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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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WORLD: ‘Toxic’: Online abuse drives women, girls from social media

New study finds nearly 60 percent of women and girls using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have suffered abuse.

 

Al Jazeera (05.10.2020) – https://bit.ly/34vvZPL – Online abuse is driving girls to quit social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with nearly 60 percent experiencing harassment, according to a new global study.

 

One in five girls and young women has abandoned or cut down her use of a social media platform after being targeted, with some saying harassment started when they were as young as eight years old, the survey by girls’ equality group Plan International showed.

 

“Girls are being silenced by a toxic level of harassment,” the organisation’s chief executive, Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, said on Sunday.

 

Attacks were most common on Facebook, where 39 percent of girls polled said they had been harassed, followed by Instagram (23 percent), WhatsApp (14 percent), Snapchat (10 percent), Twitter (9 percent) and TikTok (6 percent).

 

The charity, which will share the report with social media companies and legislators around the world, said the abuse was suppressing girls’ voices at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the importance of online communication.

 

It called on social media companies to take urgent action to address the issue and urged governments to pass laws to deal with online harassment.

 

The study found reporting tools were ineffective in stopping the abuse, which included explicit messages, pornographic photos and cyberstalking.

 

Nearly half of the girls targeted had been threatened with physical or sexual violence, according to the poll. Many said the abuse took a mental toll, and a quarter felt physically unsafe.

 

“It is time for this to stop. Girls should not have to put up with behaviour online which would be criminal on the streets,” the report said.

 

Facebook and Instagram said they used artificial intelligence to look for bullying content, constantly monitored users’ reports of abuse and always removed rape threats.

 

Twitter said it also used technology to catch abusive content and has launched tools to improve users’ control over their conversations.

 

The survey polled 14,000 girls and young women aged 15 to 25 in 22 countries including Brazil, India, Nigeria, Spain, Thailand and the United States.

 

Albrectsen said activists, including those campaigning for gender equality and on LGBT+ issues, were often targeted particularly viciously, and their lives and families threatened.

 

“Driving girls out of online spaces is hugely disempowering in an increasingly digital world, and damages their ability to be seen, heard and become leaders,” she added.

 

In an open letter to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, girls from around the world called on social media companies to create more effective ways to report abuse.

 

“We use [your platforms] not just to connect with friends, but to lead and create change. But they are not safe for us. We get harassed and abused on them. Every. Single. Day,” they wrote.

 

“As this global pandemic moves our lives online, we are more at risk than ever.”

 

Plan International also urged the companies to do more to hold to account those behind such abuse, and to collect data on the scale of the problem.





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India: Dalit woman dies weeks after gang rape, triggering protest

The 19-year-old victim was gang raped by four men in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras town, about 100km from New Delhi.

 

Al Jazeera (29.09.2020) – https://bit.ly/34cR2GZ – A woman died in hospital in the Indian capital, New Delhi, on Tuesday, weeks after authorities said she was raped by a group of men, triggering protests and opposition criticism over what it said was a failure to protect women.

 

Her case was the latest in a string of gruesome crimes against women in India that have given it the dismal reputation of being one of the worst places in the world to be female.

 

One woman reported a rape every 15 minutes on average in India in 2018, according to the latest government data released in January.

 

“There is next to no protection for women. Criminals are openly committing crimes,” Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a leader of the opposition Congress party, said on Twitter.

 

The 19-year-old victim, belonging to the Dalit community – formerly known as “untouchables” – was attacked and raped on September 14 at a field near her home in Hathras district, 100km (62-mile) from New Delhi, authorities said.

 

Police have arrested four men in connection with the crime.

 

On Monday, the woman was brought from a hospital in Uttar Pradesh state to New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, where she died while undergoing treatment, authorities said.

 

About 300 protesters from the Bhim Army, a party championing the rights of Dalits, entered the hospital building and shouted slogans near the mortuary where the woman’s body was kept.

 

“We will take the matter to fast-track court for the faster investigation and collection of evidence,” district authorities in Hathras said in a statement.

 

#Hathras trended on Twitter as social media users expressed outrage at the latest case of gruesome sexual assault.

 

The woman’s home state of Uttar Pradesh, which is governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ranks as the most unsafe state for women in the country.

 

Last December, a 23-year-old Dalit woman was set ablaze by a gang of men as she made her way to a court in Uttar Pradesh to press rape charges.





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Pakistan arrests suspect in highway gang rape case amid protests

One of two suspects arrested amid demonstrations over handling of probe into attack on mother travelling with children.

 

Al Jazeera (13.09.2020) – https://bit.ly/3kfZNGp – Pakistani police say they have arrested one of two suspects in the rape of a woman who was dragged from her car and attacked after her car broke down on a desolate highway in central Punjab province.

 

The woman, who police say is in her early 30s, was driving late on Wednesday night outside the eastern city of Lahore with her two children when her vehicle ran out of fuel.

 

She phoned the police for help, but before they arrived, two men took her and her children out of the vehicle at gunpoint and raped her in a field along the highway.

 

The suspects are also accused of stealing cash and jewelry from the woman before fleeing.

 

Chief of the criminal investigation wing of the Punjab police, Atif Nazeer, on Sunday said the arrest of one of the men was made after they tracked phone records and collected forensic evidence from the scene.

 

Nazeer said the suspect denies any involvement in the rape. Local media reported that the suspect turned himself over to police to plead his innocence.

 

The arrest came after protests continued across Pakistan for a second day on Saturday over the handling of an investigation into the assault.

 

Inam Ghani, Inspector General of Punjab province had told reporters on Saturday night that police had identified the two suspects through DNA tracing.

 

“I am hopeful very soon we will reach them and arrest them,” he said.

 

Musarrat Cheema, a spokesperson in the eastern Punjab province, said raids were being conducted to find the culprits.

 

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s office said the protection of women is a first priority and responsibility of the government, adding that “such brutality and bestiality cannot be allowed in any civilised society”.

 

But protesters are not satisfied, and called for the sacking of the lead police investigator assigned to the case, Omar Sheikh, who has reportedly pointed out what he felt the victim had done wrong.

 

Sheikh is reported to have said the woman should have taken a different, busier, highway, not travelled at night, and made sure her vehicle had enough fuel.

 

He also said she appeared to be under the impression Pakistan was as safe for women as France, “her country of residence”. Requests for comment to the French Embassy in Islamabad went unanswered

 

In Islamabad, several hundred protesters gathered, some waved French flags, and others held signs saying “hang the rapists”.

 

“It’s very simple, these sort of incidents are not very new the issue is that rather than catching the criminals or catching the perpetrators, we always blame the victims,” said Aleena Alvi.

 

“I think the laws have also changed around the rape victims, there was a law of women’s protection act, instead of this act, there has now been no protection that has been given to victims.”

 

Hundreds, mostly women, also gathered in Lahore, Karachi, and the northwestern city of Peshawar. “Shatter the silence, stop the violence,” read one placard in Peshawar.

 

Global rights watchdogs have pointed out that Pakistan has not done enough to stem violence against women, including ensuring perpetrators are held accountable.

 

The attack has especially angered women who say public space in the country was already limited.

 

“And now the police are telling you that you are responsible for your own safety,” said Yamna Rehman at the Islamabad protest, organised by the Women Democratic Front collective.





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Pakistani Christian sentenced to death for ‘blasphemous texts’

Asif Pervaiz, 37, who has been in custody since 2013, given death penalty for sending ‘blasphemous’ text messages.

 

By Asad Hashim

Al Jazeera (08.09.2020) – https://bit.ly/2Fi6rNf – A court in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore has sentenced a Christian man to death for having committed “blasphemy”, his lawyer says, in the latest case of Pakistan’s strict religious laws being applied against minorities.

 

Asif Pervaiz, 37, has been in custody since 2013 when he was accused of having sent “blasphemous” text messages to a former supervisor at work, lawyer Saif-ul-Malook told Al Jazeera.

 

The court rejected his testimony wherein he denied the charges and sentenced him to death on Tuesday.

 

“The complainant was a supervisor in a hosiery factory where Asif was working under him,” said Malook.

 

“He denied the allegations and said that this man was trying to get him to convert to Islam.”

 

Speaking in his own defence in court earlier in the trial, Pervaiz claimed the supervisor confronted him after he quit work at the factory, and when he refused to convert he was accused of having sent blasphemous text messages to the man.

 

Blasphemy laws

 

Muhammad Saeed Khokher, the complainant in the case, denies wanting to convert Parvaiz, according to his lawyer, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry.

 

“He has taken this defence after the fact, because he had no other clear defence,” Chaudhry told Al Jazeera. “That’s why he accused him of trying to convert him.”

 

Chaudhry said there were other Christian employees at the factory, but none have accused Khokher of proselytising.

 

Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws prescribe a mandatory death penalty for the crime of insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, and strict penalties for other infractions such as insulting Islam, the holy Quran or certain holy people.

 

There are currently at least 80 people in prison in Pakistan for the crime of “blasphemy”, with at least half of them facing life sentences or the death penalty, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

 

Those accused under the laws are mainly Muslim, in a country where 98 percent of the population follows Islam, but the laws disproportionately target members of minorities such as Christians and Hindus.

 

Aasia Bibi case

 

In one of the most high-profile blasphemy cases in the country’s history, the Supreme Court ruled in October 2018 that a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, had been framed in her case and that the laws had inadequate oversight for false accusations.

 

Those accusations can have deadly consequences. Since 1990, at least 77 people have been killed in connection with blasphemy allegations, according to an Al Jazeera tally.

 

Those killed have included people accused of blasphemy, their family members, lawyers and judges who have acquitted those accused of the crime. Bibi fled Pakistan in 2019 due to threats against her life.

 

The latest such murder took place in July when a man accused of blasphemy was shot six times in a courtroom during a hearing in his case.

 

His murderer was apprehended and was garlanded with roses by far-right supporters during subsequent court appearances.

 

This month has seen a sharp spike in blasphemy cases being registered in Pakistan, particularly in the most populous province of Punjab. Many of these cases have targeted the country’s sizeable Shia Muslim minority, which forms roughly 15 percent of the population.

 

Since a series of large-scale sit-in protests on the issue of blasphemy in 2017, political parties have increasingly been including messaging on blasphemy in their platforms.

 

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) political party, formed by firebrand scholar Khadim Hussain Rizvi ahead of the 2018 polls, campaigned on a platform based on defence of the blasphemy laws.

 

While it won few seats, it garnered the fourth-highest share of the countrywide popular vote by a single party.


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