South Africa: “She bursts with pain and continues walking”

What is pain? This question underwrites a particular narrative that is part of what is called South Africa. Two articles yesterday suggested it’s time to pay attention, greater attention, any attention, to pain, to the pain people suffer and to the pain that engulfs people, individuals and communities, swallows them whole and then … continues walking?

Thirty years ago, February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of incarceration, hand in hand with his then partner Winnie Madikizela Mandela. He walked forth into the strong summer sun of Cape Town and addressed the nation and the world: “Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans. I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.” Mandela went on to greet, salute and pay tribute to all the various sectors and groups that had worked for and would continue to work for the liberation of South Africa and beyond. His tributes end with the invocation of pain: “I pay tribute to the mothers and wives and sisters of our nation. You are the rock-hard foundation of our struggle. Apartheid has inflicted more pain on you than on anyone else … My salutations would be incomplete without expressing my deep appreciation for the strength given to me during my long and lonely years in prison by my beloved wife and family. I am convinced that your pain and suffering was far greater than my own.”

Women: apartheid has inflicted more pain on you than on anyone else. Wife and family: Your pain and suffering was far greater than my own. What is that pain? 

On the same day this week that news outlets in South Africa were sharing Madiba’s speech, and reflecting on and remembering that fateful day, an article appeared with the headline, “South Africans describe the pain of unemployment”. The report distilled the findings of a study based in two South African townships, Orange Farm and Boipatong, both very near and very far from “the economic hub of Johannesburg.” In the original study, one “participant explained that unemployment brings `a black heart full of sorrow and pain; the heart is broken, angry, sore and sad.” This black heart full of sorrow and pain extends to the entire township: “They viewed their township environment as a filthy, painful, sad, and forgotten place with dilapidated infrastructure and resources.” In the shorter, more recent article, the authors tell the story of one of the participants, a woman, who, when “asked to depict what she associated with unemployment …, took a few minutes to think, and there, on the spot, she wrote this poem:

The dry lands filled
with sorrow and tears.
The cascade of showers
of death implemented by
unemployment.
The fatigue that has
impacted to the community
that is left flustered because
of unemployment.
The land filled with fake promises
by fake leaders.
The people who try to contrive
the pain of being unemployed.”

What is this pain?

South African poet Karen Press’s poem “Heart’s Hunger” speaks to that question:

“She dreams of an enormous mother beckoning her. 
She carries her father on her journey’s back.
Her stomach is filled with his bones.
She bursts with pain and continues walking.”

Across the country and across the decades, every day and day after day, she bursts with pain and continues walking, and we still have the State in which women are made to burst with pain and continue walking.

(Image Credit: Clementina Ceramics

Landmark cases: In Ecuador, Petita Albarracín demands justice for Paola Guzmán Albarracín

Petita Albarracín testifying

On January 28, 2020, Petita Albarracín, an Ecuadoran woman, pleaded before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights to restore dignity to the memory of her deceased daughter, Paola Guzmán Albarracín, as she demanded justice in the name of her daughter for young women and girls across Latin America. In so doing, in this case described as landmarkmilestone, and groundbreaking, Petita Albarracín opened a door and, hopefully, made history. 

Paola Guzmán Albarracín lived with her mother, younger sister and grandmother in a suburb of Guayaquil. She was a happy child, and life was good, if at times financially stressful. Then her mother started noticing a change in her daughter. For two years, starting at the age of 14, Paola Guzmán Albarracín was sexually abused by her school’s vice principal. When, at the age of 15, Paola Guzmán Albarracín discovered she was pregnant, she went to the school doctor, who offered an abortion and then sexually abused the teenage girl. On December 12, 2002, three days after her sixteenth birthday, Paola Guzmán Albarracín took an overdose, and the next day, she died. Since 2002, Petita Albarracín, Paola Guzmán Albarracín’s mother, has waged a campaign to demand justice and dignity, not only for the memory of her daughter but for all girls and young women in Ecuador, across Latin America and beyond.

After Paola Guzmán Albarracín’s death, Petita Albarracín demanded an investigation. Little was done. A warrant was finally issued for the vice principal, who immediately went into hiding. According to Petita Albarracín, “We exhausted all available resources. I did all that a mother could do, but unfortunately in Ecuador there was no justice. Today, he is free and alive, and my daughter is not. He works in private schools where they do not know him.”

Petita Albarracín sued the State, the case was thrownout . She secured allies, especially a local NGO, Centro Ecuatoriano para la Acción y Promoción de la Mujer – Guayaquil, and they brought in the Center for Reproductive Rights. Together, they approached the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. After eighteen years, the case has finally been heard. 

