Archives for November 2012

Violence against women has many faces

November 25th is marked as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This date was decided upon in the United Nations to remember the assassination of the Mirabal sisters by the Trujillo regime, in the Dominican Republic, November 25, 1960.

This day is to raise awareness of the fact that women around the world are subject to rape and domestic violence and other forms of violence. The secretary general of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon declared: “Millions of women and girls around the world are assaulted, beaten, raped, mutilated or even murdered in what constitutes appalling violations of their human rights. […] We must fundamentally challenge the culture of discrimination that allows violence to continue. On this International Day, I call on all governments to make good on their pledges to end all forms of violence against women and girls in all parts of the world, and I urge all people to support this important goal.”

Should the European Union support this important goal and challenge the culture of discrimination within its behavior as an institution, as crimes against women are committed in member states? The death of Savita Halappanavar for denied therapeutic abortion in Ireland is only one of numerous cases of women being killed or injured because some States still have laws denying reproductive care to women. Those laws have remained the same sometimes since the 19th century. For instance in Ireland, doctors or nurses who help women who seek an abortion are punishable under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 that prescribes a minimum sentence of two years hard labor and can result in a life sentence.

The nomination of Tonio Borg (overtly against women and LGBT’s rights) as the new commissioner for Health will accentuate the impossibility for the European commission to stop state-legitimized violence against women in Member States with anti abortion, restrictive reproduction laws, such as Ireland, Poland,  and Malta. These laws are generalized in many countries from Africa to the Americas, including the United States.

Restrictions for women are economic as well. Where contraceptives are expensive or simply difficult to obtain, abortion services are generally illegal or restricted. Meanwhile, women are in the main still economically dependent.

Having a weak health commission in the Europe Union is no surprise. It results from lobbying from member states that don’t want to see the European convention on human rights and parliamentary resolutions applied to health care and in particular to women’s reproductive health. If women’s reproductive health were seen as a human right, those members who are inconsistent with EU conventions would finally be held accountable.

Violence against women has many faces. Often the violence stems from state denial of services or state practices of humiliated access to important services. In Baltimore, Maryland, for example, as in much of the United States, incarcerated pregnant women travel shackled to medical appointments.  These women are seen in regular hospitals walking among other patients with their guards and shackles.  Their treatment and humiliation is shaped by federal, state or local policies, which even force them to deliver their babies in chains, putting their lives at risk exactly as Savita Halappanavar lost hers.



(Photo Credit 1: AP / Shawn Pogatchnik / Salon) (Photo Credit 2: Reuters / Cathal Mcnaughton / Salon)

Mixing human rights, peace and violence against women

This year the European Union received the Nobel Peace Prize. Was it for having the only human rights court in the world with binding judgments? Was it for its Erasmus program that has broken down nationalistic sentiments through education? Or was it for its new take on women’s rights with the nomination of a new commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy—Tonio Borg from Malta—who is notorious for his harsh positions against LGBT and also against women who resort to having an abortion for various reasons (including for malformations of fetus)?

Borg has been the foreign minister of Malta until his recent confirmation by the European Parliament of his nomination by 386 votes in favor and 281 against with 28 abstentions. The former commissioner John Dalli was from Malta as well, and had to resign for collusion with the tobacco industry to influence European decisions on tobacco legislation. This time, the commissioner will be in collusion with the anti women’s rights groups.

This new development highlights the ambivalence of the European Union’s women’s rights approach.

The parliamentary Assembly Resolution 1607 (2008) questions the antiabortion position of some member states: “The Assembly is nonetheless concerned that, in many of these states, numerous conditions are imposed and restrict the effective access to safe, affordable, acceptable and appropriate abortion services. These restrictions have discriminatory effects, since women who are well informed and possess adequate financial means can often obtain legal and safe abortions more easily.”

Article 7.5 insists on the means to address restrictions on access to safe and appropriate abortion services: “7.5. adopt evidence-based appropriate sexual and reproductive health and rights strategies and policies, ensuring continued improvements and expansion of non-judgmental sex and relationships information and education, as well as contraceptive services, through increased investments from the national budgets into improving health systems, reproductive health supplies and information.”

Conservative MEP (Members of European Parliaments) have argued that Borg was right when he declared that the EU had no competence on abortion rights and should not interfere with member States’ affairs on this issue. On the other side, the opposition to Borg’s nomination have insisted, “Access to adequate public health rights, including sexual and reproductive health rights is a basic right”.

