NYC tweet-up

I’ll be in NYC for a couple of days next week to attend a conference, and a tweet-up with some aid/development people has been organized for the evening of Thursday, May 5th (Thank you, Ian!) If you’re in NYC and would like to come out for a drink or three, stop by! It’d be great to meet you or catch up. I’m looking forward to connecting with colleagues, friends and tweeps next week.

Details:

Thursday, May 5th, from 5:30 to 10pm
Perfect Pint (East)
203 East 45th Street
New York City, NY

See who’s coming and RSVP here: http://twtvite.com/penelopeinny

Investing in women: a human rights approach

At Women Deliver, a message is extolled throughout the dozens of sessions, plenaries, panels and press conferences: “Invest in women and girls, it pays.” This simple message, however, has several layers of subtext. Many of the conference’s attendees are emphasizing the broader concepts that underpin it – one of the great takeaways of this conference, at least in my mind, is that it will take more than an additional $12 billion to ensure that women and girls around the world are able to fully realize their rights. Among these concepts, is the notion that women’s s rights are, first and foremost, human rights.

I listened to Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and current president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative,  speak about the importance of framing maternal health with a human rights approach. She eloquently articulated the need for a holistic human rights approach towards the issues affecting girls and women. Robinson noted that so much of what we talk about when we talk about improving maternal health and reproductive rights is related to broader, human rights issues: access to health care and family planning, nutrition, religious and cultural dimensions, discrimination, domestic violence, early childhood marriages, to name a few.

And indeed, there is a very strong case to be made for envisaging maternal health as a broader human rights issue. Ever since the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, women’s rights are being increasingly framed as human rights. This is critical because it can help circumvent the barrage of opposition typically put up by conservative groups. Religious leaders, right-leaning or traditional family-oriented groups have all at some point or another been antagonistic to the notion of women having control of their bodies and fertility.

I attended two panels today where this point was driven home very vividly. First, was the panel entitled “Delivering Solutions at the Margin: Reaching the Hard to Reach”. The conversation, which was moderated by Mary Robinson, featured several activists and advocates for women’s rights in vulnerable environments. One speaker, Martha Sanchez, who works for organizations advocating the rights of indigenous women in Central America and Mexico, spoke powerfully on this issue. She explained that issues related to indigenous women’s rights and maternal health were often circumscribed by structural discrimination and stigma. Dealing with this marginalization requires a holistic approach: you cannot look at maternal health in a silo: it belongs to a much broader picture of persistent inequity and unequal access.

In the same vein, Malika Saada Saar, president of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights,  spoke of the oft-forgotten American women who are not able to avail themselves of their rights. Specifically, Saar discussed the case of pregnant women in U.S. prisons who are shackled when they begin labor, and until after they deliver their baby. Often, these new mothers have to breastfeed their newborns while still shackled, and then have to deal with the trauma of having their children taken away from them and put into foster care. She spoke movingly about how this “drachonian practice” is, in effect, depriving women of their rights and is tantamount to “cruel and unusual punishment”, thus establishing the link between women’s rights, human rights and legal protection.

Fulfilling Millennium Development Goal 5 (reducing maternal mortality by three quarters and ensuring universal access to reproductive health) is not just an issue of financing programs that build clinics, train health workers, and provide services. It is an issue of fair, transparent, equal and indiscriminate access. Maternal health and reproductive rights are also fundamentally part of a broader narrative of respecting and promoting human rights. There are several international legal instruments which should, in theory, guarantee women’s rights.

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is one of those treaties which, in theory, were it fully enforced, would ensure (among other things) that women would have safe and equal access to health care. Regarding maternal health specifically, Article 12 of CEDAW states that”States Parties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.”

“Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights” is the rallying call for those who advocate for a comprehensive approach that tackles the complex, multi-dimensional issue of maternal health and reproductive rights. In her concluding remarks at this afternoon’s panel, Mary Robinson spoke of the need to be proactive in dealing with the barriers that “dehumanize us.” She urged attendees to “go beyond the statistics”, to really look at whether people at the margins are being reached and their needs, addressed.

Poverty, inequality and discrimination are among some of the structural barriers that need to be done away with in order for not just MDG5 to be achieved, but also the full spectrum of women’s rights to be realized.

Women Deliver 2010

Today and for the next three days, I have the privilege of attending the 2nd Women Deliver conference in Washington D.C. This event gathers thousands of representatives from governments, NGOs, private sector and international agencies to discuss women’s rights, reproductive and maternal health, and related issues. Women Deliver “works globally to generate political commitment and financial investment for fulfilling Millennium Development Goal #5 — to reduce maternal mortality and achieve universal access to reproductive health”, and I’m very excited to share some of the content of this conference with readers of this blog.

I will be blogging about the conference for UN Dispatch, so make sure to check back for videos, interviews and analysis in the coming days.

I also really encourage you to follow the conference via live webcast on the Women Deliver website: http://www.womendeliver.org/conferences/-2010-conference/webcast/

Michelle Bachelet, Ashley Judd and Mary Robinson at this morning’s press conference.

