International Car-free Day

Today is international car-free day, a day in which people are asked to leave their car at home and go about their business without it for a day. The idea is not only to illustrate how life is like in any given city without most of its cars on the road but also to reflect on the challenges and limitations of being without car, particularly in North America where cities are not pedestrian-friendly. Toronto failed miserably a couple years ago when celebrating car-free day. The city had done much to promote it and then when the day came, most city councilors arrived at city hall in their cars. When asked by reporters why they drove if the city was making such a big deal about car-free day, most simply stated that it wasn’t convenient to take public transit. And that was that.

Alan was furious and wrote some letters to the mayor and his ward representative, but the city councilors are partly right. We have a long way to go to catch up with most European countries when it comes to public transit infrastructure and sharing roads with bicycles.

A Canadian woman who lives in Copenhagen was interviewed on CBC Radio this morning about car-free day and she confessed that it doesn’t occur to people there to mark car-free day since two-thirds of the residents already commute by bicycle or public transit. She spoke about the infra-structure built in so that cars and bicycles can share the roads easily without confrontation and how traffic lights are synchronized to the speed of bicycles (20km/h) so that cyclists can get a green light all the way through when commuting.

And Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg, Germany, has banned cars altogether. The entire suburb was designed and built so that every resident is at walking distance from shops and schools. Public transit into the city is also easily available. Read more about it here.

As a historian, I understand why North America moved away from a focus on public transit and based its cities on private cars. How we got here is not the issue. The issue is that we now know that this car culture is not sustainable in the long run and our society needs to invest more heavily into making walking, cycling, and public transit the most convenient options for its citizens. Maybe that way, our councilors won’t have an excuse anymore. Better yet, maybe like the people of Copenhagen, it won’t even occur to us to celebrate car-free day.

PS: Montreal has closed part of its city core to cars today.

The importance of education

I feel guilty for having abandoned the blog in the past few days, but it’s been a whirlwind of work, meetings with friends, weekend trips, catching up, that I have barely any time to even check email. So I’m sorry if you have left a message that has remained unacknowledged.

But that’s not why I’m writing today. I just wanted to share with all of you the story of Greg Mortenson and his work to educate children, particularly girls, in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Greg was a rock climber who, in 1992, after nearly dying in a failed attempt to climb K2, the world’s toughest summit, wandered into a remote village on his way down from the mountain, which he had hoped to conquer in honour of his sister Christa, who had recently passed away. Mortenson had taken the wrong path while following his guide and ended up on the village of Korphe by mistake. The villagers were quite surprised as no foreigner had ever been there before and Mortenson was received by the village chief, who took him to his house and offered him shelter. Comforted by their hospitality, he ended up spending weeks there recovering his strength and slowly doing what he could to pay back his hosts. Trained as a trauma nurse, he used his expedition medical kit to treat the local villagers, who lived one-week by foot from the closest doctor. He soon discovered that the village had no school and before he left, he promised Haji Ali, the chief, that he would come back to build him a school. After an extraordinary journey, Greg Mortenson has built over 60 primary schools – especially for girls – in the land that gave birth to the Taliban. He learned to speak Urdu, Balti, and other local languages and is respected throughout the region for the work he does to empower the local people and get them out of poverty. In one case, a village desperately needed a health care worker so Greg’s foundation sent a local young woman, Aziza Hussain, to be trained in a medical clinic at the closest larger city. I copy here the passage from the book:

With the nearest medical facility two days’ drive down often impassible jeep tracks, illness in Zuudkhan could quickly turn to crisis. In the year before Aziza took charge of her village’s health, three women had died during the delivery of their children. “Also, many people died from the diarrhea,” Aziza says. “After I got training and Dr. Greg provided the medicines, we were able to control there things.

“After five years, with good water from the new pipes, and teaching the people how to clean their children, and use clean food, not a single person had died here from there problems. It’s my great interest to continue to develop myself in this field,” Aziza says. “And pass on my training to other women. Now that we have made such progress, not a single person in this area believes women should not be educated.”

As Stephen Lewis has defended so strongly in his Race Against Time, educating women is the surest way to fight poverty and disease. And today, it is also the best way to fight terrorism and violence. In his book, Greg Mortenson talks extensively about Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and how they are able to recruit followers in remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They build thousands of schools, devoted to teaching their particular version of extremism, in remote impoverished villages failed by the public system. War becomes the only occupation they can aspire to and the only thing to give their lives any meaning. The best and the brightest are then sent to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where they are indoctrinated further before sending them back home, where they are encouraged to take four wives and breed like rabbits, thinking “twenty, forty, sixty years ahead to a time when their armies of extremism will have the numbers to swarm over Pakistan and the rest of the Islamic world.”

As Ahmed Rashid, author of the best-selling book Taliban, says, we need many more of the schools that Greg Mortenson is building in that area of the world. I could go on about this for hours, so I’ll just leave you with a link to Mortenson’s site and an interview below. If you can, buy the book Three Cups of Tea, it’s definitely worth a read.

World Breastfeeding Week

PosterWorld Breastfeeding Week is promoted by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, an international organization created to promote, support, and protect breastfeeding around the world. I have volunteered to participate in a collective blogging campaign to raise awareness over this issue that might seem trivial to many of us, but is of vital importance to children and families around the world.

