North Dakota’s War on Uteri*

First, here’s the series Rachel Maddow did on the abortion clinics in states with only one such clinic:

Threats and traps push Mississippi to the brink of 40-year rights rollback
Last bastions of an unprotected right under attack
Women bear burden of extremist effort to undermine Roe v. Wade
GOP war on women continues to rage in the states
UPDATE: here’s another clip for that series, this time with Melissa Harris-Perry: Anti-abortion crusade misses target, hurts vulnerable women

Second, this is what’s going on in North Dakota in terms of proposed legislation:
North Dakota Lawmakers Have Plenty of Anti-Abortion Bills to Choose From, plenty meaning all these different bills: SCR4009, a fetal personhood bill which would require a 2014 vote to amend the constitustion and which was just approved by the ND Senate; SB2302, which would have banned chemical abortions and all abortions except those to save a woman’s life, which luckily seems to have failed in the senate 18 to 29; SB2303 another personhood bill, which passed the senate 25 to 22 and is now in another Committee Hearing; and SB2305, a TRAP law designed to close down the last clinic in ND, which has also passed the senate 30 to 17. Oh, and then there’s the newly proposedHB1305, which would prohibit “abortions for sex selection or genetic abnormalities” (which really just amounts to “please jump through more hoops”)
UPDATE: another one: HB1456, a “heartbeat” bill, passed by the house 63 to 28

And in addition to the anti-abortion bills, we have an anti-poor-people bill, HB1385, proposing a Fee to Get Welfare, by making welfare applicants pay for the mandatory drug test themselves (Because we all know people applying for welfare have lot’s of spare cash, amiright?); the deeply uninformative SB2175 titled “The liabilities of husband and wife” which seems to want to make separated-but-still-married folks responsible for each other’s debts; which sounds kinda dangerous.

And then there’s NDSU president Bresciani, caving in to assholes in the legislature and freezing funding two professors at NDSU have received to promote proper sex ed in this state: Sex Ed Program Provokes Fight Over Planned Parenthood in North Dakota

In conclusion, this state fucking sucks.

P.S.: completely unrelated to the topic at hand, ND is apparently also one of those states throwing a fit over federal gun laws: HB1183, a bill “relating to forbidding state governmental entities from providing aid and assistance to the federal government or any other governmental entity for the investigation, enforcement, and prosecution of federal firearms laws not in force as of January”.

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*title changed, because I just realized I was doing what I criticize other people for. So: anti-abortion legislation concerns many women, but not all, since some don’t have uteri and can’t get pregnant; and on the other hand, it also concerns some non-women because they have uteri, i.e. trans men and some genderqueer folks.

I want your money

This time, the link roundup is going to be tiny, and about good, current causes to donate to. That’s because I’m broke until my January payments finally deign to come in, and therefore this is the best I can do just now.

1)Black Skeptics Los Angeles have created scholarships for “college-bound Los Angeles Unified School District students in South Los Angeles. Preference will be given to students who are in foster care, homeless, undocumented and/or LGBTQ”: link

2)This trans woman is asking for donations to fund her SRS because she needs some form of reconstructive genital reconstruction, one way or the other, because she assaulted, which resulted in permanent and painful damage to her genitals; and of course the SRS route isn’t covered by insurance: link

Erasure of the poor student

The “Starving Student” is an extremely common cultural trope. Pretty much everyone who’s gone to college has stories about “slumming” it, and these stories are accepted as a matter of course; even Michele Obama and Ann Romney pulled out stories from their college years as experiences of “poverty” (using as examples of this experience a car with a rusted-through floor, and the inability to entertain guests, respectively).

The reason the trope is so widespread is that people who attended college really often perceive those years as the time they were poorest; generally, that’s because they have significantly reduced access to their parents’ assets, and have not yet been able to accumulate any themselves. This perception that being a student is a form of very temporary and relative poverty is in fact so widespread, it has managed to become the dominant narrative about students and poverty, eclipsing other possibilities; such as that sometimes it’s not that the students are poor, but that the poor are students.

What this means is that the trope that poverty is inherent to the student-status and is therefore not “real poverty” erases those people who are “really poor”, but who also attend college. This means for example that people will dismiss your financial situation if they also find out that you’re a student. Certainly this has happened to me: I’ve had people completely dismiss my claims of being poor despite the fact that in my entire adult life, I’ve only had a couple years with income above the poverty line, and certainly haven’t gotten any more wealthy since I went back to school a couple years back. This erasure of poor people who are college students has other, more tangible effects as well. Student-status can fuck with one’s eligibility for assorted programs for the poor, though I don’t know the extent of this policy. To use myself as an example again, when I was living in Seattle, a lot of the affordable housing specifically stated that students and prospective students weren’t eligible; regardless of their income, regardless of their family’s income, regardless of whether they counted as dependent or independent students for purposes of financial aid for college. Consequently, managing being both poor and trying to get an education is made more difficult, both formally and informally, by denying the possibility that a student’s low income might not have anything to do with their student status, and might not go away by itself or with a phone-call home. It’s one more way in which doing things while poor ends up with added hurdles, in addition to what simply being poor and trying to do something would accomplish by itself.

Of wedding rings and red herrings

The NYT has published an article bemoaning inequality; which would be great if it didn’t basically amount to: “if those silly women would just marry, most of their problems would go away”.

Mind you, I don’t dispute that unmarried women are generally hit worse by the ravages of the US economy (and incidentally, so are single fathers), nor that being unmarried seems to cluster in economically poorer social strata. However, the article is being ignorant and/or dismissive of systemic problems it even mentions (that dropping out of college tends to result in lower income; that having inadequate and expensive child-care makes things worse for those who need it more often; that hourly workers are massively underpaid in the US; that workers can’t get paid sick-leave even for severe injuries/recovery from surgery; that in the US, extra-curricular activities for kids cost and arm and a leg, and due to lack of safe public transportation, require a parent who can shuttle said kids to said activities; etc.), in favor of pointless hand-wringing about moral decay, lack of “marriageable men” in lower economic strata*, and other similarly moralistic complaints.
It uses such deeply problematic lines** as “their odds were not particularly good: nearly half the unmarried parents living together at a child’s birth split up within five years, according to Child Trends” to imply that if only people married right away, things would get better; as if it weren’t equally well-known that single-parenthood is actually healthier than the sort of extremely conflict-ridden marriages that would have resulted if all those couples that had split up had married instead and had insisted on “staying married for the children”. Bonus for whining about “children from multiple men”, despite the utter insignificance of that to the issue at hand; after all, being a single mother because one dude left you is not objectively better than being a single mother because several of them did (and I’m NOT touching a couple other possible reasons why a woman might have children by multiple men).
Another doozy: “Forty years ago, the top and middle income thirds had virtually identical family patterns”. Well that’s nice. 40 years ago, unions weren’t almost dead yet, minimum wage was higher, economic exploitation of workers was less, education was cheaper. All of this is far more relevant than whether people are married. And I know this because Sweden has a marriage rate lower, and an out-of-wedlock childbirth rate higher than the USA, and yet, inequality is low and children aren’t “doomed” to anything. Trying to guilt-trip women about their single-parent status by blaming their poverty on their singleness is pure, unadulterated bullshit.

