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22nd August 1999

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Fighting a new battle

Radhika Coomaraswamy warns of a new threat to the rights of women- religious fundamentalism that is sweeping across some regions of the world

By Feizal Samath

Dr. Radhika CoomaraswamyWomen across the world have succeeded in achieving equality at international levels and freedom from fear and violence but a resurgence of religious fundamentalism is threatening these rights, says Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. She believes in some regions women face a lot of obstacles due to these extremist groups.

"The rise of these movements, whether it be the BJP in India or Moslem fundamentalists in other parts, results in a setback for women under the guise of a cultural renaissance. We see this fundamentalism growing in South Asia and the Middle East," the Sri Lankan scholar told The Sunday Times last week while preparing for a crucial trip to Afghanistan.

She said these are some of the crucial issues that would confront women in the new millennium and it was up to the international community to work with groups in those countries to fight against the oppression of women.

Coomaraswamy, Sri Lanka's most celebrated human rights activist, is due to visit Afghanistan from August 29 or 30 to September 12 to review the situation of women there. She is going along with Kamal Hossein, a former foreign minister of Bangladesh and now the UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan. They are travelling from Pakistan.

The situation in Afghanistan, particularly with regard to women and children, is appalling, according to journalists and aid workers.

A special report by the US-based Reader's Digest magazine last month said since Taliban fundamentalists took over Kabul, Afghanistan's capital in September 1996, women's education has been banned with schools and universities closed to them.

Jobs outside the home are not permitted except in all-female hospital wards. Western clothes and makeup are banned and the Reader's Digest said there were reports of women's lips being mutilated after lipstick was discovered. High-heels, shoes that clatter and sandals are forbidden. Public toilets and baths are closed to women.

"Women mustn't speak to men other than family members, or attend social gatherings other than weddings and funerals, where men and women are segregated," the Reader's Digest reported.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women usually visits countries on invitation by those governments. The invitation from Afghanistan, however, came from the former Rabbani government, which is the only administration recognised by the UN.

"The Rabbani government controls a small strip but I hope to get permission from the Taliban to visit Kabul, once I get to Pakistan. UN agencies are generally given permission to visit Kabul (which is controlled by the Taliban)," Coomaraswamy said, adding she planned to document issues against women and submit a report to the UN.

The team- Ms. Coomaraswamy and her Geneva-based coordinator - are expected to visit Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad.

The UN women's specialist has traversed the world, since her appointment in 1994, probing and reporting on the situation of women and raising their problems effectively on the international stage.

"Violence against women in the home and in armed conflict seems to be a universal phenomena and though it differs in different regions in terms of intensity, we have found it everywhere," she said.

A global approach was necessary to deal with these issues, she said adding she has advocated the use of international standards in local law to tackle these problems.

"Governments generally recognise these problems but inaction by the state is one of the main reasons why violence occurs. When the victim is a woman, governments don't normally act. Not only must they say they are against violence against women but they must also implement programmes to prevent this," Ms. Coomaraswamy noted.

Asked whether there were any countries where women had fewer problems, she said the UN had received very few allegations against women in Scandinavian countries.

Ms. Coomaraswamy is also visiting India, Nepal and Bangladesh in October and November this year to study the problems of trafficking of women.

She was critical of a South Asian draft convention on trafficking, which is due to be signed by South Asian leaders at their annual summit in Nepal in November.

"This was disappointing from the framework of international norms mainly because it seemed to be a law and order convention and not even a rights convention. The definition of trafficking was limited and did not take into consideration the modern forms of trafficking," she said.

"That convention also didn't have any specific violations dealing with human rights abuses and it allowed for the rehabilitation and repatriation of victims without a properly planned programme, " she said.

Other UN officials say UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson had written to the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) secretariat in Katmandu saying the convention was below international standards and urged that it not be taken up at the leaders' summit.

Ms. Coomaraswamy says a lot of Nepalese and Bangladeshi girls are either bought or kidnapped by middlemen and taken across the border, to the brothels of Bombay and Calcutta in India where a large percentage of them contract AIDS or the HIV virus.

"Many of them are underage children abducted against their will and subjected to sexual slavery," she said.

"Nepal is trying to formulate extensive legislation to prevent this but the corruption in the criminal justice system is such that border guards can be bribed, police can be bribed, so there is a whole culture of tolerance that has to be dealt with," the UN's special rapporteur of women said.

Ms. Coomaraswamy is also going to Guatemala in January 2000 to look at the problem of indigenous women and armed conflict.

In the past, she has visited Japan and Korea to look at the problem of comfort women, Brazil on domestic violence, Poland on trafficking of women for commercial sex purposes, South Africa to look at rape, Rwanda on armed conflict, Indonesia on the general situation of women and the United States on sexual harassment in prisons between guards and prisoners. It is only in the US and Canada that male and female guards are permitted to guard prisoners of either sex. The UN Rapporteur reported several instances of sexual misconduct and said the US was using methods that were cruel and inhuman in restraining prisoners.

She was refused permission to visit prisons in the state of Michigan but visited prisons in many other states. "The response, from the US government, to my report was muted," she said.

Ms. Coomaraswamy also visited Cuba and Haiti. She was invited by the Cuban government, under pressure to invite a UN agency, while the Haiti visit was made at the request of the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Commission to look at the situation of political rapes.

The Sri Lankan expert is precluded from probing her own country's situation because "one does not go to one's own country because one would not be an impartial observer."

This was the response she gave the LTTE when she had been asked by them in 1995, during a press conference in Geneva, to visit the areas under their control.

Ms. Coomaraswamy, said her workload as executive director of the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES)had increased since the tragic death of parliamentarian Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam. She also said she received a lot of reports on the Sri Lankan situation.

"There appears to be a massive increase in the number of reports and cases of violence against women and according to the Inspector General of Police the number of rapes has risen to about 900 from 150 or so in 1980.

Women in Sri Lanka are prepared to come out and report these issues and women counsellors and NGOs supporting their cause have helped to bring their cases forward," she said.

"I also think the situation of war and militarisation has led to a great deal of weapons being in the hands of ordinary people and there has been an increase of violence as a result of that," she said.

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