Post-Colonial Moment: Vietnam War 30 Years Later

Today the international community is commemorating the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and, essentially, the end of the war in Vietnam.

1. Is Vietnam a better off country today - socially, politically and economically?

2. What legacy has the US left in Vietnam in the post Cold War era? What's France's legacy as a former colonial ruler?

3. Was Ho Chi Minh a humanitarian? According to many leftist activists, North Vietnam only wanted to established communism or some other for socialism to speed up the recently independent country's economy to those in the industrialized world, while still retaining indigenous roots. Congo's Patrice Lumumba, Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and other "Non Aligned" contemporaries tried similar tactics in their own countries.


Zimbabwe: A country in peril

Human rights activists and government officials today are outraged by the election of Zimbabwe to the UN Human Rights Commission. Zimbabwe was one of 15 countries chosen by members of the UN's Economic and Social Council in New York. All but one were chosen by consensus. Zimbabwe would sit on the Commission for the next three year.

In recent years Zimbabwe has been criticized for its grotesque human rights violations. This only further tarnishes the ever declining credibility of the United Nations, although Secretary General Kofi Annan has recommended that the country be replaced.

That also comes as a shock because Annan just a couple weeks ago was applauded by human rights organizations for establishing serious restructuring of the Commission, composed of member states with a solid record of commitment to the highest human rights standards.

When one looks at Zimbabwe's record, they would a record that doesn't remotely resemble high human rights standards.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, have been accused of supressing press freedom, supporting racist tactics to rid the country of the white minority population and using fear mongering against black citizens that don't support his regime.

One example of this is Zimbabwe's national youth training program, which the government claims was created to bring "sense of responsible citizenship among the youth". Zimbabweans between the ages of 14 and 30 are prepared for "the world and for work in their country."

However, critics believe that this program is simply a scam by ZANU-PF to brainwash trainees and recruit them into a militia to terrorize the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

According to a recent article on Global Info, a survey concluded by the Solidarity Peace Trust chronicling atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the national service trainees in the run-up to presidential elections in March 2002 was taken, and concluded that trainees were used as instruments to maintain ZANU-PF's hold on power by whatever means necessary - including torture, rape, murder and arson.

Before the 2002 poll, adds the trust, "militia had been deployed to 146 camps around the country, in close proximity to, or in some cases even sharing, venues for voting". The election was subsequently won by President Robert Mugabe.

Many citizens that join the program do it only because of the lack of employment opportunities in the country. Seventy percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed. Others who were interviewed says they join because they don't want to be accused of not being "black enough" or being compliant to whites.

It was also announced today by the Zimbabwean government that the country is making efforts to eradicate its food shortage problems after MDC accused the government of not dealing with the national crisis head on. MDC spokesman Renson Gasela said that the country has all but run out of maize, the staple crop. At first President Mugabe said this was only an exaggeration by the oppositon and rejected offers of international aid. But now there seems to be a change of heart.

Critics blame food shortages on the land reform programme which has seen thousands of white farmers forced to leave their land in the past five years. There is also a foreign exchange crisis created by the decline of cash crops production like tobbacco as a result of the seizure of white-owned farms.

The government says the shortage is caused by economic sanctions ordered by Western nations and drought.

When asked about the country's legitimacy to be on the Commission, Zimbabwe's UN ambassador, Boniface Chidyausiku, said that no country was beyond reproach when it comes to human rights.

This might be true, but where do you draw the line?


Film Review: Moolaade

The father of African film has done it again.

Ousmane Sembene's provocative film, Moolaade, brings to the screen the controversial issue of female circumcision, or what opponents call it Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Like all of his past films, Moolaade is a film that makes you think about the subject and its consequences long after leaving the cinema.

It revolves around the clash of traditions in a small Senegalese village. Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the second of four wives of a powerful man, has refused to let her daughter be cut or purified. Now six girls flee from a 'purification' ritual, and four of them seek refuge with her. Colle agrees to help them, and invokes "moolaade," (protection). She ties a strand of bright yarn across the entrance to her compound, and it is understood by everyone that as long as the girls stay inside the compound, they are safe, and no one can step inside to capture them.

Colle knows first hand what the young refugees are going through, as she had the same procedure done to her. And now her own daughter, Amsatou, is going through the same dilemma. Amsatou is engaged to a man who will one day be the head of the tribe. He has just returned to the village as a successful businessman in Paris. Although he is cosmopolitan, Western educated and modernized, he would still prefer a woman has gone through the circumcision.

What is most important to understand is that although men in the village want the women to go through 'purification,' it is actually the women of the village that enforce this procedure. 'Purification' involves removing parts of their genitals so they will have no feeling during sex. When the subject of female genital mutilation is brought up in the Western media, it is ususally discussed as if the men are actually carrying out the procedure, when in fact it is the opposite. In the film a group of marauding women who are responsible for carrying out 'Purification' on the village's females, is led by the doyenne des exciseuses (Mah Compaore), a fierce looking woman who carries the unsanitized 'purifier' (knife) on her side.

Sembene creatively brings together the issues of culture and religion. The practice of female genitla mutilation is common throughout Africa to this day, especially in Muslim areas, although many scholars have said that Islam actually condemns it. I like the image use of the battery powered radios. At some point in the film the council of men that rule the village decides that is time to ban radios because they are a Western influence on the women who want 'protection.'

So is this an issue of keeping tradition or going Western? Currently there is a bill being debated in the Sierra Leone legislature that would ban female genital mutilation. However, the bill is facing severe opposition.

‘'Female Genital Mutilation is an integral part of our culture. It shouldn't be banned because it helps prepare our young girls for marriage and it curbs promiscuity,'' says 24-year-old Sierra Leonean Marie Bangura in a IPS interview. She has gone through the procedure herself.

She goes on to say that its ceremonial rites ‘'inculcates a sense of belonging in young girls, teaches them to keep secrets and be disciplined.''

On the other hand, supporters of the bill point out the severe medical complications of the procedure, such as infertility, non-stop bleeding and some cases, death.

'The initiators often use unsterilised blades to incise the genital organs and there is hardly any proper post-operation medication. I think this is the major problem,'' says Dominic Sesay, a child rights activist, in the same interview.

‘'Even the spurious argument that it decreases the girl's urge for sex, hence curbing promiscuity is a falsehood. We have seen more promiscuous women among victims of FGM than those who have not gone through the exercise. I think it's all brainwashing,'' he argues.


Post-Colonial Moment: The New Pope

(Post-Colonial Moment is a new feature that asks random, unbiased questions and thoughts about current events as it relates to the Global South and Postcolonial theory. And I hope you will comment on!)

1. Is the Global South as conservative on social issues as many believe?

2. Why do Catholics in America and Europe assume that the new Pope is suppose to be "moderate" as if the Vatican only cares about the viewpoint in the West and not the rest of the world?

3. Why do Western journalists and opponents of Benedict XVI think that all those in the Global South who might be perceive as traditionalists or conservatives are "unenlighten" or backwards? Just because most people surveyed in the Global South don't support things like family planning and homosexuality, are they out of touch?

4. Since the future of the Catholic Church is truly in the Global South, was the selection of a white pope a diss to that part of the world? Could this be seen as "religious colonialism" because a black or brown pope wasn't selected?


Letter writing campaigners take charge on Human Rights Day

Amnesty International is a great and controversial organization. I wrote an article about their Global Write-a-thon held on Human Rights Day last December.

Letter writing campaigners take charge on Human Rights Day
By Talia Whyte
Copyright 2004

Original Run Date: 11 December 2004

Thousands of human right activists around the world participated in a global ‘write-a-thon’ promoted by Amnesty International on December 10. This letter writing campaign was held in commemoration of Human Rights Day. On this day in 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It affirmed that the "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

The Amnesty International Write-a-thon was organized to emphasize the importance of the declaration and draw attention to human rights abuses. Participants write letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience.

“A prisoner of conscience is anyone who is persecuted or imprisoned because of their political affliation, religion, race, color, sexual orientation, language or belief, so long as they have not used or advocated violence,” said Marian Chambers, a human rights activist of 36 years. Chambers hosted what she called a ‘radical potluck party,’ where she invited socially aware friends and colleagues over to her Cambridge, MA home for a night of good food, good spirits and an opportunity to make a difference by writing letters in the company of like-minded citizens.

“I think hosting such an event gives an opportunity to discuss radical social change,” said Chambers, “There are a lot of human rights miseries in this world and a lot of people just don’t know about most of them.”

Chambers’ dining room was filled with 30 ‘activists’ sitting around table stacked with letters and information about prisoners of conscience who are in harm’s way for speaking out on a wide variety of reasons, ranging from press freedom to female genital mutilation to AIDS activism. “I am writing a letter on behalf of Rebiya Kadeer, who is a Chinese women’s rights advocate,” said participant and Harvard graduate student Sherry Bonam, “The Chinese government charged Ms Kadeer in September of 1999 with ‘providing secret information to foreigners’ even though the local newspapers she was carrying at the time of her arrest were all publicly available, as were the newspapers she had sent to her husband in the United States. Authorities tried her in secret and sentenced her in March of 2000 to eight years’ imprisonment.”

Gregory Higgins, another participant, felt a personal connection to one group of prisoners of conscience, the Agouza 11. The Agouza 11 refers to a group of men in Egypt who were imprisoned solely because of their perceived or actual homosexuality. In February 2003 the Agouza Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of the 11 men who were sentenced to three years imprisonment on charges of “habitual debauchery.”

“Some people think that because gay marriage is here in Massachusetts, gays don’t have to worry about fighting anymore,” said Higgins, who is openly gay, “We still have to worry about the people who are less fortunate in this world.”

However many opponents to Amnesty’s actions, mostly government officials, believe that letter writing is just another way of imposing Western mores and values on mostly Third World countries and their traditions.

“I don’t see this as a imposing Western values onto others,” said Chambers, a Dutch native, “The fact that someone can be imprisoned or harassed or even murder for speaking up for what they believe is right is simply wrong. I would like to think that most rational people in the world believe that a woman shouldn’t have been persecuted because she is physically beaten up on a daily basis because a man has a right to do that. A parent should not be imprisoned because they don’t want their 10-year-old male child to be recruited to be a soldier or their female child to go through circumcision. I think this letter writing is a way to give a voice to the voiceless. We are writing on behalf of that woman or that parent somewhere. The pen is mightier than the sword.”

The global write-a-thon has made an impact on many lives, including Sheikh Sackor, a freed Liberian prisoner of conscience. Sackor, the executive director of Humanist Watch, was imprisoned and accused of spreading information intended to “tarnish the image” of the Liberian government and of belonging to the LURD, an armed opposition group. He was tortured and denied counsel while in prison.

“…And then one night, during an interrogation session, my captors accused me of being a spy for Amnesty International,” said Sackor during a recent interview, “That was how I learned that Amnesty International had issued an urgent action describing my detention and calling on people worldwide to write letters to ask for my release. Finding out that so many people were concerned about me made me hopeful again that I would be freed.”

After three months, Sackor was released from prison.


They Came, They Saw, They Protested!

They Came, They Saw, They Protested!
Amnesty International Protesters take to the streets of New York

By Talia Whyte
Copyright 2005

When most Americans think about today’s young people, they envision slacker kids who only have time to think about Ipods, cell phone rings tones and the latest hip hop video on MTV. What those observers don’t see are the few young citizens who want to be agents for social change.

Over 1000 high school and college students from ten states in New England and the Mid Atlantic converged in the streets of New York City April 15 for a day of peaceful protest and human rights education at the 10th Annual ‘Get On The Bus’ program. The event, organized by Amnesty International Group 133 of Somervile, MA, allowed attendees to take their voices to the streets and to the four selected consulate offices of India, Jamaica, Mexico and China to protest human rights abuses alleged to be occurring in the respective countries.
The enthusiasm of these young activists was not only in the air with their chants and posters, but also deeply embedded in their hearts.

"I am so excited to be here," said Rossana Bianco, a second year law student at the New England School of Law, " It is so inspiring to see so many young people here making a difference in their own small way." Bianco is seriously thinking about starting an Amnesty International chapter at her school.

"I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I came here this morning, but now I feel really empowered," said Kerry Sharington, 19, of West Roxbury, MA, holding a ‘Free Tibet’ sign. "I feel like I am going to have a direct impact on someone who is going through a something challenging in another part of the world.

This year activists took action on four distinction issues – the lack of care for Bhopal victims by the Indian government, Jamaica’s anti-sodomy laws, the suspicious abductions and murders of women in northern Mexico and the imprisonment and alleged abuses of Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche by the Chinese. For the first time in the history of this event, the Amnesty protesters were met by a counter demonstration. It was led by New York-based Jamaicans who feel that Amnesty International’s efforts to point out alleged abused against Jamaican gays and lesbians is another way of enforcing Western values on a predominately black country by a seemingly white-run organization.

Participants were also asked to sign letters and petitions expressing their grievances to the accused governments as well as to US congressmen. Amnesty International claims that thousands of prisoners of conscience have been released around the world during the organization’s life with the help of letter writing campaigns.

"It is really cool this is happening," exclaimed Sarah Chin, 17, a Somerville, MA native who currently lives in New York. "With this many young people who are socially aware this early in life, it only shows that there is promise for both America’s young people and the human rights movement."


(Not So) New Vatican Target: Third World Catholics

(Not So) New Vatican Target: Third World Catholics
by Talia Whyte
Copyright 2005

With the recent death of John Paul II, a debate amongst church faithful has begun about who will be his replacement and the future direction of the Catholic Church.

The late Pope had a strict Biblical interpretation of many controversial issues, such as family planning, gay rights and women in the Church. Those firm beliefs have caused a severe corrosion among American Catholics. So much so that most surveys show that the number of regular church attendees has declined by as much as fifty percent in the last five years. This drastic decline is being blamed on the Vatican's seemingly laxed ability to effectively deal with the pedophile-priest scandals. The sight of Cardinal Bernard Law, former head of the Boston Diocese and alleged accomplice in the pedophile scandals, actually taking a major role in John Paul's funeral has American catholics crying loudly for a new leader who will preach a more modern philosophy of inclusiveness and taking more personal responsibility for the scandals if these believers are to stay with the Church.

Whether during the voting process the scandals will be taken into serious consideration by the cardinals is still up in the air. But it is very certain that the next Pope will not heed to American's desire for more modernity. What most Americans who are considering leaving the Church don't realize is that the Church left America - theoritically and practically - a long time ago. John Paul openly objected to America's love of materialism, greed and all things godless.

Europeans were also part of the Pope's scorn for even worse sins. According to a recent BBC report, only 20% of Europeans actually attend church regularly. A French friend of mine joked with me that France has four official religions - Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Secularism. Actually the only other growing religion, or sense of spirituality, in Europe today besides Islam really is secularism. The two make for strange bedfellows as the they clash on many social issues. France recently enacted a ban on students wearing religious symbols. Although the French government claims that the law is used to maintain a strict separation of church and state, many Muslim citizens, especially women who wear hijabs, felt that they were being specifically targeted for discrimination. Meanwhile filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was killed in an Amsterdam street by Muslim extremist for his critical film about Islam's treatment of women.

With all this godless secularism spreading rampant in the West, the Vatican has moved on to greener pastures alright. This is why papal candidates from Africa and Latin America are being strongly totted. The future of the Catholic Church is in the Global South, where its traditional values coincide with Church doctrine. The Vatican is especially estatic to see recent events as a way to take advantage of a most opportune moment. The most striking example are the Anglican churches in Africa are seriously considering seceded from the rest of the world church because of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop.

The divisive issues such as homosexuality will continue to steam, but the Catholic Church should also see this as an opportunity to deal with issues in a more rational way. Coincidentally, the AIDS pandemic is running rampant in Africa. Whoever the next Pope is, whether he be from Africa, Latin America or Italy (again) will have to have a more rational view on condom use. Don't you think that since the Church has such a huge influence in this part of the world, shouldn't it be responsible for being realistic? This is really not an issue of who is godless or materialistic and being more modern anymore; it is about survival - literally. With over 2 million dead alone in Africa and another million in Asia and Latin America just last year, the next Pope should step up to the plate.

The truths are there, but who will speak of these truths?


John Bolton: Is he making a bigger point?

To the dismay of Democrats, 67 US diplomats and other UN supporters for his harsh objections of the international body, the nomination hearings for John Bolton will be coming to a close this week with a high likelihood that he will be the next US ambassador to the United Nations.

Many of his past public statements seem to support their ire. In a 1994 speech at the liberal World Federalist Association, Bolton declared that "there is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States." To further his point, Bolton said. "If the UN secretary building in New York lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Four years later he was a co-signer of a letter from the Project for the New American Century to President Clinton which included that "American policy cannot continue to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the UN Security Council."

He has also been criticized by many foreign ministries, in particular Iran, for having a "rude, blunt and undiplomatic" temperament.

With all this said, it makes one wonder why he would even want the job.

Apparently all the Bush cronies are putting their full support behind the career State Department official. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Bolton as a "tough-minded diplomat" with a "proven track record of multilateral" as she announced his nomination as the new UN ambassador. "The president and I have asked John to do this work because he knows how to get things done," said Rice.

Even the Democrat-in-hiding Rhode Island Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee said that he was impressed with Bolton's performance at the hearings and is ready to put his stamp of approval "unless something surprising shows up" before the vote.

Though I am not usually a Bush supporter, do you just maybe think he is making a bigger point about the UN. The UN is in severe need for reform. Between Oil-For-Food, all those sex scandals and slowness to act upon impending crisis (ie Rwanda), I would like to believe that no matter where you are on the political spectrum, Kofi Annan and the rest of the international body are in need of a serious makeover.

Something like the "Rude, Blunt Eye for the UN Guy.

Whether you like it or not, it is true that the United States pretty much runs the organization, with a financial tithing of 20% towards all UN functioning. Since the US does play a hugh role, maybe it should take some responsibility to reform it, with the help of other countries of course. I don't know if it should be John Bolton, but it should be somebody who is going to be blunt and upfront about the problems at the UN and provide possible ways to solve them. Maybe if Bolton could water down some of his harshness and be more open to multilaterial cooperation, the UN could take charge again and just maybe the US would have better standing on the world stage.

In today's New York Times, Kofi Annan is finally coming clean about some of the UN's mishaps, both past, present and maybe future. "Last summer, the Security Council, the United States and the European Union all said Darfur was their top priority, said Annan, "But it was only last month that the Security Council agreed to impose sanctions on people who commit violations of international law in Darfur and, in a historic first, to refer the situation in Darfur to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, thus taking a critical step toward ending the prevailing climate of impunity. Last week I handed the prosecutor the sealed list of those identified by the Commission of Inquiry."

He further states that the UN needs to do a better job by giving aid and protection equally. Otherwise "giving aid without protection is like putting a Band-Aid on an open wound," said Annan.

I also agreed with Phyllis Bennis' recent statement on the Democracy Now program about UN peacekeepers. "[The UN] really needs is a standing international U-run military force, which trains its own soldiers in international standards, not recruiting soldiers out of national armies in which all over the world, including our own, issues of abuse, sexual abuse, etc., are rampant," said Bennis, "The UN has no authority over those peacekeepers. The most it can do is to send them home and request that their own governments hold them accountable.

Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recently applauded Annan for recommending that UN member states replace the 53-member U High Commission on Human Rights with a new, standing Human Rights Council composed of member states with a solid record of commitment to the highest human rights standards.

While it is definite that Bolton will be the UN ambassador, unless something surprising shows up of course, maybe this is a good time for him and the Secretary General to try to come together and help this important institution.


Here Come the Brides...

I was further thinking about Babyji today and just remembered that I wrote an article about a similar issue for the Global Wire News Corp. about a year ago. I hope you like it.

Here Come The Brides…
By Talia Whyte
Copyright 2004

Original Run Date: 1 May 2004

Parminder Singh has been spending the last three months organizing every detail of her June 5 wedding. “I have almost everything ready,” said Singh, 34, “Everything is a go, except for my part of my sari petticoat, which was a size too small. I am going back to the dress maker later this afternoon to get it cut.”

Every bride wants her special day to be memorable. What will make her wedding even more unforgettable is that Singh and her partner of five years, Mira Patel, will be among the first wave of gay and lesbian couples getting married in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The first of such licenses will be distributed on May 17.

“I will be wearing a simple white dress,” said Patel, 31, “I am not too finicky about my attire. I am not as much a girly girl like Parminder. Furthermore, I have to worry about the food at our reception. We are just having our friends cook and bring traditional Indian food. Our friends are very important to us, so it is imperative that they play an important role.”

