Tag Archives: earth’s balance

It’s about my body, dummy

My understanding of what constitutes a good population policy is simple: my right to sexual and reproductive health comes first — then, let’s talk population.  Although many women throughout the twentieth century stated that simple message loud and clear, it took a long time for governments and the UN to listen.

Bangladesh village women
Bangladesh village women

The first World Conference on Population held in Bucharest in 1974 gave only a passing acknowledgement to women’s right to equal decision-making about population policies.  A macro approach without the troublesome side issues of popular sentiment was thought to be perfectly in tune with government’s role in safeguarding the world’s food supply. It was argued that sometimes you just have to take charge, make targets, and do everything possible to achieve them – all for the welfare of the majority of the people. Whatever human rights issues might be left pending were a small price to pay.

With the subsequent failures– forced sterilization efforts and the high drop out rates from national family planning programmes, governments rethought their strategies and became much more self-critical. India’s famous campaigns to lure, pay for, and often use force to reach its population goals were a lesson for the rest of the world. Guess what? People, particularly women, do not like governments to decide how many children they should have.

The International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, which promised women more choices and freedoms than ever before, was a turning point. In 2014, the UN will reinvigorate that conference plan of action – and the event is timely. Today, 7 billion people inhabit the earth and 1.8 billion are of reproductive age. This formidable challenge—to balance the carrying capacity of the earth with its human inhabitants– is a feminist issue — one which we should address head on. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has helped keep our focus on how population trends can affect– and are impacted by—gender equality and women’s empowerment.

What are the core messages we need to emphasize?

First, girls’ education is the key.

Girls’ education not only raises the age of marriage, it also boosts self-esteem. Confidence and voice within the family are the magic ingredients that make adolescent patients assertive, better informed about health knowledge, and more able to access the benefits of new health science and technology.

A concerted world effort has helped to improve the numbers of girls attending school so that more girls than ever enrolled in primary schools. However, the global averages don’t reflect the entrenched pockets of inequality that still affect marginalized groups such as the disabled, pastoralists and fishing communities, ethnic minorities, indigenous girls and rural girls. For example, in Guatemala, the illiteracy rate among indigenous women stands at 60 percent, more than twice the rate for men. Since these marginalized groups often manage fragile ecologies, ensuring a balance between family size and the environment is critical for the entire community’s survival.

Second, we must give women, especially adolescents, decision-making power over their sexual and reproductive health. A woman’s first “ecological responsibility” is her body—an emotional and intelligent organic system that she should keep in balance with her environment. To maintain a balanced mental and physical well-being, she must have the right to make decisions about her own body. That includes the right to say, “no” without threats to personal safety — “no” to unsafe sex and “no” to population policies that are violate their freedom to choose.

How can this be achieved in a short period of time? One strategic step would be to entrust men and boys with more responsibility to make it happen. This is not intellectual wishful thinking. My grandfather broke all social convention by giving his girls university educations at a time when it was considered a privilege of boys. My father would not speak of my marriage until I had finished my PhD in my late 20’s—an age which by traditional Korean standards put me on the pathway to becoming an “old maid.” As decision-makers in the home, men and boys can help to accelerate progress, by encouraging mothers, daughters and sisters to claim their rights, and showing the way out of cultural conformity.

Although the topic of women’s sexual and reproductive rights may stir controversy and debates at the UN, that is no excuse to sidestep it. The valuable recommendations of previous UN conferences should go on record as bearing the weight of global consensus. They should be displayed under bright green lights for all to see and boldly put forth as the way women view population priorities.

Frogs, Freaks and the Precautionary Principle

In the US and Canada there have been numerous reports of freaky frogs with too many legs and unusual eyes. Scientists suspect environmental toxins were the cause because frogs have soft and permeable skin that allows chemicals to pass into their bodies. The water-land creatures are like the singing canaries miners once used to warn them of dangerous gases. If they are in trouble, people probably are too.

Woman in boat, Kashmir
Woman in boat, Kashmir

School children reported the unusual occurrence. No doubt it was part of their routine inspection of the day’s catch at the local pond. In children’s social circles, frogs are like gold that can be traded for comic books and other useful treasures. A side benefit for them is that playing with frogs is a live science lesson.

I know this firsthand. My early experiences with frogs initiated me into environmental sciences. The pond near my grade school was full of wiggling baby polliwogs. My brother and I used to run knee-deep in muddy water and scoop them up in small glass jars. I mistakenly fed them a steady diet of child-preferred foods like rice to accelerate their miraculous transformations into adults. I compared the live specimens daily with pictures of frogs and anxiously awaited the small protrusions from the sides that were supposed to turn into webbed appendages. My polliwogs would become hermaphroditic monsters–half fish and half frog.

They were helpless but they failed to inspire my nurturing motherly instinct. Instead they appealed to my callous scientific curiosity–the kind that motivates kids to stick pins into worms to make them squirm. Occasionally I would chase them around the jar with my index finger to feel them move. Polliwog skin has the cold sensation of plants and I treated my captives more like weeds than amphibians.

After a few days I had to change their water. This led to my first lesson in polliwog survival. Never put polliwogs in your own drinking water–it could kill them. The first time I put tap water into the jars the polliwogs became listless. Then their skins showed a whitish glaze and eventually the poor things floated on the surface. The school science class helped ease my conscience with a verdict of “death from unknown causes.” I could go to the pond and try again.

As an adult I have pondered the question: If our household water was bad for the polliwogs, what was it doing to our health? Even without scientific proof, the logical course of action should have been clear. If the water is causing polliwogs to die, then we should stay away from it. Unfortunately, as reasonable as that logic may seem, doing something about pollution is too often delayed for lack of scientific evidence.

In an era of great public confidence in scientific testimony, anything less seems unworthy. Yet we may be paying a high price for putting off decisions that should be made now.

Many cancers, including breast cancer, are still shrouded in medical mystery and are likely to remain so for many years. This has frustrated many women health activists because governments won’t commit themselves to appropriate environmental policies until the final scientific word is in. As one friend said, “Just how much longer are we going to wait –until a whole generation of cancer victims have died while under study?”

Another issue is that environmental health science is full of methodological problems. As the WHO’s 2007report on “Preventing Disease Through Health Environments” noted, we don’t have proper epidemiological tools to predict the impact of pollutants on our health. Many emerging risks, like intensive agricultural practices, long-term chemical exposures on cancers and electromagnetic exposures from new technologies, haven’t been adequately evaluated. Hormone-mimicking pesticides, PCBs or radiation often don’t show the full range of their damage to human health until several generations have passed. Also, to be very accurate, scientific research would have to produce much better data on women’s life styles as well as their exposures to environmental hazards from birth to death–a feat that is almost impossible when research funds are limited.

Hard science is often slow to point us in the right direction and vested interests –as in the case of the tobacco industry—sometimes intentionally muddy the waters to cloud the truth. Shouldn’t we use common sense as well as scientific research in public health policies? If canaries stop singing and frogs are born with abnormalities, I’m for playing it safe and using the precautionary principle.

When Phoenix Meets Dragon

Huairou statue
Huairou statue

Be on the lookout out for a Chinese lunch special known as “Phoenix meets dragon.” This is a culinary combo of land and sea delights–usually chicken and shrimp. If shrimp are out of stock, dragons can also be metaphorically presented on your plate as squid. Not the real thing? No matter. It may suit the mood better. Symbols are partly what international politics is all about.

Mind you, ingesting even symbolic dragons is no light matter. At ancient world gatherings, Chinese emperors displayed their dragon designer fashions on clothing, chairs and crowns as testimony to their heavenly mandate to rule. The mere presence of the monstrous shape was supposed to attract attention–and it usually did. So did the image of the phoenix, a grand symbol of the empress. Side by side, the phoenix and the dragon were supposed to rule.  The phoenix’s magic came from a life energy that promised rebirth out of the ruins of her own ashes. She was the force of change that moved heaven and Earth and her reign created a balance of power.

On many public occasions, such as during the High Level Political Forum or UN Security Council meetings, the world’s leaders carry on the ancient dragon tradition. They charge through waves of global despair, hoping to fire up attention to the environment crisis. Granted, most of this dragon stuff is symbolic, but that comes with the job. Heads of state should represent ideas, be eloquent speakers on issues that matter and lead global opinion. Nothing about their job says they have to do much more.

So where is the phoenix? Where is the spirit of renewal we need for negotiations on the environment to be a success? These days, it is found lingering among indigenous peoples and other less stately folk, where it feels much more at home. Women’s organizations and representatives of civil society help make up a global environment movement from the grassroots up. And this movement is our only chance for reviving a spirit of hope that could make governments bring international environment agreements back to life.

There is great wisdom in the ancient Chinese belief that positive influences arise from a balance between different kinds of power. We need both the bottom-up spirit and agitation along with the top-down approval and policies. Women and NGOs will undoubtedly work long hours to lobby, exchange views, reach consensus and draft amendments to the UN document. They will raise their voices in protest against lack of equal representation on delegations and attempts to sideline their issues.

That kind of counter move is just what is needed to balance off the huffing and puffing that often surrounds inter-governmental debates. The environment and women’s movement must promote a synergy with governments that, like the phoenix and the dragon brings opposite together. And you thought I was just talking about lunch.






The Earth Charter sings


Walking with lions South Africa
Walking with lions, South Africa

There is a document that women should care about.

It reads like a ritual: “Rejoicing in the wonder and beauty of the Earth, we share a reverence for life and the sources of our being . . .  Earth is our home. We are members of an interdependent community of life. Earth itself is alive.”

It is smart: ”Peace is more than the absence of violence — it is the wholeness that comes with harmonious relationship with the self, other persons, other life forms and the Earth.”

Women can find their place: ”The full participation of women at all levels of planning and management decision-making is fundamental to the achievements of equity and sustainability.”

And Indigenous peoples are included: ”The culture and interests of Indigenous Peoples, including the right to control their lands and natural resources, must be respected.”

These are passages from the Earth Charter that Maurice Strong, Chairman of the Rio Earth Summit (1992) and Mikhail Gorbachev introduced years ago. It has become the center of a global campaign among NGOs and women’s groups that successfully lobbied for its adoption by the UN in 2000.

It’s about time. We realize that one reason why it is hard to save the planet is that the values governing our decisions are wrong. The “market” mentality is spreading like wildfire, even to the far corners of rural societies– a culture of profit without regard for sustainability, overconsumption, and just plain greed. Even the UN is on the wrong track when it states that “human beings should be at the center of development.” That anthropocentric view has led to the mistaken notion that nature can be exploited as long as human needs are fulfilled. But our destiny is connected, like a spider’s web, to an entire community of life. Our responsibility is to maintain balance in the entire ecosystem of planet earth.

Beatrice Schultess, a dynamic leader in the indigenous people’s movement in Central America once explained to me, “For us, the Earth is a living being. More people see that now. Even a NASA scientist agreed with me that this was possible.” If that is so, and the Earth is like a breathing, growing body and the Charter is more than an international set of principles to help humanity — it is intended to save all of life. As such, it is Mother Earth’s Bill of Rights.