Category Archives: Women

Women Take the Lead as Abolishing the Death Penalty Gains Traction

When Sabrina Butler’s baby stopped breathing in 1989 she tried administering CPR but the baby died shortly after they arrived at the hospital. Police accused her of beating her baby. After aggressive interrogation the 17-year old signed a paper given to her by a hostile detective. Sent to a county jail she languished for a year awaiting trial without an attorney. During her trial, “the judge overruled everything my attorney said.” The jury convicted her of capital murder. Sentenced to die in 1990, the death sentence was overturned in 1992. But Sabrina languished in jail for three more years before a second trial proved her baby had died of a genetic kidney disorder. Finally, in 1995, Mississippi’s only female inmate on death row was exonerated.

Sabrina Butler Sabrina Butler

In 2009, Sabrina settled her case. Now she works with Witness to Innocence, “the nation’s only organization composed of, by and for exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones.” She travels widely advocating against the death penalty. “It’s my calling,” says the spiritually motivated mother of three.

Sabrina’s story is not as unusual as it seems. According to the Bluhm Legal Center at Northwestern University’s School of Law, “Innocent women accused of heinous crimes face extraordinary challenges. In many cases, they are suspected of harming their children or other loved ones. As a result, when under investigation, they are coping with deep personal losses, rendering them especially vulnerable to high-pressure interrogation tactics that sometimes lead to false confessions or seemingly inculpatory statements.”

Nor are exonerees the only ones advocating the end of the death penalty. Take Sister Camille D’Arienzo, an activist with the Sisters of Mercy in Queens, NY. She became involved with the issue in 1993 when George Pataki was promising to restore the death penalty while running for governor of New York. Gathering a group of friends together to ask what they could do, they decided to use the Declaration of Life created by a former Mary Knoll priest to espouse their opposition to taking life “because it violates Christian principles.” The Declaration was sent to then-governor Mario Cuomo who immediately signed it. Thus began the work of a now 81-year old nun, who ministers to prisoners on death row.

Then there’s Bonita Spikes, whose husband was killed in a convenience store robbery in Maryland twenty years ago. Since then she has “reached out to other families who’ve suffered the traumatic loss of a loved one to murder.” Focusing on African American communities in Baltimore she knows people “who have little or no access to professional help coping with their overwhelming loss.” Still, she says, for most of them, the notion of a death sentence for their loved one’s murderer “isn’t even a remote thought.”

Joyce House worked equally hard to get her son Paul released from Tennessee’s death row. Wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1986, he languished in prison, ill with an untreated neurological disorder, until he asked Joyce if she’d ever heard of DNA. As a result of her research a semen specimen proved that he had not raped the victim. They still tried to convict him of murder. The media picked up the story highlighting the abuse Paul suffered by a corrupt legal system. In 2009 all charges were dropped, although he was placed under house arrest for a year so that he would be ineligible for financial reparations.

Delia Meyer has not yet succeeded in exonerating her brother, on death row in Texas for sixteen years. Charged with a triple homicide he did not commit, Delia says, “We’ve had a hard time getting out from under it,” in part because evidence was hidden or withheld. Now the Innocence Project is working on the case.

Photo credit: Flickr

These women work closely with organizations advocating an end to the death penalty. Sabrina Butler recently joined forces with the Kentucky ACLU where bi-partisan legislation is gaining traction. In Tennessee, where ten executions are scheduled between now and 2016, Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says since the legislature brought back the electric chair, more people are discussing death penalty failures.

Why are so many women in the forefront of the movement? “Because for the longest time women have been the standard bearers for our culture,” says Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It’s because we have compassion and probably a much better ability for forgiveness,” adds Alicia Koutsouliereis, a volunteer with Amnesty International USA.

Women are clearly having an impact. Coupled with news of botched executions, pharmaceutical companies refusing to provide drugs, and increasing numbers of exonerees, there is growing awareness of the fatal flaws in the criminal justice system, and the inhumanity of state-sanctioned killing. During oral arguments at the Supreme Court earlier this year, a California federal judge declared that state’s death penalty system had violated a constitutional amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment. He called California’s system “antithetical to any civilized notion of just punishment.”

