NEWS - Archive July 2009

Headlines 31 July, 2009

Breaking into the summer holiday lull, Austrian politics has gotten into a lather over a far-right populist’s call for a referendum on whether a mainly German-speaking region of northern Italy should rejoin Austria. No matter how far-fetched, his proposal raised a hue and cry by challenging the taboo of old unreconstructed nationalism in a country restlessly determined to live down its Nazi past.
29/7/2009- South Tyrol - Alto Adige in Italian - is an autonomous, Alpine province of Italy bordering Austria. It was annexed by Italy from defeated Austria-Hungary at the end of World War One. Italy granted increasing self-government to South Tyrol in the decades after World War Two, defusing separatist unrest by Austro-German speakers. It is now among Italy’s richest regions, with an open border to Austria thanks to EU integration. But Martin Graf, a rightist deputy speaker of Austria’s parliament, declared on Sunday that South Tyrol was actually “part of overall Tyrol”, and only “currently” within Italy. The universal right of self-determination should apply for all “the German people” in Europe - just as those in old Communist East Germany got their wish to merge into one Germany at the end of the Cold War in 1990. “It’s time to ask the people if there should be one Tyrol,” Graf said. Graf owes his parliamentary post due to the fact that his far-right Freedom Party replaced the Greens as Austria’s No. 3 party in last year’s parliamentary election. Some Freedom members have called into question an Austrian law that prohibits neo-Nazi activities. Graf has links to a rightist fraternity, Olympia, that nurses old German nationalist causes and has acted as a platform for Holocaust deniers. So his South Tyrol remarks were unsettling and drew swift fire from mainstream conservative and centre-left politicians protective of Austria’s delicate democratic reputation.

Some pointed out what they deemed the absurdity and danger of redrawing borders or re-championing national differences in a 21st century European Union that has largely done away with frontier barriers in a spirit of common peace and prosperity. “(Graf) should avoid such ill-considered and unrealistic statements,” said Guenther Platter, conservative People’s Party governor of Austria’s (North) Tyrol province. “Borders have long since fallen and we live today in the heart of a common Europe. Cooperation between (the two Tyrols) is better than ever.” Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said Graf’s “radical, unrealistic” comments were at odds with good neighbourly relations with Italy and invited misunderstanding. Social Democratic party general secretary Laura Rudas accused Graf of “political pyromania”. A defiant Graf retorted: “None of my attackers are in the position to explain why there should be a self-determination right for Tibetans and Kurds, but it is still being withheld from South Tyroleans after 90 years.” The solid front of criticism was briefly punctured by a statement of support for Graf from the South Tyrol Freedom faction in the provincial assembly in Bolzano (Bozen in German).

Unconvinced, Austrian media sought out the ethnically German governor of South Tyrol, Luis Durnwalder. He said he was convinced that if a vote were held tomorrow, most South Tyroleans would choose to stay as they are now within Italy. ”If parties had six months to campaign on this, you might see a small majority for ‘Anschluss’ with Austria,” he told Austrian state television, using the discredited word for Austria’s enthusiastic accession to Nazi Germany in 1938. “But it wouldn’t be realistic. Italy would never consent. Violence or terror naturally would be no option. And, given existing treaties, we would never get a majority (for rejoining Austria) in the United Nations.” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said he would try again to have parliament dismiss the rightist from the speaker job over what he called behaviour damaging to Austrian interests. But Finance Minister Josef Proell said that while Graf’s remarks were “totally unacceptable and scurrilous”, his conservatives would not contribute votes crucial for a two-thirds majority needed to topple Graf. He said it would be wrong to turn Graf into “a martyr via parliamentary manoeuvre” and he should resign himself. Graf ruled that out, saying he could not be punished for exercising his right to free speech.
Reuters

