Recent Resources for Feminists
As a consequence, girls & women in their scarcity are exposed to multiple additional violences.
(After reading "Girls not allowed" please scroll down to read "Missing Girls - The facts"
New Internationalist Magazine Digital Edition #466 - October, 2013
Girls not allowed
Vanessa Baird examines what sex selection is doing to women and the world.
Choosing boys over girls in China and India has already skewed the global average sex ratio at birth to a biologically impossible level. (Pawan Kumar/Reuters)
There’s a moment in the documentary film It’s a Girl that is at once chilling and heart-rending.
A woman smiles nervously as she starts to describe the methods she used to kill her eight new-born baby daughters.
Then she puts her hand up to her own neck, to indicate strangulation and its almost as though she were doing it to herself. Which, in a way, she was.
We soon learn that several other women in her community in rural Tamil Nadu admit to similar measures to provide their husbands with a son.
Such brutal customs are rare in India today, sociologists say, and confined to certain isolated communities.
A far greater number of baby girls die more slowly from neglect. Hence the shocking statistic: an Indian girl aged between one and five is 75 per cent more likely to die than a boy. Its the worst under-five gender differential in the world.1
But far more common than letting girls die today is another form of sex discrimination making sure that girls aren’t born at all.
Skewing the world
Foetal imaging technology became widely available in the 1980s. Expectant parents in China and India, the planets most populous countries, were able to know the sex of the baby in the womb. And if they did not like what they saw, they could abort and try again.
The result of their choices: more boys. Many, many more boys. It is estimated that in China alone there will be 30-40 million more boys under the age of 19 by 2020 than girls.2 That’s equivalent to all the boys in the US.
Naturally, it also means far fewer girls. The latest global UN estimates are that 117 million females are missing.3 In other words, women and girls who would be alive now were it not for sex selection before birth or neglect and infanticide after. Imagine the entire female populations of Britain, Canada, Australia, Spain and France all gone.
Normally, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. Boys being biologically weaker, nature seems to adjust by ensuring more are born. This ratio is pretty consistent, with anything over 107 beginning to look dodgy. But because of all the skewing that has already occurred, 107 is the world average today impossible in purely biological terms.
China is the worst offender, with around 118 boys born to every 100 girls; India records a national average of around 111, though in some northwest states the disparity is more extreme.3
It’s not just an Asian problem. Several European countries, including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Albania, are having many more male births than they ought, due to sex selection. Azerbaijan, at around 116 boys to every 100 girls, has the second-worst sex ratio at birth in the world. And there are signs of distortions in Western Europe and North America, too.
This hasn’t happened overnight; there were warnings. Back in 1990 economist Amartya Sen published a seminal paper claiming that millions of women were missing. At that time he blamed female infanticide and neglect. It took a while for analysts to detect the role that prenatal sex-selection was playing.
During the next decade, more warnings were given, but little was done at a policy level to address the problem. Now academics are busy calculating, and speculating upon, the future impact of so many surplus males on health, crime, relationships, family life, social harmony, global security.
Some economists had ventured that the status of women would improve as a result of their scarcity value. The opposite appears to be happening, as females are increasingly viewed as a commodity, a resource, to be bought and sold.
Trafficking (much of it forced) of girls and women into China has become a multibillion dollar business with demand rising (see Blue Dragon to the rescue on page 26). Child marriage, still common in India, is now making an appearance in China, too there are reports of parents kidnapping girls to raise as partners for their sons.4
High levels of sexual violence in Asia especially gang rapes in India have led to media speculation that female shortage might be a factor. Easier to ascertain is the violence, physical and emotional, that women in India may be subjected to at the hands of their in-laws if they refuse to take a sex test or abort a female foetus.
This issue has been thrust into the limelight by a Delhi doctor, Mitu Khurana. Highly unusually, she has brought criminal charges against her husband a surgeon his mother, his brother and two hospital staff. She alleges that, when she was pregnant with twin daughters, she was deliberately fed food she was dangerously allergic to after she refused an illegal sex test, which hospital staff then subjected her to without her consent. The case is currently going through the Indian courts.5
Gender imbalance is not great news for all those surplus boys either. By 2020 an estimated 24 million young Chinese males will face the prospect of life on the shelf. The poor or less well-educated are most likely to be affected. Its a tragedy, says French demographer Christophe Z Guilmoto, in societies that marginalize unmarried men as failures and where there is no model of the fun-loving bachelor.
In places with seriously distorted sex ratios at birth, parents almost invariably select in favour of boys. Tradition is often given as the reason for this intense son preference.
In China, for example, girl aversion is often put down to the Confucian custom that family name and property can only be passed down the male line. In India, Hindu culture is most strongly associated with son preference. Traditionally, the son provides for his parents when they grow old and beyond. Only a son can perform the funeral rites that will aid passage into the afterlife. Women, meanwhile, are expected to abandon their own kin on marriage and become part of their husbands family.
Guilmoto, who has spent two decades studying skewed sex ratios, warns against making generalizations. But he has detected some common basic determinants. Countries where skewing has been most extreme are those where there has been rapid economic growth. In these places technology for diagnosing the sex of the foetus has become widely available and affordable. They are also places where fertility has plunged, with people having far fewer children than their parents had.
In a nation like India, economic growth has produced an appetite for consumerism that appears to mesh with traditions deeply harmful to girls and women.
Photographer and gender activist Rita Banerji is founder of the 50 Million Missing campaign in India. She pulls no punches when she says that in India sex selection is essentially greed based. Because dowry is paid by the brides family, and is often a large portion of family wealth, every son is a way of getting money in whereas every daughter represents an outflow of wealth from the family.6
For Banerji, dowry, prenatal sex selection and female infanticide are part and parcel. The minute dowry enters a community, everyone becomes greedy for it. It becomes a way of thinking, Okay, this is a way of getting a huge amount of money.
The female, she adds, becomes a resource pawn in this patriarchy you can buy her, sell her, kill her, keep her. However you want. Its like with any resource.
Like India, the Eastern European countries with skewed sex ratios have also embraced free market capitalism with gusto while bearing far fewer children. This, in itself, does not lead to sex selection, but combined with intense son preference it does. If you have just two children there is a 25 per cent chance that you will end up without a son no joke in a patriarchal society fixated on male offspring.
Chinas one child policy, in place since 1979, is often blamed for female infanticide and high levels of sex selective abortion. But according to China expert and paediatrician Therese Hesketh, the policy has had only a marginal impact on the sex ratio. It is not clear that lack of a policy would help, she says. Indeed, the data shows that sex selection is highest in areas where people have been allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl.
