SCOTLAND becomes first country to provide period products for free

Tampons, sanitary towels and other period products will have to be available free of cost in Scotland.


By Pierre-Paul Bermingham


POLITICO (25.11.2020) – – Scotland became the first country in the world to make feminine hygiene products available for free as the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act on Tuesday evening.


The law requires local authorities to ensure period products such as tampons or sanitary towels are available free of cost in their area. Schools, universities, and other education institutions must also have free period products in their restrooms, as must a number of public buildings.


Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon introduced the bill in April 2019 and led the legislative effort. “Periods should never be a barrier to education or push anyone into poverty,” said Lennon, also the spokesperson for health and sport of her party. “Women, girls and all people who menstruate deserve period dignity,” she added.


A study in May by Plan International UK found that 30 percent of girls aged 14-21 struggled to access sanitary products during the lockdown in the United Kingdom.


Lennon thanked grassroots activists who played an important role in campaigning for the measure, as well as precursors such as the North Ayrshire council, which had implemented a policy of free sanitary products in 2018.


Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was “proud to vote for this groundbreaking legislation.”


Though Scotland is the first nation to make feminine hygiene freely available to all, a handful of countries have banned the “tampon tax” – the levying of VAT on sanitary products.


In Europe, Ireland is the only country with no tampon tax. The EU only allows zero-rate VAT derogations on products which were zero-rated before EU legislation.

Photo: 30 percent of girls aged 14-21 struggled to access sanitary products during the lockdown in the U.K., according to Plan International UK | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

EU’s thermonuclear debate on privacy & child sexual abuse

Everyone from Ashton Kutcher to Australia’s eSafety commissioner has weighed in.


By Nicholas Vinocur


POLITICO (20.11.2020) – – Should platforms like Facebook and Instagram be able to scan for evidence of child sexual abuse and grooming online?


That question is at the heart of an explosive debate in Europe about online privacy that has roped in everyone from actor-turned-tech investor Ashton Kutcher to the EU’s top privacy regulator and observers as far afield as Australia.


On one side there is the EU’s executive branch and its defenders, including Kutcher, who want such automatic scanning to continue. They argue that the scanning tools don’t infringe upon privacy because the algorithms don’t “understand” the content; such tools flag it for human review if it matches a digital ID for child pornography, or hits certain keywords.


On the other side, there are privacy activists, EU lawmakers and the bloc’s top privacy regulator, who say that automatic scanning — particularly of text exchanges — is a major infringement of people’s fundamental right to privacy: Even if its intent is limited, it still opens the door to abuse because the practice has no clear legal basis.


In a November 11 opinion, the European Data Protection Supervisor blasted a Commission proposal that would allow the scanning as contrary to EU privacy rules. And the Parliament’s rapporteur on the draft law, Birgit Sippel, has voiced concern, saying Parliament is unlikely to meet a December 21 deadline to pass the derogation into law.


Now Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner who is behind the derogation initiative, is pushing back — with unexpected support from Kutcher, who co-founded an organization called Thorn in the U.S. to combat child sex trafficking and abuse. In an interview with POLITICO, she said the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) Wojciech Wiewiórowski — who’s in charge of policing EU institutions — had ignored children’s well-being.


“What I’m criticizing is that the EDPS are only talking about the privacy of the users. But there is also the privacy of the children, the abused children who are the subject of illegal content … The EDPS left that whole angle out,” she said.


“I had expected the EDPS to help us with that. Instead, he [Wiewiórowski] acted a bit blind in one eye, not seeing there is a huge infringement of the fundamental rights of those children. You have to realize there is a balance to find, and not only to protect the rights of the users.”


‘Growing’ problem


Johansson’s comments come as the clock is ticking down on a deal within EU institutions. If lawmakers can’t agree on Johansson’s draft law, platforms will face new privacy rules without an exemption for child sexual abuse material — rendering the automatic scanning illegal.


But the Swedish commissioner argued that it was urgent to give them a chance to carry on the practice, which she says is already in use to detect copyright-infringing material.


