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Entries in family (13)


Demanding Abuse-Free Porn Is Great—But What About Everything Else We Buy?


Earlier this month, the European Parliament rejected a proposed ban on “all forms of pornography,” including online porn, throughout the continent. This news elicited a variety of reactions, including a piece by The Guardian contributor Tanya Gold, in which she argued that porn should be certified by a committee of “authentic feminists” before it is published—or, at the very least, consumers should learn how porn is made and where it comes from.

I am not sure what an “authentic feminist” is, and I do not particularly like the idea of someone with a specific mindset deciding what I get to see or read. I do, however, agree with the notion that we, as consumers, have a duty to try and ascertain if the products we buy are made in abusive or coercive situations.

But why only porn?

What about diamonds? Watchdog groups have long reported torture, slave-like situations, and the use of child labor in diamond mines in several countries, including Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone. Profits from diamond mines have fueled conflicts for decades, contributing to the deaths of thousands of civilians. Yet the diamond market continues to grow, both worldwide and in the United States. In the United States, this is likely linked to the fact that many women, for reasons I cannot fathom, find getting married without a sizeable diamond engagement ring objectionable, if not impossible. In fact, over 80 percent of U.S. women who get married receive a diamond engagement ring, averaging over $3,000 a piece. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the most frequent question women ask about engagement rings is “How much did it cost?”—not “Was anyone harmed while producing this?”

And how about shoes? A recent study released by Stop Child Labor examined 28 shoe-producing companies and found that at least eight used child labor at some point in their supply chain. Moreover, the study concluded that none of the 28 companies could guarantee that child labor was not used in their production chain, because they only supervise the final link in that chain. But how many of us first think about child labor when we see a gorgeous pair of heels or go shopping for new sneakers?

The same is true for chocolate. As a recent Oxfam campaign documented, women who pick cocoa beans used in products manufactured by the world’s largest chocolate companies are regularly subjected to labor rights abuses, including low pay, excessively long hours, and sex discrimination. Cocoa sold with the Fair Trade label, which guarantees a certain level of pay and labor rights, represents only about 0.5 percent of the current cocoa market worldwide. So it’s fair to assume that very few people think about such worker conditions before they buy a candy bar.

I’ve deliberately mentioned products that are indulgences, because none of us needs diamonds, chocolate, or multiple pairs of shoes. So in these cases, it would be possible for us to ask the right questions and refrain from buying products fueled by abuse. But most of us do not. Why is that?

One reason is transparency. As in the case of the shoe suppliers, it’s not always possible to determine whether a shoe company sources its products using child labor, because watchdog groups cannot always see through the multiple supply chain links. Sometimes even the companies themselves have a hard time with that.

Another reason is convenience. I know environmentalist vegans who smoke, ignoring what tobacco farming does to the environment and farm workers. And I know Fair Trade lobbyists who drink Diet Coke like it’s water, even though Coca-Cola and its subsidiaries have had their share of alleged child labor issues. In short, I know any number of people who choose to examine some of the products they consume in detail but leave the rest alone. I am OK with that. As someone clever once said, the examined life is no picnic. We all choose our battles.

This does not mean governments can abdicate their responsibility to implement and enforce human and labor rights. And it does not mean that we shouldn’t demand transparency in sourcing for everything we consume. Pornography, like shoes and diamonds and chocolate, should be abuse-free.

It does, however, mean that it is hypocritical to demand abuse-free products only for things we don’t use or like. In her piece, Tanya Gold compares porn to meat (another product we don’t really need), arguing that we should demand the same transparency for both. I say we should demand transparency for all products and then leave people to decide which, of the abuse-free alternatives, they want to consume.


TV Recognizes the “Modern Family”—Why Not Governments?


I don’t watch “Modern Family,” the prime-time sitcom depicting “non-traditional”—e.g., same-sex, interracial, and inter-generational—couples. Still, I’m struck by how fast family realities change and how slowly laws and societal perceptions about what’s “right” reflect those changes.

The couples depicted in “Modern Family” were surely seen by society at large as more unusual in 2009, when the show first aired, than even just five years later. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering two cases that might pave the way for federal benefits for same-sex couples, the number of interracial marriages is steadily growing, and the combination of reproductive technologies, longer life-spans, and the normalization of serial monogamy has taken age somewhat out of the equation when it comes to forming a family.

