Archive for Africa

Kagame’s third term bid and the African Union’s silence

By Sylvester Uhaa, former Human Rights Advocate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, at Columbia University

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I read with concern a report regarding a referendum to amend Article 101 of the Rwandan Constitution to allow President Paul Kagame another seven year term. A few days ago, the Rwandan Senate voted to allow him a third term.

d4388b385c0844d39574a83eb34f9873_18Kagame ascended to power in 2003 and was re-elected in 2010. By 2017, he will have spent 14 years in power as President. With the referendum likely to be in his favour, his victory at the polls will allow him to be president for 21 years.

It was with great discomfort that I first heard about this on CCTV News last April, at the peak of the political turmoil in Burundi, following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s similar moves for a third term. Nkurunziza succeeded, but not without the bloodshed of thousands of people, with thousands more continuing flee the country for safety. As the crises heightened, the EU and Brussels have also asked their citizens to leave.

I am not from that region, and I do not happen to be an expert on Rwandan politics, but I am an African who is concerned about the spread of tenure elongation on the continent and its implications for peace, political stability, economic growth, the rule of law, and human rights.

Experience has shown that constitutional amendments for third term ambitions in Africa often trigger violence by opposition or other interest groups, either for the sake of protecting the constitution and the rule of law, or simply out of mistrust for the entire process. There is no guarantee that this will not happen in Rwanda, if not now, then later. The voices of the 10 individuals who opposed the referendum, out of the over 10 million who voted for it, according to the AFP report, could multiply into thousands and even millions of opposing voices and throw the country into chaos. For a country that is just beginning to heal from the wounds of the 1994 genocide, this would be catastrophic.

Most fundamentally, tenure elongation undermines the rule of law and citizens’ right to choose their leaders, which along with the freedoms of expression, religion and association, form the foundations of democracy.

1411335851SenatorsArticle 101 of the Rwandan Constitution sets the tenure of the president at two terms. Of course, constitutions are not written in stone, and a referendum is a legitimate and legal process by which to amend a constitution. However, the amendment of constitutions should not be solely in the interest of a single individual, as it would be in this instance. Africa needs leaders who uphold, defend and protect the rule of law and human rights, not those who bend, amend, manipulate, misinterpret, and violate human rights to suit their personal interests.

Another concern is the precedent this might set for the future. Are the Rwandan people really prepared, for the sake of one man they like, to risk coping with future presidents they may not like for 21 years or more? While this is too much of a risk in my opinion, the recent referendum seems to suggest that it is one Rwandans are willing to take.

How can anyone be sure that Kagame, unlike Oliver Twist, will not ask for a fourth term? Why did he not groom a successor, who would continue his policies and style of governance if he is doing this for the sake of the people, as he says? Even the idea of grooming a successor is not entirely democratic; the people must be allowed the right to choose freely those who will lead them. But it is a lesser evil compared to tenure elongation by the same individual.

I am also worried that Rwanda will add to the number of African nations who have yielded to the strong, autocratic and manipulative influence of rulers who will do anything to stay in power. This would increase the popularity of power elongation on the continent.

Kagame’s third term bid might rekindle ethnic tensions in a country that has not forgotten the horrors of the 1994 genocide. Obama’s words in Ethiopia in July may be instructive: “When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it [the country] risks instability and strife, as we’ve seen in Burundi. And this is often just a first step down a perilous path.”

Paul Kagame

Under international law, the international community has the responsibility to protect (R2P) citizens of a State when that State fails to do so itself. This responsibility has three aspects – the responsibilities to prevent, to react, and to rebuild. The most important of these is the responsibility to prevent.

If world leaders are serious about the R2P doctrine, then this is the right time. A stitch in time saves nine!

I applaud the condemnation of the military coup by the African Union (AU) in Burkina Faso and the intervention to restore civilian rule in that country. But I fault the silence of the AU on the ‘civilian coup’ by President Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, and the coup currently being staged by President Kagame to overthrow both the rule of law, and the constitution  of Rwanda,  and the right of the Rwandan people to freely choose who will govern them.

The international community must apply every diplomatic and other means to stop Kagame from overthrowing the will and right of the people to freely choose their leaders. The Constitution of Rwanda sets the president’s tenure at two terms, and upholding this and the rule of law is the same as upholding the foundations of democracy.

 

Sylvester Uhaa is the Executive Director of CURE-Nigeria. He was a human rights advocate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University in 2013 and is currently a Commonwealth Scholar in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, UK.

On Being LGBT in West Africa

By Philip Rodenbough, doctoral candidate in chemistry at Columbia University.  Twitter: @prodenbough

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The Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) is a program organized by the US Department of State through which students work part time on a project under the direction of a mentor at State, USAID, embassies abroad, or other government agencies. The e-internship is completed entirely online, so anyone can participate from anywhere. During the previous academic year, VSFS offered over 300+ positions to students, many of which were human rights related projects.

