Where violence and HIV meet: Intersections are explored at this year’s International AIDS Conference, and the Kolkata Conference Hub

Where violence and HIV meet: Intersections are explored at this year’s International AIDS Conference, and the Kolkata Conference Hub

Say NO UNiTE (link), 26 July 2012

Held every two years, the International AIDS Conference is the world’s largest conference on HIV, and plays a fundamental role in shaping the global response to HIV, and keeping HIV and AIDS on the international political agenda.

While the global climate for this year’s event in Washington DC (22-27 July) has seen  funding for the global HIV response diminish, important achievements are emerging on, among other areas, most-at-risk populations, the intersection of violence and HIV, parent-to-child transmission, and treatment as prevention. Attending for the first time as an official co-sponsor of UNAIDS, UN Women has been working to champion gender equality and women’s empowerment in the global response to HIV.

Among the week’s discussions, UN Women convened and moderated a panel of women leaders to highlight achievements in women’s leadership that are driving change and transformation of the HIV response; and co-sponsored events focused on gender-based violence and its link to HIV, in a panel “Taking Stock of Evidence and Setting the Implementation Agenda, panelists highlighted the latest evidence of how violence against women is increasing risk of HIV infection.   A panel discussion with, ‘Together for Girls’ , a unique initiative that UN Women is part of, bringing together private sector organizations, UN entities and governments in the fight against sexual violence against girls, explored the need for better data to document the magnitude and impact of sexual violence as a means to support the development and implementation of evidence-based policies and interventions.

HIV is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide, and every minute, a young woman is infected with HIV, as reported by UNAIDS. The impact of HIV on women and girls, compared to men and boys, is intrinsically connected to gender inequality, unequal power relations, gender-based violence, stigma and discrimination. Indeed, women who have experienced some form of violence are up to three times more at risk of HIV infection than those who have not. This is attributable to sexual violence, sexual exploitation and trafficking, and cases of forced or child marriage among vulnerable communities. Yet it is also the case because women across the world are often unable to negotiate the terms of their sexual relationships, including the use of condoms.

“Violence against women and HIV/AIDS are inextricably intertwined and mutually enforcing,” says Meryem Aslan, Manager of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. “Changes must centre on the empowerment of women and girls, and the transformation of social norms around what it means to be a man.”

At the conference Indonesian women’s rights activist Baby Rivona of the Indonesian Positive Women network (pictured left), spoke about the many forms of violence and discrimination faced by women living with HIV. “Among our members, there is a lot of violence after they [are diagnosed with HIV and reveal their status] … psychological violence from family members and partners, physical violence; and discrimination from the health services. The health service workers advise coerced sterilization, and yet women living with HIV don’t really understand its meaning.”

Meanwhile, in Kolkata, India, a parallel conference hub has been organized, to ensure that many of those who are unable to travel to Washington can take part in the discussions. The Kolkata Conference Hub will be supported by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, which drew seed money from the International AIDS Society, and other agencies, namely UNAIDS. With its strong focus on sex work, the conference aims to highlight the forms of violence, coercion and discrimination faced by those in this group, and the need for violence to be factored into any approach to combat HIV among them.

“Addressing violence against sex workers requires an understanding about how violence actually increases the risk of exposure to HIV,” says Meena Seshu, director of sex workers’ rights organization, SANGRAM, which is participating in the event. “Helping sex workers tackle violence will, in turn, help them respond to reducing their vulnerability to HIV.”

Click here for more on the Kolkata event, more from Seshu on the intersection of violence and HIV in the sex work industry, and from Baby Rivona on discrimination and coerced sterilization in Indonesia.

For tools, resources, and information on gender equality dimensions of the AIDS epidemic, check UN Women’s Gender Equality and HIV/AIDS Web Portal, UN Women’s Factsheet on the linkages between HIV and violence against women, UN Trust Fund report on “Effective Approaches to Addressing the Intersections of Violence against Women and HIV/AIDS” and the Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women.

At Rio+20, diverse women leaders bring ground realities to the forefront

At Rio+20, diverse women leaders bring ground realities to the forefront

UN Women, 20 June 2012

The Women Leaders’ Forum, a discussion between civil society, government and public sector representatives with UN heads of agencies, has broadened the dialogue on gender equality and sustainability at Rio +20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainability.

Organized by UN Women in collaboration with the Government of Brazil and other partners, the day-long event highlighted the central role of women in sustainable development, and the ways that robust policies can  improve women’s lives by reducing poverty, advancing their economic opportunities, and protecting them from adverse health and environmental challenges. It also highlighted the inequalities that continue to slow global progress towards a green economy and a protected environment.

Delivering the opening and closing remarks, UN Women’s Executive Director Michelle Bachelet stressed the critical role of the women’s movement. “Twenty years ago, the Rio Declaration emphasized that women’s full participation is essential to achieving sustainable development; twenty years later, women continue to face inequality in rights, opportunities and participation,” she said. “We are here to make our voices heard.”

At the Forum, the Women’s Major Group, a civil society coalition, also presented the findings of a global survey that gathered the diverse voices of women from around the world. The survey and its dissemination were supported by UN Women in the lead up to Rio+20.

Key concerns were raised by the survey and Forum participants—many engaging via social media from across the world  – on the slow progress for gender equality, as outlined in the Beijing Platform for Action, the Rio Declaration of 1992, and other international  agreements and treaties. Setbacks in women’s political participation in some countries were also noted, along with the need to better safeguard women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Many speakers highlighted the way that unsustainable production patterns, such as oil exploitation, continue to threaten eco-systems and community livelihoods, whether by degrading the environment; destroying farms, water sources and fishing grounds; by polluting the air, and fueling conflicts and insecurity; or by creating political tensions and humanitarian crises. Each crisis, due to traditional roles and gender stereotypes, affects women differently and disproportionately to men. Each exacerbates poverty, ill health and mortality.

Yet the Forum also celebrated the resilience and leadership of women, as mobilizers on social, economic and environmental justice, and as entrepreneurs. Among these were the technological innovations led by rural and indigenous women, such as the recycling of waste, as seen in the winning programme of the UN-women supported SEED Gender Equality Award in Nepal; the use of recycled cooking oil as energy; and the transformation of Shea butter into sustainable cosmetic and nutritional products.

The increasing involvement of women in technology and engineering fields were commended as  promising signs of women’s  growing engagement in green jobs, the design of the green economy and better natural resource management. Governments and the private sector were also applauded  for their efforts to promote equal opportunities for women and men through policy and practice.

In her closing remarks, Ms. Bachelet concluded that a shift towards people-centred sustainable development must be anchored in human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, and must lay the foundations of the post-2015 development agenda.

Master of the House: Architect Wang Shu

Master of the House: Architect Wang Shu

Discovery Magazine, May 2012.  Chinese architect and Pritzker winner Wang Shu may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay

He calls his studio ‘Amateur Architecture’. His work is anything but.

This year, China’s Wang Shu was lifted from the relative quiet of his small practice in Hangzhou by a heavyweight panel of his peers, hailed as a “virtuoso” and presented with architecture’s equivalent to an Academy Award: a Pritzker.

And yet just as Hollywood has its naysayers and anti-heroes, the Chinese architect is emerging as a kind of anti-designer.  “Design is an amateur activity. Life is more important,” he has said. “The Amateur Architecture studio is a purely personal architecture studio; it should not even be referred to as an architect’s office.”

The likelihood of him accepting ‘starchitect’ status and all the trappings that follow, seems low indeed.

Wang Shu’s career has been defined largely by art and experimentation. Born in China’s northern Xingjiang province and inspired by the vastness of the landscapes, he started to draw and paint early. Architecture, he says, was simply a way to fit his own creativity with his parents’ idea of success. Even today he likens his design process to that of a traditional Chinese painter: he studies the shape and the history of a space, then often sits and drinks tea until the ideas to start to flow.

Yet this doesn’t mean that his work is abstract or out of touch. Amateur Architecture is deliberately small and its projects often local, scaled to fit the average person. “I build a ‘house’ instead of a ‘building’” he has said. “Architecture is a matter of everyday life.”

Before he and his wife, architect Lu Wenyu set up their studio in Hangzhou in the late nineties – a city renowned for its natural beauty and art heritage – Wang Shu spent almost a decade studying widely and working with craftsmen “out of the system,” as he called it, mainly renovating old buildings.

This seems to have been the bedrock of his success; he has an uncanny ability to understand and stretch the boundaries of those who build. It has also given him a lifelong love of China’s historic structures, and a dislike of his country’s liberalism with the wrecking ball.

Wang Shu’s landscapes therefore strike a deft balance between the past and the future. They manage to root down deeply into the Chinese cultural context, and yet feel forward-looking in the way that they use technology, or address space.  His first major project for example, the award-winning Library of Whenzheng College at Suzhou University, is strikingly modern but keeps with Suzhou’s gardening traditions. Since these dictate that buildings between water and mountains should be discreet, he designed nearly half of the library to sit underground.

This sense of heritage and handicraft is often expressed through material choices. The architect likes to use brick or tiles rescued from demolished hutongs (traditional courtyard houses), or material sourced in the area.

He resurrected two million such tiles in his renowned designs for a campus belonging to the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. His imposing Ningbo History Museum, modeled in part on an ancient Chinese fortress, works traditional masonry into a unique collage effect, to enrich a fascinatingly modern, off kilter-looking structure.

He may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay.

Though he maintains a relatively low profile, Wang Shu is in demand as a teacher. He was the first Chinese architect to hold a prestigious visiting professor post at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the US last year, and spends much of his time at the architecture school of the China Academy of Art, where he is now the dean.

From here he approaches architecture as an advocate too, often speaking out against the “professionalized, soulless” nature of the profession, and urging younger Chinese architects to work locally and more slowly, with an eye towards history.

In the 1980s Wang Shu caused a stir at a conference by claiming that Chinese architects were simply people who knew how to draw, but who didn’t necessarily think while doing so. While he believes that this has changed, he laments that still, the wider Chinese public” often think of a building as just a container whose functions can change at will.”

He therefore calls himself a scholar, craftsmen and architect, in that order – and with each project, is on a mission to pass on knowledge and broaden horizons. This starts with his own office staff; he recently sent his team home for a full month to prepare for work on three museums. “They all had homework assignments: books to read on French philosophy, Chinese paintings to study or movies to watch,” he remembers. “When we all got back together we had discussions  – then began to work on the projects.”

Many of his peers approve. At only 49 Wang Shu holds a series of awards, from China’s Architecture Arts Award to the French Gold Medal from the Academy of Architecture, and he exhibits worldwide.

Architectural icon, Zaha Hadid, has praised his work for its sculptural power, and the ‘stimulating’ and ‘transformative’ way he uses ancient materials.  Veteran Chinese architect Yang Ho Chan meanwhile, also on the Pritzker jury, was gratified by the way he “shows that architecture in China is more than the mass production of market-driven banality and the reproduction of the exotic.”

Wang Shu’s recognition by the Pritzker jury is a nod to China’s big new role in developing global architectural ideals, and the way that the profession should approach for example, the problems arising from rapid urbanization.

His win praises an architecture that is less about iconic forms and brash statements, and more about buildings that are close to people, their hearts and their histories. In other words, just the kind of anti-hero that we need right now.



Five Questions for Catherine Smith

Five Questions for Catherine Smith

In 2011 Catherine Smith, an Australian mother of six, saw her former husband jailed on 17 charges, among them: attempted murder, assault, sex without consent, and detaining with intent to obtain advantage.

It had taken her 30 years of  appeals and petitions to the authorities, during which she and her family suffered repeated brutality. Smith was herself tried during this time (and acquitted) for attempted murder. Her case highlights the barriers that women in Australia face, particularly those living in rural areas, when seeking protection and redress for violence within the family.

Smith and her daughter Vickie spoke at the United Nations in March at the  56th Session of the Commission on Status of Women in New York, where their story resonated with many women from rural areas across the world.

Say NO- UNiTE spoke to Smith about her experiences, her advocacy, and the advice that she gives other survivors. Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission, also gave Say NO- UNiTE her insights on the legal significance of the case, and her recommendations for laws and policies to address gender-based violence in rural contexts.

1) You suffered extensive abuse at the hands of your husband. Did you feel that you had many options to respond, or avenues through which to seek help?

The first avenue for help with domestic violence is through the local police. In my case I was let down badly. Police here have a dismissive culture to women who report domestic violence. I reported serious abuse to police on 18 separate occasions between 1977 and 2005 with absolutely no charges being brought against Kevin Smith, my former husband.

I had meetings with both police and legal representatives at the department of public prosecutions on many occasions; we also wrote many letters of complaint to police ministers the Attorney-General, Director of Public Prosecutions , police commissioner and the NSW ombudsman, with absolutely no response. We took out a private prosecution, for which the court issued 29 arrest warrants for the arrest of Kevin Smith. The police never acted on the warrants.

2) The arrest finally took place after a parliamentarian lobbied State Parliament in your support. What was the most difficult aspect of the court case for you?

There were many instances throughout the trial that were very difficult to endure, considering that I was kept under threat and control for years. He seemed to have so much control, it often felt like I was back there being mentally abused by him over again. He refused to be legally represented, and kept me on the witness stand under cross examination for as long as possible. I was cross examined for 15 days. At least three times he didn’t even turn up to court; the jury and everyone would be sent home with the hope he would show the next time. There were never any consequences for him. He was allowed to directly cross examine his own children, even though they were also his victims.

3) What do you think women experiencing similar situations need most?

Protection from police at the very first report. The community have a responsibility to help their neighbours and report domestic violence when they hear it, instead of hiding behind their curtains and closing their doors. The community needs to get over the attitude of not getting involved. Domestic violence is not a private issue; it is a crime worse than the assault of a stranger. Women and children should feel safe in their own homes.

4) Having emerged as a survivor, what would you say to other women facing similar situations?

The most important thing is to put a stop to abuse in the first instance. Leave him the first time he hits you. Don’t think he won’t do it again; it gets easier for them each time it happens.

Report any physical abuse to police the first time it happens. Thankfully there are a few good police officers these days. There is no excuse for abuse either physical or emotional in an intimate relationship. If the authorities refuse to intervene to protect you or your children, challenge them, take your complaint to a higher authority immediately. Report the inaction in writing and keep a copy in a safe place. Gather your evidence. Have your doctor keep a detailed record and be sure to photograph any injuries.

5) Although you won your case there is still much work to be done on this issue, in Australia and beyond. How are you taking this forward?

My intention is to expose the authorities’ failures. I have intentionally allowed the media to publish some of the very graphic details of the abuse, and exposed the negligence of the authorities, in an effort to bring about change. We have been the subject of television shows. In 2008 one Australian television show covered my story to coincide with White Ribbon Day. It included the story of another woman, Jennifer Brodhurst. Our stories were similar except Jennifer was murdered by her husband.

My daughter Vickie and I spoke at the United Nations during the Commission on the Status of Women this year, and I spoke at a refuge workers conference in Katoomba, New South Wales. Vickie and I have accepted an invitation to speak at 2012 Sustaining Women in Business Conference, in October.

To learn more about the story of Catherine Smith,  watch a documentary on her, The Courage of Her Convictions, courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Elizabeth Broderick is the Sex Discrimination Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission. Here she speaks on the legal significance of the Smith case, and her recommendations for laws and policies to combat violence against women in rural contexts.

“Catherine’s case highlighted the many barriers to seeking redress that Catherine faced as a woman living in rural areas of Australia: a lack of law enforcement in rural areas, and limited access to legal services and communication infrastructure and transport.

The case has been important in highlighting the importance of States fulfilling their due diligence obligations to prevent, investigate and punish acts of domestic violence. If the State had acted more expeditiously when the violence first began, 30 years of violence could have been avoided for this family.

Some of the recommendations I made at CSW for addressing violence against women in rural contexts included:

  • That national governments work closely with rural women to ensure that the necessary structures are put in place to enable their empowerment.
  • For a suitable independent statutory office to monitor and evaluate the implementation of Australia’s National Plan to be identified and adequately funded. It should contribute to the development of a national research and education agenda and promote best practices.
  • That national governments ensure that there are sufficient services responding to the needs of women and girls who are or have experienced violence regardless of their urban or rural location, including prevention programmes delivered in rural areas;  accessible and appropriate counselling services, shelters, refuges, accommodation, health care, legal services and other support services; additional services and support provided in post-disaster situations; and specific services and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, culturally and linguistically-diverse women and women with disabilities.
  • Finally there should be universal access to critical services for women, including in rural areas – at a minimum this includes meeting women’s and girls’ emergency and immediate needs through free 24-hour hotlines, prompt intervention for their safety and protection, safe housing and shelter for them and their children, counselling and psycho-social support, post-rape care, and free legal aid to understand their rights and options.”

On World Press Freedom Day – What Hope for Reconciliation and Free Expression in Sri Lanka?

On World Press Freedom Day – What Hope for Reconciliation and Free Expression in Sri Lanka?

Historical Justice and Memory Research Network, 3 May 2012 *

Many countries emerging from conflict have relied on the free media to involve the nation in its inquiry processes, and therefore help to validate them. From Kenya to Peru, the press has broadcast televised sessions, disseminated reports in different languages and formats and, while often divided on issues, has catalysed critical commentary and debate.

This has not been the case in Sri Lanka.

According to Sri Lankan NGOs public interest in the report of its Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission is low. Five months after its release it has yet to be translated into Tamil or Sinhala, and with the exception of state-sponsored editorials and maverick English language platforms online, media analysis of its findings has been rare.

[Link to original article]

Mentions of the Commission, along with most other issues pertaining to national security, minority rights and human rights, are framed largely by the nationalist rhetoric being led by the government.

Reasons for this are not difficult to identify. State officials and state-owned media outlets have for years conducted smear campaigns and issued threats of violence against dissenting voices, often while questioning their national loyalties.

The Minister of Public Relations was quoted in pro-government papers this year saying he will ‘break the limbs’ of Sri Lankan journalists overseas who have ‘made various statements against the country.’ An editorial in the state-owned Sinhala-language daily, Dinamina, denounced journalists by name, before referring to state critics as ‘degenerates.’ The author opined that in some countries, such ‘bastards’ would be stoned to death.

These sentiments are not softened by Sri Lanka’s reputation for targeted killings and disappearances.

The 2012 Impunity Index, just released by Committee to Protect Journalists, has placed it among the four worst nations in combating journalist murders. During President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time in power none of the nine killings committed against journalists critical of the regime have been resolved (nor adequately investigated according to many human rights groups). This includes the high profile murder of vocal government critic and Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in 2009.

The Alliance of Media Organizations marked ‘Black January’ this year on behalf of Sri Lanka’s journalists. For many in the country, self-censorship has become a matter of physical as well as professional security.

Further restrictions indicate that the government’s grip on democratic space will continue to tighten.

These range from its scheme to register websites, to the outright banning or blocking of dissenting sites such as the Sri Lanka Guardian. The latest clench, in March, involved text message alerts from news sites; any related to national security must now be state approved.

Expressions of concern have surfaced from EU heads of mission in Colombo, international watchdogs and NGOs.

During my last visit to the country in late 2009, low spirits and disheartening forecasts coloured my interviews with NGO staff, journalists and editors. They stood in stark contrast to the post-war triumphalism in the public at large.

Three years on, despite the LLRC’s published recommendations for reform and investigation, there is little hope to offer them; public interest in or tolerance for accountability or human rights issues remains low.

As highlighted by the resolution passed at the UN Human Rights Council in March this year, a clear national picture of the roots and content of the conflict has not emerged, nor is one being pursued.

With a free press, Sri Lanka, with its vibrant democratic history, could have utilised the LLRC as a cathartic learning exercise – or at least the start of a road to accountability and recovery. There seems no greater sign of its absence than the call from Geneva this March. Far better, surely, for the call to have come from Sri Lankans themselves.

For more information: See Free Media Movement, Groundviews, Freedom House; Transcurrents; and the blog of exiled Sri Lankan journalist, Sunanda Deshapriya.

*The Historical Justice and Memory Research Network News appeared fortnightly between February 2011 and January 2013. In February 2013, the Historical Justice and Memory Research Network became part of the Dialogues on Historical Justice and Memory, and the Dialogues newsletter replaced the HJMRN News.


No Woman’s Land: a new book recalls the frontline experiences of female reporters

No Woman’s Land: a new book recalls the frontline experiences of female reporters
UN Women, 2 May 2012

“I have never thought of myself as a female journalist. I think of myself as a journalist full-stop.”

So says award-winning Egyptian reporter, Shahira Amin, in a new book on frontline reporting by female correspondents, supported by UN Women. “No Woman’s Land”, released this spring by the International News Safety Initiative, compiled by Hannah Storm and Helena Williams, features the voices of over 30 journalists as they recall episodes of harrowing assault and inspirational bravery in contexts from conflict to civil unrest.

The reflections were collected shortly after the violent sexual assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan by a crowd of men as she reported from Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011. Logan, who wrote the foreward to the book, has been credited for voicing concerns that many female reporters have formerly suppressed, out of fear for their professional freedoms and reputations. It signifies a new chapter of debate on the safety of women journalists in the changing landscape of media security.

