Current Affairs

Women’s rights in India – When tradition trumps law

Women’s rights in India – When tradition trumps law

“Sexism is the root oppression, the one which, until and unless we uproot it, will continue to put forth the branch of racism, class, hatred, ageism, competition, ecological disaster, and economic exploitation. No other human differentiation can be similarly powerful in reproducing oppressions, and so, women are the real left.”

-Robin Morgan in Sisterhood is Powerful

Inequalities and diversities define Indian society. In spite of various laws that protect women’s rights, Indian women face some of the biggest gender inequalities in the world. Over the course of Indian history, women’s rights and position in society has been subject to many changes. How did their rights change over time? And what are issues Indian women struggle with nowadays?

History of feminism in India

Indian women did not always face inequalities. In the Vedic period of Hindu culture (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE), they held the same position as men. Women enjoyed high standards of education, and female scholars like Gargi, Godha, Maitrayi were well-known for their intellectual and literacy abilities. Women also had complete control over gifts and property received at the time of marriage. 

Women’s status quickly declined after, when they were no longer allowed to study religious texts or to receive an education. Instead, they were expected to get married and manage their marriage and domestic lives. Child marriages were not uncommon. Restrictions were also placed on women’s appearance towards men outside of their family – they had to wear a veil to cover their face or whole body when leaving the house.

Women’s position in society further declined during the medieval period when widow immolation, child marriages and a ban on widow remarriage became part of social life in some communities in India. In some areas, groups of women would even immolate themselves together to avoid being turned into sex slaves of enemies after the death of their husbands in war, a practice called Jauhar. Moreover, in many Muslim families women were restricted to inner areas of the house to avoid direct contact with strangers.

When British colonisers arrived in India, several laws aiming to improve the position of women were introduced, such as a prohibition of widow immolation, the Hindu widow remarriage act allowing widow Hindu women to get married again, and the child marriage act which raised the minimum age for marriage to 18 for women and 21 for men.

In the 1920s, various local independent women’s organisations emerged. Among them was the All India Women’s Conference, which was founded in 1927 and aimed to improve literacy levels of women and children. Later, women’s movements became part of Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement, which demanded an end to British rule in India. This opened the door for the spread of women’s organisations1 and legitimised and expanded women’s public activities. 

Although women’s rights groups continued their work after India gained independence in 1947, their advocacy was initially silenced as nationalist agendas on nation-building took precedence over feminism topic2. After, the feminist movement mainly focused on the reasonable treatment of women at home and in the workforce, and on the right to join a political party1. In 1954, the National Federation of Indian Women was established to fight for the empowerment of women and their rights. In the 1970s, the focus of the feminist movement shifted to inequalities such as unequal wages and the relegation of women to unskilled and underpaid spheres of work. 

Over the years, new laws came into force to protect women. Among them were laws to protect women from domestic violence and sexual harassment, and a prohibition of dowry. Feminists helped increase the extent to which women were allowed to engage in the workforce and women gained the right to vote and be elected into the Parliament. This led to the election of India’s first, and so far only, female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Gandhi, who was elected in 1966 and then again in 1980, spoke out for women’s right to political participation in decision-making processes and political activism. She was killed because of political motives in 1984. Gandhi’s legacy is an unforgettable one. She sought to set an example for women leaders across the country to seek positions of (political) influence and served as an inspiration for many of them. 

Today, in the early 21st century, the aim of the Indian feminist movement has gone beyond treating women as useful members of the society to also ensuring women have the power to decide the course of their personal lives and that they have the right of self-determination1.

Modern-day challenges

Despite ‘on-paper’ advancements, Indian women still face many challenges that prevent them from taking full advantage of their rights and opportunities. Many traditions and customs that are enshrined in the Indian culture still restrict women’s right to self-determination. For instance, in spite of the Dowry Prohibition Act, families in many parts of the country are still expected to pay a dowry when their daughter enters marriage3. This tradition makes daughters be perceived as a financial burden on families. As a woman’s status in her husband’s house is determined by the dowry she brought upon marriage, a family’s ability to afford a big dowry determines whether a woman has a good married life or not. This, along with the expectation that a new wife will move away from her family to be with her husband and family in law and will thus not be able to take care of her parents, makes that families generally prefer having sons over having daughters. 

Moreover, in India’s male-dominated society, women’s main role is still to have children and to take care of them and all household activities. These social norms imposed on women often conflict with the Indian constitution, as they prevent women from have equal opportunities in life. Even though they are considered illegal, the Indian government chooses not to interfere with religion and personal norms4 to avoid controversy. Authorities only act when women or girls file complaints against discriminating activities, something that only rarely happens as women experience pressure or do not feel safe to do so.

Being worth less

Indian society is largely composed of hierarchical systems which can be broken down into age, gender, kinship relationships, caste, occupations, and relationship to the ruling power. For women this hierarchy means that, from birth onwards, they are entitled to less; from playtime to food to education. Girls in poor families suffer most from this vulnerability and are more likely to become child brides. When poverty is acute, marrying off a daughter allows parents to reduce their expenses. It means one person less to feed, clothe and educate. Although child marriage is illegal by Indian law, yearly 1.5 million under-aged girls are forced to enter marriage, making India home to the largest number of child brides in the world. In 2016, 7 per cent of girls under 15 and 27 per cent of girls under 18 years old were married. To make matters worse, girls who enter into marriage at a young age are less likely to receive education after, increasing the likelihood of lifelong poverty.

Moreover, in India’s patriarchal society, men predominate in roles of political power, social privilege, and control of the property. Fathers or husbands are presumed to be in charge of what happens within their family and function as the official head of the household. All household resources are under the husband’s control and are passed on to his sons when he dies, leaving wives and daughters in poverty.

The male-to-female ratio

While a natural sex ratio is roughly 105 men and boys for every 100 women and girls, in 2015 India had 108 males for every 100 females. That means that there are roughly 2.8 per cent fewer girls and women alive than the natural ratio predicts, another manifestation of their lower worth. 

One reason for India’s uneven gender balance is the occurrence of female infanticide, the murder of baby girls. It has been estimated that, of the 12 million Indian girls born each year, 1 million does not make it to the age of 1 and that an Indian girl between ages 1 and 5 is 75 per cent more likely to die than a boy. Parents make the difficult decision to end their daughter’s life mainly because daughters are often seen as a financial burden to families or because parents may want to spare their daughters the hard life poor girls and women in India often face.

While the murder of baby girls is mainly an issue in lower-educated communities, this does not mean higher-educated families have not found ways to have boys instead of girls. Although foetal sex determination is banned in India, it is secretly practised to determine whether a pregnant couple is having a boy or a girl, often leading to a number of sex-selective abortions until the couple has a son. 

Another issue contributing to an uneven gender-ratio is that women might face barriers in accessing health care services. The World Economic Forum found that Indian women enjoyed only 94.4 per cent of access to healthcare that men do, meaning that millions of Indian women face preventable health issues due to gender-based healthcare barriers. 

Violence

The violence that girls face as infants continues throughout life. In 2018 the Thomas Reuters Foundation found that India was the most dangerous country in the world to be a woman. Reasons were the high risk for women to face sexual violence and harassment or to become a victim of human trafficking, and dangers for women due to cultural, tribal and traditional practices. In 2018, 43 crimes against women were reported every hour in India, most of which (32 per cent) fell in the category “cruelty by husband or his relatives”. This corresponds to UNICEF’s finding that 22 per cent of girls and women were subjected to physical, sexual or psychological violence by a current or former intimate partner during the previous twelve months. 

Sexual violence is a daily threat to women in India. In 2018, 33,356 women reported being raped, and 294 women and girls became the victim of murder with rape. Of 8,538 female murder victims, 7,166 were killed because of dowry, either by their own family or by their in-laws. Moreover, women were also overrepresented as victims of other crimes. For example, in 105,000 kidnapping cases, 77 per cent of victims were female (46 per cent women, 31 per cent girls).

While laws such as the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act from 2005 and mitigations to the Criminal law aim to ensure women’s safety, they seem to do little to actually protect women from violence. Court cases for crimes against women only led to a conviction in 23 per cent of court cases in 2018. Many reported cases never make it to court because victims face pressure from family to drop the case. To make matters worse, many cases never even get reported because victims do not feel safe or face tremendous pressure not to, leading to an underestimation of violence against women in India and perpetrators going unpunished. All of these different levels of violence against women have left India as a country in which there are 37 million more men than women and women have to fear for their lives on a daily basis.

Marriage, children and household responsibilities

Traditional and social pressure on Indian women to enter marriage is significant. Marriages are considered to be between two families rather than two individuals, and in many families women are not allowed to decide whether or to whom to get married. Instead, when a woman’s relatives decide it is time, they choose a suitable partner for her. This generally happens at a young age too. In fact, over a fourth of Indian women is married by the time they are 18, and it is unusual for a woman not to enter into marriage at all. 

Once married, a wife’s life is ruled by her husband and his parents5 and her main responsibility becomes having and raising children and managing household tasks. According to the OECD, Indian women on average spend roughly six hours a day on unpaid work such as household tasks and taking care of children and relatives. This is six times more than Indian men, and more than women in any other OECD country. Women’s unpaid work is often overlooked as the results are often-times invisible or just not given any importance and it does not bring in any money. However, unpaid work plays a crucial role in keeping the country’s economic activity going and is estimated to be worth roughly 3.1 per cent of India’s GDP, not to mention it plays a big role in ensuring the wellbeing of children and the elderly. 

However, India’s fertility rate has been steadily declining for roughly 60 years from approximately 6 children to just over 2 children per woman in 2017. Contraceptives and education have enabled women who have access to them to take control of their reproductive function and to build lives outside of the home. For women who do not have access, however, little has changed.

Education

Indian women’s unequal careers opportunities start very early in life, as girls have fewer opportunities to receive education. In 2018, 4.1 per cent of girls between the ages 11 and 14  and 13.5 per cent of girls aged 15 and 16 still were not enrolled in school. The popular belief that girls should enter marriage early in life to produce healthy offspring is one of the things standing in the way of girls receiving a proper education. And as daughters will just get married and have children, families often do not see a reason to invest in their education. Another reason for girls’ lower enrolment rates is the expectation that girls stay at home and help their mothers in domestic activities after a certain age, instead of going to school. This allows them to learn to do household activities such as cooking, stitching and cleaning, which will be expected from them once they are married. Because their mothers often did not receive a lot of education either, this is where many girls’ education stops. 

