Not Just A Phase: Bisexuality, Invisibility and Invalidation

Of the identities that together form the full rainbow of the LGBTQ+ community, the “B” is one of the least visible despite its sizable population. Per the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, “self-identified bisexuals make up the largest single population within the LGBT community in the United States.” LGBTQ+ refers to all of the people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (a reclaimed term used to refer to all other identities not represented by the ones listed). However, not all people feel represented by the word “queer,” and the plus sign is meant to be inclusive of those communities.

A pink, purple, and blue flag flies to represent bi pride.
“The bisexual pride flag.” Source: Peter Salanki, Creative Commons.

To understand the experience of bisexual people, one must first understand the basics of gender and sexuality. Gender is a term that describes the social representation of biological reproductive processes, while one’s gender identity is based on personal identities, or the “internal perception of one’s gender” (SafeZone Project).  Gender is what most people attach words like “man” and “woman” to, but can encompass a variety of identities such as agender (one who does not experience gender identity), polygender (one who experiences multiple gender identities), and genderfluid (can experience a combination of gender identities depending on the day).  Sexual orientation is the “sexual, romantic, emotional/spiritual attraction” that one experiences, often depending on which gender/genders that they are attracted to. Straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual are all examples of different sexual orientations, though a wide variety exists in addition to those listed.

Bisexuality (bi) does not have one all-inclusive definition, but the term “bisexual” generally refers to a person who experiences attraction to people of their own gender as well as people outside of their gender. The experience of bisexuality can be shared by pansexual people. The two terms overlap, as pansexual people experience attraction regardless of gender. Typically, one differentiates between the two identities with respect to how an individual identifies themselves; some bisexual people could technically be called pansexual (and vice versa), but the most inclusive practice is to respect each individual/community as they define their own experience.

A couple embraces in the street during a gay pride demonstration.
“Thousands march in Madrid to claim an anti-capitalist and combative Gay Pride.” Source: Adolfo Lujan, Creative Commons.

Semantics aside, bi people have faced a long history of adversity with very little notoriety. Bisexuality as an identity has been chronically invalidated, demonized, and even blatantly ignored. Discrimination towards bisexual people has long been enforced by a heterosexual society, but many bi people have experienced discrimination from within the LGBT community as well.

According to the oldest bisexual advocacy organization in the United States, bisexual people are more likely to live in poverty, have higher rates of sexual and intimate partner violence, and report higher rates of poor physical/mental health than lesbian, gay or straight people. Research from the same source reveals that “bisexuals are six times more likely than gay men and lesbians to hide their sexual orientation,” and nearly one-quarter of bi people have never shared their orientation with anyone.

One might expect a stronger community backlash to this level of inequality, but biphobia is so pervasive that few dare to speak out. Biphobia, or the aversion to bisexuality, is experienced frequently by bisexual people while in the company of others who assume that they are either heterosexual or homosexual (depending on the bi person’s partner). Bisexuality is a unique identity in that a bi person is not defined by the gender of their partner, and this heteronormative invisibility is what makes the bi existence so difficult. UC San Diego’s LGBT Resource Center puts it this way:

“Lesbian, gay, and heterosexual people are invested, and find a sense of security in being the ‘other’ to each other, and unite in the fact that they are only attracted to either the ‘same’ or the ‘opposite’ gender/sex. This sets up another ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dynamic which effectively marginalizes bisexual people as ‘other.’ Integral to this dynamic is the automatic assumption people can be defined by the gender/sex of their current or potential romantic interest.”

An openly bisexual person often experiences the condescending attitudes of those who think that it’s just a phase. Straight people assume that bisexuals will eventually revert back to heterosexual “normalcy,” while LGBTQ+ people may assume that the bi identity is merely a “half-gay, half-straight” phase that will culminate in a homosexual identity later on. However, research provides data to the contrary – a longitudinal study found that 92% of bisexual women still identified as bisexual over ten years later. To be clear, sexual orientation is not validated or invalidated based on its fluidity. This data only provides evidence that bisexuality can be a stable orientation.  These attitudes are reinforced by the assumption that society is separated into a heterosexual norm and a homosexual other, leaving little room for the huge spectrum of sexuality that falls between gay and straight.

“C.D. Kirven with the Trans Pride Flag while Get Equal flies the Bisexual & Rainbow Pride Flags.” Source: Melissa Kleckner, Creative Commons.

The statement “I’m bisexual” can also lead down a different but equally terrible path – the inevitable, half-joking “That’s hot!” or “Oh, so you want to have a threesome?” The stereotype that bisexual people are hypersexual is both degrading and exhausting. “Hypersexual” stereotypes assume that certain people are more likely to frequently engage in sexual activity with a lesser degree of moral restraint; this stereotype is applied to many identities other than bisexuals, and is particularly common for black and Latina women. Far too often, the experience of coming out as bi in addition to the perception of hypersexuality ends in an unwanted sexual invitation that can be traumatic, particularly considering the high rate of sexual violence among the bi community. The can permeate and negatively affect bisexual relationships, as their partner may struggle with trust issues resulting from this widespread misrepresentation. Some people may even avoid relationships with bisexuals altogether for fear of infidelity.

Each of these experiences results in the invalidation of bisexuality. Being bisexual is valid in itself, not as a stepping stone to a different sexual orientation or as a prop to spice up your heterosexual love life. Additionally, bisexuality is not the easy way out. An assumption exists that, even if the bisexual orientation is valid, bi people will eventually settle down into an opposite-gender relationship in order to bypass social discrimination that accompanies an LGBTQ+ identity. However, bisexual people in heterosexual-passing relationships are still equally affected by discrimination, biphobia, and invalidation; “passing” as straight does not negate the hardships that are tied to the bisexual experience.

Biphobia, invisibility, and discrimination are some of the most subversive yet malicious tools that are used to maintain the societal fabric of heteronormativity. Limiting or invalidating the bisexual orientation only strengthens the gay/straight dichotomy that holds us all back from freely experiencing the full spectrum of sexuality and gender. It’s easy to proclaim that the system should change, but realistically, what can we do to reduce injustice for bi people? First, you should examine your own thoughts and attitudes towards bisexuality. It’s easy to be complicit in biphobia and erasure if you aren’t aware of your unconscious bias. If you find and acknowledge any prejudicial tendencies, challenge those thoughts. Don’t assume a person’s sexual orientation based on their partners – ask them! If you witness a casual biphobic joke, call it out instead of being silent. Make room for bisexual people within the LGBT community. Above all, respect everyone’s identity enough to support and validate the terms that they choose for themselves.

Sexual Assault on College Campuses

A woman who is talking to someone.
Beautiful woman. Source: Henry Söderlund, Creative Commons

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women and one in six men have experienced sexual violence .  The term sexual assault refers to “any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without your consent.”  Though, the most obvious examples of sexual assault are physical, such as rape and unwanted touching, it can also be found in verbal and visual forms, such as sexual harassment or exposing oneself.

Sexual assault is a particularly significant concern on colleges campuses.  It is experienced by one in five college women, and the majority of survivors are women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.  For men between 18 and 24 years old, being a student increases the likelihood that they will be assaulted by 78%  in comparison to those of the same age who are not students.  Due to the breadth of its impact, sexual assault on college campuses is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

Intersectionality and Sexual Assault

When discussing this problem, it is important that we recognize that not all groups experience sexual assault at the same rates.  The people who are most at risk are those from minority communities that typically have less social and political power than majority communities.

This is an intersectional issue.  Women of color, for example, experience sexual assault at higher rates than white women.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, Native American women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault when compared to people of all other races.  People with disabilities are twice as likely to experience sexual assault  in comparison with people who do not have a disability.  Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also at a greater risk.  According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47% of transgender individuals are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives .

Title IX

Title IX is part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded schools.  Colleges must have systems in place to deal with sexual assault, since it can have a serious impact on an individual’s educational experience.  They should investigate every reported incident and make any necessary accommodations to make sure that the education of assault survivors is negatively impacted as little as is possible.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed some changes for exactly how colleges are to handle reports of sexual assault, but, at the moment, students still have the rights set forth by Title IX and the Clery Act, which include the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.  Under the Clery Act , survivors have “the right to receive written explanation of their rights and options,” and colleges must have “a policy on campus disciplinary proceedings” for sexual assault.  In these proceedings, both the survivor and the accused have the rights to equal opportunity to have each other present as witnesses, the accompaniment of an advisor of their choosing, and “simultaneous written notification” of any updates.

If you have experienced sexual assault on a college campus, you can report it to your school, get to know your Title IX coordinator  and school’s policies, and file a police report.

College students walking across campus.
College student. Source: Yuya Tamai, Creative Commons

Rape Culture

Exacerbating the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is the prevalence of rape culture.  Rape culture consists of the behaviors, language, and beliefs through which sexual violence is “normalized and excused.”  This can range from victim blaming, to the use of phrases like “boys will be boys,” to sexual assault itself.  This is especially impactful on the relationship between women/girls and sexual assault.  Rape culture leads to people asking female sexual assault survivors questions about what they were wearing and whether or not they were drinking, as if those factors are the reasons why people are attacked.  As girls grow up, they are taught what steps to take to help them stay safe.  The responsibility to prevent rape and assault is primarily placed on the people at risk of experiencing these things rather than being focused on teaching people not to be perpetrators.  Rape culture is a huge part of why many survivors do not report their assault .  Among survivors on college campuses, more than 90% do not report.

Rape culture is also perpetuated by phenomena such as toxic masculinity, which emphasizes the gender expectation for men to be aggressive and dominant.  Many people use this traditional view of what it means to be a man to minimize the significance of sexual assault to simply “men being men.”  This idea, as well as rape culture as a whole, frames sexual assault as something that is inevitable or a normal part of life rather than a serious problem that needs to be stopped.  This also leads to the assumption that men are always the perpetrators and survivors are always women, which is completely untrue.  Men and non-binary individuals can be assault survivors. Women and non-binary individuals can be assaulters.  People can be assaulted by someone of the same or a different gender.  Sexual assault does not always fit the stereotypes we have been taught.

Safety Precautions

If you are one of the many people who worries about their safety and about assault on a regular basis, here are some things you can do that will hopefully help you feel a bit more comfortable.  If you are not someone who feels the need to think about these kinds of things, this may be an opportunity to broaden your perspective and learn more about the things many of us have do to in order to feel even slightly safe.

  • Try to avoid walking out alone at night.
  • If you have to walk alone at night, consider calling someone and staying on the phone until you reach your destination.
  • Do your best to walk in and park your car in well-lit areas.
  • Carry pepper spray with you.
  • If you are out at night, try to make sure that someone knows where you are going to be and at what times.
  • Check the back seat of your car before getting in.
  • Make sure you have a reliable form of transportation if you are out at night.
  • Avoid jogging alone at night.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings, especially if you are alone.
  • Consider taking some classes in self-defense.
  • If you get a drink at a party or bar, watch them make the drink and do not leave it alone.
  • Consider downloading an app like Noonlight, which can make it easier to contact emergency services if you feel unsafe or if you are unsure if you should call 911.

Sexual Assault Is A Human Rights Issue

It is vital that throughout the conversation about sexual assault we recognize it is a human rights issue.  It is an issue of equality for people of all genders, sexualities, races, and abilities.  Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit,” but many college classes do not end until it is already dark outside.  Safety concerns prevent some people from taking these classes, while other people are able to take any of the available classes they want. According to Article 27 of the UDHR, “…everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community,” but many cultural events, such as concerts and educational events, happen at night.  If someone fears going out that late and/or has no safe mode of transportation, how can they enjoy this right?  How can they use their right to freedom of expression if they are afraid (Article 19)?  How can someone live in an environment that supports their mental health and wellbeing if they are afraid (Article 25)?  How can they enjoy the equality that all people share if they are afraid?

Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors

Give yourself a break. It’s your right.

Welcome to SUMMER 2018!! This is a repost from last Spring. 

 a picture of two beach chairs at sunset
A Nice Place to Sit. Source: Richard Walker, Creative Commons.

