Italy: The cause against disqualification of women, men and children

There is a cause that mirrors the cause of political feminism because it confronts the same principle of disqualification. In Italy, the cause of welcoming with dignity and respect “migrants/refugees” is being vilified by the new extreme right Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini who has engaged in a war against the most vulnerable women, men, and children who are looking for safety. 

The humanist initiative that has taken place in Riace, a small village of Calabria, under the leadership of its mayor Domenico Lucano, in his third term, has been recognized as a model of integration. For this, Lucano became the perfect target for Matteo Salvini, who first had him arrested and placed under house arrest and then deported him away from his villageusing false pretenses of misusing funds and supporting a “business” of immigration.

When Domenico Lucano became mayor in 2004, Riace was on the decline. He had a vision, he imagined an alliance between the local people and the people in need of a place to live. He had plenty of ideas to initiate a different kind of socio-economy that involved community building beyond the usual norms and appearances. His policies revitalized the villagewith the development of a small craft industry with artisanal shops as well as an efficient co-operative waste sorting unit that has been run with migrants for the past 7 years. That was unbearable for the anti-migrant Italian Minister of the Interior. Domenico Lucano proved that a global villagewas possible. His arrest and deportation are part of the global destruction of a sound system of social politics of integration. The goal is to curtail any sort of solidarity, despite that working in cooperation is always more efficient for a more sustainable society. 

Italy has a new policy: close all human size structures and build huge centers in which to park the refugees/migrants. The Italian government wants to reduce the number of refugees admitted under a humanitarian program which reduced the number of refugees by 60 %. Once again, some people coming from the South are not qualified to be alive, and women are the first ones to be isolated and disqualified.

Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean Sea, the Aquarius, the rescue boat from SOS Mediterranéeis now permanently harbored, missing a flag to navigate. Médecins Sans Frontières announced that it stopped its operation with SOS Mediterranée. The Italian government declared a war against the most vulnerable women men children, the refugees trying to escape the hell of Libya, and further ensured that no country would provide them with the all-important flag. Despite petitions and demonstrations, France, Spain and others did not come to the rescue of the rescue ship.

The resultant reality is death in Mediterranean for people who need the most support for having escaped extreme climate conditions, violence, rape, and for having endured slavery-like situations. Not long ago, the infamous international community was shaken by the image of the slave trade in Libya on CNN. Congratulations went to the work of the journalists who uncovered it, expression of moral outrage burst out in all circles. Where did that outrage go? Where is the outcry as Matteo Salvini degrades our fellow human beings using the rhetoric of migration crisis to lie about the reality of the situation. 

 Matteo Salvini knows no limits. Cruelty is now his official policy. 

Last week, the NGO Mission Lifeline accusedFrontexand Eunavforof crimes against humanity and called for the International Criminal Court to investigate the case of 25 migrants drifting without water and food on a dinghy for 11 days, 70 km west of Tripoli, Libya. Nobody moved to rescue them, and the Aquarius was no longer available.   In this time of climate urgency, crossing borders is becoming an impossible task for the people the most affected by the policies and actions of rich countries. The dehumanizing populist extreme rights developing in our world institutionalize the criminalization of migrants. Migration is presented as a source of crisis, even though only 3% of human beingson earth migrate. Who needs migration crisis? The mayor of Riace and many others have demonstrated that there is another way. Why are their initiatives being hampered? 

(Photo Credit 1: Twitter / SOS Méditerranée France) (Photo Credit 2: Miriadna.com)

Lampedusa: Another solidarity is possible!

The little island of Lampedusa located between the Libyan and Italian coasts, actually closer to Libya than to Italy, has made the headlines again. Some call the island the Guantanamo of Europe. The island is the point of landing for many who either escape war zones or are simply pushed away as was the case for the many foreign workers from Africa or Asia in Libya. Lampedusa’s “reception” center or CPTA, centro di permanenza temporeana e assistenza, is full. It is a continuous theater of simple acts of dehumanization and intimidation.

Emotions are high after a video filmed by Ahmed, a Syrian refugee, with his cell phone and shown on channel 2 of Italian public television. The video shows people disrobing and standing naked in a cold wind before being spread with disinfectants said to contain a scabby outbreak.

Ahmed gave the video to a journalist adding: “We are treated like dogs… we were there naked in line, we were awaiting to be sprayed with disinfectant against scabby that we contracted in the center. It was like the Jews in the documentaries on Nazi concentration camps. The people in the center were staring at us, making fun of us to humiliate us…it was cold” and women were treated similarly.

These shocking images brought back memories of concentration camps and triggered public outrage as well as officials’ reactions. The mayor of the island compared the island to a “concentration camps,” although, a few years ago, another mayor of the same island showed no compassion for Tunisian refugees who were welcomed with slogans such as “Lampedusa does not want you, go away beasts”.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström declared, “The images of Lampedusa’s center are appalling and unacceptable.” It is not the images that are unacceptable. It is the reality that these structures are there and badly run by a world of private associations and cooperatives that use public subsidies to create a very profitable business of locking up refugees.

“The more they are the better it is. The longer they stay the better it is and a minor refugee is a cherry on the cake,” wrote Alessandra Ziniti in La Repubblica.

With the free circulation of people and goods in Europe came the paradoxical concept of Fortress Europe. Actually the latter was formed as a business to serve the new globalized markets. It has left a trail of devastation and mistreatment of women, men and children. In Italy, during the Berlusconi years the business of dealing with refugees and migrants was given to the best financial offers. Even Catholic movements (comunione e liberazione) and entrepreneurial priests along with international energy corporations took part in it.

The money involved is colossal as Italy spends 1.8 million euros every day to detain 40 244 refugees.

Meanwhile the refugees and migrants whose futures were threatened in their home countries have been parked, sprayed and dispossessed of dignity and humanity in these centers. The latest scandal of Lampedusa is just the latest addition to the long list of State/EU mistreatment of people that accompanies austerity measures, as in Greece, that destabilize and impoverish civil society, creating the conditions for more dehumanization.

We need to imagine another type of solidarity to force the European Union to deliver the promises of its message as the one expressed by commissioner Malström after the drowning of 280 refugees off the shore of the island in October 2013: “This is not the European Union we want” it is certainly not the world society we want!

(Image Credit: Courrier International / Kountouris)

Amnesty has never meant freedom

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of Pussy Riot, walked out of prison today. This is good news, but it’s not freedom. Freedom does not exist where whole populations live in fear of State mandated, sponsored, or instigated terror. Gay and lesbian individuals and populations, from Moscow to Kampala, know this all too well. Ask Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera about life in Uganda, and she will not talk about “freedom.” She will talk about the struggle for freedom, the long hard walk to a freedom dreamt of but not in sight. Ask those, like Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, who suddenly leave prison if they feel “free.” They may feel joyful and relieved to be on the outside, however precariously, but they do not feel free. They remember too much.

President Obama recently “pardoned” and “commuted” a few sentences. He talked a little about the unfairness of some aspects of the so-called War on Drugs. He didn’t mention that he has the lowest pardon rate of any President in recent history. He didn’t mention the bodies piling up in prisons and jails across the country.

He certainly didn’t mention Karen Sandoval, originally from Honduras, who lives in constant fear and terror. He didn’t mention the terror of a rigid “immigration enforcement policy” that rips families and communities apart, that rends hearts and souls and sometimes minds, and, not incidentally, that targets women – as undocumented individuals, as those left to clean up and care for those, and in particular the children, `left behind’, and, when incarcerated, as those most vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence from staff.

In Spain, the conditions in immigration detention centers, in the notorious centros de internamiento de extranjeros, or CIEs, are infamously toxic. What’s the anwer? Build more! Put one on every corner. In Italy, the vicious conditions of immigration detention centers are so bad they have inspired prisoners to sew their lips shut, in protest. They say these are worse than prisons “or any other place”. In these prisons, “people … are treated like animals.”

None of this is new. We have seen the sewn lips before, and we have turned away. We have each time taken an oath to forget. That’s what amnesty is, that’s what amnesty was at its origin. Once a year, those who committed violence in the name of preservation of the democratic State, would gather, each year at the same time in the same place, and would take an oath to forget. That is why the State, from its earliest, feared the mothers in mourning, the mothers who refused to forget, who howled their remembrances in words and deeds.

Amnesty has never meant freedom. Ask those who remember.

 

(Photo Credit: CalvertJournal.com)

Prison is bad for pregnant women and other living things

 

A report entitled Expecting Change: the case for ending the immigration detention of pregnant women was released today. It describes the nightmare that is Yarl’s Wood. The report bristles in its portrait of a system built of violence, planned inefficiencies and incompetence, and general disregard for women. You should read this report.

At the same time, a question haunts the report. So much of it is commonsensical that one feels compelled to wonder about the groundwork and horizons of social justice research. Here’s an example: “Asylum seeking women have poorer maternity outcomes than the general population. Many women in the sample were victims of rape, torture and trafficking.” The vast majority of women asylum seekers are fleeing sexual and other forms of violence, and so it comes as no surprise that they have poorer maternity outcomes than the general population. They also have poorer health outcomes generally, including mental and emotional health. They are asylum seekers.

On the one hand, we could discuss `the system’. We could talk about the planning that goes into systematically “failing to recognize” and “failing to appreciate” the particularities of women prisoners’ lives and situations. We could talk about the political economy of that planned failure, about who benefits and howbut we’ve done that already.

Instead, let’s imagine. Imagine what we could be researching and developing if we weren’t constantly working to undo over three decades of intensive, systematic and, for a very few, profitable mass incarceration.

Here’s where we are today. We have to conduct a multi-year study to prove that pregnant women asylum seekers shouldn’t be in prison.

We have to conduct other studies to prove that prison is an inappropriate place for children seeking asylum. We have to conduct another series of studies to suggest that maybe prison isn’t the best place for children, and that adult prison might be an even worse option. We need another multi-year study to `prove’ that sexual violence against children in juvenile prisons is epidemic. We need that same study to `demonstrate’ that the majority of acts of violence against those children, our children, were perpetrated by adult staff members.

We need another study to prove that the reason that self-harm and hunger strikes are so common, so everyday, in immigrant prisons is that the conditions are inhuman and dire. Prisoners have given up hope as they refuse to give up hope. We need many studies to demonstrate adequately that LGBT immigrants suffer inordinately in immigration prisons, and we need many more studies to demonstrate that the same is true for immigrants who live with disabilities. And then of course we’ll need more studies to prove that immigrant prisoners living with HIV have a tough time behind bars. We’ll need studies to prove that the prisons for immigrants and migrants and asylum seekers are extraordinarily cruel, and then we’ll need other studies to prove that the cruelty of those prisons is actually quite normal, and quite like the cruelty of all the other prisons.

We’ll need studies to prove that immigration prisons embody the architecture of xenophobia, and we’ll need other studies to prove that the asylum system is “flawed”. We’ll need other studies to understand that the xenophobia and the flaws are gendered. And then we’ll need meta-studies that will analyze the curious phenomenon of the complete lack of improvement. These studies will note, with compassion, that after decades of detailed research, the prisons are still hell.

I am grateful for the work scholars have performed. It’s often impossible work, and yet individuals and groups, such as those at Medical Justice who produced today’s study, do that work, and do it with grace. At the same time, imagine. Imagine what we could be researching and learning if we weren’t still drowning in our own Hundred Years’ War of Mass Incarceration. Imagine.

 

(Image Credit: Medical Justice)

In Italy, prison is a death sentence … and no one knows?

Deaths in Italian prisons from 2002 to 2012

The death sentence comes in many shapes and sizes. In too many countries, capital punishment is a State function. In Europe, France was the first country to abolish capital punishment. In 1994, Italy became only the second `abolitionist’ nation-State in Europe. But that doesn’t mean Italy doesn’t execute its prisoners.

Italian prisons are notoriously overcrowded, and the life inside is famously harsh. A 2008 Council of Europe report found the prisons “severely overcrowded”: “For prisoners, an overcrowded prison often entails cramped and unhygienic accommodation, a constant lack of privacy, reduced opportunities in terms of employment, education and other out-of-cell activities, overburdened health-care services, and increased tension – and hence more violence – between prisoners and between prisoners and staff. In addition, due to lack of adequate living space, a number of prisoners were transferred to prisons far away from their families.”

Who are the prisoners? Undocumented immigrants, drug users, remand prisoners figure prominently. Italy has one of the worst records on alternative sentencing. In Italy, you do the time, even when you’re awaiting judgment as to whether or not you’ve committed the crime.

The prisons are not just overcrowded. They are severely, even criminally, overcrowded. In January of this year, in the case of Torreggiani and Others v. Italy, the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously “that there had been: A violation of Article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court’s judgment is a “pilot judgment” concerning the issue of overcrowding in Italian prisons. This structural problem has now been acknowledged at national level. The Court called on the authorities to put in place, within one year, a remedy or combination of remedies providing redress in respect of violations of the Convention resulting from overcrowding in prison.”

The prisons are not just severely and criminally overcrowded. They are fatally, toxically overcrowded. From January 2002 up to May 2012, 915 prisoners died in Italian prisons. Of that group, a whopping 518 committed suicide. That’s 56% “killed themselves.” That’s astronomical, by any standards, whether compared to the rate of the Italian general population or to other national prison populations. [The 56% suicide rate does not include death by drug overdose (26) or death “under unclear circumstances” (177). If half of those two groups, put together, actually committed suicide, then the suicide rate becomes 61%.]

Imagine a place in which, basically, 6 out of every 10 persons commits suicide. That place is the prison system of Italy. In individual prisons, the situation is actually more lethal. A map of the prison deaths reveals a great deal: “Many stories can be found by viewing the map. Most of them did not find coverage in the mainstream media. For instance, almost nobody was fully aware about the almost forty deaths of those detained in mental hospitals; or about prisoners who took a drug overdose behind bars. Some stories clash with our perceived stereotypes: nobody normally imagines that those who die in jail may be women, such as Manuela Contu and Franca Fiorini, 42-year and 37-year respectively, died of overdose in Civitavecchia in 2003. Or like Francesca Caponnetto, deceased in Messina in 2004, aged 40. Other prisoners died very young, such as a 17-year old boy, who committed suicide in Firenze, in 2009. No one knows about 50 young prisoners who died aged under 20.”

No one knows. Historically, in Italy, as elsewhere, when it comes to women in prison, the story has always been no one knows, from the first days of the independent so-called liberal nation-State to today. At the outset, women prisoners were relegated to obscure and never-discussed prisons run by nuns. No one knew. And today, when it comes to women prisoners, and especially the recently criminalized immigrant women prisoners, nobody normally imagines.

In Italy today, there is no `life inside’. Prison is a death sentence, administered through a policy of mass and collective suicide. And no one knows?

 

(Image Credit: Data Driven Journalism)

Women do not haunt the State. They occupy it.

 


Around the world, women are taking to the streets in great numbers, to protest, to take charge, to transform. In the past couple weeks, women have led and populated mass protests and marches in Malawi, Uganda, Lebanon, Argentina, Romania, Chile, Haiti. Women have occupied Wall Street, Nigeria, and beyond.

Women have been the bearers, in every sense, of Spring … in Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain. Today, January 25, women are returning to Tahrir Square … and to every square in Egypt. This is nothing new for northern Africa. Women, such as Aminatou Haidar, have born `spring’ in Western Sahara now for decades.

For women, the street does not end at the sidewalk. It runs, often directly, into the State offices.

Women are everywhere on the move, changing the face and form of State.

In Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner returned to her office today, after a 21-day health related absence, to resume her activities as President. On Thursday, January 5, Portia Simpson Miller was inaugurated, for the second time, as Prime Minister of Jamaica. On Monday, January 16, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated to her second term, of six years, as President of Liberia.

