Human Rights Watch
(Nairobi) – African countries have taken important steps in recent years to protect the right to education of pregnant students and adolescent mothers, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since 2019, at least five sub-Saharan African countries – Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and São Tomé e Príncipe – have either revoked restrictive or discriminatory policies or adopted laws or policies that allow pregnant students and adolescent mothers to stay in school under certain conditions.
“More African governments are taking stronger actions to support the rights of girls to education,” said Elin Martinez, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But many girls still have to fight against enormous government-imposed barriers that deny them their right to education and make schools turn their backs on them when they most need support.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in teenage pregnancies in many African countries, according to United Nations, media, and civil society reports. This increase could be linked to prolonged school closures – all African countries closed their schools in 2020 – and lack of remote learning opportunities during the pandemic, the lack of protective environments, and the loss of access to sexual and reproductive health services.
At least 30 African Union (AU) countries now have laws, policies, or strategies to protect pregnant students and adolescent mothers’ right to education. Sierra Leone reversed its policy in 2020, lifting a discriminatory ban against pregnant schoolgirls and teenage mothers and adopting a more robust inclusive education policy.Click to expand Image © 2021 John Emerson / Human Rights Watch
In March 2021 Sierra Leone adopted a policy of “Radical Inclusion” that reaffirms pregnant girls and adolescent mothers’ right to education. It also provides that girls can stay in school during their pregnancy and return to school when they are ready, without imposing burdensome conditions, mandatory maternity leave, or restrictions for their return.
In March 2020 São Tomé e Príncipe revoked a ministerial decree that required pregnant students to study in night-shift schools after the third month of pregnancy and for its duration. This action was tied to a World Bank majority-funded US$15 million grant for the country’s strategy to improve quality education and accelerate girls’ education.
In December 2020 Uganda introduced revised guidelines on pregnancy prevention and management in schools. The policy affirms the right to education of students who are pregnant or are parents, though it places numerous conditions on enrollment. It mandates schools to prioritize readmitting mothers and girls after pregnancy and provides redress for children and parents when public schools refuse to enroll them. It also gives schools guidance to tackle stigma, discrimination, and violence against students who are pregnant or are parents.
However, it also sets out a series of strict “reentry” conditions, including requiring girls to drop out when they are three-months pregnant, and to take a mandatory six-month maternity leave. Human Rights Watch previously found that some of these conditions constitute an effective barrier, particularly as girls will be required to stay out of school for up to a year. The policy relies on effectively compulsory periodic pregnancy testing to detect and prevent pregnancies, violating girls’ rights to privacy, equality, and bodily autonomy.
In 2019 Zimbabwe reformed its Education Act to include a provision that prohibits excluding pregnant students from school. The act also protects students from discrimination on the grounds of marital status, among nearly 20 protected grounds.
In December 2018 Mozambique revoked a national decree that required pregnant students to study in night-shift schools. The government has not yet adopted a policy that ensures girls’ right to remain in school, though, or prescribes how schools should now manage pregnant students and adolescent mothers.
Although Kenya has two older policies that set out conditions for an adolescent mother’s “unconditional” readmission to school, in 2020 the government adopted national reentry guidelines for students who face educational barriers and drop out of school, including due to pregnancy. The policy clarifies that pregnant students can remain in school for as long as possible, and are expected to reenter school at least six months after delivery, at the beginning of the next calendar year.
However, three AU countries still adhere to policies that bar pregnant girls and teenage mothers from going to school. Tanzania maintains an official ban on pregnant students and adolescent mothers in public schools, which was strengthened during the presidency of the late John Magufuli.
Pregnant girls are arbitrarily denied the right to study in public primary and lower secondary schools. Adolescent mothers can only study in “alternative education pathways,” a large-scale national education program funded with a $500 million loan from the World Bank. This loan raised concerns regarding the World Bank’s broader commitment to implementing its Environmental and Social Framework, which guarantees that bank loans will not be used to further discrimination, and that World Bank funds will not be used to undermine marginalized groups.
The World Bank should work with governments to move education systems toward full inclusion and accommodation of all girls in public schools, including those who are pregnant or parents. It should use its leverage to work with African governments to remove discriminatory or problematic policies that undermine education progress for all children, and encourage all governments to adopt inclusive, rights-respecting policies, Human Rights Watch said.
Governments that took important, bold steps to remove restrictions and discriminatory provisions in their laws and policies should go one step further and adopt positive measures that fully promote girls’ right to education and that obligate schools to include and support students who are pregnant or parents, Human Rights Watch said. All governments should ensure that their education systems do not discriminate and consider policy revisions to promote girls’ rights to education and their sexual and reproductive rights, including comprehensive sexuality education.
“Numerous African countries are demonstrating leadership in safeguarding every girl’s right to education,” Martinez said. “The African Union should press all African countries to adopt measures to ensure that all schools and government officials have guidance and examples of good practice on creating inclusive public schools where all girls, including those who are pregnant or adolescent mothers, can complete their primary and secondary education.”
Teenage Pregnancies, School Closures During Covid-19 Pandemic
Pre-pandemic, sub-Saharan African countries had the highest adolescent birth rates in the world. The management of the Covid-19 pandemic in many African countries frequently led to prolonged school closures, widespread lack of remote learning options, and limited access to safe spaces for young people. These conditions exacerbated sexual and gender based violence, and significantly disrupted children and young adults’ access to key sexual and reproductive health services, potentially contributing to increases in teenage pregnancies.
Countries in East and Southern Africa have registered high rates of teenage pregnancies. A study of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, led by MIET Africa, a regional organization, shows that between October 2020 and February 2021, six SADC countries – Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – have all recorded high rates of child, early and forced marriages, early pregnancies, and school dropouts.
Increases in teenage pregnancies reported were linked to poverty leading to transactional sex, lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, and an increase in sexual violence. Three out of five students surveyed lost access during the pandemic to important sexual and reproductive health services, including to health checkups, condoms and other contraceptives, and anti-retroviral treatment. One out of five youths surveyed was aware of at least one pregnant girl or a young mother under 24 who had given birth during the past six months.
In South Africa, teenage pregnancy rates increased nationally, and in most provinces, from April 2020 and March 2021, compared with previous years. Seven out of nine South African provinces reported higher delivery rates among girls and young women ages 10 to 19, compared with the previous year, according to data from the Department of Basic Education. Gauteng province registered more than 23,000 pregnancies of girls ages 10 to 19, according to data published by the province’s Department of Health.
In Zimbabwe, a parliamentary report to the Senate on August 19 observed that prolonged school closures due to Covid-19 contributed to a “sharp increase” in teenage pregnancies. The Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development reported that during January and February 2021, close to 5,000 students were pregnant, and over 1,770 were forced into marriages.
Recent Reforms in Africa
Sierra Leone has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Africa, with profound consequences for girls’ education: in 2017, 30 percent of women ages 20 to 24 had a live birth before they turned 18. An estimated 20 percent of girls drop out of school due to pregnancy and child marriage, according to government data.
In March 2020 Sierra Leone revoked its 10-year-old ban on public school attendance for pregnant girls and teenage mothers following a decision against the country by the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Sierra Leone had been one of four African countries Human Rights Watch found to have a policy barring pregnant students from public schools. In December 2019 the court ruled that the ban was discriminatory and ordered the government to revoke it. The court also found that Sierra Leone’s separate alternative education scheme for pregnant students, with reduced classes and school days, was discriminatory.
In March 2021 Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education adopted a “Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools,” reinforcing pregnant girls and adolescent parents’ right to education, and outlining conditions for their “continuation” in education.
Sierra Leone’s new policy protects a girl’s right to “remain in school, in her current class, for as long as she chooses before giving birth, and to return to school after delivery or loss of the child.” It also states that girls have a “right of protected absence from school for one year after giving birth or miscarrying,” providing girls with a choice to take maternity leave, rather than imposing compulsory maternity leave. The policy says girls should be supported to make up for lost lessons and have the right to take examinations, and are able to delay school examinations until such a time as they are physically and psychologically able to take them.
As part of its strategy to prevent teenage pregnancies, the policy commits to ensuring that the curriculum includes “different components” of comprehensive sexuality education, and to facilitate adolescents’ access to sexual and reproductive health services.
Teenage pregnancy, parenthood, and child marriage are a major health and social concern in Uganda and constitute a significant barrier for girls’ education. According to national and UN data, 25 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 19 have begun childbearing, 34 percent of girls are married before age 18, and over 7 percent before age 15. According to UNICEF, 25 percent of the 1.2 million pregnancies recorded in Uganda annually are in adolescent girls, with more than 300,000 pregnancies ending in unsafe abortions.
Between March 2020 and June 2021, UNICEF reported a 23 percent increase in pregnancy among girls ages 10 to 24 seeking prenatal care. Many girls drop out of school permanently once they become parents, due in part to stigma in schools, the lack of support and accommodation for students who are parents, and financial barriers. School fees and other costs in public schools constitute a significant barrier for Uganda’s most economically vulnerable and poorest families, most of whom have faced financial hardship as a result of Covid-19 restrictions that prevented many adults from working.
In December 2020 Uganda’s Ministry of Education published its “Revised Guidelines for the prevention and management of teenage pregnancy in school settings,” providing a policy framework to clarify schools’ roles.
The revised guidelines include important policy reforms. They provide an unequivocal message that “all schools should prioritize the admission of the young mothers/girls after pregnancy and parents/caregivers shall report the school that has refused to admit their daughter to the district education officer.” This provision is crucial for education authorities to ensure that all schools recognize their obligation to re-enrol adolescent mothers and provide redress for children and parents when public schools refuse re-enrollment. The Ugandan government should widely promote this aspect of the policy, and disseminate information about girls’ education through community awareness and national campaigns.
Under the policy, once schools are notified or find out that a student is pregnant, they should ensure that the student is placed in a counselling program. Head teachers are to take measures to investigate and report allegations of sexual violence. The policy also says that stigma and discrimination against pregnant girls or young mothers is a form of psychological violence, and orders schools to counter such stigma and violence in school environments. The policy stipulates that schools “shall support adolescent mothers to link to community support structures for childcare, and economic support.” The guidelines also provide flexibility to allow students who are out on maternity leave to take end-of-year examinations should they wish to, but it remains compulsory for students to take national qualifying examinations.
Although the guidelines support girls’ right to education, they present a series of strict or burdensome “re-entry” conditions that, Human Rights Watch had previously found, could constitute an effective barrier for girls. For example, the guidelines require girls to go on mandatory maternity leave when they are at least three-months’ pregnant. They can only be unconditionally readmitted when their child is at least six months old. This means girls will effectively be out of school for at least a year.
The policy makes parents responsible for seeking a girl’s readmission. Parents are expected to sign an agreement with the school about the girl’s re-entry. This assumes that parents are largely supportive of girls’ continuing education, whereas some families may try to bar girls from returning to school, particularly in cases of child marriage.
Male students responsible for a student’s pregnancy will also be given mandatory leave during a girl’s pregnancy, citing that this “might act as a deterrent and lesson to other boys.” However, unlike girls, boys are not subject to mandatory paternity leave, and will be allowed to return to school after a girl has delivered. In the case of a school change, schools are expected to share information on a male student’s parenthood status with the new school, because this would be “useful in tracking him.”
Data on any students’ pregnancy or parenthood status should respect their right to privacy, Human Rights Watch said. It should only be shared confidentially in school records as a means to support a student, to provide adequate counselling and access to services, and to accommodate their individual needs.
The guidelines state that the government’s aim to prevent teenage pregnancies through a series of measures, including problematic measures like relying on periodic pregnancy testing in schools, as well as testing all female students to avoid individual stigma against a girl who is reported or rumored to be pregnant. Human Rights Watch has found that pregnancy testing is not a preventive tool. It is stigmatizing for many girls, is often carried out without their consent, and is a serious infringement of girls’ rights to privacy, dignity, equality, and bodily autonomy.