On the day of the trial, Petita Albarracín reflected, “When there’s impunity and no justice, a message of permissiveness is sent, which leads to these kinds of actions becoming naturalized, authorized and permitted. Then they become and remain part of the daily life for women across Latin America, in all the countries.”

For eighteen years, Petita Albarracín has persisted, has refused to accept the indignity for her deceased daughter, for her remaining daughter, and for all the girls and young women in Ecuador, across Latin America and around the world. She has demanded justice, justice for girls and young women, justice for all. The Court is expected to render its decision within the year. Paola Guzmán Albarracín would be thirty-three years old today, if she had lived. There is no justice for Paola Guzmán Albarracín. Her mother, Petita Albarracín, knows as much and has said as much, but there is justice and there is dignity, and, in the name of Paola Guzmán Albarracín, justice and dignity shall prevail.

(Photo credit: BBC)

Landmark cases: In South Africa, Agnes Sithole said NO! to the oppression of Black women elders … and won!

In South Africa, 72-year-old Agnes Sithole made history last month by insisting that [a] apartheid was really over and [b] as a Black woman elder, she has full and equal rights of every order: civil, legal, human and otherwise. In so doing, Agnes Sithole reminded everyone of the power of women’s insistence on their own dignity and the obligation of the State to recognize that dignity, formally and materially. Agnes Sithole’s individual story goes back almost 50 years, when she married Gideon Sithole. 

Almost 50 years ago, Agnes and Gideon Sithole entered into civil marriage. As two young Black South Africans, their marriage fell under the Black Administration Act of 1927, which specified that all Black marriages were considered out of community of property. That meant everything went exclusively to the man. Period. Gideon Sithole ran a business, which Agnes Sithole supported as a manager. She also has run her own successful clothing business. The money from Agnes Sithole’s business went to their four children’s education. The children are now adults, successful in their own rights, and “fiercely loving and protective of their mother”. She also raised four children and took care of … everything. She made the Sithole estate what it became. 

In 1984, the Matrimonial Property Act changed the marital property landscape for South Africans … except for Black South Africans, who were explicitly excluded from the new order. That meant that Agnes and Gideon remained under the rules of the 1927 Black Administration Act. In 1988, the government passed the Marriage and Matrimonial Property Amendment Act, which overturned conditions of the Black Administration Act for Black South Africans, but there was a catch. The State provided a two-year window in which change marital status from out of community property to community property. Gideon and Agnes Sithole had heard of earlier changes and assumed they were already in community property. They never filed for the change, and so Agnes Sithole remained under the jurisdiction of a 1927 law that specifically targeted Black South Africa women. About 400,000 Black South African women are in the same situation.

None of this mattered much, until, about two years ago, Gideon and Agnes Sithole’s marriage started falling apart. With the end in sight, Gideon Sithole threatened to sell their home and leave Agnes Sithole penniless. Much to Agnes Sithole’s surprise and dismay, according to the law, Gideon Sithole could actually do that, and she had no recourse. 

Agnes Sithole said NO! She said that apartheid was over, had to be over, and that she didn’t care what the State thought the law was, this was wrong, discriminatory, misogynist, racist, and evil. She decided that the specter that haunts South Africa cannot be apartheid, it must be the living mass of women, especially Black women, on the move, organizing, mobilizing, and setting things right. So, she sued.

On January 24, 2020, the Durban High Court agreed with Agnes Sithole, and her attorneys from the Legal Resources Centre, LRC, working with Geoff Budlender. Writing for the Court, KwaZulu Natal Deputy Judge President Isaac Madondo wrote, “The discrimination the impugned provisions perpetuate is so egregious that it should not be permitted to remain on our statute books by limiting the retrospective operation of the order or by suspending the order of invalidity to allow Parliament to rectify the error. The effect of the order is that all civil marriages are in community of property. The recognition of the equal worth and dignity of all black couples of a civil marriage is well overdue.” In response, LRC attorneys noted, “The default position for all other married couples in South Africa is in community of property – except for African couples married before 1988. The consequences of this discriminatory provision have remained to haunt older African women like Sithole.”

The consequences of this discriminatory provision haunt older African women, haunt Agnes Sithole, haunt South Africa … and beyond. The High Court decision must be approved by the Constitutional Court, and so, for now, Agnes Sithole “is relieved and overjoyed. She has celebrated with her children. She is now praying that the Constitutional Court application will go well” as do 400,000 African women elders in South Africa and their supporters. The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: Legal Resources Centre)

Landmark cases: Sierra Leone’s ban on pregnant girls attending school is overturned!

