Heather’s Posts

The Global Hunger Crisis – Why Haven’t We Made More Progress Towards the Millenium Development Goals?

Written by Heather Wilhelm

It is so easy to forget about the true state of the world when we live our day to day lives just going through the motions.  Here are some statistics to shock you back into reality:

~        1.02 billion people do not have enough to eat – more than the populations of USA, Canada and the European Union;

~        More than 60 percent of chronically hungry people are women;

~        Every six seconds a child dies because of hunger and related causes; and

~        Lack of Vitamin A kills a million infants a year.

When I read statistics like these, I actually find it very hard to believe that they are real.  How is it possible that I’ve lived 28 years never going hungry, and yet somehow during my regular 8 hour work day more than 4,800 children die of hunger-related diseases?  Women and children the world over continue to be the most disenfranchised individuals on the planet, and even the most well-meaning organizations, like the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), are unable to help effectively.  A recent report from Reuters states that world food aid is at an all-time low despite the fact that the number of hungry people in the world soared to its highest level ever, with more than 1 billion people classified as lacking food.  The WFP has barely enough funding this year to help a fraction of these people, which is made more horrifying by the fact that it would take a mere 0.01% of the global financial crisis bailout package from the United States to solve the hunger crisis.  Priorities need to shift in Washington and in neighbouring developed countries, with the eradication of poverty and starvation not only in “third world” countries, but also right in their own backyards moving to the top of the list.

As per the WFP’s website, one of the possible solutions to the world hunger crisis is the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, which are:

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are eight goals to be achieved by 2015 that respond to the world’s main development challenges. The MDGs are drawn from the actions and targets contained in the Millennium Declaration that was adopted by 189 nations-and signed by 147 heads of state and governments during the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000.

These eight development goals are:

Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education

Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women

Goal 4: Reduce child mortality

Goal 5: Improve maternal health

Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability

Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

The importance of the implementation of the MDG’s cannot be overlooked, but considering we are more than halfway through the fifteen year period that was allotted to make these development goals a reality, how much has really been accomplished?  If the WFP can say that 2009 saw more hungry people than ever before, clearly something is being done wrong.  In an attempt to look into progress reports, I found most sites to be sorely lacking (for instance, the United Nations Development Programme website’s section entitled “Implementation of the MDG’s” last shows an update in 2005), which is beyond discouraging.  The eight goals listed above are so basic, so simple and so easily achieved that is simply doesn’t make sense why there hasn’t been more progress reported.  As a society, we need to hold our government accountable for the commitments they made to the disenfranchised, poverty-stricken people of the world in 2000, and ensure that they are meeting the requirements set out for each country in helping to bring the Millennium Development Goals to fruition by the year 2015.  If you want to make sure they are held accountable, speak up, tell people what you’ve read here and make your voice heard.  Local government representatives aren’t just elected to sit around and look pretty – they are supposed to carry our voices and concerns up to Ottawa and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  If there’s one country in the world that exemplifies the spirit of helping others, it’s Canada, so let’s make sure when 2015 rolls around, our country has done everything in its power to ensure the full implementation of the Millennium Development Goals.


The Practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Kenya’s Meru Society

Written by Heather Wilhelm

After briefly reading about the prevalence of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in the Meru tribe of Kenya while updating our website’s Media Watch section, I decided to do some further research on the history of FGM/C amongst Meru women, and what is being done to change these barbaric traditions.

The tradition of FGM/C in the Meru society dates back to an ancient myth in which all healthy men of the village were sent off to fight enemy tribes, but upon their return from war, found their women impregnated by the weaker men who had been left behind.  The myth continues that from this day forward, women were forced to endure the removal of their clitorises to deplete their sexual desires in the hopes that they would remain faithful to their warrior husbands.  This practice of FGM/C has been carried forward into present Meru society despite the fact that these procedures have been illegal since 2001 under the Children’s Act.  The Act specifically states:

No person shall subject a child to female circumcision, early marriage or other cultural rites, customs or traditional practices that are likely to negatively affect the child’s life, health, social welfare, dignity or physical or psychological development. (Kenya 2001, Sec. 14)

In an effort to change and modernize Meru society, elders of the tribe have begun to run an Alternative Rites-of-Passage (ARP) program that promotes both knowledge of cultural traditions of the Meru, as well as modern values.

These ARP programs have been taught in several Meru locations since 2007, and so far more than 2,000 girls and young women have taken these classes as an alternative to the brutal FGM/C.  The idea behind the program is to remain true to the values of the Meru and the idea of preparing girls for womanhood through education rather than physical mutilation.  These young women learn about relationships, marriage, self-awareness, Meru cultural values and traditions, substance abuse and even HIV/AIDS.  While ARP seems like the perfect alternative to FGM/C in the Meru society, there is still a huge amount of resistance to the change and FGM/C procedures are now often performed under cover of night, sometimes by individuals not qualified to perform them.  There are so many risks and dangers involved in the practice of FGM/C (aside from the fact that it is a blatant violation of basic human rights), that these procedures are becoming increasingly dangerous.  Some of the short-term side effects include severe pain, shock, hemorrhage, tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and damage or injury to nearby genital tissue.  Some of the long-term consequences of FGM/C can include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths, and the need for further surgeries depending on the type of FGM/C that the woman was subjected to.  There are four main procedures used to perform FGM/C and in brief they are:

1)      Clitoridectomy: involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoris and sometimes the prepuce as well;

2)      Excision:  involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, which can or cannot include the removal of the labia majora as well;

3)      Infibulation:  the creation of a covering seal to narrow the vaginal opening.  The seal is formed by removing and then repositioning the inner and/or outer labia.  This procedure can or cannot involve the removal of the clitoris; and

4)      Other:  this includes all procedures performed on female genitals not for medical purposes and can include pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

There are many organizations including the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund and local NGO’s throughout Africa that are trying to put an end to the practice of FGM/C.  As I mentioned earlier, ARP programs are being created in different regions of the continent, including in the Meru society, but there are still millions of young girls at risk of FGM/C every year in Africa.  Moving towards the eradication of FGM/C will require that education and awareness about the consequences of this procedure to young women (both physically and mentally) be made available to community leaders throughout the many regions in Africa where FGM/C is prevalent.  In the meantime, it will be up to the many women who have suffered this barbaric procedure, and the brave men who support them to bring forward change in local communities through alternative learning programs.  Hopefully the international community will continue to fight for the rights of children in developing countries, specifically the rights of girls, by bringing awareness to the public on such a large scale, that these violations of human rights can no longer be ignored.

District 6 – The Real District 9

Written by Heather Wilhelm

When I entered the movie theatre to watch the movie District 9 last week, I had no idea what I was going to see.  I had heard hype that it was a great movie, but as far as I knew, it was just another movie about aliens with great special effects.  I quickly realized that this movie had a very important social message and that while it may have been based on events that occurred decades ago, its message is still very much relevant today.

The movie is filmed in a mock documentary style and begins with numerous people being interviewed on camera regarding the aliens or “prawns” that have inhabited Johannesburg, South Africa for twenty years.  As the story goes, an alien ship landed over Johannesburg in the early 1980s and remained dormant there for months.  Upon investigation, it was discovered to be full of millions of sick aliens who were unable to move their ship.  Flash forward to the present and the aliens have been living on earth in towns and ghettos around Johannesburg for decades, one of these areas being District 9, which has become a degraded slum.  For this reason, the Multinational Unit (MNU), a military contractor, has decided to move the 1.8 million inhabitants of District 9 over to District 10, a tightly controlled camp some 200 km outside of Johannesburg.  The basis for the film was the forced removal of more than 60,000 residents from Cape Town’s District 6 over a fifteen year period between 1968 and 1982.

District 6 (Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town) was created in 1867, and quickly became known as a lively area lived in by artists, immigrants, former slaves and merchants.  Approximately one-tenth of Cape Town’s population called District 6 home.  After the Second World War, the area was largely populated by coloured residents (in the South African, Namibian, Zambian, Botswana and Zimbabwean context, the term Coloured refers or referred to an ethnic group of mixed-race people who possess some sub-Saharan African ancestry, but not enough to be considered Black under the law of South Africa) as well as some Muslims, whites, Africans and Indians who all lived together in relative harmony, and the District’s proximity to the harbour brought through many foreigners, making it a truly cosmopolitan hub of Cape Town.

Beginning in 1966, in an effort to segregate the different races living peacefully in District 6, the Apartheid Government began the forced removal of residents from their homes by declaring District 6 a whites-only area under the Groups Area Act.  The Government claimed that District 6 was a slum unfit for habitation, also making claims that the area was destitute and ridden with crime including gambling, drinking and prostitution.  While residents had to accept these as the official reasons they were being uprooted from their homes, many believed that their land had simply become very valuable to the Government due to its proximity to the city centre and harbour, and that the forced evictions were simply a result of greed and land lust.  For whatever reason, between 1968 and 1982 more than 60,000 residents of District 6 were forcibly removed from their homes (1,800 of which were systematically destroyed) and forced to relocate to the Cape Flats township some 25 kilometres away.

The homes created for the displaced residents of District 6 in the barren Cape Flats were squalid and meant to contain violence.  There was nothing accessible to the area which contained only one highway in and out of the area so that military reinforcements could easily control any insurgencies.  Poverty soon took over, as there were no increases in salary to compensate residents for their lengthened commute, and families were often split up, which meant women having to leave their children at home in order to work.  This poverty led to an increase in gang violence, and soon, none of the community and togetherness that had once been the core of what District 6 was known for, was any longer apparent.

Fifteen years after the fall of the apartheid government, there has been little change in the Cape Flats that still house many of District 6’s displaced families.  While the residents are under no obligation to remain in the area, few have the money to leave the Flats and relocate.  Gang violence is higher than anywhere else in South Africa, with gang rape, murder and robbery at an all time high.  Residents are currently able to submit claims to the Government in order to be returned to District 6 and the new housing that is being created there to house those displaced by the tragic forced removals that spanned more than two decades, but is that really enough to make up for the racial discrimination and alienation that has been suffered by so many for so long?

The great thing about South African director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is the fact that it is bringing awareness to the plight that the original residents of District 6 are still facing despite the apartheid government of South Africa having fallen fifteen years ago.  The movie provides metaphor after metaphor for how damaging racial segregation was and still is, and brings to the forefront a very important social message – this is still going on, and we have to stop it!  If nothing else, I can only hope that movie goers around the world are able to gain from this film what I did, and that the true message behind District 9 is not lost in special effects and a fantastic tale.