Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Child Marriages Blight Bangladesh

Nargis who was forced to marry at 12
Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with 20% of girls becoming wives before their 15th birthday, even though 18 is the minimum age allowed by law for a girl to marry and 21 for a boy.

Many young girls are made to give up their education to marry and raise families when they reach puberty because they are seen as a financial burden with less potential to contribute to the household income than a son. Arranging for a daughter to marry an older man can seem like a good way to secure her future and a younger bride can mean lower dowry payments for her parents.

Child brides drop out of school and are rarely allowed to work.  Often they become victims of domestic violence.  They lose their childhood completely. And with their bodies too young for child bearing, pregnancy results in serous health risks for both mother and child.

“I was 12 when child marriage shattered all my dreams,” says Nargis who is now 19.  “On the day itself I was frightened: again and again I felt fear, fear, fear. Once my grandmother and sister had gone, I had to go and live with my husband. I didn’t know him. That night I felt strange, and very scared.

“I feel very bad, because instead of going to school I live at my father-in-law's house and do all the household work. When I was at home I could share my feelings and emotions. Now that I’m married I don’t have any say and I have to abide by what my husband and my father and mother-in-law decide.

“Two years after my marriage, when I was 14, I gave birth to a baby boy, but there were complications after the birth. He survived for 16 days but then he died," Nargis says.

"It is the new kind of slavery," says Mirna Ming Ming Evora, country director for the NGO Plan International, a global children’s charity, focusing among other issues on early and forced marriages. "Here girls are a burden, they don't earn income in this culture,”  she says.

“Behind our parents’ decisions to marry girls young is poverty – extreme poverty. If our parents get a good offer, sometimes it is very difficult to change their minds,” explains Oli.

Oli is an amazing 12-year old boy, who is a member of a Plan’s children’s group in northern Dhaka, raising awareness of the impact of early and forced marriages on girls and society in general. 

They perform street dramas and step in directly when they hear a marriage is planned. “We go to see the parents and try to get them to stop the marriage,” Oli says. “We have tried this on many occasions - sometimes with success and sometimes we are not able to stop the marriage.” Plan staff in Bangladesh know of four child marriages that Oli’s club has directly prevented in his small district of the Bashentak slum alone.

In this short video of Oli explaining how boys can make a difference.

There are 25 children in Oli’s organisation and Plan has 60 similar clubs across the country. Plan has reached an estimated one million people with its anti-child marriage work while Oli himself has reached about 50,000.

Oli is one of  three children affected by child marriage - Oli, Poppy and Jemi - whose experiences is featured on Angus Crawford's Crossing Continents on Radio 4 today, Thursday 26 April, at 11:00 BST and again on Monday 30 April at 20:30 BST. You can listen online, download the podcast and browse the archive.

A TV documentary on child marriage will also be featured on BBC World News GMT: Fri 27th April 13:30 and Sat 28th April 11:30 and 23:30; and on BBC News Channel BST:  Sat 28th April 05:30, 14:30, 21:30 and Sun 29th April 03:30, 10:30, 22:30.
BBC team filming with Plan's children's group in Bashantek slum, Dhaka
 Sign Plan's petition to stop child marriage here.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox "celebrate" 40 years in solitary confinment

Herman Wallace (left) and Albert Woodfox in Angola prison
 A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on two men who have spent 40 years in solitary confinement in Angola prison in Louisiana. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have spent 23 hours of each day in the last 40 years in a 9ft-by-6ft cell. (Read why they are in prison here).

Yesterday, they "celebrated" their their 40th anniversary of solitary confinement. To mark the day, Amnesty International put pressure on the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, to release the two men from solitary by delivering a petition bearing more than 65,000 signatures  to the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge. AI calls their prolonged solitary incarceration a form of cruel and inhumane treatment that is banned under both the US constitution and international law.

"I can make about four steps forward before I touch the door," Herman Wallace said as he describes the cell in which he has lived for the past 40 years. "If I turn an about-face, I'm going to bump into something. I'm used to it, and that's one of the bad things about it."

I cannot begin to imagine how one can survive under these circumstances, so was very interested to find out in a Guardian article by Ed Pilkington yesterday about a new documentary that takes us inside that cell. The documentary, Herman's House, based on recorded conversations between Wallace and independent film-maker Angad Bhalla, tells us how it feels to live that way and what it does to you.

The film also describes the relationship between Wallace and a young artist called Jackie Sumell. The American artist was so outraged by his story that she decided to help him imaginatively escape from solitary confinement by having him design his perfect house. In 2003, she asked Herman a very simple question: "What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6' x 9' box for over 30 years dream of?"

"What kind of house do a man in solitary dream about?" he says in the film. "I don't dream about no house. Being out there in the streets, even if I was homeless, I'd be satisfied."

But he does go on to design for Sumell his perfect house, sending her drawings and descriptions in words from which she builds a recreation of Herman's house as an art installation. 

"In the front of the house," he writes, "I have gardens full of gardenias, carnations and tulips. This is of the utmost importance. I would like my guests to be able to smile and watch the flowers all day long."

This extraordinary collaboration between Wallace and Sumell (called the House That Herman Built) has gained international recognition through its exhibition,  corresponding book and now soon the documentary. "The House That Herman Built"  is a testament to the human imagination, an illustration of kindness, an art project, and an introduction to history that highlights institutionalized racism in the United States," states Sumell's website. "Ultimately, Herman's House is a monument to resilience, courage, creativity and magnanimity."

