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Billions pledged to tackle gender inequality at UN forum | Women’s rights and gender equality

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Billions of pounds will be pledged to support efforts to tackle gender inequality this week at the largest international conference on women’s rights in more than 25 years.

The Generation Equality Forum, hosted in Paris by UN Women and the governments of France and Mexico, will launch plans to radically speed up progress over the next five years.

After two years of consultation between governments, feminist and women’s rights groups, philanthropic foundations, the private sector and UN agencies, the three-day forum takes place amid concerns the pandemic has exacerbated a crisis in women’s rights.

An estimated 47 million more women will fall into extreme poverty due to Covid, according to the World Economic Forum. And the International Labour Organization has said unemployment for women rose by 9 million in 2020 compared to 2019 and is projected to increase by another 2 million in 2021. The pattern for men is different – they are projected to see unemployment decrease in 2021.

Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris
Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris. The foundation has announced $2.1bn in new funding for projects to support women’s rights over the next five years. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

“The world has been fighting for gender equality for decades, but progress has been slow. Now is the chance to reignite a movement and deliver real change,” said Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which announced a new commitment of $2.1bn (£1.5bn) over five years to economic empowerment, health and family planning, and accelerating women in leadership. “The beauty of our fight for gender equality is that every human being will gain from it.”

French Gates said that while there has been some progress since the fourth world conference on women brought 47,000 activists to Beijing in 1995, nowhere in the world are women on equal footing with men. Waves of opposition to women’s rights have emerged, and structural barriers still exist.

Other pledges of funding, and legislative changes, will be announced in six areas: gender-based violence, economic justice, sexual and reproductive health rights, climate justice, technology and innovation and feminist movements and leadership.

A compact addressing women’s role in peace and security and gender equality in humanitarian programming is also due to be unveiled.

In response to the pandemic exacerbating digital inequities, the Global Fund for Women will launch its System Reboot campaign to support feminist technology innovators in the developing world and to “mobilise technology as a force for gender justice”.

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron (centre) talks during a discussion at the Generation Equality Forum. with (from left): Élisabeth Moreno France’s equality minister; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women; UN secretary general, António Guterres; and president of the European council, Charles Michel.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron (centre), during a discussion at the Generation Equality Forum with (from left): Élisabeth Moreno, France’s equality minister; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women; UN secretary general, António Guterres; and president of the European council, Charles Michel. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

The Ford Foundation, which last year sold its social bonds to raise cash to help tackle the economic fallout of the pandemic, will pledge $420m (£300m) over five years. Nicolette Naylor, a programme director at the foundation, said talk about gender equality had not been matched by action. “As some parts of the world start to emerge from the pandemic, it is essential that gender equality is at the heart of building back better. It’s time to stop talking and start funding the organisations that are driving change and the necessary progress on global gender equality.”

Heads of state from Sweden, Finland, Argentina, Kenya, South Africa and Tunisia will join French president, Emmanuel Macron, and Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in person. While online, US vice-president, Kamala Harris, is due to speak and former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is also scheduled to appear.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, said the forum was a reaction to the slowness of achieving both the Beijing action plan and the UN’s sustainable development goals, and made more urgent by the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women.

“Beijing was not financed and we’ve struggled in the last 25 years to implement it,” she said.

A food seller at an International Women’s Day celebration in Lagos, Nigeria
A food seller at an event to mark International Women’s Day in Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph: Akintunde Akinleye/EPA

But there have been concerns over how the money will be spent. Hakima Abbas, co-executive director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, said: “We have no sense yet of where that money is going, or to who, or for what.

“It’s really great that we are talking about billions being committed, especially because the resources were part of the problem of Beijing. There has not been political will or the financial backing to make the [Beijing] platform for action’s implementation possible.”

She added: “The key drivers of change are feminist movements. If you don’t have strong feminist movements you’re not going to drive gender equality. If these billions go to private/public partnerships, that’s not going to be catalytic. You need to make sure the majority of the funding goes to feminist movements.”

Some of the hundreds of activists recruited globally to ensure young people participated in discussions have also expressed frustrations.

A young feminist manifesto, published earlier this year, said unequal power dynamics and disregarded opinions resulted in young people “finding it very difficult to participate in these spaces, not to mention to co-lead and co-own them”.

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Bereaved then evicted by in-laws: Kenya’s widows fight disinheritance | Global development

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Within months of the death of her husband in 2014, Doreen Kajuju Kimathi, from Meru, eastern Kenya, was told that his bank accounts had been frozen, and she had been forced out of her home by her in-laws.