This young woman has been bride-trafficked to Uttar Pradesh, an Indian state with one of the worst shortages of girls and women. She has been repeatedly raped by her husbands brothers, who cannot find wives.(Nita Bhalla/Reuters)
The law and the A-word
Sex selection is now illegal in at least 36 countries. But in those where son preference has the biggest global impact enforcement of the law is weak or non-existent. In China there is no enforcement. Hospitals with suspiciously high rates of female foetuses being aborted could be investigated but are not, says Hesketh. For some reason the higher echelons just dont do it.
In India, Banerji sees a more sinister complicity: Sex selection is a rampant, multi-billion dollar industry that everyone the lawmakers, the law implementers, doctors and medical companies is benefiting from. Thats what keeps it going. The law in India is so blatantly violated its as good as having no law.
She adds that British and Norwegian Indians come to India to get sex selective terminations because the rules are more stringently applied in Britain and Norway. And when a leading official in the north Indian state of Haryana tried to set up a sting operation to catch law-breaking doctors he was persecuted by colleagues for trying to implement the law.
Others point out that the bans are unenforceable. Ultrasound tests are a regular feature of pregnancy management; the sex of the foetus can be disclosed without a word being said. The abortion can take place in a separate clinic; a reason other than the sex of the foetus can easily be given.
There is also concern that attempts at tough enforcement could restrict womens legitimate and hard fought-for right to abortion.
Sex selection is tricky area for feminists: a womans right to choose has become a tool of misogyny. In the absence of a strongly articulated feminist position on the subject, in the US the issue has been effectively hijacked by the pro-life lobby.
Although the US has a normal sex ratio at birth, Republican anti-abortion lawmakers this year managed to push through the Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act, under the pretext of defending gender rights. But, according to critics, the law goes beyond banning prenatal gender identification to restricting womens access to abortion itself. It will allow no exceptions to save the life or health of the mother, nor any medical reasons for sex selective abortions for example to avoid fatal inherited conditions linked to a particular gender. Doctors will be required to racially profile women seeking terminations and scrutinize their medical choices.
Miriam Yeung of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum is strongly opposed to sex selection but in May this year she joined a broad range of health and reproductive rights bodies to file a legal challenge to the law in Arizona.
I would welcome real efforts and real partnerships to fight gender inequity and racial discrimination, she commented. But laws like this are not those efforts. If they want to address son preference, the way to do it is not by stigmatizing women and taking away our rights.7
Abortion is the means not the cause of sex selection.
But honest regulation of sex selection, however tricky to enforce, is necessary because individual acts are having extremely harmful collective consequences.
Families need to realize that sex selecting for boys is a crime against girls. And that forcing or coercing women to abort female foetuses is an act of extreme cruelty for which perpetrators will be properly punished.
The law and its implementation, argues Banerji, is fundamental to changing mindsets.
Change is possible, as South Korea has shown. It is to date the only country that has managed to bring a highly skewed sex ratio at birth back to normal.
But it will take more than laws to stop the pursuit of son preference.
In the view of Guilmoto, governments have only limited impact when it comes to reproductive and family choices. It is social movements that bring about revolutions.
The big revolution that needs to happen is gender equity in every area in family life, in law, in the community, in work, in politics, on the street.
In India, rallies protesting violence against girls and women take place with great regularity across towns and cities these days.
Awareness keeps rising. The imperative is to stop sex selection and to end the war on girls it embodies. Women like Mitu Khurana are tackling this in a direct and personal way. Leaving her husband and giving birth to her daughters made her stronger, more confident, she says. She believes she has a duty to speak out for those who cannot and to fight for a better world for my daughters.
The Indian media, meanwhile, is full of stories about the results of the latest census and comparing how states are doing in trying redress their male to female imbalances. Haryana, one of the states with the fewest girls, has just reported a record take-up of the governments Ladli scheme which rewards parents of girl children with cash payments and allowances until she reaches 18.
These are just a few strategies, more carrot than stick, that India has been trying out. China has been offering similar up-beat incentives to parents within its Care for Girls programme. Their success, or not, has yet to be properly assessed, says Guilmoto. China and the worst parts of India are modestly improving their sex ratios, he says. Something is working, but we dont know what yet. In China, for example, the introduction of old-age pensions in 2007 has lessened economic dependence on, and hence need for, sons. But even with rapid improvement an optimistic scenario it would take until at least 2050 before adult sex ratios got back to normal.
Some social change will happen perforce, as reality changes. A surfeit of males may prompt societies to acknowledge and accommodate a diversity of family and sexual arrangements. According to surveys of young Chinese urbanites, attitudes towards homosexuality are already becoming more relaxed.
However, there are indications that the sex selection habit is catching on in other parts of the world. Nepal and Pakistan are beginning to show the signs. In the Middle East, private clinics in Beirut and Amman are offering, for those who can afford it, sex selection without abortion, using advanced technologies such as sperm sorting for IVF or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). These are the high-profit, booming areas of the industry that offer easier sex selection with less chance of detection. Its a worrying thought.
Surely if the past two decades have taught us anything, it is that nature, left to its own devices, does sex balancing pretty well. Humans clearly do not.
Violence against girls and women is increasingly reported and protested against in India. (Anupam Nath/Press Association Pictures)
1. Times of India, India deadliest place in the world for girl child, 1 February 2012.
2. The Economist, The worldwide war on baby girls, 4 March 2010.
3. UNFPA, Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current Trends, Consequences and Policy Implications, 2012.
4. Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection, Public Affairs, 2011.
5. Sarah Morrison and Andrew Buncombe, My husband tried to force me to abort my twin girls, The Independent, 1 August 2013.
6. Its a Girl, Shadowline Films, 2012
7. Katie Mcdonough, Salon, Sex selective abortions: Just another right wing ruse, 19 August 2013
New Internationalist Magazine Digital Edition #466 - October, 2013
Missing girls - the facts
Facts and figures on the missing girls of the world.
1 Sex ratio at birth1
Biological norm 105 boys born for every 100 girls
Highly suspect! 110 boys for every 100 girls
Extreme cases! 150 boys for every 100 girls
(found in some pockets of central China and northwest India)
Data comes from different sources, including censuses, birth registrations, demographic surveys and special studies.
Latest UN estimates indicate there are 117 million missing females, most of them from China and India.1
7.7% of girls below the age of 20 are missing in countries affected by gender discrimination.2
3/4 of girls under 5 that are missing are due to prebirth sex selection.
1/4 of girls under 5 that are missing are the result of excess female deaths in childhood by neglect or infanticide.2
Baby boys are weaker and 20 per cent more likely to die than girls, according to the biological norm. But in some countries where gender discrimination is extreme many more under-5 girls are dying than is natural.
Excess under-5 female deaths per year (2005-10):1
- 261,800 in India
- 99,500 in China
- 23,200 in Pakistan
- 14,200 in Afghanistan
- 13,800 in Bangladesh
- 4,000 in Nepal
Excess female deaths do not feature in Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and North America, and appear to a lesser extent in Africa.1
Why the increase in sex selection?
