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Violence during covid-19: on immunity and community

By Maria Wemrell

While we have all experienced consequences of the covid-19 pandemic, the force of its impacts have been decisively different across individuals and groups. Corona has exacerbated existing societal inequalities, with stark disparities being seen in death rates and possibilities to maintain economic livelihoods during lock-down and social distancing. It has furthermore been widely recognised that lock-down measures during covid-19 have aggravated the suffering of many through the increasing risk of intimate partner violence (IPV). Domestic violence during covid-19 has been referred to in terms of a double or shadow pandemic, as an increase in prevalence has been reported in many countries. Although professionals from IPV support organisations in Sweden attest to, so far, having seen varying effects of covid-19 on the demand for support, an increase in IPV has been signaled here too.

A major reason for the elevated risk of IPV – alongside additional and interrelated sources of covid-19-related stress such as illness, financial or employment issues and increased responsibilities for child-care and domestic work – lies in people’s increased confinement to their homes, potentially together with or under the increased control of abusive partners. In descriptions of typical IPV dynamics, social isolation is a central aspect. Through such isolation, which often increases over time together with the violence, the ability of victims to ask for and receive support becomes increasingly limited. Meanwhile, their vulnerability to processes of normalisation of violence and internalisation of the perpetrators’ interpretations of events are heightened. During covid-19, social isolation has been further augmented through difficulties in accessing support organisations, both due to more restricted movements in public spaces and the current pressure on healthcare institutions. Confinement to the home has also accentuated vulnerabilities to online violence and stalking. In the words of Olga Persson, chairperson of the women’s shelter umbrella organisation Unizon, “the measures against corona are of benefit to violent men”.

While IPV support organisations in Sweden have worked to adapt their services to the new conditions, having received some additional governmental funding for the purpose, it is questionable whether these efforts have been sufficient to match the heightening of IPV risk due to covid-19 control measures. Particularly because IPV as a public health issue has already been inadequately addressed in the absence of covid-19, in Sweden as elsewhere. With regards to deadly violence in Sweden and other European countries, for example, other forms of homicide show variability over time while intimate partner homicide numbers have remained “more stable”. And as noted by a women’s shelter professional with regard to IPV in Sweden, before the onset of covid-19, “nobody is immune to it”. 

In his book Immunitary Life, the British sociologist Nik Brown writes about the blending of biological, legal, political, philosophical and metaphorical notions of immunity, which he argues to be central for the understanding of medicine and biopolitics in our time. Brown picks up Roberto Esposito’s concepts of immunitas and communitas, and Peter Sloterdijk’s notions of immunity and community, as respectively denoting complementary if not polarised forces at work in medicine and society. Immunity is here related to historical and cultural shifts away from community or “the commons”, in favor of biological technologies and political movements encompassing personal isolation, security and defense.

Coming from a primarily legal and philosophical vantage point rather than a medical one, Esposito traces a common etymological root (munus) of the concepts of immunitas and communitas, assigning to the latter a meaning of gift giving, mutual obligation, service or reciprocity. Communitas thus denotes a notion of belonging through mutuality, but also of potentially burdensome duty. The notion of immunitas evolved, according to Esposito, to encompass protection or freedom from such obligatory reciprocity. Existing in a relationship of “tension with the communal or solidaristic ethos of collective openness, of mutuality and of shared interests” (Brown 2018, p 3), immunity denotes – in medical and judicial, corporeal and institutional senses – exemption and separation. To Esposito, this concept of immunity – or of freedom from duty – is central to the logic of the modern Western political order, with regards to issues of property, security and individualism. 

Brown emphasizes that Esposito posits communitas and immunitas as both having positive and negative aspects, and as being involved in continuous and complex interactions. Immunitas represents a power which is crucial for the preservation of life. Still, if taken too far, the so called immunitary paradigm can, Brown notes, align with the undermining of social circulation and with excesses of isolation, containment, enclosure and privatisation, alongside martial law and fascist authoritarianism. Towards the end of its scale, defensive protection can become destructive to the point of “the sacrifice of the living” (Esposito in Brown, p 23). 

Brown continues to write, with reference to Sloterdijk, about market capitalism and particularly neoliberalism as entrenching the forces of immunity to the detriment of community, through the erosion of common spaces and experiences. Neoliberalism drives a wedge, Brown writes, between those who are able or privileged enough to construct their own immunity regimes and those who are dispossessed of such. Immunity is, in other words, made unevenly available in a market-place where some can afford to pay to be protected from others who are excluded from such spheres of immunity. The fragile mutualities of welfare states, and the collective distribution of risk underpinning social insurance, are thus hollowed out together with forces of community.  

As noted by ethnologist Britta Lundgren during a recent conference address, efforts towards addressing covid-19 have largely prioritised immunitas, to varying degrees and in different ways across nations and contexts. Meanwhile, many have observed that the weakening of welfare states affected by recent decades of neoliberal reform have become evident through, and have exacerbated the effects of, covid-19. Negative effects of neoliberal policy on health-care, and on its ability to respond to crisis, have thus been pointed to in the context of, for example, the UKthe USA and Sweden. According to Carlo Caduff, the “destruction of lives and livelihoods” (2020, p 2) imposed by covid-19 and the measures taken to control it are largely attributable to neoliberal policies which have created fragile, underfunded and understaffed health care systems unable to cope with the pandemic. Notions of solidarity have indeed been used during covid-19, Caduff continues, but in the sense of a joint defense towards the threat to a societal body under attack, while the unequal pressure placed on different people by such defense efforts have largely been obscured. In this context, the effects of neoliberalism have been referred to as a form of structural violence directed particularly against the most vulnerable segments of society. Meanwhile, with regards to IPV, (neo)liberal rule has been tied to a shift away from understanding the issue as a structural problem involving gender and power, towards conceptualising it in terms of obstacles and vulnerabilities pertaining to individual persons and groups. Thus, IPV has arguably become seen as less of a problem of the community, and as more of an issue from which most of “us” are likely isolated if not immune. Such understanding of IPV, as an issue involving particular individuals, has obviously affected how we as a society deal with the problem. As Brown or Sloterdijk might have put it, then, forces of immunity – or of the hollowing out of the commons – had gone far before the arrival of covid-19, with severe effects on our ability to preserve life and livelihoods during the pandemic. 

A major question, then, lies in how we in the face of the recent and massive forces of immunitas can mobilise a complementary and sufficiently powerful drive towards communitas, for the purpose of sustaining life and alleviating violence during and after covid-19. 

Brown writes, with Esposito, about whether or how immunity can be used in service of relatedness. How can we use a politics of immunisation against oppressive forces that place a higher value on some lives than on others, or that aim for “power over life” rather than for a “politics of life”? In other words, how can “the individual and the community [be] immunised against the risk of exclusion, negation and banishment”? (Brown 2018, p 25). Along related lines, how is it possible to strengthen movements towards “immunity” against micro-sphere power dynamics in the form of IPV, through reinforcing notions of relatedness and community?

Through the reevaluation and rebuilding of care, solidarity and mutual rights and obligations, in movements that promote non-violence alongside the value and welfare of all, forces of immunitas need to be blended with those of communitas. In the words of Tithi Bhattacharya, with reference to covid-19: “We don’t need social isolation. We need physical isolation and social solidarity”. 

Maria Wemrell, Senior Lecturer, Gender Studies, Lund University

September 30, 2020

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Covid-19 and the contradictions of care

By Rebecca Selberg

In the 1990s, just around the time of the Swedish financial crisis, researchers noted a growing public and political interest in the nursing profession. “One had to look back to the days of Nightingale to find a corresponding attention directed at the care work performed by nurses”, according to a Lund University dissertation published in 1992. Why was there, in the tumultuous years of the early 1990s, such a sudden interest in nursing – an occupation usually taken for granted? The answer could be that nurses enter the spotlight whenever there is a major crisis, only to recede into the margins of public and political consciousness during times of equilibrium.

Sweden in the 1990s witnessed a major shift of resources from social reproduction commons to sectors of accumulation, as well as the ascendance of logics of private capital within the public sector. This would lead to a structural under-investment in healthcare, as well as a “renegotiation of working conditions” negatively impacting female-dominated public sector- and welfare state workers. At the same time, public sector restructuring opened up new career paths for nurses. NPM’s focus on managerialism meant that nurses and not only physicians could become managers, because management was seen as a general skill instead of as an expression of professional hierarchies. In line with neoliberal ideology, NPM also centered on the individual, which in the healthcare system translated into patient-centered care. Nurses were no longer supposed to simply care for patients; they were the ones who would aid in empowering them.

The crisis of the 1990s brought a lot of attention to nursing in Sweden, but only for a brief period of time. Soon, researchers would conclude that nurses again felt invisible and under-appreciated. Their working conditions became increasingly complex, contradictory and intense, but their wages remained low, as did their status within the healthcare system and in society in general. While new career paths had opened up for some nurses, others were stuck in repetitive, physically draining and emotionally demanding positions. Their dissatisfaction grew, and a decade into the new millennia, Sweden started to witness new forms of labor protest: nurses organizing mass-resignations, die-ins in front of hospitals, and so-called salary protests wherein nurses promised each other not to accept job offers if the offered monthly salary was below SEK24k.

The Corona pandemic seems to be part of this pattern. After years of unsuccessful demands for recognition, sustainable working conditions, and higher salaries, the complex and highly challenging covid-19 care interventions delivered by nurses, especially in intensive care, brought a renewed interest in nurses’ and other care workers’ essential contributions to public health. As in Italy and many other countries, public initiatives and politicians’ praise meant that at the height of the pandemic, nurses were applauded and given free lunches – literally; people would applaud and companies provided complimentary lunch boxes. Nurses’ were invited to share their stories in newspaper articles and radio shows.

But the attention was not matched by actual contributions to sustain nurses in their day to day, night to night work situations. Instead, as soon as the hospitalization rates and death rates slowed, nurses’ in major hospitals were given news of significant cut backs or even given notice.

How do we account for this pattern? Most would probably agree with the statement that nurses are important, essential even, to the health and well-being of all people; at some point in our life, we will depend on a nurse. But oftentimes, nurses’ efforts are taken for granted – and sometimes, their work is thought of as expressions of women’s natural abilities, rather than hard-earned skills. At the level of economic policy, their labor is conceptualized as a cost best reduced. With the help of feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser we can think of this contradiction between nurses being revered and nurses being disregarded as a contradiction between capital and care, or between accumulation and reproduction. Capitalism is dependent on social reproduction – all those activities, paid and unpaid, that sustain life. However, the sphere of social reproduction has for long been severely under-invested and under-emphasized. We are facing, according to Fraser, a crisis of care, expressed in lack of time, resources and capabilities needed for people to recover and care for each other. Since the 1990s, neoliberal dominance has meant that institutions of social reproduction such as hospitals, elder care homes, schools and childcare arrangements should not cost, it should simply function, or even generate revenue for private shareholders. But when social reproduction is systematically undermined, it is also harder for people to function in the productive sphere and in society as a whole. In fact – a society that undermines social reproduction undermines the entire economic sphere, very much including private enterprising. The crisis of care is built on the contradiction within the capitalist system, wherein “capitalism’s orientation to unlimited accumulation tends to destabilize the very processes of social reproduction on which it relies”, as Fraser puts it.

The concept of contradiction has been important for researchers in understanding situations, processes or events wherein seemingly opposed forces are present. The Covid-19 pandemic highlights precisely such a contradiction: nurses are essential, but treated as if they are dispensable. But in the theoretical tradition in which the concept of contradiction has been developed, it is also a hopeful concept; it is what leads to change. Hopefully, what the pandemic may shine a light on, is care workers’ significance to a sustainable society, and their vital role in keeping people healthy and able. Whenever we face incompatible accounts of nurses and nursing as both oh so important and oh so difficult to properly fund, we should identify this as a contradiction and a crisis – and proceed to protest, to create change. Nurses are indispensable, and our society’s resources should be at their disposal.

Rebecca Selberg, Senior Lecturer, Lund University

September 15, 2020

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Struggling through COVID 19: challenges Ukrainian LGBTQ people face during the pandemic

By Dr Maryna Shevtsova

On June 21, 2020, a Ukrainian NGO KyivPride, that for several years already has been the main organizer of the Pride week and Equality march in Kyiv, posted a video in which a drone carrying a large rainbow flag flew over various districts of the Ukrainian capital. The flag ended up placed on top of the Motherland Monument, a Soviet-era war memorial in Kyiv. The monument is a large steel statue of a symbolic mother holding a sword and shield. The drone flew in front of the sword so that on the video, it looked as if the mother was waving a flag.

As in many places across the world, Pride month in Ukraine was moved to an online format forcing the organizing committee to be extremely creative. For more than a week, Ukrainian activists hosted zoom-conferences and interview marathons as Ukrainian cities were under strict COVID 19 lockdown. Despite screen fatigue, online events had quite decent attendance. As everybody was talking from the comfort of their own rooms and flats, it was the first time that none of the Pride Month events were disrupted by conservative right-wing groups’. The safety and accessibility of online meetings also allowed for the participation of people who could not make it previously due to health conditions or not being able to afford it. For example, a Ukraine-based NGO I am working with, Parents’ Initiative TERGO, for the first time in seven years of its existence hosted a series of online meetings of parents of LGBTQ people. Bringing together parents and activists from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and Lithuania. Of course, in theory, it could have been done before COVID, too. Still, it took a pandemic to push people to finally overcome their fear of technology and learn how to use online communication tools.

In other words, like others, LGTBQ organizations in Ukraine had to adapt to a new reality and had quite a few unexpected gains. At the same time, similar to other spheres of life, the pandemic highlighted problems, that had previously not been so obvious, even for the LGBTQ community itself.

First, isolation. Ukraine introduced a complete lockdown in all regions between April and May 2020, forcing people to spend more time with the members of their families or flatmates than they were prepared to. For many LGBTQ Ukrainians, who had not come out to their families yet or whose parents knew about their sexual orientation or gender identity but did not accept it, the COVID months became a real struggle. The only place where they were able to find support were community centres or groups of friends. However, during the pandemic, communication with friends via social media was restricted – even simple phone conversation was impossible for many due to the risk of being heard. As mentioned before, many LGBTQ-rights-related NGOs have worked actively online and organized multiple events for their audience of different ages. Nevertheless, many LGBTQ youngsters either did not have access to a private computer or tablet or would not risk opening the pages of those events, in fear of finding themselves having to provide explanations to family members.

Many LGBTQ people, both youngsters, and adults, faced increased levels of domestic violence, verbal as well as physical abuse, threats, and insults. The number of calls to hotlines increased several times, yet human rights defenders and activists were powerless to provide any help other than psychological support. There is only one LGBTQ shelter in Kyiv, sponsored by foreign donors and crowdfunding, and it has a limited capacity. COVID 19 strengthened restrictions and worsened the living conditions in the shelter since, usually, those living there could leave during the day, some even had full or part-time work. Therefore, during the lockdown, the shelter was rather crowded. While limited, LGBTQ adults have the option to move out and live in shared flats with their friends. But human rights NGOs in Ukraine cannot do much for minors, as work with this audience requires special legal authorization. The social workers on a hotline told me that they had an unusually high number of calls from teenagers whom they, in fact, had to convince not to come out to their parents during the lockdown. They were too worried about the safety of these teenagers – some of them already had faced domestic violence from their parents, usually fathers, in the past.

Most disturbing, though, has been the situation of trans and non-binary people in Ukraine. According to a survey conducted during the lockdown, many of them faced a sharp decrease in income making it impossible to cover even basic needs, such as paying rent, getting hormonal therapy, and doing groceries. Even if they had economic means, they still faced numerous issues filling prescriptions for hormonal therapy, medication for mental health issues, and other medications. They also had to deal with the lack of funds for medications and doctors, lack of access to doctors and significant fear of ending up in the hospital and whether they will receiving quality care in the case they contract COVID-19; and lack of reliable information about COVID-19 and its risks for trans and non-binary people. Finally, almost everyone reported a meaningful decline in psychological wellbeing related to stress, fear for own health and future, psychological violence, threats of physical violence, uncertainty, bodily issues, and issues with starting or continuing transitioning.

There is no help from public institutions, the police in particular. New guidelines were developed to prevent and combat domestic violence in Ukraine, and a chat-bot was created to connect victims directly with hotlines. Still, there were not enough police officers to address the increased number of calls since they had to patrol the streets. LGBTQ people in Ukraine have all the reason to distrust police eagerness to handle the cases of homo- and transphobic violence, so the majority of those cases either were left undisclosed or were only documented by human rights organizations.

Ukraine is currently considered a ‘safe’ country for LGBTQ people by the European Union when it comes to granting asylum to queer refugees. Indeed, the country has anti-discrimination law (though not mentioning neither sexual orientation nor gender identity directly). Until the pandemic, Kyiv hosted a handful of marches of equality where state security forces protected people walking under the rainbow flags. Yet while the government of Ukraine still refuses to ratify the Istanbul Convention, aimed at protecting women and LGBTQ people from domestic violence, the representatives of the ruling party, “Servant of the people”, found time during the pandemic to register a draft of a law that would ban vaguely defined “propaganda of homo- and transsexuality.” The question remains, though, how safe is the country for the people who are always overlooked by the government and whose needs are rarely addressed by public policies and actions even during ‘normal’ times, not to mention during the COVID 19 crisis.

Dr Maryna Shevtsova is a Swedish Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Gender Studies in Lund. Maryna’s current project focuses on LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers from Ukraine and Russia to the USA and EU Member states. She is now finishing her book LGBTI politics and value change in Ukraine and Turkey: Exporting Europe?  on Europeanization and LGBTI activism in third countries to be published later this year with Routledge.

September 3, 2020

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On COVID 19 and commercial surrogacy in Ukraine

Image: Unsplash

By Dr Maryna Shevtsova

In 2013 I returned to Ukraine from Budapest, Hungary with an MA in Gender studies – not surprisingly it sounded strange to my friends and parents as it did not seem to make me very employable. A month of fruitless job searching made me desperate enough to pay an entrance ticket to a job fair in Kyiv, where I was given an actual newspaper full of job announcements – something I had completely forgotten about in the era of the Internet. Out of curiosity, I looked through it. I stumbled upon a two-pages full of ads promising USD 9 000,00 to women under thirty who already had at least one child and were ready to work as surrogate mothers (as a comparison, an average monthly salary in Ukraine was around 300-400 US Dollars at that time). That was when I found out that surrogacy was a legal practice in Ukraine. As the recent reaction of numerous Ukrainians in social media and on news forums demonstrated, this was news to them too, even though, for the past two decades, Ukraine had already been a popular destination for thousands of foreign couples unable to conceive a child.

Surrogacy scandal in COVID 19 times

Surrogacy has been a legal practice in Ukraine since 2000. Being a cheaper option (surrogacy in Ukraine costs around USD 50.000 compared to USD 100.000 in the USA), Ukraine became an even hotter spot after other popular destinations, such as India, Nepal, and Thailand, banned compensated surrogacy for foreigners. Moreover, this is not only the price tag that made Ukraine such an appealing option. Here is a quotation from the ‘Surrogacy and Egg Donation. Why Ukraine?’ section of BioTexComs’ (a so-called ‘human reproduction centre’ in Kyiv) website. “Ukraine is a European country. This is true… that people’s mentality is very similar and easily understandable for most of the European and American patients… Slavic ladies are famous for their beautiful, slim complexion, smartness, and you will be able to find your best egg donor in our database. Generally, patients prefer to choose a good-looking and intelligent egg donor with strong and healthy family roots to ensure good genes for their future baby.” Such phrasing is not that surprising if one recalls a recent claim by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, during his visit to Paris in June 2019, claimed beautiful women as “part of a country’s brand.” Nevertheless, before the COVID-19 scandal, there was little or almost no public discussion on the need to address assisted reproduction practices in the country.

‘Dozens of surrogate babies are stranded in Ukraine amid lockdown.’ In May 2020, the news reports portraying rows of cribs with newborn surrogate babies being cared for at a hotel in Kyiv went global. BioTexCom released the scandalous videos trying, according to their director, to attract the attention of the authorities. Due to COVID 19 restrictions, parents from the United States, the EU, and elsewhere could not travel to Ukraine to collect the infants. It took almost a month of joint efforts between the Ukrainian Ombudsman for Human Rights, Ludmila Denisova, the Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, Mykola Kuleba, respective embassies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine to figure out have to grant permissions for around 100 foreign citizens to enter the country despite quarantine restrictions. Finally, thanks to specially arranged flights, many families could reunite with the babies born to surrogate mothers. On June 11, BBC posted a touching video portraying an Argentine couple that made it to Kyiv ten weeks after a baby was born for them. The parents cry happily, eager to forget their troubles with red tape and travel arrangements. Yet not every story has such a ‘happy-ending’. Right afterwards, the BBC shows a 4-year old girl whose biological parents refused to take her from the clinic due to health issues. The girl lives in a Ukrainian orphanage, hoping to be adopted.

Surrogacy and female empowerment?

In reaction to the video of stranded babies, the Ukrainian Ombudsman for Human Rights Ludmila Denisova wrote a post on her official Facebook page calling for the changes in the current legislation. She justified it by the fact that once the babies are taken away from the country by their foreign parents, “it can lead to violation of human rights of children and a situation in which Ukraine is unable to protect its citizens.” According to Denisova, the surrogacy services in Ukraine should only be available for Ukrainian citizens. Her words, quoted by the media, caused a broader debate on ‘selling Ukrainian children abroad.’ The Ombudsman for Children’s Rights Mykola Kuleba went further demanding from the government to ban surrogacy completely. Apart from the violation of the human rights of children that can end up in a “family of homosexuals or rapists,” he also spoke of women’s rights, arguing that women are exploited and used as incubators.

While the debates around Kuleba’s claims were predictably divided, in broad terms, between those who supported him and those who did not see anything wrong in commercial surrogacy, it is probably more interesting to hear the opinion of women involved in the business as surrogate mothers.

As it comes out from multiple videos and written interviews with such women, they all oppose the possibility of banning commercial surrogacy in Ukraine. Some of them have been surrogate mothers more than once, mainly because they needed money. Though surrogacy in Ukraine is comparatively cheap and surrogate mothers receive only a small part of the entire cost – from 9 to 15 000 US Dollars – most of them would not be able to earn that amount of money in nine months. At the same time, many women prefer to also frame their motivation as a desire to “help the families that would not be able to have children otherwise,” and some even suggest that they be called “helpers” rather than “surrogate mothers.” They claim their right to decide what to do with their bodies and emphasize the difference between their own children and surrogate babies.

Nevertheless, all of them admit that the working conditions most of them face are far from great. Although the agencies promise to provide comfortable living conditions for surrogate mothers, often, it is not so. Usually, they live in their own homes until the sixth month and then move to poorly furnished flats rented by the clinic. Should the baby be born unhealthy or there are consequences to the surrogate woman’s health, the agency does not pay any additional compensation. During the COVID19 crisis, the situation has become even worse,  as most of the mothers had to become full-time carers after giving birth without any additional payment (not to mention the emotional stress related to this experience). Accommodation costs were not covered during Covid-19 and women had to wait until (when? Until the babies were picked up by the parents?) to receive the remaining sum promised for the surrogacy.

Legal gaps revealed by pandemic

Apart from low pay and even worsening living conditions during the pandemic for surrogate mothers in Ukraine, closed borders, preventing the genetic parents from entering the country, revealed numerous legal issues that have been overlooked for decades by the government. While Ukraine is one of few countries where compensated surrogacy is legal for both foreign and Ukrainian heterosexual couples (or, specifically, couples consisting of a cis-woman and a cis-man), the COVID19 crisis has demonstrated how poorly this field is regulated.

According to different sources, there are around 60 fertility clinics in Ukraine at present. However, they do not report their data to any authorities, so it is impossible to know how many babies were and will be born during the quarantine. As the quarantine began, each clinic was to decide how to proceed, and most of them chose to continue working in a reduced capacity. But, clinics are only responsible for medical procedures related to surrogacy. The rest, including what happens to the baby and surrogate mother until the genetic parents take custody, is the responsibility of the surrogacy agencies. The work of the latter is often even less clear. Their area of responsibility is not clearly regulated under Ukrainian law and very lightly monitored, which results in a wide range of consequences. At the end of April 2020, for example, the Ukrainian police, along with the Department for Combating Human Trafficking shut down a group in Kyiv who used artificial insemination, surrogacy, and false marriages with Ukrainian women to further spirit infants to the People’s Republic of China. Currently, more than 140 Chinese citizens are under investigation alleged to have purchased children. The infants that were supposed to be sent to China are now in an orphanage.

The most active of surrogate mothers have created an NGO “The Power of Mothers” that, apart from providing psychological and emotional support to women newly engaged with surrogacy, also calls for the revision of regulations related to rights of surrogate mothers and the responsibilities of the clinics and agencies.

A simple solution?

Clearly, it does not exist. For a short period, the COVID 19 crisis highlighted a long list of the issues related to commercial surrogacy practices in Ukraine. It is, however, not in the government’s top-10 issues to be carefully investigated and discussed. Neither the reproductive agencies nor surrogate mothers themselves are particularly interested in actively engaging with the authorities out of fear that substantial restrictions or a complete ban will be imposed on the industry. While several proposals from different initiative groups have been submitted to the government, they have been created without including main stakeholders and experts in the discussion. Hence, it is difficult to predict whose interests the laws may serve in the future. The complete ban, as the story with the babies trafficking to China shows, is not a solution either as this will make a large part of the surrogacy industry? Move to the black market, hardly providing women with more protection. In other words, seeing an evident urge for changes and reforms in this area, one yet has to realize that the problem has deep socio-economic roots. Until women in Ukraine face dilemmas like giving birth to a surrogate child or being unable to pay for her parent’s hospital bills or own kids’ education, the surrogacy market, either transparent or not, will most likely continue to exist.  

Dr Maryna Shevtsova is a Swedish Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Gender Studies in Lund. Maryna’s current project focuses on LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers from Ukraine and Russia to the USA and EU Member states. She is now finishing her book LGBTI politics and value change in Ukraine and Turkey: Exporting Europe?  on Europeanization and LGBTI activism in third countries to be published later this year with Routledge.

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Thinking teaching with corona/covid 19 – echoes in empty hallways

By Irina Schmitt

2020’s spring term was dramatic. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy some drama, and our U-turn from classroom to online teaching had some dramatic flair. There was a definite sparkle of ‘Yes we can’ (over more damp notes of panic in the online teaching novice – ‘how does that work? Why does everything take so long?’).

While I learned to handle the basics of preparing a video lecture, other forms of drama filled the news and the feeds: much less joyful ones. So many stories, so many lives; suffering, pain, violence, both structural and direct. I keep wondering, now at the end of the term, how these news feeds affect students, the students I have not-met this term and in a broader sense those students-who-are, students-who-might-be, students-who-cannot-be?

Here are some of the stories that have haunted me, this early summer 2020.

Early on in the pandemic, it must have been March, news reached me about a trans kid (I use the generic term for reasons of confidentiality) in a city not far from Lund, who was thrown out by their parents. (The network kicked in and found them a place to live.)

Or the article about increasing domestic violence against queer people in the UK during the pandemic; violence by parents, children, partners. ‘So “the household” is figured as a space of protection, but that is hardly true for many people.’ writes Judith Butler, analyzing capitalist and individualist logics of conceptualizing society, health and care.

Then there is the story of a trans woman from Uganda, whose resettlement to Sweden as a quota refugee is put on hold because the Swedish Migration Agency interprets the travel restrictions under corona/covid-19 unnecessarily severely. 

The frustration about the situation of health care workers in Sweden and elsewhere working under unsafe conditions, on many levels, and how it highlights the racist and ageist assumptions of Swedish society which make racialized and old lives less worth protecting.

The stories of police violence, murder and lynching in the US, the worldwide grief and anger. The much-needed reminders that this violence is not only happening far far away, but that it is part of Swedish histories and presents. The public debates that try to chastise Black Lives Matter activism as irresponsible in times of corona/covid-19, when in our part of the world we are encouraged to be active consumers in shops and restaurants. Listen carefully: Black Lives Matter.

Or the many stories how under the remit of corona/covid-19, governments (for example in the USA, Hungary and the UK) are suggesting or issuing legislation that will severely limit access to medical care and legal protection for trans people. Violent discussions about gender confirming care also soar in Sweden.

Some blame ‘the Jews’, some blame ‘the Gays’, some blame 5G masts. Feminist analyses argue that the pandemic and the way societies and states react to it reveals both the historic genealogies of letting-die and killing, and the dismal failures of current capitalist structuring of life. Across the world, this unevenness in access to healthcare is matched by an exacerbation of existential inequalities. This is part of our lives, and of students’ lives: Who was able to continue to study, who needed or wanted to return to hometowns and home countries? Who had the means to have a stable internet connection, and a computer or at least phone to manage the downloads? Crisis and violence affect us differentially, as Danielle Cadet writes: ‘The likelihood that your Black colleague lost a family member to COVID-19 is painfully high. The chances that your Black colleague was triggered by the viral video … because a white woman used her race and privilege and weaponized it against him is incredibly likely…. On behalf of your Black colleagues: we’re not okay. And you shouldn’t be either.’

Accessibility is not (only) a box to tick

The elation of managing to move classes into a digital space on short notice is real and valid – I do believe we did well there. We maintained some simulacrum of normality, providing structure to students’ lives and, hopefully, avoiding trouble with student loans and unfinished programs for many. (Also true is that we kept the machine running; German scholars and teachers had suggested to delete and start over, to allow teachers and students, with continued salary and student benefits, to dedicate this term to new and extended care obligations and needs, and for serious reflection and learning-with-the-crisis.) I learned on the go, with the help of colleagues more experienced with the format. Yet, the nagging thoughts about students who for many reasons might not be able to access this (new) format haunt me.

What can we take with us into the fall term, and beyond? I admit I have been sceptical of distance learning before, though I know that it can have its advantages in terms of accessibility. For people with limited mobility, for people with social anxiety or depression, but also for people with care responsibilities, distance learning can make studying possible. During the last weeks and months, Crip activists and scholars have pointed out that their limited mobility, socially enforced, is a life-long experience, when many of us muttered about not being able to leave the apartment for a few weeks or months. Ableism is a structural problem, argues scholar Christine Bylund, briefly highlighted, and then again brushed under the carpet. Niklas Altermark is critical of how the riskiness of corona/covid-19 has been discussed as mainly affecting ‘less-normal’ Others:

‘The fact that Covid-19 is a greater threat to some groups easily lends itself to the reproduction of risk as a mark of otherness. Against this, we need to refuse the individualisation of risk and insist that we carry it together. We need to acknowledge the political constituents of risk and ground our responses to the pandemic in mutuality. And we need to reject the idea that “normal” people are safe and that “risk groups” will die and the implicit presumption that this is kind of ok.’

In a feminist classroom (IRL or online), we can never be ‘kind of ok’ with some of us being more at risk than others. This is a time to rethink and unlearn underlying assumptions of ability in our classrooms. The Swedish-language ‘funktionalitet (functionality)’ hints that we are to function and be productive. How can we reframe learning so that it centres on learning and intellectual exchange, rather than the given structures?

We know that distance learning can be a way to make learning more accessible. A recent report by the Swedish Council for Higher Education states that a format with uploaded pre-recorded lectures can make learning more accessible for many students. Yet, during the cause of this term, students contacted me to let me know that they are feeling stressed and depressed. That is not an unusual occurrence in itself. I wonder, however, if the possibility of meeting co-students and teachers would have made it easier to ask for help earlier, or to see that other students also struggle at times. In the classroom, I can see when someone is struggling with social interactions. We teachers are not infallible, and we miss seeing students; I know that. But the classroom does afford us another kind of interaction than an online forum.

In one of the many related articles and posts I read this spring, anthropologist Susan D. Blum discusses how the format of online learning can make us more tired and more stressed:

‘In regular classrooms, we notice heads nodding, distracted, gazing in one direction or another. …  On Zoom, people may generally nod, but eye gaze can’t be tracked. We seek “joint attention” – that confirmation that everyone is sharing the focus. We get stares, or looking down or away, or watching the image on a screen, which may not even be in the center. What does it mean? We always want to know. Why did they do that?’

This is not merely about online etiquette. We are trying to communicate with central parts of the puzzle missing, and the brain tries to make up for it. This spring, we have acknowledged that regular online meetings have made us more tired. I have to assume that the same holds true for students.

As feminist scholars and teachers, we also know to analyze society and experiences intersectionally. How does an online seminar, where eye-contact might be necessary or at least expected, be experienced by neurodivergent students and colleagues? Alyssa Hillary’s recent article gives a clear understanding of the challenges of communications between and across differing modes of communication:

‘Take, for example, social stories that claim we look at teachers to make them believe we are paying attention. For an autistic person who cannot simultaneously pay attention to what is being said and make eye contact, this reason for eye contact is patently absurd. Understanding this story requires a much larger leap to the perspective of someone significantly unlike ourselves than a story in which someone looks away from the teacher to pay better attention and avoid overloading the teacher!”

Hillary discusses this in the context of being bilingual. What does it mean to teach or learn in more than one language, mode or culture of communication? I teach in two languages that are not my first language. While I use my ‘broken’ Swedish as a pedagogical tool to encourage students to ask for clarifications, that does not translate into a recorded video. Neuronormative teachers need to take differing communication patterns and needs into account. For me, this is as yet much easier (though I am in no way proficient) in the classroom than online.

How can we take such knowledge with us into the coming term and beyond? What do we need to learn to make it work on many levels intellectually, practically, socially?

Return to an analysis of vulnerabilities

This might have seemed like a detour – I began this text with stories of grief, pain and violence, and then discuss accessibility in online settings. For me, this is all part of an intersectional conversation. Indeed, in an interview in June 2020, Angela Davis reminds us of the genealogies of police violence against Black women with non-normative abilities and mental health. At the current moment, Davis continues, ‘What we are offered is the possibility of re-imagining and re-creating of the future.’ Somewhat more ambivalently, feminist political economist Alessandra Mezzadri asks ‘Will we learn, will we change? Will the next regime of social reproduction adopted by capitalism be more compatible with sustaining life even during crises?’

As a teacher, I hear this also as a pedagogical task. Alexis Shotwell’s beautiful reflection of corona/covid-19 as relational refers to knowledge created in HIV/AIDS activism. ‘And each of the vectors of recognizing who is made to be vulnerable teach us something about what sort of world we want to be in relationship with, not later, but now.’ Crises or violence will not just go away; but we can learn from them to create a somewhat better world, a somewhat better classroom. Not when everything goes back to a violent pre-pandemic normality, but now, when we are planning for the fall term. Learning from trans scholar Z Nicolazzo we can do ‘trickle-up education’ that ‘[frames] all education we do for those who are most on the margins. … In centering those who are most vulnerable, we create educational environments, and invest in educational epistemologies, that see liberation as a collective process.’


Dr. Irina Schmitt works as senior lecturer at the Department of Gender Studies in Lund. Irina’s research engages queer- and trans-feminist scholarship and activism, currently with a study centering young trans and non-binary people’s experiences of and demands for change in school in Sweden.

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