Inter Press Service » Active Citizens http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Mon, 02 Mar 2015 18:38:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 Everyone Benefits from More Women in Powerhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/everyone-benefits-from-more-women-in-power/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=everyone-benefits-from-more-women-in-power http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/everyone-benefits-from-more-women-in-power/#comments Mon, 02 Mar 2015 18:38:47 +0000 Marianela Jarroud http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139448 Group photo at the high-level international meeting on Women in Power held Feb. 27-28 in Santiago, Chile, which analysed the human rights of women, as part of the major events held worldwide 20 years after the World Conference on Women in Beijing. Credit: Ximena Castro/Government of Chile

Group photo at the high-level international meeting on Women in Power held Feb. 27-28 in Santiago, Chile, which analysed the human rights of women, as part of the major events held worldwide 20 years after the World Conference on Women in Beijing. Credit: Ximena Castro/Government of Chile

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Mar 2 2015 (IPS)

Women’s participation in decision-making is highly beneficial and their role in designing and applying public policies has a positive impact on people’s lives, women leaders and experts from around the world stressed at a high-level meeting in the capital of Chile.

“It is not about men against women, but there is evidence to show through research that when you have more women in public decision-making, you get policies that benefit women, children and families in general,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, told IPS.

“So women tend, when they’re in parliament, for example, to promote women’s rights legislation. When women are in sufficient numbers in parliaments they also promote children’s rights and they tend to speak up more for the interests of communities, local communities, because of their close involvement in community life,” she added.

Byanyima, from Uganda, is one of the more than 60 women leaders and government officials who met Friday Feb. 27 and Saturday Feb. 28 at the meeting “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”, organised by U.N. Women and the Chilean government in Santiago.“There is already enough evidence in the world to show the positive impact of women's leadership. Women have successfully built and run countries and cities, economies and formidable institutions.” -- Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

The conference was led by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who was the first executive director of U.N. Women (2010-2013), and her successor, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also took part in the inauguration of the event.

The meeting kicked off the activities marking the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in September 1995 in the Chinese capital, where 189 governments signed the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which contained a package of measures to bolster gender equity and women’s empowerment.

Two decades later, defenders of the human rights of women recognise that progress has been made, although they say it has been slower and more limited than what was promised in the action plan.

In terms of women’s access to decision-making, representation remains low.

In 1995, women accounted for 11.3 percent of the world’s legislators, and only the parliaments of Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden had more than 30 percent women. And only three women were heads of state and seven were heads of government.

Today, women represent 21.9 percent of parliamentarians globally, and 39 lower houses of Congress around the world are made up of at least 30 percent women. In addition, 10 women are heads of state and 15 are heads of government.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, one of every four legislators is a woman, and in the last 23 years, six women were elected president of their countries, four of them in the last decade. And three of them were reelected.

In March 2014 Bachelet took office for a second time, after her first term of president of Chile in 2006-2010. In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff began her second consecutive term on Jan. 1. And in Argentina, Cristina Fernández has been president since 2007, and was reelected in 2011.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, during her participation in the high-level event “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”,in Santiago, Chile. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, during her participation in the high-level event “Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world”,in Santiago, Chile. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

“Women in power and decision-making: Building a different world” was attended by a number of high-level women leaders, such as Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaité, First Deputy Prime Minister of Croatia Vesna Pusic, several vice presidents, and ministers from around the world.

Speakers mentioned achievements as well as multiple political, cultural, social and economic barriers that continue to stand in the way of women’s access to positions of power.

There are still countries that have not made progress, said Byanyima, of Oxfam, one of the world’s leading humanitarian organisations.

Tarcila Rivera, a Peruvian journalist and activist for the rights of indigenous women, told IPS that when assessing the progress made in the last two decades, “it should be made clear that we have advanced but have only closed some gaps.”

Rivera, the founder of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Cultures of Peru, said the progress made has been uneven for native and non-native women, while there are continuing gaps in education, participation, violence and economic empowerment.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), one of every two women in the region is outside the labour market, and one of every three does not have her own income, while only one of every 10 men is in that position.

Another study by the United Nations regional body concluded that if women had the same access to employment as men, poverty would shrink between one and 14 percentage points in the countries of Latin America.

“There is already enough evidence in the world to show the positive impact of women’s leadership,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka, who prior to heading U.N. Women served as South Africa’s first female vice president (2005-2008).

“Women have successfully built and run countries and cities, economies and formidable institutions,” she added.

But she said “We know that this is not happening enough, and we know that there can be both overt and subtle resistance to women’s leadership. We also know the devastating impact of leaving things as they are. We know that for women’s leadership to thrive, and for change to happen, all of us need greater courage and decisiveness.

“According to available data, it will be some 50 years before gender parity is reached in politics. Unless political parties take bolder steps,” she said.

Mlambo-Ngcuka recounted that during a Thursday Feb. 26 meeting with Chilean civil society representatives she called on a pregnant woman set to give birth in six weeks.

“I reminded everyone that her unborn daughter will be 50 before her world offers equal political opportunity. And that baby will be 80 before she has equal economic opportunity.”

According to the female leaders and experts meeting in Santiago, change cannot continue to be the sole responsibility of civil society groups that defend the rights of women, but requires action by the authorities and those in power – both men and women.

“The heirs of Beijing are the heirs of voices that call on us and urge us to put equality on the political agenda,” said Alicia Bárcena of Mexico, the executive secretary of ECLAC.

“Twenty years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, women know what is needed to reach gender equality. Now it is time to act,” she said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Farm Projects Boost Bangladeshi Women, Childrenhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/farm-projects-boost-bangladeshi-women-children/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=farm-projects-boost-bangladeshi-women-children http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/farm-projects-boost-bangladeshi-women-children/#comments Sun, 01 Mar 2015 16:39:05 +0000 Josh Butler http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139423 Women organise themselves into small collectives, to better bargain and trade their produce. Credit: Helen Keller International

Women organise themselves into small collectives, to better bargain and trade their produce. Credit: Helen Keller International

By Josh Butler
NEW YORK, Mar 1 2015 (IPS)

Women in Bangladesh are carving healthier, wealthier futures for themselves and their children – and they have chicken eggs and pineapples to thank.

Since 2009, the non-profit group Helen Keller International has overseen programmes in the eastern Bangladesh region of Chittagong, mentoring women in agriculture to produce food not only for their own families, but also to sell at market."It’s not just about growing their incomes, it’s about education leading to healthier and more productive lives.” -- Kathy Spahn

Kathy Spahn, president of HKI, said one-fifth of homes in Chittagong are considered hungry, while half the children are stunted and one-third are underweight due to poor nutrition. In the area HKI works, around 75 percent of people survive on just 12 dollars a month.

“The area is stigmatised and has little access to health services,” Spahn said at an event this week organised by Women Advancing Microfinance New York.

“We’re teaching women to grow nutritious fruit and vegetables, raise chickens for meat and eggs, and grow enough to sell at markets for extra money.”

The programme, ‘Making Markets Work For Women,’ or M2W2, gives both initial start-up capital and ongoing guidance. Women in Chittagong, who may have previously been viewed solely as homemakers, are given tools to grow nutrient-rich crops like spinach and carrots to feed their own families, as well as more lucrative crops like pineapple and maize to sell.

Chickens are raised, eggs are eaten and sold, ginger and turmeric are harvested and refined and packaged using supplied machinery; and women who never before had any control over family finances are suddenly bringing in their own income to pay for education and healthcare.

Helen Keller International – named for its founder, the inspirational deaf and blind author and activist – traditionally focused on sight and blindness projects, but today focuses on a broader gamut of health and nutrition issues, including blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency. The group now runs 180 programmes in more than 20 Asian and African countries.

“HKI has been working in Bangladesh since 1978, doing work on nutritional blindness. Doing nutrition surveillance there, we saw the deeper pockets of Vitamin A deficiency,” Spahn told IPS.

“We call the programme ‘enhanced homestead food production.’ With that, comes nutrition information. It’s not just about growing their incomes, it’s about education leading to healthier and more productive lives.”

Women organise themselves into small collectives, to better bargain and trade their produce. While each household may only produce an amount too small to make market sale effective, joining forces with other women means each collective has a larger volume to sell.

“We want to build their capacity in business and marketing. We give them training on market research, demand, book-keeping, and organise the households into groups so they can aggregate their products,” Spahn said.

Credit: Helen Keller International

Credit: Helen Keller International

A group savings scheme is also offered, whereby women can place some of their income into a shared pool that any member can access for large expenses such as hospitalisation or replacement of packaging machinery.

“If something breaks down, we can’t replace it because that’s not sustainable. This is about development, not charity,” Spahn said.

M2W2 was originally a three-year pilot programme from 2009 to 2012, but received an extra injection of funds from the British government to continue until January.

“We are looking for more support to keep going,” Spahn said.

The programme’s outcomes are resounding. Spahn said of the 2,500 households involved, “nearly all” saw a 30 percent increase in income.

“When we started, everybody had a poor diet. Three years later, nobody did,” she said.

Eggs, a rich source of Vitamin A, helped address deficiency of that vitamin and vision problems associated with such deficiencies, but Spahn said the most powerful benefit was social, rather than physical.

“We found 90 percent of women had the sole decision over the money their raised. They were bargaining more efficiently, and feeling more empowered,” she said.

Empowerment and financial independence for women is one of the ideological pillars of Women Advancing Microfinancing New York. WAMNY board member Danielle LeBlanc said the microfinancing and social entrepreneurship can be among the simplest and most effective ways to advance the economic prospects of disenfranchised women in poorer countries.

“With an opportunity to earn income on their own, it helps women gain some independence and increase the financial sustainability of their families,” LeBlanc told IPS.

“When women received the profits from these businesses, they spent it back on their families – sending their kids to school, improving their home. The goal is not just to help create businesses, but to improve the welfare of the family.”

LeBlanc said the term ‘microfinancing’ was a broad concept, viewed differently by many parties. She said governments consider it to be grants of under 50,000 dollars and that banks consider the threshold to be closer to 250,000, but LeBlanc said vast progress can be made with an initial outlay of as little as a few hundred dollars.

“In the U.S., microfinancing might help out street vendors like in New York City, or to fund home daycare centres, or even small businesses with shopfronts. Overseas, we can be talking about the very poor, like women selling goods by the roadside, farmers, or craft makers,” she said.

“To us, the increase in income for a family in poor countries might seem very small, but it makes a huge difference in their lives. It helps increase the nutrition of children, increases the standing of the woman in the family, or can put a tin roof on a thatched house.”

LeBlanc said the increase standing of women in the eyes of their husbands and their community is one of the most important benefits that such projects can offer.

“It changes from community to community, but when women start bringing income into their family, it increases their confidence and they move from being totally dependant on their husband to someone bringing income into the house,” she said.

“There is more respect there for the woman. It makes a huge difference.”

She said the M2W2 programme was selected for presentation at the WAMNY event on Tuesday because of its “holistic” approach to empowering women, benefiting families, and changing communities.

“It is working with various women’s issues, from joint savings programmes to technical assistance and increasing farming output,” she said. “It is getting women working together, to co-operate as a community. Projects like this encourage our members to think outside the box for how to work.”

At its core, M2W2 is a simple one – give seeds and tools to women, show them how to farm, and teach them how to sell their produce. But both Spath and LeBlanc said that, in the field of microfinance, often the simplest ideas can have the most impressive outcomes.

“The key to whether a programme is successful isn’t necessarily the budget, it’s about whether it is based on a need. It needs clear communication with the community, if it is a programme they like and can use,” LeBlanc said.

Spath said HKI is currently working on a project in African countries including Mozambique and Burkina Faso, helping women there to grow sweet potatoes to make into chips, bread and cookies – again, both to sell and to feed to their own families.

“We’ve always said, we should aim for complex problems and simple solutions. We want to take a problem apart, and find a solution that isn’t overwhelming,” Spath said.

“The problem is in scaling things up, from one community to a nationwide programme. Once you have the solution, how do you reach the people hardest to reach? How do you take it past the village?”

Spath said HKI hopes to institute the M2W2 programme in other other countries.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: War on Wildlife Crime – Time to Enlist the Ordinary Citizenhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/opinion-war-on-wildlife-crime-time-to-enlist-the-ordinary-citizen/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-war-on-wildlife-crime-time-to-enlist-the-ordinary-citizen http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/03/opinion-war-on-wildlife-crime-time-to-enlist-the-ordinary-citizen/#comments Sun, 01 Mar 2015 14:46:38 +0000 Dr. Bradnee Chambers http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139432 Dead addax (white antelope) hunted by soldiers in Chad – “We should not underestimate the seriousness of wildlife crime”. Credit: John Newby/SCF

Dead addax (white antelope) hunted by soldiers in Chad – “We should not underestimate the seriousness of wildlife crime”. Credit: John Newby/SCF

By Bradnee Chambers
BONN, Mar 1 2015 (IPS)

It is no exaggeration to say that we are facing a “wildlife crisis”, and it is a crisis exacerbated by human activities, not least criminal ones.

Whatever our definition of wildlife crime, it is big business. In terms of annual turn-over it is up there narcotics, arms and human trafficking – and the proceeds run into billions of dollars each year, helping to finance criminal gangs and rebel organisations waging civil wars.“Whatever our definition of wildlife crime, it is big business. In terms of annual turn-over it is up there with narcotics, arms and human trafficking – and the proceeds run into billions of dollars each year”

With seven billion people on the planet, it is tempting to shrug one’s shoulders and ask “What difference can any one individual make?”  Such an attitude means that we are in danger of repeating the “tragedy of the commons” – everyone making seemingly rational decisions in their own immediate interests – but this is a short-sighted approach that undermines the common good and ultimately sows the seeds of its own downfall.

With seven billion people on the planet, it is also tempting to say that people’s need for food, shelter and well-being should take precedence over nature conservation, but the two are not necessarily irreconcilable.  In fact far from it – the two often go hand in hand and are totally compatible – non-consumptive use of wildlife, such as whale-watching and safaris, provide sustainable livelihoods for thousands of people.

Extinction has been an ever-present phenomenon, with a few species losing their specialised niche or being edged out to a more aggressive competitor or, in the case of dinosaurs, being wiped out by a meteorite strike.

The number of species going extinct is increasing fast, at a rate that cannot be attributed to natural causes and it is clear that there is a human foot pressing down heavily on the accelerator pedal.

South Africa reports record numbers of rhinos killed for their horn; demand for ivory is pushing the elephant to the brink; tiger numbers might have risen in India of late but the wild population and the range occupied by the cats are a fraction of what they were at the beginning of the twentieth century.

And we are not just losing vital pieces in the elaborate jigsaw puzzle of ecosystems; we are losing elements of our natural heritage that contribute to human culture and society, and the lifeblood of sustainable activities that create employment in the tourism sector, generating foreign exchange and significant tax revenues.

Wildlife crime is not an abstract. It affects us all and there is more that individuals can do to make a difference than they perhaps imagine.  Understanding the consequences of killing the animals and highlighting the connection between the increased poaching and organised criminal gangs and terrorists have been extremely helpful in strengthening  political messages and in persuading  the public to demand that more be done.

The gangs care little about the fate of the animals – either the individuals they kill or the survival of the species.  They think nothing of shooting the rangers who stand in their way.  They do care about their profits and high demand for ivory in East Asian markets has sent the price through the roof – not that the poacher in the field or the craftsman in the backstreet workshop receive much of a share.

If demand evaporates, the price will fall and killing elephants for their ivory will no longer be a viable business. The gangs will have to find some other source of income, but they would have to do this soon anyway, as current levels of poaching mean that there will not be any elephants left in 30 years.

The maxim “get them while they are young” applies to many things, not least the environment and junior members of the household often influence the family’s behaviour with regard to recycling, saving energy and water, food purchases and a range of other “green issues”. So raising awareness among the younger generation of the need to tackle wildlife crime is crucial.

The fight against wildlife crime has to be conducted on several fronts.  It does register on governments’ radar and pressure from civil society can help keep it high on the agenda.  The public has a vital role to play in keeping pressure on governments, either individually or through local pressure groups and NGOs. People can also modify their own behaviour by minimising their footprint on the planet.

We should not underestimate the seriousness of wildlife crime, but nor should we dismiss the potential impact of the actions of individuals as consumers, customers or voters.

Edited by Phil Harris  

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Opinion: Goals for Gender Equality Are Not a ‘Wish List’ – They Are a ‘To Do List’http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/opinion-goals-for-gender-equality-are-not-a-wish-list-they-are-a-to-do-list/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-goals-for-gender-equality-are-not-a-wish-list-they-are-a-to-do-list http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/opinion-goals-for-gender-equality-are-not-a-wish-list-they-are-a-to-do-list/#comments Fri, 27 Feb 2015 22:49:39 +0000 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139408 A women-led village council in rural Bangladesh prepares a “social map” of the local community. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

A women-led village council in rural Bangladesh prepares a “social map” of the local community. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
SANTIAGO, Feb 27 2015 (IPS)

This weekend, at the invitation of President Michelle Bachelet and myself, women leaders from across the world are meeting in Santiago de Chile. We will applaud their achievements. We will remind ourselves of their contributions. And we will chart a way forward to correct the historical record. History has not been fair to women – but then, women usually didn’t write it.

This meeting will be an opportunity to take a hard look at the world that is, and the world that will be. The case is urgent, not only for individual women and their human right to equality, but for everyone. The “perfect storm of crises” as one expert has called it, threatens food, energy and water supplies. It threatens political and economic stability in all our countries. It could upend any prospects for balanced and sustainable development.

On the other hand, mobilising the potential of women and maximising their contribution will turn aside some of the worst effects of climate change and help ensure food and water supply; will help correct massive economic inequality between the few and the many; will mitigate conflict and political instability, and help to build lasting peace. Women’s rights are human necessities.

At the heart of our discussion is how to put more women in positions of power. Across the 192 U.N. member countries:

  • Only 19 women are heads of state or government;
  • One in five parliamentarians are women;
  • One in 20 city mayors are women;
  • One in four judges and prosecutors, and
  • Fewer than one in 10 police officers are women.

Women leaders are just as hard to find in economic life – only one in five board seats in major companies are held by women. And this is despite evidence of increased company earnings when women are on the board!

So how do we get there from here? We already have a road map. It was agreed by 189 world leaders back in 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Countries have made a good start with better overall education and health care for women; but they haven’t followed through on the rest of the package, especially political participation and economic empowerment. At the present rate of progress, it will take 81 years for women to achieve parity in employment. Women, and their countries, can’t wait that long.

This year, the 20th anniversary of the Beijing conference, the year when the U.N. will adopt sustainable development goals for the next 15 years, offers a unique opportunity to make a new start.

First of all, today’s leaders must make a personal commitment to increase women’s presence in decision-making – not just in their numbers, but in their contributions. There are many ways to do this – quotas and numerical targets for women’s participation; training and mentorship to boost women’s confidence and capacity; private-sector engagement matching public-sector initiatives. Countries will find their own ways, if the will is there.

Employers must ensure equal hiring, payment and promotion policies; support to balance work-life conditions, and give women the opportunity to lead. Managers must learn to welcome women’s input and contribution.

Leaders who lead by example in their daily lives will win allies in every aspect of their work for gender equality. They can win allies in the media too – at least to avoid reflexive disparagement, negative stereotyping and casual sexism; and at best to celebrate the positive and constructive contribution of women leaders, even in the toughest environments.

Then there are many women who struggle and suffer every day. They are the everyday heroines of our age, and their fight for equality deserves a wider audience. We shouldn’t have to wait for another vicious attack or another assassination before we learn their names.

These measures sound ambitious, but they are fully realistic. We know from our own experience in leadership, that we can achieve them all. The 1995 Beijing platform for action is not a “wish list”; it’s a “to do list.” If today’s leaders front-load gender equality, if they start now to make good on those 20-year-old promises, we can look forward to serious progress by 2020, and gender equality by 2030.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Martin Luther King, “but it bends toward justice.” Where women are concerned, we have to bend that arc a lot faster now, to make up for all the years it didn’t bend at all. At stake are not only justice and human rights but also perhaps survival itself.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Reporting on Violence in Mexico Brings Its Own Perilshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/reporting-on-violence-in-mexico-brings-its-own-perils/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=reporting-on-violence-in-mexico-brings-its-own-perils http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/reporting-on-violence-in-mexico-brings-its-own-perils/#comments Fri, 27 Feb 2015 22:46:19 +0000 Lyndal Rowlands http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139409 Mexican journalists silently march in Mexico City in 2010, protesting violence and intimidation against the press. Credit: Knight Foundation / CC BY-SA 2.0

Mexican journalists silently march in Mexico City in 2010, protesting violence and intimidation against the press. Credit: Knight Foundation / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Lyndal Rowlands
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 27 2015 (IPS)

Organised criminals in Mexico are forcing the media to stop reporting on crime, by turning their violence against journalists.

With the Mexican state offering journalists little protection, the resultant drop in freedom of information has contributed to a heightened sense of insecurity in the country."People are saying 'we are not going to cover certain areas', fearing revenge and not trusting that the state is going to be able to protect them.” -- Claire San Filippo

Claire San Filippo, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Americas desk, told IPS that journalists in Mexico are self-censoring due to threats and violence, but also because violence against journalists is rarely punished by the state.

“It is of tremendous concern for information freedom because people are saying ‘we are not going to cover certain areas’, fearing revenge and not trusting that the state is going to be able to protect them.”

San Filippo says that the state bears the primary duty under international law to protect journalists.

“The state obviously has a responsibility to protect the journalist, and to make sure that they can guarantee their security,” she said.

“There is a mechanism to actually protect human rights defenders and journalists and unfortunately, the mechanism hasn’t been working in a very efficient manner and hasn’t really helped the situation overall.”

The first two months of 2015 have already seen marked violence and intimidation towards journalists, including kidnappings and threats.

Reporting for Journalism in the Americas Mariana Muñoz wrote last week, “An increase in organized crime-related violence has terrorized the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas over the past week. Conflicts between rival cartel factions in the neighboring border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros have left dozens dead, escalating the present danger for journalists practicing in the region.​”

The newspaper El Mañana reported on a gunfight that killed nine people. Although they did not name any cartel individuals involved, their editor, Juárez Torres, was kidnapped and warned “We are going to kill you.”

Torres later “fled the country, half of the staff did not return to work the following day, and at least four journalists at the publication immediately announced their resignation,” Muñoz reported.

El Mañana has since avoided reporting on violent crime in Tamaulipas.

Speaking about Torres’ kidnapping and other similar incidents, San Filippo said, “When you look at the beginning of this year, it’s obviously dramatic and extremely preoccupying because we have journalists who say ‘we are not going to cover the issues of insecurity, violence and it’s consequences on people’ or we’re actually going to leave the country to go to the United States because we feel so unsecure.”

She says that Reporters Without Borders calls on the Mexican government to take the threats against journalists seriously and “not try to either diminish them or try to discredit the journalists by saying that they are actually not journalists and saying they are not related.”

She said the state should also provide timely and effective protection to journalists and their families when the journalists request it and importantly, must hold perpetrators of violence against journalists accountable.

San Filippo said this was important so that “journalists can feel secure and feel that they can carry out their job without risking their lives or lives and physical integrity of their loved ones.”

“This is the only way that you can make sure that you can ensure that there is no self-censorship and journalists don’t feel that they have to go to another country to feel safe.”

Home of organised crime

According to In Sight Crime, a foundation that studies organised crime in the Americas, “Mexico is home to the (Western) hemisphere’s largest, most sophisticated and violent organized criminal gangs.”

“They traffic in illegal drugs, contraband, arms and humans, and launder their proceeds through regional moneychangers, banks and local economic projects. They have penetrated the police and border patrols on nearly every level, in some cases starting with recruits for these units. They play political and social roles in some areas, operating as the de facto security forces.”

Steve Killelea, executive chair of the Institute for Economics and Peace, wrote last year that since “the start of the calamitous drug war in 2007” Mexico has dropped 45 places on the International Peace Index – down to 133 of 162 countries on the most recent (2013) index.

Killelea says that although Mexico does well in terms of development indicators such as life expectancy and youth empowerment, its poor overall rating in peace is partly due to the consequences of violence against journalists and poor freedom of information.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Rousseff’s Brazil – No Country for the Landlesshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/rousseffs-brazil-no-country-for-the-landless/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rousseffs-brazil-no-country-for-the-landless http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/rousseffs-brazil-no-country-for-the-landless/#comments Fri, 27 Feb 2015 19:01:15 +0000 Fabiola Ortiz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139404 Farmers with the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) protest the concentration of land ownership in Brazil, during a Feb. 21 demonstration in support of the occupation of part of the Agropecuaria Santa Mônica estate, 150 km from Brasilia. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

Farmers with the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) protest the concentration of land ownership in Brazil, during a Feb. 21 demonstration in support of the occupation of part of the Agropecuaria Santa Mônica estate, 150 km from Brasilia. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

By Fabiola Ortiz
RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 27 2015 (IPS)

In Brazil, one of the countries with the highest concentration of land ownership in the world, some 200,000 peasant farmers still have no plot of their own to farm – a problem that the first administration of President Dilma Rousseff did little to resolve.

In its assessment of the situation in the 2011-2014 period, the Brazilian Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) found the worst progress in that period in terms of agrarian reform in the last 20 years, one of the church-based organisation’s coordinators, Isolete Wichinieski, told IPS.

“Historically, there has been a high concentration of land in Brazil,” she said. But what is worrisome, she added, is that during the first presidency of Rousseff, whose second term started on Jan. 1, 2015, “land ownership has become even more concentrated.”

“There was a fall in the numbers of new rural settlements and of land titling in indigenous territories and ‘quilombos’ (communities of the descendants of African slaves), while on the other hand, investment in agribusiness and agro-industry grew,” said Wichinieski.

Social movements had hoped that Rousseff, who belongs to the left-wing Workers’ Party like her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), would take up the banner of democratisation of land ownership.

But her government’s economic policies have focused on incentives for agribusiness and agro-industry, mining and major infrastructure projects.

According to the CPT report, during the first Rousseff administration (2011-2014), 103,746 families were granted land under the government’s agrarian reform programme. But that figure is actually misleading, because in 73 percent of the cases, the land settlement process was already in progress before the president took office, and the families had already been counted in previous years.

If only the new families settled on plots of their own during Rousseff’s first administration are counted, the total shrinks to 28,000.

The government reported that in 2014 it regularised the situation of just 6,289 families – a number considered insignificant by the CPT.

Since 1995 agrarian reform was given a new boost, with the creation of a special ministry answering directly to the president, and other legal instruments, largely due to the intense lobbying and protests throughout the country by the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST).

As a result, during the presidency of Luis Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), 540,704 families were given land, and 614,088 were settled on farms during Lula’s two terms (2003-2011), according to the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), which reported that 9,128 rural settlements have been created since 2000.

The Dom Tomás Balduíno camp, along the river that crosses the Agropecuaria Santa Mônica estate, next to the first crops planted on the 400 hectares occupied by landless Brazilian peasant farmers. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

The Dom Tomás Balduíno camp, along the river that crosses the Agropecuaria Santa Mônica estate, next to the first crops planted on the 400 hectares occupied by landless Brazilian peasant farmers. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

In order for land reform to be effective, the CPT argues, more settlements must be created and the concentration of rural property ownership must be reduced in this country of 202 million people. But the organisation does not believe Rousseff is moving in that direction, Wichinieski said.

Agrarian reform was not on the agenda of the campaign that led to the president’s reelection in October, and the new government includes names from the powerful rural caucus in Congress, which represents agribusiness and agro-industry.

The agriculture minister is former senator Kátia Abreu, the president of the National Confederation of Agriculture. She surprised people when she stated in a Feb. 5 interview with the newspaper Folha de São Paulo that there are no “latifundium” or large landed estates in Brazil.

“Abreu has backwards, outdated views of agriculture,” complained Wichinieski. “She denies that there is forced labour in the countryside, she isn’t worried about preserving the environment, and she argues in favour of the intensive use of agrochemicals in food production.”

The conflict over land has intensified, according to the CPT, with the expansion of livestock-raising and monoculture farming of soy, sugarcane, maize and cotton, and growing speculation by large landowners with close ties to politicians.

A typical case

One example is the case of the 20,000-hectare Agropecuaria Santa Mônica estate, 150 km from the national capital, Brasilia, in the state of Goiás, part of which has been occupied by families belonging to the MST.

The property belongs to Senator Eunício Oliveira, considered the wealthiest candidate for governor in Brazil in the last elections.

In the Senate, Oliveira heads the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, Rousseff’s main ally in Congress. He served as communications minister under Lula in 2004-2005 and last year lost the elections for governor of the state of Ceará.

The landless farmers occupying 400 hectares of the Santa Mônica estate sell their agroecological products in nearby towns, promoting chemical-free family farming. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

The landless farmers occupying 400 hectares of the Santa Mônica estate sell their agroecological products in nearby towns, promoting chemical-free family farming. Credit: Courtesy of the MST

Valdir Misnerovicz, one of the leaders of the MST, told IPS that the estate is unproductive and that its only purpose at this time is land speculation.

Strategically located between the municipalities of Alexânia, Abadiânia and Corumbá, Santa Mônica represents the largest land occupation by the MST in the last 15 years.

It all started on Aug. 31, when 3,000 families marched on foot and in 1,800 vehicles to the estate, part of which they occupied.

Since then, more than 2,000 men, women, children and elderly persons have been living in a camp and control 400 hectares of the estate. They are determined to win a portion of the land to farm.

This is one of the MST’s strategies, said Misnerovicz. “We occupy large areas of unproductive land. In the camp we grow a variety of food like green leafy vegetables, manioc, maize, rice, beans and squash. All of the families plant healthy food in chemical-free agroecological community gardens,” he said.

The tents in the Dom Tomás Balduíno camp were set up on the bank of a river that cuts across the estate, which comprises 90 different properties that the senator purchased over the last two decades.

“The day we got there, they tried to keep us out but there were thousands of us. We are never armed. Our strength is in the number of peasants who accompany us,” said Misnerovicz.

In November, a court ruled that Oliveira has the right to recover the property. But the MST leader is confident that despite the risk that the families will be evicted, they will be successful in their bid for the Santa Mônica estate to be expropriated under the land reform programme.

Misnerovicz said the government itself has encouraged the families occupying the land to continue negotiating.

“Then it would be possible, after a year, to make the biggest rural settlement in recent times in Brazil. We were with the president in January, who committed to a plan with targets for settling (MST) families camped around the country,” he said.

INCRA has avoided taking a public position on this specific case. But it pointed out that, by law, “all of the occupied properties are off-limits for inspections to evaluate the situation with a view to agrarian reform.”

The administrator of Santa Mônica, Ricardo Augusto, told IPS that the occupied area is productive agricultural property where soy, maize and beans are grown.

“The purchase of the property was notarised. The MST is not telling the truth. We advocate a negotiated, peaceful solution. Productive, occupied land can’t be expropriated, and there is no interest in selling the property,” he said.

But João Pedro, who was granted a plot of land in a municipality near Santa Mônica, sees things very differently.

During a Feb. 21 demonstration in favour of the occupation, near the camp, the farmer said the families camping there were merely seeking the enforcement of Brazil’s laws: “the land has a social function, and that’s all we want – for the constitution to be applied.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Valerie Dee

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From the Police Station Back to the Hellhole: System Failing India’s Domestic Violence Survivorshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/from-the-police-station-back-to-the-hellhole-system-failing-indias-domestic-violence-survivors/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=from-the-police-station-back-to-the-hellhole-system-failing-indias-domestic-violence-survivors http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/from-the-police-station-back-to-the-hellhole-system-failing-indias-domestic-violence-survivors/#comments Fri, 27 Feb 2015 18:03:42 +0000 Shai Venkatraman http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139401 Government data indicates that 40 percent of all Indian women have experienced domestic violence, but activists believe the figure is closer to 84 percent. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Government data indicates that 40 percent of all Indian women have experienced domestic violence, but activists believe the figure is closer to 84 percent. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Shai Venkatraman
MUMBAI, Feb 27 2015 (IPS)

“One time my husband started slapping me hard on the face because I had not cooked the rice to his satisfaction,” Suruchi* told IPS. “He hit me so hard that my infant daughter fell from my arms to the ground.”

For 20 years 47-year-old Suruchi, a resident of India’s coastal megacity Mumbai, faced physical and verbal abuse within the walls of her home. Her husband would often lock her out of their apartment through the night and one day even tried to strangle her.

“I had hoped all along that by obeying [my husband] things would eventually get better. While recovering in hospital I understood [...] that I owed it to myself and my children to walk out.” -- a domestic violence survivor in Mumbai
“I never knew what would set him off – it could be talking to a neighbour or looking out of the window. I would get ready for work in the morning and he would suddenly announce that I had to stay home all day.”

Suruchi had no access to her earnings as she was expected to hand her salary over to her in-laws. “On the rare occasion that I spoke out, I would get beaten up.” Her parents sensed that she was unhappy but Suruchi never told them the full story.

She was just 20 when she got married, she told IPS, and the constant abuse has left a profound impact on her and her children, especially her son who is anxious and largely uncommunicative.

It was only after she suffered a nervous breakdown following an especially violent assault that she finally acted.

“I had hoped all along that by obeying him things would eventually get better. While recovering in hospital I understood that my attitude had fuelled the abuse and that I owed it to myself and my children to walk out.”

Today Suruchi has put the past behind her. She lives independently and is pursuing a degree in law. However, her story is all too common in millions of homes across India.

A 2006 government survey, the last time the state collected comprehensive household data, stated that 40 percent of Indian women faced domestic violence.

Considering that women comprise over 48 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion people, this means that hundreds of millions of people are living a nightmare in what is considered the world’s largest democracy.

However many experts believe that a 2003 survey conducted by a non-profit and supported by the Planning Commission of India that threw up a figure of 84 percent paints a more accurate picture.

“It tells us that many cases are going unreported,” says Rashmi Anand, a domestic violence survivor who runs a free legal aid and counseling service for victims in the capital, New Delhi, in collaboration with the police.

Interestingly, figures for domestic violence reported in crime statistics in many states are significantly higher than those that find their way into national-level databases.

An abundance of violence, too few solutions

In a 2013 study by the New Delhi-based think tank National Council for Applied Economic Research, over half of the married women surveyed said that they would be beaten up for going out of the house without permission (54 percent); not cooking properly (35 percent) and inadequate dowry payments (36 percent).

Indian law bans dowry, but the practice remains widespread.

Studies also indicate that economic and social gains have put women at far greater risk in a deeply patriarchal country like India.

A 2014 report in Population and Development Review, a peer reviewed journal, shows that women who are more educated than their husbands are at higher risk of domestic violence as men see in it a way to re-assert their power and control over their wives.

In 1983 domestic violence was recognised as a criminal offence under Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code. However only in 2005 was a separate civil law to deal with the specifics of domestic violence introduced.

Among other things, the law defines domestic violence and widens the scope to verbal, economic and emotional violence. It also takes into account a woman’s need for financial support and protects her from being thrown out of her home and provides for monetary relief and temporary custody of children.

Since it came into force, activists say there has been a gradual rise in the number of women seeking help.

“Earlier women would seek legal help only when they were thrown out of their marital homes”, says New Delhi-based lawyer C.P Nautiyal, who counsels victims of domestic violence.

“Most women believe that suffering verbal abuse or being slapped by their husbands is expected behaviour. Since the law came into being there is greater awareness regarding domestic violence.”

However, there is still considerable stigma attached to being divorced and this prevents many women from reaching out.

“Economically women in India have made great progress but not so much when it comes to personal growth,” says Anand. “The attitude remains skewed when it comes to relationships. A woman continues to be defined by marriage and this cuts across all classes.”

Veteran lawyer and women’s rights activist Flavia Agnes agrees.

“There is a lot of pressure to stay married,” she tells IPS. “I have found that even highly placed women don’t like to reveal that they are divorced or separated. It’s like being raped, they will hide it as much as possible.”

Experts say that it is women from under-educated or underprivileged backgrounds who are reaching out for help in greater numbers. “Those who come from the upper classes are generally more reluctant to walk out as they stand to lose social status or a certain lifestyle,” Agnes says.

However it is precisely those women who are reaching out in greater numbers that the system is failing the most.

Most keenly felt is the lack of adequate government-run shelters. Barring the southern state of Kerala where shelter homes for domestic violence victims have been set up across 12 districts, authorities in other states have been neglectful.

“I am constantly looking for places where I can send impoverished, battered women to stay,” says Anand. Of the five shelters for women in crisis in the capital New Delhi, only two are functional. Even these can accommodate just 30 women each, and not for more than a month.

“Women are kept like prisoners there,” Agnes tells IPS about the shelters. “They can’t leave, not even to go to their places of work. Children above seven cannot stay with their mothers. Only those who are utterly destitute and desperate consider staying there.”

Another critical need is for fast-track courts to ensure cases get heard rapidly. The Indian legal system is notoriously slow and cases drag on for years, even decades.

However tougher laws alone cannot stem the tide of domestic violence as long as attitudes stay rooted in patriarchy.

The last government study done in 2006, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), revealed that over 51 percent of Indian men didn’t think it wrong to assault their wives. More shockingly, 54 percent of the women themselves felt such violence was justified on certain grounds.

Activists say such biases are reflected every time a victim of domestic violence comes seeking help.

“We see it on the part of the police, NGOs, stakeholders and religious authorities,” points out Agnes. “The protection officer is supposed to collect evidence, file an order and take the victim to court. Instead the tactic is to tell her, ‘He slapped you a few times that’s all. Don’t make a big deal and sort it out’, and she is sent back to the hellhole.

“We have to stop this current approach of putting a Band-Aid on a gaping, bleeding wound [if we want] change to come about,” she stressed.

*Name changed upon request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Despite U.N. Treaties, War Against Drugs a Losing Battlehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/despite-u-n-treaties-war-against-drugs-a-losing-battle/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=despite-u-n-treaties-war-against-drugs-a-losing-battle http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/despite-u-n-treaties-war-against-drugs-a-losing-battle/#comments Thu, 26 Feb 2015 21:10:23 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139383 Less than eight per cent of drug users worldwide have access to a clean syringe programme. Credit: Fahim Siddiqi/IPS

Less than eight per cent of drug users worldwide have access to a clean syringe programme. Credit: Fahim Siddiqi/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 26 2015 (IPS)

As the call for the decriminalisation of drugs steadily picks up steam worldwide, a new study by a British charity concludes there has been no significant reduction in the global use of illicit drugs since the creation of three key U.N. anti-drug conventions, the first of which came into force over half a century ago.

“Illicit drugs are now purer, cheaper, and more widely used than ever,” says the report, titled Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs is Harming the World’s Poorest, released Thursday by the London-based Health Poverty Action."This approach hasn’t reduced drug use or managed to control the illicit drug trade. Instead, it keeps drugs profitable and cartels powerful." -- Catherine Martin of Health Poverty Action

The study also cites an opinion poll that shows more than eight in 10 Britons believe the war on drugs cannot be won. And over half favour legalising or decriminalising at least some illicit drugs.

The international treaties to curb drug trafficking include the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

But over the last few decades, several countries have either decriminalised drugs, either fully or partially, or adopted liberal drug laws, including the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

These countries include the Netherlands, Portugal, Czech Republic, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Ecuador, Honduras and Mexico, among others.

According to the report, the governments of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala seek open, evidence-based discussion on U.N. drugs policy reform.

And “both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS not only share this view, but have called for the decriminalisation of drugs use.”

Asked if the United Nations was doing enough in the battle against drugs, Catherine Martin, policy officer at Health Poverty Action, told IPS, “The problem is that the U.N. is doing too much of the wrong things, and not enough of the right things.”

She pointed out that an estimated 100 billion dollars worldwide is poured into drug law enforcement every year, driven by U.N. conventions on drug control.

“However, this approach hasn’t reduced drug use or managed to control the illicit drug trade. Instead, it keeps drugs profitable and cartels powerful (fuelling corruption); spurs violent conflict and human rights violations; and disproportionately punishes small-scale drug producers and people who use drugs,” she added.

The report says UK development organisations have largely remained silent, while calls for drugs reform come from Southern counterparts, British tycoon Sir Richard Branson, current and former presidents, Nobel prizewinning economists and ex-U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan.

The charity urges the UK development sector to demand pro-poor moves as nations prepare for the U.N. general assembly’s special session on drugs next year.

Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including British groups, have no lead contact or set process for participating in the session, says the report.

The report claims many small-scale farmers grow and trade drugs in developing countries as their only income source.

And punitive drug policies penalise farmers who do not have access to the land, sufficient resources and infrastructure that they would need to make a sustainable living from other crops.

Alternative crops or development programmes often fail farmers, because they are led by security concerns and ignore poor communities’ needs, the report notes.

The charity argues the militarisation of the war on drugs has triggered and been used to justify murder, mass imprisonment and systematic human rights violations.

The report stresses that criminalising drugs does not reduce use, but spreads disease, deters people from seeking medical treatment and leads to policies that exclude millions of people from vital pain relief.

Less than eight per cent of drug users have access to a clean needle programme, or opioid substitution therapy, and under four per cent of those living with HIV have access to HIV treatment.

In West Africa, people with conditions linked to cancer and AIDS face severe restrictions in access to pain relief drugs, amid feared diversion to illicit markets, according to the study.

Low and middle-income countries have 90 per cent of AIDS patients around the globe and half of the world’s people with cancer, but use only six per cent of morphine given for pain management.

Health Poverty Action states the war on drugs criminalises the poor, and women are worst hit, through disproportionate imprisonment and the loss of livelihoods.

Drug crop eradication devastates the environment and forces producers underground, often to areas with fragile ecosystems.

Asked what the U.N.’s focus should be, Martin told IPS the world body should focus on evidence-based, pro-poor policies that treat illicit drugs as a health issue, not a security matter.

These policies must protect human rights and end the harm that current policies do to the poor and marginalised, she said.

“Drug policy reform should support and fund harm reduction measures, and ensure access to essential medicines for the five billion people worldwide who live in countries where overly strict drug laws limit access to crucial pain medications,” Martin said.

Meanwhile, the report says that drug policy, like climate change or gender, is a cross-cutting issue that affects most aspects of development work: poverty, human rights, health, democracy, the environment.

And current drug policies undermine economic growth and make development work less effective, the report adds.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Families of ‘Desaparecidos’ Take Search into Their Own Handshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/families-of-desaparecidos-take-search-into-their-own-hands/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=families-of-desaparecidos-take-search-into-their-own-hands http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/families-of-desaparecidos-take-search-into-their-own-hands/#comments Thu, 26 Feb 2015 16:33:56 +0000 Emilio Godoy http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139372 “Forced disappearance, a strategy of terror” reads a sign with the Mexican flag, held by a family member during a Feb. 19 ceremony to celebrate the 15th year anniversary of HIJOS, one of the first organisations created by the families of ‘desaparecidos’ to search for their loved ones and fight for justice. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

“Forced disappearance, a strategy of terror” reads a sign with the Mexican flag, held by a family member during a Feb. 19 ceremony to celebrate the 15th year anniversary of HIJOS, one of the first organisations created by the families of ‘desaparecidos’ to search for their loved ones and fight for justice. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Feb 26 2015 (IPS)

Carlos Trujillo refuses to give up, after years of tirelessly searching hospitals, morgues, prisons, cemeteries and clandestine graves in Mexico, looking for his four missing brothers.

The local shopkeeper has left no stone unturned and no clue unfollowed since his brothers Jesús, Raúl, Luís and Gustavo Trujillo vanished – the first two on Aug. 28, 2008 in the southern state of Guerrero and the last two on Sep. 22, 2010 on a highway that joins the southern states of Puebla and Veracruz.

“The case has gone nowhere; four agents were assigned to it, but there’s still nothing concrete, so I’m forging ahead and I won’t stop until I find them,” Trujillo told IPS.

On Feb. 18, Trujillo and other relatives of “desaparecidos” or victims of enforced disappearance founded the group Familiares en Búsqueda María Herrera – named after his mother – as part of the growing efforts by tormented family members to secure institutional support for the investigations they themselves carry out.

“We want to create a network of organisations of victims’ families,” the activist explained. “One of the priorities is to strengthen links and networking, to ensure clarity in the search process, and to share tools. The aim is for the families themselves to carry the investigations forward.”

The group is investigating the disappearance of 18 people. Prior to the creation of the organisation, some of the members found six people alive, in the last two years.“Each one of us started with our own particular case. We didn’t understand what disappearance was; we had to learn. We didn’t know we had a right to demand things. The search started off with problems, no one knew how to work collectively, and we gradually came up with how to do things.” -- Diana García

With determination and courage, the family members visit morgues, police stations, prisons, courtrooms, cemeteries and mass graves, trying to find their lost loved ones, or at least some clue that could lead them in the right direction.

The group grew out of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, which in 2011 brought together the families of victims of the wave of violence in Mexico, and held peace caravans throughout the country and even parts of the United States, where the movement protested that country’s anti-drug policy.

Enforced disappearance became a widespread phenomenon since the government of conservative Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) declared the “war on drug trafficking.” His successor, the conservative Enrique Peña Nieto, has not resolved the problem, which has become one of the worst tragedies in Latin America’s recent history.

But the phenomenon has only drawn international attention since the disappearance of 43 students of the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college, which exposed a cocktail of complicity and corruption between the police and the mayor of the town of Iguala and a violent drug cartel operating in Guerrero.

Thursday marks the five month anniversary of their disappearance.

The families have not stopped their indefatigable search for the students, even though the attorney general’s office announced a month ago that they were killed by the organised crime group “Guerreros Unidos” and their bodies were burnt.

The humanitarian crisis prompted the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances to demand on Feb. 13 that Mexico pass specific laws to combat the problem, create a registry of victims, carry out proper investigations, and provide justice and reparations to the victims’ families.

Mexico’s office on human rights, crime prevention and community service has reported that in this country of 120 million people, 23,271 people went missing between 2007 and October 2014. However, the office does not specifically indicate how many of these people were victims of enforced disappearance, as opposed to simply missing. Human rights organisations put the figure at 22,600 for that period.

Most enforced disappearances are blamed on drug cartels, which dispute smuggling routes to the lucrative U.S. market, in some cases with the participation of corrupt local or national police. The victims are mainly men from different socioeconomic strata, between the ages of 20 and 36.

“Each one of us started with our own particular case,” Diana García, whose son was disappeared, told IPS. “We didn’t understand what disappearance was; we had to learn. We didn’t know we had a right to demand things. The search started off with problems, no one knew how to work collectively, and we gradually came up with how to do things.”

Her son, Daniel Cantú, disappeared on Feb. 21, 2007 in the city of Ramos Arizpe in the northern state of Coahuila.

García, who has two other children and belongs to the group Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparecidos en Coahuila, is convinced that only by working together can people exert enough pressure on the government to get it to search for their missing loved ones.

With the support of the Centro Diocesano para los Derechos Humanos Fray Juan de Larios, a church-based human rights organisation, a group of family members of victims came together and founded Fuerzas Unidas in 2009, which is searching for a total of 344 people.

The organisation successfully advocated the creation of a new local law on the declaration of absence of persons due to disappearance, in effect since May 2014, as well as the classification of enforced disappearance as a specific crime in the state of Coahuila.

Other groups have emerged, such as Ciencia Forense Ciudadana (Citizen Forensic Science), founded in September to create a forensic and DNA database.

“The initiative is aimed at a massive identification drive,” one of the founders of the organisation, Sara López, told IPS. “To do this we need a registry of victims of disappearance, a genetic database, and a databank for what has been found in clandestine graves.”

The project plans to cover 450 families affected by enforced disappearance and to reach 1,500 DNA samples. So far it has gathered 550, and it has representatives – victims’ relatives – in 10 of the country’s 33 states.

On Feb. 16, Ciencia Forense identified the remains of Brenda González, who went missing on Jul. 31, 2011 in Santa Catarina, in the northern state of Nuevo León, with the support of an independent forensic investigation carried out by the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team.

“With the organisation that we just created, we will also try to provide a broad assessment of the question of enforced disappearances,” Trujillo said.

Human rights organisations say that until the case of the missing Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college students erupted, the authorities did very little to combat the phenomenon, and failed to adopt measures to comply with sentences handed down by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

The plight of the families is described in the song “Desaparecido” by French-Spanish singer-songwriter Manu Chao, dedicated to the thousands of victims of enforced disappearance in Latin America and their families: “I carry in my body a pain that doesn’t let me breathe, I carry in my body a doom that forces me to keep moving.”

And their lives are put on hold while they visit registries, fill out paperwork, lobby, take innumerable risks, and rack up expenses as they search for their loved ones and other desaparecidos.

“For now, I’m not interested in justice or reparations,” said García. “What I want is to know the truth, what happened, where he is. I’m looking for him alive but I know that in the context we’re living in there may be a different outcome. It’ll probably take me many years and I am desperate, but I continue the struggle.”

Her organisation, Fuerzas Unidas, drew up a plan that includes the analysis of crime maps, a genetic registry, awareness-raising campaigns, and proposed measures to hold those responsible for botched investigations accountable.

“The families are more familiar with the situation than anyone else, they know what has to be done. The problem is that we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the phenomenon in Mexico,” said López.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Human Rights in Asia and the Pacific: A “Regressive” Trend, Says Amnesty Internationalhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/human-rights-in-asia-and-the-pacific-a-regressive-trend-says-amnesty-international/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=human-rights-in-asia-and-the-pacific-a-regressive-trend-says-amnesty-international http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/human-rights-in-asia-and-the-pacific-a-regressive-trend-says-amnesty-international/#comments Wed, 25 Feb 2015 23:03:11 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139360 Protestors armed with bamboo sticks faced police in riot gear in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, on May 4, 2013. Credit: Kajul Hazra/IPS

Protestors armed with bamboo sticks faced police in riot gear in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, on May 4, 2013. Credit: Kajul Hazra/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

The cradle of some of the world’s most ancient civilizations, home to four out of the planet’s six billion people, and a battleground for the earth’s remaining resources, Asia and the Pacific are poised to play a defining role in international affairs in the coming decade.

But what does the future look like for those working behind the scenes in these rising economies, fighting to safeguard basic rights and ensure an equitable distribution of wealth and power in a region where 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day?

In its flagship annual report, the State of the World’s Human Rights, released Wednesday, Amnesty International (AI) slams the overall trend in the region as being “regressive”, pinpointing among other issues a poor track record on media freedom, rising violence against ethnic and religious minorities, and state repression of activists and civil society organisations.

The presence of armed groups and continuing conflict in countries like Pakistan, particularly in its northern tribal belt known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as well as in Myanmar and Thailand, constitute a major obstacle to millions of people trying to live normal lives.

Much of the region’s sprawling population is constantly on the move, with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) counting 3.5 million refugees, 1.9 million internally displaced people (IDPs), and 1.4 million stateless people, mostly hailing from Afghanistan and Myanmar.

UNHCR has documented a host of challenges facing these homeless, sometimes stateless, people in the Asia-Pacific region including sexual violence towards vulnerable women and girls and a lack of access to formal job markets pushing thousands into informal, bonded or other exploitative forms of labor.

Intolerance towards religious minorities remains a thorny issue in several countries in Asia; Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have allowed for the continued prosecution of Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis and Christians, while hard-line Buddhist nationalist groups in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka have operated with impunity, leading to attacks – sometimes deadly – on Muslim communities.

Meanwhile, ethnic Tibetans in China have encountered an iron fist in their efforts to practice their rights to freedom of assembly, speech, and political association. Since 2009, about 130 people have set themselves aflame in protest of the Chinese government’s authoritarian rule in the plateau.

A dark forecast for women and girls

Despite all the conventions ratified and millions of demonstrators in the streets, violence against women and girls continues unchecked across Asia and the Pacific, says the AI report.

In the Pacific island of Papua New Guinea, home to seven million people, an estimated 75 percent of women and girls experience some form of gender-based or domestic violence, largely due to the age-old practice of persecuting women in the predominantly rural country for practicing ‘sorcery’.

In the first six months of 2014, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission had recorded 4,154 cases of violence against women, according to the AI report, while India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported an average of 24,923 rapes per year.

A 2013 U.N. Women study involving 10,000 men throughout Asia and the Pacific found that nearly half of all respondents admitted to using physical or sexual abuse against a partner.

According to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), two out of every five girls in South Asia could wind up as child brides, with the highest prevalence in Bangladesh (66 percent), tailed closely by India (47 percent), Nepal (41 percent) and Afghanistan (39 percent).

“In East Asia and the Pacific,” the organisation said, “the prevalence of child marriage is 18 percent, with 9.2 million women aged 20-24 married as children in 2010.”

Holding the State accountable

Amnesty’s report presents a cross-section of government responses to activism, including in China – where rights defender Cao Shunli passed away in a hospital early last year after being refused proper medical treatment – and in North Korea, where “there appeared to be no independent civil society organisations, newspapers or political parties [and] North Koreans were liable to be searched by the authorities and could be punished for reading, watching or listening to foreign media materials.”

Imposition of martial law in Thailand saw the detention of several activists and the banning of gatherings of more than five people, while the re-introduction of “colonial-era sedition legislation” in Malaysia allowed the government to crack down on dissidents, AI says.

Citizens of both Myanmar and Sri Lanka faced a virtually zero-tolerance policy when it came to organised protest, with rights defenders and activists of all stripes detained, threatened, attacked or jailed.

Throughout the region media outlets had a bad year in 2014, with over 200 journalists jailed and at least a dozen murdered according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Amnesty’s report also found torture and other forms of ill treatment to be a continuing reality in the region, naming and shaming such countries as China, North Korea, the Philippines and Sri Lanka for their poor track record.

An earlier Amnesty International report, ‘Torture in 2014: 30 years of broken promises’, found that 23 Asia-Pacific states were still practicing torture, three decades after the U.N. adopted its 1984 Convention Against Torture.

The report found evidence of torture and ill treatment ranging “from North Korea’s brutal labour camps, to Australia’s offshore processing centres for asylum seekers or Japan’s death rows – where prisoners are kept in isolation, sometimes for decades.”

In Pakistan the army, state intelligence agencies and the police all stand accused of resorting to torture, while prisoners detained by both the policy and military in Thailand allege they have experienced torture and other forms of ill treatment while in custody.

In that same vein, governments’ continued reliance on the death penalty across Asia and the Pacific demonstrates a grave violation of rights at the most basic level.

Amnesty International reported that 500 people were at risk of execution in Pakistan, while China, Japan and Vietnam also carried on with the use of capital punishment.

Perhaps the only positive trend was a rise in youth activism across the region, which is home to 640 million people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the United Nations. The future of the region now lies with these young people, who will have to carve out the spaces in which to build a more tolerant, less violent society.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Better to Die at Sea, than Languish in Povertyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/better-to-die-at-sea-than-languish-in-poverty/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=better-to-die-at-sea-than-languish-in-poverty http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/better-to-die-at-sea-than-languish-in-poverty/#comments Wed, 25 Feb 2015 17:31:46 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139349 For most Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just a sad return journey home. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

For most Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just a sad return journey home. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

Weerasinghearachilage Ruwan Rangana had it all planned out last year in September: the big break that would change his life and those of his extended family had finally arrived.

The Sri Lankan youth in his early twenties was not too worried that the arrangement meant he had to make a clandestine journey in the middle of the night to a beach, board a two-decade-old trawler with dozens of others and be ready to spend up to three weeks on the high seas in a vessel designed to carry loads of fish.

“Besides trade and security, a large driver of the Australian government’s foreign policy is its single-minded focus on ensuring that all asylum seekers or refugees are processed at offshore facilities." -- Human Rights Watch
He and his fellow commuters prayed that the boat would not crack in two before it reached Australian waters, where they all expected to find a pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow.

Rangana told IPS that most of the roughly three-dozen people on board were leaving in search of better economic prospects, though members of the minority Tamil community are known to take the same journey to escape political persecution.

The boat ride was the relatively easy part. After reaching Australia, Rangana would have to seek asylum, land a job and secure an income, before beginning the process of bringing his family there to join him.

“At least, that was the plan,” said the young man who was a contract employee of the state-owned Ceylon Transport Board in the remote village of Angunakolapelessa in Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota District earning a monthly salary of 12,000 rupees (about 90 dollars) when he took the boat ride.

Half of the plan – the life-threatening part – worked. The other part – the life-changing one – did not.

Despite a leaking hull, the vessel did reach Australian waters, but was apprehended by the Australian Navy, newly emboldened by a policy to turn back boatloads of asylum seekers after fast-tracked processing at sea, sometimes reportedly involving no more than a single phone call with a border official.

By mid-September Rangana was back in Sri Lanka, at the southern port city of Galle where he and dozens of others who were handed over to Sri Lankan authorities were facing court action.

Thankfully he did not have to spend days inside a police cell or weeks in prison. He was bailed out on 5,000 rupees (about 45 dollars), a stiff sum for his family who barely make 40,000 rupees (about 300 dollars) a month.

Now he sits at home with no job and no savings – having sunk about 200,000 rupees (1,500 dollars) into his spot on the rickety fishing boat – and makes ends meet by doing odd jobs.

“Life is hard, but maybe I can get to Australia some day. I did get to the territorial waters; does that mean I have some kind of legal right to seek citizenship there?” he asks, oblivious to the tough policies of the Australian administration towards immigrants like himself.

Clamping down on ‘illegal’ entry

Since Australia launched Operation Sovereign Borders in September 2013 following the election of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, at least 15 boats have been turned back at sea, including the one on which Rangana was traveling, to Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Last year only one boat reached Australia, according to the government.

The programme has resulted in a significant drop in the number of illegal maritime arrivals in Australia. Compared to the one boat that reached Australia in 2014, the 2012-2013 period saw 25,173 persons reaching the country safely.

In the 10 months prior to the controversial military programme, 281 unauthorized boats arrived with a total of 19,578 people on board, according to the Australian Department of Immigration.

Just this past week, Australian authorities interviewed four Sri Lankans at sea, and sent them back to the island. Officials claim that the new screening process saves lives and assures that Australian asylum policies are not abused.

“The Coalition government’s policies and resolve are stopping illegal boat arrivals and are restoring integrity to Australia’s borders and immigration programme. Anyone attempting to enter Australia illegally by sea will never be resettled in this country,” Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s office said in a statement this week.

As of end-January, there were 2,298 persons in immigration detention facilities in Australia, of whom 8.1 percent were Sri Lankans.

The policy has been criticised by activists as well as rights groups, including by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“UNHCR’s position is that they (asylum seekers) must be swiftly and individually screened, in a process which they understand and in which they are able to explain their needs. Such screening is best carried out on land, given safety concerns and other limitations of doing so at sea,” the agency said in a statement earlier this month.

According to the international watchdog Human Rights Watch, “Besides trade and security, a large driver of the Australian government’s foreign policy is its single-minded focus on ensuring that all asylum seekers or refugees are processed at offshore facilities.

“The government has muted its criticism of authoritarian governments in Sri Lanka and Cambodia in recent years, apparently in hopes of winning the support of such governments for its refugee policies,” the rights group added in a statement released last month.

The end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil conflict and the election of a new, possibly more democratic government in January this year add to Canberra’s justification for turning away those who seek shelter within its borders.

In reality, the risk for asylum seekers is still high. Newly appointed Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told IPS that the government was yet to discuss any changes to accepting returnees. “They will face legal action; change in such a policy is not a priority right now,” he added.

Lawyers working with asylum seekers say their clients are unlikely to face extended jail terms, but could be slapped with fines of up to 100,000 rupees (750 dollars), still a lot of money for poor families.

Even if the legal process is swift, and those impounded are able to post bail, their reasons for wanting to leave remain the same.

Take the case of Kanan*, a young man from the war-torn northern town of Kilinochchi. He took a boat in August 2013 after paying a 750-dollar fee, agreeing to pay the remaining 6,750 dollars once he reached Australia.

He never even made it halfway. Six days into the journey, the boat broke down and was towed ashore by the Sri Lankan Navy.

He was fleeing poverty – his home district boasts unemployment rates over twice the national figure of four percent – and possible political persecution, not an unusual occurrence among the Tamil community both during and after Sri Lanka’s civil war.

He knows that very few have gotten to the Australian mainland and that even those whose cases have been deemed legitimate could end up in the Pacific islands of Nauru or Papua New Guinea.

But Kanan still hopes to give his ‘boat dream’ another try. “There is no hope here; even risking death [to reach Australia] is worth it,” says the unemployed youth.

*Name changed on request

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Big Trouble in the Air in Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/big-trouble-in-the-air-in-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=big-trouble-in-the-air-in-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/big-trouble-in-the-air-in-india/#comments Wed, 25 Feb 2015 01:46:00 +0000 Neeta Lal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139327 Vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, which could prompt a five-fold increase in poisonous gases emitted by cars and trucks. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, which could prompt a five-fold increase in poisonous gases emitted by cars and trucks. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

Like many others of her age, 15-year-old Aastha Sharma, a Class 10 student at a private school in India’s capital, New Delhi, loves being outdoors, going for walks with her friends and enjoying an occasional ice-cream. But the young girl can’t indulge in any of these activities.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disorder likely caused by Delhi’s heavily polluted air, has severely cramped the girl’s lifestyle, confining her mostly to her home.

An estimated 1.5 million people die annually in India due to indoor and outdoor air pollution.
For the past three years, Sharma’s life has been a whirligig of doctors’ prescriptions, missed social outings and a restricted diet that does not include most of her favourite foods. Along with books and a lunchbox, she also packs a nebulizer in her satchel daily to ward off the wheezing attacks that she has now come to dread.

“I’m sick of the endless do’s and don’ts I have to follow. When will I be able to lead a free life?” the teen wonders.

Many other youngsters in Delhi are asking the very same question as they grapple with the effects of rampant air pollution in this city of 18 million, believed to be world’s most polluted.

Particulate matter: a deadly matter

Greenpeace India, an environmental NGO, recently released findings of its air quality monitoring survey highlighting how poor the air was inside five prominent schools in the capital.

“Air pollution levels inside Delhi’s schools are alarmingly high and children are consistently breathing bad air. The new government needs to acknowledge the severity of air pollution in the city,” said Aishwarya Madineni, a campaigner with Greenpeace.

Another study conducted in 2014, which monitored 11,628 school-going children from 36 schools in Delhi in different seasons, found that every third child in the city had reduced lung function because of particulate pollution.

In a report submitted last year to the Supreme Court, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority urged the apex court to order all schools in Delhi to shut down on days when air pollution levels posed a threat to public health.

Studies by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) point out that when children are exposed to particulate matter – a complex mixture of acids (nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles – of 2.5 micrometers, it can trigger a raft of deadly respiratory illnesses.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified particulate matter pollution as carcinogenic to humans in 2013 and designated it as a “leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”

“Apart from mucous membranes and nasal cavities, air pollution also severely irritates eyes and skin. Exposure to high levels of pollution can lead to serious health [issues] in the long run,” warns Dr. Abha Sood, a senior consultant oncologist at the New Delhi-based Max Hospital.

Mothers’ exposure to pollution for prolonged periods, adds the specialist, can lead to malformation of organs in newborns.

“[Particulate Matter] of less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM 10) is particularly insidious as it gets lodged deep inside the lungs and penetrates the bloodstream, heightening a person’s vulnerability to cancer and heart disease,” she explains.

A national crisis

India’s high levels of air pollution, ranked by the WHO as being among the worst in the world, are adversely impacting the life spans of its citizens, reducing most Indian lives by over three years, says a study by economists from the Universities of Chicago, Harvard and Yale.

Over half of India’s population – roughly 660 million people – live in areas where fine particulate matter pollution is above India’s standards for what is considered safe, said the study.

If India reverses this trend to meet its air standards, this demographic would gain about 3.2 years in their expected life spans, according to the study. In other words, cleaner air would save 2.1 billion life-years, it said.

Furthermore, India has the distinction of recording the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases, and more deaths from asthma than any other nation, according to the WHO. The health organisation also claims that India is home to 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

An estimated 1.5 million people die annually in India due to indoor and outdoor air pollution, which also contributes to both chronic and acute heart disease, the leading cause of death in the country.

In a report submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2014, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority called for increasing the tax on diesel cars, and banning all private vehicles on high air pollution days.

The report also advised that cars older than 15 years be taken off the city’s roads and air purifiers installed at crowded markets; it also called for a crackdown on the burning of trash.

However, the implementation of these measures has been patchy at best, say health activists. Worse, vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, says a joint study by the Energy and Resources Institute at the University of California, San Diego, and the California Air Resources Board.

This could result in a health crisis – a three-fold increase in PM 2.5 levels and a five-fold increase in poisonous, highly reactive gases emitted by cars and trucks, the study predicted.

The economic cost of pollution is already proving to be a heavy burden for Asia’s third largest economy. A 2013 World Bank Report highlighted how pollution and other environmental challenges costs India 80 billion dollars a year, nearly six percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

About 23 percent of child mortality and 2.5 percent of all adult deaths in the country can be attributed to environmental degradation, the study further stated.

Coal-based power: adding fuel to the fire

Air pollution is now the fifth-leading cause of death in India. Between 2000 and 2010, the annual number of premature deaths linked to air pollution across India shot up six-fold to 620,000, according to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an advocacy group in New Delhi.

Another CSE study out this week has sounded alarm bells over air pollution, particularly from coal-based power plants. The two-year comprehensive environmental audit, conducted on 47 thermal power plants owned by the Centre, state governments and private players, has found that Indian thermal power plants were among the most inefficient in the world, on an average operating at 60 to 70 percent of their installed capacity.

The coal-based power plants were also found to have carbon dioxide emissions that were 14 percent higher than similar plants in China. Also, 76 percent of the plants were unable to meet the targets for ulitisation of ‘fly ash‘, imposed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

With the government showing little interest in formulating a cohesive action plan – involving all stakeholders – for tackling the many-headed hydra of air pollution, it looks like Sharma and her nebulizer will be inseparable for a while.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Syria’s “Barrel Bombs” Cause Human Devastation, Says Rights Grouphttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/syrias-barrel-bombs-cause-human-devastation-says-rights-group/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syrias-barrel-bombs-cause-human-devastation-says-rights-group http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/syrias-barrel-bombs-cause-human-devastation-says-rights-group/#comments Tue, 24 Feb 2015 22:18:26 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139328 A girl cries near a damaged car at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by government forces in Aleppo's Dahret Awwad neighbourhood Jan. 29, 2014. Credit: Freedom House/cc by 2.0

A girl cries near a damaged car at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by government forces in Aleppo's Dahret Awwad neighbourhood Jan. 29, 2014. Credit: Freedom House/cc by 2.0

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

The warring parties in the brutal four-year-old military conflict in Syria, which has claimed the lives of over 200,000 civilians and triggered “the greatest refugee crisis in modern times,” continue to break every single pledge held out to the United Nations.

Despite Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s plea for a political rather than military solution to the country’s ongoing civil war, both the Syrian government and the multiple rebel forces continue to escalate the conflict with aerial attacks and artillery shelling, hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid.“Amid talk of a possible temporary cessation of strikes on Aleppo, the question is whether Russia and China will finally allow the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions to stop barrel bombs.” -- Nadim Houry

But the worst of it, says Human Rights Watch (HRW) in report released Tuesday, is the use of locally improvised deadly “barrel bombs.”

By examining satellite imagery, HRW said, it has identified at least 450 distinct major damage sites in 10 towns and villages held by rebel groups in Daraa and over 1,000 in Aleppo between February last year and January this year.

“These impact sites have damage signatures strongly consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions, including improvised barrel and conventional bombs dropped by helicopters. Damages that possibly result from the use of rockets, missiles, or fuel-air bombs are also likely in a number of instances,” the group said.

According to HRW, barrel bombs are unguided high explosive weapons that are cheaply made, locally produced, and typically constructed from large oil drums, gas cylinders, and water tanks, filled with high explosives and scrap metal to enhance fragmentation, and then dropped from helicopters usually flying at high altitude.

Asked if the explosives in the barrel bombs originate either from Russia or China, two strong political and military allies of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the United Nations Director of HRW Philippe Bolopion told IPS: “We are not in a position to say where the high explosive is coming from but barrel bombs are pretty primitive and made from commonly found materials.”

With the 15-member Security Council deadlocked over Syria, there is little or no hope that Russia and China, two members with veto powers, will ever relent or penalise the Assad regime despite several resolutions.

“We certainly hope they will stand by their own resolution and impose consequences on the regime for thumbing its nose at the Security Council,” Bolopion said.

Asked if protests by HRW and other human rights organisations will be an exercise in futility, he said: “Sadly, when thousands of civilians are being slaughtered, we have to continue to place the Security Council, and Russia and China in particular, in front of their responsibilities, no matter how futile it may sound.”

Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said: “For a year, the Security Council has done nothing to stop Bashar al-Assad’s murderous air bombing campaign on rebel-held areas, which has terrorized, killed, and displaced civilians.

“Amid talk of a possible temporary cessation of strikes on Aleppo, the question is whether Russia and China will finally allow the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions to stop barrel bombs,” Houry said.

The Security Council is expected to meet Thursday for its next round of reporting on resolution 2139 of Feb. 22, 2014, which demanded that all parties to the conflict in Syria end the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs and other weapons in populated areas.

In a statement released Tuesday, HRW said non-state armed groups have also conducted indiscriminate attacks, including with car bombs and explosive weapons in government held areas.

The Security Council should impose an arms embargo on the government as well as rebel groups implicated in widespread or systematic indiscriminate attacks, HRW said.

The government attacks have led to the death and injury of thousands of civilians in rebel-held territory, according to HRW researchers.

The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a local monitoring group, has documented 609 civilian deaths, including 203 children and 117 women, in Daraa from aerial attacks between Feb. 22, 2014, and Feb. 19, 2015.

During the same period they have documented 2,576 civilian deaths in Aleppo governorate from aerial attacks, including 636 children and 317 women.

While deaths from aerial attacks are not exclusively from barrel bombs, residents from rebel-held territory in Daraa and Aleppo told HRW that barrel bombs account for a majority of air strikes.

Last week, Ban appealed to all parties to de-escalate the conflict in order to provide a reprieve for the long-suffering civilians of Syria. An immediate de-escalation is a much needed step towards a political solution to the conflict, he added

U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura told the Security Council last week that the Syrian government has committed to suspend all aerial attacks and artillery shelling over the entire city of Aleppo for a period of six weeks.

This is in order to allow the United Nations to implement a pilot project of unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid starting with one district in Aleppo and building incrementally to others.

Ban said Security Council resolution 2139 called for an end to the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas in Syria, including shelling and aerial bombardment, and expects the Syrian government to follow through on its commitment.

The secretary-general also appealed to all armed opposition groups in Aleppo to suspend their shelling of the city.

He pointed out that the last four years of war have led to the deaths of over 200,000 civilians, the greatest refugee crisis of modern times and created an environment in which extremist groups and terrorist organisations such as ISIL/Daesh flourish.

The secretary-general recalled Security Council resolutions 2170 and 2178 and stressed that there is no military solution to this conflict.

“This is a political conflict. Ending the killing, reversing the increasing fragmentation of Syria requires a political process, based on the full implementation of the Geneva Communique of 2012, that addresses the deep roots of the conflict and meets the aspirations of all Syrians,” he added.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Analysis: Collaboration Key for a Clean Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/analysis-collaboration-key-for-a-clean-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=analysis-collaboration-key-for-a-clean-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/analysis-collaboration-key-for-a-clean-india/#comments Tue, 24 Feb 2015 19:07:32 +0000 Neeraj Jain http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139323 Sanitation infrastructure in India’s sprawling slums remains a massive challenge. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Sanitation infrastructure in India’s sprawling slums remains a massive challenge. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

By Neeraj Jain
NEW DELHI, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to action for a 100 percent Open Defecation Free (ODF) India by 2019 was announced as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) or Clean India Campaign last year.

With 60 percent of all those practising open defecation globally residing in India, this task is particularly crucial, yet also challenging.We need to think how we are going to engage and influence the behaviour of such a massive audience. It probably requires the most ambitious behaviour change campaign ever attempted in the history of any nation.

Inadequate waste management leads to the contamination of water sources, contributing to diarrhoeal diseases that claim the lives of 186,000 children every single year.

With nowhere safe to go to the toilet, women and girls are often put in a vulnerable position as they seek somewhere private to relieve themselves.

A lack of adequate sanitation also has a substantial impact on economic development, with money repeatedly being lost due to workers being sick or taking time off to care for sick family members, not to mention the cost of medical treatment.

So is the 2019 target actually achievable?

It may sound like a tall order but we won’t know until we try. We need to look at the ways to make it work – implement this seemingly ambitious plan in an effective manner to make the target achievable. Not just admit defeat before we start.

The recent pace of the activities under the SBM suggests that India would become clean by 2070. To achieve the target around 50,000 toilets need to be built every day, without compromising on quality.

So it’s high time that we stop focussing on the problems and start discussing possible solutions.

With this in mind, WaterAid India organised an India WASH Summit in New Delhi last week. It was the first of its kind and was aimed at devising solutions to India’s sanitation crisis and shaping future collaboration to achieve Swachh Bharat’s ambitious target of a toilet for every household by Oct. 2, 2019. 

This landmark event, organised in partnership with the Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation and Ministry of Urban Development, brought together the government, the private sector and civil society groups working to make clean India a reality.

The summit concluded with the creation of a concrete set of recommendations to be shared with the government of India to help in the effective implementation of the SBM across a number of themes including behaviour, equity and inclusion, gender, water security, institutional transformation, technology, research, and convergence of nutrition, health and education.

Collaboration emerged as a key theme at the summit, both within the sector as well as with organisations focussing on nutrition, health and education. Participants at the summit stressed the importance of capacity building and the need for effective monitoring.

It was agreed that sanitation should be acknowledged as a basic human right. To ensure success in getting sanitation for all, programmes need to be equitable and inclusive and should include behaviour change at its core.

Previous initiatives have taught us that just building toilets is not enough. To stimulate demand for toilets, hygiene education and collective initiatives are key.

We need to think how we are going to engage and influence the behaviour of such a massive audience. It probably requires the most ambitious behaviour change campaign ever attempted in the history of any nation.

The overall budget of the programme (rural as well as urban) as estimated by the government is almost Rs. 3 lakh crores (50 billion dollars).

I believe that answers to all hurdles identified above do exist but the entire WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) sector need to come together to find the most suitable answers as well as the most effective ways to implement it, in record time.

WaterAid has been working in the WASH sector in India since 1986 and is committed to supporting the government of India in realising the ambitious but much needed goal of making India open defecation free by Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in October 2019.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Tackling Corruption at its Root in Papua New Guineahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/tackling-corruption-at-its-root-in-papua-new-guinea/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=tackling-corruption-at-its-root-in-papua-new-guinea http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/tackling-corruption-at-its-root-in-papua-new-guinea/#comments Tue, 24 Feb 2015 15:50:04 +0000 Catherine Wilson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139320 Transparency International (PNG) organises an annual Walk Against Corruption in Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

Transparency International (PNG) organises an annual Walk Against Corruption in Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

Corruption, the single largest obstacle to socioeconomic development worldwide, has had a grave impact on the southwest Pacific Island nation of Papua New Guinea. While mineral resource wealth drove high gross domestic product (GDP) growth of eight percent in 2012, the country is today ranked 157th out of 187 countries in terms of human development.

Key anti-corruption fighters in the country say that money laundering must be tackled to increase deterrence and ensure that stolen public funds earmarked for vital hospitals and schools do not pay for luxury assets abroad.

A patronage system of governance and a culture of secrecy have led to the misappropriation of an estimated half of Papua New Guinea's development budget of 7.6 billion kina (about 2.8 billion dollars) between 2009 and 2011 -- Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS)
“Our police officers, school teachers and health workers live and work in very squalid circumstances,” Lawrence Stephens, chairman of Transparency International (PNG), in the capital, Port Moresby, told IPS.

“So when we see the government awarding a contract for pharmaceutical and medical supplies to a company not qualified to tender, a company quoting a price 40 percent higher than the closest qualified tender and costing the equivalent of 160 new homes for nurses each year of the three-year contract, we blame corrupt individuals for destroying development.”

Papua New Guinea has been given a corruption score of 25/100, where 100 indicates clean governance, in comparison to the world average of 43/100, by Transparency International.

The country’s dedicated anti-corruption team, Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS), launched by the government in 2011, has described the country as a ‘mobocracy’, where a patronage system of governance and a culture of secrecy have led to the misappropriation of an estimated half of the development budget of 7.6 billion kina (about 2.8 billion dollars) from 2009 to 2011.

Large-scale theft of public funds, including foreign aid, is alleged to have occurred across government departments responsible for national planning, health, petroleum and energy, finance and justice.

A 2006 Public Accounts Committee Inquiry into the Lands Department alone concluded that it had conducted itself illegally over many years and given priority to the interests of private enterprise and speculators over the interests and lawful rights of the State. The department’s shortfall in revenue was 5.9 million kina (2.2 million dollars) in 2001 and 4.9 million kina (1.8 million dollars) in 2003.

State capture, where powerful private sector interests exert undue influence over state leaders, officials and procurement processes, has had devastating repercussions for national development. Approval of ‘white elephant projects’ has channelled windfalls to criminal syndicates, Sam Koim, the ITFS Chairman, reported in the Griffith Law Journal.

Koim told IPS that, of 302 cases of corruption entailing revenue of up to 5.3 billion kina (1.9 billion dollars) under investigation, 91 had been prosecuted. Twenty-eight senior public servants have been suspended or removed from office, while two Members of Parliament and two senior public servants have been convicted and jailed.

To date, 8.3 million kina (3.1 million dollars) in proceeds of crime have been recovered, but including all outstanding cases this figure could potentially rise to 500 million kina (187 million dollars). Investigation into corporate tax evasion has led to the restitution of 22.6 million kina (8.4 million dollars).

Globally it is estimated that corruption drains the developing world of up to one trillion dollars every year and what is lost is in the magnitude of 10 times the official development assistance budget, claims the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

This has impacted increasing inequality in countries such as PNG, where 40 percent of the population of seven million live below the poverty line, maternal mortality is 711 per 100,000 live births, literacy is just 63 percent and only 19 percent of people have access to sanitation.

It is a vicious cycle, as Koim also believes that the state becomes an alternative source of personal prosperity when there are few legitimate avenues available for people to economically improve their lives.

Banks crucial to fighting corruption

The majority of stolen funds have been transferred through banks to offshore investments. Australia receives about 200 million Australia dollars (155 million dollars) of illicit gains from the Melanesian island state every year, claims the Australian Federal Police.

Several PNG politicians have purchased luxury homes with a total estimated value of 11.5 million Australian dollars (8.9 million dollars) in the northern Australian city of Cairns.

“Without banks and financial institutions, it is impossible to commit economic crimes, such as fraud and money laundering,” states the Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS).

In a report last year on the government’s payment of fraudulent legal fees, ITFS identified numerous control gaps, such as lack of written contracts, oversight of procurement and payment clearance processes and the failure of banks to prevent evidently suspicious transactions.

“The duty imposed on banks to avoid engaging in money laundering should not be limited to ticking the boxes or submitting periodic transaction reports, but also taking proactive steps including rejecting transactions and closing bank accounts,” the report recommended. Sixty-five percent of PNG’s financial sector assets are held by commercial banks, including foreign bank subsidiaries.

There are also gaps between national legislation and banking sector regulations. For instance, money laundering is a criminal offence under the Proceeds of Crime Act (2005), but there is no obligation on banks to check inexplicably large or unorthodox patterns of transactions.

Action is also required by recipient nations, experts say. Professor Jason Sharman of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Queensland’s Griffith University told IPS that there was a need for improved government “supervisory responsibility to make sure that Australian banks are not accepting suspect funds from PNG Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs).”

“One of the main weaknesses is in the Australian real estate sector with very little scrutiny of foreign money coming in, especially when, as is often the case, this money is routed via lawyers’ or real estate agents’ trust accounts,” he added.

But progress by the anti-corruption team has accelerated broader action. “A number of PNG-based banks have closed accounts of high risk customers and refused suspicious transactions”, while some international corresponding banks “have refused transactions they view to have originated from illicit sources,” ITFS reports.

Reducing and preventing corruption is a long-term battle, which includes addressing the cultural divide between an introduced western government system and centuries of traditional governance based on a leader’s ability to acquire and distribute resources to his own kin. But if corruption is driven largely by the lure of a quick route to untold personal wealth, then a critical measure now is eliminating safe havens for the plunder.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Can Nepal’s TRC Finally Bring Closure to its War Survivors?http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/can-nepals-trc-finally-bring-closure-to-its-war-survivors/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=can-nepals-trc-finally-bring-closure-to-its-war-survivors http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/can-nepals-trc-finally-bring-closure-to-its-war-survivors/#comments Tue, 24 Feb 2015 02:36:27 +0000 Renu Kshetry http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139307 Suman Adhikari, son of Muktinath Adhikari, a school principal who was killed by Maoist rebels during Nepal’s People’s War, says his family is still waiting for justice to be served. Credit: Renu Kshetry/IPS

Suman Adhikari, son of Muktinath Adhikari, a school principal who was killed by Maoist rebels during Nepal’s People’s War, says his family is still waiting for justice to be served. Credit: Renu Kshetry/IPS

By Renu Kshetry
KATHMANDU, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

The picture of Muktinath Adhikari, principal of Pandini Sanskrit Secondary School in the Lamjung district of west Nepal who was killed during the country’s decade-long civil conflict, became an iconic portrayal of the brutality of the bloody ‘People’s War’.

The then Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which waged a 10-year-long armed struggle, killed Adhikari in 2002 after he refused to ‘donate’ 25 percent of his salary to the cause and attend functions organised by the rebels.

"The consultation, ownership, and participation of conflict victims are a must for the successful completion of the transition to justice." -- Suman Adhikari, son of Muktinath Adhikari, a school principal who was killed by Maoist rebels during Nepal’s People’s War
“Our life changed drastically for the worse after my father was killed; the memory of him being killed with his hands tied behind his back still haunts us,” recalls Suman Adhikari, the slain teacher’s son. “We want justice to move on with our life.”

Eight years after the war ended, Nepal’s newly formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Commission to Investigate Enforced Disappearances (CIED) will now take up the case of the Adhikari family, and thousands of others like them who are still waiting for closure.

Originally agreed upon during the signing of the 12-point understanding between the then CPN (M) and the Seven Party Alliance – which includes the current ruling Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) – and reaffirmed during the signing of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), these commissions have been a long time coming.

According to records kept by the Informal Sector Services Centre (INSEC), a non-governmental organisation, 13,236 people were killed during the Maoist insurgency, while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has recorded more than 1,350 cases of disappearances that are yet to be accounted for.

Both the TRC and CIED have been given the mandate to probe serious violations of human rights during the armed conflict, investigate the status of those missing and create an atmosphere for reconciliation in Nepali society.

Many hope that a robust reconciliation process will also give the country an economic boost, including improving the lives of the 25 percent of its 27-million strong population that lives below the poverty line.

However, rights activists have criticised the TRC Act for falling short of international standards, while several prominent groups fear that unaddressed criticisms could derail the process altogether.

Amnesty for war crimes?

International rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists have joined local activists in voicing grave concern that the TRC Act fails to uphold Nepal’s commitments under international law – namely, the possibility of granting amnesty for war crimes.

Statements released by the watchdog groups echo fears voiced by locals that flaws in the Act could leave thousands out of the reconciliation process.

Others are disgruntled about the lack of consultation prior to appointing members of the TRC.

Mohana Ansari, spokesperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), is unhappy that the TRC recommendation committee did not pay heed to the names suggested by the NHRC. “The culture of impunity should not be encouraged at any cost,” she stressed.

Others fear that a flawed TRC Act could lead to “forced reconciliation”, with survivors compelled to go along with a process that does not represent their best interests.

Surya Kiran Gurung, the newly appointed Chairperson of the TRC, is also sceptical about the Commission’s mandate.

“There is a need for amendments to the TRC Act because it is not clear what will happen to those cases that have been filed and investigated in court,” Gurung told IPS. “Parallel jurisdiction can create problems later on.”

However, he was confident that the TRC would recommend amendments to its Act in order to ensure consensus and consent of victims in the reconciliation process. He was similarly aware of the need to bridge the river of mistrust between survivors of the conflict and the commission.

“We will to reach out to them even if they are not willing to come forward,” he said.

Despite Gurung’s optimism, 53-year-old Kalyan Budhathoki of the Ramechap district in central Nepal is not as hopeful.

He, along with his 35-member extended family, fled their village in 2000 when rebels threatened to kill them and seized property after he refused to pay a “donation” of one million Nepali rupees.

“Why are these culprits roaming freely and why has no action been taken against those selling our cattle and seizing our property?” asked Budhathoki, a supporter of the ruling Nepali Congress (NC) who now works as a daily wage labourer in Kathmandu. “We are yet to feel the presence of law and order in the country.”

Thousands of futures at stake

The Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction formed a task force in 2006 to collect data on the dead, displaced, disabled, and those who suffered property damage during the war.

Available records indicate that of the 79,571 internally displaced persons (IDPs), only about 25,000 had received relief funds from the government and returned to their homes by October 2013.

According to the Relief and Rehabilitation Unit of the Ministry, a total of 14,201 families who lost their kin have received relief, while families of 1,528 missing people have availed themselves of government aid amounting to 100,000 rupees (about 1,000 dollars) each.

“Local leaders who are not conflict victims have been receiving compensation and relief packages by submitting fake documents and exercising political influence,” alleged Budhathoki. “In this situation, how could we believe that the TRC, with its members picked by the political parties, will not be biased?”

Rights activists too believe that political parties have reached an understanding on the controversial provision of granting blanket amnesty, even for those allegedly involved in serious rights violations.

Some politicians have offered the view that penalizing perpetrators will hinder the peace and reconciliation effort.

However, TRC Chairperson Gurung is confident that the Commission’s work will not be affected by political interference. “We will strictly abide by the TRC mandate of finding the truth and investigating the war-era issues,” he said.

He stressed that there would be public hearings that are expected to bring all manner of atrocities to light, after which the country can begin to move ahead with the reconciliation process.

Those like Suman Adhikari, however, believe the process will not go far without the active participation of those affected. “The consultation, ownership, and participation of conflict victims are a must for the successful completion of the transition to justice,” he told IPS.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: Discrimination by Lawhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/opinion-discrimination-by-law/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-discrimination-by-law http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/opinion-discrimination-by-law/#comments Mon, 23 Feb 2015 17:02:19 +0000 Rana Allam http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139302 For women in Egypt, the general atmosphere is one of hostility and intimidation. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

For women in Egypt, the general atmosphere is one of hostility and intimidation. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

By Rana Allam
CAIRO, Feb 23 2015 (IPS)

In November 2013, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey ranked Egypt as the worst of 22 Arab states with regards to women’s rights.

Several people argued that any country strictly following Islamic laws should rank lower, because Egypt and many other Arab and Muslim countries are not strict in following Islamic Sharia (religious laws), like in cutting off the hand of a thief, for example. In Egypt, if you are a man, you can literally kill your wife and get away with it.

However, Egypt – along with most Muslim countries – incorporates a list of laws based on Islamic Sharia. Some of these are indisputable Sharia laws while others are based on individual interpretations, and both are indeed discriminatory.

Suffice to say that in the second highest ranking Arab state in the survey, Oman, women inherit 50 percent of what men do, a man can divorce his wife for any reason while a woman needs grounds to file for divorce, and there are no laws against female genital mutilation.

The starkest examples of sexist laws in Arab and Muslim countries come in the personal status laws.

Regardless of whether these laws are Islamic Sharia compliant or not, they are presented as such and thus are non-negotiable.

With the many interpretations of Islamic text, it falls on the legislators and the (so-called) Muslim scholars to enforce what laws they “understood” from the text. These laws should be revised if we are to enforce gender equality, here are some examples:

–          Polygamy is legal for men only.

–          A man can divorce his wife with no grounds and without going to court, while a woman has to have strong reasons for divorce, must convince a court of law of some ordeal about her marriage, and the judge may or may not grant her divorce. A new law introduced in Egypt in 2000, called Khula law where a woman can file for divorce on no grounds, but then she has to forfeit her financial rights and reimburse her husband the dowry (and any gifts) paid when contracting the marriage.

–          A woman inherits half what a man inherits.

–          In some Muslim countries, like the UAE, a woman’s testimony is half that of a man’s in court. In most Muslim countries, if a contract requires a certain number of witnesses, a woman is counted as “half” a man.

–          There is no set minimum age for marriage in Islam, so some countries like Sudan can marry off a 10-year-old girl, and in Bahrain, a 15-year-old, however, in Libya the minimum age is 20.

–          A Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman, but a Muslim woman is not granted the same right.

–          In most Muslim countries, spousal rape is not recognised in the laws.

–          Abortion is illegal unless there is risk to the mother’s life and even this has to be with the husband’s consent.

It is one thing to fight culture and an intimidating environment and another thing to have sexist laws, where even in a court of law, a woman has no equal rights. For women in Egypt, the general atmosphere is one of hostility and intimidation, prevalent aggressions and complete impunity with regards to violence against women.

Amnesty International titled its latest briefing on the subject “Circles of Hell: domestic, public and state violence against women in Egypt.” Women in Egypt must not only fight such culture, but must also deal with discriminatory laws.

Muslim men have a unilateral and unconditional right to divorce, while women can only divorce by court action. A man need only say the words “I divorced you” and then register the divorce.

Actually, an Egyptian Muslim man may not even tell his wife he is divorcing her, he can register the divorce (regardless of her consent or attendance), and it is the duty of the registrar to “inform” her. On top of this, there is such a thing as a “revocable divorce” which means the husband has the right to revoke the divorce at his own accord during the waiting period and without having to sign another marriage contract.

Such a waiting period is only a woman’s burden. She has to remain unmarried for three months after she gets divorced, and such waiting period is nonexistent for men.

Adding insult to injury, Egypt has an “Obedience Law”. This law stipulates that a man may file an obedience complaint against his wife if she leaves the marital home without his permission.

The woman is this case has 30 days to file an objection detailing the legal grounds for “her failure to obey”, a judge may not be convinced of course. If she fails to file such objection, and does not return home, she is considered “deviant” and is denied her financial rights upon divorce – if she was ever granted one. Naturally, such proceedings delay her divorce lawsuit, and risk a just financial settlement.

Although legislators in Egypt have always cited Islamic Sharia when enforcing such strict personal status  laws, when it comes to adultery, Egyptian laws stray far from Islamic teachings and are outrageous.

The issue is such a taboo that no one even dares mentioning it. In Egypt, if you are a man, you can literally kill your wife and get away with it, if you catch her “red-handed” committing adultery.

Laws pertaining to the crime of adultery are an embodiment of sexism and discrimination:

–          A married woman would be charged with adultery if she commits the crime anywhere and with anyone. A married man would only be accused of adultery if he commits the crime in his marital house; otherwise there is no crime and no punishment.

–          The punishment for a married man (who committed the crime in his marital home) is imprisonment for six months, but women are given a sentence of two years in prison (regardless of where the crime took place).

–          If a married man commits adultery with a married woman in her marital house, he would merely be an accessory to the crime.

–          If both are unmarried, and the female is over 18, he receives no punishment, while she may face charges of prostitution.

–          If a married man catches his wife red-handed in the crime, and kills her and her partner, he does not face intentional murder charges or even manslaughter, he only gets a sentence as low as 24 hours. If a wife catches her husband red-handed and kills him, she immediately faces murder charges with its maximum sentence as the judge sees fit.

Not only do we have to fight taboos, sexist culture, violence on the streets and at home, gender-bias in every police station, court of law or place of business, but we also have a long way to go to at least have equality in the eyes of the law.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Biogas Eases Women’s Household Burden in Rural Cubahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/biogas-eases-womens-household-burden-in-rural-cuba/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=biogas-eases-womens-household-burden-in-rural-cuba http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/biogas-eases-womens-household-burden-in-rural-cuba/#comments Fri, 20 Feb 2015 17:34:02 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139281 Rural doctor Arianna Toledo heats water on her biogas stove at her home in the town of Cuatro Esquinas in the western Cuban province of Matanzas. Credit: Courtesy of Randy Rodríguez Pagés/Diakonia-Swedish Ecumenical Action

Rural doctor Arianna Toledo heats water on her biogas stove at her home in the town of Cuatro Esquinas in the western Cuban province of Matanzas. Credit: Courtesy of Randy Rodríguez Pagés/Diakonia-Swedish Ecumenical Action

By Ivet González
LOS ARABOS, Cuba, Feb 20 2015 (IPS)

On the blue flame of her biogas stove, it takes half as long for rural doctor Arianna Toledo to heat bath water and cook dinner as it did four years ago, when she still used electric power or firewood.

The installation of a biodigester, which uses pig manure to produce biogas for use in cooking food, cut the expenses and the time spent on food preparation for Toledo’s five-member family, who live in the town of Cuatro Esquinas, Los Arabos municipality in the western Cuban province of Matanzas.

“The main savings is in time, because the gas stove cooks faster,” Toledo told Tierramérica. She and the rest of the women in the family shoulder the burden of the household tasks, as in the great majority of Cuban homes.

Another 20 small biogas plants operate in homes in this town located 150 km from Havana, and over 300 more in the entire province of Matanzas, installed with support from a project run by the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD-C), based in Cárdenas, a city in the same province.“In general, women manage the household budget, which becomes a burden. That’s why they are thankful for the biodigesters, and many of them have been motivated to raise pigs and get involved in farming as a result.” -- Rita María García

The ecumenical institution seeks to improve living conditions in rural areas by fomenting ecological practices, which mitigate environmental damage, soil degradation and poor use of water.

Another key aim of the biodigester project is also to ease the work burden and household expenses of rural women.

“Our monthly power bill has been reduced, and we spend less on cooking gas cylinders, while at the same time we’re protecting the environment by using a renewable natural resource,” Toledo said.

In Cuba, 69 percent of families depend on electricity for cooking.

Toledo’s husband, Carlos Alberto Tamayo, explained to Tierramérica that using the biodigester, the four pigs they raise for family consumption guarantee the fuel needed for their home.

“And the organic material left over is used as natural fertiliser for our garden, where we grow fruit and vegetables,” said Tamayo, an Episcopal pastor in Cuatro Esquinas, which has a population of just over 2,300.

He said the biodigester prevents bad smells and the spread of disease vectors, while the gas is safer because it is non-toxic and there is a lower risk of accidents or explosions.

With the support of international development funds from several countries, for 15 years the CCRD-C has been promoting household use of these systems, reforestation and renewable energies, which are a priority for this Caribbean island nation, where only 4.3 percent of the energy consumed comes from clean sources.

The biodigesters, which are homemade in this case, will mushroom throughout Cuba over the next five years.

The organic fertiliser produced by this biodigester effluent tank is used on a family garden in Los Arabos in the Cuban province of Matanzas. Credit: Courtesy of Randy Rodríguez Pagés/Diakonia-Swedish Ecumenical Action

The organic fertiliser produced by this biodigester effluent tank is used on a family garden in Los Arabos in the Cuban province of Matanzas. Credit: Courtesy of Randy Rodríguez Pagés/Diakonia-Swedish Ecumenical Action

The Swine Research Institute’s Biogas Promotion and Development Centre is designing a national plan to promote the use of biodigesters in state companies and agricultural cooperatives.

In 2014, the Centre reported that there were 1,000 biodigesters in these two sectors, which benefited 4,000 people, in the case of the companies, and 8,000 people, in the case of the farming cooperatives.

The plan projects the construction of some 1,000 biodigesters a year by 2020, through nine projects implemented by the Agriculture Ministry and the non-governmental National Association of Small Farmers, which will receive financing from the United Nations Small Grants Programme.

According to Rita María García, director of the CCRD-C, monitoring of the project has shown that replacing the use of firewood, kerosene and petroleum-based products with biogas makes household work more humane.

Women gain in safety and time – important in a country where unpaid domestic work absorbs 71 percent of the working hours of women, according to the only Time Use Survey published until now, carried out in 2002 by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI).

The study found that for every 100 hours of work by men, women worked 120, many of them multitasking – cooking, cleaning, washing and caring for children.

“In general, women manage the household budget, which becomes a burden,” said García. “That’s why they are thankful for the biodigesters, and many of them have been motivated to raise pigs and get involved in farming as a result.”

The methodology followed by the CCRD-C projects first involves training for the beneficiaries in construction and maintenance of the biodigesters, and in ecological farming techniques using organic fertiliser, said Juan Carlos Rodríguez, the organisation’s general coordinator.

The CCRD-C also promotes reforestation by small farmers and the use of windmills, to reduce the use of electricity in a country that imports 53 percent of the fuel it consumes.

An additional benefit of the biodigesters is that they offer an alternative for the disposal of pig manure, which contaminates the environment.

In 2013 there were 16.7 million pigs in Cuba, 65 percent of which were in private hands in this highly-centralised, socialist economy.

Because pork is the most widely consumed meat in Cuba, and many private farmers and families raise pigs, the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment are fomenting the installation of biodigesters, to help boost production.

The authorities require those who raise pigs to guarantee adequate disposal of their waste.

Biogas is a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide produced by the bacterial decomposition of organic wastes. It can be used for cooking food, lighting, refrigeration and power generation.

Biodigesters help reduce soil and groundwater pollution, and curb the cutting of trees for firewood.

Cuba introduced their use in the 1980s, with U.N. support. But they began to take off a decade later, thanks to the National Biogas Movement.

Studies reported by the local press say the annual national potential for biogas production is over 400 million cubic metres, which would generate 700 gigawatt-hours per year.

That would reduce the release of carbon dioxide by more than three million tons, and would reduce oil imports by 190,000 tons a year.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

 

 

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Threats, Deaths, Impunity – No Hope for Free Press in Pakistanhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/threats-deaths-impunity-no-hope-for-free-press-in-pakistan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=threats-deaths-impunity-no-hope-for-free-press-in-pakistan http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/threats-deaths-impunity-no-hope-for-free-press-in-pakistan/#comments Fri, 20 Feb 2015 14:47:31 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139278 Journalists in Pakistan protest against the killing of their colleagues. Credit: Rahat Dar/IPS

Journalists in Pakistan protest against the killing of their colleagues. Credit: Rahat Dar/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Feb 20 2015 (IPS)

It is no surprise that most Pakistani journalists work under tremendous stress; caught between crime lords in its biggest cities, militant groups across its tribal belt and rival political parties throughout the country, censorship, intimidation and death seem almost to come with the territory.

But while many have become accustomed to working with a degree of fear and uncertainty, none could have been prepared for the number of tragedies that unfolded in 2014, the worst year ever for the media in Pakistan.

All told, last year saw the deaths of 14 journalists, media assistants and bloggers, while dozens more were injured, kidnapped or intimidated.

Reports by rights groups here point to a culture of impunity that is rendering impossible the notion of a free press, which activists and experts say is crucial to development and peace in a country mired in poverty and conflict.

Deaths, attacks, violence

“Pakistan’s media community is effectively under siege. Journalists, in particular those covering national security issues or human rights, are targeted from all sides in a disturbing pattern of abuses carried out to silence their reporting." -- David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director
A report released last month by the Pakistan-based Freedom Network (FN) documents numerous assassinations and attacks including the Jan. 1 shooting of Shan Dahar, a reporter with Abb Takk Television in Larkana, a city in the southern Sindh Province.

The local media initially reported that stray bullets fired during New Year’s Day celebrations hit Dahar, but subsequent investigations suggest that the killing was planned.

At the time of his death, the reporter had been working on a story about Pakistan’s sprawling black market for unregulated drugs; some believe that those with vested interests in the industry had a hand in his death.

Other documented deaths include the Jan. 17 killing of Waqas Aziz Khan, Ashraf Arain and Muhammad Khalid in a suburb of Karachi when gunmen opened fire on a media van used for live transmissions by Express TV.

While none of those killed were journalists – one was a security guard, one a driver and the other a technician for Express TV – activists here say their deaths represent the deadly climate for anyone involved, however remotely, with the press.

The FN report tracks patterns and challenges ahead for the industry in Pakistan, including trends such as the invocation of laws on blasphemy and treason to intimidate media houses, and the use of crippling fines and blanket bans on coverage that have forced many outlets to practice self-censorship in an effort to stay afloat.

In what the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) called a “chilling” example of these laws, last November one of the country’s Anti-Terrorism Courts sentenced four citizens to 26 years each in prison, plus a 12,800-dollar fine apiece, for airing a “contentious” television programme, supposedly in violation of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Climate of impunity

Other incidents that have media workers here on edge include the April 2014 assault on Hamid Mir, a senior reporter for Geo TV, who was fired at by gunmen on motorcycles while on his way from the airport to his office in Karachi.

Though he survived the attack, and his since undergone a successful operation, his assailants are still at large, and the threat to his life is still very much alive.

Mazhar Abbas, a former president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, tells IPS that the government’s inability to ensure freedom of expression has put reporters in an extremely difficult situation.

“The problem is that nobody knows who is killing the journalists,” he says. A complete dearth of official information on the perpetrators, combined with a lack of proper investigations, means that far too many journalists continue to operate within a climate of uncertainty and impunity, experts say.

In the northern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), journalists suffer constant threats and attacks from the Taliban and other militant groups that have operated on the border of Afghanistan since fleeing the U.S. invasion of their country in 2001.

Since the War on Terror began, 12 journalists in FATA have lost their lives, while scores of others have fled to Peshawar, capital of the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

For others, being out of reach of terrorist groups does not necessarily guarantee security. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of journalists in Pakistan experience threats, harassment and violence, sometimes even at the hands of the intelligence services.

The rights group’s recent report, ‘A Bullet has Been Chosen for You’, presents 34 cases in which journalists have been killed in retaliation for their work since 2008; only one of the perpetrators has been booked for the crime. The report blasts the authorities for failing to stem the bloody wave of violence against media workers, which activists say constitutes a grave violation of human rights.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that 56 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 1992. This figure, however, includes only those cases in which there was a clear motive for the death; activists here believe the true number of murders could be much higher.

Even those who aren’t killed exist in a kind of grey space, where they constantly fear reprisals for investigations or exposures that implicate any number of political actors.

“Pakistan’s media community is effectively under siege,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director, when the report was released last year. “Journalists, in particular those covering national security issues or human rights, are targeted from all sides in a disturbing pattern of abuses carried out to silence their reporting.

“The constant threat puts journalists in an impossible position, where virtually any sensitive story leaves them at risk of violence from one side or another,” he added.

In a country that is ranked 126th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), just a few places ahead of nations like Myanmar, Afghanistan and North Korea, experts say that a free press is essential to educating the public and exposing fraud, theft and rights violations on a massive scale.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Fighting Climate Change with Community Actionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/fighting-climate-change-with-community-action/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fighting-climate-change-with-community-action http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/02/fighting-climate-change-with-community-action/#comments Wed, 18 Feb 2015 20:41:12 +0000 Desmond Brown http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=139249 A worker at Fondes Amandes demonstrates the building of fire traces. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

A worker at Fondes Amandes demonstrates the building of fire traces. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
FONDES AMANDES, Trinidad, Feb 18 2015 (IPS)

Not far above Trinidad’s capital, Port-of-Spain, in a corner of the St. Ann’s valley in the Northern Range, the community of Fondes Amandes has come together since 1982 to respond to climate change.

For several years, bush fires reduced their forested surroundings to burned grass and charred tree stumps.

Locals have also witnessed increased rainfall in the area, in which the rainy season has encroached on the dry.

Akilah Jaramogi, who started the Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project (FACRP) 32 years ago with her now deceased husband, told IPS they have managed to reclaim and revive the forest and river.

“Coming to Fondes Amandes in the early 1980’s I was really happy to be part of this watershed, but that was only in the rainy season. In the rainy season the place would be really green and nice, but come dry season it was a different story,” Jaramogi told IPS.

“The place would turn brown, then from brown it would turn grey, and then bright fires in the night; the hillsides burn up and that was the whole issue. The trend at Fondes Amandes here, forest fires during the dry season and floods around the watershed during the rainy season. So for me, coming from a rural community in south Trinidad it was something strange to me…it was heartbreaking.”

The Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project has transformed the area from a bare, dusty hillside to one where tall trees flourish, fruit trees grow alongside flowering plants, and more wildlife returns each year.

And not since 1997 has a bush fire broached the system of fire traces and quick community action developed to protect the watershed.

Jaramogi said climate change is a reality for the community, and the change has affected the quality and yield of fruit trees. She noted the impact on citrus, mangoes and avocados. She said it makes sense for individuals and communities to be prepared.

“Over the years I’ve noticed drastic changes in the weather pattern. We no longer have a dry season or a rainy season, so for the past years we have had extremely dry weather conditions. This year we had a really long dry season that resulted in tremendous forest fires around Trinidad and Tobago,” Jaramogi explained.

She said one of the reasons for the longevity and success of FACRP is the involvement of the community.

“In spite of all the challenges, we are able to keep on going because we are community-based. Most of the members are from right here, and there is a sense of ownership – pride in our natural environment. That is what also attracts our supporters to continue to keep up their relationship with Fondes Amandes. With or without funding, they come out to deal with what has to be done.”

Akilah’s daughter, Kemba Jaramogi, also gives support to the Project. She is a trained firefighter and dedicated protector of the forests.

She explained that although fires sometimes burn outside of FACRP’s reforestation project area, this does not deter its volunteers from fighting them, even if it means trekking two hours to the fire site.

She outlined some of the challenges facing FACRP and mentioned a few simple things that could help contain fires before they get out of hand.

“First, there needs to be better coordination between the firefighting units of the Forestry Division, National Reforestation groups and forestry NGOs. Second, these groups need access to better equipment,” she said.

“FACRP, for instance, lacks basic bushfire fighting equipment like Back Pack Fire Pumps. These are water tanks with a pump that can be strapped to a firefighter’s back. Thirdly, the National Security helicopters have been fighting fires from the air with Bambi Buckets (specialised buckets which carry water suspended by cable from the helicopter), but this is often done when the fires are already out of control.”

“A more effective use of this air power would be to equip the choppers so that firefighting crews can be dropped near remote fires while they are still manageable, much like the equipment afforded to smokejumpers.”

A smokejumper is a firefighter that parachutes into a remote area to combat wildfires. Smokejumpers are most often deployed to fires that are extremely remote.

“A fourth solution could involve training and employing the T&T Regiment to fight fires during fire season,” she added.

In Trinidad and Tobago, it is illegal to light fires outdoor during the dry season.

Kemba Jaramogi said that despite Trinidad and Tobago’s oil wealth, the country does not have a working national action plan for fighting forest fires, i.e. trained personnel with equipment and protective gear and a proper pay package with health insurance – due to the risky nature of the job.

She wants the authorities to explore options for a forest and bush fires action plan, noting that “we cannot wait until the hills are all degraded in the dry season and eroded in the rainy season to realise the importance of our forests.”

The FACRP is currently funded by the Trinidad and Tobago government though its Green Fund. Other partners include several state agencies: the Water and Sewerage Authority, the Forestry Division of the Ministry of Housing and the Environment, and the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management.

Support also comes from the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI) and the Global Water Partnership–Caribbean (GWP-C).

Gabrielle Lee Look, Communications Officer for the GWP-C told IPS, “Since our partnership with them, not only have they been active, but we have been able to collaborate with them in different ways like the rainwater harvesting system that’s actually on the compound here that supports the project when they have very limited water is something that we take pride in and we’ll continue to support Fondes Amandes in terms of their activities.”

The Project has won several awards, including the Humming Bird Medal national award in 2007, recognising FACRP’s national service in the sphere of environmental conservation. FACRP has also won the Green Leaf Award, Trinidad and Tobago’s highest environmental honour, and was named by CANARI as a model for community forestry throughout the Caribbean.

Contact Desmond Brown on Twitter @BrownBerry2013

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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