MEXICAN STREET CHILDREN/JAPAN’S PILL DEBATE

Program 0205
January 29, 2002

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.


EMILIO GOMEZ
OUNA:
[via a
translator] He himself realized that, “Yes, he was reading.” And he said, “I
want to read, I want to work.”

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, classrooms in the streets
of Mexico. And why Viagra is more popular in Japan than birth control pills.

TIROWE
SHINKAWA:

[via a translator] Japan is still a male-dominated society. I think it’s very
unfair that the national health insurance doesn’t cover the birth control pills
but does cover Viagra.

KRISTIN
MCHUGH:
Common Ground is a program on world
affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley
Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. In
Mexico some 120,000 children work the streets. They sell Chicklets or crafts,
shine shoes, carry groceries, or offer whatever service they can to earn money.

MCHUGH: Most of the kids start
school, but many drop out to earn a few more pesos on the street. Common Ground’s Tatiana Shriver reports
on a small organization trying to bring school to the streets of southern
Mexico.

[sound of birds chirping]

TATIANIA
SHRIVER:

San Cristobal de las Casas is a beautiful colonial city high in the mountains
of Chiapas. Many foreign tourists are drawn here, eager to see the Mayan ruins
of Palanque and to experience the Mayan presence still evident today in the
colorful dress of indigenous women selling their crafts in the Indian market
and in the intriguing sounds of several Mayan languages spoken on the streets.

[sound of people speaking in a public setting]

SHRIVER: In the public square at the
center of town groups of women and girls in black woolen skirts and brightly
embroidered blouses surround anyone who looks like a tourist and ply their
trade

[sound of the Indian women and girls selling to the
tourists]

SHRIVER: If you try to resist the
selling gets more intense.

[sound of the Indian women and girls selling to the
tourists]

SHRIVER: Some of the smallest girls
can be the most skilled. If you don’t want to buy it’s hard not to think of
these kids as little pests.

[sound of the Indian women and girls selling to the
tourists]

SHRIVER: One day, though, I had a
different experience. I noticed a group of children sitting in a circle in
front of San Cristobal’s gorgeous main church, cutting life-size silhouettes
from brown paper. They were laughing and involved. In their midst a young woman
was handing out scissors and crayons and talking in Tzotzil, the language many
of these kids speak at home. I learned she works with Melel Xojobal, a small
nonprofit group that’s trying to bring education to kids who work the streets.

[A phone rings and a conversation begins.]

SHRIVER: Patricia Figueroa directs
the program.

PATRICIA
FIGUEROA:

[via a translator] The child in the street learns above all how to survive in
the street. So he learns to lie, learns to swindle and cheat, so people will
pay him. He’s going to lose an important value of the indigenous culture, which
is dignity, you know. So the child, looking for his survival, sees that if you
see him practically crying he’s going to get something. Perhaps a coin or
whatever, because you feel sorry for him.

SHRIVER: Figueroa says 1,500
children, mostly Indians, are in the streets here. Most aren’t actually
homeless, though their home may be little more than a wood or cardboard shack
at the edge of town. Some are orphans, but most have at least one parent, and
the five or ten pesos the children earn can be important to the family income.

FIGUEROA: [via a translator] Yes,
they need it because they are poor. But what we are trying to do here is to
give value to their culture and show them that there are other ways to obtain
money, not through manipulation, lies, deception—and prostitution, that they
are learning also. These are things they are learning.

SHRIVER: Melel Xojobal or “True
Light” in Tzotzil, is just beginning to investigate the extent of child
prostitution. They do know that many street kids use drugs, especially solvents
like paint thinner, to take the edge off their hunger. Kids face a lot of dangers
on the street but Melel is starting with the basics—getting children interested
in learning to read and write.

[sounds of children being taught]

SHRIVER: At first only a few kids
sit in a circle with the two teachers. In the center are various household
objects.

[sounds of children being taught, and interplay
between students and teachers]

SHRIVER: Soon more kids join in or
stand outside the circle watching intently. That’s how Melel works: attracting
kids with games and music and then sliding in the lessons.

[sounds of children being taught, and interplay between
students and teachers]

FIGUEROA: [via a translator] Today
the theme is about culture, so we have some things to do with the indigenous
culture. So we have our corn basket, the woolen net bag, a candle, the griddle
for tortillas, some kindling. Well, these are really the important things
within the indigenous culture. They are the basic things in a family’s house.

SHRIVER: Tschuno Tzetetsien speaks
the Mayan language Tzeltal, but to work with these kids he’s also learned
Tzotzil. The teachers ask the kids to name the objects and talk about how
they’re used and by whom.

TSCHUNO
TZETETSIEN:

[via a translator] So, for example I ask them about making Pozal. Pozal is an
indigenous drink. So I was asking the girls and boys, “Is making Pozal, is it a
task for women?” And the little girls said, “No.” And I said “Why?” And she
said, “Because men have hands, also, no?” And so I said, “Yes, it’s true. So it
isn’t only a task for women. Because men, we can do many of the things that
women do.” So it’s a new generation that thinks like this. And how great.

SHRIVER: Tschuno says in San
Cristobal’s meztizo or nonindigenous culture these kids are often teased or
looked down on because they don’t speak Spanish or because they wear
traditional clothes. One of the goals of the street classes is to help them
value both their language and their culture—not as some treasure to be
preserved in a museum or sold for profit, but as a living, changing,
contemporary Mayan culture that can enrich the lives of all Mexicans. Most of
all though, he says, Melel tries to give kids respect as individuals, something
they often lose when their main focus is making a peso in whatever way they
can.

[sounds of children being taught, and interplay
between students and teachers]

SHRIVER: Pancho’s family is from
Chamula, a nearby town, but he’s lived here in the city most of his 14 years.
He’d never been in school until he joined one of Melel’s street classes several
months ago.

[sounds of Pancho being questioned by his teacher]

SHRIVER: One of the teachers
translates for Pancho, explaining that it’s been a big change for him since
he’s been here at Melel. Before he didn’t know any Spanish and now he’s
learning Spanish, he can communicate a little better and deal better with
certain situations. I asked why he hasn’t been in school.

PANCHO:[summarized by a translator] It’s because he didn’t have his birth
certificate which you need to enter primary school and because his family
couldn’t afford to send him to school.

SHRIVER: These answers are common.
Many children here don’t have a birth certificate, either because their parents
didn’t know how to get it or because they couldn’t afford the 20 pesos—about
$2—it costs. Public school in Mexico is free, but many indigenous families
can’t afford the clothes, pencils, and the notebooks their kids need for
school. Pancho shines shoes and sometimes brings home as little as 10 pesos, or
a dollar a day.

[Pancho speaks, followed by his teacher]

SHRIVER: [summing up Pancho’s
translated statement] His teacher explains that though this is all he can earn,
sometimes his mother scolds him and his parents fight because he’s not earning
enough. For Pancho, attending classes was against his parents’ wishes, but once
he got started he was hooked.

[sounds of Pancho being questioned by his teacher]

SHRIVER: Melel also runs classes in
a small building it rents downtown. Pancho came to a few and soon he was
learning to read. Emilio Gomez Ouna is his teacher.

EMILIO GOMEZ
OUNA
:[via a translator] He is very happy
because he used to say he could never learn. He’d say, “No, I’m a dunce,” he’d
say. But suddenly when we saw him learning and we saw the smile on his face and
the light in his eyes, he himself realized that, yes, he was reading. And he
said, “I want to read, I want to work.” And he began demanding that we give him
work.

SHRIVER: Emilio also saw an enormous
change in Pancho’s demeanor. At first he was always dirty, aloof, and the only
words he’d speak were groserias—insults.
But in time, with lots of encouragement, he started to wash up using the
bathroom at Melel and he became more and more sociable. Since Emilio doesn’t
speak much Tzotzil he says Pancho’s been a big help with the younger
Tzotzil-speaking kids.

GOMEZ OUNA:[via a translator] So Pancho practically has become a multiplier.
A teacher. And this has also raised his spirits. He feels happy that, “Yes, he
is teaching the little that he knows.” This is the way I evaluate him. And he
reinforces what he is learning, teaching it, and multiplying it.

[sounds of Pancho teaching another student]

SHRIVER: Emilio says a lot of the
kids are like Pancho. They can be tough, aloof, a little aggressive, and
sometimes they’re suspicious of non-Indians. But they’re also often very
bright, used to thinking on their feet, independent, and alert. Emilio has high
expectations for Pancho. He wants to help him get into a formal school and
eventually wants to bring him on board as a staff person. But things don’t
often go as planned. Not long after I met him, Pancho stopped attending classes
at Melel. And the teachers think maybe his father pressured him to quit so he
could work more and bring in more money.

[sound of a conversation between Ms. Shriver, an
Indian woman named Rosa Hernandez, and Rosa’s daughter, Teri.]

SHRIVER: But not all of the kids’
parents are unsupportive. Late one afternoon at the Indian market by the church
I meet Rosa Hernandez, who’s selling her bracelets and wooden toys from a
blanket on the ground. Nearby her daughter Teri is studying.

[sound of Teri reciting her lessons]

SHRIVER: Teri is one of several
children Melel has helped get scholarships to attend official schools. She
loves it, and like many of the street children here she’s proficient at math,
since she learned a lot of it working in the plaza. She also likes languages and
wants to learn three or four at least.

[A church bell rings out over the busy public
square]

SHRIVER: At the end of a long day,
Rosa and her two children pack up several enormous sacks of their wares and
head home. Home is in “La Hormiga,” “The Ants,” a name given to a densely
packed neighborhood of tiny dwellings stacked up and down a hillside at the
edge of town. Tired, Rosa listens to a Tzotzil tape and prepares soup over one
gas burner.

ROSA HERNANDEZ:[via a translator] I want them to study. You know, we often go to
sell, but at times there are no sales. At times not even one peso for the day.
I want my son to continue studying, but when there’s no money, no money for him
to go on to the secondary school. I want him to study, finish secondary school
and find a job. I don’t want my boy to be like me—like me.

SHRIVER: Although Rosa wants both
her kids to stay in school and they both want to go on, not only to secondary
school, but to preparatory school and college, that possibility is slight.
Right now all their school expenses are paid through the scholarships found by
Melel, and those don’t go beyond primary school.

[Shriver continues speaking with sounds of children
at the school in the background.]

Back at Melel the building is bursting with
activity, but resources are scarce. Funds to pay the seven staff and create
educational materials are always about to run out. Aside from funding, the
program has other problems. Melel has only a tentative and sometimes shaky
relationship with local and state authorities. City police have been harassing
teachers in the street, telling them to move on.

UNIDENTIFIED
SPEAKER
:[via a translator] There are many
attitudes of racism in the city. It is very, very strong. Very strong. I
wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen what I’ve seen. They call them
Indians, call them louse-ridden, dirty—all the pejoratives.

SHRIVER: It’s the persistence of
racist attitudes against the indigenous children that Melel’s working hardest
to address. The program promotes what they call “intercultural education”: not
only a bilingual program but one that really values all the cultures and
languages and traditions of the children who live here. In the meantime, Emilio
Gomez Ouna says the small successes are worthwhile.

Emilio Gomez Ouna:[via a
translator] To see Pancho, to see Esther, Rosa, Anna, reading, it gives us
great pleasure. It’s just a little what we are doing—but it’s a lot. It’s a big
achievement.

SHRIVER: Seeing the confidence,
enthusiasm, and talent of kids like Teri and her friend Olivia, just waiting to
grab the mike, it’s hard not to agree and to believe that at the least, Melel
Xojobal is giving a few children in San Cristobal a chance to imagine a different
future. For Common Ground, I’m
Tatiana Shriver.

[sound of children playing]

MCHUGH: The debate over birth
control bills in Japan, next on Common
Ground
.

TOMOKO
SAOTOME:

[via a translator] It is true that in our field we practice medicine based on
opinions of many male gynecologists. For many years doctors warned of the bad
side effects of birth control pills. They and the media created a pill scare,
so ordinary people don’t know what the Pill is all about.

MCHUGH: For 35 years after the
development of birth control pills they remained illegal in Japan. The
government finally approved contraceptive pills two and a half years ago.
Women’s rights groups say the delay reflected a deep-seated sexism in Japanese
society.

PORTER: Even today, however, very
few Japanese women use the Pill. Last summer, Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich hit the pavement
in Tokyo to find out why.

EHRLICH: OK. You want to interview
Japanese women about their use of birth control pills. You’re a male reporter
from the US What do you do? Head for the Shinjuku subway station in beautiful
downtown Tokyo and hope for the best.

[a woman speaking in Japanese with background sounds
of a busy urban intersection]

EHRLICH: Surprisingly, women were
willing to speak openly about a very private topic. This 32-year-old woman with
one child says she plans not to have more children. In the US she would be a
prime candidate for using birth control pills. But she doesn’t use them and
neither do any of her friends.

JAPANESE
WOMAN:
[via
a translator] I think the Pill is not known yet. And I think it’s because maybe
they’re afraid, afraid of the side effects. I don’t even know what kind of side
effects there are. I know—the only thing I know is that, is that it gives you
side effects.

EHRLICH: I ambled over to a group of
single women in their early twenties.

JAPANESE
WOMAN:
[via
a translator] In schools, in sex education classes, we don’t really learn too
much about birth control pills. And I have heard that pills were dangerous.

EHRLICH: Do you have any friends who
use birth control pills?

JAPANESE
WOMAN:
[via
a translator] No. No.

JAPANESE
WOMAN:
[via
a translator] Maybe because we don’t have enough information about the pills.
And in Japan it hasn’t been spread yet.

EHRLICH: Among their friends, what
kind of birth control is preferred?

JAPANESE
WOMAN:
[via
a translator] Condoms.

EHRLICH: Condoms, yeah. Do the
Japanese men agree to wear them? Because in the United States that’s a big
problem.

JAPANESE
WOMAN:
[via
a translator] [laughing] I think there are many who don’t necessarily want to
wear them. But they do.

EHRLICH: Using condoms: that’s good.
But the prevalence of that practice doesn’t answer why so many Japanese women
are afraid to use the Pill. The first birth control pill sold in the 1960s in
the US and Europe did have bad side effects. More recently, scientists
developed pills using lower doses of estrogen, which are considered far safer.
But for years the Japanese health ministry and medical associations continued
to issue warnings about the dangers of using even the low dose pills. Today,
two years after legalization of the Pill, only 4 percent of Japanese women say
they have even tried it.

TOMOKO
SAUTOMI:

[after the sound of a chime in an office] Today is, all day, clinic day.

EHRLICH: Now, if a woman wanted to
get birth control pills she could come in to see you today?

SAOTOME: Yes.

EHRLICH: Dr. Tomoko Sautomi is a an
OB-GYN working at the Kanto Medical Center in Tokyo. I talked with her between
patient visits at the contraception clinic. This is a very modern operation.
Patients sit on comfortable couches and wait for their medical number to appear
on a digital display, indicating it’s time to see the doctor. The doctors are
equipped with special cell phones that enable them to respond to emergencies
any time. But all this modern equipment belies a serious problem. Dr. Saotome
says Japan lags behind the rest of the world in attitudes about birth control.

SAUTOMI: [via a translator] It is
true that in our field we practice medicine based on opinions of many male
gynecologists. For many years doctors warned of the bad side effects of birth
control pills. They and the media created a pill scare, so ordinary people don’t
know what the Pill is all about.

EHRLICH: Dr. Saotome suspects that
the medical establishment’s reluctance to approve birth control pills was
directly related to their lucrative business providing abortions. Japan has one
of the highest abortion rates in the world and the procedure is frequently used
as a method of birth control. While supporting a woman’s right to abortion, Dr.
Saotome says from a health standpoint women are far safer using contraception
than having repeated abortions.

SAOTOME: [via a translator] I think
doctors who performed abortions were worried about losing income. If fewer
women get pregnant there won’t be the need for as many abortions. So even after
the contraceptive pills were legalized two years ago the guidelines developed
by doctors organizations say women should visit a doctor four times a year.
That’s really not necessary medically. But it puts more money in doctors’
pockets.

EHRLICH: Dr. Saotome says that’s
just one example of a medical decision influenced by factors other than women’s
health. Pharmaceutical companies formally applied for licenses to sell
contraceptive pills in 1990. But the Ministry of Health was still considering
the applications nine years later. Meanwhile, the same ministry okayed the use
of Viagra in just six months, setting a record for approval of an imported
drug. Women’s groups say the decision was pure sexism, a charge hotly denied by
Masonabu Yamada, a Deputy Director at the Ministry of Health.

MASONABU
YAMADA:

[via a translator] We are not sexist at all. It took a long time to license
birth control pills because it was a very difficult evaluation. We were
concerned that the pills could cause some kinds of cancer, strombosis, and
other side effects.

EHRLICH: The Japanese health
ministry is supposed to impartially evaluate the medical safety of a new drug,
much like the Food and Drug Administration in the US But women’s groups say a
lot of politically charged issues got in the way. Politicians and conservative
media argued that legalizing the Pill would increase female promiscuity. They
said it would spread AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases because couples
wouldn’t use condoms. One group even claimed that hormones from the pills would
remain in women’s urine and damage the environment. Yamada claims the Ministry
wasn’t affected by the hubbub.

YAMADA: [via a translator] I know
there were arguments about promiscuity in society. But that didn’t affect our
decision. We make decisions based strictly on medical criteria. It took a long
time to approve the pills because there were many medical controversies. In
addition, the pharmaceutical companies did not respond to our questions
promptly enough. And toward the end, we had to deal with issues such as
sexually transmitted diseases and environmental hormones.

EHRLICH: Dr. Kunio Kitamura, an
OB-GYN and Director of the Japan Family Planning Association, says none of the
health ministry’s worries have proven to be a problem. There’s been no upsurge
of dangerous hormones in the environment, nor has there been rampant promiscuity
or a serious rise in STDs. Dr. Kitamura recently completed a scientific survey
of hundreds of women using birth control pills since 1999, and none have
developed cancer or other major problems.

KUNIO
KITAMURA:

Japanese never experienced serious side effect; oral contraceptive is a quite
safe and effective contraceptions.

EHRLICH: Contraceptive pills may be
safe for most women but they are also very expensive. The pills and doctor’s
visits can cost $500 a year. Tirowe Shinkawa, editor of a woman’s newspaper,
says the cost is unreasonable.

TIROWE
SHINKAWA:

[via a translator] Japan is still a male-dominated society. I think it’s very
unfair that the national health insurance doesn’t cover the birth control
pills, but does cover Viagra.

EHRLICH: That’s right: the
government’s national health plan reimburses men for 80 percent of the cost of
buying Viagra. Women pay for birth control pills out of their own pockets. The
official reason is that health insurance only pays for patients who are ill. Men
with erectile dysfunction are sick; women needing birth control pills, or even
delivering a baby, aren’t ill—and aren’t covered. Anyone see a pattern here?
Tirowe Shinkawa does.

[sound of a chime and people speaking in Japanese]

EHRLICH: Shinkawa welcomes me into
her newspaper office. It’s a low-budget operation. Women volunteers type up
their articles on old computers. Shinkawa says she’s one of the few Japanese
women she knows who has used birth control pills.

SHINKAWA: [via a translator] I’ve
been divorced twice, but after that I was living, I was with another man for
five years. And I have had one abortion in the past and so I didn’t want to
repeat the same experience.

EHRLICH: I asked Shinkawa why she
thinks so few Japanese women use the Pill.

SHINKAWA: [via a translator] Japan’s
sex education has not caught up and it’s still slow. There’s also no voice
heard in the public places, the community where the, where women hang out. The
information that, low-dosage pill is safe is not available.

EHRLICH: Shinkawa, whose newspaper
offers contraceptive advice, tries to counteract some of the misinformation.
She says nonmonogamous couples should continue to use condoms as protection
against sexually transmitted diseases. And she says birth control pills might
not make sense for some women: those who don’t have enough money or the
discipline to take a pill every day, for example. But, she says the medical
establishment hasn’t really offered the Pill as a realistic option.

SHINKAWA: [via a translator] One of
my friends has gone to gynecologist and asked for the Pill, ordered the Pill.
And the doctor said, “Why are you, why do you need to take pills? Because
you’re a single mother and you have kids.”

EHRLICH: So the doctor thought that
because she’s a single mother she must not be having sexual relations? Right?

SHINKAWA: [via a translator] Exactly!
[laughing] Going to see the gynecologist is tough because it’s always related
to pregnancy and birth, and so I even went to a gynecologist after graduating
from high school. And I found it very difficult because you see, you get the
stares—from the people who are waiting, from the pregnant women, and also the
people at the office, the office. It draws a strange picture to see such a
young girl coming into a gynecologist. It’s like “Why? Why are you here?”

EHRLICH: I know the feeling.

[sound of an office chime]

EHRLICH: While waiting for Dr.
Saotome at the medical center I sat in the OB-GYN waiting room. I was the only
guy. I didn’t mind, but apparently somebody did. I was asked to sit in a nearby
snack bar. Dr. Saotome says it was an uphill battle to get the contraceptive
pills legalized and it will take another major battle to change societal
attitudes.

SAOTOME: [via a translator] Up until
the approval of birth control pills two years ago the problem was with the
Ministry of Health, which had not approved them for contraceptive use. Now the
problem is with the Ministry of Education, which is in charge of sex education
in the schools. There is still much misinformation about the Pill and we have
to educate the sex education teachers. We also have to get the word out to
women through the media and through popular culture.

EHRLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich in Tokyo.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security