Category Archives: gender based violence

Raw

It was 1979, and my first year in my new home in Nairobi. I’d audaciously (or foolishly) arrived in Kenya with no job and very little money, yet the job offers had come quickly. I’d soon found a modest place in which to live, and an old VW Beetle to drive. I was settling in and learning all that I could, quite unaware that an entire decade of life, work, adventure, and learning in Kenya was to unfold before me. So much learning ahead…

The lessons were plentiful, and among my most memorable early awakenings came from reading the local paper. The Nairobi Standard’s report that caught my eye was about a rousing debate in Kenya’s Parliament on a bill that sought to make polygamy legal. Already a widespread traditional practice in Kenya, the bill was designed to codify certain protections for the many wives a man might acquire, and it included one provision that was interpreted as a denial of a husband’s “traditional right” to beat his wife. MPs rose to protest indignantly. One of them, Hon. Kimunai arap Soi, said something that I’ve never forgotten: “It is very African to teach women manners by beating them.”

The newspaper article was jocular in tone, and more than a little condescending. Men drinking their early morning coffee in downtown Nairobi were quite amused. On the street in Nairobi some women even agreed, asserting that they would not believe in their husband’s love if he were not “strict” with them. I was left perplexed and disoriented; I struggled to reconcile this new information about social norms in East Africa in contrast to what my life had taught me up to that point. Had I known then what I know now (or had I been then who I am now) I probably would’ve taken note far earlier of the pervasive culture of sexism around me. I might have wondered why Kenya’s parliament at that time was 168 men and just 4 women. But that was 1979; back then I didn’t perceive much of that, despite my liberal middle class American upbringing. Still, I was astounded by what I read. I should have been outraged.

Everyone should have been outraged.

Of course the bill went down to defeat, and it took almost 36 more years – until May of 2015 – before some legal protection for Kenyan wives passed that chamber to become law. Despite that relatively recent milestone, women in Kenya and throughout Africa continue to routinely face wife-beating and other forms of domestic violence. Traditional norms will not be transformed quickly in cultures where women have been cast in a rigidly subordinate role for millennia.

To most Americans Kenya is far away, yet the issues are hardly remote. On August 26th I read a Washington Post article by Elizabeth Winkler about a graduate student named Alice Wu who is poised to begin her doctoral studies at Harvard. Ms. Wu will do well; she’s already established herself as an ingenious, resourceful, and highly motivated researcher. Ms. Wu used her statistical and computer skills to analyze over a million postings on an anonymous online site, Economics Job Market Rumors, to determine how women are currently talked about within the profession of economics.  She used a clever method to  isolate hard data on what was widely known anecdotally, but never before described in any empirical, robust way. Now we know. Thanks to Ms. Wu, it has become empirically clear that sexism and gender-based discrimination within the profession of economics is egregious, rampant, and remarkably crude.  In short, women within economics (or aspiring to be) are looked at, talked about, and described by many of their male counterparts (yes, even the Millennials) in ways that make it an irrefutable fact that the dignity of such women is not respected.

So much for the cherished notion of “universal” human dignity. Continue reading Raw

Preventing, Detecting, and Addressing Cyberbullying

 

Photo Credit: Arieth, Pixabay

 

Preventing, Detecting, and Addressing Cyberbullying:

How Parents Can Help Children Discuss and Overcome the Issue

Guest blog by Laura Pearson

Cyberbullying is a specific type of bullying that happens through technology instead of in person. Cyberbullies may spread a rumor through email, post embarrassing photos on Instagram, or create a fake profile on Facebook. In the United States, almost 43 percent of kids have been bullied online. Understand that if someone is being cyberbullied, they’re often being bullied in person as well. If you’re a parent of a child, you need to know how to prevent, detect, and address cyberbullying. It’s important to help your child discuss and overcome the issue.

Prevention

Although 70 percent of students have witnessed frequent bullying online, 90 percent of them chose to ignore it instead of report it, and about 75 percent admit they visited a website knowing its content was bashing another student. Not only should you teach children to report being personally attacked, but you should also teach them to report knowledge of others being attacked and to never join in on attacking others. Make sure your children understand what constitutes as cyberbullying.

Keep your computer in a busy area of your home. Set up all accounts with your children so that you know their screen names and passwords, and tell them to never share passwords, not even with friends. Children should never give out personal information in any form on any platform, nor should they share messages and images that they wouldn’t want every classmate to see. Teach your children to avoid sending messages when they’re angry or upset. Before sending a message, your children should consider how they would feel if they received that message.

Detection

Only one in 10 victims report cyberbullying to an adult, so don’t rely on being informed by your child. You need to be aware of the warning signs of cyberbullying. The biggest red flag is if your child suddenly stops using the computer or his or her phone. Also, if you child is noticeably upset after a call, text, or time spent on the computer, it can be a sign. Continue reading Preventing, Detecting, and Addressing Cyberbullying

Only 700 million women

child marraige poster

“What would she do, anyway? It’s not like she has any real choices?”

Such is the cynical response I’ve often encountered, or variations thereof, when I’m moved by whatever furies impassion me on such occasions to advocate for an end to child marriage. It’s an odd counter argument, as if the normalization of a systemic wrong makes it acceptable – “natural” even. The way things ought to be.

But then again, no. Such cynics feel no need for “oughts” in their world view. “It’s just the way things are, dear.”

I’m writing this in New Delhi, India, a country which in terms of population size has the largest number of child brides on the planet. Granted, it is an uneven picture; in some Indian states there’s been remarkable progress in beginning to diminish this practice. Yet in other states, such as Bihar, the percentage of child marriages is over 60 per cent. It’s illegal, of course. India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act back in 2006, but the political will to enforce this law or to otherwise effect change seems inadequate. A National Action Plan intended to prevent child marriage, drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, has languished since 2013 with no passage in sight. Indian jurisprudence simply cannot decide how to define child marriage. As they ponder, the practice continues.

India is hardly alone. Niger in west Africa holds the ignominious title of worst offender, where 76 per cent of women are married as children. It’s daunting for me to wrap my head around such numbers. Yet the numbers are both daunting and damning; over 700 million women in the world today were married as children. That’s more than five times the entire number of women and girls in my own country, the United States. If you are reading this in the United States, just look at any woman or girl and think of five. Do that again and again, each time you see another female. Your head will be spinning before long. It should be aching, not just spinning. This is a problem of remarkable proportions, yet how often is it discussed by the general public, or cited as a priority?

Almost never. Continue reading Only 700 million women

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

The storm that is already upon us

storm-at-sea

Angry political seas are churning in Washington.

Progressive civil rights organizations are mobilized as perhaps never before, building and expanding coalitions and urging the public to awaken to what is now rapidly taking shape, and how threatening it is to us all. Activists are trying as hard as we can to chart some safe, sane course that doesn’t leave our country – or at least the most vulnerable in our country – smashed upon the jagged rocks of public indifference, political arrogance, and ideological purity. We’re not doe-eyed do-gooders baking cookies for the church fundraiser; we’re battle-hardened experienced realists who are sadly all too aware that the storm we are just beginning to feel in force will result in many, many casualties. We know that we’ll lose in many and perhaps most of our efforts to overcome this mindless devastation, but we look for even small opportunities to prevent or diminish the suffering ahead, to speak out in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us, and to preserve and live out what remains of the best values that have historically defined us as Americans.

It may all sound both dire and slightly heroic, a David and Goliath struggle that will in time become the stuff of legend. The daily reality is something very different. Each day as I go to work at the National Center for Transgender Equality, I know that the hours ahead will be long and hard and that – at best – any progress we make on behalf of protecting the very threatened rights and quality of life of transgender people will be incremental. There will be hours of engagement with the staff of Senators and Representatives, strategy meetings with coalition partners across the civil and human rights spectrum, research and reaching out, and communications. And while all of this goes on, powerful waves of malevolent force will be thundering down upon us and our efforts. Those waves are already here, in force, as we see in the mindless urgency to repeal the Affordable Care Act before any replacement plan is proposed, completely insensitive to the suffering that millions of America’s poorest will face. Transgender persons are disproportionately represented in those ranks of the poor, with recent survey data showing 29% of transgender people living in poverty compared to 14% in the larger U.S. population. Those angry waves seek to defund Planned Parenthood, an essential provider of health services to women across the nation, and the largest single provider of health care to transgender Americans.

The choice of a storm metaphor makes perfect sense to me. There is great force and weight to a storm, but only the most rudimentary direction. A storm lacks logic, rationality, or compassion. It is often accompanied by darkness and cold. It feels unrelenting, and those who are in its path will suffer, or worse. Continue reading The storm that is already upon us

Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

cliff-edge-2

It’s existential.

There’s a word that’s overused, often at the center of hyperbole. After all, existential means of, relating to, or affirming existence. In other words, it’s about being – and “being” is where everything ultimately comes down to. That’s a very big notion.