These are precisely not historic stories or events, and that’s the point. Women in positions of State power are women in positions of State power. Not novelties nor exotic nor, most importantly, exceptions. That is the hope.

But for now, that struggle continues.

In Colombia, women, such as Esmeralda Arboleda, helped organize the Union of Colombian Women, fought for women’s rights and power, and was the first woman elected as a Senator to the national Congress. That was July, 1958. Fifty or so years later, in January 2012, women in Chile launched “Mas mujeres al poder”, “More women in power”.  In tactics, strategies and cultural actions, Mas mujeres al poder builds on the work of student activists in the streets. Women are saying enough, women are saying the time is now, and women are pushing their way through the electoral process, with or without the political parties, into the provincial and national legislatures.

Meanwhile, in Bolivia, Gabriela Montaño was named President of the Senate and Rebeca Delgado was named President of the House of Representatives. Women are everywhere … and on the move.

On Tuesday, January 10, voters in Minnesota, in the United States, elected Susan Allen to the state legislature. Allen is the first American Indian woman to serve in that body. She is a single mother, and she is lesbian. Many firsts accrue to her election.

Across Europe, Black women are struggling and entering into legislative bodies with greater and greater success: Manuela Ramin-Osmundsen, originally from Martinique,  in Norway; Nyamko Sabuni, originally from the DRC, in Sweden; Mercedes Lourdes Frias, originally from the Dominican Republic, in Italy. The struggle continues … into the national and regional legislatures, into the political structures, into the cultures of power as well as recognition.

Across the African continent, women are on the move. In Kenya, women, such as Charity Ngilu, are set to make their marks in the upcoming elections … and beyond. Meanwhile, South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is running, hard, for the Chairpersonship of the African Union Commission. She would be the first woman in that post, and some say she would be the most powerful woman in Africa.

And in South Korea, four women, Park Geun-hye, Han Myeong-sook, Lee Jung-hee and Sim Sang-jung lead the three major political parties. Together, their three parties control 262 seats of the National Assembly’s 299.

This barely covers the news from the past three weeks. Everywhere, women are cracking patriarchy’s hold on and of power, in the streets, in the State legislatures, in the political structures. Today, and tomorrow, women do not haunt the State. They occupy it.

 

(Photo Credit: BeBlogerra)

Women haunt the `crime’ of seeking haven

A group of migrants welcomed in Riace.

When did haven become a crime? How did seeking shelter or asylum come to identify a person as a criminal? Since women and children are the face, and multitudinous faces, of today’s refugee, when did the State choose to identify those seeking haven, women and children, as criminals?

In 1999, Nell Toussaint, a Grenadan, entered Canada on a tourist visa, and stayed. She lived in Toronto, apparently without disturbing anyone’s peace. Then in 2006, Toussaint developed a kidney ailment. This involved blood clots, diabetes, tumors. Faced with mounting health debt, and with death, in 2008 Toussaint applied for permanent residency. She applied, but did not pay the fees. So, she was not considered for application.

She applied for health care coverage, and was turned down. She went to court. Last Friday, the Federal Court of Appeal unanimously rejected her application. The Court decided that as an undocumented resident, Toussaint did not qualify for coverage … even though it agreed that her medical condition could result in death if not treated.

But there is a principle higher than that of life and death: “If the appellant were to prevail in this case and receive medical coverage under the Order in Council without complying with Canada’s immigration laws, others could be expected to come to Canada and do the same. Soon … Canada could become a health care safe haven, its immigration laws undermined.”

Canada could become a health care safe haven. Haven is the menace, and haven is the crime committed by Nell Toussaint. If Nell Toussaint dies for the cause of eliminating the Caduceus Crime of health care safe haven, that’s fine.

But that’s not fine.