São Tomé e Príncipe
In 2019, 22 percent of young women in São Tomé e Príncipe had given birth by age 18, of whom 5 percent had given birth before the age of 15, according to UNICEF data. Thirty-five percent of girls are married by age 18 between 2005 and 2019, according to the UN Population Fund.
Teenage pregnancies are closely tied to widespread sexual and gender-based violence, as well as entrenched abusive practices like the sexual exploitation of girls by adult men, including teachers, in exchange for grades, money or basic items, particularly at the Secondary school level.
In 2012 one of the last years where data is available, 86 percent of pregnant adolescent girls dropped out of primary and secondary school. A national study showed that pregnancy was among the top reasons why girls dropped out, contributing to worrying levels of transition into, and retention in, secondary education.
In March 2020 São Tomé e Príncipe removed a nearly 15-year restriction that blocked thousands of adolescent girls from secondary education. São Tomé e Príncipe’s Disciplinary Regulations for Basic, Secondary and Professional Education of 2006, in article 36, required pregnant students to drop out of schools at the third month of their pregnancy, and only gave them an option to enroll in night schools for the remainder of the pregnancy. Students could re-enroll the following academic year, provided that the student’s age was in line with compulsory education age limits. The same conditions were enforceable for boys responsible for a student’s pregnancy.
Education Minister Julieta Rodrigues signed a ministerial decree ordering the effective removal of article 36 from the Disciplinary Regulations. The decree cites its compliance with agreements made under the “Girls Empowerment and Quality Education for All Project,” a combined World Bank and Global Partnership for Education grant of $15 million to increase girls’ access to quality secondary education.
However, the government has yet to initiate a process to adopt measures that confirm a girl’s right to stay in school, and to provide clear guidance to schools on their obligations to enroll and support students who are pregnant or are parents.
The World Bank’s project documents show the Bank’s ability to use its unique leverage, and that of other donors and development partners, to negotiate the removal of São Tomé e Príncipe’s exclusionary practice against pregnant students. It states that the project:
leverages a change in legislation which allows pregnant girls to attend regular schooling, which they were previously barred from doing by school level regulation. This change in the internal regulation of schools was possible due to strong World Bank and other donor policy dialogue, including advocacy and stakeholder consultations, during the preparation of this project.
The World Bank said that the:
change in the internal regulation provides a great opportunity not only to get girls back to school and stay in school, but to jump-start interventions that will lead to behavioral change in the medium to longer term.
The World Bank estimates that 5,500 pregnant students stop going to school every year in Tanzania, although previous estimates indicated that close to 8,000 students have been forced to drop out of school each year.
In 2019 and 2020 the World Bank approved a $500 million loan for Tanzania’s Secondary Education Quality Improvement Program, despite the government’s policy of expelling pregnant students and adolescent mothers from school. By approving the loan to Tanzania, the World Bank effectively endorsed a discriminatory ban, which further cements exclusion and loss of education for thousands of girls in the country.
After initial pressure from the World Bank, the government agreed to allow adolescent mothers to enroll in Alternative Education Pathways, a parallel system of education taught in folk development centers, community-based education centers that are set up to teach technical and vocational education and accelerated adult basic education. This type of education is not tuition free, and it is currently the only way pregnant girls, adolescent mothers, and married students can study, unless they pay to enroll in private schools.
In March Leonard Akwilapo, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, announced that 54 folk development centers would begin to enroll pregnant girls and adolescent mothers as of January 2022.
Practice across the African Union
In 2018 Human Rights Watch found that at least 26 African Union countries had laws, policies or strategies in place to guarantee girls’ right to go back to school after pregnancy. In 2021 at least 30 AU countries now have laws, policies, or strategies in place that protect pregnant students’ and adolescent mothers’ right to education to varying degrees.
African Union policies and laws on pregnant students and adolescent mothers
Countries with "re-entry policies" and policies that prescribe conditions for pregnant students and adolescent mothers, including mandatory maternity leave
Countries with policies or strategies that provide for “continuation”
Countries with national laws related to pregnant students’ and mothers’ right to education
Countries that have recently removed restrictive policies, but have a policy gap
Democratic Republic of Congo
São Tomé e Príncipe
(New York) – On September 29, 2021, Mohibullah, 46, chair of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen in Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Mohibullah had served as a leader among the nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, documenting the Myanmar military’s crimes against the Rohingya and advocating for the refugees’ rights in international forums. Mohibullah had faced death threats in recent years for his work.
“Mohibullah was a vital voice for the community of Rohingya who had already suffered unimaginable loss and pain when they arrived as refugees in Bangladesh,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “He always defended the rights of the Rohingya to safe and dignified returns and to have a say in the decisions concerning their lives and future. His killing is a stark demonstration of the risks faced by those in the camps who speak up for freedom and against violence.
“Mohibullah’s death undermines not only the struggle of Rohingya refugees for greater rights and protection in the refugee camps, but also their efforts to safely return to their homes in Myanmar. Bangladesh authorities should urgently investigate Mohibullah’s killing along with other attacks on Rohingya activists in the camps.”
(Berlin) – The Belarusian Justice Ministry has filed a lawsuit to dissolve the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, one of the country’s oldest independent human rights groups, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 30, 2021, the Belarus Supreme Court is scheduled to hold a hearing on the lawsuit. The move is part of wider effort by Belarusian authorities to silence all independent or critical voices in the country.
In a September 22 letter, five international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, urged the Justice Ministry to withdraw its lawsuit, calling it “inappropriate [and] inconsistent with the Belarusian government’s obligations to respect and protect the legitimate work of human rights defenders.” They also said the lawsuit “violates a number of fundamental rights, including those of freedom of expression and association and due process.”
“The Belarusian Helsinki Committee has a long record defending a wide range of human rights in the country and has worked with integrity to protect the rights everyone in Belarus,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The lawsuit is blatant retaliation for the group’s work and is another piece of the effort to annihilate the human rights movement in Belarus.”
In recent months Belarusian authorities have taken measures to close more than 200 independent groups. Some of the country’s most prominent rights groups, including the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Lawtrend, Human Constanta, Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities, and the Belarusian Press Club, have already been forcibly closed. Authorities have also jailed, pending trial on criminal charges, seven members of another of Belarus’s top human rights groups, Viasna.
The lawsuit, filed on August 27, alleges discrepancies in financial information the Belarusian Helsinki Committee provided the ministry. The ministry’s petition to the Supreme Court, which Human Rights Watch read, said that these discrepancies constitute a “one-time gross violation of the law.” The petition also stated that the documents exposing the discrepancies came to light as part of a criminal investigation but does not provide any information about that investigation.
The September 22 letter from international organizations said the move to dissolve the Belarusian Helsinki Committee was “an attempt to impose a draconian, punitive and irreversible penalty to bring about the elimination of a long-standing body of human rights defenders.”
“The Belarusian authorities’ efforts at eviscerating independent groups have been comprehensive, but it is never too late to stop and reverse course,” Denber said. “A good place to start is to drop the arbitrary lawsuit against the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.”
(Paris) – Governments and donors should take concrete steps to develop rights-respecting and community-based mental health services, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to governments in advance of the third Global Mental Health Summit. The summit will take place on October 5 and 6, 2021, in Paris.
“The global pandemic has had an enormous toll on people’s mental health,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should make mental health a priority; not just in their rhetoric but in their actions.”
The summit, which is hosted by the French Ministers for Solidarity and Health and for Europe and Foreign Affairs, will gather policymakers, international organizations, health professionals, experts, and civil society actors. Participants will discuss how to enhance mental health services during and after the Covid-19 pandemic and to promote innovative practices for human rights in mental health, under this year’s theme ‘Mind Our Rights, Now!’
Government and donor investments should take a holistic approach to community-based services, with investments in housing, education, employment, and psychosocial support based on the free and informed consent of the person concerned, Human Rights Watch said.Click to expand Image Community health workers talking to local residents as part of the government outreach efforts on mental health in Banjarsari village in Ciawi, Bogor. © 2018 Andrea Star Reese for Human Rights Watch
Governments have long neglected to invest in mental health services. On average, countries spend less than 2 percent of their health budgets on mental health. In low-income countries, government mental health spending decreases to less than 1 percent of health budgets. These countries spend less than US $1 annually per person on mental health, compared with $80 in high-income countries.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected people’s mental health and the consequences are likely to linger on for years. National surveys have shown that numbers of people reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression have increased since the start of the pandemic. At the same time, the pandemic has disrupted mental health services in 93 percent of countries around the world, according to a survey by the World Health Organization (WHO).
More than 40 percent of countries had a full or partial closure of community-based services. In addition, three-quarters of mental health services in schools and workplaces were disrupted, on top of about 60 percent of all therapy and counselling services.
The cost of neglecting mental health is significant. Studies have estimated that poor mental health accounted for $2.5 trillion of the global economic burden in 2010, projected to rise to $6 trillion by 2030. The WHO has found that spending $1 on mental health services can yield a return of $4 in the form of improved productivity and health.
The greatest concern is that in low- and middle-income countries, 80 percent of government spending on mental health goes to psychiatric hospitals and not for community-based services. Human Rights Watch research in over 25 countries around the world found that people with mental health conditions in psychiatric hospitals can face a range of abuses including arbitrary detention, forced treatment, including electroshock therapy, and forced seclusion as well as physical and sexual violence.
In many countries, prevalent stigma and the lack of community-based mental health services can lead to people with mental health conditions being shackled: chained or locked in confined spaces. Human Rights Watch found that hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, some as young as 10, have been shackled across 60 countries in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East.Click to expand Image TANDEMplus worker Richard Boland talking to Zaher Amiri in Amiri’s apartment. Amiri is an asylum seeker who struggles with depression. Brussels, Belgium. © 2019 Stephanie Hancock for Human Rights Watch
“Governments need to approach mental health holistically at the community level,” Barriga said. “When people can’t access these supports, they risk abuse and isolation. There are innovative initiatives at the local level, such as TANDEMPlus in Brussels or peer support groups in Kenya and Nigeria, which empower people with psychosocial disabilities to live independently in their homes and keep them out of the hospital. Programs such as these – with human rights at the core – need to be scaled up.”
For guidance, governments should draw on the WHO’s QualityRights Initiative and their Guidance on Community Mental Health Services which provides clear and practical direction on how to create a rights-respecting approach to mental health. One of the initiative’s core principles is that people should be able to maintain control over their lives. For example, innovative peer-to-peer initiatives run by Users and Survivors of Psychiatry Kenya and She Writes Woman in Nigeria are a testament to how it is possible to ensure that people with psychosocial disabilities receive support in their communities, rather than forcing them to spend time in a hospital or to take medication against their will.
“Rights-respecting, community-based services were already under-resourced prior to Covid-19,” Barriga said. “It is fundamental for governments to act quickly to develop community-based mental health services to help prevent shackling and other abuses, and support people with psychosocial disabilities to live independent lives.”
(Johannesburg) – An Islamic State (ISIS) linked armed group in northern Mozambique is kidnapping boys and using them to fight government forces in violation of the international prohibition on the use of child soldiers, Human Rights Watch said today.
The armed group, known locally as Al-Shabab, has abducted hundreds of boys, some as young as 12, trained them in bases across Cabo Delgado province, and forced them to fight alongside adults against government forces. In the town of Palma, parents said that they watched their sons wield guns when they returned with other fighters to raid their village.
“Using children in fighting is cruel, unlawful, and should never take place,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Mozambique’s Al-Shabab should immediately stop recruiting children and release every child in their ranks.”
Human Rights Watch spoke by phone with four parents of kidnapped boys, a former child soldier, and two witnesses to abuses. The child soldier and witnesses had escaped from the Al-Shabaab training base in the town of Mbau, where they were held captive for several weeks. Their accounts are consistent with media reports that the armed group was kidnapping boys to be fighters.
A 42-year-old man said that seven Al-Shabab fighters kidnapped his 17-year-old son during their March 24 attack on Palma. He said the gunmen found his family of seven on a farm where they had been hiding for two days from the fighting.
