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“Beauty is Pain”: Beauty Discrimination

February 25th, 2011

For the past several weeks, I have discussed the many ways in which women seek to conform to society’s standard of beauty. I have discussed various cosmetic procedures women have done as well how perceptions of beauty affect women’s mental health and well-being. For this week, I will be shifting gears a bit and focusing on a very real problem that exists in our society – beauty and weight discrimination.

I was first exposed to the idea of beauty discrimination by an article in the “Stanford” magazine that discussed law school professor Deborah Rhode’s new book, Beauty Bias. It was from this article that I got the idea for what would later become my blog topic for this class. A quote that really stuck with me from the article was when Rhode stated that, “We all know that looks matter, but few of us realize how much.” Thus, this blog post will focus on how much looks matter in terms of things like job promotion and perceived intelligence. At the end of this blog post, I hope everyone comes away with a sense of how powerful appearance bias is in our society that unfortunately grants rewards or disadvantages unto people based on their physical looks.

As we are all undoubtedly aware, physical appearance can play a large role in determining whether or not people find you attractive. In a society where appearance matters and physical attractiveness is idealized, it should come to no surprise that this preference for “beautiful” people has been expressed in the workplace. In fact, a reported 12 to 14% of people claim that they have suffered from appearance-based discrimination at their job (Beyerstein). Hiring managers in a wide variety of fields have systematically chosen more “attractive” candidates for positions over those considered unattractive. Researchers found that even in the law profession, graduates of a certain law school who were considered attractive earned more than their less attractive former classmates and also had more opportunities for career advancement (Biddle, Hamermesh).

Thus, for those considered unattractive, research has shown that these people are more likely to be considered less capable, less intelligent, and less trustworthy by society. Furthermore, Rhode found in her research that unattractive people not only get paid less, but that less attractive children get less attention from not only their teachers but also their parents (Platoni, Rhode). This starkly contrasts to the situation of those people considered by society to be attractive. Rhode found that attractive people are not only thought to be more intelligent but that their resumes and essays get more positive responses when hiring managers believe they come from an attractive person.

While women are often held to higher standards of beauty, appearance-based discrimination also affects men. Researchers Jeff Biddle and Daniel Hamermesh found that there is “a significant penalty for bad looks among men.” They found that of the 9 percent of working men that were ranked by interviewers as being either “below average” or “homely” in terms of their physical appearance, that these men also made 9% less in terms of hourly wages. In contrast, the 32% of men that were judged to be “handsome” or “above average” earned 5% more (Lesley).

Thus, biases not only work in favor for those perceived to be pretty, but can work against people who are considered overweight. Known as weight discrimination, this type of discrimination is based on the stereotype that associates overweight people with being unhealthy or lazy (Platoni) and even socially handicapped (Roehling). Indeed, large amounts of research have concluded that there exists a pervasive bias against overweight people in western culture (Roehling). In terms of the workplace, the statistics and studies suggesting that discrimination occurs against overweight people are abundant. In his summary of current research, Roehling found that there is evidence of discrimination against overweight people at every stage of the employment cycle, including hiring, placement, compensation, and promotion.

And indeed, overweight people do believe they are discriminated against. One study found that around 43% of overweight women felt that their employers had discriminated them against. Even more surprising was the differences in pay between overweight people and their thinner coworkers. One study found that obese women earn 12% less than their thinner female coworkers, even if they have comparable qualifications (Breyerstein). In fact, perceptions and stereotypes about overweight people are so ingrained in people’s minds that one study found that even sitting next to an overweight person in a waiting room before an interview could have negative effects on how one is perceived. Researchers found that people who sat next to overweight people were judged as having “inferior professional and interpersonal skills.” (Platoni).

So what to do?
So if beauty and weight discrimination are legitimate problems that might be hampering the ability of a more homely or overweight person from reaching their full potential – especially in the work place – what can be done to prevent this? While undoubtedly our preferences for “beautiful” and “slender” people are subconsciously ingrained in us, Rhode suggests that more states and local districts should adopt ordinances that forbid appearance-based discrimination. Current federal law does not expressly prohibit discrimination based on weight or appearance. While critics argues that such ordinances would lead to an increase in phony litigation, of the localities that do have such laws preventing discrimination based on looks (currently six cities and one state), there have been only a few lawsuits filed (Platoni).

It is easy for many to dismiss the prevalence and relevance of discrimination based on physical appearance. However, as I hope this blog post has showed, discrimination based on physical traits is not only ubiquitous, but it has very real and harmful effects on those people considered unattractive by today’s society.

“Fair Enough?” by Kara Platoni. Published in Stanford Magazine. September/October 2010 issue.

“The Influence of Appearance Discrimination on Career Development.” Joseph Lesley.

