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Somali woman researches health risks of skin-lightening practices

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Ibrahim Hirsi

For some Somali women, having lighter skin tone is the ultimate beauty goal and they use skin products containing dangerous chemicals to reach that goal, according to a new University of Minnesota study.

“To be a beautiful Somali woman, one has to have lighter skin color,” Amira Adawe, co-author of “Skin-Lightening Practices and Mercury Exposure in the Somali Community,” said in a recent interview describing the attitude of some women.

Several Somali women who were interviewed for the study published in July said they mix products that include lemon herbal whitening cream, lulanjina, diana and dermovate — some of which have mercury, a poison that can damage the nervous system, according to the study.

“These chemicals are proven neurotoxins and have been linked to birth defects if used by women during the prenatal period,” stated the study. “Inorganic mercury exposure is associated with rashes, skin discoloration, scaring, secondary bacterial and fungal infections, and even renal impairment and damage to the nervous system.”

The study added: “It should also be noted that mercury … can be transferred from mother to infant through breast milk.”

The Minnesota Department of Health recently tested 27 bleaching products, 23 creams and four soaps. The department found that 11 products contained mercury levels ranging from 135 to 33,000 parts per million. “This has prompted both state and federal health officials to issue warnings about the use of these products,” according to the study.

Although Minnesota law bans beauty products that contain mercury, the study said that immigrants have been smuggling the cosmetics from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The products are then secretly sold in Twin Cities-area stories.

“This is not practiced by only Somali women,” said Adawe, a health educator at St. Paul-Ramsey County Department of Public Health. “It’s widely used by Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans.”

Skin-lightening practices

There are various reasons some Somali women rub their body twice a day with skin-bleaching substances, the study stated. Some of them use the chemicals to get rid of the facial masks of pregnancy, which are pigments women develop during pregnancy.

These pigments often appear on cheekbones, forehead, nose, forearms and other parts of the body that are exposed to the sun. Women with darker skin are more prone to skin pigmentation than those with fair skin tone, health reports suggest.

The study indicated that women also use skin-lightening products to attract men. “They see having light skin as more socially acceptable and believe it will increase their chances of finding a husband,” according to the study.

Adawe, who was born in Somalia, said she knows many Somali women who use the products. “You can tell who uses it and who doesn’t,” she said. “You can’t mistake it with naturally light-skin people. These creams give people more of yellowish color.”

Adawe said the women who use the products often aren’t open about the practice. “Actually, they’ll deny when you ask them,” she said.

How study began

Growing up in Mogadishu and in Minneapolis, Adawe said she encountered many women who regularly used the skin-lightening products. She said became involved in the study a few years ago after coming across an article about bleaching cosmetics that reportedly contained mercury. Adawe said he began to worry about the health of women she knew who used these products, so she started investigating the issue in 2011.

After several interviews with Somali women in the Twin Cities, Adawe learned that some of the women used products containing mercury. Adawe then took her findings to officials at the St. Paul and Ramsey County health department. Soon after, the FBI raided stores in Minneapolis and found Minnesota-banned skin-lightening products and took action against owners, said Adawe, a public health graduate student at the University of Minnesota.

Adawe’s investigation prompted the study, thanks in part to her professor and mentor, Charles Oberg, who co-authored the research paper.

Public awareness efforts

Adawe’s is working to tell others about the dangers of skin-lightening practices by speaking out at community and educational forums, appearing on radio and television shows, and meeting with leaders and activists of the Somali community.

Adawe also engages in conversations with 244 members of the Somali community on a Facebook page she created named “Skin-lightening practices & chemical exposure among Somali women.”

Members share articles, videos and studies about the risks of skin-lightening practices, and they discuss ways they can help limit such practices.

On June 11, Adawe posted on the page: “To those of you who are scholars or know the Islamic religion well, can you please educate us about what Islam says about skin-lightening practices?”

Awil Egal, a group member, replied: “Islam has forbidden men or women to change the creation of Allah: Skin color, hair color and the likes. ”

Egal added: “Using cosmetics, creams and other things that are made from chemicals or impure substances and which may have dangerous side effects is definitely haram [forbidden]. It is also another form of deceiving that can create mistrust between people.”

Other members wrote simple lines of encouragement. Khadijo Abdi, for instance, posted: “Beautiful people, leave your skin as God intended!”

Adawe is optimistic the Somali community will understand the risks of the chemicals. And with social media, she said, she’s even more hopeful that the people will be informed faster.

“Everybody is on Facebook and Twitter these days,” Adawe said. “Social media is a great tool to use for spreading awareness on issues like this one.”

Adawe said there are significant numbers of Somali women satisfied with their natural skin tone and don’t consider using the skin products.

“It all depends on their confidence and level of education,” Adawe said. “Uneducated people tend to use these products more often.”

Health

Vaccination in Somalia: “It’s my job”

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In Somalia, determined women are the face of polio eradication.

Somalia, polio-free since 2002, is currently at risk of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2, after three viruses were confirmed in the sewage in Banadir province in early January 2018. Although no children have been paralyzed, WHO and other partners are supporting the local authorities to conduct investigations and risk assessments and to continue outbreak response and disease surveillance.

Underpinning these determined efforts to ensure that every child is vaccinated are local vaccinators and community leaders – nearly all of whom are women.

Bella Yusuf and Mama Ayesha are different personalities, in different stages of their lives, united by one goal – to keep every child in Somalia free from polio. Bella is 29, a mother of four, and a polio vaccinator for the last nine years, fitting her work around childcare and the usual hustle and bustle of family life. Mama Ayesha, whose real name is Asha Abdi Din, is a District Polio Officer. She is named Mama Ayesha for her maternal instincts, which have helped her to persevere and succeed in her pioneering work to improve maternal and child health, campaign for social and cultural change, and provide care for all.

Protecting all young children

Working as part of the December vaccination campaign, which aimed to protect over 700 000 children under five years of age, Bella explains her motivation to be a vaccinator. Taking a well-deserved break whilst supervisors from the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization check the records of the children so far vaccinated, she looks around at the families waiting in line for drops of polio vaccine.

“I enjoy serving my people. And as a mother, it is my duty to help all children”, she says.

For Mama Ayesha too, the desire to protect Somalia’s young people is a driving force in her work. A real leader, she began her career helping to vaccinate children against smallpox, the last case of which was found in Somalia. Since then, she has personally taken up the fight against female genital mutilation, working to protect every girl-child.

She joined the polio programme in 1998, working to establish Somalia as wild poliovirus free, and ever since to oversee campaigns, and protect against virus re-introduction. In her words, “My office doesn’t close.”

Working in the midst of conflict

The work that Bella and Mama Ayesha carry out is especially critical because Somalia is at a high risk of polio infection. The country suffers from weak health infrastructure, as well as regular population displacement and conflict.

For Bella, that makes keeping children safe through vaccination even more meaningful.

“Through my job I can impact the well-being of my children,” she says. “For every child I vaccinate, I protect a lot more”.

Mama Ayesha echoes those words when she contemplates the difficulties of working in conflict. For most of her life, the historic district where she works, Hamar Weyne, has been affected by recurrent cycles of violence and shelling. With her grown children living abroad, she could easily move to a more peaceful life. But she chooses to stay.

“This is my home, and this is where I am needed. I am here for my team, and all the children.”

Ongoing determination

Looking up at a picture of her husband, who died many years ago, Mama Ayesha considers the determination and courage that drives her, Bella, and thousands of their fellow health workers to protect every since one of Somalia’s children. Behind her thick wooden desk, she is no less committed than when she began her career. “If I had to do it again it would be my pleasure.”

Bella has a similar professional attitude, combined with the care and technical skill that make her a talented vaccinator. Returning to her stand below a shady tree, she greets the mothers lined up with their children. As she carefully stains the finger of the first small child purple, showing that they have been vaccinated, she grins.

