Vanity fair
Beauty industry makes its mark

Venezuela is reputedly the world’s biggest per-capita consumer of cosmetics and personal-care products. In a country jealously proud of its reputation for beautiful women, the failure last year of Venezuela’s Minorka Mercado to capture the Miss Universe crown was viewed in some quarters as a national catastrophe.

‘A baffling decision,’ ran the banner headline in one local newspaper, summing up a national pride that was more offended than salvaged by Mercado’s eventual third place behind Miss India and Miss Colombia.

Such vanity is not entirely without foundation. With just 0.36 per cent of the world’s population, Venezuela has won 20 per cent of international beauty titles in the last 14 years, including three Miss Universes and three Miss Worlds, according to organizers here.

Venezuelans’ fierce pride in their nation’s prominence on the international beauty circuit has intensified as economic shambles and political chaos has brought depression and humiliation in other walks of public life.

‘It’s extraordinary, the human beauty here,’ says Irene Saez Conde, the blonde and fair-skinned 1981 Miss Universe and high-profile mayor of a Caracas district. ‘Everywhere you go, there are beautiful women – and men. No wonder we win so often.’

Although sensitivity to sexism and ideological distaste for beauty pageants are still rare in Venezuela, some are cynical about the country’s multi-million-dollar beauty industry and its obsessive glorification of female looks.

‘Give me a blonde wig, an artificial nose and 10 years in a foreign modelling parlour, like those women have, and even I would be on the winner’s rostrum,’ says Caracas shop assistant Ana Menendez.

Plastic surgery is common on the Venezuelan beauty circuit and most contestants sweat blood fine-tuning their figures in the gym, perfecting their vowels and learning to strut the catwalk.

Would-be contestants are hand-picked at parties, universities and modelling schools, then painstakingly ‘groomed’ by the men who control the industry – like Osmel Sousa, who scorns feminism and argues that countries opposed to beauty contests ‘have lost the ability to appreciate women’.

‘We want the perfect face, the perfect size, the perfect walk, and for all that you have to work hard,’ he says.

Irene Saez is proud of never having used artificial beauty-enhancing techniques – but is herself the product of a Paris modelling school.

‘Some of these girls have their own natural beauty, but they take them so young these days and change them to fit an image of perfect beauty. It’s a shame,’ she says.

Giulio Sanctis

Floating above the poverty line in the US.


Penthouse and pavement
According to a recent US Census Bureau survey an additional one million US citizens slid into poverty in 1993, while inequalities in income distribution reached record levels: 15.1 per cent of Americans lived below the poverty line, while for children this figure rose to 25 per cent. Child poverty levels have been growing fastest in the suburbs – areas usually associated with middle-class security. Meanwhile the highest-earning fifth of the population took home 48.2 per cent of the nation’s income, while the lowest-earning fifth had to make do on 3.6 per cent.

Source: Share International, Vol 13 No 9

Passing the buck
In 1991 some 102 co-operative societies, which operated illegally as fully-fledged banks, folded in Pakistan. Around 200,000 people lost their hard-earned cash totalling nearly $425 million. The co-ops had attracted the life savings of ordinary people with their promises of unusually high interest rates of 30 per cent. Among those enticed were a significant proportion of pensioners and widows and other people with limited incomes. The State Bank of Pakistan, the country’s main regulatory bank, ignored their existence.

When the fiasco occurred Benazir Bhutto promised that the victims would be compensated by the end of 1994 if she came to power. She is now Prime Minister, the deadline has passed and only a tenth of the claimants have got their money. These are people who lost the smallest amounts. It seems unlikely that the rest will see much of their cash. Many political heavyweights and business tycoons were involved in the scandal and there are press reports of payoffs in political circles.

Source: Tariq Butt, Islamabad/Gemini

The Xcessive generation
As the millennium approaches teenage suicide rates are rising alarmingly in the countries
(all of them ‘developed’) that top the list:

: WHO/Gemini

Mind over muscle
An international study by the World Health Organization has found that psychological problems are more disabling than physical illness. People with conditions such as major depression and generalized anxiety were unable to carry out usual daily tasks on an average of six days a month, compared to an average of less than two days a month for those without psychiatric symptoms.

Source: WHO

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In Ghana some curious statistics have emerged from the fact that more than 30 per cent of married couples are not living together. When husbands and wives live together men work six hours less per week than they would if they lived on their own. For women, however, living with husbands means five hours more work than living without them.

Source: Populi Vol 21 No 10



Taboo broken
Women speak out on violence
Flag of resistance: the personal becomes political in Palestine.

Asma Ibrahim stood before the microphone, pulled a bloodied skirt out of a plastic bag and held it up before hundreds of people. She recounted how her father-in-law pulled her by the hair and dragged her along the ground. Her crime? Marriage to his son had not produced a child.

‘It’s just a relief to talk about it, and to have people listen and support me,’ said Ibrahim, who is now 21. She married at 13.

Ibrahim was speaking before a mock tribunal at a conference entitled ‘Women, Justice and Law’ convened by Al-Haq, a Jerusalem-based human-rights group.

