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Don’t Use India’s Missing Girls to Deny Women Reproductive Rights

11:57 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Mallika Dutt for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Mallika Dutt

Mallika Dutt on the struggle for women’s equality in India.

On Tuesday last week, I testified at a hearing of the Congressional Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, entitled “Improving the Status and Equality of Women and Girls—Causes and Solutions to India’s Unequal Sex Ratio.”

Gender-biased sex selection—the illegal misuse of medical technologies to determine the sex of a fetus in order to ensure a male child—has led to an alarming decline in the number of girls across India and elsewhere in the world. By some estimates, India is missing approximately 40 million girls. In the state of Haryana, there are only 832 girls for every 1,000 boys—a dramatically skewed ratio. This clear preference for sons is yet another manifestation of worldwide devaluing of women.

The problem requires an urgent and global response. So one might think that attention to son preference by the U.S. Foreign Relations Committee would be cause for celebration.

If only. The truth is that the people shaking their fists the hardest about the issue are actually those who are most hostile to women’s rights. Anti-abortion advocates have seized upon and rebuilt the issue as a Trojan horse for their own agenda. What they’re really trying to do? “Protect” women’s rights by denying women rights.

It is imperative that we stop gender-biased sex selection (GBSS). And it is imperative that we understand why we must stop it.

GBSS is a cultural practice driven precisely by devaluing and discrimination of women. Stopping it, therefore, is not about denying individual women their “choice.” It is about promoting the rights and worth of girls and women. What, after all, are the particular and age-old drivers of son preference? The view of girls as risks and burdens. Daughters are expensive—often requiring dowries, rarely able to bring in income. Daughters are “bad investments”—traditionally leaving their families for their husbands’ and not helping care for aging parents. Daughters are dangerous, inviting the risk of real assault or indiscretions that could besmirch family “honor.” Daughters are expendable.

So families have acted on son preference since long, long before the latest technologies facilitated, for a relatively small number of people, sex-selective pregnancy termination. Yet strangely, it is only when abortion enters the equation that certain individuals—like those I debated at the hearing—get interested in “saving” girls and women.

In reality, only 5 percent of abortions in India are connected to GBSS. At the same time, 47,000 women die as a result of unsafe abortion each year; the vast majority of these deaths occur in low-income settings. Deaths from complications of unsafe abortion account for 13 percent of all maternal deaths worldwide.

If you want to “protect” women, make sure they have access to safe abortions. And get to the root of the problem by challenging and changing the cultural and institutional norms that enshrine the devaluing of girls. We also need more reliable data to better measure the extent of sex-selection practices and progress made toward challenging them. And we need better law and enforcement on inheritance lines, dowry, and legal and safe abortion. Most of all, women and girls require access to information, health services, education, and security. When we make daughters welcome in households, neighborhoods, and nations, we are all able to thrive. What they don’t need is to have their rights taken away under false claims.

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Superbowl Ads: Give Us 30 Seconds and We Will Give You Warped Messages About Sex, Gender, and Relationships

5:03 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Martha Kempner for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

I am not a football fan; I couldn’t even follow the game on TV until the advent of the computer-generated yellow line. (Oh, so that’s what they’re trying to do!) Still, I love the Super Bowl. I like the tradition of something that happens at the same time every year. I like the food (we always make chili and have recently added potato skins). Mostly, I like the thought that a significant number of people who I don’t know are doing the exact same thing that I’m doing at the same time–”event television” is rare in this age of DVRs.

Like many of those people, I pay more attention to the commercials than the game itself. In fact, I think it’s the only time I ever really watch commercials (as I mentioned, it is the age of the DVR). The problem is that as a sex educator and commentator, watching them kind of feels like work. I want to just enjoy them for the humor and the cleverness and marvel at how people came up with that idea, or alternatively complain about their lameness and failure to live up to the hype. But I spend so much of the rest of the year commenting on the warped messages society gives young people and adults about sex, gender, and relationships that each year, without fail, the Super Bowl ads serve up a microcosm of all these messages. For four million a pop, advertisers jam generations worth of bad messages into 30 seconds bits.

So as much as I want to sit back, acknowledge that advertisers have a product to sell (and that sex educators — with our insistence on appropriate messaging — would make lousy ad execs), I can’t. Like so many of my colleagues, I feel compelled to comment. The ads that set the sex education world all-a-twitter this year are pretty obvious and I am not the first to call them out.

