Improper Sex Education and the Effects on Women’s Health in Alabama

 

Three Condoms Side-By-Side
Yahoo Images, three condoms side-by-side

Sex Education in the United States

In the United States sex education has historically been underfunded and often used as a tool to shame people for their sexuality. Currently, only 29 states in the United States mandate sex education; however, this still does not ensure that children are taught medical sex education in school. In fact, 37 states within the United States require abstinence to be taught as the only way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. Even worse, up until April 2021, seven states in the South prohibited educators from discussing LGBTQ+ identities and relationships, which further stigmatizes youth and puts them at a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Currently, now that Alabama has passed a new bill which removed homophobic language forbidding schools from teaching LGBTQ+ sex education, teachers are able to create sex education curriculum as they please, as long as parents are sent an overview of the curriculum and agree to let their children learn said material.

How U.S. Sex Education Policies Measure Up to the ICPD

According to the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), “ the objective to achieve universal access to quality education, underlines that gender-sensitive education about population issues, including reproductive choices and responsibilities and sexually transmitted diseases, must begin in primary school and continue through all levels of formal and non-formal education to be effective.” The ICPD further notes that “full attention should be given to the promotion of mutually respectful and equitable gender relations and particularly to meeting the educational and service needs of adolescents to enable them to deal in a positive and responsible way with their sexuality.” When looking at the rights set forth by the ICPD, it becomes clear that the United States is failing their youth populations and exposes them to unnecessary risk by refusing to inform them of the dangers that come with unprotected sex. By not requiring sex education, the United States also fails to inform youth of preventative measures they can take to ensure the utmost safety and consensual enjoyment between parties. This lack of education has not only resulted in a multitude of unwanted pregnancies and an overflooded foster care system; but has led to thousands of people, especially in the South, contracting chronic disease and illness that will impair them for the rest of their lives as well. 

Women’s Healthcare in Alabama: The Dangers of Improper Sex Education

While the United States as a whole has failed its constituency by refusing to mandate sexual education to be taught in schools, the state of Alabama stands as a paradigm for just how dangerous a lack of healthy and inclusive sex education can be. According to Human Rights Watch, the lack of sex education in Alabama has led to relatively high mortality rates. These “mortality rates are higher for Black women, poor women, and those who lack access to health insurance.”  In fact,  according to the CDC, in 2017, Alabama was among the top five states in the country in terms of the highest rate of cervical cancer cases and deaths, and “Black women in Alabama are nearly twice as likely to die of the disease as white women.” While multiple factors are contributing to this alarming statistic, Human Rights Watch found the following issues to be catalysts for these poor outcomes in Alabama: “shortage of gynecologists in rural areas, prohibitive transportation costs often required to travel to see a doctor for follow-up testing and treatment, and Alabama’s failure to expand Medicaid to increase healthcare coverage for poor and low-income individuals in the state”.  By refusing to provide access to healthy sex education, Alabama has left thousands of women without the proper knowledge that is necessary to lower the risk of cervical cancer. 

A mother and her child during a pediatric check-up
Yahoo Images, a mother and her child photographed during a pediatric check-up

The Current State of Sex Education in Alabama 

In Alabama, the current state code claims that abstinence outside of marriage is the “social norm”. By making non-marital sex an abnormality, the legislatures have shown that they have no interest in providing education to youth who may break the “social norm”. Moreover, in the past, Alabama code emphasized that sexual curriculum had to be presented in a “factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state”. By painting non-heteronormative orientation as “criminal” Alabama consciously stigmatized members of the LGBTQ community for decades, which put them at a higher risk of contracting a chronic disease. In fact, according to SIECUS, Alabama ranked fourth in the nation for reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in youth aged 15-19. Yet, thanks to activists and constituents voicing their concerns, the Alabama legislature has now removed said discriminatory language from their sex education bill. However, there is still a large amount of work that must be done to further advocate for proper, medical sex education to be provided to students. 

Yahoo Images, A woman is holding a poster which states “A woman’s place is in the resistance”
Yahoo Images, A woman is holding a poster which states “A woman’s place is in the resistance”

Ways to Get Involved

Thanks to the work of activists, legislatures, and constituents alike, Alabama’s laws have been updated so that they no longer criminalize LGBTQ+ individuals within the states schools’ sex education curriculum. Yet, the work is not over, and schools are still able to refuse to educate students on safe sex practices for non-heteronormative relationships, as long as parents of students consent to the curriculum proposed by staff. This continuation of the lack of medical sex education in our school systems is still leaving children vulnerable to ignorance, and exacerbating the current health issues which are prevalent amongst marginalized groups, especially within the South. Certain organizations, such as the Alabama Campaign for Adolescent Sexual Health and Advocates for Youth Sex Education, are currently advocating for proper sex education. If you are interested in getting involved, sign up to be an advocate for proper seed education through AMAZE, or with WISE (Working to Institutionalize Sex Education), to help aid in the fight for proper sexual education for our youth. Furthermore, if you would like to learn more about the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and current issues within the LGBTQ+ community, then click this link.