In December and January, separate courts heard and rendered decisions that will expand rights for women and girls in Sierra Leone and South Africa, and beyond. At the same time, this week, a court heard a case, from Ecuador, that could expand rights for girls across Latin America, and beyond. In all three instances, the cases have been described as landmark cases, cases that serve as a guide and mark a turning point in women’s and girls’ history, and thus in the history of the world. In all three instances, the claim for justice for women and for girls emerged from the persistence of women and girls, pushing, organizing, demanding justice.

In 2015, the government of Sierra Leone issued a ban on “visibly” pregnant girls attending mainstream schools. Once their pregnancy was “visible”, the girls were to attend an “alternative” school in which only four subjects were taught, and which met only three days a week. Additionally, all the girls were placed in a single classroom, with no attention to age or academic level. Finally, the girls were prohibited from sitting for exams.

In 2018, a Sierra Leonean NGO, Women Against Violence and Exploitation, WAVES, filed a case, on behalf of pregnant adolescent schoolgirls, before the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice. WAVES was represented by Equality Now and the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, IHRDA. In June 2019, Amnesty International was allowed to join the case, as an amicus curiae, to provide further international context.  

The ECOWAS Court ruled “that the ban is discriminatory and impacts negatively on the actualisation of the right to education of the pregnant girls, similarly the establishment of separate school for the pregnant adolescent girls with four (4) taught subjects operating three (3) days a week not being at par with the main stream schools thus providing lesser quality of education is equally discriminatory and a violation of the right to education.” The Court further enjoined Sierra Leone to “immediately revoke the prohibitive policy; abolish the separate school established for the pregnant girls and absorb the said girls in the main stream schools; develop strategies, programmes and nation-wide campaigns that will remove the negative societal attitudes that support the discrimination and bias against pregnant girls attending schools; and integrate sexual and reproductive health education into school curricula to minimise the high rates of teenage pregnancy.”

Judy Gitau, of Equality Now, exclaimed, “This is a great victory!!! Finally the girls have had their day in court and have emerged victorious. The ECOWAS court has given them their voices back and by that a chance at life again.” Marta Colomer, of Amnesty International, added, “Today’s ruling is a landmark moment for the thousands of girls who have been excluded from school, and whose right to access education without discrimination has been violated for the past four years because of this inherently discriminatory ban. It is also a glimmer of hope for all those girls who if pregnant in the future will not be punished by being forced to leave school and not being able to sit exams. This also delivers a clear message to other African governments who have similar bans, such as Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea, or may be contemplating them, that they should follow this ground-breaking ruling and take steps to allow pregnant girls access to education in line with their own human rights obligations.”

Hannah Yambasu, WAVES Executive Director, added, “This victory belongs to the girls in Sierra Leone who have been degraded and dehumanised because of their status since 2014. Now our government in Sierra Leone has no option but to comply with their obligations as declared by the court.” Sabrinah Mahtani, who had originally reported on the impact of the ban, agreed, “The vast majority of girls we interviewed had become pregnant during the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak when there was an increase in teenage pregnancy, accompanied by a spike in sexual violence. The negative economic impact of the crisis led to an increase in exploitative and abusive relationships. Many girls had little information about sex education or access to contraceptives. I was struck by the bravery of the girls and their determination to access education despite the obstacles. Some said they tied their stomachs so teachers could not tell they were pregnant, a risky strategy for their health. Others said they were prepared to face any stigma in order to continue in school and obtain a qualification, something that becomes more challenging for many girls after giving birth due to the lack of child care support.”

Patience, who was 17 years old when she was forced out of school, reflected on the decision, “I am very happy because I did not have the opportunity to stay in school myself. If I had been able to stay in education, I would be in my last year at uni now, or maybe I would have graduated already. I would have liked to have studied nursing. Instead, my name was taken off the school register and I was offered vocational training. Yet my daughter’s father was never banned from school, and he was able to continue to do everything he wanted to do.”

Landmarks change the landscape in all directions. This decision concerning school age girls in Sierra Leone has impacts for the entire continent and beyond, and it was brought about thanks to work of women, organizing, militating, pushing, and, equally, the bravery of the girls and their determination to access education and justice despite all obstacles. They know … the struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: AfricaNews)

Once again, prison is Canada’s “travesty”, England’s “scandal”. Who cares?

This week, within a 24-hour span, major reports revealed that Canada’s prison system “is nothing short of a national travesty” and the prisons of England and Wales are “a national scandal”. The reports are important, well researched, and grim, but they also repeat the findings of earlier reports, with one glaring exception. The situation is worsening, in fact the negative aspects are at an all-time high. If the various national populations have time and again received reports of a terrible situation worsening and if those populations and their national governments have done nothing, have done less than and worse than nothing, it is reasonable to ask, “Who cares?”

On Tuesday, January 21, 2020, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, released a report on the current status of Canadian prisons: “Four years ago, my Office reported that persons of Indigenous ancestry had reached 25% of the total inmate population.  At that time, my Office indicated that efforts to curb over-representation were not working.  Today, sadly, I am reporting that the proportion of Indigenous people behind bars has now surpassed 30% … On this trajectory, the pace is now set for Indigenous people to comprise 33% of the total federal inmate population in the next three years.  Over the longer term, and for the better part of three decades now, despite findings of Royal Commissions and National Inquiries, intervention of the courts, promises and commitments of previous and current political leaders, no government of any stripe has managed to reverse the trend of Indigenous over-representation in Canadian jails and prisons. The Indigenization of Canada’s prison population is nothing short of a national travesty.” Indigenous women are the core of this Indigenization of Canada’s prison system, accounting for 42% of women inmates. In some prairie regions, Indigenous women comprise almost 90% of the prison population. Where once there were boarding schools, now there are prisons and jails.

On Wednesday, January 22, 2020, Inquest released its report, Deaths in prison: A national scandal. At the outset, the report notes that “levels of distress are at record high levels” and that “since 2016 the number of deaths have remained at historically high levels, with little sign of significant change.” 2016 was “deadliest year on record”. In their press release, Inquest suggests that that “‘national scandal’ of deaths in prison caused by neglect and serious failures.” But what if it’s neither neglect nor failure? What if death, largely through self-harm, is the system successfully at work?

This question arises out of the cyclical redundancy of these discoveries. 2013: Canada’s Correctional Investigator reports that federal and provincial prisons are booming, with Aboriginal people, especially women, “over-represented” in prisons, in maximum security and solitary confinement. 2014: Canada’s Correctional Investigator reports concern over the incarceration of Aboriginal women and the routine use of psychotropic drugs to control Aboriginal women behind bars, producing a mass population of “walking zombies”. 2016: another report, more expression of concern: Of 683 women prisoners, 248 are Aboriginal. Over 36% of women prisoners are Aboriginal. There’s more, but you get the picture.

In England and Wales, the picture is the same. Here’s 2014: “In 2014, 84 people killed themselves `in custody’ in England and Wales That’s the highest figure in seven years and an increase of 12% over the year before. The rise in suicide is surpassed by the rise in self-harm, up more than 25%. Overall, it was a banner year for the prison state, with 243 deaths in custody.” 2016, as noted, prison deaths, and particularly suicides, soared, as did self-harm: “When considering females, despite the falls seen between 2009 and 2012, rates of individuals self-harming among females remain disproportionately high in comparison to the overall rates of individuals self-harming … Females accounted for nearly a quarter of self-harm incidents in this reporting period, but only make up less than 5% of the prison population.” Again, there’s more, but the picture is already clear.

Both the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada and Inquest note the need to learn from past experiences while both express disappointment at lessons unlearned, unheeded, but what if there are no lessons to learn? What if these deaths are but a station on a global assembly line at which employees dutifully stand and wait for the next body to ignore? The prisons of Canada and of England and Wales are a tiny part of the global labor of necropower: “New and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead … Under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred.” Once again, prison is Canada’s “travesty”, England’s “scandal”. Who cares?

(Infographic Credit 1: Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada) (Infographic Credit 2: The London Economic)

England’s school seclusion rooms still form a landscape of atrocity and shame

A primary school seclusion room

England learned this week that, across England, schools are converting toilet stalls into “isolation booths”. Other English schools use portable isolation booths. That means a cardboard box is brought to the classroom and placed over the child. Educators like to point out that there are isolation rooms and there are confined booths, and they’re not the same. Isolation rooms are solitary confinement. Confined booths are stalls where children face the wall in perfect silence, often for hours on end, often for days and even weeks at a time. These are the distinctions that are meant to prove the humanity and educative function of time spent in school. At least your six- or eight- or ten-year-old child is not spending hours in a cardboard box. A salient problem in this narrative is that England learned this lesson last year, and the year before, and the year before thatMeanwhile, sales of isolation booths to schools are booming.  

