The World Today for December 19, 2023

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Standing Up

ICELAND

Iceland is considered one of the most gender-equal countries in the world based on income, education, and health. The country elected the world’s first female president, noted Time magazine. Icelandic women founded the first all-female political party.

So it may be surprising then, that many of the women in the Nordic island, including Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, went on strike in October to protest unequal pay and gender-based violence. “As you know, we have not yet reached our goals of full gender equality and we are still tackling the gender-based wage gap, which is unacceptable in 2023,” Jakobsdotir told local media. “I will not work this day … I expect all the women (in the cabinet) will (not) do as well.”

The demonstrators at the “kvennafrí,” or a “women’s day off,” carried banners that read “You call this equality?” referring to equal pay laws that are supposed to make sure that Icelandic women receive the same compensation as men, wrote Al Jazeera. On average, Icelandic women earned more than 10 percent less than men in 2021, a gap that widened to almost 30 percent in financial industry jobs.

The statistics reflect deep cultural currents. Much of the inequity, for instance, stems from the kinds of jobs that women overwhelmingly perform in the mountainous, volcanic island in the North Atlantic, reported the Associated Press. While plenty of women in the country, including Jakobsdóttir, win top jobs, women still dominate the labor pool for domestic work, childcare and similar low-paying positions.

Icelandic women are more likely than men to work fewer paid hours while bearing the brunt of household chores and other work, added Iceland Review. They are also more likely to communicate with their child’s school and oversee other activities. Icelandic men, meanwhile, prioritize their professional careers.

That said, toxic masculinity is real in Iceland, say researchers. More than 40 percent of women in Iceland report having experienced gender-based or sexual violence. One in four women claim to have been raped or sexually assaulted. The justice system, furthermore, has failed to address women’s concerns and crack down on perpetrators.

A Scandinavian Journal of Public Health study cited in Foreign Policy highlighted the brutality of domestic life in Iceland, describing how data from emergency room visits at Reykjavik’s main hospital testified to high rates of domestic violence. The research was a “blunt and confronting illustration of the home environments for many Icelandic women,” wrote the magazine.

Iceland might be ahead of much of the world in terms of gender equality but as the women on the street noted, it’s not enough.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Ad-In, Ad-Out

CHILE

Chileans rejected a conservative constitution proposal this week, the second attempt in a little over a year to replace the current charter drafted under the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the BBC reported.

In a referendum, 56 percent of voters refused the right wing’s draft, which featured the reinforcement of property rights and free-market principles. Critics of the text said it would have allowed crackdowns on abortion rights and minorities, including Indigenous peoples and the queer community.

Last year, a greater majority voted against a left-wing alternative, which would have recognized the country’s Indigenous peoples and implemented reforms to Chile’s upper house of parliament.

Nonetheless, the outcomes of both polls do not necessarily show a will of Chileans to preserve their current constitution, inherited from an era where the military dictator Pinochet was enshrining conservative ideals and ordering the execution of his left-wing opponents, Al Jazeera explained.

The three decades of democracy that followed his authoritarian rule provided stability and economic growth. However, in that period, inequalities rose too.

A boiling point was reached in 2019 when crowds took to the streets to protest a dysfunctional status quo marked by weak representation from political parties and inefficient policy changes. One of the main demands of protesters was to amend the current constitution.

The process of answering that demand saw two successive bodies of elected delegates, one left-leaning and one right-leaning, drafting a new statute for the country.

The two referenda polarized the nation but also highlighted their discontent with business-as-usual politics, a Chile-based journalist told Al Jazeera. Neither proposal adequately addressed the citizens’ social and political needs, he added.

Left-wing President Gabriel Boric said he would not bring constitutional change back on the table for the remainder of his term – which ends in 2025 – saying “there are other urgent matters.”

A Noticeable Streak

GERMANY

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) won its first election for mayor of a midsized town in the country’s east, another victory for the anti-immigration party that has become more popular in recent months amid voter disillusionment with Germany’s ruling coalition, the Financial Times reported.

Candidate Tim Lochner secured nearly 39 percent of the votes following a second round of voting in Pirna, a town in the eastern state of Saxony, defeating the center-right parties Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Free Voters.

Although he is not a party member, Lochner stood as AfD’s candidate for Sunday’s mayoral race.

His victory follows a series of wins for the AfD in other regional and local elections. In October, it surprised pollsters by gaining 18.6 percent in the state of Hesse and 14.6 percent in Bavaria, which observers described as highly unusual for the far-right group in the more affluent western Germany.

In August, the AfD secured its first mayoral election victory in a rural municipality in Raguhn-Jeßnitz, located in eastern Germany. Similarly, in June, it won its first election for head of a district council in Sonneberg, also in the east.

The party has seen an increase in popularity in recent months as many Germans have expressed dismay at the current three-party coalition of Chancellor Olaf Scholz over a number of issues, including high inflation, rising energy costs and illegal migration.

The coalition took another hit last month after Germany’s highest court ruled that the government’s decision to fund its green transition by reallocating $65 billion in unused debt – initially intended for COVID-19 relief – was unconstitutional, Politico added. The ruling forced the government to accept spending cuts.

Meanwhile, recent national surveys show the AfD polling at about 22 percent, ahead of all three parties in Scholz’s coalition – the Social Democratic Party, the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party.

Following Sunday’s vote, AfD officials claimed that the results provided a “template” for next year’s regional elections, where the party seeks to take 40 percent of the vote.

Still, the party has been described as a fringe movement and Germany’s domestic intelligence has labeled sections of the AfD as extremist. For instance, one of its leaders faces trial for the alleged use of banned Nazi slogans, and a former AfD lawmaker was arrested in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

Many traditional parties have insisted they would never cooperate or form coalitions with the AfD, but observers wonder if this policy will continue if voters keep flocking to the party.

Bot and Order

PAKISTAN

Pakistan’s jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed an online rally this week using a clip crafted by artificial intelligence, a first-of-its-kind event ahead of the country’s elections next year, Reuters reported.

Based on a written speech Khan approved in prison, the clip featured audio made by AI replicating his voice and an animated picture of the politician matching the sound. In his message, he urged his supporters to mobilize at the next general election, set to take place on Feb. 8.

It was played during a virtual rally of his party that received more than 1.4 million views on YouTube and was attended by tens of thousands on other social media platforms.

Many viewers, however, complained that the Internet speeds kept dropping during the live broadcast. Pakistan’s telecoms regulator said they would probe the disruptions.

Ahead of the February poll, Khan’s party is forbidden from holding public rallies, while national media are asked not to mention him following his imprisonment earlier this year.

Once a celebrated cricket star and the winner of the 2018 general election, Khan was deposed following a successful vote of no-confidence last year. He is now serving a three-year sentence for corruption and faces dozens of other cases.

His supporters claimed that Sunday’s disruptions to the Internet were a move to completely silence his party, amid an election campaign that observers suspect is being steered by the government to favor Khan’s opponents.

Meanwhile, another convicted former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was acquitted on all corruption charges last week, Voice of America reported.

Sharif – who served three times as Pakistan’s prime minister – had fled to London to avoid prison. He returned in October. The recent federal court decision to clear him paved the way for his running for a fourth term.

Nonetheless, like Khan, Sharif is still involved in other cases – and of the two politicians, both facing legal challenges, Pakistanis appear to prefer Khan.

DISCOVERIES

A Genetic Zap

Scientists discovered that the powerful zap of an electric eel doesn’t just stun prey but is actually strong enough to transfer environmental DNA into the cells of nearby animals, New Atlas reported.

In a new study, a research team found that the eels – which are a species of knifefish – is capable of electroporation, which involves the application of an electric field to cells to increase the permeability of their cell membrane.

This allows foreign genetic material to be introduced to the cells and the technique is employed in gene- and cell-based therapies.

To test how the zapping fish exhibits electroporation in nature, researchers placed an eel in a tank with six-day-old zebrafish larvae. They then added DNA carrying green fluorescent protein (GFP) inside the tank.

When a goldfish was added to the tank, the eel released electricity to stun its prey before consuming it. The researchers then analyzed the zebrafish larvae and saw many of their cells displayed intense green fluorescence under ultra-violet light.

More than five percent of the larvae showed GFP-positive cells.

The findings showed that the discharge from the electric eel “promoted gene transfer to the cells,” according to co-author Atsuo Iida.

“Electric eels and other organisms that generate electricity could affect genetic modification in nature,” he added.

Still, Iida and others noted that they only have evidence of the transfer of environmental DNA, adding that it’s unclear whether these transferred genes are heritable in offspring.

Attempts to validate this with single-celled organisms, such as E. coli bacteria, were unsuccessful, possibly due to the eel’s voltage being too low for effective electroporation.

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