Archive for the ‘women’s issues’ Category

Requiescat in pace, Madeleine Parent, activist and Canadian legend

March 14, 2012

It seems tragically appropriate that Madeleine Parent, one of Canada’s greatest union organizers, died on March 12, during International Women’s Month, at the age of 93. She was a great supporter of women’s rights and most especially those of workers. Her efforts improved the lives of thousands of textile workers in Québec.

My first encounter with Madeleine Parent was as a twentysomething reporter in Sudbury, Ontario, another union town with two major nickel companies, where she had been invited as a speaker. The fire and passion she exuded at the age of 75 were mesmerizing. I learned of the great battles in Valleyfield, Québec and her clashes with 1940s and 1950s Premier Maurice Duplessis, a corrupt conservative intent on keeping the province well-entrenched in the 19th century and who accused her of being a Communist. Duplessis had Parent arrested five times, accusing her of seditious conspiracy after a strike in 1946, under the aegis of the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA). The strike had pitted the union against company, church and state. Madeleine Parent was convicted the following year, and received a two-year prison sentence she would not serve. The courts granted her an appeal in 1954. During the 1995 proceeding, the jury acquitted her in 30 minutes.

As a result of the false charges of communism against her, however, the international headquarters of the UTWA fired her in 1952. The activist then established the Canadian Textile and Chemical Union (1952) and the Confederation of Canadian Unions (1969) along with her husband, Kent Rowley. Following her retirement in 1983, she continued to speak out for the rights of immigrant and native women.

It speaks to the chasm between the two solitudes of Canada (English and French) that the news of Madeleine Parent’s death was reported immediately in Québec papers’ headlines, and in radio and television news, while hardly a peep was discernible in national English-language media. This is despite the fact that Parent’s actions and legacy go well beyond Québec borders.

Unlike Mother Jones, another great union leader, Madeleine Parent espoused the role, importance and demands of working women throughout her life. She was a titan amongst activists. She will be sorely missed, and well-remembered.

Canadian women covering war — twice the battle, half the sky

March 23, 2011

Since CBS News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Lara Logan revealed her February 11 assault in Egypt in Tahrir Square, both discussion and backlash have emerged about what women face as reporters in war zones. Canadians are no exception. During a Ryerson Conference entitled Women in the Field: Changing the Face of Journalism, foreign correspondents from leading national media revealed their own stories, impressions and feelings. “Reporting in Risky Situations” was one of three panels on the situation of women in Canadian media.

Gillian Findlay, now host of CBC’s the fifth estate, has covered stories in conflict areas such as Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Iraq and the Near East. In 1998, she was in Bagdad. Iraq was the target of bombings pursuant to sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Unrest swept the capital and Findlay went to work. The security rule was for the crew to stay together: not an easy task in the middle of a mob. As the correspondent stopped to talk to the translator, the cameraman signaled that he would go ahead. “Before I knew it, I was alone… blonde and female in a sea of young Iraqi males”, recalls Findlay. She soon started feeling hands groping her, becoming more and more aggressive. Completely surrounded, the reporter saw no way out. “For the first time, I was truly afraid”, she says. Eventually, the Iraqi fixer for the crew came to the rescue with a big iron bar and dragged her out of harm’s way.

Shaken but unhurt, Findlay kept the incident to herself until the Logan story brought the memories back. “I decided very quickly I didn’t want people to know and certainly didn’t want my bosses to know.” Still young, with two young children at home, she didn’t want to give anyone reason to question whether she was up to the job, she admits today. With the Lara Logan story came the revelation that she wasn’t alone.

Canadian women who work as foreign correspondents not only bear the burden of gender difference, but face the same hostility against foreigners as their male counterparts. Globe and Mail reporter Sonia Verma had her own mob encounter while seeking out pro-Mubarak demonstrators in the wake of the Logan assault. The crowd starting moving toward them. As Verma videotaped the demonstration with her iPhone, men started to hit her with sticks and punch her. Her colleague Patrick Martin headed toward her immediately and security guards from a nearby building came out, shooting in the air. The janitor let the two reporters in, putting his wife and children at risk. “The crowd was outside, chanting for our deaths”, Verma recounts. The crew thought of escaping but was advised to stay in and wait until the crowd dispersed. “These people were right in my face and I could see how much they hated me”, recollects the journalist. Back at the hotel, unable to sleep, she took a bath and, as she stepped out, saw the many large bruises covering her back. Adrenaline had kept her from feeling the blows.

Meanwhile, popular and even media reaction to women assaulted in war zones has ranged from sympathetic to antediluvian. Here in Canada, one of the worst came from Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington, who opined that mothers had no business leaving their children behind to go get themselves raped and beaten abroad. He made no mention of fathers taking risks. When Verma first heard of the column, “I thought it couldn’t be true”, she says. “I read it and my face was getting red. It was hitting all my buttons.” In the end, her husband wrote a letter in response which garnered widespread attention.

Nevertheless, Sonia Verma’s life as mother and war correspondent seems to epitomize the challenges women face in such situations. Reporting on foreign affairs was her lifelong dream and she pursued it tenaciously. While pregnant with her first child, she revealed nothing of her condition and went to Gaza, covering gun fights there. Three months into the pregnancy, she fell asleep in the car as the bullets flew all around. Verma remembers heading for the riots in the old city, where people were using tear gas. Her fixer chased her out, she says, saying tear gas was bad for the baby. Once her child was born, the journalist stopped breastfeeding at three months in order not to jeopardize travel chances. When her children were three and 18 months old, she was taking assignments in Afghanistan. “These are my choices,” she points out. “I don’t need to justify my choices to anyone.” The guilt lingers for all mothers, however. Difficult as it is, “I love my family, I love my work and I’m not willing to give up either one of them”, she declares.

Despite the risk and sacrifice, being a woman abroad can open doors closed to male reporters. Michelle Shephard, national security reporter for the Toronto Star, asserts “I’ve never had a story where men wouldn’t speak to me”, not even Islamic fundamentalists with connections to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, she has always had access to women and their stories. One example she gave was from a Northern refugee camp in Kenya, where a young woman had been stoned to death. All her friends spoke to Shephard, but were uncomfortable around the male photographer. Moreover, being underestimated because of gender can work out to a reporter’s advantage. Once, in Waziristan, “generals were not taking me seriously,” she recalls. They let their guard down and gave her more information.

Overall, the women on the panel were very clear: women prove themselves as reporters every day under the same conditions as their male colleagues. Not to send them out to war means losing half the story.

Pre-G20 People’s Summit in Toronto: the real deal on maternal health

June 20, 2010

Cross-posted at Canada meets World

What does it take to really help mothers stay healthy? An Amnesty International presentation on maternal mortality in Peru in the context of Millennial Development Goals, part of the People’s Summit held in Toronto June 18-20 to oppose the upcoming G20 forum for the world’s richest economies, provided some answers.

In Peru, the to-do list is likely longer than Canadian International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda’s. There’s a need for social change to empower women’s decision-making, roads for people to get to health centres, bilingual people fluent in Quechua and English and… perhaps to start, a budget for the Maternal Mortality National Plan. That’s right: with one of the highest maternal death rates in the Americas at 185 per 100,000, Peru has allocated no money at all to improve the situation. Meanwhile, U.N. estimates of maternal mortality are closer to 240 deaths per 100,000. Why the discrepancy? Ruth Mier y Terán Moscoso, responsible for campaigns and training in the Peruvian section of Amnesty International, points out the government has a vested interest in keeping maternal mortality rate reports as low as possible. Bigger issues, of course, need bigger solutions, which cost more money.

Presumably, this is the kind of problem the Harper government in Canada intended to solve, and should solve, with its maternal health initiative for developing countries, $1 billion over five years, which initially excluded any sort of birth control funding and still excludes abortion services. There’s just one thing: women need to control more of their lives, and their governments, for any real progress to happen.

Each year, some 500,000 women worldwide die during pregnancy or while giving birth and nine million children die before they reach the age of 5, according to Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) statistics. About 2.5 million teenagers have unsafe abortions each year and tend to be more seriously affected by complications. That’s just the start of issues recorded during the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, as noted by Amnesty International Women’s Human Rights Campaigner Lindsay Mossman. At the heart of maternal health is the need for the mother to have the capacity to make independent decisions about her reproductive choices, from age of marriage to contraception use. Once this is secured, mothers need access to care.

Marrying young puts mothers at risk. Women from 15 to 19 are twice as likely to suffer complications from pregnancy. Women under 15? Five times as likely. Choice is crucial. In Peru’s rural communities, the hardest-hit by poverty and lack of health care, choice is something women don’t have, explains Mier y Terán Moscoso. The power of women is an issue, as only men (with the exception of widows) have the right to vote in local assemblies. Women have no choice about having children, she says. It depends on the husband.

At the systemic level, abortion is currently illegal in Peru except to protect the health of the pregnant woman. Whoever seeks an abortion without being at risk faces two years in prison and the doctors performing it, four years. Ambiguity over what constitutes a health risk makes doctors hesitant to perform any abortions at all, says Mier y Terán Moscoso.

Meanwhile, rural areas are the hardest hit by a lack of access to health care, with subsequently higher maternal death rates. Eight out of ten communities in Peru rated as extremely poor are in rural areas. Many have indigenous populations and 40 per cent of indigenous people have no identity papers, which must be obtained in Spanish. Therefore, they have no access to universal health care. Physical access is also a problem: 51 per cent of all communities have no health centre at all. Half of those who do have only a first-aid post. And while the government has paved roads for exploration of mining and oil rights, many rural communities with human beings as their only resource have no roads at all.

Meanwhile, when doctors do appear, they may face extremely difficult conditions, working very long hours. They do not speak indigenous languages, so that in the absence of interpreter services, they won’t be able to communicate with patients. Women in rural indigenous communities are less likely to speak Spanish than men. For this reason, they may also face difficulties in taking medicine as prescribed. As a result of all these factors, only 36 per cent of women in rural areas go to a health care centre or see a health care professional.

Therefore, the picture of health goes beyond the wish or intention to provide services. Empowering women helps take away much of the risk of pregnancy and birth. Helping communities gain access to health care can involve more than training or hiring doctors, and may involve substantial investments in infrastructure, as well as cultural training to better harmonize accredited practice with traditional care and customs. And, of course, once the children are born, they matter, at the very least, every bit as much as when they were in the womb. Healthy mothers are the main part of the development solution.

Toward these ends, Amnesty International has produced a report entitled Fatal Flaws – barriers to maternal health in Peru. The Canadian Chapter also has a wealth of information about the issue worldwide on its “End Maternal Mortality” blog.