Afghanistan: Looking Back to See the Future

Written by Courtney Andrews and Faiza Mawani

Photo of armored car driving through mountains of Afghanistan
Mountains of Afghanistan. Source: Creative Commons

Twenty years after the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war on terrorism, the United States military has ended its operations in Afghanistan. The country, ravaged by war and too fragile to stand on its own, was immediately overtaken by the very forces the U.S. sought to defeat. After two decades, three administrations, and 170,000 American lives lost, the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan in much the same shape as it was found.

What is to become of Afghanistan and what toll will the inevitable economic and humanitarian crisis take on its people, many of whom do not know where their next meal will come from? What will happen to a generation of women and girls whose education and employment are now at stake and whose rights are tenuous under the new/old regime? What will happen to the millions of children under five that are expected to become acutely malnourished in the next year? What will happen to those that managed to escape – will they find safe refuge in neighboring countries, or will they suffer the plight of many refugees and displaced peoples around the world? All remains to be seen, but at this point, the outlook is dire. Here we provide a brief history of Afghanistan over the past century and consider what lies ahead for the struggling nation.

Afghanistan: A Retrospective

Afghanistan is located centrally in southeast Asia and shares a border with Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. It is home to at least 14 distinct ethnolinguistic groups, and the mountainous terrain has kept these clans separate and made it difficult for a central government to take hold. The strategic location of the country, however, has made it very enticing to those seeking to procure a hold on southeast Asia. After a period of relative stability after its independence from colonial rule in 1921, the country has been plagued by invasion and power struggles since the 1970s.

In 1953, the pro-Soviet General Mohammad Daoud Khan became prime minister of Afghanistan, and in 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to help Khan establish economic and military ties. At this time, women were granted a more public presence and were allowed to attend university and join the workforce. In 1973, Khan abolished the monarchy and replaced it with The Republic of Afghanistan, naming himself president and keeping close ties with the USSR. While creating his new government, Khan proposed a new constitution in which women were granted more rights, and the country set out on a path to modernization. This did not sit well with local clan members who believed in a strict interpretation of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Tensions rose under the surface until they eventually boiled over.

In 1978, an armed revolt broke out in the countryside, led by conservative Islamist and ethnic leaders who were protesting social changes Khan was trying to implement. This group became known as the mujahideen, or “holy warriors.” Backed by the United States, the mujahideen killed Khan, and a full-scale war broke out from 1979 to 1989: communists versus mujahideen. This being the height of the Cold War, the US continued to provide weapons and tactics to the rebels in order to defeat the Soviets.

Around 1988, Saudi Islamist Osama bin Laden founded the group al-Qaida (“the base”). Though the US had backed the mujahideen in defeating the Soviets, bin Laden argued that the US stood as the primary obstacle to the establishment of a truly Islamist state. By 1995, a newly formed Islamist militia, the Taliban, rose to power, promising peace to the war-torn people of Afghanistan. Calling themselves “students of Islamic knowledge,” the Taliban imposed strict sharia law, stripping women and girls of their basic human rights and instituting public floggings and amputations of those who broke the law.

Photo of soldier crouched down pointing gun
Afghanistan. Source: Yahoo Images

The War

September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda operatives hijack four commercial airliners and crash them into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Close to 3,000 people die in the attacks, thousands more are injured, first responders are exposed to toxic fumes that will later be listed as the cause of cancer, and a nation that has never before been attacked on its own soil mourns an incomprehensible loss.

Most of the 9.11 hijackers originated from Saudi Arabia, none from Afghanistan, though the mastermind behind the attack, Osama bin Laden, was operating out of the country. The ruling authority in Afghanistan, the Taliban, was accused of harboring terrorists. In the coming weeks, George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” provided the U.S. blanket authority to invade any country accused of sympathizing with or aiding Muslim extremists. On October 7, 2001, the U.S. military began a bombing campaign against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Ground combat troops arrive two weeks later. Thus began what would become the longest war in U.S. history.

Both the Obama and the Trump administrations tried to leave Afghanistan, but the situation remained too precarious to do so safely. President Biden, convinced that there was never going to be a safe time to leave, was determined to put an end to the loss of American lives, especially in a situation of no measurable progress. “It’s time to end America’s longest war,” he declared. The remaining 3,500 troops in Afghanistan have been withdrawn despite the failure of intra-Afghan peace talks and the increase in Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces and citizens. The Taliban wasted no time storming the capital of Kabul, forcing president Ghani into exile, and reasserting its authority.

Biden says Washington will continue to assist Afghan security forces and support the peace process, but what does that mean? As the U.S. officially ends its military operations in Afghanistan with precious little to show for it, much is at stake for those who remain in the country, most notably women and children.

A Human Rights and Humanitarian Crisis

One of the central tenets of the Taliban’s ideology has been the opposition to girls’ and women’s education. It is predicted that around 1 million children will miss out on education due to increased attacks on schools and villages dramatically increasing in the past month since the Taliban has resumed control over Afghanistan. Rather than educate them, the Taliban have a history of enslaving women, increasing the risk of domestic violence, abuse, and exploitation, including forced child marriage. Many humanitarian agencies are concerned about an increase in violence against women during this time of crisis. In an apparent attempt to rebrand themselves as more moderate, the Taliban have made some statements alluding to protections for women, though some see this as an empty promise. The days of denying women the right to education and subjecting them to public floggings and mass executions seem part of a not-so-distant past.

