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WOMEN'S RIGHTS ACTIVISTS UNDER ATTACK

International Women's Day was marked in Iran last year with riot police arresting and beating women who had gathered near Parliament to hold a peaceful demonstration for women's rights. The crackdown was just one of many to come on women's rights activists, many of them involved in the "Campaign for Equality", which aims to collect 1 million signatures on a petition demanding an end to the legal discrimination of women in the country.

This year on International Women's Day, IFEX members and other rights groups around the world are standing up for these women in Iran, along with other women activists, journalists and bloggers who speak out for their rights in the face of increasing repression by governments and religious groups.

"The imprisonment, torture, prosecution and death threats against them must be exposed," Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says. "It is unacceptable that today, in 2008, people can still be jailed or threatened with death for raising this rights issue."

A year later in Iran, while some women have been released on bail, others are still being sentenced for fighting for the campaign's modest goals, says RSF. The petition demands equal rights for women in Iran's penal and family codes, under which girls as young as nine can be stoned to death on charges of adultery and a woman's life is valued at only half of that as a man's.

Just last week, Parvin Ardalan, a member of the campaign and the editor of the website WeChange, which defends women's rights in Iran, was arrested and her passport was confiscated as she was boarding a flight, reports RSF. She was on her way to Stockholm, where she had been invited to receive the 2007 Olof Palme human rights prize. She was also arrested in June 2006 after organising one of the campaign's protests.

According to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, more than 100 women's rights activists in Iran have been arrested, interrogated, or sentenced in the past two years and the government has raised more than 1 million Euros (US$1,531,400) by imprisoning the activists and releasing them on high bail.

Amnesty International has launched a report, "Iran: Women's Rights Defenders Defy Repression", that highlights the efforts of these women to achieve equality before the law and the repression they are facing for their peaceful activities. Check it out here: http://tinyurl.com/ypclsx

RSF also points to Afghanistan, where earlier this year, a man was condemned to death for defending women's rights. Sayed Parwiz Kambakhsh, a 23-year old journalism student, was given the death sentence in January in a trial held behind closed doors and without any lawyers defending him. His crime? Officials say an Internet article he gave to friends about the Prophet Mohammed ignoring women's rights was blasphemous and insulting to Islam.

In February, three women journalists in Mazar-e Sharif were warned, allegedly by male members of the Taliban, that if they continue to appear on TV they would be kidnapped, says RSF. And still no one has been arrested for the murder of Zakia Zaki, owner of Radio Peace, which exposed abuses against women. Read RSF's International Women's Day statement here: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=26047

ARTICLE 19 has highlighted women in other parts of the world who are speaking out against laws, their governments and "forbidden" issues of rape, incest, sexuality, reproduction and abortion, in a special report, "Confronting Taboos and Censorship: Women Speaking Out," available here: http://tinyurl.com/2cvyqf

Jacira Melo from Brazil promotes the reproductive rights of women through mass media in Brazil - no easy feat, considering the Catholic Church doesn't hesitate to refer to pro-abortion campaigners as "assassins".

In Lebanon, Lina Khoury has triggered public debate about sex, harassment, domestic violence and "coco" - the vagina, through her play "Hakeh Neswan" ("Women's Talk").

In Sri Lanka, Sunila Abeyesekera is actively promoting a broad discussion on the decriminalisation of abortion, and repeal of the sodomy laws, which say homosexuality is a crime. She's working in a tough environment - a recent survey by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Centre for Policy Alternatives shows that women and women's issues are not given a voice in the Sri Lankan media. A review of 22 newspapers over two months last year revealed that articles on issues related to women accounted for less than 1 percent of all reports. IFJ, CPA and Sri Lankan IFEX member the Free Media Movement (FMM) will be hosting a national gender summit in April 2008. Read results of the survey here: http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?Index=5927&Language=EN

Guatemala doesn't fare much better, a report by the Centre of Informative Reports on Guatemala (CERIGUA) has found. Women's issues receive little attention in the mainstream media, nor are women represented at the executive level in the newsrooms. Read what the survey says here: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/91561/

And in Mexico, access to information activists, including ARTICLE 19-Mexico, have allied their efforts with women's rights groups to campaign for a proper information regime on reproductive rights, particularly on women's right to abortion in Mexico City.

Other activities that marked International Women's Day:

IFJ and the International Trade Union Confederation have launched its two-year "Decent Work, Decent Life for Women" world campaign, recognising that women still earn 12 percent to 60 percent less than their male counterparts. Read a report on the Gender Pay Gap that details wage disparities in 62 countries: http://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/gap-1.pdf

International PEN has profiled three women writers in China who continue to write in the face of great personal risk: Zeng Jinyan, Tsering Woeser and Li Jianhong - and is asking you to appeal the restrictions placed on them. Check out last week's "Communiqué" for details: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/91376/

Tune in online to the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) for 24 hours' worth of programming for women, by women: http://www.march8.amarc.org/

Pambazuka News, an electronic weekly newsletter for social justice issues in Africa, has dedicated a special issue to International Women's Day. Read "African Women Speak Out" to find out what women are saying about Kenya's peace process, violence against women in conflict areas, and other stories particular to the African experience, at: http://www.pambazuka.org/en/issue/351

The Swedish Writers' Union lists 10 books written by women that haven't yet received the attention they deserve. "The Bastard of Istanbul", a book by Elif Shafak that put her on trial for insulting Turkishness (one of her characters called the massacre of Armenians during World War I a genocide), made the list. So did "Nervous Conditions", the debut of the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga who has been called Africa's Jane Austen. See what else made the top 10 under the press section of: http://www.congrex.se/waltic2008/

UNESCO's campaign to promote gender equality in the media, "Women Make the News", enters its eighth year on International Women's Day. In most countries, the way women are portrayed has not changed much despite more women working in the media, so this year's theme is "Women's Untold Stories". Read some of them here: http://www.unesco.org/webworld/en/march8

Also check out the official International Women's Day website to see what happened in your country: http://www.internationalwomensday.com/

(Photo: Women police beat women demonstrating peacefully in Tehran in June 2006. Photo courtesy of Arash Ashoorinia/www.kosoof.com)

(11 March 2008)

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