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June 03 2011

Iran:”Anonymous steals 10,000 Iranian government emails”

Anonymous says it has hacked into Iranian government servers and procured over 10,000 email messages from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Reposted byiranelectionmalpertuis

September 22 2010

Australia: MDG Summit Lying Low Down Under

By Kevin Rennie

The Australian media seem distracted from this week’s UN Millennium Development Goals Summit. Our Federal election with its hung parliament and the football finals season are among the causes. Nevertheless, deposed Kevin Rudd has received a lot of attention for his current overseas trip. Unfortunately it has been mainly for local political reasons:

FOREIGN Minister Kevin Rudd has brushed off opposition claims his new role is that of “prime minister in exile”.

The former prime minister is on his first overseas mission in his new role, visiting New York for bilateral meetings and an address to the UN general assembly later this week.
Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd rejects ‘PM in exile' label

On the way to New York, to represent his successor Julia Gillard at the Summit, the ‘PM in exile’ visited Pakistan.

Thankfully the Oz blogosphere has plenty of MDG traffic, though most of it is confined to NGOs and church groups. On Catholic group Caritas Australia’s self-titled blog, Jennifer Shedden reported on typical grassroots activity involving the Stand Up campaign:

Caritas Australia’s Be More team joined the global Stand Up movement this weekend and made some noise for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on Saturday at Circular Quay in Sydney.
Be More Team makes noise for the MDGs

Grassroots activity for MDG. Photo from the blog of Caritas Australia

Jenny Goldie is a member of the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance. She writes at Online Opinion about her experiences in Melbourne at the United Nations Department of Public Information UN DPI/NGO Conference, “Advance Global Health - Achieve the MDGs”. She and others argued unsuccessfully for “the inclusion of access to reproductive health in the recommendations”:

So what’s the problem? Does it relate to the fact that so many NGOs are faith-based and they associate the words “reproductive health” with abortion? Does the fact that sexual and reproductive health are complementary make people uneasy? Safe motherhood is a worthy objective, but we don’t want teenagers having sex before marriage, do we? Does it lie in some deep-rooted misogyny? How can a declaration recommend for gender equality but not recommend for the very services that would ensure that equality? How can a UN conference not include one of its own MDG targets?
Achieving the health Millennium Development Goals

“Ensure gender equality, empower women and expand programs to end violence against women” was a late addition to the recommendations.

Amnesty International Australia, are pessimistic about progress:

The Millennium Development Goals are failing the world’s poorest people because governments are ignoring and abusing their human rights…

They called on people to get behind their Demand Dignity Campaign that:

mobilises people all over the world to demand that governments, corporations and others who have power listen to the voices of those living in poverty and recognise and protect their rights.
Failure to respect human rights means MDGs are excluding the poorest people

Another heavyweight Oxfam Australia has been running long term online awareness-raising about the MDGs. Tim Norton wants more than words:

The MDG Outcome Document which will be agreed by leaders at the Summit this week notes the need for governments to live up to past promises, and gives the UN a role in ensuring a degree of accountability on government commitments. It also proposes that leaders come together again in 2013 to review progress.

This is a good start, but an action plan for the MDGs is overdue. It’s now up to leaders meeting in New York to decide exactly how they will make good on their promises to the world’s poorest people.
UN MDG Summit: a plan for action?

The private sector sees opportunities in helping to achieve the goals. Paul Budde, of telecommunications research and consultancy company Budecomm, highlights a link between new technologies and the MDGs in the report, The Impact of Mobile Connectivity on the Millennium Development Goals in Africa:

It is only three years since the Millennium Villages project started. It shows that quality and availability of health and education services improved thanks to access to mobile connectivity.
Benefits of mobile communication in rural and developing areas

Among the key findings: ICT is seen as “a key enabler in accelerating the push towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015”.

Julie Cowdrey of John Mark Ministries is far from impressed with the media:

Kevin Rudd delivered his first address as Foreign Minister last week. He talked of his plans to attend the United Nations MDG Summit.

“The MD wha…?” came the response from the press gallery. Rudd was referring to this week’s United Nations Summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The deafening sound of bewilderment should come as no surprise considering only six per cent of Australians have actually heard of the MDGs, according to a poll conducted by anti-poverty agency ActionAid. This research left the development sector crying OMG. It is with this in mind that it is necessary to illuminate WTF the MDGs are.

Yet she finds some hope in the poll results:

ActionAid found that even though only six per cent of Australians had heard of the MDGs, 70 per cent would strongly support a framework to catalyse the eradication of extreme poverty.

The political will is overwhelmingly there and the MDGs provide the action plan. Progress is being made and this week’s summit will provide the opportunity for the world to re-focus our efforts.
Eliminating World Poverty

Meanwhile Kevin Rudd has reaffirmed Australia’ commitment to the MDGs, especially improving education in the developing world:

KEVIN Rudd says Australia can play a major role in combating world poverty with its $5 billion international aid boost to primary school education.

The new Foreign Minister said today that providing primary schooling denied to 67 million children around the world would “transform” global poverty levels.
Kevin Rudd says Australia's international aid for education can combat world poverty

Hopefully the coverage of the MDGs will spike after the Summit's final day. To mix metaphors, Rome is burning while the Oz mainstream media ponder who’s in which deckchair.

June 12 2010

Indonesia: When women control their own investments

By Carolina Rumuat

Flickr-photo "Scale" by deepchi1

Flickr-photo "Scale" by deepchi1

Indonesia managed to weather the latest economic crisis and is now even a contender for the BRIC nations. What exactly was the secret of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation? More than half of Indonesia’s 230 million people are women.

The majority of Indonesian women still adhere to their principal societal roles of being a wife and becoming mother. Although the trend is changing, most of the time women are still not included in decision-making nor are they demanded to contribute to the family’s well being; working is an option but not compulsory - thus financial independence is not absolute.

In the villages, parents marry off their daughters in hopes of securing their future. This practice leads many women poorly educated and left with few options in life. Women are often classified as “unskilled laborers” - working in the factories or sent abroad to work as maids - but their contributions to the state’s coffers have been overlooked and their rights haven’t been properly acknowledged.

In the past years, Indonesian women have inspired one another and showed that they too can ace in areas mostly governed by their male counterparts. One of Indonesia’s inspirational women is the former Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who is currently the Managing Director of the World Bank.

A 2008 report published by the Indonesian Bureau of Statistics said that there are 46-49 million Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) in Indonesia, and 60_80% of them are owned by women. Those MSMEs represent 97.1% of the country’s labor force.

Similar to women in Africa or South Asia, Indonesian women also face challenges, like taking a bank loan without male guarantor, or if they fail to demonstrate that they are creditworthy.

Fortunately women do stick together in this country, and a strong presence of camaraderie among women can be felt in rural or urban communities.

On his blog, Son Haji Ujaji [id], an activist based in Tangerang, West Java, highlights how women have the capacities to increase the family’s income:

Perempuan akan mengambil peran-peran penting dalam kapasitasnya sebagai makhluk sosial, terutama dalam rangka peningkatan kualitas pendapatan keluarga. Lembaga-lembaga local yang ada lebih tepat bila diperankan secara langsung oleh kaum perempuan, baik yang bergerak dalam bidang sosial maupun ekonomi. Sesungguhnya kultur perempuan yang ada pada sebagian masyarakat Indoensia adalah bersifat guyub (komunal). Kuatanya daya komunalitas ini tercermin dari masih eksisnya lembaga-lembaga yang bergerak dalam bidang kewanitaan, seperti PKK, Posyandu, bentuk-bentuk arisan warga dan sejenisnya.

[…]

PKK mempunyai prioritas program berupa Usaha Peningkatan Pendapatan Keluarga (UP2K). […] Potensi, daya, dan karakter perempuan yang tidak kalah penting dan bobotnya dengan laki-laki dapat menjadikan program UP2K-PKK sebuah program unggulan dalam tataran program social safety net (jaring pengaman social), sebagai salah satu upaya menolong masyarakat dari keterpurukan ekonomi dengan jalan memberdayakan dan membangun masyarakat menjadi individu atau keluarga yang mandiri.

Women are, by nature, highly sociable and they will take active roles in order to improve the household income. Local activities are better to be managed by women. Culturally, the Indonesian women have a strong understanding about the importance of community, this reflect in many communal programs such as PKK (author’s note: courses for housewives, including sewing, gardening, first aid, etc.), Posyandu (author’s note: community health center), and arisan (author’s note: private betting, strictly among friends and family) that still exist today.

[…]

PKK currently prioritizes Income Improvement Program (UP2K-PKK). […] The program, which highlights women’s potentials, their will power and characters, made itself a primary definition of social safety net, a way to help the people from poverty and empower them to be a strong and independent individuals as well as family unit.

Generating income online and offline

Koperasi (cooperatives), a business institution founded by a group of people, governed democratically and aimed for mutual benefits, is regarded as one of the cornerstones of Indonesian economy.

Over the years, the basic principles of Koperasi are pretty much ingrained in the people’s mind. Although Multi Level Marketing (MLM), doesn't have identical values as Koperasi in acknowledging the importance of community and network, it is also considered as a great way to generate alternative incomes. People don’t necessarily go to MLM meetings to buy; they come to network, to find new opportunities or business partners over gossip, tea and cakes.

After presentations and catalogues for MLM came blogs and Facebook. The ladies quickly found a new place to market their crafts, imported Korean sundresses, or even last season’s Jimmy Choo heels and other luxury goods at discounted prices. Generating extra income is becoming as easy as tagging pictures.

Does microcredit work in Indonesia?

Microcredit, in practice, is not always a silver bullet against poverty in Indonesia, on the other hand new jobs would be.

International micro-credit organizations like Kiva aim to empower impoverished women and their communities through lending; this, however is not a simple task.

A netter nicknamed salman_taufik made a comment on a post appeared on Stanford Social Innovation Review. He has an excellent insight about why micro-finance is not quite a success story in Indonesia:

I have similar finding in macro level for Indonesian cases. During last decade after crisis 1988 - 2009, poverty only slightly downed from 21% into 14.15% by 2009, despite controversy over this statistic. Meanwhile, the credit growth into micro entrepreneurs increase 7 times during 2000-2009, much more higher than overall banking industry which only twice for the same periods. Contrasting of both figures bring me into question the effectiveness of microfinance to alleviate poverty. Since some the credit flows into micro entrepreneurs are consumer loans, I suspect that the rapid growth just showed how success capitalism sell their consumer goods into the poor such motor cycle, cellular phone, home appliances, etc, and the poor sell their land and cut illegal tree to pay all those stuffs. Furthermore, even though micro finance give access for poor people to have capital or liquidity but they have to pay almost twice than corporation. I just think that there have been money slavery over the poor. So somehow I agree with you unless they don’t charge the money, let it as working capital to save their lives.

In a country where many still earn less than US$ 2 a day, foreign financial aid is often misunderstood by poor communities.

Anna Antoni, a Kiva fellow based in Bali explains:

The fear of the Kiva field partner where I serve was if borrowers know that their loan comes from abroad, they will think it is charity. They will not feel obliged to pay back their loan and it will cause long term problems even if the loss is not covered by the field partner. There is a damage industrialized countries have made through aid that goes far beyond support in crises, taking away something from a spirit of “I can do this- I can handle the challenges in my life!” which is so important in microfinance… but back to transparency.

[…]

The whole process showed again how big the influence of Kiva can be. For most developing countries it is a shift of paradigm not to receive funds that either don’t have to be repaid or be repaid under heavy conditions. Putting a lot of effort into raising the transparency for borrowers and thus showing respect to all people participating in the mission of Kiva is more than important. Besides fulfilling the value of microfinance to help people to help themselves, it is the basis for a new approach to development.

Indonesian female entrepreneurship is an interesting fact. Unfortunately the fact seems to have gone unnoticed by local netters as this author (me!) struggled to find blog posts that include testimonies or opinions about the unsung economic heroines. Have I missed some great stories published on the net? If so, please let me know. Your links, opinions, and insights are highly appreciated.

This post also appears on UNFPA's Conversations for a Better World where Carolina will be updating a live-blog about female entrepreneurship, courage and investments (worldwide) throughout the next week. Please share your projects, links and experiences there.

February 13 2010

Darfur: Youth Keep Crisis in the Spotlight

Darfuri girl in redThough the major conflict has ceased in Darfur, in western Sudan, a recent U.N. report says those living in the region still suffer from major human rights abuses and a fundamental lack of freedoms. The continuing instability and ongoing attacks have been particularly harmful for Darfur's young people, as nearly half of those affected by the conflict are children.

Since 2003, when the fighting began between rebel groups and Sudanese government forces in Darfur, the U.N. estimates as many as 300,000 people have died. During this time, more than 2.7 million Darfuri people have also been displaced, forced into refugee camps in Sudan and Chad. A study released last month shows that more than 80 percent of the deaths during the conflict were the result of disease, not violence, suggesting that many people remain at risk even though the fighting has decreased. To make matters worse, last year the Sudanese government evicted many international humanitarian groups after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes in Darfur; the government continues to expel foreign organizations.

The situation has been especially hard on the country's young people, as an estimated 1.8 million children have been affected by armed conflict, many exposed to health concerns, a disruption in education and other services and brutal violence. In Darfur, 700,000 children have grown up knowing nothing but the conflict and an estimated 4,500 children are believed to be associated with armed forces and groups. These young people, however, are not the majority, as youth both within and outside of Sudan have been vital in raising awareness and funds and trying to bring change to the region.

Over the past several years, Darfuri children's experiences during the conflict have been chronicled via their drawings. Some of these drawings are being used as evidence submitted to the International Criminal Court as part of the investigation of war crimes. In 2005, two Human Rights Watch researchers went to the Chad-Sudan border, during which time schoolchildren offered them hundreds of drawings. Many pictures showed bombings by Sudanese government forces, shootings, rapes and the burning of villages. Ethan Zuckerman, a co-founder of Global Voices Online, blogging on My Heart's In Accra, said the images were powerful:

“When I was at Human Rights Watch a week ago, there was a pile of these sketches on a conference room table, along side a pile of photographs from Janjawid militamen. What amazed me was how details in the children’s drawings echoed details from the photos – the stocks of the automatic rifles, the round shape of the houses, the posture of two gunmen riding on horseback. It was immediately clear to me that these drawings weren’t of weapons imagined by children, but eye witness accounts.”

A Waging Peace researcher collected similar drawings in 2007, some of which are shown in this video. Drawing is also being used as a way to help children heal, shown in this video, as are other forms of art. The documentary Darfur Plays shows a group of two dozen young people in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, who are using street theater to spark discussion and increase awareness. Tambay, blogging on Shadow and Act, comments on the film:

“Love this!

Art makes a difference in Darfur, where a troupe of self-taught young actors take theatre into the streets and refugee camps.

Their medicine for ailing Darfur is theatre, drama, song and dance – a testament to the power of art to heal!”

Young people outside of Sudan are also working to raise awareness and improve conditions for Sudanese youth. In addition to a host of celebrities, youth in many Western countries have been drawn to the situation in Darfur. Youth initiatives over the years have varied greatly, from creating poetry and organizing rallies to podcasting student voices and finding fundraising programs.

And the initiatives continue. In Canada, the youth-led group STAND Canada has developed a campaign called ‘Stand For The Dead.' Beginning this month, Canadians will be encouraged to wear t-shirts bearing one Darfuri victim’s name and the group will be showing a film called Darfur. Lori L. Tharps, blogging on My American Meltingpot, came across a different Darfur t-shirt-campaign years ago and at first questioned its effectiveness:

“Throughout the day in New York City, I kept seeing more and more teenagers with Darfur t-shirts on. Like it was a fashion statement. Like supporting Darfur was cool. At first I was amused, then a little perturbed, like ‘did these wealthy White kids have any clue what modern-day genocide really meant?” But then I reasoned, even if they didn't, they were increasing awareness with their simple black & white t-shirts…

…Black teens, White, Asian…I'm seeing a multicultural mix of young people up in arms for not only the victims of Darfur but for people around the world who are suffering, caught in the crossfire of violence. I stumbled onto the website Teens4Peace and was overjoyed to see that American teens have more to care about than MySpace, Ashlee Simpson and the latest iPod manifestation.”

Meanwhile, a high school in Long Island City, New York, organized a fundraiser in December to help youth in Nyala. The blog Stories From Darfur elaborates on the event:

“I received an email from a friend and activist in Nyala Darfur. He works with a group of youth who are trying hard to preserve and nurture Darfur’s musical and cultural heritage. The youth write and perform their own songs and develop theater pieces based on issues their communities care about the most. Some of the pieces are nostalgic and speak of life before armed militias violently displaced them, others are purely entertaining while others are calls for justice, freedom and peace. For war affected youth and their audiences this group is a great forum for expression, community building and healing. My friend asked us to help them start a mini orchestra…Our youth at Long Island City High School decided to support their effort and packed their school’s auditorium last Thursday for a Talent Show fundraiser. From Hip Hop dance performances to an impersonation of Lady Gaga, they put together a 30 act show that raised over $800.”

Other strategies are being used to engage even more youth. A few years ago, a free, online, student-developed video game called Darfur is Dying was released. In the game, players learn about the conflict and must keep their refugee camp functioning despite possible attacks. The game has led to at least 50,000 people taking action to help end the violence. Steve Rothman, blogging on The Social Media Soapbox, critiques the game:

“To play the game, you first select from one of several Darfurian avatars, but they are no more than cartoon figures.  Perhaps if a fictional profile for each of the figures had been provided, it might have had that effect. I also wondered if transforming such things as foraging for water or hiding from the militia into game objectives could potentially backfire and desensitize people to the plight of Darfurians…

…Nobody will be spending hours playing Darfur is Dying in order to “keep their camp functioning,” the stated goal of the game.  But of course that isn’t the point.  I imagine the greatest value of this game, and others like it, will be to engage a mass audience of young people in social issues and causes — an audience that is less accessible through more traditional communications channels.”

Whatever the method, Emily Holland found that increased awareness is exactly what some youth in Darfur want. Blogging for the International Rescue Committee, she talked to about 50 young people in a refugee camp. When she asked them, “What is your message to young people your age around the world?,” they said:

“We want them to know about our activities and our problems.

We want them to support us. To understand that we need education and healthcare.

The individuals whom people from outside Darfur are exposed to are not always necessarily from the camps. We want youth from all over the world to see what life is like here. To hear the real story.”

Photo of Darfuri girl in red by wanderingzito on Flickr, Creative Commons.

February 03 2010

A ‘climate of fear' at the Thai-Burma border

By any account, Burma is a beautiful, naturally rich country with a diverse ethnic history. It is also run by one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, the State Peace and Development Council, an 11-member group of military commanders. This junta, in power under different names since 1988, has been cited for countless human rights abuses. The SPDC (as its commonly known) also oversees a corrupt, inefficient economy. In spite of the country’s natural wealth, social-economic conditions continue to deteriorate, along with Burma’s schools and hospitals.

The end result is between 1.5 and 2 million Burmese of various ethnicities have been forced to scatter into Thailand. Nearly 300,000 people – mostly representatives of the Karen, Karenni and Mon ethnic groups – live in nine temporary displaced persons camps based along the border. Several hundred thousand members of the Shan ethnic group also reside in Thailand, mostly as illegal immigrants because the Thai government does not recognize them as refugees.

A tenuous life
Burma’s refugees maintain a tenuous status in Thailand. Their rights and protections are nearly non-existent, mostly because Thailand is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention regarding the status of refugees, meaning only those displaced from Burma’s conflict zones are permitted to receive humanitarian aid. Of course, Thailand’s government acknowledges the countless other Burmese refugees, but strictly restricts their movement. A report by Suzanne Belton and Cynthia Maung illustrate the lack of freedom of movement for refugees and migrants: “If a Burmese migrant has a work permit, they may travel and use [Thailand’s] universal health insurance scheme but the climate of fear and uncertainty can stop people travelling. Public transport must pass through many road blocks and checks and if passengers are discovered not to have the correct papers they are deported.”

For the Shans and other illegal immigrants, life can be even more difficult than life in camps. These migrants often lack access to basic needs: clean water, sanitation and shelter, as well as access to education and health care. For girls and young women, human trafficking is especially problematic, especially with an estimated 16 brothels doing business in Mae Sot, the largest border town. One report found young trafficked girls “face a wide range of abuse including sexual and other physical violence, debt bondage, exposure to HIV/AIDS, forced labour without payment and illegal confinement.”

Reproductive health education
An often poor, usually traumatized population means reproductive health is a constant issue. However, most people who grow up in Burma have very little sexual or reproductive health education. In fact, a 2007 study of 400 Burmese adolescents who now live in Thailand demonstrated this lack of sexual knowledge. The study, carried out by a local NGO called the Adolescent Reproductive Health Network in Mae Sot, found:

- More than one-third of adolescents interviewed have never learned about sex or sexual anatomy;
- Nearly 25 percent of those surveyed reported being sexually active, usually around the age of 18. However, ARHN interviewers believe girls may have underreported their sexual activity;
- More than half of those surveyed reported awareness of basic contraception practices – condoms, the pill, and injections – but were not aware of emergency contraceptive methods; and,
- Of those who reported having sex, only 23 percent used a male condom and only 9 percent used birth control regularly.

The report also found fundamental differences between the sexes when it comes to deciding on whether to use birth control. Nearly two-thirds of the women interviewed said they had the right to use birth control regardless of their husband’s opinion. However, only half the men interviewed agreed with that statement. Perhaps making matters worse, 55 percent of males agreed that sometimes a female partner deserves to be beaten. More than 36 percent of females also agreed with this.

Peer education
After reviewing the ARHN report, Nancy Goldstein points out the importance of peer sexual education on the Thai-Burmese border in a piece for RH Reality Check.

ARHN owes its ability to connect with young Burmese migrants to its intrepid, fiercely dedicated young peer educators. Inside Burma, any kind of humanitarian work that creates health for people outside of the army is considered political and can get a worker arrested, beaten, or even killed. And Burmese culture itself remains both highly conservative and very private regarding sex and sexuality. Few if any parents in the camps would think it’s cool that their son or daughter works as a peer sex educator, and peer educators have to be cautious about what they teach and where. “Every time ARHN’s peers go out into the community to conduct workshops on sexual safety and health, distribute contraception, or collect survey information, they risk arrest, violence, deportation, and the displeasure of their families,” says Tarjina Hai, ARHN’s current technical advisor.

As one peer educator explained to me, a relatively easy, obstacle-free training session is one that has the blessing of the village leader and religious leader or pastor, and takes place in a church. It involves incredibly expensive travel, but only one or two illegal border crossings, and requires bribing only a handful of authorities. That’s if you’re lucky: if there are too many people around when the educator is stopped at the border, no bribery can take place, meaning that his or her half done and fully paid for trip ends there.

Yet the work must continue. As Leila Darabi has noted, Thailand’s fairly rigorous family planning program is not reaching these young Burmese migrants, who are at significant risk for unplanned pregnancy, sexual assault, and sexually transmitted diseases. Many of these youth are working and living in factories (some legally, most not). They don’t have ready access to contraception, and they’re easy prey for both transactional and coercive sex. Most refugees have scant access to any kind of health care at all, let alone sexual and reproductive health care. Education efforts are stymied by low literacy rates, limited access to television, and virtually no access to the Internet.

Post-abortion complications
Mixing sexually active people without proper reproductive education, abortion often becomes an issue. The UNFPA estimates in Burma that nearly one-third of pregnancies end in abortion. However, by law, abortion can only take place when the mother’s life is at risk. Abortion is not so restricted in Thailand, which also allows it for proven cases of incest and rape. Regardless of the restrictions, however, abortions continue in the refugee community. The Thai health ministry believes the abortion rate for Burmese migrants is nearly two-and-a-half times higher than the rate for the local Thai population. Belton's and Maung's 2002 study of reproductive health outpatient care found:

- 25 percent of women with post-abortion complications underwent self-induced abortions like those common in Burma: drinking ginger and whiskey, vigorous pelvic pummeling and inserting sharp objects into sexual organs;
- Most of the women with post-abortion complications are married and two-thirds of them already have at least one child;
- One-third of the women have already had at least five pregnancies.

Here is a discussion regarding how the issue reproductive health for adolescents is intertwined with abortion on the Thai/Burma border with Cari Siestra, who helped edit the AHRN report.

The Mae Tao clinic
For Burma's refugees, the Mae Tao clinic has helped fill the massive health care gap. It was launched by Cynthia Maung who left Burma when 10,000 student activists fled across the border in September 1988 after the government violently cracked down on pro-democracy protests. Dr. Cynthia, as she’s called, thought it would only be a matter of weeks before she could return to her small Rangoon medical practice. Instead she became appalled by the lack of care at the makeshift refugee camps, where the refugees pouring across the border were suffering from trauma, from gunshot and landmine injuries, malaria and diarrhea. She opened a clinic in the Huay Kaloke camp with only her medical textbook and a rice cooker to clean and sterilize instruments.

Today, the Mae Tao clinic counts a staff of 5 physicians, 80 health care workers, 40 trainees and 40 support staff. This staff treats more than 100,000 patients annually. Two students at Westminster College who participated in a service learning project at the clinic provide a good description:

The floors were uneven cement, covered by mud. It is best described as an outdoor walk through clinic; each service had its own room. The waiting area was overly crowded with exhausted displaced Burmese people. When we walked past the pediatric center we saw immobile malnourished children being comforted by their parents.

The clinic provides service in a number of different areas, from baby vaccinations to creating prosthetics for injuries due to landmines. In 2006, doctors at the hospital delivered 1600 children. The clinic also provides trainings on maternal care. Cathy, who works at Mae Sot clinic, explains some of the issues surrounding the reproductive health trainings.

