Good News for Women

The United Nations begins a new decade with a new agency: UNWomen. This is a good thing. Globally, violence against women causes more death and disability among women than cancer, malaria or war. Improving women’s health during pregnancy and childbirth has lagged far behind any of the other development goals that governments agreed to take action on, back in 2000. Women are denied land ownership, credit and decent jobs, simply because they are women. It is time for this to change. While not a cure-all, UN Women will help.

For far too long the United Nations has hidden behind the idea that women’s issues are ‘mainstreamed’. This idea means that everybody within the UN is responsible for paying sufficient attention to women’s strengths, needs and aspirations. Without a powerful UN entity to remind its approximately 63,000 staff about women, the collective UN system has not been able to make the same gains for women that it has for children (thank you, UNICEF) or for HIV (well done, UNAIDS). This is not to say the UN entities for women that did exist did not try. These entities were just too fragmented, poorly-resourced and weakly-positioned to leverage much traction.

So bring on UN Women and bring it on. As one of the many NZers around the world who worked for the creation of a powerful, well-funded UN entity for women, I want to see this work. Let’s see if at last, the UN can deliver for women the way women deliver for their families, communities and countries.

Comeback Comment on Fundraising

I’m beyond making excuses. I just haven’t been writing for a while. But I’ve been spurred into tapping out a post on fundraising, of all things! Having led a small unit that has recently forayed into fundraising, I’ve been learning a little bit. I’m certainly no expert but I’m going to ignore that and use my small amount of knowledge to pass judgement on the tactics of some of the larger organistions I have lately been approached by.

Twice at my door, and once because I made the mistake of smiling and responding to that damn question about a question: ‘can I ask you a quick question?’. And I hate interrupting people, but they know that and it’s part of their sell. So I let them go on, and on, and on, all with rather interesting and useful information. But what I really need to do is just interrupt and tell them straight-up – I will give a one-off donation and it will be of a good amount (until I don’t have a job) but I’m not signing up for any automatic payments.

And that’s what they all seem to want these days. Yes, I know. The cost of administration for one-offs, the certainty of the income for automatic payments, the security issues. It makes sense. But I don’t want to give that way. And I’m the one giving, so at least provide me with an option. But all three times, none of them have given me any way to make a one-off donation. So effectively, they are turning money away. Now this just does not make sense to me. Not one bit. Here you have a donor, ready to write-out a check for at least $100 and you say no!  You’ve gone to the trouble of training these guys (and they were all men), sending them out marching up and down the street, decking them out in jackets and official tags, and you tell them to say no to money. If you’ve got somebody offering you money, I thought fundraising 101 says take-it now! But I guess bigger agencies are making enough to be a little bit pickier than what smaller organisations can afford to be. Or maybe my inexperience is showing through here. I’m a willing student so if anybody can explain…?

How Does A State Tell Its Story?

The question emerged as I strolled around one of Washington DC’s fabulous Smithsonian Museums – The Museum of American History. It isn’t a particularly original question. In fact, I’m sure questions similar to this have stimulated many peices of research and writing across the world. But it is not one I have pondered many times.

After a tour around the USA Capitol building and a stop past the Lincoln Memorial (feeling a little guilty at my cynicism to the saturation of America’s story with phrases of liberty, justice and democracy) I sought refuge from the bone-numbing cold in the Museum of American History. As much as I cringe to admit it, the politics of war fascinate me, so I headed straight to the section on American Wars.

The Revolutionary War and Civil War were the largest features. Also covered were the War of 1812 against Britain,war with Spainish Mexico, the Viet Nam War and small pieces of 9/11 and the Iraq War. I am sure there were sections on World War I and II, but I think I skipped them. The war against the Creek Indians got a brief mention also, and possibly the first Gulf War (I was getting a bit museumed-out by that point). The displays were thoroughly interesting and well-presented, and I enjoyed meandering through, imaginging what it would have been like to be drinking apple cider in a camp as I prepared for battle the next dawn, or advancing on the enemy, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow combatants so that our imprecise rifle shots actually hit the opposing flesh.

I appreciated the attempts to present different perspectives in some of the story’s, in particular the War with Mexico where we got to listen to perspectives from both American and Mexican military leaders. However, this was limited. There was a video of a nurse who worked in the Viet Nam War who told a story of how they saved a Viet Cong baby, finishing up with a statement “so, when people say we killed babies, I’m telling you about how we saved babies”. Fair point but just a little too pointed.

Three things struck me.

  • There was no mention of the Cold War and the meddling of the USA in other countries’ internal conflicts (with the exception of Viet Nam, of course). 
  • The stories told were predominantly those of white men. Yes, the most prominant figures in most of the early  wars were white men (Washington, Lincoln, Jackson etc.). But there are so many more awe-inspiring, insightful and powerful stories to tell. What about the role of indigenous Indians in American wars? Although there is a new American Indian Smithsonian Museum, I still thought that their role in the USA war history was worth more than a couple of sentences about the Creek War and Trail of Tears. Women were referred to about three times, in passing: the nurse in Viet Nam; a nurse in the Civil War; and the women who followed their men to camps. How different would the story of America’s Wars be if it was told through the lives of the women who lived through them? And the role of African-Americans – slaves, the manumitted, the escaped… Again, there was a separate section on the slave-trade and slave life. But the different positions and actions of Africans and African-Americans in American wars was not featured at all. What about the Chinese, German and Japanese Americans who lived through wars against their ancestral homelands, as Americans?
  • The underlying concepts of freedom, democracy, justice and expansion of territory that imbued the entire display. The sense of power and triumphalism – that this is the greatest nation on earth, and that all wars to protect and expand it are justified. OK, some of the wars could probably have passed the test of Just War Theory. And the outcomes of some have quite probably led to greater justice. But at times I felt like I was a bitter cynic who was questioning solid truths about a country I know relatively little about, at the same time knowing that I was right to question. It left me feeling uncomfortable.

Leaving the War section, ready to clear my head with the chill wind, I passed by the section on American First Ladies. I didn’t bother to go in. The opening displayed a beautiful red ballgown, which only rubbed salt into the already smarting irritation that women were essentially invisible in America’s history of war. Is this the only way it is deemed appropriate to highlight American women?

And that’s when the question emerged. Just how does a State choose to tell its story? Given – the Smithsonium has limited funds, probably relies on the Government for support and is tasked with sharing a lot of information in a very small space to an extremely diverse audience. But even so, in a country founded on immigration, with such a diverse ethnic population, why not tell stories that highlight that diversity? If justice, freedom and democracy are actually important values for the USA, why not show this in the stories of history, rather than just say it?

Anyway, my next trip will be to Te Papa where I hope to ask the same question – how do we tell our country’s story? I’ll certainly try to be objective but no doubt the years of enculturation as a NZer will slowly sand off the veneer. But it is an important question to ask, not only of our museums but in how we present ourselves every day to the world. We tell our story in a myriad of different ways –  in our social statistics, our legislation, the statements we make at the United Nations, the way we deliver our Overseas Development Assistance, the state of our prisons and mental health wards, the way we treat our pets. I wonder what answers others reach about NZ when they ask that question.

When Universal Doesn’t Mean Everybody

Where-ever I go, and when the subject comes up, I enjoy boasting that New Zealand was the first self-governing nation in the world to give women the right to vote (in 1893, although they were unable to run for parliament until 1919). I was always under the impression that this meant that NZ was the first country to have universal suffrage. Not so, as I learnt yesterday.

I have just finished reading Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s Diggers, Hatters and Whores: the story of the New Zealand gold rushes. A thoroughly interesting read, which he concludes with a call for more exploration and writing about this very important but rather overlooked part of our history, in particular the stories of Chinese immigrants who came to dig for gold. It is in this conclusion that Eldred-Grigg states that people of Chinese ancestry, “even if they had been born and lived their whole life in New Zealand”, were unable to vote until the middle of the 1900s. I was shocked.

I have searched around a little on the net to try to find out how this was so, but have not found anything that tells me the exact mechanism by which this denial occurred. I suspect it may have something to do with the over-riding desire for a ‘white NZ’ that led politics in the early 1900s, racism towards Chinese, the fact that Chinese were unable to become NZ citizens for quite some time, and only NZ citizens were able to vote until 1975 when permanent residents were granted the right to vote. But if you know, please share.

So I’ll have to modify my boasting now, with a little caveat about how women gaining the right to vote did not make NZ the first nation to have universal suffrage.

I Made Soap!

wash-ballsWell, more correctly, I reconstituted soap. But it was fun, whatever it was. I’ve been meaning to try it for years. When I was in Fiji a few years ago I discovered bars of lavendar soap that were about 50 cm long, 4 cm wide and 6 cm high. Mega-soap bars in other words. You could cut them up into chunks whatever size you wanted, or grate them to put into the machine. They smelt great, felt great and were cheap as chips. I ordered some more when my sister made a trip to Suva but she brought back long bars of boring, plain soap. They’ve sat patiently on my shelf for four years, patiently waiting for the day when I would find the time to do something useful with them.

And then I stumbled across a great recipe for how to make washballs. Apparently in the 16 and 17oos the rich English nobility imported expensive scented washballs from Italy. Meanwhile, the poor made them out of grinding up home-made soap, adding herbs and flowers, and used rose water to mix it into a maleable paste. So I spent the evening grating up the boring Suva soap, adding lavendar, and used home-made rosemary water to create a wonderful clay-like paste. Then I added a bit of home-made organge geranium oil and rolled the paste into my very own washballs. They look great! (Awesome fun activity for kids.)

What a great sense of satisfaction it is to make something that has a daily use. I would love to try soap from scratch but it is a bit of a mission to track down all the ingredients. Call me weird but I do enjoy imagining what women in the 16 and 17oos were able to create – cloth, soap, cheese, preserves, etc. Astounding to think just how much time and effort went into these activities, and how much they supported the very basics of life. I would never advocate for a return to the disrespect and discrimination that often went with the traditional roles of women (particularly in English society). However, I do wonder sometimes if we have lost some real basic skills that not only are useful, but also enhance our relationship with the world around us. There was also a very different relationship with time. Here I am struggling for years trying to find time to make soap whereas only a hundred years ago (even less, and in many parts of our world, right now) this sort of activity is a component of a daily or weekly routine. How fascinating it is to think about how different people use time. 

But for me, I’m just wrapped to have finally achieved something I have contemplated for so long. And only a year late – I had originally planned it for a Christmas holiday activity last year. I wonder what I’ll be doing this time next year, that I had planned for right now.

Coffee for the People

Unashamedly, I am a coffee snob. Actually, I prefer to call myself a coffee conessiur (nah, not really). Unashamedly also, this post will appear like a blatant advertisement for Peoples Coffee. And I guess it is – they deserve it!

I love my morning coffee. I’m only allowed one a day and I like to get it from a place that sells fair trade coffee (proper fair trade coffee, not some sorry excuse trying to work its way around the edges). I like to get it from a barista who understands that making coffee is a careful balance between art and science. (Yes, that is ths snob emerging.) Most of all, I like to recieve my little shot of caffeine necter from a person who is friendly.

And my local Peoples Coffee is just that. Every morning I am guaranteed to have a laugh while waiting for my coffee. Last week I got into conversations with others waiting. Great, silly, fun conversations with random strangers. We talked about wearing our bikinis at work, giggling over the absurdity of sitting at your computer in your bikini, speculating over what our colleagues would think. We talked about whether green curry or meat pies had more fat in them, coming up short against the question of whether green curry pies would be the supreme fat sponge or somehow end up better than the separate pie or curry.

Not only do I get the best coffee in town, I also start the day with a little bit of fun and laughter. What more could you hope for?

Regularly Irregular

A blog is a funny thing. When I set it up I made the decision to have it for my own personal pleasure – somewhere to write and have it set out in a nice-looking template, easily accessible on the web. But then people read it. And no matter how hard I try to dismiss it, I keep returning to the feeling that I need to post something regularly for those few readers. I know I don’t, but I have this creeping feeling that somehow my blog won’t be the same if I don’t. Which is ridiculous. I guess half the problem is that I often wander around devising blog compositions in my head or come-up with ideas for an entry. The issue for me is finding the time to sit down and actually write something. 

I almost made it last night. I got home all set to write about the launch of the Roundtable on Violence Against Women I had just attended. I even started. I was going to talk about my recent trip to the Solomon Islands, and research underway there that is showing extraordinary high rates of violence against women, then relate this to our situation here. Not as a means of comparison, but simply to reflect on the global pervasiveness of violence against women by men. And to even go a bit further to consider the violence of men against men too. What is it about certain men or maleness that leads to all this violence? It isn’t all men, so it can’t be merely attributed to the physiology of being a man. I guess essentially it is about power. But how do we transform power relations to reduce violence?

Anyway, I digress. So I got home with grand plans to write. But then I had to do the washing, get lunch ready for today and help my husband, who is currently all but immobile. I had two phone calls to make. Finally, I sat down and began to write. Then the phone rang again – a friend I had been neglecting. So I abandoned the blog entry. It just wasn’t worth getting uptight about.

