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Nobel winner presses for women's rights
Updated: 2004-03-09 09:12

The failure by governments across the Islamic world to respect women's rights has hampered even hesitant steps toward political change, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi said Monday as the United Nations observed International Women's Day.

"The rights of women and democracy are one and the same thing," the Iranian lawyer and rights campaigner said during a visit to the International Labor Organization.

Speaking alongside Ebadi, Carla Del Ponte ! chief prosecutor of the U.N. war crimes tribunal ! said women have raised their profile on the international stage over the past decade.

She cited her predecessor Louise Arbour, who is stepping down as a justice of the Canadian Supreme Court to become U.N. high commissioner for human rights, and former Irish President Mary Robinson, who held the top U.N. human rights post from 1997 to 2001.

"In most democratic societies over the past generation women have been given the opportunity to realize their professional aspirations," Del Ponte said. "It's not the same in the rest of the world."

In a study released to coincide with International Women's Day, the Geneva-based Interparliamentary Union ! which counts 142 national legislatures as its members ! said women now make up a record-breaking 15.3 percent of the world's lawmakers.

With 49 percent, Rwanda is the country with the most female lawmakers, although the African average is 15.1 percent. Sweden is second with 45 percent.

Although the organization does not have a separate category for Muslim countries, the figure for Arab states is 6 percent.

Women's rights are an excellent indicator of the general human rights situation in a country, Ebadi said, speaking through an interpreter.

Ebadi, who received the Nobel Peace Prize last year, was the first Muslim woman to win the award.

"Many people use Islam to justify the unequal position of women. They are wrong. Islam is a religion which believes in the equality of all human beings. The position of women in Islamic countries is due to the patriarchal system in these countries. Not only does this system reject the equality of men and women ! it also rejects democracy."

An Iranian woman faces an easier situation than women in hardline Saudi Arabia, but still needs her husband's permission to work, travel or divorce, Ebadi said.

At a separate event, the head of the World Health Organization said discrimination against women is fueling the global HIV/AIDS epidemic and that equal rights could help fight the disease.

Women now account for almost half the 40 million people infected worldwide ! 30 million of whom live in Africa. The percentage has grown relentlessly since the epidemic began two decades ago.

Around the world, women marked International Women's Day with rallies against domestic violence and sexual harassment and demands for equal rights.

In Iraq, several hundred women demonstrated in downtown Baghdad against the country's new interim constitution. Women have expressed concerns that by enshrining the role of Islam the document could lead to the imposition of Islamic laws they fear will their rights.

At a ceremony in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai noted that girls and women had begun returning to schools, colleges and the work force since the U.S.-led military campaign swept away the Taliban's hardline Islamic regime.

But U.N. special representative Jean Arnaux said Afghan women still face daunting violence and prejudice, ranging from arson attacks on girls' schools to abuse that drives some to self-immolation.

"Physical and psychological threats and violence against women in the public and private domain continue to cast a long shadow," Arnaux told some 500 women ! and a few men ! in a huge tent on a city college campus.

In Bangladesh, women protested against the illegal but still widely observed custom of demanding a dowry as a condition of marriage.

"We live in a country where women are killed simply because their families can't pay dowry money," women's rights activist Ayesha Khanam told 2,000 demonstrators in the capital Dhaka, one of many such rallies nationwide.

Meanwhile, a general strike to protest abuse against women shut down schools, shops and businesses in Nepal. The action was organized by the female wing of the country's leftist rebel group.

Women staged brief marches in Zimbabwe's two main cities of Harare and Bulawayo, despite the arrest Sunday of three women for organizing the protests against food shortages and other hardships they blame on President Robert Mugabe's government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin invited successful women in various walks of life to his residence outside Moscow and awarded them with state medals for their achievements.

"In our country, women do not take second place to men," he said.

While some former Soviet republics have dropped Women's Day as a relic of the Communist era, it is still an official holiday in Russia, where men give flowers and gifts to female relatives, friends and colleagues.

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