“The ‘Beauty Bias’ at Work, and What Should Be Done About It.” Lindsay Beyerstein. June 11, 2010. Inthesetimes.com

“Weight-based Discrimination in Employment: Psychological and Legal Aspects.” Mark Roehling. Personnel Psychology, 1999.

Biddle, Jeff. Hamermesh, Daniel. “Beauty, Productivity, and Discrimination: Lawyer’s Looks and Lucre.” National Bureau of Economic Research.

Survivors of trafficking speak out in Nepal

February 25th, 2011

According to UN, around 4 million women, children and men are internationally trafficked each year. Unconfirmed reports claim that every year around 7 thousand women are trafficked alone from Nepal. And India is the hub of trafficked women in South Asia.

Poverty, lack of access to resources and gender discrimination has kept the business of trafficking alive for centuries. But in Nepal, some of the survivors of trafficking have started to fight against the root causes and social rejection they face after returning.

Shakti Samuha is a non-governmental organization established in 1996 to fight against anti trafficking and to establish the rights of trafficking survivors. In 2007, Shakti Samuha organized the First National Conference of Trafficking Survivors of Nepal to unite the trafficking survivors, explore the problems faced by trafficking survivors, raise awareness of trafficking amongst the survivors and public, and give pressure to the government to fulfill the demands of survivors. Around 180 trafficking survivors participated in the conference. Majority of them were illiterate or minimally literate and most of them said that they had not heard of trafficking before they were trafficked.

Today through this blog writing, I would like to share the hopes and dreams of those women who were facing rejection from society and the state but at the same time fighting for their rights, which I covered in the radio report that I did for Asia Calling in 2007. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it:

2007, Kathmandu, Nepal

By Jaya Luintel

I met hundreds of women who are the survivors of trafficking are gathered in a big room of College hostel in Kathmandu. From a 13-year-old girl who was trafficked to Circus Company to 60-year-old sexually exploited woman, they are openly sharing their experiences and sorrows to each other.

Through story telling, songs and drama participants shared there past experiences and current difficulties. Some broke into tears re-living the terrible events while others sang songs of comfort and support.

Anu Tamang, President of Shakti Samuha believes that with each other’s support they can do everything. She says, “Every woman has their own sorrows and pain but we can only get relief from the pain if we share our feelings and that is the main purpose of this gathering. We have to learn from our past and unite in order to accumulate our sorrows into power. This gathering has proved successful because we are starting to help our sisters who have survived trafficking,”

In 1996 a group of NGO’s in Nepal rescued Nepali women who were trafficked to brothels of Maharastra India and all the rescued women returned to Nepal. Anu is one of those returnees. While she was returning from such a terrifying place, she had a great faith that she could go her own home and live in her village. But for Anu things were very different at that time -“It was not long, in my village that whenever I visited the local tap to fetch water everybody would run away or stop me from taking water. They used to stop me to go near the tap before they finished their work.” She has also realized things are changing and now people have started understating their situation which makes her happy- “Now when I go to the village they say that they need me in the village to help other sisters. Those old people now remember me which makes me very happy,”

Despite social stigma and hatred towards the returnees, Shakti Samuha has become a platform for survivors to openly share and discuss their problems. For Sunita Danuwar, listening to other people voices brought back difficult memories. She says when she returned to Nepal ten years ago there was nothing like this. “At that time, there was no one to morally support us. Despite that we tried and worked hard enough to come to this stage. Now after these years, we feel very proud when we hear from other sisters that we have done a great job and many sisters can benefit from what we are doing. This gives us more courage to work for the advantage of the survivors,”

Niruta Pariyar from Sindhupalchowk district is just turning seventeen this year but has already faced a lifetime of agony. Her district just outside of the capital is where a large number of trafficked women come from. Niruta has gained courage to fight against discrimination after meeting with women who have been through similar experiences. In Niruta’s words “I used to feel that I am the most suffered women in the whole world. But after I came over here and listened to similar women like me, I feel that, no, I am the privileged and lucky one to survive the fate. I can now assume how many women have been suffering in the nooks and corners of the country,”

Shakti Samuha is still struggling to reach all the survivors and educate them about their rights. The Nepalese government does not often support their work. In 1996 when a group of women were rescued from an Indian brothel the government refused to take responsibility for them.

Despite the stigma, activist Sandhya Shrestha sees the rays of hope that is helping to change the things According to her; now the girls are accepted in their houses and their villages. After ten years our group has been able to bring more than one hundred trafficked survivors together and they able to discuss their problem, their challenges, and their pain. She feels very proud of women who are now able to sit together and speak publicly for their rights. She adds- “this is something they greatly appreciate. This work challenges the government and all sectors of society to establish the rights of women.”

