The Global Problem of Child Marriage

Imagine being 23-years old and a promising science student studying on scholarship in England. Then imagine that having lived in the UK for half your life you are being forced by the government to return to your country of origin because your father demands that you marry your older cousin. Imagine that if you refuse, you will likely be killed.

 

That is the horrific story unfolding today about an aspiring astrophysicist whose identity is being protected by The Independent, which told her story last month. It’s a story that is repeated regularly for countless women in many countries who have no place to run. In this case, officials in England claim there is insufficient evidence that this young woman is at risk, despite the fact that she has reported frequent physical and mental abuse by her father and asserted that she and her siblings along with their mother fled to the UK. Her story should not be unbelievable; one in five murders in her native Pakistan are attributed to honor killings committed by fathers and brothers.

 

Now imagine that you have been betrothed at the age of eight, and then married off to your abusive first cousin, aged 34, at the age of 13. That’s what happened to Naila Amin in New York state and it was completely legal. Today Naila, who runs the foundation that bears her name, fights to ban child marriages in New York, which often occur because of loopholes and exceptions in the law.

 

According to a report earlier this year by the Associated Press, the U.S. has approved thousands of requests by men to bring child adolescent brides into the country. The approvals are legal because the Immigration and Nationality Act doesn’t set minimum age requirements. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services goes by whether the marriage is legal in the home country and whether the marriage is legal in the state where the petitioner lives. Naila Amin, like the astrophysicist, was from Pakistan, and a victim of that system.

 

According to a UNICEF report, worldwide there are more than 700 million women alive today who were married before their 18th birthday. More than a third of them were married before the age of fifteen. USAID claims that in the developing world one in three girls are married before age eighteen. Some are as young as eight or nine years old.

 

The minimum age for marriage in most U.S. states is eighteen. But every state has exceptions, including “parental consent” and judicial approval. The founder of the nonprofit organization Unchained at Last, herself a child marriage victim, told the New York Times, “Shockingly, 91 percent of children married in New Jersey were [found to have been] married to older adults [in a study she conducted], often at ages or with age differences that could have triggered statutory rape charges, not a marriage license.”

 

The Tahirih Justice Center, a national organization that protects immigrant women and girls who find themselves in the United States in arranged and abusive marriages, provides legal services and advocacy in courts, communities and Congress. It points out that “there are very few laws and policies in the U.S. that are specifically designed to help forced marriage victims.”

 

The District of Columbia and some states have statutes that criminalize forcing someone into marriage in “certain circumstances” the center says, but “these laws seem designed for other purposes than to prevent parents from forcing marriage or to punish them for forcing their children into marriage. The majority of state criminal statutes arise in the context of laws against abduction, prostitution, and/or ‘defilement.’”

 

Unchained at Last estimates that “given the size of the various communities in the U.S. that are known to practice arranged or forced marriages, which include Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Sikh, Asian, African, Hmong and other communities, hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the U.S. are in arranged/forced marriages.”

 

The story of a woman named Syeda puts a human face on the plight of immigrant women in forced marriages living in the United States. Forced into marriage in Pakistan at the age of sixteen, she first lived with her parents while continuing her studies.  When she was twenty-five her family moved to Boston. Her husband joined her there, moving in with her family. She was immediately subjected to horrific physical and sexual abuse which she endured for months until her family threw her out of the house because she refused to return to Pakistan with her husband. Syeda fled to a women’s shelter and has since taken control of her life. She has earned a college degree, has a job and lives independently. With the help of Unchained she is getting a divorce.

 

Syeda was lucky. But for thousands more children, here and abroad, the nightmare of forced or arranged marriage continues. Clearly, states need to step up their efforts to save these children. All of us need to realize what is happening to them, and to advocate on their behalf.

 

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

 

 

America Faces an Uncertain Future. Why is it Happening?

Having Donald Trump militarize America’s Independence Day, subjecting children and adults to, yes, concentration camps, and defy the courts are not events that can be easily ignored or overlooked.

 

However, firing climate change scientists or banning them to a Midwest gulag is a lot easier. So is rescinding food and drug safety regulations, rolling back health care protections for LGBTQ patients, foreclosing on working home owners, destroying public education, and compromising the country’s air, water, and wildlife.

 

There’s more, and it signals the Trump Administration’s dangerous, pro-profit, white supremacist politics, disrespect for the rule of law and the Constitution, and contempt for human rights.  Every day we draw closer to full-fledged fascism while the Democrats diddle, and most mainstream and cable media regurgitate premature political polling while allowing Trump to suck the oxygen out of the air waves.

 

Collective fatigue and self-preserving denial are understandable, but it’s time every one of us took serious notice of what is happening because a dangerously demented authoritarian, voted into office  - just as Adolf Hitler was - is getting away with murder (literally if you count the dead immigrants at the border) and no one seems able to stop him – not Congress, not the courts, and not the Constitution.

 

When I first considered writing this commentary, I thought about all the departmental travesties taking place, most without much notice. I began doing research, department by governmental department and that’s how I came upon troubling information at numerous government agencies. Here are just a few examples.

 

Thanks to an expose by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, I learned that a number of specialists working within a scientific group advising government for nearly sixty years on various issues, including defense and most recently climate change, were being fired. Scientists working on Department of Agriculture issues were given a month’s notice to decide if they would move their families to Kansas – where no facility for them to continue their work exists, or be fired. A short reprieve was issued for scientists working at the Department of Energy so that studies underway could conclude, but the future of the group’s 65 impressive scientists is unclear, even as it diversifies its client base. As the Washington Post pointed out, “Research is being decimated by the Trump team, especially when it comes to climate science and other research that doesn’t comport with the Trump agenda.”

 

Thanks also go to Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) who called out Ben Carson for failing America’s working families at HUD.  Interviewed by NBC after her tough grilling of Carson in a Congressional committee hearing, Porter said, “I wanted to engage Carson on the critical issue [of foreclosures] but what I got was evasion. Carson’s two-plus years as the leader of HUD have been marked by failure after failure to do right by this country’s working families.” Porter continued, exposing Carson’s total lack of awareness of his agency’s jurisdiction, his claim that “poverty to a large extent is a state of mind,” and his proposal to to slash HUD’s budget.

 

The National Education Association exposed the horrific record of Betsy De Vos at the Department of Education, where promoting education privatization is a top priority while serving special needs and trans children is being rolled back. DeVos also wants to repeal federal protections that hold predatory for-profit colleges accountable, to rescind sexual assault guidelines, and to put guns in schools.

 

National Geographic posted “15 Ways the Trump Administration has changed environmental policies,” while The Guardian wrote about the “nosedive” the FDA is taking in warning people about food and drug regulations not being enforced, and Politico revealed how the Trump administration is rolling back health care protections for LGBTQ patients.

 

The more I learned, the more I realized how much is happening “under the radar” – an expression that sounded familiar. Looking back on my commentary topics over the last 18 months, I realized that I had twice written pieces with that phrase in the title. That made me question not what was happening, but why it was happening.

 

Here are a few possibilities. One is that many in the Fourth Estate are largely failing to demand and drive accountability. Given that the courts, federal and Supreme, are being stacked against democracy and sound Constitutional interpretation, it is urgent that media editors and producers “call a thing [like racism] a thing.” That means not normalizing a dangerously delusional president or treating him like an ordinary candidate in next year’s election.  It means asking tough questions and demanding answers. It means putting priority issues over advertisers.

 

Further, the Democratic Party must realize this is no time to pussyfoot. Its strong suite is plurality which must not become its pitfall.  Democrats need to unify, fight, respect boundaries, message wisely, and start saving America. Equally, entities and individuals inside and out of government must vociferously say “No!” when Trump breaks rules, bullies, and acts crazy.

 

Americans, no matter how tired or disillusioned, must demand leadership that recognizes the slippery slope of looming dark days -- because it’s not only about the economy, jobs and healthcare. It’s about our future and our survival as a democratic beacon to the world.

 

Perhaps yesterday may have been too early to act, but surely tomorrow will be too late.

 

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Women Pay the Price in More Ways Than One

It isn’t just the crisis surrounding Draconian measures aimed at controlling our reproductive health, privacy, autonomy, and indeed our lives, that threatens women everywhere. Globally, women continue paying the price of hideous policies and actions devised and implemented by dictatorial men, whose devaluation of women and the human rights for which they advocate, is stunning.

The injury to women activists in a great many countries is often invisible, especially outside their own nations, despite torture, imprisonment, and death. Women suffer atrocities simply because they have had the courage to confront injustices perpetrated by powerful men threatened by women’s voices and acts.  These women need to be recognized and honored for their bravery and sacrifice.

Among them is Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, recently sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Sotoudeh has advocated on behalf of Iranian women prosecuted for removing their hijabs in public. In 2010, she was convicted of conspiring to harm state security and served half of a six-year sentence. Last June she was rearrested on an array of dubious charges and tried in secret. Charged with seven crimes and given the maximum sentence for all of them, with five additional years added from a 2016 conviction in absentia, the sentence was severe even by Iranian standards.

More recently, Mena Mangal, an Afghan journalist, was killed on her way to work in Kabul because of her work on behalf of women’s rights, and in May a promising Russian feminist journalist, Margarita Virova, 25, died after “falling” from an eighth-floor apartment window which Moscow Times reported as not suspicious.

After the Saudi Arabian government jailed several prominent female activists, many of whom had fought for women’s right to drive, media reports revealed that the incarcerated women had been subjected to torture, including electrocution and flogging, as well as sexual abuse in detention. One woman was made to hang from the ceiling. Another tried to commit suicide.

Joining Saudi Arabia, Sudan has threatened the death penalty against women who resist their own oppression. Last year, Sudanese prosecutors sought the death penalty for Noura Hussein, a teenager in a forced marriage who killed her abusive husband after multiple rapes. Saudi Arabia wants to execute Israa al-Ghomgham, an activist who sought equal rights for Shiite Muslims.

In Iran, Atena Daemi, a human rights activist, has been targeted by authorities for her anti-death penalty position. First arrested in 2014, she is currently serving a seven-year sentence for criticizing executions and human rights violations on social media.

