Requiring more of journalists may help destigmatize mental illness

JournalistIn early March the Associated Press released new standards for reporters and editors regarding metal illness. To comply, we’re asked to only include mental health details if they’re relevant to the story and come as a specific diagnosis from an attributed source.

Over one in four adults have a diagnosable mental illness in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Illness. Within that large portion of our population each individual experiences their condition differently.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness issued a statement calling the new standards, “a seismic shift in the terrain of popular culture.”

In the statement, Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations, says, “For years, NAMI has worked to have the news media abandon inaccurate, careless, or stigmatizing language or practices in reporting on mental illness.”

A lot of that stigmatizing language emerged in the debate around weapons access after the tragic shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Colorado. I’m thinking specifically of rock n’ roller Ted Nugent’s commentary published in The Washington Times: “Nut control, not gun control: Failure to deal with mental illness leads to massacres.”

The AP standards do not pertain to statements from individuals and organizations, but it will hold a large group of information producers and disseminators – the news media – responsible for their language.

The guide clarifies: “Mental illness is a general condition. Specific disorders are types of mental illness and should be used whenever possible.”

It cautions journalists away from making assumptions or interpretations about subject’s mental health and from drawing connections between crimes and mental health concerns.

“Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness,” state the guidelines.

Terms such as “deranged” or “crazy” are classified as “derogatory” in the guide, and writers are cautioned against referring to folks as “victims of” or “suffering from” their disorders.

You can read the guide here, and I recommend that you do. It discourages the sensationalizing of mental illness that often arises around violent crime, and encourages reporters to be deliberate when referencing folks’ mental health. The way that we characterize issues in the media impacts the tone of national conversations and the individuals they characterize.

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The Brazen Optimism of “Girl Rising”

girlrisingWe parked a few minutes before the viewing was scheduled to start and hustled towards the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, WI. Two members of the group did not yet have tickets to see the documentary Girl Rising, so they made their way to the end of the long box office line snaking around the building. In the other “line,” groups of tweens and teenaged girls pushed their way to the front with chaperons assertively pushing after them.

I had a hard time keeping my cool in the chaotic crowd, but I felt grateful at the end of the film that all those young people had watched the movie. I hoped they felt inspired as I did, possible, I think, because of the film’s bold optimism and omission of some dark details.

Richard E. Robbins’s Girl Rising succeeded aesthetically and narratively and in promoting its theme that educating girls will make the world a better place — for everyone. Girl Rising featured the stories of nine girls from nine different developing countries and (in most cases) overcoming their plights towards education.

Each of the girls shared their experiences with an author from their home country, who in turn interpreted the stories with a unique voice. These are not face-to-face interviews à la traditional documentaries, there’s reenactment, dream sequences, and animation on top of the lovely narratives.

Artistic shots captured the details of the landscapes each girl called home and the lines and details of their faces. (Alert: Spoilers ahead.)

Ruksana’s family in Kolkata, India manages to stay in the city to send three girls to school even though they live in a makeshift house on the pavement. She is a budding artist whose father bares the expense to buy her art supplies. The footage of her story is overlain with fantastical animations of a blue monkey and flowers that reflect the art in her notebook.

The stories feature obstacles that the girls overcome to attend school, and throughout the entire film we see poetry, song, art, and even physics embraced by the girls as survival tactics. My favorite character, Senna of La Rinconada, Peru, turns to poetry after the death of her father, and begins to write her own. Her father named her after the title character in the television show “Xena: Warrior Princess.

Bravery and fortitude also run through the various stories of the nine featured girls. The stories of two, kept anonymous through name changes and actress portrayals, demonstrated strength but touched on the tough themes of rape, youth marriage, and early motherhood. Yasmin’s story in which she defends herself against assault is told via animation, where she takes on a superhero persona. We see Amina as a neglected girl child, who gives birth when she is still a child herself.

The stories of these girls ends with an almost brazen optimism that I bought into, because I became wrapped up in the story. And yet, as I left the theatre, I felt sad for all the stories of Yasmin and Amina that ended with a flourish of hope but unconcluded stories.

