Inter Press Service » Women’s Health News and Views from the Global South Fri, 27 Nov 2015 22:41:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Opinion: Ending Child Marriage – What Difference Can a Summit Make? Thu, 26 Nov 2015 23:08:31 +0000 Samuel Musyoki

Samuel Musyoki is currently the Country Director of Plan International Zambia and the Chair for 18+ Ending Child Marriage in Southern Africa Programme.

By Samuel Musyoki
LUSAKA, Zambia, Nov 26 2015 (IPS)

The long-awaited African Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage is here.

It presents an opportunity to share experiences and reflect on what we need to do differently if we want to step up our efforts towards ending child marriage, an issue close to my heart.

I’ve seen what being a child bride can do to a girl.

I have five sisters, three of whom were married as children. As such, my sisters did not get a good education. They gave birth at an early age and now they are faced with challenges and limited opportunities. Now I am a father to three girls. I want a different life for them and for all the other girls growing up across Africa – and the rest of the world.

The summit, hosted by the Government of the Republic of Zambia, is taking place in Lusaka this week. It follows the launch at the May 2014 Africa Heads of State meeting in Addis Ababa of the campaign to end early and forced child marriage.

Both the campaign and summit are significant for a continent, home to an estimated 7 million child brides.

While we have made good progress working in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and national levels to influence policy and legal changes, more needs to be done at the grassroots level.

Long-term engagement with communities is key if we want to end child marriage across Africa.

Child rights organisation Plan International is dedicated to tackling child marriage and we’ve learnt time and time again, the perception of this issue is almost universally negative.

Yet why does it still happen?

Marriage for a 14 year old girl should not be seen as the only option for parents or for children. That’s fundamentally flawed.

If we want to make a difference, we need to look at how governments and civil society can change with communities to help them realise the impact of child marriage. We need to work with girls to help them understand the value of education and the benefits of the life they can have if they stay in school. But transforming attitudes and practices that have become acceptable over time requires investment in innovative approaches that draw on and build on the knowledge of all relevant actors at policy and grassroots levels.

Plan International has been working against child marriages alongside community-based organisations, regional traditional leaders, media and national governments. By creating local and regional platforms to raise awareness, to discuss and to take action, the pressure is building up to eliminate early child marriage in Africa.

Focusing on Southern Africa, Plan International´s “18+ Programme” on ending child marriages in Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique has been engaging with and transforming communities and societies. It contributed significantly to convince the Malawian Parliament, which recently passed a law to declare 18 as the minimum legal age for marriage.

Now, more than ever, is the time to bring all actors together and tackle the issue of early child marriage across the continent. After all, we can neither keep the promise of the African Children’s Charter, nor attain the new Sustainable Development Goals if young girls and women continue to suffer early child marriage.

Progress is being made and it’s heartening to seeing discussions taking place across the board. It gives us hope that it is possible to end child marriage within a generation.


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Open Defecation to End by 2025, Vows UN Chief, Marking World Toilet Day Thu, 19 Nov 2015 22:39:07 +0000 Thalif Deen By Thalif Deen

The state of the world’s toilets reveals the good, the bad and the ugly – but not necessarily in that order.

As the UN commemorated its annual World Toilet Day on November 19, a new study says, contrary to popular belief, not everyone in the rich nations of the developed world has access to a toilet.

The study, released by the UK based WaterAid, points out that Canada, UK, Ireland and Sweden are among nations with measurable numbers still without safe, private household toilets.

Russia has the lowest percentage of household toilets of all developed nations, while India, the world’s second-most populous country, holds the record for the most people waiting for sanitation (774 million) and the most people per square kilometre (173) practising open defecation.

The report highlights the plight of more than 2.3 billion people in the world (out of a total population of over 7.3 billion) who do not have access to a safe, private toilet.

Of these, nearly 1.0 billion have no choice but to defecate in the open – in fields, at roadsides or in bushes.

The result is a polluted environment in which diseases spread fast. An estimated 314,000 children under five die each year of diarrhoeal illness which could be prevented with safe water, good sanitation and good hygiene.

Still, the tiny South Pacific island of Tokelau has made the most progress on delivering sanitation, holding number one position since 1990, followed by Vietnam, Nepal and Pakistan.

Nigeria has seen a dramatic slide in the number of people with access to toilets since 1990 despite considerable economic development.

The world’s youngest country, South Sudan, has the worst household access to sanitation in the world, followed closely by Niger, Togo and Madagascar, according to the study.

WaterAid’s Chief Executive Barbara Frost says just two months ago, all UN member states promised to deliver access to safe, private toilets to everyone everywhere by 2030.

“Our analysis shows just how many nations in the world are failing to give sanitation the political prioritisation and financing required. We also know that swift progress is possible, from the impressive advances in sanitation achieved in nations like Nepal and Vietnam.”

No matter where you are in the world, everyone has a right to a safe, private place to relieve themselves, and to live healthy and productive lives without the threat of illness from poor sanitation and hygiene.

“On this World Toilet Day, it’s time for the world to make good on their promises and understand that while we all love toilet humour, the state of the world’s sanitation is no joke,” said Frost.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF says lack of sanitation, and particularly open defecation, contributes to the incidence of diarrhoea and to the spread of intestinal parasites, which in turn cause malnutrition.

“We need to bring concrete and innovative solutions to the problem of where people go to the toilet, otherwise we are failing millions of our poorest and most vulnerable children,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, head of UNICEF’s global water, sanitation and hygiene programmes.

“The proven link with malnutrition is one more thread that reinforces how interconnected our responses to sanitation have to be if we are to succeed.”

In a report released Wednesday, the 21-member UN Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB), calls for the mainstreaming of sanitation.

The focus should widen beyond the home – because toilets are needed in schools, clinics, workplaces, markets and other public places.

“Prioritize sanitation as preventive medicine and break the vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, especially affecting women and children.”

And “get serious about scaling up innovative technologies along the sanitation chain and unleash another sanitation revolution, as key economic and medical enabler in the run-up to 2030, and make a business case for sanitation by realizing the resource potential of human waste.”

Additionally, it says, “de-taboo the topic of menstrual hygiene management, which deserves to be addressed as a priority by the UN and governments.”

In its report, WaterAid is calling on world leaders to fund, implement and account for progress towards the new UN Global Goals on sustainable development.

Goal 6 – water, sanitation and hygiene for all – is fundamental to ending hunger and ensuring healthy lives, education and gender equality and must be a priority.

“Improving the state of the world’s toilets with political prioritisation and long-term increases in financing for water, sanitation and hygiene, by both national governments and donor countries like the UK.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the recently adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes the central role sanitation plays in sustainable development.

“The integrated nature of the new agenda means that we need to better understand the connections between the building blocks of development.”

In that spirit, he said, this year’s observance of World Toilet Day focuses on the vicious cycle connecting poor sanitation and malnutrition. He said poor sanitation and hygiene are at the heart of disease and malnutrition.

Each year, too many children under the age of five have their lives cut short or altered forever as a result of poor sanitation: more than 800,000 children worldwide — or one every two minutes– die from diarrhea, and almost half of all deaths of children under five are due to undernutrition.

A quarter of all children under five are stunted, and countless other children, as well as adults, are falling seriously ill, often suffering long-term, even lifelong, health and developmental consequences.

Parents and guardians carry the cost of these consequences. Women in particular women bear the direct brunt, he noted.

“Despite the compelling moral and economic case for action on sanitation, progress is too little and too slow,” Ban complained.

By many accounts, sanitation is the most-missed target of the Millennium Development Goals.

“This is why the Call to Action on Sanitation was launched in 2013, and why we aim to end open defecation by 2025,” he added.

The writer can be contacted at

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Opinion: From Despair to Hope – Fulfilling a Promise to Mothers and Children in Mandera County Mon, 09 Nov 2015 23:04:48 +0000 Ruth2 Ruth Kagia is a Senior Adviser in the Office of the President of Kenya. Follow her on twitter:@ruthkagia. Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative to Kenya. Follow him on twitter: @sidchat1]]> The First Lady of Kenya, Governor Ali Roba and the Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr Osotimehin, in Mandera County.  Credit: UNDP Kenya

The First Lady of Kenya, Governor Ali Roba and the Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr Osotimehin, in Mandera County. Credit: UNDP Kenya

By Ruth Kagia and Siddharth Chatterjee
NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov 9 2015 (IPS)

Mandera in northeastern Kenya, has often been described as “the worst place on earth to give birth.” Mandera’s maternal mortality ratio stands at 3,795 deaths per 100,000 live births, almost double that of wartime Sierra Leone at 2,000 deaths per 100,000 live births.

But Mandera also demonstrates what can be achieved with strong political leadership and strategic partnerships. Just under a year ago, on December 2, 2014, we were part of a team from the United Nations, World Bank, charities and the Office of the President of Kenya that undertook the two-hour flight to Mandera to determine what could be done to address this critical development bottleneck.

Minutes before take-off, news came through that 36 Kenyans had been brutally murdered in Mandera by the Somali militant group al Shabaab.

No official briefing could have better highlighted the challenges of the task ahead. Rather than acting as a deterrent, it strengthened our resolve and we continued with our journey.

Marginalization combined with internecine conflicts, pockets of extremism, poor human development and cross border terrorism have trapped so many of Mandera’s people in poverty and misery. In addition, women and girls are subjected to cultural practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage, which contribute to high school dropouts and complicate delivery.

The government has been focused in its resolve to change the narrative in Mandera and in other historically disadvantaged parts of Kenya. The introduction of free maternity services, for example, has increased the number of Kenyan women giving birth under skilled care from about 40 to 60 per cent since 2013.

Together with the government, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Kenya mobilised private sector partners to develop innovative strategies to improve maternal and child health, especially in the six counties with the highest maternal and child health burden: Lamu, Isiolo, Wajir, Mandera, Marsabit and Migori.

On October 13, we launched a Community Life Centre in Mandera with the technology company Philips. The centre, equipped with solar lighting, fridges, lab and diagnostic equipment, will provide better healthcare services for about 25,000 people.

UNFPA Executive Director Dr Babatunde Osotimehin has given a very clear message that UNFPA must help the hard to reach and the most vulnerable. With this resolve, UNFPA, together with the World Bank, UNICEF and the World Health Organization, supported by the Ministry of Health, mobilized 15 million dollars to improve maternal, child and adolescent health services in the six counties in March 2015.

These efforts were given a major boost on November 6, 2015, when Kenya’s First Lady H.E. Margaret Kenyatta handed over a fully-kitted mobile clinic to Mandera. The First Lady launched the Beyond Zero campaign in 2014 to reduce maternal and child mortality in Kenya.

Dr. Osotimehin flew in from New York for the event, and was joined by the ambassadors of the European Union, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

The First Lady said: “For too long, the prospect of childbirth in Kenya, to thousands of women, has been tantamount to a death sentence. No one should die giving life.”

Dr Osotimehin said: ‘‘When we invest in strengthening the health system from the community to the facility, when we invest in strong referral systems and complementary basic services, we save women’s lives but we also underwrite our future as humanity.”

Maternal health is a perfect illustration of the fact that the process of development is multi-dimensional. Poor maternal health affects women, their children and their communities. It affects nutrition, human development, population dynamics and it undermines the quality of the labour force.

When you improve maternal health, you create healthy families, strong communities and strong economies.

Like the tentative steps of an infant beginning to walk, these may seem modest achievements in the face of the significant challenges in these remote counties. The counties require structural changes which can lead women out of poverty, eliminate gender inequalities and build stronger health systems.

The partners’ grit and the commitment demonstrated by the government together with leaders like the First Lady and Mandera County Governor Ali Roba give reason for optimism that these challenges can be overcome.

Improving maternal health is not only achievable, it is a goal worth reaching.


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Opinion: Integrating Water, Sanitation and Health are Key to the Promise of the UN Global Goals Fri, 30 Oct 2015 22:46:44 +0000 Princess Sarah Zeid

HRH Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan is a global advocate for maternal, child and newborn health in fragile and humanitarian settings.

By H.R.H. Princess Sarah Zeid
AMMAN, Oct 30 2015 (IPS)

The 193 member states of the United Nations have adopted an ambitious 15-year sustainable development agenda, the 2030 Global Goals.

H.R.H. Princess Sarah Zeid

H.R.H. Princess Sarah Zeid

To understand the impact these Global Goals must have on our world, I need only remember my summer visit to a school in Basra, in southern Iraq.

To enter through the school gates, I had to negotiate a fetid stream of sewage, broken glass and garbage. The condition of the school building itself was terrible, and even worse were the bathrooms. You could see their appalling state because they had no doors, and thus, zero privacy. All this in a place where the temperature can reach above 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) – it was so hot I felt as if my cheeks were frying.

I look back at this now through the eyes of a mother, and my horror is all the greater. No girl could go to this school, because no girl could go to the bathroom. No child could safely attend this school, because no child could do so without being exposed to disease.

With daughters denied education, confined to home and sons locked in a cycle of exposure to ill health, how can we expect women to participate in commerce, politics, peace and sustainability? How do we think the next generation is going to be educated, skilled and healthy enough to make a positive contribution?

The solutions to women’s and children’s dignity, health and wellbeing lie well beyond the health sector alone, and demand instead an integrated approach, including solutions that deliver water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in health and in education.

No one’s needs divide neatly into our professional sectors, and sustainable wellbeing and prosperity will not come from fragmented interventions. A holistic approach spanning across all these domains is urgently needed.

The linkages between WASH, health, education and nutrition for that matter are stark. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, more than half the cases of measles in the country are caused by lack of clean water, and poor WASH conditions are a leading cause of malnutrition.

Illness and death in childbirth, and in maternal and child health, are not only the result of the lack of access to quality medical care, nursing or pharmaceuticals. They also happen because nearly 40 per cent of health facilities worldwide have no source of water.

In low-income countries – where preventable mortality is at its highest – an estimated 50 per cent of health care facilities lack access to the electricity they need to boil water and sterilize instruments.

WASH also helps promote gender equality. If water, sanitation and hygiene are designed so that the practical burdens women carry daily are reduced, they will be able to play broader and more creative roles in their community’s development, paving the way towards equitable development in countries and globally. Everyone benefits from these contributions.

There is recognition of the importance of joining up. Last autumn, 16 researchers from the World Health Organization, Unicef, WaterAid and others came together to call for action on joining water, sanitation and hygiene to efforts on maternal and newborn health. The World Health Organization has launched an action plan to address the need for water, sanitation and hygiene in healthcare facilities.

This new sustainable development agenda and, quite frankly, the state of the world today, demands of us another dimension of this integration, too: an integration of our development and humanitarian efforts.

The renewed Every Women Every Child Global Strategy for Women and Children’s Health is working to make this happen. Headed by the Office of the UN Secretary General and supported by a global movement of governments, philanthropic institutions, multi-lateral organizations, civil society organizations, the business community and academics, the renewed Strategy gives new priority to humanitarian and fragile settings and pledges the needed integration to save more lives as life is given.

After all, the right to live life in dignity, the rights to health and to water and sanitation are human rights, universal and indivisible. They are rights to be upheld even in the toughest of situations and at the hardest of times. However, without joined-up pipelines of delivery to enable that flow of human dignity for everyone, everywhere, the promise of the Global Goals will just drain away.


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Kenya: Transforming Mandera County’s Deadly Reputation for Maternal Health Mon, 19 Oct 2015 06:31:04 +0000 Siddharth Chatterjee @sidchat1) is the UNFPA Representative to Kenya.]]> Photo Credit: @islamicrelief

Photo Credit: @islamicrelief

By Siddharth Chatterjee
Mandera County, Kenya, Oct 19 2015 (IPS)

For many women in Mandera County – a hard to reach, insecure and arid part of North Eastern Kenya – the story of life from childhood to adulthood is one about sheer pain and struggle for survival.

As little girls, they undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), a painful carving out of the external genitalia that leaves them with lifelong physical and psychological scars.

Most girls will be married off when barely into their teens, forcing them to drop out of school, their immature bodies thrust into the world of childbearing.

As a result, Mandera – just a two-hour flight from the dynamic, modern East African hub of Nairobi – has maternal mortality ratio of 3,795 deaths per 100,000 live births, a rate that surpasses that of wartime Sierra Leone (2000 deaths per 100,000 live births) and far above Kenya’s national average (448 deaths per 100,000 live births).

Mandera is an example of a marginalized community rife with internecine conflicts, pockets of extremism, poor human development and cross border terrorism, where residents are trapped in poverty, misery and desperation. Cultural norms like status of the women, FGM and child marriage makes it worse. Among the poor, inequities hurt women and girls most.

However, things are looking up. Kenya’s decision to devolve government, putting much more power in the hands of local authorities, is having an impact on the ground. Indicators such as number of health facilities offering basic maternal and child health, and the number of women giving birth in a health facility, are improving.

Just as critical to these improvements is the recently established private sector’s coalition to transform the health landscape of this county, long considered a lost frontier. The goal of this coalition is to develop new products and service delivery models, like community life centers (CLCs) to improve maternal and new-born health among most vulnerable populations in Kenya.

An inter-agency team consisting of the Office of the President of Kenya, Ministry of Health, Kenya Red Cross, UNOCHA, Save the Children, technology company Philips, Amref, Safaricom, GlaxoSmithKlein and UNFPA, visited Mandera on 13 October 2015 with the ambassadors of Turkey and Sweden to Kenya, to launch a Ministry of Health-UNFPA–Philips innovation partnership.

The UNFPA and Philips CLC project is expected to bring quality primary healthcare within reach of about 25,000 people through small improvements that enhance the functionality of health facilities like 24-hour lighting that will allow facility deliveries to take place and sick children attended after dark. If successful, this initiative could be scaled-up and transform maternal and child health in Mandera county.

Mandera has long remained out of bounds for most international UN staff and diplomats due to insecurity. Hopefully the visit by the Turkish and Swedish ambassadors , who are ardent advocates of the rights of women and children, will pave the way for more visits to all the country’s North Eastern counties which face similar challenges.

The ambassadors spoke of their countries’ commitment to work with the county to change the narrative, especially to advance the rights and wellbeing of all women and girls.

The broader partnership, which also includes Huawei, Kenya Health Care Federation and MSD, together with the United Nations’s H4+ partners, will focus on the six counties with a high burden of maternal mortality: Wajir, Marsaibit, Lamu, Isiolo, Migori and Mandera.

The main activities in these six counties will include strengthening supply chain management for health commodities, increasing availability and demand for youth-friendly health services, capacity building for health professionals, youth empowerment and research. These activities be complemented by the results-based financing supported through the Health Results Innovation Trust Fund managed by the World Bank.

It is also in line with the full-scale Kenyan government commitment to reduce maternal deaths and the new polices of free maternity care and user fee removal.

Kenya’s First Lady Margaret Kenyatta once remarked that “I am deeply saddened by the fact that women and children in our country die from causes that can be avoided. It doesn’t have to be this way. This is why I am launching the ‘Beyond Zero Campaign’ which will bring prenatal and postnatal medical treatment to women and children in our country.”

The dividend from healthier women will be a more educated and healthy society, with more economic opportunities and reduced exclusion which will engender peace and hopefully reduce the drivers of violent extremism.

It will be a major score for Mandera towards fulfilling the vision of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which is about empowerment and participation of women, ending discrimination and the scourge of harmful traditional practices like FGM and child marriage.


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Youngster Uses Technology to Fight Teen Pregnancy in Honduran Village Wed, 14 Oct 2015 22:53:28 +0000 Thelma Mejia Cinthia Padilla, the 16-year-old who has revolutionised the village of Plan Grande on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, where she teaches local residents to use basic computer programmes and is using an Internet platform to help prevent teen pregnancy. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

Cinthia Padilla, the 16-year-old who has revolutionised the village of Plan Grande on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, where she teaches local residents to use basic computer programmes and is using an Internet platform to help prevent teen pregnancy. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

By Thelma Mejía
PLAN GRANDE, Honduras, Oct 14 2015 (IPS)

Four years ago, Cinthia Padilla, who is now 16, learned how to use a computer in order to teach children, adolescents and adults in this isolated fishing village in northern Honduras how to use technology to better their lives.

Now she is using her expertise in an online e-learning platform aimed at reducing teen pregnancies in her remote village and neighbouring communities.

Her father, Óscar Padilla, is the community leader who radically changed life in Plan Grande by bringing it round-the-clock hydroelectricity, as well as a project for the conservation and protection of the Matías River basin. His daughter learned a great deal accompanying him to village meetings from an early age.

“My dad would tell me: ‘Stay home little girl! What are you doing here?’” she told IPS. “But I would ignore him because I liked listening to the adults. That’s how I learned, with a computer project that came to the village, and today I teach kids and adults in my free time how to use programmes like Word, Excel and others that help them in their work and studies.“I’m in fourth grade and I like this idea because we’re going to learn by using games, and girls won’t get pregnant or fall in love so young,” Javier Alexander Ramos, eight years old

“I started out with a used computer that a businesswoman from the capital gave me four years ago. So far I have trained more than 60 kids and a number of adults. It hasn’t been easy, because who was going to believe in a girl?” said a smiling Cinthia, who is in the first year of secondary school.

Thanks to the skills of this young girl who dreams of becoming a systems engineer to help her community develop and use technology to protect the environment, the 500 inhabitants of Plan Grande discovered the advantages offered by the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs).

Thanks to what they have learned from Cinthia, local fisherpersons have improved their financial skills when selling their catch and purchasing products.

She also launched the e-learning platform to raise awareness among and educate adolescents to prevent teen pregnancy, with the support of the Sustainable Development Network, a civil society organisation that boosts technology use in communities in this impoverished Central American nation of 8.8 million people.

The success of the initiative drew the interest of Noel Ruíz, the mayor of the municipality of Santa Fe, where Plan Grande is located, and of the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP), implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

With a 50,000 dollar grant from the SGP, the e-learning project will be expanded throughout the entire municipality of Santa Fe and the neighbouring Balfate, starting in 2016. The users will be students and teachers.

In Plan Grande, which is operating as a pilot programme for the platform, the schoolteachers are enthusiastic about the project because teen pregnancy is frequent in this region inhabited mainly by members of the Garifuna ethnic group – descendants of African slaves who intermarried with members of the indigenous Carib tribe.

The National Assembly of Afro-Honduran Organisations and Communities estimates that 10 percent of the country’s population is black.

“This will open kids’ minds and help them not make the mistake of getting pregnant due to a lack of sex education,” Julissa Esther Pacheco, the teacher in Punta Frijol, a hamlet next to Plan Grande, told IPS.

“They have taught us how to use it, even though we don’t have Internet, with interactive educational programmes created to help youngsters learn about their bodies,” she said.

In Punta Frijol, just over three km from the centre of Plan Grande, Pacheco teaches 22 children in grades one through six in the rural schoolhouse. She divides the children by grade and teaches some while the others do homework.

Students in the hamlet of Punta Frijol on the northern coast of Honduras welcome this IPS reporter visiting this remote area to learn about their e-learning programme aimed at bringing down the teen pregnancy rate. The teacher at the one-room rural schoolhouse, Julissa Esther Pacheco, is behind the group of children, to the right. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

Students in the hamlet of Punta Frijol on the northern coast of Honduras welcome this IPS reporter visiting this remote area to learn about their e-learning programme aimed at bringing down the teen pregnancy rate. The teacher at the one-room rural schoolhouse, Julissa Esther Pacheco, is behind the group of children, to the right. Credit: Thelma Mejía/IPS

Pacheco says the children have been very open to the programme “and are motivated because they know life isn’t all peaches and cream.”

Eight-year-old Javier Alexander Ramos told IPS: “I’m in fourth grade and I like this idea because we’re going to learn by using games, and girls won’t get pregnant or fall in love so young.”

His remarks drew laughter from his fellow students and the parents who had gathered at the school to tell IPS about their expectations for the project, in a demonstration of the importance that local residents put on telling their story, and of their support for the initiative.

Javier said he dreams of a country that is “better educated, in peace and safe, like Plan Grande. I would like to be a congressman when I grow up, to help in so many ways here, and that’s why I like to study. I enjoy learning how to use the computer because although we don’t have our own computers we learn with the ones in the school, which we all share.”

Because of Plan Grande’s location, some 400 km from the capital of Honduras on the Caribbean coast, and only reachable by boat, there are few educational opportunities and locals depend on fishing and subsistence agriculture for a living, while some move away or find seasonal work elsewhere.

Teen pregnancy is frequent in the municipality of Santa Fe, which includes three villages and nine hamlets.

According to Health Ministry and United Nations figures, Honduras has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Latin America: one out of four adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 have given birth.

The birth rate is 108 per 1,000 teenagers in that age group, according to official statistics.

To support the transformation that Cinthia has begun to bring about, Santa Fe Mayor Ruíz came to Plan Grande in September to lay the first stone in what will be a computer lab for the e-learning platform, set to open in January 2016.

“These are very neglected communities, but what they are doing in Plan Grande deserves support; the computer lab will have Internet and other appropriate technologies because we want adolescent girls to one day say: today I’m ready to be a mother,” he told IPS.

Cinthia broke in to say: “Young people here are losing their fear of expressing ourselves, and with this platform we’re going to teach them how to take care of themselves, and how to use the social networks.

“When the SGP proposed this idea, I was the first to say yes because they helped us before to bring electricity, they taught us the importance of nature, and now they’re going to help us educate people so our dreams as young people aren’t cut short at such a young age,” she said.

This remote village of poor fishing families on Honduras’ Caribbean coast has become a national reference point for community-run, clean self-sustainable energy.

And now they want to become an example to be followed in the prevention of teen pregnancy, led by a 16-year-old girl who has also launched a campaign for donations to her village of computers, whether new or used – because she has learned how to fix them as well.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Opinion: International Day of the Girl Must Start with Good Laws Mon, 12 Oct 2015 09:57:11 +0000 Shelby Quast

Shelby Quast is Director, Americas Office for Equality Now.

By Shelby Quast
NEW YORK, Oct 12 2015 (IPS)

Everyday should be about girls, but yesterday, October 11, was dedicated especially to them. International Day of the Girl is yet another opportunity to put girls at center stage.

For many girls, their childhood and adolescent years are shaped by harmful experiences such as sexual violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and sex trafficking.

Understanding that a lack of support systems can leave girls without the means to speak out against abuses and seek help, Equality Now’s #JusticeForGirls program uses strategic litigation and related advocacy to ensure a level playing field for girls – particularly during their critical adolescent years.

This year, Equality Now announced an exciting new additional component to this initiative. The GENEROSITY of GIRLS Fund supports programmes that directly impact the lives of girls. Initial recipients are partner organizations that work on the front lines with adolescent girls: Safe Hands for Girls in the U.S., The Girl Child Network in Uganda and the Rural Education & Economic Enhancement Programme (REEP) in Kenya.

Founded by FGM survivor Jaha Dukureh, Safe Hands for Girls supports and empowers girls at risk of FGM by providing culturally appropriate support groups, economically empowering girls and supporting their goals for higher education. The Girl Child Network in Kampala, Uganda, empowers girls to develop their own curricula for more than 20 after-school clubs.

With support from the GENEROSITY of GIRS Fund, The Girl Child Network has the opportunity to empower 500 girls. The REEP initiative empowers girls in Busia County, Kenya, where Equality Now recently supported a sexual violence case and brought 70 similar cases to the attention of local law enforcement. With support from the fund, REEP will reach 1,000 girls.

Ensuring that strong laws and access to justice is the first step towards making gender equality a reality. Yet many countries, such as Liberia and Mali, have yet to put in place laws which ban FGM, a severe form of violence that is likely to affect up to 30 million girls over the coming decade.

Meanwhile, if you happen to be born a girl in Yemen or Saudi Arabia, you still have no legislative protection against child marriage. Other countries have laws against such abuses but fail to implement them.

In Saudi Arabia, we worked with Fatima, a 12-year-old married to a 50-year-old man with a wife and 10 children. Her father received the equivalent of US$10,000 for her, which he spent on a car. Fatima’s husband gave her a PlayStation for her wedding gift. We worked with a Saudi lawyer to help Fatima and the resulting publicity helped put pressure on her husband, who finally consented to a divorce.

Sexual violence continues to be an epidemic in every country in the world. Awareness has increased over the past 15 years but enforcing the rule of law continues to be a problem for most governments. The law provides a framework that determines a person’s worth.

In Morocco, Amina Filali was raped when she was sixteen. But a loophole in the law exempted rapists from punishment if they marry their victims. Instead of punishing rapists, judges forced girls to marry them.

Amina could not bear a lifetime of being raped, so she took her own life swallowing rat poison. Other girls have done the same. We campaigned very actively with Moroccan groups to change the law. While the change came too late for Amina, it can hopefully protect other girls.

And this is not just an issue for the economically developing world. Half a million women and girls in the US have undergone, or are at risk of undergoing, FGM. In fact, no country has reached gender equality.

But things have at least started to change. Twenty years ago, FGM was seen as a cultural practice, but it is now widely recognized as violence and as a violation of human rights. There are now laws banning it in the majority of those countries where it is most prevalent. Two decades ago, the media did not really cover violence against girls as an issue, but that is changing by the day.

The sexual violence epidemic against girls around the world is no longer a hidden issue and almost two million people signed a petition to ensure #JusticeForLiz, a 16-year-old girl who was gang-raped and left for dead in Kenya, which led to the arrest and conviction of the rapists.

At a global level, the newly-adopted Sustainable Development Goals include women and girls throughout the agenda. We now need to ensure that progress toward achieving these goals, such as ending FGM and child marriage, are implemented and measured wherever women and girls are affected – not just in select countries.

October 11 was for all of the world’s girls, but the benefits are much more extensive. If every girl is valued and given the same opportunities as boys; if she is free from all forms of violence and discrimination, amazing things can happen – not only for the girl whose life is changed forever but for her the community and the whole world which becomes safer, happier and more balanced.


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Pakistan Initiative Seeks to Improve Maternal-Child Care in Rural Areas Sun, 11 Oct 2015 19:27:42 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai A pregnant woman is being examined at a local hospital in Bannu district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai

A pregnant woman is being examined at a local hospital in Bannu district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Oct 11 2015 (IPS)

“We are extremely happy over the government’s initiative to give money to the pregnant women and enable them to seek proper treatment,” said Sharif Ahmed at a basic health unit (BHU), near Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

Ahmed said he had brought her his wife to undergo ultrasound and other pregnancy-related investigations at the BHU and preempt any complications.

“My wife has already experienced miscarriage of a pregnancy two years ago due to lack of lack of tests. I didn’t have money to pay for medical examinations of my wife which resulted in miscarriage,” he told IPS.

Ahmed, a wage worker, is beneficiary of the scheme launched by the provincial government to cut maternal mortality ratio (MMR) by offering the equivalent of US$ 10 to each of the pregnant women per visit to the hospital.

It is the family’s second visit to this BHU. “We have got $20 so far. The money we received has been paid on transportation charges to reach this hospital. Without this, our visit couldn’t have been possible,” he said.

The KP is one four Pakistani provinces to start such a program. The World Health Organization’s Dr Kashif Ahmed told IPS that the province has 29 per cent literacy rate, lower than rest of the country, and accordingly many people aren’t aware of pregnancy-related problems or are too shy to be seen by doctors.

Pakistan ranks third in the world with an estimated 275 out of 100,000 number of maternal deaths, behind only India and Nigeria, he said.

“At present only 50 per cent of women in the province receive any form of ante-natal care and only 25 per cent are receiving any form of post-natal care from a trained birth attendant,” he said.

The KP government hopes that the $10 payments to pregnant women for each visit to public hospitals will encourage women to undergo at least three check-ups before birth and two after birth, for which they get a total amount of $50, with the aim of reducing maternal deaths from delivery-related complications.

Another challenge is that women in this male-dominated society are also not readily coming to hospitals because they want to be seen by women doctors and there is an extreme shortage of them, as well as of nurses.

KP’s director-general for health, Dr Pervez Kamal, told IPS that the majority of the province’s 2.2 million people live in remote rural areas and thereby have difficulty in accessing primary healthcare facilities. It is hoped that providing cash payments will enable them to hire transport and reach the hospitals, he said.

“We have also put the place the services of 500 women doctors or Lady Health Workers (LHWs) in all the 1,680 rural health centres in the province to encourage the women to come there and get examined by females,” said Kamal. Thousands of LHWs have been deployed at the community level to provide vaccination besides free check-ups to the childbearing women, he said.

“As of January 2015, a total of 5,678 women have benefited from the scheme and we are hopeful that we can reduce pregnancy-related deaths in the province,” he said.

Dr Kamal said that the government has also been campaigning aggressively through radio and television advertisements to inform the people about the incentives to the pregnant mothers so more people could avail the opportunities and preempt complications.

Professor Shamim Akhtar, a gynecologist at the district headquarters hospital in Mardan, one of the KP’s 26 districts, says the government’s initiative has been been having a positive impact. “We have recorded a 50 per cent increase in visits of the pregnant women at the outpatients department of the hospital because of the money provided by the government,” she says.

The women who are getting the money and free treatment are also communicating to their relatives and neighbours about the facilities, which has resulted in people have started coming to hospitals in droves, she says.

One pregnant patient at the Mardan facility, 20-year-old Jehan Bibi, told IPS that she had been informed by a woman in her neighborhood about free treatment and money that she would get if she want to the hospital. “I have given birth to a son two years ago but I faced lot of problems because of home-based delivery. I have no money to visit the doctors then. But now the situation is different and I will get a total of $50 which is enough to visit the hospital and pay for transportation cost,” said Bibi as she underwent ultra sonography.

“During my earlier pregnancy, my family didn’t allow me to venture out of home and get examined by male doctor which caused complications. Now, my family is also happy that I am getting examination by female doctors and my in-laws have no objection,” she said.


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Latin America to Adopt SDGs, Still Lagging on Some MDGs Wed, 23 Sep 2015 23:23:41 +0000 Marianela Jarroud Maternal care during the pregnancy, birth and post-partum period is essential to reduce the high maternal mortality rate in Latin America. Credit: Courtesy of the Tigre municipal government

Maternal care during the pregnancy, birth and post-partum period is essential to reduce the high maternal mortality rate in Latin America. Credit: Courtesy of the Tigre municipal government

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Sep 23 2015 (IPS)

In the last 15 years, Latin America and the Caribbean have met several key targets included in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), such as reducing extreme poverty, hunger and child mortality, incorporating more girls in the educational system, and expanding access to clean water.

However, as the world is setting out on a new challenge, meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the roadmap from here to 2030 – the region must make a bigger effort to fight, for example, maternal mortality and teen pregnancy, two of its biggest failures with regard to the MDGs, partly due to a patriarchal, sexist culture.

“We don’t have to wait for an analysis of the MDGs to understand that the region is lagging in these areas,” Chilean Dr. Ramiro Molina, founder of the Centre for Reproductive Medicine and Adolescent Development, told IPS.

“The spending needed on sexual and reproductive health is low,” he added. “It hasn’t been clearly understood that it is absolutely indispensable to invest more in this area.”

The eight MDGs, approved in September 2000 by 189 heads of state and government at a United Nations summit, were aimed at addressing development deficits in the first 15 years of the new millennium.

And on Sunday Sept. 27, at another summit in New York, leaders from around the world will approve the post-2015 sustainable development framework, which includes 17 SDGs that make up what is now called the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

With these new goals, the international community will continue to fight inequality and work towards sustainable and inclusive development.

“Latin America and the Caribbean: looking ahead after the Millennium Development Goals”, a regional monitoring report published this month by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), says the region has met the goal for reducing extreme poverty and hunger.

Between 1990 and 2015, this region more than cut in half the proportion of people living on less than 1.25 dollars a day: from 12.6 percent in 1990 to 4.6 percent in 2011.

The proportion of hungry people, meanwhile, was slashed from 14.7 percent in the 1990-1992 period to 5.5 percent in 2014-2016.

In addition, employment statistics are better today than at any other point in the last 20 years; access to and completion of primary education have increased; and the illiteracy rate among 15 to 24-year-olds fell from 6.9 percent in 1990 to 1.7 percent in 2015.

The region has also made significant progress in girls’ access to primary, secondary and tertiary education, and has narrowed the gender gap in politics.

But these advances stand in contrast to the lack of progress in other areas, especially with regard to MDG 5: reducing maternal mortality and achieving universal access to reproductive health.

The ECLAC report stresses that in 2013 the overall maternal mortality rate in Latin America and the Caribbean was 85 deaths per 100,000 live births, representing a 39 percent reduction with respect to 1990 – far from the 75 percent drop called for by the MDGs.

Adolescent pregnancy also remains a pressing problem in the region, with a live birth rate of 75.5 per 1,000 girls and women between the ages of 15 and 19.

Miriam Toaquiza and her daughter Jennifer in a hospital in Latacunga, Ecuador. She is the only girl in a special room for teenage mothers, thanks to public policies fighting the phenomenon. Credit: Gonzalo Ortiz/IPS

Miriam Toaquiza and her daughter Jennifer in a hospital in Latacunga, Ecuador. She is the only girl in a special room for teenage mothers, thanks to public policies fighting the phenomenon. Credit: Gonzalo Ortiz/IPS

“Adolescence, their development and fertility are based on ignorance in our countries,” said Molina.

Tamara, now 23, is an illustration of this. When she was 13, her 27-year-old boyfriend got her pregnant.

The unexpected pregnancy forced her to drop out of school, although she was later able to complete her primary education. She never went to high school. Three years later she had her second son, with the same father.

“I missed out on several things: of course, support from my mother and my father, but above all, sex education,” the young woman, who preferred not to give her last name, told IPS.

Tamara had a difficult life. Her mother did not finish primary school and her father was a drug addict and alcoholic. She was a witness to domestic violence throughout her childhood.

From a young age, she was raped by the oldest of her six brothers, who went to prison for 10 years for what he did, when she finally decided to go to the police, without her mother’s consent.

Today, about to have her third child – with a different man this time, but someone just as absent as the father of her first two – she said she is fighting to make sure her children get an education.

“I make an effort every day for my kids to study, I try hard to educate them, because I don’t want them to suffer like I did. I want to break the circle,” she said.

In Molina’s view, to address the gaps in sexual and reproductive health, political intentions should translate into spending on primary sexual and reproductive health care services for adolescents, training on these issues for health professionals, and effective sex education programmes.

“Mexico’s good sex education programmes are only partially functioning; the excellent programmes that Costa Rica had have been discontinued; and Colombia has made enormous efforts to come up with really good sex education teaching materials, but they have practically been doomed to fail by political and strategic questions,” Molina said.

“Something similar is happening in Peru, where there have also been good programmes but they don’t have strategic or political support from the government,” he added. “Argentina gets good results, but with strong support from the government in developing sex education programmes. The same is true in Uruguay.”

According to the doctor, the case of Chile “is the worst of all,” because “we are plagued with opprobrium and shame.”

“We were the last country in the region to have a law protecting young people with sex education, which was passed in 2010 but did not enter into force until July 2014. The situation here is embarrassing,” he said.

He added that in order to meet the Agenda 2030 target for preventing teen pregnancies, merely making birth control available is not enough, “because I could drop condoms and pills from a helicopter but it wouldn’t be an effective measure.”

The issue, he said, is that people have to actually use the contraceptives, and need to know when and how to do so – which requires education.

“The goal is preventing the first pregnancy, and to do that what is needed is education, education, and when everything else has failed, education and more education. And as part of that education – broad, in-depth sex education, without ideological bias,” he added.

Molina also stressed that both maternal mortality and adolescent pregnancy “are no longer technical, but political, problems” which require that states be responsible and implement effective public policies, without worrying about facing up to conservative power groups “who are ignorant traditionalists, and cause us terrible damage.”

As the region gets ready to sign on to the SDGs, the new challenges call for a more holistic, participative, interdisciplinary and universal approach.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Costa Rica Finally Allows In Vitro Fertilisation after 15-Year Ban Tue, 15 Sep 2015 00:45:25 +0000 Diego Arguedas Ortiz A hearing in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to follow up on compliance with its ruling that Costa Rica’s ban on in vitro fertilisation violates a number of rights. Credit: Inter-American Court of Human Rights

A hearing in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to follow up on compliance with its ruling that Costa Rica’s ban on in vitro fertilisation violates a number of rights. Credit: Inter-American Court of Human Rights

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz
SAN JOSE, Sep 15 2015 (IPS)

After banning in vitro fertilisation for 15 years and failing to comply with an Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling for nearly three years, Costa Rica will finally once again allow the procedure for couples and women on their own.

On Sept. 10, centre-left President Luis Guillermo Solís issued a decree ordering compliance with the Inter-American Court’s 2012 verdict against the ban fomented by conservative sectors. The president ordered that measures be taken to overcome judicial and legislative barriers erected against compliance with the Court judgment.

“This was discriminatory,” lawyer Hubert May, the representative of several of the 12 couples who brought the legal action against the ban before the Court, told IPS. “The ban only affected those who couldn’t afford to carry out the procedure abroad, or those who weren’t willing to mortgage their homes or take out loans to fulfill their longing (for a child of their own).”

In November 2012, the Court ruled that the ban on in vitro fertilisation (IVF) violated the rights to privacy, liberty, personal integrity and sexual health, the right to form a family, the right to be free from discrimination, and the right to have access to technological progress. It gave Costa Rica six months to legalise the procedure.

But opposition from conservative sectors blocked compliance and hurt Costa Rica’s image in terms of international law.

Solís’s decree regulates IVF and puts the public health system in charge of the procedure, thus ensuring access for lower-income couples.

May said the decree “solves the problem of discrimination” by paving the way for the social security institute, the CCSS, to provide IVF as part of its regular health services.

IVF is a reproductive technology in which an egg is removed from a woman and joined with a sperm cell from a man in a test tube (in vitro). The resulting embryo is implanted in the woman’s uterus.

In its 2012 ruling, the Court stated that Costa Rica was the only country in the world to expressly outlaw IVF, a measure that directly affected local women and couples. In Latin America the procedure was first used in 1984, in Argentina.

One of the women affected by the ban was Gretel Artavia Murillo, who with her then husband ran up debt in an attempt to have a baby in the late 1990s.

Her now ex-husband, Miguel Mejías, declared before the Court that he had mortgaged his home and spent all his savings for the couple to undergo in vitro fertilisation in Costa Rica, but before they were able to do so, the practice was declared illegal.

IVF was first regulated in Costa Rica in 1995, but was banned in March 2000 by the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court.

Five of the seven magistrates on the constitutional chamber argued that the law violated the right to life, which began “at conception, when a person is already a person…a living being, with the right to be protected by the legal system.”

Artavia and Mejía, along with 11 other couples, brought the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2001, and a decade later it reached the Inter-American Court. The Commission and the Court are the Organisation of American States (OAS) autonomous human rights institutions.

On Sep. 10 Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís signed a decree making IVF legal after it was banned for 15 years. Credit: Casa Presidencial

On Sep. 10 Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís signed a decree making IVF legal after it was banned for 15 years. Credit: Casa Presidencial

A year later, the Court, which is based in the Costa Rican capital, San José, and whose rulings cannot be appealed and are theoretically binding, handed down its verdict.

“The constitutional chamber’s view was not shared by the Court, which considered that protection of life began with the implantation of a fertilised egg in the uterus,” said May.

May and other experts on the case said the position taken by Costa Rica’s highest court responded to the extremely conservative views of the leadership of the Catholic Church, and of other Christian faiths with growing influence in the country.

This Central American nation of 4.7 million people considers itself a standard-bearer of human rights in international forums. But the question of IVF tarnished that image when the conservative sectors took up opposition to it as a cause.

The debate in the legislature on a law to regulate IVF stalled for over two years, due to resistance by evangelical and conservative lawmakers.

In a Sep. 3 public hearing by the Court on compliance with the 2012 ruling, the executive branch said it planned to regulate the procedure by means of a decree, which civil society organisations saw as a reasonable solution to the stalemate over the new law.

“We know that in the legislature there is no way to forge ahead on key issues, such as practically anything to do with sexual and reproductive rights,” Larissa Arroyo, a lawyer who specialises in these rights, told IPS.

Arroyo pointed out that with regard to an issue like IVF, time is of the essence, given that a woman’s childbearing years are limited. She noted that “almost all of the victims lost their chance” to have children using the technique.

In the week between the public hearing and the signing of the presidential decree, the government consulted Costa Rica’s College of Physicians and the CCSS. While both backed the decree, the CCSS clarified that it preferred a law and warned that it would need additional funding, because each fertility treatment costs around 40,000 dollars.

The decree limits the number of fertilised eggs to be implanted to two.

In the same week, the legislative debate became further bogged down. While one group of legislators tried to expedite approval of the law to regulate IVF, another group continued to oppose the procedure as an attack on human life at its origin, likening it to the Jewish holocaust.

“The extermination camps of Nazi Germany are in the Costa Rica of today, the Costa Rica of the Solís administration,” evangelical legislator Gonzalo Ramírez, of the conservative Costa Rican Renewal Party, even said at one point.

Given that outlook and the impasse in the legislature, organisations like the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) celebrated the decree which offers “universal access” to IVF and “respect for the principle of equality.”

However, CEJIL programme director for Central America and Mexico Marcia Aguiluz recommended waiting until IVF is actually being implemented.

“The decree lives up to the requirements, but it is just a first step,” said Aguiluz, who is from Costa Rica. “Until the practice starts being carried out, we can’t say there has been compliance.”

Lawyers for the presidency said the decree is equipped to withstand legal challenges.

The 2012 ruling is the second handed down against Costa Rica in the history of the Court. The previous one was in 2004, when the Court found that the conviction of journalist Mauricio Herrera by a Costa Rican court on charges of defamation of a diplomat violated free speech, and ordered that the country enact new legislation on freedom of expression.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Mental Health Another Casualty of Changing Climate Tue, 08 Sep 2015 20:10:20 +0000 Jed Alegado and Angeli Guadalupe A young resident of Tacloban in the Philippines walks through some of the damage and debris left by the Typhoon Yolanda, Dec. 21, 2013. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

A young resident of Tacloban in the Philippines walks through some of the damage and debris left by the Typhoon Yolanda, Dec. 21, 2013. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

By Jed Alegado and Angeli Guadalupe
MANILA, Sep 8 2015 (IPS)

Jun* is in chains, tied to a post in the small house that resembles a fragile nipa hut. His brother did this to prevent him from hurting their neighbours or other strangers he meets when he’s in a ballistic mood. Jun has been like this for three years now, but since Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines two years ago, his symptoms have worsened.

After the disaster, Jun lost his own house, his wife and his children. This psychological distress he went through triggered a relapse of his psychiatric illness. With no one else able to take care of him, Jun was taken by his brother to their family’s house.Climate change’s health impacts are inequitably distributed with the most vulnerable sectors like the elderly, children and pregnant women having the least capacity to adapt.

But since his brother is working and the other people in the house are their old, sickly and frail parents, no one can control Jun during his manic episodes. He has not been able to maintain his medications because his family can’t afford them and the free supply at the local health center doesn’t come consistently. For these reasons, the best option left for Jun’s brother is to put him in chains.

Impacts on mental health

A few more cases like Jun exist in Tacloban City and most likely, in other areas of the Philippines as well – both urban and rural. Typhoon Yolanda (also known as Typhoon Haiyan) struck the country on Nov. 8, 2013. It was a Category 5 super-typhoon with wind speeds ranging from 250 to 315 kph, killing at least 6,300 people and costing PhP 89 billion in damages.

Due to extreme loss and survivor guilt, at least one in 10 people here suffers from depression. But two years after the disaster, some survivors remain unaware of available mental health services. Others complain of the poor quality of services and scant supply of medications. Many survivors who are more affluent choose to consult psychiatrists in other cities to avoid the stigma.

As with most disasters, physical rehabilitation is prioritised. This is understandable and perfectly rational, but the mental health of the victims should not be forgotten.

According to the World Health Organization’s report on the Global Burden of Disease, mental disorders follow cardiovascular diseases as the top cause of morbidity and mortality in terms of disability-adjusted life years or the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death.

Yet despite the staggering number of people affected, only an estimated 25 percent of them worldwide have access to mental health services. More than 40 percent of countries have no mental health policy and mental health comprises less than 1 percent of most countries’ total health expenditures.

Nowadays, climate change brings us more frequent and devastating natural disasters. In emergencies such as natural disasters, rates of mental disorders often double. Hence, attention to mental health should be doubled as well, especially in countries highly vulnerable to disasters such as the Philippines.

Being an archipelago and still a developing country, this is not surprising. According to the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security’s World Risk Index Report 2014, out of the 15 countries with the highest disaster risk worldwide, eight are island states, including the Philippines.

Ensuring health impacts in the negotiation text

Health advocates are quick to respond to this alarming issue. Groups led by the International Federation of Medical Students (IFMS) are ensuring that the issue of health and its impacts to climate change are included in the climate negotiating text.

Beginning from the Conference of the Parties (COP 20) in Lima, Peru last year which continued in Geneva last February, the group has been advocating for health to be back at the center of negotiations and in effect ensuring that parties will forge a strong climate agreement in Paris on December.

Last week’s Bonn climate negotiations – one of the few remaining negotiation days before the actual COP in December – proved to be an exercise in futility as negotiators keep dodging on the issue of a loss and damage mechanism, which, according to health advocates, is crucial for helping people affected by the health-related impacts of climate change.

According to IFMS, “there is a growing involvement of member states to include health in the negotiating text. As a group, we want to ensure that health is included in all parts of the negotiating document – preamble, research, capacity building, adaptation and finance.”

Indeed, the impacts of climate change go beyond environment, food security, land rights and even indigenous peoples’ rights. More importantly, climate change has both direct and indirect effects on health. Climate change’s health impacts are inequitably distributed with the most vulnerable sectors like the elderly, children and pregnant women having the least capacity to adapt.

Parties to the UNFCCC must see this alarming issue towards forging a fair and binding climate deal in December which will limit keep global warming below 2 degrees C and ensure adaptation mechanisms to the most vulnerable nations.

In the future, it is foreseen that wars will be fought over water not oil. Disasters nowadays may give us a glimpse of the worst to come when the staggering impacts climate change worsen and affect us in ways beyond what we can handle.

Yet, with the rapid turn of extreme weather events, what we are doing is not just for future generations. It is for us, who are living now on this planet. We are going to be the victims if we do not take responsibility as much as we can, as soon as we can.

*Name has been changed to protect his identity.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: Women’s Major Role in Culture of Peace – Part Two Mon, 07 Sep 2015 21:31:47 +0000 Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury

Ambassador Chowdhury is Chair of the U.N. General Assembly Drafting Committee for the Declaration and Programme of Action on Culture of Peace (1998-1999).

By Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury

Another reality that emerges very distinctly in culture of peace is that we should never forget when women – half of world’s seven billion plus people – are marginalised and their equality is not established in all spheres of human activity, there is no chance for our world to get sustainable peace in the real sense.

Photo Courtesy of Ambassador Chowdhury

Photo Courtesy of Ambassador Chowdhury

I would reiterate that women in particular have a major role to play in promoting the culture of peace in our violence-ridden societies, thereby bringing in lasting peace and reconciliation. While women are often the first victims of armed conflict, they must also and always be recognised as key to the resolution of the conflict.

I believe with all my conviction that without peace, development is not possible, without development, peace is not achievable, but without women, neither peace nor development can be realised.

Integral connection between development and peace

In today’s world we continue to perceive an inherent paradox that needs our attention. The process of globalisation has created an irreversible trend toward a global integrated community, while at the same time, divisions and distrust keep on manifesting in different and complex ways.

Disparities and inequalities within and among nations have been causing insecurity and uncertainty that has become an unwanted reality in our lives. That is why I strongly believe that peace and development are two sides of the same coin. One is meaningless without the other; one cannot be achieved without the other.It is being increasingly realised that over-emphasis on cognitive learning in schools at the cost of developing children’s emotional, social, moral and humanistic aspects has been a costly mistake.

Education as the most critical element in the culture of peace

A key ingredient in building the culture of peace is education. Peace education needs to be accepted in all parts of the world, in all societies and countries as an essential element in creating the culture of peace.

The young of today deserves a radically different education –“one that does not glorify war but educates for peace, non-violence and international cooperation.” They need the skills and knowledge to create and nurture peace for their individual selves as well as for the world they belong to.

As Maria Montessori had articulated so appropriately, “Those who want a violent way of living, prepare young people for that; but those who want peace have neglected their young children and adolescents and that way are unable to organize them for peace.”

It is being increasingly realised that over-emphasis on cognitive learning in schools at the cost of developing children’s emotional, social, moral and humanistic aspects has been a costly mistake.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asserted at the very first High Level Forum on the Culture of Peace in 2012 that “…. We are here to talk about how to create this culture of peace. I have a simple, one-word answer: education. Through education, we teach children not to hate. Through education, we raise leaders who act with wisdom and compassion. Through education, we establish a true, lasting culture of peace.”

In this context, I commend the initiative of the Soka University of America located near Los Angeles in initiating in 2014 its annual “Dialogue on The Culture of Peace and Non-Violence” as an independent, unbiased, non-partisan, intellectual forum to outline avenues and direction for incorporating the culture of peace and non-violence into all spheres of the educational experience.

Never has it been more important for us to learn about the world and understand its diversity. The task of educating children and young people to find non-aggressive means to relate with one another is of primary importance.

As I had underscored at the conference hosted by the Hague Appeal for Peace on “Educating toward a World without Violence” in Albania in 2004, “the participation of young people in this process is very essential. Their inputs in terms of their own ideas on how to cooperate with each other in order to eliminate violence in our societies must be fully taken into account.”

Peace education is more effective and meaningful when it is adopted according to the social and cultural context and the country’s needs and aspirations. It should be enriched by its cultural and spiritual values together with the universal human values.

It should also be globally relevant. The Hague Agenda for Peace and Justice rightly emphasises that “…culture of peace will be achieved when citizens of the world understand global problems; have the skills to resolve conflicts constructively; know and live by international standards of human rights, gender and racial equality; appreciate cultural diversity; and respect the integrity of the Earth.”

Indeed, this should be more appropriately called “education for global citizenship”. Such learning cannot be achieved without well-intentioned, sustained, and systematic peace education that leads the way to the culture of peace.

The U.N. Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative’s essential objective is to promote global citizenship as the main objective of education. Connecting the role of individuals to broader global objectives, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior affirmed that “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Let me conclude by asserting that to turn the culture of peace into a global, universal movement, basically all that is needed is for every one of us to be a true believer in peace and non-violence, and to practice what we profess.

Whether it is at events like the annual High Level Forums, in places of worship, in schools or in our homes, a lot can be achieved in promoting the culture of peace through individual resolve and action. Peace and non-violence should become a part of our daily existence. This is the only way we shall achieve a just and sustainable peace in the world.

Part One can be read here.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Winning Women a Greater Say in Somaliland’s Policy-Making Thu, 27 Aug 2015 07:45:41 +0000 Katie Riordan Women sport their national pride at the annual Somaliland Independence Day celebration on May 18 in Hargeisa. Advocates argue that a political quota would give women a greater say in their country's policy-making. Credit: Adrian Leversby/IPS

Women sport their national pride at the annual Somaliland Independence Day celebration on May 18 in Hargeisa. Advocates argue that a political quota would give women a greater say in their country's policy-making. Credit: Adrian Leversby/IPS

By Katie Riordan
HARGEISA, Aug 27 2015 (IPS)

Bar Seed is the only female member in Somaliland’s 82-person Parliament, but activists hope upcoming national elections may end her isolation.

Gender equality advocates in the self-declared nation are currently renewing a push for a quota for women in government that has been over a decade in the making.

“The public’s opinion is changing,” says Seed hopefully.

Somaliland, internationally recognised as a region of Somalia and not as an autonomous nation, nonetheless hosts its own elections and has its own president.  It is often hailed as a burgeoning democracy that circumvented Somalia’s fate as a failed state. But noticeably absent from the decision-making process – to the detriment of the country’s development, activists argue – are women. [Somaliland] is often hailed as a burgeoning democracy that circumvented Somalia’s fate as a failed state. But noticeably absent from the decision-making process are women

With only Seed in Parliament, no women in the House of Elders known as the Guurti, and two female ministers and two deputies, supporters argue that a political quota enshrined in law is necessary to correct this gender imbalance.

“Nobody is going to take a silver platter and present it to women. We aren’t being shy anymore, we are saying: you want my vote? Then earn it,” says Edna Adan, a former foreign minister in Somaliland and founder of the Edna Anan University Hospital, a facility dedicated to addressing gender issues such as female genital mutation (FGM).

Adan has witnessed the debate about women in government evolve over the years, playing out as a political game often filled with empty promises to appoint more women in positions of power.  A measure to enact a political quota has twice failed to pass Somaliland’s legislature, once shot down by Parliament and once stymied by the Guurti.

But Adan believes conditions have ripened for women to make a final push for a quota as they have become more organised and strategic in their lobbying efforts.

While some accuse advocates of “settling” for their current demand of a reserved 10 percent of seats – meaning women would only run against women for eight spots in Parliament – Adan counters that setting the bar higher at the moment is unrealistic.

In addition to pushing for this 10 percent clause in an election law that Parliament is slated to review and debate in the coming months, advocates are also lobbying political parties to have voluntary quotas for their list of parliamentary candidates for seats outside those exclusively reserved for women.

A disputed extension decision made in May that postponed Somaliland’s elections for president, parliament and local councils until at least the end of 2016 and as late as spring 2017 drew the ire of the international community and much of civil society including organisations backing a women’s political quota.  Critics say the extension calls into question Somaliland’s commitment to a democratic process.

But the extra time may prove to be a silver lining for quota lobbyists. It could give them leverage to force politicians to prove their adherence to building an inclusive government in order to appear favourable to their constituents and the international community by pushing for more women in government.

“Women have threatened the parties that if they don’t support us, then we will not support them,” says Seed, who is a member of the Waddani Party, one of Somaliland’s two current opposition parties.

However, she explains that parties often publicly support ideas and mechanisms that push for gender parity but have a poor track record of following through with them. In many ways they have not been obliged to because, historically, women have not voted for other women in meaningful numbers.

“So they know it’s a bit of any empty threat but some are frightened [they could lose female votes],” Seed adds.

Also standing in the way of women is Somaliland’s deeply entrenched tribal and clan system that overshadows politics. In order to win elections, individuals need the support of clan leaders who sway the vote of members of their tribe, explains Seed. But since men are viewed as the stronger candidate, women rarely received clan endorsement.

A woman’s position is also unique in that she often has claims to two clans, the one she is born into and the one that she marries into, though this rarely works to her advantage.

“If a woman goes on to become a minister, both clans would claim her, but if she asks for help, they both tell her to go to the other clan,” said Nura Jamal Hussein, a women’s advocate who is contemplating running for political office.

The Nagaad Network, a local NGO dedicated to the political, economic and social empowerment of women, has been the buttress of the push for a quota. Its current director, Nafisa Mohamed, says that convincing women – who, according to some estimates, are about 60 percent of the voting bloc – to vote for women will be crucial to defying the status quo.

Given the cultural and religious barriers that women contend with, that status quo will be incredibly difficult to change, she says. Mohamed counts small victories like a change in hard-line religious preaching that denounced women’s presence in politics. She says approaching spiritual leaders on an individual basis to garner their support has proved fruitful and that they are generally warming to the idea of women in government.

But the power of religion in shaping public opinion is still palpable.

Mohamed Ali has served in Parliament since it was last elected in 2005. He backs legislation for a quota for women in government.  But asked if a woman could be president, he says it would be contrary to the teachings of the Quran, a view shared by many that IPS talked to.

While he hesitantly admits that he may one day change his views, he says others would accuse him of “not knowing one’s religion” if he advocated a woman for president.

Critics have brushed the quota off as an import from the West and an unnecessary measure that is pushing for change that a country may not be ready to undertake. Some also question if it will genuinely result in its desired effect that political empowerment for women will trickle down to other aspects of life.

Amina Farah Arshe, an entrepreneur, believes that if there was greater focus on economic empowerment for women, more political representation would naturally follow.

“I hate quotas. I want women to vote for themselves without it,” she says.  “But the current situation will not allow for that so we still need it.”

Edited by Phil Harris   

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The U.N. at 70: Leading the Global Agenda on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality – Part Two Mon, 17 Aug 2015 13:25:15 +0000 Lakshmi Puri Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of U.N. Women. Credit: U.N. Photo/Rick Bajornas

By Lakshmi Puri

The efforts of the United Nations and the global women’s movement to promote the women’s rights agenda and make it a top international priority saw its culmination in the creation of U.N. Women, by the General Assembly in 2010.

UN Women is the first – and only – composite entity of the U.N. system, with a universal mandate to promote the rights of women through the trinity of normative support, operational programmes and U.N. system coordination and accountability lead and promotion.This is a pivotal moment for the gender equality project of humankind.

It also supports the building of a strong knowledge hub – with data, evidence and good practices contributing to positive gains but also highlighting challenges and gaps that require urgent redressal.

UN Women has given a strong impetus to ensuring that progressive gender equality and women’s empowerment norms and standards are evolved internationally and that they are clearly mainstreamed and prioritised as key beneficiaries and enablers of the U.N.’s sustainable development, peace and security, human rights, humanitarian action, climate change action and World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) + 10 agendas.

In fact, since its creation five years ago, there has been an unprecedented focus and prioritisation of gender equality and women’s empowerment in all normative processes and outcomes.

With the substantive and intellectual backstopping, vigorous advocacy, strategic mobilisation and partnerships with member states and civil society, U.N. Women has contributed to the reigniting of political will for the full, effective and accelerated implementation of Beijing Platform commitments as was done in the Political Declaration adopted at 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women; a remarkable, transformative and comprehensive integration and prioritisation of gender equality in the Rio + 20 outcome and in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal and gender sensitive targets in other key Goals and elements.

Additionally, there was also a commitment to both gender mainstreaming and targeted and transformative actions and investments in the formulation and implementation of financial, economic, social and environmental policies at all levels in the recently-concluded Addis Accord and Action Agenda on  Financing For Development.

Also we secured a commitment to significantly increased investment to close the gender gap and resource gap and a pledge to strengthen support to gender equality mechanisms and institutions at the global, regional and national levels. We now are striving to do the same normative alchemy with the Climate Change Treaty in December 2015.

Equally exhilarating and impactful has been the advocacy journey of U.N. Women. It  supports and advocates for gender equality, women’s empowerment and the rights of women globally, in all regions and countries, with governments, with civil society and the private sector, with the media and with citizens – women and girls, men and boys everywhere including through its highly successful and innovative Campaigns such as UNiTE to End Violence against Women / orange your neighbourhood, Planet 50/50 by 2030: Step it up for Gender Equality and the HeforShe campaign which have reached out to over a billion people worldwide .

UN Women also works with countries to help translate international norms and standards into concrete actions and impact at national level and to achieve real change in the lives of women and girls in over 90 countries. It is in the process of developing Key Flagship Programs to scale up and drive impact on the ground in priority areas of economic empowerment, participation and leadership in decision making and governance, and ending violence against women.

Ending the chronic underinvestment in women and girls empowerment programs and projects and mobilising transformative financing of gender equality commitments made is also a big and urgent priority.

We have and will continue to support women and girls in the context of humanitarian crisis like the Ebola crisis in West Africa and the earthquake relief and response in Nepal and worked in over 22 conflict and post conflict countries to advance women’s security, voice, participation and leadership in the continuum from peace-making, peace building to development.

UN Women’s role in getting each and every part of the U.N. system including the MFIs and the WTO to deliver bigger, better and in transformative ways for gender equality through our coordination role has been commended by all. Already 62 U.N. entities, specialised agencies and departments have reported for the third year on their UN-SWAP progress and the next frontier is to SWAP the field.

Much has been achieved globally on women’s right from education, to employment and leadership, including at the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has appointed more senior women than all the other Secretary-Generals combined.

Yet, despite the great deal of progress that has been made in the past 70 years in promoting the rights of women –persistent challenges remain and new ones have come up and to date no country in the world has achieved gender equality.

The majority of the world’s poor are women and they remain disempowered and marginalised. Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic. Women and girls are denied their basic right to make decisions on their sexuality and reproductive life and at the current rate of progress, it would take nearly another 80 years to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment everywhere, and for women and girls to have equal access to opportunities and resources everywhere.

The world cannot wait another century. Women and girls have already waited two millennia. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and all other normative commitments in the United Nations will remain ‘ink on paper’ without transformative financing in scale and scope, without the data, monitoring and follow up and review and without effective accountability mechanisms in this area.

As we move forward, the United Nations must continue to work with all partners to hold Member States accountable for their international commitments to advance and achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment in all sectors and in every respect.

UN Women is readying itself to be Fit For Purpose but must also be Financed For Purpose in order to contribute and support the achievement of the Goals and targets for women and girls across the new Development Agenda.

This is a pivotal moment for the gender equality project of humankind. In order to achieve irreversible and sustained progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment for all women and girls – no matter where and in what circumstances they live and what age they are, we must all step up our actions and investment to realise the promise of “Transforming our World ” for them latest by 2030. It is a matter of justice, of recognising their equal humanity and of enabling the realisation of their fundamental freedoms and rights.

As the U.N. turns 70 and the entire international development  and  security community faces many policy priorities – from poverty eradication, conflict resolution, to addressing climate change and increasing inequalities within and between countries – it is heartening that all constituents of the U.N. – member states, the Secretariat and the civil society – recognise that no progress can be made in any of them without addressing women’s needs and interests and without women and girls as participants and leaders of change.

By prioritising gender equality in everything they pledge to not only as an article of faith but an operational necessity, they signal that upholding women’s rights will not only make the economy, polity and society work for women but create a prosperous economy, a just and peaceful society and a more sustainable planet.

Part One can be read here.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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The U.N. at 70: Leading the Global Agenda on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality – Part One Fri, 14 Aug 2015 12:12:38 +0000 Lakshmi Puri Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of U.N. Women. Credit: U.N. Photo/Rick Bajornas

By Lakshmi Puri

If there is any idea and cause for which the United Nations has been an indispensable engine of progress globally it is the cause of ending all forms of “discrimination and violence against women and girls, ensuring the realization of their equal rights and advancing their political, economic and social empowerment.

Gender equality and the empowerment of women has been featured prominently in the history of the United Nations system since its inception. The ideas, commitments and actions of the United Nations have sought to fundamentally improve the situation of women around the world, in country after country.Twenty years after its adoption, the Platform for Action remains a gold standard of international commitments on strategic objectives and actions on gender equality and women's empowerment.

Now, as we celebrate the United Nations’ 70th anniversary, the U.N. continues to be the world leader in establishing the global norms and policy standards on women’s empowerment, their human rights and on establishing what we at U.N. Women call  the Planet 50 / 50 Project on equality between women and men.

Equality between men and women was enshrined in the U.N.’s founding Charter as a key principle and objective. Just a year after, in 1946, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was set up as the dedicated intergovernmental body for policy dialogue and standard setting and monitoring gender equality commitments of member states and their implementation.

Since then, the Commission has played an essential role in guiding the work of the United Nations and in setting standards for all countries, from trailblazing advocacy for the full political suffrage of women and political rights to women’s role in development.

It also gave birth to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW, adopted in 1979. Often called the international bill of rights for women, and used as a global reference point for both governments and NGOs alike, the Convention has been ratified by 189 States so far.

These governments regularly report to the CEDAW Committee which has also become a generator of normative guidance through its General Recommendations, apart from strengthening the accountability of governments.

As the torch-bearer on women’s rights, the U.N. also led the way in declaring 1975 to 1985 the International Women’s Decade. During this period the U.N. held the first three World Conferences on Women, in Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985) which advanced advocacy, activism and policy action on gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s rights in multiple areas.

In 1995, the U.N. hosted the historic Fourth World Conference on Women, and adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, one of most progressive frameworks which continues to be the leading roadmap for the achievement of gender equality and women’s empowerment globally.

Twenty years after its adoption, the Platform for Action remains a gold standard of international commitments on strategic objectives and actions on gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s rights in 12 critical areas of concern including poverty, education, health, economy, power and decision making, ending violence against women, women’s human rights, conflict and post conflict environment, media, institutional mechanisms and the girl child.

Since 1995 gender equality and women’s empowerment issues have permeated all intergovernmental bodies of the U.N. system.

The General Assembly, the highest and the universal membership body of the United Nations, leads the way with key normative resolutions as well as reflecting gender perspectives in areas such as agriculture, trade, financing for development, poverty eradication, disarmament and non-proliferation, and many others. Among the MDGs, MDG 3 was specifically designed to promote gender equality and empower women apart from Goal 5 on maternal mortality.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has also been a strong champion of gender mainstreaming into all policies, programmes, areas and sectors as the mains strategy in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Progress achieved so far has been in part possible thanks to ECOSOC’s strong mandate for mainstreaming a gender perspective and its support to the United Nations system-wide action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (UN-SWAP) which constitutes a unified accountability framework for and of the U.N. to support gender equality and empowerment of women.

Strongly addressing the impact of conflict on women and their role in peacebuilding, the U.N. sent a strong signal by addressing the issue of women peace and security in the landmark Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) which asserted  the imperative of  women’s empowerment in  conflict prevention, peace-making and peace building apart from ensuring their protection.

This resolution was seen as a must for women as well as for lasting peace and it has since been complemented by seven additional resolutions including on Sexual Violence in Conflict. This year as the 15th anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 is commemorated, a Global Study and Review on its effective implementation is underway.

It is expected to renew the political will and decisive action to ensure that women are equal partners and their agency and leadership is effectively engaged in conflict prevention, peace-making and peace-building.

Part Two can be read here.

Edited by Kitty Stapp 

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Half a Million U.S. Women and Girls at Risk of Genital Cutting Wed, 05 Aug 2015 19:41:34 +0000 Kitty Stapp FGM is a taboo topic in many cultures. Credit: Travis Lupick/IPS

By Kitty Stapp
NEW YORK, Aug 5 2015 (IPS)

Jaha Dukureh knows firsthand the barbaric effects of undergoing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Now a resident of the United States, she was mutilated as a baby in the Gambia in West Africa. Her sister bled to death after enduring the same procedure.

What was done to Dakureh is called “infibulation,” where the clitoris and the labia are removed and the vagina is sealed to insure a girl’s virginity until marriage."Policy makers, doctors, police, teachers and community leaders all have a role in making sure that girls can receive the help they need and deserve. There is no excuse for this type of abuse." -- Paula Kweskin

Now a passionate advocate against FGM/C, Dakureh issued a call to arms on the eve of President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Africa, urging him to “play a historic role in the fight to eliminate FGM.”

“While the origins of FGM are ancient and predate organised religion, there is one thing we know for sure: its purpose is to control female sexuality and lessen a woman’s humanity,” she wrote in a powerful commentary for the Guardian.

In the last 15 years, the number of women and girls at risk of FGM/C in the United States has more than doubled, advocacy groups warn, calling for stronger measures to prevent this human rights violation.

According to data from the Population Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C. research group, a staggering 506,795 girls and women in the United States have undergone or are at risk of undergoing FGM/C.

“It’s important this subject is no longer taboo,” Paula Kweskin, a human rights attorney who produced a film called Honor Diaries that deals with the problem of FGM, told IPS. “It needs to be discussed at every level so that it can be addressed and eradicated. When it’s swept under the carpet, women and girls are revictimized by the silence and inaction.”

“Policy makers, doctors, police, teachers and community leaders all have a role in making sure that girls can receive the help they need and deserve. There is no excuse for this type of abuse.”

The top 10 metropolitan areas where girls and women are at highest risk of female genital mutilation include New York, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The PRB notes that FGM/C, which entails partial or total removal of the external genitals of girls and women for religious, cultural, or other nonmedical reasons, has devastating immediate and long-term health and social effects, especially related to childbirth.

Most girls at risk are in found in sub-Saharan Africa. In Djibouti, Guinea, and Somalia, for example, nine in 10 girls ages 15 to 19 have been subjected to FGM/C. But the practice is not limited to developing countries.

An estimated 137,000 women and girls in Britain have undergone the procedure, according to a report released in July by City University London and Equality Now.

In the United States, the PRB says, efforts to stop families from sending their daughters abroad to be cut — so-called “vacation cutting” — spurred the passage of a law in 2013 making it illegal to knowingly transport a girl out of the United States for the purpose of cutting.

“We urge the U.S. to provide a public update on its plans to ensure all efforts to end FGM are sustainable and supported with funding, and support and encourage state efforts to end FGM at local levels,” Shelby Quast, policy director at Equality Now, said last month.

She added that having specific laws in each state would prompt state schools, hospitals and clinics as well as local law enforcement agencies and the judiciary to step up prevention efforts and act swiftly in FGM cases.

“People in [the U.S.] don’t want to think it happens here. But their daughters might be sitting next to a best friend who can be subjected to a violent, cultural procedure,” she told NPR. “If it were cutting the nose or the ear off — something everyone could see — there’d be a different response. We can’t continue to hide this away.”

The U.S. Congress had already passed a law in 1996 making it illegal to perform FGM/C and 23 states have laws against the practice, which has grown in part because of increased immigration from countries where FGM/C is prevalent, especially in North and sub-Saharan Africa.

Between 2000 and 2013, the PRB says, the foreign-born population from Africa more than doubled, from 881,000 to 1.8 million. Just three sending countries—Egypt, Ethiopia, and Somalia—accounted for 55 percent of all U.S. women and girls at risk in 2013.

“This is a barbaric and completely unnecessary practice that causes devastating physical and psychological damage for countless girls and women in the United States and countries across the globe,” said Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow.

Raheel, a human rights activist, is among several Muslim women featured in Honor Diaries, a documentary breaking the silence on FGM and other abuse against women and girls in honour-based communities.

Edited by Thalif Deen

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‘Ambassadors of Freedom’ – Palestine’s Resistance Babies Fri, 31 Jul 2015 16:51:51 +0000 Silvia Boarini Karam and Adam, twin Palestinian babies born after their mother underwent IFV treatment using sperm smuggled out of the Israeli prison where their father has been held for the last 11 years. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

Karam and Adam, twin Palestinian babies born after their mother underwent IFV treatment using sperm smuggled out of the Israeli prison where their father has been held for the last 11 years. Credit: Silvia Boarini/IPS

By Silvia Boarini
GAZA CITY, Jul 31 2015 (IPS)

Thirteen-year-old Hula Khadoura sits on a large sofa in her grandfather’s home in the neighbourhood of Tuffah, Gaza City, her one-year-old twin brothers Karam and Adam on her lap. “I am so happy they arrived,” she beams, holding the babies’ feeding bottles in her hands.

There is an aura of mystery and something of the miraculous around the  twins’ births – their father, Saleh Khadoura, has spent the past 11 years in an Israeli prison and has had no physical contact with Hula’s mother, Bushra, since then.

Hula hears people refer to her brothers as ‘special babies’ but does not fully grasp what the fuss is about. She is completely unaware of the unusual obstacles her father’s sperm had to overcome to reach her mother’s eggs.“After the suffering I am put through with each visit [to her husband in an Israeli prison], with the searches and the humiliation, with this pregnancy, with Karam and Adam, I wanted to show that rules can be broken” – Bushra Abu Saafi

Freedom ambassadors

Bushra Abu Saafi, is one of around 30 Palestinian women who have conceived babies since 2013 with sperm smuggled out of the Israeli prisons in which their husbands are being held. She was only the second woman in Gaza to do this. Before her, two had tried but only one succeeded.

According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ NGO Addameer, there are currently some 5,750 Palestinian political prisoners being held in Israel. Of these, roughly 5,550 are adult males.

Women whose husbands are serving decades-long sentences do not want to see their dream of starting a family, or increasing its size, taken away by the very same authorities that took away their husbands.

Until recently, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) was highly sceptical that sperm smuggling could be happening at all. Spokesperson Sivan Weizman told the press that tight security made it very unlikely. Recently, though, they have acknowledged that it may be an issue.

The Palestinian National Authority and Hamas, on the other hand, have never shown any doubt and have financially supported women wishing to try this very unconventional method of conceiving.

In May in Gaza, the Palestinian Ministry of Prisoners even organised a collective birthday party for the little ‘ambassadors of freedom’, as babies born this way are often called.

Families apart

“It was my husband who suggested we try ‘in vitro fertilisation’ (IVF) treatment with his smuggled sperm,” Bushra Abu Saafi told IPS from her father’s apartment, where she lives with her five children.

The majority of Palestinian households have at least one relative in an Israeli prison. For a people under occupation, political prisoners become part of the collective identity, they are adopted by Palestinians as long lost brothers, sisters, mothers or fathers and are celebrated at Prisoners’ Day marches and recurring demonstrations.

In the private sphere, the prisoners continue to be individuals and occupy prominent places in the home. Their handicrafts are displayed with pride, their photos adorn each room and the vacuum they have left is still palpable.

A flowery picture frame with a photo of her smiling husband Saleh in his twenties sits on a side table in Bushra’s living room. He was arrested at the age of 23, accused of being part of the Islamic Jihad. They had been married for five years and only two of their children have had the privilege of spending some time with him as a family.

When Saleh was imprisoned, Bushra was pregnant with Ahmed. “It hasn’t been easy these past 11 years,” she told IPS.  “We miss him terribly, my son Ahmad especially. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘father’. He tells me ‘when I grow up I want to be like grandad’.”

Smuggling new life out of jail

Entering a fourth pregnancy was something Bushra did not take lightly and her father worried about the extra pressure. “When Saleh proposed this to me from prison, I was sceptical,” she confessed. “My family and I worried about what people would say. Imagine, pregnant with a husband in jail!”

She need not have worried. The advice she was given, like other women undergoing IVF in this way, was to tell everyone in her family and village that her husband’s sperm had been brought out and would be used for insemination. Since then, local media stations have helped spread the story and both Palestinian society and local religious authorities have been highly supportive.

“In the end, my father saw that it was my desire to try for another baby and eventually supported my choice,” Bushra said. It took two months and many tests before she could be ready for the operation.

Although the women do not wish to discuss how the sperm is smuggled past Israeli security and out of prison, it is acknowledged that it may be slipped into the clothes of  unaware children.

While wives talk to imprisoned husbands through glass and over a phone, children are the only ones allowed physical contact at the end of a visit. The clinics performing the operation,  both in Gaza and in the West Bank, report that sperm has arrived in a variety of improvised containers, from sweet wrappers to eye drop bottles.

“The preparation, the waiting, it was all very tough,” said Bushra. “But when the news came that I was pregnant, the pressure was off and we finally celebrated.” The double surprise came later, when she was told that twins were expected.

She describes the steps leading to this pregnancy as being about resistance and overcoming challenges. “After the suffering I am put through with each visit, with the searches and the humiliation, with this pregnancy, with Karam and Adam, I wanted to show that rules can be broken.”

Fertility and non-violent resistance

According to Liv Hansson, a Danish public health specialist who has researched fertility in Palestine, the practice of sperm smuggling only makes associations between fertility and resistance easier to draw.

“In a context such as Palestine, where women are well educated and child mortality is low, a lower fertility rate would be expected according to classic demography,” Hansson told IPS. The fertility rate of 4.1 registered in Palestine between 2011 and 2013, then, must be seen in the light of Israel’s ongoing occupation.

Indeed, fertility has long been considered by Palestinians as part of resistance efforts against Israel’s military occupation. For its part, Israel views high fertility rates in the West Bank and Gaza, and in majority Palestinian areas inside Israel, as a very real threat. Talk of the ‘demographic time-bomb’ – the time when Palestinians will outnumber Jewish Israelis – is very common.

“Former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat famously stated that ‘the wombs of Palestinian women are the greatest weapon of Palestine’,” Hansson told IPS. “Fertility is seen as something of interest not only to the family but to the community, society at large and to politicians too.”

The wait

Bushra and her five children will have to wait three more years to be reunited as a family with Saleh. Since 2012, following the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Shalit, Israel’s Prison Service has been slowly reinstating visiting rights for family and prisoners from Gaza.

Ahmed saw his father two years ago for the first time, Hula six months ago and for the twins, the only meeting so far has been through the photograph on the side table, portraying Saleh as a young man eager to live life.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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World Population to Hit 8.5 Billion by 2030 Thu, 30 Jul 2015 10:46:25 +0000 Aruna Dutt Mothers and their children gather at a community nutrition centre in the little village of Rantolava, Madagascar, to learn more about a healthy diet. Credit: Alain Rakotondravony/IPS

Mothers and their children gather at a community nutrition centre in the little village of Rantolava, Madagascar, to learn more about a healthy diet. Credit: Alain Rakotondravony/IPS

By Aruna Dutt

The global population has now reached 7.3 billion. In the last 12 years, the world has added approximately one billion people, and in the next 15 years this is expected to occur again.

The United Nation’s new global and regional population estimates and projections entitled “World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision” predicts the population will reach 8.5 billion in 2030, a further 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.

Nine per cent of the world’s population lives in the 21 “high-fertility” countries, where the average woman would have five or more children in her lifetime. Of these 21 countries, 19 are in Africa and two are in Asia.

It is estimated that over half of this population growth will occur in Africa  – even if there is a substantial reduction of fertility levels which population growth is highly dependent on. Africa also has the highest adolescent birth rate: 98 out of 1,000 women.

Africa will “play a central role in shaping the size and distribution of the world’s population over the coming decades,” says the report.

In the 48 least developed countries (LDCs), of which 27 are in Africa, the population is projected to double or even triple in most of the countries. Countries which are predicted to increase at least five-fold by 2100 include Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia.

The least developed countries are much less likely to develop unless the challenges of population growth are properly dealt with, it says.

The concentration of population growth in the poorest countries makes it harder for their governments to “eradicate poverty and inequality, combat hunger and malnutrition, expand education enrollment and health systems, improve the provision of basic services and implement other elements of the post 2015 sustainable development agenda.”

In least developed countries, steep reductions in fertility are expected. The goal is for women and families to achieve their desired family size by investing in reproductive health and family planning.

The report stresses the necessity of ensuring reproductive health, access to accurate information and the safe, effective, affordable and acceptable contraception method of their choice is necessary, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Women’s lack of support from their partners or communities is also a deterrent, and it is common for family planning to be discouraged.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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U.N.’s Post-2015 Development Agenda Under Fire Wed, 29 Jul 2015 23:19:17 +0000 Thalif Deen Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from left) with Irish Minister and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Dublin. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

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

By Thalif Deen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Phil Harris   

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