The ensuing humanitarian crises is expected to affect nearly half of children in the country. Food stocks will soon run out, and a third of the country will not have access to basic goods and services. Afghanistan does not have sufficient funding in its international humanitarian response plan; as of August 2021, it is only 38 percent funded. This translates to approximately 1.2 million children losing protective services, leaving them vulnerable to violence, sexual exploitation, and forced early marriages, and about 1.4 million women left without a place of comprehensive support.

Displacement and a Refugee Crisis

Although President Biden did agree to allow Afghani people who worked with the US coalition to come to America with US troops, there were several tens of thousands that could not board the planes. Images of the Kabul airport being jam-packed with families awaiting airlift, along with videos of people handing their babies to American soldiersand absolute strangers for the sake of safety and refuge did circulate our social media pages the past few weeks. The outpouring of compassion did overwhelm the global community, but now that airlifts have ceased, about 39 million Afghans remain trapped in the humanitarian crisis that is yet to emerge in the country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 3.5 million people have already been displaced due to violence in Afghanistan. These people are fearful of returning to their homes, but they also lack the finances to survive.

Consequently, the people of Afghanistan will seek refuge in neighboring countries, where many of their fellow citizens already live. For four decades, Pakistan and Iran have hosted millions of Afghan refugees. But these countries are also not capable of doing this for too long due to their own lack of international humanitarian aid. The UNHCR has called on countries to leave their borders open and permit refugee status to the people of Afghanistan in order to evade any more human rights violations and to prevent a greater humanitarian crisis from emerging.

 What Next?

In an article about the challenges that the Taliban now faces, Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times writes: “Will the Taliban engage the world with a more inclusive approach? Or will they return to the ways of the past?” So far, the Taliban have been cracking down on protests, rounding up known opponents, and violently suppressing the news media. Unfortunately, from a human rights perspective, it appears that the worst is yet to come.

 

The Impact of Machismo on Women

by April Alvarez

The country of Nicaragua is rich in agriculture yet still suffers when it comes to the meeting the basic needs of the Nicaraguan people. However, women are the most severely affected by this as they are the primary bread winners of their homes, yet they do not have access to the same job opportunities that men do, and they are also fighting for their healthcare rights. The structure and dynamic of families vary from culture to culture–in Latin cultures, for instance, men have been taught to be the head of the household, provide, protect, and lay a solid foundation for the family, and the role of women usually consists of tending to the responsibilities of the home and caring for the children. Most of these roles are shaped by the behavior and values of the family as well as by society, which persuades or enforces the presence of certain behaviors and norms. Men are portrayed as dominate figures while the women are docile. Men take pride in their dominate role to an extent that may not be frequently seen in other cultures. This heavy presence of men dominating women is known as the machismo culture, and it has inevitably affected the way that women are portrayed in society and has negatively impacted their access to healthcare.

Photo of Nicaraguan mother and daughters fishing with net in river
Source: The author

Machismo is learned through social interactions and is instilled in boys from the moment of birth through adulthood. “Boys quickly learn that they are not supposed to cry, that they have far greater freedom than their sisters and that adaptation, submissiveness and responsibility for children and domestic work are for girls” (Berglund, Liljestrand, Marín, Salgado, & Zelaya, 2000). Boys are taught that crying is a sign of weakness and that deprives them of the ability to express all their emotions and by developing a nature of pride and coldness, they are forced to swallow emotional burdens rather than voice them. Consequently, this process affects how they treat and view the women in their lives. Women, therefore, never escape the cycle of being viewed as docile creatures who’s only value comes from how well they can perform household chores and care for children.

Because the unemployment and poverty rate are so high in Nicaragua, women are often taught that they need to depend on a man for economic support. However, the high pregnancy rate is also a consequence from the lack of sexual education in schools and in homes by parents. The country is heavily influenced by Christianity, which emphasizes the importance of purity before marriage; however, many homes fail to educate or emphasize the role that men play in this as well. The nature of machismo emphasizes or rewards men who are womanizers, which inevitably leads to amounted responsibility if they get a woman pregnant. It is common for men to have a wife and children but also have a few girlfriends that they see from time to time to “destress” from their home or work life. While the man can go out and have fun with other women and have unlimited liberties, if a woman is even suspected as being unfaithful her husband may beat her. While an outsider may easily suggest that the women in the relationship should leave if they find themselves under these circumstances, it is not that easy, especially when the man is considered the family’s stability and support. However, other family members have a heavy influence on why a woman stays with her husband. Adriana, a young lady in her twenties who participated in a study about adolescent pregnancies in Nicaragua said that “they teach us that you have to endure, to suffer, because that is our obligation. Maybe it’s because their mothers treated them like that…. Consequently, they teach us to be only mothers and housewives” (Berglund, Liljestrand, Marín, Salgado, & Zelaya, 2000). This tradition is so deeply rooted in the culture that it has ingrained the idea that a women’s value is lost if they leave their husbands. Their first husband shall be their last and if they leave, no one else will love them. Women often question every decision they make for this same reason and if they are abused by their husbands then they have been psychologically conditioned to think they are the ones to blame.