The Girl Rising website offers a follow-up to each of the girls, and Yasmin’s and Amina’s next steps cast a shadow on the hopeful sheen of the movie: “…despite our partner NGOs efforts to enroll [13-year-old] Yasmin in literacy classes, Yasmin’s mother considered a marriage proposal to be a more secure investment in her daughter’s future,” reads the website.

This video was well crafted to uplift (as evidenced in the title, Girl Rising). It also conveys the remaining problems for girls throughout the world, albeit with a glossy, optimistic over layer. It ended with a call to mobilize, and I hoped the young girls in the audience got the message: appreciate your education, it’s a right we all deserve but don’t all have access to.

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International Women’s Day and VAWA Converge, Illuminating Progress and Struggles Towards Gender Equity

Credit: Dominik GwarekOn the eve of International Women’s Day – March 7 – President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act into law. And on March 8, folks around the world celebrated women’s achievements and ongoing struggle towards equality.

I find myself puzzling over the fact that there is no Violence Against Men Act, nor popular observance of International Men’s Day in the U.S. What does this inconsistency say about the genders? We’re not equal, but we’re trying?

The reauthorization, which first passed in 1994 with bipartisan support under President Clinton, recognizes to some extent the problems of domestic violence and sexual assault which disproportionately affect women. VAWA reauthorization did not pass easily this time around, and it got tabled a year ago amid bipartisan bickering over added provisions for Native American, LGBT, and immigrant victims. Those provisions made it into the now-law.

The VAWA reauthorization provides needed funding and services to victims of violence but doesn’t ultimately address the cultures of violence, the reasons women are often victimized, and why acts like rape continue to take place in high numbers throughout the world.

International Women’s Day derived from women’s labor struggles, which persist today. In a Christian Science Monitor article, Steph Solis quotes Carol Rosenblatt’s concern about the factory fires in Bangladesh that killed many female garment workers to demonstrate that women still work for low wages in poor conditions. In addition to freedom from violence and access to fair wages and work conditions, women around the world still fight for equal access from food and clean toilet facilities to maternal health care and parental leave after birth.

In the Guardian, a somewhat sour Suzanne Moore describes International Women’s Day events as, “a strange mixture of talking about female genital mutilation (bad) and then listening to some great women musicians (good).” Both of the Christian Science Monitor’s stories about the international celebration opened with descriptions of the Doodles designed for the day on the Google homepage (one of which makes the G out of the Venus symbol). I’m not sure of the value of Google’s recognition of the day, though it likely promotes awareness to those unfamiliar with the holiday.

Folks throughout the world celebrate International Women’s Day with different practices, some women get time off work, or additional help with housework from the men in their lives. This year in the U.S. women can take the day to appreciate ongoing support for victims of violence though the sentiment remains bittersweet – because the VAWA law and International Women’s Day serve as landmarks towards gender equity which inadvertently highlight the broad disparities that remain between men and women.

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Gender in Star Wars and Other Media

11212012StarWars-jpg_180602In January, the universe brought my attention to the convergence of two things: the Star Wars sequels and the Bechdel Test. I’ve known of Star Wars for a while (like most of us with a pulse), but the Bechdel Test shed new light for me on the popular series and all the other media I have consumed or will consume in the future.

The Bechdel Test serves as a tool to measure female representation in the media. I often notice when movies and television shows present one-dimensional female characters. And while I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for various fantasies of fictive media, I like for those fictions to represent both women and men.

The Bechdel Test has been around since the year I entered this earth (1985), created by comic artist Alison Bechdel. It’s a sequence of three questions:

  1. Are there more than two women [in a particular piece of media]?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. About something other than a man?

The first reference to this came from the video game website IGN, in an article titled “Why Star Wars: Episode VII Should Have a Female Protagonist.” Author Lucy O’Brien makes a strong case for the forthcoming Star Wars sequels to feature a female hero. She applies the Bechdel test to Star Wars, and it does not pass all three stages. In fact, Princess Leia, the fairly tough female lead, doesn’t have other women to talk with and she plays a secondary role to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. O’Brien boils her argument down to a simple statement, “girls need heroes too.”