“I was on my knees begging the Mashababos [the local popular name for Al-Shabab] to take me instead, while my wife grabbed my boy’s trousers to stop him from walking away,” the man said. “One of the men hit my wife in the head with an AK-47 [assault rifle] to force her to release [our son], while the other man threatened to kill all of us if we didn’t allow the boy to go.” The boy’s mother, 36, said she saw him again in May, just before the family abandoned Palma to seek refuge elsewhere.
“I was hiding inside the house when I heard his voice and I checked outside the window,” she said. “I saw him in a group of about a dozen other boys, all wearing camouflage trousers and a red band around the head.”
Two other women said that Al-Shabab had abducted their sons during the raid on Mocimboa da Praia in August 2020 that culminated in the seizure of the port town.
Three women who escaped from an Al-Shabab base in Mbau said that there are “hundreds of boys” in the ranks of the group. “They behave like adult men, even picking ‘wives’ among the kidnapped girls,” one woman said.
Another woman who escaped said that Al-Shabab forces abducted her in March from Palma and that the armed group drove her and hundreds of women and boys in three trucks to Mocimboa da Praia, where they were kept captive. “The boys were taken for military training in Mbau and Macomia,” she said. “After training they were brought to back to receive Islamic classes and instructions for attacking villages.”
A young man said that he was under 18 in April 2020 when six Al-Shabab fighters found him and two 16-year-old friends hiding in a farm during an attack on Mocimboa da Praia. The fighters argued about what to do with the boys and considered beheading them because they considered their “hair styles” against Islam. Instead, they forced the boys to walk blindfolded for many kilometers inside the forest to the fighters’ base in Mbau.
“We joined many other men and boys and were trained on how to use guns and knives to fight,” the young man said. “They told us that we had to kill and fight for our land and to protect our religion, which is under attack in Mozambique.”
He escaped a month later, while on patrol duty, and now lives in fear of being recaptured by the armed group.
In June 2021, the humanitarian organization Save the Children estimated that non-state armed groups in Cabo Delgado had abducted at least 51 children, most of them girls, over the past year. A local group, Observatório do Meio Rural (OMR), reported that kidnapped boys were expanding the ranks of armed groups in the area.
The United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which Mozambique ratified in 2004, prohibits non-state armed groups from recruiting children under the age of 18. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court categorizes as a war crime the conscription, enlistment, or active use of children under 15 years old in active hostilities during armed conflict.
“Al-Shabab’s growing use of children as fighters is the latest horrifying chapter in the Cabo Delgado violence,” Segun said. “Mozambican authorities should urgently take steps to protect children, so they remain with their families and in school, and aren’t exploited as weapons of war.”
Next week Sudan’s human rights record will be discussed at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The session comes at a critical time for Sudan, which is still in a difficult transition period following the ousting of ex-president Omer al-Bashir in 2019.
Just a few days ago, residents of Khartoum woke to the news of a failed coup attempt. Following the event, civilian leaders, including Prime Minister Dr. Abdalla Hamdok, called for key reforms of the country’s security forces to be expeditated. But military leaders responded aggressively, challenging their civilian counterpart’s ability to carry out such reforms.
The upcoming UN session offers an opportunity for both Sudan and the Council to establish human rights commitments and priorities for the transition government, in line with recommendations in the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ latest report.
Take accountability. While key international treaties have been ratified and a handful of cases involving government force killings of protesters are now before the courts, impunity for serious past crimes remains largely the norm. Justice efforts have been ad hoc, with no clear strategy, and security forces have refused to cooperate in securing of evidence or lifting of immunities in several investigations.
In Darfur, despite the 2020 peace agreement, authorities have failed to deliver security or justice. In al-Geneina, the capital of west Darfur, violence in January and March left over 300 people dead, forced thousands to flee their homes, and resulted in massive property destruction. In September, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Sudan raised his concern at the surge in “intercommunal” violence and resulting civilian displacement.
Yet, despite these ongoing challenges, Sudan is seeking to block further reporting by the High Commissioner to the Council on her Office’s work in the country. Ongoing abuses and prevailing impunity in Darfur underline the need for robust human rights monitoring. Sudan’s authorities, especially the military, should allow regular access for UN and other rights monitors throughout the country, including to Darfur and Kordofan.
The Council should also ensure that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Khartoum has the means and political backing to support key reforms.
Now more than ever, international support and scrutiny needs to be maintained to ensure that those who fought for a better, more rights abiding future are not abandoned.
Earlier this month, I started work as the Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch. I feel I’m finally on the cusp of fulfilling my dreams. But since my family brought me to the United States as a child, I’ve never been able to access permanent legal status. My Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) work permit expires in May 2022, and unless Congress acts, I might not be able to see this fellowship through.
I’m one of millions of people in the US whose lives hang in the balance as congressional leaders decide whether to include a pathway to citizenship for immigrant communities in the current budget reconciliation bill, which Congress only needs a simple majority to pass.#WeAreHome: Protect Immigrants in the US
In the coming weeks, Congress has a major opportunity to bring safety to millions of immigrants. Join Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union to tell Congress to vote for a pathway to citizenship through the budget reconciliation plan.TAKE ACTION
Three-quarters of US adults support providing people like me with a pathway to citizenship. But earlier this month, the Senate parliamentarian, the official advisor to the Senate on interpreting internal Senate rules, issued an opinion that disfavors legislators’ first attempt at bill language to get this done.
But legislators still have several options. One of these is to update the immigration registry, which has provided a legal means under the Registry Act of 1929 for undocumented immigrants to secure a lawful status based on their longstanding presence in the United States. Congress has updated the registry several times to ensure it is applicable to more recent arrivals. Right now, the law requires otherwise qualifying immigrants to have been present in the US since 1972 to gain legal status. Congress could amend this date to provide relief to people who have built lives here over the last decade, which would regularize millions.
Undocumented immigrants are vital to the fabric of the US. Many of us risked our lives to keep the economy going, our communities safe, and people healthy during the Covid-19 pandemic. While those who did were designated “essential” workers and hailed as heroes, legally we remained expendable and relegated to a permanent underclass with no pathway to citizenship. This treatment should not continue. Congress needs to take this opportunity to pass immigration reform, transform our outdated and inhumane immigration system, and provide deeply rooted immigrants – including not only DACA recipients like me, but also essential workers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, and others with strong ties to the United States – with a pathway to citizenship, through reconciliation or other means. Our lives, and my future, depend on it.
The State Council, China’s cabinet, in its “Chinese Women’s Development Guidelines” for 2021-2030, announced today, identified “reducing non-medically necessary abortions” as a step toward women’s development.
It’s unclear what specific policies the government has planned to “reduce non-medically necessary abortions,” but given its history of restricting women’s right to reproductive choice and bodily autonomy through abusive, and sometimes violent, means, this development is a grave cause for concern. The 2011-2020 guidelines, in the same place, said, “prevent and control unintended pregnancy and abortion.”
Shortly after the Chinese Communist Party took power in China in 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong encouraged population growth to create manpower. As a result, China’s population nearly doubled in 30 years. Then in 1979, to curb population growth and ease natural resource challenges, the government imposed the draconian “one-child policy,” which limited most couples to just one child. To enforce this policy, the authorities subjected countless women to forced contraception, forced sterilization, and forced abortion, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. From May to August 1991 in Guan and Shen counties in Shandong province, the authorities imposed the “Childless Hundred Days” campaign in which all pregnancies were forcibly aborted, regardless of whether the birth would have been in compliance with the one-child policy.
The one-child policy contributed to a rapidly ageing population and a dwindling labor force, so the government increasingly wanted more pregnancies. In 2015, Beijing instituted a two-child policy allowing all couples to have two children, which, despite initially raising the birth rate, had little impact on population growth. In June this year, Beijing announced the three-child policy, to which many online reacted with dismay and derision.
Today, many across the country still painfully feel the trauma of forced abortion. And now, without government acknowledgment or accountability, Beijing is doing a potentially abusive about-face.
What hasn’t changed is that China’s government still treats women's bodies as tools for its economic development goals.
In the past, to take control of their own bodies, countless women in China fought back against the abusive measures to restrict the number of children they could have. Whatever this “reduce non-medically necessary abortion” program entails, women in China can be expected to continue to fight for their reproductive rights.
(Nyon, Switzerland) – The International Basketball Federation’s (FIBA) report on systemic sexual harassment and abuse within the Mali Basketball Federation (FMBB) vindicates the victims of abuse, survivors, whistleblowers, and activists who took enormous risks to bring this abuse to light, the Sport & Rights Alliance said today.
After the New York Times and Human Rights Watch documented sexual abuse and cover-ups in Mali basketball in June 2021, FIBA appointed Canadian lawyer and FIBA integrity officer, Richard McLaren, to conduct an independent investigation through McLaren Global Sports Solutions. The 149-page report, released on September 14, verified accounts of sexual exploitation, extortion, and retaliation within the Mali Basketball Federation, revealing an “institutionalized acceptance of sexual abuse.”
“FIBA’s report confirms the systemic abuse of teenage female basketball players in Mali dating back years,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “While it’s important that the head coach was indicted and seven basketball officials suspended, FIBA and Mali’s government should urgently put in place meaningful child protection policies and protections for players giving evidence.”
In July, Malian authorities arrested and indicted Amadou Bamba, the head coach of Mali’s Under-18 women’s national basketball team, who is awaiting trial for “pedophilia, attempted rape, and molestation.” FIBA suspended the FMBB president, Harouna Maiga, for impeding the investigation and covering up sexual abuse.
Critical gaps remain in the approach that the McLaren independent investigation team took, notably with respect to confidentiality, trauma support, and witness protection, the Sport & Rights Alliance said. Since the start of the investigation, a survivor-centered approach and trauma-informed process has been dangerously absent.
The report highlights that 22 survivors were intimidated by basketball federation officials or others and decided not to give evidence to McLaren. Those who agreed to be interviewed also reported that they were afraid of retaliation. One player reported that the Mali federation directly retaliated by removing her from the World Cup national team roster after she and her family reported sexual abuse.
Sexual and gender-based violence beyond sports is a widespread problem in Mali. A 2018 National Institute of Statistics survey found that nearly half of Malian women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 had experienced gender-based violence.
All institutions with jurisdiction over the issue, including the Malian justice system, the Malian Ministry of Youth and Sport, the Mali Basketball Federation, and FIBA, should investigate the abuses and cover-up documented in the McLaren report. The Youth and Sport Ministry should form a government commission of inquiry to impartially investigate systemic sexual abuse in girls’ basketball and other girls’ sports in Mali. The ministry should also act to ensure that players do not face retaliation for making complaints, and work with women’s rights and healthcare providers with expertise in sexual abuse and trauma so that survivors have access to long-term, quality support services.
“FIBA and the McLaren team’s lack of protection systems exposed survivors and witnesses to great risk, and likely made possible the extensive intimidation and retaliation by federation leaders detailed by the report,” said Julie Ann Rivers-Cochran, executive director of The Army of Survivors, an advocacy organization led by former athletes and survivors working to end the systemic culture of sexual abuse across the world of sport. “FIBA has yet to apologize for failing to protect Mali’s female players from sexual abuse for many years or provide remedies, such as compensation, trauma support, and playing opportunities to these brave young female athletes.”
The failures in the McLaren investigation’s protection measures are symptomatic of foundational flaws in FIBA’s governance, structure, and responsibilities to basketball players. The report states that in 2012 basketball players who tried to create a union in Mali were threatened by officials that they would not be selected for the national team. In many countries, unions that represent athletes can bring sexual assault complaints that protect them and let them give evidence safely.
“The success of global basketball depends on respect and protection for athletes, which include women and girls,” said Terri Jackson, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association. “As the world basketball governing body, FIBA is responsible for players’ justice, accountability and protection. FIBA needs to respect players’ rights to organize without fear of discrimination, and provide for their safety and participation in decision-making at the highest level.”