Photo of Nicaraguan women and child holding up woven baskets
Source: The author

One of the characteristics of machismo is respect and to challenge a decision made by one’s husband, who is seen as a superior, is like challenging their masculinity and it is a symbol of disrespect too. Men submerged in the machismo culture are also evaluated as a man based on their ability to have children therefore, more is better. Men have been able to justify this view is by finding ways to manipulate women so that they maintain their power. A study conducted in the cities of Managua and Leon evaluated how men viewed reproductive health and their responses to participating in gender training programs. One of the men stated that “He aims to help other young people avoid the negative consequences of unsafe sexual behavior, such as unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV” (Torres, Goicolea, Edin & Öhman, 2012). This is an important finding as it successfully communicated how the behaviors of men were affecting not only the women but also their own health. The men take immense pride in having intercourse with women without using protection because it was another way of asserting their dominance. However, many were not aware of how those habits were exposing them to health dangers.

Despite the raise in awareness, men in Nicaragua still fail to break the cycle of violence and take any real initiative. In fact, in many areas the problem has worsened which affects women and children living in the home as they become exposed to situations that they begin to perceive as normal. “The fact that children are so often witnesses to violence against their mothers is of particular concern, not only because it exposes them to the risk of abuse themselves but also, in the case of boys, to the risk of becoming battering husbands as adults” (Ellsberg, Peña, Herrera, Liljestrand & Winkvist, 2000). The violence that women and even children are exposed to has more than physical consequences, it can also lead to a higher risk of illness further along in their lives. There is only so much stress that the body can take without releasing it, therefore, the body can become ill from all the intensity and constant fight for survival. The main reason men may have not been compelled to change their behavior is due to their social circles, especially other men. Most men have the “fear of rejection and discrimination” because of the “peer and family pressure to conform to traditional norms and values” (Torres, Goicolea, Edin & Öhman, 2012). Without the support of the people closest to them, they are less likely to step out of their comfort zone. They would also have to battle with being perceived as crazy because advocating for women’s rights is wrong or does not matter. No one likes to be rejected, especially if your masculinity is in question. A male who begins to speak out against domestic violence and the cultural norms would be deemed unworthy of respect because they have become soft and weak.

Women’s centers known as Casas de Mujer in Nicaragua have been successful in holding men to a high behavioral standard by equipping women with the knowledge of their rights by laws of the countries. Overall, the houses have provided a safe space for women where they can feel reassured, unashamed, or guilty, and be educated on their legal options, as well as on their value as a human being. The houses also help women unravel how machismo has affected their lives, make self-defense available, and teach women how they can play a role in breaking machismo norms with their sons. However, while there are great NGOs that have parted the way for women, the few that are present may struggle to remain open due to funding and support. Women around the country still battle with violence in their homes, especially in rural areas. The country must provide women with equality in the work force so that they do not have to be dependent on males, and so that they have access to healthcare. The women should also be allowed to follow their dreams, aspirations, and seek a life worthy of respect and dignity without being forced to confide to a life that is hidden in the dark. There is still an abundance of work to be done.

 

 

A Glimpse at the Battles Women Face in Nicaragua

by April Alvarez

Photo of two little girls holding beans and smiling
Source: The author

A Human Rights Internship

This 2021 Spring Semester, UAB’s Institute for Human Rights had the privilege of partnering with Clínica Verde in Nicaragua to dive into the human rights issues that women in the country face, especially regarding health care. The internship, directed by Dr. Tine Reuter and Dr. Stacy Moak, has opened doors to important conversations about the importance of voicing and advocating for people who need support. Although the semester just started, those involved with the internship have already been exposed to several educated and experienced scholars that are making a mark on the country and are looking to equip and inspire others to do the same. In just one month, students have learned about the life of women and children have struggled to find economic stability, and access to basic resources. The purpose of this partnership with Clínica Verde is dive deeper into the ways that UAB (University of Alabama at Birmingham) students can serve others even during a global pandemic. Through the development of the course students will develop programs and educational presentations that aim to advocate the same values and goal displayed by the staff at Clínica Verde to reach out to more people in the clinic’s surrounding community but also to those in more rural areas.

Feed My Starving Children (FMSC)

Yolanda Paredes-Gaitan was the first speaker invited to speak to the students. She lived in Nicaragua for twelve years but is now currently living in California and working for the U.S. government. While in Nicaragua, she worked alongside Clínica Verde helping find ways to advocate for human rights issues, now she does that in partnership with the U.S. Valuable information shared through her presentation revealed that 65% of people in Nicaragua live in rural areas that are usually only accessed by walking or horses. Although the country of Nicaragua is rich in resources such as coffee, chocolate, and honey, however the country has been deemed the second poorest country, after Haiti. So why does this matter? It matters because it affects everything, including the quality of life in the country. Every community in the country has what is known as a health post. Each health post is usually the primary place for individuals to go to for basic health care needs, especially since few people have access to a nearby hospital. However, the problem is that most of the posts are rundown and in need of repairs. With the help of Clinica Verde, one post which had a structure that was falling apart, had holes in the roof, had no running water was transformed into a new and improved post that is now a green building that has natural ventilation, lighting and has access to water and the resources needed to provide the community with quality services. The goal of Clínica Verde is not to keep all the knowledge to themselves but instead to spread it with those in the country. Another thing that the clinic has been able to do is to provide posts with the knowledge necessary to run an intensity garden. The reason the clinic does this is because they are not looking to provide the women and children with short term solutions to their problems. They want to equip people with the knowledge to improve their lives long term, so they are more educated on how to live a more healthy and sustainable life.

Who visits the clinic?

People from all around the country visit the country. One lady traveled by bus and walked two hours up a hill just to get back home, but she did it because she loved the care provided by Clínica Verde. However, unlike the traditional view that when patients need care, they must go to the clinic, Clínica Verde travels to rural communities three times a week. Their mission goes beyond what the four walls of their building. They make it a priority to reach those who would otherwise not have time to visit the clinic. Another important thing to note is that the clinic also Nicaragua had no education in optometry until one donor came to the country and changed that. Now the team at Clínica Verde also has a program that helps provide people in the community with free glasses which is centered around the students but also anyone in the student’s lives that may also need glasses. This optometry program has also allowed senior citizens to have surgeries that have saved them from going blind.

The Illicit Pharmaceutical Industry and its Impact on Public Health

by Sadie-Anne Jones, guest blogger

Image of a packet of pills
Source: Creative Commons

The illicit pharmaceutical industry is bigger than one might think. In an age where coverage for prescription drugs may be limited and an opioid crisis is rampant, more and more people are turning to this illicit market. Because not everyone that purchases pharmaceutical drugs is aware they are doing so, this industry has been difficult for law enforcement to track. Thus, it has grown internationally and there are few places that are not affected by it.

The illicit pharmaceutical drug industry is a far reaching one. One reason for this is because counterfeit drugs can be made relatively cheap. A recent 60 Minutes segment illustrates how easy it is for companies to produce counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs; small rooms with relatively primitive equipment are used to make multiple drugs including blood pressure medicine, Viagra, painkillers, and seizure medication. One-way people are able to get these drugs is through illicit dealers posing as legitimate online pharmacies. So, even if an individual is not intentionally seeking out alternatives to legally prescribed medication, they may be tricked into it none the less. Other dealers have been much less reserved in how they market their products. As with the “Silk Road” site that operated on the dark web from 2011 to 2013, which included 4,000 dealers and around 100,000 buyers, it made no attempt to hide their illegality. This site acted as a huge distributor of numerous illicit substances including prescription drugs. While the “Silk Road” has been shut down for years, there are still many other sites on the dark web facilitating illicit pharmaceuticals. Additionally, when costumers buy illicit drugs online from sites posing as legal businesses, or even from sites like the “Silk Road,” they are often shipped to buyers through the postal service. This makes drugs difficult to stop, especially when they are shipped in small amounts. All in all, this makes it easy to deal in counterfeit drugs and allows the industry to spread across the globe.

But what are the negative implications? Is it only the pharmaceutical industry’s profit margins that suffer from this illicit industry? The answer is, sadly, no. There have been numerous negative consequences for public health that have resulted from it. Especially in the wake of the opioid pandemic–which hit the country largely due to doctors over prescribing highly addictive opioid painkillers–this industry has caused a large amount of irrevocable damage. As one source states, it is hard to know for sure how much the illicit drug industry has impacted people’s health. That said, it is predicted to have contributed significantly to the 42,249 deaths that resulted from opioid related causes in 2016 alone. Additionally, counterfeit pharmaceuticals are entering hospitals and pharmacies around the country. Even if the drug itself was manufactured licitly, counterfeit materials can make their way into the ingredients, or the ingredients may be safe but the wrong dose is recommended, thus making it counterfeit. These counterfeit ingredients can be anything from chalk to flour. While chalk and flour are fairly harmless, when those ingredients are used in life-saving medications, the results can be catastrophic. In one instance, counterfeit materials found their way into the blood thinner, Heparin, which resulted in the deaths of 80 people. While most pharmaceutical drugs that people receive are not counterfeit, the illicit pharmaceutical industry is continuing to grow and deceive people.

Image of a medicine bottle with a caution label encouraging users to ensure what they are taking is correct
Source: Creative Commons

So, what can be done? As previously stated, most of these illicit pharmaceutical drugs are shipped through the mail and they have proven difficult to stop. Even so, there is still hope. There are new procedures being put in place including implementing new technology in international mail carrier facilities that allows those working there to scan packages and detect even minuscule amounts of opioids, and dark web sites are increasingly being monitored by government analysts. As of now, counterfeit drugs account for less than 1% of all pharmaceutical drugs sold in the United States. While counterfeit drugs are still a major problem in developing countries, it seems like likely that countries across the globe will eventually pick up similar measures to the U.S. and other countries that have reduced the problem significantly, so that this trade can be further snuffed out.

In essence, there are many outlets to the illicit pharmaceutical industry. These range from seemingly legal sites on the internet, the dark web, and even pharmacies and hospitals. These outlets have knowingly, and sometimes unknowingly, helped distribute sometimes dangerous counterfeit drugs to citizens across the globe. This has resulted in the deaths of many people and also helped perpetuate the opioid epidemic. Thankfully, the U.S. has amped up regulation in recent years leading to very little illicit pharmaceuticals ending up in the homes of people across the nation. In the future, it seems hopeful that the regulations that have been implemented in countries like the U.S. will soon be commonly used in other countries as well in order to stop this industry for good.

The Syrian Refugee Crisis Rages On

by Mariana Orozco, UAB student

In March 2016, The European Union and Turkey made an agreement stating Turkey would keep all asylum seekers who arrived on the Greece border in return for billions of dollars. This deal has put many asylum seekers at risk due to the dangerous environment in Turkey. However, this continues to be accepted and there are no signs of change in the future due to Greece’s incomplete assessment of Turkey as a safe third country. In February 2020, Turkey retracted their statement, saying they would not stop refugees going into Europe. Turkey is the country with the most refugees – 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Since the Syrian government started bombarding their citizens with air strikes, no other European country has tried to host Syrian citizens. When Turkey finally opened its borders into other European countries, the asylum seekers were met by armed Greek border guards, tear gas, rubber bullets, and razor wires. Turkey opened its borders to force the European nations to stop ignoring the crisis in Syria. If the international community does not step in more unarmed civilians will continue to face violence in Syria, and the situation in Turkey will worsen.

