It takes a lot of love, effort and dedication to be a good mother. For that reason, I believe it is important that everyone has the choice whether or not to be a parent, and when to take on that responsibility. Unfortunately, many girls around the world do not get to choose. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic remains a pain to society because it is definitely complicating the efforts of reducing teenage pregnancies. It has caused an immeasurable disruption to every aspect of our lives in the last few months. To contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, governments have taken drastic measures to minimise the spread. Learning has been suspended, with schools being closed indefinitely. Religious meetings and worship programs have been affected similarly meaning there will be no more youth programs in the religious institutions, including churches and mosques for the time being.
In Kenya, the Ministry of Education has put in place strategies to ensure continuity of education through distance online learning delivered through radio, television and the internet. However, these strategies have further widened the inequality gap, as learners from poor, vulnerable, and marginalized households are unable to benefit from continued learning through these platforms due to lack of access. Further, with the loss of livelihoods particularly in low income households, some children may be forced into income-generating activities to support their families’ survival. Also, school closure has stopped the provision of school meals and sanitary towels.
And it’s more complicated for girls living in refugee camps or girls that are internally displaced. For them, school closures are even more devastating as they are already a disadvantaged group. Girls at secondary level are only half as likely to enroll as their male peers. While the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented, we can look to the lessons learned from the Ebola epidemic. At the height of the epidemic, five million girls were affected by school closure across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the countries hardest hit by the outbreak. And poverty levels rose significantly as education was interrupted.
There is evidence that links poverty with teenage pregnancies during this pandemic. One reason is because many young girls are getting involved in economic activities to supplement what their parents are bringing home. On the other hand, as the cases rise day by day there is a strain on the healthcare system, leading to the disruption of healthcare services, re-prioritization of sexual and reproductive and health services and a. shortage of contraceptive commodities and essential drugs. As SRHR services are reducing, sexual behaviour is rising since the teenagers have nothing to do, and it seems to be more risky where parents don’t really care what their children are doing while at home. I feel that there will be more unintended pregnancies all over the world, many of which will occur among teenage girls.
As I have discussed, there is no culture or tradition, it just happens. There are girls, especially those who come from communities or families that are rooted in culture and traditions, these girls must undergo what their parents wants them to, and the girls have no choice in the matter because their hope was school where they would run for help.
For example, in the Maasai community, when a girl is at least nine years old she is circumcised then married after two to four weeks. These girls are now expected to take care of their husband and to bear children at that early age.
Unintended pregnancies among teenagers may result in some difficulties in the lives of young girls. There are unsafe abortions, which may happen as a decision of the girl maybe to feel clean and also as a result of family decision in order to keep the family name clean. There is increased poverty where a girl who is being provided everything with the struggling parents bring another baby who needs to be taken care off and be provided everything as they are babies and as they grow all the way to adulthood. At some point there may be denial where by the parents kick out their daughters because of getting pregnant early because they have disgraced the family. This may cause psychological problems because she doesn’t have the supporting system which may force her to get married not only at an early age but also to an old man who may be violent on her. If not marriage she may have suicidal thoughts. Early pregnancies are the leading cause of deaths among the teenage girls because their bodies are not yet matured to give birth. The girls who are forced into marriage as teenagers, the responsibility that they are given drains them off because also their minds are not yet matured to do what is expected of them, which may lead them to be beaten and abused. Everyone deserves to enjoy their childhood.
Something has to be done before it’s too late. The governments should have committees that will develop and implement proven solutions. Different stakeholders should work to respond and to prevent by meeting the unique needs of adolescents by may be providing sanitary towels and also help them access SRHR services. The people responsible for taking care of pregnant teenage girls should teach them how to improve their sexual and reproductive health and well-being. Lastly I believe there are already existing activists in our towns and villages and they can potentially help to reduce negative coping mechanisms, such as child, early and forced marriage, especially during this time, where every energy is driven to the corona situation.
When everyone gets to know and understand the importance of education, they are interested to be part of it, and parents or guardians (those who understand the need to have a learned child) try to fight for them so that they can be educated. There is a very big knowledge gap and also the quality of education between the advanced areas and the areas that are trying to come up. I will name it a crisis.
In Kenya we had a curricula that really didn’t consider every kind of person. I think everyone is intelligent on their own way, but this curricula focused on children who sit down, listen to a teacher and are able to solve a mathematics equations. It didn’t consider the capability of every child. Thank God the curricula was changed and it was effective as early as last year so that at least now there are classes that can help children discover what they like and most of it all, what they can do best. But still, it is tiresome. The kids need to be in school as early as 6am and they are off school at 6pm.
Every year there are children who needs to join high school, but you know what, those who make it are children who come from the wealthy backgrounds, and we developed a saying that said ‘education is for the rich.’ I believe there are funds that are kept aside by the government to educate the needy students. But the ones who are in charge of issuing the funds to them are guilty of using the money for their own benefit. I have heard of two cases this year.
One, there is a boy who scored very high marks in primary school, and what his mother could afford are two bars of soap. The poor mother took his boy to school with two bars of soap with no school fees nor shopping. Another incident was about a disabled boy who was abandoned by his mother and since he has been living with his grandmother. The boy also had scored high and he absolutely qualified to join high school. The grandmother was old, so the boy had to walk to the school, which started at 8:00AM. Keep in mind that he had nothing with him. These are the cases that we know of because the media reported them. I know there are still those who suffer in silence maybe they really don’t know what to do. All this happens because there are people somewhere who are using money that is meant to help the needy. And I will add that this also happens in employment. And with this we have another saying, ‘if you have no connections stay with your mum.’ This is because you will find almost the whole family in good paying jobs.
Another big challenge, is about teachers being so serious which to an extent I may call it being harsh. There are teachers who beat the children, and as a result, children lose interest in school or even completely hate everything about school. Recently somewhere in Kenya, 14 children died and 39 injured in a stampede. The pupils reportedly started running out of the classrooms after a bell rung to go home. Some pupils said a teacher, who was carrying a stick behind them, ordered them to leave quickly and they started running down the stairs. The pupils in front stumbled and fell and those behind also tripped. And that’s how the children met their death. With this you may find some parents may fear their children attending class in the name of keeping their children safe.
Among the disadvantaged families there are also girls who don’t attend classes due to lack of sanitary towels. They are forced to stay back home for at least a week so that they can get through their menses. This makes some of the girls fail their exams because they have missed several lessons and as a result they may end up dropping out of school due to their low self-esteem, which probably developed due to poor results. At the end, men remain on top of women in everything. There is a lot of gender-based violence, and the affected are the women, while the top positions in every sector are for the most part held by men. Hopefully we will get out of this because the government and some NGOs are trying to distribute sanitary towels to school. Thanks to them.
