Gender and Sexuality at School: Experiences of young people and teachers in combating prejudice in Brazilian schools

By Fabricio Pupo*

A graphic of the international symbols of man and woman with various gender signs on their faces
Source: Yahoo Images
Graphic showing insecurity related to gender and sexuality in school environment
Source: The author (2019)/Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Gender and sexuality issues are not often discussed, especially in the school environment. The reasons are innumerable, and they have been historically considered controlled themes. In Brazil, the data relating to violence and prejudice are alarming and refer to the discussion of institutional security, especially within environments that are more closely linked to these young people such as school. This statement is verified when analyzing the 2016 data from the Brazilian Association of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transsexuals (ABGLT) on dissenting gender and sexuality youth in the school environment, of which 60.2% of young people feel insecure in their educational institution due to their sexual orientation and 42.8% for the way they express their gender.

Prejudice in the face of experiences outside heteronormativity can silence young people and teachers in the school setting. School is often an arsenal that regulates not only sexuality but also gender.

Graphic depicting statistics on comfort around gender and sexuality topics in school environment
Source: ABGLT (2016)/ Reprolatina (2011)

Silence in the face of the theme and oppression in relation to teaching work

The discourse that school, gender, and sexuality must constitute separate instances has been gaining strength. Reactions such as the Escola Sem Partido Program have motivated the persecution of teachers on charges of political and ideological indoctrination. It emerged in 2004, through the initiative of the attorney of the State of São Paulo, Miguel Nagib, and it has a threatening effect on teachers across the country. It seeks to criminalize teaching work around themes such as gender and sexuality. It is no coincidence that gender and sexuality are part of the themes that the defenders of this initiative point out as being the most permeable to ideological indoctrination since the persecution of these themes constituted an alignment with the agendas of the religious group representing a part of the population that supports moral precepts linked to the extreme right and Christianity.
The need for teaching work in this theme is corroborated by the National Curriculum Parameters (NCPs), they place these themes as transversal and relevant for discussion in educational establishments as well as for the pedagogical intervention process. NCPs are guidelines developed by the Federal Government that guide education in Brazil. They are separated by discipline and adopted by the public and private schools.

The school is a space where it is possible to observe the emergence of the visibility of dissenting gender and sexuality as well as conflicts over these experiences that seek to affirm forms of life hitherto subjugated. However, there are also positive experiences regarding the valuation of gender and sexuality differences at school.
Therefore, the interest in analyzing such experiences evaluated as positive by young people and teachers in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in the central-west region of Brazil. The intention was to prioritize the reports that were evaluated by the participants as positive to better understand how they resist a prejudiced reality, which allowed a reflection not only on gender and sexuality but also on the agency of the participants concerning this theme in school institutions of different contexts.

Youth Experiences

School is a very important space for socialization, and it is part of the teacher’s job to ensure this interaction by attending to all representations. The young 20-year-old Sofia, from a private school pointing out something positive affirmed that “the teachers discuss and work on these themes in the classroom”. That corroborates the importance of making the discussion about gender and sexuality common every day.

Aurora, 19 years old, from a private school, in turn, says that she lived “an assumed relationship with a colleague at school”, which points out that, in addition to possible environments for discussion on this topic, the school also makes it a possible experience. The homosexual relationship is seen as different and the school acts positively on this issue when it allows the relationship to be seen.

In terms of school dropout, trans experiences seem to be the ones that stand out the most. For this reason, José Francisco, 25 years old, from a private school, reported: “At school, in high school, I was able to use the bathroom of the kind in which I identify myself. All of this was important, as school avoidance is avoided and dysphoria is reduced, enabling a better use of studies, which was my case”.

Graphic depicting positive experiences school can provide
Source: The author (2019) /Graphic Design: AleMaciell

In their school experience, as well as that of many young people, the fact that they can use the bathroom according to their gender identity is the validation of the school’s acceptance of this difference. Another important acceptance reference cited by José Francisco is the social name and the comfort it can generate. According to him, “My positive experience at school took place in some ways … with the social name respected by all employees, teachers and coordinators. The name was on lists, in the closet, in the call and the like”. We can understand what the use of the social name and the bathroom might represent, when we are faced with indexes related to the violence suffered by the trans population. According to the National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals – ANTRA, in Brazil, 90% of transgender people depend on prostitution to survive.

Teacher’s Experiences

The school is an important space for socialization and discussion, the teacher has a fundamental role in this mediation. In this sense, Rafael, 35 years old, from a private school, informs that the first posture he has is to verify how young dissidents of gender and sexuality are treated by colleagues, then he has a welcoming attitude: “When I notice some isolation and others signs of suffering I try to talk to the person and ask for permission to speak with the coordination and psychologists “. When recognizing the difference in the school environment a teacher meets his daily challenges and at that moment his or her attitude may or may not collaborate with freedom and the recognition of different representations of gender and sexuality within this space.

It is not uncommon that when this theme appears it is linked to certain control efforts through great strategies of knowledge and power. Marcelo, 28, from a private school, positively does not directly refer to a threat: “I try to explain that this feeling for the same sex is normal”. However, he justifies in the sequence: “but I mention the importance of using condoms to prevent STDs”.

Here, it is not a question of questioning the importance of guidelines about the prevention of this type of infection/disease, still there is a risk of restricting the experience of sexuality to a certain threat. One way to avoid this type of approach is to bet on the pedagogical and curricular policy of identity and difference. Teachers who have participated in this research feel unprepared to put this policy into practice. Ana, 42 years old, from a public school, justified this lack of preparation due to the complexity of the theme, pointing to the effects that this might present: “If we are not well grounded we risk to reinforce what has been put in place for centuries”. However, she affirmed that she is interested in the theme and this makes her look for authors that can be helpful to her, but she does not believe that this can happen to all teachers. This scenario points to the urgency of actions that promote a fairer school and that above all, guarantees human rights, for example, the integration of Public Policies, mentioned in the NCPs for sexual orientation. However, the school, or at least part of the teaching staff, seems to be unaware of these policies which hinders practices and attitudes that can promote the resignification of the school space for young dissidents.

Examples of how teachers can create supportive environments that facilitate productive discourse and experience around LGTB issues
Source: The author (2019) /Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Toward a More Welcoming School

Young people’s experiences show us the importance of bringing the discussion about gender and sexuality to a daily practice within the school environment as we could realize how can the school be a possible place for the awareness of dissident experiences in terms of gender and sexuality. The evasion problem especially of transvestite and transsexual people appeared with the indication of the need to call people by the name that corresponds to their gender identity as well as the authorization for the use of the bathroom by that same self-assigned identity.

Teachers’ experiences value the welcoming attitude toward young dissidents of gender and sexuality which should be demarcated by the recognition of the difference in the school environment. The positive experience of dealing with these themes does not mean that they cannot be linked to speeches that may present them as a possible threat, as an example when dissident affective-sexual experiences are associated with diseases. Even so, some teachers are looking for more knowledge to approach the theme as they do not feel prepared to approach the theme from the perspective of the curricular policy of identity and difference.

Graphic depicting welcoming potential of school to LGTB students
Source: The author (2019)/Graphic Design: AleMaciell

Finally, even though the NCPs proposing to approach the theme in a transversal way, the legislation seems insufficient to guarantee in the curriculum the presence of the theme in the school as it should be taught. However, even so, the school presents itself as a possible place to resist attempts to criminalize teaching work around gender and sexuality. It is not a matter of minimizing the moral effects of the School without Party Program rather however young and teachers act independently of a “desire” in short they are involved in power relations, there are positive examples that seem to make the difference in terms of gender and sexuality, an experience that can be recognized at school.

*Fabricio Pupo Antunes is a 3rd-year high school student at Colégio Novaescola in Campo Grande – Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. He is a junior researcher in gender and sexuality, supervised by Prof. Dr. Tiago Duque at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul, where he is also a member of Impróprias – Research Group about Gender, Sexuality and Differences (UFMS – CNPq). His research has been awarded in important scientific fairs, seminars, and academic congresses in Brazil and abroad with Regeneron ISEF, a finalist in the Behavioral Sciences area this year.

Republic At Risk: COVID-19 in India

While the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted almost every corner of the globe, parts of Asia are still just beginning to see the systemic effects of the pandemic. As the second most populous country in the world, India has experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths which magnify current injustices across the country. This blog addresses India’s importance within the COVID-19 pandemic and its relationship with human rights issues concerning feeble governance, police brutality, migrant displacement, and Islamophobia.

As of late-July, over 1.4 million Indians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 32,000 have died from the virus. India’s western state of Maharashtra is currently the country’s epicenter with over 375,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. On the southern coastline, the state of Tamil Nadu has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (210,000+), while the capital territory of Delhi in the northwest has recently exceeded 130,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh has confirmed over 95,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has only confirmed just over 65,000 cases which triggers questions about access to COVID-19 testing and essential resources throughout the country.

A National Lockdown

In late-March, the Indian government issued a nationwide lockdown that lasted two months. Inconveniently, the country’s 1.3 billion inhabitants were given less than a 4-hour notice of this initial 3-week lockdown. The effects of this tall order were apparent on day one since so many people throughout the country live on a daily wage or in extreme poverty. As food supply chains became compromised and manufacturing facilities closed, the country’s unemployment rate reached a 30-year low. All the while, facilities such as schools and train coaches have been converted into quarantine centers. These attempts have seemingly delayed the inevitable spike of COVID-19 cases. However, it is speculated that the low number of confirmed cases is the result of low testing rates.

This outcome has been attributed to lax contact tracing, stringent bureaucracy, and inadequate health service coordination, namely in Delhi where cases have recently surged. However, as India reopens, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased. Additionally, the introduction of newly-approved antigen kits have allowed for rapid diagnostic testing, although testing is not to be distributed proportionately. More specifically, family members and neighbors of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 claim they are not being tested. Also, in several instances, the family members of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 were not being informed about their loved one’s diagnosis. After much scrutiny, however, local health authorities in Delhi have attempted to pick up the pieces by using surveillance measures such as door-to-door screenings, drones, and police enforcement.

Policing the Police

While the recent murder of George Floyd sent shockwaves across the world, India has been confronting its own relationship with police violence. In June, two Tamil Nadu shopkeepers, J Jayaraj and his son Bennicks Immanuel, were arrested for keeping their business open past permitted hours during the national lockdown. They were then tortured while in police custody and died days later in the hospital. Due to this event garnering considerable attention and protesting, six police officers have since been arrested for their deaths. Also, Tamil Nadu police officers with questionable track records will now undergo behavioral correction workshops. However, this incident is no anomaly. According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), nine Indians die in judicial or police custody every day. In comparison, official government crime data claims 70 people were killed in Indian police custody in 2018. This striking differential in reported custodial deaths suggests India’s law enforcement entities lack accountability and are riddled with corruption.

Much like the United States, India has a history tainted with police violence that disproportionately affects minority groups, namely people from the lowest Dalit caste, indigenous groups, and Muslims. With no choice but to work during the national lockdown, many of India’s poorest citizens were beaten by police. Videos of these violent acts surfaced across social media. In opposition, there have been over 300 reported incidents of attacks on police officers alone in Maharashtra. These recent events highlight the need for the Indian government to pass anti-torture legislation that curbs police violence. By ratifying the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the Indian government can help remove the colonial vestiges of power and punishment that have plagued the country for generations.

Migrant Displacement

The sudden announcement of a national lockdown had tremendous repercussions for the tens of thousands of daily-wage migrants throughout India. Overnight, businesses closed and transportation systems suspended throughout the country, placing many migrant workers in precarious economic conditions. Men, women, and children hunkered down in urban centers across the country as they waited for their workplaces to reopen but to no avail. In response, India’s major cities experienced an exodus of migrant workers attempting to return to their home states on foot, many living hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. As thousands trekked home, many died due to dehydration, exhaustion, sunstroke, and traffic accidents. Reports of pregnant women delivering, and subsequently carrying, their children in these horrific conditions have also surfaced.

A recent Supreme Court order has urged the well-being of India’s 100 million internal migrant workers affected by the hardships of COVID-19 by requiring the government to register, feed, shelter, and transport them until they return home. However, these efforts are seemingly inadequate because most internal migrant workers have not qualified for these “relief packages”, while those who have qualified are experiencing limited coordination between state governments. All the while, India has ended its national lockdown and many migrant workers are trying to return to their places of employment. Some employers are sponsoring the return of their lost workers, while some must find their own means to return. As such, some states have sought local help to accommodate the loss of migrant workers which places many Indians in even greater economic uncertainty.

Migrant workers walking on the shoulder of a highway during the nighttime.
The Indian Lockdown Migration – IV (PB1_4728). Source: Paramvir Singh Bhogal, Creative Commons.

Pathologizing Islam

COVID-19 in India has contributed to a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric that suggests this religious minority group is purposely spreading the virus.  The rumors began after Tablighi Jammat, a Muslim missionary group, held a congregation outside of India and, soon after, many members tested positive for COVID-19 in New Delhi. Videos on WhatsApp and various television channels have proliferated this misinformation to the Indian public alongside the usage of phrases such as “corona jihad” and “corona terrorism”. To make matters worse, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, which is notorious for its Hindu nationalist sentiments, has begun incorporating Tablighi Jamaat-related statistics to its daily COVID-19 briefings. Such rhetoric has influenced a slew of Islamophobic acts such as prohibiting neighborhood entry, restricting sales by street vendors, and even violent attacks.

These recent events fuel an existing fire that posits Muslims as reproducing at a pace to outnumber Hindus and compromising “Mother India”. However, recent efforts between Muslim Indians and allies has been quick to respond to this COVID-19 misinformation because they have been protesting India’s new citizenship law that offers amnesty to various non-Muslim immigrants and a nationwide citizen count that necessitates proof of documentation dating several years back. The BJP has made it apparent that Muslims are not welcome in India and weaponized the COVID-19 pandemic as a part of its Islamophobic campaign. As such, these efforts corner Muslim Indians into political and economic insecurities that pressure apartheid at a time when unity is paramount.

Masked medical professionals walking with a crowd in the background.
coronavirus-india-rep-image-hyd. Source: Anant Singh, Creative Commons.

Human Rights in India

As displayed, India has an array of prevalent human rights issues that have compounded since the arrival of COVID-19. Among the efforts that could protect Indians from these concerns are labor protections, health care reform, civil rights for minority groups, food security, and income equality. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has propagated a narrative of self-reliance that undermines these systemic inequalities. Service provision has highlighted these discrepancies because resources are scarce, and those with power and privilege are placed to the front of the line. In addition, many Indians cannot abide to the recommended sanitation and social distancing measures due to living in poor, dense settlements in the heap summer when water sources are limited.

Although tearing through communities and disrupting daily life in India, the COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, it is well within the power of Parliament, the media, civil society, and local governments to right these wrongs by ending communal bias and impartiality within state institutions. Addressing these corrupt and oppressive practices will not only remediate the effects of COVID-19 but help shape an equitable future for a country that is rapidly becoming a global super power and expected to be the most populous country in the world by 2027. Real change and equity in the world’s largest democracy could send a much-needed shockwave of justice across the globe.

Black and Blue: What’s Causing America’s Bruise?

By Stacy Moak, UAB Professor of Social Work

This article was originally published on the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy blog on June 19, 2020.

Discussions of police in everyday life have triggered strong reactions from citizens as long as we have had the concept of police. Arguments over whether they should wear uniforms, whether they should be paid, and whether they should carry weapons have all persisted throughout time and across multiple countries. The concept of the police in America was borrowed from the British system of having “beat cops” or officers who patrolled at the local level. In England, still today, these community officers do not carry weapons. The British police force was established in 1829 and employs the concept of police by consent, not by force. As a result, the general opinion is that arming the police sends the wrong message to citizens and creates more problems than it solves. Yet, in the US, officers cannot envision a police force that is not armed with firearms. Policing in America has evolved over time and developed into a punitive system of “enforcement” that has pushed the entire system away from community problem solvers and toward a militaristic mind set of reactions to certain situations, often without rational analysis of what is actually occurring. Thus, policing has evolved more toward fighting a war– the war on drugs, the war on poverty – in which police are the soldiers and citizens are the subjects. However, the evidence is clear that overuse of police as a form of social control has devastating consequences for the health of communities (Public Health Behind Bars, Robert Greifinger, 2007). Such over-policing leads directly and indirectly to destabilized communities and overall social injustice. Further, it creates a system in which activities of the poor and minorities are more highly policed and punished than activities of the wealthy or white majority. Communities that suffer the most from over-policing generally suffer from a host of other deprivations and become tangled in a web of instability. Once that occurs, perceptions of destabilized communities begin to shape the ways that people outside the community view persons who live in those communities. Persons from those communities are often portrayed as more violent, more aggressive, and less likely to respond to reason. These labels apply to everyone from that particular community, including children, and often follow those children as they enter school. Children from these communities are labeled trouble makers at very young ages (as young as 3 or 4) and are often pushed out of mainstream educational facilities. Because of interaction with the criminal justice systems, adults have trouble finding jobs and/or stable housing, and family dynamics are disrupted. A cycle of negative police/citizen interaction begins to occur because of overuse of punitive approaches to address social problems, and police officers are tasked with providing interventions across a wide array of social services more appropriate to social workers, school and marriage counselors, substance abuse counselors, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and general mechanic and car maintenance.

When police are the first responders to social problems, punishment is the response most often handed down. Punishment, enforcement, and restraint are the skills for which police receive most of their training. Examples of this problem can be noted across the life span, but are perhaps most easily demonstrated in adolescents. For example, white youth and minority youth participate in delinquency such as recreational drug use, underage drinking, skipping school, fighting, and other types of delinquency at similar rates. Self-report studies indicate that delinquency is almost universal as a part of adolescent development. However, black and brown youth are held in juvenile detention centers at 3 to 4 times the rate of their white counterparts. Their numbers continue to increase even when juvenile crime statistics drop. Part of the reason for the disproportionate numbers of youth in juvenile detention stems from the presence of police officers in schools. Because these youth are identified as more dangerous and less amenable to treatment, school-based police officers respond with punitive practices that work to remove them from school. Once removed from school, the only real intervention at the community level is the juvenile court. Most black and brown youth live in urban areas with larger public schools. More police officers are assigned to these schools; therefore, more poor children and children of color are victims of overusing police and courts for behaviors more appropriately handled by schools and parents. Overuse of punitive practices creates a school to prison pipeline that suspends and expels more minority youth from school than their white counterparts. Even when youth are “caught” for the same activity, the minority youth is more likely to be arrested, petitioned to juvenile court, and detained in a detention center which sets off an array of negative interactions and social stigma that is almost impossible to overcome. The school to prison pipeline creates generational disenfranchisement, poverty, and systematic oppression of entire communities.

Graphic of rates of drug use and sales by race next to graphic of drug-related arrests by race
Source: The Hamilton Project

But problems in school are not the only contributor to the overuse of police in society. Lack of adequate health care also works to ensure that poor people and people of color will go to prison instead of to mental health clinics or rehabilitation centers for substance abuse and mental health issues. Instead of having diagnoses that are recognized and treated, even at very young ages, people without adequate health insurance or preventative health care are labeled by the symptoms of their illnesses. As services shrink in the community, law enforcement is used as the social service delivery system for this group. Instead of citizens receiving counseling and accurate mental health diagnosis that could treat their health issues, they are arrested, incarcerated, and offered very few if any services. For a drug charge, a person with insurance will likely go to a rehab facility. A person without insurance will likely go to prison. Studies indicate that 20% of jail inmates and 15% of prison inmates suffer from major depression or psychosis and as many as 87% of those have comorbid substance abuse issues. Citizens without insurance in our society are more likely to have unresolved trauma, which is often exacerbated by interaction with poorly trained police officers. Those same individuals are more likely to be perceived as dangerous, more aggressive, and not amenable to treatment. As a result, they are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be detained prior to trial, and more likely to be incarcerated. When they are eventually released (95% will return to communities) they are sent back to communities with little to no continuity care plan which almost insures that they will encounter the criminal justice system again.

So, what alternative police practices and systematic strategies could we envision that would work to dismantle this perpetual cycle of violence, trauma, and overall injustice that is levied disproportionately on poor and minority communities? First, I would propose that police agencies examine the role of police in everyday life and create policies that actually reflect those defined roles. The role of the police is “to protect and serve.” Let’s unpack that statement – to protect and serve – not to arrest, apprehend, serve as judge and juror, intimidate, harass, incarcerate, shoot, bully, or kill – protect and serve. Yet most of our emphasis in police departments across the US revolves around tactical weaponry, restraint techniques, defensive driving, and legal procedures of arrest that will lead to convictions. Perhaps refocusing training on de-escalation strategies, trauma informed care, and implicit bias could provide better understanding and more opportunities for officers to assist in resolving conflicts peacefully. Do police officers really need full armored SWAT gear? And military grade weaponry? When police posture defensively as if their role is to protect themselves against dangerous citizens (again as if they are soldiers and citizens are the subjects) the response from citizens is likely also to be defensive and reactionary. Beyond new recruits at the police academy, officers who have been on the force for long periods of time and serve as field training officers need the same training as new recruits on the above-mentioned issues. Many times, they work to undermine positive training received in police academies. If these more seasoned officers resist training, or refuse to comply with new protocols, they should be reassigned to departmental activities that do not require citizen interaction. We can no longer afford to have business as usual and rely on statements like, “that’s the way it has always been.” Agencies must be proactive in removing old ways of thinking and performing and replace them with more educated and better-informed practices that work to restore police-community relations. A merit system could be implemented that rewards positive behavior with pay incentives or merit toward promotions. Police should be treated as professionals, paid as professionals, and held accountable as professionals.

Photo of police officer in a school hallway
Source: Justice Policy Institute

Secondly, I would propose that we examine the services for which police are being used in place of other, more appropriate social service delivery specialists. For example, commissioned law enforcement officers are not the proper authority to handle adolescents in schools – especially when dollars spent to employ the police could be redirected to employ social workers and counselors to address the underlying causes of much adolescent behavior. The experiment with School Resource Officers (SROs) was intended to create trust among students and police where police would function in a counselor/educator role. However, the reality has been that schools have turned over general disciplinary actions as well as drug/alcohol enforcement provisions to SROs. They do not work as much in an education/counselor capacity as they do as the enforcer for a host of school-based rule infractions that lead to more kids being suspended, expelled, or processed in juvenile court. Instead of fostering healthy relationships with police and students, students do not trust them and try to avoid them. A better alternative seems to be to employ a school based social worker at each school instead of an SRO. One argument for SROs has been the prevalence of school shootings and the need for student safety. However, school shootings were not the original intent of SROs, and school shootings remain very rare occurrences. When these tragedies do occur, it is rarely an SRO who protects students or who intervenes during these instances, which makes school safety concerns an inadequate argument for placing police officers in schools. Their presence adds to the school to prison pipeline and works to create hostility between youth and police very early in life.  Zero tolerance policies should be replaced with restorative community policies within schools to teach negotiation strategies that students could actually use in future interactions. Dialogue about complex issues should be encouraged among students and opportunities should be seized to provide education around community health, community harm, and community restoration.

This conversation would not be complete without recognizing that the work of policing a community is stressful. Rarely do police officers receive adequate training for the job. Even more rarely do they receive counseling and support for their own trauma that they experience on the job. For example, one of the most stressful parts of law enforcement jobs is not the hostage negotiation that ends in a shoot-out; instead, it is responding to traffic accidents. Officers might retire from the police force without ever using their firearm, but the chances of them viewing a dead child in an overturned car after a crash are high. When officers’ trauma is not addressed, that trauma becomes the lens through which everything else is viewed. A normal response is to have a heightened sense of self-preservation – and every possible encounter with a citizen presents the possibility of a negative outcome. Some of the resources within police departments should be reinvested in the officers to provide training, support, and counseling that they need to be healthy community members both on and off the job. To complement these resources, the culture within the department must also change to promote positive mental health among officers. Currently the stigma of mental health issues as signs of weakness permeate police culture. Changing those views will take time, but the culture of health that is discussed in communities must also apply to police agencies throughout the US.

Graphic showing 85% of first responders have experienced mental health problems, graphic of mental health stigma at work
Source: University of Phoenix
Graphic showing rates of mental health stigma at work
Source: University of Phoenix

Finally, and probably the most inflammatory part of this post, we must have honest conversations about the systematic racial oppression in the US and the role that all systems of government have played in developing and keeping it in place. Minority groups are presented as more dangerous, more violent, more in need of police, and only responsive to force. Such portrayals are not accidental, but work specifically to detract from empathy that might otherwise be shown to them as fellow human beings. The scourge of racism is so deeply engrained in our justice systems in the US that even minority officers do not know how to discuss it, react to it, or work to dismantle it. The militarized hierarchy within police agencies causes a veil of silence among officers who fear reprimand if they are perceived as trouble makers, liberals, or sympathizers. Citizens have so little trust in the police, or the system of justice, that they are often victims without a voice. These are not characteristics of a free society, and they must be replaced with conversation, understanding, and a shared vision for what citizens want the police to do in their communities and how that will be accomplished. In the end, police officers are public servants, and their role is to protect and serve the community and every member of the community. For anyone who reads this and has an interest in taking a deeper dive into racism in the US, I would recommend three books to readThe Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein; Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum; and So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo.

COVID-19 and Teenage Pregnancies

by Grace Ndanu

A group of girls dressed in traditional Masaai clothing
Source: Creative Commons

It takes a lot of love, effort and dedication to be a good mother. For that reason, I believe it is important that everyone has the choice whether or not to be a parent, and when to take on that responsibility. Unfortunately, many girls around the world do not get to choose. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic remains a pain to society because it is definitely complicating the efforts of reducing teenage pregnancies. It has caused an immeasurable disruption to every aspect of our lives in the last few months. To contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, governments have taken drastic measures to minimise the spread. Learning has been suspended, with schools being closed indefinitely. Religious meetings and worship programs have been affected similarly meaning there will be no more youth programs in the religious institutions, including churches and mosques for the time being.

In Kenya, the Ministry of Education has put in place strategies to ensure continuity of education through distance online learning delivered through radio, television and the internet. However, these strategies have further widened the inequality gap, as learners from poor, vulnerable, and marginalized households are unable to benefit from continued learning through these platforms due to lack of access. Further, with the loss of livelihoods particularly in low income households, some children may be forced into income-generating activities to support their families’ survival. Also, school closure has stopped the provision of school meals and sanitary towels.

And it’s more complicated for girls living in refugee camps or girls that are internally displaced. For them, school closures are even more devastating as they are already a disadvantaged group. Girls at secondary level are only half as likely to enroll as their male peers. While the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, we can look to the lessons learned from the Ebola epidemic. At the height of the epidemic, five million girls were affected by school closure across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the countries hardest hit by the outbreak. And poverty levels rose significantly as education was interrupted.

There is evidence that links poverty with teenage pregnancies during this pandemic. One reason is because many young girls are getting involved in economic activities to supplement what their parents are bringing home. On the other hand, as the cases rise day by day there is a strain on the healthcare system, leading to the disruption of healthcare services, re-prioritization of sexual and reproductive and health services and a. shortage of contraceptive commodities and essential drugs. As SRHR services are reducing, sexual behaviour is rising since the teenagers have nothing to do, and it seems to be more risky where parents don’t really care what their children are doing while at home. I feel that there will be more unintended pregnancies all over the world, many of which will occur among teenage girls.

As I have discussed, there is no culture or tradition, it just happens. There are girls, especially those who come from communities or families that are rooted in culture and traditions, these girls must undergo what their parents wants them to, and the girls have no choice in the matter because their hope was school where they would run for help.

A positive pregnancy test
Source: Creative Commons

For example, in the Maasai community, when a girl is at least nine years old she is circumcised then married after two to four weeks. These girls are now expected to take care of their husband and to bear children at that early age.

Unintended pregnancies among teenagers may result in some difficulties in the lives of young girls. There are unsafe abortions, which may happen as a decision of the girl maybe to feel clean and also as a result of family decision in order to keep the family name clean. There is increased poverty where a girl who is being provided everything with the struggling parents bring another baby who needs to be taken care off and be provided everything as they are babies and as they grow all the way to adulthood. At some point there may be denial where by the parents kick out their daughters because of getting pregnant early because they have disgraced the family. This may cause psychological problems because she doesn’t have the supporting system which may force her to get married not only at an early age but also to an old man who may be violent on her. If not marriage she may have suicidal thoughts. Early pregnancies are the leading cause of deaths among the teenage girls because their bodies are not yet matured to give birth. The girls who are forced into marriage as teenagers, the responsibility that they are given drains them off because also their minds are not yet matured to do what is expected of them, which may lead them to be beaten and abused. Everyone deserves to enjoy their childhood.

Something has to be done before it’s too late. The governments should have committees that will develop and implement proven solutions. Different stakeholders should work to respond and to prevent by meeting the unique needs of adolescents by may be providing sanitary towels and also help them access SRHR services. The people responsible for taking care of pregnant teenage girls should teach them how to improve their sexual and reproductive health and well-being. Lastly I believe there are already existing activists in our towns and villages and they can potentially help to reduce negative coping mechanisms, such as child, early and forced marriage, especially during this time, where every energy is driven to the corona situation.

The Right to Mental Health and the Importance of Self-Care

An image of a brain embroidered on a piece of fabric in an embroidery hoop.
Brain Anatomy Hoop Art. Hand Embroidered in Pink and Blue. Source: Hey Paul Studios, Creative Commons

While it seems that most people today would agree that taking care of one’s mental health is important, it may come as a surprise that mental health is actually a human right.  According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family…”  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has declared that “that the right to health is a fundamental part of our human rights and or our understanding of a life in dignity.”  

Mental Health as a Human Right 

The United Nations Human Rights Council recognizes three principles regarding the right to health: 

The first is that it is an inclusive right.  This means that it extends “not only to timely and appropriate health care, but also to the underlying determinants of health.”  This includes things like access to clean water, safe working conditions, and important information about health.  These factors, while clearly relevant to physical health, are also important in maintaining one’s mental health. 

The second principle is that the right to health includes both freedoms and entitlements.  Freedoms would include things like “the right to control one’s health,” while entitlements would include things like “the right to a system of health protection that provides equality of opportunity for people to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.”  This is significant because one needs to be able to access important information and resources related to mental health in order to have meaningful support for their mental health.   

The third principle is that the right to health is a broad concept that can be divided up into more specific rights.  For example, there are some aspects of health that are specific to people who are assigned female at birth, and those aspects are associated with specific rights.  The right to mental health (and the rights associated with it) is one of the many rights that make of the right to health.   

Mental Health Impacts Your Overall Future Health 

According to the World Health Organization’s Constitution, health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  Based on this, taking care of your mental health is not simply making sure that you are not actively going through a crisis.  Being healthy is more than just surviving.  Taking care of your mental health involves taking daily steps to care for yourself that not only improve your health in the present, but also protect your health in the future. 

Having poor mental health puts you at a greater risk for physical health problems.  According to the American Psychological Association, having a mental health condition reduces men’s life expectancy by an estimated 20 years and reduces women’s life expectancy by about 15 years.  This is in part due to the fact that nearly two-thirds of people with mental health conditions do not seek any form of treatment. 

