The Commonwealth but not a Game

8 06 2014

We the people of the Commonwealth …… “recognise that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential components of human development and basic human rights. The advancement of women’s rights and the education of girls are critical preconditions for effective and sustainable development.” This is item 12 of the Commonwealth Charter. So how are they doing?

In April this year reports emerged of the death of a 13-year-old girl southern Kenya after she underwent female genital mutilation (FGM). Kenya does have legislation which outlaws FGM, and while the country has been praised for trying to tackle this issue, implementation is patchy. Six years after a wave of post-election violence in Kenya, thousands of women still awaiting justice. The country’s director of public prosecutions only recently announced that his office would bring no cases related to the 2007-08 atrocities before a new international crimes division (ICD) within the high court, leaving the women to struggle to have their voices heard and their attackers brought to justice.

In April of this year, in Lesotho, the high court ruled that chiefs’ daughters could not themselves become chiefs. This judgement confirms that it is still permissible to discriminate against women solely because they are women.

And in Mozambique there is a law which says that “in cases of rape and sexual violation of a child 12 years or younger, the accused can put an end to the inured party’s litigation and pre-trial detention if the accused marries his victim”. In essence, in a Commonwelath country in the 21st century, young girls, under pressure from their own families and the families of the attacker, and supported by law, are frequently forced to marry their attackers even after suffering the terror of being raped.

In April this year Nigeria hit the headlines when Boko Haram abducted more than 200 girls from a boarding school. Terrifying though this is, this is not an isolated incident. There is a precedent for abductions. In May 2013 claimed it had taken women and children hostage in response to the arrest of its members’ wives and children. And who had taken those women and children? The Nigerian authorities.
Nigeria is a state where the rights of women are routinely violated, where, according to Amnesty International, “…Nigerian women are beaten, raped and murdered by members of their family for supposed transgressions, which can range from not having meals ready on time to visiting family members without their husband’s permission.” They call Nigeria’s rate of domestic violence “shocking,”

20 years ago in Rwanda as many as 500,000 women were raped during the genocide. Despite the fact that 64% of parliamentarians are women and gender rights being written into its constitution, the government’s 2010 demographic and health survey suggest that two in five women have suffered physical violence at least once since they were 15. One in five had experienced sexual violence, most at the hands of their husbands.

In South Africa the situation is even worse. According to Lerato Moloi of the South African Institute for Race Relations “If data for all violent assaults, rapes and other sexual assaults against women are taken into account, then approximately 200,000 adult women are reported as being attacked in South Africa every year” Since most cases never are reported the real figure is likely to be considerably higher.
The killing of Reeva Steenkamp by Oscar Pistorius hit the headlines but it is not unusual. In South Africa a woman is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours. This too is likely to be an underestimate as no perpetrator is identified in 20 percent of killings. Professor Rachel Jewkes of the South African Medical Research Council, whose research revealed those statistics suggests that 37% of men (in a survey in Gauteng Province, the most populated In South Africa) admitted that they had raped a woman.

In Uganda reports suggest that 48% of women have experienced physical violence from a partner, while 36% have experienced sexual violence from a partner. This is a complex situation as even though 31% of parliamentary seats are held by women, 58% of women in Uganda still believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife.

But while all of these statistics are shocking it is Commonwealth Zambia that has the worst record on violence against women in Africa. For the record Botswana is second, Zimbabwe third and South Africa fourth. Gold and Silver for commonwealth nations with only Zimbabwe stopping South Africa making it a clean sweep of the medals. In December 2013 it was reported that a staggering 90% of women have been victims of gender based violence and one in every three women was battered by her close relation, husband or boyfriend. An incredible 72% of males have admitted beating up their wives and girlfriends.

And it isn’t just an African problem.

In India, a Commonwealth country, the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey was headline news across the world. Last week two young girls were hanged from a tree after being gang raped in the fields outside their home as they tried to find a private place to go to the toilet. This might, to us in the developed west, seem like an unusual set of circumstances and unlikely to recur, but not so. A report in the Times of India in February this year quoted the police in a district of Uttar Pradesh as saying that 95% of cases of rape and molestation took place when women and girls had left their homes to “answer a call of nature”. You would think that such dreadful crimes would have the Indian Government rushing to improve the situation for women in the country but no.

A senior minister from India’s ruling party, Ramsevak Paikra, in fact the minister responsible for law and order in India’s central Chhattisgarh state, asserted that, “Such incidents (rapes) do not happen deliberately. These kind of incidents happen accidentally.” And his is not a lone voice. In the recent election, Mulayam Singh Yadav, head of the regional Samajwadi Party that runs Uttar Pradesh, criticised legal changes that foresee the death penalty for gang rape, saying: “Boys commit mistakes: Will they be hanged for rape?” I do not agree with the death penalty either. I don’t think anyone should be hanged but his comments that “boys commit mistakes” indicates that the crime of rape is just not taken seriously by him, and I suspect, large swathes of the male population in India.

According to UN Women figures, 8,093 cases of dowry-related death were reported in India in 2007 and an unknown number of murders of women and young girls were falsely labeled ‘suicides’ or ‘accidents’.

Recently, in neighbouring Pakistan, Farzana Parveen was killed in broad daylight in the centre of Lahore, one of Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan cities. She was stoned to death by an angry crowd, including family members and her own father. Her father, apparently, surrendered after the incident and called the murder an honour killing, saying she had insulted his family by marrying without their consent and he had “no regret”. Farzana’s elder sister now claims that it was her husband Mohammad who had killed her. Whatever the truth it is clear that The Women’s Protection Bill which was passed in 2006, has failed to change attitudes and the culture of misogyny in Pakistan. In 2013, 869 such killings were reported in the media, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and the true figure is probably higher since many cases go unreported.

Quite probably when we think of the Caribbean we think of sun, sand, and maybe cricket and Usain Bolt. According to UN Women, however, the Caribbean has one of the highest violence rates in the world and violence against women is widespread. They go on to say that ” increasingly it is being recognised that eradication of all forms of violence will require confronting harmful stereotypes of masculinity”. According to the World Health Organisation their report into Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean shows that between 41% and 82% of women who were abused by their partner experienced a physical injury, ranging from cuts and bruises to broken bones, miscarriages, and burns.

Gender based violence isn’t just a problem for the less developed world. The UK can hardly rest on it’s laurels in this regard. Here in Scotland government figures suggest that between one in three and one in five women experiences some form of domestic abuse in the course of their lifetime.

I could go on but I didn’t start this blog with the intention of gathering statistics from every Commonwealth country, merely to pose the question “What is the Commonwealth for if not to protect it’s citizens and uphold their human rights?” The Queen is head of the Commonwealth. It is her signature on the front of the Commonwealth Charter. Running fast or being really good at hop, skip and jumping is all well and good but shouldn’t the Commonwealth be for something more than the glorification of a few athletes?

The Charter is very clear. It asserts the commitment of all member states to the development of free and democratic societies and to improve the lives of all peoples. It talks specifically about Human Rights, Tolerance Respect and Understanding, Rule of Law and Gender Equality amongst other matters of state and governance but talk is cheap.

When is the Commonwealth going to stop playing games and address properly the rights of half of it’s citizens.



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