Why India’s acclaim for protecting reproductive rights rings hollow #Vaw #Womenrights


KAMRORA, INDIA — The Globe and Mail

Noni Raja was married in 2004 at the age of 20, then gave birth to a son a year later. After having two more children – a girl and a boy – Ms. Raja did something unexpected. She caught a bus into Mahoba, the nearest town, and presented herself at the hospital for a tubal ligation. She spent a couple of hours recovering, took the bus home and informed her startled in-laws that she had had “the operation.” (Simon de Trey-White For The Globe and Mail)

Noni Raja did just what she was supposed to do. She married when she was 20, in 2004, and gave birth to a son a year later. In 2006, she had a daughter. And a year after that brought the second son she needed to fulfill her obligations in the eyes of her in-laws, farmers with a tiny plot in this hardscrabble hamlet in the Indian heartland.

Then Noni Raja did something rather less expected. She got up one day, caught a bus into Mahoba, the nearest town, and presented herself at the hospital for a tubal ligation.

She spent a couple of hours recovering, took the bus home and informed her startled in-laws that she had had “the operation.”

Years later, her mother-in-law is still affronted. “I didn’t like it,” Kiran Devi says as the two women sit in the spring sun on their front stoop. “She went against our wishes.”

At the time, Ms. Raja wanted the best for the children she already had, which meant ensuring there would be no more.

Being surgically sterilized seems an extreme form of contraception for such a young woman, but India’s approach to family planning left her with no other choice.

Even worse, her defiance would come back to haunt her.

India began grappling with the magnitude of its population even before it became independent in 1947; it was labelled a crisis in the 1970s when the government of Indira Gandhi carried out mandatory sterilizations, en masse.

But since those dark days, the country has emerged as a leader in the field, adopting the language of “reproductive health and rights.”

That means, in the words of the World Health Organization, that India is committed to ensuring its people have “the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so” – and that their decision be “free of discrimination, coercion and violence.”

This official position – which contrasts starkly with China’s strict one-child policy – has won India international plaudits; last year, it was invited to co-chair a prestigious international summit on family planning held in London, and feted for its progressive approach.

Yet spend some time talking to women in Kamrora – and dozens of villages like it in the “Hindi belt,” the poor states that span India’s middle bulge and are home to about 450 million people – and you learn something that never came up at the meeting in Britain: The policy this country has on paper is markedly different than what happens in real life.

The reality is harsh and repressive and targets the most marginalized, often the lowest-caste, women. It is also far from effective in areas with the highest birth rates, paradoxically driving the rate up and making poverty worse in the process.

Beijing has been widely criticized for limiting families to only one child, but India has adopted many aspects of its policy. With 1.2 billion people and on course to overtake China as the planet’s most populous country in about a decade, India is taking steps many consider nearly as harsh – but cloaking them in the far more benign-sounding “two-child norm.”

And despite all the government rhetoric about how its citizens have choices and condoms are brought right to village doorsteps, the truth is that, in the northern half of the country, the Indian health service consistently delivers only one form of contraception in the rural areas, where 70 per cent of the population lives.

That is tubal ligation, often performed at “camps,” where dozens of women are sterilized in a day; more than half of them are 25 or younger, and they are often illiterate and unclear about what the surgery means.

Unlike many women, Noni Raja knew exactly what she was doing when she got on the bus to the city: She has been trained in family planning, which she is charge of delivering in Kamrora, and is responsible for distributing a government-funded supply of condoms and oral contraceptives. It is the only access to birth control people here have, as most cannot afford a trip to the city. Yet, in a situation typical of India’s badly managed social schemes, it has been two years since Ms. Raja last received anything to dole out. Today, her kit contains one desiccated packet of prophylactics and an expired pregnancy test.

So, when a village woman confides that her in-laws have given her permission to stop having babies, Ms. Raja knows that the only option is sterilization. To make sure that she promotes it, the government pays her $3 for each woman she brings in – and, if she does not deliver as many as the government expects, she stands to lose the only wage-paying job in Kamrora, other than breaking stones in the quarry.

Ms. Raja is the best-educated woman in the village – she finished 10th grade before her health-worker training – but she says with a sigh that it’s sometimes hard to explain the surgery to her neighbours. Research from the Centre for Health and Social Justice in Delhi shows that state governments aggressively target women from the poorest aboriginal and Dalit (once known as “untouchable”) communities.

Those who undergo the operation may not understand what is being done, but they know that there can be severe consequences if they do not comply with the two-child norm.

“We’re on the track to be just like China,” says Leena Uppal, an earnest activist who co-ordinates the National Coalition Against Two-Child Norm and Coercive Population Policies. “It’s entirely coercive – for the women, for the health worker, who will lose her job if she doesn’t bring in enough people. The whole focus is on closing off wombs, of making sure these women don’t have any more babies.”

China’s one-child campaign, adopted in 1979, forced women to have abortions if they conceived again without state approval, or fined couples heavily, especially in urban areas. India’s policy involves no such direct punishments, but its impact can be harsh in a place such as Kamrora.

Parents with more than two children are denied access to everything from a subsidy for babies delivered in hospital and school bursaries to the right to run for political office. A law now being considered would deny them access to subsidized food – a tactic The Times of India, the country’s largest newspaper, recently reported, favourably, on its front page.

The problem, says Abhijit Das, an obstetrician who runs the Centre for Health and Social Justice, is that, while the government’s policy has changed since Mrs. Gandhi’s era, when the rural poor were seen as strangling the country’s chances of progress, its mindset has not. There is a genuine commitment to ending poverty and a sincere desire to see families better able to care for their children. Yet officials based in air-conditioned offices in the capital still believe that ignorant rural poor people are dragging the country down by mindlessly having babies, and simply do not know what is best.

“The construction of the population problem is a middle-class creation,” Dr. Das says, “and it has caste and class distinctions: The ‘wrong’ people are the ones who have eight kids.”

In this, India is not unlike the West, where there is public debate about the higher birth rate of “welfare moms,” aboriginal people and immigrants. The idea is entrenched, and it results in policy entirely disconnected from the reality of life in a place such as Kamrora, where families have many good reasons for having more than two children.

First, mortality rates remain high – children, as Ms. Raja will tell you starkly, die here. Almost one in 10 do not live to see their fifth birthday. Subsistence agriculture remains the only employment option, so the young are needed to work in the fields and later, in the absence of any real social-welfare net, to care for their parents in old age.

And couples have children because there is no way not to have them: Those unwilling to undergo sterilization – newlyweds, for example – have access to no other form of birth control.

The two-child norm flies in the face of the idea of “reproductive rights,” Ms. Uppal notes. “What is a more basic right than deciding how many children to have – and when to have them?”

It also punishes women when the decision is not really theirs to make. Ms. Raja’s family expected her to have a third child, but when she did, she became ineligible for a central government allowance to provide extra food while pregnant and breastfeeding (a policy supposedly aimed at poor, Dalit women like her). As well, she lost the right to run for the local council, and her daughter was disqualified from a bursary program designed to boost girls’ education.

The policy is enforced by local-level officials, often haphazardly. As part of her health-worker job, Ms. Raja has succeeded in obtaining the bursary for having a baby in a maternity centre for a number of women with more than two children, even though it is theoretically denied. At the same time, she says, other women in Kamrora have been denied a state bonus for mothers who have daughters – a measure designed to discourage sex-selective abortion, an especially grim side effect of the two-child policy. The desire for sons, to carry on a family name and inherit land and assets, is so strong that families may abort girls to get the two boys they want and stay within the limit.

India already has one of the world’s more sharply skewed sex ratios. As in China, millions of women are “missing” from the normal population balance. And yet the mandarins in charge of its population policy reject any comparison with China.

“There is no grounds to call [Indian policy] repressive,” says S.K. Sikdar, who heads the family-planning division at the national Ministry of Health in Delhi. “We learned our lesson [in the 1970s]. … This isn’t a population issue any more; it’s a mother-and-child health intervention.”

Energetic and driven, Dr. Sikdar insists that “we don’t have a two-child norm.” He says that the only message to women from government is about the benefit of having children later and at least two years apart.

“Our only intervention is to give people free access to [child] spacing. … I know our women are quite happy with what they have,” he says, adding that the government has had great success in delivering condoms and oral contraceptives directly to rural doorsteps – that kit of Ms. Raja should be replenished every month.

Many of the more punitive policies in place today have been set by state governments, but the two-child norm also applies to a number of benefits, such as nutritional support for pregnant women, that come from the national government. Dr. Sikdar acknowledges this, but he says that “low-performing states” (the poorest ones with highest fertility) are exempt.

That news has not reached Kamrora – or dozens of other areas where poor women, often Dalit, are denied access to school meals, clean-water schemes, the female-child bonus and the maternity-home payment because they have more than two children. All state family-planning programs are run on money from the central government.

A.R. Nanda, who was once in charge of population policy for India and established its family planning department, says that not only is there a two-child policy, it was explicitly borrowed from China: “The idea of withholding benefits comes from

China … ‘If China can do it.’”

After taking its hard line in 1979, China saw its population growth fall sharply, and many in the Indian government were impressed. But they failed to grasp the basics of population science, Mr. Nanda says: “The highest drop in Chinese population came before the one-child policy; it came from equitable access to education, health care, including family planning, and a rise in income” following the communist revolution. From 1952 to 1979, China’s fertility rate was more than cut in half, falling to 2.75 children per woman from 6.5.

“If you want to emulate, emulate the positive,” Mr. Nanda says. “We ought to focus on equity.”

In the 1990s, he oversaw the adoption of a rights-based approach – only to see it quickly and quietly usurped by politicians who still believed that the key was to move fast and stop the “backward classes” from breeding.

India’s population is rising, but because of what demographers call “momentum growth.” Sixty per cent of Indians are of reproducing age. Even if tomorrow India attained “replacement level” fertility – if people had only enough children to replace themselves when they died – the country’s overall population would keep growing because the number of people being born will exceed those dying for several decades.

Despite alarms raised regularly in the media, fertility rates are, in fact, falling, and have been for two decades. In 21 Indian states and territories – including all of the more prosperous south – average fertility is at or below replacement level of 2.1 children per couple. The problem would take care of itself, says Dr. Das of the Centre for Health and Social Justice, if people in the high-fertility areas had access to jobs, education and, in the short term, condoms, birth-control pills and intrauterine devices.

Sterilization actually pushes population growth, he notes. “The largest amount of reproduction now is young women having their first and second children; sterilization does nothing to change this.

“The message [from government] is, ‘Have your children quickly and terminate your reproduction.’ When you give that message, you speed up the rate of delivery and you speed up momentum.” You wind up with even more reproducing adults.

When India’s policy was overhauled after Mrs. Gandhi, eliminating government-set targets for contraception and sterilization was seen as key to being less repressive.

But bureaucrats and health officials did little more than change their terminology.

“Targets and camps are back with a vengeance,” according to Mr. Nanda, saying he has seen officials who meet their targets handsomely rewarded by, for example, having a government car at their disposal.

In 2011, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the chief minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh, announced a drive to sterilize 750,000 people a year. Those who underwent the surgery or brought in new recruits were entered to win prizes, including washing machines, DVD players, gun licences and a Nano, the ultra-low-cost Indian car.

Often sterilizations are done at breathtaking speed, with a doctor performing as many as 35 a day; rates of failure and complications are much higher than the international norm.

Dr. Sikdar, as chief of national policy, says the camps are supposed to take place in medical facilities, and organizers of those that don’t face criminal prosecution. But last year in Kaparfora in the state of Bihar, a doctor sterilized 53 women lying on benches in a school without electricity, and charges have yet to be laid.

Research by Dr. Das’s centre consistently finds that it is women from the poorest communities, usually aboriginal people and those at the bottom of the caste system, who are targeted when a region needs to reach its quota. They may have no idea that the procedure is permanent, he says.

Navin Kumar, the health information officer who supervises Kamrora, says the state government gave him a target (for the 875,000 residents of Mahoba district) last year of 4,100 women and 400 men.

And yet, Dr. Sikdar insists: “We do not give targets – we have … ‘estimated levels of achievement’ … It’s a management tool. A doctor has to make a plan based on numbers.”

If local officials, such as Mr. Kumar, are being told otherwise, and health workers, such as Ms. Raja, are pushed to meet quotas, he says, it’s a local aberration: A district politician may be keen to boost his reputation and “if, in his over-enthusiasm, he does something …”

Anjali Sen, director for South Asia with the International Planned Parenthood Federation, says India’s policy was drafted with the best of intentions, but she does not buy Dr. Sikdar’s claim that there are no targets. State family-planning budgets come from Delhi, she explains, and “cash incentives are tacit acceptance [of targets] from the central government.”