Even so, real-life individuals in same-sex couples, or those who live with someone of a different race or generation from themselves, often face daily struggles to protect their families from legal uncertainty and publicly articulated disgust. Depending on where we live, our intimate lives and families may be subject to criminal sanctions, unequal legal protections, scrutiny, shaming, and belittling.

Often, the protection of our families in law—while welcome—does not mean we are immune to community shaming and violence. In Latin America, for example, a wave of new marriage equality laws has not yet had an impact on pervasive community violence against LGBTI individuals. And though it is more than 45 years since the Supreme Court invalidated the prohibition of interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, prejudices against interracial couples—in particular where one of the partners is Black—are expressed frequently in social media and in some cases result in discrimination.

This tug-of-war between perceptions, laws, and reality expresses itself clearly where courts have to decide to what extent legislators get to put their own—or their constituents’—prejudices before principles of equality and facts about child welfare.

This week, the European Court on Human Rights issued a ruling in one such case. The court held that Austria had violated human rights by denying two lesbian women a proper evaluation of their adoption petition. One of the women had petitioned to adopt the biological son of her female partner, a child they both had been parenting since infancy.

The Austrian government argued that its adoption laws are based on the notion that all children ideally grow up with a father and a mother. The European Court on Human Rights countered that this vision does not adequately protect child welfare and certainly is not enough to implement discriminatory laws. So far, so good.

However, the case also permitted subjective perceptions of what a family should be to persist in the law. In this week’s ruling, the European Court highlighted the fact that Austria allows unmarried different-sex couples to adopt each other’s children, whereas unmarried same-sex couples cannot (and same-sex couples are not yet allowed to marry in Austria). Had Austria reserved adoption for those who are married and marriage for those who are straight, a close read of the ruling indicates that the court might have allowed this; after all, the Court had allowed precisely this set-up in a 2012 ruling involving France.

To be sure, governments have the mandate, and even the obligation, to encourage family structures that benefit society generally and children more specifically. And the laws and policies that flow from this mandate must to some extent be subjective. The state may, for example, believe that marriage has a value in and of itself, and not only as it relates to parental and economic stability, and, as such, seek to promote marriage through tax structures and inheritance laws.

But beliefs only go so far. The obligation of the state to protect the human rights of both children and adults must find its expression through science and facts. One fact is that same-sex couples and LGBTI individuals already parent children. Another, that the welfare of children correlates with parental support and love, and not with the parents’ sexual orientation, race, identity, or age.

But the overarching fact that governments across the world should address immediately is that there are any number of “modern families” who are discriminated against by law and ostracized in their communities.


Potential SCOTUS Review of DOMA Presents Pivotal Moment for Gay Rights in America


On Friday, November 30th (or today as you read this), the US Supreme Court judges are expected to announce which, if any, cases related to gay rights they will review. At stake are not only the right to marry and federal recognition of marriage-related financial benefits for same-sex couples who are already married. The cases before the Court touch upon our understanding of “the family” as an essential building block of society, and whether we can reasonably expect individuals to put part of who they are on hold in order to be considered worthy citizens.

The Supreme Court has been asked to review the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (known as DOMA), a piece of legislation which was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, and which forbids the recognition of same-sex marriages for the purposes of federal benefits such as tax breaks, social security survivor benefits, and estate tax.

DOMA also prohibits married same-sex couples from benefitting from the same immigration rights as married opposite-sex couples, leading to the summary denial of green cards to foreign spouses of U.S. citizens and permanent residents merely because they are not straight. But in June this year, the US Board of Immigration Appeals sent four such cases back to immigration authorities to determine whether the marriages are valid under state law and whether those marriages would qualify for immigration purposes in the absence of DOMA.

Those decisions follow Obama’s early 2011 announcement that his administration would no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA. In fact, the Board of Immigrations Appeals’ decision appear at least in part to be made in preparation for a, hopefully not too distant, post-DOMA world. But until this law is declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, or repealed by Congress, DOMA will remain force.

Opponents of the federal recognition of same-sex marriage benefits at times phrase their view as a defense of “the family” as the basic building block of society, implicitly or explicitly noting that only opposite-sex couples with or without children also are worthy of state protection as inherently “good.”