Source: Shakti Samuha

Asia Calling

Multinational Organizations Providing Relief for Women Refugees

February 25th, 2011

This week, I’d like to offer an overview of two of the most important organizations in providing relief to refugee populations: the Women’s Refugee Commission and the UNHCR. There are many organizations that work in the refugee regime (the ICRC, the IRC, WFP, WHO, among many others). I have chosen these two because they are most relevant to the well-being of women refugees; the WFC because of its focus, the UNHCR because of its scope. I would encourage any of my classmates who are interested in working in the refugee regime after graduation to investigate both of these organizations.

Women’s Refugee Commission: www.womensrefugeecommission.org
This organization is an offshoot from the larger IRC (International Rescue Commission). The WRC is a US-based advocacy organization that works with the American government and other international entities to ensure that opportunities and livelihoods refugee women and children. They do not work directly with refugees, nor do they administer any refugee camps. Instead, they provide education for humanitarian workers by conducting research on best practices and publishing their findings.

One of the interesting programs that the WFC has taken on in recent years is their MISP online certification module. MISP stands for “Minimum Initial Service Package”. In their online course, the WFC provides training for humanitarian workers on how to create a MISP that is adequate for women’s reproductive health. Their module offers a certification process, so NGOs that work directly with refugee populations can require certification by the humanitarian workers. When appropriately implemented, an adequate MISP can prevent unwanted pregnancy and HIV infections in highly vulnerable situations.(1)

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees): www.unhcr.org

UNHCR is the oldest and most well-established organization in the history of the refugee regime. It was founded after WWII, to help resettle the displaced victims of that war; today, UNHCR works all over the world (most often in Africa and Asia) with refugees, internally displaced peoples, and with the stateless — those people who have no citizenship in any country. They administer refugee camps, provide for basic needs of refugees, negotiate with governments on behalf of refugee populations, work internationally to muster up support for the world’s refugees, and provide publications and statistics on the world’s refugees. UNHCR is frequently called upon to take on new tasks relevant only to particular crises — in the Yugoslavian war, the UNHCR operated an airlift of essential supplies to Sarajevo for 16 months, an unusual task for an organization more used to organizing refugee camps.

As a UN agency with a solely humanitarian mandate, the UNHCR walks a difficult line between fighting for the rights of those people under their protection, and avoiding direct political action. Sadako Ogata, the UNHCR’s high commissioner from 1991-2000, once said, “There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.”(2) Because refugees come from political upheaval, there must be political solutions in order to return them safely home. Because the UNHCR is not a political organization, this requires other UN agencies to act in tandem with the UNHCR. Because of its place within the UN framework, the UNHCR is more powerful than any other refugee relief organization.


(2) Ogata, Sadako. “The Turbulent Decade.” Norton&Co.: New York, 2005.

Iran's Women: Subtle Dissent and Vocal Protest

February 25th, 2011

Araceli Y. Flores

In last week’s blog, I presented Iran as a unique case study in women’s rights. Like many other Muslim nations, Iran upholds Sharia law, the sacred law of Islam derived from the Qur’an and teachings of Mohammed. As a theocracy, however, Iran relies on Sharia law to dictate not only private customs and traditions, but also public life in Iran. Using Sharia law as the basis of its legal code, the Islamic Republic of Iran has reversed many of the gains made by the women’s movement prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Iranian women face many types of gender-based discrimination, especially in family and marital life. Often, nations have the constitutional framework for equal rights, but societal norms subvert proper enforcement of these laws. In Iran’s case, however, gender-based discriminations are inscribed directly into the legal code and then further supported by societal customs. In this way, Iranian women are doubly denied basic rights and freedoms. Harsh laws dictate how women are allowed to dress, who they can marry, and the rights they have as both wives and mothers. Even harsher punishments, such as public beatings and honor killings, exist for violating these laws: “In cases of divorce, child custody, inheritance and crime, women do not have the same legal rights as men. In the past four years, President Ahmadinejad has made it easier for men to practice polygamy and harder for women to access public sector jobs” [1].

Still, despite the repression that Iranian women face on a day-to-day basis, Iran possesses one of the most resilient, courageous women’s movements in the Middle East. With the election of the moderate leader Mohammad Khatami in 1997, the women’s movement regained footing in Iran. Many women viewed Khatami’s election as a wake up call: nearly two decades after the 1979 revolution, the “freedom and independence” promised by the revolutionary government still had not been achieved; it fact, equality under the law had been denied to women.

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, women had formed a huge support base for the Islamic Revolution during its principal stages. Now, two decades removed from the illusions and false promises, women’s alliances emerged to press the state for social and legal policy changes. Both Muslim and secular female activists used various arenas to voice their complaints about gender segregation, widespread domestic violence, and the discriminatory effects of Iranian family law. Interestingly, Iranian women activists have utilized a wide array of mediums to get their message across, from mass media to the film industry to literary works and poetry .

Within the last decade, Iran’s women’s movement has made great strides in increasing women’s participation in a variety of industries— while the total number of women participating in the labor force has not grown dramatically, women have expanded their presence and influence into nearly every sector: commercial, educational, agricultural, entertainment, and even political. Moreover, women’s education has boomed, surpassing men in percentages of college enrollment and graduate degrees. Using these skills, the women’s movement continues to expand their mission on a national level by publishing women’s journals, university magazines, and even feminist website sites.

The women’s movement in Iran has two faces: subtle defiance and vocal protest [2]. On a small scale, women artfully flout the state’s strict dress code through “carefully planned flashes of their hair under their head scarves, brightly colored fingernails, and trendy clothing that can be glimpsed under bulky coasts and cloaks” [3]. These small acts of defiance showcase the spirit of rebellion that fuels the Iranian women’s movement. On a larger scale, these same women have form the frontline of marches and protests against the government. The highly contested reelection of Ahmadinejad in 2009 provides a remarkable example of just how readily and willingly women in Iran will fight for their rights. Iranian women marched alongside men to protest the fraudulent elections, brushing up against the armed military who fought to suppress the crowds [4]. Women were among several of the protestors and demonstrators who were fatally wounded in the skirmishes. Unafraid, the women’s movement took to the streets to protest, challenging another term of governance under Ahmadinejad’s hard line government and continued repression of women. One Iranian woman, Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, commented that inspiration behind women’s involvement in the electoral protests originates from long seated resentment and frustration at the government’s rollbacks of women’s rights: “Because women are the most dissatisfied people in society, that is why their presence is more prominent” [5].

The women’s movement in Iran demonstrates the determination of women to courageously challenge the repressive laws placed upon them by their government. The expansion of women’s presence across Iranian industries and their commitment to education provide encouraging signs of change and growth. Hopefully, as demands for greater human rights and civil liberties sweep the Middle East —as seen by 2011 revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain– the Iranian government will be charged both domestically and externally to recognize and grant greater freedoms to its people. Iranian women continue to be strong agents of this change.



[1] Mahdi, Ali Akbar. “The Iranian Women’s Movement: A Century Struggle.” The Muslim World (2009) http://go.owu.edu/~aamahdi/Iranian%20Women%20Movement%20A%20Century%20Long%20Struggle.pdf

[2] Lyden, Jacki. “Despite Odds, Women’s Movement Persists In Iran” NPR.org(2009): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100039579

[3] “Iranian women fight on the frontlines of protest,” MSNBC.com (2009) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31531225/ns/world_news-mideast/n_africa/

[4] Basu, Moni. “Women in Iran march against discrimination” CNN WORLD (2009): http://articles.cnn.com/2009-06-19/world/iran.protests.women_1_iranian-women-mohammed-khatami-reformist?_s=PM:WORLD

[5] “Iranian women fight on the frontlines of protest,” MSNBC.com (2009) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31531225/ns/world_news-mideast/n_africa/

Feminism, Fathers and Childbirth

February 25th, 2011

When I found an article in the New York Times by psychologist Keith Ablow [1] about how men felt less attracted to their wives after witnessing their childbirth, I realized I had not yet examined the role of male partners in women’s birthing. Of course there are alternative family structures, such as in lesbian partnerships or women who are single mothers from the very beginning. But in this blog post I would like to focus on the role that a male partner can play in a woman’s  intra- and post-partum well being.

In other cultures, there is often more of an emphasis on the whole family’s role of support for new mothers and mothers-to-be. Mukta, the doctorate student who spoke with us a few weeks ago, told me that a woman will usually return to live with her family for a few months before and after giving birth, which can be a great mechanism for protecting these especially vulnerable women from abuse or violence.
But in the US, where families tend to have a more nuclear structure, women will depend more heavily on their partner to care for and tend to them during and after the birthing. But the article from the New York Times showed an unsettling pattern. Dr. Ablow’s patient recalled witnessing the infant emerge from his wife’s vagina, and said, “how are you supposed to go from seeing that to wanting to be with…?” he stopped, implying the rest of the sentence with a nervous look in his eyes.
Dr. Ablow ascribes this discomfort with witnessing childbirth to “trouble seeing women as sexual beings after seeing them make babies.” As one blogger puts it, “for some, the erotic depends on maintaining a distinction between the sexual and the reproductive.” [2]  Rather than decrying a culture which allows men to imagine their partners as uniquely “sexual beings”, Dr. Ablow is rather sympathetic towards these men. “I myself recall feeling as if the clinical focus on childbirth during prenatal classes, including the detailed descriptions of the placenta and the meconium, took away from the wonder of the process, rather than adding to it,” he says.
Of course childbirth is messy and potentially disgusting. And it’s true that in much of the world, and in the US until the latter half of the 20th century, almost all women gave birth without their husbands, whether in the delivery room or in the arms of their female companions. But I still think that the culture of childbirth needs to adjust better to a new model of the family. In a society where the mothers and aunts and sisters are not usually present to support a laboring woman, I don’t think it is fair to advocate exonerating men who don’t want to witness their children’s birth. Because it is not a matter of “witnessing.” It is usually also a matter of actively supporting, whether physically or emotionally. I think the man’s role, if skillfully enacted, can be just as important as that of a doula or labor assistant.
If a woman requests that her husband be present with her during birth and he refuses or does so unwillingly, it is, in my opinion, far more detrimental to a relationship than the potential of a loss in libido. A woman who is abandoned by her partner in an incredibly vulnerable state, as I see it, has far more to lose. Because trust is, in the end, a bigger deal than libido.
On the other hand, an interesting article by gynecologist Michel Odent [3] provides a different (and in my opinion stronger) argument against the presence of men in the delivery room. “It is only 35 years since men first entered the delivery room, yet we have welcomed them in without question,” he says. Their eagerness to “participate,” “share the experience,” and put on a calm front for their partner’s sake in spite of their anxiety can actually really disturb a woman. “It has been proven,” he says, “that it is physically impossible to be in a complete state of relaxation if there is an individual standing next to you who is tense and full of adrenaline.” And it is well known that adrenaline inhibits the release of oxytocin, the hormone that promotes contractions and activates the mammary glands. Thus, Odent advocates that ideally women would give birth almost entirely alone, with only the help of a trusted female midwife or doula. “At the present time, when birth is more difficult and longer than ever, when more women need drugs or Caesareans,” he says, “we have to dare to smash the limits of political correctness and ask whether men should really be present at birth.”