Ms. Uppal, the activist, says national officials could easily make sure the system is target-free: “They’re the cops.”

Dr. Sikdar says India is launching a new incentive program under which 860,000 health workers such as Ms. Raja will be paid $10 for every woman persuaded to delay her first child for two years after marriage, and another $10 if she waits two years before having a second.

Left unexplained is just how the women are supposed to avoid getting pregnant.

Certainly no one is relying on husbands to sort it out. During the Indira Gandhi era, most sterilizations were performed on men – there was no way to do a tubal ligation without invasive surgery, and female doctors, whom women patients prefer, were rare.

Vasectomies are still less complicated, but 95 per cent of the operations are now on women. Mr. Kumar says Mahoba district achieved 80 per cent of its target for women last year – but sterilized none of the 400 men.

There is a widespread belief, rarely challenged by doctors, that sterilization weakens a man and “robs him of his powers,” as women in Kamrora say.

All of the government outreach about family planning – all the home visits and chat circles Ms. Raja organizes – focus on women. But ask the women if they actually make the decisions about children and birth control, and they burst into laughter.

Even Dr. Sikdar acknowledges the problem – he oversees a $20-million program that distributes free condoms to women who have “no control over fertility.”

Or as Ms. Uppal puts it: “These completely disempowered women take condoms home to their husbands as if somehow they are going to be able to convince them to use them.”

Dr. Das says the service delivery will not change as long as policy springs from a belief that the “wrong” people are having children.

“Our development priority is not to reduce family size, it’s to raise income. We’re not ashamed of the inequalities, of low education attainment, of poverty – why are we ashamed of population growth?”

Noni Raja has thought a lot about choices, and who gets to make them. Two years after her bold decision to have a tubal ligation, she received a brutal reminder of her place in the family hierarchy.

In 2008, her younger son died at the age of 1 from pneumonia that the local health centre failed to treat. She lost her bold, chattering boy – and something else. Her in-laws were unwilling to accept a daughter-in-law they felt had failed in her most important responsibility.

So they scraped together a small fortune, and took Ms. Raja to Jhansi, a city about eight hours away by bus, where they paid a surgeon to reverse her tubal ligation – a rare and complicated surgery.

The operation went badly. “I nearly bled to death,” Ms. Raja recalls flatly. But she came home and, two years later, produced that mandatory second son. Her place in the family was once more secure.

Today, that last baby is everyone’s mop-haired pet; mother and grandmother compete over whose lap he will lounge in.

Ms. Devi is defensive – but unrepentant about the extreme lengths they went to in the quest for another boy. “All the neighbours said it was not done, to have only one son,” she explains. “We were under pressure.”


Bangladesh: Testimony of 24 year old Survivor Morium Begum, Her Right Arm was Amputated #Vaw

MAY 6, 2013  | globallabourrights.org

Death Toll Reaches 665 at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh

The death toll at the Rana Plaza building has reached 665 as of Monday morning U.S. Eastern Time.  To date, less than 50 percent of the rubble from the collapsed building has been removed—meaning that many more bodies are likely to be recovered.

The stench of death is everywhere.  Many bodies are decomposed beyond recognition and workers are being identified through their ID cards and clothing.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) is now admitting they did not have a comprehensive list of the workers in the five factories housed in the Rana Plaza building.  Now, no one knows how many workers were in the building when it collapsed.


Testimony of Ms. Morium Begum

“It is because of the ugly greed of the owners who forced us to work on April 24, forcing us into death at Rana Plaza. We demand justice as so many lives have been lost and so many others seriously injured and maimed. I wish it never happens again!

“How will I be able to bring up my kids? How will I buy food for them? How will they go to school?”

“I worked as a sewing operator for three years at the New Wave Style factoryon the 7th floor of the Rana Plaza building. The building had developed cracks and we were scared that it might break apart. But we were forced to enter the factory as they [management] threatened to withhold our wages [for the full month] if we didn’t work that day. Just after an hour, the factory caved in with a loud bang. It collapsed as heavy generators shook the floor. I was sitting on a stool sewing the garments. In a few seconds everything broke apart and my sewing machine fell on my right arm. Immediately a big slab from a concrete pillar fell on the machine and my arm. My right arm was crushed and trapped between the sewing machine and the concrete pillar. I tried to pull my arm out but I couldn’t. It was dark inside. Many of my co-workers were also trapped and screaming out, calling for Allah to save our lives. I had no idea where I was after the collapse.


“The rescue team pulled me out of the ruins at 8:30 a.m. on April 25, after spending 24 hours in a living grave. The medical team took me to the Combined Military Hospital at SavarThe doctor amputated my right arm at 8:30 p.m. on April 25. I was in a great deal of pain. I was shifted to the orthopedic hospital on that same day due to complications. I have been at the hospital since then. I still have pain where the concrete pillar hit me.

“It is clear that I will not be able to lead a normal life. How will I be able to bring up my kids? How will I buy food for them? How will they go to school? My daughter is in the third grade and my son in nursery school. They will have to stop their education as I won’t be able to afford to send them to school.

“Who is to blame for this cursed life? My hands were always busy sewing garments but now it all comes to an end. Everything has stopped. I never imagined such a tragedy. My life is worthless now. It is because of the ugly greed of the owners who forced us to work on April 24, forcing us into death at Rana Plaza. We demand justice as so many lives have been lost and so many others seriously injured and maimed. I wish it never happens again!”

source- http://www.globallabourrights.org/


Walmart Black Friday Strike Being Organized Online For Stores Across U.S


Walmart Black Friday Strike Being Organized Online For Stores Across U.S. (

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving regarded as one of the biggest shopping days of the year, may be dramatically different this year.

Organizers are planning a nationwide strike against Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, and are banking on a new strategy: online organizing.

Labor organizers are working with social action nonprofit Engage Network as well as corporate watchdog nonprofit Corporate Action Network to pull off what they are calling a “viral” — meaning national and spreading online — strike.

Walmart workers interested in joining the day of action are directed to this website, either to find a store near them with an organized strike or to “adopt an event” at a store near them.

Brian Young, cofounder of the Corporate Action Network, said on a conference call coordinated by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union Thursday, that organizers cannot cover the roughly 4,000 Walmarts across the country, but enabling self-appointed leaders online has widened and decentralized the campaign.

Supporters can also sponsor a striking worker, who may be losing wages in order to strike, by donating grocery gift cards. The campaign has raised more than $13,500 worth of donations toward grocery gift cards since Oct. 15 — a figure that doesn’t include significant funds raised through mailed-in checks, Jamie Way, of the UFCW, told HuffPost.

The campaign is also mobilizing strikers and supporters through a Facebook app, multiple Facebook pages, a Tumblr and Twitter with the hashtag #walmartstrikers.

“This online mobilization, in addition to traditional on-the-ground organizing, has allowed the campaign to reach into the rural corners of the country that might have otherwise been overlooked,” Marianne Manilov, cofounder of the Engage Network, said on the conference call.

She pointed to a group of renegade workers in Oklahoma who mobilized in October. “A completely unorganized set of workers in Oklahoma spontaneously went out on strike and held their own type of action without any organizer or … connection with the broader organization,” she said. “This is what organizing looks like in the age of Occupy.”

The outreach leading up to Black Friday follows a series of unprecedented actions taken by Walmart workers against their employer and working conditions. In October, for the first time in the company’s 50-year history, more than 70 workers at multiple Los Angeles-area Walmart stores walked off the job, even though their jobs are not protected by an official union. The strike had a ripple effect, causing strikes in 12 other cities, in large part through online organizing.

The success of these strikes, as well as one over the summer touted as the largest ever protest against the company, and a six-day pilgrimmage of warehouse workers in September, would not have been possible without Facebook, Twitter and other web sites, Young said.

“Making Change at Walmart,” which organized the demonstrations and is a campaign affiliated with the UFCW union, has over 25,000 supporters on Facebook.

Although it does not officially represent Walmart workers, OUR Walmart, organized by the Making Change campaign, acts like a union to fight for the rights of Walmart workers. OUR Walmart, which was founded last year with 100 members, now has over 14,000 supporters on Facebook.

Corey Parker, a Walmart worker from Mississippi, said on the conference call that he became active with OUR Walmart after finding out about it through a HuffPost article on Facebook. Now, he has mobilized workers at his store to strike on Black Friday because, he said, he realized that “not being able to make a living was not just an issue at my store.”

Adding fuel to movement, Walmart announced Thursday that it will kick off its Black Friday sale at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, its earliest start ever.

“Lots and lots of Walmart workers are going to be forced to not have Thanksgiving because they’re going to be preparing all day for the busiest shopping day of the year,” Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart, said on the conference call. “This essentially cancels Thanksgiving for hundreds of thousands of workers.”

“It’s not like Walmart is financially hurting. It’s not like they’re not making unbelievable sums of money. The price of this is really decimating an important family day in our country.”

But Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo said of the sale, “Last year, our highest customer traffic was during the 10 p.m. hour and, according to the National Retail Federation, Thanksgiving night shopping has surged over the past three years.”

“Most of our stores are open 24 hours and, historically, much of our Black Friday preparations have been done on Thanksgiving, which is not unusual in the retail industry,” he said, adding that the strikes planned for Black Friday, will not “have any impact on our business.”

Regarding the action over the last few months, Restivo said, “While the opinions expressed by this group don’t represent the views of the vast majority of more than 1.3 million Walmart associates in the U.S., when our associates bring forward concerns, we listen.”

In September, dozens of Walmart-contracted warehouse workers in Southern California’s Inland Empire walked off the job and went on a six-day, 50-mile pilgrimage to protest working conditions and retaliation for speaking up.

More than a month later, the warehouse company NFI responded to some of the strikers’ working condition requests. “Just in the last week, we’ve seen the warehouse operators scrambling to replace broken and unsafe equipment, they’ve rented fans to increase ventilation, and they’ve added more water coolers,” Elizabeth Brennan, communications director for Warehouse Workers United, said on the conference call.

However, the strikers who returned to work have continued to face retaliation, many times getting their hours cut from 35 down to eight, she said. Some of these warehouse workers will join striking Walmart workers on Black Friday, Brennan said.

Excluding the retaliation, organizers hope to see that type of positive response after Black Friday. And with an online system open to anyone who wants to start a strike in his or her local Walmart, Manilov hopes both the demonstration and response will be broad-reaching.

“This is one of the first labor campaigns to really fully embrace the potential of online-to-offline labor organizing,” she said. “As this captures fire, its potential is limitless.”

Change.org Changing: Site To Allow Corporate, Anti-Abortion, GOP Campaigns #takecaction

Ryan Grim



Posted: 10/22/2012 5:58 pm EDT Updated: 10/23/2012 9:44 pm EDT


WASHINGTON — Change.org, the online social movement company founded on progressive values, has decided to change its advertising policy to allow for corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns, anti-abortion or anti-union ads and other controversial sponsorships, according to internal company documents.

Change.org allows users to launch and sign petitions, and the company has had somehigh-profile successes. Change.org currently operates under a values-based client policy, only accepting advertisements from progressive organizations that share its values. The new policy will be closer to “a Google-like open advertising policy in which determinations about which advertisements we’ll accept are based on the content of the ad, not the group doing the advertising,” according to a company FAQ sent to staff. The document was leaked to Jeff Bryant, an associate fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal organization, who subsequently provided it and others to The Huffington Post.

The company will implement the shift on Oct. 24, according to the memo.

“Change.org built its reputation on arming Davids to take on the Goliaths of the world,” Bryant told HuffPost. “Now it seems that the company thinks David and Goliath should be on the same team.”

Change.org did not plan to reach out to its base of progressive users about the change. “[W]e have no plans to proactively tell users about the new design or our new mission, vision, or advertising guidelines,” reads one document.

The press was to be kept similarly in the dark. “We are not planning proactive press outreach on the rebrand but are queuing up positive press profiles to launch around Oct. 22,” reads the FAQ in the document, urging staff to keep things confidential and referring to the initial launch date, which has since been postponed.

The current Change.org policy limits sponsored campaigns to progressive organizations. “We accept sponsored campaigns from organizations fighting for the public good and the common values we hold dear — fairness, equality, and justice,” reads the site’s soon-to-be replaced policy. “We do not accept sponsored campaigns from organizations that consistently violate these values, support discriminatory policies, or seek private corporate benefit that undermines the common good.”

After the shift, Change.org’s new policy will specifically allow campaigns that its liberally minded site users might find objectionable. “What about anti-abortion, pro-gun and union-busting advertising?” reads the FAQ in the leaked document.

“We are open to organizations that represent all points of view, including those with which we personally (and strongly) disagree,” reads the answer.

Benjamin Joffe-Walt, director of communications for Change.org, acknowledged that the changes as outlined in the internal documents will be implemented. Joffe-Walt said the company never intended to pitch itself as strictly progressive.

“It’s not what we ever claimed to be,” he said.

Joffe-Walt said a new, general guide for the new company policy would be: “If Google will allow it, we would allow it.”

Change.org leadership met in San Francisco this summer to hash out its new advertising policy following a public uproar in July over the site’s partnership with Michelle Rhee, whose organization works in opposition to labor unions. “[W]e looked long and hard at our client policy in the context of our vision. This was the most difficult part of the weekend, but after many hours of discussion and edge cases we ultimately agreed that the current closed approach is simply not feasible,” Change.org’s founder and CEO Ben Rattray wrote in an email to staff, which was also leaked to HuffPost by Bryant.

“[W]e as an organization have transitioned from an American cause-based organizing network with a largely progressive agenda into a global platform open to a wider diversity of participants and perspectives,” he wrote. “Yet the honest reality is that we haven’t fully made this transition. At least in the US, we still often see things through a traditional partisan progressive lens, and over the past couple months it’s become clear that we have a choice: we can continue to try to have it both ways and risk getting pigeonholed into being a partisan organization with a particular agenda and limited audience, or we can break out of this mold and aspire to something much bigger –- to true empowerment everywhere.”

Labor and progressive organizations, which make up a sizable base of Change.org’s client list, threatened to pull out over the Rhee situation. After reports that Change.org was dropping Rhee and another controversial anti-union group as clients, the site continues to run her petitions.

It remains to be seen how current site users and clients will react to a new ad policy that opens the platform to opponents. Three of Change.org’s most prominent clients are the Sierra Club, Amnesty International and Credo Mobile, which runs the second-biggest progressive online activist group, after MoveOn.org.

According to the internal memo, the new policy will still allow the company to reject an ad if accepting it would threaten Change.org’s “brand.” Such rejections, according to the FAQ, will only be made by Rattray, who has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

Joffe-Walt said the “vast majority of Change.org” users were not strictly liberal or progressive. “We’re in 196 countries,” he said, adding that it sounds like those who might criticize the policy shift “don’t want us to be on an open platform.”

Change.org’s advertising policy shift demonstrates the potential perils of for-profit companies founded on progressive values, and shows the power of money even outside the sphere of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Change.org’s strategic break with the progressive movement comes just days after the board of another for-profit progressive company, Salsa Labs, ousted its CEO. Salsa is a prominent campaign organizing platform that took $5 million in venture capital funding last year — a move the two cofounders say they “deeply regret.” Fitzgibbon Media, which only works with progressive organizations, has decided to drop the company as a client because it no longer considers Salsa in that category, according to founder Trevor Fitzgibbon.

“We remain committed to serving only progressive clients, reaffirmed that publicly on Friday, and have given no indication otherwise. Salsa’s change in CEO was solely a management change and is not indicative of any shift in our corporate vision or mission,” said Dave Leichtman, a Salsa vice president. Salsa’s main rival, Blue State Digital, sold itself to the corporate firm WPP in 2010.

Rattray has also recently been meeting with a number of well-known venture capital firms, according to his internal calendar, which was shared with Bryant. The venture giants include Google Ventures, Bridges Ventures and Acumen Fund, among others. Joffe-Walt stressed that the meetings “have absolutely nothing” to do with the change in advertising policy. The company is continuing to speak with venture capitalists, Joffe-Walt said, but will only work with a “mission-aligned investor.”

While it had no plans to proactively let users or the media know of its plans for a new direction, Change.org did tell staff it would launch new, “awesome language” on its site on Monday to better describe the company, the memo said. In a separate email to employees, Rattray laid out the new language to describe the company’s mission: “To empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see.”