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ONLY 367 MUSLIM WOMEN IN FRANCE WEAR FULL VEIL - REPORT

29/7/2009- Only 367 women in France wear Islamic veils that cover their faces and bodies, a newspaper reported on Wednesday, undermining the position of politicians who are pushing for a ban on the garments. A panel of legislators is studying the issue of whether the number of women wearing such veils is on the rise and why. The panel is expected to say in coming months whether it backs a ban on the veils in public places, as advocated by some politicians. President Nicolas Sarkozy has stopped short of backing a ban, but has said the veils were "not welcome" in France. The influential newspaper Le Monde said that in light of the tiny number of women concerned, the idea of a ban should be dropped. "Do we need to legislate for fewer than 400 people, legislate for an exception? ... Given the risks, including the stigmatisation of Islam ... the answer is no," it said in an editorial. In France, there is near unanimity against veils that hide a woman's face. These are seen as a violation of women's rights, often imposed by fundamentalist men. However, there are strong disagreements about whether it would be wise or helpful to legislate against the garments.

Le Monde said it had seen reports by two separate domestic intelligence agencies that both found only a tiny minority of Muslim women wore such veils. One of the reports gave a figure: 367 women in the whole country. France has Europe's biggest Muslim community, estimated at 5 million. Statistics on how many women wear facial veils are usually not available in France, which is wary of surveys of people's religious practices because of the ideal of equality. This means that until now, the issue of Islamic veils has been debated with much passion but little hard evidence. Le Monde said the intelligence reports it had seen had been passed to government and would form part of the parliamentary debate into the issue of the veils. Critics of the idea of a ban have said it would stigmatise Islam and would put moderate Muslims on the defensive, pushing them into defending the veils as a symbol of their religion even though they may not favour wearing the garments themselves.

The intelligence reports cited by Le Monde suggest that the reality of women who cover their faces in France, and why, is quite different from the description given by politicians. The reports say most women who wear full veils are under 30 and do so to make a political point. Outraged by what they see as widespread anti-Muslim sentiment, they want to defy society and, in some cases, their own relatives. French converts to Islam account for around a quarter of wearers, the newspaper said, quoting the reports. The intelligence reports say that the vast majority of Muslims in France reject full-body veils and see those who defend it as fundamentalists. The debate about facial veils echoes a controversy that raged for a decade in France about Muslim girls wearing headscarves in class. Eventually, a law was passed in 2004 banning pupils from wearing conspicuous signs of any religion at state schools. The law remains controversial. Critics say it has stigmatised Muslims at a time when the country should be fighting discrimination in the job and housing markets that has caused a rift between mainstream society and some youths from an immigrant background.
Reuters

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FRENCH RAPPER IN CENSORSHIP ROW

29/7/2009- A 27-year-old rapper from Normandy, nicknamed by some the "French Eminem", is at the centre of a political storm over censorship in France. OrelSan has seen 10 of his concerts cancelled recently after the former Socialist presidential candidate, Segolene Royal, and other politicians complained that his lyrics encouraged violence against women. Ms Royal even threatened to withdraw the public subsidy from one prestigious festival, Les Francofolies in La Rochelle, in her capacity as head of Poitou-Charentes regional council. The organisers dropped OrelSan, whose real name is Aurelien Cotentin, from the bill shortly afterwards, complaining that Ms Royal had "positioned herself as a master-blackmailer". The move led the governing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) of President Nicolas Sarkozy to accuse Ms Royal of attacking freedom of expression, and of "intolerable" interference.

'Fiction'
Ms Royal and other critics were particularly outraged over a song by the 26-year-old called Sale Pute, roughly translated as "Dirty Bitch", which is about a man who wants to break the bones of his unfaithful girlfriend. "I hate you, I want you to die a slow death. I want you to become pregnant and lose the baby," he chants in one verse. "You are just a pig who should go straight to the slaughter house." But OrelSan says the song, which he no longer performs in public, was never meant to be taken seriously. "This song tells the story of a man who sees his girlfriend cheating, comes back home, drinks and writes her an e-mail in which he insults her," he says.
"But it's a fiction. It's nothing real. I didn't write it about my ex-girlfriend or anything so you can't really take the song personally. I play a role in it, that's all." "It's like a book or a film about a murderer or a criminal," he adds.

