Category Archives: United Nations

On thin ice

I can’t remember the last time I saw someone fall through the ice. Spending my high school and college years in upstate New York, there’s little doubt that I have seen such a thing, but somehow watching this happen again yesterday – several times – transfixed me.

It was Year #2 for the Women’s March, and I should’ve been paying more attention to the many “big name” speakers there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the heart of Washington DC. Thousands of people (yes, mostly women) gathered around the Reflecting Pool, which was covered with ice from our long bout of extreme cold weather. Yesterday, however, the sun baked down and the temperatures soared. A few of those gathered wandered out onto the ice… and in time, a few of them fell through.

Their mishaps were little more than uncomfortably cold embarrassments; the water was barely deeper than their knees. Still, it was an apt metaphor to where my thoughts had wandered. My sense of the mood of the crowd (far smaller than last year’s mammoth event) was … complicated. We were exhorted by speaker after speaker to redouble our resistance, to mobilize in strength for the upcoming midterm elections, to “do politics – or else politics will do you”. Yet it was preaching to the choir – we were there because we are the committed. But even our staunch commitment has limits; the speeches were too many, too long, and most of us wandered off after such speeches droned on well over one hour past the march start time. Still, the afternoon was well spent, and reinforcing, and at this stage I will take what solidarity I can find. Living in Trump’s Washington is dispiriting in the extreme, and the harshly cold winter has only exacerbated the misery – and the alarm.

After all, we’re walking on thin ice. Democracy itself is in peril, as most in Congress prove – yet again – to be ineffectual or inept, unprincipled or simply opportunistic. It’s hard to find a positive narrative as I watch the U.S. Government shut down again, irrefutable evidence that our legislators cannot perform the most fundamental task that they were sent there to do – pass a budget. Living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., I know that so many of my neighbors who are hard-working, vastly under-appreciated federal civil servants or foreign service officers will feel again that they are pawns in a cruel and unnecessary game.

We’re walking on thin ice, in so many ways. I view the sheet of ice from the perspective of a career in the context of America’s international role. Through that lens, there’s so little to celebrate. The State Department and USAID are suffering not only slashed budgets and a brain-drain at the higher levels, but also and concurrently the loss of the remarkable international networks of friends and acquaintances that took these former staff decades to assemble. Even the tiny Peace Corps, our least expensive but arguably most beloved international agency whose remarkably positive impact on global peace puts “bang for the buck” and public service into perspective, is facing 20% cuts in its workforce.

Such venerable federal institutions represent the best of American values in the world, but now they are hemorrhaging people of unmatched international experience and wisdom – people who could not find any way to reconcile their own professionalism and deep commitment both to universal human rights and to the U.S. Constitution with having to serve an administration that personifies the opposite. The venal, narcissistic, boorish, serially dishonest, ill-informed, racist, anti-democratic, and deeply biased Donald Trump and his enablers are leading us as a nation away from widely recognized urgent global priorities (climate change, increasing economic inequalities, rising levels of gender-based violence and intolerance around the world, the decline in democracy in nation after nation, to name but a few). And while Trump and his “America First” agenda callously turns America inward, he pushes on with enforcing the Global Gag Rule which imposes draconian restrictions to nearly $9 billion in U.S. health assistance to women around the world.

We’re walking on thin ice. This administration is failing to honor our international commitments to protect the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, stigmatizing (against all prevailing empirical evidence to the contrary) these desperate and vulnerable people as a criminal and terrorism threat, while slashing our contributions to international agencies providing essential humanitarian support to these very people who number well in excess of 3 million (of whom 80% are women and children). Refugees and asylum seekers who are already in the United States, trying earnestly to rebuild their lives, are now facing new reasons to fear for their futures as they see their religions, diverse national heritages, and personal integrity trashed. Our country’s callous treatment of refugees and asylum seekers now here – many of whom face existential threats to their lives and safety in the countries they fled from – is a betrayal of who we are as a nation of immigrants.