In the map, among the countries that borders Kenya are Somalia and Sudan. These countries war still exists, note that it is not a one time thing. The fate of school children trapped in conflict areas deserves even more agent attention. According to my research, there are many attacks staged on Kenyan schools that are around the boarder.in ¾ of those, troops and rebel forces turned classrooms into military posts. Hundreds of children are recruited to fight, sometimes made to serve as suicide bombers, or forced to endure direct attacks. The learning environment is not be at peace if learning continues because of the gun-shots, gangs, and unruly youths and by sexual predators on school premises. This is another reason why parents won’t let their children go to school, and of course, girls are the most affected.
In every society there is what they believe which may be considered not to be true. There are some communities that are tied to culture. In the Samburu, Masaai, Pokot, to mention but a few, believe that girls are meant to be wives and not to be educated. Boys are taken to school and even they are lucky enough to attend university while the girls are forced to stay with their mothers at home so that they can be taught how to be the best wife.
Sustainable Development Goal 4 says, ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning.’ Despite the considerable progress on education access and participation, there are children and youth who are still out of school. For us to reach the goal, they should fix the learning crisis. Maybe the following should be considered: Promote gender equality, social mobility, and intercultural understanding. Safeguard that persons with disability are included in the education. Respond to those learning challenges caused by conflict. Align school curricula and work needs for competencies and skills. And most of all fight corruption.
I believe that education has the power to shape the world. A quality experience in the classroom helps promote mutual respect and understanding between people. It can help change behaviour and perceptions, thereby fighting unsustainable practices. Above all education does not choose because it empowers everyone, meaning that it protects both men and women from exploitation in the labour market, and the empowering of women enables them to make choices. Everyone needs freedom, and education sets us free.
In early August, Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman, went out with her soon-to-be fiancé on a chaperoned date. As all couples often do, Israa and her fiancé posted a video of their time together on social media. This innocent, loving video would soon incriminate Israa; after seeing the video, three male members of her family were angered, claiming that she had dishonored the family by appearing in public with a man who was not yet her husband. A few days later, these relatives physically attacked Israa, and due to her injuries resulting from this attack, she was hospitalized. Shortly after her hospitalization, a video filmed outside of Israa’s hospital room circulated online, in which Israa’s screams and intermittent thuds can be audibly heard; she was being beaten again. Israa died a day later. However, it is unfair to merely state that she died; Israa was murdered, the victim of an honor killing.
What are Honor Killings?
Honor killings and crimes are committed against a family member who is deemed to have acted socially or culturally unacceptably, and thus is seen to be bringing dishonor to the family. These are almost always carried out by male relatives, and the victim is almost always a woman; 93 percent of honor killing victims are women. According to the United Nations, 5,000 women and girls are victims of honor killings every year. Thus, while males are sometimes victims of honor killings as well, the following discourse pertaining to honor killings will focus solely on female victims.
What’s to Blame?
It is important to begin by noting that honor killings are strictly rooted in culture. Because honor killings are largely carried out in the Middle East/North Africa regions and South Asia, which are Muslim majority areas, Islam is often blamed for encouraging this practice. However, Islam cannot be identified as the culprit in these situations, as it strictly opposes such treatment of women. Further, women being murdered by male relatives or partners is not exclusive to Muslim majority countries; in France, 120 women were killed by their partners in 2018. Considering this is a phenomenon that is not restricted to one culture or region, the culprit is something that is shared across most societies of the world: misogyny, or prejudice against women. Most societies are still largely patriarchal, and thus have problems with women’s rights. While this is the case, many men within these societies are aware of the injustices women face and advocate for change, so it would be unfair to label all men as misogynistic. At the same time, though, many other men do ascribe to misogynistic ideologies, and often times, they act upon them. Honor killings are a blatant example of this; when males believe that their honor is tied to the behavior of the women in their lives, it is clear that misogyny is to blame. Further, to kill a girl in “honor” is to suggest that the girl is not her own person, but rather an object that is owned, emphasizing the misogyny underlying honor killings.
“The devil is not in the body of women; it is in your mind,” a powerful statement that was displayed on a sign of one of the protestors, is a fundamental notion that must be understood. The ideas that women are inherently inferior, and that women’s bodies are for men to control, are ideas that must be eradicated from our cultures and from predominant male thinking. To do this, certain steps must be taken. First, there needs to be a cultural upheaval involving both men and women to put an end to misogynistic belief systems. This is an effort that begins at a very grassroot level, and starts with changing mentalities of future generations; when boys and girls are raised the same, when boys are taught to respect and value women, when girls are empowered and are made to believe that they are not subservient or inferior to men, we slowly move towards making misogynistic ideologies obsolete. It is important to note this is not an effort that must only be undertaken by communities in the Arab world, but rather is an effort that should be undertaken by communities world-wide. Second, laws need to be put into place to hold men accountable for their abuse of women. It is insufficient to merely pass laws without also enforcing them, as men will believe that they can get away with their crimes without suffering any consequences.
Until the aforementioned changes are made within these societies, it is unlikely that any progress will be made. However, this is not an option; these societies were complicit in the deaths of many women and girls, including Israa. While they cannot bring back the lives that were taken, they must make these changes to ensure no more lives are taken in the name of “honor.”
Delaware, on May 9, 2018, became the first US state to prohibit child marriage, removing loopholes and exceptions that currently exists in marriage laws in every other state. This historic legislation–the first of its kind in the US–champions and protects the rights of children, especially girls. **This blog is a repost from 2016.
Imagine for a moment that you are a 13-year-old girl. Your parents are no longer as cool as they were when you were in elementary school but life on the whole is pretty chill. With the exception of awkward junior high encounters with people of the opposite sex, the occasional bully, unbearable PE class, and dreadful puberty, being a kid isn’t awful. Personally, you’ve graduated from earning coins for your chores to actual dollar bills and from having a pink room filled with stuffed animals to one with posters of your favorite boy band and magazine cutouts of women you want to dress like when you turn 18. At 18, real life happens. At 18, you’re an adult and the whole world knows it! Everything about your 13-year-old life is moving towards adulthood until your parents let you know that one of their friends is interested in marrying you. He is a nice man who is at least 10, 20, 30 years older than you so he will be able to take care of you, just like you were his own child. Except that you would not be his child, you’d be his wife. In all the ways a wife takes care of a husband…
Children are not small adults. They are molded by socialization as a result of the physical and cultural contexts of their lives (Boothby, 2006; Goodhart, 2013). They are vulnerably presented and completely dependent upon adults, typically parents, for the purpose of nurturing potential and protecting innocence (Garbarino, 1991). Garbarino asserts, “childhood is a special period in the life course when we shield the individual from the direct demands of the economic, sexual, and political forces of the adult world” (p. 10). Childhood is the loci for growth and development.
