27 September 2008

Sex and society

By Nicola Pratt

Chatting with Jordanian friends the other week, we were all stunned to hear about a 22 year-old American woman who planned to publicly auction her virginity. We were surprised not so much because the woman was still a virgin at 22 (although, according to surveys, this puts her in the minority of women in her age group in the US). Rather, we were shocked because she was willing to sell her virginity to the highest bidder and told a TV interviewer that she found this 'empowering'. A few days later, after having just returned to Norwich, I turned on the TV to find an advertisement for a programme called The Virgin Daughters — a documentary about American parents who are actively encouraging their daughters, one as young as six years old, to practise celibacy until marriage. According to one father interviewed, sex before marriage exposes young women to all sorts of dangers that can ruin the rest of their lives, including 'getting cervical cancer, divorce, VD'.

Coming across controversies about women's sexual behaviour twice in as many weeks reminded me that it is not only in 'other cultures' (such as, amongst Muslims) that society is concerned about with whom, when and why women have sex. The rise in the numbers and importance of Evangelical Christians in the US has put questions of morality, and especially sexual conduct, at the centre of the political stage. Even in the UK, where there is no real equivalent to the 'Religious Right', public debates about women's sexual and reproductive activities are common—from changes to abortion legislation to panics about teenage mothers.

Despite the increasing ease with which many women can enjoy sex outside of marriage—due to increased access to contraception and abortion, living away from the parental home and less strict social attitudes—nevertheless, a sexual double standard continues to exist more than 30 years after the 'sexual revolution'. For example, one of the worst insults for a woman to receive is, 'slag' or 'slut'. No equivalent term exists for a man. Dominant notions about femininity and masculinity hinge on different social attitudes to women's and men’s sexual behaviour.

Increasing access to contraception since the 1960s, and, in particular, the invention of the pill, has enabled women to enjoy sex without the worries of pregnancy, leading to great strides in women's sexual autonomy in this country. However, it seems that whilst the 1960s helped women to expand their sexual horizons, it did little to challenge society's views about the sexual double standard. The sexual revolution appears to have led to an expansion in the commercial exploitation of sex and a situation where women are more sexually available to men than before—in lad mags, 'gentlemen's clubs' and through escort agencies and other services. No longer are women supposed to be the perfect housewives. Instead, they are bombarded with magazines and books instructing them on how to achieve multiple orgasms and have 'hot sex' with their partners. The rise in teenage pregnancies is one indication that young women may be more vulnerable than ever to intimidation in the name of 'sexual freedom'. Many people of 'other cultures' look at this and ask, 'Is this what women’s liberation means?'

The sexual revolution has not completely liberated women—although it has created more choices for more people. Instead, women face pressures to conform to a new mode of sexuality that exposes them to different dangers, such as the increased likelihood of sexually transmitted infections. The backlash against this transformation in sexual habits has taken the form of a socially conservative and religious neo-puritanism that harks back to a 'golden age' where women got married, had children, families stayed together and the world was supposedly a better place. This ignores the fact that a large number of people, particularly women, were obliged to stay in unhappy marriages with unfulfilling sexual lives and limited life choices because of social pressures.

I do not want to live in a society where the choice is between watching women auction their virginity versus young girls being socially coerced into abstinence before marriage. Sexuality is at the core of human identity and, therefore, it is essential that we are able to develop healthy sexual personae. The continuing sexual double standard prevents women (and men) of all ages from being empowered to make choices about their sexual lives, free from exploitation, intimidation and risk. Whilst legislation attempts to protect people from many forms of sex discrimination (for example, in the workplace), inequalities on the basis of our sexual behaviour continue to exist with negative consequences for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

20 September 2008

Peace - one day?

By Rupert Read

This Monday, September 22nd, is 'In town without my car' day. That means that all over Britain (and indeed all over Europe) people are being encouraged to give up using their car for a day. And to try liftsharing or cycling or public transport or walking, instead. I'll be making sure for this day that I stick to my bike, and leave the car at home.

I think that 'In town without my car' day is a great idea. It gives us all a sense of what is possible. But it wouldn't be enough – it would be far from great - if that were the end of the matter. No; 'In town without my car' day needs to extend over time into something that a large number of us practice on other days of the year, too. It would be a travesty, if 'In town without my car' day became as far as we are going. This day must be more than a mere token: it must make us aware of what is possible – so that we can start to make it happen much more.

Thinking about 'In town without my car' day, and its limitations, I looked around the internet a bit and I found this: "London Play's Lottery funded Street Play project began in May 2008. Over the next three years it will facilitate 100 one-off road closures across London, giving children a rare opportunity to play out on their streets."