There are many more stories of women who survive the discrimination and violence they live with daily because of their activism. But many women do not survive. Among them was Mariello Franco, a leading voice for poor people living in Rio de Janeiro before she died at the age of 38. Gay and black, she was serving a term on the city council when she and her driver were killed. No arrests were ever made.

Elisa Badayos, a human rights activist who worked on behalf of poor people in Cebu, Philippines trying to find disappeared family members, was murdered along with two colleagues in 2017. She is survived by four children. Again, no arrests were made.

Guadalupe Campanur Tapia, a Mexican activist who worked on environmental issues and the rights of indigenous people, was 32-years old when her body was found on the roadside. In a similar story, Juana Raymundo, a 25-year old Guatemalan nurse who also worked for indigenous rights was tortured before being murdered.

In Iraq, Su’ad al-Ali, president of a human rights organization focused on women and children, was leading a protest in Basra focusing on rising unemployment and corruption when she was shot in the head getting into her car. She was 46 and left behind four young children.

And who can forget the image of Razan al-Najjar, 21, the Palestinian volunteer medic in white shot dead last June when she ran toward a border fence in Gaza to help an injured person? Her last Facebook post read, “I am returning and not retreating.  Hit me with your bullets, I am not afraid.”

All these remembrances represent only a few of the tragic stories of women around the world who have been grievously harmed, or have given their lives, in the name of human rights and social justice. It is good and necessary to honor them and their sacrifices on behalf of multitudes of others.

But it is not enough. It is not enough to lay wreathes on their graves, or to say their names. It is not enough to allow such extraordinary women to remain invisible. It is not enough when the world continues to ignore the issues for which they fought. It is not enough, so long as men still have sufficient power to harm women and girls and to withhold from them their human rights. It is not enough when men can continue to harness female energy and action and silence female voices. It is not enough when men decide who among them shall live and who shall die. It will never be enough until every woman everywhere has the guaranteed right to decide her own course and to live her life freely and unafraid.

Why Harriet Tubman Belongs on the $20 Bill

The lengths this administration will go to in order to erase decisions made by the Obama administration or insult Blacks while signaling white supremacists are nothing short of stunning.

 

Those can be the only reasons that Treasury Secretary Steven Minuchin announced to a House Financial Services Committee meeting in May that the Obama administration’s 2016 decision to substitute Harriet Tubman for Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill would “not be an issue that comes up until most likely 2026.”

 

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the U.S. who was elected in 1828, owned about 300 slaves. He is connected to the Trail of Tears, the forced relocations of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to areas usually west of the Mississippi River designated as Indian Territory. He was impeached for attempting to dismiss his Secretary of War, narrowly escaping conviction by the Senate.  Ironically, he opposed both the idea of a National Bank and paper money, yet his face still appears on America’s currency.

 

Compare Jackson to Harriet Tubman, the extraordinary woman who was born a slave and became the abolitionist and activist most well known for rescuing slaves, family and friends via at least a dozen trips on the network of safe houses known as the “Underground Railroad.”

 

Tubman, born into slavery in Maryland in 1820 or 1821, once said of her own journey to freedom, “I had crossed the line, I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.”  But she saw to it that others, whose tears she had seen and whose sighs and groans she had heard, as she put it, found welcome on their difficult and dangerous journeys, because she had vowed to “give every drop in my veins to free them.”

 

In 1850, having escaped slavery, she returned to Maryland after learning that her niece was about to be auctioned off.  Leading her to safety, she went on to rescue more than 70 other slaves at that time, continuing her mercy missions until the Civil War broke out. She is thought to have saved as many as 3,000 slaves and she never failed in a single rescue, earning the name “Moses.”

 

Tubman, who was illiterate, often used disguises, sometimes pretending to read a newspaper or dressing like a field hand with chickens in tow. She also used spirituals and other songs as code for her followers. She managed to avoid police, dogs, mobs, and slave catchers, and often slept in swamps, moving on only at night. Known as the “black ghost,” the bounty on her head was about $12,000 or $330,000 in today’s terms.

 

During the Civil War she served as an army nurse on the Union side, and scouted or spied behind enemy lines. On one famous mission in South Carolina, she helped free 700 slaves in one go. Having worked for the army for three years, she applied for veteran’s compensation when the war ended. It took 34 years for her to get it after President Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward intervened. She was 78 years old at the time.

 

Although impoverished after the War, Tubman became active in the women’s suffrage movement, traveling to New York and Washington to give speeches despite having occasional seizures resulting from a childhood injury.  In the 1890s she underwent brain surgery to alleviate lifelong headaches, refusing anesthesia for the operation as she had seen soldiers do.

 

Harriet Tubman’s life came to an end in 1913 in Auburn, NY in a home for the aged that she had founded. She was 91 years old and was buried with military honors not far from the grave of William Seward. She had lived an amazing life, especially for an African American woman at that time.

 

This is the woman the Trump administration refuses to honor on the $20 bill.

New Yorker Dano Wall, an artist who's been working with 3D printers since 2012, has created a stamp that allows users to superimpose Tubman's face over Jackson's on the $20 note. Previously available online as an act of civil disobedience, it has quickly sold out since the delay was announced by Minuchin. Wall reported in May, shortly after the announcement, that he’d received over 2,000 requests for more stamps.  Apparently, the notes with the Tubman stamp have been used successfully in vending machines, although shops and banks may not recognize them as legal tender – yet.

Still, if $20 Tubman bills keep turning up, it’s enough to send a signal to the Treasury Department and the Oval Office. Who knows? It might even make the racist Andrew Jackson turn over in his grave. Holy Moses!

Girls and Young Women Will Suffer Most from Anti-abortion Madness

Reading Facebook posts these days has become an exercise in masochism for many of us. Daily horrific posts reveal various forms of violence against the least powerful among us.

Among the victims of such violence are young women and “emerging adult” females. A recent post referenced an eleven-year old girl in Ohio pregnant by rape. Given Ohio’s newly proposed anti-abortion legislation, she could be forced to carry the fetus to term. That’s nothing short of state-sanctioned child abuse. State after state, the same kind of cruelty could be repeated.

We have heard little about the full impact of Draconian measures aimed at overturning Roe v. Wade on women’s mental and physical health, but of this you can be sure: The impact will be more drastic the younger the girl or woman subjected to such measures.

It should be noted that research reveals having a safe, legal abortion does not pose mental health problems for women. According to Lucy Leriche, Vice President of Public Policy, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, “over 95 percent of women who have had an abortion report feeling relief that outweighs any negative emotion they might have, even years later.”

In contrast, a statement last month by the Activism Caucus of the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) makes clear the psychological damage that will be inflicted on girls (and women) from restrictions on their reproductive rights, none more so than the hideous laws Alabama and other states want to impose.

“Growing girls learn that in crucial, life-altering ways, the government has more control over their bodies than they do. This is important for many reasons, one of which is that a sense of control has been shown repeatedly in psychological research to be important to mental health and well-being,” write psychologists Paula J. Caplan and Joan Chrisler on behalf of the AWP. “Rape and incest are examples of extreme loss of control, and at least in some cases, making the decision to have an abortion after rape and incest are important parts of healing, which the Alabama law prohibits.”

Like domestic abuse and sexual assault, current proposed and passed laws are about power and control, and men’s fear of losing that power and control. The laws aim to remove any sense of agency from women, over their bodies and their lives. In their worst form, they are a manifestation of terrorism in which a women’s body is owned by the state, as it was in the chilling novel, The Handmaids Tale. Laws that attempt to incarcerate a woman for crossing state lines to have an abortion, laws that can send her or her physician to jail for life, laws that in the extreme could result in executing a woman for having an abortion reveal the pure evil underpinning these laws.

Let’s remember that the same men (and yes, some women) who want to torture girls and women in these ways are the same men (and women) who legislate against ensuring the health, safety, education, and well-being of the babies born of this unspeakable coercion, and who rabidly support capital punishment.

Even if these reactionary attempts to challenge women reproductive and human rights were to fail, “the blaming and shaming of girls and women who choose to use birth control measures or who choose to have abortions causes fear, self-doubt, low self-confidence, feelings of being unsafe, and beliefs that others consider [women and girls] unable to make major, or ethical decisions,” the AWP points out.

The truly heartbreaking thing is that once shamed, fearful, self-doubting, and depressed, it is almost impossible to regain a sense of personhood or control over one’s life. That kind of despair, in which it seems impossible to envision a way out, especially prevalent in the young, can easily lead to self-destructive behavior, including suicide.

Some years ago, when I worked in Romania on reproductive rights, I saw the damage done to girls, women, and children during the time of the dictator Ceausescu. His regime required all girls graduating from high school to undergo a pelvic exam to determine if she was pregnant. Every working woman was also subjected to monthly pelvic exams in their workplaces. These cruel practices were enforced to ensure that all pregnancies were carried to term. I saw the results of that grotesque policy in the Casa Copii – orphanages where unwanted babies were dumped. Many of the children were visibly impaired, physically and mentally. Others suffered in ways that can only be imagined. Very few of them, I’m certain, had any vision of a happy future. It was worse than Dickensian and it broke my heart.

What is happening in this country now is not far removed from the tragedies that have occurred because of pronatalist policies elsewhere. The lack of humanity, morality, and ethics inherent in such policies is stunning. It leaves one speechless. Incredulous. Furious. Grieving.

But it must not leave us silent.

We must march in unity, speak out vociferously, resist mightily, vote, and support the #SexStrike movement together. Most of all, we must refuse to sacrifice our young and our females on the alters of misogyny and in the chambers of violence. Our survival as sentient beings depends upon it.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health and social justice issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com

Think the FDA is Looking Out for You? Think Again!

Back in the 1970s, when I sat on the FDA Consumer Consortium, an eclectic advocacy group comprised of organizations concerned with the health and well-being of various constituencies, I quickly learned that the FDA approval process needed watching. That was never truer than now.

Recently, as reported by the New York Times, the Food and Drug Administration went public with the fact that it couldn’t guarantee the long-term safety and efficacy – FDA’s twin mission – of a particular medical device, vaginal mesh products, that have been on the market for decades. Women were not surprised. Many of them remembered what Thalidomide and DES had done to them or their mothers, and many had experienced the failures and problems associated with breast implants.

Despite well-documented breast implant problems, an implant linked to a rare cancer is still being sold in the U.S., even though it’s banned in many other countries, because the FDA says there isn’t enough data to justify banning them. The vaginal mesh products in question, which support pelvic organs, have long been tied to life-altering injuries, according to the Times report. Eighty deaths were reported as of last year as a result of mesh complications, and over the past decade several companies have paid out $8 billion to resolve over 100,000 patient claims. Here’s what’s really shocking: Most of these medical devices were approved with almost no clinical data to support their safety.

As the Times story noted, “When trouble arises, devise makers equivocate, regulators dither, and patients seeking redress are forced into lengthy, expensive court battles.” That means that faulty or dangerous products can be on the market for years.

Vaginal mesh products were finally removed from the market in April, but the FDA has said it will not ban the breast implant linked to cancer and other forms of “breast-implant illness” because FDA regulators claim there is insufficient evidence of harm to justify pulling the product.

It’s not only women who are affected by poor FDA oversight or sheer negligence. Metal hips, implantable defibrillators, and artificial heart valves have also proven disastrous in some instances. “There have also been staples that misfired, temperature control machines that spray bacteria into open chest cavities, and robotic surgeons that slap, burn and main patients,” according to the Times story.

In every one of these cases, dubious regulatory approvals, poor post-market surveillance, and inadequate responses from regulators have caused irreversible, and avoidable, harm.

According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, nearly two million injuries and over 80,000 deaths have been linked to faulty medical devices, many approved with little or no clinical testing. The FDA has continued to promised “transformative” changes to medical device regulation, but it’s ideas for improved regulation have yet to be realized, while regulation of the device approval process has generally accelerated. The head of the FDA office responsible for device regulation, Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, a former venture capitalist, is fine with that. He’s on record saying the benefits of getting innovative products to the marketplace quickly is worth the increased risks.

The FDA’s history hardly encourages hope that its regulation and oversight will improve any time soon. Its numerous scandals include a 2016 insider trading prosecution and a 2009 politicized medical device approval. A 2013 ProPublica investigation found the agency had overlooked fraudulent research and allowed potentially unsafe drugs to remain on the market.

How can such corruption be explained? First, follow the money. According to a 2018 report in Science Magazine, 40 physician advisors out of 107 who voted on FDA committees received more than $10,000 in post hoc earnings or research support from drug manufacturers whose products were approved by panels on which the physicians served. Almost half of the 40 physicians who were rewarded for their vote got more than $100,000, and six received more than $1 million.

As a blogger on http://globalnaticorruptionblog.com noted in 2017, “Corruption blooms where transparency and accountability are lacking.”

Because of that, “Instead of a regulator and a regulated industry, we now have a partnership,” Dr. Michael Carome, director of the health research group at Public Citizen, told ProPublica last year. “That relationship has tilted the FDA away from a public health perspective to an industry friendly perspective.”

So what can be done about a growing list of FDA disasters? Most advocates agree approval standards must be tightened so that loopholes can be closed, most importantly those that allow medical devices to hit the market in the absence of human testing. Post-market surveillance also needs to be fixed. It’s unbelievable that medical devices can be on the market before enough rigorous testing has occurred by manufacturers who argue that further testing of products occurs once they are being used. Finally, the revolving door that allows manufacturers and Big Pharma folks, who fund much of FDA’s mission, to work for the industry, then for the FDA, and back with industry again must be disallowed.

No patient should have to worry about medical devices, procedures or drugs being dangerously flawed or life-threatening. For those who have died when they are, the least the FDA can do is to correct course on their behalf, quickly and completely.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, and social justice issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

America's Shameful Maternal Mortality Rate

This being the month to celebrate mothers, it seems timely and important to ask, why is maternal morality so high in this country?

According to a recent report by the Commonwealth Fund, American women have the highest risk of dying from pregnancy complications than in any other high-income country. Their report shows that we have 14 deaths per 100,000 births; the Centers for Disease Control puts it even higher at 18 per 100,000 births. Compare that to Sweden’s 4 per 100,000 or the UK rate of 9 per 100,000 and we are not so “developed” as we think.

Maternal mortality is “a death that occurs during pregnancy or within a year postpartum from a pregnancy complication, a chain of events initiated by pregnancy, or the aggravation of an unrelated condition by the physiological effects of pregnancy.” In the U.S. it has risen to the level of social crisis from a public health perspective. Our maternal mortality rates have more than doubled in the last twenty years, with African American women suffering at the alarming rate of 40 deaths per 100,000. Some experts say it’s getting deadly to give birth here.

Several factors are at play, but one big problem relates to our high C-section rate. A third of American mothers are now delivering by Cesarean section, an increase of more than 500 percent since the 1970s. That’s an astounding figure even if surgery can be necessary sometimes. But what doctors, and moms who elect to have a section, often forget is that we’re talking about major surgery, not something as simple as a tooth extraction.

As the World Health Organization notes, C-sections are effective in saving maternal and infant lives, “but only when they are required for medically indicated reasons.” C-section rates higher than 10 percent, the organization says, are not associated with reductions in maternal and newborn deaths.

“We’ve designed the birth environment to resemble an Intensive Care Unit. Ninety-nine percent of American women deliver in environments that resemble ICUs, surrounded by surgeons,” Dr. Neel Shah, a professor at Harvard Medical School, told a New York Times reporter.

Midwives, who’ve been delivering babies for millennia, have known for a long time that woman-centered childbirth is basically a natural process that, with appropriate support, ends well; it is not routinely a medical emergency. Women who elect to have midwife-assisted deliveries, a practice that has grown since the 1970s thanks to women’s health advocates, know this too.

The midwifery model espouses a holistic approach to childbirth that includes affirmation and comfort as a woman experiences one of the most significant lifetime events. Midwives are highly trained professionals who call in a physician if the situation warrants, and research shows they have better outcomes than physician-directed births. In addition to skills and techniques that can avert an intervention, midwives have an abundance of patience. They understand that birth cannot be rushed, and they know that less medicalization is appropriate in normal births rather than more.

In most countries, mothers deliver their babies with midwives, who provide a relaxed but watchful environment. In this country, as research by Dr. Shah noted, a surgical delivery has less to do with health issues or particular physicians than with the hospital in which a mom delivers. “Your biggest risk factor is which door you walk into,” he says. That’s particularly true in urban cities and teaching hospitals. It’s also why women are now alert to “buyer beware birthing environments.”

Birthing centers like the one at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts are breaking new ground in woman-centered childbirth. A team of experts there committed to reducing the C-section rate have developed a model to reduce Cesarean sections in collaboration with Dr. Shah and others at physician-writer Atul Gawande’s Boston Ariadne Labs. Recently they made national news when the team delivered twins naturally, one of whom (at least) would have been deemed a section in most other delivery suites.

In 2017 the House of Representatives introduced the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act which directs the Department of Health and Human Services to offer a range of ways to reduce the maternal mortality rate, including Maternal Mortality Review Committees, at the state level. It also provides for public disclosure of information in state reports. Passed by the Senate, Donald Trump signed the bill into law in December 2018.

In the U.S., the C-section rate continues to vary from seven to 70 percent, while the CDC estimates that 60 percent of maternal deaths in the U.S. are preventable. Those are shocking numbers, especially in a so-called developed country that reveres motherhood, at least rhetorically.

The lives of childbearing women in this country depend on the success – and implementation – of established and proposed legislation, especially to address structural inequities that put black, indigenous and rural families at disproportionate risk, making policy changes relating to Medicaid imperative. Several Democratic legislators have introduced such legislation.

For it to make its way through the labyrinth of public policy, people who care about moms, wives, and other American women, urgently need to advocate on their behalf.

What better time to start than on Mother’s Day?

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, and social justice issues from Saxtons River, Vt. (www.elayne-clift.com

Missing in Action: Democrats, Media, Public

Following the debacle created by Attorney General William Barr when he decided unilaterally that Donald Trump wasn’t guilty of collusion or obstruction of justice, it seems appropriate to declare that we are facing dark times in America. It should be clear by now that we are experiencing an unprecedented, deeply dangerous Constitutional crisis that begs the question: Why aren’t Democrats, some media, and the public reacting more vigorously to the growing nightmare of encroaching autocracy, if not outright dictatorship?

Political pundits will continue to deconstruct what happened following the release of the Mueller report for some time. Ideas about what went wrong and why regarding the myriad illegalities rapidly turning us into a Banana Republic will, we hope, ultimately be revealed. I leave that discussion to others.

I am compelled instead to focus on damaging failures by a disturbing number of Democratic leaders, some seasoned media figures, and a somnolent public, who seem insufficiently concerned with the serious threat this country faces: The creeping death of our Republic, so carefully crafted on a a set of principles grounded in the highest ideals and structured in a way as to ensure their continuity.

Now, more than 200 years later, as we watch those principles and ideals being decimated and discarded, how can it be that – with so many canaries in the coalmine – about 40 percent of Americans appear to be inured to the dangers ahead as we face a Constitutional crisis of huge proportion. I repeat: A Constitutional, not a political, crisis that every sentient citizen ought to be deeply troubled by, and none more so than our elected officials.

And yet the speaker of the House of Representatives, and other Democrats, say that Donald Trump isn’t worth impeaching. Or that it’s too soon to impeach. Or that we need more solid evidence of the deep, pervasive culture of corruption this administration and this president have spawned.

I am reminded of the saying, “Today may be too soon, but tomorrow will surely be too late.” For while I understand the argument for taking the time to build a solid case for impeachment in the face of Republican’s incalcitrant political posturing and lack of moral or ethical behavior, I also worry that a duplicative, drawn out inquiry, and more dangerously, expecting voters to rid us of our present scourge at the polls next year is sheer folly. Too many voters don’t seem to understand what’s happening before their eyes and many of them have no interest in the Mueller report. They put Donald Trump in office – or at least the Electoral College did – and now they want to “move on,” while disinformation, voter disenfranchisement, and Russian hacking are likely to grow.

It bears repeating that this is not a political issue. It’s not even solely a moral or ethical issue. We are living through a failure of conscience, of intellect, and of will that every American needs to understand and face with the utmost consciousness. One need only remember the terrible travesties of this administration – the caging of children, the scapegoating of Muslims, the sanctioning of violence, hate crimes, and white supremacy, the vile utterings and copious lies of an ill-equipped and often cruel leader who reveres dictators, the injustices increasingly suffered by so many Americans, the rape of sacred lands and pollution of the environment, the dangerous rollbacks in regulation in the name of profit, the threat of nationalizing media and arresting journalists, and more.

Consider just this one fact:  The Justice Department has itself just obstructed justice. People can argue that we need to address “real issues,” like health care, jobs and the economy. I agree that the media has failed to expose numerous policy issues we face while allowing Mr. Trump to suck all the oxygen out of the air waves. But none of these things will ever be attended to if we don’t recognize the urgency of defeating autocracy before it’s too late.

As for the canaries in the coalmine, none is more prescient, it seems to me, than the deepening misogyny and racism we are witnessing. Where, for example, were the Democrats in Congress when Ilhan Omar was vilified because she is a woman, a person of color, and a Muslim? 

And surely the media, while drawing attention to dangerous Trumpian demagogues hell-bent on destroying our systems of governance, needs to cover more fairly the competent women running for president. Every one of us should be outraged by moves to marginalize, trivialize, and punish these extraordinary women. Such dismissal of women as potential candidates reveals the underbelly of countries dominated by patriarchal autocracies.

The late Norman Birnbaum, illustrious journalistic and scholar, noted that “Modern authoritarianism is not subtle, but it is omnipresent.” He also said “Avoidance, falsification, and trivialization mark our encounter with past and future.” He was right -- modern authoritarianism is staring us in the face.

Let’s hope, therefore, that Winston Churchill was also right. If we act wisely, this may not be “the beginning of the end.” With enough courage to impeach, perhaps it is “the end of the beginning.” A new beginning couldn’t be more timely or urgent.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, politics and social justice from Saxtons River, Vt.

 

Women Beware! Birth Control, Abortion, and Your Healthcare Are at Risk

 

You’re a middle-class mom with two kids, a mortgage, a fragile marriage, and an elderly parent to care for when you find yourself pregnant. You’re a sexually active college student and because of a condom failure you’re pregnant. You’re pregnant with a wanted child when you learn your fetus has a serious anomaly and probably can’t survive outside the womb. You are a rural woman with limited income who gets routine healthcare at a Planned Parenthood now threatened with closure.

Variations on stories like these abound. For all kinds of women, and their advocates, they are terrifying, as federal and state legislators continue gunning for Planned Parenthood and vehemently resisting female autonomy, privacy, and decision-making.    

As a recent New York Times piece by the editorial board stated, “In its continuing assault on reproductive rights, the Trump Administration has issued potentially devastating changes to the nation’s nearly 50-year-old family planning program, Title X, which allows millions of women each year to afford contraception, cancer screenings, and other critical health services.”

To be clear, health clinics like Planned Parenthood have been barred from using federal funds for abortions, but they have been able to to offer non-federally funded abortions and other family planning services under one roof. Now the Department of Health and Human Services wants to make clinics that provide abortions navigate ridiculous regulations if they want to receive Title X funds. I mean ridiculous regs, like having separate entrances for abortion patients, or establishing an electronic health records system separate from their regular system. Providers will also be prohibited from making abortion referrals, or providing information that adheres to standards for “informed consent.”

In addition to threats at the federal level, more and more states are attempting to pass ridiculous anti-abortion laws, like requiring wider hallways or revamping janitor’s closets.

More Draconian is the unethical “domestic gag rule” that allows so-called “pro-life” staffers in Title X facilities to say a particular procedure doesn’t exist or to lie to patients about false risks of abortion.

As Dr. Leana Wen, the new president of Planned Parenthood, told The New York Times, “There will be many providers that will face an impossible decision: to participate in Title X and be forced to compromise their medical ethics, or to stop participating in that program,” a step that would lead to overwhelming demand for reproductive health care but not much in the way of supply to respond.

Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, states have been constructing a maze of abortion laws that codify, regulate and limit whether, when and under want circumstances a woman can have an abortion, as the Guttmacher Institute points out. Major provisions to states laws, some on the books, other in litigation or defeated, include requiring that abortions be performed in a hospital or set gestational limits on abortion.

One example is the attempt to ban abortions when a faint heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks, before a woman may know she is pregnant. Another is state restrictions on coverage of abortion in private insurance plans, and states allowing individual health care providers to refuse to participate in abortions. Some states mandate that a woman have counseling, including information on purported links between abortion and breast cancer, the ability of a fetus to feel pain, or long-term mental health consequences for the woman.

The Trump administration clearly wants to evict Planned Parenthood from the federal family planning program. It also hopes to ban abortion referrals. At the state level, early abortion bans called “heartbeat bills” are being proposed in several states. So far, five of them have advanced this legislation but every “heartbeat bill” passed to date has been overturned in state or federal court. With Judges Gorsuch and Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, who know what will happen?

Five states have already passed preemptive “trigger laws” which would immediately ban abortion outright if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Several abortion cases are currently in federal appeals courts or pending litigation in various states. Lawsuits are challenging such issues as required waiting periods, required ultrasounds, 15-week bans, admitting privileges, abortions for minors, and Medicaid coverage.

The situation, not only for women seeking their constitutional right to abortion, but for women – and men - seeking appropriate, quality, accessible, affordable reproductive health care ranging from preventive screening and contraception to treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, grows ever more dire as the Trump administration, and state legislators attempt to control what should be women’s private, personal decisions.

The irony is that rules rooted in anti-abortion (and anti-sex education) feelings threaten access to contraception, which prevents unwanted or unintended pregnancy and consequently increases health care costs in a nation where the cost of care is already skyrocketing.  Can anyone explain why that makes sense? 

More importantly, perhaps, can anyone fathom what would happen without Planned Parenthood?

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

www.elayne-clift.com

 

 

Can We Get Israel's BDS Issue Straight Once and For All?

As an American Jew who supports Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) in response to Israel’s violence against and persecution of Palestinians, I was appalled to see a list of congress-people, especially Democrats, against the BDS movement. I understand their reluctance to go public on the issue – even those who actually agree with BDS - because they take large sums of money from individuals and lobbying organizations seeking their support of Israel, right or wrong.

However, the time has come to make clear to politicians and regular people alike that the BDS movement is aimed at stopping the Israeli policy of inhumane treatment of Palestinians. It is not an anti-Semitic point of view.  People like me support BDS as a movement because we are against Israeli policy – not against Jews or the right of a Jewish state to exist. 

Why, I wonder, is that distinction so difficult to grasp and elucidate? I’d like to have a dollar for every time I’ve been tagged an anti-Semite by friends and family because I criticize Israel’s policy – not Jews.

As a human being sickened by Israel’s apartheid policies, and yes, that’s what they are, policies that translate into violence against an entire people, I ask this: What if another country – say Germany – was doing to --say Jews – what Israel is doing to Palestinians? Would people shout terms like “anti-Semite” at those decrying cruelties against an ethnic group?

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., headlined by many in the media as a Muslim freshman in the House of Representatives, (emphasis mine) was pilloried when she spoke out as so many others have done, and was immediately tagged an “anti-Semite.”  I would argue that the attacks on her are not so much about anti-Semitism as they are about anti-Muslim sentiment.

Omar, as you will recall, used the term “Benjamins” in a tweet that set Twitter on fire. Let’s be clear: Ben Franklin’s picture appears on the US $100 bill. “Benjamins” was a term coined to refer to money, especially large amounts of it, as in “I’m broke! Can you lend me a Benjamin?” It was coopted to refer to Jews with money and has now become a trope to convey anti-Semitism. I wonder if Ilhan Omar even knew that.

In response to the accusations against Omar, Rashida Tlaib, the other Muslim woman elected to the House of Representatives, said, “This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right and part of our historical fight for freedom and equality.” The ACLU agrees. That’s why they are fighting against laws, already in place in many states, mandating state contractors to sign a pledge stating they don’t participate in boycotts of Israel or the settlements.

In Texas, several people including a school speech pathologist and a teacher have already lost their jobs.  It all smacks of McCarthyism, and violates the Constitution and its guarantee of the First Amendment right to free speech.

Let’s be very clear: As the Palestinian BDS National Committee puts it, The BDS movement is a global campaign promoting various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets what the campaign describes as “Israel’s “obligation under international law,” defined as withdrawal from the occupied territories, removal of the separation barrier in the West Bank, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and “respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.” Nothing anti-Semitic about it.

Protests, conferences, and conversations in support of the campaign have taken place in numerous countries while support for the BDS movement grows. This movement is not run by anti-Semites, but by people of conscience representing all faiths, including a global coalition of 40 Jewish groups from 15 countries that has issued a statement condemning attempts to stifle criticism of Israel with false accusations of anti-Semitism.

In its 2017-18 “Report Freedom,” Amnesty International cited numerous violations of human rights currently being implemented in Israel. Among them are illegal air, land and sea blockades of the Gaza Strip, now in its 11th year, humanitarian crises resulting from reduced access to electricity, reductions in clean water and sanitation, diminished health services and more, making Gaza “unlivable” according to the United Nations.

In the West Bank, Palestinians are restricted in their movements by military checkpoints and firing zones and live in fear of collective punishment. The report documents arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, unlawful killings, excessive use of force, violence against women and girls, limitations on association and assembly, denial of refugees and asylum seekers, and punishment of conscientious objectors.

America stood by far too long as genocides occurred in countries all over the world, despite post-Holocaust pledges of “Never Again!” None of those events led to labeling meant to shame those who spoke out against such passivity.  Yet when it comes to Israel, the anti-Semitism charge is immediately invoked. It is the refuge of scoundrels. Among those scoundrels are politicians eager to accept money from those who remain willfully blind to Israeli atrocities.