There are three major determinants that work together.
Sex diagnosis technologies include:
- Analysis of foetal blood
- Sperm sorting for IVF
- Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD)
Who is most likely to sex select?
- Parents without previous sons an estimated 25% of son-less parents abort all female foetuses for second births in China, and 30% for third births in India.
- Richer people with more education this applies in China, India and Vietnam.1
Demographic imbalance too many men, not enough women.
Men without women
24 million Chinese men will not be able to find wives by 2020.3
The UN reports large-scale trafficking of girls from northwest India being brought to Haryana state for forced marriage or bonded labour. Haryana has one of the worst sex ratios and a shortage of girls in towns and villages.
Of 10,000 married women surveyed in Haryana, 9,000 had been brought in from other states, though there is no indication of how many might have been trafficked.4
90% of human trafficking victims in China are women and children, mostly from poor rural provinces, trafficked for sexual exploitation. Human trafficking generates $7 billion a year in China.5
40% of child marriages in the world take place in India. In 2012 a senior politician in Haryana state called for the marriage age for girls to be reduced.6
Violence against girls and women in India, 2003-07
30% reported increase in rape
50% reported increase in abductions.7
5 The future
Currently the sex ratio in the worlds population, across the entire age range, is 101 males to 100 females. Even in China and India the sex ratio between adults is not dramatically imbalanced yet. But it will be within the next decade or so, as a generation of sex-selected children enter adulthood. How big the gender gap becomes in following decades depends on whether sex ratios at birth can be brought back to a more normal level and how quickly.
These two charts show what will happen in China and India under two scenarios no change to todays unbalanced sex ratio at birth (no transition) and a swift return to normality (rapid transition).
Even if sex-ratio birth levels return to normal within 10 years an optimistic scenario men of marriageable age in China and India will still significantly outnumber women for several decades to come.
Prenatal sex-determination technology became widespread in Asia during the 1980s and 1990s, but action to regulate it has been weak and slow coming.
South Korea: 1987 ban on sex selection.
India: 1994 first law targeting prenatal sex-determination, strengthened in 2003.
China: 1998 official regulation introduced; enshrined in family law in 2005.
Change is possible
In the early 1990s Korea had the worlds most skewed sex ratio at birth. Now it has returned to almost normal, thanks to a combination of law enforcement, pro-female campaigns and low fertility.
1. UNFPA, Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current trends, consequences and policy implications, 2012
2. Christophe Z Guilmoto, Hanoi presentation, Sex Imbalances at Birth, revised 2011.
3. New York Times, 10 March 2013
4. UNODC report 2013
5. Mathew B Conaway
6. Times of India 2012-10-12
7. Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection, Public Affairs, 2011.
Issue 655 ~ November 21 2013
Blood Coltan: Remote-controlled warfare and the demand for strategic mineralsBy Carrie Giunta
The atrocious war in Congo is tied to the huge appetite in the west for strategic minerals essential to the electronics and military industries. The criminal regimes in Uganda and Rwanda sponsor proxy militias whose violence facilitates the smuggling of these minerals through the two African nations.
The Congolese war, which has killed over six million people since 1996, is the deadliest conflict in the world since the Second World War. If you add the number of deaths in Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda over the same period, it would still not equal the millions who have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Part of a solution to this is for western governments to hold Rwanda and Uganda accountable for funding proxy armies in the DRC. The retreat of M23 rebels from the Eastern DRC in recent days shows international pressure to stop Rwanda from supporting the rebels is working. The DRC insurgency is far from over, as other rebel groups are still to be defeated. There is a long way to go before stabilization in the region will be possible.
Considering that violence and brutality in the DRC is proportionate to the demand for the eastern regions of the country’s rich mineral deposits, it is less a matter of who is funding and supporting one army or another. The question is, rather, what is creating a heightened demand for conflict minerals?
The high-grade metal tantalum, processed from the precious mineral coltan, makes it possible to build smaller and smaller electronic gadgets like smart phones and tablets. It is also essential in powering a new trend of military applications such as drones. A new demand for tantalum has boosted coltan mining, trading and smuggling. As stockpiles run low, it is most likely a tantalum shortage could intensify violence again, which directly and indirectly affects people in the mining areas of the eastern DRC.
This province is the richest source of coltan in the world, with an estimated eighty percent of the world’s coltan reserves. Competition for minerals has a direct effect on the relentless violence in the region. Women and young girls have been among visible victims of the conflict and hundreds of thousands of them have been raped by opposing warring factions as a weapon of war.
A country the size of Western Europe, the DRC holds an estimated $24 trillion in mineral reserves, including gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, coltan, tin, tungsten, zinc, manganese, magnesium, uranium, niobium, gold, diamonds and silver. Armed groups vie for control of mineral mines and the routes for mineral transportation. Minerals are channeled through neighbouring countries, Rwanda and Uganda by violent rebel groups and then bought by multinational companies. The Washington Post reports Congolese minerals are smuggled into Rwanda to the tune of $6 million a day.
Tantalum plays a vital role in the growing coltan market. A derivative of coltan, tantalum is a key component in modern electronics. It is the metal used in capacitors or devices that store energy.
Tantalum capacitors are not only used in smartphones. They are important for aerospace and military technologies, which rely on tantalum capacitors for running applications that reach very high temperatures.
With an extraordinary ability to withstand a broad range of temperatures and to resist corrosion, tantalum capacitors are a marvel of technology. They can retain a charge for an extended time and can tolerate operating environments of up to 200 °C.
One of the biggest challenges for defence electronics designers is in managing extremely high temperatures generated by the high performance processors in the new military applications. Recent innovations in thermal management have made it possible to operate under high heat loads using tantalum capacitors.
This extends to smart bombs, on-board navigation in drones, robots and a variety of weapons systems, such as the capacitors in anti-tank systems. Further advances in technology have brought the rapid development of fully autonomous weapons or lethal autonomous robots. In short, if it were not for tantalum’s amazing heat resistant properties, these systems would otherwise overheat.
At this year’s SPIE Defense Security and Sensing electro-optics conference trade show in Baltimore, the latest products were unveiled for drones technology. The focus at SPIE was on a new generation of drones that require small, light and low energy consuming technology.
Such advances in military technology increase the need for coltan. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reports: “Coltan’s ability to hold and move electrical signals and its conductive ability in extreme temperatures, makes it ideal for smart bomb guidance controls. Security analysts say it is a strategic mineral.”
Tantalum derived from coltan is essential in powering a new trend of military applications made by the US. Yet, the US has no domestic source of coltan. In order to sustain a continued flow of coltan, it depends entirely on imports.
The United States’ Defence Logistics Agency (USDLA) maintains reserves of strategic minerals and rare metals in its National Defence Stockpile (NDS). The NDS was established in 1939 to reduce the possibility of “a dangerous and costly dependence by the United States upon foreign sources for supplies of such materials in times of national emergency.”
Despite this, US tantalum stocks have depleted in recent years. According to Daniel McGroarty, in a Pentagon report last year about US dependency on minerals, the Department of Defence recommends stockpiling tantalum and eight other strategic minerals. If the US were to run out of tantalum, would it be able to continue building its state-of-the-art weaponry?
The consequences of a tantalum shortage would have a calamitous effect on the DRC. A shortage of coltan ore at the end of 2000 contributed to an overnight price hike from $49 to $275 per pound (454 grams). The moment of the price hike was also a time of great intensification of violence in the Eastern DRC.
Today the price of tantalum is up again and the rise in price corresponds to the violent situation on the ground. In June the situation in the DRC became increasingly insecure. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned: “…acts of violence committed against civilians, including murder and sexual assault, remain at a very worrying level and regularly cause the displacement of thousands of families."
Conflict-free campaigns attribute the tantalum rise as a response to the smartphone and tablet market. These campaigns aim to ensure rebel forces do not control sources of tantalum to finance armed conflict and that supply chains are transparent. These initiatives look at supply chains and manufacturing connected to companies like Apple and Samsung, but there is more to tantalum than the phone and gadgets market.
Conflict-free advocates make the mistake of overlooking the links between minerals and the weapons manufacturing industry. It is doubtful defence companies will be seeking out conflict free mineral sources anytime soon. A conflict-free weapon is an oxymoron.
Even less likely is the prospect of the defence sector abiding new federal legislation, which requires public companies to disclose whether they use conflict minerals from the DRC. Under the 2010 Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, US companies are required to submit a report to the Securities and Exchange Commission by May 2014 on the sources of the minerals they use.
Campaigns for conflict-free minerals are calling on electronics companies to use fair trade, conflict-free materials in smartphones, laptops and tablets. Their work has been successful in increasing the number of conflict-free mines in the eastern DRC. What has not been addressed is the larger role of conflict minerals beyond the realm of consumer electronics.
At the current rate, the weapons industry could exceed smartphone and tablet makers in coltan consumption if it has not already. Extended use of drones in the past decade means the US needs tantalum because the basic circuitry in drones is built with tantalum from refined coltan. This connection to weapons manufacturing gives new meaning to the term ‘blood coltan’.
Blood coltan is not exclusive to central Africa. Significant coltan reserves exist in the Amazon jungle covering the Venezuelan-Columbian border creating an Drug lords dominate the Columbian side of the border creating an emergent black market. This is considered a conflict zone as coltan is smuggled through the danger area on its way from Venezuela to Columbia and to Brazil:
In the DRC, mineral mining, trading and smuggling continue to fund the ongoing conflict. Armed groups include the Congolese national army (FARDC) whose ranks include many former rebels. The M23, which has given up control of the region, is made up of former members of the FARDC who mutinied in April 2012. A Global Witness report last year revealed members of FARDC make millions of dollars through their control of the mines. Constant struggles between the FARDC and numerous rebel groups over control of minerals mining and transportation of minerals have a direct effect on the killing, raping and ongoing violence in the region.
The rush on coltan engenders the violence in the DRC. Spearheading that demand is tantalum, a key ingredient in new military technologies.
The US obsession with “surgical” remote-controlled warfare, especially drones, is sharpening the appetite for tantalum. The US has killed thousands in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia with the ever-increasing drone strikes. Armed drones are also in operation in Mali, Libya and Niger.
This highlights a worrying connection between two contemporaneous wars – the twelve-year ‘war on terror’ and the sixteen-year war in the Congo. Joining the two is the demand for Congolese minerals.
* Giunta Carrie is a part-time lecturer based in London.
(Australian Broadcasting Corporation) ~ Friday November 8 2013
Domestic violence laws in East Timor failing to protect women, perpetrators often unpunished, NGOs say
By Stephanie Boulet
Rosa, a victim of domestic violence in East Timor waits outside Dili District Court for her hearing. (ABC: Stephanie Boulet)
Legal experts and NGOs in East Timor say laws against domestic violence are failing to reduce rates of violence against women.
The government is nearing the end of a three-year campaign to reduce rates of violence in the country, but NGOs say perpetrators often go unpunished.
Patricia de Araujo Fatima, an officer with not-for-profit legal aid organisation Asisténsia Legál ba Feto no Labarik (ALFeLA), says she sees many cases of domestic violence in her job.
"In the Oecusse district there is a woman whose husband cut off both her hands with a machete," Ms Fatima said.
She says the man then slashed his wife across the face, knocking out multiple teeth and causing permanent damage to her eye.
"This is a very sad case," Ms Fatima said.
In another case, a man stabbed his wife in the back of the head and struck her repeatedly with a block of wood, after an argument about feeding their children.
'Some women do not know that domestic violence is a crime".- Patricia de Araujo Fatima
The man received a suspended sentenced of seven months in jail.
Many women are hospitalised as a result of domestic violence.
Every year, about 100 of the worst cases are offered free medical care and a safe place to stay by an NGO called PRADET.
PRADET says it sees more women go through its doors every year.
In 2010, a comprehensive government survey found 38 per cent of women were victims of physical violence.
That same year, the government passed the Law Against Domestic Violence and launched an education campaigned to raise awareness.
The national action plan also involves protection of victims through safe houses, as well as legal assistance to victims.
But Ms Fatima says violence against women remains alarmingly common and is under-reported.
"The situation hasn't improved," she said.
Domestic violence victims face personal barriers
Ms Fatima says women who experience domestic violence in East Timor face a number of challenges.
"Women are economically dependent on their husbands and that is why they are scared to report their case," she said.
"They are scared their husband will divorce them and they will be unable to care for their children."
Patricia de Araujo Fatima is a legal officer with legal support service ALFeLA. (ABC: Stephanie Boulet)
Furthermore, she says many communities still view domestic violence as a private issue that should not be dealt with in public.
"Some women do not know that domestic violence is a crime," said Ms Fatima.
"Then, when police get reports of domestic violence they keep quiet about it."
Lisa, a victim of domestic violence whose name has been changed for this report, says police did nothing when she went to them for help.
"I had a problem with my husband at home, he hit me and my face swelled up," she said.
"I reported it to police but they sent me back home."
East Timor's peak judicial-system-monitoring NGO, Justice System Monitoring Programme (JSMP), says there is confusion about the role of police, prosecutors, lawyers and the courts.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP), which provides training and support for East Timorese police, says remoteness is another major problem.
"It might take hours or days to get to the police station," said Melita Zielonko from the AFP's Timor-Leste Police Development Program, Gender Equality and Vulnerable Persons Unit.
"One way of dealing with crime is through the village or family, through negotiation."
Court backlogged with domestic violence cases
Monitoring by the JSMP shows that East Timorese courts are clogged with cases of domestic violence.
The JSMP said the system is slow and unreliable and it causes women to lose faith in the legal process.
The Government is conducting workshops in remote districts, such as Baucau. (JSMP)
One woman, known only as Rosa, travelled more than 100 kilometres from a remote district for a hearing at a court in Dili.
"My husband was angry and he hit me, then I reported it to police and they sent my report to the court," she said.
After waiting several hours outside the court room, the judge failed to turn up and she returned home.
"I want my husband to promise to resolve problems peacefully, so we don't have to come back to court again," she said.
JSMP says there are only a few prosecutors, which means that the handling of cases is very slow.
Casa Vida is an NGO that provides permanent accommodation for 60 girls who are victims of sexual assault.
Program manager Grace Pitanuki says the justice system is weak and slow.
"In five years, since 2008 until now, from 178 cases only five of them have been resolved in the court," she said.
"Most of the girls don't want to talk about it anymore, because it is taking some time. They give up."Punishments not deterring domestic violence
Nearly all the domestic violence cases monitored by JSMP result in a suspended sentence, which has not been proven to act as a deterrent.
"The victims are not happy with the punishment the court gives," said Ms Fatima.
"They feel that the crime is not equal to the sentence they are given.
"I accompanied one victim who said, 'My husband hit me many times, he shoved me under the bed, then he pushed me through the window. I wet myself. Why is it only one year jail, suspended for two years?'"
In another case, a man who hospitalised his wife for not preparing his lunch was fined $40 by the court.
A man who kicked and slapped his wife because his clothes had not been washed was given a six-month jail sentence, suspended for one year.
AFP says change will take time
The AFP says when it comes to gender equality, East Timor's government is headed in the right direction.
The East Timor government is conducting workshops in remote districts, such as Baucau.
"The government has been very good and positive on socialising the community about domestic violence," said Ms Zielonko.
"These things take time and I'm sure things will improve."
"It's only a very young police force, established in 2002 and they need to be brought up to speed to dealing with gender-based violence crimes," said Ms Zielonko.
But Armando da Costa of the Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality admits rates are still high.
"It needs time to change people's attitude and mentality. It's not an easy thing," he said.
"Step by step, little by little, changes are happening in the community."
London ~ Friday 1 November 2013
How economic growth has become anti-life
An obsession with growth has eclipsed our concern for sustainability, justice and human dignity. But people are not disposable – the value of life lies outside economic development
Scroll down to also read Robert Jensen’s “The Future Must Be Green, Red, Black and Female”
By Vandana Shiva
''Economic growth begins when seeds are genetically modified and patented, leading to farmers having to buy seeds every season'. (Raminder Pal Singh/EPA)
Limitless growth is the fantasy of economists, businesses and politicians. It is seen as a measure of progress. As a result, gross domestic product (GDP), which is supposed to measure the wealth of nations, has emerged as both the most powerful number and dominant concept in our times. However, economic growth hides the poverty it creates through the destruction of nature, which in turn leads to communities lacking the capacity to provide for themselves.
The concept of growth was put forward as a measure to mobilise resources during the second world war. GDP is based on creating an artificial and fictitious boundary, assuming that if you produce what you consume, you do not produce. In effect , “growth” measures the conversion of nature into cash, and commons into commodities.
Thus nature’s amazing cycles of renewal of water and nutrients are defined into nonproduction. The peasants of the world,who provide 72% of the food, do not produce; women who farm or do most of the housework do not fit this paradigm of growth either. A living forest does not contribute to growth, but when trees are cut down and sold as timber, we have growth. Healthy societies and communities do not contribute to growth, but disease creates growth through, for example, the sale of patented medicine.
Water available as a commons shared freely and protected by all provides for all. However, it does not create growth. But when Coca-Cola sets up a plant, mines the water and fills plastic bottles with it, the economy grows. But this growth is based on creating poverty – both for nature and local communities. Water extracted beyond nature’s capacity to renew and recharge creates a water famine. Women are forced to walk longer distances looking for drinking water. In the village of Plachimada in Kerala, when the walk for water became 10 kms, local tribal woman Mayilamma said enough is enough. We cannot walk further; the Coca-Cola plant must shut down. The movement that the women started eventually led to the closure of the plant.
'Water extracted beyond nature’s capacity to renew and recharge creates a water famine'. ( Joe McNally/Getty)
In the same vein, evolution has gifted us the seed. Farmers have selected, bred, and diversified it – it is the basis of food production. A seed that renews itself and multiplies produces seeds for the next season, as well as food. However, farmer-bred and farmer-saved seeds are not seen as contributing to growth. It creates and renews life, but it doesn't lead to profits. Growth begins when seeds are modified, patented and genetically locked, leading to farmers being forced to buy more every season.
Nature is impoverished, biodiversity is eroded and a free, open resource is transformed into a patented commodity. Buying seeds every year is a recipe for debt for India’s poor peasants. And ever since seed monopolies have been established, farmers debt has increased. More than 270,000 farmers caught in a debt trap in India have committed suicide since 1995.
Poverty is also further spread when public systems are privatised. The privatisation of water, electricity, health, and education does generate growth through profits . But it also generates poverty by forcing people to spend large amounts of money on what was available at affordable costs as a common good. When every aspect of life is commercialised and commoditised, living becomes more costly, and people become poorer.
Both ecology and economics have emerged from the same roots – "oikos", the Greek word for household. As long as economics was focused on the household, it recognised and respected its basis in natural resources and the limits of ecological renewal. It was focused on providing for basic human needs within these limits. Economics as based on the household was also women-centered. Today, economics is separated from and opposed to both ecological processes and basic needs. While the destruction of nature has been justified on grounds of creating growth, poverty and dispossession has increased. While being non-sustainable, it is also economically unjust.
The dominant model of economic development has in fact become anti-life. When economies are measured only in terms of money flow, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And the rich might be rich in monetary terms – but they too are poor in the wider context of what being human means.
Meanwhile, the demands of the current model of the economy are leading to resource wars oil wars, water wars, food wars. There are three levels of violence involved in non-sustainable development. The first is the violence against the earth, which is expressed as the ecological crisis. The second is the violence against people, which is expressed as poverty, destitution and displacement. The third is the violence of war and conflict, as the powerful reach for the resources that lie in other communities and countries for their limitless appetites.
Increase of moneyflow through GDP has become disassociated from real value, but those who accumulate financial resources can then stake claim on the real resources of people – their land and water, their forests and seeds. This thirst leads to them predating on the last drop of water and last inch of land on the planet. This is not an end to poverty. It is an end to human rights and justice.
