For women farmworkers of Immokalee NOW IS THE TIME!

In Florida’s tomato fields, and across the United States, women tomato pickers and farmworkers – such as Lupe Gonzalo, Silvia Perez, Nely Rodriguez, and scores of others – are organizing a quiet revolution, by waging a raucous, joyous, ferocious struggle. Welcome to the tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida. Welcome to the future.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been organizing, representing, testifying, winning and consolidating farmworkers’ power for twenty-one years. In that time, the organization itself has matured. A key part of its growth has been the formation of the Immokalee Women’s Group and the recognition of women as a central sector in the struggle for farm worker’s rights, dignity, and power.

Recognizing women’s centrality has meant recognizing that the struggle for rights, dignity, and power is a community wide struggle rather than strictly a `shop’ issue. While exorbitantly expensive, predatory housing affects everyone, women carry the greater load of both dealing with rent payment and of maintaining the household. Women attend more to health care, child care and children’s well being, food provision in food deserts amidst the farmlands, and the list goes on. Women keep the daily train of the everyday moving along.

At the same time, women in the fields face their own special circumstances. Rampant, and often illegal, use of pesticides and lack of both information and safeguards imperils women’s health in particular ways. Sexual abuse at work attacks women daily.

The women of Immokalee have declared NOW IS THE TIME! They reject the planned catastrophe of lethal housing, fatal indebtedness, wage slavery, sexual abuse and exploitation. They reject the harvest of shame and the fields of abjection. They organize hope.

On Saturday, March 8, International Women’s Day, the women of Immokalee wrote and delivered a letter to Wendy’s, which has thus far refused to sign the Fair Food agreement, “Hear the voice of the woman, who today dares to defend her dignity in the fields. A new day is coming to Florida’s fields, with the Fair Food Program. It guarantees that the dignity of women is respected. We have to keep fighting, and we have to keep shouting, at Wendy’s and other corporations, that the hour has arrived. NOW IS THE TIME!”

On the following Saturday, Lupe Gonzalo, CIW farmworker and organizer, spoke directly to Publix, which has also not signed the Fair Food agreement; to supporters and to the world: “We want to say to Publix that as women, we will not even consider allowing sexual violence to continue in Florida’s fields or the agricultural industry.  We will not take one step backward.  We will only continue forward.”

We will not take one step backward. Lupe Gonzalo has been recognized as “a powerful voice” for justice. She is. Her power is the power of women, rejecting sexual abuse and all forms of exploitation. Her power is her capacity for affirmation, her ability to reach and teach others around her, and especially women, to affirm themselves, individually and collectively, and to “feel proud to walk, to march, to demand justice, to demand respect for ourselves, for our families, for our children, for future.”

As one CIW woman farm worker noted, two years ago, “Our history is not written in any books. I don’t think there’s enough paper to capture the daily life of a woman in the struggle, fighting to provide for her family. We as women want to move forward, so that tomorrow our children will not have to suffer as they do today.”

The future is now. NOW IS THE TIME!

(Photo Credit: Forest Woodward / Facebook)

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)

 

Women farmworkers haunt South Africa’s fruit and wine industries

Farm work is hard work, and farm workers around the world suffer abuse and exploitation that often seems to marry predation to sadism. A most recent, and vivid, picture of this emerges in this week’s Human Rights Watch report, Ripe with Abuse Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries. The report focuses on the fruit and wine industries of the “wealthy and fertile” Western Cape, where the greatest number of farmworkers, around 121,000, live. The report documents the active abuse, and worse, of farm owners and farm managers, and the often active failure of the State to live up to its Constitutional obligations to protect workers, families, citizens, people, women.

In South Africa, the report was picked up by the Mail & Guardian, the Sowetan, the City Press, The Times, The Cape Times, to name a few. Internationally, the BBC, the Guardian, and the Telegraph commented. In a number of reports, women farm workers or farm dwellers appeared.

For example, farmworker Sinah B struggled against forced eviction. Her employers cut off her electricity and running water, in the middle of winter, while farm security guards harassed and persecuted Sinah B and her two children morning, noon, and night.

Johanna Flippies and her family have been forcibly evicted from three farms in the last ten years, because her husband is a union shop steward. For Flippies, life on the farm is hell, life off the farm is … hell.

For workers on Western Cape farms, life is dismal, misery.

The news coverage of the Human Rights Watch report universally avoided the gender of misery. In the farmlands of the Western Cape, hell and misery have a face, and it is a woman’s face.

Farmworkers are divided into two large categories, permanent and casual or seasonal. Permanent farmworkers are in the main men. Women are seasonal. Even if they work year round. On the same farm. For the same employer. For years. Non-permanent farmworkers are the most abused, the most exploited, the most vulnerable, the most precarious, the under assault. They have fewer State-sponsored protections, for what they’re worth. Very few are organized in unions. As women, they’re paid less than men farmworkers, who are themselves paid, by law, less than domestic workers. Occupational health violations, such as lack of protection around pesticides, targets women. For women living on the farms, workplace sexual violence flows into domestic violence.

Human Rights Watch, in its report, explicated the gender dynamics of farmworker abuse and exploitation. Why have the news outlets avoided the women? Farmworkers around the world suffer abuse and exploitation. In the Western Cape of South Africa, farmworkers generally have it hard. But women farmworkers are the heart and soul, and target, of abuse and exploitation. Women farmworkers haunt South Africa’s wine and fruit industries … and silence about women farmworkers haunts the news.

 

(Photo Credit: Marcus Bleasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch)

Critical: Does Social Injustice Alter Our Epigenome (for generations to come)?

A new subset of genetics—“epigenetics”—appeared on the horizon in the 1990s and has been getting a lot of attention lately because it suggests some fascinating and frightening things about how “lifestyles and environment can change the way our genes are expressed” over the course of our lifetime. It has even reintroduced the once discredited idea that “traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime could be passed on to future generations”, and several studies on plants and animals have already shown that such modified gene expression can be inherited. Unfortunately, other more problematic scientific theories—that activists and social scientists worked hard to debunk—are also being resurrected in the wake of epigenetic research, including genetic (or epigenetic) determinism”.

On one hand, research into epigenetics has the potential to strengthen social justice movements, especially environmental justice, by uncovering yet another way in which low-income communities of color are disadvantaged on a global scale. We already know that the so-called “Green Revolution” has wreaked havoc on women’s health, a fact which becomes even more ominous in light of epigenetic research showing that exposure to pesticides (in mice) has negative impacts on their offspring’s health for at least four more generations. This is not good news for migrant farm workers and their families in the United States or Yaqui girls in Mexico who are already unable to breastfeed due to pesticide exposure. Although epigenetic studies of human populations are just beginning, there is already some cutting edge research that supports these findings- for instance, Kaati, et al, analyzed a century of demographic information from Sweden, exposing that even temporary famine experienced by grandparents can affect the life expectancy of grandchildren.  

On the other hand, in our neoliberal age that stresses “personal responsibility” it may be more likely that this research will be used to blame people rather than help them. In his appearance on the PBS show about epigenetics, Dr. Randy Jirtle, Director of the Epigenetics and Imprinting Laboratory at Duke University, says that people have a responsibility to consider their lifestyle choices in light of the impact it could have on their children. In a similar vein, Dr. Szyf, professor of pharmacology and therapeutics at the McGill University School of Medicine, explains the relevance of epigenetics for psychiatry as follows:

the environment early in life anticipates the kind of life the person is going to live, for example whether it is going to be a stressful life or a calm life…The mother can convey to the offspring the type of world they are going to live in; that changes DNA methylation in the brain, and now we know, also in peripheral cells… I think that social environment can be as toxic as the chemical environment, if not more so.”

This sounds frighteningly similar to twentieth-century psychiatric theories on the etiology of mental illness- for instance, the once popular belief that children developed schizophrenia because they had a “schizophrenogenic mother”. In fact, schizophrenia.com has already jumped at the opportunity to re-open the mother-blaming theory- the website uses epigenetics to assert that “Research findings suggest that a mother’s parenting style can affect the activity of a child’s genes”, leading to mental illness. As always, no mention of the father’s (or other guardian’s) parenting style here.

In their interview for PBS, Szyf and Meaney explain their research on rats: offspring put in cages with “attentive” females could deal with stress better later in life than those raised by more “neglecting” females. To prove this was an epigenetic response, Szyf and Meaney gave the rats a drug that undoes the effects of epigenetics, which miraculously made the neglected rats “normal” again. How is this a women’s issue? Well, to build on this research there is a “10-year study, now underway, that will look at children from both nurturing and neglected backgrounds”. Szyf predicts that as a result of this research scientists will be able to show how stressful childhoods lead to poor health in adulthood, including depression, anxiety, drug abuse, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. In other words, being a “neglecting” mom can give your kid heart disease. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly) the show fails to explore the idea that other stresses in a child’s environment—such as aspects of social inequality—might have similar effects. Given that disadvantaged groups, such as low-income African American women, often have disproportionately high levels of these illnesses (depression, obesity, heart disease, diabetes), will epigenetics be used to investigate the links between stress and poverty, racism, and sexism, or to blame these women for their children’s poor health?

In the Psychological Bulletin, Lawrence Harper (Chair of the Human Development program at UC Davis) does argue that social injustice can alter epigenetic expression:

oppression, is another recurrent, if unpredictable, and often long-term event that also meets the criteria for a selective advantage for epigenetic transmission. In this case, the nature of an adaptive response is not so obvious, but some aspects of temperament would be likely candidates for consideration….To the extent that undue bravery in the face of a potential enemy could lead to anything from reduced access to resources to death, caution would be an adaptive trait” (p. 11).

In other words, disadvantaged individuals may pass on “advantageous” personality traits to their children, like timidity. That’s a troubling assertion. Moreover, Harper decides that women are most likely responsible for this: “because the egg provides the larger contribution to the developing zygote, any epigenetic modifications are most likely to be transmitted via the mother”.

Epigenetic research is still in its infancy and there are certainly many scientists—perhaps even the majority—who think that the above studies relating to humans are correlational at best. However, the potential implications of future epigenetic research are virtually endless. In all likelihood, the field will lead to significant advances in medicine, including therapies for cancer that “turn off” the expression of certain genes. Yet the seemingly endless human propensity for using science to support ideological agendas makes it imperative that academics outside of the “hard” sciences, and activists, are included in the discussions about epigenetic findings in the coming decades.

Laura Meek, laura6@gwu.edu