The pregnant 37-year-old was left with no resources to fight back, and returned to her parents’ home. “It was traumatising, and I went into depression for five years,” says Kimathi.

Doreen Kajuju Kimathi
Doreen Kajuju Kimathi, who now volunteers for a widows’ support group. Photograph: Courtesy of Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa

Her experience is far from unique. While Kenya protects widows’ inheritance in theory, the patriarchal culture and the influence of colonial legislation that restricted married women’s property rights means the law is often not enforced.

“There is an entire parallel system operating outside succession laws,” says Roseline Njogu, a Kenyan lawyer. “Years of law reform have led us to formal equality, but equality of law doesn’t mean equality of power, and that’s where we get tripped up.”

Human rights groups report that discriminatory practices in marriage limit women’s capacity to own land. According to the Kenya Land Alliance, only 1% of land titles are registered to women, and another 6% are registered jointly with a man.

While children have equal inheritance rights, land is more often passed on to sons, leaving daughters with fewer assets, and making a future wife vulnerable to eviction if her spouse’s family regard the property as theirs.

For young widows such as Kimathi, it can be even harder to hold on to marital property. “You’re considered less entitled to it because you’re expected to remarry,” she says.

But a fightback is under way. Grassroots organisations are emerging all around the country to build community awareness of women’s legal rights. One group, the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization (CTWOO), has offered legal advice and support to nearly 500,000 widows since 2013.

The NGO is trying to address disinheritance at its roots. It works with other groups to increase financial and legal literacy across the country, especially among married couples, encouraging them to discuss finances openly, and to write wills.

Dianah Kamande, the founder of the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization.
Dianah Kamande, the founder of the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization. Photograph: Courtesy of CTWOO

The founder, Dianah Kamande, says that – contrary to popular belief – most dispossessed widows are middle-class, like Kimathi, not poor. The poor usually have less property, and the rich have access to lawyers.

Kamande says death and estate planning are still taboo topics for many married couples, and that some people obscure their wealth. “Men keep lots of secrets about money from their wives, and trust their mothers and siblings more – who in turn disinherit the wife and children,” she says.

Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa logo
Grassroots groups are emerging to build awareness of widows’ rights. Photograph: Courtesy of Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa

The country’s Unclaimed Financial Assets Authority says it has 50bn Kenyan shillings (£347m) in unclaimed assets, and about 40% is money left by people after they die. Concerned by the rising number of unclaimed assets, research by the authority found roughly 43% of Kenyan respondents said they would not disclose their financial assets to anyone – even people they trusted.

“There’s secrecy around financial investments. For many of the people who find out about the assets left by their spouse, it’s a eureka moment,” says Paul Muya, of the UFAA.

Five years after being widowed, Kimathi’s life was still on hold. She had looked into hiring a lawyer but could not afford it. Without access to the family property, it was difficult for her and her son to get by, and she had to rely on help from her parents and sister.

But through the CTWOO, she found out that she did not need a lawyer to access the courts. She filed a claim, and within a year had gained access to almost all of her dead husband’s property. Last year, Kimathi opened a bar and restaurant in Kitui, 110 miles east of Nairobi.

“It was a huge relief to get the money. Being a widow in Kenya is financially and socially isolating, and knowing what that’s like pushed me to help others in the same situation,” says Kimathi, who now volunteers with a widows’ support group.

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WHO concerned about first cases of monkeypox in children | Science & Tech

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Reports of young children infected by monkeypox in Europe – there were at least four in recent days, with a fifth one recorded a few weeks ago – have raised concern about the progress of an outbreak now affecting more than 5,500 people in 51 countries.

The health organization’s Europe chief, Hans Kluge, also warned on Friday that overall cases in the region have tripled in the last two weeks. “Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” said Kluge.

The WHO has not yet declared the outbreak a global health emergency, however. At a meeting last Saturday, the agency ruled it out but said it could change its views if certain scenarios come to pass, such as a spike in cases among vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women and immunocompromised people. Available data shows that children, especially younger ones, are at higher risk of serious illness if they become infected.

The last known case of a child contracting monkeypox was reported on Tuesday in Spain, where a three-year-old was confirmed to have the disease. Cases in Spain are now in excess of 1,500 according to health reports filed by regional governments.

