Category Archives: Feminism

A modest demand for male engagement

High angle view of a businessman standing amidst businesspeople

Looking on from the outside, the world of “gender studies” or related fields in gender-focused research, gender equality policy and programming, and the panoply of ethical questions regarding gender equity appear to take an almost ritualistic form: women talking to women about women.

Yes, there’s much to talk about, and such discourse is certainly not to be dismissed as superficial or trite – although that’s how our culture often casts women’s discourse. Our culture, and cultures around the world, predominantly reflect the values, priorities, and foibles of a “man’s world” framing. For those of us who hunger for an authentic place in which to be a person with full agency and opportunity, respect and resilience, it can be crushingly hard if we happen to be female or gender non-conforming. No surprise then that so many of us reach out for the healing, fortifying solidarity of women.

And men?

Where is men’s place in the gender discourse? They are seldom physically in such conversations, and probably many feel dissuaded or intimidated from participation given that such gatherings are so overwhelmingly “not male”.  Those men who consciously take on a formal role as a “gender advisor,” or some job-description variant thereof, are few – although generally much fêted by women.

For those of us who work on international human rights advocacy and international development, the dimension of “gender” has been kicked about for more than 40 years in a formal sense. As feminist thinking has evolved, and continues to do so, we’ve sought more effective ways to empower women to find our own pathways to lives of greater dignity, freedom, and choice. Throughout the Global South where traditional gendered social and economic roles are stubbornly resistant to change, and even in the more developed “progressive” societies of the Global North, the quest to break free from the glass ceilings, from objectification and commodification, and to push back firmly against misogyny and pervasively sexualized stereotypes continues with little fanfare. It’s what women and girls (and, more and more, those who are gender non-conforming) do. It’s “the way things are” for slightly more than half of humanity.

Let the women gather and talk…where’s the harm in it?

And the men? What’s their stake in this discourse, and in the pent-up demand for change that it represents? To what extent are conversations among men focused on equity, on universal human rights and dignity, on civil and political rights, specifically in the context of also embracing that half of humanity who are women, girls, and those who are gender non-conforming? Continue reading A modest demand for male engagement

Human rights off the agenda – quietly.

Albright

The day could not have been better positioned for a loud, unrestrained, guttural howl of outrage and indignation. And while I did indeed hear words of anger, disappointment, and deep concern, there wasn’t a single howl. Not one. Disappointing…

It was just last Thursday, March 16th, and early that morning President Trump released his new “Make America Great” budget. It was a “skinny budget”, lacking the detail and policy weight of a comprehensive federal budget document, but it had the attention of everyone in that room.

“That room” was the Helene D. Gayle Global Development Symposium, hosted by the wonderful organization CARE, and held in the Reserve Officers Association building’s conference room. We were convened just across Constitution Avenue from the U.S. Senate offices – where the real budget battle will soon be fought. The audience gathered there was almost entirely women, which aligned with the topic: the plight of women and girls around the world. Still, the idealist might be excused if he or she presumed that the topic of women and girls – half the population of the world – might reasonably attract the attention and concern of men who are active in the international development community, but no. As happens so often, we were mostly women talking to women about women, ironically in a room resplendent of the patriarchy with somber pictures on the walls of distinguished (male) military icons staring down sternly at the impudent female speakers.

The weight of that just-published budget set the mood, despite the stalwart efforts of many speakers to be upbeat and positive. It felt to me that all of us were hunkered down in an attitude of resignation; self-made victims of a disempowering capitulation to “the way things are”. Many speakers spoke in pragmatic and occasionally wistful tones about the usual obstacles and successes, and how we might best find a way ahead for facilitating a type of development that would truly address and engage women and girls as full human beings. But there was no fire in their bellies, and there were no howls. Continue reading Human rights off the agenda – quietly.

The Invisible Ones in Economic Empowerment

Chloe at East African workshop

As the many important conversations begin at this year’s meetings at the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York, I cannot help but reflect that there is no comfort in being on the bottom of society’s ranking. How can we even begin the conversation about human flourishing and economic empowerment when some persons are excluded entirely? How can we speak of universal dignity as the foundation of our values when the dignity of a small minority — lesbians, bisexual and transgender (LBT) women — is conveniently forgotten, or dismissed as statistically insignificant? And we have so little data about “those people”; as far as public policy is concerned those who have not been described within the parameters of research generally have no real presence at all.

