Current Affairs

The Fashion Revolution: who made your clothes?

The Fashion Revolution: who made your clothes?

On 24th of April 2013, a giant clothing manufacturing factory in Daka, Bangladesh, collapsed due to extremely bad conditions of the building and the big crowd of workers. Over 1,100 people were killed, and nearly 2,400 got injured. While some cracks in the walls had been noticed some weeks before, no action had been taken. 

Poor working conditions and environmental concerns

The disaster in the Bangladeshi Rana Plaza factory is just one among many that we usually do not hear about. Textile factories are very much likely to catch fire due to the use of inflammable materials and a lack of safety measures for its workers, such as proper protections against air pollution or the risk of employee deafness. 

Despite the danger that is going to work for many workers in the Global South, not much has changed over the years. Whenever workers plan to strike, they face repression by their employers. Moreover, if they manage to strike, workers often risk losing their jobs due to the lack of worker rights and unions that support the cause.

Due to the high pressure on international textile companies to produce in a sustainable way, some have moved part of their production back to Western countries. However, here workers encounter new challenges. For example, Bulgarian textile workers recently denounced their low wages and the high pressure in term of digital control of their daily task for higher efficiency. In many Western countries, production quotas seem to be set for robots instead of humans, while the salaries and working conditions remain inadequate.

The fact that the fashion industry is one of the most globalised and polluting industries on Earth is well known as well. In 2015, for example, 15.2 billion tonnes of CO2 was produced by the fashion industry alone. Moreover, the processing of cotton and other fibres requires chemicals, which often end up in nature. It takes 2,720 litres of water to make a t-shirt – that is how much we normally drink over a 3-year period. It is an inconvenient truth for those who love fashion and those who make a profit off it, and a big worry for those that are concerned about the environmental impact of fashion. 

The Fashion Revolution

The story about the Bangladeshi factory that collapsed made worldwide news and exposed some of the huge problems tied to our constant hunger for fast fashion. It triggered a ‘fashion revolution’ by so-called “pro-fashion protesters”. Carry Somers, a British fashion designer and the driving force behind the Fashion Revolution movement, could not stand it anymore. Something had to be done. The 24th of April was renamed Fashion Revolution Day, calling for more ethical fashion industry and reviewing the movement’s achievements and goals. 

The Fashion Revolution movement is not created by consumers against the industry. Instead, it is an inner revolution of the whole industry. It involves everyone, including consumers and people who work in the fashion industry, and is aimed at making all of us more conscious of the human and environmental effects of the clothing we buy. 

The pro-fashion protesters use a solution-based approach, focusing on research and creativity rather than victimisation or boycotting. The two arms that coordinate the revolution from the UK are a charitable arm, the Fashion Revolution Foundation, and a non-profit social enterprise, Fashion Revolution CIC. The Fashion Revolution’s Country Offices, (mainly) staffed by volunteers, implement the actions coordinated by the Global Coordination team at national level. Each Country Coordinator takes on board a large number of initiatives and in cooperation with national stakeholders and many other volunteers that support the fashion revolution week maximise the impact of the regional and global strategy. 

So far, the #whomademyclothes campaign has been successful. In 2018, 3,838 brands and retailers shared information about their suppliers and pictures of their workers with the hashtag #imadeyourclothes through social media. Moreover, the Fashion Revolution has managed to engage 275 million people all over the globe, through social media and videos, and through participation at events. Numerous influencers and celebrities have joined the movement to share their views.

#whomademyclothes

As consumers become more conscious of the human and environmental impact of clothes, the demand for sustainable clothing is growing. Brands, producers, retailers, media, schools, and others are joining this cause and raise awareness through education, research and campaigns. The aim is to reach a balance between profits, fair working conditions and sustainable production methods. 

During the yearly Fashion Week, consumers are encouraged to ask fashion producers for transparency in their manufacturing processes by tagging them in social media posts and asking them #whomademyclothes. Manufacturers and retailers should respond with concrete and accurate information, using the hashtag #imadeyourclothes. 

Moreover, inspired by the #whomademyclothes, YouTubers started their own trend. Under the hashtag #haulternative, they present their latest ‘new’ clothes. These are either second hand, reused or bought from a sustainable retailer. 

Sustainable brands and collections

As the problems of fast fashion become increasingly apparent, sustainable brands are emerging. These companies’ production cycle looks like this: a new collection is launched, all clothes are sold, and only then a new collection is developed and produced based on the demand. This production cycle also means that there is a certain measure of exclusivity; only certain customers will wear their clothes as they are produced in limited editions.

Sustainability deception

While some companies make genuine improvements to their manufacturing methods, others try to take advantage of the new interest in sustainable products. Some brands, for example, call on their consumers to bring their old clothes in exchange for a discount on their next expenses. Genius, right? Used clothes, which can even be from other brands, are taken in and used for the production of new clothing. No need to manufacture new materials, as these can be taken from your used sweater or jeans. This should mean a reduction of the use of resources and reuse of the material already in use to be sold once again to costumers. 

While this sounds great, it does not solve the problem that is an overloaded market. Moreover, much of this clothing is actually never re-used. If you would check the tag in those new collections that are presumably “eco-friendly”, would you find that these are entirely made out of recycled clothes? Does it show the percentage of organic material on it? Is it mixed with other material?

In reality, the so-called reuse of used clothes is an example of “greenwashing” in the fashion industry. Companies pretend to be sustainable and concerned about the environment, just to make more money.  The discount you receive at some shops when you hand in old clothing, for example, is only meant to get you to buy new clothing there. 

How to switch to slow fashion

We are all accountable for the impact that fashion has on people’s lives and on the environment. So, how can we make a difference? Here are some simple and effective steps (Awareness, Consciousness and Change) to help you switch to a more sustainable way of fashion consumption, without renouncing the latest trends.  

Start with your closet – Awareness:

  1. Empty your closet. Yes, take it all out. 
  2. Start with the current season. Try all of your clothes on and see how they feel.
  3. Check the “made in…” tag of your clothes.
  4. Count how many clothes you own that are “made in” developing countries. How many are from Western countries?

When shopping – Consciousness:

  1. Check the tag that is attached to different types of clothes. Where were they made?
  2. Were these clothes “made in” developing countries?
  3. Check your favourite brands’ online shops. Do they have a sustainable collection made from recycled or biological material? And are products fairly produced? 
  4. Bring your shopping list and own bag along. 
  5. Buy only what you really need and what you will use for a long time.

Find an alternative – Change:

  1. Awareness is key: learn more about who made your clothes.
  2. Consume consciously: apply the five Rs (refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle) before buying new things .
  3. Shop second hand: use what it was already produced, thereby will be decreasing the demand for new articles and preventing products from ending up in landfills.
  4. Choose fair and sustainable brands.

May you wish to deepen your knowledge and become a fashionable revolutionary, check the Fashion Revolution’s guide (4). 

The world is calling for fashion revolutionaries. So be curious. Find out. Do something.

Posted by Abigail Moreno Ginés in Current Affairs, 0 comments
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Declining birth rates; problem or solution?

Declining birth rates; problem or solution?

Recently, the Hungarian government announced that women who had four or more children no longer had to pay income taxes. This measure is the latest in a series of efforts to stop declining population rates. Hungary is not the only country to struggle with a shrinking population, which is a phenomenon in most regions of the world. What are countries around the world doing to counter diminishing populations? Do this kind of measures work? And are declining populations really a problem?

Fertility measures; a short history

Towards the end of the 1960s, it was expected that the earth’s population would reach 16 billion by 2050. Today, however, the world population is expected to be around nine billion by that time. As many countries’ birth rate fell over the last decades, this was perceived as good news. It was widely accepted that countries’ and families’ wellbeing was threatened by having large numbers of children. 

When fertility rates started dropping, however, it was expected that it would stop at 2 children per woman, thereby maintaining population levels. Instead, in many countries, they kept declining. In the USA, for instance, the rate was 1.8 children per women in 2016, and in Canada, it was 1.6 per women. In Europe, women have 1.6 children in general, with France (1.92) having the highest rates and Spain and Italy having the lowest rates (1.34). Singapore has an extremely low birth rate, with just 1.14 children per woman

However, all of this does not mean that the Earth’s population is shrinking. In fact, in 2016, the average birth rate for all women in the world was 2.46 children, meaning that the Earth’s population is still growing. This high fertility rate is in large caused by high birth rates in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the birth rate is now 4.85 children per women. While this is still very high, it is a big difference from 1960, when it was 6.65 children per woman.

