Marriage Trafficking in China Leads to Women in Chains

by Delisha Valacheril  

Image 1. Image of wedding rings caught in handcuffs. Source: Yahoo Images

Chinese vlogger captured a horrific, viral video of a woman chained outside to a hut in January of 2022. This woman was mentally incapacitated and had been without clean water, food, and electricity for an extended time. Xiao Huamei had been taken from her home province of Yunnan and sold to a farmer in Jiangsu for 5,000 yuan – or $790 at the time. She managed to escape him only to be sold into marriage trafficking two more times. The last time occurred in June 1998, when Dong Zhimin bought Xiao Huamei and subsequently tortured her, forced her to bear children, and subjected her to barbaric conditions. At the hands of Dong Zhimin, her husband, she was forced to have eight children in nine years, the firstborn in 1999. From when she was sold in 1998 to when she was found in 2022, Xiao Huamei had been a victim of marriage trafficking for 24 years. Claiming she had schizophrenia, Dong Zhimin subjected her to inhumane treatment, such as chaining her up outside like a dog. Dong Zhimin was sentenced to only nine years in prison. Sentences for trafficking crimes are typically capped at ten years. This spurred public outrage online because many felt the punishment did not fit the crime. Ten years is not even enough time to conceive and carry eight children. This case raised awareness about the lack of reforms for marriage and human trafficking.

Image 2. Young Girls in Myanmar who are victims of marriage trafficking. Source: Yahoo Images.

What is marriage trafficking?

Marriage trafficking is an international problem that continues to grow and must be handled domestically. It is defined by the transfer or receipt of a person; the means may include deception, threats, or coercion, and the purpose may be sexual exploitation and/or servitude. Cases like Xiao Huamei’s are not isolated to domestic women because foreign women are also exploited and sold to Chinese men to be abused and breed children. Traffickers target vulnerable young women and children in their country as well as neighboring countries. Women in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam who are trying to flee political unrest and economic instability are highly exploited in this situation. Vulnerable, job-seeking women are tricked into entering the arrangement through a broker that is offering well-paying jobs across the job, thus meeting the criteria for an overt act of marriage trafficking. Traffickers smuggle these women in using coercion, violence, and threats. The process used to transport these women also constitutes human trafficking.

The prevalence of trafficking in China is exacerbated by the lack of accountability among government officials. Chinese officials have allegedly turned down the appeals of women who have been trafficked, held them for extended periods, deported them without their children, and, in certain instances, returned them to their husbands in exchange for bribes. Chinese authorities rarely, if ever, pursue prosecutions against marriage trafficking charges. It is difficult to investigate due to the underground, illicit nature of marriage trafficking. In China, marriages between foreign-born women are not usually officially registered, which leads to their children being lost in the system.

The intent behind this industry is apparent from the illicit means used to facilitate the business. The purpose of the financial transaction of young women and children to Chinese men as brides is to uphold cultural values of marriage, family, and children. Based on sociological exchange theory, women enter the relationship expecting stability and support that is gained from marriage, while the men enter the relationship expecting a personal benefit that is gained from maintaining the cultural values of marriage. Most of the time, traffickers promise a better future to young women seeking to better their situation. This is not always the case, but it is the case of Xiao Huamei and foreign brides who are trafficked for marriage. While they migrate voluntarily, knowing that they are to be married, they are also often times deceived or trapped in their situations. Forcing these women into marriage means exerting power and control over them. The exploitation of vulnerable women and lack of individual freedoms constitute these cases as marriage trafficking.

What is responsible for this?

Given China’s longstanding one-child policy with a preference for boys, broader socioeconomic and political factors drive the marriage trafficking illicit market. Due to this, China experiences a gender imbalance, with about 35 million more males than females. The lack of eligible brides creates a demand for the marriage trafficking illicit market. An estimated 7,400 women and girls were victims of marriage trafficking in the Yunnan Province along the border, which is where Xiao Huamei was from. In rural areas, the proportion of women in society has declined. Among them, more than 5,000 females were compelled to bear children with their Chinese spouses. Bride trafficking in China constitutes human trafficking because there is an overt act, a thorough process, and an intentional purpose behind it. China, with its vast population and growing economic and regional disparities, experiences nearly every manifestation of marriage trafficking.

Image 3. China’s President Xi Jinping. Source: Yahoo Images

What is China’s response?

Under Chinese law, people face more fines for selling parakeets, a protected species, than for selling women. The government realizes there is an issue, and they have pledged to crack down on the illicit industry. Chinese police arrested more than 1,300 people suspected of assisting in marriage trafficking. However, women are still trafficked from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. There needs to be safe passage for refugees from these countries so they do not fall victim to trafficking schemes. Despite past efforts, ongoing commitment is needed to fulfill these pledges and protect vulnerable individuals. To combat marriage trafficking, China needs to enforce stricter laws around forced marriage, childbearing, and immigration.

Victims of marriage trafficking were 6.5 times more likely to experience intimate partner violence compared to women in autonomous marriages. They are 4.7 times more likely to suffer a miscarriage or stillbirth and 4.6 times more likely to suffer the death of at least one child. There are many more women like Xiao Huamei. To protect them, there needs to be active, continued efforts to educate society about the harmful consequences of marriage trafficking. Coordinated programs with neighboring countries to address cross-border cases of marriage trafficking are essential. Providing social services at risk of being trafficked and offering safe entry into China will significantly impact the illicit economy. By addressing marriage trafficking through these comprehensive strategies, we can shape a world where everyone has the freedom to choose whom they marry and live a life free from coercion and violence.

The Unrest in Haiti: Country in Crisis

By Jayla S. Carr

Political History

Haitis political challenges can be traced back to its revolutionary past. Following independence, the country faced the daunting task of establishing a functional government amid the ruins of colonial rule. The unmountable debt given to the Country of Haiti from its former colonial power, France, coupled with internal power struggles, set the stage for a volatile political environment that persists.

Haiti has a long history of corrupt leaders, the most notorious of whom were Francois Duvalier, also known as Papa Doc, and his son Jean Claude-Duvalier (Baby Doc), who ruled the country from the 1950s to the 1980s. The Duvalier family was known for its extravagant spending and mishandling of Haiti’s funds. Their regime was characterized by authoritarianism and totalitarian rule, and they used techniques such as extortion, repression, and embezzlement of government funds to maintain their grip on power.

Following the reign of the Duvaliers in Haiti, the country became even more susceptible to natural disasters, especially earthquakes and hurricanes, which further increased its economic vulnerabilities. The devastating earthquake that occurred in 2010 drew attention to the precariousness of Haiti’s infrastructure, leading to widespread destruction and loss of life. The subsequent challenges in rebuilding efforts imposed additional strain on the nations already fragile economy, further impeding its capacity to provide essential services and support its citizens. The earthquake has left many citizens, even years later, without stable housing or work.

Since then, Haitis government has experienced numerous periods of political instability, marked by changes in leadership, coup d’états, and challenges to governance structures. Frequent government changes have hindered the establishment of long-term policies and sustainable development initiatives.

Armed soldiers running away from protestors
Armed soldiers running away from protestors. Credit: Richard Pierrin/Getty Images

Present Crisis

Civil unrest was ignited in Haiti in 2018 when the government announced its intention to eliminate fuel subsidies. The situation was further exacerbated by several contributing factors, including the misuse of loans from Venezuela, social inequality, substandard living conditions, and, well into 2020, the poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic. President Jovenel Moïse faced criticism for seeking to extend his term amid allegations of police brutality, human rights abuses, and violence against protesters. Following Moïses assassination in 2021, the country’s period of crisis has only been exacerbated.

The country has been overrun with gangs and has excelled to new levels, with the gangs taking over and now moving into the country capital, Port Au Prince, a prison near the country capital, and letting out 4,000 prisoners. Many of the country cities were already not safe due to brutal violence such as sexual assault and killings happening daily. Two hundred thousand plus citizens have been displaced from their homes due to the escalating violence. Haiti is home to over 4 million citizens, but the number of police in the country is around 13,000. This massive imbalance of police to citizens has made it very hard for Haitis Political Officials to establish any order within the country.

A white building with domed roofs and a green gate
A white building with domed roofs and a green gate. Credit: Wikipedia

State of Emergency

Haiti declared a State of Emergency on March 3rd, The United States evacuated its Embassy, and the Regional leaders of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) held an emergency summit to discuss the Haiti crisis and establish a framework for a stable political transition. Furthermore, the President of Guyana, Irfaan Ali, commented on the meeting and let it be known that at the summit, plans were agreed upon to create a 7 to 9-member transitional government comprised of Haiti’s major political parties. The council will be in place and responsible for selecting a new prime minister. Recently, According to NBC News, the council has stated that its creation is almost complete. The group hopes to restore Haiti and put it back on the path to legitimate democracy.

According to Al Jazeera, over 200 gangs are operating in Haiti, with two of the most extensive coalitions claiming Port-Au-Prince as their territory. The most infamous and the one who is making news waves is the leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizer of the G9 gang, a former Haiti police officer who has been pushing for the resignation of Haiti Prime Minister Ariel Henry, whom former President Moise appointed. As of March 12, 2024, at the height of the violence and within days of the country calling for a state of emergency, Prime Minister Ariel Henry announced that he would be stepping down and “leave immediately after the inauguration of a new council.” However, Jimmy Barbecue does not like the idea and will resist the implementation unless he is given a seat at the council table. He has stated that the corruption of the “traditional politicians” has not done Haiti any good and are the ones “damaging the country.”

Since the state of emergency was announced the United Nations has estimated that 53,000 Haitians have fled the capital of Port-Au-Prince in March. Also, 1.64 million men, women, and children are facing severe acute malnutrition due to the rise of gang violence has only exacerbated the crisis.  The percentage of those who rely on humanitarian aide for food has only increased. Before the crisis, Haiti’s urban and rural communities had long relied on their city and town markets, which are sustained mainly by the work of Madan Saras, the women of Haiti who buy, distribute, and sell food and other essentials in these markets, serving as the lifeline of the communities. Still, unfortunately, they have become targets for gang violence, especially in recent times. The gangs seek to assert their power over the towns, and thus, the markets have become a hotbed of criminal activity, which has contributed to the decimation of Haiti’s economy. This is just one example among many of the challenges the people of Haiti face.

A group of people holding a flag
A group of people holding a flag. Credit: Guerinault Louis / Anadolu via Getty Images

Path of Uncertainty

Still, despite the council’s creation, a finalized plan has yet to be developed to assure Haiti and its citizens of a peaceful and stable environment. Kenya’s plans to assist the country and bring in military aid have been stalled, and the country’s future is uncertain. The government has been distressed for many years, and the plan to restore stability will require continued effort.

Several organizations are assisting the people of Haiti in the amid unrest. Here are a few of them:

Hope for Haiti Foundation

Hands up for Haiti

Global Giving has information about several ongoing projects in Haiti aimed at assisting citizens.

Femicide in Kenya: A Silent Crisis

 

by Grace Ndanu

 

An image with a group of people holding up a banner that reads, "There is no honor in killing!"
An image with a group of people holding up a banner that reads, “There is no honor in killing!” Source: Yahoo Images (free to share and use)

 

In recent years, Kenya has witnessed a horrifying increase in cases of femicide. The alarming statistics paint an ugly picture of the state of women’s safety in the country. This issue goes beyond simple statistics as it represents a deep-rooted problem that demands urgent attention. Femicide in Kenya is not just a crime against women but also a violation of basic human rights and an assault on the fabric of society.

Understanding Femicide

Femicide is not a new phenomenon, but the magnitude of the problem in Kenya is shocking. The term encompasses various forms of violence against women, including domestic violence, rape, honor killings, and dowry-related deaths. These acts are driven by deep-seated beliefs and cultural norms that perpetuate gender inequality and elevate toxic masculinity.

According to a 2020 report by the World Health Organization, Kenya experiences one of the highest rates of femicide in Africa, with an estimated 47 women killed each week. Shockingly, this represents a 50% increase in femicide cases over the past decade. Furthermore, the majority of these cases go unreported or unnoticed due to social and cultural factors, making the situation even more alarming.

The Cultural Factors Behind Femicide

An image of a Maasai woman from Kenya holding her baby at her hips.
An image of a Maasai woman from Kenya holding her baby at her hips. Source: Wikimedia Commons through Yahoo Images (free to use and share)

 

To tackle femicide in Kenya, it is crucial to dig into the cultural factors that contribute to this crisis. Some of these factors include gender roles, traditions, economic disparities, and the normalization of violence.

Gender roles deeply rooted in Kenyan society perpetuate a patriarchal system that devalues women. Women are expected to be submissive, nurturing, and bound by societal norms. Patriarchy creates a culture of power imbalance, where men feel entitled to control and dominate women, both within and outside the household.

Traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriages, and wife inheritance, further perpetuate the vulnerability and defeat of women. These practices condone violence against women in the name of cultural preservation and perpetuate harmful gender norms.

Economic disparities play a significant role in intensifying femicide in Kenya. Poverty and lack of access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities disproportionately affect women. When women are economically dependent on their partners or families, they are often trapped in abusive relationships with no means of escape.

Society’s normalization and acceptance of violence against women contribute to the perpetuation of femicide. Many cases of domestic violence go unreported due to fear, stigma, or lack of trust in the justice system. In some cases, many people, instead of helping, tend to record videos of women being wronged and post them on social media.

Addressing Femicide in Kenya

An image of a group of women from the Women's Ministerial Breakfast in Nairobi, Kenya.
An image of a group of women from the Women’s Ministerial Breakfast in Nairobi, Kenya. Source: Natalia Mroz; UN Environment Programme through Flickr

 

To address femicide in Kenya, a comprehensive approach is necessary. It requires collaboration between the government, civil society, community leaders, and individuals alike. Here are some key steps that can be taken.

Legal Reforms and Enforcement

Restoring the legal framework surrounding violence against women is paramount. Stricter laws targeting offenders, along with their effective implementation, are crucial. Adequate training for law enforcement officials and judicial personnel is also essential to ensure cases are dealt with sensitively and expeditiously.

Education and Awareness

Comprehensive educational programs should be implemented from an early age to challenge harmful gender norms, promote gender equality, and raise awareness about women’s rights. This includes teaching both boys and girls, as well as women and men, about healthy masculinity and respect for women.

Empowerment and Economic Independence

Efforts must be made to empower women economically. This can be achieved through vocational training, access to micro-financing, and opportunities for entrepreneurship. Women who are financially independent are better equipped to escape abusive relationships and have control over their lives.

Support Services and Safe Spaces

Accessible support services, including helplines, shelters, and counseling centers, are crucial for survivors of femicide and domestic violence. These safe spaces provide survivors with the support they need to rebuild their lives and break free from the cycle of abuse.

Community Mobilization

Community leaders, religious institutions, and local organizations play a vital role in challenging harmful cultural practices, promoting gender equality, and raising awareness about femicide. Mobilizing communities to change attitudes and behaviors towards women is essential to create a safer environment for all.

