The NYT Issue on Women: A Critique from South Africa

Julia Smith and Alan Whiteside

The Kristof-WuDunn article lacks perspective on the underlying political and culture factors that fuel violence against women and HIV. Instead of painting men only as perpetrators, research and journalism need to critically engage gender issues.

This article is co-authored by Julia Smith and Alan Whiteside.


The recent publication of a series of articles in the New York Times magazine
focused on women and development, at a time when several books on the
subject have also been published, has sparked debate in the women’s
rights community internationally and domestically.  These debates come
at a time when US Foreign Aid programs are under review and during the
15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and
Development.  Rewire is featuring commentary on these issues from a diverse set of voices in the US and abroad. 

Previous commentaries include on by Edwin Okong’o of New America Media, Yifat Susskind of Madre, Carol Jenkins of the Women’s Media Center and Amanda Marcotte of Rewire.

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A compilation of the pieces posted on RH Reailty Check and on other blogs will be published on the week of September 14th. 

The lead story in New York Times magazine special issue on women
(23 August 2009), “The Women’s Crusade,” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
has generated much discussion. In the HIV and AIDS field we hear a lot about
the subjugation of women, how sexual and reproductive rights are routinely
denied, and how gender-based violence is fueling the epidemic. We see much less
action on these issues, and even less critical discussion of the underlying
political and culture factors that put women at increased risk. The article
reiterates a well-known situation that is indeed in need of urgent action.
However, the lack of perspective reduces its impact. Luckily, a number of
commentators have since added more analytical voices to the discussion. We
would contribute our perspectives as HIV and AIDS researchers and activists.

Edwin Okong’o rightly argues that “Placing a blanket
misogynist label on men from the Third World” is condescending and ill informed.
The numerous examples of strong male-led organizations tackling the AIDS
epidemic and gender inequality are numerous.  One such example is Men for Gender Equality Now in Kenya.

Instead of painting men as the perpetrators of violence,
research and journalism needs to critically engage with the diversity of gender
issues that fuel the AIDS epidemic. In much of the world, homophobia prevents
programs identifying men who have sex with men as an at-risk group in need of
targeted prevention methods and treatment programs. Similarly, the rape of boys
goes largely un-discussed, while funding programs target the girl child.

One of
us spent years working with street boys in Kenya, the majority of whom had been
raped while living on the streets. A number of them had contracted HIV because of it. Yet even professional councilors were unable to hold healing conversations with the boys about this, the stigma and homophobia being so great that neither party knew how to talk about it. We sometimes forget that providers themselves are part of the culture in which they live and can be both deeply affected by and a part of the problem of discrimination against marginalized populations. Working with providers to address these issues in their own lives is an important part of the challenge we face on HIV and AIDS and other issues.

But men also have to take responsibility where it is due.
For example, the spread of HIV has been linked to the fact that men in
sub-Sahara Africa often have more than one wife, or multiple girlfriends, which
creates numerous paths for HIV to spread. In her book the Invisible Cure, Helen Epstein suggests that there has been
silence on this issue because of unwillingness of male decision-makers to
change their own behavior. Culture is often used as an excuse for such silences;
in the context of the AIDS epidemic excuses are not justifiable.

One of us wrote in 2008:

Globally, HIV disproportionately
infects and affects women. Not only are they more likely to be HIV positive,
but they [also] bear the burden of care and support. Prevention must empower
women; give them choice over whom they have sex with, when, and how. Men must
be empowered to accept this.

And went on to warn,

The final concerns around
prevention messages are what they are and who is targeted. A narrow focus on
abstinence and fidelity is unrealistic, hypocritical, and stigmatizing. The
emphasis should be on responsible sexual behaviour rather than scare tactics.
The discourse needs to move from sex to relationships, teaching people how to
negotiate and develop responsible and loving interactions. Young people need to
be inculcated with the behaviours and values that allow them to protect
themselves from HIV and lead fulfilling lives. There is little point in
targeting people whose sexual behaviours are set and unlikely to change.
Single-component interventions do not work anywhere, and no general approach
will work everywhere (Alan Whiteside, HIV/AIDS A Very Short Introduction’ OUP,

Men must be engaged if the response to the AIDS epidemic is
to be affective. South Africa recently launched a Brothers for Life
 to do just
that. Time will tell how effective this effort will be, but the spirit is
right. Instead of tarring men with the brush of beast that spread the virus, we
need to mobilize them as partners in the response.

Finally, as Carol Jenkins points out, the developing world
does not have the monopoly on gender inequality, something HIV infection rates
illustrate all too clearly. African American women are up to 20 times more
likely to contract HIV than white women. In Canada, there is a new epidemic
amongst young aboriginal women. In Russia, where the AIDS epidemic was once
located amongst young male injection drug users, women now make up 44% of those
living with HIV and AIDS.

