The politics of penises: Myths about transgender people Audrey Mbugua

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A decade later, the 2010 US. State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia[3] described the status of women in similar stark terms:
‘The constitution provides women the same rights and protections as men. Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs) such as FGM (female genital mutilation), abduction, and rape are explicitly criminalized; however, enforcement of these laws lagged. Women and girls experienced gender-based violence daily, but it was underreported due to shame, fear, or a victim's ignorance of legal protections. Domestic violence, including spousal abuse, was a pervasive social problem. The 2005 Demographic and Health Survey found that 81 percent of women believed a husband had a right to beat his wife. Prostitution was legal for persons over age 18 and was commonly practiced around the country. Sexual harassment was widespread [and] harassment-related laws were not enforced. The law sets the legal marriage age for girls and boys at 18; however, this law was not enforced. For example, a 2006 Pathfinder International study found that in the Amhara region, 48 percent of women were married before the age of 15, the highest early marriage rate in the country. Limited access to family planning services, high fertility, low reproductive health and emergency obstetric services, and poor nutritional status and infections all contributed to high maternal mortality ratio...Discrimination against women was most acute in rural areas, where 85 percent of the population was located. There was limited legal recognition of common law marriage. Irrespective of the number of years the marriage existed, the number of children raised, and joint property, the law entitled women to only three months' financial support if a relationship ended. A common-law husband had no obligation to provide financial assistance to his family, and as a result, women and children sometimes faced abandonment. In urban areas women had fewer employment opportunities than men, and the jobs available did not provide equal pay for equal work.’
It is manifest that in 2010, the vast majority of Ethiopian women, particularly in the rural areas, enjoy very little personal security against violence and degradation. In fact, these women believe that violence and degradation is an appropriate form of treatment for women. According to the 2005 Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey (‘a nationally representative survey of 14,070 women age 15-49 and 6,033 men age 15-59’) ‘81% of Ethiopian women believe their husbands have the right to beat them if they burn food, refuse sex, or go somewhere without their husband's consent’[4]. Ethiopian women are not only lacking personal security but also social security. Seventy- five percent of all Ethiopian women are illiterate, and consequently bear the heaviest burden of poverty. Maternal deaths from childbirth for Ethiopian women is among the highest in the world[5]. High HIV infection rates, child marriages and the devastating health consequences associated with them and many other risk factors have left Ethiopian women in a state of misery and despair facing a daily ordeal for survival.[6] With one of the highest birth rates in the world, Ethiopia's population is projected to increase by 20 million in the next 10 years and double to 160 million by 2050.
Dictator Zenawi, in a ‘victory’ speech celebrating his 99.6 per cent win in the May 2010 ‘election’, thanked Ethiopian women ‘boundlessly’:
‘We, the members of EPRDF, with great humility offer our gratitude and appreciation to the voters who have given us their support freely and democratically. We also offer our thanks to the real backbone of our organization, the women of Ethiopia who are committed to our struggle due to their realization of our track record on gender equality and who want to forge ahead on this path of peace, development and democratization. Our admiration to the women of Ethiopia is indeed boundless!’
It is disconcerting to think of the vast majority of Ethiopian women who suffer in absolute misery and wretchedness becoming a ‘backbone’ to anyone. But if we must resort to anatomical analogies, women can best be described as the rump of Ethiopian society, little valued and appreciated. Their backbones, spirit and will have long been shattered by official neglect and indifference and the daily reality of domestic violence, illiteracy, sexual exploitation, underage marriages, lack of education and grinding poverty. It is adding insult to injury to patronise them as the ‘backbone’ of a potbellied dictatorship when they can barely stand up on their own two feet. If we are to offer ‘admiration’ to Ethiopian women (and they deserve it all), it is only because of their incredible capacity to withstand unimaginably ‘boundless’ suffering, degradation, cruelty and indifference. Even illiterate women know when they are being patronised by crocodilian words of ‘humility’, ‘gratitude’ and ‘appreciation’.
I am not sure of the qualitative difference between misogyny and male chauvinism. Misogynists hate and have total contempt for women. A male chauvinist just believes women are naturally inferior to men and do not deserve equal treatment. If it is not misogyny or male chauvinism, what on earth could possibly explain the fact that ‘81% of Ethiopian women believe their husbands have the right to beat them if they burn food, refuse sex, or go somewhere without their husband's consent’? This deeply disturbing fact was historically observed only among slaves. The slave was absolutely terrified of his master and always lived in fear of his master's whims and fancy. The slave believed his master could do whatever he wanted to him because he understood himself to be his master's property. The slave, totally dependent on his master for his very existence, pinned the blame for his master's cruelty and depravity on himself. The slave believed that mistreatment and abuse by his master is his divinely foreordained destiny. Could it be that long after the odious institution of slavery has been abolished in the world, the overwhelming majority of women shackled by domestic violence, inequality, sexual exploitation, destructive traditions and customs and poverty continue to believe themselves to be chattel property (personal property) to their husbands and men?
If 81 per cent of Ethiopian women believe they are the property of their husbands, it seems obvious that they are not aware of their human rights secured under international law. Since 1948 there have been at least ten major international conventions and protocols protecting the human rights of women throughout the world. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, ratified by Ethiopia in 1981, prohibits as discrimination a variety of actions that compound the subjugation of women and requires state parties to take action to eliminate them. Governments are required to act and eliminate ‘social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.’ A special legal duty is imposed upon governments to ‘take into account the particular problems faced by rural women and take all appropriate measures to ensure the application of the provisions of the present Convention.’ Women have the ‘right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent.’ Children cannot give free and full consent to marriage. As parents, women shall have equal rights ‘irrespective of their marital status, in matters relating to their children.’ It is discriminatory to arbitrarily deny women spousal support and equal custody rights at divorce. Various other conventions ensure that women are protected from involuntary servitude, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Domestic violence cannot be ignored as simple ‘family misunderstanding’ but must be prosecuted as a serious crime. The Convention on the Rights of the Child protects young girls from being forced to undergo the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation and rape in the form of child marriages.
It is manifest that the vast majority of Ethiopian women are trapped in a patriarchal and paternalistic system that exploits them sexually, socially, politically and in every other way. For centuries, Ethiopian law has ‘treated women as if they were children or disabled.’ Discrimination, abuse and mistreatment against Ethiopian women has continued for so long that it is time to end the silence and stand up and speak up against their dehumanisation. All Ethiopians, and particularly the educated ones and those in power, should publicly condemn the brutal practice of female genital mutilation. It is an atrocious and dreadful custom. All educational and informational efforts must be employed to eliminate it. The rampant violence against women must not be tolerated. It must be combated through a combination of education, information and rigorous prosecutions of abusers. If actions or lack of action speaks louder than words, it is obvious that Ethiopian men do not think much of their women's lives and dignity and could be straddling that thin line between misogyny and male chauvinism. A broad social movement needs to be established to challenge all practices that degrade women and challenge cultural and social patterns defining the lopsided power relationship between men and women in Ethiopian society.
Throughout the world women have organised effectively to form political, cultural and economic movements aimed at establishing greater rights and securing effective legal protection for women. In some part of the world the label ‘women's liberation’ has been given to describe the campaign for women's rights. Those who advocate for women's rights have been called ‘feminists’ because of their efforts to change traditional perspectives on a wide range of issues covering domestic violence, sexual harassment and exploitation, economic equality and elimination of all forms of gender discrimination against women.
Labels and designations for Ethiopian women's activism are unimportant in describing the need for activism. What is important is the realisation that effective activism and advocacy on behalf of Ethiopian women is long overdue. Well-educated and well-placed Ethiopian women are in the best position to engage in activism to stop violence against women, help teach them to assert their legal and human rights and research and document the condition of women in society for informed policy-making. They are also in the best position to challenge Ethiopian men to reconsider their long held beliefs about women and encourage and show them how they can change their outdated beliefs and unhealthy behavior towards women. In other words it is possible to help Ethiopian men gain new awareness and consciousness about the plight of their women and help protect their dignity and value in society. In this regard I believe Diaspora Ethiopian women bear special responsibility to articulate Ethiopian women's issues in international forums.
I often wonder if many Ethiopian fathers seriously ponder whether our daughters have good role models in strong, ethical and assertive Ethiopian women. It pains me to think that the vast majority of girls growing up in Ethiopia today will absorb the beliefs from their mothers and society that domestic violence and sexual exploitation are acceptable; that male supremacy is the natural order of things, that they will likely be married off at a young age, have children while they are themselves children and very likely die an early death from complications of childbirth.
I truly hope that all of the young Ethiopian girls will look up to Birtukan Midekssa and understand that she stood up not only for her rights and theirs, but also that she represents the new Ethiopian woman who stood up to the arrogance of power and male chauvinism. I have no doubts that if Birtukan dropped on her knees, bowed down and begged for mercy from her captors, as do women who face the daily reality of violence and physically abuse, she would be out of prison in heartbeat. We need more Ethiopian women like Birtukan who set new moral and ethical standards for the newer generation of women who in turn can change the attitudes and beliefs of the newer generation of men so they can together build ‘the future country of Ethiopia.’
When I write about my heroine Birtukan Midekssa, I often refer to her as ‘Invictus’ (unconquered).[7] Some wonder why I defend Birtukan passionately and ferociously against those who have unjustly imprisoned her and take every opportunity to humiliate and degrade her despite the universally recognised fact that she is innocent of any wrongdoing. I do so because Birtukan to me is the model of the new self-confident and dignified Ethiopian woman I hope to see in the ‘future country of Ethiopia.’ Birtukan chained in prison stands taller for the cause of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia than any man I know. She sacrificed motherhood to her 4-year old child so that the millions of little girls in Ethiopia could grow up in dignity, without physical abuse by men, educated and equal in every way to Ethiopian boys. Birtukan has shown more backbone and spine in standing up to dictatorship than anyone I know.
We can thank Ethiopian women until the cows come home, but as long as they have little personal and social security and are valued less and subjected to violence, there will be neither development, progress nor justice in Ethiopian society. The real question is not whether Ethiopian women can be the ‘backbone’ of a political party or even society. It is whether Ethiopian men can be the backbone, indeed have the backbone, to lift their women out of the misery, suffering, degradation, insecurity and value them for their inestimable worth.
In my flights of fancy, I let myself imagine millions of young Birtukan clones growing up in Ethiopia. I imagine these young women standing up to male chauvinism and defending their rights to be free from physical abuse, sexual exploitation and discrimination. I imagine them demanding accountability from their leaders and government. I imagine them taking leadership in vast numbers in society. Then I realise that I am not really lost in imagination. I had just taken a brief detour to Birtukan's ‘future country of Ethiopia’.
I will now say of Ethiopian women collectively what I have said of Birtukan individually:
Ethiopian women condemned to abuse, exploitation and indifference, but unconquered.