As a recent statement by FIBA reveals, FIBA President Hamane Niang was given the choice to resume his official duties despite the absence of an effective child safeguarding mechanism during his time as Mali Basketball Federation president from 1999 to 2007. The FIBA report also concludes there was no meaningful reporting mechanism for players to report sexual abuse, and that when they did, responsible officials covered it up, allowing abuse to continue.
“The FIBA report’s conclusion that the child safeguarding and reporting mechanisms present within the Mali Basketball Federation are ‘wholly insufficient’ means that survivors, victims of abuse, and whistleblowers were not and are still not protected up to this moment,” said Andrea Florence, acting director of the Sport & Rights Alliance. “This requires urgent corrective action from FIBA and the Mali government.”
The Sport & Rights Alliance calls for further action and answers from FIBA, including:Reassurances of protection against retaliation by federation leaders implicated in sexual abuse and physical safety for the witnesses, survivors, and their families; Reinstatement of opportunities to play and progress for all witnesses and survivors; Psychological and trauma-informed counseling, health care, support, and accompaniment to mitigate the re-traumatization survivors and whistleblowers face when providing evidence, including access to legal assistance; Immediate remedy and accountability, including compensation, access to ongoing psycho-social support, reconciliation, and a public apology for survivors and victims of abuse and their families; Additional investigation to rectify the limitations of the McLaren investigation; Systemic reforms to prevent and respond to cases of abuse at FIBA’s governance structures and a full systemic review of the child safeguarding and reporting mechanisms in basketball federations around the world; and Reassurances of respect to the right of players to form player associations and that no action is taken against them when they form collective bodies to protect and promote their interest.
In August, the Mali Women’s Under-19 team became the first African team to reach the final four of the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup.
“Despite trauma from exposing systemic sexual abuse in their national basketball federation and the indictment of their head coach, the Under-19 Mali women’s team made history,” Jackson said. “These courageous players deserve an apology, support and opportunity to recover their joy in the game.”
To access local free support services and resources, please visit:
The Sport & Rights Alliance (SRA) partners include The Army of Survivors, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Football Supporters Europe, Human Rights Watch, ILGA World (The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), the International Trade Union Confederation, Transparency International Germany, and World Players Association, UNI Global Union. As a global coalition of leading NGOs and trade unions, the SRA works together to ensure sports bodies, governments, and other relevant stakeholders give rise to a world of sport that protects, respects, and fulfills international standards for human rights, labor rights, child well-being and safeguarding, and anti-corruption.
The Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) is the union for current women’s professional basketball players in the WNBA. The WNBPA is the first labor union for professional women athletes. It was created in 1998 to protect the rights of players and assist them in achieving their full potential on and off the court. The WNBPA handles the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements, filing grievances on their behalf, and counseling players on benefits and post-WNBA career opportunities. The WNBPA also serves as a resource for current players, while they are competing internationally during the offseason.
On September 24, France’s top administrative court, the Council of State, approved the French authorities’ December 2020 dissolution of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a leading anti-discrimination group. The court’s decision seriously damages the country’s self-proclaimed reputation as a champion of freedom of expression and association.
Over the years, CCIF has played a key role in providing legal support to people facing anti-Muslim discrimination and documenting the discriminatory impact on Muslims of France’s counterterrorism measures.
In its judgment, the court said that CCIF’s denunciation of France’s hostility toward Muslims in its fight against terrorism, as well as the group’s failure to “moderate” third parties’ antisemitic and other hostile comments in response to CCIF social media posts, constitute incitement to discrimination, hatred, and violence, justifying the decision to close it down. The court also accepted disputed allegations that CCIF maintained close links with supporters of radical Islamism, including through its former executive director.
Under international and European human rights law, states can only interfere with rights to freedom of association, freedom of religion and belief, and freedom of expression when such interference has a lawful basis, is necessary and proportionate. Dissolving an independent organization should be a measure of last resort in the event it advocates a clear, imminent threat of violence or has acted in grave violation of the law. The Council of State rejected all other arguments by the French government that CCIF gave rise to such a threat, yet nevertheless upheld the decision to close it down.
The dissolution of CCIF is part of a broader crackdown by French authorities in response to attacks attributed to Islamist extremists. A controversial law intended to “fight against separatism and attacks on [French] citizenship” was adopted last August, prompting concerns from France’s national human rights commission and the European Commission.
The closure of CCIF and last week’s ruling are likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and association of those working on non-discrimination in France and elsewhere in Europe. Shuttering CCIF weakens the country’s credibility as a champion for rights and sets a dangerous example for governments quick to use vaguely defined laws to silence critics. French authorities should stop pushing censorship on civil society organizations and instead demonstrate their commitment to freedom of expression and association, and their determination to fight discrimination.
(Berlin) – Russian authorities have taken punitive action against three local human rights defenders and their organizations in recent days, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities imposed arbitrary, draconian bureaucratic penalties against the groups, including through the “undesirable foreign organizations” law in one case.
Two of the groups have strong records of success in winning cases against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of victims of torture and other grave human rights violations, and the third defends the rights of migrants in Russia. The moves come amid a government crackdown on independent voices in the country.
“Russian authorities have amassed a wide array of tools to intimidate, marginalize, and punish human rights defenders,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Whether the moves against these three groups are coordinated or not, they are certainly consistent with the authorities’ wider efforts to stifle effective critics, in particular groups that work to rectify human rights abuses.”
On September 24, 2021, Russian border officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport barred Valentina Chupik from entering Russia. Chupik is the legal adviser at Moscow’s Uzbek Association and the head of Tong Jahoni (Morning of the World), a rights group that protects migrants and refugees. The officials handed her a notice purporting to ban her from the country for 30 years. Chupik runs a hotline for migrants in Russia, provides free legal aid to migrants targeted in police round-ups, visits migration detention facilities, and has frequently spoken out about a range of abuses against migrants.
Chupik has had refugee status in Russia since 2009, and has lived there since she fled Uzbekistan in the wake of the 2005 Andijan massacre. The officials stopped Chupik at passport control, as she returned from Armenia. The notification they handed her was from the Interior Ministry, addressed to her and dated September 17, stating that it had stripped her of refugee status.
The ministry cited art. 9.2.2 of Russia’s refugee law, which permits revocation of refugee status if the person has knowingly provided false information or documents to justify their asylum claim, or for violating any of the law’s provisions. But the notice did not include any allegations that would substantiate the decision, and Human Rights Watch is not aware of the specific claims of inaccuracy in Chupik’s documents.
Border authorities also confiscated Chupik’s documents, and the confiscation record, which Human Rights Watch has seen, shows that her refugee travel document had been renewed in July for five years. Lawyers have filed a request for “interim measures” with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), seeking the Court’s intervention with the Russian government to suspend Chupik’s deportation.
The sudden timing and manner of Chupik’s refugee status revocation, combined with the attempt to ban her for 30 years, strongly indicate that the decision was not based on a routine administrative process, but was instead an arbitrary and punitive move the authorities made in retaliation for her work on behalf of migrants.
On September 23, the prominent human rights group Astreya received a copy of a petition, dated September 14, from the Justice Ministry to a court seeking to dissolve the group. Astreyea has won dozens of cases before the European Court of Human Rights for victims, mainly from Russia’s North Caucasus region, of rights violations under the European Convention on Human Rights, including torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and gender-based violence.
In its petition, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, the ministry stated that Astreya’s founder had filed notifications with the ministry in 2020 and 2021 while she was not physically present in Russia. The notifications were about the changes of Astretya’s legal address and of its director. The ministry did not otherwise challenge the validity of the changes of address or director. The ministry’s efforts to shut down the group on such specious grounds should be clearly understood as retaliation for the group’s successful work on the part of victims, Human Rights Watch said. Media reports said that Astreya is challenging the petition.
Astreya is a partner of Stichting Justice Initiative (SJI), a group of legal entities and human rights lawyers, most of them based in Russia, who have represented thousands of victims of human rights violations, from Russia and several other countries in the region, at the European Court of Human Rights.
In December 2020, the authorities revoked the Russian residence permit of SJI’s director, spuriously claiming she was a national security threat, and ordered her to leave the country. In 2019, the Justice Ministry forcibly registered one of SJI’s main partiers in Russia as a “foreign agent” organization, under the repressive “foreign agents” law.
On September 17, a court issued a 10,000 ruble (approximately US$137) fine to Igor Kalyapin, chair of the Russian Committee against Torture, claiming he had violated the law on “foreign undesirable organizations.” The Committee against Torture is one of Russia’s top groups that documents torture and seeks justice for victims. Work by the group’s lawyers has led to convictions of more than 150 law enforcement officials for torture and related offenses. In 2007, it won one of the most prominent torture cases filed against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights, which required the Russian government to pay €250,000 (at the time, US$355,000) in damages to a torture survivor.
The prosecutor’s office claimed that the group had “distributed materials” of People in Need (PIN), a Prague-based human rights and humanitarian group banned in Russia as “undesirable” in 2019. The material in question was an article that the Committee against Torture posted on its website in 2017, reporting that PIN had honored Kalyapin for his human rights work. A PIN photograph of the awards ceremony and a link to PIN’s website appeared with the article. Kalyapin told Human Rights Watch that after People in Need was banned and its website was blocked in Russia, the link no longer worked. He also said that during his trial, the prosecutor’s office claimed that “in 2017 Kalypin posted the material, knowing full well that the organization was ‘undesirable,’” even though the group was not banned until 2019.
“I guess this is how I’m supposed to ‘know full well’ something that hadn’t happened,” Kalyapin told Human Rights Watch.
The “undesirables” law authorizes the prosecutor’s office to designate as “undesirable” any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. The penalty for a first-time offense of “participation” in such a group is a fine, and the maximum penalty for a second offense committed within 12 months is a four-year prison sentence.
In recent months, Russian authorities have intensified their efforts to silence independent voices, Human Rights Watch said. Parliament has adopted a battery of laws that allow even greater infringements on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. Several Russian groups and media outlets have been forced to close due to the “undesirables” law. At least three civic activists have been convicted on criminal “undesirable” charges, and two others are awaiting trial. One is in pretrial custody, and the other was released with conditions after six months in detention. Dozens of media outlets and individuals have been branded “foreign agent media.”
“The cases against Chupik, Kalyapin, and Astreya are part of a much broader effort to eliminate critics of Russia’s authorities,” Williamson said. “The Justice Ministry should withdraw its lawsuit against Astreya, the Interior Ministry should allow Chupik back into the country, and the authorities should seek to vacate the verdict against Kalyapin. These human rights defenders are doing important work to protect the rights of people in Russia, and the authorities should be facilitating, not punishing, their work.”
(Nairobi) – Rwandan authorities rounded up and arbitrarily detained over a dozen gay and transgender people, sex workers, street children, and others in the months before a planned June 2021 high-profile international conference, Human Rights Watch said.
They were held in a transit center in Gikondo neighborhood of the capital Kigali, unofficially called “Kwa Kabuga,” known for its harsh and inhuman conditions, which appear to have deteriorated further due to the increase in the number of detainees held there and the pandemic. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), first scheduled for June 2020 and rescheduled for June 2021, was eventually postponed indefinitely in May.
“Rwanda’s strategy to promote Kigali as a hub for meetings and conferences often means continued abuse of the capital’s poorest and most marginalized residents,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “As the meeting is rescheduled, Rwanda’s Commonwealth partners have a choice: either speak up for the rights of the victims or be silent as the crackdown is carried out in their name.”
Following reports on abuses at the Gikondo transit center in 2015, 2016, and 2020, this practice was condemned during Rwanda’s review by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, a Geneva-based treaty body, in February 2020. Between April and June 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed via telephone 17 former detainees from Gikondo. Interviews with nine people who identified as transgender or homosexual, three women who were detained with their babies, four men who worked as street vendors at local markets, and a 13-year-old boy living on the streets in Kigali, confirmed that patterns of abuse that Human Rights Watch documented previously are ongoing. Due to fear of reprisals against interviewees, Human Rights Watch has withheld all identifying information.
