Careful what we ask for: Petition Sites and Ethical Dilemmas


Recently I was sent a petition to help release Afghan women from prison. The explanation that came with the site was that although the Afghan Congress has made illegal the traditions of forced marriage, enslavement and abuse of women through what is called the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act (EVAW), that 75% of the women in jail in the country are there for resisting exactly these practices.

The petition is to “Tell Karzai and Obama to end Afghanistan’s practice of imprisoning women accused of moral crimes.” I have an immediate visceral reaction to the idea of women being imprisoned for refusing injustice – to type in the first letter of my e-mail address and press “Send” would have set my name to the long list of others equally horrified at the thought.

But do you see the problem that I see with the intended outcome of this petition? Where do women go when they are trying to get away from families intent on inflicting these situations? My hesitation is in not knowing whether being free would also likely mean being dead….The corpses of Indian women apparently show up routinely in the rivers and bushes of a country with similarly well-intended laws.

The petition that came in today, though, and that inspired this – well…rant – began with a description of Latiya, a child suffering from trachoma, blinking his eyes and it feeling like sandpaper rubbing over them. That’s all it takes to get to me – the description of a child suffering. We are told that children pass the infection to one another while they are playing and mothers, likely because it is they who take care of the children, are 2 to 3 times more likely to contract the disease than men. Another of my bells dings. Thank heavens I didn’t stop there, not wanting to read any more horrors, and just sign the thing….

I also read, though that if you make a donation, the generous people at Pfizer, Inc TM will multiply it EIGHT TIMES so that eight times as many people can be treated. I can think of about two dozen ways to spin this one – just use your imagination – none of them painting Pfizer as humanitarian. How many of you saw “The Constant Gardener”?  That was based on facts…. I trust Pfizer about as much as I trust Monsanto….

There are many petition sites accosting us these days – and I think that using mass opinion for the good of afflicted populations or individuals is a great idea. I’ve been a member of Greenpeace, Amnesty International and many other similar organizations for decades. I have found that the relatively-new Avaaz petitions are well researched and even inspiring.

But let’s make sure we understand what we are putting our names to, as best we are able – as we learn to wield the power of positive change, we need to be careful what we ask for.

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