Iran’s Rohani calls for stricter laws on ‘honor killings’ after beheading of 13-year-old girl

RFE/RL’s Radio Farda (27.05.2020) – – Iranian President Hassan Rohani has called for harsher laws to tackle so-called “honor killings” after the particularly shocking slaying of a teenage girl, allegedly by her father, prompted a nationwide outcry.


Rohani on May 27 pushed for the speedy adoption of relevant bills, some which have apparently circulated for years among various Iranian decision-making bodies without any tangible results.


The call comes after 13-year-old Romina Ashrafi was killed last week in Hovigh, some 320 kilometers northwest of Tehran.


Local media reported that the teenager was beheaded while she slept by her father, who used a farming sickle.


The father, Reza Ashrafi, was said to be enraged after Romina fled the family home to marry a 35-year-old man she loved.


Both of their families complained to the authorities, and security forces detained Romina and her boyfriend, Bahamn Khavari, following a five-day hunt.


Although Romina reportedly told police she would be in danger at home and feared for her life, the girl was handed over to her father as required by Iranian laws.


After the killing, the father allegedly turned himself in to police and confessed to the crime.


Hovigh district Governor Kazem Razmi said the man was in custody, charged with murder. He said the investigation into the case was still under way.


Meanwhile, the vice president for women’s affairs, Masoumeh Ebtekar, was quoted as announcing a “special order” from Rohani to investigate the killing.


Under current law, her father faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years if convicted.


According to the Islamic Penal Code, he was Romina’s “guardian,” so he is exempt from “retaliation in kind,” meaning the death penalty in this case.


Iranian media occasionally report on cases related to honor killings carried out by relatives, usually male family members, when the actions of women and girls are perceived as violating conservative traditions on love, marriage, and public behavior. It is not known how many women and girls die from such killings.


In 2014, a Tehran police official reported that 20 percent of all murders in the country were “honor” killings.


Romina’s boyfriend apparently faces no penalty since under Iran’s laws, girls can marry after the age of 13, though the average age of marriage for Iranian women is 23.

Countries need to do more to stop harmful marketing of breast-milk substitutes, says UN

Despite efforts to stop the harmful promotion of breast-milk substitutes, countries are still falling short in protecting parents from misleading information, according to a new UN report released Wednesday.

UN News (27.05.2020) – –  Titled Marketing of Breast‐milk Substitutes: National Implementation of the International Code – Status report 2020, the study highlights the need for stronger legislation to protect families from false claims about the safety of breast-milk substitutes or aggressive marketing practices, findings that take on increased importance during the COVID-19 pandemic.


The UN World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Baby Food Action Network collaborated in the report’s publication.


Impact of aggressive marketing


“The aggressive marketing of breast-milk substitutes, especially through health professionals that parents trust for nutrition and health advice, is a major barrier to improving newborn and child health worldwide,” says Francesco Branca, Director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety.


“Health care systems must act to boost parent’s confidence in breastfeeding without industry influence so that children don’t miss out on its lifesaving benefits.”


WHO and UNICEF encourage women to continue to breastfeed during the pandemic, even if they have confirmed or suspected COVID-19, as evidence indicate it is unlikely that COVID-19 would be transmitted through breastfeeding. “The numerous benefits of breastfeeding substantially outweigh the potential risks of illness associated with the virus,” the authors find.


Of the 194 countries analyzed, 136 have in place some form of legal measure related to the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions adopted by the World Health Assembly. While 44 countries have strengthened their regulations on marketing over the past two years, only 79 countries prohibit the promotion of breast-milk substitutes in health facilities, and only 51 have provisions banning the distribution of free or low-cost supplies within the health care system.


Further, only 19 countries have banned the sponsorship of professional association meetings by manufacturers of breast-milk substitutes, which include infant formula, follow-up formula and growing up milks marketed for use by infants and children up to 36-months old.


Trained healthcare professionals know best


WHO and UNICEF recommend that babies be fed nothing but breast milk for their first six months, after which they should continue breastfeeding – as well as eating other nutritious and safe foods – until two years of age, or beyond.


Babies who are exclusively breastfed are 14 times less likely to die than those who are not, the authors stress. Yet, only 41 per cent of infants 0–6 months old are exclusively breastfed, a rate WHO Member States have committed to increase to at least 50 per cent by 2025.


Inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes continues to undermine efforts to improve breastfeeding rates. Measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as physical distancing, meanwhile hamper community counselling and mother-to-mother support services for breastfeeding – leaving an opening for the breast-milk substitute industry to capitalize on the crisis.


“We must, more than ever, step up efforts to ensure that every mother and family receive the guidance and support they need from a trained health care worker to breastfeed their children, right from birth, everywhere,” stressed UNICEF Chief of Nutrition Victor Aguayo.


