In Malawi, pregnant school girls demand education AND respect!

Early last year, the Uhoho Primary School, in Chintheche, in Nkhata Bay, in the Northern Region of Malawi, weathered “the worst pregnancy scandal at a school in living memory.” Thirty-two students, 16 girls and 16 boys, were suspended when it was determined that the 16 girls were pregnant. At first, the boys faced `defilement’ charges, but then the head teacher claimed the girls were all at least 18 years old. It’s unclear if that was true. Local newspapers this week report that some of the girls were 13 and 14 years old. At any rate, the boys were spared the prospect of rape charges. All the children were suspended for a year. Then the girls and their parents were brought before a magistrate, who fined each child 10,000 kwacha. If they couldn’t pay, they were sent to jail until the fine was paid. For some, being in custody meant not writing their exams. Thus far, this sounds like just another horrible story of the very many ways of keeping girls out of school. But the girls decided otherwise, and so yesterday, they went to the High Court to challenge their treatment and the entire process. Girls have rights, they said, including pregnant girls, and one of those rights, enshrined in the Constitution of Malawi is “All persons are entitled to education.”

How did an internal school matter come before a magistrate in the first place? Youth Watch Society (YOWSO) Executive Director Muteyu Banda explained, “The magistrate happens to be the Chairperson of the Child Protection Committee.” Youth Watch Society and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre have supported the girls in this case, and they are represented by Victor Gondwe. According to Muteyu Banda, part of the issue here is the lack of due process. Local officials make up laws which they then enforce, all in the name of child protection. According to Anneke Meerkotter, Litigation Director of the Southern African Litigation Centre, “The intention that it is good for the baby to be cared for and that the boys must also take responsibility to help the girls is there, but it is a logistical nightmare for the pupils. For us, the answer is not suspending them from school. Their right to education is enshrined in the Constitution..” Victor Gondwe explained, “We are asking for a review of the strange orders imposed by a lower court that all pregnant girls be sent to prison.” He then added that it is “quite strange and awkward to criminalise pregnancy.”

While it may be strange and awkward to criminalize pregnancy, it’s common practice to criminalize school age girls, and not only in Malawi. Only two years ago, in response to the non-epidemic epidemic non-scandal scandal of teenage pregnancy, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma proposed a policy for the young women and girls, “They must be educated by government until they are empowered and they can take care of their kids, take them to Robben Island or any other island, sit there, study until they are qualified to come back and work to look after their kids.” Take them to Robben Island or any other island. In the United States, girls are arrested more often than boys for status offenses and are more severely punished for those offenses. Status `offenses’ are not crimes. If the girls were older, there would be no offense, no crime. From Malawi to South Africa to the United States, the “special attention” paid to school age girls is always conducted in the name of “protection.”

Malawi is a poor country in which education is a struggle. For girls to complete secondary school is a particular struggle. In academic year 2014 – 2015, nationwide, pregnancy was the cause of 28 percent of all secondary female dropouts. In the Northern Region, in 2014 – 2015, 370 boys dropped out of primary school, while 2199 girls dropped out. During that same year, 145 boys dropped out of secondary school boys, while 463 girls left school. For the boys, the primary reason was inability to pay school fees. For the girls, fees (27.7 percent) and pregnancy (27.6 percent) were the primary reason. This is the context in which 16 girls were told to leave school, and then some were sent into police custody. They were never meant to return.

Those girls know the meaning of education and they know they deserve it. Period. Those girls know “that the fines and detention were inconsistent with common law notions of fairness, legality and rationality and with the rights to liberty, education and other constitutional rights.” They know they have a right to education, and they intend to exercise that right. They mean to return to school and then to create the way forward. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: Capital Radio Malawi)

The women of Zomba Central Prison want more than a Grammy

The Grammy Awards ceremony is tonight, and all, or at least more than some, eyes are on The Zomba Prison Project’s I Have No Everything Here, nominated in the Best World Music Category. The Project involves men and women prisoners in Malawi’s Zomba Central Prison. The cd comprises 20 songs, most of them sung by men, most of them written by women. From the outset, people wondered about the “mysteriously brief” presence of women on the album and, even more, about the missing women in the attention paid to the Zomba Prison Project. People wondered where are the women in the music and in the press, but omitted to ask, more directly, where are the women? They’re in prison, and in Malawi, that’s not a good place to be.

In Malawi, women prisoners end up in three main prisons: Chirichiri, Maula, and Zomba. Two years ago, the Malawi Human Rights Commission reported prisoners had died of hunger at Maula Prison, in Lilongwe. While the government claimed no prisoner had died, it had to admit that prisoners had gone without any food for three days, and that more “food shortages” were probably on the horizon.

That’s par for the course at Maula. Built for a maximum of 800 prisoners, it now houses over 2600 prisoners. Maula Prison has been built on overcrowding, malnutrition, poor to no sanitation, and rampant diseases and viral infection. Most of the scholarship on Malawian prisons concerns astronomical rates of HIV, AIDS, and hepatitis. Malawian prisons have been toxic for a long time, and they just got worse.

Recently, Malawi “cracked down” on migrants, mostly Ethiopian migrants, attempting to cross the continent in order to reach South Africa. Hundreds of migrants have ended up in Maula Prison, where they sit, in remand sections, indefinitely. Last June, Doctors Without Borders treated 18 prisoners for moderate to severe malnutrition.

In December, Malawian civil society expressed concern at the rising number of “prison babies”, infants and children in prison with their incarcerated mothers, some of whom are awaiting trial. Just last week, it was revealed that the Dowa First Grade Magistrate Court had written to the Prison Inspectorate Committee, urging the State to address systemic abuse, in particular dire overcrowding and inadequate food provision.

According to the most recent U.S. Department of State report on human rights in Malawi, “The most significant human rights issues in the country included excessive use of force by security officers, harsh and life-threatening prison and detention center conditions, and official corruption … Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and potentially life threatening … The Zomba Central Prison was condemned as unfit for human habitation by the Prisons Inspectorate in 1997 but remained in use, holding more than 1,950 inmates in a facility built to hold 800.”

That’s the Zomba Prison Project: condemned as unfit 19 years ago and still in use; designed for 800, and housing almost 2000. That’s where the women are. Let’s hope that some day the Best World-Music Award is replaced with the Best-World Music Award, and on that day, there will be no Zomba Central Prison.

 

(Photo Credit: CNN) (Video Credit: You Tube / Six Degrees Records)

African women farmers reject the same old business as usual

Members of the Rural Women’s Farmers Association of Ghana (RUWFAG) prepare a field for sowing.

The World Economic Forum is meeting this week in Cape Town, with much self-congratulation on “economic growth”, “poverty eradication”, and “women’s empowerment”, all brought by those who engineered a world economy based on growing inequality, galloping individual debt, expanding precarization of labor, and anything but the empowerment of women. Part of this circus maximus is the meeting, held largely behind closed doors, of the partners of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Across Africa, women farmers see this “new alliance” as the same old same old, and they’re not buying it.

The New Alliance, cooked up by the G8 and the European Union in 2012, sports all the “right language”: transformation, growth, partnership, security, sustainability, sharing. But the New Alliance opens ever-larger amounts of land to corporate investors and multinational agro-corporations, because nothing says sustainable security like over-the-top investments, land grabs and the forced eviction of local populations. Women farmers’ organizations have decried the physical and cultural violence of this project. They have protested the Alliance’s refusal to consult, and they have shown the devastation this “new alliance” harvests from the destruction of women’s bodies and lives.

But what do women farmers know about food security or nutrition, and, in particular, what do African women farmers know? Once again, they must be saved from themselves.

The premise of the New Alliance is that “land titling” will fix everything. Here’s what’s actually happened. Malawi was induced to release about a million hectares, or 26 percent of the country’s arable land, to large-scale commercial farming. According to ActionAid, “Land titling can give small-scale food producers more security over their land, but in the current New Alliance-related processes, it appears to be a way to primarily help governments facilitate large-scale acquisitions of land. Secure land tenure does not necessarily require individual land ownership but can be achieved with clearly defined and sufficiently long-term use rights over land that is ultimately state property. The abolition of customary or communal tenure systems and their replacement with freehold title and the private land market has often led to extinguishing the land rights of the poor, notably women.”

