I Don’t Know What to Say About Flint

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Jake May/AP

 

By Cheri-Leigh Erasmus

Over the last few weeks the water crisis unfolding in Flint, Michigan, has weighed very heavily on my mind. Needless to say the thought of citizens, and especially children, being exposed to lead and possibly other toxins and diseases would make most people deeply concerned. But the main reason for my huge disappointment is found in my foreign background.

As a South African expatriate residing in the USA, I have endured countless Americans ask me questions about the availability of the most basic amenities and services on the African continent as soon as they hear where I come from. Regardless of the fact that my upbringing differs only very slightly from that of the average middle class citizen here, I do not take offense to the assumption that living in the USA affords me opportunities I would have never had as some believe. For many years the only exposure some citizens of first world countries had to Africa centered on images of famine, drought and civil unrest. All of us have seen the pictures of women and children walking miles to fill a bucket of water in a river or out of a communal well, and over the years many nonprofit organizations and development agencies have invested heavily in creating the infrastructure necessary to ensure safe drinking water for millions of people in developing countries.

I am not discounting the water crises in many other countries, but I do find the crisis in Flint abhorrent, because this could and should have been prevented in one of the most developed countries on earth. It is hard to digest that elected officials created a situation that threatened the livelihood of their constituents, sat by and covered up what can be seen as gross negligence and misconduct. All of this happened in our backyard while large sums of money continue to go into this very cause outside the USA. How does a city in this developed country open their taps to water more toxic and dangerous than the water in those images of Africa?

At what stage does charity begin at home? I am not ungrateful for humanitarian aid, but at the same time it is hard to swallow the lead-filled pill which is Flint while so many Americans still see developing countries as needy and lacking in the most basic of services. Flint is the perfect example of how much need there is and how easily a blind eye is turned to disenfranchised citizens right here on US soil. As an outsider now on the inside, watching this unfold has left me speechless, utterly disappointed and even enraged. I just don’t know what to say about Flint, and quite frankly, I’m not sure how I’m going to respond the next time I get asked about the availability of the most basic necessities in my home country.

cle headshot 2 Cheri-Leigh Erasmus is a nonprofit professional in the leadership development sector. An avid traveler and lifelong learner, she cares deeply about access to education and human rights.

The Cutting Season: The Horrifying Truth about Female Genital Mutilation

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By Kelly Loughery

“With the first slash of the razor blade, a bolt of agony shot through me like nothing I had ever experienced…But as the blade cut into me again I screamed, wide-eyed with terror and pain…I was a terrified child with all the adults in the world that I trusted causing me unspeakable pain…but the cutting and slicing just went on and on…I felt as if I was dying, and even death would have been preferable to where I was now” – Halima Bashir[1] 

For most children, the start of summer holidays is one of the most eagerly anticipated times of the year –  that final school bell, sunshine beckoning lazy play days, and homework-less evenings. Yet for some young girls (estimated to be as many as 2,000 in the UK and Wales alone[2]) – the start of summer holidays also represents the beginning of the “Cutting Season”. This appellation refers to the time of year when many young school girls are taken from Western countries to countries where female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced. Because, FGM is generally performed on girls under the age of 12, the school holiday period offers sufficient time for the physical wounds to heal before the start of the subsequent school year.

For the majority of girls, the procedure is performed against their will, absent anesthetic. Rudimentary and unsanitary instruments such as razor blades and glass shards are often used to make the incisions. Infection, shock, hemorrhaging, post-traumatic stress disorder and lasting physical and psychological effects are all widely documented consequences of FGM. For these reasons the practice has been labeled a human rights violation by virtually every major international organization and banned in most developed countries. Yet the practice continues with as many as 60,000 girls in the UK and approximately 3 million girls in Africa still at risk.[3]

But what exactly is FGM?

FGM is commonly practiced in 29 countries with the percentage of women having undergone the procedures in Egypt, Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti and Sudan registering greater than 80%. Although illegal, there is also evidence FGM is taking place in Western countries in so-called “cutting parties” where multiple girls are mutilated at the same time by a practitioner frequently flown in from a country where it is widely practiced to limit costs. Generally the girl is physically restrained during the procedure, is given no pain relief and spends weeks in isolation for recovery (for infibulation this also involves physically binding the girl’s legs together from the hips to the ankles).

The term “female genital mutilation” refers to “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”[4] The World Health Organization (WHO) developed four broad categories of FGM:

  1. Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
  2. Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
  3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris. Recovery from infibulation generally involves binding the legs together from the hips to the ankles for several weeks after the procedure.
  4. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.[5]

FGM has been used interchangeable with “female circumcision”, yet bears no relation to the widely performed male circumcision which has demonstrable medical benefits and involves far less genital trauma.[6] FGM, in contrast, has no health benefits and is linked to a host of both short and long term physical and psychological issues.