In its internal memo to employees, Change.org justified its decision to change its advertising policy by referencing the dispute over Rhee. The situation was excessively time-consuming, the memo states, and the research efforts involved in such disputes “simply don’t scale” as the firm continues to grow globally.

“[W]e believe open advertising guidelines will help us maximize our mission,” offers the memo. What’s good for the business is good for the world, it argues, and an open platform that empowers more people will lead to positive change. Furthermore, the memo says, the rejection of some advertisers for moral or political reasons is an implicit endorsement of other advertisers — something the company wants to avoid.

Change’s softening of its liberal stance leaves the space open for competitors like Care2.com, which is also for-profit, and MoveOn.org, which offers petition software called SignOn and is a nonprofit organization. Care2 has been around longer than Change.org, and has significantly more clients, but the company lags behind Change.org in terms of public relations. Asked if Care2 would accept clients whose values the company doesn’t share, Clinton O’Brien, a Care2.com vice president, said no.

“Care2 will never run a campaign for the NRA, or from advocacy groups that don’t support a woman’s right to control her own body,” O’Brien told HuffPost. “Just like we will never sell an ad campaign to Monsanto or some other for-profit whose behavior we think is widely recognized to be negative for society or the planet … We consider it our duty to accept or reject clients on a case-by-case basis.”

Steven Biel, the director of SignOn, echoed the sentiment.

“When you see MoveOn.org promote a petition, you never have to wonder if we’re doing it because someone paid us to,” Biel wrote in an email to HuffPost. “For years, progressives have built a huge advantage over the right wing on the Internet, and it would be awful to lose that in service of a short-term payday.”

Change.org leadership, in explaining the policy shift to its staff around the world, noted that some of the changes could not be implemented immediately because there would be no support base among current users for the advertising campaigns the company may pursue.

“It’s irresponsible for us to sell advertising to a group that we don’t have the audience to support, and it’s bad user service to show users ads they don’t want to see,” reads an internal FAQ sent to staffers.

Change.org scooped up many of the most talented and well-known progressive activists when it initially launched, making the company’s departure from the movement more jarring.

As it attempts to expand its customer base to include conservatives and Republicans, Change.org is in a precarious position. In order to successfully make the pivot, the company will need to hold on to its base of progressive clients and users long enough for it to build a bridge across the spectrum. That means burying sponsored ads that its base will find objectionable. “We’ll also be investing heavily in building strong feedback loops so that sponsored campaigns our users don’t like will be hidden or even taken down from the site,” reads the memo. “This is going to be essential to our success as we build a much larger and diverse base.”

Rattray, in an email to staff that hinted at possible departures as a result of the shift, struck a hopeful tone.

“For some of you, this vision won’t feel like a shift at all. For others, it might seem like a big reframing of who we are. But if this feels a little unsafe, know this: nothing big was ever achieved by taking the safe option. We’re attempting something nobody else has done before – to transcend traditional partisanship and build a global empowerment platform that reaches hundreds of millions of people. It’s not easy to do, and will require difficult choices that will challenge each of us. But in the long run, it’s how we will change the world,” he wrote.

Joffe-Walt said Change.org is “not beholden to one community.”

“We’ve created a new platform that has enabled things to happen that weren’t possible before. We’re helping to drive net positive change in the world — with the emphasis on net,” he said.

UPDATE: Oct. 23, 9:25 p.m. — Benjamin Joffe-Walt, Change.org’s managing director of global communications, said that the source of the leak is no longer with Change.org.

“A Huffington Post article about our new advertising guidelines revealed that a blogger had obtained access to internal Change.org documents. We’ve identified the person who leaked the documents and they are no longer with the company. We respect their privacy and we are not releasing their name,” he said in a statement, adding that “this was a case in which a Change.org staffer shared internal documents and the private schedule of our founder and CEO with a journalist. Content aside, there is simply no situation in any organization or company in which the result would have been different. The suspicion that such a move is an attempt to punish a ‘whistleblower’ couldn’t be further from the truth: the leaked documents and emails in question are available to all our employees and outline plans to be fully transparent about our business model and new advertising guidelines. While we wouldn’t normally communicate externally through a painfully long, 12-page document, it outlines a number of important concerns and if anyone is inclined to read it they are more than welcome to do so. There are no nefarious secrets to reveal and no whistle was blown.”



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October 2021
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