Mental Health is a Key Part of Accessing Many Other Rights 

In addition to being a right on its own, maintaining good mental health is also a key part of being able to meaningfully access many other human rights.  For example, even when given all the necessary tools that are directly related to education, struggling with mental health issues can impede a person’s ability to receive a truly meaningful education.  This is reflected by the long-term effects of depression.  In one study, scientists found that individuals who faced depression during mid-adolescence and continue to deal with it as young adults are at an increased risk of educational underachievement and unemployment.  One’s mental health can also impact their access to other rights such as the right to participate in the cultural life of their community, the right to rest and leisure, and the right to work. 

Scrabble pieces spell out the words "mental health."
Mental Health. Source: Kevin Simmons, Creative Commons

You Have to Help Yourself Before You Can Help Others  

You’re probably familiar with the concept of putting your oxygen mask on before assisting others on a plane.  If you are struggling to breathe yourself, not only is your ability to help others inhibited, but you’re putting your own health and well-being at risk of harm.  This can be applied to mental health as well.  If you are facing serious struggles with your own mental health, it is important to focus on helping and support yourself before taking on responsibilities related to other people’s mental health. 

For this reason, the maintenance of good mental health is especially important for people who work in fields such as human rights advocacy.  The world of human rights is full of issues and topics that can be emotionally draining, so one can easily become overwhelmed by it all.  It is vital that advocates make their mental (and physical) health a priority, even if their main concern is helping others.  Self-care needs to be a part of any human rights advocate’s tool kit. 

The Basics of Self-Care 

Self-care can be defined as “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.”  

Raphailia Michael, a licensed counseling psychologist, suggests that there are three golden rules to starting self-care: 

  1. “Stick to the basics.”  This makes it easier to include self-care into your schedule, make it a part of your regular routine, and figure out what works best for you.
  2. “Self-care needs to be something you actively plan, rather than something that just happens.”
  3. “Keeping a conscious mind is what counts…if you don’t see something as self-care or don’t do something in order to take care of yourself, it won’t work as such.”  

Michael also gives a basic checklist of self-care tasks that can apply to pretty much anyone.  This list includes things such as eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, following up with medical care, and looking for opportunities to laugh every day. 

It is so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and forget to take care of oneself.  We all do it sometimes.  It is important that we set aside time to properly take care of ourselves and pay attention to our own needs.  Mental health matters just as much as everything else that is going on, and that’s something we need to remember. 

 

Challenges with Undocumented Immigrants in the U.S.

Picture Message
Source: Yahoo Image

Humans have always been regarded as higher animals due to several similarities we share, including instinct, cognition, problem solving skills, introspection, creativity, emotional intelligence and planning skills. Just as planning is an ability of both humans and animals, it involves adequate effort and encompasses a wide range of ideas and research put in place to actualize our desired objective. One of the most fascinating parts of planning to me includes identifying the best place or location we can truly reach our goals, achieve our objectives and fulfil our purpose, which all basically centers around migration. Migration remains a constant and unending phenomenon for both humans and animals, and various motives can be attributed to this endeavor, such as the search for food and water, seasonal weather change, mating reasons, employment opportunities, health and education reasons, adventures and thrills, insecurity, and many others. More still, we can basically summarize migration purposes as a search for a better life, which is a basic instinct all living things possess.

In the last ten years, migration within the international context has risen to a significant level despite continuous efforts many countries have dedicated in ensuring their borders are adequately tightened with hope of discouraging immigrants from illegally entering their borders. According to Ross, Cunningham, & Hanna, an estimation of 244 million migrants are presently living temporarily or permanently outside their country of birth.  Violent conflict, discrimination and lack of employment opportunities are major reasons for the increasing number of immigrants in several developed countries, and has forced many countries into adopting drastic measures such as rigorous identity checks, detention camps and deportation, to reduce their entry. Another means of curbing the increasing number of immigrants includes formulating and enforcing policies that limits them access to affordable healthcare services. For instance, the United States Affordable Care Act excludes undocumented immigrants from accessing health insurance, while the immigrant provisions of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) excludes undocumented immigrants from publicly funded services.

Several immigration laws and policies within the United States continuously hinder undocumented immigrants’ access to adequate healthcare services, which constitutes a major challenge to all who fall under this category despite evidence proving they contribute more money in taxes to the U.S. economy than they consume in services.  What I believe the U.S. government has failed to understand is the fact that these laws and policies not only put the health of these undocumented immigrants at a high risk, but also the health of the general public and socioeconomic development of the country. One of the most detrimental ways these laws and policies have greatly affected this vulnerable population is in the fight against the HIV epidemic. According to Ross et al., migrants who reside in developed countries are disproportionately affected by HIV as the proportion of new HIV diagnosis amongst migrants exceeds the percentage of the general population. HIV, as we all know, is a global epidemic that demands the best care and treatment which was the reason that spurred world leaders in 2015 to restate their commitment to the right to health by enacting the universal health coverage in the sustainable development goals that guarantees all people and communities access to high quality health services.

HIV +-
Source: Yahoo Image

It is clear the United States government clearly disregards this universal policy that aims at ensuring everyone receives the best healthcare services irrespective of their personality or condition. I guess the U.S. government by their own understanding believes migrants do not fall under the universal coverage as it is evident through their discouraging treatment of undocumented immigrants, more so, those living with HIV. Ross et al. believes migrants persons living with HIV have more characteristics that are associated with poor HIV clinical outcome, and are more likely to die from HIV compared to non-immigrants. For undocumented people living with HIV, there are more factors that exacerbate their condition such as discriminatory laws and policies, lack of follow-up care, ignorance, stigmatization and discrimination. I do believe these discriminating laws and policies serves as the major factor affecting undocumented people living with HIV. One area that typifies this can be seen during the documentation process of a patient health record, which compulsorily demands the immigration status information of individuals. This got me wondering if a client’s immigration status information is actually needed in their health record.

Kim, Molina & Saadi believes documenting immigration status in patient records not only possess a challenge to the clients but also to clinicians. Although by recording this, the information would most likely improve the communication process between the client and the clinician, and also facilitate continuity of care, on the other hand, recording the same information could expose the client alongside their family to risks of being stigmatized or discriminated by non-immigrant friendly clinicians who may expose them to immigration enforcement officers even though it violates patient confidentiality. They believe explicit documentation of immigration status of patients alongside their families in a health record be avoided as evidence suggest risks outweigh benefits in this regard. Conversation about immigration status using indirect language in describing social context should rather be prioritized over written documentation to ensure patients have their healthcare needs met without fear. They concluded by advising clinicians and the general healthcare system to ensure policies and guidelines reduce the high level of stigma and discrimination for all rather than the present opposite.

Families fighting against forced separation
Madison, WI, USA- February 18, 2016 – group of people protesting new Wisconsin immigration laws. Source: Yahoo Image.

Another area that strikes me hard for undocumented immigrants living with HIV are those who are currently in detention camps across various states in the U.S., a revelation which came to me through one of my on-campus events with the representative of the Alabama Latino Aids Coalition. The speaker spoke about the inhumane treatment undocumented immigrants go through while in detention, more so, people living with HIV. This made me do some research and I found several evidences that confirmed undocumented immigrants living with HIV can actually maintain continuous access to care and treatment while being detained in correctional facilities to ensure they sustain or achieve good virologic outcomes and well-tolerated regimens if structured protocols are implemented and enforced. It should be noted that the detention process for migrants during their deportation proceedings is complex and rigid which has led to several lapses due to poor access to proper medical care. Even though there are 21 Federal Detention Centers across the U.S., which are operated by the Bureau of Prisons, and all provide Antiretroviral treatment and medication to detainees who disclose their HIV status, there exists fear of stigmatization or discrimination amongst detainees living with HIV as they believe their disclosure may negatively impact their immigration trial, especially if they also fall under any gender or sexual minority groups. Also, the poor living condition and environment of this population while in detention forces some to relapse into substance use, engage in risky sexual behaviors, and disregard their treatment plan.

