Tuesday, April 26, 2011
On this day 25 years ago, a massive explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine released clouds of radioactive particles into the atmosphere across Russia and Europe. The catastrophe had lasting effects on people’s health, particularly on women and their unborn children. On this sober anniversary, we look back at Chernobyl and the lessons learned to ensure the health of Japanese women as the Fukushima disaster unfolds.
Although slow to address the crisis, the Japanese government recently raised the alert level of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants from a 5 to a 7, the highest rating possible and on par with the only nuclear disaster of this magnitude: Chernobyl. By raising the level to 7, the government acknowledged the grave situation before Japan. What it hasn’t done, however, is delineate clear protocols for how people should protect themselves against radiation, particularly the most vulnerable: pregnant women and their unborn foetuses.
Women of reproductive age are at significant risk from the effects of radiation on their bodies and reproductive systems. Studies show women’s exposure to radiation may harm her future ability to bear children and can cause premature aging. The U.S. Center for Disease Control warns pregnant women that, in the event of exposure to radiation, even at low doses, the health consequences for unborn foetuses "can include stunted growth, deformities, abnormal brain function, or cancer that may develop sometime later in life."
No one understands the implications of radiation on women’s health better than the Russian women who survived the Chernobyl nuclear holocaust. The amount of radiation levels released into the atmosphere was comparable to 500 atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
In the two decades after Chernobyl, approximately 200,000 people died. Women living in highly contaminated areas in Ukraine and Belarus were affected by chromosome disorders, leukaemia, psychological trauma, depression, and multiple birth defects in their children. Among women who lived in the affected area, medical studies detected high levels of thyroid and breast cancer. Unfortunately, the former Soviet Union failed to provide timely and continuous information about the effects of radiation on human health.
In light of the unique risk to women’s health caused by exposure to radiation, the Japanese government and international agencies must take immediate action. Yet neither the World Health Organisation nor the International Atomic Energy Association - the two international bodies that monitor health and nuclear security respectively - have provided any information about the effect of radiation exposure to women’s bodies. Even a simple google search on the impact of radiation on women does not yield much, nor are there steps that women can take to mitigate the impact on her health and her children.
Although the transition to safer energy sources is a long road, what can and must be immediately done is the proactive outreach to women. The Japanese government must address the gender-specific health risks posed by its nuclear crisis by encouraging women to have medical evaluations and providing them with available resources on the implications of nuclear radiation on their health and strategies to reduce their exposure.
Our recommendations for women affected by the unfolding nuclear crisis are: first get a medical evaluation, and avoid foods produced locally, including lettuce, milk, berries and mushrooms. Pregnant women, specifically those in their first or second trimesters, must be especially vigilant about what they consume, as radiation passes through the umbilical cord to the unborn fetus.
Most importantly, women in Japan should reach out to the local authorities, contact their representatives, and send inquiries to the state-level medical authorities requesting informational materials about measures to protect women’s health and how the Japanese government is ensuring women’s health rights are protected. They should speak out if they feel misinformed, if their health concerns are dismissed (including continuous fatigue or psychological trauma), or if they are discriminated at a work place or hospital as it relates to them being affected by the nuclear crisis. The right to health and the wellbeing of future generations should be of paramount importance and vigilantly protected.
"It wouldn't have been so annoying for us to die had we known our death would help to avoid more ‘fatal mistakes’," Chernobyl survivor and Ukrainian poet Lyubov Sirota wrote about the Chernobyl disaster. Unfortunately, Japan has not learned the "fatal mistakes" of Chernobyl, and the ones who will pay the heavy price are women and future generations.
*Whitney Graham and Elena I. Nicklasson work with the Asia/Oceania and Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States regional teams at the Global Fund for Women.
Emeline Djigma, a twenty-year-old domestic worker, is preparing for the entrance exam to the National Teachers' College this year. She hopes she'll make it, having finally obtained her secondary school certificate thanks to five years of evening classes.
"I only want to succeed to show the way to others and to tell them that by working hard at it, they can move mountains," said Djigma. She spent five years at Ouagadougou's Ouassongdo Centre (the name means "come and help me" in the local language, Moré), managing to attend classes while working as a domestic.
Life for domestic workers in Burkina Faso is hard, IPS heard from Pulchérie Nanan, another young woman studying at the Centre.
"I get up at five in the morning, I sweep the courtyard and clean the house before I go to the market to do the cooking; in the evening, it's more or less the same thing all over again," she said. Nanan earns just 5,000 CFA francs (11 dollars) a month, but hopes to open a hair salon at the end of her apprenticeship.
Rosalie Boutoulegou, another girl at the centre, can finally read and write her name - at the age of 18. "When the sister came to see my cousin in order to free up a part of my day, I didn't believe that I would learn to read and write one day," she told IPS. "I wasn't even getting paid because I lived with my cousin."
Come to me for help
The sister she refers to is the formidable Sister Edithe, the nun who serves as president of the Ouassangdo Centre. Sister Edithe criss-crosses the main roads and back streets of Ouagadougou to convince employers to allow the young women - sometimes just girls - who do their domestic work to come to the centre, where they spend part of the day learning to sew, cook or how to read.
According to Sister Edithe, many domestic workers are badly exploited, often under the pretext that they are being given a place to live and food to eat.
"But we can't simply take girls out of the homes of their employers, or where will they go?" says Sister Edithe.
The work of Sister Edithe's centre is complemented by a campaign to end exploitation of domestic workers carried out by the Burkina Faso Red Cross in partnership with mobile phone companies. The campaign periodically sends SMS messages to selected subscribers, targeting local authorities, traditional chiefs, teachers, and restauratant owners.
"Employers, domestic workers are your family helpers; they have the same rights as your children. Avoid submitting them to bad poor wages, abuse, heavy workloads or sexual violence," says one such message. The SMS's are sent out three times a year, according to Naba Wangré, head of the project.
Wangré says domestic workers with no formal skills or training earn between 3,000 and 6,000 francs CFA (between $6.50 and 13 dollars) a month. She has received numerous complaints from domestic workers who have been assaulted, abused or survived sexual abuse.
Sister Edithe, who has welcomed some 500 girls in her centre since 2002, believes that some domestic workers are paid 25,000 CFA (about 55 dollars) or more. "When there's someone backing them, people pay better and respect the rights of the girls," she says.
"It's a type of work which remains hidden and indistinct because there is exploitation. There is also silence because it is a sensitive sector and difficult to control, especially when the girls work in the families," explains Wangré.
Raising awareness of domestics' rights
Domestic workers in Burkina Faso are typically teenaged or younger girls from rural areas in the country; sometimes sent to work for their own relatives in a semi-formal employment relationship. Nearly 80 percent of Burkinabé girls between the ages of five and 17 are compelled to do household work, according to the National Inquiry Into Child Labour, carried out in 2006 by the Ministry for Labour and Social Security.
The time spent on household activities averages 15.6 hours, spent on tasks such as gathering firewood, doing dishes, cleaning, laundry and looking after children, the inquiry found.
"Domestic work is one of the worst forms of work because the domestic rises at five in the morning, sweeps, does the cooking and only gets back to sleep after midnight," says Sister Edithe.
In the absence of laws dealing specifically with such domestic work in Burkina, it's legislation dealing with child labour that is awkwardly applied. According to convention 182 of the International Labour Organisation, it is considered dangerous work for children if the nature and conditions of the work endangers their health, security or morals of a child.
"We are trying raise public awareness of domestic work, particularly for employers and the girls themselves," says Wangré.
Stella Somé, who directs efforts against child labour at the Labour Ministry believes that only awareness and training can reduce cases of exploitation of domestic workers. "The main difficulty is that this work passes for household duties; it's not easy to send an agent to see who is working in people's homes."
Confronted with the size of the problem, Somé's ministry initiated a forum in 2010 to raise awareness on this question in the regions where Burkina Faso's domestic workforce comes from: in the centre-west, southwest, and centre-east of the country, and other regions.
