Wednesday, 15 August 2012


There were two incidents that disturbed me during the first months of 2012. These are two cases where women ended up being treated as low-leveled citizens or disease-baring witches, showing me how society and media will never  free themselves from patriarchism and women stigmatization. 

The greek police had the nerve to actually upload photos and personal data of HIV-positive sex workers in its website. NGOs and hundreds of netizens, condemned through social media, the ones responsible for this campaign, as well as mainstream media for their biased coverage.                                                                                      It all started when, on April 26, the authorities decided to perform controls on illegal brothels in the center of Athens, resulting to the arrest of a 22-year-old, Russian sex worker who was HIV-positive, didn't hold a permission and consequently she didn't take any necessary health tests.. On April 29, the Greek authorities, by the prosecutors orders, published personal data and a photograph of the prostitute on its official website, claiming that this exposure "aims to secure the social community". According to Kathimerini newspaper, almost a 1000 of her clients rushed to call the AIDS hotline and ΚΕEL (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention).
In the following days, KEEL engaged itself in performing health controls to illegal sex workers and brothels in the center of Athens, detecting eleven more women that were infected by the AIDS virus. The authorities uploaded once again the personal data and photos of those women, while the prosecutor pressed charges for an attempt of intentional physical damage. Finally, it was decided that they would be kept in detention, as well as 5 more HIV-positive sex workers that were spotted later.

Hundreds of Greeks condemned the act of publishing personal data of sex workers, as an inhuman mistake of former Minister of Citizen's Protection, Mr Cryssochoides, as well as former Health Minister, Mr Loverdos, indicating that this action falls into the category of a tremendous violation of human rights. Former Greek Health Minister had caused reactions, when last December, he proposed the deportation of foreign sex workers with HIV, declaring that "the disease is transmitted from the illegal immigrant to the greek client, and consequently to the greek family".                       The thing is that because of  the way the media and our politicians are terrorizing citizens overusing the dark cloud of the financial crisis and stigmatizing any marginalized group that suits them, people start seeing public enemies everywhere.  No one really sat down and try to consider that the ones to blame are the clients of those prostitutes, themselves. The typical machos that pay to have sex without condoms (they actually ask for this conditions) and then they go back to their homes and transmit the disease to their wives. Those are the real public enemies.              This is why statements like the one above, about those foreign women, victims of trafficking, being characterized as disease bombs from the health minister himself,  can be seen as extremely dangerous.                                                                          Most of all, the Greek police and the ministry of Health violated fundamental human rights such as human dignity and medical confidentiality
Dozens of voices were united through the internet, calling for the immediate arrest of the people truly responsible, the clients of those women, as well as their pimps and all those human trafficking circuits that have strong presence in Greece, even with state and police tolerance.

The second incident has to do with women harassment in Yemen. My amazing friend, Ghaida’a is a women’s rights activist and a campaigner against sexual harassment in Yemen. I had the privilege of meeting her at the University of Warsaw and from then on we became close friends. One day she approached me rather upset and she informed me about a horrific case (I will be quoting from a beautiful piece she wrote in                                                                                         “The daily newspaper, Alhayat (well-know in the Middle East) contacted me in February 2012 through a journalist asking me questions about the Safe Streets campaign in order to write a report about sexual harassment in Yemen. On the campaign Facebook page we had given some statistics, based on a report resulting from a regional conference organized by the National Center for Women's Rights and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on sexual harassment across 16 Arab countries, including Yemen. The conference reportsaid that 90% of Yemeni women face street sexual harassment.                                                                                      This information, already posted on many international and local websites, was quoted by the journalist in his report for the Alhayat Daily newspaper. The title of the articlewas "90% of Yemeni women are victims of sexual harassment, and the Internet is their haven.”                                                                                                         Three months on from the publication of this article, in May this year, Alhayat newspaper deleted the statistics from the online version of the article and apologized in their newspaper and on Twitter, claiming that the figure 90% was over exaggerated.                                                                                                               They published this apology after a few men on Twitter asked the newspaper to delete the statistics, claiming that they were wrong and that they implied that all Yemeni men were harassers. The article’s new title reads “Victims of Harassment and the Internet is their Heaven". So the newspaper not only deleted the statistics, but also the word "women". We hoped that the newspaper had based this decision on subsequent research or investigations, something to prove that the statistic was not true or that fewer than 90% of Yemeni women face sexual harassment daily. Yet there was no such survey. This was a big shock for us. How could this very well-known Middle Eastern newspaper be swayed so easily by this small group of men on Twitter? How could they delete such important information about women’s suffering on the streets of Yemen?                                                                                                                      Many people tried to communicate with the newspaper, to tell them that this kind of behavior is not professional. We even sent the journalist and the newspaper a report, "Baseline Study on Fighting Streets Harassment against Women in Yemen" which was conducted by the Athar Foundation for Development, and funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). This report says that 98.9% of Yemeni women are facing streets sexual harassment in the capital. The newspaper is yet to respond.”

Those two incidents, even though completely different, they share some common elements. First and most important, when some male twitter users or clients are disappointed, they have a bigger influence on media and on our society. They become more efficient as far as misleading public opinion, organizing contemporary witch hunts and stigmatizing women.   

By Maria Sidiropoulou

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