Based on this understanding, it is hard to imagine the inhumane condition undocumented immigrants are forced to live through while being detained. There is need for the U.S. government to understand that even though several undocumented immigrants after their trial, are usually deported or released at the nearest borders or territories close to their home countries, several others return into the society without receiving adequate rehabilitation or reintegrative education which possess a challenge to the society at large. Human and material resources that could have been used to resolve other pressing needs will then be used to serve their avoidable demands. To resolve this challenge, there is the need to abolish any form of discrimination against detainees living with HIV and ensure it does not affect their deportation trial. Also, clinicians and correctional officers need to be more sensitive to the needs of the detainees having been separated from their families and may never see them again, which is a situation that can easily exacerbate their condition in such a hostile detention environment. Human rights institutions, immigration right advocates, academicians, alongside health authorities, media and the general public should also advocate and help raise awareness about the poor condition of these detention facilities. For deported detainees living with HIV, the U.S. government alongside non-governmental institutions should provide adequate health education using evidence-based treatment medications and materials that meets the specification of their home country to ensure transnational HIV continuity of care.

Picture of Undocumented Immigrants
Undocumented Immigrants in dire need of help. Source: Yahoo Image

In all, we all should understand that undocumented immigrants are also humans and should be treated with utmost respect irrespective of their situation. There is need to ensure their health and wellbeing are adequately met and well taken care of. As humans, we should not only sympathize with them, but also support them by raising awareness and advocating for better laws and policies that can assist them during their ordeal. We should always aim for a multi-sectoral approach that addresses the structural challenges for undocumented immigrants living with HIV such as housing, food security, mental health, and access to employment because there is a continuous effort by the U.S. government to dehumanize undocumented immigrants as community members and remove vital resources that is available to them. As we all know the U.S. government remains extremely resolute in enforcing the 2015 immigration laws that places all undocumented immigrants at risk of being deported, they can also ensure the universal law on respect to all life is adequately respected by enforcing laws, guidelines and policies that protects the lives and wellbeing of undocumented immigrants.

A Human Rights Perspective on Solutions to the Opioid Crisis in America

My most recent article described an overview of the opioid addiction crisis from a human rights perspective. You can view it here. In this article, I attempt to explain the different solutions from medical professionals regarding opioid addiction and the racial and economic disparities that have arisen amongst the most successful solution.

There are two forms of treatment that most clinics can decide between: traditional counseling therapy with a focus on mental strength or using medication, such as buprenorphine and methadone, to combat addiction. Research has proven that without medication, people are twice as likely to die from an overdose. However, the traditional counseling methods have persisted across treatment centers. The Journal of Substance Abuse conducted a study that showed that between 2003 and 2010, of 50,000 opioid addiction patients on Medicaid, patients who had received counseling therapies were six times more likely to relapse than those who received methadone as treatment and four times more likely than those who received buprenorphine. The risk of overdoses is increased during the period of detoxification utilized by abstinence based programs because of a lack of tolerance.

A counseling session
Counseling. Source: Alan Cleaver. Creative Commons.

Opioid substitution has proven to reduce mortality. To avoid a misuse of buprenorphine and methadone, the two medications are tightly controlled by doctors. Buprenorphine is a drug that reduces the craving for opioids and reduces the chances of a fatal overdose overall. Suboxone, a compound of buprenorphine, is engineered to reduce the possibility of an overdose. However, using medication as treatment for addiction has only truly been utilized at a small number of walk-in clinics and has not been fully incorporated into the nation-wide health care system. In 2015, in the United States, 8-10% of treatment programs offered buprenorphine and methadone as substitution therapy. Even in this small number of programs, the method was often unsuccessful as the medicine was offered for too short of a period to be effective. The treatment is only provided in very regulated clinics and prescribers are limited to a maximum of 275 patients.

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of doctor visits where the health professional prescribed buprenorphine greatly rose. Despite this, a research report found that of 13.4 million medical cases involving buprenorphine, there was no increase in prescriptions written for minority groups. Dr. Pooja Lagisetty, one of the authors of the study, reported that white populations are nearly 35 times more likely to have buprenorphine discussed in their visit than black populations. Accessibility and insurance ability are commonly cited as reasons why this disparity has occurred, especially as the majority of white patients paid for their treatment using cash or insurance whereas only 25% of visits were covered by Medicare or Medicaid. This is especially concerning when it is taken into consideration that the rise in the use of buprenorphine occurred at the same time that opioid overdose related deaths were rising significantly faster for black populations than for whites.

Representation of the cost of healthcare.
The cost of healthcare. Source: ImagesMoney. Creative Commons.

In many cities, opioid addiction treatment is segregated by income. Lower income patients find themselves needing to attend a clinic in order to receive treatment while more affluent patients are able to avoid the clinic and instead receive treatment from a doctor’s office where medicines can be prescribed. These clinic programs are federally funded and often covered by Medicaid. However, in order to receive treatment from the highly regulated clinics, patients must visit daily. Many patients commute for hours every day before waiting within the clinic to receive their life-saving medication. These patients, who are already part of a lower income bracket, are losing precious hours where they could be working or with their families. Work, childcare, families, and other related life events must revolve around the daily trip to the clinic. Some patients have described needing to turn down job offers. Because of this, methadone has earned the nickname, “liquid handcuffs.”

In order to prescribe buprenorphine, physicians are required to undergo a special form of training. Only 5% of physicians have participated in this training. The shortage of clinicians has resulted in the ability of physicians to demand cash payments in return for a prescription of buprenorphine. 40% of white patients paid cash while 35% relied on private insurance. Just 25% of these visits were covered and paid for by Medicaid and Medicare. These percentages highlight just how costly a lifesaving prescription can be for people of low income. Because of the racial disparities within the United States economy, the people who fall into this category tend to be of a minority group. Gentrification has also caused a problem within the clinic community as their buildings get bought out in favor of other businesses. In 2016 in New York City, 53% of participants in methadone programs were Latino and 23% were black, while 21% were white. Also, in 2016 more than 13,600 people in New York filled at least one prescription for Suboxone with nearly 80% of these 13,600 paid for the medication using private insurance.

2011 Protest against the War on Drugs
No More Drug War. Source: Neon Tommy. Creative Commons.

Buprenorphine was purposely introduced into a private market, intended only for those who could pay a high price. Therefore, the unequal distribution of the drug can be determined to be not accidental. Due to the government regulations surrounding the prescription of the drug and the training required for doctors, there are too few doctors actually allowed to prescribe the medication. Those who can often do not accept insurance for their services as demand is so high and they can make more of a profit. Insurance will pay for the actual drug, but patients must pay for the doctor out of pocket.

A permanent stigma surrounding methadone has developed, hailing from the War on Drugs days in the 1960s. Racially charged stereotypes regarding addiction have fueled this stigma which has in turn caused lawmakers to be reluctant in passing legislation that would make the drug more accessible to underprivileged populations. However, this would be the push the community desperately needs. Medicines like buprenorphine and methadone need to be significantly more accessible, both for patients and doctors alike. They need to be included in more clinics while therapy based solely on mental counseling should be phased out from the common addiction treatment centers. In order to close the racial and economic disparities within this crisis, it is important to first recognize them. Once that has been done, our communities need to take direct action that will result in a positive change.

Cataclysm: COVID-19 in Brazil

As the number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to grow in the United States (U.S.), another epicenter has been growing in South America. As the sixth most populous country in the world, Brazil has experienced an uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths alongside an array of national controversies that make the response efforts considerably more difficult. This blog addresses Brazil’s growing importance in the COVID-19 discussion and how it impacts human rights issues concerning indigenous peoples, environmental degradation, favela communities, and good governance.

As of late-June, more than 1.3 million Brazilians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 55,000 have died from the virus. Brazil’s most populated state, São Paulo, is currently the country’s epicenter with nearly 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The northeastern state of Ceará has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (100,000+), while Pará in the northwest is nearing 100,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the iconic city of Rio de Janeiro has over 105,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Amazonas has to the highest COVID-19 death rate of any state with 67 deaths per 100,000 cases, compared to Bahia’s 11 deaths per 100,000 cases, which highlights the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities that have been systematically killed, displaced, and denied access to health care and other preventative services that could help fight the spread of the virus.

Indigenous Peoples of Brazil

As the largest Brazilian state in the Amazon region, Amazonas is known for its indigenous communities who often live in isolated villages and have poor access to health care. In the city of Manaus, which has a population of 2 million+ and is only accessible by aircraft or boat, many recent respiratory-related deaths have resulted in quick burial in mass graves, which has likely led to a severe underestimate the pandemic’s toll on the local population. In the remote community of Betania, the Tikuna tribe has five government medical workers that accommodate an approximate 4,000 inhabitants, but they are not treating the sick due to lack of protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies. One considerable threat are the indigenous community members who are not quarantining and are, instead, traveling in and out of town for work.

These unprecedented events compound the colonial legacy that has threatened Brazil’s indigenous peoples for centuries. Centuries ago, indigenous tribes throughout the Amazon were decimated by diseases brought by Europeans. In a way, history is repeating itself because the Brazilian government’s ineffectual response to the crisis have allowed COVID-19 to ravage the surviving indigenous communities and put them on the brink of genocide. Aside from the tribes who have contact with the modern world, the Brazilian Amazon inhabits 103 uncontacted tribes who have virtually no knowledge or resources to protect them from the threat of COVID-19. Signing this petition will help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Since COVID-19 has reached these Amazonian communities, deforestation in the region has also proliferated. The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and is important to the global ecosystem because it absorbs approximately 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Thus, protecting the Amazon is pivotal for stalling the effects of climate change. However, for years, the Amazon has been ravaged to accommodate the agricultural industry as well as illegal loggers and drug traffickers. As a result, indigenous leaders fear that the COVID-19 pandemic will be used to exacerbate the destruction these industries have already caused.

During the month of April, deforestation in Brazil increased by nearly 64% which resulted in more than 150 square miles of rainforest destruction. In response, 3,000+ Brazilian soldiers were deployed to the region to prevent illegal logging and other criminal activities that contribute to deforestation. Some worry that such activity in the rainforest will lead to outsiders giving indigenous communities infectious diseases, namely COVID-19. Brazil’s Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI) has made efforts to distribute N95 masks, gloves, and goggles to the region, but activists warn that the only way to protect uncontacted tribes is by keeping illegal loggers and miners out of these areas. Despite the Brazilian government establishing three military bases to prevent illegal actors from permeating the region, they are only expected to be present for 30 days. This is because Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, is expected to take over these efforts but are currently understaffed and underbudgeted.

Favelas in the Age of Social Distancing

More than 11 million Brazilians live in favelas which are shantytowns outside of urban centers. Already hit hard by gun violence, unsanitary conditions, and militaristic police presence, people living in Brazil’s favelas struggle to adhere to social distancing measures. Research has found that people living favela-like conditions spend roughly 50% more time per day with others than people in less-impoverished areas. Often, favelas are composed of two or three rooms with five or six people sharing these spaces. As such, favela conditions enable the spread of COVID-19, and with precious little assistance from the government, Brazil’s most impoverished communities are left to fend for themselves.

With little government help, residents of Paraisopolis in Sao Paulo (population: 100,000) have offered a community-based solution. Due to donations and volunteer work, residents have responded to COVID-19 by organizing distribution of free meals, ambulatory services, and neighborhood watch persons. They even designated one building the quarantine house and repurposed closed schools in self-isolation centers. In Rio, members of the gang City of God drive through the local favelas, blaring a recorded message ordering people to stay home. Other gangs have become knowledgeable about COVID-19 in order to deliver essential goods to favela residents and have even gone as far to enforce social distancing measures by preventing restaurants from putting tables out. These forms of gang vigilantism in Brazil’s favelas demonstrate the lack of government support and tension with local police.

Small grave onlooking a favela.
At the bottom of this block destined to the burials of COVID-19, is the favela of the Vila Nova Cachoeirinha housing complex. Source: Léu Britto, Creative Commons.

Trump of the Tropics

These criticisms are largely attributed to the leadership of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who notoriously dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu”. Aside from personally ignoring social distancing measures, Bolsonaro has organized large rallies in an effort to confront local governors who have locked down their regions. Recently, after ignoring federal regulation that require wearing a face mask in all public places, a judge ruled that Bolsonaro (and any public official) is not exempt from this policy and should expect a 2,000-reais ($387) fine like anyone else. Bolsonaro even fired his Health Minister, Luiz Mandetta, in April after he supported social distancing measures. His successor has since promoted a reopening of the economy and unproven medical treatments for COVID-19.

Known by many as the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro has successfully maintained a strong coalition of supporters such as the agriculture community, evangelical Christians, and the military. Unlike the U.S., Brazil is an emerging economy with a weak social safety net that makes it difficult for government officials to convince people to stay at home. Health care access and the conditions to work from home are also quite limited. Recent cell phone tracking data has revealed that 45-60% of Brazilians are not complying with social distancing measures, likely due to the fact that they have to choose between feeding their families and being exposed to the virus. As such, it is assumed Bolsonaro’s defiance of a public health approach to COVID-19 is an effort to appeal to his core supporters. Bolsonaro has also slashed regulations and enforcement of land grabbing, which exacerbates the deforestation crisis currently impacting the Amazon.

Human Rights in Brazil

As demonstrated, Brazil has an array of chronic human rights problems that have been compounded by the arrival of COVID-19. In 2016, a constitutional amendment was passed that limited public expenditures in Brazil for the next 20 years. As a result, we are now witnessing how these austerity measures have affected access to housing, food, water, and sanitation when Brazilians need it the most, particularly within the most vulnerable groups – women, children, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, rural communities, and informally-settled persons.

Much like the U.S., Brazil’s COVID-19 response has mostly been subnational social distancing measures and an emergency basic income to placate the masses. However, these efforts are clearly inadequate considering Brazil’s COVID-19 cases are surging alongside another potential Zika outbreak. As a result, Brazil has effectively become the most prominent COVID-19 case study in the Global South, a nation plagued by a deadly virus and an array of human rights issues. Human rights experts suggest fiscal stimulus and social protection packages would only be the beginning of a COVID-19 response because many of these concerns are the consequence of marketization and privatization of public goods and services. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity to reverse the market-based ideology that has failed so many countries, especially the Land of the Palms.

Please sign the petition to help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

A Human Rights Perspective on the Opioid Crisis in America

Pills
Pills. Source: Jamie. Creative Commons.

The opioid crisis in the United States is not something I often hear about in the news nowadays. Or maybe it is so often in the news that the title fades into the background amongst the news about politics. However, the opioid epidemic affects millions of people across the United States, and it has affected them for years. Human rights concerns connected to the epidemic have begun to grow in recent years as controversies regarding the United States health care system and law enforcement systems have come to light.

The crisis began with the expansion of opioids for medical purposes in the 1990s. The initial goal with opioids was to treat pain but the drugs soon became exploited by pharmaceutical companies eager to increase their profit revenue [1]. Before the addictive and harmful properties of opioids became known both to the public and to healthcare professionals, prescriptions for opioid medications increased rapidly across the country.

The introduction of extended-release oxycodone in 1996 along with claims by the manufacturers that it was less addictive and effective for up to 12 hours was a major catalyst for the epidemic. There are three described waves of opioid overdose deaths in the United States. The first wave began with an increase in the prescription of opioids, increasing since at least 1999. The second wave included overdose deaths involving heroin, the increase beginning in 2010. The third wave included an increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) in 2013.

Hospital
Hospital. Source: Marissa Anderson. Creative Commons.

The first reaction to the opioid crisis was to limit the number of prescriptions in the market. However, this drove many to use the less expensive and more accessible street heroin. Cheaper and stronger opioids kept reappearing on the market, leading to an accelerated rate of fatal overdoses. Most addictions start with diverted supplies instead of among doctors’ patients. This was the case with heroin, which causes 4% of those who were using prescription opioids to switch to heroin. While 4% seems like a small percentage, 4% of the large number of people taking opioid pills is actually very large and enough to exacerbate the crisis [2]. In 2017, the United States Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency. Over 130 people die every day from opioid-related overdoses and 10.3 million people in the United States misused prescription opioids in 2018. In 2017, more than 70,200 people died from drug overdoses. Of those 70,200, around 68% involved opioids.

White Americans make up roughly 80 percent of opioid overdose victims. The attention of the coverage of the opioid crisis has primarily centered on white Americans, pushing aside the attention on minorities affected by the crisis. Minorities made up 20 percent of opioid related deaths in July of 2019, but that number is growing. The crisis has highlighted the racial disparities in the US healthcare system as many experts believe that the number of opioid related deaths in minority populations would be greater if minorities had access to the same level of health care as white Americans. It is known that people of color have had a significant lack of access to the American healthcare system throughout history and throughout the recent years. This disparity lowers the probability that non-whites in American would be prescribed opioids and thus lowers the chance that the population would suffer fatal overdoses. Despite the low death rates due to the exclusions within the health care system, the abuse of opioids is still abundant in communities of color. Scientists have witnessed a doubling of overdose death rates among African Americans, a factor that is being overshadowed by the media and societal focus on the death rates of whites.

Police
Police Officer. Source: G20 Voice. Creative Commons.

The law enforcement system has failed minorities in the opioid crisis as well. The War on Drugs, an attempt at cracking down on the opioid epidemic, has disproportionately affected African American communities across the United States. Studies have shown that law enforcement officials target black communities for drug violations significantly more than they target white communities. While drug use is similar between white communities and black communities, members of the black community are 13 times more likely to be arrested for buying and using drugs. In 2013, black and Hispanic populations represented 29 percent of the entire United States population. Despite this, the number of black and Hispanic prisoners arrested for drug related charges dominated that of whites. Not only is this true, but the United States Sentencing Commission also released a report stating that black prisoners receive longer sentences than white prisoners, despite both groups being convicted of similar weighted crimes.

The opioid crisis has hurt millions of people and families across the United States, one of the most diverse countries in the world. Despite this, the national attention has primarily focused on how the crisis has affected the white population. It is important to focus not only on how the opioid crisis has affected minorities, but also how the health care and law enforcement systems have responded to the opioid crisis in minority groups. The disparities within these systems must be fixed in order to provide an equal treatment of all groups.

[1] The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.

[2] The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.

Oil: The World’s Black Gold?

Known as black gold, petroleum has long been, a valuable resource that many of us benefit from during our daily lives. The petroleum industry’s products range from transportation to even the feedstocks that make the “plastics and synthetic materials that are in nearly everything we use.” Shockingly, the United States has consumed almost 7.5 billion barrels of oil per year, with about 46% of it used as motor gasoline. However, “there is an alarming record of human rights abuses by governments and corporations associated with fossil fuel operations,” ranging from relocation to even suppression of critics.

What is Petroleum?

An image of a pipe pouring some type of green substance, oil in particular, into a barrel.
Recirculated petroleum is pumped from the well by a replica steam engine. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Known officially as crude oil, petroleum is a fossil fuel that can be found underneath the Earth’s surface in areas known as reservoirs. Petroleum is mainly used for gasoline that fuels most cars in the world. Petroleum is also used as diesel, jet fuel, heating oil, propane, and others.

However, petroleum is not just a fuel source. Many factories and production sites use petroleum in order to make “crayons, dishwashing liquids, deodorant, eyeglasses, tires, and ammonia.”

Beginnings of the Petroleum Industry

An image of an oil well, colored black, in the process of digging for oil. Located in Lufkin, Texas.
Pumpjack, Spindletop oil field. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Through the growing and prosperous iron and steel industry, the 20th century became a period of “great change and rapid industrialization.” However, the birth of the railroad and new construction materials gave way to the petroleum industry offering an alternative source of fuel needed in everyday life.

In Texas, the discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for the creation of hundreds of oil companies, especially Texaco and Golf, and for the massive decrease in oil prices, from “$2 a barrel to 3 cents.” In 1901, the Hamill brothers, contracted to drill into the ground using a steam engine, came into contact with 160-million-year-old crude oil, shooting up in a geyser meters high. They had anticipated 50 barrels of oil being produced in a day, but more than 80,000 barrels were being produced each day, enriching the backers of the oil rig exponentially.

When talking about the history of oil, one must never forget one of the key figures in the industry, John D. Rockefeller. Through his experience in entrepreneurship and organization, he became a leading figure in the oil industry by creating the Standard Oil company, one of the “world’s greatest corporations.” Through a monopoly, his company integrated itself both horizontally and vertically by eliminating competition and making products cheaper and production more efficient.

The discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for competition against Standard Oil, through the rise of the Texas Company and the American Gasoline Company (Shell Company of California during the mid-1910s). However, because of Standard Oil’s attempts to “monopolize and restrain trade,” the Supreme Court decided to split up the company into 34 smaller companies.

Oil in the World

Reserves can be found all over the world, but there are countries that produce more oil simply due to the vast reserves found underneath the Earth’s surface. In the United States, the five largest oil producing states are Texas, Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. In the world, the top oil producing countries are Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, Iran, and China. The need for oil in the United States surpasses the amount it can produce, generating the need to import oil from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria.

Looking closely at the top producers of oil in the world, you may notice that two countries in the top five are countries in the Middle East, each with their own host of problems regarding human rights. They range from Saudi Arabia’s supposed killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the killing of more than 6,500 Yemeni civilians as a result of numerous airstrikes against the Houthi rebels to Iran’s crackdown on peaceful protestors and the presence of Iran’s death penalty for most extreme offenses. Allegations of human rights abuses also extend to China as well, where Xi Jingping has removed term limits for the president and enabled the mistreatment of Muslims living in northwestern China. Many consider these human rights issues are due to something called the “Resource Curse,” where the abundance of natural resources in developing countries, like oil, usually lead to “economic instability, social conflict, and lasting environmental damage.”

Oil and Human Rights in the United States

If you read the news as much as I had a couple of years back, then you might recall a certain conflict occurring in North Dakota regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline, built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, is designed to transport more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil everyday from North Dakota to Illinois. Proposed by Energy Transfer Partners in 2014 and completed in 2017, many interest groups protested the pipeline, ranging from environmental activists to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

An image of protesters holding up a banner with the words "STOP DAKOTA ACCESS PIPELINE" across it.
Dakota Access Pipeline protesters against Donald Trump

The pipeline currently travels under the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as well as a source of biodiversity in the environment. Part of the reason for the protests include the damage to the water supply that said pipeline could inflict if leaking occurs which is justifiable due to the more than 3,300 occurrences of leaks since 2010 at many pipelines in the United States.

An image of the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline, with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe tribal location highlighted as well, showing where the pipeline would threaten those tribal areas.
Le Dakota Access Pipeline avec la réserve indienne de Standing Rock en orange. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Reactions towards the protestors have also been extreme, as Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur, has reported. The North Dakota National Guard, law enforcement officials, and private security organizations have used extreme force, shown through the use of “rubber bullets, tear gas, mace, compression grenades, and bean-bag rounds.” These reactions have been in violation of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment. Although some protests have become violent, Kiai suggests that “the response should remain strictly proportionate and should not impact those who protest peacefully.”

“The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is an individual right and it cannot be taken away indiscriminately or en masse due to the violent actions of a few.” — Maina Kiai

By also having part of their cultural homeland destroyed during the construction process, the company contracted for this project is violating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, where Article 8 of the Declaration clearly states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” However, it is clear to note that U.S. support does not consider the Declaration as a “legally binding or a statement of current international law,” but instead a political or moral force.

Economic trends and forces have commanded the way in which our country has treated those who have been disenfranchised and harmed culturally. The creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline is merely an example of the effect that these economic interests can have on native populations, the environment, and the treatment of those peacefully protesting. Although the pipeline’s main intent is to provide a source of energy for the United States, the threat to harm a cultural tribal site can lead to the destruction of homes for many residents.