Women and Girls at War: Wives, Mothers, and Fighters

Traditional images of war generally depict men as fighters and women as passive victims. While women are certainly victimized in conflicts, the narrow view neglects the roles women play as agents in armed conflict. In some cases, women often occupy a space between fighter and victim.

On Thursday, October 29, in the final installment of the Conflict, Security, and Development Series of the fall semester, Wagner welcomed Jeannie Annan, the Director of Research and Evaluation for the International Rescue Committee and a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. Addressing an audience of over 50 NYU students, faculty and staff, as well as members from outside the NYU community, Dr. Annan discussed the topic “Women and Girls at War: Wives, Mothers and Fighters,” based on paper she co-authored on the reintegration of women and girls abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. The full findings of the study challenge the conventional wisdom regarding women and war.

The overall findings of the study challenge traditional understandings of the roles of women in armed conflict and, fortunately for a Wagner audience, expand upon the policy implications in post-conflict settings. By including policy and programmatic choices that can address the experience of women at war, the conversation was very concrete for an audience of current and future practitioners.

With most demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programs tailored towards the needs to men, women are often under-served. The programs that do address women in post-conflict situations are based on assumptions that women will be marginalized and/or stigmatized upon their return and are highly exposed to sexual violence.

While not disputing that women are victims of sexual violence and do have special reintegration needs, Annan challenges preconceived notions, stressing that post-conflict programs should be tailored to meet needs based on evidence, instead of our assumptions. Dr. Annan’s work attempts to improve our understanding of humanitarian needs, both policy and programming, based on rigorous research relying on evidence.

Annan’s research arrived at a variety of intriguing conclusions: first, women abducted by the LRA are not simply sexual victims, nor are their experiences the same as men. Sexual violence is not used as a “mad theology” but rather based on strict hierarchies to increase control. For example, civilian rape is prohibited. Finally, upon reintegration into their community, women are not more disadvantaged than their male counterparts who had also been abducted, nor is either group completely marginalized by society. In fact, the level of trauma is highly concentrated in a significant minority, instead of being diffuse across the population.

Annan’s presentation ended with a particularly poignant quote from a woman who had been abducted by the LRA advising parents of other women who had the same experience: “Take good care of her. It is not the end of her life. She should forget what happened. Be a good example for her. She is still surviving. She should not see this as the end of her life. She can still continue.”

Students at Risk: Nutrition, Obesity and Public Schools

ABOUT A DECADE AGO, Rogan Kersh hosted a panel discussion of obesity, and only four people showed up in the audience.

But on October 13, 2009, about 140 people attended as Kersh, now a professor and an associate dean at NYU Wagner, moderated a lively exchange on what has now become an undeniable epidemic in this country.

Among the panelists was Nancy Huehnergarth, a parent who became the director of New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance after she found that the junk food her children were exposed to in their school cafeteria was turning them off to the more healthful lunches she packed for them. Jorge Collazo, the head chef at the New York City Department of Education — who faces the unique challenge of feeding 860,000 students a day on a budget of 90 cents per person — weighed in on the challenges of combating obesity, as did Roger Turgeon, the principal of the Food and Finance High School in Manhattan, and Kathryn Henderson, director of School and Community Initiatives at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Henderson opened up the dialogue with a clear statement of the problem: 25% of students in New York City primary and secondary schools are obese, even more are at the very least overweight, and as a society we spend billions of dollars each year treating obesity-related ailments.

Turegeon, meanwhile, noted that he is seeing more and more students coming to his high school struggling with obesity and type 2 diabetes.

An additional problem, Henderson later said, is the 90 percent failure rate in treating obesity among adults and the only slightly better success rate with children. This drove the point home that obesity prevention is a critical policy issue, and not easily resolved.  

So the panelist took to offering a variety of opinions on some of the causes. Huehnergarth and Henderson in particular pointed to the prevalence of fast-food restaurants such as Taco Bell and  McDonalds within schools, saying their fare competes with more healthful school lunch options available to children.  Henderson scoffed at the current ban on minimally nutritious food in city schools, saying the ban covers just six items: seltzer, jelly beans, gum, cotton candy and some other seldom-seen snacks.

Turgeon highlighted the temptations that exist just beyond the school walls, in  the bodegas and fast food chains that students pass on their way to school.

Collazo rounded out the conversation by bringing attention to the cultural and social issues that are involved in convincing students to eat a balanced diet. After all, even those of us who are now far removed from high school can imagine that it would hardly be considered cool for a teenage boy to chow down on fresh food plucked from the salad bar.

The challenges are broader, too. The panelists said that many low income neighborhoods where obesity is most profound have limited access to fresh food markets, and families in any area are sometimes reluctant to follow nutritional guidelines that fly in the face of traditional home cooking.

Kersh challenged the panelists to identify policy solutions at the school level, local level, and federal level As they did, the complexities revealed themselves. Turgeon offered that increased nutrition education could help, but Huehnergarth countered that kids have the nutritional knowledge but will invariably consume junk food if it is right in front of them. Henderson advocated a ban on schoolhouse fast foods, but Jorge said that many schools depend on the revenue derived from those concessionaires in order to fund academic and extracurricular programs. The experts agreed, though, that the idea of serving breakfast in the classroom may improve eating habits, student concentration and attendance, though it sometimes draws resistance from custodians.

