I recently interviewed a small women’s resource center in South India.  Sakhi Kerala Women’s Resource Center is like a breeze on a hot day.  They work tirelessly to advance the position of women in a culture, society, and city where traditional gender-specific roles are still the norm.  Despite the difficulty of their work, Sakhi is still making great strides in educating a populous toward a modern concept of equality, equity, and justice for women.

As a local group working to improve the lives of women in a developing world.  I wanted to gain an opinion and perspective from the very people who work in this area and wanted to learn about their own obstacles and achievements.

The obvious obstacle they mentioned, common to nearly all charities and not-for-profit organisations, is a lack of funding.  Though this particular charity receives support from international organisations, they still face the harshness of the world’s economic downturn through funding cuts.  It’s unfortunate that their work and goals are struggling because of lack of finances.  Simply put they don’t have the resources to conduct the work necessary for the goals of the charity.  One important factor that was mentioned was the availability of staff.  As it stands now, it is a small office with an adjacent library, there are only six full time staff members and without the financial availability to hire a new staff member some of the projects the organisation would like to conduct are put on hold.

Coming from a European and North American background, I asked why they didn’t take on interns.  They explained that they don’t have an internship scheme as one would see in Europe or North America: 3-6 month, unpaid/paid/expenses, full-time.  Most of their ‘interns’ are more akin to volunteers passing through and offering what little help and assistance they can.  The unattractive nature of the position is that it is unpaid.  I was told that very few, and in any at all,  people do volunteer, they do so with an intention to find a job and leave as soon as they do.  The attractive and almost culturally necessary requirement for a paid job is the looming grey cloud for this otherwise bright-eyed organisation.

It was a disappointing revelation to hear that women today are still finding it hard to strike that balance between what they want to do and what society expects them to do.  The responsibility to find a job immediately after graduation is an unavoidable cultural necessity in India.  Male or female, the point of studying is to find a job and then find a partner- sadly this is as true today as it was during our mother’s time.  It’s an unfortunately curious thing altogether for me having been raised in the West to Eastern parents, but in some weird way understandable.

Obstacles are inevitable, but such an obstacle is unfortunate.  For organisations like Sakhi people are necessary to achieve their goals and until resources in the form of finances or people are made available such organisations will continue to struggle.

Desert Rose

Amid images of rubble and shell shocked residents, cars in flames and pieces of debris smouldering in the background, Vogue magazine published their article on Asma al-Assad laced between advertisements for designer bags, high gloss nail varnish, and exclusive items (price available upon request 417-555-5555).  It made me wonder: is this what first ladies have come to? Mannequins of advertisement for fashion and a distraction from the devastation and political strife that paints their backdrop?

I read Vogue like I window shop, I’m attracted to shiny things and leather goods, none of which I can afford but like to examine for their beauty for the art they represent.  Then before I lose myself completely and I feel my face get closer to the glossy pages of the magazine or the glass windows of designer row, I let myself remember what’s really going on in the world.  How many villages could be saved by spending $500 on digging wells instead of a coin purse; how many children could go to school with $4,000 instead of sparkly heels; and how many prisoners could access fair trials with skilled attorneys for $100,000 instead of a couture dress.   

I guess that’s what magazines like Vogue try to do, with their little political feature pieces and nods to empowered women.  However, the fact remains, they slipped on this one just a little.  Asma al-Assad is the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  A beautiful woman, no doubt, who does little to comment on her husband’s (ir)responsibilities of running a country.  Vogue outlined a delicate portrait of her from her democratic upbringing to her love for fine fashion, but did little to make mention of her politics or perspectives on the events in the Middle East and particularly in Syria.

ImageThis took me to thinking about what popular culture has done to women with husbands in power.   Instead of being viewed as independent political thinkers, with values, and opinions on their nation they are idealized as mannequins and models of fashion- something “more relatable” for the greater female population, if you will.  Thinking of the American First-Lady Michelle Obama, more articles are written on her sleeveless floral dresses than her work with children’s healthcare and education.   Over to the French First-Lady Carla Bruni, more is written on her plastic surgery and flawless figure than her work with women’s charities.  Historically, Eva Peron, Argentina’s First-Lady (1946-1952) was paraded as a model in her elegant attire for even the most modest of tasks.

Even women who have made it to greater positions of power than their romantic partners have been analyzed in depth for their wardrobe and makeup sense rather than their political motivations by these same women’s magazines.   Hilary Clinton’s feature in Marie Claire (May 2012) began with an allude to shoes- her politics is somewhat more difficult to separate from her person, but even still the article goes on to discuss her change in wardrobe from the Clinton Administration to how she wears her hair.  During Benazir Bhutto’s short time in the political sphere, she was consistently complimented by magazines for her flawless complexion and simple but elegant dress sense.

