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Wide Angle Blog
October 31st, 2008

Rawan Jabaji

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has announced plans to build the first women-only university in the kingdom, and vows that it will be the largest women’s university in the world.

This is a bold move by the king, who has frequently struggled against Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious establishment to educate women in the kingdom and integrate them in the workplace. Until now, women have had limited access to higher education in restricted women’s sections of Saudi universities where they are only permitted to study certain subjects. Saudi women still can’t drive, vote or be caught in public without their spouse or a male relative.

I spent a number of my childhood years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in the 80s and 90s due to my father’s work, but I always commuted back and forth between school in upstate New York and summers in the kingdom with my family. My cousin lived in Riyadh and attended a public high school up through her senior year.

When my cousin completed high school, she visited King Faisal University, one of the many public colleges in the kingdom, which has both male and female sections. She described the scene for me. At the university, women are segregated from their male peers, and even their professors. In the classroom, women sit at desks surrounded by wood panels on either side. Professors lecture from remote locations and the women listen through a TV screen. And if a female student has a question during class, she alerts the professor by pressing a button below her TV screen and addressing the professor through a microphone.

Saudi men often study abroad if they can afford tuition and maneuver getting a student visa.  It’s considered more prestigious to study outside the country, so if they can’t go to the United States or Europe to study, Saudi men enroll in universities in the Middle East instead of staying in the kingdom.

It’s another story for women.

Women who wish to continue their education beyond high school are often persuaded to stay within the kingdom’s reigns, as it isn’t customary for women to leave their home before marriage. And if a woman does leave, she must be accompanied by her spouse or a male relative.  Women experienced university studies in Saudi Arabia as they experience much of life in the kingdom — behind the veil. However this new initiative by King Abdullah may be one of many nascent steps to reform, and possibly indicative of relaxing social norms in the conservative kingdom.

Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University for Girls, set to be completed in 2010, will allow women to study medicine, pharmacy, management, computer sciences and various languages—subjects that women have difficulty studying in the gender-segregated public universities in Saudi Arabia. University president Princess Al-Jowhara Bint Fahd said that the university is designed to become the world’s largest center of higher learning for women.

We want to make it a leading international institution,” said Princess Al-Jowhara.

This is a milestone in the kingdom’s history, particularly in the history of women’s education,” said Ibrahim Al Assaf, Minister of Finance. “The campus would include an administration building, a central library, conference centers, buildings for 15 academic faculties, several laboratories and a 700-bed hospital equipped with state-of-the-art facilities.”

The university will be built on the eastern suburbs of Riyadh, with the capacity to enroll about 40,000 female students.The environmentally friendly university will include a high-tech transport system with automatic and computer-controlled vehicles linking all important facilities at the university. The campus will also include housing for university staff, mosques, a kindergarten and an exclusive amusement center for families and students.

And the price tag on the women’s university will be approximately $5 billion USD.

“The king’s presence here shows his generous support for women empowerment in Saudi Arabia and his keen desire to promote higher education,” said Khaled Al-Anqari, the Minister of Higher Education.

In 2004, Wide Angle visited Saudi Arabia in The Saudi Question. The film includes an interview with Senator Joe Biden, then the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

October 30th, 2008

As hurricane season winds down in the U.S., the rainy season in Peru is just picking up. In addition to the usual fears of floods and landslides, residents in and around the capital of Lima are now concerned that heavy rains could weaken man-made receptacles of mining waste, called “tailing ponds” and lead to the contamination of their water supply. In May, the Canadian owner of the mine, Gold Hawk Resources, suspended operations as a preventative measure. The company, looking for profits from gold, silver, zinc and lead deposits, was hit with plummeting stock prices and laid off local workers.

This didn’t solve the problem of existing waste however, and in July the Peruvian government issued a state of emergency in the area, ordering the company to relocate the processing plant and tailing ponds. Gold Hawk now says the new facilities are ready for business, but is still waiting for a permit from the government before it can proceed. Storm clouds rumble in over the Andes and while the fate of the mine hangs in the balance, both shareholders and citizens of Lima are nervous about the outcome.

A variation on a theme, this scenario has been playing out from Congo to the Philippines: mining operations from the developed world move into ore-rich, but impoverished areas of developing countries. The issue is never as cut-and-dry as many environmentalists or corporate quarterly reports would have it seem. According to the UNDP, over half of Peru’s population lives under the national poverty line. When an international mining company sets up shop in such an area, they know they’re sure to be monitored by watchdog groups and accordingly draw up community relations plans. Promises of medical centers and literacy programs, as well as steady wages are no doubt attractive to residents whose local infrastructure may be lacking.