Nobel-prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen have admitted that GDP does not capture the human condition and urged the creation of different tools to gauge the wellbeing of nations. This is why countries like Bhutan have adopted the gross national happiness in place of gross domestic product to calculate progress. We need to create measures beyond GDP, and economies beyond the global supermarket, to rejuvenate real wealth. We need to remember that the real currency of life is life itself.
• Vandana Shiva is a guest of the Festival Of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, this weekend.
~ Thursday, 07 November 2013
The Future Must Be Green, Red, Black and Female
By Robert Jensen, Truthout | Op-Ed The human species must acknowledge that any future that allows us to retain our humanity will jettison capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy - and be based on an ecological worldview, says Jensen.
(James Cridland / Flickr)
(These remarks were prepared for a private conference on sustainability, where the participants critiqued corporate farming, "big ag," and "big pharma" and industrialized medicine. There was agreement about the need for fundamental change in economic/political/social systems, but no consensus on the appropriate analysis of those systems and their interaction.)
The future of the human species - if there is to be a future - must be radically green, red, black and female.
If we take this seriously - a human future, that is, if we really care about whether there will be a human future - each one of us who claims to care has to be willing to be challenged, radically. How we think, feel, and act - it's all open to critique, and no one gets off easy, because everyone has failed. Individually and collectively, we have failed to create just societies or a sustainable human presence on the planet. That failure may have been inevitable - the human with the big brain may be an evolutionary dead-end - but still it remains our failure. So, let's deal with it, individually and collectively.
We can start by looking honestly at the data about the health of the ecosphere, in the context of what we know about human economic/political/social systems. My conclusion: There is no way to magically solve the fundamental problems that result from too many people consuming too much and producing too much waste, under conditions of unconscionable inequality in wealth and power.
If today, everywhere on the planet, everyone made a commitment to the research and organizing necessary to ramp down the demands that the human project places on ecosystems, we could possibly create a plan for a sustainable human presence on the planet, with a dramatic reduction in consumption and a gradual reduction of population. But when we reflect on our history as a species and the nature of the systems that govern our lives today, the sensible conclusion is that the steps we need to take won't be taken, at least not in the time frame available for meaningful change.
This is not defeatist. This is not cowardly. This is not self-indulgent.
This is reality, and sensible planning should be reality-based.
Let's Not Deny, Avoid, Evade
So, for all the hard-nosed logical folks who regularly complain that so many people in contemporary culture deny, avoid, evade crucial issues; that so many Americans slip past science when that science has bad news; that so many other people won't face tough truths, I have a suggestion: Let's demand of ourselves the rigor we demand of others. Let's not deny, avoid, evade any aspect of reality.
Another way of saying this: The "things-can't-be-that-bad" card that so much of the general public plays to trump difficult data is a dead-end, but so is the "we-have-to-have-hope" card that is used to avoid the logical conclusions of our own analysis.
Hope is for the lazy. Now is not the time for hope. Let's put hope aside and get to the real work of our understanding our historical moment so that our actions are grounded in reality.
My thesis: Our task today is not to scurry around trying to hold onto the world as we know it, but to focus on how we can hold onto our humanity as we enter a distinctly different era of the human presence on the planet, an era that will challenge our resolve and reserves. Call it collapse or the apocalypse or the Age of Aquarius - whatever the name, it will not look like anything we have known. It is not just the fall of an empire or a localized plague or the demise of a specific ecosystem. The future will be defined by the continuing drawdown of the ecological capital of the planet well beyond replacement levels and rising levels of toxicity, with the resulting social conflict exacerbated by rapid climate destabilization in ways we cannot predict specifically, but that will be destructive to human well-being, perhaps even to human survival.
The thesis, restated: For most of my life, my elders told me that the moral challenge to my generation was how to feed 5 billion, 6 billion, 7 billion, maybe one day, 10 billion people. Today our moral challenge is how to live on a planet of 4 billion, 3 billion, 2 billion, maybe less. How are we going to understand and experience ourselves as human beings - as moral beings, the kind of creatures we've always claimed to be - in the midst a long-term human die-off for which there is no precedent? What will it mean to be human when we know that around the world, maybe even down the block, other human beings - creatures exactly the same as us - are dying in large numbers not because of something outside human control, but instead because of things we humans chose to do and keep choosing, keep doing?
If you think this is too extreme, alarmist, hysterical, then tell a different story of the future, one that doesn't depend on magic, one that doesn't include some version of, "We will invent solar panels that give us endless clean energy," or "We will find ways to grow even more food on even less soil with declining natural fertility," or perhaps, "We will invent a perpetual motion machine." If I'm wrong, explain to me where I'm wrong.
But, comes the inevitable rejoinder, even if we can't write that more hopeful story today, can't we trust that such a story will emerge? Is not necessity the mother of invention? Have not humans faced big problems before and found solutions through reason and creativity, in science and technology? Doesn't our success in the past suggest we will overcome problems in the present and future?
That response is understandable, but brings to mind the old joke about the fellow who jumps off a 100-story building and, when asked how things are going 90 floors down, says, "Great so far." Advanced technology based on abundant and cheap supplies of concentrated energy has taken us a long way on a curious ride, but there is no guarantee that advanced technology can solve problems in the future, especially when the most easily accessible sources of that concentrated energy are dwindling and the life-threatening consequences of burning all that fuel are now unavoidable.
Necessity may have been the mother of much invention, but that doesn't mean mother will always be there to protect us. The technological fundamentalist story of transcendence through endless invention is no more helpful than a religious fundamentalist story of transcendence through divine intervention. The two approaches, while very different on the surface, are popular for the same reason: Both allow us to deny, avoid, evade. They are both reality-rejection stories.
Our chances for a decent future depend in part on our ability to develop more sustainable technology that draws on the best of our science and on our ability to hold onto traditional ideas of shared humanity that are at the core of religious traditions. Technology and religion matter. But their fundamentalist versions are impediments to honest assessment and healthy practice.
If one agrees with all this, there is one more common evasive technique - the assertion, as one media researcher recently put it, that "disaster messages can be a turnoff." Since most people don't enjoy pondering these things, it's tempting to argue that we should avoid presenting the questions in stark form, lest some people be turned off. We should not give in to that temptation.
First, these observations and conclusions are a good-faith attempt to deal with reality. To dismiss these issues because people allegedly don't like disaster messages is akin to telling people in the path of a tornado to ignore the weather forecast because disaster messages are a turnoff. Just as we can't predict exactly the path of a tornado, we can't predict exactly the nature of a complex process of collapse. But we can know something is coming our way, and we can best prepare for it.
