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IRELAND: Ireland to lay bare scandal of baby deaths at Church-run homes

Relatives have alleged the babies at mother and baby homes were mistreated because they were born to unmarried women.


Al Jazeera (12.01.2021) – https://bit.ly/3i783Zv – One of the Catholic Church’s darkest chapters will be revisited on Tuesday when an Irish inquiry into death rates among newborns at church-run homes for unwed mothers hands down its final report.


Relatives have alleged the babies at the mother and baby homes were mistreated because they were born to unmarried women who, like their children, were seen as a stain on Ireland’s image as a devout Catholic nation.


The 3,000-page report is due to be published by mid-afternoon following the five-year investigation by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation.


It is expected to reveal that 9,000 children – one in seven – died in the 18 institutions investigated between 1922 and 1998, when the last one closed, according to a leaked version of the report obtained by the Sunday Independent, an Irish newspaper.


The institutions, which doubled as orphanages and adoption agencies, were established across Ireland throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.


While run by nuns, they received state funding and were also regulated by the state.


Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Monday said the report into their history made for difficult reading.


“One of the things that hit me was the extent to which this was an enormous societal failure and an enormous societal shame that we have a stolen generation of children who did not get the upbringing they should have,” he told national broadcaster RTE.


Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin is expected to issue a formal state apology to the victims in the country’s parliament on Wednesday.


Tuam ‘chamber of horrors’ prompts investigation


Tens of thousands of women, including rape victims, were sent to the homes to give birth.


Government records show that the mortality rate for children at the homes was often more than five times that of those born to married parents.


The commission into the institutions was formed in 2014 after evidence of an unmarked mass graveyard at an institution in Tuam, in the western county of Galway, was uncovered by amateur local historian Catherine Corless.


Corless found death certificates confirming that nearly 800 children had died at the site, but there were no burial records.


She said she had been haunted by childhood memories of skinny children from the home.


Excavations in 2017 revealed “significant quantities of human remains” in 20 underground chambers in a decommissioned sewage tank on the site’s grounds, the commission said in an interim report.


Then-Prime Minister Enda Kenny described the burial site at Tuam as a “chamber of horrors”.


The grim revelations have further tarnished the Catholic Church’s reputation in Ireland, which has been shattered in recent years by a series of tragedies that includes abuse at workhouses, forced adoptions of babies born out of wedlock and priests who have sexually assaulted children.


During the first papal visit to the country in almost four decades in 2018, Pope Francis begged for forgiveness for the scandals.

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IRAN Gov’t approves bill against domestic violence

Masoumeh Ebtekar, vice president for women and family affairs, dedicated the move to ‘worthy and patient Iranian women’ in a tweet.


By Maziar Motamedi


Al Jazeera (04.01.2021) – https://bit.ly/35dPcqk – The government of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has approved a longstanding bill that aims to better protect women against domestic and other forms of violence.


In a meeting on Sunday evening, cabinet ministers greenlit the draft bill, called Protection, Dignity and Security of Women Against Violence, which has been in the works since the administration of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


The bill must now be reviewed and approved by the parliament, after which it will be sent to the powerful constitutional vetting body called the Guardian Council, consisting of jurists and religious experts.


The most senior woman in Rouhani’s outgoing government hailed the move, which she said was the result of hundreds of hours of work by tens of legal experts, judges, executives and officials.


Masoumeh Ebtekar, vice president for women and family affairs, dedicated the 58-article bill to “worthy and patient Iranian women” in a tweet.


The legislation completed its lengthy process of review by the judiciary in September 2019.


It defines violence as “any behavior inflicted on women due to sexuality, vulnerable position or type of relationship, and inflicts harm to their body, psyche, personality and dignity, or restricts or deprives them of legal rights and freedoms”.


It obligates the judiciary to create offices to support victims of violence and hold educational courses for judges and other judiciary staff.


The bill also envisages the formation of a fund by the judiciary to support victims of violence and help imprisoned women, among other things.


The state broadcaster is also directed by the legislation to produce more programmes that promote the support of women and the prevention of violence against them as family values.


Moreover, the bill sees a role for the ministry of education in holding educational courses for students, teachers and parents, and in better identifying vulnerable students.


The ministry of health, on the other hand, is tasked by the draft bill to boost its medical and psychological services to women and train experts in handling women who have fallen victim to violence.


Law enforcement and prison organisations are among other entities that will have to increase their efforts as part of the vision laid out in the legislation.


In a report published last month, rights group Human Rights Watch said the bill had several positive provisions, including those that engaged different parts of the government and other entities in women’s issues.


But the New York-based organisation said the bill “falls short of international standards” as it does not criminalise some forms of gender-based violence, including marital rape and child marriage.


The bill was finalised by the government after several high-profile incidents concerning women that took centre stage nationally during the past year.


In late May 2020, a 14-year-old girl called Romina Ashrafi was gruesomely beheaded by her father in an apparent case of “honour-killing”. The father was given a nine-year jail sentence.


In September, decades-old sexual traumas were unearthed as Iranian women launched their own version of the global #MeToo movement on social media.


The movement implicated several high-profile artists and one major company, and led to at least one arrest.

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Transgender Pakistanis find solace in a church of their own

For transgender Christians shunned by their own community, the new church is a refuge from a lifetime of pain.


Al Jazeera (26.11.2020) – https://bit.ly/3lAkU6C – Pakistan’s Christian transgender people, often mocked, abused and bullied, say they have found peace and solace in a church of their own.


Shunned by other churches, they can raise their voices high here.


During a recent service, transgender women, scarves loose over their long hair, conducted Bible readings and raucously sang hymns, accompanied by the rhythms of a drum played by a transgender elder in the church.


The church, called the First Church of Eunuchs, is the only one for transgender Christians in Pakistan.


“Eunuch” is a term often used for transgender women in South Asia, though some consider it derogatory.


The church’s pastor and co-founder Ghazala Shafique said she chose the name to make a point, citing at length verses from the Bible saying “eunuchs” are favoured by God.


In Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, on the Arabian Sea coast, it sits in the shadow of a towering brownstone cathedral, where the congregation says they do not feel welcome.

“People looked at us with eyes that are laughing at us,” said Nena Soutrey, a transgender woman whose life has been a tragedy of beatings, bullying and abuse.


“No one wants to sit near us and some even say we are an abomination. But we’re not. We are humans. We are people. What is wrong with us? This is who we are,” she said, wearing a bright red scarf over her shoulders.


Transgender women and men of all faiths are often publicly bullied and humiliated or even face violence in Pakistan, though the government has recognised them officially as a third gender.


Often disowned by their families, they resort to begging and work as wedding dancers. They are often sexually abused and end up as sex workers.


A minority within a minority


Transgender Christians are a minority within a minority in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.


Christians and other religious minorities often face discrimination and feel their place is tenuous.


While the community can find support among themselves, transgender Christians are most often rejected.


At churches, they are told to sit at the back and sometimes told not to dress as a woman.


Arsoo, a transgender woman, said in churches with separate women’s and men’s sections, she was bounced back and forth, told by the women to sit with the men and told by the men to sit with the women.


“I found myself in such a confusing situation,” she said.


Arzoo said she loved to sing the hymns or recite the Bible but in churches she attended they asked her not to sing.

“I would try to come in front but the others, they considered it a dishonour if we participate,” she said.


“I don’t understand why they feel like this. We are human too, born of our parents. The way God created them, God also created us.”


At their new church, the pastor, Shafique, celebrates the nearly three-hour service, but it is the transgender congregation that takes the lead.


The church is set up in the courtyard outside Shafique’s home. Brightly coloured carpets give warmth to the cement yard.


Pale blue plastic chairs, many of them dirty and cracked, serve as pews.


It is located in the same sprawling compound as the cathedral, protected by high walls and a steel gate.


But there is no mistaking that the humble church belongs to them: A giant six-foot billboard emblazoned with a large cross proudly announces in English, “The First Church for Eunuchs”.


‘Khwaja sira’


An Urdu translation underneath uses the term transgender Pakistanis more often use for themselves, “khwaja sira”.


Shafique, a rare female pastor in Pakistan, was first approached about starting the church by an unexpected advocate, a Muslim – Neesha Rao, Pakistan’s only transgender lawyer.


Rao tells with pride how she begged on the streets for 10 years to put herself through law school.


Rao said she was moved by her transgender Christian friends who were often afraid to announce their faith, fearing a further abuse, but also could not find solace among fellow Christians.


“I am a Muslim child and a Muslim transgender, but I had a pain in my heart for the Christian transgenders,” said Rao as she attended a Friday evening service.


She attends every week, she said, standing behind the worshippers.


Shafique belongs to the Church of Pakistan, a united Protestant Church of Anglican, Methodist and Reform Churches.


‘Theological issues’


So far, her efforts with the hierarchy to get her church recognised have been rebuffed.


“They tell me there are theological issues,” Shafique said. “I am still waiting to hear what those theological issues are.”


She is sharply critical of clerics who would rather want transgender congregants to be invisible or stay away altogether and of parents who reject their transgender children.


“Church elders have told me they are not clean … that they are not righteous,” she said.


“We reject them … and then they become so broken and then they get into all bad things. I say we are to be blamed, the church and the parents.”


Pakistan’s recognition of a third gender was a remarkable move for the conservative country.


It was life-changing for many because it allowed them to acquire identity cards, needed for everything from getting a driver’s license to opening a bank account.


“This is a great step,” Shafique said. But she added it does not change attitudes.


Parents often refuse to give their transgender children their birth certificates needed to get an ID card or forbid them to use their family name.


A refuge from pain


For Soutrey, the church is a refuge from a lifetime of pain.


Tears welled up and her voice cracked as she told of how her mother died when she was just 12, and her brothers beat and insulted her.


Finally, she fled to live on the streets and found acceptance within the transgender community.


She has stopped going out at night because of harassment and abuse.


“First thing I want to say is no one should have to suffer as transgenders suffer,” said Soutrey, between her tears.


“People treat us worse than dogs,” she said, even in mainstream churches she attended.


“This church is important for us because we are free and happy sitting here, worshipping the God who created us.”

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Taiwan celebrates LGBTQ rights after virus lockdown lifts

While Taiwan’s borders remains closed to most foreigners, organisers still expect to attract more than 100,000 people to the gay pride event.


By Erin Hale


Al Jazeera (31.10.2020) – https://bit.ly/3250QCi – With a backdrop of uncharacteristically sunny skies and cool autumn air, thousands walked through Taiwan’s capital for the Taipei Pride on Saturday afternoon in the largest event of its kind in Asia this year which has seen drastic COVID-19 lockdowns in some parts.


Some were dressed in Halloween costumes, others in drag or street clothes. There were rainbow emblems everywhere.


Life has remained relatively normal in Taiwan since the late spring as the island this week marked 200 days without a local transmission of COVID-19, although borders remain closed to most foreigners and precautions remain on public transit.


Last year’s Taipei Pride parade drew 200,000 participants from all over the world just several months after Taiwan became the first in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.


“In past years, a lot of tourists come from abroad, usually from 20 to 30 countries. This week because of the lockdown of the border, we expect there will be fewer foreigners, but we also expect people from other cities in Taiwan may come to Taipei to join the parade,” said Shao Li-Yi, chairperson of Pride organiser Taiwan Rainbow Civil Action Association (TWRCAA).


Shao predicted between 100,000 and 130,000 participants on Saturday although numbers were still uncertain.


While most Pride events around the world are held in June to coincide with the anniversary of New York’s Stonewall riots – a crucial turning point in LGBTQ history – Taipei typically holds the event in October to avoid the steamy summer heat and heavy rains.


SueAnn Shiah, a Taiwanese-American filmmaker and artist who identifies as queer, said she was excited about Taiwan getting a global boost for Pride and celebrating how the island has successfully contained the coronavirus.


“I’m really glad Taiwan gets to be celebrated in the world arena where Taiwan is usually ignored. This is one thing we can be proud about. Before COVID-19, Taiwan was number one in Asia [for legalising same-sex marriage] and now Taiwan is number 1 in handing COVID-19,” said Shiah.


“What it means is that our country has a sense of dignity. When it comes to pride you can understand it as a vice, as arrogance, or with pride you can understand it in as sense of: ‘We are not ashamed’.”


This year’s event also comes on the heels of another milestone for Taiwan as same-sex couples took part on Friday for the first time ever in a mass military wedding ceremony.


But while Taiwan is often depicted as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in Asia, activists say there are still many uphill battles from the community.


While same-sex couples are allowed to marry, the rules are less clear for couples with a foreign partner. They are also not allowed to adopt children as a couple and surrogacy remain illegal. Trans-rights are also still in their infancy.


Public attitudes towards same-sex couples are generally more accepting than other parts of Asia, thanks in part to the fact homosexuality was never illegal, but that is in part because attitudes towards gender norms vary from those in the West, said Shiah.


“Here in Taiwan you see women holding hands all the time, they could be couples or they could be straight because of different cultural norms,” said Shiah.


“I often see two boys on the same bicycle one on the back, and in the US people would think that was ‘gay.’ Here, that’s not the connotation because of a different understanding of masculinity and gender norms.”


In some corners, however, conservative views persist.


President Tsai Ing-wen, an unmarried woman in her mid-60s, has come under attack at home and abroad over her sexual orientation, although it was not uncommon for women of her generation who entered politics to not marry.


Conservative Christian denominations from the West, whose adherents can receive special missionary visas, have also influenced public views towards same-sex issues. In the lead up to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in May 2019, these groups were cited as a key reason marriage equality failed in a national referendum.


This week organisers of a National Prayer Breakfast in Taiwan also cancelled their event after Tsai posted support for Taipei Pride on here Facebook page.


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Colombia sees surge in femicides amid uptick in violence

Femicide Observatory records 86 killings of women and girls in September, the highest monthly total since 2017.


By Megan Janetsky


Al Jazeera (20.10.2020) – https://bit.ly/34t1USc – Letica Estacio hoped the wave of gender-based violence that surged during the coronavirus lockdown in Colombia would slow after the South American country eased restrictions in early September.


But after the five-month lockdown was lifted, femicides – the killing of women due to their gender – surged across the country, data from Colombia’s Femicide Observatory shows.


An average of nearly three women a day were killed in Colombia in September, with 86 femicides recorded in the month. It is the highest monthly total researchers have documented since they began tracking the killings in 2017.


Watchdogs said the spike in violence against women is a product of compounding long-term ripple effects of the pandemic – a resurgence of armed group violence and economic fallout – that disproportionately affect women.


“Every day the conflict gets worse and worse. The narcotrafficking, the killings,” said Estacio, a 52-year-old women rights leader in the western coastal city of Tumaco. “It’s incredibly heavy, and even more so for women.”


Surge in gender-based violence


At the beginning of the pandemic, countries across the world saw rises in domestic violence as lockdowns restrictions closed women in with their abusers. Latin America, a region which recorded high rates of gender-based violence before the pandemic, felt that even more acutely.


Estacio and other leaders in Tumaco, a hub for narcotrafficking and armed conflict, were overwhelmed by an initial surge in domestic violence cases after the country entered a nationwide lockdown in March.


But as the state diverted resources from some parts of the country in order to focus on bringing the coronavirus outbreak under control, a patchwork of criminal groups – left-wing fighters, right-wing paramilitaries and narcotrafficking gangs – moved into areas vacated by the government and waged territorial war.


“Here, there’s no such thing as law,” Estacio said.


As a result, mass killings and similar bloodshed reminiscent of times before the country’s 2016 peace process have jumped country-wide.


Sexual and gender-based violence have long been used as tools of war to sow terror in communities. Now, Estefania Rivera Guzman, a researcher at the Observatory, is concerned that the strategic targeting of women could be on the uptick.


So far in 2020, the group has registered 445 cases of femicide, up from 431 cases across the same period in 2019. The numbers recorded in September were more than double levels witnessed earlier this year.


Since September, women’s rights leaders have also noted another disturbing development: As armed groups clash in rural areas and exploit vulnerabilities caused by the pandemic to increase child recruitment, there has been a spike in the number of women and girls killed by firearms.


In recent weeks, one man pleaded guilty to beating and stabbing a woman who rejected his sexual advances, throwing her into the western Cauca River where her body was found floating.


Near Tumaco, armed men reportedly stopped and shot up the car of a local women’s and Indigenous rights leader.


And in the central town of Segovia, one 14-year-old girl was reportedly killed by a hitman and, a day after being buried, her body was found unearthed and naked in the cemetery.


“It’s these acts of violence that are so extreme that they send a message,” Rivera Guzman said. “And the message isn’t just for women, but also for the men who live in the zone, and it’s: Who has the power?”


While officials in Segovia said they “reject all violent acts” against women and girls and police say they are investigating the crime, the majority of femicides in the country end in impunity.


In Tumaco, Estacio and other observers say women are often too scared to report gender-based violence because men working with armed groups camp outside government offices where women would normally report.


Economic distress


Meanwhile, the economic fallout caused by the pandemic and the lockdowns has disproportionately affected women, putting them at heightened risk.


Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Colombia had one of the highest economic gender gaps in Latin America. In recent months, female-dominated industries like tourism and the service sector have taken severe hits.


In August, the unemployment rate for women was 21.7 percent, and the unemployment rate for men was 31.4 percent, according to the most recent government data.


Estacio said women in her community who would normally support themselves by working informally and selling street food were left with no income, as work dried up amid the lockdown.


It has stripped at-risk women of “economic autonomy”, explained Carolina Mosquera, researcher at the Bogota-based think-tank, Sisma Mujer. And with it, their ability to escape from an abusive situation that could escalate to something as extreme as femicide.


In one recent case, a woman called the organisation’s domestic abuse helpline, and they worked to get her out of her home where she was being abused by her husband. Hours later, when they called back, she told aid workers she could not leave because she was surviving off her husband’s salary.


When they tried to follow up “she simply stopped answering.”


“It’s a loss of 10 years of work toward gender equality because women are returning to these patriarchal spaces,” Mosquera said. “It brings us back to this old dynamic of the man as the provider and the woman who cares for the home.”


The pandemic left more than 15,000 women in Colombia at extreme risk of femicide, according to the National Institute for Legal Medicine and Forensic Science. Similar upticks have been seen in other Latin American countries like Guatemala and Mexico.


While local and national governments attempted to respond to the violence, setting up resources like local and national domestic violence attention lines, critics have said it is not enough and that women lack effective judicial resources.


Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office, which oversees the protection of human rights, declined to comment, saying that due to lack of state presence caused by the pandemic, they haven’t been able to officially register the femicides.


“A line doesn’t guarantee access to justice, to a restitution of their rights. No, a call is just a call.” Mosquera said. “This effort by the government falls short compared to the volume of cases, killings and violence we’ve seen in the pandemic.”

Photo: Women protest against violence against women with a sign reading ‘Sexual violence as a war weapon still exists in Colombia’ in Medellin, Colombia, on June 19, 2020, amid the new coronavirus pandemic [Photo by Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP]

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