Looking at these different perspectives has not left me with a good, conclusive sense of what a man’s role in childbirth should be. I am interested to hear your opinion. Should men be present in the labor ward? How can we help men be a truly supportive presence in the delivery room, rather than one that is awkwardly “trying to be helpful?”  And what might be done to remedy the disturbingly frequent incidence of partnerships disintegrating shortly after labor due to “loss of attraction” in men?

1. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/23/health/23case.html?_r=1
2. http://www.slate.com/id/2125227/

♫ I'm leaving on a jet plane/don't know when I'll be back again ♫

February 25th, 2011

In the interest of full disclosure, for the past few weeks I have been trying to avoid the topic of eating disorders for two main reasons: first, from what I have learned in past classes it is a very Western issue and I am trying to focus on international issues that affect women’s mental health; secondly, it would not be enlightening for me as I have done several research projects on eating disorders and from what I have interpreted, this blog should help us investigate topics that we have not had a chance to delve into. (Disclaimer: This is in no way means that our society, especially media, isn’t significantly influencing the outcomes of eating disorders in young women, nor does this mean that eating disorders are not an important issue in women’s health.) However, I noted that much of the research reveals that in the instances that immigrant women in the US and or women outside of the Western world had eating disorders, it was often correlated with a recent change in their ideology—a change often motivated by an influx of western ideals on beauty. As I mulled this over, I realized that there was still room for another pertinent blog topic. I began to wonder what other issues immigrant women faced with migration into new countries, often having ideology and ethos dissimilar from their own and how that affected their health outcomes.

Immediately, I found research showing that while individuals often “migrate to improve their well-being…migration [tended to be] a stressful process, with potentially negative impacts on mental health.”  (Stillman, 677) In essence, immigrants, often women, from developing nations threatened with war, poverty or disenfranchisement in their own country were fleeing or leaving of their own free will to more developed countries that offered them more freedom and more material wealth, but with a caveat: their mental health. Now sometimes these immigrant women are already facing mental health issues such as schizophrenia, which is often correlated with migration as it is (Stillman, 678), and they are able to find help in the country they migrate to. In fact, Stillman et. al concluded that at the end of the day it was important to put migrant women’s mental health into perspective—it would certainly be worse if they stayed in their home country. (Stillman, 687)

I, however, would like to argue otherwise. Developed nations that immigrant women migrate to may afford them better interventions, but how can this be so when immigrants often are impoverished and the impoverished often face difficulties in access to healthcare. My argument isn’t that they should stay in their home country, but rather maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to think that their mental health is golden by just migrating to a more developed nation.

I decided to test my theory by looking at a few empirical studies. The first by Leu et. al looked at the age in which Asian immigrants migrated and the subsequent outcome  of their social status and on their mental health in adulthood. While SES did play a role in social mobility, SES did not make a difference in mental health for this who immigrated before 25. (1161) If we think about it, often up until 21 humans are still very impressionable as our minds are still being pruned and we are still highly influenced by our peers, so it only makes sense that those that immigrate younger and around this age are not only facing the stress of immigration but also the affects of having to establish a social identity that allows them to fit in—this often leads to anxiety disorders. (Leu, 1161) In this instance, access was not an issue but we can see how immigration does not immediately equate to a well-adjusted individual.

