JASS Blog

by Everjoice Win on April 11, 2020 at 1:39 pm

I feel like I have been here before, like I have travelled this exact same road. It must be eerily familiar, to those of us who grew up and lived through the early days of HIV, its peak and devastation of our families, communities and the whole Southern African sub-region. 

The only difference is that we had no mobile phones, no social media, and cable TV was largely for the very wealthy. We relied on printed newspapers, or radio. Both mass media were still largely controlled by our governments. So, word of mouth was the fast means of passing information.

Our neighbour Trainos died one Friday morning. We did not know from what. His wife was in hospital when we buried him. They said she too may soon follow. They had lost their new-born baby at 7 months. It was the fontanel, the grannies said. But the other women tittered behind their hands. They had, ‘siki’, why was the family lying, they asked? Siki. Sexually Transmitted Infection, (STI), as we know it today. They said Trainos’ wife slept around with all the men in town, then gave it to her poor husband. Yes, that is what these light-skinned Ndebele women did. They were whores like that. I was scared. I started looking at my Ndebele mother with worried new eyes. Could she? Did she? What about prettier and lighter Aunty Veli? Surely, she couldn’t! I reasoned. But what did I know? I was still too young.

We never got enough time to wonder. Soon, we were holding funerals at least one in every week. Then every three days. Then we stopped counting. It was a good week if it ended without a funeral. By 1995 my family was on familiar terms with the sales-representative at Doves-Morgan, the undertakers. ‘So nice to see you Mawarire family!’, he forgot himself and where he was once. But we forgave him. He was just trying to be nice. Soon, the Council of Chiefs met and made a declaration – if a funeral takes more than two days, go back to work, otherwise we will all die of hunger. Tradition said nobody could plough/work the soil when there is an unburied body in the community. You all call it solidarity in English. Or is that Spanish? But that was much, much, later.

For over 10 years, the government kept mum. They pretended that nothing was happening. They issued feverish, (good word!), press statements. No, there was no epidemic. Only a few people had fallen ill. First, they said it was only the gay men. Who else but those depraved human beings, if we could call them that, were catching this dreaded disease? Then they said it was the prostitutes. Yes! We knew it! Siki after all is ‘chigwere chavakadzi’, a women’s disease. Those bloody awful women who stole other good, Christian, happy, hard-working, women’s husbands. Those daughters of Eve, who had no respect for the sanctity of marriage, had brought this calamity to destroy happy families. Songs were composed. Theatre pieces performed. Adverts were flighted. Big billboards went up. The volume was turned to maximum, so that good people could be saved from the evil siki-vectors.

Infected (women), were isolated. Shunned. Stigmatized. The poor men were cuddled and coddled. It was not their fault, so the reasoning went. Thousands continued to die. Urban graveyards started filling up. The government kept mum. Carried on like things were happening somewhere else. This ‘Western disease’, was not worth looking up from their braais & whiskies for.

Meanwhile, gay men started educating themselves and one another. Sex workers organized themselves into cooperatives and movements. They empowered themselves with information, Condoms, and solidarity. The good women and men meanwhile.... continued to get infected, infecting one another and dying in large numbers. We wasted close to 15 years in denial, stigmatizing and discriminating against some groups, rather than taking action to stop the spread of HIV.

I feel like I am back in that year, those wasted years. Governments in Southern Africa had a two months grace period in which to learn and prepare the population for Covid-19. They wasted them. It is good to see some action, finally. But I worry more about the silent killer amongst us, which could be more deadly than the corona virus itself. Stigma and discrimination based on denial.

Ever since COVID-19 arrived on many African shores, most of us have all been tracking its spread. We have been pointing at the skies, at every plane arriving, and wondering if it was bringing more infected Italians, Chinese, Americans. Granted, in the early days of the pandemic, contact tracing – tracing the routes travelled by people infected in late January and February was the right thing to do. But even in those early days, the relish with which government ministers from Kenya, to Zimbabwe etc. read out the details of ‘the cases’, was worrisome. Much drama was made of each one of those people’s travels that the message soon spread; it is those air-travellers. White people. Stay away from them. The governments may not have intended to send these messages, but the consequences are still with us. The relatively small numbers of identified cases in countries like Zimbabwe means the finest details about each person have become a matter of interest and concern.  In late March, as the numbers in South Africa went up, thousands of Zimbabweans ran back to their home country. The finger pointing towards the Limpopo was scary to listen to. A very worrisome video did the rounds in Zimbabwe in March. Some women on a long- distance bus kicked a Chinese man off the bus. On social media, the women were resoundingly congratulated.

Then young Zororo Makamba died in Zimbabwe, the country’s first, (known), fatality. This time even ordinarily reasonable people joined the fray. They demanded to know every single detail of where he had been, who he had seen. Allegations were made that he had infected people knowingly and willingly. The conversations on Twitter were deeply distressing, with far too many basically declaring he had got his just desserts. Fingers remain pointed at those who travel, those who mingled with potential vectors, i.e. Europeans and Chinese. Calls continue to be made, even as I write this, for the names of infected people’s names and full details to be publicized.

I personally came close to stigma in this COVID-19 age. A very close friend was exposed through a third party. Thanks to very fast contact-tracing by the health authorities, he was checked-up two days after the exposure. They advised him to self-isolate. ‘Self-isolate’, that nice sounding phrase, which comes with huge questions in social contexts such as how the majority of Southern Africans live. He had no place to go. He was afraid of going back home to his five-year old child. He called me in a panic. Without a second thought, I gave him access to my empty apartment in Harare. Ten heart-wrenching days later, he was tested and got his negative result. That unfortunately is not the happy ending to the story. On the day the health workers tracked my friend down, he was at work. A big institution. The health workers came fully kitted in their ‘work-clothing’. Soon word went round as to how my friend had been ‘tested’. In the middle of agonizing over where and how to self-isolate, he got calls from co-workers demanding to know his test results. Whatsapp groups lit-up with all kinds of speculations and allegations. His own boss called him, not to find out if he was doing alright, but to demand answers as to why he had brought an infected person onto company premises, whose offices they had entered, and more importantly the boss wanted assurance that they had not entered his office! During that whole period, my friend agonized over what his colleagues were saying, how it was going to affect his mother, and whether he would ever go back to work, even if he tested negative. I worried less about him testing positive, or him being in my apartment. I worried more for his mental state then and in the longer term. He has still not gone back to work. He does not know when they will call him back. Many more stories of this sort are emerging day by day. 

COVID-19 is now here with us. There are many lessons we learnt from HIV & AIDS, the most important one for me is that denial, stigma, and discrimination kill the soul, more than a virus destroys our physical bodies. Most of our communities on the African continent appear to be in denial. Misinformation and contact-tracing have added another layer. Governments are now on the back-foot in terms of messaging and public-education on COVID-19. Instead of passing simple prevention messages, we now have to undo the damage of the earlier messaging on who was infected, what countries they were from or had been to. All of this is exacerbated by the absolutely horrid depictions of the virus in all forms of media! Scary tactics did not work with STIs, neither did they work with HIV. Very ugly supposed depictions of what a virus looks like, are doing nothing to change mind-sets and create compassion in a context of semi-literacy. Television stations, newspapers and online spaces consistently depicting the virus as some nausea-inducing thing serve no purpose other than to cement fear and shunning of those who will be infected and affected. Down the line, we will need to undo the impact of these images, as we learnt from HIV & AIDS too. It is time we moved past ‘plane-spotting’, looking for the carriers of the virus, because community transmission seems to be here. We now need community prevention, solidarity and acceptance. I don’t want to go back to the (early), days of HIV and AIDS. I don’t wish that level of stigma on anyone else.  

Everjoice J. Win is a feminist, development, and human rights activist from Zimbabwe. She writes in her personal capacity.

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by Lisa VeneKlasen on October 18, 2019 at 10:42 am

It’s October 18th and in Santa Fe, that means it’s JASS Day!  

Five years ago many wonderful Santa Feans joined my mother, Marg, to organize the first JASS gathering, an important step towards building our circle of solidarity with you. We shared powerful stories from our work with grassroots women making change in Mesoamerica, and my colleagues, Marusia López Cruz from Mexico and Daysi Flores from Honduras, brought to life women human rights defenders’ often invisible work in that embattled region. It wasn’t hard for Santa Feans, whose city is deeply embedded in a history that extends south of the border, to recognize the roots of today’s border crisis taking shape and the role women play as first responders in organizing their communities to confront violence and injustice, a product of U.S. policy. 

Many of you became our most passionate supporters. Mayor Gonzalez and the City Council declared October 18 a day of celebration to honor all JASS does to ensure that grassroots women leaders and activists are stronger and safer in the context of political violence stemming from decades of failed U.S. policy. Your support since then enabled us to build a powerful regional network – the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative – that today, along with JASS, creates webs of community-based protection for activists defending land, water, bodies, and the right to speak out. Thank you!   

As the founding Executive Director, my upbringing in Santa Fe is part of JASS’ origin story. Growing up there – influenced by a bold mother like Marg – planted the seeds that grew into who JASS is and what we do. The community around us – bilingual, multicultural, cross-border – instilled in me a frame of mind that perfectly clarified the interdependence of the Global North and the Global South and the deep ties especially between the U.S. and Mesoamerica. The powerful presence of Native Americans and their vital role as stewards of land, nature, and culture directly links to JASS’ focused work with indigenous and rural women defending their territories in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

When I left New Mexico for college on the East Coast, I realized how radically different our community actually is. Our special blend of identities and cultures has been a crucial part of how I have led JASS over the past 16 years and fed into our role as bridge-builders across borders, identities, and seemingly distinct issues. JASS would not be the unique movement-building organization it is today without the values and out-of-the-box mindset that New Mexico taught me. When Marusia first came to Santa Fe back in 2014, she said to me and my mother, “Now I understand the roots of JASS.”

Even after decades away, I still think of Santa Fe as home, in large part because of the community we have built together. Your solidarity and support have not only inspired me to keep this work going – you have also sustained thousands of women activists around the world who feel less alone because they know you stand with them. You have helped them feel heard, respected, and seen.

Your continued support is more important and urgent than ever as I prepare to step down from the Executive Director role at the end of February and hand the reigns to new, capable, and visionary leadership. Navigating organizational change takes time and resources, and even more so when such a critical moment of renewal is happening while our many partners are facing new levels of violence and challenges.  

Happy JASS Day to you all! Thank you Santa Fe, thank you New Mexico, and thank you especially to you all who have worked so hard to make JASS and the women we accompany stronger, louder, and bolder. As I continue to play an important role with JASS in the years to come, I look forward to building an even closer connection between JASS and Santa Fe with you.

 

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by Lindsee Gregory on July 11, 2019 at 11:31 am

In 2019, anti-abortion groups and their political allies have launched of a full-scale war on abortion access and rights. This year alone, nine U.S. states have passed early abortion bans. Among them, Alabama has gone the farthest with a near total ban that threatens abortion providers with 99-year prison sentences. Emboldened by the conservative tilt of the Supreme Court, pro-life legislators across the U.S. are rushing to pass laws that are not only blatantly unconstitutional, but that privilege the lives of the “unborn” above all pregnant people.

While this war wages in the United States, U.S. policy and politics are never contained to its own borders. Behold the Global Gag Rule. Originally devised during the Reagan administration in 1984 and implemented by every Republican president since then, this policy blocks U.S. foreign assistance from organizations or clinics that offer abortion or information about abortions. We wrote about the Global Gag Rule back in 2017, when the Trump administration was newly laser-focused on reversing the rights of women, gender non-conforming, and trans people. Since then, the U.S. government has expanded the policy, directly harming not only people seeking abortion, but also those needing access to contraceptives and family planning information; HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis treatment; nutrition guidance; and more. Over the last two years, the expansion has left a $600 million funding gap for these vital services – a shortfall that governments like Canada and the Netherlands have stepped up to fill, doubling down on their support for sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Feminists often say that the body is the first site of struggle, and the first territory to defend. JASS’ staff and allies, spreading across 26 countries, know what it means when political parties turn our bodies into bargaining chips in a legislative agenda. We know what it means when policy-makers seek to impose their religious views on others. Our contexts differ but some truths are universal: abortion bans and gag rules spread fear and disinformation and make things much worse for women and LGBTQ people. According to the International Women’s Health Coalition, complications from unsafe abortions kill seven women every day in Kenya and cause 11% of maternal deaths in Nigeria. The World Health Organization estimates that 23,000 people die each year after bans force abortion underground.

None of this is brand new information – and none of it is isolated. Policies, norms, and public narratives don’t exist in a vacuum; they have ripple effects throughout the world. We spoke with some of our colleagues and allies to hear their perspectives on the latest in their contexts.

Nicaragua

”When we don’t consider women’s wants and needs, they become second class citizens.”

Carme Clavel Arcas, JASS Mesoamerica's Regional Co-Director, speaks from her decades of experience as a physician and abortion provider in Spain and Nicaragua when she talks about the current reality. “The case of abortion access in Nicaragua is barbaric,” she said. “In 2006, the Sandinista party – supposedly a leftist party – negotiated with the Catholic Church in order to gain votes by removing the therapeutic condition, which previously allowed abortions…In essence, the Sandinista party sold women for votes.” Carme pointed to Catholics for Choice, an organization committed to policy and cultural change to eliminate abortion stigma. This work is extremely important, she said, given the influence and power of Catholic fundamentalism in the region.

Carme reminded that us that in Nicaragua and elsewhere, abortion restrictions don’t stop people from getting abortions. “When a woman is desperate, she does what she can…making abortion illegal creates dangerous conditions in which women risk their lives,” she said. She was talking almost exclusively about poor women who are punished by imprisonment, health risks, and stigma to access abortion.

Zimbabwe

”(They say) good women don’t get abortions.”

In Zimbabwe, the law provides for restricted abortion (in cases of rape, fetal impairments, or to save the mother’s life). One case, Mapingure vs the State, made it to the Supreme Court, which ordered the State to compensate a rape survivor after she had no choice but to carry her pregnancy to term against her will. Rather than go through the trauma of reporting assault to the police or undergoing a trial, many women end up giving birth. The Ministry of Health and other interested parties set up an abortion task force that will push for liberalization of the abortion laws or extension of conditions under which abortion is permissible, centered on an economic argument that illegal abortions cost the country more money than legalization. “Abortion should be legalized not because of cost or budgets, but because women have the rights to make decisions for their bodies,” said Winnet Shamuyarira from JASS Southern Africa.

Though Zimbabwe is a secular state, it is grounded on Christian principles, and these religious and patriarchal factors come into play to determine the popular narrative about what kind of woman seeks an abortion. “Most people’s perception is that having an abortion means loose morals,” Winnet told us. “(They say) sex is supposed to be within wedlock, and anything outside of it is dirty sex, and all women who get abortions are sex workers.”

In Southern Africa, only South Africa has access to abortion on demand, but stigma – even self-stigmatization – often prevail. “These narratives are things we’ve been fed for our whole lives and we come to accept them as true,” said Winnet.

Mexico

“I am convinced that in the court of public opinion, we have won the debate against criminalization.”

In Mexico City, abortion was decriminalized in 2007. “I participated actively in diverse movements before and during the decriminalization process,” said Orfe Castillo, coordinator of JASS Mesoamerica’s Mexico program. “We worked on legislative advocacy, mapping of actors, and a collective strategy that would make it possible to gain the majority of votes that was needed. It was a historic moment, defiant and passionate.” In Latin America, where 97% of women of reproductive age have little or no access to abortion, Mexico City is an exception, along with Cuba and Uruguay. Today, 18 out of 32 Mexican states still determine conception as the moment life legally begins.

Morena, Mexico’s majority party has not adopted an official stance on abortion, but there are many feminists inside the new president’s administration pushing for decriminalization up to 12 weeks across the entire country (former Supreme Court justice and vocal abortion rights proponent Olga Sánchez Cordero is now the Interior Minister). The new government generates some hope that the rest of the states will move towards decriminalization. On the other hand, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Morena have allied with an evangelical party, which has worried progressives. “The tension between progressive and conservative forces in the new government is very strong,” said Orfe. “However, there’s a strong feminist mobilization inside the government and in the streets, and public opinion favors decriminalization. I think it’s possible that we’ll see advances in abortion access during this six-year term. I do not believe that we are going to backtrack on what we have gained.” 

The Philippines

“Abortion is isolated from the general issue of the government’s economic policies. It’s never connected to the general context.”

The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country that has criminalized abortion since Spanish colonial rule in 1870. Nearly 150 years later, doctors, midwives, and pregnant people could be sentenced up to 6 years in prison for abetting or undergoing an abortion. The Philippines’ constitution officially protects “the life of the unborn from conception,” while 1,000 women die each year from complications due to unsafe abortion, often because they fear arrest, stigma, or mistreatment by physicians. “The highly restrictive setting violates women’s fundamental human right to life, health, nondiscrimination, privacy, and freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” said Teta Sibugon, coordinator of the Philippine Safe Abortion Advocacy Network (PINSAN), a coalition of human rights advocates, women’s organizations, lawyers, and youth networks. 

In the Philippines, it’s no surprise that abortion is a clandestine activity, when the backlash against women and doctors is so severe. JASS Southeast Asia’s Osang Langara tells us there safe abortion activists are demonized and it’s hard to openly declare that you are pro-choice, which to some people is synonymous with “baby killer.” PINSAN challenges this stigma and misinformation that surrounds abortion via platforms like the Telling Truer Stories campaign. “The campaign aims to fill the lack of artwork that depicts abortion in a truer way, which does not adhere to the clichés and stereotypes that have been the default of mainstream media, perpetuating the stigma, myths, and misconceptions about abortion,” said Teta Sibugon.

“There’s a long way to go to educating people about the pro-choice vs pro-life debate,” said Osang. “Women still have abortions, of course, but they keep quiet.” The Philippines is also, perhaps not coincidentally, only country in the world that outlaws divorce. “Women – especially from low-income households – are left with no option but to stay in abusive relationships, and to have unsafe abortions where the risk of death is high, or have many children they can’t care for,” said Osang.

It’s not all bad news!

Despite the scale and scope of this critical gender justice battle, we can’t forget to progress against these strong headwinds and celebrate the good news too:

The anti-abortion laws sweeping the U.S. are not yet in effect – it is still legal to get an abortion in all 50 states. Since Governor Ivey signed Alabama’s draconian total abortion ban on May 19, four states have even expanded abortion access! #StopTheBans is still trending across social media – reproductive rights and justice activists, progressive politicians, and pro-choice physicians are fighting harder than ever.  

On June 12, after a minor died in 2018 from complications from an unsafe abortion, Kenya’s High Court ruled abortion is legal for victims of sexual violence and that women and girls have the right to the highest standard of health, including the right to non-discrimination.

In Argentina, activists, famed for their green handkerchiefs, led a campaign to re-introduce a bill for legalized abortion up to 14 weeks. Meanwhile, the #NiUnaMenos (not one less) movement has centered abortion access among their feminist demands that also include salaries and retirement funds for domestic workers.

Last year, Ireland made history by repealing the eighth amendment to the constitution, which gave a fetus the same right to life as a pregnant person. The victory was in large part thanks to the Irish diaspora, whose viral #HomeToVote campaign inspired a wave of solidarity across social media.

What’s next?

Of course, not all victories will be won in courts, during legislative sessions, or by votes. After all, guaranteeing the right to abortion on paper is not the same thing as ensuring reasonable access to a clinic. Policy and courts matter but equally important is the task of changing hearts and minds to recognize everyone’s right to decide what happens to their bodies.  

A critical element of our struggle is about language and narratives. As Carme Clavel Arcas pointed out:  “The anti-choice movement has gained traction due to the use of ‘life’ as their main platform. The reality is that those who defend the right to choose are those who truly defend lives – the lives of people who exist now.”

The battles over abortion access and rights are fundamentally about controlling reproductive freedom. Physicians like Carme, activists like Orfe, and the grassroots power behind PINSAN and others around the world, with support from progressive legislators and organizations, continue to lead the way towards making abortion more accessible for anyone who needs it. It takes all of us – to amplify their work, tell our own stories, and dismantle the shame that we’ve been taught to internalize. It’s time once again to boldly reclaim our bodies. Let’s celebrate our victories and say out loud what we want next.

I’ll start: Abortions on demand, without apology or explanation, for all people who want or need them.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

 

 

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