Conclusion

Femicide in Kenya is an urgent crisis that requires immediate attention. It is a reflection of deep-seated gender inequalities and cultural norms that perpetuate violence against women. Addressing this issue demands a comprehensive approach encompassing legal reforms, education, empowerment, and community mobilization. Only through collective efforts can we hope to build a society where women can live without fear, violence, and the threat of femicide. Together, we must strive to create a country that embraces gender equality, respect, and the protection of basic human rights for all.

Deadly Earthquake in Afghanistan Magnifies Gender Apartheid Under Taliban Control

by Delisha Valacheril
Image 1. Afghan Man standing in the rumble caused by an earthquake. Source: Flickr
Image 1. Afghan Man standing in the rumble caused by an earthquake. Source: Flickr

The ongoing humanitarian crises as a result of the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, regaining control of Afghanistan have been exacerbated since the devasting earthquake hit the country, with women and children bearing the brunt of the struggle. The Herat province has been shaken by two 6.3-magnitude earthquakes in just five days, with at least 1,482 people killed, another 2,100 have been injured, and an estimated 114,000 people need humanitarian assistance. The detrimental aftermath has been felt by everyone in the country, especially women and children, since they encompass 90% of those killed. With homes demolished and livelihoods lost, obtaining humanitarian aid is of the utmost importance. However, women across the country are struggling to gain assistance due to the numerous human rights violations against them in Afghanistan. Women and children are the most affected when natural disasters strike, but they are often the least considered in the response and recovery process. With the death toll mainly comprised of this vulnerable population coupled with the existing humanitarian crises, the situation in Afghanistan is grave for the young women and children survivors.

Image 2 Afghani Women fully covered in accordance with Taliban rule. Source Flickr.
Image 2 Afghani Women fully covered in accordance with Taliban rule. Source Flickr.

Humanitarian Crisis

It is not just women who are suffering under Taliban rule; everyone is. The UNDP reports that the Taliban’s rule has also erased the Afghans’ standards of life. Since the takeover, the economy has collapsed by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. Over 90% of people have experienced food insecurity in one way or another. The situation in Afghanistan remains precarious and uncertain, and the earthquake has only exacerbated this.

To provide context for the Taliban’s gender apartheid in Afghanistan, a proper foundation must be laid. In 2021, after the US withdrew troops from Afghanistan, the extremist group rose to power and established itself as the sole authority. Since resuming their regime, they have implemented restrictive, discriminatory practices against women. Women have been banned from attending and tutoring at universities, women cannot work, and most girls cannot attend secondary school. These Taliban-imposed constraints have left women and girls increasingly confined to their homes, which is why they suffered the most from the natural disaster. Even when women are allowed to go outside, they must comply with the strictly enforced dress code that requires them to be fully covered, and on top of that, they must be accompanied by a male chaperone.

Image 3 Children in a refuge shelter in Afghanistan. Source Flickr.
Image 3 Children in a refuge shelter in Afghanistan. Source Flickr.

What’s Currently Going On

Considering the plight women have to endure under this restrictive government, it has been extremely difficult for aid to reach these vulnerable communities. An obstacle women must overcome to get relief is they must have a male relative’s tazkera, a national identity card. Since there is an absence of women working at the distribution center, many women cannot obtain humanitarian aid if they don’t have male relatives who can access it on their behalf. They also need to adorn the Islamic hijab so they can dress appropriately to access services and relief. This natural disaster has decimated homes, destroyed families, and left many to grieve their loss alone. How can the government discriminate and impose restrictions on who can receive aid in a time of crisis? After losing their husbands, fathers, and sons to this calamity, what are women supposed to do? Is there life meaningless without a male associated with it? Are they not worthy of aid from Afghanistan’s government?

Sonita Bahram, who is part of a team providing medical assistance to survivors, recounts the hardships women have had to withstand during these trying times. “I saw dozens of women and girls each day, and I can tell you that 99.9% of them were suffering from some sort of psychological trauma,” she said. Bahram narrates how women who have lost their homes, some of them their entire families, now have to work together to exist. Survivors seek refuge in the sea of tents that now stand in the rubble of Afghanistan’s towns and cities. Women are tying tattered blankets and even their headscarves to construct some semblance of privacy. On top of the mental stress and trauma that these women have had to endure from their daily home lives, these devasting earthquakes add significantly to their worries.

Significance

Conflict, food insecurity, drought, displacement, and poverty were already prevalent among the women and children of Afghanistan, but since the deadly earthquake, the government has continued to marginalize this group. The obstacles Afghani women have to overcome to receive aid are egregious; the treatment of women survivors has been abysmal, and they make up the majority of the fatalities. The humanitarian crisis involving women’s rights has been festering for a long time in the country, but this catastrophe has only inflated the concerns and hardships of the minority group. The severity of this issue has reached a global extent, with international relief centers and governments limiting humanitarian help to Afghanistan since the Taliban took power because of the government’s flagrant breaches of human rights, especially those committed against women and girls. This is harmful to the women and children of Afghanistan because they are the ones in dire need. It is important to support and donate to NGOs that are providing aid. UNICEF has launched a $20 million appeal to support 96,000 children affected by the earthquake. Life USA is pledging funds to provide emergency relief to the survivors. 2023 Afghanistan Earthquake Relief is also a great organization committed to doing beneficial work. By supporting these organizations, we can help the women and children of Afghanistan even if their government chooses not to.

 

 

Tragic Killing of a Corporal and the Urgent Need to End Female Genital Mutilation

by Grace Ndanu

The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011.
The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma on December 15, 2023, in Elgeyo Marakwet County, Kenya, has brought to light the deeply entrenched issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) and the urgent need for increased awareness and action to eliminate this harmful practice. The tragic incident, where Corporal Boma was stoned to death by a mob of young men after rescuing a group of girls who had been forced to undergo FGM, signifies a significant setback in the fight against this violation of human rights in Kenya.

Female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is a harmful practice and a violation of the rights of girls and women. It can lead to severe physical, emotional, and psychological consequences, including but not limited to severe bleeding, infections, complications during childbirth, and long-term psychological trauma. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified FGM into four types, with type 3 being the most severe, involving the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching of the vaginal opening.

According to reports, the incident involving the Corporal occurred when the police were taking the rescued girls to the hospital after the illegal FGM procedure. It is a grim reminder of the challenges faced by law enforcement officers and activists in combating such deeply rooted harmful practices. Despite the ban on FGM in Kenya, the practice still persists in certain areas, often conducted during school holidays, using crude methods and tools by individuals who continue to defy the law.

It is essential to understand that the practice of FGM is not limited to Kenya but is prevalent in many African countries, as well as in some parts of Asia and the Middle East. The complexity of cultural, social, and traditional beliefs and practices surrounding FGM makes the fight against it particularly challenging.

An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images
An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, is practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images

In the wake of Corporal Boma’s tragic killing, there is an urgent need for heightened awareness and education about the dangers of FGM. The involvement of communities, religious leaders, and other stakeholders is crucial in effectively addressing and eliminating this harmful practice. There is a pressing need for community-based interventions focused on education, awareness, and empowering women and girls.

Furthermore, it is imperative for the Kenyan government and other relevant authorities to take decisive action and strengthen the enforcement of laws against FGM. Perpetrators of FGM must be brought to justice to send a clear message that this harmful practice will not be tolerated in any form. The government should collaborate closely with local organizations and international partners to develop and implement comprehensive strategies to combat FGM effectively.