With spring break and summer just ahead, did you know you have a right to leisure and rest? It is in part because of Eleanor Roosevelt and the 18 representatives chosen by the Economic and Social Council in 1948, tasked with drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document that would become a cornerstone of peace around the world. Article 24 of the UDHR pronounces, “everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” Researchers, writers, and business insiders market the right to leisure and rest as work-life balance. Harvard Business Review has an entire section of its current and archive database dedicated to the subject.

What is the right to leisure? Leisure is a part of the second generation of human rights. Roosevelt ascribed each right as a component of the “inherent rights of all individuals, without which no one can live in dignity and freedom.” In other words, it is a basic human right. She notes that the UDHR carries moral weight but no legal weight, thus making it easier for violations to occur. Often, governments through repressive systems and structures are responsible for human rights violations; however, the violation of leisure is often self-imposed.

A 2014 Gallup poll revealed that 42% of the polled full-time employees work 47 hours a week while 40% work 40 hours, and 8% work less than 40 hours. Ran Zilca suggests more people want community and relationship over a paycheck, but have not verbalized the desire for a job that will bring fulfillment. He concedes that unnamed values magnify discomfort and distress, clouding perspective. Age is also a factor in finding work/life balance. When all is said and done, work happiness depends on several factors, including having a life outside the office and possessing money to enjoy it.

The notion of “work/life balance” is recognized across the world as a difficult goal to attain because the lines between work and life are blurred. Paula Caproni, working wife and mother of two children under four, explains that achieving the Zen-like status of full balance is easier said than done, especially for the well-intentioned. Citing Martin and Knopoff, who assert, “it is not a stretch of the imagination to consider that a root of the work/life balance tension is that caretaking work in one’s own home—typically done by women—is undervalued and unpaid, and until this fundamental issue is resolved most other attempts that try to resolve work/life tensions are likely to be superficial at best”, Caproni hints that work/life balance is more about the flexible sharing of the work/life load, rather than the circular nature of devaluing the half often associated with women, prioritizing individualism over familial (or community) interaction, and misapplied excellence in the workplace. She acknowledges that the disconnection between the idea of work/life balance and the practical application may disappoint many who discover life values “do not fall into clean dichotomies that lend themselves to trade-offs or prioritization.” In other words, every attempt to compartmentalize one part of life from another will create frustration, disillusionment, and isolation since the ideal is unattainable. Caproni established rest amid the unpredictability of the ‘imbalance’ by embracing “tranquility over achievement, contribution over success, and choice over status”, creating an internal dialogue that helped to name essential values, changing both life and work accordingly.

a picture of a guy reading under a tree
Reading. Source: Marketa, Creative Commons.

David Maume states, “Research has looked at the symbolic meaning of time use and linked it to a person’s identity.” Men and women have different perspectives when approaching and participating in vacations. Gender roles plays a significant role in how often and if vacations happen in the lives of people. Generally, while on vacations with families, women are tasked with meeting the emotional and physical needs while men focus on work-related tasks. On one hand, women sacrifice their personal enjoyment for the sake of others, seeing vacation as an enjoyable ‘disruption of work’ that allows “work on daily family life and cement bonds between family members.” On the other, a man’s career and subsequent job concerns may lead to a limited presence or total absenteeism on vacations. He concludes that men, aware of misplaced values in the past, desire to spend more time with their children–making significant changes to create a more egalitarian home environment or staying home full-time while wives work outside the home. This decision is countercultural and sometimes detrimental to a career.

The acknowledgement of values should remain a priority of an employee, and at minimum, recognized by an employer. Sanghamitra Buddhapriya introduces three key concepts in her essay, “Balancing Work and Life: Implications for Business”: work-family, the guilt complex, and time sovereignty. She argues that work-life balance is not just a reduction in working hours. It is flexibility that allows for the removal of the guilt complex because the control of time has been entrusted to capable, motivated employees, seeking to dedicate themselves to work and family. First, work-family balance seeks out the space achieved when an employer sets, creates, and promotes an environment for an effective balance. The tension of work and family is complicated by typical business culture which emphasizes long hours means more devotion, scheduling conflicts and absenteeism are evidence of noncommitment, and time constraints implies time mismanagement or “role ambiguity”.

Second, the guilt complex magnifies the tension of work and family since domesticity is often attributed to women. Buddhapriya points out that within male dominated organizations and societies like India, women “face a dual burden” of having career aspirations and family goals. “Working women and their spouses continue to regard breadwinning as essentially a man’s job and home management as a woman’s job… women continue to bear the burden of household responsibilities regardless of their employment status.” Due to the weight of the burden, women, especially mothers, may be forced to ‘trade-down’ to part-time jobs, taking jobs for which they are overqualified, or make their career subordinate to that of their husband (Budig 2001, Correll 2007, Gash 2009).

Lastly, time sovereignty places responsibility to organizational commitment in the hands of the employee, citing an ability to manage life stressors and job stressors more effectively, improving work performance and satisfaction. Time sovereignty is not unaccounted time; it is a flexible work arrangement. Using Marriott International, Aetna, UPS, Hewlett-Packard as examples of companies utilizing time sovereignty, Buddhapriya reaffirms that the best employers have cultures and policies which promote a meaningful and supportive workplace, company productivity, movement towards gender equality, and organizational mobility and retention.

Leisure is defined as free time. It is an opportunity afforded by free time to do something that renews, refreshes, and destress you. Leisure is unhurried ease. It is sleeping until 10am or gardening or reading your favorite novel. Taking a trip to a foreign country or to Wyoming or learning to play an instrument. It is about binge-watching a television show and stopping to smell the gardenias by yourself, with a friend, or with family. It is your time and right so do what you want with it.

 

Additional Resources:

Budig, Michelle J.; and England, Paula. 2001. “The Wage Penalty for Motherhood.” American Sociological Review 66(2):204-25.

Correll, Shelly J.; Benard, Stephen, and Paik, In. 2007. “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?”. American Journal of Sociology 112(5):1297-339.

Gash, Vanessa. 2009. “Sacrificing Their Careers for Their Families? An Analysis of the Penalty to Motherhood in Europe.” Social Indicators Research 93(3):569-86.