However, things have improved over the last decades. The 1986 National Policy on Education aimed to empower women by creating a learning environment that enabled them to realise their potential and take charge of their own lives. The policy expanded scholarships and adult education, provided housing and incentives to poor families to send their children to school and set out the development of new educational institutions. It also expanded the open university system, which has an open-door academic policy with minimal or no entry requirements. This policy was later followed-up by the 2009 Right to Education Act, which made education free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 6 and 14, and thereby made it more acceptable for girls to receive an education.

Employment and positions of power

As girl are more likely to receive less education, they are overrepresented among illiterate Indians. According to the latest data, India’s adult literacy rate is 73.2 per cent – of 313 million illiterate Indians, 59 per cent are women. Once they enter the job market, low education and literacy levels confine women to low paying and low skilled jobs.

However, like in virtually any country in the world, women are still paid less than men for doing the same jobs. The World Economic Forum found that Indian women earn only 55.5 cents for every dollar Indian men earn and enjoy only 35.4 per cent of economic participation and opportunities that men do. Women are also grossly underrepresented as legislators, senior officials and managers, as they are 84.2 per cent less likely to hold such a position. On top of that, only 11.5 per cent of members of Parliament are women. 

The Indian government has made efforts to eliminate inequality in the workforce. Indian constitution guarantees the right to equality, the freedom to carry out any profession and the right to liberty. Moreover, the Equal Remuneration Act of 1976 grants equal employment rights to men and women and aimed to increase equal pay and decrease gender discrimination in the workplace. These guarantees can empower women to make their own choices and can decrease gender disparity. It is clear that Indian laws have created a framework in which women and girls can enjoy equal opportunities and treatment. At this point, it is mostly weak enforcement of such laws and the traditional role models that are projected onto girls and women that keep them from reaching their potential.

The Swayam Sidha scheme, which was launched by the Ministry for Women and Child Development in 2001, tried to break through such role patterns. The scheme aims to empower women and make them financially independent with the support of 650 women’s self-help groups, voluntary associations of women in vulnerable situations. These groups help women have better access to all kinds of resources such as microcredit, in addition to increasing awareness of women’s rights and improving skills. The scheme resulted in improvements in the socioeconomic status of rural poor women and to improved skills of women to generate an income. 

Women in cinema

Finally, when it comes to women’s empowerment India, Bollywood films have proven to be a groundbreaking factor. With its huge popularity, Bollywood cinema is a major point of reference for Indian culture and has played a big role in promoting the empowerment of women in India. In conventional Indian movies, the role of female characters was usually restricted to being a good homemaker and a good mother. More recently, we see a significant improvement in the roles played by women in Indian films, with profound characters that have unconventional roles in life. Popular movies and female characters leave a mark on society and are an inspiration for women all over India.

Inequality – more than gender alone

When looking into the inequalities faced by women in India, it is hard to ignore all the other factors that create inequality for large sections of Indian society, including men. For one, the caste system, which stratifies the Indian population into hierarchical groups based on their karma and dharma, creates huge inequality by giving privileges to some and repressing lower castes. For instance, while the less caste’s average income is 34 per cent under the national household income, the highest caste’s average income lies 48 per cent above. Moreover, castes seem to have a significant effect on one’s health outcomes, with the lowest caste having a 7.1 years lower life expectancy, a lower likelihood of receiving healthcare, and more likelihood of being in poor health. 

Another factor that significantly affects one’s chances in life is the location in which they live. One-third of the Indian population lives in rural areas, where extreme poverty is rampant, education is poor and 15 per cent fewer people know how to read. Gender differences are also bigger in rural areas. For instance, women are 16 per cent less likely to be able to read in rural areas, compared to 9 per cent in urban areas. Child marriage is also more common in rural areas, with at least a quarter of girls age 10 to 17 married in some regions.

Life is also far from easy for India’s LGBT+ community. According to the government’s estimations, there are 2.5 million gay people in India, although LGBT+ rights activists say the real figure is likely to be higher. Sadly, no data is available on the number of trans or non-binary people or other members of the community. Besides a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that decriminalised same-sex relationships and a 2014 ruling that recognised transgender people as a third gender, Indian law does not include many protections for LGBT+ people. People from the community are more likely to face gender-based violence and harassment, including from police as well. They are often discriminated against when looking for housing and are more likely to experience homelessness as they are forced to leave their family homes. They are also more often denied education and are more likely to face discrimination when looking for a job and to end up in jobs that offer less security and worse working conditions. 

As Hindu nationalism is becoming more prominent, India is also becoming more and more a dangerous place to be a Muslim. While 14.2 per cent of the Indian population is Muslim, Muslims are increasingly being treated as foreigners, invaders. Prime Minister Modi, who was first elected in 2014, has played a big role in this increased violence, as his strategy relies on polarisation between Hindus and Muslims, and framing Muslims as a common enemy. Ever since, they have been the targets of lynchings and other forms of violence and discrimination. Most prominently, Modi’s government promised a so-called National Register of Citizens that will require Indians to provide documentary evidence of their citizenship, something that Muslims are less likely to be able to deliver. To illustrate, when a version of this exercise was conducted in the state of Assam, 1.9 million Muslims were declared non-citizens

Conclusion

How well a society treats women is a robust indicator of the success of that society. Equal participation of women at all stages is not just a matter of social justice, it is also an important factor for economic growth and sustainable development.

There is no denying the fact that Indian women have made considerable progress in the past years, but they still have to overcome many obstacles that prevent them from fully participating in India’s male-dominated society. For women’s empowerment to gain momentum, laws meant to protect women should not remain on paper only. Substantial steps should be taken to implement the laws which were meant to facilitate detention, prevention, and punishment of crimes against women. Moreover, efforts to ensure girls and women’s education should be increased, and society, specifically women, should be made aware of the various laws, policies and funding schemes that are meant to protect women and provide them with opportunities. Popular media also plays a big role in breaking gender roles, and with that, the expectations laid upon women, by showing women in non-traditional roles. 

However, the underlying problem to women’s unequal position is a society that is built on class and inequality. Women and girls are just one of many groups whose life is made more difficult by a conservative society in which Hindu heterosexual men from the highest castes and who live in urban settings hold power. Ultimately, progress made by women will remain meager unless the underlying system of inequality is resolved. 

Foot notes

  1. Kumar R. The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India 1800-1990. Zubaan; 1997. 
  2. Neely CL. Book Review: Gangoli, G. (2007). Indian Feminisms: Law, Patriarchies, and Violence in India. London: Ashgate Publishing. das Dasgupta, S. (Ed.). (2007). Body Evidence: Intimate Violence Against South Asian Women in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Violence Women 2008;14(4):496–501. 
  3. Chaudhuri M. Feminism in India. 1 edition. London: Zed Books; 2005. 
  4. Narain V. Reclaiming the Nation: Muslim Women and the Law in India. University of Toronto Press; 2008. 
  5. Sharma I, Pandit B, Pathak A, Sharma R. Hinduism, marriage and mental illness. Indian J Psychiatry     2013;55(Suppl 2):S243–9.
Posted by Dr. Abha Kaundal in Current Affairs, Feminism
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International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia 2020 – Goodbye to Europe’s Freedoms for All

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia 2020 – Goodbye to Europe’s Freedoms for All

The EU’s fundamental values no longer apply to all Europeans. On this International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, sexual minorities across the continent stand united as Europe’s self-proclaimed respect for human dignity proves to be a case of cherry-picking. And in the eyes of some European leaders, we’re well aware, gay citizens are nothing but rotten fruit. 

When it comes to equal treatment of LGBTQ people, Europe has been standing on a crossroads for years. While some EU member states slowly but steadily build more inclusive societies, others have produced political incumbents who have grown strong by scapegoating minorities, the gay community being a prominent one. On March 31 2020 –Trans Day of Visibility– Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén proposed a bill[1] to end legal recognition of trans people. It was one of the Hungarian government’s first actions after having won the vote to rule by decree in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Just over a month later, on May 14, the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency published the results of a survey [2] among nearly 140 thousand Europeans from across the continent, showing that nearly 43% of LGBTQ people in Europe had been discriminated against in the preceding year, while six out of 10 LGBTQ Europeans claim to be afraid to hold their partner’s hand in public out of fear of harassment. And while the attack on the freedom of sexual minorities nearly exclusively takes place in central and eastern European member states, it’s the almost apathetic response from Europe’s more progressive leaders that underlines our worst fears: all across the EU, the protection of LGBTQ rights is still not considered an issue worth fighting for.

Europe Day – not for everyone 

Between these moments in time lies another significant date for the continent: May 9th, Europe Day. And while this day marks decades of peace, freedom and the common recognition of democratic values in the EU, it may not feel so celebratory to the 140 thousand Europeans participating in the survey mentioned above, or anyone from the larger population that they represent. Living in a Union that self-identifies as a defender of human rights, how do you celebrate peace knowing that authorities in that same Europe, right here and now, endorse nazi-like LGBT-free zones[3]? Personally, I just have one answer to that: you don’t, really. That’s not to say that I’m ungrateful for the wealth and the countless number of rights and freedoms I enjoy thanks to the EU. If I had lived in Europe at really any random moment in history, I’m well aware, some famine, infection or ambitious leader’s family quarrels would already have put an end to me. I’m not ungrateful, but just no longer in the mood to celebrate. We’ve been taking our European temple for granted, and a toxic mould has grown all over it. If LGBTQ people are to feel part of the European Union of the future, European values will have to be made more explicitly inclusive, and this inclusivity more binding.

But Europe Day 2020 cannot have felt unreal only to minority-citizens. For this year’s edition, EU leaders released a collective video expressing their commitment to European cooperation. It shows Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán filming himself[4]  with a mobile device (yes, someone is literally filming how he films himself), sharing the inspiring words: “there has never been greater need for cooperation among European countries than there is today.”  He finishes his video with a dubious “Good luck, Europe!”. Good luck? Why does the prime minister believe we need luck? Is it, perhaps, because he’s been actively undermining European cooperation ever since he gained and sought to maintain a supermajority in parliament? Is it a sinister hint to Europe’s minorities, virtually all of which have become demonized by his party’s propaganda campaigns? Or does the prime minister warn us for the possibility of other states following his example in dismantling the rule of law and democratic institutions, without any real repercussions coming from other member states or supranational institutions? Whichever it is, we’ve all been warned

Watch the video and you’ll hear Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki remind us that “Europe is a promise of the future in which the fundamental rule of action is solidarity.” We may wonder what definition of solidarity the prime minister has in mind. His party’s domestic policies certainly seem to indicate that solidarity only comes within clearly defined, subjective and discriminatory boundaries. Under his government’s rule, critical judges have been silenced, judicial reforms are threatening the rule of law, and minorities have become increasingly marginalized. Those regions and municipalities that have officially adopted anti-LGBT measures together cover about a third of the country’s surface. At this very moment, in our EU of solidarity, Polish authorities target already marginalized groups of citizens, limiting their freedom, destructing their sense of belonging, and instigating public hostility towards them. And although I do feel a sense of solidarity towards those groups, for me, there’s little solidarity to be found in the Union that Morawiecki envisions.

This is a video of leaders who are bound together by the fragile threads of newborn institutions, hiding their divergent takes on even the most fundamental issues. It shows us the leader who steadily and publicly built the first undemocratic system[5,6] in the EU, encouraging us to believe in the spirit of cooperation. This video is not an invitation to celebrate peace and unity. It’s nothing but a sad illustration that terms such as ‘cooperation’ and ‘solidarity’ are empty words that you can use to cover up even the greatest divisions.

What can I do? 

If this video doesn’t fill you with gratitude or hope for the future either, there are ways in which you can express your concerns about Europe. And that communication does not always have to take the form of interaction with European institutions or MEPs (but it sure can). You can let your own MPs know that you care about what happens elsewhere in this Union. There are so many ways to reach out nowadays. Encourage your national parliament to hold your government accountable for what happens elsewhere in the European sphere. You may wonder: if fellow Union citizens are being marginalized by undemocratically behaving governments, why doesn’t my government take a stronger stance against this? If you live in a partner city of a Polish LGBT-free municipality, you could ask your local authorities what their stances on this issue are. It may also be worthwhile to check with which parties your national party forms an alliance in the European Parliament, and, if you have questions about this cooperation, hold your representatives accountable by reaching out to them or even by adjusting your voting behavior. You are allowed to question the policies of another member state and so are your representatives. By sharing your opinion, you do not breach the concept of sovereignty. 

At a more personal level, I believe everyone could contribute to breaking down the taboo against political conversations among friends and family. Many of us have opinions that we’d sometimes like to share, or questions to ask, but we don’t, because we don’t want to be that friend. Naturally, nobody likes to kill the mood. And we’re all a bit scared of opening topics we don’t think we have enough expertise on. But knowledge is gained by sharing, and opinions become more nuanced through conversation. What is the purpose of all our contact, our friendly smiles, our joyful parties, when our self-imposed indifference allows the foundations upon which that happy life is built to crumble? We’d be dancing on a volcano, ignoring the first signs of a massive eruption.

Mateusz Morawiecki says Europe is all about solidarity. Maybe he’s right after all. In the spirit of Europe Day, I would like to ask anyone reading this blog post to send me a short letter of support, addressing an unknown fellow European citizen from the LGBT+ community living in one of Poland’s LGBT-free zones. Write about some hardship you’ve had to face in your life, how it got better at some point, or your ideas for a brighter future. I’ll post some letters on my blog, but will also do my best to reach out to activists or progressive politicians in the targeted areas to see if they can share your letters of support among the right audiences. Europe Day may not be a time to party, but it could be a great reminder that in our very imperfect society, there’s always someone, somewhere, who could use some support.

Notes

  1. More information and personal stories related to this bill: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/26/hungary-prepares-to-end-legal-recognition-of-trans-people
  2. The survey report can be found here: https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/fra-2020-lgbti-equality_en.pdf
  3. For a quick overview of what LGBT Ideology free zones precisely mean and where they are: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_ideology-free_zone
  4. Video of EU leaders on Europe Day 2020: https://www.euronews.com/2020/05/09/long-live-europe-our-home-european-leaders-celebrate-europe-day-in-renovated-cooperation
  5. In Freedom House’s 2020 report on nations in transit, Hungary dropped from being a semi-consolidated democracy to a transitional/hybrid regime, while Poland dropped from being a consolidated democracy to being a semi-consolidated democracy:   https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2020/dropping-democratic-facade
  6. Already in 2015, Orbán openly defended the idea of an illiberal state: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/hello-dictator-hungary-orban-viktor-119125
Posted by Robbert van Tilborg in Current Affairs
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Time to discuss a living wage for the Czech Republic

Time to discuss a living wage for the Czech Republic

Whenever the topic of increasing the Czech minimum wage is raised, it always evokes strong emotions. Year after year, certain politicians and employer associations come up with catastrophic scenarios according to which an increase in the minimum wage by only a few per cent could significantly endanger not only the condition of the Czech economy, but also jobs of low-skilled workers.

The idea of increasing the minimum wage is described as boundless populism, a marketing trick or absurdity. Arguments supporting such pessimistic statements are usually repeated by certain politicians and economists. The increased costs of employment associated with a higher minimum wage are said to lead to job cuts, reduced competitiveness, or entire companies being shut down and their production being moved abroad.

Are such claims actually based on empirical data? Is the minimum wage solely an economic issue? And how high should the minimum wage then be?

A compromise below the poverty line

As a result of the last passionate public debate, the minimum wage for 2020 was increased to CZK 14,600 (€582) gross for a full-time worker. This results in a net monthly wage of approximately CZK 12,100 (€482) for a single person without children, and CZK 13,400 (€534) for a parent with one child. The Czech government took this decision after a series of failed tripartite negotiations with labour unions and employer associations, calling it a good compromise. Consequently, employer associations commented on the government’s decision calling it dangerous and detached from reality

However, the fact is that a full-time worker who does not receive any social benefits lives below the poverty line. In 2018, the last year for which we have data, the Czech Statistical Office (CZSO) set the poverty line at CZK 11,963 (€477) a month for a one-person household and CZK 15,552 (€620) for a person taking care of a child under 13 years of age. Given the expected wage growth of 7.4 per cent in 2019, it can be estimated that the poverty line, which depends on the median income, has risen to a monthly income of CZK 12,850 (€512) and CZK 16,700 (€666), respectively. Therefore, a person receiving the minimum wage keeps living below the imaginary poverty line.

The poverty line as a dichotomous line between the poor and the rich?

Given the above, it might seem that an increase in the minimum wage with just a few hundred Czech crowns could eradicate poverty among Czech workers. Moreover, as Prime Minister Andrej Babiš did not forget to mention in his New Year’s speech, the Czech Republic has the lowest poverty and social exclusion rates of all EU countries. In 2018, only 3.4 per cent of Czech workers’ income was below the poverty line. Is this a reason to celebrate? And what does it mean to live below the poverty line, statistically speaking?

According to Eurostat’s definition, people are at risk of poverty if their disposable income is less than 60 per cent of the national median of equivalised disposable incomes. The disposable income is all the money one has to spend, meaning one’s income including investments and social benefits, but minus taxes and social security contributions, and excluding savings. However, this definition does not explain what decent living standards look like and when exactly people experience poverty. 

The income with which one is at risk of poverty itself is solely an expertly determined artificial value that helps statisticians compare income stratification across countries. Thus, even if one’s income is higher than the income at-risk-of-poverty, this does not necessarily mean that the household lives in decent living conditions.

For this reason, statisticians work with other indicators as well, including material deprivation rate. Through an extensive sample survey, the CZSO derives data on nine so-called ‘deprivation factors’ such as the ability to pay for an unexpected expense or to afford a one-week annual holiday, which is used to calculate the material deprivation rate. How are Czech households with working members doing?

Statistical poverty is not the same as real struggles

The material deprivation rate shows that Czech families struggle much more often financially than the poverty rate tells us. For example, data for 2018 show that 20 per cent of working households would not be able to afford to pay for an unexpected expense of CZK 10,700 (€427) and 16 per cent did not have enough money to afford a one-week holiday. 41 per cent of working households admitted experiencing substantial difficulties regarding their incomes.

The financial situation is particularly unfavourable for single-income households with children. 31 per cent of them, compared to 20 per cent of the general population, confirmed that they would have trouble paying for an unexpected expense. The survey also pointed to significant differences between Czech regions.

Furthermore, a unique project entitled Divided by Freedom, which studies the state of Czech society thirty years since the Velvet Revolution, revealed that many Czech households find themselves in difficult situations. According to the study, Czech society is divided into six classes, not only in terms of their income and wealth but also in terms of social relations and competences. 17.6 per cent of the country’s population falls into the so-called ‘deprived class’, characterised by very low incomes, wealth and social capital. Another 22.8 per cent falls into the so-called ‘endangered class’ which has a very low income but solid social capital and professional skills. Together, these two groups make up the 39.8 per cent of the population that survives on a low income. 

Both the deprived and endangered class face a high risk of losing their jobs and falling into a debt trap, leaving no doubt about the need to increase income for these risk groups. And one – but not the only – option is to raise the minimum wage.

Room for raising the minimum wage exists

Increasing the minimum wage is often argued to be risky for a country’s economic competitiveness, as it might make companies decide to move their production abroad. However, looking at 2019 purchasing power parity, it turns out that the Czech minimum wage offers the fourth-lowest purchasing power in the EU. In comparison, national minimum wages allow for more goods and services to be purchased in all neighbouring countries as well as in Romania, Hungary or Croatia. 

The Czech minimum wage is also particularly low when compared to the country’s median wage. While on average in the EU the minimum wage compares to 53.5 per cent of the median wage, the 2019 Czech minimum wage added up to just 43 per cent of the country’s median wage, making the country rank second to last on the EU ranking. Taking into account these figures, concerns about Czech competitiveness cannot be justified.

The question is: how much could we increase the minimum wage by and how should its regular valorisation be structured and ensured? While the one thing that trade unions and employer associations can agree on is that there should be a formula that predicts the minimum wage evolution, unfortunately they do not agree on what such a formula should look like.

The Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions proposed that the minimum wage be set to at least 50 per cent of the average wage. However, the Czech Chamber of Commerce objected that this formula is based on retroactive data and does not take into account the development of the economy. It furthermore recommended linking the formula to the median wage instead of the average wage. However, besides providing criticism, it did not come up with its own proposal. Last year the Chamber of Commerce even campaigned for freezing the minimum wage.

A possible compromise could be to set the minimum wage at 50-55 per cent of the median wage, calculated using the Ministry of Finance’s economic forecasts for the following year. This solution would take into account the figures at the European level and include economic forecasts, effectively taking away concerns about basing the minimum wage on retroactive data.

Let’s imagine this proposal is agreed on. This would mean the 2020 minimum wage would be between CZK 16,596 (€662) and CZK 18,256 (€728) a month, depending on employees’ situation. What still needs to be considered, though, is how to involve employee and employer representations in periodic reviews of the mechanism so that the important dialogue on working conditions with the government can be maintained.