A TED talk that narrowly preceded O’Brien’s commentary features a father, Colin Stokes, as he discusses, “How movies teach manhood.” Stokes also draws on the Bechdel Test to critique Star Wars. Rather than arguing for a new female protagonist, Stokes suggests that a lack of female characters is bad for boys too. In a world in which men and women work together in a variety of circumstances, says Stokes, movies should reflect the cooperative nature of the genders today.

Like these critical fans, I too am looking forward to Star Wars, hoping to see enough tough women (with the men) to pass the Bechdel Test.

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Affordable, dependable childcare – A right worth fighting for

In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration (Article 3.1, Convention on the Rights of the Child).

My nephew On January 10, parents at a Chicago daycare center located in a Social Security Administration building learned they had until April to find new accommodations for their children. On February 1, parents learned that the provider of the daycare services was closing at least two classrooms, containing over 30 children, within a week. Wait lists for childcare in Chicago extend to 6 months or longer.

The two bodies making the decisions about Windy City Kids child care center include the federal Social Security Administration and their contractors, Easter Seals, who runs the Windy City Kids center. In full disclosure, my niece and nephew attend this school, and I’ve learned about these issues through my sister.

My sister, her husband, and the nearly 100 parents of other children at Windy City Kids child care have not taken this news sitting down. They have mobilized politically and electronically, sharing their story with local Chicago media and politicians. They have spent hours writing letters and speaking with elected officials.

Several parents echo the sentiment that  the decisions surrounding the closure of the center seem to have been made with no consideration for the children who spend their weekdays there, playing, building and maintaining friendships, and learning.

In a 1998 Memorandum, then-President Bill Clinton called for higher standards at federal day cares, including a requirement for accreditation of all contracted day care centers and background checks for workers therein.

In an early story that aired on ABC, Doug Nguyen, Chicago spokesman for the Social Security Administration made a statement that they, “reviewed all aspects of the operation of the child care center and made a business decision to close it effective April 8, 2013. Given SSA’s tight budget situation, we continue to make choices.”

In follow-up communication with parents the SSA elaborated on problems with the contractor not following the requirements laid out by Clinton in 1998. When Easter Seals continued to fail to fully comply with background checks and accreditation requirements, among others, the SSA opted to close the center, rather than replace the contractors.

The subsequent decision to “collapse” classrooms in the second week of February came by letter from Easter Seals, informing parents that the daycare provider will continue removing or combining classes as teachers take other positions. So classes may be closed at any time before April 8, as the organization dismantles this branch of their service.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child codifies international standards in decisions that affect children. “The best interests of the children shall be a primary consideration,” states the convention, which the United States signed onto.  Congress has not ratified the convention, so the United Nations cannot hold us accountable.

But my sister and the other parents at Windy City Kids have taken it upon themselves to hold the Social Security Administration and Easter Seals accountable for those decisions, which have a direct impact on their children. And still many of their questions and requests remain unanswered.

The parents are still posting testimonials and circulating a petition to save their school. Some of the kids have grown up in the program from infancy, and others may have to leave before spending a full year in the program.

This sudden transition will be no doubt be difficult for the children and parents involved. The parents will soldier forward pursuing every avenue to save the program, because their right to reliable childcare and their children’s right to due consideration are certainly worth fighting for.

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Pregnant Inmates’ Rights and Stories

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAImagine you are pregnant. Nine months pregnant. And in prison. Imagine that when you go into labor, your escort to the hospital, an armed guard, insists on keeping your hands and/or feet shackled. Consider the implications of restrained foot movement for a top-heavy pregnant woman. Now, when you arrive at the hospital, in order to ensure that you will not escape (even though you are fully pregnant and having contractions), the guard then attaches you to the hospital bed by hand, foot, or belly restraints. Try to imagine how would you feel about that.

These restraints limit mobility for the birthing mother, which can normally help ease and facilitate the labor process. And the restraints can cause delays if she needs to be prepared quickly for a caesarean section.

The practice of shackling incarcerated pregnant woman is widely condemned by medical groups including the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric & Neonatal Nursing. It’s also been condemned by the United Nations in various treaties and documents, some of which the US has signed on to. But despite the condemnation of this kind of shackling, which is often framed as a type of illegal, cruel and unusual punishment, it still occurs.

