Friday, March 13, 2009

The U.S. is Leaving Iraq but Where Are We Leaving Iraqi Women?

By Yifat Susskind

If you haven’t thought about the Iraq War as a story of U.S. allies systematically torturing and executing women, you’re not alone. Likewise, if you were under the impression that Iraqi women were somehow better off under their new, U.S.-sponsored government.

In the spring of 2003, Fatin was a student of architecture at Baghdad University. Her days were filled with classes and hanging out in her favorite of Baghdad’s many cafes, where she and her friends studied, shared music, and spun big plans for successful careers, happy marriages, and eventually, kids.

Today, Fatin says that those feel like someone else’s dreams.

Soon after the U.S. invasion, Fatin began seeing groups of bearded young Iraqi men patrolling the streets of Baghdad. They were looking for women like her, who wore modern clothes or were heading to professional jobs. The men screamed terrible insults at the women and sometimes beat them.

By the fall, ordinary aspects of Fatin’s life had become punishable by death. The “misery gangs,” as Fatin calls them, were routinely killing women for wearing pants, appearing in public without a headscarf, or shaking hands and socializing with men.

As the occupying power, the U.S. was legally obligated to stop these attacks. But the Pentagon, preoccupied with battling the Iraqi insurgency, simply ignored the militias’ reign of terror.

In fact, some of the most treacherous armed groups belonged to the very political parties that the US had brought to power. By 2005, the Pentagon was giving weapons, money and military training to these Shiite militias, in the hope that they would help combat the Sunni-led insurgency.

Fatin’s closest encounter with the militias occurred when armed men burst into her university classroom one morning, threatening to kill any female student without a head scarf. After that, young women dropped out in droves. The next semester, Fatin’s parents refused to allow her to re-enroll.

While the Pentagon was arming militias bent on brutally ousting Iraqi women from public life, the U.S. State Department was busy brokering the new Iraqi Constitution. Hailed as “progressive” and “democratic” in Washington, the new Constitution designates religious law, which discriminates against women, as the basis of all legislation. It also restricts women’s rights by upending one of the most progressive family status laws in the Middle East -- a law that Iraqi women fought for and won in 1959, before Saddam Hussein took power.

For Fatin, the bitter irony is that her new Constitution, courtesy of the USA, destroyed women’s rights that were once guaranteed in Iraq, even under the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein.

Fatin has now been out of school and unemployed for more than three years. Her mother, a pharmacist, and her aunt, trained as a veterinarian, have also been unemployed for years now and are too afraid to try to find work.

Here in the U.S., we’ve rarely heard the story of the Iraq War told from the perspective of women. So what are Iraqi women saying on the sixth anniversary of the US invasion? The same thing they’ve been saying since 2003: end the occupation. Polls consistently show that a majority of Iraqis want US troops out.

We’ve been told that if the U.S. withdraws, violence would again soar in Iraq. That’s a compelling argument for those of us who care about the suffering that the U.S. has already visited on Iraqi women and their families. But Iraqis themselves, who have the best grasp of their security situation, say that U.S. troops are causing, not confronting, violence. In multiple polls, most Iraqis say they would feel much safer without U.S. troops.

Who can blame them? Since the invasion, over a million Iraqis have died violently and four million have been driven from their homes. The resources that women need to care for their families -- electricity, water, food, fuel, and medical care -- have become dangerously scarce, sometimes totally unavailable.

This week marks six years since the U.S. invaded Iraq. In that time, women have not only faced with mounting violence -- they have also organized a movement to confront US occupation and violence against women.

Looking for a way to speak out against the repression she witnessed, Fatin joined the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). In partnership with MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization based in New York, OWFI has worked to promote women’s human rights, creating a network of women’s shelters to protect women fleeing violence.

The women of Iraq are creating the foundation on which a peaceful and just future will be built. It’s time we started listening to them.


Susskind is the communications director of MADRE: Rights, Resources and Results for Women Worldwide.


Copyright © 2009 by the American Forum. 3/09

Monday, March 09, 2009

Children are Victims of Prostitution, Not Criminals

By Anne Harper

Like most parents of girls, I have had the good fortune to have pretty well-behaved daughters who finished high school and entered promising career paths. But some families are not so lucky.

Their teens may be struggling with a host of problems from learning disabilities to drug dependency. Recently we have discovered some more extreme problems: as many as 300 girls are sexually exploited commercially in Georgia each month --at escort services, hotels, online and on the streets -- according to recent results of an independent tracking study. That is more than twice the number of girls who die in car accidents in a year in our state.

The Juvenile Justice Fund (JJF) has mounted a campaign called “A Future. Not a Past” to address this sexual exploitation -- seeking to demonstrate that adolescents who are sucked into prostitution are victims of adult criminal behavior, rather than criminals themselves. Georgia is considering two proposals to expand the definition of child abuse to include sexual exploitation of children by others than parents and care givers. This change will enable health professionals and other adults report to authorities any suspected prostitution of minors, thus providing a good start toward identifying girls who need protective services.

But funding those services in the current economy is a challenge. One of the proposals identifies an innovative source of revenue that will not add a penny to the state budget. The proposal includes a $5 fee on patrons of adult-entertainment venues, fees that would go to a Crime Victims Emergency Fund for restorative programs for sexually exploited minors. The rationale for this fee comes from a 2005 report published by the Atlanta Women’s Agenda which found a spatial correlation between adult strip clubs and the availability of children for hire for sex. Another study commissioned by the JJF verified these findings.

Naturally the proposal faces some opposition -- but from an odd quarter. Some Republicans have complained that this fee is a tax and, as loyal Republicans, they oppose all new taxes. Kaffie McCullough, the JJF campaign director, comments, “This will not cost the taxpayers a cent. There are 45 adult clubs in Georgia and we estimate that if each one has 100 patrons a day, this fee will raise about $8.2 million.”

While holding the adult entertainment industry responsible for the secondary effects of their services is somewhat controversial, “A Future. Not a Past” campaign advocates are determined to create a dialogue among a broad swath of business, civic and religious leaders about measures to end child prostitution, particularly focusing public attention on curbing the male demand for sex from younger victims.

The faith-based communities have stepped up their support by founding a religious coalition called StreetGRACE to link and maximize their resources across communities that are trying to meet the needs of these young teens. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and many other friends of children who want to end the sexual exploitation of adolescent children delivered 300 white roses to legislators last week, symbolizing the number of girls affected.

We must speak out now to help the many adolescent girls in our communities who have been forced into prostitution by adults seeking to take advantage of teenagers’ youthful confusion and financial vulnerability. Certainly the adult entertainment club fees are a smart first step to raise the funds to help address the prostitution of young women so that they are routed to treatment and re-started on the road to a future, not a past.
Harper is a former school board member who leads a management consulting practice. For more information please visit
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Georgia Editorial Forum. 3/09

Friday, March 06, 2009

High Cost Lenders Profit from Desperate Times

By Rebecca Lightsey

As more businesses close and unemployment lines lengthen, a virtually unregulated sector of the Texas economy continues to rake in huge profits by providing high-cost payday and auto title loan services that often drag desperate families deeper into financial crisis.

A Texas-based provider of such loans recently reported record-breaking annual revenues topping $1 billion and a net income of $81 million.

So how do small-dollar loan companies make this kind of profit in the middle of the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression?

In Texas, the answer is clear: they exploit a loophole in state law that allows them to operate as unregulated “credit services organizations” (CSOs).

In 2005, there were fewer than 100 CSOs in Texas. Today, nearly 400 payday, auto title, and other lenders operate more than 2,000 CSO storefronts offering high cost small loans across the state. CSOs in Texas were originally established to control credit repair businesses; however, in the past few years, small dollar lenders are operating as CSOs under a statutory loophole that allows them to obtain “an extension of consumer credit” for borrowers.

Unlike other lenders in Texas, CSOs are not subject to any limitation on the fees they can charge. CSOs routinely offer loans with costs exceeding 500 percent Annual Percentage Rate (APR) -- making these loans among the most costly in the country.

At the same time, CSOs also are able to sidestep licensing and enforcement by the state’s Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, which holds other Texas consumer lenders accountable.

Borrowers stung by these CSO loan deals, with high fees and onerous terms, find it almost impossible to escape a widening sinkhole of debt.

One Austin woman recently reported taking out two payday loans totaling $1,800 from registered CSOs. Because she is not allowed to pay down the principal without paying the loan in full, she must pay over $400 every two weeks to renew the loans. Despite taking a second job and already paying $600 to retire the first $1,000 loan, she still owes $1,200 on it, and the second loan, still unpaid is racking up its own renewal fees.

Texans take out an estimated $2.5 billion in loans through CSO payday lenders each year and pay an additional $500-$600 million in annual fees.

Low-income Texans, primarily working women and minorities, disproportionately use payday loans. According to a recent Texas Appleseed survey of low-income payday borrowers, 58 percent of those borrowers could not pay off their loan, plus fees and interest, by the next payday.

Financial regulators in Florida and Michigan recognized this CSO scheme as an evasion of existing laws against predatory lending, and some CSOs, still operating in Texas, closed up shop in those states.

Congress imposed a 36 percent APR rate cap in 2007 on all payday and other short-term loans to the military, and 15 states and the District of Columbia have a similar provision in place for all residents. Already, some Texas cities -- including San Antonio, Richardson and Mesquite -- have passed ordinances restricting the rapid growth of CSOs within their city limits.

Now, it is time for state lawmakers to protect Texas consumers and hold CSOs accountable to the same regulatory standards that apply to mainstream lenders. Texas has a long-held tradition of opposing usury --lending money with excessive interest rates and fees -- and CSOs should not operate as the exception to the rule.
Lightsey is executive director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest law center.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Texas Lone Star Forum. 3/09

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Virginia Should Opt Out on ‘Choose Life’ License Plates

By Jessica Bearden

During the recently concluded legislative session, the General Assembly passed a bill to authorize “Choose Life” license plates that now awaits consideration by Governor Kaine. Funds generated from the plates will be distributed to so-called “crisis pregnancy centers.”

There are over 70 crisis pregnancy centers in Virginia, and you’ve most likely seen their advertisements—billboards that read “Pregnant? Scared? We can help.” Many people mistakenly believe that these centers do nothing more than provide materials and support to women who have made the decision to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term.

In reality, they have an extreme anti-choice agenda and often misinform and mislead women about their options. Though they assume the impartial, authoritative trappings of modern healthcare, their function is primarily political—to berate and coerce those women they call “abortion-minded” into carrying the pregnancy to term. A review of the materials produced by crisis pregnancy centers and several investigative reports about them reveal several of the deceptive and coercive tactics most commonly employed by crisis pregnancy centers.

First, crisis pregnancy centers give women medically inaccurate information about abortion, claiming the procedure is dangerous and can cause breast cancer, infertility and extreme mental health problems, such as suicidal tendencies. There is no legitimate scientific evidence to support any of these claims. In fact, first-trimester abortions are among the safest surgical procedures performed in the United States. Less than 0.5 percent of women obtaining abortions experience a complication, and the risk of death associated with abortion is about one-tenth that associated with childbirth. In addition, the medical community has firmly established that no link exists between abortion and the development of breast cancer, and that having an abortion does not affect the psychological well-being of women over time.

Second, in an effort to delay a woman’s decision to have an abortion until it is too late to do so under Virginia law, crisis pregnancy centers often tell women that they will probably miscarry anyway, so they should wait to make a decision about what to do. Not only does this effectively prevent women who want to terminate their pregnancy from exercising their constitutionally protected right to do so, it also encourages women who may decide to carry their pregnancy to term to delay seeking critical prenatal medical care.

Further, in their zealotry, crisis pregnancy centers frequently fail to maintain the professional neutrality that is a commonly accepted tenet of counseling. For example, in an investigative report compiled by NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, crisis pregnancy center staff were documented offering congratulations for a positive pregnancy test, and one crisis pregnancy center staffer became very aggressive with an investigator and yelled at her for making a “terrible decision” when she refused to return to the center. In addition, because crisis pregnancy centers are often staffed by volunteers who are not medical professionals, they sometimes give inaccurate information about basic reproductive health issues, such as the effectiveness of contraception, the difference between emergency contraception (which prevents pregnancy) and RU-486 (which causes a medical abortion), and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections.

Women are entitled to accurate, comprehensive and unbiased medical information with which they can make their own decisions.

If the anti-choice movement really wanted to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country, then they would work with the pro-choice movement to increase access to contraception and comprehensive sexuality education—real solutions that will lower the rate of unintended pregnancies and reduce the need for abortion.

Funding anti-choice centers that manipulate and coerce women does nothing to accomplish this goal—and make no mistake, the license plates have the potential to generate thousands of dollars in revenue for these organizations (Florida’s DMV reports that in that state, the “Choose Life” license plate generates over $65,000 a month for crisis pregnancy centers).

We should support legitimate, comprehensive reproductive healthcare clinics instead of crisis pregnancy centers whose missions have nothing to do with healthcare and everything to do with a political agenda. Hopefully, the governor will remember this when the license plate proposal reaches his desk.
Bearden is political and policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Virginia Forum. 3/09

All the Right Turns

By Kathleen Rogers

In today’s confusing and disheartening economic landscape, it’s more important than ever to navigate carefully -- and make the right turns. At least, that’s what shipping giant UPS is doing. After implementing a “right turn” strategy (taking more right turns than left to avoid idling in left turn lanes) UPS has saved over 30 million miles of driving -- including three million gallons of fuel and $600 million dollars a year from the change -- not to mention countless tons of carbon emissions. The rest of us can learn from this strategy and start our own “right turn” campaign.

UPS, however, isn’t the only big green giant: Wal-Mart, the second largest procurer of energy only to the U.S. government, has made a pledge to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; and to sell greener products. The retailer is also building skylight/dimming system into its new stores. As daylight increases, skylights allow Wal-Mart to dim the lights or even turn them off, thereby reducing the demand for electricity during peak hours. This system results in an annual savings of about 250 million kwh a year, enough to power approximately 23,000 homes. Corporations like Hewlett Packard, Toyota, and even British Petroleum have taken steps toward greening their production. And J.P. Morgan Chase is investing $2 billion of its own capital to fund renewable energy projects such as wind farms and solar in 17 states. Chase believes an investment in renewable energy will help revitalize rural communities and by creating jobs and increasing the local tax base. More and more, companies are finding that simple green solutions are attractive.

These forward-thinking companies are part of a movement we can dub “the Green Generation” -- a new way of thinking and doing business where sustainability takes precedent, as the most efficient strategy emerges as the most economical. Similar to the “greatest generation” that met the challenges of World War II, the Green Generation seeks to break with the past and includes companies, as well as ordinary people, who are engaged in individual and collective activities to improve their health, to better their schools, and to participate in building a solution to urgent national and global issues, such as climate change. The Green Generation wants to put people to work -- building a better, greener world.

What makes a better world? Smarter, more efficient, corporations -- the kind that see their success intertwined with the greater good, and realize that a move to energy efficiency saves resources, and with it money and jobs. Smarter, more efficient investments in growing sustainable markets -- from alternative energies like solar power, wind power, and geothermal energy to green farming, green schools, and public transportation. A nationwide move toward energy efficiency could create 5 million new jobs in the U.S. alone -- and many millions more worldwide.

Now that’s a turn for the better -- for our economy, our environment, our individuals and our industries. The Green Generation sees their commitment to fight climate change as the responsibility of both communities and corporations, as a movement both personal and unapologetically political. Good too, because now’s our chance: President-elect Obama has already committed to an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050; with the Green Generation’s support, both Congress and corporate America will be hard-pressed not to push for more sustainable practices in all industries. “Green-outs” will replace bailouts as we mandate that companies that want public assistance -- like the auto industry -- change to accommodate the public’s need for high-efficiency products that cost less to maintain.

Every time humanity comes to a crossroads, after all, we achieve our next greatest accomplishment to date. Between 10,000 and 5,000 BC we needed more food; hence the Neolithic Revolution and the foundations of modern agriculture. The end of the 20th century was marked by a need to disseminate information all over the world, leading to the Digital Revolution. And now, fluctuating fuel prices and a struggling economy mean that efficiency is, finally, everything. Our Green Generation Revolution, led by our Green Generation, is here. There’s a new bottom line in town, and it’s green. Companies and consumers, that make all the right turns toward sustainability will have no trouble getting there. As individuals, we can realize that less can give us far more -- more opportunities for creativity, more opportunities for invention, more chances for success, and more reasons to appreciate the interconnection between our economic and environmental health.


Rogers is the president of Earth Day Network.


Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 2/09