Through VSFS, I was fortunate to participate in an independent research project on the LGBT experience in West Africa, with the guidance of a USAID mentor. Throughout the 2013-14 academic year, I researched country conditions, collected media reports, conducted interviews, and authored original detailed descriptions on the LGBT experience in West Africa. This research was developed to to help form baseline data that informs on the needs of the local LGBT communities, in addition to assessing the impact of future programming.

West Africa LGBTUSAID has always been committed to global prosperity, and in recent years that commitment has grown to include a focus on LGBT communities. On December 6, 2011, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum directing all federal agencies abroad to ensure that US diplomacy promotes and protects the human rights of LGBT persons. Later that same day, Secretary Clinton delivered an historic speech on the human rights of LGBT individuals while commemorating Human Rights Day. Secretary Kerry continued to advance this cause by participating in the first UN ministerial event on LGBT rights. USAID has responded to such leadership by launching its LGBT Vision for Action as part of its policy framework for 2011-2015. Perhaps most hearteningly of all, Secretary Kerry recently announced the appointment Randy Berry as first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons. It was a pleasure and a privilege to complete this research project in the broader context of increasing inclusiveness of LGBT issues at the US Department of State and at USAID.

During the course of my research, I found homophobia is rampant, discrimination is frequent, and stigmatization is common against the LGBT persons in West Africa. In some countries, legal barriers prevent LGBT persons from equal treatment. Where no formal barriers exist, strong negative social attitudes are often strong and pervasive enough to achieve the same end. Political leaders are generally hostile towards LGBT persons and virtually all countries in the region categorically reject official calls from the UN to respect the human rights of LGBT persons.

LGBT communities do vary from country to country within the West Africa region. Based on the research in this project, the situation for LGBT persons is best in Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Cote d’Ivoire, where there is relative tolerance and freedom. The situation is worst in Senegal, Gambia, and Nigeria, where LGBT persons are actively castigated and/or imprisoned. The case in Nigeria is particularly troubling due to the recent enacting of more severe anti-LGBT laws. Mauritania has the harshest anti-homosexuality laws and the subject remains strictly taboo, as it similarly does in Niger and Guinea.

Despite these challenges, there is still hope that the situation can improve. Most countries do have active pro-LGBT groups working to change the public mentality. Additionally, pro-LGBT opinion pieces do occasionally appear in local media. LGBT leaders in the region all express a common willingness to partner with development organizations such as USAID. Robbie Corey-Boulet, an Institute of Current World Affairs Fellow studying LGBT advocacy in West Africa (whose works are often cited in this project) argues that these groups are often in need of small seed grants in order to find and promote their voice. Donor requirements such as official recognition by the state and previous experience managing large grants prove problematic for these emerging LBGT organizations. Despite the difficulties they face, LGBT leaders in the region are optimistic that over time they can work together to build a more inclusive and more equitable society.

As a student in a highly scientific and technical degree program, this project was a great opportunity to gain exposure in human rights research. My interest in West Africa stems from my Peace Corps service—I taught high school chemistry in Guinea and Burkina Faso from 2009 to 2011. Although my doctoral project is focused on synthesis and characterization of clean energy materials, my interests extend into science policy, international development, and human rights. My work with VSFS has provided me a greater appreciation for commonalities in seemingly disparate communities, LGBT or otherwise.

I am pleased to share with RightsViews the full and final report from my VSFS internship: Being LGBT in West Africa Project.

That TIME story that South Africa may outlaw spanking at home

By Maria Hengeveld, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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On 30 July freelance reporter Melissa Locker reported for TIME Magazine that South Africa’s government, in cooperation with some notable children’s rights NGOs, is drafting a bill that would outlaw spanking at home. If the bill passes, South African parents lose their freedom to corporally punish their children, just like teachers did seven years ago. The article quotes Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, from the pro-ban camp, who argues for child protection, and an anti-ban spokesperson from the Christian organization Focus On The Family, whose weird notion that for most children “the removal of pleasures or privileges is actually more painful than a spanking” is supposed to represent the anti-ban camp.

Right.

That’s about all the author chose to cover in the 200-odd word article. But there is a whole lot more to say about ‘spanking’ in South African homes, though.

To get an idea of what TIME is talking about, a bit of background and context does wonders. According to a study by RAPCAN, a Cape Town-based children’s rights NGO, 57% of interviewed South African parents (from all backgrounds, ages and income brackets) smacks or spanks their children with their hands. Thirty- three percent use a belt or other object. Corporal punishment, as presently condoned by South African law, means inflicting “moderate and reasonable chastisement on a child for misconduct provided that this was not done in a manner offensive to good morals or for objects other than correction and admonition”. In other words, the parent or care taker gets to decide whether his physical violence is in accordance with acceptable corrective intentions and with the morals he himself deems ‘good’ to positively shape the child’s behavior. But ‘spanking’, the seemingly innocent term TIME chose for title, is only one part of the story. A story that also includes (and is certainly not limited to) “hitting children with a hand or object, kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting or pulling their hair, forcing them to stay in uncomfortable positions, locking or tying them up, burning and scalding” (some acts that the UN CRC include in their definition of corporal punishment).

TIME also forgets to mention that, because of its unique history of institutionalized colonial and apartheid violence, South Africa happens to be one of the most violent countries in the world, its injury death rate being twice the global average. Women and children are the most vulnerable to this violence. Current and accurate statistics on violence are difficult to obtain, partly because much of the violence happens within the homes and goes unreported. But research and reports by several NGOs and service providers give us a solid clue about the extent of the violence that children face. In 2012, for example, the mental health and trauma centre Ekupholeni, which is based just outisde Johannesburg, helped 501 sexually abused children, of whom 148 were between two and seven years old. And in 2011, the South African Medical Research Council organized a meeting on youth violence, which revealed that “for children of all ages, the apparent manner of death was primarily the scourges of violence and traffic – 35% and 20% respectively”. The data also showed that violence was responsible for 10% of children’s deaths. Over 30% of violent deaths of 5 to 9 year olds were caused by firearms. Of overall youth violence, around 40% of deaths are said to be caused by sharp objects, blunt force objects and firearms.

And according to UNICEF, between 2010 and 2011, no less than 54.225 crimes against children (younger than 18 years old) were reported. 84% of these cases involved violent acts against children by someone known or trusted by the child.

While it might be tempting for many to drop these numbers in a separate violence file, and treat the well-intended spank on the bottom by a parent or caretaker as a separate issue, the simple fact that both categories involve intentionally inflicting physical pain on children demands for the relationship to be taken seriously. Violence against children doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

Unlike what TIME’s choice of wording implies, these realities go way beyond the use of “a flat hand on a child’s bottom”. What this tells us is that a ban on corporal punishment is not about some nanny state being unhappy about the occasional ‘slap on the bottom’, but that a highly vulnerable group of citizens might finally get the legal protection against types of violence that is not allowed against adults.

Some have expressed their annoyance with this, in their eyes, inappropriate conflation of corporal punishment with violence. Others call the debate on corporal punishment needlessly polarized and propose that, rather than being ‘pro’ or anti, we might want to think about allowing limited forms of corporal punishment. With the harmful ‘flat hand on the bottom’ type of spank in mind, this seems a sensible statement to make. Until the boundaries between violence and acceptable corrective pain need to be set. (When does a constructive spanking turn into abuse? What does a responsible bruise look like?) To separate corporal punishment from ‘actual violence’ in a country where fatal violence is a reality in all too many households, and try to define what ‘acceptable’ physical harm actually means is not only an unachievable and undesirable undertaking, it also ignores the roots of corporal punishment and how it has historically intertwined with often lethal state violence.

Corporal punishment was one of the many violent tools for the colonial and apartheid ruling class to instill discipline and maintain control. At white settler schools , for example, boys were (for a long time) disciplined physically to harden them and maintain white supremacy. Corporal punishment, then, can at least partly be seen as one of the left-overs of nearly 350 years of white minority rule, which shaped much of today’s normalized violence. And there are many more reasons, not just historical ones, to reject the idea that corporal punishment and violence against children can be treated in isolation. If you grow up in a world where pain is intentionally inflicted on others in order to correct them or to resolve some sort of conflict, chances are you grow up thinking you can treat others, such as your girlfriend, that way too. If the aim of spanking a child is to instill good morals in them, (and we understand good morals as non-violent ones), corporal punishment is likely to have the exact opposite effect. As Lorenzo Wakefield, a researcher and expert on children’s rights, wrote in reference to a recent study of the University of Witwatersrand “there is a strong link of convicted perpetrators of rape — especially those who raped young children under the age of three — who were all corporally punished when they were younger. Research has shown that children who are physically punished or humiliated are more susceptible to carrying out acts of violence in their adult years”.

And there are more studies that confirm this correlation. But this hasn’t convinced everyone that children need this kind of protection. Some have played the Christian card to contest the proposed ban, when others view corporal punishment as a cultural right. But since both culture as well as religion are a matter of interpretation (and culture is never static anyway), they can and have been used to defend the ban as well.

Khaye Nkwanyana worries that “if this law is passed it will represent the power of the resourceful lobbyist NGO that stands in range against the entire society. It will represent the will of the University of Western Cape against the entire South African society. And as active South Africans we cannot countenance such a tendency where those with money can impose their will and cultural choices to all of us”.

Which begs the question: who is part of this ‘entire’ South African society? Do children count too? Because, as we look at some recent numbers, about a third of South Africans is under 18 years of age. (Some say 0-14 year olds alone account for 28,4% of South Africans). So if we talk about the ‘entire society’, what is their place? Are they citizens or simply possessions of the entire adult society? And since the entire discussion is about their fate, who has asked them how they feel about it? Next to a few outdated studies that present some accounts by children who describe the degrading and abusive treatment they had suffered, the actual opinions of children are nowhere to be found in mainstream media.

Some teachers, on the other hand, put forward more instructive concerns by complaining that the ban on corporal punishment in schools has led to a decline in discipline. Which can either mean that corporal punishment is the only way of maintaining order and disciplining children, or that it is the only method they know.

Corporal punishment perpetuates South Africa’s crisis of violence. The proposed ban sends out a strong message that children are more than the possessions of their parents and that they have a right to the same legal protection from violence that is granted to adults. They also deserve the chance to voice their opinions, get represented in the media and participate in the debates that affect them.

Is a ban the answer to the violence that children face? Will it reduce the levels of violent young deaths? Or stop the well-intended smacks on the butt? Probably not. After all, despite the ban at schools, it appears to still be widespread there too. Which is why South Africa needs a serious campaign that educates entire society on alternative disciplining methods. Methods that, unlike corporal punishment, will teach children about desirable behavior in a constructive and effective way.

If the South African government takes its responsibility to protect its children seriously, it should intensively work with children, NGOs, caretakers and teachers to develop, support and sustain campaigns that offer alternative, child-friendly alternatives to corporal punishment. One NGO who works on positive parenting programs and develops parental guides is Childline South Africa. Their resources for parents can be downloaded here.

This post appeared previously on Africa is a Country on August 23, 2013.

Maria Hengeveld is a Human Rights graduate student at Columbia University in New York. She is interested in women’s rights, youth and gender in Southern Africa.

Halfway There: The Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project – “For Our Children’s Sake”

Students at breakfast at Kutamba School

By Morag Neill, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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The hustle and bustle of the city was not forgiving on my first day in Uganda. I attempted to maneuver through Kampala’s town center searching for the shared taxi headed for Luafu stage, the minibus stop where the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project offices were located. After an hour of confusion and with the help of both curious and kind strangers, I finally found myself at the black gates in the quiet neighborhood of Makindye. A wide-smiled lady named Barbara greeted me at the reception and handed me the guestbook to sign as I waited for my supervisor, Jennifer Nantale to emerge. As I sat there, proud of myself for finding my way to the cool offices decorated with pictures of graduating students draped in their academic garb, I had no way of knowing that the next few weeks were going to be as impactful and challenging as they turned out to be.

The Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project (NAOP) was established in 2001 by Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, 2012 CNN Hero and an alumnus to ISHR’s Advocate’s Program at Columbia University. I had the honor of joining the NAOP family as their development intern with the task of broadening their local fundraising strategy in Uganda. Consistent with the nature of NGO work, Nyaka is in constant search for new funders and innovative ways to maintain the multiple programs that the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project houses. NAOP has over 600 students enrolled in their two primary schools. Alongside the two schools and their libraries is the ever-prospering Mummy Drayton School Clinic; the Grandmother Project which supports over 7,000 grandmothers in the area; the Desire Farm which facilitates both schools’ nutrition programs; the Clean Water System which provides running water to the communities in both districts through a gravity-fed pump; and the pending construction of the secondary vocational school and boarding houses.

In my third week in Uganda, I took a break from the city life and travelled 12 hours southwest to Kanungu and Rukungiri districts. Thus far, my week in the field has been the highlight of my time in Uganda. Our first stop was the Nyaka School and we arrived just as the students were getting out of class. Proudly displaying their bright purple uniforms, the students darted across the school compound playing basketball, netball, volleyball and football (soccer). Our trip was especially important as we brought with us nine donated computers for each of the classroom teachers at the Nyaka School and connected the library with satellite internet. Jennifer and I held a workshop to ensure that the teachers could maneuver through Microsoft Office and access their emails. In the following days, we were able to visit each of the projects under NAOP, including a day visit to the Kutamba School. To top off the end of each busy day, the teachers, interns and some of the student athletes competed in a grueling volleyball tournament which brought everyone together before the sun set and the mosquitoes began biting.

After reading Jackson’s book “A School for my Village” which details the first few years of the NAOP’s journey, it was inspiring to see how much progress the organization has achieved. The trip was personally fulfilling as it gave meaning to the seemingly arbitrary fundraising research that had me occupied in Kampala in the preceding weeks. It demonstrated the extent to which Jackson’s vision for implementing a holistic human rights-based program to end the systematic deprivation, poverty and hunger has been realized. The passion that surrounds NAOP is undeniable and has made my job in sharing the organization with new funders less daunting. Nonetheless, the eight weeks that have been assigned to the fundraising project is hardly enough to make as big of an impact as I would have liked. I’m happy to have gotten the chance to crack the fundraising prospective for NAOP, however, there is so much more in store for the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project.

Don’t miss the opportunity to hear from Jackson himself on October 1st at 12:15pm at the Jerome Greene Room 103 at Columbia Law School.

Learn more about the NAOP and how to get involved at:

Website: http://www.nyakaschool.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NyakaAIDSOrphansProject

Email: info@nyakaschool.org

 

Hailing from Zambia, born in South Africa and raised in Botswana, Morag Neill is completing her M.A. in Human Rights Studies at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Morag’s studies focus on the rights of African refugee women. 

Sex Work in South Africa: Shaming Sex Workers Away From Human Rights

By Maria E. Hengeveld, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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southafrica1Think about this: If the Netherlands, the country that was one of the first to legalize sex work thirteen years ago, still benefits from its capital’s red light district as one of its main attractions for both national and international tourists, what kinds of questions does this raise about the treatment of sex workers outside the regulated district? For one, it suggests there are very few places on this planet where the shaming and ridiculing of both sex workers and their clients is not socially acceptable.

The Dutch red light district remains a site where women who earn their money through sex—some by choice, some by force—is objectified and ridiculed. It’s fun to walk past them, amusing to observe them, and outright hilarious to shame and fool them[1].

We call it stigma.

Notwithstanding the violations and harsh realities that many sex workers in the Netherlands continue to endure (especially those who are working against their will),  sex workers’ stigma reveals itself in different, and often even grimmer ways in poorer, less equal and more violent countries, where sex work remains illegal.

The South African Context

While the country’s Constitution, ratified in 1996, has often been credited as being the most liberal in the world for safeguarding the rights of vulnerable groups, sex workers remain excluded from constitutional protections. Forced underground, their profession’s stigma reveals itself in daily violations of their basic human rights. This means rape. It means beatings. It means extortion and an increased risk of HIV/AIDS.

How? Angie, a 54-year old street-based sex worker from Cape Town explains. Drawing on 20 years of experience, she says that out of all the risks, brutalities, condescension, and threats she and her colleagues face, most sex workers fear the police the most. According to Angie, “They target you, threaten to arrest you and then demand bribes or sex.” She went on to explain, “After raping the girls they often drop them in deserted areas.”

She also noted “to not leave any trace of evidence, they often use condoms, which they throw away afterwards.”  And just as condoms serve as a tool for erasing a sex crime, they are simultaneously used as evidence for sex workers’ alleged criminal activities. According to Angie, many police men consider carrying many condoms as proof of sex workers exchanging sex for money; one reason why many girls decide to either take less condoms with them or hide them somewhere near their base.

sexworkers

Nosipho, a 29-year old mother from Durban, whose cousin introduced her to sex work on the streets of Durban’s Morningside area in 2008, affirms the terror-tainted relationship with the police.

“We are so used to the beatings and the rapes that, once it’s over and you make your way back to the other girls, you can only try to laugh about it. If you’re raped so many times by clients and police men you develop some sort of flow of coping,” Nosipho acknowledged.

This tends to be the case, unless the brutality is out of the ordinary such as the one night in Durban, only a few months ago, when Nosipho encountered the police. “As always,” Nosipho recalls, “we were well aware of the necessity to not provoke any cops that night, so when I noticed a police car driving towards us, I quietly walked away. This one cop called on me, ordered me in his car and took me to the Burman Bush, a deserted and terrifying place where many girls have been found dead.”

She was given a choice to give him the sex he wanted or be left on her own. Nosipho recalled, “He started to touch me, pulled up my skirt and raped me anally. I couldn’t stop screaming from the pain. Afterwards, I had no option but getting back into his car again.” Because sex work is a criminal offense and given the ever-present risk of incarceration, there was no place to report the abuse Nosipho had suffered.

She also did not think that visiting a clinic for medical help was an option. Nosipho lamented, “The nurses treat you like dirt, will call you ‘bitch’ in front of everybody or tell you that, as a sex worker, you ask for getting raped.”

Next to shaming, many sex workers have complained about the reluctance and refusal of public health centers to provide sex workers with STI tests or treatments for injuries. “And meanwhile”, Angie continues, “people accuse us of spreading HIV.”  Next to exposing them to police brutality, condoning public shaming, and legitimizing the violation of their right to health in clinics, the current criminalized state of the profession also severely weakens sex workers’  negotiating position towards clients. This renders them substantially more vulnerable towards abuse, blackmail, diseases, violence and extortion.

Angie explained, “I remember this very quiet night, when I had hardly any business. A client told me to get in his car and took me all the way to Athlone, where he demanded sex without a condom.  He said he wanted flesh to flesh sex. When I refused he pointed a gun to my head. I didn’t give in, though. Then he decided to only pay me half of the agreed price and dropped me somewhere in Wynberg, very far away from my base.”

Other clients take advantage of sex workers’ exclusion from legal protection by pretending to be cops themselves and demanding sex or money in exchange for letting them go. By rendering sex work illegal, South African laws justify these discriminatory, derogatory and abusive treatments of sex workers. Treatments that not only take a physical and financial toll, but also have the ability to deeply affect sex workers’ sense of self. “You internalize the idea that what you’re doing is wrong,” says Nosipho, “and that you’re a naughty girl, when you’re really just trying to make a living and take care of your children, which is the reason many of us start the work in the first place.”

sweat

One organization that offers support for sex workers is the Cape Town based non-profit organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce). SWEAT defends and promotes the human rights of sex workers through advocacy, community outreach, skill training, education, legal assistance, counselling and active lobbying for decriminalization. By engaging in dialogues with community leaders, health clinics, trade unions, parliamentarians and police, they seek to empower sex workers and create a more humane work environment. According to SWEAT’s advocacy officer Ntokozo Yingwana, this plethora of violations that sex workers face at the hands of clients, clinics and police are a direct result of the current criminalized state of sex work. She argues that “with regards to funding and supporting programs that protect sex workers’ rights, government’s hands will be tied as long as the work is criminal.” This means that access to condoms, ARVs, STI tests, tailored counselling, and mental health support remains extremely hampered.

Decriminalizing sex work will also positively impact the highly problematic relationship with the police. As Angie put it, “the police will have to take our cases.” And beyond the spheres of the practical, the legal and the physical, there’s the dignity factor too. According to Nosipho, “decriminalization would mean we are recognized as human beings. Everyone makes us believe we’re not worth anything. If we are recognized by law, and if clients know we can report them to the police if they violate our rights this will change the power dynamic between us. The Constitution must recognize my right to choose my profession. That’s all I want.”

And it’s not like South Africa legislation is unfit to move in the right direction; Section 12.2 of the South African Bill of Rights grants all citizens the right to security in and control over their body, but extending this right to transactional sex needs a political champion of the cause. Amidst widespread social and emotional anxieties about sex work, the fear of HIV/AIDS, arguments about the trade’s inherent exploitative nature, and the framing of the matter as a moral or ideological issue, Ntokozo explained that a politician’s push for sex workers’ rights, “could mean political suicide.” Yet, elevating sex work to the legal sphere will in fact empower sex workers to demand safe sex and enables the state to offer targeted health support and sensitize the public, police and clinics.

Thus, whether South Africans like it or not, it is time they recognize that sex workers will always be around and that they are human beings, with a right to health, protection, dignity, and autonomy over their own bodies. Angie and Nosipho’s stories urge South Africans to no longer let emotions, ideological interests, and sexual moralism trump basic human rights. But there is reason for optimism. On May 16th, the external Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) sided with SWEAT and announced they favor the repeal of all laws against consensual adult sex work, thereby explicitly calling for decriminalization. Ntokozo, evidently welcoming this move, believes it provides them with a “strong tool for lobbying” and convincing the government that sex workers’ rights are, indeed, human rights.”

Honor your commitment to equality for all, South Africa. Decriminalize sex work.

Maria Hengenveld studies women’s rights at Columbia University. She is interested in youth and gender in Southern Africa and writes for different websites, such as Africa is a Country and Dutch feminist magazine Tijdschrift Lover

This article previously appeared on “The Feminist Wire” on June 21, 2013. 


[1] Respected newspapers have referred to sex workers’ clients as ‘whore-walkers’ (hoerelopers) on some occasions.

Notes from the Field: Securing Women’s Land Rights in the Acholi sub-region in Northern Uganda

By Allison Tamer, MA student in the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

For many people living in Northern Uganda, land is their only means of survival. Land is such a prized possession that disputes over land is a common occurrence, frequently escalating into aggressive and sometimes violent situations.  For example, one man in the Amuru district attempted to poison a village’s water source so he could take over the deceased’s land. In 2010, a family in the same district lit another family’s home aflame during the night over a land dispute. This act of violence took the lives of two young girls who were sleeping during the attack.

As land conflicts intensify in this region, the situation for women and their right to land seems to be getting worse.  Gender and socio-cultural factors compounded with the aftermath of the two decades of civil war in Northern Uganda has made the struggle for women’s right to land more difficult.

Women’s land rights are protected under Uganda’s 1995 constitution and the Land Act 1998, which defines the types of land ownership that are legally recognized. In Northern Uganda, however, the majority of land ownership is under the customary tenure system and is typically passed from one generation to another. This type of land ownership is guided by informal rules that are reinforced by the Acholi traditional clan structure.  This means that land is under the custody of clan heads (i.e., family heads) and elders, who are almost always men. Often times, male clan leaders refuse to grant their female relatives land ownership, as they believe that land should be transferred through male heads of household.

The customary land tenure system makes it difficult for women to navigate and advocate for their land rights.  Many widows, divorcees and separated women are denied land by their own relatives, and live, often with children to support, in misery and destitution. In a non-industrialized region with low unemployment, having nowhere to farm means no food on the table or money for children’s school fees

This summer, I worked with Charity for Rural Development (CHAFORD) in Gulu, Uganda. CHAFORD teaches women how land ownership can improve their livelihood and how they can protect themselves from unforeseen circumstances such as divorce or widowhood.  CHAFORD formed one group of about twenty-five women in Attiak, a sub-county in the Amuru district, and provided them with a safe outlet to discuss their land rights and receive educational training in the value of land ownership.

CHAFORD understands that women must have the economic means to purchase land in order to truly exercise their rights to land. Therefore, CHAFORD works with women in various ways to increase their income through training in various vocational skills, providing seedlings and facilitating village savings and loans associations so that the women can buy land.

Photo: Allison Tamer

During the summer, I met Alice, an active member of CHAFORD’s land rights group. She was the first and only member of the group to purchase land. When I spoke to Alice, she explained to me how the land rights group inspired her to follow through with her goal of purchasing land. CHAFORD’s staff, along with the women in her land rights group, motivated her to start a butchery business so that she could obtain the income necessary to buy land. Two years later, she purchased a piece of land under her name. She said that she hopes her two daughters will follow her example and own land one day too.

CHAFORD takes small steps to create change in the communities where they work. While there are many local NGOs working in Northern Uganda, few are working specifically on land rights for women. In addition, many NGOs including CHAFORD are quite young, and lack the resources and institutional capacity to tackle women’s land rights in a consistent and long-term way.

Women in the Acholi sub-region of Northern Uganda encounter multiple barriers in claiming their land rights. The most significant obstacles to securing women’s land rights can be found within the customary tenure land system. Women’s land rights will not improve until there are effective, long-lasting solutions to overcome the many dimensions that impede women’s access to land. Until this is done, local NGOs in Northern Uganda will continue to struggle to secure women’s land rights.

Allison Tamer is a M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. She was a participation in the Institute for the Study of Human Rights Graduate Student Volunteer Program in Gulu, Uganda this summer.

 

 

Mapping the Kony 2012 Controversy: what does it mean for human rights advocacy?

Jason Russell being interviewed on E News on March 8th.

If you have a Twitter or Facebook account, you’ve probably watched Kony 2012. This 29-minute film has more than 65 million hits on YouTube. Invisible Children (IC) co-founder, Jason Russell, directed and narrated the super-viral film that campaigns against Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a militant group that began in Uganda over two decades ago, and a wanted war criminal responsible for the death and abduction of as many as 30,000 children.

Russell asks viewers to join IC’s campaign to capture Kony after describing his friendship with one of Kony’s victims, Jacob, and then sharing a compelling narrative about the promise he made to Jacob – “we’re going to stop them.”

In less than a week, the film has created an uproar. Many criticize the film for misrepresenting the LRA’s part in two decades worth of complex regional wars in East and Central Africa. Others praise the film as a social media superstar. Whether or not IC’s campaign can overcome the criticism, Kony 2012 is sure to provide a lasting lesson in the power and limits of social media activism.

How did Kony 2012 go viral so quickly?
The campaign was extremely savvy in its use of various social media platforms to circulate Kony 2012. The film intentionally targets the younger generation through its simplistic narrative, upbeat music and powerfully edited visuals. The film evoked an emotive response, motivating viewers to “share” it via twitter or facebook.

The targeting of the twenty culture-makers helped this film spread like wildfire. Oprah, Katie Couric, Bill Gates, Justin Bieber and other high profile celebrities have tweeted their support to the Kony 2012 campaign, creating more publicity for the film.  The video accumulated nearly 7 million views on Vimeo within 16 days and the YouTube upload received over 43 million views in the span of 72 hours.


The backlash
The successful spread of Kony 2012 resulted in an explosion of conversations in the blogosphere about the credibility of the film. While everyone agrees that the Joseph Kony story is both horrific and tragic – critics argue the issues in Uganda are much more complex than the video made out.

The film was posted on Monday and by Wednesday there was so much criticism from the media that Invisible Children posted a response to the many questions about the film and the organization.

Potential consequences for human rights
The debates around the Kony 2012 video campaign cover a number of issues, from its clever marketing strategy via social media, to criticisms of the oversimplified narratives in the video, and even Invisible Children’s questionable finances. From a human rights perspective, the debate about whether or not this video is “a good thing” centers around the following questions:

1) Does the video campaign help those directly affected by the LRA because it brings awareness to the issue, despite some oversimplification and misinformation?
Despite factual errors and misrepresentations in the video, some analysts believe that overall the awareness generated is a positive outcome. In their article in The New York Times, Josh Kron and J. David Goodman make the point that the campaign “could help add to the international resolve to stop the killing.” They quote from an interview with Pernille Ironside of UNICEF, who feels the video campaign is “ultimately a good thing.”

News of the video’s success even managed to reach the UN Headquarters, wherea press release was issued on Friday, March 9, where Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe “expressed appreciation for the awareness-raising potential of a video about the LRA.”

At the same time, other commentators have questioned who actually benefits from this “awareness”?

2) Is the video campaign misguided because it focuses the attention on Kony and distracts from other issues that are more urgent for most Ugandans?
Many commentators argue the video is outdated, and that other concerns are more salient to Ugandans at the moment than the ongoing conflict with Joseph Kony.  As Dayo Olopade remarks in the Global Opinion section of the International Herald Tribune,

Victims of Nodding Disease in Uganda, this mysterious disease is spreading amongst children and adolescents in Uganda

“Ordinary Ugandans are worrying about other things….And if it’s Ugandan children in peril you’re looking for, there are those suffering from “nodding disease” — an unusual neurological disease that’s killed hundreds of children in the very region Kony once terrorized.”  She argues that the Kony 2012 video is a distraction from these more pressing issues.

 

3) Does the level of misinformation and misrepresentation actually make the situation worse for those directly affected by the LRA, and if so, how?
Many Ugandan journalists and activists  have expressed discontent with the video because of how it misrepresents the current state of Uganda, and its use of problematic, if unintended, cultural stereotypes to depict the situation. From a human rights perspective, though, does the video have the potential to cause harm beyond reinforcing simplistic stereotypes?

In The New York Times article mentioned earlier, the authors point out how activism in conflict zones can have significant and negative effects on the ground. The authors refer to activism around the crisis in Darfur, which gave the conflict an international profile, but, “the one-sided way activists painted the conflict — highlighting the Sudanese government’s crimes against villagers while largely ignoring the atrocities committed by rebels — ultimately made it harder to negotiate an end to the crisis.”

In the context of Uganda, many have argued that the decision by the International Criminal Court to indict Kony in 2005 actually made it more difficult for Ugandans to negotiate a peace settlement with the LRA. So an oversimplified advocacy campaign of “Stop Kony” could easily raise red flags for local activists.

This is image is from April 20, 2011. It shows U.S. Army soldiers meeting with the Uganda People’s Defence Force”(AP Photo/Stephen Wandera, File)

Additionally, the video calls for the U.S. government to continue its support of the Ugandan military. However, the Ugandan military has a very murky record when it comes to human rights abuses, and some locals in the Central African Republic (one of the countries where the LRA is now present) do not support the Ugandan military, backed by U.S. advisers.

Outside military intervention in Uganda, as well as in the surrounding countries where the LRA now operates, may not be the simple solution that the video leads us to believe.  Many are worried about potentially harmful policy decisions that may come as a result of this advocacy.

Keeping the conversation going
The Kony 2012 campaign raises an important question: What does “increasing awareness” mean if the source of this awareness is a video that oversimplifies and misrepresents the situation in East and Central Africa? Balancing impact, emotion and nuance have always been challenges for human rights advocates. Rather than allowing the video to get buried in the controversies surrounding it, how can we build on these many reactions and learn about how best to leverage social media and public opinion through producing effective – but nuanced – advocacy campaigns?

Leave us your views in the comments below!

Further links outlining the lessons other human rights professionals are taking from the campaign:

By Allison Tamer and Laura Reed. Allison and Laura are graduate students in the M.A.
program in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Allison’s research
focuses on violence against women in conflict settings, and Laura’s area of focus is human rights, transitional justice and representations of conflict in the media.