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Lesbian newlyweds flee honor killing threats in India

On July 22, Savita and Beena stood before a court in Gurgaon, India, and became the first lesbian couple to be legally married, defying their disapproving families and strict laws banning same-sex marriage. Now, the newlyweds seek police protection following death threats from 14 of their family members and local villagers.

Savita, 25, and Beena, 20, met 15 years ago as children in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Savita had been forced into an arranged marriage last year with a man from her village, but she ran away five months later. She was granted a divorce by a court near New Delhi, which also approved her wish to marry Beena. Savita was deemed the husband, and Beena, her wife. Though India bans same-sex marriage, the Gurgaon court recognized their union after the couple signed an affidavit asserting that they meet all of the requirements of a legal marriage.

But following the ceremony, the young couple soon returned asking for asylum after an open declaration was made in their village to kill the women. Now, the judges in the Gurgaon court are granting the couple police protection, upholding a 2009 ruling from the Punjab and Haryana High Court to "ensure help and [give] assistance to runaway couples."

Details on their current situation are cloudy. Some reports claim that the two women attempted suicide by jumping in front of a moving train. But Dr. Abhe Singh, the Gurgaon deputy commissioner of police, told the Daily Telegraph that the young women are currently safe under 24-hour protection. 

In the past year alone, two lesbian couples have committed suicide in India. Others have fallen victim to honor killings at the hands of disapproving family members. Homosexuality is still widely frowned upon in India, with the health minister recently speaking out at a national HIV/AIDS convention against the "MSM disease" -- men who have sex with men. But beneath a traditional blanket of conservatism, an outspoken LGBT community is emerging, and not just in India.

Neighboring Nepal, the first South Asian country to decriminalize homosexuality, has been called the next potential gay wedding destination for foreigners.  Same-sex marriage was recently approved by the Nepalese Supreme Court, which is also pushing for the new constitution to include gay rights. Third gender ID cards are now issued to Nepali citizens who do not identify as male or female. And, in 2010, operation Pink Mountain was launched, the nation's first travel agency for gay tourists. Sharad Pradhan, the Nepal Tourism Board spokesman, stresses that Nepal is "more liberal than other countries" and that "all the tourist sites are open for everyone, including gays and lesbians." An American lesbian couple recently took advantage of Nepal's gay-friendly stance on tourism, becoming the first same-sex couple to publicly marry there.

Following Nepal's lead, India decriminalized homosexuality in 2009, and since then, a ripple of change has pulsed through the country. Once taboo, Bollywood now no longer shies away from films with homosexual characters. In 2008, the first large-scale gay pride parade hit New Delhi, with some protesters calling it a national coming-out party. Now, India's annual parade celebrating gay rights attract thousands -- complete with drums, masks, and rainbow flags.

Meanwhile Savita and Beena are putting on their own show of strength. "If they want to take any steps against us, they should not hesitate to do so," said the couple. "Don't fear anything, just follow your heart."

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In Nigeria, avoiding a shot could mean going to jail

As Bill Gates unveiled his plan this week to rid the world of polio, health officials in the northern Nigerian state of Kano announced their own assault on the disease. "The government will henceforth arrest and prosecute any parent that refuses to allow health workers to vaccinate his child against child-killer diseases, particularly polio," said a health ministry official.

This news, which was announced at the outset of the government's four-day vaccination campaign targeting six million children, marks a shift in government policy toward immunization programs in the north of the country. Nigeria's polio vaccination program stalled for more than a year after Muslim leaders raised doubts over the inoculations' safety in the summer of 2003 -- resulting in bans issued by some northern state governments. One leader went so far as to claim that the vaccine was "being used for the purpose of depopulating developing countries, and especially Muslim countries." Other rumors claimed that the vaccines were contaminated with HIV and caused infertility in Muslim girls.

Although it ended in 2004, the immunization ban led to a resurgence of polio outbreaks within previously polio-free regions of Nigeria, as well as in surrounding countries.

This time around, Kano officials aren't taking any chances on noncompliant communities. Officials, who have not yet detailed the punishment or fines that would meet unwilling parents, clearly mean business: The mandate extends even to medical workers, who will be held responsible for reporting unwilling parents.

The recent vaccination effort in Kano comes after UNICEF Deputy Representative Jacques Boyer's recent visit to the capital city, during which he highlighted the challenges of eradicating polio in Nigeria, one of only four nations where polio is endemic. Boyer pointed out that while Nigerian polio cases dropped dramatically -- from 338 in 2009 to 21 in 2010 -- there has been a recent rise, with 20 cases reported in the last six months.

A July 2011 report by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partially attributed this rise to distraction brought on by the recent national elections. While the report's authors praised Nigeria's government for "showing greater commitment to eradicating polio," they also noted that Kano failed to meet indicators of progress and "remains a smouldering risk that could yet undermine the whole eradication effort." With of the weight of polio eradication hanging over them, officials had better hope the threat of imprisonment does the trick.

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