Anyway, the article keeps on mentioning class and educational differences at childbirth, but it insists on focusing on marriage instead of getting women educated and providing better childcare services and worker protections. Why? Because writing about responsible social policy is a snooze compared to slut-shaming; which is why we get conclusions like this: “That is the essence of the story of Ms. Faulkner and Ms. Schairer. What most separates them is not the impact of globalization on their wages but a 6-foot-8-inch man named Kevin”, when in reality what separates them is that one has a college education and a salaried job, while the other is an hourly worker with a community college degree; and a special needs child.

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*Classism and promotion of toxic masculinity FTL.
**Another favorite: “Ms. Schairer has trouble explaining, even to herself, why she stayed so long with a man who she said earned little, berated her often and did no parenting.” Hm. Might that ‘why’ have something to do with the kind of “single motherhood = teh ebil” atmosphere that makes women cling to seriously flawed men because the alternative seems even worse?***
***And since I’m quoting depressing signs of sexism making people’s lives harder, read this exchange and weep:

“I’m not the only boy anymore; we’re going to do boy stuff!” Ms. Schairer recounts him saying.
“What’s boy stuff?” she asked.
“We’re going to play video games and shoot Nerf guns and play Legos,” he said.
“We do that now,” she said.
“Yeah, but you’re not a boy,” he said.

“kids these days” (finally no longer adressed at my generation, but still stupid)

A commenter at pharyngula left this really fucking annoying “kids these days=-style comment in response to a post about entitled douchebisquitry on twitter:

I think maybe people like this belong to Generation ‘I’… see this link:

http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/i-want-out-of-generation-i-20120626-210ke.html

ok, so a)kids these days are not actually feeling more entitled to have their opinion valued than kids in the past, and are overall actually less likely to be entitled douchecanoes than teenagers of previous generations (or at least, are likely to be less entitled and less doucheconoe-y), as can be seen by their increased support of deconstruction of various forms of privilege in society; and b) kids these days are maybe more heard than they used to be, but quite frankly I’m against instilling authoritarian values of “kids should be seen, not heard” in children. Plus, while kids are by definition less experienced and less informed, on average, than their elders, they’re not inherently wronger than their elders; especially given the fact that plenty of old people didn’t exactly use their years to learn anything (see: teabaggers and assorted other willfully ignorant dolts). Therefore there’s no reason to assume that a young person’s opinion or argument will be by default more incorrect than an older person’s opinion or argument. Sayng otherwise is to pretty much agree with those Republicans who whine because young people are liberal and whine about how the voting age should be raised to 25, because you know kids, they so stoopid.

Anyway, that’s just about the comment. The article linked to is even worse:

TODAY’S teenagers are shaped by a multitude of weighty issues – high levels of teenage obesity, a heavy binge drinking culture and a social media landscape with hefty consequences.

I’ll give you childhood obesity and the newfangled problems of growing up on the internet, but since when is getting ridiculously drunk as a teen/young adult a new phenomenon?

But pause for a moment and consider the corresponding gargantuan rise in the younger generation’s confidence in the value of their opinions.

Also not new. Thinking you know better than your parents is an essential ingredient in young adulthood in the West, and has been so at least since a bunch of “kids these days” went out to protest against their parents’ social order in the 60’s.

The sheer weight of their viewpoints is growing exponentially as parents and teachers alike are counselled to hold a young person’s opinion in the highest regard.

Highest regard? Teh lol. I admit though, this is at least newer than the participation-ribbon whining.

As a teacher with more than 20 years’ experience it is increasingly painful to read and listen to opinion in the absence of background knowledge, research or experience – ”no offence”, teenagers.

As a person spending a lot of time on the internet, I am similarly pained by having to “read and listen to opinion in the absence of background knowledge, research or experience”. I just don’t find that such is at all limited to teens. In fact, personally I experience it far more from adults. Maybe, just maybe, this has fuck-all to do with “kids these days”, and a lot more with the anti-intellectualism that this quote I keep on referring to complains about, and you just think it’s just teens because you’ve been stuck in a room with them for hours every day?

Past generations paid due regard to the expertise of the teacher and gained intellectual exercise by reading and (gasp) memorising important information.

And now we have Teh Google and don’t need to rely on faulty human memory. As for “past generations paid due regard to the expertise of the teacher”… well, the “past generations” didn’t seem to think so:

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent onthe frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”
— Hesiod, Eighth Century B.C.

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress.”
— Attributed to Peter the Hermit, A.D. 1274

“the father accustoms himself to become like his child and fears his sons, while the son likens himself to his father, and feels neither shame nor fear in front of his parents, so he may be free; [...] To these, said I, such trifles do add up: the teacher, in such a case, fears his pupils and fawns upon them, while pupils have in low esteem their teachers as well as their overseers; and, overall, the young copy the elders and contend hotly with them in words and in deeds, while the elders, lowering themselves to the level of the young, sate themselves with pleasantries and wit, mimicking the young in order not to look unpleasant and despotic.”
— Plato (putting words in other people’s mouth), ca. 380 B.C.

Point being, you can probably find, in every generation, some adults in authority who’ll freely and happily complain about how disrespectful towards authority “kids these days” are. Generally without any evidence for that being the case, and without evidence that argumentative youth are an actual social ill (rather than a personal annoyance).

No wonder today’s students find university such a challenge, coming from a school system where the mathematics curriculum includes estimation and the English curriculum covers social media.

I don’t know anything about this estimation stuff, but why wouldn’t an English curriculum cover social media!? It’s an important form of modern communication, why shouldn’t students learn about effective use and interpretation thereof? Anyway, I don’t know shit about the issues Australian students have with Australian universities (explanation on this subject would be highly appreciated), but I have a pretty good idea why American youth may find university challenging: creationism and similar bowing to parental/religious bullshittery leaking into high-school curricula; defunding of education; active opposition (by adults) to teaching kids critical thinking*; making higher education more expensive while at the same time cutting financial aid, forcing students to take anywhere between 1 and 3 jobs to support their university-going habit. And as for European teens… I don’t find that they are having a harder time at university than they used to (except as caused by the issues with having to suddenly work in addition to study, since cost of university has gone up pretty much everywhere). So, hey, maybe Australian teens are singularily stupid and are the only kids on the globe who find university more challenging because we let them have opinions. I doubt it though.

Having recently spent time teaching students in China, I can’t help but draw stark comparisons to my local teaching experience. Students there expect that they will be given a tonne of information and will be assigned extensive homework involving engagement with the instructional material. Invitations to express opinions are met with puzzlement. Rather, they expect and welcome direction.

What’s fascinating about this quote is that I had a similar conversation once with a professor of mine; she was pointing out the difference between American students and freshly arrived Chinese students. She was having a very hard time getting the Chinese students to evaluate ideas critically and engage in discussion, preferring instead to uncritically absorb information given to them by an authority figure. Unlike the author, she did not at all find that to be a positive quality, and I agree. Sure, teens and young adults are very likely to get it wrong and Dunning-Kruger when they criticize an idea. But they’re students, meaning they’re practicing critical analysis, and we should teach them how to do it correctly instead of telling them to STFU and listen. Because otherwise, they’ll leave college having only learned that one should always uncritically absorb what authority figures say. Which is not how you get an informed citizenry; or a good crop of engineers and scientists.