DHAKA, Apr 23, 2011, One sunny afternoon, 19-year-old Sufia Aktar presides over a courtyard gathering of housewives discussing the use of safe water, a hygienic environment, and personal cleanliness. It is the last of such gatherings for Sufia, who will soon leave, knowing it was "mission accomplished."
Sufia is a full-time programme assistant for WASH, short for "water, sanitation and hygiene," a campaign to get people to adopt hygienic practices, ensure their access to safe drinking water, and bring their homes under sanitation coverage.
Over a period of five years since the programme started in May 2006, Sufia has been attending six meetings every day, six days a week. She has covered 33,000 cluster meetings for housewives, 600 for adolescents and 300 for children.
"Everyone shows tremendous enthusiasm as they experience the benefits of the discussions," said Sufia, sitting next to a clay home in Kholapara village in Kaliganj sub-district, about 50 kilometres north of Bangladesh capital Dhaka.
WASH was designed by the world’s biggest non-government organisation, the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, referred to simply as Brac. It comes to an end this month, achieving close to 98 percent coverage in sanitary latrine and access to safe drinking water in the 150 sub-districts or upazilas selected for inclusion in the programme.
In Kaliganj, the programme succeeded in altering people’s sanitation and hygiene behaviour. Before WASH, people got drinking water from contaminated sources like ponds and lakes. There were those who even defecated in the bushes, creating an unsanitary environment that bred diseases.
WASH managed to change that by employing what is considered Brac’s unique method: it trained community leaders of various ages to get people to listen, involving and convincing the community on the wisdom of regular hygiene practices.
"The idea is a bottom-up approach. No one, not even from Brac or the government imposes or forces anyone to obey anything. The changes in improvement in the village environment, better sanitation and higher drinking water coverage come as a result of better sense of understanding," said Mohammed Shafiuddin Mirza, a local mosque imam and also one of the key members of the Village Wash Committee (VWC) in Kaliganj.
WASH worked with different segments of the population, such as those Sufia has been meeting with. The groups are known as clusters, with different categories catering to different age groups. There are "male clusters" for heads of households, "female clusters" for housewives, and separate clusters for adolescent boys and girls as well as children.
Meanwhile, a group of 11 men and women form one VWC for every 50 to 300 households, and ensure improvement in coverage of sanitation and access to safe drinking water by recommending hardware and loan support where needed.
Each VWC is represented by all classes of people from the community - teachers, religious leaders, local NGO representatives, school girls, young women, and even very poor individuals who have never before been recognised as potential leaders.
"Before we begin working in any selected areas we first conduct a survey with the help of local government. Such a joint initiative enables us to understand the real needs of the community," said Aminul Islam, WASH upazila manager in Kaliganj.
WASH leaders encouraged people to invest their money in hardware that would translate to cleaner environments. Before WASH, less than 37 percent of households in Kaliganj used sealed and properly installed latrines. After five years, that number has grown to 93 percent, translated to more than 50,000 households.
Before WASH, only 55 percent of Kaliganj was covered by safe and clean water. Now, that number has risen to 87 percent, with tube wells installed throughout the Kaliganj. There is roughly one tubewell for every three or four families.
"When we visit door to door to inspect progress after certain number of cluster meetings, house owners themselves often show appreciation for having changed their lifestyle," said Shahabuddin Ahmed, chairman of local government council in Kaliganj.
"Many poor families would have never invested in buying a latrine set but since their better sense of understanding, people now realise the need for a healthy environment," he added.
The programme targeted a population living below the poverty line and already, some 38.5 million such poor and hardcore poor have benefitted from this programme. WASH is considered the single largest sanitation programme among the developing nations.
"WASH programme’s biggest strength is its mobilisation strategy where we act as catalyst while the real beneficiaries play vital roles," said Subash Barai, one of thousands of WASH programme organisers who worked relentlessly to achieve the programme’s targets.
