Archives for December 2012

The ordinary torture of children

2012 has been a year of spectacular violence – Marikana, Newtown, Delhi, Dhaka – against women, against children, against workers. And that’s only the last five months. There was cause as well to celebrate, to hope, as the Idle No More movement across Canada extends the light of indignation, occupation, Spring into the new year.

And there was the absolutely ordinary violence against children that continued, largely unmarked, except of course by those immediately affected and by the usual suspects of social justice advocates and activists. Especially in the United States and Australia, children continue to spend long times in prison. This includes children asylum seekers.

In a sense, 2012 began with Jakadrien Turner, a fourteen-year-old African American, US citizen, girl who was shipped off to Colombia, alone. Turner spoke no Spanish, knew no one in the country. At the beginning of the year, she was returned to the United States. No apologies. No explanations. Silence.

Displaced and refugee children who move to high-income countries face numerous mental health and other risks, not the least of which are the delicacies of class warfare taking place across the austerity-soaked `free world.’ But they also face a risk mental health studies don’t acknowledge: a war on children.

In the United States, for example, an applicant for asylum faces a double test: evidence of an objective risk of persecution and evidence that they subjectively fear this risk. Recently, Burhan Amare, a nine-year old hearing impaired girl from Ethiopia, was denied asylum. There was clear evidence of real risk of persecution and violence. But the child, communicating through a sign-language interpreter, didn’t sufficiently manifest subjective apprehension.

Burhan Amare has a brother, in Australia. Not a biological brother, but a brother nevertheless. The boy, nine years old, is an asylum seeker in detention. Australia has mandatory detention for refugees and asylum seekers. The boy tried to commit suicide. Supporters are “distressed”. The State is maybe taking the case “under advisement”.

There is a sickness in the system of long-term immigration detention … and the sickness is the world that produces that machinery and then walks away from the slow torture of children in prisons. That is our world, a world in which, daily, children are subjected to long-term detention, for the crime of having nowhere to go. This is the silence and the muffled noises we hear, or don’t, that are the foundation of the explosions of spectacular violence. We must mark the everyday so that we understand the seemingly exceptional explosions are not exceptional. They are part of the fabric of everyday violence. The war on children must end … now.


(Photo Credit: Mike Fuentes/Ap)

In Canada, five women set the spark

Thanks to five women, four of them First Nation women, who have had enough, winter in Canada suddenly turned very hot. Idle No More is sweeping the country with the heat of justice, democracy, emancipation, and peoples’ power. It’s a Native Peoples’ Northern Lights, and it could shine on all of us.

Five women have started a national movement with global reach. Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation is on the fourteenth day of a hunger strike. Her immediate demand is that the Prime Minister and the Queen meet face to face with her and other First Nation leaders to address the longstanding violations of treaties. First Nation peoples and communities have had enough of sitting on the sidelines of their own histories.

At the same time, Chief Spence has another, call it existential demand: life with dignity. Last year, Chief Spence drew international attention to the deplorable living conditions on her Northern Ontario reservation. Since then … nothing has improved. So, Chief Spence is saying that death-in-life, that survival without dignity, that being turned into something less than a shadow is unacceptable. And so she is on a hunger strike.

The hunger strike is as well part of a mass strike, initially organized by four women in Saskatchewan: Jessica Gordon, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean. The women were fed up with the intensifying assault against First Nation peoples by the Canadian government, not to mention the assaults by the State on Native women. The last straw was something called Bill C-45, a monster omnibus bill that threatens First Nations with loss of land, environment, life, agency and autonomy. To the four women, it seemed that Bill C-45, and the Canadian government and State, offered First Nations people, and everyone, loss and the promise of more and deeper loss as the only absolute value. And, of course, the State calls it democracy.

So they organized, and the organizing effort has spread like prairie fire. The lesson here is the lesson the women of Egypt, Sudan, Spain, Chile, have brought over the last couple years. It’s the lesson the women of the Indignados, Girifna, the Arab Spring, the Chilean Winter, Occupy, UK Uncut, and, behind them, of the Zapatistas and Ya Basta, and behind them …

The lesson is that hope is material. Hope must be maintained as a concrete, material part of all of our lives. When loss is offered instead of hope, when debt is offered instead of hope, when autocracy and kleptocracy are offered, in the name of democracy or security, instead of hope, it’s time to be idle no more. It’s time light the winter skies.

And that’s the star the five wise women of Canada and their sisters and brothers have taught us to follow this December. They are “opening the eyes of this land” and, hopefully, this world.