Across the board, there was support for re-authorization of the national Child Nutrition Act, which would require schools to have a wellness policy that outlined nutrition standards for all foods sold on school grounds. One audience member asked, however, Do we really want the government telling us what we are allowed to eat?

The NYU Wagner event was co-sponsored by the Wagner Education Policy Studies Association (WESPA) and the Wagner Health Network.  

Mayor Cory Booker Takes The Fate of Newark Seriously

IN A PUBLIC  conversation at NYU Wagner before more than 125 students, Newark, N.J., Mayor Corey Booker offered hard-won insight, progress reports and humor in describing how his administration’s strategies to reduce recidivism are contributing to broad civic improvement.

Mayor Booker fielded questions October 8, 2009, about his pattern-breaking efforts from Ellen Schall, Dean of Wagner, and the audience on a day when, as it happened, he was attracting national attention for countering quips delivered by TV talk-show host Conan O’Brien at Newark’s expense. The mayor told students that New Jersey’s largest city is simply “not the butt of jokes,” but conceded that matching O’Brien laugh-for-laugh is no easy challenge.

But Booker had the audience chuckling at several points, even as he described serious and substantial efforts since his election in July, 2006, to set a national standard for urban transformation. He noted he has created several public/private partnerships and brought together civic group to rehabilitate and green the city’s parks and playgrounds, doubled affordable housing construction, and set up model programs to assist at-risk youth and empower ex-offenders to thrive in meeting their family obligations.

Booker said with evident pride that only 3 percent of the ex-offenders who participated in an innovative fraternity on fatherhood begun by the city two years ago have been re-arrested, showing that carefully tailored programs can end a publicly and personally tragic cycle of recidivism. He said he calls the fatherhood program DADS, or Delta Alpha Delta Sigma, he joked. He hopes that by working to bring proven business analytical measurements and operational management techniques to the city administration, such efforts will be scaled up and replicated elsewhere. “Most cities,” he said, “don’t have a mature prisoner-reentry system.”

The 39-year-old Mayor Booker said he’s working to turn the city’s well-regarded charter schools — currently overseen by Wagner alumnus De’Shawn Wright — “from “islands of excellence to hemispheres of hope.” With the help of philanthropic organizations and researchers, transferring the Newark charters’ formula for high achievement to the rest of the 45,000-student school system is achievable, he said.

“Hopelessness is probably one of the worst toxins in any city, it’s a cancer, and it really undermines what you’re trying to do,” said the mayor. But in referring to his deepening involvement in public service, he then added, “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been so rewarding.”

The evening event was sponsored by The NYU Wagner Students for Criminal Justice Reform and The Black Allied Law Students Association. And, in the wake of it, it was interesting to read Bob Herbert’s take in The New York Times on Newark and the O’Brien put-downs.


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Demystifying the US Health Care Reform Debate

MANY OF US have become increasingly perplexed by the current US health care reform debate.  And that is understandable.  Exaggerated by partisan politics and media hype, issues that are complex and personal to begin with have become distorted and disguised, making the policy proposals being discussed in Congress all the more challenging to understand. 

Against the backdrop of an increasingly complex national debate, NYU Wagner Professor John Billings successfully honed in on the key problems facing US health care. On October 7, 2009, at the Wagner school. Billings kicked off the first of a two events aimed at explaining the key problems embedded in the current US health care system.  In the second part of the series, Professor Paul Light will join Professor Billings and journalist Trudy Lieberman in a discussion of the proposed solutions being debated in Washington.

Professor Billings, an expert on safety net services and barriers to optimal health for vulnerable populations, had no shortage of data-heavy slides equipped with graphs and charts that clearly show that our health care system presents a problem we have ignored for far too long.  Billings spoke of several primary interrelated problems: un-insurance, cost, and health disparities.

But more than simply state current trends in these areas as obvious problems, Billings successfully defined why these are crises we must address.

“Insurance matters,” said Billings.  Approximately 45 million people in the US are uninsured and a whopping 39% percent of uninsured hospital admissions are avoidable, a burden we all bear, both morally as well as economically.  Billings argued that health care costs have soared, at a rate of nearly 9% a year, comprising less than 6% of the GDP in 1962 and nearly 16% in 2007.  Why does this matter? Why is this a problem? Because increased health care costs eat up government budgets, diverting money from other sectors of the economy like education and social services, while simultaneously suppressing wages.  And to make matters worse, increased costs have not been met with increased quality and better outcomes.  In fact, the US ranks 103rd in infant mortality rate.  

Billings said that health disparities, differences in treatments and outcomes based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation, present the most challenging problem in our current system. Studies show that when controlling for age, gender, and income, blacks get fewer cardiac tests than their white counterparts, a dynamic that won’t be addressed simply by getting access to an insurance card.

Nothing in the health care reform being debated in Washington will attack this problem, Billings said.  But to find out more about the Congressional debate brewing in D.C., you will have to come to the next installment on October 26, 2009.

While Billings touched upon possible solutions like changing the way doctors are paid, creating smoother communication between health care delivery systems and instituting service checklists, Part II – on October 26, 2009 –will truly shed light on what our representatives are planning for the future of our health care system.

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