News

Samoan Business Leader Recognized as Women’s Champion in Asia Pacific

Jessica Mack

This week, Adimaimalaga (Adi) Tafuna’i, a Samoan entreprener, will receive a Global Leadership Award for Economic Empowerment from the NGO Vital Voices. Tafuna'i is leading the charge to revitaize Samoa's local economy, and uplifting women along the way.

This week Vital Voices, an organization that works to foster the leadership and amplify the voices of women around the world, will hold their annual Global Leadership Awards. The awards recognize “unsung heroines” championing human rights, economic development, and democracy. One such heroine being recognized for her achievements in economic empowerment is Adimaimalaga (Adi) Tafuna’i, a Samoan entrepreneur and executive director of Women in Business Development Inc (WIBDI), an organization she founded more than two decades ago.

Tafuna’i’s recognition is refreshing, as women leaders from Asia Pacific are rarely included in such global lists, and indeed the reality for women in these countries seldom makes headlines. A tiny country far flung in the Asia Pacific, Samoa’s local economy continues to struggle. Approximately one-third of the country’s GDP hails from remittances, or money sent back to the country from Samoans working abroad, and imminent natural disasters decimate a delicate agricultural sector that forms the mainstay of the country’s livelihood. 

WIBDI was founded in 1991 with the vision of engaging more Samoan women in business. Yet after two devastating cyclones hit the country soon thereafter, and a Taro Leaf blight wiped out the country’s staple crop, WIBDI shifted its focused to the economic empowerment of families at the village level – providing small business training and support for handicrafts, organic farming, and fair trade.

Tafuna’i’s vision is a revitalized local Samoan economy, but one that is strong enough to break into larger global markets, and also link with the markets of other countries in the region. In 2008, Tafuna’i brokered a fair trade agreement between local Samoan coconut farmers and the Body Shop, and in 2010, more than 22 tons of organic coconut oil were exported for the global cosmetics giant.

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Although women are not specifically the focus of WIBDI’s work, Samoan women benefit from this thoughtful and holistic approach. As development economist William Easterly has pointed out, “the best women-centered programs are not necessarily women-centered programs. Cash transfers [for example] are for families, and in practice it often works out that they strengthen the power of women within the family.” Samoa’s Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, recently praised the work of WIBDI, saying that, “no group or individual has contributed more to the village economy — particularly to the empowerment of women.”

In this way, WIBDI’s work is to strengthen local economies and local business successes, ensuring that, along the way, women remain an integral component. Within the context of Samoan society, Tafuna’i says it’s already happening: “In Polynesian societies, women are quite strong. In Samoa, women are quite strong.” Though men manage a majority of the farming, women are the primary crafters. And while a majority of village chiefs are men, women are allowed to assume the title of chief, and are increasingly doing so. Further, a “Women in Parliament” bill is currently being considered, and would reserve 10 percent of seats for women. Currently just two members of parliament are female.

Recent years have seen an upswing in attention to women’s role in agriculture worldwide.  In the face of looming food crises and growing awareness of land rights issues, the work of Tafuna’i and WIBDI not only serves to support local farming practices, but the crystallization of such practices into sustainable and global business opportunities. This is major. Globally, women are the mitochondria of the agricultural sector. But with concerted support for the development business acumen and market smarts to boot, they can emerge as entrepreneurs, business owners, and the stewards of the global economy.

Commentary Human Rights

Now Is the Time to Push Iran on Women’s Rights

Leila Alikarami

The world’s governments looking to build stronger ties with Iran must redouble their efforts to hold Iran’s leaders accountable for advancing women’s issues in the wake of the nuclear deal, not excuse them.

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addressed the United Nations General Assembly, touting Iran’s revamped efforts, born out of the recently signed multilateral nuclear agreement, to become a more cooperative and full member of the international community.

His speech focused on the nuclear deal and his positive outlook toward improved relations with the United States. But for 35 million Iranian women, absent from Mr. Rouhani’s remarks was an explanation of how he intends to keep his promise to ensure women are treated as full members of the country he represents. The world’s governments looking to build stronger ties with Iran must redouble their efforts to hold Iran’s leaders accountable for advancing women’s issues in the wake of the nuclear deal, not excuse them.

In September, Niloufar Ardalan, the captain of Iran’s female indoor soccer team, was prevented from traveling to compete in a tournament in Malaysia. Her husband, sports journalist Mahdi Toutounchi, refused to let her renew her passport to ensure she was in the country to accompany their son to his first day of school, which is, shockingly unjust yet perfectly legal in Iran. Indeed, an Iranian woman cannot leave the country without her husband’s consent, a law that stretches back to before the 1979 revolution. Ardalan’s case is particularly tragic, though, because she represents an athlete capable of competing at the highest level who is unable to pursue her talents and represent her nation abroad because of arcane, restrictive legal norms. In a touching act of solidarity, Ardalan’s teammates began chanting her name as she greeted them in the airport upon their return home from winning the tournament.

The fact remains, how are we to believe that Iran is “looking to the future … with a bright outlook for cooperation and coexistence,” as Mr. Rouhani conveyed at the UN General Assembly, when its laws would require leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel to ask for permission from her husband before attending the United Nations General Assembly?

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These norms are not only discriminatory, but out of touch with the reality of Iranian women, who are among the most educated women in the region. Literacy and primary school enrollment rates for women and girls are estimated at more than 99 percent and 100 percent, respectively, and gender disparity in secondary and tertiary education is effectively nonexistent. But no matter how educated a woman in Iran is, all deserve to enjoy the same rights as Iranian men.

Advancements in education and social advancement have not been matched by equivalent advancements in the legal status of women. Women’s employment rates are half that of men at every level of educational attainment. Iran ranks near the bottom (137th out of 142 countries) for political empowerment of women, meaning the presence of women in top elected and appointed roles, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Index.

These disparities, while having some social and cultural roots, are reinforced by design.

Iranian law requires women to seek their husbands’ permission to travel, work, and attend university. And when a husband is abusive, women face huge legal hurdles in getting a divorce. Perversely, in the eyes of the law, adult women are not capable of making these important life decisions, yet girls can legally marry starting at 13 years old and are treated as “adults” when it comes to criminal responsibility starting at age 9.

It seems some leaders in Iran want to double down on this systematic gender discrimination. They propose laws that would require businesses to hire men over women, and married people over unmarried people. Some government offices have already restricted the hiring of women. What’s more, in some state universities, women have been barred from certain majors. Iran produced Maryam Mirzakhani, who last year became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the top international prize in mathematics. Still, it’s unacceptable that some institutions still prohibit Iranian women from pursuing engineering and math.

Of course, Iranian women, and many men, have not silently accepted these oppressive laws. For example, the Facebook campaign My Stealthy Freedom, which promotes women’s freedom of expression by sharing photos of Iranian women choosing not to wear their hijabs, has gained almost 900,000 likes since its 2014 launch. Iranians have been trying to change such repressive laws for decades, but those who attempt to do so often pay a heavy price. At least 50 women human rights defenders are currently in prison as a result of their advocacy efforts.

Thirty-four-year-old Bahareh Hedayat has been in prison for six years for her activism. Hedayat is a founding member of the “One Million Signatures” campaign, a grassroots movement demanding changes to discriminatory laws. And just when she was due to be released, judicial authorities decided to illegally reinstate an expired probationary sentence, tacking on two years to her prison term. [Full disclosure: I am a member of the campaign.]

Within government, Iran’s vice president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, seems genuinely concerned about the situation. She recently issued a harsh criticism of bans on women attending live sporting events. But Molaverdi has little institutional power. If her efforts and those of the women’s rights movement are to be successful, they will need the strong backing from voices inside and outside of Iran.

Starting with Rouhani, we all must fight harder to create the space to criticize discriminatory policies. Iranian women are too educated, talented, and ambitious to remain held back by an archaic set of rules. To truly become a legitimate actor in the world, Rouhani must now prioritize the rights of women—and the international community must demand reform.

The reform and modernization of Iranian law with regard to expanding human rights and ensuring gender equality would release the limitless potential of the Iranian people, and especially Iranian women. But if the Islamic Republic keeps the gates closed, women will not be passive. They will continue to educate the masses to peacefully resist discrimination. We believe that justice and equality can best be achieved through patience and tolerance.

Commentary Contraception

How America’s Obsession With ‘Bad Birth Control’ Harms Women

Valerie Tarico

Many women know more about the risks of birth control than about how the right contraceptive might improve their lives.

For busy women, making good health decisions and actually taking care of ourselves can be a challenge, especially when practical factors such as complicated schedules, finances, and competing demands are taken into consideration. Well-balanced, well-presented information can empower women to make smart decisions about reproductive health care. Unfortunately, thanks in part to how the American legal system works, many women know more about the risks and side effects of birth control than about how the right contraceptive might improve their health and well-being.

In general, pharmaceutical companies tailor drug inserts to limit liability. Consequently, they list health issues reported by participants in clinical research whether they were caused by the drug or not, which may not be known. Pharmacists tick off possible side effects to customers based on these lists; personal injury attorneys use them to ply network television and social media with scary “bad medication” advertisements. Meanwhile, doctors or other care providers, anxious about being sued, echo similarly lengthy warnings to patients. When harms do happen, even if the cause is in question, investigative journalists often weave together tragic stories—as the saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

It is important for consumers to be aware of the potential consequences of their medications. When it comes to birth control, however, what can get lost in all the alarm-sounding is the fact that—with important known exceptions—the benefits of contraceptives vastly outweigh any risks for most women. Women who get overwhelmed by fear or faulty information forfeit these advantages, sometimes with costly ramifications.

Modern Contraceptives Keep Women Safe

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To be sure, no one method works for every woman; even the most effective options have potential side effects or inconveniences that individuals must weigh. That said, in addition to preventing pregnancy, the positive consequences of modern contraceptives abound:

  • Estrogen-Containing Contraceptives, which include most common forms of “The Pill,” along with “The Ring(Nuvaring) and “The Patch,” improve acne, reduce benign breast disease, reduce premenstrual syndrome, and regulate or eliminate periods. Some also protect against ovarian or endometrial cancer.
  • Condoms, as most of us know, prevent a wide variety of sexually transmitted infections. Some of these are surprisingly common among young people, such as chlamydia, which can cause infertility, and HPV, which causes cervical cancer.