Singh, a venture capitalist, and Patel, a computer systems engineer, met seven years ago at a house party hosted by a mutual friend in New York. It was love at first sight. “I fell in love with Parminder’s eyes immediately, so big and brown,” said Patel, “We were friends for about a year or so before I got the guts to ask her out. Since then we have been together like peanut butter and jam.” Singh and Patel have lived together as a couple every since in four different states before finally settling in near Northampton, Massachusetts. “We chose to live in this state because of its notorious liberalism and tolerance,” said Singh.

But the couple never dreamed same sex marriage would ever become legal, even in the left-leaning Commonwealth. As soon as they realized that such a marriage was actually going to become a reality, they started making wedding plans. “This is an important step for gay rights in this country,” said Patel, “We want to take advantage of this opportunity. Not all homosexuals in this world have the same opportunities.”

In India, where Patel and Singh immigrated from, homosexuality is still a taboo subject. Gays and lesbians are routinely harassed, incarcerated and raped in prisons in the South Asian country. The internationally-acclaimed film, Fire, was banned in many theatres throughout India because of its main subject about lesbianism.

“If I had stayed in India, my family would have forced me into an arranged marriage,” said Singh, “I would have had a miserable life if I had stayed there. I would have feared for my life.”
“Parminder and I don’t talk to our families in India anymore,” said Patel, “They don’t think homosexuality is compatible with our culture. We consider our gay friends and our friends of color our family now.”

As they put the final touches on the ceremony, the couple thought about their future together. Having children and buying a bigger home are high up on their list of things to do. The newly-found freedom to marry brings with it opportunities that were once reserved for heterosexual couples. However, there are still fractions that would still like to ban same sex marriage in the Commonwealth. The Massachusetts legislature will vote next year on whether to create a ban on such marriages and legalize civil unions. If the ban passes, Massachusetts residents will get a chance to vote on the matter in 2006.

“We could now live in peace for now,” said Singh, “I don’t know for how long marriage will stay legal or our union will be recognized, but we are still going to have a wedding that looks like any other straight couple’s wedding. Most importantly we know how to love and cherish each other. We both have the utmost respect and honesty for each other. No one can take that away from us.”


Book Review: Babyji by Abha Dawesar

This book was recommended by someone who knows I like reading about the East Indian diaspora. But this book completely changed everything I knew about South Asian culture. This is an extremely well written and an easy to read novel. All the characters are very intriguing until the very end. It is not only captivating, but but breaks the rules of discussing taboo issues, particularly homosexuality, by talking about them in a matter of factly manner. The story is told in the first person by the protagonist Anamika, a teenaged physics geek who has more than come to terms with her lesbianism. She is having affairs with three females - a trusted servant, a gorgeous older woman, and a gullible schoolmate - simultaneously.

It is refreshing to read a book because there is so little discussion about homosexuality in the Global South. When it is discussed, it is only discussed as being a "White Man's Disease" and thus stigmatized. When the film Fire, a story about two Indian housewives falling in love, was released a few years ago, religious extremists tried to vandalize the theatres it was shown in. So, the fact that this book has been well reviewed in many Indian publications maybe shows a slight shift on this taboo issue.

I also enjoyed how the author introduced the caste issue. There is a growing movement to break down this archane class structure that didn't just start with Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things.

This is a great book and I look forward to Dawesar's future books!
Check out her website: http://www.abhadawesar.com


When the Media Leaves, the Women Suffer

When the Media Leaves, the Women Suffer
By Talia Whyte
Copyright 2005

Recently the Bush Administration commemorated the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. President Bush hailed the campaign as a landmark for equality and democracy in the Islamic world, especially for women. The US media presented Iraqi women with blue fingertips as a sign of change for a better life in a post Hussein, pro-democratic Iraq. However, what will happen once the reporters leave Iraq and the Bush administration moves to another country to bring “democracy.” Many activists believe that the plight of women in Iraq will go on deafening ears, just like the plight of women in Afghanistan.

The current state of social, economic, and political rights in Afghanistan is so distressing that a US-based advocacy group is calling for major news outlets to have more coverage of the country. “Most US media institutions don’t have full-time reporters in Afghanistan anymore,” said Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission (AWM), an Afghan women’s rights organization based in California. "Much of the limited reporting coming out of Afghanistan has a misleading positive spin and is focused on superficial change. Despite their joy at being able to vote in elections last October, Afghan people are saddened that the United States has seemingly once more forgotten them.”

