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Entries in culture (5)


Making Noise about Violence and Women


Violent women are making news these days.  Last week, the singer Rihanna released a music video, Man Down, depicting a woman (herself) assassinating the man who had sexually assaulted her.  This week, the BBC reports that the number of women convicted for domestic violence in England and Wales has more than doubled between 2005 and 2010. These news pieces, while obviously very different in nature, challenge prevailing notions that societal violence is perpetrated almost entirely by men. Do they signify social change?

The vast majority of domestic violence is directed against women and girls.  The same BBC report that shows an increase in women convicted for domestic violence also shows that in over 90% of convictions for domestic violence, the perpetrator is a man.  In the United States, the National Institute for Justice estimates that 25 percent of adult women are affected by domestic violence at some point, as opposed to 7.6 percent of men.

Statistics also show that while US women are less likely than men to be murdered, when they are killed, they are more likely to be killed by their husband or boyfriend.  Thirty percent of female homicide victims were killed by their intimate partner, as opposed to 5 percent of male murder victims. In 70–80 percent of intimate partner homicides, no matter which partner was killed, the man physically abused the woman before the murder.

This admittedly superficial review validates the notion of men as the main perpetrators of violence and women as the victims.

It is, however, a very unsatisfactory read.  Not just because it overlooks male victims of violence and their suffering, which is substantial and real.  And not just because it overlooks the fact that domestic violence, regardless the victims’ gender, is damaging to society as a whole (which it clearly is). 

It is particularly unsatisfactory because it suggests that we cannot change. 

In fact, everything we know suggests that domestic and intimate violence is not inevitable, and that women and men, whether victims or perpetrators, are effective agents for change.  While this may seem counterintuitive in the face of continued domestic violence worldwide, it is notable that in those societies or communities where intimate violence is stigmatized and reviled, the violence abates. 

Consider the cases of local communities in South Africa and India where women and men respond to the beatings of a neighbor by assembling outside the perpetrator’s house and banging on pots and pans, or ringing the doorbell.  While the sample sizes on these projects are too small to say whether a scaled-up version would help to stop domestic violence altogether, the involvement of a small number of very vocal activists lead to broader community involvement and desire for change.

Moreover, in countries where the elimination of domestic violence is seen as a political priority, supported by comprehensive policies, strong political rhetoric from the highest level, and resources, the prevalence of violence does go down over time.

Indeed, the clearest success factor in interventions on domestic violence seems to be societal.  The violence continues where it is ignored and abates where it is stigmatized. In this sense, both Rihanna’s video and the BBC report could contribute in a positive way to combating domestic violence.  Violence against women in the home, sadly, is rarely newsworthy.  Violence against men and music videos are. 

Hopefully, the discussion generated by Rihanna and the BBC will, in time, move away from whether or not a music video should show murder and whether men are more or less victimized than women.  The truth of the matter is that we are all affected by living in a society that does not, summarily, condemn violence in intimate relationships.  We need to start banging our pots about that. 


Regulating Abortion May Be OK But Not To Avoid Sex-Selection

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post)

Sex-selective abortion raises a multitude of overlapping ethical concerns regarding eugenics, population control, and provider privilege or knowledge. It was also, until recently, an issue we linked mostly to China, Korea, and India. Not anymore. Recent news coverage indicates that the son-preference that has led to sex-selective abortions abroad is alive and well in some ethnic communities within the United States.

This has generated a new discussion about what to do -- indeed, what to think -- about the practice here.

This week, one commentator -- William Saletan -- raised an essential issue in that regard: "Absolutists on both sides need to think carefully. If you're pro-life, how far are you willing to go in regulating abortion? If you're pro-choice, how far are you willing to go in leaving it unregulated?"

Full disclosure: I am a pro-choice European transplant to the United States. I am also a human rights advocate and researcher, and have spoken to dozens of resource-poor women about their reproductive choices. My answer to Mr. Saletan's question is invariably colored by this background and experience. And it falls in two parts.

1. The effect of abortion regulations depends on the context and motivation.

Regulation on abortion, or any other medical procedure for that matter, isn't bad per se. From a human rights perspective, the regulation of medical procedures and interventions is legitimate and indeed often necessary so long as they are based on full respect for the full range of human rights.

In the context of abortion, this, in some cases, has more to do with the context of the regulation than with the regulation itself. Many pro-choice commentators in United States have traditionally criticized the trimester-based regulation on abortion that is the norm in most of Western Europe. Generally, the criticisms are based on the fact that restrictions imposed on access to abortion after the first trimester in those European countries subject female decision-making to medical authority.

I have never had a problem with the European model as such. For one thing, it is, most often, implemented in the context of universal health care, comprehensive sex education, and parental benefits such as leave and childcare support. As a result, women seem to have more control over their parental choices to start with. For another, the social workers and doctors who make up the panels to whom women must apply if they want an abortion in the second or third trimester are generally directed to base their decision on the best interest -- health, life, broadly speaking -- of the woman involved. While there surely is much to criticize about the European model, it is not the fact that regulation exists.

By the same token, the relative lack of blanket bans or federal regulation on abortion in the United States does not mean that abortion access is easy, or, indeed, that woman can decide on their fertility without interference. In fact, studies indicate that the United States rate of unintended pregnancies is higher than the world average, and much higher than that in other industrialized nations.

Moreover, despite the apparent illusion that abortion is unregulated in the United States, it is actually already pretty heavily regulated. Many women and girls face serious legal or financial obstacles to accessing safe abortion services because of burdensome regulations, lack of providers, insufficient funding, or political opposition. Also, US restrictions on abortion, whether at the state or federal level, are not motivated by concern for women, and are often implemented in a context in which lack of access to health care generally and to contraceptives specifically make it even harder for women to control their fertility prior to a crisis pregnancy.

2. Regulating sex-selective abortion by banning it would not eliminate the practice.

In the face of news that the gender balance of certain ethnic groups in the United States is starting to tilt, it is perhaps tempting to hope that banning sex-selective abortions would safeguard the gender balance of future generations. However, the criminalization of abortion for whatever reason has in the past led only to underground and unsafe practices. In fact, the criminalization of sex-selective abortion would put the full burden of righting a fundamental wrong--the devaluing of women's lives--on women.

The fact is that many women who choose to abort a fetus because it is female believe they will face violence, exclusion, or stigma if they don't produce a boy. Some--rightly or wrongly--see the financial burden of raising a girl as detrimental to the survival of the rest of the family, a sentiment that can outlast generations even after an ethnic community has been transplanted to the United States.

The solution to the prevalence of sex-selective abortion is to remove the motivation (emotional or real) behind the procedure by advancing women's human rights and their economic and social equality. Choosing the blunt instrument of criminal law over promoting the value of women's lives and rights will only place further burdens on individual women for something that essentially is a social wrong.

So, in short, I support regulation that serves the purpose of furthering the human rights of women to health, physical integrity, equality, as well as the right to decide when and if to become a mother. I also support regulation that brings down the need for (and number of) abortions.

My experience tells me a blanket prohibition of abortion of any kind -- even if to limit a practice as ethically questionable as sex-selective abortion -- would accomplish neither.


True Choices: access to safe and legal abortion is the end rather than the beginning of women's childbearing choices

(Originally published in Conscience Magazine)

FOR AN OUTSIDER, US POLITICS around choice seem oddly divorced from reality. At its most reductionist, choice in this country means merely that a pregnant woman can choose to buy herself an abortion. In a slightly more expansive line of argument, the cost and conditions related to the medical procedure are considered as limitations to choice. But rarely does the debate critically examine the other aspect of choice: whether actually having a child is viable, financially and professionally.

To me, this is the crux of the matter. I have never questioned that women are entitled to free and legal abortion as part of a continuum of necessary health care. But I believe it is tragic when women choose to terminate pregnancies they would have continued if society had provided them with the necessary support. But what would that support look like?

