common ground

Mexican Street Children/Japan's Pill Debate

Program 0205 January 29, 2002

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(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.

PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

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?


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.

MCHUGH: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free; cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Please refer to Program Number 0205. That's Program Number 0205 To order by credit card you can call us at 563-264-1500. That's 563-264-1500.

PORTER: Transcripts are also available on our Web site: Commongroundradio is all one word. Our e-mail address is For Common Ground, I'm Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I'm Kristin McHugh. Cliff Brockman is our Associate Producer. B.J. Liederman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

© 2002 by The Stanley Foundation

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