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About Zohra Moosa

Zohra Moosa is Director of Programmes at Mama Cash an international women’s fund based in Amsterdam that supports women’s, girls and trans* rights groups around the world. Prior to this role she was Women’s Rights Advisor at ActionAid UK. Find her on twitter



Articles by Zohra Moosa

This week’s front page editor


Francesc Badia i Dalmases is Editor and Director of democraciaAbierta.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Movements, money and social change: how to advance women’s rights

At the UN CSW underway in New York, a statement signed by almost 1000 women’s rights organizations calls out the lack of ambition for the scale of the issues at stake, and for real resources and accountability.

CSW weather vane: fault lines and prospects for women's human rights

As battles over women’s human rights rage on around the world, governments have gathered in New York this week to set some definitive agreements at the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women

CSW on balance: did we win?

There is much to celebrate from this year’s CSW, but the failure to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls to be included as a priority in the post 2015 framework, is a clear sign that our work is far from over, says Zohra Moosa

CSW: it's time to question the Vatican's power at the UN

In the final days of the UN Commission on the Status of Women summit on eliminating violence against women and girls, the Vatican, in alliance with Iran, Syria and Russia, is working to roll-back agreement on women’s rights. No other religious institution or special interest group has this level of influence in UN negotiations. 

Is the Coalition undermining women's political power?

A recent report warns that UK government policy is set to "disappear" women from a number of key areas, such as economic strategy, policing and healthcare

The table around which we didn't sit

CSW has attracted 1000s of women to its proceedings this year, but there is a danger that we are just talking to ourselves. Two sessions on the financial crisis point to the change that is needed.

Overdue justice

The next Progress of the World's Women, UNIFEM's flagship biennial report, will be on Access to Justice. I went along to their CSW session to hear their solutions for justice systems that are not working for women.

Enter NGO

Much of the negotiations seem to be sewn up before the conference has even started, but NGOs seem two steps behind each development. Is the space for NGO influence shrinking?

A reception with Harriet

Minister for Women Harriet Harman visits the CSW for the first time - holding promise for the UK's commitment to the new UN gender entity.

Becoming a feminist

15 years ago, I was a school girl with no awareness that Beijing was happening, but plenty of awareness of sexism. Does the Platform for Action offer more to school girls today?

The urban woman

Just came out of a parallel event called 'Women in cities' that was hosted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and organized by the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family (SFWF).With contributions from Asia, Latin America, Africa and Europe, it was no surprise that it ran well overtime. The short version? Women are under-represented in decision-making positions in cities and most urban planners and politicians at the local level (and likely at the national, though this wasn't the topic) do not understand gender and have never had basic gender training. The result? Cities designed by men for men.

Changing the climate on women

I had the chance to sit in the main UN session today for the first time. The topic was 'gender perspectives on climate change', which is the 'emerging issue' for this year's CSW.

What makes an expert expert?

At a session on gender equality and aid effectiveness today I listened to five women presenters speak about the Paris Declaration in full technical detail. They reviewed the purpose of the agreement, the history of its development, its relevance to the women's rights agenda, and the best ways to influence it.

The cost of talk

Turns out I wasn't the only one noticing the English-centricity at the CSW yesterday. At the NGO orientation I went to yesterday afternoon, one woman who I think came from Cote d'Ivoire spoke passionately for five minutes in French about her frustration with the NGO Committee on the Status of Women for delivering the presentations and discussion exlusively in English. As the briefing was designed to build NGO capacity on how to influence the CSW, she was understandably desole (her word) about the lack of translation services.

Working the system, 007 style

I went along to the official NGO orientation session yesterday afternoon to follow up on my interest in reporting on how women's NGOs influence the CSW and global gender policy making. It was enlightening. I learned (pdf):

A view from the outside

The last time I was at a UN conference was in 2001 when I attended the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa as an NGO delegate. I found it overly bureaucratic and seemingly designed to confuse. I learned that force of will was the best way to navigate the system and keep frustration to a minimum.

Follow the dollar

I'm sitting in the airport lounge getting ready to fly to New York so that I can attend my first CSW as a blogger for openDemocracy. For the last three days I've been visiting with family and friends and whenever anybody has asked what I'll be doing in New York for the week, I've been excitedly saying, "I'm going to the biggest UN conference on women's rights." This seemed to be the easiest way to explain what the CSW is to those who are not already au fait with UN mechanisms and bureaucracies.

In closing: honouring women

feminist symbol


Today is International Human Rights Day. When I started writing for this blog, it was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The 16 days in between have been packed with truly inspiring activism around the world. The Centre for Women's Global Leadership which originally launched the 16 days campaign in 1991 is currently compiling a full calendar of events which include actions from every continent.

The coverage on this blog has been similarly diverse and inspiring. The themes have incorporated the five I set out to explore (Rape and impunity, Healthy bodies, Coercion and control, Security, masculinities and the state, Women as trade) but also much much more.

Mythical choices

one way road sign on blue background

Much of the inertia around taking action on the abuse of women in its form as prostitution appears to me to frequently be the result of a problematic conception of the nature of choice.

Opponents of the criminalization of prostitution argue that prostitution is a legitimate occupation that women should be able to choose. They believe that 'sex work' is something a woman is entitled to take on as it is her body and her decision to trade it for money. Yet according to Madeleine Bunting:

In the UK, more than half of prostitutes have been raped or sexually assaulted. Three-quarters have been physically assaulted, 95% are drug users, and 90% want to get out.

This obviously means that at its maximum, only 10% of women working as prostitutes in the UK actually want to be doing the 'work'. The rest, it would seem, have no choice.

Damned if you do and also if you don’t

hanger picture, pro-choice

The many contradictions of anti-abortion arguments serve only to reinforce to me the extent to which the anti-choice agenda is actually about undermining women's right to have control over what happens to their bodies.

Take the argument that anti-abortion is about being pro-life put forth by the Catholic Church or the government of Nicaragua. In August Amnesty International, after two years debating the issue, took the decision to

'support access to abortion for women in cases of rape, incest or violence, or where the pregnancy jeopardises a mother's life or health'.


In response, the Vatican asked all Catholics to boycott the organization, likening abortion to murder. As Cath Elliot points out this effectively means that the Catholic Church values a woman's present life less than the potential life of the unborn. I fail to see how condemning a woman who is currently alive to death-by-childbirth is pro-life. Forcing such a woman to term in full knowledge that it will kill her is anti-life just as surely as asking her to sit on a ticking bomb is.

Honour and shame: two sides of the stigma coin

16 days banner - blue

statue of shamed woman I had a conversation yesterday with a friend about domestic violence within the Muslim community in the UK and the issue of why some Muslims resist discussing what they know is happening in the company of non-Muslims. In my friend's view, challenging Muslims, and Muslim men in particular, about domestic violence in such an open space, where non-Muslims are present, is problematic because of the current socio-political climate within the country, including widespread Islamophobia. She felt that a public naming of the problem would be hijacked by those with a racist agenda to further demonize Muslims in the eyes of the UK public, for instance by accusing Muslims of having barbaric cultures.

While I don't disagree that this hijacking is likely, I remain unconvinced that this is sufficient justification for not being vocal about violence against Muslim women in a relevant forum such as a meeting with the police on 'community safety' for one key reason: I believe advocating silence makes one complicit in the stigmatization of the victims. This stigmatization, in turn, is closely related to ideas about honour and shame that undermine women's rights.

Virtual Violence

16 days banner - blue

Girls need modems

Cyber violence against women is on the rise yet many countries' laws still do not have ways of addressing it in part because of the nature of the 'crimes' involved.

The fact that cyber violence happens virtually rather than face-to-face can make it more difficult to take action on it for any of the following reasons:

  • There may not be any physical evidence that it is happening for a forensic analysis, for instance, especially if it's in chat rooms that don't log messages
  • It may be difficult to link abusive behaviour to actual known people if perpetrators are using screen names
  • The violence may be directed at online representations of women, which themselves may be degrading or visually violent, rather than known or actual individual women

Who pays for violence against women?

16 days banner - green

coins in the air


Consider this, from UNFPA:

In Chile, domestic violence cost women $1.56 billion [USD] in lost earnings in 1996, more than 2 per cent of the country's GDP. In India, one survey showed women lost an average of seven working days after an incident of violence. Domestic violence constitutes the single biggest health risk to Australian women of reproductive age, resulting in economic losses of about $6.3 billion a year. In the United States, the figure adds up to some $12.6 billion annually.

By way of comparison, estimates of the economic cost of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa have ranged (pdf) from 0.6% of GDP for the region to over 1% (equivalent to $12 billion USD a year in 2001). Clearly then the cost of violence against women is significant, whether measured in absolute or relative terms.

As Sylvia Walby has researched this cost of violence against women is not restricted to one government department or one area of society. In addition, the costs to the government as a whole are both direct and indirect (pdf). For example, direct costs include those accruing from direct service provision such as that from the health care and criminal justice systems (including emergency services, hospitals and GPs, and the courts) as survivors access medical treatment for their injuries and perpetrators are brought to justice. Importantly, any measure of these direct costs will only be a fraction of the true costs since reporting rates are so low and many women do not seek medical attention. Indirect costs meanwhile include those cited in the quote above such as loss of productivity and earnings, as well as less tangible variables such as educational achievement and future earning potentials. This is to say nothing of the human and emotional costs, which Walby has demonstrated can also be financially quantified.

Penning resistance for change

16 days banner - purple

picture of a pen

There are a number of women in the world today who are risking their lives to reveal the violence against women that exists within their communities. It is a tragic irony that in writing about violence against women, they themselves become the targets of violence.

Earlier today Roja Bandari blogged about a woman named Jelveh Javaheri who has been arrested in Iran for her participation in the Campaign for One Million Signatures. Her crimes? ‘[D]isrupting public opinion, advertising against the system, and publishing lies.'

Visual acts: the power of being visible

Being a victim of violence is about losing power: the power to protect one's body or mind from abuse; the power to have some control over how one is physically, psychologically or emotionally treated.

