Monday, 22 May 2017

Imprisoning the victims – Jordan places abused women in “protective custody”

Credit: Equal Rights Trust

In Jordan, a country with a reputation of being progressive, women and girls who go to the police to report abuse or honour crimes, often end up being the ones thrown in jail.  Instead of prosecuting their abusers, the police place them in “protective custody” – a common practice in the country, seemingly to protect women from gender-based violence.

The practice not only fails to protect women, but further exacerbates the harm they experience and allows perpetrators to act with impunity, according to a damning new report by the Equal Rights Trust, which urges civil society and the Jordanian authorities to end the practice.

The report, Shouting Through the Walls, documents instances where women were detained for up to 10 years and only released with the support of a male relative or husband, an extremely dangerous practice in domestic violence cases.  Indeed, the report cites cases of women being killed upon release by male relatives, despite guarantees of their safety. And women who don’t have a husband are kept until they can find one. “The Governor is insisting I need to have a husband [to be released], but where am I supposed to find a one when I am locked up?” one women in protective custody said.

The practice is also used to detain foreign women who have been trafficked or who have left their employer’s home because the employer abused them.

Women in “protective" custody's situation is grim: they are detained without having committed any crime, often following significant violence or threats of violence. They have no prospect of release nor any real ability to influence their release. Not surprisingly, they are more likely to experience psychological problems than women in judicial detention. According to a 2014 Penal Reform International survey undertaken at Jordan’s Juweida prison, 62% of women in “protective custody” suffered form depression and a quarter have self harmed and had suicidal thoughts.

The report also paints a bleak picture of the conditions in jail, including overcrowding, a lack of access to healthcare, poor hygiene and few opportunities for work.

There are very little data about this practice, which exists also in other countries, but figures from the National Centre for Human Rights (2015) showed that nearly half of women prisoners in Jordan are administrative detainees.  Despite its reputation as a progressive state, Jordan ranks low on gender equality and women’s rights amongst world’s countries. 


Friday, 5 May 2017

Rodrigue Katembo - the Congo's park ranger who risks his life to protect wildlife

Rodrigue Katembo/Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize

The best part of my job as a journalist is to spend time with amazing people whom I would never have a chance to meet otherwise.

One of them is Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, a former child soldier who has become one of the most passionate defenders of Congo’s natural heritage, first as head ranger at Virunga National Park and now as the director of Upemba National Park, one of Congo’s most spectacular, but also most pillaged, neglected and dangerous parks. 

I’ve met Katembo on one of his rare forays away from Upemba. He spoke in French, in a measured way, sounding more like the civil servant he always wanted to be than the brave ranger who has risked his life many times to protect Congo’s iconic parks. He wants to fight corruption and illegality – a dangerous mission in a country like the Congo.

Katembo was in London last month on his was to San Francisco to receive the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa (a sort of Nobel for environmental activists), for exposing illegal oil exploration in Virunga - a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. 

He paid a heavy price: during his investigation, he has been kidnapped, tortured and faced mock executions. You might have seen “Virunga,” the 2014 Netflix documentary which recalls that story. 

A year later, he was transferred to Upemba for his own safety. There he is trying to slowly stabilise wildlife. The elephants, which were emblematic of the park, had been poached on a massive scale by the rangers themselves, the military, the police, the locals and the brutal Mai Mai militia- and those who escaped the slaughter had left the protected area.

He has already reintroduced one population of 68 elephants and another larger one is approaching the park’s borders.  Under his watch, no elephants have been poached in Upemba since 2016.  But it’s no easy job.

Since starting work at Upemba, Katembo has fought off armed militia, faced death threats and refused to accept multiple bribes to gain access to the park for illegal mining. He now lives apart from his wife and children for their safety.

“I am not special, ” Katembo simply said. “Yes, I was imprisoned and tortured, but many guards have died doing their jobs.”   Protecting Congo’s national parks is widely recognized as one of the most dangerous jobs in conservation. Over the past 20 years, more than 160 of Katembo’s park ranger colleagues have been killed - and they still continue to get killed today.

“We need to respect their work. We need to be willing to defend what they have died to protect. By protecting the park, we are protecting unique wildlife, local populations’ livelihood and Congo’s natural heritage – which is also the heritage of the whole world.”

Here is my full story on Katembo for Positive News. There are some great photos too! 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Do It Yourself Online Safety for Women

Does someone have pictures of you and you don’t know how? Do they keep showing up unexpectedly to places where you are?  Do they know things about your life that you haven’t told many people? 

Modern technology makes it very easy for people to stalk, intimidate and threaten their targets both online and offline. The good news is that there are lots of measures we can take to protect ourselves.  The DIY Online Security Guide for Every Woman, an easy-to-understand guide about online security launched earlier this month, shows some of most important ones.

The Security Guide was designed with women dealing with domestic abuse or stalking in mind, but its principles can be used irrespective of gender, location or situation. It is written in simple language and teach us everything we need to know about how we can be tracked – and how to hide our tracks on email, browsers, Facebook and other platforms.  

The guide, available in English, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto and French, was developed over two years by CHAYN, an open-source volunteer-led project using technology to address problems women face today. 

CHAYN volunteers got the idea, while listening and speaking to women on Facebook groups for survivors of abuse. They noted that women didn’t know basic security measures they could take to stop the most common forms of online stalking or abuse. 

 “We started showing how their partners were keeping tabs on them by doing simple things like monitoring the check-ins of their best friends whose privacy settings were lax or looking at their Amazon account or browsing history,” says Hera Hussein, a CHAYN volunteer who worked on the guide.  “When we answered their questions, women were so relieved and kept asking why there wasn’t a resource like this.”

For somebody experiencing abuse from a controlling partner, their online activities are often a vital way to reach out for support and guidance. Yet, according to CHAYN research, almost half of women in abusive relationships surveyed in the UK reported that their online activities were monitored in some way by an abusive partner. “This seriously hinders their abilities to communicate freely without having to censor or conceal themselves. In many cases, this has a direct effect on their physical safety and ultimately puts them at risk,” says Aliya Bakheit, another CHAYN volunteer.  “It is important to know what information you may be inadvertently making available to harassers or abusers,” adds CHAYN’s Lee Ball. 
When the first draft was completed, CHAYN volunteers asked organizations working with survivors of abuse and stalking, as well as security experts, activists and members of the general public from all over the world to review the guide. 

This guide is not a bullet-proof solution as it cannot include all of the ways abusers can track someone, but it is a collection of useful steps, tips and instructions for women to protect themselves whilst staying connected. The group aims to update the guide regularly so women can receive the latest information on apps and privacy options on social media sites.
The guide has been published on Gitbooks under a Creative Commons Share Alike license, so everyone can remix, share and redistribute contents honouring the same license.

So, go ahead and share it!


Saturday, 11 February 2017

Bosnia to America - how lies can kill

More than half of Donald Trump' supporters think a made-up massacre actually happened, even after the fabricated story was widely debunked.

According to a recent poll, 51% of Trump' supporters say the Bowling Green Massacre – an event fabricated by Kellyanne Conway – justifies Trump's Executive Order of 27 January suspending refugee admission to the US and barring entry to citizens from seven majority Muslim countries.

Please watch and share this short video by my friend Kemal Pervanic, a Bosnian concentration camp survivor, who explains how such lies about violence can kill – creating the conditions for neighbours and even friends to turn on one another.  

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Africa’s Bitter Sugar – Cash Crops Harm Smallholders

Faridah Nangobi and her family on their sugarcane farm in Kamuli, Uganda/Credit: Send a Cow

From coffee in Vietnam to sugar in Uganda, governments in developing countries have over the past decades pushed farmers to grow cash crops: they are important to the national economy and they provide jobs. This might be a good idea for farmers who have enough land to grow a variety of crops, but it actually harms smallholders.

Many farmers in developing countries own just a few acres of land, which means that most of their plot, often all of it, is dominated by the cash crop. This dependency on just one crop leaves them vulnerable to crop failures and any fall in the price of commodities. The lack of biodiversity also has a negative impact on the environment.

In addition, because smallholder farmers are no longer growing their own food, the region faces severe shortages and food has to be brought in from other parts of the country at high prices. The money the farmers do make from the cash crop is often not enough to feed their families.

"My children have nothing to eat. My baby just cries and cries. I’m forced to give her vodka so she can sleep,’’ says Faridah Nangobi, cradling her one-year-old baby inside her thatched hut.  Like most farmers in Uganda’s Kamuli district, she is growing sugarcane with her husband on their small plot.  Outside, her other children stand under a mango tree gnawing on sugarcane. The desperation with which they crush the canes shows that they are not chewing for pleasure: it is their only meal of the day.

 “Uganda must enact a policy to limit smallholder farmers from growing sugarcane as it has been shown not improve their lives,” says Patrick Sambaga, Uganda Country Director for Send a Cow, a small international development charity, working with farmers to strengthen the local economy and help them grow nutritious food and build greater gender equality.

 “Smallholder farmers must concern themselves with crops that bring in regular income for health care, school fees and food security,” Sambaga adds. “We encourage farmers to grow high value crops like citrus fruits, mangoes, kale, tomatoes, amaranth, garlic, potatoes, passion fruits, and at all times, keep small livestock such as ducks, chicken, rabbits and goats if they cannot keep cows.” 

Here is a story I’ve written for the Financial Times’ This is Africa examining how the sugar business system is operating in Kamuli, a major sugar hub in Uganda, and its human toll.


Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Constructive Journalism Comes to North Africa

Journalists from Libya, Tunisia and Egypt analyzing the balance of news in their respective media at the MiCT Tunis Constructive Journalism Workshop/credit:Veronique Mistiaen

“Wouldn’t constructive stories belittle the problems we are facing?” asked the tall Libyan journalist.   “If we write stories with a constructive angle, how can we make sure that they won’t be used as propaganda by the regime?” the thoughtful Egyptian journalist wanted to know.

These were some of the stimulating questions journalists from Libya, Egypt and Tunisia asked during the very first Constructive Journalism Project’s workshop in the region.

The political and media landscapes in post-revolutionary North Africa are not only very different from those in the UK and EU, where we have been running most of our workshops – but they are also different in each of these three countries.   This led to very interesting, challenging and passionate discussions.

Nineteen journalists participated in a three-day Constructive Journalism workshop in Tunis on November 25-28 arranged by Media in Cooperation in Transition, MICT, a German non-profit organization that runs media development projects in crisis regions. In addition to working for various  media outlets, many participant journalists also contribute  to, a bilingual digital magazine (Arabic/English) designed by MiCT to cover three countries.

We began the workshop by analyzing the various newspapers/media they work for, discussing the balance or imbalance in the news and its impact on the readers/audiences, on major issues such as migration and climate change and on democracy.

Constructive Journalism was a new and rather unfamiliar concept to all participants, but they could see the need for a journalism that moves from the crisis rhetoric, trying instead to capture the complexity of social and political life, reconnecting with communities and reinvigorating our profession.

We then explored practical tools journalists could use in their own reporting in order to produce stories that are more balanced, explore new angles and possibilities and ask different questions to those in power, the experts and the so-called victims.

During our last session, the journalists pitched constructive-angled story ideas for These included stories on a Libyan port city, where the community and police worked together to drive traffickers out; transitional justice in Tunisia; projects to get young people off drugs in deprived areas in Libya and a profile of a young female hero from Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  

“In our country, more than 90% of the news is on war and conflicts – who wins and who loses. Everything else is ignored,” a Libyan journalist said. “Now we have the tools to change that.”

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

From the Ground Up: homeless journalists tell their stories

This is street-level journalism at its best.  These journalists make you feel the terror at being thrown out on the streets by a violent landlord or what the loss of social housing in London means.  They look at issues faced by people leaving the army. They write about the exciting Museum of Homelessness and they know the best squats in the capital and how these provide a sense of community to people who have none.

They are the 'From the Ground Up' citizen journalists. They all have experienced rough sleeping, so this gives them a unique insight into homelessness, the services and policies and their impact.  Homelessness has increased sharply over the past few years.  If society is to tackle the issue effectively, politicians, social service providers, charities and the general public should learn from them.

Ten citizen journalists have enrolled in ‘From the Ground Up’, a six-month programme run by the “people-powered” homeless charity Groundswell and the Pavement magazine.  Weekly workshops on news writing, communication, interviewing etc.  help them develop the confidence and tools they need to tell their stories and the issues that are important to them.

One of the key ways they raise awareness is by publishing their stories in the Pavement, a pocket-size magazine packed with news, stories, art, cartoons and useful information for homeless readers (as well as a website).  

And so, on a cold autumn morning, I met Jimmy, Mahesh, Julz and a few other citizen journalists at the Groundswell office near Vauxhall for a day-long workshop on feature writing.  We discussed how to use brain mapping to find story ideas and how you need both facts and emotions in order to turn them into engaging features.  We practiced how to construct a story, how to write a vivid introduction and how to show rather than tell, using the readers five senses.

At the end of the programme, the group will produce a special issue for the Pavement, planned for February/March. They have chosen to focus on changes in homelessness due to economic pressures and gaps in health care provision for homeless people.

Being homeless has always been very hard, obviously, but they say that things are getting much worse. Jimmy, who found himself on the streets as a young man some 30 years ago, believes he might not have made it today…

The number of people sleeping rough in England on any one night has doubled since 2010 and increased by 30% in the last year, with an estimated 3,569 people now sleeping on the streets across England, according to new government figures.  The number of families with children in temporary accommodations has also increased significantly.  And as we see more movement between countries, migration has also become an increasingly important part of the story.

From the Ground Up citizen journalists, get your stories out there!