“I am the mother of all Somali children. I am just doing my job”.

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Health

‘You have dark skin and you are beautiful’: the long fight against skin bleaching

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Amira Adawe has just arrived at a Somali-American community radio station in Minneapolis where she hosts a weekly call-in show called Beauty-Wellness Talk. After peeling off her winter jacket, Adawe slides a pair of headphones over her crown of dark, short curls. “Hello? As-Salaam-Alaikum,” she says into the foam mouth of her studio microphone. An anonymous stream of listeners starts calling in to confide about a subject that is deeply personal and also taboo — skin bleaching.

Adawe is a Minnesota-based public health researcher and educator who works as a manager in Gov. Mark Dayton’s Children’s Cabinet. In 2011, while a graduate student and health educator with St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health, Adawe proposed a study to investigate how Somali women use skin bleaching creams in their daily lives. Growing up in Mogadishu and Minneapolis, Adawe knew that skin lightening was widespread in her community.

“A lot of it ties to colonization,” Adawe says. “Certain skin colors were more accepted in the society. But through the years, it became so embedded in the culture to where it’s become normal. If you’re light-skinned, you’re more accepted,” she says.

She had trouble finding women who were willing to be interviewed. Adawe says there’s a stigma around admitting to skin bleaching. “Women don’t want other women talking about them. They want to pretend that this is their natural color,” she says.

Adawe suspected that the fast-acting creams contained toxic chemicals, and she was right to be suspicious. Out of 27 different creams tested by Minnesota researchers as part of Adawe’s study, 11 contained mercury levels ranging from 4.08 up to 33,000 parts per million (ppm). (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only allows mercury in amounts of less than one part per million in most cosmetics.)

The FDA classifies skin whitening creams as both a cosmetic and a drug. According to FDA spokesperson Peter Cassell, the “use of mercury in skin-bleaching preparations and other cosmetics, with few exceptions has been prohibited in the U.S.” since 1973.

“The FDA has been aware of mercury as a potential allergen, skin irritant and neurotoxin for decades,” Cassell says.

The seven Somali women Adawe interviewed for her study reported mixing several different creams into one concoction and storing it in the refrigerator. Some slathered the cream mixture over their bodies multiple times a day, even while pregnant or breastfeeding. These findings alarmed Adawe. The possibility that children or developing babies could potentially ingest mercury through breast milk or contaminated food or water was especially concerning.

Skin bleaching products can also contain steroids, which thin the skin, as well as hydroquinone, a suspected carcinogen that is banned in some countries.

“That is a really huge public health issue. That mercury vapor alone can expose everybody in the home, even people who visit. That was really shocking to me,” Adawe says.

Despite FDA regulations, toxic skin lightening creams are accessible in the United States. The products get smuggled past borders through personal luggage and can be found in ethnic markets and also online.

A global market

Globally, skin bleaching is a multibillion-dollar business. According to a 2017 market research study by Global Industry Analysts, the market for skin lightening products is anticipated to exceed $31 billion by 2024, with the Asia-Pacific region representing the fastest-growing market.

Adawe was surprised to learn that skin bleaching is such a global phenomenon. “I was so focused in the Somali community and other African communities that I didn’t know this was happening in other places,” she says.

Seventy-seven percent of women in Nigeria use skin lighteners, more than anywhere else in the world, the World Health Organization reported in 2011. In 2004, nearly 40 percent of women surveyed in China, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea reported using use skin lighteners, and in India, 61 percent of the dermatological market is comprised of skin lightening products, according to the same WHO report.

As Adawe continued to sound an alarm about skin bleaching, she realized that warning people about the health risks of toxic chemicals wasn’t necessarily enough to change behaviors. So long as the belief that lighter skin is inherently preferable persisted, women would likely keep bleaching, she thought. So she decided to tackle the issue from another direction.

Radio outreach

Adawe launched her radio show, Beauty-Wellness Talk, in November 2017. It’s a platform where the Somali community can talk openly about skin lightening without fear of being outed or stigmatized. From the beginning, Adawe made it clear that listeners could call in anonymously.