Photo of makeshift tent at refugee campsite in Turkey
“Syrian refugees’ camp in Cappadocia, Turkey” by Fabio Sola Penna; Source: Creative Commons

What is the status in Turkey?

Turkey has been home to over 3.7 million refugees, providing them with free public services, health care, and gainful employment; there are many obstacles Syrian refugees have to go through to get these. For example, Turkey adopted a work permit in 2016, but they must be requested by employers, who are often unwilling to cover the costs and face the administrative hurdles of hiring a refugee. As a result, most refugees work in low-paying jobs, such as jobs in small textile workshops and construction.

Furthermore, Turkey does not sign off on international refugee law. Therefore, they do not allow many refugees to obtain legal status. Many Turkish authorities also force the refugees to go back to Syria, leading them to want to flee to a safer place regardless of the conditions, such as Greece. 

Greece’s Response to Turkey Opening Borders

Greece has broken European Union and international law. The government is suspending the registration of any asylum claims and deporting anyone for any reason something that goes against Geneva’s Convention on Refugees. The core principle states that a “refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.”  Close to 40,0000 migrants are being held in camps with short food supply, poor sanitation, and tensions with locals. Although the United Nations Refugee Agency did urge Greece to address its overcrowding and precarious conditions, not much has improved. Once refugees arrive, they are not allowed to leave until their asylum requests are processed, leading to the 90,000 cases backlog.

Image of a refugee camp in turkey; dozens of makeshifts tents on a field
“Syrian refugees’ camp in Cappadocia, Turkey” by Fabio Sola Penna; Source: Creative Commons

What about the rest of the European Union?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned NATO allies and European allies that if they “do not share the burned with us, we will open the gates” . President of the European Commission described Greece as Europe’s shield in migrant crisis. They also proposed financial and material support to prevent people from entering Greece, because once they do they will continue to spread in Europe.

What should Happen next?

Europe should take a new approach to safeguarding the human rights of refugees and start sharing the responsibility for allowing them to live in dignity and peace. Many of the people leaving their countries do it out of desperation, and European governments need to ensure asylum seekers have fair procedures. Also, they must control border control and unlawful acts by authorities. Instead of hoping that the problem goes away by having migrants go to different places, the European Union needs to address the reasons why people are fleeing Syria.

The Gender Pay Gap in Alabama in the Context of COVID-19

by Lauren Lockhart, UAB student

Two dollars bills reading "Equal Work" and "Equal Pay!"
Equal Pay for Equal Work. Source: Mirk, Creative Commons.

I will never forget the time in my 12th-grade year that a boy told me the gender wage gap didn’t exist. Even after being presented with evidence and facts, he still swore that there is no pay gap based on gender, and if there were, it was obviously for a reason. Although this wasn’t the first time I had heard a statement like this regarding human rights and equality, I still cannot believe the pay inequality that exists based on gender, and how this gap continues to grow for individuals with compounding intersectional identities. 

The Pay Gap During COVID-19

According to the U.S. Census, between 2018 and 2019, no progress has been made on closing the overall gender pay gap, with the average full-time working woman earning only 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. During COVID-19, this pay gap has continued to grow as women face more hardships and barriers as they try to support themselves and their families. 

At the beginning of 2020, women’s labor force participation in the U.S. stood at 58%, but by October, it had dropped two percentage points because of COVID. Not only is this due to the fields that have been shut down were majority women, such as restaurants, tourism, and office space maintenance, but women have also had to shoulder the responsibility of childcare. Not only was this already a problem contributing to the pay gap before COVID, but it has since grown into a greater responsibility with the shutdown of daycare centers, schools, and after-school programs. This has led to many mothers having to reduce their hours or leave their jobs entirely to take care of their children. Among parents working at home during the crisis, fathers’ childcare has increased by 4.7 hours per day, while mothers’ hours of childcare has increased by 6.1 hours. 

This reduction of hours for childcare has also increased the worry among women in the long-term evaluation for promotions and raises. Not being considered for raises and promotions puts working women during COVID at an even greater disadvantage due to the pay cuts they experienced at the beginning of the pandemic. A recent survey of 984 professionals showed that while men and women have experienced pandemic pay cuts at nearly equal rates, men (52%) were more likely than women (44%) to say their pay has been restored. So, these women are not only facing long-term consequences for their reduction in hours, but they are also facing issues presently with pay cuts and restoration. 

Image of protest sign that reads: I'm so sick of running as fast as I can wondering if I'd get there quicker if I was a man.
Sabrina Groschke. Source: Selbstbestimmung, CreativeCommons.

On top of childcare and the fear of demotion, women who contract COVID face even greater obstacles. Experts and health professionals have started to call women that face COVID “long-haulers” because of the continued work and hardships that women face returning to the workforce after having the virus. After getting COVID, many women still wrestle with lingering symptoms, in addition to trying to balance home life and work. This creates numerous barriers for women amidst this strange time we are living in, with no long-term guarantees. 