Who could object to that?

But, this arrangement for a yearly Saturday street party for children, with the streets made safe for that afternoon – followed by their required return to confinement in their home – sounded to me, in the way I am now thinking, just a little bit like letting political prisoners in a fascist state taste freedom for one day a year and then returning them to their cells for the next 364 days!

If we are serious about enabling children to play in the streets again, then street play mustn't just be a one-day-wonder. We need to work to change the streets, to make them less dominated by cars, so that kids can start to regularly - standardly - play in the streets again...

Similarly: one day, there will be - there must be - peace. Until that day, we have 'Peace one day', a clever UN-sponsored event that focuses all of our minds on peace for this one day.

But you will by now have guessed where I am headed with this... It would be a travesty if we spent one day thinking peace, and then did nothing else. Peace has to mean real peace on the ground. It has to mean institutions and peoples making peace. It has to mean an end to the arms trade. And so much more.

'Peace one day', as a one-day event, is only a symbol. We need to turn it into a reality. Into a 365-days-of- the-year actuality.

That is a big task… So, we had better start right away!

Tomorrow, I am speaking at a rather special event in Norwich: It is Norwich's contribution to the 'Peace one day' movement. 'Peace one day' is happening all over the world on September 21st: the event in Norwich is at 6pm at the Assembly Rooms, and I will be speaking there on my experiences in the peace movement over the years: for example, my involvement in peaceful direct action to stop the use of cluster bombs in Iraq, and to prevent nuclear war-crimes. (You can read about both of these topics in past One World Columns of mine.)

I will also be saying that what we need to do as soon as the event is over, is to work to make the promise of peace one day into a reality.

I hope that, if you can, you will join us there tomorrow evening. And that, one day, the work that will have been done by us all will mean that we no longer have to hold 'Peace one day' events – because there simply will be peace, every day…

13 September 2008

Join the fight against AIDS in Africa

By Liam Carroll

In rural South Africa the scourge of HIV/AIDS is devastating society and adding to the woes of the nation which inspired the world with its peaceful revolution a few short years ago.

Just south of Durban the municipalities of Umdoni and Vulamehlo have a population of 150,000 people and suffer the terrible distinction of being an epicentre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic worldwide.

It is estimated that up to 40 per cent of the population are infected with the virus. There is 70 per cent unemployment, severe food shortages, and virtually no government access to health care services.

In this deeply rural area of over 1000 square kilometres an estimated 6,500 children have been orphaned by AIDS. There are numerous cases of child headed families: where both parents have died leaving an elder sibling to protect and raise their younger brothers and sisters.

One small NGO is working in Umdoni and Vulamehlo. Established in 2002 in response to the lack of healthcare access for this forgotten population, the Umdoni and Vulamehlo HIV/AIDS Association (UVHAA) is battling AIDS and poverty, day in and day out.

Set up and run by experienced retired health care professionals, UVHAA have three vehicles which deliver teams of trained nurses deep into the hills and valleys, identifying and supporting people who would otherwise often be condemned to a slow, painful and isolated death.

UVHAA's multiple projects aim to save lives, to prevent new infections through education, and to help those who die to die with dignity.

New statistics released in May 2008 show the scale of the AIDS pandemic in South Africa to be even worse than previously estimated: 7.6 million South Africans are now believed to be infected, including 27 per cent of the population aged between 20 and 64. It is estimated that 3.7 million South Africans have died from the disease since 2000.

Norfolk man Tom Potter has been supporting UVHAA since 2004, helping the Association to raise funds. He is appealing to EDP readers to become supporters of UVHAA, in order to assist their essential work.

Tom (34) was born in South Africa and spent a month visiting UVHAA projects this year, in order to gain a deeper insight into the reality on the ground.

During the trip, Tom met numerous people living with AIDS, including eight year old Mkhize who hospital staff believed was too ill to recover, yet after only one week on anti-AIDS (ARV) medication, miraculously Mkhize had transformed from shocking thinness to vigour. As both his parents have died from the virus, Mkhize is now cared for by his aunt. His living and transport costs are covered by UVHAA.

Tom met Innocent, a 28 year old illiterate man living with AIDS who had not eaten for three days and was wasting away. Tom gave Innocent £5 to cover transport costs to the hospital, and explains: "it is possible that this chance opportunity to give such a small sum actually saved this young man's life. It is shocking to realise that the line between life and death can be so thin."

Tom emphasised that it is an honour to be part of an organisation working for these disadvantaged communities: "UVHAA are saving lives, ensuring orphans survive and remain in education, putting pressure on the government to do more in these areas, teaching people better ways to grow crops, and ensuring that there is some support for the people of Umdoni and Vulamehlo. Against all odds, hope exists."