According to the head of Europol, who spoke to POLITICO in March, there has been a substantial increase in examples of child exploitation online during the pandemic because kids are spending more time on their phones and computers during lockdown.


Johansson said that trend hasn’t let up: “There are a lot of signs that child exploitation, especially online, is growing.” She added that her office planned to propose permanent legislation to combat child sexual abuse online next year, but that in the meantime platforms needed a legal means to keep detecting the illegal content.


“That’s what I hope now: that Parliament will not follow the draft from the rapporteur [which watered down Johansson’s proposal] and rather opt for an opinion that is much closer to the [Commission’s] proposal,” she said.


With emotions running high on either side of the debate, the issue of automatic scanning has drawn attention far beyond the bloc.


Australia’s eSafety commissioner, tasked with protecting people online, has written to the Parliament’s civil liberties committee, which has the lead on the file, advocating for Johansson’s proposal. And Ashton Kutcher — who played bumbling teen heartthrob Michael Kelso in the U.S. sitcom “That ’70s Show,” and has since remade himself as a tech investor — has thrown himself into the mix, including by tweeting at EU lawmakers.


“Time is running out to ensure a proactive and voluntary online child abuse detection methods are preserved in the #EU,” he tweeted on Wednesday.


Kutcher’s star power has opened doors. Last week, he scored a videoconference with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Johansson cited him as proof that the scanning issue was one of global importance.


Is this legal?


But the other camp bristles at the outside interventions and time pressure. Not only are defenders of the derogation oversimplifying the issue, they argue, but they run the risk of creating a precedent that will allow platforms to flag and remove all manner of content, some of it harmless, without any solid legal grounding.


Rather than opposing a clampdown on online child sexual abuse, they favor an approach they say would be more in line with the bloc’s privacy rulebook, the General Data Protection Regulation. Sippel, for instance, objects to the part of Johansson’s draft law that pertains to child grooming — i.e., text or audio communication — not the part that pertains to child pornography, which she wants more clearly defined.


The Commission “does not wish to take a stance on whether current voluntary practices to detect and report child sexual abuse material are in fact legal under EU law,” Sippel said in her draft report on Johansson’s proposal.


The Commission wants its proposal to be finalized by December 21, but some lawmakers dismissed the deadline as artificial, since scanning would not stop overnight without the derogation.


But David Lega, who heads a Parliament group on children’s rights, says a deal is not only necessary but possible within the time limit.


“I think it [the deadline] could be met and I hope that it will be,” he said. “There is time both procedurally and legally to do this now.”


The derogation is meant to apply until the European Commission presents a fully fledged piece of legislation on the fight against sexual abuse online next year.

Photo: There has been a substantial increase in examples of child exploitation online during the pandemic | Leon Neal/Getty Images.

Polish court outlaws almost all abortions

Protests will be difficult to organize due to the worsening coronavirus outbreak.


By Wojciech Kość


POLITICO (22.10.2020) – – A top Polish court on Thursday tightened one of the EU’s toughest abortion regulations by ruling that abortions undertaken because of fetal defects are unconstitutional.


The ruling means that Polish women may have abortions only in cases of rape or incest, or if the life of the woman is endangered.


The abortion issue has been a minefield for the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party. It’s under pressure from far-right and ultra-Catholic groups to crack down even harder, but that risks outraging Polish women. A legislative effort to restrict abortions in 2016 sent hundreds of thousands of women onto the streets and prompted a quick retreat on the part of the government.


By turning to the Constitutional Tribunal, the PiS avoids setting off a legislative fight, but the opposition, women’s groups and many European organizations denounced the decision.


Street protests will be difficult to organize, however, thanks to Poland’s worsening coronavirus outbreak. The whole country is set to be declared a “red zone” on Friday.


“Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in Poland amounts to a ban & violates human rights. Today’s ruling of the Constitutional [Tribunal] means underground/abroad abortions for those who can afford & even greater ordeal for all others. A sad day for Women’s Rights,” tweeted Dunja Mijatović , the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights.