For countries that saw birth rates drop below 2 children per women, this creates a whole new set of problems. As populations will shrink, governments are afraid that it will cause economic stagnancy because of a loss in productivity, and a decrease in tax revenues can cause troubles in financing retirement and healthcare programs.

Hungary’s anti-migration approach 

While most European countries are compensating for their declining population growth by taking in migrants, Hungary is strongly opposed to such a solution. Instead, it is trying to increase its birth rate. Currently, Hungarian women have 1.45 children on average, which is not enough to keep up the population size. Moreover, now that Hungary is part of the EU, Hungarians are free to work in other countries, and many have left for EU countries where wages are higher. The declining birth rate and increased migration result in a declining population and rising labour shortages. 

In February, Hungary announced a new set of measures to counter the low birth rate of Hungarians. The Hungarian approach is to make life cheaper for big families. Interest on mortgages and car payments for families will be reduced, and it will be easier for families to get loans. The number of daycares will be increased, to encourage mothers to work. For grandparents, there is a benefit as well. They are now allowed to share maternity leave with their daughters. But most importantly, and also most controversially, Hungarian women with four or more children will no longer pay incomes tax.

In a speech to announce these new measures, Hungary’s president Victor Orbán said that Hungary is ‘living in times when fewer and fewer children are being born throughout Europe’. While other European countries respond to this new challenge with immigration, ‘Hungarians see this is in a different light’. According to Orban, Hungary does not need numbers, but more Hungarian children. Moreover, Orbán said that to depend on migration to keep up the current size of the population would be surrender and that he does not want the ‘colour of Hungarians to be mixed with those of others’.

These are not the first measures that Hungary took to save itself from the dangers of a declining population. It awarded university scholarships only to Hungarians that promised to stay in Hungary after graduation, and it offered citizenships to ethnic Hungarians living outside of Hungary to motivate them to move to Hungary. Moreover, recently Hungary passed a law increasing the amount of overtime that employers can ask of their workers to compensate for significant shortages of employees. The law that is now called the ‘slave law’ and has been widely protested dictates that workers can now be asked to work up to 400 hours of overtime a year.

The irony of China’s fertility control measures

Only a few years after ending its policies to limit the number of children that Chinese were having which started in 1979, the Chinese government is now urging women to have more children. As the country’s birth rate has plummeted, it is now estimated that the labour force could lose 100 million people between 2020 and 2035, and then another 100 million from 2035 to 2050. 

In 1979, China’s famous one-child rule was first introduced. The law was met with much resistance, especially from the countryside. In 1984, rural families whose first child was a girl were allowed to have a second child, and some exceptions were made for minorities. In 2013, parents who were only children themselves could have a second child, and in 2016 the ban was lifted entirely. 

While one would expect that birth rates would quickly increase after the lift of the ban, decades of one-child policy are now showing their implications. For one, these restrictions led to an uneven gender balance, as traditional preference for boys led to illegal sex-specific abortions on female foetuses. Ironically, the lower proportion of women is now one of the reasons for China’s low birth rate. There are simply fewer women to marry and have children. Moreover, as whole generations have grown up as an only child, many Chinese see it as normal to have only one child. It has proven to be hard to change this mindset. Moreover, while the costs of education and housing have grown, Chinese adults are usually the only person to take care of their parents, putting extra financial and social pressure on young families. And as a new generation of working independent women stand up, the divorce rate is rising as well.

China is now taking action to halt the plummeting birth rate. In 2018, laws were proposed to give tax breaks to young families and to give subsidies for housing and education. Some regions such as Jiangxi Province are even tightening abortion laws and making it more difficult to have a divorce. This poses a danger for China to fall from one extreme (not allowing families to have more than one or two children) to another extreme.

More creative approaches

While some countries take traditional measures to increase birth rates, others take a more creative approach. In Georgia for instance, all single men and women, including those who are divorced or lost a spouse, are entered into a nationwide dating website.  

A specifically creative approach was taken by Denmark. In 2014, it ran an ad campaign urging Danes to ‘Do It for Denmark’. People could book a holiday using an “ovulation discount”. If they were able to prove that they conceived on vacation, they would win a baby supply for three years and a child-friendly holiday. In 2015, future grandparents could even buy vacations for their adult children in hopes that they would conceive a child during the vacation. 

Another example is Singapore, which has a stunningly low birth rate of only 1.14 children per woman. In 2012, Singapore authorities worked with Mentos to put together ‘National Night’ to encourage couples to let their ‘patriotism explode’. There was even a rap: ‘Singapore’s population, it needs some increasing. So, forget waving flags, August 9th we be freaking… I’m a patriotic husband, you’re my patriotic wife, let’s do our civic duty and manufacture life’. 

Russia saw a sharply declining population after the fall of the Soviet Union. In 2007, it decided to do something about this problem. It declared 12 September the National Day of Conception and awarded prizes such as refrigerators, money and cars to women who had a baby exactly nine months later on Russia’s national day, 12 June. The policy seems to have worked. Whereas the birth rate was 1.2 in 2000, in 2012 it was 1.7.

Romania: a harsher approach

A less jolly approach was taken by Romania in the 1960s. Instead of offering benefits for families, Romania chose to fine any men or women above 25 years of age who did not have children. This tax was regardless of marital status and could amount to up to 20 per cent of their income. Moreover, it was made virtually impossible to get a divorce, police were active in hospitals to ensure that no illegal abortions took place, and the import of birth control was halted. While these measures were effective, the effect was lost as soon as police were no longer installed in hospitals. 

In the 80s, even stricter measures were taken during the Nicolae Ceausescu regime. Women were subjected to monthly gynaecological exams to detect pregnancies and ensure that these came to term. ‘Demographic command units’ would interrogate childless individuals and couples about their sex lives, and access to abortion was made even more difficult. To have access to an abortion, a woman had to have had five children who were still under her care, or she had to be over 45 years of age.

Do fertility measures actually work?

While many countries are taking measures to increase its population’s birth rate, the success of such measures is often unclear. So far, it looks like financial support or paid leave has a positive, but limited impact on birth rates. Evidence suggests that the most effective measure that governments can take is to provide quality childcare services. 

Sweden has been quite successful in its measures to increase fertility. Here, women receive much support to help them combine their lives as a parent and as a working woman. For instance, daycare is subsidised and parents who take time offer their children are guaranteed to have a job when they return. 

In France, families receive tax breaks, substantial financial support, social assistance and housing subsidies. Parents can take up to three years of parental leave, receive a stay-at-home allowance of approximately 50% of the minimum wage during this time, and then return to their employed in the same position. The French and Swedish approach seems to be working, as these countries have the two highest birth rates in the EU (respectively 1.92 and 1.85 children per women).

However, fairly similar measures have been much less successful in Germany and Austria, where families enjoy increased family leave and receive general child allowances over three or four years after the arrival of a new baby. Instead of rising birth rates, these measures mainly affected the timing of childbearing. Moreover, while in Canada it was found that an increase in child allowance of 1000 Canadian Dollars a year led to an increase in birth rates of 17 per cent, this increase was only temporary and was later compensated with decreased birth rates.

Singapore, with one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, has developed the most comprehensive pro-fertility policies in Asia. Through cash payments, co-saving plans tax rebates for working mothers, insurance for children and housing subsidies, families with two children can now enjoy benefits of about US$ 118,000 by the time both children turn 13. Moreover, paid maternal and paternal leave has been considerably increased, and childcare is subsidised. But somehow, these policies have noted the desired effect. In 2000, at the start of Singapore’s fertility policy, the birth rate was 1.6 children per women. In 2018, it was just 1.14.

What makes fertility measures successful?

Determining the success of fertility measures is extremely difficult because of the many factors that influence the decision to have children. Just some examples are the perception of motherhood and gender roles. In many European countries, for instance, over the last few decades, women have been pressured to combine motherhood with a job. The status of women became more and more based on her employment and their success in ‘having it all’. Now, it has been proven to be very difficult to convince women of the value and status of motherhood.

Another factor is people’s perception of prosperity and poverty. While families in Singapore are much better off than just a few decades ago, many Singaporeans feel that they are not. This leads them to delay and even opt out of having children. 

Maybe, we should consider a very different approach in which we use fertility and family policies to give families options to make their own decisions. Perhaps we should judge the success of family policies on whether or not they succeed in making families happy. After all, having options to facilitate having a big family is great. Being forced to have a big family is not.

Are falling birth rates really a problem?

While countries in the world are fighting decreasing fertility rates, maybe we should wonder whether this is really a problem. With growing ecological, environmental pressure, ageing populations, and migration patterns is a growing population really what we need?