The United Nations International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), signed in 1989, defines who qualifies as a child and outlines ideas on how to care for those most vulnerable among us. For the purpose of this blog post, I will appropriate the definition of a child as defined by the CRC:
The Convention defines a ‘child’ as a person below the age of 18, unless the laws of a particular country set the legal age for adulthood younger. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, the monitoring body for the Convention, has encouraged States to review the age of majority if it is set below 18 and to increase the level of protection for all children under 18.
The notion of childhood was recognized as law by the international community with the passage of the CRC (Garbarino, 1991; Goodhart, 2013). The childhood experiences of the female differ so dramatically from the male. In 2013, Malala Yousafzai’s speech to the UN leadership, reintroduced the female experience into the global narrative as she requested improvement for and protection of the rights of women and girls. There is a significant disparity and cultural bias when attempting to define the daily lives of children, particularly girls, living in the global South and developing nations as compared to those in the global North and developed nations (Boothby, 2006). The United States of America is the only country in the world that has not ratified the CRC.
Child marriage is legal in the United States. In Massachusetts between 2010 and 2014, 200 children were married. The state does not have a “minimum age to get married, as long as minors receive judicial approval. Minors don’t need a lawyer, and the petition is only half a page. Parental approval is required, although with several exceptions.”
There were 4,500 children married over the course of 2004-2013 in the state of Virginia, and more than 200 of them were under the age of 15. On July 1, 2016, the state of Virginia passed a law that only adults could marry in the state. This new law replaced portions of the marriage law that had allowed for girls “13 or younger to marry if she had parental consent and was pregnant.” The new law has set the minimum marriage age at 18 but it also allows for emancipated minors of 16 to enter into marriage if a judge decides to overrule the law. Judges have the power to overturn this newly implemented law on the basis of four ideas:
If the minor is not being compelled to marry
If the parties are mature enough to get married
If the marriage will not endanger the minor
If marriage is in the best interest of the minor
Child marriage is illegal in some parts of the world, although it is common. Guatemala has recently increased the age of marriage to 18, while acknowledging there will need to be a cultural paradigm as to the relevant implication of “recognizing the full potential of girls and reframing how girls should be treated in society”. In Nigeria, child marriage is illegal; however, in the Northern, predominantly Muslim region of the country, the law is implied rather than enforced. Fifteen year-old Nigerian Wasila Tasi’u is a murderer. She poisoned her 35-year-old husband and three other men. For ten months, Tasi’u awaited trial in a Nigerian jail where she faced the death penalty. She was acquitted and will live with a foster family. Maryam Uwais believes this to be “an entirely avoidable tragedy, leaving in its wake four dead men and a thoroughly traumatised little girl. Poison – the only feasible escape to freedom – devised from the wild imagination of a naive, depressed little girl caught up in a painful forced marriage to a much older man. A tough lesson for families, communities and a government that is still ambivalent about sanctioning the perpetrators of child marriage.” The social justice organization, Girls Not Brides, has ranked Nigeria 13th in countries with the highest rates of child marriage, despite a governmental declaration entitled, Child Rights Act of 2003–which was created to make every action concerning a child and his/her best interest, a paramount consideration.
Child marriage impacts the female child more than the male child. Childhood creates the revelation of identity.
Young females in the West and developing nations should capitalize on their girlhood, embracing it as a time to discover themselves—their identity, their relationships with men, what boundaries or rules they can break without consequence, and to receive an education.
For child brides, the whimsy of girlhood is non-existent because they enter womanhood before they fully grasp puberty. The US has relegated the creation and implementation of marriage laws to the state level. The age of majority is 18 in the US. Although the state law of Virginia or Alabama [AL code 30-1-4] allows for a 16-year-old to marry, majority of Americans as well as the international world, she is still a minor who cannot vote, buy alcohol, work after 8pm, and possibly carries a high school identification card. For the thousands of children—90% of whom are girls—this change comes too late.
Child marriage does not take place solely in poor communities. In Virginia, the new law arose when Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel learned that a high school student in an affluent Northern Virginia district dropped out of school when she married a man in his fifties. The marriage, granted by the parents, halted all child-protection services. It is illegal to engage in sexual activities with a minor yet marriage laws make allowances and create caveats for offenders to marry their victims, rather than facing justice for their illegal behavior. Jeanne Smoot of Tahirih Justice Center states that the “laws can facilitate forced marriages of children.” It is to be understood that not all marriages are forced; however, who is standing up for the rights of the child to remain a child? The laws may not facilitate forced marriage of children, but they are failing to protect children from the threat of human trafficking, statutory rape, divorce, child abuse, domestic violence, poverty, mental health issues, premature death, and becoming a murderer.
Child marriage makes children targets because the authorities given agency to ensure their best interest aren’t always acting on the behalf of the child. Fraidy Reiss declares that children are not equipped to live and play in an adult world, considering the imbalance of power when married to an adult and lacking adequate resources to acquire help and freedom. Gerison Lansdown, Tony Waterson, and David Baum acknowledge that governments are failing to honor the four principles of the CRC as they relate to the world’s children, but also argue that lack of knowledge within civil society is not a valid excuse. “Ultimately the government is responsible for the full implementation of the convention” and everyone working with children need to do their part in helping to protect their rights (1565-6). Diana Francis identifies it as “people power.” People power is the decision to act at “any level…ensuring that those who have been the subjects of structures of domination discover and develop the power to participate in what affects them” (Francis, 2002). In other words, it is the voice of the collective speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, in order to arrive at justice and democracy for all.
Ending child marriage around the world is an essential target in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as a Sustainable Development Goal of the UN. The UN is responsible for global governance. It offers suggestions that may be refused if the country deems it is not in their best interest. Joel Oestreich says that despite being considered a Western ideal, countries have signed the CRC, recognizing it as a model of international consensus building and allowing UNICEF to work intra-nationally as well as internationally in order to provide the implantation of CRC standards as a way of life for the children (184). African nations have identified the necessity of bringing an end to child marriage; there needs to be long-term strategies, governmental infrastructure, and a responsible civil society working together to see an advancement. The same can be said of the United States. As a result of the Virginia legislation, bills are set to pass in California, New York, Maryland, and New Jersey. Nelson Mandela concluded that each of us as citizens, has a role to play in creating a better world for our children.