It’s time that politicians and ordinary people alike stand up to Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing. It’s time to recognize what happens when people like Ilhan Omar, and me, speak out. It’s time to support BDS.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com 

 

 

Will Afghan Women Pay the Price of a Peace Plan?

Khadija was 23-years old when she set herself on fire in December 2017. She had a three-month old baby but still she set herself alight. Such was the horror of her life as a young wife and mother in Afghanistan. A victim of domestic abuse, physically and emotionally, she survived third degree burns. “I am not alive, but I am not dead.” Khadija says. “Women are all handcuffed in this country.”

Her story, reported in TIME Magazine last December, is not atypical. Here’s another provided by an advocate in Kabul who says that because of her work she “could be killed at any moment.” Just before her 16th birthday, a young woman who was to be married to her cousin, tried to jump off a sixth-floor balcony. She said that her uncle – father of the groom - had been raping her since she was 10 years old.

These stories, and many others, illustrate why women attempt or commit suicide in such high numbers in a country where an estimated 3,000 people kill themselves every year, 80 percent of whom are women.

Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world for women to survive. Many of them die in pregnancy or childbirth, 85 percent have no formal education and are illiterate, and their life expectancy is 51.  Forced marriage is the norm, usually before age 18. In 2012, 240 honor killings were reported but the real number is likely higher.

Under Taliban rule (1996 to 2001), women were controlled to such a degree that they were rendered invisible. They could be stoned to death for minor infractions of Taliban law. They could not leave their homes without a male relative, attend school, shop, or show their ankles. Widows were forced to beg, and then beaten for it.

Now, Afghanistan’s 2015 National Action Plan says it will offer equal rights for women, a commitment that Democratic senators are urging the Trump administration to ensure as peace negotiations proceed. 

A Taliban spokesman has said that “if peace comes and the Taliban returns, [it will not be] in the same harsh way as it was in 1996.” He added that while the Taliban weren’t against women’s education or employment, they wanted to “maintain cultural and religious codes,” adding, “we will be against the alien culture clothes worn by women and brought to our country.” Does that signal the return of blue burqas?

A Gallup survey conducted last summer revealed notably low levels of optimism in the country. While findings were not disaggregated by gender, we know that Afghan women suffer disproportionately in a country ranked the worst place in the world to be female.

“It hurts me to say this but the situation is only getting worse,” says Jameela Naseri, a lawyer at the NGO Medica Afghanistan, an arm of the German-based Medica Mondiale, which helps women and girls in crisis zones. She calls what happens to women in Afghanistan “a war on women.”

An Afghan diplomat promised anonymity told a journalist recently that “the government wants to say they’re prioritizing women, but they’re really not. Supporting women in Afghanistan is something people all over the world pay lip service to, but money and aid never get to them. It’s eaten by corruption.”

Last February, Afghanistan passed a criminal code hailed by the UN Assistance Mission there as a milestone. But one chapter of the code was removed before the law was passed. It was the one penalizing violence against women.

In a recent piece on Radio Free Europe, reporter Frud Bezhan noted that, “With increased talk of peace in Afghanistan, the Taliban is projecting itself as a more moderate force….The Taliban said in a statement issued on February 4 that it was committed to guaranteeing women their rights – under Islam – and ‘in a way that neither their legitimate rights are violated nor their human dignity and Afghan values are threatened.’”

 But in the same statement, Bezhan said, “the Taliban also suggested it wants to curtail the fragile freedoms gained by women since the U.S.-led invasion…prompting concern among Afghan rights campaigners.”

That concern is legitimate. The Taliban has denounced “so-called women’s rights activists” and has said that “due to corruption, the expenses brought and spent under the title of women’s rights have gone to the pockets of those who raise slogans of women’s rights. Under the name of women’s rights, there has been work for immorality, indecency, and the promotion of non-Islamic cultures.”

No wonder Afghan women are worried. Says activist Samira Hamidi, “According to the Taliban, we are so-called activists who are responsible for poor health, lack of education, and violence against women.”

“We are not turning back,” promises Fawzia Koofi, a female member of the Afghan parliament. “Anyone who wants to do politics [here] needs to respect the human freedoms, including the rights of women.

Adds Jameela Naseri, “Afghan women need to take matters into our own hands. We can’t wait for the government and international charities to save or liberate us.”

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Let's Be Clear About Third Trimester Abortion

As a longtime women’s health educator and advocate, I was apoplectic when I read a recent commentary in my local newspaper by a “chaplain serving an elderly population” who is also “treasurer of the Republican Party” in my state and a “county party chair.”

The op.ed. proffered so many spurious and false assertions, often stated by others with far-right political views, that my hair was nearly on fire. Given where we are in this country regarding abortion, I felt compelled to address one of the egregiously uninformed views of the author, which I did in a Letter to the Editor.  It seems to me now important to share what I wrote for a wider audience, in the hope of reaching others inclined to make uninformed claims about a vital issue that affects so many lives and the culture in which we live. 

This is the claim that blew me away. It relates to a bill in my state proposing a law like ones in some other states protecting a woman’s right to abortion moving forward. “The bill goes far beyond Roe [v. Wade], guaranteeing unrestricted abortion through all nine months of pregnancy…” the author wrote. It’s a misleading claim that calls for revisiting the facts regarding the inaccurate use of the term “late term abortion.”

The first thing to note here is that abortion after fetal viability is a rare occurrence and usually involves a medical crisis. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, abortions after 21 weeks make up less than 1.3% of all abortions in the United States. Abortions that occur beyond 24 weeks make up less than 1% of all procedures. Exceptionally rare cases that happen after 24 weeks are often because a fetus has a condition that cannot be treated and and that renders the fetus unable to survive, regardless of gestational age or trimester.

Secondly, the 14th amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees due process and equal protection under the law, was vital to the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. The 14th amendment also protects the right to privacy and the Court held that a woman's right to an abortion fell within that statute. By a 7–2 majority the Court ruled that unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional. Importantly, the Court also determined the point of fetal viability as the “capability of meaningful life outside the mother's womb,” hence the 24- week marker. The Court’s decision gave women a right to abortion during the entirety of the pregnancy, however, while defining different levels of state interest for regulating abortion in the second and third trimesters.

It’s important to know that, as the Guttmacher Institute points out, if a physician determines that the child is “non-viable” and/or the abortion is necessary for the physical or mental health of the mother, a woman can have an abortion from the moment of conception until the child’s birth. State laws restricting third trimester abortions are unconstitutional under the precedent of Doe v. Bolton, a case in which the Supreme Court overturned a Georgia law. (Numerous states have laws that ban or restrict abortions in the third trimester. Because these statutes remain in place or haven’t been contested in federal court, they may imply that they are allowed by federal law. But because federal law trumps state law, no restrictions can be enacted that do not also allow the doctor to determine if abortion is necessary for the health of the mother.)

Here’s another fact: Overturning Roe and Doe won’t end all third-trimester abortions. When the Supreme Court throws the abortion issue back to individual states, third-trimester abortions will still be protected in states that reiterate prior standards for “viability” or “health.”

But here’s the most important thing for everyone to know. No woman decides to have an abortion after 24 weeks recklessly or without a great deal of anguish. Perhaps she does it because of a serious illness she has, like decompensating heart disease. Maybe her baby has a delayed diagnosis of anencephaly, which means the fetus forms without a complete brain or skull. There are a multitude of medical crises that can precipitate a third trimester abortion. But the decision is never taken lightly. In most cases, there is deep grieving and a profound sense of loss, brought about because of medical necessity and the wish that a much loved and wanted baby not suffer.

That’s why people like the man who wrote the troubling commentary – claiming that he “doesn’t oppose or seek to diminish women’s rights” and that he “supports [women’s] right to their own body and right to choose” -- people who misunderstand not just the right to abortion but the reasons women choose it, at any stage of pregnancy, must move beyond facile arguments, misstatements of fact, and feeble justifications. They must somehow begin to recognize that for many women, the choices they face are devastating and immensely complicated.  

Most urgently, they must find it in themselves to be compassionate and to resist judging those whose experiences and viewpoints differ from theirs. 

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com

 

Why Are So Many Native American Women Abused, Missing and Murdered?

Savanna Greywind was a young woman in Fargo, North Dakota about to give birth in a few weeks when she was brutally murdered. Leona LeClair Kinsey was an older woman living in Oregon when she went missing eighteen years ago. She is still missing. RoyLynn Rides Horse, a Crow tribal member, died in 2016 after being beaten, burned, and left in a field to die.

These stories are all too common, but statistics about how pervasive the problem is are hard to find. Many cases go unreported, others aren’t well documented, and no centralized database exists in the U.S. government to track cases.

 According to the Indian Law Resource Center, violence against indigenous women in the U.S. has reached unprecedented levels on tribal lands and in Alaska Native villages. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence. Alaska Native women have reported rates of domestic violence up to 10 times higher than in the rest of the United States. On some reservations, indigenous women are murdered at more than ten times the national average.

“You really have to contact tribe by tribe, family by family, to really see the true impact,” one advocate says. “We are shoved under the rug by corruption even in our own homelands,” says another. “I’m here to say we will not be shoved under the rug anymore.”

At the heart of the problem is the longstanding indifference and hostility to Native Americans, especially Native American women, which can be traced back to the days when separating Native people from their families and homes and denying them their culture was a deliberate attempt to destroy Native beliefs, ways of life, even people.

Continuing racism and sexism contribute to the impression that indigenous women are assailable, says Barbara Perry, a profess at the University of Ontario. “It’s not unusual for women of color generally to be perceived as inferior to white people as a class and inferior white women as a subclass.”

The effects of these travesties remain present in unique ways for Native women. In addition to suffering sex trafficking, sexual violence, and the risk of being disappeared, they are often homeless, living in dire poverty, and totally disconnected from their families and communities.  

Now they face a new vulnerability from the flood of non-native workers into oil-rich regions or near reservations. Of particular concern is the workers who will lay the Keystone XL pipeline running from Canada through Montana, Illinois, and Texas, bringing many more workers into the “man camps” being built along the way. The problems that these camps bring is particularly acute in a region stretching across 200,000 square miles along the Montana-North Dakota state line. Attacks there on Native American women have increased dramatically as tens of thousands of transient oil workers have inhabited the temporary housing known as man camps.

Tribal law enforcement has no jurisdiction over non-native men who assault Native American women on reservations, according to Cheryl Bennet, an Arizona State University professor. “If a white person commits murder or rape against a Native American person, the federal government would have jurisdiction over those crimes instead of the tribe or state government.” But when tribal law enforcement sent sexual abuse cases to the FBI and U.S. Attorney Offices, federal prosecutors declined more than two-thirds of the cases, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report.

In recent months, the plight of Native women has begun receiving attention thanks to a growing activist movement that is being heard in state capitals and on Capitol Hill. Last year Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), defeated in the November mid-term election, introduced a bill to standardize law enforcement protocols relating to missing and murdered Native Americans. It attracted sixteen co-sponsors but didn’t make it out of committee.  

At the state level, Republican Rep. Gina McCabe introduced a House bill in Washington State that would bring the federal, state, and federally recognized sovereign tribal governments together to ensure that everyone in the state who goes missing is reported and listed in a central location. The bill, now making its way through the legislative process, mandates that the State Patrol creates a list of missing Native American women in Washington by June this year, working together with tribal and non-tribal police agencies.

May 5, 2017 marked the first National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. Twelve years earlier, the movement for the safety of Native women, largely spearheaded by the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC) and other groups, had led the struggle to include a separate title for Native women, called Safety for Indian Women, in the Violence Against Women Act. It was a start in raising awareness of this national issue but much more needs to be done.

More than half of Native American women have been sexually assaulted, including over a third who have been raped during their lifetime. That rate is nearly two-and-a-half times higher than for white women, according to a 2016 National Institute of Justice study.

As the NIWRC said at the first National Day of Awareness, “Before this crisis is sufficiently addressed, it must first be acknowledged.”

That means by all of us.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.www.elayne-clift.com

 

 

 

Women vs. Fetus: Is Social Control Out of Control?

Not long ago, a woman in late pregnancy suffering severe depression tried to commit suicide. She survived but her baby died. She was charged with murder. A pregnant woman who lost her unborn child in a car accident in New York state was charged with manslaughter. So was a woman in Indiana who gave birth to a stillborn baby.

 

Even in cases where a fetus hasn’t died, pregnant women have been charged with crimes in various states – for miscarrying, falling down the stairs, failing a drug test, or taking legal drugs during pregnancy, often prescribed by doctors.

 

These examples, reported in a recent New York Times series exploring “legislative intrusions into the womb,” reveal a paternalism that is not new, but is alarming, and growing in the Trump era. They are also reminiscent of other frightening autocratic and dictatorial eras. Hitler, for example, “recruited” German women to produce Aryan children. Under the Romanian dictator Ceaușescu, assassinated in 1989, women were subjected to monthly pelvic exams in their workplaces while high school girls were routinely digitally raped by male doctors to ensure that all pregnancies were carried to term. In The Handmaid’s Tale, resurrected in the face of Trumpian resistance to reproductive freedom, forced insemination of those selected to be Mothers is assisted by designated Wives.

 

If all of this is disgusting to imagine it should be because it derives from a vile act of social control. Such control, still relatively rare but growing, is already occurring in America.

 

Here’s just one example.  Politicians in Ohio recently considered a bill that could have allowed abortions to be punishable with life sentences or the death penalty. The proposed law, would have extended the definition of a person in Ohio's criminal code to include the "unborn human." That meant that a fetus, from conception to birth, would be considered a person, leaving people who perform abortions or women who have them vulnerable to severe criminal penalties.

 

According to the ACLU, at least 38 states have fetal homicide laws, most of which relate to fetuses killed by violent acts against pregnant women. So-called pro-life advocates use laws like the Fetal Protection Act, the Preborn Victims of Violence Act and the Unborn Victim of Violence Act to argue that fetuses are persons, or “a child in uterus,” and need to be protected in all circumstances.

 

The ACLU argues that “a pregnant woman and her fetus should never be regarded as separate, independent, and even adversarial, entities. Yet that is precisely what some anti-choice organizations, legal theorists, legislators, prosecutors, doctors and courts have attempted to do in the past decade.”

 

Legislation designed to protect fetuses can take different forms, the ACLU points out. All of them endanger reproductive rights. States may amend existing homicide statutes to include fetuses as victims, they can pass statutes defining a fetus as a person, or establish a new crime category called “feticide” or fetal homicide. They can also permit civil suits against anyone who causes the death of a fetus, or enact new statutes to penalize injury to a pregnant woman that causes fetal death or injury. This law is aimed primarily at practitioners, which flies in the face of the constitutional right to choose, established by Roe v. Wade, which calls for abortion to be exempt from punishment when performed by “health care workers with the consent of the woman or in medical emergencies, and self-abortions.”

 

Clearly, fetal protection legislation fosters the policing of pregnancy, just as it did in Romania. It makes it more likely that practitioners will become overzealous, thereby complicating routine healthcare decisions. In Florida, for example, a woman was told by her doctor that he would send law enforcement to her home if she didn’t get to the hospital immediately for a C-section. A New Jersey mother lost custody of her newborn after refusing a surgical delivery.

 

All of this raises the larger, deeply troubling issue of social control, which usually comes at the expense of women. Writing in The Atlantic’s latest issue, editor Peter Beinart sounds this alarm: “Authoritarian nationalism is rising in a diverse set of countries [for various reasons, but] right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing, which often goes unrecognized in the U.S.: They all want to subordinate women.”

The question is why, and Valerie M. Hudson, a political scientist at Texas A&M, has this answer: “It’s vital to remember that for most of human history, leaders and their male subjects forged a social contract: ‘Men agreed to be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women.’ This political hierarchy appeared natural—as natural as adults ruling children—because it mirrored the hierarchy of the home. Thus, for millennia, men, and many women, have associated male dominance with political legitimacy. Women’s empowerment ruptures this order.”

In other words, keeping women “barefoot and pregnant” is essential to patriarchy. Autonomous women liberated from childbearing, empowered with reproductive choice, unleashed into the marketplace, the academy, and government threaten male power. That reality has played out in various forms throughout history.

Seeing it happen in the 21st century is unacceptable.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com

Is It Really Silly Season So Soon?

January 1, 2019 and the horses were out of the gate, their hoofbeats assaulting our already over-taxed patience. The political horseplay began with a vengeance - before the new Congress set foot in Washington and before anyone had formally declared they were running for President next year. The new year promised the American public, and the world, a long and rocky race as all eyes, arguments, and predictions focused on the 2020 election.

 

Some pundits say the palaver is right on time. But most of us would probably concur that it’s way too early to begin the non-stop spewing and sputtering when we don’t even know who the serious contenders will be, or what they have to offer.

 

Still, the mainstream media dug in its heels and to the exclusion of reporting real and urgent news, they started having a field day. The New York Times, for example, ran a piece with this over-written, somewhat hysterical headline: "Rashida Tlaib’s Expletive-Laden Cry to Impeach Trump Upends Democrats’ Talking Points"!  "Expletive-Laden Cry"? She said one bad word at a private event and got caught on tape. The M-F- word, it seems, is enough to ruin a woman’s budding political career, but a guy who says publicly that he likes to “grab pussy” gets a pass and becomes president?


Dancing while Female?  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez danced, beautifully and joyfully, while in college, mimicking a famous movie dance scene. Someone taped it. A right-winger posted it, and hey presto, she's the bad "little girl."  


Elizabeth Warren went public first and she's immediately "unlikable." Sound familiar? Not only was Hillary Rodham Clinton tagged “unlikeable,” her headbands and hairstyles were scrutinized ad nauseam, as was Michelle Obama’s choice of sleeveless dresses, now the norm in women’s fashion.

 

Common denominator? Fear of powerful women, i.e., misogyny, and it needs to be called out every single time it rears its ugly head, whether in Congress, in conversation, or by TV pundits, social and print media, among the worst offenders for stoking this kind of sexist nonsense. Women like Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters know that game when they see it, and they aren't afraid to confront it, making them superb role models.


Moving on, how fair is it to be polling for favorite 2020 candidates and reporting on outcomes when most potential candidates have not yet declared? How in the world can anyone know who they are inclined to vote for until they hear what frontrunners have to say, never mind time to scrutinize their experience and policy perspectives?


It was nothing short of shocking to hear potential candidate Terry McAuliffe, former governor of Virginia, do a self-serving pre-stump speech critical of the progressive agenda of the Democratic party’s left in which he revealed how out of touch he is with what just happened in the mid-term election. Similarly, California Senator Dianne Feinstein didn’t get what the Blue/Pink Wave was all about. With all due respect to Joe Biden, Sen. Feinstein, and Mr. McAuliffe, the election was not about same old white guy-driven policies and agendas that don't speak to the new generation of Democratic constituencies. It was about inclusivity, relevance, and effectiveness in a 21st century political world.

 

That world is culturally, ethnically, and economically diverse, moving toward progressive ideas and goals, deeply committed to social justice, the earth’s survival, a democratic future, and other critical issues of our time. People like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and others deserve their chance as McAuliffe, Feinstein and Biden have had theirs.

 

Messages about economic gains for the middle class (which means mostly white people) no longer resonate at a time when the U.S. government is caging and killing kids, when our water and food is no longer safe and children are dying because of rolled back regulations, when adults and seniors are dying prematurely because they can’t afford their medicines (like insulin) and can’t access health care, when Americans can’t earn a living wage, when people get killed just for being black and hate crimes are on the rise, when the planet we share is in real danger of dying, when ethical and moral behavior in Congressional offices and chambers no longer exists, and when we are on the brink of serious disasters, man-made and natural, with no one at the helm or in government agencies who understands or cares so long as their coffers are full.

 

This is not a time to be politically regressive. Our full attention, our intellectual faculties, our conscience and compassion have never been more important or more necessary. They must be exercised by each of us to the fullest degree if we are to survive as a nation and as citizens of a morally and physically safe world.

 

Everyone must commit to that effort, including those who have served as our political voice in the past, and those who want to find their way and use their voices to offer appropriate legislation and new, important ideas, knowing that they will be heard and that their ideas will be considered carefully, not judged on what they say privately, what they wear, or how they dance.

 

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Elayne Clift writes about women, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

www.elayne-clift.com

 

Will Artificial Intelligence Put an End to Real People?

Okay, I confess. Sorry, Siri, but I find you and Alexa creepy. I worry that native intelligence is being replaced by “artificial intelligence,” which strikes me as a modern-day oxymoron, like “virtual reality.” I’m scared about what’s coming as technology takes over our lives. And I’m nearly convinced robots are going to make humans unnecessary if not extinct. Call me crazy, but that’s what they called Jules Verne too.

It seems I’m in good company. Some pretty big names in science and technology have also expressed concern about the inherent risks AI could pose. They include the late physicist Stephen Hawking who told the BBC several years ago that, "the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race." Elon Musk, engineer and head of Tesla, has said that autonomous machines could unleash “weapons of terror,” comparing the adoption of AI to “summoning the devil.” And Bill Gates is worried that AI is only viable if we make sure humans remain in control of machines.

As one techie posted on Tech Times.com, what happens if Siri decides that she wants to take over the world? He didn’t seem to think that was a real threat, but what if AI becomes so advanced that it decides it wants power of its own? Others worry that if artificially intelligent systems misunderstand a mission they’re given, they could cause more damage than good and end up hurting lots of people.

A lot of folks are worried about the implications of AI-controlled weapons. They might be able to help soldiers and civilians in war zones, but they could also cause a global arms race that could end up being disastrous.  According to a scientist at the Future of Life Institute, “There is an appreciable probability that the course of human history over the next century will be dramatically affected by how AI is developed. It would be extremely unwise to leave this to chance,” he argues.

There are also troubling ways in which AI could infringe upon our personal privacy. Facebook’s recent problems have already demonstrated some of the possibilities, from unwanted intrusion to exposure that leaves us vulnerable. Facebook can already recognize someone by the clothes they wear, the books they read, and the movies they watch. What happens when government agencies have fully developed recognition systems?

In one alarming thesis put forward by Nick Bostrom, an Oxford University philosopher, artificial intelligence may prove to be apocalyptic. He thinks AI “could effortlessly enslave or destroy Homo sapiens if they so wished.”

No longer the stuff of science fiction, many AI milestones have already been reached even thought experts thought it would take decades to get where we are now in terms of relevant technology. While some scientists think it will take a long time to develop human-level AI or superintelligence, others at a 2015 conference thought it would happen within the next forty years or so. Given AI’s potential to exceed human intelligence, we really don’t know how it will behave.  If humans are no longer the smartest beings on earth, how do we get to stay in control?

A recent, lengthy article about “Superior Intelligence” in The New Yorker, pointed out that imbuing AI with higher intelligence than humans have risks having robots turn against us. “Intelligence and power seek their own increase,” Tad Friendly posited in his piece. “Once an AI surpasses us, there’s no reason to believe it will feel grateful to us for inventing it, particularly if we haven’t figured out how to imbue it with empathy.”

Here’s another interesting thing to contemplate. In 1988, Friendly shares, “roboticist Hans Moravec observed that tasks we find difficult are child’s play for a computer, and vice versa. ‘It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult-level performance in solving problems on intelligence tests, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.’”

And here’s a scary thought: According to The New Yorker, Vladimir Putin told Russian schoolchildren not long ago that “the future belongs to artificial intelligence. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”  In light of recent interference with western elections, one must wonder what he’s got in the way of AI technology (or whether he has already found a way to infiltrate Donald Trump’s brain and program his mouth.)

I realize I may be getting ahead of things and sounding unduly alarmist, but it’s all pretty scary stuff. I hope the day never comes when people younger than I am have to admit that, along with Stephen Hawking et. al., I was not totally out in left field. Worse still, I hope they never have to dodge incoming missiles directed by maniacal robots angry because we didn’t make them even smarter and more powerful than they already are.    

 

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Elayne writes and worries from Saxtons River, Vt.

 

 

 

Beginning the New Year, Eyes Wide Open

“People are slow to recognize events taking place around them. They have other priorities, events happen invisibly, changes are incremental, people keep recalibrating.”

That quote, from an article in the November issue of Smithsonian Magazine, appears in the introduction to a story of a young Jewish girl’s diary written during WWII and only recently discovered.  Her name was Renia Spiegel and she was murdered by Nazis when she was 18.

The quote jumped out at me because as 2018 was coming to a close I found myself increasingly concerned about the precipice we seem to be facing as American democracy steals ever closer to dangerous and perhaps irrevocable decline. The rapidity with which we are descending into unprecedented political depravity was alarming in itself, but so too was the fact that so many people didn’t appear to understand what was happening, or didn’t seem to care.

One can perhaps understand the lack of gravity among people too young to remember the terror of 1930s Europe or our own crisis of the 1960s and the Nixonian blight, but how, I wondered, could the worries of the present, and the warnings from those who witnessed WWII through the lens of global aggression, hatred, prejudice, and violence not be taken more seriously?

We are not, of course, the only country flirting with or openly embracing fascism. Almost all of Europe is now threatened with reprisal of a time, and a scourge, we thought impossible to repeat when the war ended. Many other regions of the world from South America to the Philippines are also facing threats, or the reality, of dictatorship. It’s a situation we all need to be aware of and to resist mightily. After all, to where does one flee when the majority of nations have succumbed?

But our country has other trouble signs that don’t exist elsewhere and they need attention and action too.

We are virtually the only “developed” nation in the world that has chosen to ignore the visible, verifiable science of climate change.

We are a country unable to enact gun laws that could keep our children from being murdered.

We are a country in which white men, like outrageous sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, or crime partner Michael Cohen, can negotiate their way out of appropriate jail time despite serious crimes they’ve committed, while black men caught with a bit of marijuana in their possession a decade or two ago languish in jail, and women like Cyntoia Brown, a victim of sex abuse and trafficking who killed her 43-year old abuser when she was 16, gets a life sentence with a 50-year wait for possibility of parole. 

We are a country that lets people die for lack of access to massively expensive healthcare, a country that stands by as our sacred lands and national parks are drilled, fracked, and mined, our water is polluted, and our kids can’t get a decent meal in school, which for many is their only solid meal a day.

We are a country in which decent people seeking safety and the dignity of work are torn from their children and an agency like ICE can detain and deport them at will while holding their kids hostage in cages and desert jails.

We are a country (although not the only one) where hate crimes and violent rhetoric and behavior have escalated dramatically in the last year, and where anyone perceived as Other is fair game for such crime and violence.

And we are a country where legislators try their damnedest to forbid women control over their bodies and agency over their lives.

It’s enough to take anyone’s breathe away and it makes it really hard to “go high,” as Michele Obama would say, because there seems to be no end to how low people who have no business in government are willing to go.

For two years I clung to the idea that surely, this event or that would be the one to end the dysfunction, cruelty, corruption, lying and various abuses we were experiencing and witnessing. I’ve tried to offer optimism and hope to people as their (and my own) angst has grown. And as 2018 faded, there were signs that we might see an end to the travesties engulfing us. The courts were holding, journalists were doing extraordinary investigative research while media was finding its voice when feet needed to be held to fire, and Robert Mueller was closing in. And that big blue, female wave in Congress and down-ballot was, I believe, a foreshadowing of the change that is possible, and I think inevitable – so long as we maintain vigilant and vocal.

All of that is encouraging. But there is still a tsunami coming toward us and the clock is ticking. The moment when it will be too late to hide or run get to higher ground is nearly upon us. So, while we cling to hope and optimism, we must never allow ourselves to let other priorities prevail or to miss noticing, or rejecting, incremental or invisible changes lurking below the radar. Perhaps most important of all, we must never, ever recalibrate our way into complacency, and thus ultimate collusion.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

www.elayne-clift.com

A Wave of Women in the House and Beyond

They came from north, south, east and west. They were military veterans, Muslims, Native Americans, LGBT women, women of color, and they were progressive and powerful. They flowed like a river into a sparkling blue sea, flipping the House of Representatives, defeating long-term incumbents who thought their seats were safe, overturning state houses, taking their places on court benches. Now they will assume leadership positions on several powerful House committees. It seems fair to say their impact on governance in this country cannot be overstated, and it comes at a truly critical time.

It’s also fair to say that the blue wave of women we witnessed was inspired by other pioneering women who dared to enter participatory politics. Today’s women stand on the shoulders of those models, women like Hattie Caraway (b.1878) who became the first woman elected to serve a full term as a U.S. Senator representing Arkansas. She became the first woman to preside over the Senate.

 Shirley Chisolm is another role model. In 1968 she was the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She went on to be the first black candidate for a major party's nomination for President.  Geraldine Ferraro, who served in the House, became the first female vice-presidential candidate representing a major American political party in 1984. Feisty women in Congress like Pat Schroeder of Colorado inspired many Second Wave feminists to enter the political arena, while Barbara Mikulski served in both the House and the Senate, becoming the longest-serving woman in the history of the U.S. and the longest-serving U.S. Senator in Maryland history.

The Women's March on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. Not long afterwards, the #MeToo Movement was launched by activist Tarana Burke. Both were monumental events, and both helped more than 110 energetic, passionate, visionary women win positions of power across the country in 2018.

In all, 428 women ran for Congress or governor as Democrats (compared with 162 Republican women) and 210 of them were nominees on Election Day. Maine and South Dakota saw their first female governors elected while other women shattered records and broke precedent. A third of female nominees for the House were women of color, and many newcomers beat out long-serving white male incumbents in primary races to go on to win seats in the House, bringing the percentage of women there to 25 percent. (With another 25 percent gain in 2020 the house would become representational of the country’s population.)

Women in Congress and state leadership stand a good chance of cleaning up much of the mess they will encounter. They understand, often first-hand, the urgency of ending gun violence, pay equity, family leave policy, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, a sound educational system, affordable healthcare, and more.  They care about protecting the environment and getting a grip on climate change. (Several women heading into leadership are scientists). Of course, they can’t clean things up all by themselves, and they shouldn’t be scapegoated when legislation fails, but they do bring a wealth of experience, expertise, and commitment to the job, with far less ego than many of the men on Capital Hill and in governors’ mansions.

Research by scholars who study political leadership posted on the website http://theconversation.com  reveals studies showing women collaborate more readily to solve problems and act as bridge-builders. A 2017 study on leadership styles found that women are more likely to use inclusive thinking (“both/and”) in which they see conflict and tension as an opportunity for creative problem solving vs. tension-making. (Men are more likely to adopt an “either/or” way of thinking.)

Numerous studies on teamwork show that groups that include women function better, partly because women build social connections, enabling conflict resolution and increased trust. Eleanor Roosevelt understood this when she led a United Nations working group drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after WWII. The final document recognized for the first time that all people are guaranteed certain rights, regardless of religion, race or creed. The declaration launched the human rights movement that defeated dictatorship in many parts of the world because Roosevelt managed to keep her colleagues focused on the urgency of developing and accepting the declaration, despite cultural differences and egos.

The Council on Foreign Relations found that peace talks involving women were more likely to reach long-lasting agreement, suggesting that the diversity, democratic, and participatory style of female leadership will be vital in the House of Representatives.

In short, women’s commitment to communication, collaboration, creative problem-solving, and a sense of community seems likely to effect real change in Washington and beyond.  Sure, there will be disappointments and difficult challenges. But there can be no doubt that having women in the House, be it federal or state, should go a long way to meeting the myriad demands we face.

They couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. For more of her work, visit https://elayne-clift.squarespace.com/blog

  

What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Saudi Arabia

The brutal execution of U.S. resident and Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey illuminated the government of Saudi Arabia as nothing else has. And finally, there has been some media attention regarding the Saudi regime’s ongoing slaughter and starvation of children and adults in Yemen in the U.S.-backed conflict that began because of a failed political transition meant to bring stability to Yemen following a 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

Both of these issues urgently require attention, especially the humanitarian crisis facing Yemen. According to the United Nations, since 2015 an estimated 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict and almost 40,000 civilians have been injured. More than half the dead and wounded have been victims of Saudi-led, U.S.-supported coalition air strikes. According to UNICEF more than 6,500 children have been killed or injured since the conflict began and more than 22 million people, nearly all children, are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The UN Human Rights Council calls Yemen’s civilians “the victims of unrelenting violations of international humanitarian law.”

But there is something else happening in Saudi Arabia that we never hear about and it involves another kind of brutality that leads to state-sanctioned murder in the most hideous ways.

Recently, for example, an Indonesian woman, Tuti Tursilawati, was beheaded by the Saudi government seven years after being sentenced to death for killing her employer as he tried raping her. The young mother was a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, one of several Indonesian maids executed by the regime for similar acts of self-defense.

Domestic workers face a range of abuses in their employers’ homes. They are overworked, suffer forced confinement, and are often deprived of food. Frequently they are not paid, and and they are often victims of physical, psychological and sexual abuse. If they attempt to report abuses, they can face prosecution for false claims of theft, and “black magic,” according to one New York Times report.

Women in the kingdom face formidable barriers to any level of autonomy. A male guardianship system, which limits everything from travel to decision-making, continues despite rhetorical promises to review, reform, or abolish the repressive control of women. It’s a system that, despite the recent hope for change derived from giving women the right to drive, some of whom have been arrested, male permission for a woman to secure a passport, marry, or be discharged from prison is still required. Women may also have to seek permission from a husband, father, or son to access healthcare or to work.

In Saudi Arabia drug trafficking, rape, murder, and armed robbery are punishable by death, often by barbaric methods. There are nearly two dozen migrant workers on death row in the kingdom where millions of migrant workers constitute over half the workforce. They suffer terrible abuse and exploitation, including forced labor tantamount to slavery.  Some employers confiscate their passports (as they do with domestic workers), withhold wages, and abuse workers physically and emotionally.  Workers cannot leave the country or change jobs without the written consent of their employers and they are punished for trying.

The kingdom discriminates against Muslim religious minorities in education, employment and the justice system. It also uses uncodified Islamic law to sanction people accuses of adultery, extramarital, and homosexual sex. In 2017 several dozen citizens of Pakistan, some of whom were transgender women, were arrested. One of them died in detention as a a result of torture.

People can be arrested for “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or for “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.” Children are detained and prisoners can be denied access to information about arbitrary charges and legal assistance. Sentences include flogging and children can be tried for capital crimes and sentenced as adults. Pro-reform advocates and peaceful dissenters are routinely arrested and given long prison sentences. One prominent blogger was sentenced to ten years in prison where he was flogged shortly after he entered jail.

The U.S. can hardly claim to champion human rights with any credibility given its history of slavery, its continuing racism and treatment of people of color, its failure to pass an Equal Rights Amendment, and other obvious failures.  But it is incredible that the Trump administration continues to support Saudi Arabia’s slaughter in Yemen by providing massive amounts of arms, and to stand with its crown prince in denying credible evidence by the intelligence community that the prince did, indeed, order Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.

What’s even more astounding is that in 2017 the United Nations member states elected Saudi Arabia to serve on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and UNESCO held its International Forum of NGOs in Riyadh, when the kingdom doesn’t allow NGOS to function and jails human rights advocates. Equally outrageous, Saudi Arabia was elected a deputy member of the International Labour Organization despite not permitting unions to exist and flagrant abuses of migrant workers. The country has also served on the UN Human Rights Council, which at least saw fit to conduct investigations into abuses in Yemen, while the UN Secretary General placed Saudi Arabia on his “list of shame.”

Viewed through a human rights lens, it seems any of us who turn away or ignore Saudi Arabia’s travesties deserve to be on someone’s list of shame.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. For more of her work, visit www.elayne-clift.com

Big Brother is Alive, Well and Living in Silicon Valley

 

Leaving aside Donald Trump’s paranoid delusions about social media companies’ biases against him, there are increasingly troubling signs of massive control from industry giants. I realized this when I received a chilling document from Facebook after donating to a charity on Paypal via Facebook.

The five-page document, “Facebook Data Policy,” was shocking, even though I know there is no privacy in the Internet Age. Here is some of what I learned.  Facebook collects copious, varied information about users, “including created and shared content, and messages or communication with others.” Its systems “automatically process content and communications [users] provide to analyze context and what’s in them.”

This is done for many reasons, none of them worry-free. For example, information is collected about “the people, pages, accounts, hashtags and groups” we connect to and how we interact with them across all Facebook “Products,” like Instagram and What’s App.  Facebook knows who we communicate with, when and for how long, what groups we belong to, the content we view, react to, and share, the actions we take. And that’s just for starters.

They collect information about our purchases and financial transactions, what kind of credit or debit card we used, and our contact details. They also “analyze content, communication and information that other people provide [about us] when they use Facebook products.”

Facebook, we are told, “collects information from and about the computers, phones, connected TVs and other web-connected devices you use that integrate with our Products, and we combine this information across different devices you use…to better personalize content, including ads.”

Those are excerpts from page one. Subsequent pages include information about everything from “device attributes and operations” that relate to consumer behavior, “Identifiers” (like “accounts you use”) or access to GPS location, camera and photos. Advertisers, app developers and publishers can send Facebook information about us, and can in turn “provide information about your activities off Facebook, like websites you visit, purchases you make, and ads you see.”

We are warned to consider carefully with whom we share information “because people can see your activity … and can choose to share it with others … including people and businesses outside the audience you share with. … People can share a photo of you in a story, mention or tag you at a location in a post, or share information about you in their posts and messages.” Information is shared “globally and externally” and information “may be transferred or transmitted to, or stored and processed in the U.S. or other countries.” Data is stored until “it is no longer necessary.”

If you haven’t yet read the novel “The Circle” by Dave Eggers, now would be a good time to grab it.  Like “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” it is a frighteningly prescient story of a mega-firm like Facebook that seems wonderful until its sinister control of everyone is no longer stoppable.

A guy named Alistair Mactaggart in California took on Silicon Valley after becoming alarmed at what he learned from Information Age tech friends with amazing results, reported in an August New York Times article. While researching the problem of lost privacy, Mactaggart had learned that the U.S., unlike some other countries, has no single, comprehensive law regulating the collection and use of personal data. Companies can collect and buy information without and limits.  What laws did exist, the ones you never read in the fine print, had been crafted by the companies that rely on personal data.

“Advertisers could buy thousands of data points on virtually every adult in America,” Nicholas Confessore wrote in the Times. “With Silicon Valley’s help, they could make increasingly precise guesses about what you wanted, what you feared and what you might do next. … And no one knew more about what people did or were going to do than Facebook and Google.”

Mactaggart realized that Silicon Valley was transforming politics because the political establishment saw that the key to its future rested in companies like Google and Facebook with a vast capacity for surveillance and information collection. He decided to do something about it. 

The result of his complex efforts was the passage in June of California Assembly Bill 375, the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018.  It is unprecedented in the U.S. and applies European-level compliance obligations similar to a standard set by a General Data Protection Regulation, according to the website www.FocusontheData.com. The law, which takes effect in January 2020, includes new disclosure requirements, consumer rights, training obligations, and potential penalties for noncompliance, among other things.

The law is complicated and comprehensive. Key provisions include the right to transparency regarding personal information, and businesses must provide a clear link on their homepage to a “Do Not Sell My Personal Information” option. Consumers have a right to ask a business to disclose categories and specific bits of personal information the business has collected and they can opt out at any time. There is no private right to action but the California Attorney General can bring actions for civil penalties up to $7,500 per violation.

It’s a start that could become a much-needed national norm. For someone who does online research, sometimes at kinky sites, and as a vocal political lefty, it can’t come too soon.