Inter Press Service » Women & Economy http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Thu, 17 Apr 2014 10:40:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 World Bank, IMF Urged to Act on New Inequality Focus http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/world-bank-imf-urged-act-new-inequality-focus/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=world-bank-imf-urged-act-new-inequality-focus http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/world-bank-imf-urged-act-new-inequality-focus/#comments Thu, 10 Apr 2014 21:37:31 +0000 Farangis Abdurazokzoda http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133571 Global income inequality threatens economic and social viability, according to a World Bank report released Thursday, reiterating a new but increasingly forceful narrative from both the bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Yet as the two Washington-based institutions gather here this week for semi-annual meetings, anti-poverty campaigners are calling on the bank and IMF to translate […]

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Residents of Nairobi's Mathare slum, one of the largest in Kenya. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

Residents of Nairobi's Mathare slum, one of the largest in Kenya. Credit: Miriam Gathigah/IPS

By Farangis Abdurazokzoda
WASHINGTON, Apr 10 2014 (IPS)

Global income inequality threatens economic and social viability, according to a World Bank report released Thursday, reiterating a new but increasingly forceful narrative from both the bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Yet as the two Washington-based institutions gather here this week for semi-annual meetings, anti-poverty campaigners are calling on the bank and IMF to translate such rhetoric into practice.“Fewer than 100 people control as much of the world’s wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion combined.” -- World Bank President Jim Yong Kim

“World Bank President Jim Kim and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde have been vocal about the dangers of skyrocketing inequality, but there is still a long way to go,” Max Lawson, the head of policy and advocacy for Oxfam GB, a humanitarian and advocacy group, told IPS.

“There’s no trade-off between growth and inequality,” concurred his colleague, Nicolas Mombrial, of Oxfam America. “There will be no inclusive growth if economic inequality remains out of control.”

Oxfam and other groups are now calling on the World Bank and IMF to take concrete action to address issues associated with wealth inequality worldwide. IMF policies in particular have been criticised in the past for particularly negative impacts on poor and marginalised communities.

“We are pleased to see the IMF recognise that drastic fiscal consolidation policies have been a drag on growth, something that unions have been saying since the inappropriate shift to austerity made in 2010,” Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said Thursday.

“The IMF’s undermining of labour standards and collective bargaining institutions in several European countries, for example, has already had important impacts on income distribution that are likely to intensify in the future. We urgently call for a review and major changes in the Fund’s labour market policies.”

Oxfam’s Lawson lists at least three areas that he would like to see receive serious consideration by the IMF and the World Bank.

“First of all, it is necessary to develop a more adequate measurement of income inequality,” he says. “This needs to look at not only the income of the bottom 40 percent of the world’s income earners are measured but also the income flows of the world’s top 10 percent.”

Lawson suggested that the IMF, given its constant and influential interaction with the world’s governments, would be particularly well placed to advance a stronger measurement of inequality.

“Secondly, it is necessary to reform taxation schemes,” Lawson continued. “It is not fair that a billionaire pays a lower percentage in tax than a bus driver. And thirdly, it is essential to provide access to universal health care and education.”

Oxfam is also calling on governments to address inequality by focusing more robustly on tax dodging and related financial secrecy. Along with others, the group is calling for a global goal to end extreme inequality as part of the discussion around the post-2015 international development goals.

“We cannot hope to win the fight against poverty without tackling inequality,” Oxfam says. “Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table.”

Widening gap

Inequality has become a particularly prominent topic in international policy discussions over the past two years. In part this is because, in the aftermath of the global economic downturn of 2008, the rich have bounced back much more quickly than the poor – thus widening the inequality gap.

A recent list of global billionaires published by Forbes underscored the scope of the problem. According to that data, just 67 people have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people.

“Fewer than 100 people control as much of the world’s wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion combined,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said Thursday at the start of the World Bank-IMF Spring Meetings. At similar meetings last year, Kim announced a new bank goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030.

Yet on Thursday he warned that economic growth is not enough to reach that goal.

“Even if all countries grow at the same rates as over the past 20 years, and if the income distribution remains unchanged, world poverty will only fall by 10 percent by 2030, from 17.7 percent in 2010,” he said.

“We need a laser-like focus on making growth more inclusive and targeting more programmes to assist the poor directly if we’re going to end extreme poverty.”

Kim’s warning is underscored in a press release published on Thursday by the bank.

“Rising inequality of income can dampen the impact of growth on poverty,” the paper says.

“In countries where inequality was falling, the decline in poverty for a given growth rate was greater. Even if there is no change in inequality, the ‘poverty-reducing power’ of economic growth is less in coun­tries that are initially more unequal.”

The paper emphasises that the governments and donors can’t aim only to lift people out of extreme poverty, but also have to ensure that people aren’t “stuck just above the extreme poverty line due to a lack of opportunities that might impede progress toward better livelihoods.”

“Persistent inequality, where the rich are continuously advantaged and the rest struggle to catch up, makes people frustrated with the system,” Carol Graham, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, told IPS.

“Such inequality pre-programmes the public perception downward. And even in countries where there is a progress with regard to inequality, and social frustration impacts political instability.”

In a blog post, Carol Graham and another researcher tie recent protests in Chile, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, Ukraine and even the Arab Spring to widening income differential or inequality.

“The protesters are not a nothing-to-lose risk taker, but middle-aged, middle income, and more educated than average people who are unhappy about an unfair advantage of the rich and a lack of opportunities for the poor,” they write, calling the “prototypical” protestors “frustrated achievers”.

“Extreme inequality is particularly dangerous in countries in political and economic transition,” they note.

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Obama Says Gender Pay Gap Is No Myth, It’s Math http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/obama-says-gender-pay-gap-myth-math/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=obama-says-gender-pay-gap-myth-math http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/obama-says-gender-pay-gap-myth-math/#comments Wed, 09 Apr 2014 21:32:42 +0000 Farangis Abdurazokzoda http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133553 Since his re-election in 2012, President Barack Obama has stepped up his rhetoric around gender equality issues in the United States, but he has yet to get a partisan U.S. Congress to go along with a series of legislative proposals he put forward. On Tuesday, Obama bypassed Republican opposition by signing two executive orders aimed […]

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President Barack Obama signs executive actions to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women, at an event marking Equal Pay Day, in the East Room of the White House, Apr. 8, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama signs executive actions to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women, at an event marking Equal Pay Day, in the East Room of the White House, Apr. 8, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

By Farangis Abdurazokzoda
WASHINGTON, Apr 9 2014 (IPS)

Since his re-election in 2012, President Barack Obama has stepped up his rhetoric around gender equality issues in the United States, but he has yet to get a partisan U.S. Congress to go along with a series of legislative proposals he put forward.

On Tuesday, Obama bypassed Republican opposition by signing two executive orders aimed at addressing wage disparities between men and women in the United States.

While the non-legislative executive orders he unveiled on Tuesday deal only with narrow issues, supporters say they offer an important initial attempt on Obama’s part to address stubborn disparities between how much money U.S. men versus women take home.

“Women make up nearly half of the nation’s workforce and are the primary breadwinners in 4 in 10 American households with children under age 18,” the president stated Tuesday in a speech at the White House. And yet “women still make only 77 cents to every man’s dollar. For African American women, Latinas, it’s even less.”

Obama said such statistics are an “embarrassment”. He is now calling on lawmakers and the public to recognise that it is the time for a valuation of individual’s contribution to the economy based solely on merit – and that this should not be constrained by gender.

Obama’s mandate will affect federal contractors, requiring that they publish wage data by both gender and race in order to ensure they’re complying with laws on wage equality that are already on the books. A second order prohibits those contractors from taking actions against employees who compare their salaries.

Tuesday is marked in the United States as Equal Pay Day.

“These orders … will help erase Equal Pay Day from the calendar,” the National Organisation for Women (NOW), and advocacy group, said Tuesday. “NOW applauds the executive orders President Obama is signing today, and what it represents — a step towards equality for women. It’s about recognising women’s work as equal to their male peers – and above all else, fairness.”

Some researchers suggest the wage-gap problem in the United States could be even greater than Obama indicates.

“Most studies I have seen that include many other characteristics of workers and the jobs using the same data tend to leave about 30 percent of the gender gap unexplained,” Jeffrey Hayes, study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a think tank, told IPS.

Hayes warns that it is possible to “overcontrol” such models.

“For example, you can statistically control for the occupations and industries in which women and men work and this would explain some of the gap,” he says. “But if access to the good-paying jobs is one of the mechanisms that could be discriminatory, the researcher could be underestimating discrimination if only the unexplained part is considered as potential discrimination.”

Despite long understanding of the issue of gender-based wage gap in the United States, the situation appears to have stayed roughly the same for at least the past decade.

According to a comprehensive 2013 IWPR study, the earnings gap – measured as the ratio of women’s median annual earnings for full-time year-round workers – was 76.5 in 2012, thus corroborating Obama’s figure. Further, that study indicates this number remained unchained since 2004.

The gender wage gap is “not a myth”, Obama said Tuesday. The IWPR study concurs, stating this disparity is “a reality for women across racial and ethnic groups”.

Political tactic?

President Obama has previously signed a bill that should help bridge the wage disparity between male and female. In fact, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act of 2009, named after a retired tire plant supervisor who discovered she was paid far less than her male counterparts, was the first bill signed by the president upon taking the office.

“From signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to establishing the Equal Pay Task Force, I have strengthened pay discrimination protections and cracked down on violations of equal pay laws,” Obama said Tuesday.

“And I will continue to push the Congress to step up and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, because this fight will not be over until our sisters, our mothers, and our daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”

Yet according to some estimates, the gender wage gap continues to extend right into the White House. A recent analysis by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a neoconservative think tank, found that female White House staff members on average earn 88 cents for every dollar that male staffers make.

Yet the National Organisation for Women is urging quick passage of the PFA.

“The Paycheck Fairness Act helps women fight the wage gap by requiring greater transparency from employers – who would have to show that wage differences are job-related and not gender-based – and protects employees from retaliation when they share information about compensation,” the group said Tuesday.

“NOW urges the Senate to pass this bill immediately. If equal pay for women were instituted immediately, across the board, it would result in an annual $447.6 billion gain nationally for women and their families. Over fifteen years, a typical woman loses $499,101 because she is paid less than a man. It’s unacceptable.”

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Women Seek Stand-Alone Goal for Gender in Post-2015 Agenda http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/women-seek-stand-alone-goal-gender-post-2015-agenda/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-seek-stand-alone-goal-gender-post-2015-agenda http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/women-seek-stand-alone-goal-gender-post-2015-agenda/#comments Mon, 24 Mar 2014 23:10:58 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133186 The 45-member U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) concluded its annual 10-day session Saturday with several key pronouncements, including on reproductive health, women’s rights, sexual violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and the role of women in implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The heaviest round of applause came when the Commission specifically called […]

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Brazilian women have been making headway in traditionally male-dominated areas. Construction workers in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Brazilian women have been making headway in traditionally male-dominated areas. Construction workers in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 24 2014 (IPS)

The 45-member U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) concluded its annual 10-day session Saturday with several key pronouncements, including on reproductive health, women’s rights, sexual violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and the role of women in implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The heaviest round of applause came when the Commission specifically called for a “stand-alone goal” on gender equality – a longstanding demand by women’s groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – in the U.N.’s post-2015 development agenda.

Still, the primary inter-governmental policy-making body on gender empowerment did not weigh in on a key proposal being kicked around in the corridors of the world body: a proposal for a woman to be the next U.N. secretary-general (SG), come January 2017.

"A Striking Gap"

Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, a former U.N. under-secretary-general who is credited with initiating the conceptual and political breakthrough resulting in the adoption of U.N. Security Council resolution 1325 on women and peace and security, told IPS the annual CSW session is the largest annual gathering with special focus on issues which impact on women, and thereby humanity as a whole.

"It attracts hundreds of government and civil society participants representing their nations and organisations. After the very late night consensus adoption, the agreed conclusions of its 58th session, which focused on the post-2015 development agenda, show a striking gap in firmly establishing the linkage between peace and development in the document," he said.

"The mainstream discussions in this context have always been highlighting the point that MDGs lacked the energy of women's equal participation at all decision making levels and the overall and essential link between peace and development. So, in UN's work on the new set of development goals need to overcome this inadequacy. Somehow this still remains in the outcome of CSW-58.

"Adoption of the landmark U.N. Security Council resolution 1325 boosted the essential value of women's participation. Its focus relates to each of the issues on every agenda of the U.N. There is a need for holistic thinking and not to compartmentalise development, peace, environment in the context of women's equality and empowerment," Ambassador Chowdhury said.

"It is necessary that women's role in peace and security is considered as an essential element in post-2015 development agenda."
“I did not hear it, but it’s a good question to raise given that a major section of the CSW’s ‘Agreed Conclusions’ were on ensuring women’s participation and leadership at all levels and strengthening accountability,” Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, international coordinator at the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP), told IPS.

She said that in pre-CSW conversations, she heard the names of two possible candidates from Europe – whose turn it is to field candidates on the basis of geographical rotation – but both were men.

“The question is: Is the United Nations ready for a woman SG?” she asked.

Dr. Abigail E. Ruane, PeaceWomen Programme Manager at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), told IPS the biggest thing at the CSW session was support for a gender equality goal in the post-2015 development agenda and the integration of gender throughout the proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs).

She said the recognition of the link between conflict and development was also important because it is not one that is usually recognised.

Asked about the proposal for a woman SG, she said: “I didn’t hear any discussion of a woman SG in the sessions I participated in.”

Harriette Williams Bright, advocacy director of Femmes Africa Solidarite (FAS), also told IPS the various civil society and CSW sessions she attended did not bring up the discussion of a woman as the next SG.

Still, she said the commitment of the CSW to a stand-alone goal on gender equality is welcomed and “we are hopeful that member states will honour this commitment in the post-2015 development framework and allocate the resources and political will needed for concrete progress in the lives of women, particularly in situations of conflict.”

Antonia Kirkland, legal advisor at Equality Now, told IPS her organisation was heartened that U.N. member states were able to reach consensus endorsing the idea that gender equality, the empowerment of women and the human rights of women and girls must be addressed in any post-2015 development framework following the expiration of MDGs in 2015.

“Throughout the process there has been broad agreement that freedom from violence against women and girls and the elimination of child marriage and FGM must be achieved,” she said.

“Equality Now believes sex discriminatory laws, including those that actually promote violence against women and girls, should be repealed as soon as possible to really change harmful practices and social norms,” Kirkland added.

Cabrera-Balleza of GNWP said the call for a stand-alone goal on gender equality; women’s empowerment and human rights of women and girls; the elimination of FGM and honour crimes, child, early and forced marriages; protection of women and girls from violence; the protection of women human rights defenders; the integration of a gender perspective in environmental and climate change policies and humanitarian response to natural disasters; “are all reasons to celebrate.”

She regretted the CSW conclusions did not make a link between peace, development and the post-2015 agenda.

The earlier drafts of the Agreed Conclusions were much stronger in terms of defining this intersection, she noted.

“I hate to think delegates see peace and development and gender equality and women’s empowerment as disconnected issues or that peace is an easy bargaining chip. …that there is no text on the intersection of peace, security and development defies logic,” she said. “How can we have development without peace and how can we have peace without development?”

Cabrera-Balleza pointed out that “even as we hold governments accountable to respond to this gap, we need to have a serious dialogue among ourselves too as civil society actors – across issues, across different thematic agendas.”

Dr. Ruane of WILPF told IPS that despite longstanding commitments to strengthen financing to move words to action, including through arms reduction, such as included both in the plan of action at the Earth Summit in Rio (1992) and the Beijing women’s conference (1995), “governments gave in to pressure to weaken commitments and ended up reiterating only support for voluntary innovative financing mechanisms, as appropriate.”

In a statement released Monday, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) said that while the MDGs resulted in a reduction of poverty in some respects, the goals furthest from being achieved are those focused on women and girls – particularly on achieving gender equality and improving maternal health.

Executive Director of U.N. Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said the agreement represents a milestone toward a transformative global development agenda that puts the empowerment of women and girls at its centre.

She said member states have stressed that while the MDGs have advanced progress in many areas, they remain unfinished business as long as gender inequality persists.

As the Commission rightly points out, she said, funding in support of gender equality and women’s empowerment remains inadequate.

Investments in women and girls will have to be significantly stepped up. As member states underline, this will have a multiplier effect on sustained economic growth, she declared.

At the conclusion of the session, CSW Chair Ambassador Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines said “it is critical, important and urgent to appreciate every tree in the forest, and have an agreement on how big, how tall or how fat each tree.

“At the same time, we need to be mindful of the entire forest,” she added, pointing out that “the absence of peace and security in the discourse on post-2015 agenda does not make a whole forest.”

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OP-ED: While Women Progress, Men Fall Behind http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/op-ed-women-progress-men-falling-behind/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-women-progress-men-falling-behind http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/op-ed-women-progress-men-falling-behind/#comments Thu, 20 Mar 2014 18:28:53 +0000 Joseph Chamie http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133116 – International Women’s Day and the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) are overlooking a critical trend: while girls and women are making notable gains, boys and men are falling behind. On most major measures, such as education, employment, income and health, women are moving forward and men are simply not keeping up. […]

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By Joseph Chamie
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 20 2014 (IPS)

– International Women’s Day and the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) are overlooking a critical trend: while girls and women are making notable gains, boys and men are falling behind.

On most major measures, such as education, employment, income and health, women are moving forward and men are simply not keeping up.In order to facilitate gender equality in employment, occupation and income, it will be necessary to eliminate the “glass ceiling” as well as the “glass floor”.

Certainly noteworthy gender differences exist across regions and countries, especially when comparing developed and developing nations. Women’s progress towards equality continues to encounter resistance, especially among socially conservative sectors of society. Generally speaking, however, the standing of women and girls has been improved considerably worldwide and in some cases has even exceeded men and boys.

Women have more opportunities than ever before. In the past, wife, homemaker and mother were the sequence of traditional roles ascribed to women. Today, increasing numbers of women can pursue education, employment and careers as well as participate in business, politics, sports and culture in much the same way as men.

In the vital area of higher education, women have achieved an educational advantage over men. After centuries of male dominance, worldwide women now outnumber men in both university attendance and graduation.

In most countries with data women’s university enrollment and graduation rates exceed those of men. In some countries, such as Brazil, Canada, Poland, Sweden and the United States, about 60 percent of the university students are women, with the achievement gap accumulating over time. For instance, during the last 10 years two million more women than men graduated from college in the United States.

Also in developing countries as diverse as Argentina, Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, women constitute the majority of university students. Among the world’s two largest populations, China and India, women are moving toward parity with men at universities, 48 and 42 percent, respectively.

Joseph Chamie. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Joseph Chamie. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

At the secondary level, girls outperform boys with better grades, teacher assessments, college entrance exams and lower school dropout rates than boys. Consequently, some colleges have affirmative action policies for boys in order to achieve a gender balance.

Achieving educational gender equality requires special attention and increased efforts aimed at improving the education of boys and men as well as girls and women.

Even with an educational advantage, women continue to lag behind men in employment, income and occupational level. Such disparities may be a vestige of the past given that they decrease with increasing education.

With the passage of time women’s educational advantage may translate into less gender income inequality as many studies find that a college degree pays off in higher wages over a lifetime.

Moreover, in many developed countries the numbers of traditional jobs for men in construction and manufacturing are shrinking. In the U.S., for example, 78 percent of the jobs lost since 2007 were held by men, leaving one out of every five working age men out of work.

Encouraging signs of women’s career progress are evident in many countries. For example, in less than a generation the percent of women attending medical schools has steadily risen in many countries including the Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, reaching parity with men.

Women have also made modest gains in the political sphere as well, with increasing numbers elected and appointed to legislative, judicial, executive bodies and offices. The global average in national parliaments stands at about 22 percent, up from 11 percent in 1995. In some countries, such as Belgium, Cuba, Netherlands, Senegal, South Africa and Sweden, women account for 40 percent or more of the national legislatures.

Nevertheless, in order to facilitate gender equality in employment, occupation and income, it will be necessary to eliminate the “glass ceiling” as well as the “glass floor”. While the glass ceiling is an invisible barrier limiting women’s advancement to the highest levels in the workplace and corporate boardrooms, the glass floor is an invisible barrier limiting men’s entry into more traditional female occupations, such as nurses, secretaries and primary school teachers.

Although some progress has been made, occupations continue to be largely segregated by sex. While men dominate such fields as engineering, manufacturing, computer sciences, women are concentrated in less remunerative fields such as education, humanities, health and welfare. The challenge for policy makers, educators and parents is how to overcome these differences without limiting personal choice.

Women and men should have the freedom to select their field of study and pursue an occupation of their choosing. However, in order to achieve gender balances across major disciplines, professions and subsequent career advancements, both sexes will need to take the same coursework throughout the secondary level, including math, science and the humanities.

Much remains to be done to achieve gender equality. However, it would be a mistake to overlook the achievements of girls and women as well as the falling behind of boys and men.

It should be kept in mind that boys and girls are raised together within families, households and communities, not segregated into male and female micro-environments. The unfinished business in the 21st century to achieve full gender equality requires comprehensive policies and programmes aimed at addressing the rights, needs and well-being of girls and boys and women and men.

Joseph Chamie is a former Director of the United Nations Population Division.

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Ethiopia’s Female Fashion Designers Embrace Tradition to Boost Sales http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/ethiopians-female-fashion-designers-embrace-tradition-boost-business/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ethiopians-female-fashion-designers-embrace-tradition-boost-business http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/ethiopians-female-fashion-designers-embrace-tradition-boost-business/#comments Thu, 20 Mar 2014 13:58:58 +0000 James Jeffrey http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133101 Female fashion designers are drawing on Ethiopia’s rich cultural heritage and adding a modern twist to find success at home and increasingly impress abroad.  In fact, fashion design is proving to be one of the most successful Ethiopian sectors for small business and entrepreneurs, generating profit margins ranging from 50 percent to more than 100 […]

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A model wearing YeFikir clothing. Growing international recognition for designers in Ethiopia and Africa is partly a result of growing demand for ethically-produced fashion designs. Credit: Kyle La Mere/IPS

A model wearing YeFikir clothing. Growing international recognition for designers in Ethiopia and Africa is partly a result of growing demand for ethically-produced fashion designs. Credit: Kyle La Mere/IPS

By James Jeffrey
ADDIS ABABA, Mar 20 2014 (IPS)

Female fashion designers are drawing on Ethiopia’s rich cultural heritage and adding a modern twist to find success at home and increasingly impress abroad. 

In fact, fashion design is proving to be one of the most successful Ethiopian sectors for small business and entrepreneurs, generating profit margins ranging from 50 percent to more than 100 percent, according to Mahlet Afework, the 25-year-old Addis Ababa-based founder of fashion line MAFI.

The country is a fashion designer’s dream due to its multiple ethnic groups from which one can draw design inspiration, Mahlet tells IPS. Her most recent collection was inspired by the Dinguza pattern from southern Ethiopia’s Chencha region.“[Ethiopia’s fashion industry] is showing the diversity and beauty of Ethiopian culture, and providing some of the world’s best hand-woven cotton fabrics.” -- Fikirte Addis, fashion designer and founder of YeFikir Design

Small companies like Mahlet’s can flourish due to the absence of big chain department stores, and relatively low start-up costs set against high prices individuals are willing to pay for quality hand-made fashion garments

And the economy at large is benefiting from increased international interest in Ethiopia’s textile and garment industry. The industry’s small-scale businesses, with a labour force of 10 or less, registered exports of 62.2 million dollars in 2011, up from 14.6 million dollars in 2008.

And the Ethiopian government believes the industry can raise its aggregate production value to 2.5 billion dollars by the end of 2015.

Ethiopia’s successful fashion designers are predominantly women, according to Mahlet and other designers, who grew up surrounded by traditionally woven cotton fabrics, learning from mothers and aunts the tailoring and embroidering skills for making beautiful and delicate clothing.

This female-inspired heritage is not forgotten. Mahlet works exclusively with female weavers to help them support themselves and their families amid a male-dominated weaving sector.

Despite many designers having the advantage of a home-spun fashion education, a lack of formal fashion design education is preventing many from breaking out internationally, says Mahlet, who is self-taught and credits Google Search as her primary tutor.

Another problem in the international arena is conducting sales transactions.

Ethiopian banking restrictions mean there are no foreign banks in Ethiopia and international customers are often reluctant to pay into African banking accounts, fashion designer Fikirte Addis, founder of Addis Ababa-based YeFikir Design, tells IPS.

The company currently has to sell through Africa Design Hub, a U.S.-based online store founded in 2013 by Western expatriates to showcase African designs.

“After living in East Africa for several years we saw the potential of African designs in the global market,” the store’s co-founder Elizabeth Brown tells IPS.

She also noticed a gap in market linkages and knowledge sharing between the industry and global consumers, which Africa Design Hub seeks to bridge.

Currently almost all of its customers are in the U.S., although this year it plans to start selling products to Canada and Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan that have shown interests in African-made goods.

Fashion design success in Ethiopia also depends on embracing the ever-changing present while keeping an eye on the past, Fikirte says.

A weaver making fabric for YeFikir Design. Credit: Salima Punjani/IPS

A weaver making fabric for YeFikir Design. Credit: Salima Punjani/IPS

All YeFikir designs are made by hand or on traditional weaving machines operated by those using techniques that go back centuries to when Ethiopians made all their own clothing. 

“I love the traditional aspect of the clothing,” Rihana Aman, a café owner in Addis Ababa, who visited the YeFikir shop to buy a wedding dress, tells IPS. “So many dresses now are too modern, and use fabrics that lose what it means to be Ethiopian.”

Fikirte deals directly with and visits weavers she sources from to ensure that skills and incomes stay within communities, and practises remain ethical. She notes how children have been trafficked within the weaving industry.

As a result of the painstaking time and work required to make the garments, YeFikir custom-made dresses can sell for up to 15,300 birr (850 dollars), a sizeable sum, especially in a country where many toil for no more than 50 birr (3 dollars) a day.

Despite such apparent inequities, many Ethiopians — especially those in the growing middle class — remain content to pay handsomely for tailored garments with traditional influences, Mahlet says.

Ethiopians take great pride in the country’s ethnic diversity — around 84 languages and 200 dialects are spoken — and in displaying allegiances through clothing at special events such as weddings and festivals, Mahlet says.

This demand is seeping into the mainstream also. Mahlet’s clothing line MAFI specialises in ready-to-wear garments offering a notably funky take on the country’s ethnic melting pot. And it is a take that has proved successful.

International interest in Ethiopia’s fashion scene is undoubtedly growing — in 2012 Mahlet showcased her work at African Fashion Week New York. However, there are still some misconceptions. On a European flight, Mahlet recalls sitting next to a passenger who was surprised to hear that fashion designers existed in Ethiopia.

Others are not so surprised.

“Ethiopia has some wonderful and interesting craftsmanship,” Markus Lupfer, a London-based fashion designer of international repute who since 2010 has worked with Ethiopian fashion designers, told IPS.

Growing international recognition for designers in Ethiopia and Africa is partly a result of growing demand for ethically-produced fashion designs, Lupfer says.

Although for now such recognition still eludes many of Ethiopia’s fashion designers. And while local demand remains buoyant, designers agree that international demand remains the key to success.

Hence Mahlet and Fikirte plan to bolster their companies’ online presences this year. Both share a goal of exporting clothes to boutiques and online stores — and want to show the world what Ethiopian designers are capable of.

“Ethiopia’s fashion industry is changing the image of Ethiopia,” Fikirte says. “It is showing the diversity and beauty of Ethiopian culture, and providing some of the world’s best hand-woven cotton fabrics.”

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Women Turn Potatoes into Gold in Zimbabwe’s Cities http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/women-turn-potatoes-gold-zimbabwes-cities/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-turn-potatoes-gold-zimbabwes-cities http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/women-turn-potatoes-gold-zimbabwes-cities/#comments Sun, 09 Mar 2014 14:46:31 +0000 Jeffrey Moyo http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132579 Shyline Chipfika, 26, is one of thousands of Zimbabwean women in urban centres who have struck gold by growing potatoes. And a lot of their success has to do with an import ban. “I used to be a mere housewife, and my life has changed in a big way after I ventured into potato growing,” […]

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Potato plants in the backyard of Lina Chingama, 44, from Zimbabwe's Norton town, 40 kilometres west of the capital Harare. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

Potato plants in the backyard of Lina Chingama, 44, from Zimbabwe's Norton town, 40 kilometres west of the capital Harare. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS

By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Mar 9 2014 (IPS)

Shyline Chipfika, 26, is one of thousands of Zimbabwean women in urban centres who have struck gold by growing potatoes. And a lot of their success has to do with an import ban.

“I used to be a mere housewife, and my life has changed in a big way after I ventured into potato growing,” Chipfika told IPS.“Who said women can’t provide for their families? Really, watch what the potato magic has done for many women here." -- Grace Mbiza

Chipfika’s husband, faced with joblessness, turned to hawking at a local commuter omnibus terminus in the capital, Harare, after the company he worked for shut down in 2008 owing to the hyperinflation that crippled many sectors of the economy.

Chipfika’s rags-to-riches story is a very rare one in Zimbabwe, and she boldly declares she will not abandon the potato-growing venture anytime soon.

“I used to stay in a small apartment, but thanks to this venture, I have managed to extend my apartment into a respectable piece of property,” she said.

The potatoes do not require large amounts of land, just ordinary backyards, where the women plant seeds in sacks filled with fertile soil.

“The potato growing method on urban yards by women here is very simple yet extremely productive, although since time immemorial, urban yards have often been wasted by many who have not seen any value in them,” agricultural extension officer Mike Hunde, based in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland East Province in Marondera, 70 kilometres outside Harare, told IPS.

The officers are engaged by the government to facilitate agricultural research that enhances productivity.

The government promotes potatoes for food security, and as a way of backing local producers like Chingama and many others. In 2013, it banned imports of this staple food, and the crop took off.

Taking advantage of the ban, women in Zimbabwe’s towns and cities have since formed associations to get financial aid from pro-women non-governmental organisations to intensify local potato production.

According to the Urban Women Farmers’ Union, a trade union for women potato growers in Harare, there are 151 associations that women in towns and cities have formed to mobilise funding to cater for their potato growing ventures, with 16,150 women involved in potato production.

“Since the ban of potato imports here, as women potato growers only, we are supplying potatoes to eight percent of the national market, with huge scale indigenous potato growers dominating 88 percent of the market, while a few urban men who have emulated us are supplying the other four percent of the market,” Abigail Mlambo, secretary general of the Urban Women Farmers’ Union, told IPS.

“As an association of 12 potato growers here, we approached non-governmental organisations to seek funding to advance our urban potato growing project,” Nancy Chikwari told IPS.

After securing 1,000 dollars to buy inputs, Chikwari said their project expanded rapidly. Today, the women’s association boasts of sending their children to colleges and universities without financially straining their husbands.

“In 2013 alone, we harvested 30 tonnes and sold each 15-kilogramme packet for eight dollars, raking in thousands of dollars in profits,” Chikwari told IPS, adding that all of them now owned a car and a house in the capital thanks to potato growing.

Women in this Southern African nation make up the majority of jobless. According to the Central Statistical Office, of the country’s 13 million people, 60 percent (7.8 million) are women and 66 percent of them (5.14 million) are unemployed.

Official figures from 2013 indicate that only 850,000 people are formally employed.

The World Food Programme estimates the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe to be around 60 percent, despite the large numbers of people employed in the informal sector.

But for many urban women now undertaking potato farming at home, unemployment has become a thing of the past.

“Women like me no longer worry about employment. I make extensive sales from the potatoes I reap from my backyard,” 44-year-old Lina Chingama from Norton, a town 40 kilometres west of Harare, told IPS.

Chingama said she harvests the potatoes three times in a year and gets 1,200 kilogrammes of potatoes each time. A 10 kilogramme bag of potatoes fetches about 10 dollars at the local market.

This means Chingama pockets 1,200 dollars for the 1,200 kilogrammes she harvests each time.

Traditionally regarded as dependent upon their male counterparts, owing to urban potato farming, many women have even become breadwinners.

“Who said women can’t provide for their families? Really, watch what the potato magic has done for many women here. We are not just sleeping in towns, but rather fending for our families too,” Grace Mbiza, a women’s rights activist, told IPS.

Independent environmentalist Archibald Chigumbu said the process used by women to grow the potatoes is ecologically friendly.

“Their method does not harm the environment, as ordinary sacks with potato plants are placed within urban yards to nurse potatoes as they develop,” Chigumbu told IPS. He said common potato varieties grown here include Amythest, Mont Claire, BPI, Jacaranda, Opal and Emerald.

Ronald Museka, chair of the Potato Council of Zimbabwe, an organisation representing growers, told IPS, “We want to ensure there is enough production for the local market and urban women are just doing that. Soon they may start exporting.”

Zimbabwe’s Agriculture Minister Joseph Made is strongly supportive of these urban women’s ventures.

“Women have championed a grand move, maximising potato yields in their ordinary domestic yards and at the end of the day smiling all the way to the bank. We will not hesitate an inch to support them in every way possible,” Made told IPS.

But women potato growers here may face another hurdle with unpredictable local authorities, as the by-laws on such projects in towns are unclear.

“Yes, women are doing well, but council authorities haven’t approved urban agriculture and I’m unsure about what may or may not befall their potato projects,” a top local authority official speaking on the condition of anonymity, told IPS.

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Pakistani Women Hit Hurdles in Medical Profession http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/keeping-pakistani-women-medical-students-track/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=keeping-pakistani-women-medical-students-track http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/keeping-pakistani-women-medical-students-track/#comments Sat, 08 Mar 2014 09:28:25 +0000 Beena Sarwar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132549 On one of her many visits to Pakistan recently, Sarah Peck, director of the US-Pakistan Women’s Council, spent some time talking to young women medical students in Pakistan. She was struck by their passion and commitment — and by the hurdles they face. The US-Pakistan Women’s Council is working with expatriate Pakistani doctors to find […]

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Many women in Pakistan qualify to become doctors, and then do not practice. Credit: Fahim Siddiqi/IPS.

Many women in Pakistan qualify to become doctors, and then do not practice. Credit: Fahim Siddiqi/IPS.

By Beena Sarwar
BOSTON, United States, Mar 8 2014 (IPS)

On one of her many visits to Pakistan recently, Sarah Peck, director of the US-Pakistan Women’s Council, spent some time talking to young women medical students in Pakistan. She was struck by their passion and commitment — and by the hurdles they face.

Left to right, medical student Saima Firdous, Dr Jamila Khalil, Sarah Peck, Dr Khalil Khatri Credit: Beena Sarwar

Left to right, medical student Saima Firdous, Dr Jamila Khalil, Sarah Peck, Dr Khalil Khatri Credit: Beena Sarwar

The US-Pakistan Women’s Council is working with expatriate Pakistani doctors to find ways to encourage women qualifying as doctors in Pakistan to practice medicine.

Women outnumber male students in medical colleges across Pakistan, forming up to 85 percent of the student body in private universities and 65 percent in the public sector.

But only about half of them end up working as doctors. There are no nationwide figures for this estimate, but the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council’s records show the discrepancy between the number of women medical students and women doctors in Pakistan.

Less than half the 138,789 doctors registered with this nationwide body are women, 62,315. For specialists, the numbers are even lower – of the total 29,914 specialists registered with PMDC, only 8,056 are women.

The pattern is also visible in doctors from Pakistan coming to the United States.

“When doctor couples come here, the husband starts to work, the wife takes care of the family,” says Dr Jamila Khalil, president of APPNE, the New England chapter of APPNA, the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America.

“I grew up here, I was already a dentist by the time I got married,” she told IPS. A Pashtun from Pakistan’s northwest region bordering Afghanistan, she is a dentist and mother of two teens.

“It was very hard,” she added, her New England twang evident in her pronunciation of the last word, ‘haahd’.

The hurdles women doctors face in Pakistan and how to support them came under discussion at a lunch meeting that Sarah Peck attended recently in Somerville, Massachusetts convened by APPNE.

The US-Pakistan Women’s Council has powerful political connections. It was launched in September 2012 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, flanked by two of Pakistan’s most powerful and glamorous women, the then Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Ambassador Sherry Rehman.

The initiative, housed at the American University, is a public-private partnership between the State Department and American University, in collaboration with the Organisation of Pakistani Entrepreneurs (OPEN). Its mission is to promote education, employment, and entrepreneurship.

The Council’s aim to promote people-to-people relations between the U.S. and Pakistan represents a major shift in Washington’s foreign policy towards Pakistan since the Obama administration took over.

Previous U.S. governments focused on transactional ties with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, pursuing short-term strategic agendas with long-term disastrous consequences.

One of the organisers, Dr Khalil Khatri, a dermatologist and former president of APPNE, was also present at the APPNA winter session in Karachi last December where Peck met women medical students.

At the Karachi meeting women medical students had identified many different factors behind the difficulties they face in practicing medicine.

There are social pressures and lack of support, with mothers, mothers-in-law, and husbands often not wanting women to work. Families may help young couples with household matters and childcare but they also pressure them to conform to traditional gender roles.

Then, those who don’t go into ob-gyn or pediatrics have to deal with male patients, frowned upon in that highly gender segregated society – although the women medical students at the Karachi meeting said they had no issues seeing male patients.

What was hard, they said, is the harassment they face, like finding the locks broken on their changing room doors, making it difficult for them to strip and scrub down. Male peers and supervisors don’t take this seriously. In fact, those who complain face further problems.

Transport issues and security concerns, especially for those working late night shifts, are also daunting.

“One way to tackle the security and transport problem would be to arrange shuttles for women medical students especially after hours,” suggested Dr Nasar Quraishi, a pathologist visiting from New Jersey.

One of Dr Khatri’s nieces in Karachi recently started working as a doctor there. “When she has to work late nights, her parents are constantly worried. Two of my other nieces are in medical school there, but they also have every intention of practicing.”

Saima Firdous, 32, a medical student from Pakistan who finished her post-doc at Harvard University last year and is a board member of APPNE, says there is a need for “more women-only medical colleges in Pakistan, so that more people allow girls to study medicine.”

“Coming from a conservative, rural family, I found it really hard,” she told IPS. “Our culture doesn’t allow girls to live or travel alone. I’ve had to fight a lot.”

Her brother didn’t want her to attend the co-ed medical school in their city, Rawalpindi, but he also didn’t want her to go to the only women’s medical college in Pakistan, in Lahore, where she would have to live in a hostel.

“It was my three older sisters, who themselves have never been to school, who stood by me and supported me,” said Firdous, who for two years conducted a television show on the state-run Pakistan Television aiming to educate rural dwellers about basic health issues.

She received a major blow when the man she was in love with and about to marry, a U.S.-qualified physician who had encouraged her in her studies, told her that she could finish medical school, but he didn’t want her working as a doctor.

“I refused,” she said. “I hadn’t studied all those years to sit at home.”

Traveling alone to the United States, where she initially stayed with family friends, was another hurdle. “When I’m done, in another two or three years, I want to return to Pakistan and work, motivate other girls,” added Firdous.

“Women doctors are already respected role models in Pakistan, in all fields. Women have a loud voice in media and society in general,” said Dr Naheed Usmani, a paediatric oncologist from Pakistan who lives and works in the Boston area, and has also worked in Pakistan for several years.

The Council should train women doctors from the Pakistani diaspora to mentor and help students problem-solve, she told Peck.

The Council could also use its network to identify and train mentors based in Pakistan.

In the long term, there is a need to “increase motivation among women medical students and support them to not give up,”  Dr Khatri told IPS. “Secondly, educate society to develop a system where medical students are enabled to carry on their work after graduating.”

The Council’s partnership with U.S. doctors of Pakistani origin provides no quick-fix solutions to these myriad problems, but it is a step in the right direction.

Erum Sattar, a law student from Karachi and president of the Harvard Pakistan Student Group who was present at the lunch, said that the Pakistani students at Harvard would help in any way, perhaps by facilitating video conferencing for mentors and connecting people.

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Sun Shines on Forest Women http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/sun-shines-forest-women/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sun-shines-forest-women http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/sun-shines-forest-women/#comments Fri, 07 Mar 2014 08:13:17 +0000 Stella Paul http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132514 Chintapakka Jambulamma, 34, looks admiringly at a solar dryer. It’s the prized possession of the Advitalli Tribal Women’s Co-operative Society- a collective of women entrepreneurs that she leads. She opens up a drawer in the dryer, scoops out a handful of the medicinal plant Kalmegh and exclaims, “Look, it’s drying so fast.” Around her, women […]

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Forest women in Anantagiri forest in the south-east of India check out their solar dryer. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS.

Forest women in Anantagiri forest in the south-east of India check out their solar dryer. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS.

By Stella Paul
ANANATAGIRI, India, Mar 7 2014 (IPS)

Chintapakka Jambulamma, 34, looks admiringly at a solar dryer. It’s the prized possession of the Advitalli Tribal Women’s Co-operative Society- a collective of women entrepreneurs that she leads.

She opens up a drawer in the dryer, scoops out a handful of the medicinal plant Kalmegh and exclaims, “Look, it’s drying so fast.”“We work hard, gather good quality herbs and seeds. Our life depends on this money. Why should we settle for less?”

Around her, women from the co-operative break into laughter.  The women are from the Koya and Konds tribes in the Eastern Ghat mountains of southern India. The forest has always been their home and their source of sustenance. Now, these women are tapping the sun that shines through it.

The solar dryer has four panels attached. It was installed two years ago by the Kovel Foundation – a non-profit group that helps forest tribes defend their rights and improve their livelihood.

The dryer – one of the two such machines installed by the foundation so far, cost about a million rupees (17,000 dollars)  says Krishna Rao, director of the foundation.

The investment has been worth it, he says, because the women are using it to run a business sustainably. “There are 2,500 women from 20 villages in the cooperative. None of them have studied beyond the junior school. Yet, they know how to run a business well,” Rao tells IPS.

“They are organised and work well as a team. Also, they are learning how to collect the roots, leaves and fruits without harming the mother plant, so that their resources don’t run dry.”

The forests of this region yield more than 700 non-timber forest products that include leaves, edible herbs, medicinal plants, fungi, seeds and roots. Most popular among them are honey, gum, Amla (Indian gooseberry), Tendu leaves, Mahua flowers and soap nuts.

Koyas and Konds have made a living for centuries off such forest products.  Penikala Ishwaramma, 23, is one of the herb gatherers. On a good day she gathers 20-25 kg of herbs. This year there is a bumper growth of the kalmegh herb in the forest, and Ishwaramma has gathered 116 kg of it.

The forest department buys much of this produce – 25 products must be sold to the department alone. But tribal people find the department’s procurement process slow and its prices lower than the market price. The forest department pays 45 rupees for a kilogram of gooseberry, while the existing market price is more than 60 rupees (about a dollar).

It’s this disappointment with government prices that drove the women to build their own collective business of selling forest products. Within two years, they are close to earning the 200,000 rupees (3,300 dollars) the Kovel Foundation loaned them.

The foundation had also provided basic entrepreneurial skill-building. Every day women like Ishwaramma bring their bounty directly to the cooperative where the managing team weighs and buys them, paying much higher than the government rate.

“We work hard, gather good quality herbs and seeds, “ says Ishwaramma. “Our life depends on this money. Why should we settle for less?”

But making a profit for the cooperative depends on producing good quality herbs quickly and efficiently – a difficult task as the women lack proper infrastructure to store or dry their produce. In addition, forests villages are very vulnerable to extreme weather, especially cyclonic storms.

According to the Disaster Management department of Andhra Pradesh state in southern India, the area has witnessed over 60 cyclones in the past 40 years, and the frequency is rising.

Using solar energy to dry their herbs has helped the women minimise risks of damage. In 2013, their forest was hit by five big cyclones – Mahasen. Phailin, Helen, Lehar and Madi. Yet the group didn’t lose much of their produce.

“Before a storm approaches, we try to dry as much of the herbs as possible and quickly pack them,” says Jambulamma. “We no longer need to leave them in the courtyard to dry.”

With drying and packaging no longer under weather, the group is now focusing on building a network of regular buyers, which would help them break even.

Bhagya Lakshmi, programme manager at the Kovel Foundation which connects the women with herbal product manufacturers, agrees. “They have already got their first big client which is a Bangalore-based herbal pharmaceutical company called Natural Remedies Private Limited. Currently, they are buying kalmegh in bulk quantity. We are trying to find more firms who will buy other products from them.”

Besides establishing a clientele, the women are planning to upgrade their technology. Krupa Shanti heads five forest villages in the area. Shanti says she is proud of the women’s cooperative and would like to see it grow bigger.

The government has installed a solar photo voltaic station at a nearby school that can convert and store solar power. Shanti is lobbying authorities to install one such station in her village.

“The government has so many welfare schemes. But for forest women like us, the best scheme is one that will help us become economically independent. If the government installs a solar charging station in each of our villages, we can expand this business and change our future.”

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Tahrir Square Finds a GrEEK Neighbour http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/tahrir-square-finds-greek-neighbour/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=tahrir-square-finds-greek-neighbour http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/tahrir-square-finds-greek-neighbour/#comments Fri, 07 Mar 2014 08:11:46 +0000 Rachel Williamson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132481 The group of buildings near Tahrir Square could be modern campus-style office space anywhere. It’s hard to believe that just outside the heavy steel gates lies downtown Cairo, the noisy, polluted and now troubled heart of Egypt. The buildings are now a new IT hub called the GrEEK, after its history as a Greek school […]

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IT entrepreneur Marwa Sadek, the face of a new Egypt. Credit: Rachel Williamson/IPS.

IT entrepreneur Marwa Sadek, the face of a new Egypt. Credit: Rachel Williamson/IPS.

By Rachel Williamson
CAIRO, Mar 7 2014 (IPS)

The group of buildings near Tahrir Square could be modern campus-style office space anywhere. It’s hard to believe that just outside the heavy steel gates lies downtown Cairo, the noisy, polluted and now troubled heart of Egypt.

The buildings are now a new IT hub called the GrEEK, after its history as a Greek school and its current incarnation as a technology hub, and are the intended nucleus of a rising Egyptian ‘Silicon Alley’.The possibility of disruption from Tahrir Square to business as usual at the tech hub is a continuing reminder here that Egypt is not out of the political woods yet.

The location was the chief attraction for venture capitalist Ahmed Alfi when he decided in 2012 to build an ‘ecosystem’ for tech entrepreneurs.

The campus is close to the junction of the main metro lines and just a few stops from the national train station. Alfi said residents of Greater Cairo and from many of the surrounding cities could be at the business park within an hour and a half.

Alfi has ten tenants already in the office space he lets out, and “four or five” negotiating space, he told IPS.

Rent for a 50-square-metre office can vary from 450 dollars per month to 1,500 dollars on the lower floors. To put that in context, the new minimum wage for public sector workers is 172 dollars a month.

Alfi is clear about his aims for the campus: to give Egypt’s engineers and scientists a place to build technology businesses and thereby boost the sputtering economy. “My interest is its impact on the culture of entrepreneurs and on the Egyptian economy,” said Alfi.

“I don’t feel a responsibility towards the restoration of downtown. I mean, there’s some, but I feel a responsibility towards taking the really, really smart kids here who aren’t part of an ecosystem and getting them to work together and get some dynamism to happen.”

Those “kids” are the much talked of entrepreneurs in Egypt’s tech revolution who are reimagining their country as they want it to be. They are educated, usually bilingual, and tapped into regional entrepreneurial and business networks.

Marwa Sadek, founder of the digital marketing agency 20 Uses, mentored start-ups in Alfi’s Flat6Labs business incubator for the last two years, and couldn’t wait to get involved when she heard about the venture.

“I wanted to be in a place that is a business hub,” she said, having moved into a fashionably spartan second floor office in January. “When all the companies move in, the GrEEK campus is going to be a strong source of economic activity.”

Not only has the exposure to other businesses expanded 20 Uses’ client base, Sadek will soon have all the facilities on site needed to run a business, such as meeting rooms and cafes.

Yassar el-Zahhar chats happily about the plans for his health food start-up to service the geeks on the new campus. “You can smell the success here,” he told IPS. “Being here makes me take the power from the entrepreneurs around me.”

But all the excitement and business acumen inside the campus are unlikely to benefit those working just outside the gates. Continuing political agitation in Tahrir Square is one factor that raises questions just how much positive influence will flow out into the wider community.

Sadek’s main problem is the proximity to the square. She’s had to postpone meetings “three or four times” in the last two months because protests made the campus difficult or dangerous to reach.

Sadek said this would not discourage her from working from the GrEEK. But the possibility of disruption from Tahrir Square to business as usual at the tech hub is a continuing reminder here that Egypt is not out of the political woods yet.

GrEEK seems a world apart from Tahrir Square. The downtown area is “full of nasty people,” said el-Zahhar. “You can’t walk in peace in downtown.”

That means business for his food outlet at the GrEEK haven. “This will be protecting you. Protecting the girls, protecting the nice guys… I don’t think downtown will make any use of us, we are here to make money not spend money.”

Across the road from the GrEEK, Reda Feuad sipped tea in his IT shop as he waited for customers. Feuad doesn’t see the upstarts next door replacing his long-standing relationships with clients around the country.

The generational and educational difference between Feuad and the GrEEK tenants was clear: where Feuad spoke Arabic only and connected with his Egyptian clients via phone and sometimes in person, his new neighbours have regional and international ambitions, speak two or more languages and are constantly available by phone, and email, Facebook and Twitter.

No signs of this are evident yet, but some expect the influx of smart, innovative problem solvers to have some impact on the downtown area.

Heba Gamal, managing director of the economic development NGO Endeavour Egypt, hoped it would revive the community through foot traffic and social interactions with “young, enthusiastic, excited” business leaders.

“I think the downtown culture will be affected because it will want to, I mean smart entrepreneurs will definitely come in and want to tailor to that new segment of clientele that is suddenly available to them,” she said.

GrEEK CEO Tarek Taha is keen to be a good neighbour and has commissioned local carpenters and furniture makers to renovate heritage-listed buildings.

“We clearly understand where we’re located and we want to have an impact within the environment around us… I know this is a really small incremental effect but it’s very important to us.”

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Women Still Walk Two Steps Behind in Arab World http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/women-still-walk-two-steps-behind-arab-world/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-still-walk-two-steps-behind-arab-world http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/women-still-walk-two-steps-behind-arab-world/#comments Thu, 06 Mar 2014 20:49:00 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132522 In much of the Arab world, women’s participation in the labour force is the lowest in the world, according to the United Nations, while women in politics are a rare breed both in the Middle East and North Africa. Perhaps one of the few exceptions is Algeria, says Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of U.N. […]

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Women protest in Tunis to demand protection of their rights. Credit: Giuliana Sgrena/IPS

Women protest in Tunis to demand protection of their rights. Credit: Giuliana Sgrena/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)

In much of the Arab world, women’s participation in the labour force is the lowest in the world, according to the United Nations, while women in politics are a rare breed both in the Middle East and North Africa.

Perhaps one of the few exceptions is Algeria, says Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of U.N. Women."There is no doubt that culture and religion play some role, but the fact remains that over the past 30 years, and particularly in the last decade, we have seen the rising tide of very conservative forces in the region." -- Sanam Anderlini

The North African nation has reached the critical mass of some 30 percent of women parliamentarians, while Saudi Arabia has broken new ground by welcoming women to the Shura council.

Still, with a regional average of female parliamentarians just above 12 percent, the Arab world remains far behind the already low global average of 20 percent, according to U.N figures.

Asked whether this was due to cultural or religious factors, Puri told IPS, “It is not easy to pinpoint a single cause for the low level of women’s participation in the labour force and in politics in the Arab world, and more generally, around the world.”

She said there is no doubt that entrenched gender stereotypes and social norms that condone discrimination against women play a negative role, but other factors also need to be taken into account.

These include, for example, access to and quality of education, opportunities to reconcile professional or political life with family responsibilities, the overall structure of the labour market, and prevalence of violence against women.

When representatives of women’s organisations meet in New York next week, one of the many issues before the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will be the low level of women’s participation in the labour force and in political and social life worldwide.

Women wearing the traditional Hijab attend the Commission on the Status of Women at U.N. headquarters in March 2010. Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

Women wearing the traditional Hijab attend the Commission on the Status of Women at U.N. headquarters in March 2010. Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

The CSW, scheduled to hold its annual sessions Mar. 10-21, is the primary inter-governmental policy-making body on gender equality and advancement of women.

This year’s session will focus on challenges and achievements in the implementation of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), specifically for women and girls.

Sanam Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and a senior fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told IPS: “We should steer clear of assuming that the low levels of participation in public spaces – political and economic – are ‘entrenched ‘cultural or religious values.’

“There is no doubt that culture and religion play some role, but the fact remains that over the past 30 years, and particularly in the last decade, we have seen the rising tide of very conservative forces in the region – largely supported by regional governments themselves – that are promoting a regressive agenda towards women.”

Let’s not forget that Egypt had a feminist movement in the 19th century, she added.

Puri listed several factors that negatively affect outcomes for women and girls.

These, she pointed out, include family codes and parallel traditional legal and justice systems that deny women property and inheritance rights, access to productive resources, sanction polygamy and early and child marriages, and put women at a disadvantage in marriage and divorce.

At the same time, it is essential to tackle negative misinterpretations of religion or culture that not only condone but perpetuate myths about inherent inequality between men and women and justify gender-based discrimination.

“As we at UN Women have pointed out, along with many faith-based and other organisations, equality between women and men was propounded centuries ago in the Arab region,” Puri said.

At the same time, governments along with all stakeholders, including civil society, need to put in place an enabling environment in order to increase women’s participation in all spheres of life, said Puri.

Anderlini told IPS that in the Arab world – like any other part of the world – there are always different cultural forces at play simultaneously: conservative and progressive.

But in the Arab world, the conservative forces are seeking to erase or discredit the gains made in the past.

“They like to associate ‘women’s rights’ with immorality and westernisation. It is a clear political agenda that is being fomented and we must not fall for the notion that it is ‘cultural’ or religious’,” said Anderlini, who was appointed last year to the Working Group on Gender and Inclusion of the Sustainable Development Network for the U.N.’s post-2015 economic agenda.

She also said Islam calls for equal rights to education for women and men – to equal pay, to women’s rights to inheritance and participation in public life.

“What’s being spread are extreme interpretations of Islam that may be rooted in countries like Saudi Arabia but are newer to Egypt, Tunisia or Lebanon,” she warned.

Asked how women’s participation can be advanced in the Arab region, Puri told IPS, “As elsewhere, achieving the advancement of women’s participation in the political, economic and social spheres in the Arab States requires interventions at multiple levels.”

First, a reform of state constitutions and laws as well as of traditional legal and justice systems and the creation of a conducive policy environment based on international women’s rights norms and instruments, such as the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, needs to be in place.

This environment should not only allow, but also encourage women to participate in the work force and in public life.

It must include temporary special measures, such as quotas in all public institutions. Education, training and skills building is also essential.

In the workplace, reconciling family responsibilities with professional life must be addressed, as women still undertake most of the domestic and care work, said Puri.

This must include effective maternity leave practices and provisions, affordable and accessible childcare and other caregiving structures, as well as incentives for men and boys to play a greater role in undertaking domestic work, such as compulsory paternity leave, she noted.

The policy environment also must focus on preventing violence against women at home, harassment at the workplace and in public spaces, so that women and girls do not fear any repercussions for partaking in public life.

Secondly, she said, there has to be bottom-up change.

“This means changing entrenched patriarchal mindsets and shift from attitudes and beliefs that focus on women’s reproductive role to women’s productive and public roles,” stressed Puri.

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Untimely Rains Hit Cuban Tobacco Harvest http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/untimely-rains-hit-cuban-tobacco-harvest/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=untimely-rains-hit-cuban-tobacco-harvest http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/untimely-rains-hit-cuban-tobacco-harvest/#comments Thu, 06 Mar 2014 02:22:42 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132490 Near the close of the harvest , local people in the Cuban municipality of San Juan y Martínez, which boasts the finest tobacco plantations in the world, are seeing their hopes of a plentiful season dashed by unexpected winter rains. “It’s been a bad year, a rebellious one as we call it. There was a […]

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Yamilé Venero strings tobacco leaves onto long poles for natural curing on the Valle farm, in the municipality of San Juan y Martínez, the centre of production of this preeminently Cuban crop. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Yamilé Venero strings tobacco leaves onto long poles for natural curing on the Valle farm, in the municipality of San Juan y Martínez, the centre of production of this preeminently Cuban crop. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
SAN JUAN Y MARTÍNEZ, Cuba, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)

Near the close of the harvest , local people in the Cuban municipality of San Juan y Martínez, which boasts the finest tobacco plantations in the world, are seeing their hopes of a plentiful season dashed by unexpected winter rains.

“It’s been a bad year, a rebellious one as we call it. There was a lot of rain, which rots the plants. Tobacco needs sun during the day and cold at night,” 67-year-old Dámaso Rodríguez, a worker on the Valle plantation in this municipality, 180 kilometres west of Havana, in the province of Pinar del Río, told IPS.

“We are late with the farm chores,” said Yamilé Venero, a young tobacco worker on the same plantation. “It’s not worth planting again,” added María Teresa Ventos, a 54-year-old woman who comes every season to string the tobacco leaves onto long poles for drying in this agricultural industry which is a source of temporary jobs for women.

Since November, when the season started, there has been too much rain in the province which was expected to supply 70 percent of the 26,400 tonnes of tobacco leaf forecast for the 2013-2014 harvest. San Juan y Martínez and the neighbouring municipality of San Luis were severely affected; between them they provide 86 percent of the tobacco for the prized and costly Havana cigars.

Local sources reported the loss of 813 hectares in Pinar del Río and partial damage in a further 1,000 hectares, out of the provincial plan for 15,000 hectares. Many farms had to uproot their tobacco plants and replant three times over.

Tobacco is Cuba’s third export, after nickel and medical products.

In 2013, the country earned 447 million dollars from tobacco, eight percent more than in 2012 when the Anglo-Cuban corporation Habanos S.A. made 416 million dollars. It is the sole vendor of Cuban cigars worldwide, trading in 160 countries, with most of its business in Europe, although cigars are doing well in Asia and the Middle East.

The storm clouds over Pinar del Río, in the west of the country, may hurt sales this year, along with other problems like tough anti-tobacco laws in Europe and the economic blockade imposed by the United States on Cuba because of the of conflict between Washington and Havana that has gone on for half a century.

To weather the damage done by the downpours, plantations in Pinar extended their planting season, which usually ends in January, by 45 days, and delayed other major tasks of the current tobacco harvest. They have also resorted to harvesting “capadura” (lower quality) leaf and plant regrowth, in order to maximise production.

On the Valle plantation, 12 skilled men continue to harvest tobacco leaves and take them to a high-roofed wooden barn at one side of the estate. Inside, 12 women string the leaves in bunches and arrange them on long poles which are then hung in tiers right up to the slanted roof for traditional curing (controlled drying) in air.

“After all, the tobacco is good quality, but not as good as before,” Rodríguez said. This veteran tobacco grower, the son and grandson of peasant farmers, is concerned that the strange weather in his birthplace “is no longer the same” as it was three decades ago.

The unique combination of temperature, soil and humidity in the Vuelta Abajo region, in the west of the province, is essential for the development of the best handmade premium cigars on the planet, a process that involves close to 190 different operations.

Only here can all the types of leaf be grown that are used in making cigars, the successors to the rolled leaves smoked by native people on the island of Cuba when Spanish colonists arrived in 1492.

Dayana Hernández and Aliet Achkienazi, researchers at the state Meteorology Institute, have forecast that this territory will become warmer every decade this century, unsettling the conditions that give Cuban cigars their exclusive taste, aroma and texture and have earned them their protected designation of origin (PDO).

The PDO protects agricultural products that have a quality and characteristics fundamentally or exclusively due to geographical factors in their place of origin. In this case it is reserved for cigars of over three grams, made in Cuba according to traditional methods from varieties of Cuban black tobacco.

The study “Impacto del cambio climático sobre el cultivo del tabaco en la zona de Pinar del Río, Cuba” (Impact of climate change on tobacco cultivation in the area of Pinar del Río, Cuba) analysed particularly productive districts in the province, including San Juan y Martínez and San Luis.

On the basis of future climate scenarios, the authors forecast that rising temperatures will not cause great harm in the next few decades, but later on, as warming increases, crop yields will decline. However, in the north of the area they studied, the climate will be more stable and it is less likely that temperatures will exceed 25 degrees Celsius.

The study found that “the impact of climate change can be mitigated in conditions compatible with the sustainable development” of the delicate tobacco leaf. It recommended “further research” into the effects of imbalances in the rainfall patterns on the plantations.

The experienced eye of Francisco José Prieto, the manager of the Valle plantation, who owns 4.5 hectares that have belonged to his family since his grandfather’s days, led him to take steps ahead of the inclement weather.

He planted early, and was already harvesting “when the rains intensified,” he told IPS. “I didn’t have to replant,” said this member and president of the Tomás Valdés Credit and Services Cooperative (CCS), which groups 50 farms in Vuelta Abajo.

The CCSs were created in the 1960s as voluntary associations of small farmers who retain ownership of their land, and gain collective access to technologies, financing and sales facilities for their products.

But in spite of his efforts, Prieto doubts whether this harvest will be as good as the last, when his farm produced 158 quintals (7,272 kilos), a record result.

Prieto uses soil conservation techniques on his land. He sprays the tobacco only once, and after the harvest, he plants crop varieties that improve the soil, like maize and jack beans. “They provide shade, conserve nutrients that otherwise would be washed away by the rains, and they are dug in as a green manure,” he said.

The 44,863 people living in San Juan y Martínez, on large estates dotted with simple houses with light roofs, depend on the success of each tobacco harvest. “We are paid fixed wages, with bonuses for productivity,” union leader Celeste Muñoz told IPS.

Constantly working dry tobacco wrapper leaf from the last harvest on her roller, Muñoz, employed for the last 17 years in a centre for tobacco collection, selection and processing, said that her team of 50 women is trying to “recover as much dry leaf as possible.”

She is not sure whether it is “because of the climate, the fertilisers or the variety planted,” but she claims that the yield “is less than before. We got as many as 1,000 quintals (46,039 kilos) of dry leaf in one season,” she said nostalgically.

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Labour Anger Simmers in Cambodia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/labour-anger-simmers-cambodia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=labour-anger-simmers-cambodia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/labour-anger-simmers-cambodia/#comments Tue, 04 Mar 2014 08:50:00 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132397 An uneasy calm prevails in Cambodia after the government crackdown on protests by garment workers in January. With public gatherings banned and charges framed against 23 union leaders and activists, labour discontent may not be spilling on to the streets, but it is simmering. Prime Minister Hun Sen has now called for removal of the ban on […]

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Workers at a lunch break in front of factories supplying H&M in Phnom Penh. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS.

Workers at a lunch break in front of factories supplying H&M in Phnom Penh. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS.

By Michelle Tolson
PHNOM PENH, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)

An uneasy calm prevails in Cambodia after the government crackdown on protests by garment workers in January. With public gatherings banned and charges framed against 23 union leaders and activists, labour discontent may not be spilling on to the streets, but it is simmering.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has now called for removal of the ban on public assembly.“This is a critical juncture for garment workers and trade unions to use their leverage as a voting bloc to pressure both parties for better wages."

“The government should not be suppressing the demonstrators if they want to prove that Cambodia is a democratic country,” Phorn Sreywin, a 26-year-old garment worker, told IPS.

She has the support of the Workers Information Centre (WIC), which supports women in the garment industry, but voices asking for higher minimum wages in this impoverished Southeast Asian country appear to have been muffled for the time being.

“There should never have been a ban as this contradicts the Constitution and treaties ratified by Cambodia,” Naly Pilorge, Director of the human rights NGO LICADHO, told IPS by e-mail.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), 93 percent of which comprises foreign business owners, mostly from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, has cited the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) convention number 87 to claim that workers have no “right to strike”.

“Freedom of association cannot be used as an excuse to get away with illegal behaviour and undermine a government’s ability to govern,” said a statement on GMAC’s website, alluding to the protests of Jan. 2-3 by garment workers, which led to military action.

GMAC claims that the strike by garment workers was violent.

“A multiplicity of unions in the workplace continues to create challenges, including but not limited to an increasing mass of unrepresentative unions, infighting amongst unions on the factory floor to gain popularity, misrepresentation of membership numbers due to double counting, and inability to engage with the unions constructively,” it said.

Activists, however, say that this amounts to intimidation by GMAC.

International trade unions around the world have protested in front of Cambodian consulates in support of the country’s garment workers.

Trade unions have also condemned GMAC for stating that it condoned the military action on striking garment workers Jan. 3 that killed four of them, left one missing and seriously injured over 30.

“The response from the Cambodian government is very oppressive,” said Pranom Somwong, a labour activist and consultant for the Clean Clothes Campaign who helped organise a protest in Bangkok in front of the Cambodian consulate.

She also told IPS that factory owners were “confrontational” vis-a-vis the unions. “Denying workers the right to freedom of assembly and the right to a living wage is unacceptable,” she said.

In the days leading up to the protest, the Labour Ministry had approved an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers, from 80 to 95 dollars a month. But trade unions and workers protested, saying it was not enough to live on, and demanded a monthly minimum wage of 160 dollars.

Labour activists are now being threatened with loss of job or with lawsuits, Sophea Chrek, interim coordinator for WIC, told IPS.

Tola Moeun, head of the advocacy organisation, Community Legal Education Centre, explained that factory owners have threatened labour leaders with lawsuits. “Yang Sophorn (president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions) was sued by suppliers (factory owners) for mobilising workers to strike,” he pointed out.

He highlighted another problem.

Despite 90 percent of garment workers being women, men tend to lead the labour unions, partly owing to the combative environment. “Women do not feel confident in their positions or are not provided enough opportunities to grow, especially due to their poor wages and short term contracts,” he told IPS.

Thida Khus, Executive Director of SILAKA, an organisation that trains women, believes women workers hold the key to shaping their work environment.

“Women workers need to lead and use their natural leadership quality to deal with the environment, using better negotiation skills with the thugs in factories, with the government and with the elites who are looking after their bosses’ interests,” Khus told IPS.

Labour researcher Dennis Arnold has written a report detailing how the bargaining power of workers in Cambodia weakened under the 2005 WTO free trade agreement (FTA).

He found that, prior to the agreement, most workers in registered factories had long-term contracts with holiday pay benefits, including sick and maternity leave. But afterwards the contracts became short-term, covering just three to six months, and with no benefits. Factory owners said western brands preferred flexibility in their contracts but the shift also made factory workers easier to manage.

There are an estimated 400,000 workers in registered factories, but if those in unregistered factories, and workers who are part of the supply chain were to be included, the number would be around 600,000, he says.

Arnold told IPS that the elite siphon off money through “bribes, bureaucracy and corruption”, contributing to the already high cost of production, and this is used by factory owners as a reason for not raising wages.

“This is a critical juncture for garment workers and trade unions to use their leverage as a voting bloc to pressure both parties for better wages,” Arnold said. “This is part of broader efforts to redistribute wealth and power in favour of workers – and you see very clearly the deep resistance to this by GMAC and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).”

The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) is completely on board.

Mu Sochua, CNRP’s elected lawmaker and Director General of Public Affairs, told IPS, “Strong trade unions, strict implementation of the labour law (against short-term contracts) and ILO conventions must be upheld and the government and global brands should be allowed no excuses to delay negotiations for living wage.”

A spokesperson for H&M, one of the largest brands sourcing from Cambodia, told IPS on e-mail that the company plans to work towards a living wage “by 2018”.

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OP-ED: The Care Imperative http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/op-ed-care-imperative/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-care-imperative http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/op-ed-care-imperative/#comments Mon, 03 Mar 2014 19:21:25 +0000 John Hendra and Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132373 As the debate about a future global development agenda to succeed the Millennium Development Goals in 2015 gathers pace, there is broad agreement that gender equality and women’s empowerment are crucial components. A growing body of robust evidence shows that countries that have achieved greater gender equality in employment and education also report higher rates […]

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By John Hendra and Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 3 2014 (IPS)

As the debate about a future global development agenda to succeed the Millennium Development Goals in 2015 gathers pace, there is broad agreement that gender equality and women’s empowerment are crucial components.

A growing body of robust evidence shows that countries that have achieved greater gender equality in employment and education also report higher rates of human development and economic growth, while women’s empowerment is increasingly seen as central to reducing poverty and better public health outcomes.In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water, equivalent to a year’s worth of labour by the entire workforce in France.

Many proponents of gender equality seek to pursue this goal by promoting women’s access to work and entrepreneurship opportunities, and increasing women’s political participation. All too often, however, these initiatives overlook a fundamental structural cause of gender inequality: women’s overwhelming responsibility for unpaid care work in homes and communities all over the world.

Unpaid care work is the cooking, cleaning and direct care of persons that keeps our societies and workforces running; in many developing countries it includes fetching water and fuel for domestic consumption. The time demands are enormous.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women and girls spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water, equivalent to a year’s worth of labour by the entire workforce in France.

Women’s disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work, and the persistent and powerful gender stereotypes that underpin this unequal distribution, represent a significant obstacle to achieving gender equality and women’s rights, such as the right to decent suchwork, the right to education, the right to health and the right to participate in public life.

Unpaid care work is a major obstacle to women taking on paid employment or starting an income-generating activity outside the home.

Indigenous women in rural Peru have to walk longer and longer distances to find firewood. Credit: Elena Villanueva/IPS

Indigenous women in rural Peru have to walk longer and longer distances to find firewood. Credit: Elena Villanueva/IPS

For example, a study in Latin America and the Caribbean showed that over half of women aged 20-24 do not seek work outside the home because they are performing unpaid care work.

Moreover, women’s participation in paid work is not in and of itself empowering if women are still bearing primary responsibility for work in the home, in effect working a ‘second shift’ after their paid workday ends.

Further, unpaid care work restricts women’s opportunities for professional advancement, limits their pay level and increases the likelihood of women ending up in informal and insecure work.

At the same time, the gender stereotypes that put the burden of care on women also negatively impact men, who experience social pressure to be ‘the breadwinner’, providing for their family financially rather than by caring for them more directly.

Girls’ right to education is also at stake. In the most extreme cases, girls are pulled out of school to help with housework and to care for younger children and other family members. More often, girls’ chances to achieve equally in education are constrained because their domestic responsibilities leave them less time than boys for studying, networking or extra-curricular activities.

Without equal educational opportunities, women and girls are even less able to access well-paid, decent jobs that could enable them to escape poverty.

Ultimately, the unequal distribution of unpaid care work undermines poverty eradication efforts. Poor women cannot afford outside help or time-saving technologies such as grain-grinders and fuel-efficient stoves, and they often cannot rely on decent infrastructure such as piped water or electricity. Their unpaid care work is therefore particularly intense and difficult.

Time poverty also affects women’s political and social empowerment – how can women be expected to attend community meetings or leadership training if there is no one else to care for their children or for sick and frail family members at home?

Care is a positive and irreplaceable social good, the backbone of all societies. Giving care can bring great rewards, fulfillment and satisfaction. Yet for millions of women around the world, poverty is their only reward for a lifetime of caregiving.

Unpaid care is the missing piece in debates about empowerment, women’s rights and equality. Without concerted action to recognize, support and share unpaid care work, women living in poverty will be unable to enjoy their human rights and benefit equally from development. We must acknowledge that the costs of providing care are unequally borne, and that this distribution is far from benign, natural or inevitable.

Progress in this area requires long-term cultural change. However, development policy can make a major contribution by recognizing care as a social and collective responsibility and as an important human rights issue that is crucial for poverty reduction globally.

States and development partners can take concrete action to reduce and redistribute women’s care work by improving public services and infrastructure in disadvantaged areas, investing in affordable domestic technologies, and providing child benefits and childcare as well as incentives for men to provide more care.

It is time we stopped looking away from the women in the kitchen, by the bedside, and at the water well, and instead make the recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work central to our efforts to achieve equitable, sustainable development. The formulation of the new post-2015 development agenda is a good place to start.

Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona is Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and John Hendra is Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women.

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Ghana’s Small Women’s Savings Groups Have Big Impact http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/ghanas-small-womens-savings-groups-big-impact/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ghanas-small-womens-savings-groups-big-impact http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/ghanas-small-womens-savings-groups-big-impact/#comments Fri, 28 Feb 2014 09:22:23 +0000 Albert Oppong-Ansah http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132257 Dunwaa Soayare, 45, a smallholder farmer, widow and mother of five had the sort of economic profile that meant she was denied access to credit from Ghana’s mainstream banking institutions. She had no collateral, no bank account and found it impossible to provide three meals a day for her children, let alone ensure that they […]

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Dunwaa Soayare, 45, shows her savings book that tracks her weekly contributions to the Asong-taaba Women’s Group, a cooperative in Denugu, Upper East Region, northern Ghana. Credit: Albert Oppong-Ansah/IPS

Dunwaa Soayare, 45, shows her savings book that tracks her weekly contributions to the Asong-taaba Women’s Group, a cooperative in Denugu, Upper East Region, northern Ghana. Credit: Albert Oppong-Ansah/IPS

By Albert Oppong-Ansah
DENUGU, Ghana, Feb 28 2014 (IPS)

Dunwaa Soayare, 45, a smallholder farmer, widow and mother of five had the sort of economic profile that meant she was denied access to credit from Ghana’s mainstream banking institutions.

She had no collateral, no bank account and found it impossible to provide three meals a day for her children, let alone ensure that they stayed in school.

But after joining the Asong-taaba Women’s Group, a cooperative in Denugu, Upper East Region, northern Ghana, her life has changed dramatically. Not only has she been able to provide for her family by moving them from their mud hut into the brick house she built, she’s also been able to provide tertiary education for children and has seen two of them qualify as teachers.  “This is a small project with a big impact…even though we are poor we can save." -- Solomon Atinga, programme manager of the Presbyterian Agricultural Station at Garu Tempane

“Aside from taking care of my children’s education I have expanded my farming from half a hectare to two hectares. I now cultivate one hectare of maize, half a hectare of millet as well as half a hectare of groundnut,” she told IPS.

Soayare explained that from one hectare of land she harvests 15  bags of 84 kilograms each, which she sells for 70,000 Ghana Cedis (380 dollars) – a huge sum.

The group, which started in 2008, raised 5,000 dollars at the end of 2013 from the weekly contribution of its 25 members – almost all smallholder farmers and the breadwinners in their families.

Every Monday, the women meet under a shea tree and pay their contributions of between 50 cents to five dollars. They are allowed to apply for a loan, which many use to fund alternative businesses if their crops fail.

For Soayare it’s meant that she and her family are no longer vulnerable during the lean season. In Upper East Region the rainy season usually starts in May and ends in October. However, changes in the weather pattern now mean that the rains fall much later.

So when the rains don’t come, instead of suffering through a crop failure, Soayare borrows money from the group and makes soap and buys vegetables for resale.

“I don’t know what I would have done without this savings initiative,” Soayare said.

But Asong-taaba is one of 500 groups in the district that involve almost 12,000 people, mostly women, scattered across the Garu Tempane district in Upper East Region. These cooperatives were started under a Care International project called Enhanced Savings and Credit Association for Poverty Eradication.

Soayare and these thousands of women are living better lives thanks to the savings cooperatives.

A Ghana Statistics Services 2011 survey shows that 31 percent of households in Ghana are headed by women. Regional director of the National Population Council, Zangbalum-Bomahe Amadu, said that due to polygamous practices in northern Ghana some men refuse to take care of their children, often leaving the burden to the women.

“The situation becomes bad if the man dies…most women, who are mostly illiterate in the rural areas strive to take care of almost all the needs of their children,” he told IPS.

Musah Abubakari, deputy coordinating director of Garu Tempane district, told IPS that the cooperatives have helped reduce poverty among many families in the area.

“Most of them are engaged in different forms of economic activities. Many of them are concerned about the education of their children, so school enrolment has also increased in the last three years,” he said.

Collins Kyei Boafoh, an outreach specialist at the Agricultural Cooperative Development International/Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (ACDI/VOCA), told IPS that the village savings and loans concept played a critical role in the livelihoods of women and was also a climate change adaptation measure.

“It is an open secret that for the past five years the savannah belt of Ghana, consisting of Northern, Upper East and Upper West regions, continue to experience low rains and long drought periods. This is not supportive of farming, which employs about 80 percent of people in the region,” he explained.

Boafoh said the women’s cooperatives are now using their funds to venture into other activities like petty trading to supplement their incomes.

“After the short farming periods, the women gather their monies in the form of community savings and offer themselves petty loans for trading, aggregation and processing. This gives them a sustained income and job security,” he said.

Boafoh suggested that the initiative must be adopted, modernised and expanded by the government as a poverty-reduction initiative in the four poorest regions in the country namely Northern, Upper East, Upper West and Central Regions.

Solomon Atinga is programme manager of the Presbyterian Agricultural Station at Garu Tempane – another Care International cooperative.

He said the initiative, which extends to about 100 communities in the district, has had a positive impact on the lives of women here. They are able to take care of their children and support their extended family members.

“In fact the living standard of the women and their families has improved tremendously,” he added.

“This is a small project with a big impact…even though we are poor, we can save. The least amount a group usually raises at the end of the year is 2,000 dollars,” he said.

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Poverty Rises Amidst Gold http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/golden-poverty-rises-pacific-islands/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=golden-poverty-rises-pacific-islands http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/golden-poverty-rises-pacific-islands/#comments Sat, 22 Feb 2014 09:41:52 +0000 Catherine Wilson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131843 Natural reserves such as gold, copper, nickel, gas and timber are being extracted in the western Pacific island states of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands to feed the soaring economies of East and South East Asia. But despite these Pacific nations recording economic growth rates of 6-11 percent over the past seven years, opportunities […]

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Villagers in Papua New Guinea point to their village destroyed in a landslide from a quarry being excavated for a liquefied natural gas project. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS.

Villagers in Papua New Guinea point to their village destroyed in a landslide from a quarry being excavated for a liquefied natural gas project. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS.

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Feb 22 2014 (IPS)

Natural reserves such as gold, copper, nickel, gas and timber are being extracted in the western Pacific island states of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands to feed the soaring economies of East and South East Asia. But despite these Pacific nations recording economic growth rates of 6-11 percent over the past seven years, opportunities for human development have not been grasped.

“There is very little confidence amongst communities in resource extraction projects that governments are operating,” Maureen Penjueli, co-ordinator of the civil society organisation, the Pacific Network on Globalisation in Fiji, told IPS."Customary landowners and civil society groups have not been adequately consulted on the type of development that is appropriate for the Pacific.”

“There is a perception that governments are pro-big business, pro-foreign investment and have paid very little attention to the plight of their own people. Customary landowners and civil society groups have not been adequately consulted on the type of development that is appropriate for the Pacific.”

In Papua New Guinea (PNG) there are at least six mines extracting gold and copper. The nation’s largest resource project, PNG LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas), centred in the highlands is expected to begin supply this year, while generating up to 1.5 billion dollars of annual government revenue for the next 30 years.

The Solomon Islands, an archipelago to the northeast of Australia, has a 50-year history of timber exploitation. Logging currently contributes to 15 percent of state and 60 percent of export revenues.

Natural resource management has brought the interests of corporate developers determined by short-term profit competing with local Melanesian perspectives that prioritise culture, identity and the well-being of future generations.

The PNG government claims a state right to mineral resources, while in the Solomon Islands traditional landowners determine timber extraction. Either way ordinary citizens have experienced no benefits.

Two million in a population of more than seven million in PNG live in poverty, while the under-five mortality rate is a high 75 per 1,000 births. In the Solomon Islands 23 percent of people live below the poverty line, and literacy is 17 percent.

Pacific island governments with shortfalls in capacity and expertise can be disadvantaged in negotiating resource agreements with international investors. An unhealthy alliance between the political elite and foreign companies has served the interests of a few, while negatively impacting the rural majority who suffer inadequate public services and human rights protection.

In the Solomon Islands an influx of Southeast Asian logging companies in the 1980s paralleled escalating corruption and declining regulatory compliance.

“The links between politicians and foreign logging companies are complex and well-entrenched,” a Transparency International spokesperson told IPS in the Solomon Islands  capital, Honiara. “We regularly hear of politicians using their power to protect loggers, influence police and give tax exemptions to foreign businesses; in return loggers fund politicians.”

Solomon Islands landowner Lily Duri Dani said that corruption had resulted in women resource owners being “pushed aside” in decisions about land use.

“Women would make decisions that are honest, open and fair to everybody. We would use the [resource] money to help people at the grassroots,” she declared.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “poor governance and corruption [in PNG] prevent ordinary citizens from benefitting from resource wealth….large-scale extractive projects have generated environmental and human rights concerns that the government has failed to address.”

The PNG LNG project is set to deliver a windfall to foreign investors that hold 80 percent ownership, including Exxon Mobil and its subsidiary, Esso Highlands.

Social impacts documented by the New Zealand-based Otago University include increased inequality, alcohol consumption, domestic violence and prostitution. Local communities have also faced a 38 percent food price increase and deteriorating education and health services as staff seek more lucrative LNG-related jobs.

In 2012, a devastating landslide from a quarry being excavated by a project sub-contractor buried two villages, Tumbi and Tumbiago, killing an estimated 60 people and destroying 42 homes. Safety concerns about quarry operations had been identified by an independent environmental consultant, D’Appolonia, the previous year. The PNG Government has failed to commission an independent investigation into the disaster, leaving victims deprived of justice.

Tumbi village chief Jokoya Piwako, who lost his entire family in the tragedy, claimed that the government and the companies “are concerned about their income and revenue, but they are not concerned about lives in the communities.”

Non-governmental organisation Jubilee Australia reported last year that “there are serious risks that the revenues generated by the [PNG LNG] project will not mitigate the negative economic and social impacts.”

The Porgera gold mine, located in Enga Province and majority owned by the Canadian company Barrick Gold, has produced 20 billion dollars worth of gold in the past 20 years. Communities in the area live in severe poverty while HRW has reported gang rapes committed at the mine site by private security personnel in 2011.

Last year the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) organised a Pacific conference in Fiji to tackle the question of how natural resource exploitation could translate into improving the lives of ordinary citizens. But the necessary framework of good transparent governance, strong extractive industry regulation, environmental and social protection measures and participation by rural communities in decisions about resource use is yet to emerge in the region.

Penjueli advocates that “a key role for civil society organisations is to mobilise the public to engage with difficult questions of human rights and social justice” in the extractive sector.

Indigenous communities need to be empowered with skills, knowledge about the implications of decisions and alternative livelihoods, and better access to legal support to defend their rights, activists say.

“We have to educate all the landowners because they have to make good decisions,” Judy Tabiru, president of the Isabel Provincial Council of Women in the Solomon Islands, told IPS. “We must create rules to protect our resources for the benefit of our people. That is for the betterment of our generation and that of our children’s children.”

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Growing Inequality Mars 20 Years of Women’s Progress http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/growing-inequality-mars-20-years-womens-progress/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=growing-inequality-mars-20-years-womens-progress http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/growing-inequality-mars-20-years-womens-progress/#comments Fri, 14 Feb 2014 22:34:31 +0000 Jonathan Rozen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131649 As the world moves closer to the 2015 end mark of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a new U.N. report illuminates how far global society has come, but also how far it still must travel to achieve its objectives. The report tracks the last two decades of progress on issues such as universal access to […]

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Sex education is expelled from Egyptian schools. Credit: Victoria Hazou/IPS

Sex education is expelled from Egyptian schools. Credit: Victoria Hazou/IPS

By Jonathan Rozen
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 14 2014 (IPS)

As the world moves closer to the 2015 end mark of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a new U.N. report illuminates how far global society has come, but also how far it still must travel to achieve its objectives.

The report tracks the last two decades of progress on issues such as universal access to family planning, sexual and reproductive health services and reproductive rights, and equal access to education for girls."This report gives us the leverage to take things to the next level, where women, girls and young people will be central to the next development agenda.” -- Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin

“We must work with governments to address issues of inequality, which is I think the greatest determinate in terms of the MDGs,” Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), told IPS.

“We expect that as we move into the post-2015 conversation, the evidence we have today will ensure that member states will see that if they are going to make progress…we must put people at the centre of development.”

Since 1994, the year of the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo when 179 governments committed to a 20-year Programme of Action to deliver human rights-based development, UNFPA has identified significant achievements with regard to women’s rights and effective family planning, but also a dramatic increase in inequality.

Maternal mortality has dropped by almost 50 percent and more women than ever before have access to both contraception and family planning mechanisms, supporting a decrease in child mortality. Furthermore, women are increasingly accessing education, participating in the work force and engaged in the political process.

Nevertheless, a gross disparity remains between the developed and developing worlds. In a press conference, Dr.  Osotimehin indicated that while the global average likelihood of a woman dying in childbirth is one in 1,300, this increases to one in 39 when evaluating developing nations specifically.

The report also notes that 53 percent of the world’s income gains have gone to the top one percent of the global population, and that none of these gains have gone to the bottom 10 percent.

It focuses on root factors of these problems and the central influences on women and girls’ ability to make choices about their lives. Child marriage and education are two main factors in this respect.

Source: UNFPA

Source: UNFPA

“It is important to underscore the fact that once girls don’t go to school, once they are married too early and once they have children as children, they cannot be equal to men, and they cannot have the same political and economic power as men,” explained Dr. Babatunde.

The effect of these factors is not limited to the success of the individual. They are also important for the development of nations as a whole.

“Education and access to health, if they are properly planned, allow people to live longer, and add value to the development of the country,” Dr. Osotimehin told IPS.

UNFPA does not work alone on these issues. Other organisations also collect information and cooperate to address problems associated with population and development.

“The report is very important for us because it both reflects what we have done and suggests a way forward that we like to think we have helped to inform,” Suzanne Petroni, senior director of gender, population and development at the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), an organisation which works to identify the contributions and barriers facing women across the world, told IPS.

In 2000, all U.N. member states at the time signed on to the MDGs, all of which are directly addressed in the second ICPD report. They are to be succeeded by the SDGs – the Sustainable Development Goals.

The 1994 Programme of Action was not limited to women’s rights. It also sought to address the individual, social and economic impact of urbanisation and migration, as well as support sustainable development and address environmental issues associated with population changes.

“Ensuring that we have a monitoring mechanism for the implementation of what governments have committed to…that is actually the most important thing going forward,” Dr. Osotimehin stressed to IPS. “We now need to make the commitments count on the ground.”

A key theme in the report is that in areas like South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where 90 percent of the world’s youth are located, there is a massive opportunity for societies to capitalise on their resources and accelerate their development.

But governments must invest in their populations through education, healthcare, access to entrepreneurial opportunities and political participation.

“Civil society, the media, young people and women’s groups can actually work to, in a very positive way, see what [governments] are doing right, and point out where things are not going well…we are seeing that happen around the world,” said Dr. Osotimehin.

“This report gives us the leverage to take things to the next level, where women, girls and young people will be central to the next development agenda.”

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OP-ED: We Need Everyone to Build a More Sustainable World http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/op-ed-need-everyone-build-sustainable-world/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-need-everyone-build-sustainable-world http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/op-ed-need-everyone-build-sustainable-world/#comments Thu, 13 Feb 2014 02:02:43 +0000 Tarja Halonen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131520 Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, an annual event that deals with a subject that is very close to my heart.  The summit gathered together amazing people: Nobel Prize winners, thought leaders, heads of state, corporate innovators, and academicians to deal with the paramount challenges of the 21st […]

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By Tarja Halonen
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 13 2014 (IPS)

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, an annual event that deals with a subject that is very close to my heart.  The summit gathered together amazing people: Nobel Prize winners, thought leaders, heads of state, corporate innovators, and academicians to deal with the paramount challenges of the 21st Century all focused on three pressing dimensions of sustainability:  food, water and energy.

Credit: Todd France Photography, 2012

Credit: Todd France Photography, 2012

Clearly these are critical to the future of humanity. Right now, about one in eight of the human beings with whom we share this planet lives without adequate drinking water. Almost that many lack food security.  And nearly one in five people manage without the additional power and options that electricity affords.

How to meet current needs, without compromising the prospects of generations who will follow, is a very complicated issue.

It was encouraging to see so many  brilliant and committed scientists, economists and development specialists working so hard on the innovations and ideas that can help us produce, distribute and use precious resources more efficiently and equitably.

Their work is essential because it will take all of us working with our unique capacities to solve the really difficult challenges ahead.

But from my perspective, it is also critically important to empower the very people who grapple with these issues every day: the girls who dream of a better future as they carry water over long distances, the women who toil over inefficient and polluting cookstoves, and the small farmers who manage to produce 70 percent of the world’s food far more sustainably than larger concerns.

We need to stay focused on solutions that keep these people at the forefront of our decision-making —  because it is their individual choices that will ultimately have a pivotal role in how our common future unfolds. When individual rights are fully respected, and when people are placed at the center of development, solutions have an inherent sustainability.

Something learned from my own country and our Nordic sisters is that healthy and productive societies generate a self-sustaining circle of greater well-being and productivity. Inequality and the exclusion of women, young people, and the poor, in contrast, undermine health, wellbeing and economic growth.

Although we need everyone’s contributions to solve the global problems we face, the full talents and capabilities of women remain untapped in many countries.  It’s not that women aren’t working hard. Indeed, they are working overtime as food producers, preparers, sellers and consumers, as mothers and nurturers, as water bearers and as custodians of family hygiene.

And this is often without the benefit of time-efficient technologies and energy services – or modern forms of contraception, for that matter. This means that women are often overburdened in terms of reproduction as well as production.

The sad fact is that women work more hours than men and produce half of the world’s food. Yet they earn only a fraction of the world’s income and own a small share of the world’s property.

Women are managing to ensure food for so many. Therefore they need proper  training, equipment and rights to land.  They need to be able to participate in the economy and they most definitely need access to sexual and reproductive health services, as related health issues disproportionately affect women – from complications of pregnancy and childbearing to the HIV epidemic.

Gender-based violence takes another huge toll. What if the full potential and power of women were unleashed?  Imagine what they could accomplish.

We need to invest in the empowerment of women to achieve the kind of transformations that can sustain economic growth, preserve the environment, foster resilience and leave no one behind. And we need to invest in sexual and reproductive rights for all, including for the next generations, if we are to achieve truly sustainable development.

Women are keenly attuned to the requirements of sustainability. When they have control and freedoms over their own sexual and reproductive lives, women tend to choose healthier and smaller families that can be more resilient to crises, displacement or environmental challenges, and can relieve local population pressures on limited resources and fragile ecosystems.

That’s why it’s critically important that the next framework for international development – the global agenda that will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015 – deals squarely with gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights for all.  These issues go right to the heart of sustainability.  I remain committed to making sure they are not overlooked.

Tarja Halonen, the former President of Finland, co-chairs the High-Level Task Force for ICPD (International Conference on Population and Development). She has also served in numerous capacities in international forums, including as co-chair of both the Millennium Summit and the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability.

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Poverty Wages Unraveling Cambodia’s Garment Industry http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/poverty-wages-unraveling-cambodias-garment-industry/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=poverty-wages-unraveling-cambodias-garment-industry http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/02/poverty-wages-unraveling-cambodias-garment-industry/#comments Thu, 06 Feb 2014 19:16:15 +0000 Minh Le http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=131279 Cambodia’s garment industry is regularly plagued with strikes and protests. But when armed security forces opened fire on striking workers in the capital city of Phnom Penh on Jan. 3, killing five and injuring dozens, it suddenly became clear that this was not just another protest. With the situation left unresolved since, advocacy groups are […]

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By Minh Le
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 6 2014 (IPS)

Cambodia’s garment industry is regularly plagued with strikes and protests. But when armed security forces opened fire on striking workers in the capital city of Phnom Penh on Jan. 3, killing five and injuring dozens, it suddenly became clear that this was not just another protest.

With the situation left unresolved since, advocacy groups are urging clothing brands to review their purchasing practices and take action to ultimately end low wages, which are at the root of the bloody demonstrations in Cambodia.“We need a system that is different from the current business-as-usual model where brands and retailers will shop around to different factories and say ‘who will make this shirt for two dollars’?" -- Liana Foxvog

“Workers are getting very angry,” Anannya Bhattacharjee of the New Delhi-based Asia Floor Wage Alliance, told IPS. “There is a lot of explosiveness. They do not want to tolerate the current situation of continuing poverty anymore.”

Statutory minimum wages determined by national governments and industries usually fall short of workers’ demands. In the case of Cambodia, the government first offered to raise monthly pay from 80 to 95 dollars, then to 100. Striking workers, however, insisted that the minimum level should be 160 dollars.

Asia Floor Wage, which has been campaigning for higher minimum wages across garment-producing countries in Asia, believes that if statutory minimum wages are not high enough, multinational companies need to be involved.

“Garment workers are producing for the whole global industry, so multinationals should pay the difference between statutory minimum wage and living wage,” Bhattacharjee said.

“This is not an unfair demand, but brands are still not agreeing to provide the money for it,” she said.

In fairness, major clothing brands did not stay silent after the crackdown in Cambodia.

The majority of Cambodia’s exports to the European Union (EU), over 89 percent, are textiles such as garments and shoes. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

The majority of Cambodia’s exports to the European Union (EU), over 89 percent, are textiles such as garments and shoes. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

Companies including American Eagle Outfitters, Gap Inc. and Levi Strauss & Co. have sent an open letter to Cambodia’s government expressing their concerns over the recent violence. They also called for the government, manufacturers and trade unions to develop a regularly-scheduled wage review mechanism.

In a statement sent to IPS, Levi Strauss & Co. said it is “firmly committed to sourcing in Cambodia” and encourages peaceful resolution to end political unrest. Meanwhile, a spokesperson from Gap Inc. said the company strongly opposes any form of violence, calling for negotiations among stakeholders to peacefully resolve the dispute.

According to the Washington-based International Labour Rights Forum, while it is commendable that brands are willing to speak up, further steps must be taken.

“Brands and retailers need to agree to voluntarily pay higher prices for apparel products made in Cambodia and require the factories to therefore pay higher wages,” Liana Foxvog, communications director of the Forum, told IPS.

She said that over the past two decades, multinationals have spread their supply chains around the world, driving a “race to the bottom” among developing countries.

“We have seen low wages, repression of freedom of association as well as poor working conditions,” Foxvog said.

“We need a system that is different from the current business-as-usual model where brands and retailers will shop around to different factories and say who will make this shirt for two dollars. If a factory won’t, they can find a factory that will.

“As a result we still have a sweatshop economy in 2014,” she said.

The solution to the problem, she said, is to have all brands and retailers develop long-term relationships with suppliers so they have more control in the working conditions offshore.

“We need workers to once and for all have a fair living wage and will no longer have to face hunger and mass fainting,” she said. “We know companies can pay more.”

No end in sight

One month after the killings of strikers, there is still no end in sight for the crisis.

Human Rights Watch released an urgent statement on February 3, demanding the Cambodian government to ensure that garment factories stop intimidating and threatening workers seeking to form unions and assert their labour rights.

Last week, the U.N. International Labour Organisation (ILO) said it was “deeply disturbed” by the continuing violence in Cambodia. The agency also reiterated its earlier call for the government to launch an independent inquiry into the repression of strikers.

Cambodia’s economy is dependent on the garment industry, which employs half a million workers and accounts for almost all of the nation’s exports.

According to the ILO, the country just topped five billion dollars worth of garment exports last year for the first time.

The garment industry is also very important because its workers, most of whom are women, not only support themselves but also send remittances to their families.

Jill Tucker, manager of ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia, a Phnom Penh-based project that monitors the garment industry in the country, said working conditions have been declining since 2010, even though not every factory is a sweatshop.

As developing countries try to be competitive, wages have been set “artificially low” for a long time, unable to keep up with increasing consumer prices, Tucker told IPS.

And unlike other garment-producing countries where factories are not concentrated in big cities, Cambodia only has one main manufacturing hub: its capital city. Workers as a result have to pay very high living costs to stay near where they work.

“If Cambodian workers were satisfied with their job and felt that the pay and the working conditions were adequate, probably we would not see quite so much unrest,” she said.

“The current system of consumers owning cheap, disposable clothes in very high volume cannot sustain itself economically or environmentally. We have maybe 10 years left of cheap clothing.”

Consumer guilt

Professor Benjamin Powell, director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, told IPS that consumers should not feel guilty when they buy low-cost products made in developing countries.

The term “sweatshop”, he argued, has negative connotations even though it is sometimes the best available opportunity to workers, which can lead to economic development and, at the end, better wages and working conditions.

While Cambodia successfully slashed the national poverty ratio from 50 percent in 2007 to 20 percent today, it is still listed by the World Bank as a “low-income” economy.

The country of 7.1 million people has a per capita income rate of 880 dollars. That compares to Hong Kong’s 36,560 dollars, according to World Bank data.

Asia Floor Wage’s Bhattacharjee is hopeful that developing countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia would soon progress to the next economic level. But for that to happen, the issue of low wages has to be dealt with.

Garment-producing countries need to take wage completely out of the competition and start competing instead on logistics or raw material supplies, she said.

As broader protests continue to sweep Phnom Penh streets, the strikes of garment workers have become more politically charged.

But Bhattacharjee said she never doubted the real motive behind what the workers are fighting for.

She said strikers may have multiple reasons for protesting, including political demands for a democratic society and for fundamental human rights, but there is “a very clear economic demand here.”

“They want a higher wage,” she said. “That’s how it all began.”

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A Tale of Two Worlds http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/tale-two-worlds/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=tale-two-worlds http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/tale-two-worlds/#comments Wed, 29 Jan 2014 19:55:38 +0000 Joan Erakit http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130927 As violence rips through South Sudan and ongoing conflict plagues the Central African Republic and Syria, developing countries stand at a difficult crossroads – struggling to grow economically and politically, yet fielding deep inequalities within their own borders. The United Nations Development Programme launched a report Wednesday titled “Humanity Divided: Confronting Inequality in Developing Countries”. […]

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Mimose Gérard, 57, washes clothes and collects plastic bottles from the trash in order to survive. She is still living in a tent camp four years after Haiti's earthquake. Credit: Milo Milfort/IPS

Mimose Gérard, 57, washes clothes and collects plastic bottles from the trash in order to survive. She is still living in a tent camp four years after Haiti's earthquake. Credit: Milo Milfort/IPS

By Joan Erakit
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 29 2014 (IPS)

As violence rips through South Sudan and ongoing conflict plagues the Central African Republic and Syria, developing countries stand at a difficult crossroads – struggling to grow economically and politically, yet fielding deep inequalities within their own borders.

The United Nations Development Programme launched a report Wednesday titled “Humanity Divided: Confronting Inequality in Developing Countries”. It warns that “the world’s population lives in societies that are more unequal today than 20 years ago,” where despite impressive technological advancements, 1.2 billion people still live in poverty.

It says that income inequality increased by 11 percent in developing countries between 1990 and 2010. More than three-quarters of households in developing countries are living today in societies where income is more unequally distributed than it was in the 1990s.

UNDP Administrator Helen Clark notes that overall, the wealthiest eight percent of the world’s population earns half of the world’s total income, while the remaining 92 percent must fend for themselves with whatever is left.

Basing its framework on the relationship between the inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunities, the UNDP report stresses that the two perspectives are “interdependent” and that one cannot function without the other.

“The inequality of outcomes refers to inequalities in the material outcomes that matter for human well-being, such as a person or household’s income or wealth status, health and nutritional status, and educational achievements,” Anuradha Seth, a lead author of the report, told IPS.

The inequality of opportunity, she says, refers to the idea that specific groups within a population, such as women and racial and ethnic minorities, consistently face inferior economic, political, and social opportunities than their fellow citizens due to circumstances of birth.

The report makes clear that though the two concepts are interdependent, they also have very different drivers, and only addressing inequality of opportunity will not suffice in moderating inequality of outcomes.

Inequality at the root of conflict

Are some of the worst conflicts we see today rooted in inequality? According to Seth, it’s possible.  “Indeed, there is substantial evidence that both economic inequalities but also horizontal inequalities have played an important and often times key role in driving conflict. And conflict, in turn, can deepen existing inequalities.”

Access to proper food and water, medical care in times of disease, or even quality education for children can also be a major factor in stirring tensions among local populations.

The “drivers” of inequality are complex and diverse and include social, economic and cultural barriers that do not allow for full political participation. Indeed, one percent of the world’s population owns over 40 percent of the world’s assets, with the bottom half holding one percent.

According to a UNICEF study of 43 developing countries, 90 percent of children from wealthier backgrounds have the opportunity to attend school, compared to 64 percent from poorer backgrounds.

Women continue to lag behind men in nearly every indicator of well-being, an example of “horizontal inequality.”

“Horizontal inequalities can undermine social cohesion and can increase political and social tensions – and in some circumstances can fuel instability and conflict,” Seth told IPS.

These inequality gaps include maternal and newborn health. It is estimated that between 2006 and 2010, women in sub-Saharan African were 20 times more likely to die in childbirth than those in Central Asia or Eastern Europe.

“We know well that the biggest source of vulnerability which undermines individual, community and societal resilience is horizontal inequality, that is inequality between groups,” Selim Jahan, director of the poverty practice group at UNDP’s Bureau for Development Policy, told IPS.

Jahan added that a sustainable approach to crisis situations in developing countries would only prove successful if more “empowered and resilient women and women’s organisations” were part of the conversation, both on a community and a household level.

“Increasing women’s agency remains critical to ensuring gender parity in all dimensions of development,” Jahan said.

“There will not be much progress in advancing equality for women – and in fact the cause of social justice overall – unless women are enabled to participate in political and public life on an equal footing with men so that they can ensure that their voice and concerns are fully heard.”

Why inequality matters

In order to allow all individuals to have a fair chance at developing both themselves and their families, the topic of inequality needs to move up the political agenda.

“Even as redistribution remains very important to inequality reduction, a shift is needed towards a more inclusive pattern of growth, one that raises the incomes of poor and low-income households faster than average in order to sustainably reduce inequality, key to the post-2015 development agenda,” the report notes.

And fine-tuning that agenda is the job of more than just governments and development agencies, experts argue.

“The realisation of inclusive society is a very much a common interest, something from which we all stand to gain,” Jahan said. “We need to make sure that it also becomes a joint endeavour. The report we are launching today is meant as a contribution to this process.”

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Impoverished Cambodians For Sale http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/impoverished-cambodians-sale/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=impoverished-cambodians-sale http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/impoverished-cambodians-sale/#comments Fri, 24 Jan 2014 03:25:17 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130642 Many Cambodian women arrive in South Korea or China for marriage, only to find themselves being chosen as mistresses, say labour rights activists. While young Cambodian men, who travel to Thailand to work on fishing boats, often fall prey to drug abuse. Loss of land, debt, poor pay and high prices of petrol and electricity […]

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Many Cambodians see dubious hope across the Poipet border crossing to Thailand. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS.

Many Cambodians see dubious hope across the Poipet border crossing to Thailand. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS.

By Michelle Tolson
PHNOM PENH, Jan 24 2014 (IPS)

Many Cambodian women arrive in South Korea or China for marriage, only to find themselves being chosen as mistresses, say labour rights activists. While young Cambodian men, who travel to Thailand to work on fishing boats, often fall prey to drug abuse.

Loss of land, debt, poor pay and high prices of petrol and electricity are pushing youths from poverty-stricken Cambodia to foreign lands – sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Miserable working conditions in the garment sector have only worsened the labour trafficking scenario.Despite these problems, repatriated workers often leave Cambodia again.

Tola Moeun, head of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), said rural farmers comprise 80 percent of Cambodia’s population, but they are increasingly in debt due to high-interest loans. As a result, youth leave home in search of work.

He also cited the example of Cambodia’s garment industry, saying the prospect of being a garment worker is so terrible that often women will do anything to escape this fate.

“Women garment workers often choose to go to South Korea to escape the situation,” Tola told IPS.

CLEC has received several calls from families whose daughters were experiencing troubled “marriages” to Chinese and South Korean men that turned out to be sham marriages.

Tola said families accept money from marriage brokers without understanding the situation. The truth emerges when the women arrive in South Korea, only to be lined up in a room for the “husband” to choose from.

“I went to South Korea in 2011. It was explained to me that South Korean wives are not worried about sex workers because the husband takes a mistress. So he chooses a Cambodian girl to ‘marry’,” he said.

“In China, there is a shortage of women in the countryside. The man wants a wife to work for him without pay, so she becomes not only a labour slave but also a sex slave,” Tola said.

He concedes, however, that all international marriages are not shams.

A 24-year-old woman in Phnom Penh told IPS she knew of many successful relationships through marriage brokers. But she contacted IPS when a 30-year-old woman was being aggressively pursued by a marriage broker after she changed her mind about an offer. The broker backed off when CLEC was mentioned.

“A lot of Cambodian girls marry South Korean men. These are real relationships. Really poor people do this. Sometimes the girls come back and are able to build a house for the family and improve their lives.”

Young Cambodian men travel to Thailand to work in the construction sector, on fishing boats or in fish processing factories. This takes place either formally, using a broker for visas, or illegally.

“In case of illegal offers, the recruiter will call and say, ‘Do you want a job?’ The person will then cross the border at night, not using checkpoints, hiding in the back of a truck, lying head to toe with other people and covered with supplies that are being transported,” said Tola.

Brahm Press of the Raks Thai Foundation, an organisation that assists migrant workers, said most problems occur due to work contracts at the Cambodian end.

“As of July 2013, around 8,000 Cambodians were registered in Bangkok – 5,000 men and the rest women – and they were probably all in construction. I have heard that after deductions for recruitment agencies and housing, they come away with less than the 300 baht [10 dollars] a day minimum wage,” Press told IPS.

He said problems usually occur due to misunderstandings about work arrangements and fees or when passports are withheld to ensure that workers pay their recruitment debt.

Recently 13 young Cambodians – 11 men and two women aged between 15 and 23 – entered Thailand with the help of brokers to whom they paid 500 dollars each, said Si Ngoun, the father of one of the youths.

“They were promised a good job with a good salary of 300 baht per day.”

For two months they worked at a rubber band factory, a metal smith factory and, lastly, in the construction sector, which is where their troubles began.

“We were paid very little, about 120 baht [four dollars] per day. We didn’t want to work any more because we were too hungry,” 20-year-old Si Pesith, one of the workers, told IPS.

Tola said the workers asked for food and protested but the employer had them jailed as illegal workers. Usually detention lasts six to nine months, but Cambodian Ambassador You Ay intervened and they were sent home within a week.

IPS spoke with Pesith after he was repatriated. “If we compare work in Thailand with that in Cambodia, it is not much different,” he said.

Thai fishing boats have been flagged by the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report as potential labour trafficking scams for Cambodian migrants.

Press said conditions on fishing boats are notoriously difficult to monitor. Work there has been linked to drug use as labourers try to get through work shifts that can last up to 20 hours.

“When migrants, first Burmese and then Cambodians, were prominently replacing Thais on the boats, amphetamines were becoming the rage,” he said.

“First there was Ya-Ma (horse drug), which was milder than the current Ya-Ba, but no less addictive. During the last decade there were anecdotal reports, first of migrants on fishing boats voluntarily taking Ya-Ma, then stories of captains putting Ya-Ba in the drinking water.” Press, however, said such stories had become less frequent.

Eliot Albers, executive director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD), said criminalisation of drug use makes it harder to assist users, especially migrants.

“Poverty and labour abuse worsen people’s relationship with drugs. They suffer from labour abuse and drugs help them get through the day,” Albers told IPS.

Migrant workers lack union representation, making them especially vulnerable to abuse. If they are formal workers, the process of migration is expensive (up to 700 dollars each), requiring a recruiter and debt. If they are informal, it is cheaper. But they risk detention and deportation by Thai police if they complain about the working conditions.

Despite these problems, repatriated workers often leave Cambodia again.

The post Impoverished Cambodians For Sale appeared first on Inter Press Service.

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