One often used argument to explain why decreasing fertility rates are a problem is that we need a big working population to compensate for the ageing of our population. After all, a smaller workforce means fewer contributions to retirement and social funds. However, increasing the number of children will not help take care of our ageing population. It will take 25 years or so for these children to grow up and enter the workforce. By this time, demographics will have changed, and the size of the older generation will be smaller. Moreover, having more children will immediately increase the number of dependents (children and people of age) that rely on the working population for support, thereby even increasing the burden on the current working population. 

Furthermore, traditional ideas about the need for big populations are based on former times, in which public health was less advanced and young men faced the risk of being drafted for bloody and costly wars. Nowadays, both children and adults are much less likely to become seriously ill or die before growing old, and wars take much less human lives. This all means that, while the number of new babies is decreasing, the adult population is not. 

Another argument that is often heard is that when the population gets smaller, so will our economic productivity and with that our welfare. However, because of artificial intelligence, huge working populations is no longer essential to being economically productive. Because of the significant role that technology now places in production, future economies will still be able to be productive, even with smaller working populations. Moreover, as the population declines, there will be more resources per person, which means that economic wellbeing will increase. 

Additionally, as migration patterns enhance, new influxes of migrants can help solve shortages in the labour force. As migrants often have higher fertility rates, this might even help increase birth rates. 

Finally, as our environmental footprint and the world’s population is still increasing, the human race’s survival might depend on putting a stop to population increase. It is a well-established fact that humans are causing climate change and depleting the earth’s resources. There is a real risk that if we do not change, nature will do it for us.

In fact, being child-free is the most effective way to decrease our environmental footprint. As people in developed countries have a particularly high ecological footprint, we should really consider if it is that bad if fertility rates are decreasing here. 

Want to read more?

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Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, 0 comments
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The dangers of activism in Honduras

The dangers of activism in Honduras

Honduras is known as one of the most dangerous and violent countries in the world because of high levels of crime and gang violence. It is the most dangerous place on earth to be an activist, especially since the coup in 2019. More than 120 environmental activists were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2017 and many others were threatened, attacked or imprisoned. These were ordinary people who stood up against big companies who planned to build dams and mines or other projects on their land.

Global Witness showed that these projects are at the heart of conflicts that are linked to Honduras’s rich and powerful elites, including politicians. Their investigation uncovered back-door deals, bribes, and lawbreaking used to impose projects and silence any opposition.

Moreover, for many years, the USA has been providing financial aid to Honduras via the USAID programme for poverty relief. In 2016, for instance, the programme contributed 100 million USD in aid. While some of this money went into projects expanding education and strengthening health services, another part of it goes to the Honduran military and police. These are heavily involved in efforts to silence human rights defenders and activists, implying the USA in these crimes.

So, who are Honduras’s brave faces of change and resilience. Activists and communities who stand threats, attacks and imprisonment to fight for their rights and their land.

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres; taking up her mother’s fight for indigenous rights in Honduras

In March 2016, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres took over her mother’s role as an advocate for the rights of indigenous groups and environmental justice. After years of threats, her mother Bertha Cáceres was murdered in her home. She was the co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), which fights for the environmental, social, health, economic and educational rights of Honduras’s largest indigenous group, the Lenca people.

Bertha Cáceres fought against a dam project from Desarollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA). This project was planned to be built along the Gualcarque River, which is considered sacred waters to the Lenca people. After the murder, the dam’s investors decided to withdraw from the project.

Over the last years, Bertha Cáceres’ family and community have been fighting for justice for her murder. Last November, after a long process plagued by delays and accusations of cover-ups, seven men were convicted. The court found that the men were hired by executives within DESA.

After her mother’s death, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres left her Latin American Studies to take up leadership of COPINH. In May 2017, she was elected general coordinator, the same position that her mother had held. Ever since, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres has been protesting big development projects that threaten the rights of indigenous people. But of course, this position comes with threats and attacks. A few weeks into her new role, she and members of COPINH were attacked. Their vehicle was held by armed attackers who tried to force them off the road and over a cliff.

Moreover, other members of COPINH have also faced threats, and some even have been murdered. Alan Garcia was protesting the DESA dam project in 2013, three years before the murder of Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, when he was shot in the chest by the military. In the same attack, Tomas Garcia, Alan’s father and one of the leaders of the protest, was shot multiple times at close range after which he died (8). Nelson García was shot in the face when going to his family home in north-west Honduras shortly after the death of Bertha Cáceres and Lesbia Yaneth Urquia’s body was found abandoned on a rubbish dump only a few months after.

For a full report on DESA and the situation of the Lenca community, read this report by Global Witness.

The Tolupan Community

Living in very remote areas, the Tolupan people of northern Honduras have limited access to basic services, and poverty levels are high. Ever since they took a stand against illegal logging and mining operations approximately ten years ago, they have experienced threats, criminalisation, and community members have been murdered.

While Honduran communities have a right to be a part of the decision in case of projects taking place on their land, the Tolupans were not consulted when illegal mining and logging permits were given out. When the community protested these developments, a criminal case was filed against their leaders for ‘obstructing the implementation of forestry management plans’. While this case was dismissed and the judge emphasised that local communities have a right to be consulted, illegal logging and mining have continued since then.

When in August 2013 the community held a peaceful sit-in to stop mining and logging trucks from passing through their land, they first received threats to leave by text message. A week later, the protesters were approached by gunmen who worked for the mining project, who opened fire on them. Armando Fúnez Medina and Ricardo Soto Fúnez, two community leaders, were killed. Another leader, María Enriquate Matute fled to her home but was found and killed by the gunmen.

A year later, the house of indigenous Tolupan leader Santos Córdoba was broken into. After Santos was killed, his corpse was burned down, and his children were threatened at gunpoint. Moreover, in June 2015, another Tolupan leader, Erasio Vieda Ponce, was killed by the same hitmen who had killed protesters in August 2013. Meanwhile, these protesters are still walking free.

While members of the community have been granted emergency protection by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), this does not mean they are safe. The implementation of protection measures is the responsibility of the Honduran state, which has not made many efforts to do so. For instance, after filing a police complaint for receiving debt threats, Luis de Reyes Marcía was murdered in April 2015. His wife, Consuelo Soto now lives in hiding, after hitmen shot at her house.

Click here for a full report on the situation of the Tolupan community.

Concepción Gutiérrez

In the hills of Nueva Esperanza near the Carribean coast, the last six years have been coloured by a conflict over the build of an iron oxide mine. The Buena Vista I mine threatens to drastically change the environment and way of life for locals that live from the land. When the build of the mine started in 2013, locals organised a protest movement to stop it. While the movement was peaceful, its leaders immediate started to receive death threats, and the community was visited by armed men that fired warning shots in the air.

Concepcíon Gutiérrez was one of the leaders that were threatened. In July 2013, 12 armed men entered her home. They threatened to kill her because she refused to sell her land to the company. Concepcíon had already received death threats before and was under the protection of two international human rights observers. The observers were taken hostage and were made to delete all photographs they took to make Concepción’s case. The female observer was sexually harassed, and the community was threatened not to report the violence to the police. Still, Concepción continues to defend her land and stand up to authorities.

For a full report on Concepción’s situation, read this case study by Global Witness.

The Garifuna and their struggle with tourism

On Honduras’s, northern Caribbean coast lives a small community of descendants of black slaves that were brought to the Caribbean in the 18th century. These 150 Garifuna families live in little wooden shacks on the beach at Barra Vieja, next door to a brand new luxurious Indura hotel. While this land used to be part of the Jeanette Kawas National Parks, the borders of the park were redrawn to allow for this construction.

From the start of this development project, the Minister for Tourism, Ricardo Martínez Castañeda has been pushing for the removal community, calling them ‘illegal squatters’. To justify the eviction of the Garifunas, the Honduran government has brought legal charges against them, saying that they were illegally occupying the land and that the Garifunas is not an indigenous population. Members of the community were found to be not guilty, and the IACHR ruled that the Honduran State violated the community’s right to consultation when agreeing on tourism projects on Garifuna.

However, this has not stopped the project from building hotels and expanding. In 2014, it was even announced that two more luxury hotels would be built, meaning that the whole community will have to move.

For a full report on the situation of the Garifunas, click here.

Interested in human rights issues? Check out these articles about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and human rights violations in Libya.

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, 0 comments
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EU policies and human rights abuses in Libya

EU policies and human rights abuses in Libya

Imagine being an Eritrean refugee. First, you make the difficult decision to leave your country because of the indefinite national service that basically makes Eritreans slaves of their country. You might flee to Sudan or Israel, where you face the risk of forced return. Or you escape to Ethiopia, along with 390 other Eritreans each day. Here you will stay in a refugee camp with approximately 900,000 other refugees, waiting for a decision on whether or not you can get asylum in another country. Fleeing to Somalia is not an option either, as Somalians are massively fleeing the country because of drought and famine. 

So, instead of fleeing to a neighbouring country, you decide to flee to Europe. After all, in Europe, you will have the chance to build a better life for yourself and your family. You cross the border to Ethiopia, where you enter a refugee camp and wait until you are approached by smugglers to take you to Libya. These smugglers offer you a zero down-payment to get you to Libya. In reality, this means that the smugglers will pressure your family to pay once you reach Libya.

The trip starts with what is often called the most challenging part of the trip to Europe. Packed up with 35 others in a pick-up truck, you are driven through Sudan to Libya. This trip takes six to thirteen days, during which the car drives 24 hours a day. Once you reach Libya, you stay in an Eritrean smuggler’s house. Here, you wait until you can finally make the trip to Italy. Smugglers now contact your family to collect the payment. Out of fear for your safety, your family will probably pay.

Then, you finally get on that boat that is supposed to get you to Italy. Just a little bit longer until you can apply for asylum. But, only a few hours in, you get picked up by the Libyan Coast Guard, who receives support from the European Union (EU) to prevent refugees from reaching Europe. The Coast Guard takes you to a detention centre in Libya, where you will be detained and tortured. Sounds horrible, right? Yet, it happens on a daily basis.

Europe’s Libya deal

In February 2017, after Europe had seen the biggest influx of refugees in years, the EU made a deal with Libya to stop refugees from coming to Europe. EU now provides financial support to the Libyan Coast Guard, in exchange, the Libyan Coast Guard now locates refugee boats that try to reach Italy and takes their passengers to detention centres in Libya. Here, it aims to ‘[assist] voluntary returns of stranded migrants to their countries of origin and [to] support the evacuation of those in need of international protection’.

While this sounds like a good deal, these Libyan detention centres are accused of subjecting refugees to serious human rights violations and indefinite detention. Once refugees find themselves in detention centres, there is no system of judicial review for refugee applications. The only way out is via the IOM’s ‘voluntary’ return programme, which pushes people in need of international protection to return to their home countries, the place they fled because of violence.  

The EU is aware of human rights violations and inhumane circumstance that take place in these centres. It made efforts to improve conditions and treatment, but the effects of these efforts were found to be negligible. The EU, however, continues to invest in the Libyan Coast Guard so that it can intercept and detain more refugees. By carrying on with the Libya deal, despite being aware of the human rights violations that stem from it, the EU has become complicit in the human rights abuses in Libyan detention centres. 

Besides making a deal with Libya to prevent refugees from reaching Europe, the EU also started blocking nongovernmental rescue operations by putting up legal and bureaucratic obstacles. The Libya deal in combination with the challenges for rescue operations has increased the chances of dying while crossing from Libya to Italy from 1 in 42 in 2017 to 1 in 18 in 2018.

The unstable situation in Libya

While the EU treats Libya as a safe country, the political situation in Libya is far from stable. After Gaddafi’s 42-year rule was toppled in 2011, the country ended up in a power vacuum. Ever since, no authority has been in full control. In 2016, a UN-backed government was installed, but there are still competing political and military factions, making Libya a highly unsafe country.

This became painfully clear last August, when rival militias tried to take control of Tripoli, and the city experienced the worst fighting in years. Tripoli’s Abu Salim detention centre was threatened by militias, causing its guards to flee and abandon refugees or release them on to the streets. It was reported that refugees had to drink toilet water to survive and went days without food. Meanwhile, ‘released’ refugees were stuck on front lines, shot at or abducted by suspected traffickers. In some cases, refugees have even been forced to become actors in the Libyan war. Armed militias pulled them out of the centres to make them move heavy weapons or bullets. Anyone who resisted was beaten.

Best intentions?

EU policymakers and leaders justify the deal with Libya by saying that it is necessary to assert control over Europe’s external borders and to break the business of smugglers. Supposedly, it is also meant to protect migrants by preventing dangerous boat migration. But in reality, it is clear that the deal is intended merely to avoid the legal responsibilities that arise when migrants and asylum seekers reach EU territories. And in doing so, the EU closed an agreement with unstable governments and is complicit in human rights violations.

It makes one wonder why, only 80 years after World War 2 in which millions of European faced similar threats as current refugees, European seem to have forgotten how other countries opened their doors for them. Back then, not only did European refugees find a safe haven in countries such as the USA, but these countries also cared enough to intervene in the conflict. 

While the EU is putting vast amounts of money to avoid its legal responsibilities in terms of refugees, what is it doing to fix the problems that caused refugees to flee? What is it doing to end the system in Eritrea where young people have no other perspective than to live in poverty and suppression? What is it doing to stop weapon supplies to conflict regions? 

Moreover, climate change is expected to threaten people’s livelihoods, especially in regions such as Africa and the Middle East. Therefore, the next decades will likely see many more refugees, fleeing because of famine, drought and poverty.

European values

The European Union was built on the values of respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy equality, and the role of law. And yet, by maintaining the Libya deal, the EU manages to knowingly be complicit in human rights violations and to avoid its legal responsibilities in hosting refugees. Maybe, the EU should have a new look at its values and reconsider its Libya deal. 

Interested in human rights articles? Check out these articles on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and on LGBTI rights in the Netherlands!

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, 0 comments
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Female genital mutilation; stats, obstacles and solutions in 2019

Female genital mutilation; stats, obstacles and solutions in 2019

Last week marked a milestone for the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM). A mother of a three-year-old girl became the first person to be convicted of FGM in the United Kingdom. The cutting of the little girl took place during the summer of 2017. 

While this practice had been outlawed for more than three decades, the UK had never had a conviction for it. The crime carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. Campaigners hope that the new conviction will encourage other victims to come forward and report the crime.

Female genital mutilation, also called female genital cutting or female circumcision, is the ritual putting or removal of some all of the external female genitalia. There are a few different types of FGM, which all typically includes the partial or total removal of the clitoris.

FGM is a way to control women’s sexuality and to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterwards. It is also meant to increase male sexual pleasure. It is internationally recognised as a human rights violation. FGM is practised in households at all educational levels and social classes. Moreover, it occurs among many religious groups, including Muslims, Christians and animists. 

The physical and emotional pain of FGM

“The pain inflicted by FGM does not stop with the initial procedure, but often continues as ongoing torture throughout a woman’s life.”

Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

After girls have been cut, they might experience health problems, discomfort and pain for the rest of their lives. Examples are difficulty urinating, frequent pain and infections, menstrual problems, kidney damage and failure, cysts and abscesses, pain during sex and infertility. The more immediate effects include severe pain, infections such as hepatitis B and C, and organ damage.

Moreover, when women who have undergone FGM give birth, they face higher health risks. They are at higher risk for adverse effects during childbirth, and genital mutilation in mothers also has adverse effects on their newborn babies. One to two babies per 100 deliveries dies as a result of FGM. Moreover, when giving birth, scar tissue might tear and afterwards the vagina is often “ sewn up” again, causing additional pain for women. 

Moreover, FGM also leaves its mark on the mental wellbeing of girls and women. Studies have found that girls can experience immediate psychological trauma caused by the pain, shock and the use of physical force by those performing FGM. In the long-term, girls can experience post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and memory loss. About 80% of women who have been cut suffer from mood or anxiety disorders. Because of the continuous pain caused by FGM, there is a higher risk of depressed mood, with reduced functioning, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and even suicidal tendencies. 

What is the scale?

FGM is practised in 42 countries in Africa, the Middle East and in Asia. Moreover, it is also prevalent in communities from those countries in for example the UK, USA, and Europe. 200 million women and girls worldwide live with the consequences of FGM. Research has shown that 44 million of these survivors are younger than 15 years old. Every year, about 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of FGM.

FGM in Africa, the Middle East and Asia

In the four countries where FGM is most common, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Guinea and Somalia, nearly every girl between the ages of 15 and 49 has been cut. But things seem to be slowly changing. In the 10 countries with the highest rates of FGM, its prevalence is declining. Whereas in 1985, 51 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 had undergone FGM, in 2000 this was 46 per cent, and in 2016 it was 37 per cent. 

Moreover, 63 per cent of men and 67 per cent of women in countries where FGM is common think that this practice should be history. However, because of population growth in the most affected countries, the actual number of girls could actually be increasing despite a decline in the practice. 

But while FGM practices are decreasing in practising countries, its prevalence outside of practising countries is growing because of migration.

