Friday, 18 April 2014

Iran parents halt killer's execution - the power of forgiveness

Courtesy of ABF

Instead, what happened next marked a rarity in public executions in Iran, which puts more people to death than any other country apart from China, wrote Dehghan. She decided to forgive her son's killer. The victim's father removed the noose and Balal's life was spared.

“Balal's mother hugged the grieving mother of the man her son had killed. The two women sobbed in each other's arms – one because she had lost her son, the other because hers had been saved," Dehghan wrote.

This is significant because Iran is known for its high rate of executions and human rights abuses. The new president Hassan Rouhani has disappointed human rights activists for doing too little to improve Iran's human rights and not curbing its staggering use of capital punishment.

As of last week, 199 executions are believed to have been carried out in Iran this year, according to Amnesty International - a rate of almost two a day. Last year, Iran and Iraq were responsible for two-thirds of the world's executions, excluding China.

At least 369 executions were officially acknowledged by the Iranian authorities in 2013, but Amnesty International said hundreds more people were put to death in secret, taking the actual number close to 700.  I wrote a blog post in July 2013 about the 97 executions carried out just in that month, according to a report by from The Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF), a non-governmental independent organisation dedicated to the promotion of human rights and democracy in Iran.

Iran is particularly criticised for its public executions, which have attracted children among the crowds in the past. Iranian photographers are often allowed to document them.  Studies have shown that the death penalty doesn’t provide any special deterrent. The public displays of killing, however, perpetuate a culture of acceptance of violence.

I wonder what would happen if more victims’ relatives could do like the Hosseinzadehs and pardon the convicts, if the crowds would stop gathering to watch the executions, if people would publicly object to them…

Monday, 17 March 2014

Virgin Wives of the Fetish Gods - Slavey in Ghana

Enyonam and Forgive, both former trokosi slaves, at home in their village. They bonded due to the stigma they face from the community and say "we have become family to each other". Photo by Fjona Hill (Aletheia Collective)
I love Ghana, so when Magnum ice cream asked me to conduct interviews for a film on sustainable cocoa in the Ashanti region, I jumped at the chance.  It would also allow me and photographer Fjona Hill to report on a story we have wanted to do for a long time, but didn’t have the means to, as editors rarely pay for travel expenses these days.

So after the film, we stayed behind and headed north to the Volta - a beautiful region rich in history and culture, dominated by the vast Lake Volta and the River Volta. We wanted to look at the terrible trokosi tradition and try to understand why it still endures today.  Ghana is widely seen as a model for political and economic reform in Africa and lauded for its rapid development.

But away from bustling Accra, in remote countryside villages, some deep-seated traditions prevail. The trokosi practice calls for virgin girls to be sent to the shrines of fetish gods to pay for crimes committed by one of their relatives. They become living sacrifices, protecting their families from the gods’ wrath. Some stay at the shrines for a few years; others for life.

The tradition, also practised in neighbooring Benin and Togo, is deeply rooted in the beliefs and identity of the Ewe (ay-vay) people. It serves rural communities’ need for justice and meets the material and sexual needs of the fetish priests. But it's also considered a spiritual act and as such it is, along with female genital mutilation, one of the most difficult human rights violations to eradicate.
With the help of International Needs Ghana (ING), the main NGO campaigning to stop the practive, we visited isolated rural villages, speaking with women who had spent many years in fetish shrines, fetish priests, ING director and government officials.  We were aware of being Western journalists looking at a tradition we couldn’t understand and didn’t want to present another story on “dark, exotic, dangerous Africa”.

But we felt this was not a story about Western against African values – rather it was one one about modern Ghana vs. traditional Ghana. The Government outlawed the custom in 1998 and many Ghanaians are deeply embarrassed it is still enduring today. But there are powerful religious and political lobbying groups who argue the tradition is part of their cultural and religious heritage, and is misunderstood.

Here is our story for the Thomson Reuters Foundation and here is the same story on the Chime for Change site, a global campaign to convene, unite and strengthen the voices speaking out for girls and women around the world. 

The priest, Torgbi Ahiaeu at the Avevi shrine. He complains that he now has to do the farmwork himself now the women have gone. His wife, behind him, is the one remaining trokosi in the village. All the other 23 trokosi have left the village after liberation. Photo by Fjona Hill (Aletheia Collective)

Saturday, 8 March 2014

International Women's Day: Equal pay? Wait 100 years or become a man

To protest against unequal pay, Annelie Nordström, President of Sweden’s largest trade union Kommunal, temporarily became a man 
To celebrate International Women’s Day today, I wanted to look at positive examples of gender equality, so I looked at Scandinavian countries – and Sweden in particular, which is considered one of the most equal countries in the world.
I was surprised to find out that even there, the gap between men's and women’s salaries has hardly changed at all for the past thirty years. At the current pace, it will take more than a century to reach equal pay. 
To protest against this, Annelie Nordström, President of Sweden’s largest trade union Kommunal, temporarily became a man.  She wanted to highlight the absurd fact that the easiest way for a woman to get a raise is to become a man.  She is asking women across the globe to join her in the campaign Be a Man. The international initiative aims to become the world’s largest protest against unequal pay, starting today, on The International Women’s Day (March 8th).

When it comes to wages, Sweden is among the world’s most equal countries. According to The Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum, the country is placed fourth, globally.  However, Swedish women earn only 82 % of what the nation’s men do.  Measured in time, men only need to work until 3:52 PM, whilst a woman has to work until 5 PM to earn the same amount. At the current pace, it will take more than a century before men and women earn the same amount of money for the same work.

 ”It’s sad that Sweden is considered to be a global example of equal pay, given how far we have left to go,” says Nordström.


And if that is the situation in equal Sweden, how much further women in less equal countries will have to go…
By using either a smartphone app or visiting the Be a Man website,  women from around the globe can create a male version of any photo of themselves. The image is then shared in social media on The International Women’s Day, creating the largest protest against inequality ever.

Come on, have a go!

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Did Five Years of Drought Lead to Two Years of Revolution in Syria?

Syria drought/World Preservation Foundation 
There are obviously many reasons why civil war erupted in Syria, but one neglected factor has been the severe drought of 2006-2010 and water shortage, some argue. 
Over the past year, I have read a few newspapers articles making the connection between climate change and the war in Syria. In 2010, the UN warned that Syria's drought was affecting food security and had pushed 2-3 million people into “extreme poverty”.
Today, I have stumbled upon an interesting academic paper titled The Role of Drought and Climate Change in the Syrian Uprising: Untangling the Triggers of the Revolution” by Francesca de Châtel of Radboud University in the Netherlands.
 It was not the drought per se that caused the revolution, she wrote, “but rather the government’s failure to respond to the ensuing humanitarian crisis that formed one of the triggers of the uprising, feeding a discontent that had long been simmering in rural areas,” states.
Writing in Middle Eastern Studies, (published by Taylor & Francis), she says that the situation now facing Syria is “the culmination of 50 years of sustained mismanagement of water and land resources”. The “relentless drive to increase agricultural output and expand irrigated agriculture” blinded policy makers to the limits of the country’s resources; overgrazing caused rapid desertification; the cancellation of subsidies for diesel and fertiliser as part of a botched transition to a social-market economy increased rural poverty; and countless families abandoned their farms for the cities in search of work.
In short, the “ongoing failure to rationalize water use and enforce environmental and water use laws” has depleted resources and caused “growing disenfranchisement and discontent in Syria’s rural communities”.
The obvious question now is: If drought helped cause Syria’s war, will climate change bring more like it?  And the response is likely to be a resounding “yes”.  I had asked this very question to Andreas Kamm, secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council, a while ago and he had answered: There might be as many as 200 million people displaced in 2050 because of climate change, and that will create more conflict.”

Saturday, 15 February 2014

National security, conflicts threaten press freedom - 2014 Press Freedom Index

The 2014 Reporters Without Borders (RWB) World Press Freedom Index highlights the negative impact of conflicts and abusive interpretation of national security on freedom of information and its protagonists.  This trend constitutes a growing threat worldwide and is even endangering freedom of information in countries regarded as democracies, such as the US. 

“Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result,” says RWB report. 

Press freedom in the United States has suffered “one of the most significant declines” in the last year with the NSA surveillance scandal topping the list of wrongdoings. The US is now placed in 46th place out of 180 countries, a 13-place drop from last year. 

The United Kingdom ranks 33rd, losing three places from last year, because of “the disgraceful pressure it puton The Guardian newspaper and its detention of David Miranda, journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner and assistant, for nine hours. 

“Both the US and UK authorities seem obsessed with hunting down whistleblowers instead of adopting legislation to rein in abusive surveillance practices that negate privacy, a democratic value cherished in both countries,” the report states.

The index also reflects the negative impact of armed conflicts on freedom of information and its actors. The world’s most dangerous country for journalists, Syria, is ranked 177th out of 180 countries, rubbing shoulders with the bottom three: Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea, where freedom of information is non-existent.
At the top of the index is Finland (for the fourth year running), closely followed by Netherlands and Norway, like last year. 

