To be born female in some countries can mean a harsh and punishing life. But abusive laws and customs can be changed-with your help.
The often terrible lot faced by many women abroad lit- erally hits home when families immigr'ate to tire United States and bring their customs with them. Nine years ago, in New York City, a Chinese immigrant killed his wife for being unfaithful; after he argued that in his culture the act would have been justified because his shame was so great, he was given only probation. Last November, in Lincoln, Nebraska, a father arranged a double wedding for his two daugh- ters, respectively 13 and 14 years old, to two men, 28 and 34 years old. All the men were recent emigrants from Iraq, where such child marriages are not uncommon among Muslims. When authorities found out, they arresled the father and charged him with child abuse; the grooms were charged with sexual assault of a minor.
Another case that horrified many is that of Fauziya Kasinga, who fled to tile United States three years ago at age 17 to escape the ritual of female genital muti- lation (FGM), which is still practiced in her homeland of Togo. The ritual involves cutting off a girl's clitoris, and sometimes also the labia mlnora and majora; in extreme cases the sides are then stitched together, leaving only a tiny opening. One hundred and thirty million girls and women worldwide have undergone this agonizing procedure (often without anesthesia and under unsanitary conditions); some will die from complications. Survivors suffer chronic infection and pain.
Twenty-eight African nations and some minority groups in the Middle East and Asia still practice FGM, believing that it prevents promiscuity among women. A woman's chance of marrying, which in many coun- tries is still her only route to econom- ic survival, depends on whether she has undergone FGM. In a number of places, the price a girl fetches as a bride is higher the smaller her vagi- nal opening has been made.
A Philadelphia judge initially rejected Kasinga's bid for political asylum. She was jailed for 16 months, during which time wom- en's rights activists launched a highly publicized campaign for her freedom. She was released and fillally granted asylum last June, and her case estab- lished a legal precedent for FGM as grounds for political asylum.
What follows are examples of bar- barism from three other countries. More voices need to be raised against these practices, so that one day they can be stopped.
NEPAL: SENTENCED FOR HAVING A STILLBIRTH
Twenty-nine-year-old Thirtha Maya Baral has been in Central Jail in Nepal's capital, Katmandu, for three years and still has another seven to serve. Her crime: giving birth to a stillborn baby. "It was my third baby," she says through tears. "I was alone when I went into labor. My husband was working abroad. The delivery was long and hard. No one came to assist me. When the baby was finally born, it was very small, and dead."
Four days later, police, tipped off by neighbors who'd known she was preg- nant, came and arrested her. No medi- cal opinion was sought, and the only evidence against her was the accusa- tion of the neighboring family, who did not tell the police they were involved in an angry land dispute with Thirtha's husband. She had no lawyer and was quickly found guilty. Since being jailed, she has not seen her 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, who have been left to survive on the streets alone. Had they been with her at the time of her arrest, they would have been taken with her, but now she does not even have the bus fare it would take to bring them to her cell. "This is the worst," she says, "not knowing how my children are doing."
Nepal has some of the most spectac- ular scenery on Earth, including Mount Everest, but it also has the most severe prohibitions against abortion on the planet, forbidding it even in cases of rape, incest, or when a woman's life is medically endangered. "Garbhabat", or destruction or life, is the official abor- tion charge, but the law also covers infanticide and child abandonment.
Tragically, it is also used against women whose babies are stillborn or who have miscarriages. Women found guilty of garbhabat often have their property confiscated, making them vul- nerable to accusations from vengeful or greedy relatives or neighbors who use the law to effect a property or land grab. Police and prosecutors are also known to be bribed into bringing such charges, and in other cases, women are beaten into confessions. But this is rarely necessary in a land where rural women can't afford doctors or lawyers, and where the word of an influential accuser is usually taken on faith.
Jyoti (name changed), 41, has already spent more than a quarter of her life in jail. Widowed two decades ago, she was unable to remarry since Nepalese law requires her to remain faithful to her hus- band, even after his death. She followed custom and lived with her in-laws. Forced to become her father-in-law's concubine, she became pregmmt, and was made to have an abortion. Word leaked-possibly the abortionist talked- and Jyoti was arrested.
"Her father-in-law was among her public accusers, although in private he told her to accept the blame and he would get her out of jail within a month or two," says women's health and wel- fare activist Roshan Karki. "But eleven years have passed, and she hasn't heard from her in-laws."
Neither Thirtha nor Jyoti's children are with them in jail, but many women's children are. When wom- en are imprisoned, families encour- age husbands to divorce and remarry, and traditionally, those children are not accepted by a new spouse. In Central Jail last year, there were 15 children, ranging in age from 2 to 15, effectively "serv- ing" lengthy sentences with their mothers. There are 73 prisons in the country, all of which usually have children living ihthem under hor- rendous condilions: crumbling, flea- and rat-infested cells, inadequate food, bedding, and clothing, and no basic health care and schooling.
Anti-garbhabat activists say, the situation is made graver by Nepal's extreme poverty and high birth rate-the government's birth con- trol program reaches only 21 per- cent of women, in part because of limited funding. "Eighty percent of women of reproductive age are severe- ly anemic because of poor diet and simply aren't able to carry their babies to term," says Aruna Upreti, M.D., a maternal and child-care specialist in Katmandu. "Compounding this is the lack of physicians in much of the coun- try, and the practice of women giving birth unaided. Under conditions like these, is it any wonder that babies are fi'equently born dead, and women too easily accused of garbhabat?"
PAKISTAN: ARRESTED FOR BEING RAPED
In rape cases in the United States, only recently have courts stopped blaming the victim, or believing "she must have asked for it." But in Pakistan, not only is a rape victim rarely believed, fre- quently she is also arrested and jailed, even if she is a child.
Majidah Abdullah was 11 years old when she was abducted and repeatedly ,. raped by her father's employers. He owed money he was unable to repay, so he was punished by having his daughter abused. When the family tried to bring rape charges, the girl was thrown in jail.
In Pakistan, zina, or sex outside of wedlock-which includes rape as well as adultery-is a crime. For married women, the maximum sentence is death by stoning. For single women, the pun- ishment is up to 100 lashes and up to ten years' imprisonment. Technically, men can also be charged with zina, but with a simple denial, they can go free; In Pakistani courts under Islamic law, the judge has the discretion to reject the victim's account and that of any female witness; in such cases, there must be four adult males, "Muslims of good repute," who are witnesses-an unfair standard since few men of good repute would stand by and watch a rape take place. Then the tables are cruelly turned: A woman's complaint of rape is consid- ered a confession of illicit sexual inter- course; a subsequent pregnancy is also evidence against her. Although com- mon law, whose standards of evidence are less stringent; can also be applied, activists say that in practice few cases go that roubte.
Such was the case of Safia Bibi. She was 16 when she was raped by her employer and his son, and she became pregnant. Her father reported the assaults, but a judge acquitted both men since Safia's family could not produce four male witnesses. Yet Safia's preg- nancy was deemed proof of fornication. Her harsh sentence-a three-yearjail term, a public flogging, and a fine- struck a chord with Pakistan's women's rights activists, particularly in view of the fact that she has a disability: She is nearly blind. When their campaign on her behalf was reported by foreign media, the teenager was freed.
Eleven-year-old Majidah was less for- tunate. While her attackers went free, she spent several years in jail without a court hearing until her plight was discovered by Asma Jahangir, a human rights activist. Jahangir was able to get Majidah released on bail, but the girl says her life is over. Since it's well known that she's no longer a virgin, her chances of mar- riage are virtually nil, which means that she becomes a social outcast.
According to Jahangir, some 60 per- cent of women in Pakistan's jails are there on charges of zina, many after being raped. Once in custody, about 70 percent are physically and/or sexually abused again by the police or prison guards, according to War Against Rape, a Pakistani human rights organization.
It appalls activists that this law exists in a country that has twice elected Benazir Bhutto its prime minister. Edu- cated at Radcliffe and Oxford, Bhutto had promised to reform the law. But needing the backing of religious leaders who support such antiwoman laws, she never followed through. Her govern- ment was recently overthrown. "For Bhutto, this was clearly not a priority, and there is not enough of a will in the country," says Surita Sandosham, head of Equality Now, a New York City-based human rights organi- zation. "Nothing will change," she says, "without international pressure."
THAILAND: SOLD INTO SEXUAL SLAVERY
The California travel agency brochure could not be more explicit: SEX TOURS TO THAILAND, REAL GIRLS, REAL SEX, REAL CHEAP. THESE WOMEN ARE THE MOST SEXUALLY AVAILABLE IN THE WORLD. DID YOU KNOW YOU CAN ACTUALLY BUY A VIRGIN GIRL FOR AS LITTLE AS $200?
What the ad copy doesn't say is that these "virgin girls" are children who have been kidnapped or sold into Thai brothels. They average 15 customers a day, and are beaten if they don't cooperate. On Phuket Island till 1984, a pop- ular resort for foreigners in southern Thailand, five prostitutes burned to death when a fire broke out in a brothel; they had been chained to their beds to prevent their escape.
Because Thailand has one of the high- est AIDS rates in thew orld, virgins net a higher price for sex traffickers; but giv- en that men can refuse to wear condoms, and the girls' immature bodies make them more vulnerable to tissue tears, HIV infection in brothels is rampant.
Lin-Lin was just 13 when a visitor to her village in Burma told her father he could find the girl work as a domestic. Her impoverished family accepted the offer. But the man was in fact a sex- trade agent, and Lin-Lin was taken to a brothel and sold. (in other cases, the families know the fate their daughters face, but are too poor and without options to refuse.) Two years later, Lin- Lin is HlV-positive-lhough the brothel does not reveal this to customers.
Brothels are illegal in Thailand, but owners have little fear of arrest. The industry generates $3 billion annually in tourism, and therefore the sex trade, says Human Rights Watch, is protected by graft-taking police and a government that looks the other way.
A 1993 Human Rights Watch report points out that the United States gives Thailand $4 million a year to control the traffic in narcotics but nothing to stop sex trafficking. "The United Nations needs to be very aggressive in fighting this modern form of slavery," says Dorothy Thomas, director of the women's rights " project at Human Rights Watch in New York City.
Only recently did it become felony in the United States for Americans to engage in sex with minors on tours abroad, or for American tour operators to promote such trips. But because of lax enforcement, experts say that Amer- Ican men continue to go abroad and sex- ually prey on children.
HOW TO MAKEA DIFFERENCE
A dedicated community of activists is working hard to stop these atrocities. They. need you to help by voicing your support. Contact the following groups:
TO PREVENT FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION:
Forward USA, 1046 West Taylor Street, Suite 204, San Jose, CA 95126, 408-298-3798; or RAINBOW, 915 Broadway, Suite 1109, New York, NY 10010, or e-mail Nt61@Columbia.edu to obtain more infor- mation, volunteer your time, or donate money to grassroots anti-FGM education groups. Forward USA has a special interest in halting the practice of FGM in new immi- grant communities here in the United States. (North Dakota, California, Tennessee, and Minnesota have made it a felony to perform the procedure on minors in the United States; New York has bills pending. Write to your local legislators asking for a similar bill.)
NEPAL'S IMPRISONED WOMEN:
Ambassador Bhech B. Thapa, Nepalese Embassy, 2131 Leroy Place NW, Washing- ton, DC 20008, 202-667-4550, to demand the repeal qf garbhabat laws.
Twenty dollars a month will enable a child who is jailed to be educated and boarded at the Prisoners' Assistance Mis- sion. For more information or to send donations: Director, PAM Nestling Home, P.O. Box 1649, Katmandu, Nepal.
PAKISTAN'S RAPE VICTIMS:
Embassy of Pakistan, 2315 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008, 202- 939-6210, to demand an end to the legal abuse of women.
Equality Now, P.O. Box 20646, Columbus Circle Station, New York, NY 10023, 212- 586-0906, and Human Rights Watch's Women's Rights Project, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017, 212-972-8400, to lend your support in overturning the zina laws.
THAILAND'S SEX SLAVES:
Ambassador Nitya Pibulsonggram, Embassy of Thailand, 1024 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20007, 202- 944-3600, to demand a stop to his coun- try's forced sex trade.
New Life Center in Chiang Mei teaches young women such skills as weaving and flower arranging, giving them and their families economic alternatives to prostitu- tion. To contact: New Life Center, c/o International Ministries, American Baptist Churches, P.O. Box 851, Valley Forge, PA 19842-0851.
Tell your congressperson to insist on enforcement of laws that make it illegal for Americans to participate in or promote tours abroad for sex with minors.