Women’s Well-Being in Alabama

The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham recently released its annual report, Status of Women, and although Alabama already treks behind many states in terms of gender equality, conditions for women have worsened amidst COVID-19. One of the key findings included in this report is that the wage gap in Alabama is wider than most other states and the national average, with women earning 73 cents for every dollar a man makes, compared to 82 cents for U.S. women overall. For women in Alabama who have children, the annual cost for an infant (under 12 months old) is nearly 17% of the mother’s median annual earnings, totaling approximately $5,858. However, add in that women have accounted for 57.3% of the total unemployment claims in Alabama since the beginning of COVID, and it seems that all of these factors can make it virtually impossible for women to sufficiently support themselves and their family.

Photo of a protest with woman holding sign that reads "Equal Pay"
Equal Pay. Source: Penner, Yahoo Images.

Universal Fight for Gender Equality

Even though it may not be taking place in Alabama, six mayors around the world have joined forces with the organizers of City Hub and Network for Gender Equity (CHANGE) to fight the increased gender inequality during COVID-19. The network aims to continue to spread these projects among other city mayors in hopes of attracting more attention and progress. Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti is requiring that every city department must have a gender action plan and measure to show progress on tackling gender equality. These measures can range from closing the gender pay gap, appointing women to boards and top positions, and ensuring more girls use public spaces, like sports fields. While these may not be large steps towards gender equality, there is an effort, nonetheless.  

The Causes and Consequences of California’s Wildfires

by Mariana Orozco, guest blogger

If you went to California’s oldest state park right now, you would probably find many trucks logging trees and trees that have been chopped down. This is the result of one of the many wildfires that have happened in parts of Washington, Oregon and California this year. Although the wildfires were sometimes started by lightning or by humans on accident, climate change is deepening the effect of the fires. The fires are larger, more intense, and harder than usual to put out, causing many Californians to evacuate their homes.

The Role of Climate Change
It is important to point out that wildfires are not unusual to Californians. They usually occur annually during the summer and fall. Due to rising temperatures from climate change, more moisture evaporates from the ground, dries the soil, making the vegetation more flammable. Not only are the fires worse due to climate change, but the fires themselves worsen climate change by increasing CO2 emissions. Also, the forest pest infestations are also creating more tree deaths.

Graph showing that the additional acres burned with climate change has almost doubled since 1985
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

Due to climate change, weather patterns are shifting and the seasonal Fall rains are delayed. This year, it led to a very dry Summer and a windy Fall, making the fires more intense. The wind brings more oxygen to the fire, causing flames to spread over larger areas. With less precipitation in this arid climate and less snow due to rising temperatures, the soil and vegetation are becoming even more dry. There has also been an increase in extreme weather conditions, such as heat waves and lighting storms.

Social, environmental, and economic costs of the wildfires
People who had never been affected by the fires are now being forced to evacuate. To fight the wildfires, large financial assistance is required. Also, once communities are affected, more money is needed to rebuild them. Just to fight them, the federal government is spending an average of 2.4 billion dollars, which has more than doubled in the last 20 years. Not only are the number of wildfires increasing, but the effect on land is expanding as well. The number of acres burned is growing exponentially, with 100 more wildfires each year than the year before since 2015. With the continuous effect of wildfires, more wildlife is being destroyed, animals are being forced to relocate, and ecosystems are being damaged.

Graph showing the number of acres burned per year since 1985
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

Impact on Native Americans
Many Native American people in California have been forced from their lands due to the fires. With them, they take their knowledge of taking care of the overgrown forests. In Karim territory, one of the largest indigenous tribes in California, people are taught to keep the area around their houses burned off. Char Miller, director of environmental analysis at Pomona College, states that removing millennia of knowledge from the land has resulted in the current wildfires. One of the ways Native Americans would keep the land healthy was through lighting fires on purpose to keep extra dry fuel from building up. California state and federal agencies are starting to collaborate with each other to prevent wildfires.

What can you do?
Society needs to cut carbon emissions to stop rising temperatures. We need to agree on a shift towards renewable energy and cut our reliance on fossil fuels. In order for this to happen, you can start by voting and advocating for candidates who have strong climate change policies. In Washington, Oregon, and California, there have to be better building codes so that construction takes places away from fire prone areas. There needs to be a proactive approach by removing dead trees and planting new native species, in an effort to not harm the ecosystem. You can engage in more direct actions to reduce the effects of global warming. Things as simple as reducing your water waste, buying better light bulbs, eating less meat and throwing less food away, unplugging any electronics if they are not being used, and keeping your tires inflated can help stop global warming and reduce the effect of the wildfires in the future.

Offender Alumni Association: Protecting and Empowering Previously Incarcerated People

by Mariana Orozco, UAB student

During the Fall 2019 Semester at UAB, Dena Dickerson, the program Director at the Offender Alumni Association, and one of her mentees visited Beth Shelburne’s honors seminar. During their visit, they shared testimonials with students, talked about an organization that they are part of, and closed the session with the man singing to the students. This was a a very emotional class, leaving many students with tears. Furthermore, many of these students were also moved to advocate for those who are in prison or who have been released. Dena, being the program director, has contacted students who have volunteered with the Offender Alumni Association (OAA) and spread the word about it on campus. A couple of students sold Pura Vida bracelets to their peers and were able to raise $150. 

Photo of Dena Dickerson and students in class
Dena Dickerson speaks to students at UAB. Source: the author.

Background

OAA is an organization that helps those who have been previously incarcerated. Since its founding date, in 2014, they have impacted over 500 former offenders and their family members. They have been officially named a 501(c)3 nonprofit and launched several support forums in some of Alabama’s and Georgia’s major prisons. The main goals of this organization are to reduce recidivism rates, develop healthy relationships within communities, and provide opportunities for social, economic, and civic empowerment for people coming out of prison.  

