Tag Archives: Engaged Buddhism

Helping Marginalized Working Women in Peru

By Patricia Brick

A BGR project in Peru, with Peruvian partner, Asociación Grupo de Trabajo Redes, is dedicated to providing marginalized women with access to vocational educational training, information about their labor rights, and opportunities to find dignified work.

Across the globe, women who work as domestic laborers fall into an unregulated “gray market” where jobs may require them to work long hours, for inadequate wages, often under exploitative conditions. Many are also vulnerable to physical abuse or sexual harassment or violence by their employers. In Peru, women who live in the pueblos jóvenes (shantytowns) surrounding Lima are often excluded from the mainstream job market by racism, classism, and limited access to education. Many of these women work in gray-market domestic jobs like housecleaning, child care, and elder care.

BGR partner Asociación Grupo de Trabajo Redes (AGTR) works to change the lives of these women through its project, “Conditional Capabilities: Providing Marginalized Women Access to Vocational Educational Training, Labor Rights, and Dignified Work.” Working from AGTR’s community center, La Casa de Panchita, or from La Van de Panchita, a mobile training unit, specialists educate women about their labor rights, provide training in vocational and interpersonal skills, offer counseling and job-search assistance, and host a variety of workshops and educational opportunities. AGTR also is home to a public-education initiative to raise awareness of the rights of domestic workers and hiring practices among employers and the general public, as well as resources and advocacy for child laborers.

Last year, through a BGR grant, 2,197 women participated in an introductory educational session from AGTR including information on the Peruvian Law of Domestic Workers (Law 27986); 466 of these women joined additional in-depth training sessions on topics including job interview preparation, the legal rights of domestic workers, and adapting to the cultural expectations of their Lima employers—more than 70 percent of Lima’s domestic workers are internal migrants from the Andes and the Amazon region. Women who participated in AGTR training received instruction manuals, a cookbook containing recipes for healthy meals, and a stipend to cover their transportation to and from the community center.

At year’s end, 262 women had obtained new jobs with decent working conditions and fair wages; 156 of these were employed in full-time, permanent positions. An additional 138 women maintained or improved their working conditions through AGTR’s counseling and mediation services.

One of AGTR’s training participants, Verónica, spoke to the value of the community created by AGTR. “After taking part in AGTR’s and La Casa de Panchita’s workshops, I feel more comfortable with myself,” she said. “I have met other women working in domestic service in Lima, and that has given me more confidence. I felt understood there, because other domestic workers also went through the same difficulties I had to face. I have learned to value my work experience and the knowledge I have acquired in recent years, to organize myself better in my work, and to know how to adapt to the customs of my new employers.”

Karina immigrated to Lima from Venezuela because of economic need. “At La Casa de Panchita I felt included, like I belong, and I felt comfortable here,” she said. “In my situation, as a migrant still trying to rebuild my life in a new country, this was very important for me. This place and the people here are very warm, and one can feel it from the very moment they open the door.”

Through her participation in AGTR’s trainings, Victoria found a new confidence in herself. “Here I learned that I have rights; before, I knew nothing about rights,” she said. “Also, I have learned to value domestic work, not to feel less than others, that one should not be ashamed for being a domestic worker. I had never thought about how many years I have been working and how much I have learned from those years working in domestic service.”

AGTR estimates that each of the 2,197 women directly participating in trainings and other services shares what she has learned with five peers, raising the total estimated number of beneficiaries to more than 10,000.

Patricia Brick is a Zen student, chair of BGR’s Communications Committee, and a BGR staff writer. She lives in New Jersey.

On Global Hunger and Climate Change

By Randy Rosenthal

Over recent years funding for nutrition has increased and global poverty has been reduced, yet global hunger has still been on the rise. The number of hungry people has risen from 785 million in 2015 to 822 million in 2018. How is this possible? According to this year’s Global Hunger Index, it’s because we’re not efficiently addressing the newer causes of hunger–principally conflict and climate change.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) is an annual report put out by the international Committee on World Food Security. Using data from 2014 to 2018, it scores countries using four components: undernourishment, child wasting (low weight-for-height), child stunting (low height-for-age), and child mortality. This year it measured 117 countries, forty-three of which show levels of “serious” hunger. Four countries—Chad, Madagascar, Yemen, and Zambia—have “alarming” levels of hunger, and the Central African Republic suffers from a level that is “extremely alarming.” While the report shows that progress has been made since 2000, the number of undernourished people across the globe is increasing. This is especially the case in sub-Saharan African countries affected by conflict and drought, and in South Asia, which shows the highest levels of child stunting and child wasting.

