Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pakistan: Third Gender Legalized

Eunuchs in Karachi on World Aids Day 1 Dec 2009
BBC News on April 27, 2011; Hijras in Pakistan
One has to wonder - in a good way - how a country with a record of appalling human rights abuses against women can, at the same time, legally create a third gender category for eunuchs, or hijras. Faced with discrimination, hijras are generally shunned by polite society, working as entertainers, beggars or prostitutes. Now, along with with their newly recognized gender category, Pakistan's government has specifically hired hijras as tax collectors. Going to door-to-door in upscale neighborhoods, they shame the populace into giving up past due funds. 

I welcome this news, applaud Pakistan's Supreme Court and hope this news will help raise the status of hijras in society. However, I cannot help but ask, is their usefulness to the nation's economic welfare a driving force behind this legal acceptance of their socially constructed gender category? Will women, subject to hijab by this conservative Muslim state, ignored with regularity by the legal system when raped or abused, as in the case of Mukhataran Mai, now find themselves socially and economically beneath not only men in society, but transgendered individuals as well? All the more reason to support financial, educational and legal initiatives aimed at empowering women so they can gain personal prestige and wealth. Thus, they too could have the opportunity to perhaps, over time, raise their economic and perhaps social status in society's eyes.  

Click here for the BBC News video report from April 27, 2011.

Monday, April 25, 2011

In Malaysia: Religious, Social and Legal Claims on Gender Expression

Malaysia's anti-gay camp violates law says minister 

Gay rights groups have criticised the move, saying it promotes homophobia. A camp set up to correct the effeminate behaviour of Muslim schoolboys violates the law and should be abolished, says Malaysia's women's minister.

Sixty-six schoolboys identified by teachers as effeminate began counselling this week to discourage them from being gay. They are undergoing four days of religious and physical education. An education official said the camp was meant to guide the boys back "to a proper path in life".  But the women's minister, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, said singling out these children based on perceived feminine mannerisms was traumatising and harmful to their mental health.

The camp violates the Child Act, which protects children without prejudice, she said. Gay rights groups have also criticised the measure, saying it promotes homophobia in the Muslim-majority country where gay sex is still illegal. The schoolboys allegedly displayed "feminine mannerisms" - though educators in the conservative state of Terengganu did not detail what they were, the BBC's Jennifer Pak reports from Kuala Lumpur.

State officials say that, if left unchecked, the students - aged between 13 and 17 - could end up gay or transsexual. They blame parents for encouraging boys to develop feminine traits, by dressing them up in girls' clothing at a young age.  Terengganu state's education director, Razali Daud, said the students were invited to join the camp and were not compelled to do so. "As educators, we have to do something about it before the young ones misunderstand people and reach the point of no return," he was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times. Mr Razali says although homosexuals and transvestites exist in Malaysia, the authorities want to limit their number.
Gay sex is illegal in Malaysia and homosexuals say they face discrimination from government policies such as a law that makes sodomy punishable by 20 years in prison. Activists say it is appalling that educators are persecuting children for expressing their personalities and identities. The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality said "corrective boot camps" violate the rights of people who are perceived as different. "It should be strongly opposed and challenged as it promotes homophobia and prejudice," the group said in a statement. "We should send a clear message to institutions that they have no business meddling with an individual's identity and personal preference."

A campaigner for sexual rights, Pang Khee Teik, described the camp as outrageous and an example of homophobia. "All the students will learn from these camps is that they are expected to behave a certain way," said Mr Pang, co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka. "And in order to avoid further ridicule, perhaps they will learn to pretend better. In the end, we are only teaching them how to be a hypocrite."

Below is a brief video introduction of kathoeys to Thailand.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Cup of Good Intentions Empty of Deeds

Rather than Mortenson waging a lonely battle against ignorance, the Aga Khan Development Network has been building hundreds of schools in the region and has a track record of staffing them and keeping them open. As the Pakistani journalist, Rina Saeed Khan, points out, Gilgit-Baltistan has one of the highest literacy rates in Pakistan. She asks, quite rightly, why Mortenson didn't join forces with the network given their experience and expertise, instead of struggling desperately to work it all out for himself. But an American putting money into a foreign-sounding aid foundation doesn't quite have the same marketing appeal as the "one-man mission" line that captures perfectly the boom in DIY aid: a new wave of fledgling agencies driven by individuals frustrated and impatient with bureaucracies and politics, who launch their bid to "make a difference". A myth that turns development into an amateur's hobby.
The above quote is an excerpt from The US swallowed these cups of tea to justify its imperial aims Madeleine Bunting published in The Guardian on April  22, 2011 

