General Comment on Redress for Torture adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

The Center of Reproductive Rights is delighted to share an update on the General Comment on Redress for Torture that has just been adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The General Comment can be accessed here: Among the important developments contained in the new General Comment are the following:

 (A) The General Comment expressly requires states to take account of “the gendered nature of torture and other ill-treatment, including the particular effects of sexual and gender based violence, the aggravated impact of torture and other ill-treatment on children (Article 19);”

(B) It recognizes multiple (and non-exhaustive) grounds of discrimination including gender, health status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and economic status (Article 20).

(C) It calls for prompt access to redress for torture and notes that undue delays in ensuring redress constitute de facto denial of redress (Article 26).

(D)  States are mandated to provide protection mechanisms in contexts where victims of torture depend on perpetrators for care such as in healthcare institutions, and to ensure privacy and confidentiality for them including in relation to information about their health (Article 30).

(E) It provides in Articles 57-58 that [a]cts of sexual and gender based violence, or the failure by States to prevent and respond to such acts, may amount to torture and other ill-treatment in violation of Article 5 of the African Charter. This General Comment specifically refers to those acts of sexual and gender based violence that amount to a form of torture and other ill-treatment in view of the specific, traumatic and gendered impact of sexual violence on victims, including the individual, the family and the collective. These include physical and psychological acts committed against victims without their consent or under coercive circumstances, such as rape (including so-called ‘corrective rape’), domestic violence, verbal attacks and humiliation, forced marriage, isolation, dowry-related violence, trafficking for sexual exploitation, enforced prostitution, indecent assault, denial of reproductive rights including forced or coerced pregnancy, abortion and sterilisation, forced nudity, mutilation of sexual organs, virginity tests, sexual slavery, sexual exploitation, sexual intimidation, abuse, assault or harassment, forced anal testing, or any form of sexual or gender based violence of comparable gravity.

(F) The General Comment provides extensive guidance on different forms of redress in Articles 33-49, including stating that “[l]imited resources shall not justify a State’s failure to fulfil its obligation to provide comprehensive reparation…. (Article 34).”  It also provides detailed statements on accountability for sexual and gender based violence that amount to torture and ill-treatment (Articles 58-61). 

(G) It addresses torture and ill-treatment in conflict settings extensively in Articles 62-62 and notes that “[t]hough complementary, where there is doubt as to whether international human rights law or international humanitarian law prevails, preference should be given to the category of law that offers the best protection for the right of victims (Article 64).”

(H) The General comments ends with provisions on transitional justice (Articles 66-71), non-state actors (Articles 72-75) and implementation (Articles 76-79).

 Since 2015, the Africa program of the Center for Reproductive Rights has participated on a technical committee of experts that provides feedback to the Commission on a series of general comments on torture. During technical meetings in 2015 and 2016, we aimed to ensure that the general comment on redress would recognize the gendered dimensions of torture and the need to address reproductive rights violations that amount to torture, and we are pleased that the new general comment reflects this input in numerous ways.

How a Folk Saint of Death Took Off Among Transgender Women in Mexico

Violence against transgender women is common in Mexico, mostly because employment discrimination forces many to turn to sex work for money. Santa Muerte, the skeleton folk saint with her female form and association with death, is particularly appealing to transgender sex workers, who face the persistent threat of violent clients and transphobic hatred.

Unlike official church figures such as Our Lady of Guadalupe whose images are ethereal, Santa Muerte appeals to those with practical problems and passions living on the country’s margins. Devotees ask her for protection, even when sex work is their only occupation.

“The majority of us believe in Santa Muerte,” said Betzy Ballesteros, a 26-year-old transgender sex worker. “She’s a God to us. I ask her to shield me from danger and provide work and clients.”

The cult of Santa Muerte is an example of religious syncretism, with roots in European Catholicism and Aztec beliefs.

Condemned as satanic by the Catholic Church and frequently portrayed as a narco-cult in the media, worship of Santa Muerte is nevertheless a fast-growing new religious movement in the Americas, according to Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.”

“Mexican Catholics and evangelicals tend to view transgenderism as a lifestyle choice,” said Chesnut. “But the fact that Santa Muerte is outside the orbit of both evangelical and Catholic Christianity makes her much more appealing. It’s much easier for followers to feel that she’s not going to be judgmental.”