At Gikondo, detainees are held in overcrowded rooms in conditions well below standards required by Rwandan and international law. The former detainees said they have inadequate food, water, and health care; suffer frequent beatings; and are rarely allowed to leave filthy, overcrowded rooms. People were detained there without basic due process standards. None of the former detainees interviewed were formally charged with any criminal offense and none saw a prosecutor, judge, or lawyer before or during their detention. There were no measures to protect people from Covid-19, and former detainees said they did not have access to testing, soap, masks, or basic hygiene and sanitation amenities.
People interviewed who identified as gay or transgender said that security officials accused them of “not representing Rwandan values.” They said that other detainees beat them because of their clothes and identity. Three other detainees, who were held in the “delinquents’” room at Gikondo, confirmed that fellow detainees and guards more frequently and violently beat people they knew were gay or transgender than others.
In the past, round-ups have been connected to high-profile government events, ahead of which security forces may ramp up efforts to “clear up” Kigali’s streets. Human Rights Watch documented a similar round-up in 2016 before an African Union Summit held in Kigali. Ahead of the now postponed 2021 Commonwealth meeting, several former detainees said the police told them they did not want them on the streets during the event.
A civil society activist in Kigali said: “The streets were empty before the meeting. You couldn’t see any street children in town. Even the fruit vendors were taken [to Gikondo]. But now you can see them in the streets again.” Sources in Kigali confirmed that fewer people were living or working on the streets in the month preceding the date for the meeting. Several former detainees said the conditions at Gikondo had worsened in the lead-up to the meeting due to severe overcrowding.
An 18-year-old woman, a street vendor arbitrarily detained for two weeks with her 9-month-old baby, said: “[The police] said the government wanted to clear the city because of CHOGM. They said they would detain us until CHOGM has happened without our filth on display.”
Rwanda is one of a few countries in East Africa that does not criminalize consensual same-sex relations. Vagrancy, begging, and sex work are not criminalized either. Yet the authorities continue to use Gikondo Transit Center to imprison people accused of “deviant behavior that is harmful to the public,” including street vending and homelessness.
Rwanda should urgently close the transit center in Gikondo and amend the legal framework governing the National Rehabilitation Service. The authorities should promptly investigate all reported cases of ill-treatment and beatings of detainees by police and transit center personnel – including reports of detainees dying in detention – and prosecute the suspected abusers, Human Rights Watch said.
“Based on past experience, there is every likelihood that similar patterns of abuse will occur ahead of whatever new date is set for the Commonwealth meeting,” Mudge said. “Locking up marginalized people and abusing them simply because the authorities believe they tarnish their country’s image violates human dignity, and Commonwealth leaders should not tolerate this.”
Gikondo Transit Center
Since 2017, legislation and policies under the government’s strategy to “eradicate delinquency” have sought to legitimize and regulate so-called transit centers, presenting them as part of a “rehabilitation” process aimed at supporting poor and marginalized people. The authorities acknowledge that there are 28 “transit centers” in Rwanda, including “Kwa Kabuga,” the unofficial name of Kigali’s transit center situated in the Gikondo residential suburb of Kigali.Click to expand Image Satellite image showing the location of Gikondo Transit Center, Kigali, Rwanda. © Maxar Technologies 2020. Source: GoogleEarth
A January 2020 Human Rights Watch report found that the 2017 legislation provides cover for the police to round up and arbitrarily detain people accused of so-called “deviant behaviors” at Gikondo in deplorable and degrading conditions, and without due process or judicial oversight. Detainees are released with very little formal procedure, reflecting the arbitrary manner in which they were initially arrested.
Based on the 2017 legal framework and statements by Rwandan authorities, the broader objective of Gikondo is to serve as a short-term screening center to allow authorities to process detainees to send on to rehabilitation centers. However, in practice, there is no judicial process to determine the length of time people spend at the center or whether they are released or transferred. Some people interviewed said they were released when the center was overcrowded. Two said they were released in June 2021, after the decision to postpone the Commonwealth meeting was announced.
The 13-year-old boy said he was held for two weeks in late April and May, in a room with over 200 other street children, and was released after the announcement: “The police told us: ‘Don’t be afraid, children. The meeting isn’t happening; you’ll be released tomorrow.’” He said that district authorities collected all children detained at Gikondo and returned them to the streets of Kigali. He was not offered support to rejoin his family or return to school.
The civil society activist confirmed that, “Children were detained, moto-taxis had to stop working, street vendors were harassed – all because of the Commonwealth meeting. Since it’s been postponed, the abuse has calmed down.”
Former detainees said police told them that they were “trash,” and that they would be detained during the meeting and released in August. “Before the [Commonwealth] meeting, they would arrest us and seize our goods,” said a 20-year-old street vendor, who was detained for two weeks in April with her 9-month-old baby. “With this meeting coming up … Gikondo [was] very overcrowded.”
Arrest and Transfer to Gikondo
Round-ups by police or officers from the District Administration Security Support Organ (DASSO), a local state security body, are often the first step toward arbitrary detention at Gikondo. The arbitrary nature of the detention is reflected in the complete absence of due process once people are taken to Gikondo. In most cases, detainees are held in various police stations or sector (local government) offices across Kigali before being transferred to Gikondo. None of the interviewees were taken before a judge or given access to a lawyer before being transferred to Gikondo.
Detention of Gay and Transgender People
The detention of transgender people at Gikondo was reported in the media in November 2020. The nine transgender or gay people interviewed by Human Rights Watch were detained at Gikondo between December 2020 and April 2021. They said they had been targeted due to their sexual orientation or gender identity and treated worse than other detainees.
Several said the police or local security officers detained them after members of the public reported seeing them with their partners and other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, or wearing women’s clothing if they were perceived not to be female. At Gikondo, police officers or guards accused them of being homeless, thieves, or delinquents and held them in a room reserved for “delinquent” men. One 27-year-old transgender woman said:
They took me at Kabuga and said I was causing problems in Rwanda…. When I arrived, police asked why am I looking like this? Why am I looking like a girl? They asked: ‘Are you a prostitute?’ I said, ‘No, I am a Rwandan.’ They jailed me with other people who were [accused of being] thieves.
One said he was arrested in late December 2020, after leaving a bar in Nyamirambo neighborhood in Kigali: “When we were about to get on motorbikes, local patrol men came and asked us who we are and what we are doing here … they said we don’t represent Rwandan customs. My friend [a transgender woman] has long hair and was wearing a skirt.” Another former detainee was arrested by local security officials in February 2021 after kissing his same-sex partner in a bar. He said customers from the bar insulted them and called the security patrol, who took them straight to Gikondo transit center.
Transgender and gay people interviewed described being harassed, insulted, and beaten by security officials during their arrest and detention. A former detainee who was arrested by DASSO officials in December 2020 said she was taken to the Nyabugogo police station. “They asked me what I was doing … if I am a girl or a boy,” she said. “I said I am a girl and that’s when the problems started … At Kabuga, we were beaten by the leaders. They asked if we were boys or girls.”
A transgender woman detained at Gikondo in February 2021 said: “Police said we were cursed, and asked how we could behave in this way, having sex with people of the same sex as us. They said we’re delinquents and put us in that room. But in the room, we were badly beaten by other detainees and police did nothing despite our cries.” Another gay former detainee who was arrested with a group of transgender people said a policeman beat his feet and told him he should be “rehabilitated.”
Several other former detainees confirmed these patterns of abuse. An 18-year-old street vendor accused of “delinquency” was detained with about 1,000 other men, where he said “men who dressed as women” – referring to transgender people – “were beaten more than the others. We were all beaten but they were really badly beaten.” All transgender women interviewed were housed in male facilities.
Beatings often begin as soon as people are rounded up and taken to a nearby police station or post. A 30-year-old woman with a 3-year-old child said:
I was taken to the police, where they kept us in a room with others who had been arrested. At that point we were violently beaten. I had a baby with me, but they still beat me, although they didn’t beat him. At 2 a.m. they transferred us to “Kwa Kabuga.” They told me: “Your baby is none of our business. Get in with the others.” I insulted them, so they beat me badly. They said they don’t want me to do this kind of business [on the streets].
Once detainees arrive at Gikondo, they are registered and often beaten by other detainees. Long-term detainees at Gikondo, known as “counsellors,” are often in charge of daily life in the rooms and beat other detainees. The 30-year-old street vendor said that other detainees in the women’s room beat her and her child: “An adult woman is hit twenty times, whereas her child will be beaten four times. It’s only babies under one year old that are not beaten.”
Interviewees detained in the women’s room also said they were beaten when their child defecated or cried: “We were beaten every day. We were also beaten when we asked for permission to use the toilet. If a baby cried, or urinated, its mother would pay the price,” said the 23-year-old mother of a 2-year-old child, who was detained at Gikondo for three weeks in April.
Guards or “counselors” also regularly beat detainees in the children’s room or rooms for adult men. Children are often beaten when they make noise or play together. “We were beaten a lot…. If you fight, if you make a mistake, or if you shout, they beat you with sticks,” the 13-year-old boy said. A 21-year-old street vendor held in the room for “delinquents” said that detainees are beaten for spending too long in the bathroom, for talking too loudly, or “for any fault you commit.”
Conditions at Gikondo
Conditions in Gikondo Transit Center, as Human Rights Watch has extensively documented since 2006, fall well below international standards and violate Rwandan law.Click to expand Image Rwandans sit in the Gikondo transit center in Kigali on September 24, 2015. © 2015 Stéphanie Aglietti/AFP via Getty Images
In March 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture called on governments to “reduce prison populations … wherever possible by implementing schemes of early, provisional or temporary release.” Yet Rwandan authorities continued to detain people in Gikondo transit center, without due process or judicial oversight. Overcrowding and poor hygienic and sanitary conditions at Gikondo put people at greater risk of contracting Covid-19 due to close proximity, inability to practice “social distancing,” a lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene, and lack of adequate medical care, including a lack of Covid-19 testing.
During their arrest and transfer to Gikondo, people interviewed said, they were not tested for Covid-19, were not given masks to wear, and were not given the space to maintain distances from other detainees. Many were taken to Gikondo in an overcrowded truck with windows closed. Some said that upon arrival, they washed their hands with water, but were not given soap. One former detainee said hand sanitizer was confiscated by the authorities upon arrival.
Former detainees who were held at Gikondo between 2019 and 2021 estimate that between 50 and 200 girls and boys detained together at a time in the “children’s room,” in deplorable and degrading conditions. But they described conditions in the room for male “delinquents” – which also holds teenage boys – and facilities for adult women with their infants as far worse.
In those two rooms, some children were held together with adults in severely overcrowded conditions and many detainees were forced to sleep on the concrete floor. Former detainees held in the room for “delinquents” estimated that over 1,000 people were held together. One person interviewed said it was not possible to see the floor at night when the detainees attempted to lay down to sleep on the concrete floor.
Most former detainees said they were given food once a day, in insufficient quantities and with poor nutritional value. Food is particularly insufficient for young children and babies, who regularly get sick. One woman said she was released after her baby got so ill he had blood in his stool, while another said her baby had to be transferred directly to a hospital due to malnutrition.
Detainees in the rooms for women and “delinquents” had irregular access to drinking water, sometimes only once a day. “Sometimes we go an entire day without drinking water, and then they give a tiny amount that we all have to share,” said one interviewee who was held at Gikondo for almost all of April.
Sanitation and hygiene conditions are very poor, and many interviewees reported being allowed to wash at most once a week. One former detainee said: “When it’s time to wash, they take a 20-liter basin and around 20 to 30 people wash at the same time.” Former detainees said they were rarely given soap. The mother of a 3-year-old said: “We only washed once a day with filthy water that had worms in it, mostly without soap … we didn’t change our clothes.”
Three interviewees said that during their time at Gikondo, they saw or heard of detainees who had died due to the poor conditions and lack of appropriate medical care. “In the two weeks I spent [at Gikondo] there were three nights where we couldn’t sleep because there were too many people in the room,” said a 40-year-old street vendor detained at the transit center in April. “Two people died because of this treatment and illnesses…. They were ill and had diarrhea and skin rashes. They were refused permission to see a doctor, and one morning they were found dead. I don’t know what caused their death or what their names are.”