Notably women. Yet again, the “new” produces wider and deeper vulnerability, especially for women, all in the name of security and sustainability. This new is not so new.

Malawi women farmers are not the only targets. Women farmers in Nigeria, Senegal, and Burkina Faso report the same, as do women farmers in Tanzania. As Tanzanian farmer Anza Ramadhani explained, “We never had a chance to influence the decisions concerning our land and future. There has been no transparency whatsoever. We don’t know if we will be resettled, where it will be or if we will be compensated. We don’t know how much the compensation will be or if it will be at all.”

In Ghana, women farmers are threatened with being forced to give up their control, and knowledge of seeds, by a new law, called the “Monsanto Law”, which would restrict, and even prohibit, storing and trading seeds. This law is a condition of New Alliance aid. The new is not at all new. As farmer Esther Boakye Yiadom explains, “My mother gave me some seeds to plant, and I’m also giving those seeds to my children to plant. So that is ongoing, every time we transfer to our children. And that is how all the women are doing. We don’t buy, we produce it ourselves.” Patricia Dianon, chair of the Rural Women Farmers Association of Ghana and traditional queen, agrees, “After harvesting, the women are able to store the seeds … They are able to dry it, tie it, and preserve it … So when the year comes, they bring these seeds to sow again.” Victoria Adongo, Program Director for the Peasant Farmer Association of Ghana, concurs, “Seed is where you grow your food from. So if you save the seed, then you grow food the following year. It’s very economical because you don’t have to go and buy seed. That is what we farmers have always done … We, the small holder farmers, want to have good lives. We want to be healthy. We have our seed systems that we like and are proud of. So we do not want multinational companies to come in and take over our seed systems.”

In the pursuit of profit, the New Alliance condemns women to “new” lives of increasing, intensifying and expanding vulnerability, hardship, and disposability. Across Africa, women farmers are saying NO! to the international delegation of liars and thieves. They are saying, “We don’t buy, we produce it ourselves. We want good lives. We want to be healthy.”

 

(Photo Credit: Global Justice Now / Common Dreams) (Video Credit: Global Justice Now / YouTube)

Eleven Malawi sex workers win a victory for women’s rights everywhere!

On Wednesday, eleven Malawi sex workers won a victory for women’s rights everywhere. The story takes place in Mwanza, a town on the southern border with Mozambique. In September and November 2009, police conducted sweeps and pulled in a number of women presumed to be sex workers. Many were held overnight at the Mwanza Police Station. In the morning, the women were taken to the Mwanza District Hospital were they were forced to undergo blood tests, without any informed consent. The medical staff took down the women’s names and recorded the test results, which they handed to the police. The women were then charged with spreading venereal disease, “in contravention of section 192 of the Penal Code.” During the courtroom hearing, the charges were laid out, as were the women’s medical conditions, including their HIV positive status. For a number of the women, the reading of their name in court and the announcement of their HIV positive status was the first time they became aware of their situation.

On March 10, 2011, eleven of the women filed an application in the Blantyre High Court. They challenged the mandatory HIV tests, the use of HIV test results as evidence in their criminal cases, and the public disclosure of their HIV status in open court. The women said that the police and the hospital, effectively the State, had violated their constitutional rights.

Arguments were heard February 25, 2014, and the decision was handed down on May 20, 2015. The women were represented by well-known human rights attorney Chrispine Sibande, with support from the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, or SALC, and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. Justice Dorothy nyaKaunda Kamanga presided over the High Court case.