The Code bans all forms of promotion of breast-milk substitutes, including advertising, gifts to health workers and distribution of free samples. Labels cannot make nutritional and health claims or include images that idealize infant formula. Instead, labels must carry messages about the superiority of breastfeeding over formula and the risks of not breastfeeding.

In Yemen and around the world, obstetric fistula strikes the most vulnerable women

UNFPA (22.05.2020) – – Five years ago, Marwa* was a child bride living in the port city of Al Hudaydah. “I was almost 17 years old, and happy with my new life. I was a new bride and I got pregnant fast. I thought life was smiling at me,” she told UNFPA. She had no idea how quickly life would turn upside down.


Like many other women and girls in Yemen, she gave birth at home. But her labour was obstructed – a potentially fatal complication. Eventually, she delivered a healthy baby boy, but suffered a traumatic injury in the process – an obstetric fistula.


“I had sudden diarrhoea and faeces coming out of my birth canal,” she said. “I started to ask myself, why was this happening? I could not comprehend it.”


An obstetric fistula is a hole between the birth canal and bladder and/or rectum. It occurs during prolonged, obstructed labour without access to timely, high-quality medical treatment. The injury can cause chronic pain and infections, social rejection and deepening poverty.


This was Marwa’s fate: A month after her baby was born, her husband divorced her. “I had become what he described as ‘ruined’,” she said.


The most vulnerable women


This traumatic birth injury affects the world’s most vulnerable women – those living in extreme poverty, without access to timely emergency care. Child brides are particularly vulnerable; childbearing in adolescence can increase vulnerability to obstetric fistula. Those with malnutrition and poor health also face heightened risks.


Hundreds of thousands of women are living with obstetric fistula today. The persistence of this condition is a sign of global social injustice and inequity.


And it could be worsening.


Today, as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, health systems risk being overstretched. Transportation barriers, movement restrictions, rising costs and other effects of the pandemic are making it harder for labouring women to reach safe delivery services. “The absence of timely medical treatment will likely spur a dramatic increase in obstetric fistula,” said Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA’s Executive Director.


On 23 May, as the world observes the International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, UNFPA is sounding the alarm that the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls could be undermined. These services – including access to maternity care and safe delivery care – must be recognized as essential and life-saving.

Under the shadow of war


Marwa’s fistula was only the start of her troubles. Conflict had erupted in Yemen, throwing communities into poverty and hobbling the country’s health system.


“They told me to be patient and accept my fate… I was told that my life is over,” Marwa said, crying over the memory of that time. “I felt so sorry for myself, my youth and my newborn baby who would grow up without a father. I felt my whole life had been taken away from me. What did I do to deserve such fate? I asked that myself repeatedly.”


Marwa spent as much time and money as she could searching for a cure. “It was useless. I knocked on many doors,” she said.


Finally, she visited a midwife named Na’ama, who had received training from a UNFPA-funded programme. “She was my last resort and my only hope.”


By chance, Na’ama had taken a course on preventing and identifying obstetric fistula, and she knew just where Marwa could get care.


Na’ama contacted the National Midwives Association, which runs a UNFPA-supported fistula treatment programme. Marwa was put on a waiting list.


“One day they called me and asked me to travel to Sana’a within a week.”


The fistula programme covered all her travel expenses. She was even able to bring her sister to look after the baby, and a male cousin; women often require a male guardian to travel within the country.


Marwa underwent a successful treatment surgery at Al Thawra Hospital.


Now, she says her life has been transformed. “I forgot all the pain I had gone through. I just felt joy and happiness,” she said.


Support needed


UNFPA has supported the establishment of three fistula units across the country. Between 2018 and 2019, more than 100 fistula surgeries were successfully treated free of charge.


But today, Yemen’s health system is on the verge of collapse. Humanitarian funding for programmes in Yemen has dried up, even as the country grapples with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of reproductive health facilities have closer or are set to close in the coming weeks.


A pledging conference is scheduled to take place, virtually, on 2 June.


*Name changed to protect privacy

Somalia sees “massive” rise in FGM during lockdown and Ramadan

By Emma Batha


Thomson Reuters Foundation (18.05.2020) – – Somalia’s coronavirus lockdown has led to a huge increase in female genital mutilation (FGM), with circumcisers going door to door offering to cut girls stuck at home during the pandemic, a charity said on Monday.


Plan International said the crisis was undermining efforts to eradicate the practice in Somalia, which has the world’s highest FGM rate, with about 98% of women having been cut.


“We’ve seen a massive increase in recent weeks,” said Sadia Allin, Plan International’s head of mission in Somalia. “We want the government to ensure FGM is included in all COVID responses.”


She told the Thomson Reuters Foundation nurses across the country had also reported a surge in requests from parents wanting them to carry out FGM on their daughters while they were off school because of the lockdown.


FGM, which affects 200 million girls and women globally, involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia. In Somalia the vaginal opening is also often sewn up – a practice called infibulation.