Nadeem et. al. looked at the stigma in African and Caribbean immigrant women in their seeking behaviors for mental healthcare and found that compared to US-born white women, just like US-born black women and Latina women, poor young immigrant women were more likely to report concerns relating to stigmatization and access. (Nadeem, 1547). Williams et. al also reported that Caribbean-born immigrants were more likely to report symptoms of depression and aggression than their US-born counterparts. If migration is supposed to be a successful self-intervention, then why these negative statistical differences?

De Anstiss et. al summarized it very well in my opinion. It is in our best interest to make sure that with material improvements we make sure that we are providing immigrants with the right information for mental healthcare access as well as making sure that younger immigrants are equipped with the proper coping interventions. (De Anstiss, 599)

Works Cited

De Anstiss, H., Ziaian, T., Procter, N., Warland, J., & Baghurst, P. (2009). Help-seeking for mental health problems in young refugees: A review of the literature with implications for policy, practice, and research. Transcultural Psychiatry 46(4): 584-607.

Leu, J., Yen, I.H., Gansky, S.A., Walton, E., Adler, N.E., & Takeuchi. (200The association between subjective social status and mental health among Asian immigrants: Investigating the influence of age at immigration. Social Science & Medicine 66: 1152-1164.

Nadeem, E., Lange, J.M., Edge, D., Fongwa, M., Belin, T., & Miranda, J. (2007). Does stigma keep poor young immigrant and US-born black and latina women from seeking mental health care?. Psychiatric Services 58(12): 1547-1554.

Stillman, S., McKenzie, D., & Gibson, J. (2009). Migration and mental health: Evidence from a natural experiment. Journal of Health Economics 28: 677-687.

Williams, D.R., Haile, R., Gonzalez, H.M., Neighbors, H., Baser, R., & Jackson, J.S. (2007). The mental health of black Caribbean immigrants: Results from the national survey of American life. American Journal of Public Health 97(1): 52-59.

Perpetual Minors

February 24th, 2011

Even if you go to a hospital for an operation, you need a guardian. It’s your life. Why do you need his signature?”

-Riyadh, a Saudi woman

Saudi Arabia chose to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), however actual practices throughout the country are not necessarily in line with the legislation. Women are still treated as second class citizens, or more appropriately, as “perpetual minors”, as Human Rights Watch refers to the in their 2008 report. Saudi Arabia has a long tradition of practicing a system of guardianship, where men are required to grant permission and escort women to daily activities, such as going to the bank, airport, and hospital. “If a [pregnant] woman comes in to the hospital with a guardian, then she can leave with anyone, even the driver. If she comes in without a guardian, it becomes a “police case,” and she’ll need a guardian to come to the hospital in order for her to get discharged. She stays here if no one picks her up.”[1] This requirement is not only inconvenient and frustrating for women, but can be dangerous if husbands, fathers, or brothers refuse to take their wives to seek medical care.

One of the reservations that Saudi Arabia established when they ratified CEDAW stated that “In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of islamic law, the Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention.”[2] Although the government continually denies that the practice of guardianship is required by Islamic law, reports from various parties confirm that it is indeed widely required for many activities. “The Saudi government is saying one thing to the Human Rights Council in Geneva but doing another thing inside the kingdom. It needs to stop requiring adult women to seek permission from men, not just pretend to stop it.” [3] Guardianship requirements vary from hospital to hospital, as there are no formal regulations. What the final decision usually comes down to are the religious views of the facility administrator. According to the head of the General Directorate of Hospitals, “The law is written and clear that a woman has the right to be admitted without permission. It is the right of any lady or male to be admitted and discharged if [they are] over 18. Any procedure can be signed by the patient himself if they are wise enough. It is well known that a physician must provide medical care whenever a patient needs it. But a lot of social factors play a role limiting the application of the law. What we need right now is to work hard to educate the people about their rights. The law is there; that it is not applied is something else.”[4]

This allows an upper hand for men in negotiations of family planning, to say the least. In 2008, the total fertility rate was 5.7 children per woman, and only 32% of married women 15-49 used any contraceptive method- the number was even lower (21%) in rural areas.[5] Contraception is only legally available to married couples[6], and (semi)permanent forms, such as IUDs and sterilization, are most often the decision of the husband because of the practice of guardianship. In order for the government to really improve the lives of women, drastic steps need to be taken so that the legislation they have created in order to ensure women’s health care is not contingent upon the beliefs of health care providers.

[1] http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/07/08/saudi-arabia-women-s-rights-promises-broken

[2] http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/reservations-country.htm

[3] see footnote 1

[4] http://www.hrw.org/en/node/62251/section/6

[5] http://www.prb.org/pdf/WomensReproHealth_Eng.pdf

[6] http://www.emro.who.int/rhrn/countryprofiles_saa.htm

Tapping New Resources, Quite Literally

February 24th, 2011

As more recognition has been given to the importance of clean water, the new millennium has seen a surge in new technologies designed to increase water access in the developing world.  When combined with gender mainstreaming programs that empower local women’s say in their community’s decision-making process, these creative technological solutions can have a great impact on both improving water access and gender equity.  This blog will give an overview of one of these technologies, and point to examples in the developing world where it has achieved success.

