Archives for April 2010

Inside her soul: echoes

Inside her soul: echoes

April 18, 2010

i see
enslaved prophet
trying to silence
the echoes of past
and i see MAD MEN
performing their ceremonial dance
calling for me
i see
ill manifestations
systemic revelations
colonization giving birth to my nations
can’t he see that HIS savage love
tarnishes me
skin of my skin
breath of my breath
filled with water COLORED dreams
my heart bleeds
consecrated seeds
burdened by deceit and greed
baptized into submission
conforming my vision
sometimes i feel there is noting left of me
i need water to purge me
from his capitalistic system of depravity
aflame with indignation
fire and damnation
refusing to serve HIS gods of war
shackled and torn
clothes tattered and worn
and my MAN wonder why
I don’t love him no more?

Alicia D. Harris

(Re)Producing Gender: The New Water Cycle

In honor of World Water Day my colleague at Women In and Beyond the Global, Lisa Seyfried, began writing on the intimate connections between gender and water – particularly that water is provided as a part of the domestic labors of women.

At the same time, a cry for help rang out across the provinces of southern China. They are experiencing what could be the worst drought in a century. Reservoirs and rivers desperately needed to sustain life are drying up. It is getting to the point where even the ground is beginning to crack of thirst. It is impossible to know for certain how many people have been affected. In just one province, according to government officials, there are 19 million people with a severe shortage of drinking water. For some comparison, according to the most recent government estimate, that is about two million people more than the total number of residents in Beijing. And that is just one province. Another three provinces are said to be in similar straits.

With no water immediately available, many villagers are forced to wander for miles in order to bring back as much water as they can carry. Many of these are women or girls.

The problem goes beyond not having enough water to drink. There is also not enough water to sustain either the livestock or the crops. Under the hukuo system (the system of house-hold registration that determines access to social services), it is expected that many rural villagers will engage in subsistence farming rather than employment. Much of the families’ yearly income comes from selling their excess produce at a price that is fixed below market value by the government.

Who then, decides the allocation of the water that is made available? Not the women in charge of retrieving it. Further, as water becomes increasingly privatized, the men in the villages do not get much say either.

These regions most affected by drought are also expected to provide many of the flowers for the country as well as other nations. In fact, this same region is the single largest wholesale center for flowers in all of China. It is this same market for gendered tokens  which decides that available water will go to producing saleable commodities rather than to sustaining human populations.

Many of the rural villagers are being forced to migrate toward more industrial centers as the land becomes increasingly untenable for subsistence. There is a limited supply of gendered destinations. The men are left to go to the urban centers, where they will erect   the glass and steel facades of Chinese modernity. Or they can enter the mines – which continue to pollute more sources of water through environmentally destructive practices such as strip mining or mountaintop removal.

The women, however, bear the increased burdens of this migration. Since they are most often left behind in the village, the duty of care labor falls upon them, without any support that their partner may have otherwise provided or received. Depending on age and familial position, they may be expected to migrate in order support themselves as well as their families.

If a woman has a younger brother (the one child policy has a stipulation that a second child may be afforded if the first born is female), the cultural conditions dictate that she may have to work extra to support his educational endeavors.

If she is young enough and/or attractive enough (by the standards of the employer of course), she may be expected to go to work in the industrial centers either in retail or in the factories. Or she may find herself in the more informal economies if she proves to be unsuitable for the other types of labor. As she works to (re)produce herself as well as her family, she will be simultaneously responsible for facilitating the standard of living that many in the US have become accustomed to having.  She serves two household masters, and both are distant and intimately felt.

Beyond that, her labors will further contribute to the ecological damage that leads to the drought. Two of China’s largest exports, clothing and electronics, require some of the most intensive investments of water – water which is then so polluted by production that it cannot be safely used for human consumption. In this way, the migrant woman worker becomes a part of the force that created the impetus for her migration in the first place.

This is the new water cycle, spiraling out from the original state of the waters’ potential. A new industry moves into the region. Women are predominantly employed since their labor is more cost effective. The industry purchases rights over the usage of the water. Water becomes scarce. More women move to the factory for much needed work, potentially working for less than the previous cohort as they are more desperate for money. If the industry is to survive, it must draw from a wider pool of resources, bringing more devalued labor with it. Finally the industry moves elsewhere to a fresher supply of resources, leaving in their wake the hollowed out shell of how the people used to survive.

