Votes for women? Not without facial recognition technology in Afghanistan

Votes for women? Not without facial recognition technology in Afghanistan
By Rina Chandran

KABUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The first female founder of an Afghan political party has urged the country to rethink the use of facial recognition technology in elections amid concerns it stopped large numbers of women from voting this year.

Authorities photographed all voters in September’s presidential election and used facial recognition software, a measure designed to combat fraud that women’s rights activists say deterred female voters from participating.

“Women should be able to vote – it is their right. So anything that impedes that right is a problem,” the politician and women’s rights campaigner Fawzia Koofi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Kabul.

“Security and fraud are serious issues, but perhaps there are alternatives like iris scans that are more acceptable to women,” said Koofi, leader of the Movement of Change for Afghanistan party and a former deputy speaker of parliament.

“We have to find a way that is sensitive to their needs.”

A spokesman for Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) said biometric images of women were taken by female staff where possible and the pictures were stored securely in a digital database.

“This was part of the election reforms we have undertaken to curb fraud and for greater transparency. In the past, men were voting in the name of women without any checks,” said IEC spokesman Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi.

“Some women agreed to have their pictures taken, others did not. Perhaps our awareness campaign on the technology did not reach everyone, but that can be addressed in future.”

Only a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots in September’s election after threats of violence by the Taliban who considered it to be illegitimate and warned people not to take part.

The photo requirement is particularly difficult for women, especially in conservative areas, where most adult women and older girls cover their faces outside the home and do not show themselves to men who are not their relatives.

No official data for female voter turnout in the September elections is available, but Sheila Qayumi at the non-profit Equality for Peace and Democracy in Kabul said women made up only a fraction of voters.

“They were not comfortable showing their faces in public, or were not sure how their pictures would be used,” she said.

“These cultural sensitivities must be taken into account, and women informed properly. Or we risk losing their say in the affairs of the country,” said Qayumi, whose organisation works on raising women’s participation in politics.

The roll-out of facial recognition technology in airports, metro stations and other public places around the world poses a challenge to women who veil their face anywhere, said Areeq Chowdhury, founder of London-based think tank Future Advocacy.

He said governments must ensure this is done in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner so the rights and freedoms of minority groups are not impacted.

“If there is no suitable opt-out, and women are forced to show their face in public in order to exercise their democratic right, then this is hugely problematic,” he said.

“I would seriously question the need to have such stringent voter ID requirements for any election in any country.”

Women were already underrepresented in Afghanistan’s election process, accounting for a third of more than 9.6 million registered voters, according to the IEC.

During their strict Islamist rule from 1996-2001, the Afghan Taliban banned women from education, voting and most work. Women were not allowed to leave their homes without permission and a male escort.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

European Court says Russia not facing up to domestic abuse problem

FILE PHOTO: The building of the European Court of Human Rights is seen in Strasbourg, France March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia failed to protect a woman from repeated acts of violence by her former partner, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday, saying her case showed that Moscow was not facing up to its domestic abuse problem.

Valeriya Volodina, who now uses a different name for security reasons, was assaulted, kidnapped and stalked by her former partner after she left him in 2015 and moved out of their shared home in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk, the court said.

The police never opened a criminal investigation into violence and threats that she reported to them from January 2016 to March 2018, it said in its statement.

In one such episode, she was forced to have an abortion after he punched her in the face and stomach when she was pregnant. In other incidents, the partner, whom she met in 2014, cut her car’s brake hose and stole her identity papers, it said.

After she moved to Moscow, Volodina discovered a GPS tracker planted in her bag and the former partner, identified only as S., subsequently started stalking her outside her home and attempted to drag her from a taxi.

The court in Strasbourg said Russia’s police had interviewed the partner and carried out pre-investigation inquiries but not opened formal proceedings against him as it deemed that “no publicly prosecutable offense had been committed”.

Russian legislation does not define or mention domestic violence as a separate offense or aggravating element in other offenses and there is no mechanism for imposing restraining or protection orders, the court said.

“Those failings clearly demonstrated that the authorities were reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of the problem of domestic violence in Russia and its discriminatory effect on women,” the court said in a statement.

Each year, about 14,000 women die in Russia at the hands of husbands or other relatives, according to a 2010 United Nations report.

Police finally opened a criminal investigation only in March 2018 when the partner circulated photographs of her on social networks without her consent, the court said.

The court said Russia’s response had been “manifestly inadequate” and ruled unanimously there had been two violations of the European Convention on human rights, one on the prohibition of discrimination and the other on the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment.

Russia’s Justice Ministry said it had three months to decide whether to appeal against the ruling, but that it would study the findings of the court, Interfax news agency reported.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

U.S. senators say Saudi crown prince has gone ‘full gangster’

Retired four-star Army General John Abizaid testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Retired Army General John Abizaid, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia, defended the U.S.-Saudi relationship on Wednesday as lawmakers accused the kingdom of a litany of misdeeds and criticized its crown prince as going “full gangster.”

Senators at Abizaid’s confirmation hearing, Trump’s fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, condemned the kingdom’s conduct in the civil war in Yemen, heavy-handed diplomacy and rights abuses including torturing women’s rights activists and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Abizaid called for accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, and support for human rights, but repeatedly stressed the importance of Washington-Riyadh ties.

Despite increasing tension between the two countries, the United States has not had an ambassador there since Trump became president in January 2017.

“In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Abizaid told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is in our interests to make sure that the relationship is sound.”

Abizaid, a retired four-star Army general, led U.S. Central Command during the Iraq war. Expected to easily win Senate confirmation, he was praised by senators from both parties at the hearing.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Riyadh government, was killed at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in October. His death fueled simmering discontent in Washington over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and heavy civilian casualties in Yemen’s civil war, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The House of Representatives has passed a war powers resolution that would end all U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, but Abizaid said the Trump administration believes strongly that U.S. support should continue.

“Doing so bolsters the self-defense capabilities of our partners and reduces the risk of harm to civilians,” Abizaid said.

‘FULL GANGSTER’

The measure passed the Senate last year, but must go through the chamber again this year to be sent to the White House, where Trump is expected to issue a veto. However, its support in Congress is considered a strong rebuke of Riyadh.

Lawmakers have been strongly critical of Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince. Some blame him for Khashoggi’s killing and other human rights abuses.

Eleven suspects have been indicted in Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder, and last month a top Saudi official rejected accusations that the crown prince ordered the killing.

Republican Senator Jim Risch, the committee’s chairman, said Washington needed to send a strong message to Saudi Arabia about actions that he said are complicating the relationship.

“It’s going to have to be addressed by the Saudis and by the Crown Prince,” Risch said.

“The Crown Prince has launched Saudi Arabia into a devastating war in Yemen, isolated Qatar, threatening Gulf cooperation and coordination against threats from Iran and regional terrorist groups, detained and tortured members of his own family and effectively hoodwinked and intimidated the Lebanese prime minister,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s top Democrat.

As Abizaid’s hearing continued, at least two Republicans said bin Salman had gone “full gangster.”

One, Republican Marco Rubio, cited a long list of actions including the imprisonment of women’s rights activists and the 2017 detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.

Abizaid said in prepared remarks that the Islamic State militant group has been “nearly vanquished on the ground,” but remains a “potent threat” to the United States and its allies.

While contradicted by some U.S. military and intelligence officials, Trump has declared that Islamic State has been driven out of all its territory since announcing in December that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. He claimed that U.S.-led forces had succeeded in their mission to defeat the militant group.

Since then, Trump has decided to leave hundreds of U.S. troops in the country over the longer run.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Supreme Court justice Ginsburg ‘up and working’ after fall

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg participates in taking a new family photo with her fellow justices at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Andrew Chung and Simon Thompson

WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is already up and working in her hospital room, a day after breaking three ribs in a fall, her nephew said late on Thursday at the Hollywood premiere of a film about her life.

Ginsburg, a ground-breaking liberal jurist who at 85 is the oldest U.S. Supreme Court justice, was hospitalized on Thursday after falling at her office at the court, a court spokeswoman said.

“The last I heard she was up and working, of course, because what else would she be doing, and cracking jokes,” her nephew Daniel Stiepleman said at the premiere of the film “On the Basis of Sex”, about a gender-based discrimination case Ginsburg tried as a young lawyer in 1972.

“I can’t promise they were good jokes but they were jokes,” said Stiepleman, who wrote the script for the film with input from the justice herself.

Ginsburg, who made her name as an advocate for women’s rights, is one of four liberals sitting on the court, to which she was appointed in 1993 by then President Bill Clinton.

The court’s 5-4 conservative majority was restored last month when the Senate confirmed Republican President Donald Trump’s appointee Brett Kavanaugh after a contentious nomination process in which Kavanaugh denied a sexual assault allegation from his youth.

Ginsburg went home after the fall but experienced discomfort overnight and went to George Washington University Hospital on Thursday morning, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said in a statement.

Tests showed Ginsburg fractured three ribs on her left side and she was admitted for observation and treatment, Arberg added. The court is due to hear its next arguments on Nov. 26.

If Ginsburg were unable to continue serving, Trump could replace her with a conservative, further shifting the court to the right. A potentially dominant 6-3 conservative majority would have major consequences for issues including abortion, the death penalty, voting rights, gay rights and religious liberty.

As the oldest justice, Ginsburg is closely watched for any signs of deteriorating health. She has bounced back from previous medical issues and has fallen twice before at her home, in 2012 and 2013, leading to rib injuries. She was treated in 1999 for colon cancer and again in 2009 for pancreatic cancer, but did not miss any argument sessions either time.

In 2014, doctors placed a stent in her right coronary artery to improve blood flow after she reported discomfort following routine exercise. She was released from a hospital the next day.

Trump went to the court on Thursday for a ceremony welcoming Kavanaugh to the nation’s highest court. Kavanaugh was sworn in to the lifetime job last month. The president sat with first lady Melania Trump at the front of the marble-walled courtroom near the justices’ mahogany bench, making no public remarks.

Some leading congressional Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and outspoken Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham, attended. The event came a day after Trump fired Jeff Sessions as attorney general; Matthew Whitaker, who Trump named as Sessions’ interim replacement, participated.

CRITICAL COMMENTS

Ginsburg called Trump an egotistical “faker” when he was running for president in 2016, in an unusual foray into politics by a justice. Trump responded, saying her “mind is shot” and she should resign. Ginsburg later expressed regret, saying “judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office.”

She is a hero among many U.S. liberals, who revere her as “The Notorious R.B.G”, a nickname based on a late rap star. A documentary film about her, “RBG,” was released earlier this year, and the Hollywood biopic will be released on Christmas.

The director, Mimi Leder, called described the film as Ginsburg’s “origin story”, a term used in superhero movies.

“Our thoughts are with her tonight after her fall yesterday. We send her our love and pray for a speedy recovery. I have it on good word that she’s in great shape, and she is shooing the doctors out of her room so she can work,” Leder said at the premiere. She told Reuters her own information about Ginsburg’s health had come from Stiepleman.

Ginsburg has helped buttress equality rights during her time on the high court, including in sex discrimination cases.

Her career was shaped in part by discrimination she faced as a young lawyer in a predominantly male profession: she was one of just nine women at Harvard Law School in the 1950s, and later struggled to find a firm that would hire her.

“She was making mistakes, finding out who she was, had a very young family, her husband wasn’t very well,” actress Felicity Jones, who plays her in the film, told Reuters on the red carpet. “She was juggling a lot of difficult things at the same time but always (had) this absolute commitment to the law.”

Ginsburg voiced support for the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct after Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault by a university professor, saying that unlike in her youth, “women nowadays are not silent about bad behavior.”

Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation process convulsed the nation just weeks before Tuesday’s congressional elections in which Trump’s fellow Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives but expanded their majority in Senate.

On Wednesday, Trump credited the fight over confirming Kavanaugh, who was strongly opposed by Democrats, for the gains in the Senate.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Lisa Richwine; Writing by Andrew Chung and Peter Graff; Editing by Frances Kerry and Will Dunham)

Prominent Saudi women’s rights activist detained as driving ban lifted: sources

FILE PHOTO: Hatoon Ajwad al-Fassi, author of "Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia: Nabataea" looks at the camera during an interview at her residence in Riyadh April 20, 2008. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed/File Photo

By Sarah Dadouch

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has detained prominent women’s rights advocate Hatoon al-Fassi, widening a crackdown that has ensnared more than a dozen activists even as the kingdom lifted a ban on women driving, sources said on Wednesday.

London-based Saudi rights group ALQST and exiled activist Manal al-Sharif reported the arrest on Twitter, but provided few details. It was confirmed by sources in touch with people close to Fassi, who said they were scared of speaking out.

An Interior Ministry spokesman and the government’s communications office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Fassi was last active online on Thursday. She was planning to take journalists in her car on Sunday as other women did to celebrate the much-hyped end of the world’s last ban on female drivers, long seen as an emblem of women’s repression in the deeply conservative Muslim country.

The ban’s end, ordered last September by King Salman, is part of sweeping reforms pushed by his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a bid to transform the economy of the world’s top oil exporter and open up its cloistered society.

But it has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent against some of the very activists who previously campaigned against the ban, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef as well as the men Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh, Mohammad al-Rabea and Abdulaziz al-Meshaal.

Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said earlier this month that a total of 17 people had been arrested, eight of whom were later released. The authorities accused them of suspicious contacts with “foreign entities” and said more suspects were being sought. Local media labeled them traitors.

At least nine people remain in detention “after sufficient evidence was made available and for their confessions of charges attributed to them”.

Fassi is an associate professor at King Saud University and a regular contributor to Saudi Arabia’s al-Riyadh newspaper. She has long been a champion for women’s rights, including the right to drive. Her husband is a prominent Gulf Cooperation Council official.

Fassi tweeted on June 6 that she had received her Saudi driving license along with a small group of women who converted their permits obtained in foreign countries.

“It is as if I have been recognized as an equal citizen,” she told English-language newspaper Arab News last week. “Celebrating will be the first aim, then I will see where I need to go on that day.”

(Additional Reporting by Stephen Kalin, Editing by Stephen Kalin and William Maclean)

Saudi women should have choice whether to wear abaya robe: crown prince

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabian women, seeking a job, talk with recruiters during a job fair in Riyadh January 25, 2012. REUTERS/ Stringer

RIYADH (Reuters) – Women in Saudi Arabia need not wear headcover or the black abaya – the loose-fitting, full-length robes symbolic of Islamic piety – as long as their attire is “decent and respectful”, the kingdom’s reform-minded crown prince said.

With the ascent to power of young Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the kingdom has seen an expansion in women’s rights including a decision to allow women to attend mixed public sporting events and the right to drive cars from this summer.

The changes have been hailed as proof of a new progressive trend toward modernization in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom, although the gender-segregated nation continues to be criticized for its continued constraints on women.

“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia (Islamic law): that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” Prince Mohammed said in an interview with CBS television aired late on Sunday.

“This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”

A senior cleric said last month that women should dress modestly, but this did not necessitate wearing the abaya.

It remains unclear if these statements signal a change in the enforcement of women’s dress code in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has no written legal code to go with the texts making up sharia, and police and judiciary have long enforced a strict dress code requiring Saudi women to wear abayas and in many cases to cover their hair and faces.

But the kingdom has witnessed a cautious new climate of social freedoms with the rise of the 32-year-old crown prince to power after decades of elderly rulers.

Saudi women have started wearing more colorful abayas in recent years, the light blues and pinks in stark contrast with the traditional black. Open abayas over long skirts or jeans are also becoming more common in some parts of the country.

On March 8, a group of women in the Saudi city of Jeddah marked International Women’s Day by exercising one of their newly acquired freedoms: the right to go for a jog, paying no heed to bemused onlookers.

However, activists have blasted the country’s continued guardianship system requiring a male family member to grant permission for a woman to study abroad, travel and other activities.

Last week, a U.N. rights watchdog called on Saudi Arabia to end discriminatory practices against women including male guardianship, and give them full access to justice.