(Photo Credit: Idle No More)

Domestics: For Children of Filipino Transnational Families, Classification as Control

Geraldine Pratt’s recent work with Filipina domestic workers in Canada examines the narratives of ambitious mothers who travel overseas to take care of others’ children in order to provide for their own. Once their children are able to reunite with them in Canada, mothers cite issues of deskilling, where they “lose their skills during the years that they work as caregivers,” limiting them to caretaking jobs and unable to further develop their human capital. Furthermore, Pratt reports that these mothers usually spend an average of eight to twelve years engaged in domestic work overseas and separated from their families before reunification.

As a former educator, I taught in a rural high school in Hawaii, where we had a high Filipino student population whose parents and/or grandparents were immigrants. Many of my students’ family members had limited English speaking ability. When calling home, older sibling often translated my messages for me. We also saw low attendance for parent-teacher conferences. However, when mothers did attend these conferences, they shared their frustrations at being unable to help their children with schoolwork, emphasizing their hopes that their hard work would enable their children to gain “a better life.”

My experience with immigrant Filipino families as an educator prompted me to investigate the education for Filipino American students from transnational families. However, I must stress that Filipino students were also among my best students. It is important to remember that stereotyping all Filipino students according to ethnicity is more dangerous than excluding these narratives. We must look at all contributing factors, such as family education and class in host country, discrimination, and generation.

Despite popular depictions of Filipino migrants as working in highly skilled professions, the US continues to recruit domestic and home care workers. Among Filipino domestic and home care workers: 80% are women, the median age is 44, 60% hold US citizenship, the median annual income was $17,050 in 2005, 1/3 have at least a college-level degree and another 30% attended college without completion, and 3% have graduate and post-BA level degrees. Filipino women are disproportionately represented among domestic workers, and, contrary to prevailing views of Filipinos in the US, a majority of Filipino domestic workers are neither highly educated nor have much opportunity to leave domestic work to enter other skilled professions. The median annual income is just below the federal poverty line. With only 60% of domestic workers reporting citizenship status, some Filipino domestic workers lack access to most social services.

I wrote to Geraldine Pratt on the topic of classifying Filipinos and the use of “Asian/Pacific Islander.” Pratt responded:

“I think in Canada there is a tendency not to lump Filipino youths with other Asian-Canadian youths, because the migration of Filipinos to Canada has been so particular.”

For example, consider how the Canadian and the US census approach the question of race and ethnicity. The Canadian census uses an open-ended question, along with examples and guidelines, which requires respondents to write in their race/ethnicity. The US census requires respondents to check off one or more race/ethnicity box (where Filipinos would fall under “Asian”) and allows respondents to specify their subgroup. Since respondents are not required to specify their subgroup, the US Census Bureau is continuously working on better ways to track race/ethnicity. At the same time, Canadian research tends to give more attention to Filipino academic achievement while research focused on Filipino Americans generally still include Filipino Americans in the pan-ethnic group of “Asians.”

As Michel Foucault suggested, the classification of individuals drives governmental strategies of control. By inventing all-encompassing pan-ethnic terms, which represent group otherness rather than group needs, the counting of certain “kinds of people” informs state allocation of resources and penalties. The state’s power to name a people translates into a power over people’s daily lives. When I report my ethnicity, which box(es) am I allowed to check off, how is it packaged and interpreted in study results, and later, how does someone else’s interpretation of my identity continue to mold my everyday identity and life chances, and consequently, manipulate my identity further through defining my race/ethnicity?

In Pratt’s study, Filipino domestic workers are “sacrificed for the vitality of the Canadian population”, and Canadian families “prosper” while Filipino domestic workers labor and live under conditions “unacceptable to national citizens.” Following Foucault’s critique of the state, state racism and discrimination against certain “inferiorized races” serves a “murderous function” in order to regenerate the general population. In this way, the state “saves” by denying care to domestic workers and their families, but the state also “gains” when domestic workers provide privatized services, such as health care and child care, which the state normally provides its citizens. The state denies transnational domestic workers’ full citizenship rights in order to sustain citizenship rights for others without actually investing in those services.

Though there are issues with the education system and its reinforcement of capitalist ideals and hierarchies of power, a lack of support for Filipino students from transnational families could prove to be more detrimental. When we assume that all Filipino or all Asian students are successful and fail to recognize specific needs, we allow false assumptions to further deny students their rights. For Filipino children of transnational families, lower academic performance and higher dropout rates perpetuate their place among low-waged workers. Filipino Canadian youth struggle to exceed their parents’ educational levels and work almost exclusively in certain service professions. More academic support and guidance can help Filipino American youth from transnational backgrounds overcome these statistics and use education as a tool to achieve the social mobility which originally prompted their parents to become transnational domestic workers.