An Ongoing Fight for Paid Parental Leave in America

Woman working on a laptop while holding a baby
Source: Yahoo Images

The United States is one of three countries in the world, and the only first world country, that does not provide paid time off upon the welcoming of a new child into the home. Today, eighty-two percent of U.S. voters, across party lines, support implementation of a national paid family and medical leave policy. However, only thirteen percent of American workers have access to such privileges. Much of the debate surrounding the topic involves who will pay for such policies, and who exactly should be eligible to receive the benefits. Whether you have personally been put at a disadvantage by this situation or have the privilege of merely learning about it from media outlets, such as Senator Bernie Sander’s audacious Instagram posts, it is quite difficult to ignore the prevalent issue of the lack of paid parental leave in America. 

Paid Parental Leave as a Human Right 

The scarcity of paid parental leave is a violation of various aspects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 23 of the UDHR states that everyone has the right to “just and favorable conditions of work” and “remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” The definitions of adequate work conditions and social protections can and will obviously be interpreted by society in different ways over time; however, Article 25 goes on to state:  

  1. “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including…medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. 
  2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to particular care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.”

Regardless of not being stated specifically, it is a common belief that paid parental leave exists within the realms of the above stated rights and is an ethical standard to which society should be held. Pushing personal opinions aside, a recent article from The Guardian says “The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends women take at least six weeks off work following childbirth. But with no federally mandated paid family leave, for many women maternity leave is an unaffordable luxury.” 

The Reality of a Working Mother without Parental Leave 

Mother holding her baby
Source: Unsplash

As the participation of women in the workforce has steadily increased since post-World War II, the modern era expects women to work full-time as if they are not raising children, yet also expects women to raise children as if they are not working full-time jobs. This concept is evident in many American women’s lives who push off having a career until their children are grown or wait to have children until they are settled in their career. With the knowledge that many women do not have access to parental leave, another question is evoked: what happens to working women when a child is born? Those who are lucky enough to have a planned pregnancy may opt to save as many sick days as possible before their delivery date to be used during their recovery. But unfortunately, in many cases women can be forced to leave their jobs because of choosing to give birth. 

Not all Families are Impacted the Same 

In addition to women being disproportionately affected on a large scale, there are various other societal groups which are put at a greater disadvantage. According to a June 2021 article on BBC, “workers in blue-collar jobs are less likely to get paid parental leave than those with corporate jobs.” This not only affects the lower-income spectrum of the working class, but therefore largely affects BIPOC women and families at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Specifically in the post-war years, resistance formed through the idea that granting universal leave to all workers would encourage the “wrong” families to have the ability to produce. The UDHR lays out in Article 2 that all persons should have access to such human rights without any distinction regarding not only sex and gender, but race and social status as well. 

What does the fight towards ensured parental leave in America look like today? 

map of maternity leave around the world
Source: Yahoo Images

The fight for paid parental leave is not new to the agenda of human rights crises. In November of 1919, The International Labor Organization was quoted by the International Congress for Working Women in stating 12 weeks of paid parental leave is a “medical necessity and social right.” 

Today, lawmakers across America’s political spectrum voice their support for paid parental leave. Regarding the public, advocating for paid parental leave should be accompanied by voting for politicians at a federal and state level that will bring action to further implementing this agenda into legislation. There are also various activist organizations nationwide that can be further magnified by volunteers or monetary donations, including the PL+US and the National Partnership for Women and Families. 

 

Afghanistan: Looking Back to See the Future

Written by Courtney Andrews and Faiza Mawani

Photo of armored car driving through mountains of Afghanistan
Mountains of Afghanistan. Source: Creative Commons

Twenty years after the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war on terrorism, the United States military has ended its operations in Afghanistan. The country, ravaged by war and too fragile to stand on its own, was immediately overtaken by the very forces the U.S. sought to defeat. After two decades, three administrations, and 170,000 American lives lost, the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan in much the same shape as it was found.

What is to become of Afghanistan and what toll will the inevitable economic and humanitarian crisis take on its people, many of whom do not know where their next meal will come from? What will happen to a generation of women and girls whose education and employment are now at stake and whose rights are tenuous under the new/old regime? What will happen to the millions of children under five that are expected to become acutely malnourished in the next year? What will happen to those that managed to escape – will they find safe refuge in neighboring countries, or will they suffer the plight of many refugees and displaced peoples around the world? All remains to be seen, but at this point, the outlook is dire. Here we provide a brief history of Afghanistan over the past century and consider what lies ahead for the struggling nation.

Afghanistan: A Retrospective

Afghanistan is located centrally in southeast Asia and shares a border with Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. It is home to at least 14 distinct ethnolinguistic groups, and the mountainous terrain has kept these clans separate and made it difficult for a central government to take hold. The strategic location of the country, however, has made it very enticing to those seeking to procure a hold on southeast Asia. After a period of relative stability after its independence from colonial rule in 1921, the country has been plagued by invasion and power struggles since the 1970s.

In 1953, the pro-Soviet General Mohammad Daoud Khan became prime minister of Afghanistan, and in 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to help Khan establish economic and military ties. At this time, women were granted a more public presence and were allowed to attend university and join the workforce. In 1973, Khan abolished the monarchy and replaced it with The Republic of Afghanistan, naming himself president and keeping close ties with the USSR. While creating his new government, Khan proposed a new constitution in which women were granted more rights, and the country set out on a path to modernization. This did not sit well with local clan members who believed in a strict interpretation of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Tensions rose under the surface until they eventually boiled over.

In 1978, an armed revolt broke out in the countryside, led by conservative Islamist and ethnic leaders who were protesting social changes Khan was trying to implement. This group became known as the mujahideen, or “holy warriors.” Backed by the United States, the mujahideen killed Khan, and a full-scale war broke out from 1979 to 1989: communists versus mujahideen. This being the height of the Cold War, the US continued to provide weapons and tactics to the rebels in order to defeat the Soviets.