Yet here I am.

Accurately capturing the lives of any marginalized minority begins with a reality check, by acknowledging that to a considerable extent every society structures its social order, power distribution and even each individual’s sense of their own worth on the basis of economic factors. Economic status matters, made manifest through wealth and its distribution, participation in governance and influence, access to technology and a very wide range of opportunities, achieving – through savings, land ownership and investments – some degree of security from life’s unexpected shocks, and having the prospect of a secure retirement when one is elderly and frail.

It all must be fair to work.

Fairness is obligatory if we are all to succeed and have meaningful lives, but fairness is a thin and aspirational concept at best. Everywhere, systems of discrimination are deeply engrained, many people are structurally excluded from a reasonable and equitable chance, and attempts to create inclusive, fair, just, collaborative and caring societies remain elusive. Many people are penalized by society’s prevailing values and cultural norms, which monetize certain activities yet ignore other activities that are every bit as essential (and often more essential) to human flourishing. Just ask any mother how fair the world is, when her untold hours of unpaid work caring for her children, family, and community are simply expected while all around her she sees others – mostly men – earning a monetized income, status, influence and power.

It’s far from fair, yet it can be worse for transgender women.

The world of patriarchy relegates women and girls to certain roles, which – if not fairly compensated monetarily – at least are roles that are held in considerable esteem. Societies generally honor mothers and grandmothers, and (with more qualifications) wives and daughters. Feminists everywhere now struggle to revise and expand those roles within the intersecting realities of their respective cultures, while still retaining the dignity and meaning attached to the roles and the women and girls who fill them.

As this important struggle continues, it is worth recognizing that certain people remain absent entirely, or intentionally excluded. Among the world of women and girls, those who are lesbian or bisexual are frequently stigmatized, shunned or even criminalized, and anecdotal evidence indicates high rates of violence directed at them. Anecdotal evidence is often all we have; there has been very little research done about the lived experiences of lesbians and bisexual women. Even anecdotal evidence is scarce, as in most countries the voices of lesbian and bisexual women are faint – women who happen to be lesbian or bisexual are shamed and set apart in their imposed silence. How do we begin to have the conversation about women’s empowerment when we are considering the realities faced by lesbians or bisexual women? Often we simply choose not to begin that conversation; the vast majority of literature on women’s empowerment simply ignores homosexuality or bisexuality entirely.

But where lesbians or bisexual women’s voices are faint, transgender people are effectively silent. Transgender people’s priorities are not about their sexual orientation (which often is not “gay”), but about their fundamental identity. Globally that identity is not recognized by most jurisdictions, and by being deemed not to legally exist, the very idea of a policy discussion about the empowerment of such transgender women falls apart before it begins. Around the world only a very few such women – and I am one of those fortunate few – are able to have our names and authentic gender legally recognized in our identity documents. Without such documents, there are no prospects of participation in the formal economy, in any democratic processes or in accessing basic services that everyone else takes for granted. The empowerment prospects for people whom society formally misgenders are vanishingly few.

What is the way forward? First, we all must restate our commitment to the foundational concept of universal human dignity, upon which any notion of social inclusion must rest. Only with that commitment does the search for those who have fallen through the cracks make sense. Yet the search requires action, and action requires an acknowledgement that a problem exists. That may be easier said than done: transgender women, lesbians and bisexual women, have found their way onto the “lists” of only a few of the institutions whose recognition opens the door to research funding. The World Bank is making some early steps in this direction, with the appointment of a new Senior Coordinator for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, but the budget that he needs to fulfill his role remains notional for the present. The UNDP has spent some money and carried out some excellent baseline work with sexual minorities (particularly in Asia), and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has been outspoken in all the right ways.