Less than twenty states have laws against shackling inmates while giving birth. California just passed a law to forbid shackling a woman during “pregnancy, labor, delivery, and recovery,” reports Huffington Post. Even in states without such legislation, incarcerated women (and women who were held and not-yet-convicted) have been filing — and winning — lawsuits for their treatment during labor. A case like this was filed in Nevada this summer, reports Reuters. In September, The Tennessean ran a story about a woman receiving $1.1 million in damages from the metro government for the way she was treated while in custody and in labor.

Shackling during pregnancy is not only viewed as a violation of the Eighth Amendment (re: cruel and unusual punishment), but the UN has condemned the practice in their Bangkok Rules (on the treatment of women prisoners). In 2006, the UN cited the US for not maintaining the international standards that they signed on to when ratifying the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

This topic is new and rich to me, as I’ve been researching it for a term paper. I wanted to share my findings and tie them in with yesterday’s observance of the 2012 Human Rights Day. The theme of the day was “My Voice Counts,” which ties in so well with this anti-shackling group I found while digging around for my project.

BBB_logo_200_238

WORTH is a New York based group that lobbied for the state bill that prohibited shackling women in labor. The project expanded their reach to reproductive rights of incarcerated women throughout the US. They are currently collecting testimonials from women who have been incarcerated. The project is called Birthing Behind Bars. They have a website to host blog posts, videos, and audio stories about women who gave birth in shackles or had a range of other pregnancy or postpartum experiences in prison. They’ve even asked for stories about the prison nursery experience, for those women incarceration in institutions with nurseries (that is a topic worth its own post).

The broad range of stories sought by WORTH is a testament to the fact that shackled labor is not the only challenge for pregnant women in prison. Other hurdles including getting adequate nutrition and dealing with the emotional strain of separation from the baby. For women with mental illnesses (a disproportionate portion of the prison population) immediate separation from a newborn can be especially traumatic.

I am not advocating for reform, but as a journalist, I value the power of story-telling. And for the women with traumatic experiences as pregnant inmates, they deserve to share their story. Please comment with links if you have narratives to share.

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Disability Rights Garner Recent Attention, Debate

Despite … various instruments and undertakings, persons with disabilities continue to face barriers in their participation as equal members of society and violations of their human rights in all parts of the world – UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Preamble

Disability accessDisability Rights made headlines twice in the last two weeks. The Associated Press covered an extensive report from the National Council on Disability that identified people with disabilities continue to face bias, especially in regards to having and keeping children. And just a few days ago, 38 Republicans in the US Congress resisted appeals to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, reported the Washington Post.

This second story has received more coverage and extensive commentary as the US has a history with this UN convention, and the failure to ratify it has raised some interesting contradictions. But the two stories together feature the often-overlooked struggles that people with disabilities continue to face in the US and around the world.

The Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 and was signed by George H. W. Bush in front of a crowd. Then-Senator Edward Kennedy called it the “emancipation proclamation” for persons with disabilities. This document was a model for the UN Convention, which was crafted with assistance from George W. Bush’s administration and signed by Barak Obama in 2009. It’s had bi-partisan support until now. But the treaty is not ratified until congress signs on.

Veterans and disability rights groups and lawmakers who’ve served in the military made appeals to congress to ratify the convention, but resisters drew upon a few different arguments, including a fear that ratification would threaten US sovereignty, making us subject to UN oversight. Other commentators critical of ratification cited the financial cost of supplying regular reports to the UN as a roadblock.

I cannot speak to how much it costs to issue reports to the UN, though the US has ratified and follows the protocols of other UN treaties. These UN conventions are not legally binding, nor would they allow for the UN to intervene directly in domestic affairs, but they do create another level of accountability and oversight, in this case regarding accessibility, equality, and other rights of people with disabilities.

In the UN convention there is a section referring specifically to parenting and reproductive rights. It states that:

Persons with disabilities [can] decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and [have the right to] access to age-appropriate information, reproductive and family planning education… In no case shall a child be separated from parents on the basis of a disability of either the child or one or both of the parents.

