Limited franchise
Women's hopes disappointed

Casting vote?: women made up 42 per cent of voters but four per cent of candidates.

Etidal Silwan straightened her simple black hijab and gave the ballot box she guarded a proprietary pat. She was in charge of registering voters for the first Palestinian elections in her home, Jalazon Refugee Camp. As the hour approached for the polls to close, she noted with satisfaction that almost 70 per cent of the camp’s voters had been in to cast their ballots.

A majority of voters, she reported, were women – and she wasn’t surprised: ‘Women are much more concerned about these things. Women make things happen here.’

‘The intifada (the popular uprising against Israeli occupation that began in 1987) did a lot for women here,’ says Suheir Azzouni, Director of the Women’s Technical Committee, the umbrella organization of Palestinian women’s groups. When men were arrested or imprisoned many women became household heads, were forced to get jobs or to resist Israeli troops physically. Traditional ideas about women’s roles began to change. Many feminists, says Azzouni, thought the elections would reflect the contribution Palestinian women have made to the fight against the Israeli occupation.

That was the plan. And Etidal may have been right that women are concerned – they formed 42 per cent of the voters. But they made up only four per cent of the 688 candidates and won only five of the 88 seats on the new legislative Council. According to election observers in the villages, many women voters were illiterate and let male relatives vote for them; some said they were voting for the candidates their husband had picked, and some men would not allow their wives to vote at all.

Candidates like Hanan Ashrawi – the former Palestinian spokesperson who was one of five women elected – with her Western suits and flawless English, have little in common with the women of Jalazon camp. The ‘average’ Palestinian woman lives in a rural village or refugee camp, has six children and works the family’s land. She has no independent income. Twenty-five per cent of Palestinian women are estimated to be illiterate and effectively disenfranchized.

Much will depend, says Azzouni, on the concessions that the Palestinian leadership is willing to make to appease its Islamic opposition, which wants Muslim Sharia law in the place of the current secular laws: ‘If the Authority is going to worry about what Hamas thinks, we will not see any progress. And women’s situation may deteriorate.’

Hanan Ashrawi rejects the idea that the women’s movement has anything to fear from the Islamic parties. Gender equality is enshrined in the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, she argues, and it is not realistic to think the Palestinian Authority would replace its basic laws with Islamic ones. She and the new female Council members say they are making it a priority to put through legislation on compulsory education for girls, on early marriage and domestic violence. But it will take a long time – even if it gets through – to filter down to Etidal and the women of Jalazon.

Stephanie Nolen

An ancient people
tired of their language
– or so it was told –
decided to raise a hill.
They piled up earth
as high as the clouds.

Up there – it was told –
they handed out languages.

I wanted like mad to go up there –
you had to knock back a few strong drinks,
and you came down talking nonsense
in another language!

Humberto Ak’abal
Translated by Sarah Arvio

Humberto Ak’abal is a Guatemalan poet who writes in the Maya language which, like the Maya people, has been repressed for centuries.

Source: Index on Censorship, No 168

Disabled funds
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 370 million people, or seven per cent of the world’s population, has some kind of disability, of whom 80 million require rehabilitation services. No more than ten per cent of disabled people, however, have access to such services in developing countries. Mr Bengt Lindqvist, a former Minister for Social Affairs in Sweden who is himself blind, recently led an international delegation to the WHO to express mounting concern that international funds for rehabilitation are nonetheless shrinking.

Source: press release WHO/6

The man from IMF looked around the Lounge, then slowly sank into the leather chair.
From an advertisement for luxury hotels in India Today, Vol 21 No 2

Based on the ISIS study of over 10,000 UK heart attacks (British Medical Journal, 19 August 1995) British supermarket giant Tesco launched its own cigarettes under the brand name Benington, the first time in its history that it has given one of its products a different brand name. The launch happened quietly – there was no advertising. Could this have something to do with Tesco’s ‘Healthy Eating’ promotions, celebrating their tenth birthday last year? Or the fact that most of its leaflets urge customers to give up smoking. When asked how Benington cigarettes fitted in with its healthy-lifestyle approach, a spokesperson for the company said that it was not their policy to dictate the lifestyle of their customers but rather to provide the information they needed to make informed choices. Aahhhh....

Source: Consumer Currents No 180

...for attacks
For those who do choose to smoke, here’s some more information to help them review their choice. While the link between smoking and lung cancer is well established, a study published in the British Medical Journal states that heart attacks are the main way tobacco kills young adults, and cigarettes also cause many non-fatal attacks. The study conducted, using data from over 14,000 British heart-attack survivors, claims that when a cigarette smoker in their thirties or forties has a heart attack, there’s an 80-per-cent chance that tobacco caused it. People in these age groups are five times more likely to have an attack if they are smokers than if they are not.

Source: WHO Tobacco Alert

Tower of bubble
Some 200 homeless people living in an underground passage near Tokyo’s JR Shinjuku station are being pressured to move out so that a ‘moving sidewalk’ can be installed in their place. Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s major centres, offering easy access to jobs, medical care and food for the homeless. It is also the site of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s new administrative building complex, known as the ‘Tower of Bubble’ because of the huge sums spent on its twin towers during Tokyo’s ‘bubble’ property boom. Two attempts to evict the homeless people last December failed, but the Tokyo Metropolitan Government still refused to consider any dialogue with them.

Source: Ampo, Japan-Asia Quarterly Review, Vol 26, No 4

Just Green Bananas! Banana barter
Some 8,000 ‘Give Fair Trade Bananas a Fair Chance’ postcards have been received by Franz Fischler in the European Union Agricultural Directorate in Brussels, and another 4,000 by Douglas Hogg in the British Ministry of Agriculture. The cards have come from places as far afield as Kenya, Costa Rica, France and Zimbabwe. They form part of a campaign to get the principles of fair trade, and an identifying label, recognized by the banana industry and by the rules of the World Trade Organization.

Source: Farmers’ Link, 38-40 Exchange Street, Norwich NR2 1AX, Britain

Clown care
Is laughter the best cure? For the next year a group of American paediatricians will be trying to find out whether humour helps the healing process. They will measure the effects on their young patients of magic, mime and music as dispensed by the 35 clowns of the Big Apple Circus. The Circus’s Clown Care Unit has been sending clowns into six New York hospitals for three days a week for nearly ten years. Parents and staff are convinced they help sick and anxious children. Researchers are now looking for scientific proof.

Source: New Scientist, No 2016


Dreams without means
War years take their toll
Making the market in Kampala: more variety, less security.

You could win a packet of biscuits or a loaf of bread in Uganda’s National Lottery. Yes, there are money prizes too, but nobody scoffs at winning a carton of milk or a piece of cheese. Now the world’s fourth-poorest country, Uganda is struggling to rebuild itself after more than 20 years of chaos, bloodshed and fear.

Driving around Kampala, rarely stopping for traffic lights because the bulbs have been stolen, one is immediately impressed by the number of buildings under construction. Smart new hotels and office blocks seem to elbow aside the shabby, bullet-spattered walls and broken windows that are stark reminders of the country’s recent past. People here remember the years between 1980 and 1985, when Obote was in power. Then, inter-tribal tensions made the city so unsafe that many people left altogether. Buying a new car or building a home meant inviting death by drawing attention to your wealth.

Now, under the Museveni administration, new businesses are starting up. Shops are stocked with a larger variety of goods than has been seen for years – but wrought-iron screens protect the windows. Uganda may have more banks than any other African country, but they all demand minimum deposits too large for small savers.

On the outskirts of Kampala, countless partially-built houses await the funds to finish them. Many of them are unlikely to be completed. They were owned by people with AIDS. Everything they had was put into the building, to leave to their children. Then, when they died, financial and legal complications robbed the orphans of their legacies. It is a sobering reminder that one in five people here have been diagnosed with the disease.

The Ugandan Government is in the throes of privatizing its assets, but there is a lack of financial expertise to work out the complex deals. According to local entrepreneur Cosmas Kimbugwe: ‘What Uganda needs most is skilled people and teachers. During the war we lost so many of our educated people. There is very little training available here.’

For most children there is barely enough money even for primary education. Many children end up helping at home, or selling things on the streets, rather than attending school. Child soldiers who once wielded deadly weapons and learnt to be ruthless to survive are ill-equipped for living in a peaceful community.

Crime is rife. In the countryside gangs await passing vehicles to puncture their tyres and murder and rob the passengers. Vehicle owners often have an anti-hijack alarm fitted to the driver’s door. In Kampala, those with property sleep more easily at night with dogs guarding their compound. Less dramatic but more common are thefts from electricity and phone lines by neighbours who tap in illegally.

There are many aid agencies working in Uganda, and together with the Government progress is being made. But it’s going to be a long, tough road for the majority. The unfinished buildings are a silent testimony to their dreams as well as their lack of means.

Lorna Reay

Chlorophyll by Sacha

Chlorophyll by Sacha

Lost asylum
Rule change in Britain leaves refugees destitute

Not a prison: Campsfield Detention Centre locks up the innocent.

John* is a young Kenyan at Campsfield Detention Centre near Oxford, Britain. Mild-mannered and well-spoken, he has been there for some months. He has committed no crime; he is seeking asylum from persecution back home. His crime is simply to have arrived.

Since 5 February 1996 people in John’s position who arrive at British ports or airports have been automatically barred from claiming even the most basic of welfare benefits. They are only entitled to such benefits if they claim on arrival that they are seeking asylum. At this point they are either incarcerated in prisons and detention centres like Campsfield to await a Home Office decision on their case, or are sent back to face the horrors from which they fled.

The Refugee Council estimates that 2,000 asylum-seekers have already been affected by the cut in benefits, with 2,700 more at risk with each month that passes.

Even the Social Security Committee, a statutory body which advises the Secretary of State for Social Security, has pointed out that: ‘The reality of the proposals is that thousands of men, women and children will be left with no means of providing themselves with food or shelter. Many will have no option but to live on the streets of our major cities and ports.’

At present the average waiting time for an appeal is estimated to be between 14 and 21 months. And they have little hope of being granted asylum in any case. Refusal rates have soared from 17 per cent in 1990 to 75 per cent in 1994. The Government has a ‘white list’ of countries where it considers there is ‘no serious risk of persecution’ – and therefore no grounds for asylum. This list includes Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, India, Pakistan, Ghana and Cyprus. It has now been extended to include Tanzania, Ethiopia – and Kenya.

Back at Campsfield, John has heard about the benefit cuts. I tell him that Kenya has just been put on the ‘white list’. He looks incredulous, and then worried. He has good reason to be so. ‘White list’ countries have a 98-100 per cent refusal rate. After his months of waiting, John’s stark choice may be between returning to face danger in Kenya – or a life of destitution in Britain.

Maria Spiers
* a pseudonym


‘The World Bank has to accept that its real instrument of torture is its insistence on growth, its economic theorizing at the expense of human welfare...
The sooner debtor nations realize the political nature of the World Bank, the sooner they will be able to face the bogus economic theories of the Bank with an equivalent weapon – people’s power.’

Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigerian dissident and environmentalist, hanged by the Nigerian military dictatorship.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 278 magazine cover This article is from the April 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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