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May 30 2012

Bangladesh: Shawpno Rath - A School For Slum Children

In the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, when a group of children leave their homes every morning to go to school, another group of children come out onto the streets, to work for a livelihood. The streets to them represent an opportunity to earn a living. Some of these children collect garbage, others sell various items - tea and cigarettes included among them.

The logo of Swapnorath, created by Dwipangsu Paul, of Kolkata

For these children, school is something unattainable - something that they can only dream about, because where they come from, there is a huge gap between their dreams and the harsh reality of their day to day lives. However, a group of youth have taken it upon themselves to fulfill the dreams of at least some of these children. They have started a school for the disadvantaged children from the slums. The school is aptly named “Shawpno Rath” (Chariot of Dreams).

Lead Dreamer of Shawpno Rath - Shamima Nargis Shimu, with her students. Image taken from the group
Lead Dreamer of Shawpno Rath - Shamima Nargis Shimu, with her students. Image taken from the group

This is how their journey began:

অফিসে আসার পথে একটি মেয়ে প্রতিদিন কিছু শিশুকে দেখতে পেত, যারা রাস্তায় আবর্জনার বাক্সে কি যেন অনুসন্ধান করছে। মেয়েটার মনে হত তারা যেন সেখানে স্বপ্নের সন্ধান করছে।

তাদের জন্য কি করা যায় তাই নিয়ে সে তার সহকর্মী এবং বন্ধুদের সাথে আলাপ করল। প্রথমে ঠিক করা হল, সপ্তাহে তারা একদিন এইসব শিশুদের একবেলা খাওয়াবে এবং তাদের কোথাও বেড়াতে নিয়ে যাবে।

While on her way to office, a young women regularly noticed some children searching for something in the garbage heap. The young woman felt that perhaps they were searching for a dream.

Wanting to do something for these children, she discussed with her friends and colleagues as to what they could do. At first, it was decided that once a week, they would provide these children with a meal and then take them for a fun outing somewhere nearby.

The beginning of Shawpno Rath's journey being discussed in Chandrima park. Image taken from their Facebook Page. Used with permission.
The beginning of Shawpno Rath's journey being discussed in Chandrima park. Image taken from their Facebook Page. Used with permission.

Not in any office but the discussions about this venture started in a park - the Chandrima Udyan (park):

আর এর জন্য বেছে নেওয়া হল চন্দ্রিমা উদ্যানকে। কারণ এই পার্ক অনেক শিশুর কর্মস্থল। এরা সবাই, পার্কে বেড়াতে আসা নাগরিক কিংবা প্রেমিক প্রেমিকার কাছে ফুল, চকলেট, বাদাম, চা, সিগারেট ইত্যাদি বিক্রি করে। এই উদ্যোগে ভালোই সাড়া পাওয়া গেল। দিনে দিনে শিশুর সংখ্যা বাড়তে শুরু করল। সপ্তাহের একটি শনিবারে এদেরকে গল্প শোনানোর জন্য নিয়ে আসা হত বই, তারা কেবল নেড়ে চেড়ে দেখত। বইয়ের জগতে ঢুকতে গেলে যে শিক্ষা লাগে, আর শিক্ষার জন্য লাগে কিন্তু তাদের জন্য স্কুল যে ভিন্ন এক পথের যাত্রা। তাই তারা কেবল অক্ষর আর ছবিতে হাত রাখত। পড়ার প্রতি শিশুদের উৎসাহ দেখে এই সব তরুণেরা একটি স্কুল করার উদ্যোগ নিল, ঠিক করা হল এই স্কুলের নাম হবে স্বপ্নরথ।

And for this discussion we selected the Chandrima Udyan, since this was the workplace for many of these children. All of them were engaged in selling flowers, chocolates, peanuts, tea, cigarettes etc., to young couples and other members of the public who visited the park. We got a good response to our initiative. Day by day the number of children kept increasing. Every Saturday, books were brought to read stories to them. The children were excited and used to flip through the books, unable to read. To be able to read they would need education and for education they would need schooling but for these children, school was a journey down a path different from their own. So, they had to content themselves with merely flipping through the pages, touching the pictures and words. Seeing the enthusiasm among these kids for the written word, the youth group decided to start a school for these children. A name was decided for the school - Shawpno Rath (Chariot of Dreams)

A school under a tree

In order to start a formal school, one needs many things - a school building, classrooms, books, notebooks, teachers, blackboards, dusters and students. However, for this school, all these conditions could not be fulfilled. Nevertheless, every Saturday, classes were held under a tree in the park. Children left their work and came to attend the classes, though it meant loss of earnings for them. They enjoyed these classes thoroughly. Gradually, the number of students began to increase. And soon, there emerged the need to find a classroom.

Students with their teachers and books in their new classroom. Image taken from the group's Facebook Page. Used with permission.
Students with their teachers and books in their new classroom. Image taken from the group's Facebook Page. Used with permission.

The school gets a new address

The school was moved out of Chandrima Udyan (park) and housed in 10 Mirpur Road, where a room was taken on rent for running the school. Here, the school was open five days a week and students started attending classes regularly. The school started with 30 students and 2 teachers. As more children from disadvantaged families, from nearby slums joined the classes, the number of students continued to increase.

Students of Shawpno Rath celebrating New Years Day. Image taken from the groups Facebook Page. Used with permission.
Students of Shawpno Rath celebrating New Years Day. Image taken from the groups Facebook Page. Used with permission.

Shawpno Rath - an adult education center too

Seeing their children attending school, some of the parents too began to wish that they could avail the opportunity for getting some formal education. So now Shawpno Rath has extended its work to include adult education as well. At present, the school has 20 adult students - those who did not get the opportunity in their childhood to go to school.

This image represents the vision of Shawpno Rath as an enabler, a helping hand. The photograph is by Raymond Habibur. Taken from the groups Facebook Page. Used with permission.
This image represents the vision of Shawpno Rath as an enabler, a helping hand. The photograph is by Raymond Habibur. Taken from the groups Facebook Page. Used with permission.

The Shawpno Rath vision

On their Facebook Page, Shawpno Rath has said about it's vision and objective:

স্বপ্ন রথ হচ্ছে একটি অলাভজনক প্রতিষ্ঠান, যা ২০১০ সালে প্রতিষ্ঠিত হয়েছে। এর উদ্দেশ্য হচ্ছে সমাজের সুবিধা বঞ্চিত শিশুর শিক্ষা এবং স্বাস্থ্যগত উন্নয়ন।

আমাদের মত বেশীরভাগের নাগরিকের জীবনে মৌলিক চাহিদাগুলোকে নিশ্চিত করা হয়েছে, আর সেগুলো হচ্ছে, খাদ্য, পানি, বাসস্থান, স্বাস্থ্য, শিক্ষা এবং পরিবার। কিন্তু আমাদের দেশে এমন লক্ষ লক্ষ শিশু আছে যারা এই সব মৌলিক চাহিদা বঞ্চিত, যাদের ভবিষ্যতের কোন আশা নেই। আমাদের লক্ষ্য দেশ জুড়ে দরিদ্র শিশুদের জন্য জীবনের এই সমস্ত প্রয়োজনীয় উপাদান সরবরাহ করা এবং সংযুক্ত এক উন্নয়নের প্রতি মনোযোগ প্রদান করে দারিদ্র্যের মূলে যে সমস্ত বিষয় সেগুলোর পরিমাণ কমিয়ে আনা।

“Shawpno Rath” is a non-profit organization was founded in 2010 with a view to improve the educational and health conditions of the underprivileged children in our country.

Most of us take for granted the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter, health, education and family. But there are millions of children in our country who do not have these essential necessities, who do not have any hope for the future. our goal is to help provide these necessities for impoverished children throughout the country and focus on integral development that seeks to reduce the root causes of poverty.

