Category Archives: WT

COVID Musings: Bicycling through COVID-19

by Pushpa Iyer

As we often say in India, the poor can never catch a break! Misfortunes are heaped on them by the governments, the privileged, and natural and human-made disasters.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of those disasters that continues to make the poor in India poorer. In praising the effective way the Modi government has slowed the pandemic’s growth, many have not focused on the great human tragedy of the poor and migrant workers of the country.  Human Rights Watch estimates that in India, 80% of its population works in the informal sector, with one-third of them being casual laborers. When the Prime Minister locked down the country for 21 days (the first period of lockdown) with less than four hours of notice, he did not mention what he had planned for migrant workers. He simply had not prepared for the humanitarian crisis that would follow because it was not the kind of crisis that would affect him politically or personally, I suppose. In a matter of minutes, the poor of India had lost their income entirely. There began a desperate scramble to get back to their villages from the cities, hoping that agricultural produce from the farms would feed them. However, there was no transportation available to them. After a lot of hue and cry, some state governments made some arrangements with long lines forming in the cities for a turn to get on these buses. Many had no choice but to walk back to their villages from the cities. Hundreds of kilometers to be covered over days in the scorching heat. Images of people walking on the highways carrying their possessions and babies, children in tow, and the sun beating down, is heartbreaking. On top of this misfortune, many of these migrant workers are often beaten by the police for breaking lockdown rules! 

In the comfort of my home here in the United States, I usually have an anxiety attack when I read or watch these news reports. The absolute cruelty we witness in this world is sometimes too much to bear. I shed tears when I watched this  BBC reporter give his shoes to one of the migrants walking back to his village without any footwear. One other heartbreaking story was that of 15-year old Jyoti Kumari, who drove her wounded father on her bicycle to get them from the city to their home in the village. It took her seven days and she covered 1200 km. Jyoti says it is her love for her father, desperation, and lack of options, which gave her the courage to undertake the arduous journey. The Cycling Federation of India offered to pay for her to participate in the next national trials in New Delhi. Jyoti, who had dropped out of school because of lack of money, was also promised government funding to attend school, a seat in grade IX, a new bicycle, and a uniform. She chose to continue her studies.

This story makes me want to hold this young girl tight, do something to make her and her family’s life more comfortable, help her study, and support her as she finds her career. I am therefore baffled that Ivanka Trump would tweet about Jyoti in 140 characters to say, “This beautiful feat of endurance & love has captured the imagination of the Indian people and the cycling federation.” The New York Times called Jyoti “a lionhearted girl” who “inspires a nation.” No, she does not inspire us! She shames us. I am ashamed of my government and of our middle-class who have turned their backs on these migrant workers. The migrants who survive by helping us, the middle class, and the wealthy, get through our daily lives (they provide us fruits and vegetables, clean our homes, care for our children and drive us in our cars) have been abandoned. I am also disappointed with Ivanka Trump (not for the first time) and the New York Times for romanticizing the poverty and desperation of the poor during this pandemic. 

Of course, they are not the only people who romanticize poverty. Take the number of Bollywood films that have minted millions in depicting the poor for entertainment. Poortainment, bringing entertainment and poverty together, is not a new phenomenon. It has been growing in the past decades around the world. It complements the “entrepreneurial spirit of the poor” that was showcased by poverty tourism operators. 

You would have thought the pandemic would make people more sensitive to suffering. You would hope people would not send a tone-deaf tweet to someone’s story of desperate survival. You would hope people would stay uncomfortable and horrified by Jyoti Kumari’s story. You would expect that citizens would question our governments and demand more accountability from them, especially our democratic governments. You would wish that none of us would hear another story of suffering. Unfortunately, no. There is something about privilege that prevents us from sharing that pain. Can we at least promise not to romanticize poverty?

Pray for Rain

by Olivia Wade

I grew up in South Texas not far from the Mexican border. Every morning the news would inform us of the aquifer levels as well as the water restriction for that day. If the town was at a restriction of 3 we were experiencing severe drought and instructed to use as little water as possible. Lawns turned brown and childhood memories of floating the river and playing in the streams ran dry.