The collection features correspondents’ experiences of sexual threat and hostile crowds; of dealing with protectionism from male editors, yet also the awareness of their differing vulnerabilities in global hotspots. Many are matter-of-fact about the challenges. “I felt vulnerable,” said freelance journalist Agnes Rajacic, who was also molested by male activists while covering the Arab Spring in Egypt. But, she adds, “I saw it as an unavoidable evil that one could face in any crowded European football stadium.”

Other female journalists have been frustrated by the overt and gender-specific focus on the threat of rape. Tina Susman, former bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad, writes that rape has long been the least of her worries, including during her three-week long captivity in Somalia. “Perhaps because rape is not a job-specific threat like bombs and missiles (and giant bugs), it doesn’t occupy my mind on assignments the way those other threats do,” she writes.  “Like our male colleagues, our main concerns are staying alive and keeping our brains and limbs intact.”

The common sense and security training most often used by female correspondents on assignment is directed at neither gender. However cultural norms, which restrict women’s mobility in many countries, can both help and hinder their work.  As many note, in very conservative contexts they may be shrouded and reliant on male colleagues, but here too they often gain access to women-only environments, and therefore a broader range of stories and perspectives.

Being underestimated at work – a major frustration – has also been used to many a female reporter’s advantage. Journalist Nisha Roshita recalls being assigned to conduct tough high profile interviews in Indonesia specifically, she says, because of her gender.  “And as a woman, it was easier to talk to local people without them becoming suspicious,” she adds.

Yet what emerges most strongly from these recollections is the diversity of experience among women reporters, and the need for a strategy that empowers their work instead of restricting it.

“Rather than questioning the wisdom of sending women into potential perilous duty or worrying for their safety, editors and news organisations should focus on preparing women (and men) for the threat of sexual violence and helping them avoid it.” says Susman. “I’ve rarely heard anyone say of men:‘They’re too macho and always run toward the action, so maybe we shouldn’t send guys into war zones.’“

Q&A with Hanan Abdalla, director of a new film that explores the lives of Egyptian women since the Arab Spring

Q&A with Hanan Abdalla, director of a new film that explores the lives of Egyptian women since the Arab Spring

UN Women, 9 April 2012

This week, “In the Shadow of a Man”, a film commissioned by UN Women, is taking the compelling stories of four Egyptian women to the Istanbul Film Festival, as part of a string of international screenings. The documentary premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, and will be followed soon with a second film by the director on women candidates in Egypt’s 2011-2012 parliamentary elections. In an interview with UN Women, young British-Egyptian director Hanan Abdalla weighs in on the issues the film addresses, and its relevance as the women’s movement gathers momentum in the country.

What drew you to the subject of women’s needs in the aftermath of the Eyptian revolution?
I’ve always known that there is a wealth of stories waiting to be told by women in Egypt. But, the truth is that after the revolution I had mixed feelings about making a film that focused on women: I felt that it was a subject matter that was being fetishized. What made me carry on despite my concerns was an overwhelming feeling, or perhaps duty, to make a film that would open up discussion about how gender is constructed in Egypt, and the uncomfortable truth of how this defines the parameters of the freedom that women have.

What kind of impact would you like the film to have?
One of the most important things that I feel is said in the film, is by Shahinda: “A woman cannot be independent in a country that is not independent… she cannot be free in a country that is enslaved. You can’t limit women’s demands based on their gender… You can’t separate women’s demands from the reality of society itself”.

I hope that from watching this documentary, people will start to reappraise the relationship between women’s emancipation and the emancipation of society as a whole; that women’s demands are intrinsically linked to the wider socio-economic problems that the country is facing. I hope that it will start to open up questions for both men and women about the way in which traditions are engendered, and how we should resist them when they limit us.

How did your own views and ideas change over the course of the production?
I set out thinking that perhaps most women are unaware of the way their social roles are engendered, and that they don’t see their freedom as limited compared to men. If they did, then why wouldn’t they speak out against it? But through the intimate stories they told me, it became clear that an awareness of these limits exists, and, more importantly, that they challenge these limits in the choices that they make.

