Tag Archives: International Women's Health and Human Rights Course

Community Engagement Assignment

Locate an organization that is working on one or more of the issues highlighted in this class. Interview the people at this organization: What is the name of the group? What is its mission or goal? How does it carry out its work? What is your sense of the effectiveness of the group? Include a personal comment about your visit.
Write a short report of 4-5 thoughtful paragraphs about the organization.

Having lived in both Canada and Iraq, the organization that I have chosen is the Shaghaf team, working in partnership with Iraqi Al-Amal Association with funding received by the Norwegian Embassy of Amman. The two organizations are currently running a campaign of volunteers across Iraq to promote women’s rights and combat gender-based violence and domestic violence. I interviewed a woman named Shayan K., co-founder of Shaghaf team. We discussed an upcoming event they’re hosting, with a plan to raise awareness about domestic violence in Kirkuk and grow support for upcoming legislation that combats it.

As it stands right now, passing legislation combating domestic violence has been nearly impossible. The Iraqi parliament in 2019 and 2020 attempted to pass anti-domestic violence laws; however, the legislation was blocked due to the substantial presence of elected ultra-conservatives who oppose it. The members that blocked the legislation believe that perpetrators of domestic violence should not be punished by the state, including those who have committed gruesome acts of so-called “honour” killings. In fact, presently, the Iraqi penal code legalizes domestic violence through Article 41, granting men the power to punish their wives and children. Even more, (dis)honour killings are virtually legal under Article 128(I), which stipulates “honour crimes” to be mitigating circumstances for sentencing and punishment. Unfortunately, there are significant differences in East vs. West perceptions of human rights, with many Eastern religious conservatives attacking human rights advances as Western imperialism(HRW), arguing it is trampling local culture. Nonetheless, this argument and others put forward by opponents often water down to patriarchal beliefs that uphold an unfair system favouring men.

In my chat with Shayan, I learned she is working on a brochure for Shaghaf Team/Al-Amal. This brochure briefly outlines basic statistics concerning domestic violence and very modestly defines it. It provides a basic, cursory overview of the fundamentals of domestic violence; however, if you can read Arabic, you’ll notice that it is relatively sparse in details. There is a reason for this, for there is a real fear that local men may take opposition, leading to protest and potentially harming the chance of passing legislation to combat domestic violence. Shayan tells me that NGOs and rights activists walk a fine line in disseminating information while trying not to provoke backlash.

My sense of the effectiveness of the group is that there are tremendous roadblocks that make it extraordinarily challenging to change minds. Merely talking about gender-based violence issues like marital rape is extremely difficult due to the taboo nature of such topics compounded with many men feeling it is their religious right to perform such acts. These beliefs about domestic violence are normalized to such a scale that many local men and women struggle to comprehend even the basics of women’s rights. Sadly, men often feel it is their right to commit abuses, often with no comprehension that certain acts are abuse at all.

As I chatted with Shayan, she discussed how men often dictate a woman’s life. Many men often instruct their partners on what to wear, either directly or implicitly through coercive and manipulative language. Likewise, often a woman’s privacy is invaded, where even in younger relationships, men may randomly appear at their partner’s engagements to ensure their wife is where she said she would be. There is no understanding that these behaviours are psychologically abusive and harmful to women. Polygamy is also relatively common, and many men maintain multiple marriages, particularly in more conservative regions of the country. Women are frequently kept economically dependent on men through a lack of job opportunities, and socially enforced conservative gender roles that keep women in the home as caregivers. With that in mind, Shayan tells me that it is a struggle to obtain basic rights, as many men also do not want to lose their privilege to dictate the lives of their wives, but also, fear reprisal for abuses committed.

Shayan and I also discussed the major hurdle of having no shelters for women trying to escape domestic violence. The anti-domestic violence legislation of 2019 and 2020 would have compelled the government to build women’s shelters across the country. This is particularly important because families and police in Iraq often take a conciliatory approach, where they try to negotiate a rejoining of partners rather than helping women escape violence. Unfortunately, such an approach places women directly back into harm’s way of violent and abusive partners. Thus, until such legislation passes, women hoping to escape domestic violence lack the means to go anywhere safe. For Shayan, she noted this is the sad reality, that they may be advising women about domestic violence, but at the same time, cannot provide immediate relief for women currently facing these problems.

HRW. (2020, October 28). Iraq: Urgent need for domestic violence law. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved February 23, 2022, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/22/iraq-urgent-need-domestic-violence-law

Thought Question: Structural Violence, HIV/AIDS

Dr. Gene Richardson introduced the idea of structural violence in this unit. He also speaks about how reliance on medical technology can undermine the introduction of social interventions that may be relevant for preventing or treating HIV/AIDS.

Please describe the idea of structural violence.

Next, describe one or two social (i.e. non-pharmaceutical) interventions that you think could be effective in preventing or treating diseases such as HIV/AIDS or other infectious diseases.

Write 4-5 thoughtful paragraphs about possible interventions and the role they could play in improving public health. Be sure to save a copy of your writing on your computer so you can access it.

As discussed by Dr. Richardson, structural violence comes from institutionalized racism, gender inequality, lack of access to clean water, and lack of access to housing. To expand on this, it is how socioeconomic and political systems may endanger the lives of a minority group, increasing the risk of morbidity and mortality (CHER). It perpetuates inequality in health and well-being through social forces that harm a minority group.

In the context of women’s rights, often structural violence is woven into the fabric of society where institutions at all levels may treat women differently than men. We see this with lack of access to healthcare, education, and prioritizing the needs of male family members over women in many impoverished nations.

Regarding HIV/AIDS, social intervention is an effective method for preventing and treating the disease. Data shows that when young girls are educated about the disease, taught about prevention, and provided with instruction on contraception, then rate of disease lowers. Likewise, when women are empowered through education that informs them of their rights, particularly regarding bodily autonomy, the rate of HIV/AIDS is reduced as women realize it is their right to decide and negotiate sexual encounters with others.

Furthermore, raising the economic outlook for women, once again through education that empowers girls and women, is critical. Through appropriate education, girls are empowered with skills to enter the workforce that may provide opportunities for economic independence. In doing so, young women move away from relying on family and marriage, where men often become the sole source of income and forces women into dependency.

When considering marriage is the primary risk factor for obtaining HIV/AIDS in many developing nations (Murray), economic independence becomes critical. Often young women marry older men out of necessity to eat and survive, however, commonly men will take part in unsafe sexual behaviour with others, in-turn, infecting their partner (Murray). Therefore, women who are economically empowered are more capable of providing for themselves, and better able to negotiate relationships and marriage, breaking out of the patriarchal cycle of economic dependency.  

Bibliography:

CHER – What is structural violence? Center For Health Equity Research Chicago. n.d. 11 February 2022. <https://www.cherchicago.org/about/structuralviolence/>.

Murray, A. F. (2013). Adolescence: Change and Vulnerability. In From outrage to courage: The unjust and unhealthy situation of women in poorer countries and what they are doing about it (pp. 75–101). essay, Common Courage Press.

Thought Question on Female Genital Mutilation

Question:

Consider the different terminologies used for the cutting of female genitalia, as discussed in the text, “From Outrage to Courage.” Discuss the implications of using these different terminologies:

  • Female Genital Cutting
  • Female Genital Mutilation
  • Female Circumcision

Based on the experience in Sierra Leone and other countries, explain how and why you believe different cultural practices are maintained in a community. Is there any possibility of shifting cultural practices?

Please write 4-5 thoughtful paragraphs. Be sure to save a copy of your writing on your computer so you can access it.

Response:

The implications of these terminologies directly affect how someone interprets the meaning of the procedure, whether it is linguistically negative, positive, or neutral. The term Female Genital Mutilation sets a tone that such a practice is harmful with debilitating consequences, and this explicitly indicates that such a practice is injurious and destructive. By comparison, the terms Female Genital Cutting and Female Circumcision imply a medicalization of the procedure, and such terminology may sound neutral or even provide a positive connotation.

Furthermore, Female Circumcision, as a term, creates a false equivalence by implying the procedure is comparable to male circumcision. While both involve cutting of genitalia, male circumcision does not impair sexual function. In contrast, female circumcision involves partial or total removal of the clitoris, a process termed clitoridectomy, and this procedure commonly carries debilitating outcomes for girls and women (Murray). It cannot be understated how damaging FGM may be; a few of many immediate complications may include hemorrhage, infection, urinary problems, shock, and death, as often the practice is performed in unsanitary conditions by non-medical professionals. Long-term complications often include painful urination, menstrual problems, sexual problems, increased risk during childbirth, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and need for later surgeries, among other severe and life-altering complications (WHO). There is no doubt that FGM is highly destructive and damaging.

Moving to answer the second part of the question: in the context of Sierra Leone, there is an argument by some groups that Western imperial nations are invoking cultural hegemony upon developing nations. This argument would take a cultural relativist position insofar as believing no culture is superior to another (Danial). They assert there are no universal moral principles and that moral views are relative to the individual and society of a particular culture (2). Conversely, the UN, through various conventions, including UDHR and CEDAW, takes a global feminist or universalist approach that asserts that all humans are inextricably linked within a global community and that human rights are universal (3).

With that in mind, proponents of the practice have argued that due to local cultures linking a woman’s femininity to having undergone FGM, girls and women who do not complete this procedure may be alienated from their community and disadvantaged. Nonetheless, this does not remove from the equation that the practice is harmful and dangerous and may leave women unable to participate in the community if they are injured or die during the procedure. In addition, there is a strong argument that cultural relativism is fundamentally flawed as a philosophical principle.

Dominic Wilkinson, Director of Medical Ethics at the University of Oxford, succinctly addresses cultural relativists. He iterates over James Rachel’s assertion against cultural relativism, where Rachel demonstrates that the approach is flawed and the conclusions do not follow the premises. Citing examples, he shows that cultural relativism would justify the holocaust in Nazi Germany. Societies make moral progress over time, such as banning slavery, which must be considered. Furthermore, he examines how much weight should be given to the cultural value of a particular practice and suggests that no weight to cultural value should be considered in ethical debates. Culture is not immutable – it is possible to change coming-of-age rituals so that they do not harm girls or women.

Finally, in the video discussion with Isha Daramy regarding FGM in Sierre Leone and the so-called “secret societies,” she suggests a solution. She believes the practise would die out naturally when girls and women are educated on the consequences of FGM. She proposes a middle ground, where neither condoning nor condemning the practice, but rather making available the correct information about its implications and history may lead to a decline and FGM (Baer and Brysk). Given that many women and men are not aware of its impact, compounded with a fundamental misconception about its historical associations, it is argued that education may be the best tool for ending this harmful practice in countries where the culture has resisted change. While this argument has strong merits, it needs to be considered that +4 million girls undergo FGM each year (UNICEF); therefore, many do not have the luxury of waiting for it to “naturally” die out as a cultural practice. We must, instead, be forever proactive.

Bibliography

Ameyaw, Edward Kwabena , et al. “Female genital mutilation/cutting in Sierra Leone: are educated women intending to circumcise their daughters?” BMC International Health and Human Rights (2020).

Baer, Madeline and Alison Brysk. “New rights for private wrongs: Female genital mutilation and global framing dialogues.” The International Struggle for New Human Rights (2010): 93-107.

Danial, Sandra. “Cultural Relativism vs. Universalism: Female Genital Mutilation, Pragmatic Remedies.” Prandium – The Journal of Historical Studies (2013): 1-10. <https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/prandium/article/view/19692>.

Daramy, Isha. Isha Daramy on FGM in Sierra Leone. 2013. Digital. Murray, Anne Firth. “Chapter 3 – Childhood: the Hope of Education and the Persistence of Discrimination.” Murray, Anne Firth. Outrage to Courage. 2013. 37-72.

UNICEF. “Female genital mutilation <https://www.unicef.org/protection/female-genital-mutilation>

WHO. “Female genital mutilation key facts” (21 Jan 2022) <https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation>

Wilkinson, Dominic. “Cultural relativism and female genital mutilation” (7 Feb 2014) <http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2014/02/cultural-relativism-and-female-genital-mutilation/>