A sequence of human rights films last week at the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival Yangon  brought together my past life in Egypt and my current one in Burma.

A Myanmar film about a whistle campaign to prevent harassment against women in the Myanmar buses. The audience howled with laughter as men picked up whistles, desperate to also receive a free gift. One women said harassment was much better now, because of the whistle, we wondered?

“No” she replies, “because now I am old the men no longer want to harass me.”

“The men want to touch everyone”, says another woman , “so I am grateful for this campaign.”

The film seemed to go full circle as while in Egypt last year the grassroots campaign against sexual harassment by Harassmap and others was going strong. Myanmar has not had the same bad press as Egypt for its sexual harassment and violation of women’s rights, but there is an underlying problem here and dealing with sexual harassment will just be the first hurdle. (For more posts on sexual harassment see here and here).

The other film Back to the Square, brought us to the streets of Cairo themselves through the lens of Petr Lom. An in-depth and interesting documentary which explores the abuses of the Egyptian military authorities since 2011 through the stories of 5 different Egyptians. The film shows the continued corruption and abuse of authorities by the military and police through individual cases, highlighting current injustices but also the energy, defiance and humour which marks the Egyptian character.

Egypt might seem very far in distance and culture from the streets of Yangon, but the Burmese audience reacted audibly to the images of Egypt. They laughed out loud as the police officers spoke of the fairness of their system and gasped at the images of torture, manipulation and abuse. Whilst laughing as a police officer attempted to charm the camera with his version of good practice and justice, my neighbour excitedly whispered to me:

“It is just like our country.”

This moment highlighted the human nature of justice and the common understanding of abuse by authorities as wrong. Though they are worlds apart these people are tied by similar experiences and similar anger at their powerless in the face of such abuse. We so often debate the cultural nature of human rights, yet human moments like these remind us that justice its is broadest sense is something that we all hold strongly within us, whatever our cultural background.

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An excerpt from Rachida Madani’s Tales of A Severed Head, translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker and published by Yale University Press in September 2012, featured on Jadaliyya.

Rachida beautifully expresses the feelings of being a woman in Morocco in a changing but still traditional society. In a world where women are both moving on and being held forcibly back.

A few lines beautiful lines I want to share from the poem The Severed Head:

What city and what night

since it’s night in the city

when a woman and a train-station argue over

the same half of a man who is leaving?

He is young, handsome

he is leaving for a piece of white bread.

She is young, beautiful as a springtime

cluster

trying to flower for the last time

for her man who is leaving.

But the train arrives

but the branch breaks

but suddenly it’s raining in the station

in the midst of spring.

And the train emerges from all directions

It whistles and goes right through the woman

the whole length of her.

Where the woman bleeds, there will never be spring

Again.

in the night, in her head, under the pillow

trains pass filled with men

filled with mud

and they all go through her

the whole length of her.

How many winters will pass, how many snowfalls

before the first bleeding letter

before the first mouthful of white bread?

A series of photos on Betel Nut from Dawei in the south of Myanmar. Betel is popular in Myanmar and is chewed as a stimulant. The production of Betel is an important source of livelihood for farmers in the Dawei area.

rolling betel

The ingredients of Betel

Betel ready to eat

An interesting article to share : ‘Rights Claiming in a Rule of Law Vacuum‘ by Jill Davison on practical approaches to human rights. She argues for approaches to securing human rights which do not rely on state institutions and rule of law. As the article very accurately points out in the rural parts of Burma, rule of law is a distant dream, whereas threats to human rights are a current concern. Methods which support local approaches to securing rights will allow for rights to be obtained through informal methods.

Here is an excerpt:

“It should come as no surprise that, given the persistently closed nature of political and legal institutions in Burma, villagers attempt to prevent displacement or secure some form of tangible redress through informal rights-claiming strategies like negotiation, non-compliance, complaint and open protest.What is surprising however is the development agenda’s persistent focus on support for state institutions, rather than for the concrete ways in which communities are already attempting to claim rights without institutional support. While civil society and NGOs tend to laud the increased space since the advent of civilian government in March 2011, this is often space for their own engagement with policymakers, rather than for village-level grievance airing or access to remedy.The assumption remains that the claiming of rights vis-à-vis business will predominantly be shaped by the internalisation of international norms into domestic laws, not to mention voluntary exposition of principles in corporate charters. While this is well and good, and the exposition of sound regulatory frameworks in Burma to be welcomed, the lack of clarity that plagues business and human rights norms, not to mention the enforcing role of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), will long hinder attempts to institutionalise them, even in non-transitional contexts.

