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5/1/2014 - Brutal Brunei Penal Code Goes into Effect Today

The Southeast Asian nation of Brunei today adopted the first phase of a brutal penal code that includes the stoning to death of gay men and lesbians, the public flogging of women who have abortions, and the jailing of women who become pregnant outside of marriage.

The laws will be introduced in three phases over the course of three years. Phase one, starting today, will punish certain offenses with hefty fines or prison time. Phase two will add such punishments as amputations and floggings for other crimes, and the third phase will include crimes punishable by stoning to death.

According to Al Jazeera, some Brunei citizens expressed criticism of the new code on social media earlier this year, but mostly quieted down under pressure from the Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said it has deep concern about the proposed new laws and the ramifications it would hold for human rights in Brunei. The United Nations Human Rights Council is set to conduct a Universal Periodic Review of Brunei on Friday.

Yesterday Feminist Majority Foundation announced that it pulled an event from the Beverly Hills Hotel after discovering it is owned by the Sultan and launched a petition to stop the code from going into effect. "We cannot hold a human rights and women's rights event at a hotel whose owner would institute a penal code that fundamentally violates women's rights and human rights," said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal in a statement.

Brunei is an industrialized, petroleum and natural gas country on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. The Brunei Investment Agency owns the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Bel-Air Hotel, and other Dorchester Collection Properties. The Agency is managed by the Brunei Ministry of Finance which is controlled by the Sultan.

TAKE ACTION: Sign our petition calling on the government of Brunei to immediately rescind the new code and asking the United Nations to take action if these laws go into effect, and join the conversation on Twitter by tweeting with the hashtag #StopTheSultan. If you are in the Los Angeles area, join FMF, gay and lesbian and women's rights groups to protest this gross violation of human rights at a noon rally on May 5, across the street from the hotel in a park on Sunset Boulevard.

4/30/2014 - FMF Pulls Event from Beverly Hills Hotel to Protest Sultan of Brunei Imposing Taliban-Like Rule

LOS ANGELES - The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) announced it is pulling its annual Global Women's Rights Awards, co-chaired by Jay and Mavis Leno, from the Beverly Hills Hotel because the hotel's owner, the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, is imposing a Taliban-like Brunei penal code, set to go into effect in three stages beginning on May 1, that includes the stoning to death of gay men and lesbians and the public flogging of women who have abortions.

Instead of holding its annual event at the hotel on May 5, FMF has joined with gay and lesbian groups in protesting this gross violation of human rights and will hold a rally at noon on May 5 across from the hotel, in the park on Sunset Boulevard, urging the Sultan to rescind the new penal code which has been condemned by human rights groups and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. FMF will hold the Global Awards event on the evening of May 5 at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, Los Angeles.

"We cannot hold a human rights and women's rights event at a hotel whose owner would institute a penal code that fundamentally violates women's rights and human rights," said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal.

"'Kill-a-gay' laws, or laws that allow the flogging of women for abortion, violate international law and have no place in civilized society," said Feminist Majority Foundation Board Member Mavis Leno. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed deep concern about the new penal code and stated that such draconian punishments would contravene international law and international human rights.

FMF today launched a massive petition drive and social media campaign calling on the government of Brunei to immediately rescind the new code and asking the United Nations to take action if these laws go into effect as planned.

"The United Nations must condemn the government of Brunei's plans and explore additional options, including sanctions, if Brunei fails to rescind this decree," added Kathy Spillar, executive Vice President of the FMF and the event director.

The new penal code is set to be implemented in three phases over three years. The first phase, beginning tomorrow, will include fines and prison sentences. The second phase includes corporal punishment such as amputations and flogging women who have abortions. The stoning to death of gay men and lesbians is slated for the third phase.

Brunei is an industrialized, petroleum and natural gas country in Southeast Asia. It has been a member of the United Nations since 1984. The UN Human Rights Council is scheduled to conduct its Universal Periodic Review of the country this Friday. The Brunei Investment Agency owns the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Bel-Air Hotel, and other Dorchester Collection Properties. The Agency is managed by the Brunei Ministry of Finance which is controlled by the Sultan.

4/28/2014 - Afghan Election May be Headed for Runoff

Preliminary results for Afghanistan's recent presidential election were released on Saturday, showing that former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister and World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai are the top contenders.

The Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced that Abdullah Abdullah, who lost the election in 2009 to outgoing president Hamid Karzai, won 44.9 percent of the vote. Ashraf Ghani came in second with 31.5 percent. The preliminary results are not expected to be finalized until May 14, after the Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has had an opportunity to complete investigations into fraud complaints. However, under Afghan law, if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, then a runoff election must be held.

"According to our findings it seems that this election will go to the second round," said election commission chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristan. "We have a tentative schedule of June 7th to start the second round."

The IEC also announced that 36 percent of voters in the April 5 elections were women, confirming strong participation by women in these elections despite the threat of violence. Overall, some 7 million Afghan men and women voted in the historic elections.

The April 5 elections represent the beginning of the first democratic shift in presidential power in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai has served as president of the country since the collapse of the Taliban in 2001. Both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani have supported a continuing relationship with the United States and have indicated that they would sign the bilateral security agreement negotiated between the two countries. President Karzai has delayed signing the agreement, preferring to wait until after the elections.

4/25/2014 - On 1st Anniversary of Rana Plaza Collapse, Need for More Change

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that caused the deaths and injuries of thousands of people.

The poorly built nine-story building that collapsed last April near the capital of Dhaka housed five garment factories and a shopping center. Although a crack in the building had been detected the morning of the collapse and the factory owners were warned, they kept the building open for business anyway. In total, around 1,130 people died and several thousand more were severely injured, many of whom were young women. Women make up 80 percent of the garment workforce in Bangladesh.

One year later, there has been some progress. The factory owners face murder charges for negligence and the 2,400 survivors and victim's families began receiving around $700 for compensation this week. Fire and structural safety regulations have been standardized, and several Western retailers who have their garments manufactured in Bangladesh have pledged to promote and adhere to stricter safety standards.

However, more must be done to improve conditions for the workers. Workers protesting for higher wages, safer conditions, and better treatment, are often met with violence, and the government has had difficulty adhering to new safety regulations. More Western retailers must also step up and commit to better working conditions and regulations.

"In our view, the collective industry response to the Rana Plaza collapse has taken too long and various necessary steps have yet to be taken," said Bob Chant, senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications for Loblaw, the owner of a popular Canadian retail line that has donated to a fund for victims.

4/25/2014 - Cuba Faces Condom Shortage

A current condom shortage in Cuba is stirring fears of higher STD rates and unplanned pregnancies.

Pharmacies in Cuba's central province of Villa Clara began running out of condoms in March, and the suburbs of Havana are now affected as well. The city of Santa Clara, which has one of the highest HIV rates in Cuba, has been hit the hardest.

"In the great majority of pharmacies in the municipality of Playa, there's a shortage," wrote Polina Martinez Shvietsova in the initial report on the shortage in the Havana area. "In the municipality of Plaza, in the pharmacy at 23rd and 24th Streets, the salespeople said, 'We have none, and we don't know when they will arrive.'"

The state-run wholesaler Ensume, which obtains and supplies government-subsidized condoms in Cuba, says it has a million condoms in its warehouses. But under a state regulatory ruling regarding an imported shipment of condoms with incorrect expiration dates, Ensume must relabel all of them. As a result of the slow repackaging process, Ensume can only provide around 1,500 condoms per day - far below the need for all the country. (In only the province of Villa Clara, there is a need for 5,000 condoms daily.)

The repackaging raises questions about the safety of the condoms once they go on sale. With the new expiration dates, it will be unclear how old the condoms actually are, and latex degrades over time - potentially putting users at risk of using expired condoms which could tear or break. In addition, the price of one condom has now risen from just a few cents to $1.30 - a typical Cuban worker's daily wages.

The government-run sex education center, Cenesex, has ordered that any available supplies be given to people who are known to be HIV-positive and allocated to the areas with high HIV rates. Cuba currently has a strong HIV-prevention program, with only around 0.1 percent of the population testing HIV-positive. Cuba's HIV/AIDS prevention program relies heavily on educational programs, of which safe sex is a central topic - potentially putting its success at risk with a lowering supply of condoms.

Kenya also faced a severe condom stockout last November. Condom shortages may be the result of inadequate funding or health programs that are fully or partially restricted by an abstinence-only focus - such as the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). When countries find themselves short-stocked on contraceptives, women suffer. An estimated 222 million women around the world wish to either delay or prevent pregnancy but lack access to contraceptives, putting them at risk for injury, illness or death due to pregnancy, childbirth, or unsafe abortions. Further, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age.

4/22/2014 - US Ranks 16th in 2014 Social Progress Index

The Social Progress Imperative recently released its 2014 Social Progress Index, ranking the United States in 16th place among 132 countries.

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter, a Republican who led the report team, told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that he was surprised by the ranking. "I think this was not the picture of America that I think many of us Americans have," said Porter.

The United States ranked particularly low in health and wellness, coming in at 70th place, and ecosystem sustainability, 69th place. In the category of access to basic knowledge, the US ranked 39th, although it ranked 1st in access to advanced education, perhaps showing a relative lack of access to primary and secondary education among vulnerable populations.

In terms of access to information and communication, the US ranked surprisingly low at 23rd place, coming in 83rd on mobile telephone subscriptions, 21st on freedom of the press, and 17th on internet use. "At some level in America, we have incredible access to information and communication," said Porter, "but if you look at objective measures of whether that's penetrated very broadly throughout our population and to, really, all of our citizens, that's where we start to come up short."

The index evaluated 132 countries on 54 social and environmental indicators, taking into account basic human needs, foundations of well-being, and opportunity. It defines social progress as "the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential" [PDF].

Using this framework, the three top-performing countries on social progress are New Zealand, Switzerland, and Iceland. The rest of the top ten include several Northern European nations, Canada and Australia. The United States falls into the second tier of countries, in company with Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and France. Yemen and Chad fell in the fifth and lowest-performing tier.

The index demonstrates that economic development alone is not sufficient to explain social progress outcomes. While the index shows a positive correlation with economic performance, there are other factors in play.

"A society which fails to address basic human needs, equip citizens to improve their quality of life, erodes the environment, and limits opportunity for its citizens is not succeeding. Economic growth without social progress results in lack of inclusion, discontent, and social unrest," the report states.

Its authors aims to create a more holistic framework for measuring national performance that can be used by leaders, and they envision a "world in which social progress sits alongside economic prosperity as the twin scorecards of success."

4/17/2014 - Supreme Court of India Recognizes Transgender Rights

India's Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that official documents must allow transgender people to identify as a third gender and directed the federal and state governments to include transgender people, known as hijras, in welfare programs such as education, health care, and job programs.

"All documents will now have a third category marked 'transgender,'" said Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender activist who petitioned the court. "This verdict has come as a great relief for all of us. Today I am proud to be an Indian."

The court also ordered the government to construct separate public bathrooms and special hospital wards to focus on transgender people's medical needs, implement public awareness campaigns to reduce the social stigma faced by the estimated 3 million transgender Indians, and give transgender people the right to adopt children, among other changes.

The "recognition of transgender people as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue," said Supreme Court Justice K. S. Radhakrishnan. "Transgenders are citizens of this country and are entitled to education and all other rights."

While this is a victory for transgender rights, the Supreme Court of India took a step backward last December by reinstating a colonial-era law banning gay sex.

4/16/2014 - Female Afghan Parliamentarian Injured in Shooting Attack

Maryam Koofi, a member of Afghanistan's Parliament, was wounded in a shooting yesterday. The assailant shot her twice in her leg as she was leaving her office last night.

Maryam's sister, Fawzia Koofi, claims it was an act of political intimidation by those who oppose the rights women have gained over the past few years, but the government claims the assailant was a police officer in a dispute with Maryam. "I don't know who was behind this attack--but I know that it was political," said Fawzia, who is also a member of Parliament and a women's rights activist. She survived a similar shooting attack in 2010.

The departure of most foreign troops in coming months has women's rights and human rights activists concerned about the possible resurgence of the Taliban and its potential impact on women. Over the last decade, with the help and support of the U.S. and the international community, Afghan women and girls have made steady progress in every sector of society. Previously stripped of all human rights and forced into a state of virtual house arrest under the Taliban, women are now 27 percent of Afghan Parliament, about 35 percent of all primary and secondary school students, and nearly 19 percent of students attending university. Over 200 women candidates ran for provincial council seats and two women ran for vice president in the recent elections, which were completed successfully with high turnout and low levels of violence.

Maryam Koofi is currently recovering in a Kabul hospital.