Human Rights Watch requested information on these allegations from the Justice Ministry and the National Rehabilitation Service but received no response and was not able to independently verify them.
Lack of Government Response; Criticism by Regional and International Entities
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which reviewed Rwanda’s record on January 27 and 28, 2020, said it was concerned that the reference to “deviant behaviors” in Rwanda’s legislation was leading to “the deprivation of liberty of children in need of protection.” The committee said the abusive detention should end and that the government should change the law.
During the committee’s review, the Rwandan government denied that the detention of street children in transit centers is arbitrary. The government also claimed that children in transit centers are either placed with a family or transferred to a “rehabilitation center” within 72 hours. These claims contradict reports by the National Commission for Children and the National Commission for Human Rights, as well as Human Rights Watch findings.
In response to the Human Rights Watch January 2020 report, then-Justice Minister Johnston Busingye was quoted in KT Press saying: “These children have been redeemed…. We believe they can become useful citizens…. HRW [Human Rights Watch] can come and interview them if they wish.” During Rwanda’s review by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the gender and family promotion minister, Soline Nyirahabimana, also said that independent observers should visit the center.
On December 4, 2020, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights held that states’ laws enabling the detention of people who, often because of poverty, are forced to live on the street, violate human rights law. The opinion issued in response to a request by the Pan African Lawyers Union, upheld the rights of people deemed “vagrants” by the state. The opinion concluded that laws permitting the forcible removal or warrantless arrest of a person declared to be a “vagrant,” violate the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights instruments.
On February 6, 2020, December 14, 2020, and August 23, 2021, Human Rights Watch wrote letters to then-Justice Minister Busingye following up on these statements, requesting access to Gikondo and other transit centers in Rwanda, and asking about steps taken by the Rwanda authorities to remedy the abusive legal framework governing its National Rehabilitation Service. He has not responded.
I have never met Samuel, the gay Kenyan protagonist of the acclaimed documentary “I Am Samuel.” But I feel as if I know him. Not only does filmmaker Peter Murimi’s quiet, steady, honest portrayal of Samuel’s daily life create a sense of intimacy and familiarity, but Samuel is the kind of person you know.
Because in spite of laws criminalizing their relationships, discrimination, and the threat of violence, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Kenya are ordinary people living ordinary lives. They work as construction workers, like Samuel; as hawkers (street vendors), nurses, accountants, and lawyers. If they live in Nairobi, like Samuel, they visit their families in “shags” (Nairobian slang for rural places of origin), and find both commonality and difference with rural relatives, who struggle to understand aspects of their urbanized lives. If they find love, a community of friends and often family members celebrates and supports them. Life isn’t easy when your government officially designates you a second-class citizen, but daily routines, challenges, and small joys remain, all of which are documented as part of Samuel’s life in Murimi’s film.
On September 23, Kenya’s Film Censorship Board (KFCB) slapped a ban on “I Am Samuel,” claiming the film contravenes Kenyan values. Which values? During my years living in Kenya, the values I saw in action every day included care and kindness, tolerance, and openness to difference. Kenya is diverse in every way: geographically, ethnically, religiously, and, yes, in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. For over a decade, LGBT people have publicly staked out their place within Kenya’s vibrant social fabric, challenging discrimination and claiming their rights.
KFCB may want to silence them with flimsy claims that reduce Samuel and his partner Alex’s rich relationship to a “same sex marriage agenda.” It will not succeed; censorship rarely does. Like the lesbian-themed film “Rafiki,” banned by KFCB in 2018, Samuel's story will be seen by Kenyans who will make up their own minds. In trying to force on the blinders to deny LGBT people’s existence and rights, KFCB is on the wrong side of history.
(Conakry) – The trial of suspects in the massacre of more than 150 people and the rape of dozens of women in a Guinea stadium on September 28, 2009, should begin as soon as possible, six human rights groups said today. Twelve years later, victims and their families should not have to wait any longer for justice to finally be delivered.
As Guinea embarks on a political transition process after the September 5, 2021 coup, the opening of this trial would send a strong signal that the authorities are willing to put respect for human rights and the fight against impunity at the center of their priorities.
The groups are the Association of Victims, Relatives and Friends of September 28, 2009 (AVIPA), Equal Rights for All (MDT), the Guinean Human and Citizen Rights Organization (OGDH), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.
Although 12 years have gone by, the need for justice remains as strong as ever for the survivors of the massacre and victims’ families. Just one year ago, the six groups had denounced the delays and time wasted in organizing the trial. The wait has become unbearable for the survivors and victims’ families, the groups said, given that the investigation phase concluded in late 2017. The Guinean government has promised several times to begin the trial as soon as possible, and no later than June 2020. The organizations remain concerned by an evident lack of will to complete preparations for this trial in Guinea.
In recent months, the steering committee overseeing the preparations for the trial, made up of government officials and international partners, had resumed its work and adopted a road map. Construction had progressed at Conakry’s Court of Appeal, where the trial is to take place, and a training session for judges was planned by the French government. However, despite these efforts, no trial date has yet been set.
“Given the deteriorating health of the survivors, we, together with the Association of Victims, Relatives and Friends of September 28, 2009, are calling for this year to be the last commemoration before justice is done,” said Aissatou Diallo, a survivor of the September 28 events. “It is urgent for the trial to be held and reparations awarded before all the victims die.”
The investigation by Guinean judges began in February 2010. More than 13 suspects were charged, 11 of whom were sent for trial. Among them is Moussa Dadis Camara, the former leader of the National Council for Democracy and Development junta that ruled Guinea in September 2009, who is living in exile in Burkina Faso. Some of the suspects who have been charged held influential positions until the recent coup, including Moussa Tiegboro Camara, who was in charge of fighting drug trafficking and organized crime.
The organizations are closely following Guinea’s period of political transition after the National Committee for Reconciliation and Development (Comité national du rassemblement et du développement, CNRD) took power on September 5, and reiterated their call for the respect of human rights and fundamental liberties of all Guineans. As the CNRD leader, Mamady Doumbouya, stated that “justice will be the compass guiding every Guinean citizen,” the fight against impunity should to be at the heart of the authorities’ actions, the groups said.
“It is more than urgent for Guinea to put an end to the cycle of impunity that has deeply marked the country’s history for more than 60 years,” the groups said. “We remind the authorities that international law requires states to provide effective remedies to victims of human rights violations and that any lack of justice or the adoption of an amnesty for serious crimes is incompatible with these requirements.”
“It is also essential for the new authorities to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders and activists who have suffered numerous violations of their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly for years,” the groups said. “The new authorities should make justice a prerequisite of their actions.”
The International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a preliminary examination of the situation in Guinea in October 2009. Designed as a court of last resort for the most serious crimes, the ICC steps in when national courts are unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute such cases. In its latest report, the ICC had expressed its disappointment that “the trial has not yet started and no timeline or action plan for the opening of the trial has been communicated by the Government of Guinea.” The ICC had indicated that “the Guinean authorities must demonstrate, in the coming months, their will and ability to combat impunity and to prevent renewed cycles of violence.”
Guinea’s partners, particularly the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the European Union, the ICC, and the United Nations should pay increased attention to the current situation in the country and strengthen their actions and support, on the one hand, for the September 28 trial to be organized as soon as possible, and on the other, for the new authorities in Guinea to respect human rights.
Shortly before noon on September 28, 2009, several hundred members of Guinea’s security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of people who had gathered peacefully at the 28 September stadium in Conakry for a march against Dadis Camara’s intention to run for president. The security forces also individually or gang raped more than 100 women and sexually assaulted some of them with objects such as batons or bayonets, during or soon after the events. The security forces killed more than 150 people and wounded hundreds of others.
The security forces then organized a cover-up operation, sealing off all the entrances to the stadium and morgues and removing the bodies to bury them in mass graves. Many of the graves have yet to be identified.
After the investigation was completed, in April 2018, the then-justice minister, Cheick Sako, set up a steering committee to organize the trial. It set Conakry’s Court of Appeal as the location.
In January 2020 justice minister Mohammed Lamine Fofana announced to the United Nations his government’s “unequivocal” support for opening the trial. Despite his announcement that proceedings would begin in June, following completion of construction on the courtroom facility, the trial did not move forward during this past year.
In June Mory Doumbouya was appointed justice minister. Minister Doumbouya said that he supported the trial, but that the judiciary was responsible for organizing it.
“My parents warned me they will kill me if I ever leave this shelter,” Najla, a woman of about 30, told me. “The worst thing is that I don’t have anyone to support me.” She has been in a shelter in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat for several years, ever since she went to the police to report her husband, who had repeatedly beaten her. When I spoke with her, her husband was being prosecuted but the court had not yet reached a verdict.
The case of Najla, a pseudonym, is similar to those of many women and girls I spoke with who had tried to pursue justice in cases of family violence. Their only legal tool was Afghanistan’s Elimination of Violence Against Women law, one of the most important developments for women in Afghanistan in the post-2001 era. Adopted in 2009, the law provides women and girls with legal protection from domestic violence, and established services for survivors of violence, including access to free health care, legal aid, and shelters.
For many women fleeing violence, shelters – which were entirely funded by foreign donors –were the only refuge. Filing a complaint about family violence or sexual assault has never been easy, but with access to these shelters some women were able to escape harmful environments and start new lives. Many are dealing with anxiety and other effects of the years of abuse they experienced, for which there are few resources to help them.
Maryam, a pseudonym, who was 17 when I interviewed her at a shelter in the city of Bamiyan, had been raped and was being pressured by her family to marry the perpetrator. She refused to do so, and instead took refuge in the shelter to protect herself from her own relatives.
With the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, the future for Maryam, Najla, and other women and girls like them is bleak. The prosecutors, judges, and lawyers who had tried to provide women with a measure of justice are in hiding themselves, fearing reprisals by the Taliban. And with shelters closing, those who called them home have no choice but to return to their abusive families. Afghanistan’s hard-won progress on women’s rights is abruptly disappearing before their eyes.
Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will hold its party presidential election on September 29. The winner will almost certainly become Japan's next prime minister.
Four candidates – two women and two men – are running: the former foreign affairs and defense minister, Taro Kono; the former foreign minister, Fumio Kishida; the former communications minister, Sanae Takaichi; and the former internal affairs and communications minister, Seiko Noda.
Japan has long been one of Asia’s rights-respecting democracies. But despite widespread abuses and suffering in the region, successive governments have done little to promote respect for human rights or democracy in its foreign policy. Whether it’s severely oppressed Uyghurs or Tibetans in China, people in Myanmar standing up against the military junta, or Cambodians taking great risks for free and fair elections, Japanese leaders almost invariably side with those in power over the population.
Japan should reverse course.
In recent years, many countries, including in the European Union, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom have enacted so-called global Magnitsky-style laws, which impose sanctions on human rights violators abroad with visa bans and asset freezes.
Japan is the only country among the Group of Seven (G7) economic powers that does not have such a law. But in an encouraging sign, elected officials in Japan are now discussing it. In May, the Nonpartisan Parliamentary Association for Reconsidering Human Rights Diplomacy issued a draft bill outline, which would allow for the freezing of assets and the denial of entry into Japan of serious violators of international human rights law. Also in May, the LDP’s foreign policy committee’s human rights diplomacy team recommended that outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga start discussing the introduction of such a law.
Ahead of the LDP elections, Human Rights Watch and other organizations asked all four candidates to commit to introducing such a law if they became LDP president.
Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi, and Seiko Noda said they would, while Taro Kono would not commit one way or the other.
Japan’s next prime minister, the LDP, and all Japanese political parties should endorse the introduction of a global Magnitsky-style law so that Japan can promote greater respect for human rights around the globe.