The limits of freedom of expression

As a Franco-American with strong ties to both cultures, I’ve always struggled a bit to reconcile what “freedom of expression” means in my two countries. While I’m – of course – a firm believer in freedom of expression (part and parcel of being a liberal/progressive), I did not grow up in a country where politicians and opinion leaders could lash out terrible racist or homophobic epithets with no consequences. In the United States, however, I am consistently shocked and angered by some of the stories I come across. Like this:

A South Carolina lawmaker on Thursday called a Republican gubernatorial candidate of Indian descent a “raghead,” saying we have one in the White House, we don’t need one in the governor’s mansion.

Or, this, which is down right infuriating:

An Arizona elementary school mural featuring the faces of kids who attend the school has been the subject of constant daytime drive-by racist screaming, from adults, as well as a radio talk-show campaign (by an actual city councilman, who has an AM talk-radio show) to remove the black student’s face from the mural, and now the school principal has ordered the faces of the Latino and Black students pictured on the school wall to be repainted as light-skinned children.
(emphasis in the original article)

Neither of these stories are particularly different from the hundreds of other stories of racism and intolerance. I think, as Americans, we’ve become numb to this, in spite of the fact that it’s completely outrageous and unacceptable that in 2010, in a supposedly modern and free America, people are still being vilified for their race, creed or sexual orientation – without any consequences.

Freedom of expression is a thorny issue, with deep philosophical implications, and I won’t take attempt to take on this subject in this blog – partly because I have not really made up my mind about my own views as to what freedom of expression should look like.

What I do know, though, is that I tend to prefer the French approach. In France, a 1990 law was passed to criminalize the denial of crimes against humanity. Publications or public expressions of support for these crimes are punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. This meant that Holocaust deniers could no longer publicize their views, and, if they did, would be charged under this law. I’m sure many Americans recoil at the notion that people’s opinions cannot all be shared with the public – regardless of how offensive, outrageous and wrong they are. Another law, passed in 2004, “makes sexist or homophobic comments illegal and forbids job discrimination against homosexuals.”

In my mind, while these laws represent restrictions to freedom of expression, they are also the sign of a society that has the moral courage to distinguish between right and wrong. I also believe these laws – while they do curb people’s individual freedom of expression – actually promote another type of freedom: that of the individual not to be discriminated against, belittled or victimized by bigots. I’ve always marveled at the stories out of the United States where neo-Nazis are prancing around denying the Holocaust, or talk-show radio hosts spewing their racist, intolerant venom. I don’t see what is so “free” about that.

In fact, just yesterday, French immigration minister Brice Hortefeux – well-known for his dislike of immigrants – was fined $900 “private insults of a racial nature.” While many in France are calling for his resignation, Hortefeux says he will appeal the decision. The New York Times recaps the incident which led to the fine:

The verdict comes nine months after Mr. Hortefeux was recorded on camera at an event in southwestern France on Sept. 5 making what to many sounded like anti-Arab remarks. The video, which was first posted on the Web site of Le Monde, shows the minister posing for a photo with a young party member of Arab origin when a woman in the crowd can be heard saying:

“Amine is a Catholic. He eats pork and drinks beer.”

“Ah, but that doesn’t work at all, then he does not fit the prototype at all,” Mr. Hortefeux is heard replying to general laughter.

Another female voice shouts: “He’s our little Arab.”

Mr. Hortefeux answers: “All the better. There always has to be one. When there’s one, it’s O.K. It’s when there are a lot of them that there are problems.”

Seriously? Remember, this man is the Minister of Immigration. For French speakers, you can watch the video here.

I think it’s a real stretch to say freedom of expression is endangered in France, even though some members of the press who have clashed with Sarkozy and his administration might beg to differ. I see these laws, which protect individuals and groups from libel and discrimination, as necessary tools to fight against intolerance. When I read stories like the one about the Arizona school mural, I find it hard to believe that Americans continue to defend unbridled “freedom” of expression…

Into the zombie underworld

You may have noticed that zombies (along with vampires) have made a resurgence in pop culture, and it seems like everyone has something to say about them: even economist Tyler Cowen and political analyst Dan Drezner found a way to write about zombies.

Don't care

Personally, I find these stories annoying and irrelevant. Why? Because zombies aren’t real, and I don’t care about the mathematics of a zombie attack or the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. At the risk of sounding like a grinch, I’ll add that zombie parades and zombie walks are also things that fall under the general “I couldn’t care less” category.

However, when I saw on Facebook that Joel Kaiser, an aid worker in Haiti, recommended a piece entitled Into the zombie underworld, saying it was “One of the absolute best articles I’ve read on Haiti. Well worth the read…”, my curiosity was piqued.

Into the zombie underworld is – bar none – one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I’ve read in a long, long time. The prose is superb and very tight, and that in spite of the 8,000+ words. I really don’t want to give it away, because it reads like a thriller or mystery, but I was left believing in the existence of zombies, which, frankly was not a likely outcome, as suggested above. A couple of excerpts:

“Every zombie is made only with the official approbation of the secret society; lacking these documents, the zombie is illicit. (These documents do exist: I was later able to examine a zombie laissez-passer.) Nadathe had no documents.”

“Zombification is not the only punishment the secret societies can inflict, but in rural Haiti it is the ultimate sanction, more dramatic even than death. The fear of zombification, Davis argues, is absolutely central to the social system of rural Haiti.”

This piece is a must-read – not only for the zombie angle – but also for the nuanced and intricate portrayal of Haitian society.