The Clinic runs an active birth control program, but not everyone has had the education. For migrant women (many thousands working in Thailand in the sweatshops, trying to help their family,) life is not easy. Most women need a protector of some sort. With a baby, it is impossible to continue working. Dr. Cynthia and the Karen Women’s Organization run several orphanages. The Karen has enormous charity for each other. I have not a met a more caring people. Generally, the husbands are with their wives as they have their babies and giving birth is a thing of great joy but often on the other side of the building there are women very sick as the result of botched back street abortions.

As Liberia stabilizes, youth begin to talk about sex

“I want all other children born in Liberia- and the world- to lead full lives free of pain and filled with the blossoms of love, like mine,” writes Mahmud Johnson at the blog for the youth-oriented HIV/AIDS group Global 40 Forum. He is an 18-year old former co-host of the Liberian youth radio show, “Let’s Talk About Sex”, which deals with issues relating to the spread of HIV/AIDS and pregnancy prevention.

Liberia is gradually transitioning from the nearly 15 years of intermittent civil war that ended in 2003 and moving towards mainstream development. The barriers that remain are great. Nearly 250,000 people were killed during the war, and several hundred thousand were exiled in neighboring countries or in Europe or the United States.

The effects of war on youth
The effects of the war on children are well documented. When the fighting began, different military groups searched for soldiers in the ranks of children. Perhaps as many as 20,000 children, some as young as 6-years-old, were recruited, often forcibly. “They were forced to kill friends and family members including their parents, rape and be raped, serve as sexual slaves and prostitutes, labor, take drugs, engage in cannibalism, torture and pillage communities,” says the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia. Women and girls also suffered greatly. Liberia’s TRC received nearly 7,000 reported cases of sexual violence. Girls and women aged 15–19 make a majority of those reported cases.

Despite seven years of peace, bad news can still cascade out of Liberia like a waterfall. Three out of four Liberians live on less than one dollar a day; only half the country's children attend school; Fifty percent of households in the capital Monrovia are classified as food secure. The economic prognosis remains bleak and repatriating young people – some of them former child soldiers – into the economy continues to cause the government problems. This can be especially troubling because half of Liberia’s population is under 20.

On the Ceasefire Liberia blog, a Rising Voices project, Stephen R. Johnson writes:

Liberia’s youth face many challenges in gaining an education that delivers them the right set of skills and knowledge to become productive in today’s labor market. As a result, the transition from school to work is more often than not unsuccessful and youth end up either unemployed or underemployed in the rural, suburban and urban informal sectors.

Yet, the country and its people are determined to put the past behind them. The country’s economy has been growing and the government is modernizing its infrastructure. Groups like the YMCA have been training ex-combatants for employment or to start their own businesses.

Poverty and tough decisions
However, the continuing economic problems have created a ripple effect in other areas. Poverty has forced many women into making difficult and dangerous decisions regarding their sex life, says Jerry B. Tarbolo Jr, from the Federation of Liberian Youth. He said this combination has helped intensify the HIV/AIDS transmission rate in Liberia’s urban areas. If this continues, the disease will mainly affect the younger generation, he says, which is one of Liberia’s great resources.

The connection between economic survival and sexual violence has a legacy in Liberia. A 2008 UNFPA study of women in Liberia’s Lofa County found that during the war, nine out of ten women had lost their livelihoods, 96 percent had lost shelter and nearly 75 percent had lost a relative. More than half of the women were victims of sexual violence, and of those women, half of them reported providing sex for some form of favors.

Misconceptions of HIV/AIDS
Pauline Wleh, a nurse counselor at a Monrovia-based YMCA Youth Centre, says one thing young Liberians today need is education regarding sexual health. She spoke to a writer for Merlin, an international NGO that builds health services in fragile states.

“Years of conflict here disrupted our formal schooling system and broke up health services so that youths today know very little about HIV and AIDS. Because of the lack of knowledge, there is a lot of stigma and misconceptions surrounding AIDS now. Youths are too scared to talk to their parents and there is a lack of accessible information. But they can discretely drop in on me between basketball games or after a trip to the computer lab to ask questions, access services and get advice.”

She says some changes in attitudes have become apparent.

“In the two years since the centre opened, I have seen thousands of young people but only given 291 HIV tests. Although people are keen to talk to me, they are rarely convinced to take an HIV test because they are scared.”

The majority who opt out of the testing, claim they will ‘come back later,’ or more honestly ‘don’t want to know my status, because I don’t want to worry.’

The fight for awareness
This social avoidance is what programs like “Let’s Talk About Sex” are designed to educate against. The weekly 30-minute show, funded in part by UNFPA, provides listeners with 30 minutes of information and conversation about sex and reproductive health issues, all tailored toward young people. Each program is researched and written by the four young hosts, who control all the programming, including research, writing and performing each episode.

“My work as co-host of the LTAS show gave me a working knowledge on the actual realities faced by my fellow Liberian youth in the fight against HIV,” Mahmud Johnson writes. He says you can’t separate Liberia’s economic problems from issues regarding sexual health.

As the show’s outreach team usually traveled to leeward communities and villages to teach the youth there about HIV, I became aware, first hand, of the economic and traditional issues many people are faced with, and how those issues contribute to the spread of HIV in Liberia. I also became aware of some bizarre myths young people harbor on HIV spread and treatment. A very huge percentage of the youth population in Liberia has practically no knowledge about the transmission and prevention of HIV, and this phenomenon is due in no small part to the country’s spiralling illiteracy rate. Even the youth who go to school have minimal information about HIV, as such reproductive health issues are not taught in Liberian schools. Hence, many myths abound amongst Liberian youth about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, prominent amongst which is the myth that smoking pot prevents HIV infection. Because of these potentially dangerous myths, the radio show’s team developed a ‘Myths vs. Reality’ segment, in which (in colloquial Liberian language) we addressed several of those myths on a weekly basis.

The show offers a useful medium for young people to learn about the virus. And, of course, talk about sex.

Today, the LTAS radio show is aired all over Liberia, and uses other reinforcement channels such as brochures, dramas, road shows, focus groups discussions, and peer training to spread the message about HIV transmission and pregnancy prevention. The show is so popular that the Liberian populace have even used the show to coin a joke in response to the recent shortage of chicken eggs on the Liberian market: chickens in Liberia now listen to ‘Let’s Talk About Sex!’ and practice safe sex! I am aware of the reality that not every single youth in Liberia will heed the health messages disseminated on the show. But even if one person’s life is changed in the process, that would a phenomenal success for me as a pioneer host on the LTAS show.

February 02 2010

India: Bridging the information gap on sexuality

Depending on how you measure the term “youth,” young people in India count for roughly a few million more people than the population of the United States. This generation dwarfs other age groups in its own country, too. The 315 million young people between the ages of 12-24 years makes up 30 percent of India’s population.

For the most part, India’s youth of today are completely different from the age groups of decades past. For one, the country these young people are growing up in is an emerging superpower, says BusinessWeek. Young people mirror that rising prominence. “This cohort is healthier, more urbanized, and better educated than earlier generations,” writes the US-based Population Council, a non-profit dealing with reproductive health issues.

India’s youth are also increasingly willing to make their own decisions. BusinessWeek reports that 76 percent of India’s single women claim it should be them who decides when they have a child. To researchers and groups like Population Council, however, this confidence may be masking deeper, more cultural reticence regarding reproductive health. “These young people face significant risks related to sexual and reproductive health, and many lack the knowledge and power they need to make informed sexual and reproductive health choices,” Population Council reports.

Information gap

This information gap Ishita Chaudhry has been trying to fill since she began the Youth Parliament in 2002, when she was just 17. Also known as the YP Foundation, the internally-acclaimed group designs and implements community-based youth projects, providing funds for people between the ages of 13 through 28 years to create projects working within socio-cultural, economic, legal and environmental issues. Some of the projects include voter ID registration drives, peer programs for street children and publishing an youth-oriented magazine.

One of the subjects the YP Foundation has naturally gravitated to, however, is reproductive rights and sexuality. Issues like AIDS is especially problematic for the world’s youth, reports UNAIDS. The Geneva-based organization says people worldwide between the ages of 12-24 years account for four of each ten new AIDS cases. Also, (mirroring findings from Population Council, above) this age group has very little knowledge about the disease and its transmission. That's not all. Young people are often “left to fend for themselves,” regarding all aspects of sexuality and reproduction, said Dr Robert Carr, the Associate Director of the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations.

Using technology

The internet is a natural choice to disseminate this information. “If you’re looking at issues of sexually reproductive rights and health,” says Ishita Chaudry, “then it becomes clear to provide a space where young people can continue conversations once they’ve finished community based interactions and workshops.” For the most part, that space is through technology, which works well because so many of India’s youth are online. But also, the internet is a good medium to provide this information because young people can read it on their own time and, if they want, anonymously. In this video Ishita Sharma and Ishita Chaudry speak about the YP Foundation’s online work.

Project 19

The internet may be a fine organizing tool, but the YP Foundation thrives to create communities in the real world. One of the organization's major initiatives is Project 19, which trains young people in New Delhi to become peer facilitators to lead discussions and workshops on often hush-hush topics like gender, sexuality, reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS.

In a post on the YP Foundation blog, Ishita Chaudry sums up some reasons the initiative got underway.

Why as society, are we so scared to address any kind of sexuality education or rights cohesively? What stops us from giving people complete rather than half baked information that is critical and live saving and that can protect them from disease, empowers them to be informed individuals and that teach them to be respectful to their own needs and desires and to be respectful towards the rights of others as well?

…We have had too many years of awkward silences and far too many generations of people who have grown up not being given the opportunity to speak out about their thoughts, fears, expressions and questions.

In conjunction with Project 19, the YP Foundation also organizes (with a variety of other groups) the Project 19 Annual Festival, bringing over 600 at risk and marginalized group and urban youth from around India to Delhi. These young people, whose members range from truck drivers to sex workers, lobby and discuss how to tackle issues ranging from collective rights to sexual reproductive rights and health.

As the Daily Indian newspaper explains:

Using various mediums like art, music, theatre and dance, the festival will provide a platform to the young men and women as well as the vulnerable groups to bring forth their experience-based opinion on different issues and form a network so as to solve some of the problems together.

January 20 2010

Afghanistan: Youth Find Outlets Amid Ongoing Violence

Afghan childrenLast year was the deadliest one for Afghanistan's civilians, including children, since the American-led war began in 2001.

Children have increasingly become victims of the conflict — Afghanistan Rights Monitor recently showed that about 1,050 children died in 2009 in war-related incidents and there were at least 2,080 cases of grave violations of child rights, such as recruitment of kids as suicide bombers and foot soldiers and forced labor. Three decades of conflict has also had long-term repercussions on the country's youth, many of whom are disfranchised and lack educational and employment opportunities. Literacy and secondary school enrollment rates are also low. The situation for Afghan girls and women is particularly concerning; a December report shows that they suffer high levels of violence and discrimination and have poor access to justice and education. Afghan girls are also under traditional pressures to enter early marriage and early pregnancy.

The Youth Parliament blog, based in India, elaborates on the situation:

“Possibly one of the biggest roles in the process of restructuring Afghanistan can be played by the youth of Afghanistan. 68% of the Afghan population consists of people who are under the age of 25 years. However, the long period of war has deprived many of them of their youth and childhood. Categorized as the ‘lost generation’ of Afghanistan, the socially imposed silence and lack of education has suppressed large sections of the Afghan youth. Moreover, the youth is hardly seen as a direct mechanism for peace building, but only as possible recruits for various terrorist organizations.”

Despite the circumstances, efforts are being made nationwide by and for youth to maintain their health and education and to empower them. The Youth Parliament blog continues:

“The youth has been able to overcome some of these barriers in the recent past to play a more active role. This is evident from the existence of a number of youth organisations spread over the entire country which have undertaken the task of promoting non-formal education, increasing awareness, promoting volunteerism for peace and development of the country and most of them have got integrated in the government or working of other NGOs.”

Examples of youth involvement range from a teen training to be midwife to help combat the country's high maternal mortality rate to young women protesting against a law restricting their rights to a young woman nurturing Afghan girls through soccer. In Kabul, another sport is being used to get kids off the street and stay active — skateboarding. Skateistan teaches boys and girls how to skateboard, among other skills such as skateboard instruction, literacy and computer skills. Skateboarding offers a rare opportunity for Afghan girls to participate in a public sport, helping break down traditional barriers, as this video documents. The blog I Skate, Therefore I am provides background on the initiative:

“Skateistan started two years ago in a dried-up fountain in the heart of the Afghan capital, when two Australians with three skateboards started teaching a small group of fascinated kids. It is now Afghanistan’s (and the world’s) first co-educational skateboarding school. The school engages growing numbers of urban and internally-displaced youth in Afghanistan through skateboarding and provides them with new opportunities in cross-cultural interaction, education, and personal empowerment programs.”

The bright lines discusses the opening of Afghanistan's first indoor skateboarding park and its significance:

“On October 29, 2009, Skateistan will be opening the largest indoor sports facility & skate park in Kabul. It’s incredible how this team of instructors is engaging young folk in the art of skateboarding, in a place where the social opportunities for them, especially young girls, is limited because of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The goal is to bring indoor & outdoor skateboarding facilities to Afghanistan. There’s going to be separate classes for young girls.”

Some young women are also finding an outlet for self-expression, healing and outreach via writing. The Afghan Women’s Writing Project is a blog started by novelist Masha Hamilton that connects Afghan women, between the ages of 18 and 28, with writing instructors in the United States. Its goal is to allow Afghan women to have a voice that isn't filtered through male relatives or the media. The young women's writing covers issues ranging from the joy of playing basketball to death threats from the Taliban to breaking the silence. In this post, an anonymous blogger talks about how she is being forced into a marriage and in desperate need of solutions:

“After my father died, the responsibility for me fell to my brothers, who grew up under the Taliban government and were influenced by it. Now I live with three Talibs and I must obey what they say. I am not like a girl in the house, but a slave. When I was at third year at the university, the owner of our house demanded higher rent. My family decided they would leave Kabul and go to a province where housing was cheaper. But I didn’t know how I would continue my studies in that case, so I gave up my transportation money to help pay for our rent, and I go to the university on foot.

Still, at the beginning of this year, my brothers said: “It is time for you to marry.” They arranged a marriage to my first cousin, my mom’s brother’s son, who lives in a province where most of the people are Talib. My cousin is about 40 years old and uneducated. His family has a business and a big house. Their women are required to wear burqas and are responsible for cooking, cleaning and caring for the animals. Most have eight or nine children. They can’t go outside the house—even when they are sick, they aren’t allowed to go to the doctor.”

Many of the young women also express their sentiments through poetry. In these segments of a poem, Shogofa shares her story:

“I am from long line of women who have walked alone …
From a land that smells of the blood of innocent people
From a people who have lost everything in war – sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers
From a people feeling hopeless

I am from long line of women who have walked alone…

I know now how to enter society

And find my answers though I’m alone

Learn from my experience though I have failed many times

I never give up

I find my way and learn nothing is impossible to achieve

I ignore those things that destroy my mind

I learn that no one can help me except me

I accept reality and I’m ready to face any problem

Now I have ambition to achieve my goal

To help my people bring peace to the next generation”

Others also remain hopeful about the future of Afghanistan and the role youth can play in bringing peace and security. Mozhdah Jamalzadah, blogging on Afghanistan Through My Eyes, says:

“One thing that impressed me very much about the younger generation in Afghanistan, at least from what I’ve seen so far, is that they are so eager to learn, and they strive for success. Even with the lack, and low standard of education these kids try to gain as much as they can. They are incredibly intelligent. In North America where education system is absolutely amazing, most kids will do only what they have to in order to get to the next level. Most are not passionate. I believe if you give the same opportunities to these Afghan youth who are so hungry for knowledge, who knows how far they can take it. The sky is the limit.”

Photo of Afghan children by isafmedia, U.S. Air Force TSgt Laura K. Smith, on Flickr, Creative Commons.

January 13 2010

Kenya: During severe drought, a role model emerges

A prolonged drought has crippled agriculture production in rural Kenya, greatly affecting millions of families who rely on farming, fishing or herding. As in rural communities elsewhere in Africa, when disasters and hardships hit, young people are often the most susceptible to problems.

The entire Horn of Africa has been prone to dry periods over the previous decades, but this spell, which some blame on a variety of environmental issues, is particularly harsh. An estimated 100,000 cattle have died in Kenya due to lack of water, and Kenya's government estimates 10 million people face food shortages. Malnuitrution is a worry as are diseases stemming from dirty drinking water.

From Gorta, the Ireland-based Hunger organization, here is a short video discussing how one family is adapting to the conditions in the Rift Valley, one of the most effected regions.

Drought in Kenya - one family´s perseverence from Gorta TV on Vimeo.

Leaving home

The drought has forced herders to leave their homes in search of water and food for their animals. “In most cases this means vulnerable women, children and the elderly are left behind to fend for themselves in the villages,” writes Ebby Nanzala Wamatsi for the blog Women News Network. Young people can be left to tend the dry fields, but if random rains arrive, they can create the vicious cycle of providing water, but may also wash out crops, warns the Kenyan Daily Nation newspaper.

Threat of violence

Problems also arise if entire families pull up stakes. With so many people leaving their traditional hunting and feeding grounds can create conflict as pastoralists venture into territories traditionally used by other groups, heightening tensions. Poaching, cattle rustling and banditry are on the rise, worrying people as attackers use ever-sophisticated weapons. An estimated 400 people died in 2009 due to violence, reported the blog Kenya Watch.

A particularly horrific massacre took place in September at a village named Kanampiu in the Rift Valley when 35 locals, including women and children, were slain by marauders.

Good morning Kenya! by Mara 1

Good morning Kenya! by Mara 1

Educational issues

Out-migration of the area also forces children out of schools, making it difficult for them to return. Education level is an important barometer for future income earning. For children attending schools in the Rift Valley, in the northern part of Kenya, a local doesn't hold out much hope. “Many children, more than 1,000 from the Baragoi area [in Samburu] have moved with their parents and they will not be going back to school soon,” said Joseph Leparua of the Samburu Community Development Support to an IRIN News reporter.

To make matters worse, the school canteen is sometimes the only place where children are guaranteed a meal, according to a CBBC story.

Rebuilding communities

Outside of the food security and personal safety issues brought on by the drought, young people also have to worry about rebuilding their communities. Faith Akiru, a woman who works in Kenya with the US-based development group Catholic Relief Services (CRS), grew up amongst the pastoralist Turkanas in a village of 1,000 in northwestern Kenya. She speaks, on the website of the CRS, of how the drought has affected her village.

Because of Kenya's long drought, animals can no longer support our daily needs, leaving my family and other Turkana villagers extremely vulnerable. We suffered drought when I was growing up, and I remember going hungry for several days. We'd go to the river to pick wild fruits and plants. These plants have a very bitter taste, so we'd camp there to boil them until the bitterness left. About once a year, we would also receive relief food.

Now drought is harder to survive because livestock raiding is increasing. People are using guns for raiding, making it harder to protect our herds. My family isn't doing so good. I send them money, but even if they can use it to get food, all the people around them are hungry. It's a bit uncomfortable for them to eat when all of the others around them are hungry, and I can't send enough to feed everyone.

She points out that as an educated woman earning an income, she feels a duty to give back to her community by helping younger girls cope with the intricacies of modern life.

I have a lot of responsibility. There is a lot for me to do back in my village. Five girls from Morulem have graduated from eighth grade and gone on to high school. I'm the only one who managed to finish, and I'm now the only girl with a college degree in the village.

I feel I'm a role model. I need to have a good job so when I go back to my village they can see how my education has changed my life. I talk to the young girls in Morulem about the importance of education and help them learn about different careers. And I tell them that just like any other human being, they can go to school and live a better life than they are now. Part of my responsibility is to also fight against early and forced marriages that lead many girls to become young mothers of children they can't support.

December 03 2009

Bangladesh: The Rising Voices of Women in a Drowning Country

Even in the most extreme circumstances when survival is at stake, Bangladeshi women stand out for their capacity to unite and together overcome climate change’s effects on their lives.

A summary of Bangladesh’s situation, a video filmed and posted by CaroOxfam

Sufia holds her child while she brings to memory the most painful day of her life, the day she lost her son. Her home was being flooded with water and when she turned to nurse her newborn baby, her five-year-old son was carried away by the flood. “I could not find my son, I searched so hard”, says Sufia breaking into tears in the video filmed and posted by Oxfam. Sadly, to lose a loved one to the extreme weather conditions in Bangladesh is not an uncommon situation.

Bangladesh is one of the most affected countries by climate change in the world. Although Bangladesh’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emission is low, floods and natural disasters are becoming more and more frequent. Its vulnerability lies on its geographic location as a coastal country and its high population density.

On the blog The Daily IIJ, Bangalee blogger Jahangir Akash highlights the alarming numbers of affected Bangladeshis:

Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, is the city most threatened in Asia by climate change. If things continue as they are, in the future, the economy will fail and human life itself will be threatened. At present, there are 10.3 million people living in Dhaka. In 2025, the population will have increased to 20.5 million.

A Country Under Water

In her blog Anushay’s point Bangladeshi blogger Anushay Hossain posts about how unsettling it was to grow up in a country that was going under water:

I grew up knowing my country was drowning. My childhood memories are full of flashing images of annual monsoon rains making rivers out of our roads, lakes out of our rice paddy fields, washing away farmers’ harvests, pushing the rural population into our already overpopulated capital city. The rumor in the playground was that in twenty years Bangladesh would be completely underwater. Today that statement is no longer a rumor, but very much a reality.

During natural disasters women are more likely to suffer the consequences than men. Jean D’ Cunha, regional program director of the United Nations Fund for Women based in Thailand said that some women in Bangladesh died during a flood in 2001 because their traditional long dress and burka hindered their movements and prevented them from escaping the rising waters. But despite their disadvantages, Bangladeshi women find ways to adapt to climate change’s impacts.

Blogger Ben Beaumont writes in the Oxfam blog about Hasina, a woman who had to move six times due to floods. Now she is the president of local women’s group called Shanti Mohila Committee in the Shariatpur district. Each member of the group collaborates a small amount of money to both prepare for the floods and assist women afterwards:

What struck me most was the energy and passion of this group of 20 or so women. (…) women in this community haven’t always been so vocal - in conservative, rural areas like this, women often play very traditional roles, and stay at home with the family. But now, Hasina and her friends are full of confidence - earning and saving money as day labourers, and providing for their families (…) And, as the floods get more unpredictable, it’s the women who are at the centre of their community’s response.

Bangladeshi Women’s March

Blogger Jess Mccabe also posts on the blog The F Word about Bangladeshi women coming together as an outstanding example of women taking a stand on climate change’s issues:

Back in November 2008, around 2,000 women took to the streets of Dhaka, in Bangadesh, wearing masks of G8 leaders, to call for action on climate change.

(…)

‘Protect our agriculture, protect our country, protect our lives from the damaging effects of climate change', they chanted, waving their fists to make their demands.

Climate Change Rally. Photo by Oxfam and used under a Creative Commons license.

Climate Change Rally. Photo by Oxfam and used under a Creative Commons license.

The words of blogger Anushay reflect the positive steps Bangladeshi women have taken towards adaptation to global warming, but outline the urgent need for women around the world to get involved and take a stronger stand:

Back home in Bangladesh, the list of innovative ideas to combat and more importantly, adapt to climate change is endless. (…) But there has to be more. Women may be in the frontlines of climate change, but they are not only its victims. Their personal and intimate experience of the harsh impacts of climate change means that within them lies very real solutions to combat it. If the voices from the women’s rights movement don’t pick up this issue, loudly, clearly and unanimously, climate change will not only drown out countries, but the agents of change, women, with it. And that is simply not an option.

December 01 2009

Mongolia: Climate Change Affecting Nomadic Way of Life

Mongolian nomadic families have historically depended on the vast land for their livelihood. In the past, rangeland for their grazing animals had been plentiful, and food and water were readily collected from their surroundings. However, all is that is changing, as climate change is having a negative impact on their way of life.

Photo by Tonio94 and used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Tonio94 and used under a Creative Commons license.

A recent article by Joshua Kucera in Eurasianet highlights some of these changes:

Global warming is having a harsh effect on Mongolia’s nomadic herders, who comprise about 40 percent of the country’s overall 3 million inhabitants. Since 1940, the mean air temperature in the country has increased 1.6 degrees Celsius. Heat waves are longer, and rain patterns have become “quite variable, decreasing at one site and increasing at a site nearby,” according to an assessment by the country’s Ministry of Nature and the Environment. The Gobi Desert, in the south of the country, is creeping northward.

The desertification of the Gobi Desert is reducing available land for their animals to graze, which are important sources of food. This population is also facing a freshwater crisis, as described by blogger Mandah, who writes about the the water issues facing these communities:

Mongolian high mountain peak’s snowcap and glaciers have been melting and thinning because of the Global Warming. The thickness of the snow melting will become 131 centimeters by 2039. According to the scientist, the whole world will start to face fresh water shortage by 2020 and 108 million people actually have to deal with the fresh water shortage by 2025. Since 1996, Mongolian groundwater level has been decreasing constantly. Some of the biggest lakes in Gobi region such as: Taatsiin tsagaan, Adgiin tsagaan, Ulaan, Orog lakes as well as many other rivers dried up.

Blogger and local botanist Ariungerel adds information about these changes:

Nowadays, the meaning of the phrase “water is treasure” is becoming clearer. Our country is situated far from nearest sea and has less water sources on the ground and underground compared with countries that has enough water sources. Our people range their life in line with water sources, for example: remote area can be utilized only in winter times because running water source is scarce there, only snow is available there. Elders said that they used to use mouthful water to wash their faces and hands, but in the contemporary world, we use many more litters of water for the same reason.

Many of these issues are not well-known within the country, much less around the world. However, a local project called Nomad Green has taken up the initiative to teach the use of citizen media tools like blogs, photogs, and videos to tell the story of this country and some of its environmental problems. The project started in 2009 as partnership between various organizations and institutions, and to date several workshops have taken place in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and other communities around Mongolia.

Photo of Nomad Green workshop by Portnoy (Working Man) and used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo of Nomad Green workshop by Portnoy (Working Man) and used under a Creative Commons license.

The project has already demonstrated positive steps in teaching Mongolians how to use these tools to tell their stories about environmental challenges of their country. Part of this proof is that the two bloggers previously cited in this article, Mandah and Ariungerel are a part of the Nomad Green project, which only adds to number of voices concerned about the environmental future of Mongolia.

November 25 2009

Ecuador: Kichwa Women Oppose Oil Exploration on Native Lands

It is a popular saying in Latin America that women always get what they want. In Sarayaku, Ecuador, women from the Kichwa tribe proved the saying to be true. When an oil company came onto their forest lands for oil exploration for future drilling, the women decided to stop them with a simple but flawless plan.

Photo by Ayahuasca and used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Ayahuasca and used under a Creative Commons license.

Esperanza Martinez says on the blog Ecoportal [es], that women told their husbands that if they allowed the companies to work on their lands, they would have to find other women …on different lands. The Kichwas organized a united front against the oil company until it finally had to leave.

This group of Kichwas live in province of Pastaza, on 140 thousand hectares in the Amazon, an area the Ecuadorian Ministry of Mines and Oil identified as Block 23. Several companies attempted to work there throughout the years, but they failed every time due to Kichwa’s opposition to drilling.

Although the decision to resist was made by the entire tribe, women’s participation became a key component. These fearless women will go a long way to preserve the forests and their lands.

Support Women

The blog Observatorio Petrolero Sur [es] publishes what Kichwa leader Franklin Toala said about the role of women during this process:

Uno de los procesos que tuvo Sarayaku, que hay que recalcar, es el magnífico apoyo de las mujeres. La relación que existe entre las mujeres y las comunidades es mucho más fuerte.

One of the processes that Sarayacu went through that needs to be emphasized, is the great support women provided. The relationship between women and the communities is much stronger now.

Ecuadorian newspaper Diario Universal described a chilling scene involving Kichwa women that took place in 2003,when 15 women and children ran for 4 hours through the jungle yelling “anchuri, (get out) anchuri oil companies,” to meet face to face with the oil company’s workers and armed guards. Confrontations took place and eventually the army intervened. But the Kichwas remained on their lands and kept them free of oil drilling.

Petroleum, Climate Change, and Indigenous women

In Ecuador, several regions have already suffered the terrible environmental and health consequences of oil drilling. In Pichincha in the province of Sucumbios, oil drilling has been taking place for 20 years, the air is polluted and the water contaminated because of oil spills. The people have suffered the loss of domestic animals because of drinking contaminated water and the loss of crops because the contaminated land becomes infertile. They are also affected by several skin and respiratory diseases, birth defects, and miscarriages.

Women are once again the most vulnerable to these negative impacts. In petroleum areas of Ecuador the incidence of cancer is three times more comparing to the national average, especially affecting women. Women are in constant contact with contaminated water by washing clothes and bathing their children in the river.

It is no wonder Kichwa women reject oil drilling. They know it will transform their lands, their lives, and the environment for ever.

The Online Community Reacts to the Kichwa Example

Blogger Efren Calapucha shares his feelings on the Kichwa’s stand on the blog Redamazon [es]:

¡Amigos de la Tierra! En este espacio de la selva amazónica con grandes recursos biodiversos se quiere cercenar LA VIDA lo que NO PERMITEREMOS se establezca tan execrable hecho que afectará al Calentamiento Global extinguiéndose los pueblos, la flora y la fauna hasta hoy fortalecidas y guardadas celosamente

Friends of the Earth! In this place in the Amazon rainforest with significant biodiversity resources, LIFE is threatened to be eliminated but we will NOT ALLOW this terrible event to take place here, which will affect climate change; extinguishing communities, fauna and flora, which have been strengthened and safeguarded to this day.

The blog Observatorio Petrolero Sur [es] posts about the remarkable determination of the Kichwas despite the circumstances:

Han pasado dos décadas y hasta el momento la exploración no se concretó, pero la amenaza es permanente. En 20 años pasaron muchas cosas, demandas a nivel nacional e internacional, campañas en un lado y en el otro, y en el territorio la presión fue mucha. Los kichwas sufrieron todo tipo de atropellos, persecuciones e incluso la militarización de Sarayaku; pero siguieron diciendo no.

So far, oil exploration has not occurred, but the threat is constant. Many things have happened over the past 20 years, including national and international lawsuits, campaigns, and there was a lot of pressure. The Kichwas suffered all kinds of abuses, persecutions, and even the militarization of Sarayaku, but they kept saying ‘no.’

The Kichwa community has managed to keep their forests safe so far but the struggle is not over. Of course with Kichwa women among them, they have little to fear.

Watch the Video

A Kichwa child stands defiant with the words “I’m a forest protector” painted on his chest. He appears in the video filmed and posted by Oilwatch, which is about the Sarayaku community’s reaction to the attempt of an oil company to carry out oil exploration in their lands. Click here to watch the video in Spanish.

November 18 2009

Papua New Guinea: Ursula Rakova Leads Relocation Efforts

“Once upon a time my island was a tropical paradise. It is a tropical paradise no more.”

That is how Ursula Rakova described the state of her homeland during a recent panel discussion during Climate Week in New York City. She has been a vocal and tireless activist to raise awareness and attract support to lead the relocation of the residents of the Cataret Islands in Papua New Guinea. These islands are gradually being flooded due to the rising sea levels attributed to climate change, and it is predicted that the islands will be completely submerged by the year 2015.

Higher levels of seawater has destroyed crops and harmed supplies of drinking water. As a result, as seen in this video produced by the United Nations University, the residents on the islands have been going hungry.

Local solutions on a sinking paradise, Carterets Islands, Papua New Guinea from UNUChannel on Vimeo.

As a result, the residents, which are being considered the first climate refugees, must be relocated to the larger Bougainville Island. This complex task is being led by Rakova, who was given this enormous responsibility by the elders and the rest of her community. She has been spanning the globe to raise awareness, but more importantly, raise funds to physically relocate the approximately 120 families.

Some of the relocation has already taken place, but not without difficulties. Journalist Dan Box has been documenting the process and has been in touch with Rakova and other groups on the island, who provide updates on the situation. Box writes on his blog Journey to the Sinking Lands:

The initial evacuation (of five men, who were the fathers of five families) to the mainland has hit understandable troubles: Of the five who formed the first wave of migrants leaving the islands to build new homes on the mainland, three have returned to the islands. Apparently, they were finding it too hard living in a new place and being apart from their families. Three men have been chosen to replace them and are expected to make the journey soon. The gardens that have been planted by the original five men, however, have begun to bear fruit and veg and with this food available, the remaining two men can send for their families to join them.

In this video, Rakova describes why this campaign is necessary:

I want to make sure that my people have a future life for the generations to come. I would say to people that believe climate change is not happening, if you have the heart to feel that you are flesh and blood? To you it is a choice of lifestyle. For us, who are already suffering the impact of climate change and rising sea levels, it is a choice of life and death, because if we do not move, we are going to be drowned. And we are already losing our homelands. I think you do not need to question whether this is climate change or not. You should be able to put yourself in our shoes, and maybe travel to our islands; we invite you to travel to our islands and see it for yourself.

(…)

if they do not come up with a good solution in the Copenhagen meeting, my people will drown. Islands in the Pacific and elsewhere in the world will disappear, within the next twenty years. We will all lose our homeland, and this is my fear, that we are going to lose our ancestral homes and this is human rights, it is abusing our right to live in our ancestral homeland.

The money needed to evacuate the residents has not been coming in as had been hoped writes Rakova in an email to Box. These funds are important to help purchase land and to build homes for the residents. She will continue her campaign, when she will participate in activities during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark from December 7-18.

Thumbnail by Oxfam International

November 10 2009

India: Women Farmers Stand Against Climate Change

A group of women in India have demonstrated that despite the existing gender inequity and their low economic status, they can become a powerful resource to tackle climate change and reduce the emissions that cause it.

In India, the most vulnerable populations to climate change — impoverished communities and women — are being affected first, and the most. For example, Oxfam India’s blog comments about the devastating impact of drought on farmers, and the direct effect on women and children.

In the last 12 years, almost 50 farmers committed suicide every year, one tenth of them being women farmers. (…) Increasing number of farmers started migrating to cities in search of food. And the situation became shocking when trafficking in women and children proliferated in the district.

Gender as a Factor of Vulnerability to Climate Change

It is estimated that women produce over 50% of all food grown worldwide. In India, more than 84% of women are involved in agricultural activities, and as a result they become the greatest victims of climate change’s impact. In addition, gender inequality makes them disproportionately vulnerable to environmental alterations. Blogger Pricilla Stuckey, PhD points out on the blog This Lively Earth that women are unequally affected by climate change:

Discrimination against women also plays an enormous role in how women experience the effects of climate change. In India, for example, where women have seen their crop yields cut in half and the quality of grain diminish because of climate changes, women’s health is impaired from the double whammy of inferior crops and inequality.

Farmer Sita Debi is an example of this. “When there is no rain, we women have to work really hard in the fields to try and grow crops. Our nutrition also suffers because we are the last to eat at the family table. A lot of us are anemic as a result,” she says in the video filmed and posted on the blog Find Your Feet. Other women farmers appear in the video explaining how badly climate change is affecting their lives.

When Women Fight Back

Indian women don’t just sit around waiting to be hit by climate change. They, also, fight back. As shown in the second half of the video, women are developing innovative ways to adapt and help prevent global warming.

Agriculture accounts for at least 20 percent of Indian greenhouse gas emissions, mainly methane emission from paddy fields and cattle and nitrous oxides from fertilisers. According to the 2007 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), India’s rainfall pattern will be changing disproportionately, with intense rain occurring over fewer days, leading directly to confusion in the agricultural scenario.

Another example of women taking proactive steps to combat climate change is taking place in the village of Bidakanne, where women are growing crops such as linseed, green and chick peas, wheat and other legumes in between the rows of sunflowers, all without water and chemical inputs, such as pesticides.

This type of agricultural activity is especially beneficial to the dalit or broken women, who make up the lowest rung of India's caste system. Through this system, women in the approximately 75 villages in the Medak district can now form associations to sell their crops, as well as gather surplus produce for poorer members. In addition, to using practices to reduce emissions and harmful pollutants, this type of activity also helps reduce poverty.

The leadership and effort of these Indian women has not gone unnoticed within the online community. Shiba Prosad Bhattacharyya comments on the site India Together

Thank you for your column that these women have been profiled here make a case for them being a role model to the world. (…)Food is a human right & not a corporate commodity for speculation.Mother nature does not operate on a boardroom profit.Corporate profit will mearly lead to more food crisis. Through you I am conveying my highest regards to these women leaders who have demonstrated no negative effects on the environment, public health & farming families that food production can be profitable, sustainable and feed all of us.

November 04 2009

Latin America: The Rapid Spread of Desertification

Desertification might sound similar to desert, but there is a fundamental difference between the two: while deserts are one of nature’s wonderful formations, desertification is a process of degradation that lands go through after they are affected by climate change, human activities, and natural forces until they eventually become deserts.

Photo by Macnolete and used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Macnolete and used under a Creative Commons license.

Although the influence of climate change on desertification has not been fully understood yet, according to GreenFacts, it is known that higher temperatures resulting from increased carbon dioxide levels can have a negative impact through increased loss of water from soil and reduced rainfall in drylands. At the same time desertification contributes to climate change by releasing to the atmosphere carbon stored in dryland vegetation and soils.

Desertification is taking its toll worldwide. At this moment it’s destroying harvests, driving up the price of remaining food, and in some areas, animals are dying. People are also being driven away from their homes, as blogger Miguel Angel Alvarado from El Salvador explains about the president’s home needing to be moved because of desertification [es]:

El traslado de casa presidencial, del Barrio san Jacinto al local en donde estaba el Ministerio de Relaciones exteriores, según informes extrajudiciales, obedece a la prevención del ejecutivo ante un posible hundimiento del suelo generado por cárcavas en este sector.

According to non-judicial documents, the relocation of the presidential home from the San Jacinto neighborhood to the area where the Foreign Affairs ministry used to be, was a preventive measure made by the executive branch to avoid a possible sink of the ground as a consequence to the grooves formed there.

The most affected continent is Africa, and this can be seen especially in Kenya, where one of the most susceptible sectors to the effects of desertification and drought are young girls. When the water storage tanks have been used up at Dago Dala Hera orphanage in western Kenya, volunteer mothers and children have to draw unclean water from a nearby river for cooking and drinking. “Going to the river alone late in the evening is making girls more vulnerable to men who can sexually abuse them,” said Edwin Odoyo, whose mother Pamela founded the orphanage.

Even though desertification has its greatest impact in Africa, Latin America’s environmental conditions are also undergoing significant transformations, as discussed recently in the Ninth session of the Conference to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Italian expert Massimo Candelori, representative of the Convention to Combat Desertification, said in an interview with Tierramerica that the situation in Latin America is worrisome considering that there is not enough information about desertification’s scope in the region. “We have no current data. One of the goals discussed during the ninth session was to get indicators that allow us to better understand the situation….the last data we have is from ten years ago” said Candelori.

In Latin American countries where farming and cattle are one of the main sectors of the economy, desertification can be a silent, but dreadful predator. At least 25 percent of the regional territory is already degraded and the population is increasingly becoming concerned about this, as it is reflected in various blogs.

Eco Briefings [pt], a Brazilian blog, points out that Brazilians in the Northeastern region are witnessing an alarming expansion of desertification[pt]:

Mais um alerta está ligado. Temos pouco tempo para corrigir as coisas. (…)

No Brasil a desertificação tem avançado na caatinga, e zonas do polígono da seca no Nordeste e Norte de Minas Gerais, e também em Estados que antes não tinham áreas secas ou desertificadas como o Rio Grande do Sul. O Rio Amazonas viveu já uma grande seca a pouco tempo, grande com mortandade de peixes.

Another alarm is on. We have little time to set things right (…)

In Brazil, desertification has increased in the Caatinga, in the zones of droughts in the Northeast and North of the state of Minas Gerais, as well as in the states that didn’t suffer of droughts nor desertification before like in Rio Grande do Sul. The Amazon River has been through a major drought just a little time ago, with a large amount of fish dying because of this.

Argentina has several areas affected as well. In the region of Valles Aridos, in the Northeast, where the main economic activity is sheep raising, it is stipulated that during the last 100 years at least 180 thousand people had to emigrate [es] (.pdf format). Southern Argentina has not escaped desertification either. Blogger Ailen Romero, comments on the blog Geoperspectivas [es] that in the Patagonia region, the government actions to combat desertification are not enough:

En la Patagonia, la amplitud del problema es de tal magnitud que ha comenzado a adquirir estado público. Pocos ignoran el tema, pero pocos tienen la posibilidad de actuar de alguna forma o con el conocimiento para hacerlo. El problema de la desertificación en el caso de la Patagonia supera a los planes que se han elaborado para combatirlo. Es por eso que no deben ahorrarse esfuerzos, ni limitar la imaginación de soluciones alternativas.”Si la geografía es la manifestación de la sociedad en el espacio físico, un espacio físico deteriorado refleja una sociedad deteriorada” afirman del Valle y Coronato(investigadores del Centro Nacional Patagónico)

In Patagonia, the magnitude of the problem is so wide to the point that the general public has become aware of it. Few people ignore the problem and only a few have the chance or the knowledge to take action. The problem of desertification in Patagonia overcomes the plans that have been elaborated to fight it. That is why efforts shouldn’t be shy, nor limit the imagination to come up with alternative solutions. ‘If geography is the manifestation of a society in the physical space,a deteriorated physical space is the reflection of a deteriorated society, say Valle and Coronato (researchers from the National Center of Patagonia).

In Chile, where 62% of the national territory is already affected by desertification [es], blogger Alfredo Erlwein expressed concern on the blog El Ciudadano [es] (The Citizen) on how little knowledge citizens have about desertification.

Efectivamente la desertificación es el problema ambiental más grave de Chile y muy poco conocido. Existen grandes zonas, como en la costa de la octava región, donde la erosión severa supera el 50% de la superficie: esto es que literalmente más de la mitad de los suelos se ha perdido por completo. En esas zonas se encuentran cárcavas de más de 50 metros de profundidad. Una tasa normal de formación de suelo puede ser de 0.2 cm por año, lo que evidencia la gravedad del asunto.

Desertification is indeed the biggest but least known environmental problem in Chile. There are vast areas, such as the Eight Region’s coast, where the severe erosion exceeds 50 percent of the surface: this means that more than half of the land has been lost, literally. In those areas there are grooves of over 50 meters of depth. A normal range of land formation is of about 0.2. centimetres per year, which proves the severity of the matter.

According to Italian expert Candelori, using soil in the carbon market will help fighting desertification; this can be decided during the Copenhagen conference. The countdown to Copenhagen has begun and the world awaits it.

Translation of Portuguese citation by Diego Casaes
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