Category Archives: Women News Network

Women protesters in Tunisia and Egypt forge forward for human rights

This article first appeared in Women News Network

(WNN) U.S./Global: As women across the MENA (Middle-East and North Africa) region experienced victory and discouraging setbacks with political participation and human rights for all in Egypt and Tunisia women activist leaders look back to reflect on what has gone wrong and what has gone right for the women who have pushed so very hard for change.

On the anniversary of the uprisings in Tahrir Square The Global Fund for Women, along with the Arab Cultural and Community Center in San Francisco, California (U.S.), hosted a special evening of analysis and reflection to give insight to the progress for women’s rights during the Arab revolution.

As a catalyst in the global women’s rights movement since 1987 mobilizing nearly 85 million dollars from 20,000+ diverse individuals and institutions the Global Fund for Women has provided grants to 4,200 groups in 171 countries. In 2010 alone their efforts reached 125,000 women and girls who went on to benefit thousands of others.

Sharing insights on the women’s protest movement in the Arab Spring, the latest Global Fund grantees Nadia Sraieb-Koepp from Tunisia along with Nawla Darwiche from Egypt joined with  Zeina Zaatari, Global Fund’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director to discuss the amazing progress and the setbacks that plague the activist movement in the region.

Bringing intensity and reality to the conversation about women’s progress in the region Sraieb-Koepp and Darwiche offered a valuable window into women and today’s societies in Tunisia and Egypt.

Nadia Sraieb-Koepp, who has served as part-time Press officer at the United Nations in the past is also co-founder of Engagement Citoyen (Engagement Citizien), a non-profit organization working to create a better informed public in Tunisia. As Sraieb-Koepp recalls right after the revolution in Tunisia, one of her best friends called and said, “…we women may lose all the rights we already have.” For years Tunisia has been at the global forefront in the push for women’s rights in the region.

Perhaps one of the most important questions for women in the Arab Spring region is: Has women’s involvement in bringing change to Tunisia and Egypt been undervalued?

“The March 8th call brought a few hundred women to the streets, [which is] nowhere near a million. This was not unexpected…,” revealed Egyptian author and Cairo University professor Dr. Hoda Elsadda in an article in the most recent book published by The Global Fund, “Telling Our Stories: Women’s Voices from the Middle East and North Africa,” edited by Zeina Zataari, which brings together a collection of articles that have gone deep to describe conditions for women on-the-ground in the region.

“… it was extremely unrealistic to imagine that the first sparks of a popular revolution would bring about overnight a radical transfor- mation in cultural attitudes towards women’s rights,” Elsadda continued. In January 2012 Elsadda became a judge and panelist for the Arabic Booker Prize. Her efforts to portray the real life and tone of Egypt have been extensive.

“…What came as a surprise and a real shock, however, was the marked hostility and violence unleashed against women protesters who were harassed and shouted at by groups of men who encircled them,” Elsadda outlined in her book. “Egyptian women took to the streets to celebrate International Women’s Day [last year], in response to a call that was sent out on Facebook for a million women’s march.”.

Conditions for women in Tunisia have shown promise. “After 1956, we were given almost all the rights French women had,” said Staieb-Koepp during the Global Fund for Women event. “You can have an abortion, you can divorce… [even though] there has never been a very strong movement to get these rights,” she continued.

But Sraieb-Koepp also went on to convey that she worries that if Tunisian women are not especially aware, their rights could be taken away. According to Sraieb-Koepp Islamic fundamentalists in Tunisia are now arguing one of the best ways to cope with unemployment is to “keep women at home.”

While Tunisia and Egypt have different histories, Sraieb-Koepp sees the fate of women in both countries to be very similar, “…it is basically the same experience as [in] Egypt. Women took over the civil society activism and men were drawn to politics,” she added.

But some severe backlashes have happened. “Yesterday two [Tunisian] women doctors were attacked in the hospital going to their cars. One of them was stabbed,” Sraieb-Koepp adds. “It is the kind of thing we never ever had before… This is where now it becomes tricky,” Staieb-Koepp emphasized… …people tend to get scared and intimidated and it paralyzes them to the point where nobody wants to do something anymore, that would be the worst case, if fear takes over.”

In 2010 many families in Tunisia were worried about years of rising poverty levels combined with the few jobs available going to those who already had positions of authority in the region. Food shortages and crisis extended from Egypt where an already spiraling crisis was taking place. This added hunger and hardship to the lives of those in Tunisia and in Egypt who already live at the very bottom of society.

