No justice, no peace: Black liberation movements

I’m really excited that the magazine on Black Lives Matter, race and activism which I guest edited for New Internationalist is out now.

It’s been a long time dream of mine to edit an issue of New Internationalist so I’m really glad to have edited the March issue.

As it says on the New Internationalist website:

Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry for a generation of black activists around the world, from the US to the UK, Australia to Brazil. 

As they build links across borders, one of the most empowering things about these struggles is that they make their blackness a source of strength, building on a long history of black resistance.

It’s been an inspiring journey researching what’s been happening with Black activism around the world. There was so much more than we could fit into 16 pages!

The articles in the main section of the magazine are all written by awesome woman and genderqueer writers of colour: janaya khan, Natty Kasambala, Vanessa Martina Silva, Jamilah King, Kam Sandhu, Amy McQuire and Kristina Wong.

I’m motivated by music so while working on the magazine I put together a little #BlackLivesMatter playlist:

Find out more and read some of the articles from the magazine, here at the New Internationalist website.

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Recent writing

This week I had a couple of posts published on the Transition Free Press blog:

  • Real Media conference celebrates independent journalism about the new campaign and network to support and promote independent, ‘public interest’ journalism. As someone passionate about these kinds of publications and platforms, I’m really excited about its potential. Real Media are holding a conference in Manchester on 28 February.
  • Accelerating transition, city by city about the ARTS research project. A study of five European city regions which aims to find out more about what makes some areas hubs for sustainability.

At the Institute of Development Studies, I have been working on three features for the Interactions website, focused on how the project’s key themes: unpaid care work, gender-based violence and urban health of women and girls in low incomes settings, relate to the Sustainable Development Goals. The first article on unpaid care work is now published here.

Beyond burnout: the mental health costs of activism

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of New Internationalist magazine.

In 2009, the Iranian Green Movement became headline news as millions of people took to the streets to protest against alleged vote-rigging in the presidential elections. Scenes of green-clad protesters and their brutal repression by the security forces went viral on social media. One of the most iconic, and tragic, videos circulated was of the fatal shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan; it became an internet phenomenon.

Behind the headlines, online activists including Cameran Ashraf, then 29, worked around the clock to spread the information. Based in Los Angeles, Ashraf first heard about the protests on the news, and realized he could use his technical skills to support the movement. ‘I’m half Iranian and my cultural ties with Iran are pretty strong,’ he explains. ‘I just really believed in it. These were people that looked like me, people my age; they weren’t doing anything violent.’ Ashraf says he quickly became highly trusted among some of the movement’s key activists, and was engrossed in hosting services for a website and providing digital security. ‘I barely slept for two years,’ he reveals.

Activists like Ashraf can be repeatedly exposed to traumatic situations as they fight for what they believe in. These experiences can bring on post-trauma symptoms including flashbacks, insomnia, sudden personality change or withdrawal. If these persist, they may develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The British National Health Service estimates that one in every three people who have a traumatic experience is affected by PTSD.

‘Burnout’ has become a common term, but the deeper psychological impacts on the activists are rarely discussed.

Warning signs

Emily Apple is one of the founders of Counselling For Social Change, based in Cornwall, southwest England. In 2014, the group plans to begin retreats to a permaculture site where activists and campaigners can receive therapeutic support.

The organization was partly inspired by Apple’s own diagnosis of PTSD after many years as an activist, including experiences of police violence and undercover surveillance: ‘We’d seen so many people go through PTSD and realized that we are not making activism sustainable,’ she explains. ‘It is opening up that debate and saying that trauma work is actually part of the resistance.’

When experiencing post-traumatic stress, some push away the warning signs that something is wrong. Ashraf explains that this was his experience: one signal came in 2009 when he went to see a new Star Trek film at the cinema. ‘I was a huge Star Trek fan but seeing people laugh was so alien, seeing people enjoy themselves was so weird. I was, like, “What the heck is going on? Happiness is foreign.”

‘I think when you believe in the cause so much, you can actually view these warning signs as deficiencies, as proof that you’re not doing enough. So rather than hearing them, I basically kicked enjoyment out of my life.’

Ashraf began receiving treatment for PTSD in March 2011 after his darkest period. It was a decision that, he says, changed his life: ‘I had a breakdown where I completely went dark for two weeks. I didn’t talk to anybody; I don’t remember anything about that time. I just remember not turning on my computer, not answering anything – but stuff was still going on, people were being arrested… I just lost it.’

Emily Apple says that these warning signs are key: ‘I carried on far longer than I should have done and would have been far better if I had got help earlier, but it took me getting physically ill.

‘When people are being physically tortured by the state, people want to take action; but when you’ve got police harassment, intimidation and long-term psychological damage because of the tactics that they’re using, we don’t take action.’

Theoneste Bizimana is a psychologist and co-founder of the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities programme (HROC) in Rwanda, which provides support to trauma survivors.

He has seen many activists with post-trauma symptoms, including PTSD. ‘There is no support for activists in my region,’ he explains. ‘Many activists fully commit themselves to serving and solving other people’s problems. Activists need time to work on their own trauma and be encouraged to write or tell stories and communicate about their work.’

Emotional first aid

Simon Griffiths is a member of Activist Trauma Support, which was founded in 2005 and provided ‘emotional first aid’ that year to activists during the G8 summit in Scotland, including a missing persons helpline. It also became involved in the Climate Camp movement.

The bulk of Activist Trauma Support’s work is now web-based. It provides information on activism and mental health, and a directory of places where people can get support. It also runs awareness-raising workshops.

‘I think when you believe in the cause so much, you can view the warning signs as deficiencies, as proof that you’re not doing enough. I basically kicked enjoyment out of my life’
Griffiths says that there can be a dismissive attitude towards taking the psychological effects of activists seriously: ‘It’s the kind of work that isn’t seen as being as important as direct struggle. But, on the whole, it does seem like those attitudes are changing.’

Activist Trauma Support encourages campaigners to support each other and take steps to protect themselves. Griffiths says that basic things such as sleeping, eating healthily and exercising are vital but easily forgotten. ‘Although it may sound counterintuitive, keeping a journal can be a really good way of de-escalating things like panic attacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares. A journal allows you to take a measure of control and get some context, as well as making you aware of any patterns.’

Brian Martin is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He believes support networks outside of activism are useful: ‘Sometimes it’s like, if you’re not doing late nights and so on then you’re not a real activist – you’re not committed to the cause.

‘Activism is like any kind of activity: you get ups and downs. Sometimes you’re totally elated, sometimes it’s very depressing because things are going badly. If that’s your entire life, then it can be quite damaging.’

In Shut Them Down! – a book reflecting on the 2005 G8 summit – Activist Trauma Support wrote about how emotional support for activists is an important tool in making state repression less effective: ‘Beatings, arrests, isolation custody, violation of rights, threats, lies… Their focus is on creating fear, getting inside our heads and stopping us from taking action again.’

Ashraf is certain that a better understanding of mental-health issues would build stronger and more sustainable movements. ‘It’s essential for modern movements to survive, especially as many are movements of attrition. For example, you can see it’s going to be a long process in Egypt; it’s going to take a while to get some kind of healthy situation.

‘It’s really vital that these issues be opened up and talked about. The more people do that, the more comfortable people will be. In Iranian culture – in a lot of cultures – any discussion of psychological issues is taboo, so it has been hard.

‘The first thing is to respect what you feel. There is a level of self-disrespect that goes into activism, I really believe that. Feelings that come up, you mustn’t shut them out, because they will help you get through it – and they’ll help you keep going.’

Cameroon’s women call time on breast ironing

This article was originally published in the May 2013 New Internationalist magazine…

When paediatrician Tamara Bugembe was first forwarded the email about ‘breast ironing’, she shuddered. But she didn’t take it seriously until a few years later, when she was working in Cameroon.

‘Breast ironing’, or ‘flattening’, aims to stem the growth of the breasts in the hope that it will help prevent unwanted male attention and delay a girl’s sexual activity. It is usually carried out by the mother or another member of the family, sometimes, even the girl herself. A heated tool, such as a pestle, is used.

Stemming development: Tools used for breast ironing are often those found around the house and then heated. This mother holds a stone and pestle.

The practice is common in Cameroon, although rarely talked about. Research by Cameroonian women’s organization RENATA and Germany’s Association for International Co-operation (GTZ) in 2006 found that 24 per cent of young girls and women in Cameroon had experienced it.

Similar procedures have been recorded in countries including Nigeria, Togo, Republic of Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa.

Margaret Nyuydzewira is co-founder of CAME Women and Girls’ Development Organization (CAWOGIDO), based in London. She believes the procedure is also being carried out in Britain. ‘I met a police officer who was telling me they arrested a woman in Birmingham who was doing breast ironing, and because nobody knew about it, they thought it was her culture and let her go. We cannot say it’s culture because it’s harm that is being done to a child,’ she explains.

A campaign to raise awareness about breast ironing has begun in the Netherlands.

Gender Danger workshop

Nakinti Besumbu Nofuru/Gender Danger

The term ‘breast ironing’ is enough to make your toes curl, but for some mothers the alternative for their daughters seems much worse. The average age of rape victims in Cameroon is 15.

Tamara Bugembe has been working with Voluntary Services Overseas in Cameroon since September 2012. She has had two patients, aged 24 and 15, who came to her with swellings on the breast which turned out to be cysts.

It wasn’t until later that their mothers revealed they had previously ‘ironed’ their daughters’ breasts. ‘The girls were in boarding school and they were worried that the teachers would be using them to perform sexual favours, or that they would be raped. One mum was especially relieved – she’d clearly been beating herself over it thinking she had done something permanently harmful to her daughter.’

Georgette Taku, Programme Officer at RENATA, says it began the first campaign to raise awareness of breast ironing in 2006. ‘Before this, people did not know about the consequences; they just thought it was a means of helping the girl erase the signs of puberty and avoid the trap of early pregnancy,’ she says.

This was not the case for Ben, who is now 48 years old but underwent breast ironing in Cameroon when she was 13. Her mother used a spatula, normally used for cooking. She feels that the experience pushed her into having a child early, at 18, because of her lack of confidence. She now has seven children. ‘It has affected every area of my life,’ she says.

‘We never had a name for it like “breast ironing”; we just knew it was a kind of tradition. I had a lot of friends who were from Europe and hadn’t had it done and my breasts were not the same. When we went swimming I was embarrassed.’

But Ben’s eldest daughter also had her breasts ‘ironed’ – by Ben’s mother-in-law. ‘I see it having the same effect on her; she also had a baby early. I believe strongly that it should be stopped.’

Breasts can be a focus of unwanted attention and personal shame, especially for early developers. Fifty per cent of women in the 2006 GIZ/RENATA study who had their breasts ironed had started developing breasts at nine years old.

One woman told RENATA: ‘My elder sister decided to massage them every evening with hot water and a towel. This was very painful and before I slept, she would fasten a very big elastic belt around my chest to help flatten the breasts. Six months later, my breasts were weak. At 10, my breasts were small and fallen like that of an old mother. Each time I undress I am ashamed.’

Chi Yvonne Leina is a 31-year-old Cameroonian journalist and activist who founded Gender Danger, an organization that campaigns against breast ironing. She was 14 when she saw her grandmother ‘ironing’ her cousin Aline’s breasts with a grinding stone as she peeped through a hole in the wall.

‘I got to understand why my beautiful cousin had changed completely: because grandma was “fixing” her!’ After that, Leina says, she lived in fear: ‘I thought maybe that’s what they do to everyone who has breasts.’

Sure enough, a few months later her grandma approached her, but Leina threatened to tell the neighbours and her mother. ‘Out of fear, grandma gave up. She anxiously watched me as I grew, expecting the worst to happen at any time.

‘I made up my mind that I will be the voice for those women who can’t talk for themselves in my community. That led to my choice of journalism and advocacy for women as a career.’

So far Gender Danger, which was set up in 2012, has talked to over 200,000 women about breast ironing and the importance of sex education for their children.

‘It’s when people start opening up and talking that you find out what’s going on,’ points out Nyuydzewira. ‘I went to Islington [London] to give a talk and this lady from Greece said, “Oh yeah, they do it in Greece, too”.’

Nyuydzewira, who is originally from Cameroon, compares attitudes towards breast ironing with those directed at female genital mutilation (FGM) in the past. We all know that FGM happens, she says, even though we may never have seen it taking place. ‘Organizations [working against FGM] are mobilized. [In Britain], the police are involved, the social services are involved.

‘Every time somebody asks, “How do you know that breast ironing is going on?”, I say, “I’m from the community.” You’ll never see it, but we know that it is quietly happening.’

The clandestine nature of the practice means that some people think it’s an experience they alone have suffered. Rebecca Tapscott conducted a study of breast ironing in Cameroon in 2012. ‘I spoke to a lot of people who said: “That’s completely ridiculous, nobody would do that”,’ she says. ‘I heard about a minister who found out about it and thought it was terrible; he then went home and found out that his wife did it to his daughter.’

There is currently no specific legislation against breast ironing in Cameroon. Georgette Taku thinks that passing a law and starting to make arrests would make people think twice: ‘It would raise eyebrows.’

But Tapscott is not convinced that the law would be enforced. ‘You could make the argument that that sort of legislation is useful because it sends out a message when the state comes out on something, but I wonder if that is as far as it goes.

‘It’s really taboo [in Cameroon] to talk to children about sex and responsible relationships, which I think leads to this dramatic response.’

Taku says the biggest obstacle is getting on board everyone concerned with the rights of women and girls: ‘People who are supposed to be at the forefront, who are supposed to take up the fight, are staying quiet.’

But she thinks things are improving. ‘Some parents are opening up and trying to bring their children closer to them through sexual education rather than using methods like breast ironing; to help their children not become victims of one problem or the other.’

On 27 September 2013, CAWOGIDO is organizing a conference on breast ironing in London. To find out more go to the CAWOGIDO website.

Giving A-toss about disability

This article first appeared on the New Internationalist website.

As the end of the London Paralympic Games draws closer, the legacy of the event for the disabled community is on the agenda. Will the inspiration and excitement have a lasting positive outcome for people with disabilities in Britain?

Many campaigners are unconvinced. They are also angry at the Games’ sponsorship by Atos. The company is deeply unpopular for its Work Capability Assessments (WCAs), which help the Department for Work and Pensions decide who receives health and disability related benefits and who is ‘fit for work.’

The tests have come in for a huge amount of criticism for being inaccurate and unfair as the government tries to cut the cost of the welfare bill, leaving many without the support they depend on.

When Atos’ sponsorship of the Paralympics was announced, it caused an outcry. Many found it offensive that the organization was going to be so closely associated with an event celebrating the best of disabled sport.

Last week saw the climax to a week of action by activists intent on ramming home the message that the French company don’t #giveatoss about disabled people. On Friday 31 August Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) and UK Uncut teamed up outside Atos’ UK headquarters for a ‘Closing Atos Ceremony’.

Protesters also blockaded and occupied the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). As police broke up the demonstration outside, DPAC reported one arrest, several injuries to protesters and damage to one woman’s wheelchair.

In a poignant twist, Friday’s protest also coincided with the death from cancer of 51-year-old Cecilia Burns from Northern Ireland – just six months after DWP found her ‘fit to work’ following an Atos assessment.

Earlier in the week DPAC staged a vigil outside Atos, delivering a coffin to remember others who had died, including people who committed suicide after receiving their assessment results.

Elsewhere, actions included a mass ‘die-in’ in Cardiff’s city centre, which blocked a major road, as well as a blockade in Manchester outside an Atos office.

Paralympians themselves have voiced their concern about Atos. Former swimmer and seven-time medal winner Tara Flood played a role in the ‘Atos Games’ as part of a spoof ceremony where she had a medal awarded then taken away after an Atos assessment.

During the opening ceremony of the Paralympics it was thought Team GB were hiding their Atos-branded lanyards in an act of protest. However, team officials later denied this.

The Paralympics and whether they benefit the struggles of disabled people has become a thorny issue. Activists have been accused of drawing attention away from the games and the achievements of the athletes…

Read the rest of this blog here at the New Internationalist website.

SOS Dairy: British farmers against throwaway prices

This article first appeared on the New Internationalist website on 10 August 2012.

Photo thanks to markhillary.

 

Fairtrade is typically seen as something done by the West for the ‘developing world’, but a recent crisis in British dairy farming has raised the question of whether a similar concept should apply closer to home.

Since July, a campaign has been gathering pace, led by a coalition of farming organizations including the NFU and the grassroots Farmers for Action (FFA), for a fairer price for milk.

The main message, aimed at milk processors and retailers, is: pay farmers more for each litre of milk they produce. From 1 August 2012, the main companies supplying British retailers were preparing to reduce the price received by farmers to below the cost of production, which is about 30 pence ($ 0.47) per litre.

On 11 July 2012 over 2,000 farmers protested in London. Other actions have included women bathing in milk in town centres and blockades of processing plants in Leeds, Shropshire and Leicestershire.

Public reaction has been largely positive and the #SOS Dairy hashtag has been a common sight on Twitter. A poll last month by YouGov and The Grocer magazine found that an impressive 83 per cent of the public were aware of the farmers’ protests, with 67 per cent thinking they should be paid more, even if it means milk becomes more expensive to buy.

But British framers have been here before. In 2010 there was a similar crisis after the collapse of the Dairy Farmers of Britain co-operative in 2009, and the loss of more than 1,000 jobs. A campaign was started by the newspaper Farmers Guardian calling for Fairtrade for British Dairy Farmers with a 50,000 strong supporting petition.

Lucy Dunne from the World Development Movement (WDM) pointed out in a recent blog: ‘What is interesting in this debate is that supermarkets agreeing to at least meet the cost of production is hailed as a “victory” for farmers.’ She calls for the current dairy campaign to feed into a bigger and more sustainable, global movement.

The Fairtrade Foundation questions whether their mark or something similar is the answer for British farmers. On their website they recognize the obstacles British farmers are facing, but say farmers in developing countries are likely to have less infrastructural support, social security or other ‘safety nets’ available.

Amy Horton, food justice campaigner at WDM says there is a growing movement that supports Fairtrade, as well as food sovereignty. She uses the example of the Cumbria Fairtrade Networkwhich has been promoting ways to align the principles of Fairtrade with supporting local food producers and local markets.

‘Fairtrade has played an important role in strengthening the movement for trade justice,’ says Horton. But she argues that it doesn’t change the structural and political problems in an unjust food system, and will not bring ‘the more radical overhaul of the food system demanded by the movement for food sovereignty’…

Read the rest at the New Internationalist website.

Raising the curtain on Atos

This article first appeared on the New Internationalist website on 31 July 2012.

A cockroach, a tapeworm, herpes, a blood-sucking leech – just some of the terms used to describe Atos Healthcare by people who have come into contact with the company..

Assessments for disability and health related state benefits, conducted by Atos, have been hugely controversial. The company is paid by the British government’s Department for Work and Pensions to help decide who can work and who can’t, who keeps receiving money and who doesn’t. Not only are their results often found to be inaccurate, but the process can be lengthy and debilitating.

In September 2011, the Atos Stories collective started advertising online for people’s experiences of Work Capability Assessments with the aim of making them into plays. Judith Cole [a pseudonym] decided to set up the project after reading horror stories in the press. ‘I think I first saw the story that probably went around on Twitter about a poor guy who’d died of a heart attack after an Atos assessment,’ she says.

Adam Lotun, 49, is one of the people who got in touch with his experience. He says he has had two assessments by Atos, one where he was considered able to work, and one where he wasn’t.

However, he feels neither was in-depth enough to determine the true impact of his multiple health issues which include mental health problems, learning disabilities, needing a wheelchair for mobility, and a machine to help him breathe at night. ‘If I was a horse they would put me down,’ he says.

By May 2012 the small collective had three play scripts ready: Atos Stories, a drama with music, The Atos Monologues and Atos Street Theatre, all available via their website for people to put on in their communities.

Campaigners can use the plays to raise awareness about Atos and the issues faced by people with disabilities. Interest has been building, including from activists angry at Atos’s sponsorship of the Paralympics.

Kerry-Anne Mendoza is a 30-year-old campaigner from Our Olympics. ‘There’s still a shocking amount of public ignorance about the stuff that’s happened with Atos and what the actual impacts are on the disabled community,’ she says.

Act Up, a community theatre company based in Newham, London is putting on a performance of Atos Stories. The group is made up of both people with disabilities and people without. ‘We are now trying to adapt it and make it accessible for our group,’ says Yvonne Brouwers their chair…

Read the rest at New Internationalist.