Friday, May 30, 2008

What women are for

If we didn't know what women are for, a letter from a woman commenting on a recent DomPost news story made it crystal clear.

The story featured Mount Victoria residents' complaints about a brothel in their street. The letter defended the brothel as a necessary service, because it gave men "sexual relief".

If it wasn't there, said the writer, men would go looking for drunk young women to provide them with this kind of "relief" instead. She implied that the brothel's existence stopped men doing this.

I remember reading a description of Western men feeling up the Thai women they'd bought for the evening. It said the men were treating these women like "sexual toilets".

That's exactly the picture conjured up by the phrase "sexual relief". When a guy's gotta go, he's gotta find someone to go in. Paying for it was never illegal - it was only illegal to be the payee. But has there since been any sudden drop in men using drunk young women, or even sober ones, for "relief"? I don't know, but I'd be very surprised if there had.

The recent report on prostitution since legalisation doesn't consider this issue at all. Well, it wouldn't, would it.

What it does say is that unlike sex workers, who've been repeatedly researched, little is known about clients, "which in itself reflects their invisibility".

What is known suggests that "purchasing sexual services is the practice of many ‘normal’, successful, socially competent and often married men". They go to sex workers for "sex without complications", company, fun, "alleviating boredom and providing variety". All perfectly normal, right?

Where illegal under age sex workers are involved, it's a different story. A bit more is known about these men because they sometimes get arrested, and "some of the people arrested for seeking contact with under age people during an operation in Auckland in early 2008 had previous convictions for serious assault, rape and other sexual offences." They probably saw all that as just another kind of relief.

After all its investigations, the Committee comes to a very telling conclusion: "While demand to buy sex persists, ways need to be found to reduce the vulnerability of workers and increase perceptions of them as human beings with rights that need safeguarding."

And of course that's what the law change set out to do. It seems to have worked to some extent, although "Many sex workers are still vulnerable to exploitative employment conditions, and there are still reports of sex workers being forced to take clients against their will." Oh well, at least they got paid, eh.

Now all we need is some way of reducing the vulnerability of women who are not offering themselves for sale (which is most of us) and increasing perceptions of them as "human beings with rights that need safeguarding". Judging by rape and abuse statistics, that's proving a lot more difficult.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The preventable suffering of children

Did you see the Campbell Live programme on Monday night about preventable illness in children? Dr Innes Asher of the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Auckland showed exactly what happens to children whose parents can't afford the absolute basics of a decent life - warm, dry housing which is not overcrowded, and enough good food.

They repeatedly suffer the kinds of persistent, serious respiratory infections and skin diseases that are usually seen in the third world. In fact another doctor who has worked in third world countries said he was seeing exactly the same levels and types of illness in children here as he saw there.

In an earlier report Dr Asher told a story that shows how poverty works across generations - and what a huge cost it imposes on children, parents, the health system, and ultimately all of us.

An eight year old boy was referred to Starship Outpatients with several months of chronic productive cough, and difficulty breathing. He was diagnosed with severe bronchioecstasis affecting all regions of his lungs. He requires 4 admissions to hospital each year, each for 2 weeks, so that he doesn't rapidly deteriorate and die. At home, he also needs chest phsyiotherapy twice a day, and long courses of antibiotics.

He has three older siblings. His father, a farm labourer, was killed last year in a tractor accident. His mother can't work (for pay, that is) because she has severe heart damage from having had rheumatic fever as a child - another disease of poverty. She is being considered for surgery to replace a valve in her heart. Meanwhile she is trying to manage on an invalids benefit.

But she faces a futile struggle. Benefit levels for families were already too low to cover everyday costs, even before the latest big increases in the costs of basic foods and petrol (which flows through into pretty much everything). Electricity has gone up by around 60 percent over the last five years. It was not having enough money to pay the power bill that ended the life of Fole Muliaga last year.

Housing costs are through the roof, and the rate of home ownership here is now at the same low level as in Britain, under 50% - only they have a lot more public housing than we do, and it's less plagued by cold and damp.

The government has announced a big drive to bring state houses up to scratch in terms of warmth and dryness. This will be a big help in preventing the kinds of illnesses poor children are suffering from so badly - but only for those lucky enough to live in state houses, and providing they're not sharing them with one or more other families who can't find anything else they can afford.

The levels of poverty among children that we're still seeing in New Zealand are causing lifelong damage to far too many children. Paid work, even propped up by subsidies that we mustn't call benefits, is not going to fix this shameful problem. To stop the kind of suffering we saw on Monday night, we need new answers - but we won't get them unless we keep asking for them.

For the full picture of what's wrong and some ideas on how to fix it, read the new report by the Child Poverty Action Group, Left Behind: how social and income inequalities damage our children. (See for a summary and how to order a copy.)

PS: My husband's doing much better now, so we've got our fingers crossed that nothing else will trip us up for a while. But we're lucky - we live in a warm dry house, and (so far) we can afford the power for his oxygen machine. If we couldn't, he wouldn't be here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Dispatches from the front line of home health care

The longish gap between posts has been due to heavy engagements on the front line of health care - our home. Over the last fortnight we've been up and down a dizzying series of ladders and snakes.

To cut a long story short, unfortunately my husband has been diagnosed with a complex cocktail of health problems.

Fortunately, the most urgently needed help was at hand. Since September he's had to wear a breathing mask attached to an oxygen machine at night.

It took us both weeks to get used to the original mask, but we finally managed it. By December he was sleeping all night (and I was too), and he was steadily improving. Great sighs of relief all round.

Unfortunately, wearing the mask also started to cause damage to his nose. He got one injury after another. The latest one got badly infected and chewed a nasty hole in his nose.

Despite silver dressing and careful bandaging, wearing the mask every night was preventing it from healing. A skin graft was needed - and that meant he couldn't wear the old mask at all.

Fortunately, a different kind of mask is available. It's called the Mirage Liberty, and it comes with what Lynn of Tawa would call an instructive little video (or rather DVD).

A handsome young man in the peak of health strolls nonchalantly into his bedroom. He sits down on the bed and slips the elastic blue headgear smoothly over his thick head of hair, as if he's indulging in some kind of horse harness fetish.

Then he expertly fits the mask over his mouth, inserts the nostril thingies, and lies calmly down beside his equally young and healthy wife. Both of them apparently sleep soundly all night until he unharnesses himself in the morning.

Unfortunately, this has turned out to bear no resemblance to real life. After a week of not managing, not sleeping, and worse, not getting enough oxygen (sending my husband back downhill really quickly), we finally worked out that the main problem was the headgear.

My husband is not a fit young man, and he certainly doesn't have a full head of hair. The harness was too big and kept slipping forward, letting the vital nostril thingies fall out.

Fortunately, I'm a resourceful woman. Once I'd worked this out, I got on the net and found what looked like the perfect remedy. It's a nifty skullcap designed to go under kayaking helmets.

It looks exactly like those fetching bonnets you see in portraits of people like Sir Thomas More. Only instead of being made of black velvet and fur, it's made of black rubber lined with polar fleece. So I introduced Harvey to his new fetish gear (well, he's always admired Sir Thomas, and it went with the harness), and we tried again.

Unfortunately, it didn't work. It's meant to be worn in freezing southerlies, not townhouse bedrooms. So while it kept the harness in place perfectly, it was far too hot.

Fortunately, notwithstanding my groggy state due to what was by now quite serious sleep deprivation, I had another idea. I got a piece of that thin non-slip rubbery matting that goes under TVs and tablecloths, and draped it over his head.

Then I stitched another piece around the top of the harness, pulled one over the other, and folded the front bit back. He looked like Old Mother Hubbard, but it worked, and we both got our first decent night's sleep.

Unfortunately, he got a cold, so he's having major problems again with the nostril thingies, and he's due for the skin graft in a couple of days...

So I'll keep you posted, even if you'd rather I didn't - he doesn't mind, and it makes me feel better. And if there's a gap in posts, you'll know why.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

How rich is rich enough?

Thursday's DomPost has a remarkable obituary for Noel Yarrow, who died on 29 April, aged 83.

Mr Yarrow took over a bakery business from his parents and "turned it into the largest family-owned bakery in New Zealand and a multi-million dollar company", exporting widely overseas.

But that wasn't what was so remarkable. He and his wife Melva enjoyed living in Taranaki, had a strong sense of social responsibility, and believed in caring for the community they lived in.

So not only did they "take advantage of financial success, using it to benefit Taranaki on an extraordinary scale" by supporting sport, schools and community groups, but they did something much more astonishing for our times.

Instead of moving the business out of Taranaki to "a bigger centre close to major markets", they kept it in Manaia, employing hundreds of local people.

Doing this did not destroy the business, apparently. On the contrary, it has flourished. Clearly it makes quite enough profit to keep on flourishing, and to enable the Yarrow family ( two sons, one daughter) to keep on giving so generously, as well as (one imagines) living very comfortably - well, what they must have considered quite comfortably enough, anyway.

The word "enough" doesn't figure very largely in business reports. The entire point of capitalism is to make as much profit as possible.

A year ago Fisher and Paykel announced that a total of 350 jobs would be lost in Auckland, because of the shift to Thailand.

"Once the lines are fully operational, the expected financial benefits are in the vicinity of $10-$15 million per annum... While the Company regrets the loss of these jobs, which are unlikely to occur before December 2007, it will endeavour to accommodate as many staff as possible elsewhere in the organisation as vacancies arise...Our laundry margins have suffered considerably over the past 4-5 years."

And it would be unthinkable for a Company (I do like the royal capital) not to seek the highest margins possible, wouldn't it.

Last month F&P announced that another 430 jobs would be shifted to low wage countries, pretty much ending whiteware production in New Zealand.

The NZ Herald reported an analyst saying that F&P was simply following the world trend set by global companies such as Sweden's Electrolux...
"The indication is quite clear. They have to find the place that can provide them with the lowest cost production."

Apparently Noel Yarrow just didn't follow the rules, because he didn't think like that. I wonder how long it will be before his bakery is snapped up by a Company which has no concept of "enough", let alone "community", and can't wait to move it to wherever the ceaseless drive for higher profits dictates.