There’s the Doritos ad where the daughter convinces her father to play “princess” with her instead of football with his friends by offering him a bag of the flavored chips. The gender messages in this one are pretty straight forward; girls like to play princesses while men prefer football (oh, and mom is out grocery shopping). Moreover, the humor in the commercial is based on the idea that men who wear dresses and make-up are inherently funny. To add to the effect, they cast stereotypically “manly” men — with beards and all. Jill McDevitt of calls the ad “trans-phobic” because it suggests that men who put on dresses should “expect to be mocked.”

Go Daddy, the web hosting company that first burst onto the scene in 2005 with a Super Bowl ad featuring a large-busted actress in a very small tank top, had a Janet-Jackson-like wardrobe malfunction while testifying in front of a mock congressional committee about the ad she wants to air during the Super Bowl. The company has used sexy women in their advertisements ever since. Interestingly, race-car driver Danica Patrick serves as the company’s  spokesperson — in another context, she might be seen as a role model for young girls wanting to break into male-dominated arenas.

Patrick is the narrator in this year’s commercial, “A Perfect Match,” in which super-model Bar Rafaeli makes out with a super-nerd. The audio is tweaked so high that the kiss sounds sloppy and gross. Afterwards, Rafaeli gives the camera a quick glance that seems to say: “I’m not pleased that I had to do that but I had to do that.” Put simply the commercial says that kissing anyone who doesn’t meet society’s standards of beauty is gross, and the idea that an ugly guy could get it on with a pretty girl is comically unrealistic.

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The Elephant in the Room: Why is the Gunman Always Male?

1:52 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Sheila Bapat for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

A man in the shadows with a handgun.

Why are men responsible for mass shootings?

As a nation, we are reeling. On Friday, December 14, 20 young children — 12 girls, 8 boys — and six female teachers and school administrators were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in one of the most harrowing acts of gun violence in this nation’s history. After a year of some of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history, Newtown’s was among the most sickening in large part because the majority of the victims were young children between five and seven years old. A number of writers have begun to offer policy suggestions to outline, as President Obama called it, “meaningful action” on gun control.

To truly address the problem of which Newtown reminded us in the most horrific way, gender, and its entanglement with culture, poverty, and mental health requires serious attention in addition to gun policy reform. On NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, Shankar Vedantam pointed out common characteristics of gunmen in the most recent gun massacres including Friday’s in Newtown:

“[I]f you look at the series of incidents that have happened in recent years, there are several things that stand out in terms of patterns….the shooters have always been men.”

Why is the gunman always male? After the Aurora, Colorado shooting during the opening of the Batman: The Dark Knight Rises Premiere in July, Feministing ran a piece by Eesha Pandit, Executive Director at Men Stopping Violence. Pandit wrote:

What we are missing in our collective understanding is the gendered nature of mass homicide…the acknowledgement of ‘male violence’ without conflating it with all different kinds of violence is particularly useful, because it helps us contextualize the violence in our society as a function of patriarchy and sexism.

On its face, the patriarchy and sexism about which Pandit writes seems to be rearing its head here. In this instance, the gunman, Adam Lanza, chose to first murder his mother and then drive to a nearby school where he massacred women and young children. At this time, there is no proof of gender animus as a motive specifically in this event. But the facts — the gender identity of the shooter and the gender identity of the victims — underly why policy solutions should include greater examination of gender, men’s relationship to women and to each other, in addition to advocating greater gun regulation. This event alone, along with domestic violence trends generally, makes clear that male-against-female violence persists and emerges in frightening ways.

Also important, Pandit pointed out that violent behaviors are deeply rooted in economic, health, and cultural factors, and that this context also tends to be underacknowledged in society generally:

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Despite a Failed Nomination, Robert Bork’s Legacy Lives On at the Supreme Court

6:56 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Jessica Mason Pieklo for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Robert Bork

Robert Bork (Photo: US Government / Wikimedia Commons)

There are few personalities in the legal profession that are divisive as Robert Bork. And, while his name has not often come up this election cycle, his legacy with the Supreme Court and possibility that his vision will shape its future deserves to be discussed.

Bork, who currently serves as the chairman of Mitt Romney’s Justice Advisory Committee, built a career on divisive partisan politics, beginning in 1973 when, as solicitor general, he fired Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to facilitate Richard Nixon’s attempted coverup of the Watergate scandal. In 1987, then – president Ronald Reagan nominated Bork to the Supreme Court. Bork’s nomination went down in flames as the Senate rejected him by a vote of 58 to 42, the largest margin in American history.

Bork’s candidacy was largely rejected because of his strong opposition to civil rights and women’s reproductive freedoms. Bork flat – out rejects the idea of a constitutional right to privacy, believes both Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade were wrongly decided and thinks there is no such thing as gender discrimination under the law. While those views are what tanked his nomination, they’ve managed to find a place in the jurisprudence of the high court still, proving the tenacity of the Bork legacy.

Bork’s failed Supreme Court nomination paved the way for Anthony Kennedy’s confirmation. At the time Kennedy was considered a moderate to Bork’s extreme-right positions, but civil rights advocates have come to understand that was not the case. Perhaps no single Supreme Court justice has had the effect of effectively undoing the protections granted women through the Griswold and Roe decisions as Kennedy. In many ways, it didn’t matter that Bork’s nomination failed to be confirmed by the Senate because the very act of airing his extremist views managed to move the pendulum far enough to the right to pave the way for Anthony Kennedy’s ascendance to the high court and later Clarence Thomas.

In fact, without Bork’s nomination justices like Thomas and Samuel Alito would hardly be possible. After all it was as an appellate court judge that Alito embraced the idea of spousal consent as failing to create an undue burden on a woman’s right to chose in a decision the Supreme Court would later largely affirm in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

To that end, Bork’s legacy on the Court is very much alive today, and should Romney succeed in his quest for the presidency, that legacy will be cemented in future Supreme Court nominations. As it stands the Court is at best a mere one vote away from a majority that would overturn Roe together, if it is not there already. If Robert Bork has his way, the gains made by women and racial and political minorities will be undone within this decade.

There’s a Girl in the Boy’s Board Room: Gender Parity Advocacy Rooted in Pro-Business Language

12:34 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Sheila Bapat for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Viviane Reding (photo: European Parliament / flickr)

Last week, European Union Justice Minister Viviane Reding proposed requiring 40 percent female representation on all European Union (EU) public company boards by 2020 (state-owned companies must meet the requirement by 2018). This is a strong-arm tactic to address gender disparity on corporate boards, which is common worldwide: European corporate boards have roughly 12 percent women, and globally women make up about 10 percent of corporate board members. If the European Commission approves Reding’s proposal, the EU will join the ranks of Norway, India and several other governments that already have similar quotas for women’s representation on corporate boards.

The United States is not among these governments; in fact, Reding’s proposal is proof of the stark disparity in policy aggressiveness on gender parity issues in the United States versus other countries. In the United States, there are no policies in place with teeth to actually increase women’s leadership in business–and there aren’t really any policy proposals in the pipeline, either.

Even though women’s representation on corporate boards hovers at barely 16 percent in the United States, it is unlikely that government-mandated gender parity quotas could ever be politically palatable here. More importantly, it is unclear whether government-mandated quotas are a sound policy solution for increasing women’s influence and changing how institutions act. European countries have shown some detrimental results from the quotas they have instituted, as documented by the World Bank’s recent report “Gender Quotas and Female Leadership.” The report found that some male leaders of corporate firms respond strategically to government quotas in order to dilute their impact, and that some countries with quotas have been slow to achieve compliance. Quotas have long been unappealing to many Americans, even, for example, in the context of college admissions–U.S. feminists know that pushing for gender quotas could be politically disastrous.

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The Color of Genders: Inequality, Prejudice, and Violence in Everyday Acts

11:45 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check


Written by Antón Castellanos Usigli for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

The other afternoon, I was in a rush, about to brush my teeth, and I remembered I had no toothbrush. In the morning, I had thrown out an old toothbrush thinking that I had to buy a new one, but I completely forgot, so I had to run to the nearest drugstore to get it. When I arrived at the drugstore, one of the employees, a woman, asked me which toothbrush I wanted. I scanned the options behind the counter, and I came upon a model I liked. The first toothbrush in the row was purple, so I told the lady I wanted that one. However, I was surprised when, instead of handing it to me, she started looking over toothbrushes of other colors (I thought she wanted to give me some options), disregarded a pink one (which I incidentally liked) and finally grabbed a blue one, which she put in front of me, telling me the price…

I would never have imagined that such an experience was meant to become one of the most shocking I have ever had regarding gender prejudice. Its apparent simplicity is what makes it so terrible. We can look at hundreds of statistical indicators and surveys that report gender inequalities in educational, workplace and political settings, however, the real magnitude of this phenomena is not to be found in numbers but in “meaningless” everyday occurrences (like my experience with the blue toothbrush), as they reflect that many of our rigid cognitive schemas regarding gender have not undergone significant transformations and that they have thousands of invisible expressions. Those expressions perpetuate inequality, prejudice and violence in a very powerful and dangerous way, as they can be internalized unconsciously in various contexts of socialization.