The drought has been the main cause for many of the water issues in this region. Each year we are informed that even with abundant amounts of rain our rivers and aquifers will barely reach the level to meet the demands. If you drive across the region you will find handmade signs posted on dried up farms that display the words “pray for rain.” What used to be the flowing waters of the Rio Grande are now in some places dried up bits of rock and dirt.

It wasn’t until I moved away that I realized the severe difference in what this region experiences as compared to others. I assumed it was normal for people to worry about the amounts of water they were using when they brushed their teeth or when they ran a bath. It is a different perspective when a region is hoping for a hurricane to replenish their water supplies, while in other regions they fear hurricanes.

Desperate for water, Texas continues to turn to the 1944 U.S. and Mexico Water Treaty to receive water from the trans-boundary rivers/aquifers. Parameters of the agreement have not been re-negotiated or re-addressed since 1973, which means nearly forty years have passed without implementing new conditions of drought, climate change or population increase. With such extreme weather conditions in Southern Texas how can we expect it to be any different across the border?

With that question in mind, I had the opportunity to speak with a friend who grew up in and is currently living in Monterrey, Mexico. He says that commercials are broadcasted by the water and sewage systems of Monterrey informing kids to save water by chanting in Spanish “ciérrale,” which means “to turn off the water.” The word to save water has spread through various social media platforms under the water campaign known as “Andale Asi Asi.” Very similar to Texas, these kids are taught to turn the faucets off while brushing their teeth. Kids are even informed of the exact amounts of liters they will save by adopting certain water saving habits.

Recently, negotiations have taken place to discuss how Mexico could make up the amounts of water they have not been able to fulfill via the 1944 agreement. As extreme drought conditions continue, neither Texas nor Mexico are in a condition to owe the other large amounts of water. Rather than worry about what is owed, the two should form a new joint committee or trans-boundary water management initiative that aims to work together to collect and share scientific data. This may reveal the necessity and dire need of not just Texas, but also Mexico.

Until we come together and realize the common need for water we are at risk for a future filled with violent conflicts. In the meantime, Texans and Mexicans will continue to “pray for rain” and hope for their livelihoods.

Water in Mexico: More Than Just Scarce

by Mathias Zeumer

Mexico City is one of the biggest cities in the world and continues to grow. It has a substantial need for potable water to come into the city and for human bodily waste to exit the city. Those, however, are some of its biggest challenges and pose serious health risks. It was there that I was to get really sick. My friend took me to visit his family and friends in Mexico. His brother lived in the capital. His sister-in-law tried to warn me not to drink the tap water. I said I’d be fine, winked, and proceeded to spend the next five days in the bathroom.

Mexico City has a severe problem with treating its sewage water, which leaves tap water infested with a host of parasites, viruses and bacteria. The vast majority of the capital’s inhabitants are estimated to be suffering from ulcers or stomach and gastrointestinal infirmities, some of which are life threatening. Municipal shortcomings, mismanagement and ailing sewage and pipe systems are the culprits. Mexico City’s most recent efforts to prescribe mandatory water filters for restaurants are merely a Band-Aid for a gaping wound. The fact that most of the capital’s toxic industrial waste goes untreated and ends up in the ground water is no comfort.

A dilapidated pipe system allows clean, potable water to enter the population’s homes and the city’s restaurants. What is unclear is how much sewage water actually leaks into the potable waterways. But that is not the only problem. Like many other cities in Mexico, the capital’s massive fresh water consumption requires water to be pumped from rivers and dams many miles away, requiring copious amounts of energy for the massive pumping systems. In the process, indigenous communities are often cut off from access to their water sources, due to the expropriation of the water by the government to funnel it to urban centers and the industrial sector.

