Women’s Education in Afghanistan

When the Taliban captured Kabul in August, a bleak future dawned on girls and women across the country. Despite the Taliban’s promise to be supportive of women’s goals under Islamic law, the deadly crackdown on the progress of women’s rights has already begun.  

The Taliban regime, like the older one that ruled from 1990-2001, upon capturing the capital, shut down the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry for Protection of Virtue and Vice. Later, they announced that women cannot go out in public without a male relative or without being fully covered, and female workers have been instructed to stay home. Education, politics, sports, freedom of expression, and whatever else requires women venturing outside with a voice has been banned by the government, punished by beatings or floggings.  

Afghan Women in Veils
Afghan women in veils with the words “Taliban vow to respect women We can still see We can still watch We can still notice We will no longer accept.” Source: Flickr

Education and Occupations 

Girls’ education in Afghanistan took a lot of effort to achieve, but many obstacles, specifically financial security and accessibility, still stand in the way. Knowledge gives individuals mobility and power to decide their future for themselves — a source of pride that Afghan women have fought for. In Afghan villages and cities alike, many women and girls would work for low wages in poor conditions to finance their education, and now these efforts and opportunities have been ripped away.  

Pride is now fear. After the fall of the Afghan cities Kabul and Herat, the Taliban prohibited girls over 6th grade from attending school and segregated universities between genders. Boys were allowed back weeks ago, but no indication was given to girls — a silence that told them to stay home. The regime previously stated that education will resume under the laws of Islam. Even if girls can go back to school, they may not learn certain subjects such as engineering, vocational education, cooking, and government studies.  

Dreams of becoming pilots, surgeons, activists, and lawmakers have evaporated for Afghan girls, and women already educated under a democratically controlled Afghanistan are seeing their lives turn on their heads. A university student who was supposed to graduate with two degrees from the American University of Afghanistan and Kabul University frustratedly remarked that she must hide any IDs, diplomas, and all evidence that she received a higher education, throwing away decades of work for her career. If she does not do so, she risks the lives of herself and her entire family. 

A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Source: Flickr

The Taliban is not their only issue, however. Many female political figures remaining in Afghanistan fear retaliation from men they jailed or sentenced. Despite the years of progress since the last Taliban occupation, women in powerful roles still made men in Afghanistan uncomfortable. The Taliban has not instituted strict restrictions on law and order  allowing incidents of physical and sexual violence against women to increase. 

Female Workers 

Women have taken to streets demanding their rights back as the Taliban prepares to deal with international questioning for their rise to power. Although once numerous after the fall of Kabul and Herat, protests are now few and far between. Organized protests were broken up by the Taliban’s gunshots, beatings, and killings in early September, effectively dampening the morale of activists. Now, the regime demands prior registration with a detailed account of the event and any slogans that are to be chanted, decreasing the right to assembly in the nation. 

Female journalists, teachers, activists, and especially judges are also being targeted by the oppressive regime. It is common practice for the Taliban to break into homes of instrumental feminist voices and threaten their families, and the United States’ promise to protect Afghan women activists from the Taliban has fallen flat.  

Former Afghan legislator Fawzia Koofi fled Afghanistan to Qatar after she was placed under house arrest and guarded day and night by the Taliban. Parliament members Shagufa Noorzai and Homa Ahmadi escaped to Athens, Greece, along with 177 other high profile female lawyers and judges with help from the Melissa Network and Human Rights 360. Even though activists like Koofiand Noorzai are far from their home country, they have already started networking to protect the rights of women and girls from where they are. 

In late August, 15 members of the inspiring 20-member Afghan Dreamers fled Afghanistan, with 10 arriving safely in Mexico City, Mexico, and 5 in Doha, Qatar. This all-girls robotics team made waves after winning multiple international robotics competitions in the United States and becoming a luminescent symbol of the potential of girls in science, mathematics, and engineering. These girls left with the hope of continuing their education and competing in robotics tournaments. Some girls voluntarily stayed behind to help education efforts in Afghanistan. They all hope that their achievements and stories will empower girls in their home country to fight for their education and convince the regime to adapt to a new generation of women. 

Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab.
Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab. Source: Flickr

Education as a Human Right 

The Taliban violated many articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 26 proclaims that basic and fundamental education should be free, compulsory, and equally accessible. Education is stated as the driving force to foster respect for human rights and personal freedoms all over the world which is crucial for women to rise from societal restrictions. 

The head of the Afghan Women’s Network, Mahbouba Seraj, emphasizes that Afghanistan is not the same country that the Taliban left. Women will not sit and stand by while they try to take away their rights. Over 6 million women have established their presence in traditionally male-dominated fields such as media, medicine, law, and government. She believes that the gender equality movement in Afghanistan will prevail over the Taliban’s resistance.  

Earlier in October, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to approve a rapporteur on the grounds of Afghanistan to investigate and report civil and human rights violations. The European Union’s ambassador to the UN cited particular concern for the restrictive actions of the Taliban against women and girls. In addition to the UN, the public can offer donations to other international human rights organizations that are also working on the safety of female Afghanistan officials and girls seeking to continue their education such as Amnesty International, CARE, and Women for Afghan Women.

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

clipart of women of various backgrounds lifting a megaphone
Source: UN Women

Today, November 25th, marks the 22nd Annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women as declared by the United Nation’s General Assembly in 1999; however, women living in Latin America and the Caribbean have honored the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women since 1981. The resolution, introduced by the Dominican Republic, marks the anniversary of the death of three sisters, Maria, Teresa and Minerva Mirabel, who were murdered on the island on November 25th, 1960, due to their involvement in a growing underground uprising against Dictator Trujillo’s dangerously misogynistic rule, according to this article from History. This day also represents the start of the 16 Days of Activism, where people are encouraged to fight against gender-based violence, concluding on December 10th, which is declared as International Human Rights Day. Activist organizations worldwide have utilized this period to shed a light on domestic affairs including sexual and physical violence, emotional abuse, and to draw attention to the dangers of human trafficking, all of which are issues that disproportionately affect women, transgender, and nonbinary individuals.  

Domestic Abuse in the Pandemic 

YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Source: UN Women

One of the major examples of threatening violence towards women is domestic abuse, especially regarding violence in romantic partnerships. Domestic abuse includes sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, and can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, sexuality, or marital status. Fighting domestic abuse is especially prevalent in eliminating violence against women because unfortunately, eight out of 10 victims of sexual assault or rape knew their attacker, as was the case in my own story. For child victims and students on college campuses, the rate is even higher. Regarding the pandemic, the United Nations has recently stated that, “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines, have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.” Referred to as the “Shadow Pandemic,” women and other marginalized groups have been especially susceptible to abuse and emotional neglect due to many countries’ lockdown and stay-at-home orders, in addition to people around the globe facing an increased level of financial hardships throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Sex Trafficking and Outside Threats 

This increased level of vulnerability has also translated outside of the home, where women face dangers in varying capacities, including the prevalent threat of sex trafficking. Over 70% of all sex trafficking victims are women and girls, and although there have been a growing number of legislative improvements as more countries criminalize trafficking, conviction rates for traffickers remain low. As Covid-19 news updates have held many people’s attention since the pandemic began, it is essential to remember the other human rights crises that have not paused or slowed down as law enforcement efforts had hoped. Outside threats of violence also disproportionately affect BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) women. Although many general sex trafficking statistics are difficult to find considering many cases go unreported, this article from Polaris did include numbers from specific jurisdictions stating that “In Louisiana, Black girls account for nearly 49 percent of child sex trafficking victims, though Black girls comprise approximately 19 percent of Louisiana’s youth population and in King County, Washington, 84 percent of child sex trafficking victims are Black while Black children and adults together only comprise 7% of the general population.” Polaris went on to add, “Latinos are disproportionately represented among human trafficking victims and survivors in general, and labor trafficking survivors in particular.” 

Eliminating Violence Against Women 

STOP Victim Blaming
Source: UN Women

Women’s organizations around the world have come together in efforts to eliminate misogynistic acts of violence with advocacy that anyone can participate in, such as protesting for legal action to be taken and supporting the #MeToo social media movement, which began in 2006. The #MeToo movement encourages survivors of sexual assault and rape to share their stories in a safe environment of other survivors. The hashtag has been used by millions of people around the world and has been translated into dozens of languages. 

Considering this, there are many ways to help support survivors, even during a pandemic. UN Women lays out ten important steps: 

    1. Listen to and believe survivors 
    2. Teach the next generation and learn from them
    3. Call for responses and services fit for purpose 
    4. Understand consent 
    5. Learn the signs of abuse and how you can help 
    6. Start a conversation 
    7. Stand against rape culture 
    8. Fund women’s organizations 
    9. Hold each other accountable
    10. Know the data and demand more of it

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, click here to speak with trained advocates worldwide. 

Not Fair, Still Lovely: The Perpetuating Toxicity of Colorism

advertisement for a skin whitening cream
Source: Adam Jones

This past summer, two pandemics plagued the world: COVID-19 and systemic racial discrimination and prejudice against Black communities. While the former was making modern history, the latter had been happening for centuries. As I thought of ways to address and educate myself and my family on these injustices, I found myself revisiting and reevaluating my own biases, particularly those I’ve experienced within the Indian community.

Growing up in South India, I would mimic my mother and grandma’s daily skin care routine when they used “Fair and Lovely,” a skin lightening and bleaching cream. I was constantly told to not play outside because I might get too dark, and my foundation for dance competitions and rehearsals was often shades lighter that what it needed to be. I was raised in a world where your worth was defined by the color of your skin, and if by chance your skin was too dark or too tan, then you were seen as un-beautiful, unworthy, and incompetent. Most women like my mom, my grandma, and I, as well as other individuals that suffer from the stigma that being dark is ugly, have often fallen prey to companies that profit off the ideology that whiter skin is equivalent to beauty, self-confidence, and self-worth.

Colorism in Indian Society

Colorism is an issue that is often ignored and rooted in societal pressure around fairness. It is a discriminatory practice in which institutions or individuals treat those with lighter skin tones more favorably, upholding instead White, Eurocentric standards of beauty. India is a mixture of diverse cultures, languages, and shades of brown. With different skin tones came colorism that continues to perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions. For generations, Indian society has been brainwashed into the ideology that fairer skin is more desirable, leading to the nation  developing a multibillion-dollar skin lightening industry. Everyday products like Olay’s Natural White Glowing Fairness Cream, Lotus Herbal’s White Glow Skin Whitening and Brightening Gel Crème, Pond’s White Beauty Daily Spot-Less Lightening Cream, etc. promote stereotypes against darker skin tones through their marketing strategies. For example, a current advertisement shows a young woman with a darker skin tone being rejected from a job later ends up using a fairness product to become more beautiful and thus confident. She then goes on to score an even better job at the end. Mainstream media also fails to provide accurate representations of India’s population, with many actors being light skinned and with frequent recruitment of foreign and predominantly White-presenting actors. Often the practice of “brown-face” is used among these actors and production companies to fit a certain role or aesthetic, thereby enforcing negative stereotypes when proper recruitment should’ve happened in the first place. Even more disturbing is that these stereotypes are so enforced in people’s homes and daily lives and can affect prospective marriages, job opportunities, and other relationships due to preferential treatment towards lighter skin.

The Origins of Colorism

Often, people mistakenly identify the origins of colorism with the caste system present in India. The caste system divides the Indian population according to labor and promotes the idea that each subgroup has its own functionally important role in society. Over time, this led to misrepresentation and manipulation of the caste system, because higher status on the ladder typically meant more prestigious work related to education, religion, trading, etc., whereas lower status meant more labor-intensive work that typically meant occupations in dirtier, outdoor environments. Naturally, those individuals lower on that ladder became darker due to their exposure to natural environmental conditions. Their natural and seasonal tanning along with their status as Dalits (“the untouchables”) within the caste system can be argued to have contributed to colorism. While the caste system does play a part in this ideology, it doesn’t fully explain why discrimination continues to happen, especially among individuals that identify with a higher status on the caste system but are also darker. Apart from that, multiple text depict Hindu deities as “dark-skinned,” and who hold a tremendous amount of respect, honor, and power. Neither the caste system nor religion can wholly explain the origins or colorism and why it still continues to perpetuate today.

A chart depiction of the Caste system.
Source: Source: The Ancient Wisdom Project

Colonization, the third factor of this equation, seems to be the missing part of the puzzle. Like many countries, India was not exempt from British rule and had only in the past century gained its independence. During the centuries of British rule and oppression, “colonization was embedded in the idea that fair skin people were the ruling class, and darker skinned people were the subjects.” Apart from this, there was also blatant favoritism by the newly erected British government towards light skinned Indians that directly affected social and class mobility as well as a family’s socioeconomic status. This was seen through discriminatory practices, such as offering lighter skinned individuals government pardons, jobs, and a voice, which were not offered to Indians of darker skin tones. This mindset, that the only way to be worthy, to be accomplished, and to be civilized and beautiful, slowly became an innate mantra amongst the Indian population, creating generations of individuals that strive for a beauty standard deeply rooted in anti-ethnic, anti-Indian, and anti-minority sentiments. The effects of colonization intermingled with the stereotypical notions of the caste system to give us unique and deeply rooted coloristic principles.

Difference between racism and colorism

Earlier, I mentioned that I wanted to address my own biases regarding systemic racism and educate myself on this issue. However, as an Indian-American immigrant, I found it difficult to navigate the differences between racism and colorism as the two are often intertwined and seen together in my community. But the more I researched on this issue, I found that people, often non South Asians, frequently mistook colorism for racism because it can perpetuates anti-Black sentiments within South Asian communities. Except, they are very distinct concepts. For example, in the U.S. (but not exclusive to the U.S.), skin color is the foundation of race, and continues to be a criterion in determining how they are evaluated and judged. The United States’ historic treatment and oppression of Black Americans is racially based, and within that exist preferences for certain skin tones. However, in a lot of Asian and colonized countries, race is not the primary indicator of how an individual will be treated. Instead, the color of a person’s skin on the wide range of the color spectrum will be the major determinant. While the two sound very similar, “the pervasiveness of a color hierarchy” is the crucial factor in social and class mobility, not necessarily race. Colorism and racism, while closely related problems need different solutions, and while these some of these solutions may overlap, each has a unique set of problems.

Woman holding a Black Lives Matter sign.
Source: Socially Urban

Right now, certain skin care and make-up companies, such as Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely,” that release skin whitening, bleaching, and lightening products have issued public apologies and are removing, re-advertising, and rebranding their products. While this alone is not enough, because the consumption of such products is based in generational trauma surrounding discrimination around darker skin and beautiful shades of brown, it is a step forward in addressing how such companies are profiting off anti-Black sentiments and how to halt such practices.

What can I do?

  • Follow Nina Davuluri’s “See My Complexion” petition and project.
  • Continue to callout and critique companies that promote skin bleaching and whitening products because cosmetic changes such as rebranding products is not enough to halt harmful beauty standards.
  • Most importantly, it’s important to address and actively combat our own implicit biases that are rooted in generational trauma.

COVID-19 and Teenage Pregnancies

by Grace Ndanu

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

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

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

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

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

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

A positive pregnancy test
Source: Creative Commons

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

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

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

The Drive for Quality Education in Kenya Faces Massive Challenges

by Grace Ndanu

A teacher looks on as a young African girl does her school work.
Source: Yahoo Images

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.

Young African girls in the classroom
Source: Yahoo Images

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.

Honor Killings: The Case of Israa Ghrayeb

Image showing Israa Ghrayeb, a Palestinian woman who was the victim of an honor killing.
Israa Ghrayeb. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

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.

Holding Perpetrators Accountable

After Israa’s murder, both men and women in the West Bank held protests, calling on the Palestinian Authority to take action against the relatives responsible, and through the use of social media, large segments of the Arab population joined in protesting her murder as well. Due to these national and international pressures, the Palestinian Authority pursued the matter closely, and three of Israa’s relatives were detained and will be charged for her murder. However, it is unclear whether or not these men will truly suffer the consequences of their actions; often times, perpetrators are not held accountable for this crime at all. Furthermore, even when they are sentenced for committing honor crimes, they are often released after serving only a few months. Experts argue that this is why honor killings remain prevalent; when the justice system does not adequately address this issue, future perpetrators are not deterred. This is abundantly clear considering that although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made changes to legislation to protect women from honor killings, the number of women who are victims of this crime has continuously risen; in 2012 there were 13 murders, but the number of murders increased to 28 in 2014 and 27 in 2018. Thus, it is evident that legislation passed without proper enforcement is wholly ineffective.

Image showing men and women protesting honor killings.
A protest against honor killings. Nora B., Creative Commons.

Moving Forward

“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.”

 

Child marriage and the human rights of girls

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.

A child bride in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Source: SAM Nasim, Creative Commons
A child bride in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Source: SAM Nasim, Creative Commons

 

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.

Girl wearing a wedding dress. Source: Amy Ann Brockmeyer, pixabay.com
Girl wearing a wedding dress. Source: Amy Ann Brockmeyer, pixabay.com

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:

  1. If the minor is not being compelled to marry
  2. If the parties are mature enough to get married
  3. If the marriage will not endanger the minor
  4. 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.

UN banner promoting the Sustainable Development Goals. Source: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/
UN banner promoting the Sustainable Development Goals. Source: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/gender-equality/

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.

 

Works Cited:

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.

Additional Resources:

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.  

World Policy Forum

UNICEF Child Marriage

America’s Child Marriage Problem by NY Times

Child Marriage is an unseen problem in US by Boston Globe

Child Marriage Video

UNICEF Video

 

 

America: No Country For New Moms

This repost is in honor of this Sunday: Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day in advance to all every MOM!!

Tiny baby feet are cradled by hands in a heart shape.
Mother’s Love. Source: Vinoth Chandar, Creative Commons.

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.

Baby Toes. Source: Jake Guild, Creative Commons.

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.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham has a recently instituted program that allows for up to four weeks of paid parental leave, but most other large employers in the state, including the University of Alabama, do not offer any paid leave.

A woman sits on a playground next to her young daughter.
Mom and Daughter. Source: Donnie Ray Jones, Creative Commons.

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.

Diagnosing ADHD: Mental Health and Human Rights

Playground adventures. Source: BrownZelip, Creative Commons

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.

Children in a classroom reading with their teacher.
students-in-class-with-teacher-reading. Source: Ilmicrofono Oggionom, Creative Commons

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.

The Right to Menstrual Hygiene

a picture of three girls smiling
Jordanian School Girls. Source: David Stanley, Creative Commons

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.

a picture of a traditional pit latrine, which looks like a very small building with a tin roof and two tin doors
Traditional Pit Latrine. Source: SuSanA Secretariat, Creative Commons

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.