“People want to be able to have some kind of hope for the future and to enjoy their fundamental rights,” added Sraieb-Koepp.

As rising corruption inside President’s Ben Ali’s administration spurred activism in Tunisia, many women stepped forward to share their goals to reform and improve Tunisian society.

But what is democracy? “Having different opinions without getting into [the] fight?” asked Sraieb-Koepp who works through her organization to make sure that women understand the election system with the importance of getting out the vote.

As the Arab Spring unfolded many global Middle East analysts were criticized because they did not predict the high volume of people who wanted drastic change in the region. It seemed the analysts did not completely get that conditions everywhere in the region on-the-ground were being pushed by an intensity of need; of society for equality, human rights and democracy.

“Essentially, the analysts did not get the answers wrong, they just never asked many of the most important questions,” outlined United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in a December 2011 article she wrote for The Huffington Post. “…the dry kindling of repression, deprivation, exclusion, and abuse had been piling up for years, in Tunisia, across the region, and beyond,” she added.  “The actions, omissions, excesses and abdications of the governments of the region were certainly at the centre.”

In October 2011 the Tunisian elections were especially complicated. 104 different political parties were running. During the time Sraieb-Koepp’s organization, Engagement Citoyen, went to factories, engaged in discussion and reminded people how important it is to vote. As they went they watched reactions. A video posted about Engagement Citoyen’s push for the vote went viral on YouTube. “Beware dictatorship could return – go vote,” said Engagement Citoyen.

“Sometimes you can make a difference,” said Sraieb-Koepp. “I don’t think we can all change everything, but we have to find things we know how to do, we understand how to do, and there is enough space for.”

In three days Engagement Citoyen registered more than 2000 people to vote. “Stick together and continue to fight. Don’t give up. At this point, it would be too stupid to waste a revolution,” they said.

Egyptian women too have had their triumphs, but they have also experienced growing frustration following the Arab Spring revolution.

“…women were in the heart of this movement… women were everywhere, they were in the check-points, they were in the square, they were in the hospitals, they were throwing stones…,” said Egyptian activist Nawla Darwiche. “But right after Feb 11, 2011, the day Mubarak stepped down, marginalization of women began,” she continued. “…women’s struggle in Egypt did not begin yesterday, or last year, or 10 years ago, it began since the pharaoh’s… ….when the revolution ended, women were given many promises. But when the revolution ended, they were asked to return back home and take care of their families,” she added. “This is exactly what is happening now in Egypt.”

But Darwiche doesn’t see marginalization of women as anything strange or unusual. “Apparently, it happens after all revolutions,” she said, “from eastern Europe to Latin America, from the French to the Egyptian. It is very good to mobilize women, to participate, and once the revolution is done, your role is another thing, you have to go back home.”

“We went to the street, we thought, we have the right to dream…,” Darwiche reflected on the March 8th women’s protest movement in Egypt. “We have participated in the revolution, we have a right to think, how to translate the slogans of the revolution into the demands of women.”

But the message of the women was not universally accepted. Women who spoke out publicly were often attacked by fundamentalists and by who have been called in Egypt “the thugs of the old regime” who have been united against women. “Therefore, I can expect some dark years,” shared Darwiche who does not paint a pretty picture of women in today’s Egypt.

“There are attacks from all sides,” she conveyed. “Some people try to put us between two alternatives: …either the SCAF: The Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces, or the fundamentalists… …We have to say, no, there is a third way.”

Despite the constant challenges Egyptian women face, Darwiche sees solidarity as a primary goal, including solidarity with women worldwide. “We need your solidarity,” she said to those in the audience at The Global Fund for Women event.

“We ask you, on the 8th of March (2012), to be in front of Egyptian embassies [worldwide] in solidarity with Egyptian women.”

Though Darwiche  expects the first political casualties in Egypt to be women, and the first laws passed in the new parliament to be against women’s rights, “Things have changed, sometimes to better and sometimes to worse,” she added. “There is something irreversible [in Egypt]. People are not ready to accept everything.”

“…what these revolutions triggered, is, they [people] are not going to let themselves be intimidated,” added Straib-Koepp jumping into the conversation. “If something is wrong, they are going to be right back on the street. This is something that is completely new, but it is a positive development that comes out of these revolutions. It is not gender based.”