The media can play a pivotal role in raising awareness about FGM and shaping public opinion on the issue. Media campaigns and educational programs can provide crucial information on the physical and psychological consequences of FGM, dispel myths and misconceptions, and promote positive social norms around the issue. Additionally, the media can highlight success stories of communities that have abandoned the practice of FGM, inspiring others to follow suit.

At the global level, the international community plays a vital role in supporting efforts to combat FGM. International organizations, including the United Nations and its specialized agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, have been advocating for the elimination of FGM through various programs and initiatives. These efforts range from providing direct assistance to affected communities, conducting research and data collection, advocating for policy changes, and supporting grassroots organizations working at the local level.

Some resources laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM.
Some resources are laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma serves as a stark reminder of the urgent action needed to eliminate the harmful practice of female genital mutilation. It is crucial to work collectively to raise awareness, educate communities, and enforce laws to protect the rights of girls and women. This tragic incident must galvanize individuals, communities, and governments to address FGM comprehensively and put an end to this barbaric practice.

The world must unite to protect the rights and well-being of girls and women globally and ensure that no one else suffers the same fate as Corporal Mushote Boma. By fostering a culture of respect for human rights and gender equality and by promoting positive social norms and behaviors, we can strive to create a world where every girl and woman has the right to live free from the fear and trauma of female genital mutilation. Together, we can work towards a future where every girl and woman can fulfill her potential without being subjected to the physical and emotional pain of FGM.

The tragic killing of Corporal Boma is a solemn call to action, and it must be responded to with determination, compassion, and unwavering commitment to bringing an end to the harmful practice of female genital mutilation once and for all.

Poland: Human Rights Implications of the Recent Election

by Jillian Matthews

Poland is a highly polarized nation, with many valuing tradition, culture, and national identity. The combination of these three components, along with repeated rightwing electoral victories, has led to the democratic backsliding of the country, seen in their overreaching policies regarding women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and judicial reform. Although many human rights violations have happened throughout the country in the past few decades, the results from the most recent election, held on October 15, 2023, have the potential to expand rights to more citizens in the country. To properly describe its importance, I will explain the political context surrounding this recent election before moving on to discuss the future administration and its potential impacts on human rights.

Political Context

Even while under communist rule, Poland has been a predominantly Catholic state, with an overwhelming majority continuing to practice Catholicism today. Traditional Catholic values continue to influence Poland’s political policies and the opinions of many citizens. This influence is most notably seen in the rise of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), with its social policies rooted in Catholic norms and having close relations with the Catholic Church. Up until the October election, PiS controlled the government and had, since 2015, used its eight years of authority to undermine democracy and human rights. These influences have shaped the repressive policies on issues such as women’s autonomy, LGBTQ+ rights, and judicial practices. Listed below are the current status of these issues, showing the political climate leading into the 2023 election.

Women’s Bodily Autonomy

Under the current administration, abortion has continued to be a huge issue. While abortion was essentially banned in 1993, a 2020 amendment tightened restrictions even further. The recent change eliminated the option for abortion even when the fetus is known to have developmental problems or health conditions incompatible with life outside the womb. Prior to the ban, around 90% of all abortions performed in Poland happened for one of these two reasons: after 2020, women were required to carry even unviable pregnancies to term. While abortions are allowed when the life of the mother is threatened, this doesn’t mean that doctors will provide the necessary care. Countless stories have been recorded of Polish doctors overlooking women’s birth complications, favoring the life of the child, even when the child is unlikely to survive and the mother is likely to die or suffer lifelong complications.

Polish women protest for their bodily autonomy. Source: Yahoo Images
Polish women protest for their bodily autonomy. Source: Yahoo Images

In cases where an abortion is not deemed essential to save the life of the mother, doctors who carry out abortions are subject to punishment. If caught aiding an abortion, . This puts women and their doctors in a dangerous position, with women unable to access necessary help and doctors unable to provide adequate assistance without fear of imprisonment.

Not only is abortion increasingly difficult to obtain, but so is contraception. Out of all European countries, Poland ranked the lowest in terms of contraception access. For example, unlike in many European countries, Poland prohibits access to emergency birth control and hormonal birth control without a prescription. All of this shows the lack of women’s bodily autonomy, which can be interpreted as violating the human right to health and poses a threat to all women in Poland.

LGBTQ+ Rights

Those in the LGBTQ+ community face frequent discrimination and a lack of legal protections throughout Poland. Even since the adoption of the modern Polish Constitution in 1993, marriage is seen as proper only when between a man and a woman, meaning that gay couples receive no legal protections when married. Under PiS, steps were taken to further ensure traditional family norms, as seen with the party’s campaigning for a “family charter,” which sought to end marriage between gay couples and eliminate their ability to adopt children. This, along with a rising number of Polish cities that have decided to implement so-called “LGBT Ideology Free Zones,” has led to a climate that actively oppresses those within this community.

Polish citizens protest for the legalization of LGBTQ+ rights. Source: Creative Commons
Polish citizens protest for the legalization of LGBTQ+ rights. Source: Creative Commons

Throughout the European Union, Poland ranks the worst regarding LGBTQ+ rights, with only 15% of family, equality, and recognition rights being obtained. Unfortunately, activists cannot look to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) for assistance, as the document lacks protections on the basis of gender identity or sexuality. This omission of rights from the UDHR makes it nearly impossible for LGBTQ+ members to advocate for legal protections, having no doctrine to support their claims. Not only does this issue show that changes need to be made within Poland, but also the need to expand protections within the UDHR to provide a solid foundation for other advocacy groups worldwide.

Judicial Protections

Human rights concerns in Poland go beyond social issues; in fact, they bleed into the governmental structure itself. In 2019, a law was passed that undermined judicial independence, allowing the government to punish judges who question the legal changes made by PiS. This raised serious global concern, as this move would have allowed the executive branch to have control over the courts effectively, eliminating one of the greatest checks on executive and legislative power in Poland. This followed similar judicial changes that were ultimately made to serve the party. These changes included lowering the retirement age and appointing party loyalists to the Supreme Court. All of this led to the European Courts deeming these judicial revisions illegal in June 2023, making it an even more pressing issue leading into the latest election.

This infringement on the separation of powers causes a genuine and well-defined human rights violation, going against Article eight of the UDHR Article eight grants all humans the “right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals,” which is not available when the government has major authority over court cases.

The Recent Election

Given these issues and the increase in authoritarian policies, voters were aware that the 2023 election was extremely important, as seen in the voter turnout rate of about 73%, the highest rate since the fall of communism in 1989. Before explaining further, it’s important to note that Poland has a parliamentary government, meaning citizens’ votes are translated up to the legislature as a percentage of party representation. For example, if a party gained 30% of the total vote, they would receive that much representation in the legislature. This is necessary to know when understanding the outcome of the election.

Polish citizen votes in the election. Source: Yahoo Images
Polish citizen votes in the election. Source: Yahoo Images

 

The Results

The results are as follows: the Law and Justice Party (rightwing) received a plurality of the votes, at 35.4%, Civic Coalition (center-left) received 30.7%, Third Way Coalition (centrist) at 12.4%, and Lewica (far-left) at 8.6%. While PiS holds a plurality, the remaining parties will likely form a center-left coalition, which would oust PiS from power and install a new government with a pro-democracy, pro-human rights agenda.

Likely Impact

Given the percentage of seats held by rightwing versus leftwing and centrist parties, progressive parties will likely assume power and work to steer Poland back to valuing democratic ideals and aligning more closely with the European Union. The three parties that are expected to form the new Polish government all promote democracy and pro-Europeanism, making it likely that action will be taken to support the oppressed groups mentioned above. It is also more probable that European Court rulings regarding the judicial branch will be respected and upheld.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the 2023 election results hold great promise in regard to human rights in Poland. As the Law and Justice Party (PiS) loses its grip on the government, a center-left coalition will likely form and create an overwhelming majority. Although these results won’t be officialized until December, many believe rights will be expanded under the new regime, and Poland can set a precedent for a return to liberal democracy within Central Europe.

 

 

Disproportionate Deaths: Black Mothers

by Abigail Shumate

*The use of gender-affirming language is incredibly important, and it is vital to remember that women are not the only people capable of giving birth or the only people subjected to maternal risks. Unfortunately, research on transgender, intersex, and nonbinary births is incredibly limited, so for the sake of concision, this post will refer to the maternal mortality crisis largely in the context of women. *

Maternal Mortality

Maternal mortality is perceived as a thing of the past. In the 21st century few feel as apprehensive about the idea of them or a loved one giving birth as they would have in centuries prior. One group that does not share this same luxury is black mothers. In America, black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. Causing these issues are years’ worth of issues, including differences in the quality of healthcare, implicit bias, and structural racism.

With 80% of pregnancy-related deaths being preventable, it empowers no one to learn that Alabama is one of the greatest perpetrators of maternal mortality with the third highest rate in the country. A piece of anecdotal evidence that I stumbled upon while researching this topic is local to not only Birmingham, but to UAB as well. A former faculty member of UAB, Angelica Lyons, was subjected to pregnancy-related trauma that was, simply put, unnecessary and preventable. Lyons, after emphatically describing her symptoms to her doctors, was brushed off and the severity of her symptoms was not realized. Because of this neglect, she was forced to live with an undiagnosed case of sepsis that resulted in an emergency C-section months before her due date. Fortunately, both she and her baby survived although it was a close call for the Lyons mother. This is not an atypical experience for women of color, and black women specifically. Historical bias against black women results in many doctors dismissing their pain as typical or as something they can handle.

To understand the racism incorporated in the gynecological field, it is important to briefly address the history of gynecology. Gynecological science began in the 1840s, when J. Marion Sims, the so-called “father of gynecology,” performed experimental C-sections on black slaves without any anesthetics. This inhumane treatment continued after the abolition of slavery, with unnecessary hysterectomies being performed on black women. Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens said it best when she stated, “the advancement of obstetrics and gynecology had such an intimate relationship with slavery, and was literally built on the wounds of Black women,” Following this, black families were kept from white hospitals with substantial funding until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act did not completely eliminate the disparity, and healthcare discrimination still follows us to this day.

Alternate Text: Photo of a University of Alabama at Birmingham building, displaying the words “University Hospital.” Source: Flickr
Photo of a University of Alabama at Birmingham building, displaying the words “University Hospital.” Source: Flickr

 

Maternity Deserts

One cause of inadequate care for all mothers is maternity deserts. Maternity deserts are counties that have no hospitals offering obstetric care, no birthing centers, and no obstetric providers. Over two million women between the ages of 15 and 44 live in these maternity deserts, and between 2020 and 2022, the number of counties determined to be maternity deserts increased. Maternity deserts disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic neighborhoods (although, this post focuses on black mothers, as the difference between black and white mothers tends to be starker). Maternity deserts often have lower access to transportation as well, and these transportation barriers can hinder the utilization of prenatal care.

 

Alternate Text: Photo of an industrial city, featuring train tracks, cranes, and various types of buildings. Source: Flickr
Photo of an industrial city, featuring train tracks, cranes, and various types of buildings. Source: Flickr

 

A Broader Scale

Health disparities amongst black people are not isolated to maternal issues.  Black people must struggle with medical practitioners throughout their entire lives. Doctors habitually brush away the concerns of black people of all ages, causing them to be misdiagnosed, and resulting in worse treatment than their white counterparts, or no treatment at all. As written about in this post, this begins when black people are in utero and can lead to lifelong health conditions that are misunderstood and under-addressed.

For example, black children are more likely to have asthma and less likely to have treatment. There are many reasons for this; however, I am choosing to focus on the long-term effects of Jim Crow laws. Unfortunately, many areas with below-average housing (or areas located near toxic sites) are the same areas that were the result of previous redlining. Comparatively, 4 in 10 black children live in areas plagued by poor environmental factors, as opposed to just 1 in 10 white children. People are quick to discount the social factors that play into conditions such as asthma; however, many scientists agree that structural conditions can worsen asthma and cause certain groups to be unable to obtain treatment.

Later in life, black people are more likely not only to have Alzheimer’s, but they are also less likely to be properly diagnosed, which delays or prevents their ability to get treatment (not dissimilar to the conditions referenced above). Statistically, black people who are over 65 are 4% more likely to have Alzheimer’s than white people (14% versus 10%), but it is likely that this disparity is even larger due to said misdiagnosis.

Alternate Text: Photo of a blue inhaler. Source: Flickr
Photo of a blue inhaler. Source: Flickr

Progress

While black maternal mortality is still an incredibly pertinent issue, progress has been made in recent years. In 2019, two members of the House of Representatives, Lauren Underwood and Alma Adams, created the Black Maternal Health Caucus. This caucus is one of the largest bipartisan groups in Congress, and its goal is to “work with…partners in industry, nonprofits, and the Administration to find solutions to ending disparities and achieving optimal birth outcomes for all families”. One creation by the caucus is the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, or more casually, the Momnibus. The Momnibus aims to address the maternal mortality crisis through investments in every aspect that may exacerbate mortality rates. It includes 13 bills that aim to enlarge the perinatal workforce so that it addresses diversity needs, extend the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) eligibility so that mothers can have support for longer periods of time after giving birth, increase support for mothers who are incarcerated, invest in federal programs that benefit mothers and infants during public health crises, promote vaccination among mothers, and more.

Another move towards progress is with President Biden’s proposed 2024 budget. This budget incorporates $471 million in funding. One of the tangible things that it will include is Medicaid for twelve months postpartum. These efforts are admirable beginning steps; however, the work is far from complete.

 

France’s New Ban on The Abaya in Public Schools

by Caileigh Moose

Since the 1960s, the demographics of immigrants entering France have shifted. In 1968, the largest immigrant groups included Spaniards, Italians, and Portuguese, and were primarily Christian in faith. Today, the majority of these groups come from North African nations like Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, where Islam is the predominant religion. Thus, with these immigration shifts, in recent years, Islam has become the second largest faith in France, accounting for 10 percent of the French population, second to Christianity, which rests at almost 30% percent.

This diversification of society has unleashed reactive backlash, with many on the French right driving up what many have called anti-Islam and Islamophobic policies. Recent examples include the 2004 French law forbidding “conspicuous” religious symbols in France and the 2021 French separatism law, which extended the “neutrality principle” (under which civil servants are, among other things, prevented from wearing religious symbols like hijabs) to all private contractors of public services. One political science researcher with the National Centre of Scientific Research has deemed current French president Emmanuel Macron’s first term “gloomy” for French Muslim citizens, referring to the ever-darkening outlook for religious protections that has colored the tone of French policy during Macron’s time in office.

All these fears have culminated in the newest piece of legislation targeting France’s growing Muslim population, so that this year, as French schools started back earlier this September, their female students faced a new, highly controversial restriction: a ban on the abaya.