Around 1988, Saudi Islamist Osama bin Laden founded the group al-Qaida (“the base”). Though the US had backed the mujahideen in defeating the Soviets, bin Laden argued that the US stood as the primary obstacle to the establishment of a truly Islamist state. By 1995, a newly formed Islamist militia, the Taliban, rose to power, promising peace to the war-torn people of Afghanistan. Calling themselves “students of Islamic knowledge,” the Taliban imposed strict sharia law, stripping women and girls of their basic human rights and instituting public floggings and amputations of those who broke the law.

Photo of soldier crouched down pointing gun
Afghanistan. Source: Yahoo Images

The War

September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda operatives hijack four commercial airliners and crash them into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Close to 3,000 people die in the attacks, thousands more are injured, first responders are exposed to toxic fumes that will later be listed as the cause of cancer, and a nation that has never before been attacked on its own soil mourns an incomprehensible loss.

Most of the 9.11 hijackers originated from Saudi Arabia, none from Afghanistan, though the mastermind behind the attack, Osama bin Laden, was operating out of the country. The ruling authority in Afghanistan, the Taliban, was accused of harboring terrorists. In the coming weeks, George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” provided the U.S. blanket authority to invade any country accused of sympathizing with or aiding Muslim extremists. On October 7, 2001, the U.S. military began a bombing campaign against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Ground combat troops arrive two weeks later. Thus began what would become the longest war in U.S. history.

Both the Obama and the Trump administrations tried to leave Afghanistan, but the situation remained too precarious to do so safely. President Biden, convinced that there was never going to be a safe time to leave, was determined to put an end to the loss of American lives, especially in a situation of no measurable progress. “It’s time to end America’s longest war,” he declared. The remaining 3,500 troops in Afghanistan have been withdrawn despite the failure of intra-Afghan peace talks and the increase in Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces and citizens. The Taliban wasted no time storming the capital of Kabul, forcing president Ghani into exile, and reasserting its authority.

Biden says Washington will continue to assist Afghan security forces and support the peace process, but what does that mean? As the U.S. officially ends its military operations in Afghanistan with precious little to show for it, much is at stake for those who remain in the country, most notably women and children.

A Human Rights and Humanitarian Crisis

One of the central tenets of the Taliban’s ideology has been the opposition to girls’ and women’s education. It is predicted that around 1 million children will miss out on education due to increased attacks on schools and villages dramatically increasing in the past month since the Taliban has resumed control over Afghanistan. Rather than educate them, the Taliban have a history of enslaving women, increasing the risk of domestic violence, abuse, and exploitation, including forced child marriage. Many humanitarian agencies are concerned about an increase in violence against women during this time of crisis. In an apparent attempt to rebrand themselves as more moderate, the Taliban have made some statements alluding to protections for women, though some see this as an empty promise. The days of denying women the right to education and subjecting them to public floggings and mass executions seem part of a not-so-distant past.

The ensuing humanitarian crises is expected to affect nearly half of children in the country. Food stocks will soon run out, and a third of the country will not have access to basic goods and services. Afghanistan does not have sufficient funding in its international humanitarian response plan; as of August 2021, it is only 38 percent funded. This translates to approximately 1.2 million children losing protective services, leaving them vulnerable to violence, sexual exploitation, and forced early marriages, and about 1.4 million women left without a place of comprehensive support.

Displacement and a Refugee Crisis

Although President Biden did agree to allow Afghani people who worked with the US coalition to come to America with US troops, there were several tens of thousands that could not board the planes. Images of the Kabul airport being jam-packed with families awaiting airlift, along with videos of people handing their babies to American soldiersand absolute strangers for the sake of safety and refuge did circulate our social media pages the past few weeks. The outpouring of compassion did overwhelm the global community, but now that airlifts have ceased, about 39 million Afghans remain trapped in the humanitarian crisis that is yet to emerge in the country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 3.5 million people have already been displaced due to violence in Afghanistan. These people are fearful of returning to their homes, but they also lack the finances to survive.

Consequently, the people of Afghanistan will seek refuge in neighboring countries, where many of their fellow citizens already live. For four decades, Pakistan and Iran have hosted millions of Afghan refugees. But these countries are also not capable of doing this for too long due to their own lack of international humanitarian aid. The UNHCR has called on countries to leave their borders open and permit refugee status to the people of Afghanistan in order to evade any more human rights violations and to prevent a greater humanitarian crisis from emerging.

 What Next?

In an article about the challenges that the Taliban now faces, Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times writes: “Will the Taliban engage the world with a more inclusive approach? Or will they return to the ways of the past?” So far, the Taliban have been cracking down on protests, rounding up known opponents, and violently suppressing the news media. Unfortunately, from a human rights perspective, it appears that the worst is yet to come.

 

The Impact of Machismo on Women

by April Alvarez

The country of Nicaragua is rich in agriculture yet still suffers when it comes to the meeting the basic needs of the Nicaraguan people. However, women are the most severely affected by this as they are the primary bread winners of their homes, yet they do not have access to the same job opportunities that men do, and they are also fighting for their healthcare rights. The structure and dynamic of families vary from culture to culture–in Latin cultures, for instance, men have been taught to be the head of the household, provide, protect, and lay a solid foundation for the family, and the role of women usually consists of tending to the responsibilities of the home and caring for the children. Most of these roles are shaped by the behavior and values of the family as well as by society, which persuades or enforces the presence of certain behaviors and norms. Men are portrayed as dominate figures while the women are docile. Men take pride in their dominate role to an extent that may not be frequently seen in other cultures. This heavy presence of men dominating women is known as the machismo culture, and it has inevitably affected the way that women are portrayed in society and has negatively impacted their access to healthcare.

Photo of Nicaraguan mother and daughters fishing with net in river
Source: The author

Machismo is learned through social interactions and is instilled in boys from the moment of birth through adulthood. “Boys quickly learn that they are not supposed to cry, that they have far greater freedom than their sisters and that adaptation, submissiveness and responsibility for children and domestic work are for girls” (Berglund, Liljestrand, Marín, Salgado, & Zelaya, 2000). Boys are taught that crying is a sign of weakness and that deprives them of the ability to express all their emotions and by developing a nature of pride and coldness, they are forced to swallow emotional burdens rather than voice them. Consequently, this process affects how they treat and view the women in their lives. Women, therefore, never escape the cycle of being viewed as docile creatures who’s only value comes from how well they can perform household chores and care for children.

Because the unemployment and poverty rate are so high in Nicaragua, women are often taught that they need to depend on a man for economic support. However, the high pregnancy rate is also a consequence from the lack of sexual education in schools and in homes by parents. The country is heavily influenced by Christianity, which emphasizes the importance of purity before marriage; however, many homes fail to educate or emphasize the role that men play in this as well. The nature of machismo emphasizes or rewards men who are womanizers, which inevitably leads to amounted responsibility if they get a woman pregnant. It is common for men to have a wife and children but also have a few girlfriends that they see from time to time to “destress” from their home or work life. While the man can go out and have fun with other women and have unlimited liberties, if a woman is even suspected as being unfaithful her husband may beat her. While an outsider may easily suggest that the women in the relationship should leave if they find themselves under these circumstances, it is not that easy, especially when the man is considered the family’s stability and support. However, other family members have a heavy influence on why a woman stays with her husband. Adriana, a young lady in her twenties who participated in a study about adolescent pregnancies in Nicaragua said that “they teach us that you have to endure, to suffer, because that is our obligation. Maybe it’s because their mothers treated them like that…. Consequently, they teach us to be only mothers and housewives” (Berglund, Liljestrand, Marín, Salgado, & Zelaya, 2000). This tradition is so deeply rooted in the culture that it has ingrained the idea that a women’s value is lost if they leave their husbands. Their first husband shall be their last and if they leave, no one else will love them. Women often question every decision they make for this same reason and if they are abused by their husbands then they have been psychologically conditioned to think they are the ones to blame.

Photo of Nicaraguan women and child holding up woven baskets
Source: The author

One of the characteristics of machismo is respect and to challenge a decision made by one’s husband, who is seen as a superior, is like challenging their masculinity and it is a symbol of disrespect too. Men submerged in the machismo culture are also evaluated as a man based on their ability to have children therefore, more is better. Men have been able to justify this view is by finding ways to manipulate women so that they maintain their power. A study conducted in the cities of Managua and Leon evaluated how men viewed reproductive health and their responses to participating in gender training programs. One of the men stated that “He aims to help other young people avoid the negative consequences of unsafe sexual behavior, such as unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV” (Torres, Goicolea, Edin & Öhman, 2012). This is an important finding as it successfully communicated how the behaviors of men were affecting not only the women but also their own health. The men take immense pride in having intercourse with women without using protection because it was another way of asserting their dominance. However, many were not aware of how those habits were exposing them to health dangers.

Despite the raise in awareness, men in Nicaragua still fail to break the cycle of violence and take any real initiative. In fact, in many areas the problem has worsened which affects women and children living in the home as they become exposed to situations that they begin to perceive as normal. “The fact that children are so often witnesses to violence against their mothers is of particular concern, not only because it exposes them to the risk of abuse themselves but also, in the case of boys, to the risk of becoming battering husbands as adults” (Ellsberg, Peña, Herrera, Liljestrand & Winkvist, 2000). The violence that women and even children are exposed to has more than physical consequences, it can also lead to a higher risk of illness further along in their lives. There is only so much stress that the body can take without releasing it, therefore, the body can become ill from all the intensity and constant fight for survival. The main reason men may have not been compelled to change their behavior is due to their social circles, especially other men. Most men have the “fear of rejection and discrimination” because of the “peer and family pressure to conform to traditional norms and values” (Torres, Goicolea, Edin & Öhman, 2012). Without the support of the people closest to them, they are less likely to step out of their comfort zone. They would also have to battle with being perceived as crazy because advocating for women’s rights is wrong or does not matter. No one likes to be rejected, especially if your masculinity is in question. A male who begins to speak out against domestic violence and the cultural norms would be deemed unworthy of respect because they have become soft and weak.

Women’s centers known as Casas de Mujer in Nicaragua have been successful in holding men to a high behavioral standard by equipping women with the knowledge of their rights by laws of the countries. Overall, the houses have provided a safe space for women where they can feel reassured, unashamed, or guilty, and be educated on their legal options, as well as on their value as a human being. The houses also help women unravel how machismo has affected their lives, make self-defense available, and teach women how they can play a role in breaking machismo norms with their sons. However, while there are great NGOs that have parted the way for women, the few that are present may struggle to remain open due to funding and support. Women around the country still battle with violence in their homes, especially in rural areas. The country must provide women with equality in the work force so that they do not have to be dependent on males, and so that they have access to healthcare. The women should also be allowed to follow their dreams, aspirations, and seek a life worthy of respect and dignity without being forced to confide to a life that is hidden in the dark. There is still an abundance of work to be done.

 

 

The Texas Social Worker’s Code

social work student listening to lecture
Social Work Students’ Accreditation Visit 3.26.13. Source: Southern Arkansas University, Creative Commons

Social work is a field in which professionals are intended to do their best to help connect members of vulnerable populations with the resources necessary to allow them to live with their rights and general well-being safe.  However, on October 12 of this year, during a meeting between the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council and the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners, a section of the social workers’ code of conduct was altered.  A section which previously stated, “A social worker shall not refuse to perform any act or service for which the person is licensed solely on the basis of a client’s age; gender; race; color; religion; national origin; disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression; or political affiliation.”  During the meeting, the words “disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression” were taken out.  They instead replaced that phrase with the word sex, making the social workers’ code match the Texas Occupations Code. 

This is concerning for a few reasons, the most glaring one being that it leaves members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities in Texas, two populations that are already seriously vulnerable, even more vulnerable than before, as social workers can now turn away potential clients from those communities.   

This led to an uproar among advocates for the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, as at puts their ability to access important resources that are related to their basic human rights directly at risk.  There is an increasingly serious concern that members of these populations will face even more obstacles in accessing the things they need than they already do. 

The Human Rights Connection 

It’s important to recognize that is an issue of human rights, even outside of the clear issue of discrimination against these groups that is involved.  Consider some of the jobs of social workers.  They include therapists, case workers, workers for Child Protective Services, and much more.  In addition to working with people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community in general, many social workers specialize in work with children and older adults, two groups which overlap with the former.  Then these vulnerable populations are unable to get the support they need in order to access the tools, programs, and resources that exist specifically to help them live life and access their basic needs, they are by extension often kept from being able to access their basic human rights.   

Sign that reads "Social Workers change the world"
Source: Yahoo Images

One clear example of this is when people with disabilities require financial aid to support themselves do to an inability to be a part of the general workforce.  Social workers are an important part of the process of connect the people affected by this issue with the resources and government programs they need.  Without the aid of social workers, they might have significant difficulty accessing their right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control,” as recognized in Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The fact that this allows social workers to discriminate certain groups in accepting clients is human rights issue in itself, as according to Article 7 of the UDHR, all are entitled to equal protection under the law and, All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” 

 The Purpose of Social Work: Helping Vulnerable Populations 

Another reason this change in the Texas social workers’ code of conduct is problematic is that the field of social work is inherently meant to involve professionals helping vulnerable populations (such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities).   According to the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics, The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human wellbeing and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”  vulnerable population is a group or community “at a higher risk for poor health as a result of the barriers they experience to social, economic, political and environmental resources, as well as limitations due to illness or disability.” 

Social work is also built a set of core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, competence.  It is the job of a social worker to do what they can to uphold those values by helping vulnerable populations access the resources they need.  Therefore, social workers’ turning away members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, particularly vulnerable groups, goes against the social work code of ethics.   

The ethical principles of social work also bar social workers from participating in acts of discrimination on the “basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.” 

There is a meeting set for October 27, 2020 so that the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council can discuss the issue of discrimination as it applies to the changes that were made to the Texas social workers’ code of conduct.  It is vital that we do not underestimate the significance of this situation and the serious harm that it can cause. 

COVID-19’s Impact on Gender Equality

women wearing patterned hijab and mask looking directly into the camera
COVID-19 emergency response activities. Source: UN Women Asia and the Pacific, Creative Commons

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the health and social structure of the world. Over one million lives have been lost, and over 35 million people have been infected with the virus. While infectious diseases don’t discriminate by age, race, social class, or gender, these factors do influence how COVID-19 and the related social ramifications will affect the illness experience for different people. For instance, when looking at gender, women have been more severely impacted than men. Men are more likely to die as a result of contracting COVID-19, but women experience the brunt of the long-term social effects, partially due to preexisting gender inequalities.

Looking at the healthcare sector alone, women were affected tremendously for many reasons. First of all, about 70% of healthcare workers are female. This means that a disproportionate number of females are putting their health and lives at risk to improve the lives of others. They were more heavily affected by PPE shortages at the beginning of the pandemic, and when PPE did become available, the “one-size fits all” design, which defaulted to the typical cisgender male body, was often ill-fitting and not conducive to managing menstrual cycles. Additionally, women who work in healthcare delivery have been historically overworked and underpaid. In normal circumstances, many healthcare professions, like nursing, have high burnout rates. However, studies have shown that the pandemic has increased the negative mental health effects of the job, primarily in females and in nurses.

Additionally, women live longer than men, and women are the vast majority of the population in nursing homes. During the pandemic, nursing homes have had to take drastic action to ensure the safety of their residents through restricting visitation and group events. This has led to significant social isolation in nursing homes, and loneliness follows closely behind. Further, many elderly people that live alone are women who rely on the care from their family. With the social distancing and their increased risk for severe disease, this has left many women almost entirely isolated—with the exception of family and friends dropping off groceries. This has led many women over 65 to meet up with friends. This makes them more likely to contract COVID-19, but for many, the increased risk is worth it to not be lonely.