Historical parallel
OrelSan's new album, Perdu d'Avance, has been removed from public libraries in Paris because of concern over what feminist and women's groups say are his sexist, homophobic and violent lyrics. But the French Culture Minister, Frederic Mitterrand, nephew of the late President Francois Mitterrand, says OrelSan, like other artists, should be free to express himself and that his concerts should not have been cancelled. Mr Mitterrand drew a parallel between the rapper and the 19th Century French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. "Rimbaud wrote much more violent things that went on to become classics," he said. However, Ms Royal said the rapper's work was offensive to women and that the issue was not censorship. Women's groups argue that the law should be as tough on sexism as it is on racism. Regional councillor Michele Loup says OrelSan's songs "are full of hatred and violence against women". "If he wants to do that, OK, but we consider that public money shouldn't finance it," she adds. Ms Loup and other local politicians have led a lobbying effort to persuade local authorities to drop him from festivals which they are helping to finance.

Disaffected youth
But many commentators agree with the government that this comes dangerously close to censorship. "Art doesn't have to be politically correct," says Stephane Davet, a music journalist on the newspaper Le Monde. "If you censor this, you could end up censoring many respected authors." Mr Davet says politicians should try to tune into what rappers have to say about disaffected young people. He points out that rappers were predicting riots in French suburbs long before they happened in 2005. OrelSan, he says, "gives a very interesting description, a pretty dark description of a generation of frustrated, white trash kids, born with a PlayStation in their hands, spending their time on the internet, looking for sex websites, and one should listen to that instead of saying, we should censor him". At the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris, I came across groups of teenagers practising dance moves as if the station concourse were a studio or a gym. Not surprisingly, they supported OrelSan, although several of them told me that they did not like their younger brothers and sisters to listen to rap songs with violent lyrics. They said politicians did not try to understand their generation. "They want us to be exactly like them," one youth told me. "They don't try to help us and they want to take away our personality." That is also a predicament recognised by OrelSan himself. In one of his less controversial songs, he raps: "Old folk don't understand what's going on in the heads of the young."
BBC News

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ISLAM AND HOMOSEXUALITY (opinion)

All the worlds’ major religions and spiritual traditions—from the majority view in Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism to Christianity and Islam—condemn and forbid homosexuality. The great majority of rabbis hold the same position, as do the Pope and the Dalaï Lama, notes Tariq Ramadan*.

29/7/2009- The Islamic position on homosexuality has become one of the most sensitive issues facing Muslims living in the West, particularly in Europe. It is being held up as the key to any eventual “integration” of Muslims into Western culture, as if European culture and values could be reduced to the simple fact of accepting homosexuality. The contours of this de facto European culture is in a state of constant flux, shifting according to the topic of the day. Just as some insist, as do the Pope and certain intellectuals—often dogmatic and exclusivist defenders of the Enlightenment—that Europe’s roots are Greek and Christian (thus excluding Muslims), so several homosexual spokesman and the politicians who support them are now declaring (with an identical rejection of Muslims) that the “integration of Muslims” depends on their acceptance of homosexuality. The contradiction is a serious one: does Christianity, which forms the root structure of European culture, and which purports to embody European values and identity, not condemn homosexuality? A curious marriage. Unless the contradiction is intended to stigmatize Islam and Muslims by presenting them as “the Other”… without fear of self-contradiction.