In contrast, many transgender women feel rejected by mainstream churches.

“I went with some transgender friends to Mass one time,” said Ballesteros. “The priest stopped his sermon and told us to leave the house of God. After that, I decided I wouldn’t ever go back.”

The Rev. Hugo Valdemar Romero, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, said the church does not abandon or excommunicate transgender people. But he does believe they suffer from pathology.

“Of course it is not acceptable for someone to violate their own biology,” he said. “Nature is very clear. There are men and there are women.”

As for Santa Muerte, Romero considers it a heretical cult.

“True religion looks for the devotee to fulfill the will of God, not the other way around. If they opt for another church or belief that justifies what they’re doing, they are looking for a god made to their own measure.”

Despite the church’s condemnation, many Santa Muerte devotees describe themselves as Catholic.

The civil rights organization Transgender Europe has documented 247 killings of transgender people in Mexico between January 2008 and April 2016, the second-highest number in the world, after Brazil.

The life expectancy of transgender women in Latin America is 35, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“Transgender people are more likely to become involved in substance and alcohol abuse and they are less likely to have strong networks of family and others on whom they can count,” said Cymene Howe, an anthropologist who has studied the importance of Santa Muerte among transgender sex workers who migrate between Guadalajara and San Francisco.

Except as victims, transgender women are virtually invisible to the rest of Mexican society. Even the brutal murder on March 11 was relegated to the back pages of local newspapers.

Transgender activist Ari Vera Morales was expelled from a teaching training college.

“The school said I was creating a negative image,” she said. “The problem with being a transgender women in Mexico is that your identity, your existence is criminalized.”

Yet Santa Muerte plays a vital role in helping to unify a community that lacks a voice and visibility.

“When I was 14 my mum kicked me out and I went to live in the house of a friend,” Ballesteros said. “She had a big altar. I learned what a cult was, what death was, what everything was for.”

Read the full article from Religious News Service.

Russia to decriminalise domestic violence to preserve ‘tradition of parental authority’

A bill aimed at decriminalising domestic violence to preserve the “tradition of parental authority” has easily passed through the first stage of approval in the Russian parliament.

Ultra-conservative MP Yelena Mizulina, who chairs a committee on family and women’s affairs, proposed the bill to have “battery within families” taken out of Russia’s criminal code, removing the right of victims to press charges.

“In Russian traditional family culture parent-child relationships are built on the authority of the parents’ power,” she told a meeting of parliament in Moscow. “The laws should support that family tradition.”

The proposed law was approved by 368 MPs, with only one coming out in opposition.

In July last year, Vladimir Putin oversaw an amendment to the law which declared family violence a criminal offence for the first time in Russia. Ms Mizulina and her supporters have been protesting the ruling ever since.

“Battery carried out towards family members should be an administrative offence,” Ms Mizulina continued. “You don’t want people to be imprisoned for two years and labelled a criminal for the rest of their lives for a slap.

Read the full story from The Independent

Total Abortion Ban Debuts in US Congress

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) on Thursday introduced the first federal “heartbeat bill” modeled on a failed Ohio attempt to end legal abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy—before many people know they’re pregnant.

“Heartbeat bills” amount to total abortion bans. They have been declared unconstitutional in federal court.

King’s office confirmed that HR 490 marked the first introduction of a so-called heartbeat bill in the U.S. Congress. Former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) introduced a forced ultrasound bill in 2011, but her measure did not ban abortion—King’s stated goal.

A King press release called Roe v. Wade unconstitutional, adding that under HR 490, “if a heartbeat is detected, the baby is protected.”

His spokesperson provided Rewire with legislative text specifying that an abortion provider “who knowingly performs an abortion and thereby kills a human fetus” without determining a heartbeat, informing the patient of a heartbeat, or proceeding regardless of a heartbeat would face fines and up to five years in prison. The bill includes limited exceptions for the physical health of the pregnant person but not for “psychological or emotional conditions.”

Read the full article from Rewire

Indonesia Seeks End to Female Genital Mutilation

The Indonesian government has launched a long-overdue campaign to eradicate the cruel practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).