Kolhatkar and fellow co-director James Ingalls recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan with a very discouraging report. During their visit, the AWM co-directors were able to witness many of the problems that overwhelmed Afghan women and girls, and to interview them about their opinions on the current situation in Afghanistan.

"Very little has changed since the Taliban fell. Yet US media outlets have, through their inaccurate coverage and, more recently, lack of coverage, given the impression that women are now free, educated, and employed, and have political and economic equality. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Kolhatkar. Ingalls commented that women’s access to employment, education, health care, and housing, as well as their ability to have a voice in the new government, "are directly impacted by the continued US and Afghan government backing of warlords and regional commanders, a fact nobody wants to talk about in the US."

The Afghan Women’s Mission encourages the general public to get involved in their organization (www.afghanwomensmission.org) by writing to major media outlets, urging for better coverage of Afghan women’s rights. The Afghan Women's Mission praised Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other non-governmental organizations for their independent and steady coverage of Afghanistan.

“We don't see why news organizations shouldn't be able to do what we did," Kolhatkar added.

To read a recent opinion piece by Kolhatkar, go to http://alternet.org/mediaculture/21657/


Bono + AIDS Prevention + Poverty Relief = Nobel Peace Prize?

Usually I don't care for celebrities taking up causes for a number of reasons, but I read this article today in the newspaper and had an exception. I salute U2's Bono for taking up the cause of AIDS in Africa and global poverty. Unlike most celebrities, Bono isn't a johnnie-come-lately and he actually knows what he is talking about.

He has become increasingly involved in campaigning for debt relief in the Global South and the deterrence of the AIDS pandemic in Africa in recent years. In 2002 he took the then US Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill on a four country economic tour of Africa. Later that year he started up Debt, Aids, Trade in Africa (DATA), a multinational, non-government organization that was created for the purpose of obtaining equality and justice for Africa through debt relief, adjusting trade rules which burden Africa, eliminating the African AIDS epidemic, strengthening democracy, more accountability by the wealthiest nations and African leaders and transparency towards the people.

Bono has also encourage world leaders to join in his crusade. He made a speech during the inauguration of Paul Martin as Canada's prime minister, who in turn pledged to help with the global AIDS crisis. He also held an audience with Pope John Paul II to discuss world debt relief.

Bono continued his crusade with a special meeting with President Bush, who had just unveiled a $5 billion aid package for the world's poorest countries on that show respect for human rights.

"This is an important first step, and a serious and impressive new level of commitment," said President Bush in a speech later that day, "This must happen urgently, because this is a crisis."

"It is much easier and hipper for me to be on the barricades with a handkerchief over my nose - it looks better on the résumé of a rock 'n' roll star," said Bono, "But I can do better by just getting into the White House and talking to a man who I believe listens, wants to listen, on these subjects."

Bono has also played a key role in the NetAid/Jubilee concert in 2000 and Nelson Mandela's 46664 concert last year.

Truly, Bono is a man of conviction.

However, I can't say the same for other celebrities. Although they sometimes bring attention, some celebrities would be better served to not get involved in social causes, as they make fools of themselves and/or do it for self-serving reasons. Sometimes I actually cringed when Susan Sarandon appears on TV to promote her latest liberal-cause-of-the-week, knowing full well that her and her husband, Tim Robbins, only seem to have a superficial grasp of the issues. An incident happened when Sharon Stone collected $1 million (£530,000) to fight malaria in five minutes at an impromptu fund-raiser at the most recent World Economic Forum. Although it might have seemed like a good deed, in the long run is Stone really going to seriously take up the cause of the malaria-stricken children of Africa? Is she going to make sure the mosquito nets are purchased and implemented? Or was this just another opportunity to save her ever sinking acting career? Even Angelina Jolie, who also attend the Forum, criticized actors for not being committed enough to helping others. A UN Goodwill Ambassador since 2000, she further stated that she gives one-third of her income to charitable organizations.

But the few like Bono are committed and making a difference. Bono's latest endeavor is with the One Campaign, a diverse coalition of faith-based and anti-poverty organizers to show the steps people can take to fight global AIDS and poverty. On Wednesday he held a press conference to announce that he will be organizing famous friends Brad Pitt, Jaime Fox and others to participate in television commercials to promote the campaign. I can't speak for the other celebrities he has organized for his latest campaign, but he himself is very sincere, and everyone should get out and support him. Bono represents the future for social justice.

No wonder is being considered for a Nobel Peace Prize!

On the Net:
The ONE Campaign:


AIDS Crisis in Uganda

Human Rights Watch recently put out a distressing report about the US funded "ABC Policy" that is actually hampering the prevention of AIDS in the east African country of Uganda.

Uganda: 'Abstinence-Only' Programs Hijack AIDS Success Story
U.S.-Sponsored HIV Strategy Threatens Youth

(London, March 30, 2005)—U.S.-funded “abstinence-only” programs are jeopardizing Uganda’s successful fight against HIV/AIDS, Human Rights Watch said in a new report today. Abstinence-only programs deny young people information about any method of HIV prevention other than sexual abstinence until marriage.

The 80-page report, “The Less They Know, the Better: Abstinence-Only HIV/AIDS Programs in Uganda,” documents the recent removal of critical HIV/AIDS information from primary school curricula, including information about condoms, safer sex and the risks of HIV in marriage. Draft secondary-school materials state falsely that latex condoms have microscopic pores that can be permeated by HIV, and that pre-marital sex is a form of “deviance.” HIV/AIDS rallies sponsored by the U.S. government spread similar falsehoods.

“These abstinence-only programs leave Uganda’s children at risk of HIV,” said Jonathan Cohen, a researcher with Human Rights Watch's HIV/AIDS Program and one of the report’s authors. “Abstinence messages should complement other HIV-prevention strategies, not undermine them.”

U.S. officials describe their strategy in Uganda as “ABC”—a popular acronym standing for “Abstinence, Be Faithful, use Condoms.” Some experts credit the “ABC” strategy with helping to reduce HIV prevalence in Uganda from about 15% in the early 1990s, to less than 10% today. However, Human Rights Watch’s new report documents how condoms are left out of the equation, especially for young people.

A draft “Abstinence and Being Faithful (AB)” policy released in November 2004 by the Uganda AIDS Commission cautions that providing information about condoms alongside abstinence can be “confusing” to youth. Teachers told Human Rights Watch that they have been instructed by U.S. contractors not to discuss condoms in schools because the new policy is “abstinence only.” President Museveni has publicly condemned condoms as inappropriate for Ugandans, leading some AIDS educators to stop talking about them.

Uganda faces a nationwide condom shortage due to new government restrictions on condom imports. In late 2004, the Health Ministry recalled batches of imported condoms, allegedly due to failed quality control tests. Instead of addressing the shortage, some ministers suggested that Ugandans adopt abstinence as a preferable HIV-prevention strategy.

“Uganda is gradually removing condoms from its HIV/AIDS strategy, and the consequences could be fatal,” said Tony Tate, a researcher with Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights Division and the report’s co-author. “Delaying sex is surely a healthy choice for young Ugandans, but youth have a right to know that there are other effective means of HIV prevention.”

The U.S. government has already budgeted approximately U.S. $8 million this year on abstinence-only programs in Uganda as part of President George W. Bush’s global AIDS plan. The National Youth Forum, headed by Ugandan First Lady Janet Museveni, a vocal proponent of abstinence-only, has received U.S. funding under the plan. The First Lady has lashed out against groups that teach young people about condoms and called for a national “virgin census” to support her abstinence agenda. The Virginia-based Children’s AIDS Fund, an organization with close ties to Janet Museveni, was recently approved for a major abstinence-only grant, despite having been deemed “not suitable for funding” by a technical panel of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

“Abstinence-only programs are a triumph of ideology over public health,” said Cohen. “Americans should demand that HIV-prevention programs worldwide stick to science.”

Uganda gained a reputation in the 1990s for its high-level leadership against HIV/AIDS and acceptance of sexually candid HIV-prevention messages. But public health experts and Ugandan AIDS organizations fear that the shift toward abstinence-only programs will reverse this success. Abstinence programs have been used since 1981 in the United States, where they have proven in numerous independent studies to be ineffective and potentially harmful.

To read the full report: http://hrw.org/reports/2005/uganda0305

This report also reminds me of of an article The Politics of AIDS: Engaging Conservative Activists written by Holly Burkhalter, director of U.S. Policy and of the Health Action AIDS campaign at Physicians for Human Rights. She argues that the Christian Fundamentalists are the ones driving this policy.