In Kenya, Phyllis Omido is guilty of inciting justice

Last week, Phyllis Omido, a community organizer in Mombasa, Kenya, received the Africa 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her work inciting justice. Phyllis Omido has been combating toxicity in all its forms: chemical, environmental, cultural, political, economic. She has struggled and organized to transform sites of toxic elements into spaces of collective health and well-being.

In 2009, an iron-smelting factory opened in the densely populated Owino Uhuru slum of Mombasa. Solar energy is big in Kenya, and growing quickly. To meet the increased demand for lead coming from the solar industry, smelting factories have popped up, recycling car batteries in smelters. It’s big business.

The smelting factory in Mombasa hired Phyllis Omido as a community liaison officer. Her job included conducting an environmental impact study. Somehow, despite all sorts of regulations, they had opened without any such study. Meanwhile, Omido’s two-and-a-half year old child began suffering a series of ailments: nausea, sleeplessness, high fever, and more. Tests finally showed that Omido’s son, King David, was suffering from lead poisoning, which he’d contracted from his mother’s breast milk.

Omido took her environmental impact study to her bosses, who immediately shut it down. She took it to the State, who immediately accused her of being a member of the opposition. They argued that she was clearly out to destroy the economy and crush the hopes of poor working people and communities. Omido had a long history of conducting professional environmental impact studies for other factories, and yet her hard data made less than no difference.

At first, Phyllis Omido campaigned for the factory to pay for her son’s medical care, which they did, once she agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements. But Phyllis Omido looked around and knew she couldn’t keep quiet. Too many lives were at stake.

And so Phyllis Omido organized. She organized a campaign to shut down the factory. After five years, that happened last year … sort of. When Phyllis Omido protested peacefully, she was charged with inciting violence. She was acquitted. When Phyllis Omido was physically and otherwise attacked, her response was to turn swords into ploughshares. She intensified and broadened the campaign. She founded The Center for Justice Governance & Environmental Action. She started taking on salt miners who are damaging Kenya’s coastal fisheries. She is testing the soil and air in a variety of nearby slum neighborhoods, and demanding action. She is suing the Kenyan government and its environmental agency, demanding that they pay compensation, clean up the local environment, and abide by the Constitutional mandate to provide a clean and safe environment for all.

Phyllis Omido has fused anecdotal, experiential evidence with hard, scientific data and created a powerful tool for the people, and especially the women, of the slums of Mombasa and beyond. She pursued what she could see. For example, on entering the plant, foreign managers donned protective gear and masks, but “the workers just worked. Sometimes they’d take a piece of rag and tie it around their noses but they didn’t have any protective gear. At that point when I was still there, they didn’t know that this [air] was poisonous. They were just protecting themselves from the smoke, the acid, the stench.” She pursued what she could not see: the paths of toxic elements, the lead contaminating the air, water, soil; the greed contaminating the State.

In January 2015, the State finally started testing the children of the slums of Mombasa. Thanks to Phyllis Omido and countless women slum dwellers like her, the quest for justice continues.

 

(Photo Credit: The Goldman Environmental Prize)

The World Bank is (still) bad for women, children, men, and all living creatures

The World Bank is still bad for women, children, men, and all living creatures. While not surprising news, it is the result of a mammoth research project carried on by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and their partners. Journalists pored through more than 6000 World Bank documents and interviewed past and current World Bank employees and government officials involved in World Bank funded projects. They found that, in the past decade, an investment of over 60 billion dollars directly fueled the loss of land and livelihood for 3.4 million slum dwellers, farmers, and villagers. That’s a pretty impressive rate of non-return, all in the name of modernization, villagization, electrification, and, of course, empowerment. Along with sowing displacement and devastation, the World Bank has also invested heavily in fossil-based fuels. All of this is in violation of its own rules.

Women are at the core of this narrative, and at every stage. There’s Gladys Chepkemoi and Paulina Sanyaga, indigenous Sengwer who lost their homes and houses, livestock and livelihoods, and almost lost their lives to a World Bank-financed forest conservation program in western Kenya’s Cherangani Hills. In 2013, Bimbo Omowole Osobe, a resident of Badia East, a slum in Lagos, lost nearly everything to a World Bank funded urban renewal zone. Osobe was one of thousands who suffered “involuntary resettlement” when Badia East was razed in no time flat. Today, she’s an organizes with Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, a group of slum dwellers fighting mass evictions. Aduma Omot lost everything in the villagization program in Ethiopia, a World Bank funded campaign that has displaced and demeaned untold Anuak women in the state of Gambella. In the highlands of Peru, Elvira Flores watched as her entire herd of sheep suddenly died, thanks to the cyanide that pours out of the World Bank funded Yanachocha Gold mine, the same mine that Maxima Acuña de Chaupe and her family have battled.

The people at ICIJ promise further reports from India, Honduras, and Kosovo. While the vast majority of the 3.4 million people physically or economically displaced by World Bank-backed projects live in Africa or Asia, no continent goes untouched. Here’s the tally of the evicted, in a mere decade: Asia: 2,897,872 people; Africa: 417,363 people; South America: 26,262 people; Europe: 5,524 people; Oceania: 2,483 people; North America: 855 people; and Island States: 90 people. The national leaders of the pack are, in descending order: Vietnam, China, India, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. It’s one giant global round of hunger games, brought to you by the World Bank.

None of this is new. In 2011, Gender Action and Friends of the Earth reported on the gendered broken promises of the World Bank financed Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline and West African Gas Pipelines: “The pipelines increased women’s poverty and dependence on men; caused ecological degradation that destroyed women’s livelihoods; discriminated against women in employment and compensation; excluded women in consultation processes; and led to increased prostitution … Women in developing countries have paid too high a price.” The bill is too damn high.

In 2006, Gender Action and the CEE Bankwatch Network found that women suffered directly from World Bank funded oil pipeline projects in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Sakhalin: “Increased poverty, hindered access to subsistence resources, increased occurrence of still births, prostitution, HIV/AIDS and other diseases in local communities.”

There’s the impact on women of ignoring, or refusing to consider, unpaid care work in Malawi, Mali, Niger, and Rwanda, and the catastrophic impacts on women of World Bank funded austerity programs in Greece. And the list goes on.

So, what is to be done? Past experience suggests that the World Bank is too big to jail. How about beginning by challenging and changing the development paradigms and projects on the ground? No development that begins from outside. Absolutely no development that isn’t run by local women and other vulnerable sectors. While the World Bank refuses to forgive debts, globally women are forced to forgive the World Bank’s extraordinary debt each and every second of each and every day. This must end. Stop all mass evictions. Start listening to the women, all over the world, who say, “We need our voices heard.”

 

(Photo credit: El Pais / SERAC)

Garissa: There must be more than grief

 


Garissa. There must be more than reports of smoke and explosions and flying bullets and destruction and carnage. There must be more than `eye witness accounts’ and there must be more than smart analyses of why Kenya, why now.

There must be other than agony and tales of hiding and emergence, of atrocity. There must be more than parades of corpses and mournful gatherings at funerals and memorials. The work of mourning must build a better road, because the road to Garissa is one of violence, and not only by those who attacked the university this week.

As in the aftermath of the assault on the Westgate Mall, the world performs mourning, and world leaders and their messengers claim `We all stand with,’ and now will say, “Je suis Kenya.” It’s not true. We do not mourn, and we are not Kenya. We watch a spectacle of grief at a distance, as a distance, and, with the Kenyan government, deny that Garissa is a station on a highway built by all of us. We do not study our own responsibility in the bloodshed.

From the beginning of the “Somali adventure”, Kenyan artists in particular warned that all Kenyans would pay. The Kenyan poet Shailja Patel has provided a road map to Garissa. It begins in 1962, when Somali-Northeast votes to join Somalia. It passes through one massacre after another, and through one invasion of Somalia after another, and through one unheeded warning after another.

The road to Garissa does not end at Garissa. It merely pauses, here, in Shailja Patel’s poem, in the morning after a massacre

Garissa

the morning after a massacre
a country wakes nauseous

no food stays down
no chai comforts

on the roads
they drag crosses

blood is given
blood invoked
blood sanctified
blood is our national language

on TV the men
talk blood and markets

tears
stay out of the newsrooms

there will be more killing
there will always be
more killing

a state will punish survivors
with pogroms

an army will terrorize
the terrorized, traumatize
the traumatized

the merchants of war
have already moved on
to the next transaction

the death-profiteers spent the night
reviewing cost-benefit reports

a country stares at its amputation stumps
the morning after a massacre

There must be more to life than grief, more killing, and the worldwide collective acceptance of reports of smoke and carnage and loss in the distance.

 

(Image Credit: The New Inquiry)

In Kenya, the women say, “NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body my womb my rights”

In Nairobi this week, five women wearing t-shirts walked into court. On the back, the t-shirts read: “NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body my womb my rights.” On the front, the t-shirts read, “END FORCED AND COERCED STERILIZATION OF WOMEN LIVING WITH HIV”

The five women, all HIV positive, are suing the Kenyan government, two maternity hospitals, and two international ngo’s for engaging in forced and coerced sterilization. They join women living with HIV in Namibia who recently won a similar case, and who had an identical rallying cry. They join the women of Chhattisgarh and across India who have survived the `sterilization camps.’ They refuse to join the women who died in those camps, though they honor them. They have joined the women prisoners across California who this year finally won the end to forced sterilization of women prisoners in that state. They join women, poor and minority, in North Carolina who finally are receiving some sort of compensation for their mistreatment, to put it gently, in forced sterilization campaigns. They join women living with disabilities in Belgium who resist coerced sterilization. They join women in Peru who eighteen years after the cessation of formal forced sterilization programs still struggle for justice. They join the Aboriginal and Indigenous women and girls across the Americas and Australia who still wait for an accounting of forced sterilization program. They join these women, all of them shouting, “NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body, my women, my rights.”

One of the women, Teresia Otieno, explained, “I went in for an operation to give birth to my first child. By the time I was leaving the operation the doctor told me I had been sterilized.” According to Benta Agola, another one of the women, the medical staff misinformed her every step of the way, and then proceeded onto the sterilization: “I wasn’t involved in decisions.” One woman reports she was threatened with a cut off of baby formula milk if she didn’t go through with the tubal ligation: “The nurse said I could not continue giving birth in the future as giving birth would compromise my immunity and as a result I would die. I eventually gave in but after the procedure I have always had pain in my abdomen especially during the cold season and also cannot undertake heavy chores.” One of the women discovered she had undergone tubal ligation four years after the procedure.

The women are represented by lawyers from KELIN, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for the rights of those living with HIV, and activists from the African Gender and Media Initiative, or GEM. Two years ago, GEM released a report, Robbed of Choice: Forced and Coerced Sterilization Experiences of Women Living with HIV in Kenya. The report documented the forced sterilization of 40 women living with HIV, or WLHIV: “In many cultures including the African, motherhood is at the core of femininity and status in society. The narratives documented here illustrate how WLHIV who have undergone nonconsensual sterilization are no longer considered, women, in their respective communities as these sterilizations are permanent and irreversible in most cases. We hope that this publication will commit the government of Kenya to act by putting in place appropriate measures to prevent and respond to forced and coerced sterilization and ultimately stop torture of WLHIV in healthcare facilities.”

These five women in Kenya are part of a global movement of women challenging the global program of forced sterilization of women. It’s past time to end it. Codify and pay just compensation to survivors of forced sterilization. Establish serious global structures to enforce informed consent. Listen to the women: NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body my womb my rights!

 

(Photo Credit: http://news.bbcimg.co.uk)

Westgate: There must be more than grief

Westgate. There must be more, something more human, than reports of smoke and explosions and flying bullets and destruction and carnage. There must be more than `eye witness accounts’ and there must be more than smart analyses of why Kenya, why now.

There must be more than, other than, grief to unite a people, a nation. Kenyans have responded not only with horror at the violence. They have responded with support, with blood, money, sweat and tears, and prayers.  But there must be more …

Last year, Kenyan poet Njeri Wangari performed part of her poem, “When Change Comes”, to a gathering in Nairobi. The poem begins:

“When villages grow into towns
Towns into cities
Shops into malls
Spaces into estates,
When streets turn into avenues
Avenues into highways, super highways
Subways and runways
Then things change.

Villages become old frail women deserted by their offspring
All gone to the cities with big lights,
Who, unlike prodigal sons, only return in coffins.”

Wangari’s reading omits the last part of the poem:

“When you realize that your fate was sealed in that moment of conception
Even before you took your first breath in this cosmic space
You then know, it takes more than yourself to survive.

When you are born in a small dark room
In the slum-ghettos of Nairobi,
The wrong side of town
Born in the wrong side of jobs
Wrong side of school
Wrong side of life
Wrong side of everything good in life
Except life itself
Then you know it takes more than yourself to be on the right side

It takes governments that are willing to accept the growing gap
The gap between those with and those without
It takes bridging that gap with informal jobs, equal opportunities
With Youth, women, men empowerment bridges
Bridges that seek to empower minds, endanger idlers
Bridges that recapture people’s dream of equal opportunities
And put them back into peoples’ hearts

It takes more than corrupt officials
It takes more than paying taxes for more government officials
It takes more than policemen gunning down innocent youth
It takes more than black men looking down upon their brothers as lesser mortals

It takes leaders willing to listen to the cries of their people
It takes systems that will help its people come out of mental slavery, self pity, oppressed lives
It takes everyman to make that change.
you, me, him, her, them,
Us.”

That was July 2012. A few months later, a poem by Kenyan poets Shailja Patel and Wambui Mwanji wrote a poem, “Our Camera Has Come Home: A Found Poem”. Here it is in its entirety:

Our Camera Has Come Home: A Found Poem

in her absence we could not see properly
a way of being
engendered by her presence
was denied us

we did not die
we were not sick
or even depressed
just newly prone
to random piercings
of grief

she allowed us
to quarrel
with ways of reading the world
she explained
why our eyes stop
where they stop

other cameras
work well
we have nothing against them

other cameras
sit badly in our hands
like borrowed reading glasses

only she who has come home
is ours

The world mourns. The world mourns the loss of poets, such as Kofi Awoonor, and presenters, such as Ruhila Adutia-Sood. The world mourns the loss of those connected to people with names, such as Mbugua Mwangi, nephew to Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta. The world mourns the children, and the adults. Around the world, the national news media report on `their own’ who were killed in the massacre. The Westgate Mall has been a popular, and safe, place for many in Nairobi.

The world mourns, and world leaders and their messengers claim `We all stand with Kenya.’ We don’t. Instead, we watch the spectacle of grief at a distance, as a distance. After the post-election violence of 2007, Kenyan poet Sitawa Namwalie understood this. She understood that a first, decisive step in creating a road to peace would be to scramble the map. When they ask you where you come from, answer “I come from everywhere.”

I come from everywhere

you, me, him, her, them,
Us

only she who has come home
is ours

There must be more to grief, and life, than reports of smoke and carnage and loss in the distance.

 

(Image credit: A Mishmash Life!

For women workers, it’s time to change the song

Reading the names of the missing women.

Across Turkey, women are at the forefront of the demonstrations. And not only women. Feminists: “At first groups of students chanted: `We are the soldiers of Ataturk’; this died out after feminist protesters objected to its militaristic overtones.”