After two major debt crises in the early 1980s and 1990s neoliberalism was prescribed to Mexico as the remedy. With it came the neoliberal dogmas of privatization and the deregulation of international trade and investment. Privatization of Mexico’s water resources bore as a consequence that large transnational corporations now own much of the land in Mexico that contains water. With Mexico being one of the world’s largest consumers of bottled water, bottled drinking water became a multi-billion dollar business in Mexico. For obvious reasons, it might be difficult for Mexico to withstand corporate pressures to orchestrate a total overhaul of Mexico City’s water treatment facilities and water pipes to achieve clean and safe potable tap water; a true privilege only a few countries in the Global North seem to enjoy.

Mexico’s signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement has not contributed to an easing of the dire water situation. Through heightened exports of crops to the U.S. and Canada, Mexico’s agricultural sector had to adapt to the agro-industrial demands of large-scale monoculture practices. The use of toxic pesticides and herbicides pollute the ground water, and the amplified usage of water-intensive fertilizers is taking its toll on Mexico’s already scarce water resources (let alone top soil erosion). Big agribusinesses and heightened water needs of urban sprawling centers continuously result in the construction of more dams, which in turn foster water shortages in rural areas.

Our lavish lifestyles in the Global North and the never-ending greed of multinational corporations to expand, grow, exploit and earn more, at the cost of people, resources, the environment and water — in this rigged game that is capitalism — need some serious reconsideration. It will be hard to live without oil, but it will be impossible to live without water. Overexploitation, wastefulness, scarcity, droughts, water-intensive agribusiness practices, stark pollution of ground water by the corporate entities of the industrial sectors, unjust distribution, mismanagement, and failure to adequately treat water are not only problems that Mexico faces. These are problems that affect us all, everywhere. And we are well advised to care about it, now!

Water for the Rohingya: A Looming Humanitarian Crisis

by Sarah Straubinger

Water is of the utmost importance in Burma currently. Nationwide droughts and delayed monsoons have created a near water crisis for communities across Burma. As widespread drought continues to worsen in Burma, the access to clean and safe water becomes increasingly scant. Access to water is limited in average working class communities, while safe water appears to be in plentiful supply for the small political elite in Rangoon. The biggest threat to clean and safe water is among the Rohingya in Rakhine.

Water shortages in Burmese villages are becoming increasingly worse during a prolonged dry season. Few restrictions on water usage and consumption in earlier decades has exploited water resources, and exacerbated the current drought. No assistance has been offered by the government to alleviate the problem. Recently, private Burmese donors issued limited water aid to Burmese communities in the most affected areas. Villagers are forced to travel three miles on average to receive a maximum of two buckets of water per person, per day. However, this water aid does not apply to Rohingya communities.

The Rohingya are a religious and linguistic minority from western Burma. According to the United Nations, the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Strict definitions in the Burmese constitution do not include the Rohingya among indigenous groups qualifying for citizenship, formally marking this group as alien to Burma.

There are 800,000 Rohingya living in Burma today, the vast majority of which live in the state of Rahkine, in Western Burma. While the Rohingya make up a good portion of the state’s population, the majority living in the state are ethnic Buddhist Rakhine. Historically, the Rakhine majority has resented the presence of Rohingyas, who they view as Muslim people from another country, despite the fact that the Rohingya are widely believed to be from Rakhine. There is widespread public hostility toward the Rohingya in Burma.

While hostility toward the Rohingya has been commonplace for generations, tensions came to a boiling point in 2012 when the Rohingya were held accountable for the rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman, sparking a chain of deadly events. Violence escalated as Muslims and Buddhists attacked each other, ultimately leaving almost 650 Rohingya dead and displacing another 115,000.

While thousands of Rohingya fled Burma for Thailand and Bangladesh, more than 100,000 Rohingya were relocated in Burma in Internally Displaced Persons camps. While intended to be temporary, overcrowding and security issues continue to be problems and living conditions continue to worsen. According to one statistic, 60 percent of these IDP camps lack access to sufficient drinking water, while 70 percent lack access to adequate sanitation. Rohingya in IDP camps receive the majority of their food and water from foreign aid workers, because they are not provided access to these by the state.