Amy Sun,

There are still songs to sing …Newtown, Connecticut, 2012

Friday, December 14, 2012, and the news from Newtown, Connecticut, is terrible. A nation says it is in anguish. The President speaks of the pain and the horror, of our children and our neighborhoods. Our tears flow. And the traffic in guns continues. And in these theaters of horror, more often than not, the shooters are men and the first targets are women.

We have been here before. It is all too familiar.

Near the end of a life spent trying to turn the pain, horror and anguish of mass violence into the possibility of understanding, Paul Celan found that the project of poetry, his life project, was “an impossible struggle, doomed from the start to disaster. For poetry cannot save the soul or retrieve a lost world. It simply asserts the given.”

And Celan wrote:

above the grayblack wastes.
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond

The thought that is tree-high is too high for our grasp. It is too late to sing songs beyond mankind. There must be songs to sing now. And they must begin by turning swords into ploughshares … now. Right now.


(Photo Credit:


Domestics: Domestic work is important. Deal with it.

Domestic labor, which includes everything from caring for the elderly to doing laundry, is a profession that exists globally. From South Africa to China to England, domestic labor exists in hundreds of thousands of households. A great deal can be learned from researching the pivotal group of domestic laborers across cultures. Domestic labor is important.

Something is important when it has great value or significance. In the case of domestic work, it means that it is worth it to take the time and energy to examine and understand the purpose, consequences, and meaning of domestic care and labor. Domestic work is important because it changes society. Domestic labor or care is an integral and important element of global society. Examining the importance of this labor form allows for a greater understanding of that global society. Through a closer examination of domestic labor, or by considering it to be significant, more can be learned about class, race, gender, cross-cultural interactions, and global exchange.

In the United States, a “care crisis” is currently plaguing families as the ageing baby boomer population heads into retirement. The crisis consists of more elderly persons needing some type of care and fewer able to provide it. Because of improvement in health care that extend a person’s lifespan, the demand for these works is likely to increase and become a serious problem. The “care crisis” cannot be managed by dealing with the number of individuals that require care. Instead, we must consider the workforce and look at how appropriate care workers can be introduced into the workforce. Caring Across Generations attempts to address this issue by finding solutions to the care crisis through training programs, policy solutions, and enhancing the relationships between care workers and those they care for. This “care crisis” is an important issue in American society today. By understanding and studying the field of care work, we can better understand and find ways to fix, manage and survive the crisis.

Part of the problem is the value of work: “It is easy to appreciate why work is held in such high esteem, but considerably less obvious why it seems to be valued more than other pastimes and practices”. Work is acknowledged as something important, and choosing to not work results in condemnation. But only specific types of work hold value. For example, there is a great difference between the work of a neurosurgeon and a janitor. It is said the former required years of education, training, and work to be able to attain his or her position. The janitor required less training and preparation to be perform her or his labor correctly. So, the janitor is paid much less than the doctor. But is the janitor’s work less valuable?

According to US standards, yes, it is. The work performed by the janitor is considered commonplace, and she or he is considered replaceable. The wages for housework is a perfect large-scale example. Housewives asking for compensation for work they were expected to perform with smiles on their faces seemed farfetched and unreasonable. Despite its budgetary difficulties, the plan had the potential to place the issue of housework on the national front burner.

The amount of work contributed through caring for children, the elderly, and maintaining a household should not be overlooked. It is a time consuming endeavor and an extremely important one. In this context, importance is so great that were the work to cease, society would collapse.

From the need for domestic workers to what the position itself can explain about social structures, domestic labor needs to be studied and understood. It is important. It deserves to be examined, researched, argued, debated, and challenged. A system of gender biases, abuse, and blatantly inhumane treatment persists in domestic labor employment. This is intolerable. Unless the field is examined, how can these systemic abuses be successfully eliminated and the contradictions of importance and value resolved?

Organizations such as the ILO are attempting to remedy the very real issues in this particular labor market, but it is a difficult road. The ills that exist within domestic labor are so ingrained that it seems nearly impossible to eradicate them completely. This, however, should not diminish the importance of domestic work. Just as poorly treated worker should not accept abuse because of fear, others should not accept silence merely because the task of change seems insurmountable. Change is slow and difficult, but it is necessary. And above all it is important.


(Image Credit: International Labour Organization)


The Bangladesh factory fire was a massacre of women workers

On Sunday, November 25, 2012, Bangladesh suffered its worst-ever factory fire, at the Tazreen Fashions factory. At last count, 123 workers died. By all accounts, the workers were all or almost all women. Nothing here was new. Bangladesh has 4500 garment factories. The garment industry in Bangladesh employs more than 3 million people. Most of them are women. Many of them have died in `industrial accidents’.

There was no accident.

