The Wip

New York Sharks Women Tackle the Football World

2010 was season 11 for Andra Douglas, owner of the New York Sharks, the longest operating and most successful all-female football team in the U.S. Douglas’ pioneering spirit and far-reaching vision ensured that it was a historic year for women’s sports worldwide.

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Do You Want to See What War Looks Like?

"We have an entire generation of people in their twenties and thirties who have never gone through a warthe media and government have gotten so good at the creation of messages, people don't know the reality" -- Casey J. Porter

Army Sergeant Casey J. Porter has many battles to fight, and unlike the dramatizations of politicians and media commentators, his battles are concrete, real, and hard fought. During his time as an enlisted soldier deployed in Iraq, Casey has undergone an evolutionary process, one that has taken him from warrior to peace activist. His talent and passion for filmmaking have given him the perfect medium for his personal expression. Utilizing his current circumstances and natural talent as a filmmaker to speak out against the war, Casey's films have turned the heads of people like Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! and filmmaker Michael Moore.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Casey recently. Phoning from Iraq, his soft-spoken voice was not quite what I expected -- his intellect, courage, and tenacity are apparent, even from three thousand miles away.

"Most Americans are not affected on a daily basis by this war; it is not personal for themI can tell you for example, that what is happening in Iraq is always in the daily thoughts of my mother."

After serving one tour of duty in Iraq, and completing his voluntary commitment to the military, Casey found himself entangled in the controversial military policy, "stop-loss." The "Backdoor Draft" as some have called it, is the means by which the United States Military may extend the terms of service of a United States soldier to retain them longer than the period for which they volunteered. Critics of "stop-loss" say the policy hurts troop moral and unnecessarily places the burden of war on relatively few families, shielding the majority of Americans from any real sacrifice during wartime.

Shortly before his second deployment to Iraq, Casey became a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and helped found its Fort Hood chapter. For Casey, the decision to join the anti-war group was natural. As he experienced the plight of the Iraqi people and the injury and loss of friends who served, his opposition and activism grew into an all out personal mission. Casey has taken his misfortune as a "stop-loss" soldier and turned it into an opportunity to make a difference in how the occupation of Iraq is perceived by Americans. Unwittingly, he is humble about his activism. While discussing his films, Casey says, "most importantly, this is not about me at all, but the soldiers around me and those who continue to deploy year after year. This has been, and will always be about them."

To watch his films, What War Looks Like and Deconstructed (see below), one cannot help but feel an intimate connection to the reality in Iraq. Images of dead bodies, blown-out Humvees, and services for soldiers who have lost their lives challenge the myths, sound bites, talking points, and infotainment created by politicians and media pundits. "The photos you see of soldiers' services in What War Looks Like were taken by me," Casey explains. "Standing there and watching fellow soldiers experience such loss changes you. Watching Iraqi children dig through landfills for food changes you. Seeing the senselessness of it all compels me to speak outI know that I am not the only soldier who feels this way about the continued occupation of Iraq. Whether they're soldiers who have been stop-lossed or this is their first time over here -- they are seeing the truth for themselves."

Casey cites the stark contrast between his daily experiences in Iraq and what is reported in US media as an important reason for taking action. By keeping the truth from the American people, he says they are unable to make sound decisions about the continued occupation of Iraq. Crucial details are kept from view -- details that dramatically influence the daily lives of thousands of Americans and their families. The hardship of these families, which goes largely unrecognized except for the splattering of yellow ribbon magnets on cars, is the main reason Casey finds himself motivated to act. "I could not live with myself if I kept my head down and went into another deployment without taking any actionthe hardest stand to take is from within," he says.

After the creation of What War Looks Like and the subsequent Internet stir it caused, Casey realized the potential he had to make a difference with what he calls "guerrilla-style filmmaking." Casey's vision for telling the truth and reaching large audiences is slowly gaining momentum on YouTube; his short films continue to garner support from thousands of activists, fellow soldiers, and concerned Americans.

Before we hung up, I asked Casey to comment on the recent lull in the violence in Iraq, which has been credited to "the surge" of forces injected by the Bush Administration in 2007. Casey points to the stifling heat, the re-organization of resistance fighters and the continued construction of walls throughout Iraq's cities. The effects of walls and checkpoints, he notes, rarely make it into US media headlines or political talking points. But one recent report by AP writer Hamza Hendawi supports Casey's assertion: similar to the walls and checkpoints constructed by Israel throughout the West Bank, Baghdad's walls lead to gridlock, rising prices for food and homes, and complaints about living in what feels like a prison.

Casey points out that the construction of these walls brutalizes an already brutalized population. "The look on the faces of the Iraqi people shows just how angry and worn out they feeland I apologize every chance I get." As long as these walls and checkpoints remain, Casey says Iraqis have no real hope of rebuilding a strong stable economy. This is hardly the free and democratic society promised by the Bush administration.

The continued contradiction between the reality of the war and deliberately inaccurate rhetoric has compelled this soldier to turn his personal misfortune into a source of hope. Casey believes a populace armed with knowledge will act to end the unjustified occupation of Iraq. It is here that Casey has placed his hope for a safe return and an end to this war. And it is in Casey that many have placed their hope for humanity.

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Reproductive Tourism Soars in India

Across India, the tale of baby Manhji has made headlines and gripped the nation's attention. Born to a Japanese father and surrogate Indian mother, the two month old is caught in legal limbo. In a way, she has three mothers but none who will raise her, and she cannot return to Japan with her father due to complications of Indian law.

The saga began when Japanese citizens Dr. Ikufumi and Yuki Yamada were unable to conceive a child of their own. They obtained an egg from an anonymous donor and then travelled to India to locate a surrogate mother. In November 2007, the fertilized embryo was implanted into Pritiben of Ahmedabad, and the Yamadas began the nine month wait for their child.

The couple's dream of completing their happy family was dashed when Ikufumi and Yuki divorced just one month before Manjhi's birth. Apparently wanting a complete separation from her old life, Yuki took the additional step of disowning the newborn.

Quite simply, Indian laws have not kept pace with the recent trend of reproductive tourism. The law traditionally favors the mother over the father in a custody battle; in Manjhi's case, the courts have been unable to make a clear statement on who is to be deemed the baby's mother. The biological mother who donated her eggs remains anonymous, the intended mother has severed ties, and the surrogate mother's responsibility ended at childbirth.

The second obstacle is that Indian law requires Ikufumi to adopt his own child because of the circumstances under which she was born, yet because he is a single father, the law has also rendered him ineligible. Without re-marrying, he cannot claim the child that he intended to raise with his former wife.

To complicate matters even further, a Rajasthan-based NGO has stepped into the picture, claiming that Manjhi's status is that of an "abandoned child." Due to the child's uncertain legal status, and because the father is unable to become her lawful guardian, Ikufumi's efforts to take the baby to Tokyo fit the Indian profile of child trafficking.

The Supreme Court has awarded temporary custody of the infant to her 70-year old grandmother, Emiko. However, several issues still need to be sorted out, most importantly procuring travel documents for the baby. As the helpless father shuttles between Japan and India on a tourist visa to battle through the legal intricacies, the grandmother must struggle to survive daily life using only sign language to communicate. She only speaks Japanese.

The case has kicked off a public debate on surrogacy and related issues. First to appear under the spotlight was the fact that surrogacy is already an almost $445 million business in India. (The Indian Council for Medical Research expects profits to reach $6 billion in the coming years.) The country has become a leading service provider seemingly overnight; the past two years alone have seen a 150 percent rise in surrogacy cases in India.

The reasons for the surrogacy boom in India are many. Most foreigners are drawn by the relative low cost. It is estimated that surrogacy costs just $12,000 in India compared to about $70,000 in the US. A 37-year old Russian came to Bhopal because she could limit her expenses to merely $4,500 as opposed to the prohibitive $35,000-45,000 in her own country.

Easy availability of women for surrogacy in India is also a major attraction. Whereas laws in the US and UK do not allow the surrogate woman to charge the childless couple, in India there are no laws preventing her from accepting compensation for renting her womb. This legal framework encourages more women to serve as surrogates, especially those from socio-economically weak backgrounds.

Newspapers and magazines have begun featuring numerous advertisements for 'young, healthy, good-looking lady from decent family for surrogate mother.' The success rate of such ads can be gauged from the fact that within 24 hours of such an advertisement in a leading Hindi daily in Indore, a dozen women came forward to provide their services.

The city of Anand in Gujarat has emerged as a hub for surrogate mothers (Manjhi's case also traces back to Anand). Dr. Nayna Patel, Medical Director of the Akanksha Clinic in Anand is quoted in a report as receiving at least 40-50 requests per month from childless couples the world over. Dr. Dinesh and Dr. Shefali Jain, of the Assisted Reproductive Technology center in Indore, typically receive six domestic surrogacy queries per month. They report that a large number of foreign couples have begun coming to Bhopal and Indore to fulfill their desire to have a child. Similarly, several American, Russian and British women are registered with Dr. Randhir Singh's Bhopal Test Tube Baby Centre for the procedure; the waiting list has already reached eight months.

Another luring factor for surrogacy tourism in India is the lack of restrictive laws. In fact, at the moment there is no law governing surrogacy in India. There is only a 126-page document regulating the technologies used, but a Surrogacy Bill is currently pending in the Indian Parliament that intends to address laws allowing parents to adopt their surrogate child. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) issued National Guidelines for Accreditation, Supervision and Regulation of Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) clinics in India in 2005, but the guidelines are legally non-binding. They are especially hazy on critical issues such as the rights of the surrogate, the minimum age of the surrogate, details about the contracts, informed consent, and adoption requirements.

The issue of legal parentage has been particularly contentious, and for this reason surrogacy remains controversial in nations such as Japan. Other nations have already created clear guidelines: it is illegal in Italy and banned for commercial purposes in Australia, Spain and China while it is permitted with restrictions in the US, France and Germany. The Society of Obstetricians & Gynecologists in Japan is not in its favor, citing, in part, the possibility of custody battles.

The scenario becomes more dismal due to the lack of regulation of ART clinics. Many clinics are believed to be operating networks of professional surrogates and making profits in recruiting their services. In the absence of legal regulations, victimization of both the surrogate and the intended parents can more easily occur.

Of course, there are many ART clinics operating on Indian Council of Medical Research guidelines as well. In such places, the surrogate mother is made to sign a contract with the childless couple. But even then, counter legal experts, it is not clear whether such a contract has any legal sanctity, hence the need to enact surrogacy laws. This opinion was vociferously aired by speaker after speaker at a recent National Moot Court competition organized by Rizvi Law College in Mumbai.

The Union Health Minister, Mr. Anmbumani Ramadoss, also recognizes the need of the hour. In an interview with, the minister is quoted as saying, "In the light of the recent controversy (involving a Japanese couple and an Indian surrogate mother), I think it's time we had a law on surrogacy. It's become more than sporadic and is lending itself to commercial exploitation like the kidney (transplant). In two months, we'll put up a draft regulation on our website for public viewing and debate, and then take it to the law ministry."

For surrogates and childless couples alike, such regulation could not arrive too soon. Although the custody battle in Manjhi's case arose due to a very unexpected turn of events, the Yamada family's tragic struggle reveals many holes that remain to be addressed by the Indian legal system. As countless more childless couples make their way to India for less expensive procedures, they should be aware that ignorance of this legal culture could exact a high price. For Ikufumi Yamada, the decision to create his own family using an Indian surrogate mother was one that changed his life forever.


The Harsh Economics of the Global Water Crisis

Every morning when you wake up and perform what you may perceive as insignificant chores, you might not realize that for 2.6 billion people around the world, your morning shower or just one flush of the toilet is the essence of luxury. The United Nations has declared that every human being is entitled to 20 liters of safe water every day. In Europe, we have the privilege of using 200 liters per day, while in the US, the average person uses up to 400. The average person in the developing world tries to manage on less than 10 liters of contaminated water to do all their daily chores.

From August 17-23, the Stockholm International Water Institute hosted the 4th annual World Water Week, bringing together 2,500 of the world's leading water experts to discuss the "progress and prospects on water" with a focus on sanitation. Notable honorary dignitaries, presidents, laureates and ministers discussed the world's water challenges and revealed the latest innovations for addressing global water issues. I attended a range of seminars that presented strategies to tackle the current global water and sanitation crisis. Confronted with some very alarming findings, I was profoundly moved to recognize that water can be and is a cause for human degradation.

Twenty percent of the world's population faces water shortages and lives without sustainable access to safe drinking water. At a time of worsening food crises, water resource disputes and global climate change, they further endure poor health due to poor sanitation. The overall water balance has been tipped, resulting in a multitude of conflicts. Estimates show that that global water consumption is increasing at twice the rate of population growth. As Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical Company has pointed out in his work, "Water is the oil of this century but the key difference is, water has no substitute."

Water and sanitation go hand in hand. According to the World Health Organization, 80% of all world sickness is attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. It is our era's greatest scandal that 1.6 million children die of preventable illness each year. Every day, 5,000 children die from diarrhoeal diseases related to unsafe water.

In 2002 the United Nations set a Millennium Development Goal to halve the number of people without access to sanitation and water by 2015. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared 2008 as the year to combat the global sanitation crisis and has labeled the securing of safe water and sanitation for all as "one of the most daunting challenges faced today." However, with the current slow rate of progress, this global target will not be met in our lifetime. As an example, Sub-Saharan Africa will not meet these goals anytime before 2076. Reviewing progress against the goals set in 2002, it is saddening to witness that six years later 55 nations are failing dreadfully to reach their water related targets.

The economic impact of poor sanitation is shocking. The most recent report by the Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP) revealed that in 2006, the impact of dire sanitation cost Indonesia $6.3 billion, or 2.3% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Additional findings by the WSP found that in Africa, an estimated 5% of the continent's GDP is lost to illness and death caused by unsafe water and the absence of sanitation facilities. According to the Asian Development Bank, "it is more costly to not care about sanitation than to do something about it."

With all the technological innovations available and money spent on the Water Week event, I found myself wondering how the global water and sanitation problem has escalated to this level of a disaster? With only $9.5 billion a year, or just one-third of the annual global spending on bottled water, the world could meet the MDG sanitation target by 2015 and provide everyone with a toilet by 2025.

The truth of the matter is that even though investment in sanitation is still considered unaffordable, it's not. According to Water Aid's Chief Executive Barbara Frost it's just not as "politically sexy" - there is enough money around, "but the key issue is how to direct it." So while water continues to be seen as a political priority, sanitation is not. Amy Leung, an urban development specialist from the Asian Development Bank explains, "Health doesn't cut it. It's all about the money, and sanitation is definitely not on the top agenda. But we aim to prove to governments that it's costing them economic growth. We want to argue that sanitation is a good investment and we should approach the ministers of finance rather than health."

R. Andreas Kraemer, Director of the Ecologic Institute for Berlin and Vienna, says "there is no one solution for the world - we need regional policies and national change, therefore good governance is a key factor in solving this issue. Policies are very good in optimizing the current situation but do not address the future. We need to develop policies that can be implemented as we learn. However many of the technocrats in charge of water management solutions want to keep their power intact by controlling policy. Parliamentarians rarely understand the engineer's complex work and therefore contribute little to solving the crisis."

It always seems so easy to quantify what the developing world needs, but as a spectator at Water Week, I couldn't help but wonder why the voices of the people who are actually affected by the harsh water resource cycles were not included. Why are people who live with these struggles not here to share their needs and thoughts about these issues? I highly doubt that any of the week's attendees have ever experienced the harshness of water shortage or lack of sanitary facilities. Have any of them ever had to defecate out in the open and quench their thirst from the same pond?

The water crisis is driven by many factors such as inequality and poverty, where the burden falls most heavily on women. At a seminar produced by Safer World and Gender Water Alliance (GWA), the water conflicts in Uganda and Sudan were presented and discussed. In Uganda, the competition for water resources can resurrect historical animosity and cause conflicts between communities. Issues also arise as a result of disagreements over whether the water should be utilized for domestic or agricultural purposes.

In Uganda, as in most African countries, women are by social tradition required to fetch water as the task is considered highly embarrassing for a man. Girls in Uganda are often denied education because they are tasked with carrying water from far distances. The Equity of Inclusion Adviser Rukeya Ahmed of Water Aid believes the whole burden of water and sanitation is feminized but the management of it is male focused. "However I don't believe a shift to a female-only focus will lead to fairness and sustainability in water utility; there should be a division of labor."

According to GWA, gender is a key variable in all water sectors. They say research and practical experience demonstrates that effective, efficient and equitable management of water resources is only achieved when women and men are equally involved in the consultation processes as well as in the management and implementation of water related services.

Safer World suggests a "conflict sensitive approach" as a solution to sustainable water resources management and water conflict resolution. They revealed that communities in Uganda appreciate this approach because it creates a platform for both men and women to discuss ways to minimize the negative impacts of community conflicts and inequalities.

The UN's Declaration of Human Rights states that every human being has the right to life. Water is the essence of life yet nobody seems to respect its importance as such. At the end of the World Water Week, I had reached the conclusion that in order to change the world we really need to start by talking about the silent dilemmas around us. It is important to realize that this global crisis cannot be solved with a "quick fix."

Access to safe drinking water or sanitation facilities should not be a luxury, nor an act of charity, but an obligation by the global community to ensure that no person is denied this right. I believe that in order to address the needs of billions who live without proper water and sanitation we need strong leadership because as the great human rights lawyer Parul Sharma once said, "it is more difficult to combat the poverty of the mind than material poverty." We need to overcome the stigmas related to the sanitation crisis and educate all people of its critical consequences.

Millions of Women Voters Disenfranchised

All over America, there were plenty of reasons to celebrate women last month: August marked the 88th anniversary of the 19th Amendment's ratification, which gave women the right to vote. Women's Equality Day, which was on August 26, commemorated that victory. There are now more women in the U.S. Congress than ever (88) and 2008 was a year when a woman came within a hair's breadth of becoming a major ticket presidential nominee.

But this year, there's also a real threat to the voting rights of millions of low-income women, and it is in direct violation of Federal law.

Take, for instance, the story of Dionne O'Neal. Ms. O'Neal is a resident of St. Louis, Missouri, where she works part-time while pursuing her GED. Like millions of Americans, Ms. O'Neal receives Food Stamps and government health care benefits to help meet her basic needs. If anybody has a deep concern about the future of economic policy, she does. But her right to have a say in government and what it does is being thwarted because Missouri, like many other states, has long ignored federal voter registration requirements designed to reach low-income voters.

The most disadvantaged women in our society are the least likely to express their voice in the political process. Ms. O'Neal is just one of the 32.5 million women -- 31 percent of all eligible women -- who were not registered to vote at their current address in 2006. Low-income women like Ms. O'Neal are disproportionately represented in that number. In 2006, only 63 percent of women in households making $25,000 or less were registered to vote compared to 81 percent of women in households making $75,000 or more.

There is, though, a federal law on the books to help reverse this trend.

Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993 to increase the number of eligible citizens registering to vote in federal elections. Recognizing that an unrepresentative electorate is one of the greatest threats to a fair democratic system, the NVRA was drafted specifically to ensure equal access to voter registration. One of the law's provisions, Section 7, requires public assistance agencies to offer voter registration services to clients.

But many people eligible to register under Section 7 don't know it, because too many states aren't properly implementing the law.

While over 2.6 million voters registered at public assistance agencies in the first few years of the law's implementation, agency-based registration has declined significantly over the past 10 years even though more and more people are receiving public benefits such as Food Stamps. Field investigations conducted by Demos and our partners have revealed violations of the law in states across the country.

Women comprise the vast majority of public assistance recipients and thus are the primary beneficiaries of Section 7. A staggering 90 percent of adult recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are women. Nearly 8.8 million Food Stamp recipients are women. Sixty-nine percent of those receiving Medicaid are women.

And women are likely to be the primary caregivers for children and receive benefits on behalf of their dependents. Not surprisingly, according to the US Census, over three quarters of those who manage to register to vote at public assistance agencies are female.

Now more than ever, implementation and compliance with the too-long ignored National Voter Registration Act is a women's issue. The most disadvantaged members of society are least likely to participate in politics but arguably have the most to gain-low-income women lag behind in education, have less access to healthcare and affordable housing, have fewer assets, and experience more job insecurity.

The current economic downturn only makes matters worse for low income women, as single mothers have the highest unemployment rate among all men and women. Various policies, including enhanced educational opportunities and increased paid family leave, have been proposed to improve the lives of low-income women and their families. Unfortunately, politicians will not respond properly to the needs of these women if they do not exercise their political power.

There are increasing signs that states will no longer be able to ignore their responsibilities under the law. In a lawsuit brought by Ms. O'Neal, a federal judge in Missouri recently ruled that the state's Department of Social Services is in violation of the NVRA and ordered the state to comply.

Ensuring that voter registration is offered to the millions of women who participate in public assistance programs is an effective and efficient way to draw low-income women into the political process in unprecedented numbers, providing them with the voice they desperately need.

Abuse Survivors Face Systemic Struggles as Resources for Help Dwindle

Tanya McLeod's marriage was hurting, but her husband thought he could make it up to her when he brought her a cute dog as a "peace offering." The family stayed together and the dog grew up alongside her children -- until the day her husband decided to destroy the animal with his bare hands.

At that point, McLeod says, "I knew that he was capable of killing me."

McLeod recalls in an interview how the storm of violence began building soon after they were married. Her life was comfortable on the surface: a decent apartment, a solid job with a media company that supported the household as he bounced from job to job. But her husband's grip kept tightening -- from isolating her in their home to controlling her bank account -- to slapping, kicking, choking, pushing his knees into her pregnant belly.

But when McLeod finally decided to leave, she says, she plunged into another barrage of trauma that would last for over two years: unresponsive counselors who turned her away when she sought emergency shelter; working through the police and court systems to prosecute her abuser; dealing with child-welfare agents investigating whether her three young sons were safe with her; and the loss of her job amid the overwhelming stress.

"My whole world was turned upside down," she says. "It was like I was being punished for his actions." She has since joined the New York-based activist group Voices of Women Organizing Project, advocating for policy changes in a social-service system that often leaves survivors to fend for themselves.

More than a decade after Congress passed the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), abuse survivors face devastating silence in Washington. While the needs for legal protection, shelter and other social supports swell in communities across the country, public resources for responding to the crisis lag far behind.

Last year, Congress slashed millions of dollars from key programs dealing with domestic violence, including civil legal assistance and preventative community-education programs. The White House is now pushing even deeper cuts in its budget proposal for fiscal year 2009.

As grants trickle down to organizations in the coming months, service providers are bracing for deep funding shortfalls. Allison Randall, policy director for the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, says, "We're going to look at a serious crisis, for everything from basic services -- making sure that, at two in the morning if you're in danger, you have a place to go -- to the services that are really getting out there trying to take the next steps to end domestic and sexual violence."

Growing Gaps

Despite fiscal tightening, VAWA's passage in the mid-1990s seems to have marked a turning point. According to federal data, the rate of non-fatal intimate-partner violence against women fell by about 60 percent from 1993 to 2005, with parallel declines in related homicides. Yet Washington has consistently under-funded the law's programs, and also restrained related funding streams under the Victims of Crime Act Fund and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act. VAWA's funding pool remains hundreds of millions of dollars short of what Congress authorized when it renewed the law in 2005.

Though some new domestic-violence initiatives, such as services for youth, got funding boosts last year, core programs for law enforcement and legal assistance lost several million dollars. Congress also cut $35 million from the spending allowance for the Victims of Crime Act fund -- money drawn from prosecution-related fees and fines to support the work of thousands of victim-service agencies nationwide. The White House now wants to further shrink VAWA's main funding pool, tied to the Justice Department appropriations, from roughly $400 million in fiscal 2008 to $280 million.

The declining numbers translate into stark human consequences.

In Ohio, threadbare funding has pushed some service groups toward collapse. Nancy Neylon, executive director of the advocacy coalition Ohio Domestic Violence Network, says some shelters cannot afford to stay fully staffed 24 hours a day, and one recently shut down after a modest increase in the state's minimum wage made it impossible to maintain its staff.

"By 2010," she predicts, "there may well be a number of shelters that are just not able to survive any longer."

In the courts, Neylon adds, a lack of free legal aid could foreclose a woman's chances of fighting for child custody, obtaining court-ordered protection against her abuser -- or, in the case of an undocumented immigrant survivor, petitioning the government for legal status.

"Almost every single step that a victim takes," Neylon says, "if there's not somebody to help them, explain the options, go through the process, it's anybody's guess as to what's going to happen."

Legal Abuse

Sometimes an abuser may deal the cruelest blow in a courtroom.

Years ago, D.G., a 51 year old New York resident, broke off her relationship with her abusive boyfriend, but he insisted on sharing custody of their baby daughter, Debbie (name has been changed). His harassment and aggression continued during his visits, she recalls, so she went to family court in hopes of formally sorting out her custody rights.

Represented by a private attorney (as a manager at a local company, she wasn't poor enough to qualify for free legal aid), D.G. tried to make the case that Debbie was unsafe in her father's care. She cited his past treatment of her, his routine neglect of tasks like diaper changing, and later on, evidence that Debbie had been molested by his girlfriend's older son. The child welfare agency reports that an investigation had shown D.G.'s initial complaint to be credible and was, incredibly, provided to the judge before he determined custody. But somehow the father, backed by his lawyer, persuaded the judge to let the little girl live with him.

Now, she gets to see her nine-year-old daughter on Wednesdays and weekends.

D.G., who is also active with Voices of Women -- though she requested her identity be concealed for this story -- says gaps in the social-service system leave many survivors like her defenseless in court. Throughout the process, she recalls, no one ever stepped in to help her manage her case or deal with the judge.

"I was abused by the court system, and so was my daughter," she says. Today, she continues, with tens of thousands of dollars in legal debt piled on top emotional exhaustion, "I don't have any money to go to family court. I have to keep my house going, so my daughter has a place to visit."

"How many other mothers go through this?" she asks.

Impossible Choices

The answer is as unsettling as the question. According to the NNEDV's nationwide survey of social-service providers, within a 24-hour period, some 53,000 adults and children received services like shelter and legal counseling -- but more than 7,700 requests for help went unmet. Beyond frontline emergency services, the survey found that many survivors are shut out of supportive housing programs, which help families transition toward self-sufficiency. In one day, transitional housing facilities turned away about 1,750 requests due to lack of space.

Advocates warn that each closed door leads a survivor into deeper trouble: another missed day of work, another trip to the emergency room, another night spent with her abuser because the only other option is sleeping in a car.

And when money is tight, service providers must triage needs. Legal advocates may have to prioritize survivors in immediate physical danger or those with limited English ability, and others must simply wait. Shelters may have to scale back counseling services to keep their doors open.

In Washtenaw County, Michigan, SafeHouse Center/, a service agency for abuse and sexual assault survivors, has seen its annual client population of several thousand grow by about 50 percent since 2003-but Executive Director Barbara Niess says that too often, the center is a last resort. Many survivors come forward only after a brutal crisis has triggered police intervention.

Niess traces a hypothetical timeline of domestic abuse from the first strike to "the morgue." "About 75 percent of the way down," she says, "that's where we come in."

At the same time, she notes SafeHouse's funding from both public and private grants has declined by about 40 percent in recent years, leaving the staff increasingly hard-pressed to be anything but a last resort.

The organization has avoided completely eliminating programs, Niess says, but has instead had to limit the time spent with each client. So after a few weeks in a shelter, a survivor may find herself on her own coping with longer-term needs, which could range from psychotherapy for her traumatized children to securing a job in the weakening local economy.

"We're purely a crisis intervention," she says. "We do what we can to get her on her feet. We're not able to work on the long haul with the resources we currently have."

At Safe Horizon, a New York City-based social service agency that handles thousands of domestic violence cases each year, the small legal staff has seen its VAWA budget decline by about $200,000 in the current grant cycle, from 2007 to 2009. Jean Norton, senior director of legal services, says that funding issues are nothing new for the organization, and the staff generally manages to work within its financial constraints.

Still, although clients are still receiving essential services, thinning budgets impose a subtle but broad obstacle to the organization's mission. There are simply never enough resources to cover all of the crosscutting needs in each case, or in the communities Safe Horizon serves, which include low-income and immigrant populations.

An attorney may, for example, be able to help a woman obtain a protection order to keep her batterer away, but may not have the funding to defend her against a landlord threatening eviction because her partner isn't around to pay the rent.

Funding limitations could also hinder outreach efforts. In the past, many survivors have made initial contact with Safe Horizon attorneys at public intake sessions outside of local courtrooms. But overstretched attorneys now have less time and energy to devote to reaching people who remain outside the system.

While the staff keeps doing its job, Norton says, it just becomes harder, with attorneys absorbing funding shortfalls through "the amount of stress they feel, the amount of hours they're working, the vicarious trauma--because they're expected to do more with less. And we try to make it so that our clients don't feel the pain."

Throughout the social service infrastructure, advocates say budget strains not only hurt service providers and families, but undermine a critical synergy that drives comprehensive intervention: legal services work more effectively when clients receive basic social support and counseling. And the faster survivors work through their overlapping obstacles, from the court process to finding an apartment, the faster they stabilize and move out of the shelter system. That in turn frees up room for new survivors.

"Victims need every door in order to access service," says Marivic Mabanag, executive director of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.

For an individual survivor, the impact of federal budget cuts is hard to measure in dollars. It may come down to how she weighs the perils of trying to escape against a familiar nightmare.

"We are increasing the level of risk and danger to the victim," Mabanag says. "In situations like that -- where they have no options, no housing, no emergency shelter to go to -- they're forced to stay with their batterer."

SoundBytes and Trivia Dominate Election08

Are you bored yet?

Have you seen one talking head too many?

Are your ears still ringing with the sounds of one primary projection after another?

Does exit poll sound like a dirty word?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then fear not. You are very probably not alone. We are one year on from the launch of the party nomination campaigns. By the time the next President is elected in November 2008, we will have survived nearly two years of constant and intense political bombardment. In a country that is big on instant gratification and where attention spans can be shorter than one episode of American Idol, this is to put it mildly, a problem.

For as much as Republican and Democratic candidates have bandied about the word change -- as if it was the latest "in" word, something a teenager might use in lieu of "whatever" or "as if" or "wicked" -- the process itself is unchanged. The candidates' policies and positions are forced to take a back seat because the elections process itself is flawed.

It's quite simply a matter of overexposure.

Christophe Alévêque, a French comedian and political satirist, says most people believe what you tell them, especially if you repeat it. Most people do believe what you tell them, especially if you repeat it.

The televised debates, the caucuses, the primaries certainly add up to provide that repetitive factor, however the drawback is that voters are not given the time to digest any of the information they are bombarded with. This is especially problematic when faced with selecting a party nominee because the nuances in policy and position are so subtle. The differences between Democrats are relatively minor when compared to their differences with Republicans and vice versa. When party candidates disagree with each other it is normally over a difference in methodology and not a difference of objective. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both promised to make health care nearly universal, yet the measures that they propose to achieve this aim, differ.

It is exceedingly difficult for even the most dedicated citizen to remain completely and actively engaged in every element of the campaign process. Every time you pick up a newspaper or turn on the television, you are confronted with more sound bites, more talking heads and their opinions, more of everything that has turned so many people off to politics altogether.

And those who don't simply tune out find themselves falling back on the cornerstone of the American political process: personality politics. They focus on character traits like trustworthiness, experience and leadership skills and by doing so, we find ourselves right back where we started, taking the easy way out.

It is much easier to make an election a popularity contest than to center it on complex and controversial issues and this suits the established order just fine. The special interests and the lobbyists -- those people and institutions who wield power in the political framework without having to account for it -- do not want the American people to think.

You've only to look at how the media is manipulated; you've only to see the utter rubbish that passes as television programming in this country to understand how desperate the establishment is for America's masses to remain uninformed. It would be an inconvenience to the politicians and the corporations that they go out of their way to advantage, if all of a sudden the general populace demanded concrete answers and was no longer a malleable mass of humanity.

The US is the only so-called developed country where calling someone articulate is more likely to be considered an insult than a compliment. And for as long as you can have cute, little Southern belles on a TV show called Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader expressing shock upon finding out that Hungary is a country and not just what happens when you haven't eaten, then America will continue to be its own worst enemy.

There's another French proverb that says the more things change, the more they stay the same. It certainly applies here. You look at the Democrats and on the surface it appears that voting either for a black man or a woman is a pretty radical change. You look at the Republicans and see John McCain in a strong position to secure the nomination despite ambivalence if not down right antagonism from large factions of the party. McCain is not a Republican's Republican; he is more moderate if not more liberal than many party members are comfortable with. If he wins the party nomination -- as appears increasingly likely -- the hardliners will either suck it up and vote for him or abstain from voting altogether.

It all speaks of disenchantment with the way that politics have been run in this country lately. And yet there is no major change in the process. Democracy is based on the idea of a majority rule, of government run by the people and for the people. The political process must reach out to and involve the majority of the American population. It has to empower them to make judgments based on a comprehensive understanding of the issues. The process has to be broken down -- not dumbed down -- so that it is accessible, so that citizens want to get involved and don't feel like they need a degree from an Ivy League school in order to do so.

Unless and until these changes are made, change, like any other "in" word, will be replaced with something else.

The Great Indian Gender Divide

With a booming economy, an exponentially growing Information Technology (IT) sector and surging economic prosperity amongst its 300 million-plus middle class, India seems poised for superpower status.

However, beneath the spectacular "India Shining" story lurks an area of darkness -- the unequal status of its women, who constitute more than half its demographic. The latest official document to highlight this inequity is the 2007 Gender-Gap Index Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF); it places India at the bottom of the global pyramid.

Of 128 countries evaluated by the WEF, India ranks way down at 114th, followed, among others, by Yemen, Chad, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Botswana are all positioned better than India. In terms of economic participation and opportunity, India, with its surging economy, has done even worse than last year -- it is now ranked at the 122nd position. Meanwhile, its overall rank has slipped from 102nd to 114th this year. In other words, Indian women are even more marginalized than they were a year ago.

It's interesting to analyze the WEF report: While India scores an overall 59.4 percent on gender equality, it only manages an abysmal 39.8 percent on economic participation and opportunity. In terms of wage equality, India ranks 59th, with 67 percent gender equality; shockingly, given India's high tech boom, for professional and technical workers, it comes in at 97th (down in the 27th percentile). While India has a 36 percent female participation in the overall labor force, for professional and technical workers the figure is an abysmal 21 percent.

The WEF Index assesses countries on how well they are dividing their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations. By identifying those countries that are role models in dividing these resources equitably between women and men, the index should serve as a catalyst for greater awareness and exchange between policymakers. Broadly, the survey considers the proportion of resources and opportunities made available to women on educational, economic, political and health parities.

On economic parameters, the only six countries faring worse than India are Iran (123rd), Bahrain (124th), Oman (125th), Pakistan (126th), Saudi Arabia (127th) and Yemen (128th). Among the fast-developing countries, Brazil (62nd), Russia (16th) and China (60th) have all been ranked well above India.

Given India's apparent material prosperity and double-digit growth, why then do we score abysmally on the gender parity front? The answer is a curious cocktail of social conditioning, sociological beliefs and an ambivalent legal system. According to New Delhi-based sociologist and social activist Madhusree Gupta, "Despite the so-called women's emancipation, the Indian mindset remains a feudal and a patriarchal one. Even amongst the progressive strata of society, women are treated as second-class citizens. They are victims of archaic gender stereotyping patterns which perceive men as breadwinners and 'the lord of the house' while women are relegated to the role of subservient 'homemakers.'"

This ossified mindset is best demonstrated across vast swathes of the Indian countryside; there women are looked upon as a liability, at best as machines to birth and nurture sons. As a result, the sex ratio in India has plummeted to a near-genocidal level: families are unconscionably killing girl children before, or immediately after, they are born.

Even in prosperous states like Punjab and Haryana, for instance, the sex ratio has fallen to 700 girls for every 1,000 boys while the WHO recommendation is 952 females for every 1,000 males. The fallout of this social phenomena is that very often men in these regions find it tough to even find brides. Ergo, brides have to be smuggled from other states with different cultures and traditions, which leads to a cultural mismatch and other sociological problems.

Shockingly, punitive action against offenders of female feticide laws has been abysmal. In the 14 years since the Pre-Conception and Pre Natal Diagnostics Techniques (PC/PNDT) Act of 1994 has existed, only 406 cases have been registered against offenders across India. Out of these, only two convictions have taken place.

Even setting aside unscrupulous doctors who conduct fetal abortions to make a quick buck, the Indian laws against fetal determination lack real teeth. Under pressure from activists, the Indian government outlawed the use of ultrasounds to reveal fetal gender in 1994. The penalties were then upped in 2002 (three years in jail and a $230 fine for the first offense and five years imprisonment and $1,160 for the second). But despite this, easy accessibility to modern technologies like ultrasonography and amniocentesis to determine the gender of fetuses have fuelled the trend of female feticide. If the fetus is found to be a girl, families have no qualms about terminating the pregnancy.

Nobel laureate economist Dr. Amartya Sen underscores the phenomenon of "the missing women," noting that more than 100 million females are now missing from the populations of India and China. Sen argues that sex selection "both reflects and reinforces women's low social status, which -- beyond its intrinsic cruelty -- impedes the development of democracy and prosperity in male-skewed nations."

Apart from a skewed sex ratio, India's maternal mortality rate (MMR) is also disconcerting. In fact, despite high budgets in the Reproductive Child Health Program-II of the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry, India's MMR continues to be unacceptably high and has shown no signs of waning over the past decade. Even after 60 years after independence, just 43 percent of births in India occur in medical institutions as compared to 97 per cent in Sri Lanka. Unsurprisingly, as many as 540 Indian women die during child birth per day versus less than 100 in Sri Lanka.

According to UNICEF, every five minutes an Indian woman dies of pregnancy-related causes. It is estimated that for each woman who dies, 30 others develop chronic, debilitating conditions that seriously affect the quality of life. For every 1,000,000 live births in India, 407 mothers die -- a number four times higher than the National Population Policy (NPP) 2010 goal of restricting the incidence to 100.

While there are multifarious reasons for the high MMR, including early marriage and childbirth, lack of adequate health care facilities, inadequate nutrition and the absence of skilled medical personnel, the problem is aggravated by critical medical staff posts at the village level not being filled. Hundreds of doctor and trained health worker positions remain vacant.

Undeniably, the Indian government has fallen short of bridging the gender divide; its women-centric policies and projects are woefully inadequate. Take education, for instance. The 48 percent literacy rate of Indian women compares poorly against 73 percent for its males. Only Pakistan (with a female literacy rate of 35.4 percent), Nepal (34.9 percent), Bangladesh (40.8 percent) and Afghanistan (12.6 percent) trail us. The Global Monitoring Report suggests that India, Nigeria and Pakistan account for 27 percent of the world's out-of-school children, a majority of them female.

This lopsided growth has its genesis in India's social structure, where girls are expected to toil at home while the boys are marched off to good `English-medium' schools. Unless we equip our girls with quality education, how can sustainable progress become a reality?

What is disquieting is that despite commendable economic progress, India is one of the few countries where the position of women has actually worsened over time. Our overall rank in the gender gap index is now 114 out of 128, when it was 98th out of 115 countries in 2006. In other words, we now rank 102nd out of 115.

Also, except for the sub-index of political empowerment, where we are ranked 21st, our performance is abysmal when measured against the other three parameters -- economic participation and opportunity (122nd out of 128), educational attainment (116th) and health and survival (126th). Only Armenia and Azerbaijan fall behind us.

The world community is increasingly becoming sensitized to the benefits of gender equality. A whittling down of the male-female employment gap has revitalized economic growth in Europe over the last decade. Experts estimate that this will buoy the US GDP by as much as 9 percent, the Eurozone GDP by 13 percent and the Japanese GDP by a whopping 16 percent. One doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to deduce that in India -- where the disparity is monstrous -- the gains can be substantive.

However, amidst all this gravitas, there's still a glimmer of hope. The Indian government's proposed roadmap to ensure that at least 33 percent of all benefits of government schemes filter down to women during the Eleventh Plan period augurs well. Ditto for voluntary efforts by some NGOs and the corporate sector, which are ramping up measures to ensure gender equality in the work place.

Moreover, recent mass sensitization measures by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare -- like launching public awareness campaigns that if doctors are caught participating in female feticide cases, they will be charged with criminal infractions, and so encouraging the public to report such cases, etc. -- are efficacious ways to set right the gender equation.

Undeniably, Indian society and its government will have to work in synergy to tackle the gender inequity issue. If we are keen to get onto the highway to growth and development, we'll first have to ensure a safe and equal place for our women.

Only then can we hope to become a true global superpower.

Is the Bush Stimulus Going to Help You?

The rhetoric surrounding George W. Bush's economic stimulus package, as boastfully "bi-partisan" as it is (we are, after all, in an election year), indicates a complete lack of comprehension of the difference between this 'national' economy and the 'people's' economy, and the extent of the gap between the two.

The unveiling of his plan was classic Bush: state something ambiguous about a $140 billion adrenaline shot, then have your cronies act as wingmen. Hence, at last Friday's press conference, Treasury Secretary and former Goldman Sachs CEO, Hank Paulson was left fending off uncomfortable questions like: would the plan help "elderly people on fixed incomes?" His answer: "The Christmas season has come and gone."

The national economy, as measured by large scale figures simply does not represent individual citizens' economic circumstances. That's why debate over whether we are in a recession or not misses the point of everyday financial realities for most of the population. According to the standard definition of recession (two quarters or more of a decline in GDP), we're not there. In which case, Bush and Paulson are technically right in saying the economy is simply 'slow'.

But, that's been far from the case if we consider the people's economy (the people - as in all the American citizens who don't fall into that upper percent of the nation's wealth bracket). And very little in the President's, or in most of the presidential candidates' plans, will change this.

The highest bidder mentality of Wall Street and its elite private equity groups has exacerbated the sub prime and regular housing market crisis. As investment banks stuffed loans into packages of toxic speculative waste, actual people lost their homes, hurt further by media attention on those declining home values, which didn't thrill new buyers.

In the process of trying to keep up escalating payments on their homes and home equity loans (backed by falling home values), people increased their credit card balances, suffering requisite late fees and higher rates, and ravaging 401K plans in desperation, during a time in which the values of those plans shrunk along with the falling stock market.

Don't get me wrong. No one would scoff at an $800 tax rebate check in the mail, but at best, it may provide a month of relief. Meanwhile, it does nothing strategically to fix the barrage of corporate gouging that continues unabated and unregulated by the Washington powers that be (including those running for office). Seriously, wouldn't it kill you if your health insurance premium rose just as you were about to cash that government rebate?

Home prices fell by a record 6.7 percent over the year and with legions of unsold homes on the market, they won't be rising any time soon. The largest mortgage lenders are trying to sell themselves to the banks that once funded them. And banks keep writing down loan values on their books faster than you can say "class action lawsuit." Credit card companies are starting to see the late payment and defaults that happen when people have maxed out their cards to pay their rising mortgages.

Unemployment has jumped to 5 percent, or 2001 'recession' levels. And, if more firms fire more employees to 'cut expenses', that number will rise. This means people will buy less, which will hurt corporations, who will then fire more people.

We can debate forever whether the average $300 tax rebate in 2001 that the administration claims stimulated the economy did or not. (We can debate whether a similar rebate will or will not this time around.)

But whatever it achieved for the national corporate economy, it did not halt the rise in basic living expenses, health care costs or tuition. More than one out of five middle-class families have less than $100 per week remaining after paying for basic living expenses. In nearly one out of four middle-class families, at least one family member lacks health insurance. And almost one in three families doesn't have more than a high-school education.

It did not put a leash on credit card companies. American credit card debt has tripled in the past two decades, with African American and Latino households carrying a higher percentage of debt than White ones. Americans over 65, targeted by predatory credit card companies, experienced the greatest increase in debt carried. Meanwhile, industry deregulation means there are no rate or fee caps. Credit card issuers raked in $8 billion of fees between 2004 and 2005. To cope with the rising credit card debt, Americans raided the equity in their homes, whose values seemed to be only rising - until they stopped. From 2001 to 2006, homeowners cashed out $1.2 trillion in equity. Those loans will need to be repaid.

It did not halt the increase in the wealth gap. Over the past two decades, wealth in the top 2 percent of the country has doubled; in the bottom quarter, it has declined.

It did not halt the fraud or questionable lending practices of the housing market players. The list of investigations has just begun.

It did not halt the decrease in average American wages per hour.

It did not halt the unemployment gap between white and black Americans. In general, the black unemployment rate is twice that of whites, more in recessionary times. The black prison rate also rises with the unemployment gap.

It did not halt the life expectancy gap. The rich live longer than the poor by 6 years.

It did not halt the deletion of employee retirement plans. Only one out of five private sector workers has a traditional pension. It did not replenish the Social Security system. None of the candidates has addressed pensions or social security in any meaningful way - saying 'we'll fix it' is not meaningful.

Bush acknowledged that "continued instability in the housing and financial markets could cause additional harm to our overall economy." However this is a convenient excuse to push his last economic hurrah - making his tax cuts permanent. The president behind the biggest corporate tax breaks in two decades also wants to "bolster business investment and consumer spending." That doesn't mean he cares about the average person's quality of life.

But, we don't expect more from him. From the 'candidates of change' however, we should demand more meaningful policy that truly enriches the main street economy.

Cap credit card rates and fees, and make credit card companies offer repayment schemes at lower rates that aren't designed to further screw borrowers. Remove prepayment penalties for primary homebuyers and make banks proactively extend offers on loans with reduced interest rates (now at 2005 levels).

(Note to my bank: how come you're not passing on the love from today's 75 basis point rate cut to my mortgage rate?)

Get rid of insurance companies as an impediment to affordable health care. Either shift the burden of retirement risk back to the corporations that get the tax breaks, or don't give them tax breaks. Increase the education budget dramatically, so that more minorities, working poor and middle class can get advanced degrees. Tax private equity titans at the same levels as regular citizens.

Place the focus back on the majority of the population: increase collective wealth and not the wealth gap, and GDP will follow - on a more stable, long term platform.

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