It has been nearly a week since 60 Minutes challenged the accuracy of events presented in Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea and exposed gaping holes in his claims of building and staffing schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. News agencies in the US and Britain have weighed in. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff in "Three Cups of Tea," Spilled has as asked readers to reserve judgment, and author and climber Jon Krakauer wrote a 90-page  investigative piece, Three Cups of Deceit, detailing gross misrepresentations, inaccuracies and lies presented by both Mr. Mortenson and the agency founded to carry out his mission, the Central Asia Institute Mr. Mortenson has defended his efforts in the New York Times. However, due to these recent accusations about his conduct, Mr. Mortenson is currently under investigation by Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock.

Along with 60 Minutes, many news outlets in the US and Britain have written extensively of Mr. Mortenson’s alleged misuse of donated funds and his failure to report or provide accounts of his expenditures to CAI's board (most who have resigned), auditors or the IRS. This forced CAI's staff to fabricate budgets regarding their schools, many sitting now unoccupied or used as storage sheds. They have questioned the veracity of his tales; it appears that his entire ‘origin story,' how he was separated from his group and lost while descending K2 and nursed back to health by the villagers of Korphe, is nothing but myth. Most egregiously in my opinion, as reported by Krakauer, Mortenson claims in Stones into Schools to have been kidnapped and held hostage by AK47 wielding Taliban supporters. In reality, these men were acquaintances who had invited Mortenson to their village, feted and protected him, presenting him as a medical doctor, a fact Mortenson did not dispute. They are now suing him. He also condemned the religious schools or madrassas as training grounds for Taliban insurgents. While  Nicholas Kristoff states that Mortenson was "right about the need to listen to local people - yes, over cup after cup of tea - rather than just issue instructions" he seems to miss the point that  the opposite appears to be true.

Here, I would like to address not Mr. Mortenson so much as individuals like him who, armed with good intentions, operate in lands far away, creating organizations and building stories of their deeds that are difficult to verify to their donors. They push just the right buttons to make everyone feel good as supporters of a noble cause.

I have a Ph.D. in cultural/medical anthropology. In addition, I have conducted a variety of volunteer international humanitarian activities over the last 30 years to Asia, Africa and South America. I also spent over three-weeks in Pakistan, visiting Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karimabad. For two of those weeks I stayed in northern Pakistan. For 10 of those days, I trekked on the Batura Glacier in the region of Gilgit- Baltistan (home to some of Mr. Mortenson’s projects), beginning in the village of Pasu where Ishmaili porters were hired to carry our gear.  This was in 1985, years before Mr. Mortenson’s journeys began. I mention this only to say I am familiar with the people, the terrain and the culture in areas where Mr. Mortenson has schools.

Often, after a vacation or some another type of visit, I observe well-meaning Westerners make pledges to develop projects in regions of the world in which they have little understanding of the local culture. Moved by scenes and stories of deprivation and poverty, they decide to help, to make a difference. Unfortunately, they tend to bring a Westerner’s sensibility to their efforts. They dictate what they would like to build, give or do, as in, “would you like a school?” Often, they do not ask the local community what they would want or need. In fact, according to Mr. Krakauer, Mortenson built a school in one village where the local leader essentially said, ‘we wanted a road or a health clinic, but Greg was giving money for schools.’ Residing hundreds or thousands of miles away, some donors seldom visit their projects, instead hiring and trusting local people as managers, often with little oversight. Indeed, it appears Mr. Mortenson rarely visited his schools and has not been back to Pakistan in years.

Two weeks ago, a friend wrote asking if I would join the board of a new NGO she is founding aimed at helping women and girls abroad. I declined as, in truth, I am a terrible fundraiser, a key characteristic necessary in a good board member. But, I did email the following:

If you are working abroad, I would suggest connecting with an organization already doing what you want to support and work on getting them the money to continue. Any program also needs a trusted, accountable person on the ground managing funds.