Women working to end the death penalty have known this for years. Their fight to end the travesty continues.

Telling Birth Stories: New online workshop starts Nov. 1!

Telling Birth Stories: An Online Writing Workshop

with Award-winning author & journalist, Elayne Clift

This baby is shown just after a water birth. - Photo (c) E. Vest

How do you write a good birth story? What makes any story compelling? How can we tell our own birth stories, as remembrance and as a gift to other women?

In Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-emergence of Woman-supported Birth in America (Praeclarus Press, 2014), Christine Morton and Elayne Clift include stories by women for whom a doula was present at their birth. These beautifully crafted first-persons narratives give voice to the extraordinary experience of giving birth. Join the growing chorus of women whose voices, and birth stories, are being heard!

This 4-week online workshop guides participants – moms, dads, midwives, nurses, doulas, docs – through the elements of good storytelling as they relate their personal experience while giving or assisting birth. Weekly prompts will serve as a guide to setting the scene, involving characters, using dialogue, making wise word choices, and more. Work will be shared each week among participants who will respond to each other. Elayne will offer in-depth feedback and suggestions for each piece and facilitate dialogue among participants.

If you’re interested in painting a word portrait that carries your audience with you as you tell your birth tale, please register by Oct. 15. Register by Oct. 5 for one of two chances to receive a signed first edition of Birth Ambassadors! Space is limited to 8 participants!
WHEN: The online workshop will begin November 1 and conclude Nov. 22.

COST: $80/pp (sorry, no pro-rations)

QUESTIONS: eclift@vermontel.net 802-869-2686

* * * *

Elayne Clift (M.A.), a specialist in gender issues and women’s health, has been an international educator and advocate on maternal and child health issues for more than 25 years. She is Sr. correspondent for the India-based syndicate Women’s Feature Service, a columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and the Brattleboro Commons, and a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books. Her articles, prose and poetry appear in numerous anthologies and publications internationally and her novel, Hester’s Daughters, a contemporary, feminist re-telling of The Scarlet Letter, was published in 2012. She lives in Saxtons River, Vt. (www.elayneclift.com)

MacArthur Grant Sheds Light on Reproductive Technologies

A couple has had miscarriages, considered in vitro fertilization (IVF), discussed adoption and finally opted for a surrogate to bear their baby in India. They visit her before signing on and feel that the agency’s “gestational mothers” are well cared for and decently compensated. But how much do they really know about the practice of cross-border surrogacy?

Thanks to a recent MacArthur Foundation grant to the Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) and Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), the information gap surrounding surrogacy and other assisted reproductive technologies (ART) will be addressed, with an emphasis on human rights and social justice. Light will also be cast on the rapidly growing industry ARTs have spawned.

“Cross-border surrogacy raises thorny questions,” says Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director of CGS. “Some people look at women selling their eggs or reproductive capacity as an individual right within the context of wage labor. Others see these practices as deepening gender and class inequalities in a not-so-free market.”

“Most information available in the mainstream fails to paint a complete picture,” adds OBOS’s Ayesha Chatterjee. “With faceless images of pregnant bellies, the narratives of gestational mothers remain untold. Convenience, concierge-like services and various packages geared to attract intended parents in a competitive market are what get emphasized.”

Both CSG and OBOS support ART as a reproductive choice but they are deeply concerned by gaps in evidence-based knowledge to aid in comprehensive and well-informed decision-making within a rapidly growing, mostly unregulated market that positions surrogacy as women helping women, a win-win for all.

But what is the reality for gestational mothers?

“Often gestational mothers live in communities where cultural beliefs and systemic institutional oppression/marginalization makes it hard for them to achieve financial independence and security,” say Chatterjee, co-author with Sally Whelan of an OBOS paper on cross-border surrogacy. “In India, for example, many gestational mothers are poor with little social mobility. These factors create a power imbalance that makes it impossible for them to negotiate fair ‘work’ conditions within surrogacy arrangements. It allows those in positions of power like recruiting agents and fertility clinics to get away with a range of exploitive practices.”