Tom met many inspiring people, including Mrs Ntakka who feeds 45 children each day in her own home. A short video of Tom talking to her can be seen at www.justgiving.com/uvhaa (where one-off donations can be made online).

UVHAA are appealing for individual supporters who can make a regular monthly donation. This is more useful than one off amounts as it enables the Association to plan for the future.

Small amounts of money can make a real difference. £5 per month can pay for transport fees which ensure that a vulnerable child living with AIDS can continue to collect life saving medication.

If you would like to support UVHAA, please email Tom at tompotter1@gmail.com and he will email or send you a donations form. To learn more about UVHAA's work, please visit http://www.uvhaa.com/.

Tom finished his talk with us by emphasising two very important points: Firstly, getting a person onto ARV medication will give 80 per cent of people a healthy and productive life for 10–15 years.

Secondly: in that 10-15 year period, if a cure for AIDS is found: that person's life will truly have been saved.

If you would like to support this small yet dynamic and inspiring organisation, please email Tom at the address above or call 01953 497060.

6 September 2008

Life after people?

By Marguerite Finn

Towards the end of August I watched a thought-provoking programme on television entitled: Life after people, wherein geologists, climatologists and archaeologists all gave their predictions about what planet Earth might be like after the human race had left it.

Much of it was entirely predictable: Nature would take over cities, trees would grow up through concrete buildings – which would eventually fall down – and so-called 'wild' animals would roam the former streets. A glance through my bedroom window at a piece of ivy inching its way slowly across the glass pane and, finding itself unchecked and getting bolder by the minute, confirmed the general thesis of the programme.

But one thing puzzled me – how did the entire human race vanish at one go? Did they line up to board a fleet of Virgin space shuttles? Did they wipe themselves out in a nuclear war? Were there no pockets of survivors, such as indigenous tribes unaware of the great evacuation?

Although it was not the programme's intention to explain the absence of humans but merely to suggest how life on earth might continue after their intervention and subsequent disappearance, one thing that clearly came out of the programme was the vulnerability of our existence on this planet. It demonstrated that without maintenance by humans, the machines, which are integral to our way of life in the built environment, would fail with disastrous consequences. We were shown spectacular images of bridges cracking and falling into the rivers below. And what about our nuclear legacy? With the inevitable degradation of the materials used to build the power stations, their radioactive components would leak into ground water systems and the atmosphere, affecting any life extant at the time.

But the real effect of the programme on me was its own inherent armchair complacency – although its simplistic nature gave me a jolt. Compared with the severity of what we face, from the way we carelessly presume to manage the planet, our current economic recession is just a minor blip! But does a 'recession' not also offer an opportunity? At the moment, our stewardship of the Earth is being called into question. We are so obsessed with our culture of consumerism that we have forgotten we share this planet with millions of other species. Every day a new example of our carelessness is highlighted. One of the latest – and quite close to home – is the pollution of the Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea ecosystem could collapse unless states bordering it find common ground on ways to decrease maritime pollution, according to a new report from World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which accuses governments of failing to take responsibility for working to improve the situation. Vast algal blooms, such as those that threatened to disrupt watersports during the Beijing Olympics, cover large parts of the Baltic Sea, killing off large swathes of the seabed as oxygen fails to spread throughout the water - a process known as eutrophication. The build-up of plant growth is caused by an increase in the volume of nutrients in the water as a result of sewage, shipping pollution or agricultural run-off. Seven of the world's ten largest "dead zones" are found in the Baltic Sea, making it the world's most damaged, according to WWF.

In Stockholm, in August, experts from around the world warned that global food wastage must be halved by 2025 to meet the challenges of feeding the rapidly-growing population and preserving global water supplies. Their report was presented during World Water Week and it warned that "tremendous quantities of food are discarded in processing, transport, supermarkets and people's kitchens", adding: "This wasted food is also wasted water." In the US, up to 30% of food, worth some $48.3 billion, is thrown away each year, it notes, pointing to similar levels of waste in Europe.

Next week, a group of small islands' leaders, desperate due to accelerating sea level rise, plan to take the unprecedented step of putting a resolution before the United Nations calling upon the Security Council to address climate change.

Faraway from the escapism of the television programme, this crisis is for real. The window of opportunity to restore natural balance to the world is closing fast but it is not shut yet. People are becoming more aware that the problems we created for the planet like climate change, overpopulation, the built environment, and chronic water shortages arising from rampant, wasteful consumerism, mean that we have been using the planet rather as we use a toilet. I am reminded of the polite notice often seen in cloakrooms: please leave this place as you would like to find it.