Sadly however UN Women is institutionally reticent to truly engage on the plight of LBT persons. For example, UN Women now lags behind international treaties like CEDAW and other UN agencies in its commitment to work on sexual orientation, gender identity/expression and sex characteristics. USAID and the U.S. State Department began to make some progress in this direction under President Obama, but the prospects for that to continue under the current administration are negligible. The pattern of support from other bilaterals is mixed, and outside of funding related to HIV/AIDS there is very little funding available. Only the philanthropic foundations are engaged, yet their focus is more on advocacy than on gathering essential baseline data on the lived realities of sexual minorities.

If universal dignity is to mean what it must, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. No one must be allowed to fall through the cracks. While we lack the resources to attend to the empowerment needs of all women and girls, we must start by becoming knowledgeable about those women and girls who appear to be most vulnerable and most in need. Through research, we need to learn about the realities experienced by LBT women and girls, and we must open the policy dialogue to their direct participation.

Note: This blog originally appeared on the website of the International Center for Research on Women on March 13, 2017.

See http://www.icrw.org/economic-empowerments-forgotten-ones/

 

For LGBTQ Americans, Resistance Is Not Futile

Note: This opinion blog by Chloe Schwenke was first published on NBC News on

Demonstrators Protest Against President-Elect Donald Trump
A demonstrator wears a “Love Trumps Hate” rainbow flag during a protest in Los Angeles, California, on Nov. 12, 2016. Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A new political era is about to begin. What do we do? The harshness of winter has almost certainly dissuaded those who were entertaining the notion of emigrating north to Canada, and we’ve all witnessed with chagrin the various efforts of those who vainly sought to convince the electors in the Electoral College to do what that institution was originally intended for—to stop a demagogue. Is it time to roll over and play dead?

Hardly. As we each reflect on the years ahead, the post-election mood among many LGBT people and our loved ones and allies ranges from seething anger to disempowering dismay. Along with most other minorities in America, the prospect of this new Administration taking up the reins of power across the federal government—and similarly hostile leaders in many state governments—raises important questions about protecting fundamental civil and human rights. While Trump himself has seemed equivocal on LGBT equality, he has filled his Cabinet and West Wing with anti-LGBT extremists, demonized other minorities, and disdained the democratic norms that serve to protect vulnerable groups.

We therefore have reason to fear the new Administration and Congress could roll back (or simply choose not to enforce) numerous critical protections for LGBT people’s health, safety, education, employment, and participation in public life. The reality is inescapable; things will soon be very different in Trump’s and Pence’s White House, and in the 70 percent of state legislative bodies that will now rest firmly in Republican control. We can’t afford inaction or passively waiting until the worst happens.

As many people have already pointed out, the silver lining in this moment is that harsh but empowering jolt of electricity many of us have felt, especially those of us who may have been taking our rights for granted. After all, only 55 percent of the voting age electorate actually turned out, and most did not vote for this incoming President. So now we are all called to action—urgently—and it is very hard to overstate how much is at stake. For transgender Americans, our recently gained access to health care and insurance, protections that have been transformative for many transgender students, housing and employment protections, and efforts to rein in police misconduct and protect trans immigrants are all on the line.

You—yes, you reading this—need to do something. Urgent action, to be effective, needs to be directed, coordinated, sustained, constructive, and positive. Here at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), we will be very busy in the weeks and months ahead giving you detailed information regarding policy and legislative issues of importance to our community. With that information at your fingertips, we’ll strongly urge you to reach out to your representatives in Congress and in your state governments, as we’ve done again and again in the past. So will many of our partners.

That’s what we do as an advocacy organization…only now, it matters more than ever.

It’s become fashionable to demonize our political opponents, as our society moves more and more into polarized factions—each with our own sources of selective news and opinions designed to reinforce our current views and excoriate the other side. In the process, the very human stories that bind us all together fail to get communicated to those who most need to hear them. The fundamental message of LGBT advocates is that we each embody a narrative of human values at the very heart of what it means to be human. We were born to be ourselves, and to be and to love as we must—authentically. So fierce resistance to political strategies aimed against us must be complimented by bringing our very human narrative forward in ways that soften the hard shell of those who act from transphobic bias, ignorance, and harmful ideologies. We need to be ourselves now more than ever, proud and determined and here to stay. Being ourselves is our political message of resistance, and its power is not to be underestimated—but only if we act.

Call your representatives. Write to them. Do it often, speak with intensity and courage, and speak with an intention not only to draw a line in the sand but also to open up hearts and minds. No matter where they fall ideologically, call and write them. If they’re a hardline opponent, they need to be softened with constituent pressure. If they’re already a supporter, they need to be pressed to defend us vocally at every step. Organize a meeting at their office—or if they won’t meet, a protest.

The worst tactic for us now is to assume there is nothing we can do. While expecting politicians to change their ideological stripes may be a fool’s venture, expecting them to revise some of their less well thought out attitudes and values about us may be just enough for now. Those who won’t learn in their hearts will still respond to pressure if we keep building it and moving public opinion. We need you, week in and week out, to participate in making our case, push back, tell our stories, and keep changing the hearts and minds of people across this country.

In his farewell address last week, President Obama spoke of the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change, to carry the hard work of democracy forward. In his words: “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours.”

Chloe Schwenke is the Senior Advisor at the National Center for Transgender Equality, the nation’s leading social justice advocacy organization winning life-saving change for transgender people.

 

The fight for America’s soul

bench

Transgender people know what it means to fight for our souls. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If we fail to live our lives in full commitment to who we are, we lose our identity. Without our identity, we lose meaning. We lose joy. We lose self-respect.

We lose.

Yesterday evening America lost. Now we have to fight to get her back again. After all, it really isn’t a choice. If America fails to conduct itself as a nation committed to the principles she was founded on – “American values” for which so many have sacrificed and struggled and died – we lose our meaning and our place in history as a great nation. We lose any reason to be proud. Far from becoming “great again”, we become small…just another country with a narcissistic, self-serving, unprincipled ruler, and a citizenry who has been conned into thinking that this is who we are.

If that becomes the status quo, we all lose.

It may not seem very obvious this morning, but America is still a nation of ethical principles founded on revolutionary ideals of universal dignity and freedom. We are a nation where human rights values are manifest in our laws, and where we innately know that our (much eroded) tradition of civility in public discourse is necessary if we are to foster our co-existence as a diverse society with a common identity. We are a nation where we have labored hard to create and sustain strong democratic institutions characterized by integrity, self-sacrifice, justice, compassion, and the service of the common good. America is about freedom of religion. America is about caring for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. America is about responsibility to our children and our grandchildren and generations yet unborn, especially in the face of a threat as existential and monumental as global climate change.

That is my America, but this American awoke this morning with a new edge of vulnerability.

My suspicions are that the vast majority of those who voted in Donald Trump yesterday do not view me and those such as me as human beings worthy of respect. If you think locker room talk is corrosive to the dignity of women, that low standard of behavior that the majority of American voters chose to overlook isn’t limited to misogyny and tough-guy boasting. For those who are at home in that particular locker room, there is a special dialogue of enmity and scorn for anyone who dares to challenge the assigned-at-birth gender binary. The prospects for transgender rights were dealt an enormous set-back last night, and that has implications across the civil rights spectrum for so many minorities in this country. While we may all be Americans, we who are members of sexual minorities find ourselves set-aside and “othered”.

Yet…if we bother to try, each of us is able to feel what “America” means. OK, this morning it is harder: it is now more darkly obscured by venal politicians, the irresponsible media, self-righteously intolerant faith leaders, faulty polls that we won’t ever trust again, and by all those Americans who cling to “deplorable” sensibilities and values. Yes, Secretary Clinton was wrong to use that adjective for the people she targeted, but she was absolutely correct using it to describe their behavior and their attitudes – their intolerance, smallness-of-spirit, isolationism, misogyny, racism, and profound lack of civility. “Trump the bitch” is deplorable. Threatening one’s political opponent with jail is deplorable. Promising to renege on the Paris Agreement on global climate change is deplorable. Suggesting that America will return to torturing suspected terrorists with water boarding (or worse) is deplorable.  Urging the summary deportation of millions of undocumented people is deplorable. Claiming Mexican immigrants are all rapists and criminals is deplorable. Closing the country to Muslim visitors and igniting a national witch-hunt against Muslims who are already here is deplorable.

Voting for all of this was deplorable, and frankly beyond my comprehension. Continue reading The fight for America’s soul

Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

Washington conference 3

Washington, D.C. abounds with (free) opportunities to participate in erudite deliberations, cutting-edge topical presentations by highly respected experts, and diverse policy discussions including people who actually wield enormous power (or once did). Then there are those by-invitation-only gatherings of the “high-level” people – gatherings beyond the range of mere mortals such as I, with the occasional quirky exception (such as when I was invited to join Ambassador Samantha Power for a dinner). Elite-invitation-envy aside, Washington events are populated with many folks who are unquestionably very smart, remarkably accomplished, influential (just ask them), and affiliated with just the right institutions or government departments (again, just ask them – they expect to be asked).

With the notable exception of the few “fringe” or “radical” gatherings (e.g. feminists, LGBTI people, religious devotees, environmentalists, or philosophers), those who attend the more typical Washington discourse events are also usually quite well-invested in the prevailing paradigm, which is always a variation on the preeminence of Power and Wealth (occasionally made glamorous by close association with Technology). It’s a paradigm + variations that comes with baggage: an almost off-hand acceptance of the many inherent failings of human nature, the wave-of-the-hand disavowal of “old notions” of morality, or a dismissive snicker at the naïveté of anyone idealistic enough to suggest someone might actually be motivated by public service.

No one really talks about public service. Just like no one really talks about integrity, when it is so much more fashionable to frame everything through the lens of corruption. People will be corrupt to the extent that they can get away with it, right? What else is there to say, except to exhort a stop to these corrupt miscreants (who of course by definition are those of us who get caught)?

It goes deeper still, however. There exists an unspoken premise that citizens will always bend to incentive structures that have been cleverly crafted to appear to maximize their individual self-interest, but which are more likely to be all about manipulating people towards ulterior ends, i.e. entrenching and amassing the power and wealth of the elites. And about those ulterior ends… the adjective “nefarious” is usually left off. Why assume motives, eh? The economy will do what it does.

We who frequent such events do take some small measure of comfort knowing that the many conferences and workshops and gatherings in Washington almost always are provisioned with ample – if not particularly good – free coffee. If you’re lucky, or very selective, there’s even free food. No, the food’s not particularly good either, but the price is sweet.

Do I sound just a little despairing of my Washington colleagues? After all, cynicism about humanity and its venal motivations is well supported by so much of history (or at least by what we’ve chosen to report on in our history books, or on Fox news, or on Twitter). It’s become the norm to be suspicious (or knowingly condescending) about the possibility that morality might mean something, or that human dignity has any practical influence. The evidence to the contrary is just so plentiful – as all around the world senseless conflicts rage on, and millions of people are displaced or condemned to a grueling life as refugees. The tally of human suffering is beyond calculation.

So we don’t try.

That’s just “the way it is”, right? Deal with it. Realism means that we’ve long since put aside the ritual wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. If you’re going to play in this Washington game at this level, you damn well better know the rules. And in the context of international development, conflict management & peacebuilding, and human rights advocacy, the prevailing rules are rooted in the dynamics of power and wealth. Everything else is “soft”. Sure, it’s “nice” to pay rhetorical homage from time to time (and in passing) to ideals like justice, compassion, patriotism, public service, dignity, second-generation human rights, or – dare I even mention it – love, but in the end the players in this game adhere to the well-worn dictates of the patriarchy: only Power and Money (and the self-interest that can be pursued through these) matter.

Period. Continue reading Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

Who cares?

 

Finland Hall

When was the last time you got excited about architecture? For me, just being in the Finland Hall at the Embassy of Finland in Washington D.C. this morning was, as always, a delight. But as lovely as the space is, and as hospitable as the Finnish Embassy was in hosting this morning’s event, the real take-away for me was the unquestionable importance of the topic: intimate partner violence.

This morning’s event was all about the release of a new report Whose Justice, Whose Alternative? by the International Center for Research on Women, together with two other organizations (Center for Domestic Violence Prevention from Uganda, and Beyond Borders from Washington, DC). This report has the sub-title “Locating Women’s Voice and Agency in Alternative Dispute Resolution Responses to Intimate Partner Violence”, and it opens with the statement:

Intimate partner violence against women is a complex, enormously prevalent crime with devastating effects on women’s safety, health, and well being. With one out of three women worldwide experiencing this violence, its magnitude presents complex challenges to justice systems when survivors of violence seek to formally prosecute perpetrators…

As is often the case in Washington, the event featured a truly outstanding panel of three experts and an excellent moderator, who together did an exemplary job of bringing the many realities of the above statement to light – as challenging as such information is to hear. We were told how women around the world who have been victimized by intimate partner violence and who seek justice through formal rule-of-law mechanisms (civil or criminal) or through alternative dispute mechanisms (reconciliation, mediation, arbitration, customary law, etc.) routinely encounter difficulties that are legion, as patriarchal norms conspire to obstruct, constrain, shame, or coerce women away from their quests for justice and fairness. Panelists explained in considerable detail the various modalities and processes available, and how they each fare under local norms and cultural pressures. While some progress was noted, overall the picture that emerges is that in much of the world women’s agency and voice continue to be muted, and their efforts at achieving justice or even preventing such violence are often confounded or made impossible.

To my surprise, one concept was absent throughout the discussion (and only warrants a single mention in the document): human dignity. The panelists only just touched upon the notion that many existing social attitudes and values must change so that men and women will be treated with equal respect and dignity , despite what I would argue to be the essential need to foster this concept as a universal value and societal building block among all men and all women. Isn’t the recognition of universal human dignity a prerequisite to preventing intimate partner violence and other forms of gender based violence?

But that isn’t what this blog is about. Continue reading Who cares?

Transgender youth – collateral damage in America’s culture war

battle 3

Who asked for this?

I was blindsided when I heard the news very early on Thursday morning. The Obama administration would be issuing guidance the very next day to all public schools in the nation to encourage them to take appropriate measures to ensure that “transgender students enjoy a supportive and nondiscriminatory school environment.” The media of course wasted no time in distilling this down to the most marketable and prurient dimension – public schools were being urged to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity. “Boys” with “fully functional genitalia” would be in the girls’ locker room.

The chorus of howls and indignation was immediate, and even die-hard liberals scratched their heads a little before remembering that transgender girls are not boys. They are transgender girls. But we as a nation don’t know what that means yet, and we’ve barely begun to learn. Instead, we’re all being quickly shuffled along into our respective opposing camps, from which we can disdainfully point our fingers, raise our shrill voices, and do all that is in our power to discredit, disparage, and dehumanize those on the other side. But wait a minute. Who placed our most vulnerable children right in the soon-to-be-bloodied space between these two fiercely opposed battle lines?

Is this really any way for our nation to deepen a shared commitment to human dignity? No.

As a transgender woman and as an American, I deeply respect the Obama Administration’s motivation in celebrating diversity and taking an unrelenting stand against discrimination of any kind. After all, every child in American public schools ought to be able to expect a nondiscriminatory environment, no matter their unique characteristics, their distinguishing traits, their ethnicity, race, gender, socio-economic background, disability status, or gender identity. But this isn’t only about discrimination; America simultaneously is being rallied to take up these rancorous battle lines on another universal moral principle – privacy. The demand for privacy, for respecting modesty especially in the context of children and teens, is not morally insignificant.

The debate roils on, yet a raging debate is not a dialogue; each side comes with but one purpose – to win. Nobody is listening to their “opponents”; we’re just exchanging jibes and barbs. Truculent and wildly indignant voices are being raised by leaders in states like Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi, but this escalation of combative rhetoric isn’t a new phenomenon. History is replete with the mania, blood, and destruction of opposing armies self-righteously colliding over competing strong moral principles. In this instance however there is one important difference that few are taking time to notice. Historically in such battles we’ve always placed our most vulnerable people back behind the walls, in as safe a place as we can devise…but not this time. Instead, we’ve now situated our most vulnerable persons right on the battlefield between the combatants. That’s where we now find our transgender youth, and our most modest young people. Do we really want to trample over them, in our fervor to score points and ratchet up America’s polarizing and political culture war? Does anyone care?

