Category Archives: International Development

Two Nobel Prizes, 65 Million Girls Absent from School

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize, shared by deserving recipients Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, shines important light on the children of impoverished countries. Through their work on behalf of children’s rights we are reminded of the urgency of now when it comes to girls’ education and to child exploitation for financial gain.

Significantly, the award came as the United Nations marked the International Day of the Girl Child, a day to promote girls’ human rights and to highlight gender inequalities that still lead to various forms of discrimination and abuse suffered by a huge number of the world’s girls. That is not to diminish the painful lives boys lead in many corners of the world. But the issue of girls’ education that Malala speaks to is so critical to a country, a community, a family, a girl, a woman, and her own children that it deserves the special attention a 17-year old activist – the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – has brought to light.

“Extremists have shown what frightens them most,” Malala has said. “It’ a girl with a book.” She is hardly exaggerating. Just think how ISIS and the Taliban and Boka Haram confine females to sexual slavery by way of faux marriages.

Sadly, history is replete with unnamed multitudes of women denied an education. In medieval times, for instance, women who were unmarriageable or considered unruly were shunted off to convents. But there they found a haven free from subservience and perpetual childbearing, a place where they could read, write, discuss ideas – until the men in power realized how dangerous that was, and banned them from such activities in favor of religious devotion and endless embroidery.

Yet, here’s what we know about the value of girls’ education: It is central to a country’s development and improvement. It leads the way out of poverty. And it has a direct, proven impact on child and reproductive health, economic growth, environmental sustainability, national productivity, innovation, democratic values, and social cohesion.

In the World Bank’s new report, Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity, key findings include that “girls with little or no education are far more likely to be married [off] as children, suffer domestic violence, live in poverty, and lack a say over household spending or their own healthcare than better-educated peers; and enhanced education – the ability to make decisions and act on them – is a key reason why children of better educated women are less likely to be stunted; educated mothers have greater autonomy in making decisions and more power to act for their children’s benefit.”

We know that illiteracy is one of the strongest predictors of poverty and that every year of schooling increases individual wages for both men and women. We know that an educated, skilled workforce is one of the foundations of a knowledge-based society and that education makes vital contributions to lowering maternal and child mortality rates, protecting against HIV/AIDS, reducing fertility rates, and enhancing environmental awareness.

But let’s put a human face on this, as CAMFED, a UK-based non-profit organization dedicated to girls’ education, has. Suppose you’re a 12-year old girl, they suggest. You went to primary school, loved learning, and enjoyed interacting with your classmates. But you couldn’t go to secondary school because your family didn’t have the money for school fees, uniforms, or transport. Perhaps they thought it wasn’t safe. Or that your labor was needed at home. You therefore became a financial burden on your family and had to work to contribute money to the household. Young, lonely and sad, you are likely to have a baby before you are 15 or 16, maybe three children by the age of 20. You are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than your former classmates and your children are more likely to be malnourished than women who waited to have families. You have no power – no agency to make decisions – no say whatsoever over your life. And all you wanted to do was stay in school.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are 24 million girls like that one. Overall in the world, there are 65 million girls who are not in school.

In poor countries, 60 percent of the present population is under 25 years of age. Without children’s rights, including access to education, how are we going to realize global peace and development? In conflict-ridden areas – proliferating at a staggering rate – how will we stop the violation of children and the continued violence that occurs from one generation to the next?

Thank Heaven for a new generation of young women, and men, symbolized by Malala Yousafzai. “I know I am not alone,” she told reporters on learning of her prize. “I think this is really the beginning. This decision sends a message that all people, regardless of language and religion, should fight for the rights of women, children and every human being.”

That includes policymakers and politicians as well as parents. Would that they had the will to join her quest.

A Long Cold Summer When Civilization Seemed to Retreat

It’s been a summer of troubling drama, a time of “Sturm and Drang” (storm and stress) as one German writer put it, a season of disasters of Biblical proportion. Even those of us lucky enough to be a continent or an ocean away from various epicenters have not been left untouched by the seeming scourge of disease and human despair that seemed to jump borders with alarming speed.

Surely I’m not the only one who thought of Masada when the Yazidis and other religious minorities fled to the top of Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains to escape death at the hands of ISIS. Masada, the flat mesa on top of a mountain that rises in Israel near the Dead Sea, was the site of a mass suicide in 73 C.E. More than 1,000 Jews died there rather than fall into Roman hands. (One woman and five children hid and survived to tell the tale.)


Nor could I have been alone in thinking about the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt when I watched the refugees who came down from the mountain as they crossed that rickety bridge over a river on their way to find refuge.

And then there was the Israeli/Gazan situation, a conflict as old as the Bible itself.

Did anyone else think of Tiananmen Square when they saw the horrific pictures of tanks lined up against the people of Ferguson, Missouri as they protested peacefully after an unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by a policeman?

An unidentified man attempts to block tanks entering the square

Wasn’t the outbreak of Ebola reminiscent of medieval plagues, when borders were closed and bodies were carried away in carts, their homes marked as houses of death?

Didn’t the deaths of hundreds in a disappeared jumbo jet and other airline disasters, as well as the deaths of so many notable figures, bear the overtones of Greek tragedy?

And yet, among all the events that seemed to suggest a leap into a frighteningly dystopian future, is there some hope to be found? Might we be at some kind of turning point, a profoundly learnable moment that will ultimately render us capable of finding what writer Mary Gordon has called “the simple beauty of the good”?

Could it be that we stand on the fragile threshold of a time in human history when instead of “circling the drain,” we might, in an attempt to survive, find our universal souls, returning to truth and justice as guideposts, to ethical governance and sensible, compassionate leaders who would replace the oligarchs leading us into anarchy?

These questions were no doubt raised after the colossal tragedy of World War I (and many wars before that). Surely they were asked after World War II and the Holocaust. I remember them being raised in the 1960s when assassinations seemed endless and military might on the streets of America made us wonder if we had reached the apocalypse. So, too, did we ask ourselves if we could return to our better selves after the genocides of Rwanda and the Balkans. It seemed then and it seems now a Sisyphean question that we are doomed to ask in perpetuity.

But, without wanting to sound delusional, I think it may be possible that we are about to enter a moral epoch marked by a collective, rejuvenated spirit of good over evil, right over wrong, moral choices over inhumane acts.

I suggest this possibility because it seems to me that we all feel dangerously close to the precipice of madness. I say it because of all the people in all the cities who rallied in support of an end to police brutality after Michael Brown was killed. I say it because of a community that stood up to an unethical businessman when he demonstrated corporate greed. I say it because of organizations like MomsRising and I say it because of the outpouring of help that occurs when humanitarian crises perpetrated by political insanity and potentially fatal diseases happen. I say it because, as Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a moving commentary in Haaretz, “you add together all the people who gathered to demand justice in Israel and Palestine – in Cape Town, Washington, D.C., New York, New Delhi, London, Dublin and Sydney, and all the other cities [and] this was arguably the largest active outcry by citizens around a single cause ever in the history of the world.”

I say it because I see no alternative.

And yes, I say it knowing that history has proved me wrong again and again and that bad people flourish while “good guys finish last.” But just imagine a world in which we find within us the ability, the strength, the intelligence and compassion to move our communal heritage forward instead of falling back to the Dark Ages!

Surely the majority of us maintain a moral vigor, a life force that can enable us to recapture the soul of our communities and countries, to find again our better natures, and thus emerge with new hope and dignity in a sustainable world.

Dare one hope that in the face of so much sadness and threat we might yet be on the threshold of our greatest hour? At the very least, could the winter to come bring with it at least some renewed and reassuring warmth?

Reacting to Conflict in the Middle East: A Revealing Litmus Test

It’s amazing watching what people reveal about themselves when tensions in the Middle East explode. Some otherwise liberal, compassionate souls with big hearts suddenly morph into raging self-appointed authorities. Others who’ve suffered deeply and have reason not to be kind toward oppressors become surprisingly gentle. Some spew invectives while others weep for dying children.

But nothing rivals what has taken place on social media since the horrific conflict between Israel and the Palestinians began. Having responded to a friend’s pro-Israel Facebook post in which she equated my sympathy for the plight of ordinary Palestinians with being “pro-Hamas,” a slew of opinions started flying and haven’t stopped.

“It’s one thing to be so-called ‘pro-Hamas’ but quite another to simply be against the slaughter of innocents,” I wrote. “No one denies Israel’s right to exist (least of all me, a Jew) or to defend itself, but their slaughter approaches genocide. I cannot sanction the disproportionate response to the aggression perpetrated by some Palestinians. Most people in Gaza are ordinary, impoverished folks trying to survive in terrible ghetto conditions with absolutely nowhere to go or hide. Given the Jewish experience with ghettos and extermination who should feel compassion for them more than Jews?

“When I learned that 25 people perished while eating a meal together during Ramadan (suppose it had been 25 Jews breaking the Yom Kippur fast?), or that hospitals and UN safe-haven schools were being bombed with children killed, maimed, traumatized, there is no way I could sanction Israel’s aggression. While both sides need to regain their sanity and end hostilities in a sensibly negotiated settlement, Gaza has become a killing field. It makes me sad, and I feel an unwelcome shame (where once I felt pride) that ‘my people’ could behave like this. I ask this simple question: How does killing more children after the tragedy of lost youth that started this conflagration solve the problem or redeem the tragedy?”

Some readers support my position, some argue against it, and some spew spurious vitriol. The people who agree with me frame their arguments as I have, with a social justice, human rights lens, while those with opposing points of view respond from a (frequently erroneous) historical and political perspective. The passion that both sides feel is stunning, and sometimes alarming.

Because of copious dichotomized debates, I want to offer some further thoughts, beginning with a quote from Holocaust survivor, Reuven Moskovitz. His words are credited to “It is a sacred duty for me to protest against persecution, the oppression and imprisonment of so many people in Gaza. As a Holocaust survivor I cannot live with the fact that the State of Israel is imprisoning an entire people behind fences. It’s just immoral.”

Leaving a synagogue because of “our overwhelming silence as Jews” over what was happening in Gaza, writer Naomi Wolf said, “I mourn genocide in Gaza…I mourn all victims… Where is God? God is only where we stand with our neighbor in trouble and against injustice.”

Someone in Gaza wrote this email to my friend, “Israel has targeted houses and residential areas. When people flee their homes the warplanes target them in the streets. They didn’t even allow the Red Cross to pull dead bodies and injured people out. Medical teams and journalists are among the victims. More than 70 percent are children and women. We have no power and no water. It’s horrible.”

