INDIA: Piplantri - Where 1 Life Creates 111 Lives

How a village leader changed the perception of women in India, one tree at a time

Girls connecting with the trees in Piplantri. Photo provided by Piplantri Village.

Girls connecting with the trees in Piplantri. Photo provided by Piplantri Village.

Every time a baby girl is born in Piplantri, India, the village gathers together to plant 111 trees in her honor. The custom began a couple of years ago, when former village leader, Shyam Sundar Paliwal was forced to ponder the fleetingness of life after his daughter tragically passed away at a young age.

Piplantri and other villages in the area were facing two crises that greatly affected the quality and value of life. One issue was social: a high rate of female infanticide. Traditionally, female births were considered a burden on the family. The parents of a girl are expected to provide a dowry to her husband’s family, which can be a big financial undertaking. Additionally, daughters were married off well before the age of 18, before they could obtain an education. 

Piplantri and its surrounding villages faced environmental hardships as well. The villages in the Rajasthan area are suffering from deforestation with the increase of marble mining. 

Paliwal decided to confront these issues with a plan that can be broken down into three words: “Daughter, Water, Trees.” 

To counter the pessimism around the birth of a baby girl—and improve the lives of the daughter and her family—the village raises money for a “trust” every time a girl is born. The family is to contribute one third of the fund, which is set aside until the girl turns 20. This alleviates the problem of the financial burden of a dowry. 

In order for the family to receive the money, they must sign an affidavit agreeing not to marry their daughter until she is of the legal age of 18 and has received a proper education. 

To solve the deforestation problem, the village gets together to plant 111 trees in the girl’s honor. As a part of the contract, the family agrees to take care of those 111 trees. Hopefully the trees will help the spread of water along the land. 

And the scheme gets even better. The fruit trees being planted were beginning to attract a lot of termites. In order to prevent infestation, the villagers planted many aloe plants to protect the trees. The villagers can harvest and sell the aloe—which has incredible healing benefits—and make a profit, to even further improve their quality of life. 

Although Paliwal is no longer the leader of the village, the tradition continues. Now, teachers report that there are just as many girls enrolled in school as boys. And, the village is lush and green with the hundreds of trees planted. 

Other villages are following suit. The nearby village of Tasol is trying out Piplantri’s eco-feminist village model.

ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur. 

Canadian Inquiry Comes to a Close, Revealing Systematic Mistreatment of Indigenous Women

Three years in the making, the final report calls on authorities to institute a paradigm shift in policing practices.

Ottawa vigil for missing and murdered aboriginal women in 2014. Obert Madondo. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Ottawa vigil for missing and murdered aboriginal women in 2014. Obert Madondo. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Over the past three years, Canada has held 24 hearings and events, engaged with more than 2,380 citizens, and spent $92 million on a massive national inquiry into the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls—who make up less than 4 percent of Canada’s female population but a whopping 16 percent of females killed in the country annually. On June 3, the harrowing process came to a close, culminating in a conclusion as decisive as it is unsettling: The Canadian government and civil society is complicit in perpetrating what amounts to genocide.

Justin Trudeau giving a speech on missing and murdered Indigenous women in 2016. Delusion23 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

Justin Trudeau giving a speech on missing and murdered Indigenous women in 2016. Delusion23 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

At the closing ceremony in Gatineau, Quebec, Indigenous youth presented the final report, wrapped in a traditional cloth, to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. All told, the report is over 1,200 pages long and includes 230 recommendations. It describes a historical failure on the part of the police and the criminal justice system, systems that have ignored the concerns of Indigenous women and viewed them “through a lens of pervasive racist and sexist stereotypes”—behavior that has in turn fostered mistrust of the authorities among the Indigenous population. In beginning to mitigate these chronic injustices, the report suggests, authorities should expand Indigenous women’s shelters and improve policing in Indigenous communities; increase the number of Indigenous people on police forces; and empower more Indigenous women to serve on civilian boards that oversee the police.

In addition, it calls for a shift in the criminal code to classify some killings of Indigenous women by spouses with a history of violent abuse as first-degree murder, regardless of premeditation. Addressing the less tangible issue of cultural discrimination, the report also requested that the federal and provincial governments afford Indigenous languages the same status as Canada’s official tongues of English and French.

Regardless of future success in creating a safer and more equitable situation for Indigenous women, helping Canadians understand the historical narrative of violence will remain crucial. As such, the report addresses teachers and post-secondary institutions, asking them to educate the public about missing and murdered Indigenous women and the root causes of their plight, and to bring attention to the state laws, policies, and colonial practices that catalyzed the genocidal conditions. In an interview for Quartz, Carol Couchie, co-chair of the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives, spoke to the lasting effects of structural discrimination: “Family structure has broken up, tribal structure has broken up, leadership has been weakened, the self-esteem has been reduced to on the ground, and these things have all affected our ability to care for young people, to care for women.” Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the inquiry and a retired Indigenous judge, expressed a similar sentiment in her succinct statement to the New York Times: “An absolute paradigm shift is required to dismantle colonialism in Canadian society.”

Woman performing at 2017 National Aboriginal Day in Regina. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Woman performing at 2017 National Aboriginal Day in Regina. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Trudeau, for his part, guaranteed a thorough review of the report, and committed to creating a National Action Plan “with Indigenous partners to determine next steps.” Yet even with promises of legislative change, some Indigenous Canadians point to harmful attitudes that may undermine the reality of reform on the ground. For instance, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, most of the violent crimes against Indigenous women are perpetrated by people within their own communities—a statistic that, according to Indigenous author Niigaan Sinclair, “has become the linchpin for arguments that murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls are not a Canadian problem, but an Indigenous one.” In a piece for the Winnipeg Free Press, Sinclair notes that former minister of Aboriginal affairs Bernard Valcourt used this argument to refute the prospect of the inquiry in the first place, and addresses the systemic factors that invalidate Valcourt’s position: “Indigenous women and girls do not join the ranks of the murdered and missing because of Indigenous men, but because of the contexts they are in. Most of these are dangerous situations imposed from circumstances brought on by poverty, abusive cycles and systems, and oppression.”

The REDress Project, on display in Winnipeg, serves as a reminder of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The REDress Project, on display in Winnipeg, serves as a reminder of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Ted McGrath. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Still, the very existence of the report and the promises of action it has engendered are cause for optimism, however cautious it might be. In a piece for The Conversation, Margaret Moss describes her disappointment as an American Indian woman who recently moved to Canada and has observed the same racism in the United States’ northern neighbor as she did back home. Yet her viewpoint as an American also lends her perspective and a sense of hope. “[C]ompared to the lack of moral outrage in the U.S. on this issue, I am [made] hopeful by the very fact that in Canada, after much activism, such a committee was formed and a report of the findings were released with a bold statement,” Moss writes. “Maybe this will shake people out of complacency.”

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.

Grappling with Sexism: Female Wrestlers in Mongolia

There’s an old legend in Mongolia: A woman wrestler once dressed up as a man and entered an all-male wrestling competition, defeating all challengers. She then pulled up her jacket and revealed her breasts, shocking everyone in attendance. From them on, all wrestlers were required to compete bare-chested, a failsafe to ensure that Mongolia’s prized “manly” tradition remained that way. While the legend may or may not be true, the practice of bare-chested wrestling in Mongolia is real, as is the practice of banning women from the sport. Despite achieving international fame in grappling, female Mongolian wrestlers are still unable to compete in their own native games.

Mongolian Wrestling. A. Omer Karamollaoglu. CC BY 2.0.

Mongolian Wrestling. A. Omer Karamollaoglu. CC BY 2.0.

The Nadaam festival is held every year in July and is the single most anticipated sporting event in the country. Short for “Eriin Gurvan Naadam” (the three games of men), it is a celebration of the three traditional sports of Mongolia: wrestling, archery, and horseback riding. Nadaam dates back to the 13th century when Genghis Khan would throw celebrations for soldiers after successful military campaigns. After Kahn’s death, warlords continued the tradition, encouraging combat sports in order to prepare men for military service. Nadaam endured and developed throughout the centuries, and today, it is the Mongolian equivalent of the Super Bowl or World Cup. The games are typically held in July. Hundreds of small, county level events lead up to the main competition, which is held in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. Wrestling is often featured as the centerpiece of the competition, and in Mongolian, is referred to as “Bokh,” which means “durability.”

Mongolia experienced a socialist revolution in 1921 that brought with it an emphasis on male-female equality and gradually these values led to women being allowed to compete in Nadaam, but only in archery and horse racing. To fill the void, female grapplers turned their attention to other grappling sports. Soronzonboldyn Battsetseg won a bronze medal for judo in the 2012 Olympics in London, while Sumiya Dorjsuren won a silver medal in judo in the 2016 Olympics and then went on to win gold in the World Judo Championships in 2017. Both women are national heroes in Mongolia, and yet, Nadaam remains closed to them.

Female archers preparing for Nadaam. Taylor Weidman. CC BY SA-3.0.

Female archers preparing for Nadaam. Taylor Weidman. CC BY SA-3.0.

The fact that a sport has to be guarded against an entire group people suggests a fear that these people could be competent in the sport. Like the wrestler in the old legend, women grapplers like Soronzonboldyn and Sumiya are barred from competing in Bokh, not because they aren't capable, but because they are. Judo is a widely recognized grappling sport, practiced by professional athletes, law enforcement officials, and ordinary citizens in literally every country on the planet. It would not be a stretch to assume that the grit and skill required to master Judo would translate well to Mongolian Bokh, and that the current barring of women from Bokh in Mongolia seems to be more about maintaining a status quo than anything else. When female grapplers will have a chance to challenge this standard is anyone’s guess.

JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself. 

Screen Shot 2018-11-26 at 4.06.36 PM.png

Female Saudi Arabian Activist on Death Row for Peaceful Protest

On August 21, 2018, Saudi Arabian public prosecutors announced that they were considering the death penalty for five Saudi Shia activists. One of the five is Israa al-Ghomgham, a female activist who could become the first woman sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia. Ghomgham, along with four other Saudi Shia activists including her husband, engaged in peaceful demonstrations for Shia rights beginning in 2011 during the rise of the Arab Spring, which led to their 2015 arrests.

Saudi Arabian Flag. Iqbal Osman. Wikimedia Commons

Saudi Arabian Flag. Iqbal Osman. Wikimedia Commons

“Any execution is appalling, but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behavior, is monstrous,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, who directs the Middle East sector of Human Rights Watch. “Every day, the Saudi monarchy’s unrestrained despotism makes it harder for its public relations teams to spin the fairy tale of ‘reform’ to allies and international business.”

Responding to peaceful protests with the death penalty is compromising both to proponents of human decency and order, and these actions are symptomatic of a larger illness. If Saudi Arabia is to continue to suppress and murder its own citizens, its actions could lead to its internal combustion. To preserve its tenuous position of prosperity, the Saudi Arabian government must honor the voices of its insurgents—or at least allow them to live.

Saudi Arabia, a desert country in the Middle East said to be the birthplace of Islam, holds a complex position at the pinnacle of capital and culture. It has the world’s third highest national total estimated value of natural resources. It is home to the world’s largest oil company, and it has been the proponent of various reform agendas, significant amount of money invested in solar energy. It is also ruled by the ultraconservative Wahhabi religious movement, which is part of Sunni Islam.

It has shown support for counterterrorism and revolutionary liberal and Arab Spring ideals and has supported rebel forces in Syria and Yemen, but internally it has been a breeding ground for violent forms of radical Islam, placing it at a crux between the most progressive and oppressive sides of the ideological spectrum. The nation’s 32-year-old king, Mohammed bin Salman, has been pushing to modernize his country, opening movie theatres and allowing women to drive for the first time—but his actions towards protestors despite his presentation of liberalism rings eerily close to the actions of Bashar al Assad, Syrian president who also began his reign by encouraging Westernization in Syria before cracking down on protestors and unleashing a bloody civil war. Under Salman, critics of the Saudi Arabian regime have been arrested in scores, and 58 people are currently on death row. Many of these prisoners are women, often arrested for protesting the country’s guardianship system, which places Saudi Arabian men in almost complete control of their daughters’ or wives’ lives.

Israa al-Ghomgham and her husband were arrested on December 5, 2015, and are on trial at the Specialized Criminal Court, which Saudi Arabia installed in 2008 and which has drawn expense criticism from human rights activists, sentencing eight protestors to death in 2014 and 14 in 2016. Currently human rights campaigners are working to secure her freedom and life.

EDEN ARIELLE GORDON is a writer, musician, and avid traveler. She attends Barnard College in New York.

Screen Shot 2018-09-21 at 7.10.44 PM.png

Nigeria’s First Female Car Mechanic Is Changing the World

Sandra Aguebor is the first female mechanic in Nigeria and the founder of the Lady Mechanic Initiative, an organization that teaches women from diverse backgrounds how to fix cars and become financially independent. In Aguebor's garage, you’ll find tools to fix cars and so much more.