Boothby, Neil, Alison Strang and Michael Wessells. A world turned upside down: Social Ecological Approaches to Children in War Zones. Connecticut: Kumarian Press, 2006. Print.
Francis, Diana. People, Peace and Power: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures. London: Pluto, 2002. Print.
Garbarino, James, Kathleen Kostelny and Nancy Dubrow. No place to be a Child: Growing Up in a War Zone. Massachusetts: Lexington, 1991. Print.
Goodhart, Michael. Human Rights: Politics and Practice. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
Callaway, Rhonda L. and Julie Harrelson-Stephens. Exploring International Human Rights: Critical Connection – Studies in Peace, Democracy, and Human Rights. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2007. Print.
This repost is in honor of this Sunday: Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day in advance to all every MOM!!
The jarring sound of their discontented newborn’s piercing screams haunt many new mothers’ dreams—that is, if they can find the peace and quiet to fall asleep in the first place. It is an indisputable fact that having a new baby is incredibly difficult, exhausting, and wildly expensive. The costs continually rack up: costly medical care (for mom and baby), cribs, strollers, clothes, pacifiers, toys, mountains of diapers, hygiene products, etc. The list is nearly inexhaustible, and that’s just the bare minimum. Let’s take a look at the average cost of having a young child for the average family.
For families whose income level is at or under the median American income, the average monthly cost of a child under two is about $800. The average income of this group is $24,400 – this means that after expenditures on children, the average low-income family only has about $1,200 left to spend on their own food, healthcare, transportation, and emergency costs per month. The numbers only get more dire from here. For the 60% of single-mother families in poverty, the average monthly income ($1,387) minus costs of one child allows for about $600 a month for all the costs of daily living (Poverty Threshold 2016). This is the bare minimum with no money budgeted for entertainment, self-care, or emergency bills.
Maternity leave appears to be an additional luxury for families with non-working individuals and those who can afford designer diaper bags and color-coordinated nurseries. Often outsiders may conclude businesses or governments should not pay maternity leave; however, for many, every penny is absolutely crucial to maintain the very basic needs of their family. For these families, maternity leave is not a luxury, but a necessity. All those shocking numbers miss a crucial point. These statistics, as appalling as they are, are for the lucky minority of mothers who can secure an income during pregnancy and the period following childbirth.
In America, 88% of mothers are unable to receive pay for maternity leave. Federal law requires that companies larger than 50 employees must provide 12 weeks of maternity leave, but that leave is unpaid. For single mothers in poverty, it is estimated $4,161 in paychecks stop; significant money they could use for diapers, food, medicine, and bills. Over a third of mothers end up taking no formal time off from work, leaving their babies in costly childcare programs and often still suffering from the emotional and physical strain from childbirth when returning. Imagine growing an entire human being inside your womb for nine months, going through the arduous process of childbirth, and then having to return to your exhausting job as a fast food service worker two days later. That situation may seem like an exaggeration, but many mothers have these circumstances. This is a disservice to their humanity.
It is seemingly simple to ignore the suffering of such a vulnerable part of our population. Legislators seek to refuse abortions to women; however, they, at the very least, owe them the means to provide a safe, healthy, and nurturing environment to raise their baby. America is one of only three countries in the world deny paid maternity leave along with Oman and Papua New Guinea. Some may praise this policy (or lack thereof) for allowing the private sector to be more flexible or for conserving federal tax dollars. After all, why would anyone pay their employees when they are not even working? The truth of the matter is that paid maternity leave has an overwhelmingly positive impact on mothers, their children, and the company itself.
To consider some international policies, Finnish mothers can receive 17.5 weeks of maternity leave with up to 78% of their pay, along with essentials like bedding, clothing, and hygiene supplies. Stunningly, Bulgarian mothers have the option of nearly five years (58.6 weeks) of maternity leave with 90% of their salary. An in-depth study conducted by the University of North Carolina on European maternity leave policies found that paid maternity leave is indeed a cost-effective way for mothers to improve the health and success of their children. Paid-leave programs reduce infant mortality and increase pediatric health due to the ability of mothers to invest more time into their children. A Norwegian study conducted over seventeen years concluded that children whose mothers received paid maternity leave had higher IQs and higher college attendance rates than children of mothers who did not. This conclusively tells us that paid maternity leave is cost-effective, improves the health of children, reduces deaths, and ensures higher rates of success.
What does this lack of protection for new moms say about American culture? Do we not value our women or children? The United States has lagged behind in policies to promote women and children for decades. The policy that mandated twelve weeks of unpaid maternity leave was instituted in 1993. Prior to that, pregnant women and new mothers had no choice but to either lose their jobs or work in dangerous conditions for their health. Additionally, the U.S. has still not signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) or the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW 1979), though both have been signed by almost all other nations. Even when the legislation and infrastructure is there to offer some assistance to pregnant women, mothers, and children, American society seems resistant to those policies.
New mothers under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (known as WIC) often face stigma when buying their grocery items. The WIC program has strict limits on the amount and type of products that you can buy, so it’s easy to make mistakes and then hold up the checkout line accidentally. Mothers I personally know who participate in the WIC program have relayed their experiences of other customers scoffing, making rude remarks, and even confronting them while checking out. Participating in any welfare program tends to generate harsh criticism, making welfare users feel ashamed and stigmatized. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in particular has been characterized as being abused by people who only buy junk food and refuse to work. This is not the case: more than half of SNAP participants are children; data does not back up the rumors that SNAP benefits are disproportionately used to buy junk food; and the program has not been shown to discourage work (Dewey).
As far as benefit programs tailored specifically for new parents go, state policies across the U.S. have not been much better than it is at the national level. Only three states (California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey) currently have paid leave programs, though a fourth, New York, is soon to join in January 2018. Other states have classified pregnancy as a temporary disability, which allows new mothers to receive benefits from disability programs. Though beneficial and certainly needed, this practice is problematic as it reduces funding available for persons with disabilities instead of developing additional funding for new families. Alabama has no law that mandates paid leave or allows any form of additional benefits.
Why you should care? Basic empathy aside, international declarations and laws set several standards that impact how countries should treat pregnant women and new families. Article 25 of the UDHR states that “motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.” Additionally, according to Article 23, “everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.” American policy violates these globally accepted norms, as it has systematically denied proper care and assistance to mothers and children, as well as furthered the gender pay gap by obstructing mothers from earning income, hindering advancement in their career, and causing many to lose their jobs from sheer inability to work in the little time provided to recover. Though the United States has not ratified CEDAW which would make paid maternity leave a legal right, our nation still has the obligation to improve gender equality and promote the well-being of women and children.
Mental health is a topic that is becoming increasingly recognized as an important public conversation. It is usually focused on depression and anxiety and is often overlooked in the context of human rights. It is important to recognize that mental health is a public health issue, and therefore a human rights issue. Mental health has an irrefutable impact on an individual’s physical health and their quality of life. It can also harm their ability to receive an education. This blog will discuss Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and the issues created by the stereotypes and stigmas related to mental health.
Conditions like ADHD are frequently given a specific popularized depiction. Though the depiction may not be entirely incorrect, it is rarely inclusive of all the individuals experiencing these conditions. When people think of ADHD for example, they often think of a boy with a lot of behavioral problems and poor grades. The fact of the matter is that people with ADHD can be any gender and can have any kind of experience in school. Using stereotypes to inform our ideas about the people who have certain conditions impacts if and when people who have these conditions are able to receive a diagnosis and treatment. Because of this, girls with ADHD are frequently unaware of what they are experiencing.
What Is ADHD?
ADHD is a disorder that results from the way the brain develops. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood.” It is very important to understand that ADHD is not merely a behavioral issue. It is a condition that cannot be punished away. ADHD brains work differently than brains without ADHD. ADHD brains lack a sufficient amount of dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that transport signals in the brain. They are like filters for your brain. Dopamine helps to regulate the reward center of the brain, movement, and emotional responses. Norepinephrine strengthens signals that are relevant and important while blocking information that is unnecessary. Medicines that treat ADHD typically aim to support the circulation of these neurotransmitters in the brain. These medicines decrease the frequency of the symptoms of ADHD, though they do not eliminate them.
In addition to the symptoms related to impulsiveness and inattentiveness, the lack of filter ADHD causes in the brain can lead to sensory overload, which can cause a lot of stress and anxiety. When this occurs, one becomes overwhelmed by all of the noises you hear, the things you see, and the things you feel. You notice everything around you, including the things that are unimportant.
Depending on an individual’s personal symptoms and experiences, they may have one of three different types of ADHD. One type of ADHD is the “Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation”. This type can involve a lot of fidgeting, feelings of restlessness, and an unusually large amount of impulsive behavior, such as interrupting people. Another type of ADHD is the “Predominantly Inattentive Presentation”. This type often involves forgetfulness and difficulties in fully absorbing new information. The third and final type is called the “Combined Presentation” and involves experiencing the symptoms of the other types equally.
Differences Between Boys and Girls With ADHD
Girls are significantly less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than boys are, though they are not less likely to actually have it. One study, using data from the Danish National Birth Cohort, found that children whose parents reported ADHD behaviors and who were undiagnosed were girls more often than boys. Because of this, girls with ADHD are more likely to go untreated than boys are. The differences in how boys and girls experience ADHD contribute to the underdiagnoses of girls. Another study, which combined the results of 8 prior studies to have a sample of 772 boys and 325 girls, suggests that boys with ADHD are more likely to display symptoms of impulsivity that girls with ADHD are, based on the children’s performances on “Continuous Performance Tests”. Symptoms of impulsivity are often easier to recognize than inattentiveness and result in behaviors that catch people’s attention. Inattentiveness, which girls more frequently experience, does not lead to behaviors that are as disruptive as the behaviors of impulsivity.
Why It Matters
ADHD is highly connected to the issue of mental health. According to one study, girls with ADHD are more likely to experience comorbid disorders such as depression, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder than girls who do not have ADHD. Individuals with ADHD may internalize what they are going through, blaming themselves and feeling like what they are going through is their own fault. They may externalize what they are going through, impacting the way they interact with other people and their environments. Internalizing and externalizing behaviors occur in individuals with ADHD regardless of the existence of a diagnosis but being undiagnosed can make the situation more difficult.
The possibility of being diagnosed with ADHD is also impacted by many social determinants. Social determinants are defined as “conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age.” They lead to avoidable health disparities. It is important to recognize social determinants when it comes to mental health and human rights, because they highlight the fact that people of different backgrounds do not have access to the same resources. Factors that are out of an individual’s control impact their ability to access their human rights and maintain a good quality of life. By identifying social determinants, we can begin to identify changes that can be made to diminish injustice in the world. For example, even the country that someone with ADHD lives in can impact the chances that they will be diagnosed.
In France, 0.5% of children are diagnosed with ADHD, while about 12% of children in the United States receive a diagnosis. Different countries around the world have different views of ADHD, affecting their rates of diagnosis and the methods of treatment. The treatment of ADHD in France frequently involves prioritizing methods such as therapy and family counseling over medicines. In Germany, it is likely that students with ADHD benefit from the “outdoor component” of their education, as being outside can be more favorable for them than a traditional classroom. The United States relies more heavily on using medicinal methods to treat ADHD.
Another social determinant that impacts treatment is socioeconomic status. Even if a child in poverty has received a diagnosis, it is still possible that they cannot afford treatment. If they are uninsured, it would be difficult for them to access medication or therapy. Race also acts as a social determinant. The results of one study suggest that there is a large disparity in ADHD diagnosis and treatment that negatively impacts African-American and Latinx children. According to the study, it is more likely that the disparity is due to African-American and Latinx children being underdiagnosed and undertreated than white children being overdiagnosed and overtreated.
Social determinants like nationality, socioeconomic status, and race can be barriers to a child’s diagnosis and treatment for conditions like ADHD. These factors are out of the child’s control and create disparities that cause further harm. Even if an individual knows what a problem is, they cannot work towards alleviating it if they do not have the resources they need. If a black girl is born is born into a New York family in poverty, she may lack the ability to spend time outside, receive certain medications, or go to therapy. She would not have access to the same resources as children from families with higher incomes or different geographical locations. This injustice feeds into comorbid disorders and has a negative impact mental and public health, as emotional issues can develop from being able to understand the injustice.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to education (Article 26) and the right to an environment that promotes health and wellbeing (Article 25), along with many others. Access to these rights is limited when individuals with conditions like ADHD are unable to seek treatment, whether that treatment be medicinal or a form of counseling. The effect that these conditions have on one’s mental health makes a significant difference. Education is one of the human rights that is fundamental to growth and flourishing in life.
We, as a global society, must recognize the relationships between mental health, public health, and human rights. They are not isolated issues. The way we approach one impacts the outcomes of the others. Mental health is a part of public health, impacting an individual’s physical health and their quality of life. Both mental health on its own and public health as a whole are largely influential in one’s ability to access their human rights. Everything is connected.
