Colombian Women's Right to Choose Under Siege

US-based agency Human Rights Watch has presented a brief to the Colombian Constitutional Court, challenging the country's restrictive abortion laws. Human Rights Watch says that the Colombia's penal sanctions for abortion are inconsistent with international human rights obligations and should be declared unconstitutional. Colombian women can be incarcerated for up to four and a half year for having abortions, even in cases of rape or when their lives are at risk.

"Women should be not sent to prison for having abortions," said
Marianne Mollmann, Women's Rights researcher at Human Rights
Watch. "Colombia's restrictive abortion laws violate women's basic
human rights and should be repealed."

Approximately 450,000 abortions occur every year in Colombia. Many studies show that more adolescent girls than adult women undergo illegal abortions. The consequences of illegal abortions are a leading cause of maternal mortality since illegal and unsafe abortion causes medical complications that can be fatal.

Colombia's law prohibits abortion in all circumstances. The penalty is lighter if the pregnancy is a result of rape or "nonconsensual artificial insemination." In 2000 the Colombian Congress changed the penal code, making it possible for a judge to waive the penal code on a case-by-case basis. Nonetheless, judges have the right to make a waiver under two further conditions: The first condition is to consider if the abortion occurs in "extraordinary situations of abnormal motivation," which is a vague clause that needs judicial interpretation. In the other condition the judge considers the punishment "unnecessary." However a 2005 amendement extended the maximum sentences for abortion from three years to four and a half years in prison.

Those who openly oppose the country's abortion law suffer harassment. On April 14 Colombian lawyer Monica del Pilar Roa Lopez, project director at Women's Link Worldwide, requested the court to review the law and find it unconstitutional. Two months later her offices were broken into and two computers containing confidential files stolen.

Several UN bodies have also criticized Colombian government about these laws, noting that they discriminate against women and violate their right to life and health. In the briefing submitted to the Colombian Constitutional Court, Human Rights Watch also cited findings from other human rights bodies, such as the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights, which said that its main human rights treaty, the American Convention on Human Rights, is compatible with a woman's right to access safe and legal abortions.

"Instead of amending its laws to comply with international human rights obligations, the Colombian authorities have only imposed harsher punishments on women for exercising their human rights," said Mollmann. "The court has an obligation to reverse this anti-constitutional development."


Advocacy Journalism: a lost artform

What has happened to the state of American journalism? In an age of Michael Jackson and the Runaway Bride dominating the media, one would think that the profession is only concerned about gathering the most sensational items rather than news stories with substance. With the recent revelations about ethical misjudgements at Newsweek and CBS News, a news consumer can easily become delusioned, critical and loss faith in reporters.

Those Americans that still have faith in the media has to look back in time when journalists had to be credible and intellectually engaging. Henry Nxumalo is one of those journalists. This black South African sports reporter came into social conscieneness at the beginning of apartheid in the 1950s when many other black leaders such as Nelson Mandela came to prominence. Nxumalo is known in his native country for going undercover in prisons, plantations and police stations to the reveal true discriminatory practices of blacks being perpetuated by the white minority population. He came under fire by his white editors for wanting to change the status quo with his powerful writings. Nxumalo was celebrated by his country men, and vilified by the white establishment, who would violently took his life.

Nxumalo's murder was never investigated. His last story was about a white doctor giving illegal abortions to black women, many of who died. During apartheid journalists were routinely harassed and murdered for reporting the real treatment of blacks in the country.

Henry Nxumalo's life is chronicled in the new film, Drum, starring American actor Taye Diggs as the famed reporter. The film's director, Zola Maseko, not only feels that it is important to pay homage to leaders who helped crumble apartheid, but to put a spotlight on advocacy journalism."Henry Nxumalo is regarded by many as one of the best investigative journalists South Africa has ever produced," said Maseko in an interview at the recent Boston International Film Festival. "Most journalists today are not as hungry today to get the real news today. They don't make them [reporters] as they used to."

