We can’t let the UN’s Free & Equal campaign pass us by

Ministerial meeting on the Role of the United Nations in Ending Violence and Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)

Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, addresses a ministerial meeting on the role of the UN in ending violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals.

With a result that “reverberated around the world”, Nicholas Toonen’s complaint against Australia in 1994 heralded the first recognition of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender) equality by the Human Rights Committee.

Speaking in 2011, Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated, “Since 1994, more than 30 countries have taken steps to abolish the offence of homosexuality…and in many parts of the world we have witnessed a remarkable shift in public attitudes in favour of greater acceptance of gay and lesbian people.”1

Much of western society has progressed since the 1969 Stonewall Riots and the criminalisation of Alan Turing. But stories still appear of suicides, violent acts of homophobia and of moronic politicians condemning gay persons who are apparently able to wield meteorological disaster in the midst of copulation. And for thousands every day, bullying is a common phenomena in homes, schools and workplaces.

In other parts of the world, similar tales are made worse by state-sanctioned homophobia. Whilst Ugandans can breathe a small sigh of relief as President Museveni refuses to jail homosexuals for life or nail them to a crucifix, Indians are subject to a ban on homosexual acts and Russians, well, just turn on the telly.

But unless you follow #lgbtrights or Peter Tatchell on Twitter, you probably haven’t heard of the UN’s new campaign tackling global homophobia and transphobia. This latest movement by the Human Rights Office is determined to end social prejudice and barbarism towards those who know themselves to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Free & Equal, launched on 26 July 2013, is “a global campaign designed to raise awareness of homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination and to help stop millions of LGBT people being abused for being who they are.”2 The campaign, scheduled to last one year, was introduced by Pillay and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. “A campaign like this”, said Pillay, “is critical right now because of the enormous human rights violations suffered by LGBT people.” Archbishop Tutu was open about his religious views on this matter, saying he “could not worship a homophobic God.”3

Although everyone who supports LGBT rights should be thrilled with this campaign, there are a couple of problems. First, without state freedom and equality, this message won’t be heard or felt by those who need it, or need to be challenge by it, most. Of course, this is the most difficult obstacle as the UN can only urge states to action with no hard-power at all. Second, even if one may live in a “free and equal” state, the message will be filtered through religion, politics and prejudice before being misconstrued, forgotten or flung into the Equality Wheelie-Bin with race and gender. Thus, the road to anti-homophobia will be slower than it has to be.

The responsibility, then, is the individual’s. It’s our decision whether we insist on fighting homophobia or choose to live with it. It’s true the UN can’t enforce such social norms on this multicultural, small blue dot, so it is up to us to stop the guilt, suicidal thoughts, self-loathing and bullying of LGBT people. Even if we’re not lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, there are people suffering that are – so we shouldn’t, we can’t, let this campaign pass us by.

If you’re interested in keeping updated with LGBT news, see the links below.

References

1 UN HUMANRIGHTS, 2011. How gay rights debate began at the UN. [video online] Available at: [Accessed 25 January 2014]
2 UN HUMANRIGHTS, 2013. A History of LGBT rights at the UN. [video online] Available at: <youtube.com/watch?v=XvpHn_zdkTY#t=32> [Accessed 24 January 2014]
3 MaximsNewsPEOPLE, 2013. WorldLeadersTV: “FREE & EQUAL” U.N. CAMPAIGN for LGBT EQUALITY: NAVI PILLAY, DESMOND TUTU. [video online] Available at: <youtube.com/watch?v=IurGhTFrxRI> [Accessed 24 January 2014]

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Education – The right denied to many

Adult Education Programmes in India

The right to education is one of the most fundamental rights a human being is entitled to. However, the reality is a far cry from the ideal world that we print neatly on our papers. Out there, there are millions of children who do not attend schools, for a variety of reasons. While some simply do not have the facility, others may not be sent by their parents. Even more regretfully, some who get to schools, are not rewarded with proper education. Either the teachers are missing or they are not interested.

Last week, a most frightening incident shook the world when around 21 children died in India due to the school meals provided to them. I had spent my childhood in that region and know enough to state that the region is mired in corruption, much like other places. Such levels of negligence are shameful and terrifying. That free school meals have become dangerous is an immensely discouraging development and will deter parents from sending their kids to school. Some 57 million children, across the globe remain uneducated which includes countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, India and many more. The child of today is who the world will depend on tomorrow. And that is a reason perhaps more relevant to us and makes it more than just a human rights issue. But what is it that is holding education back from poor children worldwide and how can this be addressed?

It is not that the government policies shall be blamed, in fact they are in place. It is the execution that lets them down. Widespread corruption; societies where people take whatever money they can get their hands on works against these noble causes. Everyone is concerned about themselves and themselves only. Besides that, in poor rural families, education for girls is highly unfavoured. Girls have to stay at homes, learn household chores, later get married, and then stay at home and raise their kids – this is how the thoughts run in poverty, and in societies where women and their rights are not socially encouraged. A shift in mental attitude regarding this would mean more girls being sent to school. It would be fair to say that the situation is progressing and over time the social taboo will diminish.

Yet another important barrier to providing education is the lack of teachers and it needs to be addressed urgently. There can be little doubt that teachers and teaching have run out of fashion. Not many want to become teachers, especially in poor countries. Why? Because it does not command a handsome pay. To cut the story short, there is little incentive for people to teach, and this has to be addressed if the target of global education is to be met. And perhaps the biggest challenge in poorer countries is to make education affordable. It all comes down to money, if it is available and affordable, it would encourage parents to send their kids over to study.

Education is the path to an endless ocean. It preaches, provokes and enlightens. Poverty and vast social inequalities, which are the trademark of poor countries, is the disease whose remedy is education.

 

Maitreya Thakur

 

Sources:

 

UNESCO video on global education – http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Ft5sDJG054w

The Struggle for Gender Equality: India

FIELD COVERAGE: INDIA

Gender inequality dictates the daily lives of thousands of women in the Indian Subcontinent and manifests itself in many ways. The incident on 16th December 2012 saw this manifest in the traumatic gang rape of a 23-year-old female that shook the pillars of Indian society. Many questions were raised as a result: What had led to this act? What was the mindset behind it? Had society allowed these attitudes to flourish?

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon issued this statement: ‘Violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated’. The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women called on the Indian Government to do everything in their power to take up radical reforms, ensure justice and robust public services to help women. Responses have led to Indians questioning cultural mindsets and the effectiveness of the state’s legal status to protect women.

Let us firstly look at the cultural obstacles many women face not only in the Indian Subcontinent but also in many other countries in South East Asia and Africa for example. Amartya Sen has explored these issues greatly and highlights key obstacles to the betterment of women and the realization of gender equality. Sen argues that all too often the burden of hardship falls disproportionally on women; ‘gender inequality in India is not one homogenous phenomenon but a collection of disparate and interlinked problems’. We see this in mortality rates and natality inequality where the parent prefers a male child to a female. Moreover this is reinforced by inequality of basic facilities to women and lack of opportunities, further deepened by cultural attitudes of women’s roles in the public domain. Later in life this is also seen in property rights in rural societies and rights to inheritance in patriarchal family systems. This does not seem to fit the modern, upcoming Indian middle class image projected to the world. India now faces the problem in redressing these social ‘ills’ in light of its economic boom and newfound image.

India ranks 132 out of 187 countries on the gender inequality index – lower than Pakistan (123), according to the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report 2013. The report found that all countries in South Asia, with the exception of Afghanistan, were a better place for women than India. The gender inequality index in the report measures the loss in a country’s progress and human development because of gender inequality in three sectors: reproductive health, women empowerment and labor market participation. The report notes ‘gender inequality is especially tragic not only because it excludes women from basic social opportunities, but also because it gravely imperils the life prospects of future generations’. The UNDP study says that only 29% of Indian women above the age of 15 in 2011 were a part of the country’s labor force, compared to 80.7% men. In Parliament, only 10.9% of lawmakers are women, while in Pakistan 21.1% are women. This shows the work needed to be done by the government there and across the world to answer gender equality issues.

Gender Equality: A New Development Goal?

Perhaps we can suggest that gender equality must be recognized as a development priority by the United Nations. This has been part of the growing debate in sessions regarding what to include in new development plans since the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) expire in 2015. Many saw the lack of focus on inequality as a key drawback of the MDGs. Debates have centered on how we can find new ways to measure inequality and incorporate gender/social inequalities in examinations. The need to define gender inequality as different from wider poverty issues is also apparent from expert panels. The fundamental premise behind the demand for a standalone goal is that gender is not just one of many inequalities, but the most omnipresent.

Mainstreaming the issue of gender equality across the post-2015 framework will be imperative. Although maternal mortality was an important facet of the MDGs it fell under health goals focusing on service delivery rather than on much deeper causes of gender inequality; unsafe abortion, child marriages, domestic violence, male domination in household/health decisions.  So what should a stand-alone goal look like? We need to establish set criteria for the international community to work off. This would ideally address and reflect the priorities of marginalized women/girls in all areas from national legislation to cultural rights. Gender specific injustices need to be defined independently and deserve considerable focus as a forerunning issue.

By Mohanvir Singh Saran

References:

Manash Pratim Gohain, TNN. “Ban expresses condolences on death of gang-rape victim, urges reforms to deter violence against women”. The Times of India.

Stenhammer, Anne F. (20 December 2012). “UN Women condemns gang rape of Delhi student” (Press release). UN Women. Retrieved 21 December 2012.

Amartya Sen, “The Many Faces of Gender Equality”, From the New Republic, September 17 2001

blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/03/15/india-ranks-lower-than-pakistan-on-gender-equality/

articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-03-15/india/37743780_1_gender-equality-hdi-gender-inequality

www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/may/14/gender-equality-development-priority

The Curse of Untouchability

Dalit sweeper woman walks by a pig at a dump

I come from India. I have much to be proud of. But I do not want to hide behind our glorious past any further. Frankly, there is enough to be ashamed of as well. The caste system in India has been the source of immense strife for many in the country. Unlike social classes where one could either rise or fall in it, the caste system is hereditary and fixed for life. One is born into a particular caste and one dies in it. The division of people into various social groups led to the establishment of castes and it has its roots in Hinduism.

At the top of the ladder in the system are the “Brahmins” or the priests while at the bottom rest the “Dalits” or the untouchables.* This has been the way for thousands of years and the untouchables, understandably, have suffered more than anybody else through the centuries through no fault of theirs. Imagine how helpless one would feel being born as an untouchable and knowing they would remain the same for life. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can justify such injustice. Yet, there is a truth even sadder. Untouchability continues to be rampant despite our society being more liberal today than they ever have been. It is a wound that has not healed and only hurts more and more as the time passes.

 

It is no longer an issue of laws and reforms. The Constitution of India abolished untouchability way back in 1949. Interestingly, the constituent assembly which drafted the constitution was led by an untouchable himself, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, who rose through monstrous challenges to get where he did. So, the laws are in place but they only gather dust on paper. I make frequent visits to India and my own personal assessment, which has grown over the years through interaction on ground, is that untouchability is in fact condemned by most. I feel it survives today mainly due to two reasons. The first being the fear of social backlash. If tomorrow a Brahmin is to hug an untouchable, uproar in the neighbourhood is inevitable, so the fear of social rejection dampens any such intentions. Secondly, some people feel bound by age old superstitions and practices, and thus are unwilling to break the trend.

It would be unfair to say that there has been no progress at all over the years. Today, the lower castes including the untouchables, have found a political voice through parties such as the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party). The backward castes are also provided reservations for jobs and education by the government. However, that is not enough since there are still several heart rending instances of grave injustice around the country. Public places, especially temples in many places, have their doors shut for them and barbers often refuse to cut their hair. Insults are their constant companion. The fact is that they are still neglected and looked down upon.

 

The solution is not easy. Society has to change the way it looks at the untouchables and no, it is not going to happen overnight. But it has to happen someday. No change comes without challenge and we, the privileged, must offer our hand. We must be willing to bear any social backlash for the cause of greater good because on the right path, if we bleed, we bleed in the name of humanity.

 

 Maitreya Thakur

 

*Note – For those interested, detailed information on castes can be found on the web. They are presented in a very simplified manner in the article to keep the main issue easy to grasp.

 

Sources: More information on the problems faced by the untouchables

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-18394914

 

http://daily.bhaskar.com/article/GUJ-AHD-on-eve-of-ambedkar—s-birthday-dalits-protest—-untouchability—-nationwide-4235485-NOR.html

Indian Women Moving Forward: Jack Lewis

1221-India-Gang-Rape_full_600

In response to the 16th December gang-rape incident in Delhi, the United Nations Entity for gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women called for a real response against structural and cultural oppression within India, stating ‘UN Women joins the Government and people of India in recognizing that we need to take tougher action together to change the present reality and culture of impunity.’[1] As a result of this the Verma Committee – convened in the wake of the tragedy – has produced a report. The report recommends legislation that includes punishment for rape in same sex relationships; within marriage and an obligation for the police to register all reported cases of rape.  Whilst this report is not only hard line and uncompromising, it also rejects the death sentence as a punishment – showing a forward thinking approach that understands that the civil rights of women must not go hand-in-hand with a regressive attitude to other areas of human rights.  Rather then than simply seeing a protectionist attitude, where women are merely objects protected by the state, what this report instigates is a role for women in actively constructing their state laws and civil structure.  The report has come under some criticism from groups within India who see the changes as unrealistic and over-hasty.  First Post India, for example, takes issue with treating marital and non-marital rape as equal offences:

 

equating non-consensual marital sex assaults with any other rape means the punishments have to be the same. This is fine as long as the woman is willing to consider breakdown of marriage as an acceptable byproduct[2]

 

Such a criticism seems ill informed and blinkered, glossing over the structurally oppressive institutions that would see women divorced for this reason as second-class citizens. To criticize this report for its hard line in this respect is to ignore the very real positive changes it will see, and what will occur, as a result of it.

 

One such positive outcome from this report and the changes it has instigated is the support of the movement welcomed publicly by the UN Human Rights Chief to ban waste scavenging in India – an area where women of the lowest castes are forced to work.  Whilst protests have been going on for some time – with a 63 day National March that ends this week– the publication of the report by the Verma Committee can be seen as central to bringing these protests to national and international attention, and creating a positive and constructive atmosphere – supported by legislation – that will hopefully lead to their success.  Unfortunately it took a terrible tragedy to create the urgency in India for such a report to be produced; other developing nations should be looking to emulate these changes in legislation without the prompt of such an incident.

Jack Lewis

Sources

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44043&Cr=India&Cr1=#.URAa2qX7UfE

 

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44000&Cr=India&Cr1=rights#.URAdPqX7UfE

 

http://www.firstpost.com/breaking%20views/all-or-nothing-approach-to-verma-report-is-self-defeating-613019.html

Rape: Not just a woman’s problem

This weekend it was announced that the 23-year-old victim of a brutal gang rape in Delhi, has died of her injuries. The news of the attack has attracted horror and shock on a global scale, and turned the spotlight to India’s government as well as bringing violence against women to the forefront of the news.

The attack happened on December 16, as the victim and her male companion traveled home from the cinema on a private bus. Both were beaten with iron poles and the female student was raped for almost an hour by six men, before both were stripped and thrown off the moving bus. These horrifying details have been shared around the world’s media and attracted days of demonstrations in Delhi. Protests calling for the death penalty and castration, turned violent with the deployment of tear gas and water cannons and left one police officer dead.

The victim, who hasn’t been officially named, died in a Singapore hospital of severe organ failure and brain damage in the early hours of Saturday morning. Six men have since been charged with manslaughter.

Following the protests, the Indian government were quick to announce a series of new measures to improve the safety of women which included shaming convicted rapists, police night patrols and checks on bus drivers. A committee was also configured to speed up the trials of sexual assault cases against women. This comes the same week as an 18-year-old woman in the Punjab area committed suicide, after police had done nothing about a rape she had reported a month earlier.

Unfortunately these cases are far too common in India. Like so many other societies, rape carries with it such stigma and shame that it is often not reported or of it is, not dealt with appropriately and legally. But attitude is hard to change and when it runs through the highest strands of democracy, it becomes even harder. The president’s son, Abuhijit Mukherjee (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-20852513) has already had to make a public apology for calling the Delhi protesters “dented and painted” women on a regional news channel.

But this comment reflects the serious flaws and corruption within the country’s government and police. As Jason Overdorf rightly states on the global post: “By choosing candidates facing rape charges, India’s political parties have implicitly sanctioned the crime.” He is referring to the fact that according to National Election Watch data, 2 members of parliament and 6 of state assemblies are facing rape charges with 36 more facing charges for lesser crimes against women.

A journalist writing for ‘India Today’ warned that this all could be just a “flash in the pan”. The problems run deep, as guidelines regarding rape already laid out by the Indian High Court are ignored by police and hospitals. The pressure now being applied to the Indian government needs to last longer than this week’s newsreel to ensure that real change can begin. A number of organisations including Human Rights Watch and V-Day’s, ‘1 billion rising’ campaign have already harnessed the attention being given to the case and urged people to take action against the Indian authorities and violence against women globally.

It is important that here in the West we remember that this isn’t just an Indian issue, or even a women’s rights issue. These are human rights, which are being violated everywhere.

Laura S. Lea

Sources:

www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/india/121226/india-gang-rape-protests

http://www.hrw.org/

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/