4/11/2014 - Philippines Supreme Court Upholds Law Promoting Reproductive Health Access

The Philippines Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the country's Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, also known as the RH Law, is constitutional. The law directs government health centers to provide free access to nearly all contraceptives, including to the poor, and requires reproductive health education at government-run school for children and young adults age 10-19. The law also provides for post-abortion care.

The Court's ruling, however, was not a complete victory for women's health. The Court struck down a number of the RH Law's provisions, meaning that now health care providers may deny reproductive health services to patients in non-emergency situations based on the providers' personal or religious beliefs, spousal consent is required for married women seeking reproductive health care in non life-threatening situations, and minors will require parental consent.

President Benigno S. Aquino III signed the RH Law in December 2012, but Catholic groups immediately challenged it in court prompting the Supreme Court to halt its implementation while it decided the case.

"Today, conscience rights have prevailed, despite aggressive lobbying over the last decade and a half by the Catholic bishops and their powerful antichoice allies, said Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. "Although not perfect, the RH Law begins to address some of the country's largest health problems - including the high maternal mortality rate - that disproportionately affect low-income women."

Opponents have 15 days to appeal the ruling.

4/7/2014 - Millions of Afghans Vote in Historic Elections

High turnout, low levels of violence, and strong participation by women, all combined Saturday to make the closely watched Afghan presidential and provincial council elections a success.

Over 7 million Afghan men and women voted in these historic elections - representing a staggering 60% voter participation rate, close to the 62% participation rate in the US presidential election in 2008 and more than the 58% participation rate in the US in 2012. The Afghan Independent Commission (IEC) estimates that at least one-third of Afghan voters on Saturday were women.

Voters braved rain, snow, and long lines - as well as potential and real incidents of violence - in order to cast their ballots. Although the level of violence during this election was much lower than in 2009, news reports indicated several attacks on polling stations, police, and voters, and some voting centers had to close because of security concerns. In addition, the days leading up to the election saw other attacks, including the shooting of Associated Press journalists Anja Niedringhaus and Kathy Gannon. Niedringhaus was killed in the attack.

Despite the threat, however, the Taliban could not disrupt the election. In fact, turnout was so high - only about 4.5 million voted in the last election - that the IEC had to extend hours at voting centers to accommodate the crowds. "Of course the massive turnout of women voters is a big slap to all those who want to block us to contribute," said Samira Huria, a member of the Afghan Women's Network and one of the many women who voted in the election.

"The women of Afghanistan risked their lives to vote. They are real heroes," said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. "The road, however, is still long, and we must continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghan women in their struggle for full equality and democracy."

Women have played a central role in the elections. Over 200 women candidates ran for provincial council seats, the largest number of women ever to run, and two women are running for vice president - one on a major candidate's ticket. In addition, each of the presidential candidates have had to address women's rights in their campaigns, a testament to the importance of women to the election and to the redevelopment of Afghanistan.

Election results are not expected until late-April. If no presidential candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the country will conduct a run-off election in May.

4/4/2014 - Afghanistan Heads to the Polls Tomorrow

Afghanistan will hold presidential and provincial council elections tomorrow. The elections represent a pivotal moment in the history of Afghanistan, which will conduct its first democratic transition of presidential power once the vote is complete.

There has been growing excitement in Afghanistan leading up to the elections. The Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) reported a surge in voter registration - some 3.8 million new voters were registered since May 2013 - and for the first time, presidential candidates engaged in televised debates, making public their positions on economic redevelopment, security, and women's rights. Candidates have also held public rallies, attracting thousands of people, including many young people, throughout Afghanistan.>

Women are central participants in this election. IEC Commissioner Laila Ehrari commented that the Commission's "expectation for Afghan women, who constitute a hardworking segment of Afghan society, is that they will have broad participation in the elections and cast their votes."Women have appeared at several campaign events, and are also running as candidates. Hundreds of women are running for seats in the provincial council, and one woman, Habiba Sarobi, the former governor of Bamian province, is running for vice president. Sarobi appears on Zalmay Rassoul's ticket and has been actively campaigning with Rassoul in Afghanistan. At a campaign rally in Mazar-e-Sharif last week, thousands of Afghans - both men and women - cheered enthusiastically for Sarobi, and according to a campaign aide, "She pretty much rocked the show." The other top candidates, identified as Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have both addressed the role of women in Afghanistan and women's rights, and Ashraf Ghani's wife, Rula, a Lebanese-American Christian, has campaigned for her husband.

Taliban insurgents have launched recent assaults on journalists, election officials, and candidates in an effort to disrupt the elections - the IEC itself was the target of a Taliban attack last month-but the elections will continue on. The IEC announced yesterday that all voting centers in the country had been supplied with ballots and the necessary equipment to conduct the polls, and domestic and international observers are on hand to provide support. Voting is scheduled to take place in Afghanistan on Saturday from 7:00am to 4:00pm, but the IEC has announced that polls will remain open to accommodate overcrowding if necessary.

4/2/2014 - Report Details Dangerous Impacts of Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report last week detailing the risks people will face around the world as climate change worsens.

"Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability" from Working Group II of the IPCC summarizes scientific literature from hundreds of authors to identify vulnerable populations, ecosystems, and industries. It warns of coming problems linked to climate change, including a reduction in food security, an increase in the risk of violent conflicts, and the worsening of poverty. IPCC Chairperson Rajendra K. Pachauri also discussed a rise in vector-borne diseases and an increase in extreme climate events during a press conference.

According to the report, "People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaptation and mitigation responses."

Women are especially vulnerable. According to an earlier UN report released in 2009, women's traditional role as homemaker along with their greater participation in the agricultural work force directly relates to increased vulnerability. Caring for family members can limit women's mobility, and drought and erratic rainfall force women to work harder to secure food, water and energy for their homes.

"To reduce these risks, substantial reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions must be made, along with smart strategies and actions to improve disaster preparedness and reduce exposure to events caused by climate change," said United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in a statement.

To learn more, check out Feminist Majority Foundation's toolkit on women and the environment.

3/21/2014 - 13,000 Women Will Work to Secure Polling Centers on Afghanistan's Election Day

The Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs (MoIA) announced this week that it has recruited 13,000 women to work on security procedures at polling centers for the upcoming April 5 presidential election day. There was some concern last summer that there would not be enough women security officers to work at the polling stations set aside for women, but the government has now surpassed its recruitment goal. Female security guards at polling centers will ensure more women can vote.

The MoIA has made election day security a top priority, and the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) has been overseeing election activities to ensure they are conducted in compliance with the laws and that voter confidentiality is protected.

The IEC has also been working to advance Afghan women's participation in the electoral process through the establishment of a Gender Unit in 2009, targeted public education directed at women voters, the use of female polling staff and observers, and the development of appropriate security measures. The IEC reports that about one-third of registered voters are women and women's rights have been a focusocus in recent debates between the nine candidates.

3/13/2014 - House Democrats Seek International Convention on Gender-Based Violence In Workplace

House Democrats asked the Obama administration yesterday to support the International Labour Organization's (ILO) efforts to combat global gender-based violence in the workplace.

Ahead of the ILO's 320th Session of the Governing Board, Representatives George Miller (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and 34 other leading Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez seeking their support for an ILO Convention on gender-based violence in the workplace, as well as a standard-setting discussion about violence against all people in the workplace.

"Gender-based violence is among the most rampant human rights violations in the world--and it most acutely affects women," said Rep. Miller, the senior Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee. "Worldwide, working women are ruthlessly exploited. They face daily sexual harassment, intimidation, and verbal and physical abuse. This is unacceptable. We must establish international norms that address violence against women at work, and hold companies and industries accountable for protecting the most fundamental labor human rights of their workers, up and down they supply chain."

Rep. Miller also called on the apparel industry to improve working conditions in February. It has garnered international attention in recent years for its exploitation of workers - roughly 88 percent of whom are women - through low wages, dangerous workplace conditions, and other forms of violence. 1,100 garment workers died and 2,500 were injured in the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh last April.

3/11/2014 - UN Commission On The Status of Women Convenes This Week

The 58th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) session began in New York City yesterday and will convene through March 21. Over 6,000 registered representatives of the 193 member states, the UN, and non-governmental organizations are in attendance, including representatives from Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) and Girls Learn International, a special program of the FMF dedicated to girls' global education.

CSW is the "principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women." This year, the annual event will focus on development, particularly women and girls' equal access to education, and their access to sexual and reproductive education, health, and rights.

