Tag Archives: Women’s Rights

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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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.

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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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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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Defining “Human Rights”

Over the last year I’ve been honing a specialty for my pursuits in the field of journalism, and on several occasions I told people that I wanted my beat to focus on human rights and social justice. But I feel like I’m only just starting to understand what human rights even means.

In my work for a course on “Women’s International Human Rights,” I have to keep a glossary of terms. “Human Rights” stands as the first term on my list, and I realized after a few class meetings that it’s a complex concept with a rich history.

The United Nations are largely responsible for the establishment of codified human rights, and that process began after the genocide of World War II. The UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but it still didn’t have any teeth for reinforcement, and its language betrayed some gender bias.

In an intense criticism of the Declaration, Catherine MacKinnon asks, “Are Women Human?” citing the language in Article 1 of the document: “All human beings…should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Men would not feel included if that document suggested all humans treat each other as sisters, suggests MacKinnon.

Furthermore, Article 23 reads, “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity,” yet women today still do not receive equal pay and many struggle to support their own families to a dignified existence.

The establishment of codified human rights did by no means put men and women on equal footing, but it proved to be an important step in universalizing the idea that all humans deserve life, and dignity, and other immutable rights.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights….Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (Articles 1 and 2)

Other rights set out in the initial UN Declaration go beyond the US Bill of Rights and the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” of the Declaration of Independence. In addition to the right of a fair trial and freedom from torture, the Universal Declaration states we all share the right to have a family, health, education, cultural life, leisure time, and more.

But the Universal Declaration does not do into depth about how to protect minority or underrepresented groups who experience systemic oppression. So more committees formed in the UN to monitor abuses against these groups and to support them. These groups include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), among others.

All these details about international human rights are new to me. But I’m thrilled to learn about which countries have adopted various UN treaties and how that reflects on state protection of particular human rights. With each new discovery of the fascinating history of human rights documentation, I learn about more human rights violations. And these rights are violated in the United States as much as the next country. In this blog I’ll be sharing my discoveries and criticisms around human rights issues as I delve in deeper this semester and beyond.

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