While the South African press has its share of sensationalized celebrity news, Maseko points out that some reporters in his country have stepped up to the plate and reported about ethical misdeeds in the post-apartheid era. Major scandals have erupted when the press reported charges of corruption that were proven to be true in cases such as Schabir Shaik, the financial advisor to recently dimissed Deputy President Jacob Zuma and the corruption allegations against Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Recently President's Thabo Mbeki has faced severe criticism from the press for his policy of “quiety diplomacy” in the recent elections in Zimbabwe and his objection to Robert Mugebe’s latest suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations. Mbeki has been further criticized for his controversial support of a small group of dissident researchers who believe that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. Analysts believe that because of this stance the government has failed to respond adequately to the epidemic. South Africa has one of the highest infection rates in the world. At the same time the South African press has also made media stars out of people such as Zackie Achmat, an HIV positive activist who has refused to take anti-retroviral drugs until cheaper locally-produced AIDS drugs are made available to all South Africans.

"Journalism to me means being a watchdog for society, holding the politicians accountable," said Maseko. "

Maseko hopes to show all South Africans that they come from a gallant ancestry and illuminate a role model for future generations, including reporters. "As a filmmaker I like to look back at history to remember our heros," said Maseko.


Film Reviews: The Boys of Baraka and West Bank Story

After viewing a wide variety of extrardinary films at this year's Provincetown International Film Festival, two of them stood out for grasping the audience with a unique perspective.

The Boys of Baraka is a piercing documentary that follows the lives of four 'at risk' African American boys from inner city Baltimore who go to attend the Baraka school, an experimental boarding school in Kenya. Through extensive time with the boys in Baltimore and in Africa, the film captures the kids’ amazing journey and how they fare when they are forced to return to the difficult realities of their city filled with gangs and drugs.This is not only an opportunity for the boys to receive a better education, but this film gives a new perspective on a marginalized group that society has given up on. One issue I had with the film is the lack of interaction between with the boys and the native Africans. While a documentary can never show everything going on in a situation, the fact that this film doesn't show the boys coming into much direct contact with their African roots and their impressions of the natives for the whole year they were on the Continent was quite disappointing. Furthermore all the administrators and teachers are white, giving the film a neocolonialistic feel. This might be more of a criticism of the Baraka School rather than the filmmakers, but the racial dynamic in the film is quite obvious. Nonetheless, the film makes the point to show that African American males are an endangered species and more attention is needed on this critical group.

West Bank Story has a comical, romantic take on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Taking a page from West Side Story, this musical is about David, an Israeli soldier, and Fatima, a Palestinian fast food cashier - an unlikely couple who fall in love despite the animosity between their families' dueling falafel stands in the West Bank. Tensions mount when the (Israeli) Kosher King's new pastry machine juts onto (Palestinian) Hummus Hut property. The Palestinians ruin the machine and the Israelis respond by building a wall between the two eating establishments. The couple professes their love for each other, triggering a chain of events that destroys both restaurants and forces all to find common ground in an effort to rebuild, planting a seed of hope. The filmmaker makes great use of racial and cultural stereotypes to demonstrate that humor has the ability to conquer anger.


Free Elections equals free speech in Egypt?

Today US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Egypt to go ahead with its plans for democratic reform. While she welcomes the recent constitutional amendment to allow more than one candidate in the presidential elections, Dr Rice also recommended that the opposition be given more access to the media so that there is a "sense of competition."

"I believe they will take their responsibility seriously because people will watch what happens in Egypt," Ms Rice said after the meeting in the Sinai resort of Sharm al-Sheikh.

Analysts observe that this new emphasis for reform from the US makes it possible for opposition movements and the independent press to move forward and be more critical of its government.

However, the press and the opposition are still suspicious of the US intentions. Besides the US support for Israel and the invasion of Iraq as reasons to be on guard, many human rights activists feel that the Dr Rice's support for reform is lax.

