Monday, January 24, 2011

Going Through Death to Give Birth

Seventeen years old and visiting a doctor for the first time in her life, Amira, married a few months back, finds out that she is pregnant. She remembers that about two years back, the health worker had advised her to take vitamins because she used to feel fatigued. Today, the doctor tells her that she is anaemic. Her blood test suggests that her haemoglobin level is as low as 6g/dl. The doctor tells Amira’s mother-in-law that she will have to be careful about Amira’s food and care, otherwise, Amira and her foetus may not be able to pull through. Amira’s mother-in-law is insisting that the doctor should give her daughter-in-law some tablets. But the doctor replies that it may not be a good idea because Amira is already suffering from diarrhoea and the medicines used in cases of anaemia have a tendency to cause constipation or diarrhoea may aggravate her condition. Amira is angry. She can’t understand why she has to go through this when other girls her age are going to the school, and do not have to worry about anything. The doctor tells her that she is in this situation because she is married and pregnant while her friends may not be. He explains that at 17 she is still growing; her own body requirement of red blood [haemoglobin] is high. Pregnancy at this age means far more increased demand for red blood [haemoglobin] to meet the needs of the foetus. Since her body is producing more blood to meet the needs of the foetus without having enough iron in her food, it is causing wateriness in the blood. “it is like adding water to blood to meet the quantity requirement but it reduces redness in blood and causes all the trouble that she is facing”, the doctor explained.

Amira’s village falls within the service catchment area of a health centre. The centre is not far from her home. “It is useful for children”, says Amira about the centre. Her family did not want her going to the centre when Amira complained of dizziness a couple of times. This centre has no facilities for women’s health other than an examination room. Amira did not complain about it, “I don’t like to go to the health centre, anyway”. But her family took her to the centre when she developed persistent irregular bowel movements. The health worker prescribed her medicines meant for diarrhoea. Amira’s mother-in-law patiently listened to her grumblings and cajoled her to take the medicines as prescribed by the health worker. Two days later Amira fainted. Her husband collected his savings and decided to take her to a private hospital in a neighbouring town. Her mother-in-law gathered a few things that may be needed in case they have to hospitalize Amira. She loves Amira. She frequently asked her son to be gentle with Amira and showered extra affection on her thinking she is a delicate girl who is having difficulty adjusting to the married life.

Safiah, Amira’s mother-in-law is around 40 years old. She is dressed in a black abaya and a black pair of gloves which reflect her family’s modest condition. The opening in her naqab for the eyes has lost its shape and is partly covering her left eye. When the doctor was explaining Amira’s condition, she could feel a lump in her throat. She couldn’t help breaking into loud sobs when Amira’s angry voice asked why she has to go through this. Safiah is not convinced with the doctor’s explanation. So while the doctor was explaining she interjected many times to tell the doctor as well as Amira that it is women’s fate to go through death to give birth. Like many traditional Yemeni women, Safiah believes motherhood is a holy duty that every woman must perform even if it means risking her life. But she is desperate to protect Amira. Once they came out of the doctor’s room, she dragged her son to one side and asked him to pray so that Amira’s first child birth goes smoothly. In a slight indirect way, she asked him to give Amira some rest.

“We did what we could do. We are doing what we can do. Allah will save Amira like he saved me”, Safia says in a voice, which shows that she is trying to reconcile to the reality of the situation. Amira’s husband, a 25 year old brick-maker is Safiah’s first live born. She was lucky that her parental family was relatively well-off. She remembers that her father often told her mother to feed her well. But the first pregnancy nearly killed her. She still remembers the long painful labour at the end of which she fainted. When she regained consciousness, her mother told her between cries that her child is with Allah. She remembers taunts and stigma that she had to bear till she gave birth to a son, Amira’s husband. In all, she went through 14 pregnancies of which nine survived. Only her youngest son, now eight years old, was born in a hospital. She had to be rushed to the hospital when her water broke but she was unable to push the baby out. These multiple pregnancies have taken a toll on her. She is glad that her husband finally heeded to the doctor’s advice to use protection to save her life. She remembers that her stepmother was not so lucky. Barely two-three years older than Safiah, she suffered and finally succumbed to death while giving birth to her first child at home. She was barely 17 or18 years old. As always safiah mutters a prayer for her stepmother and her thoughts move to one of her three married daughters.

Safiah’s three daughters were married by the time they reached 17 years of age. Two of them became mothers within first year of their marriages. Safiah’s second daughter, Arwa who was married at 16 years of age, could not adjust to the life after marriage. She wanted to finish basic schooling and join the secondary school. Her parents-in-law and husband prohibited her from studying and reprimanded her every time she failed to do any of the household chores. Fatigued and pregnant with her first child, Arwa ran away to her parents’ house. She was forced by her father to go back to her husband. A few days later, she had a miscarriage. Her health deteriorated rapidly. There is no government hospital close to her marital village and the cost of treatment in a private hospital was something her husband refused to bear. In a matter of months Arwa was divorced. She has been at her parents’ house since then.

I narrated this intergenerational story to highlight how near absence of knowledge of women’s health among health centre staff, unavailability of women health workers and doctors, early marriage, lack of knowledge and sensitivity among decision-makers in the family, and many other such reasons take a toll on women’s lives. Yemen is one of the countries with the highest rates of maternal deaths during childbirth and infant mortality. In areas where some preventive women’s health programmes are available, shortage of women paramedics and doctors and cultural resistance to examination by men, early marriage leading to early pregnancy, scarce resources and many other such reasons practically push women to death. Yemeni women will continue to die unless the government, development organizations and society become sensitive towards women and begin to believe that terrible realities of women’s lives can be changed and must be changed.

Originally published at: Yemen Times.

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Friday, January 7, 2011

Farmers Without Land

Nearly 80 percent of Yemeni women who work outside their homes are engaged in agriculture. Of these nearly 65 percent are engaged in unpaid work at their family farms or on land leased by their families.

The stories of these women are varied. For example, in some governorates these women can own livestock and keep the income from it in others even the livestock is not theirs to own or the income from it to be controlled by them. Lives and problems of these women are not researched, nor much seen in the higher up places – places which could initiate gender responsive land reforms.

Written accounts of these women are hardly there in the media or proceedings of innumerable workshops and conferences on women or in the programme reports of development organizations. There are no platforms where these women themselves can tell their stories, where they can stand and demand their rights.
In most publications and reports on agriculture, women agricultural workers are hardly ever mentioned as a marginalized group whose economic rights are being violated systematically. Even assessments of the situation of women hardly ever talk of economic rights violation or bother to raise the issue of exploitation of women’s labour in paid and unpaid agricultural work.

There are now an increasing number of women agricultural workers moving from village to village in groups in pursuit of contractual work. They are paid as low as 300-350 Yemeni rials compared to minimum 900 rials that men get for a day’s work. The argument for this discrimination is that the work women do is not as strenuous.

Despite such obvious discrimination, there are very few attempts to raise these issues. Due to deep belief in traditional gender roles, the farm owners have a tendency to employ women for tasks which have been allotted to them traditionally.
It means that all the jobs which are considered strenuous and fetch a higher wage go to men. Women tend only to be hired when tedious but not so strenuous looking work has to be done. In fact, farm owners prefer to higher women for these jobs not only because it is hard to find men willing to take up work which is traditionally considered women’s but also because they will have to pay a much higher wage to men for the same job.

Women play a primary role in production in rural communities in Yemen, especially, in sustaining subsistence agriculture. They take care of major part of agricultural work including sowing, transplanting, weeding, irrigating, harvesting, thrashing, husking and storing.

Alongside, they often contribute to family income in many other productive ways such as making handicrafts from khus, sewing and weaving. Still, when one talks to communities or decision makers, women do not figure in their agendas.
Despite the fact the at maximum amount of work in the agricultural fields is being done by women, a look at the gender profile of agricultural extensionists clearly shows how invisible they are to the eyes of the government in general and departments of agriculture in particular. Near absence of women extensionists suggests that the department has not really paid much attention to reaching out to women agricultural workers either to provide them with new knowledge and technologies or to learn from their experiences.

Not only women extensionists are missing, the nature of current extension services is also such that wherever an attempt is made to reach women, more than often, it is within the boundaries of skills that are traditionally associated with their reproductive roles, for example, making pickle, murabba, jam, etc.

The entire focus of agricultural extension services is on men. And so it is men who are trained in the use of modern agricultural technology and encouraged to avail whatever credit facilities are available.

Women agricultural workers occupy an extremely disadvantaged position in society. They are victims of multiple forms of oppression because of the fact that they are women, they are unorganized, they are from poorest classes in society, added to the fact that they live segregated lives.

Segregation together with the lack of mobility takes away whatever little opportunities there might be for women agricultural workers to come together to learn from one-another’s experiences, benefit from extension programmes and credit schemes, and form unions.

In addition to economic exploitation, these women come from traditional patriarchal families, which regard a woman as subordinate to the man. From birth, they are prepared to fulfill a reproductive role and be unpaid workers.

A woman is viewed as being there to bear children, to serve her paternal family and later her marital family. In Yemen, women do not have equal right to property. But as per the Islamic law, which is accepted in Yemen, daughters are entitled to inherit half of what a son inherits and a widow gets one-eighth of her husband’s property if she has children, one quarter if she is childless.

But in reality, in most cases, women are not allowed to or are not in a position to exercise their property rights. In other words, though religion entitles women with some property rights, women’s circumstances and socialization inhibits their ability and confidence to claim those rights.

The social structures and systems of Yemeni society are such that women are excluded from roles of leadership not only in economic sphere but also in socio-political and governance structures. So women agricultural workers are not part of community development processes and they are definitely far-far away from actual decision-making. The community development related decisions are taken by male dominated institutional structures like local councils and government departments.

Such community development processes and systems put women agricultural workers at the mercy of men’s understanding of their issues and their participation in these processes, if at all, equals tokenism.

And so women agricultural workers who shoulder major burden of Yemen’s agricultural economy continue to be without land, property or a substantial regular income. They are not even recognized as what they are, farmers.

Photos Courtesy: Oxfam GB
Originally published at: Yemen Times

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Institutional Vice

"Do you know corruption?"
Corruption is not new to institutions – national, regional or international – and as the daily exposé in the media reveal, its arms and legs are stretched over the public, private and non-profit/government (NGO) sectors. In recent times, there has been a progressive increase of complaints and also of the redress mechanisms to deal with the complaints. There is a lot more public noise as well as organized actions by the NGOs. On the whole, it seems that there has been an increase in the number of the NGOs which are engaged in anti-corruption activism. I am not quite sure that there is a proportionate increase in the number of activists who challenge corruption in non-institutionalized manner, and mobilize and organize their communities to oppose corruption. We also have a large number of reports and publications from the NGOs which give their success stories towards ending corruption. However, most such stories centre around the number of anti-corruption policy frameworks and laws enacted and the number of institutions or mechanisms set up to take action against corruption. These stories may send a positive message and give hope that those engaging in corruption will be identified, prosecuted and held accountable; but there isn’t much to suggest that there is a reduction in the prevalence of corruption. So despite the noise, it is hard to claim that corruption is less prevalent now than it was, say, a decade back.

"Hmmm ... let's say that it is not an alien"
 This noise, however, has contributed to enhanced sophistication in corruption. In other words, corruption has become subtle and so increasingly becoming more difficult to nail down. This growing subtlety also makes it hard to see corruption as corruption and opens debates about what constitutes corruption.

The institutions created to ensure the implementation of the universal norms and laws or to be guided by the normative international instruments to safeguard rights, protect the vulnerable and hold the duty-bearers accountable are one of those who often indulge in what I am referring as subtle forms of corruption. Take for example hiring of personnel, there are several forms of ‘influentionary’ strategies to keep nepotism alive and healthy in such institutions, like, lobbying with colleagues to hire a consultant pre-chosen so the colleagues involved in the procurement process are influenced; deliberately picking up weaker curriculum vitae compared to the candidate who is pre-chosen; cooking up papers to show that the due process is being undertaken; creating and tailoring the job to pre-chosen person or getting the pre-chosen contractor to write the terms of reference; sidelining those who raise objections so that they don’t even get to know what’s going on till the process is over and the pre-chosen person in position and if they become too troublesome just allow their contract to lapse silently; getting a friendly panel in an interview that would oblige; hiring persons from politically influential families or those from the public institutions for assignments or jobs that is supposed to be ensuring public accountability and thereby giving the pro-establishment elements undue input into the running of the institution, and so on. One of the side effects of this practice is poor quality human resources, which increases the amount of work to be done by those few who do not have patrons in the institution.

"Let's get our own kind to do it."
Then there are some other ways of influencing a decision regarding a project/programme which cannot be taken directly unless the institutional check-points clear or approve the process. In such instances, those who have a say in or have a way to influence the institutional check-points, use the check-points to slow-down or halt the clearance or approval and simultaneously accuse the manager of non-delivery till the manager agrees to do it the way the higher-ups or those with vested interest want it done. In a bureaucratic set up with several layers between the manager or the unit that wants the work to start and the institutional check-point, which can give the clearance, this is all the more easily done because the case cannot be presented directly for approval rather has to be presented by one of the layers. If the layer responsible for presenting a case has a vested interest, which can be served by either delaying or killing the project/programme, the presentation before the institutional check-point is such that the project/programme will never get clearance/approval.

"We can make monkey business possible."
With another twist, this strategy is used to get rid of the ‘non-compliant’ or troublesome managers who cannot see why the contract must be awarded to ‘so and so’ and/or fail to hire the pre-chosen. The harassment through the process and delays usually see the troublesome manager bidding farewell soon because this type of allegation of corruption is near impossible to corroborate, after all, each layer has a right to demand information and review the process till it is satisfied. If this happens repeatedly, the manager has to go on abandoning projects/programmes requiring clearance/approvals and leave not because the work doesn't have merit, but because the manager cannot afford to be left without work to deliver and eventually be accused of poor performance.

Then there are strategies which can be called ‘create an emergency situation and get away’. This strategy creates a scenario of poor capacity and lack of understanding of the institutional rules and regulations in which planning and reporting and in general compliance is not possible. In the public or multilateral institutions, usually, there is a lot of sympathy for poor capacity/understanding. In these institutions, poor performance is never an individual’s performance issue because no amount of capacity building or the opportunities to learn at work are ever regarded as adequate to improve capacity. In an environment of the so-called poor capacity and understanding, every work/project/programme comes up suddenly and requires rushed approval without proper review. If the rushed approval is denied, it would lead to non-delivery, and of course, annoy the stakeholders. The higher ups are usually complicit in operationalization of this strategy; often by applying pressure to managers to approve in a fast-track mode. Even when they are not, like any good management concerned about the public relations, they would not have either non-delivery because they need to show utilization of the resources or annoyed stakeholders because they need the goodwill of the stakeholders either for the institution or themselves.

"Nah, let's just swim as long as we can."
Add one more twist to this strategy called ‘create an emergency situation and get away’. This twist involves deliberate persistent under/ill-staffing or keeping only the non-performers in the job and persistent complaints about under-staffing, which creates an environment in which temporary but expensive contracts must be given out to manage assignments in an emergency mode. In such situations, higher ups usually respond with what can be thought as a positive and supportive gesture to waive off the due process of hiring, but how supportive are such gestures and to whom are matters to be debated. One of the justifications for the prevalence of such states of affair is on grounds of the long time required for getting the positions approved or the lack of the predicable fund. Judging from the amount of time spent in numerous procurements and the total sum of money that is paid out in consultancies, the logic of either time or fiscal prudence does not stand much ground. A sound audit or cost benefit analysis can easily show that reducing staffing below a particular level actually costs the institution more due to the number of consultants that need to be hired and the overtime pay that need to be paid to inefficient staff who cannot deliver in the time that it should take to deliver a particular job.

Subtle or not, corruption affects utilization of the public funds by keeping the inefficient and scaring off the serious workers, causing marginalization of the politically un-influential from jobs in such institutions, curtailing benefits that could have been realized if resources were to be used appropriately and efficiently, increasing the transaction costs, slippage of resources through payments to unnecessary or inflated consultancies, undermining mission and vision of the institution and weakening management of the institution.

 There is no one society, community, race or country that is more corrupt than the other. I see this as a universal practice that thrives in an environment of weak governance, tolerance for non-performance and culture of patronage.

"You said it, and so well!"
There is no ready-made method to check corruption. Unless violations are identified actively, violators penalized publically, and the layers which hardly have any value addition to make to a process, removed, nothing much will come out of the increasing number of mechanisms to check corruption. Regular and frequent public audits and institutional transparency can go a long way in enforcing accountability. The extent to which structural and practice changes in the institutions can be made to minimize the room for corruption depends on the mobilization of wider political powers, civil society and individual activists at the national and international levels. Corruption is not an evil that will ever disappear for good because it sits in the human mind so it is essential that the strategies to check it are also dynamic, and context and time specific.

Artwork Courtesy: GTalk

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