The World Health Organization and UNICEF advocate breastfeeding for infants up to 6 months old, and continued breastfeeding with the introduction of complementary foods until age 2 or beyond.  Babies who are breastfed need no other foods or liquids, not even water, since breastmilk provide all the nutrients they need to develop.

I come from a very large family. My mother has six sisters and my father has three sisters and four brothers. I was the second-oldest grandchild on my mother’s side of the family and among the oldest on my father’s side. It seems to me I grew up around babies, cotton diapers drying at my grandmother’s backyard and watching my aunts breastfeeding their children. The latter was always considered the normal, natural thing for mothers to do. It shocks me now to see how difficult it is for so many women to do such a natural thing. The WHO recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed and that they should be breastfed on demand – that is, whenever they want it, day or night. That seems a very difficult thing for women to do nowadays. Thinking back, none of my aunts worked. What would they have done now, working full time with only 16 weeks of maternity leave, which is what they have in Brazil? One of my sister-in-laws had only three months with her baby since she had to start her maternity leave a month before the child was born, due to complications with her pregnancy. She wasn’t able to breastfeed for very long. One of my good friends lives in the US, where she has NO maternity leave. None at all. Luckily, she’s a professor and will try to time her pregnancy so that the baby can be born in the beginning of the summer so she can have some time with him/her. In many countries (I’ve heard of cases here in Canada and in the US), women are asked to leave if they try to breastfeed in public.  Clearly, governments and the workforce need to adapt before women in much of the world can put in practice the WHO/UNICEF recommendations.

While women have successfully entered the workforce and acquired many rights over the past century, there are still many barriers to be overcome. I think Canada is moving on the right track by giving women a one-year maternity leave. But it wasn’t that long ago that a woman in Alberta was fired for wanting to continue to breastfeed her child. And breastfeeding in public continues to be a challenge to Canadian women. The path is arduous, but through the tireless work of women like Denise, we’ll get there…

During this year’s Dyke Parade, I was very happy to see this image on one of the floats going down Yonge Street:

Dyke Parade 2007

Dec 6th: Montreal Massacre

On this day in 1989, a gunman went into the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada, and for 45 mins he looked for women to kill. At the end of the spree 14 women were dead. Following my friend Dana’s lead, I would like to take a moment here to remember their names:

Geneviève Bergeron, aged 21;
Hélène Colgan, 23;
Nathalie Croteau, 23;
Barbara Daigneault, 22;
Anne-Marie Edward, 21;
Maud Haviernick, 29;
Barbara Maria Klucznik, 31;
Maryse Leclair, 23;
Annie St.-Arneault, 23;
Michèle Richard, 21;
Maryse Laganière, 25;
Anne-Marie Lemay, 22;
Sonia Pelletier, 28;
Annie Turcotte, aged 21

For a good coverage of the events of that night, take a look at the CBC archives

The event became a catalyst for movements for the eradication of violence against women and is remembered throughout Canada and many parts of the world today. Along Philosopher’s Walk at the University of Toronto, a very peaceful and beautiful place, a tree was planted for each of the women killed that day and a memorial was built.  I hope we don’t have to build memorials such as these in the future…

Dec 1st: World AIDS Day

The second date in the sixteen-day period that mark the campaign against gender violence is World AIDS Day.
In 2000, heads of states around the world promised to stop the epidemic by 2015.  Yet, 65 million people  around the world are infected with the HIV virus and according to health organizations around the world, this number keeps growing. Last year we heard Stephen Lewis deliver the final of the Massey Lectures, entitled Race Against Time, that deals precisely with the problem of the pandemic in Africa. I urge anybody who hasn’t read the lectures yet, to do so. They were collected and published in a book of the same name. The situation throughout the continent is desperate. A whole generation is being wiped out. In many places, there are only children and their grandparents left. Women are being infected in disproportionate numbers, often by their own husbands. Lewis mentions a visit he made to a village in Africa. After he gave his speech, teaching kids about prevention, one young girl raised her hand. She said the boys at her school were always on her case to have sex but she refused them. Her answer was simple: “I don’t want to die”.

That lecture was one of the few moments I felt proud of Brazil as state. Still back in the late 1980s Brazil made a serious commitment towards prevention and treatment. The prevention campaign is ubiquituous and intensify in periods of “risk” such as carnival. It involves education campaigns, distribution of free condoms to prostitutes, etc. Treatment includes full access to the drug cocktails free of charge. Obviously this means the program is super expensive and Brazil has played a leading role in pressuring American drug companies in lowering their prices for HIV drugs. Yet, it has worked. While the numbers keep growing across the world, they are starting to recede in Brazil.

For more about World AIDS Day and what you can do to help the world keep its promise, take a look at these:

Stephen Lewis Foundation

Give a Day of your work to help – a doctor in Ontari, Canada started a movement that initially involved 50 doctors but which now involves hospitals across the country. They each donate their income on World AIDS Day as doctors to an AIDS foundation. The idea is now to spread the concept over to different professions.

World AIDS Day site

UNAIDS – Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS