Filipino Healthcare Workers, Forgotten Martyrs of the Pandemic

Photo by SJ Objio on Unsplash

By Kathy Dimaya

When I was in hospital in New York City in 2015, I noticed a handful of Filipino nurses taking turns monitoring the patients in the emergency room. Each time a nurse carted me to another test, I counted even more Filipinos in the other practice areas, and eventually, I lost count. The prevalence of Filipinos in healthcare is no secret – nearly 20,000 people emigrate from the Philippines every year to work in nursing and other healthcare professions abroad.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have brought global health to the forefront of our social consciousness, but despite the rhetoric around heroic healthcare providers and first responders, very few of us have stopped to know who exactly has been working, and dying, on the frontline against the virus for the last year and a half. Alarmingly, Filipinos compose 26% of nurses who have died from COVID-19, while only constituting 4% of nurses in the U.S., a small fraction of all nurses. In addition, Filipinos account for almost half of nurses of colour who have died, disproportionately larger than any other ethnic background.

 Why have Filipinos come to be the most devastated ethnic group in healthcare in the pandemic?

A colonialist history

For decades, the Philippines has exported hundreds of thousands of nurses across the globe. The U.K. currently has one of the highest levels of foreign-born nurses in the EU, with an estimated 40,000 Filipino staff employed by the NHS, while the U.S. at present hosts 150,000 Filipino nurses.   

To understand how this came to be, we look to the turn of the 20th century, which saw the implementation of a new U.S. policy of “Benevolent Assimilation” towards a newly colonised Philippines. Americans built nursing schools across the country and taught Western medical practices in English to Filipino nursing students with the intention of “civilising” local healthcare. Directly after Philippine independence in 1946 and again in the 1960s, the U.S. experienced nursing shortages and twice turned to recruiting Filipino nurses who, by their own colonial enterprise, were already educated by American standards. Amidst a recession in the Philippines during the 1980s, the Philippine government recognised the economic potential of overseas Filipino healthcare workers sending their earnings home, so they encouraged further mass emigration, resulting in a newfound boom in the export of nurses to countries other than the U.S. that endures today.

Exploitation during the pandemic

As a welcoming and obliging people, many Filipinos have long felt at home in nursing and healthcare professions. This considerate nature has caused many Filipino healthcare workers to forgo their own wellbeing, either in favour of the wellbeing of others or to avoid conflict during the difficulty of the pandemic. WNYC reported circumstances in the U.S. where Filipino nurses expressed a “cultural thing of not wanting to rock the boat or speak up for themselves” regarding a shortage of PPE and reusing masks. Similarly, the Philippines Nurses Association of United Kingdom had raised concerns about a “lack of personal protective equipment” as well as possible “higher risk environments” that British-Filipino nurses were asked to work in. Workers in the U.K. also feared that turning down additional shifts would jeopardise their jobs. These reports feel most distressing when we consider that Filipinos are concentrated in bedside or critical care, where stress levels are high, social distancing is impossible, and exposure to COVID-19 is so certain it has become a death sentence.

Furthermore, nurses who emigrated with the intention of remitting money worried more for the livelihood of their families back home. The pandemic crushed the Philippines commercially as enhanced community quarantines caused businesses to fully shut down and the economy to stagnate, so the earnings of family abroad were more valuable than ever. Thus, driven by necessity and undeterred by the possibility of contracting the virus, Filipino nurses worked extra shifts to send much needed money home.

All but forgotten 

The number of hospitalisations today pales in comparison to the astronomical levels of 2020, and half of the global population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. With hospitalisations reduced and much of the Western world becoming double vaccinated earlier this year, many people have returned to a semi-normal life. However, on this path back to normalcy, we must not forget the thousands of nurses, doctors, hospice staff, healthcare providers, and hospital workers who fought against the virus and died before they could see the world as it is today. We must not forget the families who could not be with their loved ones in their last moments and still carry a profound trauma from the pandemic.

Most importantly, the pandemic is not over. Lower income countries battle the pandemic as valiantly as ever. Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam are experiencing far more cases in August 2021 than in March 2020, burdening health infrastructures which have yet to recover from the previous 15 months. The more contagious Delta variant has become the dominant strain, causing thousands of new infections every day, and for the unvaccinated, is more likely to cause hospitalisation.

As hospitalisations remain relatively high in the U.S. and U.K., the nurses and healthcare workers who survived working overtime during the first 19 months of the pandemic are the same nurses and healthcare workers we continue to rely on to tend to our sick. If our vaccines lose efficacy or new variants become vaccine-resistant, these same nurses and healthcare workers will once again be our champions. I hope that we finally begin to recognise the contribution of these nurses and healthcare workers, specifically Filipinos, to the pandemic effort, and honour them as true heroes.

Please take a moment to pay tribute to the Filipinos lost to the pandemic at the Kanlungan Tribute Gallery

The voices of women must not be ignored at COP26

Photo by Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash

By Louise Palmer 

From the 31st of October to the 12th of November 2021, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, also known as COP26, will be held in Glasgow. The general mood as this event approaches is one of uncertainty and urgency. There is a growing awareness amongst populations worldwide, that the climate crisis can no longer be dismissed or ignored. This year alone, global news channels have broadcast images as California was overwhelmed by wildfires and as floods devastated Germany and China. However, the continual impact of the climate crisis on countries in the Global South has been a less prominent feature of reporting. There was no widespread uproar in September as Madasgar began to experience one of the first climate change-induced famines after suffering four years of drought. This was despite the fact that the WEF reports that Madasgar has only contributed “0.01% of all the carbon dioxide generated from 1933-2019.” 

Even less prominent, in both news coverage and leader’s agendas, is the disproportionate impact of climate change on women and indigenous communities. In order to effectively tackle climate change and its effects, this cannot be ignored any longer. If leaders at COP26 want to truly make progress on this issue, they must make space for and listen to the voices of women and indigenous communities. The importance of doing so is illustrated by the words of the former president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine, “the ocean is in our backyard, and literally on our front lawn. There is no higher place that is safe to retreat to,”

The disparate effects of climate change on women across the globe. 

In many places, women suffer disproportionately due to the shortages of fuel, water and food which climate change exacerbates or, increasingly, directly causes. An apt example of the latter is the famine in Madagascar. Women tend to be more vulnerable to the environmental effects of climate change but they also suffer from further damaging societal and economic effects. Joshua Eastin argues that “gender disparities in climate change vulnerability not only reflect preexisting gender inequalities, they also reinforce them.” He highlights that shortages make it harder for women to gain or maintain economic independence and simultaneously increase the barriers to participation in wider society. 

Women also tend to be less likely to have land rights and consequently have an increased likelihood of being displaced due to severe climate change events. In turn, this can lead to a loss of education, employment and support networks. Another insidious impact of climate change is the link between severe climate events and gender-based violence (GBV). Many studies have previously demonstrated that GBV increases in humanitarian crises. Recent work has confirmed that this pattern continues in crises’ caused by climate change. Nahid Rezwana and Rachel Pain argue in their study on cyclone-related disasters in Bangladesh, that as the likelihood of GBV increased, the vulnerability of women and children to the negative effects of the cyclones also increased. These findings are also supported by studies of GBV faced by American women in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

COP26

This autumn, it is vital that an inclusive range of women’s voices are heard and taken seriously. The UK must make sure it fulfils it’s promises to run a vaccination programme and fund quarantine costs for attendees in order to remove the barriers to participation. However, even with these programmes, there are worries many marginalised communities will not have adequate representation. Osprey Orielle Lake, founder and executive director of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) argues that “The exclusion of communities most impacted by the climate crisis will not lead to solutions that center climate justice.”Similar calls for representation have also made been by other organisations such as CARE international.  

In the UK, Westminster faced heavy criticism for the all-male selection of its leadership team for COP26 and subsequently back-tracked. The expansion of the UK team is a positive step but it still highlights that the majority of leaders do not understand the need for inclusive representation in tackling climate change. Women do not only face the devastating impacts of climate change but are capable of innovation and creative leadership which will truly lead to progress. In order to move forward in tackling climate change and the impacts of climate disasters, an approach that values the input of women and indigenous communities must be adopted for the full two weeks of COP26, not only for the single day devoted to “gender issues”. 

Femicide: the unrelenting epidemic

Image by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash
 

Written by Sarah Rennie

Content Warning: Violence Against Women & Femicide

Throughout the nineties and early 2000s, Ciudad Juárez (a Mexican city just south of El Paso, Texas) made the headlines for the deaths of numerous women. In 1993, the first crimes were reported, as bodies were found on the outskirts of the city Many of them showed signs of torture or mutilation. Some of the victims were as young as thirteen years old. By 2005, almost 400 women had been brutally murdered in Ciudad Juárez alone, with next to no arrests being made. These events in Juárez should have been a wake-up call for local, national, and global authorities. Naturally, we would expect these shocking statistics to have declined over time. Yet, this is not the case. In 2020, 3273 women were murdered in Mexico, with 940 investigated as femicides.

Femicide is a term that you may be unfamiliar with, but it is one that you should know. It was popularised by writer and activist Diana Russell in 1976 and, at its most basic level, is defined as the murder of women because they arewomen. Femicide is the most extreme form of violence against women. While research shows that global homicide rates are on the decline, femicide rates are not. So, why is this the case?

According to a 2016 study by UNWOMEN, Latin American countries account for 14 of the 25 most dangerous countries for women worldwide. While it is true that these statistics have changed somewhat over the last five years, femicide continues to be an increasing problem in this region. The prevalence of femicide in Latin America can be related to the historical and cultural phenomenon of “machismo”.  This is the belief that men are superior to women. Societal norms in the Latin America demand that men conform to a hypermasculine stereotype and assume a dominant role in society. They show little weakness and must protect the vulnerable. However, this is often done by exercising control over the women in their lives and minimising their status. In some prominent cases of femicide in Mexico, authorities have ruled deaths as suicides first. This absolves the murderers of any responsibility in the crime and victimises and blames the woman even further. “Machismo” culture is present in the workplace, at home, on the street, and in popular culture. This way of living normalises “machista” attitudes and often leaves women feeling as though their reactions to jokes, comments or even physical violence are wrong.

Another major reason for the increase in femicides in Latin America is impunity. This stems from the authorities’ indifference to crimes of femicide, setting a cultural precedent for offenders to continue offending with minimal repercussions. Across Latin America, impunity rates can reach up to 96% (Honduras), with the average regional impunity rate staying at 90%. Authorities are so disinterested that often the families of the victims are even left to do the police work for themselves. The concept of impunity relates strongly to the problems that machismo brings to Latin American culture, as authorities do not like to use the word “femicide” to label such crimes. In doing this, the gendered aspect of the killings is diminished, which in turn normalises the culture of “machismo” across the Latin American region and normalises gender-based violence. It is imperative that the legal system takes femicide and all it encompasses seriously for things to move forward in the future.

Our attention should not only be focused on Latin America, however. Femicide is quickly becoming another epidemic right here in the UK. According to the Femicide Census, 1425 women were killed between 2009-2018 (an average of one woman falling victim to femicide every three days). In these cases, 30% of the victims had already reported situations of abuse to the police. Evidently, authorities have failed to protect women against widespread femicide. While machismo is known as a Latin American culture, this hypermasculinity certainly exists in the United Kingdom and plays a large role the surge of femicides in recent years. In March, the femicide of Sarah Everard by a member of the Metropolitan Police was reported nationwide. The police officer used his power as an authority figure to kidnap, assault and brutally murder Sarah Everard. The murder of Sabina Nessa in September is another appalling account of femicide in the UK. Sabina Nessa was walking through a public space when she was attacked and killed by an unknown man. The cases of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa reached media outlets and sparked international outcry,  there are so many other women who fall victim to femicide and do not receive the same level of interest.

We are facing a growing problem worldwide that needs immediate attention. The safety of women from femicide and other forms of violence is paramount. According to Karen Ingala Smith, creator of Counting Dead Women, there have been 110 femicide victims in the UK so far this year. These statistics are awful. Authorities need to focus more on femicide to stop this extreme violence happening and obtain justice for the many thousands of victims worldwide. Many organisations have been set up in recent years, including Gendes in Mexico City, which aims to change how men view their own masculinities. Jose Alberto, a participant of the Gendes’ awareness programmes explains that the programme helped him to understand that this actions were threatening and abusive. He went on to talk to his colleagues about the need for men to take responsibility for their actions. Being met with a cold reception at work, he turned his attention to educating his young son about the effects of “Machismo”. We are in dire need of men like Jose Alberto globally – men who are open to listening, learning, and taking action. Here in the UK, organisations like White Ribbon are working alongside men to bring an end to violence against women. White Ribbon engages with men and boys and teaches them about violence against women, and why men need to speak up about this major issue.

Clearly, education is vital for enacting change worldwide and without the willingness to learn, the femicide crisis will not go away any time soon.

If you would like to learn more about femicide:

Some Days are for Hope

Image by E.J Wolfson on Unsplash

Written by Jack McGrath

Yesterday, the 25th of September 2021, the Hazara community and their friends commemorated all those who were murdered, sold into slavery, and brutalised during the 1890-1893 Hazara genocide which was perpetrated by the then emir of Afghanistan Abdur Rahman Khan. It is a genocide that continues to be disturbingly unacknowledged; most plainly so on the international stage.

In Afghanistan the Hazaras are a double-minority, being predominantly Shi’a Muslims (making them outliers in a predominantly Sunni nation) with central Asian features. In the particular case of 1890-1893 genocide, it was the fact that the Hazaras are predominantly Shi’a which Abdur Rahman Khan exploited to declare jihad against the Hazara and bring Hazarajat, the homeland of the Hazara, firmly under his control. Estimates suggest that 62% of the Hazara population were massacred between 1890-1893. In the same period, thousands upon thousands of Hazara men, women, and children were sold into slavery. In Qandahar, a tax of ten percent was levied on soldiers buying married women or young girls – the revenue on the tax was 70,000 rupees despite the fact that women and young girls were usually sold for between 60-120 rupees.* What is more, aside from being massacred and enslaved, Hazaras were forcibly displaced, their land having been confiscated and distributed to other ethnic groups.

Unfortunately, the 1890-1893 genocide set something of an awful trend. Since 1893, the Hazara people have been repressed by the communist Khalq government, the Mujahadeen, and the Taliban. In 1998 alone, anywhere from 2,000-20,000 Hazara were massacred by Taliban forces in Mazar-i-Sharif. At the time, Mulla Manon Niazi, the then governor of Mazar-i-Sharif, was reported to have said:

“Hazaras are not Muslim, they are Shia. They are infidels…If you do not show your loyalty, we will burn your houses, and we will kill you. You either accept to be Muslims or leave Afghanistan…Wherever you [Hazaras] go we will catch you. If you go up, we will pull you down by your feet; if you hide below, we will pull you up by your hair.”

Following the massacre, proper burial was forbidden by the Taliban. The dead lay on the streets for weeks. 

At this point, I do want to make one clarificatory note. The nature of this brief article necessitates a focus on the plight of the Hazara: but it is important to never lose sight of the fact that the Hazara are not just their plight. They are poets and historians [see, Faiz Mohammad Katib Hazara], actors [see, Atossa Leoni], singers [see, Sarwar Sarkhosh], journalists [see, Malek Shafi’i], and much, much more. And, beyond their achievements, they have a deep and rich culture (to see that, I would recommend reading Mousavi’s The Hazaras of Afghanistan).

That said, what I think is perhaps most tragic of all in this, is the profound silence currently echoing around the international stage in the face of the forthcoming and certain persecution that the Hazara will face under the resumed Taliban rule in Afghanistan. There is no doubt our governments are aware of what is about to unfold. Their silence is a choice. And the Taliban have not changed – at least, not in any way that matters. Suggesting otherwise is just the crudest form of naivety. Crane-hangings, kidnappings, torture: one does not have to look far beyond mainstream news to see any of these things in today’s Afghanistan. 

So, one thinks about imploring our governments, demanding them, to work toward cohesive international efforts to minimise the scale of the current and forthcoming atrocities in Afghanistan. But what is the point? What care do our governments have for the persecuted and downtrodden elsewhere? Very little, I would wager. Remember, their silence is a choice. They have decided upon appeasement.

But surrender to a darker world cannot be the answer. If our leaders are unwilling and uncaring, then the work for a better future belongs with us. We need to shake off the shackles of a rotten political class and will into power new leaders: leaders of nations who see themselves first and foremost as members of the international community. The one grounded not in particularity but in universality, in humanity. To do this, we need to continue becoming more educated, more political, more ambitious, and more human. And we need to do it together, against the established political order. This will be no easy or simple task. But no mountains, no matter how great they may appear to be and no matter how deep their roots may sink into the earth, could possibly withstand the overwhelming force of the whole sea. 

No doubt, some will think these claims to be platitudinous. I agree. They are platitudinous. I do not think I am saying anything new, here. But that was never the point of this brief article. This article is about reflecting for a moment on our past – in particular, the past of the Hazara people in Afghanistan – and using that reflection to look ahead to something brighter. It is a reminder that misery can always point beyond itself to hope. And I want us to remember, and never forget, where hope lies. 

So, admittedly, I haven’t presented anything close to a route to an answer to the issues that face anybody; the Hazara people least of all. But what I have done, I think, is present an inkling of hope: hope that one day we can all stand together united under an honestly international community. And some days aren’t for answers or strategies. Some days are for hope. 

*Figure from the Siraj al-Tawarikh by Faiz Mohammad Katib Hazara.

Adieu to Afghanistan: US veterans react to Biden’s decision to withdraw troops

Image by Pixabay via Pexels

Written by MacKenZie Rumage

On 13 April, President Biden announced that he would pull the remaining 2,500 American troops out of Afghanistan by a date none other than the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, carried out by al-Qaeda and spearheaded by the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Originally, he meant to stick to the 1 May deadline former President Trump set but it became clear that the peace talks between the Afghan government under President Ashraf Ghani, the United States and the Taliban that have been going on since December 2019 would not conclude by then.

Originally, the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to drive the Taliban out of power in order to deprive al-Qaeda of a foothold in the country. ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, as the initial invasion was called, was meant to not only avenge the 9/11 attacks but to take part in a larger ‘war on terror’, as former President George W Bush coined it. Initially, the American public greatly supported the invasion because they thought the masterminds behind 9/11 would be swiftly brought to justice. However, it would be ten more years before bin Laden was killed by Seal Team Six in Pakistan.

In his announcement, Biden said, ‘We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for withdrawal, and expecting a different result.’ This may sound like Biden admitting defeat. But it also sounds like what has been clear to many for years: the war stopped being winnable a long time ago. He continued, ‘I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan. […] I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.’ Over one hundred thousand people have died in the war, including nearly fifty thousand civilians.

There has been much discussion among American politicians about the merits of withdrawing and the grave risks. Those opposed to the withdrawal argue that since the Taliban currently control more area than they have over the past twenty years, Afghanistan could once again become a ‘terrorist haven’, making the United States only more at risk of another 9/11-style attack. They also argue that the headway the United States gained, such as increased freedoms for women and girls and tenuous peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, could be reversed. In other words, despite twenty years of American presence, Afghanistan may not be strong enough for a full withdrawal of American troops. Those who support the withdrawal argue that the sheer length of the war is reason enough to leave. Twenty years is enough, if not far too long. Kids who were born in 2003 — long after the initial invasion — can now fight in the country their home has been at war with their entire lives.

For American veterans, however, reactions to the withdrawal decision have been less clear-cut. According to the Washington Post, nearly eight hundred thousand people served in Afghanistan in the United States military, thirty thousand of which were deployed at least five times. Loren Crowe, who was deployed to Afghanistan twice in the army, told the Post that he wasn’t sure how the military could stay, but was concerned about what withdrawal meant for the Afghans themselves. ‘There are forty million people in that country. They’re going to bear all costs of this decision.’

As combat veterans, people like Crowe understand the costs of war — and the costs of withdrawing — more acutely than anyone else, including the politicians and top brass of the military. They make the most important decisions about the war, but do not have to live with those decisions the same way servicemembers do. Felix Figueroa, who was deployed to Afghanistan with the Marine four times, told the Military Times part of him was saddened, because he knew how American military backup helped the Afghan commandos he became friends with. But at the same time, ‘no amount of [American] money or years spent training and advising is going to change the systematic problems of tribalism, religious radicalism and corruption crippling the country. I feel it’s time that Afghanistan and the Afghans figure it out on their own.’ In other words, America has outlived their usefulness in Afghanistan. If they couldn’t help to fix the country in twenty years, how much good could any more time in the country do?

Amber Chase, who served three deployments as a mortuary affairs soldier who prepared bodies to be returned home, felt that the withdrawal ‘makes every life we lost over there pointless.’ This sentiment makes sense too: if the United States left Afghanistan in arguably worse shape than when they arrived, did those killed in Afghanistan die in vain?

This all goes back to the question of whether the war itself was worth it. That’s not an easy question to answer, and everyone will have their own opinions. And it may be years before anyone can answer with any certainty. There are too many uncertainties, too many unknowns. What will happen to the women and girls who have made such progress and gained more freedoms than would have been imaginable twenty years ago? Will President Ashraf Ghani be able to keep his precarious hold on power? Are the Afghan security forces strong enough to hold their own against the Taliban, who believe they have already won the war?But one thing is for certain, as it has been for a long time: this war was not going to have a happy ending. No matter how long it went on, no matter whether Afghanistan became a strong democracy or a failed state, the end of the war was never going to be a celebration. Too much money was spent, too many lives were lost, and too many years were spent on fighting an amorphous enemy known as ‘terrorism’ to ever give a satisfactory sense of justification or closure. And nobody in America knows that better than the veterans themselves. As Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan told The New York Times, ‘The people who served on the ground are the last people you need to tell that the war is going to end in tears.’

Tigray: A Violation of International Humanitarian Law?

Photo by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

By Sarah Rennie

An update: This article says that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea denied allegations of Eritrean forces’ involvement in the conflict in Tigray (a region in northern Ethiopia). However, Ahmed acknowledged in March 2021 that Eritrean forces were involved. And on 16 April 2021, Eritrea admitted to the UN Security Council (and posted a letter online) that Eritrean forces were involved in the conflict and would start withdrawing their troops, simultaneous with the withdrawing of Ethiopian troops from the Tigray region.

Since November 2020, the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray has been suffering through a brutal and inhumane conflict. With an estimated 70,000 dead, 2.2 million internally displaced, and 4.5 million in urgent need of food, it is becoming a concern that the atrocities committed in Tigray are violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and that the victims of this conflict require immediate assistance.

The Tigray conflict stems from an already tense relationship between the Tigrayan ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF), who are under direction from Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. Abiy came to power in 2018, and reshuffled the government coalition into a single party – the Prosperity Party. The TPFL refused to join and continued to govern their own region, leading to each side seeing the other as illegitimate. In August 2020, national elections were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision that several opposition parties condemned, including the TPLF. Consequently, the TPLF decided to hold its own regional elections in September.

The Tigray War started against this backdrop on November 4th, 2020 when armed TPLF forces attacked the ENDF Northern Command Headquarters in Mekelle. The TPLF called their attack “pre-emptive”, as they believed an attack by federal troops was imminent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Abiy ordered a military offensive against the TPLF in retaliation. The conflict has since developed and troops from neighbouring Eritrea have become involved, fighting on the side of the Ethiopian government. Yet, both Ethiopia and Eritrea itself deny allegations of Eritrea’s involvement.

What cannot be denied, however, is the severe amount of suffering in Tigray. At the outbreak of the conflict, there were restrictions on communication and almost all journalists were banned from the region. Subsequently, it has been difficult to obtain accurate accounts of what was unfolding. Now, as information and reports are finally being shared, the reality of the conflict is coming into focus.

Though available interviews and articles are limited, it is clear that most of the occurrences in Tigray are far from legal by International Humanitarian Law standards. IHL seeks to limit the effects of armed conflict by protecting those who do not partake in conflict. It protects civilians, medical and military personnel, and those who no longer participate in conflict (such as wounded combatants and prisoners of war). It is forbidden to “kill or wound” anyone unable to fight. Furthermore, medical personnel, supplies, ambulances and hospitals must also be protected. Civilians protected under IHL must also be allowed “food, shelter and medical care”.  So what does this mean for Tigray?

On November 28th 2020, the historical town of Axum was host to a 24-hour killing spree by Eritrean forces, sparked by a prior attack by the Tigrayan militia. Between December 2020 and February 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 28 Axum victims and their relatives. These interviews were conducted over the phone, due to government restrictions on Tigray. Interviewees “consistently identified Eritrean troops” by their vehicles, uniforms and the dialect of Tigrinya, disproving aforementioned claims of Eritrean involvement. Human Rights Watch estimates that 200 civilians were killed that night alone. Clearly, both sides of the Tigrayan Conflict are at fault for the atrocities that they commit, but the focus must be turned to the victims of such atrocities. The international community are greatly concerned that the Tigray Conflict is in violation of IHL, and the Axum attacks prove these concerns to be true. The death toll estimated by Human Rights Watch references killings of civilians, showing that these are extrajudicial killings of non-combatants carried out by Eritrean forces, and therefore illegal according to IHL. Further violence against innocent residents of Tigray has been disclosed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, with more than 136 cases of sexual assault reported in hospitals in December and January alone, and fears that the real figures are much higher.

It has also been widely documented that starvation has been used as a tactic against citizens in Tigray. Omna Tigray (a global nonprofit that advocates for an end to the Tigrayan conflict) reported that the Abiy administration blocked access to electricity, aid and food for those desperately in need. This is another blatant violation of IHL, resulting in the suffering of millions of Tigrayan civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross stated on 18th November 2020 that “…three ambulances run by the Ethiopia Red Cross were attacked”. This is a worrying account demonstrating that the government is not protecting medical personnel, as IHL asserts they should be. Additionally, hospitals have either been looted by government and Eritrean troops, or overrun – a situation made more serious by the threat of COVID-19.  

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Filippo Grandi, has expressed concern over the humanitarian conditions in Tigray, and has called for unrestricted access to refugee camps in order to provide acutely needed assistance. The G7 has also stated concerns about human rights abuses and war crimes. Yet, on 6th March, the United Nations Security Council cancelled plans to issue a statement calling for an end to violence in Tigray due to China and Russia’s opposition. Additionally, the international community has urged the African Union to apply more pressure on the Ethiopian government to pacify the situation. On 11th March, the Chairperson of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, met with Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, Ato Demeke Mekonnen, to discuss the engagement of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in the investigation of war crimes in Tigray. Faki stated that the Ethiopian government was ready to cooperate and engage with the African Union. However, reports of some of the most severe fighting since November in southern Tigray came out the next week. To date, there has been no update on the status of talks between the African Union and the Ethiopian government. 

The international community is often criticised, quite justifiably, for inappropriately intervening in the affairs of African countries. Yet, there have been numerous instances in which international inaction has exacerbated unnecessary suffering, like in Tigray. More must be done to ensure the survival of the millions of innocent civilians in need of food, medical attention and shelter. It is imperative that the Ethiopian government cooperates with international organisations and allows access to Tigray and its citizens. It is also important that more people worldwide continue to raise awareness of this brutal conflict. Only then can the victims receive the help and attention that they desperately need.

“Buen Vivir”: Rethinking Development and Prosperity

Photo by ia huh on Unsplash

Written by Depali Rai

How one school of thought is reconceptualising development beyond the western-centric confines of neo-liberal capitalism and individualism.

International development has been a key tenet of global politics and foreign relations since the earlier half of the 20th century. Following the Second World War, the American-backed Marshall Plan pumped capital into war-torn European nations. The journey towards post-war recovery prompted the conception of a Marshall Plan for the so called “Third World” to tackle their troubling conditions of poverty and “backwardness”. A model of development and modernisation emerged where achieving “First World” status of wealth and prosperity was seen as a science to be applied onto the global south. Neo-liberal reforms soon crept onto the agenda of every “Third World” nation.

As philanthropic as international development may at first seem, the effort to alleviate global poverty and “emancipate” the “Third World” or Global South is far from a neutral endeavour. Escobar, an anthropologist of development, argues that while development projects aimed at lifting the “Third World” out of poverty are presented as intrinsically positive and altruistic, the developmental agenda continues to fail and even damage third world environments through its colonial ideologies.

The debate surrounding western motivations behind development aid is ongoing and deeply layered. Where some cite ego-centric neo-colonialism as the underlying force, others emphasise the role of cold-war geopolitics and diplomacy. Whilst the debate over motivations and intentionality is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, what is explicitly clear now is the strong backlash against this long-standing, traditional model of development.

Buen Vivir: Reimagining Development

Buen Vivir or Vivir Bien, are the Spanish words used in Latin American countries to describe alternatives to the development model that has so far been propagated by western-dominated institutions. Meaning “good life”, the term has been actively used as a part of a wider social movement which advocates achieving a “good life” through societal harmony and collectivist principles. This culturally sensitive philosophy follows closely from indigenous traditions and world views of Latin American countries including the “harmonious living” principles of the Guarani people of Bolivia and the “sumak kawsay” (good life) of the Quechua indigenous people of Ecuador. While there are no strict definitions of what Buen Vivir is, the importance of seeing human beings as part of the natural world is fundamental to the Buen Vivir principles of community and reciprocity. Community for one is reimagined beyond just humans to include plants and animals in this horizontal dynamic. Key issues that Buen Vivir holistically tackle are food security, ecological balance, and environmental justice. Certainly, one clear commonality between the diverse adoption of Buen Vivir across Latin America is the emphasis on the failures of the traditional economic metrics of development and wellbeing such as GDP per capita.

Buen Vivir reflects a wider critique from the “Third World” in which developing nations are rejecting the ethnocentric, restrictive, and even damaging nature of western developmental projects as well as general capitalist degradation to natural environments and indigenous livelihoods.

Its popularity has been clear since its initial conception in the mid-2000s and has reached government level through its inclusion into the Constitutions of Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009). The preamble to the Ecuadorian constitution reading: “We decided to construct a new form of citizen co-existence, in diversity and harmony with nature, to reach ‘el buen vivir, el sumak kawsay’”. As such, Buen Vivir offers a culturally appropriate, ecologically responsible, and decolonial approach to development and wellbeing.

Associación ANDES (Association for Nature and Sustainable Development) in Cusco, Peru is one example of how communities are coming together with the Buen Vivir principles of sustainable rural living, biodiversity conservation and maintaining indigenous knowledge and practices. The Potato Park is one such innovation that isnot just a conservation initiative for various varieties of potatoes. It is, above all, a bio-cultural territory dedicated to the conservation of the heritage of six indigenous communities that live here (…), the landscape and its elements that also include knowledge, traditions, innovations and the worldview of the more than 6000 inhabitants”

Prospects: what can we really make of Buen Vivir?

Indigenous worldviews such as Buen Vivir have proved to be vital to reimagining and reconstructing ideas of wellbeing and prosperity beyond economic criteria. Long established indicators such as the Human Development Index clearly fail to account for ecological concerns.

Critics of Buen Vivir question if it could have any impact beyond indigenous places of origin – if it only works within the cultural contexts of Latin America. Is Buen Vivir just another small-scale example of bottom-up development that has no impact beyond its locality? Such concerns reflect the arrogance of institutionalised ways of thinking. Casting doubt on decolonial approaches to sustainability demonstrates the narrowness of contemporary development discourse.

The Potato Park in Peru has clearly had an impact beyond Peru. Agronomists working on the farm have been consulting the ancestral knowledge of the local farmers to identify genetic strains which could help the tubers survive increasingly frequent and intense droughts, floods, and frosts. Such research in the face of growing concerns over food security due to land degradation and crop resilience may indeed “play an important role in feeding the rest of the world.

Even so, probing to see if Buen Vivir constitutes a new universalising model misses the point entirely. We need to look past international development’s historical tendency to search for a silver bullet. No countries have identical histories. Much is lost when we aim for uniformity.

In the long run, Buen Vivir demonstrates the failures of historical and existing approaches to development by “First World” institutions and practitioners. Buen Vivir initiatives constitute a challenge to the traditionally western-dominated narratives in global politics and thus, add socio-political value beyond the farms, homes, and communities of South America.  

Child brides: the global victims of gender-based violence

Photo credit: ‘Girls Not Brides Global Member Meeting’ by Hassan Ouazzani via Flickr

By Louisa Campbell

The reality of child marriage pervades young girls’ lives across the globe. Child brides are more likely to be victims of domestic, sexual and physical violence as well as less likely to finish their education. This harsh reality is a manifestation of global trends of gender violence and is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights. Typically, high rates in child marriage emerge in humanitarian contexts as was documented in a 2017 Human Rights Council resolution.

Examples of humanitarian contexts can vary dramatically; notably, states experiencing armed conflict, suffering natural disasters and areas controlled by violent non state actors are all particularly prone to high child marriage rates. Take Yemen for example, where the number of girls married before the age of 18 sat at 50% before the outbreak of civil war, before subsequently rising to 65%. Additionally, the ‘Northern Triangle’ states of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras experience high numbers of girls who are recruited to become wives of gang members. Despite these distressing realities, it has been reported that in the last 15 years the numbers of child marriages globally has declined by 15%. Why has this concern only recently resurfaced amongst human rights discussions?

In addition to the aforementioned factors, the outbreak of global disease exacerbates rates of child marriage. During the Ebola outbreak schools in Western areas of Africa closed, facilitating a rise in child neglect, sexual abuse and adolescent pregnancies. In Sierra Leone, the numbers of underage pregnancies doubled after the outbreak. Therefore, it is unfortunately not particularly shocking that the Covid-19 pandemic has had disastrous effects on gender-based violence and in particular the number of child brides.

The pandemic has intensified some of the pre-existing main drivers of early marriage such as limited access to education, early pregnancies and poverty. Worldwide, it is estimated that school closures have interrupted the education of 1.6 billion children, causing often irreversible damage to the future prospects of young girls. The impact has been particularly concerning for girls who are living without sexual and reproductive education. Moreover, families facing food and employment insecurity feel they have no choice but to marry their daughters to older men in order to guarantee the most basic forms of stability. In a 2020 Global Girlhood Report, the non-profit Save the Children described the effects of Covid-19 as ‘irreversible setbacks and lost progress’. They estimated that the effects of the pandemic alone threatened to reverse decades of progress combatting global child marriage.

A UNFPA report summarised that the effects of Covid-19 will affect wider gender-based violence in two ways. Firstly, by reducing efforts aimed at preventing and protecting women from violence, and secondly by restricting their access to social services and care that provide life-saving sexual and reproductive health services .They estimated that the effects of the pandemic alone will cause a one-third reduction in progress towards ending gender based violence by 2030. For child marriage in particular, the conditions of the past year are expected to result in an additional 13 million child marriages between 2020 and 2030 that otherwise would not have occurred.

India is a particularly worrisome example.  The UNFPA report showed that, despite the state accounting for a third of child marriages globally, ardent efforts were given to raising education and awareness before the pandemic. In the past five years efforts like such have reduced these shocking statistics. However, a harsh lockdown has plummeted many Indian families into poverty, the impact of which is parents believing that child marriage is the only way their daughters will receive food. The restrictions instigated also made travel for health care or community support and protection near impossible, putting the work of local initiatives on hold indefinitely. 

Of course, whether large or small, no rates of child marriage are acceptable. Despite catalysing current statistics, hopefully Covid- 19 shining the spotlight on this global human rights violation may encourage serious change. The issue is not only global in scale but multifaceted in cause and thus solution. So far, some countries have implemented notable attempts to combat the intensification of this issue in the past year. Namely, in Cambodia the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has conducted child marriage prevention awareness campaigns. The Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission has distributed advisory letters supporting similar endeavours. In Africa, Kenya has witnessed the increased investigations into the violence against women and the Ethiopian government recently intervened to rescued 500 girls who were set to be married off.

Evidently, efforts are occurring to raise awareness of this issue and directly combat this human rights violation. However, in the long term, efforts need to be directed towards dismantling gender inequality and empowering women. For example, improving girls’ education opportunities, access to health and autonomy over reproductive rights are proven to have positive impacts on societal conditions as a whole.

Girls Not Brides, a global partnership to end child marriage has produced a series of recommendations for combatting this issue moving forward. They urge governments to pay attention to the causes and consequences of child marriage and offer ample support during times of crisis. The UN have been pushed to use Resolution 1352 on Women, Peace and Security to make girls a focal point of conflict prevention and resolution. If changes are implemented from governing bodies, the impact of regional programs may be more effective. Girls Not Brides has a partnership of more than 1500 organisations across 100 countries; they are a powerful force, but to truly eradicate this global issue, systemic change needs to occur first.

Together, a consolidated effort from various actors could still mitigate these unprecedented rates of child marriage. The effects of Covid-19 serve to demonstrate how fragile conditions of gender based violence are across the world as the pandemic has exacerbated harmful cultural norms. Undoubtedly, crisis will hit again, perhaps not in the form of a disease, but conflict, crime-ridden states and natural disasters can have similarly devastating effects. Therefore, to protect young girls around the world global organisations need to place more emphasis on this issue as a human rights violation, granting regional organisations greater powers to work on dismantling harmful gender norms from the ground up. Thus, when faced with times of uncertainty, girls will have increased education, freedom and rights to protection allowing them to better shelter themselves from a future characterised by violation.

Myanmar: The Fervour, The Courage, and The Seriousness

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

By Jack McGrath

On the 1st of February 2021, the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – seized control of their government. They were led by Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmese armed forces: the man, almost undoubtedly, most responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya people

Of course, military rule is not something particularly alien to the Myanmese. Since their independence from Britain in 1948, they have endured over half a century of it. And for almost three decades they were under the rule, more or less, of one man, General Ne Win. It was he who instituted the so-called Burmese Way to Socialism and he who, arguably, normalised the modern regime of terror and violence in Myanmar. 

There was a brief hope that the 1988 uprising might bring about change. But those hopes were not fulfilled. Perhaps around 10,000 people died during the uprising and thousands of protestors, many of them students, faced years of imprisonment. Most of those imprisoned were subjected to horrific torture, forced isolation, and starvation. All in all, what the Myanmese people had to show for their uprising was depressingly little. The military resumed their absolute rule in 1990, after refusing to cede power in a landslide general election, and retained their rule for another 21 years.

It was thought that the past decade was slowly spelling an end to the protracted suffering and subjugation of the Myanmese people. Between 2011 and 2015, a steady march toward democracy, conceded by the government, seemed to begin. It was not, unfortunately, without its own serious controversy. In the wake of the NLD – a military opposition party – securing a tremendous supermajority in the 2015 general election, the military was quite evidently not in the mood to render unto the people what they were due. The military retained the right to appoint a quarter of all parliament members, refused to give up their control of the security ministries, and ensured that Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the victorious NLD, could not take up the presidential role. In fact, it was not until a year after the election that Aung San Suu Kyi was able to become de facto head of the government through the establishment of the ‘state counsellor’ role. In addition to all that, there was the horrific and unforgivable ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, which began in 2016 and has continued to this date. Nonetheless, it seemed at least a semblance of democracy was being born. Even if that birth was itself some sort of a monstrosity.

The recent military coup looks to unmake even that and has set Myanmar on a collision course with absolute military rule. Since its start, at least 50 people have been murdered by security forces and at least 1,700 people have been imprisoned. There are curfews, media has been restricted, and around 400 democratically elected members of parliament have been detained. Military suppression has been merciless; even health workers have been targeted and severely beaten by members of the police forces and military

So yes, Myanmar is once again on a collision course with absolute military rule. But that is no cause for a sinister fatalism: collision is not a given. There are thousands of Myanmese protestors fighting and putting their lives on the line, for democracy and a swift end to the disturbing resumption of military rule.

Indeed, Myanmar is on the cusp of history. If its people continue to refuse to accept anything less than what they are due, then they may resume the slow march toward democracy. If, however, they break before the terror and cruelty, then they will return to lives lived in the spiritual, moral, and political dark ages. Lives which will be more brutal, more unforgiving, and more empty (for revolutions do not begin at the minute past midnight).

To the Myanmese people, the battle ahead should seem staggering, even overwhelming, but that is no reason not to fight. The measure of a people is, after all, not to be found in their suffering or their years under the yoke but in the fervour, the courage, and the seriousness with which they fight when they realise that the yoke must be surmounted.

As it so happens, I am writing this on the 150th anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg’s birthday, the internationalist revolutionary who was murdered in 1919 for being absolutely uncompromising in her ideals. On this day, I hope that the Myanmese people recognise that this is, for them, an either/or moment. And I hope that they confidently demonstrate to their overlords the fervour, the courage, and the seriousness which I believe is imbued within them, as within us all.

Myanmar: Pro-democracy demonstrators’ winning the social media battle to keep hopes alive

Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

By Louise Palmer

The rise of social media as a platform for organised resistance has changed the context in which all authority operates. Apps such as Facebook and Tik Tok have the potential to mobilize greater numbers of people in less time than ever before. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the crucial role social media played in driving the Arab Spring, as it gave protesters a way to contact each other and plan mass protests. Today, pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar are using similar tactics as they engage in what appears to be a David vs Goliath struggle against the military coup d’état.

On the 1st February 2021, the Myanmar military staged a swift and effective take over of power. Claiming electoral fraud, the military ousted the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) on the premise that elections would be held again in a year’s time. Unfortunately, this development did not come as a shock as the military previously executed a successful coup d’etat in 1962. Myanmar was ruled by a military junta from 1962 until 2010, when some authority was transferred to a civilian government controlled by the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). This transition was well-received by the international community, especially after the 2015 general election returned an overwhelming victory for the NLD. Although positive in many respects, the military retained a level of autonomy which allowed it to operate at will. Ethnic minorities within Myanmar, particularly Rohingya Muslims, were faced with what the UN characterised as military efforts at ethnic cleansing

The current coup d’etat has once again demonstrated the determination of the military to retain power and protect its own interests. The 2021 seizure of power was triggered by NLD’s decisive victory in the 2020 general election over the military’s USDP. To many observers the election results signalled that the people of Myanmar were firmly backing increased democracy. From the military’s point of view, increased democracy was a threat and the solution was a coup. The military is currently in power in Naypyidaw, a purpose-built capital, and has detained opposition members including the most prominent NLD leader, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The challenge that platforms such as Facebook posed to military authority was recognised by command who ordered widespread internet disruption across the country as news of the coup broke. However, in the age of social media pacifying a population who are unwilling to quietly accept military rule has proven challenging. 

Much has changed in Myanmar since the military last held what appeared to be absolute power. Most notably access to the internet and use of social media has grown exponentially. In Myanmar, Facebook has become one of the most commonly used forms of communication. The BBC claimed that it is synonymous with the internet for about half the population. Since the coup started, military control of state media, internet blackouts and restrictions on social media have been a part of daily life. The strongest restrictions so far have coincided with the larger protests as the military clearly attempts to stop protestors from coordinating. Despite these measures, it currently seems like the military have underestimated the will of the protestors whilst simultaneously overestimating their ability to control social media.  

Demonstrators have been able to get around many restrictions with the use of VPNs apps allowing social media to act as a crucial platform in increasing support for and coordinating protests. In early February a civil disobedience movement saw doctors, teachers and students go on strike in protest. The civil disobedience group behind the initial strike was set up on Facebook. By late February, this had inspired a nationwide general strike that brought the country to halt as hundreds of thousands protested despite military threats of violence. Moreover, as one of the key platforms for communication Facebook has become a site of protest within itself. At the end of February, Facebook banned the Myanmar military from its official account.

The nature of the pro-democracy movement has been highly influenced by the strong youth presence. The intelligent use of slogans and symbols has meant that demonstrations can translate powerfully on social media. A good example is the appropriation of the three finger salute from the Hunger Games by pro-democracy protesters. Another example can be found at protests where young demonstrators have been pictured with slogans such as “I don’t want a military dictatorship. I just want a boyfriend” which has invariably caught international attention. The humorous tone which accompanies the serious message is a key feature of younger demonstrators and has proven the perfect recipe for social media. This approach is also illustrated in anti-military memes which have bypassed restrictions to become popular in Myanmar and around the world.  

Younger demonstrators have made the Myanmar pro-democracy protests a trending topic on many social media platforms. By appealing to a global audience protesters have found support in unexpected places such as the Milk Tea Alliance. Although seemingly apolitical, the trending #MilkTeaAlliance is used to unite pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Myanmar. For others outside of Myanmar, Tik Tok has become one of the most influential platforms. On this app the algorithms have helped to spread the #Savemymyanmar messages created by many young diaspora in an attempt to attract international attention to the protests.It would seem then that the pro-democracy protesters have mobilised social media to their advantage, effectively winning the battle for hearts and minds against military controlled state media. In doing so they have given democracy a glimmer of hope against an overwhelming military force. The use of symbols, humour and slogans has given the pro-democracy movement a unique character that can translate easily from protests to social media. At this time protests have become a daily occurrence within many major cities of Myanmar and at least 54 people have been killed with the military showing no signs of relenting. Pro-democracy protesters have succeeded in grabbing the world’s attention and they don’t seem ready to give up on freedom and democracy yet.