Poland only has about 1,100 legal abortions a year, mostly carried out under the fetal abnormality clause, according the Federation for Women and Family Planning, known as Federa, a women’s rights NGO.


“I was really hoping this wouldn’t happen. Women’s rights to live healthy lives have just been swept aside,” said Krystyna Kacpura, head of Federa.


“It doesn’t mean there won’t be abortions now,” she added. “It means that poorer women will have abortions risking their lives and health and the better-off will pay for terminations abroad in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, or the Netherlands. Abortion clinics there must be overjoyed today.”


She estimated that the true number of abortions by Polish women is between 100,000 to 150,000 a year.


The tribunal ruled on a motion, filed last year by over 100 conservative lawmakers, asking the court to find that abortion on the grounds of fetal abnormality is anti-constitutional because it violates a child’s right to be free of discrimination for health reasons.


“We are asking for the right to life of everyone, no matter their sex,” Bartłomiej Wróblewski, a PiS MP, told the tribunal on Thursday. “We don’t think that it’s correct to say that this is being done against women. This is being in part in the name of women.”


Poland’s conservatives rejoiced at the ruling.


Jerzy Kwaśniewski of the Catholic organization Ordo Iuris, which has campaigned intensely for the ban, called the decision “a great day.”


The ruling also risks worsening already fraught relations with Brussels, as the legality of the tribunal’s makeup remains disputed.


The court is supposed to rule on the constitutionality of laws passed by parliament. However, some of the justices were appointed by President Andrzej Duda in violation of the Polish constitution.


The tribunal’s head, Julia Przyłębska, is a personal friend of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński. Only two of the court’s 13 judges opposed the verdict.


The status of the court has been one in a large number of points of friction between the Polish government and the European institutions.

Photo: Activists demonstrate in support of abortion rights in Warsaw on October 22, 2020 | Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images.

Burial of aborted fetuses causes outrage in Italy

Women take legal action over fetus graves marked with mothers’ names in so-called Fields of Angels.


By Hannah Roberts


POLITICO (15.10.2020) – – At the Prima Porta cemetery, hundreds of white wooden crosses mark the burial plots of aborted fetuses. On each cross is written the name of the woman who terminated the pregnancy.


Until recently, the existence of the cemetery was unknown to many of the women, who say they consented neither to a burial nor to being named. Now that they do know, more than 100 have come together to pursue legal action demanding those responsible be identified.


In Italy, where women still struggle to access abortion four decades after legislation permitting the procedure was passed, the discovery of the burial site has resulted in an outcry. It has also focused attention on dozens of similar sites across Italy — known as “Fields of Angels” and created with the involvement of anti-abortion, ultra-conservative associations.


For opponents, such burial grounds stigmatize abortion and undermine the legitimate choices of women at a time when conservative groups globally are attempting to push back reproductive rights won decades ago.


The Prima Porta site stands out because it names the women.


Its existence came to light earlier this month after Marta Loi made inquiries about what happened to her fetus. Writing on Facebook, she described the “anger and anguish” at discovering a burial plot with her name on it, and that “without my consent, others have buried my child with a cross, a Christian symbol, which does not belong to me.”


Silvana Agatone, president and founder of LAIGA, the Italian association for doctors who carry out abortions, told POLITICO that the burials were “the most serious violation of privacy. Many women do not tell relatives or friends about the procedure.”


“It is a way of punishing the women by creating a sense of guilt,” she said. “To have a tomb with your name on implies that you are as good as dead.”


Monica Cirinnà, a senator in the Italian parliament, told POLITICO: “Every woman who terminates a pregnancy has the right to choose if and how to bury the fetus and according to which ritual. These are deeply personal decisions that cannot be brought into question.”


The issue is a reminder of the global pushback against women’s rights, Cirinnà said. “Even today, women’s bodies are battlefields. Attacks on women’s freedom, regarding the choice to become or not to become mothers, are now coming from everywhere, continuously undermined by small, silent but insidious procedures like this one.”


Medical objections


Although abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978, it has been fiercely opposed from the start by an alliance of religious and political conservatives. There are similar situations in many other countries, but campaigners say the extent to which the Catholic Church remains embedded in Italian institutions means it has been particularly effective in frustrating the implementation of abortion rights.


The majority of doctors qualified to carry out an abortion refuse to do so on ethical grounds — that’s an average of 69 percent across the country, rising to 80 percent in the south, according to the health ministry. That means access is limited and delays common.


Junior doctors often fear their career will be damaged if they don’t join the ranks of objectors, and department heads refuse to hire non-objectors, said Agatone.


The rise among Italian doctors of conscientious objectors does not constitute a problem, according to the health ministry, because the number of abortions is falling while the number of objectors remains stable.


Elisa Ercoli, president of Differenza Donna, an advocacy group representing 130 of the Prima Porta women, said the Fields of Angels “are emblematic of the obstacles to women exercising their right to an abortion in Italy.”


“The level of objectors is so high that the health care guaranteed by law is not accessible,” she said.


Most of the women, Ercoli added, had degrading experiences in hospital, with some medical staff refusing to help them even though they were in pain: “These women feel betrayed by the state. There was a total violation of their legal rights and privacy.”


According to a 1990 law, women can request the aborted fetus and bury it within 24 hours. But if they don’t, the local health service is responsible for arranging transport and burial. Over the past two decades, Catholic associations have increasingly stepped in, relieving the local health authority of the cost and trouble of burying aborted fetuses.


The most prominent group doing this, Difendere la vita con Maria, has 3,000 members and says it has carried out over 200,000 burials. It solicits donations for funding on its website, which says: “For only €20 you can bear the cost of burying an unborn child.”


Spokesman Stefano di Battista said the group does not work in Rome at present. But in the cities that it does work, it collects the fetuses, usually once a month, from the hospitals with which it has agreements, before burying them after a short ceremony. The group never identifies the women, he said, adding: “Anonymity is a guiding principle for us. We do not do this practice to battle against abortion rights. We are not interested in crusades. We believe it is at the basis of civilization to bury with dignity and piety the children that never came into the world.”


Church ties to the right


Catholic associations might be responsible for the Fields of Angels, but they wouldn’t have been able to proceed without political sympathizers at regional and national levels.


In 2007 in Lombardy, a center-right/conservative administration introduced new regulations stipulating that all fetuses had to be buried in specific areas within cemeteries. Le Marche and Campania have approved similar laws.


Last year, an attempt to introduce similar legislation by the hard-right Brothers of Italy party in Lazio was defeated. The liberal Italian Radicals party condemned it as “psychological violence against women.”


“It is in [the political right’s] nature to try to bring back a patriarchal culture, before women’s liberation,” said Ercoli. “But it is not just about political parties, it is a larger cultural discussion. Since 1978 women have been fighting to try to win the actual implementation of the rules.”


It is not clear who bears responsibility for the naming of the women at the Prima Porta cemetery. The section where the fetuses are buried contains only those aborted after the 20th week of gestation, when the procedure is permitted only on health grounds, according to Agatone.


The hospital involved, San Camillo, said responsibility for transport management and burial lies with Ama, a company that manages cemeteries on behalf of the city of Rome. Ama said in a statement that it had no contact with patients and followed the rules of the health system.


Italy’s privacy watchdog has opened an investigation into the burials, and Health Minister Roberto Speranza has been called to speak about the case in parliament.


Politicians on the left are pushing for a change in the law. A group of leftist councilors in the Lazio region proposed a new regional law on transport and burial of fetuses, with clear consent required from the woman. The current law is too ambiguous, said Councilor Marta Bonafoni: “It must not leave any space for doubt or uncertainty.”


But for some, the cemetery case has merely highlighted the need for more general reform. The obstacles to abortion have been tolerated because it is a woman’s problem, said Ercoli. “After 40 years the struggle is not over. We must be alert and we must be united.”

Photo credit: IPA/Sipa USA.

For Russia, journalist’s self-immolation is a wake-up call

Irina Slavina’s last message was: ‘For my death I ask you to blame the Russian Federation.’


By Eva Hartog


POLITICO (09.10.2020) – – Before the pallbearers walked out there was a protracted silence. Then, as Irina Slavina’s two children led the white coffin carrying her scorched corpse toward the hearse, the crowd of several hundred broke out into spontaneous applause.


To many of her supporters, Slavina’s self-immolation was an act of stoic self-sacrifice and the ultimate rallying cry. Many compared her to Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself on fire to protest Soviet occupation in 1969.


On October 2, Slavina made her way to the Interior Ministry, sat down on a bench between two bronze figures, a monument dedicated to Russian law enforcement “through the ages,” and set herself on fire.


There is no doubt she meant to die — footage shows her pushing away a bystander who tried to save her from the flames even as she must have suffered excruciating pain.


Several hours earlier she had written a post on Facebook: “For my death I ask you to blame the Russian Federation.”


Older social media posts that have surfaced since suggest Slavina had been considering the idea for at least a year.


In her home city of Nizhny Novgorod, some 400 kilometers east of Moscow, Slavina held celebrity status as the founder of the independent news website Koza.Press. A one-woman band, it was nonetheless among the most cited outlets in the region, providing relentless coverage of local misdeeds in a no-nonsense factual style.


“She was a straight shooter but very balanced, she never let her emotions affect her writing, ” Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, a prominent human rights activist, told POLITICO at a memorial service Tuesday. “But underneath it she suffered.”


He recalled her driving him home after he was released from the umpteenth detention and saying: “I can’t live like this. I keep writing about all of this injustice but nothing is changing.”


Though many in her circle could recall similar moments of despair, the 47-year-old was known for her stoicism and her suicide has come as a huge shock.


Above all, it has drawn new attention to the toxic triple whammy faced by independent journalists in Russia generally, and regional journalists in particular; of financial pressure, harassment facilitated by draconic laws and a seemingly apathetic readership.


A day before Slavina’s suicide she wrote that 12 law enforcement officers had raided her apartment at 6 a.m. after forcing open her door, confiscating USB sticks, phones and computers in a hunt for evidence of ties to Open Russia, an organization backed by former oligarch-turned-Putin-critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.


The case itself and its connection to Slavina are, to put it mildly, tenuous: She had merely attended an event organized by the election monitoring organization Golos, at a property owned by a local businessman who, to add a tragicomic spin, also heads the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parody cult.


It is he who is under investigation for supposed links to Open Russia (a connection both sides have denied). But that hasn’t stopped the authorities from implicating Slavina alongside a number of activists and opposition politicians — supposedly as witnesses.


“The pressure she was under would have been bearable if it had just been about her personally. But it was affecting everybody who in any way raised their voice,” Marina Chufarina, who as a regional coordinator for Golos organized the event in question, said.


Chufarina said she was expecting a similar raid at her own home “any day now.”


Slavina was no newbie to harassment. In recent years, Russia has introduced a spate of increasingly restrictive laws and last year alone the journalist was given a taste of a number of them.


In March she was convicted of breaking protest laws for leading a small group through the city to commemorate the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, a Nizhny Novgorod native.


Just before summer, she was convicted of cooperating with an “undesirable organization” (Open Russia again) for promoting a series of pro-democracy lectures on social media. And in October she was convicted of “disrespecting the authorities” after mocking a memorial plaque to Stalin online.


More recently, she was found guilty of “spreading fake news” after writing about an alleged first case of coronavirus in a different town.


Combined, the convictions resulted in fines totaling some 160,000 rubles (€1,700) — about five times the average Nizhny Novgorod salary. Moreover, every day spent in court was one she couldn’t spend writing.


The use of the lawbook over the fist or bullet — or other means of silencing independent voices which were popular in Russia in the nineties and noughties — might look like evolution. But especially for regional journalists, the constant court cases and raids, or risk thereof, pose an existential threat.


“For us crowdfunding the money to replace even a couple of laptops is a big problem,” Andrei Grishin, the editor of independent outlet Vesma in Russia’s Far Eastern Magadan, said.


Independent outlets like his face a bind: stripped of state funds they can’t accept foreign grant money lest they be labeled “foreign agents.” Meanwhile, local businesses are wary of placing ads in outlets that might be deemed anti-government. So even in good times, their futures hang by a silver thread — let alone in bad times.


“Irina made a radical choice in expressing her protest. But a huge number of editors and journalists at a local level are being pushed in that same direction by the Russian authorities. If nothing changes, I don’t know what will become of Russian journalism in the coming years,” said Grishin.


In Russia, harassment does not discriminate by size or location; journalists at large outlets in Moscow are persecuted, too. Famously, the investigative Moscow journalist Ivan Golunov was slapped with drug-dealing charges last summer and more recently the former military reporter Ivan Safronov was detained on treason charges.


But in both cases, visibility has acted as a shield, sparking public protest or at least ensuring the authorities’ actions do not go unnoticed. Sometimes, a regional case breaks through to national headlines such as that of Svetlana Prokopyeva, a journalist in Pskov, who risked landing in jail for “justifying terrorism” in a column but ending up receiving a fine.


Most of the time, however, distance from Moscow correlates negatively to visibility, even within the journalistic community. That leaves local journalists extra vulnerable to the grudges and gripes of local authorities equipped with increasingly draconian laws.


“For years we covered the news around Slavina. But we failed to see the systematic pressure being applied to one and the same person, our fellow journalist,” Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of the opposition-leaning radio station Ekho Moskvy, said in a broadcast. Venediktov is among those who have signed an open letter demanding the possible prosecution of officials who might have contributed to Slavina’s suicide.


Even the Russian authorities seem to have been cowed. Hours after Slavina’s self-immolation, investigators released a defensive statement disputing any link between their raid and her action, saying she had just been a witness. And in a highly unusual personal Instagram post, the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, Gleb Nikitin, pledged he would take personal charge of a probe into her death.


But many in Slavina’s circle are unimpressed, asking: If Slavina was only a witness, why was her home raided and her property confiscated? And if the governor appreciated her work, why hadn’t he stopped the authorities from harassing her before? To them, the statements just underscore the arbitrariness of the repression she was subjected to.


At the memorial service on Tuesday, Slavina’s inner circle was adamant that her suicide was not the result of mental instability — a narrative peddled by pro-Kremlin media and hinted at by Russian investigators — nor of helplessness. To them, her self-immolation was a final act designed to change minds in a way she felt her journalism could not.


“She didn’t want to die tragically, she wanted change,” Maria Popova, an environmental activist whose acquaintance with Slavina goes back a decade, said.


Unlike in Palach’s case, however, Slavina’s death has largely been met with stunned resignation. In a city with a population of more than a million and a country of more than 140 million, the turnout of several hundred at the memorial is a drop in the ocean. “Where is everybody? Why aren’t there tens of thousands of people?” asked Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, the rights activist.


Some of Slavina’s acquaintances said she had become increasingly demoralized about the general apathy in Russian society and the lack of reader donations. A day after her mother’s suicide, Slavina’s daughter stood in the city center with a handwritten sign saying: “While my mother burned you stayed silent.” The message will have been lost on many of those passing by.


Still, to her followers and peers, Slavina is a source of inspiration.


Speakers at the memorial service did not mince their words and hundreds marched through the city center towards the site of Slavina’s death opposite the police headquarters, at one point chanting “Butchers!”


The website Koza.Press has continued to publish news, for now about Slavina herself. But there are plans to keep it running.


And in Magadan, too, work continues unabated. “You’re always internally bracing for some bad turn of events, so you have to take precautionary measures,” said Grishin, the editor of Vesma.


“But if they come for us, we’ll know what to do.”

Photo credit: Eva Hartog for POLITICO