Is being transgender existential? After all, every human being is more than our gender, sex, or gender identity. Some of us are short, athletic, graceful, coordinated, musical – there are nearly innumerable attributes that might define or describe very important aspects of who we are – but these are not existential attributes. Our core identity will not collapse if a late burst of growth in our teen years catapults us from short to tall. We won’t cease to be ourselves if we lose our athleticism through aging or disability. We may grow less graceful, coordinated, or even less musical, but we are still ourselves.

Many cisgender (non-transgender) persons incorrectly view the transgender journey as a path toward a chosen set of attributes – in effect, the intentional construction of an alternative (or radical, or fringe, or delusional, or irrational, or…) lifestyle. For similar reasons, many cisgender folk will question the centrality of any decision, or self-identification, that some persons adopt which places them outside the gender binary – a binary that has defined humanity since time immemorial. To them, being transgender or being outside the gender binary (which are not necessarily the same thing), are at best  harmless, silly, or inconvenient contrivances. At worst, it’s immoral, sinful, an abomination to be rejected.

Take it from me: it’s existential.

Or, if you would rather look for further validation, consider the appallingly high attempted suicide rate that afflicts so many transgender persons. Reliable data places the rate of attempted suicides among the general U.S. population at 4.6 percent, but among transgender or gender non-conforming people this rate soars to 41 percent. For many, many transgender persons, life in the wrong gender is unsustainable. We simply can’t go on another day like that. It’s traumatic, and it’s existential.

Yesterday I spent the day in Baltimore, Maryland at a gathering of faith leaders (clergy, and others who play a leadership role in communities of faith) organized by Transfaith to build community, solidarity and share each others wisdom and strength in the healing work of helping transgender persons overcome trauma. Nearly all of us who gathered there were self-identified as transgender and/or gender non-conforming, and we each had found our various ways to survive the journey across (or beyond) the gender boundaries that had been imposed upon us at birth. We had survived, through coping skills and grit and resilience, and we continue to exist…we’ve moved toward lives of existential authenticity. We’d found support and affirmation among our own faith communities – as I had among the Quakers. Some of us however had been forced to find new communities of faith, having grown up in faith traditions that have no tolerance for us. Continue reading Risking existential authenticity in the Trump Era

Wrapped in the flag

 

shredded-flag

Following the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, the prospects for a strengthening of universal respect for human dignity and human rights around the world are hardly sanguine.

There exists a long if occasionally erratic tradition of American leadership in the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, stretching back to 1919 when President Wilson carried his Fourteen Points to the Versailles conference, and later bolstered dramatically in 1948 by Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That legacy is threatened to fade into obscurity and irrelevance as this new Administration adopts an emphatically pro-American, self-interested stance in its foreign policy. We already know from the 2016 Republican Party platform that U.S. foreign aid is being construed first and foremost as a “critical tool for advancing America’s security and economic interests,” and that U.S. foreign aid must therefore serve U.S. strategic interests first. As for the plight of the impoverished and powerless people in countries where an authoritarian ruling elite has adopted an anti-American posture, Trump’s “America First” agenda and his pledge to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us” are likely to compound their suffering. The RNC’s platform does make a commitment to the integration of human rights issues at “every appropriate level” of American bilateral engagements, yet it remains unclear whether this view of human rights is strictly linked to tightly legalistic interpretations of international treaty commitments or whether the deeper moral principles of universal human dignity and human rights will be accessed and accentuated by the new Administration. We can but hope at this stage, yet the Republican Party’s stand on sexual orientation and gender identity certainly begs the question of whether Trump’s team will even consider LGBTI concerns as human rights issues, particularly whenever such concerns come into conflict with the priorities of certain influential faith-based groups.

There is even talk within the Washington rumor mill of transitioning the US Agency for International Development (USAID) directly into the US State Department, intentionally obscuring the institutional division between diplomacy and development. This division has been very important to date, as “development people” tend to view their mission as being first and foremost about fostering freedom and human well-being around the globe, recognizing that this is a long-term endeavor that ultimately serves the interests of the entire planet – which includes America. The diplomats carry out a different and also important role, looking after the strategic short-term interests of this country as we engage with other nations around the world in a wide variety of contexts. There’s significant overlap between these two international frameworks and their respective roles, but they are distinctive and they are different. Were we to lose that autonomous voice of the world’s largest bilateral foreign aid entity championing human development, seeing it subsumed to a mere footnote in an American diplomacy focused only on “making America great again” in the short term, we would all be diminished.