There nonetheless exists in Burma enormous opportunity for well-crafted programmatic measures that go far beyond institutional capacity building. Community rights-claiming strategies are directed not only at states or political institutions but at corporate or even non-state armed actors with financial stakes in business. They represent nascent movement towards rule of law in a transitional context. Their persistent portrait as untouchably ‘political’ and oppositional in relation to the state is flawed and hinders vital programmatic support that aims inexorably at apoliticism.

Villagers in rural Burma do not have time to wait for the institutionalisation of norms into domestic policy. For those seeking to secure some tangible remedy at the community-level, programmes that foster community empowerment and confidence building now provide a powerful complement to existing strategies.”

This is the reality that not just the Burmese communities face, but rural and urban populations worldwide who live outside of the rule of law. Legal approaches to human rights, references to declarations and recommendations will not solve their problems. Listening to their approaches to the problems that they face and finding a way for human right to interact with their understandings of their problems will lead the way to solutions.

My own research in rural Nicaragua highlights similar observations. Communities are seeking solutions to their own problems. Adherence to stiff legal mechanisms will not aid them and risks alienating them using technical language.

A other few articles to share which have inspired me on this subject:

Can Human Rights Survive? Lecture One: The Crisis of Authority by Conor Gearty,  Hamlyn Lectures 2005.

Why More Africans Don’t Use Human Rights Language’ by Odinkalu from Carnegie Council Human Rights Dialogue 2.1

Reflections on Human Rights at Century’s End by Larry Cox from Carnegie Council Human Rights Dialogue 2.1 

Human Rights for All? The Problem of the Human Rights Box’ from Carnegie Council Human Rights Dialogue 2.1

Manal El-Tibi the only Nubian member of the drafting Constitutional Committee, withdrew frustrated with a non-inclusive process in which certain parties dominated. Nubian requests were not included: for the right of return to their traditional lands, for the development of historical Nubia, and for the protection of a diverse Egypt, where Nubian history and
language would be taught in schools. Within the power struggles in Cairo, the Nubian voice blends with other rights demands, but in Aswan, the Nubian voice is impossible to ignore.

In Aswan Egypt’s ancient links to sub-Saharan Africa are clear. Alexandria collects the winds of Europe; Sinai hears the desert songs of Arabia; Cairo catches the breeze from the Maghreb. In Aswan, the Nile brings Africa tangible and buoyant into the middle of town. Africa is bold in Aswan. The Nile has travelled far to reach this point, it transports invisible burdens from the countries it has penetrated. It heaps Sudan into Lake Nasser, drops Ethiopia by the Aswan promenade; unleashes Uganda into the soil.

Read the full article in Guernica Magazine: The Capital of Nubia.

While we are constantly reminded of the interconnected nature of the world, this interconnectedness has not extended to our responsibilities as citizens. The Virtual Dinner Guest Project is an initiative that attempts to address this problem by bringing people together to connect around political, social, and humanitarian issues.

The basic premise of the project centres on sharing a meal, a universal ritual to which we can all relate. There is a twist though – the meal is shared around a computer screen, connecting diners from different countries via Skype. The project brings together diners through links with universities, media groups, and civil society organizations.

Maddox describes the Virtual Dinner Guest Project as “a mechanism to play catch-up to where our governments are having a conversation. People are not consulted or directly in involved in high level dialogues, although their destinies are absolutely impacted by those kinds of decisions. In a failing global economy, it is becoming essential to be involved in the world in a practical way, not just through charity donations.” Echoing a global trend propelled by revolutions and civil society groups, he states: “at the end of day why shouldn’t they be spokesmen – we are all just one voice among many.”

In contrast to the traditional aid paradigm, Maddox aims to focus on local activists and create south-south collaborations, in which people and projects with similar concerns can support each other through their own experiences. Maddox’s aim is to work toward a global network of local actors who interact and practically apply the lesson’s learned from Virtual Dinners in their work: “Talk, digest and then act. That’s us,” Maddox says.

“Conflict is always going to exist,” Maddox remarks, “but how you manage it is important.” For him, engaging people in discussion is the first step toward building peace, and he is pursuing this belief one dinner at a time.

Read the full article at Muftah.