Key words here: accountable person. I travel every year to India to volunteer with Empower the Children and can even now hear the director Rosalie saying, “Did you get a receipt?” or see her digging into her purse to pull out an envelope stuffed with tickets detailing expenditures on supplies, fees and salaries. Every single penny is accounted for in writing.

In short, too many well-meaning, budding philanthropists try to execute humanitarian activities abroad without a full understanding of the local culture. They hire people to build and manage their projects with little knowledge of the hierarchy of relationships and loyalties among families and tribes.  Many tribal, clan and family groups have complicated histories of getting along or not that may affect one's work, including who gets helped, how and when. Naïveté regarding local politics can also impact whether or not ventures get fast-tracked, delayed, or derailed.

Mr. Mortenson indeed did some good. He built schools and with his book publishing tour enlightened many Americans about educational needs, particularly for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, he did so it seems under false pretenses. While espousing a charitable cause, he appears to have misled the public and misspent millions of dollars earmarked for for the education of children. Many sources reported on Mr. Mortenson’s chaotic, disheveled, disorganized demeanor and he stated himself that he was not a good financial manager.  Yet, people placed their money and trust in Mr. Mortenson despite rumors and now facts of his fabricated life. This is all the more reason to use one's head, not one's heart, when deciding how best to help people in need, for it is unwise to mistake good intentions for good deeds.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bangladesh: A Young Girl, Tradition and Justice

This story comes from CNN International. In basic courses on cultural anthropology, we often discuss regulatory vs. traditional law. In state systems like the US, all people regardless of religion, ethnicity or gender are bound by the same laws.  In what can be referred to as 'courts of mediation' found in societies with a centralized political system, or incipient courts in those that are tribal, during arbitration judges or village elders must consider what a reasonable person would have done in the circumstances presented. Past relationships between the parties concerned and local customs and expectations all have a role in the charging and sentencing of the accused. In this case, a teenage girl and her middle-aged married uncle were found guilty of an illicit sexual relationship and both were sentenced to a public lashing. That is, one may reside within a state that promises to uphold the 'rule of law' in its courts but this does not mean that in reality people can or will choose national over traditional justice. Here, religious and village norms, familial connections, family honor, gender and even suggestions of medical neglect by doctors coalesced and the young girl of 14 ended up victimized, then dead. 

Why didn't she run?
At Western Connecticut State University, while discussing this article, people in class asked, "Why didn't she call the police?" and "Why didn't she run away?" In the US, regardless of consent, a man of forty having sexual relations with a girl of 14 is statutory rape. As the students debated the situation, a Bangladeshi student - a 30ish married woman with a young daughter who came to the US when her marriage was arranged, - shook her head and said, "The police would do nothing. Things like this happen everyday in Bangladesh." Further, in this case, the young girl's father was forced to address a discretion committed by his older brother's son: this is a delicate situation in families where the eldest male child holds considerable sway in family affairs.

The students could also not understand how the uncle ran away when the lashing began while his niece endured the full punishment. In rural Bangladesh, a young man's family could help him while villagers looked the other way. After all, a man has responsibilities, entitlement to property, a family to care for; even alone, a man can move about without question. For an unmarried 14 year-old girl, escape would not be so simple. Where would she go? Who would take her in? Girls are kept close to home prior to marriage. With little education and knowledge of life outside the village, a girl traveling alone is open to abuse. Moreover, a man's honor can be lost but regained through good deeds and honorable actions. For a girl, honor means only one thing, chastity. Once that is lost it is nearly impossible to remove the a family's shame unless the girl is severely punished or, as happens often, she is subject to an 'honor killing' at he hands of her male relatives. While here the girl's death was not at the hands of her family, hampered by village norms and religious decrees, they were unable to intervene when her life was at stake.

Only 14, Bangladeshi girl charged with adultery was lashed to death

Shariatpur, Bangladesh (CNN) -- Hena Akhter's last words to her mother proclaimed her innocence. But it was too late to save the 14-year-old girl.

Her fellow villagers in Bangladesh's Shariatpur district had already passed harsh judgment on her. Guilty, they said, of having an affair with a married man. The imam from the local mosque ordered the fatwa, or religious ruling, and the punishment: 101 lashes delivered swiftly, deliberately in public.
Hena dropped after 70. Bloodied and bruised, she was taken to hospital, where she died a week later.
Amazingly, an initial autopsy report cited no injuries and deemed her death a suicide. Hena's family insisted her body be exhumed. They wanted the world to know what really happened to their daughter.