It is not my purpose here to debate the merits, mistakes or arguments of either side in this terrible conflict. Nor am I trying to justify my position. I am merely stating it. I think it is urgent to transcend the politically expedient rhetoric of Hamas and others who say their goal is to destroy Israel, wiping Jews off the face of the earth. Consider Israel’s military strength and its American support and you realize that is never going to happen. We also need to acknowledge that a human rights approach to the situation does not make one “pro-Hamas.” Name-calling serves no purpose other than to inflame.

Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself, but that does not give it ‘carte blanche’ to slaughter innocent people by the thousands. Nor does Israeli oppression of Palestinians mean Hamas has a right to fire rockets indiscriminately. We must acknowledge that both sides are guilty of hideous violence, broken promises, outrageous lies, blind hatred, and unwillingness to negotiate in the interest of mutual survival. But we also need to recognize that both sides are equally terrified. That’s why the blame-game is useless. It gets us nowhere in solving the problem. Neither does name calling. Anti-Semitic accusations (and acts) must not be tolerated; no one should assert that charge against someone because they hold differing views.

In the end, the conflagration will expire when its impact becomes intolerable. For me, it already is. That’s why I speak out. Will others find their voices of conscience before another woman, on either side, grieves a dead child who never had a chance at life?

Why the Millennial Generation Gives Me Hope

Not long ago I participated in an event that attracted a good number of young women who are of the generation known as the Millennials.  Demographers use this term (or Gen-Y) when referring to the children of baby boomers, adults in their late thirties and early forties.  There are about 80 million of them in the U.S. and they represent the last generation born in the 20th century.  Life for them has never existed without the Internet; they are totally tech-savvy.

They’re also, it can be argued, socially conscious. They care about equity, social justice, poverty, peace, the environment and other issues of our time.  They seem more likely than the generation that precedes them to invest in social capital – a term Robert Putnam wrote about in his bestseller Bowling Alone, which analyzes the importance of – and decline in – valuable networks that help create beneficial changes in society. Whether its job networking, neighborhood watches or programs to feed the hungry, social capital and collective action matters, and increasingly, it matters to Millennials.  So does having meaningful work, a sense of community, and an openness to new ideas and experiences.

 The women I met at the event I attended were beginning their fourth decade. Each of them had a senior, lucrative position within their organizations and in their chosen fields, from medicine to marketing. Yet each of them was poised to forfeit the financial security and comfort zone of their respective workplaces in order to do something more meaningful professionally.

 Shortly after meeting those wonderful, risk-taking young women I read a piece in The New York Times that also gave me hope for the future because of our collective progeny.  It was about Jewish students at Swarthmore College who decided that their Hillel – the Jewish student group on many college campuses – would be the first “Open Hillel” in the country.  This decision meant that they would no longer abide by national Hillel guidelines that prohibit chapters from certain actions they deem to be not fully supportive of Israel.  Such actions might include inviting certain speakers, showing a film about Palestinians, or having a discussion with a Palestinian student group, or a left-leaning Jewish group for that matter. “All are welcome to walk through our doors,” Swarthmore students proclaimed. If I were a parent of one of those kids I’d be mighty proud.

 Millennials are social activists and social entrepreneurs.  Take the work of actress and filmmaker Kamala Lopez and her colleague Gini Sikes.  They are producing a film called “Equal Means Equal,” a documentary about women’s equality, as part of the ERA Education Project Lopez founded.  “Equal Means Equal provides a forum for the voices of American women to be heard on a national stage,” Lopez says.  The film, using archival footage and visual arts, highlights women from across the country as they talk about their lives and how they want them to change, with topics such as the gender pay gap, pregnancy discrimination, immigration, religion and violence among the subjects discussed.

  Kamala Lopez

Kiva co-founders Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley exemplify Millennial social entrepreneurs. A non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty, Kiva leverages the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions so that individuals can lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.   Since it was founded in 2005, over a million people have become Kiva lenders and over $500 million in loans to small-scale businesses in the world’s poorest countries have been made. More than 99 percent of those loans are paid back, encouraging donors to reinvest. “We envision a world where all people – even in the most remote areas of the globe – hold the power to create opportunity for themselves and others,” Kiva leaders say. 


Millennials were among the leaders of the Occupy Movement, which regardless of its flaws, is aimed at social and economic equality.  And unlike their Boomer parents Millennials want a healthy balance between work and family life.  They are more likely to achieve gender equality on the home front and to comfortably reach across the divides of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

 Don’t get me wrong:  Millennials are viewed in some quarters as self-centered, lazy, job-hopping, neurotic narcissists with a huge sense of entitlement and a diminished ability to make commitments.  I’ve actually met a few who might qualify for some of those descriptors. But I know of or have engaged with enough people in this age group to believe that they offer a good deal of hope for the future of the planet, and that gives my slightly pre-Boomer heart a great deal of comfort.


What Does the Future Hold for Afghan Women?

Back in the 1920s things looked hopeful for women in Afghanistan.  King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya worked diligently to improve women’s lives. The king discouraged polygamy, advocated against the veil, and pushed for greater personal freedom for females.  “Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual,” he said.  His sister, Kobra, created the Organization for Women’s Protection while another sister established a women’s hospital.  Queen Soroya even founded the first magazine for women.

By the end of this progressive decade conservative tribal leaders pushed back against the growing freedoms for women and the King’s successor acquiesced.  Still, urban women entered the work force in the 1930s, mainly as teachers and nurses, and by 1959 many had unveiled.  A1964 constitution gave women the right to vote and to enter politics.