These practices include the lack of “informed” consent since many women can’t read documents they are made to sign, minimal compensation and unfair payment schedules, isolation from family and restricted movement outside of surrogacy “residences,” constant monitoring, high risk medical procedures, and unnecessary C-sections to accommodate traveling parents. Post-partum medical care may be poor or lacking altogether and should problems occur there is no life or disability insurance.

Add to this the risks taken by egg providers when an intended parent’s egg is not used. “Egg providers must undergo an intensive and risky process using hormones that have multiple short and long term effects,” OBOS points out. “Similar to gestational mothers, many egg providers receive minimal and sub-standard information about the health risks and they are often provided with little to no follow up care.”

There are also issues for the babies “commissioned” by intended parents. These children have a genetic link to egg providers, are birthed by gestational mothers, and handed over to intended parents. As policy struggles to catch up with technology myriad legal issues remain unresolved regarding the child’s legal parent, immigration status, and best interests should custody disputes occur.
Another problem occurs when intended parents are scammed. Recent reports exposed a California-based medical tourism company. One couple reported sending Planet Hospital thousands of dollars but the company failed to deliver on its promises, or to return more than $20,000 the couple had spent in the process. This year Planet Hospital removed surrogacy from their list of medical tourism procedures and then claimed bankruptcy, continuing to deny any wrongdoing.

SAMA: Resource Group for Women and Health New Delhi, cites “an explosion of fertility services,” noting that the Indian fertility industry, worth more than 400 million U.S. dollars annually, is proliferating despite the absence of regulatory or monitoring mechanisms. “Commercial surrogacy is often portrayed as a win-win situation,” SAMA reports. “It is positioned as giving ‘desperate, infertile’ parents a child while providing poor surrogate women with income. But given growing globalization of capital and shrinking local jobs, women from marginalized communities find themselves more impoverished, powerless and vulnerable.”

Feminists offer diverse voices on surrogacy and egg retrieval. Some raise questions about women’s health while others focus on the implications for gender analysis and the effects of surrogacy on women’s lives and marriages. Others claim that “patriarchal ideology” focuses excessively on biology. But despite differences of opinion there is consensus that more needs to be known about ARTs and their impact on the personal, social, political and economic lives of those that use reproductive services.

Thankfully CGS and OBOS will bring much needed information about surrogacy and egg retrieval into the mainstream, helping to pave the way for “a real win-win for everyone.”

# # #

This column is based on a blog posted to Our Bodies Ourselves Blog in August 2014.

 

Telling Birth Stories Workshop

Telling Birth Stories

An Online Writing Workshop with Award-winning author & journalist

Elayne Clift

How do you write a good birth story? What makes any story compelling? How can we tell our own birth stories, as remembrance and as a gift to other women?

In Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-emergence of Woman-supported Birth in America (Praeclarus Press, 2014), Christine Morton and Elayne Clift include stories by women for whom a doula was present at their birth. These beautifully crafted first-persons narratives give voice to the extraordinary experience of giving birth. Join the growing chorus of women whose voices, and birth stories, are being heard!

This 4-week online workshop guides participants – moms, dads, midwives, nurses, doulas, docs – through the elements of good storytelling as they relate their personal experience while giving or assisting birth. Weekly prompts will serve as a guide to setting the scene, involving characters, using dialogue, making wise word choices, and more. Work will be shared each week among participants who will respond to each other. Elayne will offer in-depth feedback and suggestions for each piece and facilitate dialogue among participants.

If you’re interested in painting a word portrait that carries your audience with you as you tell your birth tale, please register by July 15. Register by July 4 for one of two chances to receive a signed first edition of Birth Ambassadors! Space is limited to 8 participants!
WHEN: The first online workshop will begin August 1 and conclude Aug. 25.

COST: $95/pp

QUESTIONS: eclift@vermontel.net       802-869-2686

It’s Time to End the Epidemic of Sexual Assault

What do city subways, college dorms, and military service have in common? They are all venues for the vulnerable when it comes to sex assaults.

The latest horror stories come from women in New York who’ve been ogled, groped, flashed, harassed, splashed with ejaculate and attacked on subways or in subway stations. One recent account involved a woman who was forced off a train and only managed to escape when she was able to push an alarm button as her assailant dragged her along the platform.

The city, trying to deal with the situation, has proposed a law to upgrade unwanted sexual contact from a misdemeanor to a felony and to turn “sexually motivated touching” into a sex crime with possible jail time.

But one woman blogger says she isn’t convinced it will help much. “The most lamentable aspect of taking public transportation as a woman is enduring the unsavory boys and men who exploit the shared space and put our safety in jeopardy. Women understand that most men don’t engage in this brand of sexual violence. But the number of guys who are doing these things is sizable enough to make most women uneasy during our commutes.”

The seriousness of the sexual assault epidemic on university and college campuses is garnering much needed attention thanks to recently released guidelines promulgated by the White House. Aimed at forcing academic institutions to aggressively combat sexual assaults the recommendations call for anonymous surveys, anti-assault policies, and greater confidentiality for those reporting crimes. The administration wants Congress to pass further measures to enforce the recommendations and levy penalties for failure to comply. It has also proposed a website – NotAlone.gov – to track enforcement and provide victims with information.

“No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist,” Vice President Joe Biden said when the steps were announced. “We need to give victims the support they need and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

For Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger that’s good news, but it’s money-where-mouth-is-time. Raped by a fellow student while at Columbia University, a university official interrogated Sulkowicz about the sex act that occurred, suggesting that it was physically impossible as described. The panel dismissed her accusation, even though there had been other sexual assault complaints against the same man. “Has anything every happened to you that was just so bad you felt like you became a shell of a human being?” Sulkowicz asked a New York Times reporter when sharing her story.

Dana Bolger’s rape occurred when she was at Amherst, where a dean “encouraged me to forgive my assailant and move on,” she recalls. “He advised me to take time off and wait for my rapist to graduate.” Another Amherst student survivor was forced into a psychiatric ward and forbidden to study abroad or write a senior thesis. She ultimately withdrew.

One in five women is sexually assaulted in college according to one survey and 55 prestigious colleges and universities are currently under investigation by the Department of Education for their handling of sexual violence. The White House initiative is “a meaningful first step,” says Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), but more needs to be done. “There is a sense this isn’t really a crime, that there is no harm. Well, it’s a felony and it is harmful.”

Meanwhile, sexual assault in the military continues apace. A new Pentagon report reveals that between June 2012 and June 2013 there were more than 3500 reports of sexual assault – a 43 percent increase in one year. During that year soldiers were fifteen times more likely to be raped by a comrade than killed by an enemy, a statistic that even the Pentagon calls “startling.”

The military seems baffled about how to handle the growing epidemic, despite new oversight and assistance programs. And it is clearly embarrassed by ongoing high level disasters, like the fact that more than thirty Air Force instructors are being investigated for assaults on trainees at a Texas base. New legislation has been proposed that would standardize guidelines for punishment for sexual assault convictions, but it may be too little too late. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said “the military may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could undermine our ability to effectively carry out [our] mission.”

It’s hard for victims in the military to take things into their own hands but college students and subway riders are fighting back. Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger helped launch a national network of students who have established an educational and advocacy website called Know Your IX – referring to Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity on campus and the right to an education unimpeded by violence and harassment. And in New York advocates for subway safety formed an organization, New Yorkers for Safe Transit, which support a bill requiring police to collect data on sexual harassment in subways.

What do these groups have in common? The belief that no one should have to “forgive and forget” when sexual violence occurs – anywhere, to anyone.

The Elephants in the Pay Equity Room

Last month, April 8th being National Equal Pay Day in the U.S, pay equity for women got another fifteen minutes of fame.  We were reminded that when the Equal Pay Act was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, American women were earning an average of 59 cents on the dollar compared to men. Today they’ve reached between 77 and 81 cents on the male dollar — a still unacceptable gap resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages, and thus smaller retirement accounts and lower social security payments just because of gender.

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who is noted for her activism on economic issues, pointed out, “If in 99.9 percent of all occupations men earn more than women, that is not an accident, that is discrimination.” 

There was big blather among talking heads noting that the comparative figures being used to quantify the gender-based discrepancy was an aggregate number.  But what we didn’t hear much about in the discussion was several critical issues that impact women’s work lives and often prevent them from reaching the equity goal.

 Let’s start with the fact that women are not monolithic.  We have different levels of education and thus different opportunities, different goals, aspirations and skills, different skin colors and ages. We live in different parts of the country, urban and rural.  We are physicians, farmers and factory workers; bankers, bakers and businesswomen; models, machinists and marketing mavens. For some of us, our productive work is unpaid and unrecognized. Think of women who don’t “work outside the home” but who provide unremunerated services ranging from food preparation and housekeeping to chauffeur, psychologist and hostess.  All of this makes it dicey to talk about women and work in simplistic ways.

But there are other relevant variables that we missed a golden opportunity to address more fully when focusing again on the need for pay equity because the gender pay gap isn’t just about “comparable work.”  It’s about big stuff like access, equity, subtle discrimination, racism and more.

We know that African American women earn 72 cents for every dollar men earn, although that figure depends on whether they are being compared to white or black men.  For Latinas it’s even worse; they earn 60 cents for every dollar that men earn.  But as Bryce Covert points out in an April article in The Nation, race too often gets removed from the conversation about discrimination. “It ends up in the ‘explained category,’” she says, citing studies that explain why a certain percentage of the gap is due to racial disparities. “But a large percentage of the gap remains unexplained,” she points out. “We know that race dramatically shapes wages. That’s partly why it gets lumped into the explained category. Taking this measurable difference into account helps explain some of the wage gap. But does that mean we should remove it from the conversation about discrimination? Do we have a good explanation for why people of color of both genders make less than white people? …There’s plenty of research indicating that our labor market still discriminates against people of color. But race is pushed aside in the discussion about whether women are up against real life wage discrimination.”

Another issue is likely to be particularly relevant to two-career families in the economic bracket that draws the most attention when issues of pay equity arise. For professionals with careers in which both women and men are heavily invested psychologically, there needs to be more discussion of divisions of labor on the home front, and quality childcare.  One reason women never catch up to men financially in the workplace resides in the fact that they still bear the brunt of responsibility for keeping everything ticking along in America’s kitchens and nurseries.  You know the story: Women come in and out of the job market because of children so they never make partner in their law firm, or never get tenure, or aren’t viewed as managers and leaders.

Which leads to another topic – the “second generation gender gap.”   Studied by Deborah Kolb at Simmons College among others, the term refers to organizational practices that look neutral but can have different impacts on men and women.  For example, gendered assumptions about male vs. female roles often lead to conclusions that men are better at strategic roles while such innovations as encouraging diversity or fostering team work are viewed as women’s work.  “In deciding what’s a good fit when it comes time to choose people for strategic roles it is much more likely that men will be put up for these opportunity jobs,” Kolb says. “Organizational structures and assumptions can go far in shaping formal systems such as hiring and promotion practices as well as compensation.”

 These issues are not esoteric. They are germane to pay equity in critical ways. Sure, they’re complex and difficult to assess. But until we take them on, recognizing and reconciling them in meaningful ways, the wage gap is likely to continue creeping toward resolution, if it moves at all. What a shame we lost the chance to dig deeper into this matter before another year is gone.

An Inveterate Worrier Goes Forward with Trepidation

In December I received an email entitled “Going Forward Together” from my progressive senator, Bernie Sanders.  It offered a list of issues that urgently need to be addressed by Congress this year. 

 His list included wealth and income inequality and growing poverty, the need for jobs, the urgency of raising the minimum wage and providing retirement security for seniors, Wall Street’s “too big to fail” banks, campaign finance reform after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, justice for minorities, women and gays, and the threat posed to American civil liberties by the National Security Agency.

 I couldn’t agree more with Senator Sanders.  But here’s the troubling thing: I have a slew of additional issues I’m worried about. 

 According to the latest Shriver Report, “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink,” an estimated 42 million women, and 28 million children who depend on them, are living their lives on the edge of disaster. They are “one single incident—a doctor’s bill, a late paycheck, or a broken-down car—away from economic ruin.”  What women, a large number of whom are head of household and sole income earner, especially in low-income families need is “a country that supports the reality of women’s dual roles as by far the majority of the nation’s caregivers and breadwinners.”  Instead what do we get? Mike Huckabee yelping about women’s runaway libidos and a shocking assault by his cronies on women’s privacy and reproductive health.