Due to low literacy in villages, it is still very hard to convince people why they should invest in healthy living. Traditionally, rural people still believe that it is the government’s responsibility to provide latrines and tube wells for free.
It is the VWC leaders who help break the barriers, convincing the community of the need for healthy lifestyle and environment.
Affluent members of society are expected to improve access to drinking water and sanitation on their own. For the majority of the poor and hardcore poor, WASH coordinates to offer interest-free loans of 1000 taka or 13.5 dollars to each poor family capable of repaying loans.
So far, 157,824 poor families have received loans worth 1.798 million dollars. A total of 3,350,748 traditional latrine sets have been installed throughout the 150 sub-districts. Individual households have installed some 24,500 deep and shallow tubewells while 1,622 water points have been constructed from five major community-based piped water supply systems.
After this month, Brac will be handing over the WASH programme to the local government, with local NGOs continuing the work that Sufia and other WASH advocates have started.
Earth Day celebrated its 41st year Friday with the slogan ‘A Billion Acts of Green’. The grassroots demonstration is said to have inspired the modern environmental movement, and continues to inform and promote green economic policies worldwide, while attracting over a half billion people every year.
This year, one of the main elements of the Earth Day campaign is the Women and the Green Economy (WAGE) campaign focusing on engaging women leaders in the advancement of a global green economy.
Originally launched in December 2010 at the 16th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in Cancun, Mexico, the WAGE Campaign intends to promote leadership amongst women, in order to create a sustainable green economy and alleviate climate change.
"Women are on the frontline of climate change and other environmental crises. It makes sense to see them spearheading the effort to solve our environmental problems and jumpstart the clean energy economy," Jenny Powers, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told IPS.
"Earth Day events give us a chance to celebrate progress, but also to roll up our sleeves and start solving today’s problems," Powers said. "People from all walks of life have embraced green solutions, and environmental stewardship has become more pervasive than even the Earth Day founders could have imagined," she added.
"Being disproportionately affected by the negative consequences of climate change throughout the world, women are influential, as home makers and community organisers," says Katherine Lucey, executive director of Solar Sister, an initiative that supports women and girls in rural Africa by providing access to dependable solar energy. "It is critical that they are full participants in the creation of a sustainable green economy."
According to the Earth Day Network, educating women about environmental issues is essential, not only because women constitute more than half of the world’s population, but also because they are responsible for over 85 percent of all consumer choices.
"We are creating the next generation of environmental leaders," Andrea Delgado, senior policy analyst at the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change (NLCCC), told IPS. "Women have a critical role and make most of the decisions at home. It is critical to empower them with choices that are good for the environment," she added.
"In order to move forward and fight climate change, we need to address the vulnerabilities of women in this fight. Empowering them will play a critical role in shaping environmentally sustainable behaviours and policies within households, communities, nations and beyond," Delgado said.
"We need to empower women, while improving the environment," John Coonrod, executive vice president of The Hunger Project, told IPS. He said that simple initiatives could help women escape hunger and poverty in developing countries. "Small-scale farmers - most of whom are women - are perfectly positioned to apply the kind of intensive methodologies needed to achieve goals on a sustainable basis," he added.
April 19, 2011
Watch out -- the war being waged on women, the middle class and the poor just took another dark turn. Those connecting the dots will recognize the progression from the calamitous shock to the economy perpetrated by Wall Street to the systematic looting of public assets and families' pocketbooks by conservative lawmakers in Washington and various states.
We must ask whether political calculation motivated Standard and Poor's (S&P) to announce its negative outlook for the U.S. yesterday. Right-wing legislators wasted no time jumping on the announcement as 'proof' that the U.S. must cut Social Security benefits, voucherize Medicare, block grant Medicaid, and target a host of other social programs that disproportionately serve and employ women -- not just family planning but also assisted housing, student loans, Head Start, nutrition, prenatal and infant care and hundreds of other important programs.