＜Details of the responses from the candidates＞Responses from the candidates Responses from the candidates
On Friday, September 24, young climate activists from around the world will be marching once again to call on governments to cut carbon emissions and tackle the climate crisis. Millions marched in 2019, but this will be the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic that a large global strike appears possible again in several countries. Fridays for Future has registered over 1,300 climate strikes for that day. While the majority are planned in Europe, marches are also happening in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The young protesters say loud and clear that climate action is more urgent than ever; something recently confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and illustrated by this year’s forest fires, heat, floods, and other extreme weather events linked to a warming planet. The youth climate activists call upon today’s leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 C° by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Greta Thunberg will join the march in Berlin, where the climate strike takes place just two days before national elections. The German elections will determine the country’s approach to the climate crisis at a critical moment. Germany is still the European Union’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, contributing to the climate crisis which is causing ever-increasing damage to the protection of human rights around the globe. Germany’s current efforts to reduce emissions are insufficient to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, necessary to limit the most catastrophic climate outcomes. Thunberg says she is joining in Berlin “because a lot is at stake in Germany,” emphasizing that she is not supporting a particular political party.
The climate crisis is a children’s rights crisis. All over the world, children face death, illness, hunger, displacement, and other serious impacts from forest fires, droughts, storms, floods, and rising temperatures due to inadequate government action on the climate crisis. Children’s lives, and those of future generations, are at stake. The young protesters marching this week know this. Leaders in Germany and around the world should listen carefully.
Thank you, Madam President.
South Sudanese continue to live in a context of widespread impunity and insecurity, which threatens the enjoyment of their most fundamental rights, and highlights the ongoing need for Human Rights Council scrutiny.
We welcome the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan’s recent findings exposing widespread corruption and embezzlement of public funds by government officials, which deprives the South Sudanese people of critical funding, and undermines the government’s ability to meet the needs of the millions who are currently food insecure and to protect the rights to health and education.
Impunity for serious crimes under international law is the norm. We remain seriously concerned that South Sudan’s authorities are not prepared to live up to their commitments under the revitalized accord to ensure perpetrators are held to criminal account fairly. The Government and the African Union Commission have yet to finalize the establishment of the hybrid court.
Widespread rights violations persist.
Repression of domestic dissent is on the rise. Since July, following calls for peaceful protests by a civic action coalition, the authorities detained political activists, shut down a thinktank linked to the coalition, harassed the press and threatened to use live ammunition against protestors.
Security forces in Warrap state under the orders of the state governor summarily executed at least eight suspected criminals, including two children, as part of an anti-crime campaign. The UN peacekeeping mission documented similar patterns of arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions in both Warrap and Lakes states.
Against this backdrop, robust international monitoring and reporting by the Commission, along with concerted efforts to ensure their recommendations are implemented, remain critical.
Imagine that during a national emergency, you and your loved ones are at risk. The government is announcing information that could have a profound impact on your safety, but you don’t have access to it because it hasn’t been made available to you.
This is the situation many deaf people have found themselves in during the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, when important information was broadcast on TV, often it was not made available in sign language. And safety measures such as wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing made communication more complicated. As schools around the world closed due to the pandemic, remote learning alternatives often failed to meet the needs of children who use sign language, leaving them isolated and excluded from schooling for extended periods of time.
But even without an ongoing crisis, Human Rights Watch research has found that people who are deaf and hard of hearing face numerous barriers to accessing information and basic services. In Russia, Iran, Zambia, and other countries, lack of sign language interpreters and information in accessible formats prevent deaf people from accessing healthcare. “Whenever I go to a hospital without someone to interpret for me, they write on a piece of paper that I should come back and bring someone with me,” said a woman with a hearing disability in Gaza. “This experience made me feel less of a person.”
Our research in China, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, and Nepal found that deaf children face barriers in accessing education in sign language, while in many other countries, including India and Peru, communication barriers hinder access to public services.
"Sign language should be respected just as any other language. It’s our fundamental right and it enables us to communicate and be equal members of our communities," said Jenny Nilsson, member of Human Rights Watch Disability Rights Advisory Committee and Ombudsman for children with disabilities in Sweden.
Today we celebrate the International Day of Sign Languages under the theme “We Sign For Human Rights.” As governments continue to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and plan to “build back better,” they should ensure the human rights of people who are deaf and hard of hearing are respected and they are equally and meaningfully included in society.
(New York) – The Taliban in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat are committing widespread and serious human rights violations against women and girls, Human Rights Watch and the San Jose State University (SJSU) Human Rights Institute said today. Since taking over the city on August 12, 2021, the Taliban have instilled fear among women and girls by searching out high-profile women; denying women freedom of movement outside their homes; imposing compulsory dress codes; severely curtailing access to employment and education; and restricting the right to peaceful assembly.
Women in Herat told the two organizations that their lives had been completely upended the day the Taliban took control of the city. The women had been employed outside their homes or were students and played active and often leadership roles in their community. They said that immediately after the Taliban’s arrival, they found themselves trapped indoors, afraid to leave their house without a male family member or because of dress restrictions, with their access to education and employment fundamentally changed or ended entirely. They said they faced economic anxieties due to lost income and their inability to work. They also faced distress and other mental health consequences as they contemplated an abrupt end to the dreams they had worked toward for many years.
“For the women in Herat we interviewed, life as they knew it had vanished overnight, and they were left hiding indoors, waiting in fear to see whether the Taliban would come for them,” said Halima Kazem-Stojanovic, a core faculty member of SJSU’s Human Rights Institute and a scholar on Afghanistan. “For these women, the best-case scenario is to be unharmed but forced to live a drastically diminished existence. The worst-case scenario is to be arrested or attacked for their past achievements or for their fight to keep their hard-earned rights.”
Human Rights Watch and the SJSU Human Rights Institute conducted in-depth interviews by telephone in Dari with seven women in Herat, including activists, educators, and university students, about their experiences since the Taliban took over the city. The women all spoke on the condition of anonymity, out of fear for their safety.
Women in Herat were among the first to organize protests in defense of women’s rights after the Taliban gained control of Kabul and most of the country. Organizers and protesters said they were not engaging in anti-Taliban protests or supporting the former government but were calling for the Taliban to respect their rights: to live without fear of reprisal against them and their family members; to be able to continue going to their jobs without requiring a mahram (male family member as a chaperone); and to have girls above grade six return to school.
Within days of the Taliban takeover of Herat, a group of women asked to meet with local Taliban leaders to discuss their rights, and several days later they were able to meet with a Taliban representative. However, the official was inflexible: he told the women to stop insisting on their rights and that if they supported the Taliban, they would be rewarded with full amnesty for their past activities and maybe even get positions in the new government.
Some of the women felt they had no choice but to protest and organized two demonstrations. About 60 to 80 women attended the first one, on September 2, and the Taliban did not intervene. But the Taliban’s response to the second protest, on September 7, was violent and abusive. Taliban fighters lashed protesters and fired weapons indiscriminately to disperse the crowd, killing two men and wounding at least eight more. The Taliban subsequently banned protests that did not have prior approval from the Justice Ministry in Kabul, ordering organizers to include information about the purpose of any protests and slogans to be used in any requests to the ministry.
“Afghan women have the right to express their views on any matter, especially when their most basic rights – to study, work, and even leave their own homes – are in jeopardy,” said Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The Taliban compound the abuses they are committing against women when they also deny them their right to speak out.”
The women interviewed expressed particular concern that the Taliban would again enforce the policy of requiring them to have a mahram with them whenever they left their home, as the Taliban did when they were previously in power, from 1996 to 2001. This requirement barred women from most public life, cut them off from education, employment, and social life, and made getting health care difficult. It also and made them completely dependent on male family members, blocking them from escaping if they experienced abuse at home.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, said in an interview in Kabul on September 7 that being accompanied by a mahram would only be required for travels longer than three days, not for daily activities such as attending work, school, shopping, medical appointments, and other needs. But Taliban officials in Herat have not been consistent in carrying out the policy. Some of the women interviewed said that Taliban fighters had stopped them on the streets, at universities, and other public places, and barred them from going about their business if they were not accompanied by a mahram.
“The experience of women in Herat raises grave concerns about the extent to which the Taliban leadership in Kabul is able or willing to control the actions of their members across the country on human rights, including women’s rights,” Kazem-Stojanovic said. “The Taliban leadership should ensure that their statements upholding rights are respected in practice in all Afghan provinces. Claims by Taliban leaders to respect women’s rights will be meaningless if women and girls have to live in constant fear of abuse by the Taliban on their street.”
For detailed accounts by the women interviewed, please see below.
Panic and a Rush to Hide
Afghan women interviewed described the Taliban takeover of Herat as a shocking surprise. “Every day we were dressing the way we dressed in the past, and we were getting ready to go to work, to our job and duties,” said a university professor. “And we were hearing reports of Taliban capturing districts, but it was impossible for us to believe that [the] Taliban could defeat [the] government.”
The women said that based on past experiences of living under Taliban rule or hearing about life under the Taliban from others, they were fearful as the Taliban gained control of the city. “Seeing the Taliban is horrifying,” a school director said. “My body shakes just seeing them.”
“The first days, I couldn’t talk, couldn’t show any emotion,” the university professor said. “Twenty years ran through my memory. I worried so much. I had to go to a psychologist. I had no hope and was depressed.” Several women said they were anxious about the disappearance of the police as the Taliban rolled into the city and feared that crime and violence would escalate. Reports that the Taliban had released the city’s prisoners heightened their fears.
The women said that the Taliban who took charge of the city included people they knew and who also knew them. A professor discovered that one of her students was the sibling of a Taliban member. A student described a male classmate taunting women in the class chat group with his delight over the Taliban’s triumph.
A teacher said she fled from fighting in her area to what she thought would be the safety of her in-laws’ home, only to find her brothers-in-law jubilant over the Taliban’s triumph. “I thought they were friends, but they [were like the] Taliban,” she said, adding that they insisted that her 10-year-old daughter had to wear a long veil. “My brothers-in-law turned against me,” she said. “They told me to wear a burqa. …They were telling me, ‘You made a lot of efforts for 20 years, and what is that? Your work was useless, baseless, and Sharia [Islamic law] is victorious.’ Things like that.”
Others worried that acquaintances might report them to the Taliban. “I fear people might tell the Taliban about me regarding complaints I have made over the years about men and people who have harassed my students,” the school director said.
Interviewees described a frantic scramble to conceal evidence of their prior lives and activities that might lead to reprisals against them and others, should it fall into the hands of the Taliban. Taliban forces have in the past committed reprisals against people seeking to educate girls. “I had to run to my school and hide everything,” the school director said. “Photos, awards, certificates on the halls of the school. Prizes we had won. I called co-workers to come help collect it all, put them in boxes, and put them away.”
Women feared not only for themselves, but also that the Taliban might target their family members in retaliation for their women’s work and activism. The Taliban have a history of abusing family members of people they seek to punish.
Taliban Searches for High-Profile Women
The women interviewed said that they had heard reports that the Taliban had searched for at least some women’s rights activists and high-profile women in Herat, and one of the women had seen her own name on a Taliban flyer. One woman said that elders in her neighborhood told her that the Taliban had come to them with a list of 25 high-profile women, including her, and had asked them for help finding those women. The elders said they protected her by saying they did not know her. “Those 25 were with big organizations, government offices, and were reporters, civil society activists, and those who spoke against the Taliban in the media or criticized the Taliban – they said all were listed there.” She named several high-ranking female members of the former provincial government whom she said were also reportedly listed.
A professor active in women’s rights said: “Now when I go out, I have the veil on. I cover my whole body and I try to be very organized not to be recognized because I heard and I see that the Taliban are in a clash with those women and girls who were previously active and civil society activists, and they do not like those women and girls. They consider those women and girls to be not Muslim and things like that.”
Barriers to Flight
The frantic rush by many Afghans to Kabul’s airport after the Taliban takeover included women’s rights activists and high-profile women who feared being targeted. In Herat, the Taliban takeover happened so swiftly and unexpectedly that there was almost no chance to flee, as the airport closed abruptly. Some women interviewed said that they feel they have no choice but to flee the country but are unsure of when and how that will be possible, and whether they will be able to remain safe until they can escape.
One woman was able to flee the city by bus but said that she was able to do so only because she was accompanied by a mahram. The bus driver was not allowing women onto the bus without a male relative for fear that the Taliban would punish him. She described feeling terrified as they passed through checkpoints in various provinces.
“I want to leave Afghanistan; my life is not the same,” a woman running a school said, but she did not know how this would be possible. “All the borders are closed. It is not easy to get into Iran now, and there are no flights out of Kabul.”
Others wrestled with whether to stay or go. “I have never been out of the country,” a professor said. “And I really do not want to leave the country. But you know, if the situation stays like this, and that results in threats to my family and myself, then I'll have no other choice than leaving the country.”
Freedom of Movement
Overnight, women in Herat found themselves virtual prisoners in their own homes. “I used to be out from 8 a.m. until late afternoon for work, teaching, and social activism reasons,” one woman said. “I was one of the courageous ones. Now I haven’t been out except for taking my mom to the hospital and for that, I had to go with my brother.”
A university student who had left her home only twice since the Taliban takeover said, “It's not ordinary; you have no studies, no lessons, nothing. Just looking at the walls. And this is like a prison, and it did cause depression for us and most of the women and girls that I speak with.”
A homemaker living outside Herat city said she used to travel alone by bus into the city, but can no longer do so without a mahram and a burqa, so she does not go: “We used to go to friends' houses, to the store, to the park, the river, and to other recreational places…. We can't even leave the house now. I used to go with my girls, now I can't…. In the past, we used to leave the main door to our compound open but now we lock it.”
Women are confined to their homes in part because of their fears, but those who have ventured out often find that their fears are justified as they deal with harassment and abuse from Taliban members. Although a Taliban spokesperson in Kabul said a mahram was not required for daily activities, some Taliban members on the streets of Herat are taking a different view.
A professor described the gap that she sees between Taliban statements and the reality: “There is a big difference between the words and action of the Taliban: what they say in Dubai and Qatar, and what they do, actually, in Herat.… I don't think what the leaders of the Taliban are saying in the media – international media – reflects exactly the things that you're seeing in practice and how they behave with people.”
“A neighbor friend went to the store with my cousin,” a student said. “The Taliban stopped them and said, ‘Call your mahram.’ They had to wait in a street for an hour for the girl’s fiancé to come and then had to lie about him being the other girl’s brother.… The Taliban allowed them to leave and told them not to come out without a mahram.” Another woman described her colleague going to a government office to try to get a passport and being turned away because she was not escorted by a male family member. A student said that the Taliban rules give even boys power over the women in their families: “I have a 16-year-old brother. He can be my mahram under the Taliban rules. Even a 5 or 6-year-old boy can be a mahram to his mother or sister.”
Even if the Taliban only occasionally stopped women who went out without a mahram, women and girls still feel insecure and are unable to leave their homes, including to commute to school or work, cutting them off from daily activities. The professor said:
I was a brave woman, and I didn't think I would be like this. I think I lost my morale and courage now, and I haven't been out of the house or home [by myself] even once since the return of the Taliban.… I'm unmarried and my brother is out of the house, and if I need anything – medicine, food, and other items that are needed for the house – what should I do? How can I provide those things for myself?
She believed she would have no choice but to quit her job as her brother would not be able to escort her to and from work each day.
Two unmarried women said they now felt they had to consider getting married out of fear that they will not be able to work or move around the city anymore without a mahram. “I don’t want to get married,” a woman in her early 30s said. “I have more goals to accomplish, I don’t want to be forced into a marriage. The life I imagined isn’t going to happen.”
Another woman considering marriage said:
We are currently looking at a situation where we don't have freedom, we don't have food, we don't have independence.… I have to find a scenario for my life. And the traditional scenario in Afghanistan is this [getting married]. I decided wisely not to get married and to work for women and the long-term goals that I have, so there is equality in the society. And now? What should I do now?
Compulsory Dress Codes
Another factor keeping women from leaving their homes is the fear of Taliban harassment over their clothing, and lack of clarity regarding the Taliban’s rules regarding women’s dress. When the Taliban gained control of the city, women were suddenly afraid to go out wearing less than the full covering the Taliban had demanded when in power 20 years ago. Some women said they rushed to buy a burqa from the bazaar because they had never owned or worn one before.
Taliban leaders in Kabul have not provided clear guidance on what women should wear, aside from general statements about the need for women to observe hijab and some specific, and very restrictive, guidance for women participating in higher education. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters in Herat are imposing their own rules, which are often very restrictive.
A teacher said that an armed Taliban member stopped her on the street and told her to wear a face covering and to cover her hands. Her husband responded apologetically to the fighter, saying she would obey. The teacher said she wanted to object but her husband did not let her speak: “My husband said, ‘If you spoke there the Taliban would have beaten me and you, and nobody would say anything. So it’s better that you were silent.’ So, in that way I didn’t say anything.”
A professor said someone she knew was stopped on the street for wearing shoes that exposed her bare feet. “The Taliban member fired some bullets and shots so close to her feet and warned her that she should not come out like that or dress like that in the future,” she said. “And that incident really shocked the whole of Herat, and it gave a lesson to all the women of Herat that a woman should wear socks and that women should wear those long veils … and should cover the whole body.” Men also faced restrictions, being told by the Taliban that they must only wear traditional – not Western – clothing.
Access to Employment
Barriers to women’s freedom of movement and fears of Taliban abuses have directly affected women’s ability to work. Fear of armed Taliban members in the streets and that they will enter workplaces has left many women in Herat scared of going back to work, even after primary schools and businesses reopened on September 4. “I have only gone to work four days in the past month because I am afraid the Taliban will come looking for me at my job because I was part of the protests,” said a school employee.
There are also new direct restrictions on women being permitted to work. The Taliban have said that some women are permitted to resume their jobs, especially if they work in health and education. However, the women interviewed said that many female teachers who taught boys after sixth or seventh grade have been dismissed from their jobs. The Taliban have imposed new restrictions related to gender segregation, limited roles for women, and made changes in permissible women’s dress that limit women’s ability to fully participate at work and violate their right to free expression.
One woman visiting her university to get a copy of her diploma found that classes were suspended but offices were open. “They have separated the offices for men and women, and there is a curtain in the corridor,” she said. “On one side, there are women and on the other side the men.… There were three women, all of them having [surgical] face masks [to prevent Covid-19].” A school employee said, “We may be able to work but our dreams are zero now. We can’t raise our voices anymore.”
Several women said that their immediate fear was being unable to work. Without employment, their families lose crucial income needed to survive at a time when the United Nations Development Program warns that 97 percent of Afghans could be below the poverty line by mid-2022. “Until our women can go back to our work, we won’t support the Taliban regime,” an activist said. Desperation about being able to work was the main factor prompting the protests women organized in Herat on September 2 and 7.
Women have also been affected by the many men who have lost their jobs or cannot find work. “There is no work,” the homemaker said. “All the jobs are closed, especially for illiterate workers … There is no fighting. But there is fear, men and women are fearful.”
Access to Education
Secondary schools in Herat and the rest of the country have remained closed for girls, although they reopened for boys on September 18. “Still no girls and boys past sixth grade [the last grade in primary school] are going to school.” a professor said before boys’ schools reopened. “They want to paralyze society.”
Even before the Taliban issued new rules, the Taliban and school officials had already informed women who taught older boys that they no longer have jobs. “I was a teacher at a boys’ school for grade nine,” one teacher said. “I’m not allowed in my school anymore.” She said the provincial education director explained the new rules: no women may teach boys above grade six or seven, and all staff of the school have to be the same gender as the students. “Even the doorkeeper of the school is not allowed to enter a girls’ school if it is a man, or, if it is a woman, she cannot enter a boys’ school,” she said. She said the majority of the female teachers at her school had been dismissed because of this new rule.
Women teaching at universities had been told that they may only teach women, and several of those interviewed raised concerns that the Taliban will ban women from studying some subjects, such as law.
Women’s fear of going to work or inability to travel without a mahram has also disrupted education for students of female teachers. “I haven’t been to the university since [the Taliban takeover],” a professor said, adding that many of her students call her. “When they speak with me, they are not in a good condition. They are distraught, crying, and things like that. They're saying that they belong to a generation that is so unlucky and living in darkness and uncertainty. And I don't have any answer to the kinds of questions they raise, really.”
Efforts to Negotiate With the Taliban
As Taliban forces entered Herat, networks of women who had worked together for years advocating women’s rights quickly dispersed. One woman cried as she described a chat group she belongs to with other activists: “After the return of the Taliban, everybody was silent. And they were leaving the group's virtual chats…. I was telling them, ‘Don't leave! You are leaders, you are fighters, you should not submit so easily!’ But they deactivated their Facebook pages, and they removed all the pictures from their profile pictures. So suddenly silence conquered everywhere.”
A woman living outside the city said: “I was in our village women's shura [council] and we had programs and projects. We had a budget as well. We were active right until we found out that the Taliban were coming. The women know the Taliban will not agree with these activities.”
Within days, however, some women began contacting each other searching for solutions. “A group of women went to the provincial headquarters to meet with the Taliban representatives,” an activist said. “They wanted to demand their rights back.”
The women first sought a meeting two days after the Taliban took over the city. They were initially refused but were granted a meeting two days later with a lone Taliban official. He seemed deeply uncomfortable, telling them it was a sin for him to hear a woman’s voice or meet with women. “We had questions like, when can we go back to our offices? And when would the universities open?” an activist said.
Women leaders were eventually able to have some discussions with two Taliban officials, but without significant concessions or assurances on the issues the women were concerned about: their freedom of movement, especially whether they would need to have a mahram with them at all times; whether they would be able to work, in what occupations, and how soon; and whether girls and women would be able to continue their education, at all levels and in all disciplines.
The response from the officials was to lecture them that they should leave their homes only when absolutely necessary and with a male family member. For unmarried women who did not have a male family member, they suggested the solution was to marry. Employment for women, the women were told, would be permitted only in areas in which the Taliban felt it was necessary for women to do jobs, presumably some education and healthcare roles working with girls and women. The officials emphasized that the Taliban had made a concession by allowing girls even primary education and said girls could have basic education by learning to read and write, and that would suffice. They urged the women to support the Taliban and warned of harsh action if they opposed the Taliban or protested.
Protest and a Violent Response
After the meetings with the Taliban officials, the activists felt they had no choice but to protest. One woman said, “The group of women I was with today cried and said, ‘Why are we left in this position after 20 years and millions of dollars spent on women’s projects and programs?’”
They said they had enormous fears about how the Taliban would respond. One messaged an author of this report the night before the first protest, saying the women felt they could not live under these conditions anymore. She said she was writing to say goodbye in case something happened, and she was killed the next day.
Women participating in the first demonstration, on September 2, did not face abuse and the protest ended peacefully. But the Taliban responded to the second demonstration, on September 7, with violence. Taliban fighters lashed protesters with whips and fired indiscriminately to disperse the crowd, killing two men and wounding at least eight bystanders and participants. Taliban attacks on protests by women’s rights activists in other cities escalated in the following days, with beatings directed at protesters and journalists covering the protests and shooting in the air. On September 8 the Taliban banned protests conducted without prior approval from the Justice Ministry.
The Taliban should fully respect all women’s rights and ensure full gender equality in accordance with Afghanistan’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and other human rights treaties to which Afghanistan is a party.
As urgent interim steps, Taliban leaders in Herat should:Clarify that women and girls are free to leave their homes at any time, alone or with others, and dress as they choose, with no need to be accompanied by a mahram; Appropriately discipline Taliban members and supporters who harass and intimidate women and girls, and establish a meaningful system for women and girls to report abuses; Reopen government secondary schools and universities to women and girls, and encourage and facilitate the reopening of private educational institutions for girls and women; Permit all women to participate in any form of employment.