FGM in Europe

Each year, 180,000 girls and women in FGM practising communities in Europe are at risk of FGM. In France, for example, between 24,000 and 43,000 girls face the possibility to be cut. It is estimated that about 500,000 women in Europe have experienced FGM.

The EU made a plan to tackle FGM in Europe with actions to increase understanding of the status of FGM in the EU, promote social change to prevent FGM, and support Member States in prosecuting FGM more effectively. Moreover, in 2015, the EU supported 17 projects that address FGM in 18 countries, spending 8 million Euros of EU funding.   

FGM in the USA

FGM is on the risk in the US. Since the 1990s, the number of girls and women who either had undergone FGM or were at risk of it has more than tripled. In 2012, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were more than 500,000 women and girls at risk of being a victim of this procedure. It seems that this increase is caused by the growing number of migrants from countries where FGM is most common. These girls and women mostly live in California, New York and Minnesota.

In 1996, a federal law was passed to make it illegal to perform FGM in the US. In 2013, this law was amended to also outlaw taking a girl out of the US to inflict FGM abroad. However, on 20 November, a federal judge in the USA declared a federal law banning female genital mutilation unconstitutional. He dismissed several charges doctors and others in the first US criminal case against FGM. According to the judge, the practice is a criminal assault, which means it can only be regulated at state level. 

While 27 states have laws prohibiting FGM, this could turn the 23 states that do not have such laws into ‘destination states’ for cutting. This is a realistic scenario, as the dismissed cases showed that victims were often taken across state lines to undergo this mutilation. Anti-FGM state laws often include clauses criminalising “vacation cutting”, which is the practice of taking girls out of the country to have FGM performed.

FGM Canada and Australia

In Canada, FGM is forbidden under the Criminal Code since 1997. This law prohibits FGM practices in the country, as well as taking girls out of the country to be cut. Any person guilty of the assault can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.  In Australia, FGM is a criminal offence as well.

While it is clear that FGM is practised in Canada and Australia, there is little to no data on the practice. It is unclear how prevalent FGM is, and prosecutions are rare.

Obstacles and solution to end FGM

Unfortunately, there is a global lack of data and research about FGM. In many countries and regions, it is unclear how often and how it is practised, how many girls are at risk, and how many people live with the consequences. Moreover, while research most often focuses on the physical harm of FGM, there is much less information available on the physiological and emotional harm. 

This lack of knowledge prevents the creation of effective policies to fight FGM. Moreover, whereas there are grassroots organisations who aim to stop FGM practices, these often do not have enough funding to have a big reach and impact. More research about FGM is needed to create an incentive to develop proper policies and to fund anti-FGM organisations. 

Another factor that stands in the way of ending this horrendous practice is the lack of knowledge in the professional community. Many medical and social workers are not aware of what the practice entails, how to recognise its signs, and what to do in case they come across women and girls at risk or who live with the consequences of FGM. This lack of knowledge prevents victims from getting the help they need, and offenders from being prosecuted. FGM should be a standard part of the education of healthcare and social workers, to identify victims. 

The most critical factor in the fight against FGM, however, is awareness within practising communities. Many women who have undergone FGM as girls and who are surrounded by women who have as well do not realise that these practices are harmful and not needed. For them, it is just normal for girls to be cut. Only when they learn about the physical and emotional harm and the abnormality of the practice, they realise the horrendous nature of it. 

There are many stories of women who were cut and participated in this practice until they realised how harmful and necessary FGM is and became anti-FGM activists. As FGM is a highly culturally-sensitive topic, the power to eradicate this practice lies in the hands of these women. These women are familiar with the culture and customs, which gives them the tools to change minds in their own communities. 

Are you interested in women’s rights? Be sure to check out this article about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and this article about contraceptives as a tool to fight poverty!

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, 0 comments
Elections in El Salvador: shifting from left to right?

Elections in El Salvador: shifting from left to right?

On 3 February, Salvadorans will cast their votes in the first round of the presidential elections in El Salvador. In case no president is directly elected during that first round, the top 2 candidates will have a runoff on March 10.

Although El Salvador has a multi-party system, it has been ruled by two parties since the end of the civil war in 1992. The Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) governed from 1992 to 2009, after which the left-oriented Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which was a guerrilla movement until the end of the war, took over. But the two-party rule seems to be ending now. The FMLN lost support after it could not meet the high expectations that arose after finally getting the presidency in 2009.

Nayib Bukele

The new candidate to watch is Nayib Bukele, who is only 37 years old. According to some poles, he might flat out win the first round of elections.

Bukele entered politics and the FLMN in his late twenties and was first elected mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán in 2012. In 2015, he was elected mayor of San Salvador, the country’s capital. Bukele’s rise to the top of his party seemed inevitable, but at the end of 2017, he was expelled from FMLN. The reasons were his criticism towards the party on social media and an incident in which Bukele was verbally aggressive towards a female FLMN member by calling her ‘a witch’ and ‘damned traitor’.

In response, Bukele tried to create his own party, called Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas). When the El Salvadorian electoral court failed to approve the party in time for the presidential election, he aligned with the Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA), as a final option to be able to run for president during the 2019 elections.

This was an unexpected move from Bukele’s part. Whereas he was affiliated with left politics for most of his career, he is now partnered with a centre-right party. GANA’s norms and values seem to be completely different from Bukele’s values. For instance, while Bukele promises to end corruption, GANA has been plagued by corruption scandals and supported the candidacy of ex-president Antonio Saca who was sentenced for corruption in 2014.

Criticism

Of all presidential candidates, Bukele surely is the savviest on social media. He announced his candidacy via a video on his Facebook page, which has over 1.3 million followers. This is about 20 per cent of the El Salvadorian population. Soon, the video had more than a million views. He has managed to position himself as a brand and appeals to young people by marketing himself as someone who is cool.

But while Bukele has gained much popularity, his critics and opponents are worried. Bukele follows the anti-political trend, seen in countries such as Brazil and Mexico lately; he distances himself from the establishment. For example, while he is officially running with GANA, he never mentions their name during rallies. Instead, he asks his supporters to vote for el golondrino (the swallow), which is his nickname.

Just as then presidential candidate Jair Bolsanaro in Brasil, Bukele relies heavily on social media for his campaign. Instead of doing press conferences and interviews, he only uses social media through which he directly addresses his followers. By doing so, he manages to avoid all opportunities to be questioned, and for his ideas to be assessed on its feasibility.

Bukele does not see any problem with his sudden switch from a leftist to a rightist party. In his opinion, the divide between left and right is outdated. Opponents, however, see it as a sign that Bukele is an opportunist who is looking to string along any party in order to accomplish his personal ambitions. They criticise Bukele for not having a clear political programme. By refusing to publicly debate with other presidential candidates, he avoids any real scrutiny.

Salvadorian problems: poverty, climate change and gang violence

One of El Salvador’s main problems is poverty. According to the World Bank, nearly one in three Salvadorans live in poverty. As one of the most industrialised countries in Central America, Salvadorian cities have become a centre for economic, medical and commercial activity. While this sounds positive, it leaves people in rural areas with less and less access to resources. Another reason for poverty is the decreased revenue from coffee. El Salvadorian coffee farms have been hit by coffee rust, a fungus that kills coffee beans. As coffee is a large part of the Salvadorian economy, this has had a detrimental effect on the nation’s economy, and on agricultural profits in rural areas.

Poverty is likely to grow in El Salvador, as climate change is expected to have major effects on the country’s agriculture. Because of its location, El Salvador is highly susceptible to changes in weather, and as the Earth’s temperature rises, its crop yield is expected to drop by 30 per cent by 2050. Since agriculture accounts for 17.3 per cent of total employment, this will increase poverty rates. But El Salvador does not have time until 2050 to counter the effects of climate change, as drought has already affected over 80,000 people. Over the next few years, farming in El Salvador will become only more difficult.

Another major problem are high rates of crime, which further increases economic instability and stagnation. El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the world for youth under 19. Much of these high crime rates are caused by gang violence and drug trafficking. According to the magazine World Finance, about 70 per cent of businesses are subject to gang-related crime, contributing to the stagnation of the economy. Moreover, the threat of gang violence causes some Salvadorans to flee the country.

Crime and gang violence are expensive. It was estimated that in 2011, crime cost El Salvador’s government about two billion US dollars, which is 10.8 per cent of the country’s GDP. By 2014, this even increased to four billion US dollars, 16 per cent of the GDP. 

Discontent

Understandably, these are problems that leave Salvadorans in discontent and desperation. While political parties have been promising improvements and prosperity for years, the population has seen little to no improvements and distrust in politics has grown. It is no wonder that a fresh face such as Bukele’s, with his social media presence and radically different approach to politics, sparks people’s interest. Afterall, he is a totally different figure than every other politician over the last few decades.

Moreover, while the older generation of voters who generally support the FNML and ARENA is ageing, a new generation born after the civil war has become eligible to vote. This generation is not yet decided on what party to support, and Bukele is appealing to them. He seems to be one of them; on his Instagram, he coveys an image of both the serious politician and a spirited millennial.

Will Bukele be the next Salvadorian president?

While El Salvador is in desperate need of change, the question is whether Bukele would be able to deliver it, and what change would look like under his regime. So far, he has not given any concrete plans for turning the country around.

By avoiding debate and interviews, Bukele has managed to expose very little about his views for the country. Where does he stand on issues such as LGBTI-rights, foreign relations, women’s rights, indigenous communities? We do not know. In fact, on Nuevas Ideas’ website, there is no information at all about Bukele’s political plans and standpoint. Instead, visitors can leave a message about how they would like to see the country run. There is also no way to predict how his new shift from the left to the right will influence his politics.

Moreover, in contrast to the FMLN party, the GANA party is small and has not had a president before. Should Bukele be elected, he might have trouble filling his cabinet and the bureaucracy. To complicate matters more, the small size of his party might decrease his negotiating power within the government.

But Salvadorans are fed up with lying politicians and corruption scandals. This frustration might just lead them to vote for Bukele, regardless of his lack of political plans and unusual political tactics. So, will Bukele be the next president of El Salvador? We will have to wait and see what happens on 3 February.

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, 0 comments
‘I have faith in our generation’; youth march for climate justice in Brussels

‘I have faith in our generation’; youth march for climate justice in Brussels

The last few Thursdays, Brussels’ streets have been flooded with students. They carry signs and chant phrases such as ‘climate justice now’. Belgian youth is fed up with a system in which their future is put at risk and politicians make all kinds of promises in order to be elected, while the biggest contributors to climate change go unpunished. 

The outrage of youth was sparked when Belgium voted against new EU energy efficiency guidelines after 75,000 people attended a climate march in December. Soon, a movement called Youth for Climate emerged, which called for students to skip school and march for climate justice. While its first marches were small, their size has been quickly growing. Today, during the third climate march, approximately 32,000 young people marched. 

‘I just realy want us to be heard’

Luna Bauwens, one of the organisers and forerunners of Youth for Climate explains why it is so important to her to mobilise her peers to march for climate justice. ‘I really want us to be heard. 75,000 of us marched in December, but it did not make a difference. Our climate ministers did not even show up to the EU meeting about the eco pact. I am very angry at the Belgian government because it does not take any initiative to tackle climate change.’

While climate change does not affect Luna personally yet, she is afraid that it will be a problem for her future children. ‘There are solutions, and still, we do not tackle the issue because we are too lazy, or because it will cost money to do so.’ She hopes that Belgium’s new government, which will be elected in May, will make tackling climate change a priority and will invest in solutions. 

At the same time, she is also afraid that politicians do not take this youth movement serious. In her experience, adults think they need to explain to young people how things work. They think they can reassure them by showing some data and making some new promises. We will have to wait until after the elections to see whether politicians take youth serious or not. But if the new government proceeds to neglect climate change policies, Luna predicts that there will be more protests by Youth for Climate. 

When asked if the young generation is sufficiently active in politics and activism, Luna says she thinks it is. She is amazed by the fact that 32,000 people marched for the climate today, only because two teenage girls encouraged them to. To her, it seems that more and more young people start to realise that something is wrong with our capitalist system. ‘It is nice to see that more people realise this. I have faith in our generation’. 

A photo impression of today’s march

Do you want to know what you can do to counter climate change and environmental pollution? Check out these articles about the Zero Waste movement and the UN Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World!

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, 0 comments
The struggle for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

The struggle for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

A Saudi teenager named Rahaf Mohamed al-Qunun has made international headlines recently. She tried to flee to Australia after she renounced Islam and was threatened to be ‘slaughtered’ by her cousins. Denouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Rahaf also reported that she was physically and mentally abused by her family and that she was being forced in an arranged marriage.

After she managed to make it to Thailand, her passport was taken by Saudi diplomats during her layover. She then locked herself up in an airport hotel room. From there, she tweeted about her situation to attract the attention of international media and the United Nations.

Wait! Weren’t women rights approving in Saudi Arabia?

This might all come as a bit of a surprise. Recently, Saudi Arabia made headlines because of its improvements in women’s rights. In June, women got the right to drive, and last week it was announced that women will now be notified by text if their husband divorces them. Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s regime, women’s rights seem to be advancing. 

But critics say that these improvements are mainly superficial. Women’s rights are severely restricted by the country’s guardian system in which each woman is set under the control of her husband or a male relative. While this system is not embedded in the law, most Saudi institutions comply with. Women need their guardian’s approval for all major decisions, such as getting a passport, travelling, and signing a contract. 

Not only does the guardian system severely restrict freedom of choice on a daily basis, but it also puts women in a dangerous position of dependence and possible violence. Women need their guardian’s approval to seek justice if they faced sexual abuse or violence, even if the violence is of the hands of their guardian. This effectively forces women to stay in violent marriages and family situations. 

To be fair, the guardian system has loosened up a bit recently, and women can now access health care and education without a guardian’s permission. Since these law reforms, women are also allowed to open a business.

However, as women are still financially and socially dependent on their husband and male relatives, the effectiveness of these new rights are questionable. What happens when a woman starts a business against her husbands’ wishes? If doing so makes her face the risk of abuse or divorce, she might not want to carry through with it.

Yay, women can finally drive.. right?

Recently, Saudi Arabia had the dubious honour of being the last country in the world to give women the right to drive. But while women’s newly won right to drive seemed like a significant step forward, women still depend on their guardian’s permission to obtain a driver’s license. 

The new right to drive is a part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s programme called Vision 2030. This plan sets out economic and social reforms to reduce Saudi Arabia’s economic reliance on oil. One of the plan’s components is to get more women to enter employment to increase economic growth, and the right to drive is a way to do so.

At least nine women’s rights activists who protested the female driver’s ban are still stuck in prison. According to Amnesty International, these women are being tortured and sexually harassed. Last December, Twitter suspended the account of activist Loujain al-Hathloul’s father. He had been tweeting about the alleged sexual harassment and torture that his daughter faces in a Saudi government prison. 

In reality, the ‘right’ to drive, is more of a gift than an actual right. All of this begs the question whether women can now drive because of a Saudi wish for a more equal society, or just because it might be economically beneficial.

Other so-called improvements

This week, it was announced that women are now informed by text if their husbands are divorcing them. Before, husbands could divorce their wives even without ever letting them know. While this seems to be a big step forward, this law is superficial and hollow. It does not guarantee the right to alimony after the divorce or the right to custody of a woman’s children. 

Furthermore, there are still many things that women flat out cannot do in Saudi Arabia. One of these things is to ‘show their beauty’ in public. Saudi Arabia uses a dress code based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women are expected to wear an abaya – a long cloak- and a headscarf. If women expose too much skin or wear make-up, they are often harassed for it. 

Women’s interaction with men who they are not related to is restricted as well. Most public buildings have separate entrances for men and women, and public places such as transportation, and parks, are mostly segregated. Interacting with unrelated men can lead to criminal charges against both parties, but women usually face harsher punishment.  

Shallow improvements meant to mask a fundamentally patriarchal system

While recently it seemed as is women’s rights were advancing in Saudi Arabia, these improvements are in fact pretty shallow. Newly won rights, such as the right to drive, are ultimately meant to mask a system in which men have ownership of women. And while this ‘progress’ is made in the name of equality and human rights, the motivating factor behind it seems to be mainly economical.

The power of social media

Fortunately, al-Qunun’s situation worked out so far. Because of her tweets, she was noticed by the U.N. Refugee Agency, and granted asylum in Canada. While this does not entirely guarantee her safety, at least she has the chance to build a new life in another country. 

Other women who managed to flee Saudi Arabia were not so lucky. In 2017, for instance, 24 years old Dina Ali Lasloom managed to reach the Philippines before she was returned to Saudi Arabia against her will. She was trying to escape a forced marriage. No one heard from her after she arrived in Saudi Arabia. 

Social media might have been the key to success in al-Qunun’s escape. Since she managed to attract international attention, Saudi Arabia’s options to take her back to the country were limited. In fact, in a video that al-Qunun posted, a Saudi Arabian official is heard saying that he wished they had taken her phone, instead of her passport. Would al-Qunun have managed to find asylum and to stay out of the hand of her family if it had not been for her tweets?