From the first eruption through today, the Turkish movement has been a giant popular feminist education site, and one that includes sex workers: “`We used to sing ‘Erdogan is the son of a whore’. But when the police teargassed us, one of the brothels on Taksim Square opened its doors, and the women gave us shelter and treated us with lemons. We don’t sing that any more.’”

The solidarity of sex workers taught demonstrators that sex workers are workers, sisters, and women. Sex workers are not epithets or metaphors, and they are not criminals. They are part of the working mass, and they can represent themselves.

In the past week, sex worker organizations have taught exactly the same lesson to workers, social movements, and the State, around the world.

Across Canada this weekend, sex workers and supporters demonstrated, under the Red Umbrella, for legalization of sex work and for sex workers’ rights as workers, women, and women workers. This week, Canada’s Supreme Court will finally hear a challenge by Terri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch to the constitutionality of the laws concerning sex work.

Former and current sex workers have argued that criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable, forces them further underground, further isolates them, and impedes access to public and social services. It’s a hard life, and the laws only make it harder, sometimes fatally so: “When Kerry Porth remembers her life as a sex worker in Vancouver, she can’t help but wonder how she survived when so many other prostitutes died a gruesome death at the hands of notorious serial killer Robert Pickton. `They were women just like me. Looking back, realizing just how much risk I was at, it was a real eye-opener.’”

In Kenya, sex workers in Laikipia District have organized a group called the Laikipia Peer Educators. They want formal recognition. They want the protection that formal recognition might provide, and they want the citizenship, the opportunity to participate and contribute to the common good in the same manner as every other worker. They want to trade in stigma for taxes.

In Australia, the Scarlet Alliance, representing Australian sex workers, lobbied to have foreign sex workers included among the skilled work visas. Sex work is legal across Australia, to varying degrees, but it’s not considered “skilled labor” by the State, at least not yet. Massage therapists, gardeners, florists, cooks, dog handlers, fashion designers, bed and breakfast operators, entertainers, dancers, recreation officers, makeup artists, jockeys, gymnastic coaches and horse riding instructors are considered skilled labor, but not sex work.

This is about work that is not called work, workers who are not called workers, and women who are told they cannot represent themselves. This concerns sex workers, as it concerns domestic workers in the United States. Both Hawaii and California seem to be on the verge of implementing or of passing respective Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. All workers are workers. Period.

Feminist political economists have argued for decades that women’s work is work, whether it’s waged or not, whether it’s called work or not. Women workers have known this and have organized for centuries for recognition, dignity, autonomy, rights and power.

From the social movements in Turkey to the courthouse in Canada to the District government in Kenya to the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship to the state houses across the United States, it’s time. It’s time to recognize women’s work, all work, as work, and to recognize all workers as workers. It’s time to change the song.

 

(Photo Credit: Rabble.ca / Murray Bush / Flux)

Ask Peninah Mwangi about the PEPFAR pledge

Faced with violence against sex workers in Kenya, Peninah Mwangi noted, “The death of a sex worker is the death of a woman, a mother, a sister, a Kenyan.”  Mwangi should know.

Peninah Mwangi is the Executive Director of the Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme, BHESP, located in Nairobi, Kenya. BHESP organizes, advocates, and empowers sex workers. Before the recent elections, BHESP organized `awareness campaigns’ with bar hostesses and their customers, to make sure that everyone voted, that no one missed voting due to drunkenness. It was a critical citizenship participatory popular education program run from one bar, and one barstool, to the next.

BHESP has marched and lobbied for decriminalization and legalization of sex work. They have marched and lobbied to end police violence against sex workers. At the same time, they have established drop-in centers, legal services, hotlines and havens. The Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme have improved and saved women’s lives in Kenya, and are a model for the rest of the world.

They are supported by Pathfinder International, the Open Society Foundations; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Almost every major organization that matters admires and supports the great, innovative and urgent work that BHESP provides. The large exception, the elephant-in-the-room exception, to this is PEPFAR, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Why? Because Peninah Mwangi and her colleagues won’t take the `anti-prostitution pledge.’ Apparently sex work is a far greater `emergency’ than AIDS.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case in which opponents to the `pledge’ argue that the `pledge’ violates first amendment rights and impairs attempts to improve the working conditions of sex workers. Proponents claim the `pledge’ rescues women from trafficking and worse.

Behind, or obscured by, the legal debate are the sex workers themselves. On one hand, researcher after researcher has noted that the PEPFAR pledge harms any campaigns or programs among sex workers to reduce and eradicate HIV and AIDS. Criminalization of sex work increases risk factors for AIDS among sex workers. Transnational and global criminalization of sex work widens the pool of those increasingly at risk into a global ocean. As some have noted, it’s a dark ripple effect, which keeps on spreading.

Here’s one example of the impact of the `pledge’: “As a result of the pledge, in many instances information sharing about successful programming with sex workers has nearly ceased. Sex work programming has become a taboo topic; organizations that receive other funding are likely to be interested in or to seek US government contracts and funds. Others with specific missions have reigned in all activities unrelated or tangentially related to their missions; this has affected many sex work projects the world over. The anti-prostitution pledge has prevented the sharing of information about successful programming and prevented scaling up successful operations.”

Prevented the sharing of information. Silence. Equals. Death. The death of a sex worker is the death of a woman, a mother, a sister, a `fellow citizen’, a human being. Ask Peninah Mwangi. She should know.

 

(Video Credit: Josephine Nekesa Were / YouTube.com)

The Women of Togo call for Spring

 

Isabelle Améganvi

Isabelle Améganvi

The women of Togo have had enough. Like the women of Sudan two months ago, the women of Togo have had more than enough. More than enough of the same family ruling Togo for decades. More than enough of a political climate that doesn’t change. More than enough of men finding alibis for why things don’t change. Not just men. Their men. Their partners. And so, the women of Togo have called for a one-week sex strike.

In so doing, Isabelle Améganvi, head of the women’s wing of the Collectif Sauvons le Togo, or Let’s Save Togo Collective, invoked the experiences of Liberian women in stopping the war and the violence, first, and, more profoundly perhaps, calling everyone to act on their collective and individual responsibility. State violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Decades long State violence doesn’t happen without the cooperation and collaboration of the citizenry. Togolese women know, and are teaching, that lesson, as did their sisters in Liberia … and Kenya three years ago … and Italy four years ago … and Colombia seven years ago … and before that in Poland and in Iceland and the list goes on and on.

The call for a one-week women’s sex strike was issued at a mass demonstration over the weekend. The women were supported by traditional leaders. They marched to free political prisoners, held in deplorable conditions. They marched with thousands of others to end the regime; they marched to save Togo. And so they called a strike. By so doing, instead of declaring war, the women threatened to wage peace. As women across the centuries and around the world have done repeatedly, turning their bodies into … their bodies.

The political climate in Togo is built on oppression of women and sexual violence. Discrimination against women is common, domestic violence as well. Women make up 11% of the Parliament and 14% of the Ministerial positions. Women have little to no access to land ownership rights. Women have `born the brunt’ of political violence, especially in the 2005 elections during which targeted sexual violence against women was rampant. That violence has yet to be properly investigated.

So, the women of Togo, disobedient, insurrectionary, have had enough. They call for climate change. They call for Spring.

 

(Photo Credit: BBC)

Domestic workers demand dignity, respect, and power

Earlier this week, the Sunday Nation described the `ordeal’ of Kenyan domestic workers in Arab `slave markets’. The story focused on Mwanaisha Hussein, a Kenyan woman who left her home to work in Jeddah.

The story is in many ways typical. Mwanaisha Hussein had a job in Kenya, as a store clerk, and wanted something better. She heard about jobs in Saudi Arabia, and signed up. Signing up involved raising funds, going into debt. The promise and allure of better jobs, and better pay, were strong.  When she arrived in Saudi Arabia she found, first, difficult to terrible working conditions; second, extreme and intensifying physical and emotional abuse; third, almost absolute confinement. Desperate, she jumped from a third floor opening she created by breaking through the air conditioner vent. She was taken to hospital, where police took her report … sort of. They would not listen to any accounts of torture or abuse. Finally, with some assistance, she made it to the Kenyan embassy and, somehow, made it home to Kenya.

Today, she says, “The conditions are poor, and there is little food. It’s just horrible. I left a job here in Kenya and wasted eight months of my life. Not only that, I nearly died. I’d never go back. I’d never recommend it for anyone. I’d rather make Sh100 a day in my country.”

It’s a typical story.

In June of this year, the Kenyan government barred Kenyan women from seeking employment in Saudi Arabia. This month Nepal banned women under 30 from working in Gulf States. These bans are typical State responses. Indonesia at one point this year banned women from working in Malaysia. The Philippines has imposed bans at various times.

So, how is Hussein’s story typical?

First, Mwanaisha Hussein is not one of the poorest of the poor. Quite the opposite, she is an ambitious woman worker who sought to improve her lot. She is precisely not a pathetic participant in the narrative of the plight of the domestic worker.

Second, Mwanaisha Hussein is not a domestic worker in Kenya. Most transnational domestic workers aren’t domestic workers in their own home countries. In Kenya, for example, domestic workers are among the lowest paid workers in the land. Further, they are paid approximately 3.5 times less than domestic workers in South Africa. South African domestic workers are paid five times less than in the United Kingdom. From London to Johannesburg to Nairobi, it’s not so much a chain or ladder as a precipitously slippery slope. Kenyan domestic workers would be very hard pressed to come up with the $3000 plus it takes to get a job in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else overseas.

The story of transnational domestic workers must always be placed alongside the story of national domestic workers, especially when the State suddenly claims to care about women workers.

How does the State claim to care about its transnational women workers? By `protecting’ them from entering into `perilous’ labor markets. Does the State consult with domestic workers? No. It simply proceeds to a politics of protection.

That politics of protection is profoundly gendered and gendering. It is the virile State protecting the vulnerable woman worker.  In ancient Roman law, according to Yan Thomas, women could not exercise the `virile office’ of autonomous actions. Later, in the quickly changing world of twelfth to fifteenth century Europe, as women entered into more and more public spaces, male leaders worked night and day to `educate’ women into their basic vulnerability and need to be protected. As Carla Casagrande notes, “We do not know how many Western women in the Middle Ages lived quietly within the home, church, or convent walls, obediently listening to learned, loquacious men who imposed all sorts of rules and regulations on them…. All we know is that women had to deal daily with these men, entrusted by society (and supported by a precise ideology) with the delicate task of supporting their bodies and souls. Part of the history of women lies, therefore, in the history of these words, spoken arrogantly, affectionately, and sometimes anxiously.”

When it comes to `protecting’ women, not much has changed in the last thousand years. Today, we do not know how many Western, African, Asian, Latin American women deal daily with these men. The scale of our not knowing has expanded exponentially.

Let’s change the story. Stop talking about protecting women workers. Don’t protect domestic workers; protect domestic workers’ rights. That’s a major point of the International Labor Organization Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Domestic workers’ rights should be protected because workers’ rights should be protected. Period. Not because women are vulnerable or need protection.

Domestic workers want dignity, respect, and power. That’s the lesson this week of the campaign in California to pass the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. It’s as well the lesson, in Namibia, of the recently formed Domestic Workers’ Wages Commission. And it’s the lesson Mwanaisha Hussein teaches. Slavery is wrong. No one knows that better than the worker herself. As Mwanaisha Hussein explains, death is preferable to death-in-life. Decent work is the only option. That only happens when women workers organize themselves.

 

 

(Photo Credit: A Celebration of Women)

 

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: Adital.com.br)