Sharia: illegal but still practiced
Hena's family hailed from rural Shariatpur, crisscrossed by murky rivers that lend waters to rice paddies and lush vegetable fields. Hena was the youngest of five children born to Darbesh Khan, a day laborer, and his wife, Aklima Begum. They shared a hut made from corrugated tin and decaying wood and led a simple life that was suddenly marred a year ago with the return of Hena's cousin Mahbub Khan. Mahbub Khan came back to Shariatpur from a stint working in Malaysia. His son was Hena's age and the two were in seventh grade together. Khan eyed Hena and began harassing her on her way to school and back, said Hena's father. He complained to the elders who run the village about his nephew, three times Hena's age.

The elders admonished Mahbub Khan and ordered him to pay $1,000 in fines to Hena's family. But Mahbub was Darbesh's older brother's son and Darbesh was asked to let the matter fade. Many months later on a winter night, as Hena's sister Alya told it, Hena was walking from her room to an outdoor toilet when Mahbub Khan gagged her with cloth, forced her behind nearby shrubbery and beat and raped her. Hena struggled to escape, Alya told CNN. Mahbub Khan's wife heard Hena's muffled screams and when she found Hena with her husband, she dragged the teenage girl back to her hut, beat her and trampled her on the floor.

The next day, the village elders met to discuss the case at Mahbub Khan's house, Alya said. The imam pronounced his fatwa. Khan and Hena were found guilty of an illicit relationship. Her punishment under sharia or Islamic law was 101 lashes; his 201. Mahbub Khan managed to escape after the first few lashes.

Darbesh Khan and Aklima Begum had no choice but to mind the imam's order. They watched as the whip broke the skin of their youngest child and she fell unconscious to the ground. "What happened to Hena is unfortunate and we all have to be ashamed that we couldn't save her life," said Sultana Kamal, who heads the rights organization Ain o Shalish Kendro.

Bangladesh is considered a democratic and moderate Muslim country, and national law forbids the practice of sharia. But activist and journalist Shoaib Choudhury, who documents such cases, said sharia is still very much in use in villages and towns aided by the lack of education and strong judicial systems. The Supreme Court also outlawed fatwas a decade ago, but human rights monitors have documented more than 500 cases of women in those 10 years who were punished through a religious ruling. And few who have issued such rulings have been charged. Last month, the court asked the government to explain what it had done to stop extrajudicial penalty based on fatwa. It ordered the dissemination of information to all mosques and madrassas, or religious schools, that sharia is illegal in Bangladesh. "The government needs to enact a specific law to deal with such perpetrators responsible for extrajudicial penalty in the name of Islam," Kamal told CNN.

The United Nations estimates that almost half of Bangladeshi women suffer from domestic violence and many also commonly endure rape, beatings, acid attacks and even death because of the country's entrenched patriarchal system. Hena might have quietly become another one of those statistics had it not been for the outcry and media attention that followed her death on January 31.

'Not even old enough to be married'
Monday, the doctors responsible for Hena's first autopsy faced prosecution for what a court called a "false post-mortem report to hide the real cause of Hena's death." Public outrage sparked by that autopsy report prompted the high court to order the exhumation of Hena's body in February. A second autopsy performed at Dhaka Medical College Hospital revealed Hena had died of internal bleeding and her body bore the marks of severe injuries. Police are now conducting an investigation and have arrested several people, including Mahbub Khan, in connection with Hena's death. "I've nothing to demand but justice," said Darbesh Khan, leading a reporter to the place where his daughter was abducted the night she was raped. He stood in silence and took a deep breath. She wasn't even old enough to be married, he said, testament to Hena's tenderness in a part of the world where many girls are married before adulthood. "She was so small."

Hena's mother, Aklima, stared vacantly as she spoke of her daughter's last hours. She could barely get out her words. "She was innocent," Aklima said, recalling Hena's last words. Police were guarding Hena's family earlier this month. Darbesh and Aklima feared reprisal for having spoken out against the imam and the village elders. They had meted out the most severe punishment for their youngest daughter. They could put nothing past them.

Journalist Farid Ahmed reported from Shariatpur, Bangladesh, and CNN's Moni Basu reported from Atlanta.