One of the great taboos of Palestinian society – public discussion of domestic violence – is finally being broken after the years of preoccupation with the political issues of Israeli occupation.

Another speaker at the conference, Nadia Zidan, stood proudly in front of the crowd to tell of her 10-year struggle to escape a marriage that had never been consummated. The Greek Orthodox Christian courts have stalled the case. She has been required to take medical tests to prove she is a virgin and has faced injunctions ordering her to live with her husband to see if things would work out.

The one telephone helpline for women in the West Bank and Gaza is based in Jerusalem and still only functions part time. It has received 110 calls from women suffering abuse by their husbands or sexual abuse by relatives.

Aida Teuma Sleiman, director of the Women Against Violence programme in Nazareth, says the issue of domestic violence has received more attention in Israel. The debate over gender issues in the West Bank and Gaza is complicated by the divergence of views between secular women and those who adhere closely to traditional Islam.

Maha Abdo, a social worker at the Women’s Counselling and Legal Aid Centre in Jerusalem, worries that groups clamouring for funding from Western donors might quickly adopt Western notions because they are trendy. Wafa Abou Shnaq, who wears a veil and observes Islamic Sharia law, argues that Islamist women should not be left out of the debate. ‘Maybe one day we will organize our own conference and invite the secular women to present their point of view,’ says Shnaq, who is starting an Islamic women’s organization in the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

‘The other crowd of secular women doesn’t reach everybody,’ says Shnaq. ‘We have the masses but not the organizational capacity. They have the organization but don’t reach the masses. We have to work together.’

There was unanimous agreement among all participants in the conference on one thing: that it is time to speak out – and time for ordinary women to do the talking.

Roula el-Rifai/Gemini

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Chlorophyll by Sacha [image, unknown]
Cartoon by Sacha Cartoon by Sacha [image, unknown]

Play ball
Hunger strike highlights abuses in Guatemala

High visibility: Jennifer Harbury on hunger strike in Guatemala City.

Jennifer harbury, a Harvard-educated lawyer who married Guatemalan guerrilla commandant Efrain Bámaca Velásquez (‘Comandante Everardo’) began a hunger strike in Guatemala City on 11 October last year. Camped in the main plaza, she demanded that her husband, who has been seen in clandestine army detention and under torture, should be given due process. The Guatemalan Army says he was killed in combat in March 1992.

The case is not unusual. Guatemala’s military maintains a powerful grip on government, despite the fact that President Ramiro De Leon Carpio is a former Attorney General for Human Rights. Carpio’s own brother, Jorge – a political leader and publisher – was assassinated in June 1993. His daughter-in-law has accused the Vice-Minister of the Interior (a colonel) of trying to intimidate her into giving up her fight to find the killers. The family says the President has remained largely inactive on the case.

The President has sided with the generals on other issues as well. He has agreed to allow the notorious PAC (Civil Self-Defense Patrols) to stay in place. The PAC’s numerous human-rights violations against rural populations had previously led him to advocate their abolition. The about-face stunned human-rights observers.

The forced military conscription of indigenous youths continues. The Defense Ministry says that it has been stopped while Congress passes legislation outlawing the practice, but human-rights groups receive numerous complaints indicating the contrary.

Meanwhile a forensic team was forced to stop work on exhumations at a grave-site in the north of the country (see NI 260) because of threats from PAC members believed to be under the direction of the local military base.

While the human-rights situation may have improved from the dreadful abuses of just a few years ago, much remains to be done and politicians still have to play ball with the military if they want to hold on to power.

Christina Hoag/Campaign in Solidarity with Jennifer Harbury, Toronto

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Not so big Mac
Finally, a support group for people who work in the worldwide burger chain, McDonalds. Their leaflet may well cause heartburn – ‘Are you sick of low wages? Are you sick of being bossed around? Are you sick of poor working conditions? Are you sick of McDonalds? Do you want to do something about it? Did you know that McDonalds spends well over one billion dollars worldwide every year on ads and promotions to boost their image? – yet they can’t, for example, find a single penny to pay overtime. The aim is: get profits UP and wage costs DOWN. No wonder so many chuck the job in.

But those who stay can fight to improve things...’ How? Well the leaflet has a few suggestions. Workers can demand their legal rights, use company grievance procedures, anonymously tip off the press about food quality and hygiene, secretly join a trade union. For these and other ideas, contact MWSG, c/o Hackney Trade Union Support Unit, Colin Roach Centre, 10a Bradbury St, London N16, England.

Source: GreenLine No 120

Texan first
The state of Texas has filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against two Ku Klux Klan groups, claiming that the groups threatened blacks and burned crosses to try to stop an all-white public housing project from being desegregated. The lawsuit, the first of its kind in the US, says nine Klan members violated the state Fair Housing Act. The Klan is accused of paying white children to beat up black children, threatening whites who befriended black residents, burning crosses and hanging ‘White Power’ banners near the complex in Vidor.

Source: Center for Democratic Renewal


‘I’m not going to stand there alone and palely loitering with my arse exposed!’

Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, demanding a lectern
before addressing an audience in Sydney.

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