Women rely on these programs especially because the recovery, which is anemic to begin with, is leaving them behind. While women accounted for one-third of the jobs lost in the recession, men have picked up almost 90 percent of the job gains. The wage gap -- women on average are paid only 77 cents on the dollar paid to men -- makes it even harder for women to make ends meet. And women of color, subjected to race-based as well as gender-based wage discrimination, are at particular risk.
But conservative politicians and their corporate backers are oblivious to these realities. No surprise there -- this is the same crowd who converted the federal budget surplus to a massive deficit in the Bush/Cheney administration. They were the cheerleaders when the U.S. was led into unnecessary and catastrophically costly wars. They engineered the huge tax breaks on the wealthiest, and then deregulated Wall Street, which soon went out of control and drove the U.S. economy off a cliff, creating the worst unemployment crisis this country has seen in generations.
We hear repeatedly that the 'serious' approach to reining in the U.S. deficit and lowering this nation's debt is to slash spending. But that ignores the revenue side of the budget, conveniently drawing attention away from the need to require multimillionaires and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes and to generate income-tax-producing jobs. This is not rocket science: Jobs mean income; income means income tax; income tax means revenue to pay down the deficit. Seriously, who doesn't get this?
But the forces at work here don't give a hoot about lowering the debt or creating jobs. They are too busy making the ridiculously rich even richer while decimating government programs that give women and other disadvantaged people a chance at a decent life.
NOW calls on our elected leadership to stand up for our nation's most admirable principles -- those of fairness, equality and opportunity. Women will support those who do.
For Immediate Release
Contact: Lisa Bennett w. 202-628-8669, ext. 123, c. 301-537-7429
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Argentina's president is a woman, Cristina Fernández, and the country has one of the highest percentages of women lawmakers in the world. But women also have other leadership roles, outside the political system.
Natalia Garabano, the coordinator of a research project that created a novel Experience Bank, told IPS that 'identifying and drawing attention to the valuable experiences of women who are leaders of their social organisations was one of the project's goals.'
In a recently published report on this research, 87 women leaders of civil society organisations share their experiences of working for the rights to housing, sexual and reproductive health, education, non-discrimination and non-violence.
Garabano, of the Latin American Justice and Gender Group (ELA), said: 'In order to legitimise democracy and make it more robust, it is necessary to promote women's political participation, but in a broad sense, not just through political parties.'
Wider participation is not achieved only by increasing access to political office, but also by boosting women's participation in civil society. This broader concept of participation led ELA to develop the LIDERA (Lead) project, which has three components.
First, there is the research project titled 'Mujeres participando en ámbitos locales. Banco de experiencias' (Women Participating in Local Communities: Experience Bank), consisting of in-depth interviews with women who are leaders of social organisations in six Argentine cities.
At the same time, a study was carried out on 'Sexo y poder' (Sex and Power), about women's participation in decision-making posts in different public spheres, which has not yet been published. The results were disappointing. Women occupy only 15 percent out of 13,627 decision-making posts in over 4,000 institutions, Garabano said.
The third cornerstone of the project was investigating the track records of women lawmakers at national and provincial levels, to find out more about them: how they came to be elected, what their educational background is, what proposals they are making, and how they manage to reconcile work and family responsibilities.
ELA presented the first component, the Experience Bank, in the lower chamber of Congress on Mar.31. 'Women's participation in the local sphere must be strengthened so that their leadership is built and grows on solid foundations and in contact with their social base,' Garabano said.
'Raising awareness about these 'ways of getting things done' may inspire action and strategies in different contexts, and spread knowledge about determining factors and ways of overcoming obstacles, making the most of opportunities and networking,' she said.
The organisations headed by women that were selected for this project were in the city of Buenos Aires itself, in the municipality of Morón, in the west of the metropolitan area, and in cities in the provinces.
The provincial cities were San Salvador de Jujuy, 1,800 kilometres northwest of Buenos Aires, Mendoza, 1,050 kilometres west of the capital, Neuquén, 1,156 kilometres to the southwest and Rosario, 300 kilometres to the northwest.
source:Inter Press Service
Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.