'Mothers' Gardens" in Bangladesh

A "Mother's Garden" meeting in Chuadanga, Bangladesh sponsored by IMPACT Foundation
With the success of Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDaunn's Half the Sky, it is clear that by giving poor women the tools to help their families through micro-loans, education and other means, not only does the health of children improve, but the status of women in relation to men can be raised.

The IMPACT Foundation has a mission to help children with disabilities. This includes not only surgery to correct crooked limbs, fix cataracts and cleft lip and palates, but educational programs for mothers and midwives to lower incidences of infant and maternal mortality and birth defects. In Chuadanga, IMPACT Foundation has also enabled 4500 families to improve their everyday nutrition. Over the last 10 years they have distributed seeds, education and tools to women who plant "Mothers' Gardens." They grow brightly colored, leafy vegetables high in folic acid and other vitamins that help pregnant women deliver healthier babies. In addition, the organization holds meetings to teach women basic information on nutrition. They also provide safety information and provide barriers that can be placed around open cooking fires so that children will not accidentally get burned while their mothers cook.

Not only has the health of the children improved since the implementation of the gardens, but these women are able to sell their surplus products giving their families added income. These women provide nutrition for their families, gain self esteem for themselves and, through their financial efforts, also become more respected by their husbands. These photos were taken on a visit to IMPACT whose efforts also include the Jibon Tari floating hospital.

A mother from Chuadanga in her garden

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Birth Education in Afghanistan

Too many women in Afghanistan face death or post delivery complications when giving birth. The documentary, Motherland Afghanistan tells the story of one native doctor trying to make a difference in his homeland. The article below, taken from BBC News, illustrates another problem with patriarchy in Afghanistan: it contributes to ignorance of safe birthing techniques for teen wives leading to high incidences of infant mortality. Here, it is not doctors but the rural women themselves who are educating mothers, helping them to deliver healthy babies. 

Afghan midwives deliver life-saving birth education

By Nadene Ghouri
Kabul, Afghanistan
Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to have a child. Women face a one-in-11 risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth, while one in five children dies during or after birth or before the age of five. One initiative is under way to try to make giving birth safer.
Rogul, Afghan midwife and mother
Training and education is helping Rogul to save babies' lives
Rogul wraps a grimy blue scarf around her face and uses the cleanest corner of it to wipe her tears.
She has just told me how nine of her babies died after she gave birth to them at home.
Her firstborn, a little boy, was premature. Her mother asked a village mullah for advice. He suggested prayer and a type of holy water. The baby died.
Her second child died from an infection a few hours after birth. And so it went on - nine dead babies in total.
I am sitting in an Afghan neonatal clinic in Guldara district, just 20 minutes drive from the capital city Kabul.
Women, some in traditional blue burka, others wearing the brightly coloured scarves and loose pantaloons more typical of the nomadic Kuchi tribe, are here.
Some are clutching roundly pregnant bellies, others are here to have their babies vaccinated.
Few would be here at all, if they had not been persuaded to come by a local midwife.
Evil spirits
A young girl called Pashtu, with a dirty face and scared eyes, agrees to talk.
She does not know how old she is but looks no more than 15. She is eight months pregnant with her second child.
Newborn Afghan baby
Afghanistan has one of the highest infant mortality rates
Next month she will give birth in the safety of the clinic. She gave birth to her first child in a filthy hole-in-the-ground toilet at home with only her elderly mother-in-law for help. Her son was born blue and barely breathing. He survived for just under an hour.
I ask her why the baby died? She gives me a nonchalant shrug. Her aunt, a large woman with long braided dark hair is sitting next to her.
"Pashtu is too skinny and doesn't eat enough," she asserts loudly. "This is why her child died."
Another woman tells me it is because Pashtu's husband is an opium addict.
Many babies in Afghanistan also die because of traditional cultural practices.
It is common for babies to be washed in freezing cold water immediately after birth - which can cause pneumonia - umbilical cords are cut with unsterile knives, or babies are placed on a dirty floor to ward off evil spirits, which can cause infection.
Few women breastfeed for the first few days because colostrum, the nutritious fluid in early breast milk - something which is vital for a baby's immune system - is seen here as "dirty". Instead newborns are often fed melted butter.
No sex education
Istiqlal Hospital in central Kabul houses the city's largest maternity ward. Here stories of ignorance prevail.
Map of Afghanistan
Two teenage girls giggle as they tell me they had no idea how pregnancies happened, even after they were married.
One of them is here because she miscarried at five months. She had not known she was pregnant, because she was not aware of any of the symptoms of pregnancy.
"If we ask any questions about these things, we will be called bad girls," they explain as their faces flush red with embarrassment.
The doctor tells me that their mothers often assume they will work it out for themselves after they marry. But they often do not.
"I see many young girls who have married and still don't realise sex with their husband equals babies," he tells me.
But change is beginning to happen.
The ministry of public health has launched a programme to train and deploy 400 new midwives a year.
File photo (2009) Afghan midwifery students
Some 2,400 midwives have been trained in Afghanistan since 2002
What is key is that the women are not outsiders forced on a mistrustful local population, but are local women from the communities they serve. This means religious leaders and conservative husbands do not prevent them from working.
Largely as a result of this, the number of women giving birth who were helped by a trained midwife has more than tripled since 2003.
Rogul, who learned the hard way just what giving birth alone can mean has now been given midwifery training by the British charity Save the Children.
This woman who lost nine of her own babies has now saved lives of many others.
She tells me how, the week before, she had locked an angry mother-in-law out of a room where a young woman gave birth, because the mother-in-law had tuberculosis and could have passed the infection to the newborn.
She chuckles with glee as she recounts the tale of the mother-in-law banging on the door trying to get in.
It is clear what Rogul, with a combination of personal tragedy and a solid new education, can achieve in her community. But as yet, there are not enough Roguls to go around.
And for her the story has a happy ending. After her training she realised why her first nine babies had died.
When she fell pregnant again, she knew what to do and now has a son and two daughters. "They are living proof of my work," she says with a big smile.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Missing Girls in India