We must reiterate, as does Isabelle Levy in “Soins et croyances” that all the worlds’ major religions and spiritual traditions—from the majority view in Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism to Christianity and Islam—condemn and forbid homosexuality. The great majority of rabbis hold the same position, as do the Pope and the Dalaï Lama, who condemns homosexuality. For these traditions, as for Freud (who speaks of “perversion”), homosexuality is considered to be “against nature,” an “expression of disequilibrium” in the growth of a person. The moral condemnation of homosexuality remains the majority opinion of all religions, and Islam is no exception. It would be senseless to wish to deny the facts, to contradict the textual sources and to force believers to perform intellectual contortions so that they can prove they are in tune with the times. But the question is not whether one agrees with the religious texts, the beliefs and the convictions espoused by individuals. It is to determe what is appropriate behavior in the societies in which we live together. For more than twenty years I have been insisting—and drawing sharp criticism from some Muslim groups—that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam, but that we must avoid condemning or rejecting individuals. It is quite possible to disagree with a person’s behavior (public or private), while respecting that person as an individual. This I have continued to affirm, and gone further still: a person who pronounces the attestation of Islamic faith becomes a Muslim; if that person engages in homosexual practices, no one has the right to drive him or her out of Islam. Behavior considered reprehensible under the rules of morality cannot justify excommunication. There is no ambiguity, and ample clarity: European Muslims have the right to express their convictions while at the same time respecting the humanity and rights of individuals. If we are to be consistent, we must respect this attitude of faith and openness.

Today we are witnessing an upsurge of unhealthy, ideology-driven movements. To affirm one’s convictions and respect others is no longer sufficient. Muslims are now being called upon to condemn the Qur’an, and to accept and promote homosexuality to gain entry into the modern world. Not only is such an attitude doomed to fail (the majority trends in both traditional and reformist Islam, as in other religions, will never waver on this question) but it also reveals a new dogmatism—and a whiff of colonialism, not to mention xenophobia—at the heart of so-called modern, progressive thought. Certain prominent intellectuals and lobbies have ordained a new form of political correctness; they would like to force everyone to be “open” or “liberal” in the same way. At first glance, this open, liberal thought would seem to warrant respect; but it reveals a troubling tendency to impose its own dogmas, leaving little or no room for the convictions of traditional philosophical, spiritual or religious world-views. Betraying the ultimate goal of modernity, which should help us manage freedom and diversity, we are now told that there is only one way to be free and modern. Both dogmatic and dogmatizing, this trend, in the name of liberal thought, is a dangerous one, and should alarm all women and all men, whether atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians or Muslims. It strikes at the very heart of our freedom of thought, of the most intimate aspects of our lives, of the ways we strive for social and intellectual emancipation.

Let us not delude ourselves. These developments, along with recent tensions surrounding the return of religion, its accompanying fears, and the social visibility of homosexual “believers” is directly related to the presence and new-found visibility of Muslims in our Western societies. We, as societies, can choose to exacerbate these sensitive issues and to exploit the natural stresses created by the arrival of new immigrants to demonstrate the impossibility of integrating Muslims, and the danger they are said to represent. There are political parties that may win elections by playing on these themes. The long term outcome will be to exacerbate social divisions, and will ultimately prove counterproductive. Social cohesion will become impossible, and daily life will be undermined by mistrust and insecurity. It is time to stop playing this harmful game, and return to a more just and reasonable approach. The good news comes from the younger generation: cultures and religions cannot stop them from getting to know one another, from living together, and from sharing both spaces and hopes. They are the future; there can be no doubt that they will leave our past fears far behind.

*Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Theology, Oxford University. He is also president of the think tank European Muslim Network in Brussels. This article appeared in his website TariqRamadan.com.
Middle East Online

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NO RESTRICTIONS FOR GAY PARADE(N.Ireland)