Another health effect of the pandemic for women has been reduced access to healthcare, especially sexual and reproductive health. Across the globe, procedures considered elective were postponed due to concerns of restricting nonessential personnel from being in hospitals.  However, many elective procedures can play an important role in a woman’s health. For example, endometriosis is a disease in which the uterine lining grows in areas where it shouldn’t, such as in the fallopian tubes and on the bladder, and it can cause immense pain in women who have it. One of the treatments is surgery to remove the excess growth. This not only may relieve pain but also increase fertility, so women who want to have children are more likely to be able to do so. While this surgery undoubtably improves the lives of women with endometriosis, it is considered an elective surgery, and in many places, women had their surgeries postponed. For women with immense pain, finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, this was devastating.

This is one of many experiences that women have faced. Many treatments and prevention methods for women’s sexual and reproductive health are considered nonessential, so many women have had to postpone their HPV vaccines, and STI and cervical cancer screenings. Additionally, some states have tried to roll back abortion services. India had a very strict lockdown, which prevented many women from access to contraceptives. This led to “over 800,000 unsafe abortions,” which is the third most common cause of death among pregnant women in India.

Outside of the healthcare sector, women have experienced many social repercussions due to the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, women were largely responsible for the unpaid care work, such as taking care of children or older family members. Now, with children home from school, and older people less able to do their own errands because of the risk of contracting COVID-19, the burden is falling on women and girls. Because of this, many women have to give up their job, or at least cut back hours, and many girls have to put their education on pause.

mom reading a book and son holding a baby while doing homework
Homeschooling. Source: Iowapolitics.com, Creative Commons

Before the pandemic, there were indications that great strides were being made towards gender equality in society and in work. However, a lot of the progress was lost with the onset of the pandemic and with lockdowns. While female-dominated jobs are typically the most protected during economic downturns, lockdowns affected female-dominated jobs at a higher rate than male-dominated jobs: it is estimated that female job loss was 1.8 times higher than male job loss. This is mainly because women are more likely to work jobs that are part-time or temporary, which makes their job security decrease significantly. As mentioned before, women are more likely to take care of family due to closures in school and older family needing assistance, making them less able to work, even from home. All of these factors mean women will be making less money because of the pandemic.

Finally, because of lockdowns, women are staying home more. While this is frustrating for many people, it can be dangerous for women in abusive relationships. Abusive relationships are dangerous to begin with, but with the added stress of the pandemic and being stuck in the same house for days, weeks, or even months, the severity rises. Additionally, a lockdown places women experiencing domestic abuse in a dangerous situation because it’s harder for them to escape the abuse through women’s shelters. Another way some women would typically be able to escape a domestic violence situation would be through a community, but even in normal circumstances those can be hard to come by as it’s typical for abusers to isolate their victims, and with the added isolation of the pandemic, it’s even harder.

Everyone has been significantly impacted by the pandemic. However, some people have been affected more than others, especially when indirect health effects and social effects are taken into account. Because of the disparity between the effects on men and women, we must aim interventions at women and girls. Not doing so could negatively affect years of progress made toward gender equality, and negatively impact the mental and physical health of women in the future.

International Day of Rural Women: Honoring Their Sacrifices during COVID-19

UN Logo.
UN Logo for Rural Women’s Day, 2020. Source: Yahoo Images

The United Nations has designated October 15th as the International Day of Rural Women. This year, the theme is “Building rural women’s resilience in the wake of COVID-19.” The reason behind this theme is because of the health and human rights risks that are deemed risks for rural women in light of this pandemic. Rural women hold a crucial role in the fields of agriculture, food security, and nutrition, while simultaneously battling struggles in their daily lives, such as restrictive social norms and gender stereotypes. Since the coronavirus has emerged, women are less likely to have access to quality health services, essential medicines, and vaccines. Despite all these difficulties, rural women like 45-year-old Yan Shenglian of China’s Qinghai Province have been at the front lines, responding to the pandemic while their domestic work increased dramatically due to lockdowns.

Yan Shenglian volunteered along with 28,000 rural women to monitor COVID-19 in her village. Source: Yahoo Images.
Yan Shenglian volunteered along with 28,000 rural women to monitor COVID-19 in her village. Source: Yahoo Images.

Yan Shenglian’s Story

Yan Shenglian is one of 28,000 women who have served as medical workers in the province deemed as hardest-hit by the pandemic – Hubei Province. These women have been dubbed “roses in the battlefield.” Shenglian joined her village COVID-19 management team where she ensured that anyone entering or exiting the village got their body temperature checked and had their vehicle information recorded. A few years ago, perhaps Shenglian would not have been able to serve in the capacity she does currently due to a belief that participating in public affairs was a man’s job. But after attending a workshop brought by the United Nations Women, she and several women in her village learned a lifelong skill of raising pigs organically, ensuring food security in the village, even during the pandemic.

Shenglian’s story is just one village among millions in rural communities around the world. Rural women make up 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force, yet they face a great deal of discrimination in regards to land and livestock ownership, equal pay, and access to credit and financial services. These women are responsible for entire households and perform the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work, while reaping minimal, if any, benefits. In rural areas, the gender pay gap is as high as 40%, leaving women with little to no pay and giving financial authority to men. If rural women had equal access to agricultural assets, education, and markets, agricultural production could increase to the extent that the number of hungry people could be reduced by 100-150 million.