But when approving large-scale mining projects, nations must weigh jobs and community benefits against the potentially far-reaching costs of clean-up, should an environmental disaster occur. In 2000, a contractor working for Newmont Mining Corporation accidentally spilled 330 pounds of mercury near the small Peruvian town of Choropampa. The company’s resulting multi-million dollar mitigation efforts included health care for villagers who reported symptoms of mercury poisoning. The controversy over that mining operation leaves many Peruvians skeptical of new mining endeavors.

In the film Gold Futures, WIDE ANGLE visits a mining village in Romania where mineral wealth and badly-needed jobs compete with time-honored rural traditions and concerns about poisoning the environment.

October 29th, 2008

The global financial crisis is starting to filter down to China’s job market, with recent university graduates finding it harder than ever to secure work.  Citing the meltdown on Wall Street, fewer multinational firms are recruiting at job fairs on Chinese campuses this fall.  Some foreign corporations, such as the French supermarket chain Carrefour, are suspending recruitment from Chinese universities entirely.

Though China’s economy has been less affected by the financial crash than other global economies, figures released last week show its growth dipped to 9% this quarter, down from 11.9% last year.

For much of the Communist era, unemployment among China’s college graduates wasn’t an issue, because the state arranged jobs for all diploma holders.  But since the mid-1980s, students have been allowed to choose their own career paths and compete on the job market.  This year the unemployment rate among new grads is expected to reach over 15% — the highest since the removal of the state-backed employment system.

Xiao Jiang, a finance major from Zhejiang University, told the China Daily newspaper last week that he has applied for about 20 positions at various multinational companies, with no luck.  “I didn’t think it would take this long,” he said. “It’s tough just to get an interview.  I can no longer consider whether my specialty matches my future job. The most important thing is whether I can find a job.”

Judging by the testimonies of these Chinese bloggers, the job market was already ferociously competitive last year. In addition to the global financial crisis, this year’s grads have to contend with greater numbers entering the job market — the graduation rate from Chinese universities is up 7%, and many Chinese who went abroad to study are returning home, finding it difficult to secure employment in the U.S. or Europe during the downturn.

In this context, civil service jobs are becoming popular again, as working for the Chinese state tends to guarantee steady pay, social status, and cushy welfare benefits.  The website of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security which released information on Monday about this year’s national civil service exam crashed less than an hour after going live, overloaded by millions of eager candidates.  The website was up and running again on Tuesday.  The examination, which seeks to fill a total of 13,566 government jobs, will be held on November 30.

WIDE ANGLE’s China Prep follows five Chinese students through their final high-pressure year at an elite high school as they prepare for a different but equally competitive test: the national university entrance exam.

October 28th, 2008

When you think of bastions of women’s rights, Eastern Africa does not immediately spring to mind. But this month Rwanda became the first country in the world to have a majority-female parliament

Today 56 percent of the Rwandan parliament comprises of women, including one-third of all cabinet positions and the chief of the Supreme Court. Rwanda also just voted in their first female speaker of parliament, Dr. Rose Mukantabana.

While Rwanda has the highest ratio of women to men in any parliament worldwide, the US ranks number 69, sandwiched between Bolivia and El Salvador, with just 16.8 percent of Congress being female.

After the genocide in 1994, thousands of men were jailed for war crimes or fled the country, leaving a population that was 70 percent female. As a result women took on roles in politics and business. Forty-one percent of businesses are now owned by women in Rwanda compared with 18 per cent in neighboring Congo.

Rwanda adopted a quota system as part of its constitution in 2003, mandating that at least 30 percent of the parliament be women. The country also abolished laws prohibiting women from inheriting and owning property, and encouraged education among girls and women.

In spring 2004 — as Rwanda commemorated the 10th anniversary of the genocide — WIDE ANGLE traveled to this fractured nation to make a film that looks forward instead of back. Profiling women on the forefront of change, Ladies First reveals the challenges facing them and their country as Rwanda struggles to build a sustainable peace between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis — a peace that has eluded the country for almost half a century.

October 27th, 2008

Reporters Without Borders released their annual Press Freedom Index on Wednesday. The report aims to measure the degree of freedom enjoyed by the press in each country and the efforts made by authorities to ensure those freedoms, taking into account abuses committed not only by state authorities, but also armed militias, clandestine organizations, and pressure groups. The report covers the period from Sept. 1, 2007 – Sept. 1, 2008.

The main lesson
to be drawn from the 2008 report is that, “It is not economic prosperity but peace that guarantees press freedom,” according to the Paris-based organization. “Iceland’s per-capita GDP is ten times Jamaica’s. What they have in common is a parliamentary democratic system, and not being involved in any war.” Both are ranked near the top of the list.

Among other patterns in the report is Europe’s dominance in ensuring press freedom: 18 of the top 20 ranked countries are European.

The United States is ranked #36 on the 2008 index, tied with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, South Africa, Spain and Taiwan. If abuses committed outside U.S. territory are included, the country’s rank drops to #119. China ranks #167, Israel #46 (#149 outside its territory), the U.K. #23. The lowest ranked countries are Turkmenistan (#171), North Korea (#172), and Eritrea (#173).

WIDE ANGLE regularly reports on the state of international media, including programs about independent journalists in Iran (ranked #166) and Russia (#141), boundary-pushing Middle Eastern broadcasters in Qatar (#74) and Egypt (#146), and politics and the media in the Balkans and Italy (#44).

October 23rd, 2008

Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner announced on Tuesday that the country would nationalize $30 billion in private pension funds to protect retirees from the global financial crisis. Her proposed bill still requires the approval of Congress, in which her center-left Peronist party holds a majority.

The nationalization of the ten funds would signal the end of Argentina’s private pension system, created in 1994 by then-president Carlos Menem. This private alternative to the state pension system currently administers the retirement accounts of 9.5 million depositors (one-fourth of Argentina’s population of 40 million).

The value of the funds’ investments has fallen 40 percent on average this year, and President Kirchner said that the move was necessary to protect retirees and workers. This sentiment was echoed by Amando Boudo, Executive Director of the National Social Security Administration who said that “the government’s only motivation to carry out this measure was to rescue our future and current pensioners from uncertainty.”

But critics say that the government is grabbing for money amid escalating debts, falling commodity prices and tax revenues, and global financial trouble. Argentina has been largely shut out of international capital markets since 2001, when it defaulted on bonds worth $95 billion, the largest sovereign-debt default in history. 2001 was also the last time the government sought to tap workers’ savings to help finance debt payments, freezing savings accounts and converting dollar-deposits into pesos.

In response to President Kirschner’s announcement, Argentina’s main stock index, the Merval, tumbled twenty percent on Tuesday and Wednesday — the biggest two-day drop since 1990.

WIDE  ANGLE surveyed the damage of Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis in The Empty ATM, following one woman’s struggle to recover her savings and a novel television game show that offered contestants a job amid widespread unemployment.

October 23rd, 2008

In the latest milestone of China’s embrace of a market economy, the Communist Party announced a much-anticipated land reform plan this past Sunday.  Under the current system, all rural land is communally owned by village collectives controlled by local Communist Party officials, and plots are parceled out to farmers through 30-year land-use contracts.  With the new policy, for the first time, farmers will be able to subcontract, lease, and transfer these land-use rights.  Though stopping short of outright privatization, the reform will allow farmers, who make up more than 55% of China’s total population, to use land as collateral to secure loans, invest in irrigation, expand plot sizes to create larger, more efficient farms, and otherwise boost agricultural productivity.

The new changes, aimed at narrowing the growing gap between urban rich and rural poor, are expected to improve rural living standards.  President Hu Jintao and other party leaders pledged to double disposable income by 2020 for China’s 700 to 800 million farmers – who currently earn less than $600 a year on average. By better protecting property rights, the reforms could also help reduce the social tensions and riots that have resulted from corruption within the present system, with property developers conspiring with local officials to illegally seize farmland in exchange for little to no compensation.  Of the tens of thousands of rural protests that occur in China annually, nearly half relate to land grabs.

A Chinese entrepreneur reacted with skepticism on the New York Times blog: “The new legislation was intended to give the land to individual peasants, but given the workings of the Chinese government, it will most likely take many “chops” and red tape before a peasant is allowed to do what he wants on the land. Each chop will have a price on it. The law might have just given corrupt officials a series of good excuses to take bribes. It is good that the legislation is moving toward privatizing land-use rights, but I am rather doubtful whether it will work out as the government had envisioned. Most Chinese regulations get terribly distorted in the process of execution.”

The official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, Xinhua News Service, acknowledged that critics “have argued that the new policy might create a few landlords and many landless farmers who will have no means for a living.” To ease such fears, the government is promising a “stringent farmland protection system” and urging local officials to impose strict limits on development.

In 2002, WIDE ANGLE’s To Have and Have Not introduced viewers to the winners and the losers of China’s economic miracle, from nouveaux riches businessmen in Beijing to rural farmers in Sichuan Province.

October 17th, 2008

The murder trial of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, which began behind closed doors in Moscow earlier this week, is already marred by intrigue. The lawyer representing Politkovskaya’s family, Karinna Moskalenko, fell suddenly ill after a suspicious liquid-metal substance was discovered in her car on Monday. French detectives have confirmed finding a large amount of mercury pellets hidden below her car seat and are now investigating whether Moskalenko was deliberately poisoned. Suffering from headaches, dizziness and nausea, she was hospitalized for tests near her home in Strasbourg, France. Her illness and hospitalization prevented her from getting on a flight to Russia to attend Wednesday’s hearing.

Anna Politkovskaya appearing in the WIDE ANGLE documentary The Russian Newspaper Murders two years before her own murder.

Politkovskaya was murdered two years ago at age 48 in a contract-style killing in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on October 7, the birthday of then-President Vladimir Putin. Having won international acclaim for her reports exposing the brutality of Russian and Chechen troops in Chechnya, her murder immediately threw suspicion on the Russian and Chechen security forces. On the anniversary of Politkovskaya’s death last week, commemorative posts flooded the Russian blogosphere.

Three men are facing trial for connection with her killing: two Chechen brothers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, charged with surveillance of Politkovskaya, and a Russian police officer, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, charged with providing technical support. All three deny the accusations. So far, Russian authorities have failed to identify the mastermind of the murder, and the suspected gunman, a third Makhumdov brother, remains at large.

Colleagues from Politkovskaya’s newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, lobbied to have the case opened to the public and the media. But authorities decided instead on a military trial, claiming that much of the material involved is classified.

Moskalenko, who is representing Politkovskaya’s son and daughter, is a prominent human rights attorney whose clients have included Kremlin critics such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon jailed by Putin in 2003; opposition leader and former chess champion Garry Kasparov; and Alexander Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. officer who was murdered two years ago after ingesting a highly toxic radioactive substance. In an interview yesterday with the television station FRANCE 24, Moskalenko reacted to her suspicious run-in with mercury: “The exact nature of the act is not clear. Was the intention to provoke or to harm us, to poison me? Those who did this clearly intended to keep me unaware of the presence of the substance. But we’re still waiting for final results from police and forensic investigations.”

The Moscow judge at yesterday’s hearing refused a request that the session be delayed because of Moskalenko’s sudden illness, and pretrial hearings began without her. The next court date is set for November 17, with jury selection scheduled for the following day.

Prior to her murder, Anna Politkovskaya appeared in WIDE ANGLE’s 2004 film The Russian Newspaper Murders boldly testifying about the risks journalists face in modern-day Russia.

October 16th, 2008

Both presidential candidates have promised to make significant changes to health care policy in the United States. An issue that warrants their attention is infant mortality, a key indicator of the well-being and effectiveness of a country’s health care system.

Infant mortality in the United States declined by 2 percent in 2006 according to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week. However, the United States has a higher infant mortality rate than most developed countries, and the gap appears to be widening. The U.S. rank has been steadily worsening: in 1960, the U.S. was ranked 12th in the world; by 2004, the U.S. fell to 29th, tied with Poland and Slovakia, and worse than Japan, Cuba, and most of the European Union (2004 is the most recent international comparative data published by the CDC). The infant mortality rate in the US currently stands at 6.86 infant deaths per 1,000.

The report also shows that the infant mortality rate for black women was 2.4 times that of white women. Rates were also elevated for Puerto Rican and Native American women.

The CDC report calls infant mortality “one of the most important indicators of the health of a nation, as it is associated with a variety of factors such as maternal health, quality and access to medical care, socioeconomic conditions, and public health practices.”

A separate report published by the Commission to Build a Healthier America earlier this month found that there is a high correlation between infant mortality and the education level of the mother. Infant mortality is 40 percent higher among mothers with 13 to 15 years of schooling, compared with mothers with at least 16 years of school (i.e. a college degree).

The report also ranked the states based on the disparity in infant mortality rates between those mothers with college degrees and those without. Tennessee and the District of Columbia had the highest discrepancy in infant mortality rates between college and non-college educated mothers.

The fact-finding report did not examine the underlying causes for these geographic and racial discrepancies, but the commission will issue a set of recommendations in the spring, which will focus on a holistic approach to health care.

“Maternal and child health is the cornerstone of health in general,” said Sue Egerter, one of the authors of the report.

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