28/7/2009- This year's Gay Pride parade in Belfast will not be subject to any restrictions, it has been announced. Religious groups are nevertheless expected to picket the annual event, which takes place on Saturday. This is the second year in a row that the Parades Commission has not placed any restrictions on the event. On Monday, organisers gave assurances to the quango over stewarding as well as the behaviour of those participating in the parade. It sparked controversy two years when one participant carried a placard which Christians found offensive. "We respect the views of those who are organising the Pride parade and those who wish to express their opposition," said Parades Commission chairwoman Rena Shepherd. "Just as with any other parade where there is disagreement the commission believes it is paramount that all concerned treat each other with respect and show tolerance towards the view of wider society. "We welcome the assurances we have received in regards to the stewarding of the parade and the general conduct of the participants." Ms Shepherd added that it was "very clear" that the Belfast Pride parade was a "welcome addition to the city and it is a colourful and positive celebration of all lifestyles which co-exist in Belfast".
BBC News

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'HATE CRIME' AT DANISH GAY GAMES

29/7/2009- A Dane has been charged with committing a hate crime for allegedly throwing fireworks at athletes during a gay sporting event in Copenhagen. He is accused of throwing fireworks into the Oesterbro stadium where the World Outgames running competitions were being held. One US athlete suffered a light injury to his hand. The attack marks the second suspected hate crime at the Outgames after three men were assaulted in the street. In the stadium incident, the alleged perpetrator was apprehended by runners from the Sparta Athletes club as he attempted to escape. The 31-year-old suspect told a court he had thrown only one firework against a wall and had not intended to harm the athletes. Copenhagen Police commissioner Poul B Hansen told the Danish newspaper Politiken it would be surprising if the accused had been unaware the event was for gay people. "We are certain it was no coincidence that he threw the fireworks where he did - but it is, of course, up to the judge to decide if we are right," he added. The suspect was remanded in custody for 13 days.

'Tolerant city'
On Sunday, three gay men from Sweden, Norway and the UK were treated in hospital following an attack by youths in the street. The attackers have been charged with hate crimes. Copenhagen's openly gay deputy mayor Klaus Bondam denounced the attacks. "I am actually surprised that this has happened. I would have thought Copenhagen would have been more welcoming towards gays and lesbians from around the world," he told the BBC. "World Outgames have invited people from countries where you can receive the death penalty for being gay. These attacks shows the importance of organising a gay sporting event, to further people's understanding of homosexuality" he added. Some 5,500 participants from 98 countries are in Copenhagen for eight days of sport and culture to promote rights for homosexuals worldwide.
BBC News

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POLITICIAN SPEAKS OUT ON MINORITY RIGHTS(Denmark)

International conference focuses on minority rights and human rights being equally important

28/7/2009- An international conference on Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender (LGBT) human rights entitled 'Love of Freedom – Freedom to Love' has begun in Copenhagen. The three-day event kicked off at DR's Concert Centre yesterday. The conference is coordinated by leading human rights activists from around the world and coincides with the World Outgames taking place in Copenhagen. The conference has more than 110 workshops with presenters from about 70 countries worldwide. Denmark's Socialist People's Party member Kamal Hameed Qureshi took part in the Human Rights Conference panel discussion entitled ‘LGBT party politics: 30 Years after Nancy Wechsler and Harvey Milk: Lessons for the Future.’ A heterosexual, Qureshi's presence diversified the panel which comprised gay and lesbian political party members from Austria, Canada, Nepal and Spain. Born in Pakistan to Indian parents who moved to Denmark when he was young, Qureshi, spoke about the challenges of growing up in Denmark as a minority and the importance of declaring equal rights for every individual. ‘There are no gender rights without LGBT rights. There are no ethnic rights without LGBT rights,’ he said.

Proclaiming that some of his own party members have called him a bit ‘radical’ in his crusade for equal human rights, Qureshi told The Copenhagen Post he would like to see same-sex marriage in the church made legal. 'Denmark has laws forbidding human rights,' Qureshi explained citing the fact that same-sex marriages cannot be carried out in the church. Same-sex marriages, or civil unions, are legally recognised by the state of Denmark. However, the law dictates that same-sex marriage ceremonies cannot be conducted in a church. 'We need to take the good parts of the existing laws [pertaining to same-sex unions] and combine them with the common law,' stated Qureshi. Hailing from a Muslim background, Qureshi is no stranger to minority issues in Denmark. In 2001, he became the first elected Danish Parliament member from an ethnic background. Since then, he has feverishly campaigned to improve equal rights for minorities in Denmark. ‘Neighbouring countries like Sweden are good examples of how we can better our laws concerning equal rights. One thing Denmark needs is an ombudsman who can determine where the laws are lacking in human rights so we don’t have to wait until something like a hate-crime is committed before we act.’