All these women had causes, they had charities they work tirelessly with, they write and speak on the needs of the people- but all this is a shadow to their gowns, shoes, and jewels they wear to state functions or jeans and trainers they wear to walk the family dog.  It is an unfortunate thing that a woman’s politics and perspectives are first judged by her wardrobe choices, especially when it would be unimaginable to do the same to a man.  Today with the European economy in the state that it’s in, a last concern should be if Carla is wearing heels or flats; with Syria in a state of civil unrest, Asma’s flavour for designer vases should be poignant dismay not interest; with the American economy slowly teetering into the next election, Michelle should be asked questions on her continued work with children’s charities not her favourite American designer. Image

Simultaneously, we have scorned successful women like Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel to gritty newspapers and pithy articles in the Economist rather than give them conscious thought and verse in these same magazines.  What does this say about the female readers of these magazines, that they have a disinterest in actual world politics, or would rather use these magazines as a distraction from their daily grueling lives sat behind newspapers, news stories, and life’s ‘serious matters’?  Thatcher and Merkel may not be the most haute couture but their politics are, and that deserves to be written next to priceless designer scarves.

We as a culture have pushed even the most respectable and representative women to porcelain dolls to be admired from afar, mimicked in their pomp and splendor, but never asked an opinion lest they speak and shed their beauty. 

Had Vogue considered Asma’s politics and her role alongside her husband’s career, they may not have published the article.  If they had looked behind her porcelain skin and asked her thoughts on the Arab Spring and the conflicts in the Middle East, they may have been able to find her true secret to beautiful skin- as we all know, a good night’s rest, stress release activities, and a healthy diet- which I can’t imagine Syria, in its current state, producing this most conducive environment. Image

With International Women’s Day behind us, and having taken part in a few activities which led up to and happened on the day, I was exposed to something very interesting in my preparation for the day.

In looking for events to attend I quickly came across the ‘Million Women Rise‘ march that took place in London, UK.  It was a large gathering of women, marching through the multicultural and mutli-national streets of London; women chanted, sang, danced, and drummed to ‘end male violence against women’.  I was geared up and excited to attend, to take part in an event that fundamentally had a necessary place.  But I was quickly dissuaded from attending when I found out it was a women and children ONLY march.

The role of men in the women’s rights movement is often under-represented, and in the case of ‘Million Women Rise’, it is my opinion that it is sometimes a form of reverse-sexism that can only be detrimental to the progression and proliferation of women’s rights. I use Liberia as the strongest example in my defense.  Liberian women struggled for 14 long years under the brutal dictatorship of Charles Taylor, depriving them of peace, prosperity, and a place in society. Taylor was finally ousted from power by the same women he sought to oppress.

Today Nobel Peace Prize winner and elected president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has rebuilt the nation on the fundamental belief in equality and justice for all.  The images we have see of hundreds of women encircling Taylor’s cavalcades and home, dressed in white and publicly demanding freedom from oppression, is often void of the hundreds more men who stood behind these women and supported them to their success.  Sirleaf has repeatedly, in interviews and speeches recognized the crucial role that men play in the women’s liberation and women’s rights movement.

I don’t think it necessary to dwell in the 1800s when most men, and not all, excluded women from the public sphere and kept them oppressed in the private.  We use those memories as a starting point for progression, to exclude and openly deny men the opportunity to take part in a social movement is the very thing in inverse of what was done to us.  Without women men cannot succeed, and without men, women cannot move forward.

I am reminded of one of my favourite campaigns, the ‘White Ribbon Campaign‘.  Organized by men this campaign charges men around the world to end violence against women. To rally together and to swear against gender-based violence.  It is a campaign, by men, for men, for the benefit of women.  It assures my belief that though women can raise their voice and march their feet, without men taking an oath the women’s rights campaign will forever be one-sided.

 

KONY 2012: Social Awareness or Social Group-Think?

A video goes viral thanks to the efforts of a charity and a few million facebook savants who are seemingly intent on bringing an end to impunity for a perpetrator of an armed conflict, which has been ensuing for years in a part of the world that is usually forgotten until such news or videos goes viral.  The use of facebook and twitter as social awareness tools has been growing exponentially in just a few years.  Used widely by charities and news media to share the world’s events as it happens, facebook and twitter have rapidly accelerated the way news is shared.  In light of the newest viral video, KONY 2012, this social awareness frenzy raises the question: are viral videos the most effective way to raise awareness?

 

The History

Joseph Kony is the alleged Commander-in-Chief of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) which, as a group, is responsible for the killings, kidnappings, and mutilations of tens of thousands of people as Reuters Africa reports.   The militia was started out of rebel uprisings in the late 1980s in response to the newly elected Museveni government’s heavy handed response to Northern Uganda.  Out of the number of rebel groups that fought against the national government, the LRA was the only group to successfully occupy and take control of the region.  In the 1990s the LRA continued to leash violence in the region eventually spreading into neighbouring states, the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Sudan.   In the 2000s when news of the atrocities hit first-world ears, the celebrity world made its first plea to the Ugandan government to stop to the violence.  As a counterinsurgency measure the Ugandan government forced the region’s population into mass displacement in what Foreign Affairs likens to concentration camps.

                There, they were poorly protected from attacks, and faced dreadful living conditions.  A study   carried out under the auspices of the World Health Organization in 2005 found that there were      1000 excess deaths per week in the Acholi region.

The figures of deaths, mutilations, rapes, slavery, and displacement are highly contentious.  There remains no calculable way to determine just how many people suffered and died at the hands of the LRA or the government’s counterinsurgency.

In 2005 the ICC (International Criminal Court) issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and top ranking leaders in the LRA.  Kony’s arrest and trial at the ICC is crucial for international law to pursue justice and set precedent on the counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes for which he is wanted.

 

The Viral Video

In a matter of a couple of days Invisible Children has been successful at making their 30min ‘experiment’, as the narrator and film maker Jason Russell describes it, a social media overload.   Calling itself ‘KONY 2012’ the campaign aims at charging people with ‘making Kony famous’.  It points a solitary finger at Joseph Kony and charges the world with making him a household name which Russell believes can bring him to justice by the end of 2012.

The film itself is based on appeal to human emotion and empathy.  After watching the film a number a times and looking beyond the fancy graphics and melancholy music, you can see a strategic offensive which any leader able to enrapture the interest of the masses can do, and has done in the past.  The film beings with placing an onus on the viewer- “humanity’s greatest desire is to respond and connect”, “we share what we love”- and in imploring your humanity implies if you don’t share, you don’t love.   In between interviews, facts sharing, and images of youth activists Russell uses interviews with his son to demonstrate how even a child can understand the simplicity of the message- perhaps too simple?

Already critics have voiced their opinions on the video, the creator himself and the organisation.   Almost immediately after the video went viral, a blog in rebuttal to the video also went viral.  Visible Children, provides a cross analysis of what the KONY 2012 video claims, and also investigates the charity and Russell.  A number of media sources including Foreign Policy and NPR have claimed that Invisible Children have misused and misrepresented statistics and facts for strategic purposes.  If you watch till the end of the video those strategic purposes are as basic as a publicity and fundraising campaign for the organization; then if you watch the video again the strategic purpose is akin to the American mega-church ritual of emote and enlist.

 

The Issue

Some argue that at the end of the day an issue that needs attention is being spoken about, that what would have otherwise been ‘not my problem’ is facing individuals directly in the face.  But is this best way to do it?  Most people who have either liked or reposted the video are hardly aware of the facts that relate to the LRA, their uprising, and the role of the ICC.  One person I spoke to, who avidly reposted and commented ferociously on the video, could not even restate what the ICC acronym stood for; she could only recite that Kony was a bad person that needed to be brought to justice and the only way to do so would be by sharing the video.  

It is important that we engage with world issues; that we become aware and take protracted steps to truly make a difference.  Just as the Russell claims, education is key, but reposting videos under a ‘group-think’ mentality will hardly educate the populous.  Becoming knowledgeable about the history of the crisis, the role and responsibilities of the ICC, and the position of your nation state in relation to ICC is crucial if true justice is to be served. 

Today the video has been seen over 20 million times in just three short days, but in two months when the guerilla postering is set to take place, will the 20 million viewers even remember what they viewed, or will it have disappeared like old news down the timeline of their facebook wall?

New Gender Detection Technique

New Gender Detection Technique

It’s great to see how the world is advancing in the ways of health technology and for that matter how rapidly we are making these advancements. It gives us hope that the cure for HIV/AIDS is just around the corner, or the cure for Cancer is just a step away- but in these efforts we’re saving lives, how will this new gender detection technique help us if it destroys them?

Already we have seen the horrible out comes of ultra sound- that in itself was intended to check on the developing fetus, and assist doctors and nurses in regulating the health of the baby and mother.  But with the whims of man hovering in the background, it was used to selectively abort fetus’ based on their sex. 

This new technique may just prove to be unrealistically unfair to a whole generation of unborn girls if the government of countries such as India and China don’t put strict restrictions on its use and prevalence.