In contrast, our students launch into impassioned and complex negotiation the moment there is a hint of work to be done (a technique all too familiar to any parent attempting to institute household chores).

How is passively absorbing information “in contrast” to refusing to do homework? And what does it have to do with the previous part of the rant where teens were Teh Spoilt because they felt entitled to opinions?

Mind you, I’d like to see some evidence that “kids these days” are actually more likely to try to weasel out of work than they used to, because in my experience, it’s always been thus. Or is the complaint here rather that kids now actually voice said complaints to the teachers directly, instead of just forcing the Nerd to do their homework for them, surreptitiously (or collaborate, the way we did, to minimize the amount of work each individual had to do)? Because that, if true, would be at least an interesting topic of conversation.

When the work comes in (often late) it is littered with sentences starting with ”I think” – an amusing oxymoron.

*rolleyes*

Little reference is made to any research other than nominal efforts to cut and paste from Wikipedia.

True enough. But it’s not just plagiarism that got easier, but the discovery thereof. I’m willing to bet kids used to crib off each other/their older siblings/friends (or, just have their essays dictated by parents in some cases) before the advent of plugging their paragraph into google made it easier to spot such behavior. Also… the author has complained above that kids are insufficiently submissive to authority, and is now whining because they use wikipedia as authoritative? Consistency, please: unless kids are taught to navigate the internet (something that the author also just bemoaned as unsuitable for English class), and unless they’re taught to evaluate sources as reliable or not, they’re going to uncritically regurgitate whatever they heard/read somewhere, and it’ll be all the same to them whether it was their teacher or their teabagger uncle or Teh Interwebs.

Having now taught through generations X, Y and Z, the labelling of the next generation is clear. Generation I – the first, foremost, the centre of attention.

This is really fucking hilarious, considering the exactly same whining was being done when the current crop of teens were Gen Y and how their Helicopter Parents were spoiling them rotten. Now, as the oldest members of Gen Y are beginning to reach the “respectable” age of 30, it’s apparently no longer cool to complain about them being “Generation Me”; so instead the newest crop of teens get labeled “Generation I”. Creative, that.

I think I’d better retire before I face the gargantuan task of teaching this next generation of overconfident individuals. Their weighty opinions are too much to bear and I’ve exercised all my patience.

Sounds like an admission that actually, it’s the author (and having run out of the patience and energy it has always taken to with teens in institutional settings without being allowed to beat them**), not “kids these days” that are the problem. Retiring might indeed be a good idea, before the author start yelling “get off my lawn” at hapless students crossing the campus greenery. Alternatively, some citations about how much worse the kids are these days would be appreciated. Or is research only for kids, and adults are exempt from that requirement now?

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*From the Party Platform of the Texas Republicans (page 12):”We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
But hey, maybe the author agrees with the Repubs, since she doesn’t seem to like it when students challenge anything and undermine authority.

**There’s a reason I thought the rule of teachers retiring after 20 (or 25, I don’t quite recall now) years of teaching was excellent. Some few people have amazing (even for teachers) stores of energy, but most people tend to get slightly exhausted and… “odd”, to put it delicately, after spending more than two decades dealing with humans in their most annoying stages of development.

Inequality in science, race edition

I’m surprised none of the science-related blogs I read have picked up on this story yet(which has been reported by the NYT, as well as Democracy Now), so I guess I’ll have to do it myself. From a study just published in Science showing that black scientists less likely to receive NIH-funds than white scientists:

Although proposals with strong priority scores were equally likely to be funded regardless of race, we find that Asians are 4 percentage points and black or African-American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding.

That’s unfortunately unsurprising, but sad nonetheless. If I understand the paper properly (and there’s no guarantee that I have, so take the following discussion with all the skepticism it’s due), it seems to indicate that a lot of the discrimination isn’t directly related to bias in the selection, but to bias in career advancement elsewhere (access to resources). That’s probably a large chunk of it, and certainly racial discrimination as well as cultural hurdles aren’t improbable. But AFAICT from the study, even taking into account all of these, there’s still a remaining bias. So is it possible that there’s bias in the selection process itself?

My main question, which the article doesn’t answer, is how the NIH would know the race of their applicants; and if it doesn’t, what the factor that leads to this discrimination could be. A particular focus in the research? Maybe it’s not so much the race of the scientist that’s being discriminated against; minority researchers often try to fill the gap of lacking research about the special circumstances of the groups they belong to, so possibly it was the “race” of the proposal that was being discriminated against (I hope that sentence makes sense; obviously proposals don’t have a race, but may have a “non-standard” (AKA non-white) focus that could be identified as less-than by subconscious bias or even outright bigotry). This may also explain the much lower citation count (but doesn’t explain the much higher citation count for Asian and Hispanic authored papers; it would be necessary to see whether Black, Asian, and Hispanic authors are comparably likely to focus on minority-relevant research topics, and whether minority-focused subjects correlate with citation count to figure out what’s going on there). If the bias is indeed related to research topics, it would be very difficult to circumvent subconscious bias, since there would be no possibility of blind applications for obvious reasons.

The study shows a few other interesting things aside from that main point. For one, the ridiculously low number of Native scientists in biomedical research (only 41?! That’s fucking tragic in and of itself). Two, it seems to me from the data that the reason Asians and Hispanics don’t show the same disparities might not be because they’re not discriminated against. I can’t precisely parse what it says on this subject, but doesn’t it seem to say that Hispanics and especially Asians outperform whites on certain measures, but that those don’t translate in proportionately higher rates of proposal acceptance? It’s either that, or it says that these measures are irrelevant for proposals by non-blacks, and only seem to matter for blacks, who have the lowest citation and publication counts, and the fewest last-authored papers as well. *confused*

Homework blogging, episode two

This is my semester-long project on social inequalities in Laos, minus the poster-presentation (if anyone wants me to, I can post the poster in a separate entry). It’s epically long for a blog-post, with an epically long resource-section for a blog-post, but fuck it. I’m a child of the net-generation, and therefore if it’s not on the internet, it wasn’t worth writing in the first place :-p

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Economic Development and Inequality in Laos

Laos is an extremely poor country which has for most of its history been (and still is) a peripheral country both economically and politically, and has therefore not seen much development in terms of education, health, infrastructure, and economic well-being. And while the country has been experiencing impressive economic growth and development over the last 20 years, it has done so in ways that have increased inequalities within the country along gender lines and especially strongly along ethnic lines. The reasons for this growing inequality are a complex interplay between Laos’ status as a peripheral nation within the Modern World System with its resulting dependence on foreign aid and foreign markets, and its internal stratification system which privileges lowland, ethnically Lao (and closely related) populations over ethnic minorities living higher up in the hills and mountains of the country, and which privileges men over women.

Introduction to relevant concepts

The Modern World System(Kerbo, 2009, pp. 467-478), a concept that extends the class system internationally, acts upon countries like Laos by means of political, military, and economic influence directed at it from various Core Nations. For Laos, these influences begin with its colonial history, and continue with its use as a source of cheap natural resources and a business location for businesses that have encountered resistance and critique elsewhere, be it Thai logging companies(Rigg & Jerndall, 1999, pp. 151-152), or Scandinavian dam-construction companies(Usher, 1999, pp. 136-139), and includes the US government(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 870-871) as well as a host of aid agencies and economic groups all of which have their own idea of how to shape Laos.
The ethnic aspect of this internal stratification system is based on racialization, meaning the process by which previously not existing racial categories and attributes are assigned to all members of a newly defined racial group. In Laos, the issue is the racialization of lowland vs. upland/highland populations into “civilized lowlanders” vs. “primitive hill tribes”, as well as an increasing conflation of Laotian national identity with Lao ethnic identity, via governmental, educational and other institutions(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, pp. 925- 926).
Similarly, the gender aspect of this internal stratification system is based on gender construction, i.e. the social creation of the male/female dichotomy which assigns specific, dichotomous definitions of what it means to be male or female. In Laos, these constructions of gender are traditional, patriarchal constructions based for one in agricultural life, which often makes women’s work and women’s needs invisible, and also in Theraveda Buddhism, which places the male above the female because it considers women closer to the material world(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, p. 15).
Lastly, the concept of intersectionality allows us to look at how different inequalities have been affecting each other. Intersectionality is a term for interactions of different kinds of social disadvantages and discrimination working together in a matrix of oppression to mutually reinforce each other. In Laos, the main intersections happen at the level of poverty, ethnicity, and gender.

Laos – An Overview

Laos, officially called the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, which shares borders with China and Burma(Myanmar) to the North, Vietnam to the East, Cambodia to the South, and Thailand to the West. It has an area of ca. 91428 square miles, only 4% of which is arable land, with the rest being mostly thick mountain forests. The total population is approximately 6368000 people, with one third of the population living in urban areas. Its economy is still largely agrarian, with 80% of the labor force employed in agriculture, the remaining 20% working in services and industry. The official language is Lao, but French, English, and various ethnic languages are also spoken(CIA, 2011). There are 47 currently recognized ethnicities within the country, with the ethnic Lao the largest of these groups. These ethnic groups are variably grouped either by geographic association into Lowland Lao (Lao Loum), Upland Lao (Lao Theung), and Highland Lao (Lao Soung) (Cao, 2009, pp.183-184), or by ethno-linguistic groups roughly into Lao-Tai, Mon-Khmer, and Tibeto-Burman/Miao-Yao(UNICEF, 1992, Table 1.3).
The history of Laos as a distinct political entity begins in 1535, with the founding of the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang after the conquest of Luang Phrabang (in the North of modern Laos) and Vientiane two years prior. It was a predominantly Buddhist, multi-ethnic kingdom similar to its neighbors, but unlike its neighbors it was isolated from the outside world for most of its existence. It lasted until 1571, after which it repeatedly fell under the control of its various neighbors, and by 1782 was absorbed by Siam(Evans, 2002, pp. 9-25), to eventually become a tributary state with overlapping suzerainty (meaning they paid tribute to more than one overlord), a sort of buffer-zone between Siam and Vietnam(Evans, 2002, p. 40).
At the end of the 19th century, colonizing European powers played an icreasingly dominant role in Southeast Asia. France laid claim on part of the former kingdom of Lan Xang as a tributary to Vietnam, which was under French control. It took control over the area in 1893, at first directly incorporating the South as a colony into “French Indochina”, while in the North the Kingdom of Luang Phrabang was indirectly incorporated as a protectorate. This arrangement was changed in 1899, when Laos finally became a single colony. Laos remained a French colony until 1945, but the French did not show much interest in Laos, which was unprofitable. It was loosely administered, mostly by imported French and Vietnamese bureaucrats, and the French established little in the way of public education for Laotians. There was also virtually no industry, very little land used for commercial crops, and little trade with the rest of French Indochina because of bad road infrastructure, thus providing little revenue for development in the country. In fact, opium grown by ethnic minorities in northern Laos was the only profitable income to the colony’s budget(Evans, 2002, pp. 41-50), and is to this day grown in the area, sparking occasional attempts by the government to eradicate it, usually with no other effect than economic and social damage to the tribes inhabiting the areas(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 870-871).
In September 1945, Laos declared independence from France. This did not last, and even though in 1946 Laos became a constitutional monarchy within the French Union, from the late 40’s to the mid 70’s the country was in a state of civil war between the US-supported Royal Lao Government and the communist Pathet Lao. Throughout that time, the royalists controlled the part mostly inhabited by ethnic Lao, while the communists controlled areas mostly inhabited by ethnic minorities(Pholsena, 2006, p. 2). During this time, especially early on, plenty of foreign aid flowed into Laos from the USA. However, the money went primarily to maintaining a military, and the rest fueled an unsustainable boom for the Laotian urban elite, with none going towards development of the country. This created great resentment towards the USA (Evans, 2002, pp. 101-103). The divisions escalated as Laos became a “secret” battleground in the Vietnamese-American war. The RLG depended more and more on military support by the USA, while the PL depended on support from North Vietnam. By 1963 any pretense of neutrality in the conflict had disappeared(Evans, 2002, pp. 146-147).
After the end of the Vietnamese-American War in 1972, several years of negotiation and attempted coups followed, resulting eventually in the collapse of US military support as well as a military victory of the Pathet Lao(Evans, 2002, pp. 166-172). Since then, Laos has been a single-party communist state. Despite economic reforms begun in 1986 (decentralizing the economy and courting foreign investment and trade), and a new constitution written in 1991, the main political structure remains communist: while members of the National Assembly are elected, the candidates are selected by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. All other parties are forbidden, and no official pressure groups exist. The current president of Laos is Lt. Gen. Choummali Saignason, elected by the National Assembly in June 2006. The current Prime Minister is Thongsing Thammavong, nominated by the president and elected by National Assembly last December(CIA, 2011).

Modern Challenges

Today, Laos is one 49 countries on the United Nations’ “Least Developed Countries” list created in 1971 to designate countries seen as most disadvantaged in their development because of, among other things, low per capita income and low human capital, i.e. a lack of an educated, skilled workforce(Gore & Kozul-Wright, 2011). Despite having had a high economic growth rate averaging 6% since (except during the Asian economic crisis in the late 90’s, and now again during the Global Economic Crisis after 2008), Laos is still a very poor and underdeveloped country, with an economy dependent on export of natural resources such as timber and electricity(CIA, 2011), as is typical for peripheral nations.
The biggest challenges facing Laos today are the inequalities along ethnic and gender lines. For one, there’s a pressing question how to eliminate ethnic inequalities and integrate the multitude of ethnic groups into one Laotian society without further disrupting or destroying the cultures and communities of these various groups in misguided attempts at acculturation and development. And two, there’s the question of inequality between men and women, which has always been great in Laotian society and which has already improved in some areas, especially education, but at the same time has caused new problems, such as the so-called “feminization of agriculture”(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno Black, 2004, p. 106) or the undermining of traditional inheritance rules which often favored the youngest daughter by new land-registration and distribution regulations which will often list the “head of household”, who is almost always considered to be a man, as the owner of a property(Viravong, 1999, pp. 155-161).
Both these challenges are made even more difficult by Laos’ position as a peripheral country dependent on foreign resources and foreign markets for its development. As such, Laos is constrained in its development by the demands of such foreign organizations, as well as the types of economic and developmental help offered by them. Nor can minorities wield any influence on what projects are undertaken in Laos, because they are severely underrepresented in government(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, p. 925) and language and educational barriers make it difficult for these minorities to communicate with the outside to make their plight heard by the constituencies and regulatory organizations to whom all those international organizations may be responsible.

Ethnic Inequality

The opening of the markets in the late 1980’s has brought many businesses as well as NGO’s and aid organizations to Laos. The development resulting from this inflow, while theoretically meant to lift the whole country out of poverty and improve the lives of men and women alike, has in reality concentrated most development in cities and surrounding areas, typically inhabited by ethnic Lao and other closely related populations. On the other hand, most supposed rural development, especially in mountainous areas, has more often than not resulted in cultural and economic disruptions.
Despite the previously mentioned high economic growth rate over the last two decades, the rate of poverty reduction has been only 1% per year, and economic inequality has been on the rise. In 2002, 36% of the population was still living below the poverty line, with the capital of Vientiane having the lowest rate at 12.2% and the highlands having the highest with 52.5%. The mountainous areas inhabited by the Lao Theung and Lao Soung, who make up 80% of Laos’ poor despite only making up 1/3 of its population, have continued suffering from underdeveloped infrastructure and poor access to services such as healthcare and education. For example, the travel distance to the nearest health center increased for the poor from 6.64 miles in 1993 to 7.27 miles in 2003. During the same time frame, the travel distance to the nearest health center decreased from 4.6 miles to 4.04 miles for the non-poor(Dowling & Yap, 2009, pp. 439-447).
Part of the reason for these growing inequalities is the remoteness of some of the areas in question. However, some of it is due to political and historical reasons that put the ethnic minorities on a different political side than the ethnic Lao majority(Cao, 2009, p. 184; Pholsena, 2006, p. 2). These divisions, among other things, have contributed greatly to the racialization process of the non-Lao ethnicities, which are still often denigrated as traitors and forbidden from migrating freely to different parts of the country(Baird, 2010). The population of Laos has undergone multiple rounds of racialization, starting with the French attempt to differentiate the population on their side of the Mekong from populations on the Siamese side, and ending with the constant redefinition and reclassification of Laotian populations, first into the three geographical categories of Lao Loum, Lao Theung, and Lao Seung (which were meant to foster unity among the ethnic groups as all being part of a Lao population, as well as give the dominant cultural group a majority at 68% of the population), and then into ethno-linguistic categories, and lastly into separate ethnic groups (which for the first time showed that Laos in fact does not have a true ethnic majority, as ethnic Lao make up around 49% of the population, which is a plurality). More specifically, racialization of non-Lao populations has been occurring as part of the process of trying to create a national Laotian culture. Laos as a country is a very modern creation, and not at all congruent with what most people would consider “natural” nations, i.e. a geographical region with one dominant culture or ethnicity, which is also the place where most of the people of that culture or ethnicity reside. Half of Laos’ population does not belong to the largest ethnic group (ethnic Lao), while at the same time, most of what could be considered ethnic Lao live outside the borders of Laos, in Thailand. Because of this, Laos seems to be fighting of doubts about its legitimacy as a country, and is therefore seeking to find a national identity to use as a weapon against such doubts(Evans, 1999). That, combined with the predominance of ethnic Lao in powerful and visible positions in major institutions, has led to a conflation of a national, Laotian identity with the identity of ethnic Lao. Conversely, the cultures of the non-Lao populations have been defined as primitive, environmentally damaging, and possibly outright un- or anti-Laotian. The customs, language, and lifestyle of the ethnic Lao are seen as the standard to which ethnic minorities must adapt to become more “civilized”, and more “Laotian” for the sake of cultural integration as part of “nation building”(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, p. 872). So, despite the fact that the constitution of modern Laos specifically refers to Laos as a multi-ethnic country and society, defining Laotians by nationality rather than ethnicity; and despite the fact that it specifies the different ethnic groups’ right to protect and maintain their own cultural heritage, while at the same time promising to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the minority groups(Pholsena, 2006, pp. 5-6), very little attention is paid to any rights to self-determination of ethnic minorities, and their lives are often disrupted in the name of progress, which has been defined as adopting ethnic Lao language, lowland rice paddy cultivation, and living in sedentary villages(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, p. 926). The worst example of such disruption is internal resettlement.
Some reasons for resettlement are internal to Laotian politics. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, such internal reasons would include resettlement for security reasons. Populations potentially allied with anti-communists would be removed from borderlands. Today, security is rarely considered a reason for resettlement. More often, the cause are either attempts at cultural integration of ethnic minorities into a lifestyle more closely resembling ethnic Lao lifestyles, or attempts at bringing infrastructure to rural populations cost-effectively, by concentrating the populations around roads, hospitals, etc., instead of attempting to bring those resources to small, widely scattered settlements(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 871-872). Sometimes, such resettlements are entirely the consequence of foreign influence: dam construction prompted by foreign companies no longer able to do business in their home-markets(Usher, 1999), attempts at eradicating swidden-agriculture partially prompted by foreign logging interests(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, pp. 929-930; Rigg & Jerndall, 1999, pp. 149-154), or attempts at eradicating the farming of opium poppies prompted by the US “War on Drugs”(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 870-871). Support among the foreign organizations working in Laos for such resettlement practices is mixed. Some forms of resettlement were outright actively encouraged by foreign organizations, especially in the case of opium eradication. In other cases, the resettlement was either “tolerated” as fact (because criticizing the government actions would have been seen as “too political” for an aid organization), or the organizations had no understanding of the situation and were ignorant of resettlement practices. Commonly, international agencies frown upon what they perceive as “involuntary” resettlement and claim not to support it, while either tolerating or outright supporting “voluntary” resettlement. However, the reality of the situation is rarely this clear-cut, as most of the “voluntary” resettlement is initiated by the government rather than the village, with threats and empty promises being used to manipulate people into moving “voluntarily”(Baird & Shoemaker, 2007, pp. 878-882). In other situations, while no official resettlement is taking place, people are forced to move by changing environmental conditions. Such was, for example, the case after the construction of the Theun-Hinboun dam. There project was hailed as a non-disruptive small-scale project, and indeed no villages were going to be inundated by its construction, and so no plans for resettlement were made. However, the dam caused declines in local fish-catches ranging from 30%-90%, as well as inundation of garden plots, loss of access to drinking water in the dry season, and various transportation difficulties. As a result of these and similar problems, many people felt it necessary to abandon their homes and relocate elsewhere, without adequate financial compensation (since no resettlement-money was set aside for the project)(Shoemaker, 1998, pp. 6-11).
Resettlement or relocation of this sort has strongly negative effects on the affected ethnic minorities. According to Evrard & Goudineau(2004, pp. 948-952), villages that resettle straight from the mountains to the lowland areas can lose up to 30% of its population due to malaria and other diseases in the first year after resettlement. It also often causes economic disruption, when lifestock also succumbs to diseases or when promised rice-fields don’t materialize. As a result of such negative effects, some people migrate back to their original settlements. They either settle permanently and in defiance of government orders in their old villages, or, more commonly, they officially settle in the new location but live in their old village, and migrate to the new site during the rainy season and when official visitors are expected. In any case, the disruption of people’s lives contributes to, and in some cases even creates, the poverty in which members of these ethnic minorities find themselves.

Gender Inequality

Laos is largely a patriarchal society, though at least in the case of the Lao Loum less so than neighboring countries and cultures. Gender construction is primarily based on traditional, religious definitions of masculinity and femininity and their social rank in regard to each other, communist claims to striving for gender equality notwithstanding. A large part of the gender construction and gender stratification in Laos comes from a mix of Buddhist and spiritual religious traditions. Ethnic Lao religious background is one of a mix of strongly patriarchal Theraveda Buddhism which devalues women and considers them more attached to the material world than men, and animism in which women play active roles as spirit mediums. While this gave women a certain status in their villages, it also cut them off from formal education, since until 1975, such education was mostly provided to boys by Buddhist monks, while girls learned skills from their mothers. After 1975, the traditional balance begun to shift due to war and communist politics, but the results were mixed. On the one hand, the importance of secular education as a tool for national integration helped send more boys as well as girls to school. On the other hand however, the ban on the sale of contraceptives as well as other encouragements to larger family sizes put women in greater danger, since healthcare in Laos has been very rudimentary and hardly improved upon under communist rule, creating one of the highest maternal death rates in the world at 653 deaths per 100 000 births, and contributing to general deterioration of women’s health. It also put an extraordinary, additional burden on mothers as well as oldest daughters, since child care of all kind is still considered to be almost exclusively women’s work, and siblings are expected to take over a large portion of the mother’s child-caring duties(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 15-17, 80-83). Since the economic liberalization of Laos, the structures have changed once again, leading to what is called the “feminization of agriculture”: for one, better road access, as well as increased work opportunities outside of agriculture, have increasingly been drawing more men than women away from rural areas, leaving increasingly many women with the sole responsibility for farming; two, the introduction of farming machinery such as small tractors and irrigation pumps has eased the field-labor of men, while doing nothing to ease traditionally female tasks such as transplanting seedlings or weeding (Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 76-81, 105-106). Another consequence of liberalization is the rush to privatization of land, and registration thereof as private ownership. While the laws regarding land registration are generally phrased in gender-neutral terms and even acknowledge traditionally matrilocal inheritance, registration itself is often made in the name of the “head of household”, who is generally considered to be a man. This practice actively undermines traditional ethnic Lao inheritance patterns, which usually left household land to the youngest daughter. This combination of traditionally matrilinear inheritance patterns and new patriarchal registration patterns create situations in which wifes lose their houses to their husbands, who retain their wife’s heritage after a divorce and may even acquire even more land by repeated remarriage. Some women do manage to get property registered in their own name, but these are often better educated women in urban areas, thus reinforcing inequality between the poorer rural areas and the more wealthy urban areas(Viravong, 1999, pp. 157-161).
Unlike in the case of ethnic inequality however, the communists actually acted on their claimed commitment to equality at least to the degree of creating the Lao Women’s Union to represent the needs of women and work for their equality. So, unlike in the case of ethnic minorities, women do have a means of having their issues heard by both the government and the international community. The LWU was founded as the Lao Patriotic Women’s Association in 1955, primarily as a tool of the Pathet Lao to organize women in the fight against Royalists. However, the LWU was also meant to promote equality between the sexes, and it has been doing so with a certain degree of success: it was partially responsible for gaining women the right to vote in 1958(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 18-19) , and after the economic reforms in the late 1980’s, has promoted various programs meant to improve women’s lives in the same way that mens lives were being improved. One such example is the Luang Phrabang Women’s Development Project that run from 1988 to 1993, which reduced water-carrying time for women by creating running water systems, and eliminated the need for rice hulling by creating rice mills; helped with basic necessities such as mosquito nets, or building materials for child-care centers; and providing training and resources for more marketable production-practices which increased the women’s incomes(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 154-167).
Still, traditional patriarchal culture and sexism in government as well as international and foreign organizations, most of which are predominantly staffed and led by men, mean that gender inequality iremains a great problem despite recent improvements in some areas and attempts by the LWU to stop the erosion of already existing rights of women in others(Viravong, 1999, p. 162).

At the intersection of gender and ethnicity

Intersectionality is another important aspect of social stratification in Laos. For ethnic women in Laos, the previously described ethnic and gender inequalities intersect to create an even heavier burden, and a second layer of stratification in which ethnic Lao women are more privileged (both traditionally and through modern development practices which favor the Lao Loum over other populations) than minority women, and minority men are more privileged (both through traditional patriarchal social structure, and through modern developments that improve labor conditions and work opportunities primarily for men rather than women) than minority women.
Education is an excellent example of the how the intersection between gender and ethnicity plays out in Laos: by 1989, the enrollment rate at the primary level was 66% for all of Laos, with the highest rate in Vientiane Prefecture at 95%, and the lowest in Sekong (a highland province primarily inhabited by Lao Theung) at only 6%. 80% of students enrolled in primary schools were Lao Loum, 16% were Lao Theung, and only 4% were Lao Soung, even though these groups make 68%, 22%, and 10% of the population, respectively. The ethnic inequality expressed itself even stronger in terms of gender, since girls made only 26% of the Lao Soung students, but 40% of the Lao Theung and 46% of the Lao Loum students(UNICEF, 1992, pp. 83-88).
By 2005, literacy and overall enrollment in education had vastly improved from the late 1980’s, but inequalities remained: while the net enrollment rate in primary education for Lao-Tai populations was around 76%, Ethnic minorities still enrolled at less than 50%. Similarly, the literacy rate for adults (age 15+)in 2005 was 82.5% for men but only 63.2% for women, and 85% for Lao-Tai but only 61% for non-Lao-Tai populations(Phetsiriseng, 2009, pp. 271-272). In terms of higher education, the inequalities become even more glaring. In 1995, Laos combined its 3 existing universities into a unified system now called National University of Laos (NUOL). Then, two smaller, “regional” universities were established: Champasak University (CU) in 2002, and Souphanouvong University (SU) in 2003. 93% of the students at NUOL are Lao Loum, while students at the much smaller and newer CU and SU are predominantly Lao Theung and Lao Soung. In total, as of 2005, 92.8% of all public university students were Lao Loum, 2.5% were Lao Theung, and 4.7% were Lao Soung. And again, we see the intersectionality of gender and ethnicity play out: while 34.2% of those Lao Loum students were women, only 20.5% of Lao Theung and 14% of Lao Seung students were. Or, to put it differently, 96.4% of all female students were Lao Loum, 1.5% were Lao Theung, and 2.1% were Lao Seung(Ogawa, 2009, pp. 288-295). This shows that ethnic inequality in higher education is even higher among women than among men, a clear example of intersectionality at work.
These stark differences in terms of educational achievement have multiple reasons. For one, primary education is funded similar to the way it is done in the U.S, with local taxes. Theoretically, areas that have a surplus are supposed to pass this surplus on to areas that are experiencing a shortage, but in reality this does not happen. The result is that even though teachers are supposed to get bonuses for working in poor, rural areas, the shortfalls in tax income often mean that teachers don’t get any pay at all for extended periods(Phetsiriseng, 2009, pp. 276-278). As a consequence, fewer teachers are willing to teach in those areas, and those that do are less well educated. Another reason for the inequality are language barriers. Most teachers are ethnic Lao, and teach in Lao. Most ethnic minorities however speak their own languages, and are not fluent in Lao(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, pp. 927-929). At the level of higher education, the simple lack of universities in minority areas has been the main contributing factor to inequality.
For women, the inequalities can be explained to a large degree by the above described “feminization of agriculture”, as well as traditional gender-roles which consider formal education less important for girls than for boys, and which see more need for a girl to stay at home and help(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, p. 17). The latter also help explain the greater ethnic disparity for women than for men: ethnic minorities in Laos have stronger patriarchal cultures, and as such these gender-roles are more strictly enforced and followed among minority populations than among the ethnic Lao populations(Ireson-Doolittle & Moreno-Black, 2004, pp. 81, 167). Also, distances to schools are greater and many schools for ethnic minorities are organized as boarding schools(Ireson & Ireson, 1991, p. 928), thus creating larger absences, which once again are less accepted for girls than for boys.

Conclusion

While Laos has always been a nation with ethnic and gender inequalities in terms of status and political power, economic inequality was less prominent simply because Laos was universally underdeveloped and poor, with very little diversification in terms of labor (a consequence of being a peripheral nation). Recent reforms however have exacerbated economic inequalities because development coming from the outside had to go through government channels, and thus was directed into areas beneficial to those who already held the political power in Laos: men of ethnic Lao or closely related ethnic backgrounds. Thus, many policies that would not be acceptable in countries with a vocal populace were introduced into Laos for the economic benefit of the local elites (as well as the incoming organizations and businesses, who had to worry less about local resistance) to the detriment of ethnic minorities who had no power to prevent the projects, nor any organizations to speak for them and address their issues. Similarly, new regulations were shaped and used by men, who had greater access to the public sphere, to gain advantages to the detriment of women’s traditional but inofficial rights. New technologies also helped increase inequality in terms of the amount of labor performed by men and women in agriculture. However, women did have the Lao Women’s Union to work with them and speak for them, and so many negative effects could be tempered and some of the international money diverted to support infrastructure that improves women’s lives as well.

References

Baird, I. G. (2010). The Hmong come to southern Laos: Local responses and the creation of racialized boundaries. Hmong Studies Journal, 11, 1-38

Baird, I. G., & Shoemaker, B. (2007). Unsettling Experiences: Internal Resettlement and International Aid Agencies in Laos. Development and Change, 38 (5), 867-888

Central Intelligence Agency. (2011). The world factbook. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/la.html

Cao, H. (2009). Ethnic minorities and regional development in Asia: Reality and challenges. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press

Dowling, J. M., & Yap, C. F. (2009). Chronic poverty in Asia: Causes, consequences, and policies. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific

Evans, G. (2002). A short history of Laos: The land in between. Crows Nest, NSW: Alan & Unwin

Evans, G. (1999). Introduction: What is Lao culture and society? In G. Evans (Ed.), Laos culture and society (pp.1-34). Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books

Evrard, O., & Goudineau, Y. (2004). Planned resettlement, unexpected migrations and cultural trauma in Laos. Development and Change, 35 (5), 937–962

Gore, C., & Kozul-Wright , Z. (2011). An overview of UNCTAD’s least developed countries report 2010: Towards a new international development architecture for LDCs. European Journal of Development Research Vol. 23 (1), pp. 3–11

Ireson, C & Ireson, D. (1991). Ethnicity and development in Laos. Asian Survey Vol. 31(10), pp. 920-937

Ireson-Doolittle, C. & Moreno-Black, G. (2004). The Lao: gender, power, and livelihood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press

Kerbo, H.R. (2009). Social stratification and inequality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill

Ogawa, K. (2009). Higher education in Lao PDR. In Y. Hirosato & Y. Kitamura (Eds.), The political economy of educational reforms and capacity development in Southeast Asia (pp. 283-300). [S.I]: Springer

Pholsena, V. (2006). Post-war Laos: The politics of culture, history, and identity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Phetsiriseng, I. (2009) Education reform context and process in Lao PDR: Focusing on basic education. In Y. Hirosato & Y. Kitamura (Eds.), The political economy of educational reforms and capacity development in Southeast Asia (pp. 265-278). [S.I]: Springer

Rigg, J & Jerndall, R. (1999). Plenty in the context of scarcity. In M.J.G. Parnwell & R. L. Bryant (Eds.), Environmental change in South-East Asia (pp.145-162). New York, NY: Routledge

Shoemaker, B. (1998, April 1). Trouble on the Theun-Hinboun. Retrieved from: http://www.internationalrivers.org/southeast-asia/laos/theun-hinboun/trouble-theun-hinboun

Usher, A.D.(1999). The race for power in Laos. In M.J.G. Parnwell & R. L. Bryant (Eds.), Environmental change in South-East Asia (pp.123-144). New York, NY: Routledge

Viravong, M.(1999). Reforming property rights in Laos. In I. Tinker & G. Summerfield (Eds.), Women’s rights to house and land: China, Laos, Vietnam (pp. 153-162). Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.

UNICEF. (1992). Children and women in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Vientiane: UNICEF

Homework-blogging, episode one

since my brainpower is completely taken up with working on these class-papers, I figure I should repurpose at least a few of them for blogging; at least the ones from my Social Inequality class, since they’re relevant to my blogging in general. So, here’s the first one.

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Planned Parenthood in the Media: Dividing Gender and Class issues

The Media have become one of the biggest influences on how we perceive and interpret the world. In terms of the Dimensions of Oppression discussed by Patricia Hill Collins (2011, pp. 763-768), it has become an important social institution, as well as a producer and distributor of the symbols that create the Symbolic Dimension of Oppression. This is true both in its fiction as in its non-fiction: in his essay “Media Magic: Making Class Invisible”, Gregory Mantsios describes the ways in which the Poor and the causes of their poverty are disappeared and distorted in the Media in their news programs. These are narratives that create strong symbols and dichotomies between “them”, the poor and “us” the wealthy.

Most of the time, the poor don’t show up in the news-media at all, even if the issue under discussion affects them or relates to them in some way., because the story is written from an “us” perspective, and the “us” are middle-class and wealthy people. And if the poor are mentioned in the media at all, they’re usually either blamed for their condition, considered undeserving of help, or considered a problem to “us”.

Currently, the importance of the news media as a symbol-making institution is best represented by the way the issues surrounding a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood are being presented in the news, and how that presentation shapes any discussion and defense of Planned Parenthood is being held in society. Planned Parenthood is a non-profit organization that provides various services to women, and it discounts them or even provides them for free for low-income women. It also provides some services to men (cancer screening and STD treatment and diagnosis, for example), which are similarly discounted for poor men. On February 11th, the US House of Representatives voted in favor of banning all federal funding for the organization. The media and politicians have been discussing this event in one of two ways, either focusing on abortion and women’s sexuality, or on fiscal responsibility that requires cutting the budget. An excellent example of that framing is evident in Judson Berger’s article from February 5th, in which he writes “Republicans are trying to juggle the abortion issue as they wage a separate, and more high-profile, battle in Congress over spending.” Another article on CNN.com mentions that proponents of the ban are saying that current restrictions on abortion funding aren’t enough because “applying the government’s money to other procedures leaves more of the group’s own cash on hand to allocate to abortion-related services”. The same article says that the cuts are “part of a continuing resolution that included dramatic spending cuts across a range of programs” (Political Ticker, 2011). In other words, the media uses the symbols of an innocent, righteous, and victimized “us” (the middle class, the men, the “morally responsible” women) who are being asked to shoulder an ethical and financial burden on behalf of a “them” (the non-taxpaying poor, sexually irresponsible women) that is demanding an unethical service to be provided from “our” taxpayer money, even though they brought the problem on themselves (see Mantsios’ “The Poor Have Only Themselves To Blame” narrative, p. 95) and who are undeserving of help because of their immoral behavior both in terms of what led to their situation and the service they demand (Mantsios’ “The Poor Are Undeserving”, p. 94). The best example of this particular line of argument could in fact be seen when Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) debated the defunding of Planned Parenthood, as broadcast on C-SPAN and distributed on the internet via YouTube and MediaMatters: his argument for defunding Planned Parenthood was that “they” were “invested in promiscuity” and that “we” needed to “stand on principle” and not fund them. The narratives are those Mantsios describes as being used against the poor, but in this case they are strengthened, in terms of the othering they do, because they’re used for not one but two of the opressive categories identified by Collins: class and gender. The othered aren’t just undeserving and guilty poor, they are undeserving and guilty poor women, making the “them” an even smaller, even more marginalized, and even more easily ignorable group less likely to be in any way connected to “us” and “our” problems and needs.

The fact that Planned Parenthood is a health-care provider for the poor for such things as cancer screening, UTI treatments, and even diabetes testing is not mentioned in either article. Neither is the fact that the tax-burden is minimal, and that tax-payers themselves often either use their services themselves, or have within their communities people who do. The effects on the health of those people from various backgrounds who might now lose access are ignored entirely by the Media coverage of the discussion. No mentions are made of what will happen to people from a wide section of the population, including plenty of people belonging to the “us” category (middle-class students, married women with children, men who go for cancer testing) if clinics have to close, or if they won’t be able to provide their services at reduced cost or for free any longer. These realities have been excised from Media discussion in favor of the negative, dichotomous symbolism.

Understanding the narratives Mantsios describes can help see past the narratives trying to frame people who use Planned Parenthood as “the other”. But that alone is not enough, because Mantsios essay focuses only one one dimension of oppression, i.e. class, while the issues surrounding a defunding of Planned Parenthood involves both class and gender oppression.

Patricia Hill Collins’ essay “Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis” can help broaden the perspective and make it possible to understand the issues surrounding Planned Parenthood not in terms of divisive “othering” and entrenched interests, but rather as an issue that spans the different dimensions of oppression. This may enable people to look at the services Planned Parenthood provides as being beneficial to people in all sorts of different groups, groups that maybe wouldn’t otherwise be able to see each others as allies in the provision and maintenance of health-care access. Her suggestion of how to find new ways to conceptualize race, class, and gender away from dichotomous either/or categories that classify someone as either oppressed or oppressor(2011, p. 762) can help feminists fighting for women’s reproductive rights see poor men and conservative charities for the poor not as oppressors withing the Patriarchy, and conversely can help organizations trying to help the poor see middle-class feminists not as oppressors within the class-structure. Similarly, her description of how to transcend the barriers that were erected in identity-politics by splitting people into distinct categories by race, gender, and class and form alliances on common causes(2011, pp. 770-771) provides useful advice on how to overcome social and cultural differences of opinion on issues that divide people, in order to make it possible for all of them to work together on issues that they share in common. Her example of a inner-city school in which people from all sorts of different spheres came together with the common goal of educating Black children can very well be transferred to the discussion about Planned Parenthood. The same goes for her suggestions for how to build empathy between people who are affected differently by the different oppressive structures of society. Instead of focusing on Planned Parenthood as a place where “the other” (“immoral women”, “non-taxpaying poor”) receive services, such discussions would be able to focus on the very broad range of services provided, as well as the very broad range of people using them: affordable cancer screenings for men and women, birth-control for poor families who can’t afford any more children, regular health-checkups for students and poor women and men, etc.

Being able to visualize such common-ground issues affecting a broad intersection of people could make it possible for more people to feel invested in the organization and look past the divisive Media narrative. It could enable them to cooperate with others in the fight against the ban. Building empathy between women who feel their reproductive choices attacked, and the poor who have their access to basic health-services limited, can also foster discussion about the real dimensions of whom Planned Parenthood is helping, and in what ways. And it can diminish the effect of the two-pronged attack on Planned Parenthood, on the one hand from the moralistic stance on women (targeted at conservative groups and men), and on the other from the fiscal stance against poor people (targeted at middle class and wealthy people). Only if we learn to empathize with the experiences of people in group to which we do not belong ourselves, understand that many people fall within both categories, and understand that while everyone is affected by issues of gender and class (as well as race) differently, with different aspect being visible and salient to them to different degrees (Hill Collins, 2011, p.763), no one is unaffected entirely, can we begin to look pas the single-focus divisive Media narratives and instead look on the actual range of effects of defunding Planned Parenthood. Effects that aren’t shown in the narratives provided by the Media, which prefers to ignore the poor altogether and prefers to show those who use Planned Parenthood’s services specifically and solely as women seeking abortion, usually portraying it as a moral failing.

References

Berger, J. (2011, Feb 5th). Abortion Debate Returns to Capitol Hill as Lawmakers Weigh New Restrictions. FoxNews.com. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/02/05/abortion-debate-returns-capitol-hill-proposed-restrictions-advance/

Hill Collins, P. (2011) Towards a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection. In T. Ore (ed.), The Social Construction of Difference & Inequality(5th ed.) (pp. 760-774). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill

King, Steve (2011). MediaMattersAction YouTube-Channel. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vex77n65nJ0

Mantsios, G. (2011) Media Magic: Making Class Invisible. In T. Ore (ed.), The Social Construction of Difference & Inequality(5th ed.) (pp. 93-101). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill

Political Ticker (2011, Feb. 28th). Boehner in ‘war’ against Planned Parenthood. CNN Politics. Retrieved from http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/02/28/boehner-in-war-against-planned-parenthood/