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Hope and despair for women in Islamic states - 2013-01-09

By Ambassador Ufuk Gokcen, U-T San Diego – 9 January 2013

It is a fact that violence against women is a global challenge. As often as stories of heroism, best practices and positive developments led by women are commended, we often find ourselves frustrated in the face of horrible acts targeting them. Honor killings, child marriages, restricting education of girls, and female genital mutilation represent only some of the challenges that girls and women have to endure in the least developed and developing countries, including OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) member states. We are learning that ignorance perpetuated by local and tribal traditions, often disguised as religious teachings is the real source of these dismal acts. For instance, resistance against polio vaccination can be explained by such a contemptuous ignorance by a few misguided local tribal and religious leaders despite all awareness raising efforts.

I was deeply inspired hearing about Pakistan’s efforts to eradicate polio from Asifa Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan’s courageous polio champion, at a dinner hosted by Ahmed Mohammad Ali Al-Madani, president of Islamic Development Bank and joined by OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and Bill Gates in New York last September.

In terms of the important efforts of governments and women civil society institutions to counter such misdeeds in the OIC member states, the leadership of OIC Secretary-General Ihsanoglu is crucial along with increased action of organized civil society, particularly by women, and the enlightenment of local religious and tribal leaders.

December 2012 must have been a month of both hope and despair for Secretary-General Ihsanoglu, who was the first leader in the OIC to issue a message from the OIC on International Women’s Day in March. He proudly witnessed the convening of the fourth OIC ministerial conference on women, which he initiated; but he also had to speak up against female genital mutilation as un-Islamic and a violation of human rights of girls and women.

As the recipient in 2007 of the International Rotary’s Polio Eradication Champion Award and an adamant supporter of national polio vaccination campaigns in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, he must have felt a significant frustration when he had to condemn last month the heinous and cowardly murder of mostly female health workers engaged with the national polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan. Even more recently, on the first day of the New Year, additional sinister attacks took place against seven Pakistani aid workers. Six of them were women who were involved in providing health care and education to some of the most remote areas of the country. Due to the social and cultural characteristics of the region, women social workers are indispensable in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to provide social, medical and educational services to girls and women particularly in small towns and remote areas. Therefore, these attacks are quite worrying.

Dr. Siti Ruhaini Dzuhayatin, chairwoman of the OIC’s newly created Independent and Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC), recently spoke against child marriages and violence against women. Leading the first visit of the IPHRC commissioners to New York and Washington, D.C., in December, Dzuhayatin stated that women’s and children’s rights will be among their top priorities in the coming months.

A primary part of their mission will be countering the perception that Islam is not compatible with the universal human rights principles and demonstrating that OIC member states can promote and protect human rights as described by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was encouraging that when questioned whether the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam will be a source of reference in their work, the commissioners responded that reviewing the compatibility of the OIC human rights documents with universal human rights documents will be one of their priorities.

As a matter of fact, establishment of this commission as a result of vigorous personal efforts of Secretary-General Ihsanoglu should be seen as a first step in moving forward. The rest will be up to the commissioners who will be performing a historic duty under the scrutiny of the world’s human rights community.

Even though the statute of the IPHRC states that the member states shall encourage the nomination of women to the membership of the commission, presently, including the chairwoman, only four out of 18 commissioners are women. OIC member states should endeavor to increase the number of women in the IPHRC at the first opportunity.





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