Also on Tuesday, Dutch authorities reported that a primary school student had become infected and that contact tracing had been initiated to rule out more cases within the child’s close circle of contacts. On Saturday, France reported one confirmed case and one suspected case among elementary school students.

The UK has so far recorded at least two infections in minors. The first case, reported in May, involved a baby who had to be taken to intensive care for treatment with the antiviral Tecovirimat, of which few doses are available but which has already begun to be distributed in several countries. British authorities this week reported a second case of a child with monkeypox. The UK currently has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa.

The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox. The European Medicines Agency said earlier this week it was beginning to evaluate whether the shot should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.

Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond Africa, where the disease is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.

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Jury calls for sweeping reforms to Canada’s approach to femicide | Canada

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A community in rural Canada has made a series of transformative recommendations at a coroner’s inquest that – if adopted – could position the country’s most populous province as a leader in preventing femicides, particularly those carried out by an intimate partner.

The jury in Renfrew County, Ontario, just west of Canada’s capital, delivered 86 recommendations this week in a unanimous verdict on the deaths of three local women, who were killed by the same man on a single morning nearly seven years ago.

The boldest was to have the Ontario government “formally declare intimate partner violence as an epidemic” that requires “significant financial investment” and deep systemic change to remedy.

Since the triple homicide on 22 September 2015, 111 women in Ontario have been murdered by their current or former partner, the inquest heard. Every six days in Canada, a woman is killed by her intimate partner, according to Statistics Canada.

The jury also recommended official prominence be given to the word “femicide” – to have it be listed as a manner of death by coroners in the province and added to the criminal code of Canada to underscore the misogyny beneath the killings of women and girls because of their gender.

“A lot of the recommendations are groundbreaking,” said Pamela Cross, a lawyer and expert on intimate partner violence in Ontario who testified at the inquest.

The inquest, which heard from nearly 30 witnesses over three weeks, was meant to examine the systems that broke down in the weeks, months and years leading up to the day Basil Borutski got in a borrowed car, drove to Carol Culleton’s cottage and strangled her with a coaxial cable, then moved on to Anastasia Kuzyk’s house where he shot her to death and then to Nathalie Warmerdam’s farm where he shot her too.

All three women had previously been in an intimate relationship with Borutski. He had been in and out of jail for assaulting Kuzyk and Warmerdam and was on probation at the time of the murders and subject to a weapons ban.

Borutski had been flagged as “high risk” two years before the triple homicide, the inquest heard, and exhibited 30 out of 41 risk factors identified by Ontario’s domestic violence death review committee – including a deep sense of victimhood and the ability to convince new partners he was innocent and unfairly targeted by police in his prior convictions.

Police witnesses told the jury Borutski was very good at “manipulation” and constantly flouted court orders, including never showing up to a mandated partner assault response program.

The jury heard from family members, including Valerie Warmerdam, Nathalie’s daughter, who painted a nuanced and empathetic picture of Borutski as a troubled stepfather. It heard from a frontline worker who described Warmerdam and Kuzyk’s constant terror that Borutski would kill them or harm their family.

The inquest jury demanded decision-makers make “significant financial investments” in ending violence, have police all use the same records management system and create clear guidelines for flagging high-risk abusers. It urged the study of disclosure protocols like Clare’s Law, which is used in the United Kingdom and in parts of Canada to allow a concerned person to check if their partner has a police record of intimate partner violence.

Valerie Warmerdam welcomed the verdict, but underscored the need for action on the part of governments who will receive these recommendations in the wake of the inquest. “I want change,” she said. “These recommendations are a good start, if they are actioned. That’s a big if.”

Kirsten Mercer, counsel to End Violence Against Women Renfrew County (EVA), noted that it was the jury themselves who added the epidemic recommendation among 13 others, including creating a registry of high-risk offenders akin to the sex offenders registry, and exploring electronic monitoring of those charged or found guilty of an IPV-related offence.

“The jury has asked that we tell the truth about intimate partner violence,” Mercer told the media after the verdict. “The jury has asked that we put our money where our mouth is.”

The idea to add femicide to the coroner’s list of manners of death and to the Criminal Code of Canada came from the joint submission. Countries in Latin America have already added this as a criminal offence, she said, and should be looked to as a model for how to do it here.

Accountability was a priority for this jury, Mercer said. The verdict called for the creation of an accountability body akin to the United Kingdom’s domestic abuse commissioner and a specific committee to make sure this verdict does not just languish in decision-makers’ inboxes.

“We are not going to wait forever any more.”

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