(Writing by Stephen Kalin, editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Mark Heinrich)

North Korean women suffer discrimination, rape, malnutrition: U.N.

Women wearing traditional clothes walk past North Korean soldiers after an opening ceremony for a newly constructed residential complex in Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea April 13, 2017.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korean women are deprived of education and job opportunities and are often subjected to violence at home and sexual assault in the workplace, a U.N. human rights panel said on Monday.

After a regular review of Pyongyang’s record, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also voiced concern at rape or mistreatment of women in detention especially those repatriated after fleeing abroad.

North Korean women are “under-represented or disadvantaged” in tertiary education, the judiciary, security and police forces and leadership and managerial positions “in all non-traditional areas of work”, the panel of independent experts said.

“The main issue is first of all the lack of information. We have no access to a large part of laws, elements and information on national machinery,” Nicole Ameline, panel member, told Reuters. “We have asked a lot of questions.”

North Korea told the panel on Nov. 8 that it was working to uphold women’s rights and gender equality but that sanctions imposed by major powers over its nuclear and missile programs were taking a toll on vulnerable mothers and children.

Domestic violence is prevalent and there is “very limited awareness” about the issue and a lack of legal services, psycho-social support and shelters available for victims, the panel said.

It said economic sanctions had a disproportionate impact on women. North Korean women suffer “high levels of malnutrition”, with 28 percent of pregnant or lactating women affected, it said.

“We have called on the government to be very, very attentive to the situation of food and nutrition. Because we consider that it is a basic need and that the government has to invest and to assume its responsibilities in this field,” Ameline said.

“Unfortunately I am not sure that the situation will improve very quickly.”

The report found that penalties for rape in North Korea were not commensurate with the severity of the crime, which also often goes unpunished. Legal changes in 2012 lowered the penalties for some forms of rape, including the rape of children, rape by a work supervisor and repeated rape.

This has led to reducing the punishment for forcing “a woman in a subordinate position” to have sexual intercourse from four years to three years, the report said.

It said women trafficked abroad and then returned to North Korea, are reported to be sent to labor training camps or prisons, accused of “illegal border crossing”, and may be exposed to further violations of their rights, including sexual violence by security officials and forced abortions.

 

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Alison Williams)

 

New York Senate Expected To Block Abortion Expansion

Republicans in the New York State Senate are expected to block a bill from the state Assembly that would expand abortion into the third trimester.

The bill, AB6221, was approved by the Assembly on Tuesday 94-49.

“The state shall not deny a woman’s right to obtain an abortion as established by the United States Supreme Court in the decision Roe v. Wade,” the bill reads. “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, New York protects a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy within 24 weeks from commencement of her pregnancy, or when necessary to protect a woman’s life or health as determined by a licensed physician.”

The bill had been part of a “women’s equality” bill but was separated into a stand-alone bill.

The head of New York State Right to Life told LifeNews that the bill shows the power of the abortion lobby in the state.

“Expanding cruel and brutal third-trimester abortions has long been a goal of the anti-life lobby who never met an abortion they didn’t like,” Lori Kehoe, New York State Right to Life executive director, told LifeNews. “With no regard for the fully developed unborn baby who is violently dismembered, or otherwise killed, the New York State Assembly once again put the abortion lobby above New York State women and their children.”

 

Teen Taliban Tried To Kill Wins Nobel Peace Prize

A teen girl who stood up to the Taliban and survived an attempted assassination has received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala Yousafzai is the first teenager to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala was a teen advocate for girls being given an education, which went against the edicts of the Islamic terrorist group.  The Taliban tried to assassinate the then 15-year-old as she traveled to school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in October 2012.  The bullet struck above her left eye and grazed her brain but did not cause fatal damage.

She was flown to Britain where she received treatment and now attends school.  She is still a worldwide advocate for the rights of women in Islamic countries and to raise awareness of the treatment of women by Islamic groups such as the Taliban and ISIS.

“The extremists were and they are afraid of books and pens,” Yousafzai said in a speech last year at a UN youth assembly. “The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them.”

“The terrorists thought that they would change my aims and stop my ambition,” Yousafzai said last year. “But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”