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Africa Pushing Gender Concerns

ROME. African governments are pushing ahead to embrace key goals on gender-based representation at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and on combatting gender-based violence, according to one Nigerian rights activist.

"African states recognise the unique position of women as the larger percentage of victims in terms of conflicts," said Bisi Olateru-Olagbegi, president of the Women's Consortium of Nigeria.

"More African states tend to support gender concerns being included," she contended. "We have tremendous support from the Francophone countries, especially Senegal, for gender composition on the Court and a gender legal adviser."

Several African conflicts - including the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and recent fighting in Sierra Leone, Sudan and Uganda - have included allegations of mass rapes, abduction of women and girls into sexual slavery and forced pregnancy. Even in the broader range of crimes against humanity, Olateru-Olagbegi noted, women were the majority of victims.

For that reason, she argued, there need to be personnel on the ICC, including a gender legal adviser, who can be sensitive to the specific concerns and violations that occur against women. So far, however, some North African countries - including Egypt - have been wary of accepting that condition, she said. The Women's Caucus, in which Olateru-Olagbegi participates, has also been facing opposition in its efforts to make forced pregnancy - or the raping of women by combatants and the subsequent pressure on those women to bear children from those rapes - a crime.

Thousands of Rwandan and Bosnian women were subjected to forced pregnancy, as were African-American slaves in the United States, the Caucus claims. Some women's rights activists worry that a range of governments - including those of conservative Islamist and Catholic states - are opposing that criminalisation because, in one activist's words, they fear it could present "a back door to allow abortion."

The Women's Caucus responded with a statement last week clarifying that "the issue of abortion has no place in the current discussions about the crime of enforced pregnancy". Yet the Holy See, among other groups, worries that making such an act a crime could create a precedent to allow the abortions of any offspring.

Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's UN ambassador, told TerraViva that his government, which allowed for abortions for women raped in the 1992-95 Bosnian war, saw the issue of recognising the crime as the more important issue.

"If we didn't deal with it openly, the women and children would be much more stigmatised," he argued. After it was recognised by the government that women had been raped and then detained explicitly so that they would bear the children of their rapists, he added, most of the women decided not to opt for abortion.

Similarly, Olateru-Olagbegi contended, "this is a crime where a particular group is targeted, especially during conflict, and raped and made pregnant...it is a crime in itself." But that issue, she added, should not be confused with the abortion debate. "It is not the intention of the Women's Caucus to change any domestic abortion debate," she said.

At the end of the day, she added, dozens of African nations are likely to push for a wide range of gender concerns, including the adding of forced prostitution, forced pregnancy and sexual slavery to the ICC statute. It will then be for the signatories to uphold that statute, she said.

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