Qureshi said he has seen growth in the Pakistani community here in Copenhagen, citing his own neighborhood of Nørrebro. Qureshi said it has not always been easy for him to find common ground within the Muslim community. He experienced a considerable backlash, particularly from the Pakistani community, when he as the first heterosexual Parliamentarian marched in the Copenhagen Pride Parade. ‘My family and I were persecuted because of my stance on human rights. It took some time, but eventually walls came down,’ explained Qureshi, retelling the story of how a sharwama shop owner ran up to him the next year as he marched in the parade and handed him a dürüm. ‘You cannot march on an empty stomach,’ the shop owner had insisted. Qureshi now has an overwhelming majority of support from the Pakistani community. In addition to campaigning for LGBT rights, Qureshi also expressed how important it was for members of all minorities to come together and support each other. ‘If we can find allies within other minority parties,’ he explained, ‘then we become the majority’.

American human rights activist Cleve Jones, founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, was also in Copenhagen to speak at the conference. Jones has recently garnered additional fame after being portrayed in the movie ‘Milk’, a biopic on the life of American politician Harvey Milk, who became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the state of California. ‘My hope for Denmark and the rest of Europe is that they will give America their full support when we march on Washington, DC on 11 October,’ he told The Copenhagen Post. ‘We’re marching for one thing and one thing only – equal rights now and forever.
The Copenhagen Post

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TACKLING SOUTH AFRICA'S RAPE EPIDEMIC

29/7/2009- The trial of three of the men accused of the rape and murder of one of South Africa's leading sportswomen, the openly gay football star Eudy Simelane, starts in South Africa on Wednesday. Thirty-one lesbian women have been reported raped and murdered in homophobic attacks in South Africa since 1998. But according to Triangle - a gay rights organisation - only two cases of "corrective rape" have ever made it to the courts; there has been only one conviction. "This is a sad fact in this country generally, women are very reluctant to come forward," says Sharon Cox from Triangle. "Corrective rape" is the term used to describe the rape of a lesbian woman by a man to either punish her, or "correct" her behaviour. Ms Cox says rape is power is South Africa. "The thinking is, all it takes is one good man to cure you of being a lesbian," she told the BBC's Newshour programme. Triangle says it deals with up to 10 new cases of corrective rape every week. Support groups claim an increasingly aggressive and macho political environment is contributing to the inaction of the police over attacks on lesbians and is part of a growing cultural lethargy towards the high levels of gender-based violence in South Africa. But with the possibility of convictions in the Eudy Simelane case, and another case ongoing in Cape Town, Ms Cox is hopeful of change. "If we do get sentences in these cases it will be a great step forward for human rights, for women's rights and for gay and lesbian rights."

Gang rape
South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. More than 54,000 cases are reported to the police each year. Among men in their early twenties it has become almost a game. There is even a term for the man who leads the process - he is know as the "marhasimani". "A marhasimani is someone who goes to the club, buys a woman a few beers, then with his friends, he would take that woman and go away and have sex with her," one young man told the BBC on the understanding of anonymity. Another of the group sitting in a bar in the city of Kempton Park, north-east of Johannesburg, explains how it works. He says the friends hide under the bed until the first man is finished and has left the room, then they take turns having sex with the woman, pretending to be the first man. "The room is dark and the girl is not even going to notice if it's the second guy sleeping with her," explains another friend in the group. When they are challenged to admit that what they are doing constitutes gang rape, they all deny it.

"It's not about her, we bought her drinks, you know how drinks are expensive," says one of them. "We can't say it's gang rape because, OK, I know sometimes we have to drug the girl and everything, but it does not happen all the time," says another. "Most of the time when it does happen, the girl is taking some drinks, but she is quite aware of what is happening." In a report earlier this year, the charity Actionaid spoke to 23-year-old Zakhe, who had two friends raped and killed, and was threatened with rape herself. "They tell me that they will kill me, they will rape me and after raping me I will become a girl. I will become a straight girl," she said. At the heart of these different manifestations of rape are deep-rooted cultural stereotypes - that men have ownership over women and are of greater importance. These are views based on traditional values and gender roles that have been enforced in homes and villages in the past and have been largely unchallenged.

Sense of entitlement
Dumisani Rebombo is a former rapist who now speaks openly and with great remorse about his crime. He was just 15 when he raped a young woman in his village with two of his friends. He admits giving in to peer pressure: "I did it to prove that I was a boy but also wanting to be accepted. "It's not something that I enjoyed… Immediately I was engulfed with guilt and fear." Mr Rebombo now works for the Olive Leaf Foundation, an NGO working with men to prevent rape. He believes that the problem is partly societal - that boys are raised with a sense of entitlement, and the belief that they can to do whatever they want with women. "Boys are socialised to be tough, to be macho." The other problem he says is the lack of willingness for anyone to challenge these assumptions. "You could have as many good men as bad, but if you have silence in communities, I think that silence is very loud."

Rape in South Africa
# South Africa has the highest incidence of rape amongst Interpol states
# 1 in 4 men admit to rape
# Nearly 150 women are raped every day
# More than 54,000 cases of rape were reported in 2006 Based on reports by the Medical Research Council, Interpol
BBC News

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IOM: MIGRANTS TO ITALY FACE 'A KIND OF SLAVERY'

28/7/2009- Thousands of migrants are being lured to Italy with false promises of work and forced to live in conditions akin to slavery, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday. In a study of a migrant camp near the town of San Nicola Varco, 100 km (63 miles) south of Naples, IOM officials found some 1,200 migrants squatting in abandoned buildings without water and electricity, eking a living among piles of rubbish. The young men, most of them from Morocco, were being paid between 15 and 25 euros ($21 and $35) for a 12-hour day laboring in nearby greenhouses and fields, without work contracts. Their employers often charged them for basics like transport and water, in the sweltering summer temperatures of southern Italy. "The humanitarian emergency has become serious because they are living in conditions that are unsustainable," said Flavio Di Giacomo, spokesman for the IOM in Italy. "The salaries are well below the minimum. It is a kind of slavery." Di Giacomo said that San Nicola Varco is one of the largest migrant settlements, but there are many more across southern Italy and even in the more prosperous north. "We're talking about many thousands of immigrants in total."

Many of the migrants had paid up to 8,000 euros per person to a middle-man in their home country for the promise of a seasonal contract in Italy, the IOM said. "Once in Italy, the migrants found that their employer had disappeared or just refused to employ them. Without a legal work permit, many fell into exploitation," said Peter Schatzer, regional representative for the IOM in Rome. Each year, Italy sets a quota for the number of migrant workers allowed to enter the country as seasonal workers for its large agricultural sector. The IOM said illegal labor, especially in the agricultural sector, is a widespread phenomenon in Italy with official statistics showing it accounts for between 15.9 percent and 17.6 percent of gross domestic product. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was elected by a landslide last year with a mandate to crack down on illegal immigration and rising crime, which many Italians blame on immigrants. His government has clashed with the UN refugee agency UNHCR over a deal which allows Italy to return to Libya boats of would-be illegal migrants intercepted in the Mediterranean.
Reuters

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ITALY'S IMMIGRANTS DESPAIR AT NEW LAWS