Rainwater Harvesting

A 2006 news report for the UN stated that the rainfalls of some African countries — such as Kenya and Ethiopia — have the potential to meeting their populations’ water needs by 6-7 times their current populations.  Rainwater harvesting thus holds massive potential for improving water access there (1).  This relatively simple and adaptable technology does exactly what the name suggests: capturing and storing rainwater from rooftops, land surfaces, or rock catchments and then letting it collect in a storage facilities that range from cement tanks that can hold up to 100,000 liters of water (1) to various jars and pots.  Although there are many ways that the water leeches out of the Earth, rainfall is the only way that water is returned to our ecosystem.  In its purest form, rainwater is relatively clean and cost-effective to collect, which provides a cheap way to provide an alternative form of water in poorer areas.  Rainwater collection gives houses and/or communities a nearby source of water that they can then use for a myriad of purposes, including drinking, washing, irrigation, livestock watering, and gardens.  All of these have positive impacts on nutrition and net income (2).  One very common way in which rainwater collecting is accomplished is through roofwater harvesting, where rainwater drains off the edge of a roof (either with the use of gutters or without) and then drains into storage bin.  In order to actually implement these kinds of technologies, though, the roofs themselves need to be made from impermeable materials, such as iron sheets or tiles.  Rainfall must also be equal to 50 mm/month for half the year, and there should be another ground water source nearby with which to supplement (3).  Once implemented, though, the water collected from roofwater harvesting meets WHO water quality standards, and does not need any further treatment.  Roofwater harvesting can be adapted depending on the need of the community and installed on the roofs of hospitals, schools, and houses alike.  And contrary to other more bureaucratic forms of water access, maintenance of roofwater systems relies on houseowners themselves.

Land and rock catchment systems rely on increasing the amount of water runoff that is able to be collected through installing drain pipes at the ground level.  While less complex, this form of rainwater harvesting also increases the chances that more water runoff will be lost through water absorption in the earth.  Water quality might also not be quite as good, so this type of rainwater harvesting is best suited for irrigation and agricultural purposes (4).

The storage bin itself can be made out of a variety of materials and come in many different sizes.  The conveyance system, however, takes a little more thought in terms of its design.  Because the initial rainwater will carry debris with it and it not as clean, there needs to be a way to direct the initial rainwater away from the storage bin.  This can be done manually, through a down-pipe flap, or automatically, although this way requires a greater technological and financial investment (6).

If implemented successfully, rainwater harvesting can improve a variety of public sectors.  Provisioning ecosystem ecosystem services can increase agricultural productivity, food supply, domestic income, fodder for livestock and rainfall infiltration; regenerate landscapes; and improve productive habits and diversity species.  Regulating ecosystems reduces negative environmental effects of flooding and soil erosion, and provides a hedge during dry-spells.  All of these impacts can help achieve the Millennium Goals (7).

Potential issues associated with rainwater harvesting include the volatility of rainfall, as well as the existence of roofs on which rainwater can be collected.

Yet, there are other forms in which rainwater harvesting can take place, although I will not have time to touch on them extensively in this blog.  Rainwater can be collected in the soil itself, sub-surface dams, wells, and ponds, as well as cisterns.  These form the basis for more agricultural, rather than domestic, use.

As climate change begins to impact the globe to a greater extent, we will have to rely on innovative solutions like these more and more.  Although there are still problems associated with rainwater harvesting that must be worked out, all signs point to great potential for using rainwater to our advantage.  By ensuring that women are included in the process of implementing these technologies, gender equity can also be established.

Works Cited:

1) http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=20581&Cr=unep&Cr1=water

2) https://thewaterproject.org/rain_catchment.asp

3)  http://www.unep.org/gc/gcss-viii/Kenya-IWRM.pdf

4) http://www.ircsa.org/factsheets/lowincome.htm

5) http://www.gdrc.org/uem/water/rainwater/introduction.html

6) http://www.gdrc.org/uem/water/rainwater/introduction.html

7) http://www.unep.org/Themes/Freshwater/PDF/Rainwater_Harvesting_090310b.pdf

“WENNA! I heard you can get it from toilets!” Debunking HIV/AIDS myths in Botswana

February 24th, 2011

In 2005 there was much media attention over the rapes of virgin girls in South Africa because sangomas (witchdoctors) were telling HIV-positive men that sleeping with virgins cured HIV. There were also reports that Tanzanian albinos were being abducted and killed in order for sangomas to extract their blood for “HIV cures.” Although there have been tremendous efforts to provide correct information to the public, misinformation is still a significant problem in the fights against HIV/AIDS.  

Botswana is no different. In a country where the government is putting millions of dollars into HIV/AIDS prevention material, Batswana still accept myths that jeopardize the efforts of prevention programs. What types of myths are present in Botswana? This question was the subject of Edward Murandu and Mkabi Chamme’s research on condom use in Botswana. Murandu and Chamme handed out 1349 questionnaires to a randomly selected group of Batswana (ranging from the age of 15 o 60). The questionnaires posed questions regarding attitudes towards condom use and unexpectedly the questionnaires indicated a high level of misinformation about HIV/AIDS. In their research Marandu and Chamme found that only 44% of the population over 15 utilized condoms.

Here is a collection of the myths that still exist in Botswana:

1)      The air from a previous toilet user can infect he next immediate user of the toilet.

2)      AIDS is caused by witchcraft and condoms cannot help to reduce the spread.

3)      “Makwerekwere” brought HIV/AIDS to Botswana. The word Makwerekwere is a derogatory term used to refer to indigenous Africans other than Tswana speakers.

4)      HIV infects only promiscuous people and prostitutes.

5)      Some traditional doctors can cure AIDS.

6)      AIDS is punishment from God, nobody can stop it.

7)      A mosquito can transmit HIV in the same way it does malaria.

In breaking down these myths, addressing witchcraft and religious beliefs are particularly important because these actors/beliefs render condom usage useless. However it is clear that these assertions are false and that condoms have proven to the one of the most effective methods of curbing the spread of AIDS (5). The Botswana government is going to have to partner with churches in order to disseminate correct information and react if these churches maintain or reinforce these myths. In addressing sangomas, this will be more difficult because Botswana has long valued traditional healers and many Batswana turn to these healers for advice and guidance.

In addition, a “substantial number of the respondents believe[d] that condoms are not effective in preventing a person from getting the virus that causes AIDS” (6). More needs to be done to educate people on the efficacy of condom use. But it’s also really important that in the education process, programs/initiatives need to stress that although condom use will lower the likelihood of HIV transmission, condom use is not 100% effective against contracting HIV. Abstinence is the only way to stay free of HIV.  It’s not about promoting one idea over another; rather it should be about presenting various perspectives so that people can make informed decisions and find methods that are the best for their circumstance.       

The misinformation about HIV/AIDS in Botswana is what led me to work with TeachAIDS. Over the summer I was the project lead on the Botswana animations and I’m happy to report that the animations are almost complete (the launch will be on March 18th!!!). What I am most proud of is the section in which we debunk the myths that exist. We’ve partnered with Botswana’s Ministry of Education and our animations will be seen by every single student (from primary to tertiary level). My hope is that our animations will correct the misinformation that’s out there and provide youth and adults to make more informed choices in the future.



Dr. Hawa Abdi: one woman inspires the world

February 24th, 2011

While doing research for this blog, I found an inspiring story about a woman in Somalia that I thought I would write about to show how one committed person can make a huge difference in the lives of many (and it also relates to refugee women’s education).

Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, Dr. Hawa Abdi dreamed of being a doctor from a young age, but after her mother’s death was faced taking care of her siblings and managing the household. However, her father wanted her to get the education she had always wanted, and in the 1960s she went to medical school in Ukraine. After finishing medical school, she returned to Somalia and became one of the first female gynecologists in the country (1).

In 1983, she founded a small clinic near Mogadishu, and as the political situation in Somalia worsened, her clinic expanded to a hospital that can today accommodate 400 people. But her care for the Somali people didn’t stop there. Dr. Abdi’s hospital and land have become a shelter over the years to a population of 90,000 people (mostly women (3)) who have been displaced by the civil war in Somalia. She, and sometimes her daughters, are responsible for finding food and water for this population, and to help support the need for food Dr. Abdi teaches families to farm and fish (2).

Most pertinent to this post, Dr. Abdi, for whom education has been so important, has made education a priority in her camp. She started a school for more than 800 children, mostly girls. She also started classes, including health education, for older women, and education programs against FGM (2).

She gained much international attention last year when a militia group came to her camp, took over the hospital (2), and demanded she hand everything over to them because “Women can’t do things like this”. Dr. Abdi, however, refused to do anything of the kind, and even demanded a letter of apology from the group (which she received when they finally backed down).

Kati Morton of Human Rights Watch has said about Dr. Abdi, “It’s the most dangerous country…Dr. Abdi is just about the only one doing anything” (3).  Her bravery in the face of opposition and passion for providing safety, health services, and education to Somali refugee women serves as an inspiration to the rest of the world, and proves that one woman can do enormous good for many people.

1) http://www.dhaf.org/

2) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/opinion/16kristof.html

3) http://www.refugeeeducation.com/glamour-women-of-the-year-2010/