A Voice For the Voiceless


The Advocacy Project (AP) recruits students to help marginalized communities tell their story and claim their rights.

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Mboko, August 2011

Walter James | Posted August 18th, 2011 | Africa

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The conflict, and its effects on civilians, is not quite abating in Fizi Territory.

The village of Mboko is situated about halfway down on the road between Uvira and Baraka. Mboko is sandwiched between Lake Tangayika, immediately to the east, and the mountains of the Moyen Plateau, which rise up to the west. The area of the Moyen/Haut Plateau to the west of Mboko is infested with armed groups, most notably Mai Mai militias, the FDLR, and Burundian FNL rebels.

SOS FED has one center in Mboko, providing services to survivors of sexual violence. The Mboko center has seen some rough days, especially when the surrounding area was a battleground between the Congolese military and various non-state armed groups in the mid-late 2000s. The Mboko center staff had noted that starting in end of 2010, the situation around Mboko was relatively calm due to FARDC actions that pushed the zone-of-combat away from the main road. However, that is now starting to change.

On August 3rd, armed men stopped and robbed 2 vehicles in the village of Ilila, about 15 minutes north of Mboko. In the incident, 7 women were raped; these women went to the MSF hospital in Baraka. There is no official confirmation as to the affiliation of the armed perpetrators, but the word around the area is that these men belong to a Mai Mai militia based in the Moyen Plateau just above the area.

On August 15, armed men (again, presumed Mai Mai) attacked civilians working in their fields near the village of Senza, just south of Mboko. About 13 women reported being raped in the attacks. SOS FED Mboko center manager Mariamu Bashishibe tells me she and her staff are making all effort to reach the survivors and provide them with assistance. In addition, several NGOs in the area, along with local authorities, are working together to help those who have fallen victim to these attacks.

In the month of August, the SOS FED center in Mboko has received two women from a village near Ilila that were attacked and raped in their homes by presumed Mai Mai assailants.

There are many more reports of attacks in the area, with rumors of alarmingly high numbers of rapes, but I am waiting for confirmation from several sources before I report on these other incidents. Please stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.

In general, it appears as though attacks on civilians on the Uvira-Baraka road are starting to pick up, particularly close to Mboko. According to people I spoke with in Mboko, the Mai Mai have successfully infiltrated the villages and seem to raid at will. What is the possible reason for this escalation in rape, pillage, and violence? The Mboko center staff connects the escalation to the general reduction of FARDC troops in the area since the braçage process started earlier this year for units based in Mboko. Earlier this year, the Mboko-area FARDC units went into braçage for training/re-equipment/re-organization. However, their units have returned back to Mboko in fewer numbers than before. While the reduction of total troop numbers in the Kivus is a positive change, especially considering the massive amount of human rights violations committed by the FARDC, the continued presence of armed groups such as the Mai Mai, FDLR, and FNL means that civilians will continue to suffer as non-state armed elements simply move into areas left empty by the FARDC.

The confused FARDC presence, paired with an almost total lack of effective MONUSCO troop presence in Fizi Territory, is making things rather easy for armed groups that wish to prey upon the civilian population. While the rest of Congo is supposed to be moving forward in terms of peace, security, and stability, Fizi Territory remains stuck.

Child with fish in Fizi Territory
Child with fish in Fizi Territory

Child with fish in Fizi Territory

On Reparations

Catherine Binet | Posted July 5th, 2011 | Latin America

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The issue of reparations to the victims of the internal armed conflict is one that I have been meaning to write about for a while, being transversal to many of the themes that are part of my daily orbit here in Lima: memory, justice, reconciliation, development. Following my last trip to Ayacucho and a recent decree promulgated by the Peruvian Supreme Court, I feel now is an appropriate time to tackle the issue. A word of warning, though:  since I have done a fair bit of reading on this topic lately, this post is a bit lengthy, and has a more academic bend. You will have to forgive me just this once!

In 2003, the final report of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended the creation of an Integral Plan of Reparations as part of a state policy that would allow for the material, moral, mental and physical recuperation of the victims of the armed conflict and restore their rights.

The necessity of reparations in post-conflict situations is widely accepted, as states have a legal duty to acknowledge and address widespread or systematic human rights violations, in cases where the state caused the violations or did not seriously try to prevent them (for instance, the UN’s Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation explicitly recognize reparations as a right). But above and beyond a legalistic perspective, it is also nearly undisputed that reparations are a necessary condition in the process of reconciliation.

Local women in Huamanquiquia
Local women in Huamanquiquia

As part of the transitional justice process, reparations should serve a double purpose. The first is to recognize the harms suffered by the victims, and publicly affirm that victims are right-holders entitled to redress. The second goal is to provide actual benefits to the victims, whether in symbolic or material forms, providing the conditions for future relationships based on the mutual recognition of the equality and dignity of all.

In theory, then, reparations should both compensate for the losses suffered, helping to overcome the consequences of the violence; and be future-oriented, helping to eradicate the underlying causes of the violence and victimization. In a country like Peru, where historical marginalization, discrimination and injustices against Andean and native populations preceded and in a certain sense gave rise to the internal conflict and the massive violations of human rights that came along with it, the second goal is particularly important.

What it implies, however, is not always well understood. To begin, it implies that a transitional justice restoring the victim to the original situation before the gross violations of human rights occurred can hardly be called justice, when the original situation included blatant violations of economic, social and cultural rights. Thus, it also implies moving away from the notion of retributive justice and towards distributive and transformative justice. As stated in this briefing paper by the International Center for Transitional Justice—ICTJ: “When the causes and consequences of poverty are not seen as directly relevant to transitional justice, reparations programs … may only lead to frustration and resentment.”

