News Human Rights

Live from Rio+20, Day Three: “The Voices of Women”

Vicky Markham

Today I participated in an extraordinary side-event on “Rio+20 and Women’s lives: A Cross-General Dialogue” at the Ford Foundation Pavilion. This event was very intimate, it drew you in, with women’s personal stories for Rio+20 and beyond.

See all our coverage of Rio+20 here.

The Rio+20 conference is now entering its last days, final negotiations have begun, and tensions are rising as the challenge to our issues is acute. There’ve been demonstrations, heightened advocacy, and frustration:  while we know the issues of “women, reproductive health and environmentally sustainable development” are integrated in the real world (thus essential to achieving the goals of this Earth Summit),  coming away with anything less than them being central and overarching in the final Rio+20 document would be a major disappointment, and more.  Let’s see what the last days actually bring, things can still change.  Soon the Rio+20 outcome document will be finalized and all will be heading home. Participants here are tired, distances to each meeting venue is great, shuttle-busing from one end of the city to the next. Though it’s not a total hardship, we are in Rio de Janeiro after all, beaches, palms, coastline, and the gracious Brazilian hosts.

Today I participated in an extraordinary side-event on “Rio+20 and Women’s lives: A Cross-General Dialogue” at the Ford Foundation Pavilion, co-organized by Climate Wise Women, my own organization,  Center for Environment and Population (CEP), and Columbia University’s Coalition for Sustainable Development.

This event was very intimate, it drew you in, with women’s personal stories for Rio+20 and beyond.  It featured six outstanding global women activists of different generations (from Uganda, Nigeria, Cook Islands, Mississippi/US, Philippines, and Brazil) who shared their colorful personal narratives to help us understand the cross-cutting impacts of climate change and other environmental issues on their lives.  In conversation they discussed the importance of women’s empowerment and reproductive health, and new, innovative connections among women of all ages for practical implementation of the Rio+20 outcome and beyond.   

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We were honored by the attendance of two outstanding global leaders on these issues, Nilcéa Freire, Ford Foundation’s Brazil Representative and gender expert, and the Honorable Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ). Tracy Mann, Director of Climate Wise Women (CW2) moderated, and guest speakers included: Ulamila Kurai Wragg, Executive Director, Pacific Gender Coalition, Rarotonga, Cook Islands; Constance Okollet, Chairperson, Osukuru United Women’s Network, Tororo, Uganda; Sharon Hanshaw, Director, Coastal Women For Change (CWC), Biloxi, Mississippi, USA; Esperanza Garcia, Co-Founder, International Youth Council, President of Philippine Youth Climate Movement and youth leader at the Columbia University’s Coalition for Sustainable Development; Esther Kelechi Agbarakwe, Nigeria, Visiting Advocacy Fellow with Population Action International (PAI) in Washington DC and a member of the “Elders+Youngers” Initiative of The Elders around Rio+20, and; Ana Paula Sciammarella, Human Rights Attorney and Member of the Network of Brazilian Women.

Tracy Mann set the scene,  emphasizing the importance of integrating formal, high-level, international negotiations like Rio+20 with the compelling personal stories of women who experience environmental impacts like climate change in their own villages and communities around the world.  She pointed out how older can teach young, and young can teach older, a theme of today’s event. As each of the women’s stories unfolded I felt like I was sitting around a campfire on a Pacific Cook Island beach or Ugandan village thatched meeting house…the women themselves were colorful in their bright gold, shocking pink, and bronze fabrics, Pacific Island and African prints, and their stories were even more so.

I felt like I was with family – my mother, grandmother or younger extended-family female member – telling me of their life’s experiences and challenges in some exotic setting, and how they personally felt about the issues now being debated at the seemingly more remote, formal Rio+20 negotiations down the road.  While these issues on the surface may seem disparate, they showed us they are not, but very much intertwined in daily life on a Pacific Island coastal village, African farming village, or American town, and that all our lives are acutely affected by global negotiations like Rio+20.  

Sharon Hanshaw, an American-south activist who lost her home during Hurricane Katrina, pointed out, “We ‘Climate Wise Women’, and all of us here, are demographically distant, but so alike” and described how her life changed since the storm, prompting her to organize and legitimize local women for a say in decisions about how climate change affects her family and community.  

She reflected on several themes the group collectively shared:

  • “Climate change has brought us women activists together, it’s our commonality for action because although demographically different, we found we are so alike.”
  • “We didn’t know that what was happening to us – the severe storms, the drought, the flooding, the change in seasonality – was actually climate change. Now we know, we are more informed about the issues, and we’ve organized to do something about it.”
  • “We used to call it weather, storms, now we know to call it climate change.”
  • “We are all one voice to change how we think about green space, and women’s equality, they go hand in hand. We know it, now we want our leaders and negotiators to know it. We are leaders too, we deserve a legitimate place at the decision-making table.”

Constance Okollet, a self-described peasant farmer from Uganda was resplendent in her opulent yellow dress, and her calm and story-telling drew you in, “Come to me, I have stories to tell” made one want to spend the day doing just that.  She talked about the stark difference between the Uganda village of her youth with distinct seasons, dense vegetation and abundant water and animals, to now, where there were no more seasons, and the plants, animals and water are sparse, gone, or far afield.  She learned that what she was experiencing for the most part was due to climate-change induced severe weather, the extremes of flooding and prolonged drought.  She decided to do something about these changes and became a grassroots women’s organizer in her village because, she said, “Climate change is gambling with agriculture, our main source of food and income, and causing spread of diseases like cholera and malaria…Our vulnerable communities need a voice, and I am the voice.”

The Honorable Mary Robinson’s message was powerful, pointing out that women’s stories like those heard today should be at the core of UN debates, such as Rio+20.  She said, “It is essential that these women’s voices come out, be part of the UN debates. They put a human face to climate change, the face of climate change is a peasant farmer from Uganda, or a slum dweller in Brazil.  Climate change is hurting our poorest communities, our most vulnerable, and they are not responsible for climate change. Those most affected are not responsible yet bearing the brunt of its impacts. She had two messages here at Rio+20: we need to come at this from a human rights issue, and these issues of importance to women don’t get raised, they need a critical mass of women who come together. That’s why this group of Climate Wise Women and those like them are critical.”

Mrs. Robinson closed by stating that, “We also need women’s leadership on climate justice, and there needs to be a connection between the two, the women leaders at the UN and as heads of state, and the rural women and villagers, so they form a dialogue and input into global decisions about sustainable development, women’s empowerment, and reproductive health.  This connection is essential to bring the reality to this Rio+20 debate, and beyond.”

Esperanza Garcia and Ana Paula Sciammarella both eloquently represented the youth perspective, showing how the younger generation was concerned and highly organized from the local to global levels, for the future, and for their children.  They shook us to attention with their energy, passion and strong messages on involving youth in broader global sustainable development processes.  Ana Paula also discussed the difficulties of displacement faced by Rio favela women by climatic events, and the need for community and a shared platform for women’s voices in the society.

Ulamila Kurai Wragg relayed the Pacific Islands perspective, as sea level rise will likely render them refugees from their small island states.  In response, she mobilized local women and formed the Pacific Gender Coalition to document their perspective, and advocate on behalf of grassroots women in the Pacific region and to the rest of the world. She stressed the traditional gender-based roles in her Cook Islands and Fiji, how their livelihoods rely on the oceans as fishermen and women, and that her peoples’ lives are at stake.  She said, “Whatever happens with climate-caused sea level rise, we have to live with it, probably move from our homes, and I want to tell our perspective.”

Ulah stressed how a formal opportunity and network through organizations like CW2 and others like them was critical, because it helped bring attention to the many women and girls who have important stories to tell and knowledge to impart.  “There are many like me,” she said, “With unheard voices, their views are important to how we govern and treat our natural resources.  And reproductive health is a big part of it, the balance of people and the oceans, the natural environment, it has to be kept. The UN process has to value the gender and traditional-based knowledge, if not, that is a strong sign that something is wrong, it does not reflect the way life really is.”

Esther Kelechi Agbarakwe, a youth peer-advocate from Nigeria, became involved because she wanted to become empowered to do something not only in her own country, but on a global scale.  She sees the strong connection between the natural environment and health issues such as reproductive health (RH) and rights, wants to advocate on addressing this connection. She said she was disappointed that RH and rights was not included in the Rio+20 document, and was meeting with country delegates and doing social media around these issues here in Rio. She’s also working with MRFCJ on inter-generational perspectives, bringing home the importance of cross pollination between young and older women, one learning from the other, and working as a team to achieve environmental sustainability and reproductive rights.

She told the BBC yesterday ,“We are more impacted than ever by the effects of climate change in all our lives, and as part of this, we also need access to reproductive health and have reproductive rights, because that provides us with choices and opportunities in our lives.  It’s all connected.”

Nilcéa Freire, of the Ford Foundation in Brazil, was compelling with a story about her 3 year old granddaughter.  She wanted to come to Rio+20 to “see the indigenous people”, and she’s learning about the environment and recycling at school.  Nilcéa said her granddaughter has many opportunities, yet that wasn’t true for girls in the Rio favelas, or the slums of South Africa or Pacific Islands. “We can’t predict the destinies for these girls in particular”, she stated, “Because we are not doing enough to include girls and women in the political power of the planet. When we waste more than half of the people of the planet, by not involving women and girls, we waste our future. That’s why we all need to work on gender-based issues, to increase these voices.”  

Nilcéa’ s closing thoughts left us with a charge:  “By Rio+40, will my granddaughter be able to say ‘We are grateful to our own grandmothers who did a good job for us at Rio+20’ – but will she able to say that?” I for one was not at all sure.

Tomorrow I will blog about a side-event on “The Demographic Dividend and Sustainable Development” co-organized by the US Agency for International Development, Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, and CEP, and look at next steps, including the UK DFID/Gates Foundation’s London Family Planning Summit in July and beyond.  Stay tuned…

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.