Marking International Women’s Day – 1 of 3 personal reflections

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I have become increasingly frustrated lately with the music industry, with the shallow, vacuous lyrics and the way women are reduced to mere sexual and emotional objects. I find them patronising and insulting rather than flattering. Don’t get me wrong, I am a hopeless romantic too. But my life is not reduced to how many hearts I break or not, whether I want to run to a man’s arms or not, or if the man of my dreams has decided to go with another woman. My life is rich with plenty of other experiences that also define me.

The way women are depicted in the media or in movies (and Hollywood is not unique, Bollywood does its share of women misrepresentation!) is also something that increasingly bothers me. And with the explosion of senseless and ridiculous real-life TV type of shows, it hurts to see how many women have become proud victims of a gendered vision of society that reduces them to mere objects that serve no other purpose than to meet the needs of men. Even female singers sound like broken whingeing records. I get that love is an ever lasting source of inspiration. But is that all women are for? Make men happy and live lives that are fulfilled by the mere presence of a man who loves us? Me thinks definitely not!

Gender is a hopelessly misunderstood issue. Even some good intentioned, so-called feminists get it wrong. And many of the awareness raising efforts that pitch women as the answer to all of the world’s problems are wrong and simply, miss the point. I have news for you: there are good women, and there are not so good women, just like there are good and bad men. The reactions to the death of Lady Margaret Thatcher a case in point – was she a feminist or the antithesis to feminism? Neither, she was a person with a vision, and unfortunately her vision was not a very nice one (nor for women or for the poor and disenfranchised for that matter), but that is another question. You see, I do not necessarily consider myself a feminist, I simply think that women are not deserving of equality and rights and worth investing in because they are women, but because they are people! ‘Human beings’ is the defining character of both women and men.

So this International Women’s Day I would like to pay tribute to two ladies that have inspired and educated me through their work and actions to change the way women and girls are portrayed in the media and in films: Gina Davis and Cate Blanchet. I leave you with a couple of clips that say it all. Happy International Women’s Day, may it be one that gets us closer to gender justice and to everyone being treated like an equally deserving human being.

Cate Blanchet Oscars Speech via Huffington Post

Children for sale

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– “Madam, you are white and your husband is white, how come these babies are so dark?”

– “Ah well, they are adopted. Do you understand adopted?”

“No”

– “Well, a mother who was pregnant but could not keep the babies decided to give them up for adoption so other parents could look after them”

– “Aaaaaah, and you gave her money yes?”.

That is how the average conversation about my sons’ background goes in Malaysia. The lady that helps me look after them is often asked “how much did they pay for the babies?” “Ah no, they did not pay anything” she replies. My sons were free.

Child trafficking is a big problem around the world. It is a very, very complex issue that goes far deeper than the smuggling, paedophile rings or prostitution networks that we sometimes hear about in the news. As I write, a 20-month-old British baby was taken from his house last night in the same suburb I live in. It could be a family or business related issue, or it could be a trafficking ring that then sells the baby, who is then taken to Thailand for the sex industry. But the reality of this issue is that there are many layers, drivers, causes, contexts.

In Malaysia, buying babies is scaringly common. I heard of a Malaysian-Indian baby boy just born in hospital. The devout Christian parents too poor to keep him, were looking for a family to adopt him. It was their fifth baby, two of them had already been placed in orphanages. All they wanted was RM4,000 (about AUD 1,500) to make ends meet. And just like that, making babies becomes a business. Most reports focus on human trafficking for sexual exploitation, a huge problem in Malaysia compounded by a lack of appropriate legal frameworks and protections, and Malaysia’s geographical location. But I am talking about a different kind of trafficking, one that serves to meet the demand for babies from couples seeking to adopt, while at the same time becoming a source of income for desperate women and families.

Young girls, unmarried women, foreign workers, are often those who fall pregnant and are unable or unwilling to keep their babies. Baby dumping is incredibly common in Malaysia. So much so that a local organisation, OrphanCARE, decided to create a baby ‘hatch’ for mothers to leave their unwanted babies so they can be taken care of rather than dumping them elsewhere. This has proven to be fairly effective in cutting down the number of babies being dumped and raising awareness. Even providing counselling to the mothers, some of whom change their mind and keep the babies. The Malaysian government, rather than addressing the causes of baby dumping (religious reasons are a big impediment, as well as socioeconomic factors), is set on curbing the trend with a strict regime of deterrent measures including 10 years jail for those found guilty of baby dumping. The Government thinks strengthening the laws will act as a stronger deterrent. In the process those being punished are the, often desperate and in need of help, mothers. This approach does not seek to understand the complex reasons behind such a tough decision and leads to widespread impunity, particularly worrying in those cases in which men have been involved through forceful and criminal acts.

Photo: Save the Children (Malaysia)

Photo: Save the Children (Malaysia)

Some mothers are willing to sell their babies. There are significant child trafficking syndicates in Malaysia and, with a large demand for babies for adoption on the one hand, and religious and education limitations compounded by complex socioeconomic factors on the other…you get the picture. But not all children are caught in criminal trafficking networks. Some mothers just want to find families for their children and prefer to leave their babies directly with families who want to adopt. If you are a foreign worker, or a teenager whose family is unaware of your pregnancy, taking your baby to an orphanage might not be an option for a range of reasons. There is a process called private adoption where there are (generally and supposedly) no financial transactions involved other than support with medical costs during birth, followed by a court process that establishes the legal guardianship of the adoptive parents with the consent of the birth mother. This process can be problematic at many levels, but it also fills a very wide gap in a conservative society complicated by the presence of high numbers of female foreign workers, a human rights vacuum and pretty low socioeconomic conditions.

People adopt for many different reasons. Families with children of their own simply consider adoption as another option to add to their family, others are motivated due to awareness about the amount of abandoned children in Asia. Others might be desperate to adopt due to an inability to conceive. There are other more sinister reasons behind an adoption, including slavery. Many families are willing to pay the high prices for children, and often they might be unaware that the adoption process is illegal. These families can be caught in police investigations later on with devastating consequences for the children. There are many, many complex factors at either end of the ‘demand and supply chain’. And right in the middle are these helpless, innocent babies some of whom have been born out of wedlock, some fruit of a heinous act, others ‘commissioned’ to alleviate poverty conditions, and yet others simply born out of a lack of sexual education and contraceptive means. Many, many, slip through the bureaucratic and legal cracks.

There are perfectly legitimate ways to offer alternatives to an institutionalised life, but often the processes are burdensome or hampered by bureaucracy (for example orphanages here get subsidies for the children they host, when a child is adopted, the allocated subsidy is lost – you do the math). Education and a strong and sound legal framework that is truly protective of all sides is essential – Malaysia for example is not a party to the 1993 Hague Convention on inter-country adoption.  But even this is not enough for babies born to, for example, non-nationals. Those babies when born in a country that is not the home country of the birth mother become stateless and, in the case of Malaysia, are not recognised as Malaysian. This makes them even more vulnerable.

For those of us educated enough to know and understand root causes, consequences and national and international legal frameworks, and who have gone out of our way to ensure the best course of action is taken, it hurts to walk down the street with our precious children knowing people will wonder how much we paid for them, as one would enquire how much that nice handbag might cost. For as long as adoption remains one of those novelty topics rarely discussed in public, characterised by long, costly, lengthy and burdensome processes, a desperate last resort option rather than a perfect way to starting a family; for as long as mothers are not supported and instead penalised and/or criticised for their inability to raise their own children; for as long as duty bearers fail to educate societies, and to provide the protections and legal frameworks needed to address root causes; for as long as cultural and religious underpinnings are abused in favour of power politics and gender injustice, vulnerable women and children will continue to fall victim to our inability to protect them. And I will continue to receive inquiring looks, inappropriate questions or whispered comments as I walk past. My sons are the most painful gift that I will ever have the privilege to receive.

Fortress Europe: Only if you can’t pay

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The financial crisis that has gripped much of the European Union (EU) since late 2008 has not deterred non-EU nationals from wanting to settle within its borders. Although the EU has sought to remove internal borders and allow for the free movement of people, good and services, the EU and its member states have also sought to fortify their external borders to stem the flow of people seeking entry into the EU. And yet, while the majority of people seeking entry into the EU face insurmountable obstacles, for those with the financial means, the path to residency and now even citizenship is much easier.

Known as ‘investor citizenship’, ‘citizenship by investment’ or ‘economic citizenship’, a number of states around the world facilitate naturalisation of wealthy individuals who invest in their economies. Within the EU, a number of member states such as the UK, Cyprus, Austria, Ireland, Belgium and Portugal, provide favourable avenues for residency for individuals who invest significant funds in their economies, whether it be through the investment of funds in an existing or new company or through investment in property. For example Belgium provides residency for investors who establish a new company with an office and employment opportunities within Belgium. In Portugal, the Golden Residence Permit for Investment provides residency statues to individuals who invest in Portugal either privately (purchasing of real estate with a minimum value of €500,000) or through a company (providing a minimum of €1 million in capital investment, or through the establishment of a Portuguese company which employs at least 10 people). Although these states provide favourable avenues for residency, investors are still required to comply with established residency and citizenship requirements before they can apply and be granted citizenship of their country of residence. One EU member state, Malta, has however now made the process for entry into the EU all the more accessible for those with the financial means.

In November 2013, Malta’s House of Representatives approved the Individual Investor Programme (IIP) bill, amending the country’s Citizenship Act to allow non-EU nationals to purchase Maltese citizenship through a one off payment of €650,000. This amendment would have allowed an individual the ability to purchase Maltese citizenship without any specific residency requirement restrictions.  An individual would neither have been required to settle in Malta for a period of time prior to purchasing his/her citizenship, nor would s/he have been required to remain in Malta for a period of time after the acquisition of Maltese citizenship.

The decision to sell Maltese citizenship without any residency stipulations was met with a chorus of opposition from within Malta and amongst fellow EU member states and the EU. Although national citizenship law remain the jurisdiction of individual EU member states, decisions of individual states have implications for all member states as national citizenship confers EU citizenship and the freedom of movement to live, and work in any EU member state. Thus, by purchasing Maltese citizenship, an individual would also acquire EU citizenship and all the rights associated with it. This would have given the individual the right to freely move and reside in any EU member state; vote for and stand as a candidate in the European Parliament and municipal elections; and be protected by diplomatic and consular authorities of any EU member state. Thus, under the original bill, an individual would have had access to all the rights of Maltese and EU citizenship without any of the responsibilities associated with citizenship to a specific country.  Under intense pressure from the European Commission, the Maltese government amended its plans in late January 2014 by introducing an obligatory 12 month residency requirement before Maltese citizenship can be conferred.

The decision of the Maltese government to offer Maltese citizenship for a price is unsettling and sets a precedent for other cash strapped EU member states to resort to using their citizenship as a commodity to be sold to raise revenue and pay off debts. Malta’s scheme will see individuals pay €650,000 for Maltese citizenship, with the option to add children, parents and grandparents for an additional €25,000 to €50,000. At present, Malta has indicated that the scheme will be capped at 1,800 main applicants, which at a minimum will net the country €1.17 billion. For a country struggling to meet its debt repayment, such a scheme might seem very attractive.

Malta’s actions also illustrate significant issues over the unity of purpose between EU member states. It has demonstrated the consequences of an EU member state making a national decision without consultation or consideration of the consequences on other EU member states. At a time when EU member states are continually placing national interests above greater European integration, the implications of Malta’s decision are far reaching.

The decision of Malta to sell its citizenship is also disconcerting when we look at the other spectrum of individuals seeking entry into the EU. For refugees and asylum seekers, Europe offers a haven for those seeking refugee from war, persecution and poverty. On an almost daily basis we hear of reports of boats overloaded with refugees from Africa taking the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. These individuals place themselves in the most perilous situation for the chance of a better life in Europe. They use whatever money they have, which is often their life savings (and/or those of their family) to pay people smugglers to take the journey to Europe. For them, the path to Europe is paved with sacrifice and for some even death. If lucky enough to reach one of the EU’s member states, the future for these refugees remains uncertain. They face the risk of deportation, years in detention camps or in shanty towns struggling to make ends meet. As EU member states wrangle over who should be responsible for dealing with the influx of refugees from Africa and the Middle East these individuals continue to face an uncertain future while the path for individuals with the means continue to become easier.

Although Malta has now instituted a twelve-month residency requirement, it is still worrying that individuals with the financial means are able to jump the queue by buying their way into the EU. Individuals who follow the established residency and citizenship path of each EU member state, who contribute to the day to day life of their society, who have invested themselves within their community are forced to wait and follow the established laws before applying for citizenship. At the other end of the spectrum, refugees and asylum seekers who risk their lives for a better future for themselves and their families find themselves treated as third class citizens and granted little human dignity in their bid for a chance at a better future. Founded “on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”, the EU member states must to take a long and hard look at how they determine who is worthy of becoming a citizen. These values which are at the heart of the EU should be universally applied to all individuals seeking a home within the borders of the EU, regardless of their financial situation.