And several international and regional human rights documents do, indeed, establish the “family” as a fundamental group unit of society, and, in particular, as essential in the upbringing of children and the protection of the rights of the child. 

However, the definition of what a family might look like to qualify for state protection is deliberately broad and inclusive. In 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child clarified that when it talks about “family,” it means any number of arrangements, including same-sex families. In February this year, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights expressed a similar notion: “The Court confirms that the American Convention does not define a limited concept of family, nor does it only protect a “traditional” model of the family.”

More to the point, perhaps, study after study has dis-proven that an opposite-sex nuclear family is the only appropriate unit for bringing up children, and more than a third of children in the United States now live in single parent households and same-sex families.

Of course, this is not about marriage in the abstract, but rather about the benefits we assign to married couples, concretely, through the law. It is precisely because marital relationship are prioritized in law that same-sex couples would benefit tremendously from being allowed to marry in the first place, and to obtain federal tax, social security, and inheritance benefits when they do. If no marital relationships were given special status under the law, the impact of DOMA might be less stark on both adults and children.

It is unlikely that the Supreme Court judges will challenge this general privilege in law. But we can hope they decide to look at the suffering its unequal implementation causes.


Bloomberg's Breastfeeding Initiative: Let's Start With Paid Parental Leave....


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has again been the focus of criticism for promoting a “nanny state,” this time for his initiative to further breastfeeding by preventing hospitals from displaying and promoting breast milk substitutes. The many voices in the outpouring of criticism that followed the unveiling of Bloomberg’s new plan are right about one thing: most women's decision to breastfeed is not determined by where and whether hospitals display breast milk substitutes on their shelves. But most criticism has focused on a somewhat illusionary notion: choice.

And by this I don't mean that women in the United States have no choice in the matter: obviously, we do.

What I mean is that choices, everywhere, are determined by our circumstances. When a substantially larger percentage of women in Western European countries, as compared to the United States, consistently choose to breastfeed and to continue to breastfeed past 3 months, logic has it that circumstances in those countries facilitate the healthier choice (which, undisputedly, in most cases is continued and exclusive breastfeeding for at least 6 months).

And what are those circumstances?

Here's a hint: it's not that European countries hide breast milk substitutes on the back shelves far away from maternity wards. Sure, many hospitals in Europe aggressively discourage bottle-feeding, but breast milk substitutes are freely available and the shaming of non-breastfeeding mothers—which many critics of Bloomberg's initiative rightly point to as counterproductive—is no more or less strong than in the United States.

The fact that more women breastfeed in Europe is also not an indication of European women lagging behind their American sisters in terms of emancipation and modern living. If true, this might make European women more likely to live traditional homemaker lives with time to breastfeed. Women in Europe face different, not more, obstacles to equality than women in the United States. The pay gap between men and women has long been less pronounced in Europe than in the United States, whereas legal protections against sexual harassment are stronger in the United States than in most European countries.

Many of those who criticize Bloomberg's initiative refer to the fact that some women just can’t breastfeed, and they shouldn’t be made to think they are lesser or worse mothers because of it. And, yes, that is obviously an issue. Some women just do not produce milk, regardless of how long and how well they teach their newborns to suckle. But it would be facile (and, frankly, naïve) to conclude from the difference in breastfeeding statistics that substantially fewer women living in the United States are physically able to breastfeed. There is, after all, nothing in the water (one would hope) that so systematically impairs our bodily functions.

There is, however, something in our laws. The key difference between Europe and the United States when it comes to breastfeeding are legal protections of paid parental leave, paid sick leave, and, in some cases allowances for longer lunch hours to breastfeed.

Consider this: in Denmark, where I gave birth and started breastfeeding my daughter, women have a right to at least 46 weeks paid leave after birth (unless your union got you a better deal). After living seven months in Peru (where women are entitled by law to 90 days paid leave to be taken before or after birth, and an additional one-hour break for breastfeeding while at work until the new baby is six months old), I moved to the United States for a full-time job. My daughter was then eight months old and had until then been exclusively breastfed.

My conditions were comparatively good. I had an office with a lock on the door, and I could organize my meetings and other work around the regular pumping I needed to do to maintain the flow of milk. Crucially, there was a fridge where I could store the pumped milk to later bring home to my daughter. Even so, my milk production, which
had until then been copious, all but seized in a few months, largely due to the difficulties in keeping a rigorously regular pumping (and water intake) schedule and—who am I kidding—the physical discomfort the pumping caused. And I am not alone. Many women find it hard to keep up a steady breast milk supply when returning to work after time at home.