These issues were a theme in David Crary’s AP article on disabled parents. If Congress were to ratify the convention, then parents and lawyers like those featured in Crary’s article would be able to draw on that document to support their cases. As it stands, those advocating for the rights of parents with disabilities can draw on the ADA and other human rights treaties, which some say is sufficient for the US and others continue to disagree. In any case, these issues have been raised to the level of national debate and the continued struggles of people with disabilities acknowledged, at least to some extent.

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25th World AIDS Day Covers the Spectrum of this Global Pandemic

  1. The twitter-verse lit up on and around Dec. 1 in observance of World AIDS Day and the global issues surrounding the AIDS epidemic. Advocates, governments, and ordinary folks commented on tragedy, hope, stigma, and vulnerable populations. And some even found comic relief.
    AIDS is a fairly young disease. It gained mainstream attention in the 80s, then swept across the world leaving millions of bodies and orphans in its wake. When people in the United States started paying attention to AIDS and the virus that causes it, HIV, it was associated with the homosexual male population. But history demonstrated that women and men, heterosexual and homosexual, are equally vulnerable to the virus. World AIDS Day was established in 1987, and one of the purposes of the event is to remember those who have succumbed to the illness.
  2. aliciakeys
    It’s #WORLDAIDSDAY – Let’s remember those who have passed & re-commit to the struggle.We can achieve an #AIDS-free future in our lifetimes
  3. JoyceMeyer
    Today is #WorldAIDSDay. Join us in praying for the victims as well as for the families who’ve lost loved ones to this devastating disease.
  4. UNAIDS
    RT @un_women: Globally, AIDS is the leading cause of death for girls and women age 15-44. #AIDSfree @unicef_aids
  5. SLangeneggerCBC
    @dsmyxe I had so many friends in Africa who died of AIDS – so many women whose husbands brought it home and they had no idea until too late
  6. While the overall message of AIDS Awareness is as serious as life and death, many promote lighter-hearted awarenss, coupled with statistics. Red remains the color of the day.
  7. RT @geraldinegugo: @IPSForg In the laboratory… #WorldAIDSDay http://pic.twitter.com/xTT61XHV
  8. #UniversityofLiverpool s tribute for #WorldAidsDay #HIV #HIV- #1stDec #1stDecem @ Hele-Shaw Lecture Theatre http://instagr.am/p/SwERohiyqC/
  9. RT @standardny: It’s official, we turned RED with
    @joinRED for #WorldAIDSDay! #nyc http://instagr.am/p/Sts582rHOl/
  10. RT @RealTheWriter: Be positive you’re negative.. Get tested! Protect yourself! #WorldAIDSDay #RED #AMFAR http://instagr.am/p/SwFCSCPYwf/
  11. While AIDS on the continent of Africa gets a lot of coverage, it remains a problem in the United States and throughout the world.
  12. Thethamz
    RT @firstworldfacts: In America, someone is diagnosed with AIDS every 10 mins. In South Africa, someone dies due to AIDS every 10 mins. #WorldAidsDay
  13. Government officials, including both Clintons (former President Bill and Secretary of State Hillary), obeserved and presented plans to address HIV/AIDS.
  14. ClintonTweet
    “On this #WorldAIDSDay, we all need to recommit to the end of AIDS.” President Clinton’s statement: wjcf.co/Sn3rfV
  15. Medical treatments for HIV/AIDS have come a long way in the last few decades, but many people still live with an unknown, HIV positive status. World AIDS Day opens a conversation about and opportunities for destigmatized testing.
  16. ShelbyTNHealth
    #WorldAIDSDay was yesterday, but the Shelby County Health Dept. will offer free HIV counseling and testing ALL December. Know YOUR status.
  17. #WorldAIDSDay Rhema Wellness – 2 days of free testing and Counseling. 200 professionals volunteered http://pic.twitter.com/HTjHPzth
  18. ChristineIAm
    RT @thinkprogress: HIV testing will now be covered under Obamacare; 1st over the counter test was FDA approved this year #WorldAIDSDay thkpr.gs/Rp8pM9
  19. Testing and treatment are not always so accessible in African countries, where HIV/AIDS spread rapidly over the last three decades. Poverty and accessibility to health care play a major role in the large numbers of HIV infections on the continent. But this year some governments and observers highlighted progress, and South Africa even featured puppets against AIDS.
  20. HuffingtonPost
    Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 90 percent of the world’s children who have HIV/AIDS huff.to/SliuH8 #jnj #globalmotherhood
  21. manila_bulletin
    AIDS day:JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – South Africa, home to the world’s largest HIV caseload, on Saturday unveiled … bit.ly/11n49yG
  22. mikehamilton63
    Progress-more to be done “@AfricaDailyNews: Africans mark significant progress on World AIDS day sns.mx/bsY0y6
  23. treebu
    Harper government fails Africa on low-cost drugs for AIDS fb.me/1r2DclH7b
  24. NickKristof
    A sign of progress against AIDS: coffin-makers in southern Africa say their business is slumping: nytimes.com/2012/07/08/opin…
  25. Power2thePuppet
    This week is the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s Puppets Against AIDS, see pics and video here: puppetrynews.com/puppets-ag… @actupny
  26. Stigmas against AIDS and presumed sexual activity and orientation remain a problem around the world.
  27. artisticnesss
    1987 was around the time political figures started saying the word HIV/AIDS and talking barely of gay rights in public…smh
  28. JSIhealth
    “I was drawn to #HIV/AIDS work because it had been so closely connected to the gay/lesbian civil rights movement” ow.ly/fE27I
  29. The following article explores in detail how stigma affects an HIV positive gay male in Canada.
  30. planete8
    Albert Knox on fighting segregation of HIV positive prisoners in #Alabama: bit.ly/11gaf3H #WorldAIDSDay via Gay GUARDIAN RT@
  31. Women experience HIV/AIDS differently than men and are affected in higher numbers. Paul Farmer would say they are made vulnerable by their gender and possibly, depending on their location and circumstances, poverty level (see his book: Women, Poverty, and AIDS: sex, drugs, and structural violence).
  32. UN_Women
    Girls bear a disproportionate burden of #HIV in most-affected regions.
    #AIDSfree @unicef_aids
  33. DAWNInc
    In Sub-Saharan #Africa, young women aged 15-24 are EIGHT times more likely than men to be living with HIV ow.ly/fEgia #WorldAIDSDay
  34. TeeWhyOwei
    Women account for 59% of adults aged 15 and over said to be living with HIV/AIDS in Africa.
  35. msnafia
    1998 saw women exceed men in sub-Saharan Africa living with AIDS #WorldAIDSDay
  36. Some commentators drew connections between HIV infections among women and other issues that affect women.
  37. TheShelterTweet
    Promoting and protecting women’s human rights helps keep them safer from HIV & a multitude of abuses ow.ly/fGeme #wad #dv
  38. CancerAfrica
    @UN_Women “Getting to Zero”: Working together to end twin pandemics of #HIV/AIDS & #violenceagainstwomen—least we forget #Cervical #Cancer
  39. WorldHungerDay
    Why it’s vital to support women with HIV/Aids with Microfinance – meet Elizabeth bit.ly/mcYdIT #Opportunity4All #AFRICA plsRT
  40. Every year my school buys badges like these, handmade in South Africa from women affected by HIV AIDS #WorldAIDSDay http://pic.twitter.com/PktcR0li
  41. In my experiences with World AIDS Day (and I’ve been following it for the last fifteen years), the event is not complete without sex-positive condom distribution. The city of Paris took a strong stand with 350,000 condoms to distribute and their own controversial logo.
  42. George Dexter Omoraro
    2 clicks gives a condom to a project that needs it. Be part of #1share1condom for #worldaidsday to help prevent HIV. 1share1condom.com
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Women’s Rights Paradoxes After the Arab Spring

One paradox of the Arab Spring, said Fatima Sadiqi, is that women took a primary role in the uprising but their political rights regressed after the turmoil. The number of women in Egyptian parliament dropped since the uprising in January 2011, for example.