The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned that the pandemic could lead to an extra two million girls worldwide being cut in the next decade as the crisis stymies global efforts to end the practice.


Allin said families in Somalia were taking advantage of school closures to carry out FGM so that the girls had time to recover from the ritual, which can take weeks.


The economic downturn caused by coronavirus has also spurred cutters to tout for more business, she said.


“The cutters have been knocking on doors, including mine, asking if there are young girls they can cut. I was so shocked,” said Allin, who has two daughters aged five and nine.


She said restrictions on movement during the lockdown were making it harder to raise awareness of the dangers of FGM in communities.


“FGM is one of the most extreme manifestations of violence against girls and women,” said Allin, who has been cut herself.


“It’s a lifetime torture for girls. The pain continues … until the girl goes to the grave. It impacts her education, ambition … everything.”


The UNFPA, which estimates 290,000 girls will be cut in Somalia in 2020, said the spike was also linked to Ramadan, which is a traditional time for girls to be cut.


UNFPA Somalia representative Anders Thomsen said the pandemic was shifting world attention and funding away from combatting FGM.


But he said there were also grounds for optimism, pointing to the recent criminalisation of FGM in neighbouring Sudan.


“There are glimmers of hope and we do hope and believe that may rub off on Somalia, which I would call ground zero for FGM,” he said.


New data also shows families are beginning to switch to less severe forms of FGM with 46% of 15 to 19-year-olds having been infibulated compared to more than 80% of their mothers.

EU: Online child sex abuse rises with COVID-19 lockdowns

Sexual abusers are trying to exploit children’s growing exposure to the internet during the pandemic.


By Francesco Guarascio & Nick Macfie


Thomson Reuters Foundation (18.05.2020) – – Online sex abuse of children in the European Union has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, the head of EU law enforcement agency Europol said on Monday, warning that more cases could emerge when schools reopen as teachers’ monitoring resumes.


Cybercrime has spiked during the epidemic with many people forced to work and shop online.


“What is most worrying is the increased online activity by those seeking child sexual abuse material,” Europol director Catherine De Bolle told a hearing in the EU Parliament.


De Bolle, a former head of the Belgian police, said the rise in paedophile activities was reported by national law enforcement authorities from the 27 EU states who saw higher access to illegal websites and shut more online platforms for the exchange of child sex material.


She said that Europol investigators had also intercepted offenders claiming easier access to children in conversations on the dark web, a part of the internet which is accessible only with specific software or authorisation.


Sexual abusers are trying to exploit children’s growing exposure to the web, as throughout lockdowns they turn to online lessons, sometimes through platforms that are not adequately secured, De Bolle said.


“We expect to have more and a better view on the situation when children will be able to go to school again and they will have the possibility to talk to teachers,” De Bolle told lawmakers.


In many European countries, schools are still shut to contain the pandemic.


Hot lines for reporting abuse also received more calls as children were locked down, De Bolle said. In March, these alerts rose in Spain to a record level for that period of the year, a Europol report showed.


“Using the internet to sexually exploit children today is easier than ever,” said ECPAT, a network of civil society organisations against the commercial sexual exploitation of children.


It said that it was now simpler for paedophiles to get in contact with children and to find like-minded offenders, “which also makes it easier to access, download, produce and share child sexual abuse material”.

PAKISTAN: Teenage girls shot dead by relatives over online footage

Father of one victim and brother of the other arrested in connection with the murders.


By Hannah Ellis-Petersen


The Guardian (17.05.2020) – – Two female teenagers in Pakistan have been murdered by family members after a video emerged online of them associating with a man.


The pair, said to be aged 16 and 18, were shot dead by male relatives in their remote village in North Waziristan this week after footage was posted online of them in the company of a young man in a secluded area.


After they were shot, the pair were then buried in the village by their family members.


Local police confirmed they had arrested the father of one of the victims, and the brother of the other victim, in connection with arranging and carrying out the murders, and they were now being held in custody.


The police are searching for two other family members believed to have been involved in the killings.


The footage of the women, which is less than a minute long, was said to have been filmed last year but only appeared on social media a few weeks ago. The police said they were still searching for a third young woman who also featured in the video to ensure she did not suffer the same fate.


The tribal areas in North and South Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan, are known for the strict “honour code” imposed on women, whose movements are heavily restricted and who are often not allowed out of the house unaccompanied.


So called “honour” killings remain common in Pakistan’s tribal areas, mainly against women who are believed to have brought shame on a family, and activists say up to 1,000 such killings are still carried out every year.


The issue was brought to the fore in Pakistan in September after three men were found guilty and sentenced to life behind bars for the killing of three women in Kohistan who had been caught on video singing and clapping at a wedding in 2011. The women’s bodies were never found.


Though against the law, “honour” killing cases were previously difficult to convict owing to a loophole in the law that allowed perpetrators to walk free if they were given a pardon by the victim’s family member.


However, the crimes now come with a mandated life sentence.