Fourteen percent of American women taking birth control pills use them exclusively for non-contraceptive reasons like those stated above; another 58 percent use them for mixed reasons. Similarly, many women use hormonal IUDs to control problem periods. But the biggest health benefits of contraceptives come from the fact—pure and simple—that birth control allows women to manage their fertility.

Most pregnancies turn out well; in fact, a wanted pregnancy and childbirth can be a peak life experience. Even so, pregnancy is often inherently dangerous. According to the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, half of pregnancies trigger some kind of medical problem such as a serious cut or tear, the need for a C-section, infection, excessive bleeding, a blood clot, high blood pressure, or gestational diabetes. This doesn’t include mental health issues, such as postpartum depression, which can be triggered by hormonal changes and physical stress. And although maternal mortality is admittedly rare, approximately 650 American women die each year from pregnancy.

A woman who wants a child may take her chances willingly, even gladly. Given that half of all U.S. pregnancies are unintended, however, we can infer that women are being put in danger by pregnancies they never sought.

Last year, former congressional candidate Darcy Burner went public with her near-death story to explain why abortion access can be a lifesaver. But birth control saves lives, too, by preventing unwanted pregnancies and making it easier for women to space out childbearing in ways that are healthiest for them and their families. That’s why it’s so important that we advocate for everyone’s ability to access contraception—and for accurate information about it to be made widely available.

Increased Risk Doesn’t Mean High Risk

Unfortunately, there exists a media, legal, and social climate of alarmism around reproductive health care that can make it difficult for women to make fact-based, potentially life-improving choices about contraceptives.

For example, in recent years, several dramatic news stories have broken about some kinds of birth control increasing a woman’s risk of blood clots, inspiring terror in many users of Yaz, Yasmin, and the Nuvaring, among others. It turns out that the alarm about these methods in particular was unwarranted—in fact, all hormonal contraceptives appear to double the risk of a blood clot. But before you panic, keep reading.

All women have some risk of blood clots, but that risk is quite low: The chances of developing a clot are around 5 in 10,000 per year. And while clots can be dangerous—even deadly—most heal without long-term effects. Without any other risk factors at play, doubling this low number means the annual risk of a clot while on an estrogen-containing contraceptive is still extremely low. To quote a common refrain, Two times a very small number is still a very small number.

To put this danger in perspective, let’s compare the risk of a clot from contraception with the risk of a clot from pregnancy. During pregnancy, the risk of a clot reaches approximately 30 in 10,000. In the six weeks after giving birth, clotting skyrockets to as high as 300 in 10,000, or 60 times the normal rate.

Here is another way of saying it: Women who got worried and discontinued their birth control in response to the media frenzy about Yaz, Yasmin, or Nuvaring—especially those who did not use other contraceptives instead, or chose less effective ones—may have put themselves in danger of the very thing they wanted to avoid.

Making Good Decisions Easier

For a woman to make the best possible decisions, she needs accurate and balanced information about the available options. What are the pros and cons of different options? How do they compare to each other? How common are the best and worst scenarios? After making a choice, what would be reasonable to expect? What might signal that something could be going wrong?

Simple changes in how doctors, journalists, and advocates talk about birth control could help women answer these questions.

  1. Warnings about birth control method should be based on what is likely and what is important, not simply what is new or statistically significant. Well-intended messengers must recognize that by triggering unwarranted or disproportionate fears they can actually cause harm.
  1. Information about any single birth control method should be paired with information about other methods and none at all, including the odds of becoming pregnant, and related health impacts for each. The most relevant and important information should stand out, such as in this excellent poster by Bedsider.org and this interactive graphic from Healthline. Furthermore, the “Paling Palette” can be a valuable tool for comparing risks quickly and simply.
  1. Discussion of risks should include what researchers call absolute risk (how likely is it?) and relative risk (how does it compare to other options?) so that women can put the possibilities in perspective and weigh different courses of action against each other. Comparisons with other everyday risks can also help to put things in perspective. For example, a short airline flight of one to two hours more than doubles blood clot risk during the following eight weeks; a minor injury like a sprain or pulled muscle increases the risk even longer. Yet we choose to travel and play sports—among other activities—because that’s part of what makes life rich.

Fortunately, most of the time, both birth control and well-managed pregnancies turn out fine. But in order to help keep women safe and healthy, we must push back against hyperbole and continue to publicize all the risks and benefits of contraceptives—so that every decision individuals make about their bodies can be a well-informed one, and women can live the lives of their choosing.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify that all hormonal contraceptives have been found to double the risk of blood clots.

The author would like to thank Dr. James Trussell for reviewing this article, and Contemporary Forums and Contraceptive Technology for providing an overview of contraceptive risks and benefits.