The Effect of OAA for People

Similarly to the commonly known Alcoholics Anonymous program, OAA offers peer to peer support to help those who are seeking encouragement and support once they are released from prison. An organization like OAA is significant in providing help to people who have been in the same situation as those seeking it. OAA allows a place of honesty without any judgement. Not only are formerly incarcerated people benefiting from this, but OAA is also a place for their families to get resources and network with others who understand their situation. Many times, the focus of the people affected by the prison system is only on those who are incarcerated. However, there are many cases where the most affected is the family. OAA provides a space for these conversations and relationships to occur. 

The Effect of OAA in the Community 

Mass incarceration is everybody’s issue. Tax payers have to pay and communities have to suffer. As 2020 has brought attention to many people, there are many problems within the prison system. Alabama prisons are overpopulated, understaffed, and underfunded. The 2019 Department of Justice report described Alabama Prisons for Men as unconstitutional because of the guards’ abuse of the people in prison. OAA’s goal is to help reduce the number of people in prison through reducing recidivism rates. Through education and mentorship, they work towards reducing recidivism rates.  Although this does not necessarily mean the environment inside prisons will suddenly be good, it would create more living space and reduce the number of people being negatively affected by the system. OAA bridges the gap between “them” and “us” to help bring everyone together and treat people as human beings. 

An image of two young boys getting haircuts in a barber shop
OAA takes students from “Heroes in the Hood” to get haircuts. Source: the author

Future Programs

In efforts to further decrease the number of people in prison, OAA is opening a Youth Program. “Heroes in the Hood” took off in the middle of this pandemic. Currently, there are eight students, ages 14 to 18, who are mentored about work ethic and community pride. Dr. Stacy Moak, a Social Work professor at  UAB endorsed this program, saying that-“mentoring programs have shown promise in improving the opportunities for these youths to see new possibilities, complete high school, become job ready, and become productive members of society.” This Youth Program hopes to help good students who have been in jail because they do not have resources to help them be successful. 

How You Can Help 

In order for the new Youth Program to be successful, OAA is working on raising money. This money will be used to provide the students with computers and other school supplies. There are also plans on having engaging events with the student’s mentors to build trust with each other. They are selling OAA colors Pura Vida bracelets for $6. Any other donations can be done through their website. You can also help by educating those around you, sharing this article, or volunteering with this organization. 

Photo of Pura Vida bracelets
Green, white, and yellow PuraVida bracelets for the Offender Alumni Association. Source: OAA

Beyond the Glass Ceiling

by Grace Ndanu

Poster that reads "I earn L7k less than him for the same work"
Source: Creative Commons

Women graduate from college at higher percentages than men do today, yet women still earn less money and hold fewer executive positions. How can this be? I reviewed a Pew Research Canter Analysis, where the gender gap in pay has narrowed since 1980 but it has remained relatively stable over the past 15 years and it is still going on. In 2017 women earned 82% of what men earned. When considering why gaps in pay persist, several factors are at play, including corporate culture. While corporate culture and societal norms are both key factors that need to be checked again and again, it is equally important to assess how women unwittingly contribute to these stubborn workplace imbalances and what can be done about it. Therefore I went further and tried to think what might be the reason behind the situation, and thankfully I thought of six of them.

My big question is, are women setting themselves up to lose by getting my six thoughts wrongs? My number one thought was: Women don’t own the power to lead and shy away from conflict in the work place. This makes them too afraid to speak up, speak out or otherwise appear disagreeable especially when they outshine their superiors. They also turn down speaking and presentation opportunities, which is usually driven by fear. This makes me sad because I believe it is okay to make a mistake, to fail or to get it wrong. As we all know everyone have their own personalities, everyone deals with conflict in their own way. However while we do lean toward a particular preference, we all need to be well equipped to pull from and apply alternate styles. In this case again woman still suffer from the “need to please” disease and care more about being liked than leading . I suggest that so long you are respectful and tactful, women should and must lean into their power. Now stop giving too much deference to male co-workers. Women should understand they are there to make results and change and not friends because of the management don’t respect you, they will never promote or pay you more.

Women rarely ask for more and often don’t know to negotiate for themselves. We all understand that women are best in negotiating on behalf of someone else than they are at negotiating for themselves. Because of this they will find it hard to negotiate their pay, leaving them with low pay because they often don’t understand their worth and if they do they are never serious about what they know regarding their worth. I suggest that women should try to see what others are making, especially men in the company or in the field.

What disturbs me much is that women often. undervalue their talents and resist the hard skills. I have observed that women are often clueless as to the impact of their leadership and executive contributions and in addition they are not able to translate and connect said contributions and executive decisions to the benefit of the company in terms of all improvements in each sector of the company or the organization. I have a strong feeling that women can do well to start more about caring metrics and money. By learning about strategy, finance, budgets, and analytics and then how to translate data into actionable intelligence that other employees or team members and superiors can use to make informed decisions.

Image of woman speaking at conference with sign that reads "Equal Pay Day" in the background
Source: Creative Commons

According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, men work an average of 14 more hours per month than women. This means that women tend to need more flexibility in their schedules and spend fewer hours at work than men. They often times, and for various reasons need to have special accommodations, more flexible work schedule and use more sick time and vacation time than men. I support flexible work schedules for them because of all the responsibilities they have including family but for high performers. The workplaces goals are paramount, meaning that if any schedule is allowed and it starts to impede or hinder services, the flex schedules may need to cease. My advice is before accepting high level demanding positions there is a need to contemplate whether you can commit to and meet the ongoing demands of the job. Remember companies, organizations and even governments don’t hire to make accommodations for our private lives and when they do it’s a privilege.

