Monthly Archives: October 2011

A Free Eritrea

The one thing I hate more in the world outside of standing in a long Starbucks line on a Monday morning is INJUSTICE, especially when it’s happening in my beloved Eritrea. Anyone who knows me can tell you I am a proud Eritrean, however, lately I find myself praying for my country. To me Eritrea is in a state of despair.

Ten years ago, President Isaias Afewerki  demanded the arrest of 11 high government officials after finding information criticizing his leadership. He then went on to arrest 10 journalists who published  letters about this policies and closed all independent newspapers in Eritrea. The Human Rights Watch reported:

“The 20 men and one woman have never been seen again by anyone outside the penal system, including their families, lawyers, or prison monitoring groups. They have never been afforded a hearing; rather, all 21 were incarcerated in secret detention facilities in solitary confinement. According to former guards whose reports Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm, 10 of the 21 have died in prison and the remaining 11 are physically or mentally incapacitated and emaciated.”

Although these 21 are the most internationally known victims, there are thousands of others who have been denied basic rights. Most rights are denied of Eritrean’s because they are suspected of not fully supporting the regime and/or have attempted to flee out of Eritrea.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information sent out a press release yesterday stating:

“The Sudanese authorities are increasingly deporting Eritreans to their country without allowing them to claim asylum, Human Rights Watch said today. On October 17, 2011, Sudan handed over 300 Eritreans to the Eritrean military without screening them for refugee status, drawing public condemnation from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).”

On October 24, Reporters Without Boarders reported their concern to Sudanese authorities when Eritrean journalist Jamal Osman Hamad got arrested in Khartoum.

“Hamad’s arrest took place less than a week after an official visit to Sudan by Isaias  when he and his Sudanese counterpart Omar Al-Bashir inaugurated a new road linking their two countries in the Sudanese town of Kassala. Reporters Without Borders believes the criticism of the Sudanese authorities’ attitude by the UNHCR is well founded. This event unfortunately demonstrates that the U.N. body is not in a position to guarantee the safety of those who have fled persecution by the Asmara government. We therefore ask the UNHCR to appeal to third countries to grant visas urgently to Eritrean human rights campaigners who have taken refuge in Sudan,” said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard.

On September 10, 2011 which marked the 10th anniversary since the arrest of the 20 political officials, Reporters Without Borders along with various journalists and all privately-owned print media launched an international publicity campaign about Eritrea. The campaign also has an updated list of journalists detained in Eritrea.

Below is a clip of a ‘Free Eritrea democracy speech at San Francisco City Hall’ on April 19.

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The Last Cut

Okay ladies, be prepared to cross your legs &  clench those muscles because no matter how you look at it, there is no way I can sugar-coat ‘Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.’

In 2010, I went to Ethiopia to write, film, and produce a documentary addressing the perceptions of female genital mutilation as my thesis project. I also had a chance to partner up with international and local non-government orginzation (NGOs) on their grassroots initiatives which focused on  harmful traditional practices. As I stated before, my journey to Ethiopia reinforced in me an intense realization that there is urgent work to be done.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is practiced in 28 countries across sub-Saharan Africa from Sudan and Somalia in the east, to most of the countries in West Africa. It is also concentrated along the Nile valley from Egypt in the north to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya in the south.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines female genital mutilation/cutting as comprising “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons.”

During my time in Ethiopia, I learned that the procedures of FGM/C varies, depending on the type of FGM/C, the age of the girl, and the experiences of the person who is doing the circumcision, who I found to be in many cases an old woman. When I interviewed a local Awasa woman who practiced FGM/C on girls for over 40 years she explained:

“After I am done cutting the girl, I often try to pour egg yold or alcohol to stop the bleeding so that the healing can start. I tune-out the cries and screams that always happen when I am cutting the girl because for me, I cut girls to make an income for my family. “

Although I can sit here and go over more graphic details of my varies interviews and the different types of FGM/C, I  want to discus the purpose of the practice and bring attention that FGM still occurs in African countries.

The Concord Times  posted an article yesterday discussing campaign strategies in Sierra Leone linking to FGM.

According to sources, some politicians are presently expending huge resources to promote Female Genital Mutilation FGM in different parts of the country as a campaign strategy to win the hearts of electorates ahead of the upcoming 2012 Presidential and Parliamentary Elections.

Whilst doing this, these politicians spread hate messages against anti-FGM activists. They work in close collaboration with people in the society who support the practice of FGM to harass and intimidate those who talk ill about the society.

Even though these unfortunate events are still happening, it’s important that we pass the knowledge we learn and educate one another. Other then curiosity, what brought my attention and research on FGM/C was the Orchid Project, an NGO that focuses on ending FGM/C; and EGLDAM, a local Addis Ababa NGO decided to educating and ending FGM/C within Ethiopia.

From  my research and trip I learned other harmful traditional practices that were happening throughout Africa including: early marriage and dowry; nutritional taboos and practices related to child delivery; breast ironing; and son preference and tradition.  These are more topics and discussions I plan to cover in the near future.

Live Broadcast – Global Forum on Human Trafficking

Online today and tomorrow (October 21st and 22nd) there is a live broadcast of Not for Sale’s Global Forum on Human Trafficking.

via this link – Global Forum On Human Trafficking – Not For Sale: End Human Trafficking and Slavery.

World Attention on Dedieu’s Death & Not on Famine

Seems like the daily buzz all week has been over the French feminist Marie Dedieu.

The French, Kenyan, and Somali governments have been experiencing outrage since the death of Dedieu on October 19, a handicapped French woman who was kidnapped by an armed band of Somalis from her beach front home on the island of Manda off the coast of Kenya. The French Foreign ministry said yesterday

“the contacts through which the French government was seeking to obtain the release of Marie Dedieu, held in Somalia since October 1, have announced her death, but we have not been able to determine the date nor the circumstances.”

According to the French news,  her kidnappers took her without her wheelchair or medications and refused to give her medication that were sent by the French government.

Although this is a sad story, it seems like Dedieu’s death is becoming the media’s obsession when covering the latest news in the Horn of Africa. Maybe this is why we keep forgetting about the famine and the estimated 29,000 deaths of children under age 5  in the last 90 days in southern Somalia according to U.S. officials.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

When Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute was asked the reason behind this year’s Nobel Peace Prize he stated it was a political decision. “We want to point to the role of women… Women suffer in wars and if we are to have peace, we have to have democracy with full rights for women and we also have to have women as peace builders. So this year, it was the year of the women,” he said.

Last night PBS aired “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” a 2008 documentary about Liberia’s women fighting during the civil war to bring peace to their country. Although there is still more work to be done, this is one example of how grassroots activism can transform the history of nations.

Here is the documentary link if you haven’t seen it, very powerful!

Watch Pray the Devil Back To Hell on PBS. See more from Women War and Peace.

“Can’t Get Somalia Out Of My Skin”

Today I attended the Aspen Institute’s round-table discussion on the 7 Billion: Conversations that Matter with a talk entitled “Lessons from the Crisis in Somalia.” With Somalia being the 8th highest birth rate in the world, and the global population expecting to reach the seven billion mark this year, Mary Robinson, Walid Abderlkarim and Geoff Dablko discussed the lessons we can learn from the challenges of Somalia.

“Can’t get Somalia out of my skin,” is what former President of Ireland and chair of the Global Leaders Council, Mary Robinson said upon her return to the troubling famine in Somalia last summer. “Who would of declared in the 21st century famine in Africa would be a black-mark for all of us,” Robinson stated. With the largest refugee camp in Dabaab, Kenya— the horrifying conflict in Somalia has developed an average of 1,500 hungry and tired refugees to pour in daily. In Robinson’s opinion, it’s crucial to link the acute hunger in the Horn of Africa through education and reasonable health care. The sudden urgency of famine is one that needs to be addressed. The problem with Somalia according to Robinson is the lack of proper governance for over 19 years, and since then poverty, health, and women’s issues have been rising.

Walid Abdelkrim, Principal Officer and Team Leader for Somalia and Support to the African Union, United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, emphasized the significance of learning from the past in preventing future crises in Somalia. Abdelkrim believes the root cause of famine is not simply the absence of food, but the people, security, knowledge, and bad governance. “In order for Somalia to move forward, women need to be involved in the relief efforts and gain the responsibility; if this does not happen the cycle will continue,” he stated. “Agricultural reforms, good governance and strengthening of infrastructure and health systems are vital, but they will not stand if women are not given the chance to be central players in trade, pricing, accounting, education and health.”

Geoff Dabelko, Director, Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center voiced his opinion about the need of the international community to be more effective and going beyond just recognizing and implementing strategies, but discussing environmental health and security issues. He stated that the high child and maternal mortality rates in conjunction with a high youth population would make facing this crisis more difficult. Dabelko’s solution to the crisis in Somalia is to start engaging in conversations to achieve peace-building implementation in Somalia. “Peace in Somalia will lead to democratic elections and governance which in turn will aid in the issues of mortality, food security, and health care” Dabelko stated.

The main message from today’s round-table discussion is to keep on enforcing the importance of the famine crisis and implement peace-building strategies; more importantly supporting women’s role in ending the crisis in Somalia.

Saving The Lives Of Women And Child

According to Amnesty International, every 90 seconds a woman dies from complications of childbirth. In a efforts to help fight this issue in developing countries, October 17 was set aside as the global Maternal Health Day.

Today I want to share this clip I came across about a woman named Jessica Langton and her creative video/idea to save the lives of women and children in third world countries.

For more information on the 2015 Millennium Development goals go to

My Interview with Joyce Banda

Engaging Local Leaders to Save the Lives of Mothers

Trevor Ballantyne and Rahwa Maharena

30 September 2011

Joyce Banda Malawi's first female vice president                                    Joyce Banda                               Rahwa Meharena/allAfrica

Joyce Banda is Malawi’s first female vice president. Before taking office in 2009, Banda served as a member of parliament, minister of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Services, and minister of Foreign Affairs under President Binguwa Mutharika.

At the age of 25, Banda and her three children were living with her abusive husband in Nairobi, Kenya. A growing women’s movement sparked Banda’s rebellious spirit in 1975. She walked out with her children and started garment-manufacturing business. Her success and a supportive partnership with her current husband moved her to help other women achieve financial independence and break the cycles of abuse and poverty.

Banda is a member of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, a group of 16 sitting and former heads of state, high-level policymakers, and other leaders committed to advancing reproductive health initiatives for sustained development and prosperity. Vice President Banda recently spoke to AllAfrica about her work in advancing reproductive health in Malawi.

You started out in civil society 25 years ago. Tell us more about yourself and how you became involved in maternal and reproductive health.

I have been through an abusive marriage and I am a victim myself of childbirth complications. In 1984, after having my fourth child, I suffered from post-partum hemorrhage. It occurred to me that the only reason I am alive is because of the status that I had, because my husband was a high court judge. He had a friend who knew a gynecologist who rushed and saved my life.

The questions that I asked myself after walking out of the abusive marriage was, ‘What does it mean to those women that are locked in abusive marriages?’ And, in 1984, after I went through those childbirth complications, I asked, ‘What is happening to poor women? How many are dying while giving birth?’ And I said to myself, ‘I should never allow myself, as long as I live, to sit back when women are dying, while giving birth, giving life.’

So I started out by forming organizations – the first was in 1989. I felt that the economic involvement of women in Africa is the key to social and political empowerment so I established what is called the National Association of Business Women (NABW). That brought together 20,000 women, then 50,000 women. I looked at that mass and said, ‘This is a great opportunity for me now to go into family planning and reproductive rights as well as maternal health.’ And it coincided with the 1984 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. And so I became acquainted with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Malawi, and from that time onwards I worked very closely with the UNFPA.

In fact, when the last [George] Bush administration cut out funding to UNFPA, Americans organized themselves to support UNFPA and they gave me an award in 2006 for the leadership that I have demonstrated in fighting death through childbirth. So that is what I have done in Malawi. Right now under the Joyce Banda Foundation we have 70,000 women. And in the NABW and the Joyce Banda Foundation we started providing information and family planning devices because I did research and found most women die in hospitals between the ages of 17-19.

How did you develop family planning initiatives in Malawi?

It occurred to me there is a stubborn link between education and maternal health in my country. So a poor girl grows up in the village and at age 13 finishes primary school, and because she can’t go into secondary school (because of cost), she is forced into marriage. The community will encourage her to get married and you find that because their bodies have not matured, most complications occur in giving birth.

So I felt that apart from providing family planning, devices, pills and information there is also a great need to mobilize a rural leadership. Where I come from, where 85 percent of people are rural based, the traditional culture plays a role, and the chiefs have a very important role to play in fighting maternal death and encouraging people to use family planning concepts. So I found a network of chiefs and we found that where the chiefs took charge of their villages, accepted and internalized what was said, that it is them that can fight maternal death and that can help women live a better life. We find that a chief can say if any woman delivers in this village or if any birth attendant delivers a baby in this village there will be a fine. Women end up at clinics and then you will find in villages where this is practiced no women have died in the past three years.

And so because of the work I have done the African Union appointed me the Goodwill Ambassador for Safe Motherhood from 2009 to 2010 and that is when I worked again very closely with UNFPA to mobilize chiefs, grow networks and encourage chiefs, train chiefs in order to ensure that their villages are safe.

And what results have you seen in Malawi?

What we have seen is an improvement. Malawi was one of the two worst countries as far as maternal mortality was concerned. We were at 807 women dying per 100,000 births – the highest being Sierra Leone, which had been at war. What I have seen in Malawi is because of the initiatives and support USAID and others have given to the government of Malawi to make family planning accessible to rural people and accessible to the most vulnerable and the poor. Because of this, we have gone from 807 to 697 deaths per 100,000 births. Not that it is anything to be proud about but I think we must take pride in the fact that we have registered such reduction in death and we intend to continue.

During the Bush administration that is when the support for UNFPA was cut off completely. It was UNFPA and USAID that assisted Malawi with reproductive rights and maternal health and that is the time Americans formed the network to assist UNFPA to continue to deliver support to poor countries. When the [Barack] Obama administration came to power, we breathed a sigh of relief because we hoped we would get what we had lost during the Bush administration. We are threatened now because we are told that there are going to be budget cuts. As a member of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, we are at the time where we cannot loose that support – across Africa. And so we thought there would be an improvement with the Obama administration but it looks like we are going back to where we were six, seven or eight years ago.

What would you say to foreign donors that are contemplating sizing down their investments and aid packages in light of the global recession?

My request would be to look at reproductive rights and maternal health as a good investment because investing in the health of women has a multiplier effect in Africa. There is a link between maternal/reproductive health and poverty, and I believe there is a stubborn link between family planning and poverty. When we go out in the rural areas to speak to women and ask, ‘Don’t you think eight children are enough?’ They tell you, ‘You have money, I have children – that is all I have.’

And so for us there is no way the American government can cut its support for reproductive and maternal health initiatives or it will be a vicious cycle that will never stop. In order to assist Africa and fight poverty donors need to help Africa invest in women’s health. It is the best investment they can make.

To what extent do you see a connection between security, poverty and women’s issues?

The reason why I said investment in women’s’ health is the best investment they can make is because it is connected to poverty. It is the women that keep the African home; it is the women that grow the food; it is women that process the food; it is the women that stock the food. If the women are not happy, if the women are dying, then that can’t happen.

Now in Africa, a continent where poverty levels are high, a country that can’t feed itself risks strife. All these wars, all these fights, all these squabbles we see in Africa are all connected to poverty. Especially with youth that are discontented, that are frustrated and have no jobs, that have no food, that are fighting to survive. And you find that most of them are women as well. So for me investing in women is the best investment the United States government can make.

How might family planning connect to climate change and environmental degradation?

It is part of what they are calling the ‘youth barge’. In three-quarters of the countries in Africa the majority are the youth and you find that they are getting married and having children. For me the way to answer that question is to say that the environmental degradation that we see in Africa is partly a result of that ‘barge’ – overpopulation of our countries. For example, in Malawi we don’t have opportunities for the youth, so they are going about deforestation, cutting down trees, burning charcoal, and then the environment is degraded. So the only response I can have is to say that overpopulation ends up affecting our environment because cutting down trees is connected to poverty and a lack of opportunities.

How does Malawi stand in its pursuit of the relevant Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)?

The picture now is that by 2015 we might just make the child mortality expected levels of the Millennium Development Goals. But as far as maternal mortality there is no way we can do it. There is no way we can reach the expected levels; there is no way we can reach them in three and a half years. I believe our struggle against child mortality started out 30 years ago when family planning was being introduced in Malawi. There was so much resistance due to our traditional culture. They had to call it ‘child spacing’ in order to even influence the most affluent people to use it.

At the moment 85 percent of Malawians are rural based, and 64 percent of the people have been living below the poverty line for the longest time. I am told we have improved now to 45 percent. Malawians that are rural based are also the ones that are locked up in cultural tradition and to have that mind shift, to say that it is economical and it is more sensible for you to have fewer children, that has been the greatest challenge for Malawi. We have made strides now. There are so many opportunities for people but we need to continue to receive support in order to continue the fight, to make sure that communities put these plans into place. But I have seen that in those areas where we have engaged local leadership, we have been able to engage the most important people in the struggle for family planning.

World Food Day

For some individuals like myself food is the center of the world whether it’s experimenting and creating mouth-watering dishes or collecting my weekly livingsocial deals and going out-to-eat with friends. However, for others food presents a daily struggle of simply gathering enough money to purchase something for their family to eat knowing  that tomorrow holds the same challenge.

During my visit to Ethiopia last fall, food was one of the main topics for discussion when speaking to locals about how they lived their lives.  Of all the stories, the one that struck me most was that of a sixty-year-old woman who circumcised little girls for a living to support her children and grandchildren. My heart grew heavier listening to every detail, I knew that her story -the story of desperate hunger- was one I needed to pass on.

My journey to Ethiopia reinforced in me an intense realization that there is urgent work to be done there and as human beings we must try to uplift and offer help when help is needed.

The United Nations stated the famine in East Africa is reported to be the “worst humanitarian disaster in the World,” and if we continue to ignore the cries for help from our brothers and sisters, I am convinced that we stand a good chance of losing Africa altogether. I challenge anyone who says otherwise to go with an open mind to the regions that I went to in Ethiopia and see and experience what I experienced.

As I sit on my couch a year later, I can’t help but to wonder how those same people are doing now and if they are included in the statistics I see on the news, in magazines and on commercial ads.  So tonight I am dedicating my Sunday dinner to farmers and the locals I met in Ethiopia.

Here is a clip of Desmond Tutu message on World Food Day.


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