Inter Press Service » Education Journalism and Communication for Global Change Wed, 30 Jul 2014 22:57:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 China’s ‘Left-Behind Girls’ Learn Self-Protection Wed, 30 Jul 2014 22:15:58 +0000 IPS Correspondents By IPS Correspondents

A normally quiet second-grade student, Yuan Yuan* suffers from a mild mental disorder that impacts her ability to learn and communicate. Her father, also mentally disabled, left her several years ago to find work in the city and his family hasn’t heard from him since. Unable to support the family, her mother also left and never returned.

Yuan Yuan’s paternal grandparents have been caring for her since. But they are not always there.

“I am scared of that man… he laughed at me and touched me. I don’t like him,” eight-year-old Yuan Yuan admitted during a visit from Zhang Xinyu, a programme officer with the Beijing Cultural Development Centre for Rural Women (BCDC), after a local Women’s Federation referred her complaint that a 70-year-old neighbour had sexually assaulted her.

In Yuan Yuan’s case, BCDC paid for her medical treatment and worked together with the local Women’s Federation to ensure they could respond and prevent any further attempts of the neighbour to access the child.

Yuan Yuan is among more than 2,500 girls being helped by a programme funded by the United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, which is managed by UN Women on behalf of the U.N. system

The programme has brought together teachers, guardians, local police officers and health-care providers to protect China’s “left-behind girls”.

China’s rapid economic growth, driven by manufacturing industries on the eastern side of the country, combined with high unemployment and low wages in the central and western regions have driven China’s incredible internal migration of an estimated two million people moving from the rural countryside to its industrial cities.

“To protect ourselves and learn how to say NO to strangers is very important,” says Xiao Mei, a student in the 7th grade.
In many cases, parents are compelled to migrate to the cities without their children because of the hukou (household registration) system, which stipulates that children access public schooling only in their home town or village.

According to a 2012 report by the All-China Women’s Federation, the number of left-behind children totals over 61 million, with the number of girls totaling over 28 million.

Close to 33 per cent of all left-behind children are raised by their grandparents, while 10.7 per cent are raised by other villagers or relatives, and at least 3.4 per cent are forced to fend for themselves.

In addition to funds, the UN Trust Fund, UN Women provides technical assistance to BCDC on reducing the risk of sexual violence against rural children, with a particular focus on girls whose parents have migrated to the cities. The programme seeks to increase girls’ sexual knowledge and self-protection; ensure that both guardians and the community are willing and able to provide the guidance needed to reduce their vulnerability to sexual abuse; and to alter the social environment that promotes sexual violence and empower women and girls.

“To protect ourselves and learn how to say NO to strangers is very important,” says Xiao Mei, a student in the 7th grade. She says she was very proud that she could share a training manual and her learned self-protection skills with her siblings. “My older sister said to me that she was very shy and never had this information in the past.”

By the end of 2013, 500 local teachers, 5,000 students and 2,200 guardians had participated in training programmes on awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse and 210 ‘backbones’ – women and men leaders active in the community – had participated in trainings on the dangers of child sexual abuse.

The programme implemented by BCDC has set up six resource centres (three community-based and three in schools) to protect children and prevent sexual violence.

In villages, they establish managerial groups and in schools, teachers organise activities around the themes of left-behind girls’ safety, such as reading activities, lectures and performances to raise awareness of prevention of child sexual abuse.

Furthermore, with the funding from the UN Trust Fund, technical support from UN Women and national experts, a series of handbooks on girls’ safety education, covering everything from knowledge about sex and sexual abuse to gender-based violence, were produced and disseminated.

Shen Xiaoyan, a primary school teacher in Suizhou, a city in central China, recalls a remark by a colleague when she was preparing a presentation for a student sexual safety training in 2013: “These things [sexual education materials] appear so normal to me [now]. Why did I feel embarrassed about them only a few years ago?”

The programme has changed attitudes and removed barriers of silence, with several stakeholders reporting cases of sexual abuse.

“After training and project activities, local residents and government officials have become willing to seek out all possible resources to help victims of child sexual abuse,” said the BCDC’s Xinyu.

“In the past, this kind of information was considered secret, deterring victims and family from revealing it to other people.”

In a testament to the growing attention to the plight of left-behind children and the sexual abuse against left-behind girls, proposals influenced by the programme were submitted in 2012 by the Women’s Federation to the People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Conference in Suizhou.

In 2013, the Educational Department in Suizhou issued a policy document requiring the strengthening of safety education for students in all primary and middle schools.


*Name changed to protect her identity.

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This article is published under an agreement with UN Women. For more information, check out the In Focus editorial package on The Girl Child on the new Beijing+20 campaign website.


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Food – Thou Shall Not Waste Tue, 29 Jul 2014 07:34:49 +0000 Silvia Giannelli Still edible food thrown away together with plastic bottles and empty crates at local food market in Lucca, Italy. Credit: Silvia Giannelli/IPS

Still edible food thrown away together with plastic bottles and empty crates at local food market in Lucca, Italy. Credit: Silvia Giannelli/IPS

By Silvia Giannelli
LUCCA, Italy, Jul 29 2014 (IPS)

“Only two years ago, the soup kitchen was serving 50 meals a day. Today the number has almost doubled and, what is even more worrying, we have started receiving families with children,” says Donatella Turri, director of the Caritas Diocese of Lucca.

The paradox is that the lengthening queues at the Lucca soup kitchen come against a backdrop of increasing food loss and waste.

Turri has no doubts concerning the impact of the current economic crisis on Italian families in terms of food security – “we call it ‘poverty of the third week’.”If our goal is to feed the planet, we cannot simply increase production and keep losing and wasting one-third of it. Our first commandment needs to be 'thou shall not waste' – Andrea Segré, President of Last Minute Market

“It means that the poor are no longer the homeless, the mentally ill and the drug addicts. More and more often we get requests for primary goods from families that simply cannot reach the end of the month with their salaries,” she told IPS.

Turri’s claims are confirmed at the national level by the yearly Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) report on poverty. According to the survey, absolute poverty [the threshold below which a family cannot afford the goods and services that are essential to guarantee a barely acceptable standard of living] has maintained its steady increase in recent years, rising from 4.6 percent in 2010 to 7.9 percent in 2013.

“The traditional distinction between the quantitative aspect of food security being typical of developing countries, and the qualitative one being a concern of the industrialised world, is fading away,” Andrea Segré, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Bologna University and President of Last Minute Market, a company that recovers unsold or non-marketable goods in favour of charity organisations, told IPS.

However, while access to food is also becoming increasingly difficult for the low-income class of developed countries, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that Europe, North America and Oceania are top of the world’s food wasting classification, with a per capita food loss of almost 300 kg per year in North America.

“Food loss and waste are dependent on specific conditions and local circumstances,” Eliana Haberkon from FAO’s Office for Communications, Partnerships and Advocacy, explained to IPS.

“In low-income countries, food loss is mainly connected to managerial and technical limitations in harvesting techniques, storage, transportation, processing, cooling facilities, infrastructure, packaging, etc. … and food waste is expected to constitute a growing problem due to undergoing food system changes and due to factors such as expansion of supermarket chains and changes in diets and lifestyle.”

Currently, the biggest gap between rich and poor nations remains the quantity of food wasted at the consumer level. According to FAO figures, Europeans and North-Americans waste between 95 to 115 kg of food per capita every year, while in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia the number drops down to only 6 to 11 kg a year.

At the beginning of July, Last Minute Market, in cooperation with the SWG survey company, published a report called ‘Waste Watcher’. Using a complex questionnaire survey among Italian consumers, the outcomes paint a comprehensive picture of the social dynamics and behaviour of families that lead to food waste.

“The overall waste of food in Italy is worth 8.1 billion euro every year, and most of it comes from our houses. The rest of the losses, in agriculture, industries, distribution and service, can be recovered, but it is much less significant than what we throw in our bins,” said Segrè, commenting on the survey results.

Last Minute Market is now working to prepare the ground for a discussion on food waste during EXPO 2015, which will take place in under the heading ‘Feeding the planet, energy for life’.

“In order to be credible, EXPO needs to take into account the issue of food waste,” said Segré. “If our goal is to feed the planet, we cannot simply increase production and keep losing and wasting one-third of it. Our first commandment needs to be thou shall not waste.”

Indeed, as Haberon explained, the consequences of food loss and waste stretch far beyond their monetary value, “affecting current use and future availability and causing unnecessary pressure on natural resources.”

Studies by FAO estimated a yearly global quantitative food loss and waste of 30 percent of cereals, 40-50 percent of food crops (fruits and vegetables), 25 percent of oil seeds, meat and dairy products and 30 percent of fish.

Both Last Minute Market and Caritas agree on the paramount role of education in tackling food waste. In cooperation with more than ten local primary schools, the Caritas Diocese of Lucca has managed to recover excess food intact from school canteens for a value of 40,000 euro, taking it to the soup kitchens it manages.

This initiative has allowed it to develop a parallel food education project with the children of the schools involved.

“We obviously need normative support to help us reduce food waste, but first of all we must re-introduce food education, starting from primary schools,” said Segrè. “The current generation has completely lost the value of food and we must get it back.”

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Human Development Report Finds South Asia’s Poor on a Knife’s Edge Thu, 24 Jul 2014 14:58:30 +0000 Amantha Perera Women sleep on a crowded train in Myanmar. Globally, some 1.2 billion people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Women sleep on a crowded train in Myanmar. Globally, some 1.2 billion people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Jul 24 2014 (IPS)

Millions still live in poverty and even those who have gained the security of the middle-income bracket could relapse into poverty due to sudden changes to their economic fortunes in South Asia, the latest annual Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) revealed.

“In South Asia 44.4 percent of the population, around 730 million people, live on 1.25−2.50 dollars a day,” said the report, released in Tokyo Thursday.

It went on to warn that despite the region’s gains, the threat of more of its citizens being pushed back into poverty was very real and that there were large disparities in income and living standards within nations.

“Many who recently joined the middle class could easily fall back into poverty with a sudden change in circumstances,” the report’s authors stressed.

“The most successful anti-poverty and human development initiatives to date have taken a multidimensional approach, combining income support and job creation with expanded healthcare and education opportunities." -- UNDP Human Development Report 2014
Here in Sri Lanka, categorised as a lower middle-income country by the World Bank in 2011, overall poverty levels have come down in the last half-decade.

The Department of Statistics said that poverty levels had dropped from 8.9 percent in 2009 to 6.7 percent by this April. In some of the richest districts, the fall was sharper. The capital Colombo saw levels drop from 3.6 percent to 1.4 percent. Similar drops were recorded in the adjoining two districts of Gampaha and Kalutara.

However the poorest seemed to getting poorer. Poverty headcount in the poorest area of the nation, the southeastern district of Moneralaga, increased from 14.5 percent to 20.8 percent in the same time period.

The disparity could be larger if stricter measurements aren’t used, argued economist Muttukrishna Sarvananthan.

“There is a very low threshold for the status of employment,” he told IPS, referring to the ‘10 years and above’ age threshold used by the government to assess employment rates.

“Such a low threshold gives an artificially higher employment rate, which is deceptive,” he stressed.

The UNDP report said that in the absence of robust safeguards, millions ran the risk of being dragged back into poverty. “With limited social protection, financial crises can quickly lead to profound social crises,” the report forecast.

In Indonesia, for instance, the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s saw poverty levels balloon from 11 percent to 37 percent. Even years later, the world’s poor are finding it hard to climb up the earnings ladder.

“The International Labour Organisation estimates that there were 50 million more working poor in 2011. Only 24 million of them climbed above the 1.25-dollars-a-day income poverty line over 2007–2011, compared with 134 million between 2000 and 2007.”

Globally some 1.2 billion people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day, and 2.7 billion live on even less, the report noted, adding that while those numbers have been declining, many people only increased their income to a point barely above the poverty line so that “idiosyncratic or generalised shocks could easily push them back into poverty.”

This has huge implications, since roughly 12 percent of the world population lives in chronic hunger, while 1.2 billion of the world’s workers are still employed in the informal sector.

Sri Lanka, reflecting global trends, is also home to large numbers of poor people despite the island showing impressive growth rates.

Punchi Banda Jayasundera, the secretary to the treasury and the point man for the national economy, predicts a growth rate of 7.8 percent for this year.

“This year should not be an uncomfortable one for us,” he told IPS, but while this is true for the well off, it could not be further away from reality for hundreds of thousands who cannot make ends meet or afford a square meal every day.

While the report identified the poor as being most vulnerable in the face of sudden upheavals, other groups – like women, indigenous communities, minorities, the old, the displaced and the disabled – are also considered “high risk”, and often face overlapping issues of marginalisation and poverty.

The report also identified climate change as a major contributor to inequality and instability, warning that extreme heat and extreme precipitation events would likely increase in frequency.

By the end of this century, heavy rainfall and rising sea levels are likely to pose risks to some of the low-lying areas in South Asia, and also wreak havoc on its fast-expanding urban centres.

“Smallholder farmers in South Asia are particularly vulnerable – India alone has 93 million small farmers. These groups already face water scarcity. Some studies predict crop yields up to 30 percent lower over the next decades, even as population pressures continue to rise,” the report continued, urging policy-makers to seriously consider adaptation measures.

Sri Lanka is already talking about a 15-percent loss in its vital paddy harvest, while simultaneously experiencing galloping price hikes in vegetables due to lack of rainfall and extreme heat.

It has already had to invest over 400 million dollars to safeguard its economic and administrative nerve centre, Colombo, from flash floods.

“We are getting running lessons on how to adapt to fluctuating weather, and we better take note,” J D M K Chandarasiri, additional director at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research Institute in Colombo, told IPS.

Smart investments in childhood education and youth employment could act as a bulwark against shocks, the report suggested, since these long-term measures are crucial in interrupting the cycle of poverty.

The report also urged policy makers to look at development and economic growth through a holistic prism rather than continuing with piecemeal interventions, noting that many developed countries invested in education, health and public services before reaching a high income status.

“The most successful anti-poverty and human development initiatives to date have taken a multidimensional approach, combining income support and job creation with expanded health care and education opportunities and other interventions for community development,” the reported noted.


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OPINION: Tackling Human Vulnerabilities, Changing Investment, Policies and Social Norms Thu, 24 Jul 2014 14:38:58 +0000 Khalid Malik By Khalid Malik

As successive Human Development Reports have shown, most people in most countries are doing better in human development. Globalisation, advances in technology and higher incomes all hold promise for longer, healthier, more secure lives.

But there is also a widespread sense of precariousness in the world today. Improvements in living standards can quickly be undermined by a natural disaster or economic slump. Political threats, community tensions, crime and environmental damage all contribute to individual and community vulnerability.

The 2014 Report, on vulnerability and resilience, shows that human development progress is slowing down and is increasingly precarious. Globalisation, for instance, which has brought benefits to many, has also created new risks. It appears that increased volatility has become the new normal.

Khalid Malik. Photo Courtesy of UNDP

Khalid Malik. Photo Courtesy of UNDP

As financial and food crises ripple around the world, there is a growing worry that people and nations are not in control over their own destinies and thus are vulnerable to decisions or events elsewhere.

The report argues that human progress is not only a matter of expanding people’s choices to be educated, to live long, healthy lives, and to enjoy a decent standard of living. It is also about ensuring that these choices are secure and sustainable. And that requires us to understand – and deal with – vulnerability.

Traditionally, most analysis of vulnerability is in relation to specific risks, like disasters or conflicts. This report takes a wider approach, exploring the underlying drivers of vulnerabilities, and how individuals and societies can become more resilient and recover quicker and better from setbacks.

Vulnerability is a critical concern for many people. Despite recent progress, 1.5 billion people still live in multidimensional poverty. Half as many again, another 800 million, live just above the poverty threshold. A shock can easily push them back into poverty.

Nearly 80 percent of the world lacks social protection. About 12 percent, or 842 million, experiences chronic hunger, and nearly half of all workers – more than 1.5 billion – are in informal or precarious employment.

More than 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by conflict. Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic are just some of the countries where human development is being reversed because of the impact of serious violent conflict. We live in a vulnerable world.

The report demonstrates and builds on a basic premise: that failing to protect people against vulnerability is often the consequence of inadequate policies and poor social institutions.

And what are these policies? The report looks, for instance, at how capabilities are formed, and at the threats that people face at different stages of their lives, from infancy through youth, adulthood, and old age.

Gaps in the vocabularies of children from richer and poorer families open up as early as age three, and only widen from there. Yet most countries do not invest much in those critical early years. (Sweden is a notable, good example.) Social spending needs to be aimed where and when it is needed most.

The report makes a strong call as well for the return of full employment as a central policy goal, as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Jobs bring social benefits that far exceed the wages paid. They foster social stability and social cohesion, and decent jobs with the requisite protections strengthen people’s ability to manage shocks and uncertainty.

At the same time, these broader policies may not be enough. The report calls for more responsive institutions and laws to make societies fairer and more inclusive. Tackling long-standing discrimination against ‘structurally vulnerable’ groups such as women and the poor requires a renewed effort to promote positive norms, the adoption of special measures and supportive laws, and ensuring more equitable access to social services.

Countries acting alone can do much to make these changes happen – but national action can go only so far. In an interconnected world, international action is required to make these changes stick.

The provisioning of public goods – from disease control to global market regulations – are essential so that food price volatility, global recessions and climate change can be jointly managed to minimise the global effects of localised shocks.

Progress takes work and leadership. Many of the Millennium Development Goals are likely to be met by 2015, but success is by no means automatic, and gains cannot be assumed to be permanent. Helping vulnerable groups and reducing inequality are essential to sustaining development both now and across generations.

Khalid Malik is lead author of the Human Development Report and UNDP Director of the Human Development Report Office.

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Indigenous Communities Say Education, Funding Key to Fighting HIV/AIDS Mon, 21 Jul 2014 22:39:08 +0000 Neena Bhandari Doris Peltier, Aboriginal Women and Leadership Coordinator with CAAN, was diagnosed with AIDS at the age of 44. Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

Doris Peltier, Aboriginal Women and Leadership Coordinator with CAAN, was diagnosed with AIDS at the age of 44. Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

By Neena Bhandari
SYDNEY, Jul 21 2014 (IPS)

Marama Pala, hailing from Waikanae on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand, was diagnosed with HIV at 22. The news of her diagnosis spread like wildfire in her tight-knit Maori community.

That was in 1993 but even today, she says, there is a “shame and blame” attitude surrounding HIV, which disproportionately impacts the region’s indigenous population.

“If you are HIV positive, you are seen as ‘dirty’, as someone who must be a drug user or a prostitute. Our people are not seeking help because of this stigma, discrimination and criminalisation – the fear of being charged, hunted down, ostracised or put in jail,” says Pala, who, together with her Pacific Islander HIV-positive husband, runs the INA (Maori, Indigenous, South Pacific) HIV/AIDS Foundation.

“We can’t just pretend that HIV/AIDS exists in isolation. The problem of social justice is systemic. We have to encourage nation states to follow the recommendations from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous People." -- Trevor Stratton, IIWGHA Coordinator for the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN)
The Foundation takes a cultural approach to HIV/AIDS awareness, education, prevention and intervention.

“In the past five years the number of new infections has […] increased in the Pacific Island community living in New Zealand and especially among the Maoris because we are late testers. People who [engage] in risky behaviour [seldom] get tested until they are very, very sick,” Pala, a mother of two, tells IPS.

“Our women are dying because they are afraid to go on medication, partly because they are afraid of the stigma and discrimination. Antiretroviral drugs are widely available in our country and they should not be dying in this time and age,” says Pala, who is a member of the board of directors for the International Council of AIDS Service Organisations (ICASO).

With HIV and AIDS disproportionately affecting indigenous people across the world, there is a strong need for culturally appropriate programmes designed, championed and delivered by indigenous people, activists and experts say.

Many indigenous women are living in silence with even their immediate families not knowing that they have HIV.

“There are 130 aboriginal women who are living with HIV in Australia, but apart from myself there is only one other woman who speaks openly about living with HIV,” says Michelle Tobin, who contracted the disease at the age of 21.

She began dating a man who told her that he had HIV but “I was naïve and just believed that it wouldn’t happen to me,” she admits. “Within six months I was diagnosed with HIV. I had a baby so I focused all my attention on her.”

“In the early 1990s in Melbourne we weren’t offered treatments when we were first diagnosed. In those days we lost a lot of people in the early stage of the disease, including my late husband,” Tobin, who belongs to the Yorta Yorta Nation, tells IPS.

As a descendant of the Stolen Generation and an aboriginal woman living with HIV and now AIDS, she has experienced stigma and discrimination, especially from within her own family, who disowned her.

Some in her community still think she is contagious and don’t want to be near her, but her struggle has made Tobin a passionate and vocal advocate for indigenous women living with HIV/AIDS.

According to Tobin, chair of the Anwernekenhe National HIV Alliance and a committee member of PATSIN (Positive Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Network), “Aboriginal women are a minority within the minority of the HIV epidemic. We need more resources and funding [to] enable women to speak out about prevention, treatments, isolation, confidentiality, housing and the whole spectrum of issues that impact us.”

In addition to endorsing targets set out in the United Nations Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS, Australia has also adopted the Eora Action Plan on HIV 2014, which sets strategic targets to bring greater attention to HIV prevention, including best clinical care for aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living with HIV.

The recent International Indigenous Pre-conference on HIV and AIDS hosted by the International Indigenous Working Group on HIV & AIDS (IIWGHA) in partnership with the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Organising Committee (AATSIOC), held in Sydney on Jul. 17-19, was themed ‘Our story, Our Time, Our Future.’

It highlighted the need for increased epidemiological data with a focus on indigenous ethnicity. Lack of data about the level of treatment take-up amongst indigenous people living with HIV is posing a challenge for Treatment as Prevention (TasP) strategies.

“We have evidence in Canada that aboriginal people are getting HIV three-and-a-half times faster than the rate of the general population,” Trevor Stratton, IIWGHA Coordinator for the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network (CAAN), tells IPS.

“We believe those trends exist all over the world, but we don’t have the epidemiological data. We are advocating for epidemiological evidence as that is what we need for the dominant cultures to recognise us as a key population at greater risk of HIV and AIDS along with gay men and sex workers, so governments can free up the money for us and we can create our own solutions,” he asserts.

Forty-nine-year-old Stratton, a citizen of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Ontario, with mixed English and Ojibwe heritage, was diagnosed with HIV in 1990.

He believes that indigenous people are particularly vulnerable due to “colonisation, neo-colonialism, resource extraction, and assimilation amongst other similar issues” that push them down on social determinants of health and put them at higher risk of all poor health outcomes.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the rate of HIV diagnoses among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women was substantially greater than among Australian-born non-Indigenous women (1.5 compared with 0.4 per 100,000 population).

Between 2004 and 2014, 231 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were diagnosed with HIV. In 2013, the rate of newly diagnosed HIV infections was greater in the indigenous population (5.4 per 100,000) compared to the Australian-born non-indigenous population (3.9 per 100,000).

“We can’t just pretend that HIV/AIDS exists in isolation,” Stratton says. “The problem of social justice is systemic. We have to be able to leverage international human rights mechanisms so countries can be held accountable.

“We have to encourage nation states to follow the recommendations from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous People and the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169, which talks of how to engage indigenous people,” he concludes.

IIWGHA has been working at increasing knowledge and addressing the entrenched stigma of HIV and AIDS within indigenous communities and supporting indigenous-directed research and awareness initiatives.

Its mandate and strategic plan are based on the 2006 ‘Toronto Charter: Indigenous People’s Action Plan’ that acknowledges the right of indigenous peoples to autonomy, social justice and human rights.

Doris Peltier, Aboriginal Women and Leadership Coordinator with CAAN, has been working with women living way below the poverty line, some of whom had their children taken away when they were diagnosed with HIV.

Diagnosed with AIDS at the age of 44 while actively using drugs in Toronto, Peltier believes systemic issues – such as the fear of losing one’s child to the authorities – act as barriers preventing people from discussing their condition.

“A social system that is supposed to be there to support women is actually the one that is putting barriers up for the women,” Peltier tells IPS.

When she decided to go home and reconnect with her family and her First Nations community in Wikwemikong, Ontario, some supported her but others remained reluctant to embrace her.

People wouldn’t let her use their dishes and asked her to clean the toilet after use.

“Soon rumours began to circulate and one of the words being used to talk about me was ‘Wiinaapineh’ (dirty disease). I stood my ground and became better with medication, and my family’s support and encouragement,” Peltier says.

“People have to know that there is help available, there is treatment and prevention and that they can have a good quality life,” concludes Peltier, who is today a great-grandmother.

For her, one of the key responses to high rates impacting indigenous women is to empower them to tap into their inner strength and resilience, and break the code of silence to speak up about HIV/AIDS


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India’s Great Invisible Workforce Thu, 17 Jul 2014 20:58:10 +0000 Neeta Lal Millions of Indian women are confined to their homes performing domestic duties for which they receive no compensation. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Millions of Indian women are confined to their homes performing domestic duties for which they receive no compensation. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Jul 17 2014 (IPS)

According to census data released this month, a whopping 160 million women in India, 88 percent of who are of working age (15 to 59 years), are confined to their homes performing ‘household duties’ rather than gainfully employed in the formal job sector.

Dubbed India’s ‘great invisible workforce’, this demographic is primarily involved in rearing families within the four walls of their homes.

This asymmetry in the workforce, experts say, reflects illiberal economic policies as well as complex social dynamics, which scupper the chances of women in the world’s so-called ‘largest democracy’ to realise their full income-generating potential.

The odds are heavily stacked against women in this vast country of 1.2 billion. Though more women are going out to work, India primarily remains a nation of stay-at-home wives who play a pivotal role in keeping families together in a country with virtually no government-aided social security.

Small wonder, then, that India ranks an abysmal 101st in a 136-nation survey titled ‘The Global Gender Gap Report, released by the World Economic Forum in 2013, which tracks international progress in bridging the gender gap worldwide.

“Policy makers should encourage women’s participation in powering the growth of Asia’s third largest economy, which can have a multiplier effect in eradicating poverty and illiteracy.” -- Aditi Parikh, a Mumbai-based demographer and sociologist
The index measures the “relative gaps between women and men” across countries in four key areas – health, education, economics and politics. With so many million women out of the workforce, India’s overall ranking reflects lopsided government policies that are failing to harness the full potential of a key demographic.

“The stay-at-home woman syndrome is a shocking loss to the country as well as to the women themselves,” says Aditi Parikh, a Mumbai-based demographer and sociologist.

“Policy makers should encourage women’s participation in powering the growth of Asia’s third largest economy, which can have a multiplier effect in eradicating poverty and illiteracy.”

Even though women achievers have earned admiration and respect in Indian society, gender-stereotyping results in most women facing a clash between work and family life, especially when they have to prioritise one over the other.

Despite a boom in the education sector, Indian women also remain less educated than men even though they make up nearly half the population.

The literacy rate for Indian women hovers at around 65 percent as per the 2011 census, compared to over 82 percent literacy among men.

This is an overwhelming reason for Indian women’s unemployment, say analysts.

Most Indian women comprise part of the country’s sprawling ‘informal’ sector‘, defined by the absence of decent working conditions as specified by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), lax labour laws and insufficient or insecure wages.

According to a 2011 ILO report, 83.8 percent of South Asian women are engaged in so-called ‘vulnerable employment’ that can in most cases be defined as casual labour or sporadic employment such as the manufacturing of garments and other handmade items produced within the worker’s own home.

Indian women workers represent a considerable share of this segment, which has expanded substantially over the last 20 years, researchers say.

While the percentage of women employed in the informal economy remains high, the number of Indian women engaged in formal, secure and recognised labour is still minimal. Only 14-15 percent of workers in the formal sector are women, a number that has remained stagnant for several years.

India also lags far behind the world’s average when it comes to female representation in management, with women occupying a miserable two to three percent of administrative and managerial positions nationwide.

According to Dr. Manasi Mishra, head of research at the Centre for Social Research (CSR), a New Delhi-based think tank, “Indian women usually tend to drop out at mid-career-level positions as they prioritise personal commitments and find it difficult to balance organisational demands, career aspirations and family commitments.”

Also, despite valiant efforts to build gender diversity in the workplace, corporate India still has less than five percent of women at top management and board levels. Only 50 percent of the women who graduate from business schools enter the workforce, says a CSR survey entitled ‘Women Managers In India – Challenges & Opportunities’.

The persistence of an invisible glass ceiling in the workplace and the prevalence of stereotyped gender roles also contribute to lower representation of women in higher-level positions, Mishra says.

“Society and organisations should work in synergy to prevent [women from dropping out] on the journey from education to employment,” she stressed.

Unfortunately, the problem is not specific to India. According to Ernst & Young’s 2013 Worldwide Index of Women as Public Sector Leaders, women make up about 48 percent of the overall public sector workforce, but represent less than 20 percent of public sector leadership across the G20 countries the consulting firm studied.

Diversity, according to the index, is crucial to delivering more effective governance and increased economic competitiveness.

Ernst & Young also found that the ratios of women in leadership roles vary widely. Over half of Germany’s public sector workforce is female (52 percent), but only 15 percent of women have leadership positions.

In Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, women make up 42 percent of the public sector workforce, but only three percent are leaders.

Russia, with the highest number of women represented across the public sector (71 percent), has just 13 percent female representation in leadership roles.

Here too, India languishes at the bottom of the pyramid with only 7.7 percent of its public sector leaders being female.

Experts say there is an urgent need for gender-sensitisation.

“The precondition for any effective social security policy aimed at women,” explains Amitabh Kumar, head of the media and communications division at CSR, “is the provision of economic security through ownership rights, and the securing of women’s right to resources such as land, housing, energy and technology.

“As long as the State takes no effective measures to ensure these very basic rights for women, we can’t expect even those social security policies aimed at women to have any effect.”

For the time being, it appears that India’s great invisible workforce will remain in the shadows until the government makes a determined effort to bring these women into the light.


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Pakistani Rights Advocates Fight Losing Battle to End Child Marriages Wed, 16 Jul 2014 15:53:22 +0000 Irfan Ahmed Seven percent of all young boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

Seven percent of all young boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan. Credit: Irfan Ahmed/IPS

By Irfan Ahmed
LAHORE, Jul 16 2014 (IPS)

At first glance, there is nothing very unusual about Muhammad Asif Umrani. A resident of Rojhan city located in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, he is expectantly awaiting the birth of his first child, barely a year after his wedding day.

A few minutes of conversation, however, reveal a far more complex story: Umrani is just 14 years old, preparing for fatherhood while still a child himself. His ‘wife’, now visibly pregnant, is even younger than he, though she declined to disclose her name and real age.

The young couple sees nothing out of the ordinary about their circumstances; here in the Rajanpur district of Punjab, early marriages are the norm.

Girls in rural areas are often given in marriage in order to settle disputes, or debts. Some are even ‘promised’ to a rival before they are born, making them destined to a life of servitude for their husband’s family. -- Sher Ali, a social activist in Rojhan city
Umrani’s father, a small-scale farmer, tells IPS he is “proud” to have married his son off and “brought home a daughter-in-law to serve the family.”

Similar sentiments echo all around this country of 180 million people where, according to the latest figures released by the Pakistan Demographic Health Survey (2012-2013), 35.2 percent of currently married women between 25 and 49 years of age were wed before they were 18.

According to the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, seven percent of all boys are married before the legal age in Pakistan.

Families like Umrani’s are either blissfully unaware of, or completely indifferent towards, domestic laws governing childhood unions.

Intazar Medhi, a lawyer based in Lahore, tells IPS that the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 – which prohibits girls under the age of 16 and boys under the age of 18 from being legally wed – is one of the least invoked laws in the country.

While the Act is in force in every province, and was recently amended by the government of Sindh to increase the legal marriage age of both boys and girls to 18, it is hardly a deterrent to the deeply embedded cultural practice.

For one thing, violators are fined a maximum of 1,000 rupees (about 10 dollars), what many experts have called a “trifling sum”; and for another, the law doesn’t extend to the many thousands of ‘unofficial’ marriage ceremonies that take place around the country every day.

In a country where 97 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, few nikahs (marriage agreements under Islamic law) are registered with an official state authority.

Scores of married couples live together for years without any documentary evidence of their union, with many families preferring to avoid legal formalities.

It is thus nearly impossible for government officials to estimate just how many such ‘illegal’ unions are taking place, or to dissolve contracts that entail nothing more than the presence of a religious person and witnesses for the bride and groom.

Some advocates like Intezar believe the problem can be rectified by following the example of the Sindh province, whose amendment of the 1929 Act upped its punitive power to include a three-year non-bailable prison term and a 450-d0llar fine for offenders.

He thinks setting 16 as the official marriage age – the same age at which Pakistanis receive their Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) – will make it easier for law enforcement officials to take action against those responsible for marrying off young children.

The government, he says, must also take steps to ensure timely birth registrations as millions spend lifetimes without any documentary proof of their existence.

Tradition trumps law enforcement

But for Sher Ali, a social activist based in the same city as Umrani’s family, a single law will not suffice to clamp down on a centuries-old practice that serves multiple purposes within traditional Pakistani society.

For instance, he tells IPS, girls in rural areas are often given in marriage in order to settle disputes, or debts. Some are even ‘promised’ to a rival before they are born, making them destined to a life of servitude for their husband’s family.

Various tribes also have different standards for determining an appropriate marriage age. For example, Sher explained, in some regions like the Southern Punjab, a girl is deemed ready for marriage and motherhood the day she can lift a full pitcher of water and carry it on her head.

In a country where the annual per capita income hovers at close to 1,415 dollars and 63 percent of the population lives in rural areas, girls are considered a burden and cash-strapped families try to get rid of them as early as possible.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to ending child marriages is the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), an unofficial parliamentary advisor, which also wields tremendous power to influence public opinion.

When the Sindh government announced its plans to extend the marriage age, CII Chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani denounced the move as an effort to “please the international community [by going] against Islamic teachings and practices.”

Comprised of prominent religious scholars, the Council has repeatedly urged the parliament to refrain from setting a “minimum marriage age”. Though parliament is not legally bound to any suggestions made by the body, many allege that the extent of its political power renders any ‘advice’ a de facto order.

Indeed, repeated assertions by religious groups that puberty sanctions marriage has led to a situation in which girls between eight and 12 years, and boys in the 12-15 age bracket, find themselves husbands and wives, while their peers are still in middle-school.

Speaking to IPS over the phone from Malaysia, Dr. Javed Ahmed Ghamidi – who is known as a moderate and had to leave the country after receiving several death threats from extremists – said that since Islam does not specify an exact marriage age, it is up to the government to draft necessary laws to protect the rights of its citizens.

He fully supports the implementation of a law that only allows legal unions between people who are old enough to run a household and bring up children.

“Such laws are not at all in conflict with the teachings of the religion,” he insisted.

Qamar Naseem, programme coordinator of Blue Veins, an organisation working to eliminate child marriages, pointed out that such a law is not only a domestic duty but also an international obligation, since the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution against child, early and forced marriages in 2013.

Supported by over 100 of the world body’s 193 members, the resolution recognises child marriage as a human rights violation and vows to eliminate the practice, in line with the organisation’s post-2015 global development agenda.

Various studies have documented the impact of child marriage on Pakistani society, including young girls’ increased vulnerability to medical conditions like fistula, and a massive exodus from formal education.

Experts say Pakistan has the highest school dropout rate in the world, with 35,000 pupils leaving primary education every single year, largely as a result of early marriages.

Slowly, thanks in large part to the tireless work of activists, the tide is turning, with more people becoming aware of the dangers of early marriages.

But according to Arshad Mahmood, director of advocacy and child rights governance at Save the Children-Pakistan, much more needs to be done.

He told IPS there is an urgent need for training and education of nikah registrars, police officers, members of the judiciary and media personnel at the district level in order to discourage child marriages.

Effective laws must be coupled with the necessary budgetary allocation to allow for implementation and enforcement, he added.

“People will have to be informed that child marriages are the main reason behind high maternal and newborn mortality ratios in Pakistan,” he concluded.


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Time to “Drop the Knife” for FMG in The Gambia Sun, 13 Jul 2014 11:23:18 +0000 Saikou Jammeh Circumcisers in the Gambia publicly declaring that they have abandoned the practice of FGM. Credit: Saikou Jammeh/IPS

Circumcisers in the Gambia publicly declaring that they have abandoned the practice of FGM. Credit: Saikou Jammeh/IPS

By Saikou Jammeh
BANJUL, Jul 13 2014 (IPS)

Women’s rights activists in the Gambia are insisting that more than 30 years of campaigning to raise awareness should be sufficient to move the government to outlaw female genital mutilation (FMG).

The practice remains widespread in this tiny West African country of 1.8 million people, but rights activists believe that their campaign has now reached the tipping point.

Two years ago, GAMCOTRAP, an apolitical non-governmental organisation (NGO) committed to the promotion and protection of women and girl children’s political, social, sexual, reproductive health and educational rights in The Gambia, and one of the groups behind the anti-FGM campaign, sponsored a draft bill which has been subjected to wide stakeholder consultations.

Several previous attempts to legislate against FGM have failed, with no fewer than three pro-women laws having had clauses on FGM removed from draft bills. But activists now appear determined to make the final push and hope that when introduced this time round, the bill will go through.“We’ve caused lots of suffering to our women ... if my grandparents had known what I know today, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem” – former circumciser Babung Sidibeh

The time has now come for final action, says Amie Bensouda, legal consultant for the draft bill. “There can be no half measures. The law has to be clear. It’s proposed by the law that FGM in all its forms is prohibited. This discussion cannot go on forever. The government should do what is right.”

“The campaign has reached its climax,” Dr Isatou Touray, executive director of GAMCOTRAP, told IPS. “A lot of work has been done. I am hopeful of having a law because women are calling for it, men are calling for it. I know there are pockets of resistance but that’s always the case when it comes to women’s issues.”

“In 2010, we organised a workshop for the National Assembly,” she continued. “They made a declaration, pledging to support any bill that criminalises FGM. I am happy to report that, since 2007, more than 128 circumcisers and 900 communities have abandoned the practice. This trend will continue to grow.”

Seventy-eight percent of Gambian women undergo FGM as a ‘rite of passage’. However, after more than three decades of the anti-FGM campaign in Gambia, a wind of change is blowing, sweeping even conservative rural communities.

Sustained awareness-raising programmes have resulted in public declarations of abandonment of FGM by hundreds of circumcisers. Babung Sidibeh, custodian of the tradition in her native Janjanbureh, the provincial capital of Central River Region, 196 kilometres from Banjul, was one of them. The old woman assumed the role after the death of her parents, but she has since “dropped the knife”, as no longer practising FGM is known here.

Sidibeh did so after receiving training in reproductive health and women’s rights. “Soon after we circumcised our children in 2011,” she told IPS, “Gamcotrap invited me for training. I was exposed to the harm we’ve been doing to our fellow women. If I had known that before what I know today, I would never have circumcised anyone.”

With a tinge of remorse, she added: “We’ve caused lots of suffering to our women. That’s why I told you that if my grandparents had known what I know today, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem.”

Mrs Camara-Touray, a senior public health worker at the country’s heath ministry confirmed to IPS that her ministry has since taken a more proactive role on FGM.

She explained: “The ministry has created an FGM complication register. We’ve also trained nurses on FGM. Until recently, when you asked most health workers about the complications that can arise with FMG, they would say it has no complications. That’s because they were not trained. Since 2011, we’ve changed our curriculum to include these complications. After we put the register in place, within three months, we’d go to a region and see that hundreds of complications due to FGM had been recorded.”

In March, Gamcotrap organised a regional religious dialogue that sought to de-link FGM from Islam. Touray said that the workshop was a prelude to the introduction of the proposed law in parliament.

“Islamic scholars were brought together from Mali, Guinea, Mauritania and Gambia,” she told IPS. “We had a constructive debate and it was overwhelmingly accepted that FGM is not an Islamic injunction, it’s a cultural practice. It was recommended that a specific law should be passed and a declaration was made to that effect.”

However, there is resistance in some quarters. An influential group of Islamic scholars, backed by the leadership of the Supreme Islamic Council, continue to maintain that FGM is a religious injunction.

With a large following and having the ears of the politicians, these clerics have in recent times also intensified their pro-FGM campaign.

“It will be a big mistake if they legislate against FGM,” Ebrima Jarjue, an executive member of the Supreme Islamic Council, told IPS.

“Our religion says we cut just small. We should be allowed to practise our religion. If some people are doing it and doing it bad, let them stop it. Let them go and learn how to do it. If circumcising the girl child when she’s young is causing problems, then let’s wait until she grows up. That’s what used to happen.”

Meanwhile, the Women’s Bureau, the implementing arm of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, is hesitant about legislating against FGM.

“As far FGM is concerned, the position of the Women’s Bureau is that there’s need for more sensitisation and dialogue to push the course forward,” Neneh Touray, information and communication officer of the Women’s Bureau, told IPS. She declined to comment on whether the bureau thought that the bill was premature.

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Pakistan: Where Mothers Are Also Children Fri, 11 Jul 2014 09:17:35 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Most South Asian nations struggle with the twin problems of early marriage and teenage pregnancy, making it crucial to tackle both simultaneously, experts say. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Most South Asian nations struggle with the twin problems of early marriage and teenage pregnancy, making it crucial to tackle both simultaneously, experts say. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan, Jul 11 2014 (IPS)

If 22-year-old Rashda Naureen could go back six years in time, she would never have agreed to get married at the tender age of 16.

“Looking back, I know I was not ready for marriage,” she told IPS. “How could I have been, being merely a child myself?”

With only a third-grade education, Naureen became a mother at 17 and got a divorce soon after she delivered.

According to Naureen’s mother, Perween Bibi, who works for a small daily wage as a cleaning woman in Pakistan, “I have two more daughters [in addition to two sons] and we gave Rashda away in order to have one less responsibility on our hands.”

Nearly 7.3 million teenage girls become pregnant every year -- of these, two million are aged 14 or younger.
But the opposite turned out to be true. Today Bibi and her husband, who is a private chauffeur, must now find a way to provide for their grandson in a family of seven struggling to survive.

Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the story is that Naureen’s pregnancy could easily have been avoided.

“Before marriage my best friend urged me to take contraceptive pills, but I refused to listen to her,” Naureen confessed.

“Even my husband, who had been forced to marry me by his parents, said we should wait, but I didn’t pay any heed; I thought having a child immediately would cement our relationship, and my husband would begin to love me,” she said forlornly.

Dr. Tauseef Ahmed, Pakistan country director of Pathfinder International, a non-profit organisation working to improve adolescent and youth access to sexual and reproductive health services in more than 30 countries, says that early pregnancy is not uncommon among teenage brides.

In fact, having a baby is a way of proving one’s fertility, and the values of adolescent pregnancy are “protected by women and girls themselves,” he told IPS.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), nearly 7.3 million teenage girls become pregnant every year – of these, two million are aged 14 or younger. Meanwhile, an estimated 70,000 adolescents in developing countries die each year from complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50 percent more likely among infants of adolescent mothers than among mothers aged 20 to 29.

Infants who survive are more likely to have a low birth weight and be premature than those born to women in their 20s.

The problem is particularly pronounced in Pakistan, a country of 180 million people where 35 percent of married women between the ages of 25 and 49 years were wed before the age of 18, according to the latest figures in the 2012-2013 Pakistan Demographic Health Survey.

Experts say one of the main reasons behind the widespread occurrence of chid marriages and early pregnancies is a lack of education.

Naureen agrees, saying her disrupted education stands out as a glaring “missing link” in her early development

Dr. Farid Midhet, who heads the USAID’s flagship Maternal and Child Health Integrated Programme (MCHIP) in Pakistan, says there is a strong link between teenage pregnancy and female illiteracy.

“Together these contribute to high infant and child mortality and morbidity, high fertility, illiteracy in general, and production of children who are a burden on society,” he told IPS.

He added that this exacerbates poverty, which in turn fuels a vicious cycle of militancy, crime and social unrest.

Pathfinder International’s Ahmed believes a strong conservative current in Pakistani society – where 97 percent of the population identifies as Muslim – also conspires against the girl child, making early marriage and adolescent pregnancy a foregone conclusion for thousands of girls.

“Early marriage and not getting permission to attend school are the two main indicators of conservative forces here,” he stressed, adding that the “fear of backlash from conservative forces” has resulted in a glaring lack of positive initiatives within the public sector to tackle the problem.

This, despite the fact that study after study has shown that countries that improve school enrollment rates for girls also see a decline in adolescent child-bearing.

Asked how to tackle the health crisis caused by teenage motherhood, Zeba Sathar, country director of the Population Council of Pakistan, answered immediately that she would first and foremost invest in girls’ education.

“Globally proven strategies include keeping adolescent girls in schools, using economic incentives and livelihood programmes, offering life skills, informing families and communities about the adverse effects of adolescent pregnancy, and mobilising them to support girls to grow and develop into women before becoming mothers,” Sathar told IPS.

A regional problem

The phenomenon is not exclusive to Pakistan, with several other countries in the region experiencing equally challenging situations.

Most South Asian nations, like Pakistan, struggle with the twin problems of early marriage and teenage pregnancy, making it crucial to tackle both simultaneously, experts say.

But this is easier said than done, as laws surrounding the ‘official’ marriage age are difficult to enforce and complicated by traditional societal values.

According to a 2013 report by the UNFPA entitled ‘Motherhood in Childhood’, India and Bangladesh remain among the countries where a girl is most likely to be married before she is 18.

Pakistan and Sri Lanka, on the other hand, show much lower rates of pregnancies among women aged 15 to 19.

The U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA)’s World Population Prospects report states that the adolescent fertility rate among women in the 15-19 age group is 87 per 1,000 women in Afghanistan, 81 in Bangladesh, 74 in Nepal, 33 in India, 27 in Pakistan, and just 17 in Sri Lanka.

India’s eastern state of Bihar had the worst score card for child marriage. Referring to a survey of more than 600,000 households conducted for India’s health ministry between 2007 and 2008, Sathar said nearly 70 percent of women in their early twenties reported having been married by the age of 18.

Bangladesh does not fare any better. One in 10 teens has had a child by the age of 15, while one in three girls gets married by the age of 15.

But numbers, according to Ahmed, do not tell the whole story.

“Early childhood marriages and fertility rates may be four times higher in Bangladesh than in Pakistan, but the former experiences higher aspirations [among women] for better education and gainful employment than Pakistan,” he stated.

Bangladesh’s Population Reference Bureau’s 2013 Data Sheet on Youth states the female labour force participation in Bangladesh is 51 percent, compared to just 20 percent in Pakistan.

Additionally, the percentage of women in secondary education in Bangladesh was 55, while in Pakistan it was just 29.

For women like Naureen, staying in school could have spared her a lifetime of pain.

“I would not have been married and become a mother at such a young age; I would have had time to think about what I was getting myself into… I would have been just a little bit wiser,” she said.

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Young Latin Americans Face Spiral of Unemployment, Poverty Thu, 10 Jul 2014 18:33:29 +0000 Marianela Jarroud This is part of a series of special stories on world population and challenges to the Sustainable Development Goals on the occasion of World Population Day on July 11.]]> Ángel and Guadalupe Villalobos work near the University of Costa Rica in San José. He is a hairdresser at a beauty salon and she distributes fruit for a small business run by this brother and sister. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

Ángel and Guadalupe Villalobos work near the University of Costa Rica in San José. He is a hairdresser at a beauty salon and she distributes fruit for a small business run by this brother and sister. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Jul 10 2014 (IPS)

In Latin America, young people are the main link in the chain of poverty leading from one generation to the next. Civil society groups, academics and young people themselves say it is imperative to strengthen the connection between education today and decent employment tomorrow.

“The region’s youth is a subject in its own right, with great symbolic power. It is probably the age group that generates the richest range of identities and cultural expressions,” Martin Hopenhayn, head of the social development division of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), told IPS.“We have a great responsibility, because we are the future of this country." -- María Fernanda Tejada

One in four Latin Americans is aged between 15 and 29, according to the Santiago-based ECLAC. This makes it a young continent, “but not for long,” Hopenhayn said.

The population aged 0-15 has fallen markedly in the region, so in 20 years’ time it will have an ageing society.

“That’s why it is very important to invest now in young people, because in 20 years’ time we are going to need the non-aged population to be much more productive,” Hopenhayn said.

But investment in youth is relatively low in Latin America, especially when public and private investment in post-secondary education is compared with emerging countries in southeast Asia, or with European countries.

“Young people are the main link in the intergenerational transmission of poverty,” Hopenhayn said. This transmission will determine whether young people currently becoming economically independent will re-experience “the income poverty and job insecurity of previous generations, that is, of their parents,” he said.

The key mechanism to interrupt this intergenerational transmission is to improve the connection between education today and employment tomorrow, he said.

Investing in youth

The United Nations highlights that the present generation of youth worldwide is the largest in history, totalling 1.8 billion young people, most of whom live in the developing countries of the South.

Consequently, UNFPA is seeking to build awareness about the urgent need to increase resources devoted to youth. Its theme for World Population Day, celebrated this Friday Jul. 11, is “investing in young people.”

“We must reduce the gap in educational attainments between poor and non-poor young people,” by focusing investment on education for lower-income sectors, he said.

According to ECLAC figures, only 28 percent of young people aged 20-24 from the poorest 20 percent of the population have completed their secondary education; while among the richest 20 percent, about 80 percent have completed secondary education.

“At present, completing secondary education is the minimum requirement for a young person moving into the world of work and a lifelong career to have real expectations of achieving well-being and social mobility, and overcoming poverty,” Hopenhayn said.

Ángel and Guadalupe Villalobos, a brother and sister who have set up a small fruit distribution business of their own near the University of Costa Rica, in San José, are well aware of this fact.

Ángel, 21, finished his studies as a hairdresser in December 2013 and began working in January 2014. When his 22-year-old sister and her partner separated, the brother and sister started to distribute fruit in local beauty salons.

“Perhaps the main barrier is that if you are experienced and older, it is difficult to get a job, and if you are young, in spite of all your energy, it’s also difficult, but here (in the salon) they have offered me good opportunities,” Ángel told IPS.

Neither of them has started university and Guadalupe has not finished secondary school. In Costa Rica, with its 4.8 million people, 22 percent of young people work in the informal economy, which Ángel and Guadalupe intend to leave.

In Mexico, 37 million people are aged 15-29, out of a total population of 118 million. Nearly 26 percent of this age group are neither studying nor working, and almost 45 percent of them live in poverty.

“I am worried about the lack of opportunities and the prospect of unemployment,” 18-year-old María Fernanda Tejada told IPS. In August she will start studying internatioal relations at the Autonomous University of Mexico, in the capital city.

“We have a great responsibility, because we are the future of this country,” added Tejada, who is the eldest of four children.

In Santiago, 19-year-old Daniel Hurtado is studying medicine, in spite of the social expectation that he would probably work “in a call centre, or as a supermarket packer, in construction or as a waiter,” his father Hugo, himself a waiter, told IPS.

A wage earner in Chile, which has a population of 17.6 million, earns an average of 500 dollars a month, and generally has no chance to send children to university, where medical studies cost between 900 and 1,200 dollars a month. “It’s a gruelling effort,” said the father. “But we are breaking through the barrier,” said the son.

In Hopenhayn’s view, intervening in education is the best means to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, because it is a mass phenomenon that is socially recognised, and has a major impact on the world of work.

According to a study by ECLAC and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), nearly one-third of young people in Latin America and the Caribbean live in poverty, which contravenes their human rights, enshrined in international treaties.

The study, published in 2012, says that the poverty and extreme poverty rates among young people aged 15-29 in the region are 30.3 percent and 10.1 percent, respectively. Together with under-15s, this group is the most vulnerable to poverty in the region.

Employment opportunities are limited for young people, who have an unemployment rate of 15 percent, while for those aged over 30, unemployment is only six percent.

Another factor is the high rate of informal employment in the region, which particularly affects young people.

“For instance, in Chile between 45 and 50 percent of workers are in informal employment, but in the 15-29 age group, 60 percent are informal workers,” sociologist Lucas Cifuentes, a researcher with the Work, Employment, Equity and Health programme at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), told IPS.

He said, “undoubtedly employment is the lynchpin of social development,” and added that “it is impossible to overcome poverty without decent, dignified and protected work.”

In Hopenhayn’s view, recent years have brought about major institutional progress in youth policies, moderate progress in terms of investment in young people, and insufficient progress in investment in young people’s education.

While waiting for that to materialise, Latin American societies continue to seek their own alternative solutions to problems like inequality, and young people demand – in some countries, on the streets – investment to break the transmission of inequality in their generation.

With additional reporting from Emilio Godoy in Mexico City, and Diego Arguedas in San José.

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OPINION: Unleashing African Young People’s Potential Thu, 10 Jul 2014 17:24:30 +0000 Adebayo Fayoyin This is part of a series of special stories on world population and challenges to the Sustainable Development Goals on the occasion of World Population Day on July 11.]]> Girls attend school in South Africa. Healthy, educated young people can help break the cycle of poverty. Credit: UNFPA

Girls attend school in South Africa. Healthy, educated young people can help break the cycle of poverty. Credit: UNFPA

By Adebayo Fayoyin

An African proverb says “a child that we refuse to build today will end up selling the house that we may build tomorrow.”

The moral of this is clear. Unless we invest in our children and young people today, they might become a threat or a burden in the future.As the international community commemorates World Population Day on July 11, Africa’s growing youth population should be recognised as a ‘powerful force for change’ that requires greater investment today.

Judging by the current challenges confronting young people, the extent to which African countries are investing in the youth is unclear.

More young people

According to the Africa Regional Review for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) the continent is experiencing substantial demographic shifts, which have seen about 21 million persons a year being added to the population since 1994.

Africa has the youngest population and will remain so for decades in a rapidly ageing world. By 2050 “the median age for Africa will increase to 25, while the average for the world as a whole will climb to about 38”.

The fertility rate on the continent is decreasing gradually and the new generation of young people will probably have fewer children than their parents. This demographic shift will also mean fewer elderly people and children to support than previous generations.

Undoubtedly, demography will greatly shape Africa’s position in the global markets for labour, trade and capital.

The phenomenon is what economists call a ‘demographic dividend’, which they argue is a one-time window of opportunity to create wealth and economic growth.

The future they want

But failure to invest in this demographic also comes with its own challenges.

Maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS are the two main causes of death among young women aged 15 to 24 years in sub-Saharan Africa.

Nearly everywhere, adolescents are inhibited from freely exercising their right to, for example, comprehensive sexuality education, contraceptives and sexual and reproductive health services.

Young men in South Sudan stand up for women's rights. Credit: UNFPA

Young men in South Sudan stand up for women’s rights. Credit: UNFPA

In many African counties, more than 40 per cent of young women aged 20 to 24 were married by age 18. Also in the countries with high child marriage rates – Niger, Mali, CAR, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Madagascar, Uganda, Senegal, Malawi, Cameroon and Libya – many girls are married off by age 15.

That is why investment in Africa’s youthful population from multiple angles, and primarily from the public and private sectors, is essential for realising the demographic dividend.

“Healthy, productive and fully engaged”

In his message for the World Population Day commemoration, UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehim says “we know that healthy, educated, productive and fully engaged young people can help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and are more resilient in the face of individual and societal challenges”

Africa’s largely youthful population makes up the next generation of workers, parents, and leaders and their challenges can no longer be ignored. Getting the best from the increased youth bulge in Africa can only be assured when appropriate health and development plans, policies and programmes are put in place and adequately implemented.

Adebayo Fayoyin is the Regional Communications Advisor for the UNFPA East and Southern Africa Regional Office.

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Putting Population Management in Pacific Women’s Hands Thu, 10 Jul 2014 10:09:27 +0000 Catherine Wilson This is part of a series of special stories on world population and challenges to the Sustainable Development Goals on the occasion of World Population Day on July 11. ]]> Pacific Island nations say empowering women is the key to addressing population growth across the region. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Pacific Island nations say empowering women is the key to addressing population growth across the region. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
PORT VILA, Jul 10 2014 (IPS)

Populations of many Melanesian countries in the southwest Pacific Islands region are expected to double in a generation, threatening regional and national efforts to improve low economic and human development indicators.

Arnold Bani, executive director of the Vanuatu Family Health Association in the capital, Port Vila, believes that if reproductive health issues are not addressed in the next 10-15 years the result “will be a disaster for the country.”

Vanuatu, an archipelago of 82 islands located west of Fiji, has a population of 247,262 growing at 2.4 percent, compared to a global average of 1.1 percent. Similarly, the growth rate of Papua New Guinea’s population of seven million is 2.1 percent, as it is in the neighbouring Solomon Islands, home to 550,000 people.

“Mostly the extended family provides people’s basic needs and care...So if a woman makes a decision about family planning alone there will be a fight in the family.” -- Helen, a resident of Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila
As the international community prepares to mark World Population Day on Jul. 11, experts here say an important factor will be empowering women in decisions about family planning and, with a high rate of teenage pregnancies in the region, bringing about behaviour changes in the younger generation.

The task is not easy, given strong cultural and social pressures to have large families.

“Mostly the extended family provides people’s basic needs and care,” Helen (not her real name), a mother in Port Vila, where the contraceptive prevalence is 38 percent, told IPS.

“So if a woman makes a decision about family planning alone there will be a fight in the family.”

There are practical reasons for having numerous children, explained Alec Ekeroma, president of the Pacific Society for Reproductive Health in Auckland, New Zealand.

“Large families are akin to an insurance policy for family survival,” he told IPS. “More children will assist with rural subsistence livelihoods, more children means some will survive past infancy, while care for parents is seen as a duty of the children, especially in countries where there are no social services.”

But Helen said that providing for the needs of large families is a struggle in a country where the average monthly income is around 300 dollars.

The nation’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has decreased since the 1960s from seven to four, while in Papua New Guinea it is 3.8 and in the Solomon Islands 4.1, in contrast to a TFR of 2.1, which indicates a stable population.

Regional experts believe that contraceptive use, which ranges from 35 percent in Papua New Guinea to 22 percent in Kiribati, well below the global average for less developed countries of 56 percent, must be improved.

A report published by Reproductive Health journal last year claims that increasing contraceptive prevalence in Vanuatu to 65 percent by 2025 would create a sustainable population, reduce high risk births by 54 percent, adolescent births by 46 percent and the average number of unintended pregnancies by 68 percent from 76 to 12 per 1,000 women.

Greater contraceptive use and smaller families could also save women’s lives. There are an estimated 110 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in Vanuatu, increasing to 120 in Tonga, 130 in Kiribati and an estimated 733 in Papua New Guinea.

But delivering reproductive health services to predominantly widely scattered rural island populations is a challenge given the limited infrastructure, transport services and skilled health care workers in provincial areas.

Low education and the influence of traditional health healers in rural communities are also factors,Rufina Latu of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Vanuatu added. Even when family planning is available, use can be inhibited by misconceptions, such as fear of side effects or fertility decline, religious opposition and illiteracy. A survey by the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) in Vanuatu’s main Shefa province estimates literacy is as low as 27 percent.

Leias Cullwick, executive director of the Vanuatu National Council of Women, said that a major concern for women is gender inequality and the norm of husbands determining the size of families. Fear of widely prevalent gender violence also impacts women’s behaviour.

“Health services data indicate that many women prefer contraception with long-acting depo-provera injections, so that their husbands would not know,” Latu added, claiming that it is not uncommon for husbands to hold the myth that their wives are having affairs if they are using contraception.

Gender inequality is also a factor in Vanuatu’s high adolescent fertility with 66 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 years. Across the Pacific Islands, one quarter of girls in this age group enter motherhood.

The Vanuatu Ministry of Health confirmed there were national strategies to improve services to adolescents. An estimated one third of urban youth lack basic knowledge about reproductive health and many are reluctant to access reproductive health services, leading to high-risk behaviour.

Engaging young people is an urgent priority given the negative impacts of pregnancies on young girls’ lives, such as low educational attainment, poverty and maternal mortality. The risk of death for mothers aged below 15 years in low and middle-income countries is double that of more mature women, reports the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Efforts to increase understanding of population issues must include the whole community, Bani advocated, with chiefs and community leaders better informed about family planning to play a role in wider social acceptance.

Latu emphasised that population and reproductive health education for everyone needs to start in early childhood and “family life education should become a compulsory part of school curriculums at all levels.”

“A more enabling environment for women’s empowerment to develop can be better achieved if men and spouses are also engaged” in the task of social change, she added.

Cullwick suggested that male nurses in Vanuatu be trained in male-to-male advocacy about gender equality and family planning.

“With the high rate of illiteracy you cannot print and distribute leaflets, you need a man to talk to others, to generate a dialogue and make them understand what women go through,” she explained.


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Zimbabwean Girls Venture into Technological Innovation Thu, 10 Jul 2014 05:56:22 +0000 Mary Kashumba Moselyn Muchena, one of the girls being given a chance under the TechWomen initiative. Credit: Mary Kashumba/IPS

Moselyn Muchena, one of the girls being given a chance under the TechWomen initiative. Credit: Mary Kashumba/IPS

By Mary Kashumba
HARARE, Jul 10 2014 (IPS)

For 22-year-old Moselyn Muchena, a final year computer science student at the University of Zimbabwe, it seemed obvious to create a mobile application offering easy access to services in the local catering industry, largely because of the huge number of female entrepreneurs in that sector.

“The kinds of problems these women are going through inspired me to come up with an innovative application for the industry called ORDER NOW, through which they can [post] their menus and specials, as well as their location and the prices of items.

“The application is also interactive, allowing customers to share [their reviews] on other social networks platforms … and it offers a platform for feedback, which is vital for businesses,” Muchena told IPS. The app also allows for advertising.“We want to tap into the creative and innovative base of 52 percent of the population. Imagine what the world has lost in innovation due to the lack of or fewer women in these creative spaces” – TechWomen Zimbabwe

“I am grateful to get this opportunity to create a culinary application that can be used by restaurants, where mostly women dominate the field,” she said, adding that she hoped her app will have a global reach.

According to Farai Mutambanengwe, president of the Small to Medium Scale Enterprises Association of Zimbabwe, women dominate the catering industry in Zimbabwe. He told IPS that while the association had no actual analysis “on the number of women who are in the culinary industry compared with men, generally women continue to grow in dominating this field.”

Muchena sees herself as paving the way for other girls to enter the fields of science and technology. “Being the only girl doing computer science in my class, I used to feel like an outcast and it took me time to blend in to become part of the class and not ‘the woman’ in the class. I said to myself I would also pave the way for young girls who aspire to have a career in technological innovations.”

The young innovator is just one of over 100 girls and women aged between 10 and 23 who are creating innovative technologies to address community problems in Zimbabwe. They are part of a U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs initiative called TechWomen, a programme designed to empower, connect and support the next generation of women leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Referring to her own experience in developing her software, Muchena pointed out that there was an urgent need for investors in the field of science. “Our plight as young science entrepreneurs is that there are no investors willing to engage youths who are coming up with innovations.” However, lack of investment in the science sector has dwindled as a result of a restrictive economy.

According to a 2008 report in the Economic Reform Feature Service  of the Centre for International Enterprise (CIPE), “the education system in Zimbabwe has long suffered from an insufficient focus on teaching practical skills, limited access to higher education opportunities, and unequal access for girls to specialised fields such as science.”

“Successful educational reform is a necessary step to create the basis for sustained economic growth and requires the involvement of all stakeholders, ranging from families and civil society into national and local governments as well as the private sector,” said the report.

National Zimbabwean statistics for 2012 show that the number of women who enrolled in faculties of engineering, computer science and science technology at university level were 17 percent, 35 percent and 22 percent respectively in 2009. A year later, women’s enrolment in these faculties were 17. 5 percent, 39 percent and 18 percent respectively.

Chemical technologist Aretha Mare, one of the members of TechWomen Zimbabwe, founded by five Zimbabwean women who graduated from the U.S. State Department’s TechWomen initiative, told IPS that its vision is to see gender parity, or 50 percent representation of women in all STEM professions.

“We want to tap into the creative and innovative base of 52 percent of the population,” says TechWomen Zimbabwe. “Imagine what the world has lost in innovation due to the lack of or fewer women in these creative spaces.”

Mare said that under the TechWomen initiative, “the women act as role models, mentors and teachers, creating a networking platform and peer-to-peer interaction with sharing of knowledge to keep them motivated and sharing of opportunities, thus avoiding the leaky pipe where a few women who pursue STEM careers also switch careers or leave due to frustrations in the workplace.”

According to Mare, “the girls’ programme aims to expose girls to STEM fields through experiential learning, where they identify problems, use STEM to solve them, recalibrate and ideate again. We try to do it in hands on, fun and engaging way.”

“We believe we are causing a revolution, transitioning Zimbabwe into a tech power house through girls and women as we target girls from marginalised backgrounds (both in school and out of school), some of them with no prior computer experience and most with limited access to technology. So far we have trained over 100 girls,” she added.

Meanwhile, under its Strategic Plan (2011-2015), Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education in partnership with the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has embarked on a massive programme to revive science teaching in the country. The programme is being funded through the Education Development Fund (EDF), a multi-donor funding mechanism.

The programme has already distributed 2,449 sciences kits and is currently working on the re-training of more than 5,000 science teachers from the 2,336 secondary schools in the country on the safe use and maintenance of the equipment in the kits.

For Muchena, it all comes down to convincing parents and the government to strive to ensure that talent is given a chance. “I encourage parents and the authorities to understand that sometimes it is not about the academic aspects but about realising a child’s ability and nurturing it into something big.”

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U.S. Moves to Address Chronic “Teacher Equity” Problem Wed, 09 Jul 2014 00:07:24 +0000 Julia Hotz The U.S. Department of Education has recently strengthened its focus on reducing nationwide racial and socioeconomic disparities within school discipline. Credit: Bigstock

The U.S. Department of Education has recently strengthened its focus on reducing nationwide racial and socioeconomic disparities within school discipline. Credit: Bigstock

By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 9 2014 (IPS)

The U.S. government has moved to tackle longstanding patterns of inequitable teacher quality, specifically in terms of how low quality teachers tend to be assigned to poor and marginalised communities across the country.

Both students of colour and students in high-poverty schools are less likely than their counterparts to receive highly effective teaching. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education launched an initiative aimed at addressing what Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls the “systemic inequities that short-change students in high-poverty, high-minority schools across our country.”"Students of colour and students of high-poverty status are more likely to attend schools where less money is spent and where less extracurricular activities are offered, so the problem is much larger than just the teachers.” -- Dwanna Nicole

The problem is not only the lack of a solid teacher support and development system. According to President Barack Obama, also speaking Monday, “the kids who need the most skilled teachers are the least likely to get them.”

The Department of Education will now require states submit comprehensive plans to assign “effective educators” to poor and minority students. To implement these plans, the federal government will be offering some 4.2 million dollars in grants.

The government will also publish regular profiles evaluating how states and districts are improving their teacher equity.

While education associations and advocates are applauding the move, many are questioning the initiative’s scope and details. Although the government’s announcement noted that it will mandate states to “ensure every student has effective educators”, it did not specify how officials would measure educator effectiveness.

“We think that it is a commendable short-term effort to help combat inequity in the classroom,” Dwanna Nicole, a policy advocate for the Advancement Project, an advocacy group, told IPS.

“At the same time, we believe the inequity issue is much larger. We know that students of colour and students of high-poverty status are more likely to attend schools where less money is spent and where less extracurricular activities are offered, so the problem is much larger than just the teachers.”

For instance, Nicole notes that the Department of Education has recently strengthened its focus on reducing nationwide racial and socioeconomic disparities within school discipline.

“But it would be great to see more resources devoted to that effort as well … We want school districts to understand the harsh consequences of these extreme policies,” she says.

“A lot of the time, young people also need additional support – this includes mental health support, after-school support. And we also want there to be better training available for teachers.”

Furthermore, rather than solely considering standardised test scores to be a measure of educator effectiveness, Nicole says that the government needs to take into account additional factors, such as teachers’ success with classroom management techniques.

The National Educators Association (NEA), a prominent labour union, also says that it “fully supports the idea that students in challenging schools must have fully prepared and effective educators.” Yet the group noted its concern over the Education Department’s lack of definition for an “effective educator”.

“The current federal law offers a big loophole that calls individuals still in teacher training as ‘highly qualified’,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said in a statement Monday.

175 billion dollars a year

Although inequity within teaching quality has existed for some time, recent estimates have suggested that this disparity could become costly to the country as a whole.

In 2011, researchers with the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank here, published a district-by-district evaluation. They concluded that “highly productive districts were more focused on improving student outcomes,” while low-productivity school districts were more likely to be comprised of “students from more disadvantaged backgrounds” – and had the potential to “cost the nation as much as $175 billion a year.”

CAP is slated to release updated findings on the issue on Wednesday. The centre’s executive vice president for policy, Carmel Martin, has thrown her support behind the new Department of Education initiative, characterising it as an “effort to ensure that excellent educators are teaching in the classrooms that need them most.”

Advocates are now turning their focus to how the states will respond. Education policy has become a politically explosive issue in recent years, with some conservatives urging the abolition of the Department of Education altogether.

“The U.S. Department of Education should expect states to report their data and set meaningful goals for addressing inequity where it exists. And it should hold states accountable for meeting those goals,” Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development at the Education Trust, an advocacy group, told IPS.

However, Hall also warned that the department should not mandate specific approaches for the states to follow in their attempts to achieve equity.

“The specific strategies are best developed by states and districts, as they’re the ones who are closer to the problems and best able to develop targeted responses,” she says.

“That said, it is important to find and elevate examples of strong, equity-focused local policies and practices, and that’s something the Department can and should do through guidance and technical assistance.”

In addition to using multiple measures to assess teacher effectiveness, Hall believes that a variety of teacher development opportunities should be afforded to educators.

“Forced placement will not be an effective strategy for achieving equitable access. So states and districts should be focused instead on putting in place policies and practices that draw strong teachers to the low-income students and students of colour who need them the most,” she says.

“This means focusing on effective hiring practices, strong school leadership, supportive school climate and culture, and opportunities for professional advancement for those teachers willing to take on the challenge of teaching in high-need schools.”

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Macau Gambling Away Its Future Tue, 08 Jul 2014 09:52:53 +0000 Martin Murphy A worker walks past Casino Lisbo, one of the largest casinos in Macau, China. Credit: Damon Garrett/CC-BY-2.0

A worker walks past Casino Lisbo, one of the largest casinos in Macau, China. Credit: Damon Garrett/CC-BY-2.0

By Martin Murphy
HONG KONG, Jul 8 2014 (IPS)

Macau’s gaming boom just keeps on giving. Gambling revenues soared to a new high of 45 billion dollars last year, a whopping 18.6 percent rise over 2012 and the city’s sixth straight year of record earnings.

Casinos in this former Portuguese colony, which returned to China in 1999, now earn seven times more than they do in Las Vegas.

Casino jobs, which pay 30 to 40 percent more than other sectors, employ nearly a quarter of the labour force. Add in casino-related positions like retailing and hospitality and about half the working population in this city of 600,000 is connected to the gaming industry. The result is an enviable unemployment rate of 1.8 percent.

So why not let the good times roll?

Macau’s mono-economy of gaming is creating a generation of workers steeped in the monotonous work of baccarat dealing and spinning roulette wheels, but with few of the transferable skills needed in today’s globalised knowledge economy.

With the economy and workforce increasingly dependent on Chinese gamblers from the mainland, however, there is little pressure for change —a situation that may suit Beijing just fine.

Some hit the jackpot, others pay the price

It should surprise no one that the city’s gaming boom, which produces 50 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), has spawned a dark side. Prostitution, organised crime and money laundering are daily affairs.

Not so obvious, though, are the multiple stress lines now tearing at a traditional society trying to cope with uncontrolled urban development, loss of green space, rising local gambling addiction and a general deterioration in the quality of life.

For the average resident, the challenges created by the gaming boom now outweigh its advantages. Poor transportation, worsening air pollution from casino shuttles serving the city’s 29 million visitors and soaring property prices are just a few of gaming’s by-products.
“Macau is a complete illusion of prosperity, because what we are building is only casinos, rooms, and some shops with famous brands.” -- legislator Jose Coutinho

Macau’s small and medium-sized businesses, about 95 percent of its enterprises, also pay a price in rising rents and loss of both staff and customers to the casinos. Adding to this are higher crime rates across almost every category.

Despite all the downsides, Macau’s casino executives and investors, including the big U.S. gaming houses, see unlimited possibilities for further growth and expansion. Their main complaint? A shortage of skilled labour.

With more mega casinos scheduled to open in 2016, Macau will need at least an additional 75,000 casino and hospitality workers, officials say.

Given that the city’s small and medium-sized businesses already struggle to compete against higher-paying casinos for limited talent, Macau will have to import not only casino workers, but also professionals from every walk of life.

But neither Macau nor the Chinese government seems to have a plan to deal with the city’s soaring labour deficit, nor is either willing to slam the breaks on what has become a runaway train of unregulated growth.

Worse, Macau is turning its back on policies meant to prepare its future generations for a more globalised, knowledge-driven economy. If trends continue, Macau risks morphing into a society of know-nothings —one whose future could be devoid of educated and skilled professionals, its pool of workers increasingly drawn to easy money to be made in the often mind-numbing work on casino floors.

Every few months, new reports present dire warnings. In December last year, one survey showed that nearly half of businesses polled “found difficulties in recruiting IT professionals” and predicted the shortage “could further worsen.”

Last April, an industry report cited the lack of accountancy professionals, with “only fractional increases” since 2007. Another complained of the city’s “lack of engineers and related professions.” All this points to a society at the breaking point, one that is mortgaging its future generations for short-term gains.

Even Macau’s lawmakers now complain that the boom has been building castles in the sand. Last year, legislator Jose Coutinho told the media, “Macau is a complete illusion of prosperity, because what we are building is only casinos, rooms and some shops with famous brands.”

But he and other critics hold a minority view in a legislature where 12 of the 33 members are indirectly elected by industry bodies and another seven are appointed by Macau’s Beijing-selected chief executive.

Betting it all on gaming

While Macau officials pay occasional lip service to the need to rebalance the economy and have floated a number of proposals, none so far have the transformative effect needed to set the city off in new directions.

One of the most talked about proposals recommends that Macau capture more of the region’s “meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions,” or MICE. But this has been slow to take off and relies disproportionately on the gaming sector.

For example, Macau’s biggest trade show is the Global Gaming Expo Asia. A plan to develop nearby Hengqin Island as a free trade zone will also do little to help the majority of Macau’s small businesses, given its emphasis on large-scale projects.

But the main obstacle to a more sustainable economic model is that Macau continues to grow fat on Chinese gambling, and Chinese leaders still see Macau as an important outlet for the country’s wealthy and middle class. The result is that no one in authority is even contemplating the day when China’s economy slows, the gamblers stop coming, and the boom ends, even though history has shown that the bigger the boom in a mono-economy, the greater the potential for a crash.

While China says it wants to see Macau rebalance its economy, Beijing’s reluctance to impose policy prescriptions or offer inducements to help it diversify is not surprising.

That’s because Macau may be right where Beijing wants it and China’s other peripheral regions to be—societies increasingly dependent on the mainland for their prosperity and therefore less willing to make annoying demands for such things as democracy and greater autonomy.


Martin Murphy is a former U.S. diplomat. He was head of the Economic-Political Section at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong and Macau from 2009-2012. He can be found at

Read the original version of this article on Foreign Policy In Focus.

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Amid Scepticism, U.N. Trumpets Successes in Cutting Poverty Mon, 07 Jul 2014 19:53:15 +0000 Thalif Deen A woman from Pune, Timor-Leste, collects water for her home. The U.N. study singles out the increased access to drinking water sources, an improvement in the lives of slum dwellers and the achievement of gender parity in primary schools. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

A woman from Pune, Timor-Leste, collects water for her home. The U.N. study singles out the increased access to drinking water sources, an improvement in the lives of slum dwellers and the achievement of gender parity in primary schools. Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

By Thalif Deen

With 17 months before the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) reach their targets by the December 2015 deadline, the United Nations is trumpeting its limited successes – but with guarded optimism.

“Global poverty has been halved five years ahead of the 2015 time frame,” says Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the latest status report released Monday."Unfortunately, the trend in the U.N. secretary-general's office and many developed countries is to place hopes in private corporations and 'multi-stakeholder partnerships' that fudge the massive problems caused by many corporations." -- Yoke Ling Chee

In 1990, almost half of the population in developing regions lived on less than 1.25 dollars a day.

“This rate dropped to 22 percent by 2010, reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty by 700 million,” the study claims.

Still, the overwhelming majority of people living in extreme poverty belong to two regions: Southern Asia and sub-Saharan African, according to the 56-page Millennium Development Goals Report 2014.

But some of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) closely tracking trends in social and economic development in the developing world are sceptical of the claims.

Roberto Bissio, director of the Uruguay-based Social Watch, told IPS the global average the United Nations celebrates is almost exclusively due to China – and most of that poverty reduction in China happened before the year 2000.

“Thus the MDGs are credited with outcomes that happened before they existed,” he said.

“This is because the target is defined as lowering to half the 1990 global poverty line, not the 2000 figure as the Millennium Declaration implies by talking in present,” Bissio added.

The study singles out the increased access to drinking water sources, an improvement in the lives of slum dwellers and the achievement of gender parity in primary schools.

“If trends continue,” says the report, “the world will surpass MDG targets on malaria, tuberculosis and access to HIV treatment (while) the hunger target looks within reach.”

Other targets, such as access to technologies, reduction of average tariffs, debt relief, and growing political participation by women, “show great progress.”

Over the past 20 years, the likelihood of a child dying before age five has been nearly cut in half, which means about 17,000 children are saved every day, according to the report.

Yoke Ling Chee of the Malaysia-based Third World Network told IPS the MDG report is “over optimistic”, and avoids the systemic obstacles that continue to deprive large parts of the world from their right to development.

“A much-needed orderly sovereign debt work-out mechanism is still rejected by rich countries and we see Argentina on the verge of another crisis because of the greed of ‘vulture funds,’” she said.

Failure to deal with structural barriers can negate any success made over the past two decades.

“Unfortunately,” she pointed out, “the trend in the U.N. Secretary-General’s office and many developed countries is to place hopes in private corporations and ‘multi-stakeholder partnerships’ that fudge the massive problems caused by many corporations.

“The vote on Jun. 26 at the Human Rights Council to start a process for a treaty to regulate transnational corporations is a clear signal that if we are to make development a reality, corporations cannot be the deliverer,” she added.

In a statement released Monday, the London-based WaterAid said the U.N. report is a reminder of a terrible truth: that there are still 2.5 billion people in the world without access to basic toilets.

Of the 2.5 billion, 644 million are in sub-Saharan Africa and more than 1.0 billion in South Asia.

“Going without this right is compromising the health, safety, security and dignity of billions of people,” said Fleur Anderson, global head of campaigns at WaterAid.

As the U.N. works on a renewed set of development goals, it is critical that sanitation be made a central priority in development, activists say.

For the first time in history, bringing safe water and basic sanitation to everyone, everywhere within a generation “is in our grasp”, Anderson stressed. “But it will require political will and dedication to get there. Without these basic building blocks, there is no effective way to address extreme poverty,” she added.

Bissio told IPS that by concentrating attention on extreme poverty, developed countries got off the hook and do not feel they have to report on their own commitments at home.

Poverty in developed countries is ignored and inequalities are ignored everywhere, resulting in this being the major constraint now to economic growth (apart from all other considerations) as recognised even by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), he noted.

The study also points out that after two years of declines, official development assistance (ODA) hit a record high of 134.8 billion dollars in 2013.

“However, aid shifted away from the poorest countries where attainment of the MDGs often lags the most,” it said.

Eighty per cent of imports from developing countries entered developed countries duty-free, and tariffs remained at an all-time low.

The debt burden of developing countries remained stable at about 3.0 per cent of export revenue, which was a near 75 per cent drop since 2000, according to the report.

Despite considerable advancements in recent years, the report says reliable statistics for monitoring development remain inadequate in many countries, but better statistical reporting on the MDGs has led to real results.

Chee told IPS the explosion of transnational corporations (TNCs) suing national governments in developing countries over environmental and health regulations by invoking corporate rights under bilateral investment agreements is sucking billions of dollars from those countries, she added.

She also pointed out that developing countries that made some progress and continue to face huge challenges are increasingly excluded from the commitments of developed countries to provide climate finance, ensure access to affordable life saving medicines and transfer technologies for sustainable development.

This is because countries such as China and India are regarded as “competitors” by the U.S.

European corporations assert undue influence over their home governments’ development cooperation policies, which in turn undermines the key U.N. treaties on climate change and biodiversity, she said.

The ongoing negotiations at the U.N. on sustainable development goals are mired in debate because developed countries refuse to put the systemic economic issues at the centre of the next development partnership – which should be primarily about inter-state responsibilities and commitments, not unaccountable “partnerships,” Chee declared.

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Trekking with Ethiopia’s Nomads, from Watering Holes to Pasture Lands, For a Better Life Mon, 30 Jun 2014 10:17:23 +0000 William Lloyd-George Camels wait for treatment from the Liyu police veterinarian teams outside Bulali town in Ethiopia’s Somali region. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

Camels wait for treatment from the Liyu police veterinarian teams outside Bulali town in Ethiopia’s Somali region. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

By William Lloyd-George
SOMALI REGION, Ethiopia, Jun 30 2014 (IPS)

When he was a young boy, 20-year-old Abdi, who comes from a small pastoralist community in Ethiopia’s Somali Region, “knew about school, reading and writing but did not expect this is something we would ever get close to.”

Abdi couldn’t attend school because he comes from a nomadic people, who are constantly moving from place to place.

His small pastoralist community has temporarily set up camp here, outside the town of Shilabo close to the Ethiopian-Somali border. It lies 425 kilometres away from the bustling activity of Jijga, the capital of Ethiopia’s Somali Region.

As the sun rises over the arid landscape, women in brightly-coloured traditional clothes light up the small villages, men in Somali sarongs pull lines of camels up the road, and the smell of stoves being heated for early breakfast blows through the hot air.

A few years before, the journey to get here would have been a bumpy and dusty one and would have taken days but the new road makes it easier to reach this once cut-off destination. This will be complimented soon by the opening of the Kebri Dahar international airport, built by the regional government.


An elder leads us through the community’s settlement. Each family has a few small domes constructed with twigs and cloth secured with small fences made out of bush branches. It is a world away from the fast-developing cities of Somali Region, where investment is being channeled into shopping centres, hotels, large abattoirs and new housing.

On the edge of the settlement, one of the structures is seemingly packed full of people. Inside, children crouch on the floor, clutching notepads and pencils. Standing over them is their teacher, Fassah, a wiry man who points to Somali letters on the blackboard.

Fassah is one of the many teachers working with pastoralist communities across the Ethiopia’s Somali Region who travels with the pastoralists. He points to Somali letters on a blackboard. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

Fassah is one of the many teachers working with pastoralist communities across the Ethiopia’s Somali Region who travels with the pastoralists. He points to Somali letters on a blackboard. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

“Without these classes the community would find it difficult to learn how to read and write. It opens doors for them,” Fassah tells IPS during breaktime. He is one of the many teachers working with pastoralist communities across the region who travels whenever and wherever the pastoralists go.

It’s only now as a 20-year-old after he’s learned his letters, that Abdi can even entertain the thought of furthering his education.

“Now we can even go to Jijiga university,” he tells IPS as he stands outside the structure that serves as a school.

“Our parents never dreamed of such education, now we can learn so much and help our community,” Abdi says.

Abdi, 20 (right), standing outside his class with a friend. His pastoralist community, situated here outside the town of Shilabo in Somali Region, Ethiopia, has a teacher who now travels with them. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

Abdi, 20 (right), standing outside his class with a friend. His pastoralist community, situated here outside the town of Shilabo in Somali Region, Ethiopia, has a teacher who now travels with them. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

Somali National Regional State, or Zone 5, accounts for more than 20 percent of Ethiopia and shares a porous 1,600 km border with war-ravaged Somalia. The population of the region is believed to be more than five million, with pastoralists counting for more than 80 percent.

Owing to the climate and vegetation variations, mobility is a necessary response to survive. Many experts see pastoralism as a sophisticated land use system and although pastoralists only account for 15 percent of the entire Ethiopian population of about 92 million, it is believed they contribute 40 percent of the nation’s agricultural gross domestic product.

The pastoralists of Somali region make their living raising cattle, camels and goats. In the arid and drought-prone region, they are forced to move from place to place in search of pasture and watering holes for their animals.

As a result of the communities’ lifestyle, formal education has never been an option and the youth are usually educated by the elders.

While mobile services have existed in several forms for decades in Somali region, in recent years the regional government together with various NGOs have led an initiative to substantially increase these services across the region. In order to improve the lives of pastoralists communities, mobile health, education and veterinarian services have been created to travel to where these communities live.

The government mobile education system, though, allows pastoralist children to be educated on the move and once they complete a certain level they can join the national high schools and later universities.

As the class finishes, the kids, accustomed to the heat, play games in the burning sun and the elder leads us over to an acacia tree where hundreds of goats enjoy the shade. Mahmud, part of the government’s mobile veterinarian team set up to treat the pastoralists’ animals, sprays a blue disinfectant on a goat’s wound.

“If we did not have the mobile veterinarian teams, we would have to take our animals far to get to the cities and depending on the illness they might die before we get there,” Jamal, the owner of these goats, tells IPS. “Our animals are significantly more healthy as a result of the mobile veterinarian teams, they help us a lot.”

The vets bring with them vaccinations and medicine for skin disease and other infections. In recent years, increasing sedenterisation and market orientation is encouraging more rearing of cattle and sheep by the pastoralists, making the services of veterinarians a necessity.

In a nearby community, outside one of the shelters, a small queue has formed. Inside a female health worker sits on a mat, medicine sprawled out in front of her as she attends to a patient.

A mobile doctor writes up her notes. She is part of a Mobile Health and Nutrition Team, one of 51 across the Ethiopia’s Somali Region, funded and supported by United Nations Children’s Fund and other NGOs. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

A mobile doctor writes up her notes. She is part of a Mobile Health and Nutrition Team, one of 51 across the Ethiopia’s Somali Region, funded and supported by United Nations Children’s Fund and other NGOs. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

The health worker is part of a Mobile Health and Nutrition Team, one of 51 across the region, put in place by the government but funded and supported by United Nations Children’s Fund and other NGOs, to provide a health and nutrition safety net to the most vulnerable communities in inaccessible areas. It is part of an effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and a drive to get basic services to even the most cut-off communities.

The team provides both preventative and curative services, with a focus on young children and pregnant women. The care provided includes vaccinations, water purification chemicals, monitoring and treatment of child malnutrition, and providing iron supplements, tetanus shots and other neonatal support for pregnant and nursing mothers. They are also responsible for referring emergency cases to the local hospitals.

On the way back to Jijiga, we pass through Gudhis town, previously a hostpot for fighting between government forces and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), rebels fighting for secession from Ethiopia. Residents in the town say it is now peaceful and the regional government believe their Liyu Police force has managed to substantially weaken the ONLF since its creation in 2008.

While the Liyu Police were primarily created to fight the ONLF, regional government officials say they are now being transformed into a force for development and put to work on projects around the region.

“Development is key to peace in the region, without it there will be no security,” the Somali Regional President Abdi Mohamoud Omar tells IPS. “This is why we want the Liyu to be a force for development, build wells, roads and help the people of this region. When we have development and security, the anti-peace elements fade away.”

The Liyu Police veterinarian team treating camels in Ethiopia’s Somali region. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

The Liyu Police veterinarian team treating camels in Ethiopia’s Somali region. Credit: William Lloyd-George/IPS

Efforts to transform the force are seemingly underway. On the way out of the town we come across Liyu police who are clearing the way for a road to link the town with the highway. In our last stop we visit Bulali, a town very well-known in Somali culture for its historic festivals. As the sun sets over the picturesque little oasis-like settlement, hundreds of camels stand around in what is a mighty river in wet season.

We pass a water well, which the Liyu Police helped build and which will now bring water to dozens of communities.

“My father was killed by a lion while trying to find water,” Abdulahi, a camel herder, tells IPS as he stands over the well. “It is emotional to now have water in this area, knowing what our people have gone through to get water in the past.”

Members of the Liyu police mobile veterinarian team, former active combatants, now trained up to move around treating livestock, stand in white lab coats, sinking huge needles of vaccination into moaning camels. They give the medicine to treat skin disease and the local camel herders say it has dramatically increased the camels’ health.

“We were always wandering, trying to find water and food, sometimes we did not have the capacity to see a vet, let alone a doctor for ourselves,” Abdulahi says as he gets ready to prepare his camels for nightfall. “These mobile teams really changed our lives, giving us access to services we never thought we would have.”

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Women’s Political Representation Lagging in India Sun, 29 Jun 2014 15:51:09 +0000 Neeta Lal Celebrations outside the house of Indian politician Mamata Banerjee. Credit: Avishek Mitra/IPS

Celebrations outside the house of Indian politician Mamata Banerjee. Credit: Avishek Mitra/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Jun 29 2014 (IPS)

National outrage over women’s security in India – or the lack of it – is nothing new. From the gang rape of a young girl on a Delhi bus two years ago, to the recent rapes and lynching of two teenage cousins in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, gender-based violence has claimed headlines.

But as the country emerges from the fanfare of national elections with a new prime minister – Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the debate that is currently roiling the country is whether such tragedies – and apathy within the political class – would continue were there more women representatives in parliament?

Articulating a list of government priorities earlier this month, President Pranab Mukherjee included a strong commitment to ensuring 33 percent representation of women in the parliament, as well as state assemblies.

Passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill – which proposes to reserve a third of the seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and in all legislative assemblies for women – could be instrumental in sending out a powerful message of women’s empowerment, say experts here.

“There needs to be a critical mass of women out there to put women’s issues on the political agenda." -- Pratibha Pande, former professor at the Delhi University
The proposed Bill – cleared by the upper house (Rajya Sabha) in 2010 and now awaiting only a nod from the Lok Sabha, as well as the newly elected Modi – symbolises a crucial first step towards necessary electoral and parliamentary reforms.

The principle of gender equality is enshrined in the Indian constitution, and the country has also ratified various international conventions and human rights instruments to secure the equal rights of women; key among them is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified in 1993.

Despite these promises on paper, actual representation in what is dubbed ‘the world’s largest democracy’ remains low: currently, there are only 61 women out of a total of 543 MPs that make up the lower house of parliament.

Even though women form close to half of the population of 1.2 billion, they are underrepresented in all political positions. This was reflected in the recent elections, during which only 632 women ran for office, compared to 7,527 men.

“This is hardly proportional representation in the world’s largest democracy,” says Delhi-based sociologist Dr. Pratibha Pande, former professor at the Delhi University.

“However, if a third of the parliamentarians in India are women, a system of checks and balances will organically be kicked in to ensure enhanced vigilance from authorities in cases of rape and a skewed sex ratio, which is rampant across the country,” she asserted.

Indeed, the last few decades have seen a continuously declining female ratio in the population. Male children are still preferred, and though prenatal sex determination was banned in 1996, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 50 million women are “missing” in India as a result of female foeticide and infanticide.

Those girl children who survive this mindset tend to be given poorer care than boys.

The patriarchal attitude is so deeply entrenched across the country that, according to the 2011 census, India now has 37 million fewer women than men (586.5 million women to 623.7 million men).

The country’s literacy rate is also skewed in favour of men. Compared to a 76 percent literacy rate among men, only 54 percent of women can read or write, which further limits their opportunities to enter the political fray.

During the recent election campaign, many political parties – including the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP, which succeeded in ending the Congress Party’s decade-long reign – expressed a desire to strengthen women-friendly laws and address the stubborn gender imbalance that pervades the country’s political arena.

However, neither party fielded more than a handful of women candidates, who were perceived by many as being mere ‘tokens’ in the process.

According to a recent paper by Carole Spary, a professor at the UK-based University of York, political parties in India tend to see women as less likely to win elections than men, and therefore prefer not to take risks with seats they could conceivably win.

This perceived ‘winnability’ factor based on gender is very strong across the country, experts say.

Amitabh Kumar of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, who has for years been spearheading a campaign for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, told IPS that despite six decades of independence, a deeply misogynistic attitude scuppers women’s ability to enter politics and impact policy making.

“Even capable women who have demonstrated excellent administrative and leadership qualities find it tough to mobilise funds for contesting elections,” Kumar added.

In order to contest an MP’s seat today, a candidate requires at least five million dollars. “How many Indian women can muster such funds?” he asked.

Overall, women comprise just 11 percent of India’s lower house, a dismal figure when compared to many countries, including India’s South Asian neighbours.

According to data available for 2014 from the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), Pakistan has 67 women in a house of 323 (20.7 percent), Bangladesh has 67 members out of a total of 347 (19.3percent), while Nepal has a total of 172 women in a house of 575 (29.9 percent).

The Rajya Sabha does not fare much better, with 27 women members comprising 11.5 percent of the total membership in 2013, far below the world average of 19.6 percent.

Analysts say women’s representation in parliament is imperative not only on the grounds of social justice and legitimacy of the political system, but also because a higher number of women in public office, articulating interests and seen to be wielding power, will strike at the roots of gender hierarchy in public life.

“Without being sufficiently visible, a group’s ability to influence either policy-making, or indeed the political culture framing the representative system, is limited,” according to Pande.

“There needs to be a critical mass of women out there to put women’s issues on the political agenda,” he added.

A recent report by Oxfam International found that female-led panchayats (rural administrative units) perform better in the long-run than male-led panchayats on an index of eight services – drinking water, toilets, gutters, schools, ration shops, self-help groups, implementation of welfare schemes and reducing male alcoholism.

In the medium-term, states the study, the introduction of the Women’s Reservation Bill at the local level also leads to a significant increase in the reporting of crimes.

A 2012 working paper released by India’s premier research institution, the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), found that higher political representation among women could also empower women to spend fewer hours on household chores, assert their reproductive choices and control their own resources.

Other experts, like Lakshmi Iyer, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, say that electing more women to political office leads to improvements in women’s education and reductions in infant mortality, among other issues.

The fact that women make up nearly 25 percent of the newly sworn-in cabinet augurs well for the women’s movement.

This is the first time India has had seven women ministers, with six of them landing plum cabinet posts. The development is sparking hopes that the country will take bigger steps towards correcting its gender imbalance in politics.


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Women Herders Bring Change Wed, 18 Jun 2014 16:20:02 +0000 Athar Parvaiz Suma Bhen, a camel breeder in the western Indian state of Gujarat, and her two daughters. Credit Athar Parvaiz/IPS

Suma Bhen, a camel breeder in the western Indian state of Gujarat, and her two daughters. Credit Athar Parvaiz/IPS

By Athar Parvaiz
KUTCH, India, Jun 18 2014 (IPS)

When Sangan Bhai, a humble man in the Kutch region of India’s western state of Gujarat, was offered a position as an executive member of the local camel breeder’s association, he made a decision that surprised his community: instead of accepting the prestigious post he offered his wife’s name instead.

His reason, he told IPS, was a simple one; unlike him, his wife can read and write, and has as much experience rearing camels as anyone in the community.

“Sometimes we don’t have much to eat, but we can live with this – what we can’t live without is water.” -- Suma Bhen, head of a family of camel breeders
Meera Bhen, the only woman in the area to have attended school – albeit only up to the fourth grade – was more than willing to step up to the challenge.

“My father was very keen to educate me, but he died when I was very young so I had to drop out of school,” she told IPS. “But I kept practicing reading and writing as I grew up.”

Her perseverance has paid off; she is now one of the few people in the vast arid area known as Lakhpat who can read, write and do basic arithmetic, crucial skills in this community of herders and breeders who have scant formal education, though their knowledge of cattle is unmatched.

Now, Meera Bhen is making history, not just locally but nationally, as her brainchild for the 350-member breeder’s association, known as the Kutch Unt Uchherak Maldhari Sangathan (KUUMS), begins to bear fruit.

“She was the first to suggest that we market the camels’ milk,” KUMMS President Bhikha Bhai Rabari, told IPS. “So we approached a dairy company with the idea, and as soon as the project takes off we will receive double the price for our product.”

A litre of camel milk currently sells for 17-20 Indian rupees (less than 0.30 dollars), making it nearly impossible for this semi-nomadic tribal community – who are thought to have migrated to the Kutch region from Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province over a thousand years ago – to support itself financially.

Some 37 percent of the nearly 300 breeders in the region manage herds of 31-60 camels, but with few formal markets for the milk, they are forced to rely on government food rations.

The breeders, known locally as maldharis, have long expressed a desire for supplementary income. Decades ago, they made a decent living by offering up their camels for transport, or by selling the males for a high price. With the advent of modern transportation systems and the penetration of road networks into rural India, however, they have been increasingly marginalised.

It was these very problem that Meera Bhen hoped to address when she first brought her idea to the association.

If the marketing initiative succeeds, it will represent the first-ever commercial camel milk enterprise in the country. The original scheme, submitted to the state government by the Kutch District Milk Union in 2012, proposed the setting up of a processing unit with a capacity of 2,000-2,5000 litres.

According to officials, the purpose of such an undertaking was two-fold: to provide an alternative livelihood for the maldharis and to promote increased consumption of the highly nutritious milk, which is lower in fat than cow’s milk, and contains more nutrients per single serving.

Given that Gujarat is the birthplace of the massive Amul dairy cooperative, which agreed in 2012 to brand and sell the camel milk, the scheme seemed almost foolproof.

Last year, however, it ran into a legal hurdle: according to current laws governing dairy production, ‘milk’ is only defined as that which comes from cows, buffalos, sheep and goats.

NGOs and legal experts are working to amend the law to include camels, but until they do, the project is at a standstill.

Few people are aware that a humble woman was behind the proposal that has made national headlines. But here among the breeders, Meera Bhen is just one of many women who enjoy a far greater degree of autonomy and respect than their counterparts in this country of 1.2 billion people.

A buffalo for a baby girl

While many families across India lament the birth of daughters, breeders in the Banni area of the Kutch region do the opposite: they allocate a buffalo to every single girl child born to a member of their community.

Saleem Nodae has allocated four buffalos to his four daughters. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

Saleem Nodae has allocated four buffalos to his four daughters. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

Razia Saleem is one of these girls. A student in the eighth grade, her inheritance already amounts to roughly 3,400 dollars – all in the form of a herd of buffalos.

“This all belongs to her,” the girl’s father, Saleem Nodae, told IPS, gesturing at the grazing beasts. His three other daughters each ‘own’ their respective share of his herd of roughly 80 animals.

Until they are old enough to tend to the creatures themselves, the girls receive part of the monthly income generated from sales of the buffalos’ milk, so they can “buy the things they want,” Saleem added. The rest goes to feeding and caring for the animals.

For their own part, the girls use their allowances wisely. Razia recently spent three years’ worth of her savings to buy a desktop computer. “This is the age of technology,” she told IPS. “I want to benefit from it.”

Right now she mainly uses the machine to practice her typing, and for digital art. “I will start using the Internet only when I really need it,” she added.

According to Saleem, allotting a buffalo to a girl at the time of her birth is an investment worth making.

“By the time she is married, she will have five or seven animals to her name. She can take these creatures to her in-laws with pride,” he said, which will allow her a degree of independence.

Some 10,000 breeders live in Banni, tending to over 168,000 buffalos. The maldharis here are more economically independent than their camel-rearing counterparts, largely owing to consistent demand and formal markets for buffalo milk.

Even so the nomadic breeders live simple lives, moving with their herds over the grasslands for most of the year and residing in modest dwellings during the monsoon season.

‘We can live without food, but we can’t live without water’

Life for women breeders is far from easy. While they are allowed a degree of independence and respect, they shoulder a disproportionate level of the community’s burdens, such as finding water in the dry landscape.

Suma Bhen, who heads a family of camel breeders, says her closest source of water is a dam located roughly eight kilometres away. The journey through the scorching heat is made on foot, leading a camel whose energy must be conserved for the long trip back.

“The camel carries 70 litres of water, which we use for two days,” Eisa Taj, Suma Bhen’s husband, told IPS. “But this is barely enough for all our needs.”

Suma Bhen makes sure her family conserves every drop, using dry soil to scour out their plates and cooking utensils after every meal so as not to waste any of the precious water.

“Sometimes we don’t have much to eat,” Suma told IPS. “But we can live with this – what we can’t live without is water.”

Their son, Saleh Alma, who had hidden himself inside the family’s humble home during the interview, eventually emerged with a scrap of paper on which he had scribbled the message: “It is very difficult for us without water. We want the government to help us.”


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Op-Ed: Overcoming the Twin Hurdles of Inequality and Climate Change Tue, 17 Jun 2014 19:33:47 +0000 Winnie Byanyima The richest 66 people have the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of humanity. Credit: Bigstock/IPS

The richest 66 people have the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of humanity. Credit: Bigstock/IPS

By Winnie Byanyima
NEW YORK, Jun 17 2014 (IPS)

Two major injustices – inequality and climate change – are threatening to undermine the efforts of millions of people to escape poverty and hunger.

By concentrating wealth and power in the hands of a few, inequality robs the poorest people of the support they need to improve their lives. And as climate change devastates crops and livelihoods, it undoes poor people’s efforts to feed their families.

But an historic opportunity is on the horizon as the sun sets on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Right now the United Nations is in the midst of a heated debate about the new set of Sustainable Development Goals. This new framework for global development could end poverty and save the planet.

Laudable progress has been made under the MDGs, which are set to expire next year. The goal to halve extreme poverty has been met – an achievement to celebrate. The MDGs have inspired a common purpose and ambition, and there have been many development successes over the last 14 years.

Yet the twin challenges of inequality and climate change have not been adequately tackled – and Oxfam fears the same mistake will be made again. If we are to create a fairer, healthier world, the new Sustainable Development Goals must be ambitious, and backed up by strong action on climate change.

Recently, Oxfam revealed that the world’s 85 richest people have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. That figure was recently revised. Now the richest 66 have the same as the bottom half of humanity. If the global community fails to curb the widening gap, a host of related economic and social problems will ensue, including the undermining of efforts to eradicate poverty. We can only lift up those at the bottom if we tackle the extreme wealth at the top.

At the same time, climate change is threatening to undo progress made in confronting poverty over the last decade. More than 800 million people are at risk of hunger. Through its devastating impact on crops and livelihoods, climate change is predicted to increase that number by as much as 20 percent by 2050.

It’s up to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change to set the global framework for climate action. But the Sustainable Development Goals offer the opportunity to complement this and go further, dealing with climate change in the context of poverty alleviation and sustainable development. Action on climate change – in the framework of development after 2015 – could create significant political momentum, and increase ambition for a strong global climate deal.

For these reasons, Oxfam has released a paper on addressing inequality and climate change in the post-2015 framework.

Regarding inequality, we propose goals that eradicate extreme economic inequality, eradicate extreme poverty, achieve gender equality and realise women’s rights, and achieve universal health coverage and education through strong public services.

To address climate change, we propose dedicated goals on climate change and energy, food and hunger, water, and risk, as well as integrating targets on climate throughout the framework. These measures can help ensure development consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The U.N. working group on the Sustainable Development Goals has released a ‘Zero Draft’ containing many proposed goals and targets Oxfam would welcome – including standalone goals on inequality and climate change. As the number of goals and targets are reduced and refined in the process of agreeing a new post-2015 development framework, it is essential that these remain.

There’s also room for targets that are much more ambitious than those currently proposed.

In the inequality goal, we must be bolder. Oxfam backs the target proposed by former Chief Economist to the World Bank and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz to reduce income inequality so that the income of the top 10 percent is no more than that of the bottom 40 percent.

Since the world is already on track to end one-dollar-per-day poverty, we must set the bar higher and eradicate two-dollar-per-day poverty. We must commit to achieving universal health coverage and universal education, provided through well-funded public services. Finally, the proposed climate goal should include targets to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and promote low carbon sustainable development.

If we get it right, a bold new framework for global development next year, together with agreement at the U.N. climate talks in Paris, could provide the impetus for a transition to a more equal world – a world without the scourge of poverty and climate change.

This would transform millions of lives. So let us embrace the new beginning the Sustainable Development Goals offer.

*Winnie Byanyima is the executive director of Oxfam International


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