 

Four teen girls in hijabs paired with modern clothing are leaning against a wall, looking at their phones.Source: Yahoo Images
Four teen girls in hijabs paired with modern clothing are leaning against a wall, looking at their phones. Source: Yahoo Images

 

The abaya, which is sometimes simply referred to as the aba, is most commonly known as a loose, typically black, floor-length dress worn primarily by Muslim women. The word itself, translated from Arabic, means simply “dress.” The abaya is mainly popular in the Middle Eastern region of the world, in nations like Saudi Arabia or Yemen, where the garment’s prevalence can be attributed to its alignment with cultural and religious preferences towards modesty within the area.

Its ban was justified by French Education Minister Gabriel Attal through the French concept of “laïcité.” This term essentially defines the ardent secularism that France has in relation to its public institutions, arguably much stricter than an average American’s idea of what the separation of church and state looks like. For example, this idea of laïcité has previously led to the ban of all overtly religious symbols within French public schools, including large Christian crosses, Jewish kippahs, and Islamic hijabs. Now, it is being used to target the abaya. French Education Minister Gabriel Attal attempted to explain the decision through the reasoning that “when put in the framework of a school, it is very clear: you enter a classroom, and you must not be able to identify the religious identity of students just by looking at them.”

Those who celebrate the law are quick to draw this religious connection between the abaya and Islam. However, it is important here to recognize that the abaya is not itself directly connected to the religion of Islam but to select Muslim cultures. Despite what the French Ministry of Education claims about how wearers of the abaya are “immediately recognizable as belonging to the Muslim religion” and, as such, violate the standards for secularism within the French educational system, opponents of the ban have protested that the abaya has no direct religious affiliation. Its wearing is not mandated by any Islamic text, nor is it compulsory dress for the religion; it merely fulfills the religion’s requirements regarding modesty.

 

A woman gazing out into the desert, dressed in a black abaya and hijab.Source: Yahoo Images
A woman gazing out into the desert, dressed in a black abaya and hijab. Source: Yahoo Images

 

In 2018, a Saudi senior religious scholar of Islam drew mixed reactions when he stated that the abaya shouldn’t be expected or necessary dress for Muslim women, citing the statistic that over ninety percent of practicing Muslim women do not, in fact, wear the abaya. Instead, most women will simply choose to wear loose-fitting dresses, ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and anything else that meets the modest standards of their religion, all of which are typical in Western culture and all of which are completely acceptable to wear inside a French school. This may lead some to ask the question: Is this ban truly in keeping with France’s educational goals of secularism, or does it simply originate from a xenophobic attitude surrounding Muslim culture and the modest standards they practice?

Many members of France’s Left would argue the latter. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a 2022 French presidential candidate, accused the ban of initiating an “absurd, entirely artificial religious war about a woman’s dress,” and Clémentine Autain, one of La France Insoumise’s MPs, called it “characteristic of an obsessional rejection of Muslims.” The ADM (Action Droits des Musulmans), a group that advocates for the rights of Muslims within France, expressed concerns about the risks of ethnic profiling in schools and how the ban might create a target on the backs of Muslim children, especially since the ban includes no clear legal definition of what an abaya is. It will now be up to the school officials and administration to determine what constitutes an abaya and what does not, further fueling speculation that the ban is discriminatory in nature and will only encourage one-sided racial and ethnic stereotyping based on “the supposed origin, last name or skin color” rather than what they wore.

However, despite bringing legal challenges and these concerns over its implementation, France’s highest administrative court, The Council of State, upheld the law in early September, finding that the abaya “was part of a process of religious affirmation” based on the comments from student discussions. France’s new school year has already seen some resistance to the new legislation, with almost 70 Muslim girls sent home on the first day of school for refusing to change their attire in accordance with the new dress code. Whether it serves to reinforce or deteriorate the rights of all French students, time will tell.

If you would like to learn more about the potential social justice impact of this new legislation and what resistance the ban will see in the future, you can visit ADM’s website.

 

The Excessive Nature of Overconsumption in American Culture

by Lexie Woolums

One of the things that dominate American society is what I like to call the “epitome of excess.”

We live in a capitalistic culture that thrives on consumers’ dissatisfaction. Our society’s culture defines American success as getting promoted to a position high enough that one can make enough money to purchase a big house in the suburbs, add a few cars, and have an annual family vacation.

Influencers on social media have added to this growing consumption. People have access to information via “Get Ready With Me” vlogs on TikTok, which feature various (expensive) products to desire based on trends that go in and out of style in just a few short months. This cultural desire to keep up with trends causes a constantly growing urge to have more. Nearly everything is capitalized on, giving us a concept initially coined by Herbert A. Simon in the 1960s known as the attention economy. Digital creators earn money based on views and engagement from their followers. People online regularly discuss strategies to “trick the algorithm” to further capitalize on this economy where time is one of the most valuable things someone can “give,” similar to how we have traditionally viewed money and, later, information. The phrase “time is money” comes to mind, but not in the same way that my grandparents would understand it.

Beyond seeking to maximize the number of seconds a viewer will stay on the video before swiping, this culture has other effects. It pushes for overconsumption. It has become common to see content creators post videos of six dresses they ordered while asking their followers to “help them choose which one to wear” to the event they have coming up. When I was in high school, everyone wanted the Hydro flask. Today, it is the Stanley Cup. As I wrote this article, I was notified that the newest cup fascination is an Owala.

A girl taking a picture of a folded piece of pizza with her phone
Figure 1- Source: Yahoo Images; Taking photos and videos to put on social media is easier than ever.

It has even become ordinary for content creators to try and capture views by “de-influencing” whatever the sought-after object is at the time. Spoiler alert: this is generally just pointing to a different brand of metal cup on Amazon that is better and cheaper than the almighty Stanley cup (and, coincidentally, listed in the person’s Amazon storefront, where they earn a commission on every purchase made).

This is just influencing—a system that attempts to capitalize on the attention that follows dissent.  The concept is not new, but it has changed how people earn money.

People run entire side hustles by making videos showcasing “Five Products You Need from Amazon,” with aesthetic videos of acrylic containers or trendy dresses.

It is normal to hear people joke about “doomscrolling” for hours online, highlighting the over-encompassing nature of modern social media and its role in our everyday lives. The pervasive nature of this beast has become an accepted fact of life, so we do not always think about questioning it. It takes a degree of separation before one might stop and think, what is the cost of this lifestyle? We do not generally stop to consider how the Amazon package made it to our house in two days. We rarely ask who made the trendy cup we found at Walmart or the skirt we found at American Eagle.

We rarely ask any questions about the actual cost of what we consume.

Customers entering and exiting an escalator to enter Zara fashion store.
Figure 2- Source: Yahoo Images; Zara is a well-known fast fashion brand.

As a culture, we are so far disconnected from the places and communities that create the products we use that many Americans would struggle to imagine what life would be like if we did not have access to these things. As a culture, we love a bargain, especially when we get to tell someone else about the three-dollar T-shirt we found at Target. What a steal!

It is a culture of mass consumption, and no one is immune to it. From a nicer car to a bigger house to a new water bottle or wardrobe (even when you do not use most of what you have), the desire to have more continues, especially within fashion.

Overconsumption has more negative effects than I can effectively capture in one blog post. It exists in all aspects of life across all sectors of commerce. Based on personal experience as a woman living in the world, fast fashion is one of the most pervasive issues that could be addressed more effectively if more people stopped to question before they purchased.

For this reason, I am honing in on fashion today, but by no means is that to imply that fashion is the sole or most important issue of our insatiable, overconsuming culture.

 

History

To contextualize the history of fashion consumption, it is important to mention how the fashion industry has shifted its production model over time.

Historically, most clothing purchased in the United States was produced within the country, created by garment workers during the Industrial Revolution. While I will not delve into much of the history here, my colleague, Kala Bhattar, wrote a phenomenal blog that delves further into the history of fashion. I highly encourage people to check that out if they are interested.

A black and white photo that shows a large textile machine with a child standing in the foreground and an older person standing blurred in the background
Figure 3- Source: Yahoo Images; A child working on a textile machine in the industrial era

For the purpose of this blog, the critical thing to note is that this system of domestic production and consumption is no longer standard (and is actually pretty rare) and that most large fashion companies have shifted production into different countries in the Global South, so they can take advantage of the cheaper labor.

 

Pollution

According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry in the world, sitting right behind big oil. As of 2019, H&M was known for having $4.1 billion worth of unsold clothes. Some of the unsold clothing is used to fuel a power plant in Sweden. Still, H&M (and many other brands) still produce a high quantity of textile waste that never gets used, and in many places, it gets sent straight to landfills. People consume 400% more clothing today than twenty years ago. This excessive consumption tends to contribute to human rights inequities like gender inequality since most garment workers are women. It also contributes to the climate crisis due to the manufacturing of chemicals and landfilled textile waste.

The entire business model of fast fashion companies exists based on the idea that consumers will buy things, wear them a few times, and then toss them out and buy more to try and keep up with cycling trends. This model relies on (and intends for) the products to only be used a few times before being thrown out.

With our current consumption habits, the best-case scenario is that an item will be purchased and worn a few times before being discarded. That is a pretty pitiful best-case scenario.

A landfill with dirt to the right and general waste to the left. A large tractor can be seen in the background.
Figure 4- Source: Yahoo Images; Fast fashion is often landfilled after only a few wears

 

Varying Disparities

Fast fashion’s impact on human rights depends on the location, which widely varies. In the United States, the textile waste predominantly goes to landfills. A 2007 North Carolina study showed how solid waste landfills are disproportionately located in Black neighborhoods. In the world abroad, it is known that fast fashion companies like Zara and Forever 21 capitalize on the cheaper labor in the Global South, resulting in what many have called “modern slavery.”

Extensive human rights violations are associated with fast fashion, from child labor to exposure to toxic chemicals to dangerous working conditions. For instance, in a 2022 undercover investigation, it was discovered that Shein employees work 18-hour days with one day off per month and make as little as 4 cents per garment.

I am keeping this section brief not because these problems are not important but to discuss potential solutions because the ultimate truth is that many people already know about these issues, and we need action.

 

Affordability

I would be remiss without mentioning the most significant barrier to purchasing slow fashion, and that is affordability.

Since we live in a culture that encourages overconsumption, some may scoff at spending more than twenty dollars on a pair of jeans. We are used to the cheap stuff and accustomed to buying something to use it for a few times before pawning it off at the thrift store or throwing it in the trash can.

Sustainable brands are notoriously expensive by modern standards, and not everyone can afford those brands because they are the exception rather than the rule. In the past, clothing has been made to last for generations, so it was expected that consumers would pay higher prices upon the new purchase.

I want to be clear here that in no way am I trying to overromanticize the past systems of the fashion industry. I would highly doubt that some Americans today seek to abolish the minimum wage or have children working in our factories again. With that being said, we have lost the skills, knowledge, and willpower to make our purchases last in a way that respects the resources and labor it took to make the piece.

 

Conclusion and Solutions

In terms of solutions, there are some things that we can do to spark change within the fashion industry. These actions exist on two primary fronts: purchasing and—let me emphasize this one here—NOT purchasing.

Regarding true ethics and sustainability, relying on companies to make ethical decisions is not the best strategy since many of them are dishonest about their products’ true social and environmental sustainability. This includes many brands that some would consider to be “sustainable.” Fashion companies are notorious for greenwashing their products, making them appear a better option, even when most of their clothing is not produced ethically or sustainably.

Due to this, consumers should focus on reducing their consumption overall rather than buying when possible.

The best way to minimize the impact on people and the planet manipulated by the fashion industry is to stop buying from those brands. If you need something new and want to buy it, I encourage you to return to your closet and shop from there (because you probably do not need anything). This might sound crazy, but most of us have more than we need, and we must recognize that and act accordingly.

Another solution is to borrow something from a friend or family member. Thrifting or buying secondhand can also be good options to minimize your impact.

All of these examples mentioned fall under the front of not purchasing. If a shirt has holes, learn to mend it to be re-worn. If you want to wear something new to an event, ask a friend to borrow something or try to style something in a new way. Use what you have, and you will be forced to be more creative.

Two women talking to each other. They are standing between two clothing rails on the street at a secondhand clothing sale.
Figure 5- Source: Yahoo Images; People shopping at a clothing swap

It can also be helpful to consider the washing instructions for specific items. Many articles of clothing would last significantly longer if they were hang-dried or hand-washed.

When these options have been exhausted, and you must purchase something new, be selective. As a consumer, making conscious choices when purchasing new clothing dramatically helps. Suppose you cannot picture yourself wearing something often, or you know the item does not go with anything you have. In that case, it is probably a good idea to refrain from purchasing it.

If you cannot afford to spend a lot of money on clothes, fast fashion is going to be the obvious choice, so it is best to focus on making a mindful purchase with an item you will wear for a long time. Beyond that, the best thing is to take care of your clothes as best as possible to maximize the use you can get out of them.

If you love a staple piece from a sustainable brand, try to save up to invest in it—I guarantee you that it will probably last for years. I recommend this website to check on brands you are interested in—it rates brands based on environmental impact, labor conditions, and animal welfare.

 

Final Thoughts

We all experience the desire to have more, and that is not always a bad thing. Still, our culture has a lot of work to do regarding setting realistic expectations about the number of things we think we need.

For better or worse, I am an optimist at heart, and I am confident we can do better.

Food Insecurity: Ecuador and the Global Poor

Since 2014 and the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity has been steadily rising, with hundreds of millions being threatened by malnutrition and hunger. In 2020, above 30% of the global population was found to be moderately or severely food insecure. Food insecurity affects different populations in distinct ways, and in order to understand this more clearly, we examine Ecuador. Here, historical contexts have unique influences on food insecurity, but also, this nation exemplifies the reality that low-income nations face when combatting hunger. 

Facts and figures of food insecurity in Ecuador 

Hunger is an issue that is widespread globally and within Latin America and the Caribbean. In fact, researchers Akram Hernández-Vásquez, Fabriccio J. Visconti-Lopez, and Rodrigo Vargas-Fernández found that the region has the second-highest figures for food insecurity globally. The region is also predicted to be the fastest-growing in food insecurity rates. 

Ecuador is just one example of why food insecurity manifests and in which populations. The country is ranked second in the region for chronic child malnutrition: 23% of children under five and 27% of children lack access to proper nutrition. 

According to the Global Food Banking Network, an international non-profit focused on alleviating hunger, 900,000 tons of food are wasted or lost yearly in Ecuador. This is an alarming statistic considering that 33% of the population experienced food insecurity between 2018 and 2020 一 a threefold increase since 2014-2016. 

Economic conditions have only been heightened in the pandemic, leading to widespread protests across the nation by indigenous people demanding equitable access to education, healthcare, and jobs. In sum, indigenous people cannot afford to get by, exacerbating existing food insecurity.