So imagine what might happen to a new mother without such discretionary protection, and with only the narrow extended (and unpaid) sick leave afforded by the law. She'd be back to work after 12 weeks (or less) of unpaid leave, often have no place to pump, no allowance for time to pump, and no place to store the milk.

Equally to the point, the oddly myopic view of what's at stake in the breastfeeding debate that was displayed in last week's criticism of Bloomberg's initiative suggests that new mothers enjoy little understanding from co-workers, employers, or even those claiming to represent women's best interests.

At best, we are encouraged to feel empowered in rejecting breastfeeding and Mayor Bloomberg's blame politics. At worst, we are told bottle-feeding is the price we pay for equality. The former is a limited read of reality, while the latter is just plain wrong. There are more effective ways than blame and coercion to encourage healthy breastfeeding for women who want to lactate and are physically able to do so, starting with paid parental leave.


The 2012 Global Family Planning Summit: Will Issues Be Adequately Addressed?


In mid-July, world leaders will gather in London to discuss a real and urgent need: increased funding for family planning. Over the past 15 years, the United States—one of the largest foreign aid donors in the world—has cut its funding level for family planning by at least 25 percent. Meanwhile, the demand for modern contraception and family planning information has only increased. By most accounts, an investment of approximately $6.7 billion is needed annually to meet current needs for family planning.

The summit documents, which is co-hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development and supported by the US Agency for International Development and the UN Fund for Population Action, link the dearth of contraceptives and health services to poverty: women in “rich countries” have what they need, whereas women in “poor countries” don’t. This notion is supported by the fact that over 99 percent of maternal mortality happens in so-called developing countries.

This vision is not so much wrong as it is incomplete.

In early 2010, the medical journal The Lancet published new research on maternal mortality and morbidity. The research showed that improvements in maternal health — a good indicator for women’s access to health services overall — depend on 4 key factors, only one of which has to do with family planning: 1) lower fertility; 2) higher education levels for women and girls; 3) rising per capita income overall; and 4) access to skilled birth attendants.

Importantly, both the Global Family Planning Summit and research published in The Lancet potentially obscure the fact that adequate access to contraceptives and health services is a question of income rather than geography. To be blunt, a wealthy woman in a poor country is likely to have better access to care than a poor woman in a wealthy country.

Just as importantly, all four drivers of healthy motherhood depend on women’s ability to exercise their human rights, including the rights to quality health care, non-discrimination in education and health, and economic empowerment through job creation and protections for equality in the workplace.

But perhaps most to the point, the much-needed infusion of extra cash to development aid budgets for family planning is a means to an end. For the organizers of the London summit, that end is the provision of family planning services to poor women in the developing world. But even this very laudable objective is also a means to an end — or at least it should be.

Almost two decades ago the world’s governments for the first time promoted an understanding of individual empowerment as a vehicle for better policy outcomes on population growth, through the 1994 Cairo Declaration on Population and Development. The measures set out in this declaration supported the, at the time, radical notion that if individuals are empowered to make their own decisions about their family’s size and growth, these decisions, in the aggregate, will make for healthy and balanced societies. This notion departed from previous decades for population control through central planning and imposed government targets for fertility.

Of course a piece of paper is one thing. A real commitment to change is something else.  In the 18 years that have passed since the adoption of the Cairo declaration, few governments have shown a sustained commitment to actually empower all individuals, equally, to make decisions about their families.  

Some impose limits on family growth, punishing all women for wanting to have larger families than the government mandate. Others seek to limit the fertility of specific individuals within their population who for some reason or other are deemed unworthy parents, usually because of their color, class, family status, or gender identity. Still others force women to have larger families than that might have wanted through demonizing contraception, encouraging (or ignoring) early and forced marriage, and by perpetuating a culture where women without children are seen as somehow incomplete.

None of these situations promotes the kind of autonomy in family planning envisaged by the world community in 1994. And neither will merely stockpoling contraceptive methods.

The latter, however, will help. Here’s to hoping that the education, economic empowerment, and equality needed to ensure real family planning won’t be far behind.