Shawpno Rath students taking part in a Sit and Draw Contest. Image taken from the group's Facebook Page. Used with permission.
Shawpno Rath students taking part in a Sit and Draw Contest. Image taken from the group's Facebook Page. Used with permission.

The vision of Shawpno Rath is a poverty - free Bangladesh. They have started their journey with this vision, knowing fully well that they have a long way to go.

April 27 2012

Bangladesh: Citizen's Voice, A Citizen Watchdog for Public Services

As internet connectivity grows in developing nations, technology is coming to play vital roles in shaping the trends of social activism and awareness. Although there is still limited access to internet in countries like Bangladesh, it is very promising to witness projects that are beginning to use ICT to address social issues.

Citizen’s Voice (Nagorikkontho.org) is one such project which has been launched by Population Services and Training Center (PSTC) to empower Bangladeshi public by having their voices heard, especially regarding feedback on public services. The platform supports both Bangla and English language to make it versatile for all the users and all the technology platforms (mobile texting sill do not support Bangla font).

Bangladeshi government agencies have recently defined service deliverables in their Citizens Charter. Documenting feedback about these services is important for their quality to be assessed.

Citizens Voice

Citizens Voice - www.nagorikkontho.org/

Citizen’s Voice believe that this would help enhance the standard of these services and bridge the common man to the public authorities:

“If common people become aware of what are their inalienable rights stated in the Citizen Charter, they can understand their needs and performance of the public service agencies. Therefore, they can monitor their deserved services and raise their voice to the civil societies and respective public authorities. This monitoring will further improve their civic facilities and augment their living status.”

A stack of bricks that shouldn't be there

A stack of bricks in a parking space that shouldn't be there. From Citizen's Voice.

The portal has been built based on Ushahidi platform and it contains different reports which cite the irregularities by government institutions, and has emerged as a watchdog for such irregularities, and media outlets can use it to locate such issues. One example is a report about Panchagah Women’s College. The college was charging students a fee for entrance forms more than double as high as was sanctioned by the government.

After Citizen’s Voice published the report, the media took notice, and college authorities were ordered by the board of education to revise their fees. This is one example of how something as apparently simple as a digital report published on a website can actually be significant enough to make a practical impact on ground. To facilitate access to a common man, reports can be submitted via sms, email or through a web form.

The header on the site lists a number of questions, asking about the availability of common services - such as access to health facilities, free education, and so forth. ‘If not, please send a report,’ it says. Reports can also be submitted in the form of a video, photo or a blog post. One video listed on the website by maaDiyan on YouTube shows a busride on “the busiest highway of Bangladesh” between Dhaka and Bandarban, and how drivers skirt traffic rules to get ahead faster.

We were taking the bus back to Dhaka from Bandarban. I think it was on 10 Sep 2011. I was wondering if there were any changes to how people drive on highways in Bangladesh, after so much was going on about road safety. I got my answer. These drivers are simply crazy. There were enough traffic signs on the road, but I have a suspicion that these bus drivers think those are there for decorative purpose only.

In these ways, Citizens’ Voice offers a democratic space for interaction between service recipients and providers through technology.

April 02 2012

Egypt: Your ID, Your Rights Targets Women

2 Million IDs

2 Million IDs to 2 Million Women

According to figures coming from the Egyptian Ministry of Interior, as many as 4 million women in the country do not have national identity cards. A woman without a national ID is not able to own land, she cannot buy or sell assets and she cannot even inherit her deceased family members. The lack of IDs also prevent women the access to various of public services, including education, healthcare, the right to vote and other basic social rights. And that's why a new campaign was launched aiming to provide all women with national ID cards.

The campaign is called “Your ID, Your Rights” and their goal is to issue IDs to 2 million Egyptian women for free. It will start with a pilot for three months.

According to the campaign's Facebook page [ar]:

المرحلة التجريبية سوف تشمل الـ 3 شهور القادمة (ابتداءا من مارس) و سوف تبدأ في محافظة القليوبية و هي تضم 14 مركز و تهدف أكثر من 40 ألف سيدة لا تملك بطاقة رقم قومي. تم أختيار المراكز التالية فى محافظة القليوبية للمرحلة التجريبية: مركز بنها، مركز قليوب، مركز شبين القناطر ومركز القناطر الخيرية

The pilot will be for three months, starting from March, and it will take place in the Qaliobeya governorate, which has 14 districts, and the target of the pilot period are 40,000 women with no ID cards. The following districts have been chosen in the Qaliobeya for the pilot period: Benha, Qalioub, Shebin El Kanater and El-Kanater El-Khayreya districts.
Female Illiteracy in Egypt
Photo courtesy of Ilene Perlman.

According to UN report in 2006, 41% of the adult females in Egypt are illiterate.

This isn't the first campaign of try to achieve the same goal, however this one is supported by various NGOs, including UN Women (United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women), UNDP (United Nations Development Program), MSAD (Ministry of State for Administrative Development), SFD (Social Fund for Development), MoFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and others. The campaign organisers are also making use of social media to spread awareness about the project. They have launched accounts on Twitter and Facebook to raise awareness about the campaign as well as gender inequality issues in the country.

On Twitter, they announced:

@Million_ID: تم تصنيف مصررقم 120 من بين 128 دولة علي قياس الفجوة بين الجنسين
@Million_ID: Egypt is ranked number 120 among 128 countries when it comes to gender inequality.
Your ID, Your Rights

Your ID, Your Rights

Finally, they want people to help them raise awareness about the campaign but sharing and retweeting their posts on Facebook and Twitter.

And here's how they frame their appeal to netizens:

@Million_ID: هدفنا اونلاين مش اننا نوصل للنساء في القري و لكن هدفنا هو نشر الوعي للناس من الطبقة المتوسطة و العليا
@Million_ID: The goal of our presence online is not the reach the women in villages, but to raise awareness about the campaign among middle and upper class.

November 01 2011

Cuba: Guardians of Urban Green Spaces

In December 2006 a century-old Ceiba tree was cut down in the San Agustín neighborhood of Havana, the Cuban capital. But this was more than a tree. It was the symbol of the city and of the cultural heritage of this Caribbean nation.

This sad event inspired a group of young Cubans to found El Guardabosques (The Guardian of the Forest or Forest Ranger) in January 2007 with the mission to “contribute to a better management of green spaces.”

Isbel Díaz, founder of El Guardabosques

Isbel Díaz, founder of El Guardabosques

El Guardabosques reported the death of the Ceiba tree by email to hundreds of recipients, including government institutions.

“The response was incredible,”says Isbel Díaz, founder of the environmental group, “and it prompted us to perform the first action: edit a digital newsletter.” The group now publishes a free digital newsletter “to denounce anti-ecological depredations in the urban environment.”

The members of this project recognize the role of technology and virtual networks in the creation of a community. According to Isbel Díaz, networks allow you to build “your own communication channels to denounce the actions of private or state institutions that violate the law, or that hidden in the lagoons of the law, damage the environment.”

Thus El Guardabosques was born, a non-institutionalized network of people passionate about nature:

A partir de un núcleo inicial de unas cinco personas, todas vecinos de San Agustín, se han ido sumando puntualmente personas y colectivos a este trabajo. Hay quienes han estado solo en la siembra de una postura y nunca más hemos coincidido, y están quienes han participado en casi todo lo que se hace.

From an initial core of five people, all residents of San Augustín, more people and groups have been joining. Some people only participated in the planting of a tree, never to be seen again, and there are others who have participated in almost everything we do.

The most significant aspect of this project is its focus on inclusion and participative democracy. There are no exclusions based on age, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, political affiliation or economic status to participate in El Guardabosques.

For over five years, the distribution of the newsletter on the Internet has been complemented with hundreds of actions such as cleaning rivers, oceans and landfills. In addition, community projects have focused on planting and caring for trees.

Currently, El Guardabosques' newsletter is sent to nearly 1000 email addresses. Seventy-eight percent belong to residents in Cuba who access the Internet from the internal network, mainly from universities, research institutes, cultural and artistic institutions. The group has also participated in events like the panel “We think Cuba,” which is coordinated by the Hermanos Saiz Association.

Planting of an Anacagüita

Planting of an Anacagüita. Photo: Courtesy of Isbel Díaz

In June 2009, El Guardabosques joined the Red Protagónica Observatorio Crítico [es], a network which includes a dozen projects that work on issues related to childhood, sexual diversity, race, information, cultural promotion, among others. Participants inaugurated their fourth meeting in 2010 by planting an Anacagüita tree in a nursery.

According to the newsletter:

Trabajadoras del centro, encabezadas por su amable directora, niños de la comunidad, miembros de la Red Protagónica Observatorio Crítico, e invitados al evento decidimos colectivamente el mejor sitio para sembrar el arbolito, cavamos el hoyo, y sembramos y regamos la planta.

People who work at the center, led by its friendly director, children in the community, members of Red Protagónica Observatorio Crítico, and guests, collectively decided the best place to plant the little tree. We dug the hole, planted the tree, and watered the plant.

The death of the Ceiba tree in San Agustín has inspired the creation of a wonderful network of people who support each other and believe in environmental causes. El Guardabosque has also expanded its network of environmentalists and has created a space for exchange with other projects.

October 28 2011

East Timor: Investing in Creativity and Culture

East Timor is known for its material, musical and dance traditions. Celebration of “culture” was a crucial part of its resistance to Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999, and East Timorese independence has seen a number of emergent cultural projects. But something that goes overlooked is a strong culture of craft and “making” with locally available materials.

Passing on culture

Passing on culture

Enter a new project called “Tatoli ba Kultura“, meaning “Passing on Culture”. The objective of the project, after extensive research and preparation, will be to support the development of a school of creative industries:

The project aims to create an institution to conserve and protect indigenous culture but also to bring creativity to an educational level in order to create innovation.

The coordinator of the project, David Palazón, is an artist who hails from Barcelona, Spain. He says:

By chance I came here [to East Timor] to have a break with my career, do some volunteering in my field, one thing led to another.

He has been crisscrossing the country with his team researching Timorese material and performance culture, and posting fascinating videos, images and audio on the Tatoli ba Kultura “media map”, which is fast becoming a great reference.

Some of the most compelling videos are of musical instruments which are region-specific. Take for example this video of a musical instrument called Rama from Ataúro Island:

The Timorese context is quite specific, argues Palazón:

Kultura is not quite the same as we understand culture in the western world. For Timorese, culture is all those things that comes from the past, it's a reference point to understanding where they come from. My most common question when I do fieldwork is: Why do you do this like this? And the reply is always the same: ‘Because it is the way our ancestors used to do it, and it has been passed on from generations.' Obviously they have many influences from Indonesia, China, Portugal, etc … which are also rooted in the inside of the culture and are in practice totally embedded.

He says, in relation to innovation:

Traditionally speaking, Timor is still very much a country dependent on subsistence agriculture, the economy outside the capital is very much dependent on the family, their goods, what they can exchange, their family members and their incomes, and how these are distributed among who they choose in relation to their own traditions and beliefs. So in a way it is very conservative - not politically speaking - but because changing things implies a serious risk that many people cannot afford […] Nevertheless inside the traditional system there are people who are more progressive.

Ultimately, Palazón hopes that a school of creative industries would among other things generate employment through the rise of a “creative class”, increase small business development, and boost tourism.

Tatoli ba Kultura has the support of Griffiths University in Queensland, Australia and a number of institutional donors. Palazón paraphrases Griffiths Professor Tony Fry, who says, “Timor has two national resources: oil and culture. Oil will not last forever, on the contrary, culture will last forever.”

October 27 2011

Egypt: A Class Project that Became one of Egypt's Biggest Charities

Resala volunteers teach reading to blind students

Resala volunteers teach reading to blind students - photo from Resala's Facebook page

It was the year 1999, and Sherif Abdel-Azim was back in Egypt after finishing a Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering in Canada. He taught Engineering Ethics to students at Cairo University, and he also spoke to students about the differences between charity organizations in Egypt and Canada.

Sherif Abdel-Azim

Sherif Abdel-Azim

Abdel-Azim and his students decided to set up an informal charity group called Resala (Mission). They began offering services to students of the university as well as to the general public - such as teaching free courses and offering aid to orphanages and hospitals. One year later, one of his students suggested they should build an orphanage. One of her relatives donated land for them to build it on. From this moment they decided to register as an official charity organization - also called Resala [ar].

Eleven years later, it's one of the biggest charity organizations in Egypt, with more than 50 branches all over the country, tens of thousands of volunteers, and different activities that vary from blood donation and orphanages, to fighting illiteracy. They help blind people with their studies by recording books for them on cassettes, and they refurbish used clothes and give it the poor.

And much more.

Last May, TEDxCairo invited Sherif Abdel-Azim, the founder of Resala, to give a speech about the organization, stories he witnessed there, and about volunteerism in general [ar].

In 2008, Ashraf Al Shafaki, a blogger who volunteered with Resala, wrote a blog post about their annual initiative to collect used clothes for charity and fundraising:

During the month of Ramadan last year (2007), Resala aimed at collecting 100 thousand pieces of used clothes from people in Egypt through its 7 branches in Cairo and 2 branches in Alexandria. At the end of Ramadan last year, Resala exceeded its goal and actually collected 200 thousand pieces of used clothes!

He then wrote how Resala raised the bar in 2008 by announcing they would collect 300,000 items of clothing. Yet again Resala exceeded their goal and actually collected over 1,000,000 items of used clothing in less than 30 days.

Resala volunteers classified, washed and ironed around half a million (500,000) pieces of donated used clothes. The rest of the one million pieces of donated clothes will be sold with very low prices to needy people in poor districts all over Egypt through small 3-day exhibitions held near their homes. Prices for each piece vary around 50 cents and $1 with a maximum of under $3 for the most expensive used clothes pieces. This practice gives the opportunity for poor families to take their time during the exhibition and select and choose what they want in any quantity they need. It gives them the feeling they are buying the clothes with their own money.

The revenue from the used clothes sales are channelled into the various activities of Resala, along with the donations collected for the cycle to go on and on.

A Resala computer training workshop.

A Resala computer training workshop. Photo by Telecenterpictures on Flickr (CC-BY-NC-SA)

United Kingdom: At Age 77, A Life of Inspiration

Julie Kertesz is someone who celebrates her 77 years of age as she celebrates life itself. Retired but very active, Julie defines herself as a storyteller and photographer. She is also a prolific blogger, a videomaker and is just getting started in stand up comedy.

She was born in Transylvania (then part of Hungary, later Romania), moved to France at the age of 30, and has lived in London since July 2008.

According to one of her followers on the photography sharing website, Flickr, Patrick Barry Barr, she is a “role-model to people of all ages who desire to lead full and active lives of learning and doing.” He says:

Julie70 exhibits a spirit that belies her age, as we tend to think of people in their 70’s, and I marvel at her enthusiasm, the way in which she relishes meeting strangers and sharing her enthusiasm with them. I will be 67 on 11 May, and when I grow up I want to be just like Julie Kertesz.

Self portrait by Julie Kertesz

Self portrait – Julie Kertesz

Julie loves learning and has never stopped studying – not even when it was forbidden by the communist regime of Romania. While working in Paris, she returned to the classroom as a mother of two, only to leave university at age 43 with a phD in physics.

As she describes in her life story on her blog, there is life after 70:

We are not giving up!
Each of us does something, either to live better or to rest alive.
Alas, I met also old people who looks as if they did already give up, and even some very young ones.
Lonely, in the metro.
Just look at them in the metro of Paris. How different with the man I met yesterday, working in the market. And so many others of us, living our lifes as full as possible.
Ok, we have a certain age, but we do not feel old inside!

Julie uses Flickr, blogs, and personal storytelling to inspire others. In a comment on her blog entitled “Courage to laugh at yourself” (in French) a reader shows appreciation for her endeavors:

[…] tu sais Julie, tu es Une Sage, je le pense. Tu m'aides souvent dans des moments compliqués, je me dis “attends, l'effet Julie va se produire, ça va aller”.

[…] you know, Julie, I think you are a wise-woman. You often help me in my complicated moments, I tell myself “wait, the Julie effect will materialise, it will be OK”.

Perhaps the source of such wisdom is the readiness to dare to experience something new. In the video below, Julie uses her 4th language to illustrate some of her first-time experiences between the ages of 25 to 70:

It was precisely at the age of 70 that Julie discovered photography. In 2006, she created the !afterclass! group, a masterclass on Flickr where 2,500 people get together to learn photography. She also created the people reading group; the never too old group; and strangers no more:

“No more strangers. I met them, I spoke to them. I remember them.”

This last group inspires people to approach others and, with every interaction, a beautiful human being is unveiled. Click on the pictures below to discover the delightful stories Julie uncovered through “human Interactions” with strangers.

October 20 2011

Armenia: Newfound Support for Domestic Violence Victims

Domestic violence has long been a taboo subject in Armenian circles. But when 20-year-old mother Zaruhi Petrosyan was brutally beaten to death by her husband and mother-in-law last October, the case mobilized individuals and organizations in confronting this issue which affects over a quarter of women in Armenia.

The awakening gave way to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women in Armenia, a seven member organization that has been following Petrosyan's case and working to make changes to the criminal code about domestic violence. Along with the Women's Resource Center, Society Without Violence and PINK Armenia, The Tufenkian Foundation joined the coalition and has now teamed up with the Armenian International Women's Association as well as USAID to establish women's shelters in Armenia through the Zangakatun Social Services NGO's Women's Support Center.

We spoke to Tufenkian's Country Director, Mary Matosian in Los Angeles in September about the challenges and hopes for the project.

Zaruhi Petrosyan, a young mother who was beaten to death last year by her husband and mother-in-law/Image courtesy of family via News.am

Global Voices (GV): What kind of work has your organization done in the scope of domestic violence in Armenia thus far?

Mary Matosian (MM): We have created posters and fliers and distributed them. This has not been very easy because we would like to put them in store windows, and some have accepted and some have not. We ran our hotline number [on television] and people called us from all over Armenia. We teach positive parenting, many of these women continue to be physically violent to their children, so the children become perpetrators of violence. Many of these women didn't even know this was a problem because this is what they’ve seen in their families and they think this is the norm. Together with British Embassy, we also ran a training program for journalists, speaking to them about what exactly domestic violence is, and how to interview victims of violence.

GV: How do you change attitudes about domestic violence in Armenia?

MM: We need to educate people at all levels, government officials, teachers, doctors. For example we did training with teachers. They were women, and very adamant about not wanting to talk about this subject, and very resistant. Women themselves are not ready to think towards their own good. International organizations play a major role in this, and the diaspora too. Because on a local level as much as we scream and yell, nothing happens. When there's outside pressure they start to react. We have to start changing legislation. Laws are very important for the protection of victims and punishment of abusers.

Armenian diasporans in Los Angeles supported activists in Armenia by organizing a march against domestic violence earlier this year. Image by Liana Aghajanian.

Armenian diasporans in Los Angeles supported activists in Armenia by organizing a march against domestic violence earlier this year. Image by Liana Aghajanian.

GV: Why is this an important enough issue for those who are not Armenian to care about?

MM: Domestic violence is an international issue. We get grants from organizations that have no presence in Armenia. The solidarity of women around the world to promote women issues and to protect women is something universal, without borders. Through the internet now, we are so connected with each other and we can present experiences to Armenians and mention how are things in Africa and South America and other parts of the world, and where they have dealt with the issues – and that in itself creates a parallel for them to be inspired.

GV: What about critics who will point out that men get abused too. Do you have programs available for male victims of domestic violence?

MM: We have indeed two men in the program who were abused as well. We had one particular family where all members of the family were hitting each other. We cannot address everything – there's all sorts of violence – you need to focus on something, but there are other cases and they should be addressed.

GV: What does the future hold for curbing domestic violence in Armenia?

MM: If we go at this pace, I think the future is very bright. Because if we can continue to be well-organized and continue to have funding and be active the way we are now, more and more information will be spread around. Even though we have had good results in the past few years, we are still in the nascent stages of this struggle. For example, the word ‘feminism' for some reason has bad connotations in Armenia. We still have to explain to people, to women, what women's rights are. Women are not even aware that they have problems. We are still in the very early stages.

Other organizations in the country are also establishing infrastructure for domestic violence victims. In July, the non-profit charity Paros “Lighthouse” opened a new shelter and women's center in Yerevan, where they house expecting mothers and women with children up to 2 years old who have been abused and have no where to go. The center has received three women so far, who come for support for milk, clothing, diapers and therapy. According to founder Seta Ghazarian, it has capacity for up to 16 women.

October 18 2011

Malawi: A Growing City and its Pay-to-Cross Footbridges

Samuel Mbewe and Kayen Kayanka with friend

At work on a Lilongwe river bridge, Samuel Mbewe and Kayen Kayanka with friend. By Steve Sharra (CC-BY)

As the world's population reaches 7 billion at the end of October, one sign that Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, is growing rapidly are the numbers of people that flock to the city's markets. Two of such markets are on opposite sides of the Lilongwe River in this city of just over 1 million. One market sells vegetables and farm produce, the other clothing. Four years ago, going from one market to the other meant taking a circuitous path along the riverbank, crossing the Lilongwe Bridge, and then walking back on the other side. Today, there are bridges connecting the two markets, but they are not conventional bridges. They have been constructed by hand using locally-sourced wood.

A new 5-star hotel

Evidence of urbanization - a new 5-star hotel construction in Lilongwe. By Steve Sharra (CC-BY)

The proceeds of the day go into the pocket of whoever is on shift. From his earnings, Mbewe told me he had opened a grocery store.

Their constructors collect tolls, currently at K10.00 (US$0.06) per person crossing.

The bridge pictured on the right was constructed by a team of seven young men, and it now provides them with a livelihood. They take turns manning the bridge, from as early as 6am to as late as 7pm when darkness falls and the markets close.

A local solution to joblessness and urbanization

On Sunday October 2, 2011 I found Samuel Mbewe and Kayen Kayanka, standing guard at their bridge. In the three years they have owned the bridge they have never counted how many people cross the bridge per day. But Samuel told me their earnings range from MK9,000 (US$54) on a slow day, to MK25,000 (US$150) on a good day. At MK10 person, that's between 900 and 2,500 people crossing the bridge every day. But it's only an estimate, since he says some people pay only K5, while others don't pay anything at all, such as friends and colleagues.

A hand-made bridge connecting two markets across the Lilongwe river

A hand-made bridge connecting two markets across the Lilongwe river. By Steve Sharra (CC-BY)

The bridges are not for the lightheaded, or someone with vertigo. First timers take slow steps, while experienced crossers walk as if they were in Air Jordan basketball sneakers. A Swiss blogger, Janique Racine, wrote in 2007 about being frightened to death upon crossing a swaying bridge. She said:

Of course you don’t want to look down but you have to because your foot might get stuck in the empty spaces!

There are other hazards as well. The Lilongwe River overflows during the rainy season. The bridges get damaged in the floods, but they are rebuilt once the rainy season is over. In January this year a man drowned trying to cross. In July this year, the young men (there are no women thus far) organized themselves into a “bridges union”. They agreed each bridge should contribute K200 (US$1.20) per day to a shared pool. That translates into MK803,000 (US$4,808) per year. The aim of the union is to support members in times of death or bereavement. I asked about future investment plans with the savings, but they had none, as yet.

October 17 2011

Brazil: Creating Opportunities for Life After Jail

In the 1990's Ronaldo Monteiro was convicted for extortion by kidnapping and sentenced to 28 years in prison in Brazil. While serving his time, Monteiro and some fellow inmates were concerned for the well-being of their families in their absence. They responded to the situation by setting up a workshop inside the jail where they recycled and sold paper. A portion of the profit went towards improving their equipment, and the rest was shared among their families. That's how project Uma Chance (A Chance) started.

The Center for Digital Inclusion (CDI) began offering short courses on information technology to detainees. Monteiro enrolled and learned fast; he was soon invited to teach as well. The project expanded to other penitentiaries, and family members were also invited to participate.

In this documentary by Mixer Productions, Monteiro explains how he pursued a new path from inside jail and turned his life around (subtitles in English):

Event to celebrate the third year of ‘Growing up with Citizenship' at CISC - photo by Danny Silva, used with permission

In 2002, while still incarcerated, Monteiro created the Center of Social and Cultural Integration known as CISC-Uma Chance, which offers courses on IT and recycling to communities of Tribobó, in São Gonçalo, in Greater Rio de Janeiro. They work to make opportunities available to more people, as CISC develops activities in cooking, citizen awareness, healthy lifestyle and preparation for university.

In 2003, Monteiro was granted parole.

New beginnings

In 2006, Monteiro went one step further and created the impressive Incubadora de Empreendimentos para Egressos (IEE) (Incubator of Small Businesses for Ex-Detainees). Aiming for social reintegration of young offenders, detainees and former detainees, the incubator fosters ideas with dynamic lessons on entrepreneurial skills and management. The IEE seeks to break the cycle of repeat-offending by offering a chance to men and women who are often turned down by society. The project has earned support from Petrobras since 2006, and has partnered with Ashoka, McKinsey & Company and several universities. Because of this work, Monteiro was named an Ashoka fellow.

Ronaldo Monteiro talking to participants of IEE - photo by Danny Silva, used with permission

As Monteiro says in the documentary above, serious projects “transform lives and make men work” instead of resorting to crime and armed violence. In a TEDx Sudeste [pt] presentation in 2010, Monteiro explained that rehabilitation should involve education, and opportunities and incentive for pursuing dreams.

The penitentiary system in Brazil has been repeatedly been a subject of criticism by human rights groups. A report by Amnesty International in 2010 said detainees “continued to be held in cruel, inhuman or degrading conditions”, often facing overcrowded facilities.

When detainees are released, they carry a heavy stigma, and harsh experiences in jail hardly contribute to rehabilitation. But with the proper incentive and inspiration, detainees may find options of new paths to rebuild their lives.

October 16 2011

Worldwide: Dialogue and Peace through Sport

Joël Bouzou [fr], a bronze medalist at the 1984 Olympic Games and modern pentathlon World Champion in 1987 from France, is the founder and president of Peace and Sport, a global initiative created in 2007 whose objective is building sustainable peace through sport.

Burundi : le centre sportif Peace & Sport de Gihanga  - Photo Peace and Sport

Burundi: Peace & Sport sport center in Gihanga - Image from website Peace and Sport

In countries where Peace and Sport operates, the organization supports local actors and heps them design and implement programs for vulnerable youth, while strengthening existing sports facilities damaged during armed conflicts.

In Burundi, for instance, Peace and Sport is funding the renovation of sports facilities, equipment and training for coaches. Since 2008, 300 out-of-school children in Gihanga, war orphans and children living in the streets nearby, have been receiving training in football, athletics, karate, modern biathlon, judo, volleyball, basketball and tennis. Community events are organized to foster reconciliation, education as well as the promotion of peace.

Pascal, a 16-year old former refugee and would-be football player from the Gihanga Center, is quoted [fr] on Peace and Sport's Burundi page:

“Sport clears my mind. When I play football, I expend a lot of energy: suddenly, I no longer think about the death of my relatives, it removes dark thoughts from my mind. It soothes me. In addition, through football, I can communicate better with other children. I am learning how to guide them, not necessarily by giving them orders. I like that.”

Peace and Sport worked in Côte d’Ivoire, even during the period of political turmoil and ethnic strife in early 2011, and continues to do so in Bouake, Abidjan (Marcory), Daloa, Man and Yamoussoukro. The organization supports local NGOs and reaches nearly 600 children through social, education and social inclusiveness programs (literacy, health, civic education).

Global Voices spoke to Joël Bouzou about his work.

GV: Joël Bouzou, why did you create Peace and Sport?

Joël Bouzou with Nelson Mandela - Image from Peace & Sport website

Joël Bouzou: I created Peace and Sport in 2007 because, as an Olympic medalist, I am particularly attuned to the power of sport to create unity across political, social, ethnic or religious divides, which are often the core reasons for conflicts on the planet .

In which countries do you operate?

JB: We have supported or coordinated the implementation of programs in seven countries: Côte d'Ivoire, Burundi, Timor LesteColombiaHaïtiIsraël-Palestine and, more recently, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

GV: To what extent do you think you have contributed to peace?

JB: To me, peace is not just a state of “no war”; peace has to be taught, learned and transmitted. Sport is a recognized educational tool. It is easy to implement, even when infrastructure is lacking. Sport, taught in a structured maner, helps vulnerable children regain a personal balance and to set goals and standards for themselves. They reacquire the wish to improve and to succeed.  They rediscover the path to solidarity, tolerance and a sense of solidarity. They learn how to communicate, to overcome their prejudices and to engage in dialogue.

Peace and Sport, whose patron is Prince Albert II of Monaco, has also created Champions for Peace, an initiative that brings together 56 world level athletes. It grants awards to grassroot organizations or sports events, such as Skateistan, a  skateboarding teaching initiative for both girls and boys in Afghanistan.

On September 21, on the occasion of  World Peace Day, the Peace and Sport youth centers organized a special event, an Open Door day, to promote the values of sport.

October 10 2011

China: “Do you have memories from before you were kidnapped?”

A girl plays the violin at a train station in Beijing

A girl plays the violin for change at a train station in Beijing. Screenshot from documentary trailer shot in November 2010

If you’ve ever visited a Chinese city, you will see children begging or performing with musical instruments near train stations or on crowded streets for spare change. What you’ve witnessed is the tip of a serious and tough problem in China – the kidnapping and selling of children.

In early 2009, the public security authorities in China have implemented an anti-kidnapping campaign. At the end of 2010, official figures (not necessarily reliable) showed that 9,165 cases of trafficked women and 5,900 cases of trafficked children were uncovered; 9,388 children and 17,746 women were rescued, and 3,573 criminal kidnapping gangs were destroyed.

The true number of kidnapped children is likely to be much higher than the number rescued. According to some estimates, as many as 70,000 children in China are abducted by gangs each year.

What is fuelling this child kidnapping? Thanks to the one-child policy, and Chinese traditions placing huge pressure on families to have sons, stolen children are often sold into new families. On the other hand, kidnapped girls are often sold into areas where there is a surplus of unmarried men. Still many others are sold into street performance, begging or prostitution.

Telling their story

The child kidnapping issue is the theme of an upcoming documentary called “Living with Dead Hearts: The Search for China's Kidnapped Children” by Charles Custer.

Custer is an American strongly interested in China. Currently based in Beijing, he runs the successful blog ChinaGeeks, which offers translation and analysis of the China blogosphere. For his documentary, Custer wants to go beyond statistics and analysis. By focusing on the personal and emotional side of the stories, he wants to attach real faces to these social problems.