Ethiopian women subjected to the wrath of men and tearful, but defiant.

Ethiopian women beaten, bludgeoned and bloodied, but unbowed.

Ethiopian women mocked, ridiculed and disrespected, but gracious.

Ethiopian women vilified, strong-armed and manhandled, but unafraid.

Ethiopia under the crushing boots of soldiers of fortune.

Ethiopian women, Invictus!

Birtukan, Invictus!



* This article first appeared in [url=]The Huffington Post[url/].

* Alemayehu G. Mariam is professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino.

* Author's note: This is my fifth commentary on the theme 'Where do we go from here?' following the rigged May 2010 elections in Ethiopia in which the ruling dictatorship won by 99.6 per cent.[1] In this piece, I express deep regrets over the never-ending subjugation of women in Ethiopian society and call for a movement for the advancement of Ethiopian women's human rights. I urge Ethiopian women to join hands in building the 'future country of Ethiopia' that Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia's foremost political prisoner and first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, dreamed about.

* Please send comments to or comment online at Pambazuka News.




[3] ; p. 244 (final report, 2006)





Western Sahara conflict: Regional and international repercussions

Yahia H. Zoubir

2010-06-30, Issue 488

cc Nick Brooks

Stressing the importance of the geopolitical context behind the ongoing struggle over the status of Western Sahara, Yahia H. Zoubir discusses the role of international relations in shaping the evolution of the dispute.A second round of informal talks between the Moroccan government and the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO), conducted under United Nations auspices and in the presence of Algeria and Mauritania as observer countries, was held on 10–11 February 2010.

Announced as a preliminary, informal meeting leading to the fifth round of direct negotiations between the Western Saharan independence movement and Morocco, these discussions followed four sessions of direct talks, which began in June 2007, without producing any tangible results. At least for the informed analyst, the latest meeting would likely hold few differences from the previous rounds – which was indeed the case – even if the international context has changed somewhat since the arrival of Barack Obama to the White House one year prior.
The Western Sahara conflict, defined as a ‘forgotten conflict’ or ‘frozen conflict’ (Zoubir 2010) is approaching its 35th year; it has had significant damaging effects. A proposed regional trading bloc, L’Union du Maghreb Arabe (UMA, Arab Maghrib Union), inaugurated with great fanfare in February 1989, has been in hibernation since 1996, precisely because of this dispute. The question has poisoned relations between Algeria, the main sponsor of Western Saharan self-determination, and Morocco, which claims the territory it has illegally occupied since 1975.
Even if the issue very rarely makes the headlines, the Western Sahara conflict has had a significant impact on the development of the region. Indeed, the lack of regional integration is a serious consequence: economic exchange between the Maghrib states represents only 1.3 per cent of their trade, the lowest regional trade in the world. Economists in the United States have shown that an integrated Maghrib market and free trade area would produce highly beneficial results for the populations of the region (Hufbauer & Brunel 2008). In addition, the land border between Algeria and Morocco has been closed since August 1994, seriously affecting the economic life of the city of Oujda, which depended heavily on trade with and tourism from Algeria. Morocco has repeatedly called on the Algerian authorities to reopen the border, but Algiers has decided that reopening the border without a comprehensive agreement, which would include the settlement of the conflict in Western Sahara, would be useless, no matter the cost of a non-integrated Maghrib. Furthermore, not surprisingly, the tension between Algeria and Morocco has led to a rather costly and dangerous arms race.
In addition, the dispute has generated other consequences. It has affected relations between France (defending the Moroccan monarchy’s irredentist claims) and Algeria, as well as relations between Spain (the former colonial power in Western Sahara) and, on the one hand, Morocco, and, on the other, Spain and Algeria. The United States, which during the Cold War allowed the occupation of the former Spanish colony by Morocco (Mundy 2006a/b), has also suffered some of the consequences of its policy in the Maghrib: its repeated calls for Maghrib integration have proven fruitless.
Only a geopolitical perspective can explain the stalemate that has persisted in the Western Sahara conflict. The alleged technical difficulties to ensure a referendum have been mere pretext to allow Morocco to continue its colonisation of the territory. If today powers like the United States, France and Spain support, albeit to different degrees, the concept of ‘autonomy for the Sahrawi people’, they have failed to impose it because international law is on the side of the Sahrawi people (Chinkin 2008).
The conflict has increased even more as younger generations of Sahrawis have resorted to active, continued peaceful resistance, which has succeeded in alerting the international community on human rights issues. The case of the activist Aminatou Haidar is a perfect illustration. In fact, her hunger strike, triggered in November–December 2009, and the diplomatic reaction that ensued have had such reverberations that the Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to Western Sahara Christopher Ross asked the UN Security Council on 28 January 2010, during a closed-door meeting, to include human rights monitoring in the prerogatives of the Mission des Nations Unies pour l’Organisation d’un Référendum au Sahara Occidental (MINURSO, UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) – the only United Nations peacekeeping force that does not include, as part of its mandate, the protection of human rights. The same request had been made in 2009, but France opposed it. On 30 April 2010, France once again opposed the inclusion of the protection of human rights in MINURSO’s mandate. Therefore, UNSC Resolution 1920, which has extended MINURSO’s mandate for another year, does not contain any mention of human rights. In the meantime, the violations of human rights in occupied Western Sahara have in fact amplified despite their denunciations by respectable human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The lack of resolution of the Western Sahara conflict boils down to two main points: the conflicting positions of Morocco and Western Saharan nationalists on the one hand, and geopolitical considerations on the other. These geopolitical interests have been the main impediment to the resolution of the conflict because they strengthened the obstinate position of Morocco, which argues, thanks to external support, that it will only negotiate on the basis of ‘autonomy’ within Moroccan sovereignty. This proposal currently enjoys the implicit consent of France, the United States and Spain, regardless of UN resolutions that refute any preconditions for the current negotiations.
Despite the acceptance of the original UN Settlement Plan by Morocco and POLISARIO in 1991, all attempts to organise the referendum on self-determination of the last colony in Africa have failed. Since 2001, Morocco has continuously opposed the inclusion of the option of independence to any referendum process based on self-determination. Today, the Moroccans consider the referendum process altogether as an ‘obsolete practice’. Moroccans are comforted in their position owing to the backing they receive from France and the United States in the UN Security Council. The Security Council has refused to impose a solution that includes the option of independence, as inscribed in UN resolutions. This not only includes the original 1991 Settlement Plan but also, in 2003, the Security Council failed to impose the second Baker Plan – the second power-sharing proposal developed by former US Secretary of State James Baker, the UN lead negotiator for Western Sahara between 1997 and 2004 – because of the US about-face but also because France made clear that it would oppose it by using its Security Council veto.
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