Inter Press Service » Health News and Views from the Global South Mon, 08 Feb 2016 15:38:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Women’s Empowerment Will Accelerate Kenya’s Economic Prosperity Wed, 03 Feb 2016 15:09:58 +0000 Ambassador Amina Mohamed and Siddharth Chatterjee Ambassador Amina Mohamed, CBS, EAV, EHG is the Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Kenya. Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative to Kenya.]]> Amb Amina Mohamed, Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Trade flanked by Siddharth Chatterjee, the UNFPA Representative to Kenya and Ms Nardos Bekele-Thomas, the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya in Moyale, Northern Kenya on 07 December 2015. Credit: @UNFPAKen

Amb Amina Mohamed, Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Trade flanked by Siddharth Chatterjee, the UNFPA Representative to Kenya and Ms Nardos Bekele-Thomas, the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya in Moyale, Northern Kenya on 07 December 2015. Credit: @UNFPAKen

By Amina Mohamed and Siddharth Chatterjee
Nairobi, Kenya, Feb 3 2016 (IPS)

When President Barack Obama made his first visit to Kenya as US President in July 2015, one of the poignant messages he left was an exhortation for communities to shun cultures that degrade women and girls.

“Imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That makes no sense,” he said, referring to the denial of opportunities for women to fully participate in development.

The president’s message could not have been more pertinent, coming as it did when the country, like most of Africa, is thinking how to reap a ‘demographic dividend’ – or boost in economic productivity – from its declining fertility rate and growing youthful population.

This occurs if the number of people in the workforce increases relative to the number of dependents.

Countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong also called the “Asian Tigers” lifted millions out of poverty by lowering the dependency ratio. Individuals and families were able to make savings which translated into investment and boosted economic growth. Combined with robust policies in education, health, employment and empowerment of women, they were able to capitalize on their demographic window during the period 1965 and 1990.

With over 70 percent of Kenyans aged below 30, we are at the cusp of a demographic dividend. For this dividend to become a reality, Kenya will have to surmount some formidable challenges, none more exigent than the empowerment of its women.

This youth bulge is “a window of opportunity”, which shuts in an average period of 29 years. We have to take advantage of it and understand that there’s nothing pre-ordained about a youth bulge producing a growth dividend.

The magnitude of the challenges Kenya faces was brought home through some sombre statistics in the just-released 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS). One emerging trend is the increasing role of women as stewards in Kenyan families, with one out of every three households in Kenya being headed by a woman.

This might not be of much concern were it not for another statistic from the KDHS: half of Kenyan women only have primary school education, meaning that their potential for participating in socio-economic processes is hampered, and their families are on the whole fated to the lower rungs of demographics.

In a new drive to change this narrative around the world, the UN Secretary General, Mr Ban Ki-moon has established the first high-level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, which will take the lead in developing strategies and plans for closing economic gender gaps around the world.

Any strategies for enjoying the demographic dividend that do not prioritise the education and health of women will be futile. In Kenya, the train may not even leave the station if half the country’s women have only a rudimentary education and many do not have access to sexual and reproductive health services nor are empowered by understanding fully how family planning works.

The KDHS also confirmed that awareness of birth spacing and family planning rises with levels of education: fertility rates decrease from 6.5 among women with no education to 4.8 among women with some education and further to 3.0 among women with a secondary or higher education.

The survey showed that some counties in Kenya that had the lowest proportion of literate women also had the highest fertility rates, some as much as double the national rate which of 3.9.The pay-off from smaller families is in the all-round physical and cognitive development of children and, by extension, the workforce. In Kenya, this is a workforce that is mainly agrarian, and about 60 percent female.

Globally, it is estimated that if women in every country were to play an identical role to men in markets, as much as US$28 trillion (equal to 26 percent) would be added to the global economy by 2025.

Where women are healthy and educated, not only their families, but entire nations flourish as we have seen with the “Asian Tigers”. Conversely, where women are not empowered the demographic dividend will not be realised.

Kenya must focus on eliminating gender inequalities, not only in the health sector, but in traditional social norms and attitudes that effectively under value women’s roles.

These are norms that keep girls out of classrooms and women away from the workplace, and are often expressed through violence. The 2014 survey indicated the extent of violence with about four in ten women aged between 15 and 49 stating that their husband or partner had been physically violent towards them.

We all need to listen to President Uhuru Kenyatta’s message at last September’s global meeting on gender equality in New York, where he stressed that “development cannot be rapid and resilient, unless it is also inclusive and equitable…given that half of humanity are women, their empowerment is a must, not an option”.


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Rabbit Farming Now a Big Hit in Zimbabwe Tue, 02 Feb 2016 15:43:35 +0000 Jeffrey Moyo 0 Brazil Wages War against Zika Virus on Several Fronts Tue, 02 Feb 2016 14:08:52 +0000 Mario Osava In the country’s capital, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff oversees one of the military operations against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito carried out at a national level in the last few days to curb the spread of the Zika virus. Credit: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR

In the country’s capital, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff oversees one of the military operations against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito carried out at a national level in the last few days to curb the spread of the Zika virus. Credit: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR

By Mario Osava
RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 2 2016 (IPS)

Brazil is deploying 220,000 troops to wage war against the Zika virus, in response to the alarm caused by the birth of thousands of children with abnormally small heads. But eradicating the Aedes aegypti mosquito requires battles on many fronts, including science and the pharmaceutical industry.

The Zika virus, transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, like dengue and Chikungunya fever, is blamed for the current epidemic of microcephaly, which has frightened people in Brazil and could hurt attendance at the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

It has also revived the debate on the right to abortion in Brazil, where the practice is illegal except in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape, or when the mother’s life is in danger.

“Immediate measures to provide assistance to the mothers of newborns with microcephaly are indispensable,” said Silvia Camurça, a sociologist who heads SOS Body – Feminist Institute for Democracy. “Almost all of them are poor, and they are completely overwhelmed by this new burden, with no help in the household.

“Imagine a mother with more than one child, without a husband,” she told IPS. “Childcare centres are not prepared to receive children with microcephaly, who are now numerous and whose numbers will grow even more, with the children to be born in the next few months. It’s a desperate situation. Public assistance for these families is urgently needed.”

An increase in the number of unsafe back-alley abortions, which put women’s lives in danger, “is very likely, since many women know that there are no public policies to support them, and the situation is aggravated by the economic crisis and high unemployment,” said Camurça.

Pernambuco, the Northeast Brazilian state where her non-governmental organisation is based, has the highest number of suspected or confirmed cases of microcephaly, a rare birth defect.

As of Jan. 23, the Health Ministry had registered 1,373 suspected cases in the state, of which 138 have been confirmed, 110 were ruled out, and 1,125 are still being examined.

A total of 270 cases of microcephaly have been confirmed in Brazil and 3,448 suspected cases still need to be investigated. There have also been 68 infant deaths due to congenital malformations since October, 12 of which were confirmed as Zika-related and five of which were not, while the rest are still under investigation.

The main symptoms of Zika virus disease are a low fever, an itchy skin rash, joint pain, and red, inflamed eyes. The symptoms, which are generally mild, last from three to seven days, and most people don’t even know they have had the disease.

Brazil is at the centre of the debate on the virus because it is experiencing the largest-known outbreak of the disease, and because the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly was identified by the Professor Joaquim Amorim Neto Research Institute (IPESQ) in the city of Campina Grande in the Northeast – the poorest region of Brazil and the hardest-hit by this and other mosquito-borne diseases.

Explosive spread

On Monday Feb. 1, the World Health Organisation declared the Zika virus and its suspected link to birth defects an international public health emergency.

The WHO said the rise in the disease in the Americas is “explosive”, and predicted up to 1.5 million cases in Brazil and between three and four million cases in the Americas this year.

Spraying against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the Zika virus and other diseases, has been stepped up in cities around Brazil. Credit: Cristina Rochol/PMPA

Spraying against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the Zika virus and other diseases, has been stepped up in cities around Brazil. Credit: Cristina Rochol/PMPA

Although WHO Director General Margaret Chan said “A causal relationship between Zika virus and birth malformations and neurological syndromes has not yet been established,” in Brazil there are no doubts that the Aedes aegypti is the transmitter of the new national tragedy.

The government has mobilised the army, navy and air force against the epidemic, and is trying to mobilise the local population as well as state employees who make door-to-door visits as part of their job, such as electric and water utility meter readers.

The aim is to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds – any water-holding containers (tin cans, plastic jugs, or used tires) lying around the country’s 49.2 million households.

Mosquito repellent has been distributed to pregnant women. “But there are already shortages of repellent, and the ones that are safe for pregnant women are more expensive,” and less affordable for poor women, said Camurça.

The activist said another big problem is the lack of information and knowledge about epidemics. In Pernambuco, dengue fever – also transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito – was under control, according to health officials, “but all of a sudden we’re the champions of Zika,” a contradiction that has yet to be explained, she complained.

The first confirmed case of Zika virus in Brazil came to light in April 2015, after which the disease began to spread like wildfire. It is now present in 23 countries of the Americas, according to the WHO.

Epidemiologists say the statistics available on diseases transmitted by the Aedes aegypti are insufficient because reporting the diseases was not mandatory, which led to under-reporting.

Now microcephaly, but not its causes, are reported, and the lack of reliable statistics from the past, and on related infections, make it more difficult to obtain clear data.

Microcephaly has a number of other causes, such as syphilis, toxoplasmosis, rubella, cytomegalovirus, herpes and different infections.

Science is, however, another battlefront that could be decisive in this medium to long-term war. The hope is that efforts to develop a vaccine will be successful, at least to prevent the Zika virus’s most severe effect: microcephaly in unborn infants.

Research forges ahead

The Health Ministry’s Secretariat of Science, Technology and Strategic Inputs has played a key role in research on the Zika virus, encouraging studies in Brazil’s leading health research centres.

The head of the Secretariat, epidemiologist Eduardo Costa, believes Brazil could develop a vaccine, “despite the bureaucratic hurdles to the import of biological material and other inputs necessary to research, delaying it and driving up the costs.”

“It’s Brazil’s responsibility to produce a vaccine, and it’s something we owe Africa,” he told IPS.

Progress has been made in specialised centres, such as the Butantan Institute in the southern city of São Paulo, which is working on a vaccine that offers 80 percent protection against the four strains of dengue and could extend to the Zika virus. “Clinical tests are needed,” which are costly and take time, Costa said.

The Evandro Chagas Institute, of the northern Amazon state of Pará, is also making progress towards a medication that mitigates the effects of the Zika virus. And a University of São Paulo laboratory is researching possibilities offered by genetic engineering.

These Brazilian research centres have ties to universities or pharmaceutical companies abroad, and the resulting medications could be wholly produced in Brazil, in Bio-Manguinhos, the technical scientific unit that produces and develops immunobiologicals for the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a leading Health Ministry research centre, said Costa.

Other technologies being tested in Brazil are aimed at curbing the breeding of the Aedes aegypti. One example is the Wolbachia bacterium, which can stop the dengue virus from replicating in its mosquito host. Fiocruz is releasing mosquitos with the bacterium in a Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood to infect other Aedes aegypti mosquitos.

Another initiative involves the release of genetically modified male mosquitos which produce offspring that die before they are old enough to start reproducing. Other studies have involved an insect growth regulator, pyriproxyfen, which disrupts the growth and reproduction of mosquitos.

In addition, new tests are needed to diagnose women with the Zika virus. The tests currently available must be carried out in the few days that the infection is active.

“A post-infection test is needed, to identify the lingering antibodies and offer more information about what the virus does,” Costa said.

Brazil eradicated the Aedes aegypti mosquito in 1954, in a campaign against yellow fever, the disease it spread back then, Costa pointed out. But the mosquito returned in intermittent outbreaks in the following decades, when it began to transmit dengue.

Now eradicating the mosquito is impossible, even for 220,000 soldiers, with the expanded repertoir of viruses it transmits, and today’s much more populous cities, with limited sanitation, endless amounts of garbage and containers of all kinds strewn everywhere. But technology and social mobilisation could at least help curb the mosquito population.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Combating HIV among Teens Mon, 01 Feb 2016 07:39:10 +0000 Miriam Gathigah and Jeffrey Moyo High HIV rates among teens call for interventions on a war-footing.  Credit: Miriam Gathigah and Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

High HIV rates among teens call for interventions on a war-footing. Credit: Miriam Gathigah and Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

By Miriam Gathigah and Jeffrey Moyo
NAIROBI, Kenya / HARARE, Zimbabwe, Feb 1 2016 (IPS)

Keziah Juma is coming to terms with her shattered life at the shanty she shares with her family in Kenya’s sprawling Kibera slum where friends and relatives are gathered for her son’s funeral arrangements. While attending an antenatal clinic, Juma who is only 16 years discovered that she had been infected with HIV. “I went into shock and stopped going to the clinic, that is why they could not save my baby and I have been bed-ridden since giving birth two months ago,” she told IPS.

Juma’s struggle to come to terms with her HIV status and to remain healthy mirrors that of many teens in this East African nation. Kenya is one of the six countries accounting for nearly half of the world’s young people aged 15 to 19 years living with HIV. Other than India, the rest are in Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria and Mozambique, according to a 2015 UNICEF report Statistical Update on Children, Adolescents and AIDS.

Yet in the face of this glaring epidemic, Africa’s response has been discouraging with statistics leaving no doubt that the continent is losing the fight against HIV among its teens. Julius Mwangi, an HIV/AIDS activist in Nairobi told IPS that some countries such as Kenya seem to have chosen “to bury their heads in the sand in hopes that the problem will go away.”Despite government statistics indicating that the average age for the first sexual experience has increased from 14 to 16 years among Kenyan teens, this has done little for the country’s fight to combat HIV among its young people.

The Ministry of Health’s fast track plan to end HIV and AIDS shows that only an estimated 24 per cent of teens aged 15 to 19 years know their HIV status. Still in this age group, only about half have ever tested for HIV. Mwangi attributes the country’s high HIV rates among its teens to lack of practical interventions to address the scourge. He referred to the controversy over the Reproductive Health Bill 2014 which provided a significant loophole for young people less than 18 years to access condoms and other family planning services, but was rejected.

Judith Sijeny, a nominated Member of the Senate who sponsored the Bill, says that the proposed piece of legislation was rejected in its original form on grounds that it was encouraging sexual immorality among young people. Sijeny said in addition to providing information on HIV prevention and treatment including advocating for sexual abstinence, the Bill was also “providing a solution by encouraging safe sex.” “Statistics are providing a very clear picture that teenagers, including those living with HIV, are engaging in sexual activities,” she said.

Government statistics show that one in every five youths aged 15 to 24 had sex before the age of 16 years. A revised version of the Bill, which will constitute Kenya’s primary health law for now, states clearly that condoms and family planning pills are not to be given to those under 18 years of age.

While other African nations like Kenya have chosen to be in denial, leaving their young populations vulnerable to early deaths due to HIV, others such as Zimbabwe have vowed to take the bull by its horns. Last year, the Zimbabwean government in conjunction with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched the Condomise Campaign where they distributed small-sized condoms to fit 15-year olds in a bid to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. This is despite this country’s age of consent to sex pegged at the age of 16!

The Condomise Campaign may, however, have come too late for several Zimbabwean teenagers like 16-year old Yeukai Mhofu who is already living with HIV after she was raped by her late stepfather. Regrettably, Mhofu said she may already have infected her boyfriend.“I had unprotected sex with my boyfriend at school and I am afraid I might have infected him. Although I was aware of my HIV status after my rape ordeal by my late stepfather, I succumbed to pressure from my school lover after he kept pestering me for sex and I feared to disclose my status to him because I thought he would hate me,” Mhofu told IPS.

For many Zimbabwean teenagers like 15-year old Loveness Chiroto still in school, the government move to launch condoms for teenagers has left her relieved at the fresh prospect of young people like her to survive the AIDS storm. “Now with government and UNFPA taking a position that we should use condoms, I’m personally happy that as young people we have been given the alternative on how to soldier on amidst the HIV/AIDS scourge,” Chiroto told IPS.

But irked by the Condomise initiative gathering momentum, many adults have vehemently castigated the idea. “Our children need strict grooming in which they are strongly taught the hazards of engaging in premature sexual intercourse; condoms won’t help our young people because even grown-up people are contracting HIV with condoms in their pockets,” Mavis Mbiza, a Zimbabwean mother of two teenage girls
in High school, told IPS.

Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) legislator and parliamentary portfolio committee on health chairperson, Ruth Labode, is however at variance with many parents like Mbiza. “Is there a difference when an adult is having sex and when a teenager is having sex? If teens are sexually active, condom use for them may be a necessity, I agree because there is also need for such young persons to be protected from STIs as well,” Labode said.

The UNFPA senior technical advisor, Bidia Deperthes went on record saying this Southern African nation’s teenagers from 15 years of age needed to be catered for in the condom distribution as some of them had become sexually active.

Statistics show that 24.5 per cent of Zimbabwean women between the ages 15 to 19 are married and is proof of teenagers being sexually active, which justifies the distribution of condoms to Zimbabwe’s teenagers according to UNFPA. An official from Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care speaking on condition of anonymity for professional reasons, agreed with UNFPA. “We are highly burdened with HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) even amongst teens, so condoms are very important in reducing new infections of HIV and STIs,” the health official told IPS. In 2007, South Africa’s new Children’s Act came into effect, expanding the scope of several existing children’s rights and explicitly granting new ones.

The Act gave to children 12 years and older a host of rights relating to reproductive health, including access to condoms, this at a time SA’s persons aged 15–24 account for 34 per cent of all new HIV infections. In 2014, at Botswana’s Condomise Campaign launch in conjunction with UNFPA, the organisation’s representative there, Aisha Camara-Drammeh emphasised that condoms were equally crucial for the African nation’s teenagers. “This is an exciting and yet a very crucial moment for us as UNFPA and our stakeholders – including the Ministry of Health, UNAIDS and indeed the young people themselves – to be witnessing the inauguration of this campaign in Botswana. Ensuring access to condoms is a prerequisite for the Sexual and Reproductive Health of young persons,” Drammeh had said then.

According to the UNFPA then, Botswana’s young people were faced with numerous challenges which included high-risk sexual behaviour leading to high teenage unwanted pregnancies, high incidences of HIV infections, low comprehensive knowledge on SRH and HIV and limited access to SRH services and commodities. With condoms use rife amongst Botswana’s young people, the country is witnessing declines on new HIV infections, with the 15–24 year olds’ HIV incidence declining by 25 per cent, according to UNFPA. Even further up in Malawi, in 2013, government there moved in to launch the first-ever national HIV/AIDS prevention drive through a Condomise Campaign seeking to promote and increase condom use among teenagers there.


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Maternal and Child Health Key to Kenya’s Economic Growth Mon, 18 Jan 2016 11:08:18 +0000 Mette Knudsen and Siddharth Chatterjee Ms Mette Knudsen is Denmark’s Ambassador to Kenya. Follow her on twitter: @metknu. Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative to Kenya. Follow him on twitter: @sidchat1]]> Ms Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady of Kenya visits a maternal health facility in Mandera County on 06 November 2015. Dr Babatunde Osotimehin the Executive Director of UNFPA looks on. Credit: @UNFPAKen

Ms Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady of Kenya visits a maternal health facility in Mandera County on 06 November 2015. Dr Babatunde Osotimehin the Executive Director of UNFPA looks on. Credit: @UNFPAKen

By Ambassador Mette Knudsen and Siddharth Chatterjee
Mandera County, Kenya, Jan 18 2016 (IPS)

On Friday, 06 November 2015, we had the honor of meeting the First Lady of Kenya Ms Margaret Kenyatta, a tireless advocate for “every woman and every child”, during the launch of the Beyond Zero campaign in Mandera County, North-Eastern Kenya, a place which has often been described as ‘the worst place on earth to give birth’.

Mandera’s maternal mortality ratio stands at 3 795 deaths per 100 000 live births, almost double that of wartime Sierra Leone at 2 000 deaths per 100 000 live births.

Two out of every three cases of maternal deaths occur in areas affected by a humanitarian crisis or in volatile onditions, such as the North-Eastern region of Kenya where increasing focus is being put on giving pregnant mothers a real chance of surviving childbirth.

Some 6 out of every ten maternal deaths occur in this region. Poor education, little use of contraceptives, traditions such as marriage, that tend to derail women’s self-determination, together with inadequate health services have kept led to these very poor health indicators.

What we realized was that almost every child born in the region is really a throw of the dice, a hit-or-miss proposition that local communities face with stoicism, but a situation that development agencies are increasingly determined not accept.

For just over a year now, UNFPA has worked with the H4+ partners (UNICEF, WHO, World Bank, UN Women and UNAIDS), to find ways not only to save lives at childbirth but also to meet related challenges of reproductive health in the six counties of Kenya that have the most maternal deaths.

The government of Denmark supports UNFPA’s programmes globally and in Kenya this support is based on a Denmark-Kenya Country Programme 2016-2020 that seeks to give momentum to Kenya’s Vision 2030.

The policy’s thematic programme on health specifically identifies operational support for primary health care facilities at county and national government levels as well as support for sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The Danish government is committed to supporting UNFPA to further ongoing work in Mandera, Marsabit, Wajir, Isiolo, Lamu and Migori counties to deliver a comprehensive package of services in reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health.

Denmark has pledged US$ 6 million to help the six counties give greater focus to adolescent girls and young women, through targeted and evidence-based interventions in multiple sectors. Of key concern will be addressing drivers for early sexual activity among adolescent girls and boys, early childbearing and early marriage, and advocating for keeping girls in schools.

In a demonstration of how collaboration in development work can be done effectively, various private sectors partners have joined these efforts in the six counties, that are already showing positive results.

There is reason for optimism that we can expand the supply of quality services; that we can innovate for delivering cost effective interventions for family planning, emergency obstetric care, postnatal and newborn care.

Though it is the right thing to do, this partnership is not driven by morality but concrete evidence that reducing maternal and newborn deaths is the smartest investment for changing the fortunes of poor economies.

Our observations show that complex operations are not required to make a real difference; simple interventions such as ensuring more women give birth through a skilled attendant greatly increase chances of survival for mother and baby.

It is about convincing communities to eschew practices such as early marriage and others that invariably occur without girls’ consent, robbing them of their childhood, forcing them out of school, trapping them in poverty, and putting them at a higher risk of potentially dangerous pregnancies and childbirth.

It is about empowering women to plan whether and when to have children, thereby giving them a better chance to complete their education, increase their earning power and reducing poverty.

It is also about exploiting local resources, working with structures that local communities are comfortable with. In Wajir County for instance, local community health volunteers have been trained to identify pregnant women within clusters of some 10 000 people, linking them to local health facilities to receive antenatal care.

The volunteers provide health education to pregnant mothers on the importance of antenatal care, the importance of recognizing danger signs during pregnancy, during delivery and in post-delivery.

Already, deliveries under skilled care are increasing, assisted also the Kenyan government’s free maternity care scheme.

Global data indicates that the highest benefits from reducing unintended pregnancies would be seen in the poorest countries, with GDP increases ranging from one to eight percent by 2035. There are few interventions that would result in such wide-ranging impacts.

Sure as we are about the steps needed to move forward, it is, however a window that will not remain open forever and the urgency of the moment cannot be over-emphasized.


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India’s Children: Plagued by Preventable Diseases from Poor Sanitation Thu, 14 Jan 2016 05:46:32 +0000 Malini Shankar 0 Zimbabwe: Poverty Stunting Minds and Growth Tue, 12 Jan 2016 06:10:55 +0000 Ignatius Banda A small boy plays with his toys. Poor nutrition in Zimbabwe is exposing vulnerable children nutrition to mental health challenges according to humanitarian agencies. Credit: Ignatius Banda/IPS

A small boy plays with his toys. Poor nutrition in Zimbabwe is exposing vulnerable children nutrition to mental health challenges according to humanitarian agencies. Credit: Ignatius Banda/IPS

By Ignatius Banda
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Jan 12 2016 (IPS)

Mildren Ndlovu* knows the mental toll of Zimbabwe’s long-drawn economic hardships in a country where a long rehashed statistic by labour unions puts unemployment at 90 per cent.

Ndlovu, a 27-year-old single mother is raising two children, both under 5-years old, and survives on menial jobs such as doing laundry and dishes in neighbouring homes, says she has watched their health deteriorate and not just physically.

“I know they are not growing up the way other children are,” Ndlovu said, as she changed the underwear of her four-year who had just soiled himself.

“At his age, he should be able to visit the toilet by himself, yet I still have to change him,” she said from her one roomed shack in one of Bulawayo’s poor townships that litter the city’s north.

Ndlovu’s concerns about the slow development of her children point to the broader effects of Zimbabwe’s economic decline on vulnerable groups, with the UNICEF early this month releasing the Zimbabwe Poverty Atlas 2015 ( showing high poverty levels across the country that are affecting children’s mental health.

At the launch of the report, UNICEF, the World Bank and government officials said the poverty atlas is an attempt recognise that “Children are rarely recognised in poverty alleviation efforts and their needs are not properly addressed.”

According to the report, no child from the poorest health quintile reaches higher education, with eight of the country’s ten provinces registering poverty levels between 65 and 75 per cent.

“Child poverty has reduced (their) mental health and is reponsible for poverty when they are adults,” said Dr. Jane Muita, UNICEF’s deputy resident representative in Zimbabwe.

“It (child poverty) results in lower skills and productivity, lower levels of health and educational achievement,” Dr. Muita said.

According Zimbabwe’s health and child welfare, the country has witnessed an increase in mental health diagnoses, and has put in place a Mental Health Strategy 2014-18 to deal with the crisis.

The ministry blames the tough economic conditions that have thrown millions into the streets of unemployment.

There are no available figures of how mental health has affected children, but concerns by parents such as Ndlovu are giving a human face to a crisis that has been highlighted by the UNICEF report on child poverty and their mental health.

In some parts of Zimbabwe in the south-west districts such as Nkayi were found to have up to 95.6 per cent of poverty, while Lupane poverty levels stood at 93 per cent according to the UNICEF’s Zimbabwe Poverty Atlas.

There are concerns that this will slow the country’s march towards realising its Sustainable Development Goals to reduce child poverty by 2030.

Last year, the Zimbabwe Vulnerable Assessment Committee found that up to 36 per cent of children in Zimbabwe have stunted growth which experts say has not only affected them physically, but has also slowed their mental growth because of poor diets.

“The problem with children’s health and their mental development is that the attitude of both parents and some health workers is that these children will soon grow out of these challenges,” said Obias Nsamala, a Bulawayo pediatrician.

“But what I have seen with many children under 5 years is that these mental deficits can be detected when they come for treatment but only become an issue by the time they have began school. I think that is why for a long time this country had something like special classes for children not intellectually gifted,” Nsamala told IPS.

“I believe its been a wrong approach because some of these children may be slow learners or intellectually challenged not because of some genetic deficit but because all the signs were ignored earlier on based on their backgrounds and access to adequate meals,” he said.

As the country seeks to improve the lives of vulnerable groups such as children with government officials saying the country needs to grow the economy in order to reduce poverty, there is no consensus on how exactly this will be achieved to attract investment, with the country continuing to rely on international development partners to create safety nets for the poor.

From 2014 to June last year, UNICEF says it spent 363 million dollars on social services, this at time the country’s critical social services ministries are facing budget cuts which officials have admitted made it impossible to provide adequate assistance such as health care.

Under the 2016 national budget, the health and child welfare ministry received 330 million dollars which will largely be funded by donor countries, leaving a huge deficit which Minister David Parirenyatwa said is not enough to meet such such sectors as the poorly funded psychiatric clinics.

Perhaps to highlight these funding challenges, officials at the country’s largest psychiatric institution which caters for adults, Ingutsheni Hospital in Bulawayo early this year told Minister Parirenyatwa that the mental health hospital requires 23 doctors but only had six.

The social welfare ministry, also previously offering financial support for vulnerable group’s such Ndlovu’s children, has complained of poor funding from government.

Aid agencies say millions will require food assistance in 2016, further pushing Ndlovu and many others on the edge of what UNICEF’s Poverty Atlas says are their mental needs.

*name changed to protect her identity


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Syrian Government to Allow Aid, Loosening the Stranglehold on Madaya Fri, 08 Jan 2016 22:25:56 +0000 Katherine Mackenzie Photo: OpenStreetMap and MapQuest

Photo: OpenStreetMap and MapQuest

By Katherine Mackenzie
ROME, Jan 8 2016 (IPS)

The Syrian government says it will allow humanitarian aid into the besieged rebel-held town of Madaya, according to the United Nations, following reports and horrific pictures of residents starving to death. Aid is expected to reach the area by Monday, but for some it is too little and too late.

The plight of Madaya’s citizens only came to the world’s attention when residents somehow managed to get video out to Britain’s independent television network, ITV. The images of skeletal children and babies rocked the world’s conscience. The report said many were reduced to eating dirt and grass. Some, it said, had eaten cats and dogs.

“The people of Syria are on their knees. The economy has collapsed, essential infrastructure like water and power networks are hanging by a thread, and on top of that a very cold winter is bearing down,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “12 million people inside Syria are in dire need for help.”

The United Nations and ICRC was granted access yesterday but the operation isn’t expected to happen before Sunday or Monday. The ICRC in Syria said details are still being sorted out. The United Nations World Food Programme, WFP, said it expected food convoys to make it to the area by Monday.

The ICRC said its priority, with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, is to bring assistance to 500,000 people living in besieged or difficult to reach areas, such as Madaya, Zabadani, Foua and Kefraya.

“Almost 42,000 people remaining in Madaya are at risk of further hunger and starvation. The UN has received credible reports of people dying from starvation and being killed while trying to leave. On 5 January 2016, a 53- year old man reportedly died of starvation while his family of five continues to suffer from severe malnutrition,” a UN statement said on Thursday.

The UN said it had government permission to access Kefraya and Foah in the north of the country besieged by rebel forces while Madaya and Zabadani are besieged by government forces.

Up to 4.5 million people in Syria live in hard-to-reach areas, including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to the life-saving aid they urgently need.

Medicins Sans Frontieres, (MSF), called the noose around Madaya, “a total stranglehold siege.” It said, “Around 20,000 residents of the town are facing life-threatening deprivation of the basics for survival, and 23 patients in the health centre supported by MSF have died of starvation since December 1. MSF welcomes reports that the Syrian government will allow food supplies into the area, but urges that an immediate life-saving delivery of medicine across the siege line should also be a priority, and calls for sick patients to be allowed urgent medical evacuation to safe places of treatment.”

Of the 23 people who died, said MSF, six were under one-year old, five were over 60, and the other 12 were between five and 60. It said this shows the situation is affecting all age-groups.

The last aid trucks took in medical and humanitarian supplies to the village in October, and then some people were evacuated in December but there has been no new humanitarian access since despite repeated requests.

“Up to 4.5 million people in Syria live in hard-to-reach areas including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to the life-saving aid they urgently need,” said the U.N. statement. “The ongoing conflict continues to hamper the humanitarian response and freedom of movement is restricted by the presence of armed actors and landmines.”

The new head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, said on Thursday that with record numbers of refugees and displaced people worldwide there needs to be greater diplomatic effort to find solutions to conflicts and abuses driving people from their homes.

“UNHCR is navigating extraordinarily difficult waters,” said Filippo Grandi at his debut press conference after taking office on January 1. “We owe it first and foremost to the forcibly displaced themselves, but we also owe it to States…States are desperately looking for solutions to situations involving refugees,” he declared, and stressed: “Even under more desperate circumstances we have to think of solving displacement.”

Grandi stressed that countries which host especially large numbers of refugees, such as Lebanon, now home to over one million Syrians, need better help. He also highlighted resettlement, humanitarian visas and family reunification as tools which can allow refugees to find safety in other countries, “not through trafficking but by what we call legal pathways.”

Aid agencies are stretched with no respite in the streams of people leaving conflict areas and seeking assistance. WFP said on Wednesday that it has sufficient funding to provide food assistance to 526,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees in Jordan for the first five months of the current year.

“This is the first time since December 2013 when we managed to receive enough funding to secure assistance over the next five months,” said Shaza Moghraby, WFP’s spokesperson in Jordan.


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India Needs to “Save its Daughters” Through Education and Gender Equality Fri, 08 Jan 2016 07:42:22 +0000 Neeta Lal 0 Wrong Time of the Month: a Rights Gap for Developing Countries’ Girls Thu, 07 Jan 2016 10:23:11 +0000 Gina Din and Siddharth Chatterjee Gina Din, the Founder and CEO of the Gina Din group, is a businesswoman from Kenya specializing in strategic communication and public relations. She was named CNBC outstanding businesswoman of the year for East Africa 2015 as well as 40 most influential voices in Africa. Siddharth Chatterjee is the UNFPA Representative to Kenya.]]> Gina Din, the Founder and CEO of the Gina Din group, is a businesswoman from Kenya specializing in strategic communication and public relations. She was named CNBC outstanding businesswoman of the year for East Africa 2015 as well as 40 most influential voices in Africa. Siddharth Chatterjee is the UNFPA Representative to Kenya.]]> 0 Hail to the Cowpea: a Blue Ribbon for the Black-Eyed Pea Tue, 05 Jan 2016 14:48:42 +0000 Nteranya Sanginga

Nteranya Sanginga is the Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

By Nteranya Sanginga
IBADAN, Nigeria, Jan 5 2016 (IPS)

2016 is the International Year of Pulses, and we at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture are proud to be organizing what promises to be the landmark event, the Joint World Cowpea and Pan-African Grain Legume Research Conference.

Nteranya Sanginga, Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Courtesy of IITA

Nteranya Sanginga, Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Courtesy of IITA

The March event in Zambia should draw experts from around the continent and beyond and offer an opportunity to share ideas into the edible seeds – cowpeas, common bean, lentils, chickpeas, faba and lima beans and other varieties – now enjoying their well-deserved 15 minutes of fame as nutritional superstars.

Pulses may look small, but they are a big deal.

Nutritionists consistently find that their low glycemic profiles and hefty fiber content help prevent and manage the so-called diseases of affluence, such as obesity and diabetes. And the protein they pack holds great potential to assist the world in managing its livestock practices in a more sustainable way, so that more people can enjoy better and more varied middle-income diets without placing excess strains on natural resources.

First and foremost, we must make more pulses available. Global per capita availability of pulses declined by more than a third in the four decades following the 1960s. But production has been growing sharply since 2005, especially in developing countries. Cowpeas have been one of the specific leaders of this trend, which has been marked by very welcome increases in yield as well as more hectares being planted.

Importantly, almost a fifth of all pulses today are traded, up almost three-fold from the 1980s, a pace that vastly outstrips the growing trade in cereals. Moreover, while North America is an exporting powerhouse, so is East Africa and Myanmar; more than half of all pulses exports now come from developing countries.

There is a serious opportunity to scale up these protean protein sources.

The good news for the millions of small family farmers is that this may be more about reclaiming a traditional virtue than revolution. After all, the prolific Arab traveler Ibn Battuta wrote about Bambara nuts fried in shea oil while on a trip to Mali and the Sahel back in 1352. The cowpea fritters, known as akara in Nigeria and often seen at roadside stands around West Africa, are their direct descendants, and the elder siblings of acarajés, declared part of the cultural heritage of Brazil – where they are eaten with shrimp – and where their Yoruba name survived the dreadful middle passage of the slave trade.

We at IITA have been cowpea champions for decades. Just this month Swaziland’s Ministry of Agriculture released to local farmers five new cowpea varieties we developed – seeds that mature up to 20 percent faster and yield up to four times more. That latest success comes in great measure, thanks to IITA’s gene bank, which holds, for the world community, 15,112 unique samples of cowpea hailing from 88 countries.

Why so many cowpeas? Our question is why aren’t more being grown!

After all, cowpea contains 25 percent protein, is an excellent conveyor of vitamins and minerals, adapts to a broad range of soil types, tolerates drought as well as shade, grows fast to combat erosion, and as a legume pumps nitrogen back into the soil. We can eat its main product – sometimes known as black-eyed peas – and animals enjoy the residual stems and leaves.

So why don’t we hear more about it? Well, perhaps the world wasn’t listening, but it’s about to have another chance.

Seriously, though, cowpeas come with problems. First of all, the plant is subject to assault at every point in its life cycle, be it from aphids, mosaic virus, pod borers, rival weeds, or the dreaded weevils that fight with fungi and bacteria to consume the seeds while in storage. These are things IITA scientists try to combat, through seed breeding or spreading innovative technologies such as the PICS bags that keep the weevils out.

There is much more to learn, about the plant, how to grow it, and how to bolster its role in the food system. I’lll wager that in the Year of Pulses much will be learned about processing, a critical phase, and one that is already allowing many Nigerian businesses to prosper. Perhaps big global food manufacturers will find new ways to grind pulses into their grain products to produce healthier foods with more complete proteins.

As for farming cowpea, the plant can serve to reduce weeds and fertilizer for the cash crops. It is also harvested before the cereal crops, offering food security and also flexibility, as farmers can choose to let the plants grow, reducing bean yields but increasing that of fodder.

The plant’s epicenter – genetically and today – is West Africa. Nigeria is the big producer, but is also the main importer from neighboring countries. Niger is the world’s biggest exporter. But its ability to deal with dry weather and help combat soil erosion might be of interest elsewhere, such as in Central America’s dry corridor.


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Malnutrition a Silent Emergency in Papua New Guinea Thu, 24 Dec 2015 08:12:22 +0000 Catherine Wilson 0 Despite Health Risks, Many Argue GMOs Could Help Solve Food Security Wed, 23 Dec 2015 13:52:03 +0000 Mbom Sixtus By Mbom Sixtus
YAOUNDE, Cameroon, Dec 23 2015 (IPS)

Cameroon is on the path to introduce genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). This would be overseen by the Cameroon Academy of Sciences, in collaboration with the National Biosafety Committee, if the Cameroon Cotton Corporation successfully implements a three-year test cultivation of cotton.

The introduction of GMOs is seen by many as a measure to improve Cameroon’s agricultural yields and guarantee food security, despite health risks.

“Genetically modified organisms will help Cameroon solve many problems which researchers of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development have not been able to solve using conventional selection and cross breeding. It will definitely guarantee food security and safety,” Dr. David Akuroh Mbah, Chief Research Officer at the Cameroon Academy of Sciences, told IPS.

He says though Cameroon hasn’t begun using genetic engineering to modify food crops and livestock, “There are a good number of them which will be modified to increase yield. Some health problems will equally be solved. A lot of drugs and pharmaceutical products are produced by genetically modification of organisms, either plants or animals.”

According to Dr. Mbah, insulin which is required almost on a daily basis by a good proportion of the Cameroon population is now produced by use of bacteria and animals. “If it is done in Cameroon, it would be cheaper,” he said.

To further his point, Dr. Mbah cites examples such as the African swine fever, bird flu and a toxic element in cassava tubers which he says can all be eliminated through genetic modification.

“When we introduce this technology, we would be able to introduce genes that will eliminate the toxins in cassava which is currently being consumed heavily by a majority of Cameroonians. Genetic modification has been developed to eliminate the spread of bird flu virus among humans, while increasing the production of chickens. GMO chickens are more resistant to the virus. A technique has also been discovered to make pigs immune to the African swine fever virus, but this is only done out of Cameroon for now,” he said.

The country held its first national forum on GMOS from September 8 to 10, 2015 bringing together biotechnologists, academics, government officials, businessmen and experts from research institutions to brainstorm and pave the way for an effective introduction of use of bioengineering in the country’s agro sector.

Emmanuel Mbonde, the country’s Minister of Mines, Industry and Technological Development says that participants’ contributions to the forum will later on enable the government to take needed measures to guarantee the security of its economic, social, cultural and environmental space and to make prudent decisions in the face of challenges of modern biotechnology.

A 2014 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, (ISAAA), shows Cameroon is among seven African countries (which include Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Egypt) engaged in test cultivation of GMOs.

Dr. Mbah says besides the forum, Cameroon had already adopted a law in 2003, to control modern biotechnology, genetic engineering or DNA technology and cloning.

“Now that the text of the application for the law has been signed, a National Biosafety Committee has been set up to guide the Ministry of Environment, Nature Protection and Sustainable Development on what type of biotechnology to authorize or prohibit.”

The Cameroon Academy of Science and the National Biosafety Committee would examine applications of private companies vying to use GMOs in Cameroon’s agriculture and livestock sectors.

Cameroon is currently testing the use of GMOs on cotton in three localities in the northern part of the country. The first phase of the testing was carried out in 2012, unannounced to the public. According to Celestin Klassou, a researcher at Cameroon Cotton Development Corporation, cotton produced during the first phase was resistant to pest and disease, and produced higher yields.

“There is a gene which is genetically engineered into the cotton. It is an experimental stage being carried out by the Cameroon Cotton Development Corporation in accordance with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Cameroon law,” said Dr. Mbah.

He equally notes that the same procedure would be used to improve agricultural production, adding that “people who are protesting against this system have insufficient information. We would not import GMOs from abroad. We will develop them here. However, there is a law which obliges traders to label products in shops so that citizens can choose freely between GMOs and natural products.”

Dr. Mbah also told IPS GMOs would be introduced widely in Cameroon if the three-year-long second phase which is on-going in three localities in the northern region is successful. The cotton corporation also produces edible cotton oil for commercialization.

Professor Vincent Titanji, a Cameroonian biotechnologist and Vice Chancellor of the Cameroon Christian University Institute, reaffirms that the benefits of GMOs are greater than any negative affects they might have in future.

“Remember that fire was discovered. It is both useful and harmful. ICTs are the same. I have been in the domain of bioengineering for over 30 years and none of the predicted effects have materialized. It was predicted that weeds will invade the entire ecosystems of countries like Brazil, the US, South Africa and China which produce GMOs massively. Even the toxic substances predicted, have not materialized,” said Proffessor Titanji.

The bio-technician urges Cameroonians to embrace the technology and master it, in order to be able to make the best out of it, and to effectively and efficiently handle any effects which may come up in future.

He says GMOs have been used on crops like maize, soya beans, sorghum, rice and cotton and that the trials on cotton in the north of Cameroon have proven to be better yielding and resistant to pest.“One or two negative effects such as a possible allergy should not scare people away from biotechnology.

Samson Tetang, Coordinator of a Cameroon-based NGO, Sustainable Society International says GMOs are needed for the development of agriculture and livestock. He however insists there must be a mechanism for bio-surveillance put in place to follow the risks. “Food shortage can be fought through the use of GMOs, but serious health hazards could be registered if no one monitors the plants and animals,”he said.

Marcel Moukend, an agro-engineer in charge of a National Support Program for Maize producers at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development tells IPS that the introduction of GMOs in Cameroon is not an emergency solution to food crisis.

He argues that there are programs at the Ministry of Agriculture which can guarantee food security.

“In our program, farmers only need to show us their land and we provide maize seeds to them free of charge. We provide natural composite seeds which yield between five to six tons per hectare and imported improved hybrid seeds which yield between eight to ten tons per hectare. There are programs for other crops,” he argued.

Some of the programs, such as a national program to strengthen solanum potato sub sector, was introduced in 2008.

The program aimed at helping farmers increase and maintain a high quality production of solanum potatoes only went functional this year and was effective, according to reports from the agriculture ministry.

The program targets 250,000 farming families in the West, North West, Adamawa, Far North and South West regions of Cameroon.

The Ministry of Economy, Planning and Regional Development launched 9 billion FCFA-worth agricultural programs this year, the programs dubbed, ‘Agropoles’, cover 17 projects which include the production of avocados, rice, pork, soya-bean oil as well as chicken in the Center, West, South, North and Littoral regions.

Emmanuel Mbom, Monitoring Officer at Counterpart International, told IPS that figures from the National Institute of Statistics show Cameroon is a food deficient country where one third of children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Mbom whose NGO is implementing a U.S government sponsored program which provides food to some 74,000 school children in underprivileged regions of Cameroon, insists yearly food shortages are growing and represent a threat to children and their communities.

In relation to the use of GMOs, to fight hunger and poverty in Africa, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which once owned shares in Monsanto, a top GMO producer, states in its annual letter African farmers could theoretically double their yields using new farming innovations such as the use of high yielding seeds resistant to droughts and disease.

It adds that “With the right investments, we can deliver innovation and information to enough farmers in Africa to increase productivity by 50 per cent for the continent overall.”

UNICEF says hunger is a great problem in Sub-Saharan Africa, where Cameroon is found, despite the fact that the region is home to abundant cultivatable land. It says 70 per cent of the population in the region practice farming but ironically the prevalence of hunger is highest in the world with one in five people underfed. Forty per cent of children under the age of five (25 million children) suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition.

But in the face of these nutrition problems, some conservatives and civil society activists in Cameroon still believe traditional methods of farming used over the years can be a solution.

Joshua Konkankoh, founder of the Better World Cameroon NGO tells IPS “GMOs account for a great deal to the loss of food sovereignty in Africa and in no way can become a solution.”

He shares the school of thought that the introduction of GMOs is an initiative of private seed companies to kill off Africa’s seed systems. He equally believes GMOs threaten the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers who rely on recycling seed for their livelihoods.

During the opening of Cameroon’s first national forum on GMOs in September 2015, civil society leaders stormed the venue of the meeting with placards.

Led by Bernard Njonga, a politician and former president of a farmers association, l’Association Citoyenne de Défense des Interest Collectives, (in French) they carried messages suggesting GMOs are cancerous herbicides and a threat to small scale farmers. Dr. Mbah however dismissed their claims, saying that they are not scientific and emanate from baseless presumptions.

While the debate on the introduction of GMOs in Cameroon is still going on with researchers urging farmers to dialogue with experts and understand the initiative before jumping to unscientific conclusions, a study by Dr. Wilfred Mbatcham, a biotechnology researcher, reveals 25 per cent of imported goods in Cameroon contain GMOs.

The Chief Research Officer at the Cameroon Academy of Sciences tells IPS that the National Biosafety Committee is yet to confirm such reports and identify importers of these products.


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Disabled Persons Not Part of AIDS Success in Zimbabwe Tue, 22 Dec 2015 20:48:49 +0000 Jeffrey Moyo By Jeffrey Moyo
SHURUGWI, Zimbabwe, Dec 22 2015 (IPS)

Wheelchair-bound, her body now skeletal from full blown AIDS, disabled 38-year-old Melisa Chigumba attempts to wave away a swarm of flies hovering around her face as she sits outside her home in Chachacha, a remote area in Shurugwi, 278 kilometers south of the capital, Harare.

Shown in the photo donning a red dress, is Zipha Moyo, a disabled HIV/AIDS activist recently making a presentation Harare, the Zimbabwean capital on the exclusion of People with Disabilities in HIV and AIDS programs. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

Shown in the photo donning a red dress, is Zipha Moyo, a disabled HIV/AIDS activist recently making a presentation Harare, the Zimbabwean capital on the exclusion of People with Disabilities in HIV and AIDS programs. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

Her husband, Francis, who also lived with a disability, succumbed to AIDS four years ago.

The couple’s three children, who were born infected with HIV, died in their infancy.

Melisa is a prime example of the millions of people here living with disabilities bearing the brunt of HIV/AIDS.

Her sister-in-law Meagan, according to the Zimbabwean culture is her aunt, now looks after her at their remote home, the only inheritance left for her by her husband.

According to the National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped (NASCOH), Zimbabwe has a population of almost 1.8 million people living with disabilities.

Amongst this population, are the deaf and mute who have not been spared by HIV/AIDS.

This is despite Zimbabwe making huge strides in reducing HIV/AIDS prevalence from 29 per cent in 1997 to approximately 13. 7 per cent now.

Many battling physical disabilities like Melisa here say they have apparently been left out in combating the disease in their circles.

“I have not heard of any efforts being made to help disabled HIV-positive persons like myself. There are no special government programs for us, and just like all able-bodied persons, we also queue for treatment drugs at clinics,” Melisa told IPS.

The HIV/AIDS plight affecting people living with disabilities in this southern African nation worsens at a time the rest of the world commemorated the International Day of Disabled Persons earlier this month.

The global day for the disabled was proclaimed in 1992 by the United Nations and aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.
But Zimbabwe’s disabled HIV/AIDS activists claimed there was no assistance in combating the virus.

“Although we are sexually active as well as vulnerable to rape and other forms of sexual abuse, as disabled people we are overlooked in national HIV prevention strategies because policymakers do not regard us as sexually active,” Agness Mapuranga, a Shurugwi-based disabled HIV/AIDS activist living with the virus, told IPS.

“We are the country’s least covered and engaged population by HIV/AIDS service organisations despite the fact that many of us also battle with the virus,” added Mapuranga.

To make matters worse, there are no recorded statistics from the country’s Ministry of Health and Child Care on how many people with disabilities are accessing HIV treatment drugs.

A top government official from the Ministry of Health and Child Care confessed the government’s shortcomings in fighting AIDS amongst people with disabilities.

“Government’s health delivery system lacks policies or programmes to equip HIV/AIDS caregivers with the skills and knowledge needed to effectively assist disabled people in HIV prevention,” the government official, told IPS on condition of anonymity for professional reasons.

Meanwhile, it is Zimbabwe’s hearing and visually impaired population that face the greatest HIV/AIDS threat, according to lobby groups here.

“A glaring example of the worst HIV/AIDS sufferers here are the hearing impaired and the visually impaired, where information is not available in formats accessible to them; that is in sign language and braille. No one can stand up and produce or show a comprehensive program on prevention, treatment and care for these two disability categories,” Farai Mukuta, Advocacy and Knowledge Management Advisor for the Disability, HIV and AIDS Trust (DHAT) and the Deaf Zimbabwe Trust (DZT), told IPS.

DHAT is a non-profit regional organization which was registered in Zimbabwe as a Trust in 2007 with the aim of promoting the rights and capacity building of Persons with Disabilities having cervical cancer, tuberculosis, infected and affected by HIV and AIDS.

Mukuta’s remarks resonate with other pro-disabled lead activists.

“Deaf people are faced with challenges regarding access to information. Sign language is the medium of communication for deaf and hard-of- hearing people and they need information in formats they understand,” Barbra Nyangairi, the DZT Executive Director, told IPS.

Nyangairi’s remarks are true for HIV positive Liberty Hungwe, who is deaf living in Shurugwi’s Tongogara area.

“For me, testing for HIV has been a challenge because service providers do not have sign language, and owing to that, when we went for testing, people like myself were just tested and there was no counselling either post or pre-test counselling, which are barriers for us in accessing HIV/AIDS services,” Hungwe told IPS through the aid of a sign language interpreter.

Based on findings by DHAT, HIV/AIDS challenges affecting people with disabilities stem from commonly held notions among health personnel that handicapped persons are not sexually active.

In a baseline study in 2012, the United Nations noted that Zimbabwe’s people with disabilities often lack confidentiality at HIV/AIDS voluntary counselling and testing centres due to the presence of interpreters.

A 2012 study by the UN said HIV/AIDS and disability was an “emerging issue” and “cause for concern” as people living with disabilities were at greater risk of exposure to HIV infection due to social exclusion and rejection.

“People living with disabilities are at great risk of acquiring HIV, while empirical evidence has also demonstrated that people with sensory impairments – the deaf and the blind – are more vulnerable than others, due to their special communication needs,” the UN report said then.

The UN report also noted the general absence of literature and media images that “incorporate the HIV and AIDS information needs of people with disabilities, especially the deaf and blind.”

Even leading activists for people living with disabilities here agree with the UN.

“The prevailing view in society is that PWDs are not sexually active and do not warrant inclusion in HIV and AIDS interventions. Consequently, there have been no deliberate efforts to address the issue of AIDS among people with disabilities and to incorporate them within the rubric of the national response,” Mukuta, told IPS.

“The reality is that disabled people are just as sexually active as the rest of the society and are even more at risk of infection because of the obvious barriers that they encounter in accessing vital information on HIV/AIDS,” added Mukuta.

Mukuta said Zimbabwe’s success story in combating HIV/AIDS excludes HIV positive people with disabilities (PWDs).

“Our country boasts of the fast falling rates of HIV infections, but in all this, people with disabilities have been systematically sidelined from all HIV and AIDS intervention programmes in the country, on the erroneous assumption that they are not sexually active,” Mukuta told IPS.

Despite the hurdles faced by many disabled HIV positive people like Shurugwi’s speech-impaired Hungwe, other lobby groups here brag they have played their part in combating HIV/AIDS spread among such minority groups.

“As Deaf Zimbabwe Trust, we have trained 20 deaf people as peer educators in order to provide accurate information to the deaf community and we intend to train more peer educators who are deaf so that they can cascade information while we are in the process of creating a support group for people who are deaf and living with AIDS,” Nyangairi told IPS.

But now hit with full blown AIDS, disabled and wheelchair-bound Chigumba is pessimistic.

“I just wait for my time to die and evade this pain,” Chigumba told IPS as she winced with pain.

Writer can be contacted at

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Cancer, Not Clashes, the Number One Killer in Kashmir Fri, 18 Dec 2015 07:35:11 +0000 Umar Shah A hospital in Srinagar, Kashmir. Credit: Umer Asif/IPS

A hospital in Srinagar, Kashmir. Credit: Umer Asif/IPS

By Umar Shah
SRINAGAR, India, Dec 18 2015 (IPS)

In an isolated ward of one of Kashmir’s largest government-run hospitals, 54-year-old Ashraf Ali Khan is finding it hard to sleep properly. His 15-year-old son, Asif, is sitting on a bench near the bed staring at his ailing father.

Asif has not been told by his family that his father is suffering from a potentially terminal disease cancer. He knows his father is suffering from a consistent fever which sent him to the hospital, but doesn’t know his father is in the last stage of the crippling disease.

Ashraf Ali, a carpenter, went to the doctor eight months ago after persistent coughing. He had a chest X-ray which then led to further examinations. After series of tests, it was finally he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He has two months to live at best.

Ashraf is among thousands of people who have ben struck down with the disease. In a war-torn Kashmir, about 4000 cases are found every year in this Himalayan region.

Apart from the political uncertainty, which so far has claimed thousands of lives, experts says there is a 20 per cent rise in cancer cases in Kashmir with figures never decreasing. The latest data published by the state’s health department has Kashmir topping the list of cancer cases in India.

The data reveals in the past three years, more than 1,700 people have died due to cancer in Kashmir. It says that since January 2014 there were 12,091 patients who were detected with cancer in various state hospitals. In 2013, 6,300 patients were detected with the killer disease.

The top 10 cancers taking a toll in Kashmir are lung cancer, stomach, colon (large intestine cancers), breast, brain, esophagus (cancer of food pipe), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, gastroesophageal, junction cancer (cancer between the stomach and food pipe), ovarian and skin cancers.

Experts say the cancer mortality rate among the people in Kashmir witnessed a sharp increase due to some leading behavioural and dietary risks, including high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use and lack of regular check-ups. Changing lifestyle, environmental degradation and differing food habits are reasons attributed to the surge in all the cancers especially in esophagus, colon and breast cancers.

Kashmir’s leading oncologist Mohammad Maqbool Lone says the situation in Kashmir is becoming more grim every day a with the highest number of lung cancers In the country found in the people of Kashmir.

“The situation is indeed alarming in Kashmir. There are patients hailing from every part of Kashmir including the far flung areas which are diagnosed with such a terminal disease,” says Lone.

Until now no single factor has been identified as the main cause of the rising cancers as compared to other regions of India. As health experts in Kashmir are not certain about the major causes for the rise of the deadly disease, they suspect three main components can trigger the rise of cancer in this Himalayan region.

One is a societal component with poor rural lifestyles and general deprivation, in particular a lack of vitamins and dietary nutrients.

The second reason for rising cancers in Kashmir is the use of copper utensils in cooking, the consumption of spicy, deep fried foodstuffs, and the drinking of hot salty tea which is largely being consumed in every home in Kashmir.

The third factor in rising cancer cases is an environmental issue with exposure to high levels of dietary nitrosamines from diverse sources. Overall, these three components are the general pattern that has led to esophageal and other cancers.

Oncologist Abdul Rashid Lone says that rising numbers of smokers has led to a rise in lung cancers here. He also claims that the detection rate also has increased besides the advancement in medical technologies.

“Earlier, most of the cancer cases in Kashmir used to go unnoticed. At present, the technology has advanced so much that a patient can be diagnosed with the disease. This is the main reason that today we say cancer cases rise in Kashmir,” Dr Lone said.

Oncologist Riyaz Ahmad Shah says that apart from the lung cancer, there are cases of stomach cancer on the rise in Kashmir. He says certain types of cancers are found in children including blood cancers and tumours.

“In case of females, there are cancers related to the reproductive system like cervical cancer, ovarian tumours and breast cancer. In males there are stomach, lung, and esophagus cancers found,” said Dr Shah.

Renowned gastroenterologist, Dr Showkat Ahmad Zargar, says any delay in the detection of cancer could prove fatal for the patient. He says due to the massive adulteration in food items, gastric diseases are on rise in Kashmir.

“Such diseases are killing people slowly. The people here are not very much health conscious which leads to the delay in detecting whether a person is suffering from a cancer or not,” Dr Showkat said.

“There are high chances that a person suffering from cancer can be cured if detected at early,” said Dr Sana-ul-lah who heads the oncology department in one of Kashmir’s leading government run hospitals.

Tobacco use in Kashmir has increased along with unhealthy diets. “If the key risk factors are avoided, Kashmir could be saved from this fatal disease which continues to claim thousands of precious lives every year in the region,” Dr Sana-ul-lah said.

Insha Usman, a research scholar says there are no major steps being taken by the state government to ensure that people are informed and are aware of cancer. She says early symptoms and preventive measures should be made public in far flung areas of Kashmir so that people are conscious of the cancer threat.

“Ironically, there is no comprehensive policy available with the government at the present time that could have made people aware of such a fatal disease. Mass awareness campaigns in villages and towns and people are informed about the symptoms of cancer and early treatment,” she said.

According to the latest study, colorectal cancer (CRC) is the major cause of mortality and morbidity worldwide and in Kashmir, CRC has been found to be the third most common gastrointestinal cancer after esophageal and gastric.

The study says there are certain factors which increase person’s risk of developing CRC. “The most important of these are the age, diet, obesity, diabetes and smoking, personal cancer history, alcohol consumption, large intestinal polyps, family history of colon cancer, race and ethnic background, genetic or family predisposition,” said the finding.

It adds that another major cause of cancer deaths was a late visit to the doctor. “The involvement of quacks, inexperienced medical practitioners and post-referral delays make the situation difficult to handle,” the study concluded.

The steady rise in cancer patients began several decades ago leading to the establishment of an NGO. The Cancer Society of Kashmir, formed in 1999, provides medical and financial help to poor patients suffering from the dreadful disease here.

Masood Ahmad Mir from Cancer Society of Kashmir says that they have started a one-day care centre which runs twice a week. “During this time, doctors from different fields like medical oncology, radio oncology, and gastroenterology sit together and treat patients. We do not charge anything from the people who visit us for the treatment,” he said.


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Weak Agriculture Finance Feeds Malnutrition in Zimbabwe Tue, 15 Dec 2015 10:34:58 +0000 Ignatius Banda By Ignatius Banda
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Dec 15 2015 (IPS)

Successive poor harvests have diminished Ndodana Makhalima’s household food stocks and the family’s nutrition status.

A subsistence farmer in Lupane, about 110 kilometres north of Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, 56 year-old Makhalima has learnt to live with hunger on his door step.

Farmers will have limited access to climate smart agricultural knowledge and skills as cash strapped Zimbabwe cuts technical assistance from agricultural extension officers. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Farmers will have limited access to climate smart agricultural knowledge and skills as cash strapped Zimbabwe cuts technical assistance from agricultural extension officers. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

“In the past I could eat umxhanxa (a mix of maize and melon) and inkobe (a mix of maize, cow peas, and groundnuts) throughout the year, but not anymore,” Makhalima said.

“My silo is empty and my family has nothing to eat. I think today’s children will never know the kind of body-building foods we ate when I was young,” he said, highlighting the extent of compromised household
nutrition across rural Zimbabwe.

The country’s rural-based subsistence farmers are facing a myriad of challenges with the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) warning of another drought during the 2015/16 season, which could further compromise already dire nutritional needs in a country where the UN World Food Programme (WFP) says millions will require food assistance.

But it is the financing of the sector, once a major contributor to the country’s GDP, that has further dwindled hopes for relief for Makhalima and millions of other rural farmers.

Zimbabwe requires millions of dollars to fund irrigation schemes dotted across the country and while the climate ministry and the meteorological services department announced a cloud seeding exercise in October to boost rainfall, this is yet to take off.

The meteorological office also announced it would be buying an aeroplane for cloud seeding, but the department has previously complained of financial constraints that have affected its operations. It is not clear where financing for the aircraft will come from. Experts however say cloud seeding can be done when there are particular clouds that favour the exercise.

Announcing the national budget on 26 Nov, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa said agriculture will require 1, 7 billion dollars, while setting aside 28 million dollars to fund farming inputs for 300,000 vulnerable rural households.

Under the scheme, small-holder farmers will receive maize and small grain seed and fertiliser.

But farmer unions say more will be required beyond these hand-outs as the country’s rain-fed agriculture faces
prolonged dry spells.
”The importance of this sector lies in its contribution to export earnings of around 30 per cent, 60-70 per cent of employment and about 19 per cent of GDP, that way providing a major source of livelihood for over 70 per cent [of the population],” Chinamasa told parliament in his budget presentation.

According to Chinamasa, agriculture production, which saw a plunge of 51 per cent from the 2013/14 season, will recover by 1.8 per cent despite the climate ministry’s warning that 2015/16 will be a
drought year.
The day after the budget presentation, Minister Chinamasa told a breakfast meeting that Zimbabwe would sign a 60-million dollar agreement with the UN International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) to finance irrigation which the agriculture ministry is touting as a solution to boost agriculture production.

Yet subsistence farmers, who have relied on technical assistance from agriculture extension officers, could face tougher times ahead after the finance minister announced that these officers will face the chop as part of government efforts to reduce its wage bill.
These cuts come at a time when farmers seek new farming knowledge and skills to deal with climate vulnerability blamed for poor harvests.

The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC), established by government and which sets benchmarks for rural nutrition with support from the UN World Food Programme, says 1.5 million people or 16 per cent of the country’s rural population, are food insecure. ZimVAC notes that this is a163 per cent increase from last year.

Development agencies have tied nutrition to people’s ability to lead productive lives with access to nutrition especially emphasised for vulnerable groups such as people living with HIV and Aids. WFP is already assisting malnourished HIV and Aids and tuberculosis patients around the country through the Health and Nutrition programme, with the potential to assist millions of patients living in rural areas according to the country’s health ministry.

There are, however, concerns that failed agriculture and poor harvests that have depleted household food stocks will make it difficult for HIV and Aids patients to access much needed nutritional support — a
vital requirement in anti-retroviral therapy.

During the October World Food Day commemorations led by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and WFP, FAO Sub-Regional Coordinator for Southern Africa and Representative in Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana, David Phiri, noted that the UN in Zimbabwe “recognises that in order to achieve inclusive agricultural development and food and nutrition security, targeted social protection programmes should be in place.”

As part of efforts to improve agriculture production and nutrition, FAO and WFP are assisting small-holders in adopting climate smart agriculture, complementing government efforts that emphasise rehabilitation of irrigation schemes across the country.

These interventions could offer much-need relief for farmers like Makhalima, for whom agriculture is vital for nutrition and income.


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Haina, a Dominican City Famous Only for Its Pollution Tue, 15 Dec 2015 07:35:55 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez A view of Gringo beach and, in the background, the city of Bajos de Haina, the Dominican Republic’s main industrial hub and port, and the third-most polluted city in the world. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

A view of Gringo beach and, in the background, the city of Bajos de Haina, the Dominican Republic’s main industrial hub and port, and the third-most polluted city in the world. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

By Ivet González
BAJOS DE HAINA, Dominican Republic , Dec 15 2015 (IPS)

Rubbish covers the beaches and clutters the rivers, the garbage dump is not properly managed, and more than 100 factories spew toxic fumes into the air in the city of Bajos de Haina, a major industrial hub and port city in the Dominican Republic.

“We’ve only made it into the news as one of the world’s most polluted places,” lamented Adriana Vallejo, a schoolteacher who talked to IPS in the Centro Educativo Manuel Felix Peña, a school that teaches the arts in this city 80 km to the south of Santo Domingo.

Vallejo was referring to the list of the 10 most polluted places on earth drawn up periodically by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute (which has changed its name to Pure Earth).

The Institute’s latest report, from 2013, listed Bajos de Haina in third place, after Dzerzhinsk, Russia, and Chernobyl, Ukraine, which suffered one of the worst environmental disasters in history, caused by the catastrophic nuclear accident in 1986.

“Those up above are not paying attention to the environmental problem,” said Vallejo, referring to the ruling classes and the authorities. “We, from here down below, can do practically nothing.”

According to the “Map of Poverty in the Dominican Republic 2014”, 33 percent of households in this city of 159,000 people are poor.

“Private companies contribute a little to improving things, but only with small gestures, such as facilities at the school that were refurbished by the oil refinery (the only one in this Caribbean island nation). We haven’t seen a real desire for Haina to change,” said the teacher, who has lived here for 25 years.

“When the situation gets out of hand, we hold protest marches,” she said. “The people have had to take to the streets to fight serious problems like burning in the garbage dump, which enveloped Haina in a curtain of smoke.”

The manufacturing, chemical products, pharmaceutical, metallurgical and power plants and the oil refinery emit every a combined total of 9.8 tons of formaldehyde, 1.2 tons of lead, 416 tons of ammonium, and 18.5 tons of sulfuric acid annually.

The mouth of the Ñagá River, whose waters have darkened as a result of industrial waste and which has become more narrow due to the loss of the mangroves lining the banks, in the Dominican Republic coastal city of Bajos de Haina. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

The mouth of the Ñagá River, whose waters have darkened as a result of industrial waste and which has become more narrow due to the loss of the mangroves lining the banks, in the Dominican Republic coastal city of Bajos de Haina. Credit: Dionny Matos/IPS

The city’s thermoelectric complex produces more than 50 percent of the electricity available for the economy and the country’s 9.3 million inhabitants.

In this city, 84 hazardous substances have been identified, 65 of which are major toxics.

Factories dump waste into the rivers and the sea. And noise pollution is another problem affecting human health.

Scientific studies warn that a majority of local residents suffer from ailments such as asthma, bronchitis, the flu and acute diarrhea.

In this city of 50 square km, the main environmental woes are air, water and noise pollution, problems caused by the open-air dump, and municipal solid waste scattered everywhere.

Where tons of garbage now cover a wide open area, there was a forest 30 years ago, “where I used to wander as a kid,” said high school math teacher Juan Ventura, who took IPS to the dump. “People who used to live around here back then are nostalgic and sad; we miss what was once a natural area that used to be known as El Naranjal.”

“The city’s garbage is brought here, with absolutely no kind of health policies. For decades, they even brought in part of the garbage from Santo Domingo. The only thing they did was burn it, and the entire local population had to breathe the nauseating smoke.

“It’s pathetic that the local authorities have no serious policy for recycling, and some local residents scavenge waste materials on their own, without any protective measures,” he said, pointing to around a dozen men and women sorting through bags of garbage for scraps of material, plastic and metal, to classify and sell them to recycling companies.

One of the women, her hands filthy from scavenging, told IPS that she is involved in this informal activity because of the money she can earn.

The woman, who is originally from neighbouring Haiti, said she makes between 22 and 44 dollars a day collecting plastic that she resells – a considerable sum in a country where the minimum monthly wage is 231 dollars.

The authorities say Haina is suffering from the legacy of years of nearly non-existent environmental legislation.

The neighbourhood Paraíso de Dios or God’s Paradise turned into a living hell during the 20 years that the Metaloxa car battery recycling smelter operated there with no environmental controls or oversight. Local residents in the area where the plant used to operate have extremely high blood lead levels.

For a decade the community put up a battle until Metaloxa was forced to pull out in 1999, when the Public Health Ministry finally took action.

But many locals suffered irreversible damage to their health.

Residents of this city complain that enforcement of the 2000 law on the environment and natural resources is lax.

“There is no respect for the environment,” Mackenzie Andújar, a 41-year-old plumber who lives in the area of Gringo beach, told IPS. “There is no control over factories here; they dump their toxic waste out of chimneys and into the water. The situation in Haina has only gotten worse in recent years.”

The Ñagá River, which flows into the sea at Gringo beach, is filthy and narrow as a result of garbage dumps and deforestation. Plastic bottles, cardboard, old clothes and other trash is strewn over the sand dunes, while children splash in the water. The view from the beach is the furnaces and smokestacks of the nearby factories.

“The locals are uncultured; when a dog or other animal dies, they throw the corpse into the river or on the beach, instead of burying it,” said Andújar.

The environmental crisis, the high population density, the poor living conditions and the lack of services infrastructure make this a conflict-ridden area, according to the 2011 study titled “a socioeconomic and environmental diagnosis on the management of solid household waste in the municipality of Haina”

“The environmental problems in our community are hard to deal with, but we also have social contamination caused by crime and young people’s lack of interest in studying,” said music student Juan Elías Andújar.

“In school they talk to us about ecological issues,” he told IPS. “We have a group called ‘Guardians of Nature’, to raise social awareness and carry out actions like clean-ups of beaches. Haina could change if each person were willing to make an effort.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Immigration – Still a Pending Issue in Cuban-U.S. Relations Thu, 10 Dec 2015 23:09:03 +0000 Patricia Grogg Hundreds of Cubans gathered outside the Ecuadorean embassy in Havana in an infrequent public display of discontent, protesting Quito’s decision to require that Cubans visiting Ecuador obtain a visa. Many held up the airplane tickets they had already bought, asking to be given visas or to be reimbursed for the money they had spent. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Hundreds of Cubans gathered outside the Ecuadorean embassy in Havana in an infrequent public display of discontent, protesting Quito’s decision to require that Cubans visiting Ecuador obtain a visa. Many held up the airplane tickets they had already bought, asking to be given visas or to be reimbursed for the money they had spent. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Dec 10 2015 (IPS)

The crisis that has broken out at several border crossings in Latin America as a result of thousands of Cubans attempting to reach the United States has revived a problem that remains unresolved between the two countries in spite of agreements, negotiations and the diplomatic thaw that started a year ago.

In the meantime, measures taken by Havana to curb the exodus of health professionals have led to reversals in the flexibilisation of the country’s migration policies which was part of the reforms being adopted, and have given rise to reflection on the causes and the consequences for the country of the growing wish to move abroad.

Analysts say it’s time to discuss why so many young people want to leave Cuba, despite the risks of failing in their attempt. In October 2012, the government of Raúl Castro lifted the restrictions that for decades kept Cubans from going abroad, eliminating, for example, the requirement of an exit visa to leave the country.

But the main hurdle was still the visa demanded by the United States, the main recipient of immigration from Cuba, and nearly all other countries. “Two friends of mine are stuck in Costa Rica and another was about to buy a ticket to fly to Ecuador when that country began to demand an entry visa, starting on Dec. 1,” a young local musician who preferred not to give his name told IPS.

In response to the announcement that Ecuador would no longer be one of the few countries to which Cubans can freely travel, around 300 people protested outside the Ecuadorean embassy to demand a solution. Some cried while others asked for visas or to be reimbursed for the money they had spent on plane tickets.

Meanwhile, on Monday Dec. 7 the Cuban government put into effect Decree 306, approved on Oct. 11, 2012, which regulates travel abroad of health professionals – a measure that upset a sector that contributes some eight billion dollars a year to state coffers from services provided to third countries.

“Everyone is against the measure, and protesting,” Graciela Nantes, a retired doctor who still works at a hospital in Havana under short-term contracts, told IPS. “Some people were even crying because they have sons and daughters and other relatives outside the country. But what can you do? The measure is a step backwards with regard to a right that had been won.”

Aspiring immigrants to the United States wait in line in the Cuban capital outside the U.S. embassy, which was reopened this year after the two countries reestablished diplomatic ties. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Aspiring immigrants to the United States wait in line in the Cuban capital outside the U.S. embassy, which was reopened this year after the two countries reestablished diplomatic ties. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

The authorities have stated that the idea is not to ban travel abroad, but to require that doctors with specialties considered essential or key to scientific research and final year residents apply for a special permit to leave the country, in order to guarantee the stability and functioning of the country’s health services.

According to official data from 2014, Cuba has more than 50,000 health workers on assignments in 66 countries. Over 60 percent of them are women and around half are doctors. The main recipients of Cuban health professionals in Latin America are Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador, in that order.

The growing migration of Cubans, especially people between the ages of 20 and 40, and women – in 2014, 52 percent of the 46,662 people who left Cuba were female – poses a new challenge for Cuba, due to the low birth rates and an ageing population.

In 2012 the birth rate was 11.3 for every 1,000 inhabitants, 1.5 less than in 2011, while 18.3 percent of the population of 11.2 million was over 60.

“It is young people, from Cuba’s economically active population, who are emigrating, reducing the replacement of the labour force,” economist Blanca Munster of the Centre for Research on the International Economy told IPS. “And more and more women are leaving, reducing the replacement of the population, because they delay the decision to have children until they have settled in the country where they are headed, or by taking their kids with them.”

The protest outside the Ecuadorean embassy took place while more than 5,000 Cuban migrants remained stranded, on Thursday Dec. 10, at the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, due to the latter country’s refusal to let them in. Another 1,000 are waiting to cross the border between Colombia and Panama.

From Ecuador, on their grueling journey to the United States, Cuban migrants go through Colombia and Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and other Central American countries before crossing Mexico and reaching the U.S. border.

Sources in the United States estimate that over 43,000 Cubans reached that country between October 2014 and September 2015, mainly entering across the Mexican border. According to human rights groups, Mexico is where migrants face the greatest threat of being robbed, raped, or even killed.

Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González told IPS in San José that “These people are brought in by the mafias, the international people trafficking networks; without a doubt they are risking their lives. We have received reports of women who have been raped, who have crossed through jungles, and of children who are put in danger. The conditions are deplorable.”

For years Latin American migrants have used the route through Central America to try to make it to the United States. The trafficking rings charge Cubans up to 10,000 dollars for smuggling them into that country. But the flow was cut off when Costa Rica adopted measures against human trafficking in early November.

The crisis coincided with a new round of the periodic migration talks between Cuba and the United States, held to assess the implementation of the agreements reached in 1994 and 1995 aimed at ensuring “safe, legal and orderly” migration. Until the thaw agreed on Dec. 17, 2014, the negotiations were the only regular dialogue between Washington and Havana.

In the talks on Nov. 30, as on previous occasions, Cuba repeated its request for the repeal of the 1966 U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which guarantees residency one year on to any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. soil

In the meantime, “balseros” or “rafters” intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba in compliance with the bilateral accords. And during these talks and in official statements, before and after the restoration of diplomatic ties in July, Washington ruled out any changes in its migration policy towards Cuba.

Havana argues that these policies foment illegal migration, and that the 2006 Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program encourages Cuban medical personnel to leave their posts in third countries and go to the United States.

That programme has drawn over 5,000 Cuban doctors to abandon their overseas assignments. This, together with the freedom to emigrate that health professionals have enjoyed, the retirement of doctors, and the number of medical workers who have switched to other economic activities “have made it even more difficult to maintain the domestic health services,” analyst Jesús Arboleya wrote in an article on the issue.

Experts like Antonio Aja, author of the book “Al cruzar las fronteras” (When Crossing Borders), say Cuba is a source of immigrants, and emigration will continue even under optimal domestic economic conditions.

According to his estimates, one out of three or four people living in Cuba have relatives abroad.

He said social networks are one of the factors that draw people to other countries, along with the search for better economic conditions, jobs and wages. “The thing is, when they get to the United States, they tend to declare themselves as immigrants motivated by political reasons, for their immigration status,” Aja told IPS.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Mother-to-Child AIDS Transmission Dealt a Blow in Zimbabwe Tue, 01 Dec 2015 10:38:51 +0000 Jeffrey Moyo 0 On World AIDS Day 2015: HIV Orphans in India Struggle With the Disease and for Their Future Mon, 30 Nov 2015 21:46:55 +0000 Malini Shankar 0