On a recent wintry Saturday afternoon, Adawe’s in-studio radio guest is Hibat Sharif, an educator and outreach worker with St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health. They’re discussing how parents can build healthy self-esteem in their children, especially girls.

“We’re African, we’re Somali, we have dark skin,” says Sharif in a mix of Somali and English. “Our skin is melanated. It provides us with a lot of benefits. Why are we telling our girls: You’d look so much better if you were lighter? It’s important not to put those toxic stereotypes in your child’s head.”

Sharif cautions listeners about words that reinforce harmful stereotypes, such as cadey, a Somali expression of endearment.

Questioning word choices

“That word is really heavy,” explains Salma Ali, 19, a Somali-American college student who grew up in the Twin Cities area. Her friend, Yusra Abdi, also 19, agrees.

“It means whitey. Like white girl,” Abdi says. “You will never hear anybody say madoowey, which is ‘darky.’ If anything, that would be an insult in the Somali language.”

Colorism is personal for both Abdi and Ali, who describe themselves as dark-skinned. “Growing up, if somebody in my family was mad at me, they’d call me koor madow, which means, ‘Hey darker-skinned,’ ” explains Ali. “And it was an insult,” she adds.

Family members pressured Ali and Abdi to use lightening creams. When Abdi was in middle school, her mother gave her a lightening gel to help with acne scars. After about a month, she noticed her complexion had lightened and her acne marks had worsened. She decided to stop.

“When women use these products, it comes from a very deeply ingrained place of insecurity,” Ali says. “It’s because of what society pushes on us to believe. Across all cultures, darker-skinned people have self-esteem issues.”

Both Ali and Abdi say that they’ve seen Somali women obfuscate their use of skin lightening products by describing the practice as cleaning their skin or helping it to glow.

“I’ve had my aunts come up to me telling me, ‘Salma you’re not ugly, it’s just that your skin is just a little dirty. You need to clean it up. I got some products from China. I’mma hook you up.’ I’m like, ‘How is my skin dirty? I’m taking care of myself.’ But because of the fact that I have darker skin, I’m seen as ugly. And that’s just part of the way we’ve all been socialized.”

Changing attitudes

Adawe wants to disrupt that socialization, but changing ingrained behaviors and perceptions takes time. She sees medical providers as key partners in actualizing systemic change. Over the past six and a half years, Adawe says she and her colleagues have trained more than 100 clinic systems, with a focus on pediatric care.

She advises doctors and nurses not to ask patients about skin bleaching directly, but instead to probe slowly and with sensitivity about the different lotions women use. Nurses who conduct home visits with pregnant women can play an especially important role since they build a relationship with mothers over time and can see if skin lightening products are being kept in the home.

On a Thursday afternoon in mid-February, Sharif, the outreach worker, stands in front of a class of Somali, Hmong, Nepalese and Karen adult students and their translators. The students are all new arrivals to the United States. The class hums with a staccato melody of different languages.

“The No. 1 thing you can do is to stop using these products,” Sharif tells the students in English and Somali. “The biggest takeaway from this presentation is that every shade is beautiful,” she says.

A Somali man in the class says it’s been ingrained in him to gravitate toward lighter-skinned women.

Sharif laughs and says, “The change needs to start with you. It really does.”

She asks him if he has dark-skinned daughters, and the man says he does.

“What does that say to your daughter?” Sharif says when reflecting on the exchange after class. “Do you want a guy to treat your daughter that way where he tells her she’s not beautiful because she’s dark?”

“You have dark skin and you are beautiful”

Salma Ali says she had low self-esteem when she was younger. It’s something she thinks a lot of darker-skinned young women experience. Things shifted in high school when she started reading books by black women writers and found inspiration in seeing black women actors play strong leading roles on television.

Social media helped Ali and Abdi to find affirming messages about black beauty as well. Both of them are fans of black women beauty vloggers like Jackie Aina and Alyssa Forever whose YouTube channels attract millions of views. They credit Rihanna for leading the way with releasing a makeup line with many different shades for darker-skinned women.

“It can really change the way you think about yourself and the way you see the world,” says Ali about social media. “I really do have hope for this next generation of darker-skinned women who want to be represented. Who want to be uplifted and celebrated for our skin. You have dark skin and you are beautiful. I really want that to be a cultural norm,” she says.

Adawe says that after working on this issue for nearly seven years, she’s starting to see hints of change. More people are talking, disagreeing and questioning colorism out in the open. “All of that didn’t exist before,” she says. “All of that helps.”

Adawe is now writing a curriculum for teachers. Her next step is to take the conversation into the schools.

“This is going to need systemic change,” says Ali, who is studying sociology with a focus in health care and a minor in public health and neuroscience at the University of Minnesota. “I feel like it’s something that’s so within us that it’s going to take a while. It’s going to take some work.”

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Crime

Somalia’s first forensic lab targets rape impunity

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AFP — Garowe – The new freezers at Somalia’s only forensic laboratory can store thousands of DNA samples, although for now there are just five.

The big hope is that they could be the start of a revolution in how the troubled Horn of Africa country tackles its widespread sexual violence – provided some daunting hurdles are overcome.

The first sample arrived at the start of the year taken on a cotton swab from the underwear of a woman, a rape victim from the village of Galdogob.

It was wrapped in paper and driven 250km to the Puntland Forensic Centre in Garowe, capital of semi-autonomous Puntland, slipped into a protective glass tube and placed in one of the three ultra-low temperature fridges.

If DNA ID can be teased from the sample, this would be a crucial step in convicting the woman’s rapist.

No longer would it be a case of he-said-she-said, in which the survivor is less often believed than the accused. Two decades of conflict and turmoil have made Somalia a place where lawlessness and sexual violence are rampant.

“Now, people who have been raped hide because they don’t have evidence,” said Abdifatah Abdikadir Ahmed, who heads the Garowe police investigations department.

But with the lab, he said, “it’s a scientific investigation. There are biological acts you can zero in on.”

Challenges

Not yet, however.

Abdirashid Mohamed Shire, who runs the lab, has a team of four technicians ready but is awaiting the arrival of the final pieces of equipment.

Their work to provide the evidence that might convict or exonerate is yet to begin.

And the pressure is on. The freezers mean the DNA samples can be safely stored for years but Somali law allows a rape suspect to be held for a maximum of 60 days. Shire needs the analysis and identification machines urgently so that, as he put it, “justice will be timely served”.

The laboratory, partly funded by Sweden, was launched last year after the Puntland state government enacted a Sexual Offences Act in 2016, which criminalised sexual offences and imposed tough penalties.

But technology alone will not solve Somalia’s many judicial weaknesses.

The DNA sample from Galdogob, for example, was stored in unclear and unrefrigerated conditions for five days before being sent to the lab, meaning a defence counsel could potentially argue the DNA evidence had been tampered with.

Human rights lawyers worry the new lab might backfire for this reason.

“A lot of thought needs to be given to how the chain of custody can be preserved in these kinds of cases,” said Antonia Mulvey of Legal Action Worldwide, a Kenya-based non-profit organisation.

More fundamental still is the failure of Somalia’s police to take sexual assault cases – and their jobs – seriously.

Corruption is rife, with a legal advisor to Puntland’s justice ministry saying officers “meddle” in cases, undermining them for personal gain.

“My concern is that the corrupted system could not make a sure success of the lab,” the advisor said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “Investing in the lab is good, but we need to think about the preconditions.”

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) which helped pay for the lab is trying to address this by running training programmes for dozens of the Garowe police on sample collection, gender violence investigations and documentation.

But, the legal advisor cautioned that donors can only do so much.

“The issue is more complicated than training police. It relates to the political commitment of the government. UNFPA can train police but who will pay those you train? Are they given power to do the work?”

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