Let’s make this one thing very clear: female genital mutilation (FGM) is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
As inhumane as it is, FGM is a practice still prevalent in many parts of the world. It has been documented in 30 countries mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America.
World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM and more than three million girls are under risk every year. In some countries, such as Somalia, 98 percent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years have been victims of the practice.
WHO describes Female genital mutilation as all “procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. The practice has no health benefits, on the contrary, it carries a long list of damage for both the women and society.
The initial concern when it comes to FMG is the health repercussions. FMG is not only very painful as an “operation” to undergo but it often means a lifetime of pain for women. A great number of girls die because of complications related to FMG and many more have to live with the sequelae.
Along with physical health, FMG also leads to mental health problems in women who have undergone it. According to WHO, FMG is “likely to cause various emotional disturbances, forging the way to psychiatric disorders, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”.
Health problems are not the only thing girls and women face when it comes to negative consequences of FGM. For many girls, having undergone FGM means having your life altered. In many communities, FGM reflects a rite of passage, a becoming of a woman.
Maybe romantic to those of us who are not faced with the threat, for victims of FGM "becoming a woman" often means being ready to get married and bear children. Considering FGM operations are done when girls are as young as seven, the direness of the situation is clear.
Consequently, FGM often means losing access to education for girls. Whether it’s missing important school days (weeks, months...) because of the physical repercussions of the practice, or having other responsibilities related to “becoming a woman”, FGM usually means the end of formal education for girls.
This is a vicious loop. Education is a key factor in girls’ and women’s empowerment, especially when it comes to standing up to FGM for themselves and for others after them, but having undergone FGM often means these women can’t access the necessary education.
How can you protect your sexual and reproductive rights if you don’t know you have them?
Efforts to halt FGM usually includes legislative action. Forcing girls and women to undergo FGM operations is a crime in many countries, including those in which the rates are very high like Senegal. Penalties range from prison time to monetary fines.
However, simply banning it is not enough to stop people from keeping on with the “tradition”. FGM is a practice that is extremely entrenched in communities cultural traditions in most cases. It is a matter of social capital and sign of belonging to the community for women. Thus, banning it, although still somewhat effective, leads to different problems such as underground procedures or a cross-border movement to a country where the practice is still legal.
According to WHO, the legal ban on FGM in Senegal for example, provoked fear of prosecution but did not lead to actual change until a community-based program was introduced.
The intervention to a problem as entrenched in culture as FGM needs to be as nuanced as the problem itself. Without changing communities’ understanding of FGM it’s impossible to change their practices.
Amref Flying Doctors is an international non-profit organisation focused on health in Africa and they have devised an effective intervention against FGM in Sub-Saharan Africa. This intervention is called Alternative Rites of Passage and aims to replace FGM with just that: alternative rites of passage.
Because FGM is a part of an initiation to the community, the offer of completely getting rid of it leaves a blank in a traditional ritual. These rituals are important for children as they often mean their “official” acceptance into the community.
Amref Flying Doctors works with cultural leaders and influential people, like the Maasai Elders of Kenya, to endorse Alternative Rites of Passages as a replacement to the inhumane practice of FGM. These rituals include a three-day training for the girls on the topics sexual and reproductive health and rights, self-awareness and human rights. When girls’ education improves, their health improves.
The program doesn’t only mean education for the girls, the organisation also works with different groups like tribal elders, young men, fathers, and mothers. In these forums, local educators trained by Amref Flying Doctors talk to their communities about sexuality, health and rights.
Instead of imposing rules from above that lead to different problems rather than solutions, Amref Flying Doctors' intervention aims to change social norms that are the root cause of FGM at a community level. They include not just the girls but the whole community in the solution so it’s both sustainable and an easier transition.
We can all agree that female genital mutilation is an unimaginable atrocity that needs to stop. If you want to support girls and women (and communities because it affects the whole society) who are under its threat you can donate to Amref Flying Doctors below.
With €30 you’d be paying for an informational meeting for village elders. If you want to fully support one Maasai girl in her Alternative Rite of Passage, a one-time donation of €52 will do just that.
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When we think of “global threats”, we usually imagine terrorist attacks, cyberwars, and weapons of mass destructions. Or maybe, trespassing into the realm of fiction, of James Bond’s Dr. No and other, similar, cats-owning villains.
Obviously, these are all fearsome scenarios and risks (especially Dr.No). However, there’s another “global threat” that is looming above us, even though we probably wouldn’t think of calling it that way. Such a threat is climate change.
Last Tuesday, the Office of the Director of US National Intelligence published its yearly Worldwide Threat Assessment, a hearing of the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee that has occurred since 2006.
In the report, the US intelligence community lists a series of “global threats” that humanity is currently facing. Amidst transnational organized crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destructions, and online operations to interfere with political elections, we find also — grouped in the section relating to “human security” — the “negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change.”
In particular, the assessment highlights how the increased magnitude of these phenomena is likely to “fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”
Three are the main critical points raised by the report. First off, the intelligence community is concerned by extreme weather events and particularly by how they will affect urban coastal areas in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.
Secondly, they link the increasing water and food insecurity around the world with the “changes in the frequency and variability” of heat waves, droughts, and floods.
And, finally, the report zooms in on the issue of diminishing Arctic sea ice, highlighting how this problem paves the way for increased competition with Russia and China over access to sea routes and natural resources.
En passant, the intelligence report reminds its readers that Arctic ice is shrinking constantly. “In 2018, the minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was 25 percent below the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010,” the report warns.
As environmental media outlet Inside Climate News reminds us, The Worldwide Threat Assessment included “climate change” as a global threat to human security also in the past years, so there’s “nothing new under the sun”: the ice is still melting.
However, while other global threats like terrorism are treated as such in the media, climate change is still too often debated not as an imminent threat but as something that, if at all, will strike far in the future. At the opposite, as the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment denounces once again, climate changes' effects are already underway.
A year ago, the UK government asked economist Frances Cairncross to conduct an independent review of the challenges high-quality journalism is facing in the country.
Last Tuesday, the Cairncross Review was published, highlighting nine recommendations that the government and regulators ought to follow to help secure the sustainability of journalism in the future.
The recommendations range from investigating the workings of online advertising (aka the Google-Facebook duopoly) to developing a media literacy strategy.
However, the recommendation that attracted my attention the most, given my particular interest in the charitable sector, was number nine.
It reads: “New forms of tax relief: The government should introduce new tax reliefs aimed at (i) improving how the online news market works and (ii) ensuring an adequate supply of public-interest journalism.”
Cairncross is hinting at two tax changes here. The first one is the extension of zero-rating VAT to digital subscriptions and micropayments for online news (currently, the exemption is enjoyed just by print newspapers and periodicals) and the second is granting charitable status to particular types of high-quality, public-interest journalism.
Last June, Cairncross issued a ‘call for evidence’ to gather material for the report and the review reveals that granting charitable status to select news outlets was one of the most frequently raised proposals.
As known, charities benefit from several tax breaks in the United Kingdom so it would be much easier for a news organization with charitable status to attract philanthropic donations that could provide a much-needed additional revenue stream.
However, this is easier said than done. As the report notes, UK’s current charity law is probably incompatible with the role of news organizations since it forbids charities “to undertake certain political activities such as securing or opposing a change in law, policy or decisions affecting the country”.
A solution could then be to add public-interest journalism to the list of charitable causes the 2011 Charities Act set out to advance. But, again, this might take time and be deemed legally too complicated. That’s why the Cairncross report also highlights a “second-best option”: building a journalistic equivalent of the Creative Sector Tax Relief that grants support to creative industries ranging from video-games to film production.
Legal feasibility aside, the indication expressed by Craincross is part of a larger trend that is taking hold in the news industry: non-profit journalism.
Facing shrinking revenue opportunities, several news media startups across the world decide to opt for business models that rely solely on donations, from private individuals or larger foundations.
One of the most notable examples is certainly ProPublica, a Pulitzer-Prize winning newsroom established in New York in 2007 to produce investigative journalism in the public interest.
But media organizations that adopt mixed business models are also considering the idea of attracting philanthropic money to fund in-depth reporting with increasing interest.
Just to give a number, Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism found that 12 percent of European publishers saw philanthropy as an “important” income stream in 2019.
Obviously, “philanthrojournalism” is not immune to criticism. How can we make sure that the money comes with no strings attached? And even if we can guarantee that the media outlet retains total editorial control - as in the examples I mentioned above - how could we envision a system where the funding doesn’t necessarily reflect the funder’s interest areas?
These are complex challenges that require bold and imaginative solutions.
Maybe we should think beyond large foundations. In a recent article for The Guardian, journalist Owen Jones contemplates a sort of democratized public subsidy for the whole media industry. His idea, firstly proposed by US media scholar Robert McChesney, consists of the state giving every citizen a yearly allowance of $200 to donate to one or more publications. In Jones’s hypothesis, the allowance would be funded by an annual tax on the advertising industry.
The idea lends itself to an array of criticism. There’s the evident risk, for example, that the funding will just mirror the electorate’s political preferences of the moment resulting in a pro-government press with more money than its competitors.
Regardless, the idea has the merit of being radical and out-of-the-box and that’s the kind of thinking we need in this ongoing brainstorming on the future of journalism.
There are many reasons why people decide to cut animal products from their diet, but the negative health effects of excessive meat and dairy consumption and the enormous environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are popular ones.
However, the suffering of billions of animals each year in factory farming, referred to in a 2015 Guardian article as one of the “worst crimes in history”, is the most powerful motivation for many, including myself.
Refraining from something that causes so much harm and suffering is laudable, but there’s one argument occasionally used in vegan and animal rights campaigns that warrants closer attention – the idea that consuming other creatures is morally wrong in its own right.
Opposing meat eating on ontological grounds – meaning, simply because animals are sentient beings, we shouldn’t eat them – separates humans from nature and prevents truly ethical relationships between humans, animals and the natural world. The late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood coined “ontological veganism” to describe this absolute opposition.
Ontological veganism asserts that beings that count as ethical subjects should not be eaten, in the same way that there’s a widespread taboo about eating humans. While this thinking erects another unhelpful boundary between animals and other life forms, it’s also ironic that the rationale underlying taboos against eating humans is the desire to radically separate humans from other animals.
By framing the consumption of other living beings as an inherent moral wrong, ontological veganism also risks demonising predation. In order to avoid this, a common approach is to “excuse” animal predation by arguing that the latter is part of “nature” while humans, as cultural beings, should be exempt.
Some of us – especially those living in wealthy countries – can indeed choose to opt for vegan products, but this argument reproduces another false dichotomy: nature vs. culture. Life is entanglement, with no clear boundaries between “humans” and other species, or between “nature” and “society”.
"Come among the deer on the hill, the fish in the river, the quail in the meadows. You can take them, you can eat them, like you they are food. They are with you, not for you."
This quote is from the late utopian author Ursula Le Guin, in her novel Always Coming Home. Her idea is akin to Plumwood’s theory of ecological animalism, which seeks to replace human supremacy over nature with mutual and respectful use between humans and other species.
Ontological veganism would frame using or consuming animals itself as inherently exploitative. But consider forms of mutual use seen in symbiotic relationships, such as those between pollinating insects and plants. In such scenarios, use isn’t oppressive or exploitative. It’s the form of use seen within industrial capitalism, where humans and non-humans alike are treated only as a means to an end, that prevents ethical relationships.
Ecosystems and all living beings depend upon mutual use and consumption. Orcas consume fish and other marine mammals, we must consume living vegetable matter at least, and when we die, we become food for a host of microorganisms, nourishing them in turn.
If humans are indeed animals who differ from other species only by degrees rather than kind, then like them, we are food. To deny this is to deny that humans are embedded within the ecosystems they originate from and are sustained by.
The horrific cruelty involved in industrial factory farming reduces living beings to mere profitable commodities. This is why I am a vegan, and it is here where calls for eradicating or at least reforming animal agriculture find firmer ground.
The ways in which animals are currently treated in agriculture represent the exact opposite of respect and mutuality. No wonder Aldous Huxley observed in his poignant ecotopian work, Island, that
"For animals… Satan, quite obviously, is Homo sapiens."
Ecological animalism offers a powerful basis for truly ethical and egalitarian ways of relating to other species. We are all food, and crucially, so much more. We are with and not for one another, and we are all worthy of respect. Go vegan whenever and wherever possible, but be mindful of the underlying rationales involved, lest we reproduce the same harmful dualisms we want to dismantle.