In her presentation to over 150 people at UW-Madison’s Union South earlier this month, Sadiqi quoted the beginning lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to capture contradictory sentiments about the Arab Spring: “It was the best of times it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was epoch of belief, it was epoch of incredulity…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

Sadiqi visited UW-Madison on November 8 to speak about “North African Women’s Rights in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring.” She discussed the challenges that face the Maghreb, the region of North African now struggling to build democracies alongside political Islam.

Sadiqi argued that women’s rights are a “genuine prerequisite for democracy.”

Sadiqi  started the Gender Studies program at the University of Fes in her native Morocco, and she was introduced as the first female linguist in the Arab world. She serves as a professor of Linguistics and Gender Studies. In 2006 she founded the ISIS Center for Women and Development  and, three years later, co-founded the International Institute for Languages and Cultures.

I had the pleasure of interviewing her in advance about her personal journey into the fields of women’s rights and linguistics. But I also learned a lot from her lecture about the Arab spring and the future of women’s rights in the region.

The Qur’an

She shed some light on political Islam and its influence on the Middle East and North Africa (which have unique histories and political dynamics). Political Islam grew from the Iranian revolution, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the United States, explained Sadiqi.

Islam comes with its own forms of feminism, and Sadiqi pointed out that the women involved in the Arab spring ranged from Islamic feminists to secular feminists; they ranged in age, and they had support from NGOs and some men as well.

“Islamic feminism is the unwanted child of Islamism,” said Sadiqi.

Islamic feminists have been reviewing the Qur’an and other Islamic doctrine to separate the religious tenants from the politicized interpretations. (But this is a big topic for consideration on another day.)

Sadiqi pointed out that Islam is changing, along with Maghreb democracies. She said that there is a diversification in the religious field in North Africa, and while society is not becoming more secularized, there is perhaps a growing separation between Islam and politics. That separation may be facilitated by movement in women’s rights, she said.

In her talk, Sadiqi explored numerous paradoxes inherent in the aftermath of the Arab spring, but she also presented solutions. She suggested that gender equality be included in new constitutions and the policies of formative democracies and that legal action can be an important way for women’s equality to progress. She ended with the slogan from a growing political party in Tunisia:

“Democracy will happen with women, or it will not happen at all.”

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Veteran Appreciation, and some of the struggles they face

On a domestic flight a few years ago I sat next to a friendly man dressed in Army fatigues. We chatted a little, then I tried to absorb myself in my book. But I couldn’t, because I felt too cold. So the soldier next to me shared his coat, and I accepted it, despite my pride.

At the time I felt very awkward about how to act towards men and women in the service, and I maintain mixed feelings about US military policies. When I shared an armrest with that nice soldier on the plane, I kept seeing flashes of all the policy and news reports about the war in Iraq, rather than fully engaging with the individual next to me. I wished I had thanked him for his service as well has his coat.

Now that I’m several years older (and maybe a little wiser) I better appreciate that soldier’s generosity in risking his life in the line of duty. But I worry that the US doesn’t have the tools to support returning soldiers. I didn’t previously consider veterans a minority or vulnerable population, but in some respects they are both. People in the active military in the US make up about 1 percent of the population, and veterans make up about 7 percent of the population (as of 2010). As for their vulnerability, some veterans return home injured (physically and/or mentally), and those who aren’t injured still have to deal with the stigma and suspicion of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The departure of US troops from Afghanistan has raised a number of issues for veterans here at home, especially in job searches. They struggle to find work, in part because their military credentials do not always transfer to civilian credentials. John Stewart on the Daily Show posed mock interviews for two medics with heroic credentials. Neither of them hold certificates or degrees to officially qualify them to serve as a school nurse – and yet both saved lives of fellow soldiers and received the sufficient medical training to do so.

Michelle Obama is among many others in the US in running initiatives to serve the military personnel who served us. The New York Times just posted a story outlining the growth of organizations that support veterans, suggesting that perhaps that the US can’t handle any more such groups. At least there is activity in that realm.

The US is faced with a growing, though small population of servicemen and women who deserve a fair shot in the job market and appreciation from the government and civilians they served.

Thank you to those who served and those still serving.

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