Friday, 22 May 2020

Surge in global domestic violence during lockdown – the shadow pandemic

In Argentina, the number of women killed has reached a 10-year high under coronavirus lockdown, with more than 50 femicides in less than two months, according to La Casa del Encuentro, a Buenos Aires-based feminist group.  Not only the numbers, but the severity of the violence, is hugely concerning, they said.

In Spain, two women have been killed by their partners since the country’ strict lockdown came into force on 14 March. 

Last month, the UK charity Refuge reported a 50 per cent increase in calls to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline and a 400 per cent spike in visits to its website since the lockdown began.

Across Europe, the lockdown stress and anxiety has led to a sharp spike in the number of women reporting incidents of domestic abuse, according to the World Health Organization.

The data in Argentina and other countries follow a worldwide trend of rising gender-based violence under lockdown that has left women trapped at home with their abusers and unable to seek help while tensions due to COVID-19 escalate.

Social isolation under the current crisis not only increases the risk of domestic abuse, but also hinders access to assistance and protection services.
Dr Hans Kluge, director of WHO’s European region, told a recent press briefing that across the continent the number of women making emergency calls had risen 60 per cent in April, compared to the same month in 2019.

Last month the United Nations Population Fund warned of the "calamitous" impact of a prolonged lockdown, saying it that if it lasted for six months there would be an additional 31 million cases of gender-based violence globally.

Some countries have introduced innovative measures to address the issue – Greenland has limited sales of alcohol, for example, and Spain and France have introduced a system where pharmacists can be alerted to cases of domestic abuse with a code word. Other countries have announced measures including having 24-hour phone helplines, increasing funding,  providing refuge for victims in hotel rooms or having police check on households with previous cases of domestic violence.

CIVICUS (the global alliance of civil society organisations)’ Diversity & Inclusion Group for Networking & Action (DIGNA), recently held a domestic violence webinar with speakers from Botswana, Uganda, Fiji, India and Brazil in order to get some insights into the situation and solutions in their countries.  Here is a quick summary:

UGANDA - Lucky Kobugabe, GBV Prevention Network Uganda
•    Public spaces are becoming even more gendered during the pandemic. The streets are quieter due to lockdown, so women are more likely to be violated by strangers they don't know.

BRAZIL – Ana Addobbati, Social Good Brasil
•    In Rio De Janeiro, police reports can be filed online, and there has been around a 50% increase in cases. Technology is being utilised to adapt to the situation, including the use of apps to report cases.
•    There has been an increase in sexual abuse cases of children and adolescents.

INDIA – Uttanshi Agarwal, One Future Collective
•    In India, only 38% women of have access to technology - COVID-19 has exposed the need for digital literacy, which is now more urgent than ever.
•    Police can help reduce domestic violence during curfew hours by increasing patrols in different areas.
•    They are implementing a follow-up system for officers to call individuals who have reported a case in the last 6-8months, this makes the community feel supported.

FIJI – Roshika Deo, One Billion Rising
•    Curfews are making it harder to access police and restraining orders – abusers are using this to their advantage and targeting women during lockdown hours. Moreover, there has been a rise in verbal and physical abuse during curfew hours.
•    Why isn’t the government using empty hotels to house survivors of domestic violence? Tourism is a major industry in Fiji and there are now many rooms available.
•    Fiji has good legislation relating to domestic violence but it is not being enforced. For example, a police officer can apply for a restraining order via the telephone.

BOTSWANA – Dumiso Gatsha, Success Capital
•    In countries with a high cellphone penetration, such as Botswana, civil society organisations can provide airtime and data.
•    Increased risk for those who are marginalized:  there is a higher risk for LGBT+ persons being ‘outed’ by family members – families are using the lockdown period as a means to control.


Experts stressed that the end of lockdowns will bring additional challenges for women who are victims of an abusive relationship.  Financial uncertainty linked to income and job losses, psychological stress and the generalised feeling of loss of control are among the causes of increased domestic violence.

Additionally, the Covid-19 health crisis also has other effects in the long run, such as not talking to anyone about the violence suffered, unwanted pregnancies and facing difficulties accessing the voluntary termination of pregnancy services.

Services must continue to support vulnerable women and children and people should be on the alert for signs of abuse in the community. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Media censorship a ‘global phenomenon’ obstructing efforts to tackle pandemic

On Sunday, we celebrated World Press Freedom Day, yet when it comes to reporting Covid-19, journalists across the world are far from free.  
They have been risking their lives to provide reliable and trustworthy information during the pandemic, but all over the world, governments’ crackdown and media censorship are hampering efforts to tackle the virus. Censorship of vital information related to the pandemic has become a ‘global phenomenon’, according to Amnesty International.
“There is no hope of containing this virus if people can’t access accurate information. It is truly alarming to see how many governments are more interested in protecting their own reputations than in saving lives,” says Amnesty International’s Director of Law and Policy, Ashfaq Khalfan.
A core feature of the right to health is the right to access timely and accurate information. In the case of COVID-19, this means everybody has a right to access all available information about the nature and spread of the virus, as well as the measures they can take to protect themselves. But governments around the world have arrested and detained journalists and other media workers for sharing exactly this kind of essential information.

Here are just a few examples of dangerous censorship and serious attacks on free speech across the globe collected by Amnesty International:

• Russia: On 12 April, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an article by journalist Elena Milashina, in which she criticised the Chechen authorities' response to the pandemic. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov posted and Instagram video in which he threatened Milashina, appealing to the Russian government and Federal Security Service (FSB) to "stop those non-humans who are writing and provoking our people."
Urge the Russian authorities to ensure her safety. 

• Niger: Journalist Mamane Kaka Touda was arrested on 5 March after posting on social media about a suspected case of COVID-19 infection in Niamey Reference Hospital. He was charged with "disseminating data tending to disturb public order". 

• Egypt: Editor-in-chief of AlkararPress newspaper, Atef Hasballah, was arrested by security forces on 18 March, and forcibly disappeared for nearly a month, following a post on his Facebook page in which he challenged the official statistics on COVID-19 cases. 

• India: Journalists reporting on the COVID-19 situation have been summoned to police stations and forced to explain their stories, including Peerzada Ashiq, a senior journalist with The Hindu in Kashmir, and Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of The Wire in Uttar Pradesh. Many others have been arrested. Internet restrictions in the Jammu & Kashmir region continue despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases. 

Journalists have been prosecuted for reporting on COVID-19 in many other countries including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Serbia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia, Venezuela, Tunisia and Palestine.

Meanwhile journalists who report on human rights abuses related to the pandemic, such as police abuses or poor prison conditions, have also been harassed, intimidated, attacked and prosecuted.

Many countries, including Azerbaijan, Hungary, Russia, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tanzania and several Gulf states, have used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to introduce new laws against disseminating “fake news”. In most cases, it is at the authorities’ discretion to define what constitutes false news or misinformation, and these laws act as a stark warning against free discussion of the situation. For example: 

• Hungary: Viktor Orban’s government has amended the country’s Criminal Code, introducing new provisions that threaten journalists with prison sentences for “spreading false information” or communicating facts in a way that impede ‘successful protection’ against the virus. Journalists have reported being harassed, threatened and smeared for scrutinising the government’s response to the outbreak. 

• Myanmar: Authorities have warned that anyone who spreads “fake news” about COVID-19 could be prosecuted, while a Ministry of Health official said they would file criminal charges against anyone who speaks out about the lack of Personal Protective Equipment at hospitals.

• Tanzania: On 20 April, Tanzanian authorities suspended the licence of the Mwananchi online newspaper after it posted a photo of President John Pombe Magufuli out shopping surrounded by a crowd of people, eliciting debate about the need for implementing physical distancing.


Thursday, 19 March 2020

Women, Homelessness and Health

What do we know about the health issues facing homeless women? Of having no meal at all or eating five meals in one day for fear of having none the next day, of getting bed bugs and respiratory illnesses from sleeping on dirty mattresses and in damp places, of feeling too ashamed or exhausted to seek help?

Because homelessness is often seen as a male phenomenon, the experience of homeless women has been largely neglected by researchers and policy makers. We know far less about women’s homelessness than men’s – and almost nothing about health issues they face. Yet, homeless women have differing health needs to those of men and these specific needs are often overlooked in policy or service responses.

Women, Homelessness and Health, a new study by the homeless charity Groundswell and funded by the Greater London Authority, is focusing on these overlooked issues. The study is particularly valuable because it used researchers who have experienced homelessness, in all stage of the research process.
Groundswell researchers interviewed 104 women aged from 19 to 75 in London, using questionnaires, face-to-face interviews and focus groups.

They found that the trajectory to homelessness is often different for women and men: for women, the main causes are relationship and family breakdown, physical health issues and domestic abuse.  Not only is violence a cause of homelessness, but women also experience violence or harassment at homelessness services, day centres, hostels and on the streets, which is often a factor in perpetuating homelessness. Here is what one woman interviewed said:  “Being approached by men too often; being made fun of in the street; some guys take the micky out of you; guys touching but the tiredness from homelessness makes me let down my guard and get tired of fighting back. ” It is not surprising then that women are often reluctant to use services designed for and dominated by men, which can often be hostile places for women.

The research stresses that there is a clear need for gendered specific services, but they are not provided because homelessness is seen mostly as a men’s problem. “Women are not measured and counted – they are not as visible,” says Dr Joanne Bretherton, Co-Director, Women's Homelessness in Europe Network, University of York.  Rough sleeper statistics, for example, count people visibly sleeping rough.  Many homeless women sleep rough, but they make efforts to remain invisible – sleeping in hidden places or on buses - and so remain unknown to rough sleeper teams. 

“Often women will only access services when all other avenues, such as friends and family, have been exhausted,” adds Dr Bretherton.  “And they don’t seek help for fear that their children will be taken away.  They feel their mothering skills are judged all the time.”   Nearly half of the women in the Groundswell study are mothers and 22% of those women had children taken into care – an experience that was incredibly traumatic. 

Among the main findings, the study shows that participants have long and complex histories of homelessness, with 42% having been homeless more than once before and 70% having slept rough at some point of their lives. This suggests that women experience a cycle of repeated homelessness.

Three-quarter of the women interviewed have physical health issue problem compared to 37% of the general population. They mostly complain about joints, bones and muscles pain, problems with feet and stomach issues.  Many said that their health issues arose as a result of being homeless. This is unsurprising given the poor conditions women are sleeping in, the stress of homelessness and the amount of time women spend on their feet.

Sixty-four percent have a mental health issue- most commonly depression, anxiety/phobia and PTSD - compared to 21% of general population, suggesting that mental health conditions can develop and/or are exacerbated upon homelessness. In some circumstances, declining mental health can lead to addictions that where not present before homelessness.

Many participants spoke about how the stress and trauma of homelessness put pressure on their physical and mental health. “You are under stress constantly.  It means you are very terms of illnesses and everything,” said one woman interviewed.  Stress causes headaches, hair loss, stomach pain, eye irritation, rapid heartbeat, panic attacks, chest pain and periods to stop.

Many say that the stress of being homeless and the lack of routine mean it is difficult for them to look after themselves or attend appointments.  Sixty-five percent say that they struggle to find the motivation and confidence to deal with their health issues.
“I can’t make appointment, [I need to] wash first and eat first. Survival comes first.  Last thing we have as dignity is to keep clean.”  
“Until we have a larger body of evidence about women's homelessness, there is a risk that policy responses to, and services for homeless people will not adequately meet the needs of women,” says Dr Kesia Reeve, Principal Research Fellow at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), Sheffield Hallam University. “It raises issues about, for example, maternal and reproductive health and wellbeing issues that rarely feature in other research but are central to some homeless women's experiences and needs.”

The report concludes that in order to better support the health of women experiencing homelessness there is a need for:
- a deeper understanding of the health of women experiencing homelessness
- more flexible, considered and participatory commissioning 
- flexible, compassionate and consistent support centered around individual need 
-  focused approach on the health of women who are homeless within NHS services
- joined up working between services and sectors who support woman experiencing homelessness 

You can read the full report here

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Magdas Hotel - a hotel like no others

credit: KirchgasserPhotography

 If you go to Vienna, try to stay at the wonderful magdas Hotel. The hotel, which is celebrating its 5th anniversary this year, is staffed largely by refugees. It is the first social business hotel in Austria, but around the country and elsewhere, others are following suit.

At first glance, it looks like any other European hotels. Only a lone suitcase by the door and framed portraits of various sizes on the wall allude to its story.

The 78-room hotel is staffed by 20 refugees from countries such as Syria, Iran, Somalia and Chechnya, and 15 professionals of the hotel sector. Like in many countries, people with a refugee background have a hard time finding work in Austria. Initial lack of German language skills, the resentment of many employers, as well as the fact that refugees are only allowed to accept work after receiving a positive response to an asylum application (which can often take months or years) make integration difficult.

Located between the green Prater and the Danube Canal, the hotel was founded six years ago by the Caritas charity as a social business to give refugees professional opportunities. Most stay for around two years, gaining skills before moving on to a ‘regular’ hotel. 

Collectively, magdas staff represent 16 nationalities and speak 23 languages, so that guests are almost always greeted in their own language. Their many skills, talents, languages and cultural backgrounds allow for the hotel to have a special position in the hospitality market.

The budget hotel is a former retirement home, transformed through €56,000 crowdfunded and a €1.5 million loan from Caritas, with help from local designers from the nearby Academy of Arts. The hotel furnishings are donated, up-cycled or recycled, so each room has its unique quirky character. The hotel also hosts  sustainable initiatives, such as the harvesting of honey from beehives on the roof.

With its seminar and meeting rooms,  bar area, terrace and garden, magdas functions like every other hotels and many guests are unaware of its true nature, but its focus is not to maximise profit - rather to help refugee integrate and build bridges between communities.

Magdas (“mag das”) is a German wordplay, essentially suggesting that you should “like this.” And people seem to agree as the hotel is rated very good and excellent on booking sites.

If you get a chance to stay there, let me know what you think.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

#GlobalGoals - Dear World Leaders, This is an Emergency

Dear World Leaders,

This is an emergency.

We are activists for different causes from across the world, writing as one for the first time to demand your immediate action in this critical year…

So starts an unprecedented open letter launched today, signed by 20 leading global activists, calling out world leaders to act faster to end extreme poverty, defeat inequality and fight climate crisis.

This open letter marks the first time that activists fighting for global causes have been united by one single voice. Ranging from ages 10 to 94, the leading gender, climate, environmental, equality, justice and human rights campaigners include Malala Yousafzai, Obiageli Ezekwesili (Bring Back Our Girls, Nigeria), Tarana Burke (Me Too), Patrisse Cullors (Black Lives Matter) and Dr. Jane Goodall. 

The activists’ open letter has also been signed and supported by a network of 2000 campaigners and public figures across the arts, business and philanthropy from over 140 countries, including Emma Watson, Bono, Danny Boyle, Keira Knightley, Christiane Amanpour, Idris Elba, Femi Kuti and Spike Lee.

The letter declares a state of “emergency” for people and planet. It comes one week on from UN Secretary-General António Guterres calling on the international community to make the 2020s the “decade of action” and 2020 the “year of urgency”.

The letter stresses the need for immediate action, including at key 2020 moments, if the world is to meet the Global Goals. These key moments, include COP26, the Gavi replenishment, Generation Equality Forums in Mexico and France, the UN General Assembly and a landmark biodiversity conference in China.

The Global Goals for Sustainable Development are a historic plan adopted at the UN in 2015 to tackle these world problems. 193 countries (yes, including yours) have committed to achieve them by 2030.

Richard Curtis, SDG advocate, screenwriter and co-founder of Project Everyone, says:  “We are in an emergency for people and planet - the solution to which is the Global Goals  - the historic plan to defeat poverty, fix inequality and combat the climate crisis. In 2020, leaders will be watched by people all around the world who expect them to deliver dramatically. It’s also a clear commitment that this diverse and deeply committed group will themselves press hard throughout this crucial year to kickstart a Decade of Action for the Goals.”

The activists demand sustained innovation, financing and action over the crucial decade ahead to 2030. Recent reports underline the need for swift action; at least half the global population does not have access to essential health services, hunger is on the rise after a prolonged decline, and at the current rate of progress, it will take almost 100 years to close the global gender gap. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions are reaching record levels and key ecosystems are on the verge of collapse with one million species in near-term danger of extinction.

The open letter is accompanied by a public campaign asking citizens to show their support by sharing the letter and to join this effort for people and planet by using #GlobalGoals. The full list of signatories can be seen at A campaign film has also been directed by Richard Curtis.

Please share.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Generation Z fears climate change more than anything else; lives in failed system

Credit: Rosa Castaneda

At the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, Greta Thunberg today called upon world leaders to stop using "clever accounting and creative PR" to avoid real action on climate change.  Thunberg’s chiding of world leaders seems to chime with young people’s beliefs, according to a major new study by Amnesty International.

The Amnesty poll, released yesterday on Human Rights Day asked more than 10,000 people aged 18-25 - also known as Generation Z - in 22 countries across six continents, to pick up to five major issues from a list of 23.

Of those, four out of 10 young people (41%) selected climate change, making it the most commonly cited issue globally, ahead of pollution (36%) and terrorism (31%).

“For young people the climate crisis is one of the defining challenges of their age,” said Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International.  “This is a wake-up call to world leaders that they must take far more decisive action to tackle the climate emergency or risk betraying younger generations further.”

Global warming was also most commonly cited as one of the most important environmental issues facing the world (57%), out of 10 environmental issues such as ocean pollution, air pollution and deforestation.

In their own countries, Generation Z’s concerns extend beyond the climate crisis, reflecting the everyday struggles and concerns young people are facing and the feeling that they are  “living inside a failed system”.

At a national level corruption was most commonly cited as one of the most important issues (36%), followed by economic instability (26%), pollution (26%), income inequality (25%), climate change (22%) and violence against women (21%).

“This generation lives in a world of widening inequality, economic instability and austerity where vast numbers of people have been left behind,” said Kumi Naidoo.

“The message from young people is clear. The climate crisis, pollution, corruption and poor living standards are all windows on an alarming truth about how the powerful have exploited their power for selfish and often short-term gain.”

The survey’s findings come at a time of widespread mass protests around the world, from Algeria to Chile, Hong Kong, Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan. Many of these movements have been largely led by young people and students, who have angrily called out corruption, inequality, and abuse of power and faced violent repression for doing so.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Symbols of Humanity: Syrian artist bridges times, religions

In our divided and polarised world, who, but artists, can conjure up the possibility of coexistence between cultures, ethnic groups and religions?

Born in 1966 in Aleppo, George Baylouni fled to France during the war.  And now his work builds bridges between the East and the West, and the past and the present.

Fascinated by the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, he studied their mysterious artefacts and texts, written in ancient cuneiform. He paints religious symbols and makes collages, adding gold leaf, his trademark, telling a tale of ancient worlds and of contemporary times. Uniquely, his paintings combine religions, with several pieces focusing on both Christianity and Islam in the same painting.

His work has been showcased prominently in the Middle East and Europe and he was named one of the 100 most important personalities in the Arab world in 2014 by Arabian Business Magazine.

”Symbols of Humanity”, Baylouni’s first exhibition in London, opens at the Stories Art Gallery in Mayfair on October 17 and runs until November 17. 

Baylouni's exhibition marks the first anniversary of Stories Art Gallery, which features renowned and upcoming artists from around the world, many from war-torn countries, and focuses on the stories behind their artwork.

If you have a chance, do see the exhibition and meet gallery director, the wonderful Manas Ghanem, who was born in Damascus, then educated in the West. Before opening her gallery, she worked as a lawyer in the Middle East and North Africa with UNHCR and Unicef.