Riace, a town in the south of Italy, was suffering population loss. Maybe that’s the reason it opened its doors, “huge heart”, and more, to refugees like Helen, an Ethiopian who arrived two years ago. But Riace did more than just allow refugees to settle. The townspeople created opportunities, economic and cultural, for mutual integration. When the national government was too slow in providing funds for the refugees, Riace invented its own local currency, the Euro-Riace, acceptable at all the finest, and funkiest, local shops.

Riace is not heaven, and its motives are in no way pure or angelic. Indeed, they’re pragmatic. No matter. The town, together, agreed to the policy and practice of haven. The town, together, now supports Città Futura, the City of the Future, the single largest employer in Riace.

The State can opt to become a haven. People can choose to embrace and live courageously, with huge heart, with the vulnerable and the stranger. Right now, the world lives with the highest number of refugees and displaced persons in decades. The majority of refugees are women and girls. Haven is more than a women’s issue. Haven is a women’s world. Women haunt the `crime’ of seeking haven.

 

(Photo Credit: http://urbanpollinators.co.uk)

Ishrat Jahan and the gender of aftermath

Ishrat Jahan

On the morning of June 15, 2004, in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat in India, Ishrat Jahan and three others were killed by police. In India, these events are commonly referred to as encounters. The government claimed that Ishrat Jahan was “India’s first woman terrorist”. A recent magistrate report suggests that Jahan was simply a college student with no ties to any terrorist group whatsoever, and that the claims by the State were cynically manufactured. In India, this is a cause célèbre. In Gujarat, it is said, a dead woman haunts the State. The State is haunted.

A haunted State is a state that exists in the aftermath, a state in which the real occurs after the event, in which ethics is always deferred, always for a later determination.

Italy is a haunted State. Six Italian soldiers were killed last week in Afghanistan. Monday was a national day of mourning. As Italians gathered in the tens of thousands, it was not the soldiers who were said to haunt the assembled but rather “this gray area between peacekeeping, peace enforcement and combat operations….The ambiguity has haunted the country”. This ambiguity is precisely the clarity of the aftermath. We don’t know exactly what our mission is, but we will, once it’s accomplished. When it comes to war, the aftermath justifies the means … and the deaths.

But it’s not just the military branches of government that rely on the continual deferral of the aftermath. For example, Lauro L. Baja, Jr., a distinguished Philippine ambassador at the end of an illustrious career, faces the ignominy of a court trial: “When Lauro L. Baja Jr. returned to his native Philippines in 2007, he had just finished a four-year stint as ambassador to the United Nations that included two terms as president of the Security Council. A storied diplomatic career that began in 1967 culminated with the Philippine president conferring upon him the highest award for foreign service. Then a three-month episode from his U.N. days returned to haunt him. He was sued by Marichu Suarez Baoanan, who had worked as a maid in New York City for Baja and his wife, Norma Castro Baja. Baoanan, 40, said the Bajas brought her to the United States in 2006 promising to find her work as a nurse. Instead, Baoanan said, she was forced to endure 126-hour workweeks with no pay, performing household chores and caring for the couple’s grandchild. Baja denied the charges, saying Baoanan was compensated. He also invoked diplomatic immunity — a right that usually halts such cases in their tracks.”

How does this haunting work, and what does it tell us? If the allegations in the Baja case are proven, somehow those who committed the violence are haunted, because they are the subjects of history, the actors. What about Marichu Suarez Baoanan? Or Mildrate Yancho Nchang, who worked without pay or a day off for three years and then went to hospital when her employer, a Cameroonian diplomat’s wife, beat her severely. What happened to the diplomats? They got off. Diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is one issue, a matter of rule of law and interpretations of sovereignty. Existential immunity is another. Who haunts, who is haunted, how does haunting work, and, finally, is haunting gendered?

These are stories of aftermath. From India to Italy to diplomats’ households, the haunting only begins once the period called aftermath has begun. To be confronted with or to struggle with aftermath is to be haunted, but what exactly is aftermath? “A state or condition left by a (usu. unpleasant) event, or some further occurrence arising from it” and before that, aftermath is the “second or later mowing; the crop of grass which springs up after the mowing in early summer”. The math is the mowing itself, the action and process of chopping down. The aftermath is the grass that follows the violence and the act of mowing it, again and again and again. What is the gender of math? At its root, feminine. And what is the gender of aftermath? Woman. Ask those who haunt. They’ll tell you.

(Photo Credit: news18)

Kenyan Women on a Sex Strike: Why They Did It

[Editors’ note: There’s been much talk and writing on the current `sex strike’ in Kenya. Here’s one version. Thanks to Kenyaimagine, www.kenyaimagine.com, and to the author, Nekessa Opoti, for permission to publish and for sharing.]

I must be getting wrong. Or maybe most people are missing the point of the sex strike.My first reaction when I heard about the sex strike was: how bold! what a statement! Still, I questioned their use of sex as a tool. And then I began to watch in dismay as the country reacted. Perhaps we all agree that Kenyan politicians need to get their act together. But sex is still a taboo; unspoken.

The backlash from Kenyans is not surprising. The chatter on social networking sites, and in email conversations, shows that many Kenyans do not believe that this was the right strategy.  But first let’s look at examples in recent history where women have gone on sex strikes to make political, human rights and economic statements.

In Naples last year, Neapolitan women sought to prevent their men from exploding fireworks at Christmas and New Year celebrations by denying them their conjugal rights. The campaign had the support of the local authorities as well as the Church; it seems to have succeeded.

In Colombia, there have been two serious attempts at the Lysistrata strategy.

In 1997 the BBC reported that, “Studies found that local gang members were drawn to criminality by the desire for status, power, and sexual attractiveness, not economic necessity, Colombian radio reported.”:

the chief of the Colombian army, appealed on national television to the wives and girlfriends of the Colombian left-wing guerrillas, drug traffickers, and paramilitaries. He urged them to deny sex to their menfolk until a cease fire was reached. At the same time, the mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus Civicas, declared the city a women-only zone for a night, suggesting men stay at home to reflect on violence. The Communists ridiculed these initiatives, pointing out that they numbered more than 2,000 females among their own ranks. Nonetheless, the measure, combined with democratic and diplomatic approaches, achieved a brief cease fire.

And in 2006,

…dozens of wives and girlfriends of gang members from Pereira (Colombia), started a sex strike called “La huelga de las piernas cruzadas” (the strike of crossed legs) to curb gang violence, in response to 480 deaths due to gang violence in that coffee region. According to spokesman Jennifer Bayer, the specific target was the strike was to force gang members to turn in their weapons in compliance with the law. According to them, many gang members were involved in violent crime for status and sexual attractiveness, and the strike sent the message that refusing to turn in the guns was not sexy.

In Poland in 1992:

….a newly elected Catholic prime minister made abortions illegal for the first time since the 1950s: since contraception was not widely available in the country, abortions had traditionally been the most prevalent method of birth control. When this became illegal, birth rates fell dramatically: Polish women refused sex for fear of getting pregnant. Since then, an anti-clerical government has replaced the Catholic one, at least in part as a result of the pro-choice backlash.

The following two cases have perhaps been the most effective.

In Liberia while the peace talks that eventually ended the civil war were in progress, it became clear to a group of concerned women that Charles Taylor’s side wasn’t taking the talks with the seriousness they deserved. So the women camped outside the parties’ door and refused to leave until a deal was made. The Ghanaian president met with the women, assured them of his support for their initiative, and promised that he would do his best to ensure that the talks would be taken seriously. The women, then, had external support. Watch (video below) the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” where the women explain how their sex strike worked: pressures in personal relationships pushed men to action against rebel leaders and prayer. Atieno Demo makes a powerful case for why the personal is political.

Iceland’s movement in in 1975 also received national prominence resulting in one of the first equality legislation in the world. Known as the “Women’s Day Off “, this was more than a sex strike: women stayed home from work to protest discriminatory wages.

 Several women organizations in Kenya, including FIDA, have banded together in a week-long sex ban in protest over the infighting plaguing the national unity government. Other groups in the coalition are Caucus for Women’s Leadership and Maendeleo ya Wanawake. (You can read their press release here ). The following are the demands from these women’s groups:

  • President Kibaki and Mr Odinga respect the people and nation of Kenya by “ending forthwith the little power games” that undermine the dignity, safety and democratic spaces of our country;
  • The President and PM give respect, full intent, interpretation and observation to the spirit and letter of the National Accord and Reconciliation;
  • A responsive, sensitive and people-driven leadership and coalition government that is decisive, clear about the country’s priorities, willing to sacrifice individual ambition for the greater good of the nation, a leadership that inspires confidence amongst the country’s people;
  • Fast-tracking of the reforms agenda, and,
  • Resignation of Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka and refusal by him to be used to defeat the National Accord.

In Kenya, the situation is not as extreme as in Liberia; the behaviour which they want to stop has no direct connection with sex, as it seems to have had in Colombia; and, unlike Iceland, Colombia, Poland and Italy, Kenyan women don’t already have the power that might make the threat a threat a plausible one. Still, all that is necessary for the strike to succeed is for it to have an impact. And that it certainly will. It has drawn attention to the difficulties which Kenyan women face, and it has shown that they will not hesitate to use what power they have to collectively improve their lot.

There’s an argument to be made that Kenyan men interact with women intimately only when having, or seeking, sex. Women are deliberately shut out of almost every other influential position: decisions in the home, and state, are not only not theirs to make, they cannot even significantly influence them. So it seems that a woman’s power is limited to her relationship(s). But not even always, since we know that many women do not have the right to say no to sex, with their husbands, boyfriends, or bosses.

The feminists of G10 want them to use it, since that’s a key part of the power that women are able to command. It could be argued that this choice plays directly into the hands of antifeminists who will take it as confirmation of the stereotype that women are wily, good for nothing and so on. On the other hand, women are entitled to use the weapons at their disposal, within reason. There is nothing wrong, of itself, in witholding sex. And the antifeminists would find reason to oppose conceding women their rights whether or not women chose this strategy.

So why think that the strike will be a success? And, if it isn’t a success, what’s the point of engaging in it?

A double-edged sword: sex and power. By forcing a national conversation on a taboo topic, these Kenyan women have turned the lens back to Kenyans.

A theme begins to resonate: that a woman’s power only lies in her sexuality. The Daily Nation runs this headline: “The Strength of a Woman,” casting women as sex objects, that even when they are denying men sex, they can essentially only give and take away sex.

But sex is not what the strike is about. The strike is calling to action a government that is  not serving people.

A white-haired man, interviewed on television the next day, proclaimed, with no shame or embarrassment, that a woman’s duty from birth is to serve God and her man. And because women were denying men their rights, well, they should be beaten up. Several other comments I have seen are unworthy of discussion. But I will mention them nonetheless. That feminists are breakers of homes. Yes, the very feminists who are on strike because they are afraid of a repeat of the post election violence. That they might be lesbians and have no husbands or boyfriends; a very tired and irrelevant argument. That Kenyan politicians only sleep with their wives once or twice a year: power displaced.

Many people have wondered why non-political men should be “punished” for the sins of Kenya’s political class. If we are to use this argument then teachers, nurses, doctors, policemen and other civil servants should never go on strike because their pupils, patients et al are not responsible for their grievances.  Sex, unlike medical treatment and education, is not even a right. But wouldn’t it be great if men supported this strike, and demanded more from their government? The beginning of the framing of a continuing national crisis: a self-serving political class. But this, I understand, is wishful thinking on my part.

It is not just men who have missed the point of the strike. Muslim women in Mombasa, and Kenyan churches, have called the strike a reckless pronouncement that would lead to men divorcing their wives. A shame isn’t it? That sex, the kind in which a woman has no choice, is the glue that holds our families together.

I am afraid the joke is on us.

In Nigeria, Ekiti women have taken to a more expressive strike: women took to the streets half-naked last week as they protested delayed election results hoping to shame them into action, afterall noone wants to see their mother, grandmother, or aunts naked.

(Photo Credit: Pewee Flomoku / SFGate)