It probably goes without saying that periods are difficult to manage. They are painful, expensive, and often quite problematic for people who experience them. We use resources such as pads, tampons, pain relievers, and bathrooms in an effort to manage menstruation. According to the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring System, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is when people with periods are able to use sanitary materials to absorb menstrual blood, change and dispose of these materials in privacy as needed, and have access to soap and water to keep clean. For those of us who do have access to what we need to manage menstruation, it seems that we often take these things for granted. But what if someone doesn’t have these resources within reach? The bottom line is that a lack in opportunity to practice proper menstrual hygiene is a violation of human rights due to its negative impact on mental and physical health, access to education, and gender equality.
What Is the Problem?
The aspect of this issue that might be the easiest to recognize is the inaccessibility of products like sanitary pads and tampons. One study in Kaduna State, Nigeria reported that only 37% of women in their sample had all the products needed for proper menstruation management. In Uganda, 35% of women reported the same thing. This can partly be attributed to financial issues and the frequency at which the products must be purchased. Some products, such as menstrual cups or washable pads, can be washed and reused over an extended period of time, making them cheaper in the long run. However, they are initially far more expensive than the disposable options. They are simply outside of the budget for many people. Even when someone can afford to pay for the reusable materials, finding somewhere to purchase them may be a problem.
Issues of accessibility do not end with menstrual hygiene products. In many countries, schools lack proper sanitation facilities, like bathrooms, which are vital to being able to safely and comfortably replace and dispose of used menstrual products. This is seen in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where there is an average of 1.2 “toilets” per primary school. These “toilets” are actually pit latrines. They are not usually kept in good condition and rarely have sufficient waste disposal options. In situations like this, there is little to no access to a truly safe and private place to change menstrual materials.
Exacerbating this issue are the stigma and shame associated with menstruation. Around the world, girls are taught from a young age that having a period is something to hide and to be embarrassed of. In many countries, girls are even considered to be “dirty” when on their period. This can be seen in western Nepal, where there is a tradition called “chaupadi” which requires that girls and women stay outside throughout menstruation. If they enter a home, it is believed that all of the people and animals of the household will fall ill. This perspective puts both their mental and physical health at risk. Menstruation is frequently viewed as a taboo subject, so many girls are not taught anything about it before their first period. Even after they begin to experience menstruation, they do not have access to much knowledge of why it happens or what good menstrual hygiene management is.
It is also important to recognize the relationship between menstrual hygiene management and the transgender community. Menstruation is typically referred to as a strictly feminine issue, but that is simply not the case. Many transgender men and non-binary individuals experience periods, and they should be included in the conversation about menstruation. By failing to recognize their connection to menstruation, we fail to recognize the validity of their experiences and identities. This failure is a problem within itself, but it can also have repercussions on the mental health of transgender and non-binary individuals and their ability to access sanitary materials and bathrooms for menstrual hygiene management. We need to actively work towards being more inclusive with the language we use when discussion periods and related topics. This involves choosing gender neutral terms over gendered terms, such as choosing to say “menstrual hygiene products” rather than “feminine hygiene products”.
Why Does It Matter?
According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every individual has “a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of themselves. When you are told that one of the basic biological processes that you experience and cannot control is shameful, it has the potential to lower the value that you see in yourself. Combined with the common lack in understanding of menstruation, this can lead to significant amounts of fear and confusion and have a considerable negative impact on mental health. Article 26 dictates that everyone has a right to education. Without access to clean menstrual management products or places to change and dispose of used ones, many girls around the world miss school during menstruation to try to keep it hidden. Some girls do not even have the option to go to school during that time. This creates a disparity between the educational and career opportunities of men and women, violating Article 2 of the declaration, which says that everyone is entitled to their rights without discrimination based on distinctions like one’s sex. It is unacceptable to allow limitations to be placed on individuals’ access to their human rights based on something that is uncontrollable. In order for things to change, individuals must take action.
What Can We Do?
Part of the reason why access to menstrual management products is such a difficult issue to deal with is that the majority of people are not comfortable talking about it. Even in the United States, where we generally have access to education about the most basic aspects of menstruation and know that it is normal and healthy, there seems to be some sort of collective, irrational fear surrounding the topic. Periods have a direct impact on half of the world’s population and an indirect impact on all of the population. We cannot continue trying to pretend that the obstructions of human rights that are caused by poor menstrual hygiene management do not exist. Conversations about menstruation might be uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary. uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary.
Many organizations have begun working towards improving MHM worldwide. AFRIpads, for example, works to provide menstrual kits with reusable sanitary pads and storage bags to women and girls throughout Africa, while creating job opportunities within the organization for women in Uganda. They also collaborate with Lunapads in a program called One4Her. For each eligible product that is purchased from Lunapads, an AFRIpad is donated to a student in need. On UAB’s campus, we have access to a chapter of Period: The Menstrual Movement, an organization that is dedicated to improving access to menstrual hygiene products for homeless women in the United States. If you are interested in taking action, the group is currently hosting a donation drive for pads and tampons through October 31. You can find donation boxes by the elevators in any of the residence halls. They are also hosting a Period Packaging event at the Spencer’s Honors House from 6:30pm to 8:30pm on November 1, where people will come together and pack menstrual hygiene products in kits to be given to those in need. Additionally, the Blazer Kitchen is hosting a toiletry drive through October 30, to which you can donate menstrual hygiene products, as well as many other non-perishable items.
If you lack the resources to financially support the improvement of MHM, do not be afraid to speak up and get involved in the conversation. Be a part of spreading awareness and breaking the stigma surrounding periods.
“And the Oscar goes to, Mad Max! No.” The audience laughs as they await the announcement from host Louis C.K. for the winner of the 2016 Best Documentary Short. He pauses, then reads “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy!” Applause erupts as Obaid-Chinoy makes her way to the stage, and during her brief acceptance speech she reveals that “Last week, the Pakistani Prime Minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.” Another round of applause sweeps across the theater as the crowd cheers the progress made to end this extreme case of violence against women.
Obaid-Chinoy’s film focuses on eighteen-year-old Saba, a Pakistani girl who was the victim of an attempted honor killing, defined by the BBC as “the murder of a person accused of ‘bringing shame’ upon their family. Victims have been killed for refusing to enter a marriage, committing adultery or being in a relationship that displeased their relatives. In many instances, the crimes are committed by family members against a female relative.” Saba survived the encounter, and the resulting documentary chronicling her experience caught the attention of human rights activists around the world. Pressure from these groups was put on the Pakistani government to change the law allowing the perpetrators of honor crimes to avoid charges should the victim or relatives of the victim forgive them, and as of October 2016 the law was changed so that there are now mandatory prison sentences for those who commit an honor killing. However, this is not the case for every country, as other loopholes exist to protect the perpetrator while simultaneously punishing the victim.