Rural Women Stuck with the Worst of COVID-19

Due to these inequalities, rural women bear the brunt of the impacts of COVID-19. The mandated border closures and lockdowns are disrupting agricultural value chains and food systems. Although this generally affects rural men, women face disadvantages that make it harder for them to recover, including a lack of agricultural assets. Additionally, rural women do not have access to digital platforms to disseminate information about the pandemic or available support. In South Africa and Asia, the majority of 393 million women who lack access to mobile phones and internet connections consist of poor rural women; they rely on person-to-person networks for information.

Rural women in India performing their daily duties. Source: Yahoo Images.
Rural women in India performing their daily duties. Source: Yahoo Images.

What can be done?

Women’s access to technology and digital financial services being limited is not only detrimental to them but to society. Without this access, rural women are not able to be informed on targeted solutions to problems presented by COVID-19, nor are they able to connect with the world in general. Educating women in technology and in services that they need to know, such as how to save money, take a loan, generate income, and manage their livelihoods in general, is essential in progressing rural women’s roles in society. Shenglian was able to gain skills training and received advice from professionals, allowing her to have an established livelihood. There needs to be more Shenglians among the international community of rural women, which consists of a quarter of the global population. These initiatives will be brought about only through policy. And true reform will only benefit the economy and livelihoods of these women and the villages in which they reside.

Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger with Rebecca Traister

Book cover - Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women's Anger
Source: Yahoo Images

On Tuesday, March 10th the Institute for Human Rights alongside the UAB Department of English and the UAB Department of Political Science and Public Administration welcomed Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York magazine, to present a lecture entitled, “Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger.” The lecture is a part of the UAB Department of English Alumni Lecture series, a series that invites prominent writers and scholars twice a year to discuss ideas and issues related to the study of English. In this lecture, Traister discussed her inspiration for writing and how she became a writer, women’s anger throughout history, the validity of women’s anger, and how women’s anger can make change in the modern era.

The lecture focused on the consequences of women’s anger, a topic that Traister has extensively written about in her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” published in 2018. Traister has also written books entitled “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” published in 2016, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” published in 2010, that focus on similar topics. Alongside her books, Traister has been a feminist journalist for 15 years and describes anger to be a significant part of her work. This anger, Traister says, is a reaction to the many inequalities and injustices in the world. Without anger, it would be impossible to be in the line of work she is in. However, Traister describes being unable to be openly angry. She found that expressing her personal rage would undermine the messages she has been so committed to sharing.

Rebecca Traister speaking.
Rebecca Traister speaking. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

This changed in 2016 with the election that ultimately resulted in Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. Traister had covered the Hillary Clinton campaign as a journalist and describes being unsurprised that Clinton had lost but at the same time “shocked to the point of paralysis” that Trump won. She also describes feeling a sense of responsibility for being a part of the demographic that voted for Donald Trump (white, middle aged women) and expresses being unable to think clearly because of her anger. Her husband encouraged her to actively pursue her anger and write about it. In a way, this encouragement permitted her to think about anger very intentionally, prompting her to write her 2018 book.

Traister moved from her personal journey to discuss the historical implications of women’s anger and how history classes often remove this narrative. Traister encouraged the audience to think about what we learned about Rosa Parks from grade school: a stoic, exhausted seamstress who practiced an act of quiet resistance. Traister expands on this well-established narrative of Rosa Parks by reminding the audience of Parks’ other accomplishments as a member of the NAACP and encouraging us to remember Rosa Parks as a woman who participated in conscience political action based in fury. In another example, Abigail Adams is known for saying, “remember the ladies,” in a letter she wrote to her husband John Adams. Traister reminds the audience that in the same letter Adams wrote, “All men would be tyrants if they could” and warned her husband that if the founding fathers did not take women into consideration, “women are determined to ferment a rebellion.” Traister also includes Elizabeth Freeman, or Mum Bett, into the example, a slave who sued for her freedom and was successful, concluding in a landmark case that was influential in the emancipation of slaves in Massachusetts. Not many people in the audience had heard Elizabeth Freeman’s name before. It is relatively common to find furious women at the start of many movements in this country, Traister says. The deliberate depiction of women as quiet and merely supplemental or in the right place at the right time removes the purposeful, furious action that women have partaken in throughout history.

Rebecca Traister event
Rebecca Traister event. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

Now why has this become the case? Traister argues that this pattern has occurred because angry women are powerful and powerful women are a danger to the patriarchal society. She proceeds to analyze the many ways that angry women have been portrayed in media and history. The stereotype of angry women is that they are infantile and not worthy of listening to. There are examples of describing high profile, powerful, and angry women as shrill, unhinged, ugly, unnatural and “a crazy aunt.” Traister explains that women’s anger is coded in our minds as unattractive, the opposite of how society perceives an angry white man. The best way to discredit women, Traister states, is to simply show them opening their mouths. However, Traister describes some of anger’s most important roles. It can bring people together by creating a movement around a shared fury. It can encourage people to become involved in politics, inciting political change. Black Lives Matter, Mom’s Demand Action, Black Lives Matter, Brett Kavanaugh protests, Time’s Up, #metoo, and many others were all started by women.