A growing number of Saudi Arabian women realise the potential of social media as well. Ever since al-Qunun managed to escape Saudi Arabia, women started tweeting. Under an Arabic hashtag that translates as ‘remove the guardian system, or we will all migrate’, women share their experiences living in Saudi Arabia. As the hashtag says, they threaten to leave the country if the guardian system is not removed. Let’s hope their protests are being heard.

What can you do?

Unfortunately, the restriction of women’s rights is not the only problem in Saudi Arabia. Other issues include the general lack of respect for human rights, the ongoing war in Yemen, and the murder on journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But hey, this does not mean we should sit and wait until human rights magically improve in Saudi Arabia. There is plenty that you can do.

For instance, you can use social media to raise attention for women’s and human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, and to put pressure on its government by sharing posts and articles! And you can help human rights organisations with their Saudi Arabia campaigns. To get you started, here is an e-mail campaign by Amnesty International UK to free Saudi female activists. Be sure to sign it!

Interested in women’s rights? Check out articles about the relationship between contraceptives and poverty and about the re-appropiation of the word ‘bitch‘. 

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, 0 comments
Putting an end to family homelessness in the Czech Republic

Putting an end to family homelessness in the Czech Republic

A bed made of cardboard boxes, worn-out clothes, a bottle of cheap wine; several stereotypes that come to mind when talking about homelessness. Walking the streets in Czech cities, one might think that only a few people face homelessness – lost souls who have not been lucky enough in their lives.

However, the term homelessness does not only include those without a roof over their head. The European Typology of Homelessness and Housing Exclusion, also used by Czech authorities, identifies four types of living situations (roofless, houseless, insecure, inadequate) considered as homelessness. According to this typology, people living in women’s shelters, in accommodation for immigrants, in insecure housing or in extreme over-crowding are perceived as homeless as well.
Most Czech homeless people are hidden from sight in temporary facilities with extremely poor living conditions. For instance, it was reported that in a collective housing facility in Karvina, 13 families had to share one shower and one toilet and adults slept on the floor.

The Czech paradox: More people in need of accommodation despite economic growth

The Czech economy is currently in excellent condition. Moreover, the percentage of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the Czech Republic is the lowest among EU member states (12.2 per cent in 2017 comparing to the EU average of 22.5 per cent), and the unemployment rate has not been lower in 22 years. In spite of the current period of prosperity, 200 000 individuals do not have stable housing. This is approximately two per cent of the Czech population and includes 20 000 children.

To make matters worse, the number of homeless people is growing in the Czech Republic. The main cause is that there is no law on social housing and bad living conditions for people in financial distress. Since the Czech government acts too slowly, many municipalities have decided to tackle the situation themselves, declaring war on homelessness. A promising project called Housing First, introduced in many cities across the globe, has proven to be a powerful tool to fight homelessness. Recent results from the City of Brno, the first Czech city to implement Housing First, showed that its results in local conditions are also undoubtfully positive.

What is Housing First about?

Housing First is an innovative tool designed for people who need significant help to enable them to leave homelessness. It was developed by Dr Sam Tsemberis in New York in the early 1990s. Since then the concept has been successfully implemented in several countries in North America and Europe. Its success rates are high; it has been shown that the model ends homelessness in at least eight out of every ten cases.

Contrary to more traditional approaches, in Housing First, homeless people are offered housing as soon as they enter the programme, regardless of their situation. The project is based on the idea that housing is not only a human right, but also the essential first step to solving all problems related to homelessness, such as drug abuse, health problems, and money problems. When participants have moved into the new house, aid workers do whatever it takes to keep them living there. Only then, the next step is focused on improving their health, well-being and social situation.

This approach is different from traditional homelessness services, which often require a person in need to follow social competency training and to commit to a long-term cooperation with NGOs or national authorities before housing is provided. In Housing First, accommodation is offered unconditionally. The assumption is that only when someone has formed a home base, has he the ability to tackle other personal problems.

Photo by Barbora Kleinhamplová.
Photo by Barbora Kleinhamplová.

The first pioneer in the Czech Republic

The City of Brno (population 380 000) which owns and controls access to 29 000 flats, approved a strategy to end family homelessness: to make it rare, short and non-recurring. Since 2016 various traditional and experimental approaches have been tested for outcomes. The Housing First approach has been one of them. Thus, Brno has become the first Czech city to experiment with the tool.

Before the trial run of the Housing First project was launched, a family homelessness registry was conducted in April 2016. The results showed that there are 421 homeless families in Brno, and two-thirds of them are Roma. Once homeless, these families are often considered unfit as tenants by both private and public landlords and have little access to housing.

Between September 2016 and June 2017, 50 of these 421 families were randomly assigned to the Housing First program through a lottery organised by City Council for Health and Social Affairs. To be able to measure the impact of the Housing First approach, the project was accompanied by a randomised control trial lead by the University of Ostrava. Consequently, other 100 families were randomly assigned as a control group. Both intervention and control groups were surveyed at baseline, and after six and twelve months several preselected indicators were registered and compared.

Promising but not surprising results

The trial period ended in June 2018, and the final report was published by the University of Ostrava in December 2018. So far, the results of the project are promising.

One year after the start of the program, 96 per cent of families still lived in the house they were assigned. During this first year, families who were not selected for the Housing First programme were on average homeless for roughly nine months, while this was only 0.16 months (less than 5 days) for families who benefited from the program. Overall, families participating in the program had 5.6 m2 more living space per person.

Unsurprisingly, the Housing First intervention did not only improve housing circumstances. It also had a positive effect on health and well-being. It was found that the health conditions of participants in the program improved, whereas the condition of the control families worsened. Stress levels were significantly lower in participants, especially in mothers. And both parents and children in the intervention slept better and longer.

Moreover, participating mothers were 4.5 times less likely to have high levels of psychological distress than mothers in the control group, and had a lower incidence of depression. The use of antibiotics was 2.23 times lower in people that participated in the program. In the intervention group, fewer children were placed in institutional care and foster care. Children spent more time with their families and were more likely to be happy in school.

The program was financially viable as well. The cost-benefit analysis showed that the housing first program could save public money. In fact, it was estimated that 106 emergency room visits, 51 emergency service calls and 39 cases of hospitalisation were prevented thanks to this intervention.

Although the results of the Housing First trial are promising, the intervention is not a quick fix for all problems. Life satisfaction, for example, improved significantly during the first six months of the program but was still lower than in the general population. And, while the financial situation of families in the program got better, most of them were still not able to cover their basic needs. Of course, many of the problems causing and stemming for homelessness need time and professional help in order to be solved. It is therefore essential that help remains available for a substantial period of time after participants have moved into their new house.

Photo by Barbora Kleinhamplová
“It is just better when I come home [from work] compared to the hostel. You are at home, it is clean, the food is prepared. I eat, I can have a shower, I have my privacy.” Photo by Barbora Kleinhamplová.

Brno’s success inspires other Czech cities

The project results demonstrate that the Housing First approach can thrive in Czech conditions and can be a useful tool to reduce (family) homelessness. The concept implementation was closely watched by media, elected officials and experts from all over the country. Inspired by Brno’s success, several Czech municipalities, such as Liberec and Ostrava, have already launched their own Housing First projects.

Posted by Dominik Plihal in Current Affairs, 0 comments
Contraceptives: a tool to fight poverty?

Contraceptives: a tool to fight poverty?

In Delaware USA, at every doctor’s visit, women are now asked if they plan to get pregnant soon, even if the visit has nothing to do with their reproductive health. If a woman answers no, she gets whatever form of birth control she wants on that same day, free of charge. This new approach aims to reduce unwanted pregnancies to help women escape poverty. 

Whereas Delaware used to have the nation’s highest rate of unplanned pregnancies, this number is estimated to have declined with a whopping 24 per cent since the start of the program three years ago. Its key to success seems to be its same day ‘delivery’ of birth control. This is important, as many hurdles prevent women from coming back for a new appointment. For instance, it can be hard to take time off at work or to find someone to baby sit while they are at the doctor’s office. 

A similar program is conducted in Colorado USA. Here women can choose to have a contraceptive intrauterine device (IUD) or implant placed without charge. So far, 30 000 devices have been placed and the results are promising. The age at which women become pregnant significantly increased. Whereas first, half of all births to the most unfortunate women in Colorado occurred before the age of 21, this age increased to 24 after only five years of the program. This result caused Colorado to climb ten spots up in the US ranking for lowest teen birth rates. But that is not all. Not only did teen births drop with 40 per cent between 2009 and 2015, but the number of abortions also decreased by 35 per cent. Moreover, more than 80 million dollars were saved on Medicaid costs. Unsurprisingly, the success of these programs inspired others. Washington and Massachusetts are now starting similar programs.

Access to contraceptives: not a given

Nowadays, the benefits of birth control are clear, and its use is fairly accepted. A rare exception is the Roman Catholic Church, which formally forbids the use of all contraceptives. In the USA, 99 per cent of sexually active women aged 15 to 44 used contraception at some point in the past. 

Unfortunately, reliable contraceptives are not a given for many women. In the EU, there are large disparities in access to birth control. While in Belgium and France 91 per cent of women have access to contraceptives, other countries score much lower. In Andorra, for example, only 18.8 per cent and in Greece, only 38.2 per cent of women have access. Religion, costs of birth control, health insurance coverage and infrastructure are just some examples of factors that can prevent women from accessing contraceptives.

Worldwide, over 200 million women do not use any or use risky contraceptive methods, even though they do not want to get pregnant. This is often due to lack of access, money, or information. It is estimated that, if these women had reliable contraceptives, the number of unintended pregnancy would drop from 89 million to 22 million yearly. Moreover, 45 per cent of pregnancies in the USA are unplanned, and 65 out of every 1000 women aged 15-44 in developing regions unintentionally got pregnant in 2014 (23). In the EU, on average 6 out of 1000 women aged 15 to 17 become pregnant. This is usually unintentionally, considering their young age.

The complex relationship between contraceptives and poverty

While many women do not have reliable access to birth control, its role in preventing poverty is increasingly acknowledged. In the USA, the concept of birth control as a tool to increase economic mobility first emerged in the 1970s, after contraceptives and abortion became legal. Quickly after, women’s careers and educational attainment started to improve. Ever since, it has played a role in poverty reduction. In fact, it was found that women who have legal access to birth control are significantly less likely to experience poverty later in life. 

But, as poverty is a complex topic, its relationship with unplanned pregnancies is not yet fully understood. Thanks to research and political interest, we are now starting to explore the dynamics. 

Protecting the health of women and children

One of these dynamics is the effect that prevention of unplanned pregnancies has on health. Unfortunately, pregnancy does not come without health risks for both mother and child. And, as it turns out, these risks are even higher in case of unintended pregnancies. A mother’s likelihood of facing maternal depression and anxiety, for example, is higher in case of unplanned pregnancy. 

Especially young women face risks when they get pregnant. In fact, complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in teenage girls. Moreover, when teenage girls get pregnant, this poses risks to the baby as well, especially in developing countries. Here, babies are at higher risk of dying and low birth weight, preterm delivery, and severe neonatal conditions. Moreover, the use of condoms, an easy-to-use method of contraception, prevents HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Clearly, by preventing unintended pregnancies, birth control helps protect the health of women.

Additionally, a share of unwanted pregnancies inevitably leads to abortions, whether safe and legal, or unsafe and illegal. Yearly, approximately 3.9 million unsafe abortions take place worldwide, contributing to maternal mortality and health problems. The use of birth control prevents unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Whatever your stance on abortions, preventing them is a worthwhile cause.

Improving educational and economic chances

Unintended pregnancies most often happen in young women. As raising children demands time and money, this can force them to drop out of school, decreasing their future earnings. But not only parents are affected by unintended pregnancy. Children born after unplanned pregnancies are more likely to stop their education early and to earn less later in life.

By preventing unintended pregnancies, birth control gives women a chance to stay in school, thereby improving their career perspectives. In fact, it was found that American women who have unrestricted access to contraception during their late adolescence were 17 per cent more likely to be enrolled in university at age 21. 

Curiously, women and girls do not necessarily need to use contraceptives themselves to experience positive effects. Just the proximity of contraceptives and family planning services can be beneficial. It is shown that access to contraceptives encourages girls to plan better futures by investing in education, especially in developing countries. As it allows women to exert control over their reproductivity, all of the sudden it is worthwhile to stay in school. In Malaysia, for example, it was found that just the availability of family planning services made girls remain in school six months longer. And in Indonesia, it was found that girls have higher attendance and accomplishments in school when these services were available in their neighbourhoods. 

Additionally, when contraceptives become more accessible, employers are more likely to hire women, as they are less likely to miss time at work. Because of the chances that occur when women have access to birth control, it has the ability to reform economies.

Other positive effects

While reducing poverty is extremely expensive, reducing unplanned births is fairly easy and cheap, and has the potential the render huge returns. Studies have shown that for every dollar invested in contraception, the costs of pregnancy-related healthcare is reduced by $ 2.20. Looking further at the socioeconomic effects, universal access to quality sexual and reproductive health services might return $ 120 for every dollar invested in it.

Moreover, birth control gives women (and their partners) more control over their lives, and may lead to better outcomes for children. Of course, the decision whether to have kids or not should never depend on whether you can afford birth control or not. Children deserve to be born into a family where they are wanted, and where parents have the resources needed to take care of them. 

Additionally, birth control might affect the relationship between unintended pregnancies and staying in abusive relationships. Women in abusive relationships are two to three times more likely to be forced into pregnancy and to have an abortion. After giving birth, they are more likely to stay in the abusive relationship, risking their own lives and wellbeing, and their children’s. 

The potential of contraceptives in developing countries

Access to birth control is especially a problem in developing countries. Here, it is estimated that 214 million women and girls do not have access. If these girls and women had access to proper contraceptives, approximately 67 million unintended pregnancies and 76,000 deaths could be prevented each year. 

You could argue that access to birth control is especially needed in developing countries. Populations are growing quickly here and resources are very limited. Since many people already live without sufficient resources to meet their needs, restraining population growth is necessary.

However, increasing the use of contraception in these areas is not as easy as it seems. Even if birth control is freely accessible, factors such as religion, education and social norms affect whether or not girls can use them. In some cultures, for instance, having many children is considered a symbol of status. Of course, the unequal position of women in some places also plays a role. 

The dark history of state contraceptive programs

All the positive effects of birth control aside, state contraceptives programmes have a dark history that should not be ignored. In the 20th century, 33 American states had programs of compulsory sterilisation in the name of eugenics and wellbeing. In 1976, it was found that 25 to 50 per cent of Native Americans were sterilised between 1970 and 1976. It is suspected that some of these sterilisations took place during other surgical procedures without the consent of the patient. In Nazi Germany, the Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring resulted in thousands of forced sterilisations. While these laws and events seem to be things of the past, more recently, judges offered reduced sentences to defendants if they agreed to be sterilised or use birth control.

Acting on the belief that limited reproduction of the poor would be beneficial for society, these programs violated reproductive rights, especially those of people of colour and with disabilities. Even today, black women are more likely to feel pressured to use birth control and healthcare professionals are more likely to suggest IUDs to black and Latina women.

Another risk of contraceptives programs is that the high pressure to succeed can cause clinics to ignore the wishes of patients and pressure them to use contraceptives whether they want it or not.

Our understanding of poverty

Obviously, poverty and its relation to birth control is a complicated topic. The question remains whether unintended pregnancies cause poverty, or poverty causes unplanned pregnancies. For example, while there is no difference in sexual activity, a poor woman is over five times more likely to unintentionally get pregnant than an rich woman. And the age at which women have children is related to their socioeconomic status as well. For instance, places where women have children earlier in life have bigger gender pay gaps. It seems that unintended pregnancies is as much of a sign as a consequence of poverty.

The risk of framing contraceptives as a tool to fight disparities is that it can simplify our understanding of poverty. Structural factors, such as racial discrimination and the availability of social services, lie at the heart of poverty and need to be addressed. These issues will not go away simply by increasing access to birth control and reducing unintended pregnancies.

The power of education

Another important, and often underestimated, factor in reducing unplanned pregnancies is education. Merely teaching girls how to read enables them to use contraception and to understand sex education resources. Girls who have received a high amount of education are less likely to become pregnant early in life and to enter into child marriage, and more often have future healthy pregnancies. Moreover, it should be taught that pregnancies and the use of contraceptives is the responsibility of both men and women, instead of solely a woman’s responsibility. 

Full of potential.. and risks

It is clear that contraception has a huge potential to change people’s lives and decrease conditions of poverty. But there is a thin line between enabling women to take charge of their reproductive health and violating reproductive rights. Any program offering forms of birth control should be based on the consent and wishes of each individual patient. Moreover, the aim of such programs should be to give women the means to take control of their lives, not to fix society’s poverty.

Furthermore, access to birth controls should not be seen as a single remedy for poverty.  It should always go hand in hand with regular education, scientifically-based sexual education for both genders, and action to tackle structural causes of inequality. Only then, contraceptives will be fully effective in preventing poverty and creating chances for women and children. 

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, 0 comments