In Latin America there is a popular saying: "Every newborn comes to the world with a loaf of bread in their hand." Anyone who has ever looked at the cost of childrearing knows that this is not true. Apart from the basic supplies such as diapers, food and housing, children need care and education. At a minimum, women and children need access to prenatal health care, childbirth facilities with trained staff and infant health care. And there is a time issue too. Women need time off to give birth, and parents need to spend time with their children, to care for them when they are sick and to participate actively in their rearing and education generally.

The United States provides few legal protections for any of these--largely uncontested--needs. There is no law to guarantee paid sick leave or vacation, and as a result half of the US workforce must pay for their own sick days, and 20 percent for their time off for vacation.

There is no law to protect paid maternity leave, and there are no allowances for time off to breastfeed. Federal law affords 12 weeks of unpaid extended sick leave to be used as parental leave, and only for those who are eligible, which excludes about 40 percent of American workers.

There are no general provisions for health care--not even, in most states, for children. Today, some 8.7 million children in the US have no health insurance.

Childcare options are mostly private, at least until the child is four years old, and private infant-care options are limited. "The infant-care shortage in this country is amazing," says Veronica Arrealo, co-chair of the Now Mothers/Caregivers Economic Rights Committee. "As soon as that pregnancy test comes in with two lines, the first call you should be making really is to the infant-care facility, because it is generally about a nine-month wait to get a slot."

Money and time are probably two of the main concerns of those thinking of expanding their families. In most high-income countries, public policies recognize and support that. A 2008 publication from the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) in Washington, compares legislative frameworks on these issues in high-income countries to the United States, and looks briefly at their impact on key equality indicators. (Ariane Hegewisch and Janet C. Gornick, "Statutory Routes to Workplace Flexibility in Cross-National Perspective," Institute for Women's Policy Research, 2008)

The contrasts are sharp. In all countries examined--Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States--only the United States does not provide for paid parental leave. Most allow the right to a gradual return to work on a part-time basis. Many countries entitle parents to tailor the parental leave to their needs, with options such as taking the leave in one block with an allowance, or working part-time over a longer period; reducing the working day during a set time period or extending the paid leave period into unpaid leave, with job guarantees.

Not surprisingly, parents in these other high-income countries tend to spend more time with their children. Ariane Hegewisch, one of the authors of the IWPR report, notes that the proportion of married couples with children in the United States who work 80 hours a week or more is twice as high as in the next European country. "The question of choice really is a question of whether you have time to combine work with having a family," she says, "which is not really something you have in the United States."

Legislative protections for paid parental leave and part-time options, in fact, have a direct impact on women's choices because they don't force women to "choose" between being a mother and being a professional. The IWPR study shows that women with college degrees in the United States are less likely to have paid employment than women in any of the other 20 surveyed countries, implying at least in part that where more legislative protections are in place, more women get to take advantage of their education in formal employment.

What is perhaps less well-known is that many lower-income countries have much stronger legal protections for paid parental leave and options than the United States. Costa Rican and Salvadoran law, for example, provides for three months leave after an infant is born, at 80 percent and 75 percent pay respectively. Most Latin American countries require employers to allow breastfeeding mothers the time and physical space to nurse their children generally for at least a year after childbirth. And paid vacation and sick leave are protected by law almost everywhere in the region.

Having parental rights protections enshrined in law is no guarantee of time and support. For one thing, the protections are generally linked to continuous, fulltime employment, which has always been more common for men than for women. Perhaps more importantly, more and more workers--men and women alike--find themselves in more precarious situations, in part-time or temporary contracts, or are otherwise excluded from the statutory provisions that might protect their choices.

But in terms of societal understanding and support of parenting, the question is not to what extent legal protections are properly implemented, but rather if they exist at all. Few would contest that time and quality child- and health-care options are necessary for good parenting. The question is who we, as a society, believe should pay for them. It is this societal understanding of parenting responsibilities that is expressed in the law.

In the United States, the main cost of childrearing falls to the individual family or woman, because, in general, Americans think of parenting exclusively as a personal choice whereas European and Latin Americans do not. This fundamental difference in the way people think about children and families is what determines what real choice means.

Paradoxically, it may be precisely the culturally ingrained respect for seemingly free individual choices in the United States, without reference to contextual limitation such as money and time, which has led to a lack of political support for legally sanctioned parenting options. In her book, The Price of Motherhood, former New York Times writer Ann Crittenden exposes the myth of choice as one of the main reasons for the prevailing "hands-off parenting" policies in the United States: "The sidelined ambitions, the compromises mothers live with that their husbands never had to make, all justified on the grounds of women's choice ... It's their choice. No one 'made them do it,' so no one has to do anything about it."

But if you dig a bit deeper, perhaps the real opposition or political discomfort with regard to the provision of childcare and parental work flexibility options in the United States is linked to perceptions of who is seen to benefit from a stronger support network. And this, again, is closely related to how welfare policies and parenting choices are covered in the mainstream media.

Consider the case of Nadya Suleman. Ms. Suleman, already a mother of six children under the age of 7, gave birth to octuplets in January 2009 after in-vitro fertilization. Ms. Suleman's octuplets were the second full set of octuplets to be born alive in the United States and the birth was newsworthy because of that.

What is interesting is that the media coverage about the case, in particular as expressed in opinion pages and editorials, pits choice against choice. For some, Ms. Suleman is seen as epitomizing "good motherhood," making a disinterested choice to continue a multiple pregnancy that could have seriously and permanently damaged her health. For others, her choice is based on individual greed and an alleged desire to leech on society by having children she clearly can't afford to feed, clothe and house without support.

In contrast, the explicit reasoning behind European welfare policies that affect parental choice is rarely individual. Often, there is reference to a broader macroeconomic argument--that all economies need to produce the next generation of workers. At times, this argument is expressed as nationalism or poorly veiled racism: one way to reverse falling birth rates and prevent diversity in the workforce is to promote parenting through tax breaks, work-time flexibility and childcare options.

Interestingly, though, many of the basic parental support policies in Europe such as paid sick leave, paid paternity leave and caps on work hours precede the falling birthrates in the 1990s, and the corresponding concern with population composition and growth. Commentators link the motivation for these policy changes to a European notion of collective responsibility and to industry-wide union organizing that focused on establishing a social floor through permanent legislation instead of, as in the United States, through bilateral contractual obligations that can be and often are renegotiated in times of economic difficulties.

Which brings us back to the overwhelming American focus on individuality, and the resulting limited understanding of parenting as separate from a national interest in the new generation. Women's organizations in the United States have, in fact, long challenged the notion of Americans as naturally individualist. "I struggle with the word 'choice'," says Erin Mahoney, chair of the Women's Liberation Social Wage Committee. "When we emphasize the individual choice of parenting, we take away the fact that we, as women, are doing real work to rebuild society. Every child that's raised in this country is the next mailman, the next nurse. It's not the responsibility of individual women to do that work alone."

There have been times in American history where the national interest has superseded individualism, with direct consequences for the provision of childcare. In the 1930s, the federal government sponsored nursery schools under the Works Progress Administration program, which was expanded to cover daycare as a war-time necessity during World War II. Even now, women employed by the US military enjoy access to legally mandated quality childcare, a provision that, to a large extent, was motivated by a need to maintain trained personnel and prevent turnover in the military in the interest of national security.

Generally, though, in the United States children remain the exclusive concern and responsibility of their parents. And choice remains a codeword for legal but often inaccessible abortion services. Logically, one would therefore expect women in the United States to choose to have smaller families than in Europe. This is not the case. Though the birthrate has been declining in the United States, it remains higher than in most European countries. In fact, Japan and about 20 countries in Central and Eastern Europe are experiencing negative population growth (when we exclude the impact of immigration and emigration).

"The central question is why people continue to have children when it is so hard," muses Ariane Hegewisch. "And conversely, there is no evidence that everyone in Europe has 16 kids, just because they can."

One reason may be that while politics in the United States is traditionally unconcerned with women and equality, children are, at least in political rhetoric, a strong motivator for change. Just recently, the corporate bailouts and economic rescue plan, while seemingly inconsistent with American individualism, have been justified by reference to the next generation.