Last week, another report alerted the nation to the widespread use of seclusion rooms. The Centre for Mental Health published Trauma, challenging behaviour and restrictive interventions in schools. Though disturbing the findings are not surprising, are in fact altogether familiar: “Exposure to trauma is relatively common among young people … Challenging behaviour and trauma are associated. Young people who show challenging behaviour are more likely than average to have been exposed to trauma … Thousands of young people are subject to some form of restrictive intervention in schools in England every year for challenging behaviour. There is reason to believe that these interventions have a negative impact on mental health, irrespective of previous trauma exposure. Young people who have experienced trauma in the past are especially at risk of experiencing psychological harm from restrictive interventions. For example, exclusion and seclusion can echo relational trauma and systemic trauma …As a result, these interventions may cause harm and potentially drive even more challenging behaviour.”

Solitary confinement harms children. Solitary confinement is infinitely and measurably worse for vulnerable children. Solitary confinement creates a cycle that begins in trauma and then cycles, repeatedly, through trauma, each time more deeply felt and each time more damaging. Isolation booth sales are booming.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, says she has heard “horror stories” of children in isolation for days, weeks, months on end. What qualifies as “challenging” behavior. One school website boasts, “Students with inappropriate hairstyles will be placed in isolation.” In another instance, a child was placed in isolation because she forgot to bring her planner. Her father was told either bring the planner or bring £5: “The school said bring in £5 for a new planner and she can come out. It’s ridiculous, having to pay a ransom to get your daughter out of ‘prison’ just because she forgot her planner for the first time ever.”

These isolation rooms and booths and boxes are not some underground, hidden, clandestine practice. They’re widespread, on websites, in official policy. They are and they have been, and they form today as they have formed a landscape of atrocity and shame. While research reports are important, the last five years of reports demonstrates that that is not enough. How many more times must we “discover” that throwing children into seclusion rooms, no matter what they’re called, is wrong? Why do we need to discuss whether the rooms “work” or are too “costly”? What about the cost to children’s lives? What about the cost, as well, to the very concept of education? What does a child learn when exclusion is called inclusion, terror is called calm, and a war on children is called education? But there is a flickering light. Later this month, advocates are holding a Lose the Booth conference. Another school is possible.

(Photo Credit: BBC) (Image Credit: Centre for Mental Health)

What happened to Veronica Nelson? Nothing. An Aboriginal woman died in custody

Veronica Nelson

On January 13, Veronica Nelson, 37-year-old Yorta Yorta woman, was buried. On New Year’s Day, Veronica Nelson was charged with shoplifting and went to court that day. Veronica Nelson represented herself in court and was denied bail. She was sent to Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, a maximum-security facility, one of two women’s prisons in Victoria, Australia. At 8 am, January 2, Veronica Nelson was found dead in her cell. Her family, heartbroken, has questions. Her friends and community, grieving, have questions. Another Aboriginal woman dies in custody. Each time an Aboriginal woman has died in custody, we have asked, “What happened to her?”:  Ms. DhuCherdeena WynneRebecca MaherJoyce ClarkeMs. MMaureen MandijarraTanya Day. Remember Tanya Day, 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman who, in December 2017, died, or was left to die … or was killed, in police custody? Her coronial inquest was barely finished when Veronica Nelson died. “What happened to  … ?”, we asked. It was the wrong question. We should have asked, “What happened to justice?”

Australia has built a special hell for Aboriginal women. “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population, and 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous peers.” That was reported in February 2018, and it wasn’t new then. These very issues arose in major reports published in  201020112012,  2013,  2014,  20152016,  2017. It’s 2020, new year, new decade, and Veronica Nelson is dead.

Her family reports that other women prisoners at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre report that Veronica Nelson was in great pain, screaming out for help. Veronica Nelson’s sister, Belinda Atkinson, said, “She’d gone up to medical asking for help, could she get something for her drug problem. She’d gone up there and asked for help and they’ve knocked her back, and then she was sitting in the cell crying. Crying, crying, crying, because she couldn’t get no help.” 

In 2017, the Victorian Ombudsman inspected Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and gave a mixed report. At the outset, the report noted, “Overall we found positive initiatives but an ageing and crowded facility, where prisoner numbers have grown 65 per cent in the last five years and remand prisoners have more than doubled over the same period … The inspection team identified a relatively high use of force and restraint at DPFC compared with other prisons in Victoria … There is little meaningful interaction between staff and women. Several women who had been held in Swan 2 described self-harming in the unit because they felt it was the only way to get staff to engage with them.”

Antoinette Braybrook, CEO of Djirrareflected, “Once again Aboriginal women’s lives are not valued. This is a death in custody of an Aboriginal woman that happened over a week ago — why are we only hearing about it now, through the media? Where is the outrage? When will Aboriginal women’s lives matter?”

The Victorian government has also responded to the death of Veronica Nelson: “As with all deaths in custody, the Coroner will investigate and formally determine the cause of death. As the matter is the subject of an ongoing coronial investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment.” The State is not heartbroken because the State has no heart.

Veronica Nelson was never meant to survive. Veronica Nelson is the most recent name of those who were never meant to survive. The family is meant to be heartbroken, drenched in and constituted by grief, and completely uninformed. As many have noted, it took eight days for the State to inform the family of Veronica Nelson’s death. What does that “time lag” suggest? There is little meaningful interaction.

What happened to Veronica Nelson? Nothing. An Aboriginal woman died in custody. What happened to Australia? Nothing. Another Aboriginal woman died in custody. What happened to justice? A contemporary postcolonial, anti-colonial politics that begins and ends with the State murder of Aboriginal women, which runs from lack of services and assistance, from cradle to grave, to mass incarceration to dumping into the mass graves of historical amnesia. What happened to Veronica Nelson? Nothing.

(Photo Credit: The Age)

Haiti: It is ten years since the earthquake. Who cares?

On January 12, 2010, an earthquake devastated parts of Haiti. For a very short while, the world claimed to care. Now it’s ten years later. Haiti has been rocked by mass demonstrations since July 6, 2018. The government has been stopped in its tracks, as well as the economy. Where were the reports from the global media? A country on months long lockdown, and the world by and large sighs, looks the other way, and says, “Haiti. We tried. C’est la vie.” Ce n’est pas la vie, c’est la mort, and we are the merchants of death. UN peacekeepers came, “fathered” and abandoned hundreds of children, left. The rubble remains. Food insecurity deepens. The population of restaveks, of child slaves, has grown incrementally in the past ten yearsThe earthquake death toll is officially 316,000. Who counts the dead we have left in the ten years since?

In today’s The New YorkerEdwidge Danticat writes: “Sorrowful anniversaries also inevitably make us wonder what might have been. What if three hundred and sixteen thousand people—the death count, according to government estimates—had not perished? What might they have contributed to their communities, their country? What if Haiti had actually been `built back better,’ as President Bill Clinton, who served in a triple role as United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti, international co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, and one of the two Presidential faces of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, had often promised? What if the $13.5 billion in pledged and donated funds had actually been disbursed and invested in improving the lives of most Haitians, creating genuine paths for a better future? What if more seismic-resistant homes, hospitals, schools, and universities had been built, or rebuilt, to reduce future casualties? What if rural entrepreneurs, women’s organizations, and peasant farmers—who face the brunt of diminishing food production, environmental degradation, deadly hurricanes, and climate change—had been integral players in the reconstruction plans? What if. . . ?”

In today’s Le Nouvelliste, Haiti’s only newspaper, Editor in Chief Frantz Duval wrote: “January 12, 2010 not only recalls the greatest natural disaster to have ever struck Haiti, it is also the date that launched the second decade of the 21st century in our country.” Duval proceeds to characterize the decade as one of Good Samaritans, international aid institutions, and aid adventurers, largely stripping the country and nation of its resources. After describing the theft of past and present and threat to the future, both external and internal, Duval calls on Haitians to choose a future of mutual development based on dignity.

What if … ? What if … this theft is the future? Haitian-American poet Lemelle Moise asked similar questions, years ago, in her collection, Haiti Glass. Here are two poems:

mud mothers

the children of haiti
are not mythological
we are starving
or eating salty cakes
made of clay

the children of haiti
are not mythological
we are starving
or eating salty cakes
made of clay

because in 1804 we felled
our former slave captors
the graceless losers sunk
vindictive yellow
teeth into our forests

what was green is now
dust and everyone knows
trees unleash oxygen
(another humble word
for life)

they took off
with our torn branches
beheaded our future
stuck our breath up on pikes
for all the world to see

we are a living dead example
of what happens to warriors who
in lieu of fighting for white men’s countries
dare to fight
for their own lives

during carnival
we could care less
about our bloated empty bellies
where there are voices
we are dancing

where there is vodou
we are horses
where there are drums
we are possessed
with joy and stubborn jamboree

but when the makeshift
trumpet player
runs out of rhythmic breath
the only sound left is
guts grumbling

and we sigh
to remember
that food
and freedom
are not free

is haiti really free
if our babies die starving?
if we cannot write our names
read our rights keep
our leaders in their seats?

can we be free? really?
if our mothers are mud? if dead
columbus keeps cursing us
and nothing changes
when we curse back

we are a proud resilient people
though we return to dust daily
salt gray clay with hot black tears
savor snot cakes
over suicide

we are hungry
creative people
sip bits of laughter
when we are thirsty
dance despite

this asthma
called debt
congesting
legendarily liberated
lungs”

quaking conversation

i want to talk about haiti.
how the earth had to break
the island’s spine to wake
the world up to her screaming.

how this post-earthquake crisis
is not natural
or supernatural.
i want to talk about disasters.

how men make them
with embargoes, exploitation,
stigma, sabotage, scalding
debt and cold shoulders.

talk centuries
of political corruption
so commonplace
it’s lukewarm, tap.

talk january 1, 1804
and how it shed life.
talk 1937
and how it bled death.

talk 1964.  1986.  1991.  2004.  2008.
how history is the word
that makes today
uneven, possible.

talk new orleans,
palestine, sri lanka,
the bronx and other points
or connection.

talk resilience and miracles.
how haitian elders sing in time
to their grumbling bellies
and stubborn hearts.

how after weeks under the rubble,
a baby is pulled out,
awake, dehydrated, adorable, telling
stories with old-soul eyes.

how many more are still
buried, breathing, praying and waiting?
intact despite the veil of fear and dust
coating their bruised faces?

i want to talk about our irreversible dead.
the artists, the activists, the spiritual leaders,
the family members, the friends, the merchants
the outcasts, the cons.

all of them, my newest ancestors,
all of them, hovering now,
watching our collective response,
keeping score, making bets.

i want to talk about money.
how one man’s recession might be
another man’s unachievable reality.
how unfair that is.

how i see a haitian woman’s face
every time i look down at a hot meal,
slip into my bed, take a sip of water,
show mercy to a mirror.

how if my parents had made different
decisions three decades ago,
it could have been my arm
sticking out of a mass grave

i want to talk about gratitude.
i want to talk about compassion.
i want to talk about respect.
how even the desperate deserve it.

how haitians sometimes greet each other
with the two words “honor”
and “respect.”
how we all should follow suit.

try every time you hear the word “victim,”
you think “honor.”
try every time you hear the tag “john doe,”
you shout “respect!”

because my people have names.
because my people have nerve.
because my people are
your people in disguise

i want to talk about haiti.
i always talk about haiti.
my mouth quaking with her love,
complexity, honor and respect.

come sit, come stand, come
cry with me. talk.
there’s much to say.
walk. much more to do.”

I want to talk about Haiti. I want us to talk about Haiti … and not only on the anniversaries of the 2010 earthquake, but at least then. What if … ?

(Photo Credit: New Yorker / Jeanty Junior Augustin / Reuters)

In Massachusetts, au pairs win in court, expanding domestic workers’ rights everywhere!

Matahari Women Workers’ Center Au Pair Organizing Committee

In November 2019, Philadelphia enacted a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, joining one other city, Seattle, and nine states: Oregon, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Nevada. Massachusetts passed its Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2014. In December 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Massachusetts, ruled that au pairs are covered by Massachusetts’ Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Once again, domestic workers organized, persisted, organized some more, cut through the fog and smoke of “like one of the family” and “care work is loving work and therefore not work at all”, and secured victory. While this ruling “only” applies to Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico, its implications are both national and global, and it is a major victory for women workers’ rights everywhere.

The case emerged when Culture Care Au Pair, an au pair sponsorship agency, sued Massachusetts. Culture Care claimed that au pairs were not workers but rather participants in a cultural and educational exchange program. The Matahari Women Workers’ Center, which had worked for the passage of Massachusetts’ Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, immediately spun into action, organizing domestic workers, finding lawyers, and keeping the pressure on. When the Court threw out Culture Care’s arguments, Monique Tú Nguyen, Executive Director of Matahari Women Workers’ Center, said, “This is a huge win for au pairs, who provide crucial live-in child care to families across the state. They do the critical caregiving work that makes all other work possible.”

This is a huge win for au pairs and for all workers, overwhelmingly women of color, who provide critical caregiving work.

Since the First Circuit decision, instead of trying to figure out how to comply with the new circumstances, many parents have mobilized and lobbied Massachusetts state legislators to find a way to preserve the status quo, to find a way to keep their au pairs from being formally protected as workers and from being formally and existentially recognized for the work that they do. The press has largely focused on how families and agencies have been “upended” by the court ruling and how they’re “struggling” to comply. Families are “up in arms”. Where is the coverage of the impact on au pairs? The struggle for women workers’ dignity continues.

The First Circuit decision on au pairs means that au pairs must be paid the Massachusetts minimum wage, $12.75 an hour, and that au pairs must receive meal breaks, overtime, and all other benefits covered by law. 2019 was a big year, perhaps a turning point, for au pairs across the United States. It began with a $65.5 million settlement between 100,000 former au pairs and 15 companies which sponsor au pairs. That settlement came out of a class-action lawsuit filed by ten or au pairs in a Denver federal court. Those au pairs worked with Towards Justice, a Denver-based advocacy group. When the settlement was reached, David Seligman, Executive Director of Towards Justice, said, “This settlement, the hard-fought victory of our clients who fought for years on behalf of about 100,000 fellow au pairs, will be perhaps the largest settlement ever on behalf of minimum wage workers and will finally give au pairs the opportunity to seek h.”

From Denver to Boston and beyond, justice for au pairs, domestic workers, women workers is forged by the persistence of women workers who fight for years, who were never meant to survive. Matahari Women Workers’ Center understands it’s time for those who were never meant to survive: “Matahari Women Workers’ Center (“Matahari”) is … committed to building a world without economic violence and exploitation. Our community believes in the transformative power of survivors and is committed to developing the leadership of women of color, immigrants, and low-wage workers.” From domestic worker victories and advances in South AfricaPhiladelphia, Denver, Massachusetts, 2019 was a year that saw the expansion and deepening of domestic workers’ rights, dignity and power everywhere. Spread the news! The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: Matahari Women Workers’ Center) (Image Credit: International Domestic Workers Federation)

Who mourns Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende? Where is the global concern?

Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende

On July 4, 2019, 26-year-old Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende left her village on the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, and headed for Kuwait, where a job as a domestic worker awaited her. Five months later, on December 28, 2019, Jeanelyn Villavende arrived, or was dumped, already dead, showing signs of having been tortured, at Sabah Hospital. Her employers are under arrest. The Philippines expresses its outrage, and, yesterday, declared a partial ban on “deployment of workers” to Kuwait. Two years ago, reflecting on Saudi Arabia’s execution of domestic worker Tuti Tursilawati, we asked, “Why does the world not care about the young women of color who travel long distance and leave families and communities behind, precisely to keep the world, our world, functioning?” The redundancy and familiarity of Jeanelyn Villavende’s story suggests that was the wrong question. This repeated narrative of migration, abuse, torture, exploitation, death, return, 15 minutes of national “outrage”, followed by return to the same, this is the quality of our concern for young women of color in the contemporary global marketplace. As an Ethiopian domestic worker in Lebanon once put it, “We are like oil to our government”. After an oil spill here and there, it’s back to business as usual.

None of this is new. If anything, it’s a cliché by now. The neoliberal global economy was built on global cities that required 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week service, and so, among other industries, the household care work sector exploded. Urban areas of certain areas demanded more and more domestic workers, and certain nation-States, the Philippines most notably, turned themselves into mega-brokerage houses for mass migrations of domestic workers … like so much oilThe sending countries lauded the women as heroes of the nation and promised to protect them. But that protection never came. If it had, not only would Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende be alive today, she would never have had to leave in the first place.

Repeatedly, we have seen migrant and transnational domestic workers organizing themselves, demanding justice, making change. Filipina domestic worker Evangeline Banao Vallejos did so in Hong Kong, as did Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, and as are Filipino domestic workers Baby Jane Allas, Milagros Tecson Comilang, and Desiree Rante LuisAdelina Lisao is a mirror sister of Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende: 26 years old, Adelina Lisao left Indonesia to work in Malaysia, and returned home, visibly tortured, in a body bag. Why does the world not care about the young women of color who travel long distance and leave families and communities behind, precisely to keep the world, our world, functioning? We do. This is how we care. We speak of justice, for example “justice for Jeanelyn Villavende”, and then return to business as usual. No one cries forever over a little spilled oil.

In February 2018, the Philippines imposed a total deployment ban on Kuwait, which it rescinded in May 2018. In May 2019, the Philippines imposed a total deployment ban on Kuwait, which it rescinded soon after. Each one of these bans occurred in response to spectacular brutality and death visited upon Filipina domestic workers. Each time, Kuwait and the Philippines signed a new deal. Each time, women were told they were protected. This is why almost every headline involving Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende’s torture and murder says “another”: “PH condemns killing of yet another Filipina domestic worker in Kuwait”; “PH gov’t condemns death of another Filipino domestic worker in Kuwait”; “Another OFW killed in Kuwait”. Another just like the other just like the next … so many drops of oil.

Around the world, domestic workers, overwhelmingly women, are organizing. They know that neither justice nor dignity come in some afterlife. There is absolutely no point in intoning “justice for Jeanelyn Villavende” as if that would conjure her up. It’s time to remember Mother Mary Harris Jones’ exhortation to striking miners: “Your organization is not a praying institution. It’s a fighting institution. It’s an educational institution along industrial lines. Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!” 

(Photo Credit: Sun Star Manila)