Continue reading Transgender youth – collateral damage in America’s culture war

Disturbing news out of Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan-woman-of-the-fergana-valley

Most of us aren’t glued to the latest developments coming out of Bishkek. In fact, most people have no idea where Kyrgyzstan (officially the Kyrgyz Republic) even is. That’s unfortunate, because the recent trends in that Central Asian country reflect a scale of un-development and human rights backsliding that ought to be raising alarms around the world.

OK – for me this is also personal. I’ve had the pleasure to work in Kyrgyzstan once, and to come to know several wonderful Kyrgyz people. But even if you don’t have Kyrgyzstan in your history, take my word for it: the plight of more than half of the population of that country of 5.8 million people is approaching what any reasonable person would deem to be “desperate”.

Why the clarion call? Consider this: during its time as a Soviet Republic, many women in Kyrgyzstan enjoyed remarkable access to meaningful employment, especially those who were living in more urban areas where they were able to make their own decisions on the important choices in their lives (like who to marry, or whether to work in the formal economy). They were officially regarded as equal to men in their dignity, and despite a long history of pre-Soviet subjugation of women, many Kyrgyz women made prodigious progress.

And then the Soviet Union collapsed…

Since that time, the government of Kyrgyzstan has largely forsaken its role in the provision of basic public services. But much more worrying to me is the precipitous decline of women in the formal labor market there, with those involved in economic activity going from almost 82% (1991) to just 42% (2007), according to the World Bank. Kyrgyz men too are struggling, with a national unemployment rates of 40%. Employers are now largely unregulated and cavalier in their practices, which translates into a jobs economy that is anything but employee-friendly for Kyrgyz women.

And of course, as happens in so much of the world, Kyrgyz women who are in paid employment are still expected to shoulder all of the traditional domestic duties. Continue reading Disturbing news out of Kyrgyzstan

A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas

Pope Francis 2

For a non-Catholic, I’ll admit to a certain grudging admiration for Pope Francis.

Why grudging? Well, he’s the leader of a religious denomination of 1.2 billion persons, still exclusively led just by men. Any organization – even a small one – that limits its leadership to persons of one gender is poorly situated to understand the dynamic tapestry of humanity, or to draw upon the spiritual and worldly gifts that men and women, boys and girls, each uniquely offer. The Roman Catholic Church however isn’t a small organization, so sexism institutionalized on such a gargantuan scale leaves me profoundly uneasy (and to be clear, I’d be every bit as uneasy were this church led only by women).

Pope Francis seems unlikely to morph into the Angel of Gender Equity any time soon. This Pope has also said some very unflattering things about people who are transgender, such as comparing us with nuclear weapons! Perhaps I should be flattered with such a comparison – it is seldom that a transgender person is ever described as supremely powerful (even if in a destructive sense). Pope Francis however has taken the view that the world’s nuclear arsenals are to be equated with some of the world’s most disempowered and persecuted people – both standing accused of failing “to recognize the order of creation”. So while I lack the weight of a billion-plus congregation, I refute the Pope’s accusation, remaining convinced that the divine light shines equally in each and every one of us. That’s the “order of creation” that I feel most led to respond to, and to reach for.

So I have reasons to feel under-appreciated by this Pontiff…and “grudging” I will remain. Still, the Pope’s recent observation about the Christmas season that we’re entering upon left me deeply moved, if also deeply saddened. His words:

“we are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war…It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.”

I just set up my Nativity scene at home, and here in Maryland there are already Christmas lights. Yes – I have received invitations to parties, and I will be happy to attend. This morning I’ve spent time online trying to locate (affordable) tickets to take my children to the ballet (The Nutcracker, of course). “Black Friday” (a name that should be a warning) was yesterday, and the media has once again ramped itself up to its usual annual frenzy of commercialization, ever-increasing crassness, and rank consumerism.

What does any of the American Christmas Industry have to do with the celebration of the remarkable birth of Jesus of Nazareth in a humble stable? We no longer even ask. Continue reading A Pope’s dismay … at Christmas