"We can and must do better because equality for women is progress for all!" said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

Participants will also discuss the challenges and achievements in the implementation of the UN's Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), women and poverty, women's access to decent employment, and violence against women, among other topics.

3/6/2014 - US Honors Afghan Doctor as an International Woman of Courage

Dr. Nasrin Oryakhil, president of the Afghan Family Health Association, was among 10 women honored this week by the US State Department with an International Women of Courage award.

Dr. Nasrin, a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology, operated an underground women's health clinic in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, providing urgently needed maternal health services, including emergency obstetric care. "Sometimes in the evening, Taliban members would barge into her clinic and beat her, demanding her to stop working and start praying," relayed Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom, presenting the award. "But she continued working, praying only that God would bring change to her country. One night, after the Taliban assaulted her, Dr. Nasrin went on to perform 17 surgeries."

Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Nasrin, directs the Malalai Maternity Hospital in Kabul and founded the first clinic for obstetric fistula repair in Afghanistan there. Dr. Nasrin is a member of the Afghan Women's Network and also leads the Afghan Family Health Association, which provides a variety of services to women and girls, including reproductive health programs, a youth hotline, and shelters for women.

Accepting the award, Dr. Nasrin expressed that "the hope of women around the world one day will be materialized when they find themselves in an environment that truly recognizes and appreciates the real essence of being a woman and a mother."

Since 2007, the US State Department has honored 70 women from 49 countries with the International Women of Courage award in recognition of their work advocating for women's rights, human rights, and peace.

3/5/2014 - Saudi Women Demand End To Absolute Male Authority

Ten Saudi women are petitioning the Saudi Arabia consultative Shura Council to demand an end to absolute male authority over women.

Activist Aziza Yousef told AFP news agency over the weekend that the activists are demanding "measures to protect women's rights," as well as the right for women to drive, ahead of International Women's Day on March 8. They argue that the restrictions women face in Saudi Arabia, which imposes a strict interpretation of Islamic law, are not based in religious teachings.

Saudi women received the right to vote in 2011, but they are prohibited from driving and from working, travelling, and even performing certain medical procedures without a male guardian. In October, over 60 women drove in an ongoing campaign to obtain the right to drive, the lack of which limits their mobility and economic opportunities.

The Shura Council, appointed by the King, advises the monarch but cannot legislate on its own.

2/28/2014 - Female Afghan Parliamentarian Speaks Out About Women's Progress in Afghanistan

Fawzia Koofi, a female member of the Afghan parliament, published an open letter this week to American women, urging them to continue standing shoulder-to-shoulder with women in Afghanistan.

Koofi's letter, entitled "A Letter to My American Sisters," dispels the media myth that women's lives have not improved since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. In the last 12 years, women have made significant gains in Afghanistan. Afghan women have established a strong and thriving feminist movement. They outpace American women in elected office, are visible in the media, and hold jobs in medicine, law, the police force, the military, and more.

"If the world could only see through our eyes," Koofi writes, "they might get a glimpse of the fact that Afghan women have come a long way over the last decade."

This is not to say that the journey for Afghan women is over. "While no one can question the gains made by the Afghan people, especially the women, our achievements remain extremely fragile," Koofi continues. "This is partly due to the country's uncertain political future and doubts about the international community's long-term commitment, especially that of the United States."

Koofi ended her letter by calling on the United States and the international community not to abandon the women of Afghanistan and to "help us a little more in fighting extremism, consolidating our gains, moving toward ending violence against women, and achieving something that all women around the world want: equality for both genders and for all."

This is an important time of transition for the Afghan people and their supporters. It is imperative that the U.S. and the international community ensure that Afghan civil society organizations, including women-led groups, remain strong. In particular, we must continue to support women's advancement and equality in Afghanistan.

TAKE ACTION: Pledge with us to support Afghan women and Afghan women's organizations. Let them know that we are proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the fight for women's and girls' equality. And urge President Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would help to protect Afghan women's rights.

2/26/2014 - Libya To Compensate Victims of Rape During 2011 Conflict

Libya's cabinet introduced a decree last week that will recognize women raped during the 2011 uprising as war victims and provide them with compensation. Compensation could come in the form of financial assistance, a safe place to stay, and physical and psychological health care.

While there are no confirmed figures, it is estimated that hundreds of women were raped during the 8-month conflict that toppled Muammar Gaddafi. The International Criminal Court collected evidence that Colonel Gaddafi ordered the rape of women as a weapon against rebel forces.

Rape victims often face stigma in the conservative country, so it is likely that many victims will not come forward. Libya's justice minister Salah al-Marghani said money could be provided to "elevate the status of victims, so they are not looked at as a burden," by sending victim's parents to Hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

The BBC says the decree awaits congressional approval, but the justice ministry will not wait for passage in order to avoid further delays in compensation.

For many victims of war, resources provided by US humanitarian aid ease their suffering; but for victims of war rape care is limited. Survivors of war rape are often denied access to comprehensive medical care that includes the option of abortion, largely because of US policy that is wrongly interpreted to place anti-abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid in conflict zones - in direct violation of international human rights and humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions. Girls and women systematically raped during conflict face increased rates of maternal mortality, permanent reproductive damage, and obstetric fistula, in addition to isolation and trauma. Without access to the option of abortion care, victims are forced to risk their health - either by carrying unwanted pregnancies to term, seeking dangerous methods of abortion or, in many tragic cases, taking their own lives.

TAKE ACTION: Urge President Obama to issue an executive order lifting the ban on abortion restrictions in conflict zones, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

2/26/2014 - Afghan Ministry of Justice Amends Criminal Procedure Code to Protect Women Victims of Violence

Afghanistan's Ministry of Justice (MOJ) amended a controversial provision of the draft Afghan Criminal Procedure Code - Article 26 - that would have barred relatives from testifying against each other in criminal proceedings, including in cases of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. President Hamid Karzai had earlier responded to concerns from Afghan women's organizations about this provision by refusing to sign the Code into law unless MOJ made changes to Article 26.

The Afghan Women's Network, with over one hundred women-led organizations, came out strongly against the provision, holding a press conference to broadcast their opposition to the bill, and then leading a public protest through the streets of downtown Kabul. Members of the Network highlighted how the law would effectively prevent the government from prosecuting cases of violence against women, embolden perpetrators of that violence, and essentially validate discrimination against women.

This is a victory for Afghan women who have been fighting for better enforcement of laws that make violence against women a crime - including rape, domestic assault, honor killings, child marriage, and baad, the practice of resolving disputes by giving away one's daughters.

Women's rights and freedom from violence will be even better protected if President Karzai signs the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States. The Obama Administration has indicated that failure to finalize the agreement could lead to a complete pullout of US forces and the loss of billions of dollar in international aid. Afghanistan would be left vulnerable to greater influence by the Taliban, who had previously stripped women of all human rights and forced them into a state of virtual house arrest.

TAKE ACTION: Pledge with us to support Afghan women and Afghan women's organizations. Let them know that we are proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the fight for women's and girls' equality. And you can urge President Karzai to sign the BSA agreement. Without this agreement, the tremendous gains made by Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban will be in jeopardy.

2/25/2014 - Ugandan President Signs Anti-Gay Bill Into Law

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed a controversial anti-gay bill into law yesterday.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill, passed by parliament in December, could put people in prison for life if they engage in "aggravated homosexuality," which means engaging in acts where someone is infected with HIV, having sex with minors, or being "serial offenders." People who offer services to LGBTQ people, such as human rights groups, could also face criminal charges and years in prison.

In response, Norway and Denmark have already cut off aid to the Ugandan government, and Sweden and the US are considering a similar response. Homosexuality had already been illegal in Uganda, but this law was the first to prevent NGOs from reaching out to LGBTQ populations, and was the first to include lesbians.

To make matters worse for the LGBTQ community in the country, a Ugandan magazine, Red Pepper, today published a list of the :top 200 homosexuals" in the country. Several prominent activists were included on the list, but the tabloid also named a number of individuals who have not yet publicly identified themselves as gay. Those named may now face a greater risk of violence or criminal charges.

2/24/2014 - Bolivian Court Relaxes Requirements for Women Seeking Abortion

Bolivia's highest court issued a decision last week to remove the requirement that women must obtain judicial authorization in order to have a legal abortion.

Bolivia's constitution guarantees equal treatment to all citizens, including women and indigenous peoples. In 2012, Legislator Patricia Mancilla filed a challenge to the constitutionality of several penal code articles that she found discriminatory against women, leading to the court's decision.

"Once again a Latin American court has ruled that governments should not stand in the way of women seeking legal health services," said Gillian Kane, senior policy advisor at Ipas, a global nonprofit that works to increase women's ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and to reduce maternal mortality. "This opinion follows earlier favorable court rulings from Mexico City and Colombia, and adds to a growing body of national and international jurisprudence that affirms women's rights to legal abortion."

Ipas reported that the Plurinational Constitutional Court's ruling included several important points: the court ruled that the decision to keep or terminate a pregnancy should rest only with the woman and not be affected by the beliefs of judges or attorneys and also said that the removal of the judicial authorization requirement will improve fast access to safe abortion services, among other points. "While this decision is a positive change in Bolivia's punitive abortion laws, it is only a first step," Kane added. "There are still significant legal barriers that many women will not be able to overcome, and we know they will turn to unsafe abortion."

According to Ipas, 95 percent of abortions in Latin America - a region with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world - are done secretly and unsafely, which significantly increases the potential for injury and death for women.

2/21/2014 - Free Maternal and Childcare Center Commissioned in Nigeria

The government of Nigeria's Delta State commissioned a 100-bed maternal and childcare center at the Warri Central Hospital last week. The center will provide free treatment and medication for pregnant women from conception to delivery and for children from ages 0 to 5, as part of the Free Maternal Healthcare Programme of 2007 and Free Under-Five Healthcare program of 2010.

"These programmes have helped to ensure that all pregnant women in Delta State can access free healthcare throughout the period of pregnancy, delivery and afterwards while our children, below the age of five years, are guaranteed free medical treatment in all public health facilities," said State Governor Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan.

Dr. Kingsley Agholor, the Medical Director of Warri Central Hospital, reported that the government has reduced the maternal mortality rate in Delta State from 456/100,000 births in 2008 to 221/100,000 births in 2011 with the help of these free programs. "The Delta State government has recorded a lot of successes in the reduction of mortality, morbidity and HIV/Aids prevalence in the state through the provision of quality, accessible and affordable health care services across the state," he said.

In his remarks announcing the new maternal and childcare center, Governor Uduaghan also promoted the use of family planning as a means of increasing maternal and child heath.

2/20/2014 - Afghan Presidential Candidates Debate Women's Rights

The second televised presidential debate in Afghanistan took place Tuesday night. Four of 11 candidates participated in the debate, touching on issues like security, domestic politics, the Taliban, bureaucratic corruption, the economy, and even women's rights.

"The people of Afghanistan have given sacrifices for democracy," said Daoud Sultanzoy, a former member of Parliament. "Every person will have equal rights under the law." Several other candidates have expressed strong, positive attitudes towards protecting women's rights: Zalmai Rasul claims he will require at least 20 percent of the country's central cabinet to be women and Ashraf Ghani claims he will involve religious scholars in defending women's rights and eliminating violence against women.

With the help and support of the U.S. and the international community, Afghan women and girls have made steady progress in every sector of society. Previously stripped of all human rights and forced into a state of virtual house arrest, women are now 27 percent of Afghan Parliament, about 35 percent of all primary and secondary school students, and nearly 19 percent of students attending university. Since US troops will pull out in 2014, the future president and all government leaders must work hard to strengthen women's rights and to ensure that their progress is not once again stripped away by the Taliban.

The April 5 election is the first independent election organized by Afghanistan.

2/19/2014 - Afghan President Will Not Sign Criminal Procedure Code into Law

In a major victory for Afghan women, President Hamid Karzai yesterday refused to sign Afghanistan's controversial draft Criminal Procedure Code into law. According to a presidential spokesperson, the President has indicated that he will not sign the bill until the Ministry of Justice amends Article 26.

Article 26 would prohibit relatives from testifying against each other in all criminal proceedings, including in cases of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. After the law passed the Afghan Parliament, Afghan women's rights groups launched a strong campaign to stop its enactment, including a public protest in Kabul on Friday.

Our tireless advocacy for the last few weeks paid off," said Manizha Naderi, Executive Director of Women for Afghan Women. "This is what we wanted - for the bill to go back to the Ministry of Justice for revision." Her sentiments were echoed by Samira Hamidi of the Afghan Women's Network, comprised of over 100 women-led organizations: "Who says advocacy and lobbying does not work? It does and we have seen results!"