The campaign, led by Yohana Yembise, the country’s minister for women’s empowerment and child protection, will deploy “scientific evidence” to dissuade religious and women’s groups who support FGM. Between 2010 to 2015, 49 percent of girls from birth to 14 years of age in Indonesia had undergone FGM.

The campaign is just the latest government effort to end FGM. The government banned the practice in 2006, but buckled to pressure from Islamic organizations in 2010 and issued a regulation allowing FGM “if it is carried out by medical professionals, such as doctors, midwives and nurses.” The government repealed that regulation in 2014, but has not specified penalties for those who carry out FGM.

For the full article, visit Human Rights Watch.

Egypt’s tougher penalties for FGM will have little impact, say rights groups

Egypt has increased the penalty for practising female genital mutilation to a sentence of between three and 15 years in jail, although campaigners say this will have little impact.

Successful convictions of doctors or others found to be performing the procedure are extremely rare, despite it being illegal in Egypt since 2008.

Raslan Fadl, the first doctor to be sentenced in Egypt, was recently found to have walked free after serving the minimum three-month sentence. The nature of the law allowed Fadl to negotiate with the family of 13-year-old Sohair al-Bata’a, who died after he performed FGM on her, to serve the lowest possible sentence.

On Sunday, Egypt’s cabinet proposed an amendment to the law banning FGM, which would classify it as a crime rather than a misdemeanour. Practitioners could now receive up to 15 years in jail if a victim dies, while anyone who accompanies girls to be cut could face between one and three years in prison.

“This new law won’t necessarily stop private reconciliation,” said lawyer Reda el Danbouki, who fought the Bata’a case. “If anything, it imposes a sentence on the families or whoever escorts the girl to the operation – the family will not want to say they took the girl to undergo FGM, or else they will face prison themselves.” It is common for deaths caused by FGM to be deliberately misreported by both practitioners and families, further obscuring the possibility of cracking down on those who carry it out.

Read the rest of the article at The Guardian.

Outrage in Russia after religious leaders back female genital mutilation

Two prominent religious leaders in Russia have provoked outrage after suggesting female genital mutilation could help reduce sexual promiscuity.

The scandal erupted on Wednesday when Vsevolod Chaplin, a former spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, rushed to the defence of Ismail Berdiyev, a senior Muslim cleric from Dagestan who said “all women” should be subjected to the practice to eliminate sexual depravity.

Mr Berdiyev, chairman of the Coordination Centre of North Caucasus Muslims, made the controversial comments when asked to comment on a report into the practice published earlier this week.

…The United Nations estimates 200 million women and girls across 30 countries where the practice is concentrated are victims of female genital mutilation.

The practice can cause severe pain and long term health problems and is internationally recognized as a violation of human rights.

Read the rest of the article from The Telegraph.

Iran: Women’s rights activists treated as ‘enemies of the state’ in crackdown

Iranian authorities have intensified their repression of women’s rights activists in the country in the first half of this year, carrying out a series of harsh interrogations and increasingly likening any collective initiative relating to women’s rights to criminal activity, Amnesty International said today.

The organization’s research reveals that since January 2016 more than a dozen women’s rights activists in Tehran have been summoned for long, intensive interrogations by the Revolutionary Guards, and threatened with imprisonment on national security-related charges.

Many had been involved in a campaign launched in October 2015, which advocated for increased representation of women in Iran’s February 2016 parliamentary election.

“It is utterly shameful that the Iranian authorities are treating peaceful activists who seek women’s equal participation in decision-making bodies as enemies of the state. Speaking up for women’s equality is not a crime. We are calling for an immediate end to this heightened harassment and intimidation, which is yet another blow for women’s rights in Iran,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Interim Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.

“Rather than addressing Iran’s disturbing record on women’s rights the Iranian authorities have once again opted for repression, accusing women’s rights activists of collusion in western-orchestrated plots in a bid to maintain their discriminatory practices towards women.”

Read the full article at Amnesty International.

Pan African Parliament Endorses Ban on FGM

After years of wrangling and debates among African leaders, the movement to end female genital mutilation (FGM) is gaining real momentum, with a new action plan signed this week by Pan African Parliament (PAP) representatives and the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) to end FGM as well as underage marriage.

The UNFPA has already trained over 100,000 health workers to deal specifically with aiding victims of FGM, while tens of thousands of traditional leaders have also signed pledges against the practice.

The agreement followed a PAP Women’s Caucus meeting with UNFPA representatives in Johannesburg on July 29-30.

Kicking off the meeting, PAP President Roger Dang said, “PAP is determined to help and be part of stakeholders to come up with solutions to this practice. This is in line with the mandate of PAP to defend and promote gender balance and people living with disability.”

Read the full article at Inter Press Service.

Saudi Arabia: Male Guardianship Boxes Women In

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country despite limited reforms over the last decade, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, marry, or be released from prison, and may be required to provide guardian consent to work or get health care. These restrictions last from birth until death, as women are, in the view of the Saudi state, permanent legal minors.The 79-page report, “Boxed In: Women and Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System,” examines in detail the panoply of formal and informal barriers women in Saudi Arabia face when attempting to make decisions or take action without the presence or consent of a male relative. As one 25-year-old Saudi woman told Human Rights Watch, “We all have to live in the borders of the boxes our dads or husbands draw for us.” In some cases, men use the permission requirements to extort large sums of money from female dependents.

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country despite limited reforms over the last decade.

“The fact that Saudi women are still forced to get a male guardian’s permission to travel, work, or do anything else is a long-standing rights violation and a barrier to the government’s plans to improve the economy,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “The government should do itself a favor and finally listen to the demands of half its population to be freed from the shackles of the guardianship system.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 61 Saudi women and men for the report and analyzed Saudi laws, policies, and official documents. Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian, normally a father or husband, but in some cases a brother or even a son, who has the power to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf.

“My son is my guardian, believe it or not, and this is really humiliating… My own son, the one I delivered, the one I raised, he is my guardian,” a 62-year old Saudi woman told Human Rights Watch. A woman’s other male relatives also have authority over her, although to a lesser extent.

Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly called on the government to abolish the male guardianship system. In 2009, and again in 2013, Saudi Arabia agreed after its universal periodic review at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Since making these promises, Saudi Arabia has taken steps to lessen guardians’ control over women, including no longer requiring permission for women to work and passing a law criminalizing domestic abuse. In 2013, then-King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, his highest advisory body, and, in 2015, women voted and ran as candidates in municipal council elections for the first time.

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country despite limited reforms over the last decade.

Despite these limited steps, the male guardianship system remains largely in place, hindering and in some cases nullifying the reforms, Human Rights Watch found.

Women may not apply for a passport without male guardian approval and require permission to travel outside the country. They regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions without a male relative, from renting an apartment to filing legal claims. The government does not require guardian permission for women to work, but does not penalize employers who do require this permission. Women cannot study abroad on a government scholarship without guardian approval, and a male relative must accompany her abroad while she studies, though this requirement is not always enforced. Women are barred from driving.

Women face tremendous obstacles when trying to seek help or flee abuse by violent guardians, Human Rights Watch found. For example, a husband retains guardianship control even during divorce proceedings. There is deeply entrenched discrimination within the legal system, and courts recognize legal claims brought by guardians against female dependents to enforce their authority.

Women who have escaped abuse in shelters may, and in prisons do, require a male relative to agree to their release. “The [authorities] keep a woman in jail… until her legal guardian comes and gets her, even if he is the one who put her in jail,” said a women’s rights activist. If a guardian refuses to release a woman from prison, authorities may transfer her to a state shelter or arrange a marriage for her. Her new husband becomes her new guardian.

Human Rights Watch spoke with women who felt their only safe option was to leave the country after male family members abused and threatened them, but who were unable to convince their guardians, in some cases the abusers, to allow them to travel.

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country despite limited reforms over the last decade.

The guardianship system is grounded in the most restrictive interpretation of an ambiguous Quranic verse – an interpretation challenged by dozens of Saudi women, including academics and Islamic feminists, who spoke to Human Rights Watch. A former Saudi judge told Human Rights Watch the country’s imposition of guardianship is not required by Sharia, or Islamic law.

Saudi Arabia, which acceded to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2000, is legally obligated to end discrimination against women without delay, including by abolishing the male guardianship system.