During my stay in Jordan, a second film on honor crimes caught my attention. Shown to the local community at the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation in downtown Amman, I sat with 50 other people as we watched If You Meant to Kill Me, a 2014 feature length documentary by Jordanian filmmaker Widad Shafakoj. Her film spotlights Jordanian women who are survivors of honor crimes but were detained in prison by the state “for their own protection” due to the lack of shelters serving victims in the community. These women would spend years inside their cell, released only after a family member signs a paper stating they would not harm her or until the guards arbitrarily decide to let her go. Once released, the women often have no money, no community connections, and no support to help them start again.
Jordanians who commit honor crimes face the threat of arrest in theory, but traditions and stigmas going back generations have created informal barriers to prevent the perpetrators from conviction. An honor crime is not committed by a single individual but instead multiple individuals, ranging from immediate family members to a group within the community. This poses a difficulty for police to convict participants because they must identify an entire social network. To counter this difficulty, they have adopted a second approach that only involves a single person: the female target/survivor. By putting the target/survivor in jail, it relieves the justice system of the stress of convicting an entire family or worrying about another crime being committed. The system also faces little backlash for this decision as the families of the women imprisoned accomplishes two tasks. Without advocates to help their case, the female target/survivor resorts to her families for a signature for release; thus, exposing herself to a future risk of violence.
Jordan is publicizing its work on improving other women’s issues inside of its borders, with some measured success. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, and ratified by Jordan in 1992 with the intention of allowing women to have equal rights under the law. However, Jordan still maintains two reservations to the document:
The first reservation is against Article 9, which states that women and men should be granted equal rights in transferring their nationality to their children. Currently, a child of a Jordanian man and a foreign woman can take Jordanian citizenship, but a child of a Jordanian woman and a foreign man cannot take Jordanian citizenship without a special identification card. The second reservation is against Article 16, which states “Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.” Here is where the difficulty lies, for within a marriage the woman has far less legal power and is therefore tied to the relationship formally and informally, even when violence is introduced.
Freedom House, in 2010, reported that while “domestic abuse is a valid reason for initiating such a divorce, it is often very difficult for a woman to prove her case, because Shari‘a courts require the testimony of two male witnesses.” This poses a significant deterrent for victims to come forward as their own testimony will not be adequate in a court of law. They also risk forced imprisonment for their safety should they come forward, making the risk even less of an option. Besides acting to protect their own safety, the women also shoulder the burden of staying to protect their children. Freedom House reports that the father is the de facto guardian of his children, and while the mother may be able to leave with the children initially, should she remarry she would lose custody. This forces the mother into a position of staying in an abusive situation, where there is a threat of death, or leaving without the security of a second income source to support herself and her children.
With the outcry growing louder to find a better solution for these women instead of placing them in protective imprisonment, a small number of departments and shelters developments give an attempt at a solution. The Jordanian government created the Family Protection Department within the Public Security Directorate in 1997 to work specifically on cases of domestic violence and sexual assault; however, their focus is children in the family, instead of the women. In 1999, the Jordanian Women’s Union opened a shelter capable of housing 20 women. The Family Reconciliation Centre opened its first house for 50 women in 2007 and a second in 2009 for 80 women. A
Between the three current shelters, a maximum of 150 women can be protected in a non-prison environment, but with a population of 9.5 million as of 2016, the number of shelters are incredibly too small to adequately serve the women of Jordan. Even if women are gaining more rights to interact equally in the public sphere, the lack of safety for some women in the private sphere blocks them from participating in this progress.
The dedication of more resources is necessary to ensure the women in danger are properly cared for in a safe environment. Additionally, attention to convicting perpetrators is imperative; allowing the women to reenter society knowing they are not at risk for future harm. Freedom House does note that Jordan is taking steps to enact more punishments that are forceful: “stricter sentences are now issued for honour killings and a new specialized tribunal was set up by the Ministry of Justice in 2009 to hear such cases.” The arrests of those committing the acts must occur immediately to hasten the release of the victimized women presently held indefinitely within the Jordanian prison system.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Leymah Gbowee is one of my human rights heroines. I first heard of her work in my peace studies class. We watched the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, whichchronicles the cessation of the second Liberian Civil War and the power of nonviolent protests in pursuit of peace. Gbowee and the women of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace organized peace talks between African leaders and rebel warlords in order to see peace come to a nation upended by more than 14 years of violent war. After hearing her speak on campus a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to educate myself on how Liberia has decidedly made steps towards the creation and maintenance of peace—how the citizens and the government acknowledge and confront a destructive history while establishing a constructive present, building for an improved future.
When thinking of peace, one may think of marijuana smoking hippies and flower children in the middle of a New York field, or a society without war. The latter is a fair but incomplete description of peace. Anthropologist Margaret Mead concluded that “warfare is just an invention…The ordeal [warfare] did not just go out because people thought it unjust or wrong; it went out because a method more congruent with the institutions and feelings of the period was invented… We can take comfort from the fact that a poor invention will usually give place to a better invention” (Barash 23). Peace is the better invention.
Peace is an alternative to war but it is complex.
There are factors that have to be considered in addition to the curbing of physical violence. Dr. Douglas Fry asserts that although violence makes headlines, it is actually a minute part of social life. It is the focus on aggression which allows it to become the central narrative. “Human potential for peace is underappreciated, whereas violence and warfare are emphasized, and thus naturalized. Naturalizing war and violence can help to create a self-fulfilling prophecy: if war is seen as natural, then there is little point in trying to prevent, reduce, or abolish it. Consequently, the acceptance of war as a social institution facilitates its continuance.” He proposes that there is a potential for human beings—and as a direct result, societies–to live at peace and in peace.
What does war and peace have to do with the current state of Liberia? Everything. From 1989-2003, the country had been overrun by warlords, child soldiers, and internally displaced people (IDP). War and civil unrest had leveled communities built upon “togetherness and sharing”. Yet, this nation, located on the southwestern coast of Africa, that is home to 4.5 million people has been in a state of peace for the past 13 years. The government of Liberia is underwriting a Liberian rebirth under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The historic 2005 election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was the first of its kind on the continent of Africa. Gwendolyn Mikell writes that from a Liberian perspective, the vote in favor of Johnson Sirleaf was rooted in the fact that she was not a man. “Societies have needed women to help transition them from socialism to democracy or from conflict to peace. African publics claim that women are more responsive to people’s needs, and that women make better politicians.” Liberians believed that male presidents brought war and violence; therefore, a woman would be needed to make things right. In and out of politics for more than 30 years, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was imprisoned for criticizing President Samuel Doe’s administration, found political asylum in the US during the years of the Liberian civil war, and worked as director of the Africa Bureau of the UN Development Program.
What has a Liberian renaissance looked like over the past 13 years? It has been a slow process of reconciling two Liberias, according to Ruthie Ackerman. “The answer may lie in demonstrating that the government’s top priorities are justice and accountability.” The lifestyle of a life without war provides a peace that is not fully resolved, a term called ‘negative peace’, because the roots of the issues causing the conflict have not been addressed. The antithesis of negative peace is positive peace. In pursuing positive peace, the desire for a lack of violence is the starting point. Positive peace confronts the hidden symptoms of societal structural violence. Johan Galtung coined the term ‘structural violence’ as a description of violence where social institutions (church, government, employment, schools, etc) fail to meet the needs of its citizens, perpetuating social injustice based upon race, age, gender, class, nationalism, etc. David Barash states that
“when human beings suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied a decent education, housing, an opportunity to play, to grow, to work, to raise a family, to express themselves freely, to organize peacefully, or to participate in their own governance, a kind of violence is occurring, even if bullets or clubs are not being used. Structural violence is another way [kind] of identifying oppression, and positive peace would be a situation in which structural violence and oppression are minimized.”
In Liberia, the identification of the oppression and process of rectifying and removing it has been the foundation of Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency. She correlates the decline and abrupt end of growth of her country with decades of war, the corrupted power of a few, and a closed political system, resulting in Liberia becoming one of the poorest countries in the world. “The entire nation had been virtually deprived of basic services and infrastructure such as roads, clean water, electric power, and solid waste disposal.” Poverty, though improving, continues to plague the nation, particularly Monrovia, the capital. The Guardian reports that Monrovia is the poorest city in the world. Basic necessities like water, electricity, healthcare and transport are still not up to par. Ebola devastated the country last year, and the diamond industry remains a cause of interstate and international disparity. Despite challenges and setbacks, the efforts of the Johnson-Sirleaf government to initiate reform have been recognized globally.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) outlines that human beings have equal and inalienable rights to
Life, liberty and security of person in Article 3
A standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services in Article 25
Education… elementary education shall be compulsory in Article 26
Work with just and favorable condition and without discrimination in Article 23
In 2007, President Johnson-Sirleaf introduced three issues of policy that her government would correct: national peace and security, investment in education and healthcare, and revitalization of the economy and infrastructure by creating jobs in agriculture and trade.
The government of Liberia created a model for peace and was able to implement it.
“Our policies must respond to the deep wounds of our civil war, and enhance national governance while quickly introducing measures of structural reform and reconstruction”, said President Johnson-Sirleaf in 2006. According to the Global Peace Index, which measures the peacefulness of countries based upon 23 qualitative and quantitative indicators, Liberia ranks 72/163 countries; whereas, the United States is ranked 103/163. In fact, since 2008 (which is how far the index reviews) Liberia has been viewed as more peaceful than the US. Fry points out that societal shifts from violence to peacefulness takes years and generations, and though a society was once violent, the past does not discount their ability to become and remain peaceful in the future.
The government of Liberia is working to improve and administer healthcare for more of its citizens. Kerry A. Dolan summarizes that within the next four years, the government is working to deliver healthcare to citizens living the rural areas as they put into service community health assistants. “The CHAs will be paid $60 a month… will be supervised by nurses and physician assistants. The primary goals of the programs are to reduce maternal and child mortality and build a resilient health care system.” Additionally, the program will create thousands of jobs; tremendous progress for a country that once had 50 doctors for 4 million people. Dr. Raj Panjabi of Last Mile Health trusts that the effort will prevent local outbreaks from becoming global epidemics.
The government of Liberia is conducting a reconstruction of its educational system. In 2013, all 25,000 high school graduates failed to pass the state university entrance exam. Aagon Tingba deems that proceeding with a controversial partnership between the private sector and public education is the best option for the children of Liberia. “Critics say the government should be responsible for our own schools, but in Liberia we simply don’t have the resources to do it ourselves. That is the reality. Liberian children deserve more. Doing nothing was not an option.” The decision is needed specifically for primary school students and teachers. The Liberian government is piloting this education program that will provide training, support, accountability, and resources to a system in need of improvement. “In some [secondary] schools, children [are] being taught basic fractions by teachers who are barely literate”, says Sheldon Yett of UNICEF.
The government of Liberia is empowering women and girls by placing them in the foreground. Leymah Gbowee calls attention to the lack of expression given to the female experience, particularly as a survivor of war, in her book, Mighty Be Our Powers. She discloses that women are always in the background as though our lives are an appendix to the main narrative. “If we are African, we are even more likely to be marginalized and painted as pathetic…victims. That is the image of us that the world is used to, and that image sells. During the war, almost no one reported the other reality of women’s lives. And how we created strength in sisterhood.” Mikell confirms that President Johnson-Sirleaf has placed female leadership over the rehabilitation of female victims and child soldiers, and the citizens have elected women to parliament and other political office.
So what does supplying healthcare and education, eradicating poverty, and giving voice to the female experience have to do with the uncovering of structural violence in order to create and maintain positive peace while living without war? Everything. Graham Kemp characterizes a peaceful society as one that has diagnosticated and cultivated ideas, mores, value systems and cultural institutions which stimulate cultural interactions and developments towards the minimization of violence and the promotion of peace. Human rights violations are symptomatic of a failed shared value system. A peaceful culture and society is not a utopian existence. It is, however, a recognition of a personal and communal decision to enhance the wellbeing of another. President Johnson Sirleaf’s belief that poverty and corruption are parasitic lead to the establishment of a transparent government. The overhaul of the educational system prepare the process of removing poverty as an obstacle in the road to achievement, making leadership and employment opportunities possible, thus eliminating a potential creation of a vacuum where violence and war might build.
On September 22, 2016 in her address to the UN General Assembly, President Johnson-Sirleaf declared that after 13 years of institution and consolidation of peacebuilding, security, and governance strategies, the Liberian government had taken full responsibility for the agency of the future advancement of the country. The hand-off took place on June 30, 2016. The Liberian Congress on September 29, 2016, with the backing of UN Women and other agencies, voted and passed the Equal Representation and Participation Act, a significant bill of inclusion. The bill is praised by government officials as “guaranteeing the participation of women and other marginalized members of the population in shaping the country’s progress.” The ‘special constituencies’–lower than originally proposed due to budget constraints–authorizes five seats for women, one seat for a youth representative, and one for a person with disabilities within the legislative body.
Liberia is an example that by openly addressing past mistakes, pinpointing and communicating a new narrative on cultural core values, the capacity for the formulation and execution of solutions that will empower the future begins to occur.
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