The Economist magazine published the following article, another example of the downside of patriarchy and tradition. For another blog on gender inequality in India click here.

India's skewed sex ratio

Seven Brothers

An aversion to having daughters is leading to millions of missing girls

“WE’RE going for a trip”, Sakina remembers her older sister saying. Orphaned and poor, the girls were happy to leave their home in Kolkata. Taken 1,300km to Kotla, a village on the wheat plains south of Delhi, the 12-year-old Sakina was dumped in the arms of an older man while her sister fled. The man, a wage labourer, had paid over 5,000 rupees ($100, today) to a dalal, or broker, who arranged to ship unwanted girls to places short of them.

Sakina, now taking a break from the first harvest of the year, recalls the early misery of her new home. A Bengali forced into marriage, she was jeered at as a paro, a term for female outsider in Haryana, and shunned. We are treated as goats, mutters another woman, imported from Hyderabad. “It was when I started having children that I realised I had no time to be upset,” Sakina says. She has produced nine offspring, eight of them boys. Now she worries about getting brides for them—and says she is even ready to repeat her own sad history by contacting a dalal.

She may have to. Early data from February’s national census, published on March 31st, show India’s already skewed infant sex ratio is getting worse. Nature provides that slightly more boys are born than girls: the normal sex ratio for children aged 0-6 is about 952 girls per 1,000 boys. Since 1981, the ratio has steadily fallen below that point: there were 945 girls per 1,000 boys in the 1991 census, 927 in 2001 and now 914. Fast growth, urbanisation and surging literacy seem not to have affected the trend.
The ratio is most distorted in the states of the northern Gangetic Plain, such as Punjab. Haryana, Sakina’s home, remains the direst of all, with only 830 girls per 1,000 boys. More worrying, places that used not to discriminate in favour of sons, such as the poorer central and north-eastern states, have begun to do so. Economic success, argues Alaka Basu, a demographer, “seems to spread son preference to places that were once more neutral about the sex composition of their children.” The new census showed a worsening sex ratio in all but eight of India’s 35 states and territories (though those eight include some of the most extreme examples, for instance, Punjab).

The “missing girls” are usually aborted, shortly after the parents learn of their sex. A short drive from Kotla to Nuh, a typical trading town, shows how. The main road is dotted with clinics that boast of ultrasound services. Requests for a scan to check the sex of a fetus are turned down at “Bharat Ultrasound” and “City Care Hospital”, but a nervous medic at one does recommend a place that would do it.