 All of these advances, and those that followed in the 1970s and 80s came to a crashing halt when the Taliban came to power in 1996 following Soviet rule. We’re familiar with their brutal oppression of women symbolized by blue burkhas and stoning deaths. 

 Post Taliban, things seemed to improve.  A woman was elected to the Loya Jirga in 2003 and the following year a new constitution codified that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law.” In 2008 the first political party dedicated to women’s rights was launched and 35 percent of the more than five million children enrolled in schools were girls. 

 That was also the year that acid attacks on female students began.

The facts about Afghan women are chilling.  Only 14 percent of them are literate.  Their maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world. Almost 80 percent of rural women have no access to health care. Nearly 60 percent of marriages involve girls younger than 16 and more than 87 percent of Afghan women are in forced marriage or suffer physical or sexual abuse by their husbands. Average life expectancy for women is 44 years.

 “The fall of the Taliban brought global attention to the plight of Afghan women,” a 2010 piece notes.  “But even with a sizeable amount of aid and scores of consultants and projects, palpable changes remain elusive.”

 That year, prominent Afghan women gathered in Kabul to spearhead a campaign to improve the lives of Afghan women through legislation while changing the prevailing male mindset.   For despite the 2004 Constitution old laws and tribal customs continued in the face of a government unwilling to enforce the law. Today, in spite of the efforts of many Afghan women who repatriated to help the women of their country, the situation remains bleak. 

 Last spring a member of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) told an interviewer that the country remains extremely dangerous for women. Ninety percent of Afghan females, she said, have experienced some form of violence and the suicide rate among women is climbing because women feel hopeless. 

In June, when security was handed over from NATO to Afghan forces and US troops began preparing for withdrawal, women’s concerns loomed large in the face of escalating attacks on high profile women.   Legislative and policy changes aimed at improving women’s lives are also being targeted.  The 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law may be amended to prohibit relatives of the accused from being questioned about abuses they’ve witnessed.  Some politicians have called for eliminating the minimum marriage age while others want to abolish women’s shelters and remove criminal penalties for rape.  The quota for women in government has been lowered; some want it ended altogether.

 Meanwhile, the Taliban are regaining legitimacy as an acceptable partner in peace-building.

 Malalai Joya,

a young activist elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005 (later removed from her post) told The Nation last November, “In rural areas, the situation for women is like hell. We have a mafia parliament. The majority of seats belong to warlords, drug lords, even Taliban. Most of the women in parliament are pro-warlord. Their role is symbolic. We’ve seen acid attacks, burning girls’ schools, cutting the nose and ears off women, public beatings and executions. In Taliban time we had one enemy; now we have three: the Taliban, warlords and occupation forces. When they leave the situation will be even bloodier…because more terrorists will come into power.”

 Such testimony calls into question a multi-million dollar program announced in September to support Afghan women’s political participation, a collaboration between the Afghan Independent Election Commission and the Asia Foundation aimed at voter turnout among women during the next elections.

 As one RAWA spokeswoman put it when asked if an Afghan Spring was imminent, “Change takes time. Things are not moving in the right direction. There won’t be a quick solution.” Then she added, “As a mother, I dream a safe, secure life for my children. Every mother has this dream: a safe life, even before education and good health.”

                                              * * *

 (A fuller version of this commentary can be found at


Notes from the Field: A Development Project that Actually Works

After twenty years working in international development – a career I relinquished when I realized that taxpayers’ money was largely being spent on failed or redundant projects in countries so corrupt that taxpayers should be outraged – it came as an encouraging surprise to learn of a program that has made a real difference.

The International Fellowships Program (IFP) funded by the Ford Foundation in 2001 has demonstrated that an international scholarship program can help build leadership for social justice, thereby contributing to broader social change at local and national levels. Since its inception, the program has enabled more than 4,300 talented leaders from various parts of the world to pursue advanced degrees at more than 600 universities in nearly 50 countries. The groundbreaking work of IFP enabled its Fellows, who because of ethnicity, geography, gender or physical disability are marginalized in their communities, to bring new knowledge and skills back home. And by removing traditional barriers to educational opportunities such as restrictions on age or fields of study, IFP has opened the door to advanced education for change makers in 22 countries worldwide.
(Today approximately 82 percent of IFP Fellows work in their home countries.)

Some of IFP’s alumni now promote eco-tourism and conservation in China, develop drama therapy programs for youth in Tanzania, prevent early marriage and promote education for girls in Kenya, and advocate for the rights of disabled people in Vietnam, among thousands of other contributions. Vo Thi Hoang Yen is one of them. Having contracted polio as a young child, she “wanted to change the perception that people with disabilities were incapable, helpless and only a burden on society, but I did not know how,” she recalls. “Then IFP came along, bringing me a great opportunity to study abroad, expand my knowledge and realize my dream.” Armed with a master’s degree in community development from the University of Kansas, Yen returned home after completing her graduate studies and founded the Disability Research and Capacity Development Center in Ho Chi Minh City, a groundbreaking NGO and civil society initiative that now plays a national role in shaping disability law and policies in Vietnam.

I learned about IFP because my daughter works there. But the inspiration for this remarkable program came from its founder and executive director Dr. Joan Dassin, 2011 recipient of the Marita Houlihan Prize for Distinguished Contributions to the Field of International Education, and a former Ford Foundation regional director for Latin America. “IFP has conclusively demonstrated that people with direct experience of the problems they want to solve are strongly motivated to improve conditions in the places where they live and work,” she says. “Expanding educational opportunities in a targeted way to the neediest communities has a direct impact on development.”