In response to this situation, the United Nations has set gender equality and the empowerment of women as one of its Millennium Development Goals, while the Millennium Declaration of the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) also advocates for the advancement of gender equality and equity. These international goals demand strong political actions to trigger a re-imagination of gender through our entire system of social organization.  This re-imagination does not include “leading” men towards an “effeminate” type of behavior and women towards a “masculine” one and therefore “erasing” what we understand as “gender.” It is rather equivocal to think that gender can be eliminated, as it represents socio-cultural and psychological constructions of a biologically-based element: sex. Read the rest of this entry →

Fair Pay Could Mean a More Fertile Future

6:55 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

[Ed. note: Senate Bill 3772, the Paycheck Fairness Act, failed today as it only garnered 58 of the required 60 senate votes in order to proceed to a final vote. Will this bill be resurrected under the 112th Congress?]

Written by Elizabeth Gregory for – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

At first blush, the debate over the Paycheck Fairness Act may not look like part of our ongoing national fertility discourse. But the two kinds of “women’s work”—the labor done outside the home (for 23 percent less pay than for men), and the bearing and rearing of the citizenry done at home (for nothing)—are entirely interdependent. Failure to pass the PFA will give women yet another reason to have fewer kids.

Sound drastic? Look at the bottom line. In the days before birth control, women were stuck having kids, and could be compensated unfairly—if at all–for the work they did both inside and outside the home. But things have changed since the arrival of birth control. Women don’t have to have any kids anymore, let alone several, and though the ongoing media campaign for the pleasures of pregnancy and childrearing continues, the deal is looking less satisfactory and less necessary to many women. Discriminatory pay is a hidden tax on women and their families – averaging more than $10,000 annually. Add to that the additional costs of rearing and educating the next generation that families bear, and you’ve got a major disincentive to have more kids.

As you’ve noticed, the terms on which women are taking up the motherhood role are changing. Single-child families have more than doubled since the sixties (now 1 in 5). Exploding numbers of women are delaying children into their thirties and forties, in large part because delay provides a shadow benefits system. Delay gives them time to climb career ladders to higher (but still not equal) pay and flexibility that they can’t access by other means, ensuring that their kids will be better off and better educated than they would otherwise. Delay also limits the number of kids women can bear by the usual means to one or two in general (though that’s okay with most). And many women (and men) are seeing attractions in living childfree. Though a lifetime of indoctrination prepares women for the job of reproduction, the spin is losing speed. Failure to pass the PFA would add more drag.  . . . Read the rest of this entry →

The 2010 Olympics and Gender Roles: Highs and Lows

6:31 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Sarah Seltzer for – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

The Olympics are a wonderful event for female athletes, who get the rare and coveted chance to have the eyes of the entire world upon them. I know I’m finishing this first week of events with a brand new set of heroines, as I do every four years. The Olympic’s female dynamos are rightly raised to the level of superstars for their physical and mental prowess, and unlike with other major professional sporting events, during these games the spotlights is shared evenly, gender-wise.

But the Olympic games, which are carefully-choreographed for the public and covered to death by the media, are also a moment to take stock of the progress we still need to make in terms of how we view women athletes. They also remind us of the flawed ways we talk about gender, and the performance of gender roles in public. As the Caster Semenya controversy reminded us, traditional attitudes towards male and female categories still hamper our ability to appreciate pure athleticism.

Kept off the Course:

Veronica Arreola over at AWEARNESS blog rounded up most of the issues viewers have noticed when it comes to female athletes. She has a good summary of the most egregious barrier, which is the inability of talented female ski jumpers to get official Olympic recognition and inclusion of their event:

Why? Apparently it’s because women are "too fragile," along with an outdated system of rules that allow the International Olympic Committee to keep "American Lindsey Van, who holds the world record for the single longest jump by anyone, male or female" from competing for a gold medal. When the IOC tries to explain that women can’t compete because there aren’t enough women jumping, the conversation circles around to, How can we increase interest and participation if women’s ski jumping isn’t allowed at the Olympics?

And I’d also add that if it’s true that the top women are competing at the same caliber as the men, why not allow the smaller number of women jumpers to get in on the main competition and compete directly with the men, at least until the sport is more popular?

Hopefully we’ll see these women jumpers with their own event in 2014.

Tough Gals:

We know that watching female ski jumpers would be wildly exciting based on the other women who performed feats of daring with their feet strapped to planks this week.

Right now, before any of the solo female figure skaters have taken to the ice, the heroines are a group of badass mogul and downhill skiers: Lindsay Vonn, Hannah Kearney, Julia Mancuso and Shannon Bahrke. Snowboarders Hannah Teter and Kelly Clark and Australian Torah Bright also utterly wowed with their spins and tricks on Thursday night.

Who wouldn’t get a thrill watching these women jump and flip and speed down the mountain in record time? But their competitors who took brutal falls and then got back up after flying hundreds of feet in the air or sliding down snowbanks also proved the toughness and mettle of women competitors. For some reason, the horrific wipeouts we witnessed on the mountain this week have a different significance than the hair-raising, can-they-keep their-balance falls we see the more demure gymnasts and figure skaters take. These skiers are aggressive, hungry, and on an edge between perfection and catastrophe. And the sanguine snowboarding women who took ten-foot drops, flipped over, and then got up and grinned were a great model for the sheer joy of the competition.

And yet these dominant athletes still are consistently referred to, officially and unofficially, as "ladies," "young ladies" or girls. Their physical beauty is often thrown in when commentators discuss their skills. The announcers and cameramen really love panning to views of the men in their life, and when we watch women perform, we hear constant reference to their boyfriends, husbands or brothers. Why, after Vonn’s victory, were we treated to ten minutes of her sobbing into her husband’s arms. What was with the endless pre-race chatter about her seductive Sports Illustrated swimsuit spreads? There’s still a level of condescension here that would be eliminated if we took women’s sports more seriously during the non-Olympic years.

I wish women’s year-round sports got the same kind of play these Olympic events do. It’s sad that professional women’s sports on both the team and individual levels seems to disappear for three years.

Flying Guys

The performance and perception of gender norms affects both female and male athletes. This year, the wide-open field of top contenders for male figure skating has made it a more popular even than usual. One of the American contenders is the flamboyant, outspoken, publicly-beloved Johnny Weir, a fashion-loving Russophile who has become something of a gay icon (although he refuses to discuss his sexuality).

There’s almost too much to unpack when it comes to the gender issues with the male skaters. In a world where all the men wear sequins and spandex, twirl and wave their arms to music, Weir is still controversially "out there" and it couldn’t be more obvious that he makes people uncomfortable in this notoriously conservative sport. The announcers on NBC made so many awkward allusions to Weir’s "soundbites" and "personality" they reminded me of schoolkids still unable to say the word "gay." Meanwhile they gushed over his arch-rival, the supposedly more masculine Evan Lysacek–the eventual gold medalist who skated with black feathers or a glittery silver snake on his costumes.

Weir doesn’t have Lysacek’s pure athleticism, but he does have a rabid following among old-school skating fans who love his style and miss the days when grace and artistry mattered as much as jumps. It was strange that NBC didn’t do a segment on Weir, even a traditional cheesy redemption narrative. The commentators weren’t the only ones who seemed predisposed against Weir: both his bobble-free performances were wildly applauded by the crowd, thousands of fans who then booed for what seemed to be undervalued scores from the judges (this explanation for Weir’s low scores is: "Simply put, the judges didn’t like his routine much.")

The skating establishment seems traumatized by their status as an artier sport, one routinely mocked by those who think it shouldn’t count as athletic. For that reason, and maybe for others, the powers that be appear to have embraced Lysacek’s persona over Weir’s. In 2008, in a cliche-ridden but fascinating piece about the Weir-Lysacek rivalry, the Times reported:

During a figure skating broadcast last year, the announcer Mark Lund, who is openly gay, said, “I don’t think he’s representative of the community I want to be a part of,” and, “I don’t need to see a prima ballerina on the ice,” before praising Lysacek’s masculinity.

Sounds like a sport with an identity crisis. Whether there’s outright homophobia at play here or just panic about being the "girliest" of Olympic sports, to us fans it feels like the skating establishment needs to
loosen up.

What do you think?

What have you observed, gender-wise, while watching the games this year? What’s impressed you or ticked you off? Please share in the comments section.