Human dignity and human rights seem sadly absent from the Trump agenda. The inward-focus of this government is pushing us to a place on the ice where our longstanding reputation as a global democratic leader and champion of human dignity is no longer supportable. As I watched the ice walkers on the Reflecting Pool, I almost believed I could hear the ice cracking far away as Vice President Pence meets this weekend with Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This strongman is one of the Trump administration’s inner circle of favored authoritarian dictators, each with egregious records of human rights abuses. And the fault lines in the ice of global cohesion and peace expanded exponentially with Trump’s recent vulgar and appalling characterization of African, Caribbean, and Central American nations and their citizens.

The antics of the ice walkers yesterday were captivating. One could disparage their rationality and risk-taking for venturing out onto the ice, but I am not in a position to pass judgement. They had their reasons. I watched as the ice warned them again and again, with its sagging under their weight, and the small cracks joining into ever-larger cracks that raced toward the ice walkers as they tried to make their escape to the concrete surroundings. They were not fast enough, the ice gave way, and down they sunk into the very cold waters below. Certain paths take us to places where the dire outcomes are inevitable – and predictable.

The most compelling aspect of their ice drama however was not their splash through the shimmering white surface; it was their struggle to regain their footing. Each time they tried to climb out, the ice at the edge of the hole collapsed, and they sunk in again. It took multiple tries, and usually the helping hands of others, to regain their safety on a solid, dry surface.

How long will it take this great country to realize that the ice is cracking under us? The evidence of a fall from international respect is abundant; many would say we are well past a place where we can avoid that calamity. Some will say we are already wet, well above the ankles, and getting higher. Yet the turbulent waters under the thin ice of global cohesion and collaboration are far more dangerous, and much deeper. War with North Korea, irreversible climate change, the inevitable push back to come from the #MeToo movement, the growing and violent assault against sexual and gender minorities…the cracks are too many to count.

Every crack in the ice testifies to the global decline in respect for universal human dignity and the architecture of human rights that has been built upon it. We’re urgently in need of solid-footed leadership based on defensible and universal secular moral values, on principled examples, and a vision for global cooperation and peace.

Let’s pull America from the yawning hole in the ice, starting now and at the ballot boxes in November.

 

Distracted.

It’s becoming progressively more difficult to persist in enjoying my longstanding daily ritual of reading the Washington Post, particularly when juxtaposed with the increasing number of desperate email messages and Facebook communications coming to me from Kakuma, Kenya.

It’s 7,209 miles from this frigid winter in Washington to that baking hot refugee camp in Turkana County in Kenya’s northwest – a formidable distance to be sure – but we now appear to be planets apart.  The United States of America, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, now wallows, disempowered. We are transfixed and immobilized by the latest daily disclosures of our broken presidential governance, and the alarming tally of damage it is doing to us as a nation and to our place in the world. Trump commands news cycle after news cycle, and the plight of the rest of the world barely warrants a mention.

It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently in fact, the care, compassion, and generosity of Americans was evident in our internationalism, our staunch (if still inadequate) commitment to foreign assistance, our stand on human rights, the hard and selfless work of our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad, and our solidarity with human rights defenders. All have been weakened in the era of Trump. Yes, even before Trump it should have been much better – too frequently we chose to let the State Department justify funding of very narrow “strategic targets” at the expense of sustainable development. While the truly urgent demands of humanitarian emergencies still command some attention among American policy makers and among individual and non-profit donors, the level of funding remains woefully inadequate.

And that’s for the emergencies.

What about the chronic needs of the more than 35 million refugees (80% of whom are women and children) currently in camps in more than 125 countries? What about the nearly 180,000 refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp? What about the approximately 200 refugees at that camp who happen to be LGBTQI? But then again, why should we care about 200 sexual and gender minority refugees in northwestern Kenya (95% of whom are Ugandan)  compared to the needs of 35 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world?

We should care because they are all human beings. We should care as a way of respecting their human dignity – and the universality of human dignity. We should care because we can afford to care, financially, with such caring (were it to be properly funded) imposing an almost negligible impact on our relatively comfortable quality of life . We should care because there at Kakuma, but for the grace of God, you or I could now be one of those 200. Yet the grace of God shines brightly in each one of them, in their courageous resilience in the face of enormous hardship, and in the strength and clarity of their voices reaching out to me, and to us all. I cherish each one of their messages, although I feel deep discomfort in my relative inability to offer them any meaningful support. Continue reading Distracted.

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/