Once again the question of human rights is filtered through an individualistic patriarchal lens that distorts the reality of  the lives of women and LGBT’s.

Meanwhile, MEPs from nationalist groups declared the confirmation of Borg was “a victory of common sense over prejudice and intolerance.” How should we understand common sense, prejudice and intolerance? Are these notions associated with refusing sexual and reproductive health services to women, which is tantamount to promoting violence against women?

When President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, he approved the drone program and other violent interventions throughout the Muslim world. And now, true to form, the Prize is given to the European Union just as its commission has taken a retrograde step on women’s rights. In this spiral of discourses and praxis of rights and peace, the conservative dominant power legitimizes violence against women who are the majority of the Wretched of the Earth.


(Photo Credit: Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation)


The tragic and the everyday of the garment industry

On May 10, 1993, 188 workers died, or were killed, in a fire at the Kader Toy Factory, in Bangkok, Thailand. 177 of the killed workers were women. The factory had no fire alarms, no sprinklers, very few fire extinguishers, and practically no means of escape. Those not immediately burned to death jumped out of third and fourth story windows … and were killed or seriously injured.

On November 19, 1993, 87 workers, all women, died, or were killed, in a fire at the Zhili Handicraft Factory, in Shenzhen, China’s first Special Economic Zone. A month later, on December 13, 61 women workers died, or were killed, in a fire at the Gaofu Textile Factory, in Fuzhou.

On Sunday, November 25, 2012, Bangladesh suffered its worst-ever factory fire, at the Tazreen Fashions factory, one of 4500 garment factories in the country. At last count, 123 workers died. By all accounts, the workers were all or almost all women.

Nothing here is new. Industries rely on women’s `nimble fingers’ to produce goods. Factories filled with women are overcrowded, have no fire alarms or sprinklers, and have no means of escape. Many women are burned to death. In these more recent versions, as in the earlier Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the factories are the signature of the modern. They are proof positive of progress made, or so the public is told.

Until the fire next time.

And each time, the fire, the tragedy, `enlightens’ a public that was previously innocent of any knowledge of the circumstances of industrial women workers. Fortunately for the innocent public, the dead cannot speak, cannot contradict the protestations of surprise and the performances of dismay.

But the living can.

At almost the same time the Tazreen factory burst into flames, garment workers, women workers, gathered in Bengaluru, in India, to give testimony to their working lives and to make demands. Managers abuse the women verbally and physically. The production targets are impossible. The pay is bare. The list goes on. What do the women want? They want what every worker wants. They want dignity, they want a living wage, they want the right to organize. They want everything that constitutes dignity, they want everything that expands dignity.

The women know they are working in a factory that is all women workers because a factory full of women is a factory of low wages. They are told this is a sign of development, of modernity. The women know better.

As we enter into the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, mourn the women workers who have died in the fires and support the women workers who continue to organize and make demands, as they produce clothing, toys, microchips, textiles, and more. Don’t let the brilliance of the fire obscure the urgencies of women workers’ everyday struggles for dignity and a living wage.


(Photo Credit:

From Paris to Baltimore, our prisons are full but empty of sense

Christiane Taubira

The majority left French Senate has rejected the 2013 budget for Social Security presented by the socialist government. Amazingly, right wing and communist senators joined forces to vote the budget down, although not for the same reasons. The Communists opposed the austerity measures arguing that they add up to social injustice whereas the right wing senators would like to have more austerity and reduce the social/health care welfare that is one of the pillars of French society.  Despite this seeming setback, many hope that social security and the French Health Care system will remain a key part of a societal structure of public service.

To understand the reason for this hope, we must turn to the justice department and its rhetoric of welfare and criminalization. The previous ministers of justice under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, inspired by the American approach of “le tout incarceration” (every thing converges into incarceration), had planned to build more prisons. In order to fill these new cells, the Sarkozy’s justice department designed a series of programs, including charging youth as adult; instituting immediate sentencing which often meant no jury and little time for the accused to prepare for trial; and introducing mandatory sentences. In 2007, a bill requiring minimum mandatory sentencing for repeated offenders passed. And so the prisons and jails filled up.  At the same time, under the rule of austerity, a series of welfare programs were cut.

After the election of a socialist president, Francois Hollande, his justice minister, Christiane Taubira, presented a “new penal politics of the government”. She broke with the policies of her immediate predecessors. She sent an official memorandum to all public prosecutors recommending sentencing reduction and favoring alternative sentences. As for repeated offenders she said, “All decisions must be personalized, including for repeated offenses.” She went on to clearly delineate the limits of mandatory sentencing and as well as its ultimate suppression.

Taubira went further and refused the logic of immediate trial, responsible for one third of the 66 748 people incarcerated in France, and asked the public prosecutor to stop using it. Christiane Taubira declared: “Nos prisons sont pleines, mais vides de sens.” “Our prisons are full, but empty of sense.” Her predecessors were eager to send people to jail; their motto was “tough on crime.” In the past 10 years the tally of prisoners increased by 20,000, creating “inhuman conditions” as was noted by the European committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), which also recommended “a zero tolerance of ill-treatments” by police officers. Christiane Taubira wants to remedy these conditions by quickly reducing the number of people in French prisons recognizing that incapacitating people in over-populated cells only creates more precarious lives.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore the debate about the construction of a new juvenile detention center rages, with no signs of a change in paradigm. Juveniles may be tried as adults, and the majority of women in prisons are single mothers. Meanwhile, welfare support is shrinking. Where is the Commission in Baltimore that will declare zero tolerance of ill treatment of the city’s most vulnerable?


(Photo Credit: Liberation / Bertrand Langlois / AFP)


World Toilet Day is WORLD Toilet Day, not developing world toilet day

November 19, 2012: it’s World Toilet Day. Around the world, one in three women has no access to a safe toilet. The situation, especially for women, is desperate. It’s a global crisis, driven in many instances by taboos and stigma and in others by public policy. From Uganda, Mozambique, India, and the Solomon Islands to Mongolia and Vietnam to Haiti to Bolivia to South Africa and Kenya and Zambia and Ghana to Sri Lanka to Ethiopia, the situation is serious.  As Jack Sim, founder of the World Toilet Organization, the real WTO, and one of the initiators of World Toilet Day has argued, it’s a human tragedy.

Women’s lack of access to safe toilets is a human tragedy everywhere. Not just in developing countries.

Last week, 20 women U.S. Senators gathered for an event. Before the event, they headed off to the women’s bathroom, only to discover there were only two stalls. While much levity has been generated by “first time ever traffic jam at the women’s Senators’ bathroom”, by women Senators hitting up against the porcelain ceiling, the Senators’ lack of access to a safe, clean, available toilet points to a more dire situation, in the United States.

Women prisoners often lack access to safe, clean, available toilets. Women living with disabilities who have been institutionalized often lack access to safe, clean, available toilets. In fact, women living with disabilities out on the streets often lack access to safe, clean, available toilets. Women and girls in schools often find going to the bathroom a hazardous journey.

Women in traditionally all-male fields often lack access to safe, clean, available toilets. For example, women in the building trades often describe “limited access to sanitary toilets.”

Many women farm workers find no toilets in the fields, and when there is one, it’s often a site of sexual harassment. They find the housing provided to farm workers has a similar lack of functioning toilets, as well as a lack of functioning sewage and potable water.

And of course, across the United States, when landlords look to move tenants out in the name of `development’, the first line of attack is maintenance. Along with failure, or refusal, to repair public spaces, such as hallways and lobbies, landlords use broken plumbing in their `assault by blight’. Across the United States, women, mostly women of color, living in targeted neighborhoods struggle with lack of access to safe, clean, available toilets.

World Toilet Day is WORLD Toilet Day, not developing world toilet day.


(Image Credit: United Nations University)


Kadi Sesay, a Sierra Leonean feminist leader and builder of democracy

All eyes are on Sierra Leone and its cliffhanger elections tomorrow. It actually is a crucial election, with a great deal at stake (even if The New York Times has thus far not mentioned a word). And one group that is precariously positioned in this election is women.

Out of 538 candidates for Parliament, only 38 are women. Of 1,283 candidates for local council seats, a mere 337 are women. Many women activists, such as Barbara Bangura, the director of the women’s organisation Grassroots Empowerment for Self Reliance, lay much of the blame on current women parliamentarians who failed to get the Parliament to pass, or even seriously consider, the Gender Equality Bill. The Gender Equality Bill would have mandated that 30% of the legislators be women.

Why did the Bill fail? Some in the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus claim there was confusion. Others say intimidation of women candidates and office holders is all too common.

Whatever the reason, there will be a sharp decline in the number of women in Parliament and in local offices. For that reason alone, women are already organizing to re-table it post election.