On Wednesday, Justice nyaKaunda Kamanga ruled that subjecting the women to forced HIV testing was unreasonable and a violation of their rights to privacy, equality, dignity and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Justice nyaKaunda Kamanga noted, “The authorities took advantage of the women being in police custody to force them to undergo the tests,”

Chrispine Sibande explained, “This case could not come at a more critical time. The Malawi government is in the process of finalising the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Management) Bill. Draft versions of the Bill have included provisions allowing mandatory HIV testing of various groups, including sex workers. It is internationally accepted that forced HIV testing is counter-productive and violates human rights. We hope the judgment will ensure that these provisions are finally removed from the Bill. The judgment is also progressive in that it considered equality between men and women in relation to HIV testing.” Sibande further saw the ruling as “a victory for sex workers who are usually abused every day.”

Anneke Meerkotter, of SALC, concurred, “The case shows that it is possible for vulnerable groups to hold the government accountable when their rights have been violated.”

The Mwanza Eleven join women like Samukelisiwe Mlilo in Zimbabwe, Milly Katana in Uganda, Peninah Mwangi in Kenya, and countless others across the continent, who have struggled against the notion that HIV is a criminal offense; that the `war on HIV’ means the women, on one hand, and even more sex workers, on the other, must relinquish their Constitutional, civil, and human rights in the service of some greater good. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo and Image Credit: Southern Africa Litigation Centre)

Wangari Maathai is smiling on Heather Maseko today

Malawian eco-warrior and organizer Heather Maseko is once again on the move.

Yesterday, Deepa Pullanikkatil, of LEAD Southern and Eastern Africa, posted a video, Zomba city cutting down historical Mbawa trees (African mahogany):

“Hello. My name is Heather Maseko. I was born and raised in Zomba. I did my primary school in Zomba, and my secondary school in Zomba, and my university at the University of Malawi Chancellor College. I am a young environmental activist who works with young people on issues of environmental management … It is with great concern that we see the natural resources of Zomba being degraded, things that have happened in the past couple of years, and it is with a sad note that we see these malpractices have come to Zomba city. What you see in my background is timber production that’s right in the city. They are cutting down Mbawa trees, which have been planted more than a hundred before just in the name of constructing a road. As planners and citizens of Zomba came down to discuss the issues, we found that there were other viable solutions in constructing the road while still maintaining the natural heritage of preserving the trees in the city. It is also with great concern that as a young person we see these malpractices done right in our cities, so that … generations will not benefit from the good climate, from the good environment, that Zomba has always had and that we have always cherished. So we’re calling on authorities, we’re calling on engineers, we’re calling on other civil societies, and every other person who is concerned with the welfare of people in Zomba and the future generations and even the tourists that come to Zomba to help us in putting a halt to this malpractice, to save these trees which are a natural heritage, which help in so many ways, including addressing issues of climate change, as a natural heritage as well, to stop this malpractice, to save these trees, and to make sure that our generation, the future generation, will enjoy both good development and a good environment.”

Zomba was the capital of British Central Africa, then of Nyasaland, and finally, until 1974, of Republic of Malawi. Malawi’s Parliament remained in Zomba for another 20 years, until 1994. Zomba is now the capital of Zomba District, whose economy if primarily agricultural, with tourism a distant second. Zomba is experiencing rapid population growth, with a population of over 130,000 and rising fast.

Born, raised, and educated in Zomba, Heather Maseko embodies all the changes of the last twenty years. Perhaps for that reason, she has been a face of environmental activism. In 2011, she was on the caravan that crossed the African continent, and ended up in Durban, at the climate change conference, or COP 17. She went to learn: “As a youth this is a platform to gain experience on the process of negotiations for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a future leader.”

Although the conference disappointed Maseko, that disappointment became the point. She saw first hand that environmental change has to happen from the ground up, that the local matters, and that people, and in particular young people who increasingly make up the majority of the population, must learn to organize and take power.

Heather Maseko has been doing just that, organizing, learning, and taking power. In Malawi, the Mbawa tree matters. That’s why, in 2012, Joyce Banda launched a national campaign to plant trees by planting an Mbawa tree. The Mbawa tree takes a hundred years, and more, to grow to maturity. Trust the youth to teach the world the lesson of the value of time and process.

Heather Maseko is making democracy happen, on the roadsides of Zomba. Wangari Maathai is smiling on Heather Maseko today. The democracy of people is gathering among the trees.

African women smallholder farmers haunt the G8 … and The Guardian

In 2012, the G8 launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which, controversially, gave agribusiness a seat at the African farming table, right next to governments and aid donors. Agribusiness had always been there, but now the arrangements of hand holding and pocket filling would be formalized. Despite promises of the `new’, transparency around the arrangements did not increase. If anything, the world of African food security and nutrition transactions became murkier.

This week The Guardian ran a series of articles on the New Alliance. Many see the Alliance as colonialism with a neoliberal face. First, the aid processes become increasingly privatized and imbedded into the workings, and failings, of markets. Second, the contractual and policy decisions are not only made behind closed doors, they’re made in settings that prohibit any direct involvement of smallholder farmers. Neither the Alliance nor The Guardian seems to care that smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa are overwhelmingly women. What’s not new here? Millions of women workers rendered invisible … again.

Ten African countries signed agreements that `open’ them to greater foreign direct investment. The countries are Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania. The national commitments involve land and water; seeds; tax; finance; infrastructure; food security or nutrition; and other. Ten countries signed 209 commitments. Of those ten countries, only Benin made any commitments to women, and those two commitments are, at best, vague: “Design and set up a gender-based information and communication system to prompt behavioural change in the agricultural and rural sector.” “Improve how gender is addressed when designing, implementing, monitoring and evaluating projects/programmes and activities in the agricultural sector.” As of yet, the progress on these is listed as “Unknown.”

The Guardian reported on Malawian smallholder farmers being kept in the dark on Malawi’s commitments; on Tanzanian smallholder farmers’ concerns that the new alliance will only turn them into cheap labor for the new, large farming corporations; and on Ghanaian smallholder farmers’ mixed reactions. The Guardian doesn’t mention or quote any women smallholder farmers.

Women comprise as much as 80% of African subsistence farmers. In Burkina Faso, gardeners and smallholder farmers are overwhelmingly women. From palm oil production in Benin to cocoa production in Ghana to general smallholder production in Tanzania, women predominate in numbers but not in access to resources or control. In Malawi, women make up almost 70% of the full time farmer population. Every major multinational agency has issued a report on the centrality of women in agriculture to any food security agenda. Repeatedly, reports demonstrate that women constitute the majority of smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, and yet have little to no access to land tenure or to State or international assistance. Those reports also suggest that extension services automatically look to men as `change agents.’

Women farmers are a majority of the adult farming population. They are not part of the picture. They are the picture. They are not part of the story. They are the story. When you see the picture, when you read the story, if you don’t see and read about women farmers, write to the authors and tell them, “No women farmers, no justice.”

 

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia.org)

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)

Malawian women said today, “The future starts now!”

 

The Maravi Post headline pretty much says it all, “DON’T MESS WITH MALAWI WOMEN!

But actually, today, the women of Malawi said it, and sang it, and prayed it, and danced it, and shouted it, and did it better, much better, than any headline could claim.

The story, in brief, is a familiar one, around the world. Women are attacked in a public place, allegedly for wearing `provocative’ or `untraditional’ clothes. In this instance, vendors, or `vendors’, in the two major cities of Malawi – Lilongwe and Blantyre – attacked and stripped women, ostensibly for wearing pants and mini-skirts.

Bad move. Very bad.

The news media described the incidents largely as `trouser stripping.’ The women understood otherwise. They understood the actions as violence, as violence against women, and as violence against democracy.

First, women were beaten. How do you think a crowd of men forcibly undresses a woman … especially in public? By invitation?

Second, the women know that Malawi has a history of “indecency” laws. Eighteen years ago, the so-called indecency in dress laws were repealed, partly because they were an offense to women, largely because they were part and parcel of the dictatorship of Hastings Kamuzu Banda. An attack on women, an attack on women’s clothes, is an attack on democracy. Anywhere. Even in a `conservative’ country. Just because it’s conservative doesn’t mean women give up on their democratic rights.

Instantly, women started organizing, organizing boycotts of the vendors, demands and campaigns. One such campaign is called Lelo N’kugule, Mawa Undivule? Today I buy from you, tomorrow you undress me? Others call it Venda, Ndikugule, Undibvulenso??? Vendor, I buy from you and you strip me naked?

Good question. A very good question.

Today, Friday, the women of Malawi filled the streets of Blantyre. They brought some men with them, too. Some wore t-shirts emblazoned with “PEACE”, others wore all white. Many wore trousers, some wore mini-skirts … whatever those are.

Women of Malawi today did what they have always done. They organized. They organized for autonomous spaces. Autonomous doesn’t mean separate. It means spaces in which women’s autonomy is more than respected. They spoke of democracy. They expressed outrage, not only for themselves but for the ambitions of the nation. They said, “We are all Sophie Munthali”, one of the women who was beaten and stripped.

Someone asked `the question’, that question that always gets asked in moments of mass assaults on women: “Isn’t this really about economic hardship, about difficult times?” Women’s rights activist Seodi White answered directly, “In times of instability, women are targeted.” She then went on to explain that [a] instability is no excuse, [b] violence against women is an outrage, [c] violence against women is violence against democracy.

Repeatedly, the women invoked dignity and democracy. Don’t mess with Malawi women. That’s the news story, or should be. Malawian women said today, “The future starts now!”

 

(Photo Credit: CNN)

We don’t burn children anymore. We send them to prison.

 

Monday, November 21, 2011, must have been Juvenile (In)Justice Day. Juvenile (In)Justice appeared everywhere, in the news.

In Kashmir, there’s juvenile (in)justice. Children charged with throwing stones are treated, formally, as terrorists. They can be jailed, caged, for up to two years without a trial. Children are placed in adult prisons, while awaiting trial and when convicted. And they will be convicted. Yes, there are laws that protect juveniles. But those laws don’t matter in a state of emergency. Children don’t matter in a state of emergency. They aren’t `juveniles’, and they aren’t `youth’. They’re children.

The state of emergency, the so-called public safety crisis, is always an alibi. States abuse children. In Kashmir, there’s juvenile (in)Justice, and the excuse is crisis. In Malawi, where there is no state of emergency, juvenile (in)justice is simply business as usual, the price of maintaining order. The law says children under 18 deserve special treatment and protection. In fact, children are tried in adult courts and then sent to overcrowded adult prisons. That is the rule of law… everywhere. Take children and maximize their vulnerability.

And then lie about it.

That’s what the United Kingdom has been doing, systematically lying about the abuse of children of asylum seekers and, worse, of asylum seeker children. Sexual abuse. Other forms of physical abuse. Psychological abuse. Spiritual abuse. Of course, there are no laws that address the crimes of breaking the spirit of a child. What’s going on in the United Kingdom is not `merely’ officials lying. It’s Official Lying. The State defines democracy by lying and then chants, “This is what democracy looks like.”

The ministers lie, the professors lie, the television lies, the priests lie. . . .
These lies mean that the country wants to die.”

And then finally, in the name of security, stability, sovereignty, and, of course, peace, the State, in this instance the United States, proposes a budget that would gorge on prisons and gouge youth of resources, of hope, of life itself. Again, the youth, the juveniles, they’re children.

Meanwhile, cities, like New York, work on plans to increase the use of solitary confinement. It’s called “punitive segregation”, and it preys in particular on `juveniles’, those prisoners living with mental disabilities, and those awaiting trial. Maximize vulnerability. It’s a kind of efficiency that brings education, mental health care, and justice itself to a screaming, screeching halt.

None of this is new or news, of course. The abuse of children in prison is systemic. In the United States, for example, photographer Richard Ross has been exposing juvenile (in)justice for years, and it’s everywhere. It’s the fabric of national democracy. It’s today’s version of burning children, as Robert Bly wrote, some four decades ago:

“But if one of those children came near that we have set on fire,
came toward you like a gray barn, walking,
you would howl like a wind tunnel in a hurricane,
you would tear at your shirt with blue hands,
you would drive over your own child’s wagon trying to back up,
the pupils of your eyes would go wild—

If a child came by burning, you would dance on a lawn,
trying to leap into the air, digging into your cheeks,
you would ram your head against the wall of your bedroom
like a bull penned too long in his moody pen—
If one of those children came toward me with both hands
in the air, fire rising along both elbows,
I would suddenly go back to my animal brain,
I would drop on all fours, screaming,
my vocal chords would turn blue, so would yours,
it would be two days before I could play with my own children again.”

The news Monday was this. We don’t burn children anymore. We send them to prison.

 

(Image Credit: Open Democracy)

 

The low spark of high-heeled African women farmers

Esnai Ngwira in mucuna field

The planet of slums is fed, clothed and sheltered by continents, and oceans, of farms, many of them small farms. Many small hold farmers are women. This is the case in China. By focusing on women farmers, China, with 10% of the world’s arable land, now feeds 20% of the world’s population.

And now, according to reports, China is turning to Africa, not in a land grab but rather in skills sharing and capacity building. China “seeks to show its trading partners in Africa that feeding their populations is only possible when women are empowered.” China is pushing for land rights for women farmers and for investing in women farmers. A key problem, however, is “the low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women”.

What?

The clause concerning “low skills” is slipped in at the end of an article, but it’s actually a bombshell. The reason “Africa” is hungry is that its women are “low skilled”?

This would come as a surprise to those, such as Andrew Mushita and Carol B. Campbell, who have argued, “Most often, women are the keepers of the seeds, tucked away among the beams in the thatched roof, protected from pests by smoke from cooking fire. Others are stored in tins in another location. Villagers volunteer labour to build storage buildings for seed banks, protecting the treasure within the public trust.”

For centuries, and more, women farmers have tended to the seeds, nurtured biodiversity, sustained communities, developed new, and successful, medical treatments, and more.

Esnai Ngwira, a 57-year-old farmer in Ekwendeni, northern Malawi, would be surprised to hear she has a low skills base. Ngwira has been working with a program that builds social ecology in sustainable ways. Rather than using fertilizer, for example, Ngwira uses crop residue. She gets a better maize harvest, helps the soil, helps the earth. Esnai Ngwira is considered “a star innovator.”

Marie Johansson and Victoria Mulunga, of the Creative Entrepreneur Solutions (CES) in northern Namibia, would also be surprised. They, and the other women in their group, are fusing farming practices, gender-responsive environmentalism, and women’s market practices into a sustainable agricultural political economy. They haven’t done that by relying on a “low skill base.”

Likewise, in Kenya, Joyce Odari, an elderly subsistence farmer, was once arrested by forest guards for having cut down trees in a public preserve. She turned her imprisonment into a women’s sustainable agro-forestry operation, that now involves over 200 women in her region.

There are other stories, other women, other names. In the Gambia, women farmers are using simple store-powered dehydrators and dryers to preserve mangoes, which, as dried fruit, they sell to local schools. The mango is a key source of Vitamin A, and its season is short. By drying and distributing them the women farmers are combating blindness, providing extra nutrition in their own homes, and securing extra income.

The stories are everywhere because the women farmers, everywhere across the African continent, are doing what they do. Storing. Sharing. Experiment. Farming. Sustaining. Experimenting some more. Sharing some more.

The first problem for women farmers, on the African continent as elsewhere, is access. Access to land, access to market. Access to resources, access to decent and equal pay. Access to education and then more education. The second problem is security. Land tenure security, market access security. The third problem is autonomy. Global systems of exchange have no respect for the local “customs”, much less the biodiversity that women farmers have created over centuries through open and principled sharing.

“The low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women” pretends to focus on women as it obscures the actual lives that women, in this instance women farmers, lead. Not women farmers’ low skill but women farmers’ access to real power haunts a world teetering on the brink of famine. That’s our world.

 

(Photo Credit: Flickr.com / soilsandfood)