IFP’s proven model is now being replicated by governments and international agencies in a number of countries, with particular success throughout Latin America. Across the board, IFP alumni are being elected to public office, many hold leadership positions in NGOs and international organizations, and about 40 percent of them are leading changes being made in basic, secondary and higher education.

Contrast the IFP story with the experience of a friend serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in an African country rife with NGOs and bilateral aid agencies. A nurse, my friend sends stories of life there; her reports of moral lassitude and financial corruption abound.

“Whites put on an air of being super-busy, but they are often just recuperating from hangovers, dozing on Valium or paralyzed by depression. [My counterpart] said I can’t help her with the office work, mainly to gather statistics on how many of which vaccines were given or how many pregnant women tested HIV positive and received treatment because I do not know how to inflate the numbers. The results are what WHO, UNICEF, UNAIDS, PEPFAR and all the others use to explain to the public their ever growing need for funding.

My friend, having decided that if she can’t be part of the solution she is not going to contribute to the problem, is leaving Peace Corps earlier than planned. That, in my book, is a terrible waste of a good nurse and a heartrending commentary on the state of international “development.”

In contrast, IFP’s measures of success stand up to any development criteria. So, too, do the relevant words of James Kityo, an IFP Fellow from Uganda who earned his master’s degree in health management planning and policy at the University of Leeds in England: “Whenever I see a problem, I start imagining how that problem can become a solution.”

Can Chuck Hagel Bring Some Sanity to the Middle East?

The brouhaha surrounding the nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense seems, finally, to have abated following key endorsements from two Jewish senators, Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). He is likely now to be confirmed.

Oops! Should I have said two “pro-Israel senators?”

At the risk of being deluged with hate mail from friends, relatives and strangers, de-friended on Facebook, and Twitter-chastised, I confess that I have yet to grasp entirely why Mr. Hagel’s use of the term “Jewish lobby” set off quite the firestorm it did. (Calling that particular group “intimidating” wasn’t entirely off the mark either, although I’d counsel caution on that one.) After all, he didn’t say “Jew lobby.”

I understand, of course, that the pro-Israel lobby is comprised of both Jewish and non-Jewish folks and suggests a more politically palatable term. But c’mon – Chuck Hagel is no anti-Semite. He is a man of considerable judgment who speaks his mind, and apologizes when the words he uses could have been better chosen. In short, he is smart, seasoned, and sensitive to a number of issues about which some pro-Israel activists might rather put their heads in the sand. In my (Jewish) book, he is a mensch.

Sadly, I cannot claim the same sentiment when it comes to Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Anyone in political leadership who acts in such a way that six key western nations summon Israel’s ambassadors to explain their country’s actions is behaving badly. He is also raising serious questions about his motives and leadership skills.

The ambassadors were called to account in December when Netanyahu threw a temper tantrum because the United Nations upgraded the status of the Palestinians within its august chambers. Netanyahu reacted by immediately announcing plans for increased settlement construction in a contested area called E1, thereby fueling growing frustration internationally with Israeli policies that put at huge risk any hope of a two-state solution for peace in the Middle East.

Building 3,000 more housing units in E1, which is comprised of parts of East Jerusalem and land around the West Bank, would partially separate the northern and southern West Bank, thus harming prospects for a Palestinian state in that territory. Right-wingers in the Likud Party immediately defended the action while an Israeli watchdog group sounded an alarm.
In an AP story appearing in the Washington Post last month, the group Peace Now said, “a review of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies shows a clear intent to prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state by stepping up construction in strategic areas.” According to the report, the Israeli government has advanced plans for thousands of housing units to be built, which aerial photos, field visits and official reports seem to confirm.
These actions may have won Mr. Netanyahu the recent election, but his defiance and stubborn disregard for human rights and peace efforts have put Israel in an increasingly isolated position.

That will make the job of any Secretary of Defense (and Secretary of State) far more challenging in coming months. That’s one reason it’s important to have people in those positions who can operate from broad-based experience, who exercise both intelligence and compassion, and who can take a prospective approach to reconciliation rather than an ideologically-driven one grounded in fear, retribution, and hyperbolic alarms.

For that reason, I’m with J-Street, the pro-Israel, pro-peace organization, in standing behind Chuck Hagel. I, too, see him as a “thoughtful voice in Washington for two decades on questions of American Mideast policy,” and as being someone committed to the State of Israel and its security while at the same time working toward a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ok, Facebook, phone lines, and Twitter, I’ve said it, so let the moaning and messaging begin – this Jewish lobby of one is ready.

So, I’m sure, is Chuck Hagel.

Re-posted by request:
In October 2011, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks volunteering as a doula in a hospital in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland. What follows are excerpts from my journal about that experience.

The airplane which carries me from Dubai to Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, is so old it looks like pieces of metal will fall off any minute. The tires are virtually bald and the interior is shocking with broken seats, filthy carpet, no working lights or air vents. There is no cabin crew and the aisles quickly fill up with luggage. There is the smell of urine and sweat. Upon arrival, people at immigration are shouting, shoving, snarling themselves up, barking orders that are ignored. I spot a man who must be my greeter. We drive to the hospital.

Edna, the founder and major domo of the hospital is stunning at 74 in her long dress and elegant head dress. She greets me warmly. I am shown to my room – a basic but perfectly adequate single with private bath in a dorm for visitors. I shower, unpack, and join the others for lunch. Along with Edna are a French physician who has come to do ‘hands on’ work after years in research medicine; a Finnish nurse-midwife and former missionary who has worked in Ethiopia and Somalia for most of her long career; a German-American nurse from New York City and another newly graduated nurse from Mass.; an OB-GYN from Germany; an energetic Austrian-born nurse-midwife now living in England; and an English nurse-midwife.

Lunch, like every other meal, is goat meat on the bone cooked with cabbage, a diced vegetable mix, rice, gravy with potato and carrot, salad, watermelon and bananas. There is fruit juice or bottled water to drink. (Breakfast is cereal, bread, a watery porridge and Somali pancakes.)

The hospital is smaller and less developed than I had thought but still the best hospital in Hargeisa. It is clean and equipped with one (rarely used) incubator, two (probably overused) ultrasound machines, and a decent delivery room and surgery. There is a lab, a library, Edna’s Computer Room, Edna’s Pharmacy, Edna’s Supermarket, and an ambulance on the well-guarded compound situated on a busy road unofficially called Edna Street. The hospital has a maternity wing and a medical-surgical wing which includes a room for pediatrics. It accommodates about 60 patients.

Many people mill about in the compound, most family members and visitors, some guards or other workers. The women, all in hijab and many fully covered with only eyes showing, stare curiously when I walk around the grounds. They do not allow me to take their picture. Several mosques surround the compound in this deeply Muslim country and there are frequent mullahs’ calls to prayer beginning at 4:30 a.m.
The history and politics of Somaliland are complex. Suffice to say that it is one of several colonized regions of Somalia that tried to unite for independence from France, Italy, and Britain in the 1960s but failed to coalesce effectively. Somaliland declared itself free and independent several decades ago and has been fighting for recognition as an independent nation since.

Somaliland is dry and dusty in the long absence of rain, and mostly flat with a pleasant climate at just over 4,000 ft. above sea level. It is one of the poorest countries I’ve ever seen. The canvas or wood business stalls, the goats in the road, the deeply pocked dirt roads, and the simple, inadequate houses (often no more than shacks made of corregated metal and rags) all provide a visual for the deep poverty here. Life expectancy for men is about 47; in the absence of data the high maternal and infant mortality rates are not known. Women are usually married between ages 15 to 25 and can expect to have between 5 and 12 pregnancies. FGM is universally practiced. It is a deeply religious culture and a mysterious place. I have no idea what is actually going on around me: I can’t understand a word that’s being said, and people outside the compound resist communicating (unless it’s to beg). They generally find us so aberrant as to be laughable. Many men are addicted to the local narcotic weed, khat, which they would sell their souls to chew.

The first night there I have my initial doula experience. The mom is about18; it is her first child. She labors so well I think she must be in early labor but she is on the delivery table (women always deliver in lithotomy position in a delivery room) and Asha, the midwife, is doing things that tell me the baby is coming. Mom moans and clings to my hand; I stroke her arm and whisper that she is strong and can do this; soon her baby will be born. A student nurse translates what I am saying. The mother nods to me. I support her head while she pushes; she grasps my arm. And then her son is born, his wet little head emerging first, then his body sliding quickly out. “Good job! Look at your little baby!” I tell Mom. “Thank you!” she says in English. “Thank you,” squeezing my hand. I go to bed happy that I’ve been able to help in this remote place.

On the morning of my second day I have my second birth. This is Mom’s third child and she too labors well, choosing to stand through most of her labor. Hibo is the midwife and a more gentle, calming, competent soul I’ve never met. I encourage Mom, massage her hips and back, stroke her arm, talk to her in whispers. Even when she doesn’t know what I’m saying I sense that she is comforted by my voice and my touch. As she leans on my shoulders she lays her against me as if she were a child. I stroke her head, reassuring her. At 9 cm. she climbs onto the delivery table. Hibo gently examines her, tells her when to push and when to stop. She is holding onto me for dear life. Three student nurses observe; I hope they are seeing the importance of emotional support during birth. Mom’s mom appears — I cannot tell from her expression if she thinks I am usurping her position, but then she says to Hibo, “This woman is beautiful the way she is helping my daughter.” A bigger reward I cannot imagine. Finally, a big, healthy boy is born. Mom thanks me profusely. I tell her I honor what she has done. She kisses my hand and thanks me again. I kiss her hand back and thank her. Hibo is not surprised by this exchange but the young nurses seem stunned at what they have just witnessed.

The next day a C-section is just beginning when I enter the OR in my scrubs and mask. Mom is getting an epidural. After she is draped the German doctor takes a scalpel and makes the first cut. Working quickly he opens the uterus and pulls out a baby who is hydrocephalic. “Very little brain,” he says. The baby also has a terrible hair lip and cleft palate. She does not breathe readily and is whisked off to be resuscitated. Hibo tells the family what has occurred. By the next morning the baby is dead.

I spend the next morning first on rounds in Maternity where four babies have been born during the night and a woman with eclampsia is in trouble, then in the Outpatient Department where the doctor is doing pre-natal checkups. I’m invited to palpate mothers’ tummies and to listen to the fetal heartbeat through a primitive wooden instrument.

With the other women I visit the local market. Crowded with stalls and not always easy for western women, we are in search of cloth from which traditional long dresses can be sewn. We quickly choose colorful cloth for $4 each and then find two women sitting at sewing machines who in no time stitch the material into full-length “moo-moo” like dresses. (Cost: $1). The women are friendly and try speaking to us as they sew on their antique machines. “Inshallah, I see you again!” one of them says when she is finished. “Inshallah,” I reply.