While the numbers are fairly dismal, there’s one number that shows some promise: 2. And that number 2 has a woman’s name: Kadi Sesay. The opposition party, Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), is running Kadi Sesay as vice-president. If Julius Maada Bio becomes President, Sierra Leone will have a woman Vice-President for the first time.

Sesay has been a first woman on a number of occasions, from academic head of department to National Commission head to Ministerial positions. She’s a groundbreaker Sierra Leonean feminist leader and feminist builder of real democracy who, for decades and at every step, has worked closely with women’s groups, women’s movements, women.

While the election of one woman to a high office won’t resolve the extraordinarily high maternal mortality rate in Sierra Leone, nor the crisis of women’s high indebtedness, nor the challenges women farmers face either in the rural zones or in the cities, nor the inequities women face in the courts,  it’s still something.

According to the BBC tomorrow’s election is all about becoming an adult: “Sierra Leone may be about to prove it has grown up.”

The possible accession of Kadi Sesay to the Vice-Presidency of Sierra Leone is not a passage into adulthood. Sierra Leone is not a child. Tell the BBC. Tell them, as well, about Kadi Sesay, an African feminist leader.


(Photo Credit:

The agony of Savita Halappanavar

Savita Halappanavar

Savita Halappanavar

Savita Halappanavar died, or was killed, because an Irish hospital refused to perform a medically necessary abortion until they were absolutely positively sure the fetal heartbeat had stopped. The life of the mother was of no concern. Savita Halappanavar spent more than two days in agony, and died, or was killed, in agony.

The agony of Savita Halappanavar is a commonplace globally, according to the UN’s  The State of World Population 2012, released today. From Poland to Armenia to Uganda to Swaziland to India to Nicaragua to the United States, and all points between and beyond, pregnant women, women in childbirth, women die in agony, thanks to criminalization, stigma, public policy and more.

They die in agony like so many prisoners, begging for care, screaming for mercy. They receive neither. Why? What is a global culture of women-dying-in-agony? A little over 50 years ago, Frantz Fanon had an answer to that question: “Le colon oubliait singulièrement qu’il s’enrichissait de l’agonie de l’esclave.” “The colonist forgot strangely enough that he was getting rich on the agony of the slave. In fact what the colonist was saying to the colonized subject: “Work yourselves to death, but let me get rich!

The agony of Savita Halappanavar is part of the ongoing global crisis of the wretched and the damned: women. Slavery has not ended; it has simply changed clothes for the new season. Colonialism has not ended; it has moved the furniture around. The colonists continue to forget strangely enough and continue to enrich themselves on the agony of women.

(Photo credit 1: The Irish Times) (Photo Credit 2: The Journal)

Where are the women of rural Mozambique?

In an otherwise informative article this past Sunday, the New York Times reported on a rural Mozambique without women. Reporting on the “rural poor…left behind”, and pushed around, by multinational mining and natural gas companies and by the national government, the Times mentioned not a single Mozambican woman. In the accompanying slide show, there’s a slide of “people gathered by a river to bathe, play and wash their dishes”. The `people’ are, not surprisingly, all women and girls. Another slide shows, and names, Beatriz Jose, condemned to living in a tent, thanks to the dismal housing provided by the mining companies. And that’s pretty much it.

Where are the women of rural Mozambique? On the farms and in the countryside of Mozambique, the women are everywhere. Study after study has described the relentless feminization of poverty in rural Mozambique. As one study, conducted for the Mozambican government, explains, “The majority of agricultural workers in Mozambique are women and an increasing number of households are being headed by females.” Eighty percent of Mozambique’s population is rural, and 80% percent of rural workers are women. An exceptionally high number of those rural women workers are divorced, separated or widowed. That means a very large numbers of households are headed by single women. The feminization of poverty has been accompanied by the feminization of household headship. At the same time, women farmers have organized into cooperatives and cooperative associations, such as MuGeDe – Mulher, Genero e Desenvolvimento (Women, Gender and Development).

Thanks to labor migration of men, to the HIV and AIDS pandemic, and to women’s organizing on the ground, the lives of women in rural households and in the fields has been constantly changing in Mozambique. Personal and structural, or sectoral, vulnerability has intensified at the same time that women’s formal and informal organizing has intensified. It takes real work to write about rural Mozambique and avoid any mention of women.

And that’s precisely what The New York Times did this weekend.


(Photo Credit: UK Department for International Development)

Ashley Smith, who haunts the Correctional Service of Canada

Ashley Smith and her guards

On October 19, 2007, 19-year-old Ashley Smith, a prisoner under suicide watch, killed herself. Seven guards watched and did nothing to stop her. They were under orders to let her go. Someone wanted to teach her a lesson, not to be `a nuisance’. And so, she died … or was killed by active neglect.