As marginalization toward the Rohingya has continued, violence has continued to escalate. In March, violent attacks against aid workers working with Rohingya forced these agencies out of the country and the Burmese government formally suspended Doctors Without Borders from working in Rakhine. While a high-level UN mission was deployed to Burma to discuss strategies with the Burmese government, no solution has been provided as a food and water crisis continues to loom.

Without the immediate and full restoration of an enabling and secure environment to re-establish essential and life-saving assistance provided by aid agencies, the lives of thousands of Rohingya will be at even greater risk. While Burma has vowed to protect aid workers in country, the government has done essentially nothing to reestablish these humanitarian agencies in Rohingya communities, where aid is needed most.

The Burmese government and international aid agencies should be held accountable for the plight of Rohingya in IDP camps being denied a human right. As environmental circumstances stress the availability of water nation-wide in Burma, water becomes even scarcer for the Rohingya. This is not merely a public health crisis, but a humanitarian one.

Women in Cambodia: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards

by Alexandra Amling

Reporting on a 2013 UN Study on male perpetration of violence against women (VAW) in the Asia-Pacific region, the Cambodian Daily stated that 1 in 5 men in Cambodia admitted to having raped a woman. A deeper study of the UN Reports shows that 20.4% of 1474 male interviewees reported having perpetrated rape against a woman or girl. Rape within marriage has a shockingly higher rate of 64%. In Cambodia this has prompted many to speak out against the country’s “rape culture” or the “culture of violence” against women in the nation.

High rates of VAW are not true just for the Asia-Pacific region; one only has to Google to find how violence against women is on the rise all over the world. Yet, most do not frame VAW in the US as “rape culture.” Going back to Cambodia’s case, the framing of the country as having a “culture of violence” against women obscures our understanding of the complexity of Cambodia’s modern history and current political economy. Ranking it among those presumably violent cultures in the Asia-Pacific region, Cambodia is ascribed an attribute that overemphasizes normative explanations of masculinities that perpetuate VAW but fails to mention the past and current trend of impunity, and the rapid socio-economic changes which pose obstacles to women’s empowerment and emancipation outside the realm of gendered traditional norms and values. Stigmatization alone does not do the job but VAW and gender are the new buzzwords and they sell well, whether for better or worse remains to be seen.

Signatory to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and equipped with a National Action Plan to Prevent Violence against Women, Cambodia’s government is well aware of the seemingly ubiquitous problem. Two surveys (2005 and 2009) assessed VAW in Cambodia, but leave a lot to be desired because the questions focused mainly on attitudes. Anybody familiar with the field of conflict studies knows that attitudes alone do not cause violent behavior. Context also matters and that is what is missing from the picture. Cambodian society has undergone major transitions in its modern history; it went from one socio-political turmoil to another which culminated in the rise and destructive force of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 until the UNTAC mission of 1991-93 supported the establishment of the Cambodia we know today. NGOs that worked to build the capacity of civil society became an integral part of all efforts to promote gender equality. Yet, VAW is still an issue. Why?

Domestic violence as one particular form of VAW is considered a private issue, and despite the implementation of a Domestic Violence (DV) Law, VAW remains under-reported. To this day, there are zero rulings under the DV Law against perpetrators. Partly because hardly any women report it, partly because police officers are awarded if their community displays harmony and no problems, the outcome of which is that reported cases won’t even make it to the court.

“It-ThatMust-Not-Be-Named,a.k.a. VAW, is an apparent evil. Whereas in Harry Potter the vicious spirit was embodied in one particular person and easy to fight, the evil in Cambodia is far less tangible and far more complex. In a culture that apparently is holding its society hostage, violence against women and girls can thrive because VAW is direct, cultural and structural.

Direct because the prevalence rates leave no room for contestation. Cultural because unequal power dynamics are sanctioned by society and divorce is a sacrilege. Women are the weaker sex; they have to be soft-spoken, obedient and in lifelong servitude to their husbands who, at best, they can choose themselves. The Khmer Rouge dismantled societal structures, presumably advocating equality, as one Khmer Rouge survivor told me, but the mold was not broken and had a revival in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia as a means to cope with the past. Also, the concept of genders and how they relate to each other, both in its biological and social meaning, have no equivalent in the Khmer language.

Structural because to this day, only a few women dare to speak out, and those who do learn pretty quickly that the mills of justice grind slowly. Also, Cambodia’s young generation has little or no understanding of the Khmer Rouge. Being born post-Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s youth lacks adequate understanding and knowledge of the violent past of the Khmer Rouge. If it was not for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), impunity for committing such heinous crimes would continue. However, since it took decades to establish a war crime tribunal and because of its limited scope of focusing only on the leadership and not referencing Gender Based Violence (GBV) in its recent indictment in different cases, impunity against perpetration of violence in general, and VAW in particular, has proliferated over the years. Aspirations for a modern Western-style life – as apparent in the fact that Cambodia is the fastest growing market for smartphones – leave no room for commemorating the past and the current government is doing its best to support that trend.

Dismissing the past is delicate and by burying it, the main stakeholders bury the victims with it. Far from advocating victimization, I think this violent behavior against women and girls and the complexity of silence that veils it translated into a common practice which becomes particularly rampant taking into account the current socio-economic changes that do not alleviate pressures on men and women but rather reinforce them. Looking backward, moving forward, much is being done and the shift away from attitudes to focusing more on the context gives hope for Cambodia’s women.

Women’s Rights in Russia: Forward to the Past

by Kirill Prudnikhov

Russia is back in the Middle Ages. It loves its weirdoes, prisoners, martyrs, fools in God. Russians are ready to empathize with everyone who has been jailed by an “unjust government,” but just as ready to criticize everyone who has been freed by the same government. Its archaic state of mind is ready to punish anyone and everyone who does not serve his or her punishment stoically and obediently. The situation gets worse when these “weirdoes” are females. Russian society, which seemingly takes national pride in its dark ages, is eager to objectify and marginalize women.

The Pussy Riot case best demonstrates the implications of the revival of an archaic paradigm in Russia. As soon as Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of a band that represented hope for the feminist movement, walked free out of jail, they were publicly harassed and objectified by a sexist society. The same liberal public that once used the hashtag “#FreePussyRiot” to show their support started questioning why Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova had make-up on just after their release, and why they didn’t meet with their children immediately. The attention shifted from Pussy Riot’s original performance in the Moscow Cathedral, their subsequent imprisonment and the message that they tried to convey, to the question of whether or not they are “good” women. This archaic approach to women’s role in society reached its peak when Playboy magazine publicly asked Nadezhda Tolokonnikova to go naked for its cover shot. Maria Alyokhina did not get such an offer, as it was clear that she is “less attractive than Tolokonnikova,” as insinuated by the mainstream media. It was not only Russian media that chose Tolokonnikova as the face of Pussy Riot. Most foreign press also put only attractive pictures of Tolokonnikova, often sexualising her, on the front pages dedicated to seeking amnesty for the Pussy Riot.

The permanent archaic culture of Russia is not ready to accept and forgive them the way it is ready to forgive artist Pyotr Pavlensky. Pavelensky nailed his testicles to cobblestones in the Red Square in an act of public disobedience. Pavlensky’s performance aimed to de-symbolize the most patriarchal place in Russia, the Red Square – the pure symbol of male political/cultural/social dominance in Russian society. According to cultural anthropologist Aleksandr Uzhankov, Moscow was built as a “cathedral under the skies” with the Red Square as an Ambon and the Kremlin as an Altair. His performance was similar to Pussy Riot’s punk prayer at the Ambon of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour but for a similar public offense (or sin), Pavlensky walked free due to lack of evidence of a crime, while Pussy Riot was even imprisoned for the “crime” and remains guilty of being amateur, stupid, careless and not worth engaging with. Therefore, what is legitimate for men is not legitimate for women, or the role of the “fool in Christ” is reserved only for males.

The Russian public would rather see one of the girls naked than see Pussy Riot undress the sexism and hypocrisy of Russian society.

However, there is a glimmer of hope: both Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, as soon as they were released, advocated for female inmates in Russian correction facilities, a cause to which they want to dedicate their lives. In my opinion, the only way they can stay true to this mission is to continue doing what they had been doing before their imprisonment. The trial made them famous, but they should ignore sexual objectification and publicity by focusing on undressing the male-dominated mindset. The best way to do that is to hide their faces under balaklavas and stoically fight against the injustices. Their activism needs to be more than a “performance” from now on. Pussy Riot’s human rights activism can remain provocative, but their message should be more straightforward, and easy to understand. Otherwise, the feminist aspects of their performances will be lost in the depth of interpretation. If they want to advocate for female inmates, they must shift the message to appeal to the broader public, and not only to the sophisticated art critics. Hopefully their work will be another step forward in Russia’s path to Renaissance and Enlightenment with regards to women’s rights – especially rights that are silenced by an oppressive society, dominated by a masculine church and government.

Living in the Trap of the Past

by Pushpa Iyer

These were days of mayhem in Gujarat twelve years ago. From February 27 to March 1, 2002, this northwestern state in India, Gandhi’s home, became a graveyard of the minorities – the Muslims. Massacred, raped, and hounded out of their homes, their charred homes that is, Muslims overnight became third if not fourth class citizens. The perpetrator? The state. Ruled by a narcissistic and ideologically motivated chief minister, Narendra Modi (of the Bharatiya Janata Party – BJP), his vision of a dominant Hindu nationalist identity that denies equal space for minorities has made Gujarat a deeply divided society – politically, socially and economically.

Recently, I listened to the victims (Muslims) of the 2002 violence who were recounting their past (yet again!) for the benefit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt. Their emotions, twelve years on, were still (unsurprisingly) raw. “They forced me on the table and stripped me. I was left with only my blouse on. At that moment I heard my brother-in-law scream and saw his throat being slit,” Saira sobbed as she recounted the events of that fateful day when she lost her brother-in-law, sister-in-law and her son, a promising 24-year-old studying to be a lawyer.  “Modi is a criminal, DSC_0070he is responsible for our sorrow, for our son’s death. I will never forgive him till I die and he will remain answerable to the higher powers when he reaches the other world,” said her husband with tears in his eyes. Rupa Mody broke down repeatedly as she remembered those ill-fated moments when she lost consciousness when a brick hit her on the head and she lost hold on her son, who has been missing since that day.

It was a roomful of people living in their past. Saira and her husband are ghosts of their former selves. They eat only when their grumbling stomachs can no longer be ignored, they cannot enjoy their surviving daughters or grandchildren, and they live adjacent to the graveyard where their son is buried – in fact they look out through their window at their son’s grave many times a day. Rupa’s future involves her son walking back into her life and nothing else.

The struggle for justice – legal justice – has been the primary recourse of human rights activists in the state. For the victim, recounting the past becomes synonymous with the struggle for justice. For the activists, the past as told and remembered by the victims is the only way to explain their strategy of “Justice first, Reconciliation later.” The risk is in the symbiotic relationship that has reached a point where if the victims did not exist, the activists would not, thus making them indirectly victims too. And international attention that can be garnered only as long as the victim images are kept alive makes the entire world community victims of the past too. At the same time one must acknowledge that if it were not for these activists and for the international community, the voice of the victims would never have been heard. No wonder then that the past is a trap, a trap with frosted glass through which the future looks blurred.

This does not mean that the victim needs to stop being a victim or needs to stop remembering. Not the mothers whose sons have gone missing or were killed, not the women who were molested and raped, not the fathers who identified the charred bodies of their sons and not the survivors who are still haunted by horrific images. They do, however, need help to not remain trapped in the past. But, who will help them out of the trap if everyone around them is a victim too? If those around them remain on their own perch of victimhood they begin to facilitate the process for the real victims to remain trapped in their past.

It is necessary therefore, to separate the “real” victims from those who have acquired victim status. Becoming a victim through the victimhood of others is dangerous. It makes one develop a moral superiority; where injury to self is as painful as the injuries to the real victims and where the mantle of victimhood becomes comforting.

Those fighting to free victims from the trap of the past must stop being victims themselves. In remembrance of all the victims of the 2002 violence, here is wishing that memories of the past re-define the future of Gujarat without its people being trapped in those very memories.

Ushering in 2014!

by Pushpa Iyer

A few years ago in my New Year greetings to friends and colleagues, I went on a tirade against the word “happy” in Happy New Year. “What was there to be happy about?” I asked everyone. People (especially children) were dying in violent conflicts around the world; no one (especially powerful nations) was interested in working for peace and individuals (especially the rich and privileged) continued to breathe in their bubble, oblivious to the suffering of the rest of humanity as they screamed in drunken joyfulness “Happy New Year” in midnight celebrations. My email greeting that year was definitely angry, depressed and sad.

2013 was no different for most of the world – even as we usher in this new year, 2014, we have reports coming in of children being beheaded in war (attention Central African Republic), homeless people suffering in the bitter cold (attention Japan), unchecked rapes and unsympathetic responses to “victims” (attention India, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo and everywhere), child soldiers unwelcome into families (attention Colombia), LGBTQ communities (attention Uganda) spewed with hate…the list goes on. I wonder if you have lost a child to senseless violence in 2013, would you want someone to scream  “Happy New Year” to you on Jan 1, 2014? Leave the past behind and begin fresh? Without your child? Really?

Colourful 2014 in fiery sparklersI am not questioning whether we should be happy ringing in 2014 or that we dare hope that it is personally a better year for each one of us than 2013 but it is in the display of unbridled joyous celebrations at the time of ushering the New Year wherein lies my problem. To me, it seems almost insensitive and definitely unnecessary. Yes, some of us do have a lot to be grateful for or at least the fortitude to look forward to better times in the New Year. But, can we make the effort to celebrate in moderation (taking the time to define what moderation means for us) our gratitude for all the good that came our way in 2013? And then STOP? As I watch mobs with champagne bottles in hand, jump up and down screaming as they usher in the New Year, all I want is to do is to beg them to spare a thought for the people who were seeking protection from bullets, shells and drones at that very same minute. And I ask that when you are standing in freezing temperatures, bundled up in the best of winter coats, boots, scarves and hats to usher in the New Year, take a moment to remember all those for whom New Year’s Eve is nothing but just another very cold night out in the open with no accessories to protect them. Just cutting back a tiny bit on our excesses could keep someone warm all through 2014. And sometimes, just pausing a little in our display of extreme “happiness” (I suspect it is a display of happiness as defined by the culture of the privilege than real happiness) goes a long way in showing respect for those who cannot celebrate or leave behind the traumas of 2013.

I live amongst a community of entitled; I am surrounded by human beings who have no qualms or maybe no awareness of how much privilege they have and for whom spending life indulging in excesses is the norm. I know that my perception of the world’s sorrows through their lens of privilege gives me a skewed image of the universe, making me angry, sad and depressed all over again about this year’s celebrations. With that caveat, I would say to my immediate community and others who are as privileged as them “I wish you the best for 2014 but I wish more that you would be able to acknowledge your privilege and I wish even more that you do not see the need to flaunt your “happiness” even if it goes against your peer culture, when there is so much sadness and pain in the world.”

Best wishes for creating a more humane 2014.

Xaltianguis’ Women-Only Vigilante Police Force

by Joy Mulhollan

The town of Xaltianguis, in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, once a peaceful farming community one hour outside of Acapulco, became a battleground where drug traffickers, extortionists, and kidnappers were king. Following the drug trade routes to the United States, no one dared get in their way. Citizens were frightened, as violent murders, decapitations, and kidnappings of innocent people became more frequent. There was no sense of justice; the Mexican government was either not interested in saving the lives of its own people or worse, was supplying the drug circles with rifles and other weapons, as rumored.