At the end of last year, Custer launched a fundraising appeal on Kickstarter to make the documentary. Following generous responses of more than 100 people, the project has successfully raised more than $8,500, and Custer has since then spent much of his free time tracking, interviewing and filming parents and kidnapped children.

This month, the film crew has put together an update together with an early trailer of the film:

Their goal is for viewers abroad to be able to relate to Chinese people as individuals after watching the documentary. They would be able to see, for example, how the parents of kidnapped children feel with questions like, “When did you discover your daughter was missing? Could you tell us more about your daughter’s character and hobbies? What methods have you tried to look for her apart from reporting to the police and the school? How do you plan to keep looking?” Or how kidnapped children feel as adults: “Do you have memories from before you were kidnapped? Do your current “parents” remember from whom you were purchased? And how do they feel about it now?”

If you care about this issue, you can see how Custer is progressing on the documentary at the dedicated website www.livingwithdeadhearts.com, or learn more about kidnapped children in a special section of ChinaGeeks.org. If you wish to show your support, visit the Chinese charities Baby Come Home and Xinxing Aid, which support kidnapped and street children in various ways.

September 29 2011

Cuba: A Tireless Defender of Gay Rights

Francisco Rodríguez Cruz is a Cuban journalist and activist who for over a year has maintained a controversial blog [es] committed to advancing the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in Cuba. This is a community that has experienced a difficult history of discrimination on the island. Paquito, as he is commonly known on the web, does not only address issues of sexual diversity and gay rights in his blog. He has also been writing of his own personal experience, for the past five years, of battling HIV and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.

“Those who have the privilege to access Internet from Cuba should aim always at improving something in the country, not only deal with external hostilities. Perhaps then we would develop much faster,” he says.

In a previous interview last year, with Tele Sur, Paquito was asked about his blog and said, “At first, some people said it was impossible for someone with my characteristics to exist in Cuba: HIV-positive, communist, gay, father, journalist.” But Paquito, with all his multiple dimensions and complexity, really does exist.

Here is the video of the Tele Sur interview (in Spanish):

Francisco Rodríguez, journalist and blogger

Francisco Rodríguez, journalist and blogger at "Paquito el de Cuba."

Paquito is a member of Hombres por la diversidad (Men for Diversity), a social network of the state-run program National Centre for Sex Education, but he has also supported civil society and independent associations, and the recently founded, Rainbow Project, which aims to participate in debate on public policies and raise awareness of institutional homophobia. They advocate changes to Cuban law that eradicate discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender.

On December 2, 2010 Paquito was received by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, at the ministry's headquarters, along with other representatives of civil society in Cuba [es] who questioned Cuba's support for an amendment to remove reference to sexual orientation from a United Nations resolution condemning summary executions (executions without trial). During this meeting, the foreign minister said there would be no changes in Cuba's policy to oppose any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender.

After this unusual dialogue, Paquito suggested to the authorities in March 2011 that they should support an international UN declaration to eliminate “criminal penalties and other human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” And they did, in June.

Meanwhile, Paquito continued denouncing irregularities committed by Cuban police, who repeatedly fined visitors to a gay spot in central Habana.

Gerardo Arreola, a journalist from La Jornada in Mexico, wrote about his efforts:

Su activismo ha tenido giros tan insólitos como el que lo puso frente a la policía, primero como infractor, luego como demandante y finalmente como interlocutor.

His activism has had twists so unusual, as to make him run in with the police, first as an offender, then as a plaintiff, and finally as an equal.

Paquito is now fighting his latest battle. He has run, literally, after the Cuban Minister of Justice, María Esther Reus, to ask her what happened to the updated draft of the Family Code, a law that would approve, along with a number of important benefits for all Cubans, legal marriage for couples of the same sex. The minister replied that she has until 2013 to submit the law for parliamentary consideration. Paquito does not give up: “There will always have to be someone to ask the questions that will prevent people from forgetting,” he says.

September 21 2011

Mozambique: Sant'Egidio Community Fights Back Against HIV/AIDS

Lack of access to care for HIV positive people has been well documented on the African continent. Many initiatives strive to show that things could improve with collective effort, and among them is the Drug Resource Enhancement against AIDS and Malnutrition (DREAM) program.

DREAM was created in 2002 by the Sant'Egidio Community in Mozambique, and takes a comprehensive approach to fighting HIV/AIDS. Cristina Cannelli, leader of the Guinea DREAM program, explains the special relationship [it] with the African continent, especially Mozambique:

"Free care here". Image by Sant'Egidio photo service.

"Free care here". Image by Sant'Egidio photo service.

La Comunità di Sant'Egidio è profondamente legata all'Africa, anche perchè la Comunità stessa è una realtà africana. Esistono Comunità di Sant'Egidio in 26 paesi  del continente con più di 20.000 membri africani. Un legame particolare con il Mozambico, dove nel 1992 fu firmata la pace che pose termine ad una terribile guerra civile grazie alla mediazione della Comunità, condusse a scegliere il Mozambico qualeprimo paese in cui lanciare il programma DREAM.

The Sant'Egidio community is deeply linked to Africa, in part because the community itself is anchored on the continent. The community is present in 26 African nations and has more than 20,000 members. A special relationship exists with Mozambique because in 1992, the Sant’Egidio community contributed to the peace treaty agreement that ended the civil war. That's why Mozambique was the first choice for implementing the DREAM program.

Today DREAM is present in Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Guinea (Conakry), Guinea (Bissau), Nigeria, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon. The basic philosophy of the program is:

…that DREAM is meant to provide excellent care, diagnosis, as well as top health structure and technology. DREAM offers a customized adaptation of the Western standards by routinely testing for viral load in Africa and introducing Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART)

A DREAM success

The sheer numbers of the DREAM activity throughout the continent are impressive: 150,000 people have been treated of which 25,000 were aged 15 years or younger,  65,000 patients have benefited from anti-retroviral therapy of which 6,000 were children. DREAM also successfully interrupted vertical mother-to-child HIV transmission for 14,000 births from HIV positive mothers.

Since the beginning of the program more than 1,000,000 people have benefited from the DREAM program via health education, water filtration, food supplies, mosquito nets, prevention programmes on television, radio and the workplace.  In total, the DREAM centers have performed 1,300,000 medical consultations, 276,000 viral load tests and 540,000 CD4 tests.

Celebrating the good health of the children at the mother-to-child HIV transmission prevention centers. Image courtesy of the Sant'Egidio community.

Celebrating the good health of the children at the mother-to-child HIV transmission prevention centers. Image courtesy of the Sant'Egidio community.

For such a large organisation to run properly in so many countries with many different spoken languages, qualified personnel is a must, which is why the community has organized 18 workshops throughout the continent for 4,000 health professionals. Mobile teams travel to reach the most isolated patients.

In order to engage the local institutions, DREAM states that:

Many structures are active thanks to the collaboration and agreement between  local health centers and DREAM to reproduce the DREAM program.

However, patients also are actively contributing by committing to actively fight the HIV pandemic by becoming volunteers:

In each and every DREAM centre, medical and paramedical personnel are flanked by local men and women who have decided to commit themselves to working for patients who come to our centres. They decided to do so when their own lives were remarkably transformed after they came in contact with our services.
There are relatively large groups of such people and they constitute an indispensable resource for the success of the programme. Most, but not all, of them are sick. They are our “campaigners”.

September 20 2011

Ukraine: Short Films by Youth for Gender Equality

The average Ukrainian woman is highly educated, yet earns about 30 percent less than the average man in a similar position. She is more likely to become unemployed or not get hired at all because she might get pregnant. Even if she has no children, she is still carrying out the majority of household duties, which prevents her career development. She also has a nearly 50-percent chance of experiencing violence in her home.

While the laws in Ukraine, including in the country’s constitution, establish legal equality between the men and women, closing the gap between the legislation and its implementation is a difficult task. However, traditional attitudes and values are slowly changing, and ordinary citizens as well as women's rights advocates, are playing an important role in this process. In August 2010, for instance, over 1,000 people marched [en] in Ukraine's capital Kyiv to condemn domestic violence, and hundreds of volunteers joined the domestic violence awareness campaign.

A video competition for young Ukranians

From June 17 to September 10, 2011 a group of talented youth submitted [en] their entries to a short film competition about gender called “Gene of Equality”. Participants had to produce 5-minute films in one of two categories: “5 minutes of gender equality” or “5 minutes on domestic violence prevention.” The competition is sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme and the European Union Delegation to Ukraine.

The winners will be selected by a jury, while short films will also be voted on by YouTube users. Already, the online videos have been viewed nearly 50,000 times, and the best will be screened at the short gender film festival scheduled to take place in Kyiv in October 2011.

Below is a selection of films that can be understood by speakers of any language, and you can see more of the films submitted on the YouTube page, GenderTube.

“Violence in the family – a life ripped to pieces” - by “Infinity”

“Change your focus – don’t perceive a woman just as a sex object” - by “Just a kilo”

“And What About Your Family?” - by “Divine Animators”

“Craftsmanship has no gender” - by “NONAME_GROUP”

September 15 2011

Pakistan: Speaking Out the Unspoken - Gawaahi

Information and communications technology (ICT) has long been hailed as a harbinger of a global change. Researchers have argued over the potential of ICT, specifically in promoting literacy and raising social awareness. A number of projects around the globe have made a mark while trying to utilize ICT towards such ends proving ICT could be of immense significance in our world.

Gawaahi is one such venture that aims to bring to fore underrepresented voices of Pakistani society. Coupling ICT with social activism, Gawaahi was started off by two eminent Pakistani social activists, Naveen Naqvi and Sana Saleem. It is basically an online archive of videos and digital stories that aims to promote ‘the other story’, issues that don’t usually make it to the mainstream media or are underreported.

Speaking about what Gwaahi highlights, Naveen says:

We want to share people's stories. Kids off the streets of Karachi. A peasant farmer from Qambar Shahdad Kot. A young woman who was molested at the age of eight and has survived to share the tale with us as a young woman. An acid survivor from the interior of Punjab. A woman displaced because of a landslide in the Hunza valley. These are the stories you will find on Gawaahi.

What started off as a small venture in 2011 has turned into a well-known online phenomenon in Pakistan’s online media. Not only has the project had a national impact, it has also made headlines in the international social media. Within two months of the launch, Gawaahi was nominated for the Best Social Activism Campaign and Best English Blog categories of the prestigious Deutsche Welle Blog Awards.

What can be called a truly unique aspect of the portal is its inclusion of digital stories. Digital story-telling has been around for long but is still struggling to find its way into the Pakistani blogosphere. The Gwaahi team has brought this facet of online activism to fore by narrating a number of stories digitally. To this, much has been contributed by Mehreen Kasana, an active blogger and an activist who is known for her awesome doodles. On the home page of it’s YouTube channel, a digital story narrates how a girl was molested for many years by her dad’s friend until she decided to speak up.

The presentation of the story and the aesthetics are captivating. Gwaahi’s YouTube channel also hosts dozens of videos: these are stories of abused women, tutorials on how to use cameras, as well as interviews with national and international bloggers and journalists about the significance of social activism, especially in the online world.

Today, Gwaahi is a registered NGO. The official website states that it “plans to produce video testimonies of abuse and survival for awareness and advocacy campaigns.” Talking about the possible significance of the portal, Naveen says:

We’re hoping it will be a useful resource for donor agencies, NGOs, media houses, governments including ours, donor states and philanthropist organizations.

September 13 2011

Lebanon: Empowering Migrant Workers With Language

A community of enthusiastic young people in Beirut, The Migrant Workers Task Force, are working to support foreign domestic workers in Lebanon whose living and working conditions are often desperately unfair.

The volunteer group has only been active since January 2011, but already they have managed to attract the attention of both local and international media for their innovative approach to changing the perceptions of both workers and employers. Among their main achievements are the free language courses they offer to workers learning Arabic, English, or French every Sunday.

In Lebanon, approximately one domestic worker a week dies under murky circumstances (often described as “suicide”). Eighty percent of domestic migrant workers are not allowed to leave their employer's house at all. Their plight and rights are almost universally ignored.

Migrant Workers Task Force logoInitially the task force consisted of only Alex, Lioba, Farrah, Ali, and Janie, but recently the group has been expanding. According to Janie Shen, 24, one of the co-founders (the only one who is actually still in Lebanon) the idea for the Migrant Workers Task Force was born after newcomers to Lebanon, like herself and Alex, were shocked by the conditions of migrant workers in the country - for instance, the degrading uniforms, general mistreatment, having passports confiscated, food rationed, and only one day a week off or none at all.

In this video Janie explains more about what the Migrant Workers Task force is about:

Migrant Workers Task Force have no office or official organization, but have been meeting regularly at Zico House in Hamra and will soon relocate some of their activities to Migrant House in Nabaa. Everyone involved in the project is a volunteer, and they rely on small fundraising events to cover their costs.

Anti-racism ad by Migrant Workers Task Force

'You see a poor man, but he is a source of wealth' Anti-racism ad by Migrant Workers Task Force

Part of the success of the group is due to their talented use of social media for communication. All news and announcements are published on their blog, and they manage a group and several pages on Facebook. They also share images and videos on Flickr and a Youtube.

Among their memorable campaigns are, their anti-racism posters for International Worker's Day (featuring three language class students), a series of interviews with migrants about their conditions, and some short satirical films in response to an official campaign showing Lebanon as a paradise for tourists.

They have also hosted local migrant celebrations, like a Nepalese New Year celebration, and have helped sell African and Asian food and other migrant products.

Language classes

On Sundays workers from workers from Nepal, Philippines, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Sudan assemble to learn languages with volunteer teachers who wish to help. They began as informal gatherings, but are now developing into more structured language lessons. Here is a video from the languages lessons one Sunday and some testimonies of students and teachers. One teacher says, “I am offering my skills in English to let them speak for their rights.”

The language classes have become an important venue for community building. One student interviewed in the video below is Rahel Zegeye, a migrant worker from Ethiopia, who over two years put all of her earnings towards making a feature film about the experience of domestic workers in Lebanon.

In less than a year, Migrant Workers Task Force has mobilized more volunteers and goodwill than many other more established organizations. Via language and communication, they have helped migrant domestic workers in Lebanon facing a very local problem gain highly deserved international attention.

September 12 2011

Russia: Connecting Neighbors, Saving Lives

Website "Virtual Alarm" maps alerts for help and need, and then coordinates locals to respond.

In the summer of 2010, when peat fires spread across Russia, choking and suffocating villages, internet activists got organized. While the Russian government response was slow and piecemeal, bloggers responded by quickly launching the site Russian-Fires [ru], which allowed internet users in small towns to relay information about where fires were still burning and what supplies were needed.

The site was immensely popular, at one point experiencing 10,000 visits a day.

When the crisis was over, the bloggers behind the project - Anastasia Severina, Alexey Sidorenko, Lev Zvyagintsev, Valery Ilyichev, and Gregory Aslomov - noticed that the website was still buzzing with activity. Users continued to send messages about other problems and needs in their towns.

“People saw that it was an effective platform for sending help when and where it was needed,” says Severina.

Connecting people in new ways

The site was redesigned and renamed Rynda.org (Virtual Alarm) – and now consists of three maps: a “General Map”, a “Fire Map”, and a “Blood Donation” map.

The locations of people who have sent requests are indicated in red, while offers to help are in green. Severina says they have tried to make the site as simple as possible, so that people, “who have no idea how to operate a computer can go to the page and see two buttons: ‘I need help’ or ‘I want to help.’”

The site team in Moscow does not physically transport or receive goods. Instead, “Virtual Alarm” connects people who live in the same city, with those who have what they need.

“Let’s say a mother needs supplies, like clothing for her children. It makes no sense to send clothes from an NGO in Moscow to Vladivostok,” Severina explains. Instead, alerts for help or need are marked on a map, and people registered as willing to help are notified of new requests via email.

After about two weeks, they follow up on any outstanding alerts to make sure someone has responded to the call for help.

Mapping blood donors

The newest map on “Virtual Alarm” charts blood donation and blood banks throughout Russia. The map marks donation centers, and also connects those who need blood donations with donors of the same blood type nearby. Registered users can also leave comments about their experience donating blood, which Severina hopes will help show people how easy and necessary it is to donate blood at least once a year.

A woman donates blood

An image from Russian ministry of health site encouraging citizens to donate blood.

According to 2010 statistics [ru], only 13 out of every 1,000 people in Russia donate blood every year, in comparison with rates 3-4 times as high in Europe and the United States. The Russian Ministry of Health and Social Development say they need to reach a rate of at least 25 out of 1,000 people [ru] in order for hospitals and clinics to function adequately.

The ministry has recently launched a hotline number and website called “I'm a donor” (Yadonor.ru) to inform the public and make blood donation easier.

In the near future, Rynda hopes to partner with local businesses in order to offer registered users small rewards – like discounts or movies tickets – as a thank you for volunteering.

As far as the future uses of the map, Severina says, “If, god forbid, something should happen, and some new crisis should arise, we would make a new map and connect people.”

September 07 2011

Guinea: Nadine Bari's Fight to Reduce Poverty in Guinea

Nadine Bari in the documentary ‘I was still waiting for you yesterday' directed by Catherine Veaux-Logeat

Nadine Bari is a French citizen who resides half the time in Guinea in West Africa and the other half on the French island Réunion, in the Indian ocean.

Mrs. Bari lost her husband Abdoulaye “Djibril” Barry during one of the violent repressions in Guinea that were customary under the dictatorship of Sékou Touré. Twenty-five years ago, she created a non-governmental organization that supports women, the disabled, and the rural population of Guinea.

Global Voices: How did you end up in Guinea?

Nadine Bari: I first arrived in Guinea in January of 1964 to follow my Guinean husband. We were both quite thrilled to have the opportunity to put our diplomas and youthful energy to use for the development of the newly independent nation (not for the regime at the time though). My husband disappeared in 1971. The first book I wrote,  ”Grain de sable” was about my quest to find out the truth about his death (the documentary “I was still waiting for you yesterday” directed by Catherine Veaux-Logeat also retraced this quest).

GV: Tell us about your organization?

NB : It is called Guinée-Solidarité (GS). It was established in Strasbourg, France in 1987. During two trips to Guinea in 1985 and 1986, I could not help but take notice of the economic and social downfall of the country. For instance, in Koundara-Youkounkoun, I was stupefied to see that the school of Ouros did not have benches for the students. They had to bring their own seat otherwise they were not allowed in class. In one classroom, the teacher used an electricity mast that had fallen down as a desk for the kids. The health center had very little medication in stock, some were even expired. With the photos that my daughter took, we raised awareness in our church in Strasbourg. One of the choir singers worked for a transportation company and offered to fill a few containers with materials that we collected from hospitals, schools and companies in Alsace and send them to Guinea. That's how everything started.

GV: How did Guinée-Solidarité help reduce the impact of poverty in Guinea?

NB: We targeted the villages that were kind of forgotten by international aid. The ones that were difficult to reach and especially downtrodden, in the Guinean forest and in Northern Guinea. In 1986-87, we were shocked to see that the patients in the hospital in the village of Mali (in the Fouta-Djallon region) were sleeping on the floor. We raised awareness again in Alsace and the surrounding regions to collect medical materials. In total, 7 state hospitals, 12 health centers and 18 health units benefited from the initiative. One of our priorities was to help the disabled (either the crippled, blind or socially outcast groups). We trained some of them in the use of bicycles or tricycles.

A clothing workshop established by Guinée-Solidarité (photo used with permission)

GV: What is Guinée-Solidarité doing specifically for women?

NB : We have helped create a clothing workshop where women imprint an indigo dye on fabrics. We also support widows who are gardening in Fello Wendou in the Fouta-Djalon region. We were able to get funds from Switzerland to plant indigo trees. The project began in 2007 and it builds on the skills of Fulani women and how they weave traditional fabrics. Unfortunately, the chinese textile industry has now injected the local market with cheaper fabrics at a cost with which we cannot compete if we wish to sustain our workers.

A reading class for Guinean women lead by Guinée Solidarité (photo used with permission)

GV: Educating poor and disabled children is one of your major success stories. How did you go about the project?

NB: In la Cité de Solidarité, a neighborhood of Conakry [the capital] known to be the homeless and beggars quarter, we knew of at least 450 disabled people. None knew how to read. We found 80 of them, mostly girls and children, sponsors in France, Spain and Belgium. The criteria to benefit from a sponsor was that the child had to be an orphan or disabled. Many begging children - even the blind ones - were able to attend college, at Gamal Abdel Nasser or Sonfonia University in Conakry. A library was opened for the children of la Cité and the neighborhood Jean-Paul II. It is very well-attended. We even installed solar panels to provide electricity on a regular basis.

Guinée-Solidarité has 4 main branches: Strasbourg, Marseille (that has been financing a major rehabilitation center for the disabled in Mamou), Paris and Conakry.

September 06 2011

Mexico: Hero Reports, Mapping Acts of Kindness

Screen grab from the Juarez Heroreports map

Screen grab from the Juarez Heroreports map

Heroreports is a non-profit project dedicated to crowdsourcing and mapping reports of citizen courage and positive social behavior. It started in Ciudad Juárez, México as an initiative of the MIT Center for Civic Media called “Crónicas de Héroes“, under the direction of Yesica Guerra, a researcher in urban design with a master's degree in Architecture and Urbanism from MIT. Ciudad Juarez is known for being one of the most violent cities in the world, due to drug cartel violence and sex-related murders

Yesica Guerra describes the project in this video interview with the Knight Foundation blog [en]:

The following video is a trailer in Spanish for the Juárez Heroreports [es]:

According to Maite Fernandez from the International Journalists' Network, the idea for the project came about in 2009 whenChristopher Csikszentmihályi, director of the Center for Future Civic Media visited Ciudad Juarez as part of a delegation that would suggest ideas for improving life in the city.

The initial success of the Juárez Heroreports, which has documented and geo-located some 1045 accounts of positive civic actions, has been followed by other sites in Monterrey, México, the border between Tijuana, México, and San Diego, California, USA, and even Kazakhstan. While they are all part of the same networks, each site has its own individual design and personality. Nevertheless, the focus and goal remain the same.

Heroreports is described as a campaign of positive thinking. Here is an example of one short witness report submitted on April 9, 2011 in Ciudad Juárez:

Un día que regresaba del Paso Tx. Iba una señora caminado mayor de edad que regresaba de trabajar y traía muchas bolsas pesadas vi como un joven le ofreció ayuda hasta que la subió al camión.

One day I was returning from El Paso, Texas I saw an elderly lady walking home from work who had a lot of heavy bags. I saw a young man offer her help and even assisted her on to his truck.

Projects like Heroreports show an innovative way of employing digital media in local communities. The benefits are manifold, bridging the realms of online activity and “the street”. The potential uses and results cannot be fully predicted. Already, some submissions read more like literary short stories than mere reports.

The Heroreports websites are empowering individuals to speak up and focus on positive citizen behavior in densely-populated areas that suffer from conflict, and are becoming useful sources of comparative socio-geopolitical documentation.

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