Number five I will start by saying that we need to redefine what having it all means. Women need to learn how to pace it; understand that they can’t just everything at once. We need to prioritize and align our goals so as to have a healthy personal and professional life, meaning that we need to sacrifice some things to have other things.

The last thought is the women’s fear of risk taking which begins even before they enter the workplace. Again through observation I have made a conclusion that women tend to demonstrate a greater fear of failure than men and need to move beyond this in order to seize opportunities and advance careers. And not just fear at the work place but also at the household level. Smart female leaders can do just about anything we decide to do and we should be clear on our choices and consequences for those choices. Every time I think about this glass ceiling issue and why it has not resolved itself, I can’t help but think my own personal life. The issue starts at home. At one point I was in a family full of domestic violence, and I know all too well the challenges and struggles that came with that. When the woman tried and went out for to get some cash, the partner took it all from her until finally she saw no need to go work and she is not enjoying the work of her hands. She really saw the opportunities but she wasn’t able to participate.

Image of Kamala Harris speaking in front of an American flag
Source: Creative Commons

It is true that women are doing a whole bunch of things right and that is why the needle has moved at all over the decades. The glass ceiling has many cracks and a hole in it. When the US election was going on, I was all over the social media trying to find out what was going on. Being a young Kenyan Girl who has never been employed and dreams of being her own boss felt like I was participating in some way. The election was not just about Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and the US citizens but also other nations were part of it, especially women. Kamala has made such a remarkable history as the first woman elected Vice President. I feel so inspired by her because she breaks part of the glass ceiling. We still have a ways to go before the glass breaks completely. Everyone in the society has a role to play, including culture and organizations, and most of all women need to stand out for their worth.

Unequally Disconnected

by Grace Ndanu

African school children in uniforms huddled around desks
African Schoolroom. Source: Creative Commons

As the novel corona virus spreads across the world, states and localities are faced with mounting pressure to close the school doors. The closing of schools has left children, teens and young adults with nothing to do because there was never a notice. Before the introduction of online learning, which was first provided through the radio and the television and then through Zoom and Skype, Kenyan children ended up walking through all the neighborhood while many teens and the young adults ended up engaging in dangerous activities like drug abuse, stealing and sexual activities that resulted to so many girls being pregnant. This became a very big concern to the nation apart from Covid-19. When the number of new cases were being aired, the teenage pregnancy cases were aired alongside it.

The purpose of closing the schools was to curb the spread of the virus. And hence transitioning to online learning became the only option, which was and is still not easy. Among many challenges from providing meals, proper clothing, proper health, to proper housing for the low income families it will never be easy. In Kenya, a person is considered poor when they lack the most basic needs. Also as long as a family has somewhere to lay their heads at night or has a shelter to keep them off the storms, cold and the hot sun, that family is regarded as okay they do not have to worry because they are surviving. This suggests that technology is not a necessity or a basic need. In Kenya, we are in need of technological empowerment.

There are so many private schools compared to government schools. In these schools the majority of the students are from rich families, that is 70%, while 30% are there because of sponsorship and scholarships. The government schools holds more of Kenyan children because majority of Kenyans are technically poor. There is no option of private school to these parents because even most of them send their children while they are still under age just for them to go and eat their lunch because when they stay at home they will have nothing to eat, instead as little they are they will have to wait till dinner. That is a bonus for the government.

In Kenya advanced technology was just introduced a few years back, meaning technology is still young. There are still households with no electricity, a radio or a simple mobile phone for just communicating. Technology courses were also introduced and they are improving since the stereotype of saying that technology courses for example computer science is made for boys is fading away and now even girls are doing better than the boys in the course. That is the good news about technology, the bad news is that, around 60% of the poor children in Kenya have little or no access to technology for learning that is the smartphone or the computer and the internet to make the learning easy.

A photo of two children's computers sitting on a desk
African children need better access to technology in order to continue their education during the pandemic. Source: Creative Commons

This makes only children from the private schools able to continue learning. But not all who continue learn online 20% are left out. Also the troubling gap in the opportunity to continue learning emerges between privileged and vulnerable children when looking at responses by other markers of economic advantages such as employment and food security status. 10 in 60 children of employed parents have access to both a device and the internet for learning always, or most of the time. This on demand availability drops where other children living in households where the parents are unemployed.

There is an extent where families who afford two or one meal a day, give it up and instead of eating or have little small that day, what was to be used to buy food will be used to pay for the virtual education by purchasing some internet bundles and if there is no a gadget to be used, the child will have to walk miles away from home in order to access cyber. The long walk will make the child tired even when it is time to concentrate,  he or she is tired even to listen. The long walk is also exposing the child to sexual abuse by strangers and before they get to speak out it is too late, which will even make the concentration more difficult hence dropping of the performance.

Many people in Kenya acquire phones only when they are already at their 18th year and some even at their 20s. Considering this, the children who were and are still learning online are really struggling because they are not familiar with the gadgets or the process itself. If the class was to start at 8am and end at 10am through zoom, the child will join the class at 9:30am or even she will never join basically because she does not understand which button is which.

The government or the stakeholder responsible for children and everyone’s right, make technology as a basic need, with that learning will become easy and efficient to everybody, be it grandparents, parents and the children.