HIV infection rates clearly depict who is disadvantaged,
abused, misused and abandon. Often, we ignore those men who are victims of
abuse themselves, and stigma and discrimination prevents them from demanding
their rights. Often, we are much better at seeing the injustice in someone else
backyard than in our own. But the AIDS epidemic tells us we are all living with
inequality in our communities: it might be the young women begging on the
corner of a first world city, the baby born to an HIV positive mother in an
under resourced hospital in Eastern Europe, or the street boy in Kenya, but it
is here and it requires action not simple platitudes that label women as
victims and men as monsters.

Commentary Violence

When It Comes to Threats, Online or on the Campaign Trail, It’s Not Up to Women to ‘Suck It Up’

Lauren Rankin

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Bizarre and inflammatory rhetoric is nothing new for this election. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate has made an entire campaign out of it. But during a rally last Tuesday, Donald Trump sunk to a new level. He lamented that if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, there will be no way to stop her from making judicial nominations.

He said, “By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

For a candidate marred by offensive comment after offensive comment, this language represents a new low, because, as many immediately explained, Trump appears to be making a veiled threat against Clinton, whether he had intended to or not.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called it a “death threat” and Dan Rather, former CBS Evening News host, called it a “direct threat of violence against a political rival.” Former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis said it was “horrifying,” and even the author of an NRA-linked blog initially tweeted, “That was a threat of violence. As a real supporter of the #2A it’s appalling to me,” before deleting the tweet as the NRA expressed support for Trump.

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This kind of language is violent in nature on its face, but it is also gendered, following in a long line of misogynistic rhetoric this election season. Chants of “kill the bitch” and “hang the bitch” have become common at Trump rallies. These aren’t solely examples of bitter political sniping; these are overt calls for violence.

When women speak out or assert ourselves, we are challenging long-held cultural norms about women’s place and role in society. Offensively gendered language represents an attempt to maintain the status quo. We’ve seen this violent rhetoric online as well. That isn’t an accident. When individuals throw pejorative terms at those of who refuse to be silenced, they are attempting to render public spaces, online or on the campaign trail, unsafe for us.

There is no shortage of examples demonstrating how individuals who feel threatened by subtle power shifts happening in our society have pushed back against those changes. The interactions happening online, on various social media platforms, offer the most vivid examples of the ways in which people are doing their best to try to make public spaces as uncomfortable as possible for marginalized populations.

Social media offers the opportunity for those whose voices are routinely ignored to hold power in a new way. It is a slow but real shift from old, more traditional structures of privileging certain voices to a more egalitarian megaphone, of sorts.

For marginalized populations, particularly women of color and transgender women, social media can provide an opportunity to be seen and heard in ways that didn’t exist before. But it also means coming up against a wall of opposition, often represented in a mundane but omnipresent flow of hatred, abuse, and violent threats from misogynist trolls.

The internet has proven to be a hostile place for women. According to a report from the United Nations, almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence. As someone who has received threats of violence myself, I know what it feels like to have sharing your voice met with rage. There are women who experience this kind of violent rhetoric to an even greater degree than I could ever dream.

The list of women who have been inundated with threats of violence could go on for days. Women like Zerlina Maxwell, who was showered with rape threats after saying that we should teach men not to rape; Lindy West received hundreds upon hundreds of violent and threatening messages after she said that she didn’t think rape jokes were funny; Leslie Jones, star of Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live, was driven off of Twitter after a coordinated attack of racist, sexist, and violent language against her.

And yet, rarely are such threats taken seriously by the broader community, including by those able to do something about it.

Many people remain woefully unaware of how cruel and outright scary it can be for women online, particularly women with prolific digital profiles. Some simply refuse to see it as a real issue, declaring that “It’s just the internet!” and therefore not indicative of potential physical violence. Law enforcement doesn’t even have a solution, often unwilling to take these threats seriously, as Amanda Hess found out.

This kind of response is reflected in those who are trying to defend Donald Trump after the seemingly indefensible. Despite the overwhelming criticism from many, including some renowned Republicans, we have also seen some Trump supporters try to diminish or outright erase the violent aspect of this clearly threatening rhetoric. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani have both said that they assumed Trump meant get rid of her “by voting.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that it “sounds like just a joke gone bad.”

The violent nature of Donald Trump’s comments seem apparent to almost everyone who heard him. To try to dismiss it as a “joke” or insist that it is those who are offended that are wrong is itself harmful. This is textbook gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse in which a victim’s reality is eroded by telling them that what they experienced isn’t true.

But gaslighting has played a major role in Donald Trump’s campaign, with some of his supporters insisting that it is his critics who are overreacting—that it is a culture of political correctness, rather than his inflammatory and oppressive rhetoric, that is the real problem.

This is exactly what women experience online nearly every day, and we are essentially told to just suck it up, that it’s just the internet, that it’s not real. But tell that to Jessica Valenti, who received a death and rape threat against her 5-year-old daughter. Tell that to Anita Sarkeesian, who had to cancel a speech at Utah State after receiving a death threat against her and the entire school. Tell that to Brianna Wu, a game developer who had to flee her home after death threats. Tell that to Hillary Clinton, who is trying to make history as the first woman president, only to have her life threatened by citizens, campaign advisers, and now through a dog whistle spoken by the Republican presidential candidate himself.

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump’s rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Language matters. When that language is cruel, aggressive, or outright violent, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t come without consequences. There is a reason that it is culturally unacceptable to say certain words like “cunt” and other derogatory terms; they have a history of harm and oppression, and they are often directly tied to acts of violence. When someone tweets a woman “I hope your boyfriend beats you,” it isn’t just a trolling comment; it reflects the fact that in the United States, more women are killed by intimate partners than by any other perpetrator, that three or more women die every day from intimate partner violence. When Donald Trump not only refuses to decry calls of violence and hate speech at his rallies but in fact comes across as threatening his female opponent, it isn’t just an inflammatory gaffe; it reflects the fact that one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

Threats of violence have no place in presidential campaigns, but they also have no place online, either. Until we commit ourselves to rooting out violent language against women and to making public spaces safer and more accommodating for women and all marginalized people, Trump’s comments are just par for the course.

News Health Systems

Texas Anti-Choice Group Gets $1.6 Million Windfall From State

Teddy Wilson

“Healthy Texas Women funding should be going directly to medical providers who have experience providing family planning and preventive care services, not anti-abortion organizations that have never provided those services," Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in a statement.

A Texas anti-choice organization will receive more than $1.6 million in state funds from a reproductive health-care program designed by legislators to exclude Planned Parenthood

The Heidi Group was awarded the second largest grant ever provided for services through the Healthy Texas Women program, according to the Associated Press.

Carol Everett, the founder and CEO of the group and a prominent anti-choice activist and speaker, told the AP her organization’s contract with the state “is about filling gaps, not about ideology.”

“I did not see quality health care offered to women in rural areas,” Everett said.

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in a statement that it was “inappropriate” for the state to award a contract to an organization for services that it has never performed.

“The Heidi Group is an anti-abortion organization, it is not a healthcare provider,” Busby said.

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State lawmakers in 2011 sought to exclude Planned Parenthood from the Texas Women’s Health Program, which was jointly funded through federal and state dollars. Texas launched a state-funded version in 2013, and this year lawmakers announced the Healthy Texas Women program.

Healthy Texas Women is designed help women between the ages of 18 and 44 with a household income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and includes $285 million in funding and 5,000 providers across the state.

Bubsy said the contract to the Heidi Group was “especially troubling” in light of claims made by Everett in response to a recent policy requiring abortion providers to cremate or bury fetal remains. Everett has argued that methods of disposal of fetal remains could contaminate the water supply.

“There’s several health concerns. What if the woman had HIV? What if she had a sexually transmitted disease? What if those germs went through and got into our water supply,” Everett told an Austin Fox News affiliate.

The transmission of HIV or other sexually transmitted infections through water systems or similar means is not supported by scientific evidence.

“The state has no business contracting with an entity, or an individual, that perpetuates such absurd, inaccurate claims,” Busby said. “Healthy Texas Women funding should be going directly to medical providers who have experience providing family planning and preventive care services, not anti-abortion organizations that have never provided those services.”

According to a previous iteration of the Heidi Group’s website, the organization worked to help “girls and women in unplanned pregnancies make positive, life-affirming choices.”

Texas Health and Human Services Commission spokesperson Bryan Black told the Texas Tribune that the Heidi Group had “changed its focus.”

The Heidi Group “will now be providing women’s health and family planning services required by Healthy Texas Women, including birth control, STI screening and treatment, plus cancer screenings to women across Texas,” Black said in an email to the Tribune.

Its current site reads: “The Heidi Group exists to ensure that all Texas women have access to quality health care by coordinating services in a statewide network of full-service medical providers.”

Everett told the American-Statesman the organization will distribute the state funds to 25 clinics and physicians across the state, but she has yet to disclose which clinics or physicians will receive the funds or what its selection process will entail.

She also disputed the criticism that her opposition to abortion would affect how her organization would distribute the state funds.

“As a woman, I am never going to tell another woman what to tell to do,” Everett said. “Our goal is to find out what she wants to do. We want her to have fully informed decision on what she wants to do.”

“I want to find health care for that woman who can’t afford it. She is the one in my thoughts,” she continued.

The address listed on the Heidi Group’s award is the same as an anti-choice clinic, commonly referred to as a crisis pregnancy center, in San Antonio, the Texas Observer reported.

Life Choices Medical Clinic offers services including pregnancy testing, ultrasounds, and well-woman exams. However, the clinic does not provide abortion referrals or any contraception, birth control, or family planning services.

The organization’s mission is to “save the lives of unborn children, minister to women and men facing decisions involving pregnancy and sexual health, and touch each life with the love of Christ.”


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