Local woman in Huamanquiquia waiting for her RUV certificate
Local woman in Huamanquiquia waiting for her RUV certificate

But back to the Peruvian case. The Toledo government realized important advances in the implementation of an Integral Plan of Reparations, as proposed by the Truth Commission. It promulgated a plan and the laws to regulate it, created a multi-sectorial commission to coordinate and monitor its implementation, and formed a Council of Reparations in charge of defining the beneficiaries and policies of reparation. The Program of Economic Reparations is a component of the Integral Plan of Reparations, along with other measures such as reparations in the areas of health, education, access to housing, etc.

Contrary to its predecessor, the outgoing government of Alan García has advanced little on the agenda of reparations. The only reparation program that has seen any substantial progress has been the program for collective reparations. To date, this program had benefited 1,672 communities affected by the violence.

While collective reparations do represent an expression of recognition of the state’s responsibility as well as an effort by the state to fulfill its obligation to compensate the victims of the internal armed conflict, successive evaluations of the implementation of the program by APRODEH and the ICTJ (the second and third evaluations are available online) found serious limitations to their reparative effect. They showed that, in practice, collective reparations were used as a way of compensating for the lack of basic services and infrastructure in the population, and were often not understood those affected as related to their status as victims of the internal conflict.

Local women in Huamanquiquia sharing their concerns over the RUV with Renzo
Local women in Huamanquiquia sharing their concerns over the RUV with Renzo

Collective reparations project are decided upon through participatory consultations with the affected communities. Given the depth and breadth of unmet basic needs in those communities, the chosen project are most often infrastructural in nature. In this context, the link between the harms suffered from the violence by the community and the chosen projects is not always clear. The communities simply do not have the luxury of identifying the project of reparation most symbolically appropriate to acknowledge and make up for the damage suffered; their immediate development needs and priorities win over.

Collective reparations, in these cases, rather than representing the implementation of a right that dignifies the victims, end up being mere attempts at satisfying a necessity. But the problem runs even deeper: by acting as substitutes for basic services that the state should be providing anyway, they negate the dignity and the rights of the population to these services.  Needless to say, the opportunity to restore the status of full-rights bearing citizens to the affected individuals is lost in the process.

As opposed to the Program for Collective Reparations, the process of individual reparations (which is what many of those affected are waiting for – see for example Karin Orr’s video “Request for Reparations in Putis”) has precariously moved along, dogged by a lengthy and bureaucratic process of registering the victims into the Registro Único de Víctimas—RUV, budget cuts, and  likely a lack of political will.

EPAF staff handing out certifications of registration to the RUV
EPAF staff handing out certifications of registration to the RUV

On June 16, 2011, while I was away in Ayacucho, Decree N° 051-2011-PCM on individual economic reparations was promulgated by the Supreme Court. The Decree establishes the amount to be granted to victims on the armed conflict that have been duly registered on the RUV and sets a conclusion date to the process of inscription onto the RUV. Given its contents, it was immediately and unequivocally rejected by organizations of people affected by the violence and defenders of human rights (a press conference held by various NGOs demanded the derogation of the Decree; also read EPAF’s official position on the matter).

The Decree states that on December 31st, 2011, the process of determination and identification of the beneficiaries of individual reparations will close. However, given the complexity of the process, the high number of victims that still have not been registered to the RUV, and the isolated location of many of those affected, it is difficult to justify such a closing date. During our last trip to Ayacucho, EPAF exceptionally accepted to distribute certifications of registration to the RUV on behalf of the Council of Reparations in the communities we visited. In the process, it became obvious how much confusion, misunderstandings, and expectations there are about what the RUV is, who can register, how to register, etc. It is, to put it simply, absolutely impossible for all of those eligible for reparations to be registered to the RUV by December 31st, 2011.

The amount of 10.000 soles per victim offered is another major cause for concern, as it demonstrates a not only a disregard for international principles and standards on reparation, but also for the suggestions made by the affected regarding what may be an acceptable amount. Yet another contentious aspect of the recent Decree is that to be currently eligible, affected relatives of victims of enforced disappearance or execution must be over 80 years old, and victims of sexual violations must be over 65 years old—the latter being rather ironic, given the fact that victims of sexual violation were almost always young women, who would not have reached 65 years old today.

Lady posing with her certificate of registration to the RUV
Lady posing with her certificate of registration to the RUV

What does all of this say about the commitment of the current administration to justice and the dignity of the victims of the armed conflict? It is a vicious circle of victimization; a violation of the right of victims to receive reparation for previous violations of their rights.

As I mentioned in my last post, seeing the difficult conditions in which individuals affected by Peru’s internal conflict continue to live, and becoming aware of the linkages they themselves see between their experience of the violence and their conditions of poverty and exclusion, has made me reflect lately on the concept of justice. Justice undoubtedly involves compensation for the harms suffered.

But what might constitute appropriate compensation? The reality I am witnessing in communities like Huamanquiquia, Sacsamarca, Hualla and Putis, is that long-standing cultural, economic and social conditions, combined with weak public policies that at times could be mistaken for virtual absence of the state, continue to violate the basic rights of the population.  In this context, it is difficult to see how a reparation program limited to the one-off construction of an infrastructural project or individual monetary compensation that may or may not come depending on such arbitrary factors as one’s age may restore the dignity of victims and their status as full-rights bearing citizens.

I highly doubt that the legacy of the armed conflict is a debt that can be settled by any specific action or measure; it requires the affirmation and recognition of the dignity and rights of the victims on a continual basis. The Truth Commission understood this when it proposed an Integrated Plan that would provide for simultaneous measures in health, education, housing, etc. Unfortunately, this plan was only partially implemented by the successive governments. The coming change of government presents an excellent opportunity to revisit the policy on reparations, and hopefully follow more closely the recommendations of the Truth Commission on this matter.

In my view, the only acceptable reparation to the victims would not only compensate for the violence suffered, but also allow victims to overcome the consequences of their historical marginalization. By empowering them to take control of their own future and providing them with adequate conditions for the full exercise of their citizenship, it would establish equal relations among all Peruvians.

From this perspective, it is difficult to see where reparation as such ends, and where “development” begins. A program designed to correct the consequences of historical marginalization could include the implementation of preferential measures in the areas of education, agriculture and productive development, housing, health, etc. But if reparation is to take these forms, the way and context in which it is provided  is key to deliver the message that society acknowledges and values the dignity of the victims, and to differentiate reparation from social or development policies, making it clear to the population exactly what they are being compensated for.

Something special about Prizren, something special about Iniciativa 6

Samantha Hammer | Posted July 5th, 2011 | Europe

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Without fail, each time I return to Pristina from a visit to Prizren, I take my seat on the bus feeling relaxed, happy and energized. It’s not just that Prizren is a nice place to visit (although it is – it’s a lovely town with lots of historic charm set among lush green hills; it’s often referred to as “the jewel of Kosovo”). But more than being happy to have a little break from “the big city,” I’m consistently delighted and impressed by the group of fifteen women and girls who are creating Prizren’s contribution to the Kosovo Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian advocacy quilt that we’ll complete before the end of my fellowship.

They are all members of the Iniciativa 6 center that seeks to empower Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians (primarily children and youth) through education, health and vocational training programs.

Last week was my third visit to Iniciativa’s home base, located out of the city center in one of Prizren’s several Roma mahallas (neighborhoods). The place, a repurposed family home situated between two vacant lots, radiates positive energy – it’s full of laughing children playing and smiling teenagers and adults happily working on painting the attic, cleaning the kitchens or doing some craft project. At first glance, it could easily pass as Kosovo’s answer to 19 Kids and Counting. (Although that could just be me going through TLC withdrawal…)

When my new Albanian translator, Odeta, and I arrived this last time, a Turkish KFOR unit was distributing a shipment of school notebooks to a crowd of little Iniciativa members. The kids, pumped up from the combination of foreigners, free books and probably some candy to go with it, mobbed us. They pulled at our clothes, demanded autographs, threatened to rip apart the bags of snacks we’d brought for the meeting. Odeta looked like she was worried about making it out of the crowd alive. But I’ve learned that even though it might appear chaotic at first, the people at Iniciativa always have a plan. Sure enough, within seconds we were plucked out of the mob by the older girls to head to the meeting room upstairs and get down to business.

One little girl really wanted a shot of me and her friend, but couldn't get the hang of the zoom.
One little girl really wanted a shot of me and her friend, but couldn't get the hang of the zoom.

The purpose of this visit was to buy the materials they’ll need to make the quilt squares. So a group of seven of us set off for the city center, toward the bazaar.  The 22-year-old group leader, a woman who’s always got a plan, told me she could get the best deal on fabric – as long as I kept quiet and didn’t let the shopkeepers think I was an international with euro-lined pockets. So when we got to the marketplace I resisted snapping photos of the stalls jammed with shimmering fabrics, heavily embroidered wedding vests and sequin-covered everything. The leader looked back at me every few feet and winked, reminding me to keep our secret. The other girls giggled. We all crowded into a stall stocked with enough beaded finery for 300 spangled Kosovar weddings, and after a few minutes of the leader haggling – success! We walked out with an armload of fabric, enough for all their quilt squares, at a third of the price that I’d seen for the same stuff in Pristina.

Sure, this was just the start of a two-hour odyssey through the avenues and back streets of Prizren to pick up the rest of the materials, but she knew exactly what she needed and how to get it at the best price. Thriftiness is another quality I admire, so I was happy to go along for the ride while the girls – literally – danced and sang their way through town.

Heading toward the bazaar
Heading toward the bazaar

Admiring fancy celebration clothes
Admiring fancy celebration clothes

During my meetings with them I get treated to enthusiastic smiles from the girls, lots of giggles, warm hugs from the program director Drita. But the amazing thing isn’t their good natures, but how well they work together, and with such a sense of purpose. Those who know me know that I’m a fan of structure; these girls have me beat. The girls’ group, “Oaza” (oasis), made up of 15-20 girls and women representing 2 or 3 generations and a wide range of educational and family backgrounds, has been working together on various projects for about 6 months, and cooperates seamlessly. With all their cheeriness, the word I hear most is “serious” – they are serious about their projects, education, their futures, helping others in their community. Drita and the group are always eager to get to work and excited about making it meaningful. Seeing their energy, it’s hard not to be completely optimistic about the future of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women in Kosovo.

I always feel like I’m in very good company in Prizren. I need to come up with an excuse to go see them more than once a week!

Finishing the first meeting with the Iniciativa 6 group in Prizren
Finishing the first meeting with the Iniciativa 6 group in Prizren

Tupananchikkama, Ayacucho

Catherine Binet | Posted June 28th, 2011 | Latin America

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Huamanquiquia, Sacsamarca and Hualla. These are the names of the three communities of the Pampas-Qaracha region of Ayacucho that I visited that week, along with EPAF staff and a delegation of Canadian professors from the University of Northern British Columbia. In prevision of a future collaboration between UNBC and EPAF, the professors were there to learn about the history of the armed conflict in the region, as well as obtain a better understanding of the current post-conflict situation in the different communities.

Musical performers in Huamanquiquia
Musical performers in Huamanquiquia

Despite the long hours of driving separating them, and their distinctive clothing and musical styles, Huamanquiquia, Sacsamarca and Hualla have a lot in common. In fact, like the majority of conflict-affected communities in Peru—many of which are to be found in this region as it was the main location of the confrontation between the Shining Path, the Peruvian Armed Forces, and self-defence groups—they share similarities that far outweigh their differences.

Huamanquiquia locals
Huamanquiquia locals

The three communities are part of an on-going  EPAF project to empower the relatives of the disappeared to become the main promoters of the search for their loved ones, through the recuperation of memory, psychosocial counselling, and support and juridical assistance in the organization of associations of victims’ relatives. One of the main reasons for our visit was to sign agreements with local authorities to formalize the collaboration between EPAF each of the communities.

Sunset in Sacsamarca
Sunset in Sacsamarca

As I am becoming more immersed in this work and the more of these communities I visit, certain patterns are becoming hard to miss. This time around, I was particularly struck by two elements that came up again and again, whether in official speeches and discussions or in conversations with local people. First was how much people were moved by the interest showed by outsiders—whether they EPAF staff or visiting Canadian professors—in learning about their stories.

Sacsamarca locals
Sacsamarca locals

These are remote, extremely isolated communities that were deeply wounded by the internal conflict, and they have had to live with the weight of their memories ever since. The overwhelming impression I got was that communities feeling abandoned—abandoned by the State, and abandoned by a Peruvian society that cares little about the horrors that took place in this part of the country during the 1980s and 1990s. But also of people feeling trapped with their memories, their suffering and their wounds—and being thankful for any kind of outlet. Memory can be a burden as much as a liberation, and I have a feeling that some level of external recognition is crucial in the transition from one to the other.

Huamanquiquia locals and EPAF
Huamanquiquia locals and EPAF

The second thread that seemed to crop up again and again was that of the various linkages between the history of violence and the present difficulties in the communities. Local people clearly understand their present as the logical continuation of the past, and many associate their current state of poverty as the consequence of the violence suffered in the 1980s and 1990s. For instance, people in Hualla repeatedly emphasized the progress achieved by the community before the conflict.  When violence came, it was reduced to a fraction of its population when the majority had to flee to cities—Huamanga, Ica, Lima—to preserve their lives.

Woman watching EPAF staff at work
Woman watching EPAF staff at work

The fact that people themselves associate what I would broadly call “development” issues with their memories and lived experiences of the violence has many possible implications, which I will be sure to take up in future posts. For now, I will focus on one:  the limits of memory and the true meaning of justice. What does justice mean for the relatives of victims of enforced disappearance? Surely, establishing the truth over what happened and recuperating the remains of their deceased loved ones is a step in the right direction.

Members of AFAVIPOSS
Members of AFAVIPOSS

But what happens after the truth has been established, after the dead have been returned and properly buried? The collective memory of what happened may live on, but the people directly affected by the violence still remain as poor and marginalized from society, preventing any real possibility of a full reconciliation. This directly feeds into questions over reparations for the violence and losses suffered. What sort of reparation is appropriate in such cases? What is the responsibility of the government in this matter? I will address this issue in my next post, as I believe it is quite fitting with what I have witnessed on this recent trip, but also with recent events in Peru.

Welcome to Sacsamarca
Welcome to Sacsamarca

Before ending this post, I need to mention the incredible way we were welcomed in Huamanquiquia, Sacsamarca and Hualla. EPAF has managed to build a relationship of trust and respect with these communities, and this was evidenced by the extremely warm welcome we received. It is difficult to express the emotion felt after hours spent travelling on hair-raising roads to find an entire community waiting in the middle of the road to welcome your group with banners, music, and flowers. The hospitality of the people was truly humbling, and left many of us without the words to express our gratitude.

Post-ceremony group shot in Huamanquiquia
Post-ceremony group shot in Huamanquiquia

There would be much more for me to say about this trip to Ayacucho, but in the interest of keeping this post short I will simply say: “Tupananchikkama, Ayacucho!” (Quechua for see you soon, Ayacucho!)

Group pose at the highest pass of the trip
Group pose at the highest pass of the trip

The rest of my photos of Ayacucho are available on my Flickr set.

Starting the patchwork

Samantha Hammer | Posted June 27th, 2011 | Europe

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Last week the group of women I’m working with in Gracanica and I had our first real brainstorming day to start building up the story they want their part of the quilt to tell. I left it quite open-ended when it was time to start making preliminary drawings – it’s up to them to decide what aspect of their lives they want to present – and it was interesting to see how each woman interpreted our opening discussion about what sets Roma (these women are all Roma) women apart from others in Kosovo, the persistent problems they face from outside and within their community, what they want from their lives.

Women from our Gracanica group spent a morning working on their quilt square designs in the Voice of Roma office.
Women from our Gracanica group spent a morning working on their quilt square designs in the Voice of Roma office.

Women from our Gracanica group spent a morning working on their quilt square designs in the Voice of Roma office.

Two of the group chose to show Roma women as they were. A woman who makes embroidery panels of traditional scenes of Roma life drew a woman in traditional Roma dress (covered head, apron over a long skirt) making flija, a traditional Albanian dough and meat layered pie that in the old days (and in the drawing) would be made outdoors in a pan over a fire. I unfortunately have yet to taste the real thing; her drawing looked delicious.

A woman from a nearby village who makes a small living as an artist drew a portrait of an idealized Roma woman, with flowered headscarf, earrings, long eyelashes. These two drawings showed a domesticity that was simple, beautiful.

The youngest member of the group thought toward her future. She dreams of being an architect, and drew the house she would like to build for herself someday. This doesn’t sound so revolutionary, until you consider her circumstances. As a Roma girl about to finish high school, she is already exceptional. Attending university would put her in a tiny minority of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women who have the education to potentially join the professional middle class. Her next hurdle is to win a scholarship so she can afford to study in Pristina.

The boldest of the group, an activist from a small village outside of Gracanica, wanted to directly address a troubling issue that bears heavily on the lives of many women and girls from the three communities: the cultural mandate that new brides be virgins when they are married. This tradition holds in Roma communities across the region. RROGRAEK Director Shpresa (who was translating) told me that in eastern Kosovo (including Gracanica), a new couple must still hang their wedding night bedsheet out of their window the morning after their first night together, displaying it for the entire town. If there is no blood stain on the sheet to prove that the new bride had been a virgin, the groom’s family can reject the girl, sending her back to her own family, and she will be permanently, publicly, shamed, as well as probably beaten, or worse. She will probably then be married off to an older man, perhaps a widower, because no young man’s family will accept her. While this practice is apparently receding in western Kosovo, even in those more progressive areas the family of the groom may want to see the sheet privately to be sure their son has married a worthy woman.

This tradition isn’t limited to the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities – it’s an old Albanian custom as well – but most Albanian families don’t use the virginity test as final proof of the bride’s worth.

A few of the other women in the group joined in the conversation, agreeing that the virginity issue is one of the most important for Roma women because the consequences of not being a virgin can be so dire. They were all from towns and villages where this is their reality. It underscores how little choice many women from these communities have in the major events of their lives: ruled over by powerful patriarchal traditions, girls are shuttled from cage to cage.

The group said that the younger generations may be starting to see virginity as less of a requirement and more of a desirable quality; this study done in the region (not including Kosovo) is a bit less conclusive. For now, anyway, “dishonorable” Roma brides continue to be pilloried, unless they’re able to scrape together enough money to renew their virginity.

Taken together, I think that the group’s ideas represent very well the intersection that Roma women find themselves at – they are proud of their traditions, but are also aware that some of them hold them back from being independent, maybe even from being happy. Some have strong ideas for their futures but know that economic and social realities may make those dreams impossible. There are so many competing forces shaping how Roma women see themselves and their futures. How to navigate the crossroads is the challenge. I’m excited to see where the project takes us next…

Disability, war, and the social context of PWD

Rebecca Scherpelz | Posted June 27th, 2011 | Africa

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One of my roles with GDPU is to help facilitate weekly “Capacity Building.” Each Friday, one person presents on a specific area to help enhance the overall skill set of the staff. Last Friday, we had our first one: Common Disabilities in Uganda, presented by Ojok Patrick. What was supposed to start at 2PM and involve the staff of nearly 10 people ended up starting at 3:00 and was attended by Patrick, Ojok Simon, and me. At first frustrated by the small turnout, it ended up being one of the most enlightening, intimate, and eye-opening conversations I’ve had here.

Disability Overview:
Sparing you the specifics, the training was a basic overview of the cause/effect of the most common physical disabilities in Uganda. Obviously, disabilities caused by accidents, genetics, or complications before, during, or after birth (such as hearing/visual impairments, spinal injuries, spine bifida, or cerebral palsy) are not unique to Uganda. The fascinating and new information, rather, was in regards to disabilities that are (a) caused by disease such as polio, malaria, poor nutrition, and situations that are primarily eradicated in the US; or (b) a direct result of the 20+ years of violent war that ravaged Northern Uganda (and continues in other parts of East Africa today). During this “height of insecurity,”* the population of PWDs rose dramatically due to gunshots, landmines, forced amputations, and other war-based tragedies.

*Side note on the war:
Briefly, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is a rebel group who is responsible for countless atrocities in Northern Uganda and the surrounding region since 1986. During more than two decades of extreme violence, the LRA forced more than 2 million people into Internally Displaced Persons (IPD) camps, abducted between 30,000-55,000 children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves, and terrorized the region. Though Gulu and most of Northern Uganda has been considered relatively peaceful since 2006, the damage, poverty, and trauma of their ruthless brutality left deep scars on the people and the region (For more, visit http://www.resolveuganda.org/about-the-crisis).

In regards to disabilities, the 20+ years of rebel insurgency had both a direct and indirect impact on the people of Acoliland. The LRA planted an unknown number of landmines, leaving 800+ landmine survivors who live today with lost limbs, shrapnel scars, and nightmares of the incident. Monica – a GDPU worker who trains fellow landmine survivors how to plait hair – lost more than just her leg…she also lost the child she carried on her back.

Beyond the obvious physical and mental trauma associated with these and other tragedies of the insurgency, the societal impact on PWD leaves them among the poorest of the poor. Feeling like it was okay to ask more direct questions to Patrick and Simon (both PWDs themselves), I pried a bit into the current perception of PWD in Gulu and the surrounding region (For info on PWD in IDP camps, visit http://tinyurl.com/5vqs6wy).

Social Context of PWD in Gulu:
Though PWD account for 14-20% of the population of Northern Uganda (more accurate data is not available), they are among the first to be excluded. As Patrick and Simon explained, there is a lack of information regarding the causes of disabilities, leaving parents to blame each other for what is perceived as a misfortune or curse from God. Additionally, a child with a disability may be “counted” differently by parents who say, “We have four children and one who is disabled.” People also feel that PWD do not have the same needs as “able-bodied” individuals and are consequently not a priority. As a result, they might not receive essential medical treatment, assistive devices, go to school, or be empowered with basic skills in independence and responsibility. This feeds into the misconception that PWD are helpless, dependent individuals who are only the recipients of handouts and pity. PWD are favored and receive too many support services. Why does a PWD need such an expensive wheelchair? All expensive things are a luxury, and luxuries are not needed! Why should a PWD be allowed to be pregnant, anyway? Just another burden!

Gloria, Ojok Simon, and Moreen
Gloria, Ojok Simon, and Moreen
During another conversation with Moses, Gloria, and Moreen, other GDPU staff, we talked about this more. “People don’t see PWD as important. They cannot do anything,” Moreen said. “The blind are neglected. On the road, they are finding their way, but people don’t move from their way.” Moses added, “They need to go to town safely. They have needs, too. They can’t sit at home.” He went on to share about the discrimination factor towards PWD. In some instances, people with epilepsy were not allowed to eat at a restaurant because of the false fear that you can “catch” epilepsy through saliva. In a society with so many prevalent transmittable diseases (malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, to name a few of the most common), you cannot necessarily blame society for their ignorance. Still, where do awareness, understanding, and acceptance start for a region plagued with so many challenges?

PWD + Advocacy:
I’m quickly learning that “advocacy” for PWD is a complex demand. As Friday’s discussion continued, Patrick noted, “Without the war, advocacy wouldn’t be such a problem.” An impoverished nation even prior to the LRA, Northern Uganda experienced major setbacks that only perpetuate the cycle of poverty today. When the biggest concern is the immediacy for a short-term solution to feed your family for tomorrow, is there really time or energy left to mobilize support for such a specific population?

The short – though difficult – answer is a resounding YES. For the sake of the individual PWD as well society as a whole, there has to be. And that’s where GDPU and its advocates come in. More on advocacy, opportunity, and leadership for PWD coming soon…

The Big Sacrifice in South Asia

Corey Black | Posted June 26th, 2011 | Asia

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Over a dinner of naan and curried vegetables in a small, hole in the wall restaurant in Kathmandu’s Jawalakhel neighbourhood, exiled Bangladeshi journalist William Gomes once told me, “I feel like a prisoner here, in my room, in Nepal… I cannot go home. I don’t have my own money, or anything. I have enough to cover food every day, but that is it. Once my allowance runs out, then what? Then where?”

William and his legion of other exiled South Asian journalists are paying the ultimate sacrifice for being critical, and speaking up for injustice. They are from countries where reporting and researching abuses inflicted by the state can get one imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. They are from regions where those fighting for their countrymen’s rights in burgeoning young democracies are risking their lives, or at least lives as they knew it – forced into perpetual exile from family, friends, colleagues, and country, never to return home. They’re forced to live in countries of foreign customs, language, food, and people.

William, and later Dipal Baruwa, both from Bangladesh, have crossed my path recently. William first arrived at my guesthouse four weeks ago, shipped out of Bangladesh courtesy of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). While working with the AHRC as a journalist, documenting cases of human rights abuses and disappearances in Bangladesh, he was picked up by the Bangladeshi military in a black jeep near his home, shuttled to a government prison facility. Stripped, blindfolded, submitted to cold temperatures, drugged, threatened, and verbally abused, a clear warning was made by the Bangladeshi authorities to cease his activities, or else retribution. He was dumped in the same place of his abduction near his home.

(Dipal on the left, William on the right)

Two weeks later, Dipal, a Buddhist monk, arrived in Kathmandu at my guesthouse, courtesy of the AHRC again. His story was similar to William’s – a Bangladeshi human rights activist tortured and threatened by the Bangladeshi authorities, warning him of serious personal harm if his activities continued.

Two weeks ago, William rushed into my room in the morning, “Corey, hurry upstairs, there is an emergency with Dipal.” And there was Dipal, lying beside his bed, not talking or answering to us. He had tried to hang himself during the night, and William had found him just in time, returning from the bathroom.

My colleague Prakash Mohara from the Jagaran Media Center (JMC), who also works with the AHRC, soon came over. We agreed to not leave Dipal alone, and would get him to a hospital. As Prakash and I were downstairs, making coffee and discussing the situation, William joined us to quickly grab a coffee. We rushed upstairs, as Dipal was left alone. He had bolted the door shut, and wouldn’t answer our calls. Three strikes with my shoulder, and the door fell, to Dipal again trying to hang himself. Medical staff soon came, and Dipal received the treatment that he needed. He has since been released, doing much better, and smiling again.

And that is the plight of some of those who are sacrificing their lives for the rights and dignities of their compatriots. Some are suffering the same traumas of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as war veterans – depressed and disturbed by what they have experienced, and traumatized from their terrible treatment inflicted on them by state officials.

In South Asia, independent and critical journalism is a precarious enterprise, with those questioning governments’ official narrative risking persecution and personal safety. Over the past several years, numerous South Asian journalists have disappeared, been killed, or forced into exile – most reporting on national security issues. Most recently, William’s friend Saleem Shahzad was found dead in Pakistan – a journalist researching the Pakistani military’s links to Al Qaeda.

In Karachi, only weeks ago, captured by video and widely circulated on YouTube, a young man was shot and left for dead by the Pakistani military, in broad daylight. Clearly, parts of the state apparatus have different ideas when it comes to meting out justice and valuing life. Reforms towards more respectable democracies have ways to go in some countries, but publicizing these instances of injustice are an important part of the reformation.

William and Dipal want to continue their advocacy work, but are now unsure where they’ll land, to continue their lives. Visa applications to foreign countries are pending, and scholarship applications for postgraduate work have been submitted, and their waiting games continue.

In the meantime, William and his friends in Bangladesh have started a Facebook campaign, “Demand justice for journalist and human rights activist William Gomes” . It now has over 1600 members, and Bangladeshi journalists and law students have been spreading posters throughout the country, and have marched in Dhaka, demanding accountability and transparency for what happened.

It is clear that William and Dipal’s lives are fractured, and their consciences tormented by what happened. They’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice in standing up, and have to begin their lives anew. But I suspect that William and Dipal and his fellow exiled colleagues would not change the past, and would continue on in their fight knowing the risks involved.

Coca Quintu

Catherine Binet | Posted June 24th, 2011 | Latin America

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This post is going to be a very short one, as things have been rather hectic these last few days. I came back from a wonderful, week-long trip to the Pampa-Qaracha region of Ayacucho on Tuesday, and will be writing a full report once I have had time to process all of the material that I collected.

In the meantime, since I have not posted in a while, I would like to share a short video that I filmed in one of the violence-affected communities that I had a chance to visit on this trip, Sacsamarca. It captures a moment that moved many of those of us who were present to the brink of tears, when three ladies from the Association of Relatives Affected by the Political Violence sang a traditional song entitled “Coca Quintu”. I have no doubt that much of the meaning and beauty of the song gets lost in translation (from Quechua to Spanish, then to English), but here is a rough translation of the fragments that the ladies Sacsamarca sang for us:

Coca quintucha, hoja redonda
Coca quintucha, hoja redonda
Qamsi yachanki ñoqap vidayta
Patacruz patapi waqallasqayta;
Qamsi yachanki ñuqap surtiyta
Challwamayupi llakillasqayta.

Panteón punkucha, fierro rejillas
Panteón punkucha, fierro rejillas,
Punkuchaykita kichaykullaway
Kuyasqay yanaywan tinkuy kunaypaq,
Punkuchaykita kichay kullaway
Wayllusqay yanaywan tupay kunaypaq.

Rough translation:

Little round coca leaf
Little round coca leaf
You know my life
How much I have cried in Patacruz
You know my fortune
How much I have suffered in Challwamayu
How much I have cried in Patacruz

Iron-gated cemetery
Iron-gated cemetery
Open your doors for me
So I can reunite with my husband
Open your doors for me
So I can reunite with my husband
So I can converse with my husband

Renzo, a historian that works in the memory area of EPAF and who travelled with us on this trip, explained to me that coca quintu are small and round “baby” coca leaves. In the Andes, the coca quintu are sacred, and it is believed that they can tell the future. For example, people will ask the coca quintu to tell them whether they will be in good health in the future, or to indicate whether something that has been lost will be found again. In this emotional rendition of the song, which the ladies adapted to include the names of nearby places, a woman is asking the coca quintu to indicate the whereabouts of her missing husband so she can meet and converse with him again. My thanks to Renzo for transcribing the song in Quechua and translating it to Spanish.

Mere Rhetoric: The effectiveness of the Decade of Roma Inclusion

Beth Wofford | Posted June 23rd, 2011 | Uncategorized

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Thursday 30 June, 2011 marks the end of the Czech Presidency of the Decade of Roma Inclusion. The presidency will be closed with the 20th International Steering Committee Meeting on 27 and 28 June, in which I will be attending with Dženo.

The Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015) is an initiative by European Governments to realize the inequities which have been propagated against the Roma Minority and to address issues through legislation and governmental influence. The project came into effect on 2 February 2005 in Sofia, Bulgaria in which the prime ministers of the original participating countries signed the Declaration of the Decade of Roma Inclusion.

The Czech Presidency began last summer on 1 July, and has continued through this year. The Presidency established a list of Priority Areas, which are in agreement with many of the goals presented in other Roma documents (For example The European Commission’s EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020 and The Strasbourg Declaration on Roma prepared by the Council of Europe). These priority areas are:

  1. Inclusive Education
  2. Well Being and Rights of Children
  3. Roma Women
  4. Implementation of Integration Policies at the Local Level
  5. Media and the Image of the Roma.

These priority areas seem rather simple – the goals set out in each seem relatively easy to achieve. Many of the goals have been set into legislation per governmental decrees. From many angles, it seems as if the Czech Republic is taking many of the right steps to rectify the wrongs against the Roma minority.

However, when one delves deeper into understanding exactly what has happened to these people and how much these governmental decrees will actually influence any social change whatsoever, the rosy gleam of the Decade seems to diminish.

Let me clarify with a small anecdote.

On Tuesday, as a favor to my landlord, I presented at her school about community service. It was a short presentation about how helping other people can actually be fun. (Weird, right?!) One of the braver young women there asked me (in impeccable English) what I was doing here for the summer. I was hesitant to answer, but then I thought, do I really have to fear judgment from a bunch of 16 year olds? “I’m working to advance Roma Women’s Rights,” I answered. They looked at me with puzzlement. “But why?” asked the young woman, clearly not understanding why such a group would need help. Her lack of understanding was reflected in the faces of all the other young people in the room. It was clear that the stereotypes against the Roma run deep in Czech society, reflected even in the (mostly) innocent faces of the teens I talked to.

Anyway, back to the point of this blog. These governmental actions are a step in the right direction, no doubt. But how can social change and inclusion truly occur? How can we make sure that people take advantage of these programs set out for them? The enormity of these problems is reflected everyday when I walk into my office, with Ivan glaring at documents on his desk and shaking his head at the lack of progress over the past 20 years in the Roma movement.

One of the largest issues facing the Roma minority in the Czech Republic is that of education. Two strategic documents have been produced to try to rectify the problem of Roma children not being accepted into mainstream schools. The first, The National Plan for Inclusive Education, was created to allow equal access and opportunities in education for Roma children. The plan was approved in March 2010 with governmental decree No. 206.

Equal access is such a buzzword in all of the documents regarding Roma inclusion, that this action reflects the idea that the Czech Republic really is doing something about education. Reading about the potential of this plan I felt a touch of excitement that change might actually be happening.

Then, of course, this excitement is killed when I read the news that 50 experts from this working group have resigned. Allegations are presented against the Czech Education minister for Public Affairs, Josef Dobeš, accusing him of not taking concrete action to make this plan a reality. They have been quoted as saying, “Under the existing leadership of the Education Ministry, it is becoming more and more obvious that inclusive education will remain mere rhetoric.” (As mentioned in an article in Education International)

Mere rhetoric. What a fitting term for what has been happening here in the Czech Republic. The rhetoric is so promising – but no actions have been taken to ensure that these plans come to fruition. The perpetuation of stereotypes and discrimination continues.

The King Beekeeper of Quang Binh

Ryan McGovern | Posted June 23rd, 2011 | Asia

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“If a man has no chance of obtaining work he is in a desperate position, not simply because he lacks an income but because he lacks this nourishing and enlivening factor of disciplined work which nothing can replace”

The above quote is from one of my favorite books of all time, Small is Beautiful by E.F Schumacher. This particular quote comes from his essay “Buddhist Economics”, where he outlines his ideal economic system that conforms to a Buddhist world view. One of the main points of his work is that labor shouldn’t be a robotic series of movements where workers are paid as little as possible so producers can maximize profits. Work should first and foremost allow people to exercise their faculties and creativity, join people together in a common task to overcome their own egos, and produce goods and services to live a comfortable existence. AEPD’s economic empowerment model seems to follow this idea very closely, attempting to connect their beneficiaries with meaningful employment where they can both support their families and also take pride in their labor. This became quite evident during my latest excursion to the Bo Trach district of Quang Binh.

AEPD supports many different business models for their beneficiaries, but one that particularly caught my attention was beekeeping. I guess I was curious about this because of the fairly recent phenomenon of colony collapse disorder, where honey bees seem to be vanishing in parts of Europe and North America. So I was particularly excited for this trip to the field where I would meet Mr. Phong, an apiculturist who I was told had a strong reputation in the area, and even earned the moniker of “The King Beekeeper”. Nicknames like the King are usually well earned, so maybe the King could shed some light into our disappearing bee problem.

Mr. Phong, King beekeeper of Bo Trach (3)
Mr. Phong, King beekeeper of Bo Trach (3)

Mr. Phong showing off one his particularly strong hives

I was half expecting to be immediately engulfed by an irate swarm of insects upon entering Mr. Phong’s home, but this of course didn’t happen. His house is peaceful and serene, and he was a more than gracious host. Mr. Phong, like many of AEPD’s clients is a landmine survivor, who lost part of his right arm during the American war (he wasn’t reluctant to talk about his injury, but I got the impression he was a man who mostly thought about the future, not dwelling on the past). Unable to continue his work as a farmer to support his family, he turned to beekeeping, which is a traditional business in his hometown.

Lacking the necessary funds to start this new venture, AEPD was there to provide him with much needed capital and paid for the costs for his training. Before AEPD’s support, he didn’t have any full hives in his colony. AEPD provided him with the materials to support 3 bee hives, which he then turned into 36 hives in less than 6 months. In a good month, he can collect 30 liters of honey, selling them for 350,000 VND per liter. That’s equivalent to about $500 US a month, which is very high for this area. Not only has he become a successful businessman, he’s someone who commands great respect in the community. He’s the manager of a support group for persons with disabilities, and also heads the association of beekeepers for the Quang Binh Province. He’s regularly consulted by various Commune People Committees (CPC’s) so they can establish their own apiculture farms. He is also a regular guest lecturer in neighboring provinces, imparting his knowledge and experience to aspiring beekeepers.

Mr. Phong's wife helping him suit up for work
Mr. Phong's wife helping him suit up for work

Mr. Phong's wife helping him suit up for work

I was curious to get Mr. Phong’s opinion on Colony Collapse Disorder, but he was unfamiliar with the problem. He told me nothing like that has happened to him or any other beekeepers in Vietnam that he knew of. Hives can become weak for a number of factors he explained, but there must be outside factors causing these problems. I asked him if changes in the environment could be a cause, and he suggested that’s most likely the case. “Bees prefer a pure environment. I know some people in the west use chemicals a lot, but I’ll never use them.” He even described a natural method to encourage the production of queen bees to create new hives, where he uses ants to burrow into the colony to create a larger crevice where eggs are stored. This encourages the queen to produce more offspring, and will likely cause the birth of a new queen. Judging from the success of his thriving bee yard, this natural method may be the way to go. A recent article from the Guardian outlines the challenges facing the bee population, and seems to agree with Mr. Phong’s assessment. Check it out here.

Mr. Phong thoroughly inspecting one of his hives
Mr. Phong thoroughly inspecting one of his hives

After our discussion, Mr. Phong let us sample some fresh honey as well as some homemade rice and honey wine that he makes. One my colleagues enjoyed it so much she bought a liter to take home. Mr. Phong seems to have truly found his niche. He’s a successful business man who’s able to live well, and takes tremendous pride in his work. He is constantly giving back to the community, giving free training and often sharing hives with other persons with disabilities in the area. He’s a man of great generosity and determination, and I think I understand how he earned his illustrious nickname.

Fellow: Ryan McGovern

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