Inter Press Service » Women & Economy Turning the World Downside Up Mon, 03 Aug 2015 23:46:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 U.N.’s Post-2015 Development Agenda Under Fire Wed, 29 Jul 2015 23:19:17 +0000 Thalif Deen Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from left) with Irish Minister and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Dublin. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from left) with Irish Minister and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Dublin. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

By Thalif Deen

The U.N.’s highly ambitious post-2015 development agenda, which is expected to be finalised shortly, has come fire even before it could get off the ground.

A global network of civil society organisations (CSOs), under the banner United Nations Major Groups (UNMG), has warned that the agenda, which includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), “lacks urgency, a clear implementation strategy and accountability.”“We hoped for a progressive and fair financing agreement that addressed the root causes of global economic inequality and its impact on women’s and girls’ lives. But that’s not what we got." -- Shannon Kowalski

Savio Carvalho of Amnesty International (AI), which is part of the UNMG, told IPS the post-2015 agenda has become an aspirational text sans clear independent mechanisms for people to hold governments to account for implementation and follow-up.

“Under the garb of national ownership, realities and capacities, member states can get away doing absolutely nothing. We would like them to ensure national priorities are set in conformity with human rights principles and standards so that we are not in the same place in 2030,” he added.

The 17 SDGs, which are to be approved by over 150 political leaders at a U.N. summit meeting in September, cover a wide range of socio-economic issues, including poverty, hunger, gender equality, sustainable development, full employment, quality education, global governance, human rights, climate change and sustainable energy for all.

All 17 goals, particularly the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger worldwide, are expected to be met by the year 2030.

The proposed follow-up and review, as spelled out, lacks a strong accountability mechanism, “with several references to national sovereignty, circumstances and priorities which risk undermining the universal commitment to deliver on the SDGs,” says UNMG.

“We are wondering how committed member states will be able to ensure genuine public participation, in particular of the most marginalised in each society, in decisions that will have an impact on their lives.”

This applies also to questions related to financing (budget allocations) in the actual implementation of the agenda, says a statement titled “Don’t break Your Promise Before Making it”.

“We are keen to ensure that people are able to hold governments to account to these commitments so that these goals are delivered and work for everyone,” says UNMG, which includes a number of coalitions and networks who will be monitoring the post-2015 process.

These groups include CSOs representing women, children and youth, human rights, trade unions and workers, local authorities, volunteers and persons with disabilities.

Asked about the composition of the UNMG, Jaimie Grant, who represents the secretariat for Persons with Disabilities, told IPS that UNMG is the official channel for the public to engage with the United Nations on matters of sustainable development.

“Across all these groups, stakeholders and networks, we share some very broad positions, but there are many thousands of organisations feeding in to it, in various capacities, with various positions and priorities,” he explained.

Adding strength to the chorus of voices from the opposition, the Women’s Major Groups, representing over 600 women’s groups from more than 100 countries, have also faulted the development agenda, criticising its shortcomings.

Shannon Kowalski, director of Advocacy and Policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, told IPS the SDGs could be a major milestone for women and girls.

They have much to gain: better economic opportunities, sexual and reproductive health care and information and protection of reproductive rights, access to education, and lives free from violence, she noted.

“But in order to make this vision a reality, we have to ensure gender equality is at the heart of our efforts, recognising that it is a prerequisite for sustainable development,” she added.

The coalition includes Women in Europe for a Common Future, Equidad de Genero (Mexico), Global Forest Coalition, Women Environmental Programme, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, WEDO (Women’s Environment and Development) and the Forum of Women’s NGOs (Kyrgyzstan).

Kowalski also expressed disappointment over the outcome of the recently concluded conference on Financing for Development (FfD) in Addis Ababa.

“We hoped for a progressive and fair financing agreement that addressed the root causes of global economic inequality and its impact on women’s and girls’ lives. But that’s not what we got,” she said.

“We expected strong commitments on financing for gender equality and recognition of the value of women’s unpaid care work. We expected governments to address the systemic drivers of inequalities within and between countries, to establish fair tax policies, to stop illicit financial flows, and to address injustices in international trade structures that disadvantage the poorest countries.”

“We were disappointed that there were no new commitments to increase public financing in order to achieve the SDGs,” Kowalski declared.

Carvalho of Amnesty International said, “It will be impossible to achieve truly transformative sustainable development and to leave no one behind without conducting regular, transparent, holistic and participatory reviews of progress and setbacks at all levels.”

“The agenda acknowledges the need for international financial institutions (IFIs) to respect domestic policy, but does not go far enough to ensure that their activities do not contribute to any human rights violations.”

“I think we need to strengthen the argument for the agenda to be universal – when all countries have to deliver on their commitments and obligations.”

These, he said, include Official Development Assistance (ODA) and tax justice.

Meanwhile, in a statement released to IPS, Beyond 2015, described as a global civil society campaign pushing for a strong successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), said “for the SDGs to have a real impact on people’s lives everywhere, people themselves must participate in implementing the goals and reviewing progress, and be active agents in decisions affecting them.”

The Beyond 2015 Campaign said it welcomes the focus on inclusion and participation reflected in the current draft that is being negotiated at the United Nations, and “we count on governments to translate their commitments into action as soon as the SDGs are adopted.”

In implementing the SDGs, it is crucial that states honour their commitment to “leave no one behind”.

“This means tracking progress for all social and economic groups, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized, drawing upon data from a wider range of sources, and regular scrutiny with the involvement of people themselves,” the statement added.

Additionally, an even higher level of participation and inclusion is needed, at all levels, when implementation starts.

“People must be aware of the new agenda and take ownership of the goals for real and sustainable changes to occur.”

The Beyond 2015 campaign also welcomed the commitment to an open and transparent follow-up framework for the SDGs, grounded in people’s participation at multiple levels.

“We believe the current draft could be improved by including specific time-bound commitments and endorsing civil society’s role in generating data to review commitments,” it said.

“We insist on the need for governments to translate the SDGs into national commitments as this is a crucial step for governments to be genuinely accountable to people everywhere.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Key Constituencies Call for Inclusion in Nepal’s Draft Constitution Mon, 27 Jul 2015 14:21:15 +0000 Post Bahadur Basnet Women activists who say they played a key role in the country’s democratic turn in 2006 are up in arms over a new draft constitution that threatens to deepen gender inequality. Credit: Post Bahadur Basnet

Women activists who say they played a key role in the country’s democratic turn in 2006 are up in arms over a new draft constitution that threatens to deepen gender inequality. Credit: Post Bahadur Basnet

By Post Bahadur Basnet
KATHMANDU, Jul 27 2015 (IPS)

Ending a years-long political deadlock, Nepal’s major political parties inked a 16-point agreement last June to pave the way for the Constituent Assembly (CA) to write a new constitution.

It marked the first time since the end of the Maoist insurgency and regime change in 2006 that the parties had reached such an important agreement on constitution drafting.

“We want powerful, autonomous provinces. If the federal government retains most of the powers, there is no meaning of federating the country. That’s why we cannot accept this draft." -- Anil Kumar Jha, a leader of the Nepal Sadbhawana Party (NSP) that champions the rights of the Madheshi ethnic group
The CA prepared a preliminary draft based on the 16-point deal, and is currently seeking public feedback on the draft.

But numerous identity groups have challenged the draft, which was prepared by those parties that hold roughly 90 percent of seats in the 601-member CA.

The groups say the draft fails to address their demands of identity and inclusion.

A series of public hearings on the draft last week triggered violent protests in some parts of the country and many groups even burnt its copies.

With opposition groups taking to the streets, the major parties are likely to face a tough time in promulgating the constitution by mid-August.

There are four constituencies – ethnic groups, women, Dalits, and Hindu nationalists – that have put up stiff resistance to the CA move to promulgate a new constitution without bringing them onboard.

The draft states that the country would be federated by the parliament as per the recommendation of a soon-to-be-formed panel of experts.

But activists who have been vociferously demanding federalism say this is a major flaw in the draft.

“The draft defers the issue of federalism, violating the interim constitution. They are deferring the issue because they are reluctant to federate the country,” says Anil Kumar Jha, a leader of the Nepal Sadbhawana Party (NSP) that champions the rights of the Madheshi ethnic group from the country’s southern plains.

They say that political parties, dominated by Hindu high-caste males, are not interested in federalism and sharing powers with ethnic groups.

“We want powerful, autonomous provinces. If the federal government retains most of the powers, there is no meaning of federating the country. That’s why we cannot accept this draft,” Jha says.

Activists from the major ethnic groups want the CA to federate the country along ethnic lines. But such a move is not that easy as Nepal is home to more than 125 ethnic groups and most of the regions have mixed populations.

The major parties are deferring the issue in the hope that the passion for ethnic federalism will subside slowly and will enable them to work out a compromise formula for federalism.

Some of the ethnic groups have been marginalised since the formation of the Nepali state in the late 18th century and they see their liberation through the formation of autonomous provinces in their traditional homelands.

The Nepali state promoted the Nepali language, Hinduism and hill culture as an assimilation policy during the state formation process, which led to the domination of Hindu caste people.

For example, hill high-caste people, who make up 30.5 percent of the population, occupy 61.5 percent of jobs in the national bureaucracy, according to the Multidimensional Social Inclusion Index prepared by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the state-run Tribhuvan University in Nepal.

Nepal adopted an inclusion policy after the regime change in 2006, but the ethnic groups want autonomy with the right to self-determination to promote their language, culture and economic rights.

Women activists, on the other hand, are opposed to the draft on the basis that the citizenship provisions contained therein are discriminatory and fail to honor them as ‘equal citizens’.

The draft states that ‘citizenship by birth’ will be granted only to those people whose fathers and mothers are Nepali citizens.

It means women have to establish the identity of the fathers of their children. Activists say single mothers will suffer form this provision. The children of single mothers will not be eligible for citizenship by descent unless the fathers accept them as their children.

Similarly, children born of Nepali mothers and foreign fathers will not get citizenship by birth unless the father is also a Nepali citizen by the time the children reach the legal age for citizenship (16 years).

So the activists want to change the provision into ‘father or mother’.

“It’s against the universal democratic norms. It [the draft] plans to make women dependent on males for citizenship of their children,” says Sapana Malla Pradhan, a women’s rights activist and lawyer.

In Nepal there are a significant number of people brought up by single mothers who have been struggling hard to get citizenship because the fathers have been out of contact or don’t acknowledge paternity.

“The provision is against the mandate of the people’s movement that led to regime change in 2006. Women participated in the movement enthusiastically because they wanted to become equal citizens,” Pradhan adds.

Women make up over half of the country’s population of 27.8 million people. The female literacy rate stands at 57.4 percent only, compared to 75 percent for men.

Less than 25 percent of women own land, according to the Multidimensional Social Inclusion Index. Far fewer women work for Nepal’s civil service than men – only one in seven bureaucrats is female.

Although parents would prefer to send all of their children to private schools, what often happens is that boys are sent to English-medium private schools while girls are sent to Nepali medium state schools.

Women’s political participation is very low. The interim constitution of Nepal ensures 33 percent representation for women in the national bureaucracy and legislatures, but the numbers are still grim. The good news is that the news draft has given continuity to this provision.

Similarly, Dalit activists say the new draft curtails their representation in the federal and provincial legislatures, among other things.

“The previous CA had agreed to give three percent [of proportional representation] and five percent extra seats to Dalits in federal and provincial legislatures respectively – in addition to their proportional representation in these bodies – as compensation for the centuries-old discriminatory state practices against Dalits. So we are against the draft,” says Min Bishwakarma, a CA member from the Dalit community.

A total of 43.63 percent of hill Dalits, who make up 8.7 percent of the total population, are below the poverty line, according to the National Living Standard Survey conducted in 2011.

Similarly 38.16 percent of Dalits in the southern plains, who make up 5.6 percent of the population, are below the poverty line. According to the survey, Dalit land holdings are small, and landlessness among Dalits is extreme – 36.7 Dalits in the hills and 41.4 percent Dalits in the plans are landless.

The most serious challenge to the draft however comes from the fourth largest party, the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N), which espouses the ideology of Hindu nationalism.

The first CA, which was elected in 2008, was dissolved four years later as none of the parties garnered the required two-thirds majority to draft a constitution.

The major political parties had reached a tentative agreement to promulgate a constitution by mid-August. But the task won’t be easy. They will have to face challenges not only from different identity groups, many of them historically marginalised, but also from the rising tide of Hindu nationalism.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Opinion: Strengthen Tax Cooperation to End Hunger and Poverty Quickly Mon, 20 Jul 2015 16:57:47 +0000 Jomo Kwame Sundaram Jomo Kwame Sundaram. Credit: FAO

Jomo Kwame Sundaram. Credit: FAO

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram
ROME, Jul 20 2015 (IPS)

By the end of this year, the 15-year time frame for the Millennium Development Goals will end, with good progress on several indicators, but limited achievements on others.

But public interest has already moved on to the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.Recent experience has amply demonstrated that investment and growth alone cannot eliminate hunger and poverty by 2030.

Despite uneven success with the MDGs, the level of ambition has risen, with SDG1 seeking to eradicate poverty and SDG2 to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, all by 2030. Last week, the Addis Ababa Action Accord began with: “Our goal is to end poverty and hunger.”

Almost four-fifths of the world’s poor live in rural areas, which have less than half the world’s population. Hence, raising rural incomes sustainably is necessary to achieve the first two SDGs.

Ending poverty and hunger sustainably will need a combination of social protection and ‘pro-poor’ investments.

As food costs 50 to 70 percent of the World Bank’s poverty line income, poverty and hunger are intimately inter-related, although poverty and hunger measurement generates different numbers.

Agricultural investments generally have the biggest impact on reducing poverty, all the more so, if pro-poor, as well as designed and implemented well. Yet, while farmers themselves are the major source of agricultural investments, most formal financial institutions discriminate against them, especially smallholder family farmers, landless tenants and labourers, with little bankable collateral to offer.

Recent experience has amply demonstrated that investment and growth alone cannot eliminate hunger and poverty by 2030. Most developing countries have long suffered high unemployment and underemployment, with youth unemployment growing rapidly. With current economic prospects uncertain, especially after the recent slowing of the world economy, and widespread insistence on fiscal austerity and economic liberalisation, things are likely to get worse.

With sufficient political will and fiscal resources, poverty and hunger can be ended very quickly with adequate, well-designed and sufficient social protection, in fact, well before 2030. (This is why the G77 group of developing countries insisted last week on strengthening the U.N. committee on international tax cooperation — surely of interest to most developed countries as well.)

The world can currently produce enough food to feed everyone, but most of the hungry simply do not have the means to access enough food.

Social protection can not only ensure adequate food consumption, but also enable investments by those assisted to enhance their nutrition, health and other productive capacities, thus raising their incomes and, in turn, further increasing investments to expedite the transition from the vicious cycle of poverty and hunger, in which they have been trapped, to a more virtuous cycle free of want.

According to a recent World Bank report, a billion people in 146 low (LICs) and middle income countries (MICs) currently get some form of social protection. Yet, 870 million of the world’s extreme poor – most recently estimated at 836 million for 2015 – remained uncovered, mainly in the countryside. Not surprisingly, the greatest shortfalls are in the LICs.

In the LICs, 47 percent of the population are the extreme poor, with social protection covering less than a tenth of the population. In the lower MICs, social protection reaches about a quarter of the extreme poor, but half a billion remain uncovered. In the upper MICs, about 45 percent of the extreme poor is covered by social protection.

Last week, the Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and his counterparts from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP), presented their new estimates on investments for sustainable hunger and poverty eradication by 2030.

While some may quibble over details, they made the compelling case that ending hunger and poverty in a sustainable way is eminently viable, feasible and affordable, costing about 0.3 per cent of world economic output in 2014. Most MICs can afford the needed financing, but most LICs face serious fiscal constraints and will need budgetary support and technical assistance.

Enough social protection could end hunger and poverty very quickly, but it is not sustainable without higher earned incomes for those of the extreme poor able to work. An early big investment push will reduce longer term financing costs besides providing a much needed boost to aggregate demand in the face of the world economy’s ongoing economic doldrums.

The joint proposal by the Rome-based U.N. agencies not only shows that with the requisite political commitment, we can end hunger and poverty very quickly while creating the conditions for keeping both permanently in the catacombs of history.

Despite the poor compromise in Addis Ababa, quick real progress to enhance countries’ fiscal capacities through more effective international tax cooperation under U.N. auspices can be the third Financing for Development conference’s biggest contribution to this effort.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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In Search of Jobs, Cameroonian Women May End Up as Slaves in Middle East Wed, 15 Jul 2015 14:14:15 +0000 Ngala Killian Chimtom The lack of jobs after graduation frequently pushes Cameroonian girls into searching for work opportunities, sometimes overseas and sometimes with horrific consequences. Credit: Ngala Killian Chimtom/IPS

The lack of jobs after graduation frequently pushes Cameroonian girls into searching for work opportunities, sometimes overseas and sometimes with horrific consequences. Credit: Ngala Killian Chimtom/IPS

By Ngala Killian Chimtom
YAOUNDE, Jul 15 2015 (IPS)

Her lips are quavering her hands trembling. Susan (not her real name) struggles to suppress stubborn tears, but the outburst comes, spontaneously, and the tears stream down her cheeks as she sobs profusely.

The story of this 28-year-old’s servitude in Kuwait is mind-boggling. Between her sobs, she tells IPS how she left Cameroon two years ago in search of a job in Kuwait.

“I saw job opportunities advertised on billboards in town. The posters announced jobs such as nurses and housemaids in Kuwait. As a nurse and without a job in Cameroon, I decided to take the chance.”"We were herded off to a small room. There were many other girls there: Ghanaians, Nigerians and Tunisians … [then] bidders came and we were sold off like property" – Susan, a young Cameroonian women who escaped from slavery in Kuwait

With the help of an agent whose contact details she found on the billboard, Susan found herself on a plane, bound for Kuwait.

She was excited at the prospect of earning up to 250,000 CFA francs (420 dollars) a month. That is what the agent had told her, and it was a mouth-watering sum compared with the roughly 75 dollars she would have been earning in Cameroon, if she had a job.

“We work in liaison with companies in the Middle East, so that when these ladies go, they don’t start looking for jobs,” Ernest Kongnyuy, an agent in Yaounde told IPS.

But the story changed dramatically when Susan, along with 46 other Cameroonian girls, arrived in Kuwait on Nov. 8, 2013.

“We were herded off to a small room. There were many other girls there: Ghanaians, Nigerians and Tunisians,” then “bidders came and we were sold off like property.”

Susan was taken away by an Egyptian man. “I think I got a taste of hell in his house,” she says, tears streaming down her cheeks.

She would begin work at five in the morning and go to bed after midnight, very often sleeping without having eaten.

Very frequently, she tells IPS, the man tried to rape her but when she threatened to report the case to the police, she met with a wry response from her tormentor. “He told me he would pay the police to rape me and then kill me, and the case wouldn’t go anywhere.”

Cut off from all communication with the outside world, Susan says that she found solace only in God. “I prayed … I cried out to God for help,” she recalls.

Susan’s is not an isolated case. Brenda, another Cameroonian lucky enough to escape, has a similar story. She had to wash the pets of her master, which included cats and snakes.

“I was sharing the same toilet with cats … I called them my brothers, because they were the only “persons” with whom I conversed.”

Pushed to the limits, both girls told their employers that they were not ready to work any longer. Brenda says that when she insisted, she was thrown out of the house.

“At that time I was frail, I was actually dying and I didn’t know where to go.” After trekking for two days, she found the Central African Republic’s embassy and slept for two days in front of it before she was rescued.

Susan was locked in the boot of a car and taken to the agent who had brought her from the airport.

“Events moved so fast and I found myself spending one week in immigration prison and an additional three days in deportation prison,” she says.

When both girls were finally put on a flight bound for Cameroon, all their property had been seized, except for their passports and the clothes they were wearing.

The scale of the problem is troubling. According to the 2013 Walk Free Global Index of Slavery, about three-quarters of a million people are enslaved in the Middle East and North Africa.

The report indicates that for the past seven years, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have been ranked as Tier 3 countries for human trafficking and labour abuses. Tier 3 countries are those whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards in human trafficking and are not making significant efforts to do so.

Apart from Africa, people from India, Nepal, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, etc. … “migrate voluntarily for domestic work, convinced of the employment agencies’ promises of lucrative jobs,” said the report.

“Upon entering the country, they find themselves deceived and enslaved – within the bounds of a legal sponsorship system.”

Susan and Brenda are now back home, but they are suffering from the trauma of their horrible experience in Kuwait.

The Trauma Centre for Victims of Human Trafficking in Cameroon has been working to bring relief to the women. “We try to make them feel at home,” says Beatrice Titanji, National Vice-President of the Centre.

“They have been exposed to bad treatment. They have been called animals. They have been told they stink, and when they enter the car or a room, a spray is used to take away the supposed odour … I just can’t fathom seeing my child treated like that,” she told IPS.

She called on the government to investigate and prosecute the agents, create jobs and mount guard at airports to discourage Cameroonians from going to look for jobs in the Middle East.

Edited by Phil Harris   

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Female Commandos Ready to Take on the Taliban Mon, 13 Jul 2015 22:46:25 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai One of the women who recently completed a training programme for female counter-terrorism commandos in northern Pakistan accepts a certificate at her graduation ceremony. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

One of the women who recently completed a training programme for female counter-terrorism commandos in northern Pakistan accepts a certificate at her graduation ceremony. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jul 13 2015 (IPS)

For years, Robina Shah has dreamed of joining the police force.

Ever since her father, a police constable, was killed in a 2013 Taliban suicide attack in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, she has longed to carry on his legacy.

“We can operate all sorts of weapons and can battle militants anywhere the government chooses to deploy us. We are fearless.” -- 22-year-old Zainab Bibi, a recent graduate of an elite female military academy in northern Pakistan
Such a dream was not easily realised here in the heart of tribal Pakistan, where life for many residents has been suspended between militants and the military since 2001, when extremists fleeing the U.S. invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan began crossing the border and establishing a home base in this mountainous province.

Last year, however, Shah was offered the chance to make her wish a reality when the local government launched a five-month training programme for a small squad of women commandos.

The decision to draft women into KP’s beleaguered armed forces came on the heels of last December’s terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar that left 145 people dead, including 132 students between eight and 18 years of age.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the killing spree, claiming it as an act of retaliation for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a military offensive launched against militants in North Waziristan in the summer of 2014.

For over a decade the armed forces have very nearly exhausted their options in their dogged attempts to ride the northern provinces of extremist groups. Everything from air raids to ground operations have been tried and failed, with heavy losses on both sides.

“In the last nine years alone,” KP Police Chief Nasir Khan Durrani told IPS, “we have lost over 5,000 policemen [in battles] with the outlawed TTP.”

Shaken by the school massacre last year, the province has stepped up its game against the militants. “We have raised the number of personnel from 70,000 to 90,000, and also become the first province in the country to have female commandos,” he added.

Bringing women into a profession dominated by men is a bold move, not least because militants in the area have made it very clear that a woman’s place is in the home.

But for the local force, it is the next logical step in the fight against extremism: it sends a clear message that women stand on equal footing with their male counterparts, and enables the police to navigate ‘delicate’ situations in counterterrorism field operations, such as inspecting women in potential terrorist compounds, or easily searching the homes of suspected terrorists where female relatives might balk at the arrival of male officers.

Following an intensive training session at an academy in KP’s remote Nowshera District that ended on Jun. 16, the 35 female commandos now stand ready to head out onto the frontlines.

Five grueling months of rising at five am and training until nearly midnight has turned this elite squad into a force to be reckoned with, experts say. Decked out in conservative dress, even in scorching weather, the women learned to handle anti-tank and anti-aircraft launchers.

But even more than their training, their grit springs from years of living under the shadow of militancy in a country that has witnessed some 50,000 terrorist-related deaths in the last decade alone.

Women have often borne the brunt of the conflict, including enduring the Taliban’s systematic attacks on girls’ education and a deadly campaign against women health workers. Furthermore, of the many thousands of people displaced by both government and militant campaigns, women refugees are among the worst impacted by a lack of food, health and sanitary facilities.

“It is a matter of pride to defend our people against aggression,” 22-year-old Zainab Bibi, a recent graduate of the academy, told IPS. “Our people need us to help them stay safe from violence.”

“We can operate all sorts of weapons and can battle militants anywhere the government chooses to deploy us,” she said in a determined voice. “We are fearless.”

Though small in scope, the pilot scheme has inspired officials both in and outside the province to expand its reach.

According to Peshawar-based political analyst Khadim Hussain, the government should consider preparing a “pool of women commandos for the whole country.”

“It’s high time the government gave women more facilities and introduced benefits to draw women to the police force,” he told IPS.

Indeed, education and employment opportunities for women in the province, home to 22 million people, are extremely limited. Women comprise just 40,000 out of 740,000 employees in the health sector, and female doctors number just 600, compared to 6,000 men.

Pakistan’s latest Economic Survey revealed that women are highly overrepresented in the informal sector, performing the bulk of the country’s unpaid domestic labour and engaging in a range of other menial low-paid jobs such as cooking and cleaning.

Meanwhile, their share of professional clerical and administrative posts stands at less than two percent. Experts say these dismal numbers are the combined result of social stigma, religious conservatism and strict familial obligations that keep women bound to their home and out of the job market.

Even those who actively seek work are often disappointed – between 2010 and 2011, for instance, an estimated 200,000 women in KP were unemployed despite expressing a wish to secure a job.

Against this backdrop, the entry of women into the upper echelons of the armed forces represents a monumental step forward for gender equality, and could even spill over into other spheres of life.

Noor Wazir, who ran the military training programme, told IPS that “graduates will be imparting their training to women in other districts and we hope to have hundreds of female commandos in a few years.”

He added that women would not only be stationed on military front-lines, but could easily be deployed at polling stations during elections, in hospitals for additional security or in market places that have long been targets of terrorist attacks, and where women are often loathe to go without a male escort.

Whichever direction the government chooses to take this successful programme, the women involved tell IPS it has been a life-changing experience.

Prior to their graduation in June they had heard whispered doubts as to their ability to complete the taxing course, or withstand the demands of a military lifestyle.

Now, even the skeptical fathers of these young women have come around to the idea that female commandos can handle the task every bit as well as their male counterparts.

Speaking to IPS in an exclusive phone interview, KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak said, “Hats off to the courageous KP policewomen. We salute and praise them. It is highly encouraging that women are ready to cope with the challenges posed by terrorism.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Opinion: Women in Sport – Scoring for Equality Mon, 13 Jul 2015 12:59:12 +0000 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UN Women

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

The Women’s World Cup has shown people everywhere what women athletes are all about: skill, strength, unity and determination. I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the winners – the team from the United States – and to all others who participated. You are inspiring millions of women and girls around the world to pursue their goals and dreams.

Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Photo: Marco Grob

Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Photo: Marco Grob

Women are far more visible in sports today than at any previous point in history. The Women’s World Cup, as just one example, reached tens of millions of viewers, breaking television ratings records. The teams in that event were doing more than adroitly blocking a pass or scoring a goal.

They were challenging stereotypes and demonstrating women’s leadership and other abilities that can readily translate into many other domains. Perseverance and team spirit, among other values, can take women far in business, politics, scientific research, the arts and any other field.

As inspiring as the Women’s World Cup is, however, it also reminds us that gender inequalities still plague professional sports. For example, the women were required to play on artificial turf, which is often regarded as more physically punishing than natural grass – the surface favoured by athletes and provided when male teams play.

And there is the name itself—the World Cup is assumed to be for men, while women require the qualifying “Women’s” to describe their event.The total payout for the Women’s World Cup was 15 million dollars, compared with 576 million dollars for the last men’s World Cup—40 times less.

Women players also face a huge pay gap. The total payout for the Women’s World Cup was 15 million dollars, compared with 576 million dollars for the last men’s World Cup—40 times less.

The winning women’s team received two million dollars in prize money, whereas the winning men’s team took away 35 million dollars. The losing U.S. men’s team was still awarded 8 million dollars—four times as much as the champion U.S. women’s team.

Similar pay gaps occur across other professional sports – with the exception of tennis, which since 2007 has awarded equal prize money at all four Grand Slam tournaments. That should be the model to which all other sports aspire. All sports federations should close the gap and put women and men, in this and all other respects, on an equal playing field.

Deeply entrenched, discriminatory notions of women’s diminished status, whether the issue is a playing field or a paycheck, harm individual women and girls. They are denied their rights and blocked from achieving their full potential. Such norms also undermine sport itself, tarnishing notions such as fair play and open competition.

It is time to overturn the barriers and stereotypes, because every step to do so is a step towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. Many women athletes, especially in sports not traditionally considered “feminine”, lead the way, with grit and grace.

Sports programmes have been successful in reducing restrictions on mobility and social isolation that many women and girls experience, particularly those who live in poverty, and who might otherwise be mainly confined within their communities and families.

Through sport, women and girls can find safe places to gather, build new interpersonal networks, develop a sense of identity and pursue new opportunities, often in the process becoming more engaged in community life.

Governments, the United Nations, civil society, the sport movement and others have recognized the contribution of sports to the social, economic and political empowerment of women and girls. Now is the time to act on this recognition.

Women and girls should be encouraged to explore sports, and anyone who would like to participate should be able to do so. In some cases, this may require increased investments; in others, a rebalancing of resources to ensure equal opportunities for men and women, girls and boys.

Sport and the pursuit of gender equality can be mutually reinforcing — through the creation of role models, the promotion of values and powerful outreach. Both can generate a dream and drive people to strive for change, unleashing tremendous benefits for individuals and for our societies at large.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Q&A: “If We Don’t Close the Poverty Gap, the 21st Century Will End in Extreme Violence” Thu, 09 Jul 2015 12:24:03 +0000 Nora Happel Courtesy of Philippe Douste-Blazy

Courtesy of Philippe Douste-Blazy

By Nora Happel

Implementation of the ambitious post-2015 development agenda which will be adopted in September 2015 at the United Nations depends to a large extent on funding.

Amidst preparations for the upcoming 3rd International Conference on Financing for Development (FFD) to be held from July 13 to 16, 2015 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, discussions centre on “innovative financing mechanisms” as stable and predictable instruments to complement traditional Official Development Assistance (ODA) and fill funding gaps at a time when global growth is flagging and most donor countries are facing increasing budgetary pressure.We must fight against the scandal of a world where 870 million human beings are malnourished, a world where nearly 30 percent of children on the African continent suffer from chronic malnutrition, leading to backwardness at school and a cruel loss of growth.

Conceived in the early 21st century in the context of the adoption of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), the idea behind the concept is to “invisibly” raise important amounts of income to correct imbalances and provide funding for the most urgent development needs such as eradication of extreme poverty and the promotion of education and global health. The mechanisms involved range from government taxes to public-private partnerships.

A prominent innovative finance example is the global health initiative UNITAID. UNITAID is funded primarily through a one-dollar solidarity levy on airplane tickets. The income raised is spent on global measures to fight malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

A more recent example is the Financial Transaction Tax (FTT). It is currently seen by governments as both a tool to curb financial speculation and a mechanism to raise considerable revenue – which could be used to finance for development. Ongoing plans on an EU FTT to be implemented in 11 willing EU countries might prove as the next step in innovative finance.

In an interview with IPS, Philippe Douste-Blazy, U.N. Under-Secretary-General in charge of Innovative Financing for Development, chair and founder of UNITAID and former French foreign minister, shares his insights on the FTT and innovative finance mechanisms shortly ahead of the upcoming Conference on Financing for Development and the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) later this year.

Q: Which role does innovative finance play in the context of the negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda?

A: 2015 is a historic year because three great international conferences will take place which are vital for the future of the world:  the Addis Ababa conference on Development Finance, the General Assembly of the United Nations where the international community will launch the Sustainable Development Goals and the COP21 on climate change in Paris.

In all three cases, the scenario will be the same: a magnificent political agreement but without any financial means to back it up. I want to sound the alarm! If we fail to find innovative financing now, at a time when the world has never had so much money but the gap between rich and poor is constantly widening, the 21st century will end in extreme violence.

Q: Financing for development requires considerable financial resources. Is the FTT a suitable tool to raise the necessary funding compared to other innovative finance tools?

A: Finance is currently one of the least taxed economic sectors. It is absolutely surprising when you know the terrible impact this sector had on international development because of the 2008 economic crisis. Implementing a painless percentage tax on financial transactions could generate hundreds of billions worldwide and as a result, be positively decisive on the fight against extreme poverty, pandemics and climate change.

We are now living in a completely globalised world and those threats are upon every citizen of the world. Globalised activities and exchanges should then contribute to international solidarity. That is what we had in mind with President Chirac and President Lula when we implemented the solidarity tax on plane tickets.

People are travelling more and more, so levying a small portion of the price of their tickets offered the opportunity to improve the access to life-saving treatments all around the globe. FTT follows the same logic. Financial needs are considerable and we need to take the money where it is. Innovative financing tools shouldn’t be positioned as rivals, they should instead be seen as complementary.

Q: UNITAID invests the funds raised by means of global solidarity levies to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. What are your results at UNITAID in combating these diseases?

A: First, UNITAID’s investments helped create the market for some key more effective HIV treatments in 2007, by bringing the prices down from 1,500 dollars/year to under 500.

Second, through support to the Global Fund and UNICEF, UNITAID contributed to the delivery of over 437 million of the best antimalarial treatments, helping the global community to reduce deaths by 47 percent since 2000.

Third, a 40 percent price reduction for the cartridges of an important new test for tuberculosis (GeneXpert) was negotiated for 145 countries, along with USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This has saved over 70 million dollars within two years for the global community and has enabled a significant contribution to the 30 percent annual increase in detection of drug resistant TB cases.

Q: Could you tell me about your planned new project UNITLIFE? What is it about and at what stage are the preparations for this project?

A: We must fight against the scandal of a world where 870 million human beings are malnourished, a world where nearly 30 percent of children on the African continent suffer from chronic malnutrition, leading to backwardness at school and a cruel loss of growth.

Faced with this scourge which decimates generations, destabilises societies and severely penalises nations, notably in Africa, we have the duty to imagine a response combining efficacy and solidarity: this is why we want to launch UNITLIFE.

UNITLIFE is based on a simple principle: allocating to the fight against malnutrition an infinitesimal part of the immense riches created by the use of extractive resources in Africa in such a way that the globalisation of solidarity matches the globalization of the economy. So far six African Heads of State accepted such a principle. As UNITAID is hosted by the WHO, UNITLIFE will be hosted by UNICEF.

Q: How does a future FTT implemented in the 11 European countries need to look in order to be beneficial and effective? How do you assess for instance the examples of the French or Italian FTT?

A: French and Italian FTT are really disappointing. They are not fulfilling the expectations neither in terms of regulation nor about revenues. It seems that French and Italian governments were just concerned by the defence of their financial sectors.

The exemptions that are organised are preventing the tax from touching the most speculative transactions. Derivatives, market makers, intra-day and high frequency trading are not taxable with the two models whereas they’re the most dangerous.

Furthermore, it’s in taxing these instruments that a FTT would levy the most resources. For the same reasons, a European FTT that wouldn’t be applied on foreign shares will be highly disappointing. Instead of being scared of the reaction of financial sectors, the 11 political leaders must show real ambition and design a strong FFT with a broad scope and preventing loopholes.

Q: How can you make sure that a certain percentage of the money raised by the tax will be spent on development?

A: Seventeen percent of the French FTT is already allocated to climate and pandemics. President Hollande said he will allocate a part of the European FTT to the same causes; let’s hope that the portion will be bigger!

[Spanish] Prime Minister Marianno Rajoy also committed to allocate a part of the revenue to international solidarity but so far these are the only declarations we have. It would be really interesting to see the eleven

Heads of State committing together on a joint allocation to international solidarity. Using the FTT revenue to finance multilateral funds like the Global Fund, the World Health Organization  or the Green Fund would be the best way to be sure the money raised is actually spent on development.

And today when I see those tens of thousands of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, which is becoming the world’s biggest cemetery, I want to underline that the only solution to massive immigration from poor to rich countries is to provide what we call Global Public Goods (food, potable water, essential medicines, education and sanitation) to every human being.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: Unlocking the Potential of Mali’s Young Women and Men Tue, 07 Jul 2015 21:30:49 +0000 Jean-Luc Stalon Portrait of a girl in Timbuktu, Mali. Credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

Portrait of a girl in Timbuktu, Mali. Credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

By Jean-Luc Stalon
BAMAKO, Jul 7 2015 (IPS)

The recent peace agreements in Mali offer grounds for optimism. It’s now time to capitalise on the accord to accelerate recovery, reconciliation and development. An important part of that process will entail placing the country’s youth at the center of the country’s agenda for peace and prosperity.

With its youthful population and track record of civil crises, Mali is the perfect case study on the relationship between youth and stability. Mali’s fertility rate is second only to Niger’s.The youth of today mix identities, from the traditional to the modern and need to be accompanied and mentored as they define their sense of self.

Yet in a country that doesn’t provide jobs, opportunities for decision-making and a sense of purpose, this youth bulge is more likely to be a powerful demographic time bomb rather than a driver of economic growth.

The complex crisis that hit Mali in 2012 compounded the issue, as armed groups found fertile ground for recruitment in Mali’s large pool of poor, disaffected, uneducated youths, enticed both by easy money and radical ideologies. The conflict also fueled important migration flows to North Africa and Europe.

Now more than ever, the country’s youth need solutions that are specific to their daily realities and will discourage them from going astray. Achieving that objective implies helping them out of the vicious cycle of unemployment, violence and poverty. Young women and men also need to be heard and should have a role in decision-making and peace processes.

To that end, the government and its partners have put into place a vast array of youth employment policies, as well as programmes to strengthen social cohesion, reintegrate displaced people and mobilise national volunteers.

These initiatives have done a lot for those targeted, but they fall short of a comprehensive, national solution for reintegrating youths and increasing their prospects for a better life.

In fact, unemployment rates among young women and men seem to have stagnated. In 2011, unemployment rates among 15 to 39 year-olds revolved around 15 percent, yet independent assessments suggest they could be as high as 50 percent when underemployment is taken into account.

As a result, in a country struggling against terrorism, organised crime and social cleavages, more and more young peole turn to violence and radicalism.

There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way that we look at youth development. Such an approach would look holistically at how to integrate young people in the economy and create new generations of entrepreneurs, while giving them a political voice and a sense of purpose within their communities and the wider nation.

First, we need to boost education, skills training and employment opportunities while at the same time serving Mali’s economic diversification and transformation agenda. This would require investing in promising sectors such as information technology, and creating learning centers and peer-to-peer networks in close collaboration with the private sector.

In this regard, Mali could learn from other successful initiatives, such as the public-private partnership developed in Kenya to create linkages between the formal and informal sectors of the economy.

Second, young Malians need to feel their likings and aspirations are taken into account in their country’s major decisions. Youth should be encouraged to vote and have a chance at running for office in a political system that favours inclusivity, trust and peaceful change.

The upcoming local elections and peace agreement implementation present an opportunity for better youth involvement and representation in the decision making process.

Third, young Malians need a sense of purpose but far too often their desires, opinions and spiritual leanings aren’t seriously considered. These can include joining a community, increasing their exposure to global events and causes, or creating a more affluent life.

The youth of today mix identities, from the traditional to the modern and need to be accompanied and mentored as they define their sense of self. Doing so would go a long way to eliminating intolerance, conflict and even radicalization.

Young women deserve our full attention. Much more needs to be done to ensure they can exercise their basic human rights, including those that relate to the most intimate or fundamental aspects of life, such as sexual and reproductive health, and freedom from violence.

There cannot be peace, poverty eradication and the creation of a more prosperous and open society in Mali without young people. A more holistic approach would be more effective and sustainable.

It could include new mechanisms such as a trust fund for youths, new channels of inter-generational dialogue and a more global outlook in the exchange of knowledge and development experiences. If we succeed in doing so, Mali could embark on an incredibly successful development path.

UNDP is working with young people from all walks of life so they can find a decent job, contribute to their communities and build a better future for Mali as a whole.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Women’s Groups Say Gender Equality is a Must for Sustainable Development Wed, 24 Jun 2015 17:41:30 +0000 Beatriz Ciordia By Beatriz Ciordia

On the eve of negotiations on the political declaration for the United Nations Summit to adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the Women’s Major Group (WMG) calls on governments to define a transformative agenda to ensure just, sustainable and rights-based development.

The goal of the event “No Sustainable Development Without Equality”, held on Tuesday, was to launch 10 Red Flags reflecting concern about gender equality and human rights and highlighting the areas that need to be strengthened to achieve a truly transformative agenda.

“Gender equality and human rights are cross-cutting priorities but they have never received enough recognition,” said Eleanor Blomstrom, WMG Organising Partner and Program Director of Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO).

“If we want the Post-2015 Development Agenda to be successful, these issues must be fully recognised as critical priorities,” she added.

Women and girls comprise the majority of people living in poverty, experience persistent and multidimensional inequalities, and bear a disproportionate burden of the impacts of financial and environmental crisis, natural disasters and climate change.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), girls account for the majority of children not attending school; almost two-thirds of women in the developing world work in the informal sector or as unpaid workers in the home. Despite greater parliamentary participation, women are still out numbered four-to-one in legislatures around the world.

Gender equality and the full realisation of the human rights of girls and women of all ages are cross-cutting issues themselves but they’re also essential for poverty eradication and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Nurgul Djanaeva, WMG Organizing Partner and President of the Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan, stressed the importance of keeping the private and public sector accountable, especially on gender equality, in order to achieve gender equality and sustainable development.

“There must be regional, national and global reviews and constant data collection and analysis. Likewise, all the results need to be measured,” she said.

“Transparent and inclusive processes, as well as effective monitoring and evaluative mechanisms, are a must here. A lack of accountability tools is considered as a violation of human rights”, she added.

Speakers at the event also put special emphasis on the key role played by feminist organisations at both the grassroots and international levels, as well as the urgent need for international cooperation and public-private partnerships to achieve gender equality and therefore sustainable development.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: Sub-Saharan Africa, Addis and Paris Tue, 23 Jun 2015 16:53:19 +0000 Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Rudi von Arnim Artisanal diamond miners at work in the alluvial diamond mines around the eastern town of Koidu, Sierra Leone. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/IPS

Artisanal diamond miners at work in the alluvial diamond mines around the eastern town of Koidu, Sierra Leone. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/IPS

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Rudi von Arnim
ROME, Jun 23 2015 (IPS)

After the turn of the century, growth in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) picked up again after a quarter century of near stagnation for most, mainly due to increased world demand for minerals and other natural resources.

The region became second only to East Asia in recovering from the global slowdown following the 2008-2009 financial crisis.Thanks to the failure of development over the preceding quarter century, SSA was the only region not to make any progress in reducing the population share in poverty, with the number of poor people actually rising significantly.

During the decade 2003-2013, growth was faster, averaging 2.6 percent per capita annually. The SSA growth acceleration of the past decade fueled hopes that growth on the continent had finally begun to accelerate and catch up.

Annual SSA per capita real GDP growth had averaged a respectable two percent in the 1960s, but had slowed down from the late 1970s. Over the next two decades, real per capita income for sub-Saharan countries shrank by about three quarters of a percentage point annually on average.

While SSA growth resumed in the last decade, reliance on natural resource extraction has compromised its developmental impact. Such economic activity, especially in mining, has few linkages to the rest of the national economy, thus limiting its growth and employment creation impacts as well.

As its economic performance has closely followed the vagaries of the global commodity price cycle, SSA growth in the last decade was largely driven by the minerals boom on the continent.

But the high commodity prices of the past decade have been reversed by the spreading global economic slowdown and the Saudi decision to drastically reduce oil prices.

However, natural resource extraction does not have the same potential to accelerate development as manufacturing. No country has successfully developed without substantially increasing manufacturing or high-end services. Sub-Saharan Africa has not done well on this score in recent decades.

While the manufacturing share of GDP for all developing countries has risen over 23 percent, it has fallen in SSA to 8 percent from 12 percent in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the primary commodities’ share of total SSA exports reached almost 90 percent in the past decade.

Premature and inappropriate trade liberalisation has damaged SSA’s limited export capacities. The region’s share of world merchandise exports fell from 5 percent in the 1950s to 1.8 percent during 2000-2010. Meanwhile, its share of world manufactured exports stands at a paltry one-fifth of one percentage point.

Trade liberalisation has also undermined the fiscal capacities of many governments in poor countries, with dire consequences for development and social progress.

Since many transactions in developing countries are informal, and hence untaxed, poor developing country governments have traditionally relied on trade tariffs to raise revenue.

Thus, trade liberalisation has reduced their ability to raise revenue, without providing alternate sources. As a consequence, the share of government spending in GDP has fallen from an average of around 16 percent during 1980-1999 to 13 percent during recent years.

Thus, neither trade nor financial liberalisation has helped accelerate economic growth in SSA. Growth requires investments, but investment as a share of SSA GDP has fallen in recent decades, to only 17 percent before the crisis.

External financial liberalisation from the 1980s was supposed to draw in foreign resources, but portfolio investments in SSA are negligible, and more crucially, ill-suited to facilitate sustainable growth.

Instead, there have been net outflows of capital from the world’s poorest region to international financial centres, including tax havens.

Appropriately targeted ‘greenfield’ foreign direct investment (FDI) has more potential to make a positive impact. However, Africa’s share of FDI to all developing economies has fallen from 21 percent in the 1970s to only 11 percent in recent years, or from 5 percent to 3 percent of global FDI.

To make matters worse, FDI in SSA overwhelmingly involves natural resource extraction, with few developmental spillovers from such investments.

According to World Bank estimates, the share of the SSA population living in extreme poverty rose from 50 percent in 1980 to 58 percent in 1998 before falling back to 50 percent in 2005.

Thanks to the failure of development over the preceding quarter century, SSA was the only region not to make any progress in reducing the population share in poverty, with the number of poor people actually rising significantly.

A decade ago, in 2005, the G8 summit at Gleneagles committed to increasing Official Development Assistance (ODA) by 50 billion dollars by 2010. The Gleneagles summit also promised to increase ODA to Africa by 25 billion dollars to 64 billion. Actual delivery fell short by 18 billion dollars, or by 72 percent!

In 2012 dollars, annual ODA to SSA hovered around 50 billion during 2006-2013, up from about 42 billion in 2005, but well short of what was promised. G8 aid to Africa falls well short of promised levels, even below the contributions from the small Nordic countries.

Not surprisingly, the recent G7 summit made no reference to the Gleneagles promises. Instead, it focused on addressing climate change, and it seems likely that climate finance conditionalities will undermine the principle of common, but differentiated responsibilities.

The struggle leading to the Conference of Parties in Paris will be to ensure that climate finance will be additional to the longstanding ODA promises, and will promote climate justice and development.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Farmers Find their Voice Through Radio in the Badlands of India Fri, 19 Jun 2015 05:57:18 +0000 Stella Paul Radio Bundelkhand, based in central India, has about 250,000 listeners, of whom 99 percent are farmers. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Radio Bundelkhand, based in central India, has about 250,000 listeners, of whom 99 percent are farmers. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
TIKAMGARH, India, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

Eighty-year-old Chenabai Kushwaha sits on a charpoy under a neem tree in the village of Chitawar, located in the Tikamgarh district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, staring intently at a dictaphone.

“Please sing a song for us,” urges the woman holding the voice recorder. Kushwaha obliges with a melancholy tune about an eight-year-old girl begging her father not to give her away in marriage.

“The radio station is by, of and for the people of this region." -- Naheda Yusuf, head of Radio Bundelkhand
The melody melts into the summer air, and the motley crowd that has gathered around the tree falls silent.

“Thanks for so much for singing to ‘Radio Bundelkhand’,” says Ekta Kari, a reporter-producer at the community radio station based in this predominantly farming district, before switching off the device.

With a listenership of some 250,000 people spread across over a dozen villages in Bundelkhand, an agricultural region split between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the station is lifting up some of India’s most beaten down communities by getting their voices out on the airwaves and bearing good tidings in a place long accustomed to nothing but bad news.

Endless hardships

Some 18.3 million people occupy this vast region. The majority of them are farmers, and the list of hardships they face on a daily basis is endless.

According to the Planning Commission of India, a loss of soil fertility caused by erratic weather, coupled with severe depletion of the groundwater table, has made life extremely hard for those who work the land.

Crop losses due to unseasonal rains and recurring heat waves have also become common over the last decade. Last year, a majority of farmers lost over half of their winter crop due to unexpected heavy rains.

Two out of every three farmers interviewed by IPS concurred that extreme weather has made farming, already a backbreaking occupation, something of a nightmare in these parts.

Recurring droughts between 2003 and 2010 forced many people to abandon traditional mixed cropping of millets and pulses and switch to mono-cultures like wheat, which require heavy inputs.

NGOs have also pointed to unequal land distribution policies in the region as a major cause of farmers’ strife, with millions of families unable to practice anything beyond very small-scale, subsistence agriculture given the paltry size of their plots.

Earlier this year, plagued by poor weather, miserable harvests and alleged apathy to their plight by both state and federal government bodies, scores of starving and debt-ridden farmers threw in the towel.

In the first two weeks of March, roughly a dozen farmers in Bundelkhand had committed suicide.

This follows a pattern in the region that speaks to the desperation these rural communities face – according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 3,000 farmers in Bundelkhand committed suicide between 1995 and 2012.

While this represents only a fraction of all suicides across the country’s agricultural belt, which is now approaching 300,000, Bundelkhand’s death toll is no trifling number.

Given this harsh reality, an outsider might find it hard to fathom how an intervention as simple as a community radio station could make a difference. But for the listeners who toil here daily, the radio has become something of a lifeline.

“Our station, our issues”

Naheda Yusuf, a senior programme manager at the Delhi-based media non-profit Development Alternatives, which helped launch Radio Bundelkhand back in 2008, tells IPS that 99 percent of the listeners are farmers.

Although the villages that make up the bulk of the audience lie in different states, they all fall into the larger Bundelkhand region and so share a distinct culture, traditions and dialect.

“The radio station is by, of and for the people of this region,” Yusuf explains. “It connects with them in their Bundeli dialect, and provides information on issues that concern them.”

Over 75 percent of the shows are dedicated to agricultural issues including farming techniques, pest control practices, market prices, weather forecasts, and climate change updates.

While some of the information is sourced daily from government agencies like the departments of agriculture and meteorology, most of it comes from six reporter-producers who interact directly with the community to gather news and views most relevant to their listeners.

Every day, each of them produces at least one live show, during which the audience is asked to call in with their questions and comments.

“It’s your show,” one commentator announces on the air, “so if you don’t share your opinions, we can’t get it right.”

One of the most popular shows on Radio Bundelkhand is ‘Shuv Kal’ meaning good tomorrow. Its central theme is climate change and its effect on the farming community.

One of the show’s two producers, Gauri Sharma, says they discuss water access, deforestation and solar energy. They also pay homage to the river Betwa, a tributary of the Yamuna that waters these lands, and encourages farmers not to waste the precious resource.

“We discuss planting trees around the farms, so excess water from irrigation pumps can be utilised,” Sharma tells IPS. “We also spread awareness about renewable energy.”

The response from the audience has been encouraging, she adds, especially among the youth who call and write in to share how the station has shaped their practices.

In one such letter, an 18-year-old farmer from the village of Tafarian shared that he had “planted 22 fruit trees around his farm, stopped using polythene and begun vermicomposting” as a result of listening to the show.

Portable, affordable, accessible

Another listener, Jayanti Bai of Vaswan village, says the radio station literally saved her entire crop. “The leaves of my okra plants were turning yellow,” she tells IPS. “Then I heard of a medicine on the radio, which I sprayed on the leaves – it saved me.”

She now wants to buy a radio for the entire community and tie it to a tree so the women in her neighbourhood can listen to it together. It will take some saving – the most popular device used here costs about 1,000 rupees (about 15 dollars) and that is more than she can afford in one go.

But in a region that experiences eight to 10 hours of power cuts a day, and where only 48 percent of the female population and just over 70 percent of the male population is literate, a radio is a far more viable option than a television, or newspapers.

Farmers also tell IPS a radio’s portability makes it a more attractive choice since it can be taken to “work” – meaning carried into the fields and played loud enough for workers to hear as they go about their tasks.

Because the station caters to a largely female audience, it tackles issues that are particularly relevant to women listeners. One of these is the question of suicide, which many women see as a male phenomenon.

“Have you ever heard of a woman farmer committing suicide?” asks 46-year-old Ramkumari Napet, of Baswan village. “It is because she thinks, ‘What will happen to my children when I am gone?’”

Women contend that men require more help in understanding their relationships both to themselves and their families. And indeed, the radio station is helping them determine these blurry lines.

“Last week an anonymous caller said his brother was thinking of committing suicide,” Sharma tells IPS. “He [the caller] said he was going to try to talk his brother out of it.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Opinion: No Place to Hide in Addis Thu, 18 Jun 2015 16:16:38 +0000 Tamira Gunzburg

Tamira Gunzburg is Brussels Director of The ONE Campaign.

By Tamira Gunzberg
BRUSSELS, Jun 18 2015 (IPS)

My colleagues just got back from Munich, where we held a summit bringing together over 250 young volunteers from across Europe. These youngsters campaigned in the run-up to and at the doorstep of the G7 Summit in Schloss Elmau, as one of the key moments in a year brimming with opportunities to tackle extreme poverty.

It’s inspiring to work with these young activists – their enthusiasm and creativity are humbling. But the other thing about young people is that they don’t let anyone pull the wool over their eyes. Euphemisms don’t stick; skirting the point doesn’t get you very far. They keep us on our toes and that is not a bad thing at all.

Courtesy of Tamira Gunzburg

Courtesy of Tamira Gunzburg

But some phenomena I am simply at a loss to explain. One such paradox is the fact that only a third of aid goes to the very poorest countries, and that aid to those countries has been declining. Yet in the so-called ‘Least Developed Countries’, 43 percent of the population still lives in extreme poverty, compared to 13 percent in other countries.

This begs so many questions it is dizzying. How are we going to eradicate extreme poverty if we don’t prioritise the countries that need aid the most? What is aid for if not helping the poorest?

Why are we cutting aid to the poorest countries when it is the middle income countries that are becoming more able to mobilise their own sources of financing for development? And why aren’t leaders doing anything to reverse this perverse trend?

Instead, EU development ministers in May recommitted to the existing promise of providing 0.7 percent of national income in aid, and up to 0.2 percent of national income in aid to the least developed countries – this time “within the timeframe” of the post-2015 agenda to be adopted in September.

But even if they achieved both targets by say, 2025, that would still mean a share of only 28.6 percent of total aid going to the poorest countries. In other words: business as usual. This is where any young person would detect the glaring no-brainer, and unapologetically probe “… but isn’t that too little, too late?”Ending extreme poverty by 2030 and leaving no one behind will become harder as we near the zero zone.

Whereas the Millennium Development Goals – global anti-poverty goals agreed in the year 2000 – allowed us to pick the ‘low-hanging fruit’ in terms of bringing down average levels of extreme poverty and child mortality, this year’s new set of ‘Global Goals’ is all about finishing the job.

Ending extreme poverty by 2030 and leaving no one behind will become harder as we near the zero zone. We need to frontload our efforts and put the poorest and most vulnerable at the centre of our approach from the get-go.

That is why donors must commit to spending at least half of their aid on the poorest countries, and to doing this by 2020, so that those countries have time to tackle the Global Goals in time for the 2030 deadline.

This is but one of the debates that are heating up in the final weeks before the Summit in Addis Ababa in July, where world leaders will come together to decide on how to finance development. Negotiations touch upon topics that go well beyond aid, and rightly so, in an attempt to unlock new sources of financing such as domestic resource mobilisation and private sector investment.

Sadly though, many of the discussions are still being held hostage by the impasse on aid commitments. Indeed, donor countries’ laborious reaffirmation of decade-old broken promises does not inspire confidence that they are committed to doing things differently this time.

What, then, can change the game at this point? For one, let’s kick things up a level and bring in the big bosses. We fully expect heads of state to be in attendance in Addis – but even before then, the leaders of all 28 EU Member States are getting together for their own summit at the end of June.

Here they have the authority to agree on a more ambitious commitment than the development ministers managed to broker last month. Announcing an EU-wide intent to direct at least half of collective aid to the least developed countries would send a strong political message that could spark a much-needed race to the top in the final sprint towards Addis.

Another sure way to guarantee the success of this Summit is to inject more political will into the discussions that go beyond aid. For example, several countries are coming together to harness the “Data Revolution” to ensure that we collect the statistics needed to track progress and achieve the new Global Goals.

Right now, the world’s governments do not have more than 70 percent of the data they need to measure progress. Clearly, we need to aim for more with the new Global Goals.

Further, it will be crucial to agree on minimum per capita spending levels on essential services to deliver, by 2020, a basic package for all. In order to fund these efforts, governments should increase domestic revenues towards ambitious revenue-to-GDP targets and halve the gap to those targets by 2020 by implementing fair tax policies, curbing corruption and stemming illicit flows.

The list is long and time is running out, but as our youth activists would unwaveringly note, there is still ample opportunity for leaders in both North and South to rise to the occasion and throw their weight behind ending extreme poverty. Pesky questions aside, leaders really should take note of these young voices, because it is quite literally their future world that leaders are shaping this year.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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From Residents to Rangers: Local Communities Take Lead on Mangrove Conservation in Sri Lanka Wed, 17 Jun 2015 17:24:57 +0000 Amantha Perera Young mangrove plants tended by women beneficiaries from the Small Fishers Federation of Lanka have helped the Puttalam Lagoon regain some of its lost natural glory. The success of the programme has prompted the government to support an island-wide project worth 3.4 million dollars. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Young mangrove plants tended by women beneficiaries from the Small Fishers Federation of Lanka have helped the Puttalam Lagoon regain some of its lost natural glory. The success of the programme has prompted the government to support an island-wide project worth 3.4 million dollars. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
KALPITIYA, Sri Lanka, Jun 17 2015 (IPS)

Weekends and public holidays are deadly for one of Sri Lanka’s most delicate ecosystems – that is when the island’s 8,815 hectares of mangroves come under threat.

“The mangroves are a part of our life, our culture. We destroy them, we destroy ourselves.” -- Douglas Thisera, also known as Sri Lanka's Mangrove Master
With public officials, forest rangers and NGO workers on holiday, no one is around to enforce conservation laws designed to protect these endangered zones. Except the locals, that is.

Residents of the Kalpitiya Peninsula in the northwest Puttalam District are no strangers to the wanton destruction of the area’s natural bounty. Kalpitiya is home to the largest mangrove block in Sri Lanka, the Puttalam Lagoon, as well as smaller mangrove systems on the shores of the Chilaw Lagoon, 150 km north of the capital, Colombo.

For centuries these complex wetlands have protected fisher communities against storms and sea-surges, while the forests’ underwater root system has nurtured nurseries and feeding grounds for scores of aquatic species.

Perhaps more important, in a country still living with the ghosts of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, mangroves have been found to be a coastline’s best defense against tidal waves and tsunamis.

Many poor fisher families in western Sri Lanka also rely heavily on mangroves for sustenance, with generation after generation deriving protein sources from the rich waters or sustainably harvesting the forests’ many by-products.

But in Sri Lanka today, as elsewhere in the world, mangroves face a range of risks. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that the unique ecosystems, capable of storing up to 1,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare in their biomass, are being felled at three to five times the rate of other forests.

Over a quarter of the world’s mangrove cover has already been irrevocably destroyed, driven by aquaculture, agriculture, unplanned and unsustainable coastal development and over-use of resources.

On the west coast of Sri Lanka, despite government’s pledges to protect the country’s remaining forests, the covert clearing of mangroves continues – albeit at a slower rate than in the past.

But a small army of land defenders, newly formed and highly dedicated, is promising to turn this tide.

Douglas Thisera, better known as the Mangrove Master, has spent the last two-and-a-half decades protecting the mangroves of Sri Lanka’s northwest Puttalam District. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Douglas Thisera, better known as the Mangrove Master, has spent the last two-and-a-half decades protecting the mangroves of Sri Lanka’s northwest Puttalam District. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

When residents become rangers

They call him the ‘Mangrove Master’, but his real name is Douglas Thisera. A fisherman turned vigilante, he is the director for conservation at the Small Fisheries Foundation of Lanka (Sudeesa) and spends his days patrolling every nook of the Chilaw Lagoon for signs of illegal destruction.

Massive Boost for Mangroves

Last month, the Sudeesa programme received a massive boost from the U.S.-based NGO Seacology to expand its operations island-wide. The Sri Lankan government also signed on as a major partner for the five-year, 3.4-million-dollar mangrove protection scheme.

The project will use Sudeesa’s original initiative as a blueprint to pair conservation with livelihood prospects on a much larger scale.

The plan is to provide assistance to over 15,000 persons, half of them widows and the rest school dropouts, living close to Sri Lanka’s 48 lagoons where mangroves thrive.

There will be 1,500 community groups who will look after the mangroves and also plant 3,000 hectares’ worth of saplings.

In a further boost to conservationists, on May 11 the Sri Lankan government declared mangroves as protected areas, bringing them under the Forest Ordinance.

The move now makes commercial use of mangroves illegal, and the government has pledged to provide forest officials for patrols and other members of the armed forces for replanting programmes.

This is a huge step away from previous governments' policies and reflects a commitment from the newly-elected administration to conservation and sustainability - both priorities at the international level as the United Nations moves towards a pot-2015 development agenda.

“We can dream big now,” says the Mangrove Master, scanning the horizon.
He has been replanting and conserving mangroves since 1992, so he knows these forests – and its enemies – like the back of his hand.

“Suddenly we will see earth movers and other machinery clearing large tracts of mangroves – by the time pubic officials are alerted, the destruction is already done,” he tells IPS.

This pattern follows decades of state-sanctioned deforestation that began in the early 90s, when an aggressive government-backed prawn-farming scheme was taking root around the lagoon and private corporations as well as politically-linked business enterprises were eyeing and clearing the mangroves indiscriminately.

For years Thisera tried to draft the local community into conservation efforts, but they were up against a Goliath.

He recalls one instance, back in 1994, when a powerful politician cleared a 150-metre stretch of forest almost overnight. “We were helpless then, we did not have the organisational capacity to take on such figures.”

By 2012, prawn farming, salt panning, solid waste disposal and hotel construction for the country’s thriving tourist sector had conspired to cut Sri Lanka’s mangrove cover by 80 percent, according to some estimates.

Today, under the aegis of a major mangrove conservation programme in the region, Thisera not only has financial backing for his efforts – he has a network of residents just as dedicated to the task as he is.

The project is led by Sudeesa, whose chairman, Anuradha Wickramasinghe, believed that only “community-based” action could hope to save the disappearing forests.

But this was easier said than done.

Poverty stalks the population of Sri Lanka’s northwest coast, and the most recent government statistics indicate that the average income among fisher families is just 16 dollars a month, with 53 percent of the population here living below the national poverty line.

Unemployment is roughly 20 percent higher than the island-wide average of 4.1 percent, and most families spend every waking moment struggling to put food on the table.

So Sudeesa created a micro-credit scheme to incentivize conservation efforts, and tailored the programme towards women. Women are offered a range of loans at extremely low interest rates to start home-based sustainable ventures. In exchange, they care for young saplings, help replant stretches of mangrove forest and take it upon themselves to prevent illegal clearing for commercial purposes.

Together they have planted 170,000 saplings covering an area of 860 hectares in the district – and they are working to multiply this number.

Futures tied to the land

The entire scheme relies on community action.

Women are put in charge of designated locations, mostly close to their homes. When encroachment or illegal harvesting takes place, they use local networks and cell phones to get the word out.

Here, the Thisera plays a pivotal role, acting as an intermediary between local watchdogs and networks of public officials, which he can activate when the women raise a red flag.

Last year this rudimentary conservation machine managed to halt encroachment by a private company with a stake in prawn farming by forcing it to dismantle fencing around the mangroves and retreat to demarcations laid down in government maps of the area.

Thisera says powerful business interests present the biggest menace to locals. Although an epidemic in the late 1990s decimated most of the prawn farms, leaving large, empty man-made tanks in place of mangrove ecosystems, companies have been reluctant to retreat and many continue to pay taxes on former areas of operations.

“They want to keep a legal hold on the land for other purposes,” Thisera explains, such as tourism on the northern ridge of the Puttalam Lagoon that has seen a revival since the end of the country’s civil war in 2009.

Already two islands have been leased out to private companies, though no major construction operations have yet begun.

When they do, however, they will be forced to reckon with Thisera and his unofficial rangers.

“The mangroves are a part of our life, our culture,” Thisera explains. “We destroy them, we destroy ourselves.”

Self-confidence and self-reliance

Cut off from the country’s commercial hubs and major markets, women in this district have long had to rely on their wits to survive.

Take Anne Priyanthi, a 52-year-old widow with two children who until three years ago had struggled to feed her family. She tried to lift herself out of poverty by applying for a bank loan – but was refused on the basis that she did not “meet the criteria”.

In 2012 Sudeesa granted her a loan of 10,000 rupees – about 74 dollars – which she used to start a small pig farm. Today, she earns a monthly income of 25,000 rupees, or 182 dollars.

It seems a pittance – but it means her kids can stay in school and in these impoverished parts that is a monumental success.

Another beneficiary of Sudeesa’s conservation-livelihood project is 58-year-old Primrose Fernando, who now works as a coordinator for the NGO. The widow has three daughters, one of whom has a minor disability.

With her loan she was able to set up a small grocery shop for the disabled daughter and also invest in an ornamental fish breeding business.

“Without this assistance I would have been left destitute,” Fernando tells IPS.

Since 1994 Sudeesa had given out loans to the tune of 54 million rupees (over 400,000 dollars) to 3,900 women in the Puttalam District. Officials say that the loans have a repayment rate of over 75 percent.

By conserving the mangroves, thousands of women have also carved out a better life for themselves and their families and no longer spend every waking moment wondering where their next meal will come from. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By conserving the mangroves, thousands of women have also carved out a better life for themselves and their families and no longer spend every waking moment wondering where their next meal will come from. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Now the loans scheme falls under a registered public organisation called Sudeesa Social Enterprises Corporation, of which 683 of the most active women are shareholders.

“It is the shareholders who run the orgainsation now, who decide on loans, repayments and follow-up action in case of defaulters,” explains Malan Appuhami, a Sudeesa accountant.

The operation is not your average micro-credit scheme – interest rates are less than three percent, and since the women are all part of the same community, they are more interested in helping each other succeed than hunting down defaulters.

For instance during the months of June to September, when rough seas limit a fisher family’s catch, the shareholders create more flexible repayment plans.

In a country where the female unemployment rate is over two-and-a-half times that of the male rate, and almost twice the national figure of 4.2 percent, the conservation-livelihood scheme is a kind of oasis in an otherwise barren desert for women – particularly older women without a formal education, as many in the Puttalam District are – seeking paid work.

Suvineetha de Silva, a Sudeesa credit officer, tells IPS that there has been a visible shift in women’s outlooks and attitudes – no longer ragged and shy, they now ripple with the confidence of those who have taken matters into their own hands.

Some have even been able to send their kids to university, de Silva says, something that was “unheard of” a decade ago, when the simple act of completing primary school was considered a luxury for youth whose parents needed the extra labour to help feed the family.

Other women are spending more time at home, with the result that sustainable cottage industries like home bakeries, dress making ventures and even hairdressing operations are thriving.

Best of all is that Puttalam’s mangroves now have a fighting chance, with determined women keeping watch over them.

Globally, an estimated 100 million people live in the vicinity of mangrove forests. What would it mean for the future of biodiversity if all of them followed Sri Lanka’s example?

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

This article is part of a special series entitled ‘The Future Is Now: Inside the World’s Most Sustainable Communities’. Read the other articles in the series here.


This reporting series was conceived in collaboration with Ecosocialist Horizons
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Domestics in Mexico Face Abuse and Scant Protection Tue, 16 Jun 2015 15:59:29 +0000 Emilio Godoy Domestics celebrating the approval of the convention concerning decent work for domestic workers (Convention No. 189) at International Labour Organisation headquarters in Geneva in June 2011. Credit: ILO

Domestics celebrating the approval of the convention concerning decent work for domestic workers (Convention No. 189) at International Labour Organisation headquarters in Geneva in June 2011. Credit: ILO

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Jun 16 2015 (IPS)

Her last two jobs left a bitter taste in the mouth of Yoloxochitl Solís, a 48-year-old single mother from Mexico. She sums up the experience in two words: abuse and discrimination.

“My employer would throw the food and medicine back in my face,” Solís told IPS. “She started to be rude to me, because she didn’t like me to say hello to people who were visiting her, she wanted me to stay shut up in the kitchen – I couldn’t even go out to the bathroom.”

Solís, who raised her 24-year-old son on her own, and whose first name means “flower heart” in the Náhuatl indigenous tongue, worked from 2000 to 2005 in a home in Villa Olímpica, a middle-class neighbourhood on the south side of Mexico City, where she cleaned, cooked and took care of a woman in her eighties.

“The hostile way she treated me was really strange, because there was no reason for them to discriminate against anyone,” she said, talking about the elderly woman and her son, who was in his sixties.

She earned roughly 20 dollars a day, two of which paid for her one-hour commute to and from work every day. Her workdays were long, from Monday through Saturday, and the only benefit she received was a small annual bonus. Tired of the mistreatment, she finally quit.“Domestic workers are fired without justification, accused of theft, thrown in jail over accusations of all kinds just to avoid paying them, and suffer sexual harassment. They have no protection, and their work is not valued.” -- Marcelina Bautista

But her next job was even worse. She was recommended by a nephew, and began to look after a stroke victim who had two children, also in Villa Olímpica.

Theoretically her workday was from 8:30 to 15:00. “But I would leave as late as eight o’clock at night; there was always something to do, and even if I was ill, I couldn’t miss work.”

In March, Solís ended up sick in bed with a fever in her home in the poor neighbourhood of Magdalena Contreras, to the south of Mexico City. “They shouted at me, insulted me, wouldn’t listen,” she said. As a result, she quit the job she had since 2006.

Stories like hers are routine in Mexico, where domestic workers suffer discrimination, exploitative working conditions, sexual harassment and low wages, with little protection from the law.

Mexico has not yet ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 189 concerning decent work for domestic workers, which was adopted in 2011 and went into effect two years later.

The binding convention, which Mexico signed in 2011, asserts that domestic workers are entitled to the same basic rights as other workers, including weekly days off, limits to hours of work, minimum wage coverage, overtime compensation, clear information on the terms and conditions of employment, freedom of association, collective bargaining, protection from abuse and harassment, formal contracts, social security coverage and maternity leave.

Convention 189 is accompanied by Recommendation 201, a non-binding instrument that provides practical guidance on possible legal measures to help enforce the rights and principles established in the convention.

The recommendation also addresses areas not covered by the convention, such as vocational training policies and programmes, international cooperation, and protection of the rights of domestic workers employed by diplomatic personnel.

“Domestic workers are fired without justification, accused of theft, thrown in jail over accusations of all kinds just to avoid paying them, and suffer sexual harassment,” said Marcelina Bautista, founder and director of the non-governmental Centre for Support and Training for Domestic Workers (CACEH).

“They have no protection, and their work is not valued,” Bautista, originally from the impoverished southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, told IPS.

Bautista, who is also the Latin America regional coordinator of the International Domestic Workers Federation, speaks from experience: she began to work as a domestic in Mexico City at the age of 14.

The abuse she experienced opened her eyes to the difficulties faced by domestics, and she returned to school with the aim of helping to improve conditions for maids.

CACEH receives three to five complaints a day, most of them involving unfair dismissal and discrimination, which are referred to a group of pro bono lawyers if they are not settled through dialogue. The Centre also offers advice to domestics about their rights, and runs a job placement programme.

The numbers tell the story

In the report “Labour Conditions of Domestic Workers”, published in April by the National Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination, stresses the classism, violence, racism and grievances suffered by domestics.

An estimated 2.3 million people, over 90 percent of them women, work as domestics in this Latin American country of 120 million people.

Domestics tend to have little formal schooling, are often paid under the table, have long workdays, and frequently inherit their positions from their mothers or other family members.

Based on surveys among domestics and their employers, the National Commission found that the main conflicts arose from false accusations of theft, searches of their belongings, verbal abuse including putdowns and insults, and even physical mistreatment.

Domestics interviewed complained that they had no social security coverage, were paid low wages and were mistreated, and that they had to do heavy and demanding work with no set working hours.

They also complained that their employers violated the terms of their contracts.

They said they had become domestics because they couldn’t afford to continue their studies and did not have other options.

The average age of the respondents was 35, while 28 percent were between the ages of 18 and 25, and five percent were minors.

Of those interviewed, 36 percent began to work between the legal working age of 15 and 18, and 21 percent started before turning 15.

In addition, 23 percent were indigenous, and of that portion, 33 percent had suffered derogatory treatment and 25 percent were prohibited from speaking their own language.

During the 104th Session of the ILO’s International Labour Conference, held Jun. 1-13 in Geneva, the Mexican government reported that it was studying how to reconcile Convention 189 and Recommendation 201 with the Federal Labour Law that was amended in 2012 without including the commitments assumed in Convention 189.

But the government did not meet the prior invitation by the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations to send the text to the legislature as early as possible for ratification, in order for it to enter into effect.

The Latin American countries that have ratified the convention so far are Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay, according to the ILO.

Solís admitted that she had no idea there was an international convention that could protect her and other domestic workers. “It’s very important for us to be oriented about our work and our rights,” she said.

Bautista said it was difficult to raise awareness among decision-makers. The activist said Convention 189 was “fundamental because it is better than any national law. Furthermore, legislation must be brought into line with the convention; the laws do not protect domestic workers.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Opinion: G20 Turkish Presidency Keen to Benefit the Global Community Sun, 07 Jun 2015 17:05:43 +0000 Selim Yenel Ambassador Selim Yenel. Credit: Permanent Delegation of Turkey to the EU

Ambassador Selim Yenel. Credit: Permanent Delegation of Turkey to the EU

By Selim Yenel
BRUSSELS, Jun 7 2015 (IPS)

Turkey assumed the Presidency of the Group of 20 (G20) on Dec. 1, 2014. It will culminate in the Antalya Summit on Nov. 15-16. Our priorities build upon the G20 multi-year agenda, but also reflect particular themes we see as important for 2015.

(The G20 comprises a mix of the world’s largest advanced and emerging economies, representing about two-thirds of the world’s population, 85 per cent of global gross domestic product and over 75 per cent of global trade. They include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union.)We have a moral obligation to address inequality, which also hinders economic growth.

We want to channel the influence of the G20 also for the benefit of the global community. Spain, Azerbaijan, Singapore and the Chairs of ASEAN (Malaysia), African Union (Zimbabwe) and NEPAD-New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Senegal) are invited to G20 meetings.

We have an ambitious agenda, a clear focus and an intense work plan. We frame our priorities as ‘3 Is’. – Implementation, Inclusiveness, Investment.


– Turning words into actions. Implementing our collective G-20 commitments.

– G20 members committed themselves to policy measures over 1,000 in total, estimated to lift collective G20 growth by an additional 2.1 percent over the next five years. (the so-called “2 in 5” target)

– The IMF and OECD calculate that implementing G20 growth strategies can generate additional two trillion dollars to the world economy, an output equivalent to the size of the Indian economy.

– The first accountability report on how much progress we have collectively made towards our growth target will be presented to the G20 Summit in Antalya.


– The G20’s overarching aim has been to foster strong, sustainable and balanced growth. One of our primary goals is to add “inclusive” growth to this, both at the national and international level.

– We have a moral obligation to address inequality, which also hinders economic growth. It has been worsened by the effects of the global financial crisis. (Among OECD countries, inequality is at its highest level in 30 years)

– Last year, the G20 made a commitment to reduce the gender gap in labour force participation by 25 percent until 2025 (our 25 by 25 target). Its implementation will bring additional 100 million women into the workforce.

– We will strive to achieve a collective G20 target for youth unemployment.

– SMEs (small and medium enterprises) are another important element. They are the powerhouse of employment, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.

– We launched the World SME Forum (WSF) on May 23. Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan announced the official launch of this forum, a major new initiative to drive the contributions of SMEs to global economic growth and employment. For the first time, there will now be a united and global voice of SMEs.

– Low Income Developing Countries (LIDCs) are an important focal point. Our message: the G20 is not only concerned about its own interests but its policies should also benefit the entire community, resulting in a better global dialogue.


– Investment is key to unlocking growth and generating new jobs.

– The public sector cannot meet the global investment gap alone. Effective public and private sector partnership is a must. Nine out of 10 new jobs are created as a result of private investment.

– We proposed that G20 countries prepare national investment strategies to support their national growth strategies adopted last year. We have started to work on our national investment strategies and plan to have them submitted for the approval of at the Antalya Summit.

2015 is a critical year for shaping the global sustainable development agenda for the future.

We have the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit in New York in September. It is important that the G20’s decisions and actions strengthen the work of the U.N. (SDGs will follow and expand on the Millennium Development Goals agreed in 2000, due to expire at the end of 2015)

We aim to support the universal nature of the post 2015-development agenda. Our work on food security and nutrition, access to affordable and reliable energy to all, efforts to reduce the gender gap in female labour force participation, skills development and infrastructure are directly relevant to many of the proposed goals and targets.

The main topics of the G20 Agriculture Ministers Meeting on May 8, the second in G20 history (first was in 2011), were developing sustainable food systems and the challenges of food loss and waste.

Some 1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted each year. If we can reduce food losses and waste to zero, it would give us additional food to feed two billion people.

Our work on energy access in Sub Saharan Africa is another important element of our agenda. We are working in partnership with various African institutions.

Almost one-fifth of the global population still does not have access to electricity. Nearly 2.6 billion people lack access to modern cooking facilities. In Sub-Saharan Africa the problem is most acute. More than 620 million people, out of the region’s total population of 915 million, have no access to electricity.

A high-level conference with the participation of African leaders, investors, private sector and relevant international organisations back to back with the G20 Energy Ministers meeting is also planned. The G20 Energy Ministers Meeting on Oct. 2 will be a first in G20 history.

We are also working closely with the ILO and other international organisations on a range of employment and labour market outcomes.

Trade is an important part of our agenda. Representing 76 percent of world trade, G20 should lead by example in collective work to ensure an open and functioning multilateral trading system.

We are also working to strengthen outreach with engagement groups and non-members. Under our Presidency, G20 countries agreed to establish a new G20 engagement group: The Womens-20, to promote gender inclusive growth and enhance the role of women in business.

We also value direct outreach and dialogue with countries, regional groups and institutions. On Apr. 13, we convened in Washington the first Caribbean Region Dialogue with the G20 Development Working Group together with the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago. This was an opportunity to deepen the G20-Caribbean relationship.

Overall, Turkey believes it has a responsibility to use its Presidency of the G20 as a positive influence regarding growth, sustainability and development in all areas. Independent of the G20, Turkey in the last decade has been more and more involved with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States.

It has developed its relations in the political, economic, commercial and development fields. Turkey has opened a large number of embassies in all the ACP countries and will continue to increase its contacts in the years to come for a mutually beneficial relationship.

Edited by Ramesh Jaura / Kitty Stapp

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service.

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‘Legal Friends’ Fight Gender Violence in Rural India Thu, 04 Jun 2015 16:59:42 +0000 Stella Paul Phulkali Bai’s family members physically tortured her for joining Narmada Mahila Sangh (NMS), a women’s rights group in central India, but she refused to quit. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Phulkali Bai’s family members physically tortured her for joining Narmada Mahila Sangh (NMS), a women’s rights group in central India, but she refused to quit. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
BETUL, India, Jun 4 2015 (IPS)

Mamta Bai, 36, distinctly remembers the first time the police came to her village: it was December 2014 and her neighbour, Purva Bai, had just been beaten unconscious by her alcoholic husband, prompting Mamta to make a distress call to the nearest station.

Once in the neighborhood, policemen pulled the abusive husband out of his home and asked the village women if they wanted him to be arrested.

“We want a life of dignity, free of violence. Nothing else matters more than that.” -- Ramvati Bai, a survivor of domestic violence and member of Narmada Mahila Sangh, a local rights group in central India
“Yes,” they answered in unison. But first, they wanted him to be tied to a pole in the middle of the village. “We wanted everyone to see what would happen to wife beaters from now on,” recalls Mamta Bai, a ‘Kanooni Sakhi’ (meaning ‘legal friend’ in Hindi) with the local rights group Narmada Mahila Sangh (NMS).

Spread across 213 villages in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the organisation helps victims of domestic violence seek justice. But as the incident above indicates, these activists are not your average legal defenders.

Steeped in the harsh realities that govern life in India’s vast and lawless central states, the women know that the justice system here – from the police stations to the courts to the jails – are riddled with corruption, bureaucracy and entrenched patriarchal attitudes.

So they seek local solutions to their problems.

In this case, they weren’t content to let the offender spend a few nights in jail only to return to the same home and habits as before. So they went a step further, and extracted from Purva Bai’s husband a signed letter to the local police chief in which he vowed never to hurt his wife again.

“We wanted to teach him a lesson. The arrest and the humiliation of being tied to a pole in public view made him afraid,” says Santri Bai, another NMS member. “Now he knows, 42 of us [women] are ready to send him to the prison if he ever ill-treats his wife.”

Torture, burnings, deaths

Narmada Mahila Sangh operates in the Betul and Hoshangabad districts of Madhya Pradesh, a state that has an exceptionally high rate of gender-based violence, with 62 percent of women experiencing some form of abuse compared to the national average of 52 percent.

These crimes include molestation, marital rape, murder, beatings, dowry-related killings and, in the case of women suspected of practicing ‘witchcraft’, torture and burnings.

In 2013-14, the state registered 10,000 violent acts against women, 4,000 of which took place in Betul district.

Despite this grim reality, NMS was not founded to tackle gender-based crimes. It began in 2002 as a federation of women’s self-help groups focused on economic empowerment, with each unit running small savings schemes and generating collective loans to improve their livelihoods.

According to the Planning Commission of India, Madhya Pradesh has an extreme poverty rate of 35 percent, compared to India’s national average of 25 percent. This means that the state is home to some 30 million people living on less than 1.25 dollars a day.

But as the women began spending more time on trying to break the cycle of poverty, they faced backlash from their husbands and other community members.

Women members of Narmada Mahila Sangh (NMS), a women’s rights group, meet in Borgaon village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Women members of Narmada Mahila Sangh (NMS), a women’s rights group, meet in Borgaon village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

“Women began to attend meetings, visit each other’s homes, discuss livelihood options and also take more interest in the affairs of their own family, such as their children’s education,” explains Asha Ayulkar, a resident of Chiklar village, not far from Betul town.

“This angered family members, especially men who saw it as women challenging their authority and breaking with tradition. They beat them as punishment.”

So in 2012, having grown its membership to over 9,000 members, NMS began a kind of ‘crusade’, launched with the belief that changing women’s economic situation could not be accomplished without simultaneously tackling deeply entrenched patriarchal values.

Collective education, community support

The first order of business was to secure some kind of training, since few women in these rural areas have a formal education let alone specialised legal expertise.

While the literacy rate for Madhya Pradesh is estimated to be 70 percent, it falls to just 60 percent for women – and even this gives no real indication of true literacy levels, since many girls drop out before completing secondary schooling.

With the help of civil society organisations like Pradan, a non-profit that works to empower marginalised communities, 30 members of NMS are now trained paralegals and they in turn run workshops for other women in the villages on a range of issues from understanding existing laws and policies, to learning how to conduct a basic investigation before approaching the police.

“We also learn of how to talk to a survivor and counsel her – a Kanooni Sakhi must meet her alone, lock eyes with her, and appear strong, yet sympathetic,” Ayulkar explains to IPS.

“Together we learn about the Indian Penal Code and its various articles relating to torture, assault, rape and dowry deaths.”

Although the 50-year-old only studied until the 6th grade, she is today the district’s most respected paralegal, and boasts a success rate of over 80 percent.

Cutting the red tape

The initiative, though small when compared to the scale of gender-based violence in this country of 1.2 billion people, is an example of how community justice can often be more effective than the centralised legal system.

Sexual and physical abuse is a grossly underreported offence throughout India, with a recent study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology revealing that only two percent of victims of gender-based crimes report the incident to the authorities.

This could be due to the dismal conviction rate, which the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) estimates at just 30 percent – meaning seven out of 10 perpetrators generally walk free.

Even those that are booked for a crime often spend a few years – sometimes even just a few days – in jail before rejoining the community.

Various Kanooni Sakhis (legal friends) tell IPS that attackers get off scot-free by bribing the police. Other times, authorities simply refuse to report complaints at all – activists recount incidents of women sitting for entire days at police stations attempting to file a First Information Report (FIR).

“So NMS trains women on how to lodge their cases, how to request public prosecutors when they can’t afford a lawyer and how to check the status of a complaint by using the Right to Information Act,” Mamta Bai tells IPS.

Lawyers from the Indian capital of New Delhi and Madhya Pradesh’s capital, Bhopal, have all participated in trainings schemes to strengthen the women’s group.

The result, experts say, is impressive.

“The women are now keeping records of each case,” Angana Gupta, assistant manager at the Mumbai-based L&T Finances – one of Pradan’s partner organisations – tells IPS. “They have files for each case with details of the evidence, the steps taken and the official responses. They are also using mobile phones and tablets to network with fellow gender activists.”

Social backlash

Learning the law was the easy step. The harder part has been – and will continue to be – changing social attitudes in these rural areas.

Take the case of Ramvati Bai, a tribal woman in Bakud village. A widowed mother of two, Ramvati was sexually harassed and assaulted by her father-in-law for three years. But when she finally gathered the courage to file a complaint, the police dismissed her, calling it a “family matter”.

It was only after her fellow NMS members intervened that the police registered a case and arrested the accused. But this angered Ramvati’s relations who ordered her to leave their home.

Phulkali Bai of Borgaon village was also thrown out of her home a few weeks ago after she filed a court case against her physically abusive in-laws.

Fortunately for both, NMS has offered steady support, helping them get back on their feet by finding work and building their own huts to live in.

But some, like 28-year-old Nirmala Bai, are not so lucky. She died in 2013, after her husband allegedly strangled her and set her body on fire. The police arrested the husband for abetment of suicide but then released him on parole.

Despite their determination to seek justice for the deceased girl, NMS had to abandon the case as the victim’s family members refused to came forward to bear witness.

They don’t let these setbacks get them down. They continue their micro-savings schemes and push ahead with the cases that need their help. Village Protection Committees identify threats or patterns and try to step in before tragedy occurs. If it does, NMS members help each other to keep moving.

“We want a life of dignity, free of violence,” Ramvati Bai tells IPS. “Nothing else matters more than that.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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‘Ethical Fashion’ Champions Marginalised Artisans from South Thu, 04 Jun 2015 06:31:53 +0000 A. D. McKenzie Haitian-Italian designer Stella Jean (right) has been working with the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), using Haitian craftsmanship in areas such as embroidery and beadwork in her collections. Credit: ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative 5

Haitian-Italian designer Stella Jean (right) has been working with the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), using Haitian craftsmanship in areas such as embroidery and beadwork in her collections. Credit: ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative 5

By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Jun 4 2015 (IPS)

“Work is dignity,” says Simone Cipriani. “People want employment, not charity.”

With that in mind, Italian-born Cipriani founded a programme in 2009 called the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) that links some of the world’s top fashion talents to marginalised artisans – mostly women – in East and West Africa, Haiti and the West Bank.

Now a flagship programme of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Geneva-based EFI works with leading designers such as Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood to facilitate the development and production of “high-quality, ethical fashion items” from artisans living in low-income rural and urban areas.

The EFI says its aim is also to “enable Africa’s rising generation of fashion talent to forge environmentally sound, sustainable and fulfilling creative collaborations with local artisans.” Under its slogan “not charity, just work”, the Initiative advocates for a fairer global fashion industry.“We work with women who sometimes face discrimination in their communities, but by having a job, their position in society improves. They gain independence and respect, and in many situations they become the only breadwinner in their families” – Simone Cipriani, Ethical Fashion Initiative

This year, for the first time, the EFI is collaborating with the most important international trade fair for men’s fashion, Pitti Immagine Uomo, to host designers who represent four African countries.

Taking place June 16 to 19 in Florence, Italy, the fair will present a special edition of its Guest Nation Project, in which a particular area is designated for the “rising stars” of fashion from various countries, according to Raffaello Napoleone, CEO of Pitti.

Napoleone said that the African designers in this year’s Guest Nation give priority to manufacturing in their home countries, helping to reduce poverty, and that they are already known on the international market.

The stylists will put on a runway show, highlighting their men’s collections, in a special event titled ‘Constellation Africa’. The brands – Dent de Man, MaXhosa by Laduma, Orange Culture and Projecto Mental – have designers who represent Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa, Nigeria and Angola, and were selected as part of the African Fashion Designer competition launched by the EFI last December.

“This is where our global society is going: interconnectedness. Global and local dimensions brought together through fashion,” said Cipriani.

Market analysts expect the global value of the apparel retail industry to rise about 20 percent from 2014 levels to reach some 1,500 billion dollars in 2017. With such high volumes, the various sectors of the industry could be an increasing source of employment in many regions, from design to garment-making to sales.

But over the past several years, there has been controversy about the apparent exclusion of fashion designers and models of African descent in high-profile ‘Fashion Weeks’ and other international events

Tansy E. Hoskins, author of a polemical book published last year titled Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, has a whole chapter devoted to the question “Is Fashion Racist?”

She says that several decades after a renowned fashion magazine had its first black model on the cover, “all-white catwalks, all-white advertising campaigns and all-white fashion shoots are still the norm”.

Simone Cipriani, founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI). Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

Simone Cipriani, founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI). Credit: A.D. McKenzie/IPS

The Ethical Fashion Initiative is primarily concerned with poverty reduction and ethical treatment of artisans, but Cipriani acknowledges that racism is an issue and that poverty can be linked to ethnicity as well as gender.

Still, the fashion industry does have companies that try to adhere to ethical standards, including diversity, working conditions and environmental sustainability; and 30 international brands have signed on to the EFI project. But not every company is a good fit.

“We try to work almost exclusively with brands that have a clear scheme on responsible business and social engagement, otherwise there’s always the risk of being used and having to clean up after somebody else,” Cipriani told IPS in an interview, during a trip to Paris to meet with designers.

“We’ve had our troubles and have had to work through a long learning curve”, he added. “We also tried to work with big distributors and realised it wasn’t possible for what we do, so here we are.”

Groups such as the EFI and activists like Hoskins say that their major concern is how to make the fashion industry fairer, particularly with decent labour conditions for workers everywhere.

Two years ago in Bangladesh, for instance, more than 1,100 workers died and 2,500 were injured when a factory building collapsed after safety warnings were ignored. The workers made clothing for brands including Benetton, which only this year announced that it would contribute to a compensation fund for the victims.

That agreement followed a campaign in which one million people signed an online petition calling for the company to take proper action.

“What happened in Bangladesh was a horror, and there are many situations in which exactly the same horror can occur,” Cipriani said. “The first thing about responsibility should always be people. Dignified working conditions for people.”

He said that many artisans working in the fashion industry’s supply chain also do not earn enough to live on. “They don’t get the remuneration for their work that allows them to have a dignified life,” he told IPS. “Many of them are paid in such a way that they have to live at the margin.”

In Haiti, which is known for its artistry as well as its poverty, activists say that linking local artisans with international designers can and have made some impact. The Haitian-Italian designer Stella Jean has been working with EFI, using Haitian craftsmanship in areas such as embroidery and beadwork in her collections, for example. She also employs textiles made in Africa.

Jean has been an EFI “partner” since 2013 and she sources several elements of her designs through its projects, Cipriani said. The collaboration started with a visit to Burkina Faso – one of the largest producers of cotton in Africa with an important tradition of hand-weaving – where the designer saw the possibilities of “working with these ethically produced textiles”. She incorporated them as a key feature of her women’s and men’s ready-to-wear collections.

Last year, she also launched a new range of bags, produced in Kenya with fabric from Burkina Faso and Mali and vegetable-tanned leather from Kenya, “making each bag a pan-African product,” says the EFI.

In Kenya, British designers McCartney (who declined to be interviewed) and Westwood have placed several orders for fashion items, and the EFI has carried out “Impact Assessment” studies to evaluate compliance with fair labour standards “and the impact the orders had on people and the communities they live in.”

“We work with women who sometimes face discrimination in their communities, but by having a job, their position in society improves,” Cipriani told IPS. “They gain independence and respect, and in many situations they become the only breadwinner in their families.”

The Ethical Fashion Initiative has testimonials from artisans about the improvement in their lives from the income they received through the orders, with several workers detailing their new ability to pay rent and school fees, among other developments.

Hoskins says that these steps are important, but that the fashion industry cannot be fully transformed without massive, collective action. “Ethical fashion has become a catch-all phrase encompassing issues such as environmental toxicity, labour rights, air miles, animal cruelty and product sustainability,” she argues.

“After 20 or so years and despite some innovative initiatives, it holds an ‘exceptionally low market share’ at just over 1 percent of the overall apparel market.”

In an interview, she said that asking whether fashion can ever be ethical is like asking “can capitalism ever be ethical?”

“For me the answer is ‘no’ because it’s based on exploitation, it’s based on competition, and above all it’s based on profit, and that’s what in the fashion industry drives wages down, drives environmental standards down and down and down,” she told IPS.

“There are small companies doing things differently but they’re producing maybe a few thousand units every year. The fashion industry produces billions and billions of units every single year.”

Hoskins also asked the question: “Why is it not the case that all products are ethically made?”

But reform evidently takes time. With the Pitti trade fair in Italy now collaborating with EFI, the “ethical fashion” movement may get a boost. It is also up to consumers to make the right choices, activists say.

“Consumers must demand change. Consumers can’t be too docile,” says Cipriani.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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Zimbabwean Women Weave Their Own Beautiful Future Wed, 03 Jun 2015 17:49:17 +0000 Busani Bafana Siduduzile Nyoni, a mother of three, busily completing one of her ilala palm products, which will be sold through a women’s cooperative in western Zimbabwe. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Siduduzile Nyoni, a mother of three, busily completing one of her ilala palm products, which will be sold through a women’s cooperative in western Zimbabwe. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

By Busani Bafana
LUPANE, Zimbabwe, Jun 3 2015 (IPS)

Seventy-seven-year-old Grace Ngwenya has an eye for detail. You will never catch her squinting as she effortlessly weaves ilala palm fronds into beautiful baskets.

“Working together as women has united us, and strengthened our community spirit.” -- Lisina Moyo, a member of the Lupane Women's Centre (LWC)
Her actions are swift and methodical as she twirls, straightens and tugs the long strands into a fine stitch. Periodically she pauses to dip the last three fingers of her right hand into a shallow tin of water that sits beside her, to wet the fibres and make them pliable.

Slowly, under the deft motion of her hands, a basket takes shape. She insists on attention to “detail, neatness and creativity.” Once she has decided on the shape and colour of her product, she will work for seven days straight to complete the task.

When she’s done, the basket will be inspected for quality, carefully packed up, and shipped off to its buyer who could be anywhere in the world from Germany to the United States. Her efforts earn her about 50 dollars a month – a small fortune in a place where women once counted it a blessing to earn even a few dollars in the course of several weeks.

Ngwenya lives in Shabula village in Ward 15 of Zimbabwe’s arid Lupane District, located in the Matabeleland North Province that occupies the western-most region of the country, 170 km from the nearest city of Bulawayo.

Home to about 90,000 people, this area is prone to droughts and has a harsh history of hunger.

Today, rural women are putting Lupane District on the map with an innovative basket-weaving enterprise that is earning them a decent wage, preserving an indigenous skill and enabling them to erect a barrier against extreme weather events by investing the profits of their creativity into sustainable farming.

Perfecting skills, preserving arts

It started small, when a group of women came together in 1997 to produce baskets and other crafts from local forest products and sell them along the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls road, a major tourist route.

In 2004, with the help of a Peace Corp volunteer, they establised the Lupane Women’s Centre (LWC) in order to streamline their production. At the time they had just 14 registered members.

A decade later they have grown their ranks to 3,638 members hailing from 28 wards in the district. Average earnings have increased from one dollar to 50 dollars a month, and this past May one of their number earned 700 dollars from the sale of her crafts.

For a community that was barely able to put three square meals on the table every day, this is a huge step towards a more wholesome life.

“Weaving has transformed my life, even in my old age,” Ngwenya tells IPS, pointing to a half-built residence not far from where she sits, busily threading away. In this impoverished village, the emerging two-roomed brick house is a veritable super-structure.

Grace Ngwenya, a skilled weaver from Zimbabwe’s Lupane District, deftly threads palm strands into a sturdy basket. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Grace Ngwenya, a skilled weaver from Zimbabwe’s Lupane District, deftly threads palm strands into a sturdy basket. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

“This year sales have been slow,” she says, “but God willing, my house should be complete by next year. I have already bought the windows and I will plaster and paint it myself.”

In addition to a dwelling place, her income has helped her buy a goat and erect a fence around her ‘keyhole’ garden, a popular farming method all across the African continent involving a keyhole-shaped vegetable bed with an active compost pile at its centre that feeds crops in the walled-in plot.

At a weaving competition last year she even won an ox-drawn plough and recently sunk more of her savings into the purchase of a heifer and some simple farm tools.

Considering that she joined the collective during a drought year back in 2008, she is forever grateful for her newfound wellbeing. And it is not just her own life that has changed.

Barely a stone’s throw away is the homestead of her sister Gladys, and her husband, Misheck Ngwenya. This cluster of huts is distinguished by solar lights attached to their thatched roofs, a luxury secured with the boons of Gladys’ basket sales.

“In the past I would go to my neighbours to ask for sugar,” Gladys Ngwenya recalls. “Not anymore.”

She tells IPS the women’s centre has helped her perfect her art by improving the dimensions and measurements of her craft work.

Beating hunger with baskets

It is no coincidence that these entrepreneurs sprang from the dry soil of Lupane District. The area is a farmer’s nightmare, yielding only drought-tolerant crops such as sorghum and finger millet and receiving inadequate rainfall – just 450-600 mm annually – to allow extensive maize cropping.

When the weather is bad, with long, dry spells, rural communities suffer badly.

Statistics from the Department of Agriculture and Extension Services indicate that Lupane experiences annual food shortages. In 2008, it had a food production deficit of more than 10,000 metric tonnes of grain, producing just over 3,000 tonnes of cereal against an estimated annual requirement of 13,900 metric tonnes.

The situation has not changed seven years later. In 2015, scores of people are at risk of hunger, with government data suggesting that only half of the region’s required 10,900 metric tonnes will be produced this year.

Families who practice subsistence agriculture will be forced to purchase food to make up for lower harvests, a situation that could leave many with no food at all given that income-generating opportunities are scarce.

Zimbabwe is this year importing 700,000 tonnes of the staple maize grain to cover a deficit following another bad agricultural season. The country requires 1.8 million tonnes of maize annually.

The Women’s Centre in Lupane is now tackling these twin problems – hunger and livelihoods – by helping craftswomen become breadwinners.

Hildegard Mufukare, who manages the Centre, tells IPS that putting women at the head of the household has created “peace in the home.”

“Women have bought assets from farm implements to cattle, they have taken up agricultural activities and are working together with the men to sustain their families.”

Applying a communal, grassroots approach to its management and upkeep, members contribute five dollars annually towards operational costs, accounting for 31 percent of the Centre’s required financing.

The remaining 59 percent comes from donors, including patron backers like the Liechtenstein Development Services (LED), but members say they plan to cultivate greater self-sufficiency by establishing and running a restaurant, conference centre and farm which will serve the dual purpose of providing more food and skills to the community.

As they grow their markets overseas, securing additional funding will not be difficult. Already members courier their wares to clients in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and Denmark.

Revenue from craft sales tripled over a two-year period, going from 10,000 dollars in 2012 to 32,000 dollars in 2014. The members keep the bulk of the profits while the Centre retains 15 percent to cover administration fees and government taxes.

The baskets are multi-functional, doubling up as waste bins or fruit bowls. The women are now toying with the idea of turning them into biodegradable coffins – to ensure sustainability even in their deaths.

Members of the Lupane Women’s Centre hope to market these ‘eco coffins’, biodegradable caskets made from local materials, to ensure their community is sustainable, even in death. Credit: Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Members of the Lupane Women’s Centre hope to market these ‘eco coffins’, biodegradable caskets made from local materials, to ensure their community is sustainable, even in death. Credit: Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

They are unsure how such an idea will be received, but their bold proposal suggests a commitment to holistic living that goes beyond incomes or nutrition.

Preparing for a changing climate

Community-led buffers against the horrors of global warming are desperately needed in Zimbabwe, a country of 14.5 million that faces a host of climate risks from floods to droughts.

Unable to access adequate international climate finance, the country was forced to slice its environment ministry’s budget from 93 million in 2014 to 52 million this year.

The funding crunch has crippled the country’s ability to respond to natural disasters, with the meteorological services department – responsible for forecasts and early warnings – also experiencing budget cuts.

This means that when calamity strikes, remote communities and especially rural women will be left to fend for themselves, a reality that the women of Lupane are more than prepared to deal with.

Siduduzile Nyoni, a mother of three who joined the cooperative in 2008, says that the simple act of weaving baskets has helped her build a lifeline for times of crisis.

She has used her savings to buy a goat, and is also maintaining a chicken farm and a thriving vegetable garden. When the weather is fine, the garden feeds her family. If it takes a turn for the worse, she simply dips into her surplus stores to tide her over until the land yields food again.

“I joined the centre even though I didn’t know how to weave,” she tells IPS. Her husband is unemployed, but she is doing well enough to support them both.

She and three other women have created their own micro-savings scheme, pooling five dollars of their monthly income into a rotational pool of 20 dollars that each enjoys on a quarterly basis.

Other groups of women have taken advantage of skills training at the Centre and taken up potato farming, bee keeping, candle making, and cattle rearing. Rearing indigenous chickens is also hugely popular activity as an additional source of revenue, and nutrition.

Women from Zimbabwe’s Lupane District invest the profits of their craft sales in ‘keyhole’ gardens to ensure food security. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Women from Zimbabwe’s Lupane District invest the profits of their craft sales in ‘keyhole’ gardens to ensure food security. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Others have turned to small-scale farming so they don’t have to rely on central supply chains for their food. According to Lisina Moyo, who joined the Centre in 2012, keyhole gardens “should be a part of every home” – earning 15 dollars a month from her personal vegetable patch has helped her pay her children’s school fees and contribute to a savings club that keeps her afloat during harsh seasons.

Saving the forests

Perhaps more importantly, the thousands of women who comprise the cooperative’s membership are natural caretakers of forests, having practiced sustainable harvesting of forest products for years.

The art of basket-weaving from both ilala palm and sisal, a species of the Agave plant found in Zimbabwe’s forests whose tough fibres make strong rope and twine, has been passed down for generations.

Furthermore, local communities have traditionally relied on surrounding forests for medicines, timber, fuel and fruits, so they have a vested interest in protecting these rich zones of biodiversity.

Considering the country lost an estimated 327,000 hectares of forests annually between 1990 and 2010, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), empowering guardians of Zimbabwe’s remaining forested areas is crucial.

With an estimated 66,250 timber merchants operating throughout the country, as well as millions of rural families relying on forests for fuel, deforestation will be a defining issue for Zimbabwe in the coming decade.

But here again, the women of Lupane are planning for the worst, creating small plantations of ilala palms to ensure propagation of the species, even in the face of rapid destruction of its natural habitat.

Their work is reinforcing the land around them, and breathing life into the women themselves.

As Moyo tells IPS: “Working together as women has united us, and strengthened our community spirit.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

This article is part of a special series entitled ‘The Future Is Now: Inside the World’s Most Sustainable Communities’. Read the other articles in the series here.


This reporting series was conceived in collaboration with Ecosocialist Horizons
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Jamaican Gov’t Sees IMF Successes but No Benefits for the Poor Tue, 02 Jun 2015 18:13:34 +0000 Zadie Neufville Seventy-year old Elise Young’s small box of mixed sweets and biscuits and the plastic bucket containing some ice and a handful of drinks is hardly enough to pay the 18-dollar electricity bill each month and buy food. Credit: Zadie Neufville/IPS

Seventy-year old Elise Young’s small box of mixed sweets and biscuits and the plastic bucket containing some ice and a handful of drinks is hardly enough to pay the 18-dollar electricity bill each month and buy food. Credit: Zadie Neufville/IPS

By Zadie Neufville
KINGSTON, Jun 2 2015 (IPS)

For Jamaicans like Roxan Brown, the Caribbean nation’s International Monetary Fund (IMF) successes don’t mean a thing. Seven consecutive tests have been passed but still, the mother of two can’t find work and relies instead on the kindness of friends and family.

The 32-year-old has been in several government-sponsored training programmes and has even filed for help under the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH), a safety net set up to assist the poor. But she fails to qualify and can’t understand why.In the long history of Jamaica's on-again off-again relationship with the IMF, it is the poorest of this nation’s 2.8 million people who suffer the heaviest burden. With most earnings going to pay loans, there is nothing left for government assistance.

The single mother spends each day making phone calls, sending messages and making as many trips as she can afford, hopeful that one will result in a job. Roxan is desperate to help her son who graduated high school last year and has qualified for college. Her daughter is in secondary school and is preparing to sit exams.

Several miles away in the south coast village of Denbigh, the two elderly women sitting outside the May Pen Health Centre tell their stories of hardship. Five days a week, they scratch out a meagre living selling a few sweets, biscuits, some bottled water, drinks and fruits to make ends meet. Neither have pensions and none qualify for even the basic of government assistance under PATH.

Seventy-year old Elise Young’s small box of mixed sweets and biscuits and the plastic bucket containing some ice and a handful of drinks is hardy enough to pay the 18-dollar electricity bill each month and buy food.

“It’s very rough but I still have to live,” she said, noting that her daughter, who generally helps out with a few dollars a week, is now unemployed.

Next to her sits Iona Samuels, an on-again-off again vendor who sells a few dozen oranges and bananas to make ends meet. Iona is lucky: she lives rent-free, house-sitting for a friend who lives in Canada. Her on-again off-again business is due to the many times she is unable to restock the plastic crates that serve as her stall because she uses all the cash to buy food and pay water and light bills.

“Sometime I buy two dozen oranges and two dozen bananas and I only sell half. Sometimes I don’t make a profit because I have to sell them for what I pay for them and I have to eat and pay the bills,” she explains.

Iona admits that advancing age has slowed her ability to do more strenuous work. She is concerned that government has no programmes for  “the poor and vulnerable” people like her.

The good fortune that allows Iona to live rent-free also goes against her in her quest for government assistance with her daily expenses.

“I live in a house that is fully furnished, so I am unable to qualify for anything. There is no consideration that the house is not mine. It is my friend’s house. There is a gas stove, and a television so I don’t qualify for help,” Iona complains.

Iona Samuels (left) and her friend Pearl. Credit: Zadie Neufville/IPS

Iona Samuels (left) and her friend Pearl. Credit: Zadie Neufville/IPS

In the long history of Jamaica’s on-again off-again relationship with the IMF, it is the poorest of this nation’s 2.8 million people who suffer the heaviest burden. With most earnings going to pay loans, there is nothing left for government assistance.

Media reports cite information from the U.S.-based Centre for Economic Policy and Research, which states that three years into its latest IMF programming, Jamaica’s economy is suffocating, struggling to reach its current quarterly growth rate of between 0.1 and 0.5 percent.

After 20 years of improvement to the country’s poverty rate, the number of Jamaicans living below the poverty line has ballooned in recent years from 9.9 percent in 2007, to 12.3 in 2008, 16.5 percent in 2009 and 19.9 percent in 2012. And if the 2014 research by the local Adventist Church is correct, today there are 1.1 million Jamaicans living in poverty.

The most pressing problem is the country’s debt, which the government readily admits has severely hampered its economic growth. According to the World Bank website, Jamaica’s debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio, estimated at 140 percent at the end of March 2015, is among the highest in the developing world.

For the Portia Simpson Miller-led administration that won the 2011 general elections on a ticket of being a friend of the poor, there is not much caring left, at least not under the IMF. The Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) reports that while the IMF programme is necessary, it is still not sufficient to unlock the kind of growth necessary to boost the economy and grow jobs.

According to the PIOJ,  “Economic recovery remains fragile” even as the country successfully completed the IMF assessments with improvements in most macro-economic indicators and outlook for growth.

The World Bank states on its website that, “For decades, Jamaica has struggled with low growth, high public debt and many external shocks that further weakened the economy. Over the last 30 years real per capita GDP increased at an average of just one percent per year, making Jamaica one of the slowest growing developing countries in the world.”

Simply put, Jamaica continues to spend far more than it earns. But while individual sectors continue to show improvements, manufacturers and the international community blame the cost of fuel, high energy costs and crime as impediments to growth.

Last year, Jamaica paid the IMF over 136 million dollars more than it received, and the country still owes the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank over 650 million dollars through 2018. Even so, government continues to struggle to maintain social gains such as free healthcare and free primary and secondary education.

There are those who believe government is not doing enough to create jobs and that the available jobs are going to government supporters. There are those who blame the private sector, and they in turn point to a depreciating dollar, high cost of fuel and high-energy costs. And of course there is crime.

With unemployment rate at an alarming 14.2 percent and youth unemployment estimated at twice the national rate, things are not looking good for Roxan, who falls into that category.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Sri Lankan Women Stymied by Archaic Job Market Thu, 28 May 2015 20:40:44 +0000 Amantha Perera The few Sri Lankan women who seek employment find that the system does not work in their favour. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The few Sri Lankan women who seek employment find that the system does not work in their favour. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
MIRIGAMA, Sri Lanka , May 28 2015 (IPS)

Wathsala Marasinghe, a 33-year-old hailing from the town of Mirigama, just 50 km from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, once had high hopes that the progressive education and employment policies of this South Asian island nation would work in her favour. Today, she feels differently, believing that “an evil system” has let her down.

As a young girl, she attended one of the best schools in the area and was selected to attend a state university. “I went there with so much hope,” she tells IPS – but apparently with little knowledge of her true job prospects.

"Paternity leave, child care, crèche services at workplaces, and better and safer public transport facilities for women could be [provided] by the private and public sectors in order to incentivise women to join the labour market." -- Anushka Wijesinha, a consultant to Sri Lankan government ministries
As an undergraduate she studied Buddhism and her native tongue, Sinhala. Her plan was to secure a government job, possibly in teaching or in the public service, and preferably close to home.

But when it came time to job-hunt, she found herself coming up against one wall after another.

“I kept applying and going for interviews but never got a job except as a secretary at a small factory,” she says.

This post did not come close to her employment aspirations, and she was forced to quit after a month. “The salary was 8,000 rupees (about 59 dollars) – I had to spend half of that on traveling,” she explains. The average monthly income in Sri Lanka is about 300 dollars.

She continued to apply, but each time she found herself sitting among a crowd of applicants that seemed to get younger and younger.

The stark reality of the situation has now become clear to her, and she has given up going for interviews altogether, embarrassed to be in the company of other hopefuls who “look like my daughters.”

Marasinghe’s conundrum is not rare in Sri Lanka, despite the country’s purported efforts to achieve targets on gender equality and visible signs of progress on paper.

In 2012, the Gender Gap Report produced by the World Economic Forum ranked Sri Lanka 39th out of 135 countries surveyed, an unsurprisingly strong placement given that the country of 20 million people has a female adult literacy rate of 90 percent. This rises to 99 percent for female youth in the 15-24 bracket.

Furthermore, girls outnumber their male counterparts at the secondary level, indicating a dedication to gender equality across the social spectrum.

However this has not translated into equitable employment opportunities, or wage parity between men and women.

Government labour statistics indicate that 64.5 percent of the 8.8 million economically active people in Sri Lanka are men, while just 35.5 percent are women. Of the economically inactive population, just 25.4 percent are men, and 74.6 percent are women.

The female unemployment rate in Sri Lanka is over two-and-a-half times that of the male rate, and almost twice the national figure. According to government data, only 2.9 percent of men entering the labour market remain unemployed, while the corresponding figure for women is 7.2 percent. The national unemployment rate is 4.2 percent.

The same government figures indicate that education and skills do not necessarily help females secure employment – on the contrary, they could result in a lifetime of frustrations.

“The problem of unemployment is more acute in the case of educated females than educated males,” said the latest labour force survey compiled by the Census and Statistics Department.

Experts say there are a multitude of structural and social reasons behind the high rate of female unemployment.

For starters while nearly three in four males enter the job market, it is the reverse for women, with just 35 percent of working-age females actually seeking employment, resulting in a skewed supply chain.

Economist Anushka Wijesinha, who works as a consultant to international organisations, says that women who seek higher education also have higher job aspirations, but the job market has not grown fast enough to cater to such needs.

“Aspirations are shifting away from working in the industrial sector as before – more women are keen to work in services like retail […] but jobs in this sector haven’t grown fast enough to cater to the changing aspirations. So we are seeing ‘queuing’, women waiting for those jobs and not getting them,” he tells IPS.

Sri Lankan women say that improved transport, childcare and crèche facilities would create a more favorable employment environment. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Sri Lankan women say that improved transport, childcare and crèche facilities would create a more favorable employment environment. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, an economist who heads the Point Pedro Institute of Development, shares that analysis, but believes that female unemployment levels should be adjusted to include the roughly 600,000 Sri Lankan women working overseas, the bulk as domestic workers.

He is also an advocate of placing an economical value on women who are fully occupied with looking after households.

Currently, the single largest employer of women is the agricultural sector at 33.9 percent, while the services sector employs around 42 percent of women, while industries employ around 24 percent.

There are other reasons why women stay away from work. Nayana Siriwardena, a 35-year-old mother of two, used to work till she had her first child. After the government-stipulated three months’ maternity leave ran out, she had to return to work.

“What I found problematic was that the workplace could not be flexible enough to address my situation,” she said.

She worked in bookkeeping and tried to impress upon her employers that some of the work could be done from a remote location.

“But they did not understand that, which I found surprising because the company was quite progressive in other areas and also because young mothers are not a rare occurrence in any establishment.”

Wijesinha feels that maternal benefits themselves, which legally must be provided for three months, can act as a deterrent to some companies.

“Maternal benefits have to be paid in full by the employer. This means that employers may be deterred [from] hiring young women, because they know they likely have to pay maternal benefits,” he said.

Sarvananthan says that security for women – at the work place, during the commute, and for their offspring – could play a huge role in changing employment figures.

“In order to boost labour force participation by women, a carrot-and-stick approach could be pursued by the state. Paternity leave, child care, crèche services at workplaces, and better and safer public transport facilities for women could be [provided] by the private and public sectors in order to incentivise women to join the labour market,” he argues.

He also believes the government should ink an equal opportunities law that legally undermines discriminatory policies. Currently, the constitution stipulates that no one should be discriminated based on sex, but there is no law that provides for equal pay for the same work.

Having more women in the workplace is not only a current problem but could also be a future crisis, as Sri Lanka’s working population ages. Currently, 17 percent of the population is above the age of 55, while 25 percent is below 15 years, meaning only around 50 percent are believed to be in the working age group.

“Given that women comprise just over half of the population, and our working age population peak is beginning to wane, it is critical that we have maximum participation from women in the workforce,” Wijesinha states.

Many believe a higher portion of women in decision-making positions could right these imbalances.

Women’s political representation remains low, with less than 6.5 percent women in parliament, less than six percent in provincial councils, and fewer than two percent in local government.

As the country moves towards elections, activists and rights groups are calling for a 30 percent quota for women in the 20th amendment to the constitution.

If this goal is realised, it could spell change for people like Marasinghe, who, after a decade of searching for her elusive dream job, has all but given up hope.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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