The film "Herman's House", directed by Angad Bhalla and produced by Lisa Valencia-Svensson, will be shown at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival on April 27. 

Friday, 6 April 2012

International Roma Day - challenge discrimination against European Romani, urges Amnesty International

Young girls removing their belongings from their home before the  forced eviction of an informal Roma settlement in Belgrade known as 'Block 72' on 7th March, 2012/ Photograph:  Sanja Knežević

International Romani Day on April 8 is an opportunity to celebrate Romani culture, but also to highlight the persecution and discrimination that Roma people still face today. To mark the day, Amnesty International released a hard-hitting briefing on the plight of Roma, Traveller and Gypsy communities across Europe and called on the European Union to stop ignoring their plight.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said: “Discrimination is one of Europe’s most pressing human rights concerns, affecting the lives of millions of people across the continent. Millions of people are still subjected to exclusion, poverty, ill-treatment, even violence, because of who they are, what they are presumed to be or what they believe... The Roma and Traveller populations of Europe suffer more than most. For too long, governments across Europe have swept the issue under the carpet. It’s time Europe woke up and put a full stop to persecution of these marginalised communities.”

The Amnesty briefing pulls together the latest statistics per country and paints a shocking picture of discrimination. The statistics include:

• In Ireland, life expectancy for male travellers is 61.7 years, around 15 years lower than the national average. 

• In Kosovo, 97 per cent of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians are unemployed.

• In Moldova, 59 per cent of Roma live in absolute poverty.

• In Slovakia, 70 per cent of Roma children are in institutional care.

• In Spain, poverty among the Roma community is 4.5 times higher than that among the rest of the Spanish population.
•  In France,  only 15 to 20% of traveller children of secondary school age go to secondary school. President Nicolas Sarkozy described Roma as the “source of criminality” in July 2010
A pregnant mother and her daughter at home before the forced eviction of 'Block 72' in Belgrade. Photograph:  Sanja Knežević
Numbering between 10 and 12 million people, the Roma are one of Europe’s largest and most disadvantaged minorities. On average, they have lower incomes, worse health, poorer housing, lower literacy rates and higher levels of unemployment than the rest of the population.
These are not simply consequences of poverty; they are the result of widespread, often systematic, discrimination and other human rights violations. They are, in particular, the result of prejudice – of centuries of societal, institutional and individual acts of discrimination, that have pushed the great majority of Roma to the very margins of society – and which are keeping them there. 

“Stereotyping and negative perceptions of Roma people, embedded by some media and parts of the European public opinion feed discrimination in all spheres of life,” said Jezerca Tigani, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director. 
“Governments must set the example and challenge social prejudices that foster discrimination against the Roma and ensure their equality. Instead, only too often governments neglect their responsibilities to their Roma citizens to the detriment of all.”

For more information, click here;  to read Amnesty’s blogs on Roma, click here.

In England, hundreds of Traveller, Roma and Gypsy families will mark the day by marching  alongside supporters in London on Sunday as part of a global day protest. Protesters will assemble in Hyde Park corner at noon, visiting various embassies before arriving at the Department of Communities and Local Government. The demonstration is organised by the Traveller Solidarity Network, a group formed out of the Dale Farm eviction. 
For more information, click here.

A bulldozer destroys a house as part of the forced eviction of an informal Roma settlement in Belgrade known as 'Block 72' on 7th March, 2012/ Photograph:  Sanja Knežević

Thursday, 5 April 2012

End 40 years of solitary confinement - Urgent Appeal

Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace

Two men, likely to be innocent, have been locked up in solitary confinement in the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana for 40 years.

On Tuesday 17 April, it will be exactly 40 years since the men were first placed in solitary confinement. Amnesty International is marking the date by handing in a petition to the Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, calling on him to end their ordeal. 
In 1972, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace entered the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola in their twenties, convicted of the murder of a prison guard. Now in their sixties and in poor health, they are still in solitary confinement.
Each man spends 23 hours of every day in a cell measuring 2m by 3m. That’s about five steps long and three steps wide. The only view is of a small space beyond the prison bars. In good weather, they are allowed a solitary hour in an outdoor cage three times a week.
They have limited access to books and no opportunities for work or education. Social interaction is restricted to the occasional visit and limited phone calls. After living in these conditions for most of their lives, both Woodfox and Wallace suffer from serious health problems including osteoarthritis aggravated by lack of exercise, and functional impairment.
The men were convicted in 1972 of the murder of a prison guard, Brent Miller. No physical evidence links either to the crime and DNA evidence which may have cleared them has been lost. Over the years, documents have emerged suggesting the main eyewitness was bribed by prison guards.
The Louisiana prison review board has rubberstamped their ongoing isolation on 150 separate occasions, always citing the ‘nature of the original reason for lockdown’. By denying them any meaningful review of their isolation, the prison authorities have actually breached their own policies.
"If they did not do this – and I believe that they didn’t – they have been living a nightmare!" said Teenie Verret, widow of Brent Miller, in 2008.
Woodfox and Wallace believe their isolation (along with a third man, Robert King, incarcerated for separate crimes) was because of their political activism, and membership of the Black Panther Party. Collectively, Woodford, Wallace and King are known as the Angola 3.

King was released after 29 years of solitary confinement in 2011. The three men continue to campaign for justice, and recognition of the cruelty and illegality of their treatment in solitary confinement. You can read more about the Angola 3 here.

Please, sign Amnesty’s petition to end their cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment