Fertility awareness and you

Read the original story in GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine! 

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“I am amazed at how many women think cervical mucus is a sign of infection,” Chloe Skerlak says. “One woman told me that, for quite some time, once a month she would take antibiotics for what she thought was an infection, until she realized that this is a normal part of her cycle.” Near ovulation, the cervical crypts secrete a clear, stretchy, lubricated type of mucus that acts as an alkaline channel for sperm to travel to the uterus, she explains. For those unfamiliar with intricacies of the menstrual cycle, this change in cervical fluid may be difficult to differentiate from a vaginal infection.

Skerlak is studying to become a Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner (HRHP) through Justisse Healthworks for Women, a holistic reproductive health network and college. As part of her practicum, she co-facilitates the Fertility Awareness Charting Circle of Edmonton (FACC), a supportive space offering fertility awareness education.

The Justisse Method of fertility awareness was founded by Dr. Geraldine Matus in Edmonton in 1987. Growing out of the Catholic natural family planning practice, fertility awareness is a secular alternative that includes conversations on condoms and other barrier methods, abortions, and gender and sexual diversity.

Fertility awareness is a set of skills to better understand all stages of the menstrual cycle, including first menstruation and menopause, by tracking bodily signs of fertility. Changes in cervical mucus is one of these signs, but people practicing fertility awareness also track changes in basal body temperature and cervical position. By observing these signs, people can accurately determine when they are fertile (and when they are not) to achieve or avoid pregnancy. “It’s like learning to read your body,” Skerlak says.

Fertility awareness isn’t just for people who identify as women. “We’re talking about anybody with a menstrual cycle who can benefit from this,” Rose Yewchuk says. Fertility awareness is also valuable knowledge for people supporting loved ones with uteruses.

Yewchuck is an Edmonton-based HRHP and faculty member with Justisse Healthworks for Women. She has been providing fertility awareness education through FACC since it was founded in 2005, as well as through her private practice.

Fertility awareness can be used as a highly effective method of non-hormonal birth control by abstaining from procreative sex or using alternative barrier methods on fertile days. A 2007 study published in Human Reproduction reports that, with accurate use, fertility awareness is 99.6 percent effective as a method to avoid pregnancy – a rate that rivals the effectiveness of the birth control pill, but without the pill’s side effects like intermenstrual spotting, weight gain, mood changes, and difficulty conceiving after prolonged use.

For many, hormonal birth control is becoming an increasingly difficult pill to swallow. Fertility awareness advocates are interested in increasing people’s understanding of their bodies and the options available to them. “For those who aren’t ready to have a baby, they’re often told that the birth control pill or some other hormonal contraceptive is their only option, if they want a reliable method,” Yewchuk says. “Bodily illiteracy is keeping generations of young people on contraceptive hormones without letting them know they have another choice.”

Current conversations on contraception create an illusion of choice. People can choose the pill, the patch, the shot, the hormonal IUD, the implant, the vaginal ring. “But really, it’s different delivery mechanisms for the same process, which works to prevent pregnancy by stopping ovulation, by disrupting the endocrine cycle,” Yewchuk says.

Disrupting this cycle has implications. The cycle of estrogen and progesterone has benefits for overall health like contributing to bone density, cardiovascular health, and hair growth. “Synthetic hormones stop this cycle completely,” Skerlak says. “With that, you miss out on all the other benefits of having this cycle happen in your body every month.”

Despite concerns, medical practitioners are slow to catch up with people’s complaints, and inquiries about fertility awareness are often dismissed. Many worry that it’s “too difficult to learn” – a sentiment expressed by Skerlak’s gynecologist. “I think it’s an old argument,” Yewchuk says. “It was too complicated for women to vote, to read, to enter the workplace. I think it’s an old argument in our culture that is used in a lot of ways to limit women’s access to power.”

Fertility awareness places control in people’s bodies. “Fertility awareness has the possibility for a much richer, wilder, more empowered sexual expression,” Yewchuk says. In order for it to work, sexual partners must consent to using barrier methods or avoiding procreative sex on fertile days. That requires a certain amount of cooperation and respect in the relationship, she explains. “Which opens up the potential for more communicative relationships and ultimately more enjoyable sexuality.”

Fertility awareness can also be used as a tool to better understand overall health and diagnose hormonal imbalances, such as detecting thyroid disorders, vitamin deficiencies, subfertility, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. As it is connected to and influenced by many factors, the health of the menstrual cycle is an indicator of what’s going on in other areas of the body, Yewchuk explains.

Fertility awareness is a holistic practice. What is happening in our emotional and spiritual lives shows up in our bodies, Yewchuk explains. “I think there’s a rich potential for healing on a deep and fundamental level,” she says. “If you check your mucus every day, it’s going to change your relationship with your body.”

25 Pieces of 25

25 pieces of my year as a 25-year-old: a collection of words, bits of conversation, images,  and sounds that I remember to be defining, memorable, and true.

Abahinji

“Food serves two parallel purposes: it nourishes and it helps you remember. Eating and storytelling are inseparable – the saltwater is also tears; the honey not only tastes sweet, but makes us think of sweetness; the matzo is the bread of our affliction.” Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

Dancing at rabbit-breeding centre

In southwestern Uganda, women are responsible for growing food on land owned by men. In Kabale, it was women I saw plunging their hand-hoes into the hard earth, sowing seeds to nourish their families and their communities. 85% of food producers in southwestern Uganda are subsistence agriculturalists, producing food to meet the needs of their families rather than earn cash on the market.

In Rukiga, the local language, the women tending plots of land scattered along the hillside are known as “abahingi” or “people who dig.” It was the women digging who inspired me to question the ways growing food is a gendered experience.

Death

Tarot outcomes, June 2015

Strength:

“This card suggests control of passions and emotions, the suppression of undesirable thoughts and actions. It is self-discipline. The combined power of outrage and strength in overcoming difficulties. This card indicates reaching maturity, the end of the rashness of youth. Perhaps initiation, a trial by fire.

Gentleness quietens the severity of the beast. Coming to terms with one’s instinctive urges. The subjugation of the lion stands for control of the passions, pride, ignorance, and base instincts in general. It is discipline.

Reconciliation with an enemy, either internally – perhaps regarding one’s basic instincts, the gain of moral control – or externally with human enemies. This reconciliation may take the form of reaching an agreement, overcoming strife, or it may simply be an acceptance of the state of things as they are. This card brings forth concepts of diplomacy, or patience and endurance.

There is also suggestion that the enemy within should be pacified before attempting to tackle the enemy without.”

Death:

“This card indicates a casting off of the past. A change of thought or approach. Now is the time for looking to the future. A transformation of some kind. This is a turning point in one’s life. There may be a change of personality, possibly a complete change in one’s way of life or circumstances. There is a new and brighter view of the future. In general, the changes indicated by this card will be for the better.”

Manifestation

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Vision board, June 2015

“You know, when a shark stops swimming, it dies.”

“Art, literature, and music have a long history of thriving (although not always condoned) from political dissatisfaction and unrest. The frustration of one’s surroundings has the tendency to push one’s creative limits, while enabling the courage to say, “Fuck you” to the power that be.”

“My project: protecting and restoring the natural world.”

Free Spirit

“The free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it – basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.” Charles Bukowski, Tales of Ordinary Madness 

Free spirit

Supernova

“Write me a haiku. I want to know what you’re thinking for once.”

He is cold iron.

Smell in his blood, elixir,

what makes stars explode.

The Red Tent

The hours between 10:00pm and 2:00am came to be known as “The Red Tent” in the basement, a space where coffee stewed and indie playlists kept beat while a classic guitar named Aurelia bellowed against the pale yellow walls. The Red Tent was a space where two twenty-something-year-olds celebrated uteruses, menstrual cups, and vegan chocolate in a home filled with plants named after classic rock musicians.

Late July I faced a love dilemma. “Let’s see what the cards have to say,” she said, digging through a chest filled with not one, but four decks of tarot cards.

At 1:00am I draw cards to complete a Celtic Cross Spread. “Now, pull two cards that represent your outcomes,” she says. “Because everyone deserves to have a choice.”

Typical of most of my personal tarot readings, the outcomes I draw represent stark opposites: The Hermit (internalization) and The Fool (impulsivity). “I know how we can decide,” she says. “Stand on each card, face-down, and meditate on how you feel.”

This past week we have been practicing “body literacy.” She says it’s the idea that your muscles hold memories and know you better than you think. We have two pieces of paper – one with “Yes” written across its glossy surface, the other with “No.” Every morning we stand on each, paying attention to how our bodies respond to positive and negative thoughts. On “Yes” I feel grounded, on “No” I feel wavered. She feels a tingling sensation from her toes to her head on “Yes” and a tingling sensation from her head to her toes on “No.”

I feel grounded as I stand on one of the face-down tarot cards strewn across my kitchen floor. She dives for my feet, eager to reveal my supposed fate: The Fool.

Wild

“Everything we need is in our backyard,” she says, as we delve deeper into the depths of the Kootenay mountains, searching for medicinal plants.

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Permaculture design, August 2016

I made my first tincture (but, surely, not my last) using the roots of Elecampane, a vibrant plant with yellow petals, long leaves, and a potent smelling root resembling the scent of banana.

In Ancient China, Elecampane was planted outside windows as the large leaves produced musical sounds during periods of rain. Full of Inulin, Elecampane root eases respiratory discomfort, aids digestive health, and has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.

Roots

“Jiggs would follow us along the length of our trapline, even during the heart of winter. We would spend days on end in the middle of the bush, where the spruce groves are told to be sacred,” he murmurs, gently applying pressure along the red and purple waves of Shingles that plague his aging hands.

“A moose that’s afraid of thunder. What a sight!” he reminisces, reenacting a lively scene as his feeble childhood body struggled to turn Jiggs’ antlers and successfully squeeze a full-grown moose into the one-room home he shares with his six siblings and loving parents.

“As a fur trapper, you learn quickly to read the land or risk death. Ed Velkjar was lost hunting squirrels one winter. We found his bones and gun against a fallen tree four years later.”

Massaging the length of his hand with the flesh of his index finger, he steadily breathes life into eighty-five years of fading memories.

“In the hungry thirties, you could earn seven to ten cents a squirrel. Back then, that was real money. October was a good month for trapping squirrels.”

My grandfather’s hands hold a wealth of knowledge, occluded by remnant stains of the land and the invasive hues of Shingles. The deep, rhythmic tones of his aged voice tell his story, animated by the whispered melodies of fallen leaves as they tangle with barren branches and the worn native prairie grasses at my feet.

As he speaks, I fixate on the constellation of creases embedded in his hands. A map that, if followed closely, tells tales of a spirited boy, with a pet moose, who grew old trapping squirrels in the depths of the bush.

My grandfather rocks steadily in a wooden, hand-carved armchair on the front hearth of the home that holds my family’s history. His flannel shirt whimpers in the wind, held against his chest by brown suspenders that support his worn Wranglers on the rugged frame of an aging man who lived off the land.

I sink my feet into the warmth of the earth, listening to the songs of birds and inhaling the breath of trees. The rhythmic motion of my lungs sync with the pulse of the forest encapsulating us. And, I wonder, is the tendency to breathe deeper in the midst of trees a trait that can be inherited?

Sunny ways

Justin Trudeau

Federal election, October 2016

“Canadians are looking for a different approach. One that embraces diversity and understands what we can achieve together. One that recognizes social inequality to be a real problem that requires our collective efforts to solve. One that does not project fear of the unknown but explores possibilities with a sense of optimism and ingenuity.” The Harper Decade 

Blood

I have never been a fan of tampons. I remember the first time I used one. At thirteen-years-old, I didn’t really understand the concept of insertion. I “inserted” the tampon between my labia, perpendicular to my vaginal opening. Needless-to-say, this approach to tampon use was inaccurate, uncomfortable, and highly ineffective. I found out within a couple hours that I had made a huge mistake.

Carrying a latent resentment towards tampons over the past twelve years, I was relieved to discover menstrual cups. I appreciate knowing I can leave it in all day without fear of bleeding through my jeans. With this reliable piece of information in mind, I also learned it is neither necessary nor wise to empty my menstrual cup while in a public washroom.

I did once. I also dropped my partially full menstrual cup on the floor, splattering my menstrual blood across the floor of my bathroom stall and the adjacent bathroom stall of the woman next to me. A quarter-once of menstrual blood appears to be a much larger volume when splattered across a stained tile floor, creating an artistic mosaic remnant of a scene in a low-budget crime film.

I said, “Fuck.” She said, “Oh my God” and kicked my emptied menstrual cup in my direction.

Menstruation still delivers moments of shame at 25. But, it also delivers feelings of connectedness, creativity, and appreciation.

Hunger

I dread the time

when your mouth

begins to call me hunter.

Leonard Cohen, Beneath my Hands

Words

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Vue Weekly, February 2016

“Using glue sticks, lotions, and lubricants, a community of women in Edmonton is proving there’s more to the menstrual cycle than what was discussed in junior high health classes.”

Martyr

If you were to describe me with three adjectives, what would they be?

“Fiery. Passionate. And, someone who puts others’ before their self, almost to a fault… I think there’s a word for that,” he says.

“Martyr,” I finish.

Love online

Third-best worst opening line: “You look healthy for a vegan.”

Second-best worst opening line: “You seem like you would have nice breasts.”

Best worst opening line: “I want you to squirt on me.”

On repeat

“Shake me all out if I’m wrong for you.”

Growth

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 Terror

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I haven’t been able to shake this impending feeling of doom. If no one is talking about the degrading influence of animal agriculture on our environment, we’re going to burn. All I can think to do is crawl into a hole and wait for it to be over, wait to roast vegan marshmallows on the ashes of society.

“How long have you been vegan?” she asks.

Three years.

“That happened to me around the three year mark, too. Feeling terrified about the unacknowledged destruction of our environment.”

New moon

The word menstruation comes from the Greek word “menus,” meaning both “moon” and “power.” Before tampons and the birth control pill, ancient cultures used menstrual blood during rituals. For instance, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt ingested menstrual blood to strengthen connections to the spirits. Women practicing African-American Hoodoo even cast a spell on their desired lover by secretly adding menstrual blood to their food. This new moon challenges you to say goodbye to modern taboos concerning menstruation. Reconnect to the power of menstruation and be mindful to not let your sacred blood go to waste. Sit with your sisters, nourish the Earth, and concoct love potions. Cherish the knowledge that you are a life-giving force.

Sparkly ball

“I could sense your frustration. Forgive me for saying (and I don’t at all mean this in a condescending way) but, I really sense that deeper, more aligned relationships are waiting for you. Mostly because people, old souls like you, go an extra step when searching for truth. And, when you are searching, you tend to bump into other truth-seekers. Everything about you sparkles and, therefore, if anyone passes it up, it speaks only to their fear of light and goodness. You are an incredible woman and you inspire me all the time. I am really grateful for our friendship.”

Tenderness

ten-der-ness (noun)

  1. Gentleness and kindness; feelings of deep affection; devotion
  2. Sensitivity to pain

“When did you last spend time with the people and places that remind you of beauty and tenderness?”

#BreakFree

“The day capitalism is forced to tolerate non-capitalist societies in its midst and to acknowledge limits in its quest for domination, the day it is forced to recognize that its supply of raw material will not be endless, is the day when change will come. If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.” Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate 

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#BreakFree, May 2016

Motherhood

“It was a whirlwind of a night. I had just caught sight of a black head of hair being whisked by me and I could hear the cry of my firstborn over the commotion in the delivery room.  In an instant, I was connected with this tiny individual and every protective instinct a human being can feel was awake. No book, no class, no passing of wisdom prepares you for the emotions that surge through you. Unconditional love. As this bundle was placed in my arms, a smile crossed my face and a lump caught in my throat. Then fear. My heart and mind raced. I asked myself, “Am I capable?”  What defined me several minutes ago now is extinct. I was a mom. My whole purpose in life centered around assuring the wellbeing of this beautiful baby girl. My life was never the same nor did I ever want it to be.

Her personality was evident instantly.  Her eyes were wide and searching, interested in the world around her, an explorer. Gentle and kind. I still can hear her coos and smell the sweet scent of her hair when I close my eyes. To breathe deeply in the scent of baby is like the slow drawn inhale of a bouquet of roses: a divine, rare pleasure. It was the most momentous moment of my life, becoming a mom at 25.”

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“It is a grandmother’s job to spoil her grandchildren. Motherly rules dissipate and common sense dissolves. It is a land of fairy tales, where all things are forgiven and no rules abide. Your grandmothers doted on you.  Anything you wanted to try, they would indulge. You baked buns at the tender age of 2. You were a hairdresser by 3. They would rock, walk, and swing you for hours, all in the name of putting you to sleep. Their influences could be seen in your choice of music from “Bye Baby Bunting” to “Amazing Grace.” Your musical interests come from your Grandma James. She would sing and play to you all the time. I believe your love of the human race has been instilled by your Grandma Bohning. You spent many hours with both. They would dine with you and your dollies on high noon tea, chase you in countless games of shrilling laughter. Today, I feel as if they are here. The person you are exemplifies their spirit.”

Toska

“According to author Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian word toska means “a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness.” Linguist Anna Wierzbicka says it conveys an emotion that blends melancholy, boredom and yearning. Journalist Nick Ashdown suggests that for someone experiencing toska, the thing that’s yearned for may be “intangible and impossible to actually obtain.” How are you doing with your own toska, Gemini? Is it conceivable that you could escape it—maybe even heal it? I think you can. I think you will. Before you do, though, I hope you’ll take time to explore it further. Toska has more to teach you about the previously hidden meaning of your life.” Gemini horoscope, May 2016

Thelma

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In the midst of an experiment in container gardening, I find myself engulfed in seeds, bursting Fiddlehead ferns, and the songs of Chickadees. Elbows deep in soil, a weathered voices echoes over the fence. “You know what, young lady?” she says. “The woman who used to own this house would love you.”

My inquisitive neighbour lives with two annoying dogs, in a yard overgrown with broken rakes, poorly-situated composted bins, and a forest of perennials. Her voice carries the weight of seventy-something years of living.

Pulling on the frayed wire that opens a discrete gate connecting our properties, she continues to tell me about her friend who spent hundreds of hours in this garden.

“She was an incredible gardener. Her sweet peas grew as tall as the garage,” she says, pointing toward the crevice between the garage and the fence, now overgrown with Maple saplings. “No one has gardened here since she passed away, nearly five years ago.”

“She was also an incredible philanthropist. She gave baskets of food from her garden to a single mother living around the corner,” she says. “Her name was Thelma and this is a place filled with love.”

When I think of growing old, I dream of becoming someone like Thelma. I dream of feeling settled at 75, as I sit on my porch, staring into my abundant, thriving garden, listening to the songs of birds, knowing I fought as hard as I could for 75 years. There’s a life partner beside me. Not necessarily a lover, but someone who has been on a similar journey, someone like the woman with the weathered voice on the other side of the fence.

Calibration

“Have you ever used crystals before?” he whispers.

Yes, sort of. I don’t have one, but I’ve played around with them in magical places before.

“I have a crystal. I carry it with me all the time, in my pocket.”

Do you want to calibrate it?

“What do you mean?”

Crystals can be used for lots of things: healing, cleansing, storing negative experiences. But, also for making decisions. You just need to be able to recognize what the crystal feels like when the answer is “yes” and what the crystal feels like when the answer is “no.”

“This is going to make a great story.”

Wooden school benches

I’m sitting on a wooden school bench. The tattered, pale yellow wall to my left supports an elongated chalkboard with the phrase, “John goes to the market,” etched across its surface.

Encased between the hard, polished undersurface of the desk and a bar that rests along the crease between my ankle and the top of my foot, my knees and hips begin to resist the walking motion all-too-common eight hours earlier.

I drown out the pulsating tension by fixating on the constellation of wrinkles in the face of a woman sitting in front of me. As she speaks to Sister Beatrice, a midwife with the Kigezi Healthcare Foundation (KIHEFO), the rhythmic sounds of the local language, Rukiga, tell her story, animated by her oceanic arm movements.

A familiar sound in my right ear draws my attention. “She has ten children,” Frank translates. “Her husband refuses to let her access family planning services,” he continues to whisper.

Outreach camp

Outreach camp in rural community (Photo: Chris Daberer)

Wednesday, May 13th is filled shadowing two midwives in a rural village in southwestern Uganda during one of KIHEFO’s outreach camps, an initiative that provides basic healthcare services to rural communities in the Kabale region, including general medicine, dental, optometry, pharmacy, HIV testing and counseling, family planning, and antenatal services.

Situated in a room offering family planning and antenatal services, I collect stories of struggle and resistance from community members fighting barriers to child nutrition, maternal health, and women’s bodily autonomy.

As women wade through the sea of people seeking healthcare services, KIHEFO staff invite mothers with children showing signs of malnutrition to participate in a brief, interactive nutrition workshop – often women with several young children within a few years of each other.

What's on Your Plate?

A strategy to identify and prevent child malnutrition, “What’s on Your Plate?” animates which locally available foods are required to feed children a healthy, balanced diet. Painted across the surface of a large “plate,” the activity discusses five categories – meat, oils, carbohydrates, vegetables, and boiled water.

Crowded together along rows of wooden school benches, I ask mothers what foods displayed on the large “plate” are easily accessible. Unanimously, the women echo that all foods, other than meat, are available locally within their own gardens.

As we leave the dimly lit classroom, I ask Lilian, the Ugandan coordinator I am working alongside, “If most foods required to build a balanced diet are readily available, what is the most common barrier to feeding children a balanced diet?” She responds that many women are unaware of the diversity of foods required to consume a healthy diet – a barrier KIHEFO is attempting to hurdle with “What’s on Your Plate?” and other nutrition education initiatives directed at women.

As Lilian voices, “If you educate mothers, you educate the community.”

In rural communities, women are responsible for growing food and caring for children. As narrated during the nutrition workshop, it is common for women to leave children at home with a sweet potato, a staple food grown in southwestern Uganda, while they tend to plots of land distributed across the hillside, often far from home.

Illuminating the intersection of social barriers and health, an alarmingly high rate of child malnutrition is not exclusively reduced to lack of education.

In southwestern Uganda, the World Health Organization estimates 45% of children under the age of five are malnourished. Dr. Geoffrey Anguyo, founder of KIHEFO, states that nearly 70% of children visiting rural outreach camps are malnourished – an estimate that only includes mothers attending outreach camps predominately because of concerns with their own health.

While family planning is becoming more common in southwestern Uganda, Lilian expresses three primary barriers to widespread use of family planning services that disproportionately affect rural women – religion, culture, and gender.

Widespread Catholic influences discriminate against the use of contraceptives. In some communities, superstitious beliefs that contraceptives permit evil spirits to inhabit the uterus continue to prevail; however, Bakiga culture holds many other beliefs that discourage the use of contraceptives.

Traditionally, a large family is a sign of wealth. As women are unable to own land in Uganda, a large family is also a measure of security. Children offer a means to increase a family’s capital through additional income and dowry. Furthermore, women pursue a large family to ensure their husband does not step outside their marriage in search of additional children.

As I sit on a wooden school bench listening to woman after woman share stories of struggling to care for a large family, the intersection between barriers to accessing contraception and a critically high rate of child malnutrition become increasingly clear.

In Uganda, women often seek family planning services to stop having children, as highlighted by the prevailing popularity of discreet, long-lasting implant and injection contraceptives.

As I tell Lilian about my preferred form of contraception, fertility awareness, she laughs, “That would never work in Uganda.” “Women still do not control their bodies,” she hoarsely comments.

“When it comes to fertility, women are always the problem,” Lilian explains, “People don’t talk about men being the problem.”

Girls at outreach camp (Photo: Emily Klatt)

Girls at outreach camp (Photo: Emily Klatt)

She tells the story of a woman who, in a dangerous attempt to stop having children, secretly receives a five-year contraceptive implant after giving birth to her fifth child. Recognizing male infertility as a taboo topic, the woman countered her husband’s accusations stating, “I’ve given birth to five children. The problem isn’t me, it’s you.”

As with child malnutrition, limited use of family planning services is not simply due to lack of awareness, as commonly proposed in development practice; rather, women are very aware of the barriers they face and, through immense acts of resistance, are driven to employ cunning strategies to take control of their bodies. ❤

Check out KIHEFO’s blog to learn more of outreach camps and other initiatives to combat child malnutrition in southwestern Uganda.

The Fear: A Personal Narrative

I’m six years old and sitting on a cramped school bus, surrounded by larger, older and much more intimidating students. My shoulders are slumped and I’m staring out the window, eyes focused on the canola fields passing by. To my side sits my older brother, Derek. Though slender, quiet and overly shy, he still manages to give me a sense of comfort while riding in this long, yellow, wild-animal-cage on wheels. He sits in the aisle seat and I sit closest to the window, eyes focused on the canola fields passing by.

Derek, five years older than me, tries his best to protect me from harm, but we sit in close range of more than thirty students and he has no control of the things I might hear. As the journey to school progresses, the children’s voices amplify. I hear the odd swear word used unnecessarily by a “cool” high schooler hoping to gain the attention of others. Next, the impressionable junior high students join in, trying their best to confidently curse without their subconscious gaining the best of them. With each swear word I visibly shrink into my oversized, pink jacket. When you’re young certain words make you flinch; they physically crash into you. I often wonder why that reflex vanishes as you get older.

Derek notices my reaction and tries to start a conversation about my soon approaching birthday, a six-year-old’s favourite topic, but I am weary so I reply in the smallest voice I can manage. We discuss ice skating and my Winnie-the-Pooh theme. As I grow excited over my big, sparkly pink and green cake, I hear a word that I have never heard before and my brother breaks off mid-sentence. I’m confused; I ask him what it means. It sounds like “‘Tigger,” so how bad could it really be? His voice grows serious and stern as he warns me to never repeat what I just heard. That word is one that will always, without fail, make me flinch. Derek talks to me steady until we arrive at school, drowning out the older kids and sheltering me from a topic I wasn’t old enough to understand.


I’m thirteen years old and in grade seven. I grew two-inches over the summer, I became skinnier and feel much more comfortable with my appearance. However, I’m extremely confused that in the span of a single summer the things we used to look down upon in elementary school have become the things we strive for in grade seven. Instead of discouraging swearing, we fit curses into our everyday sentences because it’s the “cool” thing to do. Good grades became less important, movies dates and hockey games became everything. I stopped flinching at the sound of unnecessary curse words and was becoming one of the impressionable junior high students who used to make the innocent, six-year-old girl wearing a pink jacket shrink.

I don’t want to be one of those impressionable junior high students, but being different isn’t exactly something a thirteen-year-old strives for. Instead, I fall into order. I remain quiet as my friends make fun of other uncomfortable and awkward kids. I remain still when I hear horrible things. I feel disappointed in myself for being afraid of being different. As the year goes on, I continually hear vicious racist jokes, stories and stereotypes. I know they’re wrong. I am very aware of how they make my fists clench and my teeth grind in disgust. I want to call my friends out on their ignorance, but I reason with myself instead. “I guess they aren’t really hurting anyone,” I tell myself, “Everyone in our class is white.” “If they were saying these things to others I would definitely intervene,” I reassure myself. My stomach tightens then drops because I know I am only making excuses.

I have met many of these kids’ families and I understand that they have been raised by close-minded parents, but I have also spent a large portion of my time around people with similar views. I do not see this as an excuse to judge others based on their race. We have all been educated about the devastating impact of racism through learning about oppression, internment camps and genocides. Everyone in my class has been given an equal opportunity to have compassion for the hardships different races have endured, yet they still treat others who are different with disrespect. I do not know why this cycle continues and I do not know how I could possibly end it. I guess that is why I have learned to blend in; to keep my head down and stare blankly out the window at the canola fields passing by. I am afraid of being different; of being the victim of blind ignorance and hatred.


Five years later, I am eighteen years old and still confused. However, my fear of being different has come a long way. My fears are now directed to things such as passing diplomas, getting into university, moving away from my sheltered lifestyle and all the other big, scary changes I am about to go through. Though terrifying, these changes are also exhilarating. My perspective on being different has been pulled, pushed, flipped upside-down and sculpted into something that I am very proud of.

Though I am not one-hundred-percent confident with being completely different, I have realized that being different is something to be celebrated and not hidden. I have been able to internalize this lesson through one of my most valued role-models, my older sister, Ashton. Ashton is six years older than me, more than six-inches shorter than me, a proud vegan and one of the most compassionate people I have ever known. She has shaped my way of thinking by simply having conversations with me and making me question certain topics that I had never questioned before. I have watched my sister debate with many to successfully support her beliefs, values and lifestyle. I have also watched as others disagreed and attempted to discourage her. I admire her drive to create positive changes even when she is singled out for being different. This allows me to stand against things that I believe are wrong and to voice my opinion whenever I need to.

I have learned that when you allow your fear of being different to dictate your opinions, actions and even choice of clothes, you are ultimately forcing yourself into a mould that you don’t belong in. When you allow the fear of being different – or any fear for that matter – to control the decisions you make throughout your life, you will never know who you truly are.

This is a personal narrative written by my younger sister, Paige, for her high-school English class. This is a profound reflection by an eighteen-year-old, highlighting the raw struggles of claiming personal identity as a youth. Never doubt the power of one person’s voice and the younger generation’s conviction to fight against the starkest social and environmental injustices facing our world.

O Captain! My Captain!

Sunday evening I visited the Metro for a free screening of The Fisher King to kick-off Mental Illness Awareness Week and, inevitably, join others as the world continues to collectively mourn the death of Robin Williams.

The suicide of Robin Williams in August once again brought mental health into the national spotlight, as the heartbreaking news of his death was accompanied by the detail that he was “battling severe depression.” Depression is a mental illness that carries with it an immense social stigma, as well as a thunderous silence. That silence was momentarily lifted as his death inspired others to share their story of mental illness.

Once such story surfaced in the Huffington Post as Marilyn Sewell wrote,

“Depression is a state more intolerable than any other – more devastating than physical pain, which we understand is a function of the flesh, not of character or essence. Depression is not the same as grief, which is a normal response to loss, and can offer a cleansing release. Depression is rather a shutting down of the emotive self, a fracturing of the will. It is living behind a glass plate and looking at life on the other side.”

As we acknowledge World Mental Health Day, that silencing veil is again lifted – the key is to prevent its return.

While I reflect on the many stories shared after Robin Williams’ death, I am reminded of the plethora of stories of mental illness I collected while volunteering on the Distress Line, Edmonton’s 24/7 crisis line. Through this experience I am cognizant of the power of storytelling in healing and, more importantly, mobilizing others. Talking about mental health on the Distress Line also taught me to humanize mental illness.

During conversations on the Distress Line I listened as a woman described depression as the sensation of “wearing a shirt that’s rough, scratchy, uncomfortable,” and realizing that it’s your own skin and you can’t take it off. I listened as another described depression as the discovery that “all my favourite foods suddenly taste like cardboard, but I eat and eat and eat anyway because I need something to fill that empty space.”

This video from the World Health Organization offers yet another perspective on living with depression.

The array of stories I have collected on the Distress Line and the numerous testimonies expounded after Robin Williams’ death demonstrate that each individual’s experience with depression, or any mental illness, is unique. What remains constant is the truth that mental illness colours nearly every aspect of that person’s life.

Talking about mental health has taught me to recognize this truth of mental illness – a truth occluded by the insidious stigma of mental health in our society.

Oftentimes, mental illness is portrayed as frightening, dangerous, or laughable – rarely as something that 1 in 5 Canadians will experience in their lifetime. As we round the corner to Halloween, I can’t help but think of the many psychiatric monsters that will haunt our streets. People struggling with mental illness are not some trope to scare people in a haunted house or the punch line to a “crazy” joke. People struggling with mental health concerns are coping with a very real illness, which is difficult enough to navigate without adding mental health stigma to the equation.

These tendencies perpetuate the belief that people with mental illness are violent, even though they’re far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. These tendencies reduce people living with mental health to some invisible, raging creature labeled “depression” or “bipolar disorder” or “schizophrenia.” The tendencies marginalize and mock the people who need us most.

When we fail to talk openly about mental health, we fail those living with mental health concerns who are left to struggle in silence.

As Robin Williams so eloquently states in Dead Poets Society, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Today is World Mental Health Day. Share your story. ❤

Katlin Knowles and the perils of poverty

Katlin Knowles is a 15-year-old girl living in poverty, along with her two loving parents and elderly, disabled grandmother.

Katlin’s father works full-time at minimum wage to earn a gross monthly income of approximately $1600, barely covering the costs of providing for a family of four. The narrow gap between the Knowles’ income and expenses forces the family to make tough decisions, with no room for error, when plotting their survival through poverty.

Katlin has a passionate interest in sports; however, a lack of funds and inaccessible transportation have impeded Katlin’s ability to engage in sports, or any recreational activities for that matter. After school, Katlin often spends her time within the confines of her home, idle and alone, while her parents frantically make strategic decisions to ensure their family’s survival.

Katlin is left feeling helpless as she is only able to offer a meagre $50 a month, that she earns while working part-time at a nearby grocery store, to alleviate the burden of poverty on her family. Regardless, Katlin’s $50 contribution is critical in her parent’s ability to pay the mortgage and purchase enough food to silence the hunger pains that echo throughout her family.

After Katlin’s father missed one week of work due to illness, the Knowles’ endured two weeks without groceries. This ill-fate induced hunger pains so severe that Katlin’s performance in school declined and she found herself suspended, destined to spend more time at home, idle and alone.

This is the story of Katlin Knowles, a 15-year-old girl living in poverty, who I brought to life while participating in a Poverty Simulation hosted by the United Way of the Alberta Capital Region on Wednesday.

The simulation guided over fifty participants through one month of the life of a person living in poverty. I had the opportunity to experience the life of a child living in poverty, but the experiences of others struggling to make ends meet were also animated, including pregnant teenagers, single parents and homeless seniors. Throughout the simulation, participants navigated challenges familiar to people experiencing poverty, including inaccessible transportation, housing instability and often eviction, and a lack of knowledge of available resources.

The story of Katlin Knowles illuminates the obstacles to evading poverty faced by many people, including working at a wage much lower than that required to meet an individual’s basic needs. People within my community are mobilizing against such obstacles. In response to Alberta’s minuscule increase of the minimum wage on September 1st, an article published in the Edmonton Journal advocates for the implementation of a Living Wage, stating,

“It is time to institute a Living Wage, based on the household budget approach developed by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The calculations show the minimum income an individual or family must have to be able to afford their most basic needs. The Living Wage for Calgary was calculated at $17.29 an hour, a figure that’s nearly 70-per-cent higher than the existing minimum wage of $10.20.”

Following the simulation, a group debrief aimed to foster further understanding of the lives of those struggling to make ends meet within my community of Edmonton, as well as challenge common misconceptions of poverty.

I was particularly motivated by conversations targeting the misconception that people experiencing poverty are responsible for their ill-fate, either through making poor choices or failing to take action to evade their reality. Often, within our individualistic culture, those living in poverty are blamed and societal barriers to escaping poverty are overlooked, including the insidious cycle of poverty experienced by many. The Poverty Simulation offers an enlightening opportunity to debunk this misconception through drawing attention to the difficult, time-consuming decisions that people living in poverty must make, often with little or no options, about things many of us take for granted.

In Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo echo this reality when asserting,

“The poor are no less rational than anyone else – quite the contrary. Precisely because they have so little, we often find them putting much careful thought into their choices. They have to be sophisticated economists just to survive. Yet our lives are as different as liquor and liquorice. And this has a lot to do with aspects of our own lives that we take for granted and hardly think about.”

Poor Economics brings to light the complexities of the lives of people experiencing poverty and the ways this deeper understanding is crucial to ending global poverty. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo write,

“Because the poor possess very little, it is assumed that there is nothing interesting about their economic existence. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding severely undermines the fight against global poverty. To progress, we have to abandon the habit of reducing the poor to cartoon characters and take the time to really understand their lives, in all their complexity and richness.”

Let’s change the way we think about poverty. ❤

Check out your local United Way and consider participating in a Poverty Simulation to experience the struggles of those living in poverty within your community.

Read Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty to gain insight into the lives of people experiencing poverty around the world and the ways this knowledge can aid the fight against global poverty.

War weathered women

The majority of conflicts occurring throughout the world are civil wars. Today there are ten major conflicts, with more than 1,000 military and civilian casualties, occurring in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, Syria and Ukraine. Recently, the United Nations reported that the estimated deaths in the Syrian conflict has rose above 190,000. In addition to these conflicts, there are at least nineteen smaller armed conflicts and the list of recent post-conflict countries is also extensive.

Women experience war differently than do men. In 2002 former Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a report to the Security Council in which he acknowledged,

“Women and children are disproportionately targeted in contemporary armed conflict and constitute the majority of all victims. During conflict, women and girls are vulnerable to all forms of violence, in particular sexual violence and exploitation, including torture, rape, mass rape, forced pregnancy, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution and trafficking. They face numerous health threats grounded in biological difference, and the high rate of infection and death increases women’s workload in maintaining their households and community and providing care to orphaned children.”

According to the New York Times in 1996, “by conservative estimates, there were 2,000 to 5,000 unwanted children in Rwanda whose mothers were raped during the civil war and mass killings.” In 2004, Marc Lacey, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote, “Amnesty International accused pro-government militias in the Darfur region of Sudan of using rape and other forms of sexual violence ‘as a weapon of war’ to humiliate black African women and girls as well as the rebels fighting the government in Khartoum.” Amnesty stated that, “The suffering and abuse endured by these women goes far beyond the actual rape. Rape has a devastating and ongoing impact on the health of women and girls, and survivors face a lifetime of stigma and marginalization from their own families and communities.” Over the past decade it is estimated that more than 200,000 women and children have been raped throughout the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The disparate effects of war on women arise from the social and cultural context preceding the onset of conflict. Peacetime inequalities between men and women, including the objectification of women and male control of women’s bodies, underlie rape and other forms of assault towards women during conflict. In “Women, Violence and War” Vesna Nikolic-Ristanovic writes,

“Patriarchy means that women are regarded as men’s property, a pure addition to the territory and other things that men possess. Rape is to male-female relations what conquering troops are to occupied territories, and imperial authority is to colonialism.”

Women also face distinct hardships when fleeing conflict as refugees. A 2003 report by the Women’s Human Rights Net discusses vulnerabilities that women face as refugees, stating,

“Women carry the burden of searching for food and other means for their family or children’s survival. Pregnant women and mothers and their children suffer gender-specific forms of violence such as abduction, rape and enforced pregnancy, slavery, sexual trafficking, enforced sterilization, and infection with sexually transmitted infections. They are the ‘invisible’ refugees left out of processes to design or plan programs that affect them. They are less likely to receive a fair share of food, water and shelter allocations. Women in camps are highly vulnerable to sexual abuse and attacks by other refugees and humanitarian workers. The UN agencies and international community have been alarmed several times by reports about the sexual abuse of refugee women and children by humanitarian workers in exchange for food and basic needs. Some humanitarian workers have also been accused of pimping or acting as middlemen in the prostitution and sexual trafficking of refugee women.”

The reproductive health struggles of women in refugee camps are similar to those in other settings; however, the deprivation and dangers of refugee camps exacerbate problems of pregnancy as many births are unattended. Additionally, refugee women suffer an unmet need for contraceptive services, which is detrimental considering the heightened risk of rape and unprotected sexual activity within refugee camps. In some refugee settings, abortion, despite its illegality in many countries, is used as emergency birth control when there is no other option. The World Health Organization estimates that complications arising from unsafe, often self-induced, abortions account for an estimated 25% to 50% of maternal deaths among refugees.

Women around the world have displayed immense courage in confronting aggression and building a better future for their country, including a growing momentum to include women in relief plans. Such as the Women Empowerment Organization in Iraq which encourages women’s political participation and mobilizes women in the reconstruction of Iraq through training sessions and workshops, including engaging women in drafting the new Iraqi constitution. Women’s unique skills and knowledge, such as an understanding of natural resources and community dynamics, can contribute immensely to the success of relief plans, as well as women’s empowerment and status within their communities. ❤

abigaildisney

If you’re interested in learning more of women in conflict and refugee situations around the world, check out the PBS series “Women, War and Peace” created by Abigail Disney, a filmmaker and scholar renowned for her documentary films focused on social and feminist themes.

“Warfare is just an invention known to the majority of human societies by which they permit their young men either to accumulate prestige or avenge their honour or acquire loot or wives or slaves or to grab land or cattle or appease the blood lust, their gods, or the restless sounds of the recently dead. It is just an invention, older and more widespread than the jury system, but nonetheless an invention of men. It has been women’s task throughout history to go on believing in life when there was almost no hope. If we are united, we may be able to produce a world in which our children and other people’s children can be safe.”

Margaret Mead, Warfare is Only an Invention”

The “maternity death road”

The vast majority of deaths from reproductive health problems occur in so-called “developing” countries, revealing tremendous disparities in our world. Motherhood has been glorified over centuries as a noble goal, yet the means to ensure that women are healthy mothers is denied to most women around the world. Each year nearly 350,000 women die of preventable illnesses and injuries related to pregnancy and childbirth. Almost half of the 120 million women who give birth each year experience complications, with millions developing long-term disabilities.

At least two million women will suffer an obstetric fistula, an opening between the vagina and bladder or rectum that results from tissue damage during prolonged labour. In addition to pain, the fistula causes urine and/or feces to pass through the vagina, which results in odour and infection. Afflicted women are often deserted by their partners and exiled from their villages. A relatively simple surgical intervention can remedy obstetric fistulas, but access to appropriate facilities is beyond the reach of many women.

Mahmoud Fathalla, an Egyptian physician and advocate for women’s health, writes,

“The basic reason why maternal mortality has been neglected is that it is a woman’s problem in regions where women do not enjoy high social status. It’s a question of how much mothers are worth.”

fatallah

Dr. Mahmoud Fathallah

Fathalla construes maternal mortality as a “maternity death road.” The immediate causes of 80% of maternal deaths are obstetric complications; however, the underlying causes of maternal mortality start in the mothers’ childhood with poverty, unequal access to education, nutrition and health care, and discrimination against girls.

Endemic, yet almost completely preventable, maternal mortality is one of the starkest examples of gender discrimination in our world.

Women are studied primarily in terms of their reproductive capacities as producers and caregivers of children, thus bringing maternal health to the forefront of conversations on women’s reproductive health. However, injustices against women’s reproductive rights extends much further as maternal mortality is intertwined with issues of fertility, contraception, abortion and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections.

Worldwide there are nearly 215 million women with an unmet need for contraception. Unequal access to contraception or ineffective use of available methods has meant that almost half of the 200 million pregnancies each year are unwanted or ill-timed. An evaluation of family planning programs in 88 developing countries concludes that family planning services are routinely made available to women at a reasonable cost in only 14 countries. Women’s lack of knowledge about and access to contraceptives has enormous consequences for families, the demographics of societies, and prosperity or poverty over the next generation. Meeting the existing demand for family planning services has revolutionary potential in reducing unintended pregnancies, abortions, and maternal deaths and injuries.

More than 40 million abortions worldwide, with half occurring illegally, confirms a continuing unmet need for contraception. Approximately 70,000 of annual maternal deaths are the result of unsafe, illegal abortion. Of women in the developing world, 25% live in countries where abortion is allowed only to save the mother’s life and 7% live in countries where abortion is completely prohibited. As a result, millions of women have died from the complications of an illegal abortion. Lifting legal constraints on abortion has been shown to dramatically reduce abortion-related deaths. In the United States, abortion-related mortality decreased by 85% in the first 5 years after legalization.

The United States “Mexico City Policy” (also known as the Global Gag Rule), established at the 1984 International Conference on Population and Development, hampered many critical efforts to provide contraception and safe abortion services in developing countries. When in effect, the policy restricts any non-governmental organization that receives USAID funding from providing services related to abortion or advocating for the legalization of abortion. One of President Obama’s early acts as president was to overturn the policy; however, the history of the policy was detrimental to the survival and growth of many family planning programs that serve poor women. Such as Marie Stopes International which was forced to drop planned outreach programs for Somali and Rwandan refugees when the United States government cut funding to the Reproductive Health for Refugees Consortium in 2003.

Regardless of government policy, the debate on abortion needs to shift from objections based on morality and safety towards making abortion universally available to save women’s lives and increase women’s empowerment. Conversations on abortion often encompass individual choice, but women also have the right to control their own fertility and make decisions about what is right for their lives.

Check out this short film by the World Health Organization, based on a lecture by Fathalla, that highlights how too many women are dying in pregnancy and childbirth.

There is growing momentum to address maternal mortality, as evidenced by the significant decrease in the number of maternal deaths from nearly 600,000 in 1980 to 342,900 in 2010. Worldwide, women are leading within their communities to organize against injustices against women’s reproductive rights. Such as the Lesbianas y Feministas por la Descriminalizacion del Aborto (Lesbians and Feminists for Decriminalizing Abortion) in Argentina that advocate for the decriminalization of abortion in Latin America, where 97% of women live under severely restrictive abortion laws.

If you’re interested in learning more of initiatives to reduce maternal mortality, check out the PBS documentaries “Birth of a Surgeon” about nurse-midwives in Mozambique who are training in surgery techniques to help save mothers’ lives and “A Walk to Beautiful” about women who are suffering from childbirth injuries in Ethiopia.

As Fathalla concludes in the above video, “Safe pregnancy and childbearing, joy, celebration and pride for women should be a basic human right, and not a tragedy, in a 21st century world.” ❤

“Women’s rights are human rights”

I recently started an online course titled “An Introduction to Women’s Health and Human Rights.” An integral feature of this course is using a human rights framework to understand issues pertaining to women’s health. Those who know me well are aware of my excitement over social movement theory, hence my immense interest in this topic.

Following WWII the United Nations arose and gave birth to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights primarily served the needs of those who wrote it (white males, with the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt) and was eventually found inadequate in accounting for the needs of some groups of people, particularly women, children, indigenous people and disabled people.

In order to better encompass the needs of women, the United Nations established the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979. CEDAW emerged out of the women’s movement in the 70’s and 80’s as the second wave of feminism recognized that the structural discrimination of women was so deeply embedded in historical systems that unless there was a specific human rights treaty for women and girls the structural disadvantage for women and girls would remain invisible.

A mobilizing component of the women’s human rights movement is women’s entry into the political space opened by the United Nations. Women have taken advantage of the opportunities presented by international meetings to organize among themselves while transforming the political agenda. Such as the emphasis on the human rights of women that emerged from the efforts of women’s non-governmental organizations and individual women’s activists at the International Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, where the slogan “Women’s rights are human rights” was first coined.

In “Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Toward a Re-Vision of Human Rights” Charlotte Bunch writes,

“The concept of human rights, like all vibrant visions, is not static or the property of any one group; rather, its meaning expands as people reconcile their needs and hopes in relation to it. In this spirit, feminists redefine human rights abuse to include the degradation and violation of women.”

While the concept of human rights began in a particular historical moment and was defined in terms of the needs of a limited sector of the population, the ongoing relevance of human rights stems from the fact that more people are claiming them and in the process expanding the meaning of “rights” to incorporate their own needs. The transformation of the meaning of human rights to encompass the needs of women emerges through stories of women organizing in different parts of the world.

Abuelas_de_Plaza_de_Mayo,_Derechos_Humanos,_Madres_de_Plaza_de_Mayo,_MarchasIn Latin America, the perpetuation of human rights abuses under the many dictatorial regimes of the twentieth century resulted in a history of human rights organizing with massive involvement on the part of women. Such as the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) who came together during the height of Argentina’s guerra sucia (dirty war) to demand the return of their children who had been “disappeared” by the regime. The efforts of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo politicized motherhood and facilitated a reconceptualization of human rights through situating what happens in the home within the public sphere.

The application of human rights language to the women’s movement is a galvanizing force. Many violations of women’s human rights occur in the home, which often excludes such violations from public scrutiny and is used as justification for the continued subordination of women. Human rights language frames women’s rights as rights applicable to all people, such as the right to health or the right to bodily integrity or the right to be free from torture. A human rights framework offers common ground to mobilize collective action, as well as situates women’s issues within a global context rather than strictly the realm of the home and raises the profile of women’s issues through placing them on mainstream agendas.

Through a human rights framework, the importance of advocating for women’s rights is acknowledged on the basis of justice rather than solely developmental benefits. When considering efforts to eradicate violence against women, responding to the results of violence against women has immense economic consequences. However, a human rights perspective demands that eliminating violence against women is further important because everyone has the right to bodily integrity.

The human rights framework remains crucial to the women’s movement. Female subordination runs so deep that is it often still viewed as inevitable or natural rather than as a politically constructed reality maintained by patriarchal interests, ideology and institutions.

Let’s talk about women’s rights as human rights and continue to propel the women’s movement forward. ❤

Sexual health education needs to include more than “No glove, no love”

Last year, Emily Dawson partook in a mandatory two-day abstinence-only sex education class as part of the Career and Life Management course at McNally High School in Edmonton. The class was taught by the Edmonton Pregnancy Care Centre, which is affiliated with Care-Net, an American anti-abortion network of crisis pregnancy centres that are notorious for disseminating misinformation regarding abortion. The Edmonton Pregnancy Care Centre preached abstinence and presented misinformation regarding sexually transmitted infections and the effectiveness of contraception, as well as relied on slut-shaming language and language that was exclusionary to LGBT*Q youth.

Outraged, Emily Dawson and her mother, Kathy Dawson, filed a complaint with the Edmonton Public School Board in which board officials reached the terrifying conclusion that the course met the standards set by Alberta Education. Last Friday, the Dawsons’ complaint was accepted by the Alberta Human Rights Commission (whoop!), pushing the superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools to announce that the Edmonton Pregnancy Care Centre will no longer teach sexual health education classes in the district.

While Canada is generally welcoming to comprehensive sex education programming, there are still significant gaps – as witnessed through the Dawsons’ complaint.

On June 17th, AIM (Accessing Information not Myths), a community group that mobilized to address gaps in Alberta Education’s curriculum, urged the Edmonton Public School Board to expand their policy on sexual health education to include parameters ensuring the information presented is medically accurate and evidence-based, judgement-free, inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and two-spirited youth, and includes the meaning of sexual consent. Unfortunately, the school board responded by revising the policy to “encourage teachers to refer to the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education.”

The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN) reported that comprehensive sex education programs are effective in delaying sexual intercourse and increasing condom use in youth. However, sexual health encompasses more than averting unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection. Comprehensive sex education programs are additionally capable of enhancing the quality of youth relationships. As recognized within the parameters proposed by AIM, education on the meaning of sexual assault and sexual consent is critical in fostering healthy relationships. Equipping youth with this information is a powerful step in combating dangerous myths that perpetuate sexual violence through enabling perpetrators and silencing survivors.

The Criminal Code of Canada defines sexual consent as “a voluntary agreement to engage in sexual contact.” Consent is not granted if it is given by someone else, a person says or implies “no” through their words or actions, a person is abusing a position of power, trust or authority, a person is incapable of giving consent (such as if unconscious, impaired by alcohol or drugs, or sleeping), or a person withdraws consent or changes their mind. Particular to youth, the Criminal Code of Canada defines the age of sexual consent as 16 years, with individuals age 14-15 able to consent to sexual activity with people less than 5 years older and individuals age 12-13 able to consent to sexual activity with people less than 2 years older.

According to Statistics Canada, 30% of 15-17 year-olds reported having sexual intercourse. Of all sexually active youth age 15-24, 9% reported having sex for the first time before the age of 15 and over 25% reported having sex for this first time at the age of 15 or 16. The first time I learned the meaning of sexual consent, I was 21 years old and in my third year of university – clearly a little late. It is important to equip youth with information concerning sexual consent before the onset of sexual activity, as it can be incredibly disempowering to be offered this information after-the-fact.

Canada has witnessed a decline in the rates of teenage pregnancy and teenage intercourse, as well as increases in the rates of condom use among youth. However, SIECCAN notes that the prevalence of STI’s in youth is still alarmingly high, with the prevalence of Chlamydia and HPV highest in youth and young adults. The prevalence of STI’s is especially high in LGBT*Q youth who receive “insufficient sex education relevant to their needs.” According to SIECCAN, two-thirds of LGBT*Q youth reported feeling unsafe in their schools. Sex education that encompasses sexual orientation and gender identity is critical to meeting the sexual health needs of LGBT*Q youth, as well as fostering an inclusive school environment.

Everyone, including youth, has the right to information to prevent negative health outcomes and enhance sexual health. The least we can do for our youth is make sure that the first time they have sex they’re in consensual relationships and feel comfortable advocating for their health rights. ❤

I write #LikeAGirl because I am a girl

To pick up where I left off…

Last month the #LikeAGirl campaign released by Always went viral through posing the question “When did doing something “like a girl” become an insult?” Created by documentarian Lauren Greenfield and based on findings from Research Now indicating girls’ confidence drastically declines around puberty, the ad suggests that perceptions of doing things “like a girl” changes with age because the phrase is persistently used as an insult to suggest women are inferior to men. Through using the phrase “like a girl” as an insult, girls are expected to throw poorly, kick poorly and run poorly, and come to embody these expectations.

After watching this video I was reminded of the many ways that the use of negative language when referring to girls can invoke self-fulfilling prophecies with debilitating consequences. Such as the reigning perception that girls are not as good at math, which not only facilitates the differential treatment of girls in education but continues to discourage women from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In 2013 Canada ranked 20th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. While Canada has closed the education gap between men and women, Canada scored considerably low on measures of wage equality and political empowerment. This a common motif when recognizing that women and men are becoming equally represented within the education system, but women continue to be underrepresented in top positions within the workplace and earn less than their male counterparts.

An article in The Atlantic suggests women’s lack of confidence has a detrimental influence on women through holding us back in the workplace, stating “the natural result of low confidence is inaction.” A testament recognized in a study at Hewlett-Packard which found that women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100% of the qualifications, whereas men applied when they believed they met 60% of the qualifications. Kay and Shipman write,

“A lack of confidence informs a number of familiar female habits. Take the penchant many women have for assuming the blame when things go wrong, while crediting circumstance – or other people – for their successes.”

It’s not surprising women lack confidence, considering we constantly apologize for taking up space. Last month another Procter & Gamble brand, Pantene, also launched a female empowerment campaign. The Not Sorry ad released as part of the #ShineStrong campaign addresses the tendency of women to apologize for perfectly reasonable actions. A habit that may protect women from being labelled as “bossy” or a “bitch” in the workplace, but also portrays women as non-confident and undeserving. As someone who almost always precedes questions with “I’m sorry, but…”, this is not an estranged phenomenon.

The surge in advertising campaigns promoting female empowerment has been criticized as exploitive marketing tactics that prey on the low self-esteem of females in order to sell a product. However, the exploitive potential of these campaigns is somewhat discredited considering Always’ partnership with UNESCO and Pantene’s Shine Strong Fund, which both support programs to empower girls. In a society that continuously criticizes, devalues and ridicules women for everything from their body to their career aspirations, these messages are much needed. If the #LikeAGirl ad makes someone think twice before using “like a girl” as an insult, I’m happy to buy Always tampons.

The #LikeAGirl campaign aims to inspire confidence in girls through redefining what it means to do things “like a girl.” Women are not only considered inferior in areas where strength, speed and power are the requisite skills, but also in realms of creativity and self-expression.  We need to celebrate women for their achievements and embrace doing things “like a girl.”

In Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading from the Heart Nina Simons writes,

“Since many of our concepts of leadership have been unconsciously informed by the biases of our culture, relatively few women actually aspire to leadership roles. Often women imagine leadership as an innate talent available to a select few. rather than one that is learnable and may be cultivated intentionally over time.”

In Moonrise, Simons reframes what it means to be a leader in order to embrace leadership that arises from collaboration and passion, which is more commonly exercised by women but less acknowledged as it strays from conventional leadership roles predominantly attributed to men.

Rejoice in doing things “like a girl” and help make “like a girl” mean amazing things. ❤

Forget sticks and stones, words can be hurtful

In the world of pop gossip, the past week featured uproar over Jonah Hill’s utterance of a gay slur when he told an aggressive photographer to “suck my dick, you faggot.” Despite intention, the use of such terms as derogatory insults perpetuates the societal perception that communities choosing to step outside traditional gender and sexual labels are somehow inferior.  Not to mention the degrading influence such terms can leave on members and allies of the LGBT*Q community. Hill’s public apology on The Tonight Show alluded to such disastrous consequences when he stated, “Words have weight and meaning, and the word I chose was grotesque. And no one deserves to hear or say words like that.”

Another avenue the seeming simplicity of language proves disastrous is through the persistence of inconsiderate rapes jokes, as witnessed when Jennifer Lawrence proclaimed, “I broke out my rape scream for you” over excitement of meeting Alfonso Cuaron at the Cannes Party on May 17th.

Within the sphere of comedy, the appropriateness of rape jokes is much contested.  Such contention was  illuminated in 2012 when Daniel Tosh “jokingly” responded to a female audience member’s heckle by stating, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, 5 guys?”  Or in December when Matt Inman posted a rape joke on The Oatmeal that inconsiderately alines rape with pushing the F5 key one too many times.

Distasteful rape jokes are both a product of and a tool to perpetuate rape culture. Proponents of rape jokes argue that the backlash against rape jokes, as witnessed following the jokes made by Tosh and Inman, is unnecessary censorship by those too sensitive to appreciate that it’s “just a joke.” However, the humoured use of a word as powerful and potentially triggering as “rape” is detrimental through its normalization and trivialization of the severe violence inherent of rape.

This isn’t to say the topic of rape has no role within comedy. Comedy can act as an effective medium for social activism when used to comment on societal concerns, including rape culture when the joke draws on rape culture rather than rape victims to derive humour. Such as exemplified in the below rape joke by Louis C. K. that challenges rape culture through deriving humour from the notion that rape is somehow sexy or desirable, and that consent is some sort of innuendo that can be readily disregarded.

Despite the unfortunate pervasiveness of such insults and jokes, the occurrence of these misfortunes has been followed by public apologies (even if somewhat insincere) and reflect a growing social consciousness around the detrimental impact of using such language. However, from my standpoint, the widespread utterance of insults demeaning towards women has not received equal attention.

All too often, derogatory statements such as “don’t be a pussy” or “you throw like a girl” pervade social conversation as a thinly-veiled code for being weak, emotional, and ineffective. Women and women’s genitalia are referred to as signs of weakness, whereas men and men’s genitalia are analogous with signs of strength through phrases such as “man up” and “grow some balls.” The calamitous consequences of this clear dichotomy are illustrated in the below TED Talk by Tony Porter.

As accented by Porter when relaying the conversation he had with a 12 year old boy, “If it would destroy him to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?” Such statements have devastating consequences for women through perpetuating violence against women through reinforcing the dehumanizing belief that women are inferior. The dichotomous persistence of such statements is further detrimental through the demeaning impact on men who don’t easily fit stereotypical definitions of “masculinity.”

Take a look at how the intersections of language with gender and sexual identities is realized through Duke University’s You Don’t Say? campaign. Over the past year this campaign brought to light the misuse of language that relates to the LGBT*Q community and gender through posters bolstering statements such as those below.

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Words have repercussions. Laughing at distasteful rape jokes and re-appropriating language that relates to the LGBT*Q community and gender as derogatory terms propagates the degradation and humiliation of others.

Be salient of what your words are actually saying. ❤

#YesAllWomen, because feminists are man-haters and misogynistic mass murderers are “madmen”

Yesterday I found myself turning 24 and settling in to write my usual Friday blog post (to satisfy the few who protest when I fail to meet my weekly #feministfriday quota). I intended to write on what it means to be a 24 year old woman, especially for those of us “currently at liberty.” However, my heart has been heavy in light of the Santa Barabara shootings that took place last weekend.

In response to my last post, The extended dialogue behind #BringBackOurGirls, this post has further value. Many responded with sympathy for other” women. While this direction of our attention is much needed, it missed the crucial point that literally all women are affected by violence against women. A testament witnessed when Elliot Rodger embarked on a killing spree May 23rd that left 6 people dead and 13 injured, along with a haunting personal Manifesto blaming women for his loneliness.

dont-be-that-guy-5-516x668Rodgers was a  member of the Men’s Rights Activists, a group dedicated to the dissemination of propaganda that preaches male dominance and entitlement. Those who share the community of Edmonton are familiar with MRA through their propagation of Don’t Be That Girl posters (a reaction to the successful Edmonton based anti-rape Don’t Be That Guy campaign) that viciously blame victims while excusing the actions of perpetrators through bolstering slogans such as “Just because you regret a one night stand, doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual.” MRA ideology perpetuates violence against women through the dehumanizing language that members use when discussing women – as evidenced by the numerous misogynistic statements within Rodgers’ Manifesto, including “All women must be quarantined like the plague they are.”

After enduring an uncharacteristic evening at the bar the same night Rodgers attempted to realize his alpha potential, I am overwhelmingly exhausted of male entitlement. I am exhausted of unwelcome caresses from entitled hands. I am exhausted of fretting over how to get home because I’m too terrified to run 15 minutes alone, I’m too terrified to take a taxi alone, and I’m too terrified to share a limo with 15 men despite their un-assuring reassurances that they’re “not some sort of rapists.” I am exhausted of the lost sentiment behind statements such as “There’s my girl” because regardless of misplaced intent there is nothing sentimental about the implied ownership of my body.

Many women share my exhaustion and are fighting back against violence against women through the trending hashtag #YesAllWomen, where women are mobilizing through shared experiences of violence. #YesAllWomen has evoked stories of rape and domestic violence, as well as tweets of everyday hassles associated with male entitlement, such as “Because “I have a boyfriend” is the easiest way to get a man to leave you alone. Because he respects other men more than you.”

Despite the support of men in the movement against violence against women, #YesAllWomen has also wrought the expected defensive reactions of men through the #NotAllMen rivalry claiming #YesAllWomen unfairly accuses all men of perpetrating violence against women – a notion wittily responded to through a #YesAllWomen tweet stating “Imagine a bowl of M&Ms. 10% are poisoned. Go ahead. Eat a handful. Not all M&Ms are poisoned.” The support of men is critical to ending violence against women. #YesAllWomen is not intended to shame men, rather to illuminate the pervasiveness of gender violence for women. #NotAllMen are violent towards women, but #YesAllWomen have to live under the daily threat of male violence.

In the continuous era of white male privilege, defensive backlash is expected – as further revealed by media coverage preying on Rodgers as mentally ill.  This claim is immensely problematic as it contributes to the stigmatization of mental illness through incorrectly associating mental illness with violence. The unwarranted association of mental illness with Rodgers’ actions shamelessly attempts to negate Rodgers of blame and attests to the societal hesitancy to label the Santa Barbara shootings as gender violence when the perpetrator was a jaded white male, despite Rodgers’ misogynistic rants stating otherwise. This claim is further detrimental as it works to actively isolate the Santa Barbara shootings from the larger phenomenon of violence against women.

An integral frame in mobilizing the social movement against child sexual abuse was the “coming out” of victims of child sexual abuse as survivors, which altered social perceptions of victims and offered a shared identity for victims to mobilize around. The same is true of the movement against violence against women. The sharing of women’s experiences of violence through #YesAllWomen and When Women Refuse (a blog dedicated to collecting women’s stories of violence) is monumental in framing violence against women as a concern shared by all women and eliminating the minimization of violence against women to isolated events.

Let your actions demonstrate that gender violence unites all women by supporting women’s experiences or sharing your own through #YesAllWomen and When Women Refuse.

We only see backlash when we’re making real progress. Keep pushing. ❤

“”Why do men feel threatened by women?” I asked a male friend of mine. So this male friend of mine, who does exist by the way, conveniently entered into the following dialogue. “I mean,” I said, “men are bigger, most of the time they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power.” “They’re afraid women will laugh at them,” he said, “Undercut their world view.” Then I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, “Why do women feel threatened by men?” “They’re afraid of being killed,” they said.”

Margaret Atwood, “Writing the Male Character”

The extended dialogue behind #BringBackOurGirls

Those of you following the news (or with any connection to the world of social media) are likely well aware of the atrocity against the education of girls that occurred April 14th when Islamist extremists’, Boko Haram, kidnapped nearly 300 girls from a school in the Nigerian village of Chibok.

nigerian-girls2Boko Haram (loosely translated to “Western education is sin”) has been reeking havoc throughout Nigeria and neighbouring countries for over 10 years, with more than 5000 deaths attributed to the group since 2009.  Despite this tyrannic history, there has been little retaliation – specifically from the Nigerian government. However, following the April 14th kidnappings, Boko Haram leader, Abubaker Shekau, released a video threatening to sell the kidnapped girls as wives on the black market. Since which has mobilized communities around the world, including the rallying of dissatisfied Nigerian citizens, responses from the international community, and the sweeping #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

But the #BringBackOurGirls campaign is about so much more than mobilizing against Boko Haram. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign ignites one of the most important conversations we can have: why are women persistently devalued throughout the world?

The most recent unbridled actions of Boko Haram are easily recognized as a backlash against the education of girls – a common theme when considering how perspectives on women contribute to the extent that women are missing from the world. Just consider the actions of Taliban extremists in thrmalala-yousafzaiowing acid on school girls’ faces or shooting Malala Yousafzai for advocating for the education of girls. According to authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, 1 in 5 girls are missing from schools around the world.

Perspectives on women contribute to the worldwide exclusion of women in a multitude of ways. Human Rights Watch Mausi Segun has expressed concern over implications for the missing girls if they are returned home. Past the inevitable trauma and abuse endured, the missing girls are at risk of being shamed within their communities based on religious values associated with child marriage and sexual assault – an unfortunately persistent motif that isolates victimized women throughout the world.

In Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn narrate the shaming and rejection of victimized women within their communities following rape, sex trafficking and untreated fistulas resulting from childbirth complications. Not to mention government indifference towards the rights of women when considering the 2.6 billion women living in countries where marital rape is not a crime or the women in Afghanistan at risk of imprisonment for being raped. The exclusion of women continues to extend past societal shame, considering the very conservative estimate in Half the Sky that 3 million girls are currently enslaved within the sex trade worldwide.

We can also consider the ways women are literally missing from the world. Half the Sky illustrates that the limited attention and funding allocated to maternal health within the developing world contributes to the death of 1000 mothers a day due to pregnancy and childbirth complications – with one of the highest maternal mortality rates at 1 in 13 in Nigeria. In China, the social devaluation of women lead to the vast majority of the over 300 million fetuses aborted under China’s One-Child Policy being female. Within my Canadian backyard, the RCMP recently released The National Operational Overview on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, estimating that 1181 Aboriginal women were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012 – a vivid illustration of the intersectionality of inequalities when considering that Aboriginal persons make up 4.3% of the Canadian population, but 16% of murdered women.

The title of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is derived from a Chinese proverb stating “Women hold up half the sky” – a sentiment to the necessity of empowering women.

In an article responding to the current events in Nigeria titled “What’s so scary about smart girls?” Nicholas Kristof writes, “Why are fanatics so terrified of smart girls? Because there’s no force more powerful to transform society.” Research has shown that sustainable economic development is dependent on keeping girls in school and the economic empowerment of women.

As concluded in Half the Sky, “Change is possible, and you can be part of the solution.” Take a stand against the devaluation of women. ❤

Show your support through the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

Read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide or watch the PBS series to learn more about violence against women and uplifting responses throughout the world.

Support women’s economic empowerment through micro-finance organizations, such as Kiva.

“Call a jack a jack. Call a spade a spade. But always call a whore a lady.”

In December, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that three laws governing prostitution (keeping or being in a common bawdy house, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution) were unconstitutional, as they violated the constitutional rights of sex workers. The federal government was given a year to come up with new legislature governing prostitution, which has stirred uproar from various parties (including sex workers, law enforcement, women’s rights groups, and churches) as to which “model” of prostitution Canada should move towards. Especially since Justice Minister Peter MacKay announced early April that the new legislation would be introduced in the coming weeks.

There are seemingly two options available to Canada, which formerly criminalized all aspects of prostitution. Complete decriminalization of prostitution, as seen in New Zealand, the Netherlands and Germany. Or, adoption of the “Nordic” model enforced in Norway, Sweden, Iceland and France, which criminalizes the act of buying sex but decriminalizes the act of selling sex. There is speculation that the federal government is leaning towards a Canadian rendition of the Nordic model – which as far as my feminist heart is concerned, is a cause for celebration in increasing the status of women within Canada.

The Nordic model recognizes prostitution for what it is – an industry that perpetuates violence against women and male sexual privilege. While not a “quick fix”, the Nordic model presents a milestone in addressing the demand for prostitution and male oppression of women (through targeting pimps, human traffickers and customers), as well as recognizing the exploitation and victimization of women within the sex work industry through decriminalizing the actions of prostitutes.

The abolitionist perspective that accompanies the Nordic model is instrumental in increasing the status of women, through sparking conversations on welfare provisions to aid women in earning a comparable income to men through accessible means other than prostitution. Particularly as the success of the Nordic model is dependent on services that transition sex workers out of the industry.

A hurdle to widespread acceptance of the Nordic model is that sex workers often don’t identify as victims. Many draw a concrete line between human trafficking and prostitution as a free choice. Regardless, the victimization of prostitutes is hard to deny considering the foundation of sexual exploitation is built upon gender inequality and histories of racial oppression and colonization. Within Canada, there is disproportionally more Aboriginal women in the sex work industry – one study reported as high as 52% of prostituted women and 90% of teens trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation were Aboriginal.  Additionally, you can’t evade the clearly divided roles of males and females within the sex work industry as a testament to the oppression of women.

There is much discrepancy over which model best protects sex workers. Functionally, the Nordic model is argued to offer protection to women within the sex work industry through allowing women to reach out for help without fear of prosecution under the law. Additionally, countries that have enforced the Nordic model have reported a decrease in street prostitution, including a 30% decrease in street prostitution in Norway since 2009. However, it is argued that the continued police presence within the Nordic model has worked to further force the sex work industry underground, heightening the risk towards prostitutes.

Proponents for the complete decriminalization of prostitution zone in on the protection provided to sex workers through a diminished police presence, including decreased risk of violence and sexually transmitted infections. While decriminalization may protect women on the streets, it is argued that decriminalization increases the risk of sexual exploitation and human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation through increasing the demand for prostitution and making vulnerable women more readily accessible.

Check out the anti-trafficking video below that introduces the pervasiveness of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation in Amsterdam’s Red Light district, where prostitution is decriminalized. 

Prostitution laws reflect social attitudes. Most concerning is the message the decriminalization of prostitution sends of how society values women.

Food for thought. ❤