27/7/2009- Proponents of Italy's new anti-immigration laws say they are a much-needed response to a serious problem, but critics say they recall the policies of the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, reports the BBC World Service's Madeleine Morris in Milan. "The life that I'm living in Italy is very poor. I don't have documents. In Europe, if you don't have documents, you are nothing - you are an empty vessel." Michael - not his real name - is a 19-year-old Sierra Leonean who came to Italy 15 months ago. He crossed the sea from Libya in a small boat, along with 65 other people. Once they landed in Italy, he claimed asylum. But Michael's claim, along with the majority of asylum seekers who land on Italy's shores, was rejected. Since then, he has been living illegally in the northern city of Milan, struggling to survive under Italy's increasingly tough policy on illegal immigrants. I see that policy in action as we pass an internet cafe near the hostel where he is staying. Four policemen enter the cafe and single out those of African descent, asking to check their official documents. "They're in here three or four times a week looking for people without papers," Michael says.

Under fire
Italy has come under fire from groups as diverse as the Vatican and the European Commission for its strict new anti-immigration laws, which were passed in early July. Under the legislation, illegal immigrants are liable to pay a fine of 10,000 euros (£8,700; $14,200) and can now be detained by the authorities for up to six months. In addition, people who knowingly house undocumented migrants can now face up to three years in prison. The new law also permits the formation of unarmed citizen patrol groups to help police keep order. The European Commission is investigating the new laws to see if they comply with existing EU legislation on immigration. "Italy is absolutely not a racist country. We just want to be sure that the immigrants who arrive on our land want to be here to work, not to make crimes," says Paolo Grimaldi, an MP for the right-wing Northern League. Mr Grimaldi, whose party leader, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, ushered the new law through parliament, firmly believes Italy is facing an emergency. With nearly 37,000 immigrants arriving on their shores last year, mostly via boats from Libya and Tunisia, many Italians agree. "There are too many people. You see in the city, on the streets in Milan, two million immigrants, I think," says one Milanese man, who did not want to give his name. "I want to help people who are poorer than me, but I want to know where they come from and what they are going to do," says Martina, a 23-year-old Northern League supporter. "It is better if they come here legally."

Criminalised
According to Saskia Sassen, an expert on European immigration at Columbia University in New York, Italy's new laws could be the beginning of "a catastrophic phase" for not only migrants but also Italian citizens. "This law really alters the landscape by criminalising the violation," she says. "In the past you were in violation of the law. That doesn't mean you were a criminal. This law means if you break the law, now you are considered a criminal. That's a big deal." Mr Grimaldi readily admits that almost no illegal immigrants would be able to pay a 10,000-euro fine. In fact, he says, that is the point. European Union laws oblige all 25 countries party to the Schengen Agreement, which allows passport-free travel across the area, to allow illegal immigrants to make two "mistakes", and the new Italian law makes such "mistakes" more likely. "We want to expel these illegal immigrants to their country of provenance," Mr Grimaldi says. "If they have already been arrested for something before, if they don't pay the fine, we will have recidivism." The immigrant will have made two "mistakes", and "so then we can make the expulsion".

Italy issues very few visas to people who are already living in the country, and demand for work permits from potential immigrants greatly outstrips supply. It quickly becomes a Catch-22 situation - illegal immigrants who have no visa are unable to get a job; those without a job are unable to get a visa. As a result, both illegal and legal migrants have become an increasingly obvious presence on the streets of Italian cities. At night, groups of men from across Africa, the Arab world and Asia roll out sleeping bags and cardboard boxes in Milan's numerous historic piazzas. By day, they get by however they can - some by selling fake designer handbags or toys, some by stealing. Michael lived on the streets of Milan for eight months before being given a bed at Casa della Carita, one of a number of charity-run hostels in the city which house immigrants. "I don't have a job. I can't go to the hospital if I am sick," he says. Beside him in the hostel's courtyard, a disparate group of migrants from as far away as Afghanistan and Bangladesh pass the time playing cards. "Italian people rescued me from their sea. If they didn't want me they shouldn't have rescued me," Michael adds.
BBC News

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