 I worry about our criminal justice system, and the private enterprises with a vested interest in them, running amok.  Horrific sentences, deplorable conditions, inadequate medical care, and abusive staff are just some of the issues at hand.  So is the fact that juveniles are facing life without parole, despite Supreme Court decisions aimed at curtailing mandatory sentences and ensuring juvenile justice.   

                                              

In one Florida case, two kids aged 12 and 14 with no prior record attempted to rob a man.  One of them fired a gun, accidentally wounding him.  He was grazed by the bullet but not badly hurt. The kid with the gun, likely advised to accept a plea bargain, pleaded guilty to attempted murder and robbery, hoping for leniency.  Instead the judge sentenced him to 70 years without parole.  Clearly the youth who carried out this attempted robbery, gun in hand, needed to be punished.  But the case is not unusual in its extraordinary sentencing.  Nor are the ones that slap teenage girls in jail for life without parole for accidentally killing their sexual abusers.

 Human trafficking is another worrying issue that affects young people in devastating ways. While efforts are being made to address the worldwide epidemic, it happens far too frequently in the U.S.  Florida, Chicago and Washington, DC have been described as “hot spots” of trafficking in a report funded by the Department of Justice. And New Jersey could soon be added to that dubious list in the wake of this year’s Super Bowl.  “New Jersey has a huge trafficking problem,” according to U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). “One Super Bowl after another has shown itself to be one of the largest events in the world where the cruelty of human trafficking goes on for several weeks.”  Danielle Douglas, a self-described sex-trafficking survivor, agrees. She told The Huffington Post that major sporting events attract sex traffickers looking to make money. “The Super Bowl is a huge arena for sex trafficking. Some visitors come to the Super Bowl not to watch football. They come to have sex with women, and/or men or children.”  Is this America’s latest version of “Take me out to the ballgame”?

We all know that gun control legislation – with teeth – urgently needs to be enacted.  Shootings in schools, movie theaters, malls, on our streets and in our homes is so out of control one hardly has words.  What we do have is compelling facts: 33 Americans are murdered with guns every day. Our gun murder rate is 20 times higher than any other developed nation.  American women are 11 times more likely to be killed by a gun than women in other high-income countries.  There have been at least 36 school shootings since Newtown.  And dangerous people can still buy handguns in 34 states without background checks. What more evidence – how many more fatalities – do we need before the NRA is defeated and sane legislation is enacted?

                                                                                       

 There’s more, of course – climate change and the state of education in the U.S., for example – but even Bernie Sanders doesn’t have the energy to confront all of our woes in one go.  And things aren’t looking good for legislative reform this year as the right and left continue to behave irresponsibly.  So what’s a country or a constituency to do? 

 At the very least, I suppose, we can remind people of the work ahead if America is not to fall behind in ways unimaginable a generation ago.  It wouldn’t hurt to send Bernie Sanders a thank-you note either.

What Does the Future Hold for Afghan Women?

Back in the 1920s things looked hopeful for women in Afghanistan.  King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya worked diligently to improve women’s lives. The king discouraged polygamy, advocated against the veil, and pushed for greater personal freedom for females.  “Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual,” he said.  His sister, Kobra, created the Organization for Women’s Protection while another sister established a women’s hospital.  Queen Soroya even founded the first magazine for women.

By the end of this progressive decade conservative tribal leaders pushed back against the growing freedoms for women and the King’s successor acquiesced.  Still, urban women entered the work force in the 1930s, mainly as teachers and nurses, and by 1959 many had unveiled.  A1964 constitution gave women the right to vote and to enter politics.

 All of these advances, and those that followed in the 1970s and 80s came to a crashing halt when the Taliban came to power in 1996 following Soviet rule. We’re familiar with their brutal oppression of women symbolized by blue burkhas and stoning deaths. 