People are not apples…

Another typical argument against raising the minimum wage is the fear of a drastic drop in employment. The classical economic theory, which’s relevance for employment has been refuted by a series of real-world data studies, is based on the assumption that the labour market operates on the same principle as the relationship between supply and demand of goods in an ideal market environment. According to this theory, an increase in the minimum wage leads to a rise in labour costs, which then results in a decreasing demand for labour and thus a drop in employment. However, actual data does not support such simplified ideas.

In 2015, the World Bank published a comprehensive study on employment, focusing among other things on the impact of the minimum wage on the labour market. The report notes that results of previous studies differ widely, with more recent studies showing a neutral or even positive link between minimum wage growth and employment. This paradox can be explained by an increase in purchasing power caused by increased wages.

Last year, another extensive analysis was conducted by the University of California at Berkeley, examining 51 cases of minimum wage growth at local levels in the United States. Its results showed that an increase in minimum wages has a limited or no effect on the reduction of low-skilled jobs. Additionally, the study found that increased minimum wages contribute to reducing child and household poverty.

Some studies also examined the indirect effects of minimum wage increases. For example, the World Bank’s analytical work shows that a 10 percentage point increase in the minimum-median wage ratio leads to a 1.7 to 2 percentage point rise in labour productivity in the long term. Other studies (here and here) indicate a direct link between poverty and ill-health. The strong correlation between socio-economic determinants and health is also stressed in the Czech National Strategy for Health Protection and Promotion and Disease Prevention

The findings of these studies show that wage growth in low-income groups is not only in the interest of employees. Employers themselves can also benefit from it, not to mention the positive effects on public health and social wellbeing.

Living wage to be a remote but desirable goal

Another recent important project is called Dignified Minimum Wage. Its aim is to calculate a minimum living wage which enables workers and their households to live in dignity in terms of their material needs. In 2019, this amounted to CZK 31,463 (€1,255) a month gross, and CZK 36,850 (€1,470) a month for employees in Prague due to higher living costs.

This project is unique because it provides an estimate of the necessary minimum income that could significantly reduce material poverty and its negative impact on human health and social conditions. At present, however, there is a dramatic difference between legal and living wages. Last year, the minimum wage set by Czech law reached only 47 per cent of the living wage. Obviously, the current minimum wage will not be increased to the minimum living wage that the Dignified Minimum Wage project calculated any time soon. 

In addition to the minimum wage, there are other tools to reduce the wage gap. One fairly easy option is to increase the tax deduction for workers, which has not changed since 2008. Among the more complex and long-term options are making structural changes to make housing more affordable or to fundamentally change the tax system, perhaps including unconventional taxes or social assistance systems such as negative tax or a basic unconditional income. 

It is clear that reducing working poverty is a common concern for al Czechs and that solutions exist. Now it is up to the government to act. 

Posted by Dominik Plihal in Current Affairs
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Feminism – accomplishments and challenges

Feminism – accomplishments and challenges

Feminism is a global movement aimed at advancing women’s rights. It has a long and complex history, with big and small accomplishments in each country and region. In this first part of the feminism mini-series, we discuss these accomplishments, but also shed a light on the challenges it still faces.

Fundamental rights

One of the most famous accomplishment of feminists is the acquirement of women’s right to vote and to hold public office. Famously, the suffragettes fought for these rights in Ireland, the UK and the USA. However, it was New Zealand who first granted the right to vote and hold public office to women in 1893. Other countries were quick to follow. In 2011, Saudi Arabia was the last country so far to join those where women have these basic rights. Nowadays, there are just two countries that have yet to come through; Brunei, where all citizens are denied the right to vote, and Vatican City.

Building a live

Another important fundamental right that women and girls enjoy because of the work of feminists is the right to education. Receiving a proper education opens doors for women and empowers them to choose the kind of live they want to live. Girls who have received education are less likely to become victim of domestic and sexual violence and to enter into child marriage. Moreover, educated women have greater chances of escaping poverty, leading healthier and more productive lives, and can thereby provide a higher standard of living for their children, families and communities.

As beneficial proper education is to girls, its effects go much further than that. Mothers who have received education are much more likely to ensure that their children receive education. They also generally have less children, which enables them to direct more resources to the children they have. Moreover, their children are generally more healthy.

However, while an increasing number of girls go to school, worldwide 130 million girls still do not have access to education. While gender seems to play little role in whether a girl has access to primary education, it is a huge factor in secondary education and beyond. Moreover, whenever education is disrupted by conflict or early marriage, girls are far less likely to go back to school than boys.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Whether and how many children women have significantly impacts their health and wellbeing and their social and economic situation. While a great deal of credit should be given to scientists for coming up with measures such as birth control and abortion, women would not have the right to use these technological advances to their benefits if it had not been for feminists. By establishing rights to birth control, sexual education and abortion, feminism has given women the power to decide over their own futures. 

However, feminism’s accomplishments in terms of sexual and reproductive rights extend beyond family planning abilities. For instance, just a few decades ago, notions of sexual assault and rape were non-existent because women were seen as property, they did not have rights. Because of the efforts of the feminist anti-rape movement, the notion of sexual assault emerged around the 1970s. Most countries now define coerced sexual acts as rape. Moreover, practically every country in the world defines sex with children now as statutory rape because children cannot consent, with notable exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

By creating the notion of sexual assault, feminism basically established the right to bodily integrity, the right to control one’s own body. This was a giant step forward, as the common preconception used to be that women caused men to have sex with them, purely by being in their presence. Women used to be seen as a temptation for sex to which men had no way of resisting. But increasingly, men’s predatory behaviour is seen as being the problem.

More than just a vessle of life

By fighting for access to birth control and establishing the notion of sexual assault and women’s right to bodily autonomy, feminists managed to liberate women from the burden that their reproductive function used to be. Women are less and less seen as having just one function – to create new life -, and are increasingly seen as full people who should be able to decide for themselves what to do with their lives and whether or not to have children. Women’s new-found control over their sexuality and reproductive functions has enabled them to take on other roles than solely being a mother.

However, these advances do not mean that feminists’ work for women’s reproductive and sexual rights is finished. Countless women all over the world still face sexual abuse and violence, and struggle with a lack of control over their own bodies. In the US, for instance, 1 in 6 women has experienced rape (attempted and/or completed), and someone is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds. In Europe, where 1 in 20 women have been raped since the age of 15, all countries have laws that criminalise forcing someone to have sex, but only 8 countries have laws that define sex without consent as rape.

Moreover, there are still many places where women do not have access to birth control measures and abortions, and where motherhood is not so much a choice as just something that happens. For example, 214 million women of reproductive age in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy do not use modern contraceptive methods because of limited choices and access, cultural and religious opposition, and gender-based barriers.

The challenge of being truly inclusive

While feminism has many accomplishments, it has been heavily criticised for failing to be inclusive, accounting only for around the white cis-gendered female perspective. It thereby neglected to account for the situation of women of colour, women in non-western countries, and less-abled, low-income, and LGBTI women. These women were often kept out of feminist protest movements and did not benefit from feminists’ accomplishments.  

For instance, while feminism has been successful in criminalising violence against women, it has failed to protect trans women. These women are still extremely likely to face violence and intimidation. A trans woman’s life expectancy is substantially lower because of the threat of being murdered. In the US, for instance, trans women of colour are expected to live for only 35 years, while their cis-gendered counterparts are expected to live to 78 years.

Moreover, while we are increasingly aware of the objectification of women’s bodies and promote body-positivity, black women’s bodies are still often seen as different or exotic. On the other side of the coin, the crusade on the sexualisation of women has included forcing Muslim women in Europe out of their hijab, without even asking or considering whether they want to wear it. 

More than gender alone

To be really inclusive, feminism has to acknowledge that gender is not the sole reason why women face discrimination. Instead, it is just one factor that interacts with other forms of discrimination, such as age, socioeconomic status, mental ability, physical ability, sexual identity, religion and ethnicity. For instance, a black woman in North-America or Europe likely faces discrimination based on sexism, as well as on racism.

Moreover, feminism should acknowledge that women’s experiences are not similar. A woman in India encounters different obstacles and forms of oppression than a woman in the Netherlands, just like black women in the USA have different experiences than white woman, even if they live in the same country. Different age groups also have different experiences. Basically, different forms of discrimination together shape how women experience inequality, and it is crucial or any equality movement to acknowledge this.

While women are probably the largest discriminated group in the world, we should also acknowledge that they are not the only group that faces discrimination. For instance, while women in the USA got the right to vote in 1920, it was not until 1965 until all racial minorities, regardless of gender, received this right. And while Canada granted women voting rights in 1917, Canadian Indian women received the same right only in 1960. The same goes for Australia and South-Africa, where Aboriginals and black citizens received voting rights only decades after the white population did.

Clearly, gender is just one of many factors based on which people experience discrimination. True feminism strives for inclusive societies in which everyone has equal rights and opportunities, regardless of factors such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. 

It’s not a contest

Different social groups clearly have different experiences that deserve to be acknowledged. However, feminism should be careful not to turn into a contest of who is worst off. Instead, it is about the acknowledgement that we all have different experiences, and working together to increase equality for all. True equality leaves no one behind.

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, Feminism
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The Fashion Revolution: who made your clothes?

The Fashion Revolution: who made your clothes?

On 24th of April 2013, a giant clothing manufacturing factory in Daka, Bangladesh, collapsed due to extremely bad conditions of the building and the big crowd of workers. Over 1,100 people were killed, and nearly 2,400 got injured. While some cracks in the walls had been noticed some weeks before, no action had been taken. 

Poor working conditions and environmental concerns

The disaster in the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza factory is just one among many that we usually do not hear about. Textile factories are very much likely to catch fire due to the use of inflammable materials and a lack of safety measures for its workers, such as proper protections against air pollution or the risk of employee deafness. 

Despite the danger that is going to work for many workers in the Global South, not much has changed over the years. Whenever workers plan to strike, they face repression by their employers. Moreover, if they manage to strike, workers often risk losing their jobs due to the lack of worker rights and unions that support the cause.

Due to the high pressure on international textile companies to produce in a sustainable way, some have moved part of their production back to Western countries. However, here workers encounter new challenges. For example, Bulgarian textile workers recently denounced their low wages and the high pressure in term of digital control of their daily task for higher efficiency. In many Western countries, production quotas seem to be set for robots instead of humans, while the salaries and working conditions remain inadequate.

The fact that the fashion industry is one of the most globalised and polluting industries on Earth is well known as well. In 2015, for example, 15.2 billion tonnes of CO2 was produced by the fashion industry alone. Moreover, the processing of cotton and other fibres requires chemicals, which often end up in nature. It takes 2,720 litres of water to make a t-shirt – that is how much we normally drink over a 3-year period. It is an inconvenient truth for those who love fashion and those who make a profit off it, and a big worry for those that are concerned about the environmental impact of fashion. 

The Fashion Revolution

The story about the Bangladeshi factory that collapsed made worldwide news and exposed some of the huge problems tied to our constant hunger for fast fashion. It triggered a ‘fashion revolution’ by so-called “pro-fashion protesters”. Carry Somers, a British fashion designer and the driving force behind the Fashion Revolution movement, could not stand it anymore. Something had to be done. The 24th of April was renamed Fashion Revolution Day, calling for more ethical fashion industry and reviewing the movement’s achievements and goals. 

The Fashion Revolution movement is not created by consumers against the industry. Instead, it is an inner revolution of the whole industry. It involves everyone, including consumers and people who work in the fashion industry, and is aimed at making all of us more conscious of the human and environmental effects of the clothing we buy. 

The pro-fashion protesters use a solution-based approach, focusing on research and creativity rather than victimisation or boycotting. The two arms that coordinate the revolution from the UK are a charitable arm, the Fashion Revolution Foundation, and a non-profit social enterprise, Fashion Revolution CIC. The Fashion Revolution’s Country Offices, (mainly) staffed by volunteers, implement the actions coordinated by the Global Coordination team at national level. Each Country Coordinator takes on board a large number of initiatives and in cooperation with national stakeholders and many other volunteers that support the fashion revolution week maximise the impact of the regional and global strategy. 

So far, the #whomademyclothes campaign has been successful. In 2018, 3,838 brands and retailers shared information about their suppliers and pictures of their workers with the hashtag #imadeyourclothes through social media. Moreover, the Fashion Revolution has managed to engage 275 million people all over the globe, through social media and videos, and through participation at events. Numerous influencers and celebrities have joined the movement to share their views.

#whomademyclothes

As consumers become more conscious of the human and environmental impact of clothes, the demand for sustainable clothing is growing. Brands, producers, retailers, media, schools, and others are joining this cause and raise awareness through education, research and campaigns. The aim is to reach a balance between profits, fair working conditions and sustainable production methods. 

During the yearly Fashion Week, consumers are encouraged to ask fashion producers for transparency in their manufacturing processes by tagging them in social media posts and asking them #whomademyclothes. Manufacturers and retailers should respond with concrete and accurate information, using the hashtag #imadeyourclothes. 

Moreover, inspired by the #whomademyclothes, YouTubers started their own trend. Under the hashtag #haulternative, they present their latest ‘new’ clothes. These are either second hand, reused or bought from a sustainable retailer. 

Sustainable brands and collections

As the problems of fast fashion become increasingly apparent, sustainable brands are emerging. These companies’ production cycle looks like this: a new collection is launched, all clothes are sold, and only then a new collection is developed and produced based on the demand. This production cycle also means that there is a certain measure of exclusivity; only certain customers will wear their clothes as they are produced in limited editions.

Sustainability deception

While some companies make genuine improvements to their manufacturing methods, others try to take advantage of the new interest in sustainable products. Some brands, for example, call on their consumers to bring their old clothes in exchange for a discount on their next expenses. Genius, right? Used clothes, which can even be from other brands, are taken in and used for the production of new clothing. No need to manufacture new materials, as these can be taken from your used sweater or jeans. This should mean a reduction of the use of resources and reuse of the material already in use to be sold once again to costumers. 

While this sounds great, it does not solve the problem that is an overloaded market. Moreover, much of this clothing is actually never re-used. If you would check the tag in those new collections that are presumably “eco-friendly”, would you find that these are entirely made out of recycled clothes? Does it show the percentage of organic material on it? Is it mixed with other material?

In reality, the so-called reuse of used clothes is an example of “greenwashing” in the fashion industry. Companies pretend to be sustainable and concerned about the environment, just to make more money.  The discount you receive at some shops when you hand in old clothing, for example, is only meant to get you to buy new clothing there. 

How to switch to slow fashion

We are all accountable for the impact that fashion has on people’s lives and on the environment. So, how can we make a difference? Here are some simple and effective steps (Awareness, Consciousness and Change) to help you switch to a more sustainable way of fashion consumption, without renouncing the latest trends.  

Start with your closet – Awareness:

  1. Empty your closet. Yes, take it all out. 
  2. Start with the current season. Try all of your clothes on and see how they feel.
  3. Check the “made in…” tag of your clothes.
  4. Count how many clothes you own that are “made in” developing countries. How many are from Western countries?

When shopping – Consciousness:

  1. Check the tag that is attached to different types of clothes. Where were they made?
  2. Were these clothes “made in” developing countries?
  3. Check your favourite brands’ online shops. Do they have a sustainable collection made from recycled or biological material? And are products fairly produced? 
  4. Bring your shopping list and own bag along. 
  5. Buy only what you really need and what you will use for a long time.

Find an alternative – Change:

  1. Awareness is key: learn more about who made your clothes.
  2. Consume consciously: apply the five Rs (refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle) before buying new things .
  3. Shop second hand: use what it was already produced, thereby will be decreasing the demand for new articles and preventing products from ending up in landfills.
  4. Choose fair and sustainable brands.

May you wish to deepen your knowledge and become a fashionable revolutionary, check the Fashion Revolution’s guide (4). 

The world is calling for fashion revolutionaries. So be curious. Find out. Do something.

Posted by Abigail Moreno Ginés in Current Affairs
Declining birth rates; problem or solution?

Declining birth rates; problem or solution?

Recently, the Hungarian government announced that women who had four or more children no longer had to pay income taxes. This measure is the latest in a series of efforts to stop declining population rates. Hungary is not the only country to struggle with a shrinking population, which is a phenomenon in most regions of the world. What are countries around the world doing to counter diminishing populations? Do this kind of measures work? And are declining populations really a problem?

Fertility measures; a short history

Towards the end of the 1960s, it was expected that the earth’s population would reach 16 billion by 2050. Today, however, the world population is expected to be around nine billion by that time. As many countries’ birth rate fell over the last decades, this was perceived as good news. It was widely accepted that countries’ and families’ wellbeing was threatened by having large numbers of children. 

When fertility rates started dropping, however, it was expected that it would stop at 2 children per woman, thereby maintaining population levels. Instead, in many countries, they kept declining. In the USA, for instance, the rate was 1.8 children per women in 2016, and in Canada, it was 1.6 per women. In Europe, women have 1.6 children in general, with France (1.92) having the highest rates and Spain and Italy having the lowest rates (1.34). Singapore has an extremely low birth rate, with just 1.14 children per woman

However, all of this does not mean that the Earth’s population is shrinking. In fact, in 2016, the average birth rate for all women in the world was 2.46 children, meaning that the Earth’s population is still growing. This high fertility rate is in large caused by high birth rates in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the birth rate is now 4.85 children per women. While this is still very high, it is a big difference from 1960, when it was 6.65 children per woman.

For countries that saw birth rates drop below 2 children per women, this creates a whole new set of problems. As populations will shrink, governments are afraid that it will cause economic stagnancy because of a loss in productivity, and a decrease in tax revenues can cause troubles in financing retirement and healthcare programs. 

Hungary’s anti-migration approach 

While most European countries are compensating for their declining population growth by taking in migrants, Hungary is strongly opposed to such a solution. Instead, it is trying to increase its birth rate. Currently, Hungarian women have 1.45 children on average, which is not enough to keep up the population size. Moreover, now that Hungary is part of the EU, Hungarians are free to work in other countries, and many have left for EU countries where wages are higher. The declining birth rate and increased migration result in a declining population and rising labour shortages. 

In February, Hungary announced a new set of measures to counter the low birth rate of Hungarians. The Hungarian approach is to make life cheaper for big families. Interest on mortgages and car payments for families will be reduced, and it will be easier for families to get loans. The number of daycares will be increased, to encourage mothers to work. For grandparents, there is a benefit as well. They are now allowed to share maternity leave with their daughters. But most importantly, and also most controversially, Hungarian women with four or more children will no longer pay incomes tax.

In a speech to announce these new measures, Hungary’s president Victor Orbán said that Hungary is ‘living in times when fewer and fewer children are being born throughout Europe’. While other European countries respond to this new challenge with immigration, ‘Hungarians see this is in a different light’. According to Orban, Hungary does not need numbers, but more Hungarian children. Moreover, Orbán said that to depend on migration to keep up the current size of the population would be surrender and that he does not want the ‘colour of Hungarians to be mixed with those of others’.

These are not the first measures that Hungary took to save itself from the dangers of a declining population. It awarded university scholarships only to Hungarians that promised to stay in Hungary after graduation, and it offered citizenships to ethnic Hungarians living outside of Hungary to motivate them to move to Hungary. Moreover, recently Hungary passed a law increasing the amount of overtime that employers can ask of their workers to compensate for significant shortages of employees. The law that is now called the ‘slave law’ and has been widely protested dictates that workers can now be asked to work up to 400 hours of overtime a year.

The irony of China’s fertility control measures

Only a few years after ending its policies to limit the number of children that Chinese were having which started in 1979, the Chinese government is now urging women to have more children. As the country’s birth rate has plummeted, it is now estimated that the labour force could lose 100 million people between 2020 and 2035, and then another 100 million from 2035 to 2050. 

In 1979, China’s famous one-child rule was first introduced. The law was met with much resistance, especially from the countryside. In 1984, rural families whose first child was a girl were allowed to have a second child, and some exceptions were made for minorities. In 2013, parents who were only children themselves could have a second child, and in 2016 the ban was lifted entirely. 

While one would expect that birth rates would quickly increase after the lift of the ban, decades of one-child policy are now showing their implications. For one, these restrictions led to an uneven gender balance, as traditional preference for boys led to illegal sex-specific abortions on female foetuses. Ironically, the lower proportion of women is now one of the reasons for China’s low birth rate. There are simply fewer women to marry and have children. Moreover, as whole generations have grown up as an only child, many Chinese see it as normal to have only one child. It has proven to be hard to change this mindset. Moreover, while the costs of education and housing have grown, Chinese adults are usually the only person to take care of their parents, putting extra financial and social pressure on young families. And as a new generation of working independent women stand up, the divorce rate is rising as well.

China is now taking action to halt the plummeting birth rate. In 2018, laws were proposed to give tax breaks to young families and to give subsidies for housing and education. Some regions such as Jiangxi Province are even tightening abortion laws and making it more difficult to have a divorce. This poses a danger for China to fall from one extreme (not allowing families to have more than one or two children) to another extreme.

More creative approaches

While some countries take traditional measures to increase birth rates, others take a more creative approach. In Georgia for instance, all single men and women, including those who are divorced or lost a spouse, are entered into a nationwide dating website.  

A specifically creative approach was taken by Denmark. In 2014, it ran an ad campaign urging Danes to ‘Do It for Denmark’. People could book a holiday using an “ovulation discount”. If they were able to prove that they conceived on vacation, they would win a baby supply for three years and a child-friendly holiday. In 2015, future grandparents could even buy vacations for their adult children in hopes that they would conceive a child during the vacation. 

Another example is Singapore, which has a stunningly low birth rate of only 1.14 children per woman. In 2012, Singapore authorities worked with Mentos to put together ‘National Night’ to encourage couples to let their ‘patriotism explode’. There was even a rap: ‘Singapore’s population, it needs some increasing. So, forget waving flags, August 9th we be freaking… I’m a patriotic husband, you’re my patriotic wife, let’s do our civic duty and manufacture life’. 

Russia saw a sharply declining population after the fall of the Soviet Union. In 2007, it decided to do something about this problem. It declared 12 September the National Day of Conception and awarded prizes such as refrigerators, money and cars to women who had a baby exactly nine months later on Russia’s national day, 12 June. The policy seems to have worked. Whereas the birth rate was 1.2 in 2000, in 2012 it was 1.7.

Romania: a harsher approach

A less jolly approach was taken by Romania in the 1960s. Instead of offering benefits for families, Romania chose to fine any men or women above 25 years of age who did not have children. This tax was regardless of marital status and could amount to up to 20 per cent of their income. Moreover, it was made virtually impossible to get a divorce, police were active in hospitals to ensure that no illegal abortions took place, and the import of birth control was halted. While these measures were effective, the effect was lost as soon as police were no longer installed in hospitals. 

In the 80s, even stricter measures were taken during the Nicolae Ceausescu regime. Women were subjected to monthly gynaecological exams to detect pregnancies and ensure that these came to term. ‘Demographic command units’ would interrogate childless individuals and couples about their sex lives, and access to abortion was made even more difficult. To have access to an abortion, a woman had to have had five children who were still under her care, or she had to be over 45 years of age.

Do fertility measures actually work?

While many countries are taking measures to increase its population’s birth rate, the success of such measures is often unclear. So far, it looks like financial support or paid leave has a positive, but limited impact on birth rates. Evidence suggests that the most effective measure that governments can take is to provide quality childcare services. 

Sweden has been quite successful in its measures to increase fertility. Here, women receive much support to help them combine their lives as a parent and as a working woman. For instance, daycare is subsidised and parents who take time offer their children are guaranteed to have a job when they return. 

In France, families receive tax breaks, substantial financial support, social assistance and housing subsidies. Parents can take up to three years of parental leave, receive a stay-at-home allowance of approximately 50% of the minimum wage during this time, and then return to their employed in the same position. The French and Swedish approach seems to be working, as these countries have the two highest birth rates in the EU (respectively 1.92 and 1.85 children per women).

However, fairly similar measures have been much less successful in Germany and Austria, where families enjoy increased family leave and receive general child allowances over three or four years after the arrival of a new baby. Instead of rising birth rates, these measures mainly affected the timing of childbearing. Moreover, while in Canada it was found that an increase in child allowance of 1000 Canadian Dollars a year led to an increase in birth rates of 17 per cent, this increase was only temporary and was later compensated with decreased birth rates.

Singapore, with one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, has developed the most comprehensive pro-fertility policies in Asia. Through cash payments, co-saving plans tax rebates for working mothers, insurance for children and housing subsidies, families with two children can now enjoy benefits of about US$ 118,000 by the time both children turn 13. Moreover, paid maternal and paternal leave has been considerably increased, and childcare is subsidised. But somehow, these policies have noted the desired effect. In 2000, at the start of Singapore’s fertility policy, the birth rate was 1.6 children per women. In 2018, it was just 1.14.

What makes fertility measures successful?

Determining the success of fertility measures is extremely difficult because of the many factors that influence the decision to have children. Just some examples are the perception of motherhood and gender roles. In many European countries, for instance, over the last few decades, women have been pressured to combine motherhood with a job. The status of women became more and more based on her employment and their success in ‘having it all’. Now, it has been proven to be very difficult to convince women of the value and status of motherhood.

Another factor is people’s perception of prosperity and poverty. While families in Singapore are much better off than just a few decades ago, many Singaporeans feel that they are not. This leads them to delay and even opt out of having children. 

Maybe, we should consider a very different approach in which we use fertility and family policies to give families options to make their own decisions. Perhaps we should judge the success of family policies on whether or not they succeed in making families happy. After all, having options to facilitate having a big family is great. Being forced to have a big family is not.

Are falling birth rates really a problem?

While countries in the world are fighting decreasing fertility rates, maybe we should wonder whether this is really a problem. With growing ecological, environmental pressure, ageing populations, and migration patterns is a growing population really what we need?

One often used argument to explain why decreasing fertility rates are a problem is that we need a big working population to compensate for the ageing of our population. After all, a smaller workforce means fewer contributions to retirement and social funds. However, increasing the number of children will not help take care of our ageing population. It will take 25 years or so for these children to grow up and enter the workforce. By this time, demographics will have changed, and the size of the older generation will be smaller. Moreover, having more children will immediately increase the number of dependents (children and people of age) that rely on the working population for support, thereby even increasing the burden on the current working population. 

Furthermore, traditional ideas about the need for big populations are based on former times, in which public health was less advanced and young men faced the risk of being drafted for bloody and costly wars. Nowadays, both children and adults are much less likely to become seriously ill or die before growing old, and wars take much less human lives. This all means that, while the number of new babies is decreasing, the adult population is not. 

Another argument that is often heard is that when the population gets smaller, so will our economic productivity and with that our welfare. However, because of artificial intelligence, huge working populations is no longer essential to being economically productive. Because of the significant role that technology now places in production, future economies will still be able to be productive, even with smaller working populations. Moreover, as the population declines, there will be more resources per person, which means that economic wellbeing will increase. 

Additionally, as migration patterns enhance, new influxes of migrants can help solve shortages in the labour force. As migrants often have higher fertility rates, this might even help increase birth rates. 

Finally, as our environmental footprint and the world’s population is still increasing, the human race’s survival might depend on putting a stop to population increase. It is a well-established fact that humans are causing climate change and depleting the earth’s resources. There is a real risk that if we do not change, nature will do it for us.

In fact, being child-free is the most effective way to decrease our environmental footprint. As people in developed countries have a particularly high ecological footprint, we should really consider if it is that bad if fertility rates are decreasing here. 

Want to read more?

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Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs
The dangers of activism in Honduras

The dangers of activism in Honduras

Honduras is known as one of the most dangerous and violent countries in the world because of high levels of crime and gang violence. It is the most dangerous place on earth to be an activist, especially since the coup in 2019. More than 120 environmental activists were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2017 and many others were threatened, attacked or imprisoned. These were ordinary people who stood up against big companies who planned to build dams and mines or other projects on their land.

Global Witness showed that these projects are at the heart of conflicts that are linked to Honduras’s rich and powerful elites, including politicians. Their investigation uncovered back-door deals, bribes, and lawbreaking used to impose projects and silence any opposition.

Moreover, for many years, the USA has been providing financial aid to Honduras via the USAID programme for poverty relief. In 2016, for instance, the programme contributed 100 million USD in aid. While some of this money went into projects expanding education and strengthening health services, another part of it goes to the Honduran military and police. These are heavily involved in efforts to silence human rights defenders and activists, implying the USA in these crimes.

So, who are Honduras’s brave faces of change and resilience. Activists and communities who stand threats, attacks and imprisonment to fight for their rights and their land.

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres; taking up her mother’s fight for indigenous rights in Honduras

In March 2016, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres took over her mother’s role as an advocate for the rights of indigenous groups and environmental justice. After years of threats, her mother Bertha Cáceres was murdered in her home. She was the co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), which fights for the environmental, social, health, economic and educational rights of Honduras’s largest indigenous group, the Lenca people.

Bertha Cáceres fought against a dam project from Desarollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA). This project was planned to be built along the Gualcarque River, which is considered sacred waters to the Lenca people. After the murder, the dam’s investors decided to withdraw from the project.

Over the last years, Bertha Cáceres’ family and community have been fighting for justice for her murder. Last November, after a long process plagued by delays and accusations of cover-ups, seven men were convicted. The court found that the men were hired by executives within DESA.

After her mother’s death, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres left her Latin American Studies to take up leadership of COPINH. In May 2017, she was elected general coordinator, the same position that her mother had held. Ever since, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres has been protesting big development projects that threaten the rights of indigenous people. But of course, this position comes with threats and attacks. A few weeks into her new role, she and members of COPINH were attacked. Their vehicle was held by armed attackers who tried to force them off the road and over a cliff.

Moreover, other members of COPINH have also faced threats, and some even have been murdered. Alan Garcia was protesting the DESA dam project in 2013, three years before the murder of Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, when he was shot in the chest by the military. In the same attack, Tomas Garcia, Alan’s father and one of the leaders of the protest, was shot multiple times at close range after which he died (8). Nelson García was shot in the face when going to his family home in north-west Honduras shortly after the death of Bertha Cáceres and Lesbia Yaneth Urquia’s body was found abandoned on a rubbish dump only a few months after.

For a full report on DESA and the situation of the Lenca community, read this report by Global Witness.

The Tolupan Community

Living in very remote areas, the Tolupan people of northern Honduras have limited access to basic services, and poverty levels are high. Ever since they took a stand against illegal logging and mining operations approximately ten years ago, they have experienced threats, criminalisation, and community members have been murdered.

While Honduran communities have a right to be a part of the decision in case of projects taking place on their land, the Tolupans were not consulted when illegal mining and logging permits were given out. When the community protested these developments, a criminal case was filed against their leaders for ‘obstructing the implementation of forestry management plans’. While this case was dismissed and the judge emphasised that local communities have a right to be consulted, illegal logging and mining have continued since then.

When in August 2013 the community held a peaceful sit-in to stop mining and logging trucks from passing through their land, they first received threats to leave by text message. A week later, the protesters were approached by gunmen who worked for the mining project, who opened fire on them. Armando Fúnez Medina and Ricardo Soto Fúnez, two community leaders, were killed. Another leader, María Enriquate Matute fled to her home but was found and killed by the gunmen.

A year later, the house of indigenous Tolupan leader Santos Córdoba was broken into. After Santos was killed, his corpse was burned down, and his children were threatened at gunpoint. Moreover, in June 2015, another Tolupan leader, Erasio Vieda Ponce, was killed by the same hitmen who had killed protesters in August 2013. Meanwhile, these protesters are still walking free.

While members of the community have been granted emergency protection by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), this does not mean they are safe. The implementation of protection measures is the responsibility of the Honduran state, which has not made many efforts to do so. For instance, after filing a police complaint for receiving debt threats, Luis de Reyes Marcía was murdered in April 2015. His wife, Consuelo Soto now lives in hiding, after hitmen shot at her house.

Click here for a full report on the situation of the Tolupan community.

Concepción Gutiérrez

In the hills of Nueva Esperanza near the Carribean coast, the last six years have been coloured by a conflict over the build of an iron oxide mine. The Buena Vista I mine threatens to drastically change the environment and way of life for locals that live from the land. When the build of the mine started in 2013, locals organised a protest movement to stop it. While the movement was peaceful, its leaders immediate started to receive death threats, and the community was visited by armed men that fired warning shots in the air.

Concepcíon Gutiérrez was one of the leaders that were threatened. In July 2013, 12 armed men entered her home. They threatened to kill her because she refused to sell her land to the company. Concepcíon had already received death threats before and was under the protection of two international human rights observers. The observers were taken hostage and were made to delete all photographs they took to make Concepción’s case. The female observer was sexually harassed, and the community was threatened not to report the violence to the police. Still, Concepción continues to defend her land and stand up to authorities.

For a full report on Concepción’s situation, read this case study by Global Witness.

The Garifuna and their struggle with tourism

On Honduras’s, northern Caribbean coast lives a small community of descendants of black slaves that were brought to the Caribbean in the 18th century. These 150 Garifuna families live in little wooden shacks on the beach at Barra Vieja, next door to a brand new luxurious Indura hotel. While this land used to be part of the Jeanette Kawas National Parks, the borders of the park were redrawn to allow for this construction.

From the start of this development project, the Minister for Tourism, Ricardo Martínez Castañeda has been pushing for the removal community, calling them ‘illegal squatters’. To justify the eviction of the Garifunas, the Honduran government has brought legal charges against them, saying that they were illegally occupying the land and that the Garifunas is not an indigenous population. Members of the community were found to be not guilty, and the IACHR ruled that the Honduran State violated the community’s right to consultation when agreeing on tourism projects on Garifuna.

However, this has not stopped the project from building hotels and expanding. In 2014, it was even announced that two more luxury hotels would be built, meaning that the whole community will have to move.

For a full report on the situation of the Garifunas, click here.

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Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs
EU policies and human rights abuses in Libya

EU policies and human rights abuses in Libya

Imagine being an Eritrean refugee. First, you make the difficult decision to leave your country because of the indefinite national service that basically makes Eritreans slaves of their country. You might flee to Sudan or Israel, where you face the risk of forced return. Or you escape to Ethiopia, along with 390 other Eritreans each day. Here you will stay in a refugee camp with approximately 900,000 other refugees, waiting for a decision on whether or not you can get asylum in another country. Fleeing to Somalia is not an option either, as Somalians are massively fleeing the country because of drought and famine. 

So, instead of fleeing to a neighbouring country, you decide to flee to Europe. After all, in Europe, you will have the chance to build a better life for yourself and your family. You cross the border to Ethiopia, where you enter a refugee camp and wait until you are approached by smugglers to take you to Libya. These smugglers offer you a zero down-payment to get you to Libya. In reality, this means that the smugglers will pressure your family to pay once you reach Libya.

The trip starts with what is often called the most challenging part of the trip to Europe. Packed up with 35 others in a pick-up truck, you are driven through Sudan to Libya. This trip takes six to thirteen days, during which the car drives 24 hours a day. Once you reach Libya, you stay in an Eritrean smuggler’s house. Here, you wait until you can finally make the trip to Italy. Smugglers now contact your family to collect the payment. Out of fear for your safety, your family will probably pay.

Then, you finally get on that boat that is supposed to get you to Italy. Just a little bit longer until you can apply for asylum. But, only a few hours in, you get picked up by the Libyan Coast Guard, who receives support from the European Union (EU) to prevent refugees from reaching Europe. The Coast Guard takes you to a detention centre in Libya, where you will be detained and tortured. Sounds horrible, right? Yet, it happens on a daily basis.

Europe’s Libya deal

In February 2017, after Europe had seen the biggest influx of refugees in years, the EU made a deal with Libya to stop refugees from coming to Europe. EU now provides financial support to the Libyan Coast Guard, in exchange, the Libyan Coast Guard now locates refugee boats that try to reach Italy and takes their passengers to detention centres in Libya. Here, it aims to ‘[assist] voluntary returns of stranded migrants to their countries of origin and [to] support the evacuation of those in need of international protection’.

While this sounds like a good deal, these Libyan detention centres are accused of subjecting refugees to serious human rights violations and indefinite detention. Once refugees find themselves in detention centres, there is no system of judicial review for refugee applications. The only way out is via the IOM’s ‘voluntary’ return programme, which pushes people in need of international protection to return to their home countries, the place they fled because of violence.  

The EU is aware of human rights violations and inhumane circumstance that take place in these centres. It made efforts to improve conditions and treatment, but the effects of these efforts were found to be negligible. The EU, however, continues to invest in the Libyan Coast Guard so that it can intercept and detain more refugees. By carrying on with the Libya deal, despite being aware of the human rights violations that stem from it, the EU has become complicit in the human rights abuses in Libyan detention centres. 

Besides making a deal with Libya to prevent refugees from reaching Europe, the EU also started blocking nongovernmental rescue operations by putting up legal and bureaucratic obstacles. The Libya deal in combination with the challenges for rescue operations has increased the chances of dying while crossing from Libya to Italy from 1 in 42 in 2017 to 1 in 18 in 2018.

The unstable situation in Libya

While the EU treats Libya as a safe country, the political situation in Libya is far from stable. After Gaddafi’s 42-year rule was toppled in 2011, the country ended up in a power vacuum. Ever since, no authority has been in full control. In 2016, a UN-backed government was installed, but there are still competing political and military factions, making Libya a highly unsafe country.

This became painfully clear last August, when rival militias tried to take control of Tripoli, and the city experienced the worst fighting in years. Tripoli’s Abu Salim detention centre was threatened by militias, causing its guards to flee and abandon refugees or release them on to the streets. It was reported that refugees had to drink toilet water to survive and went days without food. Meanwhile, ‘released’ refugees were stuck on front lines, shot at or abducted by suspected traffickers. In some cases, refugees have even been forced to become actors in the Libyan war. Armed militias pulled them out of the centres to make them move heavy weapons or bullets. Anyone who resisted was beaten.

Best intentions?

EU policymakers and leaders justify the deal with Libya by saying that it is necessary to assert control over Europe’s external borders and to break the business of smugglers. Supposedly, it is also meant to protect migrants by preventing dangerous boat migration. But in reality, it is clear that the deal is intended merely to avoid the legal responsibilities that arise when migrants and asylum seekers reach EU territories. And in doing so, the EU closed an agreement with unstable governments and is complicit in human rights violations.

It makes one wonder why, only 80 years after World War 2 in which millions of European faced similar threats as current refugees, European seem to have forgotten how other countries opened their doors for them. Back then, not only did European refugees find a safe haven in countries such as the USA, but these countries also cared enough to intervene in the conflict. 

While the EU is putting vast amounts of money to avoid its legal responsibilities in terms of refugees, what is it doing to fix the problems that caused refugees to flee? What is it doing to end the system in Eritrea where young people have no other perspective than to live in poverty and suppression? What is it doing to stop weapon supplies to conflict regions? 

Moreover, climate change is expected to threaten people’s livelihoods, especially in regions such as Africa and the Middle East. Therefore, the next decades will likely see many more refugees, fleeing because of famine, drought and poverty.

European values

The European Union was built on the values of respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy equality, and the role of law. And yet, by maintaining the Libya deal, the EU manages to knowingly be complicit in human rights violations and to avoid its legal responsibilities in hosting refugees. Maybe, the EU should have a new look at its values and reconsider its Libya deal. 

Interested in human rights articles? Check out these articles on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and on LGBTI rights in the Netherlands!

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs
Female genital mutilation; stats, obstacles and solutions in 2019

Female genital mutilation; stats, obstacles and solutions in 2019

Last week marked a milestone for the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM). A mother of a three-year-old girl became the first person to be convicted of FGM in the United Kingdom. The cutting of the little girl took place during the summer of 2017. 

While this practice had been outlawed for more than three decades, the UK had never had a conviction for it. The crime carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. Campaigners hope that the new conviction will encourage other victims to come forward and report the crime. 

Female genital mutilation, also called female genital cutting or female circumcision, is the ritual putting or removal of some all of the external female genitalia. There are a few different types of FGM, which all typically includes the partial or total removal of the clitoris. 

FGM is a way to control women’s sexuality and to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterwards. It is also meant to increase male sexual pleasure. It is internationally recognised as a human rights violation. FGM is practised in households at all educational levels and social classes. Moreover, it occurs among many religious groups, including Muslims, Christians and animists. 

The physical and emotional pain of FGM

“The pain inflicted by FGM does not stop with the initial procedure, but often continues as ongoing torture throughout a woman’s life.”

Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

After girls have been cut, they might experience health problems, discomfort and pain for the rest of their lives. Examples are difficulty urinating, frequent pain and infections, menstrual problems, kidney damage and failure, cysts and abscesses, pain during sex and infertility. The more immediate effects include severe pain, infections such as hepatitis B and C, and organ damage.

Moreover, when women who have undergone FGM give birth, they face higher health risks. They are at higher risk for adverse effects during childbirth, and genital mutilation in mothers also has adverse effects on their newborn babies. One to two babies per 100 deliveries dies as a result of FGM. Moreover, when giving birth, scar tissue might tear and afterwards the vagina is often “ sewn up” again, causing additional pain for women. 

Moreover, FGM also leaves its mark on the mental wellbeing of girls and women. Studies have found that girls can experience immediate psychological trauma caused by the pain, shock and the use of physical force by those performing FGM. In the long-term, girls can experience post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and memory loss. About 80% of women who have been cut suffer from mood or anxiety disorders. Because of the continuous pain caused by FGM, there is a higher risk of depressed mood, with reduced functioning, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and even suicidal tendencies. 

What is the scale?

FGM is practised in 42 countries in Africa, the Middle East and in Asia. Moreover, it is also prevalent in communities from those countries in for example the UK, USA, and Europe. 200 million women and girls worldwide live with the consequences of FGM. Research has shown that 44 million of these survivors are younger than 15 years old. Every year, about 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of FGM.

FGM in Africa, the Middle East and Asia

In the four countries where FGM is most common, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Guinea and Somalia, nearly every girl between the ages of 15 and 49 has been cut. But things seem to be slowly changing. In the 10 countries with the highest rates of FGM, its prevalence is declining. Whereas in 1985, 51 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 had undergone FGM, in 2000 this was 46 per cent, and in 2016 it was 37 per cent. 

Moreover, 63 per cent of men and 67 per cent of women in countries where FGM is common think that this practice should be history. However, because of population growth in the most affected countries, the actual number of girls could actually be increasing despite a decline in the practice. 

But while FGM practices are decreasing in practising countries, its prevalence outside of practising countries is growing because of migration.

FGM in Europe

Each year, 180,000 girls and women in FGM practising communities in Europe are at risk of FGM. In France, for example, between 24,000 and 43,000 girls face the possibility to be cut. It is estimated that about 500,000 women in Europe have experienced FGM.

The EU made a plan to tackle FGM in Europe with actions to increase understanding of the status of FGM in the EU, promote social change to prevent FGM, and support Member States in prosecuting FGM more effectively. Moreover, in 2015, the EU supported 17 projects that address FGM in 18 countries, spending 8 million Euros of EU funding.   

FGM in the USA

FGM is on the risk in the US. Since the 1990s, the number of girls and women who either had undergone FGM or were at risk of it has more than tripled. In 2012, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were more than 500,000 women and girls at risk of being a victim of this procedure. It seems that this increase is caused by the growing number of migrants from countries where FGM is most common. These girls and women mostly live in California, New York and Minnesota.

In 1996, a federal law was passed to make it illegal to perform FGM in the US. In 2013, this law was amended to also outlaw taking a girl out of the US to inflict FGM abroad. However, on 20 November, a federal judge in the USA declared a federal law banning female genital mutilation unconstitutional. He dismissed several charges doctors and others in the first US criminal case against FGM. According to the judge, the practice is a criminal assault, which means it can only be regulated at state level. 

While 27 states have laws prohibiting FGM, this could turn the 23 states that do not have such laws into ‘destination states’ for cutting. This is a realistic scenario, as the dismissed cases showed that victims were often taken across state lines to undergo this mutilation. Anti-FGM state laws often include clauses criminalising “vacation cutting”, which is the practice of taking girls out of the country to have FGM performed.

FGM Canada and Australia

In Canada, FGM is forbidden under the Criminal Code since 1997. This law prohibits FGM practices in the country, as well as taking girls out of the country to be cut. Any person guilty of the assault can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.  In Australia, FGM is a criminal offence as well.

While it is clear that FGM is practised in Canada and Australia, there is little to no data on the practice. It is unclear how prevalent FGM is, and prosecutions are rare.

Obstacles and solution to end FGM

Unfortunately, there is a global lack of data and research about FGM. In many countries and regions, it is unclear how often and how it is practised, how many girls are at risk, and how many people live with the consequences. Moreover, while research most often focuses on the physical harm of FGM, there is much less information available on the physiological and emotional harm. 

This lack of knowledge prevents the creation of effective policies to fight FGM. Moreover, whereas there are grassroots organisations who aim to stop FGM practices, these often do not have enough funding to have a big reach and impact. More research about FGM is needed to create an incentive to develop proper policies and to fund anti-FGM organisations. 

Another factor that stands in the way of ending this horrendous practice is the lack of knowledge in the professional community. Many medical and social workers are not aware of what the practice entails, how to recognise its signs, and what to do in case they come across women and girls at risk or who live with the consequences of FGM. This lack of knowledge prevents victims from getting the help they need, and offenders from being prosecuted. FGM should be a standard part of the education of healthcare and social workers, to identify victims. 

The most critical factor in the fight against FGM, however, is awareness within practising communities. Many women who have undergone FGM as girls and who are surrounded by women who have as well do not realise that these practices are harmful and not needed. For them, it is just normal for girls to be cut. Only when they learn about the physical and emotional harm and the abnormality of the practice, they realise the horrendous nature of it. 

There are many stories of women who were cut and participated in this practice until they realised how harmful and necessary FGM is and became anti-FGM activists. As FGM is a highly culturally-sensitive topic, the power to eradicate this practice lies in the hands of these women. These women are familiar with the culture and customs, which gives them the tools to change minds in their own communities. 

Are you interested in women’s rights? Be sure to check out this article about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and this article about contraceptives as a tool to fight poverty!

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, Feminism
Elections in El Salvador: shifting from left to right?

Elections in El Salvador: shifting from left to right?

On 3 February, Salvadorans will cast their votes in the first round of the presidential elections in El Salvador. In case no president is directly elected during that first round, the top 2 candidates will have a runoff on March 10.

Although El Salvador has a multi-party system, it has been ruled by two parties since the end of the civil war in 1992. The Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) governed from 1992 to 2009, after which the left-oriented Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which was a guerrilla movement until the end of the war, took over. But the two-party rule seems to be ending now. The FMLN lost support after it could not meet the high expectations that arose after finally getting the presidency in 2009.

Nayib Bukele

The new candidate to watch is Nayib Bukele, who is only 37 years old. According to some poles, he might flat out win the first round of elections.

Bukele entered politics and the FLMN in his late twenties and was first elected mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán in 2012. In 2015, he was elected mayor of San Salvador, the country’s capital. Bukele’s rise to the top of his party seemed inevitable, but at the end of 2017, he was expelled from FMLN. The reasons were his criticism towards the party on social media and an incident in which Bukele was verbally aggressive towards a female FLMN member by calling her ‘a witch’ and ‘damned traitor’.

In response, Bukele tried to create his own party, called Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas). When the El Salvadorian electoral court failed to approve the party in time for the presidential election, he aligned with the Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA), as a final option to be able to run for president during the 2019 elections.

This was an unexpected move from Bukele’s part. Whereas he was affiliated with left politics for most of his career, he is now partnered with a centre-right party. GANA’s norms and values seem to be completely different from Bukele’s values. For instance, while Bukele promises to end corruption, GANA has been plagued by corruption scandals and supported the candidacy of ex-president Antonio Saca who was sentenced for corruption in 2014.

Criticism

Of all presidential candidates, Bukele surely is the savviest on social media. He announced his candidacy via a video on his Facebook page, which has over 1.3 million followers. This is about 20 per cent of the El Salvadorian population. Soon, the video had more than a million views. He has managed to position himself as a brand and appeals to young people by marketing himself as someone who is cool.

But while Bukele has gained much popularity, his critics and opponents are worried. Bukele follows the anti-political trend, seen in countries such as Brazil and Mexico lately; he distances himself from the establishment. For example, while he is officially running with GANA, he never mentions their name during rallies. Instead, he asks his supporters to vote for el golondrino (the swallow), which is his nickname.

Just as then presidential candidate Jair Bolsanaro in Brasil, Bukele relies heavily on social media for his campaign. Instead of doing press conferences and interviews, he only uses social media through which he directly addresses his followers. By doing so, he manages to avoid all opportunities to be questioned, and for his ideas to be assessed on its feasibility.

Bukele does not see any problem with his sudden switch from a leftist to a rightist party. In his opinion, the divide between left and right is outdated. Opponents, however, see it as a sign that Bukele is an opportunist who is looking to string along any party in order to accomplish his personal ambitions. They criticise Bukele for not having a clear political programme. By refusing to publicly debate with other presidential candidates, he avoids any real scrutiny.

Salvadorian problems: poverty, climate change and gang violence

One of El Salvador’s main problems is poverty. According to the World Bank, nearly one in three Salvadorans live in poverty. As one of the most industrialised countries in Central America, Salvadorian cities have become a centre for economic, medical and commercial activity. While this sounds positive, it leaves people in rural areas with less and less access to resources. Another reason for poverty is the decreased revenue from coffee. El Salvadorian coffee farms have been hit by coffee rust, a fungus that kills coffee beans. As coffee is a large part of the Salvadorian economy, this has had a detrimental effect on the nation’s economy, and on agricultural profits in rural areas.

Poverty is likely to grow in El Salvador, as climate change is expected to have major effects on the country’s agriculture. Because of its location, El Salvador is highly susceptible to changes in weather, and as the Earth’s temperature rises, its crop yield is expected to drop by 30 per cent by 2050. Since agriculture accounts for 17.3 per cent of total employment, this will increase poverty rates. But El Salvador does not have time until 2050 to counter the effects of climate change, as drought has already affected over 80,000 people. Over the next few years, farming in El Salvador will become only more difficult.

Another major problem are high rates of crime, which further increases economic instability and stagnation. El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the world for youth under 19. Much of these high crime rates are caused by gang violence and drug trafficking. According to the magazine World Finance, about 70 per cent of businesses are subject to gang-related crime, contributing to the stagnation of the economy. Moreover, the threat of gang violence causes some Salvadorans to flee the country.

Crime and gang violence are expensive. It was estimated that in 2011, crime cost El Salvador’s government about two billion US dollars, which is 10.8 per cent of the country’s GDP. By 2014, this even increased to four billion US dollars, 16 per cent of the GDP. 

Discontent

Understandably, these are problems that leave Salvadorans in discontent and desperation. While political parties have been promising improvements and prosperity for years, the population has seen little to no improvements and distrust in politics has grown. It is no wonder that a fresh face such as Bukele’s, with his social media presence and radically different approach to politics, sparks people’s interest. Afterall, he is a totally different figure than every other politician over the last few decades.

Moreover, while the older generation of voters who generally support the FNML and ARENA is ageing, a new generation born after the civil war has become eligible to vote. This generation is not yet decided on what party to support, and Bukele is appealing to them. He seems to be one of them; on his Instagram, he coveys an image of both the serious politician and a spirited millennial.

Will Bukele be the next Salvadorian president?

While El Salvador is in desperate need of change, the question is whether Bukele would be able to deliver it, and what change would look like under his regime. So far, he has not given any concrete plans for turning the country around.

By avoiding debate and interviews, Bukele has managed to expose very little about his views for the country. Where does he stand on issues such as LGBTI-rights, foreign relations, women’s rights, indigenous communities? We do not know. In fact, on Nuevas Ideas’ website, there is no information at all about Bukele’s political plans and standpoint. Instead, visitors can leave a message about how they would like to see the country run. There is also no way to predict how his new shift from the left to the right will influence his politics.

Moreover, in contrast to the FMLN party, the GANA party is small and has not had a president before. Should Bukele be elected, he might have trouble filling his cabinet and the bureaucracy. To complicate matters more, the small size of his party might decrease his negotiating power within the government.

But Salvadorans are fed up with lying politicians and corruption scandals. This frustration might just lead them to vote for Bukele, regardless of his lack of political plans and unusual political tactics. So, will Bukele be the next president of El Salvador? We will have to wait and see what happens on 3 February.

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs