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TANZANIA: Australian women’s rights activist faces charges

Supporters says charges against Zara Kay, who has had her passport confiscated, are ‘politically motivated’.


By Daniel Hurst


The Guardian (03.01.2021) – https://bit.ly/393rFK8 – An Australian ex-Muslim women’s rights activist faces “politically motivated” charges in Tanzania, including for a tweet allegedly critical of the country’s president, according to her supporters.


The Australian government is providing consular assistance to Zara Kay, 28, the founder of Faithless Hijabi, a group set up two years ago to support women who are ostracised or face violence if they leave or question Islam.


Kay tweeted on 28 December she was “going into the police station because someone reported me in for blasphemy” and a few days later told her supporters she was out on bail but “still quite traumatised from everything”.


“Please don’t stop fighting for me,” she wrote. “They can try shaking me, but they won’t break me.”


The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on Sunday it was “providing consular assistance to an Australian in Tanzania”. But a spokesperson said Dfat would not provide further comment “owing to our privacy obligations”.


The case was first reported by the ABC on Sunday.


The International Coalition of Ex-Muslims issued a statement saying Kay had been held in police custody for 32 hours from 28 December “without an initial clear indication of charges” and had her passport confiscated.


It said she would be required to return the police station in Dar es Salaam, the administrative capital, on Tuesday.


According to the statement, the charges relate to three issues, including “a social media post deemed to be critical of the president of Tanzania” over the handling of Covid-19 in the east African country.


The International Coalition of Ex-Muslims said Kay was also accused of not returning her Tanzanian passport after gaining Australian citizenship, but added that “she never returned her Tanzanian passport as she misplaced and never used it after gaining Australian citizenship”.


The coalition said the final issue was the use of a mobile sim card registered in a family member’s name rather than her own name, under legislation that the group said “has been used to persecute other high-profile cases”.


“We believe these charges are politically motivated,” the coalition said.


“The International Coalition of Ex-Muslims reiterates its call on the Tanzanian government to immediately drop all the charges against Zara Kay and allow her to leave the country … We also call on the Australian authorities to intervene and get Zara home to safety.”


Kay, who was raised a Shia Muslim in Tanzania, told the Australian newspaper in 2019 that she had been forced to wear the hijab from the age of eight but took it off when she moved to Australia to study in her late teens.


She has renounced Islam and campaigns to help people who struggle when they similarly leave the faith. Kay has held speaking events in Australia on the topic: “Losing your religion can be hard, and for some, it can be fatal”.


Christians comprise about 61% of Tanzania’s population of 59 million people, while Muslims represent about 35%, according to past estimates, and it does not have blasphemy laws. The Australian newspaper reports that Kay faces sedition charges.


It is understood the types of assistance provided by Australian consular staff can include visiting prisons to monitor welfare, checking with local authorities about the Australian’s wellbeing, and providing contact details for local lawyers.


But consular staff typically notify Australians in trouble overseas that they cannot provide direct legal advice, intervene in legal cases or get Australians out of prison.

Photo: Dfat is giving consular assistance to Zara Kay, an Australian women’s rights activist in Tanzania. Her supporters say she is facing three charges, including one relating to a social media post allegedly critical of the president. Credit: CEMB.

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In conservative Kandahar, new gym creates safe space for Afghan women

Reuters (24.09.2020) – https://reut.rs/3kS9afG – In Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar, rights activist Maryam Durani has found a fresh outlet for her decades of advocacy – a new fitness centre for women.


Durani, 36, is a fierce campaigner for women’s rights in the conservative stronghold where the Islamist Taliban militant group have major sway and take a conservative stance on the position of women, who mostly wear the burqa in public.


She runs a radio station for women, has served on the provincial council and was presented with the International Women of Courage Award by Michelle Obama for in 2012. Last year, Durani switched tack to open a female-only gym, which draws about 50 women attend each day.


“The reaction of the ladies was very positive because they needed it,” she said, shortly after working out with a group of clients. “What bothered me was the reaction of the men…who reacted negatively to our club and even insulted me because they thought our club was in opposition to Sharia.”


With a troop withdrawal signed between the United States and the Taliban, who have fought a bloody war for 19 years, many women in Afghanistan worry the militant group may exert its influence through formal political channels.


When the Taliban ruled the country between 1996 and 2001, they banned education for females and barred women from leaving the house without a male relative.


The group says it has changed but many women remain sceptical.


“My only concern is about their view of women’s rights and what freedoms and restrictions they will impose on me,” said Durani.


For now, her focus is on serving the dozens of women who attend the club, whom she describes as a cross-section of society including housewives and women who work outside the home.


“My only wish is to be seen as a human in this society,” she said.

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Nowhere to turn for women facing violence in Kashmir

The threat of violence against women is escalating amid coronavirus lockdowns around the globe. But one region that has lived through a military clampdown for nearly a year – Indian-administered Kashmir – could have foretold the surge.


By Safina Nabi


The New Humanitarian (09.07.2020) – https://bit.ly/3095xcz – Being shut in by government order is nothing new in Kashmir, nor is the resulting spike in gender-based violence, women’s advocates say.


The region has seen decades of conflict, militarisation, protests, and violent crackdowns. Kashmir has essentially been on lockdown since August 2019, when India scrapped the region’s semi-autonomous status, bringing the former state of Jammu and Kashmir under direct control of the central government. Authorities imposed a communications blockade and security forces patrolled the streets, shut down public transportation, and closed markets.


Though some restrictions continued to ease in early 2020, India-wide coronavirus lockdowns beginning in March extended clampdown conditions in an already militarised region – and kept survivors of domestic violence shut in with their abusers.


Cases of domestic violence and general violence against women surged tenfold to more than 3,000 a year during a previous clampdown in 2016 and 2017, according to statistics from the Jammu and Kashmir State Commission for Women, a now-defunct government institution established to protect women and children’s rights and ensure quick prosecutions.


Today, Kashmir’s women face both the military lockdown and the pandemic, but there’s little help available for survivors of gender-based violence.


There are no domestic violence shelters in Kashmir. Blockades on mobile phone connections are frequently re-imposed, while movement restrictions hamper NGOs from doing their work. And India disbanded the women’s commission last year along with Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood – axing a government body that advocated for survivors of gender-based violence.


Locked in with abusers


Rafiqa, 39, says the military clampdown and the coronavirus have pushed her to a crisis point with her husband.


She spoke to The New Humanitarian on condition that her and her husband’s names be changed to protect her safety.


Rafiqa said her husband, Mushtaq, started hitting her a year after they were married, in 2006.


“He would often beat me with a leather belt,” she recalled. “Even an argument would lead to serious beating and abuse.”


The violence grew more intense after Mushtaq lost his job last August. Rafiqa said he started demanding that she turn over her salary from her government job.


“I handed over my salary to him. Now, he was asking me to get money from my father,” she said. “I refused. He picked up a cricket bat and beat me.”


Kashmir’s transportation shutdown and a mobile phone blackout that lasted until early 2020 kept Rafiqa from reaching her parents. Finally, she turned to a local religious leader for help.


Her husband was persuaded to stop hitting her, but he retaliated by pushing their children to distance themselves from her, Rafiqa said. The children are no longer allowed to sleep near her, or help with the twice-weekly dialysis treatments she has depended on for four years. She remains in her home with her husband.


Attorney Vasundhara Masoodi Pathak, who headed the Jammu and Kashmir women’s commission when it was disbanded last year, said she is now flooded with calls from women in need amid the coronavirus lockdowns. She said she rarely received urgent calls directly from women while the commission was operating.


Shops have largely stayed closed and security forces still patrol the streets; an overnight curfew is still in effect as COVID-19 cases rise. Military crackdowns on suspected insurgents, as well as escalating border tensions with China in neighbouring Ladakh – formerly a part of Jammu and Kashmir state – have kept the region on edge.


“In this lockdown, the tormenting husbands and in-laws have got an opportunity to harass women,” Pathak said. “Working women, who before the lockdown would somehow vent their pain and grievance either with peers, family, or friends, now find it very hard to spare even a jiffy to speak out, as they are under continuous and unwanted surveillance.”


Nowhere to turn


Since the women’s commission was shut down, victims of domestic violence no longer have a dedicated avenue for reporting abuse. There is only one women’s police station in the entire Kashmir valley, and male officers aren’t trained to handle domestic violence.


Unless a woman has severe injuries, most male police officers decline to take such reports, telling victims instead that the assaults are a family matter, said Shah Faisal, state director of the Human Rights Law Network, a collective of Indian lawyers and activists who provide legal support to vulnerable populations.


“Since most of the state machinery is engaged to fight COVID-19, there is no quick respite for the victims,” Faisal said. “With [the] women’s commission no more, women have no access to the justice system and are more vulnerable than ever.”


Women who have been attacked also lack access to medical facilities, because many out-patient departments in public and private hospitals have closed.


The government’s social welfare department reported 16 rape cases and 64 molestations in Jammu and Kashmir during the first month of coronavirus lockdowns, 20 March to 29 April. But Pathak said that government data is almost certainly an undercount, as there has been confusion about how to report gender-based violence during the full military lockdown that followed the region’s August shutdown. The same department reported zero allegations over the six months before the pandemic.


Nighat Shafi Pandit, a women’s advocate and chairperson of the Srinagar-based Help Foundation, said that “COVID-19 has impacted women badly.”


Nighat, who runs a resource centre for domestic violence survivors, said she never feared venturing out to help during the military lockdown last year, but she has restricted herself to her home during the pandemic.


“One cannot meet the need in person and can’t know their needs virtually,” she said. “Even if women complain, we cannot help or reach them because there is no shelter in the entire Kashmir valley where women can take refuge.”


With few resources for survivors, women like Sameena, a 29-year-old Kashmir resident, are trying to break the cycle of violence on their own.


She said her husband started beating her days after their wedding in September.


The abuse continued through the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when she suffered a miscarriage after her husband raped her.


She spent two days in an emergency ward before a doctor discharged her early, fearing COVID-19 infections.


With nowhere else to turn, she went home to her parents – even though they pushed for the arranged marriage in the first place.


“My parents will tell me to compromise, but I have made up my mind” to divorce, Sameena said. “If he can kill our child, he can kill me as well.”

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WORLD: Including widows in the work to “build back better” from COVID-19

Statement for International Widows Day by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.


UN Women (23.06.2020) – https://bit.ly/31n2pfk – Over the past several months, we have seen the myriad ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic impacts the lives of women and men differently. Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the effects of the pandemic are exacerbated for women and girls. At the same time, mortality from the virus tends to be higher for men. UN Women’s data hub, Women Count, presents World Health Organization data that shows men account for 59 per cent of coronavirus deaths in Italy, 68 per cent in Mexico and 77 per cent in Thailand. This represents a devastating human loss, and one that is likely leaving tens of thousands of women newly widowed at just the time when they are cut off from their usual socio-economic and family supports.


Already, widows were largely unseen, unsupported and unmeasured in our societies. The latest figures that we have (2015) estimate that some 258 million women globally have been widowed. The actual number is likely to be much higher and to grow further as the coronavirus and its related effects on health continue to rage around the world.


Experience from past pandemics, for example HIV/AIDS and Ebola, shows that widows are often denied inheritance rights, have their property grabbed after the death of a partner, and can face extreme sigma and discrimination, as perceived ‘carriers’ of disease. Worldwide, women are much less likely to have access to old age pensions than men, so the death of a spouse can lead to destitution for older women. In the context of lockdowns and economic closures, widows may not have access to bank accounts and pensions to pay for healthcare if they too become ill or to support themselves and their children. With lone-mother families and single older women already particularly vulnerable to poverty, this is an area that needs urgent attention.


Governments must provide immediate support, while working to revamp social and economic structures in the long-term. In addition to legal reform to ensure that widows have equal inheritance and property rights, we need to see fiscal stimulus programmes that support widows and older single women economically. For example, the reach and benefit levels of social assistance programmes such as cash transfers and social pensions should be expanded and these benefits must be accessible to those without bank accounts. It is critical to invest in the work of civil society, in particular grassroots and community-based groups, who can provide widows with vital support at the local level and challenge the discriminatory, sometimes deadly social norms that they face.


Widows must not be left out of our work to “build back better” from COVID-19. Let us ensure that our recovery prioritizes their unique needs and supports societies to be more inclusive, resilient and equal for all.

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Iran: Shocking charges against jailed women’s rights activists, who must be released amid second COVID-19 peak

GCHR (22.06.2020) – https://bit.ly/2VyzBgz – The world has been facing a pandemic that left prisoners including human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience very vulnerable among other populations in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries. Since the COVID-19 pandemic spread rapidly in March 2020, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) has been calling for the authorities in the region to release all prisoners who pose no risk to society. GCHR is further concerned by a new trend in Iran of adding sentences to already imprisoned women human rights defenders, leaving them ineligible for furlough during the pandemic.


In Iran, the COVID-19 crisis has quickly taken a second peak as the country’s health infrastructure has been too precarious after years of sanctions, corruption, and the state’s obstinacy towards its international commitments. The Iranian authorities have put the country under strict laws and practices that are built on discrimination, segregation and proscription of women’s rights, while committing mass human rights violations inside and outside the country.


Those who dare to speak against such human rights violations are persecuted and prosecuted with inane and lengthy sentences and become victims of a legal system that flaunts international standards of law. Freedom of expression and assembly in pursuit of gender equality are often regarded as acts against “national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “encouraging and providing for moral corruption and prostitution” and “insulting the sacred.”


In mid-March 2020, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a 37-year-old British-Iranian citizen, who has been in prison since 2016 when she was sentenced for five years, was released temporarily from Evin prison in Tehran. While here release has been extended, she remains required to wear an ankle bracelet and not move more than 300 metres from her parents’ home. Her release came following the serious threat of the coronavirus spreading through Iran’s prison system. Zaghari-Ratcliffe went on a water-only hunger strike l to protest her continued imprisonment last year, when she was held in solitary confinement for over a month, according to her family.


In light of the COVID-19 risk, the Iranian judiciary said it had so far released 85,000 prisoners, half of whom were political prisoners. Yet, it is still unknown what proportion of women human rights defenders and activists is among those who have been released, or even those who are still in prison.


Among those who remain in prison is journalist and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi, the spokeswoman for the Centre for Human Rights Defenders in Iran, who has been imprisoned since 2015, serving a combined 16-year prison sentence. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison for establishing the Step by Step to Stop Death Penalty group (also known as LEGAM), as well as five years for “gathering and colluding with intent to harm national security,” and one year for “spreading propaganda against the system.” She was sentenced on 17 May 2016 and her sentence was upheld on 28 September 2016. According to the law, she must serve the longest sentence, namely the 10-year sentence. She has been held in Evin prison since 05 May 2015, already serving a previous six-year sentence.


In a ludicrous move that seems all the more cruel considering the COVID-19 threat, Mohammadi is facing new charges, even while in prison, which was revealed in an open letter recently sent by her bother to the Iranian authorities. Mehdi Mohammadi, exiled in Norway, explained in his letter that his sister had serious health problems but “was not allowed out of prison to see a doctor.” In May 2020, human rights groups reported that Mohammadi was facing up to five years more in prison and 74 lashes for various charges including “collusion against the regime,” “propaganda against the regime” and the crime of “insult”.


Also in June 2020, imprisoned woman human rights defender Atena Daemi, who is serving seven years in prison, was charged with “disturbing order” after being accused of chanting anti-government slogans on the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution. She was sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 and in September 2019, a court added two years and one month to her sentence for “insulting” and “disseminating anti-government propaganda” after she wrote an open letter from prison criticising the execution of political prisoners. Daemi’s family says the new charges meant she would no longer be eligible for furlough on 04 July 2020 under the law, nor could she be freed under the current furloughs being offered during the pandemic.


On 1 June 2020, women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari was sentenced to 15 years in prison sentence by an appeals court after having been acquitted on 17 March 2020 by the Evin Prosecutor’s Office. She was sentenced for “promoting corruption and prostitution through appearing without a headscarf in public,” for her role in the White Wednesday protest movement against mandatory veiling. Kord Afshari is already serving a nine-year sentence. She’s also ineligible for a furlough during the pandemic.


In April 2020, United Nations human rights experts called on Iran to expand its temporary release of thousands of detainees to include prisoners of conscience and dual and foreign nationals who are still behind bars despite the serious risk of being infected with COVID-19, following concerns raised from inside the country.


Iranian activists’ families have raised concerns over the ill-treatment, the lack of proper hygiene and the inadequate measures taken by the authorities to adapt and mitigate the circumstances linked to the spread of the coronavirus in the Iranian prisons.


GCHR calls on the Iranian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all women’s rights defenders detained for peacefully practicing their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and calling for gender equality. This is all the more pressing due to the health risks related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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