A man holding a protest sign with a few people to the left.
Figure 1: Source: Flickr, Motoperu; Protesters holding a sign that says “No more injustice, eliminate lifetime presidential salaries,” Cuenca, Ecuador.

Maria Isabel Humagingan, a 42-year-old Indigenous Quichua from Sumbawa in Cotopaxi province described why she was protesting to Aljazeera reporter Kimberley Brown

“For fertilizer, for example, it used to be worth $15 or up to $20, now it costs up to $50 or $40. Sometimes we lost everything [the whole crop]. So we no longer harvest anything.”

During a time when global inflation is rising, it is the poorest people who are at the most risk. Even those who used to live on subsistence farming are vulnerable. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found that Ecuador’s food insecurity had risen from 20.7% to 36.8% in one year during the pandemic, and it is apparent that indigenous peoples are the most at risk during this time. 

This is not to mention the fact that during a time when global hunger is growing, there is a disproportionate impact on women. Ultimately, food insecurity, while complex and layered, is a mirror of the prejudices and inequalities of society. In order to better understand why and who is impacted, we first need to understand two components: is food available (production and imports), is the food adequate (nutritious), and is food accessible (affordability)? 

Factors behind food insecurity in Ecuador and beyond 

Environmental Racism 

Ecuador has a long history of environmental racism, and for the sake of brevity, we will be focusing on the practices of Texaco/Chevron and its impact on soil fertility. 

Victoria Peña-Parr defines environmental racism as,

“minority group neighborhoods—populated primarily by people of color and members of low-socioeconomic backgrounds—… burdened with disproportionate numbers of hazards including toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and other sources of environmental pollution and foul odors that lower the quality of life.”

From 1964 to 1990, Texaco (which merged with Chevron in 2001) drilled oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Over 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater were dumped in water sources and unlined open pits left to seep into the soil and devastate clean water sources for people and agriculture. Additionally, 17 million gallons of crude oil were spilled in the disaster now known as “Amazon Chernobyl.” Ecuadorians, a good majority of which were indigenous peoples displaced from their land due to environmental destruction, levied a suit against Chevron which was won in February 2011. 

Indigenous people standing behind and looking at an open and unlined oil pit.
Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images; Indigenous people overlooking one of 900 unlined, open oil pits from Chevron.

During the judicial process, 916 unlined and abandoned pits of crude oil were found. The human rights implications of this historic case and horrifying disregard for human and environmental safety are lengthy, in order to learn more read this blog by Kala Bhattar

With this brief background in mind, it is clear to see how this would impact agricultural production, particularly in rural areas where indigenous persons live. Moreover, Afro-Ecuadorians, while only making up 7.2% of the population, are 40% of those living in poverty in the entire country. Most Afro-Ecuadorians live in the province of Esmeraldas, one of the poorest in the country, where most people live off agriculture and “85% of people live below the poverty line.”

UN experts have found that this population is the most vulnerable to environmental racism, suffering from systematic contamination of water supplies and intimidation. 

As people suffer through the impacts of a ravaged environment, they must continue to rely on subsistence farming without aid. When crops fail to provide enough economically and for individual families, many go without in this impoverished region. 

Climate Change

Global warming is leading to changes in weather patterns that have a serious impact on agricultural production 一, particularly in low-income countries that rely on seasonal rains, temperature, and other factors. 

Climate change has also led to more severe and deadly disruptions, from hurricanes and earthquakes to monsoons, flooding, and mudslides. Ecuador has been suffering from these climate changes, despite only producing 2.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions per capita (the US comparatively emitted 5,222 million tons in 2020). 

Specifically, Ecuador has suffered from a lack of water, specifically irrigation water, landslides, droughts, and heavy rains. The last two aforementioned climate impacts are particularly salient issues as it has impacted seed development by not allowing them to germinate or produce

Image of a map with areas ranging from blue to deep red to indicate areas under threat by climate change. Latin America, Sub-saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia are the most threatened.
Figure 3: Source: Yahoo Images, Mannion, et al. in Trends in Ecology & Evolution; Worldmap where biodiversity is threatened the most by climate change.

In all, the consequences of climate change are having disproportionate effects on low-income states globally in spite of the that they have historically contributed very little to greenhouse emissions. The worst impacts are on nations surrounding the equator and countries with relatively hot climates 一 both of which tend to be low-income countries. 

Ukraine War

Due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, food prices have been rising. Ukraine is a leading wheat producer globally. It is the seventh-largest producer of wheat, supplies 16% of the world’s corn, and 40% of the world’s sunflower oil. In the summer of 2022, 22 million tons of grain were stranded in Ukrainian ports, causing mostly low-income countries to feel the growing threat of food insecurity. 

Additionally, Ukraine supplied 40% of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) wheat supply. The immediate impact of this is clear in the 45% increase in wheat prices in Africa alone, while any country that receives aid from WFP (which Ecuador has since 1964) is threatened directly by the situation. 

As food prices continue to soar, the price of food sold within lower-income nations remains the same, creating a gap between cost and production. The conflict has also led to increases in the price of fuel and fertilizer, leading to food insecurity in many countries beyond just Ecuador. The war in Ukraine has disrupted global food supply chains and led to the largest global food crisis since WWII

Hunger and the human right to food 

There has long been a precedent in the international human rights framework for the right to food, beginning with the first declaration (unanimously accepted) in 1948. In Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the right to an adequate standard of living is guaranteed to everyone with the express mention of food. Fast forward 20 years later, and once more, Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) reiterates (almost identically) the right to food. 

The ICESCR actually expounds further on a state’s responsibility to free everyone from hunger, specifically outlining that either individually or through international cooperation specific programs should be developed to address food insecurity and hunger. Moreover, the covenant addresses that food-importing and food-exporting countries should both be reviewed for problems that would impact the equitable distribution of food globally. Lastly, agrarian systems should be reformed to address nutrition and achieve maximum utilization and efficient use of agricultural resources.

 Image of a bowl with the words “Zero Hunger” from the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Figure 4: Source: Yahoo Images, United Nations; Logo of the second Sustainable Development Goal to end hunger.

In 1999, the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights convened to review the progress to end hunger. General Comment 12 reiterated the obligation of states to fulfill the aforementioned responsibilities. Most crucially, however, was the specific mention that states must immediately address issues of discrimination that plague food insecurity. In the case of Ecuador, it is clear that this remains a salient issue. 

Most recently, in 2015, during a historic UN summit, world leaders adopted 17 objectives to be achieved by 2030. Known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the second objective is to create a “Zero Hunger” world by 2030. 

Conclusion: Fighting Food Insecurity 

According to the World Food Program, 60% of the world’s hungry live in areas afflicted by conflict. There is no simple way to end a conflict, but it is crucial that all states remember their commitments to the SDGs and ICESCR. This means that states need to step in to provide nutritious food when a home state will not or cannot. Just like Red Cross, journalists, and other humanitarian organizations are protected by international humanitarian law from being targeted in conflict, so too should persons ensuring food access to people. Moreover, countries should address the factors that contribute to food insecurity such as environmental racism and climate change. 

There is no one solution for this issue since there is no single cause. However, by refusing to accept these conditions, learning more about the causes and conditions of food insecurity, and demanding more, we can begin to bring about a world that truly is free from hunger.

  • Food Insecurity in Birmingham, AL by Mary Bailey
  • America: The Land of the Hungry by Kala Bhattar 
  • The Right to Food: A Government Responsibility by Zee Islam 
  • Donate to the World Food Program
  • Learn more and get directly involved with SDGs 
  • Follow @uab_ihr for Speaker events, blogs, and to learn more about supporting human rights locally and globally