Between travel, caring for a sick husband, work and trying to find a little bit of time for myself, the blog is really the last priority. And when I’m so tired there isn’t much inspiration anyway.

But enough lamenting. I have it damn easy compared to others. My hopefully short-lived experiences caring for an unwell husband have me shaking my head in amazement at what many individuals do day in and day out. I just can’t say enough how much I admire those people, most of whom I have not even met. 

So anyway, I have finally managed to get something down here. (I’m not really sure it says much, which is another one of my blogging issues – I don’t like writing just for the sake of it. I like to have a bit of a ‘story’ to share) And I am pleased to have achieved that. Who knows when I will be next – nothing like a bit of regular irregularity. I guess it has a sense of reliability in it.

Only One Thing to Say

It’s been a while – apologies for that. What better time to post than post-election. In the end, I don’t have that much to say about it. The only thing that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth is that ACT gets five seats in parliament with only 3.72% of votes.  To point out the inequity, NZ First got 4.21% of votes but gets no seats in parliament. Surely a good system is based on fairness. This doesn’t seem fair to me – that a party like ACT gets so much power for so little popular support.

Recently I was briefed by a colleague in the USA about their upcoming election. After giving a run-down on the potential benefits and disadvantages for sexual and reproductive rights of a McCain or Obama Presidency, she summarised thus:

Remember: your friends can disappoint you, and your enemies may not be as bad as you expect.

I’m finding these pragmatic words somewhat comforting at present.

The Wonderful World of Words

I’m in the middle of reading a lovely little book called Ex Libris, a book about books by a booklover (Anne Fadiman). Now this woman is well-read, and like most people who read broadly, her vocabularly is impressive. Most of the new words I come across in her writing I can make out to some degree and keep reading without heading for the dictionary. In one chapter she actually takes on the issue of vocabularly when she pulls out new words that excited and daunted her in a book called The Tiger in the House by Carl Van Vechten. Words that sent Fadiman to the dictionary included: kakodemon, opopanax, retromingent, paludal and calineries. Words I can hardly pronounce, let alone figure out what they mean. Fadiman’s chapter was entitled ‘The Joy of Sesquipedalians’. (Sesquipedalian can either be used as a noun, to mean a long word, or the act or practice of using long words, or it can be used as an adjective to describe a word or a person who uses long words.)

Personally, I certainly wouldn’t use the word ‘joy’ to describe how I feel when I am reading and come across long or difficult words. Maybe I am just lazy. I guess if I am honest it can be fun to head for the dictionary and find out what a new word means. But I always struggle to remember it and that frustrates me. This is particularly so when there are several words in one peice of writing. It makes me falter in my reading and means I can’t sink into the words and let them effortlessly dissolve into meaning as my eyes run over the type.

This is what happened to me when I began to read Jonathan Raban’s recent article in the London Review of Books – Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill – a peice on Sarah Palin. (The title is what the Alaskan Wildlife Alliance’s director says is Palin’s motto.) I stumbled in the first sentence with the word ‘Poujadism’. I could ascertain that it must have been some political leader or figurehead in France, but that was about all and I needed to know to really understand what Raban was saying. Trip one to the dictionary. The word was not there. OK – wikipedia. Poujad was a populist politician in France in the mid 20th Century. Continue reading. Second sentence, flounder on ‘paysan’. Dictionary – not there again! This time Wiktionary assists. ‘Paysan’ is a noun meaning a peasant or somebody who lives in the country. (French again – maybe Raban had just been reading about the French peasantry in the 1940s or something.). I make it through to the second paragraph and hit the word ‘ukases’, which to my relief is in the dictionary and is the plural for arbitrary command (or an edict of Tssarist Russian government). 

So far I am feeling annoyed that Raban had to subject me to his far superior vocabularly, or that he was writing with one hand on the pen and the other thumbing through the theasaurus. And I usually enjoy his articles so much. I know, I only have myself to blame. If my own vocab was better I wouldn’t have had any problems getting started. But anyway, to my great delight, things then improve markedly.

The article about Palin is well-researched, interesting, and once past the first two paragraphs, a smooth read. And Raban is certainly no fan of the Republican’s vice-presidential candidate. Unfortunately I can’t put the link to the article up here as you have to pay. But I can give you my favourite lines, which also highlight how wonderful Raban’s writing can be, not to mention how scathing of Palin:

Transcripts and videos from her time in Alaska show her parlaying the barest minimum of rhetorical and intellectual resources into a formidable electoral weapon. The least one can say of her is that she quickly learned how to make the most of herself.

What is most striking about her is that she seems perfectly untroubled by either curiosity or the usual processes of thought… Palin never thinks. Instead, she relies on a limited stock of facts, bright generalities and pokerwork maxims, all as familiar and well-worn as old pennies. Given any question, she reaches into her bag for the readymade sentence that sounds most nearly proximate to an answer, and, rather than speaking it, recites it, in the upsy-downsy voice of a middle-schooler pronouncing the letters of a word in a spelling bee. She then fixes her lips in a terminal smile.

Fantastic. How cleverly Raban crafts his words to paint a rich picture of Palin. Now I am feeling the joy that Fadiman speaks of in her adulation of long words. Except my joy doesn’t rest on the length of the words, rather the way they are put together to construct a representation of reality that has meaning for me. And I guess the occcasional dip into the dictionary (or wiktionary) has only got to be good for me on my lifelong journey of exploring the wonderful world of words. Before you know it, I will be reeling off sesquipedalians like a lexicographer. Or maybe not – new words can be fun but I also quite like being easily understood.

Business Backpacking

I got to my hotel in central Paris through Senegal, Pakistan and even Iraq. Or so the taxi driver informed me: “this is not Paris, this is … (insert country of origin of particular immigrant population)”. All in a French accent. Well, pretty much in French actually – his English was as good as my French. No matter where you go in the world you always encounter prejudice. Taxi drivers are often an excellent barometer with which to assess the social pressures in particular cities or countries.

I am lucky enough in my job to get the opportunity to travel regularly. After years of backpacking I have become a bit of a business traveller. At least that’s how it feels to me, with my suitcase on wheels rather than backpack, and stays in hotels rather than on the rooves of hostels. But for this trip to France and England I decided to pull out my trusty backpack. I was going to be travelling on trains and there is no substitute for a backpack when it comes to ease of getting around.

As I was going so far I also added on an extra day to have a look around Paris and an extra day in London. So I cruised the city just as I would have several years ago when travelling through Europe. In true backpacker spirit I slipped a couple of bread rolls and peices of cheese into my bag from the hotel-provided breakfast, so I wouldn’t have to pay for lunch. I had my day-pack, a bottle of water, a map and off I went.

The years, and quite probably the business-travel, had softened me. Wandering up the stairs to Sacre Coeur, in a jet-lagged fog, I was brough to an abrupt halt when a man thrust a loop of green, yellow and black thread in front of me. “Put your finger in here”, he demanded. I hesitated. “Don’t worry, I’m not dangerous.” Not wanting to give him the impression that I was actually thinking he was dangerous (which, for the record, I was not), I put my finger in the loop. And that was it, I was a customer… this guy was good at his craft.

He talked and asked questions of me non-stop, as his hands whizzed the thread into what I quickly realised was a bracelet. He was from Kenya and had come to France to learn French (apparently). I was interested in talking with him but he wouldn’t let me get a word in edge-ways. I can understand why. Until he had the bracelet tied around my wrist I could easily remove my finger. He didn’t want me to start talking about how much this was going to cost me and risk loosing a paying customer. But he didn’t need to worry with me. I had already resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to pay, and that I was probably going to be ripped off. I may have gone soft but it doesn’t take long for the lessons to return. One of those I learned while backpacking was to accept that you will most likely be ripped off at least once in every country you visit. It saves you a lot of angst if you can accept that fact with grace and move on. Mind you, I am not sure how well I am doing on accepting this one. Fourteen NZ dollars for a cotton bracelet in Kenyan colours was probably one of the biggest rip-offs I have experienced. I have not managed to bring myself to take it off yet – wanting to get the most of my money even though I don’t really like wearing bracelets. But I console myself with the fact that he needed the money more than me, as is usually the case.

I wasn’t sure just how I would end-up feeling about backpacking after this little trip. I often suffer bouts of nostalgia about my travelling days. I have lots of great memories and I love my backpack like an old friend. It has experienced so much with me. But it has been a while, and I am not so romantic to be able to deceive myself that time and age don’t add a different perspective to something that was enjoyed in the past. I’m pleased to report that, overall, I really enjoyed it. There can be a higher level of hassle but that is counteracted by the enhanced sense of freedom and independence a backpack adds. Everything you need can go on your back. It is easy to carry and manage. And somehow it really makes me feel like I am travelling. It certainly added a sense of novelty and difference to what was an ordinary work trip. I might hvae to do it more often!