The Most Natural Thing In the World?


As the daughter of a nurse I had some vague idea of what a fistula might be (my mother always liked to tell us the ‘real’ name for everything.)  A fistula is a hole – usually a tear – between organs.  To be honest, I can’t say that I was all that aware of obstetric fistulas.

An obstetric fistula is a tear that develops between the rectum and/or bladder and vagina as a result of prolonged or severe childbirth.  The physical result of this tear is that woman – many of them teenagers too young to be physically capable of giving birth without medical intervention – leak urine and feces all the time.  The social result of this is that they are usually divorced and ostracised. Because they smell bad, they are forced to live in huts at the edge of their villages where they starve or die of infection.

“The woman with a fistula is the modern day leper,” as a healthcare worker describes the situation.(1)

Obstetric fistulas were not unknown in Europe and America – for example, the present day site of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, was once the site of the Women’s Hospital of New York, which specialised in fistula repair until it closed in 1928. (2)

Since the early twentieth century in the Western world, the condition of obstetric fistula has been relegated to obscurity by the availability of medical intervention in childbirth. Obscure enough that this nurse’s daughter was never warned about them by her mother.

This is not the case for thousands of other women around the world (regardless of who their mothers may be).  They know exactly what an obstetric fistula is and all about the devastation it wreaks on a life.

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(1) Half the Sky, Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, p. 109

(2) http://www.hipmama.com/node/25230

Bargaining for a Living


English: A homeless man in Paris Français : Un...

Heidemarie Schwermer is a sixty-nine year old German woman who lives entirely without money.  Until 1996, Heidemarie lived her life pretty much along the same lines as her compatriots – she taught for almost 20 years and practiced as a psychotherapist for many years after that.  She raised two children and now also has three grandchildren.

In 1994, she moved to Dortmund where she determined to do something about the homelessness she saw all around her.  So she opened a swap shop – a place where people could trade skills or things for other skills or things.  The shop didn’t succeed in helping the homeless but it did attract many unemployed people and retirees and thereby became well known.

As time passed, Heidemarie grew tired of her life and quit her job.  She began to do all sorts of other jobs – whatever she could find – in exchange for low wages or other services.  By 1995, she was spending almost no money and still managing very well.  In 1996, after her children moved out – she embarked on an experiment that was to last a year – she sold her apartment and decided to live like a nomad – trading goods and services for goods and services.  She loved it so much that she’s still living that way, 15 years later.

Everything Heidemarie owns fits into a single-back suitcase and a rucksack.  She has an emergency fund of 200 euro and any other money she earns she gives to charities.

Interesting experiment which at the very least make us question the way we view – and use – money in our societies.

(Thanks to Tales from the Lou’s Blog for posting on this yesterday – see below for link)

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The Trouble with Genocide


The trouble with our definition of the crime of genocide is that it doesn’t go far enough. 

Don’t get me wrong, the coining of the term genocide in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, was an important conceptual advance for humanity.

Lemkin combined two root words – genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and the Latin suffix –cide (which means to kill) – thus creating the word genocide as a description of the deliberate and systematic destruction of any ethnic, religious, racial or national group.

It was also an important advance for humanity when, in 1948, the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.

The definition and outlawing of genocide was largely undertaken in the 1940s in the wake of WWII.  It was a hugely important departure and a giant leap of understanding. But now we need to redefine it.  Now we need to come to an understanding of genocide which will help us deal with the needs – and crimes – of our time.

Because the trouble with genocide is that our definition of it is based on the notion of otherness. It is an altruistic notion of otherness.  A tolerant and well-meaning notion of otherness but a notion of otherness all the same.

As a consequence, many atrocities are still taking place in the world because there is international disagreement as to whether or not the crimes constitute genocide.  Very often these situations are recognised as genocide when it is too late to intervene and save the victims.

We need to move towards a situation where we see the entire human race as one genos – one family, one tribe, one race.  Instead of otherness we need to develop our ability to understand and operate a system of oneness.

If we do that, then whenever anyone is targeted for harm as a result of his or her individual belief, race, background or nationality – we will define it as genocide and no longer need to waste time with semantic arguments and bureaucracy.

All crimes against humanity – our family – will concern us.  All injustice.  All suffering.

The nobility of man and his spiritual development will lead him in the future to such a position that no individual could enjoy eating his food or resting at home while knowing that there was one person somewhere in the world without food or shelter. (2)

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(1) http://www.preventgenocide.org/genocide/officialtext.htm

(2) ‘Abdu’l Baha – quoted in Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, vol. 3, p. 126

Mind the (Income) Gap


The Spirit Level : Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better – a controversial book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, makes the claim that inequality has a negative effect on the majority of the population – not just the poor.

According to the authors, in states and countries with a big gap between the rich and poor, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity and teenage pregnancy are more common, the homicide rate is higher, life expectancy is shorter, and children’s educational performance and literacy scores are worse.

According to this data, Japan and the Scandinavian countries have the smallest differences between incomes, and the best record of psycho-social health. On the other hand, the widest gulf between rich and poor – and the accompanying highest incidence of health and social problems – is to be found in Britain, America and Portugal.

One explanation, suggested by the authors, is that inequality increases stress right across society, not just among the least advantaged. Much research has been done on the stress hormone cortisol, which compromises the neural system and in turn the immune system. When stressed, we are more prone to depression and anxiety, and more likely to develop a host of bodily ills including heart disease, obesity, drug addiction, liability to infection and rapid ageing.

Societies where incomes are relatively equal have lower levels of stress and high levels of trust, so that people feel secure and see others as co-operative. In unequal societies, by contrast, the rich suffer from fear of the poor, while those lower down the social order experience status anxiety, resentful of those more successful than them and ashamed of themselves.

According to Wilkinson and Pickett, social problem often create downward spirals – for example, babies with teenage mothers are at greater risk, as they grow up, of educational failure, juvenile crime, and becoming teenage parents themselves. In societies with greater income inequality, more people are sent to prison, and less is spent on education and welfare.

This is an interesting book.  Lots of people disagree with it, dispute the statistics the authors present and deny their conclusions. But perhaps the title of the book – The Spirit Level – Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better –  still makes a statement with which most of us would instinctively agree.

Our approaches to how this should happen might differ, but almost all of us would prefer to live in a just and equal society, given the choice.

So – why don’t we have more just and equal societies?___________________________________________________

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