Now, five years later, perhaps, the Canadian government will finally conduct an inquest. The murder of Ashley Smith didn’t stop at her death. For five years, the Correctional Service of Canada has fought tooth and nail to bury any evidence of the event … other than the corpse of Ashley Smith, the pain of her family and friends, and the horror.

For five years, the Canadian prison system first denied the existence of the damning videos released, finally, just recently. They didn’t inform the parties in the inquiry of the existence of the tapes. Then, when the tapes could no longer be denied, the Correctional Service tried to keep the public from having access.

If Ashley Smith were the only young woman prisoner who was effectively tortured in prison, left to die slow death or `self-inflicted’ death in solitary, left to die while monitored in suicide watch, her death would indeed be a tragedy.

But Ashley Smith is not alone in her fate. Many prisoners, and especially women prisoners, living with mental health disabilities, find themselves deep in a system of abuse and exploitation. Many prisoners, and especially women prisoners, find their attempts at self-harm are not viewed as symptoms of a need to be treated but rather as bureaucratic inconveniences. Taking care of mentally ill prisoners `costs’ too much. Caring about the welfare of mentally ill prisoners costs way too much. Caring about the destiny and lives of young women … priceless.

There has been and will continue to be much condemnation, much finger pointing, all of it well deserved. But at the same, Ashley Smith’s death by proxy was precisely part of the `service’ the Correctional Service offers. Adjudicating those involved is important, getting the details of the story is important, too. Transforming the system and the nation and world that built it is necessary.

That won’t bring Ashley Smith back. That won’t mean she didn’t die in vain. But it could mean something for those who follow.


(The Globe and Mail)


How the corporate university exploits sexual assault

Sexual assault happens on university and college campuses.  It happens a lot.  More often than not, women are on the receiving end of this violence.

How does the university respond when it becomes aware of such violence?  It responds with blaming and insulting survivors, with bogus advice about not drinking alcohol, and with purposely underfunding resources for survivors.  One way or another, the university removes itself from the narrative and responsibility, and places the work of preventing sexual assault on individual students, often individual women.

This is institutional violence, the violence that flows from institutions like the university through the active neglect of certain groups deemed extra, or surplus.  The story of institutional violence is the story of a crisis, and that crisis is a lack: a lack of institutional responsibility, a lack of proper safety measures, a lack of proper resources for survivors, and a supposed lack of a proper amount of time for the university to put together a proper response.  The university actively creates these lacks, crises, and violence.

Stories of sexual assault and university neglect repeat, campus to campus.  These cases of sexual assault appear to fit the model of the “crisis ordinary,” when crisis is everywhere and inescapable.  The crisis ordinary gives the university the excuse to hide behind resources it fails to provide or else provides paltry, inadequate sums.  The crisis ordinary of sexual assault lets us see the inherent instability in the university’s bumbling, ineffective responses to this violence.  It also allows us to re-narrate the crisis, and the new narration might go something like this:

There are women who have been sexually assaulted.  These women do the work of finding and utilizing resources for survivors, the work of telling and re-telling their stories, and the work of demanding accountability from the university and its administration.

The university increasingly wants diversity.  But it has not provided adequate resources to survivors of sexual assault and further pressures survivors to do their own work of coordinating resources.  Then, the university shows its cruelty by insulting survivors for not following “widely accepted” advice.  Within the supposedly diverse community of the university, survivors and their labor are produced as victims, as extra, as surplus, as valueless, as the university backs away slowly.

The university passes off the actual work of diversity, of maintaining a safe and inclusive community, onto survivors of sexual assault—and it makes a profit!  It diverts the savings from this unpaid work to projects that are in its real interests: accumulating as much capital in as little time as possible.  The university is not merely the university, but the corporate university.

The corporate university appears diverse through the spectacle of branding, but this hides the violence underneath: the violence of sexual assault, the violence of workers’ rights abuses on its ever-expanding campuses, and the violence of producing women, people of color, LGBTIQ people, disabled people, and others as key members of its so-called diverse community at the same it produces them as victims.  None of this is shocking—it’s business as usual, ordinary business, for the corporate university.

To abolish institutional violence, we must abolish the farce of the institution that is the corporate university.  It is in organizing for abolition that we find alternatives.


(Photo Credit: Nicholas Mirzoeff)