A system built on unlimited growth through the exploitation of limited resources cannot be sustained indefinitely. An obvious point yet one that has yet to be fully accepted as truth. While we demand that our standard of living be subsidized through the exploitation of cheap labor and even cheaper labor standards, the economic machines march on towards our collective destruction. This destruction cannot be averted through a green-washing of the problem. We need to fundamentally alter our relationship to water and by extension, the ways that we relate to feminized labor.


Women and Water: Natural, Human, and Women’s Rights

This month I want to vary a little from my initial theme and talk more broadly about the right to water and the right of water, without highlighting any specific organization.  While the right to water and the right of water may seem to be the same thing to many people, the two are extremely different.  I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference on the right to water, where the intersections of these three issues were discussed.

The right to water is the idea that people have a right to water resources, and to use them to their best advantage.  When people talk about how women in the developing world should have access to clean water, this is a right to water.  The same can be said for restoring the rights of indigenous peoples to the water resources once taken from them by colonialists – they are fighting for their right to water, and their right to use water. (This can also be considered a water right, which deals with water from a legal, property standpoint).  It is generally agreed that all human beings should have a right to water.  Where there is disagreement is in how to enforce that right and how to ensure that all people have access to that right.

The right of water looks at the issues from a deep ecology or spiritual ecofeminism type of perspective; meaning that it looks at water as the right-holder.  As a natural resource, and perhaps the one most necessary for sustaining the life of human beings, water has a right to be preserved and protected.  Since water cannot physically represent itself, people must protect the rights of water.

Women fall into this junction of human rights and water at many different sections.  First, and perhaps the most obvious, women have been tied to water through religions for centuries.  Traditionally, water has been personified as a woman — the sea is feminized.  ‘She’ becomes a source of tremendous natural (I use natural here to mean from the world of nature) power that men must conquer and control.  Once water is feminized, the similarities between water and the oppression of women become more apparent.  While women are oppressed and restricted, water is conquered, forced to change its course, and privatized.

Second, women are the primary gatherers of water in the developing world.  In some places, women must walk miles to the nearest water source, sometimes more than once a day, in order to bring back enough water for their families and their domestic duties.  These walks are long, not necessarily safe routes, putting the women and children who walk them in danger.  A better global stewardship of water resources would make these challenges less dangerous and time consuming.  Attention to water conservation and climate change issues would make water scarcity less of a problem.

The UN’s report on the health of water stated that half of the world’s hospital beds are filled by people sick or dying due to water-related illness that could be completely preventable with access to clean, safe water.  These are not new statistics.  For years now, it has been evident that water resources are becoming scarcer, and the water that is left is more polluted than before, and that developing countries are bearing the brunt of that (with notable exceptions around the developed world).

Is this exemption from international relief due to the feminization of water resources? I think that is a large part of it.  Water quality and quantity is an issue that directly affects human life.  We cannot exist without water.  Water has been defined as a human right – the South African government admits that water is a natural right that all people should have access to.   Granted, South Africa is not the best example when it comes to implementation of equitable water practices, but the government has taken the step to declare water a natural right. Yet access to water, the right to water, is still debated, couched in legalese, allowing nations to disregard it and manipulate that right how they see fit at the moment in time.

The right to water has been marginalized much as women have been.  ‘She’ (the sea, the river, the stream) is restricted and not consulted in the decisions regarding her fate.  Thanks to feminism, women have been able to regain control of many of the decisions about their lives, in certain areas of the world.  However, the decisions concerning water resources are still left to the minds of men rather than consulting the women who are both the primary water managers and are likened to water in traditions.  Here is where the linkage needs to take the next step.

Yes, access to water is a human right. Yes, women are the primary interactors with water in many developed countries.  And yes, water is often coded as female.  Since all of these are true, than the access to water is a women’s right as well as a natural right and a human right.


(Photo Credit: UN Water)

The Parable of Yarl’s Wood

You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat. For the breath of the ruthless is like a storm driving against a wall and like the heat of the desert.  — Isaiah 25: 4-5

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”… “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  — Matthew 25: 35-40.

Once, providing asylum to those who needed it was considered a sacred act. In the Book of Numbers, God ordered Moses to create “cities of refuge” or “cities of asylum,” for those fleeing unjust punishment. International conventions written following the Holocaust and World War II confer refugee status on people who face persecution, abuse, torture, or death in their own countries. And even today, the immigration laws of most Western countries have provisions for granting asylum to such refugees—in theory at least. In practice, it’s a different story. In the United States, refugees seeking protection have often found themselves in prison instead. In the United Kingdom, the situation is just as bad or worse.

The United Kingdom has eleven `immigration removal centres.” Seven are privately run. Six are run by G4S, the world’s largest security provider. The seventh, Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, is run by Serco. Of the seven prisons, two house women. Tinsley House holds 5 females. Yarl’s Wood has 405 `bed spaces’, which divide into 284 single female bed spaces; 121 family bed spaces. Serco has responsibility for practically all the women and children who apply for asylum.

On February 5, at least 50 women prisoners at Yarl’s Wood went on a hunger strike, which they suspended on March 19. They may resume the hunger strike on April 9.

The women were protesting the Detained Fast Track Asylum System, which discriminates against those fleeing sexual and domestic violence. It is estimated that over 70% of the women at Yarl’s Wood are rape survivors. They were also protesting the length of time many had been detained. One woman who spoke little or no English had been at Yarl’s Wood for two years. Generally, they were protesting degrading and humiliating treatment.

According to Nigerian asylum seeker Mojirola Daniels, on February 8 about 70 women were herded into a long airless hallway and then locked down. They were denied access to toilets, water, anything. There was no heat. Women suffered hypothermia. Blood, urine, faeces covered the floor. Some women passed out. Others were beaten. Finally, hours later, the women were allowed to leave, in pairs: “We were about 70 which consist many Nigerians, Chinese, Jamaicans, Zimbabweans and some nationals that I do not remember. I have been traumatised and victimised because of this experience. I can never believe this can happen in the UK and I am still in shock.”

Another woman reported: “One of the managers told the women they would regret what they have done; she called the Chinese women monkeys, and the Black women black monkeys. Four other women have been locked in other rooms for three hours, and have been told by room mates that their belongings have been packed. They are worried they face immediate removal even though their cases are still being considered. Fifteen women have been locked up in “Kingfisher”, the punishment wing.”

Hunger striker Aisha and non-participant Victoria agree on the conditions in Yarl’s Wood.

35 year old Jamaican asylum seeker Denise McNeil was identified as a `ringleader’, moved to another prison, and placed in solitary. Gladys Obiyan from Nigeria, Sheree Wilson and Shellyann Stupart from Jamaica, and Aminata Camara from suffered a similar fate. Others were suddenly `repatriated’. Leila, an Iranian prisoner, had been at Yarl’s Wood for 20 months, 15 days. After taking part in the hunger strikes and other protests she was placed in solitary: “I want to kill myself, I cannot live here”. Women do try to kill themselves at Yarl’s Wood.

The women are suing Serco. Their lawyers noted: “Serco guards intervened, and according to accounts from our clients “kettled” protestors inside and outside the building, injured some and locked the “ringleaders” in isolation for more than two weeks.”

There will be investigations and trials; poems, plays, and performance pieces; testimony and more. Perhaps the fast-track asylum system will be slowed down. Perhaps detention for women who have been tortured and rape will come to an end. Perhaps no more children will be sent to immigration removal centres. One can hope for these changes.

But asylum will not come until we have cities of refuge: Asylum is a sacred responsibility, not only around Passover or Easter or any other holiday. The building of cities of refuge begins with the end of automatic asylum seeker incarceration. The end of automatic asylum seeker incarceration begins in practice. End the practice of shame and isolation of women asylum seekers now. Walk with the women hunger strikers, the innocent prisoners of Yarl’s Wood, for they are the architects and the carpenters of the cities of refuge to come.

[In a very slightly different form, this was posted at Solitary Watch. Thanks to Solitary Watch, and Jean Casella in particular, for the invitation, editing, and for their great work and labor.]


(Video Credit: visionontv / YouTube)