On May 25 Human Rights Watch reports that plainclothes police and supporters of the ruling party attacked a group of pro-reform demonstrators and journalists at a peaceful protest.

?The police and ruling-party assaults on pro-reform advocates shows just how hollow the Mubarak government?s rhetoric of reform really is,? said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch. ?At a minimum, the president should appoint people with unquestioned integrity to investigate this state-sanctioned brutality.

When Agence-France Presse asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about it, she replied that she had ?not seen the reports you are talking about. We have said to the Egyptians that this process needs to be as open and as forward-leaning as possible, because political reform is a necessity for Egypt,? Rice said. ?Now, they are taking steps forward. Not everything moves at the same speed, and there are going to be different speeds in the Middle East.?

?This kind of mealy-mouthed talk from Washington must have been the best news President Mubarak had all day,? Stork said. ?When push came to shove, as it did literally in Cairo on Wednesday [May 25], the Bush administration?s commitment to reform looked bankrupt.?

The Egyptian government has also been accused of repressing academic freedom in universities by censoring books, outlawing research about controversial issues, such as religion, politics and sex, and harassing student activists.

?The government?s persistent violations of academic freedom have badly undermined Egypt?s standing as the educational leader of the Arab world,? said Stork. ?The authorities should end their excessive and arbitrary interference in the activities of scholars, students and universities.?

University professors report that they have been harassed by Islamist militants from researching controversial subject matter. There is also a provision in Egypt called Law No. 20/1936 which requires that all imported printed material, including course books, be reviewed by the censor?s office. This statute has blocked teaching of classic literature dealing with sexual topics and has had a chilling effect on textbook orders.

?One key role of a university is to provide a forum for high-level debate on controversial topics,? Stork said. ?Universities need to be free of control by state security forces in order to do that.?

Egypt's elections are scheduled for September. Whether reform will happen is yet to be seen.


Post-Colonial Moment: G77 meets today in Doha

While the world focuses on the upcoming G8 summit in Scotland in two weeks, leaders from some 132 member states of the Group of 77 (G77) gathered in Doha tycommenced the Second South-South Summit today which is set to review the development challenges facing their nations and to craft a unified position with regard to proposals for the strengthening of the United Nations, at the core of the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly.

Attendees are expected to welcome the recent decision by G8 ministers to write off debts, but reject the conditions that come with them.

A new UN report shows that there has been significant economic improvement in the Global South, especially in Brazil, China, Qatar, India and even Cuba.

The report says of Brazil that "It has one of the most vital programmes for supporting other developing countries in the areas of public administration, health, education, agriculture, environment, energy and small enterprises."

China and India have become emerging global economies in the last few years. Both countries now have "strong programmes" that provide training for nationals of other developing countries and support for building institutional capacity, and both are known to commit substantial funding for such projects.

According to Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, Permanent Representative of Qatar to the United Nations in 2003 almost half of all imports by the United States and Japan, and more than a third of all imports by the European Union (EU), came from the South. The same is true of their exports to markets in the South.

While the UN study shows that "there are serious problems facing many developing countries, especially in Africa and those that are least developed, landlocked or small islands," progress is being made, albeit slowly.


It takes a village... and a goat

Despite the fact that the finance ministers of the G8 member countries agreed yesterday to $40 billion in debt relief for mostly African nations, mainstream news coverage in the West from the continent these days still seem to be very dim. Television newscasts are bombarded with images of famine, war, poverty and AIDS.

Finally the US newsmagazine "60 Minutes" finally broke the mold last night with an interview with Beatrice Biira, a young Uganda woman who got herself out of a poverty-stricken village with the help of a goat. "It is through selling the goat's milk that I was able to [go to school]," said Beatrice, who owes her good fortune to Heifer International, a charity based in Arkansas.

Heifer International is known for its work distributing livestock to poor families all over the world. In 1991, Heifer introduced 12 goats to 12 families in Kisinga. Beatrice’s family was lucky enough to receive a goat that produced enough milk to sell. Beatrice's family was finally able to support the household and send her to school. She learned how to read and write at the age of ten. She progressed so well in school that she was offered a scholarship to at the prestigious New England prep school, Northfield Mt. Hermon. From there she matriculated to Connecticut College, where she just completed her freshman year. During this summer she will work as an intern for Senator Hillary Clinton.

That is a lot to accomplish for a young woman from her circumstances. She says she owes it to that goat, and now she is prepared to give the goat to someone else in the village who is most needy. According to Beatrice, goats are for sharing. You get a goat, and you share your goat’s offspring with one of your neighbors. It’s done in a ritual called “Passing on the Gift.” The program showed the descendants of Heifer’s original 12 goats being passed from families lucky enough to have had them to other families in desperate need.

When asked what she would like to be doing in 10 years, she said, "I would love to see myself forming maybe a school for children who are disadvantaged. Or maybe an orphanage, and maybe a farm with cows or goats, and giving those children milk. And I'd love to see them get healthier, all by my work."

While governments and development activists activists argue over how much money should be given to Africa, sometimes it just takes more practical organizing - and a goat - to make a difference on the continent.


Blogger Mojtaba Saminejad gets two-year prison sentence

Reporters Without Borders voiced deep concern Tuesday about the fate of 25-year-old blogger Mojtaba Saminejad, who has been sentenced to two years in prison by a Tehran revolutionary court for "insulting the Supreme Guide" and who is due to be tried soon on a separate charge of insulting the prophets, which carries a possible death penalty.

The press freedom organisation urged all bloggers to mobilise on behalf of the young blogger, who was arrested on 12 February.

"All blogosphere messages of solidarity are welcome," the organisation said. "We know that these message reach the prisoners and help put pressure on the Iranian authorities, especially in the run-up to the presidential election. It is vital for people to talk about Mojtaba."

Mojtaba's lawyer, Mohammad Saifzadeh, said the two-year sentence was handed down after a hearing on 23 May in which his client was not allowed to speak freely. To intimidate him, the authorities had him accompanied in court by the police officers who interrogated him in prison.
He will appear in court again on 22 June to be tried on a charge of "insulting the prophets and the holy imams." This extremely serious accusation could result in his being found guilty of apostasy, which carries the death penalty under article 512 of the Islamic criminal code.

Various initiatives are under way on the Iranian Internet in support of Mojtaba. Internet users have dedicated a blog to him in both English (http://mojtaba-samienejad.blogspot.com) and in Farsi (http://en-mojtaba-samienejad.blogspot.com). Some 50 Iranian bloggers are openly backing him. The Penlog bloggers group has also firmly condemned his conviction (see http://penlog.blogspot.com/2005/06/blog-post_05.html).

Sign the petition set up by the Committee to protect bloggers : http://committeetoprotectbloggers.blogspot.com/2005/05/media-fast-for-mojtaba-today.html


'Don't Ask Don't Tell' creates national security crisis

June is recognized as Gay Pride Month to reflect on the achievements of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people. With recent pro-gay legal decisions, such as legalized marriage and adoption, one would believe that America is more comfortable with homosexuality. However, one area that hasn't been conquered yet is the US military. The armed forces have historically been openly homophobic, kicking out any personnel who are actually or perceived to be homosexual. During his 1992 election campaign Bill Clinton promised to lift the ban on gays if elected. But with pressure from conservatives who feel that morale amongst the troops will be demolished, Clinton was forced to come up with a compromise. With the help of Colin Powell, the Clinton Administration crafted the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy (DADT), which requires that as long as gay men and women in the military don't volunteer their sexual orientation, commanders won't try to find them out. Since its creation the policy has been seen as a failure and has received sharp criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.

There have been recent efforts to reverse this policy. Marty Meehan, US Representative from Massachusetts, introduced the Military Readiness Enhancement Act in Congress following the release of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study about the costs of discrimination against LGBT servicemembers since the enactment of the DADT policy. The study shows that the policy has cost US taxpayers over $200 million and brought the discharge of hundreds of servicemembers, many of whom had critical occupations and important foreign language skills.

"The conventional justification for Don't Ask, Don't Tell has been that allowing gays to serve undermines military readiness," said Meehan at a panel discussion on the issue last Monday. "Now we have the numbers to prove that the policy itself is undermining our military readiness."

According to GAO, it costs the Department of Defense $95 million to recruit and replace soldiers discharged under DADT. Another $95 million is spent just to train new recruits.

The report also shows that 757 soldiers with "critical skills" and 322 soldiers with "important language skills" such as Arabic, Korean and Farsi were discharged. Meehan said that this policy is creating a national security crisis as there are tapes with potential terrorist chatter sitting around because there are not enough Arabic translators to interpret them.

"By discharging competent servicemembers at a time when our troops are already stretched thin, the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy incurs hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary costs and purges highly skilled, critical personnel from the service," said Meehan. "It is as senseless and counterproductive as it is un-American."

While the Defense Department recently announce that volunteers for the military are at an all time low, the report shows that about 9,500 servicemembers have been turned away because of their homosexuality. There are also a number of servicemembers who volunteerily leave the military because of the pressure to stay in the closet. Shalanda Baker, an African American lesbian who served as a lietanant in the Air Force left after two years because she could no longer live a double life. "At the time I was in a relationship [with another woman], but I was forced to lie about my private life to my squadron," said Baker at the same panel discussion. "I am a pretty social person. So, for me to not share my life with my co-workers was pretty difficult." Baker says that change has to start from within the inside the military with more gays coming out and gay-friendly allies supporting them.

Currently the US and Turkey are the only Western nations that don't allow gays to serve openly in the military. Congressman Meehan said that it is time for the US to follow the trend of England, a staunch supporter of the war on terror, and reverse the ban. "While we are serving shoulder to shoulder in Iraq with the Brits, gays and lesbians from Britain are serving openly in Iraq," said Meehan jokingly. "Maybe we should offer a bill to the floor of the house that says that we won't let any other countries serve with us in Iraq and Afghanistian if they don't discriminate the way that we do."

While the bill will have a uphill battle, there are over 80 bipartisan cosponsors in the House for the bill. Meehan also says that all polls shows that roughly 60% of Americans are in favor of such a bill. Back in 1992 only 30% of the population supported such a move. He says that not only are Americans recognizing that bigotry shouldn't be tolerated, but they realize that priorities need to be reorganized. "The policy of the United States should be to fight the war on terror, not to advance the agenda of discrimination," said Meehan.


Post-Colonial Moment: Debt Relief for Africa

UK Prime Tony Blair is in Washington to announce a joint initiative with President Bush to pledge $674 million in aid to Africa. Most of the aid will be spent on famine relief in Ethiopia and Eritrea and other humanitarian needs in Africa. The US is critical of Britian's plan to give the continent full debt relief and relaxed trade subsidies. However the US is being criticized by development experts for not giving enough aid.

But other questions come to mind: Is it the responsibility of the West to dig Africa out of its dismal economic hole? Some would say that the reason Africa is in the bad sharp it is in because of European colonialism of the past which has evolved into globalization today. However, looking at the history of dictatorships, from Idi Amin to Mobutu Sese Seko to Robert Mugabe to countless others, the problems faces the continent seem to partially be the blame of corruption within its own ranks. Is it Africa's responsiblity to fix its own problems?


Empower Women with Microbicides

According to the AIDS Action Committee, about 14,000 people around the world will contract AIDS today. About half of them will be women and most of them live in developing countries. There are many reasons these women are more vulnerable to the disease besides little to no access to information about prevention.

One reason all women are at a higher risk for HIV is because the vagina is a easy place for germs to enter the body. However, women in the Global South are even more susceptible because of poor nutrition.

The second reason is the imbalance of power between the genders in in sexual and economic politics. Many cultures in Africa, Latin America and Asia are very patriarchal. It is still prevalant practice that woman only be allow to go into certain professions, many of which are low paying. Because of this this women are relegated to working in the sex industry to make ends meet for their families, especially if a husband is longer in the picture. In many cases prostitutes don't have any power because some of their customers refuse to use condoms. Even women who are in a higher economic bracket and may want to have voluntary sex, they either can't negotiate for safety or don't know how to go about it. The husbands of some of these women threaten to leave them if they ask them to use protection.

Women around the world are living in fear on a daily basis, not know if the next sexual encounter will be a death sentence.

Most people believe that abstaining from sex is the best way to be protected from HIV. The Bush administration's ABC policy (Abstainance, Be Faithful and Condom Use) is the best example of trying to teach this practice. But this is not realistic if women are forced, whether through economic status or trafficking, to go into prostitution or if they have unsympathetic husbands.

In an ideal world men would see women as precious and equal. But since this is not going to happen any time soon, women need to look at other ways to protect themselves.

Scientists are working on a new product that will help prevent the spread of HIV. Microbicides are gels, creams, forms, films and other products that a woman can put in her vagina or rectum before a sexual encounter and protect against sexual infection. Currently 14 types of microbicides have been tested. None of them have been perfected enough to be sold on the market yet. Four of the fourteen being tested are at the final phase of testing called "Effectivenes Trials." During these final trials, thousands of people in different parts of the world will try using the microbicides and see if they actually prevent HIV and other STDS. There are two types of microbicides being developed. One will protect against HIV, STDs and pregnancy and another will still protect against HIV and STDs but not prevent pregnancy. This way, women could get pregnant without getting HIV.

When Microbicides are finally approved for distribution, women can have an option to condoms. They wouldn't have to ask their male sexual partners to do anything. The men might not even know that the women are using a microbicides.

Scientists are seriously committed to making microcibides cheap and easily accessible for women around the world. With this said, it is important to state that microbicides will never fully replace condoms because of the different levels of protection. However, women will finally be empowered to take care of themselves and possibly help end the spread of AIDS.

To learn more about Microcibides, go to http://global-campaign.org/the_need.htm


But who will speak up for Africa?

Today UN Secretary-General announced today that world governments need to take a more proactive role in the fight against AIDS, especially in Africa. Although AIDS prevention is one of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals, Mr Annan stated that better leadership and funding is needed to reach the target date of 2015 to stop the spread of the disease. "Last year saw more new infections and Aids-related deaths than ever before," Mr Annan told a conference in New York.

Only 12% of people with AIDS in underdeveloped countries are getting anti-retroviral drugs, he added.

The UK Chancellor Gordon Brown has proposed an ambitious plan to tackle poverty in Africa by giving the continent %100 debt relief as well as an end to many trade subsidies. This plan in turn would help funnel monies that would have gone to loan repayments to funding the fight against the disease and poverty.

But this plan is facing fierce opposition from President Bush, who will possibly clash with Tony Blair on this issue next week as they meet in Washington. The US has stated that the proposed debt relief plan should be financed partially by selling gold reserves held by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), although the US along with other Western powers weren't very supportive of selling IMF gold in the first place. The US has also pledged to increase development aid through its own Milliennium Challenge Account, however, a small amount of the money has actually been used so far.

Critics say that the war in Iraq has totally pushed Africa off the agenda, especially in the US. "Africa has not really had much of a constituency in the US," said Marina Ottoway, a senior associate at Carnegie Endowment in Washington, to the BBC.

However, there are reports today that the UK is still going to press on with their plan, despite US disapproval. Coincidentally, Ms Ottoway explains that because World Bank and IMF are multilateral, and, thus, require approval from the US. The European Union with similar structures is highly unlikely to drop trade taxes unless the US does the same.

Nonetheless, Gordon Brown states that the West has to take action now against AIDS and poverty before it is too late.

"This is not a time for timidity nor a time to fear reaching too high," said Brown.