Progress of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia

a picture of a Saudi woman
Saudi portrait. Source: edward musiak, Creative Commons.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, home to the origin of Islam, is an absolute monarchy with no formal written constitution. The Holy Book of Islam–the Quran–is what the country has announced as their constitution. Saudi basic laws of governance, social structures, and overall culture are all based strictly on and reinforced by Islamic law. Saudi government has a reputation for using Islamic laws to marginalize the rights of Saudi women. Saudi laws inhibit women freedoms such as the right to drive, the right to free choice of employment, the right to travel, etc. However, in the past ten years, Saudi has made progress in easing the restrictions on women. In 2005, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud ascended into the throne and restructured the importance and dynamic of women rights in the kingdom. King Abdullah is seen by many as a reformer, advocate for women rights, and modern. Under his rule from 2005 to 2015, late King Abdullah advocated for various women’s rights, specifically their civil political rights.

Women rights are embodied in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the legally binding Convention on the Elimination Against of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  Saudi Arabia worked towards promoting gender equality and ratified the CEWAD in 2000. Unfortunately, the Kingdom placed a reservation upon the ratification process of the Convention stating, “In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of Islamic law, the kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention.” In other words, Saudi does not see itself obligated to comply with paragraph 2 of Article 9 of the Convention which states nations “shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children.” Even though the adoption of this Convention is in some sense incomplete and impartial, the acknowledgment of the Convention by the Saudi government, gives women legal protection to fall back on.

a picture of the Saudi Arabia flag
Saudi Arabia. Source: Steve Conover, Creative Commons.

Progress: Civil Political Rights

Before 2003, the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia was only responsible for overseeing male education. There was an independent ministerial level department named the “General Presidency of Girls Education (GPGE),” which was in charge of overseeing female education from primary schools to university colleges in Saudi. In 2003, the GPGE department was terminated and merged into the Ministry of Education for pre-university programs and the Ministry of Higher Education for university level programs. This was a major step for the government in recognizing the importance of female education. King Abdullah took it a step further in 2009 by appointing Saudi’s first ever female minister. Nora Al Fayez was appointed as Saudi’s first female deputy education minister, in charge of a new section in the Ministry of Education in control of female education. Unfortunately in 2015, after the death of King Abdullah, Nora was removed from her position by the new appointed King Salman.

King Abdullah, in 2011, announced that he will allow women to run for municipal council positions, and give them the right to vote. On December 13, 2015, participation in government procedures became a reality for women during Saudi’s historic municipal elections for the very first time, as they were allowed to vote and run for municipal governmental positions. During the election more than 1,000 female candidates ran for a municipal council positions, and 100,000 women registered to vote compared to more than 1 million male voters. At least 18 female candidates won municipal council positions. The number of female voters were low due to multiple reasons: they are unfamiliar with the voting process thus did not participate, did not have rides to the voting booth, or were unaware of where to vote due to lack of information. Even though voting numbers were low, the fact that more than 100,000 women did vote proves that with the right campaigning and access to general information about voting rights for women, the turnout will increase in the future.

“I exercised my electoral right. We are optimistic about a bright future for women in our homeland.” – Najla Harir, Female Voter 

The most noteworthy reform by King Abdullah was his royal decree to appoint 30 women to the 150 member advisory Shura Council. The Shura Council, also known as Saudi Consultative Council, is a group of 150 people which advise the king on certain social, economic, political issues by proposing laws and modifications, but cannot enforce any suggested laws. Women have never been appointed to this council prior to King Abdullah, so this action was a major statement towards the need for modernization. It also made it very clear that women and men have different needs, and women need to be the ones voicing their own concerns. King Abdullah verified that a women’s opinions and needs are just as important as men, and have a right to be heard.

Social impact

The continuum of women breaking the glass ceiling in Saudi Arabia is causing a major social impact and a change in attitudes amongst Saudi women. Saudi women are starting to show solidarity for their rights by starting and promoting campaigns that protests against social inequality and discrimination towards women. The two most popular campaigns Saudi women supported and participated in are “Women2Drive” and “#IAmMyOwnGuardian.” #IAmMyOwnGuardian demands that the Saudi government abolish the male guardianship, and has rallied more than 14,000 signatures for their online petition which was delivered directly to the Saudi government. Women2Drive is another women rights movement started by Saudi women activists. This was a Facebook based campaign, started by Saudi activist Manal Al Sharif when she posted a video of herself driving a car in Saudi, trying to prove she is capable of doing so. She was detained and arrested eventually; however, she inspired other women to follow her resistance. On October 26, 2013, at least (if not more) 30 women took to the streets throughout Riyadh and Jeddah, driving themselves around the cities. Even though technically no change come out of those two protests, women have joined each other in solidarity for their rights. Most importantly, they have started a very important discussion amongst themselves regarding their human rights.

Saudi women walk inside the Faysalia shopping centre in Riyadh.
Saudi women walk inside the Faysalia shopping centre in Riyadh. Source: Tribes of the World, Creative Commons

Future Goals

Despite the progress, there is still a long ways to go regarding women rights in Saudi Arabia. The CEDAW commends Saudi on the progress it has made towards gender equality, while strongly encouraging Saudi to continue implementing women’s rights. In 2008, the CEDAW released their concluding comments regarding the elimination of discrimination against women and how to more actively implement all the provisions of the Convention. The ultimate goal for women’s rights in Saudi addressed by the CEDAW and non-government organizations, like Humans Right Watch, is the abolishment of the current male-guardianship system in Saudi. Saudi requires every women in the country to have a male guardian–usually her father, husband, or son–who holds the legal power to make decisions for women. A Saudi women’s male guardian must grant her permission to participate in a range of daily activities, like getting a job, going to college, leaving the country, and even receiving healthcare. Women in Saudi, if unable to fully embody individual rights and make key decisions for themselves, will remain at a disadvantage if their national constitution and laws do not match the progress of the past ten years.

Saudi Arabia continues to make progress towards women rights in the Kingdom. More and more Saudi women are becoming activist and using their voices to fight for change. It is refreshing to know that women all over the world are also taking on the challenge and uniting together for a brighter future. Start encouraging and supporting each other. Show solidarity for the effort women are making to ensure their human rights are acknowledged and respected. Foster thoughtful discussions about women rights so we can confront our biases, instead of disregarding men and women who are different than us. As J.K. Rowling said “we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

 

The Reality of Climate Change and its Effects on Human Rights and the Refugee Crisis

Photo of Earth
Earth: A simple model of Earth using Autodesk Maya. Source: Kevin Gill, Creative Commons

What is climate change? To understand climate change, we must first know what climate is and how it is different from the weather. Weather is what we see change on a day to day basis. We can see and feel the changes in weather: sunny one day, rainy the next, and back to sunny again. Weather also is the change in temperatures: sometimes it is hot, and sometimes it is cold, depending on the time of year or the place that you are in. Climate,  on the other hand, is the usual temperature of a place. For example, a regional climate may be wet and cold in the winter, but warm and dry in the summer. There have been anomalies–extremes where it has snowed year round. Not all climates are the same. The global temperature has been rising each year; however, climate change is much more than just that. In addition to the climates of individual places, there is also Earth’s climate, which is the result of combining all of the climates around the world together. Climate change is often referred to as global warming. Climate change is defined as changes in the usual weather found in a place. This could be a wide range of changes like how much rain a city gets in a year, snowing in places it does not usually snow, or most commonly, changes in a place’s usual temperature. Earth’s climate is also subject to climate change. The planet can experience rising temperatures, or it is possible for rain and snow patterns to shift, causing it to do so in places it would not usually.

Simply put, weather changes in a matter of hours or less, whereas climate takes hundreds of years to change.

In the past 100 years, Earth’s temperature has increased about one degree Fahrenheit. This may not seem detrimental on the surface, but minute changes in Earth’s climate has had massive effects. While Earth’s temperature rises independently, humanity plays a contributing role in speeding up the process of rising temperatures that influence the stasis of the Earth’s atmosphere, at an alarming rate. The Earth’s atmosphere consists layers, made of nitrogen , oxygen, argon, neon, helium, carbon dioxide, and methane. Key components in climate change like greenhouse gases contribute to the dismantling of the atmosphere, a term coined “the greenhouse effect” because of the absorption and transmittance of infrared radiation. Greenhouse gases impact the ozone layer. When it comes to climate change, the ozone layer is a layer in the Earth’s stratosphere that contains high amounts of ozone. Ozone absorbs most of the ultraviolet radiation emitted from the sun, and prevents it from reaching Earth. Since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a 40% increase in carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. The largest contributing factor of the emissions of greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuels by factories and industries, such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Doing so pollutes the air, and releases these harmful gases into the atmosphere, counteracting the Earth’s natural greenhouse process. As it stands, the Earth’s surface temperature could reach record-breaking temperatures by 2047, which would cause ecosystems to fall apart and the livelihoods of people worldwide would be effected. If humanity continues to emit the amount of greenhouse gases into the air as we currently are, there could be dangerous consequences.

Factory emitting pollution into the air
Factory. Source: タロイモ, Creative Commons.

Man-Made Causes

Natural Causes

Consequences of Climate Change

Emissions of greenhouse gases

Variations in the Earth’s orbital characteristics Higher temperatures

Deforestation

Volcanic eruptions

Droughts

Sulfate aerosols

Variations in solar output

Changing rain and snow patterns

Soot particles – otherwise known as black carbon

Natural aerosols

Wilder weather

Less snowpack

Melting glaciers

Shrinking sea ice

Thawing permafrost

Increases in ocean acidity

Warmer oceans

Rising sea levels

Acid rain

Figure 1

Based on Figure 1 (above), it is easy to see that the causes of climate change are far outweighed by the consequences. There are very few man-made causes, but they each have many effects on Earth’s climate.


The Clean Air Act
is known as the most successful act in place to protect the environment. Passed in 1970 with the purpose of reducing the air pollution in the country  by limiting  the amount of pollution put into the air by industries, like chemical plants and steel mills. Under the Obama Administration, the Clean Air Act was used to help reduce the output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air. The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to take into consideration the environment when making important decisions, such as building a highway or deforestation. It requires agencies to prepare an Environment Impact Statement to report how the actions may affect the environment. This act also assembled the Council on Environmental Quality to advise the President on environmental issues. While these laws have been effective in reducing the damages on the Earth’s ozone layer put out by the United States, the integrity of the ozone layer is still at stake. Recent studies have found that the ozone layer shows signs of healing.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and its relation to Climate Change

Under Article 22 of the UDHR, everyone has the right to security and economic welfare. The effects of climate change infringe upon this right because it jeopardizes environmental integrity. Climate change effects us all, and is supported by scientific evidence around the globe. It transcends political parties, race, and social class.

Everyone on Earth shares the same climate.

In the wave of executive orders issued out by President Trump, he re-initiated the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a controversial project that was halted by the Obama Administration. The DAPL was originally routed through Bismarck, North Dakota, but after the mostly-white residents refused to allow construction on the grounds of “polluting their water supply”, it was rerouted through Standing Rock. The pipeline’s construction threatens to destroy the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s historic, religious, and cultural sites. It also contributes to climate change and may cause untold damage to the environment, such as water pollution–presently acknowledged by the Bismarck community–and explosions. The DAPL effects the health and security of the Sioux Tribe.

Protesters standing up against the DAP
Protesters oppose Dakota Access Pipeline in Music City. by Lee Roberts

Another prime example of climate change infringing upon the health of people is the smog currently plaguing China, which is a result of burning massive amounts of coal. The emissions coming from China’s most industrialized areas were five times the national average in 2016 compared to 2015. Citizens of China are having to wear face masks to combat “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.” While measures have been taken to reduce the pollution, such as wind-mill farms, the smog still continues to get worse because of the amount of coal being burned. Schools have been shut down, flights are being cancelled, and people are afraid to leave their homes because of the smog.

There have been many observable effects of climate change on the environment. Endangered species, both animal and plant, across the globe are dwindling in numbers due to the fluctuating temperatures in their habitats. Lakes and rivers are drying up or reaching low levels. The glaciers are melting, ocean levels and temperatures are rising. Here in Alabama, we suffered a drought this past summer and an oil leak this fall. The effects that scientists had predicted would happen due to climate change have started to occur.

Climate Change Effecting the Refugee Crisis

According to the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change (GMACCC), climate change has been noted as the “greatest security threat of the 21st Century”. The council has also said that climate change will cause a refugee crisis of “unimaginable scale”, as the effects of climate change have already pushed many refugees into Europe. There are claims that a lack of natural resources due to climate change may have been a contributing factor in the Syrian War, namely oil. Despite the abundance of oil in the Middle East, the over-excavation of oil brought about a ecosystem collapse, resulting in the dispersion of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The land began losing its integrity which affected the economic output as Syrians were unable to produce goods due to the ill-suited climate.

If the Earth’s temperature continues to rise causing the glaciers to melt, causing a rise in sea levels, 20% of Bangladesh will flood, creating additional climate refugees. The potential is over 30 million people forced to evacuate and relocate their lives and families as a result of climate change. In light of this potential threat, Bangladesh is asking wealthier countries to be ready to accept millions of displaced families.

“Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal.” – Brig Gen Stephen Cheney, member of the US Department of State’s foreign affairs policy board and CEO of the American Security Project

The United States’ impact on the Earth’s climate is profound. As an industrial country, we have a notable carbon footprint. In other words, what we do largely impacts those around the globe as it effects Earth’s climate, just as what China does impacts us and others even if they are across the globe. It is important to be aware of the growing concerns stemming from climate change, whether it is down the street or thousands of miles away. As I mentioned, we all share the Earth’s climate, so we are all effected by the changes in some form or another. Lives and families are being torn apart across the world due to changes in the climate. We as humans are responsible for destroying families’ homes, land, and countries. We must prevent the refugee crisis from growing at all costs. Climate change is not a “hoax”, it is a reality, and it is effecting us all. It is killing people directly and indirectly. It is killing our planet. This is why it is very important for us to all take part in slowing the effects of climate change. When the US began to reduce its waste, other countries followed suit.

Climate change is more than an environmental issue. It is a public health issue. It is an economic issue. It is a security issue. It is a racial issue.

Chalkboard reading: "Dare the World to Save the Planet"
“Dare the World to Save the Planet” chalkboard located in Starbucks, photo taken by Tyler Goodwin

There are many ways to reduce our carbon footprints and slow the climate change process; I will focus on four. First, reduce fossil fuel use. this may be something more for factories, it is important to know the effect that burning fossil fuels has on the environment, and the small things we can do to help reduce it. It can be reduced on the domestic level by using less electricity, and using more energy-efficient appliances. Converting from gas-powered appliances to electric can also have a large impact. Second, plant trees. Carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas. Planting trees or any kinds of plants can aide in the conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen. By planting trees, we are combating the effects of deforestation. Third, reduce your waste by recycling. The decomposition of garbage in landfills produces harmful gases like methane, which absorbs the sun’s heat, and increases the Earth’s temperature. Reducing your consumption habits and reusing or recycling items when possible largely decreases your carbon footprint, as it reduces the need for new items to be made, and prevents items from being placed into landfills. Recycling metals, plastic, glass, and paper helps decrease the greenhouse gasses from being emitted into the air, as it takes less energy to make an item from recycled materials than it does as opposed to making materials from scratch. In Birmingham, you can order a recycling bin by phoning 205-254-6314. Additionally, in Birmingham, the recycling center is located at 4330 1st Avenue South, Birmingham, AL 35222. Lastly, conserve water. The conservation of water is essential to the reduction of climate change. Water purification requires a lot of energy to complete, which in turn increases the mission of greenhouse gasses. By saving water, less energy is used. Turn off water at home when you are not using it, and pay close attention to pipes that may leak to ensure that unnecessary amounts of water are not used.

For more tips on how to reduce your carbon footprint, please visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website at: https://www.epa.gov/

 

Additional resources: 

Naomi Klein

Before the Flood documentary

Wangari Maathai

 

NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED

Preventing the practice of FGM/C in primary schools. Source: DFID – UK Department for International Development Follow, Creative Commons.

These three words “NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED” by Mitch McConnell, meant as a means of expressing his authority over Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor last month, have been co-opted by women around the world as a rallying cry and a reminder that women’s rights are human rights. The phrase uttered to news outlets, regarding Warren’s defiance as she read a letter from Coretta Scott King about the US Attorney General appointment of Jeff Sessions. As Warren read, she was interrupted, forced to stand down and remain silent for the duration of the session. Unshaken, Warren utilized another room and modern technology to continue the statement. The male Democrat Senators proceeded to read the entire letter on the Senate floor, without interruption. This scene symbolizes, in various ways around the world, the blatant and subtle, dismissive and disrespectful interaction of some men towards women.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day (IWD). IWD originated as a nod to the women in the 1909 New York City factory workers strike. A 1910 international meeting in Copenhagen established the annual recognition of female advancement in human rights, including voting rights, though there was no date for the observance; in 1975, the United Nations settled on March 8. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres explains that the protection of women and girls comes to fruition through empowerment, reducing the gender inequality that leads to discrimination, and bolstering socially and economically weak communities and societies. “Women’s legal rights, which have never been equal to men’s on any continent, are being eroded further.” Gender equality, one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, is an essential component in the plan “agreed by leaders of all countries” as they work in partnership to ensure the inclusion of all.

Women have been fighting against an imbalanced relationship between the sexes for centuries. Sherry Ortner believes “the universality of female subordination, the fact that it exists within every type of social and economic arrangement and in societies of every degree of complexity…something we cannot rout out simply by rearranging a few tasks and roles in the social system…The underlying logic of cultural thinking assumes the inferiority of women.”  According to historian Gail Collins, the single women of the colonies were either “tobacco brides”, indentured servants who were raped and often forced into marriage, or labeled witches and spinsters. Married colonial women achieved the highest status and authority when contributing to the progress of the nation by working in the fields, growing crops, and harvesting food; black couples were indentured servants who once they gained their freedom, owned businesses and shops. At the time, black women did not have the same constraints as white women. She contends, “Virtually all the colonial women wanted to marry, but when they did, they were automatically stripped of their legal rights. A wife’s possessions became her husband’s, and she was unable to do any business on her own, sue, borrow money, or sign contracts. A married women was virtually powerless…His character determined how far she could rise in life.” Collins is describing colonial America; however, presently, in 2017, women—whether single or married– many countries around the world remain powerless, consigned to relying on the males in their family to determine who and what she becomes.

By the 1800s, white women and homemakers were creating reform movements and petitioning for equality; black women were now domestic and sexual property of slave owners. In 1848, abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave her Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions at the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention she organized. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony pronounced, “Woman has been the great unpaid laborer of the world, and although within the last two decades a vast number of new employments have been opened to her, statistics prove that in the great majority of these, she is not paid according to the value of the work done, but according to sex.” The late 19th century brings the right to vote to the women of New Zealand; however, for the public sphere to hear the voice of women, it will first arrive in the form of protest from around the world.

a picture of a women's protest from 1930s
Feminism. Source: kcochran06, Creative Commons.

The 20th century generates the fight for suffrage via women like Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in Britain. Margaret Sanger battles Comstock Laws, making birth control available for women desperate to end the circular nature of “barefoot and pregnant”. The rise of labor needs introduces women to factory work. Yet with wars end, women lost their jobs by being “expressly fired”, replaced by men, and reduced to the ranks to domesticity. In 1963, the Civil Right Act passed, the Commission on the Status of Women is established and the Equal Pay Act, which bars unequal pay for the same or similar work completed by men or women, within the same organization, becomes federal law. Betty Friedan in her book, The Feminine Mystique, exposes the American ideal as a myth, stating

“Over and over women heard voice of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity. Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training… They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights—the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for. All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.”

Enter the second wave of feminism. Ortner argues that ‘female is to nature as male is to culture’ is a code of practice derived to perpetuate inequality. Most distressing is that global humanity bought into this lie and label anyone willing to stand against it, deviant. Herein lies the disdain for the term “feminist”.

The characterization of feminists as an ambitious, aggressive, bossy, b*%$#y, bra-burning woman who hates all men reveals the failed understanding of a women who stand up for themselves and the rights of other women as a means of gender equality. The fight for feminists is political because the political is personal, and the personal, political as Leymah Gbowee believes. Though progress has been made, there are significant strides yet to be made on behalf of women, politically, socially, and economically; until the fullness of women’s rights are human rights is fully accepted, implemented, and recognized.

First, women need positions of governmental leadership. The public sphere has made room for female representation by respecting the human right to participate in country elections–Saudi Arabia was last in 2015—but the issues facing women are not accurately addressed. Of the 192 nations on earth, women represented 59 in the past 50 years. The feminine voice has representation on some local levels of government within the US; however, on the national level, women possess less than 20% of the seats. Conversely, Rwandan women account for 64% of parliamentary seats as of 2013. Rwanda, known for the 1994 genocide, “has the most women’s participation globally.” Additionally, www.heforshe.org ranks Rwanda as the highest commitment leader, based upon population, for gender equality.

Second, “boys will be boys” is not an acceptable stance to take regarding misogyny and sexism. The cliché permits the turn of a blind eye where gender-based violence (GBV)–sexual harassment, bullying, stalking, assault, etc.–are concerned. Whether UN peacekeepers or college students, the combination of these actions, and a lackadaisical response from citizens and law enforcement, creates a culture where violence against women is not considered taboo. Brock Turner caught in the act and convicted of sexual assault, and released within three months of his six-month sentence. Survivors of sexual assault, regardless of gender, endure treatment as guilty of contributing to their assault: ‘what were you wearing’ or ‘why did you walk alone’, more often than the perpetrator is innocent of committing assault; therefore, most go unreported. Jill Flipovic presents rape and sexual assault as “both a crime and tool for social control.” She believes sexual assault is the result of a systemic problem of misogynistic behavior, rooted in the debasement of women by men and accepted by the by-standing status quo.

Rape and sexual assault will continue as a weapon and means of control until perceptions about sexism and misogyny change, and the creation and implementation of laws protect the survivors rather than the attacker. In Malawi, the government plans to increase the number of reported GBV by “setting up a mechanism… [that] will strengthen the 300-community based victim support units and build their capacity to handle cases in coordination with law enforcers and judiciary.”  Male heads of state, university presidents, and business leadership possess a unique opportunity of deconstructing structural violence and reconstructing institutional, gender equal framework by employing IMPACT 10x10x10 top-down engagement strategy.

The first seven female pilot officers of the Colombian Air Force against a T-34
The first seven female pilot officers of the Colombian Air Force against a T-34. Source: Aviatrix Aviatrix, Creative Commons.

Third, look for the glass ceiling to be broken through the removal of economic and labor barriers. Tennis leads the way in pay equality due to the persistent advocacy of Billie Jean King and Venus Williams. American Bessie Coleman was the first black female pilot; two weeks ago, First Officer Dawn Cook and Captain Stephanie Johnson made history as the first black pilots to command the cockpit at the same time. In addition, Soudaphone and Phinanong of Laos, made aviation history as the first female pilots.

Nathaniel Parish Flannery writes, “one in 4,000” of the world’s largest companies have a seat for women on their boards. Prime Minister of Iceland Bjani Benediktsson stated, “When it is no longer news to have women in leading position, then—and only then—will we have gender parity.” According to the glass-ceiling index, Iceland is the best nation in the world to work, leading the way in gender equality. Over the course of five years, Scandinavian countries have positioned in the top five, whereas the United States ranked 20th, seven below the average. On Tuesday, the fearless girl representing gender inequality and pay disparity became an addition to the bull on Wall Street.

For more nearly 400 years, the persistence of women has pushed back the bounds of patriarchy, which interrupted our growth, forced us to take a backseat on policy and agenda issues regarding our personhood, seeking our demure silence and acceptance. Today, in 2017, given the persistent history, current global political climate, and subsequent rise of global solidarity, the collective SHE has heard the warnings, ignored the explanations, and raised a resistance.

Bringing Regime Change to the Hermit Kingdom North Korea: A Recap

Jung Gwang Il with translator Henry Song.
Jung Gwang Il with translator Henry Song. Photo by Marlee Townsend.

Jung Gwang Il sits in front of a room of twenty people with his translator and colleague, Henry Song. He begins to tell his tale, beginning with his birth in China.

Persecuted for their beliefs in China, Jung’s family fled to North Korea in the 1960’s when he was only seven years old. As an adult, Jung was in the North Korean military for ten years, and then found work with a trade company. The 1990s, when Jung was working as a businessman, was a particularly hard time for North Koreans. Following the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994, the country experienced four years of famine and despair. Jung recalls seeing “twenty fresh bodies killed by starvation every day,” during this period, known by North Koreans as the Arduous March. Seeking extra revenue in such a difficult time, many traders looked for money in any avenue they could find. These business wanderings ultimately lead to Jung’s arrest and imprisonment, as unapproved foreign dealings were taboo. In 1999, Jung was reported by a colleague for meeting with South Korean businessmen and was subsequently arrested for suspected espionage.

Pigeon torture at Yodok sketched by defector Kim Kwang-Il, part of the report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Pigeon torture at Yodok sketched by defector Kim Kwang-Il, part of the report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Jung, following his arrest, underwent a ten-month period of water, electric, and pigeon torture. He went from 170 pounds to 80 pounds during these months and was unable to walk without clutching a wall. After ten months of enduring constant torture, Jung finally falsely confessed to espionage simply so that the torture would stop. He was then sent to an infamous prison camp known as No. 15, or Yodok concentration camp. Jung says that there were around seven-hundred other political prisoners, some imprisoned for offenses as contacting Christianity or criticizing the regime. He recalled one inmate whose offense was accidentally ripping a newspaper with Kim Jong-Il’s face on it—which was reported by his wife to the authorities.

Life at the camps were not very different than the initial months of torture, according to Jung. Inmates were forced to work sixteen hour days with only one daily meal of 600 grams of ground corn (equivalent to around 2.5 cups). This small portion of food was only awarded if an inmate finished their work quota; many did not, and consequently died of starvation. Jung believes he buried as many as three hundred prisoners himself during his three years at Yodok. This comes with a heavy emotional toll— every time Jung speaks of the horrors at Yodok, he says he can never sleep the following night because of the nightmares.

Poster for "Yoduk Story," a musical about North Korean human rights abuses by futureatlas.com
Poster for “Yoduk Story,” a musical about North Korean human rights abuses. Source: futureatlas.com, Creative Commons.

On April 12, 2003, Jung was released. Although he only spent three years in the camp (a relatively light sentence in American prison) Jung says it was “hell on Earth that felt like an eternity.” Twelve days after his release, Jung fled to a series of countries. After swimming to China through the Tumen River, Jung traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and finally settled in South Korea. It was in South Korea that Jung realized he could never forget the faces of the inmates in Yodok, and vowed to become an activist in their names. He wrote a comprehensive list of everyone and everything he could remember, which was later used as evidence in United Nations resolutions against North Korean human rights violations. His activism did not stop there; he wanted to deliver news and information to the North Koreans to inspire social change and revolt. To achieve this, Jung formed a non-governmental organization entitled No Chain, inspired by the idea of breaking the chain that binds the North Korean people. No Chain specializes in sending information-packed CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, and micro SD cards to the North Koreans via drones. Predominantly using micro SDs, they are disguised with brand-new packaging but are filled with movies, documentaries, South Korean dramas, k-pop, and other forms of media. No Chain initially used a human network, but now uses drones after Kim Jung-Un ordered guards to shoot civilians crossing the river on sight in 2014. North Korea is trying to cover up their efforts by labeling Jung as a “terrorist” and “human scum,” claiming he uses his helicopter drones to destroy statues of present and past leaders.

statue of kim il sung
Statue of Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang. Source: Stephan, Creative Commons.

Today, the goals of No Chain are to gain help in their efforts to disseminate information to the North Korean people. Jung and Song have been traveling to universities and festivals across the world to share Jung’s story along with No Chain’s platform. Jung urges students to send in personal video messages and any other media they possibly can to send to North Korean youth. In regards to the real threat of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Jung advises “not to fear,” because information dissemination is what the regime is most afraid of. If their mission is successful, Jung hopes the North Koreans will be able to wake up and subdue the dictatorial regime and end the nuclear threat. Jung ends the speech with a rallying cry: “UAB, help us!”

To get in contact with No Chain, you can follow their Facebook page or contact their director, Henry Song, at (202) 341-6767 or henry@nknochain.org.

A Maasai Experience: Come to Kenya

a group of Maasai schoolchildren
Maasai schoolchildren. Source: Stacy Moak.

Traveling to Africa as a volunteer in orphanages and schools is a highlight of my life experiences so far. Witnessing people who possess so little compared to American standards, yet who are so happy and full of hope, is a life changing experience which calls into question all of our values and priorities. Many children in America often walk away from their opportunity for an education, while African children strive to be able to afford an education. Young women have additional struggles that may contribute to a lack of school, whether forced marriages and other family responsibilities, dating back in time so far that we cannot conceive of the cultural history driving them. Seeing stagnate water being used as the water source for families and communities and to see that in the 21st century, entire families dwell in primitive housing is something I will not soon forget.

We have much to learn from other cultures, just as we have much to share. While we can share a more modern understanding of women’s rights and women’s role in an educated society, and as we promote social justice and equality for all people, we can also learn from the generosity and spirit of hope evident in the smiles of these children. The one act of generosity that will stay with me forever is from a young Maasai girl named Liemon. My oldest daughter met this child on the trip last January (2016) and sent a letter with me to give to the child. I finally found her, or rather she found me. She came up to me from a crowd of children and took my hand. I asked her name and she told me she was Liemon. I was so excited to meet her and deliver the letter from my daughter. In return for the letter and pictures, this sweet child took off the necklace that you see her wearing in this picture, put it around my neck, and fastened it. She gave it to me as a gift. I have so much and she has so little, but this gesture of generosity will forever remind me of the gentleness of humanity that exists in all of us that connects us to each other no matter how different our cultures or our lives. This simple gift from a pure spirit, imprinted on my heart forever.

Liemon and Stacy’s daughter. Source: Stacy Moak.

Kenya is home to numerous tribal populations, including the Maasai people. The tribe has a long preserved culture in the way that they live and dress which makes them a sign of Kenyan culture. Easily identified by their traditional style of dress, the Maasai usually red or green plaid clothing tied across their bodies. Maasai live in both Kenya and Tanzania. Maasai lands include the great game reserves that overlaps with the Serengeti plains, an area famous for the great wildebeest migration that takes place every year. Although Maasai game reserves bring considerable amounts of money to the Kenyan government, Maasai people still live on as little as $1 per day. Entrepreneurs from the Maasai people are working to change that into a more equitable arrangement and volunteers can help support those efforts. One such project is that foreign owned hotels located on Maasai land now buy their soap products from Maasai women who make the soap. This provides sustainable income to the women and allows the community to benefit from tourism.

Swahili is the native language of Kenya but the national language is English. Most Kenyan students study English in schools, whereas Maasai children speak the Maa language–a Nilotic ethnic language from their origin. Language barriers can prevent Maasai people from full participation in events outside of their tribal community; therefore, Maasai children need to understand three languages to participate in the greater Kenyan society. Maasai children now have access to education. Education remains expensive for those who continue to live a traditional lifestyle. Kenya requires that children wear a uniform before they can attend school. The combination of school fees and uniform costs make education difficult for many Kenyan families, including Maasai families.

Women are truly the fabric of the community in the tribal culture of the Maasai. They build the traditional circular houses using mud, grass, wood, and cow-dung. Women also cook for the family, create jewelry to sell to provide for their families, and handle all child-rearing responsibilities. Despite their role in the community, girls as young as eight are at risk of their families trading them for livestock, and forcing them into marriages with much older men. When this happens, girls no longer attend school, are subject to and endure female genital mutilation, and forced into a life of a wife and mother. Many times, they are the second wives who have less standing in the community, less rights, and experiences of extreme levels of abuses.

The government of Kenya has passed laws against these types of human rights violation, but the practices go largely unregulated in tribal cultures. The Maasai people are leading the way to stop these practices by producing dramas for elementary and secondary schools. Further, they are building libraries, schools, and rescue centers to encourage young women to assert their legal rights and stay in school. Times are changing, and I remain thrilled to be a part of the change. Volunteering to provide education, clean water, green houses, and other sustainable solutions has truly been an amazing experience. Collaborating with Kenyans, specifically the Maasai people, and making a difference in their communities provides a life changing opportunity.

With My Own Two Hands, a nonprofit organization located in Laguna Beach, California, organized my trip to Kenya. Owner and Director, Lindsey Plumier raises funds to support local efforts of sustainable solutions that work to provide education, shelter, food, and fresh water to children in Kenya. With My Own Two Hands organizes volunteer trips to Kenya at least once a year, usually in January. More about the organization, ongoing projects, and opportunities to serve can be found at http://www.withmyown2hands.org.  My goal is to take students from UAB to Kenya over spring break of 2018 for them to participate in some of these projects. Their educational experience will be enhanced and their worldview forever changed by these experiences.

 **Dr. Stacy Moak will host an information session regarding this opportunity on Tuesday 7 March, 1230-130pm in the Institute for Human Rights

 

The Death Penalty: Violation of the Right to Life

picture of death penalty protest
Source: Maryland GovPics, Creative Commons.

The most fundamental human right is the right to life as recognized in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The denial of the right to life, through the practice of capital punishment, is internationally condemned with nearly two-thirds of countries worldwide banning the death penalty in law or in practice. The United States is a notable outlier as the only member of the G8, one of three members of the G20, and the only Western country to still practice capital punishment. This is deeply problematic for several reasons: the practice does not deter or reduce crime, disproportionately targets poor and disabled minorities, and results in the sentencing of innocent people approximately 4.1% of the time.

The local rate of death penalty cases is alarming. According to Harvard Law’s Fair Punishment Project, 16 counties of the total 3,142 in the nation were listed as outliers, including Jefferson and Mobile counties in Alabama. The study states that Jefferson County “sent more criminal defendants to death row between 2010 and 2015 than almost every other county in the nation.” As one of thirty-one states to still have the death penalty, Alabama is the only one that allows sentencing to capital punishment with a non-unanimous vote. Additionally, Alabama is the only state allowing judges to override a jury’s conclusion to recommend life without parole. Kent Faulk reports defendants in all five Jefferson County death penalty cases are black, received non-unanimous verdicts—two of which were overturned by a judge, and one third of the defendants had “intellectual disability, severe mental illness, or brain damage.”

No Justice without Life
Source: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Creative Commons.

Racial discrimination is a continuing problem in America’s criminal justice system, and results in the state-sponsored deaths of minorities. Recent studies have found that courts are more likely to sentence a defendant to death if they murder a white person over any other race. A study in North Carolina found that the likelihood of obtaining the death sentence increased by nearly four times if the victim was white. In Louisiana, the odds of being sentenced to death for the murder of a white victim is 97% higher than for the murder of a black victim. Additionally, a Connecticut study found that minorities who kill whites are given the death penalty at higher rates than minorities who kill minorities. Some of this discrimination may be a consequence of the racial empathy gap—the finding that people automatically assume that African-Americans feel less pain than whites.

Anthony Ray Hinton was sentenced to Alabama’s death row, recently found innocent, and freed from after nearly thirty years. Hinton, released in 2015, gave his testimony of deep racial injustice of Alabama’s criminal justice system: “[The lieutenant] said, ‘I don’t care whether you did it or you don’t… but you gonna be convicted for it. And you know why? … You got a white man. They say you shot him. Gonna have a white D.A. We gonna have a white judge. You gonna have a white jury more than likely. All of that spell conviction, conviction, conviction.’” When new evidence found Hinton innocent, he was released without any compensation, assistance program, or even a bus ticket. This, perhaps, is a more egregious wrong than the decades-long imprisonment itself. Exonerated prisoners find themselves in a changed world with no shelter, no job, and often no family. Former prisoners require mental, physical, and emotional help to successfully adjust to the world outside prison, but never receive it. In a country that declares itself to be a global leader of human rights, violations like these are unacceptable.

a picture of sad jailed prisoners
Jailed prisoners. Source: Ancho, Creative Commons.

American values list freedom, individualism, and equality– yet we simultaneously deny the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and security of person to hundreds of criminal defendants per year. International human rights treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Kyoto Protocol, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) remain unsigned by the United States, despite claims of upholding and honoring them. The US is the only member state of the United Nations other than Somalia that has not ratified the UNCRC, and one of only seven who have not ratified CEDAW. So far, only eighteen US states and the District of Colombia have abolished the death penalty; that number can only increase with action and engagement by citizens. Amnesty International states, “The death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights.”

This week, the Alabama House of Representative will vote on a bill to prohibit judicial override of jury recommendations against the death sentence. This power of judicial override, prohibited in all capital murder cases except in Alabama, has occurred 112 times– 101 of which gave a death sentence. If you feel strongly about this bill, contact your representatives using this link.

 

Additional Resources:

Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy and Equal Justice Initiative

Michelle Alexander

Ava DuVernay

Angela Davis

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Southern Poverty Law Center

The Controversy of Healthcare Rights

a picture of a sign that reads A Women's Place is in the Resistance
Women’s March. Source: Alan Sandercock, Creative Commons.

The promotion and focus on public health is in some sense evolutionary. As our world continues to globalize, a byproduct is the development and discovery of new technology and information that aid in the improvement of a nation’s health care system. Public health development relies on the accessibility of an efficient and feasible health care system that provides a range from prevention services, like vaccinations and screenings, and treatment services. Therefore, a lack of access to healthcare services and facilities could result in increased illness, disability, and death. Many people do not have access to reliable healthcare, for a variety of reasons, including poverty and high cost of insurance, raising the question of whether or not healthcare can remain simply public health concern, or if it is both a public health and human rights issue. The answer ultimately depends upon the implementation and exercise of a nation’s law.

The international community, through various declarations, recognizes the right to healthcare as a fundamental and universal right for every human being. Article 25 of the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “everyone has the right to medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, and old age.” The social, cultural, and economic rights enshrined in the 1952 UDHR coalesced into legally binding responsibilities with the adoption of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1966. Article 12 of the ICESCR directly addresses health care stating, “the States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The full realization of this right shall include: The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases; and the creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.”  Both of documents thoroughly defend our rights to healthcare. In this blog, I will argue that all individuals have a right to healthcare without discrimination based on desired services.

According to the UDHR and ICESCR, every individual has a right to health care. Unfortunately, the access to healthcare, for women, is often discriminatory and limited. Males and females are biologically different and require dissimilar healthcare services, particularly different preventative screenings and reproductive health necessities, throughout different stages of life. That being said, one statement that really caught my eye during 2017’s presidency election is the possible defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood (PP) is a non-government organization that provides crucial reproductive health care, sex education, and information to millions of women, men, and young individuals globally. 2.5 million women and men in the United States annually visit Planned Parenthood, and an estimated one in five women in the U.S. has visited a Planned Parenthood health center at least once in her life. Annually, this organization provides 270,000 Pap tests, more than 360,000 breast exams, more than 4.2 million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections, and lastly provides educational programs to 1.5 million young adults annually. Consequently, the reason why PP gets funded by the government is because PP provides free services such as pap tests, breast cancer screenings without any co-pay, thus the government is basically reimbursing the organization. From a public health perspective, PP is essential in maintaining and promoting population health due to preventative screening measures, controlling sexually transmitted infections (STI), and educating the community on positive and healthy behavior change.

a pic of a sticker that reads I Stand With Planned Parenthood
I Stand With Planned Parenthood. Source: Women’s News, Creative Commons.

The most controversial service offered by PP is pregnancy contraceptives and abortions. Overall, 80% of PP patients receive services to prevent unintended pregnancy, yet only 3% of PP healthcare services are abortion services. Abortions are controversial, yet regardless of what your personal views on abortion, PP helps millions of people and the general public stay healthy. In fact, in 2015 PP detected breast cancer in 71, 717 women and treated 171, 882 for STI’s, and without these prevention services, rates of cancer, and the spread of STI’s will increase.

Given that women make up more than half of the US population, is it truly just of the government to defund Planned Parenthood just because it provides abortions? The answer is technically no. The laws governing Medicaid prevent states from excluding certain providers solely because of other medical services they provide, like abortions. Specifically, the Freedom of Choice Act which states it is the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability, or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman. The act also prohibits the interference of “discriminate against the exercise of the rights set forth in paragraph (1) in the regulation or provision of benefits, facilities, services, or information.” Defunding Planned Parenthood because the organization provide abortion services is technically illegal and defies the act. Another document that supports women rights to family planning health care services in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). According to Article 12 in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, State Parties will ensure women have equal access to health care services, including those related to family planning. In modern times, family planning includes services such as contraceptives like birth control and abortions, and according to CEDAW, access to these services are women rights.

As of right now, there is no alternative health care system or health care facilities in place to provide care for people covered by Planned Parenthood. According to the Congressional Budget Office, if Planned Parenthood were to be defunded, there would be increased direct spending for Medicaid by $20 million in 2016, by $130 million in 2017, and by $650 million over the 2016-2025 period. Also, as little as 5% or as much as 25% of the projected 2.5 million patients aided by Planned Parenthood would face reduced access to care. Ultimately, the Constitution of the United States establishes the government’s responsibility to promote general welfare. The potential lack of access to health care due to defunding Planned Parenthood means a failure to provide basic human rights for women, but also a failure to promote general welfare.

Americans need a health care system that works for all patients and providers. This is a turning point for the women in our nation. Many women are worried we are going back in time. The Women’s March on Washington showed the passion, respect, and trust American women have for their rights, their need for government support, and the gravity of the issue around the world. The Women’s March started in Washington, but inspired women all over the world to march for women rights in their own country, and demand their governments recognize women rights are human rights. Just like the thousands of men and women who marched in Washington and all over the world, don’t forget that the US government works for the people, and we need to start learning how to engage in our democracy to ensure our voices our heard. The Unites States of America is the only developed country who doesn’t offer health care to all citizens, and it is time for a change.

The Claims of Our Common Cause

a portrait of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004671911/.

Today is the last day of Black History Month… and what a month it has been. This blog is a nod to Frederick Douglass, who received a mention during a meeting earlier this month.  

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818. In 1848, ten years after his escape to freedom, he penned a letter to his white owner, Thomas Auld, who historians believe to be his father, regarding the reality that the determination to run away arose in him at six years old. In the letter, he vividly describes the moment in which he “attempted to solve the mystery, Why am I a slave?”

“… I was puzzled with this question, till one night, while sitting in the kitchen, I heard some old slaves talking of their parents having been stolen from Africa by white men, and were sold here as slave. The whole mystery was solved at one… From that time, I resolved that I would some day run away. The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend on me, or mine to depend upon yours… In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living…”

Historian Eric Foner writes that although Douglass was a slave, Lucretia Auld–wife of Thomas–taught him to read and write until he forbade her, in accordance with Maryland law at the time. Douglass secretly continued his education with the help of some white children. In the South, the peculiar institution of slavery received elaborate justification from Christians willing to employ and misrepresent the scriptures in order to continue the dehumanizing treatment of African and American blacks, created by God, under the guise of inferiority and barbarianism. De Bow’s Review, published in 1850, states “…a very large part in the United States believe that holding slaves is morally wrong; this party founds its belief upon precepts taught in the Bible, and takes that book as the standard of morality and religion. We, also, look to the same book as out guide in the same matters; yet, we think it right to hold slaves—do hold them and have held and used them from childhood. We find, then, that both the Old and New Testament speak of slavery—that they do not condemn the relation, but, on the contrary, expressly allow it or create it… It cannot, then, be wrong.”

Wolfgang Mieder points out that when his education was taken from him as a child, Douglass “very consciously chose” to study and memorize material that would become useful as an adult. As a statesman, his mastery of the English language and his knowledge of the scriptures became a method of rebuke, persuasion, and a declaration of reversal of fortune. For Douglass, the biblical references provided an added authority and wisdom as morality and religion were one in the same. Mieder summarizes Douglass’ speeches and writings as an identifiable narrative, fought against slavery and injustice through the raising of a powerful voice that argued for the “strength of morality, equality, and democracy.”

Frederick Douglass observed a disconnection between the words of the Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” and the treatment of blacks as a byproduct of slavery. He believed that from a political and personal standpoint, under natural law, every person possesses the same rights as another, and owed the honoring of those rights by another under God. Nicholas Buccola concludes that Douglass’ personal experience as a slave in the South then a free man in the North, shaped his worldview and belief that the promise of liberty has to belong to all or it belongs to none. He states that individualism negates the feeling of and the need for empathy, making it difficult to persuade another about the plight of someone who is not and never considered a neighbor. In other words, the sense of brotherhood is made obsolete because of individualism.

According to Leslie Friedman Goldsmith, Douglass “put his hopes in the press and pulpit for the moral education of America” while believing social reform would take place in politics as those in government became more concerned with the establishment of justice and the advancement of common good, rather than “the greedy quest for the material fruits of public office.” Douglass’ advocacy, as a member of a minority group, grew from a place of mutual understanding that the lack of moral responsibility finds correction in the adaption of moral obligation. Therefore, he focused on the role of the individual as a perpetuator of injustice or protector of human rights. By appealing to the empathic core—the soul–of an individual, Douglass hoped for a synergistic catalyst towards the eradication of slavery, and the humanization of blacks, whether free of enslaved, in America. As a result, under President Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the abolishment of slavery and involuntary servitude of the 13th amendment brought about a possible future for blacks in America.

Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes," mural by William Edouard Scott,
Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes,” mural by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010641714/

Civil equality was a fundamental platform for Frederick Douglass as he championed for the women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and the right to vote. Despite the victories of 1863, the true freedom of blacks remained his primary mission. Douglass demanded the extinction of racial prejudice and the false belief that the African lineage of black Americans disqualified them from the same rights as white Americans. Daniel Kilbride states that Douglass’ stance on Africa during his lifetime is similar to Countee Cullen’s questioning poem, Heritage during the Harlem Renaissance. He concludes that Frederick Douglass “treasured the values and institutions of the USA and insisted that the free enjoyment of them was a birthright of Americans of African descent.” It is imperative to understand that Douglass did not deny his ancestry; he accepted the discourse as irrelevant given the fact he was born in America.

During the late 1840s, the women’s movement was on the rise due to persistence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, among others. When Stanton formulated and organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, Frederick Douglass was on the platform as a main speaker. More specifically, he was the only male and person of color in support of women rights to equality, including the right to vote. Douglass summarized the convention in an 1848 North Star editorial article: “Many who have at least made the discovery that the Negroes have some rights as well as other members of the human family, have yet to be convinced that women are entitled to any. While it is impossible for us to go into this subject… Our doctrine is that ‘right is of no sex’”. Benjamin Quarles narrates the delicate interplay of Douglass’ personal friendship and political partnership with the women’s movement. Quarles notes the Reconstruction Era as the turning point in Douglass’ partnership with the women’s movement, as the question of what group deserved the right to vote first: blacks or women. “To women the vote is desirable; to the black, it is vital”, he pronounced. For Douglass, blacks as a people before women as a gender. He lamented in 1883, “for no where, outside of the United states, is a man denied civil rights on account of his color.” The recognition of blacks though the casting of votes was an “urgent necessity” post-Emancipation Proclamation.

Relevance for 2017

Frederick Douglass died in1895, yet his life, words, and legacy are still relevant for today. Earlier this month, Donald Trump mentioned Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Interestingly enough: if Douglass were alive, the recognition could come in both positive and negative forms as he questioned and challenged slavery, prison reform, women’s rights, and all lives matter. The employment of the Scriptures as a justification for the present value and identity crisis taking place in America, given the values forfeiture of liberty and justice for all, in exchange for individualism, isolation, and rhetoric would undergird his critique.

First, human trafficking, in the form of sex and labor, is a new form of an old method. Kevin Bales suggests slavery failed to disappear in the 1860s because trade of people, through means of exploitation, has increased with modernization and globalization. He elucidates the subject of disposable people by informing that human trafficking is not a long-term cost investment due to high supply and high demands. The benefits of “ownership” have waned while the profits from slave trade dramatically increases because whether it is sex in Thailand or Brazil, tomatoes in Florida or chocolate from Ivory Coast, or the FIFA World Cup stadium in Qatar, slave laborers will be exploited in order to ensure the needs of consumer are met. Second, America has the highest incarceration population in the world. According to Bryan Stevenson, there is something missing from the judicial system, specifically in our treatment of the condemned, incarcerated, and those judged unfairly. The American prison system, as means to dehumanize human beings, particularly black Americans in 13th by Ava DuVernay and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, systemically removes human rights and destroys families. Former President Barack Obama implemented some justice reform, resulting in the commutation of thousands of non-violent offenders. Third, Frederick Douglass would be an advocate for HeForShe. As a feminist, Douglass would question why men have consumed the decision making power about women, from pay to maternity leave and healthcare rights, without consulting them, or at the very least, having them present when signing laws about their personhood. Finally, America’s treatment of her citizens—the marginalized because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or identity, and ability—the blatant denial of human rights while championing all lives matter and pro-life. The plight of marginalized Americans remains trapped under the thumb of the majority, whereas the words of Douglass’ The Claims of Our Common Cause apply:

“…A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white country-men do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. It will not be surprising that we are so misunderstood and misused when the motives for misrepresenting us and for degrading us are duly considered.”

In 1853, our common cause stood as a pronouncement, emphasizing the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the marginalized, specifically blacks. Today, our common cause stands as a banner to those in power and opposed to change because of prejudice. The banner signifies the past while embracing the fullness offered in those presently dismissed–doctors, farmers, merchants, teachers, ministers, lawyers, editors, etc.–American citizens who, through unity and belief in the foundational values of this country, fought and fight against every perpetuation of injustice “with pride and hope”.

 

 

Additional resources:

Louise Shelly

Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter

Rhonda Callaway & Julie Harrleson-Stephens

Bryan Stevenson

Jeff Guo

The Right to Food: A Government Responsibility

a picture of a fresh fruit stand
Fruit. Source: Glenn Dettwiler, Creative Commons.

Good nutrition plays a vital role in a person’s health, ranging from growth and development to mental health. The consumption of healthier foods significantly reduces the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, the immune system improves and delays the aging process. In the United States, good nutrition is expensive nutrition; a luxury many low-income families abandon. Essential expenses– rent, utilities, clothing, and health are priority for many families with limited disposable, therefore, forgoing the nutritious food option.

Income disparities contribute to poor nutrition. Higher income families can select healthier foods because their higher income provides access to places that provide healthy options, whereas, lower income families due to city planning and a lack of urban development, receive pre-packaged, canned, and fast food. Healthy foods can be pricey and the additional sales tax is regressive towards lower income families. The local and state government has a duty to their inhabitants to provide access to nutritious food and proper education regarding the importance of a healthy lifestyle while economically conscious about the impacts of high sales tax on foods.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) describes the right to an adequate standard of living. A key tenet, accounted for, is the right to food. This is accomplished when every person “has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or the means for its procurement” according to the Icelandic Human Rights Center. The right to food is an essential birthright; a denial means a violation of other rights.

Dr. Mariana Chilton and Dr. Donald Rose assert the right to food–adequate, nutritional food–adheres to three intrinsic policies: the need to respect, protect, and the fulfillment of human rights. To respect human rights, food must be accessible. In some regions in the United States for example, nutritional food is out of reach yet available are fast food restaurants providing cheap, less sustainable food. The protection human rights means others cannot impede the accessibility of food. According to the UNHR Office of the High Commissioner, there is enough food produced in the world to feed its entire population. Unfortunately, the problem lies in the access to food, whether it be poverty or famine, discrimination, or lack of transportation. In order to ensure human rights as related to adequate standard of living, the creation of an enabling environment that provides for and allows for the procurement adequate food becomes the mandate of government officials.

a map of Visual Representation of Taxes in Each State. Source: Tax Foundation
Visual Representation of Taxes in Each State. Source: Tax Foundation

Adequate food refers to healthy, nutritious food that our body needs to survive. Consuming nutritious food leads to numerous health benefits including, but not limited to, maintaining a healthy weight, allowing organ systems to function optimally, and promoting sleep. For the most part, the good quality foods are on the high-priced side, which leads people to avoid it. A documentary, Food, Inc., highlights the America’s corporate controlled food industry. A segment in the documentary shows a family of four, low-income, and their struggle in deciding between a burger from a fast food restaurant or broccoli from the supermarket. “Sometimes you look at a vegetable and say, ‘okay, we can get two hamburgers over here for the same amount of price’”. This ultimatum is difficult for families. They do not have a substantial amount of money to spend; however, the purchase the unhealthy foods means the purchase unsaturated fats and cholesterol that can increase the risk of diseases. The growing children are not receiving proper nourishment needed to supply their brain and body with energy or their bones with calcium, which is violation of a basic human right. The United States government can help low-income families receive nutritious food by adjusting the tax policies. Some states, Pennsylvania for example, have high sales tax of 6% and it caps the localities ability to impose local sales tax up to 2%. This, however, offsets the high sales tax by exempting uncooked nutritious groceries, clothes, and prescription drugs. A state like Alabama is at the opposite end as it has a low sales tax of 4% and allows localities to tax up to 7% more thus driving up to sales tax to one of the highest in the United States. In addition, Alabama does not exempt clothes, groceries, and prescription which leads the lower income family to spend a majority of their income of purchasing food.

The United States, internationally, opposed the notion of food as a human right. In 1996, the World Food Summit, sponsored by the United Nations, affirmed the “right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food.” While other sovereign nations signed agreeing with that statement, the United States refused to, insisting that hunger could lead to “international obligation or domestic legal entitlement”. In 2002, during another World Food Summit, the United States, again, opposed that food is a human right. According to Pol and Schuftan, the United States understands the right to access to food to connote the prospect to secure food, not a “guaranteed entitlement” and the “adequate standard of living is a goal or aspiration to be realized progressively”. Furthermore, the United States, Canada, and other European countries “have consistently and openly not been sympathetic” to the right to food as a provision of the state.

a picture entitled The Colour before the storm... Nyhavn, copenhagen
The Colour before the storm… Nyhavn, Copenhagen. Source: Joe Hunt, Creative Commons.

In contrast, Denmark agreed that there is a right to food. The Danish government recognized that if an individual or a community had deficient access to nutritious food and health that they are “kept in poverty and exclusion”. The country also understands that the usage of technology and scientific knowledge can increase the knowledge of nutrition and how it can benefit it citizens. Meik Wiking reports that although Denmark taxes heavily, almost 45% of the average citizen’s income, citizens believe there is an overall investment in their quality of life. The taxes collected from Danes provide several welfare programs. For example, student’s tuition and health care are free, a reduction of stress of lower income families in Denmark significantly. In the United States, a low-income family fret over school, health care, and housing so much so that they neglect to take care of the nutritional food aspect. Not surprising in some states in America, food is not tax exempt. Denmark’s citizens contentedly pay for taxes because they are safe financially.

Overall, lower income families often struggle because of limited financial means. With the added burden of the sales tax on groceries, eating right becomes difficult. The lack of nutrition leads to poorer performance in daily activities which puts a hindrance on growth and development. States like Alabama and Mississippi have allowed for higher income families to be comfortable regarding property taxes but allowed for the lower income families to be susceptible to paying more for nutritional food than they can afford. The state has a duty to their people, all people, for a sustainable, healthy, living standard.

 

 

 

 

A Tie that Binds and Shapes Us

a picture of 16th Street Baptist Church from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
The 16th Street Baptist Church across from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Source: Beth Bryan, Creative Commons.

Barack Obama, in one of his last acts as president, signed a proclamation that designated the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a national monument. For those unaware, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel, Bethel Baptist Church, the Colored Masonic Temple, St. Paul United Methodist Church, portions of the 4th Avenue Business District, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  These locations are “hallowed grounds” for Birmingham because they serve as the epicenter American Civil Rights Movement.  We speak of the history regarding these locations. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands as the site of a horrific bombing that claimed the lives of four black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. However, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was also—and still continues to serve as–a social center and lecture hall for education and social awareness; a headquarters for activism; and a platform for heralded visitors as it did in the past, for leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Ralph Bunche, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and most recently, Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch who spoke her final message as a public servant.  The Colored Masonic Temple, which beyond its beautiful architecture, sat as the centerpiece for lively Black owned businesses and a booming downtown social life.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and some of the movement’s top leaders strategized in room 30 of the A.G. Gaston Motel, which also became known as the “war room”. Additionally, in this room, Dr. King made the decision to submit himself to being jailed—resulting in a “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. To this day, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” serves as the most important written document of the civil rights era because of its tangible reproduced accounts in the fight for freedom and King’s response to the broad criticisms he has received from around the country. As you can imagine, I can write at considerable length about the historical facts and pieces of information I have picked up from the Birmingham Civil Rights District. However, the focus of this post is to address why this national monument is important.

The National Monument is a Mile Marker for Racial and Social Progress

What a society and its citizens choose to remember and create moments for, communicates a great deal about where their beliefs lie. At the same time, there is essential learning in understanding what a society chooses to forget. That said, I think that it is critical for each generation to understand the struggles and sacrifices many have endured to achieve equal rights because that cultural memory plays a role in the shaping of our collective identity. To this degree, we must accept the ugly truth that racism is embedded within our society and remnants of its power still resides within today’s social structure. In order for us to move forward in the solving of social problems, we must embrace this part of our history and understand how the intersections of race, class, privilege, gender, and so forth influences current issues. If not, then the politics of denial will continue to  define teachings of American Civil Rights Movement into a one month a year curriculum composed of mainstream heroes that is not taught widely enough or comprehensively addressed at various school levels. Through the national monument, we as global citizens are pushed to think critically about our past. We are challenged to ask ourselves how can we move forward in the fight for equality and equity locally and globally.  As important, we are reminded that the fight is not over.

This National Monument Preserves a “Balanced Realness” of African-American Culture

There is more to African-American culture than the mainstream depictions which tend to populate and reinforce negative stereotypes through mainstream media. The story of black people in Birmingham is one which highlights how individuals are able to rise from second class citizenship to obtain an education, contribute to society, maintain families, and overcome multiple challenges serves as a critical element of our American lineage. Through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we are afforded the opportunity to hear those stories; learn of all the heroes and their sacrifices; and to speak with some of those “living griots” who volunteer to share their own knowledge and experiences with the public. And, it is just not in the very people. As previously stated, this national monument is hallowed grounds because the location itself is a symbolic repository of African-American culture that has often been paved over, gone through urban renewal, gentrified, and left to stand as unidentified culture markers in major cities.

The National Monument Reinforces the Hope of Our Collective Community

The Birmingham Civil Rights District is not just Black history; it is American history. In a society that continues to diversify and splinter, it is crucial for us to be reminded that we are still one community. Together, we share a common heritage and history of hope and resilience through tough times. To me, the beauty of the civil rights movement is that when you reflect, there are continuous instances where multiple ethnic and cultural groups have decided to unite in the face of oppression. Today, we are facing with some unique challenges. There are segments of our population who are not only oppressed, but seeking refuge and allies to stand with them. As we look for answers, our national monument stands as a constant reminder that we are the change that we wish to see, and all we have to do is come together.  In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

In closing, the national monument is more than just a series of historical buildings and educational centers containing a collection of objects and documents. It is a powerful reminder of Birmingham’s culture and its impact on the larger American story. I am confident that as the fight for equality, equity and inclusion continues, we will find a way to find opportunity in the midst of life’s challenges because that is what we do. In the words of John Henrik Clarke, “What we have done before, we can do again.”