Second, let's avoid the cheap trick of displacing our intellectual and/or moral weakness onto the so-called "masses," who allegedly can't or won't deal with this. When people tell me, "I agree that systemic collapse is inevitable, but the masses can't handle it," I assume what they really mean is, "I can't handle it." The attempted diversion is cowardly.
When we come to terms with these challenges - when we face up to the fact that the human species now faces problems that likely have no solutions, at least no solutions that allow us to continue living as we have - then we will not be deterred by the resistance of the culture. We will work at accomplishing whatever we can, where we live, in the time available to us. Which brings me to the future: green, red, black and female.
Green: The human future, if there is to be a future, will be green, meaning the ecological worldview will be central in all discussions of all of human affairs. We will start all conversations about all decisions we make in all arenas of life by recognizing that we are one species in complex ecosystems that make up a single ecosphere. We will abide by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, as we understand them today, realizing the ecosystems on which we depend are far more complex than we can understand. As a result of the ecological worldview, we will practice real humility in our interventions into those ecosystems.
Red: The human future, if there is to be a future, will be red. By that, I mean we must be explicitly anticapitalist. An economic system that magnifies human greed and encourages short-term thinking, while pretending there are no physical limits on human consumption, is a death cult. To endorse capitalism is to sign onto a suicide pact. We need not pretend there exists a fully elaborated plan for a replacement system that we can take off the shelf and implement immediately. But the absence of a fully explicated alternative doesn't justify an economic system that has dramatically intensified the human assault on the larger living world. Capitalism is not the system through which we will craft a sustainable future.
Black: The human future, if there is to be a future, will be black. By that, I mean we have to reject the pathology of white supremacy that has for five centuries shaped the world in which we live, and continues to shape us. Do not confuse this with shallow "multiculturalism" - I am not suggesting that by celebrating "diversity" we will magically create peace and harmony. Instead, we must recognize that the existing distribution of wealth is the product of a profoundly pathological system of racial hierarchy conceived of, and perpetuated by, white Europe and its offshoots (the United States, Australia, South Africa).
Female: The human future, if there is to be a future, will be female. By that, I mean we have to reject the pathology of patriarchy that has for several thousand years shaped the world in which we live and continues to shape us. Again, this should not be confused with the tepid liberal and "third wave" versions of feminism that the dominant culture acknowledges. Instead, we must embrace a radical feminism that rejects the hierarchy and violence on which male dominance depends.
My claim is that we must deal with all these systems in a holistic, integrated fashion, that we will not successfully reject one hierarchal system without rejecting all hierarchical systems. Holding onto any system that depends on one group claiming dominance over another undermines our ability to shape a decent future. We should be dismantling any system based on dominator logic.
Green: Our quest to exploit the larger living world is based on an assumption that humans have a right, rooted in either theological or secular beliefs, to dominate based on our sense of being the superior species. Whether we believe the big brain comes from God or through evolution, in cognitive terms we certainly do rank first among species. But ask yourself, within the human family, is being smart the only thing of value? Do we rank each other only on cognitive ability? We understand that within our species, no one has a right to dominate another simply because of a claim of being smarter. Yet we treat the world as if that status as the smartest species is all that is needed to dominate everything else.
Red: If we put aside the fantasies about capitalism found in economics textbooks and deal with the real world, we recognize that capitalism is a wealth-concentrating system that allows a small number of people to dominate not only economic, but also political decision-making - which makes a mockery of our alleged commitment to moral principles rooted in solidarity and political principles rooted in democracy. In capitalism, domination is self-justifying - if one can amass wealth, one can dominate without question, trumping all other values.
Black: Although the worst legal and social practices that defined and maintained white supremacy for centuries have been eliminated, the white world never settled its accounts with the nonwhite world, preferring to hold onto its disproportionate share of the world's wealth that was extracted violently. As a result of that moral failing, the material reality and ideological power of white supremacy endures, modified in recent decades to grant some privileges to some of the formerly targeted populations so long as the dominator logic of the system is not challenged. We have not dealt with this because to deal with it, honestly, would mean a dramatic redistribution of wealth, internally within societies and globally, and an even more dramatic shift in the way white people see ourselves.
Female: It is not surprising that the foundational hierarchy of male domination has remained so intractable - to acknowledge the existence of patriarchy is to recognize that patriarchy's domination/subordination dynamic, which decent people claim to reject, is woven deeply into the fabric of all our lives in every sphere, including sexuality. Taking the feminist critique seriously shakes the foundation of our daily lives. Again, the system's ability to allow a limited number of women into elite circles, as long as they accept the dominator logic, does little to undermine patriarchy.
This sketch of a radical politics does not mean that every person must always be involved in organizing on all of these issues, which would be impossible. Nor does this short summary of systems of domination/subordination capture every relevant question. But, for those who claim to be concerned with social justice and ecological sustainability, I would press simple points: Everyone's analysis must take into account all these aspects of our lives; if your analysis does not do that, then your analysis is incomplete; and an incomplete analysis will not be the basis for substantive and meaningful change. Why?
If the story of a human future is not green, there is no future. If the story is not red, it cannot be green. If we can manage to restructure our world along new understandings of ecology and economics, there is a chance we can salvage something. But we will not be able magically to continue business as usual; our longstanding assumption of endlessly expanding bounty must be abandoned as we reconfigure our expectations.
That means we have to start telling a story about living with dramatically less of everything. The green and red story is a story of limits. If we are to hold onto our humanity in an era of contraction, those limits must be accepted by all, with the burdens shared by all. And that story only works if it is black and female. Without a rejection of the dominator logic of ecological exploitation and capitalism, there is no future at all. Without a rejection of the dominator logic of white supremacy and patriarchy, there is no future worth living in.
When someone says, "All that matters now is focusing on ecological sustainability" (asserting the primacy of green), we must make it clear that such sustainability is impossible within capitalism. When someone says, "All that matters now is steady-state economics" (asserting the primacy of red), we must make it clear that such a steady state is morally unacceptable within white supremacy and patriarchy. When someone says, "Talking about sustainability doesn't mean much for subordinated people suffering today" (asserting the primacy of black and female), we must make it clear that attaining social justice within a rapidly declining system is a death sentence for future generations.
Anytime someone wants to narrow the scope of our inquiry to make it easier to get through the day, we must make it clear that getting through the day isn't the goal. "One day at a time" may be a useful guide for an individual in recovery from addiction, but it is a dead-end for a species on the brink of dramatic and potentially irreversible changes.
Any time someone wants to think long term but narrow the scope of our inquiry to make it easier to tackle a specific problem, we must make it clear that fixing a specific problem won't save us. "One broken system at a time" may be a sensible short-term political strategy in a stable world in which there is time for a long trajectory of change, but it is a dead-end in the unstable world in which we live.
To be clear: None of these observations are an argument for paralysis or passivity. I am not arguing that there is nothing to do, nothing worth doing, nothing that can be done to make things better. I am saying there is nothing that can be done to avoid a serious shift, a scale of change that is captured by the term "collapse." What can be done will be worth doing only if we accept that reality - instead of asking, "How can we save all this?" we should ask, "How can we hold onto our humanity as all of this changes?"
When relieved of the obligation to conjure up magical solutions, life actually gets simpler, and what can be done is easier to apprehend: Learn to live with less. Give up on empty talk about "conscious capitalism." Cross boundaries of race, ethnicity, class and religion that typically keep people apart. Make sure that both public and private spaces are free from men's violence. Recognize that central to whatever projects one undertakes should be the building of local networks and institutions that enhance resilience.
We Have Done This
If all this seems like too much to bear, that's because it is. No matter how flawed anyone of us may be, none of us did anything to deserve this. We shouldn't have to bear all this. But collectively, we humans have done this. We have done this for a long time, thousands of years, ever since the invention of agriculture took us out of right relationship with the larger living world.
The bad news: The effects of our failures are piling up, and it may be that this time around we can't slip the trap, as humans have done so many times in the past.
The good news: We aren't the first humans who looked honestly at reality and stayed true to the work of returning to right relation.
The story we must tell is a prophetic story, and we have a prophetic tradition on which we can draw. Let's take a lesson from Jeremiah from the Hebrew Bible, who was not afraid to speak of the depth of his sorrow: "My grief is beyond healing, my heart is sick within me" (Jer. 8:18). Nor was he afraid to speak of the severity of the failure that brought on the grief: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved" (Jer. 8:21)
Along with this prophetic tradition, we also must be willing to draw on the apocalyptic tradition, recognizing that we have strayed too far, that there is no way to return to right relation within the systems in which we live. The prophetic voice warns the people of our failures within these systems, and the apocalyptic tradition can be understood as a call to abandon any hope for those systems. The stories we have told ourselves about how to be human within those systems must be replaced by stories about how to hold onto our humanity as we search for new systems.
We have to reject stories about last-minute miracles, whether of divine or technological origins. There is nothing to be gained by magical thinking. The new stories require imagination, but an imagination bounded by the ecosphere's physical limits. When we tell stories that lead us to believe that what is unreal can be real, then our stories are delusional, not imaginative. They don't help us understand ourselves and our situation, but instead offer only the illusory comfort of false hope.
One last bit of good news: If your heart is sick and your grief is beyond healing, be thankful. When we feel that grief, it means we have confronted a truth about our fallen world. We are not saved, and we may not be able to save ourselves, but when we face that which is too much to bear, we affirm our humanity. When we face the painful reality that there is no hope, it is in that moment that we earn the right to hope.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 |
Girl Power Rises in Burma
By SAMANTHA MICHAELS / THE IRRAWADDY
A group of adolescent nuns take part in an after-school peer group discussion as part of the Colorful Girls Circles program. (May Ko / Girl Determined)
HLAING TOWNSHIP, Rangoon Dressed in the standard pink robes of a Burmese nun, Nan Tha Zin Oo speaks softly when she remembers her childhood in northern Shan State. “When I was in the village, in the media most of the important people were men. I didn’t like being a girl. I wanted to be a boy,” says the 14-year-old.
After moving to Rangoon, she joined a program two years ago with weekly after-school peer groups for marginalized girls in Burma’s urban outskirts and rural communities who were at risk of school dropout, early marriage, domestic violence and exploitive labor.
The program, Colorful Girls Circles, is run by a community-based organization known as Girl Determined and includes discussions about decision-making, self-confidence, friendship, and cultural and religious differences. More than 1,300 girls between the ages of 12 and 17 participate in the peer groups every week, meeting in the outskirts of Rangoon and Mandalay, as well as the cities of Sagaing and Monywa in northwest Burma, according to Brooke Zobrist, technical director of the organization.
“We also plan to expand in 2014 to some areas of Shan State and Mon State,” she says.
Win Win Nwe, a 13-year-old from Rangoon’s Hlaing Thar Yar Township, joined the program two years ago. “We talk about sexual violence, body image and stress management,” she says.
Sitting beside her, Nan Tha Zin Oo, the nun, says the peer groups have altered her perspective. “I saw that women could form organizations and achieve things like men,” she says. “I knew the strength of being a girl and I was proud.”
In Burma, women face barriers to employment and health care, and they remain underrepresented in politics, with men holding about 95 percent of seats in Parliament. Amid high rates of poverty, adolescent girls say they feel pressured to get a job or stay at home to care for their younger siblings, rather than attending classes.
Last week Girl Determined held its third annual conference in Rangoon’s Hlaing Township, with a focus on girls’ rights in education. About 420 girls, including over 100 young nuns, attended the all-day event, while more than 800 girls went to a conference in Mandalay the week before.
Out of the conference came a statement about gender discrimination in education. Drafted since March by a group of girls from the program, the statement describes the pressure to leave school due to financial concerns, and it calls on the government to provide free education through high school.
Burma’s public schools do not charge tuition, but the education sector remains largely underfunded after decades of military rule, and parents typically pay for books, uniforms and school building repairs. Largely due to these expenses, about one-third of school-aged children in the country never start school, according to Unesco.
During his first month in office, President Thein Sein urged lawmakers to increase student enrollment, and the government has set a goal to implement a free, compulsory primary education system by 2015, although the national budget for education remains limited compared to spending on defense.
“Many girls stay home from school to help take care of their siblingsboys don’t do that,” says Than Than Oo, 14, who wants to attend university but worries she may not get a chance. “I need to take care of my family,” she says.
The girls’ statement also called for legal changes to allow more women to be accepted to medical schools and technical colleges, as female students are currently required to score higher on these entrance exams than their male counterparts.
“In state [basic education] schools, we cannot see very clear inequality, but at university level more boys study professional subjects,” says Biak Chin Mowe, from Irrawaddy Division, who hopes to attend an engineering school when she graduates from high school.
The Burma government reduced the exam requirements for male applicants to medical school because women were earning higher scores and women doctors outnumbered men doctors. But in engineering schools and other technical colleges, male students are in the majority.
During a question-and-answer session at the conference, the teenage girls asked questions such as, “Why don’t they give girls and boys equal rights?” and “Why can’t a woman become president?”
Some said opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had inspired them since she was released from house arrest under the former regime in 2010 and joined Parliament last year.
“My father always listened to the radio and talked about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” says Ma Zar Chyi Win, referring to the democracy icon with a title of respect. The 14-year-old lists Suu Kyi among her top three role models, after her mother and a teacher at school. “I hope she will become the president of Myanmar. She is getting older, but she is still strong. And she can do anything like a man.”
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