Being a survivor or a resister of violence is about reclaiming a sense of power. Feeling empowered is an important part of healing after being a victim of violence. It is also a key ingredient for resisting violence, whether or not one has already been a victim. The link between empowerment and agency is a strong one as Andrea Cornwall dissects.

However, empowerment is not an entirely subjective experience. Violence is about inequalities of power that both perpetrator and victim can be aware of, and that outsiders can bear witness to. Moreover exercising coercion or control is about a struggle for power over someone that can be perpetrated by many more actors than just an individual, including the state, organizations such as religious groups, or even culture through values and norms.

Reclaiming a sense of power can therefore move significantly beyond the personal and well into the political. It can be about reclaiming the power to influence the public about what is acceptable behaviour, the power to bring perpetrators to justice, the power to provide adequate support to survivors of violence.

How can power be reclaimed? There are a number of projects around the world that are taking on the challenge of reclaiming survivors' sense of power and some of the most poignant are the most effective for a very important reason: their presence disrupts the silence around violence against women in the public eye. How? They are visual and they are visible.

In her analysis of the characteristics that have contributed to the effectiveness of various feminist activist art projects, Helen Klebesadel outlines seven essential attributes:

  • A ‘real world' orientation that speaks to lived experiences and moves beyond pure aesthetics
  • Process oriented instead of object oriented, with an interest in transforming the lives of the people involved in the art
  • Presentation in public sites
  • Production through participatory processes and collaboration
  • Involvement of the public and non-art world audiences
  • An element of performance or performance-based activity

As examples, she cites the American Guerrilla Girls, Clotheslines Project, and CODEPINK, among others such as the international Women in Black.

I'm convinced that the popularity of the Gulabi Gang, meaning the Pink Gang, in the public eye (including the BBC), and The Hindu stems from similar roots, where the visual and the visible are harnessed to create presence and influence the public and authorities. How could a group of several hundred women dressed in pink saris fail to draw attention to itself?

What is interesting about all of these accounts is their relative lack of judgement about the methods the group uses to effect change. The BBC article is clear that the women, hailing from Uttar Pradesh in India, are vigilantes, who have attacked men with sticks and axes and stormed police stations. The group's founder, Sampat Pal Devi even admits that

sometimes we have to take the law in our hands.

I think it is likely that the Gulabi Gang are permitted the license to use force in part because the women appear to be actors in costumes. One lesson to take from this is that the lines between art, performance and activism can at times be purposefully blurred to reclaim power.

The feminization of HIV and AIDS

16 days banner - green

series of AIDS ribbons

Action Aid has launched a new campaign on women and HIV and AIDS called Invisible Women in order to ‘bring the crisis facing women into the spotlight.'

South Australia's new plan

16 days banner - purple

kangaroo crossing signI had a chance to catch up with Sandy Pitcher, the Director of the Office for Women for the South Australian Government, today and took the opportunity to ask her about her office's work on violence against women. Turns out her team is currently trialling an innovative new programme of work based on a model used in Wales - and there are some lessons to be learned.

Home: not always where the heart is

16 days banner - blue

door in San Juan

One of the most dangerous places for a woman is in her own home. This is quite contrary to many people's beliefs. For example, in today's 16 Days article, Sarah from the Fawcett Society discusses how rape is largely a result of coercion by intimate partners, and not strangers in dark alleys. Similarly, in the first international study on domestic violence, the World Health Organization found that domestic violence, which it also calls ‘intimate partner violence', is the most common form of violence against women. At its release two years ago, the Director General of WHO admitted:

This study shows that women are more at risk from violence at home than in the street.

Advertise your product: here


Domestic violence at a party


Many theorists argue that mass media generally, and advertising in particular, encourages male violence against women. Jean Kilbourne's third Killing us Softly film for instances argues that advertising:

  • Normalizes violence against women
  • Links masculinity with violence
  • Presents violence as erotic and appealing

When the state rapes

Rape has been used as a weapon of war for centuries. As Laura Smith-Park wrote a few years ago:

From the systematic rape of women in Bosnia, to an estimated 200,000 women raped during the battle for Bangladeshi independence in 1971, to Japanese rapes during the 1937 occupation of Nanking - the past century offers too many examples.

But as the author notes it has been relatively recently that the use of rape as a deliberate military tactic has begun to be documented in detail, including its use in Sudan, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Is violence relative?

Is there any role left for the idea of cultural relativism when it comes to violence against women? Part of me would like to say, ‘no', that violence against a woman transcends cultural norms and that hurt does not feel different depending what culture you come from. That part of me points to the fact that human rights are universal precisely because they relate to being human, regardless of race, class, citizenship, etc.

On the other hand, another part of me recognizes that when it comes to issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM), there are women who defend their decisions to practice the custom on themselves as this extract explains for women in Egypt. That part of me balks at the idea of dictating to another woman how she should and shouldn't behave, especially when I don't live in her environment or face the challenges she would face if she chose not to be cut.

Discrimination at the local level

We need a way of positively tackling the under representation of ethnic minority women, at all levels of government
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