A LGBTQ+ Perspective on Today’s World

picture of a gay pride rally in Leeds, England
Leeds Pride. Source: Bryan Ledgard, Creative Commons,

LGBTQ+ youth today may look at the world around them and think all hope is lost. It is understandable because the possibility of an entire community losing their civil rights at any moment is creating a looming fear. As human beings, we all come to terms with ourselves in our own ways; whether it is simply growing into yourself in order to find out who you are, or growing into someone you never imagined. The process of coming to terms with identity is completely different when your sexuality is not the “social norm.” Growing up, I felt scared of myself, and fearful of what the future might hold for people like me. However in 2015, when marriage equality became law, I thought to myself, “We are finally getting to a place where children will not have to grow up like I did.”

My story is not the same as every LGBTQ+ individual around the country, and certainly not across the globe. Every day, I wake up hoping that I do not hear of another story about a Matthew Shepard or Pulse Nightclub tragedy. To live as an open member of the LGBTQ+ community is to live in a constant state of worry. You may not always feel it, but the hum of it, however quiet it may be, still echoes through the back of your mind. It is a worry for your brothers, sisters, others of your community, and for yourself. This infringes upon our right to security, as we are afraid to be ourselves in public spaces. This fear even extends to private places because for many, our families are the main aggressors. For youths who suffer through the pain of oppression at the hands their family, there is never a true sense of peace.

I have faced discrimination throughout the course of my life. Based on my rumored sexuality, I experienced exclusion from many of things. It is a pivotal moment in one’s life when they choose to come out. It is a time that you accept all the ridicule, the torment, and the imminent threat of attack. I have emotional scars from peers and family that still haunt me to this day. Yet, what hurts me most is the look in another person’s eyes when they become aware of my sexuality; it is that look—from people whom I have never met—which is devastating. How can someone who knows nothing about me, judge me?

While the future for American LGBTQ+ youth seems frightening and uncertain, it is nothing compared to those of the LGBTQ+ community across the globe. A LGBTQ+ youth in the Middle East and Northern Africa has a different perspective based upon cultural experience and a belief that there is no hope and fear that there never will be–an upbringing filled with trials comparatively different to those I suffered as a youth. Living as an open member of the LGBTQ+ community in a Muslim country can potentially turn into a life threatening choice. Imagine that: telling your friends and family who you are, and then fearing that your life could end at that exact moment. That fear, no matter how far from home, affects us all.

Turkey is one of the few Middle Eastern countries where homosexuality is legal. Unfortunately, homophobia is still very prevalent so when a group of members from the community tried to initiate their own Pride festival, local authorities shot them with water cannons, rubber bullets, and sprayed them with tear gas. Across the Middle East, there are standing laws to persecute those of the LGBTQ+ community, including imprisonment for up to 10 years. In Ancient Egypt, being gay or lesbian was a godlike quality; however, in modern times, homosexuality is viewed as sin and punishable by death. When the White House went up in rainbow colored lights in 2015, the authorities in Saudi Arabia went on the hunt. Children face death around the country for “deviant” behavior by their own governments. A privately run school in Riyadh was fined $26,500 (in U.S. dollars) for painting the rooftop in rainbow stripes, and one of the administrators for the school was jailed for allowing such a “monstrosity”. Afghanistan banned the decorating of cars with rainbow stickers because it “may be misinterpreted.” In Iran, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern countries, many face execution for engaging in sodomy.

 

a picture of a city hall building, lighted with rainbow colored lights in honor of gay pride
City Hall. Source: Tom Hilton, Creative Commons.

An assembly was called on in 2015 by the United States and Chile to bring light to the attacks on the LGBTQ+ community that are prominent in the Middle East, specifically by the Islamic State. Syrian refugees who fled their war-torn homeland spoke to the United Nations about what their life and the suffering they endured. One man admitted to hiding his sexuality his entire life, saying, “In my society, being gay means death.” Another man told of his witnessing of an al-Qaeda affiliated group taking control of his hometown and began torturing and murdering men that others thought to be gay. Cheering audiences attended the executions of gay men. Some men, tossed from building ledges, meet their death; however, for those who do not die upon impact, the hateful crowd stoned them to death.

Institutionalized discrimination is a prominent threat no matter where one may look across the globe.

In the south and in the US, we feel criminalized; in the Middle East, we are criminalized. 

Being a part of a marginalized community has affected me in many negative ways, but also in positive ways. I feel a commonality with people I have never met and will likely never have the luxury of doing. As a part of the community, I am “branded in rainbow”, which is the most fulfilling feeling that I had experienced. I chose to take all of the negativity that surrounded me and channel it into positivity. This community and a shared experience has made me stronger, more confident, and allowed me to channel my anger by turning it into passion. As a member of this community, I implore you to become more accepting of the people around you, no matter where you may be from or what you may practice. It is powerful to feel human, and it is a feeling we all deserve.

 

 

Women’s Rights are Human Rights: Ireland Continues to Criminalize Abortion

Tomorrow, May 25, Ireland will vote on a referendum of their Eighth Amendment: the abortion amendment. The referendum posits safe and regulated healthcare, as well as the removal of the stigma placed on both the women who seek abortions and the doctors who perform them. **This is a repost from the fall of 2016. 

March for Choice in Dublin On Saturday 29th. September 2012. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.
March for Choice in Dublin On Saturday 29th. September 2012. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.

Abortion. It is a heavily debated topic. From the beginning, its very existence is consistently brought up in philosophy papers and classes as a moral question. The negative connotation associated with abortion can make many people cringe when they simply hear the word. In the United States, it is an issue that conservatives and progressives rally around, but for different reasons. Classic conservative ideology revolves around public virtue, self-reliance, freedom, and cultural solidarity. One might argue that if classic conservatism highly values freedom, then the ideology would advocate for the freedom to choose whether to have an abortion or not. However, modern conservatism has implemented a little twist in such ideological freedom. Modern conservatism has emphasized the nuclear family model and to a degree, Christianity. Ronald Reagan once said, “We cannot diminish the value of one category of life — the unborn — without diminishing the value of all human life.”  We see a shift in ideological values. The argument could be made that modern conservatives still value freedom as much as the classic conservative ideology does. The new paradigm frames the issue of abortion as not about the freedom to choose, but rather the act of having an abortion is committing the act of murder. This places a negative stigma with regards to abortion due to the fact that murder is socially condemned and lawfully illegal. Progressive ideology tends to promote social justice, egalitarianism, and inclusiveness. It tends to frame the issue of abortion as the mother’s right to choose whether to continue the pregnancy or not because a fetus is a part of her body, and not a human being considering that it has not been birthed. The belief that abortion is immoral stems from the emphasis on family values as well as religious interpretations that consider abortion an act of murder. In relation to all of these things, is it fair for a national government to ban abortion? I’m not talking about defunding Planned Parenthood or limiting the amount of abortion clinics in a country. Is it fair for a national government to blatantly make abortion illegal and a punishable crime? The United Nations Human Rights Committee doesn’t think so in relation to Ireland’s ban on abortion.

Ireland’s deep-rooted Catholic tradition appears in many of its laws, one of those being the country’s eighth constitutional amendment. The amendment of 1983 established a nationwide ban on abortion. The amendment reads: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” It can be debated that this amendment implies that the unborn fetus has more rights than the person carrying the child. So, when it comes to the United Nation’s definition of Human Rights, who do those rights extend to? Can an unborn fetus have human rights? Once again, the United Nations says “no.” The broad definition of human rights given to us by the UN states “human rights are universal legal guarantees protecting individuals and groups against actions which interfere with fundamental freedoms and human dignity.” The word “individual” has been deemed insufficient as to identifying if that entity must have already been born in order to take ownership over human rights. Due to the need for clarification on what makes someone an “individual,” there have been a few other conventions and commissions within the UN that has attempted to resolve such confusion on this controversial issue. For example, the Convention on the Rights of the Child does not identify one’s right to life until birth.  However, the CRC does say, “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” Rhonda Copelon, Christina Zampas, Elizabeth Brusie, and Jacqueline deVore argue that “this reflects, at most, recognition of a state’s duty to promote, through nutrition, health and support directed to the pregnant woman, a child’s capacity to survive and thrive after birth…” They also argue that access to safe abortions to pregnant adolescent women is a human right given to women under the right to adequate health. That is, providing safe abortions will decrease the maternal mortality rate due to the decrease in unsafe abortions.

Ireland’s law on abortion insinuates that if the fetus has any sort of problems in the womb, that the mother will still be subject to carry it to full term. In the 2011 case of Amanda Mellet, 21 weeks into pregnancy, the fetus was diagnosed with Edwards’ Syndrome and congenital heart defects that led doctors to believe that it would either die in the womb, or perhaps only live a few hours after being born. Amanda and her husband had requested an exception to the ban on abortion because of the emotional toll that carrying the fetus to full term would bring upon the both of them, but especially for Amanda who would literally have to carry the fetus whose life was already predetermined to end in just a matter of time. The Mellet couple was denied such an exception due to the fact that the mother’s life was not at risk. However, they traveled to Liverpool where they would be provided a safe abortion by a doctor without being criminalized.

About Ten Thousand People Attended A Rally In Dublin In Memory Of Savita Halappanavar. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.
About Ten Thousand People Attended A Rally In Dublin In Memory Of Savita Halappanavar. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.

Ireland’s abortion ban carries a heavy weight on the issue of the mother’s health. Although Irish Law claims that the only exception for a woman to get an abortion is if her life is at risk, doctors claim that the language used for exceptions is very vague and medical professionals would rather not perform one at all rather than risk going to prison for following their own interpretation of the exception to the law. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar was in extreme physical and emotional discomfort when she knew she was miscarrying, but her request for an abortion was denied because doctors said that the fetus still had a heartbeat. She arrived at the hospital on Saturday. On Wednesday, it was discovered that the heartbeat of the fetus had stopped; Savita died due to septicemia one week after arriving at the hospital. It is believed that if the doctors would have performed an abortion, Savita would have lived.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Ireland’s abortion ban is a violation of women’s human rights because the law “subjects a woman to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Such a ruling should not come as a shock to the international community considering UN legislation has insisted that the rights of the unborn are non-existent. Ireland’s law arguably gives more rights to the unborn than it gives to the human. Ireland is creating a social stigma that labels women who get an abortion as murderers and criminals.

Under Irish law, women who have had an abortion within the country are subject to up to fourteen years in prison. So, what’s the solution? Ireland insists that women who want access to a safe abortion should get one out of the country. According to Amnesty UK, a minimum of ten women and girls travel out of Ireland and into England every day in order to get access to a safe and legal abortion. However, not everyone is fortunate enough to travel out of the country to acquire proper medical treatment due to the expense of making such a trip. Also, those who are refugees or asylum seekers are not legally able to leave Ireland at all. Therefore, although Ireland may think that they are being reasonable by allowing women to receive abortions elsewhere, they are still impeding on the human rights of women. Even for the ones who can afford to travel, it is still an expense and a nuisance to have to leave one’s own country for such a procedure; especially for those who are experiencing extreme pain and suffering due to a complicated pregnancy.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee looked at the case of Amanda Mellet (the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a complaint for her) and found that her human rights were being violated under articles 7, 17, and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I commend Ireland on accepting marriage equality, but it is now time to recognize the rights of women. Women have been denied certain rights for so long and although we have gained many, the good fight is not over. The same government who says that it is okay for same sex couples to marry should be the same government that allows women the right to terminate a pregnancy.

 

 

The Re-segregation of Schools

**Today is the 64th anniversary of the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision. The decision acknowledged and established the unconstitutionality of the notion “separate but equal”. This blog is a repost from the fall. 

The eraser ends of a pile of pencils.
Back to School. Source: Mark Bonica, Creative Commons

What do you think of when you hear the word “segregation”? You probably flash back to your high school history class, when you learned about the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bus boycotts, the Little Rock Nine, and Ruby Bridges. Segregation is something we generally think of in the past-tense, as a phenomenon that occurred throughout much of history but ended in the 1960s. A common assumption is that these issues of racial discrimination and segregation on a systematic level are over. However, this is not the case. Schools in the United States seem to be going through rapid re-segregation. A reminder of our nation’s shameful past of dehumanizing and oppressing people on the basis of skin color, the idea is a hard pill to swallow. Many people find it difficult to come terms with our history and find it even more difficult to admit that serious issues related to race are still present in our society.

In 2010, Jefferson County opened Gardendale High School, one of the few high schools in the county that were actually well-integrated. By 2012, the campaigning for the secession of the schools of Gardendale from the district school system had begun. The concept of city school systems has grown increasingly popular in recent years. Many communities believe that it would be best if the taxes from their local areas only contribute to local schools. They have made claims that they believe that this would greatly improve the academic success of schools. In the case of Gardendale, these claims are not well supported. Creating a new school system would actually make it more difficult for students to attend the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate school (JCIB), which has been ranked by the Washington Post as the best school in Alabama and the seventeenth best school in the country. In order to attend JCIB, students would have to pay $1,500 in out-of-district tuition. In 2013, the Gardendale City Council voted to create a separate school system, and a new property tax was implemented later that year in order to fund the new system. An all-white school board and superintendent were then appointed for the system.

However, there were still obstacles for the new school system. Jefferson County is still under the desegregation order from the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Gardendale would have to receive approval from Birmingham’s federal court in order to secede from the district. There were three main forces that all agreed that allowing Gardendale to secede would create significant problems for the efforts to continue desegregation. Representing the black children of Jefferson County was Legal Defense Fund Lawyer, Monique Lin-Luse. The Obama administration had involved the revitalizing of the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Jefferson County had just hired a new superintendent who was dedicated to desegregation. Though the residential area of Gardendale is 88% white, the schools are 25% black due to the busing of students from North Smithfield. For the majority of residents who want a completely separate school system for the city, the goal is to have a system that contains only students who live in Gardendale. Though this would not completely remove all of the black students, it would seriously reduce the number of them.

A row of school buses.
School Buses. Source: JohnPickenPhoto, Creative Commons

In the court decision regarding the Gardendale school system, the judge, Madeline Hughes Haikala, found that the motivation for the secession of Gardendale was undoubtedly based in a desire to control the racial demographics of the city’s schools. Despite this, Gardendale was not exactly denied their request. For the 2017-2018 school year, the city of Gardendale is operating Gardendale Elementary School and Snow Rogers Elementary independently from Jefferson County. If the city is able to run the schools for three years “in good faith,” then they have a chance at a full secession from the district. They were given three requirements. First, they are obligated to appoint a black board member to the school-board. Second, they must work with the plaintiffs of the decision and the Justice Department to create a desegregation plan for the new district. Lastly, they must either give up Gardendale High School, which was paid for by the residents of Jefferson County, or repay the $33 million that the county spent building the school. If Gardendale can show “sufficient” evidence of integration, then they will be released from the court order.

The release from this court order would be much more significant than one might think. Let us consider Central High School in Tuscaloosa, whose city school system was released from its desegregation order in 2000. By the 1980s, Central had developed into a very well-integrated school. However, after the desegregation order ended, and a new school was built in the mostly white and affluent part of the county, 99% of the Central High School students were black. Combined with the United States’ long history of systematic racism and economic disparities, this also led to the school having higher rates of poverty and less access to important academic resources. This shows that even a “sufficiently” integrated school has the potential to re-segregate without a desegregation order.

Clearly, the inequalities re-segregation creates between black and white students are unjust and need to be addressed, but it is important to realize that re-segregation is wrong regardless of whether or not it has negative impacts on black students. Even in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Brown family was not pursuing the issue because of a dissatisfaction with the quality of education at the all black school their daughter attended, but because black and white children should not be separated simply because of race.

When it comes to specific cases, such as in Gardendale, it can be easy to be misled by what seem to reasonable claims, such as the improving of education, that do not actually have any solid support. We have to pay attention to the larger scale impacts of situations like the one in Gardendale. If we do not pay full attention to the things that are happening, we can overlook serious effects of seemingly small situations. Tuscaloosa and Gardendale are just two of many places in Alabama where systematic racism is still very much a living issue. We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent or to think that racism is over. The fact of the matter is that slavery occurred over hundreds of years, and legal racial segregation continued long after that. It would be foolish to believe that everything would be perfect only 63 years after the Brown v Board decision and 53 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Change takes time and diligence. This makes it absolutely necessary that we be fully aware of what is going on in our own backyard.

 

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.

Fast-Fashion: Unethical and Unsustainable

Garment workers working at sewing machines in a factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh.Gazipur BIGUF.2015.Solidarity Center. Source: Solidarity Center, Creative Commons

Prior to the 1960s, about 90% of the clothes purchased in the United States were also made here.  Since then, it has been reduced to only about 3%.  Over the years, companies have increasingly chosen to outsource their labor to countries with lax labor laws (or a willingness to overlook them) to pay less for the work that is necessary for clothing production.  The purpose of this blog is to highlight the negative impacts of these choices based on the information given in the documentary True Cost.

The term “fast-fashion” refers to the shift in the fashion industry that has resulted in faster production with lower costs.  At first glance, this appears to be an extremely beneficial change, especially for the general United States consumer.  We can buy more clothes and spend less money in the process.  However, it is important that we take time to ask how it is possible to the industry to have changed the way that it did.  What does it really cost?

Garment Workers

When discussing the costs of the fast-fashion industry, one of the most well-known examples is the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013 that occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the time, the building was being occupied by garment factories for western companies such as Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, and Walmart.  Workers in the factories told their managers that they had noticed cracks in the building but were told to go back to work.  At one point, the managers were even given an evacuation order (which they ignored).  Nothing was done.  As a result, 1,129 workers died, and even more were injured.

Outside of the tragedies that have occurred in the industry’s factories, many of the factories cut corners on a regular basis to reduce production costs.  Work areas are frequently found to have poor lighting, which can be damaging to the workers’ sight, and toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to their respiratory systems.  As of 2016, the minimum wage in $67 dollars each month, which is far less than fair compensation for the labor of these workers, especially in such poor conditions.  More often than not, these workers cannot simply quit and find work with better circumstances.  They must be able to provide for themselves and their families and lack the education and qualifications for more favorable employment.

Environment

Fast-fashion is also an incredibly unsustainable industry.  Eileen Fisher, a high-end fashion retailer who aims to use sustainable and ethical production methods, has called the clothing industry “the second-largest polluter in the world.”  It’s easy to see why.  In 2013 alone, 15.1 million tons of textile waste were created.  The majority of this waste ends up piled up in landfills.  These piles release methane as they decompose and are a noteworthy factor in global warming.  Even if their relationship with global warming were not an issue, the amount of land required to store of all this waste is simply unacceptable.

Leather tanneries are also a significantly harmful part of the clothing industry.  The chemicals used in the tanning process are extremely toxic and are often disposed incorrectly.  This leads to the pollution of the drinking water, soil, and produce of the communities surrounding the tanneries.  These chemicals lead to serious illness and diseases.  People living in these areas are facing skin problems, numbness of limbs, and stomach problems.  The chemicals are poisonous to both the environment and the health of human beings.  Not only do climate change and pollution have harmful effects that we can see today, but they are also severely damaging to the world and resources that future generations will have access to.

People in the street in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Wide avenue in Old Dhaka. Source: Francisco Anzola, Creative Commons

Human Rights

The issue of fast-fashion is one that impacts many different areas in human rights.  Regarding employment, Article 23 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every person has the right to “just and favourable conditions of work,” as well as the right to “just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.”  The harmful work environments and low-wages involved in the clothing industry prevent workers from accessing these rights. Additionally, Article 25, the UDHR depicts the right to a standard of living that is sufficient to maintain an individual’s health and well-being, which requires an adequate income.

Fast-fashion also has a connection to gender equality.  In the garment industry, 85% of the workers are women.  Often, these women are single mothers without any other real employment options, due to a lack in access to education and other similar resources.  They continue to work in poor working conditions because they want their children to be able to go to school and have better job opportunities in the future.

What You Can Do 

It is easy to fall into feeling like there is nothing you can do on this side of the counter and ocean.  Fast-fashion seems to be a very distant issue.  However, there are changes you can make in your own life to be a part of the transformation of the fashion industry.  First and foremost, it is important that you make an effort to stay informed on the issue and inform others as well.  A problem cannot be solved if no one acknowledges that it exists. Second, if you can afford it, buy from brands such as Eileen Fisher and People Tree who work to produce clothing through sustainable and ethical methods.  Such companies are generally more expensive than what we have become accustomed to because of the fast-fashion industry, but the products are typically of a higher quality.  If you need more affordable options, try to get clothes second-hand, whether that be through clothing swaps or going to thrift shops.  Apps like Depop and Poshmark, make it possible to buy clothes directly from other individuals, or sell your old clothes directly to other people.  Selling your unwanted clothes through apps like these, you can help keep clothing out of landfills.  Donating clothes can be a great option when you want to clean out your closet, but it is best when you can come relatively close to directly giving clothes to the people who will receive them.  Of the clothes that are donated to “mission stores” like Goodwill, only about 10% are purchased in those stores, and the rest have the potential to end up in landfills.

Finally, though the aforementioned options are wonderful and should warrant consideration and use, it is imperative to recognize that we do not need to purchase clothing nearly as often as we do.  Advertising glamorizes things that we do not really need so that we will spend more money.  New trends come out nearly every week, so we feel the need to buy more stuff just to keep up.  Society has become very consumeristic, and this contributes to industries, such as fast-fashion, that disregard the health and safety of their workers to allow people in countries like the United States spend as much money as possible.  By purchasing less of what we do not need, we can avoid supporting these harmful practices while also saving money ourselves.

You may not always be a part of large-scale change, but you can make small, daily changes that, when combined with the efforts of others, can truly make a difference.

Protests: Movement Towards Civil Rights

** The National Walkout Day last week and the upcoming March for Our Lives protests organized by the surviving students of the Parkland school shooting in February has prompted this blog repost from 2016. 

Signs carried by many marchers during March on Washington, 1963. Source: Library of Congress, Creative Commons.

 

Have you ever considered the pilgrims’ decision to leave England over religious freedoms, as a protest? Or slave rebellions as a protest to the dehumanizing treatment of being viewed as less than human or 3/5 of a person? Or the suffragettes dressed in white marching for the constitutional right to vote? Often most people point to protest images of the Civil Rights movement or Vietnam War as finite examples of protest, believing that protests are a thing of the past and no longer applicable in 2016. What I find fascinating is how quickly a protest is discounted as merely a group of unsatisfied people gathering together under a banner of their perceived oppression.

I use the phrase “perceived oppression” because it was used as a matter of fact, rather than projected opinion, by Facebook webstar Tomi Lahren in an interview two weeks ago. During a segment, Lahren assumed that Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest was rooted in his “perceived oppression” about how black people and people of color are treated in this country. Aside from The Daily Show audience, Tomi Lahren’s videos boast between 7-17 million views – an incredible feat for someone who doesn’t seem to understand the power of her platform. Lahren is entitled to her opinion. She is granted that right as a human being and a citizen of this country, as written in the first amendment. Additionally, Colin Kaepernick, Black Lives Matter, gay rights activists, and anti-abortionists do too. Here’s where I have issue: the lack of regard for fact and truth. So where does a disregard for truth and fact leave the minorities who are oppressed? They remain outcasts due to opinion rather finding allies through fact.

The fact is oppression is real.

It is not just an impact felt by American minorities; it is an international way of societal coexistence to which the natural response is protest and resistance. **For the sake of this blog, the term ‘minority’ means every group that is not a part of the majority, whether by race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/or ability.

Many have concluded that the not-so-silent white majority came out in force in support of Trump over Clinton in this election. The narrative is that for the past 6-8 years, their voices had been silenced under a lack of jobs, healthcare, and education. In this election and with this new president, their voices are now being heard. Yet, what about the voices of the minority groups who have been asking for the same things for longer than 6-8 years… how about centuries? When and how will their voices be heard?

Most major languages have a word for violence; however, the idea of nonviolence is the combination of the words that mean ‘not violence’. The Sanskrit word, ahimsa, means ‘not doing harm’, and Mahatma Gandhi reiterated that ahimsa “does not mean meek submission to the will of the evildoer, but it means pitting one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.” Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are names synonymous to the principle and practice of nonviolent resistance.

Gandhi was the first to explore the expansion of nonviolence from an individual lifestyle into a concerted political and social justice strategy, believing that nonviolence was used with more frequency and brought about more success than violence. Dr. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan analyzed 323 violent and nonviolent resistance movement from over 100 years, substantiating Gandhi’s claim: “nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.” Dr. Stephen Zunes concludes that nonviolent action, in the form of resistance, has been taking place as a part of political life for centuries. It is their success which has garnered attention as the cause of human rights has advanced as a direct result of “toppling or dramatically reforming repressive regimes.” Nonviolence protest is a deliberate tool for social change. It is not an ad hoc strategy. It is, rather, a methodical method of struggle which is no longer simply rooted in religious or ethical principles. Gene Sharp labels it as political defiance.

So what is protest?

Protest is a right. The first amendment of our Constitution grants all Americans the right to peaceful assembly and to express dissatisfaction to the government. Additionally, according to Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), peaceful assembly has been declared a human right. The clarifying word is peaceful, or nonviolent, in both documents. It is imperative to understand that a riot is not a right.

Protest is different to riot. Dr. King emphasized that the riot is socially destructive and self-defeating but it is also the “language of the unheard,” thus the counteraction to a riot is to organize in nonviolent resistance based on the principle of love.

Kiev monk hearing confession during protest. Source: Jim Forest, Creative Commons.

 

Protest is not passive. Students in Serbia (Yugoslavia) organized a nonviolent resistance in cities around the country as a means of protesting the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. They called themselves, Otpor!. By adapting Gene Sharp’s book as a manual, Otpor! positioned themselves under a threefold banner of unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline. The strategy was nonviolent resistance with concerts, sprayed painted slogans, and ridicule of the government, including a “birthday party for Milosevic”. The resistance which began as a student-led protest became a movement of more than 700,000, resulting in an overthrown government.

Protest is the struggle for recognition of an injustice. By honing in on societal structural violence, which is made manifest through cultural and social institutions, nonviolent protests are not about ‘attacking people’ as much as they are about calling attention to and addressing the “psychological, social, economic, and political weapons applied by the population and the institutions of the society”, believes Gene Sharp. In New York City 1985, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the gay community and their heterosexual allies took to the streets in protest of governmental failure to fund and research a cure. At the time, millions of people worldwide had succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses. Activists under the banner of ACT UP and TAG sought to bring awareness and solution to governmental decision to penalize human beings for their lifestyle choice. Therefore, not only were they denied their constitutional right to protest but their human right to medical care which is included in the standard of living, identified in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The UDHR is the international standard for the treatment of human beings. The document sheds light on Dr. King’s pronouncement that “Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What interesting is that the Pledge of Allegiance and the Constitution of the United States of America both speak of liberty and justice is for all, and that all men are created equal. Equality is a misnomer for some citizens of this country and the world.

How does justice exist for all if you are the target of a hate crime or laws designed against you?

Gandhi said, “The first condition of nonviolence is justice all round in every department of life. Perhaps, it is too much to expect of human nature. I do not, however, think so. No one should dogmatize the capacity of human nature for degradation or exaltation.” To find justice all round in every department of life, a person must begin with self. Johann Gottlieb Fichte announced, “if you are to see differently, you must first of all become different.”

Source: Revolution Messaging, Creative Commons.

Protest is the courageous outward expression of inner dissatisfaction or disapproval. Angela Y. Davis asserts that the struggle is exemplified in protest. Grassroots nonviolent movements, or as Diana Francis refers to them as “people power” movements, have consistently challenged repressive and unjust systems for generations. So what can you do to join nonviolent resistance movements which seek to expose and eradicate structural violence directed at minorities in the form of oppression and repression? Adapt four characteristics of a nonviolent ethic as exemplified in Gandhi and King. The four characteristics of identity and ethics from the lives of Dr. King and Gandhi are a compassionate, cosmopolitan worldview, a truthful reality, an educated voice, and love. As students of their work and life, we can possess and impress these characteristics upon others, transforming the world through personal change in order to garner social change.

  • A compassionate, cosmopolitan worldview: The word cosmopolitan comes from the Greek words cosmo meaning world, as in universe not earth, and polis referring to the city that one owes loyalty. Voltaire says, “Cosmopolitans… regard all the peoples of the earth as so many branches of a single family, and the universe as a state, of which they, with innumerable other rational beings, are citizens, prompting together under the general laws of nature the perfection of the whole, while each in his own fashion is busy about his own well-being.” Therefore, the possession of a cosmopolitan worldview means we have placed ourselves under the loyalty of the world and the citizens who share this common space, with the added dimension of compassion.
  • A truthful reality: A truthful reality is not a denial of the past. It is the understanding that the past and those who endured it, are the launching pad for those of us living in the present. Davis states, “in the 1960s we confronted issues that should have been resolved in the 1860s. And I’m making this point because what happens when 2060 rolls around? Will people still be addressing these same issues? And I also think it’s important for us to think forward and imagine future history in a way that is not restrained by our own lifetimes.”
  • An educated voiceWilliam Ellery Channing concluded that “others are affected by what I am, and say, and do. And these others have also their sphere of influence. So that a single act of mine may spread in widening circles through a nation or humanity.” Everett Rogers studies the diffusion of innovations in societies. He has concluded that for an idea–whether true or false, good or bad—to become embedded in society, it only takes 5% of the population to believe it, and if 20% become aware of the idea, it becomes unstoppable. In Rwanda, the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in April 1994, was because of untruths spewed from the radio.
  • Love: Dr. King professed that “love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” The beauty of love is that you can love and disagree. Love is a choice. You choose to be ruled and guided by love, just as you choose to be ruled and guided by fact or opinion, or emotions and feelings.

Protest gives an AND rather than an OR.