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January 30 2014

Landfill Smoke Continues To Hold Trinidad's Capital Hostage

For the fourth consecutive day, residents, visitors and people who work in Trinidad & Tobago's capital city have had to endure the thick, black, ominous smoke which has enveloped the city.

Talk of the situation has dominated social media, with netizens quickly losing tolerance for the seemingly slow response by authorities:

  Others were more concerned by the potential health hazards of the thick smoke:

Many high school students chimed in on the issue with comments about the closure of schools throughout the capital city. Some were happy for the unplanned holiday:

Others were not impressed:

Government officials also took to social media to address the issue. Minister of Legal Affairs, Prakash Ramadhar tweeted:

Meanwhile, officials at the Environment Management Authority posted:

It remains to be seen what definitive action will be taken by the authorities.

You can monitor how the situation develops on Twitter by using the hashtag #Beetham.

The thumbnail image in this post is by Mark Franco, used with permission.

January 28 2014

Supporting the Rights of Malian Youth to Education

While Mali is trying to reunite in its large territory strained by a prolonged internal conflict between the north and the rest of the country, its young people are impatient to move forward to build Mali's future. My Rights, My Voice, Mali is a project led by Malian youth and supported by Oxfam to promote their rights to education and sexual and reproductive health.

Image from Facebook page for the My Rights, My Voice project. Used with permission.

Image from Facebook page for the My Rights, My Voice project. Used with permission.

The context

Although 80 percent of Mali’s children enrolled in primary school in 2010-11 school year, the system struggles to give them a quality education. Almost half abandon their schooling early, while many complete school without basic reading, writing and mathematical skills. The education system is also plagued by a lack of schools in rural areas, as well as shortages of teachers and materials.

High school students in Kati, Mali via wikipedia  Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

High school students in Kati, Mali via Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Laya Diarra, a blogger for Afribone in Bamako explains that finishing primary school is often not enough to solve the literacy issue [fr]: 

Il a été constaté que les enfants qui terminaient le 1er Cycle de l’Enseignement Fondamental retombaient très vite dans l’illettrisme. Cet enseignement ne garantissait pas le minimum éducatif que le système se donnait comme objectif.

Statistics show that many children who completed primary school fell quickly back into illiteracy. This formation did not guarantee the minimum objectives that the educational system aims for.

Additionally, the gender gap in access to education is still a major subject of concern. In 2008, more than 80,000 students passed exams to enter secondary schools, yet around 17,000 — 40 percent of whom were girls — were denied placement in secondary schools. Marianne Opheim, an education researcher, explained that the gender gap is not as large as it may seem [fr]:

Tout en reconnaissant l'importance des facteurs particuliers au statut de la femme, je pense que la sous-scolarisation des filles est étroitement liée aux grands défis généraux de l'école malienne, tels que l'écart linguistique et culturel entre l'école et le foyer

While it is important to recognize the importance of specific factors linked to women status, I think the under-enrollment of girls in school is closely linked to the general challenges of the Malian school system, such as the linguistic and cultural gap between their school and their home.

Some solutions

Mali faces a shortage of teachers (only one per 100 pupils in some areas), poor teacher training, a lack of classroom materials and an outdated curriculum. Still, some schools are rising to the challenges, like the Mohamed Diallo Primary School. In the following French-language video, the director argues that despite many challenges, the school was able to meet its goals thanks to the dedication of the teachers:

The education authorities’ lack of accountability and transparency in financial management means legal standards are not upheld and policies such as the national girls’ education policy are not implemented.

Working with partners in Mali such as the Education for All coalition, My Rights, My Voice is advocating for an improved national curriculum, including life skills and sexual and reproductive health rights. They also train youth groups to monitor policy implementation so that they can hold the government accountable to its commitments to provide quality education for all Mali’s children and to promote girls’ schooling in particular. 

Trinidad & Tobago: Evading Exercise

Diaspora blogger Afrobella lists “the dumbest excuses we make to avoid exercising.”

January 24 2014

Chikungunya on the Rise in the Caribbean

Chikungunya, a mosquito borne illness that causes fever and severe joint pain, has been spreading throughout several Caribbean territories since late last month.

Officials on the island of St. Martin, have begun vector control measures to reduce the population of the aedes aegypti mosquito, which is primarily responsible for the spread of the virus; regional netizens have been using Twitter to give updates:

Cases have also been reported on the Dutch side of the island:

Other territories are also taking precautions as cases of the virus have been reported in several other islands:

American Science Professor and blogger Jeff Stratford predicted that it is only a matter of time until cases of the virus appear in the United States:

Why do I think Chukungunya is coming to the US? The virus is carried by mosquitoes are are ubiquitous throughout the Americas. All the virus needs to get a foothold in the US is for an infected individual (say a tourist) to bring the virus back to the Americas while the virus is circulating in their bloodstream. Then an “American” mosquito can bite the infected person, pick up the virus, and the cycle starts anew. 

Since 2005, cases of the virus has been reported in over 40 countries worldwide. You can keep track of the regional spread of the disease via Twitter, under the hashtags #chikungunya #caribbean.

January 22 2014

Kyrgyz Scholar: Marijuana Legalization Keeps Governments in Power

As US President Barack Obama's recent comments on marijuana reignite the liberalization debate across the world, including in Kyrgyzstan, a Kyrgyz scholar offers a non-mainstream explanation for the decriminalization of marijuana in a number of countries. In a blog post on, Dr. Rustam Tukhvatshin claims [ru] that legalization helps governments control protest movements:

…People's addiction to [marijuana] is very convenient to politicians because the addicted individuals will never criticize them. Such people will view any policy decision made by politicians through a marijuana smoke screen, joyfully and complacently.

Most often individuals [addicted to the drug] belong to the discontented strata, and the legalization of marijuana renders these strata [unimportant]. Unfortunately, people who use marijuana are only a step away from experimenting with stronger drugs such as heroin and LSD. This then enables the authorities to put such individuals on record and take measures against them, while society at large will never defend drug addicts. These are, in my opinion, the main reasons for decriminalizing marijuana…

January 21 2014

How Cartoon Character ‘Meena’ Changed South Asian Attitudes Towards Girls

Screenshot from the cover of Meena Comic Book. Courtesy Unicef

Screenshot from the cover of a Meena comic book. Image courtesy UNICEF

Only two decades ago, the status of many women in some South Asian countries was low. Many girls in rural areas were not allowed to study. Girls were inevitably married off as soon as they grew up, so what good was studying? Boys would get the best of the households’ food, the girls the leftovers.

But this discriminatory mindset has changed tremendously, in part thanks to a cartoon character.

The fictional character Meena stars in the South Asian children's television show of the same name. Promoted by UNICEF, Meena and her TV show is very popular in the region. UNICEF developed the Meena Communication Initiative (MCI) as a mass communication project aimed at changing perceptions and behavior that hamper the survival, protection and development of girls in South Asia.

Bangladesh was the first country to meet Meena when a film about her struggle to go to school aired on Bangladesh national television (BTV) in 1993. The secondary characters of her stories include Meena's brother Raju and her pet parrot Mithu.

Meet Meena. Image courtesy Wikimedia

Meet Meena. Image from Wikimedia

According to an old report of UNICEF:

Since her inception 14 years ago she has shown millions of women and girls what can be achieved. She has delivered messages on issues as far reaching as solving the problem of bullying through to challenging the stigma of HIV/AIDS through to girls’ right to play sport. The Meena stories are highly entertaining and fun, but also reflect, at their core, the realities of girls’ lives in South Asia.

Meena has spread messages to stop child marriage and the practice of dowry and promote healthy toilet use, sending girls to school, equality between boys and girls and the right to education for the domestic workers. Her shows highlights the potential contributions to society that girls can make if provided an equal playing field.

How can a message spread by a small cartoon girl be so empowering that it has helped change the society radically? Housewife Naznin Rahman told the Daily Prothom Alo [bn]:

আমার মা জোহরা বেগম তাঁর দুই ছেলের বিয়েতে যৌতুক নিয়েছেন। তখনো টিভিতে মীনা দেখাতে শুরু করেনি। তারপর যেই তিনি মীনা দেখতে শুরু করলেন, তাঁর চরিত্রে মেয়েদের প্রতি আলাদাভাবে একটা সহানুভূতি কাজ করতে লাগল। তারপর যখন তাঁর ছোট ছেলের বিয়ে দিলেন, তখনই আমরা বুঝতে পারলাম তিনি মীনার দ্বারা কতটা প্রভাবিত। আম্মা আমার ছোট ভাইয়ের বিয়েতে যৌতুক নেননি।

My mom Zohra Begum has taken dowry for her two elder sons. In those days, Meena was not aired. Since she started watching Meena, she had developed a special sympathy for girls in particular. When she had her younger son married, we realized how she was affected by Meena. She did not take any dowry for my younger brother.

Shuvo Ankur wrote on the's kids page about the positive changes Meena has provoked:

প্রচার হবার পর থেকেই মীনা পেয়ে যায় দারুন জনপ্রিয়তা। এবং এর ফলে আসতে থাকে বেশ কিছু পরিবর্তন। আগে গ্রামাঞ্চলে মেয়ে শিশুদেরকে স্কুলে যেতে না দিয়ে বাড়ির কাজ করানো হতো। মীনা কার্টুন প্রচার হবার পর থেকে আস্তে আস্তে ঘটতে থাকে পরিবর্তন। কারণ মীনা কার্টুনেও দেখানো হয়েছে যে তাকে স্কুলে যেতে দেয়া হতো না। কিন্তু কিছু ঘটনার পরে তাকে স্কুলে যেতে দেয়া হয়। এবং মীনা বিভিন্ন বুদ্ধিমত্তার পরিচয় রাখতে থাকে। সে লেখাপড়া শিখে তার বাবাকে ঠকে যাবার হাত থেকে রক্ষা করে। আবার বাড়ির গরু চুরি ঠেকায়। এমনি সব কাজের জন্য মীনা হয়ে যায় সবার জনপ্রিয় এবং সার্কভুক্ত দেশগুলোতে মেয়ে শিশুদেরকে অবহেলাও কমে যেতে থাকে।

Meena achieved popularity from the start. The changes were visible soon after. Earlier, in rural areas girl students dropped out of school and ended up working as a housemaid. But the situation changed after Meena's show began airing. On screen, Meena was also not allowed to go to school first. But she changed her lot and got permission to go to school. Meena's wit and intelligence allowed her to learn to count and other essential knowledge to save her father from the deception from other people. She saved their cows from a thief. Her intelligence became popular, and the negligence of girls in South Asian countries slowly started disappearing.

Sohanur Rahman [bn] wrote on Kishorebarta that there is a lot to learn from the cartoon show:

[...] মীনার কাছ থেকে আমরা অনেক কিছুই শিখেছি। সেই ৯০ দশক থেকে আজকের দিন প্রযন্ত প্রায় ১৭ বছর ধরে মীনা আমাদের সমাজের প্রতিটি মানুষের মনের মনিকোঠায় একটি উজ্জ্বল চরিত্র হিসেবে স্থান দখল করে নিয়েছে।

We have learnt a lot from Meena. From the '90s till today, Meena has become a star and a special character in our society.

Meena is also broadcast on radio. Farzana Islam Tithi, 24, who voices Meena, told The Daily Star:

Everyone loved Meena from their childhood and everyone, regardless of age, watched the cartoon eagerly. I also used to watch it. May be Meena’s accent struck to my mind since then and I believe that feeling helped me in my voice over for Meena.

Twitter user Bengalithings deemed Meena a role model:

The UNICEF Bangladesh Twitter account (@UNICEFBD) reminded that:

Every year on 24th October “Meena Day” is observed in Bangladesh to promote social awareness on 100% enrollment of kids in school, avoid dropouts and ensure proper education.

According to reports [bn], Meena has also become popular outside of the South Asian region. It has been dubbed in more than 30 languages such as Arabic, Burmese and Chinese. You can download free Meena comic books from here.

January 19 2014

January 16 2014

Unethical Practices In A Bangladeshi Private Hospital

Emma Clare Burton-Chowdhoury, an Englishwoman (married to a Bangladeshi) living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, blogs about her experience in giving birth to a daughter in a Bangladeshi private hospital:

The pediatric team at Apollo welcomed the premature delivery of our daughter with open arms as conveniently her special care boosted our hospital bill.

Urging Indians to ‘Take the Poo to the Loo’

A village school in Moradabad district, Uttar Pradesh, India with toilet facilities for both boys and girls. Image by author.

A village school in Uttar Pradesh, India with toilet facilities for boys and girls. Children are also encouraged (through visuals and written instructions) to wash hands with soap before meals and after using the toilet. Image by author.

Using innovative outreach programmes, UNICEF India's ‘Take the Poo to the Loo’ campaign has been trying to raise awareness and calling upon Indians to end both open defecation and the use of make-shift (dry) toilets which are cleaned by manual scavengers.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates [pdf], about 620million people in India still practice open defecation – which is over 50 percent of the population. Even the latest government of India (GOI) Census data puts the figure around 50 percent. While the GOI has had a continuous slew of sanitation related schemes, the latest Census data has revealed that more Indian households have telephones/ mobiles than toilet facilities.

It's more than just the absence of toilets

Government officials handling sanitation projects understand that in order to end the age-old practice of open defecation, people must first of all feel the need to have and use a hygienic toilet – an uphill task especially in rural communities where traditionally, there was not much social shame associated with going to fields, woods etc., to answer nature's call and/or defecate. It was simply something that ‘everyone did'. In fact, people shrank away from having a toilet within their home premises on both religious and ‘hygienic’ grounds, their argument being that a toilet, being something ‘unclean', could not co-exist within the same premises that held the kitchen as well as space for worship.

Screenshot from the

Screenshot from the “Take the poo to the Loo” campaign website

Malathy M, a young professional working with Maharashtra State Rural Livelihoods Mission, reflected on the issue after seeing people using the sides of a highway as an open toilet. She tweeted:

But children bear the severest brunt of this practice

Children are the most vulnerable when it comes to health hazards resulting from poor sanitation and hygiene associated with open defecation. According to a report [pdf] published by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,

Diarrhoeal diseases caused by inadequate sanitation and unhygienic conditions put children at multiple risks leading to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, high morbidity, malnutrition, stunting and death.

In India, that problem can be acute, because,

Realizing the gravity of the situation, , the government of India has sought out UNICEF India as a key partner in it's fight against the practice of open defecation. While UNICEF has been partnering the initiative at various levels, the current #poo2loo campaign aims to engage even the urban populace and raise awareness about open defecation, not only in rural areas but in urban areas (including slums) as well.

UNICEF India is using innovative methods to engage citizens and raise awareness about open defecation.

 In the next two posts of this series, we will look at a) how dry toilets and the associated evil of manual scavenging continues to persist stubbornly in some corners of India and b) how some brave ‘Toilet Warriors’ are ushering in change within their communities and creating demand for hygienic toilets and better sanitation facilities – creating hope that open defecation and manual scavenging will slowly but surely be a thing of the past.

January 15 2014

China's Viral Sex Education Videos

A small team has released a collection of one-minute childhood sex education videos on China's youku, China's YouTube. The videos, involving topics such as “Why Are Boys Different from Girls” and “Where Do Babies Come From?”, have become the second most popular search on Baidu and have drawn over one million views online. TeaLeafNation has more details. Check one of the videos below:

January 09 2014

Voices from the Victims of Naphtha Cracker Pollution in Taiwan

Residents in the area of a petrochemical processing plant in Taiwan's western Yulin County are at risk for exposure to several toxic air pollutants that can cause various diseases, including cancers, according to a report by researchers from the National Taiwan University. 

The comprehensive research on the impact of Formosa Plastics Group's naphtha cracker No. 6, released in July 2012, found that among the pollutants that residents are likely to be exposed to the carcinogenic and liver-damaging vinyl chloride, which is an essential raw material in the manufacturing of PVC and other plastic products.

The findings echo those of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which saw “extensive” violations at Formosa Plastics' plants in Louisiana and Texas in 2009. The Taiwanese company paid a settlement worth 13 million US dollars in that case to the US Department of Justice.

The Yulin Country naphtha cracker was met with public opposition over its possible health consequences from the start of construction in 1992. In 2009, the local government, which had welcomed the investment in their area, agreed to invite researchers from the National Taiwan University to conduct a three-year study to evaluate the health risk in relation to the complex.

Their damning results have inspired residents to take up a possible lawsuit against the Formosa Plastics Group [zh]. Jung Sheng-hsiung reported on the progress at public news portal PNN:


Tsai-Neng Chen, who lives in Taishi, told me that his parents and sister and brother and son died because of liver cirrhosis. His son was only 19 years old when he died. Tsai-Neng Chen himself also has suffered liver cirrhosis for five years […] “Some people said that I ‘imagine’ the correlation. However, if this disease is due to genetic problems from my father, why are my three sisters who moved out after they got married still healthy and fit? Only us who stayed here get sick and die.” Tsai-Neng Chen emphasized the threat faced by all the residents of the area by the Naphtha Cracker Complex […] If the residents care about their future generations and decide to file a lawsuit against Formosa Plastic Group, he will be the first one to join.

The study has also prompted other nearby areas like Chuanhua County to push for a similar investigation into their situation. Chuanhua County is located north of the plant, and when the summer south wind blows, residents fear that it might carry some of the same air pollutants with it.

Sheng-Hsiung Jung, reporting for PNN, visited the affected villages from Chuanhua County and presented a photo feature titled as “The South Wind”. GV has granted the permission from Jung to republish and translate part of his feature report at PNN.



In the past, everyone in the village would jump into the sea to catch eels. Old fishermen would tell you, in the old days, the river mouth would be crowded with people like a night market as villagers would catch grass eels to increase the family income. However, the good old days didn't last long and now you seldom see people fishing for grass eels. The eels are vanishing at rapid speed.



61-year-old Chin-Feng Chen's late husband, Shih-Hsien Hsu, who died two years ago, did not leave her anything except an old house, for which they have paid the mortgage for 20 years but still need to pay more. And the debt for his sickness is yet to clear. When Shih-Hsien Hsu was alive, they always did the farming together. Since they did not own any land, they could only farm for others to make an income. Their financial condition was never good. In 2006, Shih-Hsien Hsu, who never smoked tobacco nor drank alcohol or chewed betel nuts, was diagnosed with oral cancer. His health condition kept deteriorating despite help from doctors. He died in November 2011 at the age of 59 after the cancer spread to his lungs.

Chin-Feng Chen said that she does not have sufficient knowledge to explain why her husband died from oral cancer. However, she wonders how a person such as her husband, who was a farmer in the countryside without any bad habits such as smoking and drinking or chewing betel nuts, died from oral cancer.



74-year-old Lin-Shin Wei developed a six-centimeter-large tumor in her left lung three years ago, and was diagnosed with lung adenocarcinoma. Considering her age and the size of the tumor, the doctor suggested that the cancer not be removed through surgical measures because her prognosis might not be very good. However, Lin-Shin Wei said she wanted to fight the cancer and proved her body strong enough to receive the surgery. She eventually convinced the doctor.

Now Lin-Shin Wei has a scar 15 centimeters long on her body. She was proud to show the scar to me during the interview. To her, this scar is not only evidence of her illness, but also an award for her will to live.

January 07 2014

The Challenges of Daily Life in Conakry, Guinea

Conakry from above via wikipedia CC-license-BY

Conakry from above, via Wikipedia CC-license-BY

For many outsiders across the world, the buoyant capital city of Conakry in the West African country of Guinea probably recalls September 29, 2009, a date that saw the rape and massacre of at least 157 people who protested the attempt by Junta head Dadis Camara to become president. 

But for better or for worse, there is much to this port city of 1.5 million people beyond that grisly headline. BAH Mamadou Lamine is a contributor for the Guinean weekly magazine Lynx [fr]. On the blog Konakry Express, BAH shares his point of view on the challenges of everyday life in Conakry and explains the gloomy reality of the city that has yet to fully recover from the recent tragedy. His analysis goes in-depth into three main themes: criminality, lack of structure and public health and sanitation. 


Crime is a daily concern in this dynamic urban center. BAH explains why [fr]: 

Dès que la nuit tombe, les Conakrykas sont bercés par les tirs d’armes de guerre effectués par les bandits, des bandits souvent en tenue militaire. Ces mêmes individus sèment la terreur dans les rues partout en opérant des car-jackings brutaux et sanglants. Tous les jours des magasins sont dévalisés, des essenceries pillées, des citoyens tués.

When night falls, the residents of Conakry are rocked by gunfire at the hand of bandits, bandits often dressed in military uniforms. These same individuals spread terror in the streets with brutal and bloody car-jackings. Everyday stores are robbed, gas stations are looted, citizens are killed.

The army is often accused of contributing to the lack of safety felt in the city. Increasing mistrust of the regular armed forces has roots in Guinean history: During his mandate from 1958 to 1984, President Sekou Touré kept much of the armed forces in poverty. This situation has not changed much since so a few soldiers are often caught racketeering citizens  because they are poorly compensated.
 The International Crisis Group reported that

conditions of service were deplorable, even for officers. The senior officer corps lived on meager rations and saw its privileges and family allowances curtailed over time. Soldiers of all ranks had to find ways to supplement their rations

In the following French-language video, one can see the trial of gang members who were accused of manslaughter during a robbery at an Asian supermarket:


BAH argues that the lack of structure [fr] is also an important factor in the daily uncertainty of the city:

Tout est sens dessus-dessous ; les sens interdits sont autorisés et/ou négociables; nos flics lorsqu’il y en a sont pour le dialogue, surtout tarifé. Très souvent ces flics-ripoux sont aidés dans les carrefours compliqués par des citoyens sans tenue. C’est une première mondiale.  

Everything is topsy-turvy here; one-way streets are negotiable and our cops are open to discussion on enforcing them, especially if you are willing to sweeten the pot. These so-called cops are often assisted in the regulation of cross-roads by regular citizens pacing traffic. This is only in Guinea.

Public health and sanitation

Yet, the most worrisome aspect of life in Conakry seems to be public health and sanitation [fr]: 

trash in Conakry on Konakry express vith the author's permission

Trash on the streets of Conakry via Konakry Express. Republished with the author's permission

Les générations d’ordures accumulées depuis des temps immémoriaux dégagent des odeurs pestilentielles renforcées par celles des immondices brûlées à même les rues. Ajoutons à cette savoureuse mixture, les eaux évacuées des fosses sceptiques surannées [...] La poussière aussi est omniprésente, obsédante, irrespirable, morbide. [Pour réparer les voies routières] une société industrielle riveraine a versé de la latérite sur la chaussée. C’était au cours de la dernière saison sèche. La boue d’alors s’est transformée en poussière.

The accumulation of waste since it seems, the beginning of times, emits pestilential odors that are only reinforced by the waste that is burned directly on the streets. Added to that “delicious” mixture of smells is the one coming from sewage discharged in obsolete septic tanks [...] Dust is also ubiquitous, haunting, unbreathable, morbid. [To repair roadways] an industrial company paved the main road with mud. That was during the dry season. Now the mud has turned to dust.

Possible solutions

Despite these conditions, as BAH points out, the city and the nation are filled with potential for economic growth, mostly from mining resources. The endemic poverty (ranked 178th out of 187 on the Human Development Index) that has held back Guinea could be solved by assertive economic planning and clear management of the military forces. Doing Business, part of the World Bank, highlights some positive economic reforms:

Guinea made starting a business easier by enabling the one-stop shop to publish incorporation notices and by reducing the notary fees. Guinea also put up a one-stop shop for company incorporation and by replacing the requirement for a copy of the founders’ criminal records with one for a sworn declaration at the time of the company’s registration. 

The armed forces are also still a potential source of instability that could trample Guinea's quest for recovery and growth. NGO International Crisis Group recommends the following actions to reform the army:

  • Frame a national security strategy, including a white paper, to elaborate the role and mandate of the security and defense forces, and work to establish national consensus around reform, including armed forces’ buy-in
  •  Protect the army from political manipulation by :  
  • building civilian oversight capacity by a training program for members of the key oversight institutions and improving conditions of service, so as to tackle the army’s widespread malaise and corruption. 

January 06 2014

A Year of Campaigns for Iran

Just Access

A photo from Just Access, a campaign by Arseh Sevom to highlight the effect of sanctions on ordinary Iranians.

Iranians witnessed two major political events in 2013: The election of a new president and the beginnings of a nuclear deal. Both of them kindled hope in the hearts of many Iranians for a better, less painful future.

Meanwhile, repression and censorship continues in the country: from the filtering of WeChat to the mass arrest of tech people and poets.

Several internet campaigns launched throughout 2013 with diverse topics ranging from fighting cancer to making fun of the Israeli Prime Minister; from protecting dogs to campaigning for a fictional presidential candidate.

A Common Enemy

Two Iranian cinema stars, one inside the country and one in exile, joined efforts in an online campaign to support compatriots suffering from cancer.

In May, Bahram Radan in Iran joined former co-star, Golshifteh Farahani, now living in exile in Paris, in a video on YouTube as part of a campaign to save the life of Shahrzad, a fellow Iranian suffering from Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML).

Act Like Man, Dress Like a Woman

Several Kurdish men have photograph themselves dressed as women as part of a Facebook campaign to say, “Being a woman is not an instrument to punish or humiliate anybody.” The photos appeared on a Facebook page named “Kurd Men for Equality”. The story began when a man dressed in a red dress was paraded by security forces through the streets of Marivan in the Kurdistan province of Iran in April as punishment by a local court for a domestic dispute.


#IranJeans: Yes We Do Wear Jeans

In October, Iranians flooded the internet with posts, tweets and photos as they mocked the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamian Netanyahu's remark that Iranians are not free to wear jeans.

jeans_Iran (1)

Fictional Character for Presidential Election

In May,the activist website United4Iran and the serial web comic Zahra's Paradise launched the virtual campaign “Zahra For President 2013″ to expose Iran's corrupt political system through satire.


Just Access

A combination of international sanctions and mismanagement by the Iranian government are blamed for the current state of medical chaos in Iran.
JUST ACCESS by human rights organisation Arseh Sevom was one campaign launched to restore access to medication, humanitarian goods, and other non-sanctioned items for people living in Iran.

Global Voices recently reported on the medical situation in Iran by interviewing Iranians inside country.


Saving “Best Friends”

A non-governmental shelter for stray dogs, Pardis Animal Shelter, in Tabriz started its work at the end of October along with a virtual publicity campaign. Iran's authorities frown on dog ownership and dogs generally. On their Facebook page the shelter say they wish, “To be the voice and shelter for voiceless and defenseless creatures!”

Pardise animal shelter Facebook page

Pardise animal shelter Facebook page

December 28 2013

Lebanon: Don't Drink and Drive

Lebanon's traffic authorities have launched a don't drink and drive campaign ahead of New Year's eve celebrations. On Twitter, the traffic department shares this photograph:

Don't Drink and Drive - a traffic awareness campaign launched by Lebanese authorities ahead of New Year's eve celebrations

Don't Drink and Drive – a traffic awareness campaign launched by Lebanese authorities ahead of New Year's eve celebrations

December 24 2013

Are Volunteer Programs Empowering — or Exploitative?

This article by Angilee Shah for The World originally appeared on on December 19, 2013 and is republished as part of a content sharing agreement.

Giving time to a cause you believe in can be extremely rewarding. As Demba Kandeh, a volunteer worker in the Gambia, explained, “Volunteering is a beautiful thing.”

But when do volunteer programs empower and when do they exploit? Does building this kind of workforce benefit communities? Would essential services simply not be provided if it weren't for volunteers, as several people told Amy Costello in her investigation of volunteer health workers in Senegal.

With help in part from the Global Voices community of bloggers, we found perspectives from around the globe.

Laura Morris, 28, an editor [for Rising Voices!] in Paris, spent five months as a volunteer for a small NGO in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and seven months as a volunteer for an organization that provides care for the elderly in London. Morris says she understood why the Cambodian organization did not pay her — she was the only foreigner there, and they could not have afforded the salary — but she thinks that the London nonprofit simply took advantage of a tough job market and gave her work that should have been performed by a paid employee.

“I volunteered for it, so it was my decision to work with them, but I was also asked to do work that I absolutely should have been paid for, that was much higher than entry-level,” Morris says.

Have you volunteered for a nonprofit organization? Share your own experiences and follow the hashtag #TrackingCharity on Twitter to discuss.

December 23 2013

Is it Fair that Thousands of Health Workers in Senegal Receive No Pay?

Awa Diagne in Senegal

Community health worker Awa Diagne volunteers in her village in Senegal. Photo by Amy Costello for PRI (used with permission)

This article and a radio report by Amy Costello for The World originally appeared on on December 19, 2013 and is republished as part of a content sharing agreement.

In many parts of Latin America, Asia and Africa, there aren't enough doctors and nurses to care for everyone who is sick. So charities and governments have enlisted thousands of volunteers to serve as community health workers.

These volunteers provide much-needed care, and because they draw no salary, they offer a cost-effective solution in impoverished places. But who is looking after the interests of the volunteers?

I traveled to the West African nation of Senegal, which is rolling out a national health program that relies on volunteers.

Only Sundays off

I headed to Ngueringne Bambara, a village about an hour outside Dakar, the capital. I walked into a bustling medical clinic. The clinics are called “health huts” in Senegal, but this one was brick and mortar.

Inside, I met Awa Diagne, a volunteer who was tending to that day's patients.

She took the pulse of a sick infant. She treated a man with a nasty gash in his leg. She saw a woman with wounds across her back that she had sustained in a car accident a few weeks earlier.

Watching Awa Diagne in action, I was impressed. She and her colleagues delivered care with kindness and concern and efficiency.

Frankly, I hadn't expected to see this level of professionalism at a clinic run by volunteers. I figured things would be more ad hoc — that the volunteers might open their clinic a few hours a week. I was wrong.

“We work from Monday to Saturday,” Awa Diagne said. “We only take Sundays off.”

And she and her colleagues never really go off duty.

“You can knock on their door at any time, even in the middle of the night,” said Mame Ngone Fall, a woman I met at the clinic. “They never complain.”

The more I heard, the less this sounded like a volunteer gig. It seemed like a job.

In fact, I learned that Awa Diagne has been doing this work, without pay, for a very long time — more than a decade.

Personal satisfaction

The health huts program here in Senegal is administered by ChildFund International, an American charity.

“Our role is to help support the health system,” said ChildFund's national health coordinator in Senegal, Mamadou Diagne (no relation to Awa Diagne). “We extend the work of the health ministry to the village level, where there aren't any healthcare facilities.”

He said his program provides care to some 9 million people. It uses 20,000 health workers.

“They don't receive a salary — it's volunteer work,” he said. “But they receive training and the feeling that they're helping their communities.”

Volunteers gain personal satisfaction from the work, he said, as well as respect from their neighbors. They're given certificates of appreciation at community ceremonies.

Awa Diagne, the volunteer I spent time with, says these nonmonetary benefits have kept her going over the past decade.

“We do this because we love the community. Not for money,” she said. “We want to help people.”

But many of the volunteers are impoverished themselves, without much money or time to spare. Awa Diagne has five children. Her husband is a bricklayer who sometimes can't find work.

“Sometimes we don't even manage to have three meals a day,” she said.

A ‘controversial’ issue

Impoverished people like Awa Diagne volunteer for an untold number of international health charities around the world. Is it ethical to ask such desperately poor people to give so much of their time, for free?

The World Health Organization calls this issue “controversial.” A 2007 paper commissioned by the WHO contended that, “as a rule, community health workers are poor and expect and require an income.” In another paper a year later, the WHO made a strong recommendation that community health workers should receive “adequate and appropriate incentives, including wages.”

So why isn't Awa Diagne paid? I asked the representative of ChildFund.

“I think everyone deserves to be paid,” Mamadou Diagne said. “But with the state of development here, we can't afford it. Take the 20,000 volunteers. If you give each one of them, not much — say, $100 — that adds up to a lot of money.”

But ChildFund's work here is paid for by a wealthy benefactor — the US government — which has given $40 million to the health huts program.

So I headed to the American embassy in Dakar and tracked down Ramatoulaye Dioume. She's been working for the US government on community health activities here for 15 years. I told her about Awa Diagne and the other volunteers who have been working six days a week for a decade.

I asked, “Is it ethical to ask them to do that for free?”

“I can turn the question,” she responded. “Is it ethical to leave them without any services? Can we [leave] the community without anything?”

Here's the problem. The US government could presumably pay volunteers in Senegal with a portion of its aid money, but that would be a short-term solution because the health huts program will soon be handed over to the Senegalese government. If Senegal can't afford to transfer those workers to its payroll, what happens to the country's healthcare system?

“If you pay the volunteers for a few years and then stop, the workers will not accept that,” said ChildFund's Mamadou Diagne. “They will organize into pressure groups — a kind of trade union — and then the government will have to find the money to pay them. Or there's a risk that everyone will just stop working.”

This is something I heard a lot in Senegal: The government simply cannot afford to pay its health workers.

Questioning assumptions

When I got back to the United States, I called Kenneth Maes. He's an anthropologist at Oregon State University who studies community health volunteers in Ethiopia.

“It's easy to say we can't afford [community health workers],” he said, “but it really takes a change in ideology, a change in values, a commitment to raising the money and convincing various players in international health that this is something worth putting money into.”

He added, “Raising the money and standing up to this unquestioned idea that it's just not possible and not sustainable [to pay thousands of workers] — I think that's the first step.”

A few governments have already taken that step. Ethiopia has hired about 40,000 community health workers, making them full-time, salaried employees. Brazil has hired even more — about 250,000 across the country.

Maes said these governments instituted the programs not only to improve the health of the public, but also as job-creation measures.

Awa Diagne, the Senegalese health volunteer, is proud of the work she has done for her community, for free, for a decade. “The government should be aware that any program they organize — vaccinations, HIV, malaria — those programs cannot be successful without the help of community workers,” she said.

“Look at our work and our activities,” she added, “We deserve to be paid. The government needs to find solutions to help us.”

Have you volunteered for a nonprofit organization? Share your own experiences and follow the hashtag #TrackingCharity on Twitter to discuss.

Amy Costello is a former Africa correspondent for PRI’s The World. She now hosts Tiny Spark, a podcast that investigates the business of doing good.

December 22 2013

The Challenges of Family Healthcare in Apatou, French Guiana

Henri Dumoulin with a child at the PMI center of Apatou, French Guiana (with his permission)

Henri Dumoulin, Global Voices contributor, recalls his stay in Apatou, French Guiana, located in the heart of the Amazon Forest. He explains how, as the physician of Mother and Child Health Protection programme there, he had to rely on the informal colloboration with the Suriname health system and navigate the multilingual setting of the community :

I shall be in the “Apoema tapu gezondheid zentrum” on November 28, 29 to work again with the same team, to vaccinate all people living on both sides of the borders in this franco–Surinamese archipelago. It appears that nobody was aware of our coming [..] So the account of injections was lesser than expected (109 in one day). Amalia [the coordinator]  send a radio call on Thursday morning and people came progressively [..] A little worried about the reaction of my boss regarding my way of managing our local health problems and crossing borders ..

December 19 2013

3 Initiatives Working to Make Niger a Better Place

Power grid in Niger via the Mapping for Niger Project

Power grid in Niger via the Mapping for Niger Project

Positive stories from Niger are a few and far between these days. Economic hardship combined with threats of terrorism paint a gloomy outlook for much of the country. Yet, if you take a closer look, you'll find initiatives trying to turn the tide. Learn more about three projects working to make things better in Niger:   

Safe Cooking Energy Programme

Chidimma C. Okeke in Niamey explains that the Niger government has launched the Safe Cooking Energy Programme in order to extend the benefits of safe cooking energy to half a million households: 

The newly launched programme would replace traditional use of firewood in the rest of public institutions with efficient wood-burning technologies. It would build a stove production plant in the state and create over 1,500 new jobs. The programme will empower women by training them to produce and sell stoves. It will also reduce deforestation.

The new stoves are designed to reduce the risk of mortality attributable to indoor smoke from solid fuel, sometimes referred to as indoor air pollution and domestic fire. The international NGO Sentinelles reports that domestic fires are an under-covered issue [fr] in Zinder, Niger:

Les enfants gravement brûlés sont malheureusement nombreux. Les «cuisines» des familles se composent généralement d’un simple feu de bois, où est posé le chaudron qui va servir de récipient pour préparer le repas familial. Souvent les enfants jouent autour du feu sans surveillance. Un coup de vent, un enfant trop près du feu, le pagne qui s'enflamme

The severely burned children are unfortunately numerous. The family “kitchen” usually consist of a simple wood fire, on which is placed the pot that will serve as a container for preparing the family meal. Children often play around the fire unattended. A gust of wind or a child too close to the fire and his or her clothes can catch fire.

Here is a video of the Burn Unit at Zinder Hospital in Niger by Christian Lajoumard. The video tells the story of Rachida, 12 and Hindatou, 5 both burn victims:  

Rachida, 12 ans, est hospitalisée depuis 10 mois, les fesses et les deux jambes gravement brûlées. Pour tous soins médicaux, de la bétadine pour badigeonner ses plaies qui ne cicatrisent pas. Rachida, qui ne peut plus s’asseoir ni se coucher sur le dos, passe ses longues journées à plat ventre sur son lit d’hôpital sans pouvoir se mouvoir, sans jeux ni télévision pour se distraire. 

Rachida, 12, was hospitalized for 10 months, her buttocks and both legs severely burned. The only medical care she received was some betadine [skin ointment] to brush her wounds that cannot seem to heal. Rachida, who cannot sit or lie on her back, spends all day long flat on her belly on her hospital bed; unable to move, without any games or television set to taker her mind off of her wounds.

Birth Registration Initiative

Across all regions of Niger, a birth registration initiative led by the Nigerien administration with the logistic help of UNICEF, has enabled a more secure future for the country's youngest citizens. Registration allows young people to be eligible to take exams, go to university, or get a national identity card or a driving license. This video shows how the initiative works to reach out to all Nigerien communities:

In Akoubounou, a village of 47,000 inhabitants in an area of 5,300 square kilometres in northwestern Niger, 600 children recently received their birth certificates delivered from the villages’ primary schools. On the UNICEF blog, Khamed Attayoub, the mayor of Akoubounou, reported:

With the ongoing decentralization process, communes have a strong interest in civil registration. We have a major role to play, notably with sensitization at village level. It’s also important to be involved with the follow-up, to make sure that we are not excluding anyone.

The mobile courts provided free hearings for unregistered youth. Between 2009 and 2011, more than 600,000 judgments were delivered to children under 18.

Mapping the Niger Territory  

Tackling the challenges that come with a managing a vast territory is the Mapping for Niger project, a Rising Voices grantee. The initiative is a partnership between the Department of Geography at the Abdou Moumouni University and students from the campus Geography Club who have together formed a Volunteer Technical Community (VTC) to discover the needs and the stories of their surrounding community.

Additionally, team members use OpenStreetMap tools, to map key landmarks such as schools, streets, and hospitals in cities and rural villages, listening to what people have to say along the way. One of the recurring needs of communities, access to electricity, is described in Adama Salou's blog post [fr]:  

A l’instar des autres villages du canton de Gorouol, le village de Kolmane, un village ou je passais mes vacances, souffre d’une précarité électrique notoire. Le réseau électrique est quasis absent en dehors de quelques panneaux solaires et de générateurs des batteries. Quant à l’électrification des routes, le constat est amer et inquiétant. Cela occasionne souvent des attaques des bandits armés notamment sur l’axe Kolmane – Ayorou, long de 30 km.

All the villages in the canton of Gorouol, including Kolmane where I spent my off time, suffer from a lack of electrical access. The electricity grid is quasi-absent except for a few solar panels and battery generators. As for the electrification of national roads, the situation is alarming and disturbing. This often leads to armed attacks from road bandits on the 30 km long road from Kolmane to Ayorou.

December 15 2013

With No Easy Access to Medicine, Iranians Suffer Sanctions

Medicine shortages are an unintended consequence of sanctions against Iran

Medicine shortages are an unintended consequence of sanctions against Iran. Photo © Copyright Shutterstock

A combination of international sanctions and mismanagement by the Iranian government are blamed for the current state of medical chaos in Iran.

“It’s been five months now that we are looking for an anti-allergy vaccine for my brother,” says one person interviewed by Global Voices about Iran's public health situation. “One of our relatives with cancer cannot find his medicine,” remarked another. “I am struggling to find insulin,” says a diabetic man.

This has been the reality for Iranians since the middle of 2012 after American and European Union banking sanctions were tightened, making it virtually impossible for Iranians to conduct foreign transactions.

Domestic news outlets have reported on the scarcity of medications for illnesses ranging from hepatitis to cancer to hemophilia and polio. Even the availability of anesthetics has been affected.

There have also been deaths from ailments that could have been treated with medication. The death of a 15-year-old hemophiliac boy [date] is one example. 

While this indirect effect of sanctions is not yet widely known internationally, the cause has been championed by activists and netizens with artwork and petitions. In December 2012, the Iranian artist Sanaz Sohrabi even created a performance artwork in front of the United Nations in New York. 

The daily struggle to find affordable medication

“Finding Insulin is so difficult,” says Shahla an Iranian who must use insulin on a daily basis. (Due to potential consequences of speaking to non-Iranian media, we mention people’s first names only). He says patients are forced to purchase insulin at free market prices that are 20 as high as those mandated by the state. Shahla says the Iranian Diabetes Society tries to address the problem by distributing free insulin to doctors that they can give away, but there is only a limited supply. “Whenever I get desperate, I call my doctor and he gives me one or two insulin containers and I use them each for a month,” he says.

In July, the US Treasury Department stated that the U.S. allows for the sale and export of food, medicine and medical devices to Iran in spite of sanctions. Nonetheless, sanctions against banks make it impossible for importers to buy drugs and pharmaceuticals. “It’s as if they tell you that there is a spring from which everybody can drink, but you need to pass through so many obstacles to reach to the spring. It will indirectly stop you,” explains Arash, a businessman who imports pharmaceuticals to Iran.

According to Arash, many have switched to suppliers in Asia (mostly in China and India) to get around the sanctions. Others have continued trading with suppliers in the US and Europe through intermediaries (such as Turkish and United Arab Emirate banks) but Arash says the process is too complicated. ”If you want to do it through currency exchange dealers, you need to spend a lot of money,” he complains.

“Of course in this situation you need to set the price [to the consumer] higher, otherwise you will lose money in the business, but then the government won’t let you increase the price. Therefore, in both cases, you won’t be able to distribute the medicine to the market as fast as needed,” explains Arash.

Several people online have shared the same concerns.

Leila Zadeh tweeted:

Peter Tatchell tweeted:

Shortage of drugs

Besides high prices, the shortage of drugs is a major issue.

Sarah, an Iranian woman whose 6-year old son suffers from severe diabetes, says it has been more than a month since she has been trying to find a specific brand of Insulin for her son. “I went to dozens of pharmacies, but they do not have it, “ she says. “The last time I was finally able to find three insulin containers in one pharmacy.” She says each container is only enough for two to three weeks.

Another Iranian, Sahar, says her sister’s father-in-law suffers from cancer and at the moment finding medicine is a serious struggle. Others repeat her complaints.

In October of last year, Fatemeh Hashemi, the head of Iran’s Charity Foundation for Special Diseases, a non-governmental organization representing six million patients, said the shortage of medicine for a number of diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis is “serious” and that lives are at risk.

In March, Kheirollah Gholami, a leading pharmacist from Tehran University’s medical school said anesthetics have either vanished from the market or are difficult to find. “If the situation continues to be like this, we really don’t know what to do. You can’t use a hammer to make patients unconscious,” he told the semi-official Ilna News Agency.

The scarcity of medicine is not simply a problem for serious illnesses, but also affects patients with everyday allergies or pains. “You can only find domestic aspirin which may not be up to standard and can be very dangerous,” explains Amir. He says his doctor recently prescribed him 10 Vitamin D3 pills, which are produced domestically. “I had to buy these 10 pills from four different pharmacies,” says Amir.

The problem still exists

After the temporary nuclear agreement between Iran and the 5+1 world powers in Geneva, the West agreed to ease some sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to stop specific aspects of its nuclear program.

In the long run, lifting sanctions could alleviate the difficulties in importing medicine and pharmaceuticals. For now, the problem continues. Arash, the pharmaceutical importer, says that even after financial sanctions are lifted, it will take a long time for Iranian banks to rebuild trust to facilitate business.

But Arash is hopeful. He says finally at least some of the sanctions will be lifted and gradually medicine imports will get back to normal. Until then, the problem will continue to affect the ill and the infirm.

Reposted byiranelection iranelection

December 13 2013

Haiti: The Reality of Abortion

The discussion of sex is a taboo in Haitian society. But the discussion of abortion is even more so. Haitian law outlaws the practice in all its forms.

Haiti Grassroots Watch explains.

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