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.

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.

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.

 

The dark side of soya: how one supercrop lost its way

This article was first published in the Ecologist on 1 May 2012.

Once credited with power to prevent cancer and combat high cholesterol, over the last few years, evidence that soya is far from a superfood has begun to emerge. And it’s not just the potentially negative health impact of the bean that has former supporters up in arms: it’s the environmental impact. In the UK we rely heavily on soya, or soy, and it’s not just for vegetarian food. It is a hidden product in many foods and everyday items such as soap. It is a cheap source of protein for people as well as animals and according toGreenpeace, 80 per cent of soya worldwide is used for the livestock industry.  WWF add that the UK consumption alone requires an area the size of Yorkshire to be planted with soya every year. So how did soya go from super crop to super bad?

Deforestation and slavery

Brazil, the second biggest grower and the biggest exporter of soya, is such a big player in the industry that there are major concerns about how this is affecting the Amazon Rainforest. According to Greenpeace, in 2005 around 1.2 million hectares of soya was planted in the Brazilian rainforest. Sarah Shoaka from Greenpeace’s Forest Network says that deforestation has been decreasing on the whole in Brazil since 2008. This is mainly because of the enforcement of a soya moratorium that bans soya produced as a result of deforestation from entering the market place.  However, Shoraka warns that this positive trend may be changing…

Read the full article here at the Ecologist.

No such thing as a free ride

First appeared on the alt.cardiff website on Thursday 14 December.

People on controversial work placements in Wales are working unpaid while unemployed. Critics see this as unfair but supporters argue getting experience is vital

Person working in Primark

In the ‘big society’ there is no place for those who don’t pull their weight, but in Wales there are now 137,000 people unemployed, a record amount.

Jobcentres arrange a variety of work experience to get people back into employment. One of these schemes is Mandatory Work Activity (MWA), where people undertake compulsory unpaid placements, or lose their benefits.

People can be referred to MWA at any time but they have usually been receiving jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) for at least 13 weeks. Placements are up to 30 hours a week, for four weeks.

Specialist providers such as A4e and Rehab JobFit are contracted to deliver placements through a variety of businesses and organisations. Since June 2011 Rehab JobFit has provided placements for 349 people in Wales. Over two thirds of these are in South East Wales, for organisations including YMCA and Wales Air Ambulance.

While some see MWA as work people should do for benefits, others see it as slave labour. Public Interest Lawyers have begun legal action against MWAdescribing it as “unlawful forced labour”.

Wasted skills?

It has been reported people doing MWA are forced to work in shops like Poundland and Primark, despite any other skills or experience. But some have managed to get placements suited to them.

Katie Simpson, 23 and living in Cardiff, has done two unpaid work placements during two years of unemployment. She said the first, compulsory and arranged through A4e, was for 13 weeks. She was expected to do 20 hours of work a week and five hours job hunting, but says she did get an extra £15 in JSA. She was also able to work for the Youth Offending Service where she already volunteered.

Bronwen Davis, also living in Cardiff, had been unemployed for 18 months when the jobcentre told her she had to do a work placement. She arranged her own with a music studio. “I don’t think a lot of people realise you can do that, but it can be a good opportunity to go and try something you’re interested in,” she said.

She said through running drumming workshops she learned more about working freelance and became more confident about self employment, which is her aim. “I did feel exploited though,” she said. “The company was getting hundreds of pounds a day and I wasn’t getting paid.”

Learning on the job

Katie’s second placement was with a claims management company and although it wasn’t compulsory she was told she had a strong chance of a job if she took it. “I was pretty reluctant to the idea, the placement was full-time. If I worked there I’d struggle to find any time to search for other positions,” she said.

It went well initially and Katie began to apply for jobs at the company but, “By week six the pressure of the job, with an income of £53 a week, started to take its toll and I took a couple of days off sick,” said Katie, who suffers from depression. When she returned she says she was given a disciplinary.

Katie was given the opportunity to sit on the team she had recently applied for a job with but the manager questioned her on her absences. “I knew this wasn’t strictly legal,” said Katie.

After three months another manager confessed to her that she had no chance of a job. “She said that for every application I had applied for there were more experienced individuals applying,” said Katie.

Katie doesn’t feel the placement was worth the work experience. “I had been talked down to nothing,” she said. “I felt incredibly depressed about my abilities. It’s an experience I would rather forget.”

Katie McCrory, media relations manager for A4e, said, “Lack of experience is one of the main reasons why people get turned down for jobs they apply for.”

Rob Fitt from Rehab JobFit, another provider, said MWA helps people, “establish the discipline and habits of working life, such as attending on time or regularly.” But many people have had previous employment.

Boycott Workfare campaign against compulsory, unpaid work experience. A spokesperson said MWA does not tackle unemployment successfully. “We haven’t received any news of people being offered full time paid positions,” he said.

He says they have no evidence people are being matched with relevant skills. “It seems where retail companies are concerned, people are being mandated to stack shelves,” said the spokesperson.

MWA can be seen as a way for businesses to get free labour at the expense of the state, and taking on paid staff, but some argue it is fair that people should have to work for their benefits. Employment minister, Chris Grayling,has said about work programmes: “No one should expect to be able to sit at home doing nothing.”

But with employment levels at a record high in Wales, and austerity measures taking hold, there is increased frustration that in the ‘big society’ hard work counts for nothing.