, despite condemnation by human rights activists and some MPs that it flouts the constitution's equal rights provisions.

The final document has not been published, but the law is believed to contain articles that rule women cannot leave the house without their husbands' permission, that they can only seek work, education or visit the doctor with their husbands' permission, and that they cannot refuse their husband sex. [Emphasis added]

On Huffington Post, Taylor Marsh writes, "After what happened in the Swat region, this was easily foreseen, especially with President Karzai's popularity plummeting and an election on the horizon."

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Reports of sexual assault by US military personnel up 8%

A troubling BBC report:
Reports of sexual assault by US military personnel against both fellow troops and civilians rose by 8% last year to 2,923, the Pentagon says. The number of incidents reported in Iraq and Afghanistan rose by about a quarter on the previous year to 163. Pentagon officials say the jump in reports suggests the department's policy of encouraging victims to come forward is bearing results. But they estimate that no more than 20% of attacks are actually reported. "Given the fear and stigma associated with the crime, sexual assault remains one of our nation's most under-reported crimes in both the military and civilian community," said Dr Kaye Whitley, the director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault and Prevention Office.
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“In Afghanistan, Where Motherhood is Dangerous”

A UN-produced video on Fistula in Afghanistan. Apparently, there is only one facility in the whole country where obstetric fistula is surgically treated. UPDATE: A reader corrects me: "Actually, the video reports that, in addition to the special unit in Kabul, surgery for fistula has also been performed at the provincial hospital in Badakhshan, in northeast Afghanistan (among other hospitals)."