While the revolution appears to have had immediate effect in generating enthusiasm for democracy, it does not seem to have triggered the same kind of immediate broader change in rural areas. However, equality and freedom for rural women is being negotiated through careful development strategies in the long-term. According to Lindsey Jones of ACDI-VOCA, “the two key factors that I’ve seen contribute to creating change in the rural areas are education and income-generating opportunities for women.”

Indeed, revolution is not the only way to create change. Improved education, training programmes and initiatives to encourage participation may not be dramatic, but they are proof that whatever the political attempts to exclude women, rural women are gaining more opportunities slowly and surely.”

Read the full article at: Think Africa Press.

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Happy New Year! Excuses for the break since the last post. I have just moved country for work to a place with an unreliable and slow internet connection, so gaining access to this site is proving slightly complicated. However, with perseverance (and some research into the best internet connections in town) it is still possible, so I hope to continue to write and update over the coming year.

To begin the year, two extracts which offer a different approach to women’s rights. Firstly, an extract from a short story, Discovering Home by Binyavanga WainainaI, from the collection : Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing, published by the New Internationalist.

I like the way this story addresses indirectly women and women’s rights and the way characters speak indirectly to those rights demands. I particularly liked the impressions of powerful strong women in this story. It is a great contrast to the many stories (or development and rights messages) of women as disempowered, weak or oppressed.

The women are also not presented in as sexy or alluring. They obtain their power through other means, in the same way as a man might. They do not use their ‘feminine charms’ to win over men, or to get what they want or need.

The main character Eddah, is smart, strong and capable. She has political power as a member of a political parties, economic power by asserting control and ownership of her husband’s resources as well as setting up her own business and physical power by acting together with other local women. She also has essentials provided to her via a garden which men tend for her and from a shop owner with whom she has an affair.

Indeed, these women possess most of the characteristics sought after by development projects for gender equality or women’s rights : political participation or participation in decision making and generating alternative forms of income. The methods used to accrue these forms of power may not be the most orthodox, yet it is difficult not to admire the strength and resourcefulness of these women and particularly Eddah who defies a system which could very well be considered intended to suppress her.

Here are the extracts which show some of the strong female characters and their ability to claim their own rights within their community.

“I met Eddah when she had just married Ole Kamaro. She was his fifth wife, 13 years old … I remember being horrified by the marriage – she was so young! … ( A) few years of schooling were enough to give Eddah a clear idea if the basic tenets of Empowerment. By the time she was 18, Ole Kamaro had dumped the rest of his wives. Eddah leased out his land to Kenya Breweries and opened a bank account where all the money went. Occasionally, she gave her husband pocket money.

Whenever he was away, she took up with her lover, a wealthy young Kikuyu shopkeeper from the other side of the hill who kept her supplied with essentials like soap, matches and paraffin.

Eddah was the local chairwoman of KANU (Kenya’s Ruling Party) Women’s League and so remained invulnerable to censure from conservative elements around. She also had a thriving business, curing hides and beading them elaborately for the tourist market at the Mara. Unlike most Masai women, who disdain growing of crops, she had a thriving market garden with maize, beans, and various vegetables. She did not lift a finger to take care of this garden. Part of the co-operation we expected from her as landlady meant that our staff had to take care of that garden. Her reasoning was that Kikuyu men are cowardly women anyway and they do farming so-oo well.

Something interesting is going on today. There is a tradition amongst Masai, that women are released from all domestic duties a few months after giving birth. The women are allowed to take over the land and claim any lovers that they choose … I have been warned to keep away from any bands of women wandering about. We are on some enourmous hill and I can feel old Massey Ferguson’s tractor wheezing. We get to the top, turn to make our way down, and there they are: led by Eddah, a troop of about 40 women marching towards us dressed in their best traditional clothing.

Eddah looks imperious and beautiful in her beaded leather cloak, red khanga wraps, rings, necklaces and earrings. There is an old woman amongst them, she must be 70 and she is cackling in toothless glee. She takes off her wrap and displays her breasts – they resemble old gym socks.

Mwangi who is driving, stops, and tries to turn back, but the road is too narrow:on one side there us the mountain, and in the other, a yawning valley. Kipsang, who is sitting in the trailer with me shouts for Karanja to drive right through them:

“DO NOT STOP!”

It seems that the modernised version of this tradition involves men making donations to the KANU Women’s Group. Innocent enough, you’d think – but the amount of these donations must satisfy them or they will strip you naked and do unspeakable things to your body.

So we take off at full speed. The women stand firm in the middle if the road. We can’t swerve. We stop.

Then Kipsang saves our skins by throwing a bunch of coins onto the road. I throw down some notes and Mwangi … empties his pockets, throws down notes and coins. The women start to gather the money, the tractor roars back into action and we drive through them.I am left with the picture of the toothless old lady diving to avoid the tractor. Then standing, looking at us and laughing, her breasts flapping about like a Flag of Victory.

A quick second extract looking at rights of women in an unconventional way is this great post by wrongingrights. The states that it is written in response to the recent high publicity rape cases in India (and also see) the USA and Lara Logan in Egypt and the misplaced attitude of public officials towards those cases of women, (see this perspective from India and this one from Canada).

The article approaches the problem from a different perspective and also one which hits directly home. The posts discusses preventing men from working in the media, going out at night due to the risk they sexually abuse or rape women. It is also suggested that they wear blindfolds in public to prevent them from being aroused by women in public places. The post seems humourous and what struck me on reading it was that I found it humourous. It made me reflect that  if we discussed preventing women going out after dark or wearing less provocative clothing or being unsuitable for certain jobs it would be taken as a serious article not a comic one. In this role reversal this article effectively highlights the cultural and social norms we so easily accept as truths regarding women’s freedoms.

Here is an sample, but do read the whole post:

Unwise to Allow Men to Go Out Alone at Night?

A local coalition of religious leaders, concerned about recent studies showing that an average of 6% of men will commit a sexual assault during their lifetime, and that nearly all sexual assaults are committed by men on their own or in groups, are urging parents not to let their sons go out at night unless they are accompanied by a mother, sister, or trusted female friend.

Mens’ groups have responded with concern, pointing out that this may leave some men unable to complete the tasks of daily life, such as going to school, working, or socializing.

In response, the religious leaders said that they “understand that this may be an inconvenience for some men,” but that “the minor difficulties this imposes on men are nothing when compared to the lifelong horror sexual assaults cause their victims.” “Really,” said the organization’s leader, “almost any limitation on men’s freedom is better than the risk that they might sexually assault someone. That’s just common sense.”

(Just a little final note on Egypt, as I have been following women’s rights issues in Cairo for the past year, see here, here and here, it seems important to highlight that the issue of sexual assault goes much wider and deeper than the assault of Lara Logan, which partially inspired the wrongingrights post. Sexual assault is a complex problem in Egypt and one which women and activists face daily. For more information on that subject see Harassmap, Nazra and a plethora of media comment, including Egypt Independent, Washington Post, Aljazeera and of course this much discussed piece by Mona Eltahawy).

A new month, a new round-up of rights news from around the world. In addition as I am just starting a new job in South East Asia the regional focus will expand a little to reflect interesting new resources I discover here in the course of my work.

Firstly, an interesting short piece in the IHT on the situation of women in Myanmar. The author Didi Kirsten Tatlow highlights some of the major issues being addressed in terms of gender. She reports on “very active” women’s groups taking advantage of the new political liberalisation. She highlights legislative need such as the preparation of a law on domestic violence. Also interestingly she highlights a role for women as peace-keepers in the communities affected by war, such as the current violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities. She also states that a more general survey of women in the country to understand better there status and role in this society. I look forward to seeing the results of some of these interesting ideas.

Secondly, a piece in 500 Words Magazine, a magazine publishing essays on Sudan through the words of the Sudanese Youth. I particularly like this piece
Why Breakfast should be banned in Sudan which recounts in an amusing way the problem of inefficiency in Sudan’s working culture. Another nice piece is What we used to be and what we are now which reflects on the changes in Sudan since his childhood and discusses the responsibilities of the youth of today in addressing development.

Finally, a compelling look at sexual harrassment and sexual violence around the world by the Fair Observer. These selection f articles compare and contrast the issue of assuring safety for women in their day to day lives in a number of different contexts, from implementing laws in post-conflict DRC to combatting traditional values in post-revolution Egypt, to creating safe public spaces in Latin America. to the difference class can make in protecting women from violence in India. All the articles highlight a common idea of women being perceived a certain way by society, requiring certain special treatments or being required to limit themselves to certain feminine behaviour or actions.

The origins of these ideas are very nicely highlighted by the South African contribution, an interview with Bernadette Muthien. She states:

(l)et’s just try to understand how the violence works: Gender based violence obviously occurs based on gender and the root cause of all violence we would argue is patriarchy. It precedes all the economic systems we know today … And patriarchy has been around for thousands of years … What patriarchy does is it uses violence in general to control people and gender based violence specifically to control people. This can be seen by looking at child rape and child sexual abuse. When a child is raped, then that person is marked by that rape for the rest of their lives. Sometimes they themselves become perpetrators. In other words, if you rape a child, you have that person incapacitated for almost the rest of their lives. It can become an incredibly powerful source of control, and then you have an automatic cyclic existence of rape: generation after generation gets raped. I become a parent, I rape my child – it perpetuates itself and the mechanisms of control become almost unconscious. It is a system to maintain control over people, and women in particular.

She goes on to conclude with a vision which takes sexual abuse and harassment out of the box of gender issues and women’s issues. She highlights a wider aspiration which includes aspiration for a new form of masculinity and an idea of feminism which is cooperative rather than competitive. A difficult goal perhaps, but one which could really make a difference.

In her words:

I would like to continue to have hope. We must try and find hope for what we do and it would be good if we could continue to do the work we do – To find more and more people using cooperation rather than competition, and if more and more men come along and say “We have to construct better models of masculinity, better ways to relate to one another”; more and more women saying, “I do not want to be a victim. I want to take my own agency and power but I don’t want to be like Margaret Thatcher either. I want to be a woman who is not patriarchal.” and women coming together, working with one another, that could be very wonderful.

A new regular post highlighting a few special rights stories. I will post at the beginning of each month. I hope to share some of the best articles, reports, videos, photos which I’ve come across in the past month which discuss or shed some new light on human rights and development issues across the globe.

So onto the very first Rights Round Up :

1. Aljazeera‘s article: In pictures: Cairo’s rich-poor standoff by Mosa’ab Elshamy.

A compelling photo essay which highlights some of the contradictory aspects of the right to decent housing in Cairo. The pictures are of the Boulaq slum area of Cairo, situated near to the Nile Towers luxury shopping centre. Mosa’ab Elshamy states:

” While opulence is the towers’ signature, Ramlet Boulaq is without sewage, electricity or running water. “

The images highlight the derelict state of residents houses and the sub-standard living conditions in which they survive, by placing these alongside the suited clients of the Nile Towers complex. The right to housing is a much spoken of problem in Cairo, yet images like these go to highlight how much still needs to be done to assure a basic right to housing for city dwellers.

2. Throwing Stones at the Moon (extract) in Granta.

The haunting story of María Victoria Jiménez, told beautifully in her own words. A medical intern who was attacked and disfigured for exposing corruption at a hospital, her tale is similar to too many in Columbia and other Latin American countries where violence rules over truth. Her strength and honesty makes inspiring but hard reading which demonstrates what defending rights has comes to mean for Maria Victoria.

“I don’t want to move to another part of the country because that would be quitting. And if I quit, everyone will do the same, and we won’t get anywhere. The fact is that if people stay silent, what future will my nephews have, and what future will their children have?

I continue to move around from house to house in Bello. I go to work and then I go straight home. I don’t have a life. I stay in my room by myself and I sleep with a kitchen knife, pepper spray, and a bulletproof vest next to my bed. Outside of work, my life is four walls. Sometimes I think that maybe it would have been better to have died.”

3. Une Justice Qui Fait Honte au Pays! in Courrier International.

One for the French Speakers. An impassioned critique of the Tunisian justice system for bringing charges against a woman who was raped by police officers. An article which highlights once again the struggle in the Middle East and North Africa for a system and society which respects and assures equal treatment for women.

4. Women’s Rights Demands

A lovely short (and optimistic) video on women’s rights demands in Egypt, created by CEWLA (The Centre for Egyptian Legal Assistance), but expressed by the women themselves. So often we writers, organisations and commentators speak for women. Here they are speaking in their own words, saying what is important for them in Egypt’s future. Demands include assuring criminalisation of FGM in the Constitution, rights for housewives, universities in Upper Egypt and higher representation for women in political bodies.

5. Amnesty International : Rule of Law Elusive – Two Report on Violence against Protesters in Egypt

For months I have been hoping Amnesty International’s comment on violence in protests in Egypt, after following and reporting on this topic during the Abbaseya clashes. Amnesty don’t disappoint  issuing two reports. The first focuses on abuses carried out by the military, including torture and killing with impunity. The second focuses on police violence during protests and clashes. Attacks by the authorities on protesters seemed to characterise Egypt’s transition period, undermining the very freedom of expression and assembly which was fought for during the revolution. The reports call for President Morsi to reform the police and security institutions and ask for accountability and justice for past abuses.

 

 

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