And now, less than two weeks later, the `discoveries’ begin. Today’s breaking news is the factory had no safety certificate. No one thought it did. Exit doors were locked. We knew that. Managers wouldn’t let workers leave until the flames were obvious, until it was too late. We `learned’ this week that Wal Mart actively blocked, or nixed, safety moves in Bangladesh, including in Tazreen Fashions factory. Are you surprised? Neither am I. The news is not that Wal Mart stopped a move towards worker safety, but rather than now the documents proving it have been made public as have the Wal Mart receipts left on Tazreen’s burnt floors. All of this has undermined Wal Mart’s account and credibility. Who believed Wal Mart in the first place? Who believes Wal Mart now?

Who believes the fashion industry when it claims shock and dismay? Who believes The New York Times or any other news outlet when they only now `discover’ a “gap in safety for local brands”?

Investigative reporting is important, as is research. So is accountability, including accountability in tone and diction. There was no accident, there was no gap, there was no absence, and there is no surprise. Call the event by its proper name: massacre. “An indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people”, specifically of women. And the factory was no factory. It was a slaughterhouse. It always was, and we cannot claim to be surprised when the flames burst and the women workers’ bodies explode … again.


(Photo Credit:

In criminalizing HIV transmission, the US and Canada lead a global war on women

The United States leads the world in prosecuting people for HIV transmission and exposure. Canada comes in second. All but two of Mexico’s 30 states criminalize HIV-status nondisclosure. North America leads the way … in a global war on women.

Globally, women bear the brunt of the HIV pandemic. In the United States, that’s particularly true for women of color. In the US, HIV-positive women of color face extraordinarily high rates of morbidity and mortality. They also report high rates of intimate partner violence. This doubles the risk of death for HIV-positive women. The house is a war zone, and then the State jumps in and intensifies it … through laws that universally and without distinction criminalize `everyone’ for nondisclosure of their status.

Women in abusive, toxic relationships are supposed to `share’ with their partners? It’s that simple? Cicely Bolden shared with her partner. He killed her. He justified his murder by claiming the disclosure drove him mad.

In October, the Supreme Court of Canada handed down two decisions concerning so-called criminal transmission. The Court claimed its decisions were meant to clarify some vagueness in a 1998 decision, R. v. Cuerrier. In that decision, the Court said people living with HIV and AIDS had to disclose their status before engaging in sex. To not do so constituted `fraud’. The two recent cases, R. v. Mabior and R. v. D.C., dismally clarified the Court’s understanding of what’s at stake here: risk.

Here’s the story of the D.C. case:

A woman living with HIV, D.C., had a partner for four years. The partner claims the first time they had sex together, she had not disclosed her status to him. When she did reveal her status, he said it was fine. They stayed together for four years. At some point, he became abusive and violent. Finally, he was convicted for beating D.C. and her son. That’s when he accused her of not disclosing her HIV+ status. Although she claimed that they used a condom the first time they had sex, the trial judge did not believe her and found that their first sexual encounter was unprotected. D.C. was convicted of sexual assault and aggravated assault for not disclosing her HIV status to her partner. The partner is HIV negative, by the way. On appeal, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned D.C.’s convictions on the basis that, even if no condom had been used for that first sexual encounter, her viral load was undetectable at the time. Based on her viral load, there was no “significant risk” of transmission. Non-disclosure, thus, was not a crime. That’s the case Supreme Court of Canada heard.

The Court decided against D.C. and, in so doing, declared that the risk of AIDS is so great that those living with AIDS must disclose, use condoms, and have low viral loads if they are to avoid criminal prosecution.

According to the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, with this decision “the Supreme Court of Canada made the law even harsher for PHAs: people must now disclose their status before having sexual relations that pose a `realistic possibility’ of HIV transmission. But in the Court’s view, a `realistic possibility’ encompasses almost any risk, no matter how small.”

For the Court, the risk of disclosure, especially for women, means less than nothing. In its decision, the Court further codified the absolute lack of value of a woman’s life. It ignored study after study and legal argument after legal argument, some local and others international, which demonstrate that criminalization of HIV-positive status does not impede the spread of AIDS. The Court ignored as well innumerable studies and legal arguments that clarify the impossible position HIV-positive women in dependent as well as abusive relationships face when forced to disclose.

None of that mattered. All that mattered was `risk aversion.’

You know what has actually spread over the last decade? Criminalization of HIV disclosure. And you know who has pushed that spread? The United States Agency for International Development, USAID, which first funded and then `encouraged’ nations to adopt a so-called Model HIV/AIDS Law. Over 60 countries now criminalize HIV transmission or exposure. These laws do not protect women. These laws attack women and do them harm. It’s an active front in a global war on women, lead by the United States and Canada.


(Image Credit: Positive Women)