Under such an institutional revamping in which the longer-term view is waved aside, the prospects for the world’s poorest people look particularly bleak. Continue reading Wrapped in the flag

Feisty canaries, and this election.

canary-in-the-coal-mine

With election day just three weeks away, people like me have more cause than many to be wary. American society stands at a vulnerable place, characterized by one political campaign that is built on fomenting anger. Anytime that such deep discontent is viewed instrumentally as an incendiary resource to be ignited to political ends, many unrelated dimensions of societal ignorance are also made kindling to the flames. Intensified exclusion, persecution, bullying, and violence have their roots in that ignorance – and what happens next in that context matters greatly to us.

Ignorance about people who are like me, however, isn’t limited to those of one political party, or to any specific socioeconomic class. There are many with advanced degrees and distinguished careers, people who are successful in business and in government – in short, people who are respected by their communities – who are ignorant about my small group of people at the fringe. Perhaps they can afford to be ignorant; we’ve been kept in the shadows – or far worse – throughout human history, and we’re so few in number that what society does with us really doesn’t seem to matter very much to the majority. As for those few awkward times when – for whatever reason – we can no longer be ignored, our very existence makes ignorant people squirm with discomfort, or look for ways to dismiss the very idea of us. Off-color, hurtful jokes seem to work for some, and self-righteous indignation for others, but it remains a fact: people like me – or at least the idea of people like me – frighten many Americans. I know that ignorance gives birth to fear. Still, I don’t think of myself as particularly frightening.

Such fear is out there, however. I’ve seen the manifestations of both that ignorance and the ensuing fear far too frequently in my interactions with some of my fellow citizens, at least when they have had reason to Google me.   It isn’t pleasant…like when I’ve applied for a job with someone’s organization, and the promising dialogue suddenly goes quiet. Next applicant…!

This is the political season, and political leaders are successful to the extent that they can read the hopes and dreams, worries and fears, of the people whose votes they depend upon. If they are truly transformational leaders, they are busy building or at least refining a vision that will excite, motivate, and inspire their followers. Hopes and dreams are the stuff of such visions and become the grit that electoral agendas depend upon for traction, yet some astute if less principled politicians also know that ignorance and fear can be played to their advantage too, even if at the cost of someone else. Visions need not always be virtuous, or even benign.

Right now, I and those who wear a similar label know that we will never be a “big issue”, yet how this election turns out will have a profound impact on our futures. We know that we’re few, and that we are at the fringes. But in heated, fractious school board meetings around this country, and on far too many places in social media, we are the topic. Some – in fact more than a few – local and state leaders recognize that, and across this nation there are numerous bills that await consideration by legislators and town councils that have but one purpose: to move us back into the shadows from which we have had the audacity to emerge. At times like this, marginalized groups appeal to a higher authority – the state or the federal government – to step up and be counted. And sometimes, even for people like me, they actually do.

Still, it’s not always good news. In Texas, Republican state attorney general Ken Paxton’s idea of stepping up is to exploit ignorance and fear by making it part of the political agenda. He filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of more than a dozen states to contest how a different political leader – President Obama – has met the leadership challenge of ignorance and fear. President Obama and his administration knew that they had neither the time nor the resources to educate or foster empathy among the entire American electorate, but they recognized that they could at least take measures that protect us, and demonstrate respect for our inherent dignity.

Even if we are transgender. Continue reading Feisty canaries, and this election.

A very special life lost, and one we must not forget.

Hande-Kader-a-young-Turkish-transgender-sex-worker

Turkey now is synonymous with turmoil, so it’s hard to take notice of one more life lost. After all, the recent coup attempt is linked to almost 300 deaths. To make matters worse, this latest death was of a sex worker. Many people, in Turkey or anywhere, will be challenged to find much sympathy for the fate of such women whom they view as morally deficient, or “unpleasant” to talk about.

Indeed, there’s not much news content in such deaths. The brutal murder of sex workers is all too commonplace in most countries, and in Turkey violence against women is an embedded part of the culture. Just last year, Nuriye Kadan who leads the Izmir Bar Association’s Women’s Rights and Legal Support Office, observed that Turkey’s last decade has been characterized not only by increasing cases of violence against women, but that such violence has become more extreme and barbaric, “bordering on torture.”

Despite that disquieting view, Turkey appears to be giving the topic of violence against women and gender equality more generally a very low priority. And if the plight of 51% of the Turkish population receives such paltry focus, what about the tiny fraction of Turks who are a special kind of woman – transgender women? In a very conservative Muslim country where any dialogue about sexuality and gender identity is stilted at best, that’s a topic that makes most Turks squirm. So what can we expect to see change with the death of one more transgender woman who also happened to be a sex worker?

Hande Kader was hardly just any woman. Only 23 years old, she died a horrible death by being gang raped, mutilated, and burned, but those grisly details are not what makes her special. After all, her demise is hardly unusual; according to anecdotal but largely reliable information, transgender women around the world face appalling levels of extreme violence and murder. Very few countries bother even to record such deaths under a disaggregated category of “transgender women”, or rarer still, “transgender sex worker”. Who’s going to pay for recording and analyzing such recondite data?

Yet this past Sunday, an unexpectedly large crowd of protesters in Istanbul memorialized Hande Kader with their shouts of outrage and indignation. She had become something of a national celebrity for her strong and inspiring activism on transgender rights, but it is remarkable that Turks would come out onto the streets in such numbers to protest her death. Those Sunday protests are now over; will Hande Kader be remembered? Will her short life and intense, impassioned activism on behalf of transgender persons become just another sterile, forgettable statistic?

Forgettable – I think not. She was a special kind of special. Her life and her example challenges us all to deal with her death in ways that make a positive difference. We dare not forget her. Continue reading A very special life lost, and one we must not forget.

Old-Fashioned Bombast and Homophobic Politics, East African style

Inquisition

Beware the bombastic yet empowered moralizer, poised to point the finger of sin and approbation at anyone who dares stray from societal norms. Every society has them – ambitious politicians whose arrogance is only exceeded by their all-too-convenient conviction that they alone have a grasp on Truth. They know their constituents; they therefore know how to manipulate public sentiment so that their own sanctimonious moral rectitude will propel them to even greater positions of power, wealth, and influence.

After all this time, citizens everywhere should know these scoundrels for what they are, and send them packing. They should, but they often don’t. Such political mischief-makers often succeed in ascending their respective hierarchies largely by stepping on others, or worse…while casting their actions in the guise of protecting family values.

But perhaps I should be less hasty to condemn these guardians of public morality. After all, their convictions may be sincere (and advantageous). Worse yet, such convictions may simply be wrong and even harmful. In the secular world of democratic governance, all convictions ought to be held to the hard and dispassionate light of reason and fact. People of integrity weigh their convictions with considerable care and tenderness, knowing how interdependent we all are, and how each person deserves to be respected for their basic dignity and worth. No one ought to be “used” or manipulated to achieve one’s selfish goals, each person has value – even those who are, well, “different”. Oddly, after centuries of social progress and development, we still find empowered people who seem shocked – even outraged – by human diversity.

It is a very convenient outrage.

Demagogues and bombasts know an angle when they see one. It’s always easy to castigate “the other” and make the vulnerable the target for all that’s wrong in society. Such political climbers dispense with reason and fact at the outset, and instead play to public bias, fear, ignorance, and superstition to motivate – i.e. to use – their followers to their own political advantage. In so doing, they cannot help but being aware that they are harming those who “don’t matter”, people who are already marginalized simply by being different from the majority. Exploiting and disparaging the most vulnerable among us is among the oldest tools of political expediency, but it is also among the most cowardly and ethically bereft. For any democracy to grow and thrive, those who have been entrusted by the public to exercise positions of power and influence should be subject to scrutiny – and rejection – whenever such public officials exercise their office in callous and self-serving ways, while purporting to be moral champions.

It would be easiest to begin at home, with a hard look at the ultimate demagogue within my own society – Donald Trump. Fortunately, there’s already a flourishing industry in America devoted to holding this empty and arrogant blow-hard to account, and I have to believe that an appropriate reckoning will take place on November 8th. So instead, I put before you two other politicians, both exemplary in their self-serving and condescending moralizing, each of whom is currently very busy using their public positions to clamor for yet more of the political spotlight. Their respective quests for fame and political advantage are strategically and cynically intended to harness existing reservoirs of public prejudice and fear of “the other”. Both ignore well-established facts about diversity and human nature, choosing instead to exacerbate that ignorance to create even more animosity and hatred – all directed against people who are distinctive for their vulnerability and lack of power: sexual minorities. Each of these two men is not only doing a great disservice to the people they are targeting, but they are also deepening intolerance and prejudice to the detriment of their own respective societies’ coherence, growth, and progress.

In short, these two are all about themselves, and they’re riding roughshod over the principles of universal human dignity that all societies must embrace if they are to cohere and flourish. Continue reading Old-Fashioned Bombast and Homophobic Politics, East African style