In fact, says Gaushiya Khan, a local activist, medics are ready to reveal a fetus’s sex for as little as 600 rupees. Doing so is illegal, and discouraged by various campaigns, but the law is almost impossible to enforce. Slapping the father on the back and saying “you’re a lucky man” is hint enough. D
demand for scans is rampant. Entrepreneurs are said to tour villages with scanners on bicycles.

The impact on Indian society is grim. You might have thought that scarcity would lead to girls being valued more highly, but this is not happening. One measure is the practice of giving dowries. Almost no one, rich or poor, urban or rural, dreams of dispensing with these. Rather, as Indians grow wealthier, dowries are getting more lavish and are spreading to places where they were once rare, such as in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in the south. In Kotla women huddled around Sakina shake their heads when asked to imagine life without dowries: “then nobody would find a husband”, they say.

A skewed sex ratio may instead be making the lot of women worse. Sociologists say it encourages abuse, notably in the trafficking of the sort that Sakina first suffered from but is now ready to pay for. Reports circulate of unknown numbers of girls who are drugged, beaten and sometimes killed by traffickers. Others, willingly or not, are brought across India’s borders, notably from Bangladesh and Myanmar. “Put bluntly, it’s a competition over scarce women”, says Ravinder Kaur of the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.

Men, especially if poor and from a low caste, suffer too. Women in India are sometimes permitted, even encouraged, to “marry up” into a higher income bracket or caste, so richer men find it easier to get a bride. The poor are forced into a long or permanent bachelorhood, a status widely frowned upon in India, where marriage is deemed essential to becoming a full member of society. Poor bachelors are often victims of violent crime.

Yet, bad as things are, sex selection may slowly be turning around. Though the sex ratio has been worsening for decades, it is doing so more slowly. The figure in 2001 was 1.9% worse than it had been in 1991. The figure in 2011 was 1.5% worse than in 2001—an improvement of sorts.
Moreover, the ten-year census may not capture what has been happening recently. For that, go to the sample surveys that India carries out more often. These show a different pattern. The figures are not strictly comparable, because sample surveys show the sex ratio at birth, whereas the census gives it among infants up to the age of six. Still, it is significant the sex ratio at birth is improving, not worsening. In 2003-05 the figure was 880 girls born per 1,000 boys. In 2004-06, that had risen to 892 and in 2006-08, to 904. It is not clear why this should be. The samples could be misleading. But perhaps they reveal a recent change in Indian attitudes towards the value of daughters.

The fears about India’s sex ratio are not merely of the harm that today’s level will cause when children become adults. People also worry that the ratio will get ever worse, deteriorating towards Chinese levels (which are even more extreme: on a comparable basis, China’s sex ratio at birth is about 833). This fear, thinks Monica Das Gupta of the World Bank, may be exaggerated. Not only are there signs of an incipient national turnaround, but regional figures give further reasons for hope. The states with the worst ratios, Haryana and Punjab, seem to have had skewed ratios for decades, going back to the 1880s. They now show some of the biggest improvements.

The national average is worsening thanks to states which once were more neutral with regard to sex, such as Tamil Nadu and Orissa. But because they have not had the historical experience of a strong preference for sons, Ms Das Gupta suggests, they also seem less likely to push the sex ratio to the extremes that it reached in Punjab or China. If so, the next census in 2021 could show the beginnings of a shift towards normality. With luck, the deterioration in north-east and central India—damaging though it will certainly be—may not mark the start of a fresh erosion in the value of Indian girls.

The full article can be found at

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Educating Against Female Circumcision in Africa

Ms. Funso Orenego, director of the Inter African Committee Nigeria
In 2009, I traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, to conduct a medical site visit and met with Ms. Funso Orenego, Director of the Inter African Committee Nigeria. I was introduced through email to Ms. Orenego by Dr. Shahid Aziz of Smile Bangladesh. Dr. Aziz had considered taking a team to Nigeria to perform cleft lip and palate surgery on children. My job was to review several hospitals, meet with the health minister and various hospital administrators and present a report. 

I asked Ms. Orenego about the work of her organization and was informed that she and several social workers traveled to rural villages throughout the country teaching traditional birth attendants better and more hygienic delivery methods. They also taught against female circumcision - the removal of all or part of the clitoris - also called female genital mutilation (FGM).