 Post Taliban, things seemed to improve.  A woman was elected to the Loya Jirga in 2003 and the following year a new constitution codified that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law.” In 2008 the first political party dedicated to women’s rights was launched and 35 percent of the more than five million children enrolled in schools were girls. 

 That was also the year that acid attacks on female students began.

The facts about Afghan women are chilling.  Only 14 percent of them are literate.  Their maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world. Almost 80 percent of rural women have no access to health care. Nearly 60 percent of marriages involve girls younger than 16 and more than 87 percent of Afghan women are in forced marriage or suffer physical or sexual abuse by their husbands. Average life expectancy for women is 44 years.

 “The fall of the Taliban brought global attention to the plight of Afghan women,” a 2010 Afghan-web.com piece notes.  “But even with a sizeable amount of aid and scores of consultants and projects, palpable changes remain elusive.”

 That year, prominent Afghan women gathered in Kabul to spearhead a campaign to improve the lives of Afghan women through legislation while changing the prevailing male mindset.   For despite the 2004 Constitution old laws and tribal customs continued in the face of a government unwilling to enforce the law. Today, in spite of the efforts of many Afghan women who repatriated to help the women of their country, the situation remains bleak. 

 Last spring a member of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) told an interviewer that the country remains extremely dangerous for women. Ninety percent of Afghan females, she said, have experienced some form of violence and the suicide rate among women is climbing because women feel hopeless. 

In June, when security was handed over from NATO to Afghan forces and US troops began preparing for withdrawal, women’s concerns loomed large in the face of escalating attacks on high profile women.   Legislative and policy changes aimed at improving women’s lives are also being targeted.  The 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law may be amended to prohibit relatives of the accused from being questioned about abuses they’ve witnessed.  Some politicians have called for eliminating the minimum marriage age while others want to abolish women’s shelters and remove criminal penalties for rape.  The quota for women in government has been lowered; some want it ended altogether.

 Meanwhile, the Taliban are regaining legitimacy as an acceptable partner in peace-building.

 Malalai Joya,

a young activist elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005 (later removed from her post) told The Nation last November, “In rural areas, the situation for women is like hell. We have a mafia parliament. The majority of seats belong to warlords, drug lords, even Taliban. Most of the women in parliament are pro-warlord. Their role is symbolic. We’ve seen acid attacks, burning girls’ schools, cutting the nose and ears off women, public beatings and executions. In Taliban time we had one enemy; now we have three: the Taliban, warlords and occupation forces. When they leave the situation will be even bloodier…because more terrorists will come into power.”

 Such testimony calls into question a multi-million dollar program announced in September to support Afghan women’s political participation, a collaboration between the Afghan Independent Election Commission and the Asia Foundation aimed at voter turnout among women during the next elections.

 As one RAWA spokeswoman put it when asked if an Afghan Spring was imminent, “Change takes time. Things are not moving in the right direction. There won’t be a quick solution.” Then she added, “As a mother, I dream a safe, secure life for my children. Every mother has this dream: a safe life, even before education and good health.”

                                              * * *

 (A fuller version of this commentary can be found at www.towardfreedom.com)

                                   

Announcing “Birth Ambassadors” – the “definitive” book on Doulas!

Drum Roll, Please!  I am thrilled to announce that my book with lead author Christine Morton, Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-emergence of Woman-supported Birth in America, has just been published by Praeclarus Press!  Here’s an endorsement written by the noted midwife Dr. Robbie Davis-Floyd:

This book is THE definitive work on doulas in the United States. It is clearly and compellingly written, immediately drawing readers in to the story of the development of doulas in the U.S. and of the social movement that arose to support their incorporation into American hospital birth. Want to know what a doula actually does for laboring mothers? Read this book! Want to know what a doula can do for you personally, if you are expecting? READ THIS BOOK! Want to know if you yourself should become a doula? READ THIS BOOK! If you are an obstetrician, professional midwife, or obstetric nurse, read this book to find out how doulas can augment your care in ways that support you as well as the mother, the baby, and the family. You will find all your answers within its beautifully written pages.

 

The many individual stories written by mothers and by doulas themselves bring life and light to their experiences, and the many photos illuminate the stories even further. The authors do not avoid what is widely known as “the doula dilemma”—do doulas really make a difference in the birthing experience, or do they just make women feel better about traumatic births? Their strong affirmation of the multiple benefits of doula care should be read by all expectant parents, by all birth professionals who attend them, and by those thinking of becoming doulas as well as those who already are. This comprehensive, evidenced-based, and fascinating book will compel its readers to work hard to make birth better—more humanistic, more compassionate, more physiological, and more successful in terms of healthy babies and empowered mothers and families. 

 

–Robbie Davis-Floyd PhD, Senior Research Fellow, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Texas Austin, author of Birth as an American Rite of Passage, and co-editor of Mainstreaming Midwives.

Available from Praeclarus Press, Amazon.com, or order at your local bookstore.

Please share with anyone in the birth and parenting community, as well as with relevant practitioners. Thanks!ba mini pc 10-11

Burkhas and Bikinis: What Women’s Bodies Reveal About Cultures

On Facebook, a photo of four Afghan women in Burkhas appears, followed by another picture of four American women, Victoria Secret models, in underwear that amounts to nothing more than the skimpiest of bikinis. Both images are startling, as is what follows: a post about two Afghan women found hanged, naked, neither their names nor their “crime” revealed.

The striking juxtaposition of these posts calls for understanding their meaning, for exploring their cultural relevance, for some kind of articulation about what they reveal regarding the status of women, for outrage and correction. And for knowing why, in response to my “comment” that both pictures made feel sick, this message appeared from an unknown reader: “Do we really need your vomit?”

My reaction to all this is visceral. I mull the pictures over in my mind for several days, trying to process the outrage I felt on seeing both photos, reading about the executions, receiving that hideous message.

The first and probably most important thing I think about in working out how these things are connected is that women’s bodies are what really matters about them according to the power base, irrespective of the culture in which they reside.

In Afghanistan, according to the Taliban and other ultra-conservatives, women must be covered completely, often to the point of near suffocation and immobility, in order that they not tempt males sexually. For the sake of protecting one half of the population from itself, the other half of the population must be rendered invisible, faceless, body-less, without identity, voice, power. When women reclaim some of that power in whatever innocuous or overt way, as those two Afghani women likely did, they are hung, naked, like animal carcasses, exposed so that the world can look upon their shame. They can no longer tempt. Now they are held in contempt. It’s the ultimate female dichotomy.

In many western cultures, especially our own, it is the uncovering of women that gives them value; in their ability to titillate and tempt lies what little power we afford them. This sexualization of females – their path to legitimization – happens almost from birth. If you doubt this claim, take a look at baby and toddler T-shirts and what is imprinted on them; notice how kids in elementary and junior high school dress; ask yourself why Miley Cyrus gets so much attention. Or why the War on Women has heated up politically now that women are gaining ever more freedom and equality in the academy, the marketplace, the community as they exercise more autonomy over their own bodies.

Seen enough?

Much has been written about the cultural contexts of emphasizing women’s bodies and women’s sexuality (either by rendering their bodies invisible or totally exposed). The relationship of those cultural contexts to rape and other violence against women, to eating disorders and depression, and to other psycho-social phenomena has been well articulated.

But all this attention still begs the question: Why do the male of the species – the ones who continue to hold most of the power in most cultures – fail to care about the pain they are causing the women they purport to love – their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, friends? Why do so many women buy into their lead? And why is it so difficult to move cultures beyond women’s oppression, largely associated with repressed or flaunted sexuality, to cultural environments in which simple justice, human rights, and kindness prevail?

Some answers to these largely rhetorical questions have been articulated, for better or worse: Institutionalized and sanctioned misogyny, the almighty buck, testosterone and more. But none has provided sufficient clarity or effected sustained change.

And none has been able to answer these questions in a meaningful way: Why, really, were two nameless women hung, naked, in Afghanistan? Why are some women in the 21st century walking around in virtual body bags while others wear little more than a loincloth? Why is a woman’s voice expressing a feeling of outrage when women are objectified met with male vitriol? What do any of these things say about the cultures in which we live? What are we going to do to make those cultures more humane for fully half of their populations?