What are the Health Consequences?

The immediate health consequences most commonly associated with FGM are shock and hemorrhaging. Although the actual death rates directly related to FGM are unknown, in countries where antibiotics are not widely available estimates are that as many as one third of girls undergoing FGM will die.[7] Additionally, given that the instruments used for the procedure are often shared between girls the risk of transmitting HIV[8] between girls is heightened, along with the propensity for the spread of other types of infections between girls which can also prove fatal.

The longer-term health consequences are well-documented and extensive: chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, urogenital complications, infections, psychological disorders. The evidence of obstetric complications is particularly alarming and difficult to dispute – including significantly higher incidences of caesarean sections and post partum hemorrhage. The risk of such complications is directly correlated with the severity of the FGM performed.[9] Research further shows that the risk of newborn death increases in tandem with the severity of the FGM performed on the mother: 15% higher risk of newborn death for those whose mothers had Type I; 32% higher for those with Type II; and 55% higher for those with Type III.

What can we do?

FGM has been recognized as a violation of human rights law since the 1980s and is banned in virtually all developed countries, yet there has been little to no decline over time in a number of countries including Chad, Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan or Yemen.[10] Other countries, such as Benin, Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia and Nigeria show a moderate decline with countries like Kenya and Tanzania showing a dramatic decline over time. The reality is that if the current trend continues more than 30 million girls may be subject to FGM before their 15th birthday.[11]

As a violation of human rights law, the governments in countries where FGM is practiced have a responsibility to ensure basic human rights are sustained within their jurisdictions. These countries need to establish legislation banning the practice, continue to spread awareness for the health consequences associated with the procedure and create outreach programs to protect vulnerable girls. While the misinformed frequently label the practice a ‘religious’ issue, in fact it predates all formal religions (including Islam and Christianity) and is deeply rooted in certain cultural and societal frameworks. There are many misconceptions within these communities associated with the practice including the belief that women who have not undergone FGM are in some way ‘unclean’, subject to obstetric complications or not suitable for marriage. At the grassroots level, community leaders need to dispel misconceptions about the procedure and work to reverse traditional beliefs about female sexuality, chastity and suitability for marriage.

To compel action, the international community needs to confront the issue head on and speak unabashedly about the brutality of the procedure itself, the physical and psychological consequences and the human rights violations associated with the practice. All countries need to be vigilant in enforcing existing laws prohibiting the practice within their own jurisdictions.  Young women need to be educated about their rights and the risks associated with the practice, as well as aware of safe havens and reporting mechanisms available to them. FGM should be covered within child protection laws to enable authorities to remove a vulnerable child from the home where necessary. Likewise, the criminal repercussions for parents who facilitate FGM on their children should be swift and severe. Victims should also have civil remedies at their disposal – such as the right to pursue damages against practitioners – which could also act as deterrence.

Although this issue is mired with cultural and societal beliefs, gender inequality and medical misconceptions, at the most basic level the practice imposes grave physical and psychological harm on a child. Global leaders need to tackle this issue directly, speaking out unabashedly against the horror of the practice – even when discussing it is embarrassing and uncomfortable. Until the world’s most powerful take dramatic steps to protect its most vulnerable millions of girls will suffer, many will die and all will be denied basic human rights.

***

There are a number of organizations working to end FGM worldwide including the Orchid Project (http://orchidproject.org/), the End FGM European Network (www.endfgm.eu) and Equality Now (www.equalitynow.org). Please consider donating and take action within your own communities to bring awareness for this issue.

[1] Tears of the Desert (New York: One World Books, 2009), 56-57.

[2] According to the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development, “A Statistical Study to Estimate the Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in England and Wales’” October 7, 2007.

[3] World Health Organization, available at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/

[4] World Health Organization, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An interagency statement, WHO, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNIFEM, OHCHR, UNHCR, UNECA, UNESCO, UNDP, UNAIDS, WHO, Geneva, 2008.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Specific benefits cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics include prevention of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and transmission of some sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Policy statement available at: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/3/585.full.

[7] Path.org – http://www.path.org/files/FGM-The-Facts.htm citing Women’s Policy, Inc. (July 12, 1996). “Female Genital Mutilation”. Women’s Health Equity Act of 1996: Legislative Summary and Overview. Women’s Policy, Inc. pp. 48.

[8] Mutenbei IB, Mwesiga MK. “The impact of obsolete traditions on HIV/AIDS rapid transmission in Africa: The case of compulsory circumcision on young girls in Tanzania”. (Abst 23473). Int Conf on AIDS 1998;12:436. As cited by Brady, Margaret “Female Genital Mutilation: Complications and Risks of HIV Transmission” AIDS PATIENT CARE AND STDs, Volume 13, Number 12: Pages 709-716. December 1999.

[9] Ibid.

[10] World Health Organization, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An Interagency statement, WHO, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNIFEM, OHCHR, UNHCR, UNECA, UNESCO, UNDP, UNAIDS, WHO, Geneva, 2008.

[11] Ibid.

kelly  Kelly Loughery is an attorney for a Fortune 500 company and resides in Edgewater, Maryland with her twin boys and Italian greyhound.

The Tragedy of South Sudan & Why We Should Care

south sudan

The most violent element in society is ignorance.” Emma Goldman

By Kelly Loughery

Images of mutilated bodies, slaughtered livestock, desecrated villages and grieving mothers[1] have haunted me since I first read about the conflict in South Sudan. While I’ve never been to South Sudan, nor am I an expert on the conflict that has plagued that region for over fifty years, in my heart I know these images should not be rationalized, trivialized or ignored. Yet they are – everyday – by you and me both as we drift through our days, oblivious to the atrocities taking place 7,000 miles away in that war-torn nation.

South Sudan became a country in its own right in 2011 by referendum, becoming the first new African country since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Yet the euphoria from the secession quickly dissipated as the country fell into civil war when President Salva Kiir Mayardit (a member of the Dinka tribe) accused his former deputy (a Nuer tribesman) of an attempted coup. Violence between the warring tribes is escalating, leaving thousands dead and nearly 1.5 million displaced. Civilian attacks, sexual violence and the recruitment of child soldiers are well-documented and apparently increasing. Yet the conflict has failed to garner mainstream media attention; overshadowed by civil war in Syria, the rise (and sheer brutality) of ISIS and the Ebola outbreak.  So the war continues, away from the spotlight, as the images of violence and death only replicate and intensify.

Consider that a child born in South Sudan, assuming he survives childbirth (which with an infant mortality rate of 105[2] is far from certain), has a life expectancy of 55.[3] Likewise, only 27% of the population aged 15 years and above is literate, with the rate of male literacy nearly tripling the rate of female literacy.[4] Compare that with the United States where the infant mortality rate is 6[5], life expectancy is 79[6], adult literacy is approximately 99%[7] and over 41%[8] of 18 to 24 year olds attend university.  Success in South Sudan is survival; hope and ambition are therefore difficult – if not impossible – sentiments to cultivate.

Many Americans believe our collective ability to rationalize, trivialize and outright ignore conflict in Africa somehow boils down to race. Yet race is merely one of many ways we seek to distinguish ourselves from them to avoid facing the harsh reality of our shared humanity.  We discriminate, we erect boundaries, adopt an “us” vs. “them” mentality to justify the immense disparity in opportunity that exists merely because of the geography of where we are born. The South Sudanese ARE different from us: not less human, simply less privileged, significantly less privileged. And we can’t justify the luxury in our lives without somehow making them less deserving than us.

Many also will argue that Africa has done little to save itself or protect its own people. Perhaps this is true, yet also represents another veiled attempt to erect illusory boundaries between us and them. Like our parents before us, we perpetuate a cycle of ignorance, indifference and occasional justification. We sit with our lattes and read about horrific, unthinkable violence in Africa every Sunday. Yet we quickly and quietly dismiss the latest atrocity as a “third world problem”, resign to our helplessness, and continue our day.

South Sudan’s problems are not “African”; civil strife is not a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to Africa or this region. Likewise, we know the human toll civil war exacts on its people, the death, destruction and grief war leaves in its wake.

Until we change our perception of Africa, embrace the humanity of the South Sudanese and make an uncompromising promise to do something for these long suffering people we are part of the problem. While we may not be able to directly bring peace to South Sudan, nor ease a grieving mother’s pain, or create economic prosperity for the region, we can change our attitudes. We can choose to care, choose to pray and choose to do something good – however small – for a people….a continent…. that desperately needs our attention.

kellyKelly Loughery is an attorney for a Fortune 500 company and resides in Edgewater, Maryland with her twin boys and Italian greyhound.

There are a host of charitable organizations operating in South Sudan including Save the Children www.savethechildren.com and the International Rescue Committee www.rescue.org – consider donating today.

[1] Fabio Bucciarelli’s incredibly powerful photographs of South Sudan are available on his website: http://www.fabiobucciarelli.com/.
[2] Source, World Bank – infant mortality rate is the number of infants dying before reaching one year of age, per 1,000 live births in a given year. See http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/southsudan/overview
[3] Ibid.
[4] World Bank, http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/southsudan/overview
[5] Source, World Bank 2013. Data available at: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/southsudan/overview
[6] Source, World Bank 2012. Data available at: http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states.
[7] Source, CIA World Fact Book available at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/us.html.
[8] National Center for Education Statistics, 2012