The World Press Freedom Index is a reference tool based on seven criteria:
-the level of abuses,
-the extent of pluralism,
-media independence,
-the environment and self-censorship,
-the legislative framework,

For more information and to see the 3D map "freedom of the press worldwide", click

Saturday, 25 January 2014

World Leprosy Day 2014 - shining a light on the ‘hidden’ disease

A young woman affected by leprosy in Myanmar (Burma) is benefiting from a new mobile prostheses clinic.
Credit: Leprosy Mission

This Sunday, 26 January, is World Leprosy Day 2014. Few people might take notice; few might even know that leprosy still exits today. But it does.
For me, World Leprosy Day always has a special resonance because when I was very young – just after high school – I worked in a leprosy centre for a few months. It was in Polambakkam in beautiful Tamil Nadu in the south of India.  At the time, the multidrug therapy hadn’t been developed yet and the stigma of the disease was so strong that very few Indian medics wanted to work there, so volunteers like me were brought in to help clean infected wounds and bandage damaged limbs.
Leprosy has now been curable for the past 25 years or so, but is still a global problem, affecting more than 15 million people worldwide  (including 100 in the UK), and each year, at least a quarter of a million new cases are detected - that is almost one person diagnosed every two minutes (World Health Organization). Over half of all newly-reported cases occur in India. And the stigma is still as damaging as it was when I was young.
On World Leprosy Day, the Leprosy Mission England and Wales, an international organization working to eradicate the causes and consequences of the disease, wants to “shine a light on this hidden disease.” Here is their message:
Did you know there are still leprosy colonies in the world today where people are ‘sent’ or ‘seek refuge’?  There are 850 in India.
Did you know that stigma surrounding leprosy in many parts of the world today is akin to what it was during Biblical times?  Even beggars begging for their own survival will often shun a leprosy-affected person.
Did you know that leprosy is completely curable with a simple combination of antibiotics?  Yet 85 per cent of people in Delhi, India - still believe there is no cure.
We’re confident that leprosy rates would be slashed across the world today were it not still shrouded in age-old stigma.  Three million people would not be living with irreversible disabilities as a result of late treatment of the disease.
What other disease sees someone outcast from their family, sacked from their job, thrown off public transport and pushed to the very fringes of society?
The tragedy is when leprosy is ‘hidden’. It damages and disables, slowly destroying each aspect of a person’s life.  If it wasn’t for stigma and misunderstandings surrounding leprosy then people would seek treatment and all healthcare professionals would recognise its symptoms.
Leprosy is a disease.  Those affected deserve dignity not discrimination. Please spread the word.
For more information, click here.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill is Back - Stop It!

Credit: Amnesty International

‘Our neighbours said to me, “Why are you still alive?”’ – Frank, Kampala

Uganda’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill is back. Passed by Parliament at the end of last year, it is now with the President for approval or dismissal by the end of January. The Bill proposes to sentence anyone identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual or intersex - LGBTI - in Uganda to life in prison. It will have terrible wide-ranging repercussions and punish activists, health workers and lawyers for 'promoting' homosexuality. Amnesty International is asking people to urge the President to stop it.

It’s already illegal to be gay in Uganda, with a lengthy prison sentence for anyone found to have had same-sex relations. But this new Bill goes even further, and anyone identified as LGBTI will be imprisoned for life.
This month marks three years since prominent gay rights activist David Kato - who campaigned against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill when it first appeared before Parliament in 2009 - was murdered in his home. His murder followed a hate campaign in the national press which called for Kato and others on a ‘gay list’ to be hanged.
Sadly, in the years since Kato’s murder, attacks have increased and rights for LGBTI individuals rolled back even further – led by hateful tirades in the media, and vicious campaigns by law-makers keen to legitimise discrimination.
It is impossible to assist gay rights activists with court cases without receiving abuse and assaults – from neighbours and passers-by, to government officials and the police.
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill not only legitimises but actively encourages such activity.
What’s more, the Bill will extend punishments to anyone found to be 'promoting homosexuality'. If it becomes law, access to basic legal and health rights will be denied to a whole section of Uganda’s society.
Health workers will be barred from conducting HIV tests or advising LGBTI patients; lawyers prevented from advising LGBTI clients; activists prevented from defending LGBTI rights.
In fact, if you know of someone working with LGBTI individuals and you fail to report that activity within 24 hours, you too will be prosecuted.
Please tell the President that love is a human right and urge him to veto the bill: take part of  Amnesty International action here.