Do you think that timing was important to the film?
The hope in making this documentary was to create an opportunity for discussion in a time of change, so that we can reappraise the question of women and gender in Egypt. What has struck me is how ever-relevant this documentary has become. In particular, some of the archive footage in the 1970s and 1980s is still poignantly resonant. Where Shahinda cries out “the martyr’s blood is not a sacrifice”, and asks “was our dream for social justice for people wrong?”, it reminds us that our fight has been and is still ongoing. In these last few months there has been particular violence towards women from the army and police, which has in turn seen the renaissance of a women’s movement in Egypt. I feel that the messages that the four women of In the Shadow of a Man give us will perhaps have even more of an impact now, and will continue to provide hope for women’s empowerment and emancipation throughout Egypt.

How has the film been received?
So far all the screenings have had great responses from the audience: they often tell me that they learnt something new, or that they started to look differently at the way gender is framed in Egypt. In a screening in Aswan in Upper Egypt, one woman was particularly touched by the story of abuse that one of the characters talks about. She came up at the end, saying that she felt relieved to know that other women had faced the same experience, and that she felt less ashamed seeing someone brave enough to talk about it openly.

In addition to this, the film was selected for the Berlin International Film Festival (one of the three A-list film festivals in the world), and enjoyed its premier there. It was an overwhelming experience and such an honour. Many other festivals have shown interest in screening the film and I’m excited to see where it will go next.

How did this project lead to your next film with UN Women, currently in production?
UN Women’s Egypt office suggested a premise for the next film, one that would follow women candidates running in the first parliamentary elections after the fall of Mubarak. I thought it would give an opportunity to question Egypt’s patriarchal system, and the relationship between female political participation and how it can affect change. I have been co-directing this project with Cressida Trew, and we are currently in the process of editing four months’ worth of footage. Following the unpredictable events that have taken place since last October, including the genesis of a new women’s movement in Egypt, has been exhilarating and hopeful.

Building skills, finding voices: HIV-positive women in Cambodia

Building skills, finding voices: HIV-positive women in Cambodia

UN Women, 5 April 2012

Mom Ra lives just a few hours from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, yet the 30-year-old felt very far from state support when first diagnosed with HIV. Like other HIV-positive women in her small village, she knew almost nothing about the illness and was diagnosed late, after countless costly trips to the local village doctor and losing a child to the disease. Like many such women, she says she also struggled to find information on treatments and her rights, and has been isolated by open discrimination from her neighbours.

Yet in 2011 Mom Ra found promise and a sense of solidarity when she became one of 1,300 women to receive a USD 100 grant, and training to help her start a small business. The project is supported by UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality as part of its programme to strengthen economic livelihood opportunities for low-income and HIV-positive women in the country.

Although HIV rates are declining in Cambodia overall, female infection rates have increased in the last decade; more than half of all adults living with HIV are women. Such women often lose work or jobs because of ill health or discrimination, yet their health care expenses are debilitating: free antiretroviral drugs are only available through public health facilities in Cambodia once a patient’s health has deteriorated significantly. And because many women are infected by their husbands, they often find themselves widowed or caring for a sick spouse while unwell themselves. These aspects leave many struggling, dispirited and unable to be a part of public or social life.

The two-year programme covers 12 rural areas, and is led by two non-governmental organizations — the Cambodia Health Education Media Service and Cambodian HIV/AIDS Education and Care — which work with small community organizations such as the Takeo Women’s Network near Mom Ra, and with government partners.

Today Mom Ra proudly describes the fish farm that she and her husband built behind their house with the grant money. With her recent USD 40 profit she also bought a chicken, expanding her business into poultry. Her peers from the project also now have small thriving local businesses, selling chickens or operating small food stalls in front of their homes.

Yet while the rural women speak of the personal changes brought by their new economic abilities, they have also started to participate in public life. All have attended classes and forums that built their skills in leadership, negotiation and speaking with local authorities, and last year Mom Ra travelled to Phnom Penh for the first time, along with other members of the women’s network, to participate in a national meeting on women’s leadership.

The trip to the capital made a lasting impact on the group; listening to women leaders speaking from the heart made them feel braver. As Mom Ra explains, it has helped them realize that they not only have rights, but also voices to express them, as well as a responsibility as HIV-positive women to make sure that they are heard.

UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality works to advance the empowerment of women and girls at the global level through multi-year, high-impact grants of up to USD 1 million, given directly to women’s organizations and governmental organizations throughout the world that are committed to gender equality.