Zimbabwe: Even with ‘Tapestries of Hope’ girl child violence continues

This article originally appeared in the Women News Network

(WNN) ZIMBABWE, Africa: Three-year-old Runyararo screams every time she sees a man. She was found abandoned at a bus station. When the Girl Child Network Worldwide (GCNW) took her for an examination there was evidence of sexual assault, and attempted penetration, a clear sign of rape though she has not yet been tested for HIV/AIDS.

In a country where the myth that ‘sex with a virgin’ can cure HIV/AIDS, there is a high probability she has already contracted the virus. Zimbabwe is in the top five AIDS countries in the world, with some estimating that 80% of adults live with AIDS.

Michealene Cristini Risley’s documentary film, Tapestries of Hope, exposes the myth of the HIV/AIDS cure claimed by those who believe that the rape of a young virgin will cure someone suffering from the disease. Documenting GCNW advocacy for children, Risley considered adopting young Runyararo during the filming, but with her own three young boys and a husband at home she decided against it.

HIV/AIDS has taken a devastating toll on the country as women and girls have been continued to be vulnerable to rape violence. “Wars and armed conflicts generate fertile conditions for the spread of HIV,” says a 1998 report byUNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS).

Many Zimbabwe women today face the ‘aftermaths’ of the country’s decades long history of para-military conflict that places masculinity, violence and aggression on a higher tier. “As Zimbabwe is undergoing a constitutional reform process, and is anticipating an election, violence is on the increase,” says Grace Chirenje-Nachipo  in The Zimbabwean.  “In Zimbabwe today, political violence is an issue that leaves women at the very heart of conflict aftermath.”

In an interview with Risley at her home in Silicon Valley she says Runyararo is “Consciously aware of what happened to her… She has this inner courage.”

Risley’s own experience with abuse led her to make her first film, Flashcards, based on her own childhood experience of sexual abuse with a focus on increasing public awareness of the topic. Her first film was nominated for an Academy Award and shown on PBS.

After hearing about Zimbabwe from Paulo Gianturco, friend and author of “Women Who Light the Dark.” Gianturco told Risley she had to go to Zimbabwe. As Risley recalls, “I kept saying yeah, yeah, yeah. I am not going to Africa.” Another friend also told Risley she had to meet the girls at GCNW. At that point, “They weren’t talking about the myth, just how wonderful these girls are.”

In 2007 Betty Makoni, the founder of the GCNW, and Risley sat down for breakfast in the California Bay Area. Both shared abuse as young girls. Makoni was raped at age 6 and saw her father beat her mother to death. After meeting Makoni, Risley promised to visit Zimbabwe.

Makoni began GCNW (originally named GCN – Girl Child Network) in 1999 while she was head of the English department teaching literature at a High School in Chitungwiza, near Harare, Zimbabwe.  What initially began as a theatre arts club has now evolved into a network of over 700 chapters and 30,000 primary and high school members throughout the country. As of 2007, GCNW had received more than 20,000 reports of sexual abuse in cases of girls who are younger than 16-years-old.

The focus is based on human rights and children, and the effects of gender violence. GCNW aims to shame the perpetrators rather than the victims.  At GCNW girls are provided with a document to fill out – however long it takes them to fill out from a couple hours to a number of weeks is accomodated. At GCNW “the first thing that happens is that girls are allowed to lead the direction of their healing,” Risley says. This brings girls from “powerlessness to powerful.” GCNW also does peer-to-peer counseling which Risley sees as critical, “Once you begin to talk about it, is when you begin to heal,” she says to WNN – Women News Network.

Betty Makoni left Zimbabwe in 2008, after Zimbabwe’s President Robert Gabriel Mugabe allegedly asked for Makoni’s severed head. Makoni now lives in the UK is an active member of the GCNW board.

The reality of the myth that sex with a virgin can cure a man of HIV/AIDS, along with conditions on-the-ground for many in Zimbabwe, were worse than Risley had imagined. As Risley says of her arrival in Zimbabwe, “It was like landing in hell.” As a result of sporadic electricity, the landscape “looked like we are landing in the middle of nowhere.” In addition none of the employees were smiling. People looked angry. As soon as Risley was picked up by Makoni, Makoni looked back to see if they were being followed. It was then, when the question Risley’s husband asked before Risley left, rang in her ears: “If you don’t come back from Zimbabwe, would it have been worth it?”