Perhaps the policies that protect women's choices as mothers would be more palatable to American policymakers and to the public at large if they were articulated as necessary for children. "When you deny support to mothers, you punish the children," says Hegewisch. Veronica Arreola from now agrees: "All of the things we advocate for: childcare, infant care, health care, sick leave, etc. All are things that, when it comes right down to it, are about caring for our children."

In my experience interviewing hundreds of women about their childbearing choices, access to safe and legal abortion is the end rather than the beginning of that choice. Women talk to me about food for their children, time to play and concern with paying for their children's education. They talk about expensive birth control and childcare and about limited healthcare options. They talk about how difficult it is to decide when and if to become a mother. And they talk about abortion as an option where other options have failed. Public policy on choice should reflect all of these essential concerns.


We Are All Guilty

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post)

In the many years I have worked for the promotion of women's human rights, the most frequent question I get is "why?" Why is it that, after so many years of progress in terms of women's access to education and jobs, women still earn less than men in similar position. Why is it that even now, with an all-time high of women serving in Congress, women hold only a third of the seats. Why is it that, in a country that prides itself on its high levels of gender equality, domestic violence continues to injure and kill women every single day. Surely, my interlocutors argue, if we know something is wrong, we can prohibit, punish, and eliminate whatever abhorrent practice we are talking about.

And at the most basic level this is, of course, true: we have the tools the stop the abuse, so why don't we? Reality is a bit more complicated. In my experience, there are three main reasons women and girls continue to be discriminated against.

1. Laws are poorly defined and badly implemented.

Legal protections against discrimination and violence against women are much better now than even just 10 years ago. Even so, many laws carve out massive exemptions and implementation is often inconsistent. Take sexual harassment. While U.S. law contains a solid definition of the practice, it exempts businesses with less than 15 employees, and doesn't provide protection for temporary workers. What, I wonder, is the part-time waitress to do, when her boss insists she unbutton her shirt to attract more customers. Or how about the notion that women deserve equal pay for equal work. The Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, signed into law by Obama in January this year, eliminates the statute of limitations on lawsuits for pay discrimination in the workplace, but still doesn't guarantee equality.

Clearly, there is a need to reexamine the laws we think protect us, and look closely at whether they do the job.

2. Myth and culture are used to justify discrimination.

Culture is used to justify even the most unconscionable abuse. When I did research on rape in Mexico in 2005, government officials shrugged at the mention of incest: "Of course it's wrong, but it's our culture," they would say. Needless to say, I have never met an incest survivor who dismissed their own suffering as "culturally appropriate."

But culture and myths are also used to perpetuate inequality in more subtle ways. In many countries, including the United States, women - more so than men - often tend to be pushed towards careers in care-giving such as nursing and teaching, because, as myth has it, women are naturally nurturing. Critical professions, they still generally don't pay as much as the "harder" alternatives, such as transport and construction, but, as myth continues, women won't have to support themselves, and therefore don't have to make a living wage. In reality, many women head single-parent households.

While these myths persist, equality remains an illusion.

3. Gender stereo-typing may be perpetuated in the home.

While government carries the large share of the responsibility for continued sex discrimination, the reality remains that gender stereotyping is alive and well in the home. Women are still, to a much larger extent than men, expected to cook, clean, and deal with childcare, even when they have a full-time job outside the home. While men's participation in work in the home is often seen as "helping out," women are still saddled with the main responsibility for getting this work done. A 2002 academic study from Northwestern University concluded, among other things, that women do substantively more of the housework than their male partners. In fact, even when American women earn half or more of the joint household income, they have more duties at home than men.

And this unequal burden sharing perpetuates the larger sense of women's servitude and subordination, which can lead to abuse. Bureau of Justice Crime statistics indicate that women are almost five times more likely to be attacked by their intimate partner or spouse than men are. A third of female victims of homicide were killed by their partners, as compared to 5% of male victims of homicide.

So why do women and girls continue to suffer discrimination and abuse? There is no easy answer. Legal protections are incomplete, and only go so far. Myths persist, and culture is used as an excuse. Women themselves internalize the inequality.

But at the end of the day, discrimination continues because we allow it to.


Do or Die: Learn to Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Piece

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post)

I am a failure. Not because of an early divorce, or a failure to learn Chinese. Not even because, after 15 years abroad, I sometimes sound like a foreigner when speaking my native Danish language. All of those things, while potentially uncomfortable or painful, are the consequences of choices I have made. I am a failure because I have not been able to create equality in my own relationship -- despite being defined by my business card as a "women's rights advocate."

There are excuses. Equality takes time. There are social pressures involved. I have done better than my mother, even though she tried. I can't blame it all on my co-parent. He is not opposed to sharing the reproductive work -- we just can't seem to get the logistics right; what with two working adults and a child to rear in the urban jungle of cut-throat "equality" that is New York. So I'm a qualified failure -- I fail at equality in part because equality is failing me.

These excuses do not get rid of the frustration. But coming out as a failure allows me to deal with whatever obstacles to equality depend solely on me. This is why I recommend the same honesty for the United Nations.

The United Nations was created in 1945 with a stated objective to put into practice the shared principle that men and women are absolute equals. Since then, only three women have been elected President of the UN General Assembly, and none have served as Secretary-General. The organization has established agencies and offices for dealing with sex-based discrimination, but has provided them with grossly inadequate funding and virtually no political influence.

In other words: the United Nations sees itself as a women's rights advocate, yet like me, it has failed to create equality at home. The excuses are the same: time, social pressure, gradual improvements. But the real issue is that the organization must own up to its failure on women's rights. It is time to change.

This impetus for truth-telling, self-flagellation, and change in the area of gender equality is probably the least publicized part of the ongoing UN reform process. Yet it is also the one that has the potential of affecting the most people -- a little over half the world's population -- and it might already be under way. Next week governments from all over the world meet at the UN Commission on the Status of Women to discuss how to finance most effectively for equality.

The conclusions of this event could signal a new start for the United Nations in the area of women's rights. The laundry list of concerns is endless, but here are my top three personal recommendations:

* Power to act. It's not enough to say you want equality -- you need the power to do something about it. The United Nations has an abysmal record on this: of the 1,300 UN positions that state gender concern as part of their job description, 1,000 are junior positions with little decision-making or implementation power. Most deal with "gender" as only part of their job.

* Leadership. Last year, the United Nations selected another man with no discernable women's rights experience as its Secretary-General. The Commission on the Status of Women will contemplate whether women's rights are important enough to create an Under-Secretary-General position to head such concerns. It's not only important, it's essential.

* Resources. The budget of the (also under funded) UN children's agency, UNICEF, is about 40 times larger than that of the UN development fund for women, UNIFEM. UN reform experts have called for vastly increased funding for women's rights, though still only a fraction of what is routinely shelled out for peace-building, children's rights, and other equally important issues. Money isn't everything, but in this context its absence is significant. It spells a lack of commitment. The question shouldn't be: are women's rights really worth it, but rather: why have we been shortchanged for so long.

And it's not like there isn't enough to do.

Take violence against women. At least one in four women suffers violence at the hands of her husband or intimate partner. Sexual violence against women and girls has, especially in conflict areas, reached epidemic proportions. In 2006, the General Assembly set out a road-map for how the United Nations and its member states should prevent and punish violence against women. This year, the Secretary-General has launched a global campaign on this issue. But without reform and resources, the UN system will not be able to deliver the information and programs needed to bear out these good intentions.

Or how about maternal mortality? Every year over half a million women die as a result of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. Some 8 million women a year survive such complications, but end up with life-long health consequences. The UN Millennium Campaign has gathered expertise on how to all but eliminate maternal mortality. Yet without a well-resourced women's agency empowered to help governments implement the needed reforms, our knowledge about how to save women's lives will be mostly academic.

Whether the reforms succeed will depend on one thing: does the United Nations -- or rather, its member states -- possess the political will and stamina to implement them? Perhaps looking critically at the status of equality at UN Plaza will inspire some action. It certainly helped me.