The next morning I wonder into the maternity ward. Four babies have been born during the night but no one is in labor. I visit baby Hodu, everyone’s favorite – a pretty six-month old little girl who keeps getting a dreadful infection on her head and face that has caused loss of pigmentation and scabbing. No one knows why she has this condition or why it recurs after treatment. Hodu is gorgeous but developmentally delayed. She faces an uncertain future. She lies in a bed all day with her young aunt watching over her

I help the mom with eclampsia who has had a C-section in the night because of her severe hypertension. Her baby boy is a fighter at 28 weeks and less than 3 lb. He seems to have a sucking reflex and has a good chance of survival if he can start nursing. For now, Mom pumps and feeds him through a syringe. I position the baby between his mother’s breasts, a technique known as Kangaroo Care which has shown good results for survival with premature babies. I wrap him in blankets and encourage the exhausted mom. Her mother is there along with a young aunt who speaks good English so we visit as I sit with them. Mom is expert at breastfeeding having had seven other children; she is able to squeeze out a few drops of colostrum and get them into the baby’s tiny mouth.

On Monday morning I hurry to the labor room where an induction is due to begin. Hibo tells me the husband has not yet given permission; he will come at 9 a.m. There are two other women in labor, and another woman awaits her husband’s signature for an induction. The chances are the men will not consent; they have likely consulted numerous family members. More likely, they will take their wives on a round of doctor visits until they find one who tells them what they want to hear.

I am beginning to see the dark side of this country and culture, where voiceless, disempowered women must have their husbands’ permission to have a C-section or an induction for medical reasons. (If they need a hysterectomy their father must agree – her body belongs to him.) I watch as husbands come to sign (or not), ignoring their laboring wives who walk the halls. Imperious and authoritarian, they swagger in and out self-importantly. The doctor says he has seen them deny their wife her life, even when she is crying to be rescued, because “Inshallah” it is God’s will (and maybe he doesn’t like this wife so much anymore.) He has seen babies die unnecessarily – “Inshallah”. A woman here often holds less value than a camel; she has absolutely no personhood. Her function in life is to marry, bear many children and obey her husband. Her body is not her own. She has no genitals remaining; by the age of nine or 10 they have been cut off. A husband expects to have sexual intercourse with his wife every morning and every evening, unless she is bleeding. No wonder women have upwards of nine to 12 pregnancies; they are not even given time to rest from the last pregnancy before their husband demands his right to enter her again. God only knows what kind of domestic abuse occurs in shacks and shanties throughout this country of ritual, tradition and male supremacy.

Watching women give birth here is something to behold; it is a testament to their strength and courage in the face of such a life. “She’s doing all the work and I’m doing all the sweating!” I tell Hibo as she delivers a woman’s ninth child. She makes no sound, not even a mild moan (Hibo says Somali women don’t do that) and suddenly her baby pops out. It is whisked away to be cleaned up and Mom seems little interested for the moment; she lies patiently waiting for the placenta to be delivered. Then, cleaned up, she gets off the delivery table as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened, and is taken to her room. I follow carrying the baby boy she has just delivered.

In Prenatal Clinic a variety of situations present: a woman is worried about her frequent miscarriages and infertility; another has back pain with her periods; several others are doing routine check-ups; a shy woman appears with her husband complaining of urinary retention post-C-Section. The doctor can hardly contain his rage at the father who took so long to give permission for the C-section that she has had complications.

There are two C-sections in rapid succession. I observe and take photos. I’m astounded at how fast they are; it is a relatively simple (but quite bloody) operative procedure requiring great skill nonetheless. The mothers are again stoic as they are catheterized, receive epidurals and lie exposed on the OR table. (There is an irony about the prevailing female modesty in this culture while at the same time women seem to disregard the lack of privacy surrounding their bodies in the hospital. Do they feel their bodies, which have been infantilized by the removal of sexual organs and pubic hair, are not their own?)

Wednesday I head for the wards at 9:00 a.m. Last night I missed a twin birth, a breech birth, a D&C and a prolapsed cord. Today in Prenatal Clinic there are lots of giggles among the patients and the friends they have brought with them, while the doctor, a pixy of a nurse and I joke back and forth between patients. The longer I’m here the more I like the Somali women I meet; they have a good sense of humor, are generally warm and appear to welcome our help. At lunch we are joined by an American missionary surgeon and his wife; the doctor can hardly control himself as he whispers to me, “Can you imagine going to Wyoming and telling people to change their ways?”

Thursday I teach 26 first-year nursing students about emotional support during labor and delivery. Before class I check to see what is happening in the maternity wing and find three women in labor. I visit briefly with each of them and promise a young new mom that I will return after my class to help her. She squeezes my hand. When I come back after class the midwife asks me where I have been. “The woman, she is asking for you. She says she want that lady!” The mom I promised to help has delivered her baby, asking for me the entire time! I go see her, apologize, and tell her how beautiful her new daughter is. “Next time, Inshallah!” I tell her. “Mashalla!” her mother says.

At the start of class I make small-talk with the students. Then we get down to business. I write “Doula” on the board and tell them it is Greek for “woman helper.” I explain what we do and why and then talk about the importance of emotional support for all patients. I tell them that in America we don’t always live close to our families like they do so we need others to help us when we are in pain or afraid. I talk about how caring is at the heart of good nursing. I tell them about birthing practices in the 1950s and 60s in America and how women got together to reclaim their childbirth experience (careful to use language they can understand). I demonstrate what doulas can say and do to make moms less afraid and more comfortable during labor. They seem rapt when I am speaking, mesmerized perhaps by this elderly white lady who talks of strange things, but when I ask them questions or want to know what their questions or thoughts are, they are silent. I say, “Allah gave you a voice! Women’s voices are beautiful! You must not be afraid to use your voice!” but this falls on deaf ears – they have been long socialized into silence.

I break the class into groups so that can practice techniques to support laboring mothers; they think the role play is hilarious and do not take it seriously so I reconvene the class and try a single demonstration; this too is seen as – quite literally – too funny for words. So I decide I’ve done what I can for one class and ask, in closing, that each of them tell me one thing they’ve learned today. A few whisper rote answers: “Massage.” “Breathing.” “Talk.” A few actually seem interested. To my amazement, one student says, “I learned that ‘doula’ means woman helper!” I am so excited I pretend to ululate; the others laugh and do the real thing. When a few other students say something audible and original I wave my hands in a Hallelujah gesture. I’ve gotten through to a few of them! I conclude with a pep talk about the difference good nurses make, the need to honor as well as support the hard and amazing work women do in having babies, the healing touch and so on. I invite questions but silence prevails.

And so it comes to an end, this African adventure of extremes, of wild animals and willful males, of voiceless women and vibrant girls, of outrageous poverty and obscene affluence, of deep blue seas and desert sands, of market stalls and mega-malls, of break-away nations and tradition-bound kingdoms, of visionary women and violent men. So much to absorb and try to understand; so much more to be done; so many new friends; such amazing experiences! May there be other such times in which to contribute and learn. Mashallah!

Never Again? What About Syria?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Syria. Until recently it seemed largely absent from the news beyond the occasional CNN crawler or obligatory New York Times piece on a Sunday. Now that it’s being framed as a civil war, which means it could go on for a long time, I’ve tried to imagine what it must be like to be emotionally battered and sneaking around on the street begging to buy some bread.

I keep imagining a baby suckling the last remnants of life from the breast of its dead mother, or an old woman waiting for her husband who may never come home. What is it like, I wonder, to be tortured in a Syrian prison, or to be shot at close range along with everyone else in your community? What is the last thought that goes through your head when that is happening?

According to the United Nations, children are now being used as human shields while the atrocities of the Syrian regime continue. What is it like to be a father looking upon that? How does one contain the terrible terror beating in your chest when you tell your children to stay away from windows and doors, to try falling asleep in a mattressed corner? How do you say to them, “I can’t go to the store for milk, there is no more milk,” or kiss them with a fiercely whispered “I love you more than my own life”?

How maddening must it be to watch unarmed blue-bereted UN peacekeepers witness the violence day after day while their suited superiors in New York, safely sequestered in council chambers and plush offices overlooking the East River spout diplomatic inanities as the slaughter continues?

We must take “bold steps” former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, now special envoy to the region has said. Recently, expressing “grave concern” at escalations, Mr. Annan demanded that both sides “take all steps to ensure that civilians are not harmed.” How ridiculous such proclamations must sound falling on Syrian ears full with the shattering sounds of mortar attacks.

Recent press reports from abroad, where the crisis has been covered more vigorously than in the U.S., state that Annan has admitted his plan to end the conflict failed. He wants the U.N. and the international community at large to increase pressure on Syria to ensure its implementation, an unlikely scenario, or to discuss other options that could be undertaken to stop the bloodshed.

But it’s clear that diplomatic efforts are ineffective. U.N. observers have come under fire during massacres and have been refused access to the sites they are meant to examine. Current U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that U.N. patrols have been regularly obstructed and deliberately targeted. Annan has threatened further “consequences,” meaning more sanctions, a pathetic strategy in light of failed U.N. attempts to curtail Assad’s murderous tactics.

One must wonder: If it were a question of access to other parts of the region for our own “vital interests,” or if Syria had a commodity we wanted, say oil, or if we had military interests there as we do in Bahrain, would the so-called civilized world still be dabbling in sanctions? Or might we together have found a way to destroy the barbaric Assad and his brutal regime? (If we can get Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gadafi, why not Syria’s Satan?)

After the Holocaust, the world proclaimed “Never again!” Samantha Power, Director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University reminds us of this in her forthcoming book Again and Again, an examination of American responses to genocide since the Holocaust.

But then came Cambodia, the Balkans and Rwanda. “Never again!” we said. Still, people in those countries for whom we did too little too late learned all too quickly that the promise of “never again” counted for little. And they were not alone, says Powers. “Notwithstanding a promising beginning, and a half-century of rhetorical ballast, the American consensus that genocide is wrong has not been accompanied by a willingness to stop or even condemn the crime itself,” she says. “Genocide has occurred so often and so uncontested in the last fifty years that an epithet more apt in describing recent events than the oft-chanted “Never Again” is in fact “Again and Again.” The gap between the promise and the practice of the last fifty years is dispiriting indeed. How can this be?”

How indeed? It is a question I ask myself every time I think about what is happening on the streets of Syria while here at home we seem more concerned with sports, Dancing with the Stars, and the endless sputtering of political candidates who would be king.

Where in all that clutter is the wail of crying children, the grief of bereft parents, the terrifying sounds of slaughter, and when do we mean, once and for all, Never Again?