At the end of her lecture, Traister encourages us to think about anger differently, as fuel propelling us forward. She states that a movement is made up of many moments and the movement for full equality has been ongoing for two centuries. Each person must decide whether or not to change the world and should we decide to do so, our anger is what is going to keep us fighting. Traister ends the lecture by giving each audience member the same task: keep going, do not turn back, and stay angry for a long time.

Saudi Arabia Human Rights Violations: Freedom of Religion and Speech

I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.

An image showing Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting the bombing of one of their mosques.
Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting after one of their mosques has been attacked. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Shia Muslims

Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.

The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.

An image showing a protest sign advocating for the release of an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist.
A protest sign advocating for both freedom of speech and the release of Israa al-Ghomgham, an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Freedom of Speech

The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.

Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.

Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Counter-Narrative

This past winter break, I visited Saudi Arabia with my family. While there, I noticed that many women were active in the work force, working as police officers, salespeople, and even airport security. Under the preconceived notion that women were not allowed to work in Saudi Arabia, I was surprised to see this. Slowly, I began to realize that the Western perspective about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia was not entirely correct. So, after I came back from my trip, I decided to look into different sources to try to get an accurate portrayal of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

An image of a news broadcast with Bayan Alzahran, the first female lawyer to have her own law firm in Saudi Arabia
Bayan Alzahran, who is the first female lawyer to open her own law firm in Saudi Arabia. Source: Al Arabiya, Creative Commons.

Women’s Rights Narrative

After conducting extensive research, I realized that while there is no denying that Saudi Arabia still has many improvements to make in terms of gender equality, there are several women’s rights that have been historically implemented or are currently being established. Almost always, women in Saudi Arabia are portrayed as oppressed, and again, while there is an undeniable lack of many rights for women, it is not a fair assessment to only discuss what rights are not realized; it is important to recognize the rights that they have as well. While I cannot say for certain why this particular narrative is often propagated, it can be argued that the mainstream media is committed to portraying Islam in a negative light, and because Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia Law, or Islamic Law, it follows that it will be portrayed negatively. As the media does this, people begin to argue that Islam is in and of itself misogynistic and is thus incompatible with progress and civilization. While I will not be going in too much depth about the rights Islam gives women, I will note that it is important to remember that culture and religion are not interchangeable terms and should not be treated as such; Saudi Arabia may govern using Sharia Law, but many of their restrictive practices are rooted in culture, not Islam. Thus, the purpose of this post is to provide a counter-narrative to show that what the media portrays pertaining to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is not an entirely accurate depiction.

Employment Rights

While there is a dearth of women in the employment sector, seen through the fact that only 22 percent of Saudi womenparticipate in the workforce, there are no legal restrictions on which jobs women are allowed to work in, with garbage collecting and construction being the only exceptions to this. Sharia Law encourages women to work, so the lack of women in the work force is not due to restrictive religious practices, but rather to restrictive cultural practices. Further, Sharia Law allows women to earn and manage their own finances, making employment especially appealing to women who want to be financially independent. While the number of working women is low, Saudi Arabia is currently attempting to further integrate women into the workforce, with a goal of a 30 percent participation rate by 2030. While this is mostly due to the fact that Saudi Arabia wants to replace non-Saudi workers with Saudi Arabian citizens, it is still commendable that women are a part of this plan.

Education Rights

Perhaps most interesting is the emphasis Saudi Arabia has placed on women’s education. Saudi women have had access to education for several decades; women have been attending universities since the 1970s. Recent advances made highlight the country’s commitment to providing opportunities for women in education, namely the 2005 study abroad program, which sends thousands of Saudi women to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, to obtain an education. Another very impressive advancement is Saudi Arabia’s first all-women’s college, Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, founded in 2010. The purpose of the school is to give women better access to fields that are traditionally male dominated, such as medicine and pharmacology. Due to these improvements and the general importance placed on women’s education, women currently represent 52 percent of university students in Saudi Arabia.

An image showing a Saudi Arabian woman holding up her driving license.
A Saudi Arabian woman holds up her driver’s license. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Recent Progress

Recently, steps have been taken to reverse restrictive practices, such as lifting the ban on women driving and reducing male guardianship. The former, implemented in 2018, saw the legalization of women driving. Thus far, tens of thousands of women have received their driver’s licenses, highlighting the success of this change. The latter, implemented a few months ago, saw changes made to restrictive guardianship laws. Historically, these laws heavily restricted women’s rights, specifically the right to freedom of movement; women were not allowed to obtain a passport or travel abroad without a male family member’s consent. While I could explain how changes to these guardianship laws will have a positive impact on women’s lives, I think it is best to share the perspectives of a Saudi Arabian woman on this issue. In an article for BBC News, Lulwa Shalhoob, a Saudi journalist, wrote that “the new rule means the relationship between a husband and his wife becomes a partnership between two responsible adults, rather than guardianship of a minor.” She also notes that an increasing number of Saudi women “no longer want to be framed as women of special circumstances who lack rights that women around the world take for granted.” For Saudi Arabian women, then, this move not only grants certain rights they were long deprived of, but it also fosters an unprecedented sense of agency and personhood.

Historically, Saudi Arabia has invested in specific spheres of women’s rights, such as employment and education, and in recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has made progress by rescinding many restrictive practices and laws. When Saudi Arabia is included in the discourse pertaining to the rights of women, none of this is mentioned; only the shortcomings are. While I am the first to admit that Saudi Arabia still has much work to do in terms of women’s rights and human rights in general, it is important to acknowledge what they have done right.