Zimbabwe Iren Maduwa who died of AIDS 2004Portrait of Katerere, Zimbabwe native, Iren Maduwa, who died of AIDS after discovering only two months earlier that she had the disease. Iren was infected by her husband, Joel, who died three months after she did. Image: UNphotos

The challenges continued when there was a water shortage during the course of their stay. For three days they went without electricity or water. After barely a week Risley was arrested, along with Betty Makoni and Risley’s assistant Lauren Carara. Fifteen Zimbabwe intelligence agents arrested Risley and Carara for “operating as journalists without a license.” During her time in incarceration Risley describes her difficult ordeal, ” I used American dollars to bribe the guards so we avoided the holding pen, which was a large room full of feces and urine.”

With help through U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassy diplomacy, along with a concerted Facebook campaign page that was removed immediately once permission for Risley and her colleagues was given by the Zimbabwean government allowing them to leave, the women left the prison.

At the heart of Risley’s documentary story is Betty Makoni. And at the heart of Makoni are the girls and women of Zimbabwe. As Risley says, “There was something really amazing about these girls. Anyone who goes through such a trauma can choose to deny it, or choose to deal with it. It is critical to deal with the issues, so it doesn’t become who you are.”

After her parents passed away, Stella, less than 10-years-old, was placed in the position of head of the household. Stella’s story is featured in Tapestries of Hope. With no income after she was evicted from the place where she lived, Stella built herself a home out of scraps. “Its kinda like a neon sign for people who want to rape little girls, and that’s exactly how Stella got AIDS,” Risley says.

In one scene in Tapestries of Hope the girls happily wave their new underwear brought by Risley. “Menstruation for girls in Zimbabwe is like a curse,” said Risley. The Economist reports that five million women and girls in Zimbabwe may be substituting newspapers, rags, and tree fiber for sanitary napkins. The problem is further exacerbated by limited access to water. “They get teased and they use sticks to stop the flow of blood. Many times they will cut their hair and use it, or use newspapers,” Risley said.

Though speaking in a serious tone, Risley still jokes that she can clear a party in just a few minutes by talking about her work, “People don’t see it, people don’t want to hear it, or to deal with it.” As she says, “It is hard to conjure up, hard to possibly imagine eight men raping a three-month old. To be that far away from humanity…”

In Zimbabwe, men and women are fighting to survive on a daily basis. Risley describes how she was stunned when she witnessed a huge fire. “They were setting fires to force the animals to come out so they could catch them,” she said. “Even in the cities people do that, just to get the rats.”

Risley believes that in terms of rape and abuse, “Zimbabwe is a microcosm of the world.” She also believes Zimbabwe, on the verge of political collapse, is currently doing a better job of working with victims of abuse than the United States. She has used the film to shed light on Zimbabwe, as well as violence and abuse against girls and women worldwide.

To make impact and take action Risley encourages others to become advocates inside the U.S. to pass the International Violence Against Women Act and renew the domestic Violence Against Women Act, not just by signing it, but also by funding it as well. In telling her story Risley has spoken at the United Nations and has walked the halls of the U.S. Congress.

While encouraged by Ban Ki Moon’s public support at the UN, she is disappointed by the lack of budget for a topic that the Secretary General has stated is a priority.

If Risley had her way, she would create education programs for traditional healers for ZINATA (the governing body for traditional healers in Zimbabwe) and work to get more anti-retroviral drugs in order to re-empower traditional healers. She would also create a complete education program around HIV/AIDS.

“If I had my wish list, Mugabe and his regime would be gone,” stated Risley, who shared she would also lift the sanctions in Zimbabwe because she believes that the sanctions are hurting the people. “When you have a dictator, who could care less about the people, it’s no punishment. What do the sanctions do? Who do they really hurt? The average Zimbawean,” she added.

As she remarks in the film, the stories of the young women of Zimbabwe have now become part of her. “When I came back, I couldn’t go back to my regular life. I kept being haunted by this little girl, who walked for a day and a half to get a baked potato,” Risley says. “Now, I continue with my life, but I will never forget.”

Despite her experience, Risley aches to go back to Zimbabwe.

Risley is now working on a new e-book to accompany the film called,“Tapestries of Hope: One Survivor’s journey to end violence against women.”

Tapestries of Hope will be aired on Showtime TV (a subsidiary of CBS) beginning December 1, 2011 during AIDS awareness month.