This map shows the different degrees of severity in hunger around the world.

Differing from previous reports, this year’s GHI focused on climate change as an increasingly impactful factor in rising hunger. As temperatures rise, food production is likely to fall. This is because higher temperatures cause water scarcity, greater CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, and extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods, droughts, and wild fires. The report also states that weather anomalies and extreme events will result in rising food prices, further restricting people’s access to food.

The report noted that these changes are already happening. Yields of major crops such as maize and wheat are declining, mainly from epidemics of plant disease. Also, due to higher CO2 concentrations, crops are showing reduced amounts of protein, zinc, and iron. These deficiencies further contribute to malnutrition. It is a cruel irony that the current agricultural system produces between 21 and 37 percent of total man-made greenhouse gas emissions, trapping us in a deepening feedback loop—as we continue with current methods of agricultural production, we’ll further contribute to climate change, further resulting in declining yields and nutrition deficiency.

This is why this year’s GHI maintains that deep structural changes are needed. Global hunger is rising largely because of climate change. Therefore, the report argues, rather than simply donating money and providing food, we need to focus on shifting to sustainable energy and ecologically friendly agricultural methods.

In the report, Rupa Mukerji, of the independent Swiss development organization Helvetas, authored a special section on climate change and hunger. “More ambitious actions are required to reduce the risks of climate change (mitigation) and to cope with its impacts (adaptation) on food and nutrition security,” Mukerji urges, as “the small or incremental changes will not deliver the scale or pace of change needed to remain within the 2 degree Celsius warming threshold as defined by the Paris Agreement.”

Yet just recently, on November 5, the Trump administration formally announced to the UN that the U.S. is withdrawing from the global climate agreement. In the face of such blind, destructive policy, Mukerji boldly argues that the goals of Zero Hunger and the Paris Agreement “demand a profound and deliberate shift toward sustainability, facilitated by changes in individual and collective values and behaviors and a fairer balance of political, cultural, and institutional power in society.”

This shift will certainly be a great challenge, but the report’s final page includes a list of policy recommendations that map the way to get there. They begin with general recommendations; for instance, “Governments must facilitate public participation in climate decision making” and “All countries, particularly high-income countries … must implement more ambitious measures, such as decarbonizing their energy sector, building green infrastructure, and boosting carbon sequestration.”

Then they move toward a more concrete, immediate approach: “Donors and governments must increase investments in disaster prevention and disaster risk reduction, especially in vulnerable regions prone to extreme weather events. This includes investing in early warning and response systems, forecast-based financing mechanicals, and adapted infrastructure.” In other words, while we continue to work to prevent climate change, let’s also prepare for it.

In view of this year’s Global Hunger Index, it’s notable that many of BGR’s 43 current projects provide direct food aid to many of the countries the report lists as having “serious” levels of hunger, and also trains locals in sustainable farming methods. Additionally, BGR aligns with climate-focused organizations like 350.org and the Sunrise Movement, and draws attention to the connection between climate change and hunger in our newsletter and blog. While BGR’s formal aim is not climate activism, these projects and actions show a determination to address the environmental causes of the problem, because as long as the polices and methods that fuel climate change continue, global hunger will increase.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.

Walk to Feed the Hungry in Connecticut

By Shim Bo Sunim

A brief account of the Connecticut Walk to Feed the Hungry, hosted by White Lotus Haven Zen of Connecticut, which took place this past Saturday in Collinsville, Connecticut. This is the first time the Connecticut walk was held in this location.

 

The Connecticut Walk to Feed the Hungry, hosted by White Lotus Haven Zen of Connecticut, took place on Saturday, October 5, in Collinsville, Connecticut. The walk was attended by about 20 participants. The day was lovely, with clear blue skies and a morning autumn chill that energized our walk. Alison Zhou and her husband John set up registration in front of the historic Collins Axe Factory building and kindly provided donuts and coffee.

The walk began promptly at 10:00am with Shim Bo Sunim inviting the participants to walk slowly and contemplatively, reflecting on those for whom we were walking. The route, which was roughly one mile, contained an area of the scenic Farmington River Trail that includes an old train bridge. All the walkers kept in single file as hikers, bikers, and joggers passed by. At the midpoint of the walk we entered busy Route 179, and made our way around on to the municipal bridge and proceeded to Main Street, around the block and down the hill to our gathering place, Canton Historical Museum. We concluded the walk at 11:00am. A big thank you to those walkers who carried the walk banner the whole way!

On the second floor of the museum, we set up a seating area and luncheon for the walkers. Walkers were invited to sit and rest, at which time Shim Bo Sunim asked the participants to share reflections about the walk, which were very touching and insightful. At the end of the sharing, Shim Bo Sunim read Bhante’s letter to the group. Thank you, Bhante, for the informative letter and your words of thanks.

After this, the group enjoyed a delicious lunch of roasted vegetables, rice, salad, fruit, and water donated by the ShopRite grocery store of Canton, owned by the Joseph Family. We thank them, and also Mr. Don Scott, the Director of the Museum, for donating the meeting space. The morning ended with participants kindly helping in the clean up.

Many thanks to members of the White Lotus Haven Zen sangha who participated and helped prepare for the event. Board Secretary Ira Morrison prepared and distributed a press release for us and also set up the luncheon. We also thank photographer John Schwenk and videographer Noah Barrios for capturing the event in photos and video.

The walk raised $881. Our youngest contributor, 8-year-old Odin Sakon, donated $6 plus change that he had been saving—a really wonderful act of charity! We look forward to hosting the walk again next year.

Walk to Feed the Hungry in Uganda

By BGR Staff

Bhante Buddharakkhita in front of the temple

On August 18th, the Uganda Buddhist Centre (UBC) in Entebbe, Uganda, held a solidarity “Walk to Feed the Hungry,” the third such walk organized by the center. The walk was led by Ven. Bhante Buddharakkhita, a Uganda monk who is the founder of the center and a long-time member of BGR’s advisory council.  The purpose of the walk was to raise awareness of hunger and malnutrition as a pressing issue both for Ugandans and for vulnerable communities around the world.

Sri Lankan community practices dana

Distinctive about the Uganda walk was the participation of hundreds of children from Entebbe and the surrounding communities. The walk was also joined by many local people who have been inspired by UBC’s strong involvement in social and economic development. The Sri Lankan community in Uganda, led by Kamal and Dhammika, offered food at the temple. Mr. Kamal also demonstrated in a televised interview how to prepare delicious jackfruit salads and banana flower curry—dishes generally unknown to Ugandans.

Hundreds of children joined the walk

The Uganda Buddhist Centre is the first and only Buddhist temple in Uganda. It was founded by Bhante Buddharakkhita in 2005 with the vision of promoting “peace for all” and with its mission “to preserve and disseminate the original teachings of the Buddha, to spread the Buddhist culture of peace within the context of African culture, and to serve as a center for Buddhist studies, meditation practice, and Buddhist research in Africa.” To realize its mission, UBC has organized various socio-economic, cultural, educational, and other humanitarian projects such as hunger relief, education, and youth and women’s economic empowerment. Currently, UBC is providing safe and clean water to over a thousand people in the surrounding communities and local schools.

Participation of the Peace School

UBC has also established a school for local children called the Peace School, the first of its kind in Uganda. The aim of the Peace School is to provide education in an ethical learning environment so that children can become conscientious citizens. The school aspires to offer a mindfulness-based education that will contribute to inner and outer peace and care for the natural environment. The school is grounded in a Buddhist perspective but also teaches traditional African ethics and values, such as the philosophy of Ubuntu, explained as “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”

The Peace School gives financial support to orphans and children in need whose parents or relatives cannot afford school fees and basic needs. The school recently received a grant from Buddhist Global Relief to assist with its development.

Bhante Buddharakkhita, the founder of UBC, was born in Uganda and encountered Buddhism in the 1990s during his travels in Asia. He received ordination as a Buddhist monk under the late Ven. Sayadaw U Silananda in 2002 at Tathagata Meditation Center in San Jose, California. He subsequently spent eight years under the guidance of Bhante Henepola Gunaratana at the Bhavana Society in West Virginia.  He is an adjunct professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and the spiritual director of Radiance Retreat Center in Magnolia, Mississippi. He has been teaching mindfulness meditation in Africa, the U.S., and worldwide since 2005, and is a much-loved teacher in many countries.  His book, Planting Dhamma Seeds: The Emergence of Buddhism in Africa, tells the story of his religious and spiritual work in the continent of his birth.

The information on which this article is based was provided by Bhante Buddharakkhita and Andrew  Mukomazi. Photographs were sent by Dolores Watson.

Taking Food Out of Poor Kids’ Mouths

By Randy Rosenthal

The US Department of Agriculture has proposed restricting access to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (known as “food stamps”) on the ostensible grounds that it is necessary to close a loophole in the program. But the real reason, it appears, is an ideological commitment to lowering taxes on the rich and cutting government spending on the poor. 

Embed from Getty Images

Back in 1964, President Johnson initiated the War on Poverty, which aimed to eradicate the conditions of poverty by providing American citizens with access to food, education, and a secure retirement. Today, the Trump Administration is leading a War against the Poor, which aims to do the opposite. The most recent and blatant act in this war is the US Department of Agriculture’s proposal to restrict the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.

On July 23, the USDA released a statement about the proposal, which aims to save $2.5 billion by taking 3 million people off of food stamps. The statement doesn’t mention it, but 500,000 of these people are children who will automatically lose access to free school lunches.

The ostensible rationale behind the proposal is that there is “a loophole” that needs to be closed: low income participants receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits are automatically eligible for food stamps. Because of this policy, which is designed to help transition families toward economic independence, the USDA claims that people are receiving assistance when they clearly don’t need it. To support this claim, they point to a Minnesota man who enrolled in the program, even though he was a millionaire.

In a statement explaining the proposal, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (who has a net worth of somewhere between $11 million and $53 million) said, “we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.” After all, he said, “The American people expect the government to be fair, efficient, and have integrity.” How can someone argue with that? It sounds good. But it’s not. In fact, it’s the height of hypocrisy and deviousness.

First of all, if a family qualifies for TANF, they are by definition needy, and therefore need food stamps. Second, who is this Minnesota man? His name is Rob Undersander. On the application, he stated his income, which was low because he is retired, and did not state his assets, which is not required in the form. He then received SNAP benefits for 18 months, simply to show he could waste tax-payer money. Bravo. But how many other people would spend their time applying for a program they don’t need? Probably no one. More importantly, Undersander did not apply for or receive TANF benefits, and so the loophole that is supposedly being closed has nothing to do with his case. That is, the stated rationale behind the proposal is fallacious.

In truth, the recent proposal is part of a larger Republican war on the poor. For instance, back in May, the Administration proposed regulatory changes to redefine the formula for calculating poverty. If they could lower the official poverty line by adjusting how inflation is measured, then fewer people would officially qualify as poor, resulting in fewer people eligible for benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Currently, a family of four with an income of $25,750 or less is considered poor and eligible for government programs. There are about 40 million Americans considered to be living in poverty, or about 12% of our population. That’s a huge number of people who are struggling, among them parents who cannot afford to provide food for their children. That’s why we have such programs as SNAP and offer free school lunches, because, obviously, if kids can’t eat a decent meal, they can’t learn. About 38 million Americans receive food stamps, and 56% of SNAP benefits go to households at or below half of the poverty line. Yet SNAP not only benefits people in poverty, it prevents it, keeping 8.4 million people out of poverty in 2015, including 3.8 million children.

But SNAP does more than provide food and help people get out of poverty. It actually greatly helps the economy. In fact, SNAP benefits are considered one of the fastest and most effective forms of economic stimulus. According to the USDA’s own Economic Research Service, $1 billion of SNAP benefits creates 8,900-17,900 full-time jobs, and every $5 of SNAP benefits generates $9 in total economic activity. Conversely, for every $1 billion in cuts to SNAP funding, 11,437 jobs would be destroyed. This means that the Trump Administration’s recent proposal would actually result in a loss of about 28,590 jobs. Finally, as a share of our GDP, SNAP spending has been steadily decreasing, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and is not contributing to long-term budgetary pressures.

So the question is: Why would we want to literally be taking food out of poor children’s mouths? Why take food off the tables of low-income families? Why are millionaires and billionaires fighting a war against the poor? Whether a family has an annual income of $20,000 or $40,000, life for them is hard. So why make things harder for people who are already having a hard time?

It’s not simply to save $2.5 billion. If the Trump Administration really cared about saving tax-payer dollars, they wouldn’t have increased military spending by $164 billion since 2016, proposing to spend an irresponsible $750 billion on defense in 2020. And they would not have recently passed tax-cuts that will cost the federal government $17 billion. These tax cuts mostly benefit millionaires, and so in essence, what the Trump Administration is saying with these proposals is this: Let’s take from the poor and give to the rich. It’s a reverse Robin Hood.

No, the reason behind this proposal is not practical but ideological. It is not because the administration wants to be fair, efficient, and have integrity, but because conservatives are blindly devoted to lowering taxes and cutting programs designed to help the poor. And due to this obsessive commitment to an abstract idea, millions of actual human beings will suffer.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University, where he recently earned a Masters of Theological Studies, with a Buddhist Studies focus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. He edits at bestbookediting.com.

A Buddhist Perspective on Women’s Liberation

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Kisa Gotami asks the Buddha to heal her dead son.

This winter, BGR chair Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi spent two months in India. During this time he was invited to give the keynote address at a conference on “Buddhism and Women’s Liberation,” held in Bodhgaya on January 30 and 31, 2019, under the auspices of the Maha Bodhi Society of India. Here is a lightly edited version of his address.

Obstacles to Women’s Freedom

When we speak of “women’s liberation,” we first have to determine what women are to be liberated from. What are the obstacles to their freedom? Perhaps the most pervasive—and the most subtly disempowering—is the limitation placed on the opportunities available to women for personal expression and achievement. In traditional cultures, and even in the West today, these limitations are considered almost intrinsic to the social order. An unspoken consensus prevails that casts women into stereotyped roles that severely hamper their freedom to realize their creative potentials.

Women are seen assigned by nature to be wives and mothers. They are caretakers of the family whose role in life is exhausted by the tasks of finding a good husband, bearing children, and maintaining the household. If women do get the chance to take up a career, the general view holds that they should serve in the caring professions—as nurses, teachers, or social workers—but beyond these, when it comes to the more demanding professions and positions of social leadership, the gates are largely closed against them. Continue reading

Building Bridges for Poor Widows in the Punjab

By BGR Staff

Building Bridges India represents a bridge from the past to the future, from a patriarchal society to an egalitarian one in which women have role options, rights and responsibilities; a passage from despair to hope.

For over thirty years now, parts of Punjab have been stricken by a tragedy barely reported in the mainstream media: the suicides of small-scale farmers. A fatal combination of factors, including successive seasons of bad weather, the soaring cost of seeds and fertilizer, a falling water table, and the usurious rates imposed by moneylenders, have combined to make it impossible for them to sustain themselves on their ancestral lands. Seeing no way out, thousands have taken their own lives. Their deaths are tragedy enough. But for the widows and children they leave behind, life becomes a desperate struggle simply to survive.

Untrained, often illiterate and malnourished, burdened with their husbands’ debts yet without any way of earning an income, the women left behind–sometimes older, sometimes quite young–are responsible for housing and feeding themselves, their children and sometimes elderly relatives as well. Continue reading