I was familiar with the practice. Last week, as I do every semester at Western Connecticut State University in Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, I screened the documentary Shackled Women: Abuses of a Patriarchal World. This short film illustrates the harm done to women in societies where men dominant social, religious and financial institutions. In Bangladesh and India this can lead to female infanticide and 'bride burnings' over dowry demands. In the Middle East, particularly in Afghanistan and Iran, movement of women is curtailed in public through gender segregation, veiling and other interpretations of hijab. While some may find this good moral behavior, other women feel their intellect as well as their actions are stifled. In Western nations, gender violence includes the trafficking of young girls and women for sex. They are often kept in virtual slavery, physically, sexually and emotionally abused by their captors. Finally, in 28 African nations, Muslims and Christians alike practice FGM to mark a girl's transition into womanhood. It is the fate of about 6,000 women and girls everyday.

In Shackled Women, a baby girl in Togo, West Africa of about 2 years of age is brought to a midwife for a demonstration of FGM. The baby is stripped of her clothing and her legs are held apart by a group of village women. The midwife is seen gesticulating to the group with a razor blade while the baby girl's screams pierce the soundtrack. At this point the students are usually covering their eyes and looking in horror and whispering, "She's not really going to do that?!" Yes, it is one thing to read about FGM in the textbook,  quite another to anticipate watching the procedure unfold while the 'victim' struggles to get free. Just as the midwife is about to make the cut, she moves in front of the baby and blocks the 'surgery' from the viewers gaze. Afterward, the women cheer and clap.

In interviews the women claim, "the clitoris is always removed like that, if not the girl will be abused by other women." Some believe an uncircumcised woman's baby will die during delivery. They explain "you must trick the girl on the day of her circumcision in order to get her the place of excision." Men think they will lose control and power over women or that their wives will want too much sex if they are not circumcised. A girl has no alternative to the practice if she hopes to survive as she will be shunned and remain unmarried unless she completes this rite of passage.

In Nigeria, the age at which a woman was circumcised and the type of circumcision varied around the country. According to Ms. Orenego, some girls had the procedure done as infants, some at the time of marriage, others right before the birth of a child.
Instruments used in FGM
Instruments used in FGM
Educating woman against FGM was tough going: sometimes village leaders literally ran Ms. Orenego out of town. Uncircumcised girls and older women were afraid to meet and be seen with Ms. Orenego. Since most women did not know what a person looked like with a clitoris and were unfamiliar with all of the health complications of FGM, Ms. Orenego and her team took on their journeys a model of a woman's lower body with removable vaginae. One of the removable pieces showed a vagina stitched closed after circumcision. Another depicted a baby's head emerging from the vaginal opening with an artificial pool of blood that fitted beneath.  These kinds of teaching tools are necessary when your audience, not just women but men too, has high levels of illiteracy.

I had seen these educational tools in V-Day: Until the Violence Stops by playwright and activist Eve Ensler. In that film, a woman in East Africa also traveled on foot through rural areas, village-to-village, carrying the very same models. In addition, Ms. Orenego had a collection of  'instruments' that she collected from her travels to the villages that were used in FGM, pictured here. They looked medieval. Yes, they were blunt, rough and stained. Wrapped in newspaper and old cloth, they hardly seemed sharp enough to cut butter nor capable of sterilization with the rust and nicks visible on the blades.

I learned through our conversations that Ms. Orenego had attended a certificate program at the Center for International Community Health Studies (CICHS) at the University of Connecticut  in 1993. That year I was in graduate school at UConn studying medical anthropology and working on a grant administrated by CICHS regarding maternal/child health programs in Danbury, Connecticut. When Ms. Orenego pulled out her binder containing all of her classroom instruction materials, there was the name of the instructor/adviser we shared on the title page. At that time, I remember viewing photos of a group of recent graduates from Africa of the CICHS program in their offices in Farmington. Maybe Ms. Orenego and I had passed each other in those hallways one day. What an interesting little coincidence.
Today, each in our own way, Ms. Orenego and I are educating women and men about the health dangers of FGM. Her work can have immediate impact. But, one never knows whether or not the students of today will become the leaders of tomorrow, capable of making policies that address this and other human rights issues. Meanwhile, a shout out to all of those who, like Ms. Funso Orenego, are working on the ground and in the field to eliminate the practice of FGM.