Then in August, over 100 women in Xaltianguis decided to take matters of justice into their own hands, to fight against the war on their community themselves and stop the needless killings. They joined ranks with the community self-defense forces that began forming all around the state in January, the Union of Peoples and Organizations of Guerrero State. The women of Xaltianguis formed the first ever all-female citizen police. Silvia Hipolito, a member of the vigilante protection group and mother of two said, “Women are brave and we are capable of defending our town.” These women have created security where there was none and have stood up to protect their town while the government pleads ignorance.

One thing is certain: the women of Xaltianguis, with their t-shirt and hat uniforms, have done an excellent job of improving the safety of their town. It takes an immeasurable amount of courage to stand up against those who have killed your brother, father, uncle. So, where is the problem? The problem is that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the grandmothers whose children and grandchildren have been murdered and kidnapped to keep watch over a community, armed with nothing but good intentions and bullet-less rifles.

Where is the state in all of this? What role is the government really playing in these extortions and kidnappings? It is the state’s job to provide protection and security against these medieval, drug-smuggling war-mongers. These women are making progress, but it is not enough compared to the weapons and resources that the organized crime groups have. Rifles without bullets somehow lose all power and authority.

Meanwhile, instead of providing real assistance, the government claims that the citizen polices of Xaltianguis and other towns in Guerrero are illegal. Raúl Plascencia, head of Mexico’s Human Rights Commission, has even said that there is a “very thin line between these self-defense organizations and paramilitary groups.” For some reason it is hard to imagine a group of women who leave their posts to pick up their children from school and whose weapons serve a purely symbolic purpose transforming themselves into a highly structured, violent paramilitary organization. Instead of criticizing the women of Xaltianguis and other citizen police forces, the government should be more focused on helping them and fighting for justice with them, side by side.

Labels of Violence

by Pushpa Iyer

Well, India is in the news again for the wrong reasons! Tarun Tejpal, Editor-in-Chief of Tehelka (meaning “sensation”) magazine has been accused of the rape of one of his employees. Tejpal and Tehelka rose to become upholders of India’s moral conscience through investigative journalism in the early 2000s. Their exposé of various issues led to the downfall of powerful officials in the government and other sectors, gaining support from the NGO sector – the other sector that is the vanguard of India’s moral and liberal crusades.

The woman accusing Tejpal of “rape” rhetorically asks if she is ready to see herself as a rape victim, as law has classified the act committed on her as rape. Even if the law has that prerogative, she laments that victims are denied the right to decide how they want to be labeled. She is of course correct; the underprivileged, the discriminated, the minority and almost certainly the victim is never given that right.

Labeling has the intended and unintended effect of imposing vulnerability, effectively disempowering the “victim,” leaving them with no choice but to respond. No response leads to assumption of acceptance. If they do act (lawfully and without turning violent), they are described as a leader, a strong and courageous/brave person and often one of principled character as victimhood imposes moral superiority. An individual violated might need our support but there is a thin line between support and the imposition of our crisis-handling approach on them.

What if the “victim” does not want the label of strong – experiences weakness, is reduced to tears frequently, wants to just curl up and has no courage to face the world (at least for a while)? They cannot but be strong because they risk disappointing everyone who has made them into a symbol of courage and resistance. They have to go with the flow. Sure, many of them may turn into natural leaders – ones who lead by example, impact other people’s lives and in turn give courage to many. However, I would argue that it is still their actions that are courageous or strong or morally superior. By labeling them instead of qualifying their actions, we are imposing on them the label of “hero-victims.” And, not all victims are fortunate to become “hero-victims.” Most remain obscured in both their experiences and in their courageous responses.

What if a victim, like the journalist in India, said, “I am afraid for myself, scared of the world, drown sometimes in self-pity and feel completely alone in fighting for justice for myself.” How would all those people standing on the streets protesting for justice for her, in all the din they create and all the labels they use as placards, hear or see her?

It is time to stop the labeling and imposing expectations on “hero-victims.” Instead, let the “victim” lead and let us follow them in their fight for justice. In the meantime, without having a “hero-victim,” let’s continue to crusade against all forms of violence against women. That would be true justice for her, the human being.