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GLOBAL | spring 2006

Short Takes
News from around the world: Israel, Nepal, Italy, South Africa, Norway, Iran, Australia, Czech Republic, Mexico, Palestine and women leaders!

ISRAEL
Idan Halili, a 19-year-old Jewish Israeli, is the first woman conscientious objector in Israel to refuse army service based on her feminist beliefs. “A strongly patriarchal institution, like the army, underlines female marginality…and [reinforces] the superiority of male-identified values,” she has written. Since conscientious objection is not an explicitly recognized option in Israel, when Israelis resist conscription they usually do so by obtaining “mental unfitness” exemptions. Those who openly refuse are subjected to repeated, limited sentences (two to four weeks) over extended periods (up to two years, to date), and asked at each release whether they now agree to enlist. Halili’s request for a hearing before a military committee reviewing CO petitions was rejected. Last November, she was sentenced to two weeks’ imprisonment, the first in a potential series of sentences. For more information, see www.newprofile.org.

NEPAL
Nepali feminists hailed two landmark supreme court judgments late last year. In September, the court ordered an end to discrimination against menstruating women, confronting a tradition in parts of Nepal of keeping women in cowsheds during their periods. In November, the court ruled that women under age 35 no longer need their parents’ or husbands’ permission to apply for passports.

ITALY
As many as 150,000 women marched in Milan in January, defending Italy’s liberal abortion laws and accusing the government of working with the Vatican to reverse a 1978 law making first-trimester abortions legal. Since RU-486 (mifepristone) has been made available experimentally in some parts of Italy, the Italian Bishops’ Conference has campaigned against the drug. Pope Benedict XVI has met with politicians, reiterating opposition to RU-486 - and to same-sex unions. In Rome, an estimated 1,000 demonstrators marched to support same-sex unions, while a recent survey by the Italian research institute Eurispes found that 69 percent of Italian Catholics favor
legal status for same-sex couples.

SOUTH AFRICA
In December, Jacob Zuma, deputy president of the African National Congress, was charged with raping a 31-year-old AIDS activist and longtime acquaintance. The alleged victim has been in hiding since her accusation became public. Zuma, claiming innocence, voluntarily suspended participation in the ANC’s ruling structures. The case began trial on February 13. Zuma, a former guerrilla imprisoned during apartheid, is a charismatic, Zulu-speaking politician mentioned as a possible successor to Xhosa-speaking President Thabo Mbeki when he steps down in 2009. Mbeki fired Zuma as South Africa’s deputy president after a court charged him with corruption relating to a multibillion-dollar arms deal; that case is due to open in Durban High Court on July 31.

NORWAY
On January 1 of this year, despite opposition from many businessmen, the left-of-center government put into effect a law requiring that in the next two years, 40 percent of board members of Norway’s large, publicly traded private companies be women. The law is meant to ensure that “women will have a place where the power is,” said Karita Bekkemellem, minister of children and equality. Some 40 percent of Norway’s business-school students are female, yet this law - adopted in 2003 by the previous conservative government - was activated this year because voluntary measures failed to produce corporate gender equality. In anticipation of the law taking effect, representation of women on corporate boards increased during the past two years from 8 to 16 percent. Databases have emerged where thousands of women seeking board positions list their qualifications, so any of the 519 private corporations affected by the ruling can search for prospective board members. Trygve Hegnar, editor/owner of business daily and biweekly Kapital, is a leading opponent, arguing that requiring equality does not work in the real world: “Ninety percent of the businessmen are against it.” Still, he said, businessmen will comply, which means that about 700 board seats will go to women during the next two years.

IRAN
With attention focused on Iran’s escalating nuclear capabilities, a series of harsh rulings from Tehran’s fundamentalist leaders have been little noticed. During the first two weeks of 2006, the regime condemned three women, including two teenagers, to death; condoned “acid attacks” on women who do not observe Islamic dress codes; blocked publication of a new women’s biweekly; and proposed a law to segregate public pedestrian walkways by gender. See Women’s Forum Against Fundamentalism in Iran, http://wfafi.org.

AUSTRALIA
Simone Holzapfel, former media adviser to current health minister Tony Abbott, is heading up Australians Against RU-486, a new campaign mobilizing churches and anti-choice groups against the abortifacient drug. Launched in Sydney, the campaign received a boost when Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against RU-486. On the feminist side of the issue, four Australian women senators have proposed a private members’ bill to make the pill readily available to women; the bill has been referred to the Senate’s Community Affairs Committee. And in other Down Under feminist news, Australia’s feminist book publisher Spinifex Press just celebrated its 15th birthday: www.spinifexpress.com.au.

CZECH REPUBLIC
The Ostrava District Court has found illegal the coercive sterilization of Helena Ferencikova by Czech medical practitioners in 2001. This decision is the first finding in Central and Eastern Europe of legal violations concerning coercive sterilization of Roma (Gypsy) women. Although files indicate that “the patient requests to be sterilized,” Ferencikova’s “consent” was apparently secured during her second child’s birth, when she was already deep in labor. Ferencikova brought suit after working with the Czech Public Defender of Rights, facilitated by the European Roma Rights Centre and the League of Human Rights (a Czech advocacy group). Subsequently, she was elected spokesperson of a group of Roma women in Ostrava who have also been subjected to coercive sterilization. See www.errc.org.

MEXICO
In a decision bringing Mexico’s laws into line with much of the world, the country’s supreme court has ruled that rape within marriage is a crime. The unanimous decision ended a legal battle raging since 1994, when a majority of the justices had agreed that the purpose of marriage was procreation, so therefore forced sexual relations by a spouse was not rape but “an undue exercise of conjugal rights.” The new ruling proclaimed the earlier decision had denied women the right to exercise sexual freedom and was based on an interpretation of rights related to property, not human beings. Mexican activists celebrated the ruling but noted that entrenched attitudes still make it very difficult for women to report rape. A United Nations study found that nine of 10 sexual assaults in Mexico go unreported and 18 percent of survivors are unaware that rape is a crime. Only a few countries - including India and Malaysia - still fail to recognize rape within marriage as a crime. In the U.S., it was not deemed a crime in all 50 states until 1993.

PALESTINE
ASWAT, a group of and for Palestinian lesbian women founded in 2005, has doubled its membership to 16 and established a website (www.aswatgroup.org). The site, in Arabic and English, incorporates “the experiences, voices, stories and knowledge that reflect our culture, politics, gender and nationality.”

MADAM PRESIDENTS
More new women leaders are joining GERMANY’s first female chancellor, Angela Merkel. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is LIBERIA’s (and Africa’s) first elected woman head of state; Michelle Bachelet - single, openly agnostic and a socialist - became CHILE’s first female president (see Ms., Fall 2005); and Tarja Halonen, FINLAND’s first woman president, won reelection this January. Still, excluding hereditary monarchs, women lead just 12 out of over 190 countries. But in PERU, candidate Lourdes Flores is running even in the polls with her opponent for the April 9 election, and ZAMBIA’s Edith Nawakwi vows to become the second woman president in Africa later this year.

SOURCES: New Profile, Refuser Solidarity Network, BBC News, The Associated
Press, International Herald Tribune, ANSA Italian news service, London Financial
Times, The New